I Have, Therefore I Am (Dying): The Crisis of Possessive Individualism

Apart from the issue of corporate money, I think there are deep historical reasons for the collapse of conservatism American-style as an ideology. They have to do with the senescence of possessive individualism in the age of global human cooperation and massive human impacts on the biosphere. Possessive individualism as a worldview originated with the hyperacquisitive English gentry class in the later seventeenth century and was codified into philosophy by thinkers like Adam Smith. It is worth remembering that the wording Madison wanted for the opening of the Declaration of Independence was “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Property.” Possessive individualism has been the ideological foundation of capitalism ever since.

Now, however, it is obsolete, for two reasons, both global in scope: the rise of the transnational corporation, and the advancing ecological crisis. Karl Marx long ago described the joint-stock corporation as “capitalist communism” and believed that its global development would unify humanity, but in a coercive and destructive way, dragging the world into deeper and deeper cyclical crises that would result in mass unemployment, hunger, and war. He therefore anticipated a point at which the working people of the world, recognizing their own transnational unity and practical interdependence, would collectively overthrow capitalism and establish what he called “the free association of the producers” in which “the full and free development of each depends on the full and free development of all.” This, not state ownership, was Marx’s vision, founded on the notion of the “social individual” for whom the freedom of others is not the limit of her own, but its expansion. In other words, socialism offers a fundamentally different vision both of freedom and of the individual.
This vision was eclipsed both by authoritarian state capitalism masquerading as “socialism” in the USSR, China, and elsewhere, and by the enormous postwar boom that was actually premised on a greatly enlarged public sector. As that boom collapsed, the response of the ruling elites, especially in the US and the UK, was to promote possessive individualism with a vengeance (as “conservatism”) through a vast and well-funded network of foundations, think-tanks, media outlets—and churches.

But all the propaganda in the world for this ideology, this social personality and value system, would not have taken root if the organization of everyday life had not provided it with fertile soil. I think (following Guy Debord in his *The Society of the Spectacle* and his mentor on this, Georg Lukacs) that it’s the actual structuring of space, time, and social relationships under late capitalism that has accomplished this. The process of suburbanization and the industrialization of consumption (tract homes, supermarkets, malls, the private automobile as the dominant mode of transportation, TV viewed in the home as the dominant form of entertainment, geographical mobility expanding even as upward social mobility is curtailed, etc.) is the extension of the possessive individualist social personality into the structure of life.

Consider. Even without privatized, atomized habitation and consumption, the private automobile alone is the perfect conditioning tool for narrow egoism. One is enclosed in a metal box that partially shuts out the surrounding environment and allows the creation of one’s own private micro-world of sound, air temperature and humidity, and so forth. The screen-like windshield and rear window create the illusion that we are inside a video. Every other driver, sealed in her or his own hurtling metal box, is a potential threat, by way either of rudeness or of stupidity. We travel surrounded by people going in the same direction, but completely insulated from each other except via the most rudimentary friendly (wave) or hostile (horn, finger) signals. We are thereby converted into monadic creatures with communicative abilities inferior to those of insects and bacteria–even as we prattle away on our cell phones to people who aren’t there. In these ways, the private automobile is the perfect emblem for the late-capitalist self.

Study after study shows that this existence, which goes against the grain of our evolution as cooperative social creatures in extended kinship networks, does not make people happy. There is, consequently, a vast industry (whose two biggest components are “the mainstream media” and “organized religion”) devoted to suppressing even the possibility of another way of life–to crushing the human imagination and flattening desire into the appetite for merchandise or the promise of a false transcendence.

But the kicker is that the continual suppression of imagination and manipulation of desire requires abundant cheap energy. For this energy to remain cheap, its social, public-health, and environmental costs must be left out of the calculations. Now those costs have escalated enormously, and payment time has come due. My sense is that alongside the financialization of capitalism, we’re seeing, in the face of overwhelming social, economic, and ecological evidence, the crisis of the possessive-individualist personality structure. The more that every message from reality tells us that we are interdependent not only with the rest of the human race but with the entire biosphere, that property boundaries are imaginary and physical and biological continuities are real, and that free worldwide cooperation is the only way for humanity to survive–the more that hungry-ghost ego, driven by greed (for More) and fear (of Not Enough) screams in rage and panic and frantic denial.

The crazy panic of teabaggers and others about “socialism” and against “ecoterrorists” is, in my view, ultimately a panic about the manifest bankruptcy of possessive-individualist ideology in the face of the evident necessity of sharing and cooperation and the looming ecological catastrophe. So, at the other end, is the panic of the religious Right over evolution on the one hand and abortion on the other. These two sources of terrified rage among millions of Americans have in common the insistence that we are animals, living organisms sharing a four-billion-year heritage of change and development and made of living cells, in which embryos and fetuses are “aborted” every minute of every day. Much of the history of Western culture has been based on two closely related beliefs: the Judaic notion that humans have been given “dominion” over all life on earth; and the related Christian doctrine that only humans among all living beings have “immortal souls,” the evidence for which is that we alone possess “right reason.” At this point, especially after the apalling carnage that occupied much of the twentieth century and the ever-multiplying discoveries of the intelligence of nonhuman creatures from dolphins to parrots to prairie dogs, these notions look like mere vanity. But in the meantime they have provided the justification for the despoliation of entire ecosystems and the greatet mass extinction since the Permian era.

Financialization is the economic parallel to this crisis: the retreat of capital and the class that both owns and serves it into a fantasy world in which “wealth” is created out of nothing, out of digits in a computer. This materialized fantasy world is kaleidoscopically mirrored in popular entertainment and in the demigods of celebrity, who act out the fantasies of an increasingly overworked (or workless) and economically stressed population as the “rich and famous”—while the real rich, the billionaires and trillionaires of fossil fuel and fantasy finance, go quietly about their depredations and manipulations. Meanwhile, the energy to power the vast fantasy comes from nonrenewable sources that pollute and destroy at every stage: from extraction (the Niger Delta, the Gulf, the Appalachians) through transportation (the Exxon Valdez and countless other spills) to end use (coal ash spills, smog, global warming).

The crux is that we are facing a stark choice: a free, democratic cooperative commonwealth in which we inhabit the biosphere as stewards and partners with all life on earth; or a spiral down into genocidal and ecocidal madness as fascistic corporate states fight like swarms of starving rats for the last water, the last soil, the last minerals, on a planet dying of heat exhaustion. Think Somalia, on a global scale. Or realize that your survival and the survival of your children lies in fighting to save the commons: the air, the water, the forests, the living earth that is the only paradise we will ever have.


How Many Digital Socialists Does It Take to Change A Light-Bulb? A Response to Kevin Kelly’s “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society is Coming Online”

From Open Source Software to Socialist Utopia?


In a fascinating and often insightful article in Wired [vol. 17, no. 6, May 2009], longtime digiculture maven Kevin Kelly makes a remarkable argument. He proposes that the open-source software movement that began in the 1990s out of various attempts to challenge the Microsoft monopoly has, via the broadband internet and the Web, morphed and mushroomed and multiplied into a new form of socialism: “Bill Gates once derided open source advocates with the worst epithet a capitalist can muster. These folks, he said, were a “new modern-day sort of communists,” a malevolent force bent on destroying the monopolistic incentive that helps support the American dream. Gates was wrong: Open source zealots are more likely to be libertarians than commie pinkos. Yet there is some truth to his allegation. The frantic global rush to connect everyone to everyone, all the time, is quietly giving rise to a revised version of socialism.”


Incidentally, it’s worth adding that Gates has other reasons to worry about “socialism” and “communism.”  A number of leftist governments in Latin America and elsewhere (Brazil and Vietnam, to name two) have chosen to go open source as they update and extend computerization. In this way they have sidestepped Microsoft’s steely contractual grip and notoriously extortionate business model—and saved themselves a mountain of money. Even some state governments in the US, such as Massachusetts, are going open source. So one can add to the peculiarities of what Kelly is calling a “new socialism” that it’s competing in business, toe to toe, with one of the most powerful corporations on the planet… Whoa. I’ll take a step back, for non-digerati who use their computers the way a non-mechanic drives his car, having only a vague notion of what goes on under the hood: what is “open source,” anyway?


“Brazil: Free Software’s Biggest and Best Friend” (NYT, 3/29/05)

The term “open source” comes from “source code,” which is simply the set of instructions, written in whatever computer language, that makes up a given piece of software. Typically, the source code for commercial software is “closed”—that is, the license says you’re not allowed to alter it, or even copy it except under the terms of the license, and that you must pay fees or royalties for using it. (You’ll find that in the small print of all those gnarly User License Agreements you have to sign before you’re allowed to install the software you just bought.) That also means that the software has been developed in a centralized way under proprietary conditions, whereby the software itself and all the work that leads up to its release is the company’s exclusive intellectual property and the company-employed authors are bound by nondisclosure agreements.

Open source software is released under almost exactly opposite terms. The license says that anybody with the necessary skills can copy, alter, or adapt it at will and circulate the (hopefully) improved version back to the community of users—or even bundle all or part of it with other software. What that user can’t do is restrict other users to whom they pass on their versions from themselves amending the code. And open-source code is almost always distributed free of charge. Much open-source software today is right from the start the creation a widely distributed group of authors, working for free because the code is given away too.

This last point is crucial to understanding Kelly’s whole argument. The web browser Mozilla Firefox is the open-source product you’re most likely to have used if you’re still in the Microsoft or Apple “universes.” But the single biggest competitor to these closed-source companies and their proprietary software is an open source operating system (more about what those are in a minute) called Linux. Since the original source code for the Linux kernel (again, more below) was released in 1991, Linux has been worked on by literally thousands of people and is installed on millions of machines worldwide, including a whole lot of internet servers. It exists in a bunch of different proprietary versions or flavors—but anyone can still take the original code and adapt it.


The “Cancer” Eating Bill Gates? Linux Booting Up

The fact that so many authors have found and fixed flaws, streamlined code, and generally improved functionality makes Linux exceptionally stable and robust—unlike, say, Windows Vista or countless other proprietary (closed-source) products. For purely bottom-line reasons, these usually don’t have enough programmers working on them to ensure that they’re solid. Also, they’re nearly always released too soon, given that they can’t be amended by the users who purchase them, and who then (in the Microsoft model) have to buy patches to fix the bugs that weren’t caught before release. And again, the vast majority of the people who work on open source products like Firefox and Linux are not getting paid. No wonder Microsoft early on referred to Linux as a “cancer”!

Kevin Kelly’s Four Steps to E-Socialism

Since Linux, the open source idea has generated an entire “culture” and a kind of semi-underground social movement, which has now surfaced in a host of developments. As Kelly continues: Communal aspects of digital culture run deep and wide. Wikipedia is just one remarkable example of an emerging collectivism—and not just Wikipedia but wikiness at large. Ward Cunningham, who invented the first collaborative Web page in 1994, tracks nearly 150 wiki engines today, each powering myriad sites. […] Nearly every day another startup proudly heralds a new way to harness community action. These developments suggest a steady move toward a sort of socialism uniquely tuned for a networked world. Kelly goes on to distinguish the emergent socialism he perceives in these phenomena from “your grandfather’s socialism.” I’ll return later to the version of “your grandfather’s socialism” he establishes as a foil—or a straw man. But first I want to summarize the positive side of his argument. Kelly borrows from media theorist Clay Shirky’s 2008 book Here Comes Everybody a hierarchy of how this socialism evolves. “Groups of people start off simply sharing and then progress to cooperation, collaboration, and finally collectivism. At each step, the amount of coordination increases.” • Under “Sharing”, Kelly cites social media sites like Facebook and MySpace, Yelp and other service and product review sites, Delicious for website bookmarks—and of course YouTube, to which users add a staggering 6 billion clips a month. As he remarks, “sharing is the mildest form of socialism, but it serves as the foundation for higher levels of communal engagement.”

firefox-logo-fullThe Open-source embrace: Mozilla Firefox

• Under “Cooperation,” Kelly offers the photo aggregator site Flickr as one prime example, with its 3 billion photos that any user can tag with categories, labels, and keywords or collect into sets of their own. Flickr  is an instance of Creative Commons licensing, which “means that communally, if not outright communistically, your picture is my picture.” Also instanced are sites like Digg and Reddit, which let users vote on the web links they display most prominently and so are gaining enormous power in “steer[ing] public conversation” (even as, one might add, traditional media are losing that power). As he remarks: “Serious contributors to these sites put in far more energy than they could ever get in return, but they keep contributing in part because of the cultural power these instruments wield. A contributor’s influence extends way beyond a lone vote, and the community’s collective influence can be far out of proportion to the number of contributors. That is the whole point of social institutions—the sum outperforms the parts.”

• With “Collaboration,” Kelly arrives at open-source software, where he began. “In these endeavors,” he writes, “finely tuned communal tools generate high-quality products from the coordinated work of thousands or tens of thousands of members.” He points out that “these collaborative efforts make no sense within capitalism” because workers on them do a huge amount of high value work without being paid, because we regular-type users don’t pay for the product either, and because it can be freely copied and used to make new stuff. “Instead of money, the peer producers who create the stuff gain credit, status, reputation, enjoyment, satisfaction, and experience.”


Linux Dreaming of Open Source World Domination

• Finally, there is “Collectivism.”  Kelly points out that cooperation as Shirky defines it doesn’t require complete consensus or much accountability from individual participants. He defines a collective as a group in which such consensus and accountability are crucial to success, “where self-directed peers take responsibility for critical processes and where difficult decisions, such as sorting out priorities, are decided by all participants.”  He goes on to suggest that in reality some degree of hierarchy, formal or otherwise, is usually necessary for collectives to succeed: “Indeed, a close examination of the governing kernel of, say, Wikipedia, Linux, or OpenOffice shows that these efforts are further from the collectivist ideal than appears from the outside. While millions of writers contribute to Wikipedia, a smaller number of editors (around 1,500) are responsible for the majority of the editing. Ditto for collectives that write code. […] As Mitch Kapor, founding chair of the Mozilla open source code factory, observed, ‘Inside every working anarchy, there’s an old-boy network.'”


How a Wiki  Works

Kelly sensibly points out that if things have to get produced and delivered under constraints such as limited time and exacting standards, a hierarchy is usually required (though, one might add, it could be an elected and temporary one). However, he concludes: “In the past, constructing an organization that exploited hierarchy yet maximized collectivism was nearly impossible. Now digital networking provides the necessary infrastructure. The Net empowers product-focused organizations to function collectively while keeping the hierarchy from fully taking over.”

Summarizing these developments, Kelly proposes that they be understood and deliberately fostered as a “third way” between centralized state planning (which he identifies with the “old socialism”) and “the chaos of market capitalism.” Pointing out that “hybrid systems that blend market and nonmarket mechanisms are not new,”  he alludes both to the “socialization” of education and other public goods like highways in even very capitalist societies, and to the industrial cooperatives of northern Italy and the Basque region of Spain, which are owned collectively by their workers. These he views as models, or at any rate analogies, for what he thinks the nascent digital collectivism might become.

Mondragon Co-op structure

The organization of  FAGOR, a Basque cooperative enterprise

Finally, Kelly suggests that the sheer number of Americans who now participate in these digital communities, from sharing videos and links to collectively designing software, may already be influencing our national politics in a socialistic direction. It’s a truism that net-based organizing and counter-propaganda (such as devastating “then and now” comparisons of candidates’ mutually contradictory recorded statements made on The Daily Show and instantly posted on YouTube) helped elect Barack Obama and a host of progressive House Democrats In 2008. After acknowledging all the problems of “the last few decades” that “the market” helped solve and  government could not, not Kelly concludes: “We underestimate the power of our tools to reshape our minds. Did we really believe we could collaboratively build and inhabit virtual worlds all day, every day, and not have it affect our perspective? The force of online socialism is growing. Its dynamic is spreading beyond electrons — perhaps into elections.”


Inside the Matrix: Source Code for Virtual Reality

Information: Free or Expensive?

To begin assessing both the value and the limits of Kelly’s argument, I want to take a couple of steps back and review some history—not just of computers and the internet, but of the political and social context in which the foundations for this digital socialism were being built. Along the way I’ll talk a little about my own experience of that time. There’s a deep tension at the core of the digital universe, as it exists in the present (capitalist) world. This tension was succinctly expressed by Stewart Brand, founder of hippy-tech bible the Whole Earth Catalog and internet pioneer, at the first Hackers’ Conference in 1984:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”


Information wants to be free…

That was 25 years ago. (As Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix when he’s learned what it is and is marveling at its meticulous realism: “Amazing—isn’t it?”) Brand was right, but he was missing a deeper point, more obvious now as Moore’s Law hurtles us to the close of the Silicon Age. Nanocomputing and quantum computing are on the horizon, with promises of computational power thousands or millions of times greater than we can achieve with even the fastest chip-based logic. These will be matched by equivalently speedy forms of digital transmission that use only light, not electrons, to carry the bit stream. Bottom line: Information “wants to be free” because it is infinitely and almost instantaneously reproducible and transmissible from anywhere in the whole wired world to anywhere else. In this situation, every individual or organization that wants to secure or copyright information, whether as intellectual property or as a plain old secret, is facing an accelerating arms race with pirates and crackers. Securing data is one thing: at least until quantum computing arrives, it can be protected with really serious encryption so long as users follow security protocols—though as always, the best encryption is no match for the clowns who still use obvious passwords, sticky-note their passwords to their workstations, or take the data home in a laptop they then leave on the train. The same applies to closed networks. But if, as with any form of commercial software or “content,” you want to sell copies but limit reproduction, you cannot hope to win the arms race.


…But it also needs to be paid for: the paradox of creation as merchandise

The “music industry” is one obvious case in point. In the 1990s, media companies tried to replicate the old vinyl disk (and analog cassette) business model for selling recorded music. As most people under 50 know by now, it has failed. Any encryption scheme that will allow the CD to be played but not copied—or copied some limited number of times—can and will be cracked. And the combo of broadband and .mp3 technology has made the physical medium of the CD obsolete anyway.

The upshot is that the model for musicians has flipped: instead of making most of their money from selling records, as they did from the 1960s through the 1980s, and promoting the record with a tour, they now make their money gigging and touring, offering recordings free on sites like MySpace to promote their live performances. There’s not a lot of room for media companies in this model, to put it mildly. The information that is the musicians’ recordings wants to be free, and is. What is not free, for the most part, is the actual experience of hearing them play: unique, physical, unreproducible except as a two-dimensional recorded reminiscence—and so worth money, because everyone in their audience understands that bands need to put food on their tables and strings on their guitars.

I’ll come back to that issue of “real life” in a minute. But first, to paraphrase a lyric by my friend Tom Ward of the Funktionaries, take a little trip in time with me back to 1984.

1984: Birth of the Matrix, Death of the Old Socialism


A double dose of the corporate entity branded “Ronald Reagan”

Nineteen eighty-four was by all sorts of standards a banner year in political, social, and technological-cultural history. Ronald Reagan re-elected by a landslide. The Iran-Contra deal still secret but about to be uncovered. Counterinsurgency war in Central America and elsewhere. Neoliberalism, aka “free-market society,” ascendant. But also… The year William Gibson published Neuromancer, the brilliant novel that gave us the terms “cyberspace” and “the Matrix” to name a near-future digital universe still dominated by corporations and the military, but so complex that it has become an ecosystem, evolving its own life-forms and escaping institutional control. The year Stewart Brand made his percipient statement at that first Hackers’ Conference. The year Apple unveiled the first Macintosh, announcing it with one of the most celebrated TV ads of all time, in which a hall full of zombified proles is gazing at a telescreen from which the Leader is droning totalitarian bullshit, only to be “freed” by a pretty young blonde in athletic top, booty shorts, and sneakers who hurls a sledgehammer through the screen.

image002The Famous 1984 Macintosh Ad

Contrary to Apple’s bold claim in the ad’s teaser tag line—“ …1984 won’t be like ‘1984’”—the year did in fact bear nasty similarities to Orwell’s dystopian date: it was the time of the hysterical nationalism unleashed at the 1984 Olympics and the associated conformist pressure, the ongoing spying against the Central America and South Africa solidarity movements, the rise of the Religious Right as a protofascist force, the nuclear saber-rattling toward the (actually tottering) Soviet Union, and so forth. And in the UK, where I was toward the end of the year, it was the time of the Thatcher government’s brutal and naked repression of the nationwide coal miners’ strike, unchallenged by the rest of the unions—the death of the British labor movement and of old-school working-class socialism.


Miner’s wife and cop: Thatcherism in action, Orgreave, Yorkshire, 1984

At the very moment that the nascent cyberculture was beginning to know itself as such and be awed by the vistas of possibility that were opening before it, then, capitalism was reverting to some of its most vicious traits. Crushing unions and pushing down wages and benefits. Shredding the social safety net for all but the ill, the very poor, and the elderly. Reviving crude racism and sexism as a way to bond white male workers to the white elite. Stepping up blatant imperialism in Central America and the Middle East. Engaging in speculative frenzies made possible by deregulation—though nothing compared to what it’s done since. Privatizing (read: stealing) every public good in sight. So, underlying the tension Brand spoke of was emerging another, still greater tension: between the genuine liberatory possibilities of computers and the internet, and the globalization and financialization of capitalism, which could exploit the new technologies in ways even Gibson, let alone Brand, was not yet able to imagine.

homeless, 1984

The New Homeless, 1984 (photo by Chris Shames)

And 1984 was also the year right before I got into the whole digital thing. I came back from Britain in the late spring of ’85 politically depressed and personally at a loose end. I had trained to be an elementary-school teacher before I left but, following some grim and exhausting experiences substituting in my local public schools, had decided I wanted to do something else. Through the four years before I left I had been a collaborator in the notorious underground office-worker ‘zine Processed World, drawing cartoons and writing articles. But—true confession—I was the only member of the core group who had never actually worked in an office. I’d never used a dedicated word processor, a photo-typesetting machine, or any other kind of computer then in operation. I couldn’t even type well. (I feel better in retrospect having learned that when he wrote Neuromancer, William Gibson had never used a computer either; he composed the book on a manual typewriter.) But what I did know how do was write.

So through contacts in the Processed World circle, which was increasingly attracting denizens of Silicon Valley, I found out that if I was going to get work as a technical writer, then a new profession, the first thing I needed to do was learn Unix. Whatever that was.


Hello, Adam… The Matrix has you

I enrolled in an “Intro to Unix” course offered through UC Extension and taught by a couple of genial Berkeley hacker types. I found out, first of all, that Unix is an operating system: the software that manages all the other software as well as the RAM, the magnetic disk memory and the files it stores, and the peripherals like keyboard and monitor. Unix has two main components: the kernel, the code that (once compiled into binary-based assembly language) actually tells the machine what to do; and the shell, the outer interface, allowing users to activate chunks of the kernel with simple code terms close to what programmers somewhat disdainfully call “natural language”  (American English version, release 1970). Writing system shell code didn’t come easily, but once I started to get the hang of it, I had those experiences early-adopter cyberians always talk about: the thrilling sense of vast and mysterious virtual space behind the black screen with its blinking green command prompt (anachronistically used for just this effect in the first Neo scene of The Matrix); the excitement of exploring the file tree and the huge array of shell commands more deeply; the triumphant rush as a script I had written did its thing and characters cascaded down the screen in response; the sense of time-warp as I surfaced from what had felt like maybe twenty minutes of coding or debugging to find that many hours had gone by. I even literally began dreaming in shell code. So I know first-hand what keeps programmers and hackers addicted, even though I never wrote a shell script that wasn’t pretty much a total kluge.

The Secret Collectivism at the Origin of Cyberspace

unix file.tree More important for present purposes, I learned more about what Unix was: the first really portable (machine-independent) operating system, designed to run on minicomputers rather than on the big specialized mainframes of yore. The system you use on your desktop or laptop machine, whatever it may be, is a direct descendant of Unix (or, in the case of Mac OS, an actual brand of Unix), because it uses all the same basic principles. Bill Gates began building his ginormous fortune by leasing and then buying from a Seattle startup an operating system for the microcomputer (as the nascent PC was then known). The system was (more or less) portable and file-based like Unix, but shrunk down to the barest minimum. Gates called this dwarf system—sort of a Mini-Me version of Unix—MS-DOS, Microsoft Disk Operating System. The smartest thing he did, though, was keeping the rights to the source code he then leased to IBM. Apple, whose single-box Mac was the geek sensation of 1984, decided to keep their OS source code to themselves and retain control of the hardware, a move that almost put them out of business by the early 1990s as “clone” PCs were produced cheaply and sold loaded with DOS and then Windows, plus the Office suite, to countless businesses.


IBM-PC: We said that stood for “Intensely Boring Machine–Press Cancel”

So here comes Brand’s free/expensive tension again, right at the start of the personal computer age. Unix was first designed by engineers at AT&T’s Bell Labs in the 1970s as a more efficient way to keep a computer running smoothly without the jams caused by processes from several users conflicting with each other. Once it was rewritten in C, a high-level programming language, it could be installed on any machine with the capacity to run it. Unix was designed from the git-go to be  multi-tasking and multi-user, with users and the processes they’re running sharing the CPU’s time in an intricate nanosecond-by-nanosecond dance managed by the kernel. According to Wikipedia, perhaps the most visible symbol of the kind of digital cooperation Kevin Kelly talks about in his essay:

“Unix systems are characterized by various concepts: the use of plain text for storing data; a hierarchical file system; treating devices and certain types of inter-process communication (IPC) as files; and the use of a large number of software tools, small programs that can be strung together through a command line interpreter using pipes, as opposed to using a single monolithic program that includes all of the same functionality. These concepts are known as the Unix philosophy.”

To paraphrase: in classic Unix everything is treated as a file, software apps and utilities are small modules that can be easily moved around and connected so that the output of one becomes the input of another, and the files are arranged in a tree structure that allows data to move in all directions between them. The shell is easy to learn (even I could do it!) and almost as easy to modify. As a result, files can be traded easily between users and, if they’re software, just added to the tool-belt on that machine or in that version of the system. Every multi-user Unix system, like the ones at UC Berkeley I learned on, functioned as a local network that its users could in principle modify at will. When I built my klugey little class projects, I could borrow chunks of useful code from other people in the system or from other tools that were already stored there, in the same way as I might borrow some flour from a neighbor or a socket set from a tool library.

Because of the way files were organized, Unix was made to order also for the then-baby internet. That further meant Unix was made to order for open communication, individual creativity, and collaborative work, whether in real time or serially. For this reason it became hugely popular in academic and scientific-technical environments, where these qualities were highly valued. So right at the start of modern computing, there was a lot of implicit “socialism” built into the core concepts and structures.


The Birth of the Internet: An ARPANET Network Map, 1977

Enter the PC and Bill Gates. (Steve Jobs was already there with the Apple II, used mainly in elementary school classrooms.) All of a sudden the computer, for most users, went individual and private. To communicate locally, PCs had to be strung together in often miserably complicated and ornery hardwired networks requiring intermediary devices  to manage the traffic. But because of Microsoft’s admittedly brilliant decision to license MS-DOS to software developers and hardware manufacturers, combined with the cutthroat business maneuvers for which they became infamous, the company was able to dominate this exploding market.

Through the 1990s, computing power and the complexity of data files (like photos or large formatted docs) outpaced internet bandwidth and file-compression techniques. (Email itself, in the form of vanilla text messages, stayed pretty fast, and its use spread fast too.) This lag was partly because Microsoft, despite their virtual lock on home and business computing, couldn’t at first see a way to make money from the brand-new World Wide Web, and nor could the rapidly merging and mutating telecom companies who managed the phone lines. (Those of my readers online then will recall the endless yawn times as downloading images formed pixel by laborious pixel on the screen.) But as the Web grew along with the internet, as modems got faster, as DSL and finally cable broadband were developed—and, of course, as the computers themselves became more and more powerful—the new collaborative possibilities Kelly talks about finally emerged. The question is, though: on what sort of foundation does this virtual people’s democracy rest?

3D Map of WWW

A 3-D map of the World Wide Web

Dirt Behind the Digital Daydream: The Hardware Problem


Back when I was first working as a writer and editor for tech companies, I used to hear a joke: “Q: How many programmers does it take to change a light-bulb? A: None—that’s a hardware problem.” It strikes me that there is a huge “hardware problem” for Kevin Kelly’s software socialism, to which he rather startlingly never alludes. It’s this. All the infrastructure that supports the sharing and cooperation and collaboration and collectivism he’s so thrilled by is controlled and manufactured and maintained by very nonsocialist, very profit-oriented capitalist corporations. A large percentage of chip manufacture had already migrated to Malaysia, Mexico, and other low-wage areas by the mid-1980s. Most computer hardware is now also built in such places. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it:

“Globalization has become a major factor in the electronics manufacturing industry, often making it difficult to distinguish between American and foreign companies. Many American companies are opening plants and development centers overseas and overseas companies are doing the same in the U.S. Many products are being designed in one country, manufactured in another, and assembled in a third. The U.S. electronics industry tends to be focused on high-end products, such as computers and microchips. Even so, many components of final products manufactured in the U.S. are produced elsewhere and shipped to an American plant for final assembly.”

chip factory 3

A computer components  factory,Taiwan

A further disturbing trend is the outsourcing of actual production to “contract manufacturers” on the model of the clothing and footwear giants like Nike and the Gap. As described by Naomi Klein in her seminal 1999 study No Logo, these manufacturers typically operate in so-called free-trade zones where even the weak (and weakly enforced) local environmental and worker safety laws are completely suspended, and where workers are terrorized and sometimes murdered if they attempt to organize for basic rights. (The Philippines is particularly egregious in this regard.) The U.S.-based parent company, faced with charges of this kind, can then do as Nike CEO Phil Knight did in 1998—admit that it’s “not perfect” but claim that whatever abuses have occurred in the factories of the vicious cockroach capitalists it contracts with are being looked into and that it will work to improve conditions. In other words, the old Pontius Pilate antibacterial hand-wash.

cip factory taiwan

But it’s all so clean! Masks and gloves protect the chips from the people…

Case in point: Dell, until recently the colossus of Microsoft-platform PC manufacturing, plans to sell all its factories to contract manufacturers so as to cut costs. Dell management understands perfectly well that the way those costs will be cut is out of the health, wealth, and physical and emotional lives of the workers who will build its machines in these silicon sweatshops. Hewlett Packard, which twenty years ago prided itself in its paternalistic care for its workers, has now outsourced almost everything but design and branding to offshore contractors, mostly in India. Even coding itself is being moved offshore. The outsourcing movement in IT has actually (and rather notoriously) become a kind of irrational compulsion, apparently because the American corporate class has developed a reflexive loathing for American workers. Recently I wrote some user guides a company that makes educational software—that is, software that is mostly English-language text. They had outsourced their quality assurance to a subcontractor in Mumbai—that is, to non-native speakers of English. Go figure.


The Key Question: The Cover of Processed World #1

It gets much worse. Ever wonder what happens to your old PC or laptop when you leave it out for the bulky waste pickup or trade it in for a newer one? E-waste, as it’s called, is now the fastest growing component of municipal trash streams. In the United States, Dell among other companies is using prisoners to “recycle” (dismantle and/or crush to extract minerals) old PCs and related hardware under extremely unsafe conditions, in which they inhale toxics like lead and chlorine compounds and are subject to injuries from flying glass. Similar operations are being run by subcontractors in Asia and the Caribbean with if anything even fewer health and safety protections for workers.


Women prisoners in Texas used as slave labor to break down computers

And worse still. Many of the minerals needed for chip and component production are being quietly obtained from war zones in Africa. Forget “blood diamonds” from the Congo—how about mass-rape tantalum for your PC or cell phone from the very same pit of hell? Activists are now pressuring hardware manufacturers to stop using tantalum, gold, tin, and tungsten from such places. But the more computer hardware firms outsource production to subcontractors in unaccountable places, the harder it is to control the supply chain and assure that “conflict minerals” are not being used. The point is, open-source creators have no control over the physical apparatus that underlies their collaboration. And that has further implications.

Collaboration for What?

The great nineteenth-century radical German poet Heinrich Heine once wrote a poem about workers in a cannon factory. Highly organized and highly skilled, the workers pride themselves on the superb quality of the weapons they manufacture. But crisis comes, and popular revolt follows. The cannon-makers, their families close to starvation, join their brothers and sisters in a strike and uprising. They are mowed down by the very same excellent cannons they built for the army of the State.

barricades 1848

Barricades erected by rebel workers, Berlin, 1848

This strikes me as a fine allegory for the situation of the open-source movement. Agile corporations are co-opting and privatizing much of the new commons as quickly as it emerges. For instance, open-source Apache servers and Eclipse development software are being used to power proprietary “business enterprise solutions” used by predatory medical insurance and financial service conglomerates of the kind now bitterly resisting any reform with a howling white-out of lobbyist dollars and manipulated astroturf protests. Capitalism is subverting the open-sourcers, and with very little effective organizing by the latter. This subversion and cooptation, together with the upward redistribution of income via the tax structure and downward pressure on the pay of almost entirely unorganized employees, has another devastating consequence: the “time famine” that has affected Americans so severely and is spreading throughout the First World as the historic gains of the old working-class movement are rolled back.

Corporate capital has organized the technology cycle into a messy but highly profitable swirl of rapid obsolescence, backward incompatibility, competing protocols and operating systems and data warehousing—as well as the premature releases of buggy software that require a huge and unnecessary IT service-support infrastructure. Like the private for-profit heath-care sector and the industrial food sector it serves, the tech sector is increasingly parasitic, selling band-aid solutions (expensive meds and procedures, dietary supplements and “healthy” junk foods) to the very problems it creates.

Indian Tech Support

A little comment on the outsourcing of tech support

The result is that white-collar and in particular tech work expands mercilessly, compelling two-plus-income households where one income served before, putting workers on a hypertrack with less time for everything, including making real-world social change—or creating open-source software. The Great Recession has crucially, if at great financial and human cost,  paused the hypertrack for many. But the hypertrack is still in place, with open-sourcers in the short term posing at best a symbolic challenge to corporate domination because they’re not organized as a conscious “class”—either for themselves or for the rest of us.

That said, I understand Kelly’s argument about the implicit socialism of the digital commons. Ironically, it’s the same argument Marx made 150 years ago about the classical industrial proletariat—that socialism would come naturally and intuitively to them because of the way they were “organized, disciplined, and united by the process of production itself.” Marx was not altogether wrong on this, by any means. But he failed to allow for the way that workers’ experience outside work could counteract the cooperative impulse generated by the experience of collective labor and the need for solidarity on the job. Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of workers became socialist in just the ways he said they would, the experience of pseudo-middle-class consumption of the very products they manufactured, combined with the systematic breakup of industrial communities before and after World War II, undermined the “proletarian experience” and the resulting sense of solidarity and a shared communal future.

To what extent will the open-source collaboration experience and the other forms of digital sharing and cooperation Kelly cites be able to counteract the relentless privatizing pressures of both the economic system and the ruling ideology? And how will these nascent communities grow beyond the relatively small and limited sectors they currently occupy?


Workers’ playtime: Sit-down strike and occupation, Flint, MI, 1937

E-Socialism and the Real “Third Way”: The Movement from Below

Kelly’s nascent e-socialism is a bit like fifth-century BCE Athens, the “birthplace of democracy.” Only male citizens could participate in the democracy—not the women and slaves on whose unpaid labor the city-state depended. And where did their democracy lead them, in the end, without a conscious mission of enlarging the demos—beginning with the freeing of the slaves and the inclusion of women as full citizens? To tyranny, and then to oblivion. Skilled First-World programmers and engineers stand in a similar relation to the millions of low-paid, ill-treated workers in the mines and chip factories and assembly plants and e-cycling centers as did the propertied male citizens of Athens to the women and slaves. These workers mostly don’t have access to broadband internet and have not been invited to the digital socialist party. Nor have the offshore engineers, coders, and call-center customer service workers, even though they are on the net in rapidly increasing numbers. They’re less concerned with file sharing, let alone tagging and Digging and Tweeting, than with making sure they keep a roof over their heads and food on the table for another week, another day, maybe scrambling a rung or two up the social ladder and gaining a little security even as their traditional communal ties and lifeways are obliterated by the corporate juggernaut. All in all, as the planetary population approaches 7 billion, of whom about 27% are 15 and under, current estimates show that only 1 billion are connected to the internet—about 14%. So where’s socialism, digital or otherwise, for the other 6/7 of humanity?


This brings me to Kelly’s straw-man version of “old socialism.”  Throughout, Kelly defines “socialism” basically as Stalinism:

“The type of communism with which Gates hoped to tar the creators of Linux was born in an era of enforced borders, centralized communications, and top-heavy industrial processes. Those constraints gave rise to a type of collective ownership that replaced the brilliant chaos of a free market with scientific five-year plans devised by an all-powerful politburo. This political operating system failed, to put it mildly. However, unlike those older strains of red-flag socialism, the new socialism runs over a borderless Internet, through a tightly integrated global economy. It is designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is decentralization extreme.

“Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free goods.”

Oooh, how cool! No dirty factories, picks or shovels. No dirt, period! Only if you forget about the inconvenient issue of infrastructure, though… (And does one sense here that traditional and unquestioned white-collar disdain for blue-collar sweat and grime?) Kelly even sets it up as paired oppositions in a neat little table: KK socialisms table But this binary opposition misses an entire history, from the Paris Commune of 1871, by way the original workers’ councils and factory committees of Russia. Italy, and Germany 1918-21, of the Seattle General Strike of 1919, of the industrial and farm collectives of the Spanish Revolution 1936-7, of the unemployed councils and workplace occupations in the U.S. Midwest 1934-7, of the cordones industriales in Chile 1972-3, to the “horizontalist” cooperative workplace takeovers and distribution networks in Argentina following the collapse of the peso in 2004… and of countless other smaller-scale phenomena of the same kind throughout the history of capitalism.

miltia_lorry 1937

Armed anarchist workers, Spain, 1937

In short, Kelly leaves out the history of self-organized, directly democratic socialism “from below”—the only real kind. This movement, not the dictatorial state-capitalism of the former USSR and its satellites or of China pre-“liberalization,” is the power that, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, is the “specter” that “all the powers of the Old World” have united to hunt down and destroy. And not coincidentally, this real, free-cooperative socialism, begun again and again only to be crushed or co-opted, bears a far closer resemblance to Kelly’s digital commons than it does to the totalitarian monstrosities of a now almost defunct Stalinism. Intuitively, crude historical comparisons notwithstanding, Kelly seems to have a strong intuitive sense of what the deep “operating system” (as he would call it) of socialism is: the realized understanding that sharing and cooperation enlarge individual possibility rather than limit it.


Still, as Kelly acknowledges, most of the participants in his nascent e-socialism are not—yet, anyway—very socialistically minded. Twitterers, YouTubers, and other content sharers are (on the evidence) mostly thinking about the coolness of whatever they’re posting or tagging. A lot of open-source coders are hoping to sharpen their skills enough through the unpaid work to be able to design the “killer app” that will propel them via startup to sellout and wealthy retirement. Yet as I noted, in an oddly Marxian way, Kelly’s final paragraph holds out hope that digital-socialist existence is starting to determine user consciousness and further a cooperative, socially concerned mindset.

Is this possible? It’s true that digital socialism à la Kelly manifests, at least to a point, Marx’s description of the economic basis of a socialist society: the “free association of producers.” It’s also true that left-liberal, cooperativist, environmentalist, feminist, and even ecosocialist groups and networks have formed on the web and to some extent have, as Kelly suggests, helped push “the public conversation” in a more progressive (or at any rate less market-uber-alles) direction. And some of them, like MoveOn, are now very large. But they’re nowhere near as large as the hordes of people posting jokes, curiosities, pretty images, or entertainment to YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook among other “sharing” sites.


On the up side it’s worth remembering that most of these tools and communities have been around for less than five years, and that they have by any reasonable estimate already had a huge impact on cultural, social, and political life in the U.S., the EU, and the more developed nations in Asia and Latin America. How much more impact can they have until internet access becomes considerably more widespread in the “developing” world than it is now?

We have an example to look at. The role of social networks and file-sharing in the recent post-election uprising in Iran has been widely noted, along with the use of cell-phone cams to record and instantly upload images and footage of the protests and government repression in real time. But as the repressive apparatus of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) got a handle on this process and shut down much of the internet and cell phone system, it proceeded with its now familiar savagery to brutalize, arrest, torture, rape, imprison, and murder the rebels. The original educated middle-class urban core of the revolt is largely silenced for the time being. The active opposition to the regime, still growing and flexing its collective muscles, is now from the increasingly infuriated and desperate Iranian industrial working class, as strikes and solidarity actions proliferate in defiance of the IRI’s state-controlled unions.


Tehran, 2009: Each red circle indicates a cell phone or digital camera

These actions are for the most part invisible on the Web, because the people carrying them out can barely afford enough food for their children, let alone an internet connection. Yet it is they who, by virtue of their position in the economy, have the power to bring the IRI to its knees—just as they did in 1979 with the Shah. This time, though, they are likely to reject any leadership that does not emanate from their own ranks and does not address concretely their actual conditions and the question of who controls production and distribution. I look forward to hearing a Farsi version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” sung by workers as they occupy their workplaces and as a new round of mass demonstrations causes the collapse of the Army and the police.

New Socialism IRL: For an Open-Source Global Society

Chatroom users, as one of the textspeak subcultures, have evolved a bunch of acronyms. One frequently encountered is “irl”—short for “in real life.” As in, Vampire_Princess confesses to Shadowcat that irl she is a Christian marketing consultant, and Shadowcat reciprocates by admitting that irl he is an engineering student living with his parents. In real life we are facing an ongoing ecological and economic crisis of epic proportions. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that to use Kelly’s term, our global “operating system”—which he would no doubt label democratic capitalism and I would call quasi-democratic corporate oligarchy—is failing.


Iranian tire workers on strike, 2009

We could argue for a long time about the reasons for this, but it does seem clear that the market as the main feedback mechanism for the allocation of resources keeps crashing more and more violently, and that it has failed to measure the real environmental and human costs of economic activity. One can point to contingent causes, like the accelerating deregulation and globalization of finance capital since the “Big Bang” of 1989. The result of this deregulation was that far bigger profit margins were available in financial speculation than in material production. This caused two rapidly increasing migrations: of capital into the financial markets, and of industry of all kinds into low-wage, low-regulation zones around the world. For the human and natural environments alike, the consequences have been catastrophic. The current OS for global human cooperation in producing and distributing the means of life in a sustainable and equitable way is now inadequate to the “networks” it is trying to run.

Circa 1974, well before computerization had begun to take hold, I was shown a portable modem for the first time. It filled one third of a medium-sized aluminum suitcase, the other two thirds of which contained a keyboard and a dot-matrix tractor printer. The nerd prince who brought it to my commie-collective house then plugged it in, placed the handset of my phone into the built-in cradle, dialed up, and once he got through to the computer on which he had an account, proceeded to access, download, and print out for me and my friends a whole lot of data about the census tract we were living in.


A very early modem: note the phone handset in the cradle

Wow! Cue the Richard Strauss “Zarathustra theme” from 2001. But this wasn’t just the techno-rapture of a flung bone morphing into a spaceship. All of a sudden we young libertarian socialists saw the possibility of replacing markets as a feedback mechanism for democratic economic management. We already understood (sorry, Kevin) that centralized state planning not only led to tyranny but was a failure on its own terms, because the planners could never collect, sort, and evaluate all the data needed fast or comprehensively enough to respond to consumer demand or cope with bottlenecks in production and supply chains. This was because the product mix (output from one production process becoming the input for others, in what’s called a Leontief matrix) was already too complex even in the sparse economies of the USSR or China—let alone a really complex, fully developed one like that of the U.S. At the same time, faced with the “Energy Crisis” caused by the need to vacuum up a huge new pool of capital via raised oil prices and the petrodollar, we understood that markets, inherently unjust, were also becoming inadequate, despotic, and destructive.

Leontief matrixA Leontief Matrix

Our response was the notion of “omnicentral” planning, whereby producer cooperatives would get real-time, continual feedback and evaluation on both the quantity and quality of products, and in which flexible distribution and supply networks would “packet” goods around bottlenecks in a way analogous to the functioning of the internet itself. Not only that, but networked computers everywhere would make possible a horizontal global democracy based on local face-to-face assemblies in workplaces and neighborhoods, of exactly the kind that develop spontaneously when the capitalist OS crashes, as recently in Argentina in 2004. We could dispense with money and markets altogether—not to mention national frontiers, which today only halt the movement of ordinary people, while capital flows blithely over them as if they didn’t exist. National borders are as obsolete as the Great Wall of China, and so, really, are national governments. And, with the grow-or-die imperative that’s in capitalism’s DNA gone along with the need to protect existing investment, the global commons could shift out of unsustainable technologies and consumption patterns much more rapidly and fully while assuring that everyone got a decent life with a lot less work. Here’s my expanded and revised version of Kelly’s cute little table of socialisms:

AC socialisms table

But how to get there from here? I said above that the workers who mine, manufacture, and maintain the physical infrastructure of the wired world—as well as, increasingly, the low-level coders and customer service reps who keep the data and the revenue flowing—have not been invited to Kelly’s digital socialist party. That doesn’t mean they won’t crash it, though. As more low- and medium-level software and services functions are offshored, these digital infrastructure workers in developing countries gain more access to the net. The example of Iran is dramatic but far from unique. Already, in China for example, the environmental movement is all over it—reporting, sharing ideas, criticizing, albeit in that “apolitical” and supremely nuanced yet effective way that the “Communist” bureaucracy makes necessary with the deliberate vagueness of its restrictions on speech. The “popular sectors” in Latin America are also e-networking transnationally in the context of left-leaning governments that are resisting the continuing neoliberal pressures from the United States. And so on.

You can be sure that as this movement gets bolder in Iran and elsewhere, the Western media will suddenly find reasons to side with the IRI or whatever other previously much-criticized regime is being challenged by a widespread refusal to perform the activities that reproduce capitalism, aka a mass strike. Unlike Kevin Kelly, the transnational corporate elite understands very well who its real enemies are, and as always, apparently opposed factions—including the Chinese “Communist” Party—will unite to hunt down the specter of real communism yet again, if they can. But as such movements spread and circulate ideas, tactics, and entire forms of struggle via the internet, they will become harder and harder to stop. The aforementioned Chinese apparatus is doing its best, with the tacit support of global-reach ISPs like Google and Yahoo, to develop sophisticated means of automated information control in response to the growing and real threat of real digital democracy. I anticipate an intensifying information arms race between democratic and new-socialist forces and the corporate class, which today can no more do without a largely open internet than it can do without telephones, highways, railroads, or air and sea freight.


West Coast longshore workers demonstrate against the Bush regime, 2002

As no less a defender of the status quo than Rahm Emanuel has remarked: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” The opportunities for nudging the creativity and collective effort of the decentralized electronic sharing and collaboration Kelly rhapsodizes about toward real transformation and shared purpose have never been greater, and the crisis to which we need to respond has never been more serious. It’s time to bring the digital commons down to earth and create a planetwide open-source society.


August 2009

Oakland, California


Pat Buchanan and the “White Working Class”

Mr. Buchanan giving his favorite salute

Pat Buchanan, frothing about one decision made by Sonia Sotomayor entirely on the basis of existing civil rights law, wants conservatives to “stand up for the white working class.” Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

Just in case you were in suspended animation for the last few decades, or are very young (or watch Fox News), here are a few ways conservatives in power have “stood up” for the working class, white and otherwise, since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980:

– They have gutted legal protections for union organizing and appointed anti-union administrators to the National Labor Relations Board to the point at which fewer than 10% of private-sector workers are unionized.

– They have seriously weakened workplace health and safety protection by adding all sorts of exceptions to existing legislation and by drastically underfunding OSHA inspection and enforcement.

– They have fought to resist any increase in the minimum wage at both Federal and state levels.

– They have vehemently resisted the Family Leave Act and any mandate for increased sick leave or longer paid vacation.

– They have helped to defund public transportation.

– They have done everything possible, including tax breaks, to encourage corporations to export what were decently paid and often union jobs to low-wage zones abroad.

– They have made it more difficult for workers to sue employers for age and gender discrimination (half of all workers are women, and white workers get old too).


The working class, nonwhite and white together, standing up for itself

In other words, if they’re standing up for me (speaking as a “white” and currently unemployed worker), I wish they’d sit the fuck down. Pat Buchanan’s supposed concern for the “white working class” is disingenuous, racist, hypocritical hot air. “Conservatives” in America today are about one thing: conserving the wealth and privilege of the (almost all white) wealthy and privileged class. If we didn’t know that in 1980, we sure as hell do now.

I laugh, bitterly to be sure. But really it’s no laughing matter. Simultaneous appeals to class and “race” or nationality from members of the dominant ethnic group are invariably protofascist, because fascism is the vertical alliance of the ruling (capitalist) class with the working class of the same ethnicity or nationality against a manufactured Other: the Jews, the niggers, the immigrants, whoever. Racism is to fascism as beer is to vodka: the fermented but undistilled compound.

The responses to the Sotomayor nomination and to the assassination of Dr. George Tiller by people like Buchanan, Bill O’Reilly, and Randall Terry, together with the resurgence of “freemen” and militia-type organizations, are reinforcing my suspicion that the Republican Right may well collapse into a kind of white “Christian” nationalist party with an increasingly violent semi-underground terrorist wing–attacking immigrant rallies, picket lines of mainly black or brown workers, abortion clinics and pro-choice demonstrations, and of course queers and queer public presence. (See also the xenophobic responses of Sarah Palin’s base during the last weeks of the McCain campaign, or the sheer lunacy displayed at the “teabag” rallies in April.)

When you hear the likes of Pat Buchanan start spouting about the oppression of the “white working class” in our current political and economic crisis, expect more extreme views and more intimidation and thuggery to follow close behind those words, while the “mainstream” instigators ostentatiously wash their filthy hands on TV and piously declaim against violence. We need to be ready.


And here they come, spouting the words of Thomas Jefferson, who would not have crossed the street to spit on them if they were on fire…


The Rope Bridge: Our Only Chance?

Rope Bridge

It’s a cliche of Hollywood adventure movies — the rope and plank bridge over the deep chasm, already damaged when the hero arrives with the bad guys coming after him, that he has to herd his panicky friends across even as it disintegrates behind them.

That’s a perfect metaphor for where human society is right now. The chasm is ecological and economic collapse caused by the combination of climate change and the global capitalist crisis, with the death of billions by starvation, war, and disease at the bottom. On this side is fossil-fuel-based consumer society, run by an insatiable corporate oligarchy and policed by national governments, unsustainable and failing. On the far side is the possibility of a sustainable, equitable, “green” global economic and technological order. In between is the bridge. We, humanity, are headed for that bridge, with deranged enemies behind us trying to head us off and behind them an advancing wall of fire.

What is the bridge, so narrow, so fragile, already so damaged? It is the possible but increasingly difficult and risky transition between the old and the new. Getting across requires a strategy that does a few crucial things in a very short time.

–First, the strategy cuts carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions more rapidly and radically than any currently touted plan — because the targets of all these plans were formed before the recent research just aired around the Copenhagen conference, which recognizes new multiplier effects like the methane pool under the Arctic ice and reveals sea levels rising much faster than previous models predicted. It’s crucial to realize that the consequences of climate change, even if we cut carbon emissions by 50% tomorrow morning, are still going to be severe.

–Second, the strategy spends enormous amounts of government money to build a clean-energy infrastructure — including a shift away from the private automobile in any form and toward clean mass transit — and creates a system of incentives to phase out fossil-fuel use as fast as possible, beginning with electricity generation and a crash program in conservation via such measures as weatherproofing homes.

— Third, it undoes the corporate industrial agriculture system, which is inherently dependent on long distribution chains, on petrochemical fertilizers, and/or on genetically modified but uniform crops that severely threaten biodiversity, while gigantic machine-worked fields destroy species habitats. The strategy does this by forcing agriculture, like manufacturing, to face the real costs of production, and by supporting local skill-intensive organic farming.

–Fourth, the strategy lays the groundwork for a new flowering of scientific and technical talent to re-engineer the entire technological basis of society over the next half century or so, and at the same time create mass scientific literacy via a general overhaul and reform of public education from kindergarten through community college.

–Fifth, it reverses the trend to the rampant “offshoring” of manufacturing from the US both encouraged by Bush-era tax policy (and agreements like NAFTA) and fostered by unsupervised financial speculation where rates of profit were — for a time — so much higher than in the “real economy” of goods and services. It does this by recapturing an edge in new, sophisticated, post-fossil-fuel, biomimetic and fully recyclable technologies that work with the natural environment rather than against it.

–Sixth, in the longer term the least important part but in the short term the most crucial, the strategy restarts effective demand in the global economy so that capital circulates again and the system does not simply crash — which would not allow the rest of the transitional process to be happen.

It’s easy to see in this strategy — minus the plank about agriculture — the outlines of the plan now being pushed by the Obama administration in its fiscal 2009 budget and in the stimulus plan. As I said in an earlier post to this blog, Obama, like FDR before him, is trying to save capitalism from most of the capitalists and their myopic, avaricious stupidity.

But here’s the problem. Obama is operating within a political system so deeply corrupt, inbred, and insulated from the real lives of the immense majority in the US and the rest of the world that his proposals do not go far enough on their own terms. Obama is a very intelligent, very charismatic, and very tough politician — and seemingly a courageous man. By the standards of the times he is a true visionary. But his proposals, designed to navigate the sticky, stinking swamp of greed and idiocy that is late-capitalist political culture, are already too timid. Now they seem likely to be further weakened by the dragging opposition of Democratic “moderates” in Congress and by the open blockade of the now utterly nihilistic Republican leadership.

It has to be faced: our future as a species is being jeopardized by men (and a few women) who would rather see human civilization plunge off the cliff than admit that they are morally and intellectually bankrupt and that the entire system of exploitation, power, and privilege they have spent their lives defending is putrid to the core and about to collapse on itself like a rotten apple.

Meanwhile, the rope bridge is coming apart. Planks are falling off, cords are snapping. Many of us would like Obama to be the hero who holds off the enemy mindlessly intent on stopping us from getting across, even though the conflagration is pursuing them too. He is telling us, loudly and repeatedly, to get on the shaky structure and run across, because it is our only hope. But he cannot be that hero. However he meant it, his most famous campaign line, “We are the change we’ve been waiting for,” is true. We, collectively, the working people and the unemployed and the poor of America and the world, must be the hero. We have to fight off the enemies of humanity not with violence but with mass refusal to play by their rules — continual protest, constant pressure and exposure of lies using the new media, mass economic and social disruption, popular self-organization at all levels. In that way we can hold the bridge together while we get across.

What will be on the far side? A “sustainable” and more responsible version of transnational corporate capitalism, as envisioned by Obama & Co? Or something much freer, more beautiful, more cooperative, more democratic? Can we build a global society more truly sustainable and sustaining of us as living beings in a world of living beings, most of whom are not human and have, like us, the right to live?

First, either way, we have to get across the bridge. And we will have to fight like hell to get these corrupt, blind, conscienceless political mercenaries of the fossil-fuel death-economy out of our way. Once we get across, we can renew the struggle over what kind of world we will create there. I believe the best way to get across and hold the bridge together is to do, though in a somewhat different way appropriate to new conditions, what the century-old Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World calls for: to “form the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”

“The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and time is short,
And History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.””

–W.H. Auden, “Spain 1937″


Your Time and You: A Neoprole’s Dating Guide

[Another oldie but — I hope — goodie, that seems relevant to republish at the moment, when all the assumptions of capitalist civilization are being called into question.]


Since the writer has no means to escape, we want him to tightly embrace his time; it is his unique chance…
–J.-P. Sartre, 1945

Respond to your time’s advances
all that flash
the zoom lens admiring you from a balcony
the bouquets of subway lines and low-cost flights
the invitations with Your Name Here
Accept a date

Out on the town with your time
give it a chance to show off
story after story blooming across its windows
spun-sugar wages
tall crystals oozing with power
Ooh as it flexes its lights and leans over you
Go home with it

Alone together
let its neoprene lips part gently against yours
its tongue slide buzzing along your gums
Ignore the faint aftertaste
scurvy and gun-oil
chlorine and Sahara and screams
Put your arms round it

Your time is a fast worker you should be too
talk with your fingertips
touch all the right keys and switches
feed it the hot numbers starting with you
the little pink secrets
Go through the motions until you sparkle with sweat
Undo its bracelet of extinct species
Whisper yes

Let it padded clamps rotate you
into position
its arms swivel down and move over you
sequence of sixty separate operations
Gaze up at your time
and smile
as your smile is replicated in mosaic flickers
your heat-trace wriggles like a solar flare
Ignore the faint afterimage
withered silk seizure displays
darkness blinking inside a vacuum flask
Whisper please

Let it part your thighs
with just enough of a struggle
the injector is pale and soft not
the stainless probe you expected
Caress it help it slide in move with it squeeze it
Whisper now

Writhe as its data pulse deep into you
sticky strings of hunger and skill
waste and speed and connections its whole share
of future
Now feel the change
come over you your body taper and streamline
your eyes become wet multiple rubies
your jaws segment and harden into a complex tool
razors sprout under your forearms
your millions of eggs flare like ether
already singing
children who won’t need
to be what you are
Whisper my turn

Embrace your time tightly
before it can stagger off to new conquests
Bite off its head

[first appeared in Velocities #1, 1982; Rhysling Award for Best Short Science Fiction Poem, 1983; collected in Animations, 1988]


The Bread of Heaven: A New Defense of Poetry


Gustave Dore, from Paradise Lost: The Rebel Angels Gather in Pandemonium

Poetry and the Poem I’d like explore and perhaps revive an idea that has been floating around the radical fringes of poetry for almost two centuries: that poetry — or, if you prefer, the poetic — is not found exclusively in poems, or even in language. The Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz, in his 1956 book The Bow and the Lyre, takes up this theme of the relationship between poems and the poetic as a quality. He says: “There is also poetry without poems. Landscapes, persons, and events are often poetic, they are poetry without being poems (…) The poetic is poetry in an amorphous state; the poem is creation, poetry standing upright. Poetry is isolated and revealed completely only in the poem. The poem is not a literary form but the meeting place between poetry and man.”


Octavio Paz, 1950s

Passing over the sexist language, we notice that Paz contradicts himself here. He claims that the poem is the meeting place between poetry and “man” — but he just said at the beginning of the paragraph that the poetic quality doesn’t exist only in poems. He is ideologically privileging the poem, privileging poetry as language as against poetry as experience. About three decades ago, I first asked myself: what do we mean when we talk about the poetic? The Romantics used the word “poetical”; they would talk about, say, mountain landscapes, or rocky shores, or a painting, as being “poetical.” Today, the word “poetic” gets used in criticism or even in movie reviews to describe a work, and we accept this usage. What do we understand by it?

The Entire City Ernst

Max Ernst, The Entire City

This question became more acute for me in 1987, when I was hired to rebuild the Poetics Program at New College of California. Despite ambitious plans to create a program that would be built around such fundamental issues, I quickly realized that the kinds of questions I wanted to address could not be broached in any useful way with students unless and until they knew a lot more about both the history and context of poetry than almost any of them apparently did. So from a plan for a program intended to develop a radical translinguistic vision of poetry, we had to move to one aimed at built around a socially contextualized historical study of English-language from the Renaissance forward. In order to do that, my Poetics colleagues and I had to fill a lot of gaps in our own literary-historical educations — not to mention struggle to recruit and retain students for a niche program that went against the relentless current of the amnesiac contemporary in “creative writing” and undergraduate English studies in the United States. Now that the New College is defunct and with it the Poetics program, I can start to think about these issues again.

The three attempts to answer that question of what we mean by “the poetic” I am going to deal with here tend to move between two poles. The poles are poetry as revelation, in various senses of that term, as clearing away the veils or blinders and showing writer and reader what is really going on; and poetry as the transformation of life itself — poetry as action that changes the world. Each of these three responses comes from people who were social as well as poetic radicals. In other words, they were active in the revolutionary movements of their time.

Shelley and the Romantic Revaluation of Poetry


A somewhat idealized Victorian portrait of Shelley

The first of them is the English poet Shelley, in his A Defense of Poetry, one of the great statements of English Romantic theory. But first, Plato, who wrote in the Symposium the broadest definition of poetry that I know, one that Shelley quotes approvingly: “…Poetry, which is a general name signifying every cause whereby anything proceeds from that which is not into that which is, so that the exercise of every inventive art is poetry and all such artists poets.” The Greek word that Plato is using here is to poiein, which means “to make” but has a resonance of “becoming” or “transformation.”

By the eighteenth century this idea of what poetry is was pretty much lost, in England at any rate. Poetry meant verse, something that cultivated gentlemen learned how to compose just like playing the harpsichord and riding at hounds. They took relatively commonplace perceptions and made them into elegant, decorative verse, generally in heroic couplets: “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” A few decades before Shelley came along, William Blake savagely attacked this conception, and reasserted the role of the poet/maker as visionary, prophet, and destroyer of commonplaces. But hardly anyone was paying attention. It took the lesser but less eccentric talents of Wordsworth and Coleridge to repopularize such notions in a milder form, and to deal a death-blow to the neoclassical idea of poetry.

It’s a cliché, of course, that Romanticism was a reaction against eighteenth-century rationalism and the Industrial Revolution, and therefore against Progress. We tend to forget that what “Progress” meant in the 1790’s and 1800’s was people being drafted into the factories by starvation at the age of five or six and dying of old age before they were thirty. Generation after generation, hundreds of thousands of people, were chewed up by the factories. Shelley protested these conditions vociferously, not in a nostalgic way but in a profoundly radical one. By the time he wrote this essay he had already been kicked out of Oxford for blasphemy, and had made England rather too hot for himself and moved to Italy.


Industrial Misery: Textile mill, late 1800s

Oddly enough, A Defence of Poetry was written in response to an absolutely trivial, tongue-in-cheek essay by Thomas Love Peacock called The Four Ages of Poetry, which said essentially: poetry is obsolete, something that belongs to the primeval age of man, and now that we are ruled by Reason and full of Progress and so on, poetry just gets worse and poets should go learn economics and business administration. Now, Shelley was a friend of Peacock’s, and he knew Peacock was kidding, so why did he take the piece so seriously? Shelley’s response looks like nuking a flea. The only way to understand it is if, Shelley’s protestations of admiration for Peacock to the contrary, you see the very triviality of Peacock’s essay, and its consequent trivialization of poetry, as emblematic of everything that Shelley loathed about the culture he had grown up in. As Blake did also, Shelley saw the urbane, complacently rationalist and utilitarian mindset as inextricably linked to the disasters inflicted on working people by industrialization.

Shelley starts his Defence by talking about the difference between Reason and Imagination, because Peacock had gone on about how great Reason was. Imagination, he asserts, is “the principle of synthesis” and therefore of creativity, while Reason is “the enumeration of quantities already known; Imagination is the perception of the value of those quantities both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and Imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.(…) Poetry in a general sense may be defined as the expression of the Imagination, and poetry is connate with the origin of Man.”


Romantic Subjectivity: Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Mists

Shelley goes on to make a famous claim for the role of poets: “Poets …were called in the earlier epochs of the world legislators or prophets. A poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters, for he not only beholds intensely the present as it is and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present and his thoughts are the germs and the flower and fruit of latest time.” And then he goes on, much as Paz does all those years later, to privilege language as the primary means of poetic expression: “Language, color, form, and religious and civil habits of action are all the instruments and materials of poetry. They may be called poetry by that figure of speech which considers the effect the synonym of the cause. Poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language…which are created by that imperial faculty whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of Man” — which is his fancy way of saying imagination — “and this springs from the nature itself of language(…) For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination and has relation to thoughts alone.”

Shelley is saying in essence that language is the raw material of thought, which is why poems are the highest form of artistic creativity. Then Shelley goes on the same rapid tour through the same historical territory that Peacock did: Greece and ancient Rome, the early Christian era, and the Renaissance, which for both of them were the high points of world history, all the rest being those non-European barbarians and savages out there. But when he gets to the present, which is to say 1820 or so, he becomes rather more interesting. He says: “We have more moral, political, and historical wisdom that we know how to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry in these systems of thought is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes. We want” — that is, lack — “the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life: our calculations outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.”

Shelley goes on to point out that society has gained tremendous scientific knowledge and focused it in the factory into machines, which ought to be making the burden of work lighter — yet people are working longer hours than before for less reward, they’re being destroyed by toil and reduced to starvation in huge numbers. He finishes by saying: “Thus, poetry and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world.” So Shelley here starts out somewhat liberal, calling for a little more poetry as a humanizing factor in the calculations of the factory-owners and engineers. But he ends up with a clear assertion that money and poetry are incompatible, and that capitalist industrial society is morally bankrupt and humanly disastrous. In fact, the problematic which Shelley raises — why is all this power for generating wealth and reducing the amount of labor actually multiplying poverty and intensifying labor? — is exactly what Karl Marx spent his life examining.


The Fouling of the World: Early Carbon Era, mid-1800s

Then Shelley makes his programmatic statement about poetry: “Poetry turns all things to loveliness. It exalts that which is most beautiful and it adds beauty to that which is most deformed. It marries exaltation and horror, grief and pleasure, eternity and change. It subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things. Its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from death through life, it strips the veil of familiarity from the world and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its form.” In very lyrical language (so lyrical that jaded postmoderns may find it a little hard to take seriously) he states two principles that are crucial to this inquiry. The first is that poetry strips the veil of familiarity from the world, it makes you see the world anew. This is the revelatory aspect of poetry. The second is that poetry somehow resolves all contradictions.

The Avant-Garde, Surrealism, and the Poetic Marvelous


Now we are going to make a huge jump of nearly a century, to about 1912. Just before World War I, there was a proliferation of avant-garde modernist groups, which attacked artistic representation on many levels. Representation had already been partially challenged by the Impressionists and post-Impressionists in painting, and by the Symbolists in poetry — by Rimbaud and Mallarmé in particular. But now all these groups started really hacking away at it all across Europe. In Germany, there appeared Expressionism, which saw art and poetry as emanations of the human spirit rather than as descriptions of reality. In Russia, there appeared Futurism, which was trying to grab modern technology with one hand and Russia’s Slavic past with the other and ram them together, and which as part of this venture did things that would now be called deconstructionist, like reducing language to phonemes and roots and rebuilding it. In France, of course, the main avant-garde of this period was Cubism, which tried to show objects from several different directions at once, to dismantle traditional perspective. There were poets associated with this school too, of whom the most famous is probably Gertrude Stein.

Another Cubist poet, Pierre Reverdy, is more important for this essay. He is quoted in the first Manifesto of Surrealism as follows: “The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from comparison, but from the juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be, the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.” The idea of poetry as pure creation, then, is one big strand in this phase of modernism; the other is variations on the theme of making things unfamiliar.


Cubism Represents Its Own Literary Mag: Picasso, Nord-Sud, c. 1913

The premier exponents of this idea were the Russian Formalists (notably Victor Shklovsky) who tried to analyse how poems create the poetic effect. They concluded that poetry makes language unfamiliar by “baring its devices”: that is, it brings to the foreground elements that are in everyday speech — such as rhythm, sound, metaphor, comparison, and also grammar and syntax — and makes them completely inseparable from the content. So that, in a sense, they are the content.


A montage of Futurist-Constructivist images from the Russian Revolution

This idea of defamiliarisation was later picked up by Bertolt Brecht. He extrapolated from it to argue that if poetry makes language unfamiliar, and language is the main means of thought, then maybe we can use poetry, including theater, to make social reality seem unfamiliar — so that the relationships of power and exploitation that are made to seem natural, inevitable, and eternal to working people won’t seem that way any more. He was aiming at a different kind of revelation, a revelation of social reality and its contradictions, rather than of the world’s eternal beauty or of some kind of Beyond. This is an interesting twist on Shelley’s idea of tearing off the veil of familiarity.

In the midst of all this avant-garde ferment came World War I — vast, unprecedented slaughter and chaos, using all the most modern technology in the service of greed and imperialism. As the initial patriotic fervor wore off and the full horror of the war began to sink in, a lot of people, combatants and otherwise, came to feel that the whole society was completely insane, and that the culture and economy that had produced the situation had to be rotten from top to bottom. In Russia, and soon after in Germany and Italy, this realization combined with hunger to produce working-class revolution. And all over Europe, artists set about tearing the culture to bits with every means at their disposal.

Grosz_the great_war

Georg Grosz, The Great War

The most aggressive tendency in this assault was Dada, which started in Zurich and spread rapidly to New York, Paris, and Berlin. They used techniques like desecration (drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa and retitling the result with an obscene play on words); attacking the audience with random noise or rotting groceries, or otherwise trying to shatter its expectations; making “art” out of rubbish found in the street or mass-produced objects; creating deliberately absurd, grating and grotesque language, costumes, paintings, and sculptures. Unfortunately, these once shocking techniques seem a little quaint to us, because every would-be avant-garde hack since then has used them over and over again until they’re completely worn out; in fact, many Dada techniques have made their way into fashion and advertising.


Kurt Schwitters, Collage (Merzbild)

As early as 1922, André Breton and some of his friends in the French wing of Dada had already gotten fed up with it. They decided to find some kind of positive way out, not just from the culture, but from the whole existing reality. The first place they looked for weapons was the Freudian school, and the world of the unconscious and dreams. In the aftermath of the explosion of modernism that Dada triggered, they began to reinvent high Romanticism-but with a difference. This new hybrid was Surrealism. Like the Romantics, the Surrealists took the view that poetry isn’t fundamentally a matter of volition, but of inspiration. So they did all kinds of things to loosen themselves up, to get their unconsciouses talking. They did word games and collages, tried to simulate the writing of the insane, and sat around in cafés putting themselves into trances and talking or writing completely off the tops of their heads — really trying to be as out of control as possible.


Andre Breton, Scientist of the Strange (Photomontage by Max Ernst)

Breton said: “We Surrealists are modest recording instruments, we have no talent.” Here is the Surrealists’ first major difference with Romanticism, which exalts the individual talent, the idea of genius. They called Surrealism “the communism of genius”: everybody had a subconscious, so everybody could be as creative as they were. Their other crucial innovation was to deliberately use the city as something between a labyrinth, a laboratory, a game board, and a stage set. They wandered around at random and let things happen to them, and they carried out experiments with coincidence, which they thought might be a higher and so far unexplained form of causality. Philippe Soupault, for instance, Breton’s earliest collaborator, used to go to apartment buildings in remote parts of Paris where he had never been before and ask the concierge if a man named Philippe Soupault lived there.


Man Ray, A Surrealist Trance Session, 1923:

Robert Desnos at the typewriter

The aim of all this was to find what they, following earlier Romantic theorists, came to call the “poetic marvelous.” Breton says in the first Manifesto, 1924: “Let’s not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful; in fact, only the marvelous is beautiful.” And in Nadja, a book about a woman that he met and fell in love with while he was wandering the streets, he adds: “Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all.” In a less well-known but more precise statement in his own unclassifiable Surrealist traveler’s tale, Paris Peasant, Louis Aragon, then a close comrade of Breton’s, wrote: “Reality is the apparent absence of contradiction. The marvelous is the eruption of contradiction within the real.”

In other words, what we call reality is a limited consensus that achieves coherence by leaving out or suppressing a great deal of potential experience; and when part of this suppressed potential bursts through and contradicts how we think about the world, this is the marvelous, the truth of poetry. Earlier, in his 1924 essay “A Wave of Dreams,” Aragon had written: “It should be understood that the real is a relation like any other. The essence of things is by no means linked to reality; there are other relations besides reality that the mind is capable of grasping and that are also primary, like chance, illusion, the fantastic, the dream. All these groups are united and brought into harmony in a single order — Surreality.” And Breton echoes: “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a Surreality.”

buttes_chaumont-bridge of the suicides

Marvelous Paris: Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Bridge of the Suicides

On the one hand, then, the Surrealists sought out the marvelous as contradiction within official reality; and on the other, what they were ultimately trying to achieve — like Shelley — was this state beyond contradiction. But whereas Shelley only claimed that while you read a true poem certain contradictions are suspended, the Surrealists at first wanted actually to change the structure of reality so that there would be no more contradiction, period — no contradiction between being awake or asleep, between imagining and perceiving. And they were militant about provoking contradiction: they did their best to make themselves as obnoxious as possible to the ruling culture in France, by doing things like going to a banquet in honor of a French war hero and shouting out “Long live Germany!” They were constantly getting into fist-fights at theatre presentations and other cultural events. In this sense they were still in the line of Dada. In their Declaration of January 27, 1925, they say: “We have nothing to do with literature but we are quite capable when necessary of making use of it like anyone else. Surrealism is not a new means of expression or an easier one, or a metaphysic of poetry. It is a means of total liberation of the mind and of all that resembles it. We are determined to make a revolution (…) There is no means of action that we are not capable, when necessary, of employing(…) Surrealism is not a poetic form. It is a cry of the mind turning back on itself, and determined to break apart its fetters, even if it must be by material hammers.” We’ll get back to those material hammers in a minute, because some of them got tied to sickles on red flags.

Popular Front workers Demo Paris

Workers demonstrate, Paris 1936

So Surrealism did not set out to be a poetic form or a means of expression. True, it privileged poetry — but not necessarily poetry in poems. As Breton says in the first Manifesto: “Poetry can also be an organizer if ever…we contemplate taking it seriously. The time is coming when it decrees the end of money and by itself will break the bread of heaven for the earth. There will again be gatherings on public squares and movements you never dared participate in. May you only take the trouble to practice poetry.” To practice poetry, presumably, would mean acting on the world in whatever way to produce the surrealist revolution, to generalize the marvelous into surreality. Within a few years, the movement had lost some of this radical edge — an edge partly sustained by refusing theoretical closure. By 1934, Tristan Tzara, a leading Dada who had an on-again, off-again relationship with Surrealism, wrote a piece called “The Situation of Poetry” in which he said: “Let us immediately denounce the misunderstanding that claimed to classify poetry as a means of expression, the poetry which distinguishes itself from novels only by its external form; the poetry that expresses either ideas or sentiments no longer interests anyone.” (Notice how that still sounds like Reverdy.) “To it I oppose poetry as an activity of the mind. One can be a poet without ever having written a line.”


Passage de L’Opera, Paris: The Haunted Haunt of Louis Aragon

So far, so good. But then Tzara hits the banana peel: “There exists a quality of poetry in the street, in a commercial performance, anywhere (…) The confusion is great: it is poetic.” He can go around contemplating all these banal things, and by looking at them in a certain way, pow! he makes them poetic. He becomes a kind of tourist of the marvelous, and the marvelous becomes something to be consumed, not discovered or created. This attitude has everything to do with developments in the culture industry after about 1965, when large parts of its output became surrealist in this sense.


Volkswagen ad, after Salavador Dali, c. 2008

To do them justice, one should point out that some of the Surrealists began to grasp this problem, even though the group’s magazine published Tzara’s essay. They began to think about those material hammers. In other words, they began to realize that the majority of people weren’t going to get into pursuing the marvelous by wandering the streets and doing automatic writing and reciting in trances, because they had to survive and feed their families. They were working ten hours a day, six days a week in factories, ground down by (and into) capitalist reality. The “liberation of the mind” that Breton and his group called the surrealist revolution was thus predicated on a social revolution that would liberate working people from toil and material deprivation.

The Surrealists were also being provoked on this point by a young Marxist intellectual called Pierre Naville, who told them, in essence: Put up or shut up. If you are really interested in revolution, you should join the revolutionary party. It’s called the Communist Party. And in 1926, after a lot of back and forth, four of them, including Breton, did join it. But they found that the Party didn’t really want them — and that they weren’t sure they wanted what the Party was becoming, either. In the USSR, the New Economic Policy was collapsing, and repression on all fronts was starting to increase. The radical cultural experimentation that had been going on since the revolution and even before was being suppressed; Socialist Realism, nineteenth-century academic realism in a new guise, was being made the official artistic doctrine. Ilya Ehrenberg, then the Soviet cultural attaché, called André Breton a pederast — as did the poet Paul Claudel, who was a Catholic protofascist. So the Surrealists got it from both sides. (Breton made a point of slapping Ehrenberg’s face on the street in response.)

Popular Front Demo Paris

Communist Demonstrators, Paris, mid-1930s

At the same time, the Communist parties were becoming instruments of Soviet foreign policy rather than organizations dedicated to creating revolutions in their own countries. In fact, workers’ democracy in Russia had been wiped out a lot earlier, during the civil war and the period right after it. The Soviet Union was already ruled by a hard-headed and repressive bureaucracy, which Stalin was in the process of taking over, eliminating the last vestiges of the freedom opened up by the revolution of 1917. His main rival for the leadership of the new bureaucratic “Soviet” state was Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s former comrade in arms, founder and leader of the Red Army — and also ruthless crusher of the revolt of the sailors and dockworkers of Kronstadt against Bolshevik repression in 1921. But there was only room for one man at the top of the pyramid, and so the crude and ruthless thug Stalin drove the somwhat less ruthless intellectual Trotsky into exile and constant fear of assassination.


The rebellious sailors of Kronstadt, massacred at Trotsky’s orders in 1921 when they called for real power to be returned to the workers’ councils

So the Surrealists backed the wrong horse at the wrong time and they pretty soon got shunted out of the Party and ended up with Trotsky’s Left Opposition. Trotsky was more sympathetic to them. He thought — at least from his position in exile — that artists should not be interfered with by the “socialist” state, made to produce propaganda. In 1938 he co-signed with Breton and Diego Rivera a Manifesto for an International Federation for Independent Revolutionary Art, arguing this position. But this “free art” idea was already a long step back from the Surrealists’ original conception, which saw artistic media as merely means to the end, surreality. Given the situation, though, this retreat was probably inevitable. The revolutionary wave had ebbed and political and cultural reaction was ascendant everywhere. The “International Federation” was stillborn, Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico. Breton and his friends were left high and dry on the shores of the old world. And because, contrary to their earlier protestations, they did have talent, they began to be absorbed back into art and literature.


Max Ernst, My Absolute, 1934

The poets and painters developed careers, and some of them rejoined the Communist party, like Paul Eluard, who became one of the most famous poets in France. Max Ernst also did very well for himself, winning numerous prizes for his painting and sculpture. So Surrealism as project for transforming reality and opposed to culture collapsed; it became another artistic school. Many of its techniques, like those of Cubism, Dada, and Futurism before it, turned up in advertising and mass culture generally: they are now commonplace. In fact, because Surrealism concerned itself directly with the unconscious and with desire, its imagery was especially adaptable to the ends of the culture industry, whose business is the channeling of desire into appetite for commodities.

The Situationists: Lived Poetry


Paris, 1950s

I want to make a much shorter jump now, right over World War II, but we’re still in Paris. On the Left Bank, where there was a group of young artists, ex-artists and ex-students, including a young guy of Russian extraction called Ivan Tcheglov, who called himself Gilles Ivain. In 1953, three years before Octavio Paz published The Bow and the Lyre, Tcheglov writes an essay called “Formulary for New Urbanism,” which he begins as follows: “We are bored in the city. There is no longer any Temple of the Sun…” He goes on to say that the Surrealist ways of having adventures in Paris were all very well in their day, but that they are now worn out, and the whole culture is pretty desiccated. He continues: “A mental disease has swept the planet: banalization. Everyone is hypnotized by production and conveniences — sewage system, elevator, bathroom, washing machine. This state of affairs, arising out of poverty, has overshot its ultimate goal; the liberation of man from material cares has become an obsessive image hanging over the present. Presented with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.”


One of Tcheglov’s inspirations: The temple at the Buttes-Chaumont

Tcheglov’s critique here is firmly within the Romantic tradition. Shelley argued — as did Marx — that we must get control of all the productive power that human beings have created, and that is now just enslaving most of us. Tcheglov is saying very much the same thing, well over a century later. (Notice also the emphasis on desire, which is a crucial Romantic concept.) He goes on to argue that the new project in art and culture has to be the building of entirely new cities: “The city could be envisaged in the form of an arbitrary assemblage of castles, grottoes, lakes, etc… it would be the Baroque stage of urbanism considered as a means of knowledge(…) The districts of this city could correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life. Bizarre Quarter — Happy Quarter (especially reserved for habitation) — Noble and Tragic Quarter (for good children) — Historical Quarter (museums and schools) — Useful Quarter (hospitals, workshops) — Sinister Quarter, etc… The Sinister Quarter would be a good replacement for those hellholes that many peoples once possessed in their capitals: they symbolized all the evil forces of life. The Sinister Quarter would have no need to harbor real dangers such as traps, dungeons, or mines. It would be difficult to get into, with a hideous decor (piercing whistles, alarm bells, sirens wailing intermittently, grotesque sculptures and power-driven mobiles called Auto-mobiles) and as poorly lit at night as it is blindingly lit in the day by an intensive use of reflection. At the center, the ‘Square of the Appalling Mobile’.” Perhaps most scandalous of all, the main activity of people in this city would be just to wander around.

Tcheglov, shortly after he wrote this, had a complete breakdown and spent the next twenty years in psychiatric hospitals; but he went on corresponding intermittently with his friends. At the core of this loose group was Guy Debord, a young filmmaker and sometime avant-garde poet. In 1957-8, Debord pulled together avant-garde artists and anti-artists from various parts of Europe and North Africa to create an organization called the Situationist International, which set about trying to realize Tcheglov’s program.


The Situationists: Michelle Bernstein, Guy Debord, and others, late 1950s

In a founding text of the Situationist International (hereafter the SI), the first thing Debord does is to settle accounts with the old avant-gardes and their inadequacies, including Surrealism: “The Surrealist program of asserting the sovereignty of desire and surprise and proposing a new use of life is much richer in constructive possibilities than is generally thought.” However, the movement has degenerated, and we have to go back to where the theory came from to find out where it went wrong — which, Debord asserts, is “the idea of the infinite richness of the subconscious imagination. We now know that the unconscious imagination is poor, that automatic writing is monotonous,” and that discerning people have gotten very tired of Surrealism’s ostentatious weirdness. “The very success of Surrealism has a lot to do with the fact that the most modern side of this society’s ideology openly uses the irrational, including vestiges of Surrealism.”

Debord goes on to define what he means by the construction of situations. This, following Tcheglov, begins with the creation of an architectural environment based on the feelings that different kinds of urban space give people, and also on the historic and cultural resonances of those spaces, the kinds of gestures that usually go on in them: the resonance of the castle, of the dark alley, of the little park, of the door in the wall of the hidden garden, of overhanging houses or arcades… These spaces would be used as “sets,” creators of mood and physical possibility, both for wandering and for organized encounters; encounters not in the sense of an “encounter group,” but of a number of people who have agreed to cooperate in pursuing some collective experience over a period of time and structured by certain rules. According to the rules agreed upon, the experience could go more or less anywhere, from an afternoon’s diversion to the most serious consequences — revelation, passionate love, intense enmity, psychic and even bodily risk. It would be play — serious play, not the tepid play offered as merchandise by this civilization. This is what the SI called a constructed situation.

situationist paris

A psychogeographical map of Paris

The SI, then, proposed an experimentalism of everyday life, leading to the creation of such an ever-changing urban environment as the realization of art. Rather than doing what the Surrealists did with Paris, which was to wander around waiting for marvelous or poetic events, they proposed to make these events happen, to provoke them actively. At the outset, the Situationists thought they might be able to build a city and maintain it by tourism; they were going to create a kind of poetic Las Vegas or Disneyland through which people could just wander and have bizarre or lyrical or passionate experiences. But they soon realized that this wasn’t practical: it would be hard to finance, the mafia and the other corporations might not be interested in it. So they began to realize, much as the Surrealists realized before them, that they were going to have to change the whole society in order to implement their program.

Actually, like Tcheglov, the SI had radically criticized this society from the start. The Situationists argued that capitalism in the developed countries has merely reproduced poverty at a higher level. Most people spend their lives going through routines, like doing boring, empty jobs that often have no socially useful result, shopping in supermarkets, watching TV, and commuting. This results in an infinite extension of survival — one is forced to consume more and more goods and services, to work harder and harder — while life, in the sense of play, adventure, profound experience, connection with the universe, is lost. The substitute for this lost life is the consumption of what the SI called spectacles. This means not only commercialized entertainment, but all of existing culture insofar as it is consumed passively, as an alienated creativity cut off from daily life and reinforcing the passivity of its consumers.


In the empire of passivity: caught by the spectacle’s primary weapon

The Situationists rapidly broadened the concept of spectacle to include the whole way that capitalist society organizes appearances as part of its organization of time and space. For instance, the automobile is part of the spectacle because it puts you in a metal box among many other metal boxes, traveling along a homogeneous highway isolated from other drivers, from the landscape, and from everything else. This reinforces the isolation imposed by the nuclear family, by television, and ultimately by the whole system of work for pay. The driver’s situation also pressures you to be individualistic, competitive, defensive, even paranoid — which is just the way that the powers that be would like to have you.


The truth of the automobile: the Jail Car

Moreover, social space organized around the automobile tends to isolate people further. The close connections between workplace and neighborhood that were so integral to the development of the old working-class movement have been suppressed. As a result, a large-scale movement for a genuinely democratic and communal society becomes almost as difficult to imagine as it is to accomplish. The SI called the automobile the star commodity of modern capitalism, because it does all that.


On the spectacle’s circular freeway: the “same dull round” of daily life

For the SI, then, the practice of art in the accepted sense of the term quickly became impossible. Given capitalism’s near-total control over daily life and the enormous power of its media, art as a separate form of creativity had lost all subversive potential-indeed, all real meaning beyond its entertainment value. The project of the artistic avant-gardes, culminating in Surrealism, had failed.

In particular, language was being reduced to a mere carrier of information or means of propaganda. “We live within language as within polluted air,” wrote the Situationists in “All The King’s Men.” “In spite of what humorists think, words do not play. Nor do they make love, as Breton thought, except in dreams. Words work — on behalf of the dominant organization of life (…) Under the control of power, language always designates something other than authentic experience. It is precisely for this reason that a total contestation is possible (…) What is poetry if not the revolutionary moment of language, inseparable as such from the revolutionary moments of history and from the history of personal life?” But power has a “stranglehold” over language. Thus, today, “poetry must be understood as immediate communication within reality and as real alteration of that reality. It is nothing other than liberated language, language that breaks its rigid significations and simultaneously embraces words, music, cries, gestures, painting, mathematics, facts, acts (…) Realizing poetry means nothing less than simultaneously and inseparably creating events and their language.”

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“The simultaneous creation of events and their language”?

For the SI, then, poetry and revolution were inseparable. “Every revolution has been born in poetry, has first of all been made with the force of poetry (…) The moment of real poetry, which has ‘all the time in the world before it,’ invariably wants to reorient the entire world and the entire future to its own ends.” But the essay also warns: “It is a matter not of putting poetry at the service of revolution, but rather of putting revolution at the service of poetry… We will not repeat the mistake of the Surrealists, who put themselves at the service of the revolution right when it ceased to exist.” And poetry itself is radically redefined: “What we are calling poetic adventure is difficult, dangerous, and never guaranteed(…) We can only be sure about what is no longer the poetic adventure of an era: its false, officially tolerated poetry. Thus, where Surrealism in the heyday of its assault(…) could rightly define its arsenal as ‘poetry without poems if necessary,’ it is now a matter for the SI of a poetry necessarily without poems.”

durutti_is12_vi“Yes, Marx’s thought is really a critique of everyday life”

I first read the Situationists when I was twenty years old. They forced me to ask myself, as a person who wanted their kind of revolution more than anything in the world, whether I should go on writing poems at all. I was in France in June 1968, and I saw the aftermath of the the events which the SI helped to provoke, which was a youth uprising that triggered a mass strike and workplace occupation by ten million workers. Situationist ideas had become popular not only among students, but among young workers in some of the large factories. Besides the timidity and leftover authoritarianism of the workers themselves, it was only the systematic intervention of the Communist and Socialist trade unions that prevented workers from forming their own autonomous assemblies and starting to take positive control over social life — resuming production and distribution according to their own desires and under their own management, in what the Polish workers later called “active strike,” the first real step of social revolution.

Meanwhile, the most astonishing graffiti were appearing all over the walls, expressing the new psychic freedom that the strike had brought by liberating people’s time from work: “Under the paving-stones, the beach,” “Run fast, comrade, the old world is behind you,” “Revolution is the ecstasy of history,” “Why not offer your lover the magnificent bed of a revolution?” This was what the SI meant by “the simultaneous creation of events and their language.” So I thought: What is the point of writing poetry? It doesn’t reach very many people, and it seems a poor substitute for this collective adventure, this poetic transformation of reality.


An occupied factory, France May 1968

Conclusions: The Uses of the Poem

poetic graffitto_2

A poem in the open, author unknown

One part of the answer I came to is the dimension of revelation that the Surrealists pursued so intensely, but that the Situationists mostly ignored. Poems can be revelatory in various ways. One way has to with profoundly painful human experiences, like rejection, personal loss, old age, illness, and death — experiences that no conceivable social transformation would eliminate, and that open up whole new areas of the psyche when properly grasped. Poems can help one achieve that grasp: I think of Zen death poems, for instance, or Thomas Nashe’s “Brightness falls from the air,” or the funeral chants of the Aztecs. Another way that poetry reveals is in highlighting one’s own internal contradictions. I find that the contradictions of this society run right through me. Like earthquake faults, some of these cracks store enormous energies, and poems can help me find my way to them, as well as reveal traps and self-delusions.


The Mundane Shell and the Eternal Humanity:

William Blake, from Milton: A Poem

Still another way is the access poems can give to “nonordinary” states of consciousness. Now, one could argue — I just have — that poetry itself is a nonordinary state of consciousness; but I think there are others, to which poetry is as, say, the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Beyond its Gibraltar is what Auden called “the immense improbable atlas” of the unknown, the unexpressed and perhaps inexpressible — the vertiginous beauty that the Surrealists glimpsed as the marvelous.


“The immense improbable atlas”: Di Chirico, “Metaphysical Interior”

Of course, we seldom pass beyond these straits into the wider ocean; but we catch sight of it sometimes, and sometimes its creatures come to us — great forms surfacing that can capsize our small craft if not treated with respect.

Despite their disagreements, both the Surrealists and the Situationists understood that real poetry is always risky, transgressive: it flourishes at the edge of what we know, shatters certainties, breaks open what William Blake called the Mundane Shell. And it restores knowledge that centuries of undialectical rationalist thought have stripped from us — intuitive and affectionate knowledge of the planet’s life-systems that, if we are not to destroy these systems and ourselves as well, we must recover quickly. Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” — “A robin redbreast in a cage / puts all heaven in a rage” — is a primer of this recovery. More humbly, perhaps, poetry continually reveals to me the meaning-potential of language itself, and the pleasures afforded by releasing this potential. To make language do things that it hasn’t done before, make it incrementally new… When I read poems that do that (and sometimes, I like to think, write them) some part of me is salvaged from the (currently rather battered and rusty) stainless mandibles of capitalism’s global work-machine, and I think in that sense alone it is worthwhile. Put less pretentiously: when I read a good poem, it helps to keep me sane and spiritually alive one day longer. But the fact that I get that out of poetry doesn’t free me personally, at any rate, of the need to do more than write poems. I really want to see poetry win.


Brassai, Escalier de la butte Montmartre



for Daniel Steven Crafts

No-one I have ever met at the company has encountered the Founder
His personal suite may not even be in our world headquarters building
Certainly none of the elevators even the executive one go to his floor
The Office of the President handles all correspondence and messages
channeled through squads of administrative assistants and managers
Apparently he has left detailed instructions with them but answers
his phone and email very unpredictably and often incomprehensibly

The Board of course claims to be in regular contact with the Founder
but Board members argue with each other about what he actually said
The Vice-Presidents pass on what they claim are the Founder’s memos
but again these long screeds are often in contradiction with each other or
with instructions issued by the Vice-Presidents to their own divisions

The divisional feuds over interpretations of the Founder’s principles
even trivial ones continue to be acute and often vicious especially lately
as questions about the Founder’s real role and intentions keep piling up
His maxims Treat your coworkers as you would want to be treated
but show the competition no mercy The goal is global market saturation

have begun to seem outdated and narrow There are mounting complaints
about the Founder’s view of women They do best in support roles he wrote
Most of my colleagues think the Founder still plays a role in the company
They see evidence of his handiwork in our complex organization
or in amazing new product lines they say no-one else could have designed

But fact checkers have found more and more flaws in his famous book
The Story of a Company and there are questions too about the accuracy
of the several sequels written supposedly by his original Vice-Presidents
There are real doubts now about whether the Founder wrote it at all
For one thing the company is actually far older than the Story claims
and many of what are claimed to be its products seem to have been
already on the market long before the founding date in the Story
while other products have turned up with old versions of our logo
that neither the Story nor the various sequels and digests mention at all

More and more staffers in the Research departments have quietly concluded
that the Founder has never existed and that the company came into being
by some other process altogether probably very gradual with sudden bursts
of change every long once in a while involving many more employees
They say the Founder is a convenient fiction like Big Brother in 1984
designed to provide an ultimate justification for any company policy
and for the authority of the Office of the President and the divisional VPs

Meanwhile the old policy guidelines seem increasingly ineffective
as the Founder’s stern face framed in white mane and magnificent beard
looks down from murals or up from our brochures and prospectuses
The problems keep on piling up the company’s systems are failing
IT networks going down the building’s energy and air controls shaky
In bathrooms and cafeterias I hear more and more of my co-workers asking
Couldn’t we do a better job of running the company together ourselves?


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