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Posterity and Revolutionary Citizenship

The spectre of climate catastrophe looms over the ongoing gilets jaunes protests. How can we imagine a liberated future when we can barely even imagine a future without mass extinction? Sophie Wahnich looks at the concept of posterity and revolutionary citizenship from the French Revolution and what it can teach today's activists in this article, originally published by Libération.

Sophie Wahnich 6 December 2018

Posterity and Revolutionary Citizenship

‘Rising up means placing the future, and the verdict future generations will deliver on us, at the centre of our concerns.’

The American sociologist Mike Davis said a decade ago that there was no obvious historical analogy that could be drawn on to address the urgency of the climate change issue. He added that all possible scenarios could be projected onto the strange scene of our grandchildren’s future, from the collapse of civilization to the emergence of a new golden age thanks to the energy offered by nuclear fusion. High-flying scientists are indeed still working on fusion energy, yet we are in the midst of disaster. Our posterity has become hard to imagine, and this can sometimes make us dizzy. The songs of the 1970s that maintained eternity was no longer counted in centuries but in days are more difficult to hum.[1] The linkage of generations takes a strange turn when there are solid empirical reasons why the question ‘will they still find apples?’ may have to be answered ‘no’. No bees, no apples.

On the other hand, Mike Davis wanted to encourage a revolutionary voluntarism, capable of thinking beyond neoliberal capitalism, towards new forms of action and life, utopias to save the planet and human life. He encouraged us to imagine, think and act in the name of posterity. In fact, trying to act today along the lines of a scenario to change the heralded future is probably already revolutionary.

Becoming revolutionary would therefore mean putting posterity back at the centre of our concerns. Posterity, in fact, occupied a fundamental place in the speeches of the French Revolution. The image of posterity then swung between an overarching figure who would subsequently arise to judge the Revolution, a figure that would act now in accordance with revolutionary ideals, and a passive and immanent figure to whom the benefits of the Revolution would spread. Three different emotions. Let us act well so that we do not feel guilty, so that we offer beneficial models of action to imitate, and so that we give posterity the happiness of a better world. At that time, these emotional motors were active for causes that might have seemed desperate and impossible to achieve. Thus we read in the register of grievances for Champagney in Franche-Comté: ‘The inhabitants and community of Champagney [...] rightly fear that future generations, more enlightened and more philosophical, will accuse the French of this century of having been anthropophagous, which contrasts with the name French, and even more so with the name Christian [...]. They cannot be persuaded that the products of the so-called colonies may be used, given that they have been watered with the blood of their fellow human beings.’ The posterity that judges and condemns history thus obliged the revolutionary actors, from 1789 on, to take appropriate measures to satisfy it. The abolition of slavery was a necessity to save one’s name, one’s honour, one’s humanity. However, it would take six years to reach this goal. Nothing is achieved without conflict.

When on 20 June 1790, a Société du serment du Jeu de paume[2] was founded by Gilbert Romme to commemorate that redeeming oath, future generations were envisaged as a people with new morals, since there was no doubt that these would be successfully established. Future generations then embodied the evidence of the successful Revolution. At this first ceremony, the Versailles ‘tennis court’ was decked out like a temple, an inscription bearing the oath was fixed to the walls of the building, and a speaker said: ‘Our children will one day go on pilgrimage to this temple as Muslims go to Mecca. It will inspire the same respect in our remote descendants as the temple erected by the Romans to filial piety.’ This filial and civic transmission was fantasized and carried out everywhere in France around the altars of la patrie, where the Declaration of Rights was often engraved. These were built by the patriotic zeal of villagers, by public subscriptions and virtuous donors. The public square then became the sacred place of politics, appropriate for meetings of petitioners, for celebrations, but fundamentally also for those family and civic rituals that associated the future of the country with the future of its children.

Today, the planet requires of us certain civic duties, but these are immediately contradicted by the building of new coal-fired power plants. A single power plant is equivalent to the carbon emission of one million cars. Neoliberal short-termism thus denies the reality of the future. Liberty was embodied during the Revolution in the planting of liberty trees: the small shoot planted for future generations replaced the cut-down tree, immense and majestic as this sometimes was. The gilets jaunes in France, like the activists of Extinction/Rebellion in Great Britain, have reinvested posterity. Let us hope we shall soon be able to plant beautiful shrubs of the liberty regained by peoples concerned for equality, that is, for the sharing of the world as a common good.

Translated by David Fernbach

Sophie Wahnich is a senior researcher in history and political science at the CNRS, and a founding director of the Institut Interdisciplinaire d’Anthropologie du Contemporain.

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[1] Maxime Le Forestier, ‘Ça sert à quoi’ [what’s the point?], 1972.

[2] [The ‘tennis court oath’ of 20 June 1789, when the representatives of the Third Estate formed themselves into a National Assembly, vowing ‘not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established’.]

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