Bernard Legros, is a teacher, essayist, founding member of the political movement of growth objectors, and interested in collapsology, among other things. Philippe Godard is the author of several political essays and non-fiction books for young people, and is also a teacher for future social workers. Cross discussion.
Kairos: The ecological state of our planet is disastrous. Do you agree with this?
Ph. G. : I think we agree on that, having discussed it before.
The characteristic of the collapse of ancient societies was a form of blindness to the coming catastrophe. Is there a link with the current situation? Are social workers blind because they do not see or because they do not want to see?
B. L.: The big difference is that in the past, mass media did not exist. Currently, few individuals want to (sa)see, the others practice skepticism, denial or cognitive dissonance. The awareness of a state can certainly be born from an insight, a sudden illumination, but it is rare. Generally, agents would need to look at the issue to see it clearly, and therein lies the rub: some don’t want to look at it because it makes them anxious; many others, caught up in their daily lives, can’t find the time to read alternative sources in essays, the independent press, or on the Web.
Ph. G. : It is not so much a question of will or power as of knowing at what point a society enters into decline and no longer produces the instruments that would allow it to be criticized in order to change it, which was the case with the old societies. Among the Maya, the peasants were progressively deprived of productive land for the benefit of prestige constructions by and for the rulers. The people did not see it because its power came from the city, and this power was going to destroy it. But let’s get back to the alternative media. Of course, they exist, but the dominant media that disinforms speak much louder! On the other hand, can propaganda, wherever it comes from, be emancipatory? The question is to know if today individuals have all the means (intellectual, psychological, political, economic) to understand the situation in which they find themselves. I argue that they don’t have them, partly because of the weight of the economy.
While the population has never been so informed, the media paradoxically participate in the collapse. We must not expect anything from the possessing class, which has no interest in revealing the reality because it would lose its privileges.
Ph. G. : Yes. This was theorized by Durkheim, among others, who said that people had to be educated to integrate into society as it is. Today, it’s the same, but the scale has become global.
Those who have the means to change society do not want to…
Ph. G. : … or don’t understand it, or don’t get it because of bad solutions. For example, at the end of the empire, the Romans did not understand that the Franks had a better mastery of iron and steel than they did, and had better weapons.
B. L.: Since we are not invited to the Bilderberg Group or the Trilateral Commission, it is difficult to grasp exactly what the « degree of consciousness » of the oligarchs is. They must realize, I guess, that they are stuck on the same planet as the lowly people they despise and that, in any case, it will go wrong for them too. They are thinking of taking temporary shelter, for example by buying huge estates in New Zealand or by building artificial islands. But as Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens say, they will fall all the more as they have reached high levels of opulence. Some believe that they will be able to escape in time to an exoplanet or to space colonies, but with what technology, what energy? They won’t make it. They are engaged in a macabre dance that will see them die too, but perhaps they will console themselves for having made the plebs die before them. Freud spoke of the death drive, the Thanatos that would guide their actions. But this is just a guess…
So what is the balance to be found between the fear of collapse, which is demobilizing, and the fear of action?
Ph. G. : Let’s talk about dialectics rather than balance. What we need to work on is to make the system die, not the individuals who compose it. Eight years ago, I co-wrote a « Manifesto for General Disobedience. Let’ s not save the system that crushes us ». Individually, one can be afraid for oneself, which the economy creates. But on a collective scale, one can work towards the disappearance of a system without suffering enormous human losses, as in the case of the fall of the Roman Empire. The population continued to live, so why should we be afraid?
Wouldn’t collapsology paralyze individuals in their will to change the system?
Ph. G. : Absolutely! We should not fear the collapse nor have a Dantesque vision of it, but rather a dialectical one. The system must collapse for our liberation.
B. L.: Beware, this dialectical vision is today challenged by unprecedented historical conditions. To put it in a simple way, at the time of the Romans there were not 441 nuclear reactors in operation on Earth, not counting the thousands of warheads! The collapse could be total following a nuclear war which would cause hundreds of millions of direct and indirect deaths, and thus a disappearance, if not of humanity, at least of civilization. The dialectic also comes up against the irreversibility of certain ecological destructions. As for fear, it can be a good advisor, as Günther Anders maintained, who even saw a moral duty to instill it in his fellow citizens. This « ecological fear », later taken up by Hans Jonas in The Responsibility Principle, would be salvific, contrary to the blind trust in the so-called human genius. It is the absence of fear that will lead us to disaster.
Ph. G. : I fully agree with these remarks about the destructive capacity of nuclear energy. It is then possible to discuss the capacity of the authorities to manage it, who are pushing reactors to sixty years but building very few new ones. The issue of weapons is of great concern… I prefer to talk about the hope of ending a system that generates fear. What Anders and Arendt did not see when they said that the world must protect itself from new generations is that a child who is born must make an alliance with the universe. This is a fair idea coming from ecology. Instead of being afraid of newcomers, we should welcome them and take into account how they function, rather than instilling fear and alienating them through the media and school. Little by little, we can hope to tip the scales in favor of hope. The task is immense, of course, but is fear a good way to force people to think? I don’t think so. There has to be hope. Even if they have written exciting things, Anders and Debord saw all hope at the base, they are hopeless.
B. L.: I would like there to be a probable hope and to mix it dialectically with fear. However, it is possible to fight without hope. This philosophical position says that revolt is an imperative and that we must be prepared to die with dignity, possibly without having defeated the enemy. That the system generates fear is partly true, because it generates reassurance as well! The media is beginning to recognize the problem of peak fossil fuels while claiming that humanity can still count on fifty-three years of oil abundance. Propaganda does everything to put to sleep any mistrust that might arise among voters-consumers, by saying: « Go quietly, the political, economic, technocratic and military elites are watching, we will pass the perils ». To take into consideration the way young generations function is to recognize that their sensibility and understanding are almost totally taken over by information and communication technologies (ICT). We now ask
the elders to adapt to the younger generation, with all the effort, even the humiliation that this can represent, for example, to abandon our book culture, which is said to be rancid, to dive into the digital delights with generation Y. This recent shift is erasing centuries of humanism. In 2017, Philippe’s proposal is therefore much more difficult to keep…
Ph. G. : Let’s get back to the question of dying with dignity. You can say these things to adults, but not to teenagers. If we are going to die, let’s change our smartphone every year, they will say to themselves. As for how to take ICT into account, let us recognize that the development of the Internet has had at least one positive effect, that of undermining confidence in the traditional media. As a proof, young people love Youtube, which generates a counter-power, even if it often falls into conspiracy. So the power of traditional media is eroding, and so much the better, even if the first media watched remains television.
B. L.: These counter-powers of the Web lead, unfortunately, to a generalized confusion, since the information is infinite and not hierarchical. Even rational individuals may have difficulty forming a correct picture of the world. Skepticism, if excessive, is counterproductive, and even worse if we add to it the pride of those who claim to be competent to judge everything for themselves, this ideal of autonomy that was sold to us by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and that has no chance of being questioned in the continuous process of individualization that we are experiencing. Then, as Matthew B. Crawford writes, « the individual is left to his own devices, with nothing to guide him but his own isolated judgment and impulses. Crawford, « the individual is left to his own devices, with no other guide than his isolated judgment and the impulses of his own will. »
Our knowledge also has an emotional aspect and is linked to our lifestyles. There are also all the entertainments that distract from the real issues.
Ph. G. : And the question of the relationship to the future. Ecologists, anarchists, Taoists, and others link their own future to that of the planet, unlike all those who care only about themselves. The system has invented a perverse mechanism which is credit. People in debt adhere to the system without realizing it, projecting themselves into the future through consumption. It is a hidden ideological instrument, even worse than the mediaphere, which at least forces people to read. Now we see « ecologists » taking credits, look for the error! To go into debt is to consider the future as a simple continuation of the existing. To be rejected!
What can be done about credit? Hope that it collapses on its own. The next financial crisis could be cataclysmic.
Ph. G. : It is not a question of stigmatizing the mass of people in debt, but of asking the question: why is it that all those who want to change the world in a positive way too rarely raise this issue? For two reasons. Individually, they have put their finger in the pie and are uncomfortable acknowledging it. Philosophically, they feel that this is too complex an issue. Our role as critical intellectuals is to try to provide tools for understanding.
B. L.: When I talk about voluntary simplicity in my lectures, participants, who are obviously under the influence of credits, ask me « But how should I go about turning my life around? » I feel uncomfortable, because I sometimes feel like telling them « it’s too late, you’ve put your finger in the trap: you have to pay back the bills for another twenty-five years, your children are going to start higher education, so I don’t see how you’re going to be able to get out of it, except symbolically at the margin ». You can’t tell them that!
Ph. G. : Of course you shouldn’t say that, because it is very demobilizing. Instead, let’s encourage them to start where they can to attack the system that is crushing them: for some, it will be getting rid of their debts, for others, sabotaging a production line, or running an activist bookstore.
B. L.: Psychologically and materially, we are still far from the mark. If we suggest that they simplify their lives to regain some freedom, let’s ask them, for example, how many cars they have in their household. If there are three, sometimes four, the decision is not to sell them all at once, but already to get rid of one of them. Some start from a high place!
We humans have no predator to put limits on us. If the collapse takes the form of a drastic decrease in population and a decrease in the complexity of societies, the only answer will be found in the collapse itself, and that is frightening.
Ph. G. : Okay. But the problem is that this is often theorized by crypto-fascists who advocate leaving or killing 90% of humanity. In a collapse situation, the issue is linked to the question of weapons, which are in overproduction, and we risk seeing a Mad Max scenario set in.
In historical examples of collapse, we see one constant: agents were not able to change their value system in time. Let’s be a little optimistic: aren’t there more and more people who recognize that their values are wrong? So shouldn’t we try to unite them around this idea, to give them a breath of fresh air? Alternative media have a crucial role to play.
B. L.: In your circle, if you raise the question of the harmfulness of these counter-values — money, power, consumption, easy seduction, etc. — you will find that they are not only harmful, but also harmful. ‑almost everyone will agree with you. But this remains mostly at the level of ideas, dandyism or cynicism: « I despise this society, but since it brings me tangible benefits, I don’t attack it. » It is easy to criticize the system; it is apparently less easy to implement concrete behavioral changes or to become politically engaged. Orwell spoke of doublethink. For me, the « poison » to be eradicated in the first place is hyper-individualism, which unfortunately can be found even within militant collectives. Neo-activists are often unwilling to make what Freud called a subtraction of jouissance to advance the common good.
Emmanuel Todd speaks of « weak values » that bring everyone to an agreement in small groups around a drink, in the private comfort of living rooms. When it comes to reporting them in the media, it’s a different matter. Hence my idea of alternative media, to be developed.
Ph. G. : The ideas still manage to circulate, which is a good thing. I agree with the problem of hyper-individualism, to which we can add work. The individual must be connected to the group, which in turn needs to be individuated. Gerard Mendel said that true value lies in deconditioning to authority, which is always imposed from the outside. In a collective, we don’t have to all agree, but that doesn’t stop us from moving in the same direction. A dialectic between the individual and the collective takes place. Education is a fundamental issue.
B. L.: I don’t have the same vision of authority, which is acceptable under three conditions. Firstly, that it is legitimate, for example a parent with his child, a teacher with his pupil, a martial arts master with his disciple; secondly, that it is benevolent; thirdly, that it is limited in time, because once an individual has become an adult, he no longer needs to be educated, even if he may continue to be « trained », for example in the case of martial arts. Gone authority must be replaced by self-discipline and respect.
Finally, don’t you think that the theme of collapse is fraudulently used by some as a « solution » to all our problems? « Since it will come, there’s no need to act, let it happen. »
Ph. G. : « Après moi le déluge » only confirms the disregard for the common good and for nature. Some extreme environmentalists want the human race to disappear. However, there are beautiful human beings!
B. L.: Onthe other hand, some people are so cynical or stubborn that sometimes the only thing I want to say to them is « keep it up, we’ll see your face when it all falls apart!
Last question: where to start?
Ph. G. : Two axes are essential. First, the adjustment of the relationship between the individual and the collective; reread Marcuse and Mumford. Secondly, that of the biological time of the individuals with the cosmic time, to reread there Grothendieck, Camus and Jonas.
B. L.: I will quote Thucydides: « One must choose: to rest or to be free ». As for where to start… Let each one of us make a distinction between our intuition, our thoughts, our tastes, our abilities, our relationships with those around us and our long-term, transgenerational vision. Then, come what may.
Interviewed by Alexandre Penasse in Tilff, January 28, 2017.