The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

16 October 2018
by skzb

On Patreon and Life (Yes, and Socialism)

Some time ago a combination of medical bills, veterinary bills, delayed payments from my publisher, and financial mismanagement landed me in a horrible position.  I woke up in the morning terrified about not being able to afford food (or, worse, tobacco), and spent most of the day trying to put it out of my head, with as much success as you’d guess.   I was over a year behind on rent, which would have been worse if I didn’t have the World’s Most Understanding Landlord, but it weighed on me all the same.

Eventually, Jennifer Slaugh wore me down and convinced me to start a Patreon—just the kind of thing that is naturally difficult for a Minnesotan.

The response was humbling; it seemed there were a lot of people who wanted to help me.  And help me they did.  In a fairly short time, there was enough pledged to make a huge difference in my life.  The day I pulled in that money, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  I mean, seriously–that day, I sat down and words started tumbling out of my fingertips.  I was no longer terrified.  I could sit there, relax, groove, and just do what I wanted, which was write, which was tell stories.  My gratitude to those who have supported me is too great to express, and I can only hope that the work I do going forward will please them enough for their sacrifice to feel justified.

I am telling you this now for a particular reason.  I was talking to Will Shetterly, relating the story to him in reference to the Patreon that he’s started, and he pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to me: For many of us—I would even think most of us, perhaps nearly all of us–we do not work better because we are terrified about not having enough; on the contrary, many of us work better when we don’t have to fear for our basic necessities, when money is not an issue, or at least not a pressing one.  This is certainly true when our work is not “toil,” that is, the sort of mind-numbing body-killing, soul-destroying labor that provides a paycheck but little or no satisfaction—the kind of work that in a rational society would either be done by machine or not done at all.  For those of us fortunate enough to make a living doing something that gives us satisfaction, it’s different.  I have been much, much more productive since the fear of being broke has been removed.

I am not saying this to ask you to support my Patreon.  On the contrary, right now, I have what I need to keep going, and not be scared, and that’s all I can ask for.  If you’re going to support someone, consider supporting Will, because I, like all right-thinking people, want to see more of his fiction.  I’m saying that those who think people (and they always seem to mean “other people”) have be kept in a state of financial terror or they won’t do anything are, not to put too fine a point on it, full of crap.

22 September 2018
by skzb

Some Things I’ve Learned in 50 Years of Politics

I mentioned on Twitter and Facebook that this year marks 50 years since I began my political activity and study. Steven Patten on Facebook asked what I’ve learned in that time, which is a fascinating question that’s been buzzing around in my head ever since. Here are some answers:
  • To study nuance, to go after detail, to dig deeper, to be suspicious when I think I finally understand something complex.
  • How impossible it is to the separate the pieces: philosophy, economics, history, news, politics. Every time I try to focus on one, it keeps leading me into another.
  • To look critically at the SEP’s positions rather than accepting them blindly, and yet, after doing so, I nearly always end up agreeing. (It took a year of beating my head against the wall attending protests to come around on #BLM, and I’m still not quite 100% about their position on trade unionism in the abstract, but they’re certainly right in the specifics of unions today).
  • I’m still learning to avoid the glib in favor of serious analysis; I screw that one up more than I should.
  • I’ve learned I’ll never make a really good communist because I have too much Kamenev and too little Trotsky in me, and, above all, because I’m lazy–the hard part involves detailed study and research, rather than repetition of abstractions and slogans. I do that when I’m writing and can only rarely get myself to do that kind of work politically.
  • I’ve learned that it is utterly pointless to argue with hardened reactionaries, unless there is a good opportunity to use the argument to advance my own positions in a positive way for lurkers.
  • I’ve learned that discussions on Facebook and on my blog are not, in fact, the waste of time I’d once considered them. There are people here searching for answers, and there is additional value in sharpening my own understanding.
  • Marxists are very good at Who, What, How, and Why, but really suck at When (at least, when talking about the future).
  • I’m still learning to patiently explain rather than letting myself get frustrated, and that anyone genuinely looking for a way forward is deserving of the time it takes to explain. Working on that one.

Anyway, that’s some of it.  And that is certainly enough time spent on personal reflection.  Back to the fight!

20 September 2018
by skzb

When Was Capitalism Progressive?

In a Facebook discussion, my friend Vicka Corey asked if I thought capitalism had value at one time, which I think is an excellent question. When I said yes, she asked when and how I thought it changed, another excellent and important question. I’m copying my answer here with some minor edits because it might generate some interesting discussion. Here it is:


Huge question. It was progressive when it came into the world, although, from it’s birth it covered itself in blood. But in spite of that, it got rid of the kings and aristocrats, and in this country it ended slavery. It increased the productivity of labor to the point where there is no longer any reason for hunger, homelessness, untreated disease. It brought socialized production to a high art, although in doing so it increased the contradiction between socialized production and private ownership.

The US, from its inception as a nation, epitomized capitalism’s contradictory nature probably more than anywhere else. A huge creative spurt in productivity of labor (the “American system of manufacture”), and profound cruelty toward its own working class. Tremendous strides toward equality–and chattel slavery. A growth of freedom that inspired the oppressed throughout the world–and genocide of its native population combined with the most hypocritical warmongering ever seen (cf The Mexican-American War, and The Spanish-American War for early examples).

When did it change? One thing capitalism has always required is expansion. A company (with a few weird exceptions that end up proving the rule) that does not expand is dying. As capitalism is built on the nation-state, that means the expansion of nation-states, which means any society at a lower technological level is to be plundered and exploited by the more advanced countries.

World War I, 1914, marked the point where every less advanced country was “owned” by one of the imperialist nations: Germany, England, France, the US,* From there, the only way to expand was at the expense of another great power (of course, the helpless victims in the conquered countries counted for nothing.) So I would say it was at that point that capitalism had reached the end of its ability to advance mankind; any further continuance would require body counts in the millions and massive destruction of infrastructure just to provide it another breathing space.

* Add Belgium on a small scale, and Russia sorta kinda counted; it was both imperialist and a potential victim of imperialism, because of its massive size and weirdly contradictory development of technology, advanced in some ways, but deeply backward in others (including military technique).

16 September 2018
by skzb

An Object Lesson From Minnesota History

Minneapolis really is a good place to live. I mean, if you’re in the continental United States, you could do far worse. Minneapolis has more area of public park per person than anywhere else in the US, with St. Paul a close second, and no one else anywhere near. An extremely active theater scene, museums and art galleries open to the public at little or no charge, decent public education, a pretty fair system of public transit, and—
But you know, my point is not, in fact, to sell you on Minneapolis. It’s to point out something that even most people who live hear don’t know.
All of those things I mentioned were not gifts. They didn’t fall from the sky, and, no, they were not the result of kind-hearted politicians.
In 1934, there was a strike here. It was one of the formative strikes that built the Teamsters Union (although, ironically, it was opposed at every step by Dan Tobin and the national Teamsters leadership) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. It was led by Trotskyists, and it broke the Citizens Alliance, an organization of businessmen dedicated to keeping Minneapolis an open shop town. All of the things that make this a good place to live, can be traced, directly or indirectly, to Teamsters Local 574—who incidentally, a bit later, broke up a rally of a Nazi-esque organization called the Silver Shirts so thoroughly they never again amounted to anything.
The high point of the strike itself was the Battle of Deputies Run; the name should be sufficient to tell you what happened. Afterwards, for days, the cops didn’t dare show their faces, and the organized workers took over the job of making sure the city kept functioning—and did a damned fine job of it, thank you very much.
Shockingly (ahem), the local Democratic Party, as well as the local Republican Party, did all they could to break the strike.  The myth here in Minnesota is that Hubert Humphrey emerged fully formed from Minnehaha Falls and bestowed blessings upon the people. Crap. Out of the pugnacious Minneapolis working class grew a Farmer-Labor Party that, in fact, elected a governor–Floyd B. Olson. He, himself, was no hero; but the very fact that the Minnesota labor movement had a political arm, apart from the two capitalist parties—was enough to give us a lot of the things I treasure about this city. It lasted until it was destroyed by a combined effort of the Stalinist Communist Party and—Hubert Humphrey.  Humphrey then, as the Trotskyists had warned he would, turned around and smashed the Communist Party.  What’s left is that, in Minnesota, the Democratic Party is known as the DFL—Democratic Farmer-Labor, and is the reason the Republicans have never really gotten a foothold here.  The other thing that’s left is that, as per protocol, after failing to keep the masses from getting what they wanted, the Democrats claimed credit for them having gotten it.
It isn’t that complicated: The more the masses of the working class count only on their own strength, with a solid, determined leadership based on revolutionary socialist principles, the better things are for them—and for all of us.
Scan from original on Epson Expression 10000XL.

Scan from original on Epson Expression 10000XL.

10 September 2018
by skzb

How to Fight THING

Nothing new here, just felt like organizing it in a nice list, because I like lists. But I’m pretty sure most of you have noticed this already, so I’m probably not telling you anything.

  1. THING is bad. All right-thinking people hate THING. This goes without saying.  Those who disagree are obviously evil.
  2. THING is not only bad, it is the worst. All other problems are secondary to THING.
  3. To question point #2  is to excuse or justify THING and be as bad as a THING-er.  You should be immolated.
  4. Any action to combat THING is justified.  Those who want human rights for accused THING-ers are THING supporters.
  5. To question Point #4 is to support THING and be as bad as a THING-er.  You should be immolated.
  6. THING is much broader than you think. There are a bunch of other things that look relatively harmless but are really just a part of THING or will lead to THING.
  7. To question Point #6 is just making excuses for THING and makes you as bad a THING-er. You should be immolated.

(Note for you dimwits who want to turn this back on me and replace THING capitalism, no.  #1: False.  Many, many people do not oppose capitalism only because they don’t understand it, or because they don’t see an alternative.  This does not make them evil.  And blaming capitalism does not “go without saying,” that’s why we say it so much.   Also, 3#: False. #4: False #5: False  #7: False.  But I will give you #2, and #6 works with a bit of bending.)