The End

A few years ago… still relevant!

It’s the end of the year 2021. Expectations of an end to life as we knew it—resulting from the pandemic—have not materialized. Even the end of the pandemic has not materialized, though just a few months ago it seemed it was winding down. Climate change continues to barrel down on us with no sign that the death-grip of the fossil fuel industries is loosening its hold on the political class. At least we’ve had a miraculously wet and snowy December in northern California, delaying by another season the relentless drying out that will eventually turn much of California into a desert.

I’ve written in previous posts about the ruminations of Franco “Bifo” Berardi. His latest book, The Third Unconscious, sparked my curiosity. Like previous recent books, he is trying to find a path out of the depressive world of semiotic capitalism we’re all trapped in. His earlier analysis of the replacement of conjunction by connection (essentially the swapping of face-to-face lived experience for the programmed communications of online “connection”) provides some foundation for his new effort to understand what is happening to our deeper sense of life during these pandemic times. He recognizes that there is a deep division underway, a cultural split that gets the name “schismogenesis,” meaning a deliberate differentiation, where different populations assert their difference from each other. (Graeber and Wengrow make use of this term in The Dawn of Everything too, referring to the apparent common reality that people who live near each other tend, over time, to choose opposite traits and qualities of the other.) In Bifo’s book, he is referring to the emergent culture that, if it finds its collective voice, if its subjectivity emerges, may lead to a revolution worthy of its name. As he notes, as a result of the pandemic’s abrupt alteration of the rhythms of daily life,

…we have moved beyond the labyrinth; we have silently made that move that fifty years of loquacious struggles have failed to carry out. The disruption has finally happened, but it has been a process without subjectivity. (p. 39)

In his most optimistic moments he says things like

They [we?] are weaving the fabric of the emergent cosmos that may become recognizable beyond the threshold: that new cosmos which is already schismogenetically diverging from the dying form of the old cosmos, from the chaotic trap of the rules that used to hold the world together by destroying it. (p. 12)

an alternative does exist: it is based on the liberation from the obsession with economic growth; it is based on the redistribution of resources, on the reduction of labor time, and on the expansion of time dedicated to the free activity of teaching, researching, healing and taking care. (p. 130)

Elsewhere he notes that “it is impossible to separate climate justice from a world-wide program of redistribution of wealth and resources,” which if we were to abandon the mythology of expansion and endless growth, would allow us to “adopt a frugal, egalitarian culture. No more useless goods to ingest, but more time to enjoy with our friends, our lovers: this is frugality.” (p. 149)

But I think The Third Unconscious is ultimately a book about the End, that is death. He thinks a lot about it, probably because he’s nearing the end of his own life, and the dramatic hopes that he helped bring to life in the late 1970s in the Italian Autonomia movement have long been relegated to the sidelines. For Bifo, and from his point of view for all of us, “Exhaustion has taken the place of expansion.”

Bifo is hardly the first philosopher to ruminate about death as they approach their own. But given the global pandemic, climate change, and the existential malaise that he has long argued is a logical outcome of the hyperstimulation and exhaustion of human consciousness and planetary ecology that the 21st century has imposed on us, our extinction is no longer inconceivable. He locates a particular madness in the recent surge of nationalism, which he attributes to a general impotence of the will facing the many crises we can’t seem to act on, so his conclusion is to propose that we “consciously assume extinction as the horizon of our time.”

Josue Rojas’s lovely mural at the southern edge of San Francisco.

The end of the world is one path. But worlds have ended many times previously. What has colonialism wrought if not the utter destruction of whole worlds? Bifo is clear about this:

…The end of the world consists in the dissolution of the cultural context that makes experience meaningful, shareable. Colonialism has already provoked many ends of the world. Why should we be surprised if the final collapse of colonialism (that some call postcolonialism) coincides with the end of the world itself? … The peoples of the Global South, the native people of the American continents, the Australian aboriginals, the African communities hit by slave deportation, and many others have already known the experience of extinction, when colonization destroyed the context in which common experience was meaningful. (p. 98-99)

When I read this I found it startlingly on point. Another recent book that I highly recommend is Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir by Deborah Miranda (Heyday Books: 2013). It’s an incredible kaleidoscopic, emotional, sardonic, wry, and poignant excavation of her own family history as well as a broader look at the history of California Indians.

The original acts of colonization and violence broke the world, broke our hearts, broke the connection between soul and flesh. For many of us, this trauma happens again in each generation, to children too young and too untrained to try to cope with dysfunction that ravages even adults… the formation of a Mestiza Nation was as much about healing from our childhoods as healing from larger histories. I am of the seventh generation since my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents Fructuoso Cholom and Yginia Yunisyunis emerged from Mission San Carlos de Borromeo in Carmel, California, in the mid-1830s. I am half white, half Indian, mixed with Mexican and Jewish tribes. (p. 123)

If we allow the pieces of our culture to lie scattered in the dust of history, trampled by racism and grief, then yes, we are irreparably damaged. But if we pick up the pieces and use them in new ways that honor their integrity, their colors, textures, stories—then we do those pieces justice, no matter how sharp they are, no matter how much handling them slices our fingers and makes us bleed. (p. 135)

The dire stories of her childhood and long journey to this self-awareness make this book a very compelling read. The tone she strikes is exactly the note I’ve been encountering more frequently in the past two years than ever before—that California Indians are still here, perhaps in fragmented and sometimes hybrid identities, but actually thriving and growing in ways that have an important role to play in shaping our collective future. While some may follow European intellectual tradition(s) into the cul-de-sac of despair and resignation, people with a lot more justification for despair keep finding ways to reconnect to the generational flow that wasn’t vanquished, did not end, and is creatively forging a new future.

A recurring theme…

Continue reading The End

Civilization and Its Forgotten (and Suppressed) Possibilities

A heron glides across the wetlands off Coyote Hills Regional Park in the south bay, 2014.

…were civilization itself to be estimated by some of its results, it would seem perhaps better for what we call the barbarous part of the world to remain unchanged.” —Herman Melville, 1846, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life

I’m not a “professional” historian—I didn’t go to college to study history, and never even graduated with an undergraduate degree. As a long-ago college dropout I had the freedom to browse topics and follow my curiosity wherever it led me, and now, almost a half century later, I have read a great deal, and know a lot about a lot. But I’m not delusional, and the main lesson of all this history reading, history making, writing, discussing, and presenting, is an acute awareness of how little I know. Knowing a lot and practically nothing at the same time prepared me perfectly for the book I’m going to write about today.

In the past few years, if you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that my interests, starting with my early focus on (the stupidity of most) work and (our deteriorating) ecology, generally San Francisco and California-focused, have been turning more broadly to early American history. Especially the histories that have been emerging of indigenous “Americans” in both north and south America (and the horrifying genocides they were subjected to), and the role of Africans who were brought here in slavery, and have been at the heart of continental history ever since. I have been seeking some deeper sense of the continuities that carry those harsh precedents into our current lives. As always I’ve been reading a lot, and had the pleasure and genuine amazement of reading the just-released The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow (The Davids from here).

I blogged a few posts ago about my pal Annalee Newitz’s fascinating book on Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, but The Davids have gone considerably further and deeper (and much longer). There are so many different themes that emerge from The Dawn of Everything that it is a challenge to present the book’s topic in any simple summary (like Annalee they take on the question of how and when cities emerged, but they do so much more too). There are parts of this book that I was particularly moved by, especially the gap-filling history of North America between the common idea of migration from Asia at the end of the last Ice Age thousands of years ago to the arrival of Europeans a little over 500 years ago. By unpacking that lost history using solid archaeological and anthropological evidence they debunk our common acceptance of a stadial, or stage-ist, understanding of “civilization”—where we go from cave dwellers to hunting and gathering nomadism to sedentary villages where agriculture develops, followed by mining, and the emergence of hierarchy, power, accounting, etc. and eventually leading to cities, empires, and states (“inevitably” producing the world we’re in today, a globalized concoction of militarized states protecting the concentrated wealth of multinational corporations and their owners, straddling a global population nearing 9 billion)… While all these things happened at different places and different times, The Davids are very convincing at changing the lens, at flipping our focus to look at the thousands of years in which early agriculture (or “play farming” as they cleverly call it) is part of life but doesn’t lead to any of the next steps that are supposedly locked in by the emergence of cultivated grains and domesticated animals.

Pelicans and egrets on the still abundant wetlands of the south bay, 2014.

…our remote forager ancestors were much bolder experimenters in social form, breaking apart and reassembling their societies at different scales, often in radically different forms, with different value systems, from one time of year to the next. The festive calendars of the great agrarian civilizations of Eurasia, Africa and the Americas turn out to be mere distant echoes of that world and the political freedoms it entailed.

p. 120

Near the end of the book they re-emphasize one of their main points:

…what happens if we accord significance to the 5,000 years in which cereal domestication did not lead to the emergence of pampered aristocracies, standing armies or debt peonage, rather than just the 5,000 in which it did? What happens if we treat the rejection of urban life, or of slavery, in certain times and places as something just as significant as the emergence of those same phenomena in others? … the periods in which free or relatively free societies existed are hardly insignificant. If you bracket the Eurasian Iron Age (which is effectively what have been doing here), they represent the vast majority of human social experience.

p. 523

The Davids spend a few chapters digging deeply into the history of the cultures that Europeans first encountered in the eastern woodlands of North America. Many people have heard a passing reference to the idea that the US Constitution and governmental structure was inspired in part by the Haudenosaunee Confederation of Six Tribes (commonly referred to as the Iroquois, consisting of Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onandaga, Oneida, and Tuscarora). But The Davids found a fascinating historical character in a Wendat leader (aka Huron) named Kondiaronk, who was so admired for his oratory and ability to discuss and argue that he was repeatedly invited to dine with the French governor of Montreal in the late 1600s. A lesser French dignitary named Baron Louis Armand Lahontan (1666-1716), who later fell on hard times and was exiled in Amsterdam, witnessed many of Kondiaronk’s public debates and wrote a bestselling book in the early 1700s that The Davids convincingly argue is based on his notes taken from those discussions. Even Wikipedia has posted an excerpt from The Dawn of Everything with this remarkable exchange:

Kondiaronk: I have spent 6 years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that is not inhuman and I generally think this can only be the case as long as you stick to your distinctions of “mine” and “thine.” I affirm that what you call “money” is the devil of devils, the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils, the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining one can preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake. Money is the father of luxury, lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity—of all the world’s worst behavior. Fathers sell their children, husbands their wives, wives betray their husbands, brothers kill each other, friends are false—and all because of money. In light of all of this, tell me that we Wyandotte are not right in refusing to touch or so much as look at silver.

Do you seriously imagine that I would be happy to live like one of the inhabitants of Paris? To take two hours every morning just to put on my shirt and make up? To bow and scrape before every obnoxious galoot I meet on the street who happens to have been born with an inheritance? Do you actually imagine I could carry a purse full of coins and not immediately hand them over to people who are hungry? That I would carry a sword but not immediately draw it on the first band of thugs I see rounding up the destitute to press them into Naval service? If on the other hand, Europeans were to adopt an American way of life, it might take a while to adjust but in the end you will be far happier.

Calliére: Try, for once in your life to actually listen. Can’t you see, my dear friend, that the nations of Europe could not survive without gold and silver or some similar precious symbol? Without it, nobles, priests, merchants and any number of others who lack the strength to work the soil would simply die of hunger. Our kings would not be kings. What soldiers would we have? Who would work for Kings or anyone else?

Kondiaronk: You honestly think you’re going to sway me by appealing to the needs of nobles, merchants, and priests? If you abandoned conceptions of mine and thine, yes, such distinctions between men would dissolve. A leveling equality would take place among you, as it now does among the Wyandotte and yes, for the first thirty years after the banishing of self-interest no doubt you would indeed see a certain desolation as those who are only qualified to eat, drink, sleep, and take pleasure would languish and die, but their progeny would be fit for our way of living. Over and over I have set forth the qualities that we Wyandotte believe ought to define humanity: wisdom, reason, equity, etc. and demonstrated that the existence of separate material interest knocks all these on the head. A man motivated by interest cannot be a man of reason.

Fanciful rendition of Kondiaronk speaking to captured Iroquois diplomats in 1688. (from Indian history for young folks published in 1919) (from Wikipedia)

This exchange is fascinating in itself. But the authors show that this kind of public debate was made widely known by books published in the early 1700s in Europe. As the years went by, the ideas represented were transformed from arguments made by real humans disgusted by European life into staged dialogues in which the unquestioning Christian interlocutor would be clearly out-argued by his “savage” opponent, but then would end with the knowing shrug that these ideas could only prevail among primitive people who had no better idea. The Davids argue that over some decades this led to the first articulation of the idea of Progress by Turgot in 1750, which was key to dismissing the by then well-known critique of European civilization precisely because the Europeans were self-evidently at the cutting edge of Progress. The French Revolution, based on the new ideas of liberty and individual freedom, mutual aid and the “brotherhood of man,” which was partly instigated by the prevailing new rationalist paradigms of the Enlightenment, can be traced back 100 years to these confrontations between monotheistic, divine-right monarchist Europeans and the divergent, autonomous, consultative, and anti-authoritarian cultures of North America.

Continue reading Civilization and Its Forgotten (and Suppressed) Possibilities

My Horizontalist Life!

I have to admit I spend a great deal of my life in the horizontal position! I sleep a good 8-9 hours a night and then I wake up to read for another 1-2 hours each morning before I get out of bed… (lucky me, I know!) After my last post on the World in the Whale, I thought I’d be writing this essay right away or at most, a week later. But I didn’t, once again letting it go for a month, while daily life took its course with my granddaughters filling some days, reading and biking and walking filling most of the others. I made it downtown to a climate protest last week and enjoyed running into several old friends there. But the big street murals and youthful activists who painted them blurred into the background, another in a long line of these kinds of protests. I suppose there are some people there who are having their first-ever experience and feeling energized and motivated afterwards. But for an old jaded guy like me, it was unremarkable and unmemorable in spite of my hope to be supportive and in solidarity with the activists there.

Gettin’ horizontal during climate protest at Howard and First Streets, Friday, Oct. 29, 2021.
Blockading the offices of BlackRock, a major investor in fossil fuels.

I’ve characterized my areas of interest for years as “organic communities, horizontal communications, and public space”—work, technology, nature, San Francisco and urbanism more generally, also preoccupy my attention. All of these topical concerns are for me, ways of trying to understand how radical change starts, and how it might go beyond the obvious and painful limits so far achieved historically.

I’ve written several posts in the last years that went into some depth on my current thinking about revolution, historical agency, and our elusive hopes for urgently needed radical social, political, and economic change… I found myself listening to a number of podcasts on the 10th anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, which we experienced in the Bay Area primarily through the dynamic Occupy Oakland. Those heady months in late 2011 were so exciting at the time. It was difficult to digest how completely it all seemed to fade away a year later. Now, a decade on, along come these audio programs to promote the idea that the Occupy movement set the stage for Bernie Sanders’ campaigns in 2016 and 2020, the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the myriad local candidacies for city councils, sheriffs, etc., from left-leaning politicians. I found it a bit jarring to hear most of these podcasts (from The Dig, Belabored, Upstream, Economic Update, and Start Making Sense, all funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York office) present a common theme of social-democratic initiatives being the primary legacy of the Occupy movement. There were a few anarchist voices, especially on the Upstream contribution, but overall, you’d think most people involved in the thousands of public squares all came out of it determined to build a left electoral machine!

This was the scene on Nov. 2, 2011 as the Oakland General Strike poured into the Port of Oakland.

To be sure, there are many reasons to be critical of the anarchist style of horizontalist politics that was so prominent during Occupy, at least as many reasons as there are to be critical of the party-builders, the electoralists, and the social democrats. And that’s where this very smart book by Rodrigo Nunes comes into focus, Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization (Verso: 2021). I highly recommend it, but you have to be ready for a book that delves into serious philosophy and how it shapes our political assumptions and behaviors. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to characterize it affectionately as “self-help for revolutionaries.” Much of what he analyzes, in my opinion, has gone unexamined for decades, which is why I found it so refreshing and even inspiring.

Ultimately, Nunes’ project is to dissolve the peculiar immobilization that besets a great deal of the left. He is trying to emphasize paths that break with the unspoken assumptions and commitments that bind two kinds of leftist, each using their criticism and anger towards the other as an explanation for the general failure of the left, but because it’s the “other’s fault” there is little need for introspection or changing one’s own approach.

…both sides end up constantly demarcating their mutual difference through the reiteration of terms that function as the negation of one another: unity, centralization, concentration, identity, closure, the party-form; multiplicity, connection, dispersion, difference, openness, the network-form (or no form at all). That, of course, only makes self-criticism less likely.

p. 61

…this opposition does not appear to lead to a full-blown rupture (‘the breakdown of the whole system’), arguably for three reasons. First, because the two perspectives not only share a common defeat, they also identify themselves before others as part of a single camp (‘the left’), like an unhappy couple, they continue to live under the same roof even as they lead mostly separate lives. Second, because the fight over their common identity (the mantle of ‘the true left’) keeps them tied to each other, even if around an antagonism; if they continue to live under the same roof, it is because they are permanently fighting over who should keep the house. Third, they effectively need each other, not only because their identities depend on mutual opposition, but because the presence of the other offers them exemption from responsibility for their own mistakes.

p. 64

Nunes characterizes this opposition as the double melancholia of the left, which I found quite resonant. For him, the two leftist camps are anchored to the two major upheavals of the 20th century. In the case of the “verticalists” they are anchored in the Russian Revolution and its many successors. For the “horizontalists” it’s 1968, and the worldwide upheavals of that era. I’ve been in the horizontalist camp since the 1970s when I first came of political age, in the direct wake of the 1960s upheavals, and while the Soviet Union and Maoism were both still very influential on the U.S. left. My initial embrace of anarchism soon gave way to a more libertarian Marxist approach, which seemed more serious and more theoretically coherent than what the (usually very young, like myself at the time) self-proclaimed anarchists I knew were promoting.

Continue reading My Horizontalist Life!