In the 1976 film Network, a newsreader about to lose his job threatens to kill himself on live TV. Ratings skyrocket, he gets his own talk show as a pundit, and his catchphrase “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” goes viral. In the context of an oil crisis, an economic depression and political and racial strife, it echoes between apartment buildings until it engulfs first New York and then the entire United States. The sentence embodies anger as much as impotence and isolation: separated in their apartments, the people repeating it are unable to find a more productive outlet for their shared discontent.
Today, with many self-isolating in their apartments, the catchphrase feels timely. If the 1990s felt like the end of history and the 2000s were dominated by the so-called fight against terror, then the 2010s were a decade of protest. But where did this protest bring us?
By now, most people understand that capitalism is destroying the planet and screwing our brains, but we are structurally inserted and libidinally invested in it nonetheless. Capital has shaped our desires, and now those desires work for its reproduction. Still, that reproduction falters. The effects of the last financial crisis have barely subsided, yet the next crisis — now comfortably blamed on the coronavirus rather than systemic instability — has already begun.
The economic fallout of the pandemic will undoubtedly consist of a new round of precarization and government-assisted redistribution from the bottom to the top. We all know this. We have seen the numbers. But we cannot just quit. After all, we have to pay the bills.
LETTERS OF BLOOD AND FIRE
This need to pay the bills can serve as a shorthand for the extraction regimes into which we are collectively inserted and that gradually suffocate us. With little to no savings, millennials live from month to month, burdened by student loans, credit card debt and a precarious labor market. Under these conditions, it is clear that after paying the bills, there is not much left in terms of money or energy to improve one’s personal situation, let alone to plan a family or work for the benefit of one’s community.
While precarity is experienced as an individual struggle or even a personal failure, it is a systemic problem. Capitalism has never existed except by feeding on its non-capitalist outside. Today, having occupied the entire planet and subjugated the most intimate aspects of our lives, it has run out of unspoilt territory and begun to eat itself.
There was a time when we did not need to pay any bills. Until the rise of industrial capitalism most land was held in common. Peasants worked the land and sustained themselves using the resources around them. This was no Eden: work was hard, life was monotonous and much of the harvest was appropriated by the ruling class. Still, people were fairly self-sufficient, and therefore autonomous.
That changed around the time of the industrial revolution, when the means of subsistence were turned into capital. Common lands were expropriated in a massive act of government-assisted class robbery, use rights were bought off or simply annulled, and a large part of the rural population was forced to move to the city to either join the newly emergent working class or live as beggars and vagabonds.
Capitalism promised progress and technological innovation — and for a long time, it delivered on that promise. But the history of expropriation and forced mobility which underlies that progress is, as Marx says in the last section of Capital, written “in letters of blood and fire.”
Today, capitalism no longer produces meaningful innovation the way it once did. Spurred by globalization and the rise of the Internet, an unorganized precariat of gig workers has replaced the industrial proletariat with its parties and unions. Many get by on jobs that only exist because we are trapped in an economy that does not tolerate idleness, positions David Graeber called “bullshit jobs.”
The total value of financial products is now many times larger than the value of all products and services combined. This financialization of the economy has reduced the state to an empty husk whose main aim is to placate the stock exchange. Two or three hundred years ago, capitalism forced us to accept a deal: you give us the land that sustains you, we will give you progress. Today, that “progress” is burning up the globe, and the ongoing war on our autonomy makes it all but impossible to imagine anything else.
RURAL RESIDENCY PROJECTS
Yet pockets of freedom do exist, and expanding and connecting them seems a fundamental part of any radical politics worthy of its name. To give an exhaustive account of all attempts to expand autonomy outside of state and capitalism lies beyond the scope of this text; I will focus on projects that can be lived in.
In the de-industrialized West, rent has become one of the pillars of a capitalism that is becoming less productive and more reliant on directly channelling income from workers to the owners of financial, intellectual and physical property. In many cities, people now spend around 30 percent of their salary on rent — a number that is increasing and that makes housing both a lucrative business and an important site of struggle. Alongside many initiatives — including rent caps, tenant unions, squats and informal housing — that address housing issues in the city, there is a growing number of rural initiatives that create forms of living that do not enrich the rentier class.
In recent years, low real estate prices in the countryside, increasing precariousness in the city and the appearance of technologies that allow people to work from anywhere have led to the creation of a number of residency projects in rural areas. Many of these might be called artist residencies or eco-villages, but some share a sensibility that goes beyond the conventional meaning of those terms.
- There is no application procedure, and while they are spaces of work rather than leisure, there is no narrow focus on the production of works of art.
- They are self-organized and generally do not have staff. The direction these spaces take is largely determined by the community that makes use of them.
- They are non-profit. Since no one is able to take money out of the project, accommodation fees (if applicable) lie far below the market value of comparable housing.
- They do not exclude anyone on the basis of identity, except when this is deemed necessary to guarantee the safety and comfort of other participants (i.e. cis-men may be excluded from certain feminist gatherings).
Within these criteria, there is plenty of variation. Most projects function without government funding, perhaps because of an anarchist ethos, or perhaps because of a general dislike of paperwork and assessments. Many do not have permanent inhabitants: these projects are not communes, and most are open to short visits. Some, like Kerminy or Massia, emphasize gardening and agricultural production. Others, like PAF, Konvent, Bidston Observatory or Calafou, have a focus on art and research. The Foundry in Galicia does a bit of both, and has recently developed a focus on self-sufficiency.
All of them build infrastructure to sustain a form-of-life that does not feed the systems that destroy us. They free space from the occupation of neoliberal capitalism, tilling the soil and planting something new.
While the location of these projects has a lot to do with the relative accessibility of rural real estate, city and countryside also offer different political potentials. It goes without saying that many important struggles take place in cities, but to live in a city also means to be inserted in and dependent on a system of exchanges that uses your life to secure its reproduction. This severely limits any effort to increase autonomy.
In the countryside, one lives on the means of production, making food and energy sovereignty that much easier to achieve. Compared to the city, the countryside is a smooth space, one in which not every square meter is under surveillance by state power or accounted for in the financial statements of some shell company on the Bahama’s. While radical organization should aim to transcend the division between city and countryside, the position of rural spaces in capital’s hinterland makes them a privileged site for the construction of another kind of world.
These residency projects are limited in scope and scalability, but they are part of a wider effort to free space. When the freeing of space includes large swaths of territory, it often relies on armed self-defense: wide-ranging experiments in autonomy in places like Chiapas and Rojava would not have been possible without armed resistance to state oppression. In other areas, the antagonism is less overt, and simple oppositions may not do justice to the many grey areas that exist in capital’s interstices.
In urban contexts, attempts to progressively free space from the interests of state and capital include squats and tenant unions, but also innovative legal models that use property law against itself. The German Mietshäuser Syndikat has developed a legal construction that prevents housing projects from reentering the market, turning predominantly urban real estate from an object of speculation into a human right and securing low-cost housing for its inhabitants. In other countries, Community Land Trusts use different legal means to pursue the same objectives.
Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), or Landless Workers’ Movement, address land inequality by occupying unproductive land to be worked by their 1.5 million members. These occupations are legally sanctioned insofar as the Brazilian constitution, like that of many other countries, recognizes the right to adverse possession of abandoned lands, in effect making squatting a legal possibility. In France, a number of groups have moved outside the realm of legal sanction, occupying prospective development sites to physically block construction work in so-called ZADs, or zones à défendre.
Many other groups with some access to capital have bought space in an attempt to build enduring projects that operate outside the coordinates of capitalism. Different conditions and legal systems demand different strategies, but these projects converge in their attempt to redirect money and energy from the reproduction of capital to the production of more sustainable and egalitarian forms of living.
To join these efforts is to step out of our collective impotence, to end the sclerosis of our political imagination and to move from voicing anger to building worlds. By securing land and infrastructure and increasing our collective self-sufficiency, we can constitute a force positioned on the periphery of the capitalist order – a force that may one day rob that order of its inevitability.
One important element of this effort is constructing networks to share knowledge, people and resources and to expand our shared capacities. While most networking efforts are informal, there are new websites for those who would like to get involved. The Museum of Care, part of the legacy work for David Graeber, will begin to operate as a global network of residencies in October 2021. Another is freeingspace.com, which will soon be released as a strategic global map marking areas freed from state and capital.
In 1917, between two revolutions, Lenin penned a text in which he promoted the notion of dual power. On the one hand, there was the incumbent system of bourgeois government. On the other hand, there were the Soviets, or workers’ councils, that organized Russian society in a different way and that, given their growing power, would one day overtake the country.
Today, under conditions of affective labor, in which the proletarians and peasants that supported the Soviet system have largely been evacuated from the Western world, dual power has a different meaning. In our context it refers to the building of liberated spaces and self-governed institutions and expanding networks between them until they can challenge the hegemony of state and capital.
A protest is the opening of a space of possibility, and the mere fact of being on the streets together gives one the sense that another world is possible — but to ask the government for change is to validate an entity that is structurally inegalitarian. Writing will not save us either: as long as discourse does not affect the material conditions of existence, the public sphere is not a threat to power. As Friedrich II purportedly once said, “You are allowed to think as much as you want and on whatever topic you wish, as long as you obey!”
While protest and debate are essential to democracy, the strategy of dual power goes further, aiming to gestate a freer and truly democratic world. As part of this process, we may once again learn to provide for our needs without relying on capital, by collectively managing the land on which we live, producing our own food and energy, or even just acquiring the skills to do so. In keeping with the etymology of radical, which derives from the Latin word for root, today’s radical politics must take a botanical approach: our task is to stop nurturing the system that destroys us and to cultivate a form-of-life from which the incumbent order cannot draw its sustenance.
Seen from this perspective, to inhabit the residency projects described above is not some withdrawal to the countryside. In fact, the very division between city and countryside may be the product of relations of exploitation. Anthropologist Pierre Clastres once said that the opposition between city and countryside only appears with the emergence of the state, because despots want a center to live in. Before political power was centralized in proto-state formations, there were no idle aristocrats, no armies and priests to congregate around them, and no peasant tributes to keep them alive. Without the state, there is no center, just a heterogeneous set of worlds.
To inhabit freed space is to build worlds outside of state and capital. If these autonomous zones and the alliances between them reach critical mass, leaving the metropolis will no longer imply sacrificing capitalist comforts or the cultural intensity of urban life. More importantly, “paying the bills” would no longer require self-exploitation.
Since 2018, I have spent much of my time at the Foundry, originally conceived as a heterotopia for artists, academics and artisans, but open to everyone interested in working outside of the institutional confines of state and market. The Foundry occupies a tiny village close to the Galician coast that was abandoned in the 1970s. Until now, most of the work has gone into restoring the buildings and increasing our self-sufficiency.
Galicia is an unusual place in that 25 percent of its territory is classified as common land, providing resources for local communities. At the same time, this land is threatened by unscrupulous mining companies that pollute rivers and burn forests to gain access to the mineral resources beneath the surface. We sometimes help to rid the commons of invasive species and are turning our own orchard into a modest food forest. As a writer, what has struck me most about this project is that taking down eucalyptus trees, renovating an abandoned house and planting vegetables feels as political as writing texts like this.
At the Foundry, there is space for about 20 people, and monthly expenses are about 800 euros. If the place is fully occupied and garden and game would suffice to feed everyone – and if we ignore the costs of purchase and renovation – that would come down to around 40 euros per person per month. This money could be made selling planks or boar jerky. These calculations may sound ridiculous, and of course not all our needs grow in a garden, but the point is that if the mere fact of being alive does not fill someone else’s pockets, we hardly need a steady job or government funding to survive.
In this way, freeing space is also freeing time: without masters to seize the value of our life and work, we inevitably have more time to develop the skills that make up a less alienated existence. Moreover, this time can be used to increase our shared capacities: by planting vegetables, brewing beer, learning to work iron, or finally writing the books we always wanted to write. While not everyone may have the luxury of quitting his job, any energy invested in freeing space is not invested in the reproduction of capital – and the skills and democratic experience acquired in the process stay with us forever.
“The abolition of the antithesis between town and country is no more and no less utopian than the abolition of the antithesis between capitalists and wage workers,” wrote Engels in The Housing Question. After centuries of enclosures and urbanization, many rural areas in Europe now struggle with depopulation. But they also offer potentially valuable space and resources to build autonomy.
If the reserve army of artists would stop applying for grants to do projects in centers for contemporary art and start building worlds, perhaps cultural sensibility and ecological sustainability can combine in an economy organized around freedom and care rather than production and consumption. Perhaps, we could then finally overcome the Romantic legacy that grounds artistic production in individual genius and realize the avant-garde dream that dissolves the boundary between art and life, insofar as the material production of a world to come is an effort in which we are collectively invested.
We are tired of hearing there is no alternative to capitalism. We have no patience for the complacency of a discontent that exhausts itself in protests and op-eds. Our most intimate hopes and desires may have been formatted by capital, but the idea that there is no outside is an insult to the thousand little exoduses that happen every day.
It might be impossible to escape from capitalism entirely, but while the world is crumbling, something is growing from within. And if we cultivate what sustains us instead of what destroys us, one day this something may replace state and capital as the dominant framework in which our lives unfold.
Teaser photo credit: Photo: #zulocopter