Category Archives: General

Announcements, comments, sideswipes, whatever

collecting for the collective

Got yer weak signals right here, guv:

Called B-Wa(h)renhaus (an untranslatable pun meaning both department store and “conserving house”), the store covers over 7,000 square feet and sells used and upcycled clothing, furniture, phones and other electronics. In an attempt to reach beyond the usual people who already patronize secondhand shops, the store’s location is also significant: It’s not in an especially hip location, or a flea market known for knock-down prices, but within one of Berlin’s most established, middle-of-the-road department stores.

The new store’s initial six-month run will be on the third floor of the Kreuzberg neighborhood’s well-known Karstadt department store, but the city’s plans to sponsor its own re-use stores extend way beyond that time limit. The city says that it aims to open three or four re-use stores across Berlin in the near future. Its longer-term ambition, according to the city’s 2020-2030 waste master plan, is to launch a store in every one of Berlin’s 12 boroughs.

These city-run stores (which already have one-off, smaller-scale counterparts in cities including Hamburg and Vienna) won’t just be standard secondhand markets designed to save useable goods from going to landfill sites. According to the city’s press release, Berlin hopes to use the stores to “anchor the re-use of used goods in urban society” by functioning as centers to educate and spread tips on re-use — especially to sections of the public that aren’t currently much involved in the circular economy. The initiative is part of a broader plan from Berlin’s ruling center-left/Green/left coalition that looks to slash waste in all areas of the city’s economy. 

This is a form of scaling up I could happily get behind; the city-state is the ideal scale for this sort of operation, because the material logistics needed to centralise the stock can be made pretty efficient. It’s notable that the city is actually collecting the stuff rather than simply taking donations; the article doesn’t mention it, but I dare say that they’ll save whatever they’re spending on those collections through a reduction in flytipping. The article also doesn’t mention whether they have a delivery option; I’m guessing there must be one, given Berlin’s the sort of city where a lot of folk go without owning a car.

(All the second-hand stores in Malmö—which are not state-run, but predominantly charity-based operations—do affordable delivery, or at least the ones that carry furniture. And you can get some surprisingly good stuff for surprisingly low prices… almost all the furniture in my apartment which didn’t come over with me has come out of second-hand stores, or from a loppis, which is basically the Swedish word for a yard-sale. It helps that Malmö, much like Berlin, is a very left-leaning town; where one finds batikhäxorna, there too will one find bargains.)

The Berlin thing chimes with a bit toward the end of Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, which I was re-reading last week:

“… in making recycling the responsibility of ‘everyone’, structure contracts out its responsibility to consumers, by itself receding into invisibility […] Instead of saying that everyone—i.e. every one—is responsible for climate change, we all have to do our bit, it would be better to say that no-one is [responsible], and that’s the very problem. The cause of eco-catastrophe is an impersonal structure which, even though it is capable of producing all manner of effects, is precisely not a subject capable of exercising responsibility. The required subject—a collective subject—does not exist, yet the crisis, like all the other crises we’re now facing, demands that it be constructed.” — p66

OK, so “world’s hipster capital opens state-run thrift-store” is not exactly a epochal change in terms of the quantitative impact of consumerism—though I’d argue it’s still far better than nothing. But beyond that, it’s a sign of governmental structures—heavily-left-leaning ones, admittedly—stepping up to be the face and the logistical infrastructure of that collective subject that Fisher’s talking about above; it’s the State de-cloaking, taking responsibility, getting its hands dirty, and (assuming I’m not misparsing him on the basis of a very quick skim of the latest immense tranche of words he released) trying to grapple with the slowdown economics that Dan Hill has been thinking so hard about all summer long.

Oh, and there’s one more thing missing from that article which took me a while to notice: there’s no mention of an app. Even if there is one, and it just didn’t merit inclusion in the press release, I think that’s a weak signal in its own right—particularly in the context of a tech-heavy city like Berlin. The first cracks in the facade of solutionism? Well, a guy can dream…

declining the unearned luxury of despair

Maria Farrell at Crooked Timber:

Our era is drenched in narrative. From the beguiling flame spiral of neoliberalism’s end of ‘grand narratives’, to Trump’s three and four word (lock her up / maga) ultra-short stories of destruction, to our helpless fascination with the far right’s ability to govern by unverified sound-bite, to the fact that every shitty little marketer on the Internet now calls themselves a ‘storyteller’; story has eaten the world.

Our preferred form of storytelling is so obsessed with endings that we’re convinced we’re ring-side at the biggest, baddest, worst ending ever – that of the centuries of Reason and their faithful but unfortunately carbon-emitting Engines of Progress. We love endings, revere protagonists, and not so secretly long for their mutual culmination in a fiery end of glorious and gorgeously terminal self-actualisation. Our whole mode of future-imagining is a death cult. We literally cannot imagine the world after us.

So, in the medium-term, I’m working on a book-shaped thing about how we use story to actively imagine and build better futures than the nihilistic inevitabilism currently on offer (especially from Big Tech.) It’s currently got a LOT in the mix – from how my abusive convent boarding school revealed the intimate relation between privacy and power, to how the English state’s origin stories that justify state coercion and soften the peasants up for perpetual violence (Leviathan, Lord of the Flies) are historically and culturally contingent cries for help. All that stuff shows how the stories we mindlessly reach for to understand how the world works operate as gate-keepers of possibility and crushers of hope.

The first commenter makes a fair point, albeit in a somewhat uncharitable way, by asking “when was it ever not so?”—I’ve argued before that narrative is the operating system of human culture, perhaps even the ur-technology, and as such it’s perhaps less that “story has eaten the world” and more that “story has been optimised and weaponised (by capital and its death-cult priesthood)”; I signed up a while ago to new journal-paper alerts for a bunch of communication science (read as “marketing voodoo”) journals, just to remind myself of the stakes and what we’re up against. (Also to provide some amount of fuel for the fire: as John Lydon put it, “anger is an energy”). But that observation doesn’t negate Farrell’s point—and I find it interesting that we have the boarding school experience in common as the crucible in which the hypocrisy and gaslighting of power was revealed to us early on.

Farrell goes on to outline her forthcoming book-shaped-project a bit more, and the threads will seem familiar to anyone who’s been reading along here for a while: critical utopianism avant la lettre, basically. It’s nice to know someone else is running on a parallel track… though I’m disappointed that Farrell doesn’t seem to have any other regular outlet for her writings beyond CT, as I’d like to follow along. Maybe she just prefers to develop her ideas in private.

I’ve not been very public myself of late, to be fair. I’ve been pretty quiet here after the outpourings of the summer, which is as much due to the sudden busyness of actual full-time office-hours employment as anything else—though there’s some of my customary season-shift malaise in the mix, also. The autumn equinox always sees this child of the summer go through something of a physical and emotional slump, and while I’m not that much further north than I was before, the seasons seem to turn very fast here in southern Sweden… and the shift in available daylight has been underscored by a shift to dull overcast weather, which compounds the vibes. I’m finding concentration something of a fight, and by using my climbing time as a measure of my physical condition, I’m clearly not running at 100%: it’s like I’ve dropped two or three grades in the space of a week (though a straw poll of other climbers at the same place suggests that part of the problem may be some extremely sandbaggy post-summer route-setting).

I’m a bit all over the shop emotionally as well, though that too seems a reasonable response to the circumstances: I’m reading as little current-events news out of the Anglosphere as I can get away with, but the bleakness and slo-mo-car-crash vibes out of the UK and US is strong enough that it only takes a few drops to bring me down and stoke up the survivor guilt. (I also think that the panicked and reactive tenor of the discourse—a message very much shaped by its medium—is only advantaging the death-cult, but making that point feels increasingly like remonstrating with a junkie who believes that they’ll never OD.) But the way out is through, individually as well as collectively—so I’m doing my best to put the anger and the angst to good use, and use it as fuel for the work.

Which is probably why Farrell’s post resonated with me so much. Here’s her closing shot:

The very least I personally can do as someone who knows a lot about tech and also, increasingly, something about storytelling, is offer ways to resist these bullshit framings and signal the way to spaces and possibilities that people better than me can build.

That’s my life’s work. I’m forty-eight and it’s just in the last year or two taken shape. All endings are beginnings and this is a moment when I feel we each need to figure out what we do in service of those who’ll come after us into this messed up world. I don’t think despair is an option; I think it’s an unearned luxury. But for some of us at this moment the life’s work may be simply to survive, to endure, and that has to be ok, too. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Actually it’s more of a relay race. Actually it’s not a race at all.

I recognise that sense of having found the thing that I need to do—not, to be clear, the sense that I can “save the world”, but the sense that I now know where and how I might push to contribute to the possibility of making a change. I remember something Deb Chachra said to me a while back, about how we people now in our forties should really be preparing to pass our power and authority on to the next generation coming up, but instead we’re stuck with trying to prise that power out of the death-grip of the Boomers… and I recognise Farrell’s identification of despair as an unearned luxury, perhaps because I’m crushingly aware of how I squandered my privileges as an adolescent.

So it’s time to pay it back, or rather pay it forward. It’s very possible that my efforts will amount to little, or even less—and of course the opportunity to make that effort is itself a privilege comprising unearned luck as much as (if not far more than) applied hustle. The only rational utility of privilege is to expend in it trying to make a world where privilege counts for less than it did when you started: just as the critical utopia takes the difficult and contingent path between the Scylla of dystopia and the Charybdis of solutionism, I have to find a path between Farrell’s unearned despair and sense of futility on the one hand, and switching off and fiddling while the world burns on the other. That I even have the bandwidth to do anything more than hang on for dear life is an indication that to do more is, in effect, my duty.

Perhaps that’s just another manifestation of my narcissism, I don’t know. But as an old roommate used to say, you’ve got to be able to get up in the morning and not want to punch the face you see in the mirror.


an end in itself

As I remarked to a friend last night, the defining feature of middle age seems to be that it’s the period when you start losing friends, family, heroes and teachers at a distressingly regular rate. The latest to go—and to go far too early—is David Graeber.

I never knew the guy, and I’ve never read as much of his work as I meant to, but I feel fairly safe in saying he’d probably rather be celebrated than mourned—celebrated not for himself, but for his work, and for his work’s unapologetic yet cheery defiance.

To exercise one’s capacities to their fullest extent is to take pleasure in one’s own existence, and with sociable creatures, such pleasures are proportionally magnified when performed in company. From the Russian perspective, this does not need to be explained. It is simply what life is. We don’t have to explain why creatures desire to be alive. Life is an end in itself. And if what being alive actually consists of is having powers—to run, jump, fight, fly through the air—then surely the exercise of such powers as an end in itself does not have to be explained either. It’s just an extension of the same principle.

His work was also his play. Ironically, perhaps, that’s a tough example to live up to—but only because we’ve been atomised into a system of relentless competition that sets us one against the other. What I’ll take with me going forward is this bit, which Graeber wrote with Andrej Grubačić as part of an introduction to a new edition of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid:

In Capital, the only real attention to cooperation is an examination of cooperative activities as forms and consequences of factory production, where workers “merely form a particular mode of existence of capital.” It would seem that two projects complement each other very well. Kropotkin aimed to understand precisely what it was that an alienated worker had lost. But to integrate the two would mean to understand how even capitalism is ultimately founded on communism (“mutual aid”), even if it’s a communism it does not acknowledge; how communism is not an abstract, distant ideal, impossible to maintain, but a lived practical reality we all engage in daily, to different degrees, and that even factories could not operate without it—even if much of it operates on the sly, between the cracks, or shifts, or informally, or in what’s not said, or entirely subversively. It’s become fashionable lately to say that capitalism has entered a new phase in which it has become parasitical of forms of creative cooperation, largely on the internet. This is nonsense. It has always been so.

This is a worthy intellectual project. For some reason, almost no one is interested in carrying it out. Instead of examining how the relations of hierarchy and exploitation are reproduced, refused, and entangled with relations of mutual aid, how relations of care become continuous with relations of violence, but nonetheless hold together systems of violence so that they don’t entirely fall apart, both traditional Marxism and contemporary social theory have stubbornly dismissed pretty much anything suggestive of generosity, cooperation, or altruism as some kind of bourgeois illusion. Conflict and egoistic calculation proved to be more interesting than “union.” (Similarly, it is fairly common for academic leftists to write about Carl Schmidt or Turgot, while is almost impossible to find those who write about Bakunin and Kondiaronk.) As Marx himself complained, under the capitalist mode of production, to exist is to accumulate[. F]or the last few decades we have heard little else than relentless exhortations on cynical strategies used to increase our respective (social, cultural, or material) capital. These are framed as critiques. But if all you’re willing to talk about is that which you claim to stand against, if all you can imagine is what you claim to stand against, then in what sense do you actually stand against it?

That last line there chimes bright and clear with Matt Colquhoun’s statement from a few days back, and with much of my own experience in the last decade or so. Positive projects… the hacienda must be built.

Rest in power, man.