Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Nowtopia – class, capital, and new communities – an interview with Chris Carlsson

In 2001, Chris Carlsson writing in Processed World (the magazine that he helped found), outlined the challenge facing community activists after the Seattle protests:”It is common for radicals in our era to describe easily what they are against, but when it comes to what we are for, a painful silence descends. (A couple of notable exceptions are Ken Knabb’s “The Joy of Revolution” in his collected skirmishes Public Secrets, and Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s Looking Forward.) If anyone is ready to talk about a different way of life at all, it is in vague terms that defy ready application.”

In the same article, Carlson came to an initial response – “‘Living well is the best revenge,’ goes the saying. Resisting overwork and self-sacrifice is an important radical goal in itself. If we aren’t enjoying our lives and finding fulfillment in human connections, our ability to sustain a longterm revolutionary effort is compromised.We need to take the time to develop our philosophical and political depth, study history, ecology, and technology, and practice imagining the world we want to live in. If we cannot trust each other to take the lead, create lasting institutions, articulate more clearly where we’re trying to go, and create living examples (insofar as it’s possible) of the way we want to live, we will have a hard time convincing others to join us. We have to make it clear that we’re fighting for a world dramatically better than the insane world of today ”

That conclusion is, perhaps, the best starting point for Carlsson’s latest work Nowtopia, an exciting book that outlines a ‘new politics of work’. Looking at existing social movements ranging from urban gardeners through to the bio-diesel enthusiasts, and open-source coders Carlsson argues that a quiet revolution is actually taking shape against one of the most fundamental (and often most senseless) building blocks of our capitalist society – the wage-labor relationship. In hundreds of seemingly hidden corners people worldwide are taking small but very concrete steps to make the communities around them better, and they’re doing it in many cases without the promise of a wage. Indeed, without even knowing it you may actually be a Nowtopian – do you value what you do in your ‘free time’ more than that which you do for pay? That’s a start.

Carlsson is well placed to talk about this shift in society, being one of the founders of the hugely succesful Critical Mass cycling movement. He is a writer, blogger, and director of the multi-media history project Shaping San Francisco. Mr Carlsson was kind enough to answer some of our questions (via e-mail) below

TMO: Let’s talk a little bit about your use of class in Nowtopia, and how you define it. It’s very much central to the book, while increasingly we, in the ‘developed world’, seem to take it for granted that class is an outdated concept, particularly the term ‘working class’, since the majority of our manufacturing base has moved to poorer and less-regulated economies.

I have a very broad definition of working class, which in some ways is rooted in a traditional radical critique of wage-labor. As most people have nothing to sell but their labor, they are fundamentally working class, whether paid $8,500 or $85,000 a year. There are many differences of experience between people with such different incomes of course, but my analytical effort has been in part to find the commonality to our experiences across these sociological strata. Class is discussed in great detail in the book, over the first three chapters, so I’m a bit reluctant to extend the discussion too far in this context.

My interest in class as a useful frame of reference, and sense of its vitality, stems from many years of talking to people about work, publishing Processed World magazine from 1981-1994 (about the underside of the Information Age as told by the alienated wage slaves of the modern office, and more), and interviewing people from many situations for Nowtopia. I conclude from all this thought and investigation that the dismissal of class as a useful concept is part-and-parcel of the fantasy held by nearly everyone that they’re in the middle class (if you’re not pushing a shopping cart looking for cans and bottles, or riding in a Lear Jet to your next holiday jaunt, you’re in the middle class). So in the book I try to unpack the self-designation of middle class, look at how workers so labelled are increasingly experiencing speed-ups, precariousness, degraded work conditions, lack of control, and technological rationalization. The underground stream of anti-professionals and “drop-outs” are important contributors to Nowtopian initiatives, and in their actions are embodying an important (and somewhat typical) revolt of workers against the limits imposed on them.

TMO: How do you think the global credit crisis will affect the growth and development of what you’re terming Nowtopia? Will it have a limiting effect, as people increasingly have to cut back on ‘free time’ in order to concentrate on earning a living?

Given the harshness that Depression conditions can impose, with many people forced into abject poverty and starvation, it seems that Nowtopian initiatives may lose some of the current protagonists who are engaged as a ‘free time’ activity, subsidizing it with their income from a ‘day job.’ But for many people, Nowtopian initiatives are practical steps toward community self-reliance. From finding sources of free fuel, open and free communications, new kinds of localized energy and water systems, self-maintained self-propelled transport, local urban food forests and gardens, and so on, these kinds of efforts are actually a practical and hopeful response to the collapse of the official ‘economy.’ Earning a living will be out of reach to many people, but literally ‘making’ a living through these kinds of bottom-up technological and social projects can meet real needs.

TMO: One impediment to change is the idea that something has always been that way. How realistic is it to say, as many of us would, that wage-labour has always been with us, and always will be?

Wage-labor as we know it today is an evolving social institution that depends on people not having access to the means of life without recourse to wages to buy them. The dispossession of millions in the early enclosures in England and Europe in centuries past is a process still underway today, visible especially in Africa, where dispossession of people from the land is the project of modernizing elites continent-wide. This is essential in order to create sufficient populations of rootless people wholly dependent on earning wages.

In terms of how to answer the common idea that it’s always been this way and can only be this way, well, I think an appreciation of how wage-labor and markets and corporations were developed, primarily in the 19th century in forms we can still recognize today, helps to highlight the historical specificity of the forms. Facing a troubling future (ecologically, socially, ‘economically’) it makes more sense to me to emphasize that the economy is nothing more than all of us going to work every day. If we didn’t have the wage-labor relation at the heart of that experience, we would be able to make very different decisions about what to do, why to do it, how to organize it socially and environmentally, and much more. I argue that it is at the point of sale (when we’re ‘hired’) we lose control over what we do, and ultimately the world. If we had a human right to decide what to do, how and why, I think we humans could organize a far more sane and pleasurable life, with a great abundance produced by less work (more intelligently self-organized and designed).

TMO: Largely absent from the book is any suggestion of direct involvement with the party political system as a means to effect change. Can you effect real and substantial change in society without the support and compliance of government?

We will someday be in direct conflict with governments, especially ones organized on larger geographic scales (local governments stand a better chance of being helpful, or at least not an active impediment to a reorganization of life). Obviously when liberals are elected they sometimes help by appointing folks further to their left, who help make resources available to grassroots efforts, and also manage to open spaces where there might not have been any. So from my point of view, governments aren’t going to disappear and cannot be ignored forever. But there will always be people who think the key arena of political life is the contest for governmental power. If we create social movements from below with enough vision and dynamism and practical skill, there will surely be politicians who emerge that speak for (even as co-opters) and with such social movements. I respect the notion of an inside/outside strategy, in which some folks enter the bureaucracies to help open space and divert resources and change policy, while a great many more stay independent of that, and fight for autonomy and independence and maintain a healthy distrust of official support and co-optation.

Two books have made my rethink what a bicycle actually is. The first was the surreal comic novel, the third policeman, by Flann O’Brien – where the fundamental question posed by the curious policeman is always, regardless of the context, “is it about a bicycle?”. The second is Nowtopia, with its chapters on the outlaw bicycle movement. Can you tell us more about the revolutionary history and potential of the bicycle?

I would say that the “revolutionary history of the bicycle” is a phrase with no referent! But the bicycle has had a socially transformative role in the past, notably in the 1880s and 1890s when thousands of women embraced the new independence they found on bicycles. This also led to a new type of fashion, moving away from hoop skirts and bustles and embracing the “bloomers,” the first pants for women. Also during that period, a large popular movement of bicyclists staged very large demonstrations demanding – (wait for it)- asphalt and Good Roads! So sometimes you get what you‘re asking for and things don’t work out quite like you expect it to. The bicycle led directly to the private car, both vehicles reinforcing a strongly privatized notion of personal transit freedom, as opposed to dependence on fixed routes and schedules like the train had promoted. The dark asterisk on this period is the invention of the pneumatic rubber tube which was part of what created the popular demand for Good Roads. But the rubber wasn’t a synthetic product of a petrochemical industry in the 19th century. It was harvested from wild rubber trees, primarily in the Amazon and today’s Congo. The horrific exploitation and brutal conditions imposed are well documented in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost.

So the bicycle as a tool of ecological liberation is an idea we can hold only if we are ignorant to its real history.

That said, it’s a far better choice in the world we’re in than private car ownership, or dependence on a deteriorating or nonexistent public transit system. Moreover, when you’re on a bicycle riding through a city you are in a fundamental way using an “anti-spectacular” device, in the Situationist meaning of the term ‘Spectacle.’ You are learning about things first-hand. You see friends and pull over on the spot to converse and find out together what is happening in the world (rather than being stuck in your car consuming corporate propaganda on the radio, you can find out things with no mediation, directly). When riding in large rides like Critical Mass, the imagination of each individual cyclist is altered forever by the lived experience of a mass seizure of urban space for purposes that are not instrumentally focused on consumption, political demands, or any other kind of narrow goal. So the bicycle has become a signifier for many of a different sensibility, a different relationship with urban space, with self-reliance, with nature in the city, and much more.

TMO: Let’s talk for a moment about the title of the book (and movement), Nowtopia. For me it gives a sense of the concrete, and the idealistic, all wrapped up with a certain urgency. What were you hoping to convey with it?

I’ve been involved with utopian writing and thinking for many years. I coined the term ‘Nowtopia’ to capture what I saw as an emergent set of behaviours, mostly ideas without a lot of self-conscious political sensibility associated with them, but which I saw as clearly bigger than the individual acts taken in isolation-and behaviours which are already happening, not just promised to happen at some future moment. I believe that the notion of revolution has been fetishized in ways that make it very unavailable to us, and yet what I’m trying to identify and link up in Nowtopia are practical acts in the here and now that are precisely the building blocks of a radical transformation of daily life. And as the argument developed, a lot of those activities are deeply rooted in ancient forms of life and what I consider to be real human nature: cooperative, in solidarity, based on mutual aid and a creative engagement with the technosphere we’ve inherited.

TMO: How do the different activities you’ve highlighted in the book fit together (urban gardeners, open source software engineers, bicyclists etc)? How useful is it to link them together under a theoretical framework, a label ‘Nowtopian’? It’s interesting, as you point out regularly throughout the book, that many of the people participating in these activities seem unaware or unconcerned about the larger implications.

They are characterized by people taking their time and technological know-how out of the market, utilizing their full humanity and creativity, in useful and practical and whimsical activities of their own choosing. As it happens, most of these activities address the basic constituent elements of our modern, industrialized life, but from a bottom-up, DIY frame of reference. In fundamental ways, these activities are a wide-ranging R&D effort to create the resilient communities that can survive and finally surpass the collapse of 20th century ideologies, technologies and systems of political and economic organization – or so I’m arguing! The fact that people don’t conceive of their activities in this theoretical framework is part of why I wrote the book, but it also doesn’t matter if they do or not, because one of the assumptions I make is that ideas grow from activity, and though they mutually alter one another, I lean towards a materialist understanding, meaning I think behaviour precedes ideology or even self-conception.

TMO: There has been, particularly in recent years, a backlash against the diverse movements that came together agitating for change in 1968 and onwards into the early ’70s. Conservatives would have us believe that every ill in society was ushered in at that time, whilst many on the left bemoan how the potential for significant change has been gradually eroded and co-opted into a barely changed capitalist system. What relationship, if any, do you see between what you call the nowtopia movement and the movements of the sixties, and in what way is the movement different?

This is a big, broad question that I address at length in the book in several places. I think a lot of Nowtopian initiatives have clear analogues in the 1960s, even if they often have roots going back even further. Moreover, a lot of efforts that seemed defeated in the 1960s-70s period really just went underground and became integrated into efforts that are under the radar.

Again, a reason for writing the book was to appreciate and make more visible all the work around new food politics, housing and community efforts, and much more. A lot of the political expressions post-1960s, such as the anti-nuke movement, anti-Central American wars, nuclear freeze, and a lot of feminist and anti-racist organizing have depended on the progress made with group process, decentralized decision-making, better awareness of sharing power, and overall, more attention to speaking and listening. All these are rooted in the 1960s social upheavals, and have surpassed the original starting point in important ways.

TMO: Scientists are agreed that urgent action is needed to avert serious climate change. In that context are the small, everyday ecological actions of nowtopians that you describe part of the overall solution or a token-gesture, a diversion of energy that would be better spent lobbying Corporate America (or the Corporate World in general) to change its ways?

Obviously efforts to solve global warming locally are inadequate. We need massive policy changes at the level of states and whole continents and even the whole planet. There are not yet such mechanisms, nor is there a political entity that could carry out any kind of binding agreement on all parts of the planet. Some hope the UN could play that role, but not in its current incarnation, and the rest of global institutions are equally incapable of addressing these issues. So we act locally, doing the best we can, but making almost no impact on the bigger problems (Bill McKibben has been quite eloquent about this in a recent article).

Does that mean we should stop what we’re doing locally? Of course not. Do we need to put our eggs in the basket of imploring corporate leaders to change policy? Well, that’s been tried a long time, but as long as their one-and-only purpose in the world is to make a profit, they’ll be incapable of redirecting their corporations toward sane behaviours. Political efforts to subject corporations to an as-yet-undetermined popular control are only starting to be discussed around kitchen tables.

So yes, there should be more effort to reinvent a world polity that can democratically determine a great deal about our shared technological and ecological future. Right now we’re stuck with a bunch of billionaires and their corporations making decisions that they think will produce profit for themselves – a wacky system to be sure.

TMO: This may be an overlap, but what do you think about calls for a new Bretton Woods agreement, or similar talk about the implementation of a green ‘new deal’? Can either proposal fit in with a nowtopian vision of what should be done in the face of the credit-crisis?

Policies enacted by current states embedded in a dysfunctional world market, even an agreement to re-regulate the trillion-dollar derivatives market and its cousins, will not meaningfully contribute to the transformations we need to make. A New Green Deal is being touted by many, and if it channels substantial capital to cheapen the cost of existing, proven, sustainable technologies and the communities that can manufacture and maintain them, that could lead to some useful physical outcomes. But a New Green Deal, like the original New Deal, is first concerned with helping capital accumulate in the hands of private owners. If they do things we can make use of for the next 50-100 years, like the CCC and WPA and PWA did in the New Deal 30s, that’s a great accident. But the purpose of any planning at the level of the U.S. government is to sustain and expand the control of private interests over a public commonwealth.

The best answer to the credit crisis is a general debt cancellation, a rewriting of all measurements regarding economic activity and ‘growth,’ and the establishment of a human right to do useful work. Then maybe we could imagine a world that is democratically moving towards something that is truly sustainable and even beginning to ameliorate the worst damage already wrought.

Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists and Vacant-lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today

is published by AK Press

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