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Rethinking capitalism

Readers interested in the emerging politics of the human/non-human and the deep and difficult tensions between capitalism and democracy are bound to find stimulating a recent public lecture by one of the world’s leading social scientists, Bruno Latour.

Delivered in late February 2014 at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences in Copenhagen, “On some of the affects of capitalism” is Latour’s powerful attempt to raise questions about why it is that we’ve come to accept commodity production and exchange as a naturally given “fact of life”, and what might be done about it. Note his reference to the new science of the making and unmaking of public ignorance (“agnotology”) and to the global significance of a uniquely Australian model of wilful ignorance championed by the Abbott government. Latour calls it the “Australian strategy of voluntary sleepwalking toward catastrophe”.

The full text of the lecture is available here. Followed by a memorable Tony Abbott quotation, the opening moments of the lecture are pasted below:

‘“If the world were a bank, they would have already bailed it out”. Such is the slogan painted by Greenpeace militants in one of their recent campaigns. It says a lot about our level of intellectual corruption that we don’t find such a line simply funny but tragically realistic. It has the same bleak degree of realism as Frederick Jameson’s famous quip that: “Nowadays it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism!.”

Bruno Latour, 2013 Polity Press

If you call the world, I mean the world we all live in, “first nature” and capitalism our “second nature” — in the sense of that to which we are fully habituated and which has been totally naturalized — then what those sentences are saying is that the second nature is more solid, less transitory, less perishable than the first. No wonder: the transcendent world of beyond has always been more durable than the poor world of below. But what is new is that this world of beyond is not that of salvation and eternity, but that of economic matters. As Karl Marx would have said, the realm of transcendence has been fully appropriated by banks! Through an unexpected turn of phrase, the world of economy, far from representing a sturdy down to earth materialism, a sound appetite for worldly goods and solid matters of fact, is now final and absolute. How mistaken we were; apparently it is the laws of capitalism that Jesus had in mind when he warned his disciples: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Matt 24-35).

Bruno Latour, Royal Danish Academy of Sciences, Copenhagen, 26 February 2014 Videnskabernes Selskab/Royal Danish Academy of Sciences

This inversion of what is transitory and what is eternal is no longer a joke, especially since what should be called the “Australian strategy of voluntary sleepwalking toward catastrophe” is being implemented to the full after the last election: not content to dismantle the institutions, scientific establishments and instruments that could prepare his constituency to meet the new global threat of climate mutations, the prime minister, Tony Abbott, is also dismantling, one after the other, most departments of social science and humanities. Such a strategy makes a lot of sense: not thinking ahead is probably, when you are an Australian and given what is coming, the most rational thing to do.

“Not thinking” seems to be the slogan of the day when you consider that in the United States alone something like a billion dollars, yes, one billion, is being spent to generate ignorance about the anthropic origin of climate mutations. In earlier periods, scientists and intellectuals lamented the little money spent on learning, but they never had to witness floods of money spent on unlearning what was already known. While in times past thinking critically was associated with looking ahead and extracting oneself from an older obscurantist past, today money is being spent to become even more obscurantist than yesterday! “Agnotology”, Robert Proctor’s science of generating ignorance, has become the most important discipline of the day.

It is thanks to this great new science that so many people are able to say in their heart “Perish the world, provided my bank survives!”. It is a desperate task to continue thinking when the powers of intelligence are dedicated to shutting down thought and to marching ahead with eyes wide closed.'

Evidence that Latour is on to something was provided just a week later by the after-dinner remarks of Tony Abbott to forestry industry officials. His biblical words deserve deep meditation:

‘Man and the environment are meant for each other. The last thing we do – the last thing we should want – if we want to genuinely improve our environment is to want to ban men and women from enjoying it, is to ban men and women from making the most of it and that’s what you do. You intelligently make the most of the good things that God has given us.’

The full video of Latour’s address in Copenhagen follows:

Royal Danish Academy of Sciences, 26 February 2014