Revolution at 100: Ashley Dawson

  1. What remains of a politico-cultural horizon beyond contemporary capitalism? Is the term “revolution” appropriate today? Why or why not?

The revolutionary energies that manifested earlier this decade in the Arab Spring and Occupy movements have been beaten back and neofascist political formations are on the ascendancy in many parts of the world, from India to Brazil, Austria to the US. But insurrectionary energies and formations are still alive - witness the ongoing impact of Black Lives Matter in the belly of the imperialist beast as well as the vibrancy of transnational organizations like La Via Campesina. The election of Trump has galvanized progressives in the US and led to the growth of the Left. Although much of this ferment is still rather inchoate and vaguely socialist, truly anti-systemic movements exist at a number of geographic scales and in various sites. The ongoing lurch towards planetary ecocide makes the need for system change rather than reformism clearer than ever.

  1. Where does the Revolution exist in contemporary cultural politics, if it exists at all?

The first place to look for revolutionary cultural values is among frontline communities, particularly indigenous peoples. Their steadfast resistance to extractives and their articulation of non-anthropocentric values are a beacon for progressives of all stripes. The allied movements in Blockadia are a good place to look for a broader cultural politics that could be called revolutionary, but I would also suggest that links exist and should be strengthened with anti-racist movements such as Black Lives Matter.

  1. 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?

The clearest novel formation has to do with efforts of grassroots social movements to work horizontally while still putting pressure on existing states at various geographical scales. The struggle for energy democracy is a good example of this: the goal is to established decentralized forms of power generation in a way that dovetails with horizontals political formations, but it is clear that pressure needs to be brought to bear on existing states in order to challenge both fossil capitalism (in sites of explicit reaction) and carbon populism (in places like Ecuador and Bolivia).

  1. 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 capital?

I think the goal should be to push for non-reformist reforms - in other words, for specific demands that usher in broader social, economic, and political transformation. But this must be done with a clear sense that greenwashing and technofetishism will never be solutions to the systemic problems of capitalism.

  1. 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?

The aesthetic realm can give people a glimpse of systemic contradictions that are all too often invisible to many people, and it can also offer visions of possible worlds beyond the toxic injustices and dysfunctions of the present.

  1. 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?

Those who have contributed least to climate change are suffering the most grievously already, This dynamic will only intensify. Social movements and aesthetic practices must put such front-line people first whenever possible.

  1. 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?

Art can play the role of translating science into vernacular language but it should be seen more broadly as acting as a moral center and visionary source in times of darkness. All too often, the sciences are oriented around an idea of value neutrality. In the current moment, that stance clearly no longer holds, and the sciences need to learn how to be far more articulate and vociferous in challenging reaction. Art activism has many ideas about how to do this in creative and engaging ways.

Ashley Dawson is the Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and the Humanities at the Princeton Environmental Institute. He is the author of two recent books on topics relating to the environmental humanities: Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso Books, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R Press, 2016), as well as six previous books on postcolonial literature, global social justice movements, and anti-imperialism.

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