Chantal Mouffe’s Latest Ecology Book: Worth Reading

What Chantal Mouffe described in a previous book (Pour un populisme de gauche, Albin Michel, 2018) as “the populist moment”, marked then by the good electoral results of Podemos in Spain, Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom or even Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, did he fizzle out? No, she explains here in substance, provided that she mobilizes the collective affects and passions most likely to rally a majority of voters.

Admittedly, the Covid-19 crisis has been there, and the pandemic would have created in many people, according to her, a feeling of vulnerability and a strong desire for security and protection. It is on these new passions that the extreme right would surf today, but also, by different means, the governments which would instrumentalize it to advocate an “authoritarian digital neoliberalism”.

The assertion would certainly have deserved additional developments (especially as we have since seen the development of other forms of authoritarianism that do not bother with the consent of the population), but the situation does not hold back for long. attention of the author. It is important for the left to respond to these affects, she decides, and the left to recall next what fundamentally opposes its “agonistic” conception of democracy to the rationalist conception, the most widespread (she also qualifies sometimes these two opposite conceptions of “dissociative” and “associative”).

The Power of Affects

Common affects, or passions, play an essential role in the constitution of collective forms of identification, she explains, and as such they hold a prominent place in democracy. Contrary to what authors like Jürgen Habermas, for example, would have us believe, who she once again makes her favorite target.

The approach she defends “sees the public sphere as the battlefield on which passions are mobilized through the confrontation of hegemonic projects without the possibility of final reconciliation”. The political importance of passions also implies that “a political project must address people on the basis of their lived experiences and their concrete aspirations. Taking its roots in their real life conditions, it can then grow and designate adversaries that they are able to identify. As often with Chantal Mouffe, however, the remarks are singularly lacking in illustrations.

The details she brings to justify the place she attributes to affects are taken word for word, or almost, from her previous book, where she already summoned psychoanalysis for this. The process of identification, to which the subject engages, is revealed as a constituent element of socio-political life, she comments. To work, this process must necessarily combine a cognitive/representational dimension and an affective dimension: “Ideas have a power that depends on their degree of connection with affects.”

Understanding hegemonic politics includes the possible substitution of one affect for another, to give perspective to anger motivated by injustice and thus avoid seeing it turn into resentment against a specific group.

The Green Revolution

The last short chapter which takes up the title of the book addresses the ecological emergency due to climate change. We find there the criticism that she made earlier on the left, addressed this time to the ecologists, since a good number of ecological parties, she observes, warn against the temptations to politicize these questions (which is less less true).

The Green New Deal supported by a fraction of the American Democratic Party contrasts fortunately with this approach, expressing demands of a social as well as ecological nature, by putting forward a certain number of proposals, including, in the first place, the creation of jobs related to the ecological transition. “By asserting a specific political position and designating an adversary, they contribute to politicizing ecological issues.” The program of La France insoumise (for the Popular Union) for the presidential election of 2022 is on the same line, she comments.

However, she notes in conclusion, the ecological question cannot be limited to the fight against capitalism, but must lead us to detach ourselves from the ambition to dominate nature, by questioning the privileged place that has been granted to a certain conception of freedom, as Pierre Charbonnier invites us to do in his book Abondance et liberté, and by reaffirming the central position of equality.

But ideas are not enough and it is essential to succeed in connecting them to affects of an ecological and political nature, which can be articulated around a hegemonic “signifier” or a mobilizing narrative. Meaning which could be that of “green democratic revolution”, likely to federate a large number of people and a whole variety of movements and “to echo the demands of all those who expect security and protection while committing themselves to equality and against different forms of oppression”.

The limits of the exercise are all the same obvious: by acting as if the two questions – how to take power and how to make a success of the ecological transition – were only one, with democracy as a common denominator, we pays little attention to the diversity of affects that she says she wants to mobilize, and even less to the complexity of the problem.

A postscript is an opportunity for the author to try to reflect on some of the possible consequences of the war in Ukraine, which broke out when she had just finished writing this book, and in particular the fact , which remains to be confirmed, that this could lead to a regression in the fight against climate change. While conceding that the return of the war in Europe “highlights the dangerous role that can be played by affects”, she says she remains convinced that they can be mobilized in the service of a progressive orientation. No doubt, but not without then weighing them carefully.

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