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The Tortoise vs. the Gangster

The other night I went to the SF Art Institute to speak to a class on “The Contested City.” The students had been given Nowtopia to read and a bunch of intelligent questions were prepared. The 3-hour class was given over to “grilling” me in a friendly but pointed way, which I really enjoyed. Analogously I was interviewed over Thanksgiving weekend by email for an intelligent literary website “Three Monkeys Online” which you can find here.

Curiously I found myself feeling a bit desolate after I got home that night and when I tried to figure out why I decided the inadequacy of my answers was at least part of it. During the class a number of questions had gone beyond the scope of the book to challenge me to propose a program for a broader agenda of social transformation, or at least to question my thoughts on how what I’ve written about might become a broader social movement. And to be frank, the honest answer beyond “I don’t know” is that the Nowtopian initiatives are NOT ready for prime-time! That is to say, the growing and dynamic efforts that I’ve labeled “Nowtopian,” like urban food gardening, free software development, DIY bicycling culture, etc. are important experiments in their own right, they are important loci of new social communities with political, technological and ecological practice and meanings, but clearly are far from being able to supplant life as we know it with a new logic.

That does not invalidate them, or make the analysis that argues this is the glimmer of working-class recomposition outside of wage labor, wrong. It does highlight the frustrating experience of gaining some perspective on a moment in history and wanting it to speed up, to be subject to our willpower or our foresight, and to move more quickly into its full potential, or to exceed its bounds maybe before it really can”¦

And that thought in turn leads me to the topic of today’s post, the Tortoise vs. the Gangster. While touring with Nowtopia this past year this moment came up many times, when an audience member wanted me to outline how this early, inchoate, multiplicity of daily life initiatives could become something more recognizable as a political and social movement, tackling the bigger questions of political and economic power. Of course I wish I knew, and I wish I could be certain that these Nowtopian efforts would someday arrive at that scale. Maybe they will. I think so. But we cannot know, and worse, we cannot make it happen by will power, or wishing, or even organizing per se. I think the self-organizing that these efforts embody is the key, and it means that one author, or a small group, or even a somewhat larger coalition of groups, cannot push the process any faster than it will go (even though we’re trying!). History is frustratingly out of anyone’s control, especially the self-designated vanguards that are always running around promoting one agenda or another.

I think of Nowtopians as the Tortoises. We take our steady, somewhat plodding steps towards a good life, carrying on day in and day out” not in a spectacular manner” without expecting a sudden break or a neo-religious transformation-as-revolution. Like the tortoises who have been adjusting to the planet for millions of years, Nowtopian initiatives are adaptive and ecological. The new world we’re making in our daily practices is deeply connected to the world we’re already in, and especially that profound ecological planetary reality that long precedes the spasm of madness we’ve been living through in the past two centuries. Just to note that the past two centuries is such a radical break with a long flow of history is beyond most of our sensibilities, since our own lifetimes are rather short compared to the flow of history.

By invoking the metaphor of the Tortoise I want to emphasize the steadiness of our progress, the painstakingly slow pace of it, and encourage anyone who embraces this to find reservoirs of what I like to call “radical patience”” a mental and physical stamina that keeps us pushing forward every day in every way, but also allows for the pace that history is moving (often imperceptible). This is not to say that history is always slow, and if we’ve learned anything about this epoch, it’s that we’re living through one of those great transformations that are usually only visible in hindsight decades later. History can lurch quickly in any direction, forward or sideways or backwards, but not because some small group push it that way. There are just too many variables and too many hidden currents in a global society to predict how and when or how fast things will change. But change they do, at a tortoise’s pace, or sometimes at the speed of sound.

There are countervailing forces too, of course. Obviously the corporations and governments of the world have an opposing agenda to that of the Nowtopian Tortoises. The Tortoise metaphor begs its usual counterpart, the speedy Hare, but I’ve replaced the Hare with what we’re really in a life-and-death struggle with (not just a race to some unknown “end”): the Gangsters. Ted Nace wrote a great book about the rise of immortal corporations called “The Gangs of America,” tracing their usurpation of individual human rights in a series of court decisions dating back to the late 19th century. Defining our opponents as Gangsters, we begin to frame the political struggles ahead a bit differently. Capital and labor are still locked in a deathly dance of course, but increasingly capital is shedding its respectable and law-abiding clothes to become openly what it’s been all along: a globe-spanning network of criminal syndicates.

There is a loop back to the Hare in this tangled story line, which is the general speed-up and intensification of exploitation that has been imposed on the workers of the world since the late 1960s. The long-term imposition of measured time, of rigidly measured “productivity” through tightly managed time-and-motion design and control of work, going back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, has been steadily intensified for almost 200 years. But we’re not racing with this process so much as rejecting it, withdrawing from it altogether, to re-establish a slower pace, whether it be a renewed respect for agricultural labor, enjoying “Slow Food” or relying on walking or cycling.

Corporations have been involved in blatantly criminal activity from their origins to the present (whether or not the local juridical authorities chose to handle it as crime), and a lot of the day-to-day practices of “good business” are based on fraud, theft, and sometimes maiming and even murder. Basically capital is a predatory phenomenon, preying on daily life as its raw material, destroying the webs of human conviviality and ecological sustainability in order to assure dependence on privately controlled resources. Even James Galbraith, son of the famous economist, describes the everyday predation of the capitalist system (which has become much more entrenched in the past few decades) as “the systematic abuse of public institutions for private profit, or equivalently, the systematic undermining of public protections for the benefit of private clients.”

Some businesses are officially illegal, like drugs, black market arms dealers, human traffickers, gray market counterfeiters, etc. This part of the business world has been expanding by leaps and bounds since the end of the Cold War, and is well documented in Misha Glenny’s McMafia. The rise of transnational criminal syndicates goes back a good deal further of course, but the loosening of capital controls, borders, and the emergence of new markets during the past two decades’ much-touted “globalization” have stimulated a furious expansion of illicit business (also well analyzed in Moises Naim’s Illicit). I learned about both of these books from John Robb’s always insightful blog at Global Guerrillas, wherein he ably tracks the hollowing out of nation states and the rise of super-empowered groups and individuals. Using ever cheaper modern technologies and self-organizing in ad-hoc networks, political and criminal gangs are able to defeat organized states and militaries, not to take their power, but to make them impotent against the gangs themselves. The vast sums of money made in international heroin, cocaine, arms, human smuggling, et al, are funneled through the banking system, and eventually find their way into “respectable” investments. Ultimately the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate business is one of perception, since activities under either label are similarly heinous and destructive to human society.

The world and most urban areas are fragmenting into enclaves of various types, and now that a global deflation is well underway, all bets are off as to who will come out of the other side of this unfolding Depression holding money and power. But the physical infrastructure that we’ve come to take for granted, like electricity, clean water, functioning transit and communications systems, plentiful food supplies, are all in jeopardy. It’s not Peak Oil causing it either, but interlocked global relationships of trade and production that are falling apart under the massive deleveraging underway.

The collapse is an opportunity to redesign life in practical, pleasurable, and fundamentally local ways. A fellow came to visit me the other day to ask what advice I might have to help promote the idea of Transition Towns, especially with respect to helping the concept spread itself in meme form, similar to how the Critical Mass bike rides spread globally. Curiously I received two emails within a couple of days pointing me to the Transition Towns website and video. So I guess the meme is already spreading. The Transition Town concept has a lot of overlap with Nowtopia, but is more of an organizing program to be implemented in towns and neighborhoods. I definitely recommend checking it out and taking from it what you think you can for your own efforts (I’m not so keen on the necessity of adopting the 10-step program intact.)

Anyway, keeping our morale up and our energy to take our steady steps towards a sane world is maybe our most important political task. That means enjoying your life to the fullest in the here and now, especially in the face of the Depression. But it also means taking seriously that we’ll be increasingly dependent on ourselves, on our fellow Tortoises, to create resilient communities, to make good use of the detritus of modern life, and to redesign the technologies of our lives to be as autonomous of central powers as they can be. Ultimately the gangsters who have been destroying the world with such glee will see the threat that resilient communities present to their ongoing power and wealth. At that point their willingness to kill will be unleashed against us and hiding inside our shells will not be an option. Subverting the soldiers and police sent to enforce the rule of mad men will be a crucial activity. Might as well start now! Talk to people you know who know police and soldiers and begin the conversation”¦

Lastly here’s a nice piece from my friend Andrew Lynn. We all face that misery of asking for donations for our various activities and this piece does a great job of reframing that project.

2 comments to The Tortoise vs. the Gangster

  • mjosef

    I think your piece is very valuable and honorable, but I am in basic disagreement with its premise. I do not think that the parable of the tortoise vs. the hare works. In the end, both the tortoise and the hare get run over by predatory corporate capitalism. That’s not nihilism, just how the story goes, and the universe doesn’t care in the least about our individual “morale” or measly, if genuine, efforts to carve out some measure of relief. The natural world works on a grand scale, with the lives of countless people and species hanging on our collective actions. We’ve seen epic war, devastation, and fire, and if it is the sad truth that this looks to be our global destiny given the arrayed forces in the supersystem, let’s face this head-on, ruing our fate if need be, but not stooping to imaginary victories. The police and the soldiers are not going to eschew their paychecks and their opportunities for head-bashing by our soothing or plaintive words – instead, far better to keep their masters under ethical duress.
    Of course, when I say a little of this to well-intentioned people, boy do they feel under attack. For that reason, I rarely speak with them except in the dubious anonymity of cyberspace.

  • ubrayj02

    A response to those asking you for a broader agenda of social change is to throw it back at them.

    I would ask the questioner to look at the activities described in the book, and decide for themselves if any of those things look attractive or do-able to them.

    If so, do them. If not, find something else to occupy your life with.

    More people are deciding to live their lives growing their own food, getting around under their own power, and organizing outside of traditional group identities. This is a trend that has perhaps always been bubbling below the surface in the U.S., but our times are making these sorts of behavior beneficial to those who practice them (popular even).

    High energy costs and unstable money supplies make large corporations not worth the investment. People working to corner local markets for commodities will likely find success (the same way they did in the late 19th and early 20th century).

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