The Dialectics of Revolution

Resisting the Trumpocene

Revolution contains love

In the realm of philosophical discourse, dialectical philosophy stands apart from the individualistic rationality championed by the Enlightenment. Unlike the Enlightenment’s emphasis on solitary logical analysis, dialectics asserts that entities can only be comprehended in their relational context, resisting isolation as independently existing entities. This philosophical dichotomy is pivotal for the discourse at hand. To delve deeper, to be deemed ‘materialist’ in philosophical terms signifies an acknowledgment that consciousness and ideas are products of our interaction with a tangible, pre-existing material reality rather than the reverse notion of the material world arising solely from consciousness. Following this theme, Wayne Au argues that within the framework of Marxist ideology, the symbiosis of dialectics and materialism is imperative. Their conjunction serves a dual purpose: firstly, to apprehend the interconnected dynamics of the material world and, secondly, to carve out a realm for human agency to intervene in these processes, thereby effecting positive change in the material realm.

As elucidated through Freire’s conceptual lens, Au maintains that dialectical materialism furnishes a scaffold for objectively scrutinising prevailing conditions in the world – such as various manifestations of oppression – facilitating the realisation that humans can attain conscious awareness of these conditions and their origins. Moreover, it offers a blueprint for effecting transformative change through human (social) engagement and concerted action.

It has been my experience that students exploring critical pedagogy often encounter challenges in grasping the concept of ‘the negation of the negation,’ particularly if they have not taken a deep dive into the works of Lenin, Marx and Hegel. This concept, though complex in philosophical terms, can be elucidated through a series of metaphors that aid in understanding its fundamental essence – a notion invaluable for critical engagement in our contemporary landscape marked by misinformation and manipulation. As noted by Alex Adamson in their analysis of Lenin’s dialectical journey, Lenin’s departure from Plekhanovian principles, spurred by the Second International’s failures during World War I, prompted an intensive study of Hegelian dialectics. This scholarly pursuit, notably encapsulated in Lenin’s profound engagement with Hegel’s Science of Logic, marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of revolutionary praxis.

Lenin’s recognition of Hegel’s dialectic as indispensable for comprehending Marx’s Capital, alongside his assertion that ‘none of the Marxists understood Marx,’ underscores the transformative impact of his synthesis of Hegelian dialectics and Marxist analysis. This synthesis, exemplified in Lenin’s seminal works State and Revolution and Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, lays the groundwork for a more nuanced understanding of revolutionary theory, resonating deeply with the concrete struggles of the proletariat. Central to Lenin’s reconfiguration of revolutionary theory is his incorporation of Hegel’s dialectical method, evident in concepts such as revolutionary defeatism and national liberation struggles. This synthesis transcends the mechanistic determinism of dialectical materialism, infusing Marxist thought with a dialectical richness that aligns with the lived experiences of the proletariat. Moreover, Lenin’s reassessment of Hegel’s dialectic, once viewed as idealistically problematic, reveals a profound appreciation for its methodological insights, particularly evident in Hegel’s exposition of the Doctrine of the Concept. This reconciliation of humanity and nature, as elucidated by Lenin and analysed by Ukrainian-born theorist Raya Dunayevskaya in her important pathbreaking work, Marxism and Freedom, offers a pathbreaking exploration of human agency and self-realisation.

Dunayevskaya elucidates how Marx’s critique of Hegel exposes inherent limitations within Hegelian dialectics, particularly its abstraction from the corporeal and sensuous dimensions of human existence. Marx argues for grounding philosophical inquiry in the tangible realities of social existence, cautioning against speculative abstraction divorced from historical and social contingency. Marx’s intervention into the realm of philosophy and political economy underscores the necessity of anchoring dialectical analysis in the concrete materiality of social relations. Through this dialectical synthesis, Marx endeavours to transcend the alienating logic of capitalist society, paving the way for a truly emancipatory social order. In essence, through rigorous engagement with Hegel’s dialectical method, Lenin and Marx lay the groundwork for a more nuanced understanding of revolutionary theory – one that reverberates with the lived experiences and struggles of the proletariat, offering pathways toward emancipatory praxis.

Peter Hudis describes how Hegel’s philosophical framework is scrutinised by Marx for its conceptual limitations, with a particular concern directed towards the concepts of labour and alienation. While Hegel astutely perceives labour as the unfolding of human creativity through dialectical processes of externalisation and transcendence, his perspective is critiqued for its detachment from the concrete realities of capitalist society. Marx, drawing on Hegel’s insights, acknowledges the centrality of labour in human expression but identifies a crucial flaw in Hegel’s approach. Hegel’s reliance on a disembodied subject precludes him from envisioning the actual transcendence of alienated labour within capitalist structures. This oversight leads Hegel to conflate labour’s transhistorical creative essence with its reduction to abstract value production under capitalism, ultimately resulting in a philosophical system that embodies alienation itself. Lobkowicz, according to Hudis, encapsulates this critique succinctly, asserting that Hegel’s portrayal of history as the progression of mentally labouring self-consciousness reflects the alienation inherent in the mind’s self-objectification within its own alienation.

In essence, while Hegel grasps the intricacies of labour and alienation, his philosophical framework falls short in providing a comprehensive account of labour’s alienation and its potential transcendence. By dehumanising the Idea, Hegel’s conceptualisation remains constrained within the existing social framework, limiting the attainment of his envisioned Absolutes within the confines of prevailing societal structures. While acknowledging the limitations of Hegel’s theory, Hudis offers a cogent explanation of how, in Hegel’s philosophical framework, the attainment of liberation from alienation is intricately linked with a dialectical process of negation. Liberation from alienation occurs through the systematic dismantling of barriers hindering self-realisation. Hegel astutely recognised a fundamental truth that had been acknowledged by prior thinkers across various philosophical traditions, both Western and non-Western: that the act of negation is inherently intertwined with the object it seeks to negate.

Engaging in negation does not automatically ensure emancipation from the object under scrutiny. Rather, the very act of negation is imbued with the essence of what it opposes. When one asserts the distinction between x and y through negation, one still defines x in relation to y, albeit through a lens of negativity. Consequently, freeing oneself from the influence of what one opposes is not a straightforward task; the process of negation often gives rise to new forms that bear traces of the initial object of negation. Hegel’s acute awareness of the interdependence between negation and its object of critique is evident in his discourse within the section ‘Spirit in Self-Estrangement’ of the Phenomenology. Anticipating themes later expounded upon by figures like Foucault and postmodernist thinkers, Hegel recognised that endeavours towards liberation are inevitably shaped, in some manner, by the very structures one seeks to dismantle. He discerned that mere negation does not afford complete emancipation from the negated entity.

Diverging from subsequent theorists, however, Hegel refused to resign himself to this perceived impasse, rejecting the notion that the transcendence of alienation was unattainable. He sought a pathway for negation to surpass its object of critique. His resolution to this quandary lies in the concept of ‘the negation of the negation.’ Unlike a linear succession of negations, which could endlessly cycle without liberation, Hegel’s notion of the negation of the negation entails self-referential negation. Through negating itself, negation establishes an autonomous relationship, thereby emancipating itself from reliance on external objects. This form of negativity, termed ‘second negativity,’ attains a state of ‘absolute’ autonomy, devoid of external relationality. The term ‘absolute’ originates from the Latin absolvere, signifying absolution; thus, self-referential negation achieves an ‘absolute’ status by absolving itself from dependence on external entities. No longer contingent upon external objects, negation liberates itself through an act of self-referential negation.

Marx found a way of utilising the concept of the negation of the negation as a way of building a society free from the value form of labour (surplus value). Henceforth, our imperative is not to merely reiterate established paradigms, such as the centrality of the Subject, nor, worse still, to diminish the concept of Absolute Negativity as New Beginning to merely validate the Subject’s creative agency. What beckons is an initiation from the Absolute, wherein we articulate, explicitly and comprehensively, the envisaged societal framework inherent in the philosophies of Hegel, Marx and Marxist-Humanism, in direct correlation with contemporary catalysts of dissent. In this way, students can envision what a socialist society might look like. Or what societal arrangements could be created that would serve the interests of justice and prosperity for all. Only through this meticulous approach can we confront the exigencies of our time: the realisation of Absolute Negativity as New Beginning, transcending the echoes of antiquated truths that fail to ignite humanity’s imagination in the present epoch, an epoch where democracy goes to die in the swamplands of the Trumpocene, choking on the vile machinations of election denialism, rabid racism, right-wing populism, white supremacy, national conservatism, neo-nationalism, authoritarianism and fascism.

Hudis (2005) cogently elucidates Hegel’s approach to the negation of the negation in his own words:

Hegel was fully aware that negation is dependent on the object of its critique; he discusses the matter in the section of the Phenomenology entitled ‘Spirit in Self-Estrangement.’ Long before Foucault and the postmodernists argued that ideas of liberation are impacted, in one way or another, by the oppressive forms that one tries to reject, Hegel knew that negation per se does not totally free one from the negated object. The difference between Hegel and subsequent thinkers, however, is that he is not willing to reconcile himself to this situation – that would suggest that it is impossible to transcend alienation. There must be some way, he thought, for negation to transcend the object of its critique. His solution to this problem is to introduce the notion of ‘the negation of the negation.’ The negation of the negation, or second negativity, does not refer simply to a continuous series of negations – that can potentially go on forever and anon and still never free negation from the object of its critique. In Hegel, the negation of the negation instead refers to self-referential negation. By negating itself, negation establishes a relation with itself – and, therefore, frees itself from dependence on the external object. This kind of negativity, second negativity, is ‘absolute,’ insofar as it exists without relation to another outside itself. The word ‘absolute’ derives from the Latin absolvere, to absolve; thus, self-referential negation is ‘absolute’ insofar as it is ‘absolved’ from dependency on the other. Negation is no longer dependent on an external object; it negates such dependency through a self-referential act of negation.

Hudis explains further how Marx and Dunayevskaya appropriate the idea of ‘the negation of the negation’ in building a new society grounded in positive humanism by overcoming ‘absolute negativity’:

[Marx] appropriates the concept of the ‘negation of the negation’ to explain the path to a new society. Communism, the abolition of private property, is the negation of capitalism. But this negation, Marx tells us, is dependent on the object of its critique insofar as it replaces private property with collective property. Communism is not free from the alienated notion that ownership or having is the most important part of being human; it simply affirms it on a different level. Of course, Marx thinks that it is necessary to negate private property. But this negation, he insists, must itself be negated. Only then can the truly positive – a totally new society – emerge. As Dunayevskaya writes in P&R, ‘The overcoming of this “transcendence,” called absolute negativity by Hegel, is what Marx considered the only way to create a truly human world, ‘positive Humanism, beginning from itself.’

Process philosopher Anne Fairchild Pomeroy posits that genuine freedom emerges when individuals transcend absolute negativity, attain self-determination, and comprehend their own voices. True freedom is not a mere abstract concept bestowed by institutions but a self-aware state of being rooted in the conscious recognition of one’s creative potential. In her review of the work of Dunayevskaya, Pomeroy underscores the significance of recognising oneself as the locus of negativity and contradiction, which are integral to the dynamism of existence. Through this self-awareness, notes Pomeroy, individuals liberate themselves from the confines of determinism and embrace the boundless realm of possibilities. Moreover, this self-recognition extends to others, reframing their existence not as competitors but as fellow agents of freedom. Central to Pomeroy’s understanding of transcendence is the concept of ‘second negativity,’ symbolising the self-determination inherent in acknowledging one’s own voice. This self-awareness heralds a new beginning, marking the advent of true freedom and responsibility. It echoes existentialist themes of individual accountability and the profound interconnection between freedom and responsibility. Pomeroy highlights the transformative potential of self-liberation in fostering genuine social ethics. Such potential transcends traditional moral frameworks by advocating for conscious enactment of one’s being, thereby bridging the gap between individualism and social cohesion. By internalising the ‘absolute Idea,’ individuals recognise themselves as the architects of reality, intertwining thought and action to pursue true freedom.

Ultimately, this system of intelligibility envisions a society where humanism flourishes as individuals embrace their inherent freedom and responsibility. It underscores the inseparable link between human thought and activity, both propelled by the innate yearning for freedom. In this paradigm, individuals become agents of change, shaping their envisioned realities into tangible outcomes. Humanism, thus, emerges as the intrinsic purpose and culmination of this transformative journey. Pomeroy points out that the essence of human agency emerges as the pivotal force driving capitalism’s surplus value. It is the inherent labour power possessed by individuals, their capacity to generate more than what is needed for their physical sustenance, that fuels capitalism’s mechanisms of surplus extraction. Fundamentally, it is human creativity, manifested through dialectical existence, that sustains capitalism, albeit without conscious recognition of its own creative agency. Human labour, Marx argues, involves the exchange of ideas. It is human beings that are the motive force or cause of the dialectical movement of the real, material world. It is important to understand that human beings, as ‘concrete imaginative projective beings,’ cause the dialectical movement of the material world and not the abstract Idea. While Hegel sees human beings enacting and realising the Idea in or as history, the difference is one of emphasis: Is the human being the agent of the Idea or is the idea itself its own agent?

In reflecting upon Dunayevaksaya’s interpretation of Marx and Pomeroy’s elaboration, it becomes clear that human beings delve into the essence of human agency within the dialectical unfolding of reality. It is we, as concrete and imaginative beings, who propel the dialectical movement of the material world – not some abstract Idea. While Hegel views humanity as manifesting and actualising the Idea throughout history, the distinction lies in emphasis. Again, the pivotal question arises: Is humanity the executor of the Idea, or does the Idea possess its own agency? This inquiry strikes at the heart of the matter – freedom itself. The crux lies in determining which entity conditions the other. This is a weighty matter, for it pertains to the essence of freedom. One must ultimately discern whether humanity serves as the medium through which the Idea unfolds autonomously or if human mediation is achieved through the Idea. If the latter holds true, then humanity emerges as the prime subject, as Marx contends. Yet, as Pomeroy points out, Marx sought an understanding of both the existing reality and the agent of transition capable of demystifying it by comprehending their role in shaping, sustaining, altering and ultimately dismantling it. Pomeroy writes:

Marxism is ‘a philosophy of human activity,’ and it is Marx’s focus on the human being, his humanism, that contains an insight not otherwise achieved. In it, he has gone beyond Hegel and has grasped the idealism as it is possessed, enacted and known by the human being. What is strikingly interesting and appropriate is that Marx’s surpassing of Hegel on this matter is a simultaneous retention and is, therefore, a true sublation. For the Idea is no less present, even in some sense no less absolute … but now it is dialectically united with the material reality in human activity. So, if it is the case that dialectic is both the description and method of the movement of the temporal and real and if such movement is at least on some level effected by the human agent, we need to examine this activity and ascertain why it can be discovered and expressed as negation.

In elucidating Marxist humanism, Raya Dunayevskaya, as expounded upon by Pomeroy, delves into the conceptual framework surrounding the first and second negation. Central to her analysis is the characterisation of the first negation as emblematic of the inaugural revolution. This conceptualisation underscores a fundamental dialectical process wherein existing structures and paradigms are subverted or overturned, giving rise to transformative upheavals within existing and seemingly intractable societal frameworks.

The first negation is the first revolution. For Dunayevskaya, this was the negation enacted in the Russian Revolution. This is a ‘no’ to capitalism and manifests itself as the mere negation of the institution. In it, the worker carries out a revolution by a negation of her status in the capitalist system. Here, the worker says, ‘I am not wage labour.’ But this initial negation is merely preliminary and has no direction. This is because it is not yet self-conscious.

In what follows, Pomeroy describes in more detail the second negation:

The negation of the negation occurs when this act of self-determination ‘hears itself speak.’ The revolutionary truly hears herself denying her status as capitalist labour and, for the first time, understands its meaning. What does it mean to say that I am not wage labour? It involves a recognition of the positive content of the original negation. By hearing her own self-determination in the ‘no’ to capitalism, the revolutionary recognises herself as the Subject of revolution: the one who can say no – the mediator, the free subject of the movement itself. It is one thing to say that a condition is unwanted, but it is quite another to understand the power involved in the ability to both think and enact the alteration of the unwanted.

Pomeroy, following Dunayevskaya, moves from a position of ‘I am NOT wage labour’ (first negation) to that of ‘I AM, not wage labour’ (second negation). The movement from the NOT to the emphasis on the I AM signifies a movement or self-transformation – a recognition or self-conscious understanding of her own voice. The transformative potential inherent in the concept of ‘second negation’ signifies for Dunayevskaya the negation of capitalist social relations. Within capitalism, the creative power of the human being is subjugated, leading to a state of alienation where individuals fail to realise their own creative essence. However, the negation of this negation heralds the authentic return of humanity to itself, epitomising the essence of true freedom and humanism. It represents a profound consciousness wherein individuals recognise themselves as the originators of negation, the creative force propelling the dynamics of reality. In Freirean terms, it means achieving critical consciousness, becoming the author of your own life, the narrator of your own history, rather than a subject imprisoned by the forces of religio-politico-cultural hegemony. This consciousness, born out of the second negation, entails a profound awareness of the inherent injustice perpetuated by capitalism, particularly in the commodification of labour power. Realising one’s creative agency inherently rejects the exploitative exchange of labour for wages, transcending mere formal or legal considerations to confront the underlying injustice on a substantive level.

The evolution of the Absolute Idea, according to Pomeroy, signifies the liberation of the human spirit. It marks the moment when humanity acknowledges itself as the ultimate source of negation, rendering capitalism obsolete in its wake. This self-awareness precipitates a reappropriation of human potential, culminating in eradicating capitalist structures. Crucially, notes Pomeroy, this positive negation for Dunayevskaya is deeply personal, rooted in individual agency and consciousness. Its authentic realisation necessitates the rejection of capitalist servitude as individuals reclaim ownership of their creative capacities. In this paradigm, the enactment of self-consciousness becomes the catalyst for dismantling capitalism’s grip on human agency and ushering in a new era of genuine freedom and human flourishing.

Paulo Freire introduced the concept of conscientização, which he considered in his native Portuguese to be a pivotal process in consciousness-raising. Conscientização, translated into English as ‘conscientisation,’ denotes the journey from passive or uncritical perceptions of self, others and the world, or the first negation, toward more critical and engaged understandings, or opening oneself up to a second negation or the negation of the negation. It signifies a shift from fragmented or limited perspectives of reality to a more comprehensive and contextual comprehension. Freire’s notion of conscientisation emphasises the process of becoming, underscoring its dynamic and transformative nature – a crucial step forward towards a dialectical reading of the world and the word. Freire posits dialectics as the fundamental logic underlying reality, weaving its intricate threads through discussions on oppression, education and societal transformation. Central to his philosophy is the notion that oppressed individuals, upon grasping the dialectical nature of existence, attain heightened awareness of reality’s underlying mechanics and create ownership of their own agency, thereby wielding the power to shape it towards liberation.

In elucidating the dialectical framework, Freire illustrates its prevalence in both historical dynamics and the realm of human consciousness. He elucidates how conflicting binaries, such as themes of domination and liberation, perpetually engage in a dance of opposition, ultimately reconciling through the ebbs and flows of social evolution. Moreover, Freire applies dialectical methods to pedagogy and praxis, advocating for a collaborative approach where teachers and students engage in a dialogical exchange of ideas. In contrast to the hierarchical ‘banking model’ of education, his ‘problem-posing model’ fosters an environment of mutual exploration and synthesis, mirroring the dialectical rhythm of societal progress. For Freire, conflicting perspectives are harmonised to forge innovative strategies, propelling movements towards transformative change in the interest of social justice.

Wayne Au presents a compelling argument positing that at its core, Freire’s oeuvre is firmly rooted in a robustly Marxist, or dialectical materialist, theory of knowledge. Au asserts that a thorough elucidation of Freire’s dialectical materialist epistemology is essential for a comprehensive understanding of his liberatory pedagogy, as comprehending the Marxist underpinnings is pivotal for grasping the essence of Freire’s educational philosophy. Through meticulously examining textual evidence, Au delineates how Freire’s pedagogy fundamentally emanates from a Marxist, dialectical materialist perspective on consciousness, human interaction and material change. This scholarly endeavour seeks to enable educators to delve deeper into a palpable conceptualisation of Freire not only as an educator but also as a committed Marxist – a characterisation that remains coherent across his entire body of work, spanning from his earliest English-translated writings.

Moreover, for Au, the secondary aim of advancing this argument concerning Freirean pedagogy is to mount a robust defence against the criticisms of Freire’s detractors. These critiques, Au contends, often stem from a profound misunderstanding of Freire’s dialectical materialism, consequently leading to misguided condemnations of his pedagogical framework. Thus, by elucidating how Freire’s epistemological foundations align with a dialectical materialist philosophical worldview, Au endeavours to provide a sturdy bulwark against erroneous criticisms and uphold the integrity of Freire’s educational philosophy.

Another field of study that I recommend to students of critical pedagogy is liberation theology. Liberation theologians are often adept at using dialectical reasoning in their work. For instance, Elizabeth Levitan reveals how, in his seminal work A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez elucidates theology as a profound reflection on praxis, intertwining the temporal and eternal realms within an ontological framework while implicitly engaging in a dialectical process. In so doing, Gutierrez adeptly synthesises the philosophical underpinnings of Hegel and Marx, forging a novel theological system that serves as an epistemological cornerstone for Christian comprehension of contemporary global realities. Through this synthesis, liberation theology emerges as a pivotal progression in the evolution of human thought. Gutierrez’s intellectual endeavour not only reconceptualises theology as a dynamic tool for interpreting the world but also firmly embeds it within the ongoing dialectical progression of human cognition and understanding.

In the current cultural milieu, there exists a prevailing ethos favouring functional minimalism and technocratic rationality over dialectical reasoning, particularly evident in the emergence of social media as a purportedly universal mode of communication – a digital lingua franca, if you will. However, beneath its veneer of inclusivity lies a stark reality of exclusionary dynamics. One manifestation of this phenomenon is the proliferation of so-called echo chambers, wherein individuals find themselves ensconced within virtual spaces populated by like-minded peers. These echo chambers, perpetuated in no small part by the algorithms of social media behemoths, serve to insulate users within homogenous bubbles, reinforcing existing beliefs and behavioural patterns. Which is why we need a dialectics of freedom to break us out.

In the current political milieu, the imperative for a dialectics of freedom becomes increasingly apparent, particularly considering the looming spectre of a potential ascent to power by a full-throated fascist regime, should Trump secure victory in the 2024 election. Federico Finchelstein, heralded author of the recently released tome The Wannabe Fascists: A Guide to Understanding the Greatest Threat to Democracy, casts Trump as a novel archetype in the political landscape – one willing to jeopardise democratic foundations for immediate political gains. Drawing from the seminal elements of fascism – ranging from the ominous spectre of political violence and the insidious militarisation of politics to the dissemination of lies and propaganda, stoking xenophobic sentiments and the imposition of dictatorship – Finchelstein issues a sombre cautionary tale. He underscores the enduring resonance of Trump’s adoption of fascist warrior-martyr tropes, perpetuated through the omnipresent reach of social media platforms, which serve as conduits for his direct communication with the masses.

Moreover, Finchelstein’s discerning gaze highlights the complicit silence of the Republican Party in the face of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric regarding immigrants – a silence that resonates with the historical echoes of fascism’s imperative for the identification of ‘mortal enemies’ and their dehumanisation. This reticence, reminiscent of earlier apathetic responses to the rise of figures such as Mussolini and Hitler, serves as a chilling reminder of the dangers posed by complacency in the face of encroaching authoritarianism. In essence, Finchelstein’s scholarly inquiry serves as both a robust reflection on the contemporary political landscape and a clarion call to action, urging a steadfast commitment to preserving democratic ideals amidst the encroaching shadows of authoritarianism.

Claire Colebrook has made cogent commentary on the Trumpocene and the inevitability of human extinction. For Colebrook, there exists a stark reality facing humanity: we stand on the precipice of extinction, both as a species and as individuals navigating the collapse of our world within modern state societies. Reflecting on our existence as but a mere fragment within the vast cosmos holds profound philosophical significance, offering a pathway to detach from the narrow confines of our immediate reality. Colebrook invokes a dual meaning of ‘we’ – as both a species and as ‘humanity’ as she envisions moments where the human species transcends its human limitations. She acknowledges that the inevitable end of our world redirects our focus away from futile attempts to salvage institutions deemed ‘too big to fail’ – whether it be banks, housing markets, humanities, stock markets, or even entire nations and constitutions. The pervasive grip of these systems on individuals necessitates radical movements of communal refusal and disinvestment from the state. Colebrook argues that the neoliberal ethos of relentless self-maximisation fails to encapsulate the burgeoning forms of social relations and collectivity emerging in resistance to profit-driven exploitation. It is possible, she argues, to reject global systems of extraction and consumption, signalling a defiance against the status quo.

Colebrook posits that every testament to civilisation is not immune to the taint of violence and injustice, thus bearing the irrevocable stains of barbarism. Hence, the salvation of humanity and its world from extinction is not our ultimate aim. Instead, she maintains that the confrontation with extinction has the potential to liberate us from the confines of the human condition – its illusory universality, relentless pursuit of productivity, consumption, and exploitation, as well as its limitations on individual, familial, and societal boundaries. This transformative encounter could, possibly, herald a newfound commitment to embracing the intricate tapestry of planetary existence in all its multifaceted richness. The problem we face, according to Colebrook, is that we are unable to confront our non-being. At the same time, she maintains that the cultivation of human identity is inexorably entwined with processes of dehumanisation.

The concept of ‘the human’ for Colebrook has emerged as a complex interplay of institutional, planetary, geopolitical, historical, cultural, racial, and linguistic forces and relationships. The concept of ‘the human’ does not merely encompass the species but rather serves as a highly normative and often violently exclusionary construct. Thus, interrogating the concept of ‘the human’ entails relinquishing attachment to the assumption that the existing world must be preserved as it is. At a deeper level, this interrogation prompts a critical distancing from a form of ‘the human’ that is inherently detached from its surroundings, suggesting the possibility of alternative modes of existence beyond normative constraints. A myriad of technologies craft individuals ensconced in their private worlds, guided by localised sympathies and preferences, yet yielding repercussions of planetary magnitude. Thus, in the face of disaster and collapse, a mere fervent reaffirmation of human worth and the pursuit of alternative modes of existence inevitably proves insufficient.

Colebrook argues that we should contemplate conceptions of personhood that transcend human exceptionalism or explore notions of personhood that diverge from conventional humanities norms. In this sense, it is important that we refrain from endorsing a vague notion of “becoming” that neglects the collective nature of individual identity formation. Colebrook asserts that we must delve into the collective conditions that breed acts of violence among individuals and interrogate how certain social systems not only facilitate but also demand such seemingly deviant behaviours. At the same time, we must recognise that what defines ‘the human’ inevitably restricts the multitude of potential existences and imposes the responsibility for its own prosperity onto those who, by virtue of this very definition, are considered not yet fully human – suggesting an inherent parasitism within the notion of ‘the human.’ One can discern the emergence of a moral dichotomy between ‘the human’ – characterised by notions of private property and technological advancement – and a perceived statelessness.

Climate change is not a mere belated misfortune, according to Colebrook, but rather an intrinsic aspect of human existence. The human condition is intricately intertwined with globalism, imperialism, capitalism, and hyper-consumption; it encompasses a vastness that hinders the formation of solidarities achievable in genuinely collective modes of being. Engaging in the caretaking of land, cultivating networks of mutual support where communal bonds extend beyond homogeneity: these are manifestations of alternative collectives beyond the confines of the conventional human family. Thus, the crux of the matter lies not in situating ourselves within or outside the Anthropocene, or within or outside the Capitalocene, in a quest for some prelapsarian moment devoid of destruction or an untainted haven of ecological harmony. The notion of an untouched, pristine sanctuary, unmarred by human presence, is, after all, pivotal to the narrative of climate change capitalism. Likewise, the aspiration for a new world ripe for colonisation cannot be divorced from the romantic utopian fantasy of unspoiled ecology. Instead, we are called to embark on a journey of critical and nuanced reflection regarding the diverse mechanisms of climate alteration.

In her Oxford Literary Review essay, ‘Slavery and the Trumpocene: It’s Not the End of the World,’ Claire Colebrook describes the Trumpocene as marking ‘the twenty-first-century recognition that the destruction of the planet has occurred by way of racial violence, slavery and annihilation. Rather than saving the world, recognising the Trumpocene demands that we think about destroying the barbarism that has marked the earth.’ Colebrook sets out one important condition for advancing the project of saving our species: That we seriously reconsider what we deem to be intrinsically worthy about the world:

[W] e need to look back to the ways in which the present and its constitutive occlusion of the future are essentially bound up with fake news, alternative facts and a faux relativism: as long as one remains within the world politics will take place within the polity, and within already established rules and limits of engagement. The condition for the possibility of a world of fake news and alternative facts is the modern conception of the world and politics as a public sphere of ongoing legitimation. To look at neo-Nazism and contemplate ‘good on both sides’ is not radical relativism; it merely inhabits a bourgeois comportment of good and bad and weighs out proportions. What is not considered is a genuinely relativist contemplation that would question whether what we assume to be intrinsically worthy about the world might be otherwise. More importantly, there is no profound interrogation of the history and trajectory of techno-science and the ways in which we have imagined the end of the world as the negation of all the regimes of truth and story-telling that mapped and plundered the planet in the very specific and contingent history that we now appear to be unable to think beyond. In this respect, it is important to link the fetish for the end of the world with the era of fake news and with the historical myopia that holds them together.

Colebrook underscores the delicate balance required when appraising postmodernism – eschewing both wholesale blame for its purported suspension of reality and unmitigated praise for its potential to reconstruct our understanding of existence. Instead, she beckons towards a more profound contemplation, one that centres on the concept of radical extinction – a cataclysmic event that fundamentally alters the world as we perceive it. In this nuanced discourse, scrutiny falls upon the pervasive influence of fake news, alternative facts, and the unsettling notion of moral equivalence encapsulated in phrases such as ‘good on both sides.’ These phenomena inadvertently reveal a profound truth: our collective reluctance to confront the looming spectre of extinction while desperately clutching to the familiar constructs of our reality. It is this elusive third possibility, Colebrook suggests, that demands our earnest exploration.

Colebrook makes a strong case that our understanding of the world has been bolstered by a moral dichotomy – a rigid division that starkly contrasts extinction with the end of the world. Yet, this binary framework proves inadequate in capturing the intricate interplay between our existence and the looming threat of extinction. The very fabric of our social order, the meaning we ascribe to our existence, the lofty ideals of humanity, and the foundations of civilisation – all are intricately woven within the loom of this moral opposition. However, Colebrook warns that the time has come to interrogate this dichotomy and expose its inherent limitations. Through this endeavour, a more nuanced understanding may emerge, acknowledging the inevitable intertwining of existence with the spectre of extinction. It is within this uncharted territory that the contours of a new discourse take shape – a discourse that rejects simplistic binaries and embraces the unsettling truth of our precarious existence amidst the shadow of extinction. Colebrook embarks upon a philosophical odyssey – a journey that implores us to confront, rather than evade, the profound implications of our entanglement with extinction.

We often find ourselves fixated on the end of the world, and, according to Colebrook, this causes us to be drawn into the seductive allure of post-apocalyptic, end-of-the-world narratives. Yet, amidst this obsession with apocalypse, we seldom pause to consider the concept of extinction. She astutely observes that, within the narratives of apocalypse, a profound historical imaginary unfolds, rendering extinction almost inconceivable. The notion of the ‘end of the world’ transcends mere cessation, encompassing the demise of urban opulence and excess, along with a chilling anticipation of resource depletion driven by climate change. However, notes Colebrook, beneath the surface lies a sobering realisation: the world mourned within these tales owes its existence to the demise of countless other worlds.

To envision the end of the world without succumbing to the allure of salvation narratives demands a radical departure – a departure into the realm of acknowledging our inherent blindness to extinction. Only by transcending this blindness, argues Colebrook, can we begin to grapple with the magnitude of envisioning an end that defies conventional narratives. Colebrook advocates that we venture onto the precarious path of relativism, urging us to relinquish the sturdy anchors that have long defined our reality. Confronting the spectre of extinction – whether in history, the present or the foreboding future – requires nothing short of bringing about the end of the world as we know it, as we have created it. Colebrook argues that the Trumpocene, a concept encompassing three intertwined dimensions, usurps the Anthropocene through a process of erasure. Climate change is delegitimised, dismissed as a hoax or form of fake news, perpetuating a narrative that discussing climate change is a privilege of the liberal elite, neglecting the immediate needs of those reliant on traditional industries for employment and stability. Moreover, individuals once aligned with the belief that climate issues are intrinsically tied to social justice find themselves retreating into political minimalism. This retreat often entails accepting a narrative of impending doom, deeming efforts to combat climate change futile distractions from the influence of white neoliberal elites.

Despite embracing this narrative of ‘no alternative,’ a call to resist exacerbating brutality and injustice echoes through these tumultuous and dangerous times. The pursuit of global justice, notes Colebrook, is overshadowed by a demand for minimal decency, epitomised by gestures such as providing aid to marginalised communities. Lastly, according to Colebrook’s architectonic, the Trumpocene prompts a re-evaluation of our response to the looming threat of extinction. Rather than succumbing to a collective frenzy, we are urged to confront the challenges of fake news, alternative facts, and weak relativism. Yet, if we truly wish to confront both the historical extinctions that have shaped our world and the potential for future extinction events, we need to transcend these obstacles.

In her consideration of the Anthropocene’s profound implications, Colebrook urges a re-evaluation of our perception of slavery in this epoch. Rather than relegating it to a mere historical footnote, she posits it as a pervasive force transcending traditional scales and categorisations. The utilisation of anti-blackness as a smokescreen to divert attention from the violence inherent in capitalism is a complex phenomenon. Racism cannot be simplistically reduced to capitalism alone, but it is imperative to acknowledge the myriad ways in which racism perpetuates ongoing wage disparities. Historically rooted in the foundations of capitalism, particularly through the institution of slavery, these wage differentials are deeply racialised. Moreover, structurally, anti-blackness serves to deflect political discourse away from addressing wage inequality, exacerbating the disparity faced by people of colour. There exists a form of superficial, feel-good liberal anti-racism that distinguishes itself from a more profound, structural critique of anti-blackness – one that refuses to confront its complicity in perpetuating dehumanisation.

Under the lens of the Anthropocene, which typically prioritises geological inscription as the ultimate scale, Colebrook proposes a paradigm shift. She challenges us to reconsider our understanding of extinction and the end of the world, suggesting that only by confronting the possibility of ending the world can we fully comprehend the magnitude of extinction’s impact. Acknowledging the Anthropocene as a bearer of negative universal history necessitates an acceptance of the dynamic interplay between present and past. As we grapple with the profound alterations inflicted upon Earth’s ecosystems, we’re compelled to recognise humanity as a collective entity shaped by multifaceted endeavours spanning technology, industry, colonisation and agriculture. Despite historical injustices, a unified humanity emerges from this narrative, driven to confront the existential threat and strive for collective survival.

However, this narrative of inclusivity faces its limitations. Its expansive scope requires delineation and boundaries. As humanity confronts a shared future, pivotal decisions must be made. Will we prioritise our narrow conception of the world, perpetuating extinction as mere collateral damage for personal gain? Or will we acknowledge the interconnectedness of past and present, understanding that our actions reverberate across time and space? Colebrook implores us to tackle the following questions: Should we prioritise preservation or adaptation? What sacrifices are necessary for a sustainable future?

By shifting the narrative away from the apocalypse towards extinction and the often-overlooked devastations shaping our reality, Colebrook encourages us to reconsider the concept of the commons. No longer synonymous with the entire world, the commons symbolises what has been marginalised and obscured – what has been referred to as the undercommons. In this shift lies the potential for a renewed understanding of collective responsibility and action in the face of ecological crisis. Colebrook sounds a chilling warning:

Now that we can see the ways the earth has been altered as a living system, it becomes possible to see a single (now threatened and implicated) humanity as that which will have emerged from a series of technological, industrial, colonial, and agricultural events. Even if those who were enslaved, indentured, colonised, or displaced were not the agents of beneficiaries of what called itself ‘humanity,’ there is now ‘a’ humanity that has emerged from the dispersed events of history; the possibility of our collective non-being generates a universal humanity and a twenty-first-century collective cogito: we, as a species, are facing the end of the world, and therefore must survive, as a species.

This is indeed a universal call for the dialectics of revolution, for a radical transcendence of the Trumpocene and a brazen recognition of the existential urgency of preventing the extinction of humanity – and not simply halting, temporarily, the end of the world or participating in its composition within our limitless and fractured post-apocalyptic, tropological universe. Colebrook concludes:

If, by contrast, slavery, the middle passage, pedagogies of the crossing and the undercommons become all-pervasive inscriptive forces, there would be no limit, and there would be no (negative) universality. Let’s take seriously the slave-owning and slave-implicated stain of all ‘we’ hold dear. Plato, Washington, Jefferson, all the thinkers of the Enlightenment (including abolitionists), and the current cosmopolitan gaze that now laments that same history and seeks to unify and move on: all would rely upon the distributions of force and value of slavery. What we call the Anthropocene would have been one of slavery’s events: the capture and harnessing of human bodies enabled the agricultures, industries, invasions, technologies and philosophies that gave birth to the man who came to recognise himself as a geological agent. There is no limit. Man can ask how he (or ‘we’) will build a future. Alternatively, everything that was negated or held by this same man might not care at all for that quite particular universal future and might open to the thought of extinction: not an extinction that unifies a species under threat, but an extinction of everything that is bound up with the world.

What is particularly troubling in many strains of Marxism that purports to herald a new world after it has saved the world from extinction is the notion that the dissolution of capitalism will inevitably give rise to a utopian new world. However, alternative forms of Marxism, focusing on worker solidarity born not solely from participation in production but also from exclusion from it, are gaining traction. This solidarity emerges from a shared experience of being surplus to the capitalist machine, highlighting the increasing relevance of these perspectives.

It’s time to heed the call by Bernie Sanders that, in the crucible of 2024, the United States stands at the precipice of history, confronting monumental crises with stakes too dire to fathom. Sanders warns that as the tendrils of oligarchy tighten their grip, the billionaire class wields unprecedented sway over our economic and political landscape. While they amass fortunes beyond imagination, 60% of Americans teeter on the brink of financial ruin, their real wages plummeting over five decades. Never before has the chasm between the opulent 1% and the struggling masses gaped wider, their power more entrenched. Sanders grimly pronounces our once-hallowed political system as lying in ruins, a casualty of the infamous Citizens United ruling. Billionaires and their Super PACs orchestrate electoral symphonies with bottomless coffers, skewing democracy in favour of the highest bidder. In this dystopian theatre, victory often hinges on who commands the greatest financial arsenal, rendering the will of the people but a whisper in the tempest of money.

Yet, as Sanders astutely observes, the spectre of decay extends far beyond the halls of power, manifesting in the sombre statistics of our societal decline. Life expectancy dwindles, a grim testament to the broken shards of our healthcare system. Each passing year sees us inch closer to the abyss, our once-envied longevity eroded by systemic neglect. Meanwhile, Sanders laments that our birth rate plummets to historic lows, echoing the muted heartbeat of a nation in distress. And, looming above all, casting its ominous shadow upon our fragile existence, is the spectre of the climate crisis. The Earth, our only home, convulses under the weight of our collective neglect. Sanders warns that record temperatures scorch the land, heralding a new era of climatic upheaval. Unless we muster the courage to confront our carbon sins, we face a future fraught with drought, deluge, infernos, and mass displacement – a cataclysm of our own making. Sanders warns about artificial intelligence and the lack of the rights of women to control their own bodies – and that Trump brags about how he appointed three supreme is solidly pro-choice. Donald Trump thinks climate change is a ‘hoax.’ A Trump victory will tell the entire world to continue their support for fossil fuels, and the planet we leave future generations will be increasingly unhealthy.

Such is the world we inhabit – a cauldron of chaos and despair, teetering on the brink of oblivion. Yet, within such chaos, Sanders envisions a crucible of opportunity – the chance to forge a new path to defy the apathy that threatens to consume us. The road ahead is treacherous, fraught with challenges and sacrifices, but it is the only road worth traversing. If we dare to dream, if we dare to act, we hold within our hands the power to sculpt a future worthy of our children’s children. The world awaits our resolve, our courage, our humanity. It is imperative that we transition from the ‘I am NOT wage labour’ to the ‘I AM not wage labour’ and create the protagonistic agency necessary to defy extinction.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2024). The Dialectics of Revolution: Resisting the Trumpocene. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Guillermo Mollins