Beyond Voting: Guerrilla Gardeners, Outlaw Bicyclists & Pirate Programmers
Chris Carlsson is a long-time community organizer, writer and radical historian based in San Fransisco. He helped launch the Critical Mass monthly bike-ins, which now take place in five continents and over 300 cities, and was a founder of the dissident magazine, Processed World, a publication reporting on the "underside of the Information Age." These experiences enrich his enjoyable and fascinating new book, Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today (AK Press, 2008).
A driving argument throughout the book is that nowtopians are more than their jobs or class, and are working outside of the capitalist economy to create "A social revolt against being reduced to 'mere workers,' to being trapped in the objectified and commodified status of labor power." It is this movement that the dynamic book focuses on, telling stories from across the garden plots, bicycle parties and kitchen tables that play essential roles in creating utopia now. Though there are many more examples of community organizing and activist work that could ever fit into the pages of one book, Nowtopia presents compelling stories of activism that anyone can learn from.
In a chapter on vacant-lot gardeners Carlsson digs into the roots and legacies of community gardening. Readers are informed that during World War I, a campaign was launched to "plant for freedom" and "hoe for liberty" in which five million gardeners produced $520 million in food in just two growing seasons. By 1944, in World War II, 18-20 million families had "
Yet as this book illustrates, these gardens grow more than food, they grow community. Neighbors come together around gardens, experiences and knowledge are shared across generations, and empty city lots once full of fear and street violence are replaced by gardeners with flowers, vegetables and families.
Community gardening also offers a down to earth alternative to buying in to the corporate food world. Environmental justice activist Jessica Hayes, for example, who worked at The Food Project in Boston, said, "I can fight that [industrial agricultural system] until I die, but at the same time build an alternative so that at some point we can just cut the global system off."
Another nowtopian activity understandably outlined in this book is bicycling. This mode of transport has long been applauded by activists against oil wars, oil dependency and cars. Like gardening, working together to fix and ride bikes can also build community. In Nowtopia, Ted White talks of his experience at the Center for Appropriate Transport in
Carlsson also guides readers through the rich history of bicycle zines, providing the example of the early 1990s zine called Mudflap by Greta Snider, where the author wrote a cartoon called Equipment Fetish, which goes, "you know how it feels... there's something so good about MACHINE PARTS...knurled wheels, dials, level meters; the KA-CHUNK of a shutter, the clicks of indexed things falling into place..." In her zine, Snider also tells stories of "haunts for bike-punks in
Other zines and publications cited by Carlsson critique the car culture of the
Nowtopia also moves off the streets and into cyberspace in another chapter called "The Virtual Spine of the Commons" which includes a brief people's history of the internet, and a celebration of the rise of open and free software. This software movement, Carlsson writes, has "helped to radically reduce the price of software, providing access to thousands of new programmers and technically skilled people." However, he laments the fact that with programs like Blogger, MySpace and YouTube, "A profitable business model arose by placing things people have been making privately for a long time (personal diaries, novels, photos, ramblings, poetry, school gazettes, etc.) in a public context of advertising and ecommerce, and then working to make those public, commercial platforms as monopolistic as possible."
The author also shows many examples of how the internet has been an incredible organizing, media and fundraising tool for social movements and activists all over the world. From the Zapatistas getting their messages out via the internet, to non-profits and social organizations networking in ways that were unimaginable in pre-internet days, Carlsson analyzes the highs and lows of this powerful tool. He writes, "Typically, online communities are criticized for promoting disembodied and immaterial connections. Too often political campaigns that may once have mobilized a street action or something directly physical have instead turned into a cascade of emails and online petitions. But as the remarkable participation in the February 2003 global anti-war demonstrations revealed, the same electronic communities can network themselves to produce an unprecedented public demonstration."
At the end of election day, many of the nowtopians we encounter in this book will likely still be teaching kids how to fix bikes instead of take standardized tests, crunching their shovels into new soil and democratizing cyberspace. Carlsson's Nowtopia reminds us that there is much work to do beyond simply voting, and the examples he outlines in his book can be a good place to start, or expand, your own local revolutions. They are not necessarily end-all solutions, but could be catalysts toward broader social change and movements. As Carlsson writes, a nowtopia might be right around the corner: "An unfolding potential can and does erupt in the most surprising places, seemingly simple and limited but also embodying deeper aspirations for a more profound transformation."
Benjamin Dangl is the editor of Vermont-based TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and the author of "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in