The following is an excerpt from the introduction of my graduate thesis "Beyond Passions and Survival: The Prospects for Meaningful Work, Livelihood, and Radical Social Transformation in the Cracks of Capitalism." Enjoy and let me know what you think... -MD
As a teenage punk rocker in the late 1990s, I found myself walking around town one day with a high school friend who was upset about the recent news that a band he liked had signed to a major record label. “They're called Chumbawamba,” he told me. “And they used to be part of the anarcho-punk scene in the UK, but now they've sold out. I'm pretty bummed about it.” This was the first time I had ever heard of them. A few months later, the oldies station on the local FM dial was transitioning to a Top 40 pop station and for an entire week they played the number one hit song at that time on loop. When you tuned into 93.5 that week you were guaranteed to hear either the boisterous “Coming soon!” 15 second promo for the new station or, more likely, the infectious chorus of that song: I get knocked down. But I get up again. You're never gonna keep me down. Soon, Chumbawamba was performing live on late night television, touring the globe, and their catchy anthem “Tumbthumping” began appearing in advertisements and Hollywood movies. All of this firmly establishing their legacy in music history as a “one hit wonder.”
At the height of “Tubthumping's” commercial popularity, the long-running underground punk magazine Maximum Rock n' Roll re-printed an excerpt from its 1984 interview with Chumbawamba. The quote referenced their boycott of EMI—the corporate record label that had owned shares in the weapons manufacturing industry. By reprinting this, MRR sought to expose the hypocrisy of the group's decision, after years of putting out records independently, to sign to that very major label they had once militantly protested with others in the UK anarcho-punk community.
Reading the old interview, and learning about the full extent of this hypocrisy that had initially enraged my friend, inspired me to contact Chumbawamba directly and let them know what I thought about it. I sent them a message from my first-ever e-mail account, informing them about “recently discovering” this old interview and detailing how I felt about their recent popularity with “the ignorant MTV generation.” To my surprise, Chumbawamba responded. Their response was thoughtful and disarmingly intelligent. In addition to explaining why it is dangerously problematic to generalize about an entire generation of people, they pointed toward the shifting nature of the lives and beliefs of everyone affected by the economic realities of the system. And they named that system: “capitalism.”
Coming of age during the end of the Cold War, I was familiar with this word. But even as a self-righteous, politically-conscious teenage punk, this e-mail from Chumbawamba made me realize that I actually did not understand what it meant. What is capitalism? I reached for my dictionary, and read a relatively unhelpful definition about “the private ownership of the means of production.” What did that mean? I was still confused. Over time, after starting to overcome my ignorance of its meaning, I realized that simply naming capitalism can often be a radical act.
Despite the fact that we are socialized to take it for granted like gravity, or the air we breathe, capitalism is not a law of nature or physics. In fact, when one takes into consideration the full history of human societies, it is a relatively new mode of production and social organization. As Cynthia Kaufman writes in her new book Getting Past Capitalism, “When capitalism comes to dominate society, when all other ways of meeting our needs come to be devalued and pushed out, when governments operate to serve the interests of privately owned capital rather than the needs of people, we have a serious problem.” She adds, “That problem is capitalism.”
For me, this level of analysis didn't develop until my third year in college. That was when I began thinking more deeply about alternatives to capitalism. I was inspired by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel's vision of Participatory Economics (Parecon) as a better kind of economy; one based on equity, solidarity, diversity, and self-management. Their ideas were exciting to me because they went beyond critique and towards confidently declaring that another type of economy—one with vastly different values—truly was possible.
I was so inspired by Parecon that I decided to write my senior project about it. My research focused on three worker-owned collectives (presciently prefiguring my current study) in Winnipeg that all incorporated aspects of the vision into their workplace structures, and explored the challenges and potentials of those projects within the constraints of capitalism.
That inspiration really began after seeing Michael Albert speak about Parecon and the importance of developing radical vision, I decided that I wasn’t interested in contributing to the long list of merely documenting what is wrong with the world. I decided that I would focus on highlighting visionary efforts, of people who were putting transformative theory into practice and planting seeds of a new world. In doing so, I hoped to document that there are possible alternatives to the dominant structures of the current society, and to encourage the expansion of such efforts everywhere.
This decision, of course, was not to discount the important work that radical academics, journalists, and activists are doing to expose injustice and oppression across the world. I believed, and still do today, that all of it is necessary. It’s just a matter of how I want to make my own contribution, because I can’t do it all; none of us can. Additionally, as Albert pointed out, there are not enough people articulating new visions and if we are only documenting the horrors of the world, then we will likely be immobilized by powerlessness and then we won’t have anything to offer to replace all the bad stuff with—if we ever do get to that point.
All of this brings me, finally, to the present, to my current research at Goddard. Instead of focusing on the evils of capitalist society I have decided to continue to highlight the visionary efforts of those who are developing and practicing new ways of being and doing, against all odds. In my new research I have chosen, once again, to document three collectives—these groups of people who have come together to create alternatives. In doing so, I continue to sustain my own dedication and desire for social transformation; against hopelessness, against powerlessness.
* * *
This is the story of how I began thinking about capitalism. And then how I came to engage in the critique of it and, furthermore, how I eventually began to participate in the imagining and celebration of alternatives to it. Exploring the complex realities of daily life under capitalism (particularly for activists and artists) is the drum I have been beating all these years, with an evolving, increasingly collective beat.
In this thesis, I revisit and expand upon the central question that I tirelessly grappled with during my years following college a decade ago: The dilemma facing activists and artists to follow their passions while surviving under capitalism—the question of “passions and survival.”
As this dilemma began defining my daily reality, I decided that I would take it on as an investigative project, but with the larger goal of collective liberation beyond capitalist society. What initially started as a potential book idea would evolve into a weekly radio program with the title Passions and Survival. That project eventually ended, but I have continued to grapple with new ways of thinking and navigating these issues, of the economic imperatives of survival. So, while I’ve returned to my generative question, I’ve done so in hopes of going beyond “passions and survival”—transcending both the limitations of my previous project and the structures of capitalist society that persist in our lives.
My central question remains: How does the dilemma of surviving under capitalism affect the potential for radical activists and cultural producers in the United States to follow their passions and prefigure a new society?
The continued pursuit of this study is rooted in my own life experience and struggles in capitalist society as an activist and writer working a variety of wage jobs to support myself over the past decade. The choice of this subject springs from two interrelated desires: to support a vibrant community of artists and activists, and for social transformation centered on meaningful work and livelihood.
One of the limitations of my radio project was that I was only speaking with individuals about their personal experiences. The implicit point I was attempting to illustrate was that we all (well, most of us) must sell our labor to survive in the current society, that we are all affected by and also dependent on the system we are trying to transform or dismantle. But I think this point was partially obscured by the individualistic nature of the one-on-one interview format.
Here, at this point in my exploration, I have chosen to investigate the following premise: It is important, and arguably necessary, for activists and artists to join together collectively with others to work toward transcending this fundamental dilemma of capitalism and to attempt to provide themselves a means of survival, but in ways that strive to undermine the logic of capital and prefigure new possibilities.
* * *
Matt Dineen is a graduate student at Goddard College and lives in Philadelphia.