Nothing in Capitalism is Clean

On Making Art in Empire

This is a long essay, with many interlocking parts. If I could have made it shorter, I would have. It started as a simple piece on why I publish using Amazon, but inserting context made it grow. Before we begin: capitalism is not the simple exchange of money for goods or services. Those are markets. Capitalism requires private ownership of the means of production that relies upon the labor of others. Money and markets existed before capitalism and exist both separately from and within capitalism. Now, please pour a cup of tea and settle in…

***

“Under capitalism we are all for sale, and most labor is grossly underpaid.” — Maggie Mayhem

Nothing in this world is clean. Everything supports, depends on, tears down, or eats something else. Sometimes these cycles feel useful and nourishing, like soldier fly larvae in their wriggling, pale masses, slowly eating compost scraps, and making soil.

Other times? The cycles feel as if the jaws of death have us in their crushing grip and we can no longer breathe.

***

When I was nineteen, I, a young anarchist with a blue, flat top mohawk and gold Dr. Martens boots, got a job on the Pacific Stock Options Exchange. I did so to learn more about the US economic system and to feed myself and pay my rent. My previous jobs didn’t pay nearly enough to live on.

It was as I suspected: our economic system was very bad, and based on gambling. In more recent years, that view expanded, as it became more and more clear that the system of “shareholders” meant that profit was the only motive, crushing workers, choking sky, and poisoning soil and water as it sought its own sick life of making billionaires.

One day, in that late-80s world, I took my lunch out to a long, low wall where the ultra punk-rock bicycle messengers hung out sometimes. One of them asked for my sandwich. I gave him half.

These messengers were rebels. Free spirits. They careened through the streets of downtown San Francisco, through traffic, up and down harrowing hills, chains clanking, hair wild. They were mercenaries who could not be bought or sold.

Except, one day it hit me: they delivered packages to Shell Oil Corporation and to other crushers of soil and souls. Any money that changed hands within the system of capitalism was not clean.

There was blood on it.

There was blood and suffering everywhere.

***

I’m an author and a small, independent publisher. It’s a cottage industry. I have no workers but myself, hiring other independent people to edit books and design series covers.

And I sell those books in the marketplace.

Many people ask if they can buy my books in places other than Amazon. Because Amazon, they say, is evil. Considered a monopoly by some, and run by an infamous multi-billionaire, Amazon doesn’t pay its workers nearly enough, and by all reports, treats them very badly.*

Now, as an independent publisher, I could work out how to sell both ebooks and paper copies from my website. And I am working up to the latter, and may eventually do the former with some of my books, at least.

But here’s the thing: I want my books to reach as many people as possible. I also want to make money because, you see, I need to eat, and money is the most direct route to that. Even maintaining a food garden — which my family does — requires some money, plus no small amount of effort.

I could sell books to 100 — maybe 1000 — people from my website and get a job elsewhere, likely working for some other place connected to a large, oppressive corporation somewhere.

No money is clean in these systems, remember?

And I do sell e-books in other places, it is only my current novel series that is Amazon exclusive for the e-books only. And that’s a temporary business experiment.

What are those other places I sell e-books?

Kobo. A young, Canadian upstart that some authors sell pretty well on, though my books haven’t so far. Oh, and they are now working in partnership with Walmart. As you may know, the Walton family are the wealthiest people in the United States, and by all reports, also pay poorly and treat their workers very badly. Many Walmart workers resort to food stamps and food banks in order to survive.

iBooks. Owned by Apple. You know, the mega corporation that — like every single computer and phone maker — is tainted by terrible factory conditions, suicides, and the mining of coltan gained by the suffering of indentured people, a process that has decimated the only home of the mountain gorilla. I type my essays and books on one of their computers.

Barnes and Noble. Barely a player anymore, and a company that, not so long ago, lovers of independent booksellers hated. Rumor has it that they may soon be on their way out of business.

The truth is that Amazon, being the first successful e-book peddler — smaller companies took a stab at e-books early on, before the world was ready — holds 80% of the market share. Currently, if you want to sell e-books in any quantity, you have to be on Amazon.

Meanwhile, my paper books are available for order from any local bookshop, or online from Powells, a large independent bookstore that I love.

***

I am also traditionally published, by both a very large house, and a small to medium sized publisher. The large house, Tarcher/Penguin, is now Penguin Random House. It is owned by the massive media conglomerate Bertelsmann — run by the Mohn family — and by the multinational British corporation Pearson.

These corporations own or license a lot of “intellectual property” which, if you follow such things, is a great way to amass huge amounts of capital, so much so that people who formerly had no interest novels or comic books are taking note and buying up IP not to send it out into the world, but to hoard as assets.

I have friends who are traditionally published, too. Some of them write for Tor, a small SF/F house that is lately doing its level best to publish more diverse voices. Another thing they’ve been doing lately? Placing an embargo on libraries.

Tor is owned by MacMillan, which is owned by the larger company Holtzbrink. Why is MacMillan placing an embargo on e-books in libraries? They fear it undercuts sales.

These books for lend — despite being sold to libraries at higher prices than to bookstores — just may cut into their bottom line.

So, while traditionally published authors may have their books available in all retailers (except now, perhaps, in libraries), books coming from them are no better than books being sold exclusively on Amazon.

I’m using only two examples, but could go on about the Big 5 publishing houses, including the ways these publishing houses treat writers — not paying the majority of authors a living wage, for one thing. Also, in traditional publishing — like most corporate systems and institutions — racism runs rampant. Just look at who gets published in the first place, then look at who gets promotional support. Look at who has garnered awards for the past sixty years.

Ask any Black or Brown or Indigenous (or frankly, any disabled, or queer, or trans…) author how big publishing has treated them. Even the “successful” ones have stories. Ask how many Black editors there are. Ask about tokenism. Ask about misogyny, while you’re at it. You’ll be told of myriad problems including the common phrase, “We already have a South Asian author.” Or “Your books belong in our African American imprint.”

Despite dedicated editors still championing the written word, in my opinion, the traditional publishing model itself is not designed to support authors. I don’t have time to detail all of the issues with a 19th century publishing model trying to operate under 21st century global corporate capitalism.

I’m also not trying to single out any one corporation. What I’m trying to do, simply, is to underscore my point: nothing within these systems is clean and pure. There is blood, oppression, and chicanery everywhere.

***

How else do authors (and artists, activists, musicians, and thinkers) make money in order to survive? Patreon is one way. Kickstarter is another.

Despite their real flaws, I consider these platforms to be great democratizers of art and ideas.

I’m so grateful for Patreon both as someone who wants to support the arts and someone who benefits from that support. I’m able to — through monthly donations of $1–15 — help provide steady income for a lot of people this way. Through the kind support of others, I also make a small but steady income myself. In fact, I’m working on expanding how I use Patreon in the future, that’s how great I think it is.

And yet, I’ve been told — and my artist and musician friends have also been told — that inviting people to pay $1 or $5 dollars a month so that more art can exist in the world is exploitation of supporters at worst and begging at best.

While Patreon itself can be criticized (its treatment of “adult” content creators is one such) it’s still currently the best thing going for independent thinkers, artists, musicians, video makers, and storytellers.

But criticizing artists for using Patreon? This teeters perilously close to claiming that all art and writing should be given away free.

And yes, there are people who do claim that art, music, and writing should be free.

Or that artists, writers, musicians, and craftspeople, that teachers, and card readers, activists and counselors, shouldn’t make money. That — in the midst of systems that require money, and despite the fact that Universal Basic Income is not yet a reality — people should be able to live on air.

That if we aren’t pure, we’re fucked up, or greedy, or selfish, or sell outs, or failures.

This is nothing but an extension of American Puritanism. Of cultural Calvinism.

I’ve given away plenty over the years, and still do. So do most of the people I know. And despite this, we still need to eat.

***

Do I like these crushing systems of capitalism that I’m currently making use of?

No.

And while I work toward an anarcho-socialist utopia, while I agitate for justice, I want to make a good living. And I want to make that good living via the spread of ideas. Ideas of hope and revolution.

I’m a propagandist for love, justice, and beauty. I’m a propagandist for magic.

I live pretty simply, but I still need a way to live.

I’m not trying to “change the system from within.” I’m trying — as so many are — to watch these systems crumble to dust as I try to work with others who have a sense of new and better, more just and equitable, systems. And as I do this? I’m going to attempt to leverage the current system to make as much money as possible while I can and continue to plow a significant portion of that to fund people building better community resources and to pay reparations for those who deserve or need them.

Is this all a terrible compromise? Of course it is. Terrible compromises are what we have under capitalism. No one is free of this. The “live wild or die” contingent? They’re just as selfish as anyone else, thinking they can retreat to the woods and live off the grid while millions starve or die in the streets.

Do I feel angry about all of this? Of course I do. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also feel strong and hopeful, and as if there is still work to be done and laughter to be shared.

And I also feel that art, and stories, and music, are some of the finest things that humanity offers. That, along with trees, and oceans, and animals and insects, and the whole vast array of holy Nature, artistic expression helps keep us all alive.

Think about it. What helps keep you alive? How are you navigating late capitalism, and the anthropocene, and the decline of empire, and the crumbling of nation states?

And in the midst of it all, what brings you a sense of comfort, or of joy?

For me, one of those things is stories. Books. Both the writing and the reading of them.

***

There’s something else that must be said for this conversation to make sense:

The crushing systems of capitalism and other forms of institutional oppression want us to believe that individuals are at fault, and therefore, individuals must be either punished or purified somehow. That’s a convenient lie that keeps oppressors in power and allows destructive systems to run on, unchecked.

It’s saying: if only you, personally, recycled, or stopped using plastic straws, or driving, we wouldn’t be in the earth-scorching climate disaster we are in. We wouldn’t be seeing mass migration of humans escaping climate-based wars.

It’s saying: if only you, personally, worked on your racism, there wouldn’t be racial inequity and the cascade of issues that impact Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. Just be nicer, won’t you? That’s the problem, a lack of personal niceness. Not prisons, or poverty, or policing, or educational disparity, or wealth hoarding, or healthcare disparity, or systemic oppression.

Do I believe in personal action and taking responsibility? Of course I do. I don’t need a plastic straw, so I’m happy to not use one. Like many if not most of you, I recycle. I compost. I work on my racism. I take public transit. I blockade, and get arrested, and try to amplify other people’s voices and actions.

But I have to also recognize that individual action is not enough. We need collective action, just as every good organizer tells us. We need collective will to provide actually good functioning public transit, and fair housing, and the restructuring of our cities. We need to continue to find ways to work with one another.

We also need systems that hold the biggest offenders — the destroyers of this environment, and those who profit from war and other suffering, including the suffering of workers — accountable.

Currently, there are no consequences for the big polluters and exploiters, and the oppressors who pull the levers of these giant, crushing systems.

Currently, they laugh inside their mansions, drink champagne, and plan missions to Mars. The systems work for them. Why would they want change?

These are the robber barons and enslavers, living richly on the backs of the poor. Even those who give heavily to charity don’t seem to fully comprehend the need for justice.

There is no justice in systems that punish the poor for asking for basic human rights that everyone deserves.

The right to not be killed in the street.

The right to clean water and healthy food.

The right to not have to work three jobs in order to provide for one’s family.

***

While I continue to do my best to work with others toward the aim of restructuring our society, I’m also going to make money and use major corporations in order to do so.

Because for me? It isn’t enough to personally boycott Amazon, Apple, or Walmart.** I want our entire way of life to be shaken to the core, so we can build up something new. Something better.

These are the ideas I want to spread:

Collective action.

Community well-being.

Justice.

Beauty.

Love.

Some days I think these are possible, and I catch glimpses of them, every day. Other times, it’s hard not to despair.

But I’m going to keep trying. And I’m going to send my stories out into the world through the broadest channels possible, and hope that they offer hope, or comfort, or inspiration to someone who needs it.

Because inspiration keeps us going, my friends.

So please, to the best of our abilities, let us work together for a world where everyone has basic income, health care, mental health services, housing, and education.

Boycott Amazon if your conscience says you must (I’ve not set foot inside a Walmart for years). That is as valid a choice as any in our current messy state. But please don’t look askance at writers trying to make a living under our current, collective conditions.

Find some way — any way — to uplift artists, and activists, and healers, and social workers, and parents, and…everyone else who may be an idealist and still needs to find a way to feed and clothe and house themselves.

Let us strive to uproot racism and colonialism in our thoughts, actions, and institutions. Social change takes all of us. Whether our actions feel small or large, they are vitally necessary.

Meanwhile, this author thanks you, for your bright, shining beauty, and for your support.

***

TL;DR: Work for justice. Support art.


Footnotes:

*The median Amazon worker earned $28,446 in 2017. Bezos’ annual compensation from Amazon in 2017 was over $1.6 million. This does not include Amazon stock, which pushes Bezos’ worth to more than $132 billion. To offer a sense of scale, because these numbers are baffling: One billion dollars = 1,000 million dollars.

Amazon’s working conditions are also said to be very bad.

**I’m not against boycotts, and every person must make their own choices around this. I also am of the opinion that the most effective boycotts are collective, not individual. The 2018 cyber-Monday Amazon boycott called for by workers is one example of effective collective boycott.


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