“You will never convince them”
that is okay!
Is there a right way to act on climate change? Dr. Amanda Machin speaks about the meaning of the “green agonistic democracy”, her role as a teacher and memorable university experiences including former prime ministers.
VON CLARA BÖHME
One memorable experience during your time at university?
Getting my Ph.D. in London was a very important moment and also incredibly nerve wracking. Another memorable moment was when I went to a nightclub with my supervisor, Chantal Mouffe, and a few others she supervised. We were dancing and then we realized that David Cameron was also there. Not very cool but quite memorable.
One thing you wish you would have known when 22?
I wish I would have known to enjoy myself more and be a bit more confident. I think everyone looks back and thinks: Be a bit more confident and relax a bit.
One person you always wanted to have coffee with?
Dead or alive?
I don't mind.
I did my Ph.D on Wittgenstein and at the moment I am really interested in the work of Simone de Beauvoir so either of them would be absolutely fascinating. They are both quite unusual characters, not only in their writing but also in their lifestyles. I would love to meet them. Wittgenstein in Vienna and Simone in Paris. For someone alive I would choose the comedian Tom Walker who plays Jonathan Pie. He is brilliant, he has far more political acuity than most serious political journalists!
What are you currently working on?
Too much. I am trying to finish my book which is called “Bodies of Democracy''. I am really excited about it. It is looking at the way that human bodies are involved in various aspects of democracy. The book is nearly finished, I completed the final chapter today. It was supposed to be finished in April but with the pandemic I had to push the deadline back. I am also working on a Green Democratic Transformation. It's about the question of how we might transform into a more sustainable society, democratically.
What impact do you wish your work will have?
Unfortunately, these days in academia we are always worried about “impact factors”. But it’s quite difficult when you work on theory, because it is not like you have an immediate practical implication of it. What I hope is to provoke people to think critically. And I always think that my work is a contribution to a conversation - an ongoing one about democracy and about environmental politics.
Would you consider yourself an activist?
No. I wouldn’t. It’s funny you ask that, because a few weeks ago I was on a panel with another researcher and some members of Extinction Rebellion in Denmark. They were basically arguing that we, as University teachers, should take our students out to protest. I think that’s not my role at all! I think my role is to help and empower students to understand and grasp the political situation in order to become activists. And also for activists to become more engaged with the theoretical understandings of what they’re doing. I mean, of course I’ve been on marches. But I don’t really have a background in activism.
How does your typical work day look like?
It really varies depending on whether I’m teaching and what meetings I have and what I’m working on. But at the moment it is pretty boring, for obvious reasons.
How does a project of yours start and where do you find inspiration?
I rather think projects tend to find us. I have got so many ideas that I would love to work on. But it normally just happens that you go in one direction or other. Maybe a colleague asks you to join a panel or to contribute to a special issue or to work on something with them.
Have you ever worked on a project for a long time but couldn't finish it? Why didn’t you and how did you cope with that?
I have often worked on projects and didn’t finish them, but I think, when I have invested that much time, I will normally push it through. That’s the kind of character you need to have as an academic. You need to be quite bloody minded. But there are lots of pieces that I didn’t go back to. They are in the cupboard ready to be worked on again when I have time.
Could you explain the term “green agonistic democracy” for us?
The starting point of green agonistic democracy is the rejection of the idea that we need to put democracy on hold in order to have a sustainability transformation. Lots of people would agree with that, but agonism asserts that disagreement between different approaches is not just tolerated but actually celebrated. So the term “green agonistic democracy” means that a sustainability transformation has to be a democratic one that embraces plurality, differences and disagreement.
What are the benefits of the agonist pathway?
The strength of an agonistic approach is that it does not try to eradicate those disagreements and differences that will always exist in any political room. The agonistic approach uses them to invigorate and enliven democracies and in that way avoids ending up excluding certain perspectives and certain groups of people.
How do we get from the point of celebrating disagreement to a point where we can actually act on protecting the climate? Don’t we need compromises to get there?
No, what you need in a democracy is a majority decision! I keep saying it, there are examples like the welfare state or giving women the vote where we didn’t have consensus or general agreement, we had a majority support and that is what you need with climate politics! You need enough people, you need a movement or a democratic majority which you create by having a strong vision and a strong alternative to the status quo. You will never convince the climate sceptics or the bankers that are investing in fossil fuels or the big energy or oil companies. You might convince enough citizens to have the majority decision that you need. But you will never have general agreement!
Since you have mentioned the climate sceptics: How should one deal with conspiracy theories and scepticism within the agonistic democracy?
What I mean by “celebrating disagreement” is celebrating the fact that in a democracy you can have alternative perspectives that are not only legitimate but are also somehow respectful to each other. It is dangerous to say that certain perspectives are not legitimate, because people might feel unheard. This can lead to the emergence of antagonistic politics, where you have political opponents that are basically fighting each other and society is being pulled to pieces. At that point, a functioning democracy is impossible. You can disagree with people but saying that their perspectives are illegitimate is a different thing. I mean, the conspiracy theories around coronavirus are just nuts! I don’t agree with them at all, but if they want to say that, they can! As long as they are not getting violent or telling me that I can’t have my opinion, that is okay! The problem with climate sceptics is that they are often funded by big companies which have this huge power but in order to expose that you also need to really expose what they are saying and engage with it! And still, you will never convince them. Actually, Naomi Klein had this right years ago when she wrote about climate change politics in North America and noticed that climate change is a political issue and that people are disagreeing with climate change, not because they care particularly about the climate but because they are realising the political implications of acknowledging climate change.
Is there a limit of disagreement on the agonist pathway?
It is very important that we don’t have disagreements that become violent or about destroying enemies. This is Chantal Mouffe's work basically, that I refer to. She says, democratic institutions have to safeguard the expression of legitimate differences in order to prevent disagreements from becoming antagonistic. So, there is a limit on the expression of disagreement but in terms of what you can disagree on, no! You can disagree on what democracy means, you can disagree on whether climate change exists and if there is a coronavirus or not but how you express that disagreement is limited.
You claim that: “disagreement over environmental issues between political groups enlivens democratic politics, for it is only with real political differences that passionate identifications are made and strong coalitions are formed” I would say that we have quite different opinions on the matter of climate change in Germany, what do you mean by “real political differences” and how do they differ from those that we have?
I would say in the German Bundestag, we don’t! You have the AfD which is a real difference, because they deny climate change. But the green party, the CDU and the SPD are increasingly becoming very similar in their perspectives which is problematic, because then you only have differences in terms of party names but no strong alternatives to the status quo and the mainstream. Actually, one of my Masters students, Michael Hermsdorf did an brilliant in-depth discourse analysis of the manifestos of the German Green Party and showed that there are some radical aspects in their manifestos but increasingly they are becoming very mainstream and light which might be one of the reasons you have the AfD, because they are the only party who are actually saying anything different. I think a strong left that offers a clear alternative is also really important! So, I think what I am mostly referring to with “real political differences” are differences you see in political parties. But I would agree that we see strong alternatives emerging in the form of social movements, often led by younger people or children. We will see what happens there. I haven’t decided yet on Fridays For Future and some of the other climate movements. The fact that they are children, demanding political rights and being involved in the political room is really radical but how they talk about referring to scientists and experts and how they ask political parties to play a big role is not. Another of my Masters students, Moritz Struwe, has done an interesting analysis of the views on climate governance in FFF and shows that these really vary. There are great students at Witten working on really interesting topics.
How should science be referred to in the debate on climate change?
We obviously need science! We wouldn’t even know the climate was changing if it wasn’t for science. Maybe now we can see the temperatures going up each year but we only understand climate change and its various aspects through science. From my understanding it is important to have scientists and experts that inform politics and allow citizens to refine and understand their own positions. It becomes dangerous when we expect science to tell us what to do, which is something we see a lot in climate change politics. Scientists can only make predictions on what might be happening in the future, they can tell us about the climate system and possible technologies to reduce carbon emissions but they can’t tell us which pathway to take or which decision to make. Whether we decide that nuclear energy or geo-engineering or other technologies are the ones to use. These are political decisions! So, how should science be referred to? As an incredibly important and valuable resource!
How can each of us engage in protecting the climate?
Respecting differences and trying to form coalitions that will lead to radical change rather than trying to convince everybody of the truth or what the right decision is. It is about connecting up with people who have similar understandings and then fighting politically for those changes. I guess, what we can do to get to a green agonistic democracy is realise the contingency of any form of life and to embrace plurality and differences. One of the positive contributions of this pandemic crisis, which was so terrible in so many ways, was to show us how quickly things can happen. I think that this crisis is a historical moment where change could start. We will have to see.
This is difficult. I would say something by the Beastie Boys.
Are you more of a north or south englander?
Definitely south, I’m very sarcastic and I don’t appreciate the high cuisine of chips with curry sauce.
What's your favorite drink?
It depends on the time of day so either coffee or gin tonic but with “Sloe Gin” in it!
Dr. Amanda Machin
Chair for International Political Studies, UW/H
Publications on Radical Green Democracy, Green Democratic Transformation and many more.