Revolution at 100: Alyssa Battistoni
- What remains of a politico-cultural horizon beyond contemporary capitalism? Is the term “revolution” appropriate today? Why or why not?
“Socialism or barbarism” works well enough as a summary of the horizon beyond contemporary capitalism, but the path to socialism remains unclear—so the horizon beyond capitalism often appears to be the end of the world.
By most estimates, the effects of climate change will be drastic and devastating by mid-century—and likely sooner. Each year that passes brings us closer to a worst-case scenario. Revolution can seem like the only form of political action capable of making significant enough changes quickly enough to avert disaster. And indeed, as the sense of urgency around climate has grown, direct action, civil disobedience, and other disruptive tactics have increasingly dominated the climate movement’s efforts to block fossil fuel infrastructure.
Drastic and rapid change is obviously necessary; so is speculative, creative, ambitious political action. We might call such action revolution, but in a world of global wealth disparity, widespread automation, communications technology, climate change, it is likely to look considerably different from the revolutions of the past.
So I’m wary of describing the kinds of changes we need in terms of revolution, which implies a single moment of transformation. Even a revolution can’t change everything fast enough—even revolutionary change is lurching and partial, incomplete and insufficient, uneven and dispersed. Nor will there be a single moment of apocalyptic collapse. Things can always get worse! It will take sustained action—and a lot of work—over time to make them better.
- Where does the Revolution exist in contemporary cultural politics, if it exists at all?
The Revolution seems to be everywhere in contemporary cultural politics, but usually in a quasi-ironic vein that could be dismissed as youthful nostalgia for a time of radical possibility. However rose-tinted, that nostalgia is a good thing insofar as it expresses a yearning for radical politics capable of transforming the world drastically overnight. But while I enjoy a good hammer-and-sickle meme as much as the next millennial socialist, the danger is that we fixate too much on the models and choices made by iconic revolutionaries a century ago, declaring ourselves partisans of one camp or another, rather than understanding those choices as a product of specific historical circumstances. Rather than taking certain strategies or positions as timeless, better to read history for lessons about the possibilities and challenges presented by different material conditions and political circumstances, and to think through our own times with the same specificity and precision.
- What new meanings or manifestations might revolution take on in the post- or neo-colonial present, one threatened with ecological as well as politico-economic and military catastrophe?
Capitalists have tended to treat what happens beyond the immediate site of production as beyond their concern: what happens in the factory matters, but the smoke the factory spews into the surrounding air is someone else’s problem. Some anti-capitalists have made the mistake of following them, treating struggles over the means of production as the only real anti-capitalist revolution. But capitalism has shaped our entire world, from what we eat in the morning before work to the composition of the very atmosphere. We need to think as expansively about the scope of political action against it.
Understanding daily life as a site of politics doesn’t mean simply engaging in lifestyle politics. Capitalism doesn’t really care if you go vegan; it does care if you organize a coalition of fast food and meat packing workers to fight alongside animal rights activists against the treatment of certain human and animal lives as cheap and disposable.
Radical action for climate justice is already being led by communities on the front-lines of climate impacts and fossil fuel extraction: the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline offered one vision of the kind of collective action we need, one led by the Standing Rock Sioux and other Indigenous water protectors and joined by veterans, environmentalists, priests, farmers, movie stars.
Ongoing struggles over social reproduction—over the kinds of work that go into living a good life—are another crucial site of climate politics, even if they aren’t often framed in those terms.
We can and should imagine many more creative alliances: unionized hotel workers fighting alongside advocates for high-speed rail and transit workers unions; health care workers fighting alongside day laborers affected by pollution and heat waves; city planners fighting alongside tenants’ unions; workers of all kinds fighting alongside the un- and under-employed to demand global wealth redistribution, ownership of common resources, and more leisure for all.
The political tactics and strategies appropriate for these new subjects and coalitions will also require new thinking. What, for example, would a strike look like for a care worker? For a surrogate who gestates a child? What might it look like for a community that tends a forest—or, for that matter, for the forest itself?
- Is there hope for political transformation within the terms of actually existing representative democracy? Is it possible to address climate change adequately within the terms of capitalism?
Transformative change requires many kinds of politics, including but not limited to the politics of representative democracy. Instead of seeing certain kinds of politics as inherently “reformist” or “revolutionary,” people seeking transformation should make strategic choices about how to engage in different kinds of politics. From this perspective, the institutions of representative democracy might help us achieve certain aims at certain times, even if we recognize their limits. The trick is to make plans and strategic choices about how to use one’s time and resources while also remaining open to moments of possibility, opportunities for action, and sudden shifts in the political landscape.
It’s particularly important not to give up on representative democracy because control of the state has serious implications for the terms on which we wage political struggle itself. The erosion of civil liberties and criminalization of protest, the rise of the carceral state, detention of undocumented immigrants and attacks on labor organizing—all have serious consequences for the very possibility of radical action.
Capitalism can’t address climate change, but nor can we rely on climate change to finish capitalism off—it can stagger along for long enough to do plenty of damage. We can’t wait till “after the revolution” to address climate change—there’s too much to do in too little time. And there’s no way to avoid the problem of politics: we need to actively think, work, and plan for the end of capitalism and what comes next, to bring about its end rather than waiting for a fatal contradiction to bring it down. So we should use existing representative democracy within existing capitalism to press for changes that make further transformation possible—including changes that will keep the planet habitable as long as possible.
- What do art, aesthetic action, and visual culture have to offer when it comes to the imperatives of political transformation? What role might they have, more broadly, in building and envisioning political transformation?
Art and culture have a particularly crucial role to play in envisioning and bringing about a vision of the good life oriented not around consumption but around leisure, freedom, and beauty.
When it comes to climate change, political transformation will also require transformation of the built environment so as to make low-carbon life possible and pleasurable. We need to be building a world that will last—a world of things that are functional and beautiful, a world of spaces that create the conditions for collective pleasure, public beauty, and communal luxury. Owen Hatherley writes of architecture that it “can’t be ignored, can’t be passively consumed, not if you have to live in it.” We should pay more attention to other kinds of art that can’t be ignored, that have to be lived in and with, from architecture to infrastructure. In particular, I think of places like the Barbican, in London—a classic work of utopian architecture, built to rehabilitate areas decimated by bombings. It is a space for both art and life, comprised of public space and private living quarters, severe concrete and verdant gardens, densely packed but spacious, with surprises around every corner.
Transformation will also require changes in social relations. Here, I think of the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s “maintenance art,” which draws attention to the ephemeral, repetitive labor that daily life requires rather than the novelty of the avant-garde. Ukeles doesn’t romanticize revolutionary politics; rather, the Manifesto for Maintenance Art pointedly draws attention to “the sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” I take this not as a disincitement to radical change, but as a reminder that its scope must include the most menial and mundane aspects of daily life. As the artist-in-residence of the New York City Department of Sanitation, Ukeles produced a number of pieces in collaboration with sanitation workers and the city of New York. Every city department, every public agency, should have an artist-in residence who works with workers themselves to make art that recognizes and celebrates their work.
- How might different subjects—whether differently abled, aged, or particularly vulnerable and precarious—be unevenly affected by the prospect of revolution/political transformation? What work is being done, or needs to be done, to ensure that radical transformation is radically inclusive?
Anything as tumultuous as a revolution or other abrupt forms of political transformation is likely to make life more precarious for everyone. It’s not possible to avoid that upheaval entirely, but it’s possible to think consciously about it, and essential to plan ahead. Political organizing must include vulnerable people: visions of political possibility must reflect their own desires, needs, and wants, and they must be part of the building the collective care and support that radical political projects can create and provide.
Disasters offer a useful lesson in differential vulnerability, one particularly necessary in the age of climate change: we can learn from the impact of floods and hurricanes how to better support people’s different needs in tumultuous times. Fortunately, in disasters we also see people come to each other’s aid in times of need, and can think about how to better care for one another amidst turmoil.
- In our counter-factual, anti-regulatory, climate change denying era, how might the arts support scientific endeavors? How might the Sciences learn from art activism?
Climate change denial in the face of mounting evidence has lead to a lot of hand-wringing about how to better communicate science to lay people, including through art: art is supposed to have the ability to tell a human story about a distant and inhuman problem, the ability to appeal to people’s emotions in a way that will motivate action where dry facts have so far failed. But I tend to think the turn to art in support of science is born out of a misidentification of the problem. It’s true that climate change is notoriously complex, so art that makes it more visible and tangible is interesting and important, but climate denial isn’t actually a matter of understanding the science or not—it’s been deliberately propagated by fossil fuel companies and the politicians in thrall to them. I also often wonder what art activism aims to do—spurring reflection on climate change is a start, but the path from thinking to acting is more tenuous. I think both arts and sciences should engage more with politics. I’d love to see more explicitly political art meant to be used out in the world—things like signs, posters, buttons, things people encounter in the world even if they never step foot in a gallery, things that are hard to ignore. And I’d love to see artists and scientists banding together to insist that public support for both kinds of work is a necessary part of a climate-stable future.
Alyssa Battistoni is a PhD student in political theory at Yale University and a member of the editorial board of Jacobin.