Somewhere or other Latour makes the remark that we’ll never do better than a politician. Here it’s important to remember that for Latour– as for myself —every entity is a “politician”. Latour isn’t referring solely to those persons that we call “politicians”, but to all entities that exist. And if Latour claims that we’ll never do better than a politician, then this is because every entity must navigate a field of relations to other entities that play a role in what is and is not possible in that field. In the language of my ontology, this would be articulated as the thesis that the local manifestations of which an entity is capable are, in part, a function of the relations the entity entertains to other entities in a regime of attraction. The world about entities perpetually introduces resistances and frictions that play a key role in what comes to be actualized.
It is this aphorism that occurred to me today after a disturbing discussion with a rather militant Marxist on Facebook. I had posted a very disturbing editorial on climate change by the world renowned climate scientist James Hansen. Not only did this person completely misread the editorial, denouncing Hansen for claiming that Canada is entirely responsible for climate change (clearly he had no familiarity with Hansen or his important work), but he derided Hansen for proposing market-based solutions to climate change on the grounds that “the market is the whole source of the problem!” It’s difficult to know how to respond in this situations.
It is quite true that it is the system of global capitalism or the market that has created our climate problems (though, as Jared Diamond shows in Collapse, other systems of production have also produced devastating climate problems). In its insistence on profit and expansion in each economic quarter, markets as currently structured provide no brakes for environmental destructive actions. The system is itself pathological.
However, pointing this out and deriding market based solutions doesn’t get us very far. In fact, such a response to proposed market-based solutions is downright dangerous and irresponsible. The fact of the matter is that 1) we currently live in a market based world, 2) there is not, in the foreseeable future an alternative system on the horizon, and 3), above all, we need to do something now. We can’t afford to reject interventions simply because they don’t meet our ideal conceptions of how things should be. We have to work with the world that is here, not the one that we would like to be here. And here it’s crucial to note that pointing this out does not entail that we shouldn’t work for producing that other world. It just means that we have to grapple with the world that is actually there before us.
It pains me to write this post because I remember, with great bitterness, the diatribes hardcore Obama supporters leveled against legitimate leftist criticisms on the grounds that these critics were completely unrealistic idealists who, in their demand for “purity”, were asking for “ponies and unicorns”. This rejoinder always seemed to ignore that words have power and that Obama, through his profound power of rhetoric, had, at least the power to shift public debates and frames, opening a path to making new forms of policy and new priorities possible. The tragedy was that he didn’t use that power, though he has gotten better.
I do not wish to denounce others and dismiss their claims on these sorts of grounds. As a Marxist anarchists, I do believe that we should fight for the creation of an alternative hominid ecology or social world. I think that the call to commit and fight, to put alternatives on the table, has been one of the most powerful contributions of thinkers like Zizek and Badiou. If we don’t commit and fight for alternatives those alternatives will never appear in the world. Nonetheless, we still have to grapple with the world we find ourselves in. And it is here, in my encounters with some Militant Marxists, that I sometimes find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that they are unintentionally aiding and abetting the very things they claim to be fighting. In their refusal to become impure, to work with situations or assemblages as we find them, to sully their hands, they end up reproducing the very system they wish to topple and change. Narcissistically they get to sit there, smug in their superiority and purity, while everything continues as it did before because they’ve refused to become politicians or engage in the difficult concrete work of assembling human and nonhuman actors to render another world possible. As a consequence, they occupy the position of Hegel’s beautiful soul that denounces the horrors of the world, celebrate the beauty of their soul, while depending on those horrors of the world to sustain their own position.
To engage in politics is to engage in networks or ecologies of relations between humans and nonhumans. To engage in ecologies is to descend into networks of causal relations and feedback loops that you cannot completely master and that will modify your own commitments and actions. But there’s no other way, there’s no way around this, and we do need to act now.