From Nowtopia To Rebel City

This is an interview Robby Herbst did with me in the past few weeks. It appears on his website the Llano del Rio Collective. I’m truncating the introduction here so go to his site to read his explanation of the evolution of his project, and why he decided interviewing me was a good fit. 

On my many walks I get to take in these incredible vistas regularly… this is from Tank Hill. Pt. Reyes is visible at upper left of horizon on this very clear day.

Robby Herbst) When I first read Nowtopia I saw it as an exciting work of speculative and theoretical geography. You write in your book; “Taken together, this constellation of practices is an elaborate, decentralized, uncoordinated, collective research and development effort exploring a potentially post-capitalist post-petroleum future.”  I’m wondering if you can reflect on the context (economic, theoretical, political, social) that formed your desire to imagine the Nowtopian constellation.

Chris Carlsson) I started working on Nowtopia theoretically many years before I actually wrote it. I had written many articles for Processed World, participated in or covered a variety of labor struggles since the 1970s (from the UFW lettuce boycott, JP Stevens textile boycott, OCAW strike in 1980, Blue Shield strike in 1980-81, PATCO in 1981, Watsonville cannery workers in 1986, etc.), and had been thinking about the pointlessness of work in the capitalist economy for my entire adult life. My few years as a secretary and word processor in banks, accounting firms, brokerages, and software companies in the early 1980s was the point of origin of the magazine project, but the experiences—which dovetailed with a lifetime of busy-work in school settings—have haunted me all along.

In the early 2000s I thought if something called “revolution” is possible, it must be visible in the daily life all around me. I’m not a religious person, and don’t believe in revolution as something that appears out of the blue. So I began to look more closely at how I, and most of my friends and acquaintances, were actually spending our time. It didn’t take a big effort to recognize that most of us were working two or more jobs, even if only one of them was officially “paid,” and recognized as such. Whether as artists, historians, philosophers, writers, parents, political activists, or any of a number of activities that called us, most of us were living a bifurcated life: on one side we had to make money and we found our way to that end, by hook or by crook. But it was when we were NOT working for money that most of us seemed to be most animated, most enthused, most passionate about our “real work”–and on further examination, that work very often took the form of tinkering or repurposing technologies, or working with the discards and waste of modern capitalism, to address the actual problems of modern life.

Thus, the book Nowtopia was written to foreground the self-activity and liberatory impulses that underlay so much of what we do, even if those very same activities and projects were relegated to near irrelevance precisely BECAUSE they weren’t oriented to making money. They did not register as part of GNP. They were done with a commitment to carry them out without monetary remuneration or the usual kinds of rewards that denote “value.”

I also was informed by the notion of “class composition” and wrote about the long decades of post-WWII and then neoliberal reorganization of the global economy, and how that had led to such a profound atomization and fragmentation of daily life, leaving us all more isolated than ever. In these nowtopian projects and work, I saw a glimmer of working-class recomposition, but no longer based on wage-labor or the luck of residency, but rather based on freely chosen activities and the new relationships that were developing and deepening in the carrying out of those activities.

Sidewalk graffiti in the Mission in the last few months.

RH) Central to your book is a different take on the concept of class. You eschew more traditional ideas of class affiliation embracing the concept of class composition, and center upon a refusal of work. In this refusal of work, you sight the emergence of something that I might describe as an anarchistic non-capitalist entrepreneurialism of the radical deed. This affective relationship to labor and technology underlie the affective politics of your book. Your book was written before the 2008 economic crisis, before the murder of Oscar Grant, the global Occupy Movement, the northward migration of Silicone Valley, the rise of Black Lives Matter, the Trump presidency, and the #metoo movements. How have these events and the way they speak to more essential racial and class based identities, effected your reading of the possibility for the kind of politics you imagine in your book?

CC) A decade after publishing Nowtopia, I’ve realized for quite a while already that many of my most hopeful prognostications weren’t “coming true.” That is, the emergence of a new self-conscious working class movement based on a refusal of stupid, pointless work for capital, and an urgent insistence on being able to control and direct our own activity, has simply not happened.

On the contrary, most of the projects have become small businesses, nonprofit organizations, or have simply vanished after running out of energy. (I had noted originally in the book that the usual and likely outcome of nowtopian practices was to succumb to the “iron rule” of the market by conforming to small business or nonprofit models. That is, the longer you “succeeded” the more likely that you would have to become a “normal” business.)  This doesn’t mean that other projects and initiatives haven’t emerged again and again based on the same profound social need to engage in useful, meaningful, self-directed activity that actually addresses real issues we face.

Mutual aid and solidarity are still animating forces that powerfully attract people into relationships and activities that allow them to make their lives better immediately in the here and now. They simultaneously provide a taste of how much better life could be if organized on these principles. But the more recognized, dare I say ‘spectacular,’ political expressions in the past decade have not put the work we do front and center.

Occupy came closest, and for a brief moment it seemed very hopeful as an arena in which we could contest the way we make life together every day. But that moment passed quickly, and between state repression and political confusion, the effort was not sustained. The rise of militarized police forces primarily directed against people of color is such a pressing crisis that it has thrown thousands of people into defensive action, circling their wagons as best they can against the incessant pressure of state violence.

Black Lives Matter, #Metoo, the emergence of transgender politics, all important, have not included in their stated purposes any critique of modern economic life as far as I know. The ostensible premise of these movements is focused on gaining equal rights (too often described as equal “opportunity”–a slippery evasion of a real commitment to egalitarianism), and ending state repression and patriarchal violence. Of course I support these goals, but it’s hard to imagine achieving any of it absent a much greater and more general social revolt. I’ve always felt that a key to a successful general rebellion would have to be a revolt against work and an economy based on incessant growth. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be a TON of work to do! It means that a convergence of social movements capable of really changing the day-to-day logic of our lives would have to reject the emptiness of “success” as this world defines it. It would have to loudly proclaim the undesirability of a “job” as a be-all and end-all of life. And clearly it would have to put the ecological crisis which is quickly becoming an existential crisis front and center—which requires that we reorganize and redesign everything we do that we currently refer to as “the economy.”

My book and the Nowtopian analysis was an attempt to locate liberatory behaviors in real-life activities, things that I think are still deeply subversive and hopeful. But the separation of most political expression from the deep critique of the stupidity of how we produce and organize the making of life is not a hopeful sign. Radical opposition to Trumpism, sexism, racism, needs to also reject the terms of wage-labor and capitalist reproduction, which themselves depend on the endless separations that a lot of identity-based politics have only served to reinforce.

RH) Is the rise of inequality evidenced in these movements (Occupy, BLM, Me Too, Housing Crisis, etc..)  one of the reasons that the Nowtopian revolution “has simply not happened”?

CC) I’d say the overwhelming hegemony of T.I.N.A neoliberalism (There Is No Alternative) has more to do with it, a deep logic of markets, personal responsibility, disbelief in any role for the state beyond militarism and policing, etc., is more of the problem.

Posted on the democracy wall on Valencia Street.

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The Age of Abundant (Plastic) and the Age of Loneliness

Sunset over Lake Chapala from Monte Cosala, New Year’s Eve, 2017.

It’s 2018. The next big war is on the horizon, though how it will begin and against whom is entirely unclear since the government is a thrashing incoherent mess. Meanwhile the U.S. is already in dozens of wars across the world, with hostilities, death, bombing, and mayhem occurring in more places than most Americans could find on a map… the old dictum to learn geography through bombing isn’t even holding up anymore…

The strange disconnect between a society and its imperial misadventures says more about the oblivious psychology of most Americans than it does about the actual effects because those are quite real. The tens of thousands of desperately poor people huddled in doorways and in vacant lots, hoping for a miracle, are the necessary and inevitable complement to the barbarism that leaves a tiny few with the wealth of billions while the U.S. government pisses billions more away every month to instill global terror under the Orwellian banner of fighting terrorism! Anyone with a heart and brain is deeply ashamed of U.S. society these days.

The hysterical hand-wringing about Trump and his venal minions is used to push all “resistance” towards voting for Democrats in the Fall—yes, the Democrats. The same ones who last week were yelling about Russia and racism while voting to maintain unlimited warrantless NSA surveillance under the control of that most trustworthy leader, Trump. We have a government of millionaires, by and for millionaires, and yet a stunning number of people still think voting in a batch of fresh-faced Democrats is going to alter our trajectory. It’s enough to start looking at long-term escape from this asylum.

American white pelicans winter on Lake Chapala… mostly on the southern shore, far from where we stay…

In Petetan, where they feed the pelicans every morning at dawn.

But all of this isolated fretting is so typical of this era, sitting alone watching cable news or the social media feed on a phone. We are living in a world that is profoundly lonely. Even I feel that way, in spite of having dozens of friends, and a fairly vibrant network of smart, engaged, artistic and political friends. There is a self-imposed isolation that is increasingly the easy “choice”–in the face of the social trauma and political psychoses that masquerade as our democratic society it seems perfectly reasonable to pull back, to ratchet down how much attention I give it all. And that in turn feeds a sense of sad and desperate isolation that becomes more insurmountable the longer this dynamic goes on. Knowing that the Trumpist plutocratic agenda is to destroy all forms of social resistance and leave everyone more isolated and full of self-doubt simply underscores the self-awareness of this predicament.

I admit I’ve been reading a lot of things lately that have made it hard to feel optimistic. In Sierra Magazine, where editor Jason Mark has taken a dull monthly and given it some real editorial life, I read an excerpt from Naomi Klein’s recent book “No is not Enough”–and while I appreciate the sentiment, her account of the death of more than half the Australian Great Barrier Reef was heartbreaking in its finality. I saw an article over the holidays in the Guardian about how the boom in fracking and all the new natural gas had lowered the raw material cost for most plastic products by 2/3. So in this decade, from 2010-2020 we have already produced more plastic than in the entire 20th century. Investment is pouring in to take advantage of the newly cheapened feedstocks and $185 billion in new plant was expected to increase plastic production by over 50%. Hey, just what we need! Ocean-clogging microplastics, which is where the used plastic all ends up, are already disrupting food chains in the oceans. Few fish or birds are without plastic debris in their bellies. In just an hour of garbage pickup along Lake Chapala during our holiday we filled more than 9 large trash bags with plastic debris from that gorgeous Mexican freshwater lake full of herons, egrets, cormorants, and pelicans. Every beach in the world is full of plastic crap. The idea that producers see a big profit in producing 50% more than we’ve ever produced, when we clearly already need to radically reduce its use is just one glaring symptom of a world gone totally mad.

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Uniting Cognitarians is like Herding Cats!

From one of my daily walks across San Francisco, a couple of days after Hurricane Maria had devastated Puerto Rico… months later the story has not improved much.


It’s Thanksgiving 2017 and I’m still here. Haven’t blogged since mid-summer, primarily because I’ve been writing a new Shaping San Francisco guide book to San Francisco that will hopefully come out next autumn with City Lights Books (and maybe Pluto Press too). I’ve also been teaching a class on “Work and the City” at USF to a delightful half dozen grad students who have hungrily devoured the reading and come in every week ready for an interesting discussion (quite a new experience compared to previous teaching gigs). The weekly excursion through labor history and the contemporary politics of work, economy, and urban life has been refreshing for me, reconnecting me with decades of my own passions and long intellectual work (yes, I had them read, among many other things, various Processed World articles as well as the first few chapters of Nowtopia!).

Our weekly classes have provoked a lot of thought for me, as have the ongoing Public Talks at Shaping San Francisco, as well as the half dozen tours and lectures I’ve given this past few months. Trying to make sense of this strange time in history is not easy. The harsh dystopic reality of the Trump administration’s bulldozing approach to facts, compassion, and common sense is a daily affront. But it’s all too easy to fall prey to the Distraction Machine that got us here in the first place, and to lose the ability to look at the bigger picture. Whatever the frantic machinations of the venal kleptocrats around Trump, or the self-serving millionaires who sit in the Congressional majority, there are deeper changes afoot. These changes are global in nature, not limited to the U.S. and its endless self-importance, a national narcissism that grows ever more consuming as the actual power of the country and the culture tips into permanent and inevitable decline.

As I like to do with this blog, I’m going to talk about four books I recently read that complement each other quite well, and offer some compelling insights into this elusive bigger picture. The different authors have different purposes in their works, so they don’t necessarily line up tidily into one discussion, but their overlaps are part of what made me want to finish them before finally taking up this blog again. From darkly pessimistic to perhaps overly hopeful, taken together I think they help frame some of the questions we should be looking at beyond the ebb and flow of daily scandals and predictable barbarisms. The four books are Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code (and I should say that she spoke at our Talks series in October and you can check it out here); Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility; Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest; and the latest from Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, Assembly.


Clearly we are on the edge of something new and different, culturally and economically. Nearly everyone is in a state of worried waiting, anticipating various outcomes with their eyes firmly set on the rear-view mirror—are we going to become a full-blown fascist dictatorship? Will we turn away from authoritarian buffoonery and embrace a new New Deal? What else can we imagine going forward, especially given the rapidly changing methods we collectively use globally to produce the basics of life? Will robots and Artificial Intelligence combine to become our new Overlords or will we wrest control of technology and begin radically changing how we work and what we do? And what about the collapse of the planetary ecosphere? Is that now inevitable or can we still avert complete catastrophe through clever adaptation and vigorous reorganization and repurposing of our daily activities? Obviously a lot of these problems are connected!

In Assembly Hardt and Negri cite Carlo Vercellone for extending Marx’s periodization to

the cusp of the twenty-first century, when capital’s center of gravity shifts from large-scale industry to the phase of “general intellect,” that is, production based in increasingly intense and widespread circuits of social cooperation as well as machinic algorhithms as the basis to extract value from the production and reproduction of social life, a phase in which the distinction between the economic and the social is becoming increasingly blurred. (p. 41)

Similarly, Bifo is also rooted in a Marxist sensibility that sees our current era as defined fundamentally by the possibility of transcending the capitalist control of time and space: “The possibility of emancipation of social time from the obligation of salaried work still exists: it is located in the cooperative knowledge of millions of cognitive workers,” (p. 21) but unlike Hardt and Negri’s relative optimism, Bifo has written his book to analyze the blockages and limits that are preventing the cohort of “cognitive workers” from moving forcefully towards self-emancipation. “They are cooperatively running the process of innovation, invention and implementation of knowledge, but they do not know each other. The cooperating brains have no collective body and the private bodies have no collective brain.” (p. 51)

Bifo’s Futurability whipsaws back and forth between his conviction that no social subject exists at this time with the self-consciousness or political agency to pursue emancipation, and his invocation of the possibilities we face:

it is a tendency towards full deployment of the general intellect, the possibility of an emancipation of technology from the semiotic context of capitalism, the liberation of time from salaried work, the revitalization of collective life, and the expansion of care, cultural education and research: a post-labourist future. … The task of free thought is to enable freedom, and freedom means autonomy from the blackmail of realism that forgets the inscribed possibility and only sees the forms of power currently deployed. (p 64)

Photographed on Democracy Wall on Valencia Street in San Francisco…

Continue reading Uniting Cognitarians is like Herding Cats!