For the institutions of our shock doctrine to beat the neoliberal model, our organisational resilience must improve.
Ecologists need to discover the terrestrial – to both literally and metaphorically come down to earth – if we are going to persuade humanity to fundamentally change its relationship to Nature and save the planet. This is the only counter to the apparent insanity of continuing to burn vast amounts of fossil fuel while denying the devastating consequences.
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Bruno Latour’s latest book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, is a fascinating and provocative manifesto for a new way of addressing the compound crises we face. Latour is billed on the cover as “one of the world’s leading sociologists and anthropologists”. But is his proposition useful?
The starkest claim in this book comes on the first page: the “ruling class” has given up on any vision of a shared future for all humanity. The response to climate change is to deny the science, to ramp up social inequality and deregulation in a bid to acquire vast material wealth and escape an earthly demise.
Latour is among those who will be left behind, but he claims to have uncovered a way out. The stated aim of his text is to provide a mode of analysis that can help us overcome neoliberal capitalism. This is necessary to prevent the increasingly absurd pursuit of short-term profit made by devastating the natural environment on which human civilisation depends.
This mode of analysis is drawn from systems thinking and networks, and in particular the concept of the ‘attractor’. The key premise of Latour’s book is that humans have been mesmerised by the conflict between two diametrically opposed attractors – the local and the global. Movement towards the global was agreed to be progressive, and resistance regressive.
Society has until recently been enthusiastically carried along a ‘modernization front’, Latour argues, separating those who are ‘ahead’ and those who are ‘behind’. This fascination wastrue for both the political left and the right. But climate change and the breakdown of other natural processes have fatally undermined this optimism.
The two attractors are losing their attraction. The response from the extremely wealthy is to abandon ship. This might take the form of ever more segregated communities, rural bolt-holes for the wealthy, even flights to Mars. This is the third, new attractor: out of this world.
In order to counter this third attractor a fourth is needed. Ecologists – and anyone with any concern for their fellow humans – need to embrace the terrestrial. This involves abandoning the old dichotomy of left and right – and previous attempts by greens to sit carefully between the two.
World as body
What Latour’s analysis appears to be lacking is the terrestrial itself: the down-to-earth problems of fossil-fuel dependency, the political power of corporations, and the violent oppression imposed by nation-states.
Latour is successful in evoking a sense of urgency, and in presenting a sophisticated model of human responses to ecological crises. However, his solution is too ill-defined and abstract to convince many to abandon the attractors of their existing approach.
Where Latour is weakest, Graham Jones, in his debut book, The Shock Doctrine of the Left, is most successful. Both books are published by Polity Press in what is becoming a fascinating series. Jones draws explicitly on systems thinking to provide an elegant, robust and precise proposal for the left.
This work could inform how environmentalists organise, work collectively and respond positively to the environmental, economic and social crises that too often feel completely overwhelming.
William Harvey described as a system the flow of nutrients in the blood in the human body. Thomas Hobbes transposed this to the economy to produce the first systems analysis of social phenomena. The metaphor of world as body has been enduring, and is consciously adopted here by Jones.
The aim of the text – again – is to provide a schema that can be used by humanity to move beyond the crisis of capitalism. Jones is pragmatic and concise. He sets out four modes of organising: smashing, building, healing and taming.
Smashing is already a behaviour (or at least vocabulary) associated with the traditional (hard) left. Jones does not deny that for him this remains a necessary if insufficient mode of organisation. Rather than physical violence, however, industrial action and online hacking are, Jones argues, both forms of smashing.
Just as important as smashing is building. “For the institutions of our shock doctrine to beat the neoliberal model, our organisational resilience must improve,” Jones explains. This involves intense and intensive community building and networking.
We then move to healing. It is here that Jones would move the old left into new territory. We see the influence of family therapy based on systems theory.
Jones argues that the systems of oppression that make neoliberal capitalism possible require and create trauma – both of individuals and of society. Healing means feeling, sharing and processing this trauma. This necessity of feeling – including feeling empathy for every individual – denies oppressive politics access to Jones’s shock doctrine.
Practical and profound
Finally, we have taming. Here Jones sets out a new response to the institution of the state. We cannot smash the state, he argues, as this creates trauma and chaos. Nor can we reform or ignore it. He proposes a different response. Change comes “through coordinating smaller but escalating shocks, each time increasing the power of people to organise beyond the state”.
Magic happens in the final chapter, ‘The Meta-Strategy’. Here, in true ‘systems’ style, Jones provides a simple flow diagram. For smashing, we see a ‘growing movement’ leading to ‘chaos’, then to ‘absorption’ and finally closing the loop to ‘growing movement’. For taming, we again see ‘growing movement’, which now leads to ‘gaining legitimacy’ and thence to ‘reforms’ and back to ‘growing movement’.
Then all four of the charts are drawn together around the central phenomenon of ‘growing movement’. The strategies of smashing, building, healing and taming are autonomous but also mutually reinforcing. The micro-systems nest perfectly into one meta-system.
The Shock Doctrine of the Leftis practical and profound, short and essential. Much should be gained by reading, rereading, sharing and adopting these ideas. Taken together, Latour and Jones offer a fresh diagnosis of the ecological crisis, and a potential and novel solution.
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press). He tweets at @EcoMontague.
This article first appeared in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, which is out now!