Bruno Latour on Truth and Praxis

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

“The hypothesis [of this book] is that we can understand nothing about the politics of the last 50 years if we do not put the question of climate change and its denial front and center. Without the idea that we have entered into a New Climatic Regime, we cannot understand the explosion of inequalities, the scope of deregulation, the critique of globalization, or, most importantly, the panicky desire to return to the old protections of the nation-state—a desire that is identified, quite inaccurately, with the ‘rise of populism.’”

 – Bruno Latour, Down to Earth (2018; original French edition 2017)

In his newest book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity 2018), Bruno Latour paints a haunting, apocalyptic portrait of our current crisis: global climate change, the product of Western exploitation of nature and colonized peoples, has created a vicious circle of growing inequality, ultranationalist isolationism, and strategic climate denial that is now being deployed tactically by the rich to protect themselves (somewhat in vain) from impending doom.

We are, Latour tells us, on a Titanic—that is barely an exaggeration. (21-22) The rich are pretending to deny the impending disaster so as not to alarm the popular classes and to gain advantage during the wreck. “[T]he ruling classes understand that the shipwreck is certain,” Latour writes; “they reserve the lifeboats for themselves and ask the orchestra to go on playing lullabies so they can take advantage of the darkness to beat their retreat before the ship’s increased listing alerts the other classes!” (19) The trouble is, of course, that this very strategy will ensure that no one survives the apocalypse.

Latour traces the history of our crisis back to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, three forces got under way: the global rise of “deregulation,” or what I would call neoliberalism; an explosion in inequality; and a systematic effort at climate denial. (18) These three forces reflected what Latour calls “a single historical situation: it is as though a significant segment of the ruling classes (known today rather too loosely as ‘the elites’) had concluded that the earth no longer had room enough for them and for everyone else.” (1) This was the culmination of centuries of exploitation and domination of Continental Europe over its neighbors, colonies, and the Global South. It has produced a breakdown of trust and shared social life. The result is that we are now at the brink of the precipice—if, that is, we have not already gone over it. The election and policies of Donald Trump are the culmination, or final realization of the endpoint of this history.

Unless the West—and here, Latour speaks only for Continental Europe or what he calls “Old Europe”—takes responsibility, recognizes its guilt for the previous centuries of exploitation, achieves humility, and leads the way forward toward climate reason, there is no hope. “We are the ones who started it—we of the Old West, and more specifically Europe,” Latour emphasizes. (20) And the only way out is to “learn to live with the consequences of what we have unleashed.” (20)

Praxis, on this account, calls for (1) recognition and confession of one’s own fault (here Europe’s exploitation of nature and colonies); and (2) leading by example. Telling and retelling the truth of climate change is not the solution. Imposing the facts of global warming will not help. The reason is that facts alone are not effective. They require trust first. And trust, Latour contends, has today vanished.

Latour on Truth

It is here that Latour articulates his current position on facticity and truth. Whatever may have come before—and Lord knows he has been accused by many for having relativized facts and truth—Latour here argues that global climate change is “true” but not believed because truth requires trust.

Latour argues that it all boils down to correct epistemology. A true fact cannot stand on its own, autonomously, independent of social relations, of who tells it, or finds it, or proves it—and where and how it is established. There may well be facticity, but in order for facts to stick, they have to properly form part of social life. And when our shared social life has been scarred by betrayal and exploitation, it will no longer be fertile ground for the trust necessary to maintain truths.

Latour summarizes, almost in the margin of his book, his epistemological position:

            No attested knowledge can stand on its own, as we know very well. Facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public like, by more or less reliable media. (23)

It is not a matter of learning how to repair cognitive deficiencies, but rather of how to live in the same world, share the same culture, face up to the same stakes, perceive a landscape that can be explored in concert. Here we find the habitual vice of epistemology, which consists in attributing to intellectual deficits something that is quite simply a deficit in shared practice. (25)

In other words, as Latour underscores, facts do not “stand up all by themselves,” they require a “shared world,” and they require “institutions” and a “public life,” and they will not be believed simply by repeating them or teaching them. They require a shared practice and a shared world.

Latour objects to the idea that we are living in a “post-truth politics” or that the people who are ignoring global climate change are simply living in an “alternative reality.” The problem, Latour argues, is not with them, but with “us”: we have so betrayed others by taking advantage of them, and exploiting them, that they have no reason to trust our social institutions anymore. By hoarding resources in order to modernize for the Western elite only, we’ve stripped ourselves of a common language. “Before accusing ‘the people’ of no longer believing in anything, one ought to measure the effect of that overwhelming betrayal on people’s level of trust. Trust has been abandoned along the wayside.” (23)

A Praxis of Penance

As a result, praxis does not call for better or more reporting, more facts, or more studies. Rather, it calls for action that addresses the deficit in trust today—for acts that rebuild our shared practices and common world.

The answer is not to simply reimpose the norms and institutions from the past—as Steven Lukes suggested in Praxis 1/13. Those political and disciplinary norms—from liberal tolerance to peer review—went hand-in-hand, Latour would respond, with our exploitation of others. Latour does not seek a return to a past of normalized politics, but a dramatic confessional push forward.

This begins, for Latour, through confession and example. In this, there is a strongly monastic dimension to his final chapters of Down to Earth. The orientation of praxis has a distinct Christian valence. It is penitence that Latour is after.

  • Europe must confess its guilt. “Continental Europe is said to have committed the sin of ethnocentrism and to have claimed to dominate the world, and therefore it has to be ‘provincialized’ to bring it down to size.” (101).
  • Europe must be humble and honest. “Europe, because of its history, has to plunge in first because it was the first to be responsible.” (104)
  • Europe must lead by example (almost as Christ did, I sense). Europe “can no longer claim to dictate the world order, but it can offer an example of what it means to rediscover inhabitable ground.” (101)

“Europe, that Old Continent, has changed its geopolitics” since Brexit and Trump’s election, Latour writes, and now, “Europe is alone, it is true, but only Europe can pick up the thread of its own history.” (100) Europe’s past is also its strength—bureaucratic, managerial, and ready to be provincialized. (100-101) It must seize those strengths and seek penance. It must seek that “second chance that it in on way deserved.” (106)

Confession. Penance. Mercy. Those are the spaces, I would suggest, where Bruno Latour lands.

***

There are many other aspects of Latour’s new book that we should explore, especially Latour’s rejection of two key concepts that many today are drawing on to explain Trump and Brexit:  populism (with regard to both) and proto-fascism (with regard to the first). Latour seems to want to discard both lines of analysis. The first, populism, because it is not fair to the popular classes who have been hoodwinked, he argues, by the elites and are justifiably no longer trusting conventional politicians. The second, proto-fascism, because the circumstances are so different. Today, “the State is in disgrace, the individual is king, and the urgent governmental priority is to gain time by loosening all constraints, before the population at large notices that there is no world corresponding to the America depicted.” (35) That could hardly be more different, Latour proposes, than the “Total State” of Hitler or Mussolini arrayed “against the very idea of individual autonomy.” (35) (This is especially relevant at our Praxis 6/13 seminar because of Herbert Marcuse’s prescient identification of “proto-fascism”). Hopefully we will come back to these matters in our seminar.

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