Nowtopia

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Book: Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-lot Gardeners are Inventing the Future Today. Author::Chris Carlsson. AK Press, published::2008


Description

Chris Carlsson has written a very important book, that is closely related to our aims at the P2P Foundation:


1.

“Outlaw bicycling, urban permaculture, biofuels, free software, and even the Burning Man festival are windows into a scarcely visible social transformation that is redefining politics as we know it. As capitalism continues to corral every square inch of the globe into its logic of money and markets, new practices are emerging through which people are taking back their time and technological know-how. In small, under-the-radar ways, they are making life better right now, simultaneously building the foundation—technically and socially—for a genuine movement of liberation from market life.

Nowtopia uncovers the resistance of a slowly recomposing working class in America. Rarely defining themselves by what they do for a living, people from all walks of life are doing incredible amounts of labor in their “non-work” time, creating immediate practical improvements in daily life. The social networks they create, and the practical experience of cooperating outside of economic regulation, become a breeding ground for new strategies to confront the commodification to which capitalism reduces us all.

The practices outlined in Nowtopia embody a deep challenge to the basic underpinnings of modern life, as a new ecologically-driven politics emerges from below, reshaping our assumptions about science, technology, and human potential.

With historical grounding, a toolbox drawing from multiple schools of anti-capitalist thought and theory, and a refreshingly pragmatic approach, Carlsson opens our eyes to the revolutions of everyday life.

Chris Carlsson, executive director of the multimedia history project “Shaping San Francisco,” is a writer, publisher, editor, and community organizer. He has edited four collections of political and historical essays. He helped launch the monthly bike-ins known as Critical Mass, and was long-time editor of Processed World magazine. “ (http://www.akpress.org/2008/items/nowtopiaakpress)


2.


"The Nowtopian movement embodies a growing minority seeking emancipation from the treadmill of consumerism and overwork. Acting locally in the face of unfolding global catastrophes, friends and neighbors are redesigning many of the crucial technological foundations of modern life, like food and transportation. These redesigns are worked out through garage and backyard research-and-development programs among friends using the detritus of modern life. Our contemporary commons takes the shape of discarded bicycles and leftover deep-fryer oil, of vacant lots and open bandwidth. “Really, really free markets,” anti-commodities, and free services are imaginative products of an anti-economy provisionally under construction by freely cooperative and inventive people. They aren’t waiting for an institutional change from on high but are building the new world in the shell of the old.

These practices require sharing and mutual aid and constitute the beginnings of new kinds of communities. Because these people are engaged in creative appropriation of technologies to purposes of their own design and choice, these activities embody the (partial) transcendence of the wage-labor prison by workers who have better things to do than their jobs. They are tinkerers working in the waste streams and open spaces of late capitalism, conjuring new practices while redefining life’s purpose.

Efforts to create islands of utopia have always flourished on the margins of capitalist society, but never to the extent that a radically different way of living has been able to supplant market society’s daily life. Nowtopians, and anyone determined to free themselves from the constraints of economically defined life, face the same historic limits that have beset all previous efforts to escape. Can the emerging patterns resist the co-optation and reintegration that have absorbed past self-emancipatory movements? The new apparatus of global production helps speed up the extension of market society, but it inevitably also speeds the spread of social opposition, the sharing of experiments and alternatives. Our moment in history is at least as exhilarating as it is daunting." (http://occupysecession.com/2012/06/29/building-an-anti-economy/)

Review

Robert Ovetz:

"For Chris Carlsson, new forms of resistance have been bubbling just beneath the surface out of sight of not only the mainstream media and social movement watchers but even the left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If commentaries on the crisis from the left have mostly emphasized the dangers, Carlsson has identified opportunities and where to look for them. Nowtopia is the place to go for inspiring reports on new forms of self-organized working class movements already simmering just out of our field of sight. Recognizing these and other nowtopias will better prepare us for when and if the bubbles begin to reach the boiling point." (http://www.commoner.org.uk/?p=89&preview=true)


Excerpts

From an article in Antipode journal [1]:

1.

"Nowtopia is a term that attempts to describe the myriad efforts to reclaim and reinvent work against the logic of capital. Nowtopia identifies a new basis for a shared experience of class. Specifically, the exodus from wage labor on one side, and the embrace of meaningful, freely chosen and “free” (unpaid) work on the other. No longer can our waged jobs be assumed to define us, and no longer can they be the primary basis for politics. Precisely because so many people find their work lives inadequate, incomplete, degrading, pointless, stupid and oppressive, they form identities and communities outside of paid work—in spaces where they are not working class. It is in these activities that people, who are reduced on the job to “mere workers”, fully engage their capacities to create, to shape, to invent, and to cooperate without monetary incentive. They “work” or “labor” in a way in which the particular substance of their activity is meaningful. These communities may not look much like the working class organizations of the past two centuries, but it is important to recognize that in this topsy-turvy period of system breakdown and transition, new political forms are emerging to reshape the endless struggle between capital and humanity. In the face of widespread dismissal of nowtopian movements as “lifestyle” politics or irrelevant “dropout” culture, we argue that they are in fact new political forms that are addressing directly many immediate problems of capitalist society.

Today basic needs are going unmet for millions. Urgent efforts at long-term and medium-term planning to adapt to the increasingly visible collapse of natural systems are rejected out of ideological blindness. But individual human ingenuity flows over government and corporate obstacles. The solutions to social and ecological crises of our time are frequently coming from unwaged work that is done because people want and need it, rather than in hopes of monetary remuneration. Still at the margins of modern life for now, many people and communities are taking more of their time and care out of the market and making ways to live together, to get our needs met and desires engaged, by working together, working hard, and not working for money.

Nowtopians engage in a wide variety of labor-intensive projects, from organic gardening, bike repair, or coding software, to making music, writing fiction, producing radio shows, or painting a mural. Permaculturists, the quintessential nowtopian technologists, have initiated various epistemological challenges to basic scientific paradigms through their unpaid, passionate work. A semi-conscious war between these life-affirming, self-emancipating behaviors and the coercive domination of money, property, and survival is the kernel of a potentially revolutionary transformation.

While not sufficient in themselves for the overthrow of capital, these nowtopian practices do, in their rejection of waged labor and the value-form, develop a form of life that is directly antagonistic to the internal logic of the capitalist mode of production, and as such are germane to a struggle to destroy capital. Further, they combat the isolation and atomism that has reduced so many social struggles to individualized resistance and consumer politics. This is the same isolation and atomism that produces “free laborers” as a necessary component of the reproduction of labor power for capital.

Attending to nowtopian practices sets in relief the basic violence at the heart of capitalist production: the process of turning creative, useful human activity into abstract labor dedicated to producing value for people other than those who labor. Marx articulated the “freed” laborer as someone stripped of all their deep implicit connectivity—free from the land and the tools of production, from sustained connections with other humans, and ultimately, from their own labor. And although all waged labor (and the threat of it, if one is un- or under-employed) is subject to this fundamental capitalist violence, anti-capitalists, Marxist theorists, and radicals of all theoretical and practical persuasions have tended to designate particular people and groups as more and less the victims of capitalism. There are undeniable differences in the way the hegemonic global force of capital affects peoples, but there is also a continuity in the global experience of capital. That is to say, there is a continuity to capital, even if it plays out very different moments of its own reproduction in different geographical locations such that it appears to be actually a different entity in different locations (it is important to recognize this geographical cunning of capital). Nowtopia helps us to understand a global continuity of capitalist violence despite geographical difference and uneven development—which is propelled by capital's constant search for spatial fixes (Harvey 1990:196)—because nowtopians are responding to a violence of capital that is not usually considered when assessing the destructive forces of capitalist hegemony. A recognition of the political relevance of the nowtopian impulse is also an affirmation that everyone in capitalist society—regardless of location or lifestyle—has a reason to combat it.

However, despite the clear emphasis on the leveling effects of capital in terms of the wage relation particularly, many have emphasized the differences in Marx's ontology of labor, particularly that between productive and unproductive labor, in order to deepen exclusions and divisions between the more and less revolutionary parts of the working class. Unproductive labor has been used pejoratively by orthodox Marxists to dismiss a wide variety of workers as politically irrelevant because they do not produce surplus value directly. This old orthodoxy has percolated into the current era among the descendents of Third-Worldist and identitarian movements. In a different move with a similar outcome, many contemporary social activists tend to dismiss so-called “middle class” or more affluent wage workers as political non-entities, because they appear as direct beneficiaries and active supporters of an oppressive social system.

David Harvie (2007:27) has suggested a different approach which is useful:

- If we understand capital as the separating of worker and capital (or doing and done), and if productive labor is that which produces capital, then we can understand productive labor as those human activities which reproduce this separation and produce it on an expanded scale.


Whereas for most people, “unproductive labor” refers to inefficiency, or maybe to deliberate slacking, Harvie reclaims this concept to refer to work that is carried out primarily for practical purposes, purposes that are not those of capital—that is, what we have called nowtopian and what we might also call activities responding to localized social need. Unlike productive labor, unproductive labor can involve the subjective capacities of the worker to decide for herself what work is actually worth doing. In fact, Harvie (2007:161) concludes:

the working class (or better, humanity) struggles to be unproductive, to free its activities from value, to go beyond value … that worker who is able to reclaim from the boss minutes, hours, days of her life, that worker who is able to produce as “the activation of his own nature” is a fortunate worker indeed. We do not necessarily have to agree with Harvie's redefinition of the terms “productive” and “unproductive” to recognize the importance of the distinction towards which they point. Anticapitalist movements often fail to address the significance of “unproductive” labor (labor towards goals that exceed and contradict those of capital) and the problems with “productive” labor (labor that continues to reproduce the value form). Both organized labor and governing socialist or communist parties abdicated decades ago any say over the content and goals of work, and implicitly the content and goals of science and technology, to the initiative of Capital. By the dawn of the twenty-firstt century, this has led to the mind-numbing expansion of useless work, while social needs are neglected and most people's creative capacities are left dormant. People are richly rewarded to create advertising, to invent new “financial instruments”, to design “anti-personnel” bombs, to analyze how to increase credit card debt, and so on. The same society will not spend meaningful resources on early childhood education and denies public schools of the most basic resources. Vast public subsidies pour into agribusiness and oil company coffers while urban gardens are bulldozed to make way for box stores and warehouses, and organic farmers have to sell their unsubsidized products at higher prices. Publicly funded highways continue to cover the land and most cities dedicate more than half their available acreage to parking or moving private automobiles, while public transit is starved of resources and the bicycle is treated as a childish toy instead of a legitimate transportation choice. This is all evidence of a society that in all instances strives to reproduce the dynamic of capital, the value form and waged labor, instead of attending to social need. Nowtopia is not simply a description of everything that is not waged (making breakfast at home is not necessarily nowtopian!), it is a term for work that is done for social and ecological reasons and explicitly not for the proliferation of capital. Of course, since our conception of society and the ecosystem is deeply informed by capitalism, the lines are never clear cut, but that is all the more reason to pay these activities some close attention.

What makes nowtopians different from “drop-outs” in general, or those communities and peoples that always must constitute the necessary “outside” to capital, is a concerted rejection of and resistance to the value form. It is more than a disdain for the spectacle, or monoculture, because nowtopians reject the preconditions of the reproduction of capital. Other movements that might be considered “drop-out” or “alternativist” that have arisen throughout the history of capital have usually rallied around principles that were tangential to capitalism—for instance, anti-hierarchy, or identitarian power struggles, or a primitivist or Luddite view on technology, or the desire for better “management” of resources and the market. Where all of these phenomena have a deep connection to capital—capital uses and abuses hierarchy, divisions of identity, technological imperialism, etc in order to proliferate—opposition to them does not always pose a direct opposition to capital. The nowtopian impulse, while inchoate and generally blind to its growing political force, cannot be co-opted by capital because it is not-capital. It cannot be co-opted, it can only be destroyed. However, practices arising from the nowtopian impulse that are not in themselves nowtopian can be co-opted, and in so doing the nowtopian drive (the drive to engage, work, labor, without the mediation of exchange) is destroyed or debased. This differs from, say, anti-hierarchical organizing, which in itself can easily slide into the capitalist market in the form of, for instance, collectively owned business models. Nowtopia holds moments of a post-capitalist society (which may or may not have some kind of hierarchy, but cannot have waged labor), and materializes a pure anti-capitalism in the frustration that we cannot truly extricate ourselves from the capitalist system. When nowtopian sentiment grows resistant to its own destruction, when groups refuse en-masse to be pulled back into the realm of exchange, when it is no longer acceptable to support our nowtopian activities with our waged labor—this is when the nowtopian impulse might become revolutionary.

But it must be understood that wage and the value form are not the primary way in which everyone experiences the violence of capital. As mentioned above, capital also differentiates—the material effects of capital differ drastically over space, time, identity, socio-cultural differences, and much more, and these differences are essential to recognize—not because they are evidence of different capitalisms, but because they show that just as capital temporally and geographically separates different moments in its reproduction while still working in concert, so must all people develop differing strategies to wrest reproduction into their own hands while still working together against the continuities of capital. We have developed many concepts, particularly within the field of geography, to articulate the differences, particularly geographical and spatial differences, produced by capital. However, rarely do we understand how the resistance to capital across uneven geographical, temporal, cultural, political terrain might be linked and be able to function together without suppressing those differences. As Harvey (1982:445) writes at the end of Limits to Capital, “not only must weapons be bought and paid for out of surpluses of capital and labour, but they must also be put to use”. That is, it is not only the imperative of global capital to produce new sectors and spaces in which to proliferate its internal logic of the value form—capital also requires ongoing processes of violent dispossession in order to continue its ascension.

Nowtopians are a part of the working class with a specific experience of capital, whose struggle, if cognizant of its resistance to capitalism, can feasibly link with other struggles over a common enemy.

Nowtopian struggles, we might say, are a Marx-type labor unrest of late capitalism, because they are born from a new shared experience of class under capital, as we will argue. We consider “class”, or specifically, “the working class”, in fairly straightforward Marxist terms—that is, the people who have the common experience of being forced to sell their labor in order to reproduce their lives (inclusive of those who do not currently labor but live within the threat of it—unemployed, welfare recipients, domestic workers, etc), and who do not own the means of production. In affirming nowtopian activity's political importance, we make the essential move of recognizing the value form and waged labor – those fundamental requirements of the capitalist mode of production, without which it would not be capitalism—as itself a violence (both on individuals who have to do it and society which is impoverished by the misuse of human energy that follows the system of waged labor). We can in this way include “nowtopians”—those who are most deeply and directly affected by the violence of the value form, of profound abstraction—within a broad, all inclusive definition of the working class that has the potential to unite across their different experiences, needs, geographies, against the capitalist mode of production."


2.

"DIY, insofar as it really means “do it yourself”, long predates capitalism as a system. Human beings have always “done it themselves”. It is this vast field of normal human activity that became the raw material for capital to exploit, to channel or reduce to the commodity form. The re-emergence of do-it-yourself as a cultural movement, as a political rejection of expertise and authority, and finally as a practical way to meet basic needs, is one of the keystones of this period of class recomposition. The emergence of the concept itself is testament to the way capitalism has carved a trench between people and their labor, their activity, creativity, their “do-ing”. Now we need a concept to remind ourselves that we are in fact able to do it ourselves! (see Trapese 2007).

Many waged laborers still learn skills on the job that enable them to do things themselves. Mechanics, plumbers, electricians, carpenters all have useful skills and exemplify a practical self-sufficiency that many yearn for, particularly the millions who can't fix a thing because they’ve been running computers, working retail, in hotels, or with “information”. The new DIY broadly writ, which includes autonomous, anarchist, and communist projects of taking collective control over reproduction, is the early glimmer of a recomposing working class fed up with their de-skilled and deadening work.

Part of the new DIY's ruling ethos is to solve problems without relying on pre-packaged commodities, corporations, or large sums of money. It is also founded on a creative search for sustainable solutions that can replace our dependency on the alienating social relations of mainstream society. DIY challenges the direction of science and technology from below. Instead of waiting passively for results from corporate and university laboratories that might actually be useful (which happens only accidentally, because there is no social mechanism to define or direct “useful” research) the protagonists of an autonomous technoculture are inventing practical technologies and developing and sharing everyday skills.

Frequently when DIY movements last long enough, they become co-opted back into the larger dynamics of the world economy, becoming a business or non-profit—effectively a type of “farm team” for capitalism. But autonomous grassroots technological initiatives give rise to new social constellations and self-directed practices, even if they eventually become businesses. Implicit in these efforts is the capacity to abruptly change direction, to shape the world consciously instead of reproducing it as it is.

DIY demonstrates an emerging, self-organizing working-class recomposition based on exodus, and as such can be seen as a large part of the content of nowtopian activity. Sometimes this subtle recomposition emerges from so-called advantageous or privileged positions, sometimes from so-called disadvantageous or oppressed positions. DIY tinkerers directly satisfy socially determined needs and desires without their work or its results being reduced to products for sale. This is where we might distinguish Home Depot's DIY marketing from a nowtopic DIY practice—the latter kind of DIY is instigated by a burning desire to leave behind the realm of exchange for a realm of the social, the creative, the useful. One excellent example of this is the growing grassroots bicycle movement, which is expanding through the minds, hearts and hands of people working not for pay, but for the love of the craft, of the experience of bicycling, of the autonomy gained from it, and the community emerging from it.

...

Nowtopian efforts, gardening prominent among them, are good examples of the multiplicity of network forms that are reshaping the spatiality of politics and work in this era. Networks are usually characterized by self-organizing connections among people based on affinities. Sometimes those affinities relate to where we live, such as neighborhoods, or address a practical need, like food or Community-Support Agriculture (CSA) efforts. We see the network form in local urban gardening groups engaged in discussion not only face-to-face in the garden, but also by way of a dedicated email group or listserv. Networks appear in free software-based websites that facilitate connections among heirloom vegetable farmers and their potential buyers (see localharvest.org, slowfood.org), or in the connections that span the globe via the World Social Forum and its movement of movements (or network of networks). The forms that are called networks are not all the same. They straddle a range encompassing the simple needs of local individuals to connect with like-minded folks working on the same or similar projects, all the way to the emerging need of social movements on different continents to share skills, resources, and to coordinate strategy and tactics vis-à-vis global economic dynamics.

Unlike previous political forms that built national and international institutions, and then sought to affect policy from these non-governmental organizations, networks begin locally and often stay there. The form helps people living isolated daily lives begin to rebuild the social and human connections that are the indispensable starting point of any political challenge to the status quo. But prior to constituting themselves on such ambitious grounds, networks facilitate simple human relationships that were once commonly forged in shared workplaces and shared neighborhoods. The most resilient networks are rooted in practical daily lives and shared purposes that emerge from those material conditions. Also emerging from similar material conditions globally is a “network sensibility”, a tendency towards self-organizing and linking across boundaries—geographical, political, even metaphorical. In the wake of the decline of trade unions, the hollowing out of states (and shredding of social safety nets once assured by those states), and the increasingly business-like non-profit organizations (NGOs) that dominate social movements, slowly emerging networks eschew the roles and limits of the old organizational forms. Instead they focus on basic needs such as food, transportation, communications, self-determination. Similar networks are in gestation to address basic infrastructural needs like electricity and water, as well as shelter and clothing.

The backbone of the network form is communications. Though the prospect of a different organization of life in its totality is still a distant dream, the internet and its tools of popular participation are themselves products of countless individuals who dedicated themselves to creating it all, much of it without remuneration (Terranova 2004:94). As the Online Policy Group's founder, Will Doherty, put it: “The open source community is pretty much tech support for the revolution, if you will, or tech support for the new society” (Doherty 2004). The motivation to contribute to this new world in formation has led thousands of people to dedicated countless hours to shaping and perfecting software tools and even sometimes hardware outside the wage-labor paradigm. The General Public License for Linux (and many other programs) has eroded the private ownership paradigm in the software and online worlds, but more importantly, it is rooted in a self-reinforcing and self-expanding work culture centered around goals other than monetary reward. This material experience of a different kind of work has influenced people far beyond the programmers who have contributed so much to it (Juris 2004). The daily experience of an online world largely free to use in turn shapes the imaginations of its participants, helping to frame a paradigm based on generalized abundance instead of scarcity, a part of life where there is more than enough to go around. The Internet also reveals a nearly limitless abundance that stimulates sharing and cooperation for its own sake, a digital commons reinforcing human interconnectedness and interdependence. In a late capitalist world of numbing barbarism and alienated isolation, the powerful allure of meaningful communication inspires passionate engagement and remarkable time investments by millions. This participatory commons harbors every kind of human relationship, from the banality of buying and selling to the unconstrained sharing of poetry, art, music—any kind of expression that depends on communication. A post-capitalist life founded on generalized abundance is prefigured in self-expanding autonomous communications spaces on-line. But that is only one possible future, and far from inevitable.

There are two opposed visions of the Net that co-exist in tense mutual dependence. The internet can be stuffed into the tiny box we call the “Market” or it can prompt a revolutionary redesign of how we do what we do, and how it fits into an urgently needed planetary ecological renaissance. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, social forces are pulling in both directions. The internet—and the creative, often unpaid software work that makes use of it—is evolving amidst an epoch-shaping fight over the purpose and status of this new arena of human socializing. Prolific free communication on the net constitutes an ongoing material experience unlike anything available in pre-internet societies. Its practitioners are learning something new about cooperation, sharing, and collective and derivative social endeavors. Furthermore, the quasi-communistic results of free software production (even the more business-oriented open-source projects) are an ongoing affirmative “NO” to the shoddy quality and profit-distorted work undergirding commercial software produced at large corporations.

Slowly but surely the new transnational and asynchronous networks are shaping up as a real alternative to traditional political forms. The network form is increasingly the shape that political and social interaction depends on, and is in turn shaped by our experiences with the internet. The infrastructure provided by the internet has facilitated protests and movements while fostering radical decentralization and local control. Movements and campaigns that might have labored in total obscurity find a global network of interest and support. It is difficult to imagine, for example, the Zapatistas avoiding massacre without the global attention they gained through savvy use of the internet. The 15 February 2003 global anti-war protests brought out between 12 and 20 million people in what is widely acknowledged as the largest planetary protest ever held, an event self-organized largely through the internet. Fourth-generation warfare like the insurgency in Iraq shares “open source” characteristics, and has bedeviled advanced military machines unable to adapt to the new flexibility (Robb 2007).

The ultimate fantasy for many people today is that a technology will automatically solve our problems. For political radicals it's all too easy to fall into this trap when it comes to the rise of Free-as-in-Libre and OpenSource Software (FLOSS). The gnarly drama of face-to-face discussion, political disagreement, and class, racial, and gender conflict cannot be escaped by creating elegant software, no matter how open it might be. Networks are not replacements for politics, but rather emergent ways to reorganize political life.


As Jamie King wrote in Mute 27 in 2004:

- What the idea of openness must tackle first and most critically is that a really open organization cannot be realized without a prior radicalization of the social-political field in which it operates. And that, of course, is to beg the oldest of questions (King 2004).

What we see in the Free Software movement and the attendant rise of the network form is not a techno-fix so much as an evolving process of techno-creative collaboration. Rather than a linear process that establishes a technological foundation in which politics can become truly democratic, or a reverse linearity in which radical politics sets the stage for a new technosphere, we are in a confusing historic period characterized by a learn-as-we-go experimentalism. The radical political subjectivity that can make new use of an open technosphere emerges from the work that builds that apparatus, while that nowtopian work also reshapes the assumptions and expectations embedded in the broad cultural environment (for discussion of network as a political ideal, see Juris 2005). The steps taken now might make possible a post-capitalist, self-directed, networked society, hundreds of thousands of local communities knit together in essential cooperation across regions, continents, and the globe.


3.

"Social revolution is not much talked about these days. The last great outpouring of revolutionary rhetoric was ultimately silenced by the failures and co-optation of national liberation movements, the demise of Soviet-modeled “socialism”, and the defeat and partial absorption of radical movements by a resilient capitalist world order. In the oppositional vacuum that appeared in the wake of (self-proclaimed) triumphant liberal capitalism, initiatives to change life that were borne of dissatisfaction and alienation went underground, burrowing into the interstices of daily life, where they are slowly raising their heads under the aegis of a broad range of autonomous initiatives.

Working for a wage reduces work's purpose to an empty, abstract monetary reward. Work done for its own sake is fundamentally different. Defined by the person doing it, deemed good and necessary on its social and/or ecological (rather than financial) merits, un-waged work fulfills and confirms a multidimensional sensibility, providing a whole range of feelings and experiences beyond the narrow instrumentalism of work for money. Work that is not coerced through the need to make money is always more satisfying to do, when the reason and reward for your work is not the ultimately empty abstraction of money, but comes from the multiple, complex intimate connections that we maintain and create through our work, our creative activity. The quality is “better” too, because everyone does their best work when determining their own purpose and pace.

Dissent may erupt into direct insubordination, but the nowtopian exodus from capitalism's hollow “choices” often amounts to non-subordination. Nowtopic social movements are not creating alternate systems of “self-valorization” as much as they are removing the mediator of value from their engaged practices in the world. These movements go beyond hobbies like working on your own home or car (activities that remain within the logic of individual consumers). Community gardeners, alternative fuel innovators, anti-consumer bicyclists (to name a few of the nowtopian movements visible today) are producing communities and collectivities that embody a different sense of the individual and the group. Also, they represent technological revolts that have a more accurate and nuanced sensitivity to ecological practices and their relationship to local behaviours, because the goal is not obscured by the demands of the market or a boss. Taken together, this constellation of practices is an elaborate, decentralized, uncoordinated collective research and development effort exploring a potentially post-capitalist, post-petroleum future.

Slavoj Zižek recently made a curiously ahistorical assertion when he wrote “one of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible” (Zižek 2008:20). Zižek lists manifestations of “left reactions” to global capitalism in order to show that none of them take on the necessary task of making “finite demands” on those in power.


One of his examples is similar to, but crucially different from the Nowtopian argument we have made:

- [One left reaction] emphasizes that one can undermine global capitalism and state power, not by directly attacking them, but by refocusing the field of struggle on everyday practices, where one can “build a new world”; in this way, the foundations of the power of capital and the state will be gradually undermined, and, at some point, the state will collapse … (Zižek 2008:21)


Nowtopian behaviors certainly will not cause the state or global capitalism to collapse by themselves. These movements are vulnerable to a host of forces—importantly, cooption and reintegration into the capitalist system, a process that destroys their anti-capitalist dynamic. Nowtopians can only avoid such cooptation by finding a political voice and eventually, the social power to overthrow Capital—to put an end to “productive” labor once and for all. This will happen if enough nowtopian movements face the prospect of integrating themselves back into the economy in order to survive, and the people involved decide they will not accept that re-insertion into a world they want to abandon. And this will entail connecting the political voice of nowtopia to other voices that combat capital for other reasons across very uneven geographical terrain, and across gulfs that separate radically different experiences we have all had. We begin to understand that our enemy is common even if it hurts us differently, and that we are stronger fighting it on all its different battlefields.

Nowtopians are not the beginning and end of social change, but they are an immanent part. Nowtopia is the fact that human beings are forever resilient in recreating patterns of behavior based on mutual aid, collaboration, and collective need, despite the forces working against those desires and impulses. Nowtopians do not preemptively set out the goal to build nowtopia, but they create it through their necessary activities. Nowtopia is not utopia—not Sir Thomas More's unachievable ideal utopia, nor the utopia that intentional communities have attempted to calculate and construct. Nowtopia is a self-emancipatory process that is happening, continuously. Nowtopia is the reality that the market economy is antithetical to our needs and desires, and through nowtopian movements we realize again that we cannot survive without “unproductive” labor, that the more our activities are not circumscribed by capital, the more we will do and the more we will enjoy.

A movement capable of a revolutionary transformation cannot appear from nowhere, and it cannot depend on inevitable success. It has to emerge from daily practices among communities of human beings who trust each other and can take action together—in immediate practical ways as much as in far-reaching global ways. By reinventing a healthy relationship to self-activity, technology, and ecology, the emergent practices of Nowtopia constitute a foundation from which a revolutionary challenge worth its name might emerge. Without something to defend and protect, and without strong ties of solidarity, collectivity, or mutual respect and aid, we may not have the strength for a major struggle. Emergent practices of convivial, creative collectivities that address real needs are something we will be willing to defend, especially since we have come to them not only out of a desire to leave the old world, but because we can no longer survive without them." (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00782.x/full)


More Information

  1. Video: Chris Carlsson on Nowtopia