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The Great Transition: The Arts and Radical System Change


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With the rise of Trumpism, the US finds itself in nothing less than a state of emergency. We face a conflictual and volatile regime of post-liberal plutocracy dedicated to extreme wealth accumulation, fueled by patriarchal and white supremacist resentment. With repressive attacks on independent media and civil society activism, the president’s administration appears poised to enhance militarized borders and surveillance-equipped counter-insurgency forces to fortify its rule, dividing and conquering via a politics of racist, sexist, and religious scapegoating. Time will tell whether this political formation—one that has been an occasion for critics to revive the term “fascism” in relation to our present—will join analogues in Europe, Asia and Latin America in defining a global ascendency of post-democratic authoritarian capitalism. What we do know is that Trump’s nationalist fixation on domestic “development” is thoroughly extractivist—attempting to exploit all available natural and human resources in an effort to maximize profits at a time of grotesque economic inequality, even while he inspires working-class support with his “America First” rhetoric. Indeed, many unions have misguidedly backed his patriotic-defined rush to drill, mine and build a wall, constituting a contradictory politics symptomatic of today’s dire situation of socio-economic precarity, according to which we’re all led to believe that there is no alternative to sacrificing the Earth if we are to have jobs. That agenda, tied to outmoded industries, needless to say, spells disaster for the nation’s diverse workforce, as well as its civil society, educational system, media, sciences, arts and humanities. Though Trump’s predecessor was certainly no champion on environmental matters—Obama both resisted many environmental regulations and supported an “all-of-the-above energy strategy” that led to the major expansion of oil extraction and pipeline infrastructure in the name of national energy security—the current regime threatens to set us back in incalculable ways.

Adding fuel to the fire, this political shift arrives at a time when we have entered an unprecedented geological interstice, when fossil-fueled climate change has yet to deliver its full impacts owing to the temporal lag between cause and effect. Those transformations—hotter temperatures, drought, rising seas, depleted resources, degraded lands and seas, species extinctions—accompany and exacerbate social, agricultural, economic, political, and military crises. Not only will they worsen in the next few decades, but adding in the Trump factor, promise to strike with even more violence and intensity. No doubt ours is the era of a great transformation—or what the writer Amitav Ghosh has recently termed, provocatively, The Great Derangement—through which we (and future generations) will live, dream, and die with more or less inequality and impoverishment, and thus more or less suffering and injustice, depending on how aggressively we confront—or continue to ignore—the current crisis. We know that in any case the climate effects will be geographically distributed unevenly, with countries in the global South, those with the least resources, hardest hit. How will future analysts view this historically unprecedented situation, where our political systems are as out of whack as our ecologies are disturbed? When will we recognize that our current growth-obsessed economic system—cloaked in the myths of freedom and American exceptionalism—provides not the best hope for guaranteeing the continuation of life, but is instead the very cause of the politico-ecological catastrophe we now face? If so, how can culture—as the location where enduring social values, where the narratives, images, and sounds through which we understand ourselves, our relations to each other and to the world we live in are created collectively—contribute to sensing and comprehending the risks and dangers of our present order? More importantly, can it generate livable and desirable alternatives? How can the arts provide new perceptions and affects (for instance, those of justice, responsibility, and mutuality) through which life might be reinvented?

Reassuringly, we’re also seeing the growth of major ruptures in the dominant regime, in the US and beyond. This includes the Movement for Black Lives, the massive Women’s March on Washington and spreading Sanctuary cities movement, Indigenous resurgence insisting on land sovereignty and environmental protection, artistic-activist formations contesting petrocaptialist cultural institutions, and the ongoing nationwide General Strikes—each of which refuses to normalize Trumpism, doing so with multiple intersectionalist solidarities between them. And despite the election, the recent past has witnessed undeniable gains, even if near future push-backs are already in motion: Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock temporarily stopped a nearly four billion dollar oil pipeline from being constructed on their land in North Dakota and threatening their water sources, while activists associated with #sHellNo in Seattle’s port interrupted the oil giant’s plans to drill in the Arctic. Meanwhile, the London-based collective Liberate Tate, part of the international Art Not Oil Coalition, won a heroic six-year campaign to get the Tate Galleries to cut sponsorship ties with British Petroleum, and the New York-based group Not An Alternative organized a public petition signed by dozens of renowned scientists urging museums in the US to sever links with fossil-fuel corporate sponsorship that led to the removal of billionaire oil-heir, rightwing philanthropist, and climate-change denialist David Koch from the board of New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Additionally, radical farmers, climate activists, and artists in western France—building on recent UK-based anti-fossil-fuel occupations such as the Climate Camps—have been successfully defending their territory known as the Zad against the state’s plans, in cooperation with the French construction corporation Vinci, to develop the area with a new airport, and install in its place a radical experiment in commoning.

These are gains to be celebrated, even though they represent a small sampling of practices with lesser or greater stakes, assorted modes of engagement and varying degrees of privilege and sacrifice. Yet all are both exemplary of the spread of popular creative uprisings and joyful rebellions and constitute growing resistance to the current political-economic impasse regarding global climate crisis. Measured over the last twenty years of UN climate conferences, we’ve witnessed nothing less than the complete failure of climate governance to enact policies that would limit emissions to keep the Earth within two degrees Celsius of pre-industrial temperature levels. Indeed, CO₂ emissions are over 50% higher than in 1992 when the UNFCCC was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio by all UN members who pledged to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Twenty five years on, we face an insufferable antinomy between the yearly promises to limit global warming and the reality of our movement toward climate chaos. Unsurprisingly, the ultra-wealthy are busy investing in million-dollar silos of escape in preparation for the coming apocalypse, apparently not quite believing policymakers who endlessly insist that climate solutions are compatible with continued economic growth. Meanwhile, responsible members of society have demanded radical system change, such as the climate scientist James Hansen, who disparaged the 2015 COP 21 Paris agreement as a “fraud” for its voluntary contributions to emissions reductions, and has recently, following the last US election, called for nothing less than a new “revolutionary party.” With ever greater challenges for our present brought about by the rightward movement of governments toward populist authoritarianism, extreme extractivism, military neoliberalism, and post-political market-based rule, the continuation of petrocapitalism’s suicidal trajectory appears to have no end in sight. Yet the resistance is growing, with calls for insurrection sometimes coming from the unlikeliest of sources.

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