Interview with Tatjana Söding
Discourses of Climate Delay by Céline Keller (Photo: www.celinekeller.com).
Greetings Art Workers!
This month’s newsletter features an illuminative INTERVIEW with political ecologist and activist TATJANA SÖDING. Söding is a research member of THE ZETKIN COLLECTIVE—a group of scholars, activists, and students working on the interlinkages between the rise of radical far-right groups and the surge in temperature and emission levels as a consequence of burning fossil fuels. Here, she discusses her research and how the far-right intersects in various ways with the fight for the Climate.
In the lead up to the Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline festival in October, Söding will be running a series of co-research workshops that looks at the connections between deep time, fossil fuels and the far-right. Ancestral knowledge can become a way of envisioning our relationship to future ancestors, connecting past, present, and future in times of ecological crisis. But going back in and enchanting history is also a task that is often exercised by the (far)-right, with destructive consequences. By shedding light on convoluted histories between race, place, ecology, emancipatory potential(s) and personal experiences, the project will create an expanded timeline of the Climate Emergency and expose regressive themes tightly woven into the art sector.
Information on how to join these sessions, as well as more about our programme and opportunities to participate in a variety of public events on digital emissions, intergenerational wealth, alternative carbon literacy and much, much, more will be released in a couple of months. In the meantime, you can read Söding’s fascinating INTERVIEW BELOW.
Last month I wrote an essay, Prepping For Utopia: A Convoluted Imaginary for a Just Transition, for artist and author, James Bridle’s ‘Signs of Life’ exhibition at Nome gallery, Berlin. In the text I begin to navigate some of the interrelations between renewable energy, art+ecology, pollution and colonialism. The essay foreshadows a number of upcoming events, including a collaboration with cyber security scientist Samuel Onalo that looks at expanded carbon accounting in the arts, and a forthcoming discussion on renewable energy and wealth. You can read the essay here.
As always, if you are interested in getting involved or would like to have a conversation about Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline, we would love to hear from you. Please get in touch at email@example.com.
Until next time,
Interview with Tatjana Söding: Far-Right, Climate and Extreme
Tell us about a day in the life of the Zetkin Collective?
The Zetkin Collective is a 20-person group of scholars, activists, and students that was co-founded by Andreas Malm and formed around the Human Ecology Division of Lund University in 2018. As its first major output, the Collective organised a conference on The Political Ecologies of the Far Right in the fall of 2019. Last year, the Collective published its first monograph White Skin, Black Fuel – On the Danger of Fossil Fascism with Verso and La Fabrique. The book investigates the past, current, and potential future interlinkages between the rise of radical far-right groups in both number and strength, and the rise in temperature and emission levels as a consequence of burning fossil fuels. White Skin, Black Fuel outlines various strategies employed by the far-right to hinder climate action, through climate change denialism, capitalist climate governance, eco-nationalism, neo-Malthusianism, or ecofascism. Currently, the Collective meets once a month to analyse current political events and flesh out further research. As a student of human ecology and a climate activist, I only joined the collective after the publication of the book. Currently, my role is to follow up on the hypotheses brought forward by the Collective in a case study on the German radical populist right party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and through empirical research. And that’s what I have been working on in the last few months.
It’s difficult to describe what a “normal” day looks like. In my most recent research project, I focus on Lusatia, a coal mining region in the federated states of Brandenburg and Saxony, Germany. Ever since lignite mining—a type of low-energy coal—was established as a major industry in Lusatia towards the end of the 18th century, the region has served as an industrial powerhouse for the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and now provides about 33% of Germany’s total lignite powered energy. Lusaita is held as a testing ground for a broader energy transition, because of Germany’s ambitions to ease out of coal mining by 2030, and because the region had already lived through a structural change after the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic in 1990. The narrative of a successful structural change that is dominant within the German political scene holds that Lusatia could be a signpost for further transitioning processes to renewable energy in other regions and countries. At the same time, in its outright opposition against this transition and any other climate action, the AfD’s rallying against these processes is particularly strong in the region.
Being based in Berlin, I commuted to Lusatia a few times. At first, I was going there to establish contact with party members on the local and regional level, at election campaign events, in local pubs and meetings in the party offices. Once I had gathered names of people willing to be interviewed, I went down again and again to speak with them. About half-way during the project, the states of Brandenburg and Saxony introduced new Covid-19 guidelines, restricting those unvaccinated or unrecovered from access to cafés and bars. Since many AfD members oppose vaccines, I ended up on long walks through November rain, in party offices, and in interviewee’s homes.
During that period, some of the mental images I collected and most of the speech I was confronted with was incredibly brutal—to an extent I could not have imagined when I had initially designed my research. Researching the far-right is crucial to our understanding of the opposition against stringent climate action and the oppression and violence experienced by those whom the far-right is rallying against. But, though important, timely, and necessary, it leaves you utterly shocked. It can make you lose faith in the possibility for positive change, burden you emotionally and mentally, and inject you with fear and anger. Whether it’s through desk-research or interview processes, being engaged in research on the far-right is straining—which is just one more reason why it is so helpful to be working in a Collective.
One of the catalysts for starting Sunlight Doesn't Need a Pipeline was that, in the UK, we can't take the existence of a cultural sphere that will fight for a Just Transition for granted. Objectively, there might be something we can call an ‘Artworld’, but it certainly doesn't mean everyone in it has a set of shared values that we are all working towards. From the top-down, the Climate Emergency is often treated in an anti-political way. There is no conversation about art institutions’ complicity in the Climate Crisis, nor any meaningful dialogue on how cultural systems and structures continue the configuration of colonial injustices across various bodies, races, and classes intersect and feed the situation. I feel this is something that is happening on the political stage as well. We can't assume governments (in the face of war, famine, economy, or lobbying) can or will do anything in the face of fossil fuel companies and their worldview of extractivism. Moreover, fossil fuel industries are actively supporting climate denialism, and funding white supremacy and far-right politics. There is a clear sign that the Left is fractured. Amongst all of this, why should we care what the far-right thinks about the Climate Emergency?
One of the climate movements’ strongest chants is “system change, not climate change”. Many different socio-ecological groups are making clear demands that the crisis we are facing no longer allows for us to tinker with our current arrangements, predominantly that of capitalism, but that we need to envision new forms of social, political, and economic organisation. But, alas, the Left is not the only force calling for a system change—the right is doing so as well.
I find André Gorz’s (1927–2007) distinction between “reformist reforms” and “non-reformist reforms” really insightful here. Gorz, a leading figure of political ecology as a discipline, claimed that reformist reforms are those that seek to stabilise a given system in times of crisis without tackling its root causes. This type of social change overcomes a particular problem, but not a whole system as such. Starting from the consideration of what is politically possible within a given system, reformist reforms are commissioned from the top-down, to put a bandage on the wound rather than investigating its origin and finding a holistic treatment. In our current situation of Climate Emergency, “green” capitalism is what you could call a reformist reform. None of the inherent contradictions of the capitalist ideology are challenged, as none of its inequalities are truly alleviated. Non-reformist reforms, on the other hand, want to make the cracks in the system more visible. Starting from considering what should be possible, non-reformist reforms ultimately want to initiate a process of changing the nature of a system. A non-reformist reform is a change orchestrated from the bottom-up that seeks to strategically open room for further non-reformist reforms. The decolonial degrowth movement is one example of this. This way, a paradigm shift from the capitalist system to a new system is triggered.
System change is beginning to gain traction in the public eye, but what is under discussed is how non-reformist reforms are also planned by the far-right. While my research has found that AfD’s brand of populism is not in opposition to capitalism, I have come across other groups further on the right that are seeking to alter capitalism only to strengthen fascism. In the epilogue to White Skin, Black Fuel, the Zetkin Collective states that any climate justice must be internationalist. But inevitably, it must also be anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-speciesist, anti-ableist and queer.
If we are going to build tangible alternatives, ignoring the brutality of the political scene is not an option. We need to understand how the organised far-right mobilises its followers. This insight can allow us to generate proposals that begin to disentangle ourselves from racist, classist, gender, ableist, and religion-based divisions. For example, decoupling a fear of losing one’s job from nationalist and racist aggression against immigrants.
Researching the political ecology of the far right teaches us that, both discursively and ideologically, the far-right is targeting BIPOCs, immigrants, women, queers, and transgender people in their denialism of climate change. Our work in the Collective sees the need to understand how concepts that we throw around are discursively rooted, and how they are used by political parties that we are standing up against. If we fail to understand far-right logics, we will fail to successfully build an allyship between various oppressed groups. In my work specifically, I try to expose these harsh realities, oppose them, and propose new ways of building communities. One cannot happen without the other.
Year-long debates between identity politics and class politics have left the Left fractured. What is lacking, is an understanding of the various ways in which an individual’s subjective pain and their struggles are connected to common oppressive structures. That might be through bad labour conditions, repression of queer identities, nationalism, suffering from climate destruction, but also suffering from mental health issues and experiencing burnout. Understanding that these issues are linked, and who is offering solutions to all of them (the Left) is important in building the alliance of the 99% that many scholars have called for. It is a way of overcoming the fracturing of the left. And maybe, as you write, understanding who is out there to seek destruction is an important lesson to not take the Left for granted anymore.
Your current research looks at the relations between the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a political far-right party in Germany, capitalist production, and labour. Historically, the rhetoric between work, efficiency, and ecology has been claimed by both committed Left environmentalists and far-right zealots. I'm interested in how the role of the worker intersects with extremist ideas and if this is changing in relation to today's Climate Emergency. Can you tell us more?
Labour is indeed a central theme that has arisen from my research. But it is specifically labour in the fossil industry, be that the lignite mining or other processes that are based upon fossil fuels, portrayed as good labour. My interviewees with the AfD illustrate that this happens on personal, regional, and national levels. In Germany, industrial labour is equated with the way the country has been able to acquire national strength in comparison and opposition to other countries. Working in the mining sector is understood to directly contribute to the national strength of the nation, which is portrayed as a ‘natural’ goal. Through this contribution, a sense of personal pride is developed, which leads to the evaluation that this labour is also good labour on a personal level. Specifically, lignite mining and the industrial sectors which established themselves in Lusatia because of the fossil fuels available there, are understood to have brought economic prosperity and importance to the region. This understanding again valorizes working in the fossil industry both on a personal and a national level. The centrality of industrial labour to what the interviewees describe as positive achievements and developments also implies that any other job that is not industrial is evaluated as less meaningful. Opposition against the energy transition is often framed in concern about unemployment, but what my research has found is that it is less about the number of workplaces but primarily about the type of new labour that is offered as a measure of energy transition. My interviewees show that these industrialised workers often framed the offer for alternative work in the service sector as an offence to those who have previously worked in the value generating fossil industrie(s).
Taking this insight into consideration is important when structuring the energy transition. Degrowth activists and post-Keynesian economists are calling for a Job Guarantee. This is a much more thought-through proposal than the more commonly known Universal Basic Income. Pavlina Tcherneva’s work is important in this regard. She introduces the Job Guarantee as “a permanent, federally funded, and locally administered program that supplies voluntary employment opportunities on demand for all who are ready and willing to work at a living wage.” She goes on to write “While it is first and foremost a jobs program, it has the potential to be transformative by advancing the public purpose and improving working conditions, people’s everyday lives, and the economy as a whole.” Democratically organised citizen councils could decide what higher aim labour should contribute to and clarify which kind of labour is relevant for this goal. For example, the achievement of a good life for all within planetary boundaries. The state could easily fund the provision of such jobs. Such a process could be a way to counteract the radical populist’s right’s dichotomy of good and bad labour. It could satisfy people’s desire to contribute to a common goal through their labour but would reframe this goal not as national strength but social and climate justice.
Many of SDNAP's research strands start with a conversation about the ethical systems we have today in the West against what is needed. Focusing on individual responsibility, a hallmark of the far-right, is a bad approach because it quickly becomes solipsistic and elides our complicity in contexts and systems of violence, oppression, and hate. There seems to be a link between denialism and individualist culture. Do you agree?
Yes, there is a link. However, I would like to highlight that—in my understanding—the link is much stronger in the (neo)liberal camp than on the right. The latter is also centred on collectivist ideas. But who is counted as belonging to the collective is demarcated by highly destructive and violent ideologies of hot nationalism, racism, and the like. Just like the left needs to oppose both non-reformist reforms from the right and reformist reforms from neoliberals, we need to understand that many of the ideas that the far-right is taking to an extreme have their root in banal liberal thought. I am using the attributes hot and banal here following Michael Billing, who coined these terms in 1995. Banal nationalism is the background reproduction of the idea of a nation in everyday discourse. Raising a flag, stating your citizenship when filling out documents, or listening to news reports on what is happening in this country or in another are examples of this. Hot nationalism describes ways of acting upon the ideology of nationalism that are based on isolationism, violence, and a fixed demarcation of the other. We need to understand hot and banal nationalism not as dichotomous but as two sides of a spectrum. Thus, hot nationalism, which the AfD and other far-right actors are advocating for and acting upon, is dependent on banal nationalism. We should not only be wary of the right, but also of neoliberal ideas.
But yes, the right is predominantly making use of this individualistic stance when defining a strong leading figure that can be resurrected above the collective. And when defining its subalterns, it picks upon individual politicians, blames individuals for not acting according to rules; and the AfD is a vanguard for a highly individualistic economic policy regime called “ordoliberalism”—as it were, the traditional German take on neoliberalism.
As I write these questions, I am thinking about the role of fossil fuel infrastructure in Ukraine. I have been reading many articles that claim the war on Ukraine is a “fossil fuel war”. Western governments are trying to untangle themselves from Russian oil and gas, Fossil Fuel companies are using the atrocity as a time to lobby for more drilling, pipelines are being used by Putin, the US, and the EU as economic and political weapons. Has war and infrastructure featured in the work of the collective? Can you say a bit about this?
In White Skin, Black Fuel the Collective describes how coal-fired steamboats were first used by the British Empire in 1840 against Muhammad Ali, ruler over Egypt. Ali had the ambition to establish an Arab Empire to span “from Cairo to Istanbul” and to build a “modern industry centred on cotton” (p. 343). Both endeavours enraged the British and made British Foreign Officials “look upon his boasted civilization of Egypt as the arrantest humbug” (p. 344). The British started several bombardments onto port cities of Ali’s empire. Steam was praised as providing “great superiority”, so much that the British “shall keep them moving” towards more port towns selected for destruction (p.344). Other than sailing boats, which were reliant on strong winds, coal-fired steamboats could run non-stop, full throttle. Fossil Imperialism is not only the extraction of fossil fuels by force from other countries, but also the waging of war against others through the force of fossil-fueled infrastructure.
In my own research, participants have equated the transition from fossil fuels to renewables with a catastrophe that will usher in civil war. This dystopian outlook is interlinked with climate denialism. The AfD does not want to accept that any further delay of this transition is what will bring about dystopia. For the AfD and other far-right nationalists, the fear of a civil war is linked with the idea of eco-nationalism; those ecological policies will send the German state, in all its glory, into terminal decline. Reading between the lines of one of my participant’s interviews, he is claiming that when the energy transition arrives, we will live in darkness and poverty, and then it will be those wanting to defend the nation fighting against those who—in the perspective of the interviewee—are set out to destroy it. These are scary remarks, revealing a veritable addiction to fossil fueled infrastructure.
But there’s yet another way in which the climate crisis, war, and infrastructure are interrelated. Andreas Malm, member of our collective and leading scholar of human ecology, is pioneering what can be called Ecological Leninism. Taking inspiration from the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, who in a Russia riddled by war, famine, and economic breakdown in 1917, called for the seizure of state power against the root cause of the conflict: capitalist empires. Lenin was inspired by Karl Marx’ and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848) that claimed for the fight for socialism to end “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”. Lenin wanted to use the planning powers of the state to wage a war not against other nations, but against capitalism. Malm is not fond of social democracy nor anarchism, for the former has too often been a bedfellow of capitalism, and the latter rejects the use of powerful structures, such as the state, in their ideas of revolution. Just like Lenin sought to utilise the state to organise the food production system, the banking system, and initiate a transition to redirect production for the common good, Malm calls for an ecological wartime mobilisation against the systematic challenge that is climate change. A strong state—and this does not imply an authoritarian state, it could also be based upon citizen council’s decisions—rapidly and stringently changes the nature of supply chains, resource extraction processes, distribution of goods, and the establishment of ecologically and socially just social structures.
Personally, I am having a tough time positioning myself to the idea of wartime mobilisation, or rather, I don’t quite agree with the language but the notion makes us understand the urgency of the multifold crises we are facing, and the tremendous scale on which any meaningful transition needs to occur. It makes us think beyond what is currently understood as possible, thereby representing a non-reformist reform as Gorz would hold it. We need to make sure that the left, not the right, has access to state power and planning capabilities. Nonetheless, I would appreciate it if it were possible to trigger decisive action not based on the idea of a “war” but based on a common understanding of the current oppression and destruction of capitalism and a shared desire to build a better, fairer, and more just system.
Thank you so much for your time and considered answers. Where can we find out more about your work?
You can check out the Zetkin Collective’s website, or proceed to buy the book in English or French. Some members of the Collective have also presented the book and its main points on several podcasts, you can tune into the episode’s from 12 Rules for WHAT, or Critical Theory in Context. Most of the members from the Collective have also published their own research on the far-right—you can look them up on our website, or browse through Lise’s Benoist work here and Andreas Malm’s work here. And, if you want to reach out, you can do so through twitter.
Tatjana Söding is a research member of the Zetkin Collective—a group of scholars, activists, and students working on the political ecology of the far right. Currently, her work investigates the political ecology of the Alternative für Deutschland. She holds a MSc in Human Ecology from Lund University. She is a founding member of the student-led initiative, Erasmus by Train and engages actively in the climate justice movement. Her further research interests include economic and social limits to growth, socio-ecologically just mobility, radical democracy, and queer ecology.