Malls After the Revolution w/ Shawn from Srsly Wrong
Laborwave Radio presents a podcast mini-series, After The Revolution.
After the Revolution is inspired by the desire to offer more than a diagnosis of what is wrong with today by focusing on what we might be able to bring about instead. Each episode within this series will begin by highlighting the importance of one particular feature of society, then imagining what it might look like after the revolution, and finally offering some ideas on how we get to this revolutionary society.
Our fourth episode is Malls After the Revolution featuring Shawn of Srsly Wrong, a utopian leftist comedy podcast (srslywrong.com/).
"We can't just have a perfect mall that works and is static. We can think of a bunch of different things that are the conditions of a good mall that we can try to increase over time, such as making sure that community members have access. We could try to make a static mall, but it's like trying to paint the smell of oranges. Or trying to translate the taste of soup into a song. It does not follow."
Transcript edited for clarity and length.
I'm really excited to have this conversation with you because your show often does talk about utopia. Library socialism, in particular, is a really fun series of conversations that you've had, but you wanted to talk specifically about malls and what malls might look like after the revolution, which I just think is a really cool thing to focus on. So before we get to the, after the revolution, I want to hear from you, why does it matter to think about malls and what's the current situation?
Shawn Vulliez So on the question of malls [laughter]. One thing when I was younger, even before I was political, I remember encountering anticapitalist anti-consumerism critiques that were talking about supply chains and production and like, you know, making really good points about the material limits of the planet we live on. But it was always sort of framed through this 'people are sheeple, they want to buy products and blah, blah, blah.' But obviously people don't like to buy products per se. They're not like "I love commodities specifically," but they want the things that they want and they like to go and choose between things.
And they like to go to a social space. My understanding is actually the mall in its original incarnation, when the shopping mall was dreamed of, it wasn't like, Oh, this is a place that we're going to extract as much money as possible. The thought was that by mixing the market and the community, you could create community spaces. So that's been sort of lost over the years with these mall security guards and stuff like poverty and homelessness crisis. People feel they don't want to shop at the mall if you let it be a community space because not everyone has the needs of society, or so the claim goes today. But yeah, I remember even a long time ago being like, actually shopping is good except for the money.
No one's like, Oh, I'm a shopping addict because I love seeing my bank account go down. They want to go look at clothes. They want to go look at books. Specifically with books, if I'm a shopping for anything, it's like, Oh, this little book can become a part of me by taking it with me home. But I know libraries are better, but there's something that's so satisfying being like, I'm taking this and I'm going to hold onto it for as long as I want. It's part of me. So I think that as utopians, as people who are thinking about what the world should be like, what it ought to be like and what it would be like in a just society, we can look at something like the mall as something that's complex and that has awful awful aspects of it that we can address.
But try to not let that get confused with either positive, like the community, or neither good nor bad, like taking things because you like them. And if it's a type of expression, like we criticize conspicuous consumption as people expressing themselves through their purchases. But, do you care about human expression? Because if you care about human expression and you value it, the problem isn't the expression it's the money. It's passing on the money. It's the supply chains and all of that. So I think to think that there won't be something like a mall after the revolution, in an ideal society, I don't buy it.
Laborwave Radio That's really interesting. You know, I've worked at malls. I'm trying to go back in my own memory here, but I worked at the mall of Georgia, which is the biggest mall in the Southeast. That was what they bragged about. Who knows whether that was actually true. It was supposed to be the biggest mall in the Southeast. It was trying to compete with the Mall of America, which I believe is so big it has like a roller coaster in it.
Shawn Vulliez It's just like slightly out of the MidEast or something?
Laborwave Radio I think it's in Minnesota, but I don't know. But the Mall of Georgia was just gigantic and it had a skate park built into it. And trampolines on the outside, like before you entered it. I worked there for two years. And a lot of the folks that did show up there were just young people like me at that time. I was a teenager back then. Because we lived in Buford, Georgia where there's like, absolutely nothing to do we would gravitate to this the mall, this social space, like you're talking about. Then I also saw the emergence of way more security guards. This was right when they started introducing Segways into the mall because the security guards got Segways to help speed up and make more expedient their work in surveilling and policing people.
And I also saw the kind of decay and collapse of the mall. This is something that I think is interesting about your wanting to have a conversation about malls is it seems like today, while there's still gravitation towards malls and that desire for maybe a social space, that's not purely consumerist like you're talking about, there's also this deep crisis that malls are going through. And there's a crisis of the shopping center because of online and e-commerce buying is making brick and mortar retail kind of obsolete. So is this, has this been your experiences? Does this map to the reality?
Shawn Vulliez I think so. I don't have data on the trends that I've seen, but I've noticed that the mall over time, the move towards, you know, more predatory types of stores, like stores that are selling worse products for higher prices. I understand the cost of real estate is really high for this stuff. And all it seems to me, like all the problems that you're describing could really be connected to how all this stuff is structured based on the profit motive every step along the way. If something has a community value, it needs to be paid for by someone and it used to be that it'd be paid for by the mall leadership because they're taking the rent and it's coming from all the different stores and stuff like that.
You can reliably think people are coming to the mall, but then with the current era where you have like Amazon and online shopping, where Amazon is like a mall that you can stumble into naked drunk at three in the morning and buy stuff that you don't even remember. Like that's a huge advantage. So if we value the social space of the mall, I think we are going to have to have a conversation about how the profit motive functions in these places. Cause I expect that the trends you're talking about would only continue. And it makes you think that maybe the mall would cease to be a viable business model. Like is there a future where municipal councils are putting tax dollars into sustaining the mall so people can go buy the cheap overpriced as seen on TV stores that were able to survive through all of this?
I would predict probably yes. If things continue the way they're going, because I could really imagine that city council meeting where the mall is so important. Like we're going to fund the Starbucks, we're going to fund all this stuff to make sure that, you know, the mall stays well, use government money to send out mailers, reminding people to support their local businesses. And it sort of like framed against the Amazon.
Laborwave Radio Like you're saying, if things continue with this trend, what I perceive as a possibility is these malls are just going to become empty spaces, like huge pieces of infrastructure that are just not utilized in any way, because we live under capitalism, which is a profit driven system. So there's no reason to fill this stuff up with the social good. The only thing that malls are filled with now is primarily for commodities and consumerism. So if they go under like what's going to happen to all these malls under capitalism, are they just going to be like caves that just are blights on the land?
Shawn Vulliez Probably knock it down, replace it with condos. I guess it depends on the land use in the city. They'll just like, let it rot, you know, the really tight cities that are replaceable with condos. Thinking about the mall brings up this concept that my cohost on Srsly Wrong., Aaron, brought up to me. He uses the phrase creative re-interpretation, the basic point is that no matter what your strategy, no matter what your theory of change at the end of the day, if you want to design a better society from this one, there's going to be a lot of creative re-interpretation of what's already there that's necessary. So that could be blighted malls that could be prisons. That could be police stations.
We need to find a way to creatively re-interpret what this space is. I mean, we can just knock stuff down and build it up again. But I think the ecological practice of knocking down buildings and building up new ones creates a ton of carbon emissions. You need to bring all these trucks in to take things in and out and stuff like that. And if we already have structures that are good to go, we need to figure out how to reuse them in different ways. And I think the mall is a really, really great example of that. I mean, you could even have malls that have housing instead of stores. It's not totally impossible, but I sort of favor this idea of the mall as it is. Like, how can we keep as much of the mall as possible while re-interpreting it just cause that tiny little point of like, I stand with the shopping addicts.
They're not sheep. They want to express themselves, expressing yourself is important and will continue to exist even in a just society. And yeah, that's my little Hill to die on.
Laborwave Radio I think that's a really interesting idea, that concept of creative re-interpretation, and I guess you could really see in some ways where we're observing this, maybe not with malls specifically, but I'm thinking about stadiums for professional sports leagues. Like for instance, the Superdome in New Orleans was creatively reinterpreted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to house people and become a zone for refuge. And you see that in other crisis moments too. Now with the NBA, this isn't necessarily creative reinterpretation, maybe in the same way that you are talking about it, but the players re-interpreted their stadiums that they play their sport in and do their work in as sites that can be turned into voting booths for election day.
So we're seeing some glimpses of this. Do you think there's other ways we're seeing glimpses of this, maybe when it's more particular to malls?
Shawn Vulliez I don't know about malls specifically, but I think we would probably see glimpses of it in various kinds, through all institutional forums, since we were tool bearing hominids. There's probably nothing more fundamentally human than looking at an object that's been used one way before and figuring out another way to use it. It seems like if anything we should be completely drowning in examples of this. Cause like, I mean, right now I'm using a computer. My computer desk was bought as a kitchen table.
Laborwave Radio I use a stool for a lamp stand. I've definitely jerry-rigged a lot of things in my house to just make the most out of it
Shawn Vulliez There's an interesting Buckminster Fuller quote. He says, Oh, what's the word he used? The basic premise of the quote is that when the Titanic is sinking, a door might make a great lifeboat and it's not the way you design a lifeboat, but it could save you in a pinch. And he says, technologically, our society is completely 100% lifeboats made out of doors. But if we really think about how to remake it, we can actually make a lifeboat that's legit made to save people. That's the premise of what he was saying. And I always found that idea really, really interesting. It connects into create a re-interpretation and like you're saying crisis situations when the Titanic sinking, we're not going to be holding out for a nicer boat.
Laborwave Radio That could be a perfect metaphor for encapsulating this moment in time of capitalism, right? Like we might be on the biggest lifeboat possible. So we're going to have to re-examine all the technology and tools that we currently have to get us through these cascading crises that we're experiencing, particularly with this pandemic. As you were mentioning before we started recording the pandemic has not just material and physical damage that it's re wreaking on people, but also deep psychological damage as well. And we're going to have to start preparing, I think, for the collective grieving that's to come, that's already happening in some places, but it's just going to get much, much worse. So I like that metaphor talking about the Titanic. That's probably what we're heading for with capitalism.
And maybe malls is a good place to focus on for the re-interpretation of our tools that we have. So let's talk about it after the revolution, like what do you think malls could look like after the rev?
Shawn Vulliez So imagine this: you want to get something that whatever instinct we have to go shopping now, you know, desire to attain and express and all that. But when you go to a place, it looks like a mall. There's people there, there's food, there's toys, video games, clothing, all the things that you like, all the things that you love, the abundance of the mall is there, and there's people around happy. Everything's normal, except in your head you know that the things there are built to last intentionally. The things there aren't just designed to break after a short little while of time, you know that no one there is trying to like screw you over.
No one in the mall is going to tell you something incorrect about a shirt to make you take it home. No reason to do so. Because the only thing that really changes from the consumer end, the consumer user experience, is when you go to checkout at the store, you're not giving over a credit card to have power tokens taken away from you or bio-security resource tokens. You're just checking it out. You're saying, I'm taking this shirt now. This is the identifying color of the shirt I like, and I'm taking it home. It is reflected on the backend through a series of both local and larger scale computing services that you don't have to worry about.
But specialists deal with that manages what their scarcity of and what there's not scarcity of anything that you take from the mall, like an enormous multi-varied library. Most of the time, you're gonna be able to keep it as long as you want, because the fact of the matter is that on earth we've always had the abundance to provide for human need. We've always had that ability and chosen not to use it. So in this alternative version of malls whatever you take out from the mall, there's a place to return it. You can return it at the mall. You can turn it in a booth on the corner. Maybe you can return it through your mail, like an Amazon type thing in reverse. You can figure out all sorts of interesting new ways to keep this circulating abundance going through the economy.
What we call on our show library socialism is the idea that you can use less materials and provide more abundance. It's a materialist concept recognizing we've got tons of evidence to show that if you share things, you create abundance amongst people. It's a social principle. So I think the mall of the future is going to be very similar to the current mall in all the ways we like, and all the weird stuff about malls is not going to have to exist anymore. I'm not saying we're turning the oceans to lemonade. This isn't a ridiculous idea. We know that libraries work. We know that people don't really like destroying things. So like people aren't going to be like, no, I'd rather keep losing money to be able to destroy things instead of return them somewhere.
I know so many people who are burdened by the fact that they have all this stuff that they don't want and they don't know how to get rid of it in a responsible way, they don't know how to make sure that it's actually used by someone who needs it. We've figured out, in the future, mutual aid groups and redistributing groups to do this sort of stuff. Because it'd be great if we could get an institution that's responsible to do that. Instead of putting the responsibility on all of us as individuals to be these ethical agents within this very twisted system.
Laborwave Radio I want to talk a little bit about what those institutions could be to enable this type of revolutionary mall. But I do have a quick question about the interior of the mall itself, because one of the things from my memory of working in malls was just the high bombardment of advertising space you're subjected to working there, and being a consumer there. It was like non-stop ads. And now it's even to the point where if your phone's in your pocket and you walk by a store, you're going to get an email or a text message from that place like, Hey, we got a discount for you. Now the ad space is connecting with you and into your phone. So there's still so much space in malls. There's so much stuff we could fill it up with. What do you think the advertisement space could be creatively reinterpreted to look like instead?
Shawn Vulliez It's such a beautiful question. Can you imagine the answers to this question we would get if people came together and thought about it? We've got all this canvas around, what can we use this canvas for? The first thing that comes to mind obviously is arts, photography, infographics that are relevant to people's lives and helpful. An example for something like the coronavirus crisis could be public health information that you could post. Think of all the different ways we could be using the public relations infrastructure of society, people who are getting together to think about how do we convince people of things?
How do we connect with people's attention? How do we capture people's attention and put it towards what we want? I think that sector too can be creatively reinterpreted as a whole, because there are things that are worth drawing people's attention to a responsible use of the advertising infrastructure of the planet. If we're to creatively reinterpret, now we're going to keep all the billboards, we're going to keep all the signs, everything, all this canvas is going to be used. Somehow there's so much we could do with it. Imagine if we were putting even a fraction of the resources that go into the advertising industry to ask those same questions, but about the social good.
Laborwave Radio I don't know why this question popped into my mind, but I got to ask it because it's there. One of the things for me in my experiences at the mall is around the desire for cheap thrills, which I would get with my friends through shoplifting. I would just shoplift, or it was usually my friends and they were using me as an unwitting distraction. But anyway, that's all my own personal baggage. How would we get cheap thrills after the revolution if malls were reconfigured in this beautiful way that you're talking about? What about us teenagers that typically would go to the mall to shoplift? What are we supposed to do with this space now?
Shawn Vulliez So there's two ways that I can answer this question. One of which is that I don't think you can ever take cheap thrills away from teenagers, even in the most just society, the most supportive society possible. You know, there's something about going through that time and becoming what you're going to be and you're learning about yourself, your brain is changing and all this stuff. There's always going to be kids who don't check the book out of the library and just take it, you know, like some degree of that is going to exist. And I think structurally in society and socially of one another, we should be accepting of that as a reality that like, you know, teenagers need just a lot of room to fuck up and there should be room to fuck up.
But also I think that's probably around the age, maybe 14, 15, 16, where you want to start training. So in a utopian society and a perfected society; not perfected, but the preconditions of freedom, you know, having a society where people's basic needs are met and we can sort of begin that process at the long move towards the horizon of utopia. Obviously you never encounter something perfect. There's always challenges, but we know that people can overcome those challenges. And so that's what being a utopian means to me. And that's what I see in other utopians that I respect like Karl Marx when it comes to youth who are aging up through those teen years in a utopian and perfected society, we want to be bringing them into levels of democratic process that we don't even give adults in this society.
We want to give them power in a real sense, like a real social power that's responsible, which is people's power being proportionate. Like we don't want to make teenagers all powerful, but we want to make them participate in committees where they reconcile their differences with other people, learn new things, teach each other things and go through that deliberative democratic process, probably even from a younger age. But especially during those teenage years, we want to create these institutions where people's voice matters in the world. And I think for a lot of people who, when they were younger or now misbehave under a system that is depriving them of a bunch of different things, I think a lot of those people would find that there's more satisfying ways to misbehave, intellectually or democratically to play the devil's advocate on tough questions in ways that are actually productive, not in ways that you're like harassing a stranger, but like for the purposes of coming with the best possible ideas in that context.
I stole Pokemon cards a lot because my friends put me up to it. Also I plead the fifth otherwise. But I don't know that I would've done that if I knew that I was valued in society and what I thought mattered. And I had enough to understand about politics and economics and this sort of stuff. I think the amount that people will act out in ways that harm others, there's a lot of variety in how much harm is caused by different types of shoplifting by youth, but they would do it less if they felt respected and known and useful, and they had opportunities to enrich themselves and they weren't told that what they care about and what they dream of is impossible. I think that sort of way that we talk to children and young people while they're developing who they are, who they will become, about being realistic about stuff can be really damaging and sort of a type of systemic abuse and deprivation. You know, actually interestingly, the real in "real estate" comes from royalty. There's a real connection between saying, be realistic and go according to the orders of the King.
Laborwave Radio It's really interesting the way you're describing this future society as not a fixed state. Even the mall itself as a brick and mortar thing doesn't necessarily operate as a static institution. It's something that we can continue having a process of deliberation and changing and reinterpretation. Is this how you look at the future society? Like a revolutionary society is not necessarily stuck or perfect in a fixed state?
Shawn Vulliez A hundred percent. I actually think this is maybe one of the most dangerous ways of thinking about revolution in an unrealistic way where we think of revolution as something that happens as a thunderclap where on one side of the line everything is good and everything's bad on the other side of the line. If you look at the history of revolutions, revolts, et cetera, these things take 10 years that go back and forth in different ways. There's different power dynamics and stuff that erupts through something like a revolutionary period. And I think there's also different ways that different types of revolutions happen that we don't consider revolution because they don't meet that thunderclap format and they can be based on technological change or social technological change, cultural change.
A lot of those things I think are legitimately revolutionary to a degree in that they do get at the root, as people say, but without having that overthrowing of society effect I think that is on the spectrum of revolution. But then even in the cases where we're looking at like, okay, we're going to take over the parliament building and do something else instead of parliaments, or do parliaments in a better way or whatever variety that people have of that, that process is going to take easily 10, 12 years to resolve. And it's not guaranteed to resolve any one direction. Understanding that connects to sort of a wider understanding of how developmental change happens in society and that this sort of insight that being is becoming. Ayn, Rand said "A equals A" and she's really obsessed with things are what they are, but actually legit A doesn't equal A because A is always becoming.
Every moment is always differentiating. Like anything, things degrade over time, things grow over time. People learn over time. That's the shape of things. That's the shape of the universe. So if we're not going to think according to the shape of the universe we're going to become totally lost. You can't just have a perfect model that works and it's static. We can think of a bunch of different things that are the conditions of a good mall that we can try to increase over time. Like making sure that community members have access to hosting their own space or running their own- I'm at a loss for words, something other than business to describe what it would look like- if people were in a free associating society, where they can provide worth and provide value to their community.
I think that's what people who are involved in business now and consider themselves business people think they're doing. That's what they want to do. And they're doing it according to the container that we've given them. But to return to the point of the non-static mall, we could try to make a static mall, but it's like trying to paint the smell of oranges. It's like trying to translate the taste of soup into a song. It does not follow.
Laborwave Radio As you're speaking about the preconditions for a better mall, a revolutionary mall, one of the things that my mind landed on was thinking about the parking lots at malls. Because the other thing about malls is they're not just huge brick and mortar buildings. They're also these giant parking lots. And I wonder what you think those can be reinterpreted to look like after the revolution. What will the mall parking lots look like?
Shawn Vulliez I guess it depends how we structure our transit system. I'm really interested in the development of what's been called personal public transit, which is like things that fall in the space between having a car or a bike that's your own versus going on a crowded bus where disproportionately women are going to be harassed a certain percentage of the time, et cetera. There's some real problems with buses and stuff from a social perspective under inequality. I don't want to downplay those or overplay them either because buses are massively important and we should be funding public transit to the highest degree. But if we're going to think utopian about this, maybe there's something you can construct in society where we have that sort of library of transit vehicle, where people are taking a vehicle that's proportionate to the trip that they're taking every time.
If you're just one person you're going to drive a one person size car, and if you're not getting groceries, there's not even going to be a trunk. And then you can just leave it somewhere where the system is going to help connect it to someone else. If we can configure all that stuff in the post-revolutionary context, the way that the parking lot would be, presumably I guess the land could be used for any number of things, but you need a lot less space, maybe parts of parking lots would become sort of transit hubs for this type of thing. Maybe we'd have a system of small cars guided by rails that go in the sky. I don't know. I'm not sure, but also social space is massively important. I thought about this also with the street corners, you know, where two streets cross each other, and there's this big circle of pavement. I feel like we should try to use that more as communities and also as activists, you know, like throwing many block parties by surprise of various kinds and just blocking the road and just doing it. Like, I think we should sort of feel entitled to do that under the system, but when it comes to the parking lot in malls of the future would be chipped away at over time and put towards more productive use than just collecting rays from the sun, which is what pavement does.
Laborwave Radio It reminds me of this quote from Henri Lefebvre where he talked about underneath the concrete is the beach. I think we could even think of parking lots like this. Like we could dig them up, break them up and plant trees there. We could turn them into woods. We could turn them into the forest. We could turn them into beaches and have these parties that you're talking about too.
Shawn Vulliez That'd be totally epic. If you could just go to this beach party right outside the mall, also borrow swimsuit.
Laborwave Radio That would have made my teenage years in Buford, Georgia, much more entertaining and enjoyable. If it wasn't just the sun beating down on me on this hot asphalt of a mile long parking lot. I'm getting angry thinking about my childhood. About how cheap the malls were that I've been subjected to. We should go for these revolutionary malls.
Shawn Vulliez For real. You were, I know for a fact that you were let down when you were a kid. When I think back to myself as a child I can be moved to anger, not for myself, but if I think of myself as like another kid, I'm like, how the fuck did all of you let this happen to this kid? How society is organized where that is the context in which children have to become aware of themselves. It's so just horrible. I think one of the things that we could do more in our utopianism, in our leftism, is bringing in that sort of Mr. Rogers or Raffi perspective of how does this affect children?
Because I was thinking about a utopian mall where kids can have the fun side of the mall experience, like trying out the video games, seeing toys, you know, going to different stores and all that stuff, while being safe and not being exposed to things that are gonna make them not like themselves for no reason. And all the other weird stuff that we do to kids. The beach thing gets me wondering how much more things can we stuff into one place? Like, can we just create this one magical community place where we have all these great things that people love doing where it's like, Oh yeah, I'll see you down at the place that has everything we like. It could really be a beautiful thing.
Laborwave Radio What do you think the institutions of this future society would need to look like in order to create the conditions for this type of mall to even exist? So if I'm going to be a little bit simplified in that question, what kind of government would we need first to even actually start enabling a move towards the social good?
Shawn Vulliez So I want to be open-minded. I want to acknowledge a lot of possibilities and I want to even say that maybe it's possible that bad governments structured through bad systems, very technocratic, even elitist, could come to a conclusion. I do really believe in people. I think people can come to the right conclusions, but I think that power can be really corrupting. And I think that lack of education is sort of a type of corruption, like not having the context or it results in corrupt outcomes. Corrupted outcomes are corrupted by the lack of information so that it's not the person themselves is turned evil or sour or something it's that the decision-making process is corrupted by the lack of information.
It's not really a popular opinion, but the only game in town is direct democracy. We need to engage everyone. You can't bring power to the people unless you distribute literally power to the people. You have to give people, like the example I gave with teenagers, proportionate power over their own lives where they know that they matter. They know that they can participate in decisions that matter. They don't just have freedom of speech to like run their mouth in a vacuum. They have freedom of speech to say, this is how it should be. This is how it should be. And then coming to a conclusion that they know that this system of governance works. Like, I can see that my opinion mixed with other people's opinion and the knowledge that we all share together to create a conclusion that made as many people as possible happy causes us as little harm as possible and et cetera.
That's what the end game would look like. That's what we try to hope to achieve in the end. I think there's a pretty strong argument that if you want to run things for social good, the best bet is to let people run them. Actually let people run them. And I understand that this comes in a time where we suffer from a lot of propaganda and there's a lot of different reasons why people can be alienated from either their own interests or their own reason or their own ethics because of the way that these profits structures work. And I want to acknowledge that like 110%, but I really think at the end of the day, socialist, revolutionary, you know, anarchistic politics, even what really motivates liberals and really motivates conservatives at their heart is they want what's good for people and support.
I'm talking about conservatives specifically who don't hate certain people and liberals who specifically don't hate certain people and stuff.
Laborwave Radio So a small group then. [laughter]
Shawn Vulliez So yeah, we can say that people who are really legitimately civically engaged, ethically engaged in the world, they can come to a variety of different conclusions based on a lack of information. But ultimately we can't assume that we're just dealing with thoughtless sheep. We can't just assume that we're dealing with people who are like half good and half bad. And we're going to have to put the other half in prison in order to build a nice mall. It has to be a developmental process. And like I mentioned before about the way of the world as it is, is that we're constantly in change. Hegel called it dialectics. Things are in a sort of dance with their own differentiation.
I don't think we can think of a beautiful mall occurring without the engagement and developmental shape of people becoming engaged, getting access to more information and using reason and ethics together to try to push themselves to further frontiers. That's how I see the structure of a utopian society and to a degree, that's how I see the process of getting there.
Laborwave Radio Talking about direct democracy, I've been reading some CLR James and he had a lot of comments on direct democracy. One of the things he said that I think is interesting, that kind of falls in line with what you're saying, is that he focused a lot on Ancient Athenian forms of direct democracy...
Shawn Vulliez Every Cook Can Govern, it's a great essay.
Laborwave Radio Exactly. Yeah, and he pointed out that basically the assumption here was that you could pick somebody's name out of a hat one day out of the year and put them into a government administrative office. And they just had to do administration by rotation. So the idea was anybody can do it. But he said for today it would be hard to impose that because the difference was that the Athenians were actually oriented towards government with the full expectation that one day their name was going to be drawn out of that hat.
So they actually paid attention to these things. They were cultivated and socialized in a way to anticipate this possibility of being in a position where they have to administer the social good and have to participate in government in this directly democratic way. What you're saying seems to suggest that that's lost today, but we could regain it. I fully agree with that point. The other thing that I think is interesting about CLR James and some of the people that are influenced by his work is that he pointed out that this form of direct democracy was prior to the emergence of the state, that it wasn't a state bound system, and that this conflation of government with the state is a bad conflation. So I wonder what you think about? Does it necessarily mean if we do direct democracy that the future society would be an anti-statist one?
Shawn Vulliez I think it, again, depends a lot on the definitions here, but I tend to think that the way that state institutions are run, and when I think of the state I think of property enforcement and representative bureaucratic systems that call themselves democracy. They actually didn't used to call themselves democracy until very recently when the word democracy became popular. When I think of this usage of the state I think of a variety of things that are really contingent that are not necessarily the functioning of a good society. So I do think in the end game, it's not that you wouldn't have governance. It's actually that you'd have more governance, more detailed governments, more participatory governance, but it wouldn't be enforced by threat.
It wouldn't be enforced by guys who wear a certain color who are disproportionately abusive in their homes. It wouldn't be enforced by an education system that is not built on teaching children how to think about things or what their place in the world is, and actually very antagonistic to teaching them anything that relates to that. And I think it's also a really good point to note that these democratic institutions in practice are disconnected from the state. David Graeber wrote a great book, The Democracy Project, in it he points out that basically all through human history, as far as we can tell, there's been these outbursts of direct democracy, either by face-to-face council organizing or whatever else where groups of people came together and made decisions.
But the thing is the people who are doing that were never the people in power, because the people in power could just tell people what to do. As a result, because of the way that history is written by the winners, they say, but in history... they're not winners. They're actually huge pieces of shit. History is written by the huge pieces of shit that put everyone else down. So the people who are being held down, obviously come up with democracy, spontaneously, come up with talking to each other face to face solving problems together, regulating problems within the group, and then pushing forward for more participation, bringing more people in distributing power to them. It happens all over the world and in all these different contexts.
There's this interesting tidbit that I got from Abdullah Öcallan. He says that the first time the word freedom was ever used was in Sumeria during a slave revolt. When you think about the big scale of history and all the different times where people came together to say, let's get this boot off of us. And then in that context, they all looked at each other eye to eye, and they had differences like I'm a plumber, or I'm a candlestick maker- this predates plumbing in my imagination- I'm a candlestick maker, and you're a guy who carries water buckets. We're different. But for the purposes of this, you know, we're brothers.
I mean, unfortunately that's very gendered for most of history or in a lot of contexts, but we're siblings, we stand together for equality and to distribute power to all of us. And if we think of the long scale of that it feels like the natural politics of the left, the extension of the things that we care about to say, how do we take this instinct? That's this beautiful thing that shows up all across history and all these different forums and without being unwilling to criticize, you know, for example, ancient Greece's various practices, which I do not co-sign. But being like, this is just one of the places where the flower of democracy in a way briefly bloomed and there's maybe something we can learn from it.
I'm not big on economic metaphors, but Martin Luther King, Jr said, we want to build a movement where we can cash the check of the past historical movements. All through history you've had all these great promises made by human spirit of what we could do. And we knew it was possible. We need to build the context in which that we can cash that check that has been written as long as humans have struggled and thrived for freedom and for better lives for the people around them. It's such a beautiful idea to me that we could. The mall could be a space for democracy. Like the mall could be the place where you can go and sign up to be sorted into a problem-solving group.
Or you could say I'm willing to also I'll help solve any problem you need. And then you get put on the garbage and toilets committee or whatever. But like in that group, like there's real serious questions about what toilets should be in society. I love the idea of bringing in lotteries as part of it, because it really is about having confidence that it's not just some prick making ideas, like there's a process and that it's a process that you can see and it's a process you can be part of. And I think people should have a say in their lives specifically on the things that really affect them. Not necessarily like everyone votes on everything all the time. I don't think that's actually the spirit of direct democracy.
The spirit of direct democracy is having a vote on things that affect you and having a system where power is decentralized, where people are standing next to each other, not above or below each other, like we have for this current representative system. It was literally invented and suggested as the compromise between rule by the rich and democracy and democracy was seen as chaotic and synonymous with anarchism.
Laborwave Radio Maybe it was actually more synonymous with anarchism then we were admitting back then. I think that what you've laid out and sketched here is really beautiful and interesting. We have parking lot beaches and spontaneous block parties, liberatory schooling, direct democracy, and shared power. We have malls that are geared towards socializing and the common good. All of this stuff sounds great. What I like to talk about in these series of episodes on after the revolution is how do we get there? How do we materialize our imagination? Obviously that's the most difficult question, and we're not trying to say we're being prescriptive here and we know the way necessarily, but if you were to suggest some possible pathways for getting to this revolutionary mall, how would you suggest it could be?
Shawn Vulliez It is a complicated and variable process. I think the one true and glorious revolution that shall bring humanity from a lower stage to a higher stage of self-organization and wholeness is going to have a lot of things within it that we can't predict explicitly and will be made fools for if we try too much. But I'll be a little bit foolish. I think we shouldn't underestimate the realm of ideas and the realm of increasing understanding and education about what is possible, because a lot of people are sort of trained into the sense of impossibility. And I think that's something that's really great about this series in particular is helping more people to at least consider a wider variety of what is possible, because I've heard someone say self-confidence is tied to how much possibilities you feel you have.
People get less self-confident when they're like, Oh, I can't do this. It's this pushing down kind of thing. Specifically talking about the ideological realm for a second, when we teach someone that something else is possible, we make them more free. We make them more free to think. And so it's a small type of freedom. Don't get me wrong, I think you can't liberate someone from like bondage or wages just because you told them a good idea, but we need to know what is possible. And we need to recognize that possibilities and potential realities are a type of fact.
They're not just dreams. They're a type of fact because if we really think through them and think through them together and we hear back, Oh, well, that's an interesting idea, but what about this at your mall? That process at its best form is the most beautiful thing. It's like this group reason process where then we're all thinking together in detail like, so how does the ice rink work? Or how does this part work? And that's the process where genius comes from it doesn't come from individuals. It comes from people really working together. And so part of being able to create that is giving people the factual education that a better world is possible and we keep impossible on a very limited place.
The applications of the word impossible should be very limited. We're talking about things like me flying up suddenly into the sky, without any reason and disappearing, like that is maybe impossible. It's close to impossible. Maybe something could happen. I don't know. I don't claim to know every detail of up there [laughter], but like impossibility is something that is inflated intentionally by the advertising industry, by politicians, by people who are trying to sell us things because they want to convince us that the joy of the mall comes through swiping the credit card. And we need to call bullshit on that. Paying money is the least good part of the mall.
A lot of people I assume are going to hear this are going to go to jobs and feel like they're just an ordinary person who's powerless. They're not someone who wakes up in the morning feeling like they're going to revolutionary war every day or something. But revolution is something that everyone can participate in. And small forms of participation makes ripples in society and human consciousness that are profound. And then in terms of organizational strategy, I think we need to look to thinkers like Modibo Kadalie, Abdullah Öcallan, Murray Bookchin towards a sort of anarchistic, neither state nor anarchy, but dual power directly democratic prefigurative organization.
So that's a lot of complex ideas that I can go into more in detail into what it means if we want. But I think this is our best bet and puts us in the best position to deal with anything that we might face. It puts us in a better position to make it that when even like, say for example, socialists run for office, there's a higher chance they're going to win. Or even if they don't that the people who are in power know that they're accountable to these groups that are growing and large and have committed points of view. So in order to win over the support of these organizations, they actually have to change. I don't think we can just get there through the electoral process, and I actually say this as someone who's worked professionally as a campaign manager in Canada for multiple elections, and I've been involved in electoral politics from the left and socialists electoral politics. Electoral politics can be part of the picture, but unless we have a real organized group movement where there's directly democratic institutions that people already participate in and where they are getting education, I don't see another pathway that makes sense in terms of organizing on the left to push it. But actually I should say also that's the massive vision. There's mass politics and then there's smaller group politics. Small groups of committed people change the world all the time. And we need to have that to a certain degree.
I would just emphasize that when participating in mass organizations we should be very conscious to remember that other people are not sheep. We're dealing with people who are in many ways smarter than we imagine, and therefore we should show patience and constraint for the process. I'm not going to show up to a political space to try to whip the perfect amount of votes to ram through the thing I want, because we're building institutions and building political consciousness that extend beyond me and my group to make more people in the world believe that the institutions we are creating together are really legitimate.
It's about trying to make as many people understand the process as possible. Which means we can't go around thinking that people are sheep or that I need to trick them into voting a certain way at a certain time. That's the logic of electoral politics. That's the logic of running an election, and this is one of the things that disturbs me about participating in elections in the past. When the rubber hits the road, you're not trying to convince people of this or that policy or idea. Most of the time, you're trying to get a ballot in the box and the qualitative features of different ballots don't matter.
Our system is set up like that, where if it doesn't matter what the context in which the ballot and the box gets in, it encouraged the sort of thinking about people as puppets to be controlled where you're sending out mailers because you want to shock and confuse them. But in a better system you want to educate them, build their political consciousness, turn them into the types of citizens that you'd want in a free society.
Unfortunately, that sort of thinking from electoral politics can seep into radical politics, because people start thinking in the world in terms of, well, look at the Republican party, they're so awful. So that means that everyone who votes for them inherently has got something wrong with their seed. You know, like, there's a certain percent of the population that has something wrong with their like deep core. And there's a certain percent of the population that's redeemable. But I think understanding child's psychological development, the propaganda industry, all this stuff, demonstrates that there's potential in everyone, or at least a vast majority of people to achieve a level of political consciousness and achieve a level of decency that we'd agree with. And a lot of what we perceive in these rooms of the horrible things that people do are stimulated and engaged actively by institutions like political parties and so on.
I don't think we can assume that the horrible way that people treat each other around us is the result of unmediated human instinct or something like that. Because we know for a fact that we're constantly polluted with people telling us you're either better or worse than other people. You have to always figure out when you meet someone, am I better than them or worse than them? Or you have to rank people. Like, who's your favorite friend? I've always felt that question is so disturbing. Who's my favorite friend? I love these people. You're gonna make me pick one? No, I don't have a favorite friend. It's important to me to not. It's actually a really weird question, but it's completely normalized.
And this is what we tell children. No wonder they act the way they do or come home crying. All of the current system is so disturbing, and we need to start thinking about how would we think in a just society and start trying to embody that now to the highest degree that we can.
Laborwave Radio What you're saying reminds me of something Tithi Bhattacharya said in a recent interview. She described how she will ask her students why is it necessary to do the pledge of allegiance when you're growing up. If you loved your country, why would you have to be indoctrinated to do this? And she said, if you have to do that, why do you not similarly have to be trained to learn songs that are pledges of love for your parents? Obviously one's organic, and the other requires to actually go against human instincts that probably are being inhibited in this society. But the other thing you're saying that I just want to tease out here is the implication of this conversation is that realistically, we need to start thinking of every worker at a mall as a future revolutionary. Because if malls can be revolutionary spaces, it means everyone in the mall can be brought into the making of this revolutionary space. And that all of our organizing really needs to approach people with that level of confidence, and the attitude that we're talking to agents of a revolutionary society. Would you agree with me on that?
Shawn Vulliez A hundred percent yes. Totally. Because we live in an unjust society. So we want people to be agitated towards revolutionary change, to grasp the problems by the root and help fix them. That's contingent of course on the situation. I just want to know that we don't necessarily want to talk to everyone and be like, the purpose of political life is always revolution. Or to tell them that the purpose of political life has to be always fundamentally changing everything about society, because presumably you'd be able to achieve something where you wouldn't have to do that. You know? So I see the development of revolutionary consciousness is being very deeply tied and sort of like a component part of political consciousness.
At the mall you're going to encounter people who come from a variety of perspectives, a variety of either partisan politics, but more primarily people who are low information on the political world. Maybe they tend to vote a certain way if they vote at all, and they carry with them a bunch of assumptions about the way things are and the way things should be. Murray Bookchin talks a lot about ancient Greece in the same way CLR James did, and one of the concepts from ancient Greece that he takes is "paideia," which is the concept of political experience. He maps it to Marx's idea of revolutionary subjectivity and says basically the building of the revolutionary subject that Marx talks about should be better understood as the building of deep political citizenship. Not to a nation, but a real responsibility to the community around you. And the reason that I specified this difference is because I suspect that if you go to the mall and you say, "Hey, we're organizing a revolution," you'll find some people. You'll find some people for sure. It's not guaranteed. There'll be a leftist, but you'll find some people who are down, but there's another way to approach where we can talk about politics more broadly, and if we do that, and that's the first step that we're bringing people into the realm of what should be.
It's the start of a process that leads to revolutionary consciousness. I see it as very developmental. It's almost on the edge of language. I struggle talking about it. Like what it means that being is becoming. What it means that you can't just be something you have to change over time and what the implications are, especially when thinking about political thought and democracy. That the people that you meet have revolutionary potential. Even people who are soaked in propaganda can teach you things. And I think a lot of the time we sort of hand wave people away saying your concerns aren't valid because you're a product of propaganda. But it's like, no, let's just unpack those concerns. Because even if they think it's not true, or even if you know that it's not true, that what they're accusing Joe Biden of is not true or something like that, are they concerned about something that has legitimacy? Are they being moved from an ethical place? They're against child trafficking or something like that? You know, like it gets distorted and pulled out and all these loops by all these institutions of power and money and stuff like that. But these people have souls, like souls in the sense of they're legitimately concerned and aggrieved by the idea of harm, the way that we all are.
How do we bring that out of people? How do we meet people where they're at, not in a way that we're compromising our values, but we're helping grow them from the seeds of political consciousness they have into the flower of political consciousness. There's an interesting Hegel quote that Bookchin references where he says, basically, you can't hate the bud, but love the flower.