Western political thought is increasingly reorienting itself towards the demands of a new climate-based environmentalism.footnote1 Given the urgency of this task, there is a tendency to presume that the thought of environmentalism’s main representatives is, at least in broad outline, politically ‘progressive’, if not radically so. To raise doubts about this is not to contest the political urgency of responding to climate change or its global social consequences. Rather, it is to draw attention to the ways in which deep-rooted political-ideological divisions and structures of thought reproduce themselves anew within discourses that declare them redundant. My specific concern here is with the philosophical frameworks animating certain self-sufficiently climate-based environmentalist imaginaries.

This essay has two main parts. The first is a brief diagnostic overview of anti-capitalist and more broadly ‘alternative’ Western political thought in its main residual and emergent forms: namely Marxism, and what I will call neo-naturalist, planetary-political environmentalism. The second looks at concepts found in Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth (2017) and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021): ‘the terrestrial’ and ‘geo-history’ or ‘Anthropocene time’ respectively. As we shall see, there is a significant philosophical overlap between their two projects, despite otherwise often sharp theoretical divergences. At stake is how we are to conceive of the human in its relations (or non-relations) to ‘nature’ and to ‘Earth’ or ‘the terrestrial’, on the one hand, and politics, on the other. In fact, the concept of politics itself is at stake in what I take to be a stark opposition between social and neo-naturalist conceptions.

In the post-1989 globalized-capitalist present, there has been a growing structural disjunction between the social terrains of politics, still predominantly national in socio-spatial form, and economics, increasingly transnational, despite the populist neo-nationalisms it has provoked. The collapse of 20th-century forms of socialist and communist internationalist political organization, and of ideologically defined ‘blocs’ (the so-called Three Worlds), has made way for new forms of inter-capitalist competition. Following the decline of the Non-Aligned Movement and the postwar international labour movements, anti-capitalist organizations figure at this level primarily as relays of sporadic protest movements: in the 1990s, ‘anti-globalization’, subsequently recoded as ‘alter-globalization’, associated in the 2000s with the World Social Forums. This asymmetry between the global social power of capital and oppositional formations has led to calls for a new global’ or ‘planetary’ left politics.footnote2 Yet after two decades of calling, very little practical or theoretical advance has been made.

In the meantime, Marxist critique of global political economy has generated sophisticated frameworks of analysis, especially with regard to financial capital and the various innovative forms of value and trading mechanisms. At the same time, the application of social reproduction theory to global labour markets has done much to explain the dynamics of the disorganization of labour by capital, through the racialization and gendering of different forms of labour, and the multiplicity of different modes of extraction of value that function within the value-chains of globally extended corporations. Yet, much like the main tendencies within Western Marxism from the 1920s to the 1970s, these major areas of analytical advance have primarily served to explain the ongoing defeat of labour and anti-capitalist movements, rather than providing grounds for new, globally engaged political projects.footnote3

Hence the growing voluntarism or ‘politicism’ of many strands of left political theory since the 1980s (post-Althusserian in particular—Negri, Laclau and Mouffe, Badiou and Rancière, for example). Appeals to a combination of will and contingency have replaced the older Marxist insistence on understanding the socio-historical basis of political movements, to provide an apparently self-sufficient ‘political’ supplement to historical materialism. The merely ‘aleatory’ materialism of such positions correlates with the sporadic and short-lived character of the protest-based movements (Occupy, the movements of the Squares) and also, perhaps, with struggles to bring about new bourgeois-democratic revolutions (the Arab spring, the protests against the religious authorities in Iran). Yet it cannot assist in theorizing enduring forms of opposition to capital, since it cuts the connection, in principle, between the social and the political that grounded Marx’s historical theorization of politics in relation to the development of economic processes and their associated social forms (law, in particular). The conception of political subjecthood on which this politicism relies has little connection with the structural features of economically emergent relations. Indeed, it can sustain no more than a residual empirical conception of history as a series of events, with no deeper and longer-lasting intelligibilities. In this respect, the politicist ‘solution’ to the problem of an anti-capitalist politics merely buries the problem of its impasse deeper, to the point of disappearing from view.

It is on the ground of this disappearance of the social from the political that, over the last two decades, a neo-naturalist, planetary-political, environmental problematic has emerged. It draws on a disparate series of theoretical discourses: Science and Technology Studies (sts), Actor-Network-Theory (ant) and other so-called ‘new materialisms’ have joined forces in the theoretical imaginary with popularizations of the science of geological periodization (the concept of the Anthropocene), Earth-systems science more generally, and a decolonial anthropology of the proximity of indigenous knowledges to the Earth. This combination is provisional, eclectic and unstable but it has led to a mutually reinforcing set of theoretical and ideological positions—ideologically powerful precisely because of its eclecticism and theoretical instability, which allows it to adopt a wide and inconsistent variety of enunciative positions simultaneously.footnote4 Taking up longstanding concerns with ecological sustainability in the new conceptual space of anthropogenic climate change, this new planetary problematic addresses the established problem of political agency on a global scale not by retreating from ‘history’ (in the collective singular) to ‘peoples’, ‘movements’ and ‘events’, shrinking the scale of political subjects, but by expanding the concept of a political subject to the planet itself. This is the decisive late Latourian move.

‘Where we are headed’, Latour writes in Down to Earth, involves ‘the Terrestrial as a new political actor’—‘the territory itself begins to participate in history, to fight, in short, to concern itself with us.’ Bringing together ‘the opposing figures of the soil and the world’, he continues, the Terrestrial is the ‘new agent of history proper to the New Climatic Regime’.footnote5 Note the metaphysically reifying use of an upper case letter ‘T’ for Terrestrial, and the stress on ‘the new’, from which Latour cannot disengage his rhetoric despite his constantly stated opposition to ‘the Moderns’ and their temporality of the new.footnote6 Within this framework, the Terrestrial has thus come to reoccupy the Enlightenment space of the ‘grand narrative’ of world-historical political action. Indeed, in Latour’s totalizing redefinition of class on the basis of ‘everything that makes subsistence possible’footnote7—a totality of conditions of equal individual significance, all on the same ontological plane, across the physical and life sciences, from the microbiotic to the inter-planetary—the Terrestrial appears to reinvent, on a new scientific basis, something like the ‘positive content’ of the self-moving substance of Hegel’s absolute.