A crop is an organism that is dependent on, and exclusively serves the interests of, the dominant human society. A weed is an organism that is not dependent on human society, and that collaborates with wider interests. Sometimes the dominant society gives crops manufactured advantages, such as genetically engineered resistance to human-manufactured poisons. When a weed acquires one of these advantages, or when a crop with one of these advantages escapes from human cultivation, it's called a superweed.
Superweed was written straight to final draft. This issue I replaced a word on page 18 to reorder a sentence, and I whited out some sloppy penstrokes and writeographical errors. [And I've made some small changes for the online version.]
Welcome To Superweed 3!
If you don't already know, my name is Ran, and I've been living dirt cheap on savings in Seattle, surviving this reality.
At the end of Superweed 2, I came back to Seattle after a long road trip where I failed to find any place better to live, and I was looking for a house and a job.
At the last moment before I would have got a cell phone and lived in my car, or gone to live with my mom in Spokane, or camped in my sister's back yard -- and after I made peace with all these options -- I got a huge, cheap room in a house that's nicer than I wanted.
As soon as I had an address, I emailed applications for computer game company jobs, and then just for whatever high-tech jobs looked most reachable from my resume: philosophy and english degrees, a few entry-level office jobs, broad and shallow computer knowledge, and years living dirt cheap on savings and writing zines.
I want a high-tech job for the money. That's not fashionable right now. Right now the fad is to figure out what you really want to do, and then get a job doing that. Even many of my otherwise supportive friends buy into this absurd idea. The unstated assumption is that the range of activities that you can do openly, and make enough money to live on, is so vast that whatever you love to do will fit inside it.
Excuse me, but my perspective is wider. I feel like I'm back in seventh grade, and the well-meaning but clueless guidance counselors are telling me "just figure out what you really love to do, and then take a class doing that. Oh come on. You can't tell me there's no elective in the entire junior high school that fits what you really want to do. You're just being stubborn. This is the only world there is, so you'd better learn to live in it."
What I need to be told is "This is not the only world there is. There are worlds without end outside of this one. Some day you will make it out of this hole and you will never have to go back. In the meantime, just give this world only as much energy as you have to to survive, and do what you love outside it."
Thankfully, I have a few friends who can support me on this. I can call Betsy and we can talk about how degrading it is to try to get a job by affecting enthusiasm. People trying to help have actually told me "Why would anyone hire you if you're not enthusiastic?"
Because they're not totally fucked up. If I was hiring people, then to the extent that I cared about the performance of the tasks of the job, I would look past the applicants' emotional displays to their skills and intelligence and discipline; and to the extent that I cared about the social dimension, I would hire people who I felt like I wanted to hang out with at work all day. And that means easy-going, cranky, quirky, emotionally complex folks, not goggle-eyed, single-minded cult followers.
But the enthusiasm fad is so dominant right now in the employment industry that, after a few weeks of straining to force buzzword lies into cover letters and resumes, and stumbling on the telephone with people asking me what I "really want to do," I finally entered the relieving world of temp work.
My friend Josh gives me emotional support on this. I feel hounded and attacked by voices preaching that someone as "talented" as me should do a job more "important" or "meaningful" than office temp work. But Josh is at least as good a singer-songwriter as I am a writer-thinker, and he loves temp work and seems cheerful and content to keep doing it indefinitely.
I had never temped and I had to leap through some fear of the unknown to get started, but now I like it: I can work or not work when I want, I get to meet a lot of people, and most important, it's honest: Everyone understands that I'm not doing this job to define my identity or give my life meaning, but to pay my monthly "rent" tribute to the land-owning ruling class.
After years of preaching that employment is dehumanizing submission to the industrial Beast, here's my new understanding: You're submitting only if you submit on the inside; you're dehumanized only if you lose your human perspective and take the perspective of nonhuman entities. From a nonhuman perspective, I'm at this job to answer the telephone or mail pension checks or make money for the stockholders. From a human perspective, that's all just an excuse for me to be here, or a distraction; I'm here to hang out with other people more than I would if I didn't have a job and just stayed home all day; or I'm here to strengthen or heal the collective human consciousness by finding ways to relate lovingly to other people through the narrow, hard channels and over the traps and obstacles of this challenging sub-universe.
Or, this rigid, hyper-controlled, disconnected reality is a puzzle that Life has made for itself, to find out how tight a straitjacket it can get out of, or how far it can take itself apart and put itself back together again.
It's Tuesday May 11, 1999. I started writing this Thursday night. Friday I went in and took a copy editing test at Amazon.com. It's likely I outscored all the other applicants. My friend Adam (my sister Sheila's partner) has a friend high up at Sierra. And just now my housemate Todd's friend Kathleen told me that if I learn Visual Basic, she can get me a job.
So now it looks like I'll get a fat computer job after all. Some of you, a page ago, got frustrated with me and thought "Well, what do you really want to do?" I want to make a lot of money as quickly and easily as I can, buy a house, move my friends in, live off their rent money, and hang out and do my own thing, with no money pressure, for the rest of my life. If I can make 40 then 60 then 80 thousand a year in computerland, then I can save enough to buy a good Seattle house outright in 5 or 6 years. That's my plan, and now that I have a plan, I'm sure a lot of unexpected stuff will happen and change everything.
One Month Later
It's Monday, June 14. It's hot up here in my room and I don't feel like writing, but I want to keep up: Amazon didn't call me, so after more than 3 weeks I called them. Either they were slacking, or that was part of the test, because they immediately brought me in for an interview. I always resist doing all the extra stuff that you're supposed to do to get a job. It's a trick to transfer work from paid human resources workers and hiring managers to unpaid job applicants. The currently super-fashionable word "proactive" usually just means "you do more work." I wish job applicants would unionize -- everyone applying for a job could get together and agree not to make any phone calls or send anything but a resume or feign enthusiasm in the interview.
June 26, and I've been reading an amazing Ivan Illich essay called "Shadow Work."
The unpaid work which is unique to the industrial economy is my theme. In most societies men and women together have maintained and regenerated the subsistence of their households by unpaid activities. The household itself created most of what it needed to exist. These so-called subsistence activities are not my subject. My interest is in that entirely different form of unpaid work which an industrial society demands as a necessary complement to the production of goods and services. This kind of unpaid servitude ... equally with wage labor, ravages subsistence. I call this complement to wage labor "shadow work." It comprises most housework ... shopping ... homework of students ... commuting ... the stress of forced consumption, the tedious and regimented surrender to therapists, compliance with bureaucrats, the preparation for work to which one is compelled, and many of the activities usually labelled "family life."
Illich observes that our words "work" and "job" are untranslatable into many languages, where they still use many different words to describe different kinds of activity. Imagine if we were taken over by a culture that used the same word for what we call "play" and "slavery." We would be baffled, and we would feel sorry for them. That's how the world's surviving saner cultures feel when they see us using the same word for cultivating our gardens and telemarketing.
Even in European cultures, until a couple hundred years ago, dependence on wage labor for survival was seen as a feature of humiliating poverty. It's so obvious: If you don't know how to produce food, or find wild food, or make simple clothing or shelter, and you're not part of a community where your friends have those skills and can keep you alive and healthy -- if to survive and be healthy you have to go do what someone tells you all day, and receive tokens which you then trade for the commodities of subsistence without the chance to form any human relation to the activities of subsistence, thus keeping you dependent on your wage labor for survival, then you're as bad off as a slave.
And if I also have to pretend to like my wage labor, and I have to "sell myself" and actively persuade people to give me the opportunity to do meaningless toil without which I will die, then I'm much worse off than a slave. And if you lose yourself inside this demonic system, and forget how deeply you've been degraded, and call yourself "privileged," and believe that people still emotionally and physically connected to their source of life need to be educated into impotent symbiosis with industrial society, then you're even worse off than me.
I'm angry. They gave the Amazon job to someone who -- excuse me -- will not do it half as well as I would. I've been debasing myself in this job search ten times as hard as I ever did in an actual job, and my money's almost gone. I'm exaggerating about the money -- I've got an appointment with a second temp agency in two days, and friends tell me that a third place, the University of Washington temp service, is even easier and has even more pleasant (though lower-paying) jobs. So I'm going to get by. But I think, when I apply for the high-paying permanent jobs, and they ask me why I want the job, I'm going to stop lying even a little, and just say "for the money. And if you're smart, you'll give me the job because I'll do it exceptionally well and I'm a good person to hang out with at work all day."
Video Games Saved The World
I'm also no longer being honest when I imply that there's no wage-labor job that I'm passionate about. As at the end of Superweed 2, I'm still totally into computer games; and if the world as we know it survives long enough, and if I stay in it long enough, then inevitably, in a year or 5 years or 30 years, I will make money as a game designer.
This perspective makes all my job/money anxiety seem irrelevant. What's the hurry? I've let myself be hypnotized by the frantic metronome of this mad culture. I can just keep doing office temp work, and playing computer games, and learning programming languages, and making my own games, at my own pace, and the money will come looking for me -- or it won't, but I'll be living a good life anyway.
Gaming has moved my life forward in a lot of ways. I'm arguing with my contemporaries here. If anyone is still reading this in 200 years, you will take for granted that game-playing in created sub-worlds is high art. But in 1999, video/computer gaming is still seen as frivolous fun for young people, and a shameful waste of time for mature people -- just as novels were, when they were new.
Wait! I've thought harder. If I played computer games an hour a night, almost nobody would condemn me, and if I read novels eight hours a day, almost everyone would.
When an art form gets "higher," mostly what happens is students are forced to consume it, and teachers are paid to manage this forced consumption, and obedient participants in this system of control of the experience of the art form are declared productive and successful.
I was thinking our society was going somewhere by accepting more and more kinds of fun. But we've gone nowhere! All we've done is take activities that were originally done just for fun, and managed them, and turned them into tools for management, and declared this anti-fun use of these activities to be acceptable.
If I ever find that I can be considered a productive member of society by playing computer games all day, then I'll know that computer games are dead, and I'll go find the next fun thing that's still considered a waste of time.
Anyway, here's how gaming has helped me:
Emerging into USA 1999 after immersion in a game is like a little enlightenment. I see everything almost as if I've never seen it before. I experience this world as just another constructed sub-reality where I can have fun and try anything and whatever happens will be OK.
The second greatest value of any world, after raw fun, is what you can take back from it to other worlds. After playing Zelda, and repeatedly jumping off ledges and climbing little walls to get around, I felt the freedom to do the same in this world. Now, when I go down to the basement, I use only half the staircase, and then turn and hold a ceiling beam and jump down the rest of the way. And instead of going around and up the stairs to the front porch, I just jump up the side of it.
Because computer games are popularly believed to make people less useful to the wider game, I've got something to prove: since I started intensely gaming, I've made sure to do more housework and yard work. That's the power of love: I love gaming so much that I created a positive relation between gaming and my usefulness to other people. Conversely, if I start doing a lot of wage labor, I plan to be lazy and selfish. OK -- not really.
Video/computer games strengthen my will. Yes they do! If you run with weights around your ankles, does that make you a stronger or a weaker runner? When I'm immersed in a game, anything that would normally take an act of will takes a much bigger act of will. Making a phone call, going to the food store, even going to the bathroom becomes an exercise in perspective and discipline.
People say video games are addictive. Video games are compelling. Heroin is compelling. People are addictive. Addiction is a habit, in living creatures, of trading wider choices for a particular narrower choice.
Maybe your wider choice is to be healthy and fit, but you habitually trade it for your narrower choice to get pleasure from eating fatty, sugary foods. My wider choice is to have a house or some land and invite friends to live there, and help build a cooperative subsistence economy that's emotionally and physically independent of industrial capitalism. But I'm stuck, so I've been postponing that choice to make the narrower choice of having fun on the computer all day.
Anyway, when I titled this section, I planned to argue that someone who gets into a computer game puts far more consciousness in its world than someone puts into the world of a book or play or film; therefore, computer games have more power to influence the wider world than any previous literary form; so I would like game designers to recognize their power and get revolutionary ambitions, or I would like people with revolutionary ambitions to recognize the power they could have designing games. Got it?
Life Goes On
It's August 3rd. While my zine writing has been stumbling around the pages you have just read, my life has been rolling ahead. I'm looking for housing again. I was already thinking of moving out of here, and the clincher was when the other guys decided/agreed to purge the house population from 5 to 4. My rent would go up $65, or $35 if I moved to a tiny room, and there would be one fewer resident, and several fewer visitors, to loosen the suffocating upscale atmosphere of this place.
I know: Any normal person would love to live in such a "nice" house, and would find the order and cleanliness comforting. That's why I'm moving out and giving a normal person a spot in this house and giving myself a living situation that I appreciate.
Actually, I think I just gave myself too much credit: I think I'm too normal to live here. This house is dominated by the really weird energy of the two guys who have been here the longest, and it's driving the other three of us nuts. It's like living with your parents: you can sort of, most of the time, create your own space in your bedroom, and you can argue and win concessions on this or that temporary detail, but the underlying emotional foundation is alien and irrevocable.
August 19. My computer's broken down. The power supply burned out after only 3 months. I believe I am part of a wider intelligence that holds a lot more cards than me, and plays them to lead me to do what it wants; the other day I thought, if the wider universe needs me to do more right now than play Civilization II, it can easily divert my energy by, for example, breaking down my computer. That night my computer no longer worked. Today I tried to just buy a new power supply, but it's a special kind, so I'm going to use the warranty, which requires me to ship the whole computer to California.
Things are happening all at once. My temp agency is flirting with putting me in a temporary full time game testing job at Nintendo; Betsy and I have applied for an apartment and will be accepted or rejected any day now. My car insurance runs out September 10 and I haven't decided whether to renew it or sell the car.
If I'm blocked from living in fantastic imagined sub-worlds, then I'm just going to have to make the bigger world fantastic and imaginative. It's inevitable anyway, and now it looks like it's time.
Tonight I went to a city council candidates forum on homelessness and tenant issues. It was impressively progressive. Almost every candidate supported rent control and at least a temporary government-tolerated tent city. It was so progressive that I found the courage to raise my hand with my short, direct, radical question. "Do you think rent is fundamentally exploitative?"
I was hoping the crowd -- the dense heart of the housing issue political movement in a liberal city -- would back me up, but nobody clapped and ten of the candidates stared blankly. By this time they were answering yes/no questions by raising or not raising their hands. Ten no's ... and two yes's! Judy Nicastro, the tough, smart, charismatic young housing activist, who could move into a high-status political career by cutting off her radical roots, is nowhere near ready to do so -- she raised her hand. The other one was Stan Lippman, a flaky fringe candidate who opposed rent control and tent cities. But he gets it! I'm going to vote for him.
I said a few pages back that I wanted to buy a house and live off my friends' rent money. Forgive me! Our descendants will look back at rent the way we look back at serfdom, or slavery. Charging my friends really cheap rent would be like owning slaves and being really nice to them. Or, buying a house, moving my friends in, and charging them cheap rent would be like buying my own freedom, then buying all my slave friends, keeping them as my slaves, and treating them nicely.
My smug contemporaries shake their heads at Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves, but Jefferson freed slaves when he died. Maybe he wasn't far ahead of his time; maybe in Jefferson's time slave-freeing was already popular among liberals. But I wonder how many of today's Jefferson-shamers or Jefferson-admirers are rent-exploiters, and how many of them have even considered giving their rental properties to the tenants, even when they die.
If anyone's reading this in 200 years, you're bored by my self-evident arguments, but maybe you're interested in history: In 1999, I've never heard of any landowner just giving property to the renters. People of my generation are talking about buying houses and letting their friends live there free, but I have not yet heard of anyone doing it. Most of my renter friends still think of the institution of rent as a fair deal that only gets unfair when it's abused by selfish landowners and managers.
Rent is raw exploitation. You don't get anything in return for your rent payments. Sometimes the landowner pays for repairs and improvements to the property, but these repairs and improvements benefit the landowner by maintaining or increasing the sale value and rent-exploitation value of the property.
We live in a system of institutionalized robbery enforced by violence. Within this system, some people have the power to just take money from other people. The medium, or currency, of this taking-power is geographical space. For enough money, you can buy "ownership" of a building or an area of land, where "ownership" means the power to take money from the people who are actually making use of the building or area of land.
If people choose not to pay money to the owner of the robbery-rights to the building or land they're using, they are violently removed from the building or land by uniformed people with big sticks and guns. But it's worse: If you live without buying any "property" "ownership," or paying any money based on anyone else's "ownership," you will be despised, patronized, or pitied by almost everyone; you will be harassed by the gun-carrying robbery-enforcers; sometimes they will violently kidnap and imprison you; if you persist in running away from them, or acting to escape imprisonment, you will be beaten or shot to death.
Of course, many of the violent enforcers of rent serfdom are themselves rent serfs. So are many of the teachers and journalists who maintain our obliviousness to any social paradigm other than ownership-robbery. They're doing their jobs because they need the money to pay off the ruling class to not command their abuse and exclusion by other people who are just doing their jobs to pay off the ruling class to not command their abuse and exclusion by ...
The rich are parasites. They contribute nothing to the survival or happiness of any living thing, unless they're poor enough to have to water their own plants or occasionally cook meals. Otherwise all their energy goes to channeling our energy against us, or channeling our work to keep each other enslaved.
If we all figured this out at once, we would simply stop paying rent and threatening and indoctrinating each other and manufacturing and distributing and advertising and selling frivolous luxuries; we would just grow food and make houses and clothing and hang out and have fun all day.
I know that's an absurd fantasy; or it's a metaphor for the gradual personal change that we each go through as we figure it out one by one. I figured out that I would rather live in a "bad" place and ride a bicycle and hang out with friends than pay the money and do the extra wage labor to live in a "nice" place and drive a car and attend admission-charging cultural events. Then I figured out that the whole emotional world of cheap living is deeper and more interesting and more alive than the world of expensive living.
OK. Not exactly. Living on $20 a month in a cabin in Montana can be less alive than living in a $50 million house outside Seattle. And I'm more alive letting go of money and going to a job all day than I was penny-pinching and staying home.
But what I'm getting at is: What people typically do with money in this society is run from or hide from or push away or destroy anything challenging or expanding. This behavior forms a lingering pattern of fear and irritation and disgust attached to whatever we've separated ourselves from, and a lingering pattern of dependence on ever-increasing income to keep ourselves separate.
If you were born middle class or higher in the USA, you were probably born into these lingering patterns, as I was. I learned to think of poorer, less educated, less inhibited people as less valuable, less conscious, and more threatening. Nobody taught me this; I learned it from an environment that isolated me from these people and showed me simplified views of their extreme and incomprehensible behavior.
Or, this view of people was just one case of a general view: a safe, clean, simple, rationally controlled world surrounded by but not touching a world that's dangerous, dirty, chaotic, irrational and uncontrolled.
The way I felt when I read about the deaths of a bunch of vigorous and alien people who I didn't know was identical to the way I felt when I sprayed poison on the most vigorous and alien plants on the lawn or growing through cracks in the driveway, or the way I still feel when I sweep the biggest, blackest crumbs off the kitchen floor.
I'm not saying it's a "problem" that people think of other human beings the way they think of weeds and crumbs; I'm saying we don't have to think that way at all. I'm saying that the style of thinking where aspects of our experience need to be destroyed or excluded, to make aspects of our consciousness feel comfortable and in control, damages the spirit of the thinker; and that this style of thinking goes with wealth and power; and that, in this way, our society hurts the rich and powerful more than it hurts the poor and weak.
Of course, our system hurts the poorer people just as badly in other ways. I'm not talking about having to live in smaller, "dirtier" places, "infested" with non-human living creatures, less insulated from nature and human "noise," having to walk or bus instead of drive a car, or having to shop in thrift stores for less fashionable clothing that some filthy other human being has worn before you. Again, our society hurts us only by blocking our acceptance and appreciation of these, um, richer and more complex ways of living.
I'm not even talking about the abuse you get from prejudiced people who place you in a category associated with lower social class, or the really serious abuse you get when these values are channeled through the police and the courts and the prisons. These are painful challenges that I am grateful to have missed, but I don't see them, by themselves, as damaging.
This society hurts the poorer as it hurts the richer, by holding back the expansion of their consciousness. I once saw a study where people all over greater Los Angeles were asked to draw a map of the city. People in the higher class neighborhoods drew maps that showed pretty much the whole city; people in the lower class neighborhoods drew maps that showed just their little part of the city.
If you go to a "working class" party or bar, you don't expect to hear people talking about the relation between the invention of etiquette, social stratification, and the centralized state, or about how technologies like cars/highways and computers seem to connect us when they really isolate us by replacing universally available wide social relations with technologically dependent narrow connections, or about genetic technology as a tool for big business to claim "ownership" of living things. Only upper-middle class college-educated intellectuals are supposed to talk that way.
I don't buy the argument that complex thinking about politics and society is a frivolous luxury. This kind of thinking is interesting, relevant, powerful, available in library books and free publications, and well within the intellectual powers of almost everyone. It's elitist and patronizing to suggest that highly deveolped thought is possible only through economic advantage or education-system training.
But I also don't judge or "blame" lower-class people for "failing" to become intellectuals, any more than I blame higher-class people for thinking of lower-class people as garbage. Blame is a refusal to think farther.
The intellectual expansion of serving people, like the empathic expansion of ruling people, is incompatible with the survival of the present system. Therefore, as part of that self-maintaining system, serving people find themselves in an environment from which the worlds of intellectual expansion appear remote, oppressive, and incomprehensible.
Or, as Neil Young says, "Love and only love will break it down." Love is growth or movement of consciousness, and the growth or movement of our consciousness into the rules and mechanisms and relations of this game, or into the perspectives of those who the game sets against us, will break the game down, or break us out of it.
I regret calling rich people "parasites." Historically, people are called parasites before they're murdered. As the Roman Empire fell, a lot of people were killed for being rich; I understand that the Nazi and Khmer Rouge and Tutsi-Hutu genocides were all given justification by the idea that poorer people should rise up against richer people.
I hope, one of these revolutions, instead of killing the rich and burning their houses, we recognize our own embarrassing participation in our exploitation, and we just tell the rich: "Look, we're not going to build your houses anymore, or work in your houses, or make or buy your absurd products, or pay you for the land we live on, or enforce your laws against each other. But we forgive you, and if you're hungry or cold because you never learned to take care of yourself, then we'll let you stay in the houses we built, and eat from the gardens and farms we cultivated, and we'll be patient while you learn to live in an honest, cooperative, subsistence-and-free-time economy."
By The Way...
It's October 6, 1999. I've had a full-time job for six weeks now, and the last few pages have been written on short breaks from filing and copying, and the words have been worked out in my head during filing and copying.
I'm on the 8th floor of the Washington Mutual tower, working for a property management company. For an hour or two, this confused my leftist ideology: "Hey! Rent isn't just paid by poor people for living space. A massive amount of rent is paid by businesses and banks and giant evil corporations for office space. Is a giant corporation that pays rent being exploited?..."
Of course it is!
I took the job as a 2-4 week temp assignment, which was longer than I wanted, but it paid $11.50 an hour, $1.50 an hour more than I've ever made. And it turned out they just told me 2-4 weeks to bait me, or to give themselves an easy way to dump me if they didn't like me. I can stay as long as I want. Right now, I still plan to stay through next April or so. At $1700 a month after taxes, and $500 a month expenses, I can work 8 or 9 months and save $10,000.
Some of you are annoyed that I'm so flippant about saving up money. Different people are good at different things. I can walk around all week with $70 in my wallet and spend no money except on groceries and one $4 restaurant meal. And my groceries aren't frozen dinners or even bags of chips, but flour and bananas and butter and zucchini and olive oil. For me, this is not even easy -- it's natural. Of course, it took me years to build these thrifty habits, but again, this habit-building took no effort. It came naturally.
I feel grateful that I have this strength, and I'll make you a deal: I'll stop morally judging you for finding it extremely difficult to make or carry money without spending it, if you'll stop morally judging me for finding difficult what you find easy.
For me, a 40 hour work week is a monumental challenge. And it's a forgiving 40 hours, with longish breaks and a moderate pace and nice people and few deadlines. Some nights I get home with only enough energy to take a nap, eat, get my stuff ready for the next day, and go to bed. If I tried to do a high-stress 50-hour job, like most high-tech jobs, I wouldn't get any stock options because I would seriously have to quit after only a few months to stop myself from dying of some life-threatening illness.
I'm grateful that I have the superheroic stamina and discipline to carry 40 hours a week of a structured wage-labor environment. My heart goes out to the people for whom it's unreasonably difficult to spend even 10 hours a week doing the sort of "work" that this society demands before you're allowed to sleep inside or eat. What do we do for these people? I say, we figure out with them what they can contribute, we recreate our society to accept and use these contributions, and in the meantime, we support them with extra work from people who say that life is easy and they need more challenge.
People ask me if photocopying and filing are "challenging" enough for me, or if I get "bored." I told a co-worker I felt burned out and she asked "from boredom?" From working! Just having a "normal" job is almost more challenge than I can take.
Now some of you are thinking, "Hey! You just want to freeload off the work of others, like the wealthy landowners you criticize." No. I'll say it again:
If we create a society where we do no work except what's necessary for us to have good food and comfortable clothing and warm, dry places to sleep, and if we use technologies only when they give us a net savings of work, and not when they build a structure that demands more work, then we can all work only an hour or two a day, and that work will be meaningful because we will see how it makes our lives better, and we can have the rest of our lives to slack off and have fun.
And if you want the trappings and challenges that can be fabricated by doing extra work, then you can fucking do that work yourself, instead of working to preserve and strengthen a system where people are starved and frozen and shamed and isolated until their spirits are broken and they do that work for you.
We live in that system. There are laws to stop us from building straw bale houses or living in tents in the park or having six people in a 2-bedroom apartment. A few decades ago they tore down the flophouses where we could live dirt cheap in plain small rooms with a bathroom down the hall. Now we have to live in hyper-expensive techno-luxury or be arrested for sleeping in alleys. We have to eat factory-farmed, animal-torturing, earth-killing, processed-to-death food that's flown to us on jet airplanes from other continents, or not eat. We have to have telephones and (typically) cars to have jobs, and jobs to have money, and money to stay alive without going to jail.
I know: In China they'd have ten people in a 2-bedroom apartment, so why don't I go live in China? Because Chinese workers have not yet organized to get even a farcical pretention of fair wages. If they do, rents will go up and maximum occupancies will go down. If American workers ever organize to get fair wages, we'll be trained to think of two people in a 2-bedroom apartment as disease-breeding overcrowding. Whatever it takes to keep us paying half our incomes in rent.
Why does our system adjust to keep us paying half our incomes in rent? Why do they put fences with barbed wire around food dumpsters? Why does the "voluntary simplicity" movement exist only among rich people? Because we live in a society that acts vigorously and ruthlessly against simple, inexpensive, self-sufficient living by ordinary people.
Because if ordinary people could live a month on what they could make in two days, and they knew it, then they would work only two days a month. Or ten days a month would be enough. If the average worker could work half as much, and did, then the demand for labor would double. Then workers could demand double the wages. Then they could work half as much again. Then the demand for labor would double again.
Of course it's not simply workers vs. rulers. They overlap. Most of us are both. And as wages go up, the prices of things done and made by wage laborers will go up. So the proportionally higher wages will buy proportionally less -- but not exactly!
Prices will go up in proportion to the wage labor that goes into what you're buying. Rent will stay the same, because you're not buying any labor. The price of land will stay the same. Land with an old house on it will stay the same, but having a new house built will cost much more. Used car -- same; new car -- much more. Used clothing -- same; new clothing -- much more.
An apple from a farmer who picked it and drove ten miles into the city -- cheap. An ear of corn driven a thousand miles from a field that was fertilized and pesticided and sowed and harvested -- expensive. A bottle of wine from grapes that were picked and squeezed and barrelled and fermented and filtered and bottled and flown 7000 miles, that was hyped by a big advertising campaign -- super-expensive. Wine from blackberries you picked in the park and fermented in your basement -- free!
And there's more! Workers will have the leverage to get more money for demeaning, painful, emotionally empty jobs, and competition for fun jobs will drive those wages down. Combine this with labor-based pricing, and I imagine a graphic designer working two years to buy a 100-CD-changer, while someone who works in the factory making the CD player can work a month and buy land in the country. Convenience store clerks will make even more. Fruit pickers on chemical-saturated farms will demand so much that farms will stop using industrial chemicals.
These are fanciful extrapolations. Or, as Charles Fort would say, I've mapped a few relatively solid points of new lands, and I've filled in the rest of the map with drawings calculated to seduce more explorers. Maybe they'll bury my maps and stay home. Maybe here's why:
If You Can't Get Something Done Right, You Have To Do It Yourself
I've been writing these kinds of ideas for years now, and not since my "Are you a slave to industrial society?" quiz in Third Hemisphere #2 have I got even a predictable and unimaginative counter-argument. People who don't like Superweed have so far only made imprecise attacks on my attitude.
So here's the other side -- or here are more sides:
Have you seen what happens, in the world we live in, when people get to live free (or even really cheap) in places they don't own (or even in places they do own)? They get depressed and cynical and lethargic. Most of us are not ready for freedom. Or, we humans have been enslaving each other for so many centuries that it's going to take more than a few generations for most of us to learn how to run our own lives without selfish interests threatening us and blinding us to get us to do what they tell us all day; or for us to live in a society where it's normal for adults to be vigorous and curious and honest and helpful, and to keep expanding their consciousness, all for its own sake and not because something "motivates" them.
Notice I said "adults." Kids are already that way. I think they're born that way. But, whether they're beaten down by our slave-manufacturing education and employment systems, or just start resonating with the slave vibrations of everyone else, they usually turn into sluggish, fearful, deceptive, selfish, mind-narrowing adults.
I think conservative social critics who complain about "adults" acting like "children" are noticing the slow liberation of our species, as more of us are able to sustain our aliveness for longer and longer; but because they're conservative, they pick out the most extreme and incomprehensible aspects of this aliveness, to make people afraid of it... "Maturity" and "adulthood" and "growing up" are tricky subjects. Sometimes people are talking about courage and empathy and complex understanding and other angles of expansion of consciousness; and sometimes they're talking about settling into the channels in which this society traps our consciousness to keep it from expanding any further.
Next objection: My vision doesn't just ask rich people to give up comfort -- it asks a lot of poorer people to give up hope. It's easy for me to call for the abandonment of "frivolous luxuries," because I've already had them. I can call myself poor by American standards, but by global standards I'm super-rich: I own a computer; I've flown many times on jet airplanes; I can buy more food than I can eat from all over the world. I know from experience that techno-industrial luxuries are not so great; but billions of people have not had this experience, and if we shut the system down now, they never will.
Or this world is like a big carousel, where some people ride the pretty mechanical horses around in circles, while down below other people walk around in circles turning the gears that drive the machine, and looking up enviously at the riders.
Social mobility is the engine of industrial capitalism. Without it, workers would just knock the whole thing down. With it, they work ever harder trying to "rise" to "higher" levels of work. My copy clerk job is easy relative to the jobs of seemingly unemployed millionaires who labor night and day for capitalism, managing "their" money and "their" property to maintain and increase the inequality that is the space in which the social mobility engine operates.
We can all adjust our perspectives to generate happiness or unhappiness from any state of material wealth or social status. Capitalism is driven by people generating unhappiness by habitually looking at their state from the perspective of a "higher" state, so that their present state looks bad, and the "higher" state looks good, and they want to do work to "rise." But this verticality is openly artificial: "higher" just means "requiring more work."
Actually I can cancel capitalism out of the equation. Capitalism is just a metaphor for our emotional and intellectual patterns of comparing, and competing, and holding tension between where we are and where we can get by doing more work.
If the surface of the earth were covered with diamonds and gold, and we could get mud only by digging deep mines, then we would dig deep mud mines, and people in houses of diamonds and gold would look with bitter envy at the rich brown lustre of the houses of mud, and they would work their whole lives to live in mud houses and employ maids to scour the filthy unsanitary diamond and gold dust off the precious mud floors.
The mud-dwellers would hide their shameful secret -- that they still weren't happy. They would feel guilty and start ambitious programs to bring mud to the whole world. They would go to the most pathetically undeveloped places, where people relaxed all day in villages built of diamonds and gold that they just picked up off the ground; they would tear down the villages and erect modern mud housing projects; in return for this service, they would teach the people productive job skills by putting them to work in the mud mines and the mud-processing plants. If anyone complained, they would be indignantly denounced as ungrateful by people who had worked their whole lives before they earned the privilege of living in mud.
People who claimed to prefer living in gold and diamonds, and stubbornly refused to better themselves, would be dismissed as lazy and shiftless. If too many people became lazy, they would have to be somehow compelled to work in the mud factories and do their part for the common good. Eventually, a country might become rich enough to make building codes that required all structures to be made of mud, so no one would have to endure the shame of looking at -- or worse, living in -- golden houses. Of course, anyone blessed with living in such a muddy country should be deeply grateful,and do their share of the work that maintains such enviable muddiness.
But now there's a new discovery! By digging even deeper mines, with even greater effort, we can extract a substance so rare and refined that only the most laboriously trained noses can appreciate its exquisite scent. That's right -- shit! And if we all redouble our activity, we may see a day when anyone, by working hard enough, can earn the chance to live in a shithouse.
Of course my analogy is flawed: The world we live in is even more absurd and satanic. In this world, the stuff that actually is lying all over the ground -- dirt and straw and rocks and even shit -- is useful for building houses and gardens. And the stuff that is extracted from the earth with great effort is much less valuable than dirt.
With enough effort, a civilization can produce iron, which doesn't cut nearly as well as chipped obsidian, but is especially useful in making weapons that can be used to wound and kill other people to compel them to work for you making more iron. Next we can produce steel, which is useless for warm, comfortable houses for people to live in, but indispensable for giant office buildings from which the manufacture of more steel and the compulsion of more workers can be managed.
We can drill for oil, which, when spread on plants, does not help them grow, but which can power iron and steel contraptions that pretend to save labor while multiplying the demand for labor-consuming materials and practices.
Lately, with unfathomable effort, we have produced the highest thing yet: plutonium, a substance so valuable that it kills any living thing it touches and its only use is making bombs that can kill a million people at once who refuse to work for you.
After thousands of years of this, we are so skilled that no human being can survive to adulthood with self-respect and awareness. I didn't. I survived by going so deep under cover that, not only don't I remember who I was, I don't remember going undercover. If you're my contemporary, so did you. If we ever make it out of this alive, our descendants will amaze each other with the shocking factoid that our civilization required such warping of our initial consciousness that none of us could remember the first two to five years of our lives.
When I say, "survive," I mean it. I knew a woman who, when she was a little girl, and first started going to school, would wait until recess, and position herself at the edge of the playground, and watch. When no one was looking, she would just take off running! She ran and ran, trying to get away, but she never found "away." They drove around and found her and took her back to the school. But the next chance she got, she ran away again!
Of course they broke her, the same way they broke all of us. First we find it easier to pretend to go along. Then, as the gap widens between what we're pretending to be and what we remember we are, we find it easier to forget what we are, and forget we're pretending. Finally we take the side of our kidnappers.
Imagine if any of us persisted in not even pretending to go along. Depending on which subculture was trying to break us, we would be locked up or drugged or beaten or starved or exposed or emotionally abused or isolated, until we obeyed or died. Lately I get a lot of strength to keep going from a line in the film The Thin Red Line: "They want you dead, or in their lie."
I'm making it look bad by holding my perspective narrow. Sure, in the wider picture, we have all been captured into slavery. But in the next wider picture, we chose to get captured into slavery. We set it up. Maybe it's like Houdini, letting himself be chained in a box so he can make a show of escaping; or it's like sadomasochism players, letting themselves be tied up and beaten for sexual pleasure; or it's like the old eastern mystic, who tells his followers not to let him out of the cave for three years, even if he begs them to; or we're all playing the hottest game in the fifth dimension, SlaveWorld: You and the other players have been tricked into fighting each other and feeding an escalating cycle of pointless activity, but by working together, you can take it apart and make Earth a paradise; or the game doesn't have a title or a goal -- we can all do whatever we want, and some of us thought it would be fun to build this crazy system and see what happens.
One thing that happens is, this obsessive-labor emotional climate has obsessively-laboring revolutionaries like me who want to start a new game before half the people have had a chance to play the old one. Continuing the carousel analogy: I'm up on the horse saying "This sucks. Let's shut this machine down." And the people who have been turning the gears their whole lives, so they or their descendants can ride the horses, are furious, because I've just said they've wasted their lives. When they say "If you don't like it up there, why don't you come down here," they're desperately covering my whole point, that there are worlds beyond this little machine, and we can go there.
I just buried myself in that last paragraph. Let me climb out: We can all do whatever we want, and some of us thought it would be fun to build this crazy system and see what happens.
So here's what happened. Cool! Now, what happens next is, I shift my own personality from fear and control and perfectionism to fun and acceptance and sloppiness, and my experience reflects me, and I see technology shift from a tool that "civilizes" and "sanitizes" and simplifies, to a tool that breeds chaos and complexity. And I shift out of the world I've been describing and into magical perpetual cyberpunkapocalypse!
Since I started advocating a "cyberpunk" future, I have discovered that most of my friends don't know what cyberpunk is. Not only haven't they read Neuromancer, many of them haven't even seen Blade Runner. If you've consumed 50 times as much cyberpunk as me, then I don't know what it is either. But here's what I mean when I talk about it:
Until the 1980's, popular imagined higher-technology futures were really clean. A lot of them still are, especially Star Trek. In clean science fiction, people wear uniforms or costumes that go with defined roles in a rationally comprehensible system. Typically people have titles that, again, define functions in a mechanistic social order. Governments and controlling powers can be good or evil, but they're always rational and efficient. The behavior of all but the most pathetic characters is professional and competent. Technology works the way it's supposed to and is used to maintain predictability and simplicity.
In my vision, which is based on some stuff that's been called cyberpunk, people are like me: they have names, not titles; they wear practical clothing and don't keep it clean; they scramble around on the fringes of society -- because control is loose and erratic and society still has fringes! And they use technology to fuck shit up! Technologies create surprise and complexity and new layers of life. They make it harder, not easier, for the center to hold.
go to part 2