Saturday, September 29, 2012


100,000 Poets for Change, now in its second year, is an idea that appears to be catching hold. With at least 20,000 thousand poets publishing in English – a figure unimaginable in my youth – and so many more writing in all the other languages of the world, the actual figure doesn’t even seem so fanciful. If not this year, then someday soon Michael Rothenberg will be able to report an actual 100,000 people participating in events under the broad umbrella of this concept. It’s only a matter of time – and continuity – until the day occurs when perhaps that many, maybe more, actually read on a single day.

I have always found this idea both intriguing and a little troubling, and the success of the endeavor does not seem to be revising this all that much. As a project, 100,000 Poets is notably silent on which change people might be talking about. The presumption – simple, straight-forward – is that change itself must be good, which has the obvious corollary that whatever the present might be is unacceptable. Fair enough – I think we can all agree that these are not the best of times, even if we might not agree on what those imaginary Bests might look like.

Even to enumerate the world’s problems would take more time and verbiage than I’ve been able to devote to this blog for the past decade, and by the time one got to the end of such a grim listing, there would no doubt be more. If there is an overarching force behind all of this, it must be surely be capital, albeit not in the big C sense of an identifiable number of individual human beings out to gobble up for themselves the resources of a planet that need really to be shared equitably among something like ten billion people. Rather, it is that every one of us can sense what it might be like to have more, even if all we have right now is very little, and that this cumulative desire must inevitably run up against the limit that the planet has only so many natural resources. The One Percenters, to use Occupy’s handy math, may represent this at its most pathological, but their greed (for which Mitt Romney is a surprisingly apt bobble-head) is hardly of a different order than that of a Third World villager who cannot even imagine what it would be like to have enough clean running water to use it for one’s shit. Everybody wants more, even those (especially those) who already have more than enough.

Socialism – which at its core value is nothing more than planning with everyone’s interest equally in mind – represents the only serious attempt to counter capital that we have seen over the past 200 years. It has succeeded in exactly zero countries. This is because capital (of which capitalism is but one of several possible expressions) is global, while socialism is not. So long as capital can escape over and beyond a border, it will. Planning – this other impulse beyond the utter desire for more – invariably requires some horizon. Let’s plan for the European Union, or for Franklin County, or for my little township library.

All attempts at aggregating planning, from the League of Nations to the UN to the European Union to the G-whatever conferences, fail because it is always in the interest of somebody not to go along. The EU was predicated on an understanding that the ability of Europe to compete successfully in a world of superpowers was compromised if you were operating with a series of tiny states, if you had to go through customs, for example, to get from New Jersey into Manhattan. But Europe as a system has never worked, ever. The contradictions between the industrial north and the agricultural south are accentuated, not resolved, by covering them all with the same currency while failing to extract from individual states enough authority to really do much of anything.

States’ rights is a phrase that in the United States has a particular history, a set of values that most of the poets interested in change might be expected to reject. Local control, autonomy, self-determination are concepts with very different implications and histories – yet their dynamics ultimately are not so much different from those that would vest power in, say, the state of Mississippi. Any mode of planning that predicates a border – I’m Tibetan and you’re not, I’m Basque and you’re not, I’m Israeli and you’re not – erects a barrier, however benign it may look, that empowers capital’s global capacity while restraining those on either side of that barrier.

It is not coincidental that capital has grown more powerful, really starting to consolidate its global powers for the first time, in an age in which nation states have proliferated – doubling in my lifetime – and in which technology has begun to render global communication as the default mode. It’s only going to get worse. The EU long term hasn’t a chance and there is reason to think that more than a few individual nations that may seem “obvious” today in the way that Yugoslavia was obvious in my youth will themselves break apart, Spain and the United Kingdom among them. As they do, the balance of power will shift even further in the direction of capital. But the world’s resources, its carrying capacity for civilization, will not change much at all, even if we become smarter about what we use up and how we extract what little remains.

So what is the change for which 100,000 poets are clamoring? We need each of us to be quite conscious of the long-term implications of our actions. One of the very best aspects of 100,000 poets is its truly global outlook. Mark Nowak in his creative writing workshops is connecting domestic workers in the US with those in Britain, auto plant workers in Michigan with those in South Africa, coal miners in the US with those in China. What Nowak is doing strikes me as being precisely what Rothenberg & 100,000 poets are doing as well, finding a means of creating solidarity across a border. Is it enough? By itself, certainly not. But if these projects are conceived of as just two of 100,000 such endeavors, we might begin to create the dialog needed to start to address the problem that capital is global while we are just ourselves. This dialog is utterly necessary, and necessary now.

For if we don’t have it, there really are no alternatives. Every change can only be a band-aid as the race between the omnivorous desires of capital and the very real resource limits of the globe run into one another. And if that should happen, then the one story humankind will need will be a very old one indeed. It’s about a man named Noah.


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