#rp23 keynote speaker Matthias Quent: On climate, inequality and the far right.

13.03.2023 - What are the consequences of the ecological transformation for social polarisation and the far right's fight against climate activism?
A portrait photo of Matthias Quent.
Photo Credit
Sio Motion

Growing up in Thuringia, Matthias Quent already dealt with right-wing violence in his youth and has since been committed to more solidarity and the strengthening of democratic culture. He founded and directed the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society (IDZ) in Jena until 2022. DIE ZEIT selected him as one of the 100 most important young East Germans in 2019. As a professor of sociology, Quent is currently researching right-wing extremism, radicalisation, racism and hatred at Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences.

Together with Christoph Richter and Axel Salheiser, Matthias Quent published the book "Klimarassismus: Der Kampf der Rechten gegen die ökologische Wende" (Environmental racism: The fight of the far right against the ecological transformation) at the end of 2022. Quent's current research focus is on opportunities and challenges for democratic culture in the metaverse: What social consequences result from digitalisation and mediatisation? How can social networks enable political participation and strengthen social inclusion?

In 2021 Matthias Quent spoke at re:publica about the AfD between super election year and the "Querdenken" movement. At #rp23, we look forward to his exciting insights on inequality, radicalisation and democratic participation in the digital space.


Let’s talk about #CASH. An interview with Matthias Quent.

You are currently working on environmental racism. What role does "cash" play in this context?

The causes of climate change and the colonialist and industrial exploitation of people and natural resources are closely linked. Both go hand in hand with an extremely unequal distribution of cultural power and "cash" - i.e. financial profits as well as growth in wealth, especially in the industrialised nations, which bear the main historical responsibility for climate-damaging emissions. This unequal distribution of "cash" and cultural power – including concepts such as "white supremacy" and "hegemonic masculinity" – are central motives for right-wing radicalisation. Social inequality must either be justified or repressed in order to prevent revolts and revolutions. Why was slavery considered acceptable in Europe and North America? Why is it considered legitimate for people in the Global North to claim many times the resources for themselves compared to the Global South and thus produce global crises – for example in terms of the CO2 budget? Why do those who are least responsible for climate change – BIPoC and poorer people – suffer the most? Profits and privileges mainly reach the Global North and the richest. Although they are unilaterally glorified as "freedom", they first destroy the livelihoods of those who are made invisible or declared the "others". Those with whom one does not show solidarity, whose misery one considers justifiable and whose interests one subordinates to one's own national or economic goals.

What does this have to do with the radical right's struggle against socio-ecological transformation?

Racism, nationalism and libertarianism provide the most extreme narratives of justification for these inequalities. Right-wing ideologies distract from the social responsibility of the profiteers of the inequality regime in the centre of society, which is reinforced by the climate crisis. For decades, the fight against climate change has been obstructed with massive funding from neoliberal and increasingly right-wing networks. Last but not least, we say "people before profits": Only a fair distribution of "cash" might alleviate the effects of the climate crisis and save democracy. "Climate dictatorship!" and "eco-socialism!" right-wingers retort to demands for justice and large parts of the so-called centre join in to preserve their privileges.

How do you experience the protests of the climate activists and the reactions in response? 

The dynamics of the protests and the public response are very interesting, especially with regard to the meanings attributed to symbols, narratives and positioning and how the discourse follows the form of action: Everyone has an opinion on this that is as polarising as possible, but from which little results politically in the end. The protests themselves - not the arguments, the desperation, the anger and the powerlessness of the activists – seem to me relatively small and harmless compared to previous protest movements and also compared to aggressive and authoritarian counter-reactions. When powerful politicians and media murmur about vigilante justice, drag down elements of the rule of law and lump civil disobedience together with terrorism, this is more dangerous for democratic culture than when a few activists fight for a speed limit with superglue.

Let's take a look towards re:publica 23: What role do digitalisation and new technologies play in your research? 

Like the ecological transformation, the digital transformation is a process with many levels and faces. In addition to opportunities and potentials, every social transformation also brings dangers of social upheavals, agitational instrumentalisation, aggressive counter-reactions and ruthless profiteers with political or economic interests. In general, the dangers of alienation grow when far-reaching transformations proceed quickly and unevenly. If developments are pushed forward to which parts of the population do not (yet) have access, can hardly influence them, do not understand them, do not benefit from them or even feel threatened by them, conflicts are pre-programmed. This applies to the ecological transformation as well as to the next stages of digitalisation and its consequences, which I am currently researching.

How relevant are developments in the metaverse for you?

Developments under the term metaverse are very relevant, especially in the context of my work in the European Metaverse Research Network. I am particularly interested in the impact the metaverse will have on democracy: How can we use new, more intense spaces of experience to strengthen participation, empathy and social cohesion, and how can toxic side effects such as radicalisation, hatred and political manipulation at least be reduced? When the metaverse becomes real and the more users there are, the more social problems are reflected there. So how should spaces in the metaverse be designed to reduce rather than exacerbate these problems? How can we better understand what augmented reality does to social relations and political structures – especially when this augmented reality is based on partially or fully synthesised data and interactions? How can civil society qualify to raise voices on this? How can we productively address these developments in academic teaching? I think it is important to explore these questions epistemically and discuss the technologies and consequences of the metaverse before developments overtake us.

The countdown to re:publica 23 is on. Even though a lot will still happen – is there anything you would like to discuss with us at #rp23?

The question already contains a piece of the answer: I'm concerned with whether and how it's possible to escape the trendiness and information spam of everyday life and focus on the important challenges – and to do so without losing touch with the present. I'm curious to see if this succeeds at re:publica. Somewhat less philosophically, I am interested in how new technologies, platforms and communities enable or prevent co-determination and inclusion. This concerns above all people with less "cash".

Last but not least: Do you have any recent reading/podcast or video recommendations?

Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Ministry for the Future" (2020) is absolutely at the top of the list of books from this decade that you should have read. I just watched the feature film "Athena" on Netflix and can recommend it. Also, Craig Frehlich's podcast "VR in Education" has some really interesting episodes.