An Apparently Impossible Problem

My friend Jes Minah reminded me of a piece I wrote last year:

Do you remember when you told us about strawberry jam and snowflakes on our tongues and leaving the stuck bus?

I do.

I forgot.

I read it again, that piece. And now I remember, and now I remember the fear and all the concerns and I’m sorry for those.  I wish I had a better answer, but I think maybe this will help with some of the concerns I’ve been reading about what any group of people would do after-Capitalism.

The most recent concern, highly justified, has been about what folks with disabilities might do without access to Capitalist means of distribution of products necessary to their survival.  This applies to many people, people with HIV, diabetes, cancer, people suffering from mental-illness, and many, many other difficulties.

It is also a vital question for everyone, dis-abled or abled, rich or poor, queer or straight, white or Black, trans or cis.

Hostages On a Stuck Bus

Currently, many of the protections of minorities in Western cultures derive from a ‘deal’ made between the powerful and the power-less.  Groups demand rights and protection from the government through long struggles, often violent (on the government’s side more often) until finally the government consents to grant some right or protection to us.  Gay-rights struggles, for instance, have involved a group of people noticing how we’re treated poorly (and killed), demanding recognition after long years of oppression, and then finally ‘winning’ something.   The same is true of every struggle.

And, there’s an unfortunate aspect we don’t bring up much about this.  Each time the government grants protection, recognition, or rights, it gains legitimacy.  Consider–a police force may regularly beat up gays (I’ve seen it personally multiple times), but when a gay person is attacked, what do they do?  They call the police.

Thus, a group of uniformed thugs who are terrible to gays then gets legitimized by gays when we ask them for help.  The same thing happens for Black communities–particularly with the tactic known as ‘de-policing,’ where the police will greatly reduce their response to legitimate calls from Black communities to retaliate after Black protests regarding the shooting of an un-armed Black man.  In essence, it’s the police department thuggishly re-enforcing their legitimacy into communities with very-justified complaints about police behavior, holding victims hostage until they comply.

The government does the same thing, as does the Capitalist class.

An HIV+ person, for instance, is vulnerable on several levels.  Without vital medications, they can find themselves dying from infections most people without HIV wouldn’t even notice.  They rely on anti-retrovirals to keep them alive.

And at current, these are distributed through the Capitalist system. It took decades to even get the government to care about people dying of AIDS, and the situation we have now is pretty horrible.  Pharmaceutical corporations manufacture medications and charge exorbitant prices in order to maintain massive profits.  They’re the only ones who make them; they hold the key to certain people’s survival.

Thus, any disruption to the Capitalist system represents a potentially deadly situation for HIV+ people who are, generally, feared and often hated by the majority of people anyway.  And that sets them in a position where their interests in survival may clash with their recognition that these companies are exploiting them.

Now, consider.  This same thing happens to all of us to some degree.  If you don’t go to work, you cannot eat.  If you cannot eat, you die.

And for people who’ve ‘won’ protections from the government, similar problems occur.  Gay people rely on laws which punish hate-crimes more severely than other crimes.  We get these from the government, and that government supports Capitalism and kills people in the middle-east.  Our interests in survival come in direct conflict with any anti-Capitalist or anti-war sentiments we might have, and occasionally the government will use our status as a protected group to gain our support, as was done during the wars in the early 2000’s.  This happened, too, with women–Laura Bush began calling herself a ‘feminist’ and suddenly one of the justifications for obliterating an entire country was to ‘protect women, just like in America.’

Seeing through such propaganda isn’t easy, especially when the fears closest to our existence are played upon.  If America were on the edge of anti-Capitalist revolt at the moment (it’s not), you can be assured that the fear of what might come after will be on everyone’s lips.

Consider, though.  This means our complicity in the current system, the reason why we don’t fight very hard to change the entire thing, the reason why we settle, the reason why we’ll even fight to protect it, is fear.

We are terrified, and justifiably so.

Nasty, Brutish, and False

I plan to write a few essays on this at some point, but many other writers have already done an incredible job dealing with this terror.

I will describe this problem briefly here, though.  Capitalism both relies upon and actively encourages selfishness.  Each actor in a Capitalist market must assume that their best interests are the only interests, otherwise they’ll suffer.

Consider–you could buy expensive recycled environmentally-friendly toilet paper at personal cost to you, or you can buy cheap unsustainable toilet paper and have money to buy soap, as well.  This same individual reasoning plays out through the whole system, and Capitalism relies upon each person being ‘only out for themself’ in order to continue.

But…this is new.  Really, it is.  Humans may be competitive, yes, but they are also co-operative.  That’s why there are cities (I highly recommend Sannion’s brilliant piece on Aphrodite and love for this).  Also, in apparent calamity, people don’t do what Capitalism needs them to do, they do the opposite (see both Rebecca Solnit‘s essays on this, as well as Alley Valkyrie’s beautiful piece on a black-out in New York City).

And the reasons why we believe humans are only-out-for-themselves are varied, but systematic and ideological.  Calvinism started this, Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Hobbes helped, and then both Social Darwinism (see Crystal Blanton’s great piece on this) and now Evolutionary Psychology all re-inforce these ideas.

We believe that Capitalism is the only way to live not because we have any rational reason to think this, but because it’s been taught, socialized, re-inforced, and terrorised into us.  And we believe no-one will watch out for us or want to help us and we’ll all be left on our own to fight and die if the systems that provide for (and control) us disappear.

But it’s not fucking true, because we already don’t do that, even though it would profit us individually more in the short term.  Most people don’t push people in wheel-chairs into on-coming traffic, few of us would refuse to lend money to a friend in dire need, almost none of us would cut off a person’s life-support, even if we hated them.

But people might do those things for profit.  Thus, we’ve got brutal police, mind-wracked soldiers, callous politicians, and corporations who will hold people’s lives at expensive ransom.  That’s Capitalism, not ‘human nature.’  That’s the system we have now, not the system we want.

The way to get the system we want, one more in-line with love and solidarity will be hard, and it involves building communities that create and provide things outside profit, as well as claiming rights rather than begging for them.  That’s really, really hard fucking work, the stuff we should have started decades ago.

As I said in that piece Jes kindly reminded me of, it seems like an apparently impossible problem. And my life has all been about apparently impossible problems.  And here’s what I wrote last time:

A Winter’s Tale

Photo by Nick Ferro
Photo by Nick Ferro

Wanna hear a story?

There was this moment with a lover of mine, a few winters ago.  We’d gone together to get wax to make candles and the stuff for glühwein (German mulled wine), and we got stuck on a bus in a snowstorm at the bottom of a steep hill.  We’d had little time to do much together, had both been ground-down by our jobs and the difficulties of our relationship and our various lives, and this simple errand had been a beautiful thing to do together, seemingly crushed by a sudden storm.

The bus wasn’t going anywhere.  Cars spun out, slid back down the hill past the bus.  We were gonna be there for hours before the bus would ever start moving again, and it looked like the world was against us, the same way every awesome thing we– both from abject poverty and families rife with mental troubles–ever tried to do would fall apart in the face of impossibility.

Both of our lives, actually, were impossible.  I grew up in abject poverty in Appalachia to an abusive father and a developmentally-disabled (they used to call people with her intelligence quotient “retarded”) mother who later developed schizophrenia.  His mother? Addicted to drugs since he was a child.  He’d tell me a story about being 14 and being left with his 6-month old half-brother for days on end, trying to figure out what to do with a baby while his mother was out drug-seeking.  I’d tell him stories of being in South Florida trying to raise my sisters and pay rent at 14 while my divorced and schizophrenic mother talked back to voices telling her to drive my sisters and I off a bridge into the water.  And it’s funny, because he and I would have arguments about whose childhood was harder (I thought his, he thought mine).

The world’s a fucking impossible place, and we both knew this a little better than most.

And we’re sitting there in this bus as the snow falls and cars slide past us, hitting each other in the great chaos of human effort against nature.  That bus wasn’t fucking going anywhere, but you know what we did?

We got off the bus and walked.

Trudging up that icy hill in a snowstorm, laughing, watching all the silly people in their silly cars trying to get up that hill, catching snowflakes on our tongues, pushing stuck cars on our way up…the impossible is always impossible only if you insist on going on precisely the way you think you’re supposed to.

If we can’t have cars and mass-produced shit and 40-hour work weeks in lifeless jobs without ruining the planet, we can just start walking and making stuff that lasts and working less in more meaningful ways.

If we can’t have smartphones and computer games and 400 television channels and fresh strawberries in winter, then we can write letters and play cards and tell stories and make strawberry jam in the summer.

If we can’t make absurd amounts of money off of selling houses and derivatives and weight-loss programs and plastic toys, then we make absurd amounts of joy and equality in societies where people grow gardens and tend forests and no one gets to ruin other people’s lives on account of having more money than others.

So what if that bus isn’t getting up the hill in the snowstorm?  We can walk up the hill and catch snowflakes on our tongues and warm our winter-chilled bodies with each others’ flesh when we get to the top.

The Way Past the Impossible

Like seeing the Dead and the gods and the spirits, the way past the impossible usually just involves giving up some certainty that is keeping you on a snow-bound bus at the bottom of a hill, some habit, some reliance on an expectation that isn’t serving you any longer.

And yeah, look.  There’s gonna be some resistance.  I’m pretty certain if we’d asked other people on the bus what we should do, they would have pointed to what they were doing and suggested we wait, like them.  The weight of their collective inertia gave us pause–perhaps getting out and climbing the hill was silly?  I mean, we were the only ones doing it.

That is, until we got out.  Others followed us, their own spells broken by our exit.

And there’s gonna be some stronger resistance, I know.  And that shit’s gonna be bloody.  I’m sorry for that.  I wish I could guarantee that there won’t be people so invested in the current system that they’re willing to fight us and maybe even kill us for trying to keep the forests alive.  In fact, I can promise they will be violent, because they’ve already proven themselves willing to kill to get more oil, more coal, more money, more land.  They already crush every attempted resistance to their assaults, be it in slums and on First Nations land in the Americas, the streets in Greece and Italy, the rainforests and campanero lands in South America, the movements for self-rule and resource protection in Africa, the anti-corporate and anti-authoritarian protests in Asia and the anti-colonial struggles in the Middle East and everywhere.

They’ve got plenty of guns, and usually don’t even need to use them against us because we’re so beaten down already we don’t have the will to resist.

“I’m so sorry for what is coming,” said the voice of an unwilling oracle around a fire this summer.  I’ve heard this from others, too–Others, I mean.   The visions, the fires, the dead gathered at gates, the floods, the cities destroyed, the warnings, the chastisement for Forgetting, the undine at the pool, the screams of the land spirits, the shaking off of the revelers from the body of the god, all the violence–fuck.

You can carry a rucksack full of wax and wine up a snowy hill with your lover and laugh and make mulled wine and warm yourself and each other with the love falling like rain and snow from the skies.  You can read by the light of burning barricades and plant chamomile in the cracked pavement and tell stories of what it was like when we thought we should ignore the gods and the dead.

We can side with the poor and the streams and forests and crows and the forgotten, because there’s so many of us, you know, and we have the best stories.

And we can start building now.  Actually, we must.  If we’re to counter their violence with something other than violence, a game we can never win, we must create the world we want now. A world full of gods, a world of remembered dead, a world others want to join and help create, one that doesn’t flood the cities and poison the waters and raze the forests and abuse women or favor one skin color over all others.

The first step’s easy.

You just have to leave the stuck bus, and make sure you help others up the hill on your way.


17 thoughts on “An Apparently Impossible Problem

  1. I did a lot of skill sharing when I was in North Carolina; teaching and trading skills that you can’t learn from just an article on the internet. Building community, increasing skill sets that will be necessary when we are forced to become more self reliant, allowing people to find joy in and share their gifts.
    That’s one practical thing we can do… everyone has something to share.
    Tower Time, y’all. Its not coming, its already here.

  2. So many things I want to say, things I’m not willing to say here because they are too self-revealing and I’m not ready to put them in blog comment posts yet. But I do want to point out, to anyone making the ole doomsday cult claim….how can you not see that this is a vision rooted in the assertion that we are, at our core, kind and generous enough to deserve a world better than the one we are in?

    Fucking utopian if you ask me.

    You’re goddamn heartbreaker Rhyd.


  3. Thank you for this…I am still afraid and angry (more the latter, actually), but not at all at you, and never was angry at you. And I’m also sorry. 😦

    In some small way, weathering this situation is, perhaps, practice for what may come, and a tempering of the steel of sorts for all of us. I feel more secure in some relationships now than I did three days ago, and also much more cynical and skeptical of some others (which weren’t real relationships anyway in most cases) that have proven they can’t be trusted, both in the wider world and in paganism, sadly (especially on the latter).

    Can we have a bowl of soup sometime soon? 🙂 We have about 63 conversations we keep saying we need to have!

  4. Rhyd, I am at that age (again) when I remember that there really was a time way back in the early 1960’s when real rationing of a life-saving treatment was actually being discussed — renal dialysis. They really spoke about NOT giving treatment to certain patients. Eventually, this did not come to pass because it is unethical. However, later on I did know a fellow medical librarian who was in end-stage kidney failure who did decide on her own after I don’t know how many years — and no transplant in the offing — to take herself off dialysis. Knowing that you are going to die in a few days after doing this makes me lose my speech. I Believe that no one should have to die of a treatable cause. I take medications for chronic conditions which, if let go, could kill me. This country is vile towards its non-rich citizens. I am glad that I retired from the State of Connecticut, which does have very good insurance. I may have enjoyed something different; but, I was looking to the future. Anyway, I guess that is enough today.

  5. One of my favourite message movies is Steve Martin’s “Leap of Faith”. Story starts with a stuck bus in middle-of-nowhere down-on-its-luck rural
    America. Rest of the road team of the Shams faith healer is complaining about being stranded and stuck until parts arrive to fix the bus, which is going to take a four days. Town looks like it doesn’t get cable..

    Jonah Nightingale (Steve Martin) just says: I always have a choice.
    Set up, we’ll play here.

    Now, when you have a stuck bus, you need a mechanic and has anyone
    put in a road assist call to VULCAN lately?

    Just sayin’

  6. And in the end you made me cry (again). Your thoughts felt like chestnuts in my mind. Prickly, stinging, sharp but then the shell fell off and they bloomed. I am very much afraid of what is going to come and I think I should, but I’m also fucking thankful for people like you. And the reason why I decided on working with children is because I still believe in a possible future, where we can live with Nature again instead of against it. I know that might be an impossible dream (reading about the impossible), but if dream is the heart of reality, then it might as well come true. Maybe I’ll live to see that day.

  7. I’ve got nothing particular to add to the stream of essays you’ve been writing on capitalism and the flood of responses to those essays. I agree with you. That’s all. I quake when considering how capitalism has wrecked my life and the lives of those I love and the tremendous difficulty of rebuilding something that can be more correctly called a life by living in glorious opposition to what the capitalist overculture insists I must do to be a person worthy of life.

    Your ability to weave ideas in words is astounding, powerful, necessary, and beautiful. I stand in solidarity with you. Of what is coming, I cannot speak. All I know is I am committed to building relationships (because that’s what community consists of) that are rooted in helping and connection and resistance and giving a holy fuck about the person or tree or skunk or sky before me at any given moment. When you understand how much you can live without, when you let the dying and grieving happen inside that come from meeting the horror of the world in the state it is in, when you stop letting the voices and examples of others tell you what is right and desirable, you discover a way of interacting with life that is your own. And it is holy. It may not look like much to outsiders, and this way of living can make you a target for every livid hatemonger out there, and people will likely go out of their way to shame you and perhaps even destroy you, but what can you do when you encounter the sorrow of the world? And the capitalist egregore growing so powerful, perfecting itself, on this suffering? Enjoin the sorrow to enter, and defy the living shit out of the thing devouring us in its rapture.

  8. Rhyd, my husband is Jim Lindenschmidt and he’s been turning me onto your writings for a while. He just sent me this one a couple of days ago and I finally sat down and read it.

    Things said out loud while I was reading it:
    – “What the FUCK?!”
    – “YES!”
    – “Oh, my GOD! My head just exploded!”
    – “NICE!”

    … just to name a few.

    Beautifully written. Crisp logic. Hopeful without being smarmy. Reiterating our own accountability and power.

    Thank you for your vision. Keep it coming. It’s giving me courage.

  9. “If we can’t have cars and mass-produced shit and 40-hour work weeks in lifeless jobs without ruining the planet, we can just start walking and making stuff that lasts and working less in more meaningful ways.” YES.

  10. Thank you for this article, I was glad to read it. I am a disabled person with a lot of disabled family members, and I’ve had exactly the concerns you write about. Just speaking for me, I don’t need to be told how horribly capitalism treats disabled people, I need no convincing on that score. I’m on pain meds. It’s a constant war to keep them, and it frustrates me that so many pain patients’ reaction is “it’s the addicts’ fault” and not seeing the true picture of the profit motive and the puritanism in whose fault it really is. What I needed to hear from anti-capitalist activists is that you hear us and we matter. A lot of us have asked questions to friends, acquaintances, and bloggers on the internet about what happens to us after the collapse and gotten either silence or something worse than silence (the response John Michael Greer made to PSVL’s questions was particularly egregious), and if we’re all going to get off the stuck bus and go uphill, it matters that we don’t think people are going to set off up the hill and forget (or just not care) that a bunch of us can’t walk up hills at all. There are attitudes toward post-collapse society out there that, to me, border on fetishism, as if this is a zombie apocalpyse and those who can’t prep their way out of trouble deserve to die (the “I got mine” attitude is alive and well in both capitalism and those who seek its demise, unfortunately), and a fair few of us have run afoul of those people. More terrifying even than the present conditions for people with disabilities is the idea that the world we should all be building together will be even worse. I want and need to say to people who suffer from different oppressions than disability “I hear you”, and as someone with disabilities, I want and need to hear “I hear you” back.

    1. I’ve been wondering, because others have also talked about that silence. I wonder how much of that comes from people not understanding what happens to people with disabilities now? That is, if someone doesn’t know what it’s like for someone to need medications (pain-relievers, insulin, anti-retrovirals, psychiatric medications) now, they probably would have no clue what those concerns would be later, either. And I’m guessing some of them don’t want to be bothered with the question because they’d have to find out, and that involves work and opening up their world to the difficulties of others.

      I’ll admit, I have problems with JMG’s positions, too, as they are sometimes quite close to DGR and other groups who would see the cities crumble (currently writing on that elsewhere). Without cities…or, at least, without large groups of people sharing resources, strengths, and taking care of each other, many, many people would die. And no way would a mobility-impaired person survive being a ‘hunter-gatherer.’ Also, the forests wouldn’t survive us all doing that, either.

      Also, I’m glad you brought up zombies-fantasies. I hate them. Ever notice how they look like homeless people and immigrants and poor people? That’s on purpose, I think. It’s the white bourgeois fear of the ‘unwashed masses’ and they’re fantasizing about ‘surviving’ an onslaught of them by blowing them away.

      I hope I make it clear–if any world that gets built after what we have now doesn’t make things better for everyone, than I don’t want it. Because not every revolution is good, and not every change liberates.

      Be well, and thanks for the comment!

  11. Heh. This is actually why I love The Walking Dead TV show. This mis-matched group of various colors and backgrounds who prove that only together can we survive and stay hopeful.

    Thanks for continuing to make me think and figure out how to live a better life.

Leave a Reply to juliaergane Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s