For most of the twentieth century, the border between the United States and Mexico performed like a line in the sand, with obelisks and later low chain-link and corrugated metal fences that demarcated where one country began and the other ended. In many places along its continental trajectory people moved back and forth quite freely. Children hopped across in one direction, and back as easily in the other. Over the last decades, with the upsurge of protectionist politics and anti-immigrant fever in the United States, the border has become increasingly militarized, with concrete pylon walls, ranging from 18 to 27 feet tall, crowned by electrified coils and panoptic night-vision cameras. The border now performs more like a partition than a line, because its goal is less to demarcate than to obstruct the flows and ecologies that have always defined life in this binational territory.Footnote 1
But borders are ultimately porous things; they cannot stop environmental, hydrological and viral flows, economic flows, normative and cultural flows, ethical and aspirational flows. These often informal and invisible circulations shape the transgressive, hybrid identities and practices of everyday life in this part of the world.
Racist political narratives in the United States portray our region as a site of criminality, of dangerous undercurrents of drugs and unwanted people who undermine the safety and prosperity of good, hard-working Americans. But in my work, I have been committed to telling very different stories about life in this border region, grounded in the experiences of those who inhabit it.
I am a principal in a research-based civic and architectural practice located at the San Diego–Tijuana border, an unconventional partnership between a political theorist (me) and an architect (Teddy Cruz). We investigate informal practices in the city – social, moral, economic, civic and spatial. We focus particularly on the ingenuity and resilience of people who inhabit the periphery in conditions of scarcity: how they assemble housing and infrastructure, markets of exchange, democratic practices and general strategies of collective survival.
By “informal” we mean practices that emerge “extra-officially” from the bottom-up to address the urgent challenges of marginalized and displaced populations, almost always in the absence of formal support, and often subverting or circumventing “formal” power structures and policies. By “formal” we mean the top-down institutions of planning and governance that organize cities and regions from a macro perspective.Footnote 2
Formal planning arranges space through a deliberate civic armature that is subsequently ‘in-filled’ with private interventions. In the absence of committed public leadership in recent decades, civic agendas in cities across the world have been hijacked by private interests and corporate agendas, shrinking accessible public space, accelerating gentrification, dispossession, dramatically uneven urban growth patterns, and explosive informal development at the periphery. These dynamics have intensified in recent years with the globalization of cities across the planet and rapid urbanization caused by political instability, climate change, food scarcity and the neoliberalization of the global economy. Periurban slums, the underbelly of global economic growth, are growing faster than the urban centers they surround.
While we condemn the economic forces that marginalize people into slums, we are nevertheless inspired continually by the ingenious self-built logics of spatial retrofit and adaptation, the vibrancy of informal market dynamics, and the solidarity of communities confronting scarcity and marginalization. While the informal border neighborhoods where we work are denigrated by formal planners and their corporate developer friends as ugly, criminal, neglected, to be avoided, to be cleared, to be cleaned up, we observe intensely active, creative urban agents who challenge the dominant paradigms of neoliberal growth that exclude them. Their counterhegemonic everyday practices demonstrate other more inclusive and collective ways of inhabiting the city.
In the San Diego–Tijuana border region, much of this informal activity also involves dense networks of cross-border cooperation, productive transgressive flows of people, money and materials that are largely discounted in formal accounts of our divided binational region. From this vantage, the jurisdictional line between the United States and Mexico is less a solid than a mesh, a sieve of regional ecologies that circulates what walls cannot contain. Citizenship itself, we argue, is a fluid, performative concept. It is not a formal identity corroborated by documents in one’s pocket, but a practical experience of belonging that emerges through shared practices of living and surviving together, sometimes actively resisting and countering divisive narratives and practices together, in a disrupted civic space. We seek to inspire more inclusive imaginaries of coexistence and cross-border citizenship in contested territories like ours.Footnote 3
Blurring the line between research and activism, we have committed to grounding our critical claims about borders through horizontal practices of engagement where university researchers and residents of border neighborhoods assemble as partners to share knowledges, learn from each other, and ultimately coproduce new narratives, new strategies, new alliances and new, more equitable projects in the city. These commitments are embodied in an initiative called the UCSD Community Stations, which I will explore in this chapter.
As a political theorist, I think about the ethical and epistemic challenges of doing research in places of marginalization and struggle. I am keenly attuned to dynamics of power when universities arrive in communities, and am critical of both extractive research methods and humanitarian problem-solving missions. In the next section I will explore some of the challenges we have encountered doing political theory in solidarity with border communities, as well as strategies we’ve devised to mitigate them. I believe these reflections are generalizable and can contribute to broader dialogues on doing more activist political theory. I will then illustrate the kind of solidaristic political theory I do through a set of projects focused on citizenship that we have coproduced at the border with community partners.
Political Theorist as Curator
At the workshop gathering of this group in Victoria in March 2019, we discovered a shared commitment to doing political theory that is relevant and topical, that generates better arguments not only for academic audiences but for citizens and policy-makers as well. This entails that the political theorist take a position on conflicts and injustices in the world. But what does it mean for a political theorist to take a position in solidarity with people struggling against injustice? How do we avoid overconfidence in our knowledge or our capacity to say something relevant and faithful to real experiences? In this section I want to reflect on the epistemic challenges of doing political theory in solidarity with people struggling against injustice.
I’ve always been inspired by Albert Hirschman’s work on community-based development in mid-century Latin America. His commitment to traveling, observing and listening as a way of countering centralized World Bank planning practices has oriented the kind of theoretical work that I aspire to do.
In 1954, Hirschman was appointed by the IBRD as an economic advisor to Colombia’s National Planning Council.Footnote 4 He was young, and it was his first time working on a team of economic experts designing policy for a country struggling to emerge from poverty. It didn’t take long before he became exasperated with grand development planning and its stultifying obsession with probabilities and linear balanced-growth paradigms.
So he quit, and spent the next several years traveling across Colombia as a private consultant, determined to understand how real problems were solved collectively in context by real people. He believed there was no other way to understand but to go and see. By the light of an “empirical lantern,”Footnote 5 as he would later call it, Hirschman set out to observe the diverse, scrappy, incremental, bottom-up reform projects, animated by the sweat, ingenuity and creative collective adaptability of people navigating conditions of scarcity. Hirschman was drawn to the unintended, the spontaneous and the unplanned. He was inspired by unexpected genius and the “interaction effects” that were lost on the mid-century planner and his blueprints for development. Hirschman’s subversion of balanced growth – perhaps his greatest heresy ever – was incubated during this period of fieldwork. It was on the ground, talking with real people solving real problems, that he discovered a phenomenon that would situate his work over the next decades: that it is actually tension and disequilibria, and not the pursuit of ends such as growth and happiness, that trigger collective capacities into motion.
Years later, in 1984, Hirschman published Getting Ahead Collectively: Grassroots Experiences in Latin America, a slim, richly illustrated essay written in the days immediately following a 14-week immersion in grassroots development projects funded by the Inter-American Foundation across Latin America.Footnote 6 The title, he explained, was a reformulation of Adam Smith’s famous line about “bettering our condition,” but given a distinctively collectivist bend. He saw the book as a journalistic rather than an academic exercise, but his case studies elucidate themes that had become dominant in his work since his IBRD days in Colombia: inverted sequences, the complex motivations for collective action and the intangible benefits of social cooperation, like a deepened sense of collective capacity and possibility that can remain latent in communities and be reawakened by new tensions.
Hirschman spent a good deal of time in Getting Ahead Collectively reflecting on “intermediary organizations” who take it upon themselves to do what he called, with some tempered cynicism, “social promotion” among the poor. Social promotion had exploded across the continent in the 1970s and 1980s among young professionals – restless, educated middle-class youth who wanted reform, were increasingly cognizant of human rights, increasingly intolerant of the inequality around them, and yet who resisted pathways conventionally available to them: either dismal professional careers that tended to bolster the status quo, or guerilla fighting. Young lawyers, economists, engineers, sociologists, social workers, architects, agronomists and priests packed their bags and took to the field, eager to steward a more equitable future.
Hirschman observed that grassroots activism tends to accelerate in periods of increasing privatization, filling a vacuum left by the retreat of public investment. In this sense, he believed social promotion could help to temper an era of selfishness and produce more caring social relations. He also saw these organizations as bridges to funding opportunities and to planning agencies for whom these sites and their practices were so often below the radar. Often they also introduced new technical skills and capacities to communities, and information for better local decision-making. But he didn’t like the opportunist language of intermediary or broker or facilitator to describe this activity, and he was critical of the presumptions these organizations often carried with them into the field.
He described social promoters as naïve do-gooders, arriving essentially the same way development economists did: well-intentioned, and with blueprints for improving lives. Like the “visiting economists syndrome” he attributed to World Bank apparatchiks, social promoters would descend with a copy of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed under their arm, ready to “spread literacy” without much regard to the particular people they hoped to save, their local perceptions, priorities and aspirations. Perhaps a desire for education would be a consequence of development, Hirschman speculated, rather than the instigator, as conventional development theories would have it. He did not hide his skepticism. His narrative is sprinkled with examples of intermediary organizations that suddenly appear, rarely through participatory processes, and succeed only in mucking things up, the pivot in his stories of development dysfunction: and then came the architects and the engineers …. and then came the sociologists and the anthropologists …
Long before academics began to worry in large numbers about development imperialism and epistemic justice, Hirschman reported brilliantly from the field that charitable impulses and planning schemes typically misfire when they bypass local knowledges and practices. He was critical of social promotion understood as a one-way, top-down enterprise of experts descending to fill empty vessels, and instead advocated horizontal processes of engagement and reciprocal learning. Through his own work in Getting Ahead Collectively and elsewhere, he demonstrated a way of doing theory that is grounded in the voices and collective practices of grassroots actors themselves.
Political theory can learn a lot from Hirschman’s work in mid-century Latin America. If we aspire even implicitly to advance justice, fairness, equity, etc., on behalf of people who are already marginalized, excluded, dispossessed and exploited, we inflict double harm by assuming that our concepts hold meaning for them, that our wishes for them align with their own. Political theorists in general are motivated by real challenges and urgencies in the world. With some obvious exceptions, this is ultimately what distinguishes us from more analytical or historical modes of engaging political ideas. We explore justice, equality, freedom, rights and agency because we believe it matters to real people. Some of us might characterize our work as solidaristic in this sense, but fewer of us include the voices of marginalized and exploited people in our theoretical work, or consider narrative accounts of the injustices they experience. How, then, do we know that our ideas resonate with theirs? Poignant outrage at the state of world affairs can drift unwittingly into advocacy and well-intended claims on behalf of, in defense of, or in solidarity with real people struggling against injustice. But do these claims expose real harms, describe real struggle, or are they well-intended approximations of these things? Does it ultimately even matter if we are writing primarily for academic audiences?
We cannot all be anthropologists or do fieldwork, but a more ethnographic sensibility would help.Footnote 7 Drawing on the research of others is one possibility. But I propose that political theorists interested in doing solidaristic work can also cultivate skills of listening to the experiences of people struggling against justice. I have been inspired by Jim Tully’s commitment to “always listening.”
My approach begins with listening carefully to those suffering the lived experience of injustices in their own ways of knowing and articulating them. This application of the norm of always listening to the other side helps to free us from our own sedimented descriptions of the real and disclose new possibilities.Footnote 8
Moreover, our ideas as political theorists can do more than appear in a book or journal read by a handful of academic colleagues. Too often we write and publish long after a provocation has passed, long after it can be of use to anyone. How can political theory be more practical, responsive and projective in its solidarity?Footnote 9 Here I will propose, and later through examples demonstrate, a model of “coproduction” that entails accompanying struggles against injustice, seeking dialogue with people and groups who are receptive to collaborative thinking, and possibly also collaborative advocacy and intervention.
Reflecting on political theory in this more practical, or activist, solidaristic mode, I borrow a concept from the visual and performing arts, and suggest that political theorists can be “curators.” I will use this concept often in the next section to describe the sort of work I do. My intuition here emerges from a conversation many years ago with Carlos Uribe, a community-based curator and director of the Museo Casa de Memoria in Medellín, Colombia. Uribe’s goal is to support collective healing and foster intergenerational civic memory of Medellín’s violent histories of injustice. His methods include visualizing and continually recontextualizing the experiences of real people, refracted through the artistic vision of local cultural producers and the experiences of the communities they work with. He describes his role as a curator as “accompanying the process” of cultural production and public display. For Uribe, the curator is not simply arranging objects on a wall, motivated by sterile aesthetics or conceptual considerations oriented by art history or genre. Instead of seeing curation as a revisionist enterprise, he engages solidaristically in the process of cultural production itself through intimate dialogue with the public artist and the communities the artist engages. Motivated by a commitment to collective memory and healing, Uribe brings his unique skills of spatial organization and public pedagogy into a shared agenda of performance and display. Political theorists, like curators, can “accompany” struggles against injustice. Instead of producing speculative work, like a revisionist object on a wall that is often irrelevant by the time it sees light, political theorists can partner with communities in real-time, weaving diverse skills, knowledges and experiences into a richer account of struggle, and more responsive strategies of resistance, advocacy and intervention. While helping to improve real conditions, coproduction also produces better theory, grounded in real experiences.
Recognizing communities as coproducers of knowledge entails a shift in academic norms. University research culture is filled with assumptions that we know more, that we are trained, that we have languages to communicate complexity and the tools needed to solve the world’s problems (if only they would listen to us). Universities tend to think of community-based work in one of two ways: as “applied research” or as provision of “services.” These vertical tropes place the university in an epistemically privileged position, and conceive of communities as a subject of investigation or a passive recipient of benefits without knowledge or agency.
I am not suggesting that universities and other wealthy institutions shouldn’t share their resources, or ever do research in communities: they absolutely should! When done ethically, these can be legitimate and important activities. I am also not saying that communities have nothing to learn from academic researchers. But we need to distinguish vertical modes of engagement from horizontal and collaborative ones, in which university and community both contribute knowledges and resources, and everyone learns and coproduces something that could not have been produced by either partner alone. Coproducing knowledge with communities is not an applied activity. We do not figure everything out in our campus labs and then descend to test our solutions in the world.
It is important to emphasize too that coproduction is not about flipping conventional academic presumptions and reproducing verticality with the community on top and the researcher as a passive vessel. I am proposing a horizontal model wherein diverse experiences, knowledges and skills meet. Horizontality is inherently agonistic in this sense, or at least has great potential for agonistic moments. Sometimes even trusting partners find themselves at odds when diverse experiences and knowledges push and pull in different directions. We experience contestation in our work all the time. Learning how to listen and dialogue respectfully during moments of difference and disagreement, how to negotiate compromise, typically has made our partnerships stronger.
There is no formal category for coproduction in the academic merit trinity of “research, teaching and service.” Because community work looks like charity to an uncurious bureaucrat, coproduction is typically relegated to “service” – that zone of activity in the research university reserved for the unproductive and the big-hearted. But coproduction is not charity. Teaching our students the ethics of community engagement, and cultivating skills of dialogue, respectful listening and collaborating, is not “service-learning.” Tipping the model of community–university engagement from a vertical to a horizontal plane is an ethical move, motivated by considerations of epistemic justice and labor equity. Universities must never take for granted the rooted knowledges, resources, social capital and labor that community-based agencies and residents invest when they engage academic researchers, when they divert from the intense demands of everyday life to open their spaces, minds and hearts, and share sometimes agonizing experiences and stories of injustice.
Communities are justifiably skeptical of research universities, who often suddenly appear with requests, plant their flag and then disappear just as abruptly once they extract what they need. University projects come and go with the wind, “one offs” associated with a research project, an academic course, an internship or a grant that ends, leaving communities feeling instrumentalized and abandoned, with diagnoses left unaddressed, challenges left unmet, projects feeling half-done, critical consciousness stirred perhaps but with few outlets for meaningful action. Often times, it doesn’t even dawn on researchers to share their research and publications with their community “subjects.” Moreover, because research universities are big, fragmented institutions, sometimes multiple projects and requests land at once, without coordination or knowledge of each other, creating confusion about what’s what and a sense of overload. Sometimes researchers are reckless with the delicate social ecologies of community-based work, unaware of alliances, but also rivalries and pecking-orders that often exist among nonprofits operating in conditions of scarcity. Bringing resources and opportunities to a community organization, researchers sometimes unwittingly take sides in local controversies and power dynamics, and stir up trouble.
We designed the UCSD Community Stations as a platform for community–university engagement in the San Diego–Tijuana border region, a model of horizontal partnership, long-term trust, and coproduction. In the next section, I say more about the UCSD Community Stations, how they perform as civic spaces for the exchange of knowledges, and how they orient the kind of solidaristic political theory that I do.
Localizing the Global: The UCSD Community Stations
San Diego–Tijuana is a zone of conflict and disparity, and presently a lightning rod for American nativism. ICEFootnote 10 continues its dehumanizing sweeps, while thousands of Central American migrants escaping violence and poverty wait at the wall for asylum that never comes, reviled by the Mexican public as a nuisance, an “infestation,” a drain on scarce public resources. Or else they sit in US detention centers as tools of deterrence, exposed to a raging pandemic, and, until very recently, separated forcibly from their children. Global injustice is an intensely local experience here. When I founded UCSD’s Center on Global Justice a decade ago, my intention was explicitly to localize the global.
Against these local atrocities, border communities and activists on both sides of the wall have devised compelling strategies to defy and circumvent unjust power, transgress boundaries and confront hateful political narratives, often at great personal risk. Some of this contestation is dedicated to sanctuary and protecting people targeted by, or rejected by, the state. Some of it is working through the courts and other institutions of power to advocate for people already ensnared in the net of political violence. Some of it is a more considered exercise of civic freedom, in Tully’s sense, organized around exposing and countering unjust power and devising new strategies, including cultural strategies, for doing that.Footnote 11 Much of it arises informally through everyday collective practices of adaptation and resilience in conditions of scarcity and danger. Over the years we have accompanied some of these bottom-up emancipatory transgressions, and irruptions of democratic agency, in close partnership with community organizations rooted in the neighborhoods that flank the borderwall.
In the recent period, the borderwall has attracted artists and cultural producers from around the world to engage in acts of performative protest. While these gestures by visitors are often creative and provocative, we have been mostly critical of this uptick in ephemeral acts of resistance that dip in and out of the conflict. They tend to be extractive in their processes, and their impacts on public consciousness are as fleeting as the Instagram posts they generate. What happens the day after the happening?
With our partners, we have been advocating for a longer view of resistance and more strategic thinking about cultural, institutional and spatial transformation in the border region. To enable this longer-term work, we developed the UCSD Community Stations, a network of civic spaces in four border neighborhoods, two on each side, where university researchers, community organizations and residents convene to share knowledges and generally “act otherwise” together through research, education and civic programming.Footnote 12 Each Community Station is designed, funded, built, programmed and managed collaboratively by the UCSD Center on Global Justice and a deeply rooted community organization. Inspired by the famous Library Parks project of Medellín, Colombia, which we’ve studied and written much about,Footnote 13 we have transformed urban remainders into civic spaces, richly programmed for dialogue, collaborative research, urban pedagogy, participatory design and cultural production. The Community Stations also present a new model of urban codevelopment between public universities and community organizations to fight the creeping gentrification of border neighborhoods. We’ve demonstrated that the university’s economic power, social capital and programmatic capacity can become leverage for communities to build their own public spaces, as well as housing and green infrastructure.
The content of civic programming varies from station to station based on the priorities of all involved, but all the stations seek to increase public knowledge; challenge divisive political narratives; devise strategies to counter exploitation, dispossession, deportation and environmental calamity; foster solidarity and collective agency; and imagine possible futures. These agendas often invite agonistic encounters with formal institutions of power that govern the border zone. Sometimes contestation opens opportunities for mutual recognition and cooperation, and sometimes it does not. For us, the goal is less about resolving conflict than about understanding, recognizing and civicizing it. We see democracy in the border zone as a fundamentally agonistic process of exposing the complex histories and mechanisms of injustice that are too often hidden within official accounts of who “we” are. We believe that recuperating this information and generating counternarratives is foundational to the exercise of civic freedom. To accompany this process, an active area of our research (and teaching) is codeveloping civic tools with our partners – diagrams, radical cartographies and story-boards – that visualize conflict and render the complex histories and mechanisms of political power more accessible. We also exhibit these visual tools in cultural institutions, museums and biennials, to increase public knowledge and rouse broader public indignation and solidarity.
There are four UCSD Community Stations in operation: two in southeast San Diego, and two in Tijuana. Here, I will discuss two that participate in solidaristic work on citizenship, which I will explore in the second half of this chapter.
The UCSD-CASA Community Station is located in the border neighborhood of San Ysidro, California, a few blocks from one of the busiest international land crossings on earth. With 100,000 crossings everyday, the neighborhood is under continual surveillance by US Homeland Security, and fragmented by freeway and surveillance infrastructure. San Ysidro is 90 percent Latinx, many of whom are DACA recipients; many are undocumented. There are regular reports of egregious human rights violations in San Ysidro, mass sweeps, entry and seizure without warrant, and the detention of minors in adult facilities. San Ysidro’s proximity to the borderwall means that illicit deportation can take a matter of minutes. Families are terrorized by threats of the proverbial “knock at the door.”
Our Community Station is a partnership with the community-based social service organization Casa Familiar. The Station is located inside a beloved historic church, purchased by the organization many years ago, but left essentially vacant and in a state of disrepair. Together we pursued grants from ArtPlace America and the PARC Foundation to renovate the church into a black box community theater, equipped with sound and recording studios for youth groups. The Station also includes social service pavilions and an open-air classroom for civic and educational programming. The funding we raised to codevelop these cultural and civic spaces became leverage for our partners to qualify for municipal subsidies to build ten units of housing around the Station. In conventional affordable housing projects, developers try to reduce non-revenue-generating collective spaces to the greatest extent possible. Our model was very different: to codevelop robustly programmed collective spaces first, as foundational to a community-based social housing project at the border; and then leverage that funding to facilitate a development package for housing. The project broke ground in December 2018, and was completed in February 2020 when the tenants moved in.
Programming at the UCSD-CASA Community Station focuses on cultural processes that expose injustice and increase capacity for collective political and environmental advocacy. UCSD researchers partner closely with community activists, promotoras, residents and youth to document experiences of injustice through dialogue, storytelling, and “transurbance,” nomadic/walking workshops inspired by the Stalker/Osservatorio Nomade collective in Rome. These experiences then become evidentiary material for new cultural strategies to engage hearts and minds, including community theater, music, dance and visual arts. Against the backdrop of political repression, San Ysidro has a young, energetic community of cultural producers and border activists with deep roots on both sides of the border, for whom art and performance are tools for exposing injustice and communicating with wider publics and institutions of power. Much of this youth activity is homegrown at The Front, a gallery and cultural venue Casa Familiar launched more than a decade ago. To illustrate our “cultural process” take, for example, our work on air quality, a major challenge for border neighborhoods such as San Ysidro. Our undergraduate student Annika Ullah, a double-major in biology and visual arts, was invited to visit the backyard of San Ysidro resident Guillermo Cornejo, to see his lemon trees. Every lemon was coated with black silt, produced by tens of thousands of cars idling daily a few blocks away, as they wait for hours to cross the border. The lemons became powerful bottom-up evidence for a documentary film exploring the intersection of border policy, community health, storytelling and activism. Border Lemons was a cultural strategy for visualizing power, and for mobilizing community awareness and arts activism around air quality – that high rates of lung disease in San Ysidro are not “the way of the world” but an injustice. The lemons also became a tool for dialogue with agencies that govern air-quality policy and resources in the border region.
Our two Community Stations in Tijuana are located a mile apart in the Laureles Canyon, an informal settlement of 92,000 people that literally crashes against the border wall in the western periphery of Tijuana. Laureles Canyon lacks water and waste management infrastructure and is highly susceptible to erosion, landslides and dramatic flooding when its channelized sewage canals get clogged with trash.
The UCSD-Alacrán Community Station sits in the most rugged and polluted sub-basin of the Laureles Canyon. It is a partnership with the faith-based organization Embajadores de Jesús, led by activist economist and pastor, Gustavo Banda-Aceves, and activist psychologist and pastora, Zaida Guillen. With limited resources, in recent years they built a refugee camp at this site to provide shelter, food and basic services to hundreds of Haitian and Central American refugees navigating unjust asylum processes in the United States and Mexico.
The shelter began in 2016 when Banda-Aceves met a group of Haitian men whose wives and children were granted US asylum, leaving them waiting on the Mexican side of the wall. These men were skilled in construction; together, they built a warehouse structure at the Embajadores site in Alacrán to shelter dozens of tents. As migration accelerated over the next years, with the arrival of thousands of Central American migrants in Tijuana, Embajadores opened its doors, and occupancy began to swell. What began as a single structure evolved incrementally through necessity, ingenuity and self-built logics into a full-on sanctuary neighborhood of informal housing units and public spaces of varying sizes and configurations, threaded into what seems like impossible canyon topography. This was all well underway when we began working together. When we met, Embajadores was receiving no formal institutional support or public subsidy of any kind, but it was rich in social capital. A cohesive core of migrant men and women were already dedicated to the life and future of the sanctuary, and through their sweat equity over time asserted collective ownership of the spaces.
Our work together began with envisioning future scenarios, which focused on increasing housing capacity, but also more fundamentally on how the sanctuary could evolve into a more solidified home. With our partners we reimagined the idea of refugee camps, from charitable holding stations or ephemeral sites of shelter, into spaces of inclusion where staying becomes an option. Hospitality is an essential first gesture when the migrant arrives, when the needs of the body, for food and water, medicine and shelter, are most acute. A humanitarian response to migration at the point of arrival is the mark of an ethical society. But as needs become more complex over time, charity is not the appropriate model for building an inclusive society. Inclusion demands a transformation of the city and of ourselves, welcoming the migrant and their children into our collective civic identity, ensuring participation in public life, opportunities for education, financial stability, and health and well-being – physical, psychological and spiritual.
Together, we conceived of the UCSD-Alacrán Community Station as an infrastructure of inclusion to embed housing units in communal spaces dedicated to holistic well-being, small cooperative businesses, fabrication, a computer lab, a health clinic, an industrial kitchen, a laundry and a nursery – all codesigned and managed by Embajadores, residents and UCSD researchers and students. We also committed to a sustainable sanctuary that includes bio-filtration infrastructure, native planting, water and waste management and zero-net energy, with photovoltaic panels and battery storage.
The project broke ground in March 2020 and, at the time of this writing, the site has been graded and the foundations poured. The participatory process that got us to this point is a powerful story of cross-sector collaboration. It’s a complex story, but as we began to design and assemble resources for the project, we approached one of the NAFTA factories that encircle Tijuana’s slums, a Spanish maquiladora that produces lightweight metal shelving systems used in warehouses across the world. It was an agonistic impulse: Can we hold these factories accountable to the settlements that provide cheap labor for their global production chains? Can they become partners in social housing? We had worked with Angel de Arriba, CEO of the Mecalux factory, a couple years earlier. As part of a social housing exhibition in 2015 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin, he partnered with us to adapt Mecalux systems into structural pilot applications, like small bus stops to shelter workers from the hot Baja sun while they wait for maquiladora vans to transport them to their shifts. The HKW project illustrated that institutions of power, public and private, can help to reorient a city’s surplus value toward public priorities. Meeting us again, de Arriba remained receptive to what he called our “humanitarian” agenda, quite apart from the “virtue-signaling” that typically motivates corporations to engage in charitable activity. On the spot, he agreed to a materials subsidy for our housing project in Alacrán.
With philanthropic support (a long story which involves the selling of a rare Jean Prouvé armchair at Sotheby’sFootnote 14) we are now accelerating construction of a 16,000 sq. ft. housing project in Alacrán, anchored in Community Station spaces. We are designing a framework that hybridizes Mecalux frames with concrete post-and-beam frames, typical of local construction practices, and affordable plastic coverings and shadings. We are building the “bones” and “skins” of the buildings, so to speak; the interior systems will be in-filled by the residents who will inhabit them. Incremental building practices are conventional in informal conditions. Most houses evolve this way over years, as needs evolve and resources become available. To expedite this process, we have raised funds for a fabrication lab, with a tool library, a couple of trucks and tractors and a flow of recycled materials. This will enable rapid completion of the Station itself; it will also incubate a construction cooperative ready to take on other building projects across the Laureles Canyon. Owned and managed entirely by the residents, this cooperative will enable flows of income, with a portion dedicated to the longer-term collective needs of the sanctuary.
Building Trust, Managing Complexity
To conclude this discussion of the UCSD Community Stations, a brief comment on how an initiative so complex, with so many participants and so many moving parts, complicated by a militarized international border, can avoid placing unreasonable burdens on already-stressed community organizations. We resolved long ago that the university must never become a weight on our community partners.
First and foremost, we don’t disappear. Our capital investment in Community Stations infrastructure quite literally cements campus commitment to our community partners, and we have secured programmatic funding that will enable us to carry this work resolutely into the future. Additionally, we designed unconventional staff positions called Bridge Staff, who keep one foot on campus, and one foot in the community organizations, beholden to both, managing flows of money, people and materials, and coordinating our collaborative research and programming. Imagine the temperament and skill-set needed to authentically bridge and build trust in such vastly different worlds: knowing how to navigate university bureaucracy while possessing intimacy with the delicate social ecologies of community-based work.
We also recognize that that our community partners invest time, resources, social capital and knowledges when they collaborate with us. As a matter of epistemic justice and labor equity, we are committed to always validating and compensating these contributions. We designed a second unconventional role called Public Scholars: community leaders who codesign the content of our Community Stations programming, become bridges of trust to residents and youth, and coproduce research with us and our students. But we also ensure that they will never be saddled with managing our students in the field. UCSD students participate in Community Stations activities through fully supervised field internship programs, led by seasoned Field Coordinators who have built relationships of trust with our community partners over time, and who understand the complexities of navigating border dynamics accompanied by student teams.
Universities wishing to develop long-term collaborations with communities need to invest in positions like this, which build trust and manage complexity. In our case, enthusiastic support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for these unconventional dimensions of our work made it easier to explain to university bureaucrats why we need salaried staff who spend half their time in community organizations, and why we fund “scholars” who don’t have conventional academic credentials.
Globalizing the Local: Practices of Civic Elasticity
We have always resisted the abstraction of global justice theories, as if justice is something that happens “out there” in the world somewhere. Our work engages struggles against injustice in the “here and now” of our border region, where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Unlike the critical distance taken by scientists in their drive for objectivity, we pursue critical proximity to accompany the process of struggle.
Our work localizes the global. But we also recognize that “the local” can quickly devolve into myopia and protectionism. As part of our local activism with our Community Stations partners, we experiment with more expansive civic imaginaries that situate border neighborhoods within broader spheres of circulation, interaction and solidarity. To globalize the local in this sense, we create cartographical experiments that “nest” border neighborhoods within incrementally expanding spatial scales – from the greater San Diego–Tijuana border region, to the continental border that divides the United States and Mexico, to border zones across the world. Through this nesting strategy we seek to provoke more elastic civic thinking, through which local communities can visualize and situate themselves within broader ecologies – regional, continental and, ultimately, global. Nesting has both particularizing and universalizing effects: it reaffirms local uniqueness, that we experience and counter injustice in our own particular ways; but it can also provoke resonances and more expansive feelings of solidarity with others and possibilities for coalition-building.
Recognizing spatial alignment on a map is much easier than recognizing solidaristic affinities with people inhabiting these broader ecologies, which is necessarily a more speculative and provisional activity. Unlike a comparative approach, where one reflects conceptually on similarities and differences, a nested approach enables a person to understand herself incrementally as part of larger spatial systems that contain the challenges she faces. Her civic affiliations and identities can become more elastic in this sense. By elasticity we mean the ability to stretch and return: the ability to move between local and more expansive ways of thinking and connecting, to expand and contract, over and again. Elasticity is a civic skill. With our community partners we curate convenings and workshops, using visual tools to nurture more elastic civic thinking. A rubber-band that is rigid can snap if stretched too far, too fast. In this sense we see our cross-border civic dialogues in the Community Stations as stretching exercises, so to speak.
Some years ago I wrote a book called Adam Smith and the Circles of Sympathy that explored Smith’s localist moral psychology in similar terms.Footnote 15 Smith believed cosmopolitan philosophy was anthropologically flawed since human behavior tends to bias spatially, affectively and culturally toward local places and people. He was not terribly troubled by this, since he believed humans produce better ends with better knowledge, access and motivation, which local proximities tended to provide. But he also suggested that our affinities and perspectives can grow, can be stretched to use the current metaphor of elasticity, to include broader spheres as we come to understand our interdependencies and shared interests with others.
In what follows, I will illustrate the kind of solidaristic political theory I do through this nested scaffold which expands incrementally across interdependent scales – from border neighborhoods, to the border region, to the continental border, and ultimately to a speculative global border we call The Political Equator. I will explore these scales through the visual tools we’ve designed for civic dialogue and have exhibited in cultural institutions across the world.
Regional: Cross-Border Commons
In this era of escalating tension and militarization at the border, where racist public rhetoric defines who people are and assigns them in a Foucauldian sense to their fixed geographical place, we offer counternarratives of interdependence and coexistence that reflect the cross-border circulations and transgressions of everyday life across our region. Our Community Stations themselves are a transgressive infrastructure. Distributed on both sides of the wall, they become observatories for documenting these flows through ethnography and scientific research, increasing public awareness of the social and ecological ties between San Diego and Tijuana, between the United States and Mexico.
Our aspiration is to foster what we call a “cross-border citizenship culture,” where belonging is oriented not by the nation-state, but by the shared stories, challenges, everyday practices and aspirations among people who inhabit a violently disrupted civic space.Footnote 16 Those who benefit from narratives of separation and mistrust prefer that we remain a fragmented public, and that the idea of citizenship divides rather than unites. As a corridor of knowledge flows across the wall, the Community Stations become a platform for constructing a regional civic identity from the bottom-up, a cross-border res publica, as Jim Tully describes it: “Participation in dialogues and negotiations over how and by whom power is exercised over us constitutes our identities as citizens and generates bonds of solidarity and a sense of belonging to the res publica.”Footnote 17
With our partners we curate “convergences,” “cultural performances” and “unwalling experiments” supported by visual tools like the ones I will discuss, to facilitate broader recognition of our cross-border citizenship: to expose it, name it and embrace it as uniquely ours.
The movement of water through shared canyon systems has been a powerful device to stimulate more elastic civic thinking in our region.Footnote 18 The neighborhoods where our two Tijuana-based Community Stations sit are nested inside the Tijuana River Watershed, shared by San Diego and Tijuana. Twenty-five percent of the watershed is in the United State; 75 percent is in Mexico. This San Diego–Tijuana bioregion is radically bisected by the international border. The two cities have never adequately recognized the watershed that unites them, or engaged in collaborative urban planning for the benefit of everyone across the region. Municipal planning maps in both cities literally stop cold at the line, as if there is nothing but blank white space on the other side. Intensification of borderwall infrastructure in recent years has interrupted sensitive environmental and hydrologic systems, deepening the environmental health impacts of this mutual neglect.
The collision of natural and jurisdictional systems, of environmental and political forces, is perhaps most profound and visible precisely where our two Community Stations sit. The Laureles Canyon is an important finger of the binational watershed that crosses the borderline and drains northbound into the Tijuana River Estuary, a precious, environmentally protected zone in southern San Diego county, before discharging into the Pacific Ocean. The estuary is considered the “lungs” of our bioregion, and a critical environmental asset to populations on both sides of the wall.
Because the informal settlements of Laureles Canyon lack public water and waste management infrastructure, waste is managed in one of two ways: through trash-burning, which spews black carbon particulates into the air and into lungs; and through wide-scale dumping into canyon creeks and drainage culverts that clog during rain events. Industrial toxic dumping is also a common practice among the maquiladoras: the multinational factories that dot the periphery of Tijuana, often located on the ridges of canyon slums to access cheap labor and circumvent feeble municipal attempts at environmental regulation and zoning. Waste in the canyon mixes with copious quantities of loose sediment, exacerbated by the informal building practices of squatters, as well as speculative developers who buy cheap land on craggy hillsides and flatten the topography with backhoes to subdivide into mini-pads. Informal development produces tons of loose sediment every year that become sludgy flows whenever it rains. Waste and erosion challenges in Tijuana’s canyon slums are aggravated by “precipitation whiplash” in this part of the world: erratic and heavy rainfall patterns caused by climate change that produce dangerous mudslides and flooding across the Laureles Canyon. Because the canyon sits at a higher elevation than the estuary in San Diego, this waste flows northbound, carrying tons of trash, sediment and industrial waste that inundate and compromise the binational estuary. In recent years, US Homeland Security carved concrete dams and drains into newly built borderwall infrastructure, which serve to siphon and accelerate these calamitous northbound flows.
The borderwall is sold to the American public as the key to national security, but in our region it causes great environmental insecurity. Some have observed that the chickens have come home to roost.Footnote 19
The Cross-Border Commons is a visualization project that illuminates these topographical and hydrological dynamics in accessible ways, to communicate to publics on both sides of the wall that regional wastewater flow is not a “Mexican problem” – the way Americans typically dismiss the challenges of our neighbors – but a shared bioregional challenge that Tijuana and San Diego need to tackle together. At the very local canyon–neighborhood scale, where we work, this means working closely with our community partners to cultivate a sense of bioregional well-being, of ownership and civic commitment toward an estuary that sits behind America’s wall. To cultivate this more elastic sense of belonging and commitment, we have codesigned visualization tools and cartographies that nest local neighborhoods in this larger watershed ecology.
We often lead nomadic workshops and visit a promontory located high above the Laureles Canyon, called Mirador, where one can witness these dramatic environmental collisions from above. Imagine Mexican children standing on a narrow sliver of land along the eastern rim of the canyon, hundreds of feet above the borderwall. Imagine they plant their feet facing due west, with the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean in front of them, Mexico to their left, the United States to their right. Below, to their immediate left, they see the dense informal settlement where they live; they can spot their houses, their schools and experience their proximity to the border and a country they and their families are not permitted to enter. Below, to their immediate right, almost directly beneath their feet, they see the borderwall which, from this vantage, looks like a flimsy and ridiculous strip inserted onto a vast and powerful natural system. Lifting their eyes further to the right, they see the green expanse of the Tijuana River Estuary, with its lush wetland habitats and sediment basins contrived to catch the northbound flows of waste from their community. From this vantage the characters of this cross-border environmental story about flows and interdependence come to life. We’ve witnessed this moment of recognition again and again over the years, among children, our students, policy-makers and even foundation presidents. I will always remember the first time I witnessed it. There are places on the US side where one can grasp these dynamics, but it is most profound from Mirador. I suspect there are few places on earth where the dramatic collision of informality, militarization and environmental vulnerability can be so vividly experienced.
Patrick Geddes, the early-twentieth-century Scottish sociologist and early urban planner, designed the Camera Obscura in the center of Edinburgh, one of the first museums dedicated to urban research. A five-story building constructed as an observation tower, the ground floor was dedicated to global dynamics; the topics of each ascending floor contracted in geographic scale, culminating on the top floor, which was an open-air diorama dedicated to the local. It enabled people to look out across the territory, observe its geographic composition, and comprehend the environmental systems that organize the city. Geddes claimed that visual cognition of the territory, comprehending the city from a spatial vantage, an ability to name the rivers and valleys, plateaus and mountains, was essential to the construction of a civic identity and of collective political will. He coined the words “regionalism” and “conurbation,” which are often used today to describe binational zones such as San Diego–Tijuana.Footnote 20 Our commitment in the Community Stations to cultivate an elastic civic identity through visual cognition, to experience the local as part of a region, a conurbation, is inspired by Geddes’ Socratic impulse to ascend from the city.
Sometimes, however, nurturing civic elasticity entails descending below the familiar, going down with an empirical lantern, as Hirschman described it. Several years ago, we curated a cross-border public action through one of the sewerage drains Homeland Security carved into the wall, between Laureles Canyon and the estuary. We negotiated a permit with US Homeland Security to transform the drain into an official southbound port of entry for twenty-four hours. They agreed, disarmed by our self-description as “just artists,” as long as Mexican immigration officials were waiting on the other side, in Mexican territory, to stamp our passports. Our convoy comprised 300 local community activists and residents, representatives from the municipalities of San Diego and Tijuana, and artists and border activists from around the world. We understood the event as an “agonistic” intervention because we summoned institutions and agencies who are often at odds with one another. In Chantal Mouffe’s words, we created an itinerant “vibrant ‘agonistic’ public sphere of contestation where different hegemonic political projects can be confronted.”Footnote 21 As we moved together southbound under the wall, we witnessed slum wastewater flowing northbound toward the estuary beneath our feet. This strange crossing from estuary to slum under a militarized culvert, and the stamping of passports inside this liminal space, amplified the most profound contradictions and interdependencies of our border region. The great insight was that protecting the US Estuary demands investment in the informal settlements in Mexico, increasing bioregional awareness, and codeveloping neighborhood-scale participatory waste and sediment management initiatives.
Our border-drain crossing was more than an ephemeral happening; it helped to solidify a durable, cross-border, public commitment to action. We are now leading a binational land conservancy project, the Cross-Border Commons, which identifies unsquatted slivers of land in the Laureles Canyon, bundles them into an archipelago of conservancy, and connects them with the Estuary in a continuous political, social and ecological zone that transgresses the international line.Footnote 22 Our binational coalition is comprised of state and municipal agencies, environmental nonprofits, university researchers like us and community organizations such as Divina Providencia and Embajadores de Jesús. Every participant brings a unique set of knowledges and capacities to this bioregional effort: some do environmental research, some advance policy, some mobilize public knowledge and support and some advance sustainable practices in communities. With our Community Stations partners in Laureles we are codeveloping sustainable waste management and anti-erosion practices in the canyon, oriented around conservation, reuse and the separation, composting, collection and removal of trash, as well as native planting, reforestation and the development of bio-swales and pervious ground cover to keep precarious topsoil intact. With this ‘green cross-border stitch’, as we all call it, we are rethinking the border through the logics of natural and social ecologies, and reimagining citizenship through a shared commitment to the health of our bioregion.
Continental – MEXUS: Geographies of Interdependence
Our Cross-Border Commons project in San Diego–Tijuana has provoked curiosity about other sites of porosity and ecological interdependency along the continental border between the United States and Mexico. Over the years we have collected aerial photographs across this continental span that document precise moments when the jurisdictional line of the nation collides with natural systems. At some of these junctures, like ours, the borderwall cuts through and violates delicate natural ecologies. San Diego–Tijuana, El Paso–Juarez, Brownsville–Matamoros and many less populous locations powerfully illustrate what dumb sovereignty looks like when it “hits the ground” in a complex bioregion. But at other junctures, nature is too mighty to be bisected. Mountains, canyons and bodies of water frequently interrupt America’s great wall and complicate its territorial dominion. Of course, these landscapes are generally impossible for human transgression as well, so the border-builder simply militarizes their edges and co-opts them in its strategies of spatial division and control.
In recent years we developed MEXUS: Geographies of Interdependence, a visual project that stretches our elastic civic aspirations to the continental scale. MEXUS visualizes the continental border between the United States and Mexico without the jurisdictional line.Footnote 23 Because the border is not a place where things end, MEXUS dissolves the border into a bioregion whose shape is defined by the eight binational watershed systems bisected by the international border. Our Tijuana River watershed in San Diego–Tijuana is nested at the westernmost corner of MEXUS, where the 3,145 kilometer borderwall descends absurdly into the Pacific Ocean. The Rio Grande Valley, and the cities of Brownsville–Matamoros, anchor the other end.
MEXUS also exposes other systems and flows across this bioregional territory that the wall cannot contain: 11 tribal nations, 110,000 square kilometers of protected lands, 16,000 square kilometers of croplands, 28 urban crossings, many more informal ones, 15 million people and more. By erasing the line, MEXUS exposes and unwalls this thick system of ecologies and interdependencies and challenges the legitimacy of the colonizer’s rationalist nineteenth-century line imposed onto complex systems shared among nations. As one San Ysidro resident once put it: “if the border needs to be there, why does it need to be so stupid?” The borderwall proposed by the Trump administration threatened to close these spaces even further, compromising the common destiny of border communities. Only the most myopic or racist of nationalist politics could conclude that walling the other will solve our problems. While the borderwall satisfies protectionist urges for physical security, it simultaneously harms the nation by interrupting the environmental, economic and social flows essential to the health and sustainability of the larger region. By fortifying its violent line against the other, the United States violates its own people and its own natural resources.
Ultimately, our civic purpose for designing MEXUS was to counter America’s wall-building fantasies with more expansive imaginaries of belonging and cooperation beyond the nation-state. Instead of seeing the border through the lens of division and control, MEXUS provokes more ecological thinking oriented by dynamic regional circulations. It provokes a more inclusive idea of citizenship oriented by coexistence, shared assets and cooperative opportunities between artificially divided communities. The ecologies of MEXUS become an organizing framework for dialogues about a bioregional civic identity among Mexicans, Americans and diverse Tribal Nations who inhabit this contested space.
Global: The Political Equator
From our border at San Diego–Tijuana we have imagined an elastic civic identity, rooted in local experiences and affective ties, that is able to recognize resonances and solidarities with others at broader scales, as a strategy of resistance against injustice. Our “final stretch” in this cross-border civic imaginary (and in this chapter) is a visualization project called The Political Equator. Taking the Tijuana–San Diego border as a spatial point of departure, The Political Equator traces an imaginary line across a flattened map of the world, visualizing a corridor of global conflict between the thirtieth and thirty-eighth parallels north. Along this trajectory lie some of the world’s most contested thresholds, including the US–Mexico border at San Diego/Tijuana, the most-trafficked international border checkpoint in the world and the main migration route from Latin America into the United States; the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, the main route from North Africa into “Fortress Europe” thickened in recent years to contain flows of humanity from Lampedusa into Italy and from Lesbos into Greece; the Israeli–Palestinian border that divides the Middle East, emblematized by Israel’s fifty-year military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; India/Kashmir, a site of intense and enduring territorial conflict between Pakistan and India since the British partition of India in 1947; the border between North and South Korea, which represents decades of intractable Cold War conflict; and China’s militarization of sovereign islands in the South China Sea, and colonizing ambitions toward Taiwan and Hong Kong.
While the Political Equator is represented lyrically as a flat line that bisects an astonishingly diverse assemblage of recognized violent border conflicts across the world, it operates ultimately as a critical threshold that conceptually bends, fragments and stretches to engage the forces of nationalism and border closure everywhere. Visualizing the Political Equator, again lyrically, alongside the climatic equator is revealing. This band, give or take a few degrees, contains our planet’s most populous slums, its sites of greatest natural resource extraction and export and its zones of greatest political instability, climate vulnerability and human displacement. It also contains all of Trump’s “shithole countries.” The collision of nationalism, environmental catastrophe, forced migration and borders is the great crisis of our age, the global injustice trifecta of our time, and is perfectly recognizable to our community partners at the San Diego–Tijuana border.Footnote 24
In our work, we seek to reclaim the idea of citizenship for more inclusive, democratic and environmentally proactive cross-border agendas. In an increasingly walled world, with reactionary nationalism surging everywhere, we challenge the claim that we are living in or somehow moving toward a postsovereign reality. Right now, the demand to protect national borders is ascending across the world, with citizenship tethered to territory and inherently closed to those beyond the gate. The cosmopolitan retort to these xenophobic urges across our planet is satisfying from a humanistic vantage, but thinking of ourselves as “citizens of the world” ultimately lacks visceral appeal and mechanisms for meaningful collective agency. Everything interesting about citizenship in political theory today happens somewhere between these two extremes, with attempts to ground citizenship in something real while remaining compassionate, nondiscriminatory and inclusive. Through our work in border communities, we have come to embrace an elastic idea of citizenship that is grounded in local experiences and affective ties but is nevertheless fluid and open, its boundaries continually renegotiating themselves around the confluences, shifting challenges, opportunities, interests and aspirations among diverse people who together inhabit contested space. Border regions are a natural laboratory for rethinking citizenship along these lines.
Now, it may seem naïve or even insulting to some that we propose discussing citizenship in a context like the US–Mexico border, where formal belonging is so rigidly fixed to nation and documentation and has been so dramatically denied through racialized political violence. But we advocate turning the concept back on itself, recuperating the idea of citizenship as a cultural concept that emerges more inclusively from the bottom-up through everyday practices of mutual recognition and more deliberate acts of civic freedom. Through civic programming in the UCSD Community Stations we are committed to identifying these confluences, overlapping sensibilities, crosscutting resonances, and aspirations among jurisdictionally ruptured publics, often hidden behind the shadows of walls.
By means of our partnerships we discover new and sometimes sudden opportunities to mobilize solidarities. For example, there is a pervasive mistrust of conventional progressive political leadership on both sides of the border, especially among young people who no longer connect with the dominant social justice narratives of earlier generations. How can researchers, cultural producers and agencies on the ground help to mobilize these convergences into productive forces? Outrage over US policies of gratuitous hate – like family separation at the US–Mexico border, like high rates of COVID-19 infection among migrants deported back to their home countries – are opportunities to unite cross-border publics in solidarity. This kind of solidarity can be fleeting, topical, but openings like these become powerful summoners for curating civic dialogue in contested places like ours.
Our local experiences in San Diego–Tijuana have oriented our aspirations for broader critical reflection on unjust migration policies and border conditions everywhere. Moving from local experiences to a global project is a necessarily speculative and provisional activity. But what we propose here should be distinguished from an abstract normative position. Ours is a grounded critical theory that has emerged through our participation over many years in civic processes along the US–Mexico border. The broader resonances we claim have also been validated over the years through partnerships with colleagues and activist networks who work in similarly solidaristic modalities in conflict zones across the world. In the words of Tijuana-based artist Marcos Ramirez ERRE, borderwalls exist only to be transgressed. For him, this is the ultimate aspiration of public art. In sites across the world characterized by rising nationalism, surveillance and control, and the criminalization of migrants, this is the ultimate aspiration of civic freedom as well.
[P]erhaps it is time to touch the algorithms of our longings, to linger at the terrifying fault line where a different kind of politics might sprout. Perhaps it is time to name the electoral politics that hides its shrivelling body behind the spectacle of who won and who lost, and nurture its weirder cousin. A politics of the otherwise.
Brazilian sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos recently observed that “democracies are dying democratically”Footnote 2 through the election of antidemocrats around the world. The ballot-box wins of antidemocratic parties around the world are quick to hail public attention. However, Santos’ words point to an even deeper source of morbidity troubling Western democracies, warranting a deeper interrogation into the societal conditions within which democracy might be dying by its own hands. Can the current precariousness of democracy be blamed on antidemocratic movements, leaders and/or supporters alone? Or might democracy not be as democratic as thought? In this chapter, I take up the call to critically examine the sources of democracy’s morbidity from a social systems perspective.Footnote 3 This lends itself to considering that the ongoing swell of antidemocratic movements might be symptoms rather than causes of democracy’s crises. From this vantage point, important new lines of inquiry come into view.
The chasm between democracy’s rhetoric and people’s lived experiences is vast. From racialized state violence and systematic discrimination, to the denial of Indigenous nations’ sovereignty, to ecocide, it is clear the “emperor” has no clothes. Too many state-sanctioned injustices are happening on democracy’s watch – brutalities that the rhetoric of equality, inclusion and representation cannot conceal. Transmuted through the nation-state’s webbed relationships with systems of anthropocentrism, colonialism, cisheteropatriarchy, racism/whiteness and capitalism, some are more equal, included and represented than others.
In the rift between democratic rhetoric and lived experience, the “demos” takes matters into their own hands. On the one hand, these matters include guns and others’ throats. On the other hand, they include care and cooperation across the usual lines of separation, and the resurgent deepening of ecocentric ways of being. The effect is a present surge in both “democratizing and undemocratizing processes”Footnote 4 across local and global stages alike. I distinguish between the “undemocratizing” vs. “democratizing” processes of which Santos speaks according to the worldview and ontological canopy that each enacts:Footnote 5 respectively, individualist ways of being that reference an us/them ontology of “disconnect”;Footnote 6 and relational ways of Intrabeing that enact an interconnection with all that is, including the more-than-human.
As elaborated in this chapter, an individualist ontology of separation and nonrelationality erects the unfounded, terra nullius grounds upon which structures of hierarchy, dominance, violence and exploitation become both possible and justifiable. Such grounds become the basis of all “us/them” logics and binary structures, including anthropocentrism, colonialism, cisheteropatriarchy, racism/whiteness and capitalism. While the particular modalities, institutions, practices and processes of each of these structures differs across regions and contexts, their enactments depend on lifeways that generate a vicious ontology of disconnect and separation. It is this commonality of ontological structure to which I wish to draw attention. Understanding how democratic institutions operate in ways that can (intentionally or unintentionally) uphold and reproduce this hegemonic ontology is critical to understanding what democratizing, counterhegemonic and decolonizing projects might entail. Operating through institutions, processes and ways of being, the lifeways that enact these structures generate the “abyssal,”Footnote 7 invisible lines of privilege and discrimination that invoke injustices and violence on human and more-than-human lives and bodies alike.
It is often argued that such structures threaten democracy by superseding or ”rolling back” its powers. However, to the extent that democratic actors and institutions participate in and reproduce these structures of dominance, I concur with Gane that what we are witnessing is not the “roll back,” but the “roll-out”Footnote 8 and emboldening of these structures through democratic institutions.
The Canadian government’s “nation to nation” relationship with Indigenous nations offers one helpful example. Insofar as Canadian law is asserted as the universal, sovereign frame within which Indigenous nations must negotiate and Indigenous legal systems must be interpreted, there is no possibility of genuine dialogue between equal parties wherein each might be encountered on its own terms.Footnote 9 Canada’s engagement in nation-to-nation relationships is thus enacted as a form of “false dialogue”Footnote 10 that drains dialogue of its democratic and transformative potential. This move within setter colonial states can be understood as an example of what Tully describes as the representative democracy’s “pretense of inclusion and dialogue [which] is often simply the assimilating and subordinating ruse of the hegemonic partner.”Footnote 11 Such assertions of sovereignty rely on the false and unfounded grounds of nonrelationality. In other words, by imposing an external colonial law and order, they uproot or disembed themselves from relational accountabilityFootnote 12 to Indigenous peoples and the lands, waters and more-than-human ecosystems over which they have claimed sovereignty. This disembedding claim to sovereignty is inherently violent, as claiming the universal requires not only an erasure of its own parochial roots,Footnote 13 but both legalizes and necessitates the moves to systematically and genocidally eradicate Indigenous democracies and lifeways, as in Canada.
In another example, US government trade negotiations with democratically elected governments in countries such as Kenya are brokering deals at the behest of the world’s largest chemical makers and fossil fuel companies. Such agreements have resulted in the quadrupling of plastic waste exports from the USA to Africa. More than one billion pounds of plastic waste was exported from the USA to ninety-six countries in one year alone, with millions of pounds of hardest-to-recycle plastics landing in their rivers and oceans.Footnote 14 In the growing awareness of the interconnectedness of all of life, these democratically elected governments are privileging colonial, anthropocentric and capitalist logics at the cost of ecosystems, the human citizens who rely on these ecosystems and the more-than-human who become the “collateral damage” of such actions. Upstream are the practices that condone and enable the proliferation of plastic production and consumption.
While these examples differ in important ways, they are both cases in which democratic actors and institutions invoke a relationally disembedded, undemocratic logic of individualism that constitutes a lethal blow to the very premises and promises of democracy. In so doing, democratic actors create critical points of vulnerability for the system of representative democracy itself. The vulnerability lies in its inconsistency, as noted by Santos: “Democracy is incompatible with the kind of capitalism that rules the world today. So we either have democracy or we have capitalism.”Footnote 15 These points of democracy’s vulnerability become the conditions of its own morbidity, hollowing out the values it purports to uphold, effectively dumping them in the waterways alongside the unrecyclable plastics. So long as democratically elected representatives and governments reproduce the entangled and settled logics, hierarchies and structures of anthropocentrism, colonialism, cisheteropatriarchy, racism/whiteness and/or capitalism, they themselves enact undemocratizing processes.
In this context, it is no surprise that representative democracies find themselves facing populist, undemocratizing “backlashes”:Footnote 16 the latter are entirely ontologically consistent with the undemocratizing processes being democratically enacted, as outlined earlier. As any parent can tell you, such ”do as I say, not as I do” behavior effectively extends an invitation for citizens to follow suit. In the democratic void between words and practice emerges a dystopian chasm within which disenchanted and/or alienated citizens decrease, withdraw and/or refuse their hegemonic consent to the democratic system on offer. In these ways, the crises of democracy lie in the ways representative democracies reproduce individualist ways of being.
If the cause of democracy’s morbidity is in our midst, however, so too are the protective factors. The boundaries and enactments of representative democracies have long been troubled and shaped by democratizing processes and movements that stretch and are situated well beyond the individualist canopy of understanding. Enacting an ontology of Intrabeing, the horizons and possibilities for otherwise democracies beyond the bounds of individualism are not only possible, they already are. Drawing on the wisdoms of humans (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) and more-than-humans (in the ecosystems of tree canopies), this chapter presents a relational framework within which democracy might be resituated and reconceptualized. In their porous, dynamic, entangled and “grounded relationality,”Footnote 17 tree canopies embody a rooted relational framework within the context of which distinct and diverse democratic traditions might be considered. Additionally, tree canopies invite us to consider how the relational accountability of the ecosystem offers a model for democracy that is regenerative, porous, adaptive, diverse and resilient. In contrast, I propose an “ego-cycle” diagram, which depicts how hierarchical, us/them structures and lifeways enact an individualist logic of disconnect that thwarts and distorts each stage of the ecocycle in unsustainable, violent ways. Like the tree cut down to build the slave ship, individualist or egocentric ways of being violently uproot the individual from self, others and earth.
A Tale of Two Worldviews
As ontologies, worldviews can be understood through distinct types of creation stories or stories of origin.Footnote 18 Despite their coexistence, one can see that the individualist and relational worldviews introduced above represent two very different types of creation stories. Not only do they have different beginnings, plotlines and backdrops, they generate radically different endings: the first characterized by unsustainable lifeways that cogenerate ecocide, social, political and economic injustices (Tully’s vicious cycle), the other characterized by gift–gratitude–reciprocity lifeways that regenerate reciprocal, sustainable and relationally accountable ways of living (Tully’s virtuous cycle).Footnote 19
I refer to the first of these worldviews as individualist (as opposed to liberal, Western, etc.) to reflect the fact that the central unit around which this ontological orientation is organized is that of the discrete, disembedded individual human. The “individual” in these stories stands in for the inherent dissociative logic of disconnect:Footnote 20 from self (as relational being), from others and from the more-than-human. It is critical to note that the structures and processes that generate this dissociative orientation constitute forms of epistemic violenceFootnote 21 that also enact physical violence and embodied traumas on human and more-than-human alike.
While one may consider certain groupings such as the nation-state as social or collective instead of individualist, Tully shows how the very logic of such institutions rests on the conceptual disembedding of individuals from prior inherent relationships as the foundational prelude to installing modern conceptions of citizenship. This “first process” entails: “the ongoing disposs-ession and alienation of human communities from their participatory ways of being in the living earth as plain members and responsible citizens, and the discrediting of the participatory ways of knowing that go along with them.”Footnote 22 Calling this the “great dis-embedding,” Tully references Polanyi to document the processes by which modern civil citizenship then re-embeds humans “in abstract and competitive economic, political, and legal relationships that depend on yet destroy the underlying interdependent ecological and social relationships.”Footnote 23 The new groupings are then structured as if they were individual units in binary relation to Others – whether nation, race, gender or other. Insofar as Western representative democracy is a system of governance based around the rights and representation of individual humans and collections of individual humans, it enacts a story in which the human individual is the unit through which life is encountered and apprehended. It is thus necessarily located not only upon an “us/them” foundation of anthropocentrism,Footnote 24 it is also built on the primacy of the individual human unitFootnote 25 over the relational. In this way, an individualist logic is core to the very structure of nation-state and nationalism. The latter’s borders separate humans by geographies and citizenship while relegating and demarcating lands, waterways and the more-than-human within its borders to property or the “wild,” denying it its own agency and representation. (As any river might tell you, the borders of nation-states do not make much sense to them, though their effects are sensed.)In contrast, relational worldviews reflect interconnected, intra-active,Footnote 26 relational lifeways between all that is. While grounded in the distinctiveness of each, there are key points of shared relational ontology found in a range of traditions and cultures around the world. Drawn from the concept of Interbeing found in contemporary theorists ranging from EisensteinFootnote 27 to Thich Nhat Hahn,Footnote 28 the relational premise of intrabeing has articulations across many distinct traditions. For example, the concept of “All Our Relations” within Indigenous traditions across Turtle Island, the Zulu phrase Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu commonly known as Ubuntu (‘I am because you are’), and the tenets of animistic, pantheistic East Asian nature religions such as kami-no-michi (Shintoism) all point not just to a communal nature of life but to an indivisible interdependence of being. Nuu-chah-nulth Hereditary Chief Umeek (E. Richard Atleo) explains the specific context within which a relational ontology of interconnectedness is specifically rooted and enacted in Nuu-chah-nulth traditions, through the concept of heshook-ish tsawalk:
In a view of reality described as tsawalk (one), relationships are qua (that which is). The ancient Nuu-chah-nulth assumed an interrelationship between all life forms – humans, plans, and animals. Accordingly, social, political, economic, constitutional, environmental, and philosophical issues can be addressed under the single theme of inter-relationships, across all dimensions of reality – the material and the non-material, the visible and the invisible.Footnote 29
The concept of oneness within a relational frame of Intrabeing is notably distinct for its pluralistic dynamism versus the assimilative, binary and/or exclusionary orientations of individualism. As in an ecosystem, this oneness comes not as the result of assimilation or the erasure of difference, but through the inherent plurality, relationality and agency of all. Within the context of another Indigenous tradition, Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, depicts the dynamic process of weaving sweetgrass as an act of gift-reciprocity between weavers that reflects the reciprocal relationships of living between peoples with one another and the earth.Footnote 30 Wilson of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation reflects on this relationality by disrupting the notion of the individual unit that is often embedded in Western conceptions of relationship: “Rather than viewing ourselves as being in relationship with other people or things, we are the relationships that we hold and are part of.”Footnote 31 This intersects with the self-proclaimed relational ontologist, feminist Karen Barad’s concept of “intra-action”; while inter-action presumes separate actors, they note that intra-action depicts an enmeshed relationship that more accurately depicts the assemblage and nonseparate nature of all life forms.Footnote 32 Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offers another take on this point, stating that we should not regard individual beings as having life, but of life being in them: “You shouldn’t say, life of the leaf, but life in the leaf, and life in the tree. My life is just Life, and you can see it in me and in the tree.”Footnote 33
Within a relational ontology of Intrabeing, individualist stories are artificialFootnote 34 and without foundation. Extraction or expulsion from the relational world is simply not possible. Conceiving of the self as separate from other beings constitutes a bifurcated, dissociated conception of the self – what Einstein called a “delusion of consciousness.”Footnote 35 However, it is this perception of disconnect that renders egocentric ways of thinking and being possible, characterized by the “aggressive refusal of non-attachment, openness, empathetic dialogue, and so of deparochialization.”Footnote 36
UmeekFootnote 37 also sees the perception of differences as naturally antagonistically, competitively and hierarchically oriented as inherent to the individualist view– one that has led the world into its current intertwining sets of economic, political, social and ecological crises. In contrast, he and other Indigenous thinkers such as KimmererFootnote 38 reflect on the lessons learned from the more-than-human world wherein diversity and polarities are not inherently competitive, but rather viewed as essential for the co-generation of life. Umeek’s Tsawalk shows that within stories of intrabeing, insofar as everything is connected, everything somehow belongs: “Nuu-chah-nulth perspective on the nature of reality is that all questions of existence, being and knowing, regardless of seeming contradictions are considered tsawalk – one and inseparable. They are all interrelated and interconnected.”Footnote 39 Tully’s work might be read as the tracing of individualist and relational ontologies within and across distinct histories and traditions of political thought. While Tully particularly highlights the relational ontologies and lifeways of Indigenous traditions, he also observes the presence of relational lifeways across a plurality of democratizing practices, movements and processes around the world, including the West.Footnote 40 These lifeways are characterized by Tully as enacting practices of ecological and Gaia democratic engagement across a diversity of ethno-cultural and spiritual traditions. These lifeways enact a relational ethos of interconnectedness that nurtures relationships with self, others and earth, are regenerative of virtuous cycles of life – resonant with conceptions of gift–gratitude–reciprocity within Indigenous governance and legal systems. In this way, Tully’s work consistently points to what Indigenous traditions and communities have long showed – the ongoing proliferation of lifeways that, in their resilience and rootedness, even in the face of systematized structures of genocidal oppression, persevere. In the Hermeneutics of the Subject, Foucault also traces patterns of relationality across Western thought, which he traces back to Ancient Greece. A master trickster, he shows how even individualism has historical roots in a “relational mode of knowledge.”Footnote 41 By troubling a contemporaryFootnote 42 individualism’s self image, Foucault’s observation suggests that individualism’s inclination to banish relationality in its midst is so strong it would even negate its own ancestry.
Worldviews as Canopies of Understanding
In the sociological literature, ontologies or worldviews are often conceptualized as “canopies” of understanding, drawing on the work of Berger and Luckmann.Footnote 43 As a metaphor for the structures by which a social group makes sense of the world and governs itself, the structure of the canopy is constituted by the institutions, laws, discourses, norms and lifeways that a social group enacts. Signifiers, concepts and institutions within this canopy of meaning are reified as “common sense” and naturalized, providing its constituents with what phenomenologists call a “natural attitude” toward the world, in which the constructed and parochial contexts of one’s worldview is a settled fact that remains unseen, like the air one breathes. For Berger and Luckmann, the perceived objectivity of social institutions “‘thickens” and “hardens,” generating a certain fixity to their structures and “firmness of consciousness.”Footnote 44 Within the enclosing canopy, the institutions, laws, discourses, norms and lifeways that uphold the canopy are both structurally imposed upon its constituents and actively reproduced by them to the extent that they are internalized and socialized into them.
Berger and Luckmann’s canopy is thus experienced as an integrated, comprehensive understanding of the world while the particular contours of it remain unseen. However, in its social constructedness, the canopy operates as a singular lens through which one might encounter the world, like a flashlight in a forest.Footnote 45 Although canopies offer the experience of having a comprehensive view on reality, they only light a narrow cone on the world, leaving “the totality of the world opaque … [in] a background of darkness.”Footnote 46 Phenomena that do not fit within the bounds of Berger and Luckmann’s sense-making canopy thus appear as “non-sense,”Footnote 47 remaining unencountered, unintelligible, banished and forbidden. Hall refers to “common sense” or “the regime of the ‘taken for granted’” as “a moment of extreme ideological closure.”Footnote 48 In this way, Berger and Luckmann’s canopy resembles that of a tent canopy and, like a tent, this canopy is constructed upon an uprooted, nonrelational foundation the underpinning “law-gic” of which shapes the tent’s structure, contours and borders.
While presented as a universal theory for theorizing about worldviews, a reparochializationFootnote 49 of Berger and Luckmann’s canopy shows it to have distinctly individualist features. The first clue of this is insofar as Berger and Luckmann’s canopy refers only to the human world. In this theory of worldviews, the earth and the more-than-human are anthropocentrically relegated to incidental backdrops to human existence. The establishment of the canopy thus metaphorically relays the very process of re-embedding disembedded individual humans in socially sanctioned institutions such as Tully describes.Footnote 50 Uprooted from relationships with the earth and the more-than-human, a key feature of the canopy is categories of membership, both within the walls of its particular institutions as well as those on the outside who are refused entry. More than being left in the metaphorical darkness, beings, experiences and aspects of beings that fall surplus to the cognitive bounds of the canopy manifest as other or are rendered into the abyss. Any acting outside the bounds of the canopy are encountered and treated as fugitives according to the settled colonial lawgic of the canopy.
Further, in its concealment of what its inhabitants might otherwise encounter, the tent canopy is also a metaphor for hegemony. The tent canopy mirrors the hegemonic process Vahabzadeh describes by which actors are “resettled” within new “cognitive grounds and experiential terrains” with reconstituted selves.Footnote 51 Although the “hegemonic worldview” is presented as “objectively” true,Footnote 52 it will never be fully referential to one’s experience that precedes and exceeds the frames of the tent. Insofar as it both enables and limits how one thinks of and apprehends the world – a phenomenon he calls “experiential hegemony”Footnote 53 – the erection of the tent canopy is a moment of epistemic violence for Vahabzadeh. In all of these ways, Berger and Luckmann’s conception of the way worldviews function is a version of Otto Scharmer’s egocentric system that can not see itself.Footnote 54
A Different Type of Canopy
A relational worldview articulates a radically different structure than Berger and Luckmann’s canopy. The latter’s abstract and universal prototype is at fundamental odds with relational conceptions of the world that are rooted in particular contexts through ongoing intra-active relationships with others and the earth. To extend Berger and Luckmann’s theoretical concept of worldviews as tent canopies to relational ways of thinking and being would be to engage in the same type of “discursive translation” that Coulthard notes is imposed on Indigenous nations within the settler colonial state, resulting in the “reorientation” of meanings of Indigenous self-determination.Footnote 55 Starblanket and Stark caution of the ongoing ways in which such mis-translations reinscribe Indigenous concepts and practices – such as relationality – through the settler colonial lens of states such as Canada, noting the tendency of colonial ways of thinking to absorb and co-opt.Footnote 56 In true hegemonic form, the individualist worldview moves quickly to repair any challenges that might compromise the integrity of its canopy of being, resulting in alterations and patchwork rather than transformation. Tully refers to this as a form of “hegemonic ventriloquism,”Footnote 57 in which one may use the same words as another but fail to encounter or understand them on their own terms – a practice core to genuine dialogue and the ethical engagement of another.Footnote 58 It thus becomes important to imagine a relational canopy on its own terms rather than “discursively translated”Footnote 59 through the lens of an individualist conception of worldviews.
As opposed to an enclosing and self-concealing structure, a relational ontology is characterized by its self-disclosure (or deparochialization) and an openness to encountering and engaging difference through “reciprocal elucidation.”Footnote 60 By a relational logic, one can only understand and know themselves through their relationships with others. For this reason, thinkers from across a diversity of traditions (Borrows, Derrida, Lorde, Foucault, Scharmer and Tully, to name a few) note that such disclosure can only take place through relationship with, and in the presence of, another. Tully writes: “Humans literally need dialogue with other limited traditions of political thought to see their own limitations and to see beyond them by means of the perspectives of others. Hence, it is dialogue itself that deparochializes.”Footnote 61 Similarly, from the systems-thinking tradition, Scharmer states that a system cannot “see and sense itself” unless there is another who plays the role of mirror within “a learning structure” which supports awareness, listening, openness, curiosity, compassion and courage.Footnote 62
Inspired by Mills’ rooted constitutionalism,Footnote 63 tree canopies offer a radically different type of canopy that exist through their rootedness in relationships and specific contexts vs. the uprooted foundations of the tent. There are countless distinct tree canopies, and no two tree canopies are the same. Insofar as tree canopies are intra-active assemblages of beings and the lifeways that constitute them, they are defined by their specific and evolving constituents, pluralisms and relationships – not their borders. However, they share a porousness to the diversity of life forms in their midst, who cocreate the particularities of a given tree canopy’s pathways, permacultures, landscape, lifeforms, enclosures, points of gestation, growth, maturity, destruction, rigidities and boundaries.In these ways, tree canopies disclose themselves in ways similar to Tully’s multiverse of “being-there (Dasein) and being-with (Mitsein)”:
Ways of life of humans are seen perspectivally, as one moves around; neither as independent, all the same, nor antagonistic; but, rather, interconnected and interdependent by infinitely complex webs of similarities and dissimilarities expressed in the languages of the world. This is the participatory experience of diversity awareness, of the lifeworld as a multiverse rather than universe, and of being-human as both being-there (Dasein) and being-with (Mitsein).Footnote 64
What the Tree Canopies Know
During Hurricane Katrina, you would have thought the live oaks … would have died when actually only four out of over seven hundred trees died. Why is that? … It turns out the whole thing is a blueprint for how to survive hurricanes. Their trunk is spiraled so they flex in the wind and their branches are spiraled so they flex and their leaves when the wind hits them, they curl … which allows the wind to flow through with minimal friction. And even more importantly, under the ground its roots are entwined with the roots of the trees next to it. So when a hurricane hits a live oak in New Orleans, it’s not hitting one tree, it’s hitting a whole community. So perhaps in rebuilding New Orleans to be more hurricane resilient, instead of our individual … foundations, we may think about foundations that have horizontal components that twine together with the foundations of the buildings next door so that you’ve got the wind hitting an entire community of buildings and not just one … think like a live oak tree.Footnote 65
The logic of tree canopies is found in the trees’ inseparable relationality with the countless beings that simultaneously enable and are enabled by their existence, those with whom their lives are entangled. Trees are but one entangled and inseparable form of life within a tree canopy amidst soils, minerals, mycelium, sunlight, air, bugs, creatures, waters, rocks and mosses with whom they transmutatively cocreate the life of their ecosystem – along with the countless others that migrate and porously traverse through. From within the knowing of the tree canopy, each “being” in the canopy might not be considered a single entity – though the uniqueness and diversity of each is required for the existence of all. Like all ecosystems on earth, tree canopies are dynamic, emergent, elaborate labyrinths of beings that engage in the collaborative regeneration of life distinctly in that ecosystem and – as citizens of the earth – also to that of the planet.
Turning to the contrasts between the trees and the tent canopies, one might consider that while the tent can block or distort the view of the tree canopy, the latter might be able to coexist with the former. Indeed, the image of a tent canopy situated within or encroaching upon a tree canopy lends itself well as a metaphor for the relationship between, respectively, a settler colonial state and the Indigenous governance systems in which this colonial state enacts itself. However, to restrict an analysis to this point is to stop at the us/them binary frame that individualism itself establishes. There is more to see in a forest. Tree canopies invite ways of thinking and being beyond a colonial sense of spatiality – ways that offer critical insights into conceptions of democracy.
Tree canopies’ resilience and regenerative, democratizing capacities lie in their participation in ecocentric, relational modes of being, as articulated in the ecocycle model. While its roots hail from global governance theory, the ecocycleFootnote 66 is used in systems theory to explore the complexity of human systems in which apparently contradictory or incommensurate impulses are at play. Sharing the same shape of the Métis and the infinity symbols, the ecocycle depicts four distinct moments in an ecological system, with a directionality of moving from the lower left quadrant (“Birth: tending”), to the upper right quadrant (“Maturity: harvesting”), to the lower right quadrant (“Creative Destruction: plowing”), to the upper left quadrant (“Gestation: sowing”), then moving back to the lower left quadrant of Birth again.Footnote 67 These can be conceived of as the distinct stages in a single entity’s life cycle (or even as the four seasons of Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter). However, within systems thinking, it is recognized that in any natural ecosystem (including human systems), each stage is always at play somewhere in the system at any given moment – for example, the presence of new tree growth, mature trees, trees falling to the forest floor to make way for and support the incubation of new life.
When systems theorists apply the lens of this cycle to human organizations and systems, they note two “traps” that the latter tend to fall into: the “rigidity trap,” which falls in between the stage of Maturity and Creative Destruction, and the “poverty trap,” which falls in between the stages of Gestation and Birth. They are called “traps” within organizational theory because of the tendency in human systems for parts of those same systems to inhibit regenerative movement between the stages where they are located. The effect of these traps is to impede, destabilize or incapacitate the ecosystem’s regenerative capacities.The “rigidity trap” lies between the stages of Maturity and Creative Destruction.Footnote 68 In human-dominated systems, indicators of this trap include the material structuring of the world according to individualist logics of ownership, hierarchy and capitalist-colonial accumulation, ownership, dispossession and legalized hierarchies. Relational structures, such as Indigenous governance and legal systems, are circumscribed, limited hegemonically absorbed or destroyed in the service of keeping the hegemonically dominant structures and processes of capitalist-colonialism intact.
The “poverty trap,” on the other hand, is located between the stages of Gestation and GrowthFootnote 69 In human systems, this trap is encountered when there is insufficient investment in the permaculture needed to cogenerate life (whether social, legal, economic, political or ecological), leading to the starvation or extinction of needed diversity and new growth that ultimately benefits the overall system. In a human system, this trap can entail the excessive depletion, exploitation and/or destruction of the resources needed by distinctive lifeways in order to regenerate, proliferate or thrive.
Building on the notion of these traps, Tully’s vicious cycle might be understood as the disproportionate and distorted investment in the linear segment of the ecocycle between the stages of birth (tending) and maturity (harvesting). When the logic of relationality is replaced with that of “us/them” disconnect and separation, a linear logic of individualism becomes possible – a tending to, and the over-harvesting for the few, at the direct cost and expense of others. Humans’ separation from self, others and earth thus serves as the paramount moment when the lifeways that enact disconnect and inequality establish the “artificial”Footnote 70 grounds of individualism. This point of disconnect becomes the uprooted foundation of the tent canopy that leads to the thwarting and distortion of each of the stages of the cycle in distinct ways that threaten all of life as we know it in the world today. The egocycle diagram (Figure 9.2) outlines how each stage is reframed.
Mills writes, “Rooted constitutionalism would say disconnection doesn’t exist except artificially, and I would add that it’s the first step off of the path of growth, onto the path of progress.”Footnote 71 The stage of “Maturity” of this linear progress sees the establishment of “Settled hierarchies” by which privileges are extracted and over-harvested for the few at the direct subjugation of others – human and more-than-human alike. The stage of “Creative destruction” is in turn directed into “Systemic violence” that organize and administer the costs and burdens onto these same bodies and lifeways. Finally, the “Incubation” stage becomes “Exploitative depletion,” wherein instead of revitalizing the permaculture in which new seeds might be sown, further extraction and depletion occurs.
As reflected in the diagram (Figure 9.2), while the linear logic of individualism rigidifies and generates structures of violence, inequality and exploitation, its own delusional narrative of nonrelationality and linearity simultaneously erases lines of relational accountability. Deluded, artificial and dissociated conceptions of self, other and earth thus become the uprooted and baseless grounds upon which individualist lifeways are settled. Experientially, these moments of dissociation are moments of trauma.Footnote 72 Having established “us/them” lifeways, the grounds for anthropocentrism, colonialism, cisheteropatriarchy, racism/whiteness and capitalism are paved with intersectional bodies and beings. By over-producing, over-exploiting, dominating and over-consuming rather than sympoetically regenerating through gift-reciprocity and relational accountability, these lifeways traumatize rather than revitalize and thwart the inherent abundance of diversity by wielding and generating scarcity.
If “the means sow the seeds of the end,”Footnote 73 democratizing processes need to operate in ecocentric ways. In this light, democratizing processes are the modes by which actors seek to transmute the egocentric modes into the ecocentric, and undemocratizing processes might be understood as egocentric ways of being that thwart the stages of the ecocycle, or those that uphold or reinforce the stages of the egocycle.
However, ecocentric modes of being must radically disrupt and thwart the egocycle while not reproducing its egoic modes of being. This is why Hall says we must “address ourselves ‘violently’ towards the present as it is, if we are serious about transforming it”Footnote 74 and not if we are serious about destroying it.Footnote 75 Akomolafe’s use of the concept of compostingFootnote 76 suggests pathways forward here, referencing social change as a process of intra-active cotransformation through fugitive, relational and decolonizing practices. Inspiring visions of a pluralistically enriched “regenerative permaculture,”Footnote 77 the notion of composting invokes practices that transform through structurally disrupting that radically transforms egoic lifeways. Akomolafe points to a fugitive perspective that refuses to believe the hegemonic guards of individualism who say there is no escape from egoic individualism. Democracy in this light entails the radical transformation of political, social and economic structures – including representative democracies – through the tending, harvesting, plowing and sowing of relationships, systems and processes in ways that necessitate and demand accountability to the relationships that always already are.Footnote 78
Representative democracy is ultimately a system that includes and represents some while excluding and failing to represents others, built within an anthropocentric story of disconnect that values the human over all other forms of life. With the exception of Ecuador and New Zealand, representation is denied to the more-than-human as well as to the countless categories of humans that the system itself produces, including the 82.4 million displaced peoples in the world, of which 20.7 million are refugees,Footnote 79 and the unknown “many millions” who are stateless.Footnote 80 Historical and current examples show countless Indigenous and other peoples and nations whom representative democracies fail to represent, whether through denying them the right to vote, acts of hegemonic ventriloquism or other. Transmuted through its webbed relationships with anthropocentrism, colonialism, racism/whiteness, cisheteropatriarchy and capitalism, it would be a gross understatement to say that within representative democracies, some are more equal than others.
The ways democratic actors and institutions intersect with ecocentric and egocentric lifeways matters, with the results leading to either the “abyssal lines”Footnote 81 that enact undemocratizing injustices on lives and bodies, or enacted democratizing ways of being that are relationally accountable. To the extent that representative democracies fail to invest in new permacultures of democratic Intrabeing always already in their midst, and the transformation of structures of dominance and violence, individualistic or egocentric lifeways are reproduced and reinforced – contributing to the very same us/them ontology that gives rise to antidemocratic movements. It is entirely consistent that within such a system, polarization and undemocratizing processes operating according to the same underpinning logic of disconnect emerge.
In this way, democracies have been generating their own morbidity, and, like the emperor in The Emperor’s New Clothes, are exposed. However, in this moment, they need not double-down and recloak. The tailors in The Emperor’s New Clothes are but fugitives seeking to democratically hold an empire to relational account. While egoic conceit may have inspired the Emperor to parade naked through the street, perhaps their unexpected exposure affords them the chance to see themselves from the standpoint of another.Footnote 82
While representative democracies may have historically enacted individualist ontologies of disconnect, relational and democratizing processes have also long intra-actively shaped their becoming in critical ways. Just because many actors, institutions and processes within Western representative democracies have endorsed and invoked the egoic structures of individualism to undemocratizing effects, they have not uniformly done so, and their continued allegiance to these structures is up for relationally accountable, democratic debate and contestation. “Post-abyssal thinking”Footnote 83 demands of us that we think and act beyond the ontological bounds of individualism and in terms of relational accountability.Footnote 84
Francisco Varela, the Chilean biologist and neuroscientist who cointroduced the concept of sympoiesis to biology, states: “When a living system is suffering from ill health, the remedy is found by connecting with more of itself.”Footnote 85 For this to take place, critical practices of dialogue and engagement need to be carved out. As Tully notes, “Unless there is a critical practice within a tradition or within the course of the dialogue that brings this problem to self-awareness and addresses it by bringing aspects of one’s background horizon of disclosure into the space of questions at the centre of the dialogue, genuine dialogue cannot begin.”Footnote 86 Across history, processes, practices and precedents exist whereby undemocratizing processes at play have been addressed democratically. Given what is at stake, a revisiting of the question “what is democratic?’ is warranted. The resilience and regenerative capacity of all social systems – including representative democracies – rests on the willingness and actions of those actors and institutions upholding them to connect, reconnect and enter into genuine dialogue with the countless democratizing traditions and movements alive and well beyond their borders.
For almost two decades after 1989/90 it seemed to many in the West that “we” are living in a postrevolutionary era – and indeed, political thought was dominated by a reformist mindset for which radical ambitions betrayed a naïve, outdated, and excessive desire. However, since the “movements of the squares” – the “Arab Spring,” Occupy in its different instantiations, Istanbul’s Gezi park protest, Black Lives Matter, and the Ni una menos movement – radical social and political transformation is back on the agenda. This is not surprising given the “new normal” of manifold and interlocking crises and catastrophes – from structural racism via the neoliberal destruction of social infrastructures to environmental apocalypse. Against this bleak background, the desire for radical change appears as significantly more realistic than the standard defenses of the status quo that rest on phantasies of self-sufficiency and denials of relational entanglement.
Whether this shift amounts to a return of revolutionary politics, or whether these movements should rather be seen as decidedly postrevolutionary, is a question that will not be decided with reference to “the facts.” Rather, the corresponding discussions can serve as a reminder that struggles around the concept of revolution are central to the trajectories of radical political thought after Marx – for whom “to be radical is to grasp things by the root”Footnote 1 – and to the contested self-understanding of contemporary societies. As a concept that is not only contested but plays an irreducible role in contestations, revolution is precisely located at the intersection of radical political thought, societal self-understandings, and practices of resistance.Footnote 2 Like other contested concepts – what, in German, one would call ‘Kampfbegriffe’, or concepts deployed as weapons in a struggleFootnote 3 – the concept of revolution is bound up with a series of dichotomies that seem to require taking sides: voluntarism or determinism, spontaneity or organization, agency or structure, tendency or event, permanence or rupture, violence or nonviolence, etc. Confronting rather than denying the fundamental ambivalences and ambiguities of both the concept and the practice of revolution, however, requires us to understand these dichotomies as giving rise to tensions that are as irreducible as they are essential for both concept and practice.
In what follows, I argue that it is precisely in a constant oscillation between the above-mentioned poles – and in the impossibility of determination – that the specific negativity of revolutions and their potential for radical-democratic practice today can be located.Footnote 4 In order to retain this potential, evidenced in contemporary movements and struggles, we need to move beyond homogenizing and nationalist-populist understandings of both revolution and democracy and the notion of popular sovereignty or constituent power that often underlies them. The homogenizing logic inherent in the quest for determination risks denying the irreducible tensions, arresting the productive oscillation and thereby jeopardizing the radical-democratic potential of revolutionary politics. Against this background, one way to avoid reproducing the exclusions and hierarchies that continue to haunt many attempts to reactivate radical politics today, especially in the register of hegemony, is to pluralize the idea and practice of revolutions. Revolutionary practice is thus confronted with the need to look for ways to preserve its internal heterogeneity and ambivalence against the urge of homogenizing its subject. Its own processual character needs to be kept open against the temptations of closure. And we need to defend the revolutionary and democratic potential of the apparently marginal – as exemplified, amongst others, in the struggles of migrants and Indigenous people(s) today – against hierarchizing reinscriptions of what counts as properly political or revolutionary, or who counts as the proper political or revolutionary subject. This perspective allows us to see that revolutionary practices are essentially practices of enacting radical democracy “here and now.”
Building on ideas experimentally developed in the long and troubled history of revolutionary practice and elaborated in the works of Hannah Arendt, Cornelius Castoriadis, and others, I argue that indeterminacy – or, rather, the constant process of dismantling determinacy and of preserving indeterminacy – and the self-reflexivity this process requires can be seen as two important features of revolutionary practice. They will not only allow for a more adequate understanding of past revolutions and their ambiguities, but also for a fuller comprehension of the democratic potential and risks of revolutionary action in the present. A radical-democratic and revolutionary remaking of the demos needs to start from those political struggles that call for a radical revision, pluralization, and deterritorialization of the demos, of peoplehood and of its internal and external borders. In the contemporary constellation, migrant and Indigenous struggles and movements in my view provide important lessons for the theory of revolution despite the differences between them and their internal heterogeneity. As I argue, these movements deeply unsettle the existing terms of the struggle for hegemony rather than making a move within its narrowly nationalist-populist confines (a similar argument could be made with reference to antiracist and anticolonial struggles). Attention to the ways in which they enact democracy will provide an important counterweight to the incapacitating co-optation of revolution into the realm of the “to come.” My hope is that in the process the contours of a new – grounded and pluralist – understanding of revolution will emerge that does not subordinate the radical-democratic practices in the “here and now” to some future project, but, rather, grounds revolution precisely in this “here and now.”
Political, Not Metaphysical
It is a long-standing topos of the conservative critique of revolution that the very idea of revolution as well as the practice it inspires is anachronistic, romantic, quixotic, politically dangerous, and deeply metaphysical. In this vein, Edmund Burke famously diagnosed the French revolutionaries as suffering from “much, but bad metaphysics.”Footnote 5 As Albert Hirschman has demonstrated, the rhetoric of reaction that unfolds in the wake of revolutions and seeks to preempt their success and recurrence is structured around a threefold accusation: revolutionary ambitions are naïve and in vain, their consequences endanger reformist achievements we should hold on to, and they lead to a perverse reversal of the intentions that motivate them.Footnote 6 Against this background, there are at least three types of reasons for retaining and foregrounding the concept of revolution and defending it against the suspicion that all these supposed deficiencies are due to a metaphysical and therefore genuinely antipolitical desire for total upheaval.
First, as noted, our time is characterized by multiple interlocking and mutually reinforcing systemic crises and an increasingly widespread realization of their (often historically deep) destructive effects. This realization encompasses a growing sense that even political and social achievements that have long been regarded as irreversible in parts of the Western world – achievements usually secured at the expense of exploited, dominated, and abandoned populations elsewhere and at home – are, as a matter of fact, fragile, reversible, and subject to an orchestrated roll-back that unites neoliberal and authoritarian agendas.Footnote 7 Against this background, there are obvious political reasons for a perspective of radical political transformation beyond the longue durée of social learning processes, the micropolitics of local initiatives, the organized but domesticated world of NGO activism, and the reformist remnants of formerly left-wing political parties. The current convergence between anticapitalist, promigrant, and climate and racial justice struggles and movements, despite continuing conflicts and misunderstandings, attests to the resilient and emerging potentialities of such a radical perspective.Footnote 8
Second, there are historical reasons for inscribing current struggles in the fragmented continuum of past emancipation movements. The preserving and potentially redemptive commemoration of defeated and lost revolutions needs to be defended against the escalating counterrevolutionary politics of memory driven by the often cruel and vindictive attempts of modern states to erase all traces of previous attempts to challenge their authority.Footnote 9 Far from being merely symbolic, this seemingly irrational mnemonic violence seeks to silence the potentially revolutionary memory of revolutions as well as neutralize the hopes and mobilizing potential associated with it. Understanding their own practice as part of a revolutionary tradition can, in contrast, enable movements to overcome short-termism, broaden possibilities of solidarity, and develop more radical political horizons.
Third, on a philosophical level, one can argue that the idea and practice of revolution, far from being metaphysical, can develop a distinctly antimetaphysical potential, since they owe their own conditions of possibility to the contestedness, underdetermination, and contingency of the social and political order. At the same time, this contestedness, underdetermination, and contingency is revealed through revolutions as they interrupt and break open an order that seemed without alternative, unbreakable.Following from this final point, at first glance the negativity of revolutions may seem to be primarily, or even exclusively, located in this negation of the existing order, in the rejection of its claim to obedience, and the liberation from its coercive embrace. Surely, revolutions are inconceivable without the determinate negation of the status quo – and of the suffering and injustice it produces structurally and not merely contingently. Taking a closer look at the practice and theory of revolution, however, reveals that revolutions are more than mere interruptions and go beyond breaking with the existing order. The revolutionary dynamic is generative and exceeds the logic of insurrection and revolt, although both are entangled in complex genealogies and trajectories of reversal and inflection. As Glen Coulthard puts it:
Forms of Indigenous resistance, such as blockading and other explicitly disruptive oppositional practices, are indeed reactive in the ways that some have critiqued, but they are also very important. Through these actions we physically say “no” to the degradation of our communities and to exploitation of the lands upon which we depend. But they also have ingrained within them a resounding “yes”: they are the affirmative enactment of another modality of being, a different way of relating to and with the world, … a way of life, another form of community.Footnote 10
Cornelius Castoriadis makes a similar point when he insists that, beyond the break, transformative politics is revolutionary insofar as it is “animated by an overall will and an overall aim,” namely “to modify the social institutions ‘from top to bottom’.”Footnote 11 It is this “enactment” or “institution” of an alternative political reality that distinguishes the very idea and practice of revolution from that of revolt. For Castoriadis, this project of self-institution is an open-ended and reflexive process that he sees as incompatible with the phantasy of a fully self-transparent and self-identical individual or collective subject (“self”).Footnote 12 Accordingly, the negativity of revolutions goes beyond determinate negation and encompasses the process of transformation itself. Since the tensions built into the very concept of revolution make a positive and unambiguous determination of revolutions – of their possibility, their beginning, their course, their end, their success and failure, their subject, their terrain – impossible, we can speak of a specific negativity of revolutions. This negativity constantly urges revolutionary politics to relate to itself – that is, to become self-reflexive – in practice, and to work to preserve rather than overcome its own heterogeneity.Footnote 13It is well known that Hannah Arendt linked the radically transformative potential of revolutionary political practice to the fact that revolutions can be seen as “the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning.”Footnote 14 They exemplify political action, itself the privileged expression of the fundamental agential ability to make a new beginning. In order to counter the risk of hypostatizing the idea of a new beginning, it should be understood in a pluralist fashion (in part against Arendt’s own intentions) as encompassing different ways of making a new beginning or of beginning again, of affirmatively enacting another modality of being (to return to Coulthard’s formulation) that may, as in the case of many Indigenous struggles, have deep historical roots. Against this background, revolutions are beginnings primarily in the sense that they instantiate and enable new forms of acting together, aiming to establish an order that institutionalizes, or at least aims or claims to institutionalize, the “spirit of the revolution.” As Christoph Menke puts it,
the revolution does not only transform individual conditions and institutions, it rather changes how there are conditions and institutions – because it converts them into our deeds, the revolution begins a new, different history. The revolution is not the solution to any kind of crisis. It is nothing but a new commencement of a history in which there are new commencements. The revolution begins beginning.Footnote 15
On my understanding, this kind of beginning can and does often involve recovering, resurging, and renewing traditional ways of being and acting with others that have been sidelined, suppressed, and destroyed by the modern state.
The fundamentally antimetaphysical character of revolutions is expressed in the fact that as collective acts of beginning anew, of beginning again, they practically articulate a basic insight of political ontology: While it may become especially evident in revolutionary situations that power is lying in the streets waiting to be picked up,Footnote 16 ultimately all regimes depend on the recognition of those who are subject to them because they could not, in the long run, maintain themselves based on violence alone. This is the fundamental point articulated in the young Marx’s claim that democracy is “the solved riddle of all constitutions,” as it is the only form of politically organizing society that gives institutional expression to the fact that the state, the constitution, and the law find their “actual basis” in the social and political practices of the actual demos.Footnote 17
In addition, during revolutions, those framing or background conditions of political action that usually remain unquestioned and are accepted as given suddenly become problematized and politicized: They are revealed as contingent and subject to transformative political practices.Footnote 18 The new beginning, or beginning again, the founding or refounding marked by revolutions is thus a form of joint action that makes new forms of joint political action possible, a form of “acting in concert” (as Arendt says, with a term borrowed from BurkeFootnote 19) that aims at self-determination. Before the revolution, insofar as it makes sense to conceive of politics as self-determination or self-institution at all, it is a severely constrained practice, one that is subject to conditions it cannot fully understand and therefore is not in a position to reflect upon or to recognize as changeable. Again, the point is not to overburden revolutions with the hubris of total self-institution, which is, after all, another metaphysical fantasy. Rather, it is to emphasize that in their process, and as a result of collective political agency, revolutions can dramatically transform what people regard and treat as changeable and unchangeable. When theorists try to capture this dynamic (rather than explain it away or ignore it), they often resort to relatively metaphorical language. Think of the empowering collective experience of overcoming fear and what Hannah Arendt called the joy of acting together, or Jean-Paul Sartre’s theoretical narrative of the storming of the Bastille, which would later become the beginning of the French Revolution, in terms of the “groupe en fusion,” or invocations of the spirit of the revolution (e.g. in its incarnation as the “spirit of Gezi”).Footnote 20
In order to counteract the risk of self-subversion, of subjecting their potential to deeply unsettle the existing terms of the struggle for hegemony to the relative certainties of making a move within its narrowly state-centered confines, revolutions thus need to counter the temptation to install unquestionable commitments or determinations that are removed from further political contestation. In this, revolutions are radically democratic: the revolutionary process is one without metaphysical foundations – that is, it is a process that ultimately cannot be founded in or justified by reference to God, human nature, the course of history, science, or truth, even if in their beginnings revolutions often only get off the ground if they can tap into the ideological and motivational resources offered by such foundations and even if the invocation of foundational certainties continues to haunt them.
Both revolutionary and democratic practices articulate the same radical – and radically antimetaphysical – insight: Political orders and communities are never simply given and to be accepted, but both the result and the continuing terrain of political practices of contestation and transformation, of cooperation and self-organization. As they make the very form of politics and society changeable,Footnote 21 the negativity of both democracy and revolution is thus due to the absence of a stable foundation, of a univocal logic that would yield substantial orientations, and of clearly demarcated boundaries: Essentially conflictual and indeterminate, in order not to subvert their own logic and potential both require a permanent struggle to keep open the possibility of self-revision in the “here and now.” Therefore, both lead to an essentially open-ended process of democratization and revolutionization that – despite its necessary directedness and contextuality – not only keeps the social and political order but also democracy and revolution themselves from ever achieving closure.
In addition to the ability of initiating a new beginning or of beginning anew, this also points to the second aspect in which revolutions resist their metaphysical (self-)misunderstanding: their processuality and plurality. No doubt, the metaphysical misunderstanding often appears in the guise of a self-misunderstanding. This can take the form of the mythological, fetishistic idea of the revolution as a total, all-encompassing break that can be organized and controlled in the name of a homogeneous revolutionary subject, and that leads to a completely new, rationally established, and self-transparent social order beyond all antagonisms and contestations.Footnote 22 Tendencies of fetishistic self-mythologization might be at work in all historical examples of revolution, but in many of them the problematic nature of these tendencies and the need to the struggle over and against this mythologization have also been recognized. In counteracting these tendencies to (self-)mythologize, the pluralization of the idea and practice of revolution must operate on different levels. It needs to account for the plurality of political terrains and conflicts, of political actors and subjects, and of practices, strategies, and tactics at work in revolutions. These different levels stand in a complex and sometimes contradictory relationship to one another, opening up an internal heterogeneity that can be substantial, spatial, and temporal (and all at the same time), and that regularly gives rise to a powerful desire to ensure the unity and univocality of revolutions by means of one-sided determinations. Ultimately following a statist logic, such a “becoming-state” of revolutions goes hand in hand with suppressing their own internal heterogeneity and ambivalence. This heterogeneity and ambivalence is often tied to the multiple “revolutions within the revolution” that harbor alternative emancipatory pathways – such as, in the case of the French Revolution, the revolutions of women, the enslaved people of Haiti, and the poor, and their neglected legacies of insurgent universality.Footnote 23 Against the centralist urge of top-down unification and the risk of “becoming-state,” revolutions must in practice experimentally invent and secure ways of preserving their polyvalence, indetermination, and openness.Footnote 24
Because of their essential heterogeneity and indeterminacy, revolutions thus need to be understood as complex processes in which heterogeneous logics, dynamics, temporalities, and forms of practice are inextricably intertwined. As a result, processuality and plurality become essential characteristics of revolutionary acting-in-concert rather than temporary weaknesses that need to be straightened out or merely contingent aspects that are only of accidental importance.Footnote 25
Self-Reflexivity, Self-Limitation, and the Limits of Institutionalization
In their quest for certainty, for avoiding and suppressing misunderstandings, and for bringing the revolution to a “successful” end, revolutionary movements themselves risk reproducing structural features of the very power relations against which they turn. Revolutions therefore need to find ways to account for the counterrevolutionary risks emerging from within themselves. In order to counteract these self-undermining tendencies, revolutions need to and can develop – and in fact have developed – revolutionary practices and forms of organization that not only allow for internal plurality, processuality, and complexity, rather than suppressing them, but that politically reflect, sustain, and strengthen these characteristics. To do this, revolutions have to become self-reflexive without postulating a unitary self. For Arendt, this includes renouncing the phantasm of sovereignty and accepting that the “virtuosity” of acting together with others, which is essential for revolutions, is only possible under conditions of nonsovereignty.Footnote 26 It also includes, in Judith Butler’s words, a form of “reflexive self-making,” a recognition that “democratic politics has to be concerned with who counts as ‘the people,’ how the demarcation is enacted that brings to the fore who ‘the people’ are and that consigns to the background, to the margin, or to oblivion those people who do not count as ‘the people’.”Footnote 27 Insofar as it continues to make sense to speak of a subject, a self, here, it is one for which relationality and interdependency are constitutive and, as a result, the boundaries between self and other are blurred.
In addition, revolutionary processes have a logic of their own and their unpredictability and uncontrollability – in the strong sense that leads Arendt to speak of a “miracle”Footnote 28 – often impose themselves on their revolutionary subjects, transforming the nature of their collective agency. In this transformation, any claim to organize or “make” revolutions in a top-down fashion thus comes to appear as a historically momentous category mistake. The mistake lies in conceptualizing revolutionary action – a praxis, in the Aristotelian sense – according to the model of poiesis. If this happens, revolutionary practices are subjected to technological control, disciplined, and cut off from the “spirit of revolution.”Footnote 29 Precisely as political practice, and insofar as they are practice, revolutions stand in contradiction to the myth of total controllability on the basis of privileged insight or scientifically founded certainty, which is often foisted upon them – admittedly not only by its opponents.
Against this background, it seems too simple to interpret Arendt’s distinction of two stages of revolutions – liberation and foundation, or constitution – as a sequence of negative and positive forms of political practice. Just as liberation requires “positive” or constitutive forms of acting together and of collective organization, (re)foundation and (re)constitution must embrace and structurally incorporate elements of negativity: forms of self-reflexivity and self-limitation. The self-limitation in question does not coincide with the liberal call for unambiguous – clearly determinable – moral constraints on political action (such as catalogues of presumably extra-political human rights). Rather, and in contrast to liberalism, the self-reflexivity and self-limitation in question arise precisely from the internal logic of revolutionary acting-in-concert itself and connect to its – always politically precarious – indeterminacy, openness, and processuality.
In Arendt’s view, acting-in-concert, if it is to achieve anything, remains dependent, even in its execution, on freedom being constantly reactivated, on beginnings, as it were, constantly flowing anew into sequences of action that have been begun in the past.Footnote 30 This holds for revolutions as well. As Castoriadis puts it: “The form of the revolution and of postrevolutionary society is not an institution or an organization given once and for all, but the activity of self-organization, or self-institution.”Footnote 31 That its form is this activity means that institution and organization must take on another form – one determined, or rather, interrupted in its determinations, by negativity and self-reflexivity.
Within the horizon of modernity, one of the historically most significant examples of the attempt to institutionalize, in a self-reflexive and at the same time open way, the “spirit of the revolution” can be found in “the communes, the councils, the Räte, the soviets.”Footnote 32 In Arendt’s view, they are “the only form of government to develop directly out of the spirit of the revolution.”Footnote 33 This “amazing formation of a new power structure which owed its existence to nothing but the organizational impulses of the people themselves” confronted the professional revolutionaries with “the rather uncomfortable alternative of either putting their own pre-revolutionary ‘power’, that is, the organization of the party apparatus, into the vacated power centre of the defunct government, or simply joining the new revolutionary power centres which had sprung up without their help.”Footnote 34 According to Arendt, it is no coincidence that the radical-democratic power of the councils, communes, and soviets emerges in virtually all revolutions, before it is crushed, co-opted, or taken over by the party or the newly established state apparatus.Footnote 35 Even the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, celebrated by Arendt as the first example of Rosa Luxemburg’s “spontaneous revolution” – “this sudden uprising of an oppressed people for the sake of freedom and hardly anything else”Footnote 36 – is of interest to her primarily as a resurrection of the council system buried by the “October Revolution.”Many of the social and political struggles and movements of the last ten years may not be revolutions in Arendt’s or Castoriadis’ sense, and the assemblies in public squares and occupied buildings may not be classic councils. Nevertheless, the work of both suggests that the “spirit of the revolution” is often kept alive in political practices that may at first glance not necessarily seem revolutionary. These practices are part of a continuum that includes occupations, strikes and walk-outs, protest encampments, noncooperation, civil disobedience, and uprisings, all of which can be seen as attempts to enact radical democracy “here and now.” For example, following Arendt, but turning against her own exclusion of racialized political subjects from the realm of civil disobedience, the radical-democratic potential of this political practice can be highlighted. It then appears as articulating the “power of the people,” the “potestas in populo,” in a way that actualizes the horizontal social contract by opening up a space of indeterminacy in which politics in the potentially revolutionary sense can emerge in the first place.Footnote 37 Similarly, assemblies, just as councils, can be seen as carrying the promise and prefiguring the reality of a “plurality of powers” that allows for “equal access” and keeps the democratic process open to its own “democratic excess.”Footnote 38 As Verónica Gago argues with reference to the feminist strike and Ni una menos:
The feminist movement takes to the streets and constructs itself in assemblies; it weaves together its potencia in territories and elaborates a comprehensive analysis of the conjuncture; it produces a counterpower that is able to win new rights while retaining its focus on a more radical horizon. In short: our movement dismantles the binary between reform and revolution.Footnote 39
Similarly aiming to establish a revolutionary continuum rather than an exceptionalism of the revolution, the notion of prefigurative politics not only turns away from privileging the aim of conquering power (or the struggle for hegemony), but also articulates a fundamental critique of the authoritarian and vanguardist traditions of the left from within. Far from abandoning its revolutionary ambitions, this is in fact an attempt to rescue them from statist capture, organizational ossification, and metaphysical hypostatization. As evidenced in the movements of the squares across the globe, political practices are prefigurative in attempting to realize what they strive for in the future in an anticipatory mode in the here and now – above all in horizontal and participatory, inclusive and solidary organizational structures and practices. In so doing, they come to regard ends and means, goals and processes, as standing in a relationship of mutual determination that is always in need of experimental revision and readjustment.Footnote 40 A similarly prefigurative logic seems to be at work in many Indigenous struggles for self-determination that do not primarily see it as an institutional goal to be demanded from and granted by the state or another authority, as part of an aspiration to become like a state. Rather, these struggles seem to aim at and enact an alternative, nonhegemonic, ethical-political practice of “self-determination from below,” as part of a long-term and often subterranean struggle that seeks to transform power relations rather than appropriate predetermined positions within such relations.Footnote 41 In this transformation the very meaning of land rights, control over resources, and governance – all central elements of self-determination in Indigenous struggles – is at stake and reconfigured beyond its hegemonic configuration. It is therefore no surprise that in his reconstruction of the long history of Indigenous struggle Nick Estes prominently references Marx’s figure of the revolution as the burrowing mole: “Hidden from view to outsiders, this constant tunneling, plotting, planning, harvesting, remembering, and conspiring for freedom – the collective faith that another world is possible – is the most important aspect of revolutionary work.”Footnote 42 More precisely, it is in enacting another world that revolutionary political action demonstrates the possibility of another world.
Both the councils foregrounded by Arendt and the various politics of prefiguration from the recent past can be seen as attempts to enact and institutionalize negativity and self-reflexivity, which are at the same time aware of the limits of institutionalization. They therefore try to find forms of acting-in-concert that are not merely situational and that make it possible for “beginnings” to constantly flow anew into what has once been begun. Both also exemplify another – neither necessary nor arbitrary – implication of the negativity and self-reflexivity of revolution: a form of self-limitation of revolutionary action that is again not liberal (i.e. grounded in prior rights or referring to a status quo ante), but radical or radical-democratic. Far from mandating nonviolence in an absolutist sense, this form of self-limitation manifests itself in a troubled and ambivalent relationship to violence, which also sets itself apart from the instrumentalism of influential classical conceptions of revolution.
A striking example of such classical conceptions is provided by the polemic realism of Friedrich Engels’s characterization of the revolution as “certainly the most authoritarian thing there is,” as an “act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannons – authoritarian means, if such there be at all.”Footnote 43 In stark contrast, an alternative tradition of self-limiting (but not necessarily for this reason nonviolent or postrevolutionary) revolution has emerged that stretches from the anarchist and feminist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries via the South African ANC and the Polish Solidarność to, amongst others, the movements of the squares, BLM, and the feminist strike. This alternative tradition consciously positions itself against hegemonic friend–enemy logics – prominently exemplified in the antipopulist refusal of discourses of othering (“ötekileştirme”) in Gezi Park.Footnote 44 It also rejects statist fantasies of sovereignty, and ultimately antipolitical and demobilizing attempts at a centralist reduction of the complexity or contingency of revolutionary practice.Footnote 45 Insofar as this reorientation does problematize violence as a means of achieving revolutionary goals – in contrast to a line that leads from Engels via Lukacs to MarcuseFootnote 46 – it is neither an external or top-down counterrevolutionary critique of subversive violence, nor a purely strategic recommendation, nor a principled – for instance, ethically justified – rejection of the use of violence under all circumstances (including, say, self-defense). Rather, this self-limitation is grounded in a certain understanding of political and revolutionary practice – in a thoroughly practical act of self-reflection – which builds on the antivoluntarist historical experience and sociological insight that violence can neither be easily overcome nor controlled and that it fundamentally threatens the collective enactment of democracy in the “here and now.”Footnote 47 As a result, one can neither simply step away from violence nor embrace it in order to use it in a measured way. Rather, revolutionary practices and forms of organization need to find ways to counter the reality and dynamics of violence with a radical politics of civility, understood here as the collective capacity to act within conflicts and upon them, transforming them from excessively violent to less violent ones.Footnote 48
Consequently, self-limitation, too, is not an external constraint, but owes its existence to the insight into the inescapable precariousness of revolutionary acting-in-concert – a precariousness that affects its possibility, its success or failure, its subjects, terrains, and temporalities, all of which must be regarded as “unsecured.” Although it can of course be instrumentalized, such self-limitation is in itself neither reformist nor disciplining. Rather, it is essentially linked to the task of permanent self-reflection and self-transformation in and as part of revolutionary transformation – a task the struggles and movements discussed in this chapter have experimentally taken up in their manifold practices and discourses of enacting democracy in the “here and now.” In this way, the self-reflection of revolutions proves not to be a foundation, but rather – negatively – an essential feature of a practice that is constantly refracted by its own consequences, and questions and limits itself in their light. As Marx said of proletarian revolutions, it is thus no accident that revolutions “criticise themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts.”Footnote 49
Radical Democracy in a Nonhegemonic Key
Today, migrant and Indigenous struggles and movements might provide the most instructive examples of a transformative and potentially revolutionary force aimed at reconstituting the political order in a democratizing way. Via collective practices that link unburied pasts with different futures, they promise to break open the present and generate a force that keeps the unresolvable dialectic of constituent and constituted powers in play against those social and political forces that seek to arrest and contain it (also under the name of ‘left’ populism).Footnote 50 Manifesting a specific kind of constituent power – namely, the power to initiate and enact a fundamental reconstitution of borders, political community, and membership by denaturalizing, politicizing, and democratizing them – migrant and Indigenous movements exemplify the kind of democratic and potentially revolutionary reflexivity set out here, insofar as they constitute “a force or a political movement [that] can only democratize society [because] it itself is fundamentally more democratic than the system it opposes, with respect both to its objectives and to its internal operation.”Footnote 51
From the Sans papiers in 1990s France to the recent Migrant Caravans from Latin America to the US–Mexican border and the so-called “march of hope” in which thousands of refugees marched from Budapest to the Austrian border, politicizing the question of borders and forcing an actual political break, breach, or opening in 2015,Footnote 52 migrants have entered the political stage and claimed political agency in ways that do not follow the official scripts of liberal or even radical democracy. Their struggles highlight the fact that it is often precisely those who do not count as citizens, or even as political agents (women, workers, colonized subjects, migrants, and refugees), who develop new – or rearticulate pre-existing – forms of citizenship and of democracy that promise to be more adequate for our current political constellation of disaggregated sovereignty, traversed as it is by transnational challenges, power relations, actors, and struggles. This constellation is characterized by complex processes of debordering and rebordering that undermine the idea of territorially bounded political spaces with borders that are clearly defined and unilaterally controlled by the state.Footnote 53 At least those futures of democracy that go beyond statist imaginaries and regressive nationalist-populist tendencies (and thus manage to qualify as futures at all) will only come into view once the challenge migration and migrant political agency pose to dominant ways of thinking and practicing citizenship and democracy is taken seriously.
This challenge also requires rethinking the radical-democratic and revolutionary idea of democratization as the actualization of constituent power that is sometimes presented as the source from which any future of democracy would have to spring. It is no longer convincing, if it ever was, to portray this power as a quasi-mythical force that is wholly external to the existing order and erupts only in extraordinary founding moments in which the people as a unified agent enters the political scene (think of the iconic dates of 1776, 1789, 1917). Rather, constituent powers would have to be conceptualized as a plural dynamic situated within revolutionary movements that unsettle established orders and their porous boundaries, transgressing their logic and reconfiguring them from within and from their margins. This would also make it possible to reverse the ahistorical and asociological uncoupling of the event of the eruption of constituent power (in founding moments or great revolutions) from ongoing struggles and movements that seek to enact it in the “here and now.”
In my view, this points to the antihegemonic and antipopulist logic of revolutionary democratic practice. The deep nationalist logic of populist appeals to the “real people” in an “us vs. them” register only “serves to recapture the insurgent energies of emancipatory struggles and entrap the ‘common folk’ within the borders of the Nation, reinscribing a democratic political enclosure whereby human life is subordinated to and subjected by the nationalist metaphysics of state power.”Footnote 54 Against such capture, democracy requires us to acknowledge and institutionalize as far as possible “the open and contestable signification of democracy,” to find ways to “release democracy from containment by any particular form while insisting on its value in connoting political self-rule by the people, whoever the people are.”Footnote 55 What does this requirement imply for the forms of organization and self-understanding of revolutionary struggles and movements? What are its consequences for thinking about emancipatory politics in the register of hegemony, populism, and hegemonic populism?
As I argue, revolutionary struggles for emancipation and democratization in the “here and now” cannot have the same form and follow the same logic as struggles for hegemony “from the right” that are evidently not concerned with, and indeed embrace the task of, constructing an exclusionary and homogeneous collective subject that can serve as the firm ground of affective identification and mobilization. As I have attempted to show in the preceding sections, the revolutionary potential of enacting radical democracy “here and now” is tied to acknowledging its fundamental open-endedness, plurality, and self-reflexivity against the pressures of closure and homogenization that necessarily come with the hegemonic logic of populism and its “us vs. them” logic.
Turning to Indigenous and migrant struggles – despite the differences between them and their internal heterogeneity – allows us to highlight alternative ways of undoing the demos and remaking demoi from forms of political struggle that question established notions of the people and its boundaries but might not end up embracing a positive vision of ‘We the people’ in the singular. Without being able to do justice to their complexity, let me briefly sketch in how far both Indigenous and migrant struggles question rather than instantiate the logic of hegemonic claim-making that is still so often associated with revolutionary and radically transformative political projects.
In a settler colonial context, struggles for self-determination by Indigenous and occupied people and peoples obviously clash with the state’s claim to exclusive territorial sovereignty and the underlying imaginary of popular sovereignty.Footnote 56 The radically democratic potential of Indigenous struggles today can be seen precisely in the dual displacement of hegemony, which can no longer serve as the privileged logic of political articulation, and of the modern nation-state, which can no longer serve as the unquestioned terrain for democratic struggle.Footnote 57 As a result, Indigenous struggles for self-determination and against the colonial and imperial project of the modern nation-state to impose homogeneity and (territorial, cultural, political, legal) uniformity have the potential to escape both the framework of protest and that of dominant notions of civility, even if they might appear as “constituent powers” and “civic powers” in the plural.Footnote 58 At the same time, they can fundamentally transform the very meaning of “self-determination” beyond the bounded and sovereign model of the (individual or collective) self toward an acknowledgment of the interdependency and relationality of all (human and nonhuman) members of the community.
Similarly, and despite important differences, in a world in which nation-states claim a unilateral right to control their borders – both the borders of their territory and the borders of membership and belonging – migrant and refugee movements challenge a whole way of life and a political imaginary that entirely abstracts from its own structural implication in the production of the conditions that violate migrants’ “right to stay” as well as their “right to escape.”Footnote 59 These struggles are, of course, also struggles for and about politicization and the boundaries of the political. They seem to be misidentified both in their content and in their form when they are interpreted as contestatory responses to the question of “who the people really are.” The “We” in “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” and “We are here because you were/are there” is not, and does not necessarily aspire to be, the same as the “We” in “We, the People.”
Not all political and social struggles of our age can thus equally well, or at all, be articulated in the language of popular sovereignty, of sovereignty and of the people in the singular. Such nationalist-populist articulations would also miss the prefigurative potential that resides in the ways in which these struggle challenge and transcend the dominant logic of the nation-state and its border regime by developing, resuscitating, and enacting alternative forms of political agency, belonging, and solidarity in the here and now. The point is not to find a new vanguard in Indigenous and migrant struggles onto which frustrated revolutionary desires can be projected, but to see the collective enactment of denied freedoms, the temporary realization of utopian possibilities in the here and now, and the practical decentering of the state for what they are: openings of political space that reveal a revolutionary potential.Footnote 60 Radical democracy in a nonhegemonic key would thus start from the margins of the demos, from the refugees, the migrants, the exiles and those who come after them, from “the discounted, the ineligible,” “the stateless, the occupied, and the disenfranchised,” “confounding the distinction between inside and outside” and questioning established notions of the people and its boundaries without ending up embracing a positive vision of “We the people.”Footnote 61
Both Indigenous and migrant struggles can be seen as pointing beyond claims to access existing legal statuses (such as citizen, refugee) to a different political logic that questions the foundations of how political belonging is imagined in the homogenizing terms of nation-states, borders, and citizenship. At the very least, these struggles challenge unquestioned notions of belonging and as a consequence call for a radical revision, pluralization, and deterritorialization of the demos, of peoplehood and of its internal and external borders in ways that unsettle the existing terms of the struggle for hegemony rather than making a move that conforms to its nationalist-populist logic. They can thus be seen as steps toward overcoming a politics of citizenship as membership in a bordered and homogeneous community – a truly revolutionary horizon that goes against the construction of their claims as inherently limited and marginal.Footnote 62
These struggles potentially reconfigure what bell hooks calls “imposed marginality” as “a site of deprivation” into a “space of radical openness” and a “site of radical possibility, a space of resistance” from which “counterhegemonic discourse” can emerge.Footnote 63 The question then becomes which forms of revolutionary practice, of acting-in-concert and of self-organization, can enact and express rather than repress and conceal this logic of the political that moves against and beyond hegemony, thus remaining “counterhegemonic” in the sense of transgressing the constrictions of hegemony, as much as it moves against and beyond the borders of a world divided along state lines.