Free

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.

*          *         *

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.

*          *          *

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.”

Climate Change is the New Falling Rate of Profit

It didn’t get much attention, but last week President Obama took the most drastic actions on climate change of his presidency.  Leaving aside the really only marginal question of whether those policies will actually address climate change (see my friend Sasha’s post explaining why it won’t), the more interesting question for me is why he even bothered.  Was it the campaigning around the Keystone XL pipeline pulling him to the left?  Hurricane Sandy tugging on his heart strings?  Or the ever-more-weighty scientific consensus?

For those interested in understanding climate politics, a good place to start is Theda Skocpol’s new report on the failed attempt to pass “Cap-and-Trade” legislation through Congress in 2010, which reads like a mix between a murder mystery novel and brilliant sociological analysis.  She argues that you can’t understand climate (in)action without considering the political calculus behind it, and takes the American environmental movement to task for a naïve understanding of Congressional politics.  Enviros, she claims, had a foolish belief that climate change should be a non-partisan issue and failed to adopt a coherent, state-by-state strategy for mobilizing large numbers of people to get the bill passed.

When I saw Skocpol speak on campus a few weeks ago, though, many in the audience seemed to think that talking about a “strategy” for “organizing” against climate change was quickly becoming irrelevant.  One archetypal grey-haired Bay-Area eco-warrior started raving at the end of the presentation about how, as the seas rose, the forests burned, and hurricanes swelled, climate change legislation would practically pass itself.  Another well-heeled representative from one of the mainstream environmental groups Skocpol had ripped apart lectured her that, while her points were well-taken, “If you look at the science, there’s just no question—we’re going to have to do something.”

It wasn’t just at Skocpol’s talk that I have been hearing half-optimistic prognostications of climate doom and humanity’s subsequent rebirth.  I increasingly encounter people who are convinced that climate change will force us to do what no amount of social mobilization could achieve: a switch away from fossil fuels, an abandonment of a growth-based economic model, or a massive redistribution from global north to south.  My political sociology professor even made an offhand remark in our class on “revolutions” that the next best change for drastic upheaval was from climate change.

If you’ll bear me a digression, all this reminds me of lefties talking about Marx’s fabled  “falling rate of profit”, which predicts that the fortuitous combination of technological innovation and competition will eventually make capitalism so (over)productive that the rate of profit drops to zero, and the system goes into crisis. Never mind that Marx predicted this a century-and-a-half ago: serious social scientists are still dredging up evidence that the fateful day is nigh.  I think the reason that we cling to arguments like this is understandable.  If something is so bad – whether its capitalism or climate change – it can’t possibly last, right?  But such arguments are also appealing because they assures us that things will work out, regardless of what we do as individuals.

What’s missing, of course, is an acknowledgment that for climate or capital “crises” to change things, they have to be crises for the right people.  Downturns in capitalism may well immiserate lots of people, but as the quick rebound of the 1%’s incomes post-Great Recession shows, if they’re not bad for those in power, it doesn’t matter much.  The same point could be made for climate change: bad, but bad for the wrong people.  Melting glaciers in the Andes, declining crop yields in Africa, millions displaced by flooding in Bangladesh are all very real catastrophes – but not the kind of catastrophes that move governments to take action.  Even more Hurricane Sandies won’t change things unless they magically stop hitting the Rockaways and start hitting the Hamptons – and people in the Hamptons don’t have the money to just move elsewhere or put up a sea wall.

I honestly don’t know why Obama decided to take action on climate change.  I’m glad he did.  But I do know that if we convince ourselves that more advances will come from some combination of scientific papers and bad weather, we’re going to fry.

And by “we”, I mean, “poor people”, which is the problem.

The Anti-Politics Machine

One year ago, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti killed hundreds of thousands of people.  A month later, a much larger quake in Chile killed only a fraction of that number.  As far as I can tell, what made the difference between the two was not geography or geology.  Instead, it was Haiti’s particularly harsh history of foreign intervention, dysfunctional government, and persistent poverty reinforced by unfair international economic policies.  In short, the difference was politics.

I’m fairly sure that every country in the world has some number of paranoid, violent schizophrenics.  Like earthquakes, crazy people are probably unavoidable.  But not every country’s paranoid, violent schizophrenics manage to shoot elected officials in the head and kill six others.  The difference rests, in large part, on whether their state and national legislators think that everyone—regardless of race, creed, or mental competence—have a constitutional right to buy a semi-automatic military-style weapon at their local sporting goods store.  The difference, once again, is politics.

This seems incredibly obvious to me, and yet as I have watched the debate on the Tucson shooting morph, I feel increasingly isolated in this position.  Friends and acquantainces have tweeted and messaged and posted all sorts of things about how important it is not to “politicize” the tragedy.  “Don’t try to use this to advance a political agenda!  Don’t change policy just because of one madman!”  Suddenly, I find myself on the defensive because I think that acts like this demand some sort of a response other than prayer, a few sad speeches, and a one-week pause in the House calendar.  That is to say, someone should legislate something related to this.  The speed with which our collective consciousness has moved on—and accepted that such things are sad, but inevitable—suggests that I am relatively lonely in this belief.

C. Wright Mills—familiar to anyone who has ever taken Sociology 101—clasically distinguished between private “troubles” and public “issues.”  Private troubles are idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and not something society can control.  Labeling something a personal trouble, then, is a powerful tool, because it simply takes it off the table as an object of public action and control.  This is what has happened with Jared Loughner; he has become sui generis, as if he has nothing in common with Seung-Hui Cho or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold or god-knows-how-many future assassins.

The argument is always that we have no way of knowing if stricter gun laws, or better mental health services, or more sane political rhetoric would have stopped this.  They very may well not have.  But the point of politics is not to make guesses about how to put an end to individual troubles; it’s to manage public issues.  Public action means playing the odds and managing risks.  I don’t know if what happened in Tucson would have been any better had the assault weapons ban still been in place; I would still like to know that from now on shooters will be limited to 10-bullet clips.  Some deranged people in England still manage to get their hands on guns and shoot people; given that they have around 1/700th the gun deaths we do, though, I’d still take my chances with their approach to gun control.

The anti-politics machine, though, seems to have won again.  Somehow women’s bodies and sexual orientation are public issues, but guns—that’s between the schizophrenics and their local Sporting Goods dealer.

Fill in the Blanks

“I am so ___ about the mass killing in Tucson this Saturday that I think ____ ought to be _____.”

The first blank is easy: I am mad.  I am mad, in part, because it seems almost impossible not to be.  And yet I’m also mad because, for all the talk of ‘taking it down a notch’, I think that only by being furious about what has happened are we likely to do anything to prevent similar things from happening in the future.  “Sincere condolences” and “heartfelt prayers”, however genuine, are cheap.  They ask nothing of us.  I’m mad because this tragedy was preventable, and so will be the tragedies of tomorrow and the day after that (let’s not forget that, to get to 12,000+ gun murders per year, you have to gun violence on par with that in Tucson every day).  Mostly, I’m mad because, in the end, I am sure that complacent sorrow will win out over righteous anger, and this shooting in a Tucson Safeway will teach us about as much as those that happened in a Colorado High School and a Virginian University–which is to say, absolutely nothing.

The second blank is no more difficult for me to fill in.  Obviously, Jared Loughner, the deranged gunman, deserves to face the lion’s share of our anger and the brunt of the law.  But, as a sociologist, I believe that none of us ever truly acts alone; we are always constrained by the options society offers us and motivated by the ideas society feeds us.  One of the country’s major parties has spent decades dismantling gun laws and the most recent election glorifying armed revolution against the government.  Is it really surprising that someone took this rhetoric seriously, and availed themselves of the violent options we have opened to them? And so, I have no problem inserting Sarah Palin—who “targeted” Giffords in the last election—or Tea Partyers like Sharon Angle—who suggested that “second amendment solutions” were necessary to deal with Democratic lawmakers—as individuals who also should share in the accountability for this event.  Along with them in co-responsibility should be lawmakers who eviscerated mental health services in the name of tax cuts in Arizona.

The last blank, though, is hard.  I’m mad as hell, and a great deal of my anger is directed at that ever-so-nebulous entity, “the government” and a few people associated with it, like Jan Brewer, Arizona’s “Guns-in-Bars-and-Campuses” Governor.  In fact, I’m so angry that I really think these people ought to be…

Ought to be what?

Shot?  Maimed?  Threatened?  Intimidated?

My great frustration now is the realization that there seems like practically no productive way to act on my anger.  I live in Arizona—even Gabrielle Giffords supports gun rights, so I am skeptical of voting as a mechanism for change.  I doubt the big donation I am sending to the Brady Campaign today will be any match for the thousands of NRA supporters who are no doubt marshalling to protect their Glocs and Tec-9s.  And so, I am left with no option but to take options into my own hands and…

And do nothing, I suppose.

Strangely, I think this inertia is why I am proud to be on the left.  The counterattacks of the Republicans against those who have blamed vitriolic political rhetoric for the violence are, in a sense, correct: nasty rhetoric and anger at the government are things shared by both sides.  The issue is how we fill in that last blank—how we act on it.  I’ve spent two years researching radical anarchists, many of whom are on FBI lists as part of “Number One Domestic Terror Threat”, and yet never heard even one offhand remark about harming an elected official.  Can we really imagine that the massive 1999 protests in Seattle—with their incumbent police violence and property destruction—would have passed without a single death, if leftists shared conservatives proclivity for firearm ownership?

I’m mad as hell… and, to gramatically pervert the phrase, I AM going to take it anymore, because that’s what makes us not like them.

 

What left-leaning blogger isn’t writing one of these?

I expected a lot of things when I woke up this morning and, thanks to the time difference, opened my New York Times to catch the electoral news.   I anticipated seeing the GOP make massive gains, and I knew that, for all my “they’re-all-the-same” cynicism, I would feel totally despondent about it.  They did, and I did.  I did not expect, though, that I would wake up, by all accounts, a member of the tea party.

I cannot bring myself to accept the legitimacy of last night’s election.  I cannot accept it because I do not believe anyone who believes that Barack Obama is a Muslim is of sufficient mental competence to cast a vote.  I do not accept an election where, in my home state, squads of Tea Partyers lingered around polls under the auspices of checking identification, an act that deters not only naturalized Hispanics but also Native Americans, many of whom lack citizenship documents.  I struggle to see functioning democracy in the myriad races where margins of victory were much smaller than the number of disenfranchised ex-felons in the district.

I do not want Barack Obama or his chastened Democratic allies to reach across the aisle.  The much-vaunted moderation that voters claim they want is worthless.  I do not believe that allowing gay men and women to openly serve in the military is an issue on which there is any space for compromise.  I have very little interest in a more middle-ground occupation of Afghanistan.  I do not want half of the uninsured to have health care.  I hope that Barack Obama never finds the “Third Way” that led Bill Clinton to support welfare reform.  I’d love to see Bi-Partisanship, insofar as it involves Republicans abandoning their shitty principles and policies in favor of our good ones.

I wish for our newly elected House majority to find itself stymied at every turn.  I dream of a minority Democratic Party that votes in lockstep against every goddamn tax cut, cut to essential social services, or act of irresponsible deregulation the Republicans bring up. I want John Boehner to be humiliated politically and personally.  I’d like to see his tenure to be one of complete failure.  I’m curious if he can be made to cry genuine tears of frustration, not just contrived tears of gloating.

Like I said, I am the Tea Party.  I deny that the winners have a mandate; I will brook no compromise with them, irrespective of their electoral victories; I’d rather see us deadlocked in acrimonious debate than moving forward.

Reflecting on this, of course, makes me wonder what I was thinking three days ago, watching the Rally to Restore Sanity.  If only they would be civil and reasonable and moderate – if only we could just sit down and talk.  Forget it.  The problems that confront us are not the tone and volume of politics.  The problem is the content of politics.  For all the associated detritus, elections are ultimately about values.  The wrong values won last night.  Now is not the time for the eternal platitudes of losers (“Now let’s see you govern!”) or searching for some “We’re all patriots” bonhomie.  It’s time to do what they did, which is make a compelling case for why our values—tolerance, comunitarianism, social equality—are better than theirs.

La Revolución Ciudadana Está En Marcha

If laws on the books were all that mattered, I’d put Ecuador way ahead of the U.S.  The new constitution gives a formal right to existence and protection to “nature”, and, somewhat more practically, offers civil unions to gay couples.  Ecuador has nearly open-borders and strict gun control; almost the inverse of the U.S., where we regulate people but not the things that kill them.  The government is taking serious steps to shift the energy grid—already 47% renewable—away from fossil fuels, complemented by schemes to give away free fluorescent lightbulbs and encourage public transportation.  Moreover, all poor families now receive a monthly stipend of $30—not much, but enough to ensure a minimal level of subsistence and dignity.  And, like all civilized countries in the world, Ecuador has done away with the death penalty.

Laws, of course, don’t by themselves count for that much.  Ecuador has had fifteen-plus constitutions, and all have been—on paper—very progressive.  Still, though, if you walk into a government ministry, you get the sense that—with the administration of Rafael Correa and the 2008 Constitution—this time it’s going to be different. Far from sclerotic, the ministries I’ve visited buzz with activity; civil servants working long past 5 p.m., hammering away at excel spreadsheets and pounding out fancy reports that talk about “Long-term planning,” “Economic diversification,” and “Buen vivir.” Perhaps my favourite image came in the Ministry of Patrimony, where I saw a woman dressed in traditional Kichwa garb presiding over a corner office, typing away and rocking out to an iPod, pausing only to fire off instructions to much whiter underlings.  I am quite confident that this could not have happened two decades ago.  The Ecuador of the 21st century, this all seems geared to project, is no banana republic.

All this machinery was on display yesterday at the Cancillería de la Republica, where the government and the United Nations signed the agreement creating the trust fund that makes Yasuní-ITT a reality.  I suppose some of the trappings of the event—Ecuador’s most important people rolling up in fancy SUVs, doors opened by military men in dress uniform, and a red carpet leading up to Ecuador’s Salón los Próceres—are pretty standard affairs for corrupt third-world governments.  What I appreciated, though, was the way these formalities were appropriated for something quite novel.  In the Cancillería, under the gaze of portraits of Ecuador’s military heroes, in this bastion of conservatism and tradition, the Vice-President signed documents declaring Ecuador’s intention to be a post-petroleum eco-state.  In the front row were representatives of the Huaorani indigenous nation.  When we sang the national anthem, we did so in a half-dozen languages, as befits a “plurinational”country.

In my time here, I’ve been reminded why I used to declare F.D.R. my hero, and announce my intention to, someday, become a U.S. Senator.  There’s something inspiring about the potential of the state to decide something and make it so: “Okay, we’re going to fight climate change now.” I remember I used to draw up lists of laws that I thought the country needed, figuring that someone, at some point, needed to tell people how to behave properly; to respect the poor, protect the planet, and live in harmony.  The government of Rafael Correa is, as far as I (and the pollsters) can tell, enormously popular, because—despite making plenty of mistakes along the way—it is doing just that.  Ecuador is changing, a fact that the government trumpets on billboards across the country.  I can’t help but think, if only Barack Obama had the guts.

One day later, as I finish writing this, though, I’m back in the Oriente, 21 minutes away by plane, but a world away in reality.  The pro-Alianza Pais grafitti has disappeared, replaced by slogans denouncing Correa: Neoliberal!  Assassin!  False Socialist! Here—in what Sarah Palin might call the “Real Ecuador”—people aren’t expecting anything from this new administration.  Governments come and go, they make promises, and people scrape by all same.  And I realize that, as fun as it is to talk to government officials who talk about 30 year goals, my work is here.  I’ll learn more about how to fix the country from the old man in the Encebollería down the road than I would had I stayed in Quito and begged for an interview with the vice-President’s office.  Sadly, Yasuní—and the planet—can’t be saved by legislative fiat.

Inspiration in the most likely of places

Yesterday I interviewed Pablo Fajardo, and – while I knew it before I went in – the guy is a genuine hero.

It’s easy to find information online about Pablo—I recommend this Vanity Fair article (really) or the movie Crude—so I will keep this introduction brief.  Fajardo is the son of poor campesinos, born the same year—1972—that Texaco began extracting oil from the Amazon.  Texaco’s operations were essentially unregulated, and it showed: in its two decades of operation, it spilled more oil into the Amazon than Exxon-Valdez (you don’t know about it, at least in part, thanks to an internal memo which asked employees not to report spills).  In the early 1990s, residents of affected areas brought a class-action lawsuit demanding environmental remediation and financial support for people suffering health problems from contaminated soil and water.  I guess it’s clichéd to frame Aguinda v. ChevronTexaco as a “David vs. Goliath” battle, but given that the case breaks down to a battle between a lawyer who started the case one year after finishing night school correspondence courses and a $50-million-a-year legal team from the 11th largest corporation in the world, the label seems, in this instance, accurate.

This being probably the third time in a week that I’ve shared an experience from my research, the astute reader might by now be wondering if I care about anonymity and confidentiality at all. The answer is yes; research ethics are huge for me, which is part of why I am profoundly skeptical of much of what social scientists produce.  But for some people, anonymity isn’t all that important; getting the word out is.  I guess after millions have been spent to discredit you and your brother has been murdered in a campaign to silence you, one kid from Oxford just doesn’t seem that threatening.  Either way, it wasn’t so much what Pablo said that I found amazing, but the more intangible elements of the experience.

My appointment was at 5:00 p.m.—and I didn’t get out of my language classes until 4:56.  Being late to a meeting that I was lucky to get in the first place is something of a worst nightmare for me, so I sprinted off the bus and charged towards his office.  I have yet to figure out addresses in Quito (which consist of the names of two streets and two numbers—go figure), though, and by 5:15, I was not only horribly late for a meeting with an incredibly busy man, but also utterly lost.  I swallowed my pride and called Pablo, who said “No te procupes, stay where you are, I’ll come meet you.” He walked a few blocks and then led me to his office.  I asked him, in a panic, if he still had time, and he said “Of course.  Don’t worry.”

He led me into his office, which was spare except for various hand-drawn and printed posters announcing past rallies and demonstrations and protests against all manner of social evils.  I launched into my introduction, but half-way through he cut me off.  What he really wanted to know, he explained, was how I was going to get my research back to the communities I’m studying.  It was an important question, and one that is already dogging me.  Although at this point I’m perhaps more concerned with merely surviving the summer and having something to show for it, it was nice to be reminded that there is no such thing as a “purely academic”topic.

I have, several times in my life, met social justice activists that I had long idealized—only to discover they had no grip on reality.  As fucked up as the world already is, there’s no need for exaggeration, and yet I’ve often discovered that my leftist “heroes”are more obsessed with government mind-control conspiracy theories than the injustices right in front of them.  Not so with Pablo.  He spoke with firmness and resolve—and, refreshingly, a bit of subtledy.  When referring to the oil industry, he didn’t devolve into a tirade, but simply asked why it is that Ecuador’s highest producing regions are also its poorest.  We drifted towards talking about his vision of the future, a post-petroleum post-capitalist model born not just of idealism, but also necessity.  I got the impression he had, in all seriousness, weighed all the alternatives to his radical views, and found them genuinely wanting.  When I asked him about climate justice, he spoke at length about the need to come to consensus decisions – but then closed by warning that if we in the west do not act, the next class action law suit may involve billions of people.

Around 6:00, our interview ended.  As far as I could tell, all of his law office’s employees—however many of them there are—had gone home.  But he needed to get back to work.  I left feeling inspired and energized.  I guess not all my heroes are assholes.

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.

- – – – -

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.

- – – – -

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.

- – – – -

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.

- – – – -

Jukebox: Audioslave – Be Yourself

Broken Bones and Open Borders

Here’s an exciting life update: I broke my wrist.  I’m not going to go into how it happened, except to state that it did not involve alcohol and that my cover story is that it involved a fight with zombie ninja pirates.  Not a huge deal, but definitely a frustrating and unneeded at a stressful time of the year.  At least I could get a jet black cast that matched my wardrobe.

Immediately after the “incident,” I pushed myself through five hours of statistics in the library before heading off to a review session, at which point some of the more reasonable students in my program convinced me to go to the hospital to get my now comically swollen arm x-rayed.  They bid me adieu with the standard but ominous NHS send-off: “I hope you don’t have to wait too long.”

I’ve approached every experience I’ve had with the NHS so far as if it is the ultimate show-down between private and socialized medicine, with me as scorekeeper.  I’m ready to concede now, though, that – as enthusiastic as I am about participant-observation as a mode of research – the experiences of an accident-prone twenty-three-year-old are probably not sufficient for making a conclusive declaration about either system’s relative merits.  Sure, I didn’t have to wait more a few hours, and I definitely appreciate the $0 bill—but then again, I don’t have cancer and am not waiting for elective surgery.  Thus, I’m abandoning wholesale evaluation in favour of something a bit more obscure: metaphor and symbolism.

One thing that hit me during this most recent visit to an NHS “Accident and Emergency” Room was how little information they wanted about me.  Of course, they wanted to know my date of birth, medical history, and all about my injury.  But certain things we in the U.S. are accustomed to putting into endless forms – occupation, address, nationality, insurance – just don’t matter that much.  The NHS’s goal is to serve the person in front of them, not track them down with a bill or pick a fight with an insurance company.

The brilliance of it is that the NHS is, at least in some ways, impossible to exploit: I can lie or misrepresent myself to no end, and it doesn’t much matter, because the system doesn’t much care who I am so long as I need medical treatment.  We live in a world where government’s exist to categorize and classify and monitor—and yet the NHS is, in a weird way, surprisingly anonymous.  Somewhat counterintuitively, this makes me feel much more like a human being and less like a statistic.

- – – – -

This week in class, we’re discussing “statelessness.”  By “stateless,” we don’t mean refugees who have been ejected from their nations; instead, the term refers to people who literally have no nationality at all and thus—in a world where there is practically no designation more important than citizenship—do not really exist.  It’s a form of non-status that affects fifteen million people worldwide, non-persons ranging from Turkish Cypriots to the children of undocumented immigrants in countries that do not grant birthright citizenship.

All of the literature we’ve read on statelessness focuses on the stateless people as the problem: how, in the modern world, does anyone manage to have no birth certificate or passport?  And how do we fit these square pegs into the round holes of the nation-state system?  How do you legislate for people that are, just by merit of their persisting physical presence, lawless?  I think these are all stupid questions, to be honest.  For most stateless people, having no nationality is a horrible thing—but for some (I’m thinking, for example, of Roma, some indigenous groups, communards), perhaps it reflects their realization of how absurd our modern ideas of citizenship are.

The recent crackdown in Arizona has thrust immigration back into my brain in a big way again for the first time since I stopped taking classes with Professor Fernandez-Kelly at Princeton.  Freshman year, I spent dozens of hours collecting statistics and studies about undocumented immigration, in the hopes that the accumulation of piles of data would convince people that immigration is actually good for all concerned.  With the benefit of a few years of experience—and having watched comprehensive immigration fail over and over—I’m convinced that advocates for sane immigration policy need to go beyond reason.  We need to ask why it is that so much hinges on the lotteries of birth, and why categories and boundaries are so important.

When I think about problems like “statelessness”, I can’t help but think that the problem isn’t with the people, but with the states that throw up barriers between them.  My utopian imagination is once again drawn to a vision of a borderless world, in which we find a better way to sort ourselves than by pre-natal dice-rolls and invisible lines scrawled across the map.  I imagine states that exist to support whomever knocks on the door—acknowledging that we are, after all, in this together—rather than bringing one group in and leaving another outside.

It’s a weird time to live in Europe.  With politicians across the continent talking about gut-wrenching cuts to public services, I can’t help but think that I’m witness to the demise of one of the world’s great political experiments: social democracy.  Of course, I’m pretty sure the creators of the NHS didn’t have such lofty goals as universal citizenship in mind, but—metaphorically at least—I think they’ve created something that reaches towards them.  I’ll be sad if I have to see that go.

- – – – – -

Jukebox: Gaslight Anthem – The Boxer

The Revolution Will Involve Mostly Retired People

Listening to archaic hymns sung from the tower of one of Oxford’s most conservative colleges didn’t quite feel like the proper way to celebrate May Day.  So, to reclaim some activist cred (and, in my own small way, to try to do right by the world), I spent my afternoon in Aylesbury – a town near Oxford – with United Against Fascism, counter-demonstrating against the English Defense League (a “counter-jihadist” group dedicated to driving Muslims out of England).

It feels completely demented to be writing this, but I think there is something appealing about mobilizing against fascism.  Unlike nearly every other issue serious I care about, this is one where most of society seems to be on my side.  In my extremely limited experience (and reading of history), counter-demonstrators tend to outnumber neo-Nazis and their ilk by usually about ten-to-one, and as a result these events are – in a weird way – fabulous moments of unity and people-power.  After a week in which I was asked about fifty times, “You’re from Arizona, right?  Why do you hate immigrants?” it felt good to be challenging xenophobia and racism (albeit of the English Defense League’s uniquely disgusting brand).

The protest, though, was a disaster.  The city council decided to grant the EDL a permit to march but put UAF in an isolated city park, surrounded on all sides by police officers.  While I’d like to tell some noble or romantic story about a group of outnumbered activists being swamped by vile skin-heads – or, perhaps, blame our failure on the absurd restrictions placed by right-wing local politicians– the reality was there were so few of us that the EDL could just march by.  We listened to a few speeches that talked – dishonestly, I’m afraid to say – about how our little demonstration would be heard around the country and how this was a turning point in the fight against fascism, got back on our coach, and left.  Everyone knew that, any way you might measure it, we lost – even newspaper coverage of the event relegated us to a footnote.

I’ve now been to a good number of demonstrations during my time in England: against the War in Afghanistan, pro-apartheid Israeli politicians, and animal testing, and in favor of university divestment from arms companies and action on climate change.  At least compared to Americans, the British do seem to like protesting.  But what has consistently struck me, though, is how old the attendees usually are.  Today, our small group was composed mostly of a hodge-podge of socialists who talked about Trotsky like they knew him and aging trade unionists who seemed trapped in the era before globalization when unions actually mattered.  Within Oxford, it’s largely the same group of pensioners that can be counted on to show up to wave placards.  18,000 students, and no more than a half-dozen can ever be bothered.

The running line in the U.S. is that if you’re not liberal and under thirty-five, you lack a heart, and if you’re over thirty-five and not conservative, you lack a brain.  Increasingly, though, it seems to me like at least among the left, the reality is the exact opposite.  The idealists are from an older cohort, while the twenty-somethings are more hard-hearted, committed to gradual change and political reform.  My generation is extremely cynical about the efficacy of things like mass protest.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told by fellow Princetonians that they support a cause, but they won’t show up to a rally, because “that never changes anything.”

They are, of course, half-right.  The 1960s brought us more riots, demonstrations, and marches than any decade before—but they didn’t bring us utopia.  Waving placards and clogging streets probably isn’t the way to bring about a social revolution.  I wonder, though, if while protesting hasn’t changed anything, maybe it prevents things from being much worse.  Perhaps those scraps of citizenship and fragments of entitlements we enjoy exist only because there is a cadre of people who yell and kick and scream whenever the people in power try to take them away?  Would Aylesbury be a worse place now were it not for a handful of people registering their dissent?  And maybe, just maybe, it mattered that there were 75 demonstrators, not 74, and that extra sign-waver was an young American from Arizona.

Who knows if I’m right?  Maybe protesting really is a waste of time.  I suppose, at the rate the activists around me seem to be aging, we’ll find out in a few decades.

- – – – -

Jukebox: Rise Against – Halfway There