I’ve been struggling with two questions for some time now. My first question can be summarised as follows: why do we, that is, why do technologically advanced Capitalist societies, continue to engage in practices that we know are slowly making the planet inhospitable for human life? This is a question that haunts anyone who knows anything about climate change.
The second question is deceptively simple: what is nature? This question is as old as thinking itself. Hegel said that this question can always be asked but never completely answered: this question remains a problem.
The first question appears to be a social question, the second a appears to be a scientific, or perhaps ontological question. I think we need to formulate these questions in such a way that they become a single problem. In doing so we can draw out a better way of thinking about climate change than exists in popular debates and commentary.
The current division between humans and nature is one that deepens with every claim that humans are somehow unavoidably bad for nature. This claim places humans as outside nature, like some spirit or phantom. On the other hand, claims that there is no division between nature and humans, that everything is connected and all difference is merely a social construct, blinds us to the problems that we set out to solve.
To put it another way, the only way to approach climate change is through a radical rethinking of the role of humanity in shaping nature. Only massive human intervention can elevate nature to a level of spontaneous self-determination.
Through Marxist and post-marxist philosophy, as well as psychoanalysis, my current research is an attempt to elevate the contentious notion of class-struggle to the foreground of politics. My conviction is that the fragmentation of contemporary struggles, from identity politics to environmental issues, is itself a symptom of modern capitalism.
The expansive nature of Capitalism transforms even the most basic and essential needs, such as food and shelter, into privately owned and produced commodities. Capitalism stands before the subject as a world of laws that appear as immutable as the laws of physics. If a person is to sustain their basic bodily existence, they must participate in the world of commodity exchange.
In Marx’s day, the collection of firewood, an activity that does no more than attempt to prevent oneself from freezing to death, was punishable as theft. And still today a person who resorts to “stealing” food in order to stave of malnutrition can find themselves imprisoned. In a fully developed market economy, the physical subject, the human body, becomes secondary to the worker. Only as a worker is the physical subject allowed to acquire their basic sustenance.
I think that this crude fact needs to be accounted for in any study of contemporary problems. For example, there are about 7 billion people on the planet. We produce enough food to feed 11 billion people. Despite this, 1 billion are starving to death. And the vast majority of people who do have access to food, acquire this access via the conditions highlighted above. It is not a technological problem, or a developmental problem, that sustains this painful situation; it is class-struggle.
The philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno
Adorno’s work has constantly guided my philosophical development due to its relentless rigour and strict application of the dialectic. Lukács accused Adorno, along with his fellow ‘German intelligentsia’, of sitting in the ‘Grand Hotel Abgrund’ (‘Grand Hotel Abyss’). The Hotel was place built on the edge of the abyss, on the edge of absurdity, a place where Adorno could enjoy, in between his critiques of capitalism, the comforts and art produced by capitalism.
This image of Adorno as an elitist follows his work to this day, mostly due to his criticism of popular culture. I claim that Adorno was no elitist. The ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ analogy falls painfully short of an accurate assessment of Adorno’s philosophy. The implication is that Adorno has chosen to visit this ‘hotel’ because of its refined and elitist exclusivity, because in the ‘hotel’ he can apply his philosophy only as a way of justifying the interior aesthetic. Adorno thought no such thing.
If we stay with the analogy of the ‘hotel’, Adorno was clear that he considered his place within it to be down to luck and his privileged education. Rather than forfeit his place in the ‘hotel’, or pretend that he could escape the ideological forces that structured his subjectivity, Adorno spent his time and effort exposing the contradictions, brutality, and ideology of the ‘hotel’ from within. Adorno does not want to preserve the ‘hotel’, rather he wants to bring it down from the inside. The refusal to ‘step outside’ of the object of critique is the core of Adorno’s thought.
The element of Adorno’s philosophy defended above can be summarised under the heading ‘immanent critique’. This, along with ‘exact fantasy’, ‘determinate negation’, and ‘non-identity’, underpin my research and philosophical thinking.