Monthly Archives: July 2014

Notes Towards a Manifesto of the Biotariat

In a poem called “Almost Islands” (which riffs off of John Donne’s famous “no man is an island” passage), collected in my book To the Barricades (Talon Books 2013), I proposed a new social body: the biotariat. Here’s the relevant part of the (rather long) poem.

People of earth
there are no islands now
the planet is peninsular
jutting in space
one blue-green growing
brown orb attached to
disease we’ve made in
threshold song no
isolato on genetic shores

How does the predator
become the trustee?
Musk gesture pheromone
or mode of socio-economic
production—no species
no island for flit
of swallow’s blue-green
back rustle of genetics
in the ditch we probably dug

The next revolution
is what culture will teach
we can and can’t do
as system’s feedback loop
grabbing the red flag
spore poppy claw
of the biotariat
and heading off into
the weeds developers
left back of decay

It’s easy enough to throw an invented term into a line of poetry. In this fairly philosophical and speculative post, I would like to take the opportunity to begin to flesh this idea out just a little.

1. When we compare humans to animals in terms of mistreatment (“they were treated like animals”—in Gaza or Syria or the Sudan or…), we mean no disrespect to animals; we mean only that animals, including human beings, are often mistreated, exploited, and accorded no dignity. These processes are increasingly systematized and totalized.

2. First, a provisional definition. The biotariat: that portion of existence that is enclosed as a “resource” by and for those who direct and benefit from the accumulation of wealth. So: workers and commoners; most animals and plants, including trees and forest and grassland ecosystems; water; land, as it provisions and enables biological life; minerals that lie beneath the surface of the land; common “wastes” and “sinks” too, into which the waste products of resource production and use are spilled—the atmosphere and the oceans. It’s that large. The enclosed and exploited life of this planet.

3. Is it possible to politicize life as such? To—even conceptually—imagine its “class composition”? To read it—cross biotically—as social? I believe that current world conditions push us in this direction—make this an unavoidable move.

4. This is the reason to propose a biotariat: the enclosure and exploitation of life, in all its manifold aspects (from boreal forests to sea turtles to Bangladeshi garment workers to the homeless of the world’s major cities to sex trade workers to the coral reefs and so forth and so on), has reached a stage in which “we”—all of life—are in the same desperate and drunken boat—constrained there by a system of total and planetary accumulation that even the term “capitalism” perhaps cannot adequately capture anymore. In what sense is this “economics”—this means of the production of financial inequality that systemically impacts and imperils life itself?

5. Some key terms. Commons: the shared, widely understood; that which life requires access to in order to persist; that limited resource which is “managed”—either through ecological checks and balances, or human-generated customs—in order to be available for continued use. Enclosure: the privatization of the commons for exclusive access and use, for purposes of private profit generation, typically in ways with little regard to the resource’s sustainability.

“The urban proletariat were commoners without a commons,” writes Peter Linebaugh—displaced by enclosure. So the biotariat is life without a common (shared, open, non-privatized) support for life itself.

6. Enclosure, Peter Linebaugh notes (in Stop, Thief!), involves at once the “taking of land and the taking of bodies.” Linebaugh is noting the historical convergence of the enclosure of common lands and the “body snatchers” who stole and murdered commoners and other poor people to provide cadavers for the burgeoning medical schools of early nineteenth century England. But we can extend this analysis to the “taking of land” from indigenous people under colonization (and the extension of colonization into the current era of extreme resource extraction) and the “taking of bodies” evident in both the residential school system and the vast numbers of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. Going even further, the “taking of land” becomes almost total under current conditions, where the entire surface of the earth and its atmosphere too functions either as “productive resource” or sink for waste products (including carbon emissions), and the “taking of bodies” includes the capture of nearly all animals in factory farms, zoos, or “nature reserves.”

But again—how can we politicize life as such?

7. The Gaia hypothesis proposes that the earth is a single, self-regulating complex system, integrating biological, atmospheric, and inorganic subsystems. With the biotariat, I would imagine a politicized version of this hypothesis—the earth as planetary commons, all life as constituting the commoners who depend upon access to the planetary commons. This would be to project not a divine earth goddess (Gaia), but earth as a repressed commons, lowly, leveled, and exploited. Not as singularity, but as the multitude of life, coming, under the impetus provided by globalization and climate change, into a new and necessary solidarity.

8. The politicization of life as such, and thus the calling to arms of the biotariat, depends upon a willingness to accept “a definition of politics as a political ecology and a notion of publics as human-nonhuman collectives that are provoked into existence by a shared experience of harm.” This is Jane Bennett, from her book Vibrant Matter. The perspective of the biotariat requires “taking the side of things” (parti pris des choses—Francois Ponge), or what Bennett describes as

“Dogged resistance to anthropomorphism…. I will emphasize, even overemphasize, the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces (operating in nature, in the human body, and in human artifacts) in an attempt to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought.”

9. To recognize that the commons is more than a system of social reproduction—that it in fact is a system of ecological sustainability, writ large, into which human social reproduction fits. So—commoning, as a verb, is what all life does—a process and an action upon which all life depends. The proposition of a biotariat calls a new collective identity into being, a new common subjectivity formed by life itself.

10. To acknowledge the biotariat is to conjoin Marxist and ecological analysis (I’m obviously not the first to suggest this synthesis): not only workers are exploited in this system—all of life is exploited in its totality. “Natural resources,” just as much as the human resources of labour force, are the resources capitalism exploits in the accumulation process. As counterpoint, Linebaugh notes that “The activity of commoning is conducted through labor with other resources; it does not make a division between ‘labor’ and ‘natural resources.’” On the commons, human and natural resources are co-implicated in the process of ecological reproduction. Capitalism separates them and, anthropocentrically, even capitalism’s critics have maintained the separation of (human) labour and (natural) resources. We need to return to an analytic based in the common fact of life as such—its reproduction, human and (interdependently) otherwise.

11. From the enclosure of common lands and the dispossession of commoners, leaving them with no means of survival outside of the wage, to the colonization (i.e., outright theft) of indigenous territories the world over, the extent of capitalism’s enclosures has only grown. Next comes the industrialization of agriculture, the meat factories many animals now live short entire lives in, the rendering of much of the landscape outside of cities a single, giant “open pit” from which “resources” are stripped, to genetic modification and the introduction of “man-made” petroleum products, chemicals, and pesticides into all ecosystems and all life forms the planet over. The “class” threatened by this system now—the class that is repressed and exploited for profit—is, indiscriminately, all of life (both present and past, when we consider the extraction of fossil fuels).

12. What can “we”—the biotariat—do? How can you “organize” life as such in resistance to totalized, planetary capitalist exploitation? This isn’t Animal Farm, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or a Tolkien tale in which an army of trees will join us on the battlefield. I don’t have an answer to these pressing questions—but I will offer some speculation in future posts. For now, I will only suggest that organizing on a common ground with all of life—resisting capitalism from the position of life itself (rather than one human class or social subsection)—draws together a number of strands of current global resistance—from indigenous land resistance through climate justice movements to new urban occupations and the organization of migrant rights—all of which might be reconceived and reinvigorated as the resistance of the commons of life to the new and massive enclosures of total subsumption and a totalized global capitalism.

13. William S. Burroughs once proclaimed, “Death needs life for what it kills to grow in.” Now we might say, capitalism needs life for what it kills to grow in. And so we—the biotariat—are now enclosed in one massive factory, our bodies ground into profit.

14. It’s the only way to end this first foray. Biotarians of the world unite—the only thing you have to lose is your chains!

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Tent City Commons

Oppenheimer Park, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories, is currently being occupied by a tent city. The homeless and housing activists, led by indigenous activists, have taken the park amidst an ongoing housing crisis. Vancouver’s annual homeless count recently found its highest number of homeless people ever, and the city’s definition of “affordable housing” is, to put it mildly, a farce. This is quite simply a city in which living on welfare (or even being on employment insurance or being underemployed) is untenable. So—people have taken the park.

The city has served an eviction notice, and park rangers and police officers arrived early on the morning of July 21. In an interesting turn of events, First Nations representatives in turn served the City of Vancouver with their own eviction notice—to leave these unceded territories. Post haste.

When a city cannot, and in fact refuses, to deal responsibly with its most marginalized peoples, and when the very nature of “public space” becomes the heart of the discussion around social sustainability, I am reminded of the commons. Private/public becomes a dichotomy that the commons escapes—because the commons is neither public nor private—it’s common. And that means it’s part of the provisioning of life we collectively depend upon and are responsible for, and to which we all should have access as a human right (a right to decent housing, a right of access to the satisfaction of basic human needs). When neither the city’s private nor its public space is adequately providing for people, the absence of the common is most acutely felt.

In writing on the history of the commons and enclosure (the theft of the commons from people whose livelihoods depended upon it), Peter Linebaugh notes that the city was always at least in part enclosed already. Of necessity, it was the place of markets and potential profit making, of private homes and “stores” of “goods.” Linebaugh, in Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance, writes,

“The walls which once defended the city from enemies coming from the countryside now were interiorized to enclose urban wealth from the creation of commons in the city by workers who had lost their commons in the country” (26)

The Downtown Eastside has a disproportionate number of indigenous people who have indeed been thrown off their traditional lands “in the country”—suffering the enclosure of their territories for purposes of resource extraction—only to find themselves doubly enclosed in the city, where adequate jobs are scarce and rents are sky-high due to the generation of massive wealth through property speculation (often in waves of gentrification, displacing the marginalized from formerly “affordable” neighbourhoods). Where is the space for the commons in a city like Vancouver? That is, what can we share here, and what can we, collectively, have a share in? What space is there for such sharing, and for maintaining ourselves and our communities through such acts of mutual aid?

Or, as too often seems the case, is this a city for the rich only—a city in which no one shares, unless they can pay the exorbitant price of elite membership?

Day by day, the camp at Oppenheimer Park grows. There are more than 30 tents now. In the heart of this, one of the least affordable cities in the world, the demand for the commons has been raised again. Now, as the old saying goes, whose side are you on?

(Updated Wednesday July 23)

Reading Wordsworth in the Tar Sands

We were walkers
In a dangerous time
Of storm and thaw
Took damage in our
Stride—the vacant
Air the wildered mind
Ensnares—beat down
And scraped clean of the
Burden of overwhelming
Being—a voice here
Intervenes as if a
Common property of the
Formality of these lines—
The new garden relieves
The overburden of
Merely growing things
Scrapes the earth clean
Of organism—dirty paint
From used palettes scraped—
The new garden the voice
Proclaims—is a mine
Of ordered destructions
Hard boundless bounds
Of energy slaves—earth
From which bitumen’s ripped
To fuel a mind from which
Finance life has stripped

Wordsworth—I feel you too!
Though there is no mechanism
To nuance this conversation
Across the years—so I brought
Your ruined cottages your
Evening walks and Grasmere
Homing here to the Tar Sands
To stroll across northern desarts
Not knowing how well you fit—
The method of our walking
From seeing to contemplating
To remembering—is yours
Though no solitary haunts
Are here—no birds that scud
The flood—here we tread
Together the shadowy ground
Bright in the sun round
The darkest pits of vacancy
Scooped out sockets of eyes
Where skeletal holes of earth remain
Waterless and drained

1

The place from which I looked
The plane descending on Fort
McMurray or the road we walked
Around the bounds of one dry lake
And if I thought I thought of dying
Of stone and tombs and pits
No profit but one thought
The lot of others could be mine
And—aerial—we might business
Halt—tempting notions—wind
Over dead water—I thought of
Clouds where lay the land
Grey billows of moneyed dust
Nickel and naught—shadows
Brittle butterflies and the liquid
Depths of dry grass—benzene
And naphthenic acid sands
Without restraints or bounds
Blowing out and over this
Huge concave world the
Chemical truth extracts its
Word—it’s simple really—they
Tore the forest off fast like
A bandage over wounded earth
Walking—we were seeing
Silvered shunts of sand lakes
Like salt flats wondering what
Winkles out in yonder mercury
Sheen? No ponds pretend to
Lighten belief—air canon and
Scarecrow miners surround
These tailings are desolation’s
Dream of crumbling enamels
Whoever it was said boreal
Swept it clean in cold accounts
Before land wastes were
Fenced former forests of sand
Thick dark thoughts leaching
Heavy metal music machines
Or death metal bands screaming
Unfathomable ruination inside
A sealed steel cube in space

Dear imaginations—lighten up!
Your part is human protest
But there are no visionary scenes
Of lofty beauties uplifting to see
Even if Burtynsky might
Shoot them chromatic as
Abstract patterns of chemical dirt
No matter!—When in service
Of monetary gain and increasing
Industries of land liquidation
This world is anvil entertainment
Bashed first peoples flat land home
Still springing thrust midst the
Fossilized dead on whose ancestral
Heat we strange grammar feed
As strange accumulation folk
Pummel pores and veins of
Saturated soils coiled up in the
Barrage we make making roads
And the slow bombardment
Of never ending development

Perhaps I digress—the occasion
Is a public walk—but the aesthetics
Of the place is pure negativity—
Open maw is no landscape
There is no viewpoint despite
The signs and picnic tables of
Doom’s treeless playgrounds
No play of light at sunset on
Tumescent swaths of an earth
Heaving its golden breast towards
A slate sky where gawkers careen
In tin cans winged while in utter
Foundries of digital light
Pounding out templates of data
We break to browse disaster porn
Look death in its vertiginous eye
One house sized truck after another
Blanket ourselves in perspectival
Air of vanished relations—no
This is just the vast insides
Of machine whose impetus
Money tells—no point from which
To see it whole or unveil its grasp
On brow of yonder hill—just a
Moving power that moves itself
And us tempest tossed within it
Sloughing boreal off its bitumen back
The calculus which compels
Its animate limbs for alien power
Is assembled from our loathing
And slouches now towards Fort
McMurray and Fort McKay to
Deliver a world of dead birds
And unquenchable thirsts

2

Walking—we were old technology
Biotic and slowly evolving
Dropped into circuit
Pilgrims circling on a
Healing walk walking all day
Beating the bounds in
Circumference of a single
Tailings pond between still
Other tailings ponds edge
Of the largest mine in the
World—world-sized mine
Past Syncrude and Suncor
Refineries and the vast desart
Of the Tar Sands stretching
Beyond where the plants
One after another were

This is where we walked
This is where we swam
Some voice again humming
Drum and song to keep us
Moving beneath bullets of
Economic praise spraying
Billboards and the birdless
Lakes on our left not
Lakes but pools of poison
Doing what beneath their beds
We can only guess leaching
Towards the Athabasca
Flowing wide nearby on
To Fort Chip and the toxins
Captured in animal flesh there
The last human tenant imagined
Barren of all future good
Water scarred skin and wooden
Buffalo of Wood Buffalo
Cigar shop life and mines
And ponds where ancestors lie
Don’t let the new houses fool you
She said from the ruined cottage
Life of Fort Chipewyan First Nation
You can’t find the map of us
On their financial statements

It doesn’t smell as bad
As I thought it would
(though it does smell bad
or at least like a gas station world)
It is surrounded by fences
And canons and clearly owns
The police its money is heaped
In deep black banks
It has broken every treaty with life
Its ceremony is poison
It seems to have eaten the ducks
Its clime is coming fast
And is difficult to resist
So we circle in the sun
Round a wound thinking healing
Circling erasure and watching
As trucks erase erasure
Lingering over layers where
Trees are several destructions ago
Lines in flame earth—dust of the
Dead and dying collected and
Levelled by eager land movers
The great trucks of nether worlds
Dropping dead matter on top
Of dead matter where a lake
Once lay where boreal forest
And muskeg once stretched
To the horizon ringing round

This is where we walked
This is where we swam
And I can only poultice
The dry pieces of this
Crack my eyes over
Dry petrol glands of the
Land stretching white
Flat bright glare along
Thrust of bleak road round
Which trucks never cease
To turn in a carbon gyre

We are the species
That walked out of Africa
Walked everywhere
Found our fuel in forests
Then in the ground beneath
Forests—a widening gyre
Wrapped animal bone in
Sweet dry grass offering
And now stand in grass
Beside the road offering
Prayer on this first stop
First of four directions
We could still vindicate
A species of relent
Still unrelenting old sun
We pry up burning ground
Looking for more and movement
Where we should be less and still

Second stop—drumming and
Singing between two tailings
Ponds edged by sand dunes
The desart where the forest grew
Remembrance that came and went
Like a bird to its grave in the water

Third stop—past the refinery
Smoke and Syncrude tanks
The monster with its long metal
Arms pulling all to hell
Just don’t reach—arms—too
Deep into our dreaming
We’re not telling where
We’re going next nor revealing
The fact we have a where
To go next secret futures across
The shores of utopia we are
Walking to and upon nation
Leading drowsy nation

Fourth stop and fourth
Direction—still drumming
And still singing—just this
Just this—the elders praying
Should earth be wrenched
Throughout or fire wither all
Her pleasant habitations and
Dry up ocean left singed
And bare or the waters
Of the deep gather upon us
Fleet waters of the drowning
World—know that kindlings
Like the morning still
Foretell—though slow—
A returning day lodged
In the frail shrine of us aglow
Old technology of people together
Holding the line against changing weather

3

Wordsworth—if I on this occasion
Affirm anything—it is that I will
Seriously pursue the simple task
Of walking with those others of my time
Who also small and failing are trying
To walk against the traffic spilling
In out and through our cities
Out over and across the land—
The trafficless wastes of which we all
Together variously depend upon
The queer cool and resistant
Fields streams lakes and forests
That linger like old myths we once lived by
But are in fact facts we still test and try

It’s then—tired and hot after the
Long walk through the burnt land
Sitting at last having just jumped
With so many others into the
Murky waters of Willow Lake
That I suddenly recollected
The valet at the hotel
I stayed at this past May
Asking if I had any poems
About mountains—recalling
This here far from hotels
And far from mountains
Flat land of aspen and swamp
I had to admit I didn’t
Though I had a story
Never yet written down
How once young and too
Serious unhappy and searching
For I did not know what
I set out to climb a mountain
I’d passed many times driving
Through a high pass to the
Coast west of Port Alberni
And Sprout Lake—a sharp peak
Jutting through cloud tatter

It was evening already
Or at least late afternoon
I threw gear in my car
And westward took my way
Drove three hours intending
To set off in the dark
Camp and make the peak
In the morning hold communion
With the invisible world

It was stupid and compulsive
I wanted to hurt myself
Or have something outside
Myself hurt me or somehow
Lift myself up out of myself
Impossible weight of late
Capitalist life in velvet chains

Arriving at the mountain and
Parking on the side of the road
Fading light it was raining
And late fall or early spring
I forget but I could see
Through vapours shot tongues
And promontories it was
Snowing up on the peak above

Fuck it I said I took
My gear out got ready
In the rain beside the Volvo
One last check and I
Cannot find my keys

Instantly a light fell like
A flash they are in the
Ignition the car is locked

How many signs does one need
How many times do you
Have to fail at failing?

I knew I was beat knew
I’d return to my shitty
Apartment and shitty job
Maybe escape another day
Maybe never I turned
In the rain my boots
Crunching gravel stooped
And picked up the biggest
Rock nearby put it through
The car’s side window
The shower of small glass
Beads all over the seat
Drove home with the rain
Coming in beside me late
Into the night the car’s
Headlights fracturing the
Vapour not knowing it
Would be twenty years
Before I’d write a poem
About a mountain—sitting
Exhausted in the Tar Sands
And fulfilling at least one thing
That I had neglected doing

It was over reaching
All this desperate over
Reaching made me recall
My own insignificant and
Privileged hubris
Lost amidst the vast over
Reaching of this world
Wide mine tallying
Small drop in the human
Mind that accumulating
Feeds its imagined difference
Feeds though finite upon
Infinity only to hunger
Always for more
The world that beckons
Like an open pantry door

4

Dear common—lowest
Denominator—highest right
Lift light of future foliage
Here where bright burnt
Sands hinge chemical ponds
Over loosest leaves of boreal—
Burnt brooks and forests for
Fatter fuel in bitumen beds
Beneath everything we see—
Remove everything we see
To reveal it—paucity of
Ideas for making homes
Making lives led as ghosts
Already haunting doomed
Earth we split and devour

It’s elders brings us back
Living idea elders drumming
Singing and walking indigenous
To all the overburden which
Is no burden but carries
Itself echolocaic through
Leaves of this living and
Wakes while walking still
Breathing in dreamt shade

I could almost gather
Intuitive hopes for spring
Heap method of gleaning
Against Google Chrome of
Most expensive trucks
Or cheap flights to Vegas
Or the women who—bare
Commodities—travel here
Or the single yellow bus
Bringing migrants to clean
The factories of empty futures

So stop with me here
Burn out the day
Burn out the night
Then kindle dim mornings
To further this device—
What needs to die is
The refusal to die—it’s
Death that feeds life

If the old garden was
An aristocratic preserve
Of clockwork geometry
And the Romantic garden
A radical turn in open
Nature as pretend pasture
In an enamoured mind
Now we return to
Constructed enclosures
Open pit and tailings pond
A factory earth of engineered
Extractions to lay commodity
Paths in purchase and ensure
New aristocrats their
Helicopter lives—what we
Need now is a wild swerve
Away from arsenic mercury
And polycyclic hydrocarbons
Downstream in ducks and
Muskrats and moose meat
And the people of Fort Chip
Who feed on feeding the land—
A wild swerve out of entropy
To new free energies spooling
In what we can’t predict
And will not yet foretell
But will imagine not as
Trading futures or deposits
Speculated into asset mills

Stopped here near the
Blasted vale or just after
Lift off on gas wing south
Over seeming endless forest
I find I still need a little
Language of the Tar Sands
The knowing by walking
That tells how boreal grew
And gathered animal cohort
And plant polity over bitumen
Deposit and didn’t once think
Noxious profit gas even when
Bubbling surface bogs leached
And aspen trembled—even when
Drinking its life from waters
Just thin surfaces veiling the
Pitch coppered tight beneath

What strange adaptors we are!
That things will grow again
Is no consolation—the difference
Between this situation and
The situation of the old growth
On top of bitumen base is the
Difference between a happen
And the ecological capacity
To bear this happening and
A making and the ecological
Capacity to bear this human
Act and choice—what strange
Adaptors we are—moving
Swifter than old accumulations
To chemical our hues where we
Are still that vitality that springs
A weed beside the poison road
Banks of the poison pond
Beneath arch of poison sky
All remade by our adaptions

Will we—delimit—ourselves
Or—ova storm of digital increase
Uncap our climate and trade
Mere earth to reach residual heights
Of the value form and receive—
A new dispensation of finitude forced
From the very ground we have removed
And the sky we have spilt our angers on?

Let me walk a little longer at
Bodily scale—we have always been here—
Tomorrow—contemplating this
Landscape and letting the flood
Of memories of the future in
Recollecting that time to come
When none of us will be disposable waste
That time somewhere near
Where the road turns at the guarded
Edge of the refinery that this
However sketchy poem did at last
Become a poem I will have written
Circumambulating a common to come
Curling towards stillness at all scales
Having walked one amongst many
Through a dangerous time and place
The withering land turning towards
Each animal’s unrecountable face

—June 27-July 8 2014