Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Risk of Change Revisited: Housing and Resistance in a Capitalist Society

By Matt Dineen

"Honest hope derives from a belief that positive change is possible in the world. And we will only believe this if we experience ourselves changing. The key is risk, doing that which we thought we could not do."
-Frances Moore Lappe

Hope and risk. For those of us committed to transformative change it is this combination that fuels our actions—-the belief that change truly is possible and that we are willing to take risks to create a better society. But sometimes the risk is too great. All too often those actions which would accurately reflect our values are compromised or avoided simply to maintain survival. This is particularly common in situations that directly affect our lives. Campaigns to improve working and living conditions may not be as celebrated or significant as protesting war and corporate globalization but they tend to always involve more personal risk. This is because and despite of the fact that there is more potential for change in our immediate circumstances. I want to address the complexities of these risks and also connect the politics of everyday life with dominant global structures to illustrate how they are part of a common struggle.

I have already explored this dilemma in comparing my personal involvement in the movement against the war on Iraq with a failed campaign at my workplace three years later. Because of the economic power that our boss wielded over us the risk of fighting for change at my job was higher than the relatively low risk of protesting in the streets against the Bush administration. What about affecting change in our living conditions? Is the risk too great to improve our housing arrangements?

Along with work, housing is one of the primary institutions of capitalist society. The two are deeply connected. Much of the money that we earn selling our labor to bosses goes directly to the landlords that own the buildings we live in. Housing and work are both integral to the economic imperatives of survival. Everybody needs a roof over their head but must work to afford this basic human necessity. Although conditions differ immensely depending on geographical location and the nature of the workplace and apartment complex or house, both are inherently undemocratic spheres.

In both cases the property-owners possess a virtual monopoly over decision-making—decisions that affect the lives of those that work and live on the property. Decisions such as how much one is paid and how much one must pay and ultimately the destiny of one’s job and place to live. Workers and tenants are controlled and pacified by the lingering threat of termination or eviction. After all, in “today’s economy” there is always someone else to replace you. We get paid a week or two after we work, but we must pay before we live in our homes each month.

Yet most of us accept this state of affairs. It is only when our living conditions become even more egregiously unjust that we begin to think to do anything about it. Earlier this year such a situation occurred where I live which inspired me to revisit this dilemma of the risk of change. This story runs deeper than a landlord raising the rent in my building. It speaks to how change occurs in our society, how people react to injustice, and the potential risks involved in struggling to improve our everyday lives. That is why I think it is worth sharing...
To read this article in its entirety visit Toward Freedom.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Soundtrack to Protest: An interview with David Rovics

By Matt Dineen

I was in high school the first time I saw David Rovics play. His politcal folk anthems helped contribute to my growing consciousness of global justice issues, radical history and social change. Several years have past and David has gone on to travel the globe on countless tours supplying a rousing soundtrack to protests and activist conferences wherever they pop up. He has also written hundreds of new songs as there is no shortage of material lately for politcal musicians. Now David has a new album out and is beginning to tour once again. Before he took off we had a chance to discuss the recent changes in his life, Middle East politics, and the state of activism today.

When we last spoke, you discussed how working as a full-time musician--booking your own tours and playing internationally--was the equivalent of running a small business. How has that operation changed this past year now that you are not booking your own shows? Has it given you more time for other pursuits?

It's been wonderful working with Jen Angel (from Clamor), who is doing booking for me, for sure. Given that she has no background in the business, it's not changing the kinds of gigs I'm doing or anything, but it is giving me more free time which has pretty much all been taken up by my baby daughter, Leila, who was born last January 28th. I thought I might find more time to read books and that sort of thing, but that hasn't worked out so far. I'm still touring as much as ever, and I find I just have a bit more time to be human on the road rather than being constantly glued to my laptop doing booking-related email.

What other changes have happened in your life this past year?

Well, I've written some new songs, done a lot of work on the new CD and DVD, done lots more touring in North America and Europe, spent several weeks touring in Lebanon, Jordan and the occupied West Bank last September, and various other things, but certainly the birth of my daughter has been the most exciting development. Especially now that she's a little older: big difference between 4 months and 7 months, you know, they're much more interactive and they don't spend all their time sleeping anymore.

There seems to be a debate within activist communities around the efficacy of building community through travelling vs. "laying roots" by staying in one place. What is your take on this as an activist musician who is constantly travelling? How do you reconcile being essentially placeless?

I guess the debate also goes on to some extent among musicians, too. It seems to me generally that we need a lot more of both community organizing and laying roots as well as the traveling rabble-rousing kind of thing, big national and international demonstrations, etc. Lots more of all that would be very good. To me it seems like the idea that one is more effective than the other is a bit like saying broccoli is more effective than spinach. For people in my line of work, though, I'd say that the decision is largely made for us. You can't really make a living doing original music, whether political music or not, and stay in one place. You have to travel. It goes with the job. So basically if I thought staying in one place were more effective then I'd have to get a day job, or play background music in bars, and I have zero interest in either of those things, so I'll keep traveling.

You're a political folksinger in an increasingly politicized era. How have the global events of the past 5 years affected your work? More specifically, how do you deal with the dilemma of tragic world events being, in a sense, "good for business" in terms of creating and performing the music you do and building a fanbase?

I'm not entirely sure how good for business it is. I suppose among my niche market it's good for business, but generally, the vast majority of musicians are really marginalized by the music industry, especially political ones. As far as I can tell the folk music scene is pretty terrified of overtly political musicians these days, and so we're even marginalized within our own musical genre. Basically, I don't think any of us are doing it for the money!

In theory, if a large segment of the population were to wake up and smell the coffee, people like me could really do well, and I'd welcome that, and I'd deal with the contradiction: "The more bombs they drop, the more CDs I sell" kind of thing. But as it is, this is not happening. My audiences are not growing. In fact, they may be shrinking, but it's hard to tell, since they've always been small. Especially since February, 2003, people have just been retreating more and more, aside from a brief period during the presidential election when some people with Kerry buttons were coming to some of my shows.

In terms of my writing, the past 5 years have led to me writing even more songs about U.S. foreign policy, and fewer songs about IMF/World Bank protests, 'cause they have virtually ceased to exist in the U.S. since 9/11. But I was writing a lot of songs about Iraq, Palestine, etc. before 9/11, not because it was fashionable in the mainstream or even on the Left, but because it seemed important to me. Inexplicably, so many of my friends in the late 90's who were organizing against the IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc., didn't seem to know where Iraq was or what the sanctions were. Now everybody knows where Iraq is and most people have forgotten about the IMF. It's really pretty depressing.
This interview was originally published on ZNet. Matt Dineen is a writer and activist living and working in Northampton, MA. For more information about David Rovics visit

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Passions and Survival Radio is Back!

After a two month hiatus, the Passions and Survival radio program on Valley Free Radio, WXOJ-LP Northampton, 103.3 FM has returned to its regular weekly slot. You can tune in every Monday morning from 9:00 to 10:00 AM. You can also listen online at

Continuing this project's mission of exploring the dilemma of following our passions while surviving in a capitalist society, the radio program features analysis of many of the complexities of modern life along with potential solutions to creating a new society. Topics explored include: work, leisure, consumerism, education, the politics of food and housing, the so-called "quarter-life crisis", alienation, happiness, success, economic alternatives, class mobility, and a plethora of related topics that tend to intersect with each other.

The show often features people from the Pioneer Valley discussing their jobs and the struggle to follow their passions. Drop a line if you are interested in being a guest on the program.

Matt Dineen, host

Survival vs. The Fullness of Life

"Strategies for continually overturning the dominance of survival over our lives, for making our projects and desires determine how we deal with survival to the greatest extent possible--for example, when one needs to take a job, using it against the institution of work and the economy through theft, giving things away, sabotage, using it as a free school to pick up skills for one's own projects, always seeing it as a temporary means to ends of one's own and being prepared to quit as soon as one's desire requires it."

-Wolfi Landstreicher, from Play Fiercely! Our Lives Are At Stake!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Adult Liberation: Unschooling Meets the Workforce

A conversation with Michael Fogler

By Peter Kowalke

As a lifelong unschooler, I've grown up with the luxury of studying what interests me. Supposedly I should be able to make a living by following my interests, too. But what if my passion is writing well-researched stories about everyday people, something that isn't very lucrative? To answer my question, I visited Michael Fogler in his Lexington, Kentucky, home. Michael is a homeschooling father and author of the book, Un-jobbing: The Adult Liberation Handbook, which asserts that it isn't necessary to give up an interest in order to make a living without a job. His secret, it seems, is just using common sense.

Unschooling is to learn without going to school. Is un-jobbing to earn without having a job? Could you explain what it means to "un-job"?
In a sense, Yes, if we define job as an activity we do for money which we really wouldn't be doing if it weren't for the money. That is what I see as so wasteful in our society: millions of people spending the bulk of their able-bodied lives in activities that they wouldn't be doing if they didn't need the money attached to it. Can we not do only activities which are in alignment with our values and sense of purpose, with some of these activities also bringing in income? I say yes.

So, I see a life of un-jobbing as a life in which all of the activities that a person does are activities that the person really wants to do, whether they are income-producing or not. This person is doing what he/she truly wants to do, period. "Work" and "play" become blurred, virtually one and the same. They blend together into, simply, Life. John Holt once proclaimed that learning is not the product of teaching (something I have come to agree with). Similarly, living is not the product of "making a living" (i.e. the job) in our culture. So, my thing is to encourage (conscious) living in every moment and to change "making a living" (which should be more accurately called "making a dying") into "making a life."

The recent advertising campaign for the job site,, points out that no one grows up wanting a bad job; we all want to earn money by doing what we love. But even career guides admit that we can't always do what we love without some sacrifice. Besides having a marketable interest, such as computers, how does one "make a life" by doing what he or she enjoys?

First, we might not grow up wanting a bad job, but we do grow up with the "realistic" expectation that you have described. So it doesn't matter what we want , we're "realistic." I believe that it's helpful to step out of the box of "realism" and into a more intangible world view. This takes faith and trust (ultimately, those things may be all that are truly real).

One of my major recommendations is to do a thorough self-inventory. This means answering , completely honestly , such questions as: Why am I here on Earth? What do I value? What do I find to be essential in my life? What are my talents and gifts? What activities do I find to be truly joyful (ones that I literally en-joy)? Getting clear about the answers to those questions is very important. This is a constant process that is not done just once, but continually , or at least periodically. It's important to note that there are no "right" or "wrong" answers to these questions , just personal truth. A good way to do this is to do it with a group of people who are also interested in moving in the direction of un-jobbing , to have a meeting and then, one by one, go around the circle and answer those questions out loud to the others. The people, besides the speaker, merely listen and do not judge; they just give their ears and hearts as receptors.

I have done this in workshops and found that amazing things happen when people get together in groups and speak their heart-felt answers out loud to others who respectfully listen to them. People are often surprised by what they say when said in a more public way than just silently thinking to themselves. The latter can often keep a personal truth buried. If a person speaks his/her truth in public, then there is a stronger likelihood that this person will begin to act upon it.

Once questions like that are answered, the next step is to answer the question: What is my ideal life , without regard to money? Again, answering this question out loud in front of a group of respectful, listening others will have more empowerment. Along with doing a program of what I call "conscious personal economics," working on the above questions can move a person in the direction of his/her ideal life. (One may never get there. Life is a journey, not a destination.)

There are ways of earning money that I have done since un-jobbing that I never would have predicted before I started. The major one is, of course, my book Un-jobbing! I didn't un-job with the idea of writing a book about un-jobbing. One day the book Un-jobbing will fade away and I will continue to be an un-jobber who is making ends meet. Don't ask me how , I have no idea! The point here is that we can't know how everything is going to work out. Do some good "homework"; keep taking some baby steps which feel good and make sense, and see what happens and where things lead.

You can read this interview in its entirety at Home Education Magazine. Read more about Michael Fogler's book Unjobbing: The Adult Liberation Handbook at Why Work?
© Peter Kowalke

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Navigating the System of Class Privilege in Higher Education: An Interview with the Smith College Association of Class Activists

By Matt Dineen

In the United States, access to a college education is still a privilege not available to everyone. As the tuition rates continue to climb through the roof and competition for financial aid increases, more and more people are shut out of this system. What about those who do make it in? How does their class background affect the quality of education that they receive from local community colleges to the most elite university?

Recently I spoke with Cara Sharpes and Katie Zanetta, Smith College students active in a campus organization that addresses issues around class and privilege, about their experiences as low income students at an elite educational institution.


Katie: I’m Katie Zanetta and I’m about to start my senior year at Smith College as a non-traditionally-aged student.

Cara: My name’s Cara Sharpes and I’m also a non-traditional age student at Smith. I’m also the leader of the Smith Association of Class Activists (SACA). We started off last Spring with a small group of seniors who basically wanted to make sure that something was started since they had such a hard road at Smith as low income students and first generation students. They wanted to just bring a group of students together. This Fall, myself and another student formed officially through the SGA (Student Government Association) and started having events and meetings. So we’re pretty new.

What was the initial inspiration for forming this organization?

C: I think we realized what a powerful experience it was to get together and just talk about our similar experiences as people who are navigating the system with no one coming before us in most cases. And just trying to figure out where we belong and being the minority certainly as low income students. From there realizing that there just really needed to be a dialogue on campus about class and how there was such a blindness to that. How every other socially conscious issue had been spoken about at length except for class and just showing the campus how it had to come to the forefront.

So the group was started by low income students. Has it broadened its base since then?

C: Yeah, we started off being defined primarily as a low income, first generation alliance and then from there quickly broadened to allow allies because we realized that we weren’t just interested in having a support group. We were really interested in bringing people together over issues of class and making a difference on campus. And there were so many allies that wanted to come and help us on class issues. So many activists who were willing to get involved and we didn’t want to narrowly define our group that way.

Katie, do you want to talk about how you got involved in the group?

K: Yeah. I was brand-spanking new at Smith in the Fall and I was walking around campus one day and I saw a flier, one of these great, wonderful, snarky little fliers that they put up that said something to effect of: “Have you heard? Why don’t you just ask your parents for the money? We have.” And I thought, I don’t know who those people are but they are clearly my people. So I sought the group out and I was really happy I did because I think that class ends up being very invisible at Smith. I wasn’t used to that. I had come from a state school—actually UMass-Boston was where I transferred from. It’s not only a state institution but an urban-focused institution where class is not invisible because we were all of a similar class background at UMass-Boston. So it was really hard for me to go into an environment where I felt out of sorts but there was no way to articulate that within the institution.

In what other ways did it differ when you started at Smith?

K: A lot of things are wonderful. Just the resources that are available are…

C: Mind-boggling.

K: Mind-boggling, yeah. It’s incredible what you have available to you but if you’re not used to that I also think that you don’t really know how to go about accessing them or to understand that you’re entitled to them. This is something that a lot of students don’t have a problem with—of course they’re entitled to the resources there. Even now, just learning how that process works and learning that they are actually there for me to take advantage of is still something that I can’t totally integrate with my past or my perspective on the world.

Or even knowing to ask. I think a lot of students come in just struggling by themselves and not knowing that they are so many people that they can ask and that it’s an institution that set up to help their students once they’re there. It’s a really hard thing to learn coming from most places where you’re just left to sink or swim.

Can you talk about how you both came to arrive at Smith College given your class backgrounds? How did that happen and what goals to you have now that you have entered into this more elite institution?

K: I had sort of a long winding path. I’ve done everything from factory work to just really low-level, pink collar, ghetto administrative work. And that’s what I was doing before I decided to go back to school. I was actually an ‘executive administrative assistant,’ which was great because it was the best paying job I had ever had but it couldn’t take me any further than that. I was 24 and I had maxed out. I knew that I had to go back to school, not only for the learning potential but because I needed to have that degree. It was a matter of validation and it was something that had always eluded me because of my financial circumstances. I couldn’t go right out of high school because there was no money for that and so I spent years just trying to work and become an independent student. So I ended up quitting my job and going back to school at UMass fulltime and then came to Smith actually sort of on a dare. A friend of mine was applying and said, “You have to apply. We’ll go together.” And in the end I decided that I wouldn’t be able to tell her that I hadn’t applied and I was actually going to lie to her and say that I didn’t get accepted and I realized that I couldn’t do that. So I did apply and I got in and she didn’t. Even that process was difficult—I had to call the admissions office at one point and ask them to pull my application because it occurred to me that if they processed my application check I would bounce. And so even to that point I almost didn’t get there because I was like, “No you can’t! I’m not gonna have enough money to cover that.” But who knows. I really don’t want to continue to work. That’s my impetus for being at a great school. (Laughs)

What do you mean by work?

K: I know what a real job is like and it’s not very fun. I don’t want to do that anymore. I think it’s great but it’s not what I want to do right now.

So where do you see yourself after Smith?

K: Grad school. And then hopefully academia.

How about you Cara?

C: I think I had a somewhat similar experience as Katie. My path to school took a long time. When I was in high school I had this image of school that was very much like Smith. I was really gunning for little, private, quiet colleges that I had really glossy, pretty brochures not realizing that that was highly unattainable. And my mom let me know at some point that this just wasn’t realistic for us, which is ironic now knowing they probably could’ve offered me a lot more financial aid than a lot of the places she was pushing me to apply. But we didn’t know that, we had not navigated the system before. So I ended up going to the local community college and dropping out and going back and dropping out because I was working fulltime and I was really burnt and it really wasn’t where I wanted to be. So it took me a while to just plod through that and get the half way point, the Associate’s Degree, and all the time working a string of fairly demeaning jobs: factory work, selling vacuums at some point, mainly restaurant work and getting really, really burnt on that. And from there, after I got my Associate’s and I felt free to figure out what my options were I took my time and really tried to figure out what school fit me best and Smith just kept coming up. And I didn’t even realize the weight of Smith’s name at the time, but I just went for it anyway and it worked out more than state schools that couldn’t offer me as much money. So that’s why I ended up here.

So where do you see yourself after Smith?

C: Ugh…That’s a really good question. I don’t feel like I have a vision yet. When I think about my family, my grandmother’s best vision for my mom was to be a secretary and to not have to work in the plant, and for my mom it was for us to go to college and I don’t know what it looks like after college. Just getting here was hard enough, I have no idea what is on the other side.

Let’s get back to SACA. Can you talk about the work that you have done on campus?
C: Sure. We’ve done a couple of forums where we’ve tried to kind of break the ice about class. Some of them have been a little disappointing. We’ve done them in conjunction with the SGA and have been a little bit out of our control as far as programming goes and we weren’t sure how we felt about the results. We started off being called Association of Class Awareness, but after these discussions we realized that maybe awareness isn’t exactly where it’s at. Maybe we need to get beyond awareness and get to action because there’s a lot of awareness of class privilege and there was just a lot of discussion about guilt. One of our buttons for fundraising now is: “Guilt is not an Action.” We aren’t interested in guilt. You have to push past that. We’re trying to get a little further into that. We’ve also been working on some other projects. We wanted to create a resource guide for students to teach them to navigate the system in a way that most of the seniors had once they had gotten to the end and learned the hard way. We’re working on a documentary on class experiences at Smith. There’s so much. We’re working on a zine right now. We’re working with the administration and the Dean’s office trying to make resources more readily available. There are just pockets of funding all over campus that you can apply to but it’s a really bureaucratic, red tape-laden system so you really have to jump through hoops for it. We’re trying to teach students that they’re there and how to access them and make it easier for everybody.

K: And a lot of important work around helping the administration be aware of the way in which the language they use to talk about low income and working class or first generation students is really tokenizing and difficult for a lot of the students to deal with. They’ll sort of throw around statistics about financial aid or about first generation or low income students and it’s almost like someone talking to you as if you aren’t there. And in a way to bolster a certain aspect of the college’s reputation but there’s a big problem about how those students are supported once they get there. And I think that that’s been really helpful, just pointing things out that I don’t think that many people who we’ve talked to about it before would’ve considered about how the language is really difficult.
You can contact the Smith Association of Class Activists at To read this interview in its entirety check out Toward Freedom.

Matt Dineen is a writer and activist living Northampton, MA. His Passions and Survival project explores the collective dilemma of following our passions while surviving in a capitalist society. This interview was conducted on his radio program of the same name and theme on Valley Free Radio . You can contact him at

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Risk of Change: Thinking and Acting Globally and Locally

By Matt Dineen

Think Globally—Act Locally,” read the fading bumper stickers on thousands of cars and guitar cases across the United States. This influential statement has defined a popular activist strategy that politically connects our local movements with those in other countries. But what does this idea really mean and where has it gotten those of us working toward social change in our communities and across the world? How does the challenge to think globally and act locally play out in our everyday lives?

These questions have been plaguing me lately. Three years after the start of the Iraq War, I’m trying to reconcile the gap between my antiwar activism as a student before the bombing began and my current reality as a twentysomething worker struggling to survive. Three years ago I was part of a vibrant global movement working to obstruct the US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. It was powerful to know that we were in the streets protesting simultaneously with millions of other people in solidarity around the world. Despite our numbers and sustained efforts against the war “the other superpower,” as the New York Times called us, was defeated and the brutal occupation continues to this day. The antiwar movement is still active but the urgency that fueled us in 2003 has been largely extinguished as we attempt to figure out what went wrong and what we can do now.

Recently, now nearly three years out of college, I found myself trying to remain politically active while working an alienating service job. After speaking with a number of my coworkers off the clock it was clear that we all had issues with our boss and the way things were run. If we could get together and organize then we could collectively address these issues and improve our working conditions. The primary demand, beyond more dignity and freedom, was an increase in the length of our lunch breaks to match the legal standard. I saw it as an opportunity to put my politics into action. It didn’t work out that way though. Without a union we were vulnerable to the economic control our boss exerted over us. After all, we were all working there because we needed jobs so we could pay the bills and feed ourselves. It became too risky.

What is the connection between these failed global and local struggles? I want to dissect both of them in terms of how they are intertwined in a larger system and to try to learn from our failures as we forge ahead toward creating a better society—locally and globally.

In these two campaigns, one to prevent a war and the other to democratize a workplace, the targets of power were very different. On the one hand we had Bush as the personification of the empire that was waging war. On the other was the owner of a small, local business. The former wielded vast political power on a global scale, while the latter possessed power that only affected her small staff. How did our relationship to this power, in both cases, affect our strategies for affecting change as activists?

It seems obvious that the potential for the successful reform of a workplace would be greater than that of the ambitious task of stopping a war. This is clearly true but it becomes more complex when we factor in the dilemma of risk involved in each campaign. In my personal experience the risks associated with protesting the war was less than organizing my workplace. This may appear counterintuitive but the reality is that the cost of dissent is higher when we are able to directly confront our oppressors. The possibility of change is better but the act of initiating such a confrontation can be downright terrifying.

I think back to World War I and the Vietnam War and the passionate struggles against both of those horrific episodes in our history. During World War I, antiwar agitators were imprisoned and sometimes even deported for merely speaking out against it. Decades later, the young people drafted into the unjust war in Southeast Asia faced immense risk, until the movement reached a critical mass, when they burned their draft cards or demonstrated in the streets. Some were jailed or denied the right to an education while others were forced to flee the country.

My experience as a student antiwar activist was dramatically different. In my work mobilizing groups to represent our school at national actions or local protests, reporting back from these events, and speaking publicly against the war I never felt that what I was doing involved any serious personal risk. In fact, my activism was inspired by the belief that to not take action, to remain complicit in my government’s policies was more dangerous. I also went to a liberal college where there was a virtual consensus for peace and against Bush. And even though it was surrounded by a conservative population in rural New York State, our local activity was supported by other activists in the area. The day after the invasion began we marched into the center of the small neighboring town where tension between the college and the locals was present but complex. Despite a prevailing pro-war sentiment we never faced the threat of violence or repression.

The week before the war started we held a campus-wide student strike in conjunction with hundreds of schools across the country. Most of our professors worked with us as classes were transformed into antiwar teach-ins. Even the president of the college participated in the evening panel discussion on the responsibility of educational institutions in opposing war. This further strengthened us as we felt part of a global movement working against the proposed military action. The month before that we marched with over one million others in New York City in solidarity with dozens of other protests around the world. February 15th saw the largest worldwide demonstration in history as millions of people in every single continent (even Antarctica) sent a powerful message to Bush to rethink his plans.

This is all to say that to speak out and take action against the onslaught of war was simultaneously empowering and risk-free. I vehemently argued against the notion that the war was inevitable and sincerely believed that we could prevent it from happening. Coming out of the global justice movement that successfully shut down the World Trade Organization in Seattle just a few years before I felt that if our numbers were big enough and we were persistent in our actions and our persuasive case for peace and justice then we were destined to win. But this is not how things turned out. Even though we had the entire world on our side the targets of power in this campaign were too untouchable to directly confront. Or maybe we just did not try hard enough.

The situation at my workplace differed immensely from the daunting landscape of this effort to slow down empire. Unlike Bush or Rumsfeld we would see our boss virtually everyday that we worked. She had opened the business just a couple years before and would often put in 90 hour work weeks—in other words, she was always around. Her micro-managerial psychosis created a stressful environment for all of her staff. Many of my coworkers were on friendly terms with her despite the underlying tension and discontent. Some even attended her wedding. The first two months I worked there I felt isolated and alone with my issues about the workplace conditions. The fast food-like pace seemed inhuman to me and after working a 9 hour shift with only a 15 minute break from being on my feet I knew that something was wrong. My analysis ran deeper as I resented the hierarchical and undemocratic decision-making structure that is the standard of capitalist workplaces. We had little or no say over things that seriously impacted our lives. Bi-monthly “staff meetings” involved our boss telling us what we were not doing well enough followed by a brief discussion of what we could do to improve our communication. Nobody dared to bring up any grievances primarily out of fear of prolonging these tiresome meetings.

With another staff meeting looming less than two weeks away some of us began to talk about getting together outside of work beforehand to discuss issues that we wanted to address to our boss. Without going into the unnecessary details we failed to gather before the meeting as we had planned. This caused us to be unprepared when it arrived and instead of putting her on the defense about her illegal business practices we were subjected to a lecture about improving customer service. When the floor was opened for discussion nobody said anything critical and we just walked out of there in shock. I left the job later that week for reasons unrelated to these issues. It was frustrating because I was sick of merely complaining about how bad things were and wanted to actually stand up and do something about it. It made me realize that people will often passively endure unhealthy conditions in order to maintain financial and personal stability. We compromise our desire to survive under capitalism. We could’ve tried taking the place over but none of us wanted that kind of responsibility for something in which we were so alienated. Even politely asking our boss to change things seemed scary, too risky.

This makes me wonder how bad things have to get before we have no choice but to do something. How can we expect to improve things on a global scale when we can’t even successfully improve our immediate conditions locally? I think of my universe of obligation and how much it has expanded since I became politically active as a student activist. I was no longer just concerned with the wellbeing of myself, my family and friends. Working for peace and justice is about also improving the lives of those in our communities and doing something about how our government’s actions influence and often destroy other communities around the world.

In terms of connecting these issues together I think back to one of the most compelling arguments the antiwar movement presented to the supporters and logicians of the “war on terror.” In response to their claim that invading Iraq was essential to avenge the 9-11 attacks and to prevent further terrorism we responded that the war will have the opposite effect making us less safe. Here we prophetically connected the global and local while turning the case for war on its head. As the occupation continues and the number of casualties on both sides mount we begin to see who is most directly affected by this war. This explains why the most outspoken and most active segment of our movement, despite the very serious risks involved, are veterans and their families.

But how can we prevent other wars from beginning in the first place while also working toward improving our local communities and the schools and workplaces that shape our lives? One month before the war began, Michael Albert of Z Net provided some constructive insight for this struggle. He wrote, “Success is not a single ‘all or nothing’ affair…Whether this war occurs or not, our on-going task is unchanged. We must grow larger, more conscious, more militant, more organized—to try to prevent this war and the next one, to reverse globalization, and to continually challenge and eventually replace basic defining institutions.” Albert continues, “None of this will happen overnight. But we are on a path toward all of it, and we need to realize that's our trajectory, to take it seriously, and to work tirelessly toward it.”

As I write this I find myself back at my old workplace drinking coffee that one of my former coworkers served me. I overhear some of the regular customers, oblivious to the issues of worker discontent here, conversing about Iraq and Bush’s plummeting approval rating. I think about the potential for change here, in this space where I sold so many of my labor hours, and about change on a global scale. Despite the challenges we face I remain hopeful that a new world is on the horizon. I think it will be worth the risk.
This article was written for Toward Freedom, a progressive perspective on world events.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Do You Wanna Work or Do You Wanna Job?

By Patrick McGaugh

The story, of unknown origin, goes something like this: An American investment banker, visiting a small village in Mexico, encounters a Mexican fisherman. The fisherman describes his life: "I sleep late, fish a little, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life."

The American scoffs at the fisherman’s lack of ambition and goes into great detail about how he could expand his small business and make millions. "Then what?" asks the fisherman.

"Then you would retire," replies the American. "Move to a small village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos."

Increasingly, the American ideal of success is being questioned, propelling at least two streams of thought about jobs and work. One is a critique of "busyness" itself — summed up most succinctly by Bertrand Russell’s 1931 essay "In Praise of Idleness" and given some cachet by the growing voluntary simplicity movement.

It’s a point of view starkly portrayed by Mike Judge’s screen satire "Office Space." In a workplace where his bosses clothe cynical micromanagement in phony politeness and "teamwork," antihero Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) makes a decision to drop out of the rat race — on the job, that is. As he assumes a surprisingly invulnerable chutzpah, a friend asks him what he would prefer to do with his time. "I would do nothing," he asserts.

Yet not everyone who hates jobs also hates work. A second emerging trend is one in which some would say, "I would do everything." These are folks who demand work they can genuinely get excited about and doesn’t conflict with their values. Broadly speaking, this might be called the "right livelihood" movement, although the social import of individual choices is open to different interpretations. "Erin Brockovich" is one example of following one’s activist passions; "Billy Elliot" — the story of a boy pursuing his dream of dancing — quite another. One’s right livelihood may also be a product of time freed up for nonpaying pursuits, as opposed to jobs per se.

I swim in the streams of both "nothing" and "everything." For the past 18-years I’ve had one of those Rodney Dangerfield jobs, substitute teaching ("I get no respect..."). I’ve spent many years beating myself up over my failure to get and keep a "real" job. However, lately my research and reflection have led me to turn common conceptions of "success" and "failure" on their heads. I’ve come to see that time often means more to me than money, as a low-pressure work situation has allowed me to pursue political activism, spiritual practice, a healthier lifestyle (knock on wood), and the life of an insane media junkie (I must know everything). Another part of me is a real romantic about work, provided it’s something I genuinely want to do. Still, money wouldn’t hurt.

These tensions are hardly unique to me. And as technology alters the pace and face of work in the infancy of this new century, "love work" and "hate work" each bid to remake labor — and by extension, remaking society — as each point of view both competes with and informs the other.
To read this article in its entirety check out: Conscious Choice.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Redefining Success Beyond the "Quarterlife Crisis"

By Matt Dineen

“A bomb-maker or a comedian.” When I was 8 years old, this is what I would respond when grownups or peers asked me the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’m not really sure where this came from. I wasn’t particularly funny and I was much more interested in geography and baseball than weapons manufacturing. Back then, I didn’t even know what that meant. This response was arbitrary, random and served only to shock and confuse the people asking this seemingly soul-searching inquiry.

Fast forward 16 years...“What do you want to be when you grow up?” has (d)evolved into: “What do you do?” I am grown up now so what have I become? What am I doing? The prevalence of these questions reveals a lot about our culture. Its obsession with work and jobs begins to shape us from the moment we are able to speak these words. From the very beginning we are conditioned to base our (future) identities around our jobs. This is a cultural assumption that we are discouraged from ever questioning. It is taken for granted throughout our lives.

So what have I become? What am I doing? After high school I attended a small liberal arts college for four years and received a bachelor’s degree nearly 3 years ago. During this time out of school my paid work has more closely resembled that of a teenage wage-slave seeking parental independence than that of a skilled college graduate. In a work-obsessed culture this situation creates a disconnect between “what we do” and what we enjoy and are capable of doing. It affects those of us in our twentysomething years more dramatically than others because this is when we start to confront the complexities of the so-called real world. But the collective dilemma of living in a capitalist society is the ongoing struggle to follow our passions while surviving.

The quarterlife crisis is unique because it is when we begin to viscerally understand that our cultural conditioning around work and success is nothing but mythology and functions only to preserve the status quo. It is when we learn that a college degree does not guarantee you anything close to job security. We start to grapple with the dilemma of passions and survival as we search for a semblance of meaning in a society that is based on an empty construction of material success and power.

In my experience with the quarterlife crisis it has been essential to personally reject these constructions and expectations in an attempt to redefine success and wellbeing. My life goal does not involve getting a powerful job and making more money than I really need at the expense of others. It is not centered around acquiring and consuming lots of things and turning toward these material possessions for happiness. I have tried to live a simple lifestyle that does not require a 40 hour a week wage job. By cutting back on reckless consumerism and by living in places where I don’t need a car I have been able to have more “free time” to pursue my true interests.

This is not to suggest that I haven’t struggled as much as other twentysomethings or that I have somehow transcended this crisis. I have been riddled with financial debt for over a year now and that’s not even counting the massive student loans that I have been nervously deferring. In between periods of unemployment I have worked a number of jobs that have been unfulfilling and have interfered with sustaining inspiration to follow my passions.

The most recent example was at a café where I took drink orders, made sandwiches, washed dishes, and cleaned the bathrooms. This particular café happened to be in the same building as a national media literacy organization that I had respected for years. It was so frustrating for me to be downstairs working a job that I hated when all I wanted was to be upstairs working with them. Occasionally, I fantasized about what it looked like up there and how much happier I would be doing research about issues around race, class and gender in the media than I was cleaning off tables and mopping the floor. Instead I just tried to carve out time for my own writing and research and for playing music and staying politically active.

In my quest to redefine success it has also been important for me to be connected to a network of independent, underground culture. This world has provided me with mentors and models of what uncompromised success can look like. From indie musicians and artists to community organizers and radical school teachers, there are people out there that have made it through this quarterlife struggle and are able to fully incorporate their passions into their daily lives. It has been really inspiring for me to speak with people who have actualized this dream, completely on their terms and in line with their values. This gives me hope as I continue to work a wage job that is separate from what I really want to be doing with my life.

I think back to the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? In a sense, what I am doing now seems just as strange and implausible as being a bomb-making comedian. When I was 8 years old I didn’t have a full understanding of how complex life under capitalism can be. Although we are molded to conform to a rigid occupation-based identity the reality of growing up is much more complicated. In order to thrive during this transitional moment we need to embrace the fact that our lives are multidimensional and from there do everything we can to follow our passions and redefine the recipe for happiness.
Matt Dineen is a freelance writer living and working in Northampton, MA. This piece has been submitted to an anthology about the "quarterlife crisis." Go to Quarter-Life-Crisis to learn more about the project. Submissions are due March 31st.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Passions & Survival Radio

Passions and Survival is now a radio show! Every Monday morning between 9:00 and 10:00 am, Matt Dineen will be hosting this new show on WXOJ-LP, Valley Free Radio 103.3 FM in Northampton, MA. It will further explore the collective dilemma of following our passions while surviving in a capitalist society. Guests from the local community will be interviewed about their personal struggles within a larger context of transforming society. Essays, relevant news topics and socially conscious, independent music will be mixed in as well.

Currently, Valley Free Radio is not webcasting but it will be soon. People outside of the Pioneer Valley can stay updated and learn more about the station by visiting its website.

Talk hard.

Double Lives Commentary

Double Lives: The Dilemma of Education and Work under Capitalism was published last month on and has received some feedback and criticism. Some of the comments were posted below the article. You can read them here: Double Lives.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Double Lives: The Dilemma of Education and Work under Capitalism

By Matt Dineen

“Whatever you do, just don’t get stuck in a dead-end job.” These words had a powerful effect on me and have occupied my consciousness over the past seven years. It was the summer after my high school graduation and this advice was given to me while I was working in the mechanized bakery of a large grocery store chain. My coworker had been there for over 20 years and now, in the midst of back problems and middle-age, she was unhappy with her life and urged me not to make the same mistake.

I escaped that dead-end job in August to attend an increasingly respectable liberal arts college. Graduating four years later with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, I returned to the workforce with an education that provided me the opportunity to avoid getting “stuck.” But in the past two and a half years I have not succeeded in transcending wage-slavery. Rather, I have struggled with the collective dilemma of life under capitalism: How do we follow our passions while simultaneously survive? It is the challenge of life in the “real world,” in which we often have to neglect the things that are important to us in order to feed ourselves. It’s the reality of the artist who waits tables and the activist working for a big corporation. We are forced to compromise our true interests, what keeps us going, simply to make ends meet. We are resigned to the economic imperatives of survival.

Education is supposed to remedy this dilemma. The mythology of American class mobility is epitomized by the cliché, “I was the first in my family to go to college.” What function does education serve in a capitalist society? Does it really provide people with a chance to freely pursue their passions?

Unlike many of my friends growing up I had the privilege, thanks to financial aid and student loans, to attend college. Perhaps because of this I also experienced social pressure upon graduation to “do something with my education” and “find something in my field.” Being in this position has been difficult for me on two levels: First, like every other college graduate with no connection to the economic-political elite, it is not that simple to land an empowering and lucrative job right after school. Secondly, I have no desire to conform to a social construction of success that values wealth and power over personal wellbeing.

In his autobiography of his early years as writer, Hand to Mouth, Paul Auster articulates this dilemma describing the “double lives” that writers and artists must lead to survive in a capitalist society. “They earn good money at legitimate professions and carve out time for their writing as best they can: early in the morning, late at night, weekends, vacations.” In his personal rejection of this compromise he explains, “My problem was that I had no interest in leading a double life. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to work, but the idea of punching a clock at some nine-to-five job left me cold, utterly devoid of enthusiasm.” Auster continues: “I was in my early twenties, and I felt too young to settle down, too full of other plans to waste my time earning more money than I either wanted or needed. As far as finances went, I just wanted to get by.”

For me, this dilemma has translated into a string of alienating and menial jobs. While leading a “double life” I have been forced to segregate my passions from my work, my means for survival. I have carved out time for writing, music and activism but the sub-living wage jobs have drained my energy and inspiration. Last year I worked at a natural grocery cooperative stocking frozen foods and dairy products. One day I found myself on my knees in the walk-in storage refrigerator cleaning up a jar of pickles that I had dropped right before my shift ended. In that moment I knew that there had to be something more than this. I had to find something more meaningful to do with my life. But I have been unsuccessful in my applications to jobs that are “in my field.” From collectively-run bookstores to independent media organizations there are always a plethora of educated and qualified applicants in the same position as me desperately searching for something better.

This is not simply a “quarter-life crisis.” It is an issue that many people in our society deal with all their lives. My coworker in the bakery who warned me about getting stuck in a dead-end job has spent three decades separating her passions from a stifling 40 hour work week. Unlike me, she did not have the same access to resources that a college education provides. This has been a common story amongst working people throughout US history. So many people spend the majority of their lives at jobs they hate. Some carve out time to pursue higher education deep into middle-age in hope of creating a more rewarding life.

In response to a recent interview on Toward Freedom that I conducted with Pittsburgh activist Andalusia Knoll on “Redefining Work,” an inspired reader described this exact situation:

“I have been in the workforce since 1966, without any wealth to show for it. More importantly, the last few years (advertising encouraging people to buy more of what they don’t need) have been totally unfulfilling. At 55 years old, I went back to school to get a quick degree. I found out what I really missed was learning. So, I am going to grad school next year and will work part-time as necessary and perhaps seek a Ph.D. I also volunteer with Greater Philadelphia Cares and am much happier than I was getting and spending.”

The last job I had was at a coffeehouse in the small New England college town where I currently live. I found the work, ownership, and most of the clientele of the café oppressive and spiritually nauseating but I stuck with it because I needed a job. The other thing that kept me there were my amazing coworkers. They were all in similar places with their lives as I was—mostly college grads struggling to go somewhere bigger in this moment of personal transition. We were not simply baristas, dishwashers or counter help. When we weren’t making sandwiches, steaming lattes or cleaning toilets we were pursuing photography, massage therapy, poetry, radio production, journalism, and music—our true passions. Despite our boss’ contrived efforts to convince us otherwise, these were the things that were most important in our lives and the café was a mere stepping stone to something more.

In her book, The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work, Joanne B. Ciulla describes her similar experience with this transitional moment as she was advancing her education in pursuit of what she loved to do. She worked part-time in a restaurant when she wasn’t studying or teaching undergraduate courses in philosophy:

“I worked alongside a ballet dancer and a model. We all had great ambitions. The manager took sadistic delight in making fun of our aspirations and verbally abusing us. I don’t know what happened to the manager, but the dancer eventually went on to become a prima ballerina, the model ended up on the cover of Italian Vogue, and I landed a fellowship at the Harvard Business School.” Ciulla continues, “This experience helped me understand the relationship between hope and work. We can endure the worst of jobs, if it is reasonable to hope that the job will get us where we want to go or at least feed us along the way.”

This passage resonates so deeply with our collective experience of working at the aforementioned café. One day, one of my coworkers stood next to me as I washed dishes at the industrial sink in the back. She looked at me and stated, in a tone of disbelief and wonderment, “This is our life, Matt. This is what we are doing.” This seemingly simple statement contained enough meaning for me to fill volumes and volumes of books on the human condition.

This is our life. This is what we are doing.

Her relationship with work and hope was shaped by her passion for photography. In her double life outside of baking pastries she was creating a portfolio from photos developed in the dark room she built in her apartment. Along with another coworker, she was applying to graduate school for photography in hopes of escaping this job that was slowing us all down. This is an example of how education has the potential to liberate us from “dead-end” situations in which we are forced to compromise the pursuit of our passions.

Despite all of this, it is important to reiterate that it is still a privilege in this society to acquire such an education. Throughout history the power of the ruling, educated classes has depended on depriving the majority of the population such an education; hence the phrase: “Knowledge is power.” The social movements of the 20th Century were integral in democratizing education in the United States but this structural inequality is still in place today. Furthermore, we need to recognize and criticize the limitations and failures of existing educational institutions and their role in perpetuating these unequal power structures.

In my personal struggle to follow my passions in this complex society, I will forever remember the advice of my coworker that summer before I began my college education. I want to be conscious of my opportunities and privileges of which she was denied. In this struggle I will also be inspired by the words of Boris Pasternak:

“The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike, and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune.”
Matt Dineen is a freelance writer living in Northampton, MA.