The talk below was given as part of an event at El Kilombo social center in Durham, NC, titled "The End of an Era: The New Unrest and the Emerging Commonism," held on March 3, 2009 with guest speaker Gustavo Esteva. The event was part of El Kilombo's spring 2009 speaker series: "Things Unseen: Building Autonomy in a Time of Crisis."
The Emerging Commonism
by El Kilombo Intergaláctico
I want to start by saying that we have invited Gustavo here tonight because he and his work and his life have played an important role in ours and in the development of this space and this project, El Kilombo. When we began thinking about how to do something in our own surroundings that would have an effect on our own lives and the lives around us, something that was neither a campaign slogan, nor a charity effort, nor an isolated corner in which to either wallow or relish in our discontent, there were not exactly booming echoes of support and understanding around us. Nor did we immediately attract the masses or become a vanguard for progressive action in the area. Glory and recognition both in this society in general and in leftist circles in particular belongs to highly visible activity with highly visible results—be they massive momentary protests or widely published pieces or entry into the inner circle of analysts, activists, and academics huddled inside, and often guarding the doors, of the “progressive” community.
What we did become
What we did become was another kind of community, not big, not loud, not univocally coherent in any of the traditional senses of the term, and far from politically united on anything resembling the kind of platform political organizations are supposed to have. Rather, we began to be, and continue to become, a place in common. We mean this both in the sense of creating a place where people who ordinarily would not cross paths meet—students, migrants, communities of color, workers of various rank—as well as creating a project in which it becomes possible to assume collective control of our lives: our survival, yes—food, housing, health; but also our desire to grow and transform ourselves—our relationships, our daily reality, the energy to desire something and the capacity to create it. This is not a finished project or a guaranteed achievement. We know that we have to do it again and do it a little better every day.
A recent study said that in polls carried out before 1980, 10% of the US population said they had no one they would call a close friend and no one they could confide in; in 2008, 25% agreed with that statement (no close friend, no confidant). Current statistics vary widely citing the use of anti-depressants or mood-stabilizers as anywhere from 10% to 45%, and I site this with no judgment on their use or effectiveness, with an additional 13% on stress-related drugs; to which we must add self-medicating tendencies which include some of the 20% of the population using illicit substances and between 7% and 16% reporting very heavy alcohol use. The excess in these numbers reflect not a sick population so much as a sad one. Making a community, or creating a common, out of that context is no small task and no small triumph.
I didn’t know if Gustavo would give US-based data. So here are a few facts about our current conjuncture:
- Unemployment at 7.6%; 30% rise from 2007; 2 million jobs lost in 2008, with the job cut rate increasing at the record-setting rate in 2009; blacks have highest unemployment rate, followed by latinos, trailed by whites
- In addition salary cuts for those who manage to keep jobs
- Since the peak of the housing bubble in mid-2006, prices have fallen 20% and are expected to fall up to 50-60% before the plummet slows. They are not decreasing gradually but are rather in free fall
- Foreclosure rate rising steadily. In 2008 they had jumped 57% in a year: at that point one in every 538 houses undergoing foreclosure; now one in every 433. 2 million more expected to lose their homes in the next two years; affecting families of color at disproportional rates
- Sixteen banks have already failed this year compared with twenty-five in all of 2008. 250 more slated to fail.
- Americans have supplmented what was already a real wage decline with their credit cards, currently amounting to nearly 100 billion in collective credit card debt; this bubble is probably nearing its explosion point also as people lose jobs and houses and will be unable to make payments.
For a social fabric that is already thin, instability, uncertainty, and what will in many cases become desperation makes for a volatile situation. Even the evaluation “from above” recognizes the stakes: Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told Congress last week that the economic crisis had become a greater security concern than terrorism.
In this context, most people do not have much hope for, or much reason to believe, in change or liberation as an event or a point at which we will arrive in some moment. It is clear that this is nothing that charity or service-oriented organizations can handle. It should be increasingly clear to many people at this point that government, willing or not, has almost no capacity to actually resolve the current situation and limited capacity manage it. And in any case we should be clear by now that do not want to be the needy and dependent clients of either of these institutions, over which we have either no democratic control (NGOs and philanthropy) or only an artificial or simulated control (representative government). We can’t here fully explore the options for acting on this situation, but I want to make a few broad strokes helping us to bridge our situation to the necessity of what Gustavo has talked to us about, taking lessons from movements such as the Zapatistas that have fought the economic and social destitution of neoliberalism and the dangerous vacuum of power created in its crises.
Too many times, so much time, has been spent arguing over candidates and parties and approaches to the state before discovering that power evacuated the state long ago and we have been left uselessly holding our campaign paraphernalia and political texts, left, that is, on the streets not in a protest march but rather laid-off and foreclosed or evicted and unemployable. Neither does a dogmatic and self-isolating anti-electoralism serve any productive purpose here—both because such a position ignores the historical use of electoral strategies to specific situations, none of which we happen to be in now, and because at this stage of crisis it is not helpful to be or claim to be the lonely voice that was right. It is helpful to be organized and together. And so what we do have hope for is liberation as a collective habit-forming practice. We identify that collective habit-forming practice as the common.
Liberation, why and how
We use collectivity not as an ideological item or political platform. There are certainly many good arguments promoting cooperative rather than competitive designs for economic and social systems, and I don’t feel it necessary to rehearse them here. Rather, we understand collectivity as both the reality we exist within—we share the city, we share the roads, we use libraries and parks and sidewalks and stoplights, we breath each other’s air—as well as an absolute necessity for acting upon our current context. Why an absolute necessity?
First, if we have understood, as we have studied many years in this space, as Gustavo has pointed out many times, as many movements all over the world have declared, that capital is not a thing but a social relation, and that neoliberalism is not an economic system but a social one that requires the fragmentation, isolation, in fact creation, of ‘individuals,’ then we must conclude that fighting capital, or better yet, creating something other than capital, must require different social relations, different social units, different subjects. And one certainly cannot create different social relations by oneself.
Second, what is generically called “change” is often made difficult, as one of our speakers in the last event in this series points out, by the inability to see anything other than the urgent present which requires a great deal of putting out fires, responding to emergencies, and finding temporary measures of survival or pleasure (Kelley). No one can be unfamiliar with the endless parade of information and issues necessary to maintain a grasp on even one’s most basic life and well-being—work and work security, bills, functioning utilities, mortgage/rent obligations, childcare, health concerns—and doing these things household by household, individual by individual, is an often not just time-consuming but life-consuming task. And so we think that daily life must be the place where we act out the most basic and most important changes we see necessary, not, again, because we herald “daily life” as the virtuous, and now quite popular in academic texts on social change, platform for political discourse. But rather because to some extent, daily life must be the project or daily life will always get in the way; it must become the place of liberation or it will always be its obstacle. That is, to say it one more time, that infinite parade of things to attend to as well as the daily routines we build up to make such a parade sustainable, either erases the possibility for revolution or it becomes the revolution itself. Kelley called this “lessening the contradiction between everyday life and our wildest dreams.”
Third, I want to situate this call for a habit-forming and daily collective liberation firmly in the framework in which we have built this speaker’s series, which is in turn based firmly in the place and reality in which we live. Our first event was on Gentrification and the City. There we named gentrification not as an isolated phenomenon but as the territorialized manifestation of dominant power relations in society, global society, as a whole. The same way that suburban flight segregated and de-serviced populations and organized capital investments accordingly, gentrification reorganizes that urban space once again, proposing “progressive” investments—the so-called walkable community of gallery and boutique with its charter schools and “free-range” children—that by necessity exclude some populations. These are usually, nearly always, those very populations that have inhabited that de-serviced space and through pure social cooperation and innovation created an alternative lifestyle to both ghetto and suburbia—and here we mean alternative in terms of social organization, not of consumption. Our second event was on Art and Revolution, in which we differentiated between the “arts corridor” which is slated to run through our neighborhood courtesy of a coalition between developers and what is now referred to as the “creative class,” and the activities of the people who have inhabited these blocks to use creativity—social, technical, and artistic—to survive and design their lives everyday. We are not romanticizing the hazards of poor communities or glorifying our own. We are, to cite that event’s presentation, claiming the right and the space to develop those activities that may not produce fame for any one artist but which produce a daily reorganization of the senses, in common, and a constant renovation of the common.
The freedom to “remake city and self” as proposed in the first event, and as proposed in the second, to make the common forms already in motion “down here” not new sites of visibility “up there” but new organizations and intensifications of life in common, depends upon an understanding of the great wealth that we do have—the wealth of difference.
The Zapatista Initiative
Many years ago already the EZLN (Zapatista Army for National Liberation) warned us that if could not achieve some kind of mutual articulation among those below, those who both sustain and suffer capital through their individual labor and collective production, the current economic instability, the discontent created by neoliberal policies, and the weakness, incompetence, and desperation of a flailing government, would lead to violent outbreaks and great destruction. That destruction, social and environmental, was already happening and would increase, they insisted, but unless there was some kind of organized alternative, the poor would suffer most, and suffer brutally, its effects.
They called for the organization of a national network of struggle. Without dogmatic formulas for mobilizing the masses or sentimental appeals to a false unity, they called for people to join them in organizing the life they shared, both to confront the coming crisis and to dignify their daily existence. Their experience gives us several lessons to draw from.
One. That the great wealth of the poor, or the great richness of those below, came from the great range and abundance of difference that existed there. Any cooperative endeavor would have to maintain and promote those differences, and to create rather than assume commonality. There could be no unity in which differences would submit in the struggle to a pragmatic necessity for sameness for the purposes of an end goal. “The only thing that makes us the same,” the Zapatistas said, “is that we are all different.”
Two. That there is a difference between differences. That is, there is the kind of difference that is a difference between how people interpret orders and either follow or reject rules imposed on them from above or from outside. This creates hugely conflictive and contradictory relations and is a very difficult place from which to “reconcile” anything or from which to create something new. There is another kind of difference however that is a difference of experience, perspective, background, viewpoint, a difference that is essentially singularity. This difference provides many more possibilities for productive discussion and self-mobilization; it is not necessarily harmonious, but neither is it necessarily contradictory; it does not inhibit the creation of the common but rather is the very material, the necessary components of dynamism and diversity, that make possible that common. Maybe this difference can be thought of as autonomy, because it an issue of how the people themselves, singularly and collectively, will decide how they encounter each other and where they will go together, rather than how they will obey or respond to decisions and actions made in a place above or outside of them.
Three. New historical conjunctures require experimentation with new practices, new practices both require and create new subjects who are in turn capable of entirely new ideas and inventions. Such practices are useful only to the extent that they remain “living” or changeable and we are able to resist the temptation to congeal them into new dogmas or movement idols. Let me give just one example:
Horizontalism. The Zapatistas could probably be given credit for the emergence and sudden swelling of popularity of the term, thought it doesn’t matter that they usually aren’t. Their horizontalism was essentially the creation of a new common: a common form for organization in which self-government was a turn-taking activity maintained, upheld, and self-run by and for the same communities corresponding to the territory covered by that government. The democratizing effects and sociality created from this system cannot be understated for the lives of its participants and as an example to people all over the world searching for alternative organizing mechanisms.
The accompanying risk, which here as many times results from the appropriation of an idea as ideology instead of as a contextually-based practice, was that in the earnest attempt to be “horizontal,” many groups or collectives just ended up flat.
We need to be able to make the distinction: flat has no internal energy; it is unable to use its diverse elements to make collective decisions about structures that enable action, and so often it either remains paralyzed and unable to act, or its structures arise covertly leaving its acts without a democratic base to support them. It is unable to utilize its differences (of self, capability, of training, of perspective) as wealth and instead resorts to suppressing them for the purpose of remaining “horizontal.” In effect, it flattens its very possibilities to be horizontal. Horizontal in its dynamic sense, however, has energies running back and forth all over it; it magnifies and multiplies its differences (the unique being and offering that each person or group brings) in ways that enable a greater development and proliferation of more difference, which is in turn reinvested in the common. The possibilities created in this kind of production of the common are infinite, exciting, and necessary.
Finally, and to close, one of the key points that the Zapatistas have insisted on in their initiative to create a common beyond their communities, and another lesson for us, has been the issue of “espejismo,” literally mirrorism. The EZLN has said over and over to groups struggling internally and between themselves with personal and political conflicts: stop looking in the mirror! Espejismo is the disease of separation and self-obsession, a depoliticization of society and a disintegration of the collective political subjects possible. The struggle against global capitalism and the reality of the current crises does not allow us these rewardless, self-indulgent but self-alienating detours that are inevitably dead-ends. Mirrorism, seeing or recognizing a reflection of ourselves, may be helpful but is not sufficient, because what we already are is not enough. We will have to become something else. EZLN Major Ana Maria said at a gathering of Zapatista supporters over a decade ago, if we have been a mirror for you, for your movements, then now let that mirror shatter and become an open window into another world, into becoming something else. Creating the common, or becoming common, as a collective, habit-forming, everyday endeavor will require many windows, or perhaps doors, or better yet bridges, in the art of living together. And that is what we see as our task today.