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The brutal police killing of George Floyd earlier this year spurred uprisings in cities across the US. These uprisings came in the form of highway blockades, port shutdowns, unsanctioned monument removals, torched cop cars, and Minneapolis’s Third Police Precinct being burned to the ground. While this was happening, congressional Democrats took a knee; the street in front of the White House was renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza; letters of “solidarity” from universities, museums, major corporations, and small businesses cluttered the web. Looking back at the slowing energy around the Black Lives Matter movements during the fall, we can see a pattern that is common to so many contemporary movements: a shift from popular revolt to corporate takeover. 

Corporations’ and mainstream liberals’ widespread use of BLM’s hashtags, chants, and symbolic rituals led to a flood of media arguing that the movement’s symbols had become its Achilles heel.[1] This genre of writing is a mainstay of left criticism. It tends to draw a sharp distinction between two ways of practicing politics: one that prioritizes direct material intervention as the basis for revolutionary change, and another that wagers on the political efficacy of symbols—repeatable acts, slogans, images, and other forms of action that connect the people who use them to the abstract idea of a specific movement. Critics argue that there are at least two problems with the symbolic approach to activism. First, when deployed by the left, symbols don’t lead to material transformation. Performances often make those of us on the left feel like we’re changing the world, but they mainly function to divert our energy from the real work of transforming the material conditions of oppression. Second, our symbols leave our movements vulnerable to infiltration and subversion by capitalists, who can easily seize and redirect them. Once the capitalists use our symbols, not only do those symbols lose their capacity to challenge power, but they no longer even belong to us. 

This image of former Trump administration aide Zina Bash flashing the “OK” hand signal during Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing was the subject of an online conspiracy in September 2018. Photo: C-Span.

From an anti-symbolic position, we recognize that our symbols are efficient only when used against us: as means of quelling militancy, sowing internal divisions, and producing an illusory image of “resistance” in the absence of revolutionary organization. At the same time, few have trouble seeing how the symbols of white supremacy are a key source of power for the right. Critics obsessively track the symbols, subcultures, and dog whistles of white supremacist belonging, amplifying their efficiency in the process. Beyond the Confederate flag, white nationalists have absorbed into their symbolic lexicon the green frog, the ubiquitous hipster-Nazi haircut, the Hawaiian shirt, and the “OK” hand signal. Many of us use our social media feeds to broadcast these findings, acting as though our most urgent challenge is to find the best proof that fascism has arrived. We see signs of fascism everywhere, even including where they are not. But we are often blind to the symbols, rituals, and modes of communication through which left counterpower is built.

Into this context, this text introduces a keyword, the language in common, which allows us to see how the left communicates the collective power it builds. The language in common is not merely the constellation of symbols, hashtags, and performative tactics mobilized in the context of social movements. It is the mode of communication of a revolutionary collective coming into being. Collective movements are not fixed entities that precede their modes of appearance. They are constituted as they are made visible and audible. The repetition of images, rituals, and signs builds and expresses collective power as it inscribes a gap through which noncapitalist modes of belonging appear. In this process, language becomes a material force as it voices an alternate imagination of the world. 

To be clear, this text does not advocate for the continued use of specific symbols, hashtags, and performative tactics. Nor does it take an uncritical position on their expropriation. Instead, it aims to advance a framework that refuses the either/or debate about material versus symbolic tactics by prioritizing the productive feedback loops between them. The language in common subordinates the question of political tactics to the question of political side-taking, insisting that the operative division is not between the material and the symbolic, but between us and them. 

But who is “us”? Against the “we-skepticism” that has pervaded academic leftism in Europe , the UK, and North America, this text is unapologetic in its use of “we” and “us.”[2] The signifier “we” constitutes a central and irreplaceable component of the left’s language in common. It does not invoke a specific empirical referent (a subject that exists), but rather the imaginary subject of our politics (a subject that insists). To speak in the “we” is not to speak for others, but to posit a collective subject that can be struggled over. The same is true of the term “the left” as it is used in this text. There is no question that the left is internally divided. As a collectivizing term, the “left” casts a wide net over Molotov-cocktail-wielding anti-fascists and well-meaning liberals, community organizers and insurgent politicians, anarchists and communists, reformists and abolitionists. Its connotations are different depending on who is speaking and to whom. This text refers to the left in its widest sense: to delineate those who take the side of the common. The point is not to fixate on what fragments us from within, but instead to combat left fragmentation—starting by committing to the codes that signify our collective difference. By attuning our gaze to the language in common, we expose the terrain on which our collectivity is built, sustained, and defended. This terrain is not a space of agreement or consensus. It is a gap—an open space of struggle in which to determine our collective horizon.

Among the common features of the general assemblies at Occupy Wall Street were choreographed hand signals, which were used to determine consensus in large crowds. Introduced during the M15 movement in Spain, these hand signals served a deliberative function, and they were also part of an array of common and recognizable elements echoed at occupations in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Greece, and the United States. Illustration by Ape Lad. Copyright: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Building the Language in Common

Capitalism is, of course, a system of production, circulation, exploitation, and extraction. As it expands, it sets the coordinates through which we experience and engage in the world, producing a depressive realism that strangles our collective imagination. The power of capitalist realism, as Mark Fisher theorizes it, is in its capacity to convince us that capitalism has mapped the world so completely that we cannot imagine an alternative. It achieves this feat by laying claim to the symbolic systems through which we express ourselves, define our position, and establish the horizon for our politics.[3] We are trained to see land as property, monuments as testaments to the victory of the oppressor, and workplaces as monoliths synonymous with the boss. Alienated from the capitalist world, we reach for the tools of critique. We are neither the landlord, nor the oppressor, nor the boss. Our negative attachment to the system of oppression keeps us on our heels, firmly in enemy territory. We write it off, cede the ground, and are left with no affirmative place to stand.

Capitalist realism conscripts our desires to the capitalist world, but it also blinds us to the presence of actually existing alternatives to capitalism—modes of life and ways of seeing that do not fit on the capitalist map. Strands of Marxist feminism and Indigenous Marxism have worked against this tendency by insisting on the noncapitalist remainder in the capitalist world. Building on David Harvey’s reading of Rosa Luxemburg, thinkers such as Sylvia Federici and Glen Sean Coulthard take specific aim at Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation, which holds that the brutal transfer of noncapitalist forms into capitalist ones was a transitional phase in the development of capitalism. Coulthard argues that primitive accumulation should not be understood as a stage in the transition to capitalism, but rather an ongoing process of dispossession. This process is felt most violently by Indigenous communities who have already been dispossessed of their lands and ways of life, but who also, through their own strength and fortitude, continue to hold land as sacred and inalienable.[4] One implication of this critique is that there remain elements of noncapitalist life—unceded lands, modes of life, and ways of seeing—that remain beyond the grip of capitalism. There is a gap in the capitalist world—hard-wrangled by people who continue to refuse forced assimilation by the settler-colonial state—from which a language of difference has been and can be built.

While the left has spent the past fifty years caught in a circuit of invention and abandonment, building effective modes of communication only to disavow them at the first sign of co-optation, Indigenous Nations have struggled for their languages and cultural traditions despite targeted campaigns to erase, outlaw, or assimilate them. Through a centuries-long commitment to tradition, Indigenous Nations in so-called North America have been able to recognize their commonality, make visible their fundamental irreconcilability with the extractivist logic of capitalism, withstand state-sanctioned extermination campaigns, and mobilize their collective power to build solidarity, block pipelines, and protect water and land. These are lessons from which the non-Indigenous left must learn. 

Nick Estes develops the concept of the “tradition of resistance” to theorize how, from the perspective of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, or Great Sioux Nation, every Indigenous struggle for liberation is built upon the one that preceded it. Not only have Indigenous communities been struggling against the same system of settler-colonial dispossession for centuries. These communities also understand the ways in which the power they build in the present has been derived from the same sources for generations. The rituals, cultural practices, and political tactics devised by those who struggle over a place operate in fidelity with ancestral teachings. “By drawing upon earlier struggles and incorporating elements of them into their own experience,” Estes writes in a recent book on Indigenous resistance, “each generation continues to build dynamic and vital traditions of resistance. Such collective experiences build up over time and are grounded in specific Indigenous territories and nations.”[5] Rituals, symbols, and other cultural practices are not abandoned, in other words. They are reawakened, transformed, and expanded.

This attitude toward tradition is alien to much of the North American, European, and UK left. Leftist organizers, activists, and theorists hunt for the next viral hashtags, drive attention toward them, and mobilize energy around them, with the full expectation that they will only be useful in holding popular attention for a moment before fading into oblivion. Before hashtags, there were “mindbombs.” In the mid-1970s, this is what Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter famously called images that could inspire collective action.[6] When approached from the perspective of media strategy, the images, rituals, and signs of counterpower have a shelf life. They are empty signifiers: equivalent, interchangeable, and competing amongst themselves within an economy of attention. When they lose their impact, they can be discarded and replaced. 

If the images, rituals, and signs of collective power are not approached from the perspective of marketing and public relations, it becomes possible to understand and treat them differently—not as empty signifiers that behind-the-scenes strategists can control, but as the byproducts of the collectives who pick them up, use them, and transform them in the process of building counterpower. When we refuse to see the images, rituals, and signs we organize around as isolated one-offs, we can begin to build continuity between our struggles. We can recognize how our symbols contribute to a language in common that sets the coordinates for how we understand and relate to the world. 

The concept of the language in common names the mode of communication through which traditions produce collectives, as collectives in turn produce traditions. When new traditions are introduced and old ones are resurrected, they become part of this productive process, both expanding and sharpening the means by which collective power is asserted. Collectives become known to themselves, build counterpower, and struggle over the meaning of their language through the repetition of common forms. It is also through repetition that collectives confirm the intention of their acts, symbols, slogans, and rituals. Take highway blockades as an example. One blockade is an anomaly—its meaning is indeterminate. Ten blockades suggest the emergence of an activist tactic. Ten blockades in ten different cities suggests that the tactic is spreading. Take the movement against the Coastal Gaslink pipeline in British Columbia, led by Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs. Earlier this year, a checkpoint at Unist’ot’en Camp, established on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in the Pacific Northwest, inspired hundreds of blockades across Canada, shutting down the country’s logistical infrastructure for a month. One of the most effective blockades disrupted the rail lines between Toronto to Montreal. Situated on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory, a few hours southwest of the Mohawk Nation’s landmark 1990 blockade at Kanesatake (Oka, Quebec), the rail blockade awakened the power of a longer history of anti-colonial struggle. This example represents the potential for a tactic to echo both across space and time. Across the country, blocking a highway or rail line became a gesture of solidarity, a way of showing others that their messages were heard. Blocking traffic became a ritual—a choreographed action, in short—that anyone, anywhere, could perform in order to signal their fidelity to the struggle. 

When we recognize a symbol, performance, or material act as an expression of our movement, it is not usually because an individual affiliated with the movement has claimed responsibility. More often, it is because we recognize it as an iteration, elaboration, or transformation of a tradition that we believe to be ours. When we insist that the tradition is ours, we enter the struggle over its interpretation, recognizing that if we want to express our collective power, we need to tell the story from our side. From this perspective, it does not actually matter who lit fire to Minneapolis’s Third Precinct during the recent George Floyd uprisings, or even whether “outside agitators” struck the match. What matters is that the action, which was undertaken by an organically composed group of people, became a catalyst that ignited the passions of millions. It stood as a symbol of revolutionary possibility—a call for collective response. Movements never start from scratch. Emerging from the material conditions of oppression and sparked by collective rage, movements build on the power that is latent in the culture, and through iterations of what came before. 

One advantage of seeing movement-building from the perspective of the language in common is that it counteracts the politically halting tendency to deconstruct or dwell on left failure. Instead, it attunes our collective gaze to the traditions we are constructing, as well as to what our traditions inherit from the past. This was the lesson of Omaha elder Nathan Phillips’s iconic standoff at Lincoln Memorial, following the inaugural Indigenous Peoples March in 2019 in Washington, DC. Surrounded by dozens of high school students clad in Trump swag and shouting insults, the veteran organizer held ground. Standing inches from the group of students blocking his way, he chanted an American Indian Movement anthem from the 1970s as he courageously beat his drum. As Phillips explains, “When I got here to this point and started singing … that’s when the spirit took over.”[7] History was awakened in the repetition of song, underscoring the power of language to anchor the individual within the collective—a collective held up by comrades past and future. When we encounter a sign as an expression of the language in common, we recognize the force of history that is behind it, as well as the emancipatory future that it makes possible—even when faced with apparently insurmountable odds. As an affirmative language of difference that is built through collective work, the language in common allows the collective to see itself as a force within the movements of history.

Negating the Negation

In the midst of the resurgent BLM uprisings, many writers on the left praised the looting, property destruction, and monument removals that spread across the US and the globe, celebrating them as revolutionary acts of rupture. But almost as soon as the state began to regain social control, many of these same writers returned to their old hobbyhorse. They decided to announce the movement’s defanging at the hands of a coordinated counterinsurgency led by state and non-state actors.[8] With this trajectory in mind, we need to ask not only how our rebellions get subsumed, but also how the frameworks we use to interpret them unwittingly participate in this process of subsumption. How can we avoid amplifying our failures at the expense of what we achieve?[9]  

The question is not only tactical, but also interpretive. When we evaluate our collective actions for their concrete material effects—for the damage they do at the human scale—we are immediately confronted with our powerlessness in the face of our enemy. This enemy not only holds the monopoly on legitimate violence (and is not afraid to use it), but also knows how to weather the storm. Capitalists build pushback into their budgets. They take out insurance policies to cover broken windows, arson, and lost profits. In advance of scandal, they contract public relations firms to protect their brands. Faced with the cunning and brute power of the capitalist state, how are we to see our uprisings as anything but futile tantrums—proof of our incapacity to move from rebellion to revolutionary change? The answer is in recognizing the ways that our concrete actions in the material world contribute to the language in common, through which we build and express our difference. 

Social movements are not built by consensus or organized by central committees. They emerge when groups and individuals show a commitment to a common name (BLM, Occupy, NoDAPL, Gilets Jaunes, and so on), even when they disagree about its meaning.[10] Movements are not the positive constitution of an organizational form. They name the gap through which specific events, actions, gestures, slogans, and symbols combine to give shape to an emergent collective. Whether we decide to take a knee or burn a cop car, the action we choose gives meaning to every other action. Concrete actions give meaning to symbolic actions, making them sharp and infusing them with militancy. Symbolic actions give meaning to concrete actions, connecting them to a more expansive narrative of social transformation. The language in common mediates between the material and the symbolic, holding open the gap through which we struggle to determine our collective horizon. 

When approached from the perspective of the language in common, our negations are negated, and transfigured into their positive form. It becomes possible to see our actions as additive, not merely subtractive. They are our songs, our dances, our rituals, and our performances. As the forms through which we distinguish our comrades from our enemies, they awaken the shared desire for collectivity that incites us and holds us together.[11] 

Consider the removal of monuments that swept through public squares over the past several months. For years, activists have called for the removal of monuments to slave traders and genocidal colonists, arguing that such commemorations are a source of ongoing violence for the descendants of slaves and colonized peoples who are forced to encounter them on a daily basis. As “spatial acts of oppression,” monuments overdetermine the historical coordinates through which we encounter the world.[12] Monuments are propaganda for the ruling class. The durability of their material metonymically affirms the durability of the system of oppression that they commemorate, from which they were commissioned, and to which they owe their protection from the people who despise them. Monuments set the coordinates from which the world appears as a capitalist world. 

Years of antiracist and anti-imperialist organizing to remove Confederate and imperial monuments, petitioned through open letters and public appeals to heritage officials, were largely stalled until people began taking matters into their own hands. This has been particularly evident in the wake of the George Floyd uprisings. On May 31, a monument to Confederate leader Charles Linn was toppled by BLM protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. It was followed by countless others across the US and around the world. As monuments began to fall, the tactic of monument removal and defacement became central to the language in common through which Black Lives Matter movements expressed their counterpower, and through which activists around the world identified themselves as comrades in the struggle. Every time people came together to vandalize, behead, or topple a monument to oppression, they answered a call that preceded them.When people remove monuments to white supremacy, their actions are not simply subtractive. These actions live on as image and myth, contributing to the array of gestures and symbols that build and express difference. Recall the summer of 2015, when activist Bree Newsome famously climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina state capitol to pull down the Confederate flag. The flag was raised back up within forty-five minutes, but the damage was done. Images of Newsome’s action circulated widely, raising pressure on South Carolina authorities to permanently remove the flag. The point we want to emphasize is not that Newsome’s action led to concrete change at the state capitol (which it did), but that the iconic image of her action became a flag for antiracism in the US, fueling many of the fires that have since been burning. Her action became generic through its media circulation, converting flagpoles around the country into active sites of struggle—places where antiracists can assemble to assert their collective power. Such tactics of resistance activate the capitalist world as a site of struggle, demonstrating how oppressive monuments can be split, seized, and reclaimed as our own.

Remapping the World

In The Colonial Lives of Property, Brenna Bhandar examines the imperial history of cartography. Bhandar’s 2018 book reminds us that the project of mapping the capitalist world was not only one of development and modernization, but also one of erasure. The colonial concept of terra nulliuswas the ideological companion to violent dispossession, and an antecedent to capitalist realism. It enabled settler capitalists to rationalize the imposition of private property relations on Indigenous land, burying both the precolonial history of the land and the common relations that sustained it. The world in common, which was carved up and partitioned in the making of the capitalist world, was not entirely eradicated in the violent processes of genocide, dispossession, and forced assimilation. Repressed in the capitalist map are, in Bhandar’s words, “ways of relating to land that are not premised on the exploitation of its resources and the often-unbridled destruction of the environment for corporate profit.”[13] The problem is not that the whole world has been subsumed by capitalism, but that we have been trained to see it from a capitalist perspective. This training has blinded us to the gap of collectivity that capitalism cannot enclose. It is not just that another world is possible. It is already here, embodied in the desires, practices, modes of belonging, ways of relating, and forms of organization that sustain collective life. To see this other world, we need a place to stand within it. 

The language in common is the form through which our collective difference is asserted and organized around. When we can see our difference, we can see the capitalist world not as a totality, but as a world cut in two. Capitalists recognize the power of our language to communicate a relation to the world that is not based on extraction and profit. They interpret both our languages and our relations as a threat. Our languages of difference become expressions of counterpower when we affirm that they do, in fact, represent a threat to the capitalist world. The concept of the language in common allows us to see how social movements communicate across space and time, and how our shared images, rituals, and signs both produce and make visible our collectivity. The language in common is not, however, a substitute for political organization. Jodi Dean reminds us that it is not only a question of “constructing the political collectivity with the will and capacity to bring an egalitarian world into being,” but also of establishing the infrastructures and forms of organization necessary to “hold open the space for the emergence of such a will.”[14] How do we move from catching fleeting glimpses of this egalitarian world to actually instituting it at scale? 

Capitalist realism has trained us to believe that there is no outside—that every site, object, and institution marks another spot on the capitalist map. This is as true of the public school system as it is of the American Museum of Natural History. Holding out hope that “revolution is in the streets,” we retreat from social institutions and infrastructures, surrendering them to the capitalists who, left uncontested, use them as weapons against us. We justify this result by insisting that these institutions and infrastructures were founded to serve the ruling class; there never was an alternative. Our only option is to burn them to the ground and declare terra nullius for a second time. 

When we define sites, objects, or institutions as inherently capitalist, we slip into the same pattern of thought that we do when we write off our traditions as soon as Nancy Pelosi performs them. We deny our collective agency and become conspiracists for the capitalist class. We affirm the power of the regime of extraction and exploitation, observe its omnipresence in our everyday lives, and declare it eternal. Our gains or advances appear as complicity and compromise. We adopt the “deflationary perspective of the depressive” that Fisher described, accepting rather than acting against the realism that capitalism sells.[15] 

Instead of spending our time proving the existence of fascism or the flourishing of capitalism, we would be better off promoting conspiracies about our own power. This does not mean exaggerating how many people show up to our rallies, but it does mean training ourselves to see the signs of our collective power in every site, symbol, and institution. The language in common is not a thing. It cannot be measured or verified as real or fake, true or false. Nor is it constructed through the democratic decision-making process, where we are meant to accept the lowest common denominator, to which the least number of people disagree. Rather, the language in common nominates language as a site of struggle. We struggle for our language by believing in it, committing to it, working with it, iterating on it, and insisting on the collective power expressed in it. When we become conspiracists of our own power, we see the power of our language. We see our negations as affirmations, our acts of disobedience as obedient to another law.

For generations, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation has built Kwekwecnewtxw (or watch houses) to watch for enemies, invasions, or threats to their lands and natural resources. In 2018, community leaders built a Kwekwecnewtxw in the path of the Trans Mountain Pipeline on a day when ten thousand demonstrators marched against the project. Situated on traditional Tsleil-Waututh land, directly across the fence from Kinder Morgan, the contested Trans Mountain Pipeline’s former operator, the Kwekwecnewtxw does not only watch the enemy. It also provides infrastructure for ceremony, gathering, and collective power-building for Indigenous and non-Indigenous water and land protectors. Photo: Jason Jones. Courtesy of the photographer.

Chief Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, a leader in the struggle against the Trans Mountain Pipeline, speaks of the Indigenous law that governs his community’s resistance to fossil fuels and the settler-colonial state as follows: “We don’t obey laws if they are unjust laws.”[16] Tsleil-Waututh law comes with certain obligations. As Indigenous lawyer and Tsleil-Waututh chief Leah George-Wilson explains, “Our fight against the pipeline is based on our Aboriginal Rights and Title as supported by our Indigenous Law. It is according to our law that we protect the environment and our territory … We have the duty, the obligation to ensure the safety of the land, water, SRKW [Southern Resident killer whales], and all wildlife.”[17] Tsleil-Waututh law bears no relationship to settler law. It is affirmative: it defines what is right and just. It is grounded in a non-dominating, non-exploitative relation to the land, and a commitment to steward the land for future generations. From this perspective, when the future of the land is in question, acts of resistance—from checkpoints to occupations and blockades—are actually obedient. They adhere to another law, based on a different form of justice, which subordinates profit to the future of human and nonhuman life. This other law represents the baseline for noncapitalist modes of belonging and forms of social organization. Language schools, social centers, museums, and other institutions are built in respect to this law. This concept of law asks us to move from a politics of becoming ungovernable to one of governing ourselves differently—of relating to the world as a world in common, building language and culture around this relation, and constructing an infrastructure to support it.

As we expand our conspiratorial vision into territories governed by settler capitalist law, we see what is common within every enclosure, and we set to work at liberating it. We do not just protest pipelines. We build, protect, and expand a world in which pipelines do not belong. The Lummi Nation’s Totem Pole Journey puts this world-building agenda into practice. Each year since 2013, the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation carve a totem pole, put it on a flatbed trailer, and bring it to sites of environmental struggle across the US. For the past three years, Not An Alternative has been supporting the journey. The House of Tears Carvers visit Indigenous communities that are not yet allies, as well as farmers and ranchers, scientists, and faith-based communities, engaging each group in a ceremony led by Lummi elders. Each time, participants are asked to touch the totem pole—to give it their power, and to receive its power in turn. The goal of the Totem Pole Journey is to connect communities on the frontlines of environmental struggle, and to build, through ceremony, a broad and unlikely alliance of people against pipelines—an insistent “we” that did not previously exist. Lummi councilman Freddie Lane likens the totem poles to batteries: they are charged with the energy of those who touch them, and as they travel, they give the people energy in turn.

Tribal leaders and members of the public touch a totem pole carved by Jewell James and the House of Tears Carvers during a Totem Pole Blessing Ceremony organized by the Lummi Nation in Portland, Oregon on August 24, 2016. Dedicated to the sacred obligation to draw the line against fossil fuel developments that threaten our collective future, the pole travels to sites of environmental struggle across the country to build solidarity between communities. Photo: Paul Anderson / Courtesy of the Lummi Nation.

The Totem Pole Journey offers an approach to the question of monuments from which the non-Indigenous left can learn. The Lummi Nation’s totem poles are not anti-monuments, nor are they counter-monuments, which would work in equal but inverse relation to the monuments that are designed for oppression. The poles do not impose power from above, but rather concentrate collective power from those who surround them. In this way, these poles anchor comradely relations between people to a non-dominating relation with the land. Mobilizing traditional cultural objects as part of a solidarity-building infrastructure, the Lummi carvers model a transition from the language in common to an infrastructure for the common. The totem poles draw a line of division—a line in the sand against the fossil-fuel industry, but also a line of connection between the communities they engage. As they draw this line, they become living monuments to life beyond extraction. 

When we move from the language in common to the infrastructure for the common, we do not give up the symbols, rituals, and monuments to our power, nor do we give up the struggle to determine their meaning. Rather, we commit to our traditions, connect them to others, and build institutions around them. We find our coordinates and coordinate our struggles. As we aggregate our collective power against the engines of extraction and exploitation, we set the foundation from which we can remap the world as a world in common.

Not An Alternative (est. 2004) is a collective that works at the intersection of art, activism, and theory. The collective’s latest, ongoing project is The Natural History Museum (2014–), a traveling museum that highlights the socio-political forces that shape nature. The Natural History Museum collaborates with Indigenous communities, environmental justice organizations, scientists, and museum workers to create new narratives about our shared history and future, with the goal of educating the public, influencing public opinion, and inspiring collective action.

“The Language in Common” was originally published in e-flux journal #113 (November 2020).

  1. [1] For example, see Pat Rough, “In Budget Vote, City Council Fails to Heed the Demands of Black Lives Matter,” The Indypendant, July 1, 2020 →.
  2. [2]Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (Verso, 2012), 12.
  3. [3]Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zer0 Books, 2009).
  4. [4]Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 9.
  5. [5]Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (Verso, 2019), 21.
  6. [6]Karl Mathiesen, “How to Change the World: Greenpeace and the Power of the Mindbomb,” The Guardian, June 11, 2015 →.
  7. [7]Julian Brave NoiseCat, “His Side of the Story: Nathan Phillips Wants to Talk about Covington,” The Guardian, February 4, 2019 →.
  8. [8]Martin Schoots-McAlpine, “Anatomy of a Counter-Insurgency,” Monthly Review, July 3, 2020 →.
  9. [9]For an anarchist’s account of the left’s compulsion to see its victories as failures, see David Graeber’s posthumously published “The Shock of Victory,” Crimethinc, September 3, 2020 →.
  10. [10]Not An Alternative, “Counter Power as Common Power,” Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, no. 9 (2013) →.
  11. [11]Jodi Dean theorizes collective desire in The Communist Horizon and also in Crowds and Party(Verso, 2016).
  12. [12]Robert Bevan, “Truth and Lies and Monuments,” Verso Blog, June 23, 2020 →.
  13. [13]Brenna Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (Duke University Press, 2018), 193.
  14. [14]Dean, Crowds and Party, 251.
  15. [15]Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 5.
  16. [16]The concept of an “unjust law” invokes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963), which argues that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” See →.
  17. [17]Chief Leah George-Wilson, “Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s Fight Continues,” MT+Co, September 17, 2019 →.

The planetary scale of anthropogenic climate change poses problems for the Left. How do we identify appropriate targets and build strong alliances? What resources can we use to support this building and targeting? New tactics from an array of art and activist collectives signal that institutions are sites of struggle. Collectives concerned with fossil fuels, labor, and decolonization are deploying institutions as targets and resources for radical political practice.

Multiple reinforcing systems produce climate change—capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, militarism, extractivism. The fossil fuel sector mobilizes to keep on drilling. Dispossessed communities divide within themselves over devastating and hopeless economic alternatives. States push for further exploration and amplified production to preserve their hegemony. Some countries demand the right to develop. Various groups and nonstate actors insist that we “keep it in the ground.” It’s clear that the 1 percent sacrifice the futures of the rest of us for their own economic interest. Yet the complex interworking of multiple systems makes it close to impossible to envision the politics of climate justice.

Time is running out. Climate change is happening now and future warming is locked in. The question is how fast and how much. There are no simple solutions. Food shortages, droughts, rising sea levels, record-breaking temperatures, mass migration, and war force the urgency of organization. Organizing is no longer a choice for the Left. It’s a necessity.

Some on the Left respond with refusal. Advocates of neo-primitivist lifestyle politics retreat to the forests and mountains, to DIY off-the-grid living that abandons the millions in the cities. This “not my problem” individualist survivalism reflects the ideological orientation of neoliberal capitalism. Survival-themed reality television has been big for over a decade. Others on the Left side with the things. They advocate horizontal relationships with rocks and nonlife, shift to deep time, and celebrate the microbes and weeds likely to thrive in a posthuman world. Here the genocidal mindset cultivated in the sixteenth century’s colonization of the Americas expands and turns back in on human life as a whole. The failure to value black and brown life, the inability to conceive living with and in diverse egalitarian communities, becomes the incapacity to value human life at all. 

So long as the Left looks on in despair (or averts its gaze), capitalism determines the horizon of our response to the changing climate. Carbon markets, green technology, and geoengineering appear as the only way forward even as they reinforce the systems of exploitation, dispossession, and domination already dismantling the possibility of a future for the majority of the planet’s inhabitants.

The supposition that climate solutions can only be market solutions is afforded by the infrastructures and institutions that reproduce capitalist class power. The last forty years of neoliberalism hollowed out our public institutions. From the corporate capture of the legislative process, to the evisceration of schools and universities, to the widespread selling off of public land, assets, and services to the highest bidder, neoliberal capitalism sucked the life out of those components of the state that promised to serve the people. It reinforced strategies for private capital accumulation, socializing risk and privatizing reward to produce new forms of extreme inequality. At the same time, neoliberal governance intensified the coercive power of the state, amping up the police, the military, and the apparatuses of surveillance.

Neoliberal ideology rose to hegemony by seizing and repurposing existing institutions. Public institutions—such as museums, libraries, parliaments, parks, and schools—supply an infrastructure for creating and communicating common understandings of the world. They offer perspectives on politics, culture, nature, and society, delineating the limits of thought and action. Because these perspectives are essential to the maintenance of power, institutions are sites of ideological struggle.

The capitalist class relies on ideological apparatuses like museums to produce and reproduce the subjects it needs. Such subjects are classed, sexed, raced, and gendered. They are configured as primitive or civilized, exotic or everyday, foreign or “like us.” Underlying the complex of state projects that establish some as backwards and others as advanced are political and economic assumptions regarding natural development and balanced systems. Fossils elide with fuel; some people are treated as nature; extractivism signifies progress; and even systems driven by crisis and exploitation are described in terms of equilibrium. Neoliberal capitalism’s intensified competition pushes the corporate sector to ratchet up this war for hearts and minds. Museums and other public institutions become little more than apparatuses for public relations, resources for reshaping common sense according to capitalist values and priorities.

Institutions have been starved into submission by private interests. No wonder much of the Left does not recognize itself within them. But the practice deployed by neoliberals to seize institutions is now being deployed against neoliberal purposes. Co-optation goes both ways. This is the wager of the insurgent movement to liberate institutions from the grip of capitalism.

Decolonize This Place, Anti-Columbus Day Tour: Decolonize This Museum, 2016. Radical tour guides with the Decolonize This Place collective led hundreds of people through a tour of New York’s American Museum of Natural History with the goal of undermining colonialist narratives of conquest, disrupting Eurocentric depictions of “prehistorical” communities, and enabling communities to generate their own “history of the present.” Photo: Lyra Monteiro.

From Tactics to Movement

The cultural commons institutionalized in museums, libraries, parliaments, and universities as well as in social forms, practices, images, and ideas is collective. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue in Commonwealth, the third volume of their influential Empire trilogy, “institutions consolidate collective habits, practices, and capacities that designate a form of life.” This consolidation is not without division. Hardt and Negri point out that “institutions are based on conflict.” They are sites of struggle over who and what counts, over the ways we see and understand our collective being together. Dominant forms of power try to ensure that we see the way they want us to see. Just as the settler colonialism and chattel slavery at the heart of the United States gets pushed aside in celebratory depictions of the American experience, so too does the capitalist class power operative in museums. Since the nineteenth century, robber barons, financiers, oil magnates, and fossil fuel oligarchs have weaponized cultural institutions, presenting exploitation, hierarchy, and dispossession as if they were natural. An array of artists and activists are refusing to cede the cultural commons to the capitalist class. Their tactics suggest an insurgent movement to liberate institutions.

Institutional liberation emerges from the recognition of the collective power already concentrated into institutions. The cultural commons is created by all of us in our conflictual diversity. We make it. Cultural knowledges, symbols, images, and practices are social products, not property belonging to the 1 percent. Rather than overburdening ourselves with the overwhelming task of inventing entirely new political and social forms, contemporary artists and activists are reclaiming the cultural commons. Engaging with existing institutional forms, they fight on, through, and for the terrain of the common.

Activist art collectives such as Art Not Oil, BP or Not BP, Gulf Labor, Liberate Tate, The Natural History Museum, Occupy Museums, Decolonize This Place, and others deploy a common tactic: commandeering museums. Strategically intervening in major museums that have been captured by capitalist interests, these groups reclaim the cultural commons. They treat the names, symbols, perspectives, and ideals of institutions like the Tate Galleries, Guggenheim Museums, and the American Museum of Natural History as sites of political struggle. While some engage institutions in the service of climate justice, others use them as platforms for anticapitalist mobilization. Despite their differing objectives, rhetoric, and strategic positioning, their strength comes from their common practice of treating the museum as a site of insurgency. Institutions’ names, symbols, perspectives, and ideals become objects of political struggle. Whether a group engages institutions as a front in anticapitalist struggle, in order to create a counterpower infrastructure, or in the service of climate justice, what is noteworthy in the practice of contemporary activist art collectives is the emergence of the museum as a terrain of insurgency.

Institutions are not monolithic unities. They are complex multiplicities, split within themselves and between themselves and their settings. Museums have custodial staff, administrators, curators, IT personnel, fundraisers, directors, donors, trustees, and visitors. They also have their broader cultural position, their reputation as sites of authoritative knowledge. This makes them sites worth seizing. When art activists commandeer a museum, they split it from within. The already existent divisions within the institution are activated. Anyone affiliated with the museum is forced to take a side: few or many, rich or poor, past or future? By occupying institutions, identifying allies on the inside, empowering employees, working with whistle-blowers, leveraging legal grey zones, and strategically mobilizing the symbolic power of key constituencies, activist art collectives redeploy the arsenals of power that have already been stored. The institution is liberated.

The insurgent movement for institutional liberation generates counterpower by strategically mobilizing the power institutions already have. Major cultural institutions exert large-scale political, economic, and cultural influence. They influence how we see. They legitimate particular players. They have the power to influence popular values and ideals, but they refuse to use this power on behalf of the people. When artists and activists target these institutions, they take advantage of their scale. Museums’ concentrations of cultural capital are seized and redistributed back into the common. No longer can museums function to legitimate corporations, the fossil fuel sector, or particular colonial projects. They are demarcated as battle zones.

Institutional liberation extends beyond museums. It is part of a broader insurgency to capture and retake the common. The Dutch artist Jonas Staal’s projects seize and stretch the forms of the university, the parliament, the summit, and the (non)state. Staal pulls out the scripts and symbols constitutive of these forms, redeploying them in people’s struggle. The Undercommoning project, put together by a semi-anonymous alliance of fugitive knowledge workers, seizes the means of knowledge production, urging revolution “within, against, and beyond the university.” Drawing from traditions of militant inquiry, the project recognizes the university as “a key institution of globalized racial capitalism” that “therefore cannot be ignored or conceded as a field of struggle.”

Liberate Tate, Time Piece, 2015. Time Piece was a durational performance inside Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall using words, bodies, charcoal, and sustenance. The performance took place from High Tide on 6/13/15 (11:53am) until High Tide on 6/14/15 (12:55pm). It explored lunar time, tidal time, ecological time, geological time, and all the ways in which we are running out of time: from climate change to gallery opening hours; from the anthropocene to the beginning of the end of oil sponsorship of the arts. Photo: Martin LeSanto Smith.

Free the Institutions!

Refusal and subtraction have been disastrous as Left political tactics. They have surrendered the power aggregated in institutions to capital and the state. The tactics of institutional liberation treat institutions as tools, weapons, and bases of political struggle. They take on and over the institution’s radical premise: the collectivity and futurity that underpins any collection. The force that comes from organization, collectivity, and institutionality, the symbolic power that accompanies and exceeds aggregation, becomes a resource for the Left, a resource that enables us to combine and scale.

Many can be more powerful than few, but only when they are organized. Contemporary capitalism relies on dispersing us into powerlessness. It celebrates individualism and uniqueness, as if one person alone could bring down the fossil fuel economy. This individualist dream entraps us in the nightmare of accelerating inequality and ecological devastation. Institutional liberation claims the power of collectivity, the necessity of alliance, combination, and commonality in struggle. This is why we see today the appearance and reappearance of common images, names, and tactics.

The various projects we see combining into an emergent movement for institutional liberation do not value critique qua critique. They turn the institution against itself, side with its better nature, and force others to take a side. They look for allies, “double agents” already working within the institution, reinforce them, and in so doing activate the power that is already there. Institutional liberation is not reformist. It does not simply expose our complicities with state and capital. It directs its critical perspective in the service of a broader political movement, treating institutions as forms to be seized and connected into a counterpower infrastructure.

The liberation of institutions will not result from any singular procedure. It depends on sustained pressure, a commitment to long-term struggle. More than a critique of institutions—because, face it, at this point the inequality, oppression, and violence of the capitalist state is not a mystery to be solved but a system to be abolished—institutional liberation affirms the productive and creative dimension of collective struggle. Our actions are not simply against. They are for: for emancipation, equality, collectivity, and the commons.

Institutional liberation is not a messianic event. It is the building of counterpower infrastructure. Once they take the side of the common, institutions liberate themselves from capitalist interests endeavoring to control and exploit them. So institutional liberation isn’t about making institutions better, more inclusive, more participatory. It’s about establishing politicized base camps from which ever more coordinated, elaborate, and effective campaigns against the capitalist state in all its racist, exploitative, extractivist, and colonizing dimensions can be carried out. This takeover will not happen overnight. But it is happening now at an international scale, accumulating force and momentum with every repetition of a common name and image, every iteration of associated acts: red lines, red squares, arrayed tents, money drops, blockades, occupations.

Not An Alternative (est. 2004) is a collective that works at the intersection of art, activism, and theory. The collective’s latest, ongoing project is The Natural History Museum (2014–), a traveling museum that highlights the socio-political forces that shape nature. The Natural History Museum collaborates with Indigenous communities, environmental justice organizations, scientists, and museum workers to create new narratives about our shared history and future, with the goal of educating the public, influencing public opinion, and inspiring collective action.

This text was originally published in e-flux journal #77 (November 2016).

Politics in the Anthropocene is a matter of perspective: we can’t look at climate change directly. Relying on multiple disparate measurements, we look for patterns and estimate probabilities. We see in parts: the melting ice caps, glaciers, and permafrost; the advancing deserts and diminishing coral reefs; the disappearing coastlines and the migrating species. Evidence becomes a matter of extremes as extremes themselves become the evidence for an encroaching catastrophe that has already happened: the highest recorded temperatures; the hockey stick of predicted warming, sea-level rise, and extinction. Once we see it—the “it” of climate change encapsulated into a data point or disastrous image—it’s already too late. But too late for what and for whom remains unsaid, unknowable. The challenge in this scenario becomes grappling with continuity. How can we conceive and wage the struggles already dividing the collectivity presumed in processes whose outcomes are estimated and predicted?

Climate change tethers us to a perspective that oscillates between the impossible and the inevitable, already and not yet, everywhere but not here, not quite. Slavoj Žižek reminds us that such oscillation indexes the “too much or too little” of jouissance. For psychoanalysis, particularly in Lacan’s teaching, jouissance is a special substance, that intense pleasure-pain of enjoyment that makes life worth living and some things worth dying for. We will do anything to get what we think we will enjoy. We then discover after we get it that it wasn’t what we really desired after all. Likewise, we try to discipline, regulate, and control enjoyment, only to find it emerging in another place. We get off even when we think we are trying not to. Jouissance is what we want but can’t get and what we get that we don’t want.

The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clock face created in 1947 by the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Its hands represent a countdown to possible global catastrophe. Initially made to refer to nuclear war, since 2007 the clock has been used to raise awareness for climate change.

Some use climate change as a vehicle for jouissance, for enjoying destruction, punishment, and knowing. A current of left anthropocenic enjoyment circulates through evocations of unprecedented, unthinkable catastrophe: the end of the world, the end of the human species, the end of civilization. Theorists embrace extinction, focus on deep time, and displace a politics of the people onto the agency of things. Postmodern Augustinians announce the guilt or hypocrisy of the entire human species. Hubris is humanity’s, all of humanity’s, downfall. Philosophers and cultural critics take on the authoritative rhetoric of geoscientists and evolutionary biologists. Those of us who follow the reports of emissions, extreme weather, and failed states enjoy being in the know. We can’t do anything about climate change, but this lets us off the hook when we stop trying.

Getting to name our new era, marking our impact as the “Anthropocene,” provides a compensatory charge—hey, we changed the world after all. Even better than coming up with a name for our era is the jouissance that comes from getting to judge everyone else for their self-absorbed consumerist pleasures—why didn’t you change when you should have? Anticipatory Cassandras, we watch from within our melancholic “pre-loss,” to use Naomi Klein’s term, comforted by the fantasy of our future capacity to say we knew it all along. We told you so. Your capitalism, instrumental reason, or Cartesian dualism killed us all. Or so we fantasize, screening out the unequal distribution of the effects of warming—Russia doesn’t worry about it as much as, say, Bangladesh.

The perfect storm of planetary catastrophe, species condemnation, and paralyzed incapacity allows the Left a form of jouissance that ongoing deprivation, responsibility, and struggle do not allow. Overlooked as too human, these products and conditions of capitalism’s own continuity can be dismissed as not mattering, as immaterial. Organized political movement appears somehow outmoded, its enduring necessity dispersed into individuated ethico-spiritual orientations on a cosmos integrated over eons.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on oak. 207 cm Ă— 209.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

This left anthropocenic enjoyment of destruction, punishment, and knowing circulates in the same loop as capitalist enjoyment of expenditure, accumulation, and waste, an enjoyment furthered by fossil fuels, but not reducible to them. Left anthropocenic enjoyment thrives on the disaster that capitalist enjoyment produces. In this circuit, captivation in enjoyment fuels the exploitation, expropriation, and extraction driving the capitalist system: more, more, more; endless circulation, dispossession, destruction, and accumulation; ceaseless, limitless death. Incapacitated by magnitude, boggled by scale, the Left gets off on moralism, complexity, and disaster—even as the politics of a capitalist class determined to profit from catastrophe continues.

The circulation of left anthropocenic enjoyment through capitalist currents manifests in a diminished capacity for imagining human subjectivity. Even as things, objects, actants, and the nonhuman engage in a wide array of lively pursuits, the anthropocenic perspective seems to confine humans to three roles: observers, victims, and survivors. Observers are the scientists, their own depression and loss now itself a subgenre of climate writing. Scientists measure and track, but can’t do anything about the unfolding catastrophe—action is for others. Observers also appear as the rest of us as moral audience, enjoined to awareness of human-nonhuman entanglements and the agency of microbes. In this vein, our awareness matters not just as an opportunity for spiritual development but also because multiple instances of individuated moral and aesthetic appreciation of fragility and the limits of human agency could potentially converge, seemingly without division and struggle. When the scale is anthropocenic, the details of political organization fall away in favor of the plurality of self-organizing systems. The second role, victims, points to islanders and refugees, those left with nothing but their own mobility. They are, again, shorn of political subjectivity, dwarfed by myriad other extinctions, and reduced to so much lively matter. The third role is as survivors. Survivors are the heroes of popular culture’s dystopic futures, the exceptional and strong concentrations of singular capacity that continue the frontiersmanship and entrepreneurial individualism that the US uses to deny collective responsibility for inequality. I should add here that Klein’s most significant contribution with This Changes Everything is her provision of the new, active, collective figure of “Blockadia.” As is well-known, Blockadia designates organized political struggles against fracking, drilling, pipelines, gas storage, and other projects that extend the fossil fuel infrastructure when it should in fact be dismantled. With this figure, Klein breaks with the anthropocenic displacement of political action.

If fascination with climate change’s anthropocenic knot of catastrophe, condemnation, and paralysis lures the Left into the loop of capitalist enjoyment, an anamorphic gaze can help dislodge us. “Anamorphosis” designates an image or object that seems distorted when we look at it head on, but that appears clearly from another perspective. A famous example is Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors, in which a skull in the painting appears as such only when seen from two diagonal angles; viewed directly, it’s a nearly indistinguishable streak. Lacan emphasizes that anamorphosis demonstrates how the space of vision isn’t reducible to mapped space but includes the point from which we see. Space can be distorted, depending on how we look at it. Apprehending what is significant, then, may require “escaping the fascination of the picture” by adopting another perspective—a partial or partisan perspective, the perspective of a part. From this partisan perspective, the whole will not appear as a whole. It will appear with a hole. The perspective from which the hole appears is that of the subject, which is to say of the gap opened up by the shift to a partisan perspective.

The Natural History Museum, Will the Story of the 6th Mass Extinction Ever Include the Role of its Sponsors?, 2015, diorama in an exhibition at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Convention, Atlanta, GA, depicts the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing at the American Museum of Natural History (NY) several hundred years into a dystopian future. Photo: NHM.

When we try to grasp climate change directly, we end up confused, entrapped in distortions that fuel the reciprocal fantasies of planetary scale geoengineering and post-civilizational neo-primitivism. The immensity of the calamity of the changing climate—with attendant desertification, ocean acidification, and species loss—seemingly forces us into seeing all or nothing. If we don’t grasp the issue in its enormity, we miss it entirely. In this vein, some theorists insist that the Anthropocene urgently requires us to develop a new ontology, new concepts, new verbs, entirely new ways of thinking, yet I have my doubts: geologic time’s exceeding of human time makes it indifferent even to a philosophy that includes the nonhuman. If there is a need, it is a human need implicated in politics and desire, that is to say, in power and its generation and deployment.

The demand for entirely new ways of thinking comes from those who accept as well as those who reject capitalism, science, and technology. “Big thinkers” in industry and economics join speculative realists and new materialists in encouraging innovation and disruption. Similarly, the emphasis on new forms of interdisciplinarity, on breaking down divisions within the sciences and between the sciences and the humanities isn’t radical, but a move that has been pursued in other contexts. Modern environmentalism, as Ursula Heise observes, tried to “drive home to scientists, politicians, and the population at large the urgency of developing a holistic understanding of ecological connectedness.”[1] The Macy Conferences that generated cybernetics and the efforts of the Rand Corporation and the Department of Defense to develop more flexible, soft, and networked forms of welfare, as well as contemporary biotech, geotech, and biomimicry, all echo the same impulse to interlink and merge.

The activist group Liberate Tate performs All Rise at the Tate Modern on the third anniversary of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For five days, performers whispered extracts from court transcripts of the BP trials in New Orleans throughout the institution’s BP-sponsored spaces Photo: Hannah Davey.

The philosopher Frédéric Neyrat has subjected the “goosphere” that results from this erasure of spacing to a scathing critique, implicating it in the intensification of global fears and anxieties: when everything is connected, everything is dangerous. Neyrat thus advocates an ecology of separation: the production of a “distance within the interior of the socio-political situation” is the “condition of possibility of real creative response to economic or ecological crisis.”[2] Approaching climate change anamorphically puts such an ecology of separation to work. We look for and produce gaps. Rather than trapped by our fascination with an (always illusory) anthropocenic whole, we cut across and through, finding and creating openings. We gain possibilities for collective action and strategic engagement.

Just as it inscribes a gap within the supposition of ecological connectedness, the anamorphic gaze likewise breaks with the spatial model juxtaposing the “molar” and the “molecular” popular with some readers of Deleuze and Guattari. Instead of valorizing one pole over the other (and the valued pole is nearly always the molecular, especially insofar as molecular is mapped onto the popular and the dispossessed rather than, say, the malignant and the self-absorbed), the idea of an anamorphic perspective on climate change rejects the pre-given and static scale of molar and molecular to attend to the perspective that reveals a hole, gap, or limit constitutive of desire and the subject of politics.

Here are some examples of approaching climate change from the side. In Tropics of Chaos, Christian Parenti emphasizes the “catastrophic convergence” of poverty, violence, and climate change. He draws out the uneven and unequal impacts of planetary warming on areas already devastated by capitalism, racism, colonialism, and militarism. From this angle, policies aimed at redressing and reducing economic inequality can be seen as necessary for adapting to a changing climate. In a similar vein but on a different scale, activists focusing on pipeline and oil and gas storage projects target the fossil fuel industry as the infrastructure of climate change, the central component of global warming’s means of reproduction. But instead of being examples of the politics of locality dominant in recent decades, infrastructure struggles pursue an anamorphic politics. They don’t try to address the whole of the causes and effects of global warming. They approach it from the side of its infrastructural supports. The recent victory of the campaign against the Keystone Pipeline, as well as of the anti-fracking campaign in New York State, demonstrate ways that an anamorphic politics is helping dismantle the power of the oil and gas industry and produce a counterpower infrastructure.

The new movement to liberate museums and cultural institutions from the fossil fuel sector supplies a third set of examples, modeling a politics that breaks decisively with the melancholic catastrophism enjoyed by the anthropocenic Left. As the demonstrations at the Louvre accompanying the end of the Paris COP made clear, artists and activists have shifted their energy away from the promotion of general awareness and participation to concentrate instead on institutions as arrangements of power that might be redeployed against the oil and gas industry. Pushing for a fossil-free culture, an array of groups have aligned in a fight against the sector that supplies capitalism with its energy. They demonstrate how the battle over the political arrangement of a warming planet is in part a cultural battle, a struggle over who and what determines our imagining of our future and the future of our imagining.

Art collective Liberate Tate performs Hidden Figures, 2014. Photo: Martin LeSanto-Smith.

In this vein, Liberate Tate works to free art from oil by pushing the Tate to drop the sponsorship of British Petroleum. For the past five years, the group has performed art interventions in Tate buildings as well as other UK arts institutions that support (and are supported by) BP. Actions include unauthorized performances such as Birthmark, from late November 2015. Liberate Tate activists occupied the 1840s gallery at the Tate Britain, tattooing each other with the number of C02 emissions in parts per million corresponding to the day they were born. Hidden Figures, from 2014, featured dozens of performers standing along the sides of a hundred-square-meter black cloth which they held chest high, raising and lowering in arches and waves. Taking place in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the performance pointed to Malevich’s Black Square, part of an exhibit that opened the same summer that carbon concentrations exceeded four hundred parts per million, a fact parallel to and omitted from the exhibit, much like BP’s—and by implication the Tate’s—involvement in the climate crisis. Hidden Figures invokes the Tate’s release of the minutes of meetings from its ethics committee in the wake of numerous freedom of information requests. Black rectangles blocked out multiple sections of the released documents. Hidden Figures reproduced an enormous black square within the museum, placing the fact of redaction, hiding, and censorship at its center. As Liberate Tate explains, the redactions reveal a divide, a split between the ostensible public interest of the Tate and the private interest it seeks to protect.[3] Occupying this split via its demonstration of the museum’s incorporation into BP’s ecocidal infrastructure, Liberate Tate disrupts the flow of institutional power. Rather than fueling BP’s efforts at reputation management, it makes the museum into a site of counterpower.

The Natural History Museum, Exhibiting the Gaze, 2014. Light box photograph exhibited at the Queens Museum, NY, from a series of sixteen images documenting current exhibitions at natural history museums in the US. Photo: NHM.

The Natural History Museum, the new project of the art, activist, and theory collective Not An Alternative (of which I am a member), similarly adopts an anamorphic politics. The Natural History Museum repurposes the generic form of the natural history museum as a set of institutionalized expectations, meanings, and practices that embody and transmit collective power. It puts display on display, transferring our attention to the infrastructures supporting what and how we see. The Natural History Museum’s gaze is avowedly partisan, a political approach to climate change in the context of a museum culture that revels in its authoritative neutrality. Activating natural history museums’ claim to serve the common, The Natural History Museum divides the sector from within: anyone tasked with science communication has to take a stand. Do they stand with collectivity and the common or with oligarchs, private property, and fossil fuels? Cultural institutions such as science and natural history museums come to appear in their role in climate change as sites of greenwashing and of emergent counterpower.

Operating as a pop-up people’s museum, The Natural History Museum’s exhibits and tours provide a counter-narrative that combats the influence oil and gas industry on science education. The Natural History Museum also serves as a platform for political organizing, the ostensibly neutral zone of the museum turned into a base camp against the fossil fuel sector. It moves beyond participatory art’s creation of experiences and valuation of participation for its own sake to the building of divisive political power. In March 2014, The National HistoryMuseum released an open letter to museums of science and natural history signed by dozens of the world’s top scientists, including several Nobel laureates. The letter urged museums to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and with funders of climate obfuscation. After its release, hundreds of scientists added their names. News of the letter appeared on the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times and featured in scores of publications, including the Guardian, Forbes, Salon, and the Huffington Post. Later that spring, The Natural History Museum delivered a petition with over 400,000 signatures to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC demanding that the museum kick fossil fuel oligarch David Koch off its board.

The premise of Liberate Tate and Not An Alternative is that institutions matter as combined and intensified expressions of power. More than just the aggregation of individuals, they are individuals plus the force of their aggregation. Because institutions remain concentrations of authority that can be salvaged and put to use, it makes political sense to occupy rather than ignore or abandon them. We can repurpose trusted or taken-for-granted forms—a possibility precluded by the anthropocenic preoccupation with an imaginary whole figured in geologic time. Just as the museum is a site in the infrastructure of capitalist class power—with its donors and galas and named halls—so can it be a medium in the production of a counterpower infrastructure that challenges, shames, and dismantles the very class and sector that would use what is common for private benefit.

The distorted skull of Holbein’s The Ambassadors is photographed at a sideways angle to create the illusion of perspective.

The movement to liberate museums and cultural institutions from fossil fuel interests does not try to present climate change directly or nature as a whole. Instead, it approaches the processes contributing to global warming as processes in which we are already implicated. We are within the systems and institutions the effects of which scientists measure and chart. And that the people as the collective subject of politics are in them means that they are not fully determined. There are gaps that we can hold open and force in one direction rather than another. In too many contemporary discussions of the Anthropocene, the organization of people—our institutions, systems, and arrangements of power, production, and reproduction—appears only as a distortion. Everything is active except for us, we with no role other than that of observers, victims, or lone survivors. In contrast with emphases on nonhumans, actants, and distributed agency, the strategic coming together of organized opposition to the fossil fuel sector points to the continued and indispensable role of collective power. Just as a class politics without ecology can support extractivism, so can an ecology without class struggle continue the assault on working people that has resulted in deindustrialization in parts of the North and West and hyperindustrialization in parts of the South and East (we might call such an ecology without class struggle “green neoliberalism”). So we shouldn’t undermine collective political power in the name of a moralistic horizontalism of humans and nonhumans. We should work to generate collective power and mobilize it in an emancipatory egalitarian direction, a direction incompatible with the continuation of capitalism and hence a direction necessarily partisan and divisive.

Jodi Dean is Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Erasmus Professor of the Humanities in the Faculty of Philosophy at Erasmus University. She is the author or editor of nine books. The most recent is Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Politics and Left Politics.

“The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change” was originally published in e-flux journal #69 (January 2016).

  1. [1]Ursula Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet (Oxford University Press, 2008), 22.
  2. [2]Frédéric Neyrat, “Economy of Turbulence: How to Escape from the Global State of Emergency?” Philosophy Today 59, 4 (Fall 2015):657–669.
  3. [3]Liberate Tate, “Confronting the Institution in Performance,” Performance Research 20.4 (2015): 78–84.