Tag: walkaway

On Writing Optimistic Disasters

A year and a half ago I saw Cory Doctrow at Powells talking about his new book, Walkaway. Since then he’s been doing the podcasts and radio shows talking about the book, but more so, talking as he usually does, about the socioeconomic and technological conditions behind the story. I just listened to his interview with the German radio show, Netzpolitik (Cory’s blog post on it here, where you can follow the link to the show or the MP3 to download… you can also listen to it in your podcatcher program if you follow Cory’s podcasts).

I really encourage you to listen to at least the first 15 minutes. Cory was one of the first influences on me as I was outgrowing libertarianism some years ago, moving toward anarcho-syndaclism. In this interview, he discusses how it will become necessary to build flat, hierarchy-less organizations to get things done. But most significantly, he talks about how the libertarian ideas that fuel so much of distopian fiction, of “I got mine, now get away from my bunker!” is neither what generally happens in disasters, nor should it be how we think about dealing with disaster.

Catrastrophe WILL happen, whether it’s natural or man-made, that’s a given. Whether “small-scale” or large. But actual experience shows that we humans are communal, cooperative species. We will and do come together by and large to help each other. What individualist looting and shooting and stealing happens is usually on the fringes and are exceptions to the rule. But even so, we can influence how we think of disaster and recovery by the narratives we create. If all our narratives are of distopia where we bunker into our shelters with our guns and wait for the neighbors to come by to steal what we have, we create that kind of reality around us. But if we plan for and expect when disaster happens that the neighbors come to help and rebuild together, that’s the “fail safe” we create.

In the libertarian view of storing your own supplies and guns for the innevitable crash, what you get are individual kings of their tiny hills, but that lasts only so long as the food and ammo hold out. You don’t get society and all the developments that come from it for not just survival, but thriving — clean water sources, ample food supply, medical care and sanitation, electrical power etc. If you want to and can live in a cabin by a stream to survive on your own, fine. (Until your water source is contaminated or your broken leg goes septic.) But if you want to have clean, safe resources and technology, you’re going to need to rely on community and cooperation. And by and large, historically, we actually do as a people.

He references the book Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit which looks at examples of human cooperation and communal effort to repair and rebuild after actual disaster. I’m reminded of Negri and Hardt’s book Multitude which remains my inspiration and reminder that the coming revolution may not need to be violent (for the first time in history), and may be technological and networked and crowdsourced.

Related to that, I like how he talks about the failure of “scientific history,” of the failure of vulgar or classical Marxism (and I’m a Marxist), to believe it can predict the future based on the past. How what we need to embrace is dynamic, ever-changing conditions and adaptability. Instead of relying on long-term planning and A-to-Z (he says “zed,” I love Canadians), we need to get good at heuristic creation that allows us to develop in ever-adaptable and improvising steps using networks and flat, cooperative hierarchy.

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Walkaway and being rich

Early in my conversion to Marxist ideology, I would have “but what about…” discussions with the professor who guided me there. There was this one conversation we had where he had mentioned something about how the rich were always part of the problem, the capitalists. And I asked, well, what about rich philanthropists like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, who give millions to various charities and funds?

And Dr. Burling started to tell me about how that’s part of the problem as well, that that simply contributes to the wealth inequality and perpetuates the status quo . . . and wasn’t able to really explain before we got interrupted. We never did get back to that specific topic before he died, and while I could extrapolate an explanation from everything else I’ve learned from Marxist criticism, I’ve not seen much direct discussion on the exact issue.

Then, the other day, I read a passage in the new Cory Doctorow book, Walkaway. (See my last post, on seeing him talk recently) :

“What about being being richer than Scrooge McDuck and staging a Communist party?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“It’s not like you need to–”

“But I can. Remember, it’s not just ‘to each according to her need,’ it’s ‘from each according to her ability.’ I know how to find factories that are perfect for direct action. I know how to get into them. I know how to pwnify their machines. I know how to throw a hell of a party. I have all this unearned, undeserved privilege. Apart from killing myself as an enemy of the human species, can you think of anything better for me to do with it?”

“You could give money to–”

She froze him with a look. “Haven’t you figured it out? Giving money away doesn’t solve anything. Asking the zottarich to redeem themselves by giving money away acknowledges that they deserve it all, should be in charge of deciding where it goes. It’s pretending that you can get rich without being a bandit. Letting them decide what gets funded declares that the planet to be a giant corporation that the major shareholders get to direct. It says that government is just middle-management, hired or fired on the whim of the directors.”

I’m barely started in on the novel, but I know that much of the novel revolves around using the wealth of resources, knowledge, infrastructure, technology to step out of the current system: the wealth and money, the institutions and processes that justify the wealth inequality and exploitation, and creating a “utopian” society that isn’t perfect, but is just prepared for anything that can come, and can provide needs and wants better without wealth and scarcity markets.

So far, this novel feels a lot like the best of William Gibson during his post-cyberpunk stage of cultural criticism in his “Bridge trilogy,” except, with characters a little bit more relatable.

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Walking Away With Cory Doctorow

Cory on the right

Last week I saw Cory Doctorow, for my second time, at Powell’s City of Books. The first time was just about a month or two after moving to Oregon, not quite three years ago. (I write a bit about it in the blogpost Best Week Evar! On that tour, he was promoting his non-fiction work Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free.) This time, he’s touring his new adult fiction novel Walkaway. It’s a … well, he accepts that it’s a “utopian” novel. (And that sentence should prompt paragraphs of discussion because of everything “utopian novel” implied and leaves out. And I swear to god I wish I’d taken Professor Burling’s class on distopian/utopian fiction. In other classes I recall him discussing utopian fiction is usually ironic or is in opposition to the implied dis- or anti-utopian world that the work either is a reaction to or implies.)

I’ve not yet read far into Walkaway, but from what I gather at the talk, the book features a culture of people who have, in the near-future, walked away from the postmodern capitalist world. Have, instead of fought against the hegemony and the cultural logic, done the most efficient and effective thing and disengaged from it entirely to create a society that uses gift economy.

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