Should a book on freegans—that is to say, people who try to live for “free” in the present through appropriating capitalism’s waste, while trying to build a future in which the things people need are provided for “free” through a gift economy—be free?

This is a purely academic question. My “book” on freegans—I’m going to call it that, even though at this point it’s just a really, really long word or PDF document, for which this blog post is a shameless plug—is already free. Even were it to be picked up by a real live academic publisher, I still have no doubt that it would quickly be scanned and shared online, and I would make no effort to stop it.

Despite the fact that reality has gotten ahead of philosophy, I still feel like I increasingly need to think through my position on the question of “free.” I feel it both in general—with advocates for open access at my own university suggesting that publishing in pay-for-access journals is just dumb—and personally—as a number of voices have told me they assume that I would never try to sell a book on freegans. I’m thus starting to wonder about what it means that—as someone who expects his life’s work to consist mostly of reformatted word documents—everything I produce is ultimately going to be free.

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I should start by saying that the arguments for making academic products free to the public are, I think, particularly strong. We still have well-heeled institutions (universities and federal research councils) that are willing to pay (some of) us to produce knowledge and to contribute to journals as editors and reviewers. The open access advocates’ strongest argument (ironically made at the same time as we hear slogans like “information just wants to be free”) is that we’ve already paid for research with our tax dollars, so we shouldn’t have to pay for it again. I’m excited about experiments like Sociological Science, the new open-access sociological journal, not so much because I’m sure their model is the wave of the future (author fees for graduate students still are scary-high) but because I believe that experimentation is the only way to find out.

But this is emphatically not the position that most producers of cultural goods—musicians, artists, or authors are in. The other week, I read a New York Times editorial by Jeremy Rifkin who rosily declared that, “The inherent dynamism of competitive markets is bringing costs so far down that many goods and services are becoming nearly free, abundant, and no longer subject to market forces.” The “marginal cost revolution” (about which he is selling a book) has a fairly simple source. There is now a Napster for virtually anything that you can copy on a computer, and because copying a file doesn’t cost money, now books, movies, and music can be “free.”

I suppose I was most annoyed by Rifkin’s editorial because it conflated the “rise of free” with the “rise of anti-capitalism.” When I’ve been told that I really ought to make my book or anything else I write “free,” it’s usually couched in the assumption that “free” and “capitalism” are opposed to one another. But there is nothing inherently anti-capitalist about getting something for free. In fact, the “free” labor of the worker—that is, time spent producing things of value for which the worker is not commensurately paid—is at the root of all profits in a capitalist system.

So long as the things we need to survive—and I’m not talking about books on freegans here, although I do think my book is valuable, but food and housing and all that—are commodified and must be purchased, being told the things you produce are “free” is just another way of saying you are being exploited. And, unlike for academics, we don’t have any sort of public provisioning for the majority of cultural producers, and as such, for most of them, discovering that their products have “zero marginal cost” is not exactly a happy revelation.

And, of course, even as an academic, “free” sounds increasingly scary. When legislators see that students can now access Massive Open Online Courses courses for “free” (at least for the moment), it sounds like a great argument for further defunding public education. And when graduate students are expected to add more students to their sections without an increase of pay–an experience virtually any GSI at Berkeley can recount–they’re working for “free.” And I can’t help but think that the logical consequence of telling us that the books we write will be “free” is that eventually universities will feel they no longer have any obligation to pay us to produce them.

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Admittedly, this is all a bit of a straw-person argument. For most of the activists I know—and, especially, the freegans—“free” has a very different meaning. It has nothing to do with price or with the “marginal costs” of production. As I came to understand it, “free” meant that some things are too valuable to have a price—whether necessities like food and shelter or public goods like transportation, the arts, or knowledge. Sure, there were always dumpster divers who thought that wasted food was “free,” but the wiser freegans I knew always recognized that these things had a cost—in human labor or natural resources—which were real. “Free” was, in effect, a way of recognizing that all things have a cost, albeit one that is often poorly captured by “price.”

I’m not against “free.” I’ve read enough anthropology to know that gift economies in which goods and services are shared freely are not a utopia, but a part of the human historical experience and an honest possibility for the future. It’s more an issue of timing, or, you might say, a collective action problem. I’m reluctant to say it’s fine for someone to have free access to everything I produce until I have free access to what others produce. It makes very little sense for some types of things be “free” while others are commoditized. And, frankly, I’m far more concerned about “freeing” things that do have a marginal cost, like food or shelter. I don’t want to sound like those old commercials that said, “You wouldn’t steal a car—Piracy is not a victimless crime”; just that I’d like to be able to steal dinner along with my DVDs.

I didn’t find my book in a dumpster. It’s taken time and money and effort and love. Writing it has involved a great deal of lost opportunities and missed chances. It’s been made possible by the generosity of a host of people and institutions too numerous to name. But don’t worry, I’m not some dirty capitalist or luddite who has yet to get on the digital freedom bus. My book is “free.”

Career Changes?

“Well, do you at least know how to operate a pallet jack?”

I hesitate.  I have eight-and-one-third years of higher education under my belt.  I really should have a good answer to this question.  “I’m sure I’ll pick it up quickly”, I offer optimistically.

Last Tuesday was my first day at my new job—my first non-research-related job since I was the receptionist at a law office six years ago.  It’s been a tumultuous few weeks that have brought me to this point.  At the start of October, I was TAing an introductory sociology class, plugging away on a series of articles for publication, and preparing for my qualifying exams—and, I should add, unequivocally the most miserable I’ve ever been in my entire life.  So I decided to leave.  First I told people I was “dropping out”.  I’ve since graduated to “withdrawn” or, when I’m feeling particularly optimistic, “taking a sabbatical”.

The idea behind coming home was to give myself time to “get healthy”, but I quickly realized this was not an activity that could be blocked off on a day planner like “exercise” or “study”.  Casting about for meaningful things to do, I gravitated towards food, as I always have: with the freegans at Princeton, Food Justice at Oxford, and Food Not Bombs at Berkeley.  I filled out an online volunteer form for the Flagstaff Food Bank, noting with a bit of embarrassment, in response to a query about “available hours”, that I was free pretty much anytime.  Within 24 hours I got an enthusiastic call from a somewhat desperate volunteer coordinator and within 48 I was offered a part-time job.

Now I work in a warehouse.  I unload trucks coming in with donations, weigh pallets of surplus food, and assemble emergency food boxes.  Having spent the last six months gradually watching my capacity to do the things I enjoy and find meaning in wither away, there’s something rewarding and contemplative about spending four hours a day sorting out rotten mushrooms.  The cold of the refrigerator room gives me a much-needed jolt, and the Christian rock that blares over the loudspeaker provides me a strong incentive to get healthy and return to my old life.  And yes, I’ve learned how to operate a pallet jack—first a manual one and, today, a mighty and somewhat difficult to control electric one (with which I almost managed to precipitate my first workers’ comp claim).  Maybe forklifts are next.

That said, even in my current state, my goal is to progress as quickly as I can beyond moving around gaylords* of stale bread.  So when the Food Bank director announced on Friday that we would have a meeting about improving our operations, I was excited.  Perhaps I could put those years of higher education—which we discuss in the warehouse only in the context of making fun of my utter lack of practical knowledge—to some use!  I spent the weekend researching the academic literature on emergency food systems, and even dreamed up a small interview project to better understand the needs of our clientele.

On Monday, the time for the meeting came—and went.  I kept packing boxes and waiting for someone to come get me.  I finished my tasks for the day and wandered up to the front of the warehouse.  Not knowing the layout, I stumbled into a room where pretty much everyone else from the Food Bank was assembled.  “Can I help you?” my boss asked.  As it turns out, I wasn’t invited.

I’ve been having doubts for more than a year about academia.  I don’t know if those doubts have precipitated my depression or if depression has created the doubts; it doesn’t really matter, because it is increasingly hard for me to imagine myself “making it” as a professor.  But veering from that course, I’m quickly realizing, is not easy.  The internships and entry-level positions I’ve been looking at online are meant for people who are, well, younger.  And while I’ve gutted through the lowest eschelons of academia, I haven’t put in my time anywhere else.  So why would I get invited to a planning meeting, anyway: I’m just a guy who works in the warehouse.

* The name for large octagonal cardboard boxes.  You learn something new every day!

Reading Marx

Dick Walker talks like he knew Karl Marx personally.  “Man, Marx just couldn’t figure out what was going on with all this finance shit.  You can tell he just fucking hated it”, he tells us, as we are puzzling over our weekly assignment for his Das Kapital reading group.  He offers a bit of comfort for the confused: “Don’t worry, I had to read the whole thing through three or four times before I really understood it.”  Three or four times?  Marx’s magnum opus is painfully dense and, although it was only half finished, comes in at about 3,000 pages.  But there’s no doubt that Dick Walker has read it a bunch of times: his copy—an old edition, printed in the Soviet Union—is badly tattered, but contains years of annotations; a sign of a truly loved tome.

I started going to Dick Walker’s Capital Reading Group in the Geography Department this fall because, well, I was a grad student at Berkeley, and what could be more “Berkeley” than reading Marx?  The group was almost a caricature of itself.  We met in the Geography lounge, with a Brazilian Landless Movement flag and guitar with the words “This Machine Kills Fetishism” scrawled on it (get it?) hanging on the walls.  Others in the class seemed to hang on every one of Marx’s words, even when the arguments and evidence were obviously obsolete.  I remember one conversation with a classmate who seemed to suggest that the only reason we weren’t already living in a socialist utopia stemmed from our own inability to understand Marx’s brilliance.  The notion that Marx may have actually been wrong about some very important things—or that reading thousands of pages about capitalism wasn’t going to make capitalism disappear–had apparently not crossed our minds.

Meanwhile, outside the academia, real things were happening.  People were actually protesting capital and critiquing capitalism, and they didn’t need a reading group to figure out how to do it.  In September, there was an early protest held in San Francisco in solidarity with some naïve fools in New York who thought they were going to “Occupy Wall Street” (whatever that meant!).  A few of us sociologists decided we were going to ditch and go to it; some of the geographers we invited said they couldn’t because it overlapped with our reading group.  The moment evoked Marx’s own words: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world…the point is to change it.”  With a disdain for armchair radicalism of which I was confident Marx himself would approve, I quit going to class and started going to protests.

If my last post doesn’t give any indication, the last six months have been transformative, and the Alex of September feels very naïve by the standards of the Alex of April.  A short list of things about which I’ve drastically changed my views include “the police”, “academia”, “anarchism”, and, also, the “value” (so to speak) of reading Marx.  I’m not entirely sure why I went back to class this semester, but I did.  This time, I’ve joined my classmates in hanging on Marx’s words, trying to wrap my head around his elaborate system of circulating values and commodities.  I am no more convinced that knowing Marx is “useful” to me, either as an academic or an activist.  It’s the work itself—as a cultural and historical product—that draws me in, the very idea that someone could sit down and try to write a book with the absurd ambition of explaining the entire economic system in one go.  The fact that communism never “worked” doesn’t make Marx’s attempts to envision an alternative any less brave or elegant.

It suppose, then, it’s not just about the books, but Marx himself.  In sociology, we celebrate Marx as one of the earliest public sociologists, a man who worked outside the academy and was actively engaged in political projects.  But, in truth, Capital is the product of decades spent in quiet contemplation, pouring over ledgers and data in the British library.  There’s something in that which resonates with practically any social scientist: the tension between wanting to simply understand the way forces beyond our control shape the world, and the simultaneous desire to push those forces along.  As someone who spent the morning working on a theory paper in Berkeley and the afternoon protesting against capitalism in downtown Oakland, Marx’s dilemma resonates.

A recent hit-piece-cum-“report” on declining standards in the UC system by a right-wing think tank makes twenty-five separate references to “Marx” or “Marxism”.  Noting the “proliferation” of courses on Marx at UC Santa Cruz, they opine: “Adolescent Marxist nostalgia still evidently reigns on campus and impedes a return to reality”.  They’d be relieved to know that Professor Walker is retiring this year.  His replacement will likely be at the forefront of geography as a discipline, meaning that he or she will do fancy stuff with maps and quantitative data and not spend much time trying to figure out the true meaning of 150-year-old books.  For our part, none of us taking the class are likely to read Marx “three or four times”—the new logic of the university does not afford us time to do things that don’t look good on grant applications or spin into publications—and so its hard to see another reading group like this at Berkeley in the future.  It took me a while to come around, but I’ve realized that’s a sad thing.

In Between Protests, I Also Do Some Sociology

At long last, my first peer-reviewed academic publication is available online in the journal Ethnography, at least to those with access to an academic database.

I wrote this as my Junior Paper at Princeton, and I have to confess that my thinking on some of these issues has evolved and matured a bit.  Still, given the theme of this article – the meaning and power of dramatic, unconventional, non-institutional protest – now seems like a rather appropriate time to see it published.

To be Dambisa…

It’s not every day I have a chance to see one of Time’s “Most Influential People” (Mark Zuckerberg has not visited Oxford recently), so today I availed myself of an opportunity see Dambisa Moyo speak at the Rhodes House.  I’m fascinated by Dambisa Moyo because she has managed to take a topic no one cares about (international development), mix it with a rash and crazy idea (we should cut off all foreign aid to Africa within five years), back it up with some tired and discredited economic ideas (learned while working for Goldman Sachs) and turn it into a bestseller, Dead Aid.  In short, she’s an excellent model for any aspiring academic who wants to use an Oxford education and a love of obscure topics to advance substantive change: i.e. me.

Here’s the thing about Dead Aid, though: it’s a really bad book.  That is different from saying that it’s a really wrong book: my own ideas on foreign aid have evolved a lot since I last blogged about the book a year ago.  That said, this book is absolutely chocked full of nonsense.  Moyo writes—without a citation—that thanks to foreign aid poverty in Africa rose from 11% to 66% from 1970-1998.  Excuse me?  By whose measure was Africa’s poverty rate in 1970 equivalent to Germany’s in the present day?  At another point she writes that “Since the 1940s, approximately US $1 trillion of aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa…This is nearly US $1000 for every man, woman, and child on the planet today.”  This makes sense if the world population is about 1/6th of its actual size, or if 5.8 billion people do not fall into the categories of “men”, “women”, and “children.”  As one of my professors described it, Dead Aid is a “not-particularly-well-done review of the tertiary* literature on foreign aid.”

Okay, I’ll admit these two are cheap shots, but the rest of the book is not any more coherent.  Moyo’s main thesis is that African nations should eliminate their dependence on foreign aid as a means of financing development… and replace it with a dependence on foreign bond markets.  Leaving aside the rosy experiences of Greece and Ireland with respect to private bonds, I am incredibly skeptical that there are many private lenders who want to give money to small African countries.  Her proposed solution is that large African countries, like South Africa, guarantee the loans of smaller ones.  You know, in the same way that you put your house up as collateral so someone living in a nearby town who you have never met can buy a new car.  What…?

Clearly, Moyo’s ascension to public-intellectual superstar has to do with something other than the rigor of her ideas.  Nearly every magazine piece on her mentions that she is an African woman.  Not just any African woman, but a beautiful, Oxford-educated, black African woman.  I struggle with this.  It is incredibly important that African voices be heard in debates about Africa.  Nonetheless, I don’t think “being African” grants any special privilege to make up non-sensical “facts” just because they are about Africa.**  Could Moyo be getting away with shoddy scholarship just because she was born in Zambia?

Fortunately, though, by going to her talk, I feel like I no longer have to answer that question.  If I had to offer one explanation for her success, I would now guess that it’s because she is an objectively incredible presenter and public speaker.  It had nothing to do with her identity and everything to do with the fact that she was the most articulate advocate for a controversial position that I’ve heard speak in a long time.  And, I realized, people pay attention to Moyo because she has organized both her books and talks around a single compelling and seductive narrative.

To Moyo, everything is about incentives.  There are no “bad guys” in the story of African development; just misguided Western donors providing mountains of aid, African leaders responding rationally to the incentives for corruption that aid creates, and the unintended consequences for poverty that entails.  All we have to do is change the carrots and sticks of the development game and, viola, problems solved!  Here narrative is all the more compelling because it suggests that, for this to happen, all we as Westerners need to do is stop giving aid.  In short, we can do good by doing nothing!  This textbook economist view of the world is so powerful that it applies everywhere: Moyo’s most recent book, How The West Was Lost, tells us about how we Northerners have screwed up our own societies by not obeying the golden rule of the all-rational free market.

Now that I have decided to pursue an academic career, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to make an impact—and why economists are inevitably called up by the New York Times to comment on popular issues, and not sociologists.  I am reminded that it’s because a view of the world that reduces messy things like history, values, and politics to rational economic stimulus-response is convenient for policy-makers and straightforward enough for public consumption.  We pay for our own accuracy by sacrificing our own relevance.  I can’t help but wonder if that’s actually a good trade-off, if the terrain of relevant social science should really be so easily conceded to people like Moyo just so we can be a bit more airtight and confident about the articles we publish and no one reads.

At least, this is what I will be debating when, at 65, I open up Time’s “Most Influential Persons” issue and realize that I haven’t made the list.  Again.

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* Historian friends: what the hell is a tertiary source?

** Being the lead singer of U2, though, does give you the right to say whatever you want about international development and have it be accepted as true.

News from the Front

Oh hai.

If you haven’t heard, there’s a war on higher education going on.  As nearly every social service that makes civilization, well, civilized is currently up for debate, it’s not particularly surprising that university funding hasn’t really made it on to most peoples’ radars.  But in Britain, the restructuring of higher education that is going on is both profound and disturbing, and today, we actually did something about it.

I’ve complained about the Oxford system—and, by comparison, vaunted the U.S. one—many times on this blog.  That said, one thing that is positively amazing about Oxford is that it is both elite and public; students here pay a pittance of the actual cost of their education.  This is not some historical idiosyncracy, like Latin grace and sub-fusc.  It’s the result of a conscious realization made by the British people, at some point, that universities like Oxford serve the public good, and thus deserve public funding.  The new ConDem government here, however, has rejected that and decided to bring the university under the yoke of the all-powerful market.  The future of Oxford rests in American innovations like crushing graduate debt and insanely high fees.

To some extent, I don’t have a dog in this fight: I’m fully funded, and I’m likely escaping to a private university with a cushy endowment next year.  Even the proposed 80% cut in teaching funding isn’t likely to hit me (80% less of zero teaching is still zero teaching, after all).  While I can escape British policy, though, I can’t escape the ideology.  It is not just in the U.K., after all, that policymakers seem to believe the notion that the life of the mind is not worth very much, or that there is no use in research without an immediate economic benefit.  Self-interest has never been my thing anyway, of course, and it’s precisely because “elites” know that they’ll still be able to get an education in the post-public university system that these cuts are happening in the first place.  So, naturally, I laced up my blackspot sneakers, and set out for another protest.

I can’t decide whether turnout was incredibly depressing or extraordinary.  I reached Cornmarket Street and found six-hundred Oxford students out of their libraries, and by the looks of it, out of their comfort zones.  I doubt six-hundred Princeton students could be convinced to protest against grade deflation, much less give a shit about public education.  But then I did the math, and realized that 600 is less than 10% of student body—so what are the others doing?  They can’t all have trust funds covering their fees, can they?  Or do they just not realize how insidious all of this is?

The Socialist Worker’s Party was there—they always are—with a handful of provacateurs (“I think I met you at the Afghanistan protest in London”) and a set of pre-fab signs.  Did the Oxford students holding the placards they distributed actually know they were currently advocating for a worker’s revolution and a general strike?  Evidently some did, as I saw people gradually pulling out pens and changing their signs.  Here we show our true colors: “Free education” became “Fair and reasonably priced education.”  “I oppose all cuts” is edited to “I oppose all cuts to my university.”  And, “Down with the Browne Report” is mealymouthed into “I support some elements of the Browne Report, just not the rise in fees” (no, really, someone wrote that).  The war on higher education only matters when it hits us; and even then, it only matters to six-hundred of us.

The protest was on the road to being decidedly, well, pitiful, until the police intervened.  Our mob of humanities majors and philosophy dons wanted to walk to High Street; they wanted us to take a seat around Radcliffe Camera, contemplate our navels for a few minutes, and go home.  A few of us decided that we would go to High Street anyway; they formed a line, and we did too.  A few seconds later, I was on the other side of a row of bobbies, yelling to tentative looking Oxford Students, “Don’t worry, you’ll still get an investment banking job if you come over.”  And, then, they did, and the police parted.

For a moment, we were unstoppable.  The news reports will make us look like a bunch of whiny overprivileged kids fighting to keep our silver spoons firmly planted in our mouths.  They might be right.  But when I am seventy years old living in a hut somewhere in the forests of Northern Finland, trying to avoid the conservative dystopia of the new dark ages, I will take my grandchild on me knee and say, “Yes, when they finally put the nail in the coffin of social democracy, I fought back, and I don’t regret it for a minute.”

Cold Calling

The dirty secret of my budding* career in the social sciences is that talking to people kind of scares me.  It’s a bit difficult to explain why: having spent three years Mohawk-ed in one of the country’s more conservative institutions, I can’t say that I’m too obsessed with what people think of me.  Still, though, approaching strangers—whether to get directions, ask them to take a survey, or order a pizza—has always been something of a phobia.  I pretty much gave up on a political career when, working on campaigns, I realized that making cold calls made me sick to my stomach.  It wasn’t until one year into my last research project, with, that I finally mustered up the courage to actually ask people for interviews.

Last week, I let this fear get the better of me.  I spent a lot of time sitting around my hotel, hoping that people would miraculously respond to e-mails sent weeks ago, even though they were in reality just a phone call away.  I was reconsidering retitling my thesis “An ethnography of the lonely”, because all my data came from people who—seeing me on a park bench down by the pier—were sufficiently starved for human interaction to talk to a solitary gringo. And to think, if I had chosen to enroll in Economic and Social History rather than International Development at Oxford, I could be in the emotionally safe space of a library!

This week, my fear of coming back to Oxford empty handed eventually got the better of my social phobia.  As potentially disastrous as a phone call in a foreign language over a questionable connection can be, I’ve been making a lot of cold calls—and scoring a lot of amazing interviews.  People are, of course, overwhelmingly nice.  This is something that I’ve known all along, but that has been striking me this week, as an enormous number of people have offered me their time and knowledge after I—without introduction—called them.  Today, I even marched over to the mayor’s office, hoping to get an explanation for why her secretary had not contacted me as promised.  I left an hour later having carried out an on-the-spot interview.

Maybe this sounds vaguely like gloating, but for me, it’s just one of many ways in which I feel like I have personally grown during this trip.  Of course, having a mountain of data and the right to hold my head up high on my return to school counts for a lot.  And I’m really excited about the idea of now being—more-or-less—bilingual.  But much more valuable for me is the realization that maybe choosing a career path that involves a life spent talking to people of all sorts isn’t such a bad idea after all.

*Or soon-to-be-ending, depending on whether I get around to taking the GRE and/or fail my thesis because I do not use these words enough.

Anthropologist’s Worst Nightmare

We are trained to look for problems.  We go into the field armed with theory that tells us that development programs are inevitably ill-conceived and incompetently managed.  We assume that governments and NGOs never learn the lessons of past failures and that they always ignore feedback from local communities.  We know we will always have critiques and criticisms to publish, because development is a sham, a perpetual boot stamping the face of the powerless.

But here’s a not-so-hypothetical situation: what happens if those government employees have learned from the mistakes of the past?  What if those misguided NGOs are actually paying attention to what the people they are trying to help need and want?  What if, by some crazy twist of fate, someone actually dreams up a way to combat climate change and poverty at the same time?  And what if, despite the inevitably flaws in the attempt, it really is possible to change the world? Does anyone want to read about programs that work?  Will we still get tenure if we say nice things?

I fear for my grade, but I have some ever-so-slight hope for the planet.

Sink or Swim

There was a time, I imagine, when doing field work in developing countries was legitimately scary.  Anthropologists studying remote islands or indigenous tribes might be cut off from contact with their home countries for years.  Without the internet or television, their immersion in their place of study was total and non-stop, even in the worst depths of frustration and homesickness.  Health care could be spotty and diseases unfamiliar and dangerous.  Lest I sound like I’m romanticizing old school anthropology too much, I should add that researchers could also be endangered, largely thanks to their close association with colonialism.

Of course, as a masters student preparing to go for a mere nine weeks to a modern—if poor—country, with Western restaurants and hospitals and internet cafes, where certainly thousands have gone before to do research, I have nothing to be afraid of.

But shit, I am so scared right now.

Of course, there are some practical worries.  It’d be nice to know that there’s going to be readily available vegetarian food, but I’m expecting to subsist off of bananas.  I’m generally a pretty carefree traveler, but seeing Orellana Province on the state department travel advisory list and reading about the abundance of muggings in Quito has me a bit concerned.  There are all manner of tropical diseases and motor accidents that could occupy my brain, if I weren’t so busy stressing about where I’m actually going to live and who I’m going to talk to.  But, really, these are just practicalities, and I know I can handle them.

Chalk part of my fear up to language.  I’m not sure what the worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life is, but right now, dropping Spanish my sophomore year feels like a strong contender.  I’ve been practicing frantically the last few months, but I know that my ability to hold a conversation in my head is very different from being able to communicate about complex ideas with an actual person.  I’m spending my first two weeks in Ecuador taking intensive language classes, but 40 hours of one-on-one training does not make one fluent.

My mediocore Spanish, though, is, in my brain, symbolic of the broader insanity of this project and, maybe, research in general.  Somehow, I’m supposed to go to a country which I’ve never even visited, talk to people for a few weeks, and, at the end, produce “knowledge.” There is, I think, a certain uncomfortable arrogance to it: the idea that I, Westerner, Oxonian, can offer something that hundreds of other academics can’t.  I make these things harder for myself, too, be obsessing not just over whether I will be able to write a good thesis—all our department really cares about—but whether I can do so ethically, respectfully, and in a way that does enough good for the communities that help me to justify it.  It’s a tall order, and one that I wonder if I managed to fulfill in my previous work with the freegans (and they spoke English!).

And, my fears get even more abstract.  If I can’t make it as a research this summer, how can I ever make a career of it?  If I’m so afraid of talking people, scared of being rejected in requests for interviews or laughed at for cultural faux-paus, why am I so interested in a field where the currency is human interaction?  If I’m this paralyzed preparing for nine weeks, how would I feel before leaving for a year or two to do a dissertation?

Yesterday, I went to the hospital to get my arm looked at.  As they took x-rays, I half dreamed that they would discover some bizarre new fracture which would, for some reason, prevent me from going.  I had a moment where I thought about another summer spent living with my phenomenal housemates, a year to brush up on Spanish and figure out how to make it where I am without throwing myself into someplace new.

But, of course, that’s all nonsense.  The cast is gone, and there’s no turning back now.  Sink or swim.

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Jukebox: Rise Against – Survive

Not (Quite) Buying It

At the start of June, the New York Times published a piece by Jake Halpern called “The Freegan Establishment” on a group of radicals near-and-dear to my heart.   While some might be less-than-enthusiastic about being the person that comes to mind when the issue of eating trash comes up, I was quite flatterd to have the article e-mailed to me all of a dozen times.  This, of course, presented a historically unprecedented opportunity: a chance to write on a topic about which I actually know something. Feeling the high expectations of putative expertise, though, I’ve been sitting on my thoughts on this article for two weeks now.  Distilling an 80,000-word thesis/personal obsession into a blog post is, I have discovered, impossible.  Excuses out of the way, here goes:

Actually, before I offer my thoughts on Halpern’s depiction of freeganism, I should—like any honest, but insufferable, social scientist—offer a few methodological caveats.  While I’d like to think that my training as a sociologist gives my evaluation some intellectual gravitas (hah!), I didn’t deliver a nationwide survey or run any fancy statistical tests.  My own study of freeganism was qualitative and took place exclusively in New York City. I hung out and asked questions: something anyone with the patience and lack of concern for hygiene could do.

If there was any fact that became clear from eighteen months of ethnographic observation and interviews, it was that freeganism is a contested and variable term and its practitioners are a highly diverse group.  Self-identified ‘freegans’ I’ve met include hardcore anti-capitalists, middle-class business people with anti-waste sensibilities, religious fundamentalists committed to a life of poverty, and cheapskates enthusiastic about anything that saves them money.  Halpern’s description of freeganism, then, could be very different from my own—and that wouldn’t make either of our accounts any more or less valid, just reflective of the fact that we are capturing two very facets of the same phenomena.

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My first thought on this most recent New York Times piece is—I’m afraid to report, for anyone expecting controvery—that it is really quite good.  Compared to practically every other mass-media report on freeganism I’ve ever encountered, Halpern’s portrain is rich, nuanced, and balanced.  A few points, in particular, shone through quite well:

1.  Freeganism ≠ Dumpster Diving – The New York Times’ one previous piece on freeganism—2007’s “Not Buying It”—brought the ideas of freeganism to a wide audience for the first time, and, ultimately, led to my thesis.*  It also, however, did the freegan movement a great disservice, by convincing most people that “freeganism” is coterminous with “eating trash.”  It’s a popular association that the freegan group I worked with which has only reinforced, by leveraging the public’s fascination with white, non-poor dumpster divers to attract media attention and draw people into the movement.

In reality, though, freeganism is a much wider set of practices, unified by goals of reducing dependence on the mainstream economy and minimizing environmental degradation.  Halpern does a great job showing this diversity: the Buffalo freegans don’t just engage in dumpster diving, but also squatting, bicycling, voluntary unemployment, wild food foraging, and communal living.  Whille all of these activities have political significance, they are, for many freegans, quite simply fun.

2.  Freeganism starts early – The most attention-grabbing accounts of who freegans are focus on those who have undergone dramatic conversion experiences: a favourite narrative is that of one New York freegan who, after seeing a demonstration on a “Buy Nothing Day,” quit her six-figure corporate job, left her apartment, and became a full-time activist.  While slightly less sexy, sociological theory tends to portray recruitment in a similar way, by explaining involvement in social movements as based on an individual’s network connections to activist groups and individuals as they exist at a single moment in time.

In my own research, though, nearly everyone I spoke to emphasized that the roots of their radicalism ran deep.  The experiences varied from experiencing racism at school to noting the indifference of family members to the suffering of homeless people to early dissolusion with mainstream activism.  That corporate-executive-turned-radical, for example, had been arrested during anarchist-theatre performances in her twenties; in many ways, becoming freegan was an act of personal rediscovery—“like coming up for air after being underwater for twenty years”—rather than a complete volte-face.  Describing Tim—the leader of the Buffalo freegan house—as a kid who was always trying to “stick the fork in the electrical outlet”, the article at least hints at these sorts of complex life histories.

3. ‘Anarchist organization’ may not be an oxymoron, but it is hard to achieve – This final comment reflects as much my experience as a freegan activist as my research.  One morning, the freegans in Buffalo woke up to discover all their forks had been turned into a wind chime.  The example highlights a general point: the creativity, inspiration, and free-spiritedness of many freegans often come alongside—and are, perhaps, inseparable from—behaviour that most people might label ‘dysfunctional.’  The Buffalo house may be a space of phenomenal liberty, but this comes at a price: without leaders, written rules, or means of coercion, the experiment is perpetually on the verge of falling apart.  While most freegans portray themselves as opting into their lifestyle by choice, clearly, some are pushed into it by their struggles to adapt to the expectations and norms of mainstream society.  These factors make creating movements and organizations that avoid hierarchy but are simultaneously able to get things done a frustrating and often unsuccessful process.

* The backstory here is pretty excellent.  Jackie forwarded me the article, stating, “Please don’t become one of these people.”  Naturally, I couldn’t resist, and the rest is history.

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All this said, though, there were some contradictory points I wanted to make in response to the article:

1.  Not all of freeganism is self-defeating – One paragraph from the article sounds exactly like a comment I’ve heard more times than I can count: “[There is] a quandary inherent in the freegan movement. Freegans maintain that by salvaging waste, they diminish their need for money, which allows them to live a more thoughtful, responsible and deliberate existence. But if they succeed in their overriding goal, and society ends up becoming less wasteful, the freegan lifestyle will no longer be possible.”  This is, of course, the cynic’s inevitable trump card, the argument that allows anyone to dismiss freeganism and retreat back into complacency.  And, with some freegan practices, it is indeed a valid piece of criticism: most obvioualy, you can’t dumpster dive food if you don’t have wasteful supermarkets.  This contradiction is already in view in New York, where the naming-and-shaming of some particularly wasteful stores—like Trader Joe’s—have led them to better guard their dumpsters (if not actually reduce their output of garbage!).

Most freegans admit that if capitalism collapsed tomorrow, knowing how to live off of dumpstered-food would not be particularly helpful.  Skills like repairing a roof, fixing a flat tire on a bike, or finding edible snails in the forest, however, would.  I’m somewhat surprised, given the varied portrait of freeganism found in the article, that the author eventually decided to repeat this trope that all of freeganism is self-defeating parasitism.

2.  Freeganism as engagement – There is an implicit, tongue-and-cheek critique that runs through the article.  The oxymoronic title—the Freegan Establishment—captures it, suggesting a disconnection between freegan rhetoric and reality.  Quotes like “They worked their butts off and paid the back taxes and the utilities. They are more conformist than they want you to think they are” only further suggest that maybe these “freegans” aren’t quite as radical as they claim to be.

The gap between ideology and practice is one of the central themes of my research, so I will belabour the point a bit here.  As in any social movement, one doesn’t have to search very hard to find contradictions that smack of hypocrisy: I know freegans that own second homes, use cell phones, eat store-bought meat on special occasions and with family, and continue to work in for-profit companies.  Of course, nearly all of us could admit to some gap between our beliefs and our lifestyles.  The significance of these foibles, of course, depends on the standard we are using to judge.

The NYT journalist traces the roots of freeganism to pre-modern Digger colonies, which sought to create a world existing entirely shut off from the outside world.  Freegan rhetoric does often emphasize the group’s attempts to create a “world outside of capitalism.”  Judged as an urban analog to a rural commune which provides for all its members’ needs, though, freeganism is a total failure.  This is, at least in part, the point the article is making, by showing how the freegans inevitably had to rely on the system of private property to give their social experiment stability.

One of the points I argued in my work, though, is that freeganism is—in reality—less about ‘dropping out’ of society than it is engaging with and criticizing it.  ‘Dropping out’ of capitalism isn’t just impossible, it’s also an ineffective strategy for building a movement, since it means cutting oneself off from 99.99% of the population.  In reality, much of freeganism centers on taking things intrinsic to modern society—like the production of waste—and turning it into a tool for critique.

Consider, for example, how the article describes the squatters moving into the house in Buffalo: “Majewski’s strategy was to be as brazen as possible. ‘The facade of legitimacy was our main goal,’ he told me. ‘We pried the boards off and did it all in broad daylight. That’s what ownership comes down to — everyone believing that you actually own it.’ When he introduced himself to the neighbors, Majewski told them that he had the heir’s permission to move in. This wasn’t true, but the neighbors took Majewski at his word.”  From the start, the freegans were intent on projecting themselves as engaged in a worthwhile social project.  Similarly, the group dumpster dives I intended in New York were less an attempt to achieve individual moral purity as they were attempts to use waste to rope passerbyes into the movement.

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Of course, a key question that the article doesn’t address, and with which I have been grappling for almost three years now, is whether any of this actually matters.  Global warming, peak oil, and the recent economic crisis notwithstanding, modern society is not, as far as I can tell, on the verge of collapse.  In fact, time and time again, liberal democracy and capitalism have proven themselves to be incredibly flexible and adaptable.  So why should we care what some apocalyptic “weirdos with garbage” (as one interviewee put it) think?  This is the point at which, I should warn, I will abandon all pretentions to speaking as an academic, and speak from the point of view of a higher calling: that of social justice activism.

I was, at least initially, surprised to read that, according to the New York Times, “freegans are not revolutionaries.”  After all, many freegans identify as anarchists, which—for most—is synonymous with nihilism and revolution.  On reflection, though, I realize where the author is coming from.  Freegans have no political party, no plan for seizing state power; no Marxist view of history that declares revolution inevitable.  In the 20th century, ‘revolutionary’ conjured up visions of Bolshevik comissars or Cuban guerillas; it’s a bit hard to see a group of people eating dandelions and learning to weave sandals out of yucca fiber as their 21st century progeny.

I’ll admit that arguing about who is and who isn’t ‘revolutionary’ is an exercise in mental masturbation.  But the question of from where radical ideas are going to come in the post-Soviet world—in which we have acknowledged that centralized government planning by ‘revolutionary’ governments simply doesn’t work—is an important one.  And I would argue that, in this sense, the freegans are fascinating.  As I see it, freeganism is a (highly flawed) experiment in alternative ways of providing for individual needs, organizing communities, and approaching activities like labour and consumption.  Freegans do not so much offer us concrete practices that we can all adopt (you can’t feed the whole world dumpster diving) as they offer ideas and possibilities.

After this rather philosophical turn, though, I’ll close this overly-long essay with a lighter observation.  Rather sagely, Halpern wrtes, “The freegans were making a statement and having a hell of a good time doing it.”  While we should take freeganism seriously, we shoudn’t take the freegans themselves too seriously—I don’t think they would much like it.

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Jukebox: Audioslave – Be Yourself