Revolution at 100: Imre Szeman

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

The period after 1945 has come to be described by many as The Great Acceleration. Graphed against the rest of history, in virtually any category one might choose to look at—population, energy use, CO2 emissions, agricultural production, the generation of waste—at around mid-century, a flat or very slowly growing line on a graph suddenly slants violently upward. In 1917, global population was about 1.9 billion. In 2017, it is estimated at 7.6 billion – a four-fold increase over the past century. “Our species has probably used more energy since 1920 than in all of prior human history,” write J.R. McNeill and Peter Engelke. “Since 1950 we have burned around 50 million to 150 million years’ worth of [fossil sunshine]” (9).

    Revolution as a concept remains tied to the moment a century ago when a transfiguration of state and society interrupted all manner of liberal capitalist discourses and practices of social control. Yet whatever else the Soviet state might have done differently than its capitalist counterparts, its practices of resource use made it a major contributor to the Great Acceleration. Revolutionaries and capitalists both viewed the environment as a ‘standing reserve’; both were aggressive in extracting use from nature in order to fuel their respective modernities. There’s nothing in our current understanding of politico-cultural revolution that speaks to how we might slow down The Great Acceleration, or bring it to halt.

 I’m reluctant to give up on the term revolution. As a concept of political transformation, it continues to point to the capacity of collectives to interrupt configurations of power—and to do so quickly—that have centuries of existence on their side. However, we need to imagine revolution in reference to our present historical context and in relation to a century of material and ecological commitments that have been made—unequally, unwittingly—on the planet.

Is the imagined horizon beyond capital one that includes the energy desires and fantasies of a still-expanding populace in relationship to an accelerated modernity? The revolution of 1917 was made possible by black gold. Does the sense and sensibility of revolution as it has long been imagined demand an infusion of enormous amounts of energy—levels of energy that we cannot expect to access in this century? Or can we imagine a political energy that doesn’t demand carbon energy?

J.R. McNeill and Peter Engelke. The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2016)

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

Taking the temperature of the contemporary is difficult – more difficult than those of us engaged in the professional practice of doing so allow ourselves to admit.

My parents lived through a revolution that can be traced back to the 1917 Revolution: the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. This revolution was in some ways against the spirit of the Revolution, and in others ways with it. 1956 was opposed to the political form into which the Soviet state had evolved, especially in relation to the member states of its empire. For some, 1956 was an expression of desire for the return of the energies of the Revolution; for many others—likely the majority of those who threw rocks in the street—1956 was an effort to wipe the slate clean of the Revolution in order to get on with the business of capitalism. Revolutions, it turns out, can be conservative, too—and so, too, can their consequences. 1956 powered Cold War ideologies about the morality and freedoms of the West, and the traces of its conservatism fuel the populism and racism of the current Hungarian government.

Revolution is a part of my personal life. Less so for my students, even the most critical ones on the left. Like any other event or object that they assign to the space of history, 1917 creaks along like a black and white silent movie, depicting a world impossibly far away. They might encounter evidence of Revolution in class, but they aren’t going to be able to watch it on Netflix, even if they were interested in doing so. The reign of technology and techno-utopianist fantasies in everyday life insist on the absolute truth and givenness of the present against the past, and on the reality of the drama of progress now measured (for instance) by new versions of operating systems. The official politics available to them is accommodationist. While some parties might consider poking small holes in the fortress of the 1%, very few in the G20 (and indeed in much of the rest of the world) propose plans to invade the castle. My students aren’t deluded: they know things are fucked and don’t voice any support for capitalism. Still, they don't talk about either revolution or Revolution.

There are an enormous number of challenges to the status quo in North America and around the world. I know that there are powerful existing political energies everywhere one looks. I’m less certain as to whether these are any longer connected to Revolution.

  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?

My writing and research over the past decade (or more) has focused on the political, social and culture significance of energy, with a specific focus on the importance of the energy of fossil fuels in shaping modernity. The abundant and relatively cheap energy of fossil fuels has had a decisive impact on the nature and character of modernity. And yet, surprisingly, we haven’t tended to include energy in our account of modernity. We treat energy as an input into systems and processes that exist above and beyond it; fossil fuels are just seen as the fuel for modernity, as opposed to a deep, pervasive, and constitutive force that shapes our expectations, sensibilities, and habits—our ways of being in the world and how we imagine ourselves in relation to nature, as well as in relation to one another. We’re creatures of fossil fuels, through and through.

Over the course of this century, we will need to undergo an energy transition—a shift from a world and worldview based on energy derived from fossil fuels to something else. This transition will constitute the greatest social experiment in human history: a planned, plotted, and predetermined shift from one kind of society—the petrocultures we inhabit today—to another. Today, governments and energy companies use the language of energy transition as much as those who want to shift from fossil fuels for ecological reasons. Despite this, what excites me about energy transition is that it constitutes a demand for revolution. Real energy transition will have to involve social, political and cultural transitions and transformations, too, with attention to how energy has shaped subjects and collectivities. There is here a political opening in the most unexpected of places, and one whose demands for justice and equity can be made in relation to a material, structural necessity: fuel. If access to energy means access to the freedoms and capacities that comes with it, what can possibly justify the vast differences in use and access to energy that exist today (and have existed throughout modernity)? If fuel is essential to social life, why shouldn’t it be owned and managed collectively (like water, for example), with this collectivization being linked to a new set of political priorities?

There is in energy transition the possibility of revolution—one that connects ecological responsibility with social and political justice (what has driven colonial geopolitics more than access to fossil fuels?). There’s also a danger: access to energy remains essential to existing forms of power, and as such, real transition is going to be impeded by the status quo every step of the way.

  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?

My temptation is to provide a simple and direct answer to both these questions: no. There’s no possibility for transformation within actually existing representative democracy. And because actually existing representative democracy (let’s call this: AERD) is limited to the space of the nation, there’s no way that it can deal with climate change: CO2 doesn’t need a passport. (As for dealing with climate change within the terms of capitalism, a system without an eschatology, with no mission other than expansion: I’ll say no more.)

There are all manner of limits and problems with AERD. Most of us know what these are: the voting cycle means short term issues are chosen over big, long term ones; the development of AERD has been concomitant with capitalism, and, as such, it has generally worked to enhance capitalism whenever and wherever possible; its actual representativeness is questionable, as a great many representatives are agents of power (in North America: wealth; white men); and so on. This is an expected list of limits that is all-too often followed with an aggravating Churchillian shrug of the shoulder (that dusty sentence: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”.)

But let me take another approach. We’re using old and out-of-date operating systems on mechanisms that have outlived their use. The majority of the constitutions on which nation-states run are pre-industrial, and most of the newer ones take these old ones as their model. We have to ask: what does it mean to take political structures culled from agrarian and mercantilist economic orders and have them thrust upon petro-based industrialist capitalism? 1776? The base operating system of the U.S predates fossil fuels and every other aspect of the Great Acceleration; the modern nation-state had no conception of the environmental fears that would come to define the age of the Anthropocene.

It might not be representative democracy that’s the problem, but the political software on which we currently run it. Political transformation and the politics needed for climate change require substantially new constitutions—perhaps the imagining of post-constitutional structures—for a new era.

  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 challenges to the politics of aesthetics today are multiple. Jacques Rancière tut tuts our naïve faith in Artaud and Brecht, telling us that the nice bourgeoisie couples out for an evening of theatre were just there for the frisson of something radical; none of them took to the streets or gave up on the capitalist enterprises where they spent their days. Almost as if in response to such critiques, Nicholas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics” abandons avant-gardist desires in favor of the creation of “social interstices” or “constructed situations.” Revolution is replaced with talks at the coffee shop—hey, at least this way, one might come away from a visit to the gallery with a cup of coffee and some ideas to ponder, instead of disappointment and cynicism because art doesn’t equal politics – at least not in the way one expected in did.

And yet: what other mechanism do we have to investigate and interrogate the complex aesthetic imaginaries through which capitalism figures itself? What other way do we have to generate the capacities to challenge and undo the semiotic density of the mythologies of capitalism, which endlessly strive to transform history and process into the tautologies of common sense (“Just because, that’s why!)? In Art and Revolution (2007), Gerald Raunig reminds us “it is not only activist art that docks into a political movement, but political activism also increasingly makes use of specific methods, skills and techniques that have been conceived and tested in art production and media work” (263). Aesthetics and politics are deeply concatenated, despite criticisms to the contrary.

When it comes to the connection between art and political transformation, the cynical among us should also remember: what comes after work, other than art and aesthetics? Isn’t the role of art and aesthetic action to remind us and to insist that there is an other to the death drive of climate change capitalism?

Gerald Raunig, Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century, trans. Aileen Derieg (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007)

  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?

This is an important question—one that we need to keep front and center as we engage in political transformation (whether imagining it or engaging in it!). Even those who are currently excluded or poorly served by the status quo might feel traumatized or terrified by the prospects of revolution, which is why they opt for the present and its fantasy of something better just around the corner (Lauren Berlant’s phrase “cruel optimism” captures this mix of affect and ideology in a flash). Even for the poorest and most excluded on the plant, the language of revolution has come to be viewed with suspicion—a rhetoric used to mobilize their energies for a change that turns out not to be real change. Thea Riofrancos’ genealogy of extractivismo in Ecuador provides an example of just such a political bait-and-switch, in which a leftist politician struggling for election uses the energies of anti-extraction social movements—including indigenous groups—to gain power, only to then aggressively pursue resource development under the banner of “21st century socialism.” While there is certainly desire for change, there not only hasn’t been enough attention to the impact of revolution on different groups, the history of political transformation might rightly gives these groups pause. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” might be a great slogan (once one adjusts for the “his”). The devil is in the details of how to operationalize this, and just who gets to determine needs and abilities.

Is there also a danger that political transformation might too quickly flatten the field, becoming radically inclusive in a manner that writes historical injustices out of the picture? The dominant discourse around energy and environment draws attention to our need to consume far less. This might well be true for the majority of us living in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Any yet, as Erica Shoenberger points out, “much of the rest of the world’s population needs to consume more. They need more food, more clean water, more sanitation, more electricity, more industry” (5). If there was an ecological revolution of the kind imagined by many on the left in the first world, would this mean an end to the experience of more in most of the world? How do we think about just access to energy resources that is attuned to the need for less and more?

Thea Riofrancos, “Extractivismo Unearthed: A Genealogy of a Radical Discourse,” Cultural Studies 31.2-3 (2017): 277-306.

Erica Schoenberger. Nature, Choice, and Social Power (London: Routledge, 2015)

  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?

Researchers in environmental studies understand that environmental dilemmas inescapably involve issues of ethics, habits, values, institutions, beliefs, and power—issues at the heart of work in the arts and humanities. To put it bluntly: when it comes to climate change, the sciences need the arts, and desperately so. The failure of quantification as the prevailing method of addressing urgent problems of the environment and energy use underscores the need to devise new modes of knowledge and understanding, as well as new forms by which to make and communicate this knowledge.

Many scientists understand the need to frame their ideas in new ways. In “Meet the Humanities,” Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change, notes that the research cited for the third Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was dominated by the natural sciences. The small amount of social science material that was included came almost exclusively from economics; with few exceptions, the humanities were completely absent. Hulme thinks this is a big mistake. We can only solve our current energy and environmental dilemmas by making contributions from the arts and humanistic a part of the conversation—not just a part, but a big part. And once these contributions to the fight against climate change are given the credit they are due, it may be that much easier to persuade anxious students and skeptical politicians that the arts and humanities are absolutely strategic and vital to the future of the planet.

Mike Hulme,“Meet the Humanities.” Nature Climate Change 1 (July 2011): 177–79.

Imre Szeman teaches communication and cultural studies at the University of Waterloo (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada). He conducts research on energy and environmental studies, critical and cultural theory, and social and political philosophy (especially 20th and 21st century left theory, globalization and nationalism). His most recent books include Contemporary Marxist Theory (co-ed, 2015), After Oil (co-author, 2016); Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory (co-ed, 2017), Energy Humanities: An Anthology (co-ed, 2017), Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment (co-ed, 2017) and Petrocultures: Oil, Politics and Culture (co-ed, 2017). On Petrocultures, a collection of his recent work, will be published in 2018. He is currently at work on At the Limit: Reckoning Energy Impasse, Forging Energy Transition and Energy Revolution, both for MIT Press. 

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