Sunday, September 16, 2007

Flapping Wings

On the whole, I've been rather hopeful for the last two years. But perhaps it was naive of me to believe that the First World was at last recognizing the western model of political and economic "progress" as an undemocratic, globalized burden? Is it not clear that super-capitalism punishes, starves and buries the less fortunate "lower" classes along with the "lesser" species? Do the present-day "winners" not understand that, eventually, when the structural interior is rotted out, the upper echelon will come crashing down?

A friend gave me a copy of the Time Magazine Style & Design Supplement last week. I wish that I hadn't read it; the supplement's articles have only contributed to my intensifying skepticism of and despair for the art market.

Consider, for example, Karen Katz, Neva Hall, and Ann Stordahl, so-called "power players" at Neiman Marcus. Kristina Zimbalist, one of the supplement's writers, calls the three women "Magical Thinkers" because they've "orchestrated America's current luxury boom, lifting the consumer ever higher."
"And the world is primed for what Neiman Marcus president and CEO Katz calls 'high luxury'; the number of households worth more than $5 million is greater than ever before...'It's even more luxurious, more unique, harder to get. We want to sit at the top of the luxury mountain,' [Katz] says. 'We're pushing higher, to find that even rarer air.'"
The attitudes of people like Katz are irredeemable...and awfully depressing.

Publications like the Time Style & Design Supplement prove my optimism misguided; we are not yet recognizing the gravity of our trespasses. Even as wealthy dilettantes bemoan the tenuous station of the polar bear, they celebrate news of the "Global Luxury Survey: China, India, Russia," another article included in the Time supplement.
"Ask any seasoned luxury-goods executives what excites them most about the future of the category, and they will undoubtedly launch into a lengthy discourse on emerging markets. For some, China holds the most promise, with its double-digit yearly growth and the expectation that it will surpass the U.S. in luxury-goods consumption by 2015...In this, the first installment of a four-part series, Time measures the affluent consumer's appetite for luxury brands in these exciting markets."
China? Russia? Regular readers of ArtNews and other industry glossies know that these "market opportunities" aren't far from the minds of art world movers and shakers. The art world is, after all, just another arm of the global luxury market.

When Edward Winkleman argued recently, in his post, "Blinded by Blood Lust," that good art can coexist with a strong market, I didn't find fault with his assertion. Yet I'm troubled by the pain that radiates outward from a thriving market. Dealers and artists may not be directly assaulting the environment or the poverty stricken, but they're happily trading in bloody money, and all the while identifying themselves as "liberal," "progressive" and "caring."

As Edward contends, the "art market death watch cheerleaders" - I include myself in their ranks - are deluded if they cheer because they believe that "we'd have better or more interesting art if only" the market collapsed. I hope that most of them, like me, are instead cheering for change (for alternatives). The thriving art market is one more indication that our species, propelled by the west's thoughtless economic imperatives, is in a frightening position, every bit as tenuous as that of brother polar bear.

A successful man that I know, someone affiliated with the art world, recently purchased a watch for $11,500. This acquisition disturbs me for two reasons. First, even a limited awareness of the social and ecological ravages of luxury markets should discourage an educated individual from making such a purchase. Second, I was forced to acknowledge that his buying the watch is essentially no different from his buying a painting.

The watch wasn't encrusted with diamonds; outwardly, it didn't even look particularly expensive. If you didn't know the brand, you'd likely mistake it for an inexpensive model and make. It's a status symbol and, as such, is designed to be recognized only by other people of status. Considering the watch, I concluded that it (like the bought-and-sold artworks in Chelsea) is an artifact of contemporary "high luxury," a branded investment that is grafted to the market, useful only as a wealth signifier.

Daniel Quinn
's allegory of the airman, taken from his renowned novel "Ishmael," is pertinent to this discussion. Our civilization knows well that the laws of aerodynamics, physical realities that we had to identify in order to construct serviceable planes and helicopters, don't defy gravity. Quinn writes,
"There is no escaping [gravity], but there is a way of achieving the equivalent of flight - the equivalent of freedom of the air. In other words, it is possible to build a civilization that flies."
But before we understood aerodynamics, would be aviators built "pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings, based on a mistaken understanding of avian flight."
"As the flight begins, all is well. Our would-be airman has been pushed off the edge of the cliff and is pedaling away, and the wings of his craft are flapping like crazy. He's feeling wonderful, ecstatic. He's experiencing the freedom of the air. What he doesn't realize, however, if that this craft is aerodynamically incapable of flight. It simply isn't in compliance with the laws that make flight possible - but he would laugh if you told him this. He's never heard of such laws, knows nothing about them. He would point at those flapping wings and say, 'See? Just like a bird!' Nevertheless, whatever he thinks, he's not in flight. He's an unsupported object falling toward the center of the free fall.

Fortunately - or, rather, unfortunately for our airman, he chose a very high cliff to launch his craft from. His disillusionment is a long way off in time and space...There he is in free fall, experiencing the exhilaration of what he takes to be flight...However, looking down into the valley has brought something else to his attention. He doesn't seem to be maintaining his altitude. In fact, the earth seems to be rising up toward him. Well, he's not very worried about that. After all, his flight has been a complete success up to now, and there's no reason why it shouldn't go on being a success. He just has to pedal a little harder, that's all."
As the extremes of wealth and poverty continue to grow at home and abroad, we point to our contraption's flapping wings, grin madly and pedal away.

The Time supplement tells readers that Russia's growing millionaire class has "[forgotten] about stealth wealth. The Russia luxury consumer wants to flaunt economic status." Of course they do. As the globe's upper 5% becomes increasingly burdened by a concentration of wealth, they will begin to in-fight, one-upping one another in ostentatious displays. The rest of us will suffer for it; governments will be bought and sold and human rights will be tread upon. So long as western culture continues to celebrate the individual over community, the economic pilots can keep pointing at their flapping least until we all slam into the valley floor.

Today, however, there seem to be more intrepid, deluded airmen than ever before. Priya Tanna, editor of Indian Vogue proudly relates the news: "At a very micro level, I think every Indian woman who is now financially independent is realizing the joys of guilt-free consumption. We are kind of moving from a 'we' culture to a 'me' culture." Oy, vey!

Why, then, am I a "death watch cheerleader"? Because no other species has acted this irresponsibly and survived. We are pushing the limits of natural law. I don't know if the poisonous labors of our hubris can be mended, but each of us, as citizens and moral animals, needs to make some significant, individual choices that will spill over, one hopes, into a renewed sense of community. For artists, these choices must affect how they eke out a living, and what sort of creative dialogue they are willing to participate in.

Again, I'm hoping to engender some sort of discussion about these ideas. I don't have any solutions jotted down.

Photo credit: unattributed picture of Damien Hirst's "For The Love of God"


Bill Gusky said...

Maybe some words of hope then:

Human things tend to be cyclic.

As a species we do eventually disgust ourselves. Witness the overwhelming majority of Americans who now think it's time to get out of Iraq and who distrust Bush. Compare and contrast with three years ago.

It takes us a while, but we do come around.

In Dickens' London I've read it was dangerous to go outside, particularly at night, and that this situation later improved.

I'm told that at one time a great percentage of the trees in Connecticut had been cut down and the land was farmland. But most of the farms were ultimately abandoned and the trees grew back. As evidence I'd cite the many acres of woods I traversed in Watertown that were criss-crossed with stone walls, some with trees growing straight through them, as well as rusted barbed-wire fences, the stone foundations of buildings now grown through with trees, and the bones of horses and cattle.

Many small towns in middle America are being abandoned, streets of empty houses falling into disrepair. The prairie grasses are returning. Some towns offer you cash to join their growing quietude.

The ozone layer was improving somewhat (is it still?) and we took credit for it.

People get sick of their pricey baubles. They sometimes outgrow the bacchanalian values of their youths. Kids who partied and skipped through high school sometimes get serious in their late twenties. They return to school and become successful, long after their parents had given up on them.

Men get older. They wish they'd stayed with their first wives and that their children were still talking to them. They start to quiet down and wonder where the hell it's all going.

Women sometimes wish they'd borne children, even if it's later in life. The growing number of forty-ish and fifty-ish Escalade drivers with Asian toddlers living in our affluent valley attests to this.

I teach high school children that life is up and down -- to not fear being poor and to plan on being generous and responsible with wealth, because it's better than an even-money bet that at some points in their lives they'll experience both extremes.

I teach them the importance of family. Of looking to one another as resources and support. All in the context of art.

They're getting it. It's hard to get the damned iPod out of their ears, but they do eventually get it.

We can all model the best, make our voices heard and maintain hope.

For whatever it's worth -

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thank you for the thoughtful response.

You're right. Humans tend to "come around." This is certainly true in terms of the environment; just look at Gore's success in encouraging conversation about global warming. Unfortunately, we live in a time when advertising and corporations absorb this "coming around" all too quickly. Words like "green," "organic" and "eco-friendly" have all been adopted by not-so-green corporations. Advertisers aren't any more dumb than the neo-cons. When they see people "coming around," they absorb the tactics and the vocabulary employed by the dissenters.

So, too, did Connecticut's vegetation reclaim the farms when the local crop need was lessened (due to the awful roar of the "green revolution" in the Midwest), but the species of trees and animals that appeared among those fences and foundations were different. Trophic generalists introduced from elsewhere out-competed the original flora and fauna, resulting in less bio-diversity. The woods look rich today - indeed, they are - but they are less rich.

A discouraging quote springs to mind:

"I prevent myself from thinking in order to be able to live."

The French painter Bernard Buffet said that in 1948. It's one step away from "ignorance is bliss," and so it is, but bliss is also laziness.

An encouraging quote, then:

"I teach [my students] the importance of family. Of looking to one another as resources and support. They're getting it."

That's you. Let us hope they are getting it, for the world is becoming a very unsettling place to live.

andiscandis said...

Hyperconsumerism transcends specific markets such as 'art' and 'luxury'. Thanks to the marketing machine (of which you could say that I'm a part) everyone wants more, whether they can afford it or not.

We've become increasingly comfortable with carrying debt (tired of creditor harassment?) to finance the lifestyle we all deserve. I'm betting that most of Bill's SUV soccer moms don't actually own their Escalades, or their homes for that matter. Almost no one does these days.

The only way I see this cycle being interrupted is by a significant economic recession. When the creditors call in their IOU's and nobody can pay, we'll have to start making some changes.

This is already happening in many areas. Loads of first-time homebuyers who signed on for a 3-year A.R.M. when rates were at their lowest in '03 just found out what 'adjustable rate' really means. A lot of people are losing their McMansions because they could only afford them at 2.5%.

And with that, I just completely lost my train of thought. I'm blaming it on hormones.

Oly said...

C.R., I'm starting to think that there IS no solution, and that is not necessarily acknowledging failure, but instead just simply essential human nature.

Alan Greenspan the other night stated a great comment on "60 Minutes," when faced with the question whether or not he was a "social climber," as Ayn Rand accused him of being.

He noted that yes, indeed, of course he is.

Here's his direct quote:

"Everybody is a social climber if you want to put it in one way or another. I mean, and the reason fundamentally is inbred in all of us, is the need to get approval of others. And the ultimate form of getting approval is climbing socially," Greenspan says. "I'm guilty, but then the problem is there's no non-guilties out there."

Of course you can always say that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

Art is something that has always been something that is a value (meaning hanging on their walls, etc) and only purchasable (is that a word??) by the upper crust-- so how is it that we cannot expect all that comes along with high society to also enter the artistic realm once "success" has been achieved.

It all ends up being what is your own personal definition of success, and what is "selling out."

It's an internal argument more than something that can be placed on others, I believe.

$11,000 watches break just like a $5 one-- and truth be told, what is left in the end at death anyway, other than a memory.

PS-- you have a reply to your nature boy comment on da musings.

Hungry Hyaena said...


New profile? New blog? What's going on with you?

As for your answer; it's a nice summation of the current economic climate and ails. I fear you're right about the needed recession, and this is directly related to the art market discussion, although the uppermost upper class players won't be affected as much as the upper middle class and, of course, all the rest of us, both here and abroad.

The question remains, though, will those necessary changes (resulting from said significant recession) lead to a total attitude adjustment? Will the SUV soccer moms realize their lifestyles are totally out of sync with sustainable living (if not a life well led, more generally)? I doubt it, which means that those who do realize these things must pick up the slack, and so I'm back to the initial question.


"If I were a rich man,
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
All day long I'd biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man."

Alan Greenspan's response is indicative of a core misunderstanding of ecology (and, therefore, economics) that unfortunately resides at the center of our world-view.

Ever since we became a sedentary, agricultural people, some 10,000 years back, we abandoned what sociologist and philosopher Morris Berman calls a horizontal social structure in favor of a vertical one, a structure designed to empower the few (those with the stockpiled grain, so to speak) and deprive the rest.

As willing participants in this cruel hierarchy, we're of course all self-serving (social climbers) to some degree. That is how we're taught to feed ourselves. "Get in good with the grain hoarders and you might get some of their scraps."

Therein lies the problem! Greenspan's answer is an excuse to be a selfish fuck. And, sure, we need to admit that a survey of we call art history provides you with a front row folding chair for a parade of selfish, if talented fucks. (Obviously, I'm generalizing, as there are artists who have opted out and still gained recognition; this is exceptional.)

If, as you rightly point out, the $5 watch breaks like the $11,500 watch, shouldn't more folks own up to the absurdity of the situation? Having done so, would not the wanton consumption and ignored destruction surrounding that person make them yearn for something more amenable, sustainable and hopeful?

Having noticed how the two differently priced watches break, you're faced with Frost's fork in the road. When I read that poem for the first time, I thought it was silly. Why not go right up the middle, I wondered? Why does one have to make a choice?

Perhaps there is something to that? Perhaps the best each of us can do, having traveled for so long on the hierarchal road, is move off the path, go right up the middle?

That's what I'm already doing (or making an effort to do), though, and it doesn't feel like nearly enough.

Oly said...

So wait-- Reiger, you're saying you're advocating going back to hunter/gatherers?

10,000 years of vertical thinking IS human nature now-- I don't know if human beings even can do horizontal anymore, except of the nasty kind.

I know that I will not even begin to survive as a cavewoman.

And how much would you pay for cave art nowadays anyway, huh?


People suck-- always have.
And there shouldn't be any romanticizing notions about "the good old days before capitalism, industrialization, etc."
They sucked then just as much as now, just in different ways.


Hungry Hyaena said...


Oh, come off it!

Seriously, Oly, you're not reading closely if that's what you get from these posts and comments. Donating profits to charity or living communally is hardly "going back to hunter/gatherers." I brought up the agricultural connection because the horizontal/vertical culture discussion is relevant to super-capitalism; it illustrates how many times removed we are from the horizontal stage.

(A relevant side note, though: I would argue the very unpopular and still un-politically correct position that we have not evolved out of the HG niche and are ill-equipped to operate as anything more.)

As for the going rate of cave art? I don't understand the question. All art is cave art. The creative product is a variation on a theme. What has changed is the impetus and the intent. Whereas the cave artist made the image to communicate and apprehend, the modern makes work to communicate and pay the bills.

You write:

"And there shouldn't be any romanticizing notions about 'the good old days before capitalism, industrialization, etc.'
They sucked then just as much as now, just in different ways."

I beg to differ. I once felt the same as you do. In fact, I still embrace the idea that preservationists are morons, motivated principally by fear of change (they are contemporary flat-worlders). I also take some solace in the fact that no matter how much "better" we try to make things, our species is likely nearing the end of its term or, also likely, the contemporary ecology of our planet will be totally reworked following the next asteroid strike (about which most astronomers and astro-physicists are legitimately concerned).

But these realities - some may call them "bleak," but I find them every bit as romantic as any pre-industrial human landscape - do not change the fact that we are each responsible for living well. To choose any differently is, as I've said repeatedly, willfully ignorant and reprehensible.

Christopher Cokinos' recent article in Orion is of value to this conversation. I've included an excerpt below.

"DON’T MISUNDERSTAND ME. I am not counseling indifference to contemporary extinctions. I’m not counseling a life of civic inaction or, worse, a life of civic inaction coupled with consumerist bliss. I don’t muse on stellar eschatology in order to cultivate a sophisticated nihilism or to justify purchasing a 900-inch-wide plasma-screen television.

I’m counseling diligence, but also calm: hands that work in the present and eyes that see through it. I’m suggesting that our PalmPilots and DayMinders and Nature Conservancy calendars show not only year, month, date, and day of the week but also geologic epoch. It’s a Tuesday in the Holocene. I’m saying that too much grief for the world means less energy to help it along."

That last line is important. None of us can spend too much time bemoaning what was lost (or what bad might or has come), or we'll have no time to contribute to the "betterment" as we can.

Humanity doesn't suck, but it does suck that we've let things get to the point that so many believe it does (and use this belief as the basis to act like thoughtless consumers). It's time we start making moves to restructure, to slow down the economy and to restrain global consumerism; that much most anyone with a conscience and knowledge of anthropology will agree upon.

But, again, I'm still interested in hearing how working artists think the negatives of the system we are willingly a part of can be affected by us.

So far, it would seem my initial proposition is the only option I have: Give 20% (or more) of all art sales to a charity/charities and do my utmost to limit my own "footprint," as the environmentalists like to call it these days. These steps can be taken anywhere, but I'm guessing most dealers wouldn't want to see 10% of their portion go to charity - after all, they, too, have those bills to pay - so a 30% cut of the art price dictates that the artist will need to hold down another job.

If so - Yay! - I'm already doing all I can. And that's not nearly enough. Ideas?

Oly said...

Sorry, Chris.

I guess in many ways I think I'm a social Darwinist, truth be told.

And society does all it can do in its current form to over-extend itself.

I just don't think with the population makeup what it is that it's ever going to be possible to make lasting change.

Even our neighborhood's new natural food/holistic health/granola-y store looked at me like I was insane when I told them (yet again, like the 3rd time now) I do not want their plastic bags.

I tell them I can carry my purchases home the one block like I carried my books in high school.

But no matter how you say it, or put it, or try to be nice, etc., explain "People in this neighborhood are very active with recycling. You also shouldn't double-bag things."-- people are hard to change (if not impossible to change).

Needless to say, I witnessed the workers each time then THROWING away the bags they had just started to use for me, rather than give to the next in line.

Maybe a silly example, but this is what we're dealing with-- and multiply their numbers by MILLIONS-- with population overgrowth.

I know you can do your part-- I like the charity idea, but the sad fact of the matter is, with the percentages at hand-- you are 1 against 1 million.

Maybe I'm being defeatist, I don't know.

But I do know that art IS worth a lot, and SHOULD be worth a lot, given it's fairly expensive to create, time consuming, and physically exhausting.

($100 million skulls nothwithstanding).

I do my part currently by not buying anything (I's po since I got laid off from my low-paying corporate whore job) and saving, saving, saving for my rainy day.

I think your idealism is absolutely fantastic-- (so few do have that quality) and in many ways I still have a bit of it myself, but it just seems to be a battle that cannot be won given what we're up against.

Just my two cents.

bioephemera said...

Mmpf. Your pedaling airman is a perfect representation of global warming denial. Except in that case, the airman would claim to be unsure he was even falling; or if he admitted to falling, then he'd claim it is "normal" to fall at that point in the flight. He wouldn't start pedaling any harder until someone proved to him that something grossly abnormal was happening - despite the fact he's gambling with his own life. Denial killed the primitive pedaling airman. Or something.

I agree with you, nature doesn't just correct itself and go back to its pristine state - we've screwed it up beyond that point. Even if humans disappeared, the earth would continue losing species at an accelerated rate for years. We've done our damage. Only someone who didn't know what it looked like before would call a second-growth forest in the US "wilderness."

So is it right to be pessimistic? I keep thinking I'm already as pessimistic as I can get, but recently I was listening to some well-respected journalists, and one of them basically said the American public is largely stupid, doesn't want to change, and it's not our responsibility to educate them - because it's a democracy. That really shook me, because as I said, I thought I was the pessimist! But I do have a few ideals left. Even if we can't fix things, we can pedal a little harder and maybe slow our fall. At least I hope so.

Yet at the same time, my conviction that we can't completely fix things has led me to engage in some really self-indulgent hedonism lately. I'm behaving badly, and there's no one to call me on it, because my behavior is NORMAL! Sure, I reuse grocery bags, recycle, take public transit, and leave the air conditioning off. But I'm also shopping in boutiques and eating expensive food and going out at night, and so is everybody else! Further, I've decided I need to make the kind of money to let me live this way permanently. It's a weird place to find myself, since I've always been frugal and responsible, but really: I'm tired of holding myself to a standard almost no one else respects. I don't think it makes a difference at this point, except to make me miserable and resentful.

Recently a friend offered to buy one of my paintings for less than the cost of a round of beers. They really had no idea what a painting is worth. And it made me realize that A) they don't see any reason for me to create paintings, no value in it, unless I sell them; and B) they don't have any idea what anything is worth in time or raw materials, only what culture tells them a thing will sell for. The prices on the menu rarely cause shock any more. If there even are prices on the menu! When did that happen? About the time single-family homes started costing half a million dollars? For the Love of God, indeed.

jason said...

If so - Yay! - I'm already doing all I can. And that's not nearly enough. Ideas?

HH -- Sorry to jump in so late, especially considering that I spend most of my waking hours obsessing over this very topic.

I think your posts so far already contain good answers to your questions, or at least point out a direction towards finding good answers. That said, while you've done well to lay out ways that we, as individuals, can affect change within our lifestyle and daily consumption choices in order to withdraw support from the destructive nature of capitalism, where's the discussion of the larger political structure that enables and supports capitalism? What about a larger political movement that actively and directly seeks to replace the current political and economic structure?

Maybe I've expressed this here before, but this is also where I find weakness in the Steady State Economy advocacy. There seems to be little acknowledgment within it of the fact that the world's major economic actors and the world's major political actors are in bed together, and that they have little interest in voluntarily curbing their own powers. If left to them, they will only begin to curb their destructive behavior when absolute collapse seems imminent. How many millions will have died by then? How much irreversible ecological destruction?

Systemic economic change cannot occur without systemic political change. This change will require more than individual lifestyle choices, it will require participation in a larger political and economic movement. Should we be talking about socialism? Should we be talking about anarchism? Solidarity or gift economies?

At the very least, we should be considering how our actions (and artwork?) can work in solidarity with others who are similarly concerned with not only opposing capitalism, but creating a society whereby living responsibly and sustainably is even possible.

jason said...

HH -- One more thing, I really liked your idea that you posted on the other thread:

"an urban artist collective in a "green" building, with shared upkeep and community responsibilities."

But again, I think it would be a more powerful force for change if it were politically connected into the network of a larger social movement. Too often these kinds of projects are seen as the novel actions of a few unusually idealistic individuals. They take on more weight when socially and systemically connected with the efforts of other like-minded activists. This doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be a network of similar "green" egalitarian arts buildings, but a consideration of how one's "green" art building can aid and work in solidarity with other types of green, egalitarian, anti-capitalist projects.

Anonymous said...

good link. (and a way around these problems)

Hungry Hyaena said...


You write:
"I guess in many ways I think I'm a social Darwinist, truth be told."

I used to call myself one, too, but have since realized that is an immoral attitude. Social Darwinism is a recent invention, one more excuse for the perceived grotesqueries of unregulated capitalism.

Sure, it's persuasive - our cultural narrative embraces it - and ubiquitous. But because it's the easy option doesn't make it the only option.

You write:
"I just don't think with the population makeup what it is that it's ever going to be possible to make lasting change."

Yes and no. If we turn the corner on population, encouraging a precipitous decline, there is still hope. Why shouldn't governments address population control?

You write:
"it just seems to be a battle that cannot be won given what we're up against."

On my darker days, I feel similarly, but we must cling to hope. Without it, there is no reason why some of us (governments or terrorists, most especially) wouldn't want to push "the red button." With enough hope in the mix, the "red button" option remains insanity.


You write:
"But I'm also shopping in boutiques and eating expensive food and going out at night, and so is everybody else!"

I'm not sure you should be beating yourself up too much about this. I think most of the commenters here are trying to be frugal and responsible, but I'd wager that most eat out several times a week and shop more often than they're really aware (whether in boutiques or elsewhere).

Hell, I'm on the computer a lot each day, and that's irresponsible. I like to head to bars, drink imported beer and watch baseball this time of year. That's also irresponsible.

Any person who is dedicated to lessening his or her environmental and social footprint will engage in contradictory activities from time to time - it's a reality of living in our culture and age - and this can be frustrating, but it is important that we not grow "tired of holding [ourselves] to a standard almost no one else respects." If enough people do their best, that standard will not only be respected, but eventually assumed a moral necessity.


You write:
"...where's the discussion of the larger political structure that enables and supports capitalism? What about a larger political movement that actively and directly seeks to replace the current political and economic structure?"

By all means, let's move for it, but I fear anarchic social solutions, vital and hopeful though they may be, will not find favor with most contemporary humans. This is not to say 'To hell with them,' of course, but I do think it will take time for people to understand that anarchy isn't about breaking Starbucks windows, but rather returning to a lifestyle that more closely resembles that of the Shakers or our indigenous brothers and sisters.

You write:
"Systemic economic change cannot occur without systemic political change. This change will require more than individual lifestyle choices, it will require participation in a larger political and economic movement."

True and truer. I think the individual change precedes the participation in the larger movement, of course (the mind must come 'round), but you're right.

Again, though, because of the truly awesome scale of the task at hand, pushing for notions like the SSE can serve as a way to get ideas of sustainability into the general dialogue. If we immediately call for a return to simpler, local lifestyles devoid of government interference, we might have a hard time convincing the masses that just because you read Lao-tzu, Buddha and Jesus, you're a well-intentioned, reasonable man.

You write:

"They take on more weight when socially and systemically connected with the efforts of other like-minded activists."

Exactly, yes.

jason said...

"By all means . . . True and truer. . . Exactly, yes."

Ha! Reminds me of a close friend of mine who told me a couple of months ago, "Jason, you know I basically agree with everything you're saying [about the merits of anarchism], but the difference between you and me is that I don't think any of it is possible."


I mean, I absolutely understand. Anarchism may be highly idealistic, but the great thing about idealism is that it gives you a direction to head towards, not necessarily a perfect destination that you will ever completely arrive at. And since the world is getting more fucked up everyday, as we inch closer and closer to total ecological collapse, why not aim high? Why not advocate for what we really want, which is complete and total freedom for every human being?

That said, I don't think it's useful to simply go out on the street corner and advocate for the immediate and violent destruction of all forms of government. You're right, it would just scare the hell out of people and probably drive them towards the security of government in even greater numbers. But anarchism is useful as an organizing strategy for environmental activism for several reasons.

Most importantly, it is because anarchism is about freedom. And how are environmentalism and freedom connected, you may ask? Well . . .

Conservatives have owned the use of the word "freedom" for far too long, equating it with free-market capitalism and our peculiar form of representative democracy. People need to realize that this idea of so-called "freedom" has resulted in a concentration of power among a very small number of people, namely (1) power-seeking elected officials, who are mainly driven by the desire to secure and expand their own powers, and (2) corporate capitalists, who are mainly driven by the desire to seek higher profits.

This twin pursuit of power and profits above all else by a small elite group of humans has resulted in the continued and disastrous destruction of our environment, as well as vast economic inequality and human suffering.

The American liberal notion of freedom has not been much better. While increasing small freedoms for marginalized groups, they have done so by championing larger, more involved government, giving more power to the power-hungry elite, while continuing to cash the checks of the corporate super-capitalists. The result is a form of government that has now reached into nearly every aspect of our lives -- how's that for freedom? Small victories have been won, but the structure of American political and economic stratification is as safe as ever, with disastrous consequences.

What's left? Americans already know how they feel about communism, and for good reason. Communism is the opposite of freedom, it's forced equality -- at the barrel of a gun, no less. And what ideology do the liberal Democrats have left after the fall of communism? Nothing. They're just trying to hold on to their piece of the pie, hovering around the center, following the direction of the wind (voted against it before I voted for it?), hoping to cash in and win some elections when the Republicans fuck up. But the liberals have no plan, no direction, no way forward -- they have no alternative. Liberals just put a nicer face on American empire and capitalism, preferring "soft power" and debilitating sanctions that are arguably even more destructive than the Right's use of open militarism.

Why should people care? Because I think people really do love freedom, but they're being sold a pretty shitty version of it -- a version that's leading towards the destruction of everyone and everything on this planet.

People need to learn that the way to stop environmental destruction and forced inequalty -- to regain true freedom -- is by refusing to concede power to a small group of elites. This is where the concept of anarchism is useful. We have learned the hard way that bestowing such grand powers on a small number of people results in corruption and abuse. This system of stratification, with powerful elites on top, essentially encourages the powerful to be selfish. We are told that selfishness is good, the scraps from the main table are supposed to "trickle down." But what happens when ridiculously powerful people are selfish? They destroy the planet and everything and everyone that gets in their way. But I don't think that humans inherently seek vast wealth and enormous power (nor are they inherently benevolent). Rather, these qualities are propogated by our political and economic systems because such enormous amounts of power are conceded by the masses and bestowed upon a priveleged few (although it is debatable whether they have done so willingly or even knowingly).

Instead, people need to learn to take responsibility for their own actions, and empower themselves. This is where true freedom comes from, and this is what anarchism is all about. It's about not passing the buck, not allowing rulers and CEO's to decide the fate of the planet. It's about looking out for each other, and realizing that we can't truly be free unless everyone else is free. Because we all have to learn that if we don't empower ourselves, and don't personally take care of the environment and those around us, then we're all going to be wiped out real fucking soon.

I don't think people need to dress in black and wear circle-A patches in order for this to happen. It's as simple as building new social, political, and economic relationships, structures, and institutions, that foster these values of horizontal power and self-responsibility. And it needs to be done in the name of freedom and respect for every form of life on this planet. There is much to do.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Firstly, thank you for eloquently and passionately making a case for anarchism. As far as pleas to reason go, this is a concise primer for those who do not really understand what anarchy, as a social/political arrangement, entails.

You write:
"Anarchism may be highly idealistic, but the great thing about idealism is that it gives you a direction to head towards, not necessarily a perfect destination that you will ever completely arrive at."

At the risk of ruffling your feathers, I'll say "By all means...True and truer...Exactly, yes." And what part of "let's move for it," written in my earlier comment, makes you think I'm suggesting anarchism is impossible? Indeed, should our species make it another 10,000 years, I think it is inevitable that some of us will opt to return to an intensely regionalized, anarchic social structure, a world in which each day is given over to corporeal and mental necessity and art is both utility and symbol.

Frankly, I think we're closer to agreement than we have been in the past. We both agree that the SSE is merely a tweak of the existing capitalistic system, but why not move for this, as such steps will introduce notions of a restructured economy to the masses?

Take the Endangered Species Act, for example. It is fraught with problems; it represents an imperfect "solution" to mass extinction. It does little to address the bigger picture and is rooted, as are all laws, in monied government interference. On the other hand, it has benefited many threatened species, all the while forefronting the values it espouses (i.e., teaching the public about the value of "other").

I see no reason why we can't call for anarchy AND understand that sweeping revolution will not come tomorrow.

I turn again to "Ishmael," Daniel Quinn's novel/treatise about these ideas. In the below excerpt, Quinn is discussing the fear contemporary people have of returning to a more horizontal social structure.

"Hundreds of millions of you live in conditions that most people in this country can only guess at. Even in this country, millions are homeless or live in squalor and despair in slums, in prisons, in public institutions that are little better than prisons. For those people, your false justification for the agricultural revolution [that it was necessary for humanity to become a cultured species, appreciative of art and philosophy] would be completely meaningless.

But though they don't enjoy the fruits of your revolution, would they turn their backs on it? Would they trade their misery and despair for the sort of life that was lived in prerevolutionary times?

No. [Agriculturists and capitalists] believe in their revolution, even when they enjoy none of its benefits. There are no grumblers, no dissidents, no counterrevolutionaries. They all believe profoundly that, however bad things are now, they're still infinitely preferable to what came before."

Unfortunately Quinn is right. It may take a while to reeducate, especially in this climate.

At any rate, it seems as though the subject veered a bit (or expanded in scope) from questions of moral art making in our raging, ugly market, but the conversation has actually led me to some curious possibilities, all of which revolve around free dissemination of images, which I suppose is my brand of activism.

jason said...

At the risk of ruffling your feathers, I

Oh, definitely not. I'm glad that we agree.

I see no reason why we can't call for anarchy AND understand that sweeping revolution will not come tomorrow.

That's not altogether different from what I'm proposing (and what is already occurring, actually). Maybe the key qualifier is the word "sweeping." I think that by forming new social structures based on anarchist principles, revolution is already taking place. For me, the difference between reformism and revolution is intent. If one's strategy is working towards the creation of alternate political and economic structures, then that's revolutionary. But if you merely want to tweak pre-existing structures, then that's reformism. But this debate of reformism v. revolution is as old as anarchism itself (and nearly as contentious as the violence v. nonviolence debate).

I don't want to say too much about SSE, because it's not something that I want to spend any time opposing. Indeed, it would be much preferable to the way things operate now. But I have to choose how to spend my time wisely, and I'm not going to throw my efforts behind a project that, if successful, would reinforce a positive view of pre-existing power structures. That is, if the SSE makes advances, and environmental destruction is slightly curbed, won't this just reinforce the notion that ecological catastrophe can be averted with the political and economic systems currently in place? Since we both agree that this is not possible, then wouldn't we be working towards an end that would be oppositional to our aims?

Maybe I can best illustrate this point by comparing it to the conflict between animal rights activists and animal welfare activists. Animal rights activists advocate veganism and the end to all animal exploitation, while animal welfarists advocate for "more humane" treatment of animals. It may seem at first glance that animal rights advocates should also promote animal welfare. But they have good reason for not doing so, mainly because the accomplishments of animal welfarists have done nothing to end animal exploitation, but instead have helped to put a nicer face on the meat industry, by giving animals bigger cages and changing the methods by which they are executed.

The result is that meat-eaters can now feel less guilty about eating meat, because at least the animals aren't tortured as badly as they used to be! Not too long ago I read an article by Wolfgang Puck espousing this exact same logic (it's everywhere lately). He wrote, with no small measure of self-satisfaction, that his customers could now enjoy their animal meals with a clean, guilt-free conscience. There are even reports of many former vegetarians who have returned to eating meat, citing the availability of organic, "cruelty-free" farms. Now, how's that for animal welfare?

There are no grumblers, no dissidents, no counterrevolutionaries. . . . Unfortunately Quinn is right.

Actually, I disagree. There's a good reason why people in the global justice movement (or, anti-globalization movement, etc.) won't shut up about the Zapatistas. There are pockets of resistance everywhere, most of which are led by the oppressed peoples themselves. These groups are championing sustainability and "from below" organizing strategies that stand in stark contrast to the Marxist idea of a white, educated vanguard leading the oppressed against their oppressors.

These new groups don't want a white middle-class vanguard to "lead them," they just want help. So, I think the first priority for any revolutionary group organizing in the U.S. is to find ways to act in solidarity with the efforts of these "from below" groups. This is not necessarily contradictory to what you are saying, but more of a qualification to your idea that "it may take a while to reeducate."

it seems as though the subject veered a bit (or expanded in scope) from questions of moral art making in our raging, ugly market,

It may have veered a bit, but I think it has everything to do with your question of "what more can I do" [regarding moral art making]. My response could be summed up much simplier that I have done so far: use your artwork to actively fight capitalism by working in solidarity with groups that are pursing similar aims. I'm not necessarily talking about propaganda (although I'm certainly not adverse to art that serves an educational purpose).

Hungry Hyaena said...


I'm halfway through David Graeber's "Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology." Thanks for recommending it; it is terrific.

Oly said...

Okay, I'm going to sound like a mad scientist or champion of red stater eugenics here, but seriously, how do you honestly address the MAIN issue of population control?

No, seriously?

I think that's the number one problem by far.

I mean, given the power of the Catholic church and poverty's eternal chokehold over uterine profligation... ummm.


So how do you stop people from replicating like rabbits-- which is a HUGE part of why our planet is bursting at the seams.

Once again-- the educated are being continuously outnumbered by a class of people (of ALL races, mind you-- I'm from Jerry Springer honkey redneckville, mind you) who DESPISE the educated.

Being "educated" is not an option for them-- they do not want it, will not accept it, hate people who are represenatives of it, and will not change (for multiple reasons-- laziness, thoughtlessness, religious beliefs, cultural norms, and familial based "learning").

Barring a mass viral outbreak, or nuclear holocaust to correct what humanity calls "modern medicine", or extending life past the point of what nature intended it to be, adding in the birth rate and our society's eternal value of "THE CHILDREN! IT'S ABOUT SAVING THE CHILDREN!" (forget about adults or the aged, who have no value) how do you change it?

Every time I see "Race for the cure," "Cure this, cure this," it makes me really disturbed.

Of course it never stops the hurt or pain of losing those you are closest to-- and of course all your personal "world views" are always tossed out the window when it directly affects someone close to you.

So how do we really effectively change humanity's changing of nature?

I'm sorry, but my money is still on "It's impossible.".

One more note-- on a trip to the doc for my annual physical, I was asked by the nurse if I had any kids.

I laughed, "Well, I can barely take care of myself, let another human."

Her direct response: "You should have one. People always say that. You don't need money or planning. You make do with what you have and find a way."

So that's the attitude of the multitudes.

There's no "planning" needed in anything.

So really it's time for the educated to stop intellectualizing everything, pontificating on what's the right plan, and realize truthfully the only way to win the battle is to get knocked up and start popping them out like Pez dispensers, because otherwise there's no hope.

Education is something that's valued by the educated.

Sorry so life affirming, but I don't think that's not saying we can't do our part-- it's just that it's useless in the grand scheme of thing.

Hungry Hyaena said...


You write:
"So how do you stop people from replicating like rabbits-- which is a HUGE part of why our planet is bursting at the seams."

"HUGE," indeed. I would attribute most of what ails us, environmentally and socially, to over population.

You write:
"Being "educated" is not an option for them-- they do not want it, will not accept it, hate people who are represenatives of it, and will not change (for multiple reasons-- laziness, thoughtlessness, religious beliefs, cultural norms, and familial based 'learning')."

You're right, many people are skeptical of education. Fortunately, though, they are willing to learn.

This is an important distinction. When people believe they are being educated, they become resistant and falsely proud of what they call "common sense" (but what in reality is less often sensible than narrow-minded and self-serving). Teaching, on the other hand, can be done merely through actions observed.

You might get frustrated with the baggers at your grocery store - hell, an Indian immigrant at Key Food actually poked fun of my canvas tote bags, saying I reminded her of why she left her country! - but if you opt to continue in your practice and take the time to explain your reasons, you might actually get through to them.

Sure, many will write you off as a kook in the process, but so what? The possibility that you might be able to leave them thinking about why the funny person uses canvas totes instead of double plastics is a beginning, and a reason for hope.

You ask:
"how do you change it?"

By providing an alternative world view.

As I said before, I'm not advocating a return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, but I do think my ultima Thule involves the dismantlement of capitalism and global infrastructure.

But you're asking how we can get there. Well, it will take almost as many, if not more, generations to get there as it has to leave it behind. I'm thinking several thousands of years, at least. In the meantime, we can strive for our ideal world and do our best to make our practice here reflect our ideals.

You're right to be worried that we don't have several thousand years. Even if we don't wipe ourselves out (and so many other species with us), there are several natural catastrophes not affected by man that could bring our tenure here to a close. So be it. In many respects, this just makes it that much more important that our time here is spent well.

You write:
"Of course it never stops the hurt or pain of losing those you are closest to-- and of course all your personal "world views" are always tossed out the window when it directly affects someone close to you."

I hear this said a lot. I suppose it is true for many people, yet another example of how removed we are from our core. If the values we espouse don't apply to us, we've reached the point of crippling mind/body/spirit fracture.

You write:
"I'm sorry, but my money is still on 'It's impossible.'."

Why? Why is it any more impossible than our changing it in the first place. Remember, capitalism is not the norm. As Jason has mentioned in this conversation, human economies were not organized around a barter system until around 10,000 years ago; they were gift economies. Even after the introduction of agriculture, many cultures remained gift oriented until colonialists force fed them currency.

Our cultural narrative has it that capitalism - i.e., barter systems and vertical power structures - are part of human nature. They are not. In fact, they represent a very recent development in the anthropology of our species.

We poo-poo the value of simplicity, of course, because we are afraid that the "cave man" had no control over his destiny. We're fooling ourselves. We have no more control now, even though we've destroyed much of the planet's biodiversity, waged bloody wars, impoverished the majority of our fellow man and suffer from a host of malign mental disorders.

You write:
"So that's the attitude of the multitudes. There's no 'planning' needed in anything."

Actually, were that the masses understood why so many people do manage to "make do with what they have." I'm not contradicting your point that irresponsible people are having children, but I feel there is some value in the nurse's optimism about childbearing. The value lies in the just doing, or, as Lao-tzu would put it, "doing not-doing." "When nothing is done, nothing is left undone," he wrote. It might take a while to get back to a social setting that allows for meaning laden routine to replace planning, but it is a worthy goal...

...even if everything is useless in the grand scheme of things. In the grand scheme of things, the whole of our universe's history is an irrelevancy, much less something our limited minds will ever be able to intellectualize and include in our planning, but this doesn't mean you should stop baffling your health food store clerks.