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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).

This Q&A was conducted following Jonas Staal and Florian Malzacher’s Training for the Future, a utopian training camp held from September 20-22, 2019 at the Ruhrtriennale, Bohum, Germany.

How did you approach the notion of the ‘training’ and what does the term mean to your practice?

Our collective understands training not as the endless rehearsal of a future yet-to-come, but the practical development of competencies that strengthen our collective capacity to make the future through struggle. We train to sharpen our tools, to organize ourselves, and to establish the myths that we need to build and strengthen collectivity. When Not An Alternative was invited to Training for the Future, we focused less on the process of training than on the potential outcomes. What generic tools could we offer that could be conceivably adopted and deployed in struggles around the world, regardless of the objective conditions?

“Inventing the Radical” aimed to train trainees in a way of seeing our collective power, which Not An Alternative argues is inscribed in the “language in common”: the visual and communicative forms through which social movements and other collective formations are made to appear. Before we can effectively contribute to the building of the language in common, we have to be able to see where it already exists, to train our sights on the signs of our power that are already inscribed in the landscape. Our collective’s position is that the capacity to build on the language in common requires, first, that we can identify the signs of collective power that already exist.

Because of the specific setting of the training (a former industrial plaza in a German city we had never been to), we embraced the visual language of the training facility as a resource. We asked trainees to see the neo-constructivist visual language of the training facility (which itself is an iteration on the visual language of Soviet design) as a case study in the practice of iteration. We asked trainees to develop an inventory of the signs and symbols that demarcated the partisan dimensions of the design. We then sent the trainees outside with materials leftover from the installation with the task of iterating on the visual language that was already there, to produce forms of “communist graffiti” beyond the immediate training site. We wanted trainees to take away one central idea: collective power is not built through the production of novel or innovative forms, but through the conscious and unconscious iteration on the language in common we inherit, that we learn to recognize as ours, and that holds us together as a “we.” 

In a time of dystopian normativity, what does the notion of the ‘future’ mean to you?

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock tells us that it is “100 seconds before midnight.” Not only is it easy to imagine the end of the world, but also the end of capitalism. The paralyzing problem is that both ends are imagined to correspond to the termination of humanity as a whole. Convinced by the “dystopian” tendencies in contemporary discourse and climate science, many on the left write off the possibility of egalitarian emancipation, leaving us without firm ground to stand on. But as Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Whyte reminds us, the dispossessed peoples of the world have struggled under apocalyptic conditions for centuriesnot just for survival, but for the collective flourishing of human and more-than-human life. There are reasons to live and reasons to struggle, even and especially when the future is not guaranteed. 

For Not An Alternative, the future is not in the future. It is neither a vision of utopia or dystopia. Rather, it is a horizon for struggle in the here-and-now. We inscribe the future in the present by insisting not on the certainty of planetary collapse, nor on the certainty that communism will follow the death of capitalism, but on the indeterminacy of the future. If the inevitable names the enclosure of the future, the indeterminate points to the common beyond and beneath. When we understand that the future is indeterminate, we do not sit and wait for the opportune moment, but, like Marx’s mole of history, we plot and scheme in order to produce the opportunity to strengthen our side.

What does it mean to reclaim the future’s means of production?

We have been arguing that our collective counterpower grows and develops in a dynamic relation to the counterpower we inherit from our ancestors, from revolutionaries whose struggles have informed our own. By recognizing that our struggles fall within a long tradition of resistance, and iterating on the means of communication that we inherit, we build power and make the future possible. In this sense, we would suggest that the means of the production of the future do not need to be “reclaimed.” They have never been abandoned. Thus, our collective task is less to reclaim the means of producing the future, than to consciously and intentionally build on the means of production we inherit. When we iterate on the work of our ancestors, we produce a gap in the capitalist worldan opening in which to affirm our collective difference and construct an infrastructure to support it.

This Q&A was originally published in Training for the Future Handbook, edited by Florian Malzacher and Jonas Staal (Sternberg Press, 2021), 286-290. 

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).

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 .

This essay discusses the exhibit Kwel’ Hoy!: Many Struggles, One Front, a collaborative art installation featuring a sixteen-foot totem pole created by the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation in northern Washington State and southern British Columbia. The exhibit was the product of a collaboration between the Lummi and The Natural History Museum, a mobile and pop-up museum founded by composed of a collective of radical artist-activists. Kwel’ Hoy! appeared in different forms in two natural history museums in the eastern US during the 2017–18 year, helping uplift Indigenous leadership and movements whose activities center around protecting land, water, and our collective future. The exhibition focused on connecting communities on the frontlines of the environmental crisis with movements fighting fossil fuel expansion projects. In this essay I argue that the collaboration between members of the Lummi Nation, The Natural History Museum, and museums and conservation organizations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey intersects with broader struggles to mobilize cultural institutions in the fight against extreme extraction. Museums are a key site in this regard: they see more visitors annually than sporting events and theme parks combined. Although museums have historically served to legitimate racist colonial classifications of the world and its peoples, today they are far from monolithic, and are being placed under increasing pressure by current events and by climate justice activists, who push them to serve the public interest rather than the ecocidal perspectives and policies of the oligarchs who all too often populate their boards. Kwel’ Hoy! offers an instance of what I term the art of articulation: artist-activists using ideological fissures within dominant institutions to crack open and realign them, thereby forging connections among cultural institutions, front-line communities fighting for climate justice, and activist scientists seeking to mobilize natural science for the public good. The Kwel’ Hoy! exhibit is exemplary in its strategic effort to create rhizomatic links between diverse constituencies who can be mobilized to fight fossil capitalism, and in its determination to alert large segments of the public that a just transition beyond extractivism is possible.

Totem pole carved by House of Tears Carvers; an ever-growing stone altar initiated by members of the Ramapough Lenape Nation and added to by members of the public contributing stones and prayers for the water; and videos and graphics that map the fossil fuel ecosystem—encompassing land, energy, economics and culture.

Capitalism’s Organic Crisis and Populist Extractivism

Contemporary capitalism is in the throes of a deep crisis. In order to make sense of the horrors of the present, we can turn back to another period of extreme counterrevolution. Writing after the Fascist seizure of power in Italy during the 1920s and 1930s, the revolutionary Antonio Gramsci argued that his society had experienced an organic crisis, a comprehensive convulsion wherein the various parts of the social order refused to cohere, which generated a breakdown of social consensus. For Gramsci, this organic crisis encompassed not only the economic and political elements of society, but also the entirety of the social and cultural terrain. Capitalist societies, Gramsci argued, are prone to such periodic crises of hegemony. Indeed, writing about the clashes of the 1970s that led to the rise of neoliberalism, British radical Stuart Hall described the way in which an organic crisis ramifies across society, sparking what he called “debates about fundamental sexual, moral and intellectual questions … a whole range of issues which do not necessarily appear … to be articulated with politics.”[1]

Since the ruling classes are unable to resolve the multiple contradictions that provoke an organic crisis, such a breakdown is also—and above all—an opportunity to assert a new set of values and orientations for society. These new values are not always progressive, let alone revolutionary. Indeed, the contemporary rise of authoritarian populist movements around the world, from Trumpism in the US to the constitutional coup against Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, is an expression of the contemporary organic crisis of capitalism: the economic and social orthodoxies that have held sway for years are bankrupt. After nearly four decades of neoliberalism unchained, years during which dominant political parties of all stripes accepted the necessity of austerity, global deregulation, and flagrant giveaways to multinational corporations, popular discontent has flared, unseating members of the political establishment and leading to a right-wing surge that is grounded in the ginning up of overt white supremacy, sexism, and homophobia. This naked bigotry is combined with a fresh round of tax cuts for the plutocrats, producing an unwieldy assemblage that will generate neither the economic nor ideological stability longed for by its adherents.

The scapegoating of immigrants and other marginalized social groups is a tried-and-true tactic of popular authoritarianism, a strategy employed since the beginning of the conservative counterrevolution in the 1970s to galvanize public support for administrations ruled by and for the one percent.[2] The rhetoric of figures like Reagan and Thatcher, for example, suggested that the economic and social crises roiling people’s lives in this period were not the product of a dysfunctional capitalist system, but rather the result of lawless ethnic and sexual minorities and the liberal permissiveness that abetted their disruptive behavior. Over the last four decades, bigotry, law and order rhetoric, and heavy-handed repression have gone hand in hand with the dismantling of the redistributive elements of the post-1945 welfare state and a massive upward redistribution of wealth. Contemporary figures such as Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have revived and intensified this toxic stew of tactical scapegoating and class warfare. To it they have fatefully added an ecocidal populist extractivism. Bolsonaro has, for example, promised to mow down much of the Amazon in the name of national development.[3] Trump, for his part, has pledged to “bring back coal” and to promote American energy dominance, promises that have resonated with not only the coal bosses and oiligarchs but also with sectors of the US labor movement, which has supported his greenlighting of the Keystone XL pipeline.[4]

But Trump’s America First Energy Plan dooms the planet. Even the notoriously pro-fossil fuel International Energy Agency (IEA) has concluded that “the world has so many existing fossil fuel projects that it cannot afford to build any more polluting infrastructure without busting international climate change goals.”[5] As Fatih Birol, director of the IEA, bluntly put it during the launch of the think tank’s World Energy Outlook 2018, “We have no room to build anything that emits CO2.” Today’s organic crisis thus has an ecological dimension. Vast swaths of our planet are becoming literally too hot and dry for human beings to endure. Weather- and climate-related disasters are intensifying, with typhoons and hurricanes killing scores of people and inflicting unprecedented economic damage. Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Global Warming of 1.5° C report issued a clarion call for rapid transition: “Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.”[6] The IPCC report made it clear that contemporary capitalism will experience an intensifying breakdown of the environmental systems upon which it depends unless dramatic political action of the kind that elites have refused to engage in is taken very soon.

The Art of Articulation

What would it be like to think about winning? What strategies can movements fighting against capitalism’s pillaging of society and the planet adopt in order to overcome popular authoritarianism and win power? For far too long, the Left has ducked such questions.[7] But in order to reverse capital’s headlong sprint towards planetary ecocide, radicals will have to knit the diverse movements resisting popular authoritarianism together into a force capable of vying for power at various political scales. They will also have to forge solidarities between committed cadres of activists and those broad swaths of the population that are increasingly disaffected with the status quo. In order to do so, radicals must challenge longstanding traditions of elitism on the Left and among artist-activists. Take Situationism, for example. One of the major inspirations for the Global Justice Movement and affiliated efforts in the art world in the 1990s and after, Situationism, as theorized by figures like Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, consisted of creative and often hilarious but nonetheless piecemeal assaults on what was perceived as the passivity and tedium of life in post-1945 capitalist societies.[8] Underlying these tactical assaults was a wholesale denunciation of consumer society, which was represented in totalizing terms as homogeneous and utterly alienating. Postwar social democracy and the Keynesian welfare state were accordingly seen not so much as hard-fought victories to be built on but as forms of co-optation that helped consolidate a stultifying consumerism. This left little room for any kind of political transformation short of a full-scale proletarian revolution. Until the revolution, all that one could do was engage in isolated acts of symbolic dissent.

In contrast with the work of the Situationists, many thinkers of the New Left saw society not as a totality but rather as an amalgam constituted by complex and contingent configurations of elements. The key was to figure out how to break apart the current consensus and reimagine a more just arrangement. From Deleuze and Guattari to Foucault, Laclau and Mouffe, and Stuart Hall, a broad array of thinkers conceived of capitalist social and cultural formations as the outcome of relatively contingent processes of articulation and assemblage. For example, in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, Ernesto Laclau described Plato’s allegory of the cave in terms of a theory of articulation: “Common sense discourse, doxa” Laclau wrote, “is presented as a system of misleading articulations in which concepts do not appear linked by inherent logical relations, but are bound together simply by connotative or evocative links which custom and opinion have established between them.… Knowledge presupposes, then, an operation of rupture: a disarticulation of ideas from those connotative domains to which they appear linked in the form of a misleading necessity, which enables us subsequently to reconstruct their true articulations.”[9] The task of anti-capitalists, then, is to rupture or disarticulate the existing common sense (or figure out where the contradictions of the system have already produced such ruptures), and then reconstruct ideas in a manner that serves the political struggle for social justice.

In developing their theories of articulation and disarticulation, Laclau and other New Left thinkers were drawing on the work of Antonio Gramsci. Indeed, Gramsci’s theory of organic crisis is an effort to understand how the dominant order cracks apart under the weight of capitalism’s contradictions. After the failure of proletarian movements in Italy and other Western European capitalist nations, Gramsci rethought the reductive social theories of leaders like Lenin, giving future revolutionaries a toolbox for building counterpower. In Two Tactics of Social Democracy, Lenin emphasized the need to create a “single will” between the peasantry and the proletariat but paid little attention to how these connections might be generated from within the groups in question. Seeing “the masses” as “backward and ignorant,” Lenin argued that a vanguard party needed to forge alliances between groups whose identities remained fixed and static.[10] By contrast, writing in 1926 following the dissolution of factory council movements in industrial cities like Turin, Milan, and Genova in Northern Italy, Gramsci sought to understand how these movements might have built connections with the peasantry in Southern Italy, who at the time were occupying large estates and uncultivated lands.[11] Key to Gramsci’s assessment was the refusal of soldiers recruited from rural Sardinia to attack the workers occupying factories in Turin. For Gramsci, this subaltern solidarity—forged in the face of immense geographical and cultural differences—was produced by a recognition of common oppression. The alliance Gramsci witnessed unfolding in Turin suggested broader possibilities for articulating a common front between the peasantry of Southern Italy and the industrial workers of the North, one that might challenge the nationalist rhetoric of the Fascists by emphasizing solidarities born out of a shared fight against exploitative elites.

Gramsci’s astute analysis of the challenges of political mobilization in a time of conservative counterrevolution has much to say to radicals today. The key question of our time is how to defeat a popular authoritarianism whose lineage traces directly back to the Fascist forces Gramsci confronted. Moreover, the questions he addressed concerning the building of solidarities among political groups with very different geographical and cultural backgrounds are remarkably relevant to the present. How can we link diverse frontline communities, such as Indigenous groups who have taken the lead in protecting land and water in rural areas, with urban environmental justice groups that are challenging the disproportionate presence of toxic facilities in communities of color? Further, what stories can we tell and which institutions can we mobilize in order to generate solidarities between those on the frontlines of climate crisis (in both the Global North and South) and the broader publics in wealthy countries, most of whom are not yet deeply impacted by the climate crisis but are nonetheless aware of the hair-raising scientific assessments of it? How can we generate solidarities between people across national borders at a time of rampant xenophobia and racism? And, informing all of the previous questions, how can we rearticulate dominant neoliberal narratives that have inculcated a gloomy sense that the default state of human relations is a war of everyone against everyone else?[12] For many decades, the Left has had its own version of this nihilistic perspective, championing subaltern and fugitive knowledge but holding little hope of overcoming neoliberal hegemony. The insight that the dominance of reactionary forces does not obliterate cultures and acts of resistance is certainly a valuable one, but history has returned us with the greatest urgency to the question of how to articulate these counter-knowledges into a bloc that can take on and defeat popular authoritarianism. Since we are faced with the prospect of planetary ecocide, all of our thinking must center on cracking open vulnerable institutions, exploiting and even producing crises of hegemony, and articulating new, unexpected, and potent solidarities to revive our capacity to shut down fossil capitalism in order to care for one another and the planet.

Kwel’ Hoy!: Many Struggles, One Front

For the last seven years, members of the Lummi Nation have been traveling on Totem Pole Journeys to unite communities on the frontlines of the environmental crises generated by unsustainable fossil fuel projects. The totem poles, which are created by master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James and the House of Tears carvers, are part of a Lummi tradition of carving and delivering totem poles to areas struck by disaster or in need of hope and healing. Seven years ago, the Lummi Nation faced its own potential disaster: the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, the largest coal export facility in North America, was slated to open on tribal lands at Cherry Point, known in the Lummi tongue as Xwe’chi’eXen. Rail lines running from Wyoming and Montana through Idaho, eastern Washington, along the Columbia River Gorge, and then up the coast of Puget Sound would connect to the coal port, where bulk cargo carriers would arrive to ship the coal through the Salish Sea and across the Pacific to Asia. In 2012, the Lummi Nation formally declared their opposition to the project, which they concluded would result in “significant, unavoidable, and unacceptable interference” with treaty rights and “irreversible and irretrievable damage” to Lummi spiritual values. As Lummi Councilman Jay Julius put it, in opposing the proposed coal port, “‘Kwel hoy’: ‘We draw the line.’”[13]

In September 2013, the Lummi Nation launched the Kwel hoy’ Totem Pole Journey to oppose the Gateway Pacific Terminal project. The journey began in the Powder River Basin, a region which supplies roughly forty percent of the coal consumed in the US. The totem pole followed the coal train route through Indian country up to Xwe’chi’eXen and then continued on to British Columbia, where it was placed in the homeland of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, demonstrating unity with the Canadian First Nations’ position opposing the transport of tar sands by pipelines across their territories. There, the totem pole was met by members of First Nations who had traveled from all directions to reinforce the message of Kwel hoy’. As the Lummi Nation states, one primary goal of the 1,700-mile long Totem Pole Journey was “to connect tribal nations along the coal corridor.”[14] But the Lummi are clear that the coal port proposal had dire implications not only for the sacred landscapes and treaty rights of Tribal Nations, but for all of the communities in the region. The rallying cry of Kwel hoy’, they argue, brings together the Peoples of the West, whose “communities, commerce, livelihoods, public health, tourism, agriculture, fisheries, air and water safety, natural resources, quality of life would all be adversely impacted.” The journey of the totem pole thus helps forge precisely the kinds of solidarities that Gramsci argued for, linking groups separated not just by geography but also by longstanding cultural traditions of settler colonialism and racism. By bringing “cowboys and Indians” together, Kwel hoy’ generated a new collectivity—the Peoples of the West—who stood together in opposition to the environmental despoliation of fossil capitalism.

Produced by Freddie Lane, a member of the Lummi Nation Tribal Council and a videographer, and Jason Jones of The Natural History Museum, From the Ancestors to the Grandchildren insists that in addition to linking disparate communities in a common struggle, the totem pole journey also identifies connections across time. The video documents a process of temporal articulation that links the Lummi activists of today to their ancestors, who have bequeathed important knowledge about how to maintain sustainable relations with the natural world. These connections across time in turn link the ancestors and warriors of today to future generations, whose fate will be determined by actions in the present. This rearticulation of temporality ruptures the time-order of contemporary capitalism, which is organized around a homogeneous, empty, and eternal present in which the sole claim to meaning is derived from feckless accumulation through various forms of extreme extraction.[15] Rearticulating time challenges the neoliberal dictum that “there is no alternative” (to the present state of affairs). In addition, the totem pole journey and the Indigenous traditions that animate it also make connections between humans and other living creatures visible in what artist-activist Subhankar Banerjee calls “a struggle for multi-species justice.”[16] As Freddie Lane puts it in his voiceover to the video, “The road that leads to death is not an option. The world is not made up of dead objects, resources to be burned. From the ancestors to our grandchildren, we draw the line.”

This line has come to extend across the North American continent. In the spring of 2018, the Lummi Nation and their allies brought a totem pole to New Jersey, where communities faced threats related to those that catalyzed the original Kwel Hoy’ journey. The Marcellus Shale formation, which stretches through western New York and Pennsylvania down to West Virginia, is the biggest natural gas field in the US, and one of the largest in the world.[17] With the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in the late 1990s, massive quantities of “natural gas” or methane became relatively easy to exploit. The US is now awash in fracked gas, but all that fossil gas has to be shipped out of rural areas like western Pennsylvania to cities along the coast and to Europe and Asia, where prices for fossil gas are far higher. This has led to a frenzy of fossil infrastructure construction in states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, whose governor signed a ban on fracking but has been more than willing to greenlight pipeline projects. Though the oil industry has assured the public that the pipelines are safe, abundant evidence suggests the opposite. In addition to their frequently leaking and exploding,[18] the pipelines also feature “compressor stations” that belch endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals like formaldehyde into the air.[19] In reaction to the massive buildout of fossil infrastructure in the Northeast, communities across states such as New York and New Jersey have mobilized in opposition to these toxic projects.[20]

In 2014, the aptly named Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings development company announced plans to construct a pair of pipelines that would stretch from Albany, New York to Linden, New Jersey, running straight through the territory of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, a group of Munsee-speaking Indigenous people native to the highlands around Mahwah, New Jersey. Two-hundred thousand barrels of crude Bakken shale oil were projected to flow through the pipelines each day, endangering water supplies for one of the most populous regions in the US. Inspired by protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which drew thousands of people to Standing Rock, North Dakota, in 2016, the Ramapough mobilized in reaction to this threat to their land and ancestral sacred sites, organizing the Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp along the Ramapo River to resist the Pilgrim Pipeline. Although the Ramapough Nation’s stand against the pipeline was embattled—with the local township penalizing the tribe for raising tepees that allegedly violated zoning regulations—their fight has drawn the support of activists in the area as well as coverage in the national press.[21]

In late April of 2018, leaders from Lummi Nation joined members of the Ramapough Lenape Nation to support the latter’s tribe’s efforts to stop the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline from threatening water and sacred sites.[22] Alongside them were local residents, activists, and scientists from the New York and New Jersey area who are also fighting local pipelines. The protests included the placement of a totem pole and a blessing ceremony on Ramapough land, both of which were also part of Kwel’ Hoy: Many Struggles, One Front, a traveling exhibition organized by the Lummi Nation and The Natural History Museum that drew attention to the efforts of communities across the country to fight the buildout of fossil fuel infrastructure. Following the blessing ceremony on Ramapough land, the Kwel’ Hoy exhibition opened at the Watershed Institute, an organization located just south of Princeton, New Jersey, that is devoted to conservation, education, scientific research, and environmental policy advocacy. According to the institution, the totem pole helped “connect the scientific community’s efforts to protect local watersheds from the proposed PennEast Pipeline to the Ramapough Lenape Nation’s efforts to stop the Pilgrim Pipeline, and to the Lummi’s struggles to protect the waters of the Pacific Northwest from oil tankers and pipelines.”[23]

Liberating Institutions

Speaking about the impact of museums on public consciousness, author and activist Winona LaDuke states that “Most Americans know little about Native people: what they know comes mainly from some history books, a lot from Westerns [movies], and some from a museum. And when we are always frozen in the past, they are surprised when they see us walking someplace and we are still here.”[24] Museums of natural history thus participate in and reinforce what the anthropologist Johannes Fabian called “the denial of coevalness,” the idea that anthropologists are “here and now” while their objects are “there and then,” that non-European people exist in a time not contemporary with that of the West.[25] Cloaking themselves in the mantle of scientific knowledge, anthropologists and the natural history museums that exhibit their findings participate in an inherently violent erasure of the enduring presence and struggles of the people they represent. In depicting Native Americans and other groups as “frozen in the past”––for all intents and purposes as collectively dead––museums participate in ongoing acts of colonial genocide.

The naked oppressiveness of such depictions is obscured, in part, by the aura of objectivity and neutrality cultivated by museums and by science in general. In the wake of the notorious 1996 Sokal affair, in which the cultural studies journal Social Text published a hoax article wherein physicist Alan Sokal purported to show that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct, critic Stanley Aronowitz wrote, “So the issue is not whether reality exists, but whether knowledge of it is ‘transparent.’ Herein lies Sokal’s confusion. He believes that reason, logic, and truth are entirely unproblematic. He has an abiding faith that through the rigorous application of scientific method nature will yield its unmediated truth.”[26] Against Sokal’s insistence on “objective truth,” Aronowitz argued that “The point is not to debunk science or to ‘deconstruct’ it in order to show it is merely a fiction … The point is to show science as a social process, to bring it down to earth, to remove the halo from its head…. If science reflects on the social and cultural influences, on its visions, revisions and its practices, and perhaps more to the point, on its commitments, then there is hope for a liberatory science.”[27] Aronowitz’s points about the need for science to reflect on its influences and its commitments remains salient today. In fact, in the same issue of Social Text in which Sokal’s hoax article was published, eco-socialist scholar Joel Kovel argued in a remarkably prescient essay that the ecological crisis had generated a new conjuncture in which science needs to be reevaluated:

Science can never more be taken at face value. The record of its violations must be held before it: the reduction of the universe to brute, mechanically driven matter, the adjunctive role toward domination. In the present conjuncture, certain aspects of so-called normal science must continue: how, after all, are we to contend with the damage that is being done, or devise appropriate technology for an ecological society, if we reject the collective intelligence embedded in the scientific project? But science has to be reworked for an abnormal conjuncture. The myth of its autonomy from society is gone, perhaps forever. What remains must be refashioned according to the revealed crisis of ecology – science now seen in the light of what it has so far largely expelled. What has been reduced away must be restored: respect for the integrity of complex wholes rather than atomized parts; the primacy of dialectical becoming over static, mechanical being; the recognition of our embeddedness in nature and hence nature’s immanent consciousness and vitality.[28]

Against the naïve belief in scientific neutrality and objective truth that Sokal espoused, Kovel reminds readers of science’s history of ontological reduction and complicity with imperial domination of the natural world and colonized peoples. Yet for Kovel, despite this record of violations, scientific traditions cannot be abandoned, rather they must be remade in light of and in order to address an age of overlapping crises of capital and the environment. Science must be “reworked’ for what Kovel calls “an abnormal conjuncture.”[29] This injunction to transformation applies not simply to science, which must be rearticulated around ideas of commitment and the public good, but also to museums of natural history, where scientific knowledge of the natural world and the West’s (colonized) Others is displayed.

As the group’s name suggests, The Natural History Museum is engaged in precisely such a rearticulation of science and its institutions of representation. As Beka Economopoulos, a member of the group, puts it, The Natural History Museum’s work is animated by a central question: “How can institutions and disciplines that have had fraught histories with Indigenous communities and have been hamstrung from playing a meaningful role in environment and social movements because of the myth of neutrality—how can they reevaluate their roles in the current moment of crisis, perform science and perform solidarity with communities who are most impacted and also showing the greatest leadership in contemporary struggles?”[30] The group’s determination to reorient museums is facilitated by the fact that such institutions are not monolithic entities. Natural history museums are tugged, Jodi Dean argues, between competing imperatives to truth and collective good in the face of opposing political and economic demands.[31] The work of The Natural History Museum exploits and animates potential splits in the museum by challenging museum professionals and scientists to stand up against fossil fuel greenwashing.

The Natural History Museum is not alone in this enterprise. It is part of an upsurge of insurgent movements acting in and against museums around the world, including groups such as Art Not Oil, BP or Not BP, Gulf Labor, Liberate Tate, Occupy Museums, and Decolonize This Place.[32] For many activists working in this terrain, museums are, in the words of the Not An Alternative collective, a “cultural commons.”[33] Along with related institutions such as libraries, universities, and even parliaments, museums are public institutions that “supply an infrastructure for creating and communicating common understandings of the world.” For Not An Alternative, neoliberalism has become hegemonic in part by seizing and repurposing these public institutions: “the capitalist class relies on ideological apparatuses like museums to produce and reproduce the subjects it needs.”[34] As public support for these institutions has dwindled, they have become increasingly dependent on donations from corporations and one percenters that always come with strings attached. The time has come, Not An Alternative argues, to take these institutions back from the oligarchs. To occupy and ultimately liberate an institution is to exploit the fissures within that institution: “When art activists commandeer a museum, they split it from within. The already existent divisions within the institution are activated. Anyone affiliated with the museum is forced to take a side: few or many, rich or poor, past or future?” Efforts to liberate institutions are certainly not carried out in unanimity; indeed, some of the art activist groups mentioned above have a far more hostile attitude towards the institutions they seek to occupy than The Natural History Museum does, and in fact, some institutions are far more resistant to transformation than others. Nonetheless, while attitudes and tactics may vary, Not An Alternative convincingly argues that the Left’s abandoning of the struggle to liberate institutions in recent decades is a strategic failure: “Refusal and subtraction have been disastrous as Left political tactics. They have surrendered the power aggregated in institutions to capital and the state. The tactics of institutional liberation treat institutions as tools, weapons, and bases of political struggle. They take on and over the institution’s radical premise: the collectivity and futurity that underpins any collection.”[35]

The Natural History Museum works in a particularly fraught—and consequential—conjuncture. The group’s activities materialize the links among museums, science, and environmental movements during a time of corporate climate change denial and greenwashing, the Trump administration’s efforts to quash critical research and environmental regulation, and the resurgence of militant Indigenous resistance to planet-annihilating extractivism. This explosive conjuncture shows that the possibilities for cracking open and reorienting particular institutions is a product of the immense pressure such institutions have been placed under by the organic crisis of capitalism. As existing hegemonic alignments have recently come under increasing strain, The Natural History Museum has been able to build coalitions that have won startling victories against fossil capitalism. For example, by helping orchestrate an open letter in which dozens of the world’s top scientists urged museums of science and natural history to cut all ties to the fossil fuel industry, The Natural History Museum successfully persuaded a group of such museums to divest. The group then played a pivotal role in removing climate change denier David Koch from the board of the American Museum of Natural History.[36] The extent to which The Natural History Museum has reoriented discourse within museums of science and natural history was apparent when the Carnegie Museum of Natural History—located in Pittsburgh, the heart of fracking country—welcomed the Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line exhibit on the occasion of the International Council of Museums conference on the Anthropocene.

Carnegie Museum director Eric Dorfman’s declaration of his institution’s determination to be an ally to Native Americans—notwithstanding the open challenge the exhibition posed to the fossil capitalist interests that bankroll his institution—testifies to the success that The Natural History Museum has had in turning the museum into a “base of political struggle.” Equally if not more striking is the perception of exhibition visitor Kayah George of the Tsleil-Waututh/Tulalip Tribes that “our voices are being heard, like they should be for the first time in a long time. I believe the message of this totem pole is very clear. It’s the message that we are rising.”[37]

When Kwel’ Hoy: Many Struggles, One Front opened at the Watershed Institute, the rearticulation of museums and conservation institutions, science, and the struggles of frontline communities against ecocide reached a powerful zenith. For Jim Waltman, the executive director of the Watershed Institute, Kwel’ Hoy had a phenomenal impact by bringing the issues on which the organization works to life in the most visceral way and giving everyone connected to the institution a strong sense of solidarity with Indigenous people and people across the world who are fighting the same fossil capitalist foes.[38] The exhibition was laid out in a manner that dramatized this active forging of solidarity. A red line winding across the museum’s walls tracked various examples of the deadly ecologies of fossil capitalism, and then linked these examples to sites of struggle against fossil capitalism, including the Ramapough Lenape Nation’s fight against the Pilgrim Pipeline, the Lummi Nation’s struggle against the Gateway Pacific Terminal project, and the Watershed Institute’s fight against the PennEast Pipeline.

Introducing the Watershed Institute’s mission, Waltman boldly declares that “scientists have an obligation to deploy the tools of science in protection of the environment.” This, he argues, means that “scientists have an obligation to stand up and speak truth to power.”

Included in the exhibit was footage that showed the important role of scientists in documenting the damaging impact of fossil fuel infrastructure on local ecosystems. This includes citizen scientists, among them the thousands of children who attend science camps at the Watershed Institute every summer. Their efforts in discovering and documenting endangered species whose habitats are threatened by fossil fuel infrastructure have been key to fighting back against pipeline projects in the area.

The fate of the PennEast and Pilgrim Pipelines is not yet determined, but construction of fossil fuel infrastructure continues around the country and the world. The US alone is set to drive nearly sixty percent of global growth in oil and gas supply between now and 2030—with plans to expand production by four times the amount of any other country in the world.[39] Upwards of ninety percent of this expansion would depend on fracking, which would bring with it tremendous threats not only of near- and long-term climate change but also air pollution, health risks, and growing competition for water. Meanwhile, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on 1.5°C of Global Warming warns that the world needs to cut carbon emissions nearly in half by 2030 to keep warming within that limit. In the face of this deathly prospect, we need, as Lummi Nation activist Freddie Lane puts it, “to summon all the forces of life that run through everything to come together in a common collective fight.” The collaboration among Lummi Nation carvers and activists, The Natural History Museum, and institutions like the Carnegie Museum and the Watershed Institute offers a powerful challenge to the fossil fuel industry. We must build on such hopeful alignments if we are to reroute the road to death that fossil capitalism has put us all on.

My deepest thanks to the members of The Natural History Museum for their collaborative efforts during the period described in this essay. I am also grateful to my research assistant Robin Renée Robinson for her wonderful work during this collaboration. In addition, I am indebted to my colleagues and the staff at the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Center for Humanities at the Graduate Center/CUNY for their support, as well as to the Mellon Foundation, The Environmental Humanities Lab at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and FORMAS, the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development, for their economic support.

Ashley Dawson is Professor of Postcolonial Studies in the English Department at the Graduate Center / City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons(O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change(Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.

“The Art of Articulation” was originally published in Dispatches #002 (April 25, 2019).

  1. [1]Stuart Hall, “Gramsci and Us,” in The Hard Road to Renewal (London: Verso, 1988), 168.
  2. [2]Stuart Hall, et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: MacMillan, 1978).
  3. [3]Philip Fearnside, “Why Brazil’s New President Poses an Unprecedented Threat to the Amazon,” Yale Environment 360, November 8, 2018, https://e360.yale.edu/features/why-brazils-new-president-poses-an-unprecedented-threat-to-the-amazon.
  4. [4]Norman Solomon, “AFL-CIO To Planet Earth: Drop Dead,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2016, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/afl-cio-to-planet-earth-d_b_12080618.
  5. [5]Adam Vaughan, “World has no capacity to absorb new fossil fuel plants, warns IEA,” The Guardian, November 12, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/nov/13/world-has-no-capacity-to-absorb-new-fossil-fuel-plants-warns-iea.
  6. [6]The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, October 2018, https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.
  7. [7]There has, however, been an efflorescence of strategic theorizing over the last few years, one that includes work such as Andrew Boyd and Dave Osward Mitchell’s edited volume Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (New York: OR Books, 2016); Jeremy Brecher’s Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual (Oakland: PM Press, 2017); adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico: AK Press, 2017); Mark and Paul Engler’s This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (New York: Nation Books, 2017); Jane F. McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To (Chico: AK Press, 2017).
  8. [8]Jeremy Gilbert, Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics (New York: Berg, 2008), 100.
  9. [9]David Featherstone, Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism (London: Zed, 2012), 27.
  10. [10]Featherstone, Solidarity, 27.
  11. [11]George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (London: Verso, 2017), 19.
  12. [12]Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism (New York: Verso, 1979), 7–8.
  13. [13]“About the Journey,” Totempolejourney.com, https://totempolejourney.com/about-the-journey/.
  14. [14]“2013 Totem Pole Journey Archive,” Totempolejourney.com, https://totempolejourney.com/2013-totem-pole-journey-archive-2/.
  15. [15]Christophe Bonneuil, “What Time Will It Be After Capitalism?” Verso Books (website), February 26, 2019, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4252-what-time-will-it-be-after-capitalism.
  16. [16]Subhankar Banerjee, “Resisting the War on Alaska’s Arctic with Multispecies Justice,” Social Text Online, June 7, 2018, https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/resisting-the-war-on-alaskas-arctic-with-multispecies-justice/.
  17. [17]Hobart M. King, “Marcellus Shale – Appalachian Basin Natural Gas Play,” Geology.com, https://geology.com/articles/marcellus-shale.shtml.
  18. [18]Justin Nobel, “The Hidden Risk in the Fracking Boom: Are pipeline safety regulations keeping pace with the flood of natural gas?” Rolling Stone, February 20, 2019, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/pipeline-explosions-fracking-796569/.
  19. [19]Sullivan County Residents Against Millennium, “Millennium Pipeline Highland NY Compressor – FLIR,” YouTube video, 2:39, February 20, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuAJAqwE-G8.
  20. [20]Sane Energy Project, You Are Here, https://www.saneenergy.org/our-programs/you-are-here.
  21. [21]Noah Remnick, “The Ramapoughs vs. the World,” New York Times, April 14, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/14/nyregion/ramapough-tribe-fights-pipeline.html.
  22. [22]Monsy Alvarado, “Totem pole journey highlights Native Americans’ fight against fossil fuel development,” Northjersey.com, April 21, 2018, https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/new-jersey/2018/04/21/totem-pole-journey-highlights-native-americans-fight-against-fossil-fuel-development/536550002/.
  23. [23]“Kwel’ Hoy: Many Struggles, One Front,” website of the Watershed Institute, https://thewatershed.org/kwel-hoy-2/.
  24. [24]The Natural History Museum, “Winona LaDuke: What is the Museum of the Future?” YouTube video, 1:08, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SxjkaYypLk&index=13&list=UUMBBYHDnN2tSX_iMOET3ReQ.
  25. [25]Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Objects (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
  26. [26]Stanley Aronowitz, “Alan Sokal’s ‘Transgression,’” Dissent 44 (Winter 1997): 107–110.
  27. [27]Aronowitz, “Alan Sokal’s ‘Transgression,’” 107 (emphasis original).
  28. [28]Joel Kovel, “Dispatches from the Science Wars,” Social Text 46/47 (Spring–Summer 1996): 171.
  29. [29]Kovel, “Dispatches,” 171.
  30. [30]Beka Economopoulos, in conversation with the author, January 23, 2019.
  31. [31]Jodi Dean, “Exhibiting Division, Seizing the State: The Natural History Museum,” in Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-Obscene, ed. Henrik Ernstson and Erik Swyngedouw (London: Routledge, 2018), 205–222.
  32. [32]Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation,” e-flux journal 77 (November 2016), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/77/76215/institutional-liberation/.
  33. [33]It should be noted that The Natural History Museum is an institution born out of the Not An Alternative collective.
  34. [34]Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation.”
  35. [35]“Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation.”
  36. [36]“Open Letter from Scientists to the American Museum of Natural History,” January 25, 2018, https://thenaturalhistorymuseum.org/open-letter-from-scientists-to-the-american-museum-of-natural-history/. See also John Schwartz, “Science Museums Urged to Cut Ties With Kochs,” New York Times, March 24, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/24/science/science-museums-urged-to-cut-ties-with-kochs.html.
  37. [37]The Natural History Museum, “Kwel Hoy – Totem Pole JourneyExhibition at The Carnegie Museum Of Natural History,” YouTube video, 3:56, January 21, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9hQu5Iydec&list=UUMBBYHDnN2tSX_iMOET3ReQ&index=14.
  38. [38]Jim Waltman, in conversation with the author, February 13, 2019.
  39. [39]Kelly Trout, “The U.S. Oil and Gas Industry is Drilling Us Towards Climate Disaster,” Oil Change International (blog), January 16, 2019, http://priceofoil.org/2019/01/16/us-oil-and-gas-industry-is-drilling-us-towards-climate-disaster/.