Three texts by comrades—Mary Patten, Dara Greenwald, and Brian Holmes—came into my world in the last several weeks. Each one on its own is a valuable contribution to the conversation among activists today (conversations that in fact follow Dara's and Brian's posts online). Together, they map out our conditions as a left wing searching for coherency of analysis, clarity sufficient for resolve, and concrete ways of acting. Reading them over the same few days, I couldn’t help thinking them through in relation to each other.
First, there is Mary Patten’s new book Revolution as an Eternal Dream: the Exemplary Failure of the Madame Binh Graphics Collective, published by Half Letter Press. In it Mary takes on the difficult task of accounting for a chapter of American radical activism to which she contributed a significant period of her adulthood. The time is the 1970s into the early 1980s, the place New York and the East Coast. The circumstances: small, committed groups of radicals, communist and hard left in orientation, anti-racist and anti-imperialist in priority, targeted by the police state, operating against a backdrop of a fading youth movement, a fractured left, and a right wing in the process of regrouping. The band of radicals to which Mary belonged was the May 19th Communist Organization, of which the MBGC was an informally affiliated cultural wing comprised of people who overlapped membership with the May 19th group.
Mary asks a lot of hard questions, directed very much at her former self (and sometimes as a stand-in for the radicals of that time), having to do with revolutionary intention turned into political marginalization, and the limits of the MBGC’s working process and communicative potential. But the text is a post-mortem, not an apology. The only implied regrets come with Mary’s telling of the police repression the group eventually attracted through their direct attacks on whatever exposed elements of racism could be targeted. The key instance was the arrival of the Springboks rugby team—then an openly and unashamedly racist representative of the apartheid regime of South Africa—to NYC in September of 1981.
By outlining—and this text really is only an introduction that hits a number of complex angles, each deserving of elaboration—this one hidden history of the radical recent past, the book sets the stage for many important debates in our present. From those years, when declared revolt was a reality, and revolution seemed not only imaginable but concretely graspable, to today, the differences cannot be denied. Now the fascistic state creeps ever forward with a popularly elected African-American man at its purported helm, all while the corporate masters preside over the most serious structural crisis to afflict global capitalism since the 1930s. The old-style imperialism of the Vietnam War era has given way to a corporate transnationalism that accords the American state little role but as high-tech global thug—a part played with a mixture of high tech pizzazz, stunning incompetence, and most of all, zero thought for consequences. The new class war, for which the prison industrial complex has already been established, moves toward a boiling point, both globally and locally—along with the overall geophysical temperature of the planet.
With a world crashing around us, now many of the questions facing earnest resisters in this present recall the paradoxical binds Mary and her comrades wrestled with, except in the reverse. We do not suffer an overabundance of moral clarity as the revolutionary left of the 70s did, but rather an increasing confusion over what constitutes positive movement toward the world we want and need. In her text posted to the Justseeds blog “Does Corporate Culture STILL Suck?” Dara Greenwald zeros in on one of the political complications of our time, that of the insidiously mimetic co-optation of independent, self-initiated, and autonomous cultural activity by large corporations that have become expert at wrapping the productions of young musicians, hopeful artists, and ordinary people looking to share their creativity, in their consumer brands. Dara calls attention to corporate efforts such as the touring bike shop sponsored by Levis and Urban Outfitters, and the BMW Guggenheim Lab—expressions of branding that go way beyond what we could once call an ad campaign. While it is true that these examples are insertions of the corporate element into what was (and still often is) a culture comparatively free of the big business presence and in-your-face branding, I would point out that the punk and indie subcultures, just as the rock, hippie, and jazz cultures before them, already did the work of coding themselves in order that people could identify as belonging, and express to each other their subscription to some sort of shared values, however vague. Under the conditions of competitive retail capitalism, branding these subcultures is something of an inevitability. Corporations looking to attach a brand to an apparent (life)style will always cherry-pick from the subcultures that have done the work of aesthetically (and even politically) unifying themselves. When those subcultures produce moral, health, and ecological goods (bike culture!), what is there to oppose when the evil of branding comes to town in the form of a traveling Levi’s/Urban Outfitters (sweatshops, hello!) bike shop that performs cycle maintenance for free?
Dara’s questions fold back into dilemmas of personal morality—where one ought to draw a line—but with the clear-eyed vision of a person who knows that she and many of us work in an art world in which our very names become brands, under conditions of material scarcity that are realistically (if distastefully) answered by the sponsored resources of a corporate master, and all of us are subjected to two thousand ads a day anyway, so who the hell is gonna remember, right? But the effects of these individual choices of when and how to participate (or not) are always social in the end. Her way out of the paralysis of judgement is to return to the heart of the matter: self-sufficiency and autonomy, in a well-reasoned final thought:
In these examples of corporations as branded sponsors of community spaces, it is exactly our proposals toward some solutions (opening independent spaces, creating a vibrant self-motivated culture, etc.) that get co-opted, not our practices of critiquing the status quo. So are we to assume that corporate culture doesn’t suck because it is giving us access to things we once started and now can't afford to maintain: bike shops, print shops, recording studios, experimental art spaces, etc? But what happens when the marketers have moved on to the next marketing methodology and we are left without their infrastructure, or ours?
Dara’s last line speaks obliquely to the larger and timeworn ambition of controlling the means of production; back to revolutionary failure. The comments following Dara’s text are worth reading but pretty much fall into elaborations on different aspects of the basic problem, ie where and when does it make sense to accept corporate sponsorship (if ever). Or is it even possible to work and live outside the universe built and administered by corporations, and what it means for resistance if the answer is no. But no one has yet really offered a way to rebuild an ethical framework—one that is equal to the many crossed lines of good and bad, pro and con, acceptable and unacceptable, that make up the innumerable contradictions that vex our efforts now to live a just and responsible life, not to mention autonomously authored. And I’m not sure anybody will, as long as we don’t go deeper.
By deeper, I mean daring to raise the question of traveling the religious road. Not the bullshit forms of religion that we hate, but the existential traditions, the ones that embrace paradox, exhaust language, and navigate the real pain of the real world through subtle, practiced, and disciplined forms of faith. And I do not mean only the old traditions. Perhaps we are due some new ones, and we are the ones to experiment in that area of life, thought, and feeling. Many in my community of artist-researchers may likely recoil at this question, particularly those who have already gone through the personal experience of having rejected the religion of their upbringing. The point is, the many contradictions and interwoven ends of desirable and undesirable effects of any action—the corporate grip on culture, whatever its non-corporate origins, being merely one symptom of our age of multiple crises—have outstripped political ideology as a workable source of guiding principles for individual living. The rise of fundamentalisms around the world is evidence enough of this turn. What I suggest is to do battle on that turf rather than concede it, and in the process reformulate our own sensibilities about how to live ethically and morally. Maybe in earlier decades the spiritual search was considered an indulgence by radicals, an escape for the privileged, and another excuse to exoticize somebody else’s culture, and those are dangers now, too. But for the world’s billions who see a crumbling system and a future of nothing but uncertainty and perpetual loss, the reality at hand has made us all seekers, whether we like it or not, whatever our station, whatever language we speak, and wherever on this planet it is that we live.
Before you dimiss the place of religion out of hand, let me just point out that Mary’s book includes a reproduction of the famous act of protest by the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, whose self-immolation helped to catalyze pressure on the Diem client regime and remains to this day an incredibly moving and internationally recognized document of an action taken in the name of one’s love for humanity. So religion is more than a subtext; perhaps, given the conundrums and the endless traps of the sort Dara speaks, it is again time we explored the religious depths of our commitment and political self-understanding?
Finally, there is Brian’s text, a rumination on the concentration of wealth, starting with a straightforward break down of wealth distribution in the US, as gleaned from a couple of different sources. The information he cites says the richest 5% control more than 60% of the country’s wealth, property, assets, or whatever can be owned. Compare that to the bottom 80%, who own less than 13% of the same. From there he goes into the question of why this is not a source of outrage. Is it because people don’t know, or don’t care?
This is an important question considering the next piece of information Brian digs out, a study of Americans’ attitudes about what the wealth distribution should be compared to the same people taking guesses on what it is, and then comparing both against what it actually is. The gist is that most Americans do believe in a scale of greater and lesser wealth, ideally linked to the meritocracy of achievement. But both the ideals and the estimates from the subjects of the study are so far from the actual distribution, that the gap can only highlight, again, the question: why aren’t more people pissed off, or if they are, then why is there no effective political pressure coalescing around the discontent?
He ends his short text with a call for a simple, doable action: let’s reproduce the pie chart as a button along with the words GOT PLUTOCRACY?, distribute them and wear them. The idea is to produce the conditions upon which an organizing effort—or better yet, a spontaneous uprising and consequent movement—could productively happen, beginning in a million ways, but here with a button campaign that exists somewhere between education and advertising.
This is a pretty straightforward idea, but on the level of image the pie chart communicates much differently than do the graphics of the MBGC. There are no fists, guns, crowds, or images of dignified resisters, nothing subcultural at all. Brian’s suggestion is a turn toward the infographic, a visual statement at once more abstract and more literal. Are we done with the depictions of bodies and faces in struggle? Given the corporate sponsorship that permeates so many efforts to amplify a message, today the gap between sponsor and a heroic figure in steadfast and romantic struggle may be simply too wide to process in any way but the easiest: instant invalidation. This is another way of saying that many of the images using figurative visuals distributed by Justseeds, for example, maintain an integrity of meaning because they also represent the economic democracy of the Justseeds organization itself. Without its own infrastructure for support, perhaps it is only the infographic that somehow maintains its integrity of message in the face of corporate distortion—and might even gain in subversive meaning: a pie chart, clearly showing more than half going to the top 5%...brought to you by BMW in more ways than one. Or maybe the facelessness of the pie chart is appropriate given that this would be an effort to prefigure a social movement, rather than support movements that already have names, leaders, locations, and ideologies.
Taking the issues, questions, and articulations of condition from Mary and Dara, and applying them to Brian’s idea, my suggestion is this. Remove all percentage figures from the pie chart. Percentages are too clinical, too academic—the messaging has to be about real people, not percentages. Replace with absolute numbers—I think these will be more shocking, especially when the top 1% are revealed as a specific number of individuals that is quite comprehensible. It would be even better to go with the top 0.1%. Based on the 2010 census figure for total population, that would be 308,745 people, leaving 246,996,430 as the bottom 80%. Shocking, but weirdly empowering as well—through the use of a number of which one is already part. No need to raise a clenched fist; you've already been counted, thank you. There is a demographic inevitability being communicated, outside of ideology, perhaps even outside of politics. Given the numbers representing real persons, such imbalances become questions of pure sustainability, as in, how long can this possibly last? Not forever, certainly. And maybe for not very much longer.
Then, instead of “GOT PLUTOCRACY?”, make a series of buttons, each using the same pie chart but adding copy that refers to a specific and different issue or question, some topical, some having to do with movement strategy or conditions:
GOT CLASS WAR?
GOT A WAY FORWARD?
GOT A FUTURE?
GOT A MOVEMENT?
GOT A BETTER SYSTEM?
HOW ABOUT TAXING THE TOP?
FUND THE SCHOOLS
THEY CAN AFFORD HEALTHCARE FOR THE REST OF US
CLEAN UP WALL STREET
JAIL, NOT BAILOUTS
NO PIE IN THE SKY
WHERE IS YOUR SLICE?
WHO IS LAUGHING?
The idea here is to use the infographic to its fullest. So let’s take a single, authoritative chart and combine it with copy that speaks to the multiple starting points and priorities of the discontented. Presenting the chart as common may seem reductionist, but the variable copy is exactly the opposite—ie endless, irreducible difference in issue and/or tone. I believe that the non-representational strategy invites us to take a gamble on using the resources provided by the corporate world and branded sponsors for amplification. Of course, this does nothing in terms of building up an autonomous infrastructure, which is something that we must of course continuing doing. But that is the risk. In exchange, not only do we get a bigger megaphone, but possibly a sort of buffer against fascistic response. Not a reliable or permanent one, but any buffer helps these days. If the corporate sponsors join in or facilitate the repression because they don’t like the message, then they are revealed for what they are—and the credibility they so desperately seek goes down the toilet. (For their part, that’s the gamble they’ve made: new branding opportunities while hoping for tolerable messages.) But the beauty of our time is the same as the ugliness—that we can go both routes, and that we must, sponsored and not. Especially when the risk of simple cooptation is low, as in super grassroots milieu-building work like button campaigns, in which the messages move at street level, pinned to jackets and bookbags, outside the bounded control of corporate media and privatized space.
Those are my thoughts so far. If I work up some graphics or sketches, I’ll post them here.