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Si el ciclismo es la clave, ¿qué nos revela?

April 3, 2016, giving this talk in Santiago, Chile at the 5th Forum Mundial de Bicicleta

April 3, 2016, giving this talk in Santiago, Chile at the 5th Forum Mundial de Bicicleta

Nos hemos reunido en nuestro entusiasmo compartido para el ciclismo. En uno u otro momento de nuestras vidas, cada uno de nosotros llegó a identificar el ciclismo como la clave para el cambio social. O llegamos a la conclusión de que era la clave para desenmarañar la pesadilla de tráfico peligroso que atormenta a la mayoría de las ciudades del mundo, o para recuperar un espacio público más agradable de la dominación de los automóviles privados. O conectamos al ciclismo a nuestro rechazo de participar en las guerras del petróleo o la montaña de deuda asociada con la dependencia al automóvil y el petróleo; o un rechazo a la contaminación masiva por combustibles fósiles que está causando estragos en el clima del mundo.

En un primer nivel, la mayoría de nosotros aprendió a montar bicicleta cuando éramos niños, y pronto descubrió que el andar en bicicleta duba acceso cercanas calles y barrios, y finalmente ciudades enteras que podíamos alcanzar al andar en nuestras bicis. La movilidad personal: la libertad de moverse de forma independiente a través del espacio es un placer embriagante y es un derecho de todos los seres humanos, o debería serlo.

Esta libertad de la movilidad ha sido completamente colonizada por los ingenieros de la mercado tecnia de la industria automotriz durante más de cien años. La bicicleta perdió el argumento a principios del siglo veinte, un argumento que el ciclismo en sí había comenzado en el siglo 19 con demandas de buenos caminos cubiertos de asfalto. En la medida que los automóviles llegaron a dominar el transporte personal, desplazando la movilidad a pie, en bicicleta y en los tranvías, y con la ampliación y reorganización de las calles para acomodar velocidades más rápidas y más aparcamiento, el ciclismo fue redefinido como el primer vehículo de un niño en su camino a un maduro abrazo del coche en la edad adulta. La mayoría de la gente en todo el planeta estaba convencido de esto, o al menos lo estaban hasta hace una generación.

A partir de 1992 en San Francisco, la masa crítica surgió como una mensual “coincidencia organizada” en que primero decenas, luego centenares y finalmente miles de ciclistas salieron a las calles para “andar juntos de regreso a casa.” Mientras que se ve como inevitable y natural que los automóviles atasquen a diario a nuestras calles en interminables nudos de tráfico, como parte inextricable del “clima” de la ciudad, a las masas densas de ciclistas se les define como anómalas, algún tipo de extraña aberración antinatural o una inesperada aparición de creatividad rebelde. Aunque siempre decimos: “No estamos bloqueando el tráfico, ¡SOMOS TRÁFICO!”, la mayoría de los participantes, los transeúntes y los automovilistas entendieron que esto era algo más que mero tráfico. Me gusta decir que fue una Celebración Desafiante. Descubrimos que por andar en bicicleta juntos en una toma festiva de las calles estábamos abriendo grietas en el espacio público cerrado de las calles de la ciudad, reclamando nuestras arterias de las décadas de encierro a causa de la dominación del motor y su éxito en marginar otras opciones de transporte. También hemos abierto un  espacio autónomo, libre de comercio, donde reunirse en conversación y actividad común es una experiencia natural que no requiere de permisos, licencias, o la compra de productos.

With Andreas Rohl (left) and Rodrigo Diaz (right)

With Andreas Rohl (left) and Rodrigo Diaz (right), with moderator Sergio Corrales (far right)

Desde ese auspicioso giro hace una generación, el ciclismo ha regresado a las ciudades del mundo en una manera que nadie podría haber predicho. Acogió el entusiasmo de una amplia franja de la población; existen literalmente cientos de miles de personas andando cada día en bicicleta en vez de conduciendo autos. Este es un increíble resultado de una decisión colectiva para cambiar la vida que lentamente hizo cúmulo en un lugar pequeño, luego se extendió a otros lugares, y eventualmente condujo a millones de personas en cientos de ciudades del mundo a cambiar su comportamiento cotidiano.

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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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