The radical potential of nowtopian struggles

Republished from September 2010:

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.

Chris Carlsson discusses the thesis of his book, Nowtopia, for the Antipode journal:

(for a longer treatment, see also here)

“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.”

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