Ian Parker reviews interview accounts of the New York Commune 2052-2072 in M. E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi’s Everything for Everyone published this month by Common Notions
What will communism look like in practice, and how might it unfold and look back on how it came into being? This book is one attempt to turn the science fiction genre into something that connects the future with the present, and enable us to think about what we are doing now so as to better be able to struggle to build another world.
Some of this we already know, and the book helps elaborate elements of our histories of revolutionary struggle again, throwing new light upon it. Some of it is very new, with innovative reflection on what is missing in standard vanguard-led movements and what changes in the environment and technology will block us as we aim to replace commodity exchange as the alienating stand-in for human relationships under capitalism, replace it with something more human and ecological.
The book helpfully defines what it will mean to seize the means of production through insurrection – multiple insurrections in many different contexts in different parts of the world – and how that must involve the process of communization as the making present of connection between people in a way that is genuinely supportive and transformative. Key components of this process are, O’Brien and Abdelhabi tell us, the ‘assemblies’ in bringing people into conscious activity so that the ‘Commune’ becomes a reality. In this book the authors’ future selves are commissioned to interview participants in the process of overthrowing capitalism and building communes.
This is not a smooth fairy-tale about how people will rise up and exploitation will vanish. The contradictions and gaps are made quite explicit in the different cross-cutting interviews, and in some of the interviews it is clear that the participants either don’t know the whole story, or struggle as they speak to patch things together. And neither is this about a smooth transition. There are bloody battles, and hints that things are unfinished in some parts of the world; reference, for example to disastrous events in Australia and other ‘pockets of counterrevolution’.
More than this, the conditions in which insurrection and communization happen is driven by desperation, the kind of pressure that is already building up in dependent economies, including those who are subject to what some interviewees refer to as ‘what was China’. The breakdown of the economy through the arrogant greed of the super-rich escaping into space, and of the state through privatization of security forces is accompanied by a rise in sea-levels, disappearance under the water of swathes of land and the deaths of many people, and a grotesque degradation of ecology that the new world must now take pains to make sense of and repair.
M. E. O’Brien is a queer activist and editor who, among other things, coordinated the New York City Trans Oral History Project and that experience of committed action research interviewing is evident in the structuring of these pieces. Eman Abelhadi is a Marxist feminist academic, researcher and activist in Palestine solidarity and Black Lives Matter, among other things coordinating the Muslim Alliance for Gender and Sexual Diversity for Queer Muslims. Both of them clearly know how to ground speculative fiction in everyday life. Knowing how interviews actually work, including some telling moments where things break down and must be resolved as comrades are thrown back in traumatic flashbacks to earlier times, really makes the book come alive.
There are moments when the personal trajectory of the authors who compile these interviews bleed from the frame into the text, as happens with every piece of research, and O’Brien and Abdelhadi make great efforts to be upfront about where they are coming from so we know better how to read what they gather together here for us. For example, there is attention to moments of ‘trauma’ as they are replicated in some of the interviews, and then to therapy as an inclusive open approach to support and ‘healing’.
In this future, for example, O’Brien has completed her psychoanalytic training, and she looks back from her future self on a world in which ideas from her profession are pretty well widespread in society, at least among these interviewees. Likewise with the knowing last interview with asexual agender Alkasi Sanchez who reflects on what might lie in store for professional academic Abdelhadi, with references to the universities dissolving into more open and democratic ‘knowledge production’. What the authors have to grapple with is not only the content of the revolutionary process, but the form of it, and how that form of struggle and new form of society will have consequences for how stories are listened to and what is done with them.
There is a risk, of course, that this book will itself be read as if it is an academic exercise or that it indulges its authors’ hopes for a progressive role of therapy in such a way as to psychologise political struggle. But then, it pulls back from these temptations and instead opens up a host of new worlds that will be the basis of an alternative to capitalism. At many points it is very strange, and at many points the accounts ring true.
This is all made all the more real, and then twisted into a more playful account of what revolution is, by the ways some of the younger interviewees, those who are unable to conceive of a society that is organised around commodities and the treating of people as commodities, react to some of the questions. Anarchist Emma Goldman did not have wanted to be part of a revolution that she could not dance in, and here we have activists who tell us how important dancing was for the revolutionary process itself.
As the Internet is enclosed, controlled and then breaks down, could it not be possible that alternative networks of dance barges might be constructed as the material basis of new forms of communication? And, if we are really going to rethink our relationship with nature as well as with each other, how might we acknowledge the sentient character of an alternative material infrastructure, one that is not merely treating the world as ‘environment’ but really thinking ecologically about what is around us? Then, how should we resist the temptation to romanticise the algae that might serve us, function as computer servers, the algae that dream about their own inner worlds when they are not embodying new forms of artificial intelligence?
Interviewees include ecological activists, Palestinian anti-racists who built the commune in the Levant, ex-sex-workers who now practice a kind of ‘skincraft’ that is therapeutic and enabling rather than exploitative, ex-academics and scientists who helped bring down the institutions that corrupted and commodified knowledge, and those who fought the New York Police Department and the US military before it eventually withdrew from the city. Those who live explain how they live, and those who died are acknowledged, remembered and honoured.
At moments the book breaks from what we know into something more surreal, and it is all the better for that. It is enjoyable and educative, thought-provoking. There are moments of awful realisation about how difficult this process of insurrection and communization will be, and moments of exhilaration at how the process must involve thinking differently, thinking about what we are unable to think about at present in this grim increasingly barbaric reality. But this is not science fiction as consolation, an escape into another world. It is a way of envisaging what might be brought about by us, and what we must do to get where we want to be.
This book does what it says on the tin, covering an impressive range of topics that will be of interest to revolutionaries of different kinds, whether revolutionary Marxists or not, keying into contemporary anti-capitalist politics in such a way as to resonate with many different kinds of reader. Interviewees in these future oral histories show us different standpoints on the nature of oppression and resistance, and possibilities of collectivising experience.
The authors will be discussing the book at an online event in September, and the threads of the debate and speculation about what is possible should be seized and spun by us so that this is not merely theoretical fiction, about the future, but helps us shape real practice now.
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