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Isabelle Stengers: The Left’s Vital Need Is That People Think

Translated Friday 19 July 2013, by Isabelle Métral

A science student and researcher in physics and chemistry to begin with, Isabelle Stengers worked on time and irreversibility. Together with the Belgian physicist Ilya Prigogine (born in Russia), she co-authored la Nouvelle Alliance (the new alliance) in 1979. Enlarging her field of study, she then took an interest in the critique of modern science in the light of Foucault and Deleuze’s works. She is now doing research on the critique of psycho-analysis and psycho-analysis’ repression of hypnosis. And she has lately developed a reflection on the idea of "ecological praxis" inspired by constructivism. Vide the seven volumes of her Cosmopolitiques as well as works on economics and politics la Sorcellerie capitaliste (Capitalist Witchcraft with Philippe Pignarre, 2005, or on philosophy (Penser avec Whitehead, 2006). More recently still, as a contributor to the review Multitudes, she invested the field of politics and published Au temps des catastrophes (In the era of disasters) (La Découverte, 2008). In her last book, Une autre science est possible! (Another science is possible, Empêcheurs de penser en rond/ La Découverte, 2013) she carries this investigation further. Her creative and pregnant studies are intellectually refreshing and help us imagine a possible alternative world. They are a useful stimulant to sustain the anti-capitalist struggles.

HUMA: In your book entitled In the Era of Disasters you say that another history has started. At what time do you situate the break?

STENGERS: In 1995 it became indubitable to me that something important was taking place, when a poll announced that a majority of French people thought their children would be less well-off than their parents. They no longer believed in “progress”. Since then we have had one financial crisis after another… In the Era of Disaster was composed before those crises. At the time the hunger riots that originated as a result of financial speculation and then the Katrina hurricane hit: these were already excellent instances of what might lie ahead of us in the future. A dramatic rise in wealth inequality, climatic disorder, pollution… would be increasingly devastating.

I wrote this book to ward off despair and for the benefit of those who, despite the odds, attempt to write an alternative history: it has been said that it is easier today to consider the end of the world and of civilization than the end of capitalism. But whoever seeks an alternative truth will know that our feeling of powerlessness is part of the problem.

HUMA: You envisage a “New Orleans catastrophe” on a planetary scale…

STENGERS: In New Orleans we knew that a hurricane like Katrina could come and that the dams would give in. People knew but nothing was done. As we now know. And when Katrina came in August 2005, the rich were able to flee, the others stayed and were left to shift for themselves. That is what is now taking place on a planetary scale: woe to the defeated, that is, to the poor.

HUMA: The subtitle of your book is “How to resist to the oncoming barbarianism”, a reference to Rosa Luxemburg’s “Socialism or Barbarianism”. Is this the dichotomy you think possible and relevant for our future?

STENGERS: When the 1914-18 war broke out the proletarians went off to the battlefields and were killed singing a slave song till the last, Luxemburg wrote; that is why she cried out that barbarianism is a real liability. We are now facing a similar situation. Everyone knows the havoc wrought by the economic war of all against all. And yet everyone is busy waging it while singing a chorus to the glory of competition. “Of course we know but…” One of the most dreadful “but’s” is the one that claims that “people are only hoping they can scrape through and make the best of it: they are as blind as they are selfish.” Now the truth must be told: we don’t know what “people” are capable of, for they have been submitted to an operation of destruction: the destruction of their capacity to act and to think, namely the capacity to raise the issues that concern them collectively

Capitalism is not just synonymous with exploitation, it is also means, and maybe even primarily, expropriation: so it has been ever since the landless peasants were turned out on to the roads. A cultural praxis of collective living was then destroyed. The expropriation is carried on even more intensely today in the name of rationalization, of the necessity to gain time, to control. We are not powerless but we have been reduced to a feeling of powerlessness.

HUMA: According to you, “capitalism’s hold on us” rests on “infernal sets of alternatives”?

STENGERS: Yes, those infernal sets of alternatives have gained ground since progress has lost the power it had to mobilize energies. The short of it is: “You agitate for one thing but you’ll be worse off for the consequences.” Likewise, “you are fighting for an adequate standard of living but as a consequence plants are going to be relocated.” Or again, “you’d like taxes to be more equitable but capital is going to flee abroad.” And so you find yourself held by the throat, reduced to a state of powerlessness. And when you ask: “OK, but then what?” the only answer that comes is “We must fight for growth.” In the Capitalist Witchcraft Philippe Pignard and I described the fabrication and montage of those alternatives as “a witch’s attack that captures the capacity to act, imagine, exist and struggle".

HUMA: You deconstruct the “laws of the market” as well as the governance of our “leaders” and “officials”. What part does the State play?

STENGERS: Between the modern State and capitalism a distinction should be made. One is not the simple reflection of the other. There is rather an a-symmetrical pact that defines what at each stage the State allows capitalism to do and what capitalism has the State do. In the current neo-liberal era, the pact has been redefined under the aegis of deregulation. Our politicians have surrendered all the levers that enabled them to act, for the benefit of institutions that are not elected, that are a-political and in the service of growth, competitiveness, the free circulation of capital etc. For all this the State does not vanish but it becomes our “foreman”, in charge of seeing to it that we do not panic, or become demobilized, or rebel. Politicians claim they are “responsible persons”, but they are only answerable for our degree of motivation.

HUMA: You write that “anti-capitalists must be capable of breathing life into a possible alternative”. What levers can they use?

STENGERS: I am not particularly sanguine about the future and yet I find that for the last ten years there have been struggles of a new type: the struggle against GMO’s, for instance, has re-created a political thought about the kind of agriculture and the kind of world we are building. It has proved capable of bringing together peasants for whom GMO’s are a new form of expropriation, and anti-capitalists struggling against the hold of copyright, scientists alarmed by the consequences. They have learned from one another and that is why the movement eventually succeeded in de-legitimizing what was presented as a definite breakthrough. Since then insubordination has spread to, and has thrived on new issues.

The creative character of this kind of alliance, the complicity it creates, the connivance, the new capacities for resistance on issues on which capitalism divides its victims – setting up the unions against the environmentalists, for instance – seem to me more promising today than demonstrators chanting “todos unidos”, which leaves to the enemy the choice of the battle-ground. We need to experiment formative opportunities where we can learn from one another and create multiple "commons" around multiple and mobile causes, and build up solidarity through a common struggle against the feeling of powerlessness the established divisions have sown.

HUMA: And that is what you call “re-appropriation”?

STENGERS: Re-appropriation does not only involve struggling against exploitation, and for the redistribution of the wealth produced. It involves healing the effects of expropriation, retrieving our capacity to claim and struggle for what we hold precious. That is the pre-requisite to what is sometimes called collective intelligence, whereby each participant learns how to think from and with others, thanks to others.

The collective owes its strength to its being multiple, to its inventing ways of raising issues that each, taken singly, would be unable to raise. US activists have learned a lot about this, for they understood that this kind of re-appropriation cannot wait until “the revolution” takes place, that it must be part of the struggle itself.

HUMA: Concerning “the intrusion of Gaïa”, you mention “situations that are productive of equality”. Can these be considered as opportunities to devise alternative definitions of progress?

STENGERS: What I called Gaïa does intrude in the sense that it challenges our categories of thought. Some have considered that the Earth was a resource to be tapped, others that it must be protected, but it has never been considered as a fearful power that might destroy us in a foreseeable future!

This finding entails a radical change of perspective: the aim is no longer to exploit or to protect but to learn how to take care. Caution! We shan’t force the climatic threats back into their box: from now on human beings must come to terms with the power their activities have activated. Now that is precisely what capitalism’s and the State’s vision of progress has made us oblivious of. For this we must learn how to grasp a situation in all its dimensions, and all its consequences. Which itself requires that this situation be productive of equality, that it bring together all those it concerns, and that they be all empowered to make their knowledge or their experience prevail.

That is what we no longer know how to do since we gave that power over to the experts. Re-appropriating that power requires the invention of
effective set-ups – for equality must not be formal, it should be effective. And invention of this kind is quite different from the technical innovations that divide people more than they bring them together. What is aimed at here is to boost self-confidence, confidence in others, lucidity, and the capacity to resist ready-made common-places. If such inventions became the new standard of progress, its definition would be radically changed!

HUMA: In Another science is possible you promote a “slow science”. What do you mean?

STENGERS: Since public research has been re-defined as “the knowledge economy ”, all critical cooperation has dissolved. Success is now measured in copyrights, but that is absolutely no measure for scientific success. Capitalism is turning against researchers and destroying them, after destroying so many others. But to promote ‘a slow science’ does not mean simply to demand “the time and freedom to raise issues that are worth it!”; It also involves researchers becoming capable of developing other links than those they have traditionally entertained with industry and the State. Even if there have always been whistle-blowers, the scientific institution has indeed promoted a mode of development that we know to be unsustainable. Researchers, as a rule, despise public opinion; they think science will provide the rational solution to society’s problems.

Another science is possible. But it requires what today is to scientists a ‘waste of time’, namely rep-appropriating the imagination needed to open themselves up to others’ preoccupations, to their knowledge, to their objections. We do not need scientists to inform the public better but we need scientists to be able to participate in the collective unerstanding of issues.

HUMA: As you see it, the political struggle, when coupled with creativity, engenders a new capacity that is itself a source of joy. Is that what it means to be a Leftist?

STENGERS: According to Gilles Deleuze, there is a substantial difference between Left and Right. It is the Left’s vital need that people think. Not that they devise theories but that they take their business in their own hands, collectively. That is what the labour class did in the nineteenth century when they set up mutual benefit societies, cooperatives and workmen’s institutes: labour’s exchanges. What the Right needs is that people accept the established order, never mind which, as long as they submit to it.

The situations and set-ups that are productive of equality are therefore congenial to the Left. What they require may be tough sometimes, but learning how to be up to the problem raised, and not reduce it to generalities is an exhilarating achievement. When voices that had so far been stifled, disqualified, and reduced to grumblings, are transformed into articulate knowledge there is greater satisfaction in raising problems. Unexpected alliances become possible. What is truly threatening us is division and resentment: joy is the opposite of resentment, joy can be communicated to others. It should be made felt through narratives showing how catalysis, synergy and sudden imaginative leaps have suddenly blazed new trails where no way out was in sight: “If a way could be found in such a place, then one can be found here too!”.

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