A Third Way?
Anti-civilization authors often make little charts, or tables, picking out the most cleanly definable and neatly matched differences between "civilized" and "primitive" societies, and lining them up to make a picture of exactly two internally consistent and self-perpetuating ways to live. Here's mine! The ones in parentheses are the ones I think are negotiable, where we might be able to do something tricky.
|authority ||consensus |
|exploitation ||symbiosis |
|"owned" discrete scarce "resources" ||shared abundance |
|detached "objective" consciousness ||participating "subjective" consciousness |
|contractive self ||expansive self |
|control ||trust, letting go |
|toward uniformity ||toward diversity |
|"growth" ||equilibrium |
|conflict = conquest / extermination ||conflict = balance |
|work ||play |
|(specialization) ||(self-sufficiency) |
|(representational language) ||(direct understanding) |
|(planning / goal) ||(improvisation / process) |
|("advanced" technology) ||("primitive" technology) |
I left out top-down / hierarchy / centralization vs. bottom-up / networks / emergent systems because I think that's all covered by authority vs. consensus and control vs. letting go. I left out surplus food production because that's part of "growth." I left out domestication vs. wildness because I think those concepts are just composites of a lot of more fundamental things. And I left out gender because I think it would be possible, though more challenging, for civilization to use women as the elite emotionally numb sex -- it would produce a different world, but just as terrible.
Of the stuff I included, there's a lot of overlap, and a lot of interrelation. For example, if we start squatting a lot more, or living on each other's couches, then we are turning living space from discrete and scarce to shared and abundant, and we're paying a lot less rent. We can reduce our need for money (an invented embodiment of pure scarcity) even further, if we can let go of our desire for control and "perfection" (an illusion of contractive thinking) and improvise meals with imperfect food we get from the trash, or instead of buying expensive audio equipment and music, expand our being into whatever sounds are already around us. And most of these lifestyle changes contradict what we're told is the right way to live, so we have to let go of the certainty of objective values.
Now, because we're living so cheaply, we can shift out attention from work to play, from activity within an authority structure, done because we're given money -- but less money than our activity is worth, which is exploitation necessary to feed profit and growth -- to activity done because it makes us feel good, not controlled by the need for money or by any other authority.
Now here's where contractive vs. expansive becomes all-important. Instead of "contractive" some people say "egocentric" and instead of "expansive" some people say "loving." My favorite definition of "love" comes from Thaddeus Golas: Love is the action of being in the same space with other beings. I can't get to this with words except to ask you to practice contracting and expanding your self
. When you're contractive, "play" and "feel good" means get drunk and have an orgasm and drive fast and make money. When you're expansive, "feel good" means help others and "play" means become one with others, merge your being into a consensual improvisational system that's doing the playing.
Of course both contraction and expansion are part of life. But what we've got now is a sustained contractiveness, an active resistance to expansion, a deadness that civilized people call "security" or "balance." And there are two ways to be alive again: to expand, or to contract harder.
Sometimes someone will put you in a situation where the only way out is to contract harder, like a manipulative person who won't take no for an answer unless you're an asshole about it, or like a violent revolt in a concentration camp. Happily, the industrialized West still has a few cracks through which we can expand, so we don't have to break it.
Back to my story, we're scavenging shelter, food, and clothing so we can get a couple limbs free from the bonds of civilization, and then, if we can stay out of the hedonistic traps whose function is to recapture people who get partly free, we can invest our attention into creating a consciousness, and then cultures, and then societies and economies that are based on what's in my "natural" column and not dependent on what's in my "civilized" column.
Almost three months have passed since I wrote the last line, but I'll try to finish the thread: We're building the consciousness already. It's growing fast. But it's too early to build natural societies, since the civilized society would use soldiers and police, doing jobs under authority, to conquer or exterminate us. This will change when the new (or old) consciousness gets big enough, or when the present one runs out of room. Then, we'll be able to move from mind space back to physical space, and build... what?
When I criticized "ecotopians" I was not thinking of Ernest Callenbach's book Ecotopia
, because I hadn't read it. I imagined a whole society of uptight rich white liberals who ride around on shiny new bicycles and electric trains, who listen to safe "world music" and read serious and important books, who always sit up straight and eat such perfect diets that they never fart, who delicately put on gloves to prune trees and pull weeds with the same placid fanaticism as the techno-utopians exterminating the last biological life to clear the world for superior machines.
Then I read Ecotopia
and I loved it! The people are more like crusty anarchists and rural oddballs, and the culture is loud and gritty. Whether the book's technology and economy could actually be sustained, I don't know. But our descendants will find out by trying something like it.
Even anarchists fall into the seductive authoritarian habit of decreeing, according to their theories, how we must live. Even if your theories are right, the healthy way to say them is not as commands but predictions, or better yet, possibilities: "Go ahead and try it that way, but if you find it isn't working, here's why; and this other way, that you were told is impossible, will work."
I want to open more possibilities and keep them open. By "a third way" I mean something other than civilization as we know it and natural human societies as we know them, and I hope there's not only a third way but a three hundredth way and a three thousandth way.
It's late September, 2002, and I'm housesitting for my mom in Spokane. I don't know what I did all summer. I was busy all the time but all I "accomplished" was writing a couple more internet essays and reading a couple Philip K. Dick books and increasing my dumpster diving skill. I got to where the only food I bought was flour and ice cream (rice-based). I even found good olive oil and butter in dumpsters. We're very lucky in Seattle. Here in Spokane all the food stores use trash compactors.
My mom's house is in the worst place possible -- three miles from the edge of the city so you can't get anywhere without a car, but in the middle of a suburb full of angry and depressed barking dogs and white people who still believe very much in lawns. Yes, they left me a car, but I hate driving it because I can feel my dependence on a system in which I have no power. At any moment it could break down and I can't just fix it with my own hands and maybe a few dollars like I could my bike. I can't power it with my own legs but only with gasoline from oil companies that actively exclude me from participating in decisions about whether to kill people who live above the oil deposits.
Out here, separated from the nearest organic produce by almost ten miles of bike-unfriendly foot-unfriendly streets, surrounded by grass with social pressure to water and mow it, culturally prohibited from sharing with neighbors, we are all in a kind of prison, and the fact that real prisons are a thousand times worse, and suburban living is considered ideal, only makes the whole situation more disturbing. In a final gruesome irony, this is called the Indian Trail neighborhood, in honor of it being as far as you can get from the way Indians live, and they've given tribe names to many of the "streets," giant paths for cars made of dead pavement that suffocates the Earth.
But even including all that, I love it -- even including the isolation from my friends in Seattle. I love it because I have more than 23 hours a day of time with nothing I'm supposed to be doing. 35 hours a day would be perfect, but 23 is about as good as it gets.
My Third Way
A big flaw in my thinking is that it assumes a lot of people are like me, and they're not. I often think I got put in this world by mistake. I'm 35 years old now and I still get surprised over and over again at how undisciplined people are, how, if they don't have some authority telling them what to do, their lives fall apart. I'm reading Cometbus #48, the Back To The Land issue, which is against the counter-culture land-buying trend, and shows it as another example of rich white people fleeing from the cities that they've ruined and ruining more places. And mixed in with this big story are many small stories of people with not enough external structure sliding straight into substance abuse and crime.
Take me to my home planet! Cometbus, which I trust, is telling the same story as the dominant society: that in real life, for most people, there are only two ways, a steady job and a car and a mortgage, or to veer off into drugs and prison.
I'm on another path. I mean, I'll indulge addictive behaviors, but not ones that seem likely to mess up my life; and I'm willing to hold a steady job, but I have a low tolerance for stress and I won't feign enthusiasm, and at this little time and place that rules out almost everything. People credit me with courage, but I think I'm pretty cautious and fearful. It's just that, to me, high stress feels like being burned alive, and faking enthusiasm feels like prying off my fingernails with pliers, and unstructured time feels like heaven, like floating through the sky on cottony clouds.
Some people think the way I live is a luxury, that it's available only through certain advantages, that without those advantages I'd spend my life doing meaningless wage labor like everyone else. But the way I live is a necessity, and the conditions that make it possible are information and social tolerance more than money, and those conditions could be available to everyone, and without them I would be dead or in prison.
That's why I sympathize with some of the worst criminals, fictional and real, because I sense that they're people like me who were never given enough slack and emotional support to learn to deviate in a way that's focused and helpful. But I need to remind myself that most criminals are not like me at all. They're like corporate executives, highly simplified minds who just want to get money and status by any means, but because they're poor the means available to them tend to lead to death or prison. When I think of it this way, that street criminals are just poor versions of corporate executives, it makes street criminals a lot more scary! They will
kill me for a dollar.
Addiction and Meaning
When I claimed "addictive behaviors," I risked trivializing serious addictions that meet the full psychological definition. What I have are urges to do fun things that probably aren't good for me. I'm talking about my computer games. That's the other side of the coin of my anti-civilization thinking / writing, that I also use advanced technologies to play simulations of extracting resources, researching advances, and building physical improvements and military units to kill enemy military units. My favorites are Heroes of Might and Magic II and Civilization II (Test of Time, fantasy), and I've been playing the latter a lot. What's going on?
I don't buy the dominant idea that unhealthy urges are irrational, or perverse, or based on self-hatred. Dostoevsky, a compulsive gambler, answered the conventional opinion that gamblers are fools to think they'll get something out of it, by observing that what's really foolish is to think they get nothing out of it.
In computer games, I get to enter a mythically rich world where my actions make a difference, and those are two distinct things I can never get out of civilization. Do you think your actions make a difference? Then you're not an environmental activist who spent years fighting to save a forest only to see it clear-cut. You're not a political activist who saw all your friends murdered failing to stop your little country from being owned by transnational corporations and their hired thugs in US military bases. You're not even a dominant-nation political activist, who has seen every good law and candidate replaced or defeated by a law or candidate that's just bad in a more subtle and dishonest way.
Your actions cannot possibly make a difference because blocking of bottom-up power is what this whole game is about. As soon as there is a reliable and unblockable way for power to get through, it will cause a chain reaction that ends the world as we know it.
What we normally call "power," authoritarian top-down power, is actually anti-power, merely an active blocking of aliveness. The only way not to use it in a life-negating way is not to use it at all, a soldier who refuses to shoot, an executive who refuses to profit, a commander who tells people to do what they want. And this will get you thrown instantly out of your position. See? The power was never yours.
But I understand why people want this kind of power. Millions of people smarter than me have chosen this path, helping design better machine guns, better bombs, better jet fighters, so maybe ten thousand people will die, who otherwise would have lived, because of something you did; or designing herbicides, pesticides, lubricants, solvents, pharmaceuticals, or getting them approved despite non-ideal "side" effects, so that people die or are crippled, animals die, rivers die, fields die, because of you; or making laws or managing businesses, greasing the wheels of progress, so that forests are cut down, the Earth is torn open and poisoned, people whose ancestors lived in balance can now live in concrete buildings and survive only by working in hellish mines and factories, and you helped. Your actions can
make a difference! You are part of an effective larger movement, participating in something that's actually happening.
I'm serious and this is important. What's more satisfying, participating in a catastrophe or failing to stop it? It's no wonder that people always collaborate with evil, because it's built into our whole civilization that only evil can be successful. There's a self-help platitude that says not to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results, but that's what do-gooders like me are doing, trying for thousands of years to stop the juggernaut and only getting crushed under its wheels. Every people's revolt in history has failed -- most were just murderously put down. A few went far enough to topple governments, but the new governments were worse, or at the very least they never gave the people what they wanted, simple autonomy. If they ever had, if people had ever won enduring autonomy by any means, then everyone would do it, and it would be the end of authority, the end of history.
What about reforms, won with or without physical revolts? Again, they've never been permitted to make a genuine and sustained bottom-up system, only to keep the top-down system barely tolerable and stable.
And what about changing people's thinking, freeing minds one person at a time? Sure, we can do that, and those people can free more people, and so on. But as a proportion of the population, we're shrinking, not growing, at least in the industrialized West, where resistance to the system is less popular and less understood now than it's ever been. History is dense with giant popular revolts. Now we're down to less than a tenth of one percent, getting arrested at anti-corporate-rule protests while everyone else looks on dull-eyed and baffled. When the Bible was first translated into languages people could read, it was a huge movement. Everybody wanted one. Now forbidden knowledge is on web sites available to everyone but only read by a hundred people.
The psychological techniques for breaking our spirits, for making us stupid, for wearing us down, for manipulating our beliefs and emotions, just keep getting better and better. Yes, we can free each other, but what a good counselor can do in a lifetime, a hospital can undo in a day, just by taking newborn babies away from their mothers. A single network TV commercial reaches more people than I expect to reach in this decade, and it reaches them on an emotional level, while they're staring at a device that puts their brains in alpha wave state, open to suggestion.
I can inspire people and give them strong mental tools, but it's like giving someone garden seeds in a concrete-floored prison cell, wings to fly in a tiny sealed prison cell, a telescope to see the stars in a windowless prison cell. What I give will fade and fall into disuse, because there's no place to use it. People who read my stuff still have to have jobs to not die, and to keep jobs they have to somewhat take on the values of their employers, and for an employer to not die it has to value profit above everything else combined -- or in socialism, continued government funding above everything else combined.
If you're rational and goal-oriented, the only sane thing to do is to join the only movement whose goals are being achieved, even if those goals are leading toward genocide and ecocide and lifeless detached control. Of course, for these goals to be achieved, someone has to be
exterminated and controlled. But even when that's you, isn't it more satisfying to identify with your successful abusers, than with your failure to stop the abuse? If you can't beat em, join em! If you can't be in the system you love, love the system you're in!
The real wonder is not that so many people collaborate with evil, but that even a single person doesn't. This gives me great hope. Not just one person, but hundreds of people have defied overwhelming propaganda and threats to fight on a side that's been losing for thousands of years. I don't mean people fighting for their little interest group that happens to be non-dominant -- I mean people fighting against dominance itself, being fair and honest when it's not in their interest, trying to end a system that's the only system they know, and without which they'll probably die. Call us naive or irrational, but anti-civilization people are not selfish.
Why do we do it? One reason is something like faith, that the invisible wider universe is good, and this system that dominates the known world is only a local distortion. But my main reason is that I am not goal-oriented but process-oriented: I have learned to feel direct pleasure in doing the right thing, whatever the consequences. If your happiness depends on what happens, then anyone who can influence what happens can influence your feelings, and worse, can control your behavior by linking the behaviors they want with the results you want -- or the illusion of those results. Do your job and earn money and "success." Turn your neighbors in and we won't arrest you.
But if your happiness depends only on what you do, given your circumstances, then no one can take that away from you. They can kill you, sure, but as long as you're alive, even if you're in the worst physical pain, you can feel good in your soul if you stay focused on doing the right thing from where you are.
Of course it's not that simple. Everyone is at least a little goal-oriented, and it's that little button that they're trying to find and expose when they torture us, to make us start living backwards from desired comfort to commanded behavior. It's called being broken, or tamed, and unless there's still an undiscovered tribe in the Amazon, every adult human in the world has been broken already -- or for that matter, every three year old.
But being broken is not that simple either. There are many stages, all the way from ego detachment in infancy to totally giving up in one's early thirties. And when people are lax and don't do their jobs, some of us slip through the cracks and come out only half-broken, and like bacteria only half-killed by antibiotics, we come out stronger than ever. It's true that I'll never feel a really deep oneness with the Earth or with anything -- that's the broken part. But it's also true that I can do things no child or Indian or even somewhat civilized person can do: I can watch hours and hours of television, day after day, without feeling the slightest urge to own the advertised products, or to imitate the lifestyles of the TV people. I can move my attention away the moment the commercials begin, or I can even watch them and see through them. I like to make fun of them: "Product! Buy Product and you'll be happy! Product is associated with the newest coolness! Product!"
Not only that, I feel almost no social pressure from actual humans, no need to "belong." If I was the only person in the world to think like I think, I would feel frustrated and cynical, but I wouldn't feel any psychic unease. I've never for a minute doubted my sanity. I have learned what nobody learned before about 1800, and few people learned before 1950, because there was not enough need to learn it: to be almost totally self-grounded.
But that's not exactly true either. What did I mean by "doing the right thing"? How do I know? If I'm not serving my own survival and comfort, and I'm not in tune with the land, and I don't care what other people think, then how in hell am I making my decisions?
When we talk about "meaning," what we're talking about is relation
to something wider, or being part of a story. We all crave this. That's why we read novels or watch movies or TV or sports, to at least experience a story even though we're not part of it. That's why we play computer games or any games, to be part of a story even though it's not real. And that's why we collaborate with "progress" and "success," and angrily ignore its horrors, its insanity, its dead-end nature, because it's a story that we are part of and that really seems to be real.
It's not real. It's just a very popular fantasy. "Real" is another word that means relation to something wider, and the relation of civilization to the wider world is one of denial and destruction, an anti-relation.
But at the same time, we're all directly related to the wider universe -- or we potentially are. That's what we call the "soul." When we talk about "having a soul" or "losing your soul," we are talking about having or losing awareness
of being part of a loving wider universe.
Lately I've experimented with identifying this universe as "nature" or the living Earth. But now I think it's got to be something beyond that. As a civilized person, my contact with nature is much shallower and weaker than even my soul, and doesn't seem to have much to do with it. I didn't get my deep metaphysical confidence, my relatively strong moral compass, from a dozen camping trips. I think I was born with it, mostly lost it, and mostly got it back, through other people and books and music. And I like nature because I recognize it as an example of the kind of wild and free and diverse world I want to live in. But I don't think it's the only example. I like to think it's one of an infinite number of solutions to the deeper equations of the universe.
This line of thinking gives me another way to express my answer to the problem of civilization, which is pretty much the same problem theologians call the problem of evil. Although I place goodness and intelligence and intention in the world itself, and not in some isolated sky father deity, I still have to explain: Given that goodness, why this nightmare? Why, for thousands of years including this moment, have people been brutally massacred and domesticated, torn out of symbiosis with nature? What is the meaning of this episode?
I think part of the answer is what the Supreme Being said about evil in Time Bandits
, "I think it has something to do with free will." And part of it is what Tolkien's good god said to his evil god in The Silmarillion
: Whatever you do to make the world worse, I'll find a way to use it to make the world even better.
By being forcibly separated from nature, civilized humans have learned, or will learn, to connect to the aliveness and intelligence of the Universe on an even deeper level; and with this connection, we can help create a new wonderful reality, neither replacing nature nor dependent on it, but side by side with it.
The above is a risky guess, and it could be wrong, but I'm going to follow through. It's November 8. In this house-sit I've learned that 14 hours a day of free time does not add up to any more writing than three hours a day of free time. My writing has its own pace and if I try to force it I end up spending hours on half a page that I later throw away. It's best to write when it's easy, give it a nudge sometimes, and otherwise do stuff that gives my whole life complexity and inspiration. And in my isolated situation, which is totally typical in this world, the best source of what I call inspiration is art: books and, yes, television and, yes, computer games.
I quit Civ II. It was getting to be all addiction and no fun. Withdrawal was hard. Do you know how it feels to do something you need to do but don't want to, like get out of bed, or get out of a hot bath into the cold, or do the dishes, or do your taxes, or speak publicly -- whichever of the above is difficult for you, so that you have to use absolute will to push through a barrier of pain, can you imagine how it feels at the moment you're pushing through that barrier? When I'm in withdrawal from Civ II, I feel like that all the time. The only way to not feel like that is to play the game. The second day is the worst and within a week it's over.
Then I watched more TV, specifically a lot of episodes of Buffy and X-Files and South Park that I hadn't seen before. And I started playing Heroes II, which is less addictive and more fun than Civ II. Heroes II has more soul than any other PC game I know. Of course the cool gamers call this soul cheesiness, and prefer the newer games with their better graphics and their sinister, echoey, machine-like aesthetic. But I get something from the game, a kind of spiritual nourishment that I've never found in the next larger world of civilization, only in some of its sub-worlds. I know I've written about this before: If it's OK to get it from movies and books, then it's OK to get it from a game, but in all cases the key is to not get stuck in the sub-world but to take what you find there and apply it to the more real world.
People do this with science fiction all the time. They love techno-utopian visions like the Star Trek TV shows, so they support real science and technology that seems like it will lead to such a world. On one level, these people are my arch-enemies. Ooooh, I hate Star Trek! I hate its stiffness, its formality, its pomposity, its sterility, its glorification of central control and military hierarchy. And I think the technology that seems to be leading to it is really leading to the extermination of biological life.
But on another level, these people are just like me. They're dreamers and visionaries, with really ambitious visions that they're trying to make real.
So here's where I really get some range out of my indifference to credibility. If you thought living like Indians again was an absurd fantasy, I now consider that my sensible fall-back position. What I'm sincerely aiming for, just as some people are aiming for a sci-fi genre future, is a fantasy genre future.
I've mentioned this before, but since then I've backed off from it mentally, and now I'm ready to go in deeper. As an anti-civilization thinker, I think I'm especially qualified to contemplate a fantasy genre future (What is this, a resume cover letter?) because I can recognize features of the genre that come from the distorting lens of civilization, and can try to factor them out.
We don't want, or need, the feudal system. We can have a structured but totally bottom-up consensus system like the Iroquois Confederacy. Or we could have people with the ritual trappings of kings and queens, but only toothless symbolic authority, or the authority of someone who gives really good advice, or who knows all the people and can connect them well.
We don't want, or need, to run around killing each other with swords and longbows. But running around is fun! And we can still have combat that's ritualized to minimize injury, and that settles real issues. This is normal in non-civilized cultures.
Now my fantasy genre is sounding like Indians again -- but wait! I think we can learn to use somewhat advanced technologies in a balanced way. Cars and television are out of the question, but how about blacksmiths and metal tools, and telescopes, and stone-workers building castles? I know they were slaves in the past but maybe we can do it through a consensual system. How about sailing ships and horsemen, crossing oceans and continents? How about travelers and adventurers, not to replace a deep relation to a part of the Earth, but to supplement it?
And here's a dangerous wish, but I really wish, before this system crashes, that genetic technology will spawn a lot of freaky new animals, or resurrected extinct animals, like mythical beasts. If they brought back dinosaurs, there are your dragons! If they engineer a race of slaves to work in mines, then after the unsustainable slavery breaks down, there are your dwarves!
And there go the last lingering shreds of my credibility, but I'm not even finished. I think we can have magic.
What is magic? I can think of at least two meanings. One is: any way of knowing or influencing the world where we don't understand how it works. So if you brought some natural humans into civilization, they would see computers and airplanes as magic, or I can remember being a kid and seeing technology as magic. Or conversely, if you brought some civilized humans into a society with shamanism, energy healing, telepathy, talking with nonhumans, firewalking, and so on, they would potentially see this as magic, except that fully civilized humans don't use the concept of "magic." They're actually so vain that they think their little system of knowledge is big enough to contain the whole Universe, so when they see something outside their system, they aggressively ignore it or distort their perception of it.
So to have "magic," we need to have multiple paradigms of technology/magic all running side by side, and all accepted, but not all understood, because of my second meaning of "magic." It's what we call "sense of wonder," but not the kind of wonder you feel looking at something impressive but known, like a cathedral or a waterfall. Or it's what we call a sense of mystery or the unknown, but not the kind of mystery where you don't know which character is the killer. Magic is about your whole reality cracking at the boundaries and opening to exciting new realities. And in a sustained magical world, this never stops.
I just hurried the above to an end so I could say what I'm doing now. It's December 2, 2002. I've been back in Seattle almost two weeks, and busy, restocking zines at Left Bank, seeing my friends again, co-hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, and mostly getting a place to live. I really wanted to squat, and my time on Adam's couch was limited. I could also stay with my sister and her partner, but they're now living way out at the far edge of West Seattle.
I was eyeing a big abandoned house I looked at in June. When I went to look this time, one of the back windows had been boarded up, so someone owner-like had come, but none of the trash that filled the yard had been moved. It occurred to me that either of the two sheds in back would be cozier than the house itself. Both were thoroughly boarded. I asked a friend if I could borrow a pry-bar, and he brought it over and also donated three hinges. Adam had some self-tapping screws left over from a project. When I thought about it, I saw that I must not pull the board off and then leave it off where anyone can see I've broken in. I would have to have all the tools to pull the board off and then re-attach it as a door.
Meanwhile, I ran into my friend Cyrus, who is already squatting! He said I might be able to join them. Also, Adam suggested a work-for-rent deal, but maybe not right away. And I had trouble connecting with Cyrus and his friends -- of course they had no phone, and when I tried to visit the squat no one was ever home. Apparently they don't get back until around 1AM and I have trouble staying up past 11.
So I built up my courage, gathered my tools, picked a board that looked easiest to turn into a door, and went there in full daylight on a weekday, and tore it off. It was noisy! Luckily the spot is not visible from anywhere, but it might not have mattered. I think the key is to "hide in plain sight," to act both openly and unobtrusively, so that even when people see you, they don't notice or remember.
And behind the wood... An opening -- good. No window -- good. And inside... a mattress, clothing, a little table, shelves. Someone had already squatted it! I ducked and stepped in, and the first thing I looked for was another entrance. If someone was still using it, they weren't going to pry the wood off and nail it back on every time they came and went. Nothing -- they're gone. How long ago? This was fun! I looked for anything with a date on it. A newspaper was dated the week of late July early August, and more looking around turned up nothing newer. They've been gone almost 4 months, long enough for me to move in.
So I put hinges on the board and made it a door, and put on a padlock, and started cleaning it out. The previous squatters were junkies. The place was full of needles and dirty clothes and garbage, and just outside the opening were lots of beer cans. But there were personal touches too -- a book on Celtic spirituality, some notebooks with drawings of hip demonic faces, some old wooden figures of old stereotypes of black people -- they looked valuable, so I put them in a box in case the old squatters come back. I'm trying to decide whether to save or sell their sellable clothes. They seem to have left suddenly. I wonder what happened and where they are now. The more time passes, the more likely they're dead.
It's now December 7. I've slept in the shed 4 of the last 5 nights. I've got a propane stove, on which I make sourdough pancakes. Because it's dark, I mostly just go there to sleep, and spend days in libraries. Right now I'm in the university branch of the Seattle library. Earlier I got two good loaves of bread from the Trader Joe's dumpster.
It's good to know I can live this way, and I don't mind it, but I wonder how long I'll want to keep it up. The cold is barely an issue -- Seattle rarely gets below freezing and cold weather is ideal for food storage. But I miss having a real home, a place where I can live openly, with a lot of light, a place where I can hang out all day and come and go without limit. If there were some big collapse of the system, and nobody cared about land ownership, my squat would become a home, or close enough. I'd tear all the boards off and put in glass, and maybe figure out a heating/cooking stove. Twisted, isn't it, that I can't improve a place because that will get me noticed and thrown off it. A system like that is begging us to destroy it.
I don't fit the squatter stereotypes. I'm not poor (I still have several thousand in savings), I'm not a substance abuser, but I'm also not a 20-year-old who wears black and goes to street protests. I'm pretty out of the loop in the local anarchist scene. That's what will save me from prison if anything does. The police would categorize me as a non-disruptive white bum, and things will have to get a lot worse before that's worth more than a rare night in jail.
I thought, if I returned to Seattle and squatted, this text would get a lot more interesting, but I've already said most of what there is to say. Another thing is that I can't leave food on the floor or mice will nibble it. They don't seem to get on the shelves. Another thing is that I'm surprised how easy it is -- if you're lucky enough to find the right place, a dry place in a not-uptight neighborhood where your path of entry and exit does not attract attention. I am very lucky. I see homeless people who sleep in doorways, under bridges, in institutional shelters, and I've got a dry shed the size of a small bedroom. In a city of half a million people, I've got one of the five or ten best squatting spots if you consider concealment and location. There are still very few abandoned buildings here, and it's hard to find anything legal for under $400 a month. Yet my spot stayed vacant for almost 4 months. Sometimes I think I'm the only one in the world who is trying.
Or I should say, the only one in this country. A couple weeks ago I saw Bowling For Columbine
, which made me doubt my anti-civilization position. Maybe I've just been looking through the filter of this hellish America, surely the most fucked up culture on Earth since ancient Sparta. Oh, sure, there was Nazi Germany, but Hitler took his propaganda style from American football games, his murderously selfish attitude from Karl May's novels of the Indian-killing American West, his eugenics policy from, yes, America, which was already doing forced sterilizations before the word Nazi existed. Nazi Germany was effectively an American colony, even funded and technologically supported by American corporations. And when it got out of hand, the US military attacked it as an excuse to increase its global domination, the same as it did later with Panama and Iraq.
The USA traces its roots to "the Pilgrims," a bunch of puritanical religious nuts with a utopian political vision, the Taliban of the 1600's. If the Taliban found a new continent full of "resources," what would they be like after 400 years? The USA has been by far the most repressing destroying nation of the Western hemisphere, especially when you consider that most of the repression and destruction in other countries has been driven by US interests, like Pinochet in Chile.
But I'm not being fair. All the USA has done is follow the rules of civilization. If you could change history, sink the Puritan ships, make it so the North American countries were all only medium bad like Brazil or Canada, instead of containing the Heart of Darkness, then the Heart of Darkness would just be somewhere else, because that's the way darkness works. Once you invent hierarchy, someone has to be on top, and whoever that is will become bullying, fearful, hateful, stupid, corrupt. In my alternate history, maybe Russia or Germany or Japan or England wears the Ring of Power that the USA wears here, and in that country people have plentiful cheap produce but eat sugary hydrogenated junk food, and put six times as many people in prison as other countries and spend ten times as much per person on weapons of mass destruction and still lock their doors and huddle more fearfully in their fortified houses than the very people they are bombing, and still think they are the good guys, the pure and innocent, the victims. And when some trivial little bad thing happens to them, they are ruined, devastated, far more than the people whose families were raped and murdered to enable cheaper TV sets, because they know only a society of cutthroat elites, every man for himself and God against all, with no social or emotional tools to deal with any weakness or failure, no empathy or inner moral anchor that would interfere with their role as agents of domination.
And I suspect that alternate history would be even worse than this one, because for some reason, the USA, unlike any evil empire in history, has a popular culture that is extremely liberating. I can't explain this, why it should be different this time, and it makes me hopeful that history is not just repeating, that civilizations aren't going to keep catching and releasing us until we go extinct.
So I'm getting closer and closer to writing fiction. I see as well as you that this document is inferior to Civilization Will Eat Itself
in every way, and it's time to try something different. Earlier today (Dec 10, 2002) I lay in my shed writing a Tolkienesque timeline for my fictional future history, starting now. Clearly, the American occupation government will invade Iraq, try to occupy and rule the Asian oil fields, and escalate its clumsy bullying of other countries and its repression of its own inmates -- er, citizens. There'll be another big fake terror attack to make sure Bush stays popular and gets re-elected, plus they'll probably rig the vote and black out news of the number of American soldiers dying -- not to mention the millions of non-Americans. But still the whole thing is unraveling. There's a growing anti-war movement among middle-Americans who can't just be put in prison, and the people of Europe and other strong countries will finally get leaders who will stop sucking Bush's asshole, and diplomats will lose their jobs for denying
that Bush is a moron and similar to Hitler. OK, I'm getting too far ahead with that one. But we'll see serious economic sanctions against the USA, and at long last a huge "depression" -- or failure of corporate rule. Or a depression is just going through withdrawal from the drug of our exploitative and disempowering economy, and the last great depression ended when the ruling interests saw to their horror that the people weren't starving to death but were learning to take care of each other without being controlled. So they got us all addicted again. But this time I'm hoping a lot of us will stay off the system for good.
I hate our "president" but I also love him. I love his clumsiness and transparency, and I feel great relief that we got Bush not Gore, because of what they stand for. The Democrats -- at least since 1992 -- stand for well-ordered and skillfully maintained corporate rule, for the slow and anesthetized domestication and extermination of all life on Earth, while feeling guilty and talking as if they have no choice. The Republicans stand for Armageddon, for an explosion of insane raw selfishness that tries to exterminate all life on Earth much too quickly, and so fails.
In any case a big die-off is inevitable. For decades we've been pushing it a little farther into the future at the expense of making it bigger, by feeding more people through farming practices that deplete the soil faster, by "solving" conflicts in ways that increase hatred, and by vaccination, a misunderstood medical blunder that greatly increases disease in the long term. But with right-wingers in charge, the die-offs will be sooner and much more obviously related to the ruling interests and to the very habit of central control.
What I'm hoping for is a giant and permanent global "depression" that leaves room for many secession movements and a rediscovery of local autonomy and small systems, and at the same time, a global shift in consciousness where we rediscover healthy relations with the Earth and with each other.
But it seems like the path to this shift must pass through the worst of civilization. I mean, I don't see China and Africa and the Islamic countries going straight from where they are now to a happy post-civilized world. I think they'll have to pass through television and consumerism and postmodernism and sexual liberation and new age stuff, or things similar to those things, as America is doing now. It's like the Earth has a giant rash, that spreads out and goes through stages, so it will already be healing here when it peaks there. And in some places, like Canada, it will never be at its worst.
In my fictional timeline, I put the biggest stuff in 2012, to match the end of the current 26,000 year cycle in the Mayan calendar. But in the real world I know that prophecies are pretty sloppy. Still I think there's something to them. It blows my mind that the author of Revelations (also called Apocalypse) saw more than 1900 years in his future that people would have to have a mark on their bodies without which they can't buy and sell. I think there's more going on than lucky guesses. But, for a deep change in human consciousness, clearly 2012 is much too soon. What I really expect is something like the 1960's, or the revolutions of 1848, but less naive, and bigger.
Almost too late, I've realized that I need to write something to guard against the urge to simplify, by myself and by others. Am I simply a dropout fantasy geek, living in a shed and waiting for the system to fall and everyone to be happy? I'm busy this week. Yesterday I rode in the rain up to Lake City Way to visit my friend Risa, the only person I know who I think is smarter than me. She grew up in the midwest, fed on macaroni & cheese and Mountain Dew, and then was a butch lesbian for a while, and is now six months pregnant and happily effectively married to Brandon, a friendly guy from (I think) North Carolina who's good at all kinds of mechanical and construction stuff and also has lots of unschooled intellectual knowledge. Risa had two huge stacks of library books to read over the holidays, including one by John Zerzan who she thinks is preaching to the choir and too obsessed with the "extropians."
Later yesterday (Dec 17) I stopped by Adam's to pick up my Player's Handbook, and he was going to his final meeting of the food co-op board of directors, which he has finally quit after five years to devote more time to Buddhist meditation. Adam also considers himself an anarchist, and he also has a computer programming job where they stay focused on the process by writing, for every step of the program they're planning, a haiku.
Tonight I'm going to the Christmas party at my sister Sheila's job, a retirement home for Asians. Friday I'll try to go down to Sheila and Sean's apartment on the beach to watch Firefly, of which I've managed to see every episode even though I don't have a TV or even electricity. (Fox has just canceled it and Monday I sent postcards to try to convince UPN to pick it up.) Sheila and Sean are, I think, an even happier couple than Risa and Brandon. They plan to have a kid soon and I'm trying to get them to read Alice Miller books.
Saturday Betsy and Jason are having a little get-together. They might be an even happier couple. They will certainly never have kids. For people who have to go to regular jobs, they've totally got it made -- their jobs are pretty slack and they've got an apartment with lots of light in a great location, which they fill with the culture they love. I would almost
trade my life for theirs, and they would nowhere near trade theirs for mine. Jason's like a circa 1962 stylish urbanite, but too low-key to want to actually live in Manhattan, and Betsy's tall and sharp and her general world-view and attitude are so close to mine that it's very interesting when we disagree on something.
It will probably just be me and Zoe (pronounced Zo) going over there. Zoe's also going with me to my family Christmas, and to Lord Of The Rings
. We're sort of like a couple but without physical action and we sometimes go weeks with no contact. Zoe's an identical twin. If you scientifically compared her face with her sister's you would have difficulty finding a difference, yet when you look
at them, they look totally different, and have different personalities. This makes me hopeful that cloning will not be as dreadful as the technophiles dream it. Zoe's super-easy-going and a skilled improv performer. She's learning guitar and last time we hung out I showed her the best ways to finger the open chords. It made me want to get a guitar again and learn a bunch more songs, and I went to the library and printed the chords and lyrics to a bunch of songs off the internet. They were all either The Ramones or Gordon Lightfoot.
I've seen the same supposition in spiritual "enlightenment," in scientific theorizing, and in central domination of culture and society: that as people or ideas or things get "better," they get more similar. What a dreadful thought! If it's true that everything that rises must converge, then we're way too high and we need to fall.
Sometimes we'll catch a glimpse of reality and call it "contradiction," or we'll feel all wise proclaiming that this or that is "very complex." We're wrong. Nothing in our experience is very complex -- it's only beginning
to be complex.
It's February 12. I lost my squat when the owners came to fix the place up, and now I'm staying with my friend Rachel in south Seattle, four miles down Rainier valley. It's not a bad bike ride. Rachel, like me, is a virgo slob, and we get along well. She survives on a small inheritance, does squiggly abstract paintings, and is the last person in the world who would be hard on herself.
The long delay was me drawing the cover. I'm not good at drawing and don't like it, so it takes enormous psychic energy, but it was worth it. I kind of like the cover better than the text. I had the vision but didn't know how to draw any of it, so I bought 62 old Dragon magazine covers off eBay for $5.50, to learn how to draw fantasy stuff. There was one particular cover I remembered from my youth, which looked almost exactly like the cover of this -- except when I found it and saw it, it was almost completely different, which meant I could draw my memory without copying! I must have sketched a hundred little horses and riders for practice, and by coincidence I ordered a Janine Benyus field guide, with illustrations by Glenn Wolff, whose way of drawing pine trees I totally copied. I also found out that my general idea, of a fantasy scene with a detail that placed it in our future, was done beautifully more than 17 years ago on Dragon #98.
My sister lost her job and Adam is about to lose his. The dominant media haven't used the word yet but we are in a depression. I love it! There's less traffic, more squatting opportunities, and people are having to rebuild community and self-sufficiency. But that's kind of like jumping off a tall building and saying "so far, so good." Still to come are starvation, ugly police crackdowns, and the risk that our desperation will be channeled into a new authoritarian government. I'm pretty happy with the old one, which Bush is continuing to botch up. Americans who think this is bad have little imagination or knowledge of history. Bush's grip on the public is far smaller, weaker, and clumsier than Hitler's or Stalin's or Mao's. Never in history has there been such a large antiwar movement before the war really got going, and I give Bush full credit. What worries me is that he'll be assassinated, and someone will continue his work with much more skill.
We don't know how lucky we are. Everything Bush is doing -- including killing Iraqis -- was being done slowly and quietly under Clinton, and the few who objected were shamed, ridiculed, and ignored. In two days I'll be at a protest of more than ten thousand people. I feel like I was in a house where everybody was drowsing on deadly sleeping gas and didn't want to know it, and I was despairing of ever waking them up, expecting us all to die -- but then someone set the house on fire! People are waking, looking around, jumping up. The walls are burning through. Many will die, but before we would all have died, and now some will live.
I see a lot of futures. I see Dubya Dubya III, nuclear bombs going off, the American, Israeli, and Islamic right wings all dying and jealously trying to take the world out with them. I see the depression intensifying until the poor finally reach the end of their vast patience, and physically take back what the system stole from them and gave to the rich, but I see the rich tragically not understanding and the system not changing, not right away. I see viral epidemics, crop failures, droughts, people everywhere cold and hungry and sick. But at the same time I see the good side of what we have now, my friends going to the food co-op to buy supper, having people over to watch movies, reading books and walking in the sun, and I see the will and the need for that to continue.
I'm trying to stretch my mind to hold both the breakdowns that must happen and the life that must go on. History and the human soul are wider than our little ideas. Some of the most cynical predictions of Orwell and other speculative writers are coming true, but take a step back and those trends are only threads in the thick fabric of our lives, woven with other threads of big and small wonders we never guessed. (February 14, 2003)