And Why Only a Hundred Thousand?
Genius Communism, Luxury Poverty and Ecological Transition1The reflections in this text are framed by the work carried out in three research projects: Humanidades energéticas: Energía e imaginarios socioculturales entre la revolución industrial y la crisis ecosocial [Energetic humanities: Energy and socio-cultural imaginaries between the industrial revolution and the ecosocial crisis] (PID2020-113272RA-I00); Racionalidad económica, ecología política y globalización: hacia una nueva racionalidad cosmopolita [Economic rationality, political ecology and globalisation: towards a new cosmopolitan rationality] (PID2019-109252RB-I00); Humanidades ecológicas y transiciones ecosociales. propuestas éticas, estéticas y pedagógicas para el Antropoceno [Ecological humanities and ecosocial transitions. Ethical, aesthetic and pedagogical proposals for the Anthropocene] (PID2019-107757RB-I00).
“How we live and how we could live”2William Morris (2004). Cómo vivimos y cómo podríamos vivir. Pepitas de calabaza. William Morris gave this title to one of the most fascinating works of 19th century socialism. Almost 140 years later, Morris’s question, as simple as it is penetrating, remains relevant. Perhaps most powerfully: in the third decade of the 21st century we are still torn by a cruel chasm between our magnificent possibilities for organising a collective life and what is de facto permitted by our socio-economic and political order.
However, two important differences should be noted. The first is that, in contrast to the denunciation of the nineteenth-century socialists, failing to live up to our best promises is not the only problem. We are also contributing to an ecological disaster that will become anthropological, and one that is unprecedented in the history of the species. In the era of climate emergency, the failure to rapidly reduce the gap between how we live and how we could live has an inevitable outcome: the ruin of the modern emancipatory project, which is on its way to sinking into a Hobbesian zeigeist, a scenario of atrocious struggle for resources and the environmental space, against the backdrop of extreme inequality, a chaotic climate and a depleted planet.
The second major difference is that we have lost the utopian drive, without which the resonance of a question like Morris’s cannot be understood. As well as something that, for the socialists of the 19th century, and what was the prevailing common sense until the end of the 20th century, was an obvious premise: not confusing what actually exists with what can become a reality. Susan Buck-Morss rightly analyses how the fall of the Berlin Wall not only ruined the socialist utopian horizon, but also did the same in the West3Susan Buck-Morss (2004). Mundo soñado y catástrofe. La desaparición de la utopía de masas en el Este y el Oeste. La Balsa de la Medusa.. The belief that the future could not only be different from what the present projects, but that it could be radically “improved” through major political action, has been one of the most pervasive assumptions of modernity. With the overwhelming victory of the Thatcherite “There’s no alternative”, this zero axiom received a fatal blow, from which we have not yet recovered. Since then we have been living through a slow dystopian evolution, which can be found in the absolute predominance of the post-apocalyptic genre, in the cultural products of our time, such as series, novels or films, which are always a good measure of the state of mind of our collective mentalities, which of course they help to shape. For every Ursula LeGuin there are 10 screenwriters of series like The Walking Dead.
A few years ago I closed a book, Rutas sin mapa [Routes without a Map] with the following statement: “In the 21st century, the dilemma is transparent: either genocide in defence of eternal adolescence, or collective pledges of luxurious poverty”4Emilio Santiago (2016). Rutas sin mapa. Horizontes de transición ecosocial. Catarata, page 139.. Luxurious poverty is a poetic oxymoron that serves to name experiences that make it possible to live what sociologist Hartmut Rosa considers to be the opposite of alienation, resonance, but with little or no ecological impact5Hartmut Rosa (2018). “Alienación, aceleración, resonancia y buena vida. Entrevista a Hartmut Rosa”, Revista Colombiana de Sociología, vol. 41 nº. 2..
Community, family or friendship bonds, care, playing together, leisure time, sleep, sex, love, gastronomy, sport… these are all activities with a high potential for resonance and which do not require an ever-increasing ecological or energy footprint. On the contrary: these are phenomena that could be enhanced if we could free ourselves from the pathological frenzy of capital accumulation and its inseparable b-side, generalised binge-consumptionism. “Taking long naps, learning to knit, going bird watching and mushroom picking in the woods, having mental space to read novels and essays, picnicking in the park and organising parties with friends, cooking good food and loving each other dearly. I don’t think we have fossil desires”, tweeted researcher and ecosocial activist Martín Lallana a few days ago, taking time to properly consider this idea.
Moreover, not only do we not have fossil desires, but our luxuriously poor desires can become a lever for mobilisation. To paraphrase the situationist programme of the 1950s, we must work to flood the market with a plethora of desires whose fulfilment will not exceed a fairly-distributed human ecological footprint, but instead will overwhelm the old social organisation and its framework of satisfaction and happiness6Guy Debord (2001). “Crítica de la geografía urbana”, en Potlatch. Internacional Letrista. Literatura Gris, page 133.. The emancipatory transformation of the world no longer consists in precipitating dreams of infinite material abundance, but in realising the utopias of common sufficiency, in the knowledge that the common good conceals a copious glass of wine that never runs out.
The contribution that this field, of what we shall continue to call art, can make to the task of emancipation from luxurious poverty seems to be relevant. There are few sources of vital meaning more powerful than poetic sovereignty and expressive symbolic play in any of its forms (plastic, linguistic, musical, corporal…). And although we have become accustomed in recent decades to equipping our creativity with gargantuan technical and material apparatus, the same resonance effects can be achieved using the most simple of means.
In fact, luxurious poverty allows us to re-engage with one of the most beautiful historical tasks that, during modernity, part of the art world had more or less explicitly imposed on itself: its passionate confusion with everyday life. That is, the radical democratisation of poetic and artistic skills on the basis of that premise stated by the situationist Vaneigem: creativity is the best-distributed thing in this world. The Paris Commune foreshadowed this intuition with Pottier and Gaillard’s idea of communal luxury, which aspired to found the art of the new socialist society on polytechnical education and the suppression of the role of the specialised artist. William Morris did the same with his nostalgia to recapture for socialism the times of decorative and cooperative art, when caring for beauty was rooted in popular life. Surrealism took further this egalitarian attack on the stereotypical oligopoly of the means of poetic production, thinking of itself within the horizon of a “communism of genius”, and promoting it through automatic and unconscious procedures of creativity that had an enormous potential for contagion. The Situationists only differed from the Surrealists in the radicalism of both their theoretical and practical approaches to what they called “the realisation of art”.
All these streams of thought did not have strong links with socialism just by chance. They shared the interpretation of Marx that is currently defended by a cultural critic such as Terry Eagleton: “If communism is necessary, it is because we are not able to feel, taste, smell and touch as fully as we could”, and therefore it is necessary to “give back to the body its expropriated capacities”7Terry Eagleton (2011). La estética como ideología. Trotta, page 271.. Nurturing this worldview was a lofty conception of the potential human capacities yet to be unlocked. What was at stake was nothing less than disputing the meaning of everyday life (how we loved, how we played, how we lived in the city, how we slept, how we built), aiming, with specific and new facts, towards what Marx called the Kingdom of Freedom.
This immense anthropological adventure met an impasse with the civilisational defeat of socialism. This led to the return of a certain minimalism of expectations, accommodating and compatible with the conversion of the art world into a key part of the fabric of the neoliberal political economy. However, we now have no choice but to return to writing new great stories. Quite simply, because the feats that our generation is forced to carry out are immense. And among these grand narratives, picking up the thread of the historically transitory function of art where the Situationists left off, and interweaving it with the requirements of the ecological crisis, opens up highly suggestive fields of action.
“Genius? At this moment a hundred thousand brains are conceiving in their dreams geniuses like me and history will mark, who knows, none of them”, wrote Fernando Pessoa in the voice of his heteronym Álvaro de Campos.8Fernando Pessoa (2004). Ficciones de interludio. Emecé, page 349.. “And why only a hundred thousand?” wondered William Morris, thinking of the socialist majorities who were to be called to the cause of a beautiful world, and whose democratisation broke completely with the moth-eaten idea of the individual artist. The growth in the number of musicians, short story writers and muralists, but also of psychogeographers or composers of collages or any other form of poetic exercise, is perfectly compatible with the decrease of CO2 emissions and the decrease of microplastics in our organisms. The strong hypothesis I want to defend here is that the former can facilitate the latter if the development of what we have called communism of genius is embedded in a broader political programme, because cultural change never brings about historical change on its own.
What is decisive is that in the 21st century the potential contribution of the poetic, in a broad sense, to the environmentalist cause of luxurious poverty coincides with a context in which a radically democratic practice of creativity is materially possible. On one level, moreover, surrealists and situationists have only intuited this vaguely. Universal advances in literacy and public education have contributed to this situation. But also the cheapening of the tools that constitute creative languages, from the simple paper-and-ink, to the video camera. And of course digitalisation, which has brought together millions of people around the world to develop and share creative passions with formally very attractive results. The ongoing digitisation process is indeed ecologically problematic, as it points to energy and resource (water, minerals) consumption that may become unsustainable. But there is material scope to ensure the survival of many of the achievements of digitalisation, as long as digital is no longer a sector of the market but a common good.
For this beautiful and historical coincidence, that of communism of genius and luxurious poverty, to explode in all its exuberance and luxuriance, and in all its transformative potential, it is obvious that we face systemic problems. Its major brakes are political. This is prevented by the artificial scarcity imposed by intellectual property laws. The delusional lack of free time. The blackmail of existential precariousness with which our economic organisation unnecessarily burdens us. Yet the beginning of something like a poetic civilisation, in which personal symbolic sovereignty is not only an abstract right but also a general custom, can be thought of as relatively imminent. Perhaps just one victorious political cycle, which includes among its conquests measures such as the Universal Basic Income or the reduction of the working week to 32 hours.
The reference to Universal Basic Income or to a 32-hour working week is an obligation to avoid idealistic delusions that are still widespread, and which tend to give cultural products a capacity to incite immense change in record time. As surrealists and situationists partially understood, the liberation of everyday life is not a matter of individual attitude, it is a collective affair. And it cannot be separated from the political advances, always partial and always harsh, against a capitalism that subjects every form of life and every condition of society to an impossible movement that is perpetually in search of economic profit. But unlike the surrealists and situationists, we must take on this battle without falling into the pitfalls of maximalism and barren revolutionary snobbery, which gave them such poor results in contexts much more favourable to radical tremendism than ours.
An interesting way of grounding this political dimension is to think about the role of the growing network of museums in the era of ecological transition. There is already an interesting debate on this issue. Pablo Martínez calls for an eco-social museum “that is internationalist rather than international, that is committed to the local without being provincial, and that resists increasing the list of its international artists, its star speakers and its low-cost workers. Opt for simplicity and, in short, abandon all the indicators that have so far been used to measure success”9Pablo Martínez (2020). Notas para un museo por venir. CTXT. Available at: https://ctxt.es/es/20200501/Culturas/32354. That is to say, the ecological has much more to do with ways of creating and communicating sustainable, luxurious poverty, than it has to do with ideologically green content. More in common with a video editing group, self-organised by teenagers from the neighbourhood, than with an exhibition by a great international artist on the Anthropocene.
In the same vein, I very much like Jaime Vindel’s approach when he goes deeper into Martínez’s idea, proposing museums as convivial tools, in the Illichian sense. A mutation that goes from the “Guggenheim effect” that makes the museum the icing on the cake of gentrification and touristification processes, to a progressive dismantling of the global art system in which museum institutions become “the proximal” and put themselves at the service of “the cultural requirements and the needs of the artistic fabric of the areas or cities in which they are located”. The implications would not be minor: “It is reasonable that at the national level we can afford a Reina Sofía Museum (which should not necessarily be located in Madrid). But the rest of the museums should aspire to be, at most and with great honour, local neighbourhood museums”10Jaime Vindel (2020). Convivencialidad e instituciones culturales. CTXT. Available at: https://ctxt.es/es/20200601/Culturas/32600.
The 20th century Situationists fantasised, very masculinely, about operating like the Cuban guerrillas. And with a handful of men determined to seize UNESCO in a cultural punch that would change the world. Those of us who feel that we are heirs to their objectives, but disagree with a rhetoric and a way of organising that was counter-productive and dramatic, have other tasks to consider: to gradually hack and infiltrate the network of existing cultural institutions in order to give them an alternative social meaning. That of empowering, in a context of civilisational crisis, a no-mileage communism of genius that involves hundreds of thousands of people in a new experience of happiness and richness. An experience that while ecologically austere is charged with fullness and resonance, and in which symbolic play ceases to be the exclusive preserve of professional artists and becomes a source of vital meaning for grassroots communities.
Emilio Santiago Muíño – Biography
Emilio Santiago Muíño holds a PhD in social anthropology and is a senior scientist at the Institute of Language, Literature and Anthropology of the Spanish National Research Council, in a research position on the anthropology of the climate crisis. Ecosocial activist of the Instituto de Transición Rompe el Círculo (Institute for the Transition to Breaking the Circle) and activist of Más Madrid/Más País. Between 2106 and 2019 she held the position of Technical Director of the Environment at Móstoles City Council, and between 2016 and 2018 she was a member of the faculty of the Independent Studies Programme at MACBA in Barcelona. Author of, among others, the books Rutas sin mapa (Catarata Essay Award, 2015) and ¿Qué hacer en caso de incendio? Manifiesto por el Green New Deal (Capitán Swing, 2019).
- 1The reflections in this text are framed by the work carried out in three research projects: Humanidades energéticas: Energía e imaginarios socioculturales entre la revolución industrial y la crisis ecosocial [Energetic humanities: Energy and socio-cultural imaginaries between the industrial revolution and the ecosocial crisis] (PID2020-113272RA-I00); Racionalidad económica, ecología política y globalización: hacia una nueva racionalidad cosmopolita [Economic rationality, political ecology and globalisation: towards a new cosmopolitan rationality] (PID2019-109252RB-I00); Humanidades ecológicas y transiciones ecosociales. propuestas éticas, estéticas y pedagógicas para el Antropoceno [Ecological humanities and ecosocial transitions. Ethical, aesthetic and pedagogical proposals for the Anthropocene] (PID2019-107757RB-I00).
- 2William Morris (2004). Cómo vivimos y cómo podríamos vivir. Pepitas de calabaza
- 3Susan Buck-Morss (2004). Mundo soñado y catástrofe. La desaparición de la utopía de masas en el Este y el Oeste. La Balsa de la Medusa.
- 4Emilio Santiago (2016). Rutas sin mapa. Horizontes de transición ecosocial. Catarata, page 139.
- 5Hartmut Rosa (2018). “Alienación, aceleración, resonancia y buena vida. Entrevista a Hartmut Rosa”, Revista Colombiana de Sociología, vol. 41 nº. 2.
- 6Guy Debord (2001). “Crítica de la geografía urbana”, en Potlatch. Internacional Letrista. Literatura Gris, page 133.
- 7Terry Eagleton (2011). La estética como ideología. Trotta, page 271.
- 8Fernando Pessoa (2004). Ficciones de interludio. Emecé, page 349.
- 9Pablo Martínez (2020). Notas para un museo por venir. CTXT. Available at: https://ctxt.es/es/20200501/Culturas/32354
- 10Jaime Vindel (2020). Convivencialidad e instituciones culturales. CTXT. Available at: https://ctxt.es/es/20200601/Culturas/32600