‘Down to Earth’ by Bruno Latour: a diversionary political fiction lands in capitulation

Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, by Bruno Latour (Polity Press, 2018).

Review by Franklin Dmitryev

Bruno Latour’s new book Down to Earth (touted in The New York Times as “a brilliantly mind-bending book”) is the latest example of what happens to radicals who give up on social revolution. At its heart is an ambivalent identification of Earth as the agent of change, instead of humanity or more precisely social groups who can act as subjects of revolution. Latour superciliously dismisses the actual history of revolution and counter-revolution along with all modern political history as a one-dimensional back-and-forth along what he calls a “vector” between the Local and the Global.

This abstraction serves to lump revolution together with counter-revolution that dialectically emerges from within it, so that socialism can implicitly be equated to state-capitalist “Communism” and social democracy. Naturally, such a gross oversimplification of history—“our simple-minded schema” (p. 47)—buries all heterodox tendencies that don’t neatly fit his binaries, including Marxist-Humanism, which for decades has challenged the dominant Left that deviated far from Marx’s Marxism in part by accepting state-capitalism as socialism.

Latour believes he has discovered the magic key to unlock history and escape this vector, by introducing a third “attractor” called the Terrestrial, which differs from the Global because the latter has no material reality, whereas the “stupefying originality” of the Terrestrial is that it is a “new political actor….an agent that participates fully in public life. The current disorientation derives entirely from the emergence of an actor that reacts and will continue to react to human actions” (pp. 40-41; all italics in this review’s quotations are in the original). Latour in his stupefying originality disregards all the Green theorists before him who posited Nature as Subject in place of humanity.

The concept of the Terrestrial is hazy and ambiguous because the author makes it perform a double duty. It is introduced as more or less James Lovelock’s Gaia (p. 40), or the earth as an active planetary ecological/geological system, but later it represents a certain political program and attitudes. It designates a kind of materialism, and an analysis that substitutes a “system of engendering” for “systems of production” and “dependence” for “freedom”:

“Dependency comes in first of all to limit, then to complicate, then to reconsider the project of emancipation, in order finally to amplify it. As if, through a new dialectical pirouette, one were inverting the Hegelian project once again” (p. 83).

In this way his philosophy, his politics, his “conception of ‘nature’” can be passed off as natural law inherent in the Earth as Terrestrial. And it is the limits on emancipation, not any amplification, that dominate his theory, just like every green theory that discards social revolution.

To Latour, history has dramatically entered “the New Climatic Regime.” He insists on the inseparability of climate denial with deregulation and rising inequality, which appeals to the reader because of course all three are symptoms of a failing social system. Yet without any serious argument Latour declares the denial of climate change to be the key to all, which happens to fit his substitution of Earth for the human Subject. All important political trends are “responses…to the powerful reaction of the Earth to what globalization has done to it” (p. 21).

Latour spares himself the difficulty of explaining the difference between agent and Subject by never mentioning the latter. A carbon dioxide molecule emitted from a smokestack, contributing to global warming by reflecting heat back to the earth’s surface, is an agent. But a conscious Subject transforming reality for the purpose of liberation is quite different. Because of this hole in his theory, Latour pictures non-human “terrestrials” as “protestors” and “sources of revolt” (p. 88).

Along the way he smugly contrasts his Terrestrial politics with earlier theories defined by “systems of production,” which supposedly cannot grasp non-human beings as agents. It’s no wonder that he does not identify his target, since Karl Marx made quite clear in Capital that labor is “a process between humanity and nature” and, for instance, took note of “the destructive power of natural processes.”

It pleases the author to lump Marx in with capitalist modernizers. Latour’s abstract Global-Local binary, not to mention his stupefying claim to originality, leaves no room to grasp Marx’s thought as breaking out of that binary, as “a conception of a new society based on expanding human forces, during a century in which the whole cultivated world thought of expanding material forces as the condition, activity, and purpose of all liberation” (Raya Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and Revolution, p. 65). But allow Latour to explain why such distortion is necessary:

“If the goal is to adopt a new orientation in politics, it is probably wise, in order to ensure continuity between past struggles and those to come, not to seek anything more complicated than an opposition between two terms” (p. 49).

This is in keeping with the book’s method, which is from the beginning described as a “political fiction” (pp. 1-2, 17-18, 21): he will invent a hypothesis and it is up to the reader to disprove it. Dates are finessed, facts are distorted, and straw men are set up to be knocked down, relieving Latour of the burden of ever quoting any of those he criticizes and for the most part does not even name.

Thus his thesis is rather slippery about when the New Climatic Regime came to be. Of course, the onset of a new historical period, if it exists, cannot be pinpointed to a certain date. But in Latour’s case, several dates are given in varying decades, which reflects his attempt to squeeze the facts into a theory that they fail to uphold. So this new development began either in the 1980s, the 1990s, in the last 50 years, or with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, depending on the page of the book. (Pages 1-2 have the advantage of pointing to all the first three dates.)

Vastly exaggerating the Paris Agreement’s importance serves his political fiction’s central myth of making Earth the agent. Dec. 12, 2015, was supposedly the day when “all the signatory countries…realized with alarm that, if they all went ahead according to the terms of their respective modernization plans, there would be no planet compatible with their hopes for development….What power then secured the signature of those 175 states, if not a form of sovereignty to which they consented to bow down and that propelled them to reach agreement? If it is not a power that dominates the heads of state…what should it be called?” (pp. 5, 84)

Making the signing of a treaty the decisive turning point shows that, as in past substitutions of nature for a revolutionary human Subject, the real Subject ends up being the rulers. Equally, the thesis dictates that all other political, economic and cultural factors be subordinated to the only real causal factor. So, implausibly, Trump’s withdrawal from Paris “defines the first government totally oriented toward the ecological question” (p. 37). Latour unwittingly discloses the stubborn reality his ruse is avoiding when he lists the three interconnected phenomena on p. 18:

“what since the 1980s has been called ‘deregulation’ or the ‘dismantling of the welfare state’; what since the 2000s is known as ‘climate-change denial’; and above all, what for the last 40 years has been a dizzying extension of inequalities.”

In fact, all three phenomena began in the 1970s, though they really blossomed in the Reagan-Thatcher 1980s. The real turning point, which Latour avoids recognizing since it implicates a “system of production,” was the world capitalist crisis of 1974-75, which the ruling classes responded to with a harsh economic, political, and ideological restructuring. But making that the key would not help Latour’s thesis that the true Subject is Earth and the root of crisis is not the internal contradictions of capitalism but “a certain conception of ‘nature’ [that] has allowed the Moderns to occupy the Earth in such a way that it forbids others to occupy their own territories differently” (p. 64).

All this bombast leads to a most pathetic program, which bears out the limitations placed on emancipation: “What to do? First of all, generate alternative descriptions.” Of what? “centimeter by centimeter, being by being, person by person, the stuff that makes up the Earth….The challenge obviously lies in drawing up such a list” (pp. 94-95).

Even worse, the book’s conclusion, a paean to Europe, reveals the author’s state of denial about its current political situation. In reality, the far right is making strides in the continent and has attained power in some countries. In “political fiction,” Europe has “definitively given up empire,” “knows the fragility of its tenure in global space,” and “is not rushing to impose its own prejudices on everyone else”—so that the European “vision” of “a common world…allows us to consider an initial framework that could enable the relaunching of a diplomatic endeavor….In spite of everything, it is still Europe’s task to redefine the sovereignty of the nation-states” (pp. 100-102).

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