‘The Progress of this Storm’ by Andreas Malm reviewed by Troy Vettese

The Progress of this Storm

Verso, London, 2018. 256pp., £16.99 hb
ISBN 9781786634153

Reviewed by Troy Vettese

About the reviewer

Troy Vettese is an environmental historian and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Universit …


If philosophy is to guide praxis, then Andreas Malm’s new book, The Progress of This Storm, provides a solid foundation for the Left in its long war against climatically ruinous capitalism. Malm concedes that ‘theory does not seem like the most exigent business in a rapidly warming world’ (16), but this is more than a teapot-sized tempest. The stakes are simply too high—if the Left cannot make progress in theoretical debates over environmentalism then it is hard to see how it could form a government-in-waiting in an era of ecological collapse. Despite the centrality of nature for Karl Marx himself and the Frankfurt School, too few thinkers on the Left have directed their attention towards the environment, creating a void for Bruno Latour and his fellow new materialists to fill. The Progress of This Storm is a misleading title for Malm says little about the ‘storm’ of global warming, but rather dedicates much of his analytic and rhetorical talents to attacking the Latourian octopus.

Malm, an environmental historian at the University of Lund, seems to relish debates that touch the very heart of his discipline. This was true for his last book, Fossil Capital, which presented a novel explanation for the industrial revolution, the grandest question in economic history. In particular, he was interested in why British capitalists switched from water-wheels to steam-engines in the 1830s. This was not an obvious transition, for hydro-power remained cheaper and more powerful than steam-power until the 1870s. His answer was that coal allowed production to take place anywhere, especially in towns crowded with an industrial reserve army of the proletariat, and at any time, which allowed capitalists to bypass the rhythm of the river’s flow. Control over time and space revealed themselves to be powerful weapons in an era of violent class struggle, allowing the overlords of anthracite to subdue labour’s first great revolt.

If Fossil Capital demonstrated the vitality of eco-Marxism, then The Progress of This Storm shows how the new materialism is an intellectual and political dead-end. The undergirding assumption of the new materialism is that one cannot separate the natural from the social in one’s analysis. From this vantage point, Latourians have analysed ozone layer, global warming, speed bumps, AIDS, automatic door-closers and frozen embryos as nature-culture ‘hybrids’ for each of these things is an ‘actant’ (i.e., agent) rather than an object. Some new materialists even claim that fossil fuels want to be dug up and combusted. It was probably this fatuous notion that spurred Malm to write a two-hundred page screed despite his reluctance to get bogged down in theoretical debates. Malm is left agog by Timothy Morton’s argument that petroleum itself bears blame for global warming because it has ‘dark designs of its own’. His impatience is palpable: ‘the only sensible thing to do now is to put a stop to the extension of agency. In this warming world, that honour belongs exclusively to those humans who extract, buy, sell and combust fossil fuels’ (112).

Latour himself emerged during the great debates during the 1970s and 1980s over the scientific method. Laboratory Life, a book he co-authored with Steve Woolgar, was very much typical of the period. Instead of relying on an idealised scientific method cast in the cool hard logic of the laboratory, they argued that the creation of facts emerged during daily lives of scientists as social beings, through gossip and happenstance as much as it did through benchwork. Latour developed the new materialism’s trademark concepts of ‘agency’, ‘assemblage’, ‘hybrid’, and ‘actant’ in later books over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, including Science in Action (1987), The Pasteurization of France (1988), and We Have Never Been Modern (1991). In these texts Latour argued that scientific disputes were mediated through material objects, and thus there was no way to separate discourse from object, or nature from culture. In short, things mattered in their own right. Anything then, living or inanimate, sprung from nature or made by humans, was an ‘actant’ within a flat, non-hierarchical network or ‘assemblage’. Agency—which now meant nothing more than the ability to have an effect on the world—was distributed widely to an array of actants. When hierarchies become flattened, power slips into the cracks, critique becomes blunted. This is no accident. Latour has declared his animosity to critique: his goal is merely to ‘follow’ experts, such as scientists and economists, as they work. Latourism is a strange late revival of the cult of technocracy, even though it began as a the disenchantment of expertise.

The heart of the dispute between Malm and the new materialists is the concept of agency. Merely having an effect in the world, Malm charges, does not give something agency.  He offers the nuanced counter-argument that it is more useful to recognise nature’s ‘autonomy’ rather than its agency. This concept, borrowed from Carolyn Merchant and Thomas Heyd, acknowledges that nature has an effect on society through, say, volcanic eruptions, but these effects are largely not conscious, and thus outside of any moral calculus. The volcano cannot be judged as immoral for it lacks intention. Being able to assign moral responsibility to human actors for historical events is a precondition for political mobilisation, and therefore a necessary basis for eco-Marxist scholarship and politics. For example, Malm rails against the term ‘Anthropocene’ for it implies that all of humanity is responsible for climate change. As he demonstrated in Fossil Capital, the transition from water-power to coal was imposed by a tiny clique of capitalists who sought to break the back of the nascent labour movement. It helps knowing which people are responsible for environmental crises to understand why they occur.

The second major intervention in The Progress of this Storm is an attack on Latour’s concept of the ‘hybrid’, which Malm reduces to ‘property monism’. Hybrids represent the fusion of nature and culture in modernity, like the hole in the ozone layer. Malm asserts that it remains useful to retain some form of the nature-culture binary not only because Latour and his acolytes rarely maintain a strict property monism in practice—such discourse ties them in knots—but also because many things in this universe are clearly not the result of human handiwork. ‘Coal is disproof enough,’ Malm argues. ‘Finding coal […] is to open a culvert to that past and draw in what no humans had a hand in producing’ (36 – emphasis in original). He concedes Latourians only their most obvious and unhelpful point, that there is little pristine nature untouched by the human hand, but Malm insists that it remains useful to see nature spanning the spectrum from mall to mountain. Instead of hybridisation making everything the same, he stresses that it is important to recognise how a change in quantity can lead to a change in quality. He cites an example from The Tragedy of the Commodity, whose authors note ‘ecological concerns are not problems derived internally, originating from ecosystems themselves, but are produced externally, by social drivers. For example, the oceans are not polluting themselves; humans are doing it’ (178). Defending the essential differences between nature and culture is essential not only for cogent analysis, but political action. ‘The more problems of environmental degradation we confront,’ Malm declares, ‘the more imperative it is to pick the unities apart in their poles.Yet, this mode of analysis is ‘exactly contrary to the message of hybridism’ (61).

Latour himself recognised that his framework arrives at a very un-environmentalist logical terminus, for if one cannot say what is nature or culture how can one comprehend or delineate an environmental crisis anymore? What would be polluting what, if they are all essentially the same substance? The nadir of this line of thinking surely lies in the Breakthrough Institute, the green-washer par excellence, trumpets its hobby horses of carbon capture and sequestration, geo-engineering, and nuclear power. Latour’s philosophy is music to the ears of the fossil capitalists; it signals not just the unilateral disarmament by environmentalists, but the death of environmentalism itself. This is why Latour was invited to join as a fellow, and the Breakthrough Institute’s website still proudly displays his 2011 essay ‘Love Your Monsters’. In that text, Latour extended his argument on hybridisation to justify humanity’s complete control over nature: ‘The goal of political ecology must not be to stop innovating, inventing, creating, and intervening. The real goal must be to have the same type of patience and commitment to our creations as God the Creator, Himself.’

In the long discussion on ‘agency’ in The Progress of This Storm, it is surprising that Malm never mentions how central this concept is to the British Marxist historians. EP Thompson’s oeuvre is predicated upon agency as a historical category to explain how the English working class made themselves as political agents, rather than seeing them just as putty in the hands of capital and the state. In Arguments within English Marxism (which is cited by Malm), Perry Anderson extends Thompson’s concept of agency. Anderson defines agency as ‘conscious, goal-directed activity’, and sees it as necessary for the historian’s craft because ‘the problem of the ultimate sources of action can then be bracketed in a rational historical inquiry for a study of its ends’. He then defines kinds of agency: 1) ‘private’, remaining in the realm of quotidian life; 2) ‘public’, ranging from strikes to wars; 3) ‘full popular’, based on ‘new social conditions of life for itself’, with the Russian Revolution serving as its exemplar. Notably, the third kind requires the absolute control over nature. ‘The whole purpose of historical materialism,’ Anderson writes, ‘after all, has precisely been to give men and women the means with which to exercise a real popular self-determination for the first time in history. This is, exactly, the objective of a socialist revolution, whose aim is to inaugurate the transition from what Karl Marx called the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom’. He dismisses the Soviet Union as a failed communist society because it was still plagued by unruly nature. The troubled genealogy of agency shows that this idea must be reformulated if eco-Marxism is to flourish. If anything, climate change shows how nature has never been less under control than in contemporary society; complete control a chimera, and its pursuit reckless.

In defence of Latourianism, Malm overlooks when it is carried out well. Daniel Schneider’s outstanding Hybrid Nature, a study on the environmental history of sewage treatment plants, is inspired by Latour, but manages to avoid his shortcomings. He shows how difficult it is to create hybrids, of forcing nature to adhere to human ends, demonstrating nature’s resolute autonomy. Company scientists, try as they might, cannot quite figure out how the microbial soup that treats sewage actually works, resisting their attempts to streamline the process by plucking out the ‘useful’ microbes. Workers maintain a strong position against capital because of nature’s unruliness, allowing them to find toeholds offered by nature’s autonomy. Relying on their sense of smell, wastewater workers are best able to gauge the sewage treatment process, defying capital’s attempts to automate them out of their jobs. One wonders if the hybrid could be rescued as a concept. After all, Marx describes the capitalist as ‘capital personified, capital as a person’ and Antonio Gramsci describes the Prince as a ‘centaur’ embodying both ‘man and beast’.

Latour’s paeans to the powerful have convinced some critics, such as Philip Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah, Malm (2007), and RH Lossin, that Latour is a crypto-neoliberal. If anything, neo-liberalism, a robust intellectual framework, is too cerebral for Latour. He can barely discern the workings of a market because he is not interested in understanding how things work. Rather, like that other pedant from the provinces, Professor Pangloss, Latour is happy that his philosophy confirms that one lives in the best of all possible worlds. In this way, he is the public intellectual of the present moment, when the intelligentsia is paralysed between a decaying neo-liberal order and an increasingly chaotic climatic system. Malm is the perfect foil to Latour, a contrast that deepens by the book’s end as his rage and despair reach a crescendo: ‘Dare to feel the panic. Then choose between the two main options: commit to the most militant and unwavering opposition to this system, or sit watching as it all goes down the drain’ (226).

12 November 2019

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