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.
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.