EVEN WHILE CAPITALISM continues its inexorable push to corral every square inch of the globe into its logic of money and markets, new practices are emerging that redefine politics and open up spaces of unpredictability. Instead of traditional political forms like unions or parties, people are coming together in practical projects, from urban gardening in vacant lots to the suddenly ubiquitous do-it-yourself bike shops. More and more people, recognizing the degradation inherent in business relations, are creating networks of activity that refuse the measurement of money. They depend instead on sharing skills and technological know-how within new communities, such as the biofuels co-ops that have proliferated in many cities. Networks have grown, thanks to the spread of the Internet and other telecommunications techologies, and new kinds of “families” based on shared values, alternative living arrangements, and non-economic relationships are growing within the old society.
Collectively, I call these projects “Nowtopia.” Rarely do the individual participants conceive of them in political terms; day-to-day issues about how we live, what we do, how we define and meet our needs tend to be understood as outside politics. But all Nowtopian activities are profoundly political.
The Nowtopian movement embodies a growing minority seeking emancipation from the treadmill of consumerism and overwork. Acting locally in the face of unfolding global catastrophes, friends and neighbors are redesigning many of the crucial technological foundations of modern life, like food and transportation. These redesigns are worked out through garage and backyard research-and-development programs among friends using the detritus of modern life. Our contemporary commons takes the shape of discarded bicycles and leftover deep-fryer oil, of vacant lots and open bandwidth. “Really, really free markets,” anti-commodities, and free services are imaginative products of an anti-economy provisionally under construction by freely cooperative and inventive people. They aren’t waiting for an institutional change from on high but are building the new world in the shell of the old.
These practices require sharing and mutual aid and constitute the beginnings of new kinds of communities. Because these people are engaged in creative appropriation of technologies to purposes of their own design and choice, these activities embody the (partial) transcendence of the wage-labor prison by workers who have better things to do than their jobs. They are tinkerers working in the waste streams and open spaces of late capitalism, conjuring new practices while redefining life’s purpose.
Efforts to create islands of utopia have always flourished on the margins of capitalist society, but never to the extent that a radically different way of living has been able to supplant market society’s daily life. Nowtopians, and anyone determined to free themselves from the constraints of economically defined life, face the same historic limits that have beset all previous efforts to escape. Can the emerging patterns resist the co-optation and reintegration that have absorbed past self-emancipatory movements? The new apparatus of global production helps speed up the extension of market society, but it inevitably also speeds the spread of social opposition, the sharing of experiments and alternatives. Our moment in history is at least as exhilarating as it is daunting.