Frank Litton on policy-making, the civil service and the malaise of Ireland's democracy.

About What Politics is About: Bruno Latour

Dec 1, 13 • Political Culture, ReviewNo Comments


We talk a lot about politics. We demand more accountability and transparency. We abuse the ‘eunuch’ Dail. We parade policy failures and highlight their costs. We castigate our fellow citizens for their lack of virtue and demand a ‘vision’ from god knows who. We deplore the public’s declining trust in politicians to which all this talk must contribute. We do not, however, discuss what politics is about, reflecting on what it is for, and against what standards it should be judged. Why should we? After all such fundamental questioning can be tiresome, interrupting otherwise fruitful conversations.  For example, when discussing the merits of this or that automobile we do not find it either necessary, or useful, to remind ourselves what motor cars are for – the movement of persons from A to B with safety, due dispatch and, at least a modicum of elegance. We all know what motor cars are for and the conversation proceeds smoothly on the basis of this shared presumption. We all know what politics are for, don’t we?

The presumptions that underpin our conversations are shaped in a context. Changes in that context can bring them into question. Consider how the political context that has shaped our presumptions about politics has changed. Take the case of nationalism. The decade of anniversaries is upon us. Listen carefully to the rhetoric as Government ministers discuss the plans. You will note that the State is not commemorating, it is organizing commemorations. Of course, 1916 was an important episode, even an heroic one; a significant step in the development of the state. Its celebration, and all the others, will be we are promised, respectful and inclusive. No group should feel left out. No group should feel that its forebears have been slighted.

The nationalist narrative has faded into background. We are no longer addressed as a people with a shared story, but as the possessors of a shared ‘photograph album’, all of whose pictures must be displayed:  of those who marched off to shoot the Germans as well as of those who stayed behind to shoot the British; of those whom the British shot as well those killed by the rebels. How much do our presumptions about politics depend on the taken-for-granted unity that nationalism provided?

Globalisation is hardly new. The world of 1916 was global. We were in the midst of a world war and free trade was the prevailing economic dogma. Yet today’s globalisation has distinctive features. Then, the natural environment was taken as a given. Sure, the exploitation of its resources could change the surface of the earth but not its dynamics. Now, we have to recognise that the cumulative and continuing consequences of our interactions are warming the globe and provoking climate change. We are no longer free riders on nature. Geologists speak of a new geological epoch – the anthropocene. We cannot ignore the interdependencies that now draws us together in a common fate. Can our presumptions about politics account for this?

While the ambitions of capital know no territorial boundaries, their pursuit did bring capitalists into relationships with territorial states. They relied on states for the ordered networks essential for economic activity. Capital was tethered to nation-states. Enterprises could, and some did, have multi-national scope. Their branches, however, were rooted in the benign environment of the ‘home’ state. Global competition, large capital markets, and massive cross border financial and other flows have loosened the tethers and, especially for the smaller states, the notion of a ‘national economy’ has less and less traction. The European Union can be understood as an attempt both to encourage and discipline this dynamic. Whatever about its success in this, it has constrained the sovereignty of member states. To what extent have our presumptions been shaped by a national economy steered towards success by a sovereign state?

Bruno Latour

There is, then, a case for a pause in our talk about politics to ask ‘what politics is about?’ In this post, I sketch the answer provided by Bruno Latour. Latour, a professor at Sciences Po Paris, is an anthropologist and sociologist of science. His wide ranging work-on laboratory life, Pasteur and pasteurization, actor-network theory, the ethnography of law, politics and religion- has a common aim- an ‘anthropology of the moderns’. He seeks to understand the character of the modern world and how it understands itself and the gap between the two. In We Have Never Been Modern [1993] he demonstrates the gap. In his latest work An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns [2013], a best seller on its publication in Paris 2012, he closes the gap in an account of the practices of modernity and the values that sustain them. He presents this as a work in progress and invites collaboration in testing, revising, reforming and advancing the analysis through the website [The text of the book is on the site.]

Latour’s first extensive treatment of politics is The Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. [2004]. Students of politics will be familiar with the distinction between a constitution and the politics it enables or allows. For example, neither the civil service nor political parties are mentioned in the Constitution of Ireland. Yet both are crucial to the practice of our politics. In his earlier survey, Why We Have Never Been Modern, he draws a distinction between the ‘constitution’ of modernity and the practices of modernity. The constitution is based on a sharp dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘society’, between ‘facts’ and ‘values’. In Why We Have Never Been Modern he demonstrates how this distinction is less and less capable of accounting for the practices that have flourished under its watch. For example, science studies demonstrate that it cannot account for the practice of science. In The Politics of Nature he shows how a politics based on this distinction is incapable of an adequate response to the ecological crisis. The work excites, convinces and provides a new conceptualisation and a new framework for democratic politics. Nonetheless, I do not turn to this extended argument but to the chapter on politics in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence – chapter 12 ‘Invoking the Phantoms of the Political’ for this post.

This is risky. The chapter is part of a wide analysis in which our taken-for-granted metaphysics and epistemology are dismantled and replaced. When I write ‘our’ I mean by those like myself who do not delay to examine the bases of the frameworks in which we pursue our interests about how the world works. Latour is distinguished by his expertise in both the frameworks and what is conducted within them. He can converse with philosophers and [social] scientists. His philosophical position has been influenced by Whitehead, Deleuze and American pragmatism; his social studies by Garfinkel and Greimas. It is this ability to bring the philosophical and the anthropological into dialogue that make his work, so exciting, so fruitful, so challenging and so difficult [for the likes of me].

Before discussing his view of politics, some pointers to his overall position. Modern thought is marked by the urge to explain by reducing one phenomenon to another. The most famous example is the Marxian urge to explain the social by the economic. The social is the superstructure to be explained by the modes and relations of production. Other more modern examples: the efforts of evolutionary psychology to explain religion, or the ambitions of neuroscience to explain everything with its brain scans. Latour resists these efforts. In a pragmatic spirit, he draws our attention the experiences in which understandings emerge. This not the experience of an isolated Cartesian ego, but the experiences of individuals in networks of relationships. Think of scientists in a laboratory. The experiments in which facts are constructed do not always proceed as planned. Unexpected results, new directions for investigation occur. To revert to the terminology I deployed in earlier posts, scientists learn, science advances, by ‘accommodations, adaptations and adjustments’. When scientists encounter an obstacle, they do not argue whether they should turn to economics, philosophy or politics for a solution. The very thought is ridiculous. They move forward, seeking a resolution that matches the criteria established by the institution of science. Yet we do not think it so strange when political problems are turned over to economics, or religious experience is transposed to psychology. Why do we not allow politics or religion their autonomy, their own modes of deciding what are felicitous, or infelicitous moves in resolving their problems? Latour is a pluralist. He wants us to acknowledge the plurality of the modes of existence the world provides. In An Inquiry into Modes of Existence he identifies and analyses 15 modes

Why do we not recognize this plurality? We do, after all experience it. The scientist who attends Mass on Sunday [some do] knows that he is engaging in a reality quite different from that which unfolds in his laboratory. The coexistence of the two modes of existence does raise questions. Why do we suppose that these must be a matter of war [hot or cold] with each obliged to invade the other’s territory? Why not settle for peaceful coexistence secured by diplomacy?

Economists and political scientists – Plato and Machiavelli

The ways in which we think about politics illustrates why we moderns find it so difficult to acknowledge [in our thinking] plural modes of existence. We oscillate between ‘Plato’ and ‘Machiavelli’. When I visit, a site that discusses economic policy, I find myself in the company of Platonists. This would undoubtedly surprise the economists who contribute to this site. The study of Plato hardly figures in the economic curriculum. Nor is there any evidence that they have taken the time out from economics to make explicit their understanding of politics. Nevertheless the presumptions underling their enquiries, and their understanding of their political implications, are thoroughly Platonic. There is a rational order discernible in nature. It is objective, entirely independent of individual interests. Reported from a ‘third person’ perspective it impels agreement. While there are competing accounts and disagreements about which best fits the evidence, all agree that the public and their politicians should still their clamour and listen to the calm voice of reason. Why do those huddled in the cave, bewitched by the play of shadows on the wall, not obey the imperatives of nature as relayed to them by the economists re-entering the cave?

When I visit the political scientists at, I move into the company of the ‘Machiavellians’. I doubt that the political scientists recognize themselves as such. Political philosophy, it appears, has little or no part in the education of our political scientists. Yet they are Machiavellian, they do believe that politics is to be explained by the play of power and the clash of interests. I was, for example, excited to read that UCD’s Professor Farrell is to co-chair an European Consortium for Political Research [ECPR] workshop on the ‘puzzling relationship between economic crises and democracy’. A possible readership for this blog, I thought. I was wrong. Political scientists know a lot about why ‘political elites either change or design electoral systems in a particular way.’ They do not, alas, know much about other political reforms. Why, for instance, politicians change laws on referendums? The workshop will extend their ‘analytic toolbox’ to find the answer to such important questions. The workshop is not concerned with the design for democracy and its travails but with the interests at work within it.

I have been reading Resilient liberalism in Europe’s political economy. [Schmidt and Thatcher, editors Cambridge: CUP 2013], the book recommended by Veronica in a comment to the last post. Thank you, Veronica; it is a most interesting read. Not the least interesting aspect is how the contributors look only to the interests supporting liberalism and the resources that they can command. While it is teaching me a lot, it is not teaching me anything about how the boundary between economics and politics, can, should, be drawn in a globalising world. Perhaps this is unfair, we do learn one indirect lesson- political scientists do not have the tool box to address the question.

Frankfurt in his famous essay ‘Bullshit’ observed that the common assumption that speech was directed at either truth or falsehood was mistaken. While I could intend to tell you the truth or mislead you, I could also speak, neither to inform nor deceive you, but to impress or bamboozle you. I could, in Frankfurt’s term, bullshit. To read the political scientists and their economist colleagues is to come away convinced that all politicians can do is bullshit. They bullshit to evade the economy’s imperatives, they bullshit to distract us from their power hungry motives. We can only sigh at the problem that is politics and hope that greater transparency and more accountability will limit the damage. It is no wonder that neo-liberalism persists despite its dodgy record. If we cannot trust politicians, what alternative have we to the market to manage our interdependencies? Latour writes ‘paradoxically, if no value is held in higher esteem than the autonomy permitted by democracy, no activity is held in greater scorn than politics. It is as though we wanted the end, once again, but not the means to reach it’ (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence pp 330-331).

Politics – a solution

We need to re-politicize our democracy. Politics are not a problem. They are a solution to the problem of sustaining interdependencies, while guaranteeing liberty. Latour puts it superbly:

For finally, what form of life can bring off the following feat? Start with a multitude that does not know what it wants but that it is suffering and complaining; obtain, by a series of radical transformations, a united representation of that multitude; then by a dizzying translation/betrayal, invent a version of its pain and grievances from the whole cloth; make it a unified version that will be repeated by certain voices, which in turn – the return trip is as least as astonishing as the trip out – will bring it back to the multitude in the form of requirements imposed, orders given, laws passed; requirements, orders, and laws that are now exchanged, translated, transposed, transformed, opposed by the multitude in such diverse ways that they produce a new commotion: complaints defining new grievances, reviving and spelling out new indignation, new consent, new opinions. (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 341).

The movement around the circle never ceases. One iteration from representation to obedience must be followed by another. Those who enter the fray and commit themselves to articulating a whole that is always less than its parts and which must be reformed again and again deserve our respect. Those who enter the agora holding what they believe to be a trump card handed to them by ‘nature’ impede the movement to no good effect. Those who can find no place for aims/purposes and see the circling as manipulation, undermine the essential task.

Now that the props of nation and national economy have gone and climate change threatens global disaster, we do have urgent need to look at our politics and how the circle is drawn and redrawn. Too much is left outside the circle, and its articulation is less and less successful. The answer lies in institutional reform [Latour provides a blueprint in The Politics of Nature]. How can we start out on this, still less succeed, if we do not appreciate the essential task that is to be accomplished?  It is such a pity that the departments of politics in our universities are incapable of helping us.

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