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Robert Ovetz — Review of Chris Carlsson, Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners are Inventing the Future Today, AK Press: Oakland, 2008, 278 pp.

Jan 2010

Despite the devastating impact of the global crisis in the US over the past few years—rising unemployment, massive transfer of wealth to banks, widespread foreclosures, etc—the streets appear all too quiet. Or are they? For Chris Carlsson, new forms of resistance have been bubbling just beneath the surface out of sight of not only the mainstream media and social movement watchers but even the left.

Carlsson’s new book Nowtopia updates Trinidadian theorist CLR James’ idea of the “future in the present”. New self-organized movements of urban gardeners, bike rebels, pirate programmers and, yes, for all their shortcomings even biofuelorganized working class movements.

Carlsson sees nowtopias as terrains of conflict not over but against work and thus challenge us to rethink ideas of working class organization. Carlsson sees “in the Nowtopian movement not a fight for workers emancipation within the capitalist division of labor…. we see people responding to the overwork and
emptiness of a bifuricated life that is imposed in the precarious marketplace. They seek emancipation from being merely workers.” (p. 5) This is an attempt to articulate a new analysis and understanding of the strategy of self-organization emerging among the working class.

New emerging forms of resistance to capitalism lies, Carlsson asserts, in how people are attempting to transcend capitalism in the present by evading, reappropriating or subordinating work to more pleasurable community oriented projects. Such projects create new often short lived spaces that are outside or antagonistic to the objectives of control and profits. Nowtopia is packed with thoroughly documented examples of cooperative bike kitchens, urban gardening movements, biofuels coops, and the free software from someone intimately knowledgeable about each of these movements. The fundamental commonality among these nowtopias is their insistence on Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tinkering and inventing “to produce a different way of life. From reinhabiting cities with new transit choices to growing one’s own food in community gardens (challenging private property by making common the garden lands), to grassroots technological movements in fuels, software, and medicine, people are taking initiatives outside of wage- labor and business to make the world we want to live in now.” (p. 52) Nowtopia is a refreshing, accessible and inspiring testament to their both their successes and failures of these projects.
Unlike the recent onslaught of “green economy” mantras that offer remedies to pull global capitalism from its deepening crises, Carlsson seeks to reignite new forms of working class organization. Nowtopia is complimentary to Carlsson’s previous work as co-publisher of the infamous Processed World magazine
and co-originator of the now international Critical Mass bike ride movement. He examines these nowtopian projects in the context of current historical and political conditions to assess their ability to transform work into self-reliance, autonomy and community. Nowtopias are part of a strategy of working class resistance to the terror of the growing insecurity of life in the service economy. Part-time, temporary and contingent work without benefits combined with the growing drudgery of the available work and the realization that work is the fundamental cause of our social and environmental crises. This reorganization of work is increasingly a push factor driving more and more people to find a new ways to work with a sense of meaning, contributing to solutions and to build community. “By describing people who are making practical transformations, and creating new communities in the practice of these activities, I see an emerging type of working-class self-activity, and hopefully, self-consciousness,” Carlsson suggests offering a vibrant new class analysis. (p. 236)

These nowtopias are hardly “utopian” as the title would seem to suggest. Rather, they can be seen as existing futures in the present always teetering on Faustian choices between selling out, going commercial or getting funded and thereby self-sabotaging their autonomy and dynamism. Some survive, a few thrive principles in tact and most fade away. Those that do blossom and grow, Carlsson insists, are signs of a recomposition of new working class power. The shift to insecure work in the service economy is an attempt of employers to restructure, or recompose, the working class to make it more passive, malleable and profitable. These nowtopian projects are both the source of the crisis leading to such restructuring and existing forms of resistance to it by creating what autonomist theorist Harry Cleaver calls an “infinity of atomistic and molecular rebellions through which people rupture the sinews of the capital-labor relation and create alternative relations—however temporary and limited those ruptures and those alternatives may be.” (p. 44)

Vacant lot gardening illustrates for Carlsson a case study of the recomposition of working class power happening right now. Harkening back to communal peasant self-sufficiency and more recently victory gardens that kept America from starving during WWII and federally funded garden projects of the 1960-
80s, urban gardens have long been terrains of struggle.

For Carlsson, urban gardening is a crucial movement because “while contending social forces seek to control land and the political structures that administer it, space is also provided to unregulated social interaction. Gardens are important arenas for multi-generational circuits of communication, memory, and experience.” Urban gardens are resurrecting community between the young and elder generations passing along knowledge of tradition, ways to care for the land, community values and cooperation. In short, nourishing food is being produced and shared outside the circuit of the market thereby reducing the need to work for money to buy it. Meticulously detailing the little known popularity of backyard and community gardening, Carlsson reminds us that “they also grow community” that provide non-monetary sources of wealth. The disinvestment and capital strike in urban America over the past 30 years to undo the gains of the 1960-70s that has shattered our communities “has challenged those people who stay to reinvent the bonds that knit together a community. In the practical work of clearing vacant lots and planting and nurturing gardens, a different kind of working class emerges, independent and self-sufficient, improvisational and innovative, convivial and cooperative, very often led and organized by females.” (p. 89) In urban areas, these gardens become “liberated zones” that are earthen barricades to profit, control and the market. Witness the backlash against gardens in NYC, Fresno and Los Angeles since the 1980s.

Nowtopias can also lose their potential as new forms of working class self-organization as they become corrupted or de-evolve into commercial ventures. Burning Man, the annual do it yourself art festival in the Nevada desert, is one example in which this can happen. Far from being a free space for art and community experimentation, Burning Man has de-evolved from a free festival on a local beach to an exclusive event with skyrocketing ticket prices, heavy reliance on petroleum and cars, and corporate management. These characteristics lead Carlsson to conclude that the evolution of the festival is the “outcome of a deeper and decades-long process of remolding consciousness in conformity with capitalist values.” (p. 222) Likewise, the Bush administration mandated a rapid expansion of biofuel use triggering exploding food prices, food riots in dozens of countries in 2007-2008, and rampant land speculation. “The bigger problem” with biofuels, Carlsson argues, “is how the growing market penetration of big capital will shape the technology to its own interests.” (p. 177)

What Nowtopia doesn’t address is the relationship of these temporary ruptures to more predominant forms of working class activity and resistance. How can we link up these many DIY movements and projects to already existing forms of resistance in the workplace, neighborhoods, the watersheds and the streets. How can these linkages strengthen and expand these nowtopias into powerful movements that can both resist and provide spaces for solving real needs for daily needs and community? In otherwords, how do we organize the knitting circles, urban homesteaders and bike kitchens so that they are not only talking with one another but complementing the efforts of those on the streets? While missing from Nowtopia, Carlsson’s Reshaping San Francisco series of talks (and similarly named web project) is a vibrant monthly encounter (which, in full disclosure, I once participated in) among and between circles, projects and movements that makes these exact kinds of circulatory linkages.

If commentaries on the crisis from the left have mostly emphasized the dangers, Carlsson has identified opportunities and where to look for them. Nowtopia is the place to go for inspiring reports on new forms of self-organized working class movements already simmering just out of our field of sight. Recognizing these and other nowtopias will better prepare us for when and if the bubbles begin to reach the boiling point.

Robert Ovetz, PhD is an adjunct professor of political science and sociology at two community colleges in
the San Francisco Bay Area.

Olivier De Marcellus — Reclaiming Power in Copenhagen. A decisive step towards a global climate justice movement

For many of us coming back from Copenhagen full of hope and energy, it was strange to see that many people who followed the summit from afar see what happened there as catastrophic.. But it has been clear for some time that « at best » they were only going to impose their false (but highlyl profitable) solutions. Clear headed political analysts, like leading scientists such as James Hansen, were already saying that No Deal would be better than a Bad Deal. Finally the deal was so bad that it was impossible to impose (the so-called Copenhagen Accord was not agreed by all parties).

Appalled by our rulers’ greed and total irresponsibility, many don’t realise that this tragic farce – and the unified action of different grassroots networks – has opened a new political space where real solutions have a chance. As I write, Evo Morales’s announcement of an alternative climate summit of social movements arrives. The space is widening. As one slogan put it « Who’s summit ? Our summit ! »

***

The French Revolution is generally said to have began when part of the clergy and minor nobilility deserted their respective assemblies, which had been convened by the king, to join the assembly of the commoners, the Third Estate. If the word gets out, perhaps the Reclaim Power and Peoples’ Assembly action of the 16th of December, will spark something as important.

That may sound pretentious. We were only a few thousand, only a handful made it briefly onto the grounds of the Bella Center and those inside were beaten back from joining us. But in Seattle too, it was just a few thousand kids who took the decisive action, and they only delayed the summit a few hours. In Copenhagen, the cops won tactically, but their violence only underscored our amazing political victory.
While the world’s powers lost all credibility, fighting among themselves to grab as much CO2 (that is to say as much production and profits) as possible, hundreds of accredited NGO delegates (our modern equivalent to the clergy of the Old Regime), and the governmental delegations of Bolivia, Venezuela and Tuvalu decided to leave the Conference in order to join the Peoples Assembly and discuss the real solutions.

That was our best case scenario.

We never dreamed that our enemies would be so stupid as to dramatise their fear of our action : excluding hundreds of NGOs that they suspected would join us, kidnapping the demo spokespersons and « leaders », seizing the sound truck and above all using clubs to drive back the demo of official delegates who tried to force their way out to join the Assembly. After the massive police infiltration, the dozens of arrests and the trumped up charges against Ya Basta people during the police attack on the assembly in Christiania two days before, the searches and seizures of all sorts of material (even bikes and banners !), this apparently irrational level of repression probably reflects how much power felt menaced by our project.

Very clearly, from the start the police plan was to disorganise our action, provoke us, then beat us up a bit and serve us to the media as a « riot ». But they hadn’t imagined that the demo- even without the sound truck or the « leaders » – would be capable of self-organising and continuing according to plan : trying to get in, assembly with speakers and small groups, compact march back, etc.
Some of the most experienced activists were disappointed that more material didn’t get to the fence, that more concerted efforts to get over didn’t happen, that the other blocks were neutralised so fast. But, although illegality and the practical efforts to break in were an absolutely essential part of our political statement, we mustn’t stay hung up on the purely concrete, tactical level. The objective was not to break in as such, it was to affirm practically our RIGHT to break in and hold an Assembly to talk of the peoples’ solutions. To make it impossible to ignore that there IS an alternative agenda. That was why holding the Assembly – be it finally just inside or just outside the fence – was the essential goal.

Most of the mainstream media had run off by the time the Assembly was held, but that didn’t affect the political importance of a march and an Assembly which brought together the northem activists of CJA with the most significant grassroots movements of the South . There were farmers movements of Via Campesina from all continents, Jubilee South and tmany other movements represented in the From Trade to Climate Caravan : the peoples of Oceania, the Philippine Fisherfolk, the landless of India, indigenous peoples of Mexico, Panama, Colombia and the Andes, etc. They are all menaced by climate change and totally reject a neo-neo-colonial aggression, which under the guise of « market solutions », seeks to make the South pay – more brutally than ever – for a new cycle of « green » capitalist expansion. But more importantly, they were there to offer real solutions, such as : food sovereignty, energy sovereignty, leaving the oil in the soil, re-localised production and another conception of « liviing well », which calls on the North to recognise its Climate Debt and radically question the capitalist project of infinite growth, over-production and over-consumption,

The critical point is that this Assembly was not a chance and fleeting moment. It marked a longer term convergence of different networks and political cultures : global networks of movements and progressive NGOs like Climate Justice Now and Our World Is Not For Sale, networks composed more of young northern activists like Climate Justice Action, the Climate Camps, old Peoples’ Global Action hands, etc. Political victories aren’t just about getting the better of the cops (and even less about the results of the official summit),. Victories are about coming out the battle more credible and more united than before. Credible : today, hopefully the people who imagined that it would be enough to pressure our rulers into a « good » deal, will better understand the necessity of building ourselves the solutions and imposing them through grass-roots popular power. United : since the Zapatistas called forth the anti-globalisation movement 13 years ago, there has never been such a broad alliance of organisations calling for « system change ».

Spontaneously, the same proposition came out ot the evaluations of CJA and CJN : organise People’s Assemblies everywhere, to tackle climate change issues at the local and regional level. These could organise against local sources of CO2 (in transport, for example) or false solutions (nuclear power, etc.), but also impose or construct directly real solutions (organising local food distribution systems). At the same time, by their links to the other assemblies, they would build a global movement, with a global day of assemblies next summer and a global day of action under the banner « System change not Climate change ! ».

So much for the ideas, but maybe its also important to talk of the spirit, the conviction and enthusiasm that made that demo and other moments in Copenhagen so magic for many. Objectively, we were practically kettled in by the cops, but it didn’t affect most people at all. There was no fear or powerlessness in the air. The march back, which had been rather dangerously announced as a « victory march », actually did rather feel like that. After eight hours in the cold and snow, the demo arrived in the center still compact and continuously belting out slogans. Even the last anti-repression demo was not only very large, it seemed to me to have an almost joyful feeling. For instance, the mother of an arrested spokesperson sang Janis Joplin and a song she had come to her during the Reclaim Power demo. People have to feel very sure of their ideas and very sure of each other for this kind of « moment of excess » to happen. As we marched through the night, a phrase came back to me again from Seattle : « We are winning .»

Now we all have to go home, get the word out and make it happen. Now its clear that we can only count on ourselves. The challenge is colossal, but everywhere there are people who know that we don’t have any other choice.

Olivier, from the Climate Caravan

The Reclaim Power action on the The Guardian’s video :
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/video/2009/dec/17/copenhagen-climate-change
Video of The Peoples’ Assembly
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGY9ruYpx3o
And much more at http://www.climate-justice-action.org/