Meeting with Renaud Duterme, author of an exciting Little manual for a combat geography (La Découverte). The book mobilizes the tools of geography to take a sharp look at the contradictions of the contemporary world. And opens up avenues to grasp the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
Understanding our world requires understanding the logic of capitalism, in particular its developments since the 1970s. And understanding capitalism involves analyzing its spatial and geographic dimension. These are the two starting points for Renaud Duterme in his latest book. He summons some essential figures of critical thinking from the last hundred years, from Karl Polanyi to Naomi Klein via David Harvey, as well as less well-known works, and invites us to a geography of combat more than ever necessary in the face of commodification of the world and the ongoing ecological crisis. Interview.
The book starts from a simple thesis: geography is essential for understanding the world. Does it also make it possible to throw a specific light on the current pandemic, its origins, its developments?
Renaud Duterme – Of course, and perhaps more than any other discipline. If the first epidemics probably date from the Neolithic, they took a major turn with the interconnection of the different regions of the world. The Roman Empire has already suffered some epidemiological escapades due to its size and the multiplication of trade routes within it. We know of course the case of the Black Death at the end of the European Middle Ages which also has its origin in the trade routes crossing Eurasia from east to west.
Today, globalization has probably reached a climax, with the scale and speed of communications between all countries taking place at an unprecedented speed. It is therefore hardly surprising that the transmission of contagious diseases takes place just as quickly. It is also significant that, initially, the virus mainly followed the route of the main air routes to quickly find itself on the five continents.
So we see here one of the excesses of an economic system which considers hypermobility as a central value of its functioning as well as the vulnerability that this situation poses to many societies once this mobility is hampered. An example to illustrate this: the concerns of the European agri-food sector about the prohibition of movement of tens of thousands of workers usually crossing borders to serve as cheap labor on the farms of neighboring countries.
You recall how geography is a tool for the ruling classes, who base their political and economic power through spatial strategies at different scales. Could we paraphrase the title of the famous work of Yves Lacoste and say: geography, it serves, first, to dominate? And even more so in times of crisis?
RD – Absolutely. In fact, a large part of the strategies of the ruling classes is aimed at mastering space. Just look at the geography of a large multinational. The latter will establish its various subsidiaries around the world to benefit from the advantages that certain countries have to offer it (low wages, efficient transport infrastructure, weak environmental legislation, non-existent taxes).
This is an underestimated element to explain the neoliberal wave of the 1980s. This counter-offensive against workers’ rights could not have been carried out with such violence without the immeasurable progress in transport and communications. This has enabled large companies and large financial groups to make the planet their playground and thereby put states in competition, which will have to increasingly comply with the wishes of these powers to remain “competitive” in the big world market.
This point is fundamental to understanding the dumping in the fiscal, wage but also environmental fields, which is at work and which subjects the whole of society to market logic since all the populations and social movements are in permanently threatened with “blackmailing offshoring” in the event of strengthening of standards in these areas.
Hypermobility of capital is also a powerful lever of power for large banks and other investment funds of all kinds since the ease of raising and moving considerable sums allows these players to speculate as they please on the States, the companies or raw materials. With all the dramatic consequences for the populations of the North as of the South.
Several authors have woven a link between the coronavirus pandemic and the ecological crisis, itself attributable to the logic of limitless accumulation that governs the contemporary economy. How does a “spatial look at the ecological emergency” support this idea?
RD – I am not an epidemiologist so I cannot speak with precision about the Covid-19 case. It seems that, in this case, it is more the trade in animal species that is the main cause of its transmission to humans.
That being said, it is clear that the rampant destruction of ecosystems (in particular tropical forests), the artificialisation of natural habitats and global warming favor contacts between micro-organisms and human societies, raising fears of new episodes health crisis. The Ebola epidemic, moreover, has much more direct links with the ecological destruction taking place on the African continent.
To return to a spatial view, what must be emphasized is the fact that capitalism, in order to last, has always needed to externalize the ecological impacts inherent in its logic of unlimited production in regions other than those where it was gradually gaining ground. It is only in this way that he was able to achieve a certain legitimacy with populations who actually saw their material conditions improve but without seeing the negative consequences since these were delayed either over time (think of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere), or in space.
Thus, we too often forget that what we call the “development” of the rich countries could only be done by drawing the ecosystems from other continents. This element is constant in the history of capitalism and this today (think of the ecological impact of digital technologies and renewable energies, which is very little mentioned because it is outsourced outside our borders).
However, it goes without saying that this logic of externality cannot continue indefinitely, in particular when capitalism has spread to the whole planet and the number of “virgin” spaces of pollution of all kinds is reduced like skin of grief. This logic therefore probably reaches its limits and, as a consequence of the globalization of these nuisances, very few countries will escape the flashback, even the most prosperous (let us take a close look at the fires that swept all of the continents inhabited in 2019).
In a recent column, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han evokes the blindness of European countries, which have entrenched themselves behind their national borders instead of collaborating in the fight against the pandemic. Should we see this as a reaction of the States to a situation which largely escapes them, in the context of “capitalism without borders” and unrestrained competition between territories?
RD – This situation illustrates the ambiguous relationship that capitalism maintains with borders. At first glance, one might think that its objective is to abolish borders. And to some extent, that’s true. At least for the capital, the goods and the wealthiest of us. But, beyond these categories, capitalism can only exist within a context of wealth inequalities, in particular to, as we have seen, externalize its ecological impacts, but also to take advantage of cheaper labor or to sell goods that are not sold in saturated national markets. Consequently, capitalism can very well live with controlled borders, as it has proven for a number of years with the militarization of controls between many countries.
In addition, this opening of borders to capital and goods (this globalized capitalism) leads to growing insecurity in many aspects of daily life (job losses, community tensions, lack of money for public services, armed conflicts, epidemics), which is likely to reinforce the idea of border closings, especially among the losers of this form of globalization. Since the latter has not kept its promises, it would be better to fall back on our territory / culture / nation, even at the expense of others. It is for this reason that, when you think about it, the best ally of the various xenophobic and identity parties that abound around the world is indeed this globalized capitalism generating insecurity and frustrations. Obviously, the current health crisis provides an additional argument for all these parties on a silver platter.
One last thing in relation to the forum you mentioned. This crisis also reveals another great tendency of capitalism: that of rebounding from the shocks it provokes. Here again, we see that the general confinement and the complications to limit the transmission of the virus push many actors to encourage an increased use of new digital technologies, in particular in the fields of surveillance, leisure, and even education. remotely. Which, in the absence of mobilization and protests from the greatest number, will open new markets for large companies in the sector (while destroying whole swathes of the contact society) and generalize the logic of particularly effective social control. In short, elements perfectly compatible with the pursuit of this deadly system.