Molly Crabapple very kindly had me sent a review copy of her and Laurie Penny's book Discordia.
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© 2021 Eleanor Saitta.
It's been an odd day for me. Yesterday, I did my first ever press conference with the Greens/European Freedom Alliance at the European Parliament. Smári McCarthy and I presented one of the two studies we've been working on all summer, “Islands of Resilience”, looking at cloud hosting and Iceland from the frame of resilience and information. Iceland because it's the home of the International Modern Media Institute, a media freedom organization based in Iceland and working to create a new haven for freedom of expression, and cloud hosting because much of the expression that matters these days is online. In this case, though, it's not just about expression, but also about economics. Iceland, in the aftermath of its financial collapse in 2008, did the still (even post-Argentina) unthinkable and let its banks fail, and is now prosecuting government officials and banks alike. Iceland needs an economy not based on the unsustainable aluminum smelters, the now-vanished cod fisheries, or ponzi-scheme banking. Iceland needs resilience, the ability to sustain itself, to deal with and react to crises. Hopefully this will be another small stepping stone on that road.
That, was yesterday. Today I'm spending on planes, fourteen hours in tin cans full of lobbyists, Brussels to Washington D.C. to San Francisco, tracing a line of politics, money, and information. Along the way I've finally finished David Graeber's Debt, which I've been reading in moments snatched between working for months now, and poured through Molly Crabapple and Laurie Penny's soon-to-be-published Discordia. I'm left now watching the sunset we're chasing through a haze of diffuse clouds, slightly jet-lagged and deeply sad and angry.
The exact kind of resilience that we're hoping to see in Iceland and to encourage as a narrative within the Greens is the resilience that Penny and Crabapple document being stripped from the flesh of the people of Athens as austerity and resurgent fascism crush young and old, poor and immigrant. When Graeber talks about human economies, he's speaking of the ability to help each other in kind, to choose neither to extract profit from those you interact with nor even to conceive of your interaction in those terms — to share and trade from a sense of balance and an understanding of mutual shared obligation. A human economy requires social bonds, mutuality. It requires shared social contexts. Not necessarily shared culture — human economy can reach across the bounds of background and upbringing — but only when the cultural scripts for that interaction support mutual humanity. The story of Debt is the story of the systematic destruction of those human economies and those bonds, and the scenes in Discordia are just the next chapter.
There's a telling moment in Discordia when a journalist and an activist, both Greek and aligned with the left movements, are talking about the infighting within the left versus the social actions of the Greek fascist party the Golden Dawn. They, we hear, “worked a lot with the neighborhoods, they were really programmatic, really practical.” We hear about food distribution programs, and what in another context we might call community policing (but which here is rather terrorism and vigilantism). This is exactly a form of social resilience, but within a framework that warps it, exacts a human and political toll, an adherence to ideology as a precondition for the bare necessities of life in exactly the way that a human economy doesn't.
In the same manner that the Golden Dawn's intent poisons the food they pass out for people to eat, Graeber describes how debt has been used to break down the kind of social resilience that used to be present in human economies. In some cases, this has been an intentional policy on the part of those who hold the debt, to ensure their debtors were more fully in their grasp, but just as often it's simply been the logic of the debt itself driving change. This should not be taken as a paean to a historical golden age; he describes just as clearly the kinds of social control that were used to subjugate women and to replicate the social hierarchies that often accompanied historical human economies. We would not want to turn back the clock, and we cannot, no more than we can make the cod and the bankers reappear in Iceland overnight or replay 2005 in Greece tomorrow (only this time without the big men and the corruption).
Instead, we must find new models, new ways to live with each other that let us all truly live as humans, through both economic rebalancing and contraction and in the face of ecological shifts and lifestyle changes. We cannot live along the way as perfect automatons of austerity — our children are only young once, our friends grow old too soon, and the beauty of the world around us will not wait. We may live simply, but we must also live well.
Living well, the meaning of the time Crabapple and Penny spent in Greece in between their interviews and work, comes through clearly in the art Crabapple did for the book. As she says in her afterword, “it's unconventional for an artist to go see history in person.” While the feel of the streets, the police, the graffiti, the things that are iconic of this modern Greece shine in her work, the texture of the way the people they spend time with live and love pours out in equal measure. This then, the texture and the richness of the experience, is the value of an artist seeing history, what words alone struggle to convey.
John Berger, of all the writers I've read, comes as close to sharing that same texture of lives, especially in small moments and when those lives exist in the context of real politics in conflict with the state. There is a quietude, a humanity that he describes in books like From A to X, an epistolary of letters between a woman and her imprisoned revolutionary husband, which tears at the heart in its specificity. The slow care and the feel of lives given time to root deeply is as disrupted by hypermodernity as is the mutual aid of human economies. It's part of what I love about the old quarters of Brussels, time spent around a square with red wine and beer, arguing with other activists about politics, old friends and lovers. It's much of why I keep coming back to London, despite the oppressiveness of the surveillance city, because I miss drinking tea and cider around the big kitchen table of a north London warehouse with friends.
When faced with the fallout of '68, Berger retreated not to the university but to the mountains, to a peasant village in Switzerland where he learned how to live again, starting over and learning an older set of ways. This wasn't a utopian withdrawal, but rather a retreat in the tactical sense. Critically, what he looked for and found was a balance between his life in the village and his work as a public intellectual and a writer, a continuing liminal interconnection protected by mutual illegibility.
I'm a nomad and I spend my life online and bouncing between cities, working as I go and mostly trying to fight the good fight, sharing space on the kindness of many dear friends. Finding the balance between the post-locative network and the immediate of so many places is a work in progress. My fellow travelers and I, and all of our networks of friends, are feeling out new ways of being nomadic within the network and in the cracks of neoliberalism. Much of this isn't new (and it would be hubris to declare otherwise), but that sense of what Berger was looking for, of what Crabapple drew and Penny and Graeber talked about as human, is an essential and neglected part of what could otherwise be called a cypherpunk lifestyle.
The event I'm spending all of this time in non-space for is Arse Elektronika, an annual conference on and festival of sex and technology where I speak most years. This is in many ways fitting, as sex, sensuality, and the socioeconomic politics of gender form a significant thread through all three books, albeit in different ways. Penny talks at some length about both her and Crabapple's experiences as serious, working women in fields that would really prefer their women purely ornamental. Graeber's story, similarly, cannot be told without talking at length about the ways that social control is and has been applied to women (and he could still speak more about the ways that debt is gendered in modern society).
One of the refreshing things about both Arse Elektronika and the work that Penny and Crabapple do both in this book and elsewhere is that it doesn't shy away from either the political in sex or the sexual in politics. As a friend in the London left remarked this summer, progressive and left-radical politics, partially out of (justified and necessary) desire to avoid the problematic issues of harassment and worse within organizing groups, have become very much desexualized. Sadly, this hasn't stopped assaults and harassment from happening, nor even provided their victims with the support they deserve or their perpetrators with any consistent and meaningful censure. What has happened, however, is a broad retreat from the sensual in many forms, not just those that are sexual. Reclaiming this territory is part and parcel of reclaiming the broad humanity of life.
When we speak about resilience, we necessarily talk about sustainability. Any meaningfully long-term resilience must first be sustainable. We're also talking about coordination and communication and the ability of systems to adapt, to bend instead of breaking, to shift into new forms. All of this requires the free flow of information, whether that's conversations and citizen media online, open data on the actions of governments and corporations, or traditional professional work. The core of resilience is human, social resilience — communities, regardless of whether they're online, offline, or both. Those communities, to be truly living entities, need the slowness of the mountains as the counterweight for the rapid shifts of the coming century, even if they're nomadic diasporas, and they need the sensual, the texture of live and shared experience.
John Berger's book From A to X: A
Story in Letters was published in 2008 by Verso.
David Graeber's book Debt: The First 5,000 Years was published in 2011 by Melville House.
Molly Crabapple and Laurie Penny's book Discordia will be published in ebook form on Monday, October 1st, by Random House UK. It can be preordered from Google Play and Amazon.
Somewhere between Brussels and San Francisco