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Beyond Survival

Some Thoughts on Giving our Projects and the Enjoyment of our Lives Priority

The search for joy is therefore an act of will, a firm refusal of the fixed conditions of capital and its values.—Alfredo M. Bonanno

Over the past few years, I have noticed that it has been becoming trickier to live my life and carry out my projects in the way that I desire while also managing to take care of my basic needs. And among my friends, I am one of the luckier ones. When I am strapped, I know that it will only last till the first of the next month. In fact, most of the people I know are struggling to get by, to pay the rent and bills, to take care of basic needs and have a bit of fun in the process.

This is no surprise. We all know that we live in a capitalist society, and in our daily lives the essence of that society manifests in the opposition between survival and the fullness of life. The process of alienation by which capitalism is maintained transforms the methods by which we meet our needs into tedious tasks stealing our lives away from us (or at best, as in my case, isolated scams that skim the excess off the state without in any way threatening it). In recent times, transformations in the functioning of capitalist social relationships along with a real deterioration in the economy have made precariousness the common experience of most of the exploited. Including ourselves. This has led to a situation in which a number of creative, intelligent people are being forced to eat away their time in search of the means to survive.

My own experience and the often even more nerve-racking experience of a number of close friends and comrades has been causing me to think a great deal about the need to develop ways of giving our lives in their potential fullness and our projects of revolt and enjoyment priority over survival. In other words, I’ve been asking myself, how do I and those with whom I share ideas, desires, life and enjoyment turn survival into a mere tool for creating our lives on our terms – obviously against the very logic of capitalism.

In confronting this question, for the most part, anarchists have continued to operate on a fragmented, atomized level. Scams, school, temporary jobs and so on are the ways we deal with survival. To some extent this is inevitable. We do live in this world, even if we also try to live against it. And the specific aspects of what we do to survive are less important than whether questions of survival continue to dominate our existence at the expense of enjoyment, revolt and the fullness of our lives and projects. And this is where I feel we need to make a serious effort to get beyond atomization and the fragmented ways of encountering life that this society imposes. I think it is worthwhile to look at experiences of people who have confronted this, whether from a specific revolutionary understanding or simply from a lust for life.

North Beach, 1960

In the introduction to Dancing in the Streets, Franklin Rosemont describes his experience in the bohemian culture of North Beach, San Francisco in 1960:

Life in North Beach was the closest thing to marvelous anarchy it has ever been my pleasure to enjoy. Despite battles with landlords, harassment by tourists, and mounting police terror, the Beats and their allies – old time hoboes, jazz musicians, oyster pirates, prostitutes, drug addicts, winos, homosexuals, bums and other outcasts – maintained a vital community based on mutual aid, and in which being different was an asset rather than a liability. In this community made up of people of many different races and nationalities, the practice of equality and solidarity was second nature. Almost everyone was poor, but no one went hungry, and newcomers had no trouble finding places to stay. In North Beach, 1960, what mattered most was poetry, freedom, creativity and having a good time.”

This brief description expresses more the general feeling Franklin Rosemont had of his experience living North Beach at that time than how this reality worked itself out practically. But those of us who have experienced similar situations can imagine such details, and I feel that Rosemont’s evocative description brings out some significant points. In particular, the last sentence stands out: “In North Beach, 1960, what mattered most was poetry, freedom, creativity and having a good time.” In other words, among the people Rosemont hung out with in North Beach, their creative projects and the enjoyment of their lives were their active priorities, and so they simply did what was necessary to live these priorities, acting together to guarantee that the ground on which to build their creative projects would be there. In this case, most of the people involved were not revolutionaries or anarchists, but simply individuals who had no interest in fitting into the normal grind of existence in this society.

Os Cangaceiros

All anarchists are familiar with the uprising that happened in France in 1968. One of the slogans that reflected the most radical elements of this revolt was “Never work, ever!”, and there were many who took this slogan to heart in the creation of their lives after the uprising was suppressed. One group is particularly outstanding in that their choices reflect a clear awareness that work wasn’t simply productive activity or the “job”, but rather was an entire system of social relationships. Thus, the refusal of work couldn’t simply mean work avoidance or the reduction of work to the bare minimum. It meant creating life in a different manner and attacking the system of social relationships that is work. This group, which came together in Nice in 1968, was made up of “delinquents” already familiar with the world of crime who discovered a revolutionary perspective in the days of insurgence in France. When they first came together to share their capacities and resources for creating life on their own terms, they called themselves the Gravediggers of the Old World. This informal group of comrades traveled first around southern France, making connections taking part in struggles and doing what was necessary to provide the basis for their lives. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s they traveled throughout Europe, participating in revolts, including those in Italy in the mid to late 1970s, in Poland in 1980, in England, France and Belgium in the early 1980s. A statement they made in 1980 indicates the spirit they brought to their revolt:

If we loot banks, it is because we have recognized money as the central cause of all our unhappiness. If we smash windows, it’s not because life is dear, but because commodities prevent us from living at all costs. If we break machines, it is not because of a wish to protect work, but to attack wage slavery. If we attack the police bastards, it’s not to get them out of our faculties, but to get them out of our lives. The spectacle wanted to make us appear dreadful. We intend to be much worse.”

In pursuit of their ongoing project of revolt and the full enjoyment and experience of life, they used whatever means gave them greatest control over their own lives, means that were often illegal. They refused any sort of meagerness or pseudo-revolutionary asceticism, squatting, for example, in luxury buildings which they armored well against the police. Being of the underclass, they were able to easily develop networks of support that went beyond the limits of any radical connections they had. Their way of living inevitably brought them into conflict with the law and in time started to focus a greater amount of their energy into attacks against the judicial and prison systems. This was about the mid-1980s. At this point they began to call themselves Os Cangaceiros (after a group of mystical outlaw insurgents who were active in Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century). They were active at this time in prison revolts, sabotage of prison construction, disruption of judicial activity, escapes and so on. Around 1990, they stole plans for the construction of new, advanced technology prisons, made thousands and thousands of copies of these plans and mailed them with analyses of the prison society to thousands of people. Unlike the previous example, these are people with a conscious revolutionary perspective, developed in the course of an uprising, who decided to go on living that perspective. This decision, rigorously embraced, moved them to discover the means for living their revolt, their projects and their pleasures on their own terms, defying the alienation imposed by capital.

My Experience in the Early 1990s

From the time I first encountered anarchist and revolutionary ideas, it was clear to me that they couldn’t simply be words tossed from one’s mouth into the air. They had to affect how one lived. Thus, my decision to embrace such ideas was a decision to wrestle with how I would live. At this point, I have been wrestling with this for more than twenty-seven years. At various times, I have found others with whom to share this ongoing battle to create my life on my terms. What we created, how consciously we created it and how far it went in expressing our desires and dreams varied, but at no time did I simply give up my pursuit of a life of revolt and joy. Perhaps the most outstanding period of my life happened in the early 1990s here in Portland. In certain ways, what I experienced with specific friends and the networks we developed is reminiscent of Rosemont’s description of North Beach in 1960. I moved to Portland at the end of 1991, where I met several people who were to be my closest companions and accomplices for the next few years, and a few of whom remain among my best friends to this day. While each of us had various ways of bringing in the money that we needed to get by, this aspect of our lives was always kept subordinate to our enjoyment, our revolt and our projects. Not everyone among our little group of friends was an anarchist, but everyone, at least for the time, had an irrepressible lust for life that couldn’t help but express itself in rebellious way in this society. Our life together involved endless adventures: theft, travels, small attacks against various manifestations of the world we hated, public playful disruptions of daily life. I remember one May Day in which we wandered around downtown Portland through the business district playing improvised noise on various instruments, handing out flyers inviting people to come join us for an afternoon picnic rather than going back to work. We had stolen a fairly good supply of food and together. Also these activities, a short-lived anarchist coffeehouse that we did in our house and our constant posting of poetic messages of revolt on telephone poles and other places helped us develop a network of connections that kept a fairly decent flow of all the material pleasures of life available. This network, which extended far outside specifically anarchist milieus, provided a good bit of the material basis for how we chose to live. If in North Beach, “what mattered most was poetry, freedom, creativity and having a good time”, for us it was rebellion, poetic living, creativity and having a good time. If some of us had a revolutionary perspective that was lacking in the North Beach scene Rosemont describes, at the same time we certainly did not have the clarity about our life projects that Os Cangaceiros had. We had amazing utopian dreams, but did not really conceive of our lives as totalities for us to create against the totality of this society. Our visions lacked projectuality except in the broadest sense (and that only among the few of us who were anarchist), and this limited the extent of our projects. Nonetheless, at this time in my life I experienced in Portland something similar to what Rosemont experienced in North Beach, a kind of semi-conscious utopian practice against this world which made life a delight and created some of my closest friendships.beer – quite a bit more than we ourselves needed. We had a delightful time and received quite a positive response (from smiles to “thumbs-up” gestures to encouraging comments), but I don’t recall anyone else quite having the courage to take the afternoon off and join our picnic. Still we had a delightful time, and this event is reflective of the sort of life we chose to live

And Us? Here? Now?

What do these examples have to say to us? Certainly, there is no use in trying to imitate any of these examples. Our times, our circumstances, our needs and our capacities are our own. But there are specific lessons that can be drawn from these examples. First and foremost, in each of these instances, those involved chose to put their projects and the enjoyment of their lives before survival, rejecting the blackmail that capitalism imposes. This transforms the means used for acquiring basic necessities into nothing more than tools for constructing our lives and projects. This is the practical meaning of a reversal of perspective with regards to this world. In order to achieve the capacity to do this, in each instance people acted together developing networks of mutual aid and complicity. Of course, the North Beach scene, based mostly on a fairly loose bohemian affinity, faded as the Beat scene disintegrated and many of those involved moved into the mainstream in different ways. The situation that I lived in Portland also eventually disintegrated as some friends chose to drop into a more mainstream existence and the rest of us started exploring different ways toward our shared dreams of anarchy and the fullness of life. Although the last I heard of Os Cangaceiros was in the early 1990s, it is possible that they are still living on these same terms – after all, they had been living this way, on their own terms, for over twenty years. Certainly there are other individuals in Europe who have come together for much the same purpose, continuing to develop their ways of living against the ruling order. I think that what distinguishes Os Cangaceiros from the other situations is that they clearly recognized what they opposed as a totality of intertwining social relationships that had to be practically fought in its completeness and also clearly perceived their own lives as total projects to create in conscious rebellion against this world for the sheer joy and adventure of doing so.

And I think it is this perception of life not as a series of random, disconnected moments, but as a totality to be created on our own terms that provides the basis for turning the blackmail of this society on its head and subjugating survival to the fullness of life and revolt. Of course, we will be doing this in a context that on the global and the everyday life scale absolutely opposes this. But this only means we need to have that much more resoluteness in our decision to carry on this project. Here is where a conscious choice to act with specific others can be of great significance. With others whose aspirations, dreams and desires correspond with ours, possibilities expand exponentially. But only if we actually talk with each other about our dreams, our desires, our needs, the tools and skills we have to share, the projects we are trying to create. We are all aware that when we have a small project to do – say cooking a meal or building a cabin – it is necessary to consider the details of what we want to accomplish, figure out the tools and methods necessary to accomplish it, figure out the various hindrances that stand in our way and how to go about eradicating them. The same idea applies to the project of creating our lives as an unfragmented, total project against this society. And so, if we have some affinity in terms of our broader conceptions of a life free from the state and capital, in terms of our dreams and desires for self-created existence and in terms of the necessity for destroying the social reality that stands in the way of this, we need to talk about these dreams and desires, about the specific ideas for projects of revolt and enjoyment we have, about the tools and capabilities we have to share and teach other, about ways to develop informal networks of mutual aid so that no one among us is ever really forced to place survival above their projects or lives.

I know that these are particularly tough times for such defiance, that a number of us are just scraping by. But we are smart, strong, defiant individuals capable of great dreams and great enmity toward that which tries to steal our dreams. This is something we all have to remember. A habit has developed in anarchist circles of thinking of ourselves as weak, as damaged, as hurt. I think this stems from bringing too much of the language of disease, therapy and healing into our social analysis – but that is a question that would need to be gone into more thoroughly elsewhere. The point I want to make here is that we need to start from the assumption that we can accomplish the things we desire, from the smallest projects to the ultimate destruction of the social order we hate and the creation of our lives on our own terms. Starting from this assumption, we need to begin to assess the specific problems we face with the aim of overcoming them – recognizing that as long as this society continues to exist this will be an ongoing project.

So let’s discuss our dreams and our rebellious aspirations not on a purely abstract level, but in terms of how we can develop relationships of practical affinity, complicity and concrete solidarity in the project of creating total lives of revolt here and now. Those of us who are feeling the crunch of survival in particularly hard ways can share their dreams and their needs, and among us, we should be able to figure out ways to open possibilities for getting beyond this without falling into the usual limited atomized solutions.

If we remember that work is not simply the job but precisely the system of social relationships that forces us to give survival priority over life, joy, revolt and creativity, then it becomes clear that this reversal of perspective is a necessary basis for our revolt. The effort put into avoiding work without having an ongoing project of creating one’s life as a whole itself stinks of work – here too survival still has priority. But if we have a clear life project and the specific means we use to get money and other necessities imposed by this society are only temporary tools for moving that life project forward. This already breaks down the logic of survival and work even if sometimes these specific means are jobs. But such a project is built precisely out of our relationships with the world and with each other. The individuals in the situations described above were able to place their enjoyment, their lives and their projects above survival, because they made the decision to create their lives together on their own terms, and rejecting the fragmentation imposed by capitalism, this included figuring out how to meet basic needs together without being dominated by survival. We have a lot to offer each other. Let’s figure it out and find the ways to defy this blackmail together.

A Few Questions to Consider

How does each of us conceive of our lives? How do we want to live both on grand social terms and in our immediate lives? Where do our various visions coincide? Where do they differ? Where can they enhance each other? Where do they actually conflict?

How do we perceive revolution? Insurrection? Subversion? Destruction of the ruling order? Where do these ideas coincide and differ? Where can they enhance each other and where do they conflict?

What great and small projects do we imagine? What ones are we actually doing now? How can these intertwine? What tools, knowledge and capacities do we have to share to enhance these projects and better interweave them in mutuality?

What stands in the way, on an immediately daily life level, of creating our lives on our own terms, of accomplishing our projects? In other words, where does the blackmail of survival have us by the throats? What ideas do we have for overcoming this? What knowledge, skills or means might some of us have to share for overcoming this?

We need to consider that creating life on one’s own terms requires having the space and time for doing so, and capital does tend to dominate all space and time. So we need to ask as well, how do we take the space and time we need to carry out these projects of creating our lives on our terms and destroying the social order that stands in our way? How do we give priority to grasping whatever space and time we can for this purpose? What spaces and moments do we currently have access to and how can we expand them? How can we steal those spaces and times that survival in this society imposes on us and use for our own purposes, against this society?

I don't pretend to have answers, but this is a project i want to pursue, I game I want to play, because in any case my life is at stake, so I might as well try to wager it on my own terms. My hope is that others feel the same and that we can begin to explore what this means together.

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