In his 2009 essay, ‘The Climate of History’, the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty posed a stark question: ‘Is the Anthropocene a critique of narratives of freedom?’ Political thinkers since the Enlightenment had been focused on the project of human liberation, hardly noting the extraordinary transformation of the planet taking place all around them. Here and there environmentalists cried doom, but progress marched on. By the early twenty-first century, though, it was harder to imagine it continuing in perpetuity. Climate change, in particular, revealed that in remaking society, people had also remade the natural world. From the rearview mirror the twentieth century appeared entirely different: Fordism ominously dripping with oil; the postwar ‘golden age’ merely a lining for storm clouds on the horizon. Perhaps everything attributed to human achievement was simply running on the fumes of a massive infusion of hydrocarbons, which were now about to boil the seas. ‘The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding foundation of fossil-fuel use’, Chakrabarty warned. It was starting to look more like a house of cards.
Pierre Charbonnier’s Affluence and Freedom—first published in France as Abondance et liberté (2019)—is effectively an attempt to answer Chakrabarty’s question. (Chakrabarty himself has supplied the preface for the English translation.) Born in 1983, Charbonnier studied at the ens in Lyon and received his PhD from the University of Franche-Comté, Besançon in 2011, with a dissertation on ‘Collective Relationships to the Natural Environment’. Shortly after completing his doctorate, Charbonnier joined the cnrs; he also holds a position at Sciences Po. His first book, La fin d’un grand partage (2015), undertook a close reading of the delineations between the ‘natural’ and the ‘social’ in the work of Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss and Philippe Descola, the ethnographer of the Amazon; and questioned (with Descola) whether the longstanding ‘great divide’ between these two concepts remains tenable at all. Charbonnier has also edited a book of interviews with Descola—whose 2005 book Beyond Nature and Culture (the English translation appeared in 2013) has become a touchstone for critics of Western anthropocentrism—and a volume on comparative metaphysics which seeks to draw lessons for philosophy from anthropology’s ‘ontological turn’. Affluence and Freedom is informed by these conceptual inquiries but takes up a different project: investigating the relationship between ‘affluence and freedom’, which Charbonnier sees as the ‘guiding ideals’ of modernity, by way of what he calls an ‘environmental history of political ideas’. As a method, this simply means treating forms of human self-organization as always, also, ways of collectively relating to the natural world. ‘Economy’, in particular, ‘speaks of the good use of the land’; and so a ‘material history of liberty’, in Charbonnier’s hands, is a history told mostly through political economy.
Although we tend to think of ‘modernity’ as a single phenomenon, Charbonnier argues, it is in fact two: first, a project of advancing a set of political rights and values; and second, a technological project of remaking the physical world. The first developed the concept of freedom, which Charbonnier usually discusses in terms of political autonomy—the idea that human societies can make their own laws. The second introduced the expectation of affluence, conceived as material abundance. Retrospectively, they appear inseparable; and indeed, they have tended to ‘walk hand in hand’. Material abundance has made it possible to imagine that social autonomy can be absolute—that human beings can escape the constraints of the natural world, conceived as an exogenous force, altogether. But Charbonnier suggests that this conjunction of autonomy and abundance is in fact a contingent artifact—ominously, one ‘whose final moments we are currently living through’.
Charbonnier divides his account of modernity into three historical blocks. In the first period of ‘preindustrial modernity’, stretching from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, politics was explicitly and primarily concerned with land and its rightful ownership. Thinkers like Locke and Grotius developed ideas about sovereignty and property which set the terms for politically recognized and legally protected access to the land and sea. Classical political economy developed against the backdrop of an organic, agrarian economy, Charbonnier argues, and was intensely concerned with how to best organize economic life in the face of the ‘permanent resistance of nature’. The classical political economists argued that exchanges freely made by individuals would unleash new forms of productivity, such that the same material inputs could result in greater output—a phenomenon known as intensive growth. The division of labour, as theorized by Adam Smith, would make it possible for nations to use their resources more effectively and generate greater wealth. Charbonnier argues that this early-modern political economy introduced what he calls the ‘liberal pact’: the view that the perfection of manufacturing is accompanied by the perfection of morality, as the division of labour allows each—whether weaver or philosopher—to specialize. The liberal pact, in Charbonnier’s view, begins to yoke autonomy to affluence. Yet the theory of intensive growth premised on increased efficiency disregarded the expansion of trade and European empires, which meant that liberal societies drew ever more widely on the rest of the world for subsistence. What liberals describe as autonomy, Charbonnier argues, is thus better understood as ‘extraction-autonomy’, premised on a divergence between the legal-political territory within which rights and law apply, and the ecological-economic space of resources and trade on which that political community relies. ‘Europe actually lives off a space that it does not own’, Charbonnier declares, an insight he attributes to Fichte.
The emergence of the industrial economy in the nineteenth century, powered by the massive influx of coal and fed by colonial resources, would inaugurate a new era in human relationships to the natural world. In this period, modernity was born again—this time as abundance, described as ‘the opening up of material possibilities through access to new energies and new spaces’. Yet even as industrialization transformed the material bases of society beyond recognition, the liberal ideas about property and liberty which had developed in the organic economy persisted largely unchanged. Only dissident socialists addressed the ‘material dimension of liberty’ head on. Definitionally concerned with the social effects of industrialization, socialists have engaged Charbonnier’s theme—‘collective relationships to the material world’—more explicitly than nearly any other modern thinkers, albeit typically through the prism of the ‘social’ or ‘labour’ question rather than that of ‘nature’. Thinkers from Proudhon to Durkheim understood that the organization of society was inseparable from the processes by which things are produced, circulated and acquired, and confronted the ‘challenge that industry poses to democracy’. Others, like Saint-Simon and Veblen, sought to disentangle the scientific knowledge deployed in industrial production from the control of industry by capitalists. Marx criticized capitalism’s particular alignment of collective relationships to nature and social relationships between human beings: freed of capitalist social relations, true affluence, and hence genuine autonomy, could be achieved at last.
In contrast to the liberal ‘extraction-autonomy’, that is, socialists advocated what Charbonnier calls ‘integration-autonomy’, which links the organization of people and things—machines, resources, goods—and politicizes the latter. Yet if ‘integration-autonomy’ is a more materially honest accounting, it is not necessarily a more ecologically minded one. Rather, socialists have often argued that they will actually achieve what liberalism has only promised: the ‘coronation of a finally autonomous humanity’, premised on the rational control of nature. It is Karl Polanyi who emerges as the hero of this section, and perhaps of the book: only Polanyi put land on par with labour and money as a ‘fictitious commodity’; only Polanyi, Charbonnier argues, conceived of relationships to ‘common space’ as a key feature of human existence and challenged the market’s distortion of them. Socialists have never really managed to mobilize a politics along these lines, however; instead, the defence of human relationships to land has typically taken on a conservative cast, from nationalism to fascism.
Although the industrial model emerged in the nineteenth century, it remade the natural world most dramatically in the latter half of the twentieth. In the aftermath of the Second World War, material affluence and democracy spread rapidly (if unevenly) around the world, seemingly in conjunction. Yet from an environmental vantage point, the postwar period now appears as what scientists have termed the ‘Great Acceleration’—a period in which socioeconomic indicators like population, investment and growth have grown exponentially, alongside corresponding increases in resource use and indicators of ecological decline, often said to constitute the most dramatic change in human relationships to the natural world in history. At the time, however, few took notice. To the contrary, the rise of new energy sources—oil and nuclear power—paired with reglobalization made human relationships to the natural world appear ‘abstract, distant, even immaterial’. Instead of confronting nature directly by working the land, more people than ever could buy commodities produced halfway around the world, composed of materials they had never seen. ‘Material consciousness’ retreated, even on the left: for Charbonnier, even thinkers like Herbert Marcuse tended to conceive of freedom as entirely separate from material necessity. In the era of carbon democracy, in other words, extraction-autonomy appeared to reign triumphant.