Book Reviews

Brown’s book on Tolerance seems to be aging well in our era of unstable politics.

The goal of her project is to probe the political discourse of Tolerance and criticize it, but this demands a preemptive note: given the blistering strength of her critique it’s easy to get the impression that Brown is rejecting Tolerance tout court. This is emphatically not the case. Her focus is on Tolerance as a political discourse, that is, as a force that structures our political ideals and practices. Accordingly, she uses this book exorcise some of the demons she sees lurking in that discourse, but she leaves open a hopeful future where we can get by with a more virtuous version of the ideal. She also leaves unscathed the practice of tolerance in our personal lives – something she takes as an unqualified good. Brown is not intelligibly ‘against tolerance’ as some have put it.

What she is against, however, is a version of Tolerance which has a stultifying, depoliticizing effect on our public sphere, a Tolerance which supplants other justice projects like Equality, a Tolerance which provides cover for an expansionist State, and a Tolerance which underwrites an imperial civilizational discourse of us-and-them.

Each of these accounts is fascinating in turn and I will outline just some features of the case for depoliticization.

This version of Tolerance branches off from Locke’s Treatise for Religious Toleration wherein he argued that doctrinal differences in Christianity were a matter of personal conscience and not public dispute (and religious war). This classical liberal argument achieved peace (to the extent it did) by privatizing what was once public and turning it into a matter of belief.

This pattern recurs. The Enlightenment liberal state makes claims to both secularism and universality, and it faces a thorny challenge in groups who recognize authority in other places – like culture and religion. The liberal state can’t demand that some groups relinquish their most cherished beliefs as a condition of participation and still take itself seriously as liberal. Enter: tolerance. According to Brown, the state trades in a discourse of tolerance at this point because it assures the state’s authority by tacitly bargaining to admit these ‘other’ groups on the condition that they privatize their assertive claims as matters of mere belief. This way the state can maintain an air of liberalism while also inoculating groups it sees as a threat. It’s a hegemony donning robes of neutrality.

This leads to a progressive secularization of politics and relativization of belief that tend toward a State which claims only a culturally neutral proceduralism – one that is emptied of the substantive moral claims which seem parochial.

Whether or not we think that such a state is possible in a pure form (Brown surely does not), the story comports nicely with the state of many contemporary liberal democracies. Paeans to Tolerance as a supreme political value are recited at exactly this moment when citizens feel like their public lives are empty and bloodless.

In the story Brown tells, this liberal zenith (nadir?) is dissatisfying to the point of fueling reactionary movements and pre-modern counter discourses (while not within the purview of her book, resurgent nativism seems like just one case that is a propos).

Thus, tolerant liberalism creates new enemies against which it can assert itself.

To recap the story: liberalism’s pretension to universalism can only be maintained in the face of conflict over substantive values by invoking a discourse of tolerance and reducing competing values to matters of private belief. This relativization advances liberalism’s hegemony at the cost of any meaningful values by which people live. The ostensibly neutral and legalistic residue is so morally unfulfilling that it sparks reactionary and illiberal movements founded on the palpitating values of your choice (race, culture, religion, or some potpourri thereof). Liberalism can then assert itself against these movements by repurposing a discourse of tolerance as license for self-defence against these intolerant barbarians. In short: liberalism makes its own monsters, and efforts to quash them only exacerbate conflict. All told, Brown’s tolerant liberalism is purportedly exposed as a project which both obscures and exacerbates conflict, and which justifies its own imperialism.

While there’s much of interest here, I want to add one squabble: In this story Brown implies that a tolerant, liberal, and secular state cannot ultimately inspire moral allegiance. I would agree that this is an exceedingly difficult issue; the value of liberal democratic institutions cannot be reduced to a moral criterion (then we’re just invoking morals ex nihilo) and it should not be reduced to a matter of culture without great caution (as demonstrated by culturally imperial aggressors who claim the benevolence of democratization). This does not mean, however, that it is impossible to find justifications of liberal democracy which are motivating and inspiring enough to shield it from the reactionaries. One possible approach here would be the culturalist approach of John Dewey who thought that democracy, in addition to being a set of political institutions, was a way of life. “Democracy”, for him, “starts at home” and manifests in a set of practices in all areas of our lives – public and private.

To my mind, this kind of Deweyan project deserves serious consideration; we should want a democracy which is both liberal and morally inspiring. But a potential constructive project like this which hews close to cultural forces would have to be carried out in conjunction with critical projects like Brown’s – ones which sensitize us to the hazards of hegemony and empire. As an exploration of these potential sins and as a partial exorcism of them, I cannot recommend her book enough.

Graham Bracken

Book Reviews

Fatheuer, Fuhr, Unmüßig: Inside the Green Economy: Promises and Pitfalls

Climate Change is so depressing because it’s about more than just planetary destruction. As if trashing the place weren’t bad enough, our reaction has also been politically destructive and disempowering. This is because we have increasingly entrusted our shared future to the great impersonal Economy. The public has been hollowed out and the power has been redistributed to individual consumers, to producers, or to the vague and distant statistical agencies which design new markets in carbon offsets or wetland credits. Instead of acting with unity, we now wring our hands about incentive schemes and the potential harms to economic growth. To be sure, this is a trend which existed well before we saw climate change as a crisis, but the crisis is being used to stoke the market’s fires. The problem with all this, however, is that the market – either in its design or in its regular function – doesn’t ask us what we want. The market doesn’t believe there is an ‘us’ to be consulted. This has been a long-run disappearing act of the public, and it’s a minor miracle that there’s enough of a ‘we’ left to even feel helpless.

Climate Change isn’t just a simple story about how we unwittingly destroyed our home, having pushed it beyond certain thresholds only to feel helpless because we couldn’t get it back. In the full story, the helplessness comes first. Once we see that the death of politics is first, we realize that Climate Change isn’t a single dirty deed. It’s a murder-suicide.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find tellings of this story which don’t seem conspiratorial and grasping. A successful narrative needs to have a tight grip on the economics, the international institutions, the embattled local politics, and the environmental science. Inside the Green Economy: Promises and Pitfalls is just such a successful account.

Transparently, it is written from a “discourse-critical and power-critical” perspective, aimed at re-politicizing ecology and exposing the ways in which purportedly environmentally friendly market incentives have not only been backed by powerful corporations, but how such schemes have been used to hide increasing environmental impacts. Worse, they document the ways in which these new markets, like carbon offset farms, have been used to enclose the common lands of indigenous or local populations, thereby forcing them to behave as market participants. This gives the whole exchange an aura of consent and obscures the social disruption behind a smokescreen of growth statistics.

Make no mistakes: this is a story about the imperialism of economic calculus. It is a story about how the economy has dethroned nature as our final master. Where we used to believe the economy was within nature, we increasingly see nature as an input into economic calculation. National and international market-schemes try to evaluate stocks of ‘natural capital’ and we are given bromides that “you can only treasure what you can measure.” Nature becomes the ‘nature that capital can see’.

The authors do an excellent job of arguing that this expansion of the economy to include bits of nature, however well-marketed, doesn’t avoid any difficult problems of evaluation or the negotiation of conflicts. Rather, market schemes (which assume that value can only take monetary form) displace the problems of evaluation from local political groups and tuck them in the back-rooms of big statistical agencies. Since these agencies are unaccountable and since they face impossibly difficult decisions about quantification, they are likely to be captured by corporate interests who have a lot to gain from the creation of new markets. The quick version, then, is that power is transferred from local polities to corporations under the auspices of well-intended market-fixes. If our authors can establish this much then it is small potatoes to argue that the interests of corporations don’t align with our social or planetary needs – their gains lie elsewhere. Accordingly, we can’t trust that the incentives of the corporations will be adequately tweaked with market-fixes like taxes or offsets because those very programs are so deeply shaped by the corporate interests themselves.

Power matters.

Though the book was designed to be small and accessible, I regret this simple treatment of power. We are asked to understand corporations as agents: they have ends and adopt strategies – just like people. While this is at least somewhat true, it downplays a different – and consequential – understanding of power: that it is a corollary of how we organize our knowledge. Consider this example: suppose you face a difficult decision in your life – that is, you have the power to make a difficult choice – and in a moment of difficulty, you decide to consult an oracle. The oracle puts on such a compelling show that you believe her when she tells you what she sees for your future. Once you believe her, there is no longer a difficult decision to be made; it has effectively been decided. What happened? The oracle didn’t exercise power over you directly, didn’t tell you what to choose, claim authority, or give you an argument. Instead, she got you to believe something – to change your beliefs about the world – and that newfound ‘knowledge’ made the decision for you. The knowledge held the power. Or rather: the knowledge was the power.

Something similar happens in how we understand our natural world. Power isn’t just traded back and forth between intentional agents like corporations and governments; power circulates and concentrates in different places depending on how we understand and measure nature, and it makes those corporations and government agencies possible. Think of the US Wetland Bank in the 90’s: in an effort to be more economical and conservationist, a cap-and-trade system was set up so that developers who destroyed wetlands in one place would be given an allotment of credits which they had to redeem elsewhere by rehabilitating wetlands or building new ones. The height of hubris? Yes. But it’s important to see that such a scheme could only come into existence if the measurements took a certain shape: that is, if a wetland could be reduced to a single measurement scale and compared with a wetland anywhere else. This is no small task but once such a form of knowledge becomes usable, a trading scheme is almost inevitable. The power is in the form of representation. A similar tale could be told with the trading schemes which are emerging from our vastly abstracted carbon metrics; they tilt the game in favour of offset farms and other tragedies.

This alternative view of power shifts the focus of environmental destruction away from intentional and rapacious corporations and onto the kinds of knowledge which let those corporations expand their reach in the first place. This implicates scientists, statisticians, and accountants in deep ways. Of course, our authors know this story – and they tell it with gusto elsewhere – but it doesn’t get much press in this book, and that’s regrettable.

Fortunately, whichever story you pick about power, the course of action is the same: democratize! The authors celebrate political conflict and insist that all different powers and interests must be made accountable to one another. This means we need to ask questions about the role for industrial lobbies, ask who controls resources (and who should control resources), demand equal civil rights, push for gender equity, insist on political transparency, and so on. The project is enormous and is reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s aptly titled This Changes Everything, albeit with more clarity and practical direction.

Expanding this democratizing insight to account for the second form of power (that which is the corollary of our ‘knowledge’) means that we must celebrate conflict and dialogue everywhere – not only in the obvious cases where ‘the economy’ is invoked to silence resistance, but also in our construction of knowledge about the world. Since the shape of our environmental science and our statistics prefigure the shape of our politics and our tools for coping, the work of measurement should not be exempted from scrutiny, cordoned off as somehow politically neutral. To believe this myth of neutrality is to cede power to the statistical bureaus and their more dubious masters without a fight.

Conflict is essential and is healthy. We will accomplish nothing of worth without it. Inside the Green Economy is a wonderful critique of the alternative program we have embraced: timid, we have prostrated ourselves to the economic illusion of consensus and the chimera of growth. Vaguely believing piecemeal incentive schemes to be the best overall strategy, we have legitimated the market’s takeover of nature and let ourselves believe the result is somehow inevitable and apolitical. Blinded thus to the interests and powers who design these schemes and benefit from them, we have hobbled our politics. If it is not to be a complete political suicide then we must first challenge the mythology that the market will save us.  Inside the Green Economy is a clarion call for why this must be our fight if we are to survive on this planet.

Book Reviews

Christophe Bonneuil & Jean-Baptiste Fressoz: The Shock of the Anthropocene


The Anthropocene.

The Anthropo-what?

It’s too big of a concept for most of us mere mortals to understand. Sure, the climate is changing – we’ve seen some graphs around. Sure, we’ve decided to call it a new geological epoch. Sure, we were the ones who did it. Now what? The mind balks.

One of the resounding messages of The Shock of the Anthropocene is that the concept itself is too big to be useful. Although Bonneuil and Fressoz don’t doubt that we’re entering a new era, they want to deconstruct this enormous linguistic Trojan Horse and show us what’s hiding inside: technocratic managers who, intentionally or not, will anesthetize politics and replace it with either authoritarian management or deeper and wider markets-in-everything.

This surely sounds a bit overblown for a debate about geological nomenclature, but it’s justified. And this book makes these fears palpable.

An important first step in this project is noticing that Anthropocene is a very different kind of name than Holocene or Pleistocene which mark the historical periods with certain kinds of climates. Unlike those names, Anthropocene has its causal origin built right in – the Anthropos did it. So, more than dry nomenclature for temperature records, the name entails our understanding of how we got here and whose fault it is.

Now, since we are assigning blame, Bonneuil and Fressoz think The Anthropos is a pretty evasive culprit. Do we really think that climate change is caused by ‘people, generally’? Do we think that blame extends to all humans equally – to Brazilian tribespeople just as much as the Koch brothers? No, obviously not. The causes of climate change are concentrated in certain times and places, and are embedded in certain kinds of political and economic institutions. Disassembling the huge and faceless Anthropos into particular times, places, and peoples is then important for both descriptive accuracy and for a more proper assignment of blame, which is needed to figure out what we do next. Such a disassembly is the largest part of the book and along the way we are treated to explorations of such helpful descriptive treats as the ‘Thalocene’ (war), the ‘Phagocene’ (consumption), the ‘Agnotocene’ (ignorance’), etc. We also get a bewildering cornucopia of historical snapshots to make the descriptions feel real.

But the most important part of this project runs above and throughout all of these games of historical dress-up.

By trying all these stories on for size, what rubs off is the sense that history matters. By which I mean that, like any good history, this retelling makes our current situation look like the contingent result of choices which could have taken us in other directions. It places the explanatory burden squarely on us and not some purported laws of history or progress. For example, many of us live in suburban cities and are dependent on cars, but a reflection on the history of this situation reveals that it’s a consequence of choices we’ve made – partly as a security measure in the Cold War, partly as a deliberate strategy to encourage private property and individualist (non-communist) society. But it could have been otherwise; there are no laws of history which necessitate this kind of life – only structures we have inherited, and can change if we have to.

But history also matters because we can see that we’ve been on this merry-go-round for a while. One of the strongest messages of the book is that, in spite of scientistic narratives, we are emphatically not in some sacred ‘new age’ of heightened awareness about our environmental impacts. Various forms of this awareness have been around for a good while: concerns about the finitude and polluting nature of coal go well back in the 19th century, worries about deforestation – even further, anxieties about depletion of soil nutrients, awareness of industrial pollution, and even knowledge about the threat to the climate stretch far back in time. But these periods of awareness coincided with periods of industrial pollution, coal mining, ballooning trade, and deforestation. The mystery, then, is why awareness coexisted with destruction. In failing to reflect on these histories, our current obsession with ‘finally getting the science right’ and our confidence that such knowledge would bring solutions ends up looking like the height of hubris.

The most interesting part of the book lies in the shadows around this observation. Although they don’t say it directly, Bonneuil and Fressoz seem to suggest that our environmental abuses continued not just in spite of our knowledge about them, but because of it. This seems paradoxical, but a couple of examples are helpful.

First, in fisheries off the American west coast there was a conflict over the possibility of depletion. In their infinite wisdom, regulators imposed legal requirements not to exceed the “Maximum Sustainable Yield” – an estimate which reduced the fish population to a single aggregate number and a replacement rate. Result: explosive increase in harvesting and fishery collapse. We are not given a clear explanation of why this happened, but it’s safe to say that the complex, local relationship with a fish population (that was sensitive to all kinds of ecological interactions) was reduced to a single dimension and revalued as a stock or flow of commodities. Alternatively, we could explain collapse by dubious motives of the people who estimated the sustainable yield – maybe they used inflated representations for their own short-term gain. This certainly still happens in many fisheries, and it sounds a lot like letting kids decide the price of candy.

But in the second case of coal, this manipulation of representations is more salient. At a time of British anxieties about the sustainability of continued coal use, certain Panglossian geologists entered the scene with what we now take to be wildly inflated (by six times) reserve estimates. Result: full steam ahead with coal-fired industrialism and the development of fossil-fuel-dependant infrastructures to which we are still beholden.

In both of these cases, I think our authors would want to say that the choice in the matter – which legitimately belonged to the people – was usurped by a class of technocrats, that power was transferred from political process to the purported experts who wielded ‘representations’. Worse still, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue that these representations encouraged certain kinds of social and economic developments, changing the way we interact with nature – and probably for the worse. This way of thinking about representations locates their anxieties about the possible depoliticizing effects of science and it motivates their warnings about the scariest possible future: a cabal of experts which seeks to quantify and price all the so-called ‘ecosystem services’, thereby commodifying nature and turning it into a market. This is a viable fear – if you don’t believe me, read an environmental economics textbook.

Not only is this possible future technocratic (and so manipulable by those with the power to influence the technocrats), but it promises to be an unmitigated ecological suicide. For a thousand reasons – not least of which being our ignorance about how ecosystems work – natural processes are not reducible to financial measures. This argument doesn’t even require moralizing about commodification, though there is also that.

But these arguments are really beyond the scope of the book. The authors’ focus is, first-and-foremost, to sketch the various historical contexts of our increased environmental destruction and then use them to show that we are not immune to the kinds of technocratic take-overs which have occurred in the past.  Moreover, they suggest that highly abstracted talk of ‘The Anthropocene’ may be just this kind of political anesthetic. By deconstructing this conceptual behemoth into a number of smaller ‘cenes’ they aim to relocate our environmental influence within the realm of choice – decisions we made, for better or for worse. By doing this, they hope to achieve a kind of political emancipation and give us all the sense that we can get a political grip on our future.


One heavy and departing qualification: this project all hangs rather tenuously with our belief that the scientists are right; that they are experts, and that their representations of nature have epistemic authority. On the one hand, Bonneuil and Fressoz enthusiastically accept current science “with open arms”. On the other, they demonstrate this deep suspicion of anti-democratic ‘experts’ and they explicitly caution against the fantasy that only the scientists can save us. In their conclusion, they admit that our challenge lies in “meticulously listening to scientists and putting their results and conclusions into public and democratic discussions” (288). Although reassuring, the reader gets little more advice for how we move forward. But that’s not really the point; it’s better if we read the project as a mostly one-sided corrective to the heretofore unchallenged managerial and technocratic ethos which threatens to consume us. In this effort, The Shock of the Anthropocene is a huge success and I recommend it enthusiastically.

Book Reviews

John Bellamy Foster: Marx’s Ecology.

I always thought Lucky inWaiting for Godot was about as comprehensible as your average Marxist, and that you could prise about as much insight from those feverish ramblings as from The Grundrisse – if you had the mind to try.

Turns out I was wrong, and following John Bellamy Foster through this broad, ecological interpretation of Marx’s ecological thought made that obvious. The sizable task of dispelling this ignorance was the first virtue of the book and most of my past prejudices were squarely challenged by the general overview of Marx’s thought. But more immediately, Foster’s ecological spin features a Marxism that’s useful for understanding present anxieties about capitalism on our fragile planet.

By now, such anxieties have become common fare with blockbusters like Klein’s This Changes Everything and its equally unbashful subtitle, Capitalism vs the Climate. The story is familiar: the profit-motive of capitalism transfigures our natural environment into a pile of commodities and abstract market values – all that is solid melting into the air – and exploits that very environment beyond the point at which it can recover.  So we get outfits like The Nature Conservancy tapping oil wells and killing off the endangered Atwater chickens which they were tasked to protect, and we get the continued consumption of fossil fuels, killing everything else.

No doubt, Marx would agree with this fable as far as it goes. But the Marx which Foster presents would disagree with a standard assumption of this story: that there is an essential difference between humanity and nature; that one inevitably and unilaterally exploits the other.  This perceptual shift is subtle, but it refocuses our imagined place in the environment and reprioritizes the kinds interventions we think are appropriate for managing it.

To make this shift more perceptible, Foster foregrounds the philosophies for two of Marx’s biggest inspirations: Epicurus and Darwin. Both of them emerge as uncompromising materialists, but it’s Darwin (along with a strongly modified Hegel) who more clearly explains why that material world has come to take the structure that it does. Crucially, these evolutionary explanations are anti-teleological – which means the refusal to believe there is any privileged final end towards which things are travelling; there is no plan. For these thinkers, the deepest truths about the world are the ones which happen to emerge historically, not ones dictated from above by natural laws or the will of God.

These various commitments stitch together: if you believe that everything that exists is made of the same stuff (materialism) and you believe there are no final ends or plans for that stuff (anti-teleology), and you think that the kinds of things which emerge have evolved historically and are continually evolving (anti-essentialism), then it will be very difficult to claim that there’s some special privilege which separates humans from the rest of the natural world. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is still the consensus of the scientific worldview today; Marx was just on the leading edge of it.

But what do these commitments do for us, or for Marx? It’s complicated, but the most basic switch is that humans start looking like equal and active ecological participants, unified more deeply with the rest of the natural world. On this view, we are ‘associated producers’ who mix our labour with the labour of nature to produce a surplus by which we continue to grow.

(I’m sure the bells are going off in your head at seeing shibboleths like ‘labour’, ‘surplus’, and ‘producers’ but this is the virtue of Foster’s Marx – his canonical economic concerns and the ecological ones are unified in that familiar language. Marx’s capitalism exploits and alienates workers in the same ways as it does the soil.)

But keeping focus on the ecological side of the union, this associated production of both humans and the natural world results from what Marx calls a ‘metabolic exchange’. Think of this in terms of energy: the sun provides the most basic form but it is then exchanged and transformed in different ways: plants feed animals, animals fertilize plants, animals feed people (other animals), and those people transform that energy into labour to nurture plants. To appropriate Martin Luther King: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men [beings] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Marx’s metabolic exchange is this process whereby energy is constantly converted and passed back and forth among the different co-producers, making things grow.

It’s seeing this kind of association which allows Foster’s Marx to point directly to cases where that exchange was broken – where a ‘rift’ was created. The central case here involves the deterioration of soil quality on agricultural land. At a time when economists thought that the fertility of certain soils (their ‘latent power’) was fixed by natural law, Marx saw the unsustainability of nutrients being taken from the countryside soil as crops, shipped into big cities like London, and then sloughed off through toilets into the Thames rather than being returned to the land as fertilizer.  To him, this was a disruption in the natural metabolic exchange which involved people as active ecological participants or co-producers.

(Unsurprisingly, concern about this rift doesn’t only apply to the contradiction between town and country but more generally to the logic of capital and private ownership.  The mid-19th century bore witness to dramatic failures of soil quality in certain parts of Europe, volatile markets for replacement fertilizers, and economic-imperial conquests for fertilizers abroad – all quite consistent with the more familiar stories of Marxist economics.)

Things get dicey, however, when Foster repeatedly refers to this rift as a form of alienation from nature. Now, my grasp on Marx is tenuous but I’m pretty sure this was a term he only used early on, abandoning it for most of his work. Whether the term is fair to Marx or not, it marks a snarl of problems. For starters, doesn’t ‘alienation’ suggest an estrangement from some kind of essential natural state? Doesn’t seeing an essentialized state of nature from which we are alienated also entail that humans are different kinds of beings entirely?  But both this natural essentialism and the dichotomous opposition of nature and society are moves which Foster’s Marx elsewhere opposes, so it’s hard to see how this ‘alienation’ could ever be consistent.

Another possibility, however,  is that the rift alienates us, not from some state of romanticized harmony with the outside natural world, but from our own nature as producers.  This is an intriguing suggestion and it finds support in the ubiquitous Marxist reduction to ‘labour’ relations, but I suspect those who aren’t already dyed-in-the-wool Marxists will find this essentialism about ‘our own nature’ just as implausible as essentialized claims about an external nature.  It is a metaphysical indulgence to say that – deep down – we are really just Homo faber (producers and tool-users) and that modern capitalism alienates us from that essence. Like any metaphysical foundation, this is beyond the realm of public criticism; it’s just a blunt and basic truth we are asked to accept so we can get on with the rest of the project. Foundations like this will obviously never be enough for people who don’t already agree – the claim needs to be argued or demonstrated.

Of course, this objection to specious essentialism applies to a lot of projects, not just Marx’s. Classical and neoclassical economists who postulate that humans are really just homo economicus should be criticized for their metaphysical balloons just as much as their opponents who claim that we’re actually homo politicus. In contrast, the historical and evolutionary insight of Darwin – which Marx otherwise praises – leads us to a much more nuanced view of ourselves: that we have no essence. To be sure, we are dappled with parts of each – part economicus, part faber, part politicus – but our composition at any given time is a contingent historical matter and there’s no deep reason why we couldn’t become more economicus than the others. If anything, that is the apparent trajectory of history for the time being; as we market our ‘personal brands’ and make ‘educational investments in our human capital’, we become different kinds of people.

If Foster is so keen to present a Marx who was scientific in all the right ways – materialist, empiricist, anti-teleological, and anti-essentialist – then talk of ‘alienation’ along with its metaphysical baggage about our essential nature will have to go. Unfortunately, this demand would undercut many of the project’s practical ambitions since the desirable ‘productive forms of association’ lose their sheen if we doubt that humans are essentially producers. But if that’s the cost of eliminating specious essentialism, so be it. For any philosophy to be useful and publicly acceptable there can be no spooks, no unquestionable metaphysical foundations.

So it seems like there is still some serious work to be done to make this scientific, Darwinian, and anti-essentialist Marx consistent with his practical program, but Foster’s account takes laudable steps in that direction. If for no other reason, seeing the details of Marx’s philosophical background and his ecological concern shows that he still has much to tell us about our current environmental crises. Foster deserves enthusiastic praise for bringing this to our attention.


Book Reviews

Book Review: Jacques Rancière’s Hatred of Democracy


French political philosophy should always be sold with a bottle of Côtes du Rhône and a pack of Gauloises. They help with that wildly intuitive state of mind needed to tâtonner through the bricolage.

Or at least they would have come in handy with Jacques Rancière’s Hatred of Democracy, which requires its fair share of intuiting. But that said, and apart my general desire for wine, most of the book was not only comprehensible but bracing.

Rancière takes aim to explain the western contempt of democracy with which we are increasingly familiar – “the reign of the limitless desire of individuals in modern mass society.” But en route to such an explanation, the reader gets a fresh image of what our democracy could really mean.

The explanation for such contempt is worth reviewing.

First, he sketches out how our democracies have become increasingly depoliticized. That is, how the public sphere has been hollowed out from above and below as our rulers more closely resemble an oligarchy of economic interests concerned with economic management, and as citizens retreat into increasingly isolated private spheres.  This is all a way of saying that the form of legitimation for our governments has drifted away from ‘popular sovereignty’ and toward ‘sound management’. It should of course be old news that this is what has happened, and that these expert economic managers are quick to be contemptuous of citizens who disagree with their decrees; the managerial attitude can only interpret public dissent as ignorance. For Rancière, however, this attitude is tantamount to the slow murder of politics itself.

So that’s the first step of the argument: the disappearance of the public sphere and the death of politics.

The second step argues that this anaemic, near-dead form of association is then mistaken for democracy, as if a fragmented collection of private individuals clamouring for their interests was worth the name. But justified or not, the equation of this democracy-of-consumers with other more substantive political visions has consequences that Rancière is worried about. Namely, as far as I can tell, the total and final retreat from shared public life into forms of totalitarianism – religious, ethnic, or whatever else. As I understand it, he takes this totalitarian temptation to be a reaction against the increasingly dramatic split of the State from society under our oligarchic ‘managers’. If we are seeking the solace of a State unified with society and have lost faith in our current set of purportedly-democratic institutions then totalitarianism really can look seductive.

Now that interpretation might have more than a splash of Côtes du Rhône in it but I’d like to think it isn’t totally gauche.

At this point you could probably guess Rancière’s other main message: this is not democracy.  What exactly is a democracy for him is an interesting and unconventional matter, but I’ll just give the highlights:

“Strictly speaking, democracy is not a form of State. It is always beneath and beyond these forms. Beneath, insofar as it is the necessarily egalitarian, and necessarily forgotten, foundation of the oligarchic state. Beyond, insofar as it is the public activity that counteracts the tendency of every State to monopolize and depoliticize the public sphere. Every State is oligarchic.”

At its core, Rancière’s democracy is presented in opposition to essential institutional structures. Majoritarianism, Representation, and all kinds of other sacred cows are rejected. What remains is a democratic practice which is always emerging, a constant fight to demarcate and protect the public sphere from the private, and a basic egalitarianism which challenges whatever oligarchic authority there is. This involves the denial of any ‘natural’ rights to rule; place of birth and wealth as much as wisdom and technical expertise go the way of divine mandate.  All that remains is chance. If positions of authority are just as likely to be held be the competent and high-born as by the incompetent and lowly then, Rancière says, we can rest assured that we have a democracy.

Just how strong that is may be hard to swallow, but I leave that to the you. All that’s important to see for now is its novelty in times such as ours.

If there is one Ideé fixe in this work without obvious clarification or justification it is “the tendency of every State to monopolize and depoliticize the public sphere.” As far as I can tell, the fact that States are oligarchic is presented as more of a definition than anything else, and this says a lot more about his idiosyncratic use of terms like ‘State’, ‘Democracy’, and ‘Oligarchy’ than about the structure of the political institutions we call ‘states’ in our world.  Most of us would feel comfortable talking of (perhaps hypothetical) entities called ‘democratic states’ as if that meant something, but it seems like Rancière would have to hear that as oxymoronic for the reasons listed above.

But there’s another possibility. If the purported fact that ‘States depoliticize the public sphere’ is not a definitional truth but one which respects our common usage then it needs some hefty philosophical or historical support. None is forthcoming. I suspect that this is the kind of claim which looks obvious to the ones who are already familiar with these quarters, but to the uninitiated it looks more like a cul-de-sac.

So this work probably couldn’t be called a tour de force but in a time of such political impasse it is exactly the kind of métier we need. Despite its sometimes difficult façade it makes an essential entrée into an understanding of democracy’s élan vital and the capitalist, statist enfants terribles which threaten it.