Revolution at 100: Eric Selbin

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

Revolutionary imaginations that lead to revolutionary sentiments and hence revolutionary situations remain real and ready and relevant…how and where and when and who transforms those situations into revolutions, and what they look like will continue to shift and change. I am guided here by Gilly: who am I to tell people whether, in their struggle to gain control over the material and ideological conditions of their everyday lives, they are making a revolution. Despite the best efforts of the elites and their minions (not least in marketing…), revolution is no empty signifier—hence the efforts to tame, control, make it meaningless. It remains a potent terms that evokes powerful and persuasive images and moves people, often deeply, less often to action, but enough yet.

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

Everywhere. Anywhere. People’s efforts to realize their private dreams and desires in public for a, when people loudly or silently confront the spectacle rather than passively consuming it. When someone, anyone asks why or why not. When we demand the (im)possible AND the impossible.

  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?

“New?” I am reminded of the modern day Zapatistas and their necessarily—I think?—focus on the small worlds that are of course our everyday worlds, that maen and matter the most to most of us most of the time. When people begin to imagine, begin to believe, they can and do create (im)possibilities, reveling in possiblism, making the world (and ourselves) new not by conquering it but by reimagining it in new ways, per the modern Zapatistas, us, now, here, today.

  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 capitalism?

It is increasingly hard to imagine in the context of the Western/Global North liberal bourgeois democracy, especially in its (brutal) neo-liberal formulation. This era of authoritarian revanchism is marked by the rise of the Austerity State (guided here by Berlant and others), reflecting a politics and political structure voted in places out of a fear that “the economy” requires patriarchal, conserving policies and politics; a not so hidden hand. The Austerity State has been wedded, a term chosen explicitly, to the Security State, charged with reminding us where power (and the weapons) lie. Those who “protect” us are also those who maintain structures and institutions at the expense of those who are disenfranchised, suppressing people’s dreams, hopes, and desires, and forestall their efforts to bring about meaningful change in their lives much less their state and society. People have become “too expensive” and so must shrink their expectations, their hopes and dreams and desires for themselves and (for those who have them) their children and grandchildren, sacrificed on the alter of state austerity and wealth aggrandizement for the benefit of the Austerity-Security State’s elite and their state managers. Elites and their minions will stop at little to protect the/ir social order, even if it means dropping the façade of liberal democracy.

  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?

Art, aesthetic action, and visual culture retain their power—a word I hate in this context, well, most any context—to inspire and, I think aspire. More, they can provide, as I have argued, a heady concoction and concatenation of names), dates (Cabrera Infante’s “incantatory ephemera”), places, grievances, and even means and methods, woven together from tales told, songs sung, places or objects represented, and cobbled together quietly, confidently, with commitment, conviction and sometimes passion into some sort of working narrative.

  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?

Among the many, myriad challenges, radical inclusivity is one of the most daunting. The misogyny, racism, homophobia, and more of even some of the revolutions/revolutionary moments “we” admire most are legion and dismaying. There are whispers, promises, claims of moments, spaces and places, of radical openness. The Paris Commune, perhaps most often. Igbo women in 1929 in Nigeria. The fleeting anarchist Republic of Baja California in Mexico 1911 which presaged the short-lived 1919–21 anarchist Ukraine halfway round the globe and the nearly contemporaneous Kronstadt Rebellion of sailors, soldiers, and citizens in nascent Soviet Russia, which managed to last a few days longer than the evanescent twelve-day 1932 “República Socialista de Chile.” Multiracial struggles for justice in the Americas, such as the 1741 New York Conspiracy of African-American, “Spanish,” and Irish sailors and dock workers, and poor whites, proffered a model of the dispossessed working together for common goals; the multi-ethnic late-nineteenth-century Farmers’ Alliance across the southern United States demanded fair prices for crops, advocated public control of transportation and communication, set up co-operatives, and called for populist economic policies. The modern day Zapatistas. With all of these, maybe? There are literally thousands of such moments, remarkably few of which we “know” (at least consciously) about, intentionally or not, I leave to you, and claims made for “what might have been,” but positive affirmations appallingly rare.

  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?

Years ago I suggested that our propensity for subjecting puzzling moments of social disorder to the calming order of “scientific” analysis has not provided the sensitive instruments necessary for exploring and explicating the puzzling enterprise of revolution. I have no more for you now.

In part “scientists”—I write this as the child of two—must let go of the patriarchal and hierarchical Global North models and methods that have guided them and hence in some ways distorted their results. At the same time, those “outside” of the “sciences” can profit (sigh; capitalist inflected language, tho) from some of the means and methods “science” proffers, the attempts at rigor and systematization that can provide a useful (illusion) of structure as we consider strategies and tactics. An activist (social and natural) science that rejects hoary notions of “objectivity” might be a start.

Eric Selbin is a political sociologist whose research focuses on revolution and related forms of collective socio-political behavior as well as international relations theory. He is Professor of Political Science and Holder of the Lucy King Brown Chair at Southwestern University, where he chairs the International Studies Program; he is Co-Editor of the New Millennium Books in International Studies, and Associate Editor of International Studies Perspectives.

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