FAULT LINES & SUBDUCTION ZONES: The Slow-Motion Crisis of Global Capital

The housing-price collapse of 2008, the credit crunch, the bank failures, the downswing of the world economy, the fiscal crisis of the sovereign states, all have been expressed as wild gyrations in the global circulation of information, attention, emotion. Everything undergoes tremendous acceleration at the crucial moments, before the wave recedes into a blur. We are sure that beneath the surface agitation, something has really changed. Institutions have been destroyed. The course of individual lives has dramatically shifted. The composition of the social classes has been altered in depth. For the first time since the 1970s, the continuity of the American way of development appears uncertain. Yet people find their surrounding environments exactly the same; while world leaders call for just one thing, a return to normal.

Amidst the paralysis of public debate, questions arise for those who can neither forget, nor clearly remember. How do we perceive social change? How do we grasp the facts that will prove decisive in the future? When will the surging wave return again? How do our own lives make a difference to the slow-motion crisis of global capital?

In his new book, The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey makes an important remark: the major crises of the capitalist system – like the Great Depression, the stagflation of the 1970s or the current deflation of the financialized economies – are never really “resolved.” Instead, the determinants of the crisis are shifted around to new places within the system, masking persistent instabilities and sowing the seeds of future upheavals. This means that the key components of the present social order – its technologies, organizational forms, labor relations, monetary instruments, its claims to rationality, security, justice etc. – all derive from the stopgap measures of the 1970s-80s, introduced to alleviate the last major downswing. But it also means that current chaos of the global markets will lead to further crucial shifts in the dynamics of social existence, with long-term outcomes that will inevitably be conditioned by the particular paths taken over the next decade or two. Such shifts in the compass of society do not only arise from decisions at the top. Instead they result from interactions between distinct and semi-autonomous “activity spheres,” of which Harvey names seven: “technologies and organizational forms; social relations; institutional and administrative arrangements; production and labor processes; relations to nature; the reproduction of daily life and of the species; and ‘mental conceptions of the world.’” Capital, for Harvey, plays the mediating role: “The relations between the spheres are not causal but dialectically interwoven through the circulation and accumulation of capital.”

Harvey’s work coincides in a number of ways with with the research program developed by Armin Medosch and myself, as a vehicle to investigate the dynamics of the crisis. Like him we are interested in the contradictions that can lead to the break-up of a more-or-less coherent phase of capital accumulation. That implies a concerted study of the phases themselves. One of our departure points is a chronological analysis of industrial development into “long waves” unfolding over roughly fifty-year spans, marked by successive phases of emergence, expansion, contraction and decline (or spring, summer, fall and winter phases). The long waves are themselves continually punctuated by shorter, sharper oscillations, generally known as business cycles, which occupy the newspaper headlines. Nonetheless, only these longer spans indicate the time frame within which something like a phase or a period can take form. The hypothesis of the long waves, launched by the statistical observations of Nikolai Kondratiev in the early 1920s, has been made more robust by the so-called “technological innovation school” which associates each wave with a group of major innovations around which economic growth is structured, thus giving rise to successive “ages”: the age of water-powered textile production; of steam and railways; of electricity and steel; of assembly line mass production (“Fordism”); and finally the present age of microelectronics and computer networks. Of course we’re aware that each of these five ages do not simply replace all that has gone before, as though starting each time from a clean slate. Instead they are layered onto each other one after the other, via the major periods of infrastructural development whereby the industrial societies seek to resolve the problems of excess capacity and shrinking markets, or what Harvey calls the “capital surplus absorption problem.”

Long waves of technological development provide us with a temporal framework in which to observe the development of crisis tendencies. Taking a further cue from the French “Regulation School” economists, we propose that the major phases of development should not be conceived in merely industrial or economic terms, but rather as “technopolitical paradigms” which embed each set of technologies and organizational forms within a cultural and institutional mix, while still allowing for the proactive role of specific political forces in the shaping of each period. Here we refer directly to the innovation-school theorist Carlota Perez, who points to at least some of the political and institutional factors that can help a long wave of technological development to consolidate itself and reach what she calls its “maturity phase”; but we also refer, as she does, to the constitution of scientific paradigms as studied by Thomas Kuhn. Finally, we draw on Giovanni Arrighi and the world systems theorists to understand the rise, expansion, decline and displacement of hegemonic centers in the geographical dynamics of capital. It is here that the images of “fault lines and subduction zones” – also referring to earlier research in the collaborative seminar “Continental Drift” – take on all their contemporary meaning. It should be stressed that all of these aspects feed directly into lived experience. By analyzing in detail the different facets that make up the current technopolitical paradigm, we hope to describe the texture and dynamics of the present period, to show how it emerged from the contradictions and decline of the previous one, and to identify in advance the weaknesses and bifurcations that will again throw the system into a prolonged period of chaos. The point is to seek a number of different pathways through this upcoming period of chaos.

Harvey enumerates seven “activity spheres” whose co-evolutions account for the crisis-prone dynamics of capitalism. We have adopted an analogous approach, which consists in a somewhat larger number of analytic categories into four broad fields: Productive Process, Integrative Processes, Global Protocols and Agents of Change. The first group includes the leading technologies of a given period, the energy sources that power them, the organizational forms that structure their production and the strategies of distribution and financing that bring them to market – in short, the most obviously “capitalist” aspects of the social order. The second group of analytic categories is derived from the Regulation School and from Karl Polanyi’s description of the ways that supposedly self-regulating markets are embedded in an institutional mix. These “Integrative Processes” include the wage relation between capital and labor and the forms of consumption and usage, as well as the core values and the legal and administrative devices that structure daily life; all of which mark the greatest subsisting areas of national, regional and ethnic divergence in an otherwise unifying world. The third group, “Global Protocols,” encompasses what Harvey in his new book refers to as the “state-finance nexus,” i.e. the international commercial and monetary order along with the border regimes and acts of sovereign military power that enforce such an order. Here, however, we also include what could be called an “epistemic regime,” which refers to scientific, legal and administrative norms and standards that have attained transnational validity at any given period, thus contributing to set the overarching parameters of a technopolitical paradigm. Finally, with the category “Agents of Change” we refer not only to the corporate and national innovation systems that drive technical change, but also to the subcultures, oppressed groups, entrepreneurial elites, revolutionary and mafia networks, and last but not least, the artistic and political vanguards that come to disrupt current forms of organization and introduce new inventions and values into the world.

graphic by Armin Medosch at The Next Layer

What we’re attempting is a synthesis of some major forms of social, economic and cultural analysis on the Left, in order to respond, during this moment of suspended crisis, to what Harvey calls “the enigma of capital.” The phrase is a strong one, and interestingly, it does not receive any explicit elaboration in the book. For my part, I’d formulate the riddle like this: How does the process of capital accumulation continue to make us who we are, despite its deep contradictions and recurrent breakdowns, and despite all the desires and efforts to overcome it and to steer society in some fundamentally different direction? No doubt it is on the eve of the great turning points, particularly those involving major wars and other disasters, when the juggernaut of capital accumulation appears most unstoppable and most deadly, that such an enigma takes on all its disturbing force. You may have noticed that the “activity sphere” which Harvey dubs “relations to nature” has no single place within our four broad fields of inquiry. This is because in the age of hyper-production, frenzied resource extraction and unchecked global warming, when ecological imbalances have arisen as a new central contradiction within capitalist accumulation, the relation to nature stands out as an essential factor within every field of human activity. The enigma of liberation is how we can cease to be what we always were, to find some other collective pathway for social development. Yet it would be naïve to think that capitalism is on the verge of some apocalyptic self-dissolution, or that a sixth technopolitical paradigm will not emerge after the decline of the present one. What we need is not eschatology (the science of final days) but instead, a strategic understanding of social complexity that can lend positive force to the diverse forms of human agency.

David Harvey ends his book with a chapter entitled “What is to be Done? And Who is Going to Do It?” Originally presented at the World Social Forum 2010 in Brazil under the title “Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition,” the text examines the currently existing forces of resistance in order to formulate a “co-revolutionary” strategy of transformation operating across the dialectically interconnected spheres of capitalist society. Rather than maintaining or abandoning a working-class position, rather than taking up an anarchist, feminist, post-colonial, indigenista or progressive middle-class stance, he approaches contemporary society as a mosaic of repressive constraints and revolutionary possibilities, where each specific form of resistance or sectoral alternative is dependent on awareness of and active collaboration with the others. The Old Left notion of a vanguard party leading a single class at the cutting edge of capitalist development has totally disappeared, without any depreciation of the role of organized labor. What’s being broached here is an understanding of the potential for solidarity in multiplicity. The initial delivery of the talk at the Social Forum and its wide distribution on the net before the publication of the book express the desire of a great leftist intellectual to find new ways, not only of delivering a message, but above all, of opening up collective capacities of perception and expression. As though the prelude to any co-revolutionary strategy was a process of radical co-education.

This is what interests me today. How to knit together the disparate strands of resistance to the current mode of social development? How to regain a strategic mode of thinking on the Left? How to develop cultural forms which can support political engagement and activism through the expression of a sharable and enabling – rather than paralyzing – framework of understanding? These are obviously not questions which any one group can answer. What has been happening recently, and indeed, over the last decade and more, is a multiplication of experimental spaces of learning and action, in which aspects of the social/ecological question are brought into existential focus by people who have specific issues. Many activist campaigns have been developed whose importance should not be minimized, even in these dark days after the bank bailout and the rebooting of financially driven globalization, the failure of the climate summit in Copenhagen, the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, etc. Yet despite important moments of convergence at local, national and transnational levels, clearly the coordinating capacities of the Left are radically insufficient when it comes to addressing the slow-motion crisis of global capital, and embracing the opportunities it offers. Is this not due to the absence of a philosophical and strategic horizon, where a powerful utopian vision combines with a concrete grasp of the many partial and sometimes internally contradictory steps that are needed to get anywhere? The point is not that we missed the opportunity of the 2008 meltdown and failed to impose any re-evaluation of the basic tenets of neoliberalism, because that’s water under the bridge, what’s done is done. Rather, the point is that much like the sudden melt of the Arctic ice in 2007, this last set of wild gyrations in the world economy signals the outset of a longer, slower crisis that will undoubtedly last for well over decade, before some new and perhaps extremely tenuous equilibrium is found. Now is the time to begin collaborating on a shared strategic framework – and really, on a new kind of common sense – that can help to coordinate the efforts of egalitarian ecological and social justice movements across a tumultuous period of systemic change that everyone will have to live through and face in the flesh.

Overarching goals don’t exclude specific acts. Over the course of the next year I will be participating in relatively small collaborative seminars in order to develop the ideas outlined here, and above all, to find clues for the elaboration of a radical pedagogy that is capable of putting abstract ideas to work in real contexts, with diverse groups of people. In a period when alternative and oppositional thinking is on the verge of being literally kicked out of public universities, the practice of collaborative pedagogy is itself a strategic concern. It is shocking and dismaying to realize – as we often had the opportunity to do over the last two years – that there presently exists no alternative school of economics, including the centrist Keynesians, that can effectively challenge the delirious and discredited dogma of neoliberalism, at least not in the USA. But an ecological-egalitarian science of social development will not spring full-blown from today’s free-market universities. It will need both an overwhelming desire from the public for something more humane, and a very clear and widely distributed consciousness of what actually exists, which is where the detailed analysis of our excessively complex society has its necessary place. By collaboratively examining the constitution of neoliberal society in all its different aspects, and by allowing oneself to feel its immense and unbearable power to make us what we are today, we might begin to find the inflection points where that social order is already breaking down and sliding irrevocably toward a new configuration. The important thing is to find ways of guiding, at least to some degree, the chaotic processes of change that are clearly coming.

* * * * *

— Next Seminar: Baltimore, August 7-8:


— Initial project texts:



–Previous seminar notes (first two pathways):

–A couple of background texts:




COME ON, COGNITARIANS: One more effort if you want some equality

Free time? Out of work? Looking for a good summer read? Try the short, sharp, maybe even shocking book called In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives, by Greg Albo, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch (available on aaaaarg.org). It goes straight to the sorry state of financially driven capitalism – which is the state we’re in (the USA).

The authors all live in Canada, but they focus on the US banking system. Their writing is concise and lucid, without the hasty diagnostics and predictions of decline that plague so many Marxists. Two ideas inform the discussion of recent events. The first is that despite incessant proclamations, the corporate makeover of American society since the age of Reagan has not involved deregulation and the downsizing of big government. Instead it’s been all about re-regulating the economic game in favor of the largest players, and shifting both tax revenues and borrowed funds to serve new priorities (such as bailing out the banks whenever there’s a crisis). The second key idea is that the astronomical sums of computerized finance are not simply “speculative” or “fictitious” capital, as critics on the conservative Right and radical Left often say. Instead they are directive forces, shaping global urban and industrial development through the allocation of credit, offering nearly irrresistible incentives for certain kinds of avaricious behavior and exerting powerful disciplinary effects on companies, local governments and individuals. What we face in today’s society is not just “speculation gone wild,” but an increasingly integrated system of management whose leading institutions, the investment banks, now appear to have been strengthened rather than weakened by the crisis. As the authors observe, “financialization gives rise to such financial volatility that crises actually become one of the developmental features of neoliberalism, and this reinforces rather than undermines the central position of financial interests in capitalist power structures.” The point is that despite radical dreams of one great big apocalyptic blowout, such a finely tuned system of national and planetary management is not going to disappear in an eyeblink. It can only be confronted and beaten back over the course of the upcoming years and decades, by social forces which are presently dormant or have yet to be developed.

Albo, Gindin and Panitch are basically unionists. They devote much of their effort to understanding how the egalitarian politics of organized labor has been neutralized by the enlistment of workers as unwilling participants in the competition between firms and nations. What results, under the threat of layoffs and joblessness, is a downward spiral of concessions that leaves workers individually poorer and collectively short on resources for the development of cultures of solidarity and progressive social transformation. Under these conditions, no one could blame the three authors if they focus on the needed changes in organized labor, which in their view would include moving beyond traditional collective bargaining, toward broad community campaigns that involve people outside a single sector or place of employment. There are a lot of good ideas in this book, and its lucidity inspires lots of respect for serious socialist organizers. Still I ended up feeling restless, particularly when reading that the sharp declines in union membership “reflect, in part, the difficulty of organizing the service sector, where about 80 percent of employment is now found.” After the recent GM bankruptcy, surely we need to look beyond the likes of the UAW? As a freelance writer and translator with academic degrees gathering dust on a wall, I feel much closer to that amorphous “service sector” than to assembly lines and shop stewards. For personal, economic and cultural reasons, my main man in this summer’s quest for class consciousness has not been a union organizer or even a direct actionist from a group like “Take Back the Land.” Instead it’s been a critic of the contemporary knowledge factories.

Life among the Lambs

Check out “The Structure and Silence of the Cognitariat,” an article by a UC Santa Barbara professor named Christopher Newfield. It’s a great piece, clear, concise and packed full of pertinent things you probably don’t know (find it in the edu-factory journal). The footnotes of Newfield’s text include some quotes in French that could be tough for les Americains. But hey, that allowed me to “apply” my dusty old Romance Languages degree, always a thrill. The text turns out to be a direct reply to concepts of class consciousness developed over the last decade in the French journal Multitudes, for which I used to write during another life in gay Paree.

Working with Antonio Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato and other Italian autonomists, we analyzed a basic contradiction at the heart of the knowledge society, or what we called “cognitive capitalism.” Namely, that knowledge is inherently abundant and proliferates under conditions of free circulation and cooperative development; while capitalism requires relative scarcity, absolutely private property and strict hierarchical control over producers. In an economy that’s increasingly based on communication, the application of science and the consumption of aesthetic goods and services, that contradiction is potentially very important. It often makes the knowledge worker feel that there’s something wrong with this picture. “Why do I keep getting controlled, when information wants to be free?” If that contradiction could be exacerbated, some of us thought during those heady days of the counter-globalization movements, then maybe we could launch a new kind of revolution. Cultural-intellectual sabotage, anyone?

Chris Newfield is more cautious, but in the end he’s working with a variation on the same ideas. Against the backdrop of the ongoing budget crisis of the University of California, he asks why knowledge societies like the US, Germany or France would chronically underfund their universities? Aren’t they the crucial institutions of cognitive capitalism, and maybe even of financially driven globalization? The seeming paradox is that while the old industrial corporations needed large numbers of college graduates to perform their management functions – a need most willingly fulfilled by the publics universities of the 50s and 60s – the New Economy flagships like Microsoft, with their pure brainpower products, have managed to severely restrict the numbers of salaried intellectual workers they employ, mainly by the use of temp contracts and outsourcing schemes. Similarly but more shockingly wheen you first find out about it, the universities themselves employ an average of 70% short-term contractuals and grad students to teach their undergraduate classes. If you want to see what direction the whole operation is headed, definitely watch the PBS Frontline reportage on “College, Inc.” which was still an eye-opener for me despite lots of reading on these subjects. There you see vocational business schools raking in big money for often fraudulent degrees. What you don’t hear a lot about anymore are real careers. Bizarrely, the number of good white collar jobs seems to be shrinking as the knowledge economy grows.

Newfield finds the solution to the paradox in the practices of knowledge management that began to be employed in the 1990s, at the time when massive numbers of kids who had grown up with the intellectual technologies of computers and the Internet just started coming on the job market. He quotes a suit named Thomas A. Stewart who makes a distinction between three different categories of knowledge. The first and lowest forms of knowledge are “commodity skills” like typing quick and talking nicely on the phone – skills which are easily obtained, add no value to the firm, require no particular concern for the employee and should be outsourced from the get-go. Next are “leveraged skills” requiring a lot of advanced education (my old standby of translation would be one, but computer programming is the classic example). These kinds of skills (“leveraged,” I suppose, by all the borrowing the owner did to acquire them) do add some value to the firm, but they can still can be codified, routinized, maybe even partially robotized, and rapidly gotten out of the way just like the others. What that leaves are “proprietary skills,” i.e. “the company-specific talents around which an organization builds a business.” These are the only kind that really matter, because they allow the firm to develop and own intellectual property, build a brand and cash in on some rare, secretly produced and closely guarded service. Now the hidden structure of the cognitariat leaps into view. The financial discipline of the firm requires it to make the distinction between the three types of knowledge, and to treat its employees accordingly. In the best of cases it can even practice “open innovation” which entails giving up entirely on in-house researchers or creatives and simply scanning the available knowledge resources, typically found in public universities, whose production can be creamed off at will for the price of a few small grants, maybe an endowed chair or a piece of fancy equipment. Under this scenario, the predatory strategy of the corporation is complete. Only the top researchers, managers and marketers will take home a real salary.

The new hierarchy of knowledge workers in the firm is bound up, in its turn, with much broader transformations. Christopher Newfield is also the author of an essential book entitled Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (2008). Briefly put, his thesis is that with the expanded educational entitlements of the post-WWII period, the US began developing an enlarged, fully multicultural middle class that was potentially hegemonic and that began to transform society in its own diverse and complex image. In this new formation (which is described in a lot of cultural studies work) working class traditions and more recent immigrant cultures begin to fuse into a democratic hybrid, sustained by the models of success and the possibilities of self-invention that arose in the public universities. A new kind of language and even a new common sense emerge, dubbed “PC” by its critics and symbolized, in literary terms, by a complex artifact like I, Rigoberta Menchu, the oral history of a Guatemalan peasant activist as told to a metropolitan researcher with a microphone and a publishing contract. The conservative Right bitterly hated this kind of leftist talk-literature. But there was a little more to the opposition than a question of taste. What we called the “culture wars” of the late 80s and early 90s, says Newfield, was in fact the spearhead of a concerted attack by older elites against this new, radically democratic class formation – an attack that culminated with the dominance of neoliberal and then neoconservative ideology, the skyrocketing inequality of our own time and now the massive expropriation of middle- and working-class savings in the infamous “financial crisis.” The book repeats this fascinating thesis maybe once too often, but it is a goldmine of precise economic and sociological information for anyone interested in contemporary managerial techniques and the politics of education in the USA.

Working from this perspective, Newfield now suggests that we have a three-tiered university system. First come the top twenty private schools like Harvard and Yale, or the Ivy League Plus, that educates around 1% of the society. Next, “a group of about 150 colleges and universities that are ‘selective’ and have good reputations outside their local area.” And finally, some 3,500 institutions of sort-of higher learning for the hoi polloi, offering degrees with no particular value on the job market. At this point the scholarly author gets uncharacteristically angry, plays another very jarring French chord and claims that our society now resembles nothing so much as the Ancien Régime with its “Three Estates,” or stratified social standings. The First Estate, corresponding to the old aristocrats, is the top 0.1% of Americans who are essentially the bankers and financiers whose activities are described so well by Albo, Gindin and Panitch – the ruling class if you don’t mind me sayin’. The Second Estate, corresponding to the clergy of olden times, are the top 1% who earn over $350,000 a year. These are the upper votaries of capital and the state, who speak “technical languages of law, management and finance that are largely indecipherable even to highly educated non-specialists, and maintain an invisible empire of ownership structures and lucrative transactions whose existence makes itself known only through occasional disasters like the 2008 financial meltdown.” Mon Dieu! The Third Estate – le Peuple – are the rest of us, crammed into the vast category of the powerless and the silent despite the huge differences between the top 20% who are still “middle class” and all the rest who do not just worry over the “fear of falling,” but rather, get the experience of being pushed off the cliff and feel the indignity of not being able to pay their rent or their mortgage in the richest country in the world.

What I’m trying to get at is that the budgetary crisis and the conditions of precarious living that afflict knowledge workers are tightly entangled with and also sharply cut off from the directive actions of the financial elites who just robbed the country and strengthened their own positions in the process. What’s happening in the US is a sweeping and carefully concerted operation, not to resolve any of the major social and ecological problems that are staring us in the face, but to assure a strict separation of the classes. The divide is not into the traditional Three Estates that make for great satire, but instead into at least five groups: the aristocratic super-rich; the high priesthood of technocrats and traders; the merchant class who sell their soul to placate their fear of falling; everyone else on the roller coaster down to the bottom; and finally, the new immigrants who believe they can climb this weird human ladder (at least until they get to the state of Arizona).

So here’s another paradox: quite a large number of us in the third and fourth and fifth estates are well educated, we can speak all the languages we need. Tell me, what explains the silence of the lambs?

Starting Where You Are

Newfield doesn’t answer his own implicit question, except to say that in the advanced economies “the knowledge worker masses are still middle class on a world scale,” or in other words, they still have a long way to fall. Maybe, but an earthquake just happened and the cliff came a lot closer. What he criticizes in the theories of the Multitudes group is an excess of rosy optimism: the belief that an inherent contradiction of the knowledge economy would necessarily produce a revolt against its particularly well-constructed structure of injustice. Point well taken. With a fairly good grasp of the American scene I always felt exactly the same, and eventually I found myself on the political fault line that split the journal in two, right in the middle of the financial crisis in 2008. Yet like my autonomist friends and like Newfield, I still think some kind of mobilization of educated workers is necessary, desirable and maybe the most passionately inspiring thing you can do today, if starting from where you are means figuring out what to make of your scientific, technical, or cultural skills and your university education. Amid the bewildering complexity of the predatory knowledge economy, what’s missing is an active egalitarian and ecological critique of the owning and managing classes, a critique that does not remain locked away in the university but reaches out to the rest of society. That’s what we can build in the wake of the budgetary crisis, now that the new lines of inclusion and exclusion have been drawn and the writing on the wall is legible to practically everyone. The least you can say is that it’s getting urgent – after the lies of the Bush era, Katrina, the bailouts and the foreclosures, the Copenhagen debacle, the BP disaster that’s directly attributable to the pressures of neoliberal financial management, etc etc etc. The question is how to do it, when the traditional centers of education are so deeply instrumentalized?

According to Newfield we need a two-track strategy, the first of which should reveal “the hidden subsidies through which the Third Estate and its institutions support the other two – in many case, the ways by which public universities support private industry.” He warns that this first strategy may set off an internal civil war among the top faculty in research universities, which I guess is supposed to indicate how difficult this track will be to follow. The other strategy is “to re-imagine and articulate the broad social and cultural missions that will flow from the other nine-tenths of knowledge workers… whose ideas about diversity, equality, justice, technology for use, sustainable development and so many others are essential to the indirect modes through which knowledge and education create social value beyond that which economics can measure.” That sounds easier, to the extent that it can be done not only or maybe not even primarily inside the universities, but in self-organized seminars, affinity groups, clubs, artists’ collectives, cultural scenes, hacker labs and so forth, where the diverse languages of society mingle and knowledge circulates, hybridizes, throws off its old skins and moults into new colors. But this time, let’s try to find a path between the dark black cynical pessimism of typical American critics and that rosy Multitudes stuff I mentioned just before. Something more than a snap of the fingers is needed to delegitimate an extended technocracy that holds all the cards of power in its many active hands. If you look around, you’ll see that the sites of self-organized education and action in American society are very few, very fragmented, and far too often lacking in the subtle kind of creative focus that can at once rise to the level of the problems that face us, and not get co-opted into the very jargons and structures they seek to challenge. As the public universities are downsized (or really, expropriated) under the disciplinary pressure of the current budget crisis, an entire social process is waiting to be invented.

The US Social Forum, held in Detroit amid the ruins awaiting at the bottom, was sweet and delicious precisely because it was like a wide-open university, a laboratory upside-down, a radical experiment mixing very different people in order to find new ways of acting together. The combination of union organizers, community groups, radical intellectuals, artists, direct activists, social workers and many other sectors is fundamental to the politics we need on the Left, not just for strikes and protests but also when it comes to changing something within the key institutions of a rareified knowledge economy. Experiences like the Forum, or like a university occupation, can be a great inspiration for the deeper and slower work that starts from wherever you are, from your own class and cultural and economic position. Many groups are now trying out processes of invention, and we can encourage each other not by the sort of mutual denunciations that used to be the stock-in-trade of the extreme left, but instead by telling the stories of different attempts and by presenting the material, intellectual, social and artistic results. Of course there is a wider horizon to the singular experiments. At some point, by some combination of careful efforts, the dam has to break and larger numbers of people from all levels of society have to realize that something is wrong with this picture. Knowledge workers could help a lot by creating a clear language and a good set of images, to say what it is and to see it clearly. What we need to build are new and complex forms of pressure from below: social counter-forces to the disciplinary powers brought to bear by finance capitalism.

Creating those counter-forces is not going to be easy and it cannot be accomplished by any single group or tendency or philosophy. A very subtle form of political vocation has to find its original expressions on the tongues of the widely different sectors of society which are all under threat. Those whom we try to address in this webzine – the people who feel in some way interpellated by the current crisis of the university – are obviously just one group among others, as complex and fragmented as any other. The challenging thing is to give the fragments that we are some political coherency. But what else is there to do?

Come on, cognitarians. It’s going to be a wild ride. We’ve got some very interesting years ahead of us.

Opening march, US Social Forum, Detroit (photo Claire Pentecost)

Proposition Project

NOTE: SUBMISSIONS ARE NOW CLOSED (we welcome your comments)

In honor of the 2010 U.S. Social Forum and in light of the ongoing economic/social crisis in California, we invited the attendees and all other citizens of the world during the week of June 20 to join us in developing a set of initiatives or ‘propositions’ for debate and consideration for adoption via the ballot initiative process in the State of California.

These initiatives might emerge from one (or more) of three central areas of shared concern:

• Re-Education
• Strategy/Tactics (Occupation, Evacuation, etc)
• Resources

Submitted Propositions:

Prop 1 – People’s seizure of Walmart, Inc. / Communize all Walmarts in State of California
Prop 2 – Occupy Disney / Common-ize Disney
Prop 3 – Truck Stop Autonomization Network Plan
Prop 4 – Guaranteed Minimum Income Act
Prop 5 – Green New Deal
Prop 6 – Lift All Travel Restrictions Across the Border with Mexico
Prop 7 – Legalize All Humans
Prop 8 – Common Fund for Public Education
Prop 9 – Outlaw Commercial Advertising
Prop 10 – Decriminalize Drugs
Prop 11 – Replace Money with Labor Vouchers
Prop 12 – Consumer Goods Priced According to Time Spent Making Said Goods
Prop 13 – Publicly-Owned Industry
Prop 14 – Democratic Decision-Making at Local, National and Union Levels
Prop 15 – Print Labor Value on Dollar Bills
Prop 16 – Abolish Usury / Criminalize Interest as a Form of Income
Prop 17 – Re-purpose 90% of U.S. Military for Domestic Public Works Projects Under Union Authority
Prop 18 – Land Tax on Rentable Value (High Threshold Exempting Farmers)
Prop 19 – Jubilee 2010 – Forgive all Non-Corporate Debt
Prop 20 – One year paid parental leave with guaranteed employment upon return
Prop 21 – Free day care and babysitting
Prop 22 – California Musician Corps (CMP) providing free music in parks, on street corners and beaches, kids’ birthday parties
Prop 23 – Maximum Income Cap (The Hollywood Gives Back Act)
Prop 24 – Government-subsidized health food coops in low income neighborhoods (The No Whole Foods Whole Paycheck Act)
Prop 25 – Disarmament for Social Satisfaction
Prop 26 – Technological Development for Social Satisfaction
Prop 27 – Economic Bill of Rights
Prop 28 – Democratisation of All World Financial and Economic System to Allow for Full Participation by All Countries (DAWFESAFPAC Now!)
Prop 29 – Re-distribute all existing bank assets to credit unions under worker/community control
Prop 30 – Public Ownership of All Large Databases
Prop 31 – The Immediate Abolition of All Private Health Insurance Companies through the Creation of a Single-Payer Health System (with full standard and alternative medical, dental, vision, and mental health coverage for all)
Prop 32 – Public Ownership and Worker/Community Control of the Pharmaceutical Industry
Prop 33 – Rent control for all rental units
Prop 34 – End to home foreclosures
Prop 35 – Public ownership and worker control of the airline industry
Prop 36 – Federally funded auto insurance
Prop 37 – Immediate transition to renewable fuels
Prop 38 – End to the expansion of the interstate highway system
Prop 39 – Fully-funded high-speed national rail system with low-cost access
Prop 40 – Fully-funded development of renewable fuels
Prop 42 – Fully-funded formation of non-profit land trusts and of socially owned, tenant controlled housing cooperatives
Prop 43 – Massive increase in Section 8 housing subsidies
Prop 44 – Fully-funded public housing construction project (low cost, scattered site, community-based, high quality housing)
Prop 45 – Student representation on all governing bodies at educational institutions
Prop 46 – Student, parent, and teacher control of curriculum formation, and in the hiring and dismissal procedures of school personnel, through the formation of local school/community committees
Prop 47 – An egalitarian, progressive educational system based on leading-edge research in non-authoritarian education modalities.
Prop 48 – Guaranteed incomes and grants for artists and performers
Prop 49 – Fully-funded libraries, museums, cultural centers, and historic sites
Prop 50 – Worker/community-owned public utilities
Prop 51 – Free Wi-fi for everyone
Prop 52 – Redefine economic theories of value so as to better account for immaterial labor
Prop 53 – Abolish the drinking age
Prop 54 – Violent social revolution
Prop 55 – The negation of the state and authority
Prop 56 – Free Revolutionary Discipline
Prop 57 – Abolish taxation by the state
Prop 58 – Workers and Community Self-Management. Period.
Prop 59 – Eco-Communes Now.
Prop 60 – Abolish Property.
Prop 61 – Time banks
Prop 62 – Let a million autonomous zones bloom
Prop 63 – Archaic revival
Prop 64 – Clear-eyed resistance without nostalgia
Prop 65 – Permanent revolution
Prop 66 – Evacuation of all corporate institutions
Prop 67 – Evacuation of all government institutions
Prop 68 – Evacuate everything
Prop 69 – Immediately establish a decentralized, federated society of smaller, autonomous communities

(updated June 28, 2010)


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Thank You.

Victor Valle Address at Riverside Unitarian Church

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Note: Victor Valle gave the following address as part of the second Empire Strikes Back organizing conference.

Thank you. It is an honor to be with you in your moment of struggle.

I want to spend the next ten minutes thinking about a long-term media strategy for supporting the efforts of groups like Warehouse Workers United, and, if possible, to take a page from their playbook – their May, 2009 occupation of the road leading in and out of the Mira Loma distribution hub. Later, I want to consider another kind of occupation that could help win supporters to the warehouse workers drive to organize the Mira Loma distribution hub, as well as other unrepresented logistics workers in the Inland Empire.

But first I want to send you greetings from Warren Buffet. He recently bought billions of dollars of BNSF stock saying that the railroad represents the next century of growth. Trucks have peaked, he says. He has bet his money on a century of increasing trade hauled by rail, growth that will require new investments in logistics infrastructure, from rail spurs to warehouses to compliant politicians. He would have bought shares in that mega-railroad, Union Pacific and your neighbor, if his competitors had not already bid up the price to high.

What does Buffet’s forecast mean for Riverside and San Bernardino counties? The logistics industry will come out of its slump sooner or later, and the development of warehouses and distribution centers and so forth will resume. We know that L.A. County is built out, and that only the Inland Empire can take up the slack.

Now, let’s not get too excited about Buffet’s vote of confidence. The logistics industry will continue to grow here, but that doesn’t mean it will stop relying on armies of low paid temporary workers, or suddenly welcome unionization so that its workers can begin to earn wages and benefits comparable to their brothers and sisters in L.A.

I don’t think, in other words, that Mr. Buffet is voting for your excellent work ethic alone. It’s more like he is voting on your excellent productivity and the cheapness of your labor. That’s what tickles his dear little (it has to be tiny) capitalist soul: the long-term convergence of rebounding trade volumes and low-priced labor supported by public subsidies and tax breaks supplied by your local department of privatized government.

After all the schemes for speculating on the fickle future of money have failed, the only sure thing, at least for now, is the fight for extracting raw materials, to manufacture those materials into goods, and the movement of those goods to market.

Well, we certainly don’t have the stock portfolios to bet on his designs for the future. But we have something he has. We have the time, the same century he is looking ahead to, and the certainty that capital cannot float in the air forever, that it must touchdown somewhere to become productive again. The latest string of burst market bubbles make that abundantly clear. After all the schemes for speculating on the fickle future of money have failed, the only sure thing, at least for now, is the fight for extracting raw materials, to manufacture those materials into goods, and the movement of those goods to market.

These certainties of production and distribution will continue to make the Inland Empire the middle of something; certainly not the American homeowner’s dream. Too many abandoned homes for that. No, Riverside sits in the middle of the struggle over the future of global trade, who will reap its rewards, and who will pay its penalties. We should anticipate this struggle, and plan for its duration in years and decades.

That’s why I want to wrap up my talk by making a proposal. I would like to see the formation of an investigative corps similar to the Innocence Project at Northwestern University, where students do the legal research to overturn wrongful convictions. Except that this will more like a Guilt Project modeled on SPOTUS.org, a kind of clearing house for investigators who solicit donations to investigate a mutually agreed upon target. Or maybe we can call it the People’s Bureau of Investigation. Seriously speaking, though, the point of the project would be to train a new generation to investigators to attack a target of lasting value in their locality. People would have to arrive at consensus about their target. For example, the bureau could relate the step-by-step process through which privatized government made a place called Mira Loma. The team would go back to the beginning, not only retracing the genealogy of laws and politics that gave developers control of the county’s development industry, but call out the individual developers, government technocrats, and elected officials responsible for permitting that privatization.

The team could not tell this story by only focusing on money and politics, however. They would have to deconstruct the culture that made that privatization seem so natural and good that few bothered to complain about it when it was first proposed. They would have to identify, like so many strains of infectious bacteria, the narrative technologies with which they sold most people on the benefits of wall-to-wall warehousing. And eventually, when time came to share their results, the investigators would have to explain to everyday citizens, your would-be supporters, how corporate power and money made their political representatives into the willing servants we have today, how it molded their winning personalities, in other words, from the seed or spore.

If what I am saying sounds farfetched, let me assure you, I am not that crazy. It is possible to do the kind of research that would allow us to take a penetrating x-ray of local power. I believe I did it in my latest book about your neighbor. It’s called the City of Industry: Genealogies of Power in Southern California, and it lays out a prehistory of privatization in the far west. I don’t have the time now to layout Industry’s privatized pedigree, to tell how the railroads, developers and wily bureaucrats schemed to deprive the working class residents of the revenues and control over the La Puente Valley’s industrial transportation corridor. Just take my word for it. Industry’s privatization offered a kind of dress rehearsal for what happened in Mira Loma, and what we can do to prevent it from happening again.

And here’s where the idea for occupation comes in. Students and professors should not be content to go on strike in hopes of shutting their universities down. Students and professors should re-occupy their classes so that they can put them to better use. The day-to-day work in the classroom should be about making conceptual weapons, the kind warehouse workers, for example, can use to win broad support for their next actual occupation. I am not talking all the classes; just enough resources to sustain a multi-year effort of just one or two investigative methods classes tightly focused on the local political economy of the logistics industry. Investigative teams would learn how to make different kinds of public records requests, to use FOIA and the Brown Act, for example to obtain documents, and to re-purpose proprietary databases such as Co-star to undercover and map the political economy of warehouse redevelopment subsidies. The emphasis would be on learning and experimenting on field methods, and on learning how to best organize and preserve the results of each quarter’s research for the next class.

A PDF of Victor Valle’s address is available here