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Nowtopia: Interview with writer and Critical Mass pioneer Chris Carlsson

Chris Carlsson is author of Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists and Vacant Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today. He is also one of the founders of Critical Mass, monthly collective cycling actions that happen in over 300 cities around the world.  rabble.ca caught up with him recently in Vancouver where he was attending Car Free Day.

Am Johal: How is critical mass fitting in to cities around the world?

Chris Carlsson: I think one of the interesting things is that it’s a collective phenomenon.  The media really plays that up.  Dozens of people that were involved in San Francisco when we started -- only 50 of us were on the first ride.  Critical mass changes how you think about what the possibilities are.  You’re going to get dozens and dozens of perspectives.  I think bicycling is only one piece of it -- it’s a way of occupying space in motion.

Critical mass is now in 300 cities around the world. In most cities, police are not able to deal with it.   People always ask us what the message is -- what our demands are, and that’s really missing the point.  

It’s not about being angry -- everything in life has been reduced to a series of transactions.  We sell our own capabilities. Most of us reject much of the world we live in.

There has been an occupation of the city that is 20-40 per cent ashphalt.  Did you choose that?  I didn’t.  It sets off a chain reaction to think about this in a different way.  It changes your imagination.  You didn’t have to buy a drink, you didn’t have to go to the bar.  We actually have time for three or four hours to enjoy ourselves.

So much of our life has been instrumentalized.  People ask us what are our demands?  Critical mass doesn’t have demands -- we just have to be. Taking that sensibility outside the logic of commerce -- we can then apply it to car free days. 

How about car free days?  Can they be effectively used to critique consumerism?

When we were starting out, local businesses didn’t know what was going to hit them.  It’s a slowing down that happens.  It creates a pro-human interaction.  The first one was really magical.  Local businesses didn’t know what would hit them.  They got a lot of business.  A street fair came out of the 70’s  in San Francisco, but over time it basically turned in to an alternative mall.  It’s exactly the same.  It’s unbearable.  It doesn’t live up to its possibilities.  Sunday Streets was so magical, it wasn’t about bringing out your merchandise.  People came just chose to give things away. 

One of the challenges for people who are trying maintain these spaces of dissent have to deal with the space becoming just another center for commerce.  What we are trying to do is create a logic that displaces commerce.  What do you do when you’re not shopping for things?  Maybe it’s better to have giant chess matches in the park.

Being out in the streets without cars and commerce - it’s a normal activity that makes life possible.  It is a condition of being alive on the planet.  The extent to which we take advantage of those basic needs and have augmented them.  So much so that our life is taken up by a frenzy of work and production. We don’t make decisions about that at all – these are decisions that are driven by capital that has this growth mentality and growth imperative.  As individuals we are stuck in a web, in a cycle of production and consumption, in that alienated life -- it’s certainly not a happy one -  to be in such a frenzy of over-work, tiredness, and isolation.  In that frenzy, we find our satisfaction in that moment of purchase.  Getting that new thing, which the whole culture spends inordinate number of resources in to such as advertising.  Consumption gives us a sense of misguided comfort and the acquisition of the new, the amelioration of that sadness, the big  hole inside.  It is like a drug addict or an obese person or heroin addict.who acts on their urges. People use sex in the same way.

Consumer society is about diverting ourselves from dealing with our demons.  Some people believe we’ll solve them by purchasing things. It’s a vicious cycle.

There’s a duel affect that this has.  We have a creeping monoculture.  Airports have the same products.  A major shopping district will mostly see the same stuff.  Counter to that, there’s a tremendous cultural diversity.  We need to support and expand those diverse cultures. It’s a struggle.

If race, gender class, sexual orientation, cultural diversity only manifests itself as a different set of shopping choices, then this creeping monoculture has won.

Capitalism creates these new consumer niches, products that manifest themselves  by the assembly of the right hat or shoes, it’s  a fake diversity.  That’s a drawback for people trying to take part in social change.  It is a reduction of human life in to buying and selling.

We’re not going to shop our way to freedom.  To what extent can we create circuits that work around this.  We need to take food, shelter, clothing, joy, music, outside of commodities for sale.  A huge part of life is producing culture that is not a good for sale.

Greenwashing is one of the interesting challenges we have.  Every company trying to show that they are sustainable.  It’s wrapping things with more wrapping.

I don’t think it’s easy for the individual to extract themselves. This type of living is a step away from slavery. 

We had the rise of enclosure after the erosion of the commons.  Now, our brains are being enclosed. 

We all see ourselves as consumers rather than producers.  We change what we buy. The big problem is overly focused on consumption. That’s a cave-in to capitalist ideology. That’s bullshit.

We’ve have had undoing of the social safety net since the late 70’s  How do we reclaim this idea of being citizens, space that’s being eroded?

I wish I had the answer.  I think the labour movement has capitulated.  They are no longer challenging neo-liberal ideology.

Movements need to look at human beings as total beings who don’t want to be  commodified.  We need to focus on the art of living.  Which means the art of what we make, how we shape the environment we live in, interesting subjective engagement with the world.  As individuals we need to start that process and break the idea that ‘I don’t have any power.’  We need to create new cycles of communication.  Now-topian activities.  Take their technological approaches out of the market and be fully engaged. 

We need to enjoy life.  I support a Committee for Full Enjoyment rather than Full Employment.

How do you propose that we make that shift?

My argument is that people are changing their jobs.  Thousands are quitting their jobs.  Others can’t because they don’t have the option of leaving.  We need to create wealth outside of the market that you can rely on .

Community land trust are important.  We can raise money and permanently remove property out of the market.  Buildings are given to people on a limited basis.  They radically reduce their living costs.  There is then less pressure to keep jobs that they don’t want.

Urban farming -- that’s hard work.  And making sure people are taken care of.  I think it’s possible to an evolution where we don’t need very many things at all. 

We have to be able to say, I don’t need that stuff.  I need to have a good life.  That means some shared responsibility for what that good life looks like.

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