Achille Mbembe is a professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. A philosopher and political theorist, Mbembe is one of Africa’s leading public intellectuals.
He recently spoke with Nils Gilman, the vice president of programs at the Berggruen Institute and deputy editor of Noema Magazine, and Jonathan S. Blake, a 2020-22 Berggruen Institute fellow, about the politics and philosophy of living together on Earth.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nils Gilman: In the last few years, you have been using the term “planetary” to describe the current state of world-scale interconnection. What do you mean by planetary? And what prompted this particular shift?
Achille Mbembe: For me, the planetary immediately evokes a connection between life and its futures on the one hand, and the Earth on the other hand. What comes to my mind is the biophysical organic material and mineral order — a geological magma-filled rock topped with the entangled orders of physical, organic phenomena such as plants, animals, minerals and so forth, as well as the artifacts and things and tools we have invented.
In other words, the planetary evokes what we call in French le vivant, which in English is something like “the living world.” Le vivant is, for me, the planetary in its multiplicity, in its animate and inanimate forms, as it undergoes its endless process of transformation — a transformation which, for me, has no Omega Point. It is not supposed to reach an apex or a moment of unification. I find it almost impossible to think of the planetary without thinking about life and about the Earth. I probably owe that to my interest in the animist metaphysics of precolonial Africa. That’s the archive I draw on to propose this kind of understanding of the planetary as so closely linked to life, which itself is an indivisible process.
Jonathan Blake: In a 2019 essay, “Bodies as Borders,” you identified three “mega processes” that are transforming the future of humanity and the planet. First, the extreme and growing power of high-tech corporations and finance, whose “sphere of action,” as you write, “is not one country or one region, but the globe.” Second is the “technological escalation”: how computation is changing the way we experience the world, and particularly time. And third is the contradiction of living in an era of unprecedented mobility and interconnection that is also an era of enhanced borders.
I found it striking that the first two overlap with an argument made by the Chinese political philosopher Zhao Tingyang, who says that if we want to move to a true world politics that takes the world, not many nation-states, as its subject, we cannot start with institutions like the United Nations, which is founded on the logic of nation-state sovereignty. Instead, he provokes us with the idea that the foundation of planetary politics should be in the already-existing “structures and organizations that have real power, such as systems of global finance, global technologies and the internet.” I’m curious what you make of this claim.
Mbembe: It is true that a key driver of the process of planetarization is capitalism. It’s late capitalism, to put it simply. This is the source of the fact that we are all currently ruled by the market in one form or another, in addition to being ruled by our respective nation-states.
The many different capitalist forms of the market have a common structure that is more inclusive, to some extent, than nation-states, which are premised precisely on the distinction between who belongs and who should be kept out. In principle, anybody who can buy or sell is entitled to belong to the market.
To some extent, the market has become a totality, or in any case our core moral experience. But so has technology. Both the market and technology now set the rules and procedures according to which we are obliged to live together as a connective body within new planetary limits.
We see this in particular in the apparently endless development of digital ecosystems, which now form what is known as “platform capitalism” — once again, one of the main drivers of planetarization. Now the key question is, to what extent can we rely on these infrastructures as parts of the Earth become inhospitable to life in the near future.
Can we rely on infrastructures that have, to some extent, contributed to turning the world into a burning house? Can we rely on them to learn how to inhabit the planet anew, how to share it as equitably as possible? To foster a new consciousness that gives ample space to notions of bio-symbiosis — life in symbiosis with humans and nonhumans?
Blake: The third mega process — the paradox that has emerged between our growing awareness of “planetary entanglement” and the simultaneous increase of “walls and fortifications, gates and enclaves” — seems to suggest that our future as a species depends on the politics of planetary entanglement defeating the politics of borders and separation. How could that happen? What should planetary politics look like?
Mbembe: In your essay on planetary governance, part of what you argue for is a proper actualization of the principle of subsidiarity — subsidiarity in relation to the planetary and in relation to what you call the local, with the nation-state poised somewhat in the middle but reconfigured in such a way as to allow for planetary issues to be addressed planetarily, and for local issues to be resolved where they take the most dramatic form. I totally agree with that, especially in relation to the part of the world I belong to, in which the nation-state is very recent, emerging amid the ruins of the multiplicity of forms of governance that preexisted it. The nation-state is contingent: It is not imperative or necessary. It wasn’t always there, and nothing says it will always be there.
If this is our governing predicament, it is also important to relate it to the complexity of our technological present. When I say technology, I mean technology in the classical sense, and also technologies of governance. One of the paradoxes of our time, which lies at the heart of our technological present, is that the questioning of technology as an expression of the forces of becoming has increasingly been cut off from the political questioning of the sense of that becoming. Force, in its crudest sense, has overtaken the interrogation of meaning, the question of meaning.
In a recent conversation between Stewart Brand and former Governor Jerry Brown of California, the governor made the point that humans were once rational beings, but now are mostly attached to beliefs. For me, this interrogation of beliefs is the same as the question of being. When politics or the political emancipates itself from judgments, and now suffices unto itself, this makes the response to the question of what planetary politics should look like even more complicated.
Planetary politics should be connected to a politics of life, to a politics of the Earth. That includes all creation: all the people of the world; the creations or works of humanity; the mass of things we have invented; animals, plants, microbes, minerals; and mixed bodies (which is what we all are). In other words, the whole physical universe, all of reality, including (since I’m drawing from the African pre-colonial archive) spiritual and biological energies consistent with the definition of the living world.
Gilman: In your essay “Planetary Entanglement,” you wrote that with “concepts of agency and agency having been extended to nonhumans, conventional understandings of life must be called into question. To be a subject is no longer to act autonomously but to share agency with other subjects who have lost their autonomy.” This seems to follow directly from your description of what normative planetary politics should look like: A problem that any planetary politics has to confront is the vast differences in power between different humans, between the human species and other species and indeed between all the geophysical aspects of the planet. How should we think about bridging these inequalities of power?
Mbembe: We need to begin by agreeing on what is at stake. From an African perspective, the core of the problem is the precariousness of life. This precariousness is to some extent the result of the imbalances we have been discussing, yet at the same time, in the kind of archives I’m working with, life has been understood as a dynamic, positive and often risky exposure to the unknown and the unpredictable.
When I look at cosmologies of existence among the Dogon in Mali, or among the Yoruba in Nigeria or other communities in the Congo Basin, what strikes me is the central place these cultures give to the principle of animation — with the sharing of vital breath. Breath is a right that is universal, in the sense that we all breathe, but we do not simply breathe individually. We also share the vital breath.
In that sense, we have here cosmogonies that are not at all convinced that there is a fundamental difference between the human subject and the world around it, between the human universe and the universe of nature, of objects and so forth. Everything is an effect of power, an agency that is shaped by all. It is a different ontology.
We start from the assumption that imbalances do exist, but fundamentally they never trump the sharing of agency — the fact that it is possible for something that might appear to lack power to affect that which we think has more power. It’s a different metaphysics of power and of agency. Therefore, the liberation of the vital forces, les forces vitales, is how imbalances are dealt with.
Gilman: The diversity of cosmologies also raises the problem of epistemology and knowledge production. You’ve written that “The biggest challenge facing critical theory now is arguably the reframing of the disciplines and critical theory in light of contemporary conditions and the long-term sustainability of life on Earth.” You then specify that “The extent to which new modes of being human are prefigured in the contemporary arts, technology and natural and environmental sciences is increasingly at the core of ongoing projects to rethink knowledge itself.”
What are some of the ways in which the human itself is being refactored in technological, artistic and scientific practice? How do we need to rethink our modes of knowledge production to make sense of this new techno-phenomenological institutional matrix? What sorts of “alternative acts of thinking” are required of philosophy today?
Mbembe: One major event of our times — and it is an event — is the fact that we are increasingly surrounded by multiple and expanding forms of calculation. Calculation has reached a stage we have never seen before. Techne is becoming the quintessential language of risk. It’s threatening to become, in fact, its only legitimate manifestation.
This is happening at a time when we are witnessing the shifting distribution of powers between the human and the technological: Technologies are moving toward general intelligence and self-replication. Think of the development of algorithmic forms of intelligence, some of which have been growing in parallel with and allied to genetic research. The integration of algorithms and big data analysis in the biological sphere is not only bringing with it a greater belief in techno-positivism, in modes of statistical thought, it’s also paving the way for regimes of assessment of the natural world, modes of prediction and analysis that are treating life itself as a computable object. This is a very important change that is affecting not only our political imagination, but also the ways in which we understand what knowledge stands for, and what is it is all about.
I would go as far as to insist that more than any other time in our brief history on Earth, we are experiencing a clash of temporalities: geological time, the deep time of those processes that fashioned our terrestrial home; historical time; and experiential time. All these times now fold in on one another. We are not used to thinking of time as simultaneous. We think of time as linear: past, present, future. So how do we begin to think about time in a way that takes these concatenations seriously?
Gilman: You have observed that a defining feature of life in Africa today is temporariness, which we read as a sense of not just of the fragility of political and social institutions, but indeed of ontological destabilization. Doesn’t the condition of late capitalism, unsustainable petro-agriculture, the Anthropocene, the plantationocene, etc. — all of which add up to what Donna Haraway calls the Cthulucene — mean that in fact we are all in a condition of growing temporariness, with Africa merely having arrived there first?
And if that is the case, would it be fair to say that we live in a moment where Karl Marx’s infamous dictum — that the more developed countries only show to the less developed ones the image of their own future — has become inverted?
Mbembe: I wouldn’t go so far as endorsing wholesale the argument made by two good friends of mine, the anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, who wrote a book not so long ago in which they made the argument that the rest of the world is becoming like Africa — that Africa has been at the forefront of some of the key transformations of our time, and now Euro-America, in particular, is simply following the same trajectory.
We are in an epoch when time is no longer differentially distributed along human and non-human scales — that’s what the Anthropocene shows us. As the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, there’s no longer a social history separate from natural history. That is over. Human history and Earth history are now indivisible.
The epoch we have entered into is one of indivisibility, of entanglement, of concatenations. Times of concatenation presuppose that our bodies have become repositories of different kinds of risks, including those kinds of risks that not so long ago (and in many cases still) were thought to be the peculiarity of certain classes of the population — or “races,” to use that infamous term. What used to only happen to some is now happening to more than just them. It seems to me that these new structures of destabilization have now expanded their reach and are provoking a whole set of displacements that we have to attend to sociologically, empirically and ethnographically. But my point is that the interfaces of life, the structures of provisionality, have expanded well beyond what we have long been used to.
Blake: This raises a question about the diversity of human life across the Earth. There is immense diversity among what we experience, what we desire, our visions of the good life. How can we speak in a universal register that also recognizes the pluralism of desires and of ways of life? How do we reconcile the fact that there are nearly 8 billion people who all have hopes and desires with the fact that there is only one Earth, one shared home?
Mbembe: It may be that we must let go of the dream of reconcilability. It may be that those dreams are so antagonistic that they will never be reconciled. The question then is: Is it at all possible to build anything in common in the face of such agonism? How do we live with irreconcilability? What kind of life is likely to emerge out of conflictive opinions and positions that will never be reconciled? And how can we live with them without opening up the doors to civil war? A civil war not only within specific nation-states, but a civil war at a planetary scale. I think that’s probably where we are.
We see this happening, including within all democracies, where people don’t seem to agree any longer on anything. More and more we are facing instances in which negotiation as such is dismissed as a sign of weakness, and where the politics of purity trumps the politics of negotiation.
What will be the future of democracy in a context such as this? Democracy itself will have to be reinvented in relation to two or three key planetary issues. If indeed we all are rightful inhabitants of this one Earth that is our common shelter and our common roof, this implies, for instance, that we must enact a universal right to breathe — breathing here meaning the capacity to participate in the vital flows that constitute us all. It would mean imagining a new generation of rights that do not depend on being implemented by the nation-state — rights that are beyond the nation-state. For instance, the universal right to mobility. If the Earth belongs to all of us, there’s no reason why anyone who wants to shouldn’t be able to visit it. This would translate into some juridical dispensation that would be close to a borderless world. It would entail one form or another of the abolition of borders.
If you take the history of most people of African descent, since the advent of the modern age, they haven’t been able to move freely. Whenever they have had to move, they often were moved in chains. This question of enchaining, those who have been accustomed to moving in chains, should be part of that new political imagination. This is not even to speak of the right to exist, to have access to the means of existence, most of which are being destroyed by the forces we know of. Democracy would have to accommodate those new demands that are common to being alive on Earth and not peculiar to being a citizen of a specific nation-state, because that’s where some of the inequalities begin.
Blake: If we move beyond the nation and think instead of the planet as the subject and object of politics, we have to ask: Who gets to speak for the planet, and how?
Mbembe: Who will speak for the planet? I’m not sure that we will ever exit the situation where some speak for the planet while others speak against it. And also, speaking for the planet and listening to the planet are not exactly the same things. Maybe the first step is to listen.
The question then becomes, how do we listen to the planet? Does the planet speak for itself? It has to speak for itself before we can listen. And I think it does speak for itself.
To understand how it is that every single living being on Earth speaks for itself, we have to get out of a certain epistemology that has been premised on the fact that humans are the only speaking entity, that what distinguishes us is that we mastered language and the others didn’t. But we now have studies showing that plants speak, that forests speak: a de-monopolization of the faculty of speech, of language.
When we look into the archives of the whole world, not just the archives of the West, broadly speaking we find knowledges of how other-than-humans speak — and how humans, or some humans, have learned to listen to those languages. This requires a radical decentering, premised on the capacity to know together, to generate knowledge together.
The French term for knowledge is connaissance, a word that literally means “being born together.” We have to institute an act of radical decentering that forces us to be born together again. It seems to me that that’s what a new planetary consciousness forces us to undergo — and I believe it is possible.