One of my sisters, who is also a good and insightful friend to me, asked me this evening, “What’s standing in your way of writing?” Her paid job is helping folks who are labeled “mentally ill” to figure out their own aims and then support them in achieving those aspirations; her question to me is the crux of what she does for others, although the “writing” is particular to me (I’m having trouble doing it, especially in the way I want to). I also know that my sister isn’t doing this for money, although she — like me and everyone else under capitalism — must do something for money, to then purportedly exchange that money for our lives. She really cares; she really values that process of self-discovery, even when it’s ever so slow or painful.
It would be easy to answer, as I did in my head when she asked me: “capitalism.” While she was reminding me of all the other unpaid things I’m doing besides writing that are good for myself and others, that are about giving back to the world — from innumerable hours put in voluntarily, joyfully, at Interference Archive or the Institute for Anarchist Studies, along the spectrum over the past few months to the untold hours put in voluntarily, stressfully, for my two seriously ill parents — I kept repeating silently in my mind, “but where does all my time go?” I heard her say something like “just stop doing whatever you’re doing at 3:00 p.m. each day and write for a half hour or maybe an hour,” yet I only half heard it, and soon I almost wasn’t hearing anything she was offering as comforting advice. “Capitalism.” I apologized to her that I was drifting into anxiety, and that the multitasking mess of “to-dos” dancing jigs in my now-mushy brain seemed to be hindering my ability to take sound in. “Capitalism.”
Yes, there is all the time that capitalism steals from me, giving me so much less of it to fill with what I love and care about. What I really want to do. That’s almost too easy an answer, though clearly a monstrous part of it.
It has less to do with time, even though time constantly escapes me, or my wagework to-do lists, sitting cozily by my unpaid to-do lists. I haven’t been able to write recently because I haven’t been able to think — think clearly. Emotional overload has sat like a damper on me. I am physically here in the world, but what’s inside me is a different self than usual, not my self, and yet I’m not sure whose self either. A seeming fog-without-end is standing in my way, surrounding me in a space of immobilizing aloneness and loss, trepidation and terror — immobilizing, that is, in terms of doing anything that isn’t sort of auto-pilot activities. It’s exceedingly difficult to create.
That’s the more nuanced portion of my “capitalism” mantra when my sister was trying to be a good friend. Capitalism steals our imagination, our ability to envision — partially, poorly, but snapshots nonetheless — life outside and beyond it.
So what does my personal sorrow and its dulling-down effect have to do with capitalism snatching my creative energies?
More than ever, much as we all want to pretend that our life’s highs and lows are some unique individual experience, it’s clear that capitalism increasingly structures desires, decisions, and tragedies, and in ways that demand new ethical compasses to navigate. That’s a longer bit of writing that I have neither time (!) nor imagination (!) for at this moment, but I am attempting to take that damned half hour or so that my sister prescribed. So you get my foreshortened version, in an effort to remember my practice of writing and, well, actually practice it.
One of the big disasters of early twenty-first-century capitalism — besides the fact that it’s materially and psychically failing nearly everyone — is the anarchic “ethics” that it’s hurling at us, from the dilemmas of “recovery” and “relief” in the face of climate-changed hurricanes to the conundrums of “life-support systems” within the medical-industrial complex. The principles that have served us a-anti-anticapitalistas and a-anarch-anarchistas for so long — like mutual aid and solidarity, justice and freedom — look pretty on posters and manifestos, but their practice is often a much slippery bit of work on the new terrains blasted open by contemporary capitalism.
I know that “solidarity not charity” is the right ethical sentiment, and there’s much truth there in terms of striving toward such nonhierarchical social arrangements. But is it solidarity to rebuild the waterfront homes of poor and working-class people, frequently nonwhite people, when capital-induced climate transformation likely means that the hurricanes zipping through New York will become normal, and that those poor, poor people will be again sitting ducks in harm’s way, without insurance or places to go or health care? Is it better to let the rich snap up those devastated areas, rebuilding luxury abodes, protected by big insurance policies, and hope that the insurance can’t and won’t pay, and mansions not modest houses will be toppled, and the super rich will be displaced again and again until they have no where to go either? Hurricane gentrification is reprehensible, for sure; still, what’s the good alternative? (This is not to denigrate the work of Occupy Sandy Relief or those rebuilding; it’s to point out that we face new ethical quandaries that our old stances and ethics might not be quite adequate for without a lot of rethinking.)
In my case, what are the ethics of life and death, voluntarily choosing both, when a medical-industrial complex increasingly circumscribes access to preventive or necessary health care and increasingly pushes access to prolonging nonlife life as growth industries within capitalism? Sticking breathing tubes into seriously ill patients is on the uptick; the facilities that can warehouse such folks are springing up, at hefty daily rates; and families and friends are left with a series of absurd nonchoices that feel wrong in every direction. Hence my own constant, debilitating sorrow.
My good friend Joshua just sent me a RadioLab piece, “The Bitter End”:
This excellent episode underscored how my own experiences now are actually collective, societal ones, shaped and hobbled by a capitalist health insurance system. That’s the subtext at least. My good friend Andrea, a Canadian by birth who has been living in the United States for the past several years, told me a few days ago that in Canada, where people have health care, even if not always the best, there are far fewer bitter ends, and death is able to sit more comfortably in the zone of dignity. That means that life does too. This is not to romanticize Canada or life in Canada; it’s to assert that capitalism and its link to the lack of health care here in the United States means that my inability to write, because of my need to process what seems an isolated and lonely experience, is already predetermined (so much more than even I realize) by what’s actually a societal and shared experience, albeit masked by capitalism — something that Marx illuminated about this despicable system so long ago. Andrea also remarked that we anarchist friends need to promise each other that we’ll let/help each other die well, with dignity, if we’re here in such spaces as the United States, but I’m still perplexed by how we’ll know what ethics to apply to the emergent situations manufactured by today’s unhealthy medical system. If we find it hard to know what life is, what our desires are, in the best of times, how are we to self-determine, self-manage, and self-governance death? Where does life begin and death start?
Several months back, we co-curated an exhibit at Interference Archive called RadioActivity! looking at antinuclear movements from the 1960s-70s to the present, with a whole wall (out of 3.5 walls) dedicated to post-Fukushima Japan and antinuke resistance there. Our co-curators, the good and radical folks with Todos Somos Japon, pried open my eyes with the cultural materials that they loaned to our exhibit, the films they showed, and the stories they shared. One particular story has stuck with me. It’s about something called, or translated as, “anti-politics,” in which one doesn’t do something, because one can’t. If one acts, in other words, it would be to acknowledge the terms of a “bargain” one never signed up for. The notion is that to intervene humanely in an inhumane situation is impossible. The example was parents, mostly mothers, and their radiation-sick and radiation-dying children. These mostly moms are already overworked, and now the nuclear disaster has given them more unpaid work — having to not only do the labor of parenting but now having to do the labor of health care. So symbolically at least, the anti-politics here is to refuse to accept the additional work of putting in time to tend to their kids’ new health care woes, given that that sickness/death is a direct result of capitalism’s murderous character. One parent explained, to paraphrase, “I love my child. Of course I will take care of them. At the same time, I didn’t agree to this nuclear world that’s making them sick and/or killing them, and I didn’t agree to take up the caretaking ramifications of it now.” What does a politics of refusal look like under such nightmarish scenarios of a toxic world? Conversely, what would any sort of politics of prefiguration look like? The “shining” example in Japan of something positive seems to be people doing self-monitoring of radiation on land, food, and bodies with their own geiger counters — the self-organization and self-documentation of dying, sickness, and death.
Yes, it’s a whole new anarchic — chaotic, precarious, uncertain, destabilizing, etc. — world, and one filled with all sorts of new anarchic ethics foisted on us by capitalism that are plainly rotten. How to counter them in ways that don’t leave us all alone, adrift from ourselves and each other, unable to do what we love and care about? How to contest them in ways that apply our “timeless” ethics but tweaked and reevaluated in all sorts of ways, so that they are better fit to challenge a whole series of new problematics — many of which are increasingly here to stay for the foreseeable future (assuming we have a foreseeable future, given climate change and less and less of any societal safety nets)? What does anarchism’s ethics look, feel, and sound like — how do we practice them — within this lifeless, anarchic ethics of contemporary capitalism?
I want to be able to write again, or rather, wordsmith, where I have the time, space, and community, along with a retooled ethical compass, in which to really think through and craft my words and ideas . . . not simply blog or do Facebook posts as sorry substitutes in this sorrow-filled world. So yeah, maybe it is capitalism that’s standing in my way, but a much more tenacious and confusing capitalism than simply the one that radicals understood in Marx’s day.
We need to steal our socially embedded selves back, almost as a precondition of being able to imagine a new world. That might just mean rewriting a whole new set of ABCs of anarchism — after trying hard to read the ABCs of anarchic capitalism more clearly as they are playing out in hurricanes, health care, and nuclearity, to cite three instances — in order to have a language and practice capable of letting us engage in just such a necessary reappropriation.
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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Photo by Cindy Milstein, somewhere in Brooklyn)