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.

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The World in the Whale

“Or, the Whale,” by Jos Sances, seen here at its Richmond Art Center debut in May 2019.

To belong to a charismatic species is to be a pack animal for human imagination.

from Fathoms: The world in the whale by Rebecca Giggs, Simon & Schuster, 2020, p. 129

I’ve been thinking and dreaming about whales for as long as I can remember. I was quite taken by the whale as a teenager in Oakland around 1970, during the first big “save the whales” campaigns and when the first recordings of whale “songs” were being captured and transmitted. When I finally got around to reading Moby Dick I quickly became completely immersed in what I still think might be the greatest novel ever written. I later read CLR James’s analysis of it as well as Loren Gouldner’s.

Once, when I was visiting Cape Cod, I saw an old film from the beginning of the 20th century showing emergency rescue teams along the beach pulling people from the surf during a storm, where they had managed to arrive after their ship went down offshore. I suddenly had a flash of cold memory, feeling I had drowned at sea, and on a moment’s further reflection that I had been on a whaling ship… a past life perhaps? I don’t generally believe in such things, but it was a powerful, visceral experience, and it also went some distance toward explaining my life-long fear of being in the ocean (though I’ve had some beautiful snorkling experiences off Hawaii and Mexico, I was always quite tense, expecting something terrible to happen).

I’ve also written a bit about San Francisco’s history as a whaling port, and have been interested in the role of whale oil in early industrialization. So it was easy for me to send off for a new book on whales after reading a very glowing review of it. Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms: the world in the whale is in fact a fantastic book. It’s quite up-to-date and does a great job of surveying a lot of recent science and research to contextualize her often amazing digressions into the cultural and social meanings of our relationship to the largest mammals on the planet. She also puts the whale in the center of our understanding of climate change and the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a connection that surprised her when she came upon it, and me too when I read it!

Each whale has been calculated to be worth more than a thousand trees in terms of carbon absorption…. Far from being mere passengers or victims carried along by the environmental crises set in motion by climate change, according to these models, the presence (or absence) of whales in the sea continues to shape carbon dioxide levels. More incredible yet, researchers have projected that increased numbers of whales could help offset a measurable quantity of emissions… A study conducted by the Institute for Capacity Development in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) found that increasing phytoplankton productivity by just 1 percent would have the same effect as the sudden appearance of two billion mature trees. . . I had been troubled by the notion of whales as landfill; of cetacean bodies as, in some instances, a type of animate superfund site. But this research recasts whales as a means of renaturalizing the air—not as the end point of atmospheric pollution, but as the mechanism of its remediation. Whales as gardeners in the greenhouse. (emphasis added)

p. 59
Jos Sances “Or, The Whale” is 52-feet long and done on scratchboard panels. Within it is an incredible tapestry of industrial and technological history juxtaposed to the ecological and social devastation that has been its inexorable companion.

In one of the other whaling books on my shelf I read how John D. Rockefeller subsidized the whaling industry all the way into the 1910s, long after it had been superceded by his own petroleum oil business. It’s always been a bit of a puzzle to me, but Giggs importantly underscores what the persistence of whaling teaches us for fantasies of technological evolution solving our current crises:

Whaling, an ecologically untenable industry, was not suppressed by the invisible hand of the market as alternatives to its use became viable—rather, it continued long after it had ceased to be advantageously economic. Our expectation that renewable energy sources will, as a matter of course, supplant fossil fuels by function of expediency runs counter to this history.

p. 56
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Brainless, Impersonal, Implacable

Dark clouds over the Caribbean, Chicxulub beach July 21, 2021

No common is possible unless we refuse to base our life and our reproduction on the suffering of others, unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed, if commoning has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject.

—Sylvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (PM Press: 2019) p. 110

In Marx’s masterwork, Capital, volume I, the abstract and impersonal power of capital is itself an historical actor, a self-developing subject. Its value form is “the dominant subject of this process.” The increasing hegemony of its value form over all of social life grinds down into subjection the living human subject, the worker.

—Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: on Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (University of Chicago Press: 2016) p. 171

…The social dynamics of impersonal power … are intrinsic to capital as the alienated subject of the historical movement of modern society… the reproduction of the human life process under capitalism is a concrete form of an essentially inverted form of existence where the object dominates the subject… workers are subsumed into capital, becoming a particular mode of its existence.

—Martín Arboleda, Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction Under Late Capitalism (Verso Books: 2020) p. 59 and 82

Who, or what, is the subject of history? Is anyone running the show, or are we on a runaway train with no exit? As these epigraphs indicate, Capital is the self-developing subject of modern life, but it is a subject with no brain, no feelings, no purpose other than the unending expansion of value. Its priests and acolytes concoct endless ideological cloaks to justify and explain the necessity of subordination to this stony, impersonal, and seemingly irresistible force. Their preposterous claims that the world is wealthier and happier than ever require an acrobatic process of forgetting the genocide and slavery that started this whole process, and then “unseeing” the millions of starving, water-less, landless destitute, the countless homeless camping in the streets of rich cities, the climate refugees beginning their peripatetic search for new homes.

Far from creating the material conditions for the transition to communism, as Marx imagined, capitalism has produced scarcity on a global scale. It has devalued the activities by which our bodies and minds are reconstituted after being consumed in the work process and has overworked the earth to the point that it is increasingly incapable of sustaining our life.

Federici, p. 189

I’ve spent the last quarter century trying to stimulate the sense of historical agency that everyone embodies, or ought to. I think each of us is an historical actor, every day and all the time! The central idea is that if we were to reclaim our ability to determine our shared fate, an ability that requires an engaged sense of agency and its potential power, we could find a way to consciously choose the path forward for our lives. My work with grassroots bottom-up history via Shaping San Francisco has its own roots in my life-long rejection of the organization of society, from the mind-numbing busywork I faced in elementary school to the absurdities of wage-labor. Self-employment gained me a modicum of independence, but it did nothing to affect the larger arrangement of society, which if anything, has grown demonstrably worse in my years.

In 2008 I published Nowtopia, which tried to locate an emergent subject in the work people were doing outside of wage-labor, where they were able engage their full humanity and creativity, deciding the purpose, design, and outcome of their own activity. In this analysis I was still groping for a way to shoehorn the working class into a role in its own liberation. Now, almost a decade and a half after I wrote the book, most of the initiatives I described remain marginal at best. In no way could it be said that a new recomposed working-class is emerging outside of paid work, where it is laying the foundations for a liberated life. In that hopeful analysis, at least up to now, I was dead wrong.

Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl flying east from Mexico City.

I still think work is central to our lives for better and worse. The plethora of recent writings on work, some of which I’ve taken up in past posts (here, here, here) reinforces the centrality of the crisis we face. That said, it’s pretty clear by now that seeking unity at work is seldom achieved, usually temporary, and a shared vision of a better life beyond that workplace, job, or industry can barely be said to have ever existed! As Arboleda said in the epigraph, workers have become so embedded in a capitalist division of labor that they embody a particular mode of capital’s existence. That existence has become so fragmented, atomized, and deskilled that we have to agree with Sylvia Federici’s description: “there is only one logic… to form a labor force reduced to abstract labor, pure labor power, with no guarantees, no protections, ready to be moved from place to place and job to job, employed mostly through short-term contracts and at the lowest possible wage.”

I have been trying to reset my thinking lately. Obviously nature looms large in that, between my posts on plants and forests, and my ongoing focus on the relationship between work and nature. My old friend Sylvia Federici, a long-time feminist, Marxist and member of Midnight Notes and author of many books, has reckoned with the more obvious failures of Marx, especially his obliviousness to the most important form of work of all, producing human beings! She also notes his myopia regarding the vast life beyond industrializing Europe: “In 1867, Marx did not see the power emerging from the communal organization of life of millions in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. This failure remains a key element of Marxist thought to this day.”

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