Refuge Through Insurrection: On M. E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi’s “Everything for Everyone”

November 19, 2022   •   By Shinjini Dey

Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune 2052–2072

M. E. O’Brien

DECADES AFTER THE fall of the Paris Commune, William Morris’s narrator in News from Nowhere dreams of a future where the commodity form has been abolished: “If I could but see a day of it,” he remarks yearningly; “if I could but see it!” Yet, for years now, the utopian imagination has been not only pronounced dead, but also already transformed from a corpse to a souvenir. That muscle of Marcuse’s making, so lovingly carved by Fredric Jameson and the descendants of the Frankfurt School into ideal societies and their necessarily impossible referents, is now sold within mass-market tomes, with “hope” and “solutionism” as prepackaged political categories. A critique of utopian futurity is reiterated by science fiction writers everywhere, especially following Kim Stanley Robinson. This is how it goes: to call upon the imagination to do the work of historical class struggle is to give into a so-called reactionary impulse, but to lay bare that impulse is to represent its closures and limits in our terrible present. Since capitalism delimits the futures we can represent — capitalist realism sells, after all — we are better off writing exposés of such failures through genre.

So on one hand, the potential of science fiction is refused as praxis by Engels and Marx both, and by Marxist orthodoxy thereafter. Science fiction is not rigorous enough for the apparent scientific nature of Marxism. And on the other, as imaginaries, it is reduced to reformist platitudes. The novel and the “novum” is in crisis, which is also to say that capitalism’s ability to innovate its way out of this mess of climate catastrophe, still-raging epidemic(s), and periodic recessions has meant perpetual interregnum.

Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune 2052–2072 does not assume that capitalism ever overcomes its contradictions, that it produces a truly democratic order after a revolution, or even that it represents the scientifically rigorous dystopia that must be overcome. The fictional oral history of a commune yet to exist imagines what forms human agency could take to change their world and their circumstances, how it could be contingent and polyphonous, always in process of unfolding and becoming. The novel shows us what we are capable of and, perhaps, also demands that we remember the future. Quickly, lest we forget.

¤


Everything for Everyone is not set in the future, but in myriad memories of futures that have passed. The large cast of characters have all lived through and participated in the building of communes between the years 2052 and 2072, and — as is the intent behind an oral history — they speak for themselves and about themselves, prompted by fictional interviewers bearing the real authors’ names (M. E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi).

O’Brien begins with questions that allow the speakers to decide where to begin, while Abdelhadi usually offers the reader demographic cues (e.g., place, date of birth). The interviewers, very old in the year of the recordings, have participated in insurrections, and, like their interviewees, their memories are also voiced through grief, rage, trauma, investments, and fierce attachments. The memories and expressions of the interviews are unedited; only an introduction produces direction — explaining the project, a brief history, and the commitments of the collectives. To be written into one’s own work can be seen as megalomania, the immortality of solipsism, but in this novel, it is a political commitment. The style of the interlocutors is academic, and it offers all that such a style confers: a purposiveness, a concrete set of intentions and demands, a sense of historicization, and necessary self-reflexivity.

But fiction deals in the excesses of style, and each of the interviews complements and contradicts these intentions. In the first interview, the interviewers speak with a trans woman and practitioner of “skincraft” (a noncriminalized, essential, reparative form of sex work) who has held memorials in the form of gathering oral narratives. In a reflective question, O’Brien asks the skincraft practitioner whether they enjoy being nostalgic and imagining themselves part of that heroic history. Glorification, as the interviewee responds, is glamorous and beautiful. In the insurrections, there is no reason to deny beauty, especially if it doesn’t come with beauty’s own standards, especially if everyone can be a beautiful hero.

In other interviews, the authority of the interviewer breaks as the interviewees criticize the questions, crack jokes, refuse to answer certain questions, and even demand that the interlocutor become the interviewed. The academic, jargon-laden form is useful and accessible, as most interviewees will state. In a carceral world, such style is a demand — one’s “fight mode was all about frontin’” — but in struggling with one another on the streets, even confusion can be an intimate political statement.

To be set in memories is also to develop a new form of telling history, a new storytelling, that challenges the teleological. But to be nonlinear is not merely a gimmick of writing-craft; it challenges time itself, its orderly procession of utopias and apocalypses that are caught in one’s beginning and the other’s end. The past can be made the present if the present can be seen in the past. History can be rendered differently if we revise and reuse the utopianisms that offer total change without rejecting the apocalypse of our present. Everything for Everyone reproduces a historical account of various uprisings of that period against the same issues that mark our milieu: crises in healthcare, education, food distribution, mass militarization and brutality, imperialist capture of Indigenous land, forced detentions, overwork, violence, discrimination, unemployment, and ecological collapse. The novel is situated in an already present ecological and social collapse and the two poles of its tension — insurgency and the commune — cannot exist without each other. Put another way, insurgency is the form the commune takes.

Historically, the commune is born out of a negativity, out of the “enclosure of the commons,” so it is almost inevitable that the earliest imaginations of the communes were of a return to repossessing the land — as evidenced by Christian millenarians and their dreams of sinless Eden. A desire for purity, however, usually catapults into a desire for ruination, and if not that, at least a few militarized borders. Ruination and apocalypse are reciprocal imaginaries, and from their debris — from what is left over after the holocaust — spring dreams of “blood and soil” fascism. Believers, with their eschatological politics, stake claims on land, and communities then sing of jingoistic nationalisms and policed cults. Even the longest insurrections, of May 1968, dotted many lands with little communities (like the Whole Earth) that slowly transformed into Silicon Valley, where dreams of geo-engineered utopias came to rest.

Science fiction has not denied these historical forms of the commune space in its futurisms, whether the scientific hopes in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars series or autonomous communities in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, or even recently, in the fanatic rural cults of Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland, or the policed communities comprised of transphobic cis women in Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt.

These historically sectarian communities find expression in the novel: police and borders proliferate around enclosures of religious cults, coercive factories, and fascist and Zionist enclaves. But the face of the enemy is clear in the novel. Through connected and organized insurrections, some of these are dismantled through armed struggle and guerrilla tactics and cruelty, some are taken if detractors come “without property or power,” and others (like the white supremacists and federal cops) are left to fight each other and collapse as capitalism’s armies stop protecting them.

Real community, however, also emerges as a tendency made possible through cooperation in crisis, a tendency inherent in Marx, further theorized by feminists of social reproduction as a possibility both outside and against capital. Everything for Everyone is influenced by a concatenation of communal forms — some historical, like protests and riots, and others that have been part of the infrastructural planning of existing communes. The novel adopts imaginaries. For instance, it takes the centrality of phalanstères from the utopian visions of Charles Fourier for resource distribution while the creches of Maria Montessori are rebuilt as an autonomous space for teenagers after the abolition of the family; similarly, the project of dismantling the military and other imperialisms is inspired by many past insurrections (such as the Oaxaca Commune, May 1968, or the Paris Commune). The novel also incorporates recent protest methods into its insurrectionary commune, such as the demand for Indigenous and ecological freedoms that clamored against the construction of pipelines, or taking the form of assemblies from Occupy, or the birth of new communication technologies against surveillance and capture, which were seen in Hong Kong and during Black Lives Matter protests. The history then, is one of tradition, of collectives and comrades, their mistakes and their successes, their theory and praxis, one that affirms that we have — so many times — practically imagined the end of capitalism.

Everything for Everyone does not traffic in ruination, although there is enough debris for cities and minds to be submerged in the horror. Shipping containers float on drowned skyscrapers, and they are used to house technological infrastructure; military augmented tech is used to host new kinds of dance parties. Dance parties themselves are necessary components of political organizing between the connected communes across the world. The novel is dense, almost too heavy with details where existing infrastructure and social relations are imagined anew under freedom, a positive reworking that transforms the muck of our world into salvage for the revolution. As O’Brien herself explains elsewhere, communes are “self-organized communities based on collectivizing [social] reproduction during periods of prolonged insurgency.”

The novel’s insurrections are ambitious, grounded in existing local communities of old and emerging solidarities and their ability to grow into global depth, depicting a great amount of organizational work. The novel also produces a history of organization labor, narrating a history of work itself. In its antiwork future, wage labor is abolished and new forms of working together to abolish capital and maintain communities emerge simultaneously. As characters narrate their old and new organizational labors, it becomes clear that we remember how to mount an opposition and know the enemy, but it is also clear that the historical “failures” of leftist movements are not natural tendencies — a Hobbesian affirmation of human nature, a Malthusian confirmation of scarcity.

The short-lived wins of leftist movements have historically been measured in days, and oral histories everywhere have seemed to corroborate great failures and falls. One of the most popular, Svetlana Alexievich’s work, has impressed upon us the refrain of such movements’ descents into fascism, and Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism (1977) repeatedly asserts the great betrayals. The 21st century has seen others: polyphonous tweets gradually becoming hashtags for archival. Histories locate our antagonisms in the past, leaving the people of today behind as destitute shells. Everything for Everyone may be a repository of past histories of leftist movements, their visions and failures, but it is equally invested in joyously depicting how capitalism has limited the very horizons of organizing by alienating and individuating us over the last centuries and has restricted the possibilities for making history as well.

In the novel, the people, their history, and its archives are lively. The great stores of memory, the novel’s biosynthetic AI server farms, are algal collectives, biological creatures that were inherited and are grown and maintained; in a lighthearted aside, the last interviewee confirms that, yes, the algae are sentient and have been for a long time, except, of course, humans couldn’t figure out how their sentience formed humanity and were thus, precommunization, unable even to recognize it. The fact of their sentience can now be assumed through the nature of their communication with each other about the “modeling of virtual worlds.” This fictionalized oral history is a lively chronicling of a contingent, polyphonous, unfolding form of struggling for a better world.

To imagine new worlds then, to appropriate such a view, is an impulse that can only be recognized after the horse is dead, after social relations are organized by communicating and coordinating with each other, after capitalism stops organizing our vision for us. Therefore, to remember our future is also to remember that utopianism is limited by capitalism, its free market of hope and new deals; in order to hold the barricades, we only have to abolish it together.

¤


Shinjini Dey is an editor, writer, and reviewer whose work can be found in Whetstone Magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Decolonial Hacker, Strange Horizons, and others.