In the spring of 2019 Tony Greco sat down with Todd Dufresne to discuss Dufresne’s new book The Democracy of Suffering: Life on the Edge of Catastrophe, Philosophy in the Anthropocene. A brief selection from the book follows this introduction. In late June the two chatted again, this time online, about advance copies of the book, and prepared the interview below. The book is available this September from McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Greco is a psychotherapist and senior faculty member of the Gestalt Institute of Toronto. Dufresne is Professor of Philosophy at Lakehead University. The two first met while undergraduates studying philosophy at the University of Western Ontario.
We can’t spin our way out of environmental disaster, although that has been the tactic of the people most desperate to hang on to power. For of course the super wealthy and their minions, the feckless technocratic and political class, are the biggest liars of all. To be fair, their victims now include most members of the baby boom generation itself. Aside from an elite few, no one has escaped unharmed by this force.
At the dawn of anthropocenity the fog is lifting. Hence the fifth and possibly most disturbing feature of the Anthropocene condition: the almost universal disgust, very much earned, that the masses feel for politicians and for democracy more generally; a disgust that presents as populist rage, less on the impotent Left than on the lunatic Right. As Chris Hedges puts it, “Trump has tapped into the hatred that huge segments of the American public have for a political and economic system that has betrayed them. He may be inept, degenerate, dishonest and a narcissist, but he adeptly ridicules the system they despise” (2018). The masses simply presume, with remarkable cynicism, that all politicians will lie, cheat, and ultimately screw them. At least Trump, in the process, echoes their own contempt for what is in fact contemptuous. And so it has happened that, by the end of the postmodern condition, the most significant accomplishment that boomernomics has “turned on, tuned in, and dropped out” is the incipient bullshit of contemporary fascism. Trumpism: the last tragicomic gasp, or implosion, of boomernomics as politics.
Marx and Engels put it perfectly in The Communist Manifesto more than 150 years ago, saying that the bourgeoisie “produces, above all, its own gravediggers” (1848). And so it has. With boomernomics, capitalism has cannibalized itself — has strip-mined the conditions of its own existence — leaving rage and confusion in its place. So here’s another more hopeful feature (the sixth) of the Anthropocene condition: with the aging of the baby boom generation we are finally seeing a future beyond greed and bullshit; a future better suited to gravediggers, truth-tellers, and court jesters.
—The Democracy of Suffering: Life on the Edge of Catastrophe, Philosophy in the Anthropocene, Todd Dufresne
TONY GRECO: I was surprised to see you refer to Plato in a book about climate change.
TODD DUFRESNE: Before philosophy became a niche discipline within the modern university, it was an important part of educated public discourse. Philosophy is literally “philo-sophia” — the “love of wisdom” — and Plato applied that wisdom to the problems of his own time and place. Of course Plato is not just anyone. He occupies a singular place in Western intellectual history. He was the first to ask and answer all the big questions. He dreamed of a different tomorrow for Athenian culture. And he founded the first Western university, the Academy.
The birth pangs of the Western world.
Right. I think that, in some ways, we’re back to where the West began with Plato. Back with the sophists, the purveyors of misinformation and lies. And back with the “philodoxers,” the lovers of opinion. Plato rejected all the self-interested liars — and so should we. In the process he not only helped define what it means to be a Western subject, but he lived through massive cultural changes in his own times even as he interrogated the meaning of those changes in his philosophy.
Plato and Kant were kindred spirits?
I think so. Kant was also interested in his own time and place, and wrote popularizations of his technical work and even wrote for newspapers. He tried to answer the question, or the challenge, of what it means to be a new kind of subject in a new age, and he was interested in the future to come. Like Plato, he lived through a decisive moment in the history of the West — the age of reason, science, progress, and the belief, at least in principle, in universal human rights. This age is closer to our own in every way, but I wanted to reach back to the very origins of written philosophy and Western culture. That means Plato.
So you think that these two philosophers can help us with climate change?
Indirectly. Obviously Plato and Kant didn’t confront climate change. But they asked questions about how their times were changing what it means to be human; what duties, if any, we should have toward others; and what kind of tomorrow would be the most just for the society living through these changes. They were both committed to the future, to change — not to the past. This is still very relevant for us today.
Not just for their ideas, but as examples?
Yes. These examples from history still function as rough models for us today. Through them we can also discover the seeds for what became, by a dialectical reversal, the serial catastrophes of 20th-century essentialism, Fordism, war, rampant consumption, neoliberal capitalism, and environmental collapse. That’s one of the reasons why philosophy matters. It reminds us that wisdom about the future begins with informed critique of the past and present. As an added bonus, it also helps protect us from alt-facts and other forms of dangerous bullshit.
Why is a well-known critic of Freud wading into this territory? You’re not an environmental philosopher.
Everyone should be concerned about climate change, even critics of Freud. We all need to refocus our attention on what is the single greatest challenge to face human beings. But you’re right: I’m not an environmental philosopher. For some I’m not even a philosopher! That’s okay, though, because I think a certain kind of philosophy is bloodless, not only disconnected from everyday life but from the major challenges of our time — so I’m not worried. Scholars from all fields should be interested in these problems. I’m amazed that more are not.
So you’ve finally come out as a philosopher?
I suppose (laughing). I’m employed as a Professor of Philosophy and I enjoy teaching it. But I have a cautious, wary relationship with the discipline. I’ve always studied philosophy, mostly in the Continental tradition, but as you know I took graduate degrees outside the discipline proper. This sort of thing is not easily forgiven! So I was lucky to get hired into a department of philosophy.
Out of mixture of respect, wariness, and accuracy, I sometimes say that I’m a “theorist.” But these days I prefer to say that I’m an outsider philosopher, someone happy to work in the margins of the discipline and free to cross any and all boundaries between cultural sociology, political theory, psychology, literary criticism, intellectual history, and more. In fact I wrote The Democracy of Suffering because I enjoy crossing disciplines — and because I’m a writer. But, as always, I write for myself and then for anyone else who might be interested. My guess was that other people were just as curious about how philosophy links up to the climate change crisis. Of course it’s not the only possible approach! It’s just my approach. Beyond that I wanted to write a book that was more or less accessible to educated lay readers everywhere.
You mean the graphic design?
That and the brevity of the three chapters, the sometimes funny and vulgar style I deploy, and the topical content. The book sits between trade and academic worlds, which isn’t an easy balance to achieve.
In the Preface you say you’ve been “radicalized by reality.”
In a way that remark already points to my final conclusions about climate catastrophe. For me the “radicalization” happened pretty early on because I could see and read about these big changes in the news media, and so was impelled to address them with my students. I realized that these changes to our natural world implied, necessarily so, a corresponding change to our ways of thinking, to our consciousness. It’s a change evoked by the concrete facts of a changing world.
So I’d say we’re all being “radicalized by reality.” It’s just that for some people it takes a personal experience of fire, landslide, or hurricane to get their attention. I’m afraid it takes mass death and extinction. This is a depressing realization, I know. But whoever survives these experiences will have a renewed appreciation for nature, for the external world, and for the necessity of collectivism in the face of mass extinction. There’s hope in this — although I admit it’s wrapped in ugliness.
I think climate grief isn’t limited to the actual experience of climate change. In my practice it spikes with the media coverage of catastrophe — with a virtual experience. That said, I basically agree with you. People are being impacted emotionally as life in many places around the world gets harder.
For many people life is already hard and getting harder. Many millions have already experienced the hardships of drought and forced migration, fire and flood, unemployment and underemployment, the collapse of pension funds, and have been personally touched by an experience of death from climate change. These things are all connected. True, people may not understand the connections or realize they’ve been so personally impacted by our dying petroculture. But they won’t be able to ignore the impacts for much longer as enviable cultural norms in the West, most especially, fall one after the other — and, potentially, fall very quickly.
And in the rest of the world?
The West enjoyed unparalleled wealth and comfort in the late 20th century. Consequently we’ve lost touch with reality — by which I mean, most especially, the reality of nature in all its brutality. Heidegger was obviously right when he complained about thoughtlessness in the modern world. We’ve forgotten to think about the meaning of existence, about human beings living in the natural world.
As for the rest of the world, much of which has long been mired in poverty and suffering, it has never had the privilege of not caring about the external world around them, or of forgetting the brutality of nature. In this respect the West has suffered from a kind of prolonged insanity that will make the transition to a world of serial catastrophe very difficult. I predict that this fall, necessary in every way, won’t be pretty.
A fall into what?
Into reality. It’s like waking from a pleasant dream. The West is about to experience hardships that were once reserved for the poor of the world. For today we all live in, or next to, “sacrifice zones” — starting with the air we breathe. That’s what the “democracy of suffering” means. I’m hoping it’s a wakeup call to make a more equitable world for everyone.
A socialist world?
Some form of collectivism, yes. The democratic socialism of the Scandinavian countries, or of politicians like Bernie Sanders, seems like a reasonable way forward to a new world of collectivism that, I’m sure, will surprise us all. In the meantime we have work to do. For example, we should outlaw billionaires, push for reforms to existing tax codes, pass responsible environmental legislation, institute universal education and free health care, and insist that essential utilities like water and power are publically owned and operated. We should outlaw absurd gerrymandering and other voter suppression schemes that disenfranchise millions of people and strangle democracy. And we should throw corrupt bankers, politicians, and CEOs into jail even as we regulate the banks and financial institutions that privatize profit, socialize loss, and destroy lives on Main Streets everywhere.
None of this is radical, though. This is Canada in the 1970s and Norway today. This is the US in the 1950s!
I totally agree. You’re right. Neoliberals have done a good job painting this actually middle-of-the-road position as radical — which plays well with clowns and special interests on social media. But “social democrats” aren’t necessarily socialists. Even so, I think this is a good place to start. Of course we also need to invest in renewable energy sources and shift away from a planet-killing petro-capitalism.
Can we keep some form of “green capitalism”?
That may have been peachy in the 1970s. But we’re way past partial measures like that. The ideology of continuous growth is antithetical to life on the planet. Full stop.
You call late capitalism “Boomernomics.”
I do. The capitalism of the Baby Boomer generation has destroyed much of the planet. The bulk of carbon emissions has occurred over the last 40 to 50 years. That’s amazing and very, very telling. As David Suzuki says, “we boomers have lived like kings and queens, but the party’s over.” He’s right. The verdict of history is upon us. It’s over. We’re living through a time of frenzied zombie capitalism, a faux-capitalism after the death of capitalism, where the forces of greed and mass inequality are extracting and hording and exploiting as much as possible in advance of the very obvious collapse of Western civilization.
Trump is, of course, the absurdist figure of Boomernomics. He’s a sure sign that we’re all in big trouble, the perfect symbol that capitalism is dead and that civilization itself is teetering on the brink. It boggles the mind.
But do you really think Western civilization is about to end?
I think the world of Boomer excess and mass consumption is almost over. I think capitalism died in 2008, and only deficit spending has kept its ghost alive. But “quantitative easing” can’t go on forever. We all know that capitalism was amazingly good, radically good, at appropriating all resistance and making a profit out of anything. But we’ve reached the end of this process as capitalists finally cannibalize the resources of their own governments, not only privatizing utilities like water, energy, and communications, but privatizing the operations of health care, education, war, and governance itself — essentially strip mining the conditions of reason, civility, and civilization as we’ve known it.
In my opinion this isn’t really capitalism any more, or even what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.” It’s capitalism ad absurdum — a capitalism in its death throes. That’s precisely why it has become so dangerous. It has destroyed the conditions for its own existence even as it destroys the conditions for life on the entire planet. In other words, capitalism insists we all go down with the ship. This is lunacy, madness.
Okay, that’s capitalism. But civilization?
Well, Western civilization in particular is deeply enmeshed in capitalist ideology. It’s a petroculture based on coal, oil, and natural gas. These carbon fuels supercharged our culture in the 19th and 20th centuries and made our kind of incredible wealth, power, and influence possible. But this existence, this way of life, has come at a huge cost to everyone else and to the planet itself. The serious costs, as economists say, have been “externalized.” Moreover, the costs have also been temporalized — given to future generations. This system is literally, not just figuratively, unsustainable. It can’t continue. Growth of two or three percent per year for another two decades will utterly destroy the future for coming generations. It really is an “intergenerational crime.” As a consequence we must reconcile ourselves to, and embrace the concept of, “degrowth.” And to this end we must stop consuming shit we don’t need. That starts with leaving the remaining oil in the ground.
So yeah, I mean it! Western civilization as we’ve known it is dead or dying. It will not survive the death of capitalism. As I say in the book, I can’t predict when exactly it’ll collapse outright. Five years? Fifteen? Fifty? I personally think fifty years is generous, but who knows?
Yes, but this death of the Western way of life brings with it an opportunity for renewal. We could prepare the way for a better, more equitable future, even as serial catastrophes make everyday life more unpleasant. And because the West benefited the most from the reign of capitalism, and has the greatest resources at its disposal, we should get busy trying to preserve as much of human life and civilization as possible. I see this as a duty, in fact, a kind of impossible responsibility for finding a way to live in a world that is ill suited for life that evolved in the Holocene. This won’t be easy. But it won’t be a fraction as hard as, say, living on a space station or settling on Mars.
Is this why you embrace humanism?
It’s complicated. Humanism placed human beings at the center of all concerns; or rather, it placed white European men at the center. So not only is humanism anthropocentric and Eurocentric, but it helped pave the way for the greed, individualism, misogyny, imperialism, and acquisitive selfishness that was so well-rewarded under capitalism.
On the other hand, just because reason turned into its dialectical opposite by the time of the 20th century doesn’t mean we should simply abandon reason, the ideals of Enlightenment, or humanism. In fact, I’ve come to think just the opposite. We’re faced with a world that has been refashioned by human reason, one that deserves its own name, “the Anthropocene.” For we really have come to dominate the world and stamp it in our own image — even on the geological level. It’s the world of Man, anthropos. We did this. And by “we” I mean the West and everyone who has been sucked into its orbit, which I’m afraid implicates most of the people living on the planet today.
What do you mean, “implicates most of the people”?
This is a difficult and uncomfortable lesson. Globalization exported capitalist ideology all around the world, touching and implicating everyone, and made a dumpster fire of the physical world. I simply insist that we own this catastrophic fuck up. That we take responsibility for it. And while it’s unfair to the extreme, I’m afraid this means everyone.
Human beings are at the center of all these awful changes. And sure, the West in particular is to blame for it. Now what? Embrace fatalism? Nihilism? Flagellate ourselves? Turn to God? Virtue signal our impotent outrage to others? Or maybe just enjoy ourselves as much as possible until the catastrophic future puts an end to everyone?
None of the above?
No, none of the above (laughing). These changes to the natural world can’t be undone. I think, therefore, that we have no choice but to get down to the impossible business of managing it on the one hand, and managing our own affairs on the other. I realize it’s perverse, but to achieve these ends we need more reason, not less. For me this means we must also continue to place human existence at the center of our thinking. And we need, perhaps most of all, to accept our complicity with this unwelcome event in world history.
I agree that your argument is perverse! You’re saying that Western reason got us into this mess and that Western reason can save us, too.
I wouldn’t say that Western reason will save us. I just think that reason is needed to help us manage these crises of the physical and human worlds. And it’s needed because there’s no alternative to it. Of course I’m not the first to insist that there’s nothing outside of human reason.
You mean Derrida?
Exactly. Even when we try to think our dilemma from the outside, as it were, or think on behalf of the others who cannot, like plants and animals, this is still always a thinking on the side of human beings. It’s still an exercise of human reason.
At the same time I’m not quite advocating, on an analogy to “capitalist realism,” for some sort of “philosophical realism.” I agree that we need a reason and humanism aware of the limits of reason and humanism! I agree that this philosophy of the future can’t go on just as it did in the past. We need a reason that recognizes difference and otherness in a way that humanism proper never did. We need a reason that affirms our complicity with each other and with all the other living organisms on the planet. In other words, responsibility for this mess begins with affirming our agency as thinking animals — not denying it.
You’re worried about irrationalism.
Not just irrationalism, but a-rationalism. Our culture has become shockingly indifferent to truth and basic facts. Instead of truth and “truth” in scare quotes, we now have “alt truth,” “my truths,” and “truthiness.” I don’t really go into this in the book, but I think this shift goes well beyond a battle between reason and romanticism, or reason and irrationalism, or reason and relativism. The tradition of interrogating reason, of which I am a part, really isn’t the same thing as embracing, say, mysticism, quietism, or a-rationalism in the face of our past mistakes.
Yes, it’s a very crass form of nihilism. And it’s a very serious problem — intellectually, but also practically, as in the case of politics and climate change. These sorts of considerations, incidentally, are another good reason for why intellectual history is not a vain or idle exercise in the face of mass extinction. It helps us survey the terrain of thinking and become more aware of our responsibilities to each other and to the other inhabitants of the earth.
Okay, but then why not embrace “posthumanism”? Why not move beyond anthropos, Man?
That would be great — but it’s easier said than done. Too easy, in my opinion. I think the allure of post-humanism is an empty promise, a pleasing rhetoric without substance. Or worse. It’s irresponsible.
Today we live in a world that has come to fully realize the dream, or nightmare, of Western humanism. As I say in the book, there is nothing “post” about it. Simply put, we aren’t done with this history because this history isn’t done with us. There’s no getting around or past or beyond the humanism that is currently flooding our towns and cities, burning up our forests, and rendering entire countries nearly unlivable for days and weeks at a time. That’s why, once again, the “Anthropocene” is a perfect name for our time. It names the cause of this cultural, philosophical, and geological shift. It names Man. It names the Western humanist subject that made it all possible. Me and you. By accepting these conditions, I’m proposing, once again, that we assume an absolute responsibility for the results. In short, I’m not looking for an escape from this new reality — because there isn’t any.
If so, then the promise of a post-humanism functions like a sleight of hand for those who not only disown the tradition that created this global condition, but believe they somehow stand outside of it, too.
That they’re not complicit.
Right, like innocents. This way they can occupy the moral high ground and virtue signal their outrage. I understand the impulse — I really do. But I think, at bottom, that it’s a form of intellectual bad faith.
What about the Enlightenment dream of freedom?
That’s the essential thing. I know that postmodernists think it very old fashioned to advance a grand narrative of freedom. They remain, with Lyotard, “incredulous.” The projects of universal freedom and universal human rights are dead. I understand this perspective very well, because to some extent I am one of those people. All of my work is borne out of deep sympathy with anti-humanism.
But it’s clear to me now that this pose, in the extreme, reflects a kind of decedent privilege — a pseudo-intellectualism dressed in black. And while it was fun for a while, back in 1993, it’s actually boring today as well as irresponsible. The truth is we have never been more mired in humanism; it’s our world today. So while I remain critical of traditional humanism, I am far more sympathetic to the kind of Marxist dreams, impossible dreams, that I rejected when I was younger and more sophisticated. Dreams of a better future. Dreams of freedom.
But you admit they’re “impossible dreams.” Maybe you’re still a postmodernist after all.
Poststructuralist, yes. Postmodernist, no. I embrace impossibility as a worthy goal, no matter how impractical. Impossible dreams have their uses — ethical and otherwise. Listen, pooh-poohing ideals is the easiest thing in the world. Imagining the conditions of a better future, and taking those impossible dreams seriously, is much harder than cynicism. Adhering to ideals requires discipline and an open heart — since we will always fall short. Right? And of course defending impossible ideals risks foolishness in the eyes of others.
Which is maybe why you like Plato so much.
That’s it exactly! As I say in the book, Plato may have been a dreamer but his dreams are timeless. He set goals, like gender equality based on merit, that were impossible dreams in the context of Athenian culture. But they aren’t so foolish any more. Our dreams should push us forward to a better future in the same way. So should philosophy as a discipline.
One more thing: let’s also not forget that, as we face the prospect of human extinction, impossible dreams of a better tomorrow are arguably the most responsible dreams of all. To this end I think we need to re-enchant ourselves with the potential of a better future, including, again, the utopic dreams of Marxists and other so-called radicals. Although I’m not a Marxist myself, I admire their critique of capitalism and their steadfast belief in utopia — in freedom for all. That’s a beautiful goal, no matter how impossible and no matter what it’s called.
No more “capitalist realism.”
We must consciously reject the futility and nihilism of Thatcher’s conservative mantra that “there is no alternative” to capitalism — her so-called capitalist realism. But the truth is we’re long past this idle dream of neo-conservatism or, if you prefer, neoliberalism. It’s not just that capitalism is dead or dying. Our carbon dioxide emissions are now above 400 ppm — which is terrifying — so catastrophic climate change is already baked into the environment. There’s no escaping it. In other words, there are some very big alternatives coming to your town soon.
For starters, the future won’t be capitalist, and unless we get smarter about things very soon, it won’t be democratic, either. For hundreds of millions of people — and possibly billions — the future could be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. For many it will be fascistic, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and xenophobic, our apathy today heralding a future of mass unemployment, food and water insecurity, migration crises, serial natural disasters, widespread suffering, violent civil wars, and mass extinctions that threaten the well-being and existence of everyone. This is the “democracy of suffering” at its worst.
But if we make a real effort today, right now, then the democracy of suffering could mark a fateful turning point in world history. It could mark the end of individualism and greed and the beginning of our collective well-being, security, equality, and happiness. If so, then the climate change catastrophe will have pushed us all forward, not backward, and saved humanity from the worst excesses of the West.
What other big lesson, or big answer, can readers expect to draw from your attempt to pose big questions of our time?
It’s actually very simple. We literally remade the physical world, especially over the last 50 years, and the physical world is now remaking us. People are starting to change. Consciousness is starting to change. In turn society must follow.
People around the world need to get with the program — or get ready to die. Because the choices, I’m afraid, are really that stark. It’s life or death. I’m arguing and pleading for more of us to choose life. To choose wisdom. It’s not too late. But no matter what we do now, everything is about to change.
“This changes everything?”
Yes. Naomi Klein is right. Climate change will change everything. But given that inevitability — which is upon us now — we should take immediate and significant steps to make sure it changes into a world not only worth living in, but into a world that still supports the living. What could be more important?