Specialists survive now. But we have, none of us, have a profession. That's why we aren't happy. Like being sober around drunks—its a curse. To walk out or to get drunk?
[This pamphlet was written during a spat of unemployment way back at the beginning of the Obama era. It was printed and published by the good folks at Microcosm Press. I never put it up online for whatever reason, probably thinking at the time that it was cool for obscure print objects to exist out in the world with no corresponding online version. Here it is now. Print copies are available from Microcosm here.]
There’s nothing quite like the nagging doubt that accompanies a period of unemployment. That horrible, slow-dawning realization that you won’t actually do all the cool things you said you would do when you finally got some free time. Instead of painting with watercolors or finally getting around to going to the museum, you sit in your room depressed, unable to give up judging yourself against society’s standards—LOSER! The voices of a million movies and television shows all seem to shout. Shifty-eyed looks from people come off as critical, as if to silently say, “Well if you aren’t working, what could you possibly be doing?” to which the answer might be, “Well, a lot”, but it’s hard to encapsulate the details—what to say? I ate, slept, shat and breathed like everyone else? I did some writing and then wandered the streets like a golem, animated to life by the search for a bathroom or a place to get some free food? Unemployment inevitably leads to a harrowing kind of self-questioning of your social worth and intrinsic value. The guilt and ultimate freedom of not working while everyone else does becomes unbearable, causing you to ramble on unnecessarily in an effort to explain what exactly it is you’ve been up to.
You begin to see the routinized lives of others through a foggy window, growing strange and Hunchback-like in your exile. “So safe! So secure!” you rasp as you shamble past their suburban front yards late at night, shaking your fists at their well lit, warm windows. The machinations of society grind on unhaltingly, abuzz with activity. The world has moved on by the time you drag yourself out of bed to eat a soggy bowl of Corn Flakes. It is this purgatorial, in-between place of not being able to stomach the humiliating process of finding another job but not really knowing what else to do that the unemployed find themselves trapped. The anxiety of not having a means to survive begins to devour all your time and energy, steadily creeping up as an obsession. You scheme and brood endlessly on new ways to make money, your efforts yielding no palpable results—the ideas contrived in the throes of financial necessity come off like propped-up cardboard, somehow tainted by the overreach. After all the scheming, you wake up one day to find yourself not only without a job but also four months in the hole with nothing to show for it—no beautiful, authentic painting, no onerous novel to justify the time. The days shuffle forward as you anxiously wait for some Human Resources person to phone and provide you a reason to live. Instead of waking up early and working diligently without regard for fads or social trends as you know you should, you leap out of bed and jump to the computer to see if anyone has responded to your desperate inquiries for employment. After seeing that they haven’t and momentarily fretting over your empty, spam-filled inbox, you spend the first four hours of the day firing off your resume like mortar into drain-like email addresses where it will almost certainly never be read. By the time you’ve consecrated this ritualized dehumanization, you’re no longer up for doing any work, and have inevitably been siphoned into multiple Gchat conversations with your friends—You should have hit ‘invisible’, Goddammit! Don’t they understand you’re trying to work? You’re hit with another Battleship-sinking realization, you unemployed dolt—they’re the ones at work, the ones sitting in cubicles and getting paid for it while you sit in your room and do it for free, postponing all efforts to make something of your life. This stresses you out so much that by early afternoon, dull and empty-headed, the day spreading out before you like an empty plain, why not start drinking? The morning has been so exhausting already you can no longer abide by your rule of not starting until after dark. This is the vicious paradox of joblessness—if you’re not in school and not working its generally assumed you’re up to no good. You can’t get a job without having a job or lying about having had a job and the curve is steep in working up the motivation to get something done without someone first giving you something to do.
It’s not just the material certainty that a job provides–the benefits, the means to continue paying for rent, bills, and a comfortable lifestyle. It’s also about the vital sense of stability that comes from serving a dedicated social function and having a regular schedule imposed on the otherwise looping and indistinguishable days. The production process has been streamlined, leaving us an infinite option of kinds of specialized workers we can be. We are all reaching to become something now—dilettantism has been routed as foppish and shameful. And yet, we flit about from one thing to another, becoming really good at nothing, left with a dispersed body of trivial knowledge that would make us great on a TV game show, but leaves us totally helpless when it comes to experiential skills. ‘Pick the thing you want to do’, they say! Once you’ve found it, allow the intoxicating feeling of trying to become a leader in your field will propel you forward. Unemployed, I am unable to immure my life with the most basic structure. Although I’ve always thought of myself as a ‘motivated self-starter’, most mornings I lie in bed wondering, ‘What’s the point?’ too existentially charred to get up and walk to the yoga class down the block. All the great plans and projects that I have unlimited time to undertake and empty days for are never started. The sense of being separated from society is at root—being alone while the rest are at work feels in some ways like being sent to detention back in school. The first couple of days of exile in the detention trailer carving ‘FUCK’ into your desk is pretty awesome, but the novelty quickly subsides, leaving the delinquent with a sense of horror at having been isolated from their fellow students. But is this the way unemployment has to be? Prolonged isolation, droning anxiety and purgatorial days spent lying around, wishing for someone to come and tell you what to do? I think about the laid-off Commodities trader I met in a medical study I did just after the economy tanked. I addressed him with all the empathy one would usually extent toward someone who’s just seen their career laid to waste.
“I’m sorry to hear you lost your job,” I said.
“Don’t be,” he chuckled, “I hated that job anyway—it was so cutthroat. All those Wall Street guys were assholes. Now I’ve started my own landscaping and exotic plants business, and do these medical studies on the side. It’s great—I just work outside and play in the garden all day.” Right now, over 7 percent of America is unemployed, and according to the cover story of today’s New York Times, that number is rising steadily, with companies announcing major layoffs every other day. The corpulent and cash-bloated 90s that spawned a zine and punk rock renaissance are officially over. Good–we can get back to working in secret, gaunt and mean, with no infusion of money or recognition to muck things up. My sympathies are not with the apocalypse-cheerleaders, but with the families who didn’t know this was going to happen and don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent, the people watching their retirement get wiped out after a life of servitude. We can’t help but stand in awe of our own destruction at the hand of this mysterious new Great Depression, like a pestilent wind cutting through our decadence like soft butter–where did it come from? Where will it end? The condos and subdivisions have been repossessed and sit empty, all construction grinding to a standstill. Development has halted. Unemployed of the world—we’re all sitting at home watching DVDs —Why not come together and try to do something cool?
While uninspired, despair-filled unemployment totally sucks, on the deathbed, when you watch the retrospective montage of your life and have to face the question, ‘Was it worth it?’ it is probably preferable to the years-consuming forgetfulness of a long-term job. Without a job to daily provide you instant credibility, instant raison d'être, each day requires the remaking of your own reality. Dreams become not just something to forget as you’re getting dressed, but a major determinate in your thought process and mental state. You discover that you can lift yourself up from the quagmire of self-pity with positive reinforcement—Hey, you’re really good at this Sudoko game–and my, do you look handsome today! After a while you begin to realize that you can shape all the days by your attitude toward them. Something is only totally awesome as you think it is, if you fill it with enough of that invisible ether of enthusiasm that makes kisses feel tingly and makes certain bands really good. Things start to look like a wide-open vista of possibility—you can decide what time you get up, how much work you get done, and whether you stay in and mope all day or get out and ride the bus, drink coffee and explore. Life can be a prison sentence or an endless pleasure, depending on you. Unemployment presses you down to the metal of day-to-day existence, where you have the time to contemplate the big ethical questions that will later, in the heat of the moment, be put to the test. As an allegorical example, take the plot of the Spider-Man comic book—what if Peter Parker, with his newfound spider-like super powers, had never chosen to don the suit and mask, but instead had just focused on the freelance photo work that made up his mundane reality at the Daily Bugle? Parker was ambitious and talented—he was getting along just fine. But once bit by that irradiated spider, Parker chose to become the Spider-Man, rolling with the punches and abandoning his old dreams. Becoming a Spider-Man is obviously the kind of incident, like getting trampled by a horse or becoming sick that by its nature reshapes your concept of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ as they are narrowly defined in the blighted American present. So the curse became a blessing. Peter Parker was taken out of the marathon that everyone is running towards that nebulous something—career, happiness, success, the next cool town; and put on track to his destiny.
In donning the Spidey mask, and accepting his eternal duty, Parker voluntarily entered into a world of pain that would essentially ruin all his future relationships and happiness. But like Cliff Burton, whose fate was described in the Metallica song “Shortest Straw,” his destiny was predetermined. The Bugle wasn’t a bad gig—if he would have forgotten the whole Spider-Man thing and just focused, he probably would have gotten his stuff out there and become a name in the pecking order. But you can’t really ignore your destiny—a shunted sense of responsibility would have nagged him over the years, causing him to fail at all his other endeavors, like some kind of universal self-correcting mechanism. Luckily for comic history, Parker made the decision to dive off the bridge and fulfill his Nietzschian potential. Instead of just documenting the news, he started making headlines, snapping photos of his own work to make ends meet and bolster his alter ego’s renown. Instead of just being a spectator, he became a participant. He blazed a new path in fire, his invention borne of necessity and ingenuity. Spider-Man was a superhero because he gave up the selfish pursuit of his own happiness and normality to labor for the good of the entire human family. There is a myth of the perfectly balanced creative life, the fever dream of commercial success, intellect, family and friends, equally distributed—work time and play time equally balanced. But when you lean in heavily on one, the other parts of life inevitably suffer. This explains how many great writers have had a very difficult time ‘living’ at the same time. Some arts and pursuits are conjoined with life (the performance artist, the musician) but many are solitary endeavors in direct conflict with happiness, stability, and love. And let’s face it: touchingthe bottom has historically had some pretty serious consequences. The madness, failure, loneliness and xenophobia are well documented. Do you think Tolstoy put away his tome-like War and Peace at the end of the day, and could go out to dinner at Golden Corral? Would Nietzsche have been all right and laughed it off at the bar if someone had just given him a prescription of Paxil? The Puritans were right–work is its own reward. But work, like happiness, or travel, or gainful employment—isn’t enough to save us. There’s something at the root of the days that has no name. Time plows by violently, and soon enough it becomes unavoidably evident that every moment was a choice.
Zane and I wander the city spending time as if it were an infinite resource, making poor choices. We consume distractions hungrily, trying to fill the void—movies, cheap food, art openings, drinks, blowing our money so we will be forced to get jobs quicker. Zane seems a little more settled into his life and manages to find a Zen acceptance of his current unemployed scenario, seeing it as a fleeting blessing.
“You just gotta be happy unemployed,” he smiles, “Man, I’m gonna have you read this pamphlet these squatters wrote about it—Happy Unemployed. Look, I’ll pull it up for you.”
He finds a digitized version of the pamphlet on the Internet but I can only read a couple of lines before my vision blurs and I can no longer bear any life advice from these cheery German squatters, whose self-help advice emanates from some welfare-state parasite utopia. The pamphlet seems to serve the same purpose as Xanax, helping the anxiety-ridden reader lean back into life and accept their fate. But unlike Zane and the squatters, I just can’t be with it–I squirm unhappily without a job, desperately scanning the day for something that seems to be missing, browsing Craigslist job postings in hopes of stumbling upon a new set of chains. I panic upon waking to find no routine waiting for me, beckoning me out from bed. My mornings start off defiantly trying to ignore this fact—I get up early for no reason and lunge at the coffee maker, immediately needing a fix to continue wanting to be alive and not to crawl back into the bedtomb. Drinking coffee only serves to intensify the panic so that I can’t eat breakfast or hang around the apartment. I step out onto the icy sidewalk and stroll through the outer reaches of my neighborhood, wearing holes in the concrete. Hey, it’s not so bad. The sun in shining—I’m unemployed! My heart races—Why now, with the coffee, I don’t even want to die, but want to live! I dance down the sparkling streets of Brooklyn, paved in dreams, and lift my coffee mug, shouting the lyrics to Black Flag’s “Bastard in Love”:
You! Keep waiting for the love that you wanna feel! But you never believe it! My love is real! My love is real! My love is real!
The grizzled-looking guys at the flat-fix places and mechanic shops turn and stare. Having recently learned that Larry Livermore, founder of Lookout Records, lives somewhere along the route of my epic morning walk, I begin to harbor vain hopes that one morning he will be out on his front stoop getting the paper and will hear my clarion call, joining me in a chorus that would imbue my otherwise uneventful life with a kick-ass Broadway-musical production of Newsies quality. The walk calms me down and diminishes the effect of the caffeine so I can go back to my apartment and consider an austere breakfast of oatmeal before staring the day down from there. I blaze a path of righteousness through the morning, laying out new pamphlets as a way to ignore the blank, paycheck-less future, reaching into the blissed-out void of engaging work to lose track of time.
By afternoon, I’ve gotten quite a bit of work done but begin to feel the kudzu-like creep of fear. My to-do list stares at me with cold pragmatic eye, and I slowly turn away from the fulfilling creative work toward duty. By midday, I’m throwing out applications and scanning Internet news; half-heartedly trying to fit into a world where people know things, have opinions and are ‘serious’. Walking home from the Library one afternoon, I’m struck by the trivial seesaw-ness of this existence. I’ve failed to reconcile the big questions that people have had to grapple with since the birth of art—How to live? How did the primitive artist justify his cave paintings to the rest of the tribe who ventured out on life-threatening missions to hunt mastodon? Should we find a place in their world or build our own? I remember reading somewhere that Walt Whitman spent the first third of his life as a newspaper editor for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle before he resolved to stop working for “the usual rewards” and become a poet. It’s this full-on-ness that seems to be key—to drop out completely, possessed by a singular driving passion that never relents. It doesn’t seem like there is a truly ethical path because a balance is unachievable, each one fraught with its own pitfalls and benefits. Making zines is navel-gazing and microcosmic, but finding a place in the ‘real world’ is also lackluster. There’s a middle way, but that just seems compromised and blandly noncommittal—if you’re not going all the way, what’s the point of going at all. Is it possible to see shades of gray without becoming one? It seems best to just become a wandering bard, a philosopher-romantic, but how?
Holding a book from the library that I don’t really want to read in my hand, I realize I am utterly paralyzed by what to do. While I’m unemployed and have infinite time to read and work, I don’t, because I’m too panicked about trying to land another job. Once I get a steady job, all I can do is daydream about the freedom I would have if I quit, all the books I would read and the time I would spend rolling around in the green grass. It appears that I am chronically incapable of balancing my life or accepting the present. There are a million places to go and a million things to do, but who’s going to do them? It’s a question of psychological freedom—freedom is no good if you’re under self-martial law and don’t want to use it, preferring instead to pace like a caged animal.
That night, Zane and I talk on the phone and agree that we’ve got to stop applying for jobs.
“I’m done, man. I’ve applied for like twenty. If they don’t call me, fuck ‘em, I’m just done, completely over it.” He explains, “I’ve got enough money to live for two months. Then I can borrow some money for April and May and after that the comic book contract will start paying us off. And who knows then.”
I admire his resolve to give up on the world of ‘usual rewards’ and bland pseudo-success, borrowing money like the artists of yore, to stay afloat until he can reach his ultimate goal. I’ve also applied for about a dozen jobs, and have enough to live on for a couple of months, but no comic book at the end of the tunnel, though my primary motive has become psychological rather than financial. At this point, my only desire is to wake up in the morning without a job and feel OK–for one single day, to not feel skittish and anxious, unappreciative of the freedom in the moment. This seems to be the first step on the path to wandering barddom—overcoming the psychological barriers. Why not dance at the party? I want to wake up and watch the sunrise and appreciate another day, guiltlessly thinking about how much ass it kicks to be alive and not have to clock in. On the recommendation of a new-age friend of mine, I’ve even taken to saying a strange little prayer before I go to sleep:
“Dear infinite—Please give me the strength to accept my life. Help me to be understanding and receptive and give me the grace to face tomorrow.”
But in the mornings, the Infinite still hasn’t spoken to me. Still marooned in the world! I’m standing on a precipice, overlooking an uncertain future like everyone else, but can’t seem to pull it together. This guilt, this puritan work ethic! To make more marketables, more 21st century blips? How many people are told daily through rhythmic social pressure to follow their dreams, but ‘to make money doing it’? Many of the driven and talented have already sold themselves into hackdom—I can’t help but think of that duplicitous ad on the subway for the college Digital Design program that shows a hip young man perched on a cliff, working away at his laptop overlooking a crystal-blue ocean and tropical islands. The only kind of scenery the people with Digital Design degrees are likely to see is a blank cubicle wall. How cleverly duped we were into thinking that we were following our dreams, only to find out that they led us to the exact opposite of what we originally wanted. Everything seems to say: get a job, start a successful website, fit your peg into the available holes, become a reputable independent contractor for the system. Buck the horse, sure, but not too much. The symbiosis of dreams of artistic grandeur with commercial aspiration has historically been a disastrous letdown. We knew this. There’s a horrible sinking feeling that rises when you stare into the busted face of the world and realize that, at bottom, the options are to sell yourself in a way that gets you paid or to pack your hobo bindle and leave it behind. It seems like the only ethical route for the artist was what I was already doing before I entered the world of fear—to continue just scraping by and surviving—making things, attempting voyages and living low.
After submitting a resume and a cover letter for an editorial assistant position at a well-known online magazine, I scan idly over their website. It’s jam-packed with news commentary, opinion, perspective and daily columns by intellectual pseudo-stars. Looking over it all, I can’t find a single thing that I really want to read. My eyes flicker past the cardboard opinions and wasted words, lengthy diatribes delving into subjects of vital importance like whether or not Michelle Obama is overweight and a feature called Change We Can Taste: Bush's White House served terrible wine. Obama should do better! I let go of the mouse and wonder why I’m begging to be imprisoned in a cubicle for a couple of decades—only to be released when I’m old and mole-like from windowless years of staring at a computer, like an animal who’s been domesticated for too long and no longer knows how to survive in the wild. I would give away the fresh air all so I could afford nice dinners and go to parties and benefit from that glimmer of piqued interest in people’s eyes when they find out that you’re under the aegis of some notable employer. People lose years this way, crystallized in ice caverns of credibility. Morrissey condensed millions of our crushing personal histories into a few simple lines:
I was looking for a job / and then I found a job / and heaven knows I’m miserable now
Niki has referred Zane and I as possible candidates for some temp work that they need done at her nonprofit. Upon hearing about this opportunity, Zane and I both rush to laptops to zap out our resumes and then sit twiddling our thumbs in metered anticipation for several days waiting for someone to get back to us. When they finally do, we’re broken down and desperate, at our lowest ebb and already sure we’ve been rejected. Zane gets his call first. I can tell by the look on his face that its bad news. He shakes his head dubiously and purses up his lips, a look of shocked disbelief passing over his unshaven face as he talks on the cell phone,
“I’m sorry,” he drawls in his thick North Texas accent, “I just can’t do that. I just can’t do it. That’s not enough.”
“What happened?” I ask once he’s hung up.
“They offered me eight dollars an hour, that’s what happened!” he shakes his head disbelieving.
“So what did you do?”
“I said Hell no, I won’t do it for eight dollars an hour. She was nice, though. She said she’d talk to Human Resources about getting me more and would call me back.”
About thirty minutes later Zane got his callback—they offered him two dollars more, which he summarily rejected, being 29 years old and in possession of two Master’s degrees. If anyone’s time is worth more than eight dollars an hour, it’s his. But in the topsy-turvy nonprofit world, the amount a company purports to save the world seems to be inversely linked to the quality of life they assure their employees—they are regularly overworked and underpaid, and routinely expected to sacrifice their personal lives to toil away for the company’s vision. Apparently, they have no scruples about doing this to temps also, the hired hands that have no vested interest in their do-gooder operation.
My callback comes an hour later while I’m aimlessly browsing in a thrift store. I pick up and am greeted by a nice girl named Erin, who has a silky phone voice and sounds like she’s in her pajamas. She kids around with me and doesn’t bother to put on the veneer of professionalism that usually accompanies these kinds of calls.
“It’s just data entry work—soooo easy, probably a little dull for you,” Erin rambles on, “you can totally just bring in your iPod and zone out.”
“Uh yeah, sounds great,” I say, suddenly uncomfortable with my lack of the seemingly indispensable iPod. Eventually the social niceties and chatting wears thin and we approach the Marxist heart of the matter—the question that lurks under the surface of every “Team Member” badge, every staff luncheon and every invocation to sacrifice–What will they offer you in exchange for a chunk of your life?
“Eight dollars an hour” Erin says, sounding sober and straight-faced. I pause for a couple of seconds to give the illusion that I’m thinking it over, even though I have already waved the sword of righteousness against this lowball offer in solidarity with Zane. I hem and haw and politely refuse, explaining to her that I’m just used to making more than that, you know, how my other freelance jobs pay me $20-25 an hour. This is a boldfaced lie—but so is the entire poker-faced game of wage negotiations—like the casino and the gambler, the cards were rigged from the outset in the employer’s favor. Company’s saying they ‘don’t have the budget’ is subterfuge, because they would have it if their executives started flying coach instead of first-class. Although not seeming to really get why I wouldn’t just take the taxed $8, Erin is polite and explains that she will speak with the ignominiously named Human Resources Department to see if they could possibly make me a better offer. I turn off the phone and am left shaking my head like Zane, unable to believe their nerve—eight dollars an hour? That’s how they’re gonna shortchange me? How much you get paid for your labor inevitably leads to discomfiting self-questioning like, what is your intrinsic value as a human being. It seems like those who exude self-confidence and occupy a cozy little niche of the capitalist ecosystem have figured out the secret of being a specialist by demanding an exorbitant rate for their unique knowledge and skill. The rest of don’t have any profession—We slide around, uncertain of our worth, and are just happy to be offered anything.
For a fear and anxiety-riddled week, I wait for Erin to get back to me about the job, and in the meantime think about the implications of my future temp-life scenario. I don’t even want the job at the nonprofit—if I can stay above depression, I have enough work to keep me busy for a lifetime. But opportunities, as far as survival, certainly become more attractive as they become more lucrative—lured by lust for money and necessity I become kind of attached to the idea of being chosen for an unflattering and mindless job that could sustain me for a while—new co-workers to smile at in the hallways, coffee in the morning, people to get drinks with. After almost a week and a half, I check my inbox and find an email:
I just heard back today from our Human Resources dept. We can offer you $12 an hour, for approx. 30–40 hours a week, for 4 weeks.
12 dollars an hour? With all my faux-credentials? The stingy bastards! I consult a couple of friends to see if I should ask for more. They shrug their shoulders and say, wait Aaron, twelve is pretty good. It’s too late—my mind has been made up and it seems as good a time as any to take a stand. The problem with wages and economic necessity is that they have the money and we’re overeager to get to it. If everyone could somehow refuse and stop accepting their offers, all the wages would eventually have to go up. But after going through the exhaustive interview process, the drug tests, the paperwork and W-4s, most are so psychologically beaten down that we just want it to be done with. Temps, freelancers, jobseekers—Do they owe us a living? Of course they fucking do. I type out my righteous missive:
I’m sorry to be a hassle.
The absolute minimum I would need for the job is
$18/hr. I believe that's fair, given my experience and current
rates. Most of my other jobs pay $20-30/hr. I get that my pay requirements might lead some to suggest just finding someone else on Craigslist–that's fine, but hey, you’ll be missing out.
Well maybe it wasn’t so righteous, but it felt good. I had decided to retain some measure of dignity for once rather than begging for a job. I really expected to be called back by a cigar-chomping Rich Uncle Pennybags who would say, “Well, Son–You drive a hard bargain but you got chutzpah!” But later that night, in the wee hours of the morning, doubts began to creep in about my approach. Had I been too brash? Maybe I was too impertinent? I tossed and turned, sleepless, stewing in the uncertainty of it all, the empty-canvas future. The next afternoon, wandering the city on one of my nebulous errands, I received a text message from Niki: I guess your email backfired. What could it possibly mean? I ran home as fast as I could and checked my email. Waiting in my inbox was a note from Erin:
Thanks for your email.
Unfortunately, while we would certainly appreciate your experience, we cannot stretch our budget beyond the $12.
Well, I’d certainly fucked up, hadn’t I? Asking for too much—the great fear of laborers and tenants everywhere, realized. And being a member of a fragmented and desperately needy labor force such as temps, there was surely someone in line behind me who would do the job for cheaper. I was utterly replaceable. It was like a Borges story with the battle of the wills—I had lost so easily. My pride was wounded but there was something relieving about not have to venture into the nonprofit salt mines.
I didn’t write Erin an email back, harboring some delusion that at the last minute she wouldn’t be able to find anybody and would write me back, accepting my ludicrous wage demands and begging for me to come in on short notice. I waited and the first day of the job rolled around. This never happened.
After hanging around my room most of the day, I decide to go to a free yoga class in the city to release some of the accumulated jobless tension. All this not working sure is hard work! When considering exercise, there are always those hesitant moments where you can’t possibly conceive of the point of it, even though you know from repeated experience that you will feel better if you just do it. The fusty old mind throws a tantrum, screaming,
“But what if I DON’T WANT to feel better?” and can only be shut up by turning off the brain and walking out the door as quickly as possible. I arrive in the vicinity of the yoga place a little early, and duck into a nearby bookstore to waste some time until the class starts. I am magnetically drawn by habit to the Zine/Small Press section to look for comfort and familiarity from the labors and anthologized efforts of my contemporary obscurants. Prominently displayed on the shelf at eye level is the full catalog of titles from Crimethinc, the incendiary anonymous publishing endeavor from Greensboro that has made an unmistakable imprint on the direction of DIY culture in the last decade. There’s been plenty of valid criticism about Crimethinc’s propaganda-cheerleader approach and primary cadre of disillusioned, angry suburban youth, but the material and mystique has undoubtedly caused a sea change in the ebb of the underground over the past years. The kids are stealing, dumpster diving, and living collectively more than ever before, like ticks silently riding their succulent hosts, sapping their blood and lifeforce over time.
Crimethinc has grown into a powerhouse, one awkwardly saddled with its stated mission of dismantling power. They’ve released millions of copies of books, newspapers, and propaganda into the nether, becoming an abstemious force on their own terms, a large unidentifiable blip far to the left of the cultural consensus. Given this massive thrust of effort and the seed-sharing nature of their approach, their critics genuinely beg to be asked, “Well, what exactly have you done?” Crimethinc is about the only real game in town, aside from some unmemorable polemics, and some over thought academic attempts, Despite their increasingly desperate open calls for competition and debate, they remain essentially unchallenged in the anarchist stable–winner and still champion of their nonhierarchical and champion-less sport. They are an interesting case, having cornered the market and become a kind of incidental monopoly in the world of radical propaganda, simply by the fact of their continued growth and refusal to call it quits or change the brand name or image. My eyes find a copy of Days of War, Nights of Love, the first and most indispensable Crimethinc publication. I haven’t laid eyes on in years. It’s an encyclopedia that rehashes the tactics and minor triumphs of anarchism over the course of the past couple of centuries, functioning as a kind of suburban guerilla warfare manual. It cries out to me, strangely prophetic and singular in a time of blog hype, depressing testaments to ‘indie’ fame like the movie Juno, and the “Don’t tase me, bro!” guy on Youtube who experienced his electrifying 15-seconds. I first read a second-hand copy of it in 2001, when I was a troubled seventeen-year-old in suburban North Carolina.
I was immediately captivated—it wasn’t anything like the books with barcodes on the back you could get at Barnes and Noble. The mailing address was less than an hour from my mother’s house and I liked the idea that there was a mysterious cabal of people living right down the road, who seemed to be actively working to destroy civilization. I read it carefully, in one sitting, and then put it down. There was fire in my eyes. The book had tapped into some hidden reservoir of anti-capitalist angst that undoubtedly bubbles under the surface of every teenager. Like a biblical convert, I shared the book with everyone I knew. I gave up meat and refused to pay for food, and began to live like a voluntary hunter-gatherer. I traveled on a bus for the first time, from Durham to a massive Mumia protest in Philadelphia, and marched with strange dirty people who looked like Ewoks (my first sighting of ‘crusties’ was bizarrely dissociative, not unlike how the Native Americans reacted at first sight of the colonists). I read and read and sat by the Raleigh train tracks baking in the hot sun and talking to hobos, pulling out a worn copy of the book to recite my new Gospels. Never work! Be defiant! Live free! Amen! The book had undeniably changed my life. I saw the world with new eyes, and could now realize the bubbling possibilities of existence. It shredded my ambitions, setting me on a path of aimless travel around the country, leaving a trail of photocopied zines behind me like breadcrumbs. But the sheen faded—I saw their collectives and met the authors and like a child who’s learned that there’s no Santa Claus, I felt bitter and magicless. It’s disorienting to look back years later to see a bit more objectively how substantial the effect of certain bands or certain books were—on one hand, you’re grateful to them for giving a voice to your anger, but on the other hand, you can’t help but wonder if they fucked up your life. What if I had never gotten a hold of that confounded Crimethinc book? Who cares? The time and life-lived can’t be taken back. The point of Days of War, Nights of Love wasn’t to be a step-by-step guide to utopia and a better world. It was just a catalyst, food for thought to get readers to develop their own survival system—a provocative illustration of some attempts that had been made. But instead of taking the hint and developing our own generational definition of resistance, we just lazily adopted theirs.
Now having lived and worked in the world, I’ve come full circle back to the original adolescent impression—the anarchists were right all along. Flipping through the book, I’m amazed by how many little details, how many prophetic pronouncements I missed the first time around, as if my virgin eyes weren’t ready to take it all in. But looking through all the Crimethinc stuff in the store, I feel a sharp pang of shame that I’m on my way to a bourgeois yoga class. And worse, I don’t even know where my original copy of this seminal text is. I wince to think that it’s probably packed up in a storage shed somewhere, its dog-eared pages gathering dust. What would the anarchists would think of me now, living in this city Babylon, melded in unholy daily symbiosis with the grinding capitalist apparatus? I’ve strayed from the original plan of just hopping trains and riding buses for the rest of my life, now dwelling in some questionable artistic nether realm of being a writer, trying to get jobs. They wrote their great work under pseudonyms, choosing to stay anonymous and sidetracking the question of literary success and infamy. Look at me—pitching stories, buying food, paying rent on a tiny room, owning a computer, giving up in all the tiniest ways. I feel a strong urge to steal a copy of Days of War, Nights of Love and somehow renew my creeds and prove to myself that I haven’t become reticent. But the ethical quandary of stealing from an independent bookstore is too much to bear. I shakily bring the book to the front counter and hand it to the hipster cashier, meeting his eyes, hoping to share a moment of common affinity. None occurs. I hand him my ten dollars—an hour of my labor at the Human Resources department offered rate—he judges my selection, and gives me a look that seems to say, ‘Aren’t you a little bit too old to be a crust-punk?’ It’s humiliating. Carrying my plastic bag out, I ball up the receipt and clench my hand into a fist. The motion feels familiar, nostalgic–like some piece of discarded adolescent wisdom being recaptured.
In a dream, the primary author of much of the Crimethinc literature appears to me like some anarchist Christ, bearded and with a long flowing mane. I am one of his disciples. He shakes his head at me in bitter disappointment,
“Aaron—why would you want to buttress their rotten institutions?”
“I don’t know!” I gasp into the darkness, “Maybe some childhood shortcoming? The need to be loved? The fear of being forgotten?”
He looks pained, like an angry Zeus.
“You’ll never find self-respect and dignity in working for them. You’re wasting your time, and the clock’s running out…”
I wake up early to a streaked sky and tiptoe around the apartment cautiously, turning off the lights and leaving. Down the street at the neighborhood café, everything seems much cheerier than usual—the music blaring over the café speakers is not the familiar despondent Cat Power, but something that sounds more like a cocaine-fueled soundtrack for middle-agers who are gathering to ‘get funky’. It’s Inauguration Day. The glowing counter people offer me free miniature cupcakes, “Cupcake?” “Obama cupcakes?” they titter excitedly. In the corner of the café on a loveseat a couple is making out and petting each other flagrantly, celebrating the victory of hope with the ultimate shameless PDA. I sit down and gingerly read through the notes I made the night before. Having spent my entire adult life under the yoke of the Bush Administration, it seems like it’d be nice to forget the last eight years ever happened. But my curiosity to be informed gets the better of me. I close the notebook and walk back home to watch the day’s proceedings.
Transfixed sitting in front of a flat screen, I listen to the white-noise banter pouring from the commentator’s mouths as they attempt to fill the seemingly endless cable airtime. A Pepsi commercial, timed for maximum exposure during an advertising moment more coveted than the Super Bowl Halftime show punctuates the live coverage–minimalist flashes of text glow coldly,
We can. We did. We will. Come Together. Pepsi, a raspy voice reads the words, then the screen displays a new can logo bearing suspicious trademark-infringing resemblance to Obama’s ubiquitous HOPE logo. Former presidents in pea coats, flush-faced and jowly from too many pheasant dinners step gingerly through the marbled halls. Cameras scan and comment on George H.W. Bush struggling to get along with a cane beside his wife, and Jimmy Carter bounds by like a cheerful Golden Retriever, radiating the righteousness of historical vindication. Everyone shakes hands and hugs and smiles together, even the most bitter partisan enemies are united in oligarchic union, understanding each others burdens and struggles far better that the common people of this country ever could. Finally, after what seems like an eternity of staring at the little clock at the bottom of the screen, the coronation begins—the camera flashes over the millions of people crowded together in the cold watching an enormous flat screen that is set up in front of the Capitol. The screen bubbles and pops with plasma blasts of color and light, making it look like a black hole has been ripped in the space-time continuum and opened up on the Mall. The camera cuts to an image of President Bush walking through the halls alone, sad and shifty eyed (no doubt mulling over his impending war crimes prosecution) behind an escort of smiling politicians and spouses who look like they are on their way to a church service. Barack Obama walks alone too, but was somehow more noble, a Washington ghost, the reluctant Savior of American mythology who seems to carry a secret vindication pursed inside his lips, totally aware that he’s moving into a house built by slaves but has prepped himself with a secret plan. Barack Obama, God’s lonely man, closes his eyes and savors his last moments of non-presidency. I feel for him, thinking back to the earnest requiem he gave for his solitude and anonymity in a Sixty Minutes interview after he won the election:
Kroft: How has your life changed in the last ten days?
Mr. Obama: There's still some things we're not adjusted to.
Michelle Obama: Like what?
Mr. Obama: Like–
Michelle Obama: What do you want?
Mr. Obama: Me not being able to take a walk.
Michelle Obama: Oh, well, you know.
Mr. Obama: No, I mean, though those are things that…
The cadence of Rick Warren’s red-blooded penitential prayer is hypnotizing until he gets weird and starts talking about Obama’s family,
“Of course there’s Michelle, and how could we forget…,” his tone changes abruptly as if possessed,
“Sashhhhaahhh and Maliaaahhh” he rasps, saying their names like he’s announcing a pair of Amazonian jungle cats.
The Obamas’ humility, their genuine averageness amongst the gathered American aristocracy makes them stand out notably. It is reassuring in some fundamentally cinematic way, like watching a heartwarming Hollywood movie where the humble good guy triumphs. Obama seizes the podium and calls for the renewal of the spirit of service, for a new puritan work ethic. He manages to convey the sense wordlessly that America is just a fragile experiment, a burning ember that has to be blown on and kept burning in the palm of the hand. How do you describe watching a President publically acknowledging the frail, damaged state of his empire? “Historic?” Don’t worry about the government, he seemed to say; put your faith in yourself and your community.
But what does remaking America even mean? In the short 232-year history of this country, we’ve spread across the continent like a creeping virus, leaving no land undisturbed—our ancestors chopped down all the forests and pioneered the plains, interned all the Indians, built all the cities and towns, and manifested a civilization which seemed to hasten for no lesser goal than to see every inch of the country poured over with concrete. Could we unmake this country? Could we roll back the roads and melt down the buildings? Could we reestablish some kind of stalemated trust with nature and other sentient creatures? Do we really need more wireless Internet access? This is the sad state of the dream that we’ve come to, where we’ve already dreamt too much. The new highways floats invisibly around us, inundating us with an infinite supply of irradiated information, a seemingly endless supply of potential parties and friendships and careers. The goal now seems to be to maintain our lifestyles, to put the tourniquet on and slow the bleeding of American dominance.
A crumpled and fading empire—A make-believe economy in shambles—Starbucks franchises shuttering their doors by the hundreds. An anti-capitalists dream, made reality. So why does it feel so bad to be right? Like that asshole who scoffs, “There’s got to be massive die-offs of the world’s population to get it back to sustainable levels. That’s got to happen soon.” And who’s going to die? Certainly not the rich, bunkered in padded compounds with five-year supplies of Trader Joe’s organic food. “Isn’t the Depression great? —So many possibilities to radicalize the people!” End of the world 2012, blah blah blah, return to scarcity and primitivism, blah blah blah, apocalypse fantasies of the last four thousand years. It doesn’t take much of a seer to talk about ruins and predict that everything falls apart, as it always has and always will. But it’s sad to think about all the other empires and how little remains of each—the Mayans, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Ottomans. They were each so mighty, like Rocky, like us, thinking they would always be on top. We popped open the champagne and celebrated a new era of HOPE to magically vaccinate our young American attempt against FAILURE, but what if the candle has already blown out and we are the last to know? We’ve had a good run of it, and damn, it’s been a lot of fun—but how long could we have expected to be-in-the-world where we have anything we desired delivered? A world where we can drive across the country in two and a half days straight and cross oceans in under four hours in thin metal hulls, where the floodlights stay on all night every night? It’s been a rough eight years. We’re on the ropes. Maybe it’s been a rough eight hundred—we won’t know. The downloadable history books of the future will condense our complex story into a couple of sterile sentences, “The American empire slowly waned in influence in the 2000s, its outposts periodically attacked by barbarians” or something like that. But Hope, in spite of all the reasons to not have it, somehow manages to just give people more hope. And when people are hoping and laughing and smiling, it’s good. Definitely better than despairing and doom-saying. I’m hoping with them—for whatever. For another cup of coffee, or for a secret kiss. For Spring to come. For us to fix our world before the sand runs out of the hourglass. And if the story has already been written and it’s too late–for fragments of our beauty to be found in the rubble of this civilization.