Living In A World That Can’t Be Fixed is not a guidebook to terminal melancholy. Curtis White, the author of this book, also wrote The Spirit of Disobedience along with other social criticism, hardly advocates that course of inaction. On the contrary, White’s provocative title poses a challenge. He’s saying political reformism offers modest remedies, at best, to mitigate the catastrophe upon us. And he says it with a range of insights—from Wordsworth to Adorno by way of Agnes Varda. Curtis writes with assurance of his sources, but far removed from a pedantic style.
Let’s begin where White does in the year 1969—a pivotal year for him. A recent high school graduate, living in an East Bay suburb outside San Francisco, he encountered both the political left and hippies—the counterculture. He absorbed both milieux. That year, forever in the shadow of ’68, was noteworthy for several historic countercultural events: Woodstock, People’s Park, the Alcatraz Island occupation, and, ending in December, with the fateful Rolling Stone’s Altamont concert where one person was killed.
The political aspects of the Sixties counterculture have been relegated to limbo by the manipulative media to emphasize instead the hairy, bell-bottomed, dope-smoking, denizens of the music scene as epitomizing the counterculture. White corrects this. The counterculture had extreme poles: uptight politicos at one end and psychedelic mystics at the other. White, however, was in the majority who combined, to varying degrees, political awareness along with hedonistic and revelatory pursuits of mind and body. The rebellious nature of the counterculture, we need to recall, had antecedents. The Beats immediately preceded the hippies and in some instances merged with that culture. Before the Beats, the Dadaists and Surrealists combined revolutionary politics with literary and artistic disruptions, and they in turn drew upon a host of nineteen-century poets and artists who assaulted the bourgeois philistinism of their era. It is this rich vein of oppositional culture that White mines for his sharp analysis of our current predicament.
And what precisely is our predicament? Let’s be clear here that the world in turmoil affects us intimately by way of mass
media saturation. The 24/7 bullshit that comes our way precludes an informed and critical analysis. Cutting through the media—its “if–it-bleeds-it-leads” stories—is essential. In short, the neoliberal order, unable to remedy the shambles it has created, putters along like a jalopy chucked full of armed thugs. All the media shows us in its wake is the carnage.
In response to mass media the political left promotes a moral crusade, not a vision of a convivial future. White maintains that left politics lacks an appreciation of culture, specifically a “culture-as-politics.” As he says:
Properly understood, culture is concerned with the process of becoming. Culture is about movement more fundamental than this year’s political movements. As Sigmund Freud wrote, culture is the act of “replacing what is unconscious with what is conscious.” A cult is unconscious. It simply does what it has always done. It follows instructions. Culture, on the other hand, is the bringing to awareness of the damage—repression, irrationality, violence, ugliness, injustice, and tragedy—imposed by the cult. In this sense, culture is enlightenment. And in this sense the United States is a cult.
An investigation into the meaning of culture leads White to explore the significance of place and the thinking of Christopher Alexander, a British-American architect and theorist who should be better known. Influenced by, among others, the anarchist geographer Peter Kropotkin and British “plotlanders” who built their own homes, Alexander imagines communities as “mosaics of subcultures”—a radical social decentralization not for political ends as much as for relational needs. Applied to cities, these mosaics are similar to the diverse neighborhoods in Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach’s Seventies speculative novel of a future US where the Pacific Northwest secedes.
The unofficial capital of Ecotopia was San Francisco, where the hilly topography invited distinct and diverse neighborhoods. Today gentrification and homogenization has transformed San Francisco into a playground for salary-bloated software engineers. When Callenbach wrote the city was still a haven for cultural creation. Communes and collectives thrived. The picturesque large Victorians in the Haight that accommodated communal households of hundreds of freaks were splashed across front pages to perpetuate, at best, novelty and at worst, depravity. Ignored were the thousands who inhabited other neighborhoods throughout the city. In this way the media deliberately misconstrued the extensive culture creation for superficialities.
Artists, musicians, and actors appropriated more space by transforming abandoned warehouses into live/work studios. Soon the communes spawned economic collectives: food stores, bicycle and head shops, resale clothing stores, and even car repair garages and print shops. These ventures did business in a neighborly way—like a village. In the mid-Seventies many of them were networked through a group called The InterCollective. During its heyday their Directory listed 150 collectives in the San Francisco Bay Area and 350 on the West Coast.
The Sixties countercultural institutions, rooted in place, provided the space for collective pursuits that the traditional economy foreclosed. To disparage these collectives as failed projects, because many of them didn’t survive, is to forget that youth, not too distant from their childhood, hobbled them together. Notwithstanding their precarious origins, the legacy of that period continues today with up to 2,000 worker cooperative members and further thousands living in cooperative housing in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area.
To incubate institutions that incorporate the elements of a good life, White asserts, requires grounding in place as a site to cultivate our better selves. This notion may seem foreign to most people, so White successfully unwraps it with references to a broad range of cultural artifacts: films, books, plays, and music. From pop culture to more obscure literary references, he manages to convey complex ideas effortlessly.
If the Sixties was noted for communes, fifty years later we have our commons.
Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009, methodically studied commons all over the world. Her book Governing the Commons, however, didn’t appear until 1990. The commons, as resource sharing and as an alternative to private property, didn’t gain popular recognition until the beginning of the current century.
An argument could be made that the notion of the commons eclipses the communes of the counterculture. If the hippies and fellow travelers had explicitly recognized that their various collectives had an historic commonality, maybe a stronger political force of solidarity would have taken shape. A force, that is, to sustain a concerted fight to keep rents low and funding high for countercultural subversions.
There was one struggle in White’s pivotal year of 1969, the year of People’s Park, which is exemplary as a reclamation of the commons. The commons-to-be was a parcel four times the size of People’s Park and two miles away in a working class neighborhood of Berkeley. It was a dirt field several hundred feet wide and one-half mile long that remained after Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) submerged tracks underground for its transit system.
Much of the energy from the People’s Park struggle got directed to creating a park on the barren land. They called it People’s Park Annex. This was the impetus that propelled the neighbors to develop the land. For ten years the community near the park overcame police harassment to plant trees and shrubs, create a vegetable garden, build children’s play structures, and party with huge potlucks. They resisted all attempts to divert the land for one stupid project after another until finally, with some clever legal tactics, the community wrenched the land from BART so that the City of Berkeley could acquire it. In 1979, Ohlone Park, named after the tribe that historically inhabited the SF Bay area, was officially proclaimed as a city park. The residents of Berkeley removed a significant piece of real estate from the market and created a commons—one of the largest reclaimed urban commons in America.
The continuing struggle with the campus-owned land, that is the original People’s Park, took on the tone of militant resistance—the park as a battlefield. The PPA participation, however, looked more like a carnival. There’s a lesson here. It’s the nature of a commons to facilitate democratic practices and cultivate a pragmatic egalitarianism—to live differently, as White asserts. Or as one guerilla gardener said of the PPA, “This is an adult adventure playground.
Obviously not all commons are carnivals. Historically the commons was a survival resource. It was the village grazing field, the wood supply, and a space for garden plots. In the nineteenth century, cooperatives were considered the urban form of the commons, as they remain today, though few refer to them as such. The commons was a work site, but we wouldn’t recognize the nature of the work done there. Sure, the specific tasks would be recognizable as those undertaken to provide sustenance for a family, but the context would not. Commoners practiced cooperation and reciprocity; the commons was maintained and improved collectively. Over decades, if not centuries, rules and regulations were established that provided guidance for managing the commons and governance was based on the egalitarian premise that decisions were decided to avoid divisiveness. It was the site for solidarity, which is why it had to be destroyed, enclosed.
White proposes that a new culture needs to arise from a solid foundation, a place to initiate significant revolt. One premised on “sustainable happiness.” He defines happiness with this quote from Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness:
A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor—such is my idea of happiness.
This idyll resembles the vision Marx had of life in a post-capitalist (communist) society where one would garden in the morning, have a leisurely lunch with one’s friends, play games afterwards and read or play music in the evening (or a similar mix of activities).
These nineteenth century musings may seem quaint to us. Seemingly, they depict individual refuges, though in context they were meant to be collective ventures. But we could ask what relevance do they have for a world where rural residents everywhere are draining away to urban slums?
Place without solidarity is a shrine. Nineteen century workers had Labor Temples.
The oppositional culture that White seeks must involve a strategy to build solidarity. Decades ago, solidarity streamed out of factories all over the land. Its attire was the work shirt and sturdy denim slacks. Its accouterment was the lunch pail. And strikes fortified it. Solidarity like that may appear in specific cases today, but it is no longer universal. It no longer terrorizes the bosses.
So where to find that solidarity today? If it can’t be found on the assembly line can it be found with jobs at all? By the way, working in an Amazon warehouse doesn’t approach the sense of dignity that was integral to manufacturing jobs; even though they may have been grueling and hazardous, those jobs supplied the psychological basis for resistance to the demands of the bosses.
There can be no oppositional culture if we are tethered to a meaningless job all day. What made the Sixties counterculture viable was, relatively speaking, an abundant economy compared to the austerity we suffer today. It was possible then to have a part-time job, live communally, and spend most of the day doing “what we will” as the old Eight Hour Movement slogan proclaimed.
To counter the austerity imposed on us by the bankers and their henchmen we might consider the obvious hidden in plain sight. The wealth of our society accumulated because of the efforts of previous generations. All the historic accomplishments along with all the natural resources are the commons and our inheritance. Each of us should be entitled to a portion of that inheritance. Guy Standing, the British economist, calls it a Commons Dividend. That’s just another name for a Universal Basic Income (UBI).
A UBI coupled with the implementation of basic human rights as outlined in the UN Charter on Human Rights could be the foundation for a life that is our wealth, to paraphrase John Rustin who White admires. But this is just the beginning. “Everything begins with the individual, but nothing ends there,” to quote Raoul Vaneigem, who I admire.
A guaranteed income in the context of the climate catastrophe we are enduring will hardly lead to the idyllic life Tolstoy or Marx imagined, at least not all the time. There is work to be done. Consider for example: to create a sustainable agricultural economy will entail droves of people moving to farms, to the new farms created to restore the soil, grow organic crops, and sequester carbon. This means thousands of smaller plots with millions of people working them maybe part-time and seasonally. With a UBI, jobs that force individuals to harm the planet to survive could be abandoned for socially useful tasks and absolutely necessary ones given the climate emergency. The possibility of solidarity arising amongst those reversing the damage to our planet cannot be dismissed. In fact, these are the tasks, collectively organized from the grassroots that can only function well with solidarity.
White calls for rebalancing our priorities. We can too easily get addicted to quotidian outrages—the media is a gateway drug—and waste too much time, as White maintains, trying to reform a world that can’t be fixed. Time spent creating a life with others should be the goal. This isn’t an abstraction. It means developing a playful and determined opposition—a counterculture of rebellion. We have antecedents. But instead of collectively reclaiming our lives, we work at jobs that suck our cooperative energies for stupid, if not destructive, ends. By developing solidarity with others for good ends, we will heal our abused selves while healing the abused world.