A Brief Critique of Everything Existing

Decolonising means changing the fundamental material relations that define our lives.

Gustave Courbet, Les Casseurs de pierres, 1849.
Being an enraged artist is like entering a room not knowing what to get high on.
– Tongo Eisen-Martin

As a descriptor of a shared community, class – and particularly working class – is hard to define today. The classical definition of traditional working-class movements is not immediately recognisable for contemporary workers; many people don’t identify with the idea of a “worker,” as the term is necessarily a broad one, and a vague one at that. According to researcher and activist in the tradition of autonomist feminism, Silvia Federici’s analysis in Caliban and the Witch (2004), the accumulation of capital has always been an accumulation of separations between proletarians. Communities are divided by race, sex, and other categories; these divisions are often orchestrated by the state. I find “proletarian” to be an irritated and problematic adjective that serves as a name for all those whose time, energy, and forces are exploited, extracted, or blocked by capitalism. All this while keeping in mind what material class divisions actually entail.

According to critic and writer Ben Davis, the profession of artist is per definition a middle class occupation, as artists can be compared with small traders. Yet, as he writes in the first paragraphs of his book 9.5 Theses on Class And Art (2013):

1.0 Class is an issue of fundamental importance for art

1.1 Inasmuch as art is part of and not independent from society, and society is marked by class divisions, these will also affect the functioning and character of the sphere of the visual arts

1.2 Since different classes have different interests, and “art” is affected by these different interests, art has different values depending on from which class standpoint it is approached

What is useful for one class is not necessarily useful for all others. Claims about universal values often originate in one specific (ethno-) class, whose standards, valuations, and aesthetic judgements of taste are pushed onto and into others. You don’t need to be Bourdieu – even if it helps not being a proletarian – to see how these in turn are kept up by jittery distinctions, all dressed up in fake egalitarian robes and an accent imitating the poor.

Like other minority groups, many Sámi people are part of a working class that is not even considered working-class, as our ethnic background is emphasised to the detriment of our class identity. We magically transcend our class background when we enter an artistic space – an inclusion that amounts to an exclusion. For an institution to maintain its exemplary position of inclusiveness and acceptance, the minority artist needs to exemplify ethnicity, sex or sexuality, but as soon as s/he is included s/he represents universality. In this way s/he is fungible, as the artist Hannah Black makes clear in the text ‘The Identity Artist and the Identity Critic’, stripped of race, gender, and sexuality even when called upon to represent them. “Tokens are currency, and currency only exists insofar as it’s exchanged,” she writes.

Class consciousness in the art field, if it even exists, is conflated with individualism and made into a personal issue rather than part of a collective history. Yet, many of us are workers coming from worker families. For this reason many of us are bereft of the material conditions needed to take part in the art world, as our families can’t give us economical support. This is a matter of great importance in a field where self-exploitation and unregulated working conditions are more of a rule than an exception. The question of who is able to exploit themselves to the extent that many artists do says a lot about class, economy, and privilege. Lumping class together with race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disabilities, etc., in the category of “outsider positions” (utenforskap) like the annual conference of the Arts Council Norway did in 2019, is deeply problematic, as long as the structural problems and the institutional white middle-class body remains. Despite the material changes in social practices they want the ruling class to adopt, these middle-class reformers are nothing but instruments for the ruling class directed at the oppressed. This is because the reformist version of an egalitarian society means, even demands, the existence of a ruling class. It takes a great deal of work for things to stay the same.

The problem was starkly demonstrated in a comment that a curator once made in a conversation we had about class. She proclaimed that the working class doesn’t exist in Norway, due to its solid housing economy. Should we compare Norway with other European countries, where being a homeowner is less common, the origin of such attitudes seems obvious. But the argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The Norwegian democracy is defined by egalitarian values, such as the equality of status and dignity, and as the social anthropologist Marianne Gullestad has pointed out, this implies that social agents must regard themselves as more or less like the others to feel valuable. Such a logic leads to modes of interaction where people emphasise their likeness with others, while downplaying differences. Gullestad calls this “imaginary likeness.” As she writes in the paper ‘Invisible Fences: Egalitarianism, Nationalism and Racism’ (2002), this attitude entails that things become problematic if someone is perceived as being “too different.” The result is that people end up avoiding each other. If we would rather think of the other as someone who is not fundamentally cut off from what we call a self, we create a world that already is an ethical affair – a world that has room for more worlds.

In an article appealing to ‘decolonising’ art criticism, published on Kunstkritikk in January, the critic Zofia Cielatkowska touches on these exact problems, writing that the art world and art criticism are dominated by certain specific forms of inequality. She points out that art criticism is “based on cultural and economic capital, resulting in streams of power that are both formal (related to position and money) and symbolic (the order of appreciation, knowledge, visibility, and recognition).”

Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA), having played a pivotal role as an ally in the decolonisation process which, at least for Norwegians, began ahead of Documenta 14 in 2016, has on the other hand completely ignored such important topics. The problem, as I see it, is that OCA presents Sámi concerns in a way that presupposes a singular Sámi identity, which does not really exist. Sámi identity is as complex as the Norwegian identity, and contains Kven, Finnish, Swedish, Russian, as well as Norwegian influences. Presenting the Sámi as OCA does means instrumentalising us, while neglecting this complexity and not least, this conflict, even if we know full well that only conflict can solve colonial problems.

I would prefer to think against the monocultural imperative, as a strategy to oppose the neoliberal logic of inclusion, which only acts to perpetuate existing power relations. If we also take a look at the programs and exhibitions they have organised so far, it deserves mention that OCA’s own cruel optimism, the faith that an ecological consciousness and a holistic understanding of the world in itself suffices to save the world from ecological collapse, does nothing to resolve the complex bonds that already connect race, ethnicity, nation, and the movement towards a liberal cosmopolitanism. If we take the word holism seriously at all, we should ask ourselves why the material relations that structure our lives and our bonds to a more-than-human world, are of no importance in the cosmopolitics whose development we are now witnessing.

The impression I am left with after four years of reflection centring on decolonisation, is that the conversation almost exclusively revolves around land, reindeer, and traditional knowledge. These are all extremely important topics whose pivotal significance should be embraced. But decolonisation, understood as a movement toward Indigenous sovereignty, involves the full populace, as well as Sámi people herding reindeer and working in traditional ways. The version we are presented with is instead an aestheticised Sámi identity that gets in the way of complexity. I personally grew up with a family and relatives who didn’t have reindeer, who didn’t joik, who didn’t visit the winter market in Jokkmokk, and who were generally cautious about flagging their Sámi identity. I suppose the reason was a strong assimilation policy in Norway, added onto a confusing colonial landscape. Everyone spoke Sámi except me and two of my older brothers. And everyone was working-class, more or less. Britt Kramvig, professor at the University of Tromsø, has described how these often contrary relations, subtexts, and identity formations have led to a situation where many Sámi people have to take on the task of discovering and weaving together the different strands of Sámi knowledge all by themselves. In her paper, ‘Landskap som hjem’ (The Landscape as a Home, 2020), Kramvig writes, “we cannot presuppose that we have access to a shared narrative about a local Sámi ‘we’. It is uncertain what stories can be told and by whom. In such a situation, a greater local community that gives a sense of belonging and trust, or a society that is experienced as a home – cannot to be taken for granted.”

Belonging is a complex matter. The concept of ‘Norwegianification’ is a limiting term to think through issues such as the ones mentioned above, as it makes them seem primarily like cultural matters. We should rather think Norwegianification in combination with primitive accumulation – and therefore political economy – and what this ongoing process can teach us about the past, our present situation, and the time that lies ahead.
Summarily defined, primitive accumulation involves taking land, encircling it and banishing the natives to establish a landless proletariat, and subsequently transferring the territory in a privatised flow of capital accumulation. Marx theorised primitive accumulation as the basis of the economic system, but also of class distinctions. For Marx, primitive accumulation was a necessary step in the improvement of human living conditions, as a part of the development of capital.

In his book Red Skin, White Mask: Rejecting Colonial Politics of Recognition (2014), Glen Sean Coulthard – a member of Yellowknives Dene First Nation, and professor in First Nations studies at The University of British Columbia – argues that the situation of Indigenous Peoples, rather than being defined by proletarianisation because of primitive accumulation, should primarily be understood through displacement. Historically, this assumption may well be correct, but seen from our current situation as Indigenous Peoples in Sápmi, and also in North America from where Coulthard himself writes, the idea seems to simplify complex sociopolitical circumstances. Nonetheless, Coulthard has contributed with critical tools to describe how primitive accumulation continues to this day, which makes it misleading to present it as a historical event, as Marx insisted. In this way, we can see how the Sámi population who still engage in and make their livelihoods from traditional forms of labor, is currently affected by primitive accumulation. To keep on existing, capitalism requires a constant influx of expropriated capital.

Thus, it is obvious that reindeer herding has particular and varied problems as it confronts the Scandinavian states and their primitive accumulation. These problems are different from those which face a majority of the remaining Sámi population. Where reindeer herding must be sacrificed for a so-called green economical shift – which is just another word for colonisation of Indigenous lands – the remaining population doesn’t experience the same pressure, even if these shifts also utilise rivers, mountains, and natural areas. Whereas the cutbacks in the reindeer industry impinge on the whole livelihood of some people, the same cannot be said about Sámi people whose access to the same areas is constrained.

Both displacement and proletarianisation stem from capitalist abuse, not only of Indigenous Peoples, but also other subaltern groups. The divisions between class, land, and Sámi identity formations are false colonial and imperialist inventions. It is in our interest to break with the false dialectics we have inherited from a colonial Europe. Believing that the anti-colonial struggle will replace the proletarian revolution as the fundamental movement of history doesn’t mean that class struggle is annulled, but represents a more complex way of thinking history, from the bottom up. Like Federici, I mean that the anti-colonial revolt and struggle can be understood as a “symbol for the world proletariat and, more specifically, for the proletarian body as a terrain and instrument of resistance to the logic of capitalism.”

The meaning and the modalities of being that I strive for touch upon the whole decolonisation project that is playing itself out today, and point to the problems that arise when what is focused on is mainly inclusion and representation, minus actual structural changes. Of course, hardly anyone believes that diversity is a kick in the teeth of capitalism; more than anything it is about living right now, not in a revolutionary afterlife. If we take decolonisation seriously, like researchers Eve Tuck (Unangax) and K. Wayne Yang ask us to, repatriation of Indigenous Peoples’ lands and lives is the real significance of decolonisation. As they emphasise in the article ‘Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor’ (2012), decolonisation is not just a marker for other things we would like to do to improve our societies:

When metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future. Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks.

My use of decolonisation here is somewhat loose, but with attention to the risk of losing touch with what we are actually doing and need to keep going. In an interview for the magazine Recto/Verso, Joachim Ben Yakoub points out how “the militant rallying cry has been kidnapped to serve as a new strategic institutional concept – but a concept that risks reproducing the same obsolete practices, structures and economies and thus reinforcing the existing power relations in the world of the arts.”

The climate catastrophe we are in the midst of is connected with class conflict, rising economic divisions, gendered and sexualised violence, and the spread of political right-wing extremism (rooted in xenophobia and racism combined with a faltering economy), but also human migration combined with a severe depletion of natural resources. The problem with false distinctions is that they serve to spell out even more clearly the rules of the empire defined by Western rationality. The struggles of reindeer herders are extremely vivid examples of how Sámi interests do not have a standing in the Norwegian legal system, since it is defined by a Norwegian rationality, and therefore also by an inherited colonial form of reason. To decolonise is to confront this form of reason, and, accordingly, it is a matter of no longer being defined by white/Western hegemonies. The decolonising movement sets out to look for things and discover things where we have been told not to go. This is why a critique based on ethnicity and race that fails to be a part of a historical critique of capitalism makes no sense. To decolonise is to change the basic material relations that keep defining our lives. But “the opposite of dispossession is not possession,” as Tuck and Yang remind us. It is hard to imagine a future without the breaking up of this all-encompassing form of property – you can claim something as your own because you have put in your work and now can pay for it – which not only has taken ownership of everything from air to water, but even the way we give shape to basic thoughts about belonging and “deserving.” We must desire differently and invent other and different economies of desire that don’t work against ecology, numbing our senses, which are the conditions for our sense of wonder and our empathy.

Art plays with our perception. The African American poet Tongo Eisen-Martin expresses it aptly in a blog post for Poetry Foundation as “the opportunity to see what your mind can do moment to moment; specifically, what your mind’s capacity for and use of language can manufacture when you don’t have to follow the bounds of physical and/or social reproduction. This perception, as catalyzed by the opportunity for de-crystallizing hegemonic identity, is where liberation begins.” On the one hand, Martin talks about the need to interrupt and break with certain (institutional) frameworks and a narrowing down of our polyphonic identity formations, and on the other hand, about escape and the lines of flight that our imagination can and wants to produce. Undoubtedly, there is a pressing need to think critically around our own situation. Why can’t we use this moment to make a leap toward invention rather than yet another limitation orchestrated by already existing power relations?

Our language begins in and with the world, in a radical homelessness, properly understood; we are all homeless. Among the Anishinaabe people, it is said that we humans are the last species to come to the Earth – Anishinaabe means “come down to the Earth from the stars” – and that the realms of animals and plants therefore sacrificed themselves for us, so that we could go on living. Seen from this perspective, we are the most vulnerable of all species. I want to think this homelessness as a divided space and a divided state, following up on Stefano Harney and Fred Moten when they ask in their book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013): “Can this being together in homelessness, this interplay of the refusal of what has been refused, this undercommon appositionality, be a place from which emerges neither self-consciousness nor knowledge of the other but an improvisation that proceeds from somewhere on the other side of an unasked question?” If our bodies remembers what language forgets, then another geography might be harboured in the breath we share.