Against Leviathan,‭ ‬Against Work

‭I engage in a pastime that’s both time-honored and yet somewhat of a relic in the punk world:‭ ‬tabling shows.‭ ‬I pack my panniers full of radical books and zines and bike them across town,‭ ‬setting them up on borrowed card tables in generally smoky venues,‭ ‬and more often than not lug nearly all of them back home with me at the end of the night.‭ ‬I’m not in it for the money—‭ ‬the petty cash all goes back into acquiring more material.‭

So why do I do it‭?

It’s a two-part answer.‭ ‬There are books and zines out there with messages that I find important.‭ ‬In addition,‭ ‬there’s a heritage of selling books and zines at shows,‭ ‬which means that there’s already in place an accepted process for getting this literature into people’s hands.‭ ‬I suppose there’s a corollary answer that the act of standing behind a table of books and zines is something with which I’m already familiar and comfortable,‭ ‬having attended so many book fairs and zine fests.‭

As a result of sharing a distro with a friend who has since left the country as well as my own wishful wholesale purchasing,‭ ‬I have found myself with a number of books on my table that I haven’t read.‭ ‬I am trying to rectify this,‭ ‬even if it means slogging through nearly all of Crimethinc’s titles.‭ ‬It has always surprised people to learn that I’ve never read a Crimethinc book,‭ ‬given the company I have kept over the years.

I once befriended someone who had gotten into anarchism in high school via Crimethinc.‭ ‬When I was in high school,‭ ‬Crimethinc didn’t exist yet.‭ ‬Neither did the internet,‭ ‬per se.‭ ‬It doesn’t make me better or worse,‭ ‬but it means I don’t have a shared experience with many people I know.‭ ‬Reading‭ ‬Evasion as a teen didn’t cause me to leave home and hitchhike across the country.‭ ‬I didn’t start doing that until much later,‭ ‬and it wasn’t because I read about it.

Although I planned to lose my Crimethinc virginity with‭ ‬Evasion,‭ ‬years past its expiration date,‭ ‬I was going out of town for five days and wanted to read something longer.‭ ‬At the last minute I left‭ ‬Evasion at home and brought Fredy Perlman’s‭ ‬300-page essay‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ I’ve read many other titles by Perlman,‭ ‬but this one had seemed daunting.‭ ‬Many of my friends started it and never finished.‭ ‬I thought out of town would be the best place to focus on it.‭

The first day of my trip,‭ ‬one of the friends I was visiting handed me the newest Crimethinc book,‭ ‬Work.‭ ‬As I leafed through it,‭ ‬I noticed that it was actually somewhat similar to‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ They both attempt to critique a totality while picking apart the smaller aspects.‭ ‬They also both utilize borrowed illustrations.‭

As if that wasn’t enough,‭ ‬upon first perusal I felt like the font used in‭ ‬Work had a similarity to the one used in‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ although font nerds might put my head on a stick for suggesting that.‭ ‬Having read‭ ‬Letters of Insurgents so many times,‭ ‬I reserve a special place in my heart for what I call Black‭ & ‬Red font,‭ ‬which is also in‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ I don’t know what the font is called,‭ ‬nor do I care to substitute my own naming for the historically accurate one.‭ (‬If I really wanted to know,‭ ‬I would just ask Lorraine.‭) ‬After careful comparison however I realized that although the‭ ‬Work font—‭ ‬revealed in the colophon as RePublic‭ ‬—‭ ‬does bear some resemblance to Black‭ & ‬Red,‭ ‬they are not the same.‭ ‬The italics for example are quite different,‭ ‬and Black‭ & ‬Red doesn’t contain any ligatures.

During this closer look at fonts and such,‭ ‬I noticed that‭ ‬Work cites‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ as a source.‭ ‬I decided to read the books concurrently rather than in tandem.‭ ‬Many factors led me to have many hours of reading time on this particular trip,‭ ‬both during the day and at night.‭ ‬I traded off reading from each of them,‭ ‬and ended up finishing them both by bedtime on my last night.‭ ‬That’s almost‭ ‬700‭ ‬pages of non-fiction in the span of five days,‭ ‬speedy even for me.

Reading them together has fused them in my mind.‭ ‬We all read books within contexts,‭ ‬and reading two books in such proximity puts them in a sort of conversation with each other.‭ ‬Ever since my friend handed me‭ ‬Work,‭ ‬the two books have been together constantly,‭ ‬and I’m finding it hard to imagine separating them physically.‭ ‬They’re definitely not the same book but rather complementary slices of the same pie.

It’s a pie of criticism thrust into the face of that which some call the Spectacle,‭ ‬others Leviathan,‭ ‬and still others the Totality.‭ ‬There are many names for this hydra,‭ ‬including…‭ ‬Hydra.‭

One of the main differences between these similarly sized polemics are matters of chronology.‭ ‬Perlman wrote‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ nearly thirty years before‭ ‬Work came onto the scene.‭ ‬This is not to say that‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ is outdated‭; ‬rather,‭ ‬it is a narrative told in a different era.‭ ‬The reason that many of my friends can’t get through the book is because of the omnipresent references to ancient history.‭ ‬I think past generations studied ancient history a lot more.‭ ‬For anyone who was out back smoking during high school history class and never caught up on their own time,‭ ‬a criticism of civilization citing numerous examples from Ur to the Pilgrims would seem not unlike a string of nonsense words,‭ ‬things that would have to be looked up or else just not understood.‭ ‬Perlman starts with the Sumerians and gives a survey history of Western Civilization,‭ ‬epoch by epoch,‭ ‬describing how each step that civilization takes is the Leviathan destroying all that is human and replacing it with its own burrowed tentacles.‭ ‬Whether a worm or an octopus,‭ ‬Leviathan goes only one direction,‭ ‬and that is toward destruction.‭

Maybe because I wasn’t smoking during history class or maybe just dumb luck,‭ ‬I happened to remember enough about the history of Western Civilization to make it through this book without having to look anything up to understand what was going on.‭ ‬I’m no scholar,‭ ‬but I was successfully indoctrinated in high school to the point that I have some idea about the Etruscans,‭ ‬Byzantine Empire,‭ ‬the era of the two Popes,‭ ‬and the Crusades.‭ ‬I don’t believe it’s necessary to be fluent in this knowledge,‭ ‬but some familiarity helps.

Work tells a similar story but in the present.‭ ‬The Leviathan is named as Capitalism,‭ ‬but it’s clear that it’s not just an economic system but force of occupation in all aspects of our lives.‭ ‬The book breaks down capitalism into every category in which it touches us,‭ ‬changing who we are inside and out.‭ ‬I can’t think of any facet that the book doesn’t cover.‭ ‬I’m not saying I agree with everything in it,‭ ‬but the analysis is pretty total.

The question of course is why write a polemic at all.‭ ‬If someone is sympathetic enough to read a book in the first place,‭ ‬wouldn’t they be already one of the converted,‭ ‬so to speak‭? ‬And does anyone hostile ever change their views based on something they read‭? ‬My answer would be,‭ ‬eh,‭ ‬sometimes and sometimes.‭ ‬Or maybe eh,‭ ‬often and rarely.‭ ‬Or on some days eh,‭ ‬who cares and fuck‭ ‘‬em.‭

As for me,‭ ‬I feel good about having spent the time to read both of them together.‭ ‬They bring me some sorrow about the pervasiveness of the damage already done and its continuance on a daily basis.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬they both remind me of why I’m an anarchist in the first place.‭ ‬This is important because I’ve been losing my way in the past few years.‭ ‬Not because I’ve changed my opinion on the way things are,‭ ‬but because anarchists have been a source of havoc in my life.‭ ‬My question is always why I do anything at all,‭ ‬if my reward is bad friends.‭ ‬Maybe it’s the occasional good friend,‭ ‬but what ended up being a five-day reading retreat for me renewed my passion in not just the things I do but the way I do them,‭ ‬the tense but mindful approach.‭ ‬I won’t be able to tell Fredy Perlman about this experience,‭ ‬but I’ll have the writer(s‭) ‬of‭ ‬Work know that in true Crimethinc fashion,‭ ‬I read two-thirds of‭ ‬Work while on a farm and the other third while sitting on the roof of an urban punk house.

Back at home,‭ ‬I had a conversation with a couple of friends about my experience with the books that are now cousins in my mind.‭ ‬One friend asked me what‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ was getting at.‭

“It’s a history of Western Civilization,‭” ‬I said,‭ “‬and how it’s fucked‭! ‬It’s all fucked‭!”
“Well,‭ ‬what about‭ ‬Work‭?” ‬he said.
‭“‬It’s about how capitalism has invaded all aspects of our lives‭!” ‬I said,‭ ‬sort of laughing at this point.‭ “‬and how it’s fucked‭! ‬It’s all fucked‭!”

My friend said he’d give‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ another try.‭ ‬A second friend offered to loan him his never-finished copy.‭ “‬Oh no,‭” ‬the first friend said,‭ “‬I have my own never-finished copy.‭”
Perhaps that’s why we write books.‭ ‬And why we table them at shows still.‭ ‬People still do read them.

A Is for Adraknones

I’m going to wager that you know someone who has read more science fiction and/or fantasy novels than I have. In fact, you might be that person. I don’t live in the world of sf/fantasy; however, I’ve been vacationing there off and on for the past several years. I know a little bit about it, but no, not as much as you or your know-it-all friend.

My attraction to sf/fantasy is the creations of other worlds. This is not surprising. I’ll be up front in saying that the world I want to live in is not this one. I also recognize that there’s a fair amount of investment in creating a world, which is why a lot of sf/fantasy stories are published in series or at least as mammoth tomes. If you’re going to invent a new world, you may as well get a number of books out of it, or at least many pages. There’s also a certain commitment that I as a reader must make in order to fully engage with this.

I’m drawn to these alternate worlds generally because I would prefer to live in those worlds. For example, I would absolutely live in the magical world of Harry Potter if I had the choice. Even with Death Eaters and dragons, I’d still choose this if it also meant I could ride a broom and perform spells and hexes. Some literary worlds I’m a little more ambivalent about hypothetically inhabiting, such as Middle-earth in Tolkien’s books and Bas-Lag in the trilogy by China Mieville. Neither place is a walk in the park.

Recently I read Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. Unlike my previous examples, it falls under the speculative fiction genre rather than the fantasy. It tips the scales at a hefty 890 pages, with another 45 pages dedicated to a glossary and three mathematical appendices. My hardcover copy could be used to bludgeon an opponent’s skull before polycosmology could erupt from anybody’s lips. The first third of the book is dedicated to describing the world that the protagonist Fraa Erasmus inhabits and its system of philosophical monasteries called concents. Arbre is a world similar to ours but with a few subtle differences. Stephenson creates new terminology to describe analogous occurrences. Jeejahs, fraas, suurs, Deolaters, and the Hylaean Theoric World: they each have corresponding realities in the world we live in, and some of their meanings can be deduced from comparable etymology.

There’s a criticism to be made about inventing new terms for things that an author could conceivably describe in the language in which the book is being written. It’s a lot of new words for a reader to pick up. The glossary is 20 pages long. It’s not every reader who will want to attempt such an endeavor. Some of my science fiction fan friends couldn’t tolerate the book because of this. I might not have attempted it if I hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed two of Stephenson’s novels already, including Cryptonomicon which at nearly 1200 pages is the longest novel I have ever read. As is turns out though, I seem to have a very long attention span for novels. Anticipating Anathem‘s bounty of new terms, I actually read the glossary first. If an author is going to go through the trouble of creating a new world, I want to at least understand it.

Let’s talk about the creation of terms first. Language literally defines the practices and values of a given civilization. If you were going to create a new world, why wouldn’t the words be different? In the practice of writing speculative fiction, you also have to think about the consistency of terminology within the given system. Arbre didn’t have Pythagoras; therefore the length of a hypotenuse isn’t determined with the Pythagorean Theorum but with the Adraknonic Theorum, named after ancient Arbran theorist Adrakhones. Arbre also has two language groups— Orth, reserved solely for monastic living, and various vernacular languages across the world, Fluccish being the one in use where most of the book takes place. Stephenson is no dummy; he makes an introductory disclaimer that while the book is translated from Arbran languages, original terminology is kept unless the difference between the Arbran object and our counterpart is so small that to use an Arbran term would be unnecessarily complicated. He cites the carrot as an example of something whose Arbran counterpart is so similar that he (the translator) may as well just call them carrots to make it easier on the reader. He also begins the book with a brief timeline of the approximately 7000 years of Arbran ontological history..

In addition to a long attention span for novels I also seem to have an ability to suspend disbelief when it comes to reading books about different worlds than my own. Once, after having read a few Harry Potter books in a row, I found myself requiring a pen that was across the room. Without pausing for thought, I said, “Accio pen!” Yes, aloud. It took me half a second to realize that the pen wasn’t going to fly across the room into my hand.

Similarly, Anathem‘s mathic system— that is to say, the social division on Arbre that places intellectuals and philosophers inside networks of monastic seclusion— infused my brain with its terms and features. I wondered if I would have been in the Edharian group or the New Circle, or if I would have been one of the Saeculars whom for whatever reason had never been properly assessed and collected as a child by the monastic orders. I even went through my romantic history and mentally categorized my relationships into Tivian liaisons and Etrevenean ones. Some of the argumentative concepts also seemed useful, and I nearly forgot that I couldn’t drop those terms in regular conversations. The Rake is Arbran shorthand for the idea that wishing something is true doesn’t make it more likely to be true, and stems from an incident when an ancient philosopher used a garden implement to brush away zealots. The Steelyard is a similar mental tool which states that when faced with two hypotheses to choose the simpler one, based on an ancient metaphor involving a scale.

I wonder if it’s just an aspect of these worlds that I’m drawn to, in the same way that Ren Faire folks obsess over only a certain spectrum of Renaissance era living. I like the part of Harry Potter that exists in Hogwarts, and I like the concents in Anathem. What does this say about me— that my true desire is to live in a cult? I hope not. No, I think what it says is that if I could, I would choose a life outside of capitalism. The concents as they are described in the beginning of the book seem like idyllic intentional communities where contemplation is favored over consumer culture. At first, it seems like a livable trade-off— sure there are rules about what documents you’re allowed to read and what technologies you can have access to, but on the other hand once you come of age your time is for the most part your own. Reading, writing, growing and preparing food, pursuing crafts or martial arts that interest you, and most importantly consulting with your peers— you can make a life of this.

I could make a life of this.

However, as with many things in life and in fiction, illusions fall away. The concents are centers of intellectual separatism which manage to successfully resist the comparably frenetic pace of cultural and technological change outside their fortified gates, but they are also themselves political entities with power and weaknesses known only to secret organizations within their walls. They maintain their perceived neutrality and separation only insofar as the outside governments decide to grant it to them, a situation not that different than an intentional community or cult on our planet that is left alone by military forces until such time that its inhabitants are deemed too dangerous or too useful.

As a result, I’m back on this planet, at least until I read another science fiction book.