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Alex Foti interviews me!

It’s another July 4, the worst holiday of the year, but at least it is a holiday! Went off to see Italy beat Germany and they did, beautifully, but not until the very end of overtime… quite a gripping match. Then I peeked in on this year’s installment of the SF Mime Troupe, but saw only a bit in the middle of the show, so can’t really review it. It’s always an excercise in masochism for me… so I skipped out not long after getting there.

Recently I put an email interview I did with Alex Foti on this blog. Now I’m putting up a reciprocal interview he did with me, also by email. I figure it’s probably somewhat interesting for people interested in these histories and these topics…

Alex Foti: Your name in Italy is linked to “CRITICAL MASS. L’uso sovversivo della bicicletta” which hit the bookstores three years ago, as Critical Mass was becoming a huge factor in Milano’s city polity. Please tell us how you became the initator of the largest 2-wheel no-oil movement of the world.

Chris Carlsson: I don’t think any individual can claim to be the “initiator” of anything like Critical Mass. Sure, I was there at the beginning, and had the good luck to be one of the first people to suggest that we all “ride home together” once a month. But like most good ideas, it merely said out-loud what was already in everyone’s head. The fact that it spread so far and wide “on its own” proves the point. How many dozens or hundreds of people have made Critical Mass happen in other cities across the planet? Most of them were inspired by something they heard about happening somewhere else, but only because the basic idea of bicyclists gathering in numbers and displacing cars while having a great time rolling through the urban environment makes obvious sense…

AF: How is Critical Mass in San Francisco these days? Please let us know some of its recent developments.

CC: In San Francisco, Critical Mass is very steady and reliable. We almost always have somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 riders, swelling to 3 or 4 thousand on anniversaries and Halloween (Sept. and Oct.) and sometimes in the summer it gets larger too. But in terms of some of the things I thought most important about it, e.g. political communication, xerocracy, creative routes through the city, etc., it is somewhat diminished. It is rare for people to come with flyers or printed materials, it is quite unusual for anyone to propose a route or destination, and the actual ride just goes wherever the fastest people in front lead it. Sometimes some of us oldtimers get motivated to rush to the front and scream for a turn, or to go to a specific place spontaneously, but that’s not too common either. We are greeted very warmly by most pedestrians, residents, and even motorists, but there is usually one or two or three incidents of rising tempers, near violent confrontations, etc., but as far as I know it is still very uncommon for anyone to actually come to blows, get hurt, or have any real damage to anything. The political culture is disappointing to me because I yearn for more debate, discussion and argument. But still, every month there is a mass seizure of the streets, unsanctioned by the city or police, and within that unpredictable space, people have to solve problems, communicate their desires, and make it happen. That’s an amazing monthly practice of mobile self-management, building trust in the unpredictable and each other, learning how to work things out in stressful public situations, and so on. The uncharted and unmeasurable human connections that form within Critical Mass remain a fertile base for new initiatives in the future. At the same time I say that, it must be noted that we’re approaching our 14th anniversary and for most Critical Mass riders, there haven’t been a lot of other initiatives that have actually appeared during these many years.

AF: For a quarter of a century, PROCESSED WORLD has provided a unique perspective on the evolution of worker behavior and employment practices in Silicon Valley, at the forefront of the digital transformation of capitalist accumulation processes. Are people in the Valley less or more likely to rebel against their employers than they were back when Reagan seemed the worst of all possible worlds? And what kind of conflicts, workers collectives and rank-and-file labor activism have emerged in recent years to confront the digital giants, arguably the focus of 2005 issue of PW?

CC: Silicon Valley does not actually constitute a self-aware geographic zone, except among the entrepreneurs and politicians who have promoted it for their own benefit. It’s basically a sprawling suburban area made up of a dozen different municipal governments in two counties. The workers in this area, like most U.S. workers, are sharply divided by class, race, language, immigration status and expectations. So there are thousands of service workers flipping burgers, changing beds and bedpans, cleaning schools and offices, some of whom are in AFL-CIO unions, but most who are not. As a group they do not have any common identity and organizing as workers is extremely rare (the janitors and SEIU are a good counter-example). The apparatus of laws is heavily biased against any new groups of workers joining existing unions, and it’s practically impossible to start a new union independent of the AFL-CIO’s bureaucratic and pro-business approach. One of the few visible initiatives of the past decade is the online magazine called Silicon Valley Debug. Youth of color and others write about life in Silicon Valley, connect to struggles of immigrants, janitors, various groups that have been in motion in the past few years. But as for a rank-and-file upsurge, anything that really challenges the digital giants where it hurts, we haven’t seen much of that, not lately, and not much earlier than that either. Organizationally, there really isn’t a workers’ movement per se. The reality is that most people don’t stick around and get organized, they try to leave. Exodus, not organized revolt, is the most common response to oppressive conditions. High-tech workers are even more atomized and unlikely to band together to shape their opportunites. On the other hand, it is among this population, not just in Silicon Valley, but virtually anywhere and everywhere, that so much of the pressure comes to keep the Internet open and free, to create and extend the presence of free software, p2p sharing, digital piracy, challenges to copyright and intellectual property, etc. But it doesn’t take the organizational forms we’re used to looking for, which makes it hard to see as a movement, and actually might mean that it is NOT a movement. Rather, we can recognize that people are taking common action, producing common forms of contrary and oppositional behavior, from their very specific and singular positions in a dense web of hierarchies and identities and oppressions and openings. (Processed World 2.005, our last issue, was an odd amalgamation of material that, like most issues of the magazine, came together serendipitously and mostly by accident, without an overarching sense of a theme.)

AF: I re-read the #30 1992-1993 issue of Processed World and found it uncanningly prescient on subsequent developments in work discipline, media subvertising, the digital economy, urban segregation, ethnic cleansing, the impending ecological catastrophe, and a lot else. Also, comic artists such as Tom Tomorrow incubated by the zine have now entered the mainstream. I was struck by the subverts advertising the 00 local of the Union of Time Thieves (their motto: “time is money, steal some today”). Can you tell us something more about the origins and evolution of the Syndicate of Self-Proclaimed Slackers?

CC: I always thought issue 30 was one of our best too. Glad you found it so interesting. The Union of Time Thieves is a good example of the kind of thing we kept dreaming up while working on Processed World. It has never existed as a “real” organization, but in a way that’s the point. We are all already members of this union, whether or not we think about it, or deliberately join. Like Critical Mass, it’s a concept that is embedded in our daily lives. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to formulate a description of it “as if” it were a real organization, and maybe by doing so, it helps to extend the concept, and even inspire people to act MORE deliberately to steal time. It was merely a one-page fake advertisement in Processed World, and briefly a flyer that we distributed in the Financial District of San Francisco during the early 1990s. It attracted a few letters and postcards from isolated people wanting to join, but that’s as far as it went in formal terms. Given the incredible tightening of control over work, not by management or technology (though those have also been tightened up) but by so-called independent workers, contractors, self-employed, to work more and more hours at higher and higher levels of efficiency IN ORDER TO get the NEXT job, the social and laboring spaces from which to steal time increasingly feel like stealing from ourselves. It’s more important than ever to propose the idea, but I think it needs revamping to reflect the dilemmas facing the marginally employed precarious workers in this era.

AF: Refusal of work and non-economic or anti-economic behaviors are important in PROCESSED WORLD’s basic intellectual premise. Personally, I see employment almost like a life sentence. And I totally despise the workaholic philosophy that has spread almost unchecked in every workplace over the last 15 years. But I think people need to be active to give meaning to their lives. It doesn’t have to be paid work, but it has to be a publicly acknowledged activity in order to provide that kind of existential significance. What do you think?

CC: Yes, I’ve written a novel set in the year 2157 in San Francisco in which I tried to describe a world that is freed from the stupidity of The Economy. But my sense of human nature is that we all want to pull our own weight, contribute our share, do our part, and that we basically like to do things. So I described a society based on completely voluntary and cooperative practices around useful activities to make the things we need to live, divided into various categories from 60-hours-a-year “annuals” to 18-month “tryouts” to 3-year “apprenticeships” culminating in becoming a “lifer” (a sentence you can always walk away from if you want to). If we could all wake up and choose what to do, based on what we had all described as needed and useful and pleasurable, I think we could all work a lot less, have a lot more fun, and take care of providing everything to everyone within the rational limits imposed by ecological and psychological sanity. But we all crave social participation and social recognition–these are fundamental human needs.

AF: In your blog, you presented a skeptical view of the state of autonomous marxist research as represented by the cambridge conference on immaterial labor and class composition. Does that mean that real movements in Europe and America have in a way progressed more in their practices than even the most sophisticated critical theories have evolved in their approaches? Or that marxism is no longer vital? Or what were in general the political and/or theoretical reasons for your dissatisfaction?

CC: I’m actually very attracted to autonomous marxist theories of class composition and general intellect, and am working on a book that will make good use of these ideas. The conference frustrated me because I hate ponderous academic conferences as a form, and this one failed to make space for open discussion, or a way for attendees to contribute their own ideas and knowledge to the overall conference experience. It was too focused on “experts” reading papers to enforced passive audiences. Secondly I was surprised at the preponderant focus on the old idea of basic income, or salario garantito. I understand that if we all were to gain such a reform we would have more space and time to further contest the venal stupidity and barbarism of this world, but it’s a Catch-22. How are you going to get a basic income without a social upheaval that is threatening to topple the whole order? and if you got a basic income, wouldn’t it have to be equally available to everyone on the planet? and then, wouldn’t that imply some kind of global state to administer it? Why do we want to go there?

I would not characterize the state of “real movements” in Europe and America (which are?) as having progressed beyond sophisticated critical theories. Things are far too chaotic, too disunited, too disorganized and disparate, to make such a claim. As for marxism, it’s still a most useful descriptive framework for understanding developments in the world, but it’s never been particularly useful in terms of prescription. I would not read Marx to decide how to act politically, but I would read Marx and some contemporary marxist thinkers to more intelligently understand the world we live in.

AF: You participated to the mayday in Milano, the same day that Latinos in San Francisco and elsewhere in metropolitan America were giving a new meaning to the global celebration of workers in the land that invented it. You went to the traditional mayday celebration of the morning with mainstream unions and old communist sects, and you participated to the much larger mayday parade of precarious Milano in the afternoon. My impression is that neither one satisfied your political instincts. You wrote you enjoyed the parade (and I can tell you it was better than last year because intramovement tensions were diluted) but you found it contained too little in term of social demands. You saw it more as a giant allegorical party with plenty of music, booze, and weed for its attendants. Although the mayday poster contained strong basic demands such as union rights, guaranteed continuity of income and paid maternity leave for all temps and partimers, and in spite of the fact that in the US people would get immediately arrested and/or charged during a parade like ours, I can see your point. To close this essay-long question, what do you think if we restored the world meaning of mayday, by doing a MONDO MAYDAY 007 merging Precarios and Migrantes in America and Europe in one giant, networked mayday celebration of class insurgence and denunciation of grotesque inequality? Can you fathom a mayday common to San Francisco, Milano, and all the American and European cities that this year have celebrated mayday in a spirit true to its radical roots?

CC: As you note, my experience of MayDay in Milano this year was a mixed bag. I saw the old-style communist MayDay in its last throes, and that’s history. The EuroMayDay was a fun party, and certainly carried publicly a message about precarity and social rights, against borders and police, etc. So it had a political message floating over a street party in which most people just danced and got drunk. Nothing wrong with that, but like the Reclaim the Streets experiences in San Francisco, what starts out to make a big political impact gets diluted when it is reduced to a street party…

“Fighting for our right to party” is a slogan that various rock musicians have put out ironically, but in typical modern fashion, it has come full circle to be the apparent real extent of our expression in this era. How do we go beyond that?

A global Mondo Mayday could be more of the same, AND it could also be an aggressive reappearance of the global population that first filled the streets on Feb. 15, 2003. In July 1999 financial districts were sacked in a dozen places during the People’s Global Action against capitalism. Sacking buildings is not necessarily a great political goal either, but something that builds on the logic of a serious disruption to the system’s ability to carry on is essential. If we can join such a disruption with a defiantly hilarious and celebratory seizure of urban space, maybe a new logic of opposition and creation can generate itself?… why not?

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One Response to “Alex Foti interviews me!”

  1. 1

    how is July 4 a worse holiday than Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day or Constitution Day? Not to mention the various presidents’ birthdays, the coopted parties of MLK Day and Cesar Chavez Day, and St Patricks Day? And the Hallmark inventions like Valentines Day and Secretary’s Day? At least July 4 nominally celebrates a revolution and the triumph of enlightenment ideals.