The year was 1981. It was the dawn of ‘cubicle farms’ in city offices, with cheap partitions signalling a shift in office culture from interaction to productivity. The beginnings of the computerised information processing era had arrived, and the first wafts of neoliberalism were in the air – and 24-year-old Chris Carlsson and his friends could smell it.
As an outlet for their disdain and alarm at the working culture around them, they launched an anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian DIY magazine called Processed World – a searing critique of the oppressions and inanities of labour through essays, cartoons and satirical ads. The magazine came to life in San Francisco, where volunteers handed out copies to fellow weekend warriors while spontaneously composing street cries that would become Processed World’s slogans: “Are you doing the processing, or being processed?”
Its 32 issues, released between 1981 and 2005, would circulate far beyond San Francisco, becoming an early enemy of the technological and cultural shifts that have now taken root in workplaces around the world. The magazine asserted that most modern office work was at best useless in terms of real human needs, and at worst destructive. It encouraged a rebellion through absenteeism, sabotage and disorganisation, while its cutting commentary attacked the beginnings of a shift that is now reaching its absurd zenith via ‘productivity hacking’ and worker surveillance. Processed World foresaw a dystopia that has, in many ways, become undeniably real.
Having – unsurprisingly – been fired from more than one office job in his twenties, Carlsson’s expansive career went on to include writing, photography, typesetting and design. He has helped initiate a cycling revolution, written various books, and created a digital history archive of his home city. With the full back catalogue of Processed World now made freely available online, Carlsson speaks to me on Zoom from his apartment in San Francisco – which is large, he says, and affordable only because he and a group of others worked to establish the building as a land trust. He lives what he considers to be a good life. We talk about what that means, what drove his rejection of a troubling new era, and whether the end of neoliberalism is now in sight.
Chris, take me back to 1980, when the idea for Processed World was born. How were you feeling? What was the mood?
Chris Carlsson: Disgust might be the best word for it. We were just disgusted by what life was, as it was being presented to us – what the options were and how you're expected to accommodate it. And we felt smarter than that. So we all felt like we could get away with things. We were all taking at least one or two reams of paper everyday home from whatever bank or office we were working at. The first three issues of Processed World were printed entirely on stolen paper from the banks of San Francisco.
We just saw this huge amount of waste, this huge amount of wealth, and we felt like, ‘let's divert some of this towards something actually useful for humans, rather than just the reproduction of meaningless data for banks and other entities in the capitalist system.’ We didn't really know what we're up against. But we did know that there was a radical restructuring of the economy underway.
Now we’re 40 years on from Processed World’s launch. How do you feel, looking back on it?
Well, clearly, we were ahead of the curve, to put it mildly. We now know that we were operating at the dawn of neoliberalism, and through the first decade of that process of destroying social relationships and replacing them with market relationships. Destroying received patterns of reproducing life and making new ones that were based on a high degree of atomisation and alienation and loneliness, which has only become worse in the 40 years since. None of that stuff was completely obvious to us at the time, but we saw it essentially through shadows. We were kind of groping around reaching for it and not quite getting our hands wrapped around it, because it would have been quite an achievement to fully define it at the time. But I look back on it with a lot of pride.
What was the alternative world you wanted to see? What would be the antidote to the dystopia you saw on the horizon?
We should all have human rights, access to transportation, communication, food, housing – and we should all produce it together in an intelligent way that makes our lives pleasant and not very onerous. It seems kind of obvious. And that was always why we were producing the magazine, to advocate for that world. And there's almost nobody articulating that in the political world. It's always about trying to reduce the horror that's being imposed on us or imposed on other people, or to ameliorate it through market mechanisms – the idea that maybe we can nudge things in a direction a little less horrifying, a little less destructive than it is. And that's just not going to get it. We actually have to stop everything we do.
We were advocating that 40 years ago, and some of us still do. And it still seems like it's both as likely and as impossible as it ever was. It's super available to us and it's not even discussed.
The last couple of years have brought trends like Great Resignation and ‘quiet quitting,’ for example. Do these feel akin to some of the rebellion tactics you pushed for with Processed World?
I was very happy about all that stuff. What it comes down to is less about a specific tactic and more about a general attitude or approach, which is that recognising that what we're doing to make a living is fundamentally stupid, and it's making our lives terrible to do it.
Quiet quitting will continue forever, because people are always going to find a way to work less and do more of the things they care about. And when people are not at their stupid jobs trying to make a living, they're actually working pretty hard doing interesting things that are trying to address the crisis that we're living in, whether it's the ecological crisis or the crisis of social anomie.
What would a meaningful rebellion against neoliberalism most usefully look like today?
It would start a lot like the Covid crisis, where everything shuts down – not because of governmental decrees, but because people stop going to work and say ‘we’re not doing this anymore.’ And then they start meeting each other in assemblies and cafés, and having interesting debates and arguments about how we should redo this whole thing. How do we get what we need and make it positive? How do we do that without destroying the ecology of the planet?
So we need to go on a transition, and we need to change how we do things. Part of it is a radical reduction and not a reduction in the quality of life – I think that we're going to increase the quality of life rather dramatically.
So much of this is about quality of life. What does living well mean to you?
The main thing for me is to live well now. Why wait till tomorrow? Unlike most people who are in the rat race going, ‘I gotta get more money, gotta get a raise, gotta get another job, gotta buy a house, gotta get a bigger house’ – none of that stuff ever held any interest for me. I was always looking at it as survival in terms of what I need to not stress about money: ‘okay, these are my minimum necessities, how do I get them by doing the least work possible?’ So my whole life has been structured around that. Which for most people I think might be a revelation, because they don't understand that you can make those decisions.
How does privilege factor here? Some people do need more than what they have.
There's a certain generational wealth that was created during the middle of the 20th century in the United States. I'm the beneficiary, no question about it – and so that made it easy to make some of the decisions I made. I was never faced with dire poverty or complete physical and financial collapse in my life. But the word ‘privilege’ might be the wrong word. That should be everybody's minimum, right? To not be stressed about their future? You should have a right to that. It's not a privilege to have it. The fact that I have it and somebody else doesn’t, it means they got screwed. And we need to unscrew all those people.
The only way to do that is to take the wealth from the really wealthy people who have accumulated and concentrated so much over the same period of time that we're talking about, the last 40 years. Who doesn't need reparations in this world, except for those fuckers like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg who have stolen everything from everybody else? So let's take their money and give it out. Let's get on with making life a beautiful life for everybody. We could do that together. I want to start tomorrow.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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