The Dream Café

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

2 November 2018
by skzb
21 Comments

Sixteen Credits

Co-written with Mark Hall

Some people say a man is made out of gore
Well a student is just a credit score
A credit score and a mind that’s spry
A future that’s bleak, and a bank that’s dry

You take sixteen creds and what do you get?
Nearer your degree and deeper in debt
St. Peter don’t you call me cuz I must stay
I owe my soul to Sallie Mae

Enrolled one morning, it was drizlin rain
“Get a degree” was the school’s refrain
Should I study English, or should it be Math?
Decades of debt was the only path.

You take sixteen creds….

I enrolled one morning I was at an impasse
Picked up my laptop and I walked into class
I took sixteen creds based on aptitude
And the T.A. said, “Well son, you’re screwed.”

You take sixteen creds…

This job pays just $8.95
It ain’t enough to keep a man alive
I can’t rent a roof to stop the wet
‘Cause $5.50 of that goes to service my debt

You take sixteen creds….

If you see me coming just say hello
I’m working a job that don’t pay what I owe
I earned a liberal arts degree
And all it got me was bankruptcy

You take sixteen creds….

 

 

(Yeah, there are scansion problems, I know. Suggestions welcome.)

27 October 2018
by skzb
51 Comments

On “tolerating” and learning from opposing ideas

Following a tweet I made about when I will and will not “tolerate” opposing ideas (note: need to figure how to automagically get my tweets to appear here on my blog) I got another one of those things about, “you tolerate opposing ideas to learn from them.” I’ve been wrestling for a long time about how to express why that bugs me. It isn’t that I won’t listen to opposing ideas, and, if the ideas are fundamentally on the same side I am, that is, the fight for equality, but express a different way of fighting for them, I will, indeed, listen and consider, and possibly change my mind. For example, I had some discussion with various comrades about the social basis of the Black Lives Matter movement, and ended up reconsidering my position (and, no, I won’t go into detail here; that isn’t what this post is about).
 
My point is, the expression I quoted at the top separates ideas from the struggle, it gives the impression the entire conflict either takes place in the realm of ideas, or that ideas exist apart from our activity. We know from our own experience this isn’t the case; our ideas drive our activity, and we change our ideas in response to our experiences (though sometimes it takes a two-by-four to get through). Indeed, ideas, even incorrect ideas, are nothing more than reflections in the mind of our interactions with the objective world (yes, even higher mathematics, but that, too, we can argue elsewhere).
 
All of that is very abstract and even abstruse. Forgive me, that’s part of the process of me working this out. I think I can express it more simply:
 
What matters to me is the struggle, the fight for human equality in the objective world. That is what I’m committed to. Let me repeat: committed. Ideas, particularly ideas related to that struggle, are how I direct my activity. So I will consider learning from ideas to the degree that they might change my activity in how I carry out that struggle, but I have no intention of listening to ideas about why I shouldn’t.

16 October 2018
by skzb
30 Comments

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
25 Comments

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
18 Comments

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).