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The System Does Not Work by Marvin Garson (1969)

The Democratic National Convention ended for me in December, with a 20-day stretch in the Chicago House of Correction. I was the only political prisoner in a dormitory of about fifty men-some of them criminals, some outlaws, some there entirely by mistake. In the evenings we would drag out our mattresses and blankets and lay them down in front of the television set. We were like little boys then, without keys or money or watches or wallets or any other adult prerogatives, as we brought out our candy bars, cigarettes and jars of Kool-Aid, and huddled together on our mattresses to watch television. The guards, when they came in to count us, were friendly and even tender, perhaps a bit regretful that they could not watch television as we did, totally without worries and the wife.

As my time remaining grew short I began to get restless, not with longing for freedom but with fear of it. My last night in jail I could not sleep for the nervous fluttering in my stomach that I had not felt since high school examinations. At 6:51 the following morning, December 21, at the moment the Apollo 8 astronauts were blasting into space, I was rolling up my blankets and scurrying out of the dormitory -afraid. Perhaps that is America’s social crisis: fear and trembling in the face of imminent freedom.

Some of the prisoners were radicals. They had pasted pictures of Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Rap Brown, Malcolm X and Leroi Jones, along with the slogan Keeping the devils at bay, right over the water cooler, a semiofficial location. The radical subculture is accepted today in many jails, but it is still the criminal culture that dominates. Though criminals are the hippest people around-they know how to get by on the bare essentials: soul, muscle, wit-they are also the squarest: so utterly, childishly selfish and self-pitying. It was a great pleasure to get away from them.

Once I’m out of jail I would just as soon forget about criminals, all things considered, but I’m not permitted to. Society is as terrified by the criminals as it once was by the Communists. I can’t even get on the bus in San Francisco any more without the exact change, since the drivers have insisted on a locked cashbox to discourage stick-ups. (Making bus service free was never seriously considered. You wouldn’t want someone else to ride more often than you without paying extra, would you?)

There was a time when the countryside was dangerous and towns were safe. In fact, a thousand years ago people were forming towns in Europe precisely for the purpose of physical safety. It was not the police that made towns safer than the country; professional police forces did not come into being until the 19th century. What made towns safe was simply the presence of so many people. If you were attacked on the street, there was always help nearby.

The reason so many people feel jittery in the streets of a modern American city is that they do not expect to get any help from their fellow citizens. People hold opinions on whether the courts are too lenient or the police too brutal, whether the generals should save us from the politicians or the politicians save us from the generals-they are, in short, conservative or liberal, and perhaps they vote accordingly, but generally they will not cross the street to save a man’s life, even at no risk to themselves (e.g., if someone is having a heart attack); so they count for zero politically and socially, no matter which lever they pull on Election Day.

They whine for more police, but the police are recruited from the same psychopath population as the criminals, by and large, and they begin to grow restive of their employers. Even the detectives, the aristocrats of the police force, seldom get to save any damsels. More often they arrive on the scene after the damsel is already dead under the languid eyes of thirty-eight neighbors who didn’t want to become involved and don’t want to talk about it. For the ordinary cop there is neither damsel nor dragon, just dirty drunks he must haul out of the gutter to keep good citizens from being offended. He grows restless, he begins to dream of a police state, and civilization is threatened precisely by those who are supposed to be its last defense.

The prisoners are no more at ease than the police. They are constantly quarrelling over the pettiest things-an accidental jostling, an incident in a card game, an indiscreet boast-in order to score points. There are lots of threats but very few fights. (The consequences are severe: solitary confinement for both participants, with the corresponding loss of good time, so that the days in solitary don’t count towards the sentence.)

It resembles basketball: men constantly charging at each other at top speed, then a last minute swerve and a try for a two-point basket-one says, I’ll whip your motherfucking ass, and the other swallows it in silence.

It would seem that the best actor, rather than the best fighter, would score the most points. True, but everyone is a method actor who is what he pretends to be; so that the one who comes out on top is neither the best -victor nor the best fighter, but the toughest man. The prisoners have entered naked. They have no wallet to keep their identity in; it must be in the voice, in the eyes, in the walk. If they want to look tough, they have to be tough.

Do you want protection from crime? Then you have to be tougher than the criminal. It’s not enough just to outnumber him, if most of your numbers are zeroes. You can’t hide behind the policeman; he’s not often around and he’s often a criminal himself. You can’t hide behind the loudmouth politician; he just hides behind the policeman. You have to stop hiding altogether, and start to be a better man than the criminal.

It should not be hard. Criminals, after all, are a weak, selfish, self-pitying bunch of people (I speak of street criminals, naturally, not of Syndicate men or military commanders). We really ought to have no crime problem at all-except for the fact that the typical decent citizen produced by capitalist society is himself so weak, selfish and self-pitying that he is not an existential match even for a criminal. He is weak because he is alone. He shares with no one except wife and children, who depend on him. If he slipped and fell, he cannot be sure that his close friends, even his family, wouldn’t trample him as they ran squealing toward the trough. His fife has neither beauty nor purpose. He believes in nothing except staying alive as long as possible. His children do not respect him because he achieves no wisdom with age. His leaders are grateful to him for being a sucker. His culture is trash-the people who create it are themselves ashamed of it. He squawks to his master for protection from crime as a chicken squawks for protection from the fox.

It is natural to feel admiration for the fox and contempt for the chicken. Lately, in fact, the revolutionary movement has made a cult of the criminal, with Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker its rallying cry. (The original, complete phrase is Up against the wall, motherfucker, this is a stickup.) I dug criminals myself until I began to make a close acquaintance with one who bunked next to me in the Alameda County Jail in July, 1967. Every night we played cards. and he told stories about his exploits removing merchandise from department stores with phony credit cards. One night he told me about the time he’d posed as a medical student, brought girls to a motel room where he said he’d perform an abortion, taken their money, had them lie down on a table, gone to wash his hands and disappeared out the window. He expected me to be impressed with how far he’d gone beyond the bourgeois moral code.

The fox does not attack the farmer; both prey off the chickens-who, if left alone, would starve. A lovely state of affairs, and there’s no way out of it without some social theory.


A social system has to be judged by the people it produces; not by what they are fed-we are talking about people, not horses-but by what they are. That’s the key to the revolt of the 1960s: an existential revolt which characteristically says We refuse to be like you rather than We demand more of what you have. Like you means greedy, cowardly, stupid, ugly-possessing the virtues, in short, of a pig. Even the Beatles, so careful not to needlessly offend, sing this song on their latest album:

Have you seen the little piggies Crawling in the dirt
And for all the little piggies Life is getting worse
Always having dirt to play around in.
Have you seen the bigger piggies In their starched white shirts
You will find the bigger piggies Stirring up the dirt
Always have clean shirts to play around in.
In their styes with all their backing They don’t care what goes on around
In their eyes there’s something lacking
What they need’s a damn good whacking.
Everywhere there’s lots of piggies Living piggy lives
You can see them out for dinner With their piggy wives
Clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon.

Why are the young people so rude? ask newscasters and commentators in the grey stretches between such zingy commercials as the Ultra-Brite spots. Ultra-Brite gives your mouth sex appeal-the line is delivered with wholesome ski-slope freshness, but still carries a subliminal connotation of lowdown blow job, a combination that has brought newcomer Ultra-Brite to the No. 3 spot in national toothpaste sales. In a recent issue of Progressive Grocer, UltraBrite has a full-page ad urging supermarket managers not to let Ultra-Brite run out of stock so often Sex appeal for them means profit appeal for you, say the toothpaste people.

Now do you see why we call them pigs?

Ten years ago the only opposition was the self-conscious bohemians who dinged tailfins and dug folk music. Today it consists of young people from all social classes absolutely determined not to be like their parents; not to be like the dumb sucker father who works in a factory all day and watches television at night, with nothing for his son but an ignorant leer; not to be like the timid clerk of a father whose only word of advice is crawl; not to be like the greedy pig of a father who has bought so many men that he thinks he can buy anything; not to be like the mother who prattles about herself like a six-year-old; not to be like the mother who got drugged unconscious to avoid experiencing childbirth, who nursed with a bottle because it was clean and scientific; not to be like the mother whose whole life is a plot to advance her husband’s career in The Company. But that’s all negative. How do they intend to live?

Biological instinct tells them that they must, somehow, survive-get food every day, keep warm and dry. All their years of school have taught them only one thing about survival: you sell your time to some Company, you do your job, faithfully and punctually. Nothing has prepared them to live without the Company. Two hundred years ago the runaways and dropouts from old Europe managed to live off the American land without any preparation for it; but since then the game has been killed, the forests cut down, the topsoil used up. So the modern pioneer has to hustle his bread in the city: finding casual labor, selling odds and ends, dealing in contraband, shoplifting, going on relief, playing con games, setting up some low-capital small business, working a series of jobs with no future and no security.

A few become criminals; not many. All, however, become outlaws. They sell marijuana, or they give it away, or they possess it, or they are present in a room where it is being smoked-acts none of which are crimes but all of which are against the law. Those who run away from home at sixteen have to live as fugitives; and the fugitive slave acts, known as Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor statutes, make it unlawful for an adult not to turn a runaway in to the police. Even when they do not happen to be breaking the law, young rebels are likely to wind up in jail on charges of vagrancy, resisting arrest or (in some jurisdictions) ‘Failing to give a good account of himself.

They are not criminals, they do not tattoo self-pity on their arms (Born to Lose). They are outlaws, people who do not fear their own impulses and do not seek to be punished.

It’s a hard fife. They choose it because there is no alternative. In dropping out of the world of just-do-your-job-and-pay-the-mortgage ‘they have made no noble sacrifice; they have simply chosen the difficult in preference to the impossible.

Our purpose is to abolish the system (call it the Greed Machine, capitalism, the Great Hamburger Grinder, Babylon, Do-Your-Job-ism) and learn to live cooperatively, intelligently, gracefully (call it the New Awareness, anarchism, The Aquarian Age, communism, whatever you wish). We don’t rely much on resolutions, manifestos, proclamations. Instead we follow Western Union’s advice to say it with flowers. We say it with flowers, bricks, dynamite, songs, poems, drugs, hair, meat. We are everywhere, all over America, and we have friends all over the world. It was our brothers and sisters who took the streets of Paris in May, who were massacred in Mexico City in October, who sat down in front of the Russian tanks in Prague in August. We are gaining courage, bit by bit: a few years ago there were so many afraid to picket, now there are some who dynamite draft boards. We grow in numbers and broaden out, down to the 12-year-olds who consider assassinations and burning cities to be normal domestic phenomena, up to their parents, men and women in their thirties who have lived the straight life right into a dead end.

The future of our movement depends upon the future of the Greed Machine. Will it continue its slow crumbling? Then increasing numbers of people will drop out and seek a new life as outlaws. Will it take a turn for the better? Then the Underground will stagnate. Will there be a sudden collapse-economic crash, political crisis, military revolt? Then it’s time for revolution, quite possibly before we are ready.

For some reason, it is always considered most likely for things to continue the way they’ve been going. All right, how have they been going? The cities, runs the standard phrase, are becoming uninhabitable. Time magazine, in a recent cover story on the collapse of New York City, fears that it might prove ungovernable or explode in bitterness. The streets are becoming more and more dangerous. The police force is becoming a political party. The air is a menace to health. Traffic is strangling. Lines grow longer for everything. The treasury is close to bankrupt. Strikes trigger political crises over such basic tasks as collecting the garbage. The teachers go on strike because of a conflict with parents and students over the nature of education. That’s the way things are going in New York, which Time fears may set the pattern for the rest of the country.

Yet the cities continue to grow. High-rises are built in what once were suburbs. New tracts are developed even further out from the center. Small towns are engulfed by expanding metropolitan areas. ‘The cities are uninhabitable means America is uninhabitable.

But this is, of course, a gross exaggeration. America IS inhabited, and by 200 million people, – each with a powerful sot of shock absorbers. Social crises disappear for them whenever they flip from the news pages to the sports section-then sneak right into their houses to perch for evermore.

I’m in charge in our family; I worry about the important things, like whether to recognize Red China, and my wife decides the minor things, like where the kids should go to school. An old joke, that has lost all its bite, for nowadays where the kids should go to school is much more burning a political issue than whether to recognize Red China. It is the kind of thing that destroys middle-class families. There is not enough money to send the children to private schools, but the public schools are in constant chaos. The child comes home full of filthy ideas he has learned from a teacher who sounds like a hippie, or he is terrified of the colored children who beat him up and take his money, or he has become an impossible disciplinary problem who simply refuses to learn. It starts as a minor problem and grows to a permanent crisis with no resolution.

Another family watches helplessly as one of its members cracks up. Mental illness is a disease like any other, they chant. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. But they are ashamed. What can they do? Consult a specialist. They believe in doctors, and dentists. There is an automobile mechanic they can trust. But throughout their long, expensive relationship with the psychiatrist, they always suspect he is a pure quack. Maybe all he knows is how to get money out of people. Maybe he knows nothing about treating the, uh, disturbed. They have run away from the problem, have paid someone else to do the job, and yet it keeps coming after them. (No escape.)

At a certain point in their marriage, the wife knows her husband is seeing another woman, and he knows she knows. No more romance for her. Now she looks forward to nothing but old age.

No one asks in this society whether it is better to be old or young, better to have wisdom or strength. There is no wisdom in old age. Old people are disgusting. Their children cannot stand to have them around. A man of sixty, still in command of himself, lives in terror of the day when his son will treat him like a child.

The parents had believed that it was just a few teenagers who took drugs and got all the publicity. Then they discover that their own children have been doing it under their noses for years. Why do you do this to us? Why do you do this to yourself? What’s this fantastic-she searches for the appropriate slang word-kick that you get out of it? The child says nothing at all. Or cooly holds out a pill. Do you really want to know? Then here, take this pill.

Crises like these once turned people to the churches. Not any more. Organized religion has placed itself at the service of greed. Now only the underground church has any spiritual power, and it belongs more to the underground than to the church; a priest who pours blood on draft board files is no prop for the system. Most often, the despairing soul curls up and dies while the body lives on, a productive American citizen and a zombie. But sometimes the soul goes on a journey, discovering in a flash the secret of travel: leave your furniture behind.

Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, have dropped out – lost their fascination with the bright plastic toys they are supposed to want-in the present period of slow crumbling. Their mere existence is a powerful subversive force, but it is not yet truly revolutionary; for we will be considered useful gadflies or dangerous parasites-but not an alternative to the Greed Machine-as long as we are hustling our bread from the system instead of baking it ourselves.

How do you bake it yourself? Well, let’s drop the metaphor and talk about literal bread-Wonder Bread, Taystee Bread, soft white bread that tears apart when you try to spread butter on it. Suppose you want good bread made with real ingredients, fresh baked and still hot. The system won’t even try to sell it to you. It’s too much trouble to bake it for yourself. It’s too much trouble to bake it for your tight little family of man, wife and two children. It might begin to be worth the trouble in a big family of man and wife, six children and maiden aunt, but those families don’t exist anymore. You could bake for the neighbors and sell it to them, but you’d probably go out of business (most neighborhood bakeries have). It all seems impossible.

Now imagine a village of, say, fifty or a hundred adults and their children living communally in the heart of the city. They cannot grow their own food, generate their own electricity, refine their own gasoline; but they can bake their own bread, butcher their own meat, make their own shoes, brew their own beer, maintain and repair their own dwellings, make their own clothes, make their own furniture, provide their own medical care, and educate their own children. They cannot be self-sufficient. There are many things they will have to buy (wholesale, usually) in the capitalist economy. They will need some money, and they will have to get it like everyone else: by selling their labor, selling a product, or hustling. But they won’t need much money. Most of the time most of the commune members can be busy baking, butchering, cobbling, brewing, tinkering, sewing, carpentering, doctoring and teaching inside a moneyless economy.

Is it ridiculously inefficient? Not at all, when you consider that it eliminates all the work of packaging and selling that constitutes so much of the cost of consumer goods. Efficiency will depend on the competence of the master workmen and the willingness of their assistants. If people have to succeed in order to survive, they will; if they are merely conducting an experiment or trying to prove some point, then their commune will fall apart sooner or later. (The Underground and the straight world function exactly alike in this respect: whatever has to get done, gets done; everything else runs into mysterious difficulties.)

As long as the capitalist economy continues to boom, the Underground will continue to live by hustling. If the capitalist economy should tighten up, the Underground will be forced to develop its own communal countereconomy, which would take many forms (the one described above is just an example). If the capitalist economy should crash, then the drop-outs would number in the tens of millions and the counter-economy they would create might well be a match for capitalism in the revolutionary struggle for land, machinery and raw materials that would necessarily ensue. In the depression of the 1930’s, capitalist property was generally respected. Occasionally an eviction was forcibly prevented, but no warehouses or department stores were looted, no land was seized, in fact there were hardly any strikes until 1934. If there should be another crash, this time the stores would be looted bare in a month and communards would be licking their chops at the sight of any vacant land or idle machinery.

The final conflict will be between outlaws and criminals: on one side, millions of Americans turned outlaw by force of circumstance; on the other side, the forces of respectable society at last revealed as Organized Crime. The outcome will be determined by who has the guns-at the end, of course, not at the beginning. The old order always starts off with all the guns, but they get taken away in every successful revolution.

Our movement is very tender. One cop can usually handle ten of us. Though we have burned our bridges behind us and can’t go back, most of us think we can just camp on the riverbank for the rest of our lives. Our militancy is mostly the nervous boasts of green soldiers who insist they are itching for combat-bad acting which cops and criminals can easily detect. But that is the way it always is at the


beginning. -Marvin Garson

Source: San Francisco Express-Times


Jan 1969

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