Chris Carlsson seeks a third way: “I welcome the collapse of the Communist Party and social democratic parties as well,” he says.
Such is the endless present of our media-saturated, just-in-time world that the past may as well be another planet, and those who lived on it beings wholly unlike ourselves.
This is what came to me listening to San Francisco-based author and Critical Mass bike ride founder Chris Carlsson, in town last month to push his new book, Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists And Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing The Future Today (AK Press).
Addressing a meeting of 40 at CineCycle on Spadina last month, Carlsson talked about 1944 in America, when an astonishing 40 per cent of all vegetables came from family garden plots that subsidized the war effort.
It's with such facts that Carlsson hopes to raise morale for another more elaborate struggle: "I live to overthrow money," he says. Oh, is that all?
Capitalism's fault line, says this self-described "attitude adjustment specialist," is that most of us would rather not work. The only problem is that no one's come up with a better way to meet desires, or, perhaps, a better way to desire.
We want to feel useful; we're afraid of going hungry. Keep those thoughts in the foreground and they tend to squeeze out any others.
"When I sell myself to a job, it's at the point of sale that I feel I - all of us together - relinquish control over the world," he says. "[Our] only responsibility becomes doing what we're told. Then, having got some money, our only responsibility is to do whatever we goddamn want to with it."
Carlsson has just as much opprobrium for activists who target people as consumers as he does for capitalists who see us only as producers. In one published interview, he asked and answered a compelling question: "What happens when you take the buying and selling of human labour out of the world? It becomes interesting."
In response to the work imperative, some radicals elevate sloth and poverty; others pour themselves into the penance of laborious and under-rewarded political administrivia.
Carlsson's book seeks a third way: "work that matters and is done well." His search for the artisanal brought him to the backyard tinkerers
in San Francisco who jump-started the biodiesel revolution that now has big oil taking notice. And to Oakland's sprawl, where the likes of City Slicker Farms convert abandoned properties and People's Grocery sells the produce from a biodiesel bus.
Beneath such inquiries is an almost spiritual quest to discover the confluence between what we are and what we do. It may also map the missing link between traditional political labour and "lifestyle" activism - between working for a revolution and living as if it's already happened.
"I don't think it makes any difference what we buy - it's what we do. We have to make work front and centre in our discussions, because our work makes the mess, and we're not going to fix it on Sunday afternoons by writing a cheque when we've been all week long making the mess."
Well and good, said one CineCycle audience member. "But how can I pay property tax, pay bills and eat?"
"You must succumb," said Carlsson. "That's the deal. You have to get a job. Do the best you can to undercut it, subvert it, create space and ways to help each other. Long-term, all these initiatives in Nowtopia are examples of things people are doing to supplant the money economy with a non-measured system of sharing."
Short answer: he doesn't know.
But given his book's concern - you might say preoccupation - with the working class and the Marxist references peppered through his talks, is this a soft sell for socialism?
"I welcome the collapse of the Communist Party," he tells me. "And the collapse of social democratic parties is also a great thing. [The left] thinks work is great and that you should fight for a bigger piece of the pie. My attitude is that most jobs are idiotic and shouldn't be done."
Labour activists decry the fact that the fractured reality of modern work means we no longer identify with our work; Carlsson sees this as freeing people's imaginations.
"People have moved beyond identities as workers to a more multifaceted life, but insofar as they're not critical thinkers, they're just identifying with what they own," he says.
Listening to him makes me think of psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who in his research on "flow experiences" found that people are sometimes happier when engaged in work than they are in passive leisure. While Csíkszentmihályi's prescription might be to seek "flow" in our jobs; Carlsson urges us to make our flow self-directed.
"Right now your life gets better, when you're riding bikes with your friends or gardening together or plotting how to convert your Mercedes to biodiesel," he says.
But make no mistake - his long-term visions are distinctly macro. "It's more than painting a few lines on a street. It's de-paving entire streets, taking down buildings that don't need to be there any more. The hope is that these are nascent cells of other ways of relating."
How will that look? He doesn't have the answer. "It's worth being clear and comfortable with contradictions and grey areas," he says. "It's just a matter of how we can create more aid. More possibility."