Latour’s point is that crises of migration, inequality, and environment are linked by a politics of denial: we finally have an environmentally based politics, but it’s one of negation, symbolized by the erstwhile EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt’s extraordinary soundproof phone booth.
Before examining Latour’s political argument, it’s worth dwelling on the territorial language now dominating the political imaginary, which he describes with his usual suggestiveness. The protagonist of his book is not a person but a mythology: the idea of “attachment to the soil” (“attachement au sol”). This attachment is characterized by a yearning to retreat from “the global” to “the local,” and to define ourselves as defending our soil from external enemies who will not only land but also somehow destroy us. Ironically, such nativism — truth to soil, if you like — is driven by escapist flight: flight from the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and flight from empirical evidence to “alternative facts.” Trumpism is the ultimate mental staycation: there is only here, and there is nothing outside of here to care about. Let’s lock ourselves in. In other words, the political world now under construction is one of paradoxical flight toward the local, rather than away from it; we don’t share the same planet, and so there’s no common ground. If any grassroots connected all of us once upon a time, those roots seem to have been pulled up like so many inconvenient weeds in the name of protection from our enemies.
It’s worth noting how Latour charts the shift in rhetorical positions on both sides of the Atlantic. Debates about Brexit in the United Kingdom are becoming increasingly farcical as time “to leave” runs out. If Trumpism dreams of border walls, the prospect of a hard border in Northern Ireland is a geopolitical nightmare. When moderate Conservative Party politicians try to explain to members of the public that a “Hard Brexit” will likely leave them worse and not better off, the answer often comes back as “I just want to leave.” It’s as though a hellish reincorporation into Europe of geological proportions threatens sovereign British identity; the island therefore wishes to abandon its key trade partner and literally set sail for the open seas — but for where? Ironically, one common answer is that once free of the European Union, Britain will again be “global” — a term haunted by the history of the British Empire and so assiduously avoided in mainstream discussions. Theresa May, the current prime minister, warned any cosmopolitans who happened to be listening in 2016 that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” She was obviously not addressing the absentee Russian, Chinese, and Gulf State billionaires who now own property in central London, but rather pandering to the new politics of territoriality. “No more easyJet” was the message.
Could the name of any company symbolize the target of the new nativism better than the British low-cost airline founded in 1995? The 1990s were indeed the easyJet years, fueled by casual attitudes to global travel, access to cheap credit, and the cheap cosmopolitanism of cross-border tourism. What was the Third Way of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair if not a heady cocktail of air miles based on credit cards? But now it’s time for revenge against the easyJetters and the Air Miles gang. Locality strikes back in the age of the travel ban. EasyJet has hit the wall: company profits were down last year.
For the first time in generations, observes Latour, we don’t know where we’re going. Our compasses are deranged. His essay about territory is even more an essay about time, capturing the anxiety many of us feel about progress having, unbelievably, ground to a halt. What the British fatalistically call the direction of travel has suddenly and mysteriously changed. The long arc of history no longer bends toward progress; at least for now, time’s arrow is bent or twisted or even reversed.
The end of the Cold War prompted Francis Fukuyama’s notorious End of History thesis, now widely mocked, heralding the universal triumph of liberal capitalized democracy. An anthropologist of modernity and of the moderns, whose claims to exceptional status he never took at face value even while treating them with respectful diplomacy, Latour is well placed to diagnose their apparent dethronement. Modernity, he argues, presented itself in the guise of both economic and identitarian globalization, promising an ever-widening horizon enabling all of us to move from the merely local to the gloriously global — and the infinitely open. Alas, however, the benefits of globalization proved either insufficiently distributed (in economics) or much too distributed (in identities) for those wanting new limits and old protections. Latour likens Trump to a fictional 19th-century character called Ubu Roi, or King Ubu, an anarchic prankster monarch who turns the world upside-down through a kind of political situationism. The result is a dream neither of social progress nor of ecological sustainability, but of restricted rights (reproductive and electoral) and a return to coal-mining and its many ills. Whether most Trumpers and Leavers ultimately want tangible benefits or symbolic goods, material advancement or metaphysical satisfaction, remains profoundly ambiguous.
Latour does not scorn these so-called “reactionaries” but seeks to understand the new politics they are building. Just before the 2016 election, I heard a colleague make the argument that American cities should in effect secede as a kind of progressive archipelago and leave the country’s rural hinterlands to languish in all their anti-modernism — an audacious (or simply oblivious?) vision of liberal gerrymandering. Then Ubu Roi led the revolt of the archaic against the modern, the local against the global, bending time’s arrow. Latour’s analysis urges us to grasp why populism now appears most vibrant, or at least most effective, on the far right. Many of us may prefer walled democratic cities — in our own way, we are staycationers too — but we all would be affected by the lack of democratic grassroots beyond those walls. We may not agree with those people, but to regard them as somehow beyond the polity is a fatal mistake. Can’t we just get back to the Third Way or Air Miles and the acceptably unequal world we inhabited under the Bloombergs and Obamas? But this is exactly what brought us to the bait-and-switch of grievance and reaction that built up in the long aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
For Latour, we are falling prey to the wrong kind of soil politics: a politics of terrain that seeks to assuage the intensely agoraphobic anti-modernism fearful of that ever-widening global horizon. What we need instead, he suggests, is a politics of “the Terrestrial” (“le Terrestre”) to confront the real climate crisis that will not stop at any wall or customs declaration counter. Modernity is itself the problem. Reason, science, ingenuity, and industrialization turned the earth into a set of mechanical resources for exploitation and posited nature as an entity outside culture. Only now do we find ourselves inside nature after all, and rapidly making it uninhabitable. So, how can we make common political ground out of ecology? This is a problem Latour has for years been addressing in his writing about the earth as Gaia, but with no obvious political resolution. He has, rightly in my view, no faith in Reason in the abstract sense; in his analyses of what constitutes the public, he has fruitfully adapted a line of argument from Peter Sloterdijk to urge that democratic publics must be creatively embodied, cunningly engineered, and artfully stage-managed to generate effective political assemblies. This is a response to those enlightened utopians who hoped that the prospective death of our entire species would unite us in a new politics of universal reason (when, in fact, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and their friends are now simply planning their escape to Mars).
It’s fascinating to see a thinker like Latour grapple with the political moment and deploy the abstractions of his intellectual program to help clarify it. His book is a success in this regard. It’s even encouraging. Yet, for all its discussion of “geo-social conflicts,” it cannot quite reckon with the uglier political passions and genuine hatreds that define current political dynamics, and it does not have enough to say about the absence of vital grassroots in today’s democratic landscape. Where are these locals? If liberal urban technocrats have failed to respond to the environmental crisis, then surely it is time to activate a new grassroots beyond our city walls to build the politics of nature we so badly need. Yet no one has thought more compellingly than Latour about the problem of how to retool the authority of the sciences to fight the new Information Wars, or about how to move people to passionate engagement with ecological questions. He is well aware that countering climate-science deniers with facts, and more facts, is not going to result in their submission. Marches for Science are all very well, but do they work? In the dispensation of modernity, as Latour has argued, Science (like Nature) is not supposed to be part of culture, so it cannot negotiate with those who deny its authority — it cannot do politics in this sense. Modern science, for all its power, turns out to be politically weak: its belief in its own pragmatically cultureless truths means that, when it is challenged, it simply reasserts the veracity of its facts, but it cannot move its opponents. It depends on a certain liberal political ecology to function. By way of response, Latour returns us to earlier models of knowledge, where science was not a dictatorship of facts but offered compelling images of nature to move us morally and aesthetically, as in the virtuosic combinations of precision measurement and artistic vision produced by the Enlightenment polymath Alexander von Humboldt.
Latour’s ending is self-consciously ironic: he mounts a political defense of the European Union. He acknowledges that Europe is the original villain of modernity: Europeans dreamed that Europe could be the world, remaking it wholly in their own image. That vision led to madness and ruin, to empire and universalism at its most lethal. But precisely for this reason, Europe owes the world some kind of redemptive service. Unremitting particularism may be an understandable response to the idea that any common ground constitutes political tyranny, but where does this particularism take us? In Latour’s vision, Europe remains a vital provincial laboratory for demonstrating that supranational cooperation for the common good can overcome allegiance to sovereignty for sovereignty’s sake. However tattered and menaced, the European Union provides some imperfect hope for cooperative interdependence of the kind needed to address climate change and other crises. It’s hardly a fashionable position and may strike some as just another view from Paris — where, Latour reminds us, the 2015 Climate Accords were signed. Yet Latour’s most important contribution to current debates may be his untimely insistence on the importance of thinking universally in a post-universal world.
James Delbourgo is professor of history at Rutgers University. He has written widely on the history of science, collecting, and museums.