Building a Future in the Here and Now

by Chris Carlsson

For many contemporary political activists it is hard to accept that for lots of people it is precisely the anonymity and lack of responsibility that daily life in the capitalist market provides that makes them feel “free.” You get your money from your job and you spend it however you see fit, privately and anonymously. There is no accountability for the meaning of the work you do (if someone pays you, that’s all that matters), nor for the invisible social costs of what you consume. There is a great freedom to the individual in this arrangement, and one that advocates of social revolution and human liberation must take into account when they propose an alternative life based on a high level of accountability and responsibility.

As an oppositional activist, I reject this consumerist "personal freedom"; it is the shallow freedom of obliviousness. Its inevitable “progressive” flipside is the thought that if we just shop properly, the world will be okay. Americans mostly don’t want to feel responsible for the daily relationships they participate in, nor the consequences of their own behavior. That’s no surprise in a work world where, as soon as we enter, we relinquish our responsibility at the point of sale. As soon as you agree to work for a wage, you lose control over the shape of the work you’re doing. You have no say over the purpose of the enterprise, and rarely much say over how the work is organized, nor what kinds of relationships should prevail among the different employees.You certainly have no right to speak your mind.

If we want to challenge this painfully absurd set-up, our choices are limited. We can quit work. We can try to organize with our fellow workers (either independently or through an existing union- both options require a lengthy analysis). Most commonly we strive to become self-employed, or maybe find a “good job “ in a nonprofit, a co-op, a collective business. The limits of these latter choices soon make themselves felt too; so far a strategy of revolt with clear tactical choices has eluded us. As we muddle along, we face the problem of persisting, of keeping our politics and idealism alive. Finally, if our projects DO survive we face them becoming institutionalized.

Institutionalization confronts us with our own mortality, with issues about  “settling down,” building a home, making commitments. The frenzied life imposed under late capitalism is defined by a high degree of personal mobility and all the choices about where to live. Rising insecurity and precariousness is making that an empty choice for most people. Can stability, rootedness, and accountability enhance our quality of life while helping establish a foundation for oppositional politics? Can we build institutions that reject the dictatorship of economic efficiency in favor of new ways of living cooperatively? Can we build lasting institutions that transcend the need for charismatic individuals to hold them together?

In our collective efforts to transform society and build alternative futures, do we launch political opposition in ad-hoc and short-term ways to prevent ossification and bureaucratization? How then do we avoid having to reinvent the wheel each time? Can we create ongoing, long-term structures for political action that don’t turn into a kind of alternative business? So far, much to my frustration, the alternatives to small business are fleeting and elusive. The logic of business, whatever its size, is nearly always at odds with cooperation and sharing.

 A Radical Media Clubhouse

 I never wanted to run a small business. But that’s what I’ve done for the past quarter century. It came about rather accidentally. I was one of three folks in a short-lived collective back in 1980, after its demise I took on the debt of an old phototypesetting machine around which we were building the collective operation.

 In 1980 a typesetting machine was an amazing and much-coveted resource. All independent radicals, writers, poets and most artists dreamed of access to real typesetting. Rarely could they afford it. Typesetters charged $50/hour (when a good wage was $10/hour) and typesetting for a flyer usually cost at least $30, often nearer to $100; a full-length magazine or chapbook could cost thousands of dollars just to get a typeset galley (photographic paper with columns of type printed on it). Fees for layout and paste-up were still ahead. Phototypesetting was state-of-the-art, the next step up from IBM Selectric electric typewriters (the machines were over $10,000 new, the price of typesetting mostly reflected the expense of paying for the equipment). Desktop computers did not yet exist. The Macintosh and IBM PC were still some years in the future. 

 With this machine in my house, inquiries soon arrived from local community newspapers if they could cheaply get their typesetting done. More importantly, a particular milieu of Bay Area radicals that I belonged to was able to get their agitational flyers, posters, magazines and pamphlets professionally typeset on the machines (notably, Processed World magazine which I co-founded in 1981). Different friends took turns learning the equipment and doing these underpaid jobs under the table. Some of the money they earned went toward buying expensive phototypesetting paper and chemicals and buying new fonts.

After a year and a half working on my enclosed back porch, the dozen or so participants in the Processed World collective at that time decided we should get the equipment out of my house and into a public office. Paying the rent required us to take seriously the need for the space to generate revenue. The typesetting for neighborhood newspapers (Tenderloin Times, and  Haight Ashbury Community Perspectives) and running random resume jobs was enough of a business to sustain one income and pay most of the rent on a shop big enough to house a good-sized darkroom with copy camera (a crucial device predating the desktop scanner).

“The shop” was seen as the Processed World headquarters first and foremost. As such, it was expected to be open to people doing workplace organizing, and for people who shared something of our radical politics, to use the facilities. There we held weekly meetings and we also had collating parties when the magazine was ready to be assembled. We launched our weekly street appearances in weird papier-mache costumes to hawk magazines in the financial district. The shop was used to gather before demonstrations such as the annual “Peace, Jobs, and Boredom” rallies that served as a kind of San Franciscan spring mobilization, or as a place to prepare floats and costumes before protesting the 1984 Democratic Convention, anti-war or anti-nuclear marches, etc.

From then until now, through three different “shops” and many phases of both the “radical media clubhouse” and my own small business, the technological underpinning, phototypesetting, has been rendered obsolete. The larger community that depended on the space has also gone through many changes, hundreds of people have passed through, and due in part to computerization, the need for a physical place housing a rare resource has disappeared. What hasn‘t disappeared is our need for community, our desire to be part of something more than what we get from our “normal” daily lives, our need to create a rich life away from numbing work. Places to hang out, exchange ideas, collaborate creatively, brainstorm, and socialize without work, are as rare today as they were a quarter century ago.

The principle of community access to the "radical clubhouse" was compromised by the absence of any kind of real community ownership or control. I owned (or co-owned with a partner) the machine and was the principal leaseholder at each location.

If someone wanted to use the equipment, I had to approve it. If something went wrong, I had to handle it. When the machines broke or needed maintenance or new fonts, it was my responsibility to make it work. If the office was left a mess by a friend working on a project, I usually had to clean it up. Even to this day, after meetings or informal gatherings, I often find myself picking up bottles, dirty dishes, ashtrays, etc. and having to restore the space to some kind of habitable state. (It is hard to maintain a “business-like” environment in what serves as an extended living room for a fluctuating collective of participants.)

But how else could it be? It’s also my place of business. I’m there all week, others are there at most for a few hours every couple of weeks. We’ve set up systems to share the cleaning and maintenance, but like most such systems, they proved less than reliable. The best intentions only intermittently overcome ingrained patterns of behavior. In a life that routinely measures rewards with money, alternative systems lack such a clearcut system of accountability, and the informality of our collective process failed to establish an adequate replacement. Some people worked harder, did more, and felt more responsible. Sometimes this led to resentment towards folks who were doing less, but then those folks would feel resentful that there was no room for them to have more control over the process. In other words, we faced a fairly typical set of interpersonal problems in a collective environment during this period of history.In spite of these inherent obstacles, our “clubhouse” did provide access to a number of interesting projects.

The 1980 Blacklist was partly typeset on our equipment when it was still on the back porch. Brian Kane of the notorious 719 Ashbury anarchist household (a 3-story Victorian that was home for 8 to 10 people at any given time, including for a couple of years John Zerzan, later an anarchist  “star “) spent countless hours typesetting the global anarchist contacts he’d painstakingly collected with other members of his collective. Our first shop in a Victorian basement at Page & Ashbury was home to No Middle, an anarchist ‘zine about Latin America that went under after three issues, suffering a terminal split and utter demoralization after Caitlin Manning’s open-minded article about her visit to Sandinista Nicaragua incurred the wrath of the more ideological anarchists who would only accept a complete denunciation of the statist Sandinistas. Ideas & Action was an anarcho-syndicalist magazine occasionally typeset there by Tom Wetzel, who also participated in Processed World  and  No Middle Ground.  Across Frontiers (a magazine facilitating communication among and between Eastern European dissidents before the fall of the Soviet Union, edited by Peter Rossman and Bernard Marszalek) was typeset at a steep discount. A six-month organizing project to produce  “The End of the World’s Fair“ (an event) in May 1984 shared our office. Gary Roush, Jeff Goldthorpe, David Pingitori and a cast of dozens used our phones and graphic arts equipment to produce a parade and festival that drew 2000 people during the darkest days of Reaganism.

After an ignominious (and infamous) period of violent harassment by Bob Black we were evicted. We ended up downtown at our second  “clubhouse “ on Clementina Alley between 1st and 2nd , Howard and Folsom Streets, in a building known as The Cave by both its hippie and punk residents. We shared the lease but had our own separate office under a huge loft. We shared the meeting room with the residents, who themselves comprised at least two collectives, a living-space one and a music-studio group. Processed World published three times a year during the five year lease at The Cave, weathering the ebb and flow of the other residents (mostly early 20-something musician-types, where the PW crowd was more mixed, running the gamut from early 20s to mid-50s), the withering of most radical political impulses, and the late Cold War hysteria of the Reagan/Bush period.

During this period we created a nonprofit to “own” Processed World, and as time went on, it became officially responsible for part of the rent. This gave us the first chance to seek donations and grants, which proved irregular at best, but it at least provided the legal shield of being an independent nonprofit instead of a sole proprietorship. The nonprofit, then known as Bay Area Center for Art & Technology, also gave sponsorship to a number of interesting radical video projects and several other publishing ventures that shared the “shop.” End of the Century books, See Sharp Press, the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, and Acrata magazine were all being typeset in our place. At least ten different people had keys to the office during those days, and in general, the ambience of a crashpad cum publishing/typesetting office provided a cozy environment. By this time, my small business was the dominant component of the space, and Chaz Bufe, publisher of See Sharp Press and Acrata  and occasional contributor to  Ideas & Action  as well as  Processed World, was my business partner.

Our third  “clubhouse “ continued our practice of openness. There, at the Grant Building at 7th and Market, conversations in our hangout lounge during 1991-92 led directly to the emergence of the monthly bike ride called  “Critical Mass. “ A varying group of 15 or so cyclist activists, bike messengers and daily bicycle commuters produced flyers to promote it, as well as a steady stream of  “xerocracy “ (broadsides, flyers, newsletters, stickers, etc.) during the first three years of its existence, which had a big hand in shaping the dissident bicycle culture that has since spread globally.  Processed World ran out of gas in early 1994 after 32 issues. The last issue, 33 1/3, was finally put on-line in the early 2000s; two more issues appeared in 2001 and 2004 respectively The interactive multimedia excavation of the lost history of San Francisco called  Shaping San Francisco  was created in this space too, an effort that required thousands of hours of highly skilled volunteer work and hundreds of meetings over the years "

Parallel to this saga is the rise and fall of different small business clients (community newspapers, theater producers, small advertisers, newsletters, brokers, publishers, union newspapers). More interesting has been the growing conflict between the security needs of the business on one hand, and the desire to share and be open to newcomers on the other. Once we converted to computers, it no longer required specialized training to use our machinery. But computers themselves are easily broken by careless practices, accidental deletions, unauthorized software installations, etc. All these happened to us over the years.

It didn’t happen too often, maybe because our culture’s expectations are low. But once in a while someone did assume that because we were open to others using our equipment, they had a  “right “to it. Private ownership trumped that expectation every time. The old saw about the  “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one “ always kicks in. From the point of view of building an alternative culture based on mutual aid and cooperation, this is a dismal fact. But from the point of view of maintaining the resource in the real world of rent and bills,  “free access “ is necessarily a qualified concept.

 There are many problems inherent in building so-called  “alternative institutions.” Acquiring a facility and equipment is never free. We may strongly hold a belief in a world of free association and oppose just as strongly any form of exploitation. But how do we pay for our space, for the equipment we need to do what we do? We might be able to use someone else’s, another institution that has already invested in the same kind of facility or equipment that we need. But they are not likely to let us use it for free. Rather than renting, most of us want to get our own, to preserve access (who owns the press?) and lower our long-term costs. Following this logic we end up with a number of groups and facilities that are in some basic way redundant. Had a larger community of progressives been able to overcome sharp ideological antipathy (and often personal animosity as well) to pool resources, we could all be  “richer. “

Instead, we scramble to reinvent the same wheel that someone else invented just a decade earlier, or a decade before that.

An Accountable Alternative?

Learning from the anarchists of the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s, the anti-nuclear and peace movements of the 70s and 80s organized into small affinity groups. This model re-emerged to fight the WTO in Seattle in 1999, the IMF/World Bank, FTAA and further WTO summits since then. This anti-institutional, ad-hoc movement is based on small affinity groups that come together to organize specific actions as part of the larger demonstration. By organizing in an ad-hoc, issue-based way, affinity groups thus are able to avoid being subsumed into the logic of small business. They also avoid the bureaucratization and salaried hierarchies of ongoing nonprofit organizations. There is no need to maintain structures of property, ongoing expenses for offices and equipment, etc.

Being rooted in local small groups is one of the anti-capitalist movement’s greatest strengths, because it establishes the kinds of deep, trusting relationships that are the essential basis for another way of life. In local groups people come to know each other in daily life, knitting together lives in increasingly intricate webs of interdependency and mutual aid. They are potential networks for redesigning life on non-economic principles. Such groups are also limited to the resources at hand, that individuals already possess or have access to, either in their homes or through their jobs.

One of the most notable qualities of the affinity group structure is the dependence on meetings and consensus. People learn real politics, how to compromise, how to lose gracefully, and how to work difficult but deeply important things out, in ways that are alien to hierarchical work environments or government bureaucracies. This is both a strength and a social liability. The tyranny of meetings, especially those run by consensus, can be exhausting and often demoralizing. When it works, it can be a source of genuine collective euphoria. But it tends to burn people out and often leaves a trail of bitter feelings in its wake. This derives in part from our difficulties in facing and handling creatively the inevitable differentiation among people in any group.

 Nevertheless, building new communities from the bottom up depends on our ability to negotiate new ways of being together, addressing and solving problems as directly as possible. It also depends on creating networks of mutual aid that allow for different skills and understandings, as well as degrees of participation. In an era where identity politics has too often balkanized communities into mutually mistrustful camps, new patterns of resource sharing and community accountability are simultaneously difficult to imagine and absolutely necessary.

Anti-capitalist activists, ready to carry on the effort for the long haul, ought to temper their implicit assumption that the affinity group is somehow a prefigurative formation of the kind of life we want to live in the future. Sure, face-to-face meetings and new ways of trusting and working together are crucial. But if we dogmatically adhere to any specific organizational form we too easily fall into the trap of subcultural exclusion. Not everyone is inclined to live by face-to-face meetings and consensus. It attracts some personalities and political ideologies, and repels many others. The same could be said about most institutional forms. (For example, I can’t bear to attend government hearings, which I find completely oppressive, fake versions of popular participation.)

 A creative approach to our organizational forms will have to accommodate lots of different approaches. More important than the question of affinity group or small business or nonprofit corporation is our ongoing effort to promote a culture that greets radical change with excitement rather than fear. Life can be dramatically better than it is, and connecting with each other based on that certainty can animate and amplify whatever forms we find ourselves working within.