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.
I lean back in a reclining chair on my back deck. Birds fly past as clouds roll in overhead. One does as one can. The proletarian’s work regime leaves him exhausted.
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).
Jan Hammer Group’s “Don’t You Know” serenaded me on my commute to work yesterday, a warm reminder of the previous night’s high.
Compelled by sheer force of lifelong dissatisfaction, I will jimmy the lock on the prison. I will put weed in my head and float ethereally, the walls of reality made light, airy, tenuous. The mind constructs doorways and portals. Darkness opens onto light. My world was corrupted down to the molecules, the atoms, by fuzzy memories, blurry abstractions. Worlds have been exchanged like seasons. And always, the mystery that instructs through its silent structure, the enigma of Being, with unknown end. Next thing you know, we’ve invented for ourselves an entire weed-inflected grammar. Become a “strange man,” I tell myself, who in disguise writes himself into Being. Create a sense of levels — worlds within worlds. Or, after crashing through, land on one’s feet and inquire after Thomas Pynchon and his views regarding LSD.
Awareness comes by putting things together. I recall seeing a lovely fog yesterday as I careened toward the diploma mill, the air bathed in yellow morning light. A friend and I exchanged texts throughout the day about all the many ways capitalism has fucked us since grad school. Working sixty hours or so a week translates into exhaustion, resentment of others, no time for housecleaning or physical fitness, no time for labor-power to engage in even the most basic forms of self-repair. And of course, our superiors never miss a chance to demand from us some additional act of debasement. We’re supposed to show gratitude, apparently, for these thorns they’ve planted in our temples. You’re one of the lucky ones, they warn. Give thanks or we’ll make it worse. Hence, in reaction, the turn inward: “me” time, breathwork, re-embodiment through relaxation. And I’ll never have time to collect all of the words, but that’s all the more reason to try. What would we learn, for instance, if we looked up Malta’s 1919 Sette Giugno revolts? A revolt stirred by the price of bread. What if we combine that with quantum tunneling? The last image is too immediate, as Pynchon once said, for any eye to register. Think of all of the properties of reality we’ve not yet learned to see.
Yesterday began with the rescue of Lou Reed’s Street Hassle and Steven Halpern’s Spectrum Suite, both of which turned up on vinyl mid-morning amid Mantovanian dreck in the bins at Goodwill. Afterwards, I drove to campus, my Horatian Ode derailed by mere rhetoric, the literary at odds with the fast-paced commercial. History as the text’s intertext, Trump’s America oozing into every moment of one’s embodiment in the present. Poet and fiction-writer friends read from their work. Pink light, concentrated into single beam. As day approached evening, the sky erupted into radioactive pink against an ever-deepening blue. Not too much more, too much more. Murky, kudzu-clothed shadow-trees hung over me, filling me with welcome reverence. In the moments before dark I forever and ever locked eyes in what I interpreted as a show of mutual respect with a cat in my neighborhood. The magic around me prepares to repeat itself for another season. I find meaning in this, the world’s parts become rhyme, no matter the slant. The day shapes what I write, and what I write shapes the day. What of the film version of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur?
A loving assemblage of voices and impressions. What can be heard, though, when we go inward? No gurgling creek. Beatniks launch out on a weed-and-alcohol-fueled weekend romp. Kerouac’s alcoholism was the snake he invented to keep him from his own creation. To stave off death, he frames experience as the passage of a soul through its seasons. The postwar subject suffers its alienation from others via words. Whereas today’s suffers soul-death as perpetual contingent labor. Reality steals away from us our powers, our capacities, our faculties. One’s wit is applied to standardized drool, in a stalemate of crossed purposes: meum and tuum. Barely sensate, the one risks becoming by the other crushed underfoot. One must defend oneself, rise up, demand more.
Return to me the vision of the post-scarcity Noble Savage. I prefer it to the belief that only a properly constituted society and reformed system of education could make humans good. Able to live in egalitarian plenty. Instead, history is about to culminate in a monstrous epoch of universal conflict and mutual destruction. Collective nouns go silent one by one. The one, because self-conscious, thinks it needs to put itself above others. Hence our current mess. Voices get in our heads. Ghosts. It’s like tinnitus. I no longer want anything to do with the certification industry. That’s all education is anymore. Certification of would-be modern-day plantation owners and Indian-killers. Schools leverage testing, punishment, and the trauma of near-constant boredom in order to transform imaginative beings into cop-worshiping, mortgage-paying members of middle-management. Proponents, armed with nukes, wish to extend this twenty-first century plantation-via-franchise system to all corners of the globe, using “protection of national interests” as justification for perpetual military deployments abroad. Those who perform their duties, those who consent to assessment, are no less complicit than those who lead. I no longer even have the hope of fellow wage slaves waking up and becoming allies of mine, comrades. We’re all too chickenshit. My resentment of myself and others manifests as a total all-encompassing white-hot rage. When others show up to work, I have to work, and vice versa — thus making us mutual enemies. What’s the point? I work all day just to come home and stand in line at fast-food burrito joints. Slop for defeated workers.
My favorite works of art are psychedelic, and usually partake of what I like to call an “inner-cosmic epic” aesthetic involving ego death, ascension, discovery of hidden realms, humans becoming gods, gods become human — essentially, journeys inward to the edges of the known and beyond. I encountered formative works of this sort as a child: Marvel’s Secret Wars comics, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Legends trilogy, adolescent geek culture seeded with radical cosmic fallout from the psychedelic art of the 60s and 70s. Are there similar works available today, readying the soon-to-be heads of Generation Z? “Work,” though — that source of all blues. Let me just say, “What a fucking drag.” My blood boils. I can’t even look at anything having to do with it. And now I’m going to have to run around wasting consciousness — and by that I mean creative labor-power and labor-time — hustling for some alternative form of it. My time was to be used on a project of self discovery and collective redemption. Not on this bullshit. The philistine capitalist devils among the ranks of my countrymen have succeeded. They’ve stripped me of the right to determine my own life practice and life product. They’re fucking with my daily ritual, my devotion to my chosen craft. If you want me to educate, then allow me time to read and write. And let the writing be the teaching. That is the life I want. And fuck anyone who tries to guilt me for that. Fuck my employer, too, though, for threatening me with non-renewal of my contract. That’s right: my job and the jobs of some of my coworkers are now in jeopardy. The chair of my department called an emergency meeting midweek. “I regret to inform you,” he announced, “but our provost has been ordered by administrators higher up the food chain (either the president or the board of trustees) to cut instructor positions in departments across the campus.” Looking ruefully at my colleagues and I, he predicted that, among the half-dozen faculty holding these positions within our department, several of us are likely to be let go Apprentice-style by schoolyear’s end, with letters announcing the university’s decision to can us likely to arrive in our mailboxes sometime in October. So a pox on those country-club cornbread motherfuckers. Job market, here I come.
All of us contain within ourselves fragmentary shadow selves. Drink it up, knock it back. If illustrations of butterflies are not your thing, turn instead to Search For the Vanished Heaven, an at-times-morose, at-times-pagan 2016 triple cassette by Irish multi-instrumentalist David Colohan, performing under the alias Raising Holy Sparks.
The plague, the Black Death: perhaps some future version of our side went back in time somewhere ‘Carmen Sandiego’-style and planted it. As of this moment, the Capitalist State has already broadcast two failed reality TV shows where participants are tasked with building a new society: Utopia, which FOX pulled from the air in 2014, and Eden, which ran for nine episodes last year on Britain’s Channel 4. Of course they failed, right? How else would such texts arrive at a sense of closure? All the same, though: are there lessons of a more productive sort we might draw from these ventures, like “hey comrades, don’t entrust television production companies with the power to select the members of your intentional community”? Of course, this assumes that we have some choice in the matter, which we don’t. Regardless of my views about utopianism, for instance, I’m still stuck showing up to my classes on Labor Day and having to perform for shitbag conservatives who slouch in their chairs at the back of the class and sneer, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” I squeeze below the bridge of my nose in an attempt to relieve some pressure. Life of a wage slave. We must despise and resist all enslavements. “The Reagan Show!” announces my cellphone, as if to troll me: “A CNN Film, Tonight, 9PM Eastern.” And elsewhere, like a little bee in my ear, dueling AI predictions tossed between Elon Musk and Vladimir Putin via Twitter. Words don’t do justice. They’re distractions. The two figureheads of large entities are just drumming up attention to attract investors for competing ventures. Capitalism is thy name, thy will be done. What a fucking shitshow. My partner and I, meanwhile, sighing and groaning. All we do is work, as our bodies decline and falter. The cars beneath the screen at the drive-in look like carefully stacked rows of coffins. Oh shit — PHINERY just dropped some cassette-tape craziness. Jesse Sparhawk’s What Winter Was?
Hit that. Get on that pronto. Lever harp is a great instrument, I say determinedly, as if wanting to give a fist bump, or some similar symbol of approval, before soaring clean out of sight.