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Thinking about Post-Capitalism

Havana

Havana

It’s an elusive concept. As many have by now pointed out, for many people it’s easier to imagine the end of the planet than the end of capitalism. The success of neoliberalism since the mid-1970s at colonizing political imagination is remarkable to say the least. Still, as the writings I examined in the previous entry and the new book by the excellent journalist and historian Paul Mason all demonstrate, new ideas are percolating, and the end of capitalism is inevitable, even if we’re pretty unclear on what comes next.

Curiously I am sitting in Santiago, Chile writing this but not long ago I was able to visit a place where a strange version of post-capitalism is still trying to exist. In Cuba housing is nearly completely decommodified (no one pays rent and until quite recently no one could buy or sell their homes, only trade them straight up), medical care is completely decommodified, and education is too. (Here in Chile a massive student movement helped propel President Bachelet back into power—a centrist social democrat, somewhat left by post-dictatorship Chilean standards—promising to make public higher education free and available to all.) Funny that Obama went to Cuba to promote trade at a moment when so much of the world economy is sputtering at best, and teetering on the brink of another great unraveling. Fidel Castro published an open letter repudiating Obama’s “happy face” call to forget the past and focus on the future. This willful amnesia is a quintessentially American quality that has served Obama very well during his presidency. He has repeatedly insisted on looking forward in order to reinforce a culture of complete impunity for war criminals and financial criminals and one must assume, assuring his own financial well-being long after his presidency.

Havana

Havana

the_man_who_loved_dogs-padura_leonardo-21470241-1983256182-frntlAttempting to untangle the dark history of the Castros’ “communism” from a more radical point of view has been done elsewhere, but seeing the results in 2016 had the effect of peeling back layers of forgotten history. In his amazing novel The Man Who Loved Dogs, Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura whips back and forth between Cuba in the 1970s, 1980s, the hungry Special Period of the early 1990s, and into the 2000s, juxtaposing it all to the story of Trotsky in exile, first in Siberia, then on an island in the Bosporus Straits in Turkey, then Norway, before finally arriving to Coyoacan in Mexico. In the novel the Stalinists of the Spanish Communist Party are portrayed as fanatical zealots who destroy the Republican cause from within and select Ramon Mercader to be specially trained as Trotsky’s assassin. The man who loves dogs could be seen as Trotsky, but it becomes clear that it is Mercader himself who as an elderly dying exile on a Cuban beach (after serving 20 years in a Mexican jail and another decade in an upscale apartment in Moscow as a “hero of the revolution” for his sordid deed) slowly recounts his story to the disillusioned and demoralized Cuban writer who tells the story within the story. It’s an amazing book, serving as an allegory on the failure of 20th century revolutions in general, and as an exemplary tale of fear, betrayal, fanaticism, obedience, and self-loathing which turn out to be at the heart of much of the Communist movement of the 20th century, dominated by the insanity of Stalin, and later Mao, and even the Castro brothers who fully embraced the Stalinist police state model.

Getting a signal outside of Hemingway's storied Floridita Bar in Havana...

Getting a signal outside of Hemingway’s storied Floridita Bar in Havana…

So post-capitalism! Turns out the Stalinists weren’t capable of bringing down capitalism and only managed to create strange pockets of police state corporatism, a rather worse outcome among dozens of possibilities one might imagine. Nowadays, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the full integration of China into the world capitalist system have left very few places outside the orbit of markets and money. North Korea perhaps, though it is hardly a beacon of alternativism and inspiration! Cuba on the other hand is at an interesting juncture, and could possibly change in ways that do inspire and provoke beyond its own borders. But lessening the grip of the state, not to market forces so much as to the initiatives and activities of its own citizenry, is an essential step. After 60 years of a one-party state it may be difficult for most Cubans to take independent action. The recent years’ opening to allow people to rent rooms, start small restaurants, etc., has led to a boom in tourism that the country’s infrastructure (transportation especially) can barely handle, and a lot of foreign investors wanting to get in for the expected take-off of hotels, condominiums, real estate, and so on. For Cubans, in spite of the decommodification of key elements of life, the monthly salary of a little over $20 does not suffice, and nearly everyone is trying to get a piece of the tourist action, where the convertible peso is used (e.g. a couple of taxi rides in Havana cost the same as a Cuban’s monthly salary!). Most people looking at Cuba today see a country on the road to a more complete integration into world economic activity and with it a further monetization of Cubans’ daily lives. It’s very hard to imagine a Stalinist state changing its DNA to allow for a radical confederation of workers coops to self-manage the complex transition to an unknown relationship to the world market. The most likely model is China, where the state is the final arbiter (and guarantor) of all economic investments and makes all the main decisions. Ultimately everyone works for the State, Inc., and the accumulation of capital is a key element in that process, depending on wage-labor as the primary social relationship.

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Start Talks Now on Work Reduction!

From a birthday hike on Tomales Point, elk watering at a pond with Bodega Bay and Sonoma county coast in distance across mouth of Tomales Bay.

From a birthday hike on Tomales Point, elk watering at a pond with Bodega Bay and Sonoma county coast in distance across mouth of Tomales Bay.

The title of this essay is an old slogan I came up with in the early 1990s, back in the days we were founding such disparate “organizations” as the Committee for Full Enjoyment (not Full Employment) and the Union of Time Thieves Local 00. It was in the context of the last years of Processed World magazine, which was published from 1981 until 1994, always shining a bright light on the insipid pointlessness of daily life on the job across corporate and nonprofit and educational America, especially in the newly emerging high-tech offices of the era. Talking about work has always felt like going public with a terrible secret, revealing a closeted awareness that the emperor has no clothes, that work as we know it is largely a waste of time if not actually making the world much worse for the doing.

For many years it seemed that few others would take up this topic, and if so, only from the point of view of rather traditional leftist frameworks. So we have had endless campaigns promoting “jobs” as something we should be in favor of, fighting to bolster palpably corrupt or inept trade unions, and a basic acceptance of the notion that economic growth is good and capitalist profits benefit the whole society. Leftists even to this day will argue that workers just need to be reminded that they are part of the mighty Working Class, and that with this reinforced consciousness, radical social change will naturally follow. In light of the moribund ideologies surrounding conversations about work and workers, it’s hardly surprising that neoliberalism’s emphasis on individual “freedom” and self-organized entrepreneurialism have influenced more people’s daily practices than anything on offer from the “left.”

Given the desultory state of critical thinking on the left with regard to work and economy, it is gratifying that some new books have finally begun to appear that challenge this situation. The four writings I’m going to weave into this piece share a certain despair at their core, but I think despair is a pretty reasonable state of mind facing our predicament. And I don’t think despair means paralysis, nor is it that old bogeyman “defeatism.” We have to hit bottom before we can start back up again to something fresh that can shake off the doldrums and stodgy stasis of revolutionary thought.

cyber-proletariat_coverIt has been almost two years since I last took up this topic on this blog. I brought in some of the new writings at that time that inspired me, from Miya Tokumitsu’s cogent critique of the bait-and-switch promise hidden in advice to “Do What You Love,” to Kathi Weeks’ The Problem with Work, both of which get referenced in a couple of the works I cite here. The new books I just plowed through for this are Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex by Nick Dyer-Witheford, The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself by Peter Fleming, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, and lastly a long essay in End Notes #4 called “A History of Separation: the Rise and Fall of the Workers Movement 1883-1982”.

Mythology-of-Work_coverTaken together these writings help define the predicament we face, which is not easily summarized in a soundbite or even two. The century-long effort to promote workers organization, most prominently in the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements that arose in the late 19th century, depended on assumptions which have not been deeply challenged in a very long time. The comrades from End Notes face it in their essay, concluding that rather than an emerging collective consciousness based on a shared experience of work as predicted by everyone from Marx onwards, “atomization won out over collectivization.” They anchor this self-evident truth in a challenge to the theoretically suspect assumption that Marx shared with the 2nd International’s Karl Kautsky and the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky: “to achieve the abolition of the proletariat, it is first necessary that each individual be reduced to a proletarian. The universalization of this form of domination is the precursor to the end of domination.” But that rosy expectation has been shattered by the actual evolution of modern life. In the early 21st century, End Notes understands that working people still produce the world we inhabit:

end-notes-4-cover_72-dpiSociety is still the product of all these working people: who grow and distribute food, who extract minerals from the earth, who make clothes, cars, and computers, who care for the old and the infirm, and so on. But the glue that holds them together is not an ever more conscious social solidarity. On the contrary, the glue that holds them together is the price mechanism. The market is the material human community. It unites us, but only in separation, only in and through the competition of one with all. (p. 160)

Our atomized, hyper-individualized world, which we experience as being shaped by forces beyond our control, is far from a world where working-class community, or much of any other kind of community, provides a safe haven, or a meaningful daily life. We are on our own.

At present, workers name the enemy they face in different ways: as bad banks and corrupt politicians, as the greedy 1%. These are, however, only foreshortened critiques of an immense and terrible reality. Ours is a society of strangers, engaged in a complex set of interactions. There is no one, no group or class, who controls these interactions. Instead, our blind dance is coordinated impersonally through markets. The language we speak—by means of which we call out to one another, in this darkness—is the language of prices. It is not the only language we can hear, but it is the loudest. This is the community of capital. (p. 166)

Clearly a despairing analysis. Workers employ populist rhetoric to try to understand what they’re up against, but the very language and conceptual universe in which we are enveloped locks us into a “community” that is founded on our exploitation. Still, work remains at the (vulnerable, fragile) heart of capital. Similar to how we relate to cancer, we rely on language to understand work as a personal predicament rather than a social phenomenon, rather than an outcome of socially constructed choices and shared effort. But the antipathy to understanding work socially started long ago. It parallels the steady diminishment of taking pride in work, that intensified during the height of Fordist factory work when anyone with a brain found it boring and unfulfilling. The deindustrialization of the past decades is not the cause of the collapse of working class identities, but rather an accelerant for the social atomization that was already underway.

inventing-the-future-cover_72-dpiIn Inventing the Future¸ Srnicek and Williams recognize that the historic left’s dependence on the industrial working class as its frame of reference has been outflanked by historical developments, not the least of which happened within the working class itself.

For the left at least, an analysis premised on the industrial working class was a powerful way to interpret the totality of social and economic relations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thereby articulating clear strategic objectives. Yet the history of the global left over the course of the twentieth century attests to the ways in which this analysis failed to attend to both the range of possible liberating struggles (based in gender, race, or sexuality) and the ability of capitalism to restructure itself—through the creation of the welfare state, or the neoliberal transformations of the global economy. Today, the old models often falter in the face of new problems; we lose the capacity to understand our position in history and in the world at large. (p. 14)

The ideas that the working class is the motor of history, or that class struggle follows a teleological trajectory towards human liberation, are harder to believe in now. The evidence of a century of war, barbarism, modernization, and radical technological and social change does not seem to have brought us much closer to revolution. Still, trying to make sense of the complicated relationship between our own labor and the world that confronts us is at the heart of our predicament. Reclaiming the concept of “proletariat” before we dump out the rubbish bin of history is a helpful step, and each of these writings does that in their own ways.

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Mary Brown Has Died But She Lives On in All of Us

Mary Brown... about to say.... "Well, no..."

Mary Brown… about to say…. “Well, no…”

My good friend Mary Brown died about ten days ago. Yesterday, Saturday December 19, 2015, there was a stirring memorial for her, attended by well over 200 of her friends and family, all inspirations to her while she lived. But as the grief poured out and the memories piled up, the charming and hilarious anecdotes, the horrible sense of loss, and the powerful presence she had in her absence, the overwhelming inspiration she gave us all was the lasting impression for me. Over the years she had developed her own sensibilities, her own unique ways of thinking about and engaging with the world around her. Her work, from the push to establish the bike lanes on Valencia Street and help begin the still overdue transformation of San Francisco’s urban space, to her graduate thesis on the how automobility and congestion were imposed by motordom on the Mission, to her recent work to uncover the surprising diversity in the ticky-tack architecture of the Sunset district, all embodied and modeled a deeply observant and perpetually curious relationship to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California.

In February at the PPIE100 opening at the Palace of Fine Arts: LisaRuth Elliott, Mary Brown, Elizabeth Creely, and yours truly.

In February at the PPIE100 opening at the Palace of Fine Arts: LisaRuth Elliott, Mary Brown, Elizabeth Creely, and yours truly.

I didn’t share the personal intimacies that so many memorialists did yesterday, especially her many housemates in the 22nd Street co-op. But the quirky, messy, prickly, funny, spontaneous, goofy, wonderful Mary that I have known since the mid-1990s was only confirmed and augmented by their stories. I was supposed to open the second part of the memorial of open-mic tributes, but after the lengthy ceremony and ensuing potluck, it seemed inappropriate to go back to microphone-and-audience, and anyway, we were hosting our big annual Posada party at home, scheduled long before this sad event became necessary. So I didn’t get to speak to the assembled mourners, but what I was prepared to talk about is this:

I didn’t live with Mary or even spend that much time alone with her over the years. What we shared more than anything was a mutual love of the City, an enthusiasm for exploration and meandering, for the dérive, the serendipitous, the historic mysteries embedded in the landscape—often in plain view. We both worked directly and indirectly to bring about a reinhabitation of the urban environment. We also shared a prickly contrarian sensibility that brooked no spiritual mumbo-jumbo, that took in the world through an assiduously secular lens that nevertheless could appreciate the wonder of life, the astonishing capacity of humans to connect with each other and the world around them. Mary was always a pillar of empathy and curiosity, far more capable of occupying an open-minded space of welcoming conviviality than most people I’ve ever met. At the same time she had little patience for trivialities, for niceties, for the blather that fills up way too much of our lives.

Beyond the specifics of her many accomplishments, her many friendships, and her infectious pleasure in living, I think Mary’s biggest contribution, one that is far from over, was her ability to model and share a new way of seeing the world around us. Perhaps she didn’t invent it, but as part of a wider stream of people who have been engaged in reconnecting us to place, to landscape, to the built environment, to the historic social movements that shaped our world, Mary Brown will always be with us because she helped change how we think. Never one to browbeat or lecture she still managed to convey a deeper way of seeing our world that once experienced, simultaneously humanized and naturalized each one of us. By sharing with us a utopian impulse that lacked the demanding perfectionism implied by the idea of utopia, her contribution to our changing epistemology is inestimable for those of us lucky enough to have been her friend and to have accompanied her on her perambulations across our fair town.

Mary Brown, you suffered way too much in your life, but now that it’s over it pales compared to the joy you took in the everyday pleasures right in front of us. On a StoryCorps interview with her from last June when Laura Lent asks her if she has any advice for the rest of us contemplating the unimaginable idea of a world without her, she laughs and assures us she has “lots of advice—for everyone!”… and her first, most urgent suggestion is to quit your job!

Life is far too short. When I turned 45, almost 14 years ago now, I felt that weight of mortality, how fleeting our time is on earth. To lose Mary at only 46 years of age, a life that endured four cancers over 20 years, is to know that most of us have not lived to our fullest, have not drunk nearly deeply enough of the joys and pleasures that are all around us. Mary, more than most people, showed us how to do it, and on her way out, took the time to wag her finger once more in her gently insistent way. “Do what matters! Don’t wait til later! Get on with it!” And so we should.

Mary and Adriana during the walk to Bayview Hill on February 6, 2010

Mary and Adriana during the walk to Bayview Hill on February 6, 2010

On Bayview Hill Feb. 6 2010.

On Bayview Hill Feb. 6 2010.

On the stairs at 20th and Sanchez, Feb. 5 2006 birthday walk...

On the stairs at 20th and Sanchez, Feb. 5 2006 birthday walk…

Riding along the Carquinez Straits in summer 2014.

Riding along the Carquinez Straits in summer 2014.

another view of Carquinez straits ride

another view of Carquinez straits ride

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