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Class Politics in an Age of Catastrophe

A Review of On the Emergence of an Ecological Class: A Memo by Bruno Latour and Nikolaj Schultz

January 26, 2024

The ecological movement in the Global North is searching for a new sense of direction. As we hurtle towards collapse, we must develop a political strategy that will, to quote Walter Benjamin, “allow the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to pull the emergency brake.” 

Shortly before his recent passing, the influential eco-theorist Bruno Latour turned his attention to questions of strategy in a memo co-authored with his colleague, Nikolaj Schultz: On the Emergence of an Ecological Class. The book takes stock of the disastrous state of affairs facing humanity, and calls for a new collective agent to combat it: the ecological class. The memo is refreshing in so far as it imagines a hegemonic ecological movement focused on winning power, and ready to wield it. Nonetheless, in its core ambition to explain the political paralysis we face, and to propose a remedy, it falls flat.

In the seventy-six paragraphs that make up the short pamphlet, Latour and Schultz criticize ecological campaigners for blaming inaction on a lack of understanding of the problems we face, and exhort environmentalists to engage in politics on their own terms. The strongest message in the book–which seems reasonable enough on its own–is that ecological crises constitute a form of class war, and that overcoming them will require confrontation with those actors pushing us towards breakdown. In our era of grotesque inequality, it is no surprise that class politics have made a comeback; yet while the authors take up its vocabulary, they strip class politics of its rich historical context.

While Latour and Schultz are intent on reviving class politics for an era of ecological catastrophe, they have no interest in the ways in which class structures our societies in the first place. The authors fail to appreciate that class is a social relation whether members engaged in that relation recognize it or not. The global proletariat (or whatever you want to call it) does not exist as a class for itself, but that does not make the unequal access to the means of (re)production any less material today than it was when the Manifesto of the Communist Party was published. By contrast, the interests of the capitalist class–who hold most of the power in society–run directly against tackling our myriad ecological crises. An understanding of the basic structural class dynamics impeding ecological action clarifies why nothing is being done.

Without clarity concerning the capitalist class’s role in ecological breakdown, Schultz and Latour cannot determine whom the ecological class comprises. Lacking a clear collective agent of change, the authors are forced back onto a thin and contradictory list of allies for the task at hand: engineers, scientists, “gardeners, industrialists, investors, explorers in one capacity or other” (45). Yet industrialists and investors are some of the few who would lose power in a social-ecological transformation. This explains, for instance, why Bill Gates’s calls for climate action necessarily ring so hollow; the solutions he espouses must rely on unproven technologies in order to preserve the pillars of capitalist production (markets, absolute property rights, primitive accumulation, and so on) that have generated his obscene wealth. The ecological disorientation decried by Latour and Schultz largely results from the propagation of such false solutions.

Latour and Schultz dismiss Marxian class analyses on the grounds that the ecological conditions in which we live have changed. Since evolving material conditions are a core tenet of historical materialism, they display not only their shallow reading of Marx, but also their ignorance of the extensive eco-Marxist cannon which has grappled with these questions. This is not to say that all Marxists have been ecologically conscious, or that historical materialism is the only way to understand class. Viewing class struggle as a historical driver, however, can help us understand the paralysis described by the authors, and design more coherent roadmaps to break it.

Instead, the authors assert again and again that class is something that is purely ideologically constructed: “the ecological class should replicate the evolution of the classes that preceded it, the liberalisms every bit as much as the socialisms” (52). The association of liberalism with class consciousness is telling, given that liberalism as a political project–centering property rights, civil liberties, and formal equality–depends upon obscuring the class structure of society. 

It remains important to differentiate between class as a social relation, and the use of class rhetoric as a political strategy. By giving the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto the title “For the many not the few,” Jeremy Corbyn’s team spoke to the injustices experienced by most of British society. Although only half of the British public identify as working class, that campaign came within 2227 votes of securing Corbyn the keys to 10 Downing Street. According to a Marxist definition, doctoral students surviving on a stipend are working class–whether they identify as such or not. Latour and Schultz are at liberty to employ a different definition, but they should make it clear on which schools of thought they intend to build. Instead, they co-opt Marxian language to produce something that has nothing to offer political activists and organizers already engaged in class-conscious ecological struggles.

On the Emergence of an Ecological Class is not just thin on a theoretical level, it also muddies the water on what is required to bring class politics to bear in an era of ecological catastrophe.

For example, Latour and Schultz argue that the ecological class should amplify “the general refusal to grant the economy autonomy at the expense of societies” (original emphasis, 8). This aspiration appears reasonable, but it is followed by the assertion that ecological class should contest the notion of production–not production directed by profitability, but production itself. The idea of being against production, repeated throughout the memo, is absurd. An agro-ecological farmer growing her own vegetables, for instance, is engaging in a form of production that everyone in the ecological movement supports.

The authors explain our inertia in the face of catastrophe as a consequence of the cultural hegemony of a productivist common sense that no longer makes sense: This is the root cause of our inability to react: its as if you were quietly getting ready to build a brick wall and were suddenly asked to contain an epidemic. Everythings shifting, everythings evolving, everythings mutating” (40). Cultural hegemony plays a central role in our inability to confront ecological crises, but by omitting the capitalist mode of production from their analysis, Schultz and Latour’s explanation remains surface-level, and unconvincing.

Despite criticizing productivist common senses, they insist on associating ecology with sacrifice. The “immense sacrifices” (72) envisioned by the authors mean they are not even sure whether a majority could be convinced to support their project; Chapter VII is titled “The ecological class is potentially in the majority.” They ignore the many recent books that describe sustainable futures in which we all have more of what matters. The field of degrowth has been particularly prolific in presenting radical abundance as an alternative to the artificial scarcity on which capitalism depends. The authors dismiss degrowth in favor of “the still hazy promises of ‘envelopment’” (27). Beneath the veneer of novelty, however, is a sad fealty to capitalist imaginaries, and their association of sustainability with loss.

Some sections are insightful. Chapter VIII, The indispensable and too often abandoned battle of ideas,” focuses on the need for a Gramscian war of position against productivism. The book also encourages environmentalists to be proud of their identity. This feels like a welcome departure for an ecological movement that is still too often Malthusian, if not outright misanthropic. Shame seems to be a far more prevalent sentiment among environmentalists than the pride that characterized the socialist and communist movements of the past two hundred years.

Parts of the book may also be read as a reaction to that subset on the Left who think of the working class as comprising only characters from Bruce Springsteen songs. Workers are a gendered, racialized polity, and most of them are in the Global South. Ecological demands do align with their interests, but the conclusion we should draw from that reality is that these demands should be integrated into a new ecosocialism, not that centuries of socialist struggles can simply be ignored.

The problems of this book should be apparent from the preface, in which the authors admit that “neither has any official position in any of the existing ecological movements” (iv).  Their intervention comes from the ivory tower of academia, and remains worlds apart from those of activist-scholars, or the work of past revolutionaries. Gramsci, by contrast, contributed to the war of position from his office at L’Ordine Nuovo as British suffragettes, and local trade unionists passed in and out.

On the Emergence of an Ecological Class is not just thin on a theoretical level, it also muddies the water on what is required to bring class politics to bear in an era of ecological catastrophe. The failure is all the more egregious because class politics constitute our best chance of avoiding collapse. The authors are right to point out that ecological struggles in the Global North need to reach beyond their mostly bourgeois ghettos. As we know, climate change is class war. But the class struggle required to end the interlocking ecological crises must learn the right lessons from the mistakes of the myriad ecological and socialist movements on whose shoulders we stand. We need to build an ecological class, but that ecological class will be made up of the vast majority of people on Earth: a coalition of the working and the oppressed.



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