Conundrums of the Commons

Sunset over Puget Sound from the train I was on yesterday to Vancouver.

Two books I read in the past month overlap with each other in useful ways. The first, Commonwealth by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, is the third volume of their epic theoretical work that began with Empire and continued through Multitudes. While I’m not a camp follower per se, I did get a lot out of these efforts and was glad to read Commonwealth as the conclusion. It made some parts of their argument clearer, but left some important areas unresolved and even self-contradictory. I suppose that’s to be expected with such an ambitious effort to unravel this moment in history, the rise of new paradigms of both capitalist self-perpetuation and (potentially) revolutionary subversion.

The other book is by my host in Vancouver this week, Matt Hern, Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. His book, like Nowtopia, is published by AK Press, and I had the pleasure of hearing him present some of his arguments at the Studio for Urban Projects in San Francisco a few months ago. I like a great deal of his argument, pitting a grounded sociality against the forces of capital that continually render everything that is solid into air, or in the case of his book, turning the solidity of urban space into endlessly liquid flows of capital. As he asks, “how can we imagine commonality and neighborhood in such a relentlessly liquid world?”

The amazing Free Farm Stand in San Francisco, free food gleaned from markets and gardens around the area, every Sunday at 23rd and Treat.

The key for Hern, parallel to the arguments by Negri and Hardt, is a form of exodus, to “actively expand the non-market sectors of the economy and society.” But where Hern’s is practical, based on new forms of trust, friendship, and hospitality, and rooted in specific places (Vancouver is his chosen locale), the Negri/Hardt (N/H) version is largely a theoretical assertion based on their odd and contradictory notion of “biopolitical labor.” Given my own years of helping produce Processed World, a magazine that documented well ahead of its time the rise of precarious labor when it was still in its early, affirmative, assertive form of exiting as much as possible the stupid world of wage-labor, I’m quite sympathetic to analyzing the important emergence of immaterial labor. A sweeping argument of N/H is that biopolitical labor is becoming hegemonic (something that invariably gets yowls of protest from anyone who wants to check on the statistical fact that there are more people working in tightly managed industrial factories today than at any previous time in history). By biopolitical labor they mean the activities that comprise all of our lives; a crucial piece of this line of thought is to assert that a new form of capitalist exploitation is taking shape in the cutting edge industries and geographies of the modern world, and that it is becoming increasingly dominant.

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Making Space Public

Critical Mass made it to see the sunset at Ocean Beach on May 28.

It’s a bit strange to start writing about the bucolic uses of public space in San Francisco (Critical Mass and Carnaval) while the worst environmental disaster in history is ongoing. Who has not already had days of obsessing about the oil pouring into the Gulf, followed by numbness, distancing, and then another round of intense rage and grief?  The sheer hubris of BP and the venal complicity of the Obama Administration is breathtaking. A person commented on my last entry Technology and Impotence over at Streetsblog, defending Obama and his minions. They are in denial about the overwhelming evidence that has been reported everywhere from Newsweek to local papers that BP and Obama’s general-in-charge have been working in lockstep to deny journalists and photographers access to areas of great damage, to prevent ecologists from getting in to count wildlife casualties, and generally have been running the whole thing like they run the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, putting more time and money into controlling the way the news appears in the media than actually addressing the problems their policies are creating. The Israeli attack on the Gaza Relief Flotilla is another example of bald-faced manipulation in the face of overwhelming evidence (the soldiers who were attacking ships in international waters were “attacked”? Do they think the whole world is crazy?) Increasingly we live in a world of manufactured news and images, in which our ideas and “knowledge” are almost completely dominated by state and corporate propaganda. That’s not new, to be sure, but it’s getting worse all the time. The attempt to black out news and images of the oil spill is being handled exactly like government efforts to hide the casualties of war.

Now we find out that since it’s not working as well as they’d like, BP  has hired Dick Cheney’s former press secretary–a woman who was once the spokesperson for the U.S. Dept. of Energy under the Bush Oil Cabal and apparently knows how to spin and hide the most blatant incompetence and corruption. I just learned about this website “If It Was My Home” where you can see how huge the spill is by placing it in any part of the world you want to (hat-tip to Mona for the link). It’s a handy one-stop website where you can also see the live webcam of the ongoing oil torrent and a running counter of the number of gallons that have poured out (22.5 million and counting as I write this).

Bicyclists are reeling a bit this weekend because a couple of days ago a guy deliberately drove his SUV into 4 different cyclists before crashing and running away. He got caught today when he went to the police to claim that he had been carjacked, but he’d left his wallet, keys, and cellphone in the car when he ran away. Remarkably, they are booking him on murder charges, something that almost never happens when a motorist assaults bicyclists, but this was so aggressive and random, plus he went after four different cyclists on different streets, so maybe they’ll follow this through.

There’s an ongoing low-level roar online from the 101st Fighting Keyboardists against bicycling, most notably on SFGate and a few other local sites, but in real life the supposed overwhelming hostility to cyclists is hard to find. We had a fantastic Critical Mass last week, as usual characterized by hundreds of bystanders, motorists, and pedestrians cheering us as we rolled by. It was the first time in a year or more that a published route was shared ahead of the ride. It was supposed to go to the 7 beaches of San Francisco, but in the end we only made it to about 4.

Critical Massers enjoy sunset at the beach, May 28 2010.

Instead of following the proposed route and looping to South Beach (and joining the protesters who were outside the Giants-Arizona game) the riders in front went straight up Market, then west on Geary in a beeline, north on Van Ness until the irresistable vortex of the Broadway Tunnel got ’em again. What is it about that damn tunnel these days? Why does Critical Mass have to go back and forth through it EVERY TIME?? Joel P. worked hard in the front, and got some help from a guy he picks apples with (who seemed to have some influence with the testosterone-laden young men who led the ride into the tunnel) who brought the riders back west whereupon we went north on Van Ness, then took the waterfront to Crissy Field.

An inexplicably "militant" moment in the Presidio, May 28, 2010.

I saw at least six different tandems in this Critical Mass... quite unusual!

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Technology and Impotence

NASA satellite image of Gulf oil spill, May 17, 2010.

(This piece was published first at I appreciate their consideration for my wanting to republish it here so soon.)

The BP oil spill goes on. And on. We watch the oil on live web cam pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. And we watch. Political rage is muted, practical responses even more distant. What to do? How do we “take action” on something like this? How can individuals meaningfully respond to this catastrophe? Stop driving? Boycott one brand of gas? Stop buying things made of plastic? Let’s not flatter ourselves. A few folks I know are planning to go to a local ARCO gas station (owned by BP) to protest, which will surely be a big moment for the minimum wage employee in the cash booth, and probably an irritant to the half dozen or more motorists waiting to fill their cars.

The numbing impotence we feel is painfully calibrated to our inability to affect what’s happening. Consumer choices we might make will have zero impact on this disaster, and can’t shape the larger dynamics of a globe-spanning, multinational oil industry either. Just listen to Democracy Now on Friday morning to hear how Chevron has destroyed thousands of square miles of the Nigerian delta in its incessant exploitation of the oil there, or how the Ecuadoran Amazon too is covered in vast lakes of spilled oil.

The deeper questions about technology and science are far from our daily lives. The world we live in is embedded in complex networks of technological dependencies, which none of us have chosen freely. Nor do any of us have any way to participate directly in deciding what technologies we will use, how they will be deployed, what kind of social controls will be exerted over private interests who organize and run them for their own gain, etc. (supposedly the federal government regulates them in the public interest, but that is clearly false as shown YET AGAIN by this disaster). The basic direction of science is considered a product of objective research and development, when it has always been skewed to serve the interests of those who already have economic and political power. Public, democratic direction for science and technology is not only non-existent, we really don’t even discuss it as a possibility!

British Petroleum should be given the death penalty. Oh wait! They don’t have death penalities for corporations. In fact, though they apparently have all the rights of individuals with respect to “free speech” (which they are free to buy at any price they wish), they cannot be held accountable as individuals for overtly criminal behavior. And even if they were, their bottom-line obsessing, litigation-phobic approach to the worst oil spill in history is just an example of normal corporate behavior in 2010. Their efforts to control press access and spin the story to their advantage have been consistent since the original accident, insisting on journalists being embedded on BP boats or planes so they can control what is seen and reported.

Penalizing corporate executives that get “caught” only legitimizes the rest of the criminal class in their everyday destruction of the planet. Maybe BP executives will be held criminally responsible (probably not), but the entity whose logic controls the behavior of anyone who is its executive is virtually immune. Unlike its political competitors in human form, the corporation is also apparently immortal.

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