Issue 26 / 27: Summer 1991 from http://processedworld.com
Processed World #26-27
Table of Contents
introduction & editorials by med-o, bean, zoe noe & primitivo morales
Argumince & Fax
from our readers
Not Our Own: Demystifying Goals & Methods of "Progressive" Work
analytical tale of toil by steven colatrella
tale of toil by kwazee wabbitt
Aaah! HIP Capatalists!
satire by chris carlsson
Ambivalent Memories of Virtual Community
tale of toil: programming at berkeley's community
memory, by g.s. williamson
There Goes The Neighborhood!
tale of toil: neighborhood recycling center, by
glenn caley bachmann
Beatnik Managers, Tye-Dye Bureaucrats, &
Corporate All-Purpose Tofu Paste
tale of toil: food co-op, by robert ovetz
If I Die Before I Wake
poem by jim lough
by marina lazzara, david west, gina bergamino, jeff conant,
janice king, michele c., errol miller & gene harter
Adventures In The Muck-It Research Game
"fiction" by art tinnitus
A Trade Reporter's Report
tale of toil by frank wilde
poem by paula orlando
Kelly Girl's Good Job
tale of toil: writer, by Kelly Girl
vdt update, poll tax revolt, disney revolution?,
salarymen rebel in japan, sex on the job & more!
Lessons in Democracy
poem by adam cornford
From The Grey Ranks: Graffiti in War & Peace in Poland
interview with tomasz sikorski, by d.s. black
Art & Chaos in Brazil
interview with graffiti artist ze carratu
article by klipschutz
review of josh kornbluth's haiku tunnel, by d.s. black
review of crad kilodney's work, by d.s. Black
"office worker's dreams", by crad kilodney
review of mike davis' city of quartz, by chris carlsson
review of the mill hunk herald anthology, by primitivo morales
review of french tabloid mordicus, by frog
review of french magazine terminal: informatique, culture, societe, by frog
Texas: Penury of Plenty
tale of texan toil by salvador ferret
Not Our Own: Demystifying Goals & Methods of "Progressive" Work
Analytical Tale of Toil by Steven Colatrella
"Transform the world by labor! But the world is being transformed by labor, which is why it is being transformed so badly."
"Anything built on sacrifice and self-renunciation only demands more sacrifice and renunciation."
I 'm 30 years old and I have an MA degree in political science, which is not enough to get any kind of good job, but enough to exclude you from any unskilled or semi-skilled jobs because employers know you'll never last. I've worked a lot of jobs--cab driver, landscaper, even ad clerk at The New York Times, but I quickly left them out of boredom, frustration, or low pay.
What I learned from all of them is that the only thing that makes them bearable for five minutes is the social interaction. What made them all eventually unbearable was the utter uselessness and meaninglessness of the work itself. I usually found myself growing despondent, listless, and suicidal after just a few days. So for the past several years I've made a living trying to do something useful, fun and that I do well--political organizing. For the average leftist, who chants whatever the Workers World thugs tell him to and dutifully ponders this week's media issue, it can be a great solution. If you fit this description, stop reading and look in the help wanted section of Community Jobs, In These Times or The Nation. But if your faculty for critical thinking and communal and libertarian vision lingers despite your best efforts to drown it in careerism, it can be a bumpy ride. That's especially true if you refuse to believe any single organization is worth dedicating your whole life to.
I've worked for a spectrum of U.S. leftist groups. I was campaign coordinator for a Citizens' Party State Senate race, I raised funds for the New National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee and the New Jersey ACLU (no pay, commission only, zero money), I canvassed for New Jersey Citizen Action, sorted mail at the Guardian, and stacked groceries at Texas' biggest food co-op. By early '88, I had just about given up on this method of making a living when a strange experience led to slightly improved working conditions and a bit more "status."
A friend told me that the National Lawyers Guild was hiring. (Incidentally, I got most of these political jobs by knowing people who knew people at the group in question. I'm not sure whether this is a leftist version of "it's who you know" or a sign of "community" winning out over abstract "merit" in the hiring game.) I called the Guild, and the person on the other end of the line insisted I come in immediately for an interview despite my protests that I was in blue jeans and sneakers and unprepared. I didn't even know what the job was.
I was hired immediately to recruit students at law schools and form new chapters of the Guild across the country. I had done Civil Liberties work--which involved very little actual knowledge, ability, or organizing experience--and had dropped out of law school after one year. Also, as a student I had been a member of the Guild. They figured, probably correctly, that I'd be able to relate to left-wing law students. For reasons I will describe below, I left after a year.
Most left-wing groups pay very poorly: My National Civil Liberties pay started at $5 an hour, and was $7 when I left; the Guardian pay was unmentionably low. But the Guild paid $20,000 a year, which seemed like a lot to me, and for the first time in my life offered health benefits and overtime pay.
Also, with the Guild on my resume, I could apply for union jobs, which usually pay in the mid-'20s with benefits and often a car. But when I eventually looked into working for a union, the only one interested in hiring me was the white collar division of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), PACE, which offered me a job at their one-person Vermont state office. They paid slightly less than the Guild, but did provide me with a car and expenses.
My most recent sojourn into employment was a temporary organizing position with the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR), which I took after being transferred back to New York with PACE at my own request. CIR is a NY-based union of medical residents, people who regularly work 80-130 hours per week right out of medical school. The job paid $15,000 for six months, more than I had ever made before. This enabled me to get a larger unemployment check when I left.
For the past six years, I've been part of the Midnight Notes publishing collective. This journal gives me something that no job ever has--the chance to be part of a genuine collective based on a common project and a common understanding of the world. It's a place where I can express my own "maximum" views instead those of the lowest common denominator coalition politics that predominate at most leftist organizations.
I started with this long, detailed list of jobs and wages, because such factors shape the world views and political analyses of even the most abstract radical thinkers. Also, it makes it clear that the analysis that follows is based on extensive experience.
I don't think any single organization can represent a whole movement or class. The experience of collective and individual self-transformation, which is the basis of all genuine radical social struggles and what attracts people to them in the first place, can never be totally encompassed by the work of the organizations that partially represent that movement.
At best, institutions mobilize people at a crucial moment in history, or champion the needs of some of the exploited. At worst, institutions project the interests of those social sectors from which they recruit onto a whole class or movement. This process accounts for the bureaucratization of unions, parties and other groups, and explains how they become detached from and hostile to criticisms, suggestions, and initiatives from below.
At the lowest level of "degeneration," these institutions can consciously play a crucial role in siphoning off political energies by providing an alternative job market for people who hate capitalist institutions and refuse to work for corporate profits. We get to work on political issues, but not the issues that we would work on, or in the way we would work if it weren't a job. The possibilities for creating communal places to live, produce, consume, and create close off to you when you're stuffing envelopes to save a rain forest, or lobbying some legislators. Meanwhile, even if you would prefer the former course, members of your potential alternative network are also working either at straight jobs or for the left.
Only reasonably well-funded organizations can provide a living wage, but the well-funded-employer market is determined by funders. By default these become the left. That they have offices and people in charge means that they are available to cooperate with the media, the Democratic Party, and other institutions as a responsible, respectable, formal opposition. If an alternative view is presented on TV, it belongs to the chairperson of a recognizable national organization, or a left lawyer.
Although these individuals advocate an alternative, they keep working people and less formal activists like squatters, ACT UP, and local groups from presenting their views and being recognized. So while we keep body, soul, and sanity together by working at non-profits, we are helping to prevent the formation of a real movement.
What's more, because these organizations need funding to operate this way, preserving their financial base becomes Priority No. 1. Increasingly structured around their budget, they consider their members as nothing more than a funding source. Yet this thwarts the ostensible purpose of political organizations in the first place--strengthening and enhancing a struggle or movement.
It's no surprise, then, that people usually avoid formal organizations when the need for action arises--witness the proliferation of antiwar groups amid the chaos of the divided formal groups. Yet when no autonomous mass upheavals exist, these labor, civil liberties, and other groups do mitigate political repression and occasionally help push through a useful reform. More importantly, they sometimes provide a space for activists to meet, gain political experience, do some of their "own" political work, and survive without being ground up in the wheels of capital.
Pursuing Your Own Agenda
The question is: How can people whose vision of life is communal and egalitarian and who work at leftist organizations 1) advance exploited people's own initiatives; and 2) develop some fun, collective project that builds community?
The short answer is that you cannot do your own political work while working for the left anywhere I've been if you have my priorities. The long answer is that you can do some of it if you: 1) go around the organization while using its contacts/networks and resources; 2) make it your top priority to facilitate self-organization, not just recruit for your employer; 3) develop horizontal networks among those involved in the group's campaigns; and 4) don't care very much about getting fired.
Historically, this is a very strange way to make a living. The only other leftists who did so were the generation of communists who became union organizers and officials in the '30s and '40s. This precedent is not a comforting one, because both the role these men played and the way unions turned out are a mixed bag at best.
The institutions that today's radicals work for fall into three categories. The first are organizations run as unpaid collectives or communes 20 years ago. The second are those which arose after the '60s movement faded. The third are those already seen as corrupt when the New Left was new, but which have acquired a new attractiveness because other, better alternatives are lacking.
In the first category, I put the Guardian and the National Lawyers Guild--which the New Left literally rejuvenated through collective volunteer work. A number of New Left groups, forged in the heat of battle with 60s communalist enthusiasm, continue to function, but as formal organizations with paid staff and a clear division of labor between managers and workers. During my stay at the Guardian and the Guild, I found people more "consciously" or consistently radical than at Citizen Action. It is always nice to work underneath a poster of Che Guevara or Malcolm X. But the unsavory religious flavor generated when ideological orthodoxy is enforced on top of regular work discipline left a bad taste in my mouth.
The Guardian claimed to be a collective, and a "Leninist" one at that. But a subtle hierarchy existed. I was not the only one told that before I could obtain full membership with policy voting rights I would have to "clarify my views on the Soviet Union."
Organizing the Organizers
The job at the National Lawyers Guild was one of the best I ever had. There was union, something I longed for at Citizens Action, although when my position needed new funding, its function left something to be desired. A staff union testified to the Guild's sincerity about living up to its ideals. But it also raised the question of why we should need union representation at our "own" organization.
There is no question that employees at many "progressive" organizations need unions to get treated with some respect and gain the benefits that even some small, mainstream companies afford their employees. Also, a union provides a way to share thoughts with fellow employees, who are invariably activists too.
In theory, the officials in charge are also activists, even fellow members of the working class. But the creation of organizations designed to gain employer concessions acknowledges that antagonistic relations and class differences exist within the workplace. Whether or not we focus on the power of only some to hire and fire, or the difference between formulating policy and carrying it out, recognizing that class divisions separate most workers in leftist groups from their "professional" executive directors can revive true alternative politics in this country.
On a national scale, the rank and file caucuses that appeared in many unions in the '70s, such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, reflect this division. However, as with Miners for Democracy's capture of the United Mine Workers Union, once such groups gain power the relationship between leadership and members remains fundamentally unchanged.
The most dramatic example of this is the rise of Solidarnosc. The strikes that created it in 1980 (and not the other way around) clearly demonstrated that the Communist Party was not the workers party. The union's formation meant that class conflict existed between the workers and the state. But once in power, Solidarnosc started representing class interests other than those of the workers, and rank and file control gave way to a new bureaucratic professionalism.
The Issue of Class
Through the Guild I saw a lot of the United States, met hundreds of radical young people, and probably encouraged somebody to consider alternatives to corporate law. But I was organizing lawyers. Nothing's wrong with this, but I was sometimes aware that I was lower in the social pecking order than my "clients," leftists or not.
What's more, the projects I worked on had to enable lawyers or law students to play a role. The issues themselves--racism, sexism, Palestine--were often good. But radical forms of organization should not only be internally democratic and non- hierarchical, which the Guild was not, but should also allow the exploited to interact in ways that break down the social hierarchy.
Organizations based upon professional affiliations pose problems--they're not bad, but limited. In theory, legal workers and jailhouse lawyers can be members. But the jailhouse lawyers are treated as charity cases, and the legal workers, including the Guild staff, are clearly a low priority. In addition, legal workers have very little decision-making power. This is mostly because of a lack of resources, but also because funding priorities require a focus on paying members.
The inclusion of non-professionals and students was forced on the old left movement by the struggles of students, prisoners and women in the early '70s. Thus, changing the social relations within the legal union are part of the movement outside the organization, which determines relations within.
The increasing moderation of old "New Leftists" and the continued presence of old "old leftists," who always counsel working within established structures like liberal city governments and avoiding controversial subjects like Palestine, made my stay at the Guild uneasy. Old CP'ers had never reconciled themselves to the inclusion of law students, as it would make the Guild seem less serious-minded compared to the American Bar Association--to which it is supposed to be an alternative.
As a result, my position came under fire. A new president of the Guild, as always chosen before the national convention, planned to forego recruiting new members in favor of making the Guild a clearinghouse for high-profile, media-oriented cases handled by a national staff of lawyers. This hasn't happened yet, but the political atmosphere got uncomfortable and increasingly careerist. Some Guild members were defending the police in brutality and civil rights cases for city administrations like Chicago Mayor Harold Washington's, which were perceived as grassroots-oriented. Others were defending the victims.
I took the liberty of expressing my views on these and other subjects. Soon the national office was getting enough complaints about me that I decided to politely bow out. This blew my chances for a good reference despite having set up their whole law student recruitment structure from scratch and adding many new chapters.
Working for these formerly volunteer groups makes you more likely to meet some genuine radicals with whom you may work in the future. You'll also learn a lot of useful information. But it's an uphill climb for someone whose goal is to overcome class divisions and create an ideologically unconstrained movement. Luckily, such groups are still quite marginal because they are explicitly anti-capitalist in theory if not always in practice. Mostly they lack a sense of humor, but they do allow some diversity of views.
Citizen In Action, Public Disinterest
More insidiously typical, and more cynical and prevalent, are "category two" jobs at Citizen Action and similar "community organizations" and "public interest" groups. If the New Left groups were born of '60s rebellion, and became tamer and more conventional with the movement's collapse, the defeat of these revolutionary aspirations in the mid-'70s laid the groundwork for Massachusetts Fair Share (now defunct), the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), the United Neighborhood Organization, and their ilk.
These groups appeal strongly to white suburban liberals and leftists who have little or no experience of real social movements or direct action. They push specific pieces of legislation, which are usually OK as far as they go, but they organize in the most conventional manner possible. They parody the camaraderie of real collectives by going out to canvass in teams, ringing doorbells and making you work endless hours for low pay out of "idealism." You go drinking at the end of the night with your team because you work so much that you never see anyone else.
Public interest groups spread information but foster ignorance--about how the electoral system works, about what constitutes political activity. Suddenly, the "politically correct" thing to do is to write your congressperson!
But if their strategy is absurd, even reactionary, their tactics could be revolutionary. They are among the only groups that go to people's homes to talk to them about politics (only in the last few years have some labor unions tried this tactic). The problem is that the canvasser gets an empty petition signed, a letter written to a Senator, and maybe a new subscription to the group's magazine--period. People are never broken out of the isolation in which the organizer finds them.
I saw this problem most clearly when we canvassed Belleville, New Jersey, mere weeks after the racially mixed, blue-collar town had discovered the largest-ever dump of dioxin, the chemical base of Agent Orange. Citizen Action was pushing a Right To Know Bill on Toxics (which eventually passed the legislature only after farm workers were explicitly excluded from protection under the bill).
The bill was of course too late to help Belleville, but was not irrelevant to their problem. Unlike wealthier towns, everyone gave me some money towards my "quota" in the piecework wage system and wrote a letter. But they all asked, "Which group is it this time!" Every ecological group in the world had been at their front door in the past month, but the residents were still in the same boat. Worse yet, despite their anger and militancy, they remained as isolated and felt as helpless as before.
The New Left at its best saw breaking through people's isolation as the purpose of radical politics. They recognized that in groups, people's consciousness, abilities and commitments are radically different than when they act as individual citizens or consumers.
But in contrast, citizen-based organizing depends on that isolation. No one had called a group meeting where Belleville residents could talk among themselves, relying on their own knowledge and resources as well as the expertise of helpful activists. No one organized direct action to punish the companies responsible.
Public interest and citizen groups (including many mainstream environmental organizations) also depend on a steady supply of cheap, willing labor in the form of idealistic college students and recent graduates desperate for non-corporate work. A successful revival of demands for "wages for students" in the form of lower tuition, higher scholarships, and more grants instead of loans might eliminate these organizations overnight!
The old left joined mass organizations to win members to their own party. Today radicals can play a positive role in such groups only by subverting the "public interest" strategy by fostering rank and file personal contacts to discuss needs met only outside the organizations' limits. Some tenant organizers I know bring tenants together to form fuel co-ops, discuss problems, and pressure the very groups for which the organizers work for more resources and decision-making power. It is rarely possible to carry out this kind of agitation, but the human contacts are very rich at some of these jobs--people would often have me in for coffee, dinner, long conversations.
The Union Staffer
Unions of course fall into "category three"-groups already discredited as sources of social transformation. They are also the most stable and best paying--plus, union organizing leads to much more intensive contact with working people.
But the level of cynicism one finds among union people is astounding. The white-collar division of the ILGWU for which I worked was ostensibly created because, with garment workers declining in numbers, the union hoped (along with many other unions) to latch onto the growth in office workers. But no one has successfully organized large numbers of U.S. office workers. This suggests a need for innovation, experimentation, and concern for issues like abortion, sexual harassment, and child care.
No innovation was allowed at PACE. The hierarchy knew that an organizer has tremendous potential to facilitate contact among workers--in short, to subvert the union in favor of rank and file power. So they put real pressure on us all.
Years ago the ILGWU crushed a unionization attempt by the organizing staff. We were prevented from working with feminist groups, and I was banned from meeting with radical church activists. The height of cynicism was reached when companies were told that if they allowed their garment workers to join the ILGWU without a fight, we could leave their office workers alone. Conversely, we were ordered out of some offices because the garment organizers were interested in the shops. I stayed as long as I could find new ways to meet workers.
I knew PACE would not be the impetus to mass office worker insurgency, but I thought that anything that fostered struggle, militancy, and collective interaction would seed future movements. However, soon there were no avenues toward this goal left, and virtually the whole staff quit.
This job reminds me about one of the biggest problems with all existing organizations: radicals gain experience at such places and bring analyses and knowledge to them, but the organizations impede political movements by preventing us from using all that we know. Their whole basis for existence is the fragmentation of political needs, issues, and identities. In this they are reactionary.
Was I supposed to talk about nuclear power or the death penalty when people wanted to discuss these problems? Or was I supposed to tell them that I was sorry, but our organization didn't talk about those issues? Once, at a union staff meeting, I was told that our goal was to get a majority of pro-union people, even if that meant a white majority over a black minority. Fighting racism was a fine thing, said my boss, but not what we did. When I argued that overcoming racial divisions within the working class would make our job easier in the long run, discussion ended. We organized one workplace at a time, period.
This fragmentation of experiences, goals, knowledge, ideals, and energies means that we spend 40 or more hours per week in ways that prevent us from fully using our talents. All of the various kinds of "intelligence" we've accumulated suffer from disuse because they promote more threatening, multidimensional struggles. Controlling radicals and shutting off uncontrollable avenues of resistance have been capitalism's major projects ever since the 1960s.
In fairness, working for the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR) was a much better experience. I worked on a successful strike campaign at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital in the South Bronx. The majority of doctors were "Third World" Puerto Rican, Indian, Pakistani, Arab. We had picket signs in Hindi, Spanish, and Arabic, and protest songs in five languages. The residents there were likely to work for wages their whole lives and were ruled by threats from superiors. Nurses and other community people led them on picket lines, breaking down the hierarchy of doctor/nurse/patient. We even won the strike!
However, I discovered that when doctors struggle with other workers, the union undoubtedly represents the professionals' specific interests. These are not always antagonistic to those of other exploited people--CIR supports a national health plan, for instance. But they are different.
In a contract dispute in a state-owned New Jersey hospital where most residents were white middle class males, the issues seemed more narrow and parochial. Contempt for lower echelons of workers lay just beneath the surface in many, though not most doctors. What's more, though CIR is superior to most unions in its recognition of members' needs and demands, even "far left" CIR organizers were sometimes suspicious of rank and file initiatives.
When previous structures carry over or reflect parallel corporate or state hierarchies, the "professional" role the activist plays separates him from the very people he came from or "represents." Obviously, some "professionals" are more "sensitive" to this problem than others. But for the most part it is not subjective.
At CIR, three organizers--myself, and two Other '' anti-authoritarians ''--would sometimes suspect a member who put out a leaflet on his own, organized for other than previously agreed-upon demands, or who called his own meeting.
We weren't necessarily "wrong" in thinking such efforts divisive, incompetent, or even the result of bad intentions. But it's impossible to tell whether you're in and of the organization when you aren't the one working 80 hours a week or living on a dioxin dump. It isn't that members are always right, but that their outlook, interests, and experiences are very different from the organizers'. What's more, they have a different class perspective from the leadership, who become focused on remaining in interesting jobs where they can control institutional policy.
"Portals to Radicalism" or Just "Good Jobs?"
I'm tired of "progressive" jobs, but I've learned that their use value is what's most important--along with the wage. If you can use your job to get experience or create some space for your own political priorities and it pays a living wage, it can be bearable for a while--even positive. But if you feel like you're being ripped off, you'll resent every limitation and restriction that much more.
Now I'm hoping to get a Ph.D. and teach for a living. I don't see a qualitative difference between this and many of my previous jobs: part of the work is interesting and fulfilling to me, part of it is not because it's organized as a job. Pay is low, but the exploitation less severe than in corporations. The human relations can be fun--getting through to students, enjoying room for activism, meeting other faculty with common concerns--but the hierarchy and careerism are stultifying.
I've never kidded myself that I was making revolutionary changes when I worked for unions, except when I tried to go beyond the job's limitations. I have the same attitude towards academia, except there the job security and even eventual wages are a bit higher.
The careerist New Leftists who flocked to teaching positions in the '70s, but who are politically quiescent today (except for their mostly unread books), made the mistake of assuming that teaching per se could be radical activity --as though capital can't turn anyone into a commodity.
The "long march through the institutions" usually leads only to empty institutional victories. But any time people can find collective space to struggle against power, or can work mainly to reproduce themselves and friends instead of profits, a foundation for expanding the struggle exists.
We have to first demystify the alternative labor market. Marxist professorships, civil rights attorneys, union jobs for left-wingers, canvassing positions--all exist today because our extra-institutional struggles created new needs and wants and transformed "the market." The question is how we can move on from these accomplishments and use our proven capacity to transform the labor market to abolish the labor market!
"Kwazee Wabbitt" recounts and compares climbing the career ladder at a "progressive" firm to being part of a Leninist sect.
I spent most of my young adulthood avoiding formal "work." The thought of the soul-killing routine that makes up the bulk of most careers horrified me. Unfortunately, I had no clear notion of what I wanted to do, only a strong aversion to boring and routine tasks. As much as possible,I arranged my life so that I could lay around and read with no obligation to do anything else.
College provided an obvious and easy refuge for the lifestyle I desired. By reading the textbooks the week before exams I picked up enough to pass most courses without wasting too much time on academics. The luxuriant student financial aid of the mid '70s easily paid the token tuition at the city university with plenty left over to subsidize my leisure.
When I finally left home (at age 20), the student dole ceased to be enough to get by on, and I was compelled to seek part time work. I couldn't hack more than two months as an evening phone surveyor for "Snears"; I only lasted six weeks as a file clerk at the library. Finally, I found a nice, over-paid, federally subsidized "work-study" job reading journal articles for an absent-minded professor of epidemiology.
My academic status justified my existence to my parents. I satisfied my own existential needs by other means. Coming out as gay, and the associated sexual exploration, occupied my twenty-first and twenty-second years pretty fully.
The Movement, as personified by my lover Joe the Professional Revolutionary, anchored my world for the next two years. It had the additional benefits of aggravating my mother and enshrining my aversion to "alienated"work as political correctness, rather than mere laziness and/or whining.I coasted, happily, a little longer.
After several years of aimless academic browsing I dropped out of school (a 24-year-old junior) in the summer of '81, and so lost the shelter of financial aid and cushy work-study jobs. After a last six months of leisurely hanging out on my unemployment checks, I was faced with the task of getting a "real" job. And it might as well be one that would justify my existence at the same time, for I was being purged from The Party.
Joe's group, the now-defunct Revolutionary Socialist League, was kind of a humanist Sparticist League, dedicated to a Proletarian Revolution. Come the Revolution, we would run things. Until then, the rank and file worked (ideally) in heavy industry, which provided contact with Real Workers and large dues for the Central Office (about 50% of the wages and everything over $20,000). This work, despite appearances to the contrary, was not "alienated" because it was an part of being a Professional Revolutionary.
The middle management honchos were allowed cushy, middle class jobs like teacher or social worker. The top honchos were paid a bohemian pittance by the Party, which they furtively supplemented with money from their parents. Instead of holding down outside jobs they put out the paper from New York City, and spent a lot of time Thinking and writing "documents"about how to build a Leninist revolutionary "party.
Just before we met, Joe had won hard-fought battle for leadership of the Chicago branch, in one of the very rare successful challenges of the Central Office authority. He defeated the official slate by seducing the local rank-and-file with his appeals to hedonism, and by recognizing of the need for occasional breaks from hawking our unreadable cult rag. He justified his suspiciously enjoyable and unproletarian "interventions" in academia and the gay community by producing real live recruits (a rarity)-like me.
To be a candidate member in good standing, I should have quit school and applied for a job in the steel mills or something. But the rules were not strictly enforced as I was the Organizer's boyfriend. For similar reasons Sally, the Big Cheese's ex-girlfriend, could ignore a technically binding order (from the Organizer before Joe) to get an abortion in Order to avoid "wasted" time.
The C.O. never resigned itself to Joe's liberal regime. Refusing to read the writing on the wall, they considered his election an anomaly made possible by temporary rank and file disgruntlement. A year's worth of persistent covert infighting toppled him, and I was caught up in the long postponed house-cleaning. The technical charges against me were "petty bourgeois" (read: gay) tendencies and anarchism. In view of this latter charge, it amuses me to see that the remnants of the RSL have retro-fitted as "anarchists" in a no doubt futile attempt to find a viable milieu.
In retrospect, I have to acknowledge that I was guilty on both counts,and should never have joined that chickenshit outfit. My attempts to rally opposition to the C.O. were brushed aside, but I at least tried. Joe, my mentor and lover, didn't even defend himself, instead falling into a months-long depression when "criticized" personally by Ron Tabor, the Big Cheese. I was kicked out after a brutal trial before a kangaroo court, while Joe was allowed to resign from office and go "on leave" from Party duties.
Our relationship had been on the rocks for most of its three years. Still, I was hurt and surprised that he dumped me as soon I was purged. Joe later patched up his difficulties with the CO for another few years. The RSL was more important to him than I was, something I hadn't wanted to discover.
I was out of school, out of work (out of benefits, even), out of the movement, and didn't even have a boyfriend anymore. For the first time in my life,a Career began to look good to me.
My Career would, ideally, be meaningful, instead of a mere auctioning of my precious time for a paycheck. It had to be Socially Responsible, if not actively Politically Correct. It couldn't be too mainstream, because I just couldn't pass as a standard drone. In fact I couldn't even get a position as a bank teller (a standard job for young three-piece-suit queens).
At first I scraped by on a variety of casual jobs, ones that didn't require much interaction with mainstream work culture. A combination of part-time non-legal pursuits offered short hours but required unsavory company. House-cleaning for "Brooms Hilda" provided good browsing opportunities but little existential gratification. Working as a clerk at a used book store came close to being ideal; then the creepy proto-fascist owner tried to get in my pants. I quit.
A guy I was dating at the time suggested I apply at Recycled Paper Products. His best friend's lover was "an executive" there, and with her recommendation and my native talents, I got a job.
RPP had just reached the peak of its growth. Started in a garage in the early '70s by founders Mike and Steve, RPP printed off-beat greeting cards on 100% recycled paper, a novelty back then. They offered a cute but not cutesy alternative to the smarmy quatrains favored at that time by the two greeting card giants--Hallmark and American. Their recycled paper shtick got them a lot of good initial media coverage, and their cards sold well.
They began to edge into the mainstream when one of their properties really caught on. Sandra Boynton's cute kitten cards sold in the millions. RPP doubled and doubled again, year after year. By 1982, when I started work there, it was the fourth largest greeting card company in the U.S.. It employed hundreds of salespersons in the field, and a hundred more people at its warehouse in Chicago's south suburbs. The central office in Chicago's Newtown, where I worked, had grown from Mike and Steve and their secretary to a staff of almost two hundred.
Newtown is Chicago's youth/hip/gay neighborhood, a developing zone between thoroughly gentrified Lakeview to the south and sleazy Uptown to the north.RPP, with its hip, laid-back reputation, fit right in. The office staff included lots of feminist women and gay men from the area. Flex time in the summer allowed the staff to stroll over to Wrigley Field, 2 blocks to the west, for afternoon baseball games.
RPP looked like the perfect refuge. They proclaimed their determination to promote ecology, and played up their belief that the company should be big, happy family. At first, I approached it as a relatively non-toxic work environment. Soon, encouraged by success, I began to contemplate it as a Career.
I started as a packing slip clerk, graduated in six weeks to commissions clerk, and within six months was assistant manager of my department at double my original pay. This was the largest salary I'd ever earned ($12,000 a year, even then no big deal), and unlike my friends I didn't have to dress up in establishment drag to go to work. Despite my official cynicism I wondered if the American Dream might not be true. I wondered if I were selling out,or if it were OK to be a capitalist as long as you worked for a progressive outfit, and examined RPP from my new vantage point in the lowest branches of Management.
Some years before I arrived, RPP had had some sort of falling out with Boynton, their biggest star, the woman who did the cute cats. However, their association was too profitable for either party to break off. Bound by iron clad contracts monitored by squads of lawyers from either side, she produced X hundreds of designs per year. There was no direct communication between her and RPP. In addition Mike and Steve had recently gobbled up the Dales,a husband-and-wife team that had tried to be an independent card company and failed. They specialized in cards that had smarmy openers on the front and dirty punchlines inside, using words like "fuck" and "shit"; they were very popular.
But dark times were looming for RPP. Lots of people used recycled paper now. Hallmark began to produce a line of "lite" cards that were a frank rip-off of Boynton's designs--and the gullible public, unable to distinguish these from genuine RPP cards, were buying them. Several previously "underground" card companies were just going mainstream, and their slick stuff was far dirtier--and therefore more popular--than anything we produced.
RPP was no longer unique, and its fast growth period was over. For the first time, in 1982, RPP failed to double in size; it hardly grew at all.In 1983 it would suffer its first year of net loss. Mike and Steve, shocked at this sudden downturn after 10 years of uninterrupted success, looked for ways to cut costs. The facade of Family, so long supported by seemingly endless growth, faltered.
My department, Payments and Records, was responsible for calculating the pay of everyone who worked in "the Field": anyone outside Chicago.Officially these were all "contractors, so that no one got benefits of any sort. In addition to salespersons, who got commissions, there were "service" people, mostly retired women who stocked cards at their local stores at piece-work rates. My job, in addition to supervising the six-person staff, included resolving the complaints of any sales and service personnel who claimed they were not being paid even the sub-minimum wage they were entitled to.
As part of the austerity effort my boss instructed me to deny all such claims wherever feasible regardless of ostensible merit. This was actually fun to do, particularly as most of the salespeople were pushy and obnoxious. Some of the field personnel, put out at being ripped off by a snotty clerk (me) appealed to their regional managers.
If their regional manager was one of the original five salesmen who signed on with Mike and Steve at the very beginning, they always won their appeal. Otherwise not. The field operation was strictly a feudal-style hierarchy,and no one even bothered with progressive jargon to cover it, as we did at the central office.
When RPP began, its cards were packed and mailed by blind and disabled people contracted via federal and city agencies. This was PR'd as charitable employment, but in fact after federal subsidies and tax breaks, RPP ended up paying them about $1.50 an hour (and no benefits); some would call this exploitation of the disabled.
When the company grew too big for this, it founded a warehouse in a distant south suburb, a white working class area. The office staff, Newtown liberals and gays, only saw the warehouse staff at the annual Christmas party and we never felt comfortable around these loud red-neck types. We heard vague rumors about tyrannical foremen, low wages, and double-shifts with no overtime.
Shortly after I got there, the warehouse staff tried to unionize. Mike and Steve, progressiveness notwithstanding, hired a famous union-busting law firm and threatened to move the warehouse to Tennessee, a "right-to-work" state. The union lost the vote, the "ringleaders" were fired while a small raise was given to everyone else, and peace returned to the warehouse operation.
I learned most of this by reading confidential memos on my boss's desk while she was doing power lunch. Few people at the central office knew anything about the affair.
In fact, as far as I could tell all my boss Eileen did was Power Lunch. I monitored and assigned work in the office, resolved disputes, prepared reports and gave them to her to sign. She did lunch and attended meetings, held frequent morale boosting sessions where she urged us to work harder in New Age jargon, and lobbied for a larger staff while trying to stay on Mike and Steve's good side.
For some reason I could never figure out, virtually all of the department heads, like Eileen, were lesbians. Perhaps Mike and St less threatened by them than they would have by men in the same spots; maybe it was simply that their willingness to tolerate these women's sexual orientation allowed them to pay a good 30% less than comparable positions earned at most other offices.
Soon after I became assistant office manager, Mike and Steve hired an "efficiency consultant" famed for ruthlessly reducing oversize staffs. His advice was to almost totally eliminate an entire level of management--the lesbian department heads, as it turned out. This was actually a pretty shrewd call, for as I'd guessed this crowd did little real work except to stroke the bosses' egos and spy on the workers and each other.
To my bitter disappointment, for I hoped to replace Eileen as many (much lower paid) assistant managers were doing for their ex-department heads,she was one of the very few to weather the storm. Mike and Steve got a real kick out of her sassy, hip style and new age vocabulary.
At this point I was totally disillusioned about RPP being progressive in any real way, and also realized that now that "fast growth" had ended, so did my prospects for rising into junior management.
I began to notice parallels between RPP and the RSL, despite their ideological differences. In both organizations the rank and file did shit work, the simple, boring, meaningless tasks that compromise most jobs. The progressive claims of our bosses were supposed to transform this drudgery into something exalted, instead of the "alienated" work we could be doing elsewhere for more money.
The middle management got better, more interesting, and easier work, as well as power over the peons and a chance to hob nob with the honchos. In return for this supposed burden of responsibility, we got vastly higher wages. While my co-workers at RPP added columns of figures, filed forms,and stuffed envelopes, I wrote evaluations of them and performed fairly interesting and challenging (if, ultimately, just as meaningless) tasks. Just so, in the RSL, Joe attended steering committee meetings of this or that progressive cause while the rank and file stood on street-corners waving The Paper at disinterested proletarians.
The Top Honchos in both outfits did nothing but sit around and Think, assign blame, get their asses kissed, and feud with each other. Mike and Steve of RPP ruminated over their stagnant sales figures; Ron Tabor, the Big Cheese of the RSL, agonized over the dwindling subscriptions to The Paper. Mike and Steve spent months on the Annual Report; Ron endlessly wrote The Book (on Trotskyism during World War II--a topic as pressing and interesting then as it is now). Both organizations, when a scape-goat was needed, purged their gay caucuses.
In short, the progressive pretensions of both outfits were a seam, with obvious financial and personal payoffs for the honchos. Clearly a good deal for them; equally clearly a raw deal for the peons. But what about the middle managers?
The real job of the middle manager is Fink. Kissing ass is rarely enough (unless you're doing it physically, that is, putting out sexually), you also have to keep the peons in line. This, ultimately, was where Joe had let the C.O. down. This was Eileen's real job, which she passed along to me. I'd reluctantly accepted it when I was On My Way Up. Now, stripped of my illusions, I balked. I lost my interest in screwing the field personnel out of their commissions, or in whipping on the office. Firing a worker was contrary to RPP procedure--if you fire someone you have to pay a share of their unemployment benefits. Instead, you hazed the worker until they quit. You would take away whatever mildly interesting task they had cornered and give it to someone else, replacing it with inventory duty (the most boring task available). At the same time you watched them like a hawk, noting and writing up every late arrival or long lunch. An impressive paper trail could be used to deny a raise at their annual review--assuming they lasted that long.
Most likely, you have experienced or at least observed this universal and highly successful management technique. The victims are usually perpetrators of Bad Attitude. My first designated purgee was Barbara, a loud, fat, upfront bull-dyke whose very existence aggravated Eileen's Lipstick Lesbian/Careerwoman sensibilities. She was also the unofficial leader of the department rank and file, organizing the after-work bar socializing and generally slowing the pace of work down to human speed despite Eileen's pep talks.
To my great relief, she quit as soon as it became obvious that Eileen had it in for her, and I was spared the unwelcome task of persecuting her in detail and at length. My reprieve was temporary, for inevitably a new worker with Bad Attitude rose to the top of Eileen's shit list.
I was fed up. I'd been doing Real Work for almost two years, and began to dream of escape. I dreaded going to work every morning, hated every moment I was there, and began to get stoned at lunch every day. Finally, I decided to go back to school, at least part time.
Despite my checkered transcript, I found that I could get a degree with only a year's more work--IF I could take some key classes offered only in the mornings. This meant working less than full time and abdicating as assistant manager, a double relief. Eileen accepted my resignation with tight-lipped anger, clearly scenting Bad Attitude.
To my surprise, school was now a breeze. I aced my courses, and began to suspect that there were ways to become a Professional without kissing Eileen's ass. I applied for graduate school (four more years of prolonged adolescence!) and was accepted on the strength of my phenomenal test scores--the result of several years compulsive reading.
Meanwhile, Eileen had replaced me with a new assistant office manager, a cute (if not terribly bright) young lesbian Eileen had the galloping hots for. Pam's first assignment as Assistant Manager was to haze ME into quitting.
My old co-workers, who had written me off when I became Eileen's protégé, welcomed me back to the ranks. They told me how Pam snooped at my desk when I went to work, looking for something incriminating. I began fishing for a student loan, so that I could attend my last quarter of college as a full-time student. When my safety net was in place, I left a note buried in my "in" file which read: "Hi Pam--snooping again?"
Pam found it as soon as I went to lunch (my co-workers later gleefully reported), and ran into Eileen's office, where they talked in angry whispers for an hour. When I got back, a simmering Eileen called me into her office to reprimand me, but I cut her off and gave her two weeks notice and walked out--one of my finest moments and fondest memories.
Needless to say, I did no real work my last 2 weeks on the job. Despite Eileen's ban, my co-workers threw me a farewell party. For a year after my departure Eileen and Pam attributed every misplaced file to sabotage on my part--not entirely without justification. But it was pretty clearly Pam's profound incompetence, and Eileen's infatuated defense of her, which eventually got them both fired.
Since then I have been remarkably successful at avoiding Real Work, "progressive" or otherwise. Graduate school turned out to be an excellent playground and I highly recommend it to the professional readers of the world.
I have encountered numerous "Progressive" operations since I left the RSL and RPP. All insisted that their Cause would transform routine labor into non-alienated work, and also that eventually there would be a concrete payoff of money and/or power, come Dividends day or the Revolution, as the case may be.
Some were sincere. Most were sleazy scamsters. None delivered the goods.
Ambivalent Memories of Virtual Community
tale of toil: programming at berkeley's community memory, by g.s. williamson
of Virtual Community
I've got a GREAT job. I can walk to work through a pretty neighborhood to work with intelligent people on a project which is both personally creative and socially useful. The job has many different facets and the twenty-four week is flexible--leaving free time for my own pursuits. All this and more, for a thousand dollars a month. I'm a computer programmer with a small nonprofit called Community Memory (CM) which has created a public access electronic bulletin board in Berkeley, California.
For more than ten years (with some time off for good behavior) I've worked as a programmer. My formal education-undergraduate psychology--proved useless in the job market. After a couple of years washing dishes and being a courier, I got a few low-paying jobs programming microcomputers for small companies. I was able to use this experience to get a real job at Structured Systems Group in Oakland where I spent the next two-and-a-half years ('80-'83) writing instructions for microcomputers (in BASIC for early microcomputers) to help business people count their money accurately and rapidly. The pay was good by my standards, the job relatively unstressful (and safe), the co-workers mostly amiable. As a programmer I had a lot of control over not only the pace of the job, but over its direction. I learned a lot, developed somebad habits and read a lot of good books while looking busy.
A year-long vacation was followed by work as a contract programmer for various individuals and small companies, and then a year-and-a-half at a consulting company in San Mateo. I wrote and supported BASIC programs for minicomputers (MAI Basic Four) for clients that were country clubs or in the food industry (processors, distributors, brokers). My co-workers were a genial lot, and the work was challenging as I grasped essentials of a new type of computer and a new business. On the down side, I had a long commute from Berkeleyby public transit, customer support was a drag, and the poor business climateled to greater demands on staff.
I was laid off in autumn of 1987: a bitter experience, for even with a certain distance from the work I was still involved. There is an aspect of creativity--albeit within narrow constraints--to most programming. That aspect is much greaterwhen one is given responsibility for design and support, rather than just coding one little piece without knowing its role in the larger scheme of things.
I heard about a "position" at Community Memory from a friend who worked there. I had used their terminals in a grocery store, which were part of a free, publicly-accessible database. It contained a swarm of messages--some on political issues, some advertisements, some raving about the GratefulDead, I was intrigued and arranged an interview.
I got the job; the meager $700 a month was a step down, but I was livingin a rent-controlled apartment and could squeak by. The work conditionsalso were worse: instead of my quiet office with a view of the coastal mountains I had a desk in a large room, with no secretary to answer the telephone.On the other hand, I was learning a new language (C) and a new operating system (UNIX) which held great promise for the future: no longer would I be stuck in the double ghetto of being a BASIC (usually said with a sneer) applications programmer. No longer was I counting money or consigning some clerk to the unemployment line, or a secretary to a finger-numbing and brain-deadening job! I could show curious friends what I did for a living, and my "shop-talk"might have a chance of being interesting to a non-technician.
CM has its origins in the public service telephone switchboards of the late '60s and early '70s. There was a continuous turnover in both people and groups which led to a perpetual reinventing of the wheel, as each new person or group duplicated the efforts of others. "Aha! Why not a common storage for ALL of these diverse groups?" asked some. After soliciting various switchboards in San Francisco, a group of computer people who had left the University of California at Berkeley at the time of the Cambodia invasion launched "Resource One." By the time the technological problems were solved, however, the project was all dressed up with no place to go: the personnel turnover meant that nobody at the switchboards had ever heard of the project.
Terminals were then set up in public places to see how people would usea public bulletin board. Tom Athanasiou 1 described it: "A small three-terminal Community Memory System [was] kept up for about fourteen months. Uses reflectedthe locations of the terminals. One was in a music store and collected information about gigs, bands and the like. Another, at a hippie hardware store, specialized in Alternative Technology and barter. The third, located in a public libraryin the Mission District, a poor area of San Francisco, was little more than a high-tech graffiti board." The system proved to be much more diverse in its uses than any of the organizers had expected.
Funding never materialized, and it was several years until the system was started again. Several people decided to develop an improved public-access bulletin board system which would use the latest available minicomputers. In 1977, after unexpected delays, and with aid from hardware designer Lee Felsenstein's success in the newborn personal computer industry, The Community Memory Project was incorporated. A key idea was replicability: other areas or non-geographical groups, including organizers, could start their ownCM "nodes."
Creating software is a long and costly affair, and funding such a venture has driven more than one company out of business. The group decided to develop software in such a way as to allow commercial spinoffs. Predictably this lead to other problems associated with business. Says Athanasiou: "The story of Community Memory is really two stories, reflecting our history as a political/technical collective that took a long, unplanned, and largely unpleasant trip through the computer industry." There were disputes that reflected the hierarchy of the programmers over other workers, and which pitted the money suppliers against the programmers. There were also fierce debates over sales policy: a South African company wanted to buy "X.Dot," a communication protocol for linking computers together, and the U.S. Naval Surface Weapons Laboratory wanted to buy a database product ("Sequitur"). Additional tensions developed around the "professionalization" of the operation2 .
Eventually the software company folded, but there were enough royalties from sales of old products to allow Community Memory to survive, and in September of 1984 a new system with four locations in Berkeley was started. It was driven by a central minicomputer with "dumb terminals" (i.e., the central machine controlled every keystroke and every character on the screen). The terminals were located in several member-owned grocery stores, a Latino cultural center and a "hip capitalist" department store.
They were free, easy to use, and proved to be popular. Many uses that had been expected did materialize, and several that hadn't been foreseen sprang up, including a sort of "electronic therapy" in which people would describe a problem in their lives and others would respond with advice and support. The system was terminated in the summer of 1988 when the financial collapse of the grocery stores closed half the sites, and the hip capitalists became offended at some message and claimed "liability" problems, as well as the need for more salesspace.
By that time CM was hard at work on yet another version, considerably more sophisticated than the previous one. In the summer of 1989 public terminals running the new system were set up. Currently there are ten public terminals located in libraries, 24-hour laundromats, student housing, a senior center and various non-profits. Because the local terminals are microcomputers, which handle the user's input, screen display, various timing operations, and store copies of messages, the overall operation of the main computer is much more efficient and more people can be served. As in the earlier versions, people may use any "name" they please, and reading messages is free. Unlike previous versions, however, messages are grouped togetherin "forums," which allow more messages to be handled with less wasted time. (Of course, this adds another "layer" the user must negotiate to get to read messages.) Another change is in the content: CM provides a lot of material in the form of listings of community agencies, phone numbers and calendars.
Unlike earlier versions it costs money--a quarter--to leave a message. The quarter isn't intended as a funding source for CM (even the busiest site barely pays for the phone line, let alone the cost of a terminal), but rather to reduce the "Fuck You" messages, as well as gibberish and random typing. It undoubtedly also discourages some users, and certainly is a disincentive to multiple use (we are now implementing a system that allows us to credit prolific authors with free messages). The software is still being refined; although the process is orderly, the need for improvements is potentially never-ending.
The Seeds Of Discontent
In many ways, I've got a really SHITTY job. The equipment is inadequateand poorly positioned and my "office" is little more than a cubicle made of book shelves that does nothing to keep out street and office noise.I'm interrupted by the phone when I'm trying to concentrate, assuming that somebody isn't using my desk when I arrive, and the work can be monotonous. The pay is low for a person with ten years' experience, and the insurance plan is inadequate. Until very recently we were paid monthly, and even then not necessarily on time. My good name [sarcastic smile] is sometimes associated with people and projects that I do not support. And I have come to some unpleasant conclusions about socially innovative applications of technology.
My discontent springs from many sources--long-nagging problems that have become major irritants, a hypersensitivity to political issues and my changing view of the world (and my role in it), and the changing nature of the organization itself.
"Those that do good should not expect to do well" might well be emblazoned over the doors of "nonprofits" and service companies.The continuous parade of broken-down machines and inadequate furniture only emphasizes the message that goes with the small paycheck (a message implicit in "professionalized service systems" in general): (1) You are deficient; (2) you have a problem; (3) you have many problems.
The overt justification for poor conditions and pay is that money is scarce, which it is, compared with the sloshing waste of funds at Visa or Bank of America. But this explanation wears thin after a while; the priority always seems to be something other than the workers. The situation is exacerbated by differential pay scales. When I first started at CM in the spring of 1988, everybody was paid ten dollars an hour (the same wage as in 1981!); a bit more for those who had worked there for long enough to get the (small) annual raises. This changed in 1989 when the first grant money was applied for. The proposal called for two positions to be funded at something closer to $15 an hour; lo! it came to pass. The justification was that you have to pay more to get good people...an idea I take heated exception to. It was six months before the new pay scale was extended to the programming staff. Interest was also expressed in hiring students at a local business school at $5 an hour, the rate the school paid its student workers. Ironically, higher pay was accompanied on my part by greater disaffection. My identitybecame more clearly articulated as that of a mercenary doing a paid task: this is a job, not a calling.
Along with a differentiation in wages came a greater division of labor. There has been an increase in maintenance labor, both of the hardware and of the information on the system, and this has not been shared equally. The judgement of the relative worth of various tasks can be summed up by: "It's really important, but I have more important things to do, so someone else should do it," a sentiment less common when I started work there.
In earlier days the primacy of the technical staff caused conflict, and more recently has led to comments such as "For too long CM has been guided by technical needs. Now we must get out of the test-tube and into the community." This argument has been propelled by the availability of funds from large donors oriented toward specific uses and projects, rather than support for software development.
Another source of my discontent has been the creeping institutionalization of the project. Part of this is reflected in the information providers. While there is healthy participation by individuals, a great deal of effort has been spent providing existing institutions, which already have access to various media outlets, with a presence on the system. Try as I may I cannot see how this serves to "empower" (to use one of those fuzzy buzz-words so beloved by progressives) individuals. Many of these institutions are part of a network of "professional helpers" that make a feathered nest out of the alleged problems and deficiencies of large numbers of people. While most of these are innocuous, there are some that are not. Although innocently entered into, CM's appearance on a Mayor's Advisory Panel onDrug Abuse" drew my ire. Such panels are rarely anything but populist window-dressing for the establishment's jihad against drugs; I was appalled that CM's name would be used without other collective members knowing about it.
At least some of the material on the system, and some of the ties to other organizations, seem aimed at a accumulating a laundry list of politically correct items to please potential donors. This includes forums such as "Current Agenda," which has the agenda for upcoming City Council meetings; awhole series of messages targeting the hapless homeless, such as soup kitchens ("prayer service required"); city services; and, always, drugand alcohol programs.
And, inevitably, there have been criticisms of internal make-up. The grouphas been overwhelmingly white; hence we can't claim to represent the "Black Community" or the "Asian Community." True, but then I, atleast, never claimed to be representing people, just trying to provide a technical means for them to speak for themselves.
The quest for money has generated a creeping respectability. Following the predilections of donors, CM has created more rigid job descriptions, and has made efforts to appear "a part of the community." But Berkeley is a diverse city, and the "community" of users is ambiguous.As a result, there have been attempts to enlist putative representatives of "communities" in both the direction and implementation of CM. Of course, this almost always boils down to "community" institutions, usually with professional staff--and, of course, their own agendas and requirements. They also tend to be underfunded and overworked, so taking part in CM oftenis more work for their staffs; alternatively, we have to do the work. Inthe case of the City Council agenda, a program (written by an unpaid volunteer) converts the material from one electronic form to another; then a person--usually a programmer--adds index words and minor edits, and loads the few dozen messages. The net result: perhaps one person a month reads some of the messages; we reinforce the image of institutions, rather than individuals, as providers of information; some clerk in the city government has yet another task;and the city government--which already has ample ways to disseminate information-continues to set the agenda.
This desire to appear "proper" has also led to the creation of "advisory panels" that contain people of dubious political character but with loads of respectability. One such person--a head of the city library system--demonstrated her commitment to free speech when she announced that she had "referred to the District Attorney" a "problem" that had arisen. Somebody had published a "Social Decoder" pamphlet in which, for instance, CISPES stands not for "Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador," but rather for "Committee for Improved State Power In El Salvador." This pamphlet, which claimedto be published by the Berkeley Public Library, in fact gave a name anda PO Box, and was not likely to be confused with a real library publication. Love me, love me, I'm a liberal librarian.
CM has changed its internal structure from a (theoretically) membership controlled organization to (as of January 1991) a group controlled by a board of directors and a paid staff. In theory, volunteers still have a place, but the inability of the group to attract new (unpaid) people reflects both the ambiguity of the project and its somewhat manipulative view of volunteers.
Although the earlier days were characterized, at times, by obstructionism and personal antagonism, CM at least gave people a sense of participation, sometimes even the reality of it. While not everything was subject to group approval, and not every decision was sensible, the process was generally agreeable. Sometimes minor points would take on major importance precisely because of personalities and/or political differences, but the process at least allowed some form of discussion and even appeal. On the flip side, having every decision subject to possible renegotiation was vastly frustrating for people whose job it was to carry out those decisions.
Given these problems I've been forced to look ever more closely at the ideological foundations of the project. There are two intertwined aspects: the primacyof information, and the importance of community.
Langdon Winner in his "Mythinformation"3 says: "The political arguments of computer romantics draw upon four key assumptions: 1) people are bereft of information; 2) information is knowledge; 3) knowledge is power; and 4) increased access to information enhances democracy and equalizes social power.
Certainly Berkeley can't be considered information-poor; indeed, many people seem to feel overwhelmed by what passes for information. I would venture that most peoples' lives contain, within their own experiences, the information most crucial to reshaping those lives.
The bland treatment of "information"--for CM this roughly equates to "messages read" and "messages written"-has little significance. The utility to the reader is ignored for a time-honored reason: it's hard to quantify. We screen out a great deal of garbage by requiring a quarter, but we still have a fair number of messages that are gibberish, wild rants, obscene retorts and the like.
The equating of knowledge and power is laughable: for instance, one may know where an enemy is and what he intends, and yet be powerless to stop him. Alternatively, you can know that you are being exploited and be no closer to ending that exploitation. It's doubtful that the abundant advertisements placed on CM, or the play-lists of past Grateful Dead concerts, or the musings on magic, have anything to do with power. Confusing some abstract form of knowledge with actual power is a convenient trick, particularly for thosewith an interest in maintaining existing forms of "democracy." Indeed, it is rare for the proponents of such "radical" change to actually examine the structures of power; often the claims of the apologists are taken at face value. And as Winner points out, having a personal computer no more sets you up to compete with the National Security Agency than having a hang-glider equips you to compete with the U.S. Air Force. The proponentsof the computer have argued that the spread of (relatively) low-cost machines has allowed popular movements to "catch up" with the government. This is a somewhat ingenuous argument: while some people may have a nifty machine--indeed, a machine of extraordinary capabilities by the standards of 1965-the government/business sector not only has such machines and their big brothers (which are also exponentially more powerful than their ancestors) but also the ability to connect them together.
Access to some types of information might enhance democracy, but continuing to reinforce a "one-speaking-to-many" system, does not, just as access to jokes or lists of phone numbers doesn't equalize social power.
The second ideology is that of "community." Admittedly, CM has never argued that electronic communication should replace face-to-face contact--only that it could be used to meet a wider spectrum of people. But beneath theappeal of "community" (another progressive buzz-word) lie unasked questions. Is community a reactionary desire? Is it simply a matter of shared interests? Is there some meaningful aspect beyond the simplistic sense?Or does the word conceal an agenda as well as an ideology?
As Bedford Fenwick4 says: "In terms of control, the State is finding the ideology of the community a far more effective means of maintaining good order than the threat of confinement. [...] The traditional community represents the most effective Panopticon of all--control through mutual surveillance. Capitalism destroyed this. [...] The present age is attempting a resuscitation. Just as the traditional community policed itself because it gave consent to the ruling ideology, because people considered their own interests were connected to the interests of their masters in significant and truthful way, so present day power is seeking an imaginary identification with the interests of everybody. Only today that identification is hardto achieve and power must ransack the ideologies and rhetorics of previously popular movements to gain a footing." In a passage relevant to projects like CM, he says "Our society seems to torment itself with the lossof community. Radical projects define themselves as a discovery of community, like the gay community, or the national community. [...The State's] assertion of benevolence serves to demoralize society both by denying the unbearable reality of present society, and by undermining society's belief in itself, independent from expertise, as a responsible and reasonable substance. The State not only wants our obedience, but like other contemporary corporations, it demands our love. The ideology of community is one way it seeks to achieve this.
Given that many Americans no longer feel an identity with neighborhood or job, it is not surprising to see such attempts to create a more nebulous (and less demanding) "community" by electronic means.
CM's work, of course, does not occur in a vacuum: there has been an enormous change in both the public view and the actual implementation of computer technology.
When the antecedents of CM were conceived, the nature--and the popular perception--of computers was very different. Even the cheapest of machines cost tens ofthousands of dollars and required a host of experts to operate. Heavily concentrated in the government and large corporations, they calculated the money needs of the economic monsters, aided the physicists in their quest for knowledge (and weaponry), and helped the state track both benefits and punishments. There was little doubt in the popular mind that the computers were on the side of Big Brother and his faceless minions. Indeed, much of the discourse on privacy and personal liberty was couched in terms of these machines and their potentials.
The need to train technicians means exposing a growing number of students to computers, however, and not all of the trainees are devotees of totalitarian dreams. For the libertarian aficionados, the early days were characterizedby a heady excitement about the potentials of the machine--a potential often ignored or delayed by the accountant-minded administrators. Indeed, theseadministrators and SYSOPs (SYStem OPerators) were the nemesis of these libertarians, later to be known as hackers. The attempt to develop "democratic" computers had two major thrusts: one towards a more popular use of the machines, the other towards smaller and cheaper machines. In the first were attemptsto create or increase access to the machines (e.g. Resource One, CM's ancestor), often by time-sharing or else by wider public access to the information derived from the machines. The Homebrew Computer Club in the San FranciscoBay Area, which nurtured many of the early pioneers of the micro-computer (and Community Memory), falls in the second category.
The diminution of the Big Brother image is only partly due to the actual use of such machines--it has far more to do with the utility of a benign appearance for the technology. Part of this change has been wrought by the promises--and occasionally the practice--of alternativist projects.
David Noble has said that "the fight for alternatives.. .diverts attention from the realities of power and technological development, holds out facile and false promises, and reinforces the cultural fetish for technological transcendence." By contrast, Athanasiou argues for a movement thatdoes not simply oppose technology. He cites the woman's movement as an example of a social movement seeking the implementation and improvement of technology (contraception and abortion). Such alternativist attempts as CM help focus the imagination and the technological fascination that many people feel.But given the difficulties of actually implementing any large project, Iam skeptical about this use of people and time. CM has tried both the corporate approach (as Pacific Software) and the non-profit/donor route: neither is very successful, both absorb serious amounts of time and energy, and both have built-in traps; indeed, such efforts clearly delineate the enormous obstacles to humanist projects, even if such projects succeed in their own terms, computerization continues to deepen the division of labor; few (relatively) well paid and highly skilled jobs (the programmers and "social" experts) versus a much larger number of people with few skills who are poorly paid, if they have a job at all.
At this point, CM has probably guaranteed its institutional survival, butits vision seems clouded, at best. Perhaps it is to the project's credit, however, that it has more imagination than capability: certainly the opposite is more dangerous. I've learned that using a system like CM in the service of greater democracy is very difficult; it requires both passion and perspective. Success might be more likely in an area with fewer possibilities for popular participation, or in an area less saturated with communications channels. Nor would a group contemplating such a thing today have to design the system from scratch--much of the needed software is commonly available, and the hardware costs are far lower. But the steady flow of requests for us to provide information also tells me that the system encourages a dangerous passivity in its current form.
The ultimate meaning of projects like CM may well be that they are a soft sell for a hard technology that provides a career ladder for ambitious social professionals. The technology, despite CM's hopes for it, promotes passivity: very few people think of themselves as sources of information. CM can't overcome illiteracy and self-doubt; nor can it create community where there is none. Modern management techniques and the emphasis both on "community" and "the information economy" find a precise reflection in oppositional politics when they become obsessed with communication and technique. Consciously we can provide a human face for a devastating technology. Possibilities of computer use within a truly free society are barely shadows flitting across our screens as we mechanically maintain the edifice of legitimacy for this barbaric social order.
—G. S. Williamson
rain, the drops
streak the windows.
When the trolley waits
they point one way.
When the trolley moves
they point another,
cross-hatched like people
going to work.
Iwant to run
through the aisles.
Iwant to touch
everyone on the shoulder.
Look! I will say
the rain is making
Each window is different
But I stay in my seat
& do nothing.
Iam one of them.
- 1Tom Athanasiou, "High-Tech Alternativism: The Case for the Community Memory Project," Radical Science #l7 (now called Science as Culture)
- 2Lucius Cabins, "Making of a Bad Attitude," PW #17, pages8-10 on Pacific Software
- 3Langdon Winner, "Mythinformation," Whole Earth Review, January 1985, pg 22
- 4Bedford Fenwick, "The Institutionalization of the Community," Here & Now #10, 1990, pg 7. Here & Now c/o Transmission Gallery,28 King St., Glasgow, G1 5QP Scotland or PO Box 1109, Leeds, LS5 3AA, England
From The Grey Ranks: Graffiti in War & Peace in Poland
interview with tomasz sikorski, by d.s. black
If on a summer's night a traveler...
I met Tomasz Sikorski by showing up on the doorstep of his Warsaw apartment late one June afternoon. I was given his name by an artist designer friend in Wroclaw, who told me Tomasz was putting together a gallery show on graffiti.
The train to Warsaw passed through Lodz, Poland's second largest city. I had heard Lodz was a heavy factory town, and was surprised to see what I thought was the sun setting through haze, until I realized that fire was actually a flame jet at the top of a stack, not solar. I happened upon Tomasz's address by chance, as I was wandering around Warsaw s "Old Town" (like much of Warsaw, this area was leveled during the war, and exists today as a modern replica of the old).
His building was enclosed by a scaffolding--the exact nature of the renovation, the work was not clear. . .it must have been a long-term project, whatever it was. Near the entrance I saw a man's face stenciled on the wall, somewhat concealed by the scaffolding. This had to be the place.
After explaining myself to the building's intercom, which greeted me in English, Tomasz said "Yes, you'd better come up." He was indeed the man stenciled outside. Tomasz invited me to the opening of an exhibition at Centrum Sztuka the next evening on "The Lost Paradise." It was a retrospective of two diametrically opposed but complementary styles in Polish art. A number of works were drawn from the social realist period, 1949-55, when the state's cultural agenda held sway, with humanizing portraits of ghouls like Stalin and the Polish commissar "Bloody Felix" Dzierzynski, boy-meets-bulldozer scenes of pastoral patriotism, and apparatchiks addressing Party congresses. Also featured was oppositional art of the 1980s, following the banning of Solidarity and the imposition of martial law. The next day, Tomasz was going to be showing slides of Polish graffiti in another wing of this gallery, which like so much in Poland was also undergoing renovation. Although a long-time fan and international collector of graffiti, I was unable to attend this show--for I had to fly to London the next day for the Attitude Adjustment Seminar that Chris Carlsson, Mark Leger, Melinda Gebbie, Linda Wiens and I were to inflict on the public to herald the publication of Bad Attitude, the Processed World anthology.
All Tomasz and I had time for was talking about graffiti late into the night. When it began to get dark, around 10:30, we repaired to the train station cafeteria for some cold soup. My flight was early the next morning, so I hastened back to my hostel by the 11 p.m. curfew, wishing there was time to read more of this Polish milieu through its markings, and the people who made them.
PW: Your father used graffiti in the Resistance?
Tomasz Sikorski: Yes, during the Second World War, here in Warsaw, beginning from 1941. My father belonged to Szare Szeregi (Grey Ranks), an underground resistance organization, derived from the Polish Scouts, incorporated later in 1944 into the so-called National Army. During the years 1940-44, one of the forms of active resistance was counter-propaganda: underground radio, press, and the most spectacular, writing and painting on the walls. One of the duties of my teenage father (he was 15 when he joined the Stare Szeregi), was to write slogans on the walls to manifest the resistance against Nazis, to build up a confidence in Polish people that Germans will fail, sooner or later.
German signs were being changed back into Polish; signs of FIGHTING POLAND (the two letters P and W form an anchor, the symbol of hope), signs of resistance organizations and slogans in Polish and German were written on the walls.
Germans used their propaganda; for instance, there appeared huge inscriptions which read: DEUTSCHLAND SIEGT AN ALLEN FRONTEN (Germans Win on Every Frontline). By altering just one letter, this was quickly transformed into DEUTSCHLAND LIEGT AN ALLEN FRONTEN (Germans Lie on Every Frontline). Or the name of Hitler would be turned into "Hycler," which sounds similar to the Polish word for "dogcatcher."
Writing on walls is a very quick and direct way of communication. It catches you by surprise whether you want it or not. Everybody is a potential receiver. Therefore it was used as one of the weapons of psychological war.
You see, after long years of occupation, some weaker souls may lose their faith and hope, and may try to adapt themselves to the new, for others unacceptable situation. It was so very important therefore to maintain that faith. During the years of occupation one strong sign of resistance worked like a spark in deep darkness.
With the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising on the 1st of August, 1944, writing on the walls subsided. Nazis were pushed out from the central districts of Warsaw, and graffiti was replaced by posters and printed news-sheets displayed on the walls. Now, not brush and paint were used, but guns and bullets.
Then the Stalinist times came, a new wave of terror, cold war. As far as I know, there was no other form of street propaganda then, other than official monumentalism. My father does not recall any examples of graffiti, neither then nor in the following years, although it is quite probable that it appeared around protests and demonstrations in 1956, 1968, and 1970.
The first form of graffiti that I have witnessed was the striking series of human silhouettes that suddenly appeared somewhere about 1973 in Warsaw. In one particular area, there were grouped outlines of human bodies, in natural size, painted with a wide brush with either white or black paint in places where, according to rumor, civilians were killed by the Nazis. It is supposed that someone had witnessed those acts and then, thirty years later, reconstructed them in the exact places--for instance, while leaning against a wall with their hands up, or caught while jumping over a fence, probably in an attempt to escape...
PW: Reminds me of Chicago in 1981 or '82. Suddenly on the sidewalks of Hyde Park appeared the words, at various strategic points, "A Woman Was Raped Here." You'd be walking along, and without warning find yourself faced with a shocking flashback. Also, there are the shadows that appear on the sidewalks in August to commemorate Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
TS: And strikingly similar to the figures of the so-called desaparecidos in Argentina and perhaps in other parts of Latin America. It was the first graffiti that I saw, and the first one that I took pictures of.
With the rise of the Solidarity movement in 1980, it brought a whole new wave of iconography. In 1980, this was used mainly for political statements and slogans, signs and symbols of the forces of opposition. Later, when Solidarity grew into an all-nation movement, it adopted the symbols that traditionally denoted the nation's ideals and its struggle for freedom. Two colors were dominating: white and red, the national colors of Poland.
Under the terror of martial law in Poland (1981-1983), political graffiti and underground press were extremely important. A very interesting phenomenon was the reappearance of the anchor-like symbol of the Underground, Fighting Poland. Their message was clear: Poland is occupied again, and again we will fight the enemy.
Very few things were legal then, and the absurdity of martial law was beautifully pinpointed and ridiculed by the Pomaranczowa Alternatywa (Orange Alternative) movement led by Wladyslaw "Major" Frydrich. In 1982, he and his friends started to paint colorful elves on the walls of Wroclaw. In 1983, elves appeared in Warsaw. They were smiling, innocent, some of them holding flowers in their tiny hands, but they were all illegal! Imagine, illegal elves! The authorities didn't know what to do with them. They couldn't leave them because they were illegal, but neither could they wipe them off without making a laughing stock of themselves.
Major's favorite places for painting elves were the fragments of walls where previously there had been illegal inscriptions. Special crews painted over this graffiti; their job was to blur messages before they could reach the public. The crews used paint of a particularly ugly grey color. Those stains of grey were perfect, prime spots to put new signs on.
Everything painted and drawn on the walls was being systematically destroyed during martial law, and in the following years, until the fall of communism in 1989.
I took real pleasure in photographing those little elves, and that's how my slide collection of graffiti began. Then in 1984 my life brought me to New York City, and I was truly overwhelmed by the polyphony and the power of graffiti there. I took pictures of everything that I could. Left some stencil prints on the walls and sidewalks of SoHo and the East Village. I came back to Warsaw in the Fall of 1985, and immediately started to spread my stenciled works on the walls over here.
I brought home quite a big collection of slides of New York graffiti. My intention was to spread around and spur graffiti in Poland in order to fight the rigidity, the uniformity and the hypocrisy of the socio-political system here. I traveled to various cities with a show of about 300 slides which were synchronized with an audio tape. On the tape there were sounds recorded in the places where I took pictures, bits of various music and other sounds of Manhattan. Sometime in 1986, to my uttermost delight, some friends of mine started doing their own graffiti. From the very beginning, stencil was the most popular technique. Because of problems with finding spray paint (the cunning authorities made it unavailable for long years), the paint was applied with a sponge wad.
It is perhaps worth mentioning here that those who were first to do graffiti in Poland were either art students or graduates. Nowadays there is a whole avalanche of graffiti makers: teenagers, kids, organized groups, recognizable individuals.
Most graffiti in postwar Poland, if not all of it, was political; its source was disagreement. Besides strikes, demonstrations, and underground press, wall writings were the true evidence of this disagreement. The communist propaganda, on the other hand, used its boring messages everywhere. There were, for instance, huge monumental, pseudo-patriotic slogans painted on factory walls addressed to the workers, large-scale poster-like billboards in a terrible style, attempting to make them work more and more for the country's better future and international peace. These were made with steel and concrete to last forever. The opposition scribbled on the walls with haste. The two aesthetics differed greatly, one legal and untrue, the other illegal and true.
All of political graffiti was generally against something, against the occupant, against the system, against the government. Only in the late eighties there appeared graffiti which brought messages that were not against something, but rather for something, let's say for normal, real and joyful life, without hypocrisy and pretense. I think that most of art can be seen as an endeavor towards the wholeness of human life.
It is necessary to make a distinction here between graffiti as a political weapon, and graffiti as a form of art. It is an extensive topic, but briefly speaking one could say that art--or any other form of individual expression that comes from a totalitarian system--weakens that system. All forms of art are valid in this respect, but graffiti art is perhaps the most perfect because it can be done by anyone, and because it can reach anyone, without any mediators or interpreters.
And besides--artworks placed on street walls come as a surprise, and are perceived unexpectedly. Their power is different than that of artworks exhibited in art galleries. Graffiti lives in the context of the real environment, it originates from it, is a part of it, and transforms it. It does not need any special, abstracted space.
The thing that I find most interesting in graffiti art is the desire to transform the environment, the striving to turn a place you live in to a place you feel like belonging to. It is like putting a charm on something in order to make it alive and more humane.
That is what I experienced in New York: I saw that most of those dead buildings with burned-out windows and other abandoned, strange looking places were painted, marked and drawn all over. There were many graffiti signs that were very tiny, you had to look around very carefully, come very close, sometimes squat down or lean over a fence. Some of those little arrangements were done with evident love or passion, and looked like sanctuaries. Very powerful, although modest and silent!
I think that the same impulse drove the unknown souls in the desolate areas of Manhattan and in the grim cities of Poland under martial law.
Under martial law, most artists--I'm thinking about visual artists--were boycotting official places to show their work. Classical forms of art couldn't do much. But when one door is closed, another one is open. For instance, for me one of the ways to show my work, to continue my activity, was to do something in places which weren't belonging to anybody in particular, to any organization or institution. Street walls, telephone booths were perfect places to use.
PW: What has changed about graffiti since Solidarity came to power?
TS: Sometimes it is hard to believe how much and how quickly the things have changed over here, from one extreme to another. After years of total control, suppression, censorship bans, and such--we jumped into the vast waters of freedom. And look, now we have a show of graffiti which is going to open tomorrow evening right here, at Center of Contemporary Art (Centrum Sztuki Wspolczesnej). It will be the first show of its kind in the country. This show, which I am curating, will take place on the second floor of this seventeenth century castle. You see, some few years ago I did my first graffiti prints here in the dark of the night, frozen with fear of being arrested.
Today, the same works are being shown just a few steps away from their original location, this time openly, one of the most official places, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. Everything changes, and all is possible.
Graffiti in Poland is on the rise now, it is growing very quickly and now you can see it even in the small, remote towns.
It is also losing its combative spirit. It becomes lighter, more entertaining, more decorative, more elaborate, more related to young subcultures, to music... Since graffiti is not so bound to politics now, many really young kids joined in with their own iconography. You can notice now certain schools or groups. There is an air of growing competitiveness and showing off. And obviously, it is much more diversified now, since more and more people do it.
The common enemy has died. That's a strange moment: for some, especially for the beginners, it is very activating. For some others, on the other hand, though, it is quite demobilizing. You see, if you no longer have this enemy, this all-too-obvious target or point of reference--you have to think what to do now.
[But] I think there will always be something which you would feel like opposing. Youngsters, for instance, have different problems than those who are 30 or 40 years old. I am not doing graffiti anymore because I'm concerned with other things now, primarily with painting, but for younger or beginning artists, graffiti is a good way to manifest themselves and to join the culture.
Youngsters want to be seen. They go the fast way, they do not want to wait for some remote tomorrow. I know committed graffiti-makers who are 15 years old or younger, and of course it doesn't mean that they will do only graffiti in their lives. I don't know anybody who does just that. Imagine someone who is sixty, and still goes around with a spray can.
Graffiti may just be a certain stage in someone's development, or a certain episode. Therefore, attempts to fight graffiti are unwise and unrealistic.
And, obviously, graffiti-making may be a passage to the art world. You could have noticed it in America. After the big boom in 1983-84, people like Keith Haring, who started with graffiti, quickly became famous. There were many followers, whole organized gangs from New Jerseys and Bronxes, who would dream of making quick careers, not necessarily financial, so they would come over to Manhattan, paint huge walls, remembering to leave a legible signature. I have met young graffiti artists in Poland who are now trying to enroll in academies of fine arts. They feel like being artists, they are artists, beginning artists who started off and expressed themselves primarily through graffiti.
PW: What do you see as the future of graffiti art in Poland?
TS: I don't know. I think this is perhaps the most interesting part of it. It is a kind of art form that is very strongly connected to the present problems of the times, to the political, cultural, and social situations.
Graffiti will always be there until everybody will be satisfied. But it is quite inconceivable that everybody will be happy, and I suppose that in our times, in places like Warsaw, New York, and other big cities, there will always be problems for at least certain groups of people, and that they will always feel the urge to articulate their position.
But beyond socio-politically engaged graffiti, there is something that is especially interesting to me, which is graffiti that transcends the prosaic aspects of life and is more spiritually oriented.
For instance, there was a guy called Larmee. In 1984/85 I saw many of his paintings on the walls of Manhattan. He would make his paintings at home on paper, and then he would glue the ready works on the walls in various places in Lower Manhattan. His works were not politically oriented, not at all. They instead expressed loneliness, the solitude of a person in a big city, something that was particularly striking in crowded places, like on Broadway in rush hour. Just imagine seeing suddenly a beautiful, detached, and somehow sorrowful face in a dehumanized place: something very tender, very human, something that suddenly shifts your attention onto a higher level.
Another example: a stencil print, small delicate, almost unnoticeable, faded face of a young, pensive boy with an inscription below, "THERE IS A NEW KID IN TOWN." Very simple and very touching. I still remember that face, it looked so much more humane than the faces of the rushing phantoms around.
My own graffiti works, my first stencils and chalk drawings, were also not politically oriented, and it was curious to observe that these special crews of graffiti exterminators would sometimes leave my works intact. Some of them survived the long years, and are still there. They were for everybody, you see, for the right and the left, for communists and non-communists, for atheists and for the believers, they were just for men and women, regardless of their external guises.
At that time, in 1985, I didn't use any distinct political messages except for one thing: I made a stencil with the emblem of the city of Warsaw, which is a mermaid. The emblem is strange and alien to me, because the mermaid holds a shield and sword. So I made a new image: the mermaid joyfully throwing the shield and the sword away, freeing herself finally from that burden. The message was clear: change is coming, end of playing war, no more creating enemies, no need for armament. And also: down with the army, with the military.
PW: What are the risks involved in making graffiti in Poland?
TS: I used to do it at night, because one couldn't foresee the consequences; anything could have happened. My father would be shot dead if caught doing it in 1942. If I were caught doing it in 1985, I would be arrested.
Now I hear from a graffiti kid that there is no written law that bans graffiti. It is not illegal, it must be legal. I never heard about a trial, or sentence, or a fine for making graffiti here.
It is not dangerous anymore. Maybe it's one of the reason that I quit doing it. It is not exciting anymore. Resistance is a natural and very strong energy in the human psyche.
PW: To summarize?
TS: Some words about the future, perhaps.
I think there are two directions. The first is the obvious voice of those who feel like expressing their unfavorable situation or political opinions. I suppose that in Poland more and more individuals will fall into very difficult positions. This first kind of graffiti could be called political, combative, or contentious.
The other kind is artistically oriented. Among meaningless scribblings, there are true artworks painted on the street walls instead of on canvas and shown in interiors accessible to few. This is very important. I think that this is, in today's free Poland, the real test. The external enemy is gone; now is the time to drive away the internal enemy--ignorance, mental stiffness, prejudice, superfluousness, laziness, and so on.
I remember what Keith Haring said in one of the interviews about his graffiti. He said that even when he started to show in galleries, he still wanted to use the more immediate way of communication, without any mediators. It is really wonderful, because you do it for other people, engage yourself into something that transcends your own particular case, and you do it selflessly.
You paint something on a wall, and it hits the people right away. There's no time in between the execution of the work and the act of showing it. You do it, and it's already there, in action!
Lessons in Democracy
poem by adam cornford
Listen, you poor unemployed managers of State Utopia
there in grey Prague, Sofia and drizzling Warsaw, ex-comrades
with your sad jowls, wondering if you can keep the Mercedes--
here's what we learned in Central America.
To stay on top indefinitely it's not enough
to split the language into Above and Below
so that dissenters' words dissolve like salt under their tongues
and make their mouths wither.
to tap their phones, inject them with migraine
or vertigo in locked wards, not enough even
to pound their faces pulpy and toothless
in Security cellars, abandon them
shaky with malnutrition in some remote village.
You never understood that fear
has to reach all the way down
through the body. The heart must pucker shut
like a sea anemone poked with a stick, the fingers
must cling to the hand, the eyes to the face, the lips
to the teeth, imagining the surgical tray with its silvery verbs
laid out in rows, the grammar of the Recording Angel.
The fear must travel like pale threadworms in milk
from mother's nipple to child's mouth.
your bodies still believed in the body, in keeping
the promises you made it: promises
with the warm savor of bread an hour from the oven,
the bright primaries of a child's toy.
Your zodiac still held a vague sunrise silhouette,
woman or man in Vitruvian reach
toward the four corners of Heaven.
in the end it cracked from one side to the other.
Peace, Justice, Progress, the Power of the Workers--
these words that were your only justification
soaked through your skins like red dye and poisoned you all.
That's why finally even your professionals
weren't able to keep it up,
whether cool surgeon's gaze or sniggering erection
when they put out cigarettes in a prisoner's wrinkled openings,
when she bounced and wailed under the electrodes.
You couldn't even trust your soldiers to open fire. In the end
you were just petty bullies, knocking intellectuals' glasses off,
making them take jobs cleaning toilets.
That's why now
you hunch away crabwise from your teak desks
like bad-tempered bookkeepers caught with their hands in the till,
whining, blustering, promising to change. You feared the market
even as you loved what it brought you.
don't have these difficulties. We need only say: Subversion.
We need only show Them a swatted helicopter, say, some weapons
we captured inexpensively from a dealer in Lima
and the money comes down, pure as Their Columbia River.
This cold clean flow drives the turbines
They have given us, the friendly computers with webs
of suspect names woven across the screen, the are lights
around the strategic village compound, the projectors
in the theaters that show Their movies about wild dogs
eating women, huge warriors armored in
muscle pissing petroleum fire into the jungle.
With this voltage
we wire up a captured rebel, scrawny marionette
hanging from his own ganglia, to lip-synch some atrocity script.
Right away new assault rifles appear in our hands, blessing us
with fragrant oil.
You see, we still get the joke
when prisoners' mouths make those absurd rubbery shapes,
when they apologize for crimes they've never committed and beg
to kiss our fingers. We understand, as you never did, that ignorance
is a velvety dark bloom that must be watered and pruned.
We understand that an army is a business, like planting coffee
or bringing the Bible to the brown mongrels in the barrios.
We understand above all that the axis the planet spirals
around like a bluebottle fly, buzzing and licking,
is a great column of blood spouting between eternities.
your father Stalin couldn't pass himself on to his pasty sons.
You see, our Father is the Father of television. He shows us
pearl-colored sedans cornering silkily under a swollen moon,
gringas with tight hips and slow cataracts of hair,
and we reach into the screen's cool water
and take them.
That is His promise. That's what it means
to be even the smallest organ of this immense body--
to be rooted, humbly, in the continent of democracy.
Art & Chaos in Brazil
interview with graffiti artist ze carratu
I spent five weeks in and around Sao Paulo, Brazil during the southern hemispheric summer 1988-89. Fortunately I was with my long-time companion Caitlin Manning, whose talent at learning new languages, together with our good luck in finding fascinating interview subjects, made it possible to Produce a one-hour video documentary called Brazilian Dreams: Visiting Points of Resistance. One of the most intriguing encounters we had was with Ze Carratu, a very active graffiti artist in Sao Paulo's explosive street art scene. What follows are excerpts from the interview Caitlin conducted in a concrete shell of an abandoned building on the University of Sao Paulo campus, which was originally to be a cultural center. The basement is submerged in four feet of water, and the building has become an eerie gallery of graffiti art. The editing and translation are mine.
ZE CARRATU: The Rio de Janeiro--Sao Paulo axis represents the two most effervescent cities in Brazil, where people really have a vision of modernity and information about First World cultural developments. I make a living from plastic art. Some works I've made are commercialized. I paint murals. I am recognized, I've done lots of paintings. I live pretty hard, but I come from a family of immigrants, Italians, and they have a certain power. They developed a business in Brazil and managed things. I, for example, am a person with the opportunity to travel, to leave the country. I can go and return. Thus, I'm the only one who does culture in a family of three hundred!
I am from a family of Italian anarchists. I'm sort of an anarchist, I don't know, I just think there's going to be a tremendous chaos, total chaos, and afterward we are going to have to build a new society, sort of like what happens in a country after a big war...
PW: And the role of the artist in this?
ZC: The artist has to help establish chaos. I think that s/he has to be critical and work on the chaos, appropriate the chaos--and that's what I do. I work on the garbage, the rubble of the city, this is a way elevating chaos.
I eat the culture that was given to me. I was born with the ability to have culture, to learn things and understand society. So I swallow these things that I learn. This is "anthropophagy," I eat my literature. We had anthropophagists here in Brazil, the Indians that ate people. The Portuguese were good to eat! Today I eat the culture in a certain way. It's chaos, we mix everything together. I can't forget that I do art in Brazil. The images that I make have everything to do with this culture and this society. They are almost all fragments.
Since I work in the city, here inside, I am using the city as a support, a context. I think it's pretty natural, probably the same in any part of the world, that people try to understand each other in the street. From the moment I am in the street , I am mixing with society. When I am in my workshop, I am far from society, things are totally abstract. But on the streets I must make myself clear sociologically, anthropologically because I am in the middle of everyday life.
Graffiti has very interesting characteristics. People have an artistic way when they are working with graffiti. Joao, Kenny Schaffley, Keith Haring and these people have artistic training, so their graffiti is a true work of art. Here in Brazil we have much to learn from our own Third World situation. We are at a distance, not just because of the ocean, but because of the type of news that we've had available during this time.
I began working in the street in 1978. I didn't begin with graffiti, but with performance works, theater, and environmental installations. In 1982, a guy from New York started doing graffiti here. May 1968 in Paris was a powerful message, and as I was already working in the streets, I saw that the street was a very important space. The poverty of the people, the necessity of bringing information to them, motivated us t o begin doing graffiti. Our graffiti began inside the city, on walls, on the sides of buildings.
Sao Paulo is a city with a big speculation problem. Real estate speculation in this city devalues one space and raises the value of another, which they understand how to manipulate very well. For instance the government put the river into an underground sewer, built a big avenue on it, with huge walls on either side, and people in the surrounding neighborhoods moved away. It became a slum. Then the speculators came in and bought up the place at a very low price, and it soon increased in value. So we began to work on top of these speculators. They speculate a place, tear it down. Chaos is established and there we go to work, always.
This space [an abandoned cultural center building on the University of Sao Paulo campus] is typical, because it was constructed in 1976 more or less. In a place so short of technical resources and cultural information that people need, a space like this with thousands of square meters was never used for anything. So we decided to occupy it. Now we are trying to rescue it as a cultural space and bring its existence to people's attention. We are going to hold an event with people from cinema and other art forms and hold a great cultural marathon to rescue this place. It's an alert that there's something to do, to come and see that it's possible for something to happen here. Because nobody ev en knows that it exists, neither the local community nor the students on campus. No one ever comes here, it's never used, in fact, never finished! So we've painted here, we're still painting, working all the time.
When we first came here 11 years ago we found names and dates inscribed on the walls, like "Severino, 1976." Severino was probably an immigrant from Brazil's northeast, where it is a common name, and he was probably working here as manual labor. Many people were working here for a time, but for nothing, and this is quite common here in B razil.
Now some people are living here, poor people, also some punks, and we've hung out with them. Here is a mirror of water, which underlines the sadness one feels when you realize that a space of this size is here for nothing, it's such an absurdity, a waste, so much money, the speculation! They built a building under water! Of course it could be fixe d, but this was a work of pure speculation, squandering money with no thought whatsoever. They said this would be a cultural center, but such a thing interests no one in Brazil because people here don't care about culture. In the time of this construction, the mid-1970s, the political situation was very complicated. There was an ideological hunt g oing on, really a persecution of thought. So those people who were really articulating something, they had no power to do anything at that time.
There are many works, many places that we develop in the city. The only places that really bear our work well are these immense places that have never been used for anything. Our presence immediately improves them.
I think there is going to be a great chaos and that will be really good for making art.
PW: But for life?
ZC: I think not for life, but for the artist it is very inspiring. It's already a chaotic city in a certain way. On one side you have beauty, on the other barbarism, extreme poverty. You can go to the southern area of Sao Paulo and it is beautiful, marvelous, like a Beverly Hills. If you go to the eastern zone or the north you will see incredible poverty, serious suffering.
Brazil is a country of speculation, of grand industries built on speculation. We have 20 brands of powdered soap, 30, 40 brands of detergent, 200 of canned sausage, everything. Only people can see it but they cannot buy it. You go to the eastern zone where they have four supermarkets in a very poor neighborhood, with immense displays of merchandise, with the same advertising as here. You have a culture shock, a social shock because the people can see but cannot have. So what do they do? They steal. It is perfectly natural that this occurs, considering the shocking divergence between what is seen and what can be had.
We see that in our city all the art galleries and cultural spaces are here for a very specific part of the public. People that patronize such spaces are very select, and very selected. The galleries are constructed in a certain way, there is always a guard at the door, there's no access for handicapped, and so on. The Brazilian people are deprived of information and culture. Not everyone has a chance to study and learn things. Those that do, uphold a system very alienated at the level of cultural information.
Some years ago I had an exhibit in a museum, but many of our invited guests couldn't even find the place. This reality has everything to do with the media. We know that the media is a strong force, whether a newspaper or a TV station. The power to act in the street, to occupy the walls, abandoned buildings and locations with weird architecture, is also a force. We extend the street, really.
It's a very weird situation and I think that with today's media, people are learning to see images, to read images, so when we work in the street, our work provides a different perspective. We don't sell anything, and don't even offer a product.
PW: It's an anti-commercial?
ZC: Yes, it's totally anti-commercial.
Texas: Penury of Plenty
Tale of Texan Toil by Salvador Ferret
My friend and I arrived in Austin, Texas, in an old car jammed with what we could salvage from a dead woman's Santa Fe, New Mexico estate. My friend--we'll call her Babs, because she is from the Midwest and evinces the kind of all-American wholesomeness the name implies, which is exactly the kind of wholesomenessthat lands such jobs as live-in companion to the elderly--had hung in with the old woman until the latter's nicotine-stained, sherry-spattered end, and seen her to her grave in the plaster of the living room wall alongside her husband, whose ashes had been similarly spackled many years ago. A colorful family, that, but the furnishings bequeathed to Babs were disappointingly mundane: the flattest of flatware, a hideous artdeco standing lamp, a dozen dull white plates from which the old one had been caught senilely feasting one evening on a meal of candles al jerez, and which still bore the tawny scorchmarks from her beloved and overlong cigarettes.
But scavengers can't be choosers (though on second thought, they are infact the best of choosers; what eye is more discriminating, more curatorial, than that of a professional gepenador in the dumps of Mexico City or ofan untouchable in the middens of Bombay?); so we loaded up all this domestic impedimenta into the old car and set out for the Lone Star State.
Many friends questioned the wisdom of our move to Texas. The state was inan economic nosedive, they reminded us, and we hadn't so much as a friend there to hang on to and scream with as we all plummeted.
Texas' economic drop had begun in the mid-1980s, and no one could say when its course might at least become horizontal, much less regain its former heady altitude. The Texas economy was a craft that had run out of fuel; or rather, that fuel, which was nothing more than crude petroleum, had become, in mid-flight, no longer sufficient to keep it aloft. It seemed the Saudis and the other swarthies of OPEC had, in their cunning Oriental fashion, divested that dark liquid of its power to keep going the impressive machinery of our soon-to-be-adopted state.
Our friends recommended that we at least consult the latest forecasts fromthe economists,our culture's seers and the official interpreters of the Market and its complex mythologies. Although we knew the economy, the Market system, derived from social relations was not externally imposed on society, we could not be sure the good folk of Texas, who are notorious for believing in an ideology that teaches just the opposite, would ever help us out ifwe found ourselves unemployed or otherwise in a financial pickle. Mightn't they, rather, allow us to succumb to Market circumstances deemed by them natural, eternal, and, strangest of all, the essence of our "freedom!"
And though we knew economists to be little more than modern-day shamans(shamans so intoxicated on their mathematics and their "models" that they declare themselves "scientists"), we also knew that the world was highly mystified. Mightn't they, after all, speak some truth about this world! Me agreed to listen to what they knew.
They left aside, for the moment, their monitoring of the cosmic struggle between the Bears and the Bulls and the other larger epic wars being waged across the Universe of Commodities ("where things live human lives and humans live thingish lives"), and bore down, as per our request, on the more specific question of the employment situation in Texas. They showed us their charts and figures, which in their conjunction looked to us something like a board game, full of ups and downs and crises and miracles,rather like Chutes and Ladders. Now, they said, we know that an unfortunate roll of the Market dice (dice loaded, we all suspect, by those OPEC ministers cited above) landed Texas in the Tar Pit where the Skeezix of Recession dwells. Now to get out of the Pit, relatively low rolls on the Unemployment dice had to obtain, a good deal lower than the near-double-digit figure that was still coming up. Of course, it didn't want to keep getting low rolls on the Unemployment dice either, at least not on a national scale,or interest rates would rise and the whole game could overheat, sending all players to Inflation Inferno.
This game was a bit too byzantine for us to grasp. It seemed remote from our possibilities as individual actors in everyday life. Maybe we were being too ruggedly individualistic, but it seemed to us that, no matter how airtight the ideology might attempt to be, there was still an opportunity for individual human agency to knock breathing holes in that armor. In other words, wewould find a way. In any case, we found that the "science" of economics described a universe an order of magnitude larger than our own lives. If it described a relativistic universe, ours was still a Newtonian one; what did it matter to us if the universe was in truth curved, if all we really had to deal with, in our world, were straight lines!
And for us, for now, the first such line was a highway leading straightacross
New Mexico and West Texas to Austin. . .
Less than a week prior to our departure from Santa Fe I got an opportunityto gather intelligence on the Texas economy directly from the kind of creature the ideology most works materially to serve: a rich person. But this person was not just any rich person, this was a Texan rich person, and this wasmy chance to determine to what extent an ideology might turn on its own masters. Had the collapse of the Market in Texas brought down the swells with it!
My meeting with this person came by virtue of a scheduling faux pas--or was it somebody's idea of a joke?--on a bibulous bon vivant's guest list: I was invited to attend a gathering of Texan fatfish at her quaint adobe settled venerably into the mud of Canyon Road. (Contrary to popular belief, the most valuable real estate in this most contrivedly fashionable of towns is not that which affords a dramatic view from the mountains, but a humble, low location, preferably a warren-like arrangement along a narrow,unpaved road in the "historic" section of town. Property values are exorbitant here, and these have become enclaves for the wealthy, mostly Texans, whoact out their fantasy of Pueblo Indian, calling on one another in their faux-kivas to swap posole recipes and share intelligence on the relative wampum values of Hopi jewelry and Navajo rugs).
At this swank gathering I was introduced to said rich person, a young, wasp-waisted woman from Dallas, who gave my sartorially despicable figure a scornful once over. She herself was re-splendently outfitted in Neiman Marcus threads, which despite their Navajo motifs were so hallucinatorily rich that they more resembled the weavings of a peyote-peaking Huichol. Despite her obvious loathing of me, she engaged me in the kind of hypocritically unctuous conversation conservative Texan women are trained in from an early age, and that was when I took the opportunity to inquire into her thoughts about the economy of the Lone Star State.
Texas, she replied daintily, was going through an economic "disappointment."By the time I left the party, I had filed this irridescent damsel's delicateterm away in that obscure part of the lobe reserved for Texan forms of expression, both the manly crude and the womanly euphemistic. But driving through Texasa few days later, it resurfaced. I realized immediately that her description was quite accurate: for the rich, the collapse and stagnation of the Texas economy was but a disappointment, a vision vanished rather than a nightmare lived. Their dreams of unheard-of wealth had evaporated, and they had awakened to the harsh and dreary reality of their concrete assets alone: the Mercedeses, the furs, the ostentatious homes and sumptuous ranches with their exotic game animals ("homesteads," which bystate law can be touched by virtually no creditor). And to the same old oil wells, which, because the black gold they pumped was now worth only half of what it was at the peak of the boom in the early 80's, only brought in enough income to replace and maintainall those things. (Mexican President Lopez Portillo, who with his corrupt sidekicks had shared the same dream in the early 1980's, had advised Mex'icans to "preare themselves for prosperity." The Texan version of this might have been, because Texas was already so rich, to prepare for sheer obscenity.)
The hope then had been that the price of oil would keep going up, possiblyto $100 a barrel. But it only got up to $32 by the end of 1983 when thebust set in. From there it plummeted to about $14. (At the time of this writing the price, thanks to the sabre-rattling over Kuwait, is back up to around $35 for most Texas crude). Texans, banking greedily on visions of ever-upward-spiralling oil prices, had already grossly overinvested in things such as real estate. Driving into Austin, we saw that practically every other office building was empty and for lease, and we soon learned that the city indeed had the most overbuilt office space in the country. Greed had led to overproduction had led to unemployment: this was the "rationality" of the Market system.
Austin seemed pretty prosperous nonetheless, at least on the swank sideof town. The "disappointment" seemed only slight there. Debutant balls took place as always on those west-side hills, though on a scale slightly less grand than before; some exclusive clothing outlets were said to have closed, but plenty remained; gourmet dog biscuits, at $5.00 a pound, were still an item in demand at your finer victualers.
The poor, well, they'll always be with us, says the eternalizing ideology, and in Austin this means mostly on the east side of town. Over twenty percent of the residents of Travis County, of which Austin is county seat, live under the official poverty line of $11,400 a year for a family of four.
We found the poor in the laundromat, one of our first stops after our roadtrip. They were sprawled uncomfortably on the hard yellow plastic seats. Why do the homeless like laundromats so! Because it's warm and roofed and they're not immediately evicted from it, I suppose. It's surely not for the homey atmosphere. Dully watching the clothes roll round in the drier, I reflected on how Western instrumental rationality has robbed lothes-washing of its traditional communal quality. This rationality, believing it could reduce the "drudgery" of everyday life to a nullity through technology, has instead succeeded in eliminating the human from the everyday, thus turning everyday activities into true drudgery. I was reminded of a missionary coupleI once knew who brought their African maid back with them to the U.S. This African could not get over the fact that no one in America washed their clothes in rivers: every time they drove over a bridge she would remark on the absence of gossipy scrubbers below. What was she talking about! thought the missionaries. She knew what a washing machine is, she used one every week! The missionaries failed utterly to see the subtext of her remark, which I imagine referred to the acute absence ot communality in America,the intense loneliness of everyday tasks here.
I wondered, too, if those missionaries, having lived in West Africa, understood how the word "zombie" was used among the Bakweri of West Cameroon. "Zombie," according to Michael Taussig's book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism, was the word applied to fellow Bakweri and others who drove trucks and did certain other kinds of work in the British and German banana plantations. The "zombies" worked far beyond what was required to satisfy theirneeds. They couldn't seem to stop, they were the living dead. Their "lives" had become abstracted into the commodity of labor time, and consequentlythey weighed like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
Across the street from the laundromat, in the morning drizzle, a raggedman hunted for food in a dumpster. He found a soggy crust of pizza, whichhe gobbled and washed down with a swallow of Thunderbird. A block further down sat the drab brown brick Austin Plasma Center. Perhaps after his meal he'd go there to sell his blood. According to an ad on the laundromat bulletin board, you can make two donations to the Center a week, at $10 a pop. OnFridays there is some sort of $25 "bonus drawing" which I don't quite understand.
It pleased me to think that this ragged man's diet of dumpster pizza and Thunderbird was convertible to good human plasma; plasma just as good as, maybe better than, that obtainable from King George's blue blood. Therewas something satisfyingly egalitarian about this notion; but beyond that, there was an even more essential comfort in the thought of rotten crusrs and cheap wine being converted to blood. It was something that seemed to give the lie to that part of capitalist and socialist and existentialist ideology that insists on scarcity as the metaphysical grounding of life. It reminds me that scarcity exists only as a social concept, not a biological one. We aren't aliens in hostile territory. We evolved here. It's our planet, and our bodies are RIGHT for it.
The myth of scarcity is championed by those systems hung up on production -capitalist as well as "actually-existing socialist." This myth is the touchstone of their terror, and is what keeps everybody in line without too much overt coercion."He's (she's) a survivor"-I don't knowhow many times I was to hear this admiring phrase from the lips of Texans. Mere survival the goal! I realize they said it in the context of the economic slump,and they generally meant survival in the manner in which one was normally accustomed, but it nevertheless always struck me as an awfully low settingof one's sights, especially for such an outwardly arrogant people as Texans. The odd corollary to it is the belief, in defiance of common sense and of the most elementary statistics, that one will be the exception who will "make it" over all the other "losers." One of the results of this belief, of course, is a contempt for "welfare" and the state's notoriously low ranking in social services.
The fear of scarcity leads not just to production, but to the astounding over-production that is the hallmark of "late capitalism. The basic absurdity of capitalist ideology rests on the idea that putting the accumulated wealth to socially-useful ends is anathema to the system overall. In other words, the system's fear is that satisfaction of human needs will reduceor eliminate the human fear that is the engine of accumulation and overproduction. It's a bit like working to put money in the bank, but under the conditionthat if you makeany withdrawals the bank will collapse and you'll lose it all. Of course, the State employs calculated ways of siphoning off some of this overproduction, primarily military spending, which, while it wastefully relieves some of the bloating, serves to feed the fear on another plane:fear of the enemy Other bent on stealing the whole bank.
Never mind, then, that we are well into one of the longest periods of economicexpansion in U.S. history, with over $35 trillion in goods and services produced. We're not to think about this social surplus, and we're certainly not to ask that any of it be used to ameliorate our fear of not "surviving. On the contrary, the system seems to require more fear, more poverty and homelessness, while the rich get capital-gains tax cut. In any case, inTexas and the world over, we're a long ways from Felix Guattari's and Toni Negri's vision in We Communists: "Human goals and the values of desire must from this point on orient and characterize production. Not the reverse.
The Plasma Center ad stated that donors are required to show proof of Austin residence. How would the homeless manage that! Babs and I wondered. In any case, we were reminded that we needed to find a place to live right away.We investigated a tiny garage apartment a block north of the laundromat and decided we could afford it, at least for the moment. But we would have to get jobs soon.
The landlords were a middle-aged couple who carried on a preternaturally perfect middle-class existence in the big house next door. Projecting ontous their vision of utopia, they assumed our goal in life was to work our way up to their status, someday to become just like them, landlords in the manor behind twin magnolia trees. For now, of course, we would have to pay our dues, which meant sign a 6-month lease for the little place, along with a stipulation allowing them to run a credit check on us--at our expense. Lease, leash, leech--the word itself was revolting to me, and I doubted the credit check would reveal us in too favorable a light, though if we did pass it, I knew we were supposed to get a warm feeling all over of legitimacy and belonging. Instead I got a sour feeling thinking about all those uncreditworthy souls our acts of submission to these kinds of investigations only helpto further delegitimize. I felt a traitor to them. The process of"belonging" always involves treason.
But the credit check apparently was never carried out, and we moved intothe tiny apartment. Babs got a job cleaning real estate--houses that weren't moving, which meant they had to be maintained especially spic and span to entice what few prospective buyers there were. It was one of those ironic jobs spawned of economic busts--ironic like the record homelessness in the midst of this vast square footage of empty shelter. Not that it was a good job; like pizza delivery, it required so much driving around in one's own vehicle that half one's paycheck goes into the car. Nevertheless, it was something.
I was not quite so lucky. I scanned the want ads every day, especially those listed under "General," since I've had the audacity in life not to have specialized in any particular field. The listings are alphabetical, usually beginning with A for "Aggressive." Aggressive this wanted, aggressive that. It's not a word Iparticularly like. After a few weeks of seeing it there, it really begins to irritate me, and I think, well goddamn, the day I'm compelled to be "aggressive" for money I guess I'11do it right, with the snubby nose of my .38 poking the ribs of some gulping fatfish.
There are curious ads, such as the one that reads, "Have you ever lied to get a job! If so, your story may be worth $100." But how would the folks doing this study know my story was not a lie, just to get my hands on the $100! Or would that in itself constitute the lie they were looking for! The Liar's Paradox is lurking here somewhere and I don't like the smell of it.
Pharmaco, I notice, advertises a lot for research subjects: "up to $375 for, anyone with resistant genital warts to participate in a study testing a new antiviral drug. (What do they mean, "up to!" Are some people's genital warts more valuable than others'!) In any case, I'm not about to go out and contract resistant genital warts just to get my hands on a lousy $375.
A sperm bank is looking for donors. This would be a more exhilirating donationthan plasma, to be sure. But again, the question: how much a pop! It doesn't say. And how many donations can you make! At half a billion or so spermsper, I imagine it's probably just a one-night stand, so to speak.
So much for the classifieds. I try the Texas Employment Commission, but quickly discover that instead of helping you find a job, it seems primarily designed to discourage you from seeking one. The functionary at the end of an interminable line informs me proudly that the TEC in Austin has so many applicants--over 20,000-that the on-line files are no longer available for perusal by job-seekers. Strange reasoning: the greater the numbers of unemployed, the less access they get to the job listings. We'll look FOR you, he says, pen poised above the application, eager to strike out each category for which I don't claim enormous experience. A bureaucrat's favorite word is "no." I never hear from the TEC.
I check out every shit-on-a-shingle restaurant in the neighborhood, the kind of places that serve dyed margaritas ("pink killer 'ritas") and have names like Silverado; surely one doesn't need great restaurantexperience to serve THEIR kind of slop. Wrong again.
I try canvassing for a progressive organization, but find it too weird trying to Sell "peace and justice" as a commodity. Is nothing sacred! Must even this be subservient to the money economy! My field captain thinks I'm naive and have an attitude to boot; he's glad to see me go. I learn to interpret the penultimate words from a job interviewer, the ones that precede the handshake and the we'll-let-you-knows, things like "sorry you had to come out in the rain," which means, "gee, sorry youhad to waste your time and ours AND get wet.
I check out the temp agencies, places with vaguely salacious names like Manpower (the overtly wanton-sounding Kelly Girl has been changed to the more sober Kelly Services, I notice). I get nowhere there, but am led to discover a few things about the temps. I learn that large-scale hiring of temps is a recent phenomenon; that the electronics and defense industries do a lot of it, and that the federal government employs some 300,000 temps. Temps receive virtually no benefits, and are the first to be laid off when a slump or recession hits, while core employees, if they're lucky, get to stay. When the next nationwide recession arrives, up to 3 million temps can expect to lose their jobs. As it is, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics counts anyone working one hour or more a week as "fully employed"; this accounts for the exaggeratedly low official unemployment rate. But at least the BLS factors into its monthly report those "discouraged workers" who have given up looking for work altogether.
I feel myself gradually becoming one of those "discouraged workers."I begin to investigate what it would be like to live in the streets. Oneof the first things that strikes me about such a life is its relative rigor,in terms of planning, scheduling, and so forth. Required to abandon the Salvation Army premises by 6 a.m., you must seek warmth elsewhere--the Capitol building, for instance--until the Caritas or other soupline opens. If you're sick, you've got to keep in mind that the Caritas clinic is only open Tuesday and Thursday evenings. You've got to keep your eye on the spots under the bridges for possible vacancies, and be quick to stake your claim when one arises. You've got to be mindful of police routes and schedules, and keeptrack of your plasma donations. If after all this stress you need to get drunk, remember the Showdown's "Happy Minutes," with 25-cent drafts, are from 3:00-3:15 p.m. A lot of the homeless guys I talk to have all the bus schedules memorized.
When depressed, go to a demonstration. It quickens the blood and gets your mind on something larger than yourself. The one I went to, described inthe next day's American Statesman (Austin's only daily, better known in our circles as the American Real Estatesman) as "spirited," was over El Salvador. We defied pig orders and took the streets. One zealous porker could put up with it no more and collared one of our guys, a lanky Quaker with a Thoreau beard. The crowd turned ugly. The Ruaker, a wry smile on his 19th-century face, pleaded for calm while pointing out to the cop the advisability ofletting him go. The cop decided he was right, and sprung the handcuffs.
I told Babs about the incident and how I admired the Quaker's cool and humorous resistance. She said, sure, those folks believe so little in authority that they can never take it seriously. By the way, she said, the Ruakersare fixing up their Hill Country retreat next week- end, and needed volunteers, ifl cared to go.
So we went. But there I learn that even the Friends are not immune to the ideology of desireless production. While washing Ruaker windows and railing about the absurd hoops you have to jump through to get a lousy $4-an-hourjob in the University of Texas library system (though I proudly report thatI passed, at 45 wpm, the typing test, using my version of caffeinated hunt-andpeck), a middle-aged Ruaker listening tome announces that she works in library personnel and would probably be the one to interview me if my application were to get that far. To my astonishment, this woman turns out to be a championof taylorized work efficiency and seems to know every angle on the scientific organization and bureaucratic management of white-collar labor. She actually uses, in a personal context, terms like "private sector" ("my husband works in the private sector") and refers to students meeting their "educational consumer needs." What SHE doesn't need on the other hand, is "defiance": "Can you imagine if every timeI told someone to do something they asked why!" In the end, what she is looking for, as an interviewer, is "grown up" people. I take this to mean people so burdened with responsibilities and/or fears that they would never ask their boss "why!" I get the distinct feeling I have already blown the interview. And then, the miracle. 8 few weeks later, just as Babs and I hit rock bottom--she was by then a volunteer for the United Farm Workers, who pay only for her barest subsistence--I was able to land some free-lance translating jobs. English to Spanish, Spanish to English, I'll translate anything. More work comes my way, and soon we are receiving almost a lower-middle class income. Combined with the fact that we live frugally, it's O.K.
But after a year or so of this, a malaise begins to set into our household.We begin to feel trapped in routine. The adventure seems over. We beginto suspect it's not enough just to live frugally; we begin to suspect that this "simple" lifestyle of growing our own and of consuming little, though ostensibly subversive, might actually be complicitous with the movement of capital from an industrial to an informational mode. After all, wasn't it the big corporations who sponsored the last Earth Day celebration in Austin! There's something fishy here... By "living simply" instead of DEMANDING the social surplus--those trillions mentioned above--weren't we acquiescing to this obvious corporate redirection of capital! But where was such a movement to demand that surplus! Not in Austin, certainly. Most progressives there were like we had been, believing that frugality was subversion. Still believing, in other words, in the myth of scarcity. Suddenly we want out... "Archeologists have led us to conceive of this nomadism notas a primary state, but as an adventure suddenly embarked upon by sedentary groups impelled by the attraction of movement, by what lies outside... an extrinsic nomadic unit as opposed to an intrinsic despotic unit." (Gilles Deleuze). We give the car and a lot of the other shit to CISPES, and Babs makes the first go, choosing to move to downtown Detroit, the cutting edge of urban American decay. I opt for Managua, where a similar raw confrontation between the haves and the have-nets continues to openly fester. It seems that in order to restore our sense of reality we are impelled to go to places where the myth of scarcity has taken a real toll.
Meanwhile, back in Texas, the 700,000 individuals to whom oil royalty checks roll in every month, as regularly and eternally as the tides of Galveston, have seen a pleasant doubling of their income, owing to the "Gulf crisis." One can only suppose that the old Texas arrogance--arrogance based on nothing other than the good fortune of having stumbled upon the land under whichlay dissolved bodies of dinosaurs--will soon be making a florid comeback.
- Salvador Ferret Ferret