Penury of Plenty
My friend and I arrived in Austin, Texas, in an old car jammed with what we could salvage from a dead woman's Santa Fe, New Mexico estate. My friend--we'll call her Babs, because she is from the Midwest and evinces the kind of all-American wholesomeness the name implies, which is exactly the kind of wholesomenessthat lands such jobs as live-in companion to the elderly--had hung in with the old woman until the latter's nicotine-stained, sherry-spattered end, and seen her to her grave in the plaster of the living room wall alongside her husband, whose ashes had been similarly spackled many years ago. A colorful family, that, but the furnishings bequeathed to Babs were disappointingly mundane: the flattest of flatware, a hideous artdeco standing lamp, a dozen dull white plates from which the old one had been caught senilely feasting one evening on a meal of candles al jerez, and which still bore the tawny scorchmarks from her beloved and overlong cigarettes.
But scavengers can't be choosers (though on second thought, they are infact the best of choosers; what eye is more discriminating, more curatorial, than that of a professional gepenador in the dumps of Mexico City or ofan untouchable in the middens of Bombay?); so we loaded up all this domestic impedimenta into the old car and set out for the Lone Star State.
Many friends questioned the wisdom of our move to Texas. The state was inan economic nosedive, they reminded us, and we hadn't so much as a friend there to hang on to and scream with as we all plummeted.
Texas' economic drop had begun in the mid-1980s, and no one could say when its course might at least become horizontal, much less regain its former heady altitude. The Texas economy was a craft that had run out of fuel; or rather, that fuel, which was nothing more than crude petroleum, had become, in mid-flight, no longer sufficient to keep it aloft. It seemed the Saudis and the other swarthies of OPEC had, in their cunning Oriental fashion, divested that dark liquid of its power to keep going the impressive machinery of our soon-to-be-adopted state.
Our friends recommended that we at least consult the latest forecasts fromthe economists,our culture's seers and the official interpreters of the Market and its complex mythologies. Although we knew the economy, the Market system, derived from social relations was not externally imposed on society, we could not be sure the good folk of Texas, who are notorious for believing in an ideology that teaches just the opposite, would ever help us out ifwe found ourselves unemployed or otherwise in a financial pickle. Mightn't they, rather, allow us to succumb to Market circumstances deemed by them natural, eternal, and, strangest of all, the essence of our "freedom!"
And though we knew economists to be little more than modern-day shamans(shamans so intoxicated on their mathematics and their "models" that they declare themselves "scientists"), we also knew that the world was highly mystified. Mightn't they, after all, speak some truth about this world! Me agreed to listen to what they knew.
They left aside, for the moment, their monitoring of the cosmic struggle between the Bears and the Bulls and the other larger epic wars being waged across the Universe of Commodities ("where things live human lives and humans live thingish lives"), and bore down, as per our request, on the more specific question of the employment situation in Texas. They showed us their charts and figures, which in their conjunction looked to us something like a board game, full of ups and downs and crises and miracles,rather like Chutes and Ladders. Now, they said, we know that an unfortunate roll of the Market dice (dice loaded, we all suspect, by those OPEC ministers cited above) landed Texas in the Tar Pit where the Skeezix of Recession dwells. Now to get out of the Pit, relatively low rolls on the Unemployment dice had to obtain, a good deal lower than the near-double-digit figure that was still coming up. Of course, it didn't want to keep getting low rolls on the Unemployment dice either, at least not on a national scale,or interest rates would rise and the whole game could overheat, sending all players to Inflation Inferno.
This game was a bit too byzantine for us to grasp. It seemed remote from our possibilities as individual actors in everyday life. Maybe we were being too ruggedly individualistic, but it seemed to us that, no matter how airtight the ideology might attempt to be, there was still an opportunity for individual human agency to knock breathing holes in that armor. In other words, wewould find a way. In any case, we found that the "science" of economics described a universe an order of magnitude larger than our own lives. If it described a relativistic universe, ours was still a Newtonian one; what did it matter to us if the universe was in truth curved, if all we really had to deal with, in our world, were straight lines!
And for us, for now, the first such line was a highway leading straightacross
New Mexico and West Texas to Austin. . .Less than a week prior to our departure from Santa Fe I got an opportunityto gather intelligence on the Texas economy directly from the kind of creature the ideology most works materially to serve: a rich person. But this person was not just any rich person, this was a Texan rich person, and this wasmy chance to determine to what extent an ideology might turn on its own masters. Had the collapse of the Market in Texas brought down the swells with it!
My meeting with this person came by virtue of a scheduling faux pas--or was it somebody's idea of a joke?--on a bibulous bon vivant's guest list: I was invited to attend a gathering of Texan fatfish at her quaint adobe settled venerably into the mud of Canyon Road. (Contrary to popular belief, the most valuable real estate in this most contrivedly fashionable of towns is not that which affords a dramatic view from the mountains, but a humble, low location, preferably a warren-like arrangement along a narrow,unpaved road in the "historic" section of town. Property values are exorbitant here, and these have become enclaves for the wealthy, mostly Texans, whoact out their fantasy of Pueblo Indian, calling on one another in their faux-kivas to swap posole recipes and share intelligence on the relative wampum values of Hopi jewelry and Navajo rugs).
At this swank gathering I was introduced to said rich person, a young, wasp-waisted woman from Dallas, who gave my sartorially despicable figure a scornful once over. She herself was re-splendently outfitted in Neiman Marcus threads, which despite their Navajo motifs were so hallucinatorily rich that they more resembled the weavings of a peyote-peaking Huichol. Despite her obvious loathing of me, she engaged me in the kind of hypocritically unctuous conversation conservative Texan women are trained in from an early age, and that was when I took the opportunity to inquire into her thoughts about the economy of the Lone Star State.
Texas, she replied daintily, was going through an economic "disappointment."By the time I left the party, I had filed this irridescent damsel's delicateterm away in that obscure part of the lobe reserved for Texan forms of expression, both the manly crude and the womanly euphemistic. But driving through Texasa few days later, it resurfaced. I realized immediately that her description was quite accurate: for the rich, the collapse and stagnation of the Texas economy was but a disappointment, a vision vanished rather than a nightmare lived. Their dreams of unheard-of wealth had evaporated, and they had awakened to the harsh and dreary reality of their concrete assets alone: the Mercedeses, the furs, the ostentatious homes and sumptuous ranches with their exotic game animals ("homesteads," which bystate law can be touched by virtually no creditor). And to the same old oil wells, which, because the black gold they pumped was now worth only half of what it was at the peak of the boom in the early 80's, only brought in enough income to replace and maintainall those things. (Mexican President Lopez Portillo, who with his corrupt sidekicks had shared the same dream in the early 1980's, had advised Mex'icans to "preare themselves for prosperity." The Texan version of this might have been, because Texas was already so rich, to prepare for sheer obscenity.)
The hope then had been that the price of oil would keep going up, possiblyto $100 a barrel. But it only got up to $32 by the end of 1983 when thebust set in. From there it plummeted to about $14. (At the time of this writing the price, thanks to the sabre-rattling over Kuwait, is back up to around $35 for most Texas crude). Texans, banking greedily on visions of ever-upward-spiralling oil prices, had already grossly overinvested in things such as real estate. Driving into Austin, we saw that practically every other office building was empty and for lease, and we soon learned that the city indeed had the most overbuilt office space in the country. Greed had led to overproduction had led to unemployment: this was the "rationality" of the Market system.
Austin seemed pretty prosperous nonetheless, at least on the swank sideof town. The "disappointment" seemed only slight there. Debutant balls took place as always on those west-side hills, though on a scale slightly less grand than before; some exclusive clothing outlets were said to have closed, but plenty remained; gourmet dog biscuits, at $5.00 a pound, were still an item in demand at your finer victualers.
The poor, well, they'll always be with us, says the eternalizing ideology, and in Austin this means mostly on the east side of town. Over twenty percent of the residents of Travis County, of which Austin is county seat, live under the official poverty line of $11,400 a year for a family of four.
We found the poor in the laundromat, one of our first stops after our roadtrip. They were sprawled uncomfortably on the hard yellow plastic seats. Why do the homeless like laundromats so! Because it's warm and roofed and they're not immediately evicted from it, I suppose. It's surely not for the homey atmosphere. Dully watching the clothes roll round in the drier, I reflected on how Western instrumental rationality has robbed lothes-washing of its traditional communal quality. This rationality, believing it could reduce the "drudgery" of everyday life to a nullity through technology, has instead succeeded in eliminating the human from the everyday, thus turning everyday activities into true drudgery. I was reminded of a missionary coupleI once knew who brought their African maid back with them to the U.S. This African could not get over the fact that no one in America washed their clothes in rivers: every time they drove over a bridge she would remark on the absence of gossipy scrubbers below. What was she talking about! thought the missionaries. She knew what a washing machine is, she used one every week! The missionaries failed utterly to see the subtext of her remark, which I imagine referred to the acute absence ot communality in America,the intense loneliness of everyday tasks here.
I wondered, too, if those missionaries, having lived in West Africa, understood how the word "zombie" was used among the Bakweri of West Cameroon. "Zombie," according to Michael Taussig's book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism, was the word applied to fellow Bakweri and others who drove trucks and did certain other kinds of work in the British and German banana plantations. The "zombies" worked far beyond what was required to satisfy theirneeds. They couldn't seem to stop, they were the living dead. Their "lives" had become abstracted into the commodity of labor time, and consequentlythey weighed like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
Across the street from the laundromat, in the morning drizzle, a raggedman hunted for food in a dumpster. He found a soggy crust of pizza, whichhe gobbled and washed down with a swallow of Thunderbird. A block further down sat the drab brown brick Austin Plasma Center. Perhaps after his meal he'd go there to sell his blood. According to an ad on the laundromat bulletin board, you can make two donations to the Center a week, at $10 a pop. OnFridays there is some sort of $25 "bonus drawing" which I don't quite understand.
It pleased me to think that this ragged man's diet of dumpster pizza and Thunderbird was convertible to good human plasma; plasma just as good as, maybe better than, that obtainable from King George's blue blood. Therewas something satisfyingly egalitarian about this notion; but beyond that, there was an even more essential comfort in the thought of rotten crusrs and cheap wine being converted to blood. It was something that seemed to give the lie to that part of capitalist and socialist and existentialist ideology that insists on scarcity as the metaphysical grounding of life. It reminds me that scarcity exists only as a social concept, not a biological one. We aren't aliens in hostile territory. We evolved here. It's our planet, and our bodies are RIGHT for it.
The myth of scarcity is championed by those systems hung up on production -capitalist as well as "actually-existing socialist." This myth is the touchstone of their terror, and is what keeps everybody in line without too much overt coercion."He's (she's) a survivor"-I don't knowhow many times I was to hear this admiring phrase from the lips of Texans. Mere survival the goal! I realize they said it in the context of the economic slump,and they generally meant survival in the manner in which one was normally accustomed, but it nevertheless always struck me as an awfully low settingof one's sights, especially for such an outwardly arrogant people as Texans. The odd corollary to it is the belief, in defiance of common sense and of the most elementary statistics, that one will be the exception who will "make it" over all the other "losers." One of the results of this belief, of course, is a contempt for "welfare" and the state's notoriously low ranking in social services.
The fear of scarcity leads not just to production, but to the astounding over-production that is the hallmark of "late capitalism. The basic absurdity of capitalist ideology rests on the idea that putting the accumulated wealth to socially-useful ends is anathema to the system overall. In other words, the system's fear is that satisfaction of human needs will reduceor eliminate the human fear that is the engine of accumulation and overproduction. It's a bit like working to put money in the bank, but under the conditionthat if you makeany withdrawals the bank will collapse and you'll lose it all. Of course, the State employs calculated ways of siphoning off some of this overproduction, primarily military spending, which, while it wastefully relieves some of the bloating, serves to feed the fear on another plane:fear of the enemy Other bent on stealing the whole bank.
Never mind, then, that we are well into one of the longest periods of economicexpansion in U.S. history, with over $35 trillion in goods and services produced. We're not to think about this social surplus, and we're certainly not to ask that any of it be used to ameliorate our fear of not "surviving. On the contrary, the system seems to require more fear, more poverty and homelessness, while the rich get capital-gains tax cut. In any case, inTexas and the world over, we're a long ways from Felix Guattari's and Toni Negri's vision in We Communists: "Human goals and the values of desire must from this point on orient and characterize production. Not the reverse.
The Plasma Center ad stated that donors are required to show proof of Austin residence. How would the homeless manage that! Babs and I wondered. In any case, we were reminded that we needed to find a place to live right away.We investigated a tiny garage apartment a block north of the laundromat and decided we could afford it, at least for the moment. But we would have to get jobs soon.
The landlords were a middle-aged couple who carried on a preternaturally perfect middle-class existence in the big house next door. Projecting ontous their vision of utopia, they assumed our goal in life was to work our way up to their status, someday to become just like them, landlords in the manor behind twin magnolia trees. For now, of course, we would have to pay our dues, which meant sign a 6-month lease for the little place, along with a stipulation allowing them to run a credit check on us--at our expense. Lease, leash, leech--the word itself was revolting to me, and I doubted the credit check would reveal us in too favorable a light, though if we did pass it, I knew we were supposed to get a warm feeling all over of legitimacy and belonging. Instead I got a sour feeling thinking about all those uncreditworthy souls our acts of submission to these kinds of investigations only helpto further delegitimize. I felt a traitor to them. The process of"belonging" always involves treason.
But the credit check apparently was never carried out, and we moved intothe tiny apartment. Babs got a job cleaning real estate--houses that weren't moving, which meant they had to be maintained especially spic and span to entice what few prospective buyers there were. It was one of those ironic jobs spawned of economic busts--ironic like the record homelessness in the midst of this vast square footage of empty shelter. Not that it was a good job; like pizza delivery, it required so much driving around in one's own vehicle that half one's paycheck goes into the car. Nevertheless, it was something.
I was not quite so lucky. I scanned the want ads every day, especially those listed under "General," since I've had the audacity in life not to have specialized in any particular field. The listings are alphabetical, usually beginning with A for "Aggressive." Aggressive this wanted, aggressive that. It's not a word Iparticularly like. After a few weeks of seeing it there, it really begins to irritate me, and I think, well goddamn, the day I'm compelled to be "aggressive" for money I guess I'11do it right, with the snubby nose of my .38 poking the ribs of some gulping fatfish.
There are curious ads, such as the one that reads, "Have you ever lied to get a job! If so, your story may be worth $100." But how would the folks doing this study know my story was not a lie, just to get my hands on the $100! Or would that in itself constitute the lie they were looking for! The Liar's Paradox is lurking here somewhere and I don't like the smell of it.
Pharmaco, I notice, advertises a lot for research subjects: "up to $375 for, anyone with resistant genital warts to participate in a study testing a new antiviral drug. (What do they mean, "up to!" Are some people's genital warts more valuable than others'!) In any case, I'm not about to go out and contract resistant genital warts just to get my hands on a lousy $375.
A sperm bank is looking for donors. This would be a more exhilirating donationthan plasma, to be sure. But again, the question: how much a pop! It doesn't say. And how many donations can you make! At half a billion or so spermsper, I imagine it's probably just a one-night stand, so to speak.
So much for the classifieds. I try the Texas Employment Commission, but quickly discover that instead of helping you find a job, it seems primarily designed to discourage you from seeking one. The functionary at the end of an interminable line informs me proudly that the TEC in Austin has so many applicants--over 20,000-that the on-line files are no longer available for perusal by job-seekers. Strange reasoning: the greater the numbers of unemployed, the less access they get to the job listings. We'll look FOR you, he says, pen poised above the application, eager to strike out each category for which I don't claim enormous experience. A bureaucrat's favorite word is "no." I never hear from the TEC.
I check out every shit-on-a-shingle restaurant in the neighborhood, the kind of places that serve dyed margaritas ("pink killer 'ritas") and have names like Silverado; surely one doesn't need great restaurantexperience to serve THEIR kind of slop. Wrong again.
I try canvassing for a progressive organization, but find it too weird trying to Sell "peace and justice" as a commodity. Is nothing sacred! Must even this be subservient to the money economy! My field captain thinks I'm naive and have an attitude to boot; he's glad to see me go. I learn to interpret the penultimate words from a job interviewer, the ones that precede the handshake and the we'll-let-you-knows, things like "sorry you had to come out in the rain," which means, "gee, sorry youhad to waste your time and ours AND get wet.
I check out the temp agencies, places with vaguely salacious names like Manpower (the overtly wanton-sounding Kelly Girl has been changed to the more sober Kelly Services, I notice). I get nowhere there, but am led to discover a few things about the temps. I learn that large-scale hiring of temps is a recent phenomenon; that the electronics and defense industries do a lot of it, and that the federal government employs some 300,000 temps. Temps receive virtually no benefits, and are the first to be laid off when a slump or recession hits, while core employees, if they're lucky, get to stay. When the next nationwide recession arrives, up to 3 million temps can expect to lose their jobs. As it is, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics counts anyone working one hour or more a week as "fully employed"; this accounts for the exaggeratedly low official unemployment rate. But at least the BLS factors into its monthly report those "discouraged workers" who have given up looking for work altogether.
I feel myself gradually becoming one of those "discouraged workers."I begin to investigate what it would be like to live in the streets. Oneof the first things that strikes me about such a life is its relative rigor,in terms of planning, scheduling, and so forth. Required to abandon the Salvation Army premises by 6 a.m., you must seek warmth elsewhere--the Capitol building, for instance--until the Caritas or other soupline opens. If you're sick, you've got to keep in mind that the Caritas clinic is only open Tuesday and Thursday evenings. You've got to keep your eye on the spots under the bridges for possible vacancies, and be quick to stake your claim when one arises. You've got to be mindful of police routes and schedules, and keeptrack of your plasma donations. If after all this stress you need to get drunk, remember the Showdown's "Happy Minutes," with 25-cent drafts, are from 3:00-3:15 p.m. A lot of the homeless guys I talk to have all the bus schedules memorized.
When depressed, go to a demonstration. It quickens the blood and gets your mind on something larger than yourself. The one I went to, described inthe next day's American Statesman (Austin's only daily, better known in our circles as the American Real Estatesman) as "spirited," was over El Salvador. We defied pig orders and took the streets. One zealous porker could put up with it no more and collared one of our guys, a lanky Quaker with a Thoreau beard. The crowd turned ugly. The Ruaker, a wry smile on his 19th-century face, pleaded for calm while pointing out to the cop the advisability ofletting him go. The cop decided he was right, and sprung the handcuffs.
I told Babs about the incident and how I admired the Quaker's cool and humorous resistance. She said, sure, those folks believe so little in authority that they can never take it seriously. By the way, she said, the Ruakersare fixing up their Hill Country retreat next week- end, and needed volunteers, ifl cared to go.
So we went. But there I learn that even the Friends are not immune to the ideology of desireless production. While washing Ruaker windows and railing about the absurd hoops you have to jump through to get a lousy $4-an-hourjob in the University of Texas library system (though I proudly report thatI passed, at 45 wpm, the typing test, using my version of caffeinated hunt-andpeck), a middle-aged Ruaker listening tome announces that she works in library personnel and would probably be the one to interview me if my application were to get that far. To my astonishment, this woman turns out to be a championof taylorized work efficiency and seems to know every angle on the scientific organization and bureaucratic management of white-collar labor. She actually uses, in a personal context, terms like "private sector" ("my husband works in the private sector") and refers to students meeting their "educational consumer needs." What SHE doesn't need on the other hand, is "defiance": "Can you imagine if every timeI told someone to do something they asked why!" In the end, what she is looking for, as an interviewer, is "grown up" people. I take this to mean people so burdened with responsibilities and/or fears that they would never ask their boss "why!" I get the distinct feeling I have already blown the interview. And then, the miracle. 8 few weeks later, just as Babs and I hit rock bottom--she was by then a volunteer for the United Farm Workers, who pay only for her barest subsistence--I was able to land some free-lance translating jobs. English to Spanish, Spanish to English, I'll translate anything. More work comes my way, and soon we are receiving almost a lower-middle class income. Combined with the fact that we live frugally, it's O.K.
But after a year or so of this, a malaise begins to set into our household.We begin to feel trapped in routine. The adventure seems over. We beginto suspect it's not enough just to live frugally; we begin to suspect that this "simple" lifestyle of growing our own and of consuming little, though ostensibly subversive, might actually be complicitous with the movement of capital from an industrial to an informational mode. After all, wasn't it the big corporations who sponsored the last Earth Day celebration in Austin! There's something fishy here... By "living simply" instead of DEMANDING the social surplus--those trillions mentioned above--weren't we acquiescing to this obvious corporate redirection of capital! But where was such a movement to demand that surplus! Not in Austin, certainly. Most progressives there were like we had been, believing that frugality was subversion. Still believing, in other words, in the myth of scarcity. Suddenly we want out... "Archeologists have led us to conceive of this nomadism notas a primary state, but as an adventure suddenly embarked upon by sedentary groups impelled by the attraction of movement, by what lies outside... an extrinsic nomadic unit as opposed to an intrinsic despotic unit." (Gilles Deleuze). We give the car and a lot of the other shit to CISPES, and Babs makes the first go, choosing to move to downtown Detroit, the cutting edge of urban American decay. I opt for Managua, where a similar raw confrontation between the haves and the have-nets continues to openly fester. It seems that in order to restore our sense of reality we are impelled to go to places where the myth of scarcity has taken a real toll.
Meanwhile, back in Texas, the 700,000 individuals to whom oil royalty checks roll in every month, as regularly and eternally as the tides of Galveston, have seen a pleasant doubling of their income, owing to the "Gulf crisis." One can only suppose that the old Texas arrogance--arrogance based on nothing other than the good fortune of having stumbled upon the land under whichlay dissolved bodies of dinosaurs--will soon be making a florid comeback.
- Salvador Ferret Ferret
PROCESSED WORLD #26/27 Special 10th Anniversary Double Issue!