Like a Misunderstanding of Salvation
What is the distance between social movement and revolution in the twenty-first century? And what on earth does “revolution” mean in the context of daily life? In this presentation, we draw on our experience in Atlanta to argue that—even today—it is possible to think and to build a revolutionary movement that is both actionable in daily life and that remains faithful to the idea of an irreparable break in the world as we know it.
Our argument moves in three steps. First, we sketch the dilemma that emerges from our historical present: How are the many social movements to give rise to a revolutionary force—that is, a force that is not limited to disrupting a particular sphere of life, but that defeats the state, suppresses the economy, and makes communism real? In the second section, we explain how we’ve attempted to respond to that question through our organizing in Atlanta. More specifically, we attempt to: (1) refuse any particular hot-button issue (be it Trump, abortion, immigration, or anything else) to frame our entire view of the world, & instead posit our own understanding which allows us to select which antagonisms to engage; (2) get organized to produce a revolutionary consistency, which consists in nurturing revolutionary becomings both in movements and in our daily life; and (3) create the conditions in which the “revolutionary” character of our endeavors is put to the test. In the third section, we consider whether or not this strategy can really be understood as “revolutionary” in light of the new consensus that has emerged from electoral politicians and technocratic solutions to political problems in recent years—and argue that it can. Because our overarching argument is that we can conceive of a revolutionary movement that stays faithful to the notion of an event while also being actionable in everyday life, we expect a debate as to whether we should conceive of revolution today as a process or instead as an event.
There is no more “United” States. The social fabric of this country has been shredded from every angle for at least a decade. 2009 began with anti-police riots in response to Oscar Grant’s murder by BART police in Oakland. Later that year there, university students launched the slogan “Occupy Everything” into the country’s political imaginary with a series of occupations against debt and austerity; against an absent future. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street unfolded across the centers of many major metropolitan areas against the economy and political corruption. The 2014 police execution of Mike Brown in Ferguson unleashed a two year wave of insurrections, perhaps the most protracted series of insurrections North America has seen inf 50 years: in Baltimore for Freddie Gray, in Charlotte for Keith Lamont Scott, in Milwaukee for Sylville Smith, in Baton Rouge for Alton Sterling, in Minneapolis for Jamar Clark, to name only a portion. Many of these struggles were launched in zones almost entirely abandoned by the state with the exception of the presence of police. These uprisings turned these abandoned zones into defended territories, blocked the circulation of traffic, attacked the police and destroyed private property. In 2016, the struggle at Standing Rock erupted against one of the U.S. state’s foundational policies: to remove the earth of its inhabitants. The slogan “water is life” was a call to defend the earth against capitalist development and a prescient memento mori. “The end of the world,” one of the most popular of U.S. obsessions, is something that was experienced by indigenous people of this continent 500 years ago.
And then there was Trump. There was the riot on inauguration day in 2017, and anti-fascism defeating the alt-right as a hegemonic street movement over the course of the next two years. The women’s march after Trump’s inauguration was the largest protest in U.S. history. Shortly thereafter were the airport blockades against the Muslim ban, which demonstrated a surprising and encouraging display of spontaneous collective tactical escalation, the Abolish ICE struggles in 2018 against a modern Gestapo, an ongoing struggle at the border in Tijuana against a racist border wall, the high-school student walkouts in 2018 against gun violence, the prison strikes in 2017 and 2018. Struggles against Amazon, the organization of tech workers in workplaces designed to evade the possibility of worker’s organization. In 2018 and 2019, there were the teachers’ strikes in Denver, in Los Angeles, in Oakland, in West Virginia. Each of these struggles has taken place in a different sphere of life — worker’s struggles, student struggles, struggles against social death, genocide, ecocide, against capitalism and development, struggles against borders, patriarchy, white supremacy, you name it. While the constant concussions of uprisings have been dizzying, those invested in revolution are left to wonder: how is a revolutionary force to emerge from the chaos?
In societies where social media prevails, all of politics presents itself as an immense accumulation of scandals. Like the uprisings over the last 10 years themselves, Trump’s media strategy aims at a permanent disruption of the flow of time. Aided equally by his liberal opponents who incessantly denounce him, Trump’s mobilization of panic, shock, and crisis imposes a short-term temporality in which we stumble blindly from crisis to crisis, where the future is not an open horizon but a loaded gun aimed at the present. One of the founding assumptions of crisis governance is that human beings behave predictably and are easier to control when in a state of crisis, fear, or shock. Facilitated by the viral character of electronic communication, this media strategy aims to dominate our attention spans, intentionally provoking hysteric overreactions at the latest news scandal in order to stimulate any kind of psychic investment at all in politics and the electoral circus—a mobilization that corresponds inversely with the level of disconnection felt by most people from traditional political institutions. In the midst of this over-saturation of panic, we find ourselves like the hosts in Westworld, who wake up everyday with no recollection of the days preceding them.
The last two years have been packed with mobilizations against Trump’s policies, against the alt-right and ICE. We have taken part in these necessary struggles; Yet after two years of calling for “revolution,” the movements to overthrow Trump seems to be burnt out—incapable of sufficiently mobilizing for every tweet Trump sends. Much of the anti-Trump mania has culminated in useless debates about an impeachment process that will never take place. If we are always merely responding to Trump’s policies or the advances of our opponents, then we let our adversaries set the terrain. Provoking overreaction is an easy way to put an opponent in a position in which they have no ground of their own to stand on.
At a certain point, it becomes necessary to find ways of not reacting to Trump, or whatever other hot button political issue, as much as such a thing is possible. We want to refuse, in other words, the temporality of crisis. The point is not to withdraw from antagonism or to withdraw from society—but when we engage in these popular outpourings of rage, we must do so in ways that allow us the distance to step back from them and think about what kind of life we actually want to live. Otherwise we will strike from weakness, merely reacting to a sense of powerlessness felt in a moment of desperation. The insurrectionary capacities and infrastructures that will nurture a revolutionary process take time to develop. We want, in other words, to build a movement that lasts.
For the authors of this piece, our story began with the student movements and with Occupy. In these movements, we experienced an irreversible break, the onset of a transition from one way of living to another yet to come fully into fruition. What we hold onto from the struggles is an experience of a shared reality, paired with a shared truth based on the refusal of the present organization of this world. But the movements end—and we do not.
Our task is therefore to invent a different lived experience of time and duration, to clear away a path that would give this shared reality and truth the capacity to outlast the end of the movements. What happens in a movement—be it Occupy or Abolish ICE, anti-Trumpism or the teacher’s strikes—is the collective revelation of the intolerable limits of our present, the production of novel methods for overcoming them, and, in the best cases, the opportunity to put those methods to the test. Each movement is therefore not a moment to “speak truth to power” or to protest, but a site of experimentation which carries with its own terrain of conflict and therefore its own terrain of play and innovation. Questions become pragmatic—not, “how can we make the government listen?” but “what would it feel like to express ourselves?," “what would be necessary for the detention raids to stop?," and so forth. In other words, if Occupy showed us in broad strokes that a different way of living was possible, we wanted to fill in the details—to develop the capacities so that next time a situation like that emerged, we will be better equipped to face the challenges of the struggle. For example, if we make collective meals an essential component of our organizing, this has less to do with thinking potlucks are fun, than coordinating the resources, knowledge, and skills to cook for 1,000 people rather than one or two.
Approaching movements this way—as sites of experimentation for how this world could be and how we might live in it—allows us to begin to see a plane of consistency, a force comprised of many forces, that trespass the distinction between one movement and the next, or one sphere of life, one demographic, and the next. From this angle, we no longer see discrete issues, discrete movements, discrete groups,” nor even discrete individuals—but rather begin to see practices, gestures, impulses, and energies that are the new substance of a better world. The significance of this shift from discrete movements to a revolutionary force has two consequences. First: it means that there is no salvific day to come of a convergence of struggles, in which the striking teachers will join the striking bus drivers. There is no revolutionary subject or class or party that will emerge that is united in ideology, in ideas, nor that is united under a single banner. Second: it allows us to understand the gestures and practices that constitute our lives and that revolutionary force as existing both in movements and in our daily lives. The task is therefore to use the movements as sites of experimentation, to extend what is powerful there to the future, and to use that force and those gestures to fashion lives worth defending.
Practically, this has meant several things for us over the past several years—all of which have been about linking up, normalizing those gestures and impulses developed in struggle, sharing meals…
But there seems to be a limit in this notion of building consistency: it seems possible that, in only attempting to weave together various forces, gestures, practices, we risk lapsing into immanence—building something that fails to pose any sort of threat. Here is the model of dual power, the risk of lifestylism, the inadequacy of a model of overgrowth communism where a communist world simply grows larger than and more desirable than its capitalist alternative. As the situation has taught us recently, however, we can’t trust that possibility to prevail.
It is not possible to live outside of capitalism, but it is equally nonsensical to posit the existence of an inside of a system that makes a virtue of denying any kind of insurance or guarantee to the vast majority of those who live under its reign.
Some of the lessons of the food distribution have been instructive. The for distribution gives roughly 30-50 people access to food from a farmer’s market every week. It is the only place where produce is available in our neighborhood. We did not want to set up a charity model of organization where “we” organizers distributed food to “the people.” As a result, we invited people taking the food to involve themselves in the organizing efforts alongside us. This has created some strange situations, notably when the police came to shut the food distribution down and one of our most tenacious participants expressed her friendly connection with the police officer trying to shut us down. Nothing could be easier, from a militant standpoint, than to tell this older woman that we don’t want to work with her because she is friendly with the police. But doing so seems to mistrust our own strength. What’s important in the small moments of sharing food is not whether or not our ideologies are compatible, but that we need each other for the moment. On the smallest scale, we see the emergence of trust and recognition not for who we are, but how we live. This seems to be a valuable lesson for overcoming isolation.
Often radicals see working with other groups whose politics do not align with theirs as a sign of weakness or risking co-optation. They say “you work with liberals, you are sellouts, we are the radicals.” Of course we must think critically about the risks that come with the alliances we make so as not to repeat historical mistakes. But one of the problems with this logic of avoiding contact with the outside is that, remaining isolated, we run the same risk of defeat that we would in being co-opted. In our day and age, it is unlikely that militants or radicals will be the vanguard of any movement, and any attempts to hold onto a pure radical ideology will create a scenario where the most radical elements are afraid of mixing with the impure elements and subsequently denounce them as insufficiently revolutionary, or more likely, as “fascist” because their way of acting does not follow whatever radical leftist analysis is in vogue. This may sound far-fetched, but it is enough to look at some of the responses certain ultra-left Marxist groups in France had to the initial Gilets jaunes demonstrations. Beginning from an analysis or a universal position means that we are less likely to meet people on their own terms — which means we risk losing out on what might be powerful about their experience and their creative energies. Beginning from analysis centers our ability to wield discourse, educate, and convince rather than our material power, our ability to create situations in which domination becomes impossible and undesirable. Instead, we aim not to meet people who agree with us, but to enter into a revolutionary becoming—a change, on both sides—with those for whom this world is intolerable. Rather than denouncing the vast majority of people who participate in social struggles, we must master an art of intervening in popular uprisings that deactivates their counter-revolutionary, populist, or reformist tendencies. We suspect that the next revolutionary movement in America will be completely outside our reach, at least we hope so. The true risk of fascism comes not with mixing with “impure” elements but rather in leaving the fascists groups to take advantage of the ruptures that leftist militants have deemed unworthy of their engagement.
Today, we advance the following test as an antidote: the unholy alliance—the only alliances worth making are those that put our own position at risk. This means concretely we must seek to engage as many actors as possible in our struggle. Not only for the sake of becoming a “popular” movement, and not blindly. Only those alliances which cut through and across a homogenous plane of “society” will be able to prevent our position from being one of isolation. Avoiding this requires that we develop the methods for arranging the architecture of our collective lives to prevent any single group could produce a hegemony over what we build. This capacity is the most important art a revolutionary can possess today. It is a matter, not of autonomy, not of a milieu, but of creating resonances and refrains that circulate through heterogeneous planes.
What communes will look like will differ from place to place. What makes sense in one place depends on each places history. In this regard, it is interesting to note that our comrades in Carbondale, Illinois have pursued a strategy of regional autonomy that includes operating within the municipal government in order to cut the police budget to open up funds for environmental restoration projects. Something like this might not make sense in the big metropolitan centers we are used to thinking of as the “centers” of the coming unrest. In cities like Chicago or Los Angeles, a strategy like this may not be worth pursuing. We imagine not “the revolution” but rather a constellation of revolutionary processes, all non-identical with one another whose only coherence consists in refusal. This ‘no’ will be more powerful as a universal than any type of ‘yes’ we seek to establish on a regional basis. What we must avoid at all costs is the impulse to ‘unify’ these singular processes into something that would constitute itself, that would seek to realize itself. It is not a matter of seeking structural equivalences between different communes, but the possibilities of reading the articulations between them. Giving life to each singular revolutionary process without seeking to homogenize them into something modular, building consistency without homogeneity, this is our task: A multiplicity of bonds that cannot be relived by any fiction of the same. Communism is what makes commensurability impossible, that which annihilates universal equivalence.
OK — we have a strategy. But we still have to ask: to what extent does this strategy make sense as a revolutionary strategy now? The past year has illustrated several obstacles to revolutionary organizing.
First, in Austria/Hungary/Israel, the far-right has come together under Netanyahu, something just happened in France, in eastern Europe; Bolsanaro was elected in Brazil; Trump reigns in America. Obviously, fascism is on the rise globally. Fascist-populist solutions are becoming more popular as a way forward. The problem here is that we get locked in fights or situations we’re not particularly interested in.
Second, the federal government shutdown of last year presented a situation in which a labor movement might arise. In Atlanta, there were near-strikes and emotional unrest particularly in the Airport. However, it was difficult and nearly impossible for us to imagine how to engage intelligently, because the conflict seemed so locked in a democratic view—the conflict was locked in a governmental/electoral question to which we did not have a solution. The problem here is struggles that might be very potent are locked in the domain of electoral politics.
Third and relatedly, the Abolish ICE struggle of last July and the ongoing tension at the border in Tijuana mean that the practical question of citizenship is put on the political table in a mass way. However, it has not been clear how to intervene in this situation from a decidedly anti-statist perspective: the debate and the practical situation seems to route inevitably back into political and bureaucratic issues. The problem illustrated here is that struggles which might otherwise be very potent are locked in electoral and bureaucratic dynamics.
Fourth, the growth of anti-carceral movements and resistance, met with the development of more diffuse carceral technologies, and—for example—the closure of ACDC in Atlanta. The problem here is that the state can acquiesce to “revolutionary” demands while not reducing incarceration or surveillance.
Fifth and finally, there is the continued proliferation of capital into every sphere of life, simultaneous with the “death” of the labor market. There’s also the proposed massive austerity cuts— to HUD housing, food stamps—which contribute to the general difficulty of living. The emergence of the “hustle” or “gig” economy makes it very difficult to organize together for basic needs and to organize more generally against work.
We could summarize our predicament in terms of three limits. First, we find ourselves reduced to fights we don’t necessarily want to be in, like fascism. Second, we find ourselves having to fight for survival—as in response to climate change, austerity, etc. Third, we are witnessing the emergence of electoral and bureaucratic solutions to the contradictions of our era—like UBI, Ocasio-Cortez, the supposedly neat solution to the conflict with Amazon—that we know we cannot trust to solve the problems we face.
Thus, we’d like to present you with three questions for contemplation. First, how should we approach the onset of bureaucratic solutions and electoral politics? How do we avoid being the vanguard of the left? Second, how should revolutionaries approach the dynamic between survival and flourishing? Is it possible to fight for survival in a revolutionary way, without simply “filling in the gaps” of the state? Third, how should we approach the tension between revolution as a process and revolution as an event?