All Steve Lyons

The world is in flames. From California and Oregon to Australia and the Amazon rainforest, the largest fires on record are spreading across the planet, bathing their surrounds in an unsettling red light for days at a time. Floods, droughts, hurricanes, deadly heat waves, and other climate-fueled disasters are tearing across the landscape. The Gulf Stream is on the brink of collapse. The predictive models of modern science no longer point to stable patterns, but to the volatile force of the unknown.

Not An Alternative, Red Specter, still from 3D animation in progress, 2020-21. Image: Not An Alternative.

The combined history of colonialism and capitalism has been marked by the unceasing effort to control the human and nonhuman forces that threaten to bring about its end. Climate change is only the latest threat, but it is unrivaled in its power to transform the world. The incapacity of science, states, and corporations to manage the threat of climate change is forcing a crisis in the colonial regime of knowledge that underpins capitalism—the groundwork of the tradition of natural history that emerged from the social institution of modern science and the political project of imperialism over the last three centuries. 

This text introduces a perspective that interprets natural history neither simply as the study of “nature,” ecosystems, or premodern cultural traditions, nor as an intrinsically colonial enterprise, but as a history of struggle between two incommensurate relations to the world: one governed by a logic of extraction and enclosure and another that relates to the world as a world in common that cannot be enclosed. This struggle is not waged on the terrain of the natural, but over its interpretation, not over what is “intrinsically in nature” (Gould, 1988), but over the relation to the world that ought to be naturalized.

Naturalizing the Capitalist World

From Europe, to China, to the Indo-Islamic world, long traditions of natural history have emerged, and sometimes converged, over the course of human history. But by most accounts (Raj, 2007; Basalla, 1967), natural history is understood as the sole dominion of the West—as a project that emanated outward from the colonial metropoles to survey the entire world with the empiricist tools of modern science. The first large-scale natural history museums and botanical gardens were established in Europe and Great Britain to put this project on display. There, biological and geological specimens, premodern cultural artifacts, human and nonhuman remains, and other “curiosities” bought and stolen by explorers and colonists were submitted as material evidence for scientific investigation.

In its institutionalized form, the imperial project of natural history constructed a picture of the world through the spoils of imperialist expansion. Its collections demonstrated the military power of the metropole, and its methodologies for interpreting these collections asserted the supremacy of Western empiricism and modern science. This tradition of natural history rested on the assumption that experts could understand the world by extracting and studying its constitutive parts. It claimed its object as an individuated, knowable thing, part of the wealth of natural resources available for possession, profit, and scientific probing.

This basic premise came to prominence through Charles Darwin’s theses on evolutionary biology, which grafted a Malthusian logic of individual competition onto the world as a whole. According to this logic, organisms and their environments are not seen to be mutually dependent; rather, as Richard Lewontin (1991) explains, in the Darwinist evolutionary struggle “organisms find the world as it is, and they must either adapt or die.” Generations of conservative economists appropriated Darwin’s theory of natural selection to explain the dynamics of competitive advantage under capitalism, rationalizing capitalist domination as an evolutionary fact. The “survival of the fittest” thesis, proposed not by Darwin but by the social Darwinist philosopher Herbert Spencer, galvanized the eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which, unsurprisingly, found vigorous support from the world’s most influential natural history museums. The dominant ideology of natural history, which embedded both the logic of competition and the violence of extraction into the project of scientific inquiry, served to reinforce social Darwinism’s capitalist and white-supremacist conclusions. 

Illustration of cranial types from Josiah C. Nott and George Gliddon’s Types of Mankind: Or, Ethnological Researches, Based Upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and Upon Their Natural, Geographical, Philological and Biblical History (1854). (c) Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.‍

All in the name of science, lands were torn up, bodies were exhumed, and skulls were examined, compared, and classified according to racist typologies. The living subjects of ethnographic study, too, were cast as primitive and prehistoric, banished from the historical time of the ethnographer (Fabian, 1983). “Objects for observation,” Vine Deloria, Jr. (1969: 81) argued, were always implicitly “considered objects for experimentation, for manipulation, and for eventual extinction.” Prioritizing the physical materialism of the world and its ecosystems, natural historians submitted everything sacred to the profane logic of equivalence—the law of capitalist exchange. In this and other ways, natural history was part of a broader plot to remap the world as a capitalist world, to turn what John Locke (1689) called the “wild Common of Nature” into a source of profit.

The microscope is only one of many tools deployed in the ongoing project of naturalizing the capitalist world. By means of violent dispossession, deceitful and broken treaties, and the declaration of terra nullius, territories collectively held for generations by peasants, Indigenous peoples, and maroon communities were, and continue to be, stolen, enclosed, and submitted to the abstract logics of private property. Through the legal abstraction of land titling, territories were commoditized and made fungible—leveraged as credit, exchanged, and subjected to financial speculation in a world market (Bhandar, 2018: 97). It is not that the transition to capitalism catapulted idyllic premodern cultures into history, undoing some illusory primordial innocence as traditional anthropology and historiography would have it, but that in recoding land as property, collective systems of land tenure based on kinship, intergenerational stewardship, spiritual value, or communal labor have been rendered both illegitimate and illegible—from the capitalist point of view. Displaced and dispossessed, people around the world have been put to work, forced to toil not for the land and each other, but for capital.

Haunting Natural History

This ongoing process of enclosure and expropriation, which Marxists call “primitive accumulation,” has not only been a means of asserting sovereign rule over Indigenous land and establishing capitalist economic relations in new territories, but also a means of repressing preexisting modes of life, knowledge systems, and land-based practices that cannot be reconciled with the demands of colonialism or capitalism. Agrarian commons, subsistence farms, systems of mutual aid, and Indigenous practices of land and water stewardship share one thing in common: an insistence that the world is not a resource to be extracted, but, as Glen Sean Coulthard (2013: 60) puts it, part of a system of reciprocal relations and obligations between humans and nonhumans that demands mutual respect, non-domination, and nonexploitation. Writing about the land-based practices that structure the theory and practice of Indigenous anticolonialism in North America, Coulthard (2013: 13) names this perspective “grounded normativity,” underscoring how Indigenous struggles for land are also deeply informed by the land. The ethics of reciprocity, which is differently expressed in Indigenous and non-Indigenous traditions of resistance, is not a straightforward inversion of the colonial logic of extraction and enclosure. It does not simply subordinate human life to the lives of animals, plants, water, and land. Rather, it underscores how their interests are bound together in the production and reproduction of life.

During and after the transition to capitalism, collectivist societies across the world, even within Europe itself, have struggled within and against their conditions of survival to build alternative knowledge systems from their own embodied experiences, clarifying and sharpening place-based traditions and ways of knowing in and through their collective struggles for liberation. In the paranoid minds of the capitalists, these constructed traditions, knowledge systems, and world-building practices are not only incompatible with the colonial logic of extraction; they also represent its combative antithesis, expressing what nineteenth-century crowd psychologist Gustav Le Bon (1897: xvi) characterizes as an emotional, unreasoning, and barbaric “primitive communism” that needs to be destroyed.

There have not always been direct material connections between “communistic” peasants, heretics, maroons, women, workers, colonial subjects, and Indigenous peoples, whose appearances have spanned continents and historical periods. These groups have also related to the land they have traversed in distinct and sometimes contradictory ways. Nevertheless, oppressed communities across the world have been perceived by the capitalists as instantiations of one collective body, whose inborn fidelity to the common will, left to itself, bring about capitalism’s end (Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000). Faced with the endurance of this capitalist conspiracy, it is no surprise that colonial and capitalist forces continue to brutally attack collectivist societies and the cultures that ground them, specifically targeting the reciprocal relation between peoples, the animals they rely on for their survival, the lands they steward, and the traditions that connect them to their ancestors.

The cover of the Economic League’s Red Octopus (1950), depicting an octopus spreading its tentacles across a map of the world. The illustration deploys a visual motif commonly used in anti-communist literature since the 1870s, which equates the deepwater sea creature with the insurgent threat of the “reds.” ‍

So that it could stand as an objective and ideologically neutral authority on the nonhuman world, the imperialist tradition of natural history has served the function of eradicating knowledge systems that it has understood to be in competition. Natural historians have long participated in this project by treating societies they could not understand as barbaric, premodern, and extinct, even as these same societies held their ground and maintained their languages, cultural traditions, and ways of knowing. The modern concept of natural history was thus not only formed on a bedrock of colonialism; it has also required the constitutive exclusion of its other: a natural history built on reciprocity, not extraction. This other natural history was not annihilated, only obscured—symbolically imprisoned in museum vaults and display cases, where it remains as a specter that haunts natural history from within.

Red Natural History

This other natural history, in distinct opposition to and in struggle with colonial, capitalist historicization and expropriation, is not simply alternative, peripheral, or marginal to the disciplines, methodologies, institutions, and practices that are usually associated with natural history. Rather, like a repressed trauma, it constitutes the disavowal at the center of natural history and its related disciplines. It is reflected in the life-affirming processes that have been deemed out of control because they refuse to stay within the bounds of privately held allotments: the weeds that settlers try to keep from returning to their manicured lawns; the cyclically returning forest fires that threaten the value of the mansions that get in their way; the surging waters that dams try to hold back; the climate refugees shaking down border walls. Not An Alternative is working with a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous theorists, historians, ethnobotanists, geographers, landscape architects, artists, and activists to give a name to this other natural history, which we propose to call Red Natural History. 

Red Natural History names a commonality shared between the peoples, worldviews, traditions, and practices that have been the objectified subjects of natural history, taking as axiomatic that the world is not a wealth of natural resources but a world in common. The world in common is not identical to “the commons.” The commons is a territorialized site that can be enclosed, whereas the world in common exceeds every attempt to consume it, make it knowable, or enclose it in the property form. It defines a comradely and reciprocal relation between humans and nonhumans, a relation of mutual obligation that is not naturally occurring, but that is made to exist through the sustained, collective effort to produce it. 

For Not An Alternative, the “Red” in Red Natural History designates the divide in natural history, signaling an alignment with those forces that have always been illegible to the colonial regime of knowledge, which represent the dangerous idea that something might exist beyond capitalist management and control. It signals our fidelity with the long history of struggle to make the world a world in common—with the intergenerational movements against enclosure, colonization, exploitation, and extraction that have assembled under the red flag, the red star, the red fist, the red square, and the red line. 

On the cover of Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy (1920), a trio of gigantic, silhouetted figures charge across a globe, set against the backdrop of a red sunset. The image supplies a clear illustration of the anxiety and terror felt by the colonizing nation-states during a period of intense anti-colonial struggle.

For centuries, the purveyors of colonialism and capitalism have targeted groups that relate to the world as a world in common, waging brutal campaigns of extermination, enclosure, and forced assimilation. These campaigns have been devastating but left incomplete. The world in common, as a relation to the land and the horizon for our politics, comes into view when we hold in our minds the memory of the ancestors who came before us. It is awakened when we recognize how our traditions of resistance (Estes, 2019) open ways of understanding the world that enable us to see differently, when we build on the life-affirming knowledge of past generations, and when we pick up the struggle to protect the world for our descendants.

As a conscious project of “selecting and re-selecting our ancestors” (Gilmore, 2017), Red Natural History asks us to ground contemporary struggles for the land and all its inhabitants in the struggles of those who came before us, to draw a line from the past into a future that capitalism has barred from view. It asks us to build on the revolutionary work of the True Levellers (better known as the Diggers), who in the midst of the English Civil War of 1642–51, dug up the hedges at St. George’s Hill to plant crops for the poor—an act of negation meant to affirm and reveal the world in common beneath the enclosures imposed upon it (Winstanley, 1649). It asks us to learn from the maroons of Dominica, who, having fled from the plantations to the mountains throughout the eighteenth century, held their ground for decades not simply by fortifying their camps, but also by learning from and living with a wild terrain that the French and British armed forces were unable to tame (Malm, 2018: 13-15). It asks us to remember the Guinnean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral (1972), who, leading the guerrilla movement against the Portuguese occupation from 1963 to 1973, declared that on the flat terrain of Guinnea-Bissau, “Our people are our mountains.” It asks us to stand behind the struggles of Indigenous peoples around the world—to bear witness not only to the blockades they build, but also, as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes, to “the rich sites of Indigenous life” existing behind them, where “you will witness a radically different political existence and ethical orientation, in spite of the dominance of colonialism.” Red Natural History’s task is not simply to show how people have “made kin” with nonhuman others (Haraway, 2016), but to build from the long and ongoing history of reciprocity in struggle. The point is not to chronicle a linear history, to get the facts right, but to see past and present struggles as part of one movement to decisively shift the direction of natural history, from progressive degradation to abundance and collective flourishing.

Our collective’s understanding of Red Natural History is inspired by a long history of anticolonial struggle, but, to be clear, it is not based on a neo-primitivist imaginary. It does not look to the past to discover an authentic, precolonial ideal, but to build on the power of those who, throughout history, have struggled to maintain reciprocal relations in the world. It sees tradition as something that is invented, worked on, put to use, and transformed in the intergenerational movement to secure just relations with the land and each other. While the future is not behind us, the accumulated history of struggle empowers and guides us in our collective work. 

The work of Red Natural History is to force the dialectics of natural history into the open. To see dialectically is to see the split in the totality, the dynamic contradictions through which historical change is made. The operative division in natural history is not between the human and nonhuman, as the New Materialists argue, nor is it between nature and society, as in the writing of Jason W. Moore (2015). Rather, it is between two fundamentally irreconcilable perspectives on the world: one that sees the world as a wealth of natural resources and the other that sees the presence of the world in common within and beyond every enclosure. These perspectives enforce distinct relations between humans and nonhumans—reciprocal or extractive—and, as a consequence, different obligations—to the reproduction of life, or the reproduction of capital. To see natural history through this schema is to register the divisions through which the world itself transforms, not in the interest of healing the divide, but of taking a side: oppressor or oppressed, extraction or reciprocity, individual or collective, enclosure or common. When we take the side of the common, we open a path for new alliances, not through the intersection of identities, but through a shared relation to the world. As a mode of seeing historical change, Red Natural History mobilizes its adherents as a divisive force—within, against, and towards an emancipatory future.

How, then, do we relate to the signs telling us that the world we live in is coming to an end? Do we stand by in horror, interpreting the storms touching down with increasing fury as evidence that there is no alternative to mass extinction? Do we rest assured that big tech will save the capitalist world from ruin? Or do we interpret the arrival of the storm as a sign that the red specter has awakened to support the oppressed people of the world in their efforts to plot the only path forward?

The ongoing and accelerating effects of climate change have launched the planet into a perpetual state of emergency, but the meaning of this emergency is not locked in. As a perspective and a praxis, Red Natural History urges those of us who take the side of the common to see ourselves as part of the storm that arrives from the past, not to produce chaos, but to rupture the status quo, draw capitalism’s structural violence and injustices into the open, and orient our struggles for a livable and egalitarian future for all.

References

Basalla G (1967) The Spread of Western Science. Science 156 (3775): 611–22.

Bhandar B (2018). Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership.Durham: Duke University Press.

Cabral A (1972). Our People are Our Mountains: Amilcar Cabral on the Guinean Revolution. London: Committee for Freedom in Mozambique, Angola & Guine.

Coulthard GS (2013) Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deloria V Jr (1969) Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: MacMillan.

Estes N (2019). Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. Brooklyn: Verso.

Fabian J (1983) Time and The Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gilmore RW (2017). Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence. In Johnson GT and Lubin A (eds) Futures of Black Radicalism. Brooklyn: Verso.

Gould SJ (1988) Kropotkin Was No Crackpot. Natural History 97(7): 12–21.

Haraway D (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, Duke University Press.

Kapil R (2007) Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 

Le Bon G (1897) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. 2nd Edition. New York: MacMillan.

Lewontin RC (1991) Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. Concord: Canada Broadcasting Corporation and House of Anasi Press.

Linebaugh P and Redkier M (2000). The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press.

Locke J (1689) Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Malm A (2018). In Wildness Is the Liberation of the World: On Maroon Ecology and Partisan Nature. Historical Materialism 26(3): 3-37.

Moore JW (2015). Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Brooklyn: Verso.

Simpson, LB (2021). A Short History of the Blockade: Giant Beavers, Diplomacy, and Regeneration in Nishnaabewin. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

Winstanley G (1649). The True Levellers Standard Advance: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men.

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.

“Towards a Theory of Red Natural History” was originally published in Society & Space (May 11, 2022).

Across the United States and around the world, monuments to racists and genocidal colonists are being toppled, thrown into rivers, vandalized, and quietly removed. Responses to these actions vary widely. Some on the left celebrate them as meaningful acts of refusal. Others disregard them as merely symbolic gestures, acts of erasure that obscure the terrain of struggle, making people feel like they’re changing something without changing anything at all. On the other side of the political divide, right-wing conspiracists interpret monument removals, the integration of “critical race theory” into educational curricula, open borders for refugees, and Indigenous land claims over privately-owned and federal lands as part of one coordinated movement to eliminate the white race—a conspiracy that some call “the Great Replacement.” 

If the narrative of a Great Replacement has been a rallying cry for the far right—a highly effective means of driving a division between ethnonationalist patriots and the forces, tendencies, and movements that undermine their “sovereign claim to the land,” the left has thus far not directly answered to the charge. While it may be tempting to disregard the right’s conspiracy as a paranoid fantasy, there is another option. The left can take advantage of it—by defining what it is fighting to replace, and what with. 

This text is the first in a two-part essay series, which enters this ideological struggle from the left. As members of Not An Alternative (NAA), a collective that has spent the past eight years intervening within the sector for science and natural history museums in the United States under the generic name The Natural History Museum, our focus is on the disciplines and institutions broadly associated with natural history. What would it mean to replace the dominant tradition of natural history, which emerged from colonialism and enforces a capitalist relation to the world, and what might such a replacement open up for the left?

Not An Alternative, Mining the HMNS: An Investigation by The Natural History Museum, 2016. The eponymous exhibition, held at Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas, interrogated the symbiotic relationship between the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences and its corporate sponsors. The exhibition analyzed key narratives and displays in the Houston museum, highlighting the voices and stories that were excluded – those of the low-income Latinx fence-line communities along the Houston Ship Channel. Photo: Not An Alternative / The Natural History Museum.

As part of this investigation, NAA is working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous theorists, historians, ethnobotanists, geographers, landscape architects, artists, and activists to define and organize around a counter-tradition of natural history, a Red Natural History, which sees the world not as a wealth of natural resources available for possession or profit, but as a world in common that cannot be enclosed. This first text situates this inquiry within NAA’s history of practice, telling the story of how we came to believe it is necessary to name and organize around an alternate tradition of natural history. The second delves into the question at hand, sketching out our collective’s provisional definition of Red Natural History.

The Museum Divide

Established in 2004, NAA is a collective of artists, activists, and theorists with a mission to affect popular understandings of events, symbols, institutions, and history. We have worked shoulder to shoulder with homelessness and anti-eviction activists, Occupy Wall Street organizers, environmental justice advocates, climate scientists, and Indigenous organizers, engaging their struggles not through a typical head-on (or head-butt) approach, but through the occupation and redeployment of popular vernacular, symbols, and institutional forms. Our persistent goal, as much as aiming to challenge the right’s grip on power, has been to challenge the left to step into its own power. We have argued that without a strong organizational infrastructureand a language in common, left counterpower is very difficult to build and sustain. Without these resources, the left finds itself continuously starting from scratch, seemingly building from nothing other than the experience of co-optation and defeat. 

As the right has spent billions of dollars seizing institutions for its ideological agenda—taking over the leadership of everything from public school boards to major museums—much of the radical left has abandoned such spaces, arguing that left counterpower should be built in the streets. For this camp, institutionality is assumed to be inherently conservative. In our collective’s analysis, this position has contributed to a strengthened and emboldened right, which has embedded itself within the concrete structures and infrastructures through which people learn to relate to the world, and a demoralized left, which tends to see its failures at the expense of what it has achieved.

After a decade pushing for the development of a coherent visual language for the left—which NAA saw begin to coalesce, and then saw disappear, in our involvement with the eruption and disintegration of the Occupy movement—we founded The Natural History Museum (NHM), an experiment that aimed to model a left answer to the right’s institutional takeovers. The NHM was founded both as an intervention on the US sector for science and natural history museums and an institution in and of itself, an experiment in enlisting the museum as part of a communicative infrastructure for the climate and environmental justice movements. NAA’s hypothesis was that for museums to help pave the way towards a more just and sustainable future, they would need to not simply represent environmental injustice, but be rebuilt around the movements that are struggling against it.

Not An Alternative/The Natural History Museum, Will the Story of the 6th Mass Extinction Ever Include the Role of its Sponsors? (2015). Diorama installed at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Convention in Atlanta, depicting the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing at the American Museum of Natural History in New York several hundred years into a dystopian future. Photo: Not An Alternative/The Natural History Museum.

We started with a series of campaigns that aimed to split some of the country’s largest natural history museums from the industry interests they served. In the first of these campaigns, we enlisted dozens of the world’s top scientists and Nobel laureates to stand behind an open letter to the museum sector calling on all museums to cut ties with fossil fuel interests. We made a target of fossil fuel oligarch and climate science obfuscator David H. Koch, who for 23 years had held a position on the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, one of the country’s largest natural history museums. Following dozens of news stories and more than 550,000 petition signatures, Koch quietly stepped down from his position at the AMNH—a monument toppled. Koch, in our calculus, was low hanging fruit, a symbolic target that could be leveraged to draw out comrades inside the museum sector with whom we could advance shared aims. In the Koch campaign, as well as other campaigns against corporate sponsors, fossil fuel investments, and right-wing funders of science denial, our aim was not to make museums like the AMNH better, but to activate an internal split—to reveal, in their internal contradictions, a kernel from which to build a left alternative.

Beyond the Museum

It was during the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock that our scope began to expand. When the Dakota Access Pipeline company bulldozed sites sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, with the suspected aim of obliterating evidence of Traditional Cultural Properties before they could be officially designated by the federal government, it became evident that archeology, oral history, and other building blocks of “natural history” as it was conventionally understood could become crucial components of a pipeline struggle. Asked for support by Native Organizers Alliance, an Indigenous-led community organizing network, we leveraged relationships built over the previous two years to issue a public letter condemning the desecration, which was ultimately signed by more than 1400 archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and museum workers.

If our initial aim was to enter the struggle for environmental justice from the side, through the mediating apparatus of the museum, the conflict over archaeological and cultural resources at Standing Rock made it clear that some of the most consequential struggles over natural history were taking place not in museums, but on the land. Natural history was not just in the museum; it was also in the ground, standing as a bulwark against extraction. 

Out of our collective’s long-term intervention within and beyond the natural history museum, we have come to the analysis that it is not the museum, but natural history itself, that needs to be split—a conceptual shift that allows for a radical reimagination of what institutional forms can best support collective emancipatory struggles. The museum is one apparatus that can be used to teach people to see the world in common that exists beyond and beneath the capitalist world, but there are others: Tribal Historic Preservation Offices, environmental justice think-tanks, progressive science associations, citizen science labs, journals like Society & Space, and so on.

Drawing a Red Line

Since 2017, NAA has been working primarily in solidarity and in collaboration with Indigenous communities in North America, most deeply with the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation. For more than a decade, the House of Tears Carvers has been carving totem poles, putting them on flatbed trailers, and bringing them to communities across North America to build alliances in the struggle to protect the land and water for the generations to come. The totem pole journeys visit Indigenous communities, farmers and ranchers, scientists, and faith-based communities, engaging groups in ceremonies led by Lummi elders. At each ceremony, participants are invited to touch the totem pole—to give it their prayers and power, and to receive its power in turn. The goal of the totem pole journeys is to connect communities on the frontlines of environmental struggle, and to build, through ceremony, a collective that did not previously exist—invoking generations past, present, and future. Lummi councilman Freddie Lane likened 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.

Our first projects with our Lummi comrades sought to leverage mainstream museums as communications infrastructures for their campaigns, which we experimented with in special exhibitions at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Our latest collaboration, the Red Road to DC, was a sort of exhibit that traveled across the land—a cross-country totem pole journey that aimed to support local communities’ efforts to protect sacred places threatened by dams, mining, and oil and gas extraction. The journey highlighted the critical importance of Tribal Nations in decisions on land, water and infrastructure projects, and demanded that the U.S. government respects the international legal standard of free, prior, and informed consent in its negotiations with Tribal Nations. 

The Red Road to DC began at the Lummi Nation, where the tribe is fighting to protect the Salish Sea, orcas, and salmon from tanker traffic and pollution. From there, the pole traveled to Nez Perce territory in Idaho, where tribal leaders are fighting for the removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River, which have had devastating effects on the salmon, as well as the people who rely on fishing for their survival and sustenance. It then went to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which was opened to oil and gas extraction by the Trump Administration; and to the Greater Chaco region in New Mexico, where oil companies have been given permits to drill despite the area’s historic cultural importance to the Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo Nations. It then headed north to the sacred Black Hills in South Dakota, where Lakota activists are leading the #Landback campaign with a call to return Mount Rushmore to its original custodians; to the Missouri River and Standing Rock, where the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline remains very much alive; to the rice fields of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, where water protectors are fighting to block the construction of the Line 3 Pipeline, which promises to transport nearly a million barrels of tar sands per day from Alberta to Wisconsin; and to Mackinaw City, Michigan, where the Bay Mills Indian Community has been fighting the existing Line 5 pipeline, as well as a plan to build a new pipeline tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac. At the end of the journey, the pole was received by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in Washington D.C. It was ultimately installed at the National Conservation Training Center where it stands as a symbol of Indigenous movements for life against extraction. 

While the communities brought together through the totem pole journey are held in common by a shared history of settler-colonial dispossession, forced assimilation, and exploitation, the Red Road to DC foregrounded not the violent conditions they endure, but the sacred world they live to protect. Instead of drawing a black line between oil pipelines, colonial monuments, dams, and other monuments to extraction, the journey traced a red line between sacred sites, insisting on a relationship between people and place that cannot be seen from the capitalist point of view. 

Our collective co-produced the Red Road to DC because we imagined it could model a response to the struggles over colonial monuments that have been erupting over the past several years, specifically by building power around a different kind of monument—one that reveals a way of seeing and relating to the world that is fundamentally irreconcilable with capitalism. Situated within a wider landscape of activist mobilization that includes struggles to change place names, to remove colonial monuments, to integrate anti-racist narratives into school curricula, to decolonize museums and repatriate stolen objects, and to return land to Tribal Nations, the Red Road to DC could be seen to be part of the Great Replacement that the right-wing conspiracists fear: a movement to destroy the myth of settler indigeneity that the United States was built on—of the “natural” right of the property-owning class of white settlers to the land and everything that can be extracted from it—and with it, the capitalist system that this myth enshrines.

For NAA, the Red Road to DC modeled a non-capitalist and anti-colonial practice of natural history, a natural history that gets its energy from the movements to support collective life and gives these movements energy in turn; a natural history that points to the world beyond capitalism and takes the side of the common. As a first step toward building out and organizing around this alternative, our collective has given it a name: Red Natural History. 

Defining Red Natural History

After spending eight years organizing within and against the institutions of natural history, we are convinced of the need for a name that defines a partisan project of natural history—a name in common that can hold together the insurgent work of scientists, social scientists, conservationists, communities, and others who are struggling to transform the fields and disciplines broadly associated with natural history. 

As we will elaborate in the next essay in this series, our collective defines “natural history” as the ever-unfolding history of life and land. While the dominant, institutionalized tradition of natural history is informed by a colonial logic of extraction, enclosure, and exploitation, we argue that there is another tradition of natural history, built not on colonial or capitalist relations, but on a comradely and reciprocal relation to land, life, and labor.

For us, the “Red” of Red Natural History does not only suggest a relationship to the history of Indigenous struggle, but also to the “red threat” that terrifies the right, the red flags that have been waived by revolutionaries around the world for centuries, and the red alerts issued by climate scientists to warn of the storms to come. In our interpretation, Red Natural History is not just a proposal for charting alternate histories of natural history, but also for embracing the right’s fantasy of left power. It is also a call for the left to search for the ancestors, irrespective of their identities, whose emancipatory struggles live on in the contemporary movements to remake the world as a world in common.

Our collective’s perspective on Red Natural History is one of many that will be shared over the next year, as we have been working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists, scholars, and practitioners to publish a dossier of speculative essays that give meaning to the term. The point of this collaborative investigation is not to reach consensus, but to create energy around the term Red Natural History, to signal a gravitational pull from the critique of the imperialist tradition of natural history to the positive articulation of another—a tradition of natural history that can rise to the challenges of today’s overlapping and intensifying social, climate, and extinction emergencies. 

Our hope is that Red Natural History does not remain an abstract concept, but that it has an effect on practice—that it provides a framework that insurgents from fields associated with natural history (including archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, ecology, and so on) can use to articulate what they share in common as they struggle to leverage their institutions’ resources to support the communities that are leading efforts to protect natural and cultural heritage, block extractivist projects, and point the way to a just and livable future for all.

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.

“Coming Out the Other Side: Notes on an Eight-Year Expedition into Natural History” was originally published in Society & Space (May 9, 2022).

As part of the group exhibition “Overground Resistance” curated by Oliver Ressler at frei_raum Q21 exhibition space, the artist collective Not An Alternative present their project The Natural History Museum.This conversation between Steve Lyons and Oliver Ressler presented here in shortened and edited form, took place around the conference “Barricading the Ice Sheets” at Camera Austria in Graz in February 2020.

Oliver Ressler: Can you talk about the most important aspects of your artistic praxis? How did it develop?

Steve Lyons: I work with Not An Alternative, a collective of artists, theorists, and activists in the United States. Our current and ongoing project is The Natural History Museum (NHM). The NHM is both an officially accredited museum of natural history and an activist organization, which we founded in 2014 as an experiment on the U.S. sector for science and natural history museums. Our idea was to occupy the museum form in order to enter the museum sector as a kind of Trojan horse. Building on the work of our comrades at Liberate Tate, our first projects and campaigns used the museum as a platform to get climate change obfuscationists and fossil fuel oligarchs dropped from the boards of trustees of some of the largest science museums in the country. Since 2017, we have developed ongoing collaborations with Indigenous communities and organizations that are working on the frontlines of the climate crisis, with the aim of leveraging museums as communications platforms for their struggles and campaigns.

Not An Alternative, Mining the HMNS: An Investigation by The Natural History Museum, 2016. © The Natural History Museum

Oliver Ressler: How would you describe the role of artists within the climate justice movement? How do you see them and how do you wish it would be? 

Steve Lyons: We think it’s important to make a distinction between artists and cultural producers. One of the challenges of thinking about how artists can engage within the culture of social movements is that the concept of art comes with a lot of baggage. The dominant tradition of contemporary art is entirely compatible with the ideology of bourgeois individualism. In this tradition, art is largely imagined to transcend the everyday, valuing novelty and creativity over political efficacy. And we see this within the structure of the art world, not only in the United States, but globally. A few members of Not An Alternative went to art school, but not the majority. We see ourselves as cultural producers, and see the broader framework of cultural production to be a more generative framework to think about the kind of work that we do, as well as the kind of creative political work that people do within the context of social movements.

As a collective, we have historically avoided attributing our individual names to any given project. We are organized as a collective – so we work together, as a group – but, more importantly, our work is geared toward the production of collectivity. It’s worth emphasizing that culture, in the anthropological sense of the term, has always been central to the formation of collectives. Cultural forms and practices produce social bonds, allowing people to distinguish their comrades from their enemies. They are also the means by which collectives express counterpower. As cultural producers, we work on the terrain of culture (again, in the anthropological sense) to build, expand, and sharpen the language in common that holds us together as a “we.”

TEJAS “Toxic Tour” Hologram Mini-Diorama, HD, 6 min, 2016 © The Natural History Museum

Oliver Ressler: Jay Jordan in the abstract for his talk for the conference “Barricading the Ice Sheets” uses the term of “extractivist art”. Is an activist art “extractivist”, if it takes place in an art institutional context? 

Steve Lyons: That’s a loaded question! Of course I can think of numerous examples of artists who have a parasitic relationship to social movements, who are more invested in trading on political righteousness than with the building of collective power. But does every practice that locates itself within cultural institutions need to be extractivist? I don’t think so. The history of creative activism within museums that we associate with the tradition of institutional critique – the Art Workers’ Coalition in New York comes to mind – runs against the grain of what JJ is calling “extractivist.” In this tradition, art institutions are taken as backdrops and sites from which people have come together to engage in anti-imperialist, anti-patriarchal, anti-racist struggle. Since the 1960s, there have been numerous instances, including some that JJ has been involved in, where artists have seized cultural infrastructures as resources and platforms for political struggle.

Does the activist intervention offer credibility to the institution, giving it a veneer of authenticity? Or does it add value to a social movement or campaign? Does it activate the institution as a site of political struggle or force a decision? Of course, some projects do all of these things, since working within and against is always, necessarily, contradictory. But I think, for example, that the groups associated with BP or Not BP and Liberate Tate in the UK, who are working on fossil fuel divestment and sponsorship campaigns in London, are doing a really great job of working within museums, but against the interest that these museums were built to serve. Not An Alternative is also working between social movements and museums. We are not satisfied with our work unless it is adding to the movement or campaign we’re contributing to. We are constantly asking ourselves if we are contributing to the building of collectivity, strengthening the operative divisions, or producing concrete change that puts our comrades in a better position.

Personally, I don’t think there are any uncomplicated sites of struggle. Whether we’re in a museum or a public square, we’re struggling within and against capitalism. And given the state of the world, I think it’s important that we’re not only working at the margins.

Oliver Ressler: The enormity of the challenge of the climate crisis requires that also the wider art world needs to transform radically. What are central aspects of this transformation from your point of view?

Steve Lyons: Some people would argue that the art world is simply an infrastructure for the production of capital. The art world, in this view, is a complex of art fairs, commercial galleries, and museums, which articulate to produce capital, both through the trade of assets and the production of prestige. Financiers get social benefits from the art world, and artists get symbolic and cultural capital, both of which are at some point, and continually, parlayed into money. One problem with this account is that it doesn’t help us understand what Greg Sholette calls the art world’s “dark matter”: the glut of surplus labor that this complex produces. I think it’s more generative to see the art world from the perspective of contradiction – to see it as an infrastructure that produces class divisions, and which thus creates the conditions for antagonism and struggle. From this vantage, the art world is an infrastructure in which money and power circulate, but also an infrastructure that can be seized.

Take art magazines, for example. Big art magazines like Artforum are currently distributed in ways that represent ruling class tastes while contributing to the value of ruling class collections. But this function is historical and contingent. Art magazines do not need to contribute to the reproduction of ruling class power, and there are plenty of examples of art magazines that don’t. One of the benefits of understanding the art world as something that is internally divided, as a sort of split subject that can be struggled over, is that you can see the means of production and distribution as potential resources for left struggle. This isn’t just hypothetical. It’s happening.

We could consider the recent controversy around Warren Kanders, owner of the weapons manufacturer Safariland and until recently, trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art. During the last Whitney Biennial, community members and artists mobilized to get Kanders kicked off the board of the museum, seizing the museum and the Biennial as a platform to not only draw attention to Kanders and the brutality his wealth is built on, but also to underscore the complicity of the museum. At a pivotal moment in the campaign, Artforum published an article titled “The Teargas Biennial,” which effectively subordinated the story of the Biennial to the story of the Kanders campaign, making the campaign impossible for the institution to ignore. While there were other factors, including internal divisions within the museum itself, it was only after the bad press that Kanders quickly and quietly stepped down from the board. In this case, we can see that Artforum, the iconic ruling class art magazine, was taken as a platform for a movement’s cause. The Whitney Museum, too, became a site for opposition, collectivization, and renewed politicization among and beyond New York’s art community. This is just one example of how ruling class infrastructures can be hijacked.

© The Natural History Museum

Oliver Ressler: I have a question on the use of language: In the northern countries, where winters are cold, for some people the term “global warming” may sound like a reference to something pleasant and desirable. Are there any suggestions concerning the replacement of this term or about the power of language in relation to climate disruption in general?

Steve Lyons: Not An Alternative is invested in using the language that is out there, the language that is being used and that has power. For us it is not a question of substituting one term for another because it is purer or clearer in its descriptive or explanatory capacity. It’s a question of using the term that works. What term is more useful in building collectivity? What are people mobilizing around? Are people rallying around the term “global warming”? Does the term clarify the terrain of struggle? Is it an effective term? If it is, then we use that term, we commit to it and build our work around it.

A good example of how this was active in our practice is when we were working within the Occupy milieu, specifically within Occupy Wall Street. In Oakland, California, there was a major division, pretty quickly after Occupy Oakland began, where a whole subset of the movement came out against the term “Occupy.” “Occupation is the language of the colonizer; we want to Decolonize Oakland!” The movement split in two. For us, while the choice to mobilize around “Occupy” or “Decolonize” opens onto a set of important theoretical questions, from the point of view of practice, the question should actually be much simpler: “What is the term around which counterpower is being built, and in what ways can we build on that?” The point is to expand the collective power that is already there. So that’s a non-answer to your question.

Oliver Ressler: Well, you described quite well why you don’t answer directly.

Where can we glimpse potential futures and new worlds grounded in social justice and ecological flourishing, and how can these be cultivated through creative aesthetic practices?

Steve Lyons: This brings me back to the point where we started, where I wanted to make a distinction between a framework that is organized around art and a framework that is organized around cultural production. The term cultural production includes the production of food, rituals, aesthetic practices, and forms of resistance. From the vantage of cultural production, it becomes easier to see what is actually happening within the movements. Where are we beginning to see the production, or at least the prefiguration, of a more livable world? For several years, Not An Alternative has been admiring the work of Indigenous water protectors and land defenders. And one of the things that has really struck us about the struggles against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock or against the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline at Unist’ot’en Camp on Wetʼsuwetʼen territory in the northwestern part of Canada, for example, is that they are both strongly oppositional – building blockades, holding their ground, and claiming sovereignty of the place against the pipeline company – and also affirmative. Behind the barricades there are camps which operate like training grounds for non-capitalist modes of life, places where people are collectively developing new ways of living and rediscovering old ones, establishing relations to the land and each other that are incommensurate with the extractivist reasoning that has led to the climate crisis. We cannot survive without a thriving world and the world will not survive unless we respect it. And the political and ethical obligation to the land that arises from this way of seeing and relating is not only inspiring. When it’s instituted at the barricades and cultural camps, it also establishes, here and now, a relation to the land and political horizon that points toward a world beyond capitalism.

Oliver Ressler is an artist and filmmaker who produces installations, projects in public space, and films on issues such as economics, democracy, migration, the climate crisis, forms of resistance and social alternatives.

Steve Lyons is Research Director at the Natural History Museum and a core member of Not An Alternative since 2014.

This interview was originally published in MQ Journal (October 10, 2021).

Museums are in crisis, facing escalating pressure to drop fossil fuel sponsors, remove robber barons and war criminals from their boards, repatriate stolen objects, and topple racist monuments, dioramas, and displays. Formed from the extractivist reasoning that fuels climate chaos, museums are grounded in an unfolding history of oppression from which they cannot be extricated. They are complicit in the twin projects of capitalism and settler colonialism, caught in a web of colonialist and capitalist relations whose dynamics disproportionately immiserate the lives of poor Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples. While museums monumentalize and objectify the historical violence of capitalism and settler colonialism, they are not only keepers of the dead. They are haunted by a specter—the specter of primitive communism, a collective mode of life that neither capitalism nor settler colonialism could fully manage, contain, or eradicate. This mode of life sustains a relation to the land that is fundamentally incompatible with the capitalist world.

Capitalism relates to the natural world as a frontier for growth, as raw material to be extracted and turned into profit or waste. The alternative, as Glen Sean Coulthard articulately suggests, is “for land in the material sense, but also deeply informed by what the land as a system of reciprocal relations and obligations can teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and the natural world in non-dominating and non-exploitative terms.”[1] This non-capitalist relation to the land persists despite a centuries-long war against it precisely because it cannot be accommodated by capital. It constitutes the impossibility at the core of the capitalist world, existing and insisting as a specter that haunts its institutions and infrastructures. 

Jodi Dean has argued for the need to develop a partisan politics of climate change: “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.”[2] We see the museum as one apparatus in which such a partisan politics can be grounded. This is possible only if we begin with the stance that the museum is split, not equivalent to the capitalist and colonial practices and values on which it was founded. The split institution is not determined by capitalism. It is struggled over. This struggle sets the stage for institutional liberation, which we have described as a practice of institutional seizure that generates counterpower by strategically mobilizing the power institutions already have.[3] This chapter proposes a political theory for institutional liberation in the terminal crisis of climate change. If museums take the side of the spectral threat to capitalist and settler-colonial domination, then they can be established as sites for thinking beyond the capitalist enclosure. This requires, first, that we refuse the lure of holism driving dominant fractions of environmental thought.

There Is a Gap in the Oikeios

Responding to the failure of the concept of the Anthropocene to accurately assign the primary agent of planetary change, Jason W. Moore has argued that we talk about our era as the Capitalocene, where capitalism, not humanity, is the driving force of ecological change. Moore argues that by seeing the entanglement of capitalism and nature, we can attend to its dynamic relation to the oikeios—his term for “the creative, generative, and multi-layered relation of species and environment” that makes up the planetary home.[4] Just as nature provides the raw material for capitalist accumulation, capitalism produces nature as a real abstraction: nature as an extractable, commodifiable, manageable raw material that can be bought, sold, represented, destroyed, or protected. Arguing that the Cartesian dualism of Nature/Society is “directly implicated in the colossal violence, inequality, and oppression of the modern world”[5] by virtue of its capacity to externalize nature as an object to be extracted and turned into profit and waste, Moore proposes an alternate concept of nature, which he terms the “web of life”: “the ‘web of life’ is nature as a whole: nature with an emphatically lowercase n. This is nature as us, as inside us, as around us. It is nature as a flow of flows.”[6] Moore’s theoretical distinction between Nature and the web of life helps to explain the decisive shift in liberal environmentalism over the course of the past several decades. For most environmentalists today, nature is not simply understood as the dominion of the non-human. It is an ecology to which we contribute, and to which we can hold our impacts accountable. If capital N Nature demands an ethics of protection and conservation, the web of life demands our contribution. Our capacity to contribute to nature’s ecological balance requires that we reduce our individual and institutional carbon footprints.

In conceptualizing capitalism as a world-ecology, Moore reflects a broader ecological turn in the environmental humanities, which finds in ecology an antidote to dualism. The concepts of the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, or Chthulucene all follow from the same idea: that, whatever its origins, and whatever forces prevail, there is no outside to the oikeios.

Wrestling with the connectedness of people and things, thinkers in this paradigm seek to acknowledge the existence of human, non-human, and inhuman feedback loops at a planetary scale, to establish connections that make porous the capitalist world’s operative divisions. Frédéric Neyrat traces the principle at the root of this theoretical tendency—that everything is connected to everything else—to Barry Commoner’s 1971 book The Closing Circle. Informed by cybernetics, this hugely influential book “shows that feedback loops connect each part to the totality of the system (what affects one part affects the other).”[7] As an attempt to overturn colonial science’s traditional prioritization of substances over relations, this project is viewed by its advocates as a means of bringing critical theory in line with Indigenous ways of knowing—a distinct mode of thought that constituted colonial science’s historical other. However, a brief examination of the history of ecological thought reveals that ecology is no less bound up in the project of colonial expansion and capital accumulation than was its dualist precursor.

In the book Imperial Ecology, Peder Anker charts the development of ecological discourse as it emerged as a privileged framework to not only address questions in the natural sciences, but also address the social, economic, and political problems confronting the British Empire since the late nineteenth century. The term “ecosystem” was coined by Arthur George Tansley, a British botanist and Oxford University professor whose own research and editing in the early twentieth century were crucial to the expansion of ecological methodology into the fields of sociology and psychology. The research of Tansley and his Oxford colleagues was born from a conservationist ideal that served to justify and legitimize British expansion in the colonies:

The aim of their research was to empower the social order of their patrons in various colonial agencies or commercial companies by ordering the economy of nature so that it could serve the social economy of British imperialism. This was achieved by rendering the ecological order of nature into an order of knowledge suitable for managerial overview. This aerial view on nature, society, and knowledge—the master perspective from above—was at the very core of British ecological reasoning.[8]

For the Oxford ecologists, the discipline of ecology was thus not only a means to map and classify relations between organisms in the interest of objective scientific inquiry. It was also a means to manage nature’s economy according to the interest of the imperialist state. As a systematic methodology for mapping the relation between organisms, ecology was central to the economization of nature. Guided by both colonialist and capitalist imperatives, ecology was also wielded as a tool to control nature by pacifying traditional Indigenous practices that the imperial power could not understand.[9]

Anker is not alone in drawing connections between ecology and capitalist political economy. Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper have suggested how more recent advances in complex systems theory, most notably the influential work of ecologist C.S. Holling, have marched in lockstep with neoliberal economic thought. Charting the structural compatibility of Holling’s complex systems theory and Friedrich Hayek’s late theory of spontaneous market order, they argue that the holism of contemporary ecology, as well as its insistence on the inherent instability of ecosystems, is only a step away from neoliberal capitalism’s dominant conceptualization of resilience, risk management and crisis adaptation.[10]

The question is not whether or not the theory adequately breaks from the inheritance of capitalist or colonial thought—ecology, like Nature, has its dark side—but how it orients our perspective on the terrain of struggle. In its drive to subsume and manage antagonistic forces, much ecological thought gives form to what Alberto Toscano calls the “logic of pacification,” a structural capacity to “shift from external-contradictory differences to internal and harmonized ones.”[11] Oil companies operationalize this logic when they factor the costs of public pushback into their infrastructure development plans, mobilizing “risk mitigation” strategies to neutralize Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure.[12]

In contrast to the revolutionary traditions of Marxism and anarchism, which recognize antagonism and class struggle as motors for political change, ecological thought frequently envisions politics as network management.[13] It is not surprising that ecology emerged as a dominant metaphor for thinking relations under capitalism in the neoliberal era. It pictures a world in which there is no gap, no other—the very world invoked by Margaret Thatcher’s routine claim that there was no alternative to economic liberalism. The supposition that “Capitalism makes nature. Nature makes capitalism”[14] results in a naturalization of capitalist domination, strengthening the dominant ideology that makes it, as the common saying goes, “easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” The oikeios is the capitalist world. Ecology offers a framework to interpret relations between capitalism and nature, allowing us to make sense of climate change as a project of capital. The problem is that while ecology can picture the capitalist world, it also participates in the active repression of the gap in it. Our premise is that there remains a gap in the capitalist world that the framework of ecology cannot recognize. Non-capitalist modes of life persist and insist, within and against.

Haunting the Individual

The answer to the problem of the gap is not to disregard the web of life in favour of its precursor. There is no dispute that the enlightenment concept of Nature was complicit in capitalist and colonial violence, and to return to it would be to disregard decades of critique from within the environmental movement. As Andreas Malm points out, “[t]he prototypical wilderness subject is a white male bourgeois individual,” whose identification with wild nature “symbolically reenacts his conquest of the world.[15] Malm’s perspective is provocative because, despite his targeted critique of the concept of wilderness, he is not prepared to completely disregard it: “The fact that the ruling ideas about wilderness are the ideas of the ruling class is no more reason to dispense with that category than the same fact about democracy or freedom or justice for that matter.”[16] For him, the concept points beyond the anthropocentric fantasy of a constructed world, acknowledging how the supreme power of nature dwarfs that of capitalism. If nothing else, the focus on wilderness renders the capitalist system contingent and vulnerable: “[P]laces with a high degree of wildness still hint at the possibility of life beyond capital.”[17]

Malm refuses a central tendency in contemporary ecological thought, which he has characterized as its “dissolutionism”: the erasure of the boundary between nature and society. For him, binaries are “analytical equipment,” and the binary of Nature/Society retains both analytical and political utility in the context of the climate crisis.[18] In arguing for a concept of nature as other, Malm invokes Immanuel Kant’s analytic of the sublime, which, for both radical and liberal critics, has been roundly critiqued for reinforcing the very ideological foundations of capitalism’s extractivist reasoning. Kant argues that the terrifying, overwhelming, disorienting experience of sublime nature produces not only fright, but also a moment of transcendence that results in the ultimate validation of the individual. Sightings of the sublime “raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.”[19] The encounter with nature’s incalculable power produces the omnipotent individual subject precisely by threatening its obliteration. From the perspective of capitalism, the sublime will always reinforce capitalist relations of domination—a logical reason why scholars in the environmental humanities have persistently steered clear of it.[20] However, the sublime also names the otherness that the individual is recruited to manage, identifying in nature a profound threat to bourgeois individualism.

If for Kant, the sublime power of nature constituted the other to the rational individual, for Sigmund Freud, it was the unruly crowd. Jodi Dean reveals how Freud’s work in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), as well as in his primary interlocutor Gustave Le Bon, pit the individual against the crowd. Le Bon’s influential 1895 study The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind shaped the modern discourse on crowd psychology, arguing that when absorbed by the crowd, the individual loses control of his reason, forgets his individuality, and reverts to his most primitive state. For Le Bon, the revolutionary uprising of the crowd was approaching:

The claims of the masses are becoming more and more sharply defined, and amount to nothing less than a determination to destroy utterly society as it now exists, with a view to making it hark back to that primitive communism which was the normal condition of all human groups before the dawn of civilization. The divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings.[21]

Le Bon points to the “primitive communism” imagined to have preceded Western civilization, aligning with Marx’s own diagnosis of a communitarian ontology, which interprets the human as a social animal [22] In Group Psychology, Freud builds on Le Bon to ask both what unites people in a crowd and what holds them together. Freud’s answer, as Dean puts it, follows from his interpretation that the unconscious is a crowd: “Moving from many to one, Freud’s explanation encloses the directed intensities of Le Bon’s crowd into an individual unconscious. Collective desire is reduced to an amplification of frustrated individual desire.”[23] From this perspective, it is the leader who assembles and directs the crowd according to his individual desires. Against Le Bon, Freud writes that man is “an individual creature in a horde led by a chief.”[24] He defends the ground on which the politics of liberalism were established.

For Freud, there is no such thing as collective desire, only the desire of individuals. Consequently, for him, the crowd is competitive by nature. In the absence of collective desire, a charismatic “chief ” must necessarily impose his desires on the crowd. Freud’s invocation of the language of tribal governance points to the work of ideological enclosure on Freud’s own thought. Constructing the chief as individual, Freud actively disavows the threat of primitive communism that was revealing its force both in the streets and in the colonies at his time of writing, while reflecting an alignment with the project of settler colonialism, which recognized individuation as a weapon against the collective and communal modes of life supporting Indigenous Nations before and during colonization. 

Unearthing the long tradition of resistance to settler colonialism within the territorial boundaries of the United States, Nick Estes offers insight on the perspective from which the settler saw both Indigenous people and Indigenous land. Settler colonialism was not only a project of dispossessing Indigenous peoples of common land, but also an assault on the collective bonds that held Indigenous Nations together in their relation to the slivers of land which they continued to inhabit. The process of allotment provides an example of the settler-colonial project of individuation. Allotment was the process of breaking up collectively inhabited reservation land into plots of private property. These parcels were “given” to individual Natives, while “surplus” was auctioned at dirt cheap prices to settlers. Estes writes of the effect of allotment on the national unity of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, or Great Sioux Nation: “Allotment emphasized individualism, breaking up the tightly knit family units of direct kin and extended relations called the tiospaye, isolating them on different plots of land in distant parts of the reservation.”[25] Routine violence against Indigenous women was also part of this project of individuation: “White traders and trappers appropriated Indigenous women’s bodies as much as they had appropriated the wealth of the land by harvesting and selling the skins of animals. The two practices went hand in hand.”[26] The degrading material and psychological toll of individuation was built into the settler-colonial project of enclosure.

Freud’s claim that man is “an individual creature in a horde led by a chief ” represses the violence of individuation. When understood as an assemblage of individuals, a crowd can be broken up, disciplined, managed, or eradicated by force. A culture can also be exterminated. However, as Dean makes clear, when we disidentify with the individual enclosure, we can see that the leader does not speak on behalf of the collective but posits a gap that is struggled over: “The crowd doesn’t desire the leader; the leader incites and directs the desire of the crowd.”[27] The leader is not a hypnotist, but is “hypnotized by the idea”—an idea that always exceeds the person who believes it.[28] The leader can be substituted for another person, or even a common name, icon, or flag. The idea, rather than the charismatic leader, is what governs the crowd. And the idea cannot be killed.

What is Inalienable?

Kant’s analytic of the sublime and Freud’s theory of crowd dynamics are two sides of the same coin. They construct the individual as a bulwark against a threatening collective other. The story of capitalism and settler colonialism’s attempt to eradicate this abject other—be it Indigenous or communist, human or non-human—is not only the history of the capitalist world, but also the history of the gap in it. To speak of the gap in the capitalist world is to insist on a common that has not been enclosed by capitalism, a suggestion that notably breaks from Marx’s thesis on primitive accumulation, which took the “violent transformation of noncapitalist forms of life into capitalist ones” as a historical phase in the development of capitalism.[29] What remains following primitive accumulation is a world ravaged by capitalism, turned into pro!t and waste. Numerous challenges to this thesis have emerged in feminist and decolonial Marxist traditions, where, building on David Harvey’s reading of Rosa Luxemburg, thinkers such as Silvia Federici, Glen Sean Coulthard, and George Ciccariello-Maher, among others, have reconceived primitive accumulation as an incomplete and ongoing process of dispossession.

Coulthard challenges Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation on three counts: First, Marx’s temporal framing of primitive accumulation, which stages the violent expropriation of common land as a stage in the development of capitalism. Second, Marx’s original commitment to modernist developmentalism, which led the author to claim primitive accumulation as “a historically inevitable process that would ultimately have a beneficial effect on those violently drawn into the capitalist circuit.”[30] Third, Marx’s insistence on the violent character of primitive accumulation. Coulthard argues that a shift in perspective—from one that prioritizes the capitalist relation to one that prioritizes the colonial relation—enables the development of a theory of primitive accumulation that can attend not only to the persistence of violent dispossession under neoliberal capitalism, but also to the fact that “violence no longer constitutes the regulative norm governing the process of colonial dispossession.”[31] The flipside of Coulthard’s critical rereading of Marx is perhaps the most provocative: in a world devastated by capitalism, elements of noncapitalist life can be defended from the siege of primitive accumulation.

One reason, as Estes explains, is that for Indigenous peoples, the natural world is inalienable. Describing the perspective adopted by Water Protectors who gathered to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s controversial Missouri River crossing in 2016, Estes writes: 

Mni Sose, the Missouri River, is one such nonhuman relative who is alive, and who is also of the Mni Oyate, the Water Nation. Nothing owns her, and therefore she cannot be sold or alienated like a piece of property.[32]

By this, Estes is not suggesting that the Missouri River had evaded capitalist accumulation until the Army Corps of Engineers approved plans to route the Dakota Access Pipeline under it. Other pipelines cross under the river. Railroads cross over her. Industries line her shore and pump waste into her. Since the nineteenth century, she has been an important shipping channel for everything from commodities to ammunition. The Pick-Sloan dams, constructed from the 1940s to the 1960s to provide electric power as well as irrigation and flood control for the agricultural industry in Missouri River states, turned the river against its original custodians, flooding seven Lakota and Dakota reservations and dispossessing their already displaced and dispossessed inhabitants. What Estes means is that when seen from the perspective of the Oceti Sakowin—a perspective that understands land, water, and animals as living non-human relatives— the Missouri River is not reducible to its expropriation by the capitalist state.[33] To state that water is inalienable is to posit a truth claim—not a falsifiable hypothesis in the manner of colonial science, but an unfalsifiable claim demanding a specific political and ethical response from the collective that it hails into being. It conjures a subject that is true to it.

Geographies undergo historical transformations, and as the climate changes, rivers dry up. However, just as burial grounds remain burial grounds even after their contents are exhumed by archaeologists or bulldozed by oil companies, water remains, despite its periodic desecration, an inalienable excess to capitalism and settler-colonialism’s war on the common. Recent Indigenous-led movements to protect water against the extraction industry make this emphatically clear: water is alive in the material sense, but it is also sacred. The concept of the sacred oriented modes of non-capitalist life for centuries, in defiance of capitalist and colonial rule. It continues to foster the courage of revolutionary anti-colonial movements today. This concept works to establish a beyond to the material world in which to posit collective belief. 

Where Indigenous anticolonialism anchors collective belief in the natural world, communist movements anchor belief in the proletarianized many, locating a beyond to the world of capitalist domination in the specter of communism. When, at the start of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels posit that “A specter is haunting Europe,”[34] they are not referring to existing communist party infrastructure (the party does not yet exist), but to the red threat recognized by the ruling class. The specter, as an absence that insists from within the capitalist world, connects living communists to their ancestors—the primitive communists of pre-capitalist times—and their descendants, those who have yet to take up the cause. The specter of communism holds up the living communists, orienting them toward a communist future. It gets embodied in the strikes and working-class uprisings to which Marx and Engels referred, but also in the ceremonial practices of Indigenous Nations, performed in de!ance of settler law. Like the sacred waters, the specter is inalienable. It adopts the form of a prosthesis in the material world, but it cannot be reduced to the prosthetic form that it takes.[35] When it appears, it links the dead to the living, holding open the gap of collective desire.

The Specter Is in the Object

In “The World Is Already without Us,” Alberto Toscano asks the question, “why are photographs of manufactured landscapes so often depopulated?”[36] Addressing the erasure of labor in the contemporary landscape photography of Edward Burtinsky amongst many others, his examination could be expanded to address the more widely critiqued genre of nineteenth-century American landscape painting, which likewise erased the presence of the Indigenous human and non-human inhabitants who tended the land according to a non-capitalist relation until and after settler occupation. These representations, reflecting both the rei!cation of labor and the rei!cation of nature, actively repress the specter that haunts them in the present. For Marx, the concept of the commodity follows a congruent structure: it is an object that both embodies and invisibilizes the labor that produces it. It rei!es an entire system of production, of private property, capitalists, and workers, as well as the “iron laws” that make the system a system. Like the museum, the nineteenth-century landscape painting, or the contemporary manufactured landscape, the commodity tells the story of what is extinguished in its making.

Toscano’s account of the dialectic of extinction and resurrection latent in the labor process presents a key for thinking about what it might mean to conjure the specter that haunts the natural history museum. Reflecting on the “hidden abode” masked in the commodity form, the mounting dead labor concentrated in commodities as they travel through the production process, Toscano clarifies that “the fact that they are indeed products of past labor is, in Marx’s colorfully crude metaphor, ‘as irrelevant, as, in the case of the digestive system, the fact that the bread is the product of the previous labour of the farmer, the miller and the baker.’”[37]

The project of resurrecting dead labor is not equivalent to resurrecting labor history:

When living labor power seizes these products, these things, and ‘awakens them from the dead’, as Marx declares, it is not as past but as present use value within a labor process overdetermined by the empty, homogenizing time of exchange value.[38]

The work of conjuring the specter in the land or in the natural history museum follows from this: the specter is awakened not as past but present use value, not as traumatic reminder but as prophetic guide for revolutionary work.

The museum is constituted through the same dialectics of extinction and resurrection as is the commodity. It represses the outside in the objects it contains, overdetermining them in its taxonomic, display, and interpretive protocols. It works to convince itself that it has captured the objects it contains. It does this by means of individuation, by separating the objects in its collection from their original uses and from the communities that cared for them, and by processing them as specimens, trophies, and rare goods. From the perspective of the modern individual—which is also the perspective of the capitalist state—this is interpreted as an effective, unilateral process of extinguishing, not one part of a dialectical struggle that includes a possible resurrection. From this perspective, the individuated object is an object of desire—a fetish severed from the source.

But the museum object also holds the potential to become an object cause of collective desire: when the object’s sacredness is presupposed by a collective, it stands as a beacon for collective belonging, embodying the non-capitalist excess of the capitalist enclosure. The sacred can be desecrated but not destroyed. When the museum object is recognized as imbued with the power of the sacred, it stands for the non-capitalist gap in the institution, activating the museum divide.

The project of institutional liberation emerges from the perspective of the gap. It attunes the partisan gaze not to the power of the enclosure but to the sublime threat to it. It is from this perspective that a partisan politics can be lodged into the capitalist world ecology. Such a politics is the necessary precondition for militant collective action on climate crisis. By orienting our gaze to the spectral threat to the capitalist world, we enter the dialectical struggle between extinction and resurrection, awakening the non-capitalist power in the capitalist world. When we see this non-capitalist power, we see it everywhere. As the object cause of desire, it produces the collective desire for collectivity in us. It opens a gap, holds us in common, and concentrates counterpower as we organize around it.

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.

“Beneath the Museum, the Specter” was originally published in The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change, edited by T. J. Demos, Emily Eliza Scott and Subhankar Banerjee (Routledge, 2021), 418-427.

  1. [1]Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 13.
  2. [2]Jodi Dean, “The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change,” e-flux Journal, no. 69 (January 2016): www.e-flux.com/journal/69/60586/the-anamorphic-politics-of-climate-change/.
  3. [3]See Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation,” e-flux Journal, no. 77 (November 2016): www.e-flux.com/journal/77/76215/institutional-liberation/.
  4. [4]Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2015), 4.
  5. [5]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 2.
  6. [6]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 2–3.
  7. [7]Frédéric Neyrat, The Unconstructable Earth: An Ecology of Separation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 146.
  8. [8]Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 5.
  9. [9]Anker, Imperial Ecology, 39.
  10. [10]See Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper, “Genealogies of Resilience: From Systems Ecology to the Political Economy of Crisis Adaptation,” Security Dialogue, vol. 42, no. 2 (2011): 143–160.
  11. [11]Alberto Toscano, “Powers of Paci!cation: State and Empire in Gabriel Tarde,” Economy and Society, vol. 36, no. 4 (November 2007): 601.
  12. [12]See Kai Bosworth, “The Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle: Vulnerability, Security and Settler Colonialism in the Oil Assemblage,” in Mary Thomas, Mat Coleman, and Bruce Braun, eds, Settling the Bakken Boom: Sites and Subjects of Oil in North Dakota (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming). See also Shiri Pasternak and Tia Dafnos, “How Does a Settler State Secure the Circuitry of Capital?” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 36, no. 4 (Summer 2017): 739–757.
  13. [13]Bosworth, “The Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle,” 608.
  14. [14]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 18.
  15. [15]Andreas Malm, “In Wildness is the Liberation of the World: On Maroon Ecology and Partisan Nature,” Historical Materialism, vol. 26, no. 3 (2018): 4.
  16. [16]Malm, “In Wildness,” 9.
  17. [17]Malm, “In Wildness,” 27.
  18. [18]Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2018), 186.
  19. [19]Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, second edition, translated by John H. Bernard (New York: Cosimo Books, 2007), 75.
  20. [20]An exception is Christopher Hitt, who, after identifying the “scholarly neglect on the part of ecocriticism to interrogate the discourse of the sublime,” argues that the concept of the sublime is not “fundamentally or intrinsically maleficent.” See Christopher Hitt, “Toward an Ecological Sublime,” New Literary History, no. 30 (1999): 605.
  21. [21]Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, second edition (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1897), xvi.
  22. [22]Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), translated by Martin Nicolaus (London and New York: Penguin Books and New Left Review, 1993), 84.
  23. [23]Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (Brooklyn and London: Verso, 2016), 105.
  24. [24]Dean, Crowds and Party, p. 109.
  25. [25]Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2019), 154.
  26. [26]Estes, Our History is the Future, 82.
  27. [27]Estes, Our History is the Future, 111.
  28. [28]Estes, Our History is the Future.
  29. [29]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 8.
  30. [30]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 10.
  31. [31]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 15.
  32. [32]Estes, Our History is the Future, 15.
  33. [33]Estes, Our History is the Future, p. 16.
  34. [34]Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1847) (London: Pluto Press, 2017), 47.
  35. [35]Tim Fisken, “The Spectral Proletariat: The Politics of Hauntology in The Communist Manifesto,” Global Discourse, vol. 2, no. 2 (2011): 20.
  36. [36]Alberto Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” Social Text, 127, vol. 34, no. 2 (June 2016): 111.
  37. [37]Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” 114.
  38. [38]Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” 114.

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 .