Blog post

Snivelling over the Living World

While economic, health, and political crises abound, capitalists are obsessed with "raising awareness." But what use is awareness when action is needed? In this short piece, Frédéric Lordon offers an incisive critique of this 'radicalism that has no impact'.

16 November 2021

Snivelling over the Living World

Frédéric Lordon

This article originally appeared at Le Monde Diplomatique on 29 Sept 2021

A search for the word ‘capital’ draws a blank – no sign of capital, capitalists or capitalism. Not a single occurrence in the article by Nicolas Truong that kicks off a major summer series in Le Monde: ‘Thinkers of the Living World’. Well, to be really honest, one result: ‘We are experiencing a capital upheaval.’ If the situation on earth weren’t so tragic, that would almost be funny.

Concerned thinkers

Anyway, we are learning that there are now ‘thinkers of the living world’. Until now, there were simply biologists or zoologists. ‘Thinking about the living world’ must be something more. But what exactly? Essentially: being concerned. To think about the living world is to add to biological (or ornithological, or entomological, or philosophical) competence the fact of being concerned. Because The Living World is not doing well, it is even seriously endangered, and we should weep with concern. And then? And then that’s all. Gee, that’s already not bad. With such a beautiful awareness, you can do festivals of ideas all summer long, go to Beaubourg or listen to France Culture, and be a Great Conscience.

‘Great Conscience’ is a perfectly identified segment in the division of cultural labour. You need to have a lofty view, a concern for the essential issues, speak on behalf of maximum entities (the Living World, the Earth, soon the Cosmos), sound alarms, and not disturb anything. Then you are welcomed everywhere with open arms – since it’s a big joke. At least for those who control the definition of seriousness: the capitalists. ‘Serious’ is when you start attacking their interests. Otherwise, it’s a joke. What the capitalists find great about the cultural bourgeoisie is that they systematically mistake the joke for seriousness, and ignore the seriousness. Under these conditions, Great Consciences can be tolerated, even encouraged (‘they shake us up, they enlighten us’) – and no one can dispute the intimate relationship between capitalism and democratic pluralism. At the Fondation Cartier, for example, you can have an exhibition entitled ‘We the Trees’, firstly because there are trees in the garden, and secondly because trees are important when there is too much CO2. Bolsonaro is devastating the Amazon. Bolsonaro is a truly hideous character. Who can love Bolsonaro? Hardly anyone. At least not the Fondation Cartier, nor the curators of the exhibition ‘We the Trees’, nor the visitors. They will leave having understood that there was a tree within them and, as a result, will feel greater solidarity.

It is not only the trees that we should feel solidarity with: we are invited to enter into communion with the whole world. At Éditions Actes Sud, owned by Françoise Nyssen, Macron’s ex-minister for the living world, a special collection, ‘Mondes sauvages’, hosts the most audacious proposals for communion: Living as a Bird; Being an Oak; The Bear, Man’s Other; and, for those whose minds are even more flexible, Thinking Like an Iceberg. You might think this was a gag at a time when the planet is falling apart, but unfortunately it is all true.

In the space of a few years, ‘sensitive communion’ has become the political-thought-for-our-time: on a par with the great-ecological-issues. But for whom, and above all by whom? For a public that is already on-side: a concerned cultural bourgeoisie, but above all by and for friendly forces of the symbolic order, the media ‘of record’, cultural institutions under state surveillance or capitalist control. In any case, places that are always in search of their typical product: a radicalism that has no impact. And who has finally found this: the intellectual followers of Bruno Latour. Immense relief – it’s just that the equation was difficult to solve. The capitalist destruction of the working class did not interest the cultural bourgeoisie, so it was simple and logical to ignore it. The destruction of the planet is more difficult to brush aside, it’s impossible not to say ‘something’ about it. But what – something that won’t be too consequential? Along come the Latourians, who have not only found a wonderfully poetic way of reformulating the problem – ‘where to land?’ – but also propose the appropriate answer: anywhere but the one place where the runway is ugly and battered: challenging capitalism. All the organs of the Great Consciences shudder with relief: the thrill of being at the cutting edge, and above all of inviting others to join you; the peace of mind of being quite certain that no painful disturbance will ensue, either to their public or to their capitalist tutelage; or, and this is the most important thing, to their deepest conviction.

Warning: radicalism makes you deaf

It is so deeply imbibed that it can be found everywhere, even in the most unexpected places. For example in Le Monde des Livres, where Roger-Pol Droit worries about so much radicalism – in an angry essay by Eva von Redecker.[1] ‘Everything in this radical essay is based on the belief in a single axiom: “capitalism destroys life” ... The trouble is that such an axiom remains highly debatable.’ True, there’s been a lot of discussion at France Télécom [notorious for burn-outs and suicides] for example, it was being discussed quite recently at the Lubrizol [a chemical products plant that caught fire in September 2019] seminar, and the IPCC reports are much more dialectical than people say. Unfortunately, Redecker’s radical book ignores ‘a number of well-known arguments that could make capitalism an ally of life’. Moreover, ‘radicalism makes you blind and deaf’ (the actual title of the article) – it sounds like a 19th century alienist faced with a masturbating child.

The Latourians have nothing against masturbation. They have found a way of being radical that does not risk being strapped into your bed. For whatever you may say, thinking like an iceberg or living as a bird are pretty radical proposals – in the sense that it’s quite a gymnastic feat to get into them. This is the kind of radicalism that Roger-Pol Droit finds so appealing. As well as the radicalism of the methodically pursued effort to never talk about capitalism – which is actually a bit more of a drain on life than Roger-Pol believes.

Never talking about it is the implicit, and objective, complicity of all these lovely people. In Nyssenland at Arles, for example, and in all friendship, the Luma tower of Maja Hoffmann (of Hoffmann La Roche) also welcomes all these insignificant radicals.[2] They are concerned for the planet with serious but intellectually creative faces and, in the opposite of a bingo game, the point is to never say the word ‘capital’, whereas a speck of logic would require it being used in almost every sentence – but that is the whole point of the game.[3] ‘Being a begonia’ – one point; ‘Capitalists’ – minus one; ‘Overthrowing capitalism’ – you’re out. The unassailable champion is Bruno Latour, who has found an infallible method: capitalism does not exist. It’s just a word. Of course, you can put things underneath it, but so many things, and they make such an abundant, such a complex whole, that in the end you don’t know what you’re saying. Better not to talk about it.

Which doesn’t leave us without any resources. Instead of saying things that you don’t know what they mean, you can hold workshops. In a style reminiscent of carpet bombing, the Luma Days (sic) had the misfortune to send out an email under the title ‘Where to land?’ without knowing exactly where these were landing, in this case in the box of a not-so-Luma collective, the investigative news site Mediapart, inviting them to a ‘workshop’... where you learn how to land. Our mischievous friends shared this email, which is a real treat. We are offered to ‘explore the options of the future in order to take appropriate action in the present. A shared future for both humans and non-humans, animals and plants.’ (But not a word about minerals, the eternally forgotten – what unacceptable lithophobia!) ‘What can be done? How to act? Where to begin? The project seems immense and out of reach. We will give ourselves a few months in which we will learn to describe ourselves, one by one, to introduce ourselves.’ ‘Hello, my name is Michel, I am a fig tree’ – ‘Hello Michel’. A few months may seem like a long time, but in fact we’ll make good progress. Of course, in the meantime, Patrick Pouyanné at Total thinks he has peace to drill-baby-drill as he pleases, but he loses nothing by waiting.

Salvation through ‘links’

The truth is that if someone were to tell Patrick Pouyanné about the Luma Days ‘landing’ workshops, he wouldn’t believe his ears, and would laugh himself sick with amazement.[4] The truth is that the times are good to him: whereas he should be under constant threat of being run out of town on a rail, they offer him one hilarious opportunity after another. Because, at the same time as the Luma Foundation is holding its workshop for would-be flyers, another merry band is competing at the cutting edge and creating a ‘parliament of links’. That is our real problem: we lack links. We need to create links, more links. And everything will be fine. Let’s link! But Papou (as it seems Patrick Pouyanné is known on the upper floors of the Total tower) is very much in favour of links. He himself has a Labrador and every weekend he demonstrates that he knows how to link up with non-humans. We can imagine them walking in the woods arm in arm, paw in paw. Papou probably won’t go so far as to be a hazelnut tree, because that’s a bit radical, but if he’s ever seen a rabbit emerge from a thicket, he too must have had his little emotion, perhaps even fleetingly experienced the universal link.

Beaubourg, which devoted a long weekend to waxing ecstatic about this marvellous idea, seems to have overlooked this, and even less so the fact that Papou also has many other links. With his employees. And then his shareholders – they are very linked. In capitalism, unjustly accused, there are many links: not only the wage relationship, or stock options, but also the credit relationship with the bank, the counterparty relationship in the financial markets, the subcontracting relationship, and so on. Links, links, links. The parliament of links is then in the difficult position of either pushing at a huge open door by calling for the creation of what already exists in profusion – society is a web of links – or failing in the minimal exercise of discernment: linking ourselves with whom and how? And, if necessary, against whom?

Nouons-nous’ was the title of a novel by Emmanuel Pagano in the same post-humanist and benevolent vein. That’s all very well – but who is ‘we’ anyway? At the Parliament of Links, this question will not be asked, and ‘against’ is a word to be avoided: only goodness will save the world. The Parliament of Links will be Christmas for Papou. For the spectacle of goodness is irresistible. Papou will realise this – and all his kind along with him. Let’s plug the boreholes, close the rare earth mines, reforest the Amazon, put survival blankets on the glaciers.

While the cultural bourgeoisie vows to link up with non-humans, Elon Musk is planning to send tens of thousands of satellites into low orbit, some of which will be used for advertising. The list of crazy capitalist projects, ridiculous new frontiers and mad accumulations is endless, along with the complementary list of repeated climatic disasters, of which the past summer has seen a striking spectacle. What is no less striking is the obstinacy of the friends of sensitivity and ‘links’ in never in the least relating these two lists. Since the destruction of nature remains a sadness without cause, all that remains is to snivel about it – but in elevated forms: philosophical and artistic. The Living World is being destroyed, it’s terrible, let’s proclaim ourselves concerned at Beaubourg or do a special week on France Culture, workshops at Luma. By the way, what is destroying the Living World? And even who? We won’t know – ‘expression not found’.

Let’s be clear: for an ornithologist, taking up the cause of birds from one’s disciplinary position is a fine thing in itself, and above all, quite indisputable. No, the problem is letting oneself be caught up, without realising it, or without wanting to realise it, in a completely different game from that of ornithology (or zoology, or dendrology), the political game of media and cultural institutions, that know very well what they are doing when they choose the people who will say nothing inconvenient – the very political game of depoliticisation. To find oneself propelled into the very political position of thinking-on-a-par-with-the-peril without ever uttering a single political word on a par with the peril, without ever saying that the Earth is being destroyed by capitalists, and that if we want to save humans from an uninhabitable planet, we have to put an end to capitalism – is a feat that is worth an election. The game of concerned climatology to which the forces of the symbolic order invite us is the game of climatology without any idea of the causes, and especially without any desire to find them: a game of snivelling – i.e. acceptable – climatology.

With regard to the Latourians, one hesitates between the hypothesis of benign sincerity and that of an institutional habitus – which knows very well to what extent it can risk its essential interests and (in accordance with the concept of habitus) no longer even needs to calculate strategically to do so. More in touch with the times, the satirical Gorafi News Network headlines: ‘Cockroaches are starting to think that even they won’t survive the human ecological catastrophe.’ But that’s a lot of uncoordinated agitation, perhaps even exaggeration, on the part of the cockroaches. Pierre Charbonnier, on the other hand, opts for a reasonable ‘centrism’ of small steps. What a rich idea, we are struck by the correctness of the position, by its adequacy to the times! Above all, it is about balance, no sudden and ill-considered gestures, moderation in all circumstances! However, Le Monde, the Mecca of divided thought, and the logical home of ‘thinkers of the living world’, informs us that ‘three-quarters of 16 to 25-year-olds in ten countries, in the North as well as in the South, consider the future to be “frightening”’. But it still continues to think that ‘radicalism makes you blind and deaf’. Which, in a sense is not wrong: it’s the situation that is radical, and clearly there are many people it leaves blind and deaf – and very moderate.

Preventing them from harm

The hypothesis of dishonest metonymy – taking a quote from Roger-Pol for a complete picture of Le Monde – would be very wrong. The entire newspaper confirms it (and the entire media system of the cultural bourgeoisie, we could add). So we can both worry about climate disaster with maximum headlines and ecstatically celebrate the latest €4 billion-valued French unicorn for a story about power-guzzling digital Panini stickers – great for the climate, indeed. As you would say on Twitter, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen: Capitalism’. We’ll take the Latourians and their media seriously when they dare to say publicly that we must stop these morons from doing any harm. And not only them, because here too the metonymy applies: behind the Panini boys, there is Musk, Papou, Bezos and everything beneath them that they make work with the knout. They must be prevented from doing harm.

In truth, political Latourism[5] is a mystery: it’s a constant amazement how a sincere love for their objects, the spectacle of their methodical annihilation, and the total incapacity for these two things to come together to produce anything meaningful can be organised in these minds. There must be phenomenally powerful inhibiting counter-forces to prevent them from seeing and naming. We should more correctly say that the radicalism (of the situation) makes them blind and mute. At Le Monde, L’Obs and Télérama, France Inter and France Culture, they know how things stand: yes, capitalism makes a few mess-ups, but it is capable of inventing the broom. Capitalist innovation will save us from capitalist disaster – relax and breathe.

In a chilling book, La Croissance verte contre la nature, Hélène Tordjmann devotes 340 pages to a tour of this nightmare that serves as a mental crutch for the entire corporation of symbolic support: ‘Sending sulphur nanoparticles into the atmosphere to attenuate solar radiation; fertilising the oceans with iron or urea to promote the growth of phytoplankton, a major consumer of carbon dioxide; manufacturing from scratch micro-organisms that have never existed to produce petrol’, etc. We are in the hands of dangerous madmen. So, one of two things: Latourism can continue to ratify this delusion, if only by implicit silence, or it can consider finally giving a serious answer to the question of what to land on – and to really crush: capitalism.

Translated by David Fernbach

[1] [Eva von Redecker, Révolution pour la vie (Paris: Payot, 2021).]


[3] By way of example, of the twelve interviews in the series ‘Thinkers of the Living World’, ten fail to use the word ‘capital’, which is used by only two of them, Matthieu Duperrex and (particularly) Ména Balaud and Antoine Chopot.

[4] [Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of Total, was recently sued by Greenpeace for allegedly abusing his role as a director of the École Polytechnique to allow Total to build a research centre on the school’s campus.]

[5] There’s also theoretical Latourism (anthropological and sociological), but that is discussed under other headings.

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