Monday, December 12, 2005

The Psychopathology of Work

by Penelope Rosemont

"Work, now? Never, never. I'm on strike."
-Arthur Rimbaud

Depersonalization and alienation from our deepest desires is implanted during childhood via school, church, movies, and TV, and soon reaches the point where an individual's desire is not only a net of contradictions, but also a commodity like all the others. "True life" always seems to be just a bit beyond what a weekly paycheck and credit card can afford, and is thus indefinitely postponed. And each postponement contributes to the reproduction of a social system that practically everyone who is not a multimillionaire or a masochist has come to loathe.

That is the problem facing us all: How to break the pattern of work - of week-to-week slavery, that habit of habits, that addiction of addictions; how to detach ourselves from the grip of Self-Defeating Illusions For Sale, Inc., a.k.a, the corporate consumer State.

Especially ingrained is that pattern of working for someone else: making someone else's "goods", producing the wealth that someone else enjoys, thinking someone else's thoughts (sometimes actually believing them one's own), and even dreaming someone else's dreams - in short, living someone else's life, for one's own life, and one's own dream of life, have long since been lost in the shuffle.

The systematic suppression of a person's real desires - and that is largely what work consists of - is exacerbated by capitalism's incessant manipulation of artificial desires, "as advertised." This gives daily life the character of mass neurosis, with increasingly frequent psychotic episodes. To relieve the all-embracing boredom of daily life, society offers an endless array of distractions and stupefactions, most of them "available at a store near you". The trouble is, these distractions and stupefactions, legal or illegal, soon become part of the boredom, for they satisfy no authentic desire.

When the news reports horrible crimes committed by children or teenagers trying to be satanists, or superheroes, or terrorists, or just "bad guys", we can be sure that these kids lived lives of intolerable dullness, that they were so isolated from their own desires and from the larger society that they didn't even know how or where to look for something different, or how to rebel in such a way that it might actually make a difference. Instead, they picked up some trashy notions from bible school, Hollywood and TV which promised a few minutes of meaningless "excitement" followed by lots of publicity - also meaningless. Each time something like this happens we hear cries to "monitor" films more closely, and to ban "violence" on TV. Rarely, however, does anyone criticize the Bible or the Christian churches, despite the fact that Christianity - by far the bloodiest of the "world's great religions" - is far more to be blamed. Similarly, one rarely hears criticism of the armed forces - a gang of professional killers whose influence on children cannot be anything other than baleful.

And even less often does one encounter criticism of another intrinsically violent institution: the nuclear family. Indeed, at this late date in human history, this relic of patriarchy is still held up as some sort of ideal. Replacing the extended family as we know it today is an invention of the nineteenth century. Constructed by white bourgeois Europeans to meet the needs of expanding industrialization, it reflects capitalism's model of the "chain of command". It continues the sanction of male supremacy as a time-honored tradition dating back to a mandate of God, no less. In the nuclear family, he works at a job, and she works in the home (and increasingly also at a job). As for the children, they are the family's private property, and remain so for years after they reach bilogical maturity.

Children too learn to work, or at least how to suffer boredom. From the earliest age they are taught to obey orders. School and church teach them the necessity of going to and staying at a particular place for a prolonged period, even when they would rather be anywhere else. All the classic parental admonitions - "Sit still!", "Do what I tell you!", "Don't talk back!", "Stop behaving like a bunch of wild Indians!" - are part of the education of the well-behaved, uncomplaining wage-slave...

The world today is confronted by greater, more earth-shaking, more life-threatening problems than ever before: wars all over, massive pollution, global warming, the return of slavery, white supremacy, oppression of women, ecological disaster, neocolonialism, state terrorism, the prison industry, genocide, cancer, AIDS, the traffic death-toll, xenophobia, pesticides, genetic engineering - the list goes on and on. Ceaselessly bombarded by news reports and sound bytes of one catastrophe after another, most people have no idea what to do, and laps into paralysis. On the ideological front, this widespread passivity, itself a major social problem, is maintained by Andre Breton called miserabilism, the cynical rationalization of misery, suffering and corruption - the dominant ideology of Power in our time.

Every hour, moreover, countless billions are spent on propaganda, advertising and other mystifications to sustain the delusion that the crisis-strewn society we live in today is the best and only one possible.

What is most important to grasp is that work is at the center of all these problems. It is work that keeps the whole miserabilist system going. Without work, the death-dealing juggernaut that proclaims itself the "free market" would grind to a halt. "Free market" means freedom for Capital, and unfreedom for those who work. Until the problem of work is solved - that is, until work is abolished - all other problems will not only remain, but will keep getting worse...In a world too busy to live, work itself has become toxic, a form of "digging your own grave".

Renewed scarcities and engineered economic crises notwithstanding, society today ahs the capacity to reduce work to a tiny fraction of what it is now, while continuing to meet all human needs. It is obvious that if people really want paradise on Earth, they can have it - practically overnight. Of course, they will have to overcome the immense and multinational "false consciousness" industry, which works very hard to make sure that very few working people know what they really want...

Work kills the spirit, damages the body, insults the mind, keeps everyone confused and demoralized, distracts its victims from all the things that really matter in life...Our struggle calls for labor organizers of a new kind...To bring about the meltdown of miserabilism, we need awakeners of latent desires, fomentors of marvelous humour, stimulators of ardent dreams, provokers of the deepest possible yearning for a life of poetic adventure.

(From "A Brief Rant Against Work", in Surrealist Experiences: 1001 Dawns, 221 Midnights (2000))

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Free Time! Ludicity and the Anti-work Ethic

By Laura Martz

To sustain itself, consumer capitalism relies on (1) the maintenance of an outdated survival imperative and work ethic, and (2) a totalizing commodification and consumerism, which necessitates work beyond perceived survival needs. Play has been diametrically opposed to work (defined as wage labor), coded as decadent within the sphere of rationality and radically excised. One's time off the clock is allegedly the proper realm of play. Yet under consumer capitalism this time is cleverly commandeered for other means as intrinsic to keeping the machine running as the activities engaged in under the watchful eye of the clock.

Play will be defined here only loosely, as all that which is diametrically opposed to and excluded by work (its elements of delight, surprise and affect will be preserved). Bataille conceives of a general economy of global energy flows which inevitably generates a surplus of energy which must be expended. Under capitalism, excess (human energy not necessary to survival) is diverted into accumulation and endlessly-climbing profits for the ruling class. Yet for Bataille the proper object of the expenditure of this energy is dissipation, "nonproductive expenditure": "into the effervescence of life." Play is a fitting expediture; put another way, this nonproductive expenditure defines another aspect of play crucial to the following argument. Play is the refusal of regimentation, supervision and clocks. In this sense, play is a precondition for resistance, which demands time and energy for spontaneity, contemplation, communication, and unity. Play must be recovered.

Reintroducing play into adult life would necessitate the rupture of what Debord called the spectacle (so as to open the way for other species of meaning besides exchange value) and the recovery of some unity for life against the separateness of present conditions, especially the effacement of the boundary between art and life (in order to despecialize and render accessible more forms of activity). Both of these aims were part of the project of the Situationist International. I will attempt to reexamine the ideology which keeps time divided between producing and consuming in a situationist light, chipping away at it in the process, and begin to suggest some possibilities for reclaiming time from work.

"Never Work!"

The survival imperative in the technologized world as a rationale for wage labor is an alibi used to legitimate capitalist profit and thus domination and alienation. That the worker does excess work (more than demanded by her own, or anyone's, necessity, and more than she is paid for) is a law of capitalism. Capitalist profit is the reification of this excess labor, which is either channelled into the reinforcement of the status of the ruling class or redirected into capital accumulation. The worker will never be paid more than she or he needs to survive and remain fit to work. This axiom was altered slightly with the need to metamorphose the worker-producer into a consumer when off the clock. Henry Ford introduced the five-dollar day in the recognition that with the surplus being produced as a result of increased efficiency under industrialization and Taylorization, the consumer market needed to be "vertically expanded": workers, most of the population and thus putatively the predominant buyers of products, needed excess income with which to absorb the system's waste output. (Workers also needed incentive to stick with Ford at first, when other employers did not yet enforce his scientific management principles, which the workers found demeaning and tiresome. They were forced into step, nevertheless, as scientific management rapidly took hold everywhere.) The purpose of the "consumer wage" is thus to keep the machinery of capitalist overproduction in motion.

The consumer must be conditioned from birth to hand over the "excess" wage in exchange for the excesses of capitalist production. In the early twentieth century the new requirement of capitalism became the total cultural control of workers outside the workplace (when their role changed to that of consumers), through the new advertising industry, as well as in it. Advertising is perhaps the most obvious mode of spectacular ideology. The spectacle holds workers in thrall, teaching them in what is called their "free" time that their desires can be satisfied through consumption. The upkeep of the capitalist economic system thus finally encroaches on all our waking hours.

Half a century after the development of advertising and consumerist ideology, the situationists held that the "society of the spectacle" (commodities, art-as-commodity, the mass media, the entertainment industry) alienates its "spectators," who are condemned to do nothing more than watch themselves, experiencing satisfaction (but not really) only through the mediation of the commodity. The spectacle steals every experience and sells it back to us, but only symbolically, so that we are never satisfied: via this mechanism we support the machine of endless consumption over and over.

Play is thought of as the opposite of "work." Yet under the existing order play is officially allowed only children and the workers of play-as-spectacle, which is not play. It is reified through the professionalization of select people as "athletes," "artists" or "entertainers." These physical, creative activities are reserved for "professionals," who must sell the product of their "play" as spectacle. As observed by the Bureau of Control (pamphleteers from Houston, Texas), in the realm of "art" behavior is tolerated that would not be in the "real world." Play in the "working world" is diverted, channeled off as "art," contained as decadent behavior in the mainstream of life. Children are punished in school for playing except at scheduled break time, as training for the radical split between what one is ordered to do and what one might like to do.

Furthermore, to play professionally today and live off it, one must be able to command a mass audience and license the spectacle-commodity to a hierarchy of managers and owners, each of whom creams off an ascending percentage of profit from the "work" (for that is what this "play" has been converted or inverted into). "Performance" is now also always subject to endless monitoring and control by the professional judges and censors.

According to the situationists, the desire for experience is "continually commodified and in turn wrenched free from spectacular relations in a perpetual struggle for its realisation." This axiom is beautifully manifest in the US in 1993 in a Nike commercial. A young, white actor boasts, "My name is Fletcher and I work as little as possible." The company slogan "Just Do It" appears on the screen in wavy acid-green letters on a hot-pink background. We have here the co-option and price-tagging by the spectacle of the anti-work, pro-play ethic of the situationists' American brethren, the hippies; presented simultaneously with the suggestive phrase: just do it! (Just try LSD! Just blow up that military installation!) But in this case, "just do it" is only supposed to mean "just buy this hundred-dollar pair of shoes."

The supreme irony of capitalism might be that an anti-production and anti-capitalist ethic can be used to promote capitalist interests, by inducing people to consume through teasing them with oppositional desires. In the operation of the Nike ad, giving in to anticapitalist desires ("working as little as possible") is OK, and what's more, it's achievable through consumption (which is to say, not at all, except through a commodity fantasy). But someone who understands how advertising works will be able to separate the commodity from the impulse the ad attempts to link with it and examine that impulse for the symptom it is.

Only those who do work can afford to buy products like this. Nike obviously perceives a grain of dissatisfaction with the capitalist system and channels it into support of that system. But we can be sure dissatisfaction with the status quo is alive and well when the status quo has to commandeer it. I see this ad as targeting that US media-generated grouping called "Generation X" or "slackers." They are constructed as an un- or under-employed, downwardly-mobile group of recent college graduates. As the mass media have it, the state of the economy, US politics in the 1980s, the condition of the ecosystem, and growing up in suburbia have made them skeptical of capitalism's lures and promises, its ideology of bourgeois ambition. Made aware of their status as a demographic category through advertising and its supporting media, they have been co-opted by the spectacle and used to sell upscale goods like cars, though it is unclear to whom--those more ambivalent "cynics" of the same age and class grouping, one suspects.

These people are would-have-been-desirable consumers (and employees) gone bad. They're not suitably ambitious (sometimes they almost resemble their European counterparts, the "unemployed generation"--who, because they could, founded autonomist scenes) to make capitalism comfortable, and allegedly cannot get and/or do not want the lucrative jobs that are their inheritance. They are interesting because they seem so skeptical about capitalism as the promised road to happiness, so uninvested in the ideology that keeps it going.

Laura Martz is a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University in Literary and Cultural Theory. You can read this article in its entirety at Cultronix.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

How Ethical Is The Work 'Ethic'?

Reconsidering work and 'leisure time'

Did you ever wonder why your parents act so disoriented when it comes to 'leisure' activities? Why they start one little hobby, and either fail to follow through with it or become pathologically obsessed with it...even though it doesn't seem to have anything to do with their lives? Maybe they seek to lose themselves in gardening or following the exploits of some basketball team. Maybe your father buys all sorts of fancy tools (the kind of tools many men his age have), but only uses them for a few days before setting them aside--and then buys a lot of skiing equipment the next month. Or perhaps they just spend their time trying figure out how to pay off the debt they owe for that wide screen television they spend the rest of their time watching.

And--have they ever been honest with you about their jobs? Do they enjoy them? Is their work the most fulfilling thing they could be doing, are they able to achieve every goal they always wanted to? Do they feel heroic or proud every day as they return home--or are they exhausted? Do they turn that wide screen television on as soon as they come in the door? Do they have the energy to do anything else?

Did you ever wonder if there might be a better way for them, for you?


Because of the 'division of labor', most jobs today consist of doing very specific tasks, over and over, with very little variety. If you are a dishwasher, you wash dishes: you don't get to interact with people or solve complicated problems very often, and you never get to leave the dishroom to run around in the sunlight. If you are a real estate agent, you never use your hands to make anything, and you spend most of your time thinking about market value and selling points. Even jobs that include a certain amount of variety can only remain interesting and challenging up to a point: for we work forty hours a week on average, and at least five out of the seven days. That's a lot of our lives to spend working. Work is the first thing we do on most of the days of our lives, and we don't get to do anything else until we've been at work for quite a while. When we spend most of our time and energy working on one task, or even ten different tasks, eventually we will feel bored and desperate for variety... even if we are conditioned not to realize this.

On top of this, because of the spread of large businesses and the consequent decrease in self-employment and small businesses, most of us do not have much voice in what our responsibilities at work will be. It is hard to start your own business or even find a friend or neighbor to work for. We often must get a job to survive in which we follow the instructions of a manager who probably doesn't have much more control over his job than we have over ours. Since we don't get to decide what we are doing, chances are that we will feel alienated from our work, disinterested in the quality of our labor; we may even feel that the projects we are working upon are unimportant.

Indeed it is easy to feel that most of the jobs available today are unimportant--for in a certain sense, many of them are. In a purely capitalist economy, the jobs that are available will be determined by which products are in the most demand; and often the products that are in demand (military technology, fast food, Pepsi, fashionable clothes) are not products that really make people happy. It's easy to feel like all your labor is wasted when the products you work so hard to sell just to survive seem to do nothing for the people you sell them to. How many people really are cheered up by the soggy french fries at McDonalds? Would they perhaps be happier eating a meal prepared by a friend of theirs or a chef they knew who owned his own cafe?

In short, 'work' as we know it tends to make us unhappy because we do so much of it, because it is so repetitive, because we don't get to choose what we do, and because what we are doing is often not in the best interest of our fellow human beings.


We come home from these jobs exhausted from having invested all our time and energy in a project we may not have even been free to choose, and what we need most is to recover. We are emotionally and physically worn out, and nothing seems more natural than to sit down quietly for a while and watch television or read the daily paper, while we try to gather our strength for the next day's labor. Perhaps we try to leave behind our exhaustion and frustration by concentrating on some hobby or another; but as we are not very used to directing ourselves in the workplace during the day, we often don't know what we really want to do when we are free at home.

Certainly some company or another will have some suggestions for us, whether we receive them from advertising or watching our neighbors; but chances are that this company has their profits in mind at least as much as our satisfaction, and we may discover that playing miniature golf is strangely unfulfilling.

Similarly, of course, we don't have much time or energy left over from work to consider our situation or participate in any rewarding activity which requires much time and energy. We don't like to think too much about whether we enjoy our jobs or our lives--besides, that might be depressing, and what can we do if we don't enjoy them, anyway? We don't have the energy left to enjoy art or music or books that are really challenging; we need our music to be soothing, our art nonthreatening, our books merely entertaining.

In fact, we come to associate having to expend effort and do things with our work, and associate relaxing and not doing anything with leisure time. So, because many of us don't like our jobs, we tend to associate having to do things with being unhappy, while happiness, as far as we ever know it, means... not doing anything. We never act for ourselves, because we spend our whole days acting for other people, and we think that acting and working hard always leads to unhappiness; our idea of happiness is not having to act, being on permanent vacation.

And this is ultimately why so many of us are so unhappy: because happiness is not doing nothing, happiness is acting creatively, doing things, working hard on things you care about. Happiness is becoming an excellent long-distance runner, falling in love, cooking an original recipe for people you care about, building a bookshelf, writing a song. There is no happiness to be found in merely lying on a couch--happiness is something that we must pursue. We are not unhappy because we have to do things, we are unhappy because all the things we do are things we don't care about. And because our jobs exhaust us and mislead us about what we want, they are the source of much of our unhappiness.


You don't have to work at those jobs, you know. It is possible to get by without all the Pepsi, all the expensive clothes, the wide screen television and the expensive interior decorating that all those paychecks go to pay for. You can try to start your own business doing something you care about (although this still involves the danger of having too little variety in your work), or you can try to find a job in today's marketplace (good luck!) that you actually enjoy... and that leaves you enough time and energy to do other things in your life that you also enjoy. The most important thing is to arrange your life so that you are doing things because you want to do them, not because they are profitable--otherwise, no matter how much money you make, you will be selling your happiness for money. Remember that the less money you spend, the less you will have to worry about getting money in the first place... and the less you will have to work at those dehumanizing jobs. Learn to use all your 'free' time, not to vegetate or spend money on entertainment, but to create things and accomplish things--things that no one would pay you to make or do, but that make your life (and perhaps the lives of others) better anyway.

Some will argue that the system we live within would break down if we all were to walk away from our jobs--so much the better. Haven't we built enough automobiles, enough shopping malls, enough televisions and golf clubs, enough fucking nuclear weapons already? Wouldn't we all be better off if there was a shortage of fast food and a surplus of unique home-cooked meals? If playing music is more rewarding than working in an assembly line, why do we have so few good bands and so many transistor radios? Of course a 'work-free' world is a dream we will probably never see come true; but as always, the challenge is to make this dream a part of your world, as much as you can--to liberate yourself from the chains of mindless consumerism and mind-melting employment and live a more meaningful life.
This piece originally appeared in the book "Days of War Nights of Love," published by CrimethInc.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Decline and Fall of Work

"The obligation to produce alienates the passion for creation...In an industrial society which confuses work and productivity, the necessity of producing has always been an enemy of the desire to create...The imperatives of production are the imperatives of survival; from now on people want to live, not just survive."

-Raoul Vaneigem, "The Revolution of Everyday Life"

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

D.C. Superhero: An Interview with Katy Otto

By Matt Dineen

How do people pursue their passions, the things that keep us going, while simultaneously surviving in a capitalist society? Katy Otto is one of those modern day superheroes that is truly following her dreams and getting by pretty well in this crazy world. Not only does she run a DIY record label and play drums in the fantastic rock band Del Cielo, but she is also the Director of Grants and Community Outreach for the DC-area Empower Program. She’s also been known to help organize, among many other things, the annual Visions in Feminism Conference and Lady Fest. Katy is an inspiration to all of us, and a living example of what a better society could look like. I had the chance to speak to her at this year’s National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) at American University.

When people ask you, “What do you do?” how do you usually respond to them?

Well, professionally I work as a grant writer at a non-profit that’s a gender violence prevention program that works with youth. But I have a lot of other projects that take up a lot of time too. I play drums in a band, Del Cielo, that I love a lot, and I run a little record label with my friend Sara called Exotic Fever. I like to do projects and organizing. I think who I am as a person has been shaped by the community I grew up in—the punk community in DC. It has been very important to my organizing and has been my source of energy. And I like writing.

Tell me more about this grant-writing job. Do you enjoy that work? Is it a full time thing?

Mhm. I’ve been there for 6 and half years, two as an intern in college. I like it because I was a journalism major and it’s a way to combine some of my writing skills with interest I have in social justice work and particularly work around youth development and violence prevention, gender socialization. So, I like it.


It can be stressful. Being a fund-raiser isn’t always a laugh riot. Especially in the current economy, and because we are not an abstinence-only organization. And under the Bush administration those kinds of organizations are experiencing a much better situation [than us] in terms of funding available and tax cushions because of certain laws. So that sucks.

Yeah. Well, do you think you would continue to do this kind of work even if you weren’t getting paid for it? It obviously incorporates some of your interests but is the main function just the income that it provides, so you can support yourself?

Well, no. I don’t think that’s the main function although I certainly wouldn’t be able to devote the same amount of time to it if I wasn’t getting paid because I have to pay rent and bills. But part of my work is helping to co-facilitate a teen girls group and help mentor them and that’s the most rewarding part of the job. They organize a teen girl conference. They do public speaking, and community organizing and education. They’re just 10 amazing young women. That’s such a rewarding piece of the work. For the amount of money that people in non-profits get paid it’s usually other things fueling you to be there. But grant writing is not a stroll in the park.

Can you talk about living in the DC-area and how that affects your lifestyle? How did you choose to live here and make this your community?

I really love living in DC for a number of reasons. Because we’re in such a politically volatile world climate it’s very energizing to live in a place where a lot of really atrocious policies and decisions are being made. It makes it so that you do not escape. Politics and international relations are very much at the forefront of people’s minds here. And I think that’s important for people who are interested in social justice because it keeps you alert and active and responsive as long as that’s where your heart is. There’s also a really large resistance community here and a pretty diverse one. So that’s nice because growing up it was easy for me to learn about these kinds of issues. Also, there’s a lot of non-profits that do youth development work. There are hundreds in DC. And the punk and independent music community is really thriving and there are people who are older than me who helped mentor me when I wanted to do things like start a label. There’s just a lot of infrastructure for projects. It’s also interesting to live in a place that’s essentially a colony, with DC not being a state. It’s a very embattled place in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of spirit here.

Can you talk more about the dilemmas you’ve faced trying to work on all these projects that you’re passionate about while being able to pay rent and getting by?

Well, the nice thing about the label is that it’s successful enough now that a lot of the expenses of running a label are covered because we have a catalog of releases that does fairly well. I think I still lose some money each year on it, but it is able to be an active project because of the exciting attention people have paid to the releases. So that’s helpful. And also having the label in partnership with my best friend Sara. That’s helpful because we share the burden of the work, the financial burden, and we also share the excitement and the interest. With the band it’s been cool because we’re a very, very intentional DIY band but we’re also very active and we work really hard on our band and have been a band for 4 years. So when we travel we don’t lose money because we work really hard. When we’re on tour we try not to have days off. We go to the record stores in town and try to sell our cds. We’re very diligent about it. We plan things very far in advance to try to make sure they’re done really solidly and really well. So that’s nice because it’s definitely not making money or anything, but it’s not costing us money to do. So that’s nice. Although I’d love some equipment. I’ve got the same drum set I’ve had since I was a very little lady. (laughs)

I don’t know…coffee is a really good fuel for your projects. I drink a little too much of it. And I live in a group house with 3 very supportive men. I think living in a group house can be really awesome especially when people share interests. It just makes it a lot easier to do things like shows in DC because there is a network of people. I did a show for NCOR Friday night and literally an hour before I was like, “Man, this is gonna be a tiring night.” But then people called and were like, “How can I help? Can I do the door?” I don’t think that happens everywhere. A lot of times if I’m organizing something like a show I’ll be in a pretty visible role, but I’m not the only person that’s worked on it. So I try to make sure people get credit where credit’s due.

Does the group house arrangement cut down on your cost of living?

Greatly. Especially for this area because we live in a house that’s cheaper than most houses and we’ve also converted a 3 bedroom into a 4 bedroom. Otherwise, this area is brutal. But my rent is $300 a month, which in this area is pretty unheard of. That’s really the only way to live that cheaply here. Oh, and we eat together a lot too. Not all the time but we just share things in general. It cuts down on bills. We’re able to get things like cable that if we lived on our own none of us would be able to get. That’s kind of cool. At first I was like, “No! No cable.” But it’s kind of nice because then we don’t go to Blockbuster anymore. We can just watch Direct TV movies.

It seems like that’s part of this lifestyle where you can be able to have more time to pursue projects if you don’t have to work as much.

Yeah. My work has been really supportive of my touring too. The summer before last, because I had been at my job so long, I was able to take a sabbatical. So I had a 6-week tour and I was paid for all 6 weeks of work even though I wasn’t there. But that’s only a once every 5 years thing. I think at non-profits because you’re working so many long hours there are things people will do to make sure that the morale is high.

If you had the opportunity to live off your label and your band would you do that? Would you quit the job you have now?

I do have a dream of one day to be able to just do the label. The band is a little harder to think about. It would be amazing if we could do that, but what’s most important for me about our band is that all 3 people in the band always feel that they’re in positions they’re totally comfortable with. To me, that’s a pretty radical thing as a band of all women that the most valuable thing about the band is all three members’ opinions and nobody outside of that has any more say in what that looks like. So that makes it really hard because you think about some of the things that need to happen in order to get to that point. I know some people don’t believe that it’s possible for anyone to ever survive off their band without booking agents or really high profile, somewhat corporate-influenced record labels and things like that. Or people say, “Only if you’re Fugazi.” Well, I think there are other ways of people making that a reality. But it’s not a part of my ambition with my band because I feel like the process and the things that I gain from it are so much richer than that could ever be. I mean, if it just happened—sure. (laughs) I’m a very process-oriented person.

This interview originally appeared in the September/October 2005 (#34) issue of Clamor Magazine. To learn more about Katy Otto's projects check out The Empowered Program, Exotic Fever Records and Del Cielo.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Lifelong Semi-Retirement: A Hot "Career" Opportunity

By John O. Andersen

This is my proposal for a new entry to be added to career reference books which young people use when trying to decide what they want to be when they grow up.

Nature of the Work

Lifelong semi-retirement is an exciting career especially suited for people with wide interests, a preference for living deliberately, and an uncontrollable passion for learning. It's available to nearly everyone, not just the wealthy.

Semi-retirement refers specifically to a person's relationship to paid work. The semi-retirees work for pay only enough hours to meet their monetary needs. After that they spend much of their time in non-paid work like strengthening relationships, pursuing hobbies or performing community service. Semi-retirees arrange their lives so that they can afford the "luxury" of not having to work for pay from sun up to sun down.

They operate on the idea that people should enjoy life to the fullest throughout life. They feel that not giving ample time to dreams, hobbies, or close friendships until after the traditional retirement age is unwise. Although they make provision for their declining years, they unapologetically enjoy many of the fruits of retirement in the present. Life to them isn't a big meal followed by a big nap, but rather a nibble here, a catnap there.

There is no typical day for a semi-retiree. On a few days they may work for pay for six to eight hours. Other days, not at all. They might spend three weeks caring for an aging parent, followed by three months of paid work. They may choose to participate in a project at the local library, volunteer for a community awareness campaign, or raise funds for a non-profit organization. Unattached to one specific full-time career, they are free to pursue a variety of interests, and maintain or develop expertise in several fields. The possibilities are endless.

For instance, a semi-retired young husband and father could run a small handyman business for his primary income. Occasionally he might tutor struggling algebra students. He could also be a soup kitchen volunteer, and perhaps a member of a search and rescue team.

Another semi-retiree with specialized engineering skills may earn money through a string of freelance consulting contracts. After a well-paid assignment, she may choose to spend six months as a volunteer consultant in another country. During that stint, she could pursue other interests such as becoming fluent in a foreign language, developing expertise in that country's cultural history, or even taking a cooking course.

Such varied "careers" are within reach of many people whether married or single. Those with meager financial means, often discover that voluntary frugality enables them to pursue a career in semi-retirement. They decide that not waiting until traditional retirement age to control how they spend their time is a high priority. Hence, they structure their lives to safeguard that prerogative. They happily exchange a lot of small and immediate pleasures for a few grand ones.

Suppose, for instance, that our semi-retired engineer decides to buy a house. She has a flawless credit record, and is pre-approved for a loan large enough to purchase a home in a swanky suburb. Although she can afford this financially, she decides she cannot afford it in terms of her top priorities. Consequently, she opts for a considerably smaller, and less expensive home. She thus retains the freedom to not have to spend most of her day working for money. She sees frugality as a small price to pay for the flexibility to fill her life with all sorts of interesting experiences: to travel, pursue a hobby or self-educate to her heart's content.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Real Arts of Survival

"Even in the everyday world of the present, an anxiety to survive manifests itself in cars and clothes for far more rugged occasions than those at hand, as though to express some sense of the toughness of things and of readiness to face them. But real difficulties, the real arts of survival seem to lie in more subtle realms. There, what's called for is a kind of resilience of the psyche, a readiness to deal with what comes next."

-Rebecca Solnit, "A Field Guide to Getting Lost"

Sunday, September 11, 2005

What I Do For A Living: A Rant

by D. JoAnne Swanson

"So, what do you do for a living?"

Ah, the dreaded question. I hear it at parties, family gatherings, even from store clerks. I never quite know how to answer this one. My knee-jerk, unspoken response is often "Why? Who wants to know? Are you going to use it to deem me worthy or unworthy of some kind of privilege when you find out? Are you trying to determine where I fall on some kind of social acceptability or class scale? And does it matter, really, in the larger scheme of things, whether I clean floors or crunch numbers or herd cows?" But that kind of response would lead into a much longer conversation than I want to have, in most cases.

Think about it, though. Can you blame me for being a bit on the defensive side? I get weary of having whatever it is I'm doing (or, as the case may be, NOT doing) treated as such an important part of my identity. If it's true that, as the old saying goes, no one ever said on their deathbed "I wish I'd spent more time at the office", then why do we act as though what we do "for a living" is so crucial for most of our lifetimes?

C'mon, folks…are our identities really so tied up in our jobs that this is the first thing we want to know about someone we've just met? It makes me want to spout off about my character, spirit, values, interests, family, community…things that are much more important than "what I do for a living", by which people usually mean "what I do for money". But the well-intentioned questioner is mostly just being polite, fishing for conversation. I don't just take the question at face value; I look at it as an opportunity to encourage people to question the commonly accepted link between "making a living" and "having a job". So sometimes I set aside my desire to rant, reasoning that I have a better chance of opening minds if I lighten up a bit. I then smile and try to play along with a one-liner response, as if I were somehow oblivious to the commonly accepted meaning of that loaded question:

"What do I do for a living? Well...I live."

That one doesn't always go over well. The person asking will often look at me askance, and chuckle as though my response was a feeble attempt at humor. Sometimes they even get a little irritated. But they keep asking:

(sarcastically) "Ha ha. What I mean is, where do you work?"

"At home" is my answer.

My lifestyle and choices are based on a worldview that's very different from the mainstream idea of "work". To most people, work means "having a job", and strong financial pressure makes having a job little more than wage slavery. So an answer like this is likely to be misinterpreted, I've found. It's almost as if most people can't even conceive of a kind of orientation toward productive activity that has nothing to do with a job or a paycheck.

"Oh, you work at home? Do you telecommute?"

Telecommute. Another buzzword of the 1990's, reflecting the reality that more people have computers at home, but also indicating that we think of work mainly in terms of "commuting to a job" and far less often in terms of simply engaging in enjoyable activity that is productive.

"No, not exactly."

"So you don't have a regular job, I gather."

"If by 'regular job', you mean do I go to an office or worksite where I spend five days and forty-some hours a week performing tasks in return for a paycheck, no."

(nodding suspiciously, but interest obviously piqued) "Ah, I see. Well, what do you do to support yourself?"

Kind of a nosy question to ask a stranger or a new acquaintance, isn't it? I sure think so. By this time I'm often ready to launch into a long rant about how silly it is to use phrases like "making a living" and "supporting yourself" to denote "getting money and maintaining your middle-class lifestyle". These phrases are social niceties designed to cover up the harsher reality that many of us are wage slaves who feel trapped in jobs they don't like and are looking for a way out. But most folks who ask the kind of questions above haven't really given much thought to how they use those terms. Besides, that's not what they want to talk about; to them, such distinctions can seem like nothing more than splitting semantic hairs. Most often, what they're really saying is "Wow, you mean you manage to live a comfortable life without a job? I hate my job and I'd love to quit. How can I do it, though, with bills to pay and mouths to feed? It's just not practical."

If I'm in a slightly less defensive mood when I'm asked what I do for a living, I reply simply that I am happily job-free. I use that term, "job-free", in an attempt to differentiate me from the involuntarily unemployed. If I refer to myself as simply "unemployed", it feels inauthentic. If I say that, the questioners often assume that I am, or believe I should be, looking for another job--and that I am completely idle or doing nothing worthwhile (read: nothing that brings in a steady paycheck). And that is far from the truth.

I love my life. I do plenty that's worthwhile outside the confines of a "job". Work and play are not two separate things for me. I love the way I spend my days and the work I choose to do, and I do a lot of different things to meet my financial needs. Even if I were completely idle, I take issue with the implication that idleness is somehow morally corrupt. And if "worthwhile" automatically equals "making money", I wonder how these folks would classify raising children, for example? Is that a worthwhile pursuit?

Frankly, I refuse to evaluate the worthiness of my daily pursuits mainly by whether or not they occur in an office or on a worksite (a "job"), could garner me a paycheck, or could net me some commodity that can be sold in the marketplace. I find that such thinking saps my internal motivation to get things done. When I follow the callings in my heart, it feels very worthy to me; and ultimately, that's the litmus test by which I evaluate my activities. THAT is what making a real living means to me, whether money is involved or not.

Working solely for a paycheck is wage slavery, and I want nothing to do with it. If that makes me a "slacker", then I claim the title with pride. And while we're at it, I don't think the whole answer to freeing people from wage slavery is to encourage them to do what they love for a living. That's all well and good, and it's a start…but I want to encourage people to re-think the nature of making a living entirely. When we live under a system that coerces us into taking some kind of job in order to meet our needs, it's much harder to envision any satisfying reason for working besides "well, it's good money, and I have to pay the bills." Industrial capitalism has perverted the idea of work, and equated it with "jobs" working for someone else higher up in the food chain who profits from your labor.

Let me call attention to the enormous amount of fear that must be operating in our collective psyche (behind the veneer of civility and liberty), in our supposedly "free" society, to make us concerned enough to focus so single-mindedly on questions like "what do you do for a living" in the first place. It really saddens me that there are so many of us who live under the psychological shackles created by equating jobs with money and survival. If we keep our focus on fear of how we'll survive without a job, we feel much more driven to put up with deplorable conditions in the workplace…and what's more, we can end up spending our entire lives waiting for the day when we can finally be free to do what we want, instead of what garners a profit for our employers.

I'd like to suggest that we all start thinking about exactly what it is we're asking when we inquire about what someone does for a living. That's a simple question with a not-so-simple answer. At least not when you ask me, that is.

D. JoAnne Swanson is a freelance writer living in North Vancouver, BC, Canada. She has managed to remain job-free since 1997 with the help of her friends and family, though she does plenty of joyful work. She is the founder of Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery (CLAWS). This essay is taken from her unpublished manuscript On The Leisure Track. Comments are welcomed (bibliophile at dangerous-minds dot com).

(c) Copyright 2004, D. JoAnne Swanson, Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Folk Music and Survival: An Interview with David Rovics

By Matt Dineen

Having just started a deadening temp job alphabetizing books that students had returned at the semester’s end, there was something comforting about hearing the triumphant chorus: "When all the minimum wage workers went on strike!" bouncing off the University of Wisconsin’s buildings. It was early May and rabble-rousing folk musician David Rovics was in Madison to celebrate the centennial of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). I had first heard him play "Minimum Wage Strike" six years before at a student activism conference in Boston. I’ve been drawn to David’s music ever since. He continues to leave his own unique mark on the radical folk tradition. I had the chance to sit down with him on a lovely spring day inside the Orton Park gazebo where we discussed his passion for playing music for the revolution as an antidote to crippling wage slavery.

When you’re in a social situation and people ask you: "What do you do?" how do you usually respond?

I just say I play music. It’s my sole source of income so it’s an easy answer. Presumably they’re asking, "What do you do for a living?" or "What do you do with most of your time?" Of course with most of my time I don’t play music—I stare at computer screen or drive a car or sit in a plane. [Laughs]

So what kind of follow up questions do you usually get to that response? Are people surprised that you can survive off your music and that that’s what you actually do for a living?

Yeah, sometimes they’re surprised. I guess it depends whether they already know me from shows or whether they’re just meeting me. I think when most people meet a musician and the musician says that he or she makes a living at it, usually the reaction would be one of at least mild surprise.

How long have you been able to do this as a full-time thing? And could you talk about what you were doing before this and how you used to get by? How did you make that transition? How did things change?

When I was younger—late teens, early twenties—I mostly worked doing word processing. Really horrible, mindless, menial shit: typing novels and resumes. Just looking at something that somebody had hand-written and then transcribing it essentially. And sometimes typing stuff that had already been typed because it wasn’t typed onto a computer. It was the age of typewriters where people would write shit on their typewriter and then give it to me to type again. It just always struck me as the most mindless task that I knew would be ultimately replaced, imminently replaced by computers and then eventually by voice recognition. An activity that would be one of these automatically antiquated things that you’re doing that you know is stupid and horribly boring. And then I got carpel tunnel syndrome. I always stuck to word processing because at the time—late ‘80s, early ‘90s—I could get paid like 12 bucks and hour, which for me was good money. The alternative was 6 bucks an hour in some cafĂ© which seemed like a lot more fun kind of work to me, but I would get by just working 20 hours a week doing word processing. So I could spend the rest of the time doing stuff that was meaningful to me like playing music and doing drugs, going backpacking and whatever.

But then I got carpel tunnel so I had to stop typing. Then I got on worker’s comp and Etna Insurance Company accidentally sent me checks for a year and a half. They were only supposed to do it for 6 weeks. So they were sending me $160 bucks a week for a year and a half, which for me was like a gold mine. It wasn’t the lump sum settlement that I thought I would get before the law changed during the course of my case. They changed the law so that employers had to give permission to allow the insurance company to give the settlement, which is ridiculous. Of course they’re not going to admit that they caused you to get carpel tunnel even though it’s obviously true. So I didn’t get that, but the worker’s comp thing allowed me to really…I mean even working 20 hours a week I was always struck by somehow or other it was always the most energetic and creative time of the day—even though it was only four hours—that I was really squandering. I still had time for other stuff but not as much as I would have liked even back with that part-time schedule.

Getting worker’s comp was a real opportunity for me to do a lot of wood shedding, which I had never really done before: just practicing and learning songs. I went out about it very systematically, like learning songs that other people wrote for four hours a day. And I knew that I wanted to do music for some sort of living and I knew that I was not really that good at it. I felt strongly that advice of Utah Phillips and Pete Seeger and others that you really have to immerse yourself in the tradition as a way to move forward. So rather than trying to write bad songs and spending too much energy on that I just learned other songs and played in the Pike Place Market and stuff.

To read the interview in its entirety check out Toward Freedom...

Monday, August 15, 2005

Dumpsters and Roadkill: Dissecting the Food Politics of Evasion and Feral Visions

By Matt Dineen

How can we meet our basic human needs while simultaneously doing what keeps us going? It is the dilemma of our day: finding a way to follow our true passions while surviving in a capitalist society. Some attempt to incorporate their interests and values into their jobs. Others choose to separate work from their passions, holding down often mind-numbing occupations just to pay the bills.

Regardless, we all have to work to pay rent and food. Or is there another way? Is it possible to eat and live outside of the system?

In fact, there are already people out there attempting to do just that. They are living a completely different way—trying to follow their passions with reckless abandon while subverting the traditional strategies of survival.

But is this way of life as simple and romantic as it sounds?

Two different examples of this "third way" recently swept through Madison, WI. The first was a presentation by the author of the infamous book Evasion, now a cult classic within the punk-traveller subculture. Later, a group of North Carolinian primitivists stopped by on their Feral Visions tour.

Both presentations offered radical critiques of traditional American society but focused on putting these ideas into practice through alternative lifestyles. Although the critiques were fairly similar, these two events offered very different approaches to acquiring and consuming food...
Check out Sustainable Eating to read the article in its entirety.

Monday, August 08, 2005

On the Leisure Track

The Cult of the Job

By D. JoAnne Swanson

I am job-free. Out of the rat race. Unemployed, as they say, but definitely by choice. My self-esteem is intact, thank you, I'm not "in transition", and I have no intention of getting a job again.
That's right--I'm on the leisure track permanently. I don't have a cushy nine-to-five job with profit-sharing, "security", stock options, health insurance, advancement opportunities, or free parking. I also don't have to deal with office politics, attending motivation seminars, climbing the corporate ladder, employee evaluations, increasing productivity, the absurd "team player" mentality, brown-nosing, mandatory overtime, stressful commutes in rush-hour traffic, being trapped in a cubicle, or the threat of being pink-slipped. Oh, and let's not forget--I don't have the expense of a "professional" wardrobe, strong coffee to wake me up every morning, or "power lunches".

I wouldn't have it any other way.

If you ask me what seems to have become the first question new acquaintances ask each other nowadays-namely, "What do you do for a living?" I'm likely to say that I'm job-free by choice or quip that I'm an "occupational tourist", as a friend likes to say. Sometimes I'll tell 'em I'm a freelancer or self-employed, specializing in leisure. Most people, when they hear this, say something like "You mean you don't have a regular job? Wow, that's great--I'll bet more people would do that if they thought they could swing it."

I'm willing to bet that more of them could swing it if they'd just find within themselves the wherewithal to question a few of the assumptions that are often taken for granted in America, particularly by the middle class and those who aspire to wealth. So what assumptions am I talking about? Well, let's start with the cult of jobs and work.

We need to re-evaluate the role of jobs in our lives. For far too many of us, getting a job amounts to securing a means of paying for our living expenses, and not much more. At best, this attitude leads to years of "paying one's dues" in exchange for the dubious "security" of a (hopefully) steady paycheck and the promise of finally enjoying leisure when one retires. At worst, it leads to a way of life where we devote 40 or more hours of our precious time a week to doing something we don't care about mainly for the sake of having a roof over our heads and food on the table. I know I'm not the only one who thinks this is ludicrous. It took me years of trying to fit myself into some kind of job title, of devoting myself to figuring out "what I wanted to be when I grew up", before I realized that I don't want a job, nor do I feel guilty about not wanting one.

It's time for us to make a crucial distinction between "jobs" and "work". Work--particularly the kind that is motivated by interest, social welfare, connection, curiosity, learning, beauty--can be satisfying, fulfilling, fun, and honorable. However, it's exceedingly hard to see this when we are blinded by the compulsion to "get a job" or face the poorhouse, or when we're terrified by the social and financial consequences of being job-free. In addition, we've internalized a puritan work ethic which holds that laziness is a sign of moral weakness. We sense deep in our guts that even if we were to arrange our financial affairs such that we could quit our jobs for good, it would mean we are lazy. We know we'd still face guilt, social disapproval, maybe even an identity crisis once we were unemployed--especially if we were to tell everyone we meet that we're not "in transition", not hunting for a new job, that in fact we are happy this way. I maintain that a complex web of unquestioned assumptions are what keep such fears in place, and that we need to delve into those places we fear to tread if we're ever going to make lasting changes for the better.

A job, nowadays, is used as a shorthand term for whatever it is you do that occupies a large portion of your time and provides a paycheck. In a work-obsessed culture that elevates jobs and money-making capacity to crucial components of our identities, having a job and money often provides a sense of social acceptability that cannot be found any other way, or so we believe. But there are lots of (legal) ways of getting money besides jobs, and what's more, we are increasingly becoming aware that we've paid a very high price for our myopic job-centered focus.

On a personal level, many of us find ourselves disillusioned, depressed and frustrated when, day after day, we force ourselves to get out of bed and put in another eight hours at our jobs, then come home exhausted--only to get up the next day and do it all over again. The future doesn't hold out much hope for us when we consider that we're expected to continue this way indefinitely. When do we get to enjoy life, we think as we watch the clock and count the days until the weekend?

On a societal level, we hear about corporate "downsizing" as well as environmental and human rights violations, rising rents in choice areas, the growing wage gap between executives and "worker bees", the rising cost of a college education and the lack of "marketability" of liberal arts degrees, and many other factors which contribute to a widespread sense of disillusionment. This certainly isn't the way we thought it would be, is it? It's not what were promised when we were told that getting an education and a "good" job would be our ticket into the promised land.

This concept we have of jobs as the way we make a name for ourselves, "get ahead", create an identity, and earn money is ripe for re-evaluation. It's high time for us to take a hard look at the personal and environmental devastation such thinking has wrought, and to conceptualize and create alternatives to the cult of jobs and work in our lives.

Such alternatives could take many forms: self-employment, cooperative living arrangements, simplifying our lives, changes in economic policy, and so forth. Envisioning a new way of working is certainly not a new idea, but those of us who question the conventional wisdom about jobs are still considered heretics, radicals and pariahs in many circles.

Heretic or not, I'd like to see us re-define success as having more to do with people and their values, and less to do with profits or climbing the corporate ladder. I'd like to see a world where we are less relentlessly driven by the pursuit of job growth, impressive stock portfolios, the "bottom line" and material acquisition--and more motivated by active mindful learning, joyful work, and creating a web of relationships that will sustain us in our more meager times. I'm holding out for a new way of thinking, one in which we recognize that leisure is essential to our mental health rather than cause for guilt, and that we don't have to spend our lives struggling, striving to make ends meet through working at a job.

I think we all know, at some level, that we weren't meant to live this way, and that there are better, more fulfilling, and more socially responsible ways to work than by sacrificing ourselves on the altar of jobs and money. There are the stirrings of a new social movement underway as we speak--a diverse collection of people from all walks of life who are re-examining the way we've been indoctrinated into thinking our jobs are our ticket to respectability and freedom. They are re-defining success, learning how to appreciate what they have instead of endlessly questing for more growth, and discovering their passions without worrying about trying to fit them into the form of a job.

I'm happy to count myself among the proponents of that movement away from the cult of jobs and toward a new way of envisioning work--a way that gives us hope for the future. I invite you to join us.

D. JoAnne Swanson is a freelance writer living in North Vancouver, BC, Canada. She has managed to remain job-free since 1997, though she does plenty of joyful work. She is the founder of Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery (CLAWS). This essay is taken from her manuscript On The Leisure Track: Creating Radical Alternatives to Traditional Employment. Comments are welcomed (

(c) Copyright 2004, D. JoAnne Swanson, Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Collective and Intergenerational: An Interview with Chris Crass

By Matt Dineen

In his book A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen articulates the dilemma of following one’s passions while surviving in a capitalist society: “Wishing away the wage economy did not make it cease to exist, and my determination to stop selling my hours did not lessen my need for food, nor for a place to stay. In other words, despite my highfalutin philosophy, I still had to find a way to earn some cash.” Chris Crass is a political organizer who has grappled with this dilemma for years.

I had read Chris’s articles in Clamor and HeartattaCk before, but I didn’t meet him until the summer of 2003, while participating in a workshop that Chris led on the role of leadership within progressive and radical movements. His writings and activist work continue to inspire other activists to develop strategies of dismantling structural oppression and creating new models of organizing. He currently serves as the coordinator of the Catalyst Project, a center for political education and movement building.
I met up with Chris again during the week after the 2005 San Francisco Anarchist Book Fair in a raucous coffee shop right across the street from the Catalyst Project office.

When people ask you, “What do you do?” how do you usually respond to that?

It kind of depends on who’s asking me. My general response is that I work with an organization that does anti-racist education with other white people to stand against racism and stand up for social justice. If it’s people who are already connected to left/radical politics then my general response is that I primarily do political education work and alliance-building work. Trying to help mostly white sectors of the global justice/anti-war movement develop a stronger analysis and commitment to anti-racist politics, with the goal of building multi-racial movements against capitalism and for collective liberation. And then if people who ask me are just sort of, maybe they’re progressive or kind of interested in some different issues or just starting to get into activism, if they say, “Oh, what do you do?” Then I’ll say, I mostly try to deal with issues around: How does institutional racism play out in society? What are ways that we can be trying to, for myself as a white person, really look at how racism impacts my life and impacts the world around me, and how to be trying to take action to transform the situation. And really looking at how racism is both historical and institutional and is a primary way that the society is organized. So for people who believe in justice, who believe in democracy, who believe in equality: we really need to do organizing in our communities to change and transform the ways that systems of oppression play out in our lives. And then if people who ask me are conservatives then I make an assessment about how useful it is to actually engage or not. What I do say is something more broad to clearly indicate that I am a left anti-racist through a comment against the war or for immigrant rights or something like that.

So, what kinds of responses to you usually get to that? Is there usually a follow-up to that where people ask if that’s really your job or assume that you couldn’t possibly be doing that for a living?

In terms of how work is understood in society, like with my extended family, that’s a different thing: I do education work. I’m a teacher. There’s certain things that you can say where there’s an image that comes to mind of what that kind of job or work looks like. If you say, “Oh yeah, I’m a left organizer trying to build power to overthrow capitalism and trying to build a free society for all people…” There’s not too many positive images of what that looks like for white middle class people, you know? They’re usually negative images, like somebody who’s crazy, out of their mind, advocating violence against random individuals. For different families and different communities - working class, queer, of color, then there may be different images. People who are like, “Oh yeah, the labor movement, union organizer” where there’s some connotation. But for a lot of people that I talk to, I try to just connect a word or a concept that I think they will be able to understand—like educator—and then from there start attaching radical politics to that concept, something that people can grasp onto. But usually if I say I’m an organizer people are like, “Oh, does that mean that you make a grocery list everyday? Do you try to make sure your refrigerator is full? Does that mean that you throw a lot of parties?” (Laughs)

There are all different kinds of organizers so just in general conversation I think it’s difficult because these kinds of labels also carry a lot of meaning. So if you tell somebody, “I’m an investment banker.” It’s like, “Oh wow!” That must mean that you’re fairly successful, meaning that you have access to a lot resources, meaning you have money. You probably went to some business school and have a good degree, meaning that it’s profitable in this society and you can get a really good house and that you have access to health care. And if you want to have kids they’d be able to get a better future than you did because you’ll be able to send them to the best schools. But if I say—even a concept that people know like educator—it’s like: public schools, teachers, people who are really busting their ass and getting paid very little. My housemate is an art teacher in high school—almost an endangered species in the state of California—and that means working long hours, getting paid not very well, and having the governor and people in power blaming teachers for the conditions of the schools. So even though you might have a concept that means something, there’s all kinds of other stuff that gets associated with it.

Also, in conversations with people when you talk about what you do, there’s just all kinds of status, all kinds of stuff about power and access to resources. And it plays out depending on the person that you’re talking to, what kind of language you use, what kinds of words you use, and the assumptions built into that. So yeah, it’s really difficult particularly for folks who are radical/left people doing all kinds of different jobs. If you’re doing this work there’s generally not a lot of access to resources, to being able to have health care and to develop a savings and things like that. So there’s also a certain level of reality to these different assumptions. But the assumptions are also: What are the real values that you have and what values really have meaning? So that question of, “What do you do?” is basically asking: “Who are you? What does that mean? What contribution are you making to the world?” And it’s usually not “contribution to the world” in terms of, “How are you trying to help communities be healthier?” but: “What are you doing? What do you have to prove that you’re a valuable person, a worthy person?”

“What is your status?”

A status, exactly. So yeah, the question of “What do you do?” is a pretty loaded one. And I think for a lot of us on the Left, we have a lot of hesitation and a lot of ambiguity around answering that, particularly for someone like myself who’s younger. I’m 31, at this point I should have some sort of mid-level management job somewhere, but I don’t. Particularly, I think, also for someone like myself raised a middle-class white guy there’s a certain sense of where you’re suppose to be in this society at this point in your life. So for me, there’s also a lot of connotations about, “What do you do?” There’s also a lot of class and race and gender stuff very much embedded within that of, “Well, where are you? Where are you going?” Those kinds of things. So yeah, that question—it can be anything from a very simple question that you talk about at a party to a soul-searching question. My thinking these days is that most people want to get to know you, for left political people it's really important to normalize anti-imperialism, anti-racism and so on, meaning that you talk about it from a place of confidence that most people are anti-war, believe in justice and so on...

Check out Toward Freedom to read the interview in its entirety.

Friday, July 08, 2005

My Idea of Fun: An Interview with Anne Elizabeth Moore

By Matt Dineen

Is it possible to follow your passions, to do what you truly love to do, without compromising your values? What about meeting basic human needs? Can it be done? Some people struggle most of their lives to obtain this dream, but eventually submit to a job that goes against their beliefs or end up starving to death in the street. But others have proved to us that it is possible. You really can live a life that is consistent with your values, pursue the things you love, and still afford food and rent.
Anne Elizabeth Moore is one of those rare people. She has been involved with independent publishing her entire adult life and recently published her own book, Hey Kidz! Buy This Book: A Radical Primer on Corporate and Governmental Propaganda and Artistic Activism for Short People, with Soft Skull Press. Last year, she became the associate publisher for Punk Planet and Punk Planet Books, and has continued to write for a number of other independent publications.
 In a recent appearance in Madison, WI, she read her first hand account of the consequences for attempting to radicalize the clientele of the American Girl Place in Chicago. The following morning we met for breakfast at Bennett’s Smut n’ Eggs, before migrating to a coffee shop where we discussed the dilemma of following one’s passions while surviving in this world.

When you are faced with the question, “What do you do?” how do you usually respond?

Yeah—I respond by giggling, turning away nervously, and changing the subject. However, I assume you want an actual response...

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Check out Toward Freedom to read the interview in full and to read about Anne's "Spazzes With Glasses Tour."

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Interview with 1905

By Matt Dineen

This interview with Jess (vocals) and Brian (bass) of the DC political punk band 1905 was conducted after a show they played in Madison, WI on the Fourth of July, 2004. The following exerpt addresses the primary theme of this project: following one's passions while surviving in a capitalist society. This interview provided inspiration for subsequent interviews which will appear on this site. The full transcript can be found at Upside Down World.

What about the challenges of operating as DIY band, despite this strong network, within the larger capitalist system? You can’t just survive off your music. Can you talk about making ends meet while still having the time and energy for your true passions?

Brian: This is something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Going on tour and booking shows you meet the kids who are so unbelievably positive and optimistic about stuff but don’t necessarily know what goes into doing a show. They’re just psyched to have your band playing. You’re at the show and having an amazing time but you play and then realize that there was no one collecting money at the door or something.

Jess: And you need gas money.

B: Yeah, you need to get to the next place and gas prices aren’t getting any lower. It’s a situation where, we’re an anti-capitalist band and punk rock in itself is very anti-capitalist, but there’s sort of a vacuum on what that means. If we’re anti-capitalist then what are we? What is this? Some people think, “Oh it’s DIY. We just get together and it’s free!”

J: But that’s not sustainable.

B: It’s a big challenge that people are facing. Because right now there is so much stuff going on and so many bands getting out there, so many people that want to go on tour and who want to see shows. But in terms of sustainability, like a space that has trouble staying open because they’re having problems at shows, we need to think about it. It needs to be thought about as a community. We’re not capitalists but we live in this system where there’s money exchanged and we need to go do these things. I’ve been reading a lot about Participatory Economics and trying to work on viable solutions to this.

J: Yeah, we might be an anti-capitalist band but we live in a capitalist society. You can fight for change. You can try to support your local supermarkets or whatever. You can do the small things and they’re really important small things to do, but you can’t expect to operate outside of capitalism. And especially in DIY—to think that you can maintain some sort of network without money, when everything involves money, would be ridiculous and unsustainable. Not only do you need gas money but you need to eat. Eating and gas are very important when you’re on tour. I think a lot of people don’t think about that or don’t want to pay at shows and say, “If you’re anti-capitalist then why do you want money?” Well, it’s not like I’m taking the money and buying a Mercedes with it. I’m trying to get from Point A to Point B.

B: And going on a DIY tour where you’re just making gas money if you’re lucky, you’re still gonna go home and have bills to pay and rent to pay. It gets a lot harder to tour when you know you’re coming back and you know you have to do all this stuff and bust your ass at your job. You have to make money that you didn’t have when you left. Keeping that in mind when we talk about changing the face of punk rock and trying to make it more inclusive to other people. We need to build this community where it’s possible for people of less privileged backgrounds who are talented and have amazing ideas to also come in and play a part in this and have them be able to go on tour too. Touring is a huge financial strain. I know that when I go home I’m gonna have rent and bills and I’ll open all those and be like, I haven’t been working the past 7 weeks because I’ve been on tour but I’ve had an amazing time. There’s a lot of sacrifices you have to make to do that and I come from a background where I’m privileged enough to be able to make those choices to do that. And a lot of other people aren’t and in building a community we have to keep that in mind.

J: As far as when we’re at home is concerned—we all have to work. Somehow you have to make money. I think the band just sucks away our social life more than anything else because that’s the only thing you can really give up…and it’s worth it.

B: It’s like being in a relationship with everyone in your band.

J: And I love you! (laughs and hugs)

So, are the jobs that you have totally separate from your true interests and just to pay the bills?

B: It depends. I’ve had other jobs that are very related to my interests, except those jobs were also 9-5, 40 hours a week and didn’t give me enough time to do touring. I ended up getting laid off from the last one that I had which opened up a lot of doors of thinking about how to do things. I also went to graduate school and worked on that stuff. I walk dogs for a living now. It’s amazingly flexible, it’s a great time but I have my parents being like, “You went to grad school and you walk dogs.” (laughs) So I make enough money to get by but at the same time there are other financial stresses. I’m basically going back and looking for other jobs to do. It’s just a matter of trying to find a balance between doing the band I love that takes a lot of time to do and being able to pay my bills and having some sort of comfort zone in life.

J: My ultimate goal is to be a teacher. Right now I’m not anywhere close to being a teacher and don’t really know what I’m gonna be doing for a job when I get back. I think I’m gonna be cleaning houses, but right now the band is more of a priority. We think about jobs in terms of: Can we tour? How is this gonna work? Does this enable us to have band practice when we want to practice? And of course we’re not gonna just get the shittiest job ever and hate life. But it’s just a job. Jobs don’t mean anything. You work and you do what you can and it would be nice to have a job where you could do something that is also important to you but a job is such a small, tiny little portion of what’s important in life. You’ve got this whole other world that’s not between 9-5 that is equally as important. And when people ask the question, “What do you do?”—everybody answers with their job. Whereas for me I answer with the band. Because what’s more important to me? Clearly it’s the band.

That brings up the question of whether you guys have thought about surviving off the band. Could you make 1905 your job or would that compromise your values?

J: We speculate and think about it but everybody’s drastically different on that. No one has a clear-cut idea of how to do it. Ideally we’d all love to play music and have that be it and have that sustain us, but then it gets tricky. How do you do that? Can DIY do that? For me it’s, do I want to put that sort of money pressure on the one thing that I know is just gonna be okay in my life no matter what. But we’d all love that to be our lives.

B: It would be amazing if we could do this band at the rate we’re comfortable with and make a living off it. That would be great, but you have to keep in mind that when the thing you love becomes your bread and butter and it’s what you do to pay your bills then you have to start doing it a lot more. It can become really stressful and cause a lot strains

J: And you don’t want to strain your passion.

B: If there was a way that we could all be happy and all meet our needs and find a way of doing this band on our terms then I don’t think we’d have a problem. But as long as we can keep it a hobby and be fulfilled in a lot of other ways we’ll be fine.

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For more information:

The1905 Collective
PO Box 15116
Washington, DC 20003