News From Nowhere

We did some traveling last week for the first time in two years and I flew for the first time since 2013. On our trip to the in-law’s reunion I was struck by how much of this country is made up of liminal spaces, as if the whole landscape were one long, dead mall corridor leading nowhere.

It’s common to see these vistas as a kind of moral/aesthetic failure rather than the landscape of a capitalist system that has to always be in motion or it will end up in crisis. It’s no coincidence that most of our land is devoted to constant churn, movement and commerce. As David Harvey points out, the first thing that president G.W. Bush suggested we all do before the dust even settled on the World Trade Center was not to stop, contemplate, pray or meditate but to, “Go shopping!” That is, to drive to the mall and spend some money. Capitalism’s need for constant motion results in a landscape that operates like a long, circular airport corridor with no end. The point is the churn not the destination.

It’s shouldn’t be a surprise that in a system based on motion and individualism that the automobile would dominate. For years I fought for better bike infrastructure here in Los Angeles. The enemy was “car-centric planning” or so I thought. But we live not in car-centric cities but capitalist cities. Cars are just one more way to build capital. They are, after all, packaged debt that just happens to have an inefficient mode of transit attached to it. We’re all forced into cars because that’s the best way to wring profit out of the transportation sector. For this reason we should never shame people for driving a car because we live in a system that forces us to.

Our airport hotel even had an upscale weed shop in the parking lot.

Denver, where I was visiting the in-laws has many beautiful streets, parks, the stunning Rocky Mountains in the distance (obscured by the fires burning in California) and one hell of a lot of weed shops. To be clear I fully support legalized pot but I can’t help but think that so many people are self medicating to relieve the misery of meaningless low paid work, the anxiety of the pandemic and life in this meaningless corridor leading to nowhere.

It would be a mistake to just go along and accept this world as it is, to think that it’s just a matter of morality or that we can somehow go back to a previous “golden age” way of doing things. As Angela Davis said in a lecture in 2014, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Let’s work on exiting this endless corridor.

William Morris is the Marie Kondo We Need

I’ll cop to being a Marie Kondo fanboy in the wake of the de-cluttering trend of the early 2010s. And, no doubt, I’m thankful to have weathered lockdown in a mostly clutter-free house thanks to Kondo’s prompting. But those days in quarantine exposed some serious shortcomings in Kondo’s thinking and elevated in my mind her more thoughtful predecessor, the Victorian poet, designer and artist William Morris. An address Morris delivered in 1884, entitled Art and Socialism has a hint of Kondo’s decluttering impulse but a much deeper and less individualized understanding of the meanings of the objects that clutter our lives.

Kondo asks us to consider if an object “sparks joy.” Morris, on the other hand, asks more systemic questions: Who are the workers behind the object I’m holding? Do the workers live a life of poverty and misery? Who benefits from their labor? Is this object a necessity or just a scheme to make money? And, most importantly, what would happen if the workers themselves had control over their production? Morris says,

I feel dazed at the thought of the immensity of work which is undergone for the making of useless things. It would be an instructive day’s work for any one of us who is strong enough to walk through two or three of the principal streets of London on a weekday, and take accurate note of everything in the shop windows which is embarrassing or superfluous to the daily life of a serious man. Nay, the most of these things no one, serious or unserious, wants at all ; only a foolish habit makes even the lightest-minded of us suppose that he wants them, and to many people even of those who buy them they are obvious encumbrances to real work, thought, and pleasure. But I beg you to think of the enormous mass of men who are occupied with this miserable trumpery, from the engineers who have had to make the machines for making them, down to the hapless clerks who sit daylong year after year in the horrible dens wherein the wholesale exchange of them is transacted, and the shopmen who, not daring to call their souls their own, retail them amidst numberless insults which they must not resent, to the idle public which doesn’t want them, but buys them to be bored by them and sick to death of them.

Morris goes on to summarize his thoughts in a simple all-caps maxim, “THE WORK MUST BE WORTH DOING.” I like this a lot better than whether an object “sparks joy” or not. The slogan reminds me of David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs which shows in sometimes funny, sometimes gut wrenching detail how much of the work done in our time is meaningless, unnecessary and destructive of the planet and the mental health of so many people.

A common misunderstanding of Morris message is that he thought that we should all go back to hand work. It’s clear from reading him that it isn’t a matter of machine vs. hand work but rather what those machines are currently being used for and who is in command of them. We might decide, in a better future, to use machines to reduce drudgery rather than just accumulate profit. Morris says,

And all that mastery over the powers of nature which the last hundred years or less have given us : what has it done for us under this system ? In the opinion of John Stuart Mill, it was doubtful if all the mechanical inventions of modern times have done any-
thing to lighten the toil of labour: be sure there is no doubt that they were not made for that end, but to make a profit. Those almost miraculous machines, which if orderly forethought had dealt with them might even now be speedily extinguishing all irksome and unintelligent labour, leaving us free to raise the standard of skill of hand and energy of mind in our workmen, and to produce afresh that loveliness and order which only the hand of man guided by his soul can produce ; what have they done for us now ? Those machines of which the civilised world is so proud, has it any right to be proud of the use they have been put to by commercial war and waste?

But there’s another crucial difference between Kondo and Morris. Morris does not believe that we can somehow vote with our wallets to solve the crisis of capitalism. It’s not a matter of individual action. Morris says that we need to join together with other people to make systemic change, to wrestle power away from the capitalist class,

And how can we of the middle classes, we the capitalists, and our hangers-on, help them? By renouncing our class, and on all occasions when antagonism rises up between the classes casting in our lot with the victims : with those who are condemned at the best to lack of education, refinement, leisure, pleasure, and renown ; and at the worst to a life lower than that of the most brutal of savages in order that the system of competitive Commerce may endure.

There is an active, intentionality to Morris’ question, “Is the work worth doing?” Contained within this pithy slogan is a challenge to the “free hand of the market,” the alleged autonomy of capitalism that claims that a system, not people, determines what work gets done. In the world that Morris imagines, the workers decide what work is worth doing and what to do with surplus profit. Collectively, we might put aside some of that surplus for, say, a possible pandemic or other emergency. We might give young parents more time with their newborns. We might give families more time to take care of elders. We might make sure that everyone has a home and healthcare. What we wouldn’t have is what Marx called a “bad infinity,” the drive to more and more profit accumulation that comes at the expense of the life of this planet.

It’s easy to slip into hopelessness and nihilism when reading Morris’ still incendiary words. He hoped for peaceful, revolutionary change in Britain and the U.S. that never came. In fact, all of the worst aspects of the 19th century: war, environmental catastrophe, the continued dis-empowerment of the working classes only accelerated. And we’re surrounded by more ugly, useless crap than Morris could have ever imagined even in his worst nightmare.

The main problem with nihilism is that it leads to inaction. It says that you don’t care about future generations and should just give up. As Assata Shakur says, “Our young people deserve a future, and I consider it the mandate of my ancestors to be a part of the struggle to ensure that they have one.”

You can read Morris’ speech, Art and Socialism in a book Architecture, industry & wealth; collected papers for free on Archive.org.

Paleo Grift

The myth of a golden, prehistoric age of ease and leisure before the toil of agriculture is an idea that pops up often in the urban homesteading and permaculture scene. While I’m sympathetic to complaints about modern agriculture, I’ve long thought that this Golden Age narrative sounds too simple, too much like the “noble savage” archetype, the idea that if we can somehow just get back to “nature” all will be okay.

This notion of a idyllic distant past was the subject of an excellent episode of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast. Their guest was Daniel Immerwahr, a history professor at Northwestern University who was on to discuss his review of James Suzman’s book Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.

Suzman’s book, popular with the tech bro set, focuses on the Bushmen or San people of the Kalahari Desert, made famous by the 1980s movie The Gods Must Be Crazy (which I’ve never understood the appeal of, frankly). Suzman, relying on bad research, makes the claim that the San work 15 hours a week. In reality that 15 hours is the time spent just gathering food and the total doesn’t take into account processing food, building shelter, childcare etc. Other anthropologists peg the total at around 42 hours a week. And the San don’t live an idyllic life. In reality they are malnourished, don’t forage much anymore and were forced into resettlement areas by the South African government. The Gods Must Be Crazy, it turns out, was more propaganda than comedy.

Which brings us to Immerwahr main point, that a more careful reading of history might lead us to different conclusions. As he says in his review of Suzman’s book,

A 300,000-year history of work, done well, could ask probing questions about gender, slavery, inequality, the wage system, ideology, and workers’ political power. It might yield conclusions that would be more uncomfortable than encouraging to our ascendant elite. It might, indeed, offer insights as to how to dismantle that elite.

I’d add that the rosy view of hunter gatherer cultures contains a kind of racism that assumes that this way of living is easy, that it doesn’t involve skill or, as in the case of California native peoples what looks to westerners like hunting and gathering is actually a form of agriculture, just not a form that looks like European farming (See Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild for more on that thesis).

I guess it’s not surprising that our tech bros executives would embrace short work weeks and fictitious pre-historic diets while somehow forgetting about little humdrum things like the rights and dignity of workers, child care, shelter and food preparation.

Art and Grains

Posting has been light at Root Simple in the past few weeks because of a devilish case of acedia or, perhaps more specifically, what Mark Fisher called “depressive hedonia.” Fisher says,

Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it is by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.

In my case depressive hedonia manifests by way too much scrolling of social media feeds in search of novelty and outrage.

Which is why I want to shift the focus to people who’ve managed, in this pandemic, to focus on practical and creative tasks. First off is Roxana Jullapat, who owns the must go to East Hollywood bakery and cafe Friends and Family. Roxana has a new cookbook out called Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution. Just in time for Easter she has posted a recipe from the book for hot cross buns with marzipan crosses.  Roxana was a big supporter of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, a meetup group that I co-founded. It’s been a rough year for restaurants, so consider picking up a copy of her book or, if you’re a local, getting some takeout.


Meanwhile, friend of the blog Federico Tobon is launching a new zine, has completed 100 days of small drawings, and is making amazing little animated sculptures that you can see in his Instagram and TikTok.

He’s got an interesting technique for creating a 3d illusion in 2d images that he explains here. Sign up for Federico’s newsletter for some joy in your inbox.

One last thing about Federico. This tweet of his ends up in my Twitter notifications periodically:

Obviously, I need to follow this advice!

Let’s All Take a YouTube Break

Here’s a work song for finishing Harris tweed in the Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland. Filmed by Jack Cardiff of Powell & Pressburger in 1940/ 41

Behold this catchy musical sequence from Dil Se (“From the Heart”), a 1998 Bollywood romantic thriller. I haven’t seen the whole movie but if you’re interested it’s in Netflix.

And for readers who suffered through the Texas power crisis, Friend of the blog Eric of Garden Fork has a helpful playlist on how to use a generator safely.