Despite the abolition of chattel slavery, other forms of slavery abound. Wage slavery, sex slavery, debt slavery. Plus that form of labor permitted in the language of the thirteenth amendment, which forbids slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crime”: i.e., prison labor. Prisoners who refuse to comply are placed in solitary confinement. American capitalism is a legal-political-economic construct built atop these various slaveries. White workers organized after the Civil War. Blacks were often excluded from these organizations and fraternities. Mike Davis tells part of that history in his classic study Prisoners of the American Dream. The story also receives treatment in Robin Blackburn’s An Unfinished Revolution. The latter includes a series of letters exchanged between Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War. Against those wishing to maintain racially segregated workplaces stood the International Working Men’s Association, a group that sought to unite “black and white, men and women, native and foreign-born.” The IWA may never have acquired more than a few thousand supporters in its day. What interests me now, though, is not organization so much as abolitionism and antifascism, rebellion and revolt.
Upon finding employment on his third day in the Northern city of New Bedford, Frederick Douglass declares himself his own master. “I was now my own master,” he writes. This is a “happy moment” — one of the few such moments in Douglass’s narrative. Its rapture can be understood, he says, “only by those who have been slaves” (78). The scene leaves me wondering: at what point is there no longer someone robbing us of the rewards of our work? The employment Douglass has found is a form of wage slavery, is it not? Is the reward not taken in the setting of the wage by the capitalist? Are Marx and Engels wrong? In what sense is the wage relation not a form of slavery? Labor hours remain at the command of external masters under capitalism. The economy one faces is manufactured by the State, and the State is a mere police-backed conspiracy of land developers and financiers. All of us are in some way or another pressed into its service. Those of us in entertainment and education — those of us manning the ISAs, as Louis Althusser would say — we’re the functional equivalent of PsyOps officers. Yet we can always rebel — and many of us do. Wizards needn’t always be their wizards. There are fugitive histories to be learned, memories of fugitive ancestors awaiting remembrance through fugitive study. Because if the past isn’t past, as Faulkner wrote, and the demand on the streets is “NO COPS / NO JAILS / NO LINEAR FUCKING TIME,” then abolitionists are among us today, their cause as just as it was a century and a half ago.
Songs play in my mind as if echoing down a long corridor or hallway. An auditory memory, some imaginary or half-remembered AM gold, retro in the way of Ariel Pink. Lo-fi, hypnagogic, like a band practice heard from the street. After the sixties, we land in Philip K. Dick’s drug-war dystopia A Scanner Darkly, reading the book’s critique of McDonalds hamburgers while eating McDonalds french fries. Dick’s observations about the spread of capitalist reality appear beside the buy-sell calculations of the book’s drug-addict protagonist, capitalism thus glimpsed and understood as a system that compels us to think and behave like addicts hooked on “product.” It’s a bleak book, its cop characters as stunted and debased as its dopers — the two ultimately the same, in fact, in the case of the protagonist, an undercover narcotics officer who also uses and deals a drug called Substance D.
I stand on my back deck staring at fallen leaves, listening, building a sense of place, attending to sights and sounds generated by neighboring beings: birds, squirrels, planes, trees, automobiles. A small bird lands beside me and sings to me, dancing in rapid increments. It pecks, it eats, it leaps, flitting to and fro. Capitalism encloses us in its habitus, its time-discipline, its states and estates. Yet there in its borders and interstices, in its gutters and margins, fugitive life proceeds apace. Imaginary bagpipes drone betwixt dueling leafblowers. A sound blown in honor of comrades who died 40 years ago today in the Greensboro Massacre. Mysterious books call out to me, rise off shelves and land in my hands, ready to be read. By these means, I happen upon The Knee of Listening by Franklin Jones, aka Da Free John, sensing immediately in his use of language evidence of a fellow head. Jones began graduate study in English at Stanford University in 1961. He must have been part of Ken Kesey’s cohort. At the very least he volunteered as a subject in the same drug experiments as Kesey, MK-Ultra experiments run out of the Veterans Administration hospital in the early 1960s.
A kid interrupts my wondering about my relationship to Language Poetry. Leaning over a low fence as I sweep leaves from my back deck, he hails me with a “Working hard or hardly working?” or some such commodified, scripted banter, then tries to sell me an alternative media provider. My response is “No thanks, capitalist roleplayer. You bore me,” thus in no uncertain terms sending him on his way. Back to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Why have I never taught any of that material, venturing only so far as poets with whom they conversed? Ginsberg, Olson, Mackey, et al. I suppose I’ve lacked courage — though opportunities to do so also never materialized, really, until this past year or so. Perhaps it just felt a bit too rarefied. Work that makes demands, with comparatively little gain. When does one have time enough to keep up with contemporary poetry? Apparently I did, if only for a brief moment, during my first years out of college, during my stint as a “text editor.” Back when I used to sit at a computer all day listening to early recordings from PennSound and the Kelly Writers House.
My relationship to food is bound up with my discontent under capitalism. The latter arranges within me a libidinal economy, an internal punishment-reward system, an internal calculus of hours for work and time for play, with no allowance for the planning and prepping of meals. By the time I contemplate dinner each day, cooking appears difficult, time-intensive. When Sarah and I arrive home each afternoon, neither of us wants to grocery shop — so we opt to eat out at restaurants in town, despite the undesirability of most local fare. To will change, I imagine, one would have to plan. One would have to commit to a recipe and buy ingredients. One would have to anticipate one’s appetite –becoming, in a sense, known in advance. It needn’t be a chore, though. It can be as simple and as pleasurable as going to a supermarket and eating more veggies. Kim Gordon can soundtrack it with her song “Hungry Baby,” head frequented afterwards by the owl on her song “Olive’s Horn.”
By these means, we quiet ourselves temporarily to hear the speech of the birds. Ginsberg cranks up afterwards, addressing the nation by way of apostrophe. “America” appears in his poem of that name as an “absent third party.” Those of us who receive the poem find ourselves implicated in this party, just as it occurs to Ginsberg mid-poem that he is America and that he’s talking to himself. Childish Gambino uses the same mode of address in “This Is America,” speaking candidly toward song’s end, confronting listeners with the line, “America, I just checked my following list and / You mothafuckas owe me.”
Cars drive by as I sit at a picnic table in a neighborhood park. A house across the street from the park contains among its Halloween decorations a sign stating, “Eat More Veggies.” The letters appear painted in red beside a red hand, and beside the sign stand ghosts and tombstones. Appropriate seasonal attire, I think to myself, my mind drifting off to contemplate the coming holiday. There’s work to be done; the basement of our house remains an issue. I’m reminded of the old “base-superstructure” construct, hearing in it now, after all those years reading about it in grad school, a set of moral abstractions, a marriage of contraries equal in power to Freud’s reality and pleasure principles or Blake’s heaven and hell. As societies of both matter and mind, we can arrange ourselves in a variety of ways; we needn’t always be arboreal and hierarchical. Yet we do need to deal with capitalism and climate change, and their local, existential correlates.
I roll down the passenger-side window and sit in my wife’s parked car beside a prickly bush, bothered by my historical moment but trying to breathe, trying to find joy and cheer despite the gridded, hyper-branded environment. A kiss and I feel much better. Roses, rainbow umbrellas, Moses Boyd’s “Rye Lane Shuffle.” Or better still: Yussef Kamaal’s “Black Focus.”
The relationship to capitalism is one forced upon me, my consent squeezed out of me every time I share space with others, i.e. every moment of every hour. How do I shed the anger I carry about, so as not to be troubled by headlines, flags, courts, markets, affairs of state — the recklessness and hostility of the American present? One way is to discover a secret history of underground resistance, like the one featuring Michael Aldrich, author of “Marijuana Myths & Folklore,” the first Ph.D dissertation on cannabis in the US, completed at SUNY Buffalo in 1970. Aldrich founded the first college chapter of LEMAR in 1967 and was co-founder of Amorphia (1969-1973), the organization that sponsored the first California Marijuana Initiative in 1972. Download issues of old counterculture newspapers like Oz, Gandalf’s Garden, the Ann Arbor Sun, and The Marijuana Review. Allow magical meanings to reveal themselves day by day. By that, I suppose I mean synchronicities and sermons heard in birdsong. Leary associate Art Kleps seems to have preferred something more than that. For him, “ideas of reference” are where it’s at, as he claims in The Boo Hoo Bible (161). But mine is the path of Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Aparigraha, and Brahmacarya: the five principles of Yama.
I hear myself hissing in syncopation with taps of a ride cymbal on Jeremy Steig’s “Sure Shot”-inspiring psych-flute classic “Howlin’ for Judy.”
The 2008 compilation of that name gives the mind-body a good workout. But since debt remains like a concrete block atop my speculative horizon, I read while listening to “Nardis” Annie McClanahan’s mapping of my subjection in her book Dead Pledges where she writes, “Put simply, for many students today, the cost of an education is greater than the lifetime income gains it enables, making human capital a rather dire form of speculation indeed” (193). I picture myself as a character, a kind of Frankenstein’s monster — the proletarian subject awakening to consciousness of itself as undervalorized, hyper-exploited wage-slave. In other words, awoken to its place in hell, where student loan debt and its consequences lasts forever. But because awoken, this subject can use music, meditation, reading and writing to steal back moments each day for beauty and freedom to love. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, my people sold me off into debt-slavery — but because it’s the 21st century, they can contact me from time to time via cellphone. Electromagnetic salt for speculative wound. Is it “cruel optimism” that makes me write? Is it wrong to go on fantasizing given these circumstances? I have yet to find anyone able to suggest to me another viable way to be. Of course, to default is also a form of political action. A secret power by which to reckon with the totality. In moments like this, “theory” opens up to me as a special communication creating grounds on which to gather in solidarity, as Chris Nealon says, with “those for whom the regime of capital only spells suffering” (as quoted in McClanahan 196).
Harried with work, days and days of grading midterms, I stumble free mid-afternoon into observation and contemplative reading of the Afros of the White Panther Party, dining on a side of green lettuce. How compartmentalized the days become under capitalist wage-slavery, I think with a sigh. Oscillations, electronic evocations of reality. Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair in the midst of the last civil war represented themselves on the stage of history as revolutionary superheroes. But department stores are weird trips, man. Compartmentalized to the nth degree. Objects hung from racks in one thinly-populated zone, dense diverse clusters of people and sound elsewhere. How might we reconnect? I pick up a faceted wood vase and tap at it, questioningly. A voice in a nearby aisle proclaims, “it feels so real!” Materials when touched, not what they seem. And these motherfuckers no longer carry my Heinz Jalapeño Ketchup. Reality becomes ever more standardized, with me too jittery and anxious to connect, strike up conversation with others. As in the song, I become “lost in the supermarket.” It’s at least in part a fear of race and sexuality. But mainly it’s a fear that to others I might seem a weirdo, a creep, a stoner. I wish we could somehow become heads together. How do we re-establish communication across the plastic dome?