Beyond Shopping

Beyond Shopping
By Axel Ztangi
February 19, 2009

The Financial Times reports that at Davos the treasure hunt, so to speak, was for that elusive plan to curb the worldwide financial meltdown. If the luminaries of world capital came away luckless and no better informed than when they arrived, I suspect that the half-wits and dead-beats in Washington (best exemplified by Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers) will not succeed either.

No surprise that fewer politicians attended Davos this year than in previous years when Davos was a celebratory event. Nothing corrodes the finely spun verbosity of politicians swifter than the acidic spray of reality. The few politicians who did attend simply made fools of themselves with their exchange of accusatory remarks.

Recession, Depression or Panic?  Politicians speak only of recession as do most journalists. Popular columnists of a liberal bent define the crisis with a broader selection of terms, yet they are all snared in the traps of a poorly informed historic perspective. This insures that their endeavors to provide informed analysis will be fruitless. Quick fixes of a neo-Keynesian kind that they propose, may at best slow the hemorrhaging of world capital, but far more radical procedures are needed to save this patient. 

A more farsighted bunch of policy wonks have captured the multifaceted nature of the crisis and have noted that the financial aspect is merely the outer layer to a deeper crisis of resource depletion that in turn reveals an inner core of ecological limits. And while this view connects the dots for some with potentially revolutionary implications, too often the faulty premise returns: all we need to do is tweak the economic system. Funding alternative energy systems, encouraging recycling and conservation, developing a new breed of entrepreneurs who have a social conscience or similar quixotic remedies come to mind.

I think, to extend the metaphor of the ailing economy, we should opt for euthanasia and put the decrepit creature out of its misery. Images of Morgan, the artist in the cult eponymous film, dancing by Marx’s grave in Highgate come to mind. He dances in homage to the old man’s foresight. And in my daydream, he’s joined there by Kropotkin, the declassed Russian anarchist prince who, 100 years ago, envisioned a popularly administered decentralist society that today resembles the sustainable society many dream of. And joining that unlikely duo (and the other dancing radicals who prefigured a saner society than we have been saddled with) is the recently departed Andre Gorz (more on him shortly) all reveling at the prospect of the demise of capitalism, ironically but predictably, by its own invisible hand.

Unfortunately – and I am not alone suspecting this – the great carcass of finance capital will be kept alive, if only barely, at our expense. No credit, homes gone, jobs too. How do they expect us to cough up a contribution? The answer in part is that by reducing our expectations, by increasing regressive taxes and occasionally providing subsidized work (for the “hard-core” unemployables), they could sufficiently reduce the costs of maintaining us, the working population. Their game plan is to fortify post haste the weakened foundation of gross income inequality.

Will we take the prospects of no prospects lying down? A good question. It seems likely that a rebellion of any substance would be severely repressed. The last several decades of compliant behavior, however,  tends to argue against rebellion. The mass media has successfully circumscribed dissidence to the margins. And while during the Bush years the Fear Card of terrorism got played at every opportunity. During the early days of the Obama reign we are witnessing a much more sophisticated tactic of control. It would come as no surprise to see climate change employed as the new scarcity, the new Fear Card. Is it ludicrous to expect Obama to plead that limited resources mean more belt-tightening and further enclosures of the commons? The grim future rolled out by the clever manipulators now in power could be their dream, but our nightmare, of a country united to accept its own austerity.

This dystopian analysis may be the last word for some. And while it cannot be dismissed as a future possibility, for the sake of a balanced appraisal of social currents, of a better appreciation of both dominant and subversive trends, we need to assess all the contending forces at work in society. I believe that what many commentators dismiss as irrelevant is the spectacularized opposition – what the media refers to as the “fundamentalists of right or left.” Those oppositional elements that offer more than a sectarian reading – but an alternative practice – are hidden from media view, and media manipulation, by working in the folds of ordinary life.

Across the country there’s a multiplicity of grassroots projects, signifying a groundswell of activism not seen in decades. Every city, for example, has urban/rural alliances that assure the availability of fresh food to millions at farmers markets, buying clubs and co-ops. And which municipality is without a viable cyclist culture? And how many garages and old industrial sites are occupied with grassroots alternative energy inventors, open-source programmers and artisans re-using the debris of society to create something new and useful?

Furthermore, as the state abandons social services and as the markets, free of regulation, come to dominate more and more aspects of people’s lives, every community witnesses the growth of non-profits and volunteer groups undertaking innovative programs. This is the take-charge, do-it-yourself (DIY) economy. One of the most creative aspects of this new economy is the amazing expansion of public media and digital technology. Combined they develop rhizomic alliances across the entire spectrum of the alternative, grassroots economy amplifying local practices and making replication possible.

The power of all these various local ventures, separated geographically and unlinked to a great extent, was manifest at the very beginning of Obama’s campaign. Let’s be clear of this fact: the Obama phenomenon drew upon social forces waiting for a spark. He was not the organizer of this movement – but of course he deserves credit for growing it; in those critical early days, he was the beneficiary of it.

These mundane and seemingly miniscule projects ranging over an entire, bottom-up economy, are sustained, from my experience, with activists who posses a savvy awareness of the hydra-headed nature of the crisis before us. The literally millions of people working in this emerging grassroots economy, or directly affected by it, demonstrate by their commitments that they want to supercede the media-projected consumer society. A society bankrupt of ethical values and life-affirming vision.

Last year’s reference to the 40th anniversary of the ’68ers threw into relief the differences between that generation and the current one. Where the previous rebellious generation appeared to have little grounding in reality and felt comfortable roaming Utopia, the current one may be too grounded in the minutiae of everyday life. Too concerned with the pragmatic and too suspicious of intellectualism. But does this sound like a criticism? Is there any justification in critiquing practical self-help activities in our society where the ruling circles have spiraled to the heights of hubris?

The qualities of pragmatism and persistence, the desire to attain skills and show measurable results, need recognition. But lacking a perspective of context, of history, the projects of the DIY economy can easily remain isolated; and their social relevance underestimated by its practioners who prioritize immediate viability.

As work in the dominant economy looses all meaning, as a job is nothing more than killing time, the value of altruism and volunteerism grows in significance. And yet, the more time away from the clock is sought for self-realization the more it ironically enforces acceptance by some of a limited horizon for change. As if the “outside,” mainstream, commodified world is not only too large, but also too corrupt, to change. Sustenance of the body constricts to a regimen of conformity while the sustenance of the spirit seeks expression in another realm of possibilities apart. They don’t connect.

But why is this separation tolerated? Why do we accept that riches flow to those activities that intrinsically have no long term social use and would embarrass most of us as a livelihood? Gorz, the French journalist intellectual who died last year, asked these questions to the generation of ’68. And to subsequent generations in an ever  more thoroughly analytic way. He wasn’t the first to call work slavery if the worker had no control of the direction of that work, but he was one of the first to declare that even if the workers controlled their work, it wasn’t enough. The work itself needed an ethical base. It had to contribute to the viability of society as a whole.

There was good work and there was bad work. Workers’ control of an armaments manufacture would only make sense if the workers re-tooled to build modern plowshares.

This is where we are today. The stuff that needs to be done is done around the fringes of our society. Much of it is tenuous even if it is obviously useful. How do we scale up the grassroots economy? And in the dominant economy, how do we scale up our range of ethical choices in the work we do? That’s the question .

Axel Ztangi
(Worker Co-op member affiliated with,
but not representing by these comments the following)
Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives
Just Alternative Sustainable Economy- “JASecon”


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