Bernie and the Biotariat

Photograph Source: Becker1999 – CC BY 2.0

It is useful to remember that revolution is clearly sanctioned in the United States in one of the nation’s foundational documents, the Declaration of Independence, published by the Second Continental Congress, and now celebrated every July 4th.

Its second paragraph begins with the familiar stanza:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

So, never mind ‘Liberty’ and the ‘Pursuit of Happiness’. Let’s just stick to ‘Life’. To be clear, in this moment of environmental catastrophe, ‘Life’ must include, not just human life but all life. It is in this spirit of inclusiveness, of holism, that the Cambridge academic and poet, Drew Milne, has crafted a riposte to this nation’s revered textual beginnings:

“We, the Biotariat, hold no human truths to be self-evident, acknowledging rather that all humans are mutually dependent on unacknowledged life forms, that they are endowed by their genealogy with certain heavy responsibilities, that among these are the Biosphere, the Solar Commune and the mutual furtherance of Peaceful Symbiosis. That to secure these responsibilities, alliances are assembled among humans, deriving their lasting vitality not just from human wills but from the continuance of all species. That whenever any form of Corporation becomes destructive of these ends, it is the duty of the people to alter or to liquidate it, and to institute new formations and alliances, laying its prospects on such principles and organizing its forms as to the best of their Scientific Understanding shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Sustainability, indeed, requires that Corporations long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that humans are more disposed to suffer, while Global Warming appears inevitable, than to take up arms against the forces to which they are accustomed. But when a long slick of Industrial Pollution and Technological Innovation, pursuing invariably the same Profit Motif, evinces a design to bring them unto species extinction, it is their responsibility, it is their duty, to throw off such Corporations, and to provide new regulative frameworks for future Symbiosis.”

Thus, the just cause for rebellion established by the Declaration of Independence leads Milne to argue, writing in the late eighteenth century literary style of the original document, that global warming and species extinction are now entirely valid causes for the overturning of the existing structures of power – which he identifies as ‘Corporations’. His is a ‘Declaration of Symbiotic Interdependence’, suggesting that whatever we may claim as our ‘independence’ is entirely mortgaged to the continued existence of other life forms.

We are fortunate to live in a nation where one of its foundational texts allows for on-going revolution. If we truly believe in the exceptionalism of this country, now surely is the time to act on the opportunity bequeathed to the people of the United States by the Founding Fathers. Is it too soon, in 2020, to anoint Bernie Sanders as the agent of the revolution’s second coming?

First, some attributions and a definition. The Drew Milne piece, “The Makings of the Biotariat”, is quoted in Mckenzie Wark’s, Capital is Dead, 2019, and a footnote mentions that it is, “unpublished, quoted with permission.” The word ‘biotariat’ was coined by Stephen Collis, a Canadian poet who teaches at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. It appears first in his poem, To the Barricades, 2013. In it, he writes, “The next revolution / is what culture will teach / we can and can’t do / as system’s feedback loop / grabbing the red flag / spore poppy claw / of the biotariat.” On a now defunct blog, he offers the following definition:

“The biotariat: that portion of existence that is enclosed as a “resource” by and for those who direct and benefit from the accumulation of wealth. So: workers and commoners; most animals and plants, including trees and forest and grassland ecosystems; water; land, as it provisions and enables biological life; minerals that lie beneath the surface of the land; common “wastes” and “sinks” too, into which the waste products of resource production and use are spilled—the atmosphere and the oceans. It’s that large. The enclosed and exploited life of this planet.”

A few years later, Collis reviews Drew Milne’s poetry collection called, Lichen for Marxists, published by the Cambridge Literary Review, Summer, 2017. He begins by writing, “I have been reading Jason W. Moore’s, Capitalism in the Web of Life, a book that theorizes the rise of the Biotariat”. He goes on to quote Moore, “All limits to capital emerge historically, out of relations of humans with the rest of nature. And in equal measure, so do all projects for the liberation of humanity and our neighbors on planet earth”.

The biotariat has been with us all along, but it is our increasing sense of the symbiotic relations inherent in what Moore calls ‘the web of life’, along with the injection of Marxist analysis, that speaks to the grasping, extractive fundamentals of capitalism, that gives us a full sense of Collis’ neologism. There is, of course, an unmistakable whiff of ‘proletatariat’ in ‘biotariat’ – the former an historical vehicle for revolution and the latter a medium for a future global transformation. In their respective names, old chains can be loosed or corporations thrown-off.

In his essay, Marx’s Vision of Communism, Bertell Ollman writes, “One cannot describe communism because it is forever in the process of becoming”. He quotes Marx, “We do not anticipate the world dogmatically, but rather wish to find the new world through criticism of the old.” The circumstances of the mid-nineteenth century in the advanced, industrializing states of northern Europe called forth a revolutionary response from Marx founded on his analysis of the dynamics of a newly insurgent capitalism. After a century and half of increasingly violent plunder, and the incremental marginalization of the natural world, the notion of the biotariat prompts us to seek solidarity, not with a vitiated industrial proletariat, but, as Collis writes, echoing Donna Haraway, with “collaborative interspecies collectives” or “some form of social relations and interspecies mutual aid”. In a new world, the distance between the words, ‘proletariat’ and ‘biotariat’, echoed in the historical divide between the human and the non-human, may vanish within this process of ‘becoming’.

Marx never described the society that was the end-goal of his revolution. But he believed that the then existing class antagonisms would eventually resolve into a socialist victory. As Ollman suggests, communist revolution initially attempts the overthrow of present exiting conditions – its utopian vision irrevocably linked to the premises it must transcend. Like that of Marx, Sander’s vision, is not based on the nuts and bolts engineering of the future, but on a belief in the transformative power of a movement to achieve utopian ends – devised in opposition to the deficits of the present. He does not promote tinkering with the arcane rules of the senate such as overturning the filibuster rule, because he believes in a day when his movement will deliver a democracy no longer shackled to institutions born out of the eighteenth century.

Sanders’ movement, built on the conjoined ideas of free child-care, free education, a highly progressive income tax, limiting the power of corporations, greening the economy, and universal health-care, parallels many of the elements in Marx’s agenda – although the philosopher’s bullet-points were inevitably couched in terms of the second half of the nineteenth century. Marx’s version of greening the economy, for instance, was framed as practicing a rigorous program of soil improvement akin to permaculture. He proposed the abolition of banks, rather than corporations, and his analysis of health care was based on the environmentally deleterious impacts of industrialization on the British working class such that he considered ill-health endemic to the processes of capitalism.

In the United States, permission for revolution is granted by a document, written in 1776, that was the product of the anti-aristocratic, revolutionary fervor of its time. It was not until 1848, the great year of European revolutions, that the Communist Manifesto would be published. Now, it is the dire condition of both American democracy and of the planet that calls for a renewal of revolutionary agency. In this country, can we look to Bernie to wrench revolution out of the wreckage of our foundational documents, extracting first, the imprimatur offered by the Declaration of Independence? Globally, can renewal coalesce around an expanded planetary consciousness, expressed in the idea of the biotariat, which remains, for the moment, a word trapped in scarcely read poetry and obscure blogs?

It is the strange genius of Drew Milne that he should have crafted a cry from the heart that melds both potential circumstances in one paragraph of almost infinite possibility.

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at urbanwildland.org  

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