Building the Future Today: A book review of Nowtopia

$18.00, AK Press 2008

By Cris Carlsson

“Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today!” explores the subcultures of subtle and active resistance to the dominate US consumer culture. Author Chris Carlsson argues that today, the American working class is not able to organize through traditional union politics, since people work in jobs where they move around a lot or are more individualized in smaller units, like smaller shops or service jobs, with many different locations, as opposed to the factory setting of the 20th century. He says that active resistance focuses on creating a “nowtopia” approach rather than a far off future utopia. He touches on a variety of people in the US engaged in building this new world today, instead of confronting the old existing capitalist world order. Examples he gives include the DIY ethic, urban gardeners, bicyclist, hackers and internet freaks, the Burning Man, left-wing scientists, and free fuel activists.

Urban gardeners reclaim otherwise decaying urban cities, where drugs and crime plague neighborhoods, and try to get food from the land. The gardens take back private property, long abandoned by slum lords, and turn it into public land or a commons for the neighbors and by the neighbors, growing and sharing food. More often than not, women lead in rebuilding a sense of community by putting in gardens and caring for them. Green Philadelphia, a network promoting urban gardens in Philadelphia areas taken over by drugs, empowered residents to be in charge of their neighborhoods. In the 1990s, Mayor Giuliani saw the NYC vacant lot gardeners as a threat to private enterprise, even calling them communists, and basically declared war on the gardeners, forcing them to engage in active fights to preserve gardens and to prevent the land on which they sat from being sold to development schemes.

Carlsson also explores bike culture, like the Critical Mass protests that occur in cities throughout the world typically taking place the last Friday of the month. Bicyclists show that there is a viable, healthy, environmentally friendly and affordable alternative to car culture. Particularly in cities walking, biking or taking public transit provide valuable alternates to cars, lessening air, noise soil and water pollution. He interviews people who’ve opened up bike repair spaces to anyone who wants learn. In San Francisco, he focuses on programs that teach bike repair to children in low income neighborhoods. He also interviews people who rebel against mainstream bike culture, with its glossy magazines and spandex. The bike messenger culture, a highly individualistic, very punk subculture, has organized into messenger unions, but one in San Francisco fizzled out because the sponsoring union eventually pulled out and suffered backlash from the courier companies.

He looks at using open source software against corporate giants like microsoft. And he discusses the Burning Man festival. Although described by its organizers as an experiment in community, radical self-expression, and self-reliance, and promoting an idea of attenders who are all participants with its “no spectators” concept, not allowing monetary exchange so that attendees allegedly learn to think outside of the capitalist structure and re-evaluate “value” by bartering skills and things, Carlsson acknowledges that the festival has become another for-profit enterprise.

Throughout the book, Carlsson asks various people what they think their class background is. They usually respond that they aren’t sure but thought they were some kind of middle class. He takes that to mean that the US working class is not something around which to organize. I think he might be forgetting that the US education system does not explicitly teach people about class. Even in the UK, where people often say they are working class even when they are not,

interestingly similar to and yet different from the US where everyone thinks they’re middle class from sanitation workers to US Senators. He berates unions over and over because they look at class from an outdated point of view. I agree: unions don’t organize people anymore (I think that is the fault of US unions not of unionism). Though unions and the labor movement have been slow to adapt to the changing economy, I don’t think that throws out a worker-driven movement.

A part I did like about this book is that it explained the concept of “Multitudes”, developed and used by people like Negri, in language that was more on my level, so I finally figured out what it means (there are multiple classes of people instead of one working class).

All in all, the book is an interesting read, though it is a bit choppy and maybe the author jumps to conclusions too quickly. Still, it’s cool to see what other people are doing to organize and agitate or self-organize as far as interests outside of my own. I’ve never been someone who’s thought that you can only do one thing (“either, or”), and all else is damned. For any movement to thrive, there has to be a whole lot of people doing all kinds of stuff¬ to resist and reject the dominant cultures, as well as organizing within it and for a better future beyond it.