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Just when it seemed modern societies had put us all in a deep trance, that we were on the verge of a docile new world, a new insurrectionary meme emerged. A virus is spreading in the operating system of global capitalism, crashing systems worldwide. The strongest vectors of the virus are the cradles of civilization, Egypt and Greece. As the virus mutates, it becomes stronger and more creative. In the last month the virus hit Turkey and Brazil. I write from Istanbul during a lull after the spiciest days.
The first thing I noticed here are the feral animals. Friendly gangs of both dogs and cats own the public space. Keep in mind that dogs are exiled in Africa, Arabia and much of Asia. Cats own the streets of the east. Turkey is the unique geography of intersection, a place where canine Christendom blends with feline Islam.
The mix of tactics in the Turkish uprising are equally mashed-up from parts east and west. Here we find the risk-taking commitment seen from Tunisia to Tahrir mix with the clever postmodern humor & non-violent strategies common to the plazas of 15M(Spain) or Occupy Wall Street. Here they have it all.
Anyone watching the news will have seen the pitched street battles, the barricades made from flaming police cars, a city clouded in tear gas, a stolen bulldozer leading a mob to storm the square. But there are also phenomena like the penguins, standing guy, Talcidman, gasmask dervish and of course the wiggling applause fingers.
It always starts with some humble spark, in Istanbul it was an urban development scheme that involved razing some trees in downtown Gezi Park. The tools of distraction (youtube, twitter, facebook) are quickly repurposed into tools of action. Once again we see the help from the “creative class”, people who might make corporate adverts by day, out in the street by night, Canon 5D in hand, making sophisticated documents on the revolt.
Where did all this discontent come from and why is it so generalized? From New York to Sao Paulo to Athens to Istanbul why do all kinds of normal people get drenched in chemical weapons and risk death? I think it comes from an natural human instinct to “shape” our reality instead of consuming it. Ironically it is when we join the swarm that we reclaim a sense of personal relevance. One thing is certain, the insurrectionary virus brings out the best in people. Any participant will have experienced acts of heroism and sacrifice, the kind of behavior we thought was only the stuff of fiction.
In an important break with the movements of the 20th century, this new form of protest does not promote a canned ideology or a charismatic leader. It operates beyond the old binaries of left and right, religious and secular. Istanbul’s uprising brings together environmentalists, the LGTB community, Kurds, Nationalists and even a group called “anti-capitalist muslims.” The insurrection virus somehow connects and emboldens masses of people who considered themselves apolitical.
The Turkish have a laundry list of points to protest: the tree removal, the new alcohol restrictions, censorship, the ecologically dubious new bridge over the Bosphorus. But none of these issues, even all of them summed together, constitute enough motivation for the passion and rage of the last month. It’s the bug.
This virus is a response, a counterattack, to a fundamental sickness in our global civilization. We need a new, more horizontal, form of democracy, we need to seize power back from the the 1%, and we must find a sustainable way to live on this earth. Until then expect insurrection.
A building full of sweatshops collapsed in Bangladesh a few days ago, killing hundreds. The factory owners were told by authorities to evacuate when cracks appeared in the building the day before the collapse, but ordered their workers to return the following day. It might be hard to muster empathy for yet another disaster in Bangladesh. After suffering so many floods, massacres, typhoons, famines, political instability and even arsenic-tainted drinking water, it does seem an unlucky place. But they are people just like you and me. In fact they are nicer people than I’ve met just about anywhere else in this world, it’s the kind of place that people would offer you the shirt off their back if they thought you needed it. In fact they do give us the shirts on our backs, almost for free! The labor cost for sewing our shirts (that sell for anything from $10 to $500) is about 25 cents. A doubling of wages would add a whopping twenty-five extra cents to the retail price.
Of course locals are angry, protesters and riot police negotiate the streets of Dhaka. It remind me of the least-reported and most interesting story in recent history, the revolt of the slaves at the new tower of Babylon. It’s hard not to cheer when people throw down their tools and demand a tiny fraction of the wealth that they create. The collapse of the building could be watershed event like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in NY a hundred years ago, catalyzing a new era of worker’s rights in Bangladesh. But the world is different now. If workers there win even a fraction of the labor rights that Americans won after similar disasters in the early 20th century, these corporations will just move their production to China or Indonesia.
Opportunistic resource looting and nasty labor exploitation aren’t exceptions but the very bread & butter of doing business in the modern era, practices by every company from Apple to Zara. This is the very problem championed by the anti/alter-globalization movement, whose demands for international justice were abruptly sideswiped by the 21st-century crusades, and remain deferred by a financial meltdown and the impossible-to-ignore urgency of climate change.
We must either hamstring corporate power and chain capital to single territories (a pipe dream) or create a supra-national enforcement system for labor and environmental laws (terrifying). Since neither is very likely, maybe the best model for survival-with-integrity in a predatory globalized world is the rogue state option, like the fictional future-Thailand in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.
I’m now passing Fukushima on a train, it is two years (almost to do the day) since the disaster. The train’s next stop is Sendai, the nearest metropole. By strange irony I talked on a panel & deejayed at the anti-nuclear “Eco Active” protest here in Sendai in 2007 (see video). Yes, four years before the meltdown, we marched through the commercial center banging drums, earning glares from shoppers and shoves from police batons.
As the only country to have directly experience with nuclear war, Japan has a long history of anti-nuke activism. But that day in Sendai I felt distinctly part of the fringe, a collection of alarmist hippies ignored by mainstream and media. I wish they’d been right, and we wrong, but history has proved otherwise.
I’ll close with a few quotes from a great essay by Sabu Kohso on the subject:
What has been revealed since 3/11 are not only the problems inherent in nuclear power (despite their immensity), but also those rooted in the amalgamation of the bureaucratic system, technology and civil society, constitutive of this apparatus called Japan, one of the zeniths that modern industrial civilization has reached.
and his words about a movement for the future:
The struggle will be unprecedented; the forms it takes are yet to be discovered. The only certain thing is that it will involve not only the negotiation process called politics, but also everything about our minds, society, and environment.
Chance had me travel directly from Singapore to Hong Kong. The two former British colonial ports have both transformed into wealthy city-states, hubs for shipping and finance, and consumer paradises. Both have corporatist governments backed by a property developers and business plutocrats. Both try to regulate every aspect of public life through security cameras, heavy sanctions, and hostile multi-lingual signage: Spitting or Discharge of Litter Is Strictly Punished. Do Not Stand Here- Keep Moving. Hawkers will be Prosecuted. In both cities drinking fountains are labeled with a long list of instructions, including the proper distance to position your mouth. But only one is a successful police state, the other failed.
Against all odds, Singapore, the sweltering multi-ethnic port city only a few degrees away from the the equator, is on lockdown. It is harmonious, safe, prosperous and famously boring. Here you have a working model of that “society of the spectacle” that radicals rail against. Not that it’s a wasteland, we had a great gig there and met heaps of cool people, but they represent a tiny exception to the nearly omnipotent system.
Hong Kong, fortunately, seems to has some indigestion with control. You find plenty of dense and gritty districts, the kind of urban fabric we’d expect of a big port linking Asia to the rest of the world. Hong Kong is fortunate to have a music and art scene, but might be only a few wrong steps from being another Singapore.
In the midst of sparkling new glass skyscrapers I went to see Chinese opera in a traditional bamboo theater. Entry was free, the place was rammed with people of all ages. Amazing…. until you notice a booth proudly displaying an architectural model of the ultramodern cultural center that will soon replace it. You can be damn sure it won’t have the spirit of this hand-made bamboo theater they’re so keen to rip down.
I’m staying in a low-rent industrial district of Kwuen Tung. Musicians and artists have migrated here in their usual quest for cheap raw space. The government has a different plan to “energize” the neighborhood. I write these words in building literally trembling from the excavation of a hole where they will build a new condo tower across the street. The billboards around the construction crater attract buyers with terms like “dynamic community”. Ironic, that’s exactly what they are here to destroy. It’s the same script I’ve seen everywhere from Brooklyn to Poble Nou, the difference here is geography. Hong Kong is just tiny city-state, get pushed to far to the periphery and you end up in mainland China.
Musicians throw guerrilla gigs in this barrio, the last of which occupied a bus factory slated for demolition. More regular gigs are held at Hidden Agenda, a venue here in the same few area, now in it’s third location: through an unmarked garage door and up a freight elevator. The previous two incarnations were closed by the police. We perform there next weekend, February 24th.
A rich cultural scene develops naturally or not at all, you can’t burn out artists then centrally plan an arts scene. It’s like bulldozing the habitat of a rare bird, and then spend a fortune on an aviary to display a few curated specimens of the bird.
One could spend a lifetime trying to decode Chungking Mansions, the hulking interconnected block of 1960′s-era towers that mar an upscale district in Kowloon, Hong Kong. A warren of crash pads, tiny industries, spices, electronics, drugs, immigration services, forex, it functions as kind of global souk for black-market exports, a a vital supply hub for the world’s informal sector. The Mansions are the subject of heaps of documentaries, articles, and at least one entire book.
Although curry, crime and low-rent capitalism are the main attractions, even the background infrastructure is fascinating. The buildings guts are visible in the emergency stairways of the lower levels, where the entire ceiling is a thick snarl of cables, encrusted in sticky brown cobwebs formed from a mix of oil from kitchen exhaust fans coagulated with airborne human dander. The broadband internet pipes inside convey messages in a confusion of tongues, purchase orders for sacks of used mobile phones or imitation Prada handbags.
Unless UNESCO creates a new class of protected heritage status for unique & irreplaceable urban ecosystems, the Mansions may eventually meet the same fate as her jumbo-sized sibling, the Kowloon Walled City.
There are around a hundred different hotels scattered throughout the Mansions. Twenty dollars a night gets you a windowless cell exactly the size of it’s stiff twin mattress. A few more dollars buys an few centimeters of floor space to set your luggage down. Fat cats could even upgrade to a room with toilet. I didn’t have that option so ended up peeing in a plastic trashcan, not easy in a such a tiny space.
It’s a dozen years after the fall of Indonesia’s New Order, and Filastine was banned from playing Gendjer-Gendjer (our version titled Gendjer2). On January 8th, 2012, the owner of the club “Liquid” in Semarang, Java, demanded to the promoter that we remove the song from the set.
The song’s innocent lyrics about an edible weed was used as a marching tune for the women’s group of the Indonesian communist party. In 1965 General Suharto took over, established the New Order. Their first task was to murder about half a million leftists, including the song’s composer the Mohamed Arif. The song was banned for forty years.
We didn’t perform Gendjer2 that night. It was a decision taken with consideration of the promoter and future artists. Alternative or emerging musicians have almost nowhere to play in this country. It would be arrogant of us to burn the bridge to one of the rare commercial venues (think rock covers, house DJs, VIP drink specials) that will let an indy promoter take one of their slow nights.
Also, it creates more of a conversation by openly cutting the song, and explaining that onstage. A useful reminder that Indonesia still hasn’t escaped the long shadow of militarist dictatorship, and probably never will until embarking on a process like South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission, passing laws like Spain’s Ley de Memoria Histórica, or taking more revolutionary action.
Some thoughts that came out of two consecutive nights in Dubai and Jakarta separated only by an in-flight nap.
Dubai is the ultimate mirage made real, a skyline higher than Manhattan sprouting out of barren sand, it’s seed fertilized by petro-cash. Now it grows ever higher by myth alone, a pyramid scheme of property speculation and manufactured glamour. Everyone wants a piece: The Russian oligarchs, British footballers, and the Paris Hiltons of the world are flocking to the Sheikh’s gated community.
Jakarta is a quintessential chaotic mega-city swelled by the dispossessed. Twenty million souls, more or less, numbers beyond what any census can count. Not a square meter is wasted; when a shop closes for the evening a squatted restaurant squeezes into the narrow space between the building facade and roadway. Customers huddle under tarps against the tropical downpours while eating their spicy halal chicken and poking at tablets or Blackberry phones, oblivious to the noise and smoke of the traffic raging past only centimeters away.
Although both cities (all cities?) obliterate the natural landscape, they mimic the landscape buried beneath their concrete. Dubai’s spartan minimalism, sterility and open spaces are a human expression of the desert. Jakarta’s fecund growth mimics the jungle, any open spot is quickly encrusted in some architecture, be it an informal tin shack or a concrete corporate bunker.
They appear to be two totally different models of urbanism, one hyper-planned, the other pure improvisation. But these two cities are the symbiotic extremes of one coherent civilization stretching from the Maghreb to Indonesia, a civilization that itself is just one player in this new world that no longer spins on a euro-american axis. The surplus labor of Jakarta (and places like it) serves the whims of surplus capital of Dubai. Who will build and staff the world’s highest skyscrapers, artificial islands or an indoor ski resort? Also, by necessity, for there to be exclusivity, there must exist the excluded.
Each city contains a seed of the other. In Jakarta there are also zones of Dubai-style exclusivity, I wasn’t shocked to find a shopping mall air-conditioned to arctic temperatures, featuring the global luxury brands and the latest Hollywood films on a multiplex cinema. Although guests must first pass through a serious of gates and metal detectors, the moats that defend this mini-outpost of the 1%. In Dubai I witnessed a few shards of a culture beyond the manufactured artifice, in the creaking wooden dhows laden with cargo, or a group of Pakistani guest workers doing yoga together in the pre-dawn darkness.
Aside from everything that is wrong with these two examples of Islamic futurism, from serfdom to ecological insustainability, they are cities truly awesome to behold.
Today the Arctic summer ice melt reached is lowest point in history, confirming in triplicate that humans are profoundly altering the planets climatic systems, bringing almost certain doom to many species, and perhaps eventually us.
Riots erupted across the world, as people burned corporate fast food outlets and sacked the embassies of the United States and other global powers.
Sadly, these two facts are unrelated. Angry mobs aren’t rising up against corporatism, malbouffe, or western hegemony laying waste to the earth.
No, they are incensed by an awful scourge of a Youtube “film” they have never seen (Youtube has blocked it in most sensitive countries, and it would haraam to view it anyway). Innocence of Muslims might even be a comedy, or a pro-Islam film disguised as a anti-Islam, because nobody could be convinced of anything by this dubious piece of work. It fails to reach the sophistication of a grade-school theatre production, drenched in silly accents, digitally superimposed exotic backgrounds and surrealist non-sequitors, here is an example. Although evidence indicates the clip was made by either christian or jewish fundamentalists. the person who most benefits is a certain mormon fundamentalist running for US president. Gangs of arabs trampling old glory and murdering a US ambassador make a convenient told-you-so moment for the American right.
Let’s hope this incident doesn’t prove decisive in the elections, as the US is the lynchpin of any global climate deal. Obama’s policies may be disappointingly tepid, but with 4 to 8 years of Romney we can be damn sure nothing will be done. Poorly timed riots over a laughable Youtube clip are no laughing matter right now. As we stand on the precipice we should ask a question of all religious fundamentalists- if your god built this place for us, what kind of gratitude do you show him by despoiling it?
Nearly a year has passed without any new words on this blog. Our collective attention space has been so shortened by status updates and twitter that I’m not convinced that it’s useful to write anything longer. Communication has been distilled into efficient meme war. Blogs are as quaint as covered wagons, something our ancestors used back in the first decade of the 21st century, when people sought interweb content outside of ecosystems like Facebook.
Despite the practical fact that might that one effortless Instagram pic or retweet might (almost certainly) get more love than any larger effort, there is just too much to share from 2012 that doesn’t condense to status-speak. New music releases, crazy ambitious videos, minting a currency, touring the world for seven months (not over yet), the rebirth of Post World Industries, a million observations, fotos, thoughts. Stay tuned as this blog will now start moving again.
Image- route first half of £00T tour.