Monday, March 19, 2007

Beyond Available Alternatives: An Interview with Rob Scott

By Matt Dineen

"What are you for?" Variations of that question were constantly hurled at the early global justice movement that erupted, in the U.S. at least, in Seattle during the actions which shut down the WTO meetings in 1999. This was often an attempt by the corporate media to discredit the movement as a group of aimless idealists protesting just for the sake of protesting. But in recent years, particularly with the rise of global and regional social forums, activists within the movement have taken that question seriously by prioritizing the need for visions of the kind of worlds that we want to live in.

Nearly a decade before the Seattle uprising, a school opened in Urbana, IL dedicated to making those worlds a reality. The School for Designing a Society invites its students to ask the question: "What would I consider a desirable society?" and spend an entire semester designing projects toward realizing that desire. Recently I had a chance to sit down with Rob Scott who is one of the School's full-time instructor's specializing in cybernetics and ecological design. He came on my radio program "Passions and Survival" where we discussed what it would be like to live in a society beyond the one we have now.

Let’s start with the School for Designing a Society. Can you describe what it is and how you got involved with it?

The School for Designing a Society is a project started by activists and artists, composers, poets, people interested in language, politics, economics, and social change. It is aimed at trying to create a space for people to talk about the world as they would like it to be rather than only talk about it as it currently is. So it was taken as a point of departure that people already have a critique of the current society and that’s well known. Just because one has an articulate critique there’s no evidence, that I’ve seen, that one can go directly from the critique of the existing society to one that they prefer. Some space, some time, some environment has to be set up where people can speak with each other about, “What would we put in the place of the system that we disapprove of?”

So we get students that are interested in living in a different society. And rather than start off commiserating with each other about what we don’t like, we try to put a temporary suspension on the discourse of criticism and complaint and encourage people to make proposals as to how they’d like to see the world be otherwise. And to that, the semester unrolls itself in a set of classes, seminars, often discussions and readings, aimed at generating projects, generating activities, works of art, political campaigns—whatever it is that would meet the desires of the women and men who come to the school hoping that society could be otherwise. And looking to generate evidence, because the society we prefer doesn’t sit before us and ask us to simply just hit a button on it. You actually have to sort of make up the language to talk to about it. So that’s mainly what the discussions are aimed at.
Some people frame this challenge in terms of vision and it seems like this is a very visionary project. At a talk that I saw Michael Albert give about radical visions for radical change he discussed how in the past thirty or forty years, if you piled up the manifestations of the critique of existing structures it would go miles into the sky. But then if you made another pile of visionary work dedicated to productively contributing toward alternatives it wouldn’t go past his knee. So it seems like what you guys are doing is very urgent in that sense.

Yeah, it’s precisely that. And it’s not meant as a slander or negation of those that make life work of trying to simply put language to describing the oppression that occurs in the current society and trying to give a voice to those that have always been oppressed by the structure of society as it currently exists. Rather it’s to say that, we do that too and we want in addition to that—not as a substitution or a deletion—but in addition, we want to have this other type of discussion. We would also like it to be that somewhere in the world there’s a time that we say: No, now critique, we check it at the door with our coat, and maybe along with our ego too, and that we don’t know what society it is that want; and that if somebody has got some idea or some starting point we take it seriously. And I could say, in response to Albert’s thing, I’ve at least got a file cabinet that comes up to my neck. So, we do generate quite a bit of stuff in Urbana.
I’m curious about your response to people who are uncomfortable with this idea in general, in terms of trying to map out alternatives. I think there’s this hesitancy towards it as people are afraid of it becoming a so-called “blueprint” for a new society that is too rigid. How do you respond to people who are hesitant to even engage with this sort of project?

Well, I agree. Certainly there’s a lot of people who are hesitant if somebody uses a word like blueprint because there are so many manifestations of that from the Twentieth Century that have so many awful consequences—social engineering projects that one wouldn’t find so savory to talk about first thing in the morning. I suspect that the main reason people get uncomfortable when they hear about the school is that it comes up in an environment in the current society. And in the current society, often times people are trying to keep their job, are trying to survive. So if one goes into, say, an academic department that’s basically making its living off of running a discourse of critique of the current system it can be pretty uncomfortable to hear someone come in and say: “Okay, but if we all already agree that we don’t want the current society when are we going to have a discussion about what would we prefer instead?” And that’s, to a large extent, why we wish to have a school that is separate because it’s not fair to our comrades who work in academia who are trying to have a critique of the current system to bring that discussion there. In a way, it’s already in the job description. It’s already built into the structure of the buildings that are there. You have libraries filled with books about the current system. If you’re talking about a system that doesn’t yet exist you’re in this little part called fiction or maybe somewhere in the English department, I don’t know.
But yeah, defenses against it—there are two types. There are people who really do want the current system. That’s another issue. There are people that, even miserable, will defend the current system, it won’t defend them. And they’ll sit there and they’ll get in your way and they’ll get upset. It might not make any sense in language, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make bodily sense to the person. And no insult against people who think and have adjusted their bodies to the current society because I suspect a lot of it comes from childhood conditioning, the necessity of safety. And most people on the planet Earth are brought up with the threat of violence if they challenge the status quo from a very early age. So it’s really, really weird that you could have a school for designing a society and not be burned at the stake. Go back a hundred years ago—this would not be in existence. A full-fledged, year-long school aimed at nothing else but proposing that society could be otherwise and doing whatever we can to bring that into existence. That’s not every era of history that you could get away with that. It’s a pretty unique moment right now. And so, people are shocked by it. They don’t know how to respond to it. This has never existed before. So no malice against people for being scandalized—in fact it’s probably invited.

Well, maybe we can get into more of the details about this project. The way we’ve been discussing it so far is rather vague. A “new society” could mean something potentially worse, to some people’s perceptions, than what we have now. What are some of the guiding values that are leading this project?
Well, that’s a good question. I’m not sure that I would wish to give a prescription. One of the main issues is that we are not sectarian, [believing] we already know which society we want. We’re mainly taking a departure from the arts and inviting people, especially people who haven’t had time in the arts. If you haven’t been in a performance department or studied performance you don’t know that people ask you to change your behavior, change your language, change the way you speak on the stage in front of a room full of people and say, “Just act differently.” And you have to act differently on the spot right then. It’s basically instant social change. And the people who are interested in fighting poverty or racism or any of the other oppressions that we live in our daily lives, whether it be on the bus or in our schools, families and so forth, that you can simply change the way you talk on the spot and the whole social environment changes on the spot. That’s mainly what we wish to get across—that that already is a step in the direction of freedom and not some specific program of, “Here’s how it should be…”

We want to illicit desire. I mean, the only extent to which I would say we have some values that we could put upon as a sort of requirement of being in the School is nonviolence: You’re not welcome to come to the school and use violence or oppress anyone. Beyond that, if you say you want it, if you’ve got desires—and by desire I mean something that’s not available in the current society that you’d like to see tried—if it’s nonviolent, non-oppressive and other people in the room feel that way; if you’ve got something you’d like to try in terms of a new social relationship, or just, “I’ve got this new word I’d like to try out,” or “I want to try a project, I think the way eat dinner together is fascist and I’d like to reorganize that,” go ahead. If Matt came to the School for Designing a Society, the invitation would be, “Let’s find out what Matt wants that would not be in the social world if not for Matt.” And not so much the very old fashioned image of school where you sort of pour knowledge into the heads of students and therefore they have it and that presumably helps things. I would say instead that, contrary to all the evidence, we’re hoping that discussion and human intelligence could be useful humans. And that’s not really a program.
Let’s get more into the issue of desire. I know that part of the goal of the School is to work toward creating a more desirable society. Can you make the distinction between desires versus wants or needs?
That’s a good way of putting it. I think of want as very general word. We use it in our daily lives in a colloquial way, which means casually, and we can say everything from, “I want a sip of water,” to “I want a different society.” And they’re two different things because having a sip of water isn’t hard. That’s an available alternative in the current society—for me at least, maybe not for everyone. Even if I say I want everyone to have access to water I’m starting to break the boundary of what’s possible in the current society because it’s structurally set up to make it not so. So I use the word desire when looking at available alternatives within the current society and [seeing] this is not on the plate of alternatives I already got. Or you could think of it as a range almost: To what extent would it be possible that the thing I’m asking for could be satisfied in the current society? And the extent to which it couldn’t be satisfied, that’s the extent to which I would say that’s a desirer taking place and not just a preferer. I think of it in terms of preference versus desire. Meaning, if you are just selectively agreeing with what the world already gives you, you have a preference and you aren’t actually calling anything into question or pushing for change.

Maybe to be a little more provocative, a lot of things that people say when they come to the School for Designing a Society initially, I would say, are preferences. Including: “I want a low-power FM radio station in town, I want community, I want a potluck every night, I want…” These are basic things. And again, no slander or critique against available alternatives, especially those ones. I mean I do those things—I’m on low-power radio right now! But the point is that in addition to that we can have this discussion of: Let’s see where that beginning of preference that we sort of get from our current society…where it starts to become desire is the extent to which it starts to challenge the structure of what already exists. “I want a low-power radio station in every single town.” Alright, that’s actually not available and the whole society might tremble a little bit if that became true. If I actually had that desire satisfied we might already be inching toward a different system. “I want everyone to have all their basic needs met.” That’s actually structurally out of wack with a planet in which 2 billion people have to spend most of their day walking to retrieve water. And you’re right to say, “How is it different than needs?” because needs are just about as far opposite as you can get from desires. Not only do they already exist in the current society but they’re proper to your body and…at least the way I talk about it.

When I use the word needs I’m talking about biological, body will break down and die if these conditions are not met. And that’s, I would argue, something that has to be considered if you’re interested in designing a society and doing it in a nonviolent and non-oppressive way.

The issue of needs is the survival piece of the passions and survival dilemma. What basic human needs do we have to fulfill and at what costs in the current society? I’ve been talking with a lot of people about how those needs affect their situations in terms of having to sell their hours at wage jobs and how that conflicts with the true passions that they want to be able to follow and the challenges of doing that. Maybe you could address this dilemma.
Yeah, I think I could. I would add though one term to what you’re bringing up. When I speak of needs I’m actually speaking of something proper to my body. And when I speak of, for instance jobs and money and quote-unquote, “I need a car” and all of that way of talking, I actually want to say that’s a property of the system we’re in but not a property of my body and therefore I’m going to use the word necessity. In the current system it’s a necessity that I have a car to get to work. When someone says that I’ll say, “Okay, I agree with that sentence.” But, “I need a car” is…I would claim that it is an undesirable way of speaking and we become victims of capitalism when we speak in terms of, “I need money to eat.” It’s actually grammatically absurd if you think about it. You don’t need money to eat. No one eats money. But in the current society I agree with you if you say that, “It’s of the utmost necessity that I have money in order to meet my need for nourishment.” I could steal, I could try to do other things, try finding fruit on trees or something. In the current system it will catch up with me and stop me from doing that at some point. So for me necessity is something where there’s usually a trace of some past system. Someone in the past desired something. There’s no need or requirement that society go in the direction of capitalism where all the necessities are owned. But it’s gone there. So now we’re left living in the traces of paradigms past and we speak with a language that’s supported institutional oppression and systemic violence. When we say these things we’re either aware of it or not aware of it. And what I want is that we begin to have a conversation to try to use that distinction: You’ve got desires and that’s something that’s not already on the menu of available alternatives. And then you’ve got needs and those never go away—I’m talking about nourishment, water, shelter from the elements, and I want to add things like touch. I almost want to add language and interaction—and those are proper to my body.

And in between those two zones, the zone of completely constructed stuff, just made up, you can have a society without radios. You can have a society without stop signs. All this stuff is traces of the fact that people decided to add something to the world that wasn’t already an alternative at some time in the past. In between there’s the necessities, the things that were wanted and somehow directly meet our needs for survival. I would like to live in a world in which the variety of ways in which the needs are met is an expanding variety, that there’s actually more alternatives there, that there would be more alternative necessities if you will. And it wouldn’t be that it all comes through the one channel. If you wanted to design a system—social engineering or controlling people—making it so there’s one way is an excellent control mechanism because every need gets met through the same chute and if you want to interfere with the whole society and how their needs are met you can interfere with that one chute. Especially if you speak of countries that import most of their food, they’re really just completely at the whims of the international market structures. And we might not experience it so much in our daily lives in this country but I would argue that in the next 50 years we probably will with respect to water and even certain other things because it’s inconceivable that any Americans I’ve met, U.S. citizens, would have access to the basic necessities that they meet their needs with without the petroleum economy and that’s going to be an issue. So the needs sort of clash in contradistinction to the desires, but they also have plenty of edge space in which you can make those kinds of connections.
Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Northampton, MA. He is currently on tour with Ben Dangl, the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007).

For more information about the School for Designing a Society visit their website:

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Who Stole My Time?

By Lilly Moss

Never enough time.

I spend two hours commuting each day and eight and a half hours daily at work. Consider how much additional time most people spend on shopping, watching television, and other passive entertainments. It's no wonder that life seems to pass us quickly by.

In prehistoric times, it's estimated that the daily chores, including food acquisition and preparation and other necessities, used about four hours daily, and those four hours were also social time.

When I was a kid in the late 50s and 60s, there was talk of the coming era of leisure time, of four day work weeks and extended vacations, of hobbies and do it yourselfing.

Our contemporary spiritually-ill culture demands that we move faster all the time, valuing speed for its own sake; that we spend the best hours of our day working for others for pay, often in personally meaningless tasks; that we see time doing nothing as lazy time and that we fill every unworking moment with passive entertainments.

In despair for time, I carefully apportion my weekends: this much time for art. This much time for loving play. This much for baking a cake or wandering along the frozen creek.

Who stole my time? I worked and drove my car and shopped and worried and did what I had to what I had to what I had to for 53 years and now I look back and mourn for the book I didn't write and the sunny days I was stuck inside at a job and the art school I never attended and the sledding expeditions with the kids I put off until the free time that never came.

Who stole my life?

Every day's pay I put away for the time when I will have enough to buy back my life from the Dominators.

Reposted from Lilly's blog The Good Earth.