Gabe shouldered his way out into the northbound lane of Interstate, through a gap between two carts so narrow that his backpack threatened to catch. In what remained of the street, sparse traffic crawled through clusters of cyclists and pedestrians that would soon be real crowds of commuters. On the shared tracks, light-rail and trolley cars snaked by, nearly bumper to bumper. Manual switch attendants saw to it that things kept snaking by, as they sorted traffic back out to the various private service lines.
He walked to the still-operating crosswalk on the north side of the Lombard intersection, and waited for the light—a rather incongruous sight here under canvas, but a safe means of gauging the train and bus traffic. The big tents—and the agora itself—ended abruptly at the fences of an elementary school, though the fences themselves had become a kind of community bulletin board. Back in the open air, less than a block west on Lombard, he could get a sense of the current size of the marketplace, reading the lines of the tents and the wind-generator poles. He could also see his immediate destination, the original cart-pod alongside the MPTC platforms, almost immediately ahead.
In the “custom” line at The Popular Press, Gabe wound up behind an obviously out-of-town suit—a business traveler strayed somehow from the usual routes and deck out in one of those buckskin bush-jacket-meets-business-suit monstrosities that seemed to have taken over from the Armani (or knock-off) Kevlar-lined flak-jacket/money vests of the last season. The monstrosity was at least well-worn, and the guy seemed more than comfortable as he ordered a twenty-five dollar coffee-and-whisky concoction, negotiating the options—a vast and ever-changing array of offerings from local roasters, dairies, distilleries, etc.—with all the decisiveness and determination called for, asking just a few pointed questions to guide him.
Here at the trolley platform, the morning rush was already on, and the “slug lines” on either end of the coffee cart were doing a brisk but simple business—straight coffee of various varieties for local service tokens. The big presses cycled through the most popular blends and roasts, with baristas announcing each new selection as it appeared. Commuters milled, chatting and waiting on favorite blends, travel mugs at the ready, or took their chances with a pick from the current offerings. Coffee poured, they dropped a token in a slot and moved on. At the busiest times, the crowds around the ends of the cart would tend to hem in the central lines (serving high-end and custom coffees, espresso drinks, alcoholic beverages, as well as providing currency exchange), so mobile mini-carts would be rolled out to various points to form a kind of pod-within-the-pod. At the height of the morning commute, at lunch hour or during street fairs, it certainly wouldn’t be unusual to find at least a dozen different coffee selections—all available, self-serve, for the price of a local exchange token. Gabe could see the preparations in progress for that phase of the morning’s business, as crews busily prepped the rolling mini-carts behind The Popular Press. And he could hear the nearly constant, if not entirely consistent, clatter of token-on-tokens, as payment piled up in the slug-bins. He didn’t need to look to pick out the dull sound of the old “wooden nickels” or the ring of the fake “copper pennies” as they hit. But he did look to spot the source of a bright, thin and persistent tink! which quite clearly marked the entry of a new phase in local currency fashion since his last visit. The new slugs looked as thin and bright as they sounded—and they were in coined in multiple colors, from something like anodized aluminum. To each their own, he thought, but let’s hope this doesn’t catch on too well…
The suit wasn’t carrying loc-toks, and he wasn’t making any apologies as he deliberately fished a shiny, new, oversized Federal “A” note from one of his vest’s inner pockets. It would be safe to say that, here in the Western Territories, there were probably bankers who never saw one of those in their entire career…
As I imagine in it some more finished state, and as I have outlined parts of it, The Distributive Passions is endowed or burdened with all the elements appropriate to a science fiction trilogy, including what might pass for a romantic subplot or two. But it is very self-consciously also an entry into the genre of political utopias, with all the necessarily talky, hopefully not too clunky elements required to show how this possible world works in some detail.
For better or worse, my first instinct was to just go ahead and get some of that talky stuff out of the way immediately—to the extent that immediateness is possible in the world I’ve been constructing.
I knew that I wanted Gabe’s journey to be a series of small-scale, local encounters, played out against a backdrop of events on a global scale. And, without sacrificing the “Gabe and friends try to save the world” storyline that would develop, I knew that the utopian heart of the story would be in the lingering treatments of just how many transfers were necessary to get from Philomath to Hayden Island (with or without detours to avoid the federales) and just what went on around the coffee carts in Portland’s most anarchic marketplaces at rush hour.
I was imagining a commercial world shaped by Fourier’s ideas about passional economy, where decentralization and individuation had taken extreme forms, in part by necessity and in part from the inclination of the participants. But what does passion-driven, passional, passionate commerce look like? I’ll admit that, in these early sketches, my own attempts to describe it were largely motivated by my own interest in what Fourier called the papillon, the passion for variety, which meant that I was sketching scenes that always seemed on the verge of breaking out into a riot or a musical number.
One of the things that I think many radicals don’t appreciate about commerce—quite naturally, given all the defects of its capitalists versions—is the various kinds of fun that it can be. And if they have experienced some of that on the job in their individual lives, I think it is still hard to imagine a world in which people still get and spend, and dicker among themselves for slight advantages, but still manage to get along, “winning” a little today, “losing” a little tomorrow, but without any of it making or breaking anyone.
For those of us conscious of the mechanisms of capitalist commerce, it’s hard not to be constantly conscious how much the steadily shifting assortments of merchandise on offer is the result of a kind of cynical central planning, with customer satisfaction constantly being sacrificed to other concerns. Today’s sale price can’t be disconnected from tomorrow’s price-hike or from its role in a destructive competition that ultimately reduces the power of the consumer even more. Under these conditions, the best we can do is to lose as wisely as possible in general, taking whatever “deals” we feel we can afford.
I was perhaps lucky to have spent a lot of my retail years in various kinds of resale, where there was always a lot of merchandise, but never much rhyme or reason to the selection. I also spent my share of years tending publisher dumps and endcaps, pushing customer loyalty cards and trying to make the best of the decisions of buyers in distant states. Those are two very different worlds and the contrast between them was one of my starting points when I began to think about a vaguely Fourierist economy emerging in a region recently abandoned by most national chains—a circumstance created by civil war in The Distributive Passions—where there was enough for everyone, but a little bit different in assortment from day to day and neighborhood to neighborhood.
So, for example, the dizzying variety of coffee available at The Popular Press was intended, on the one hand, to address the Fourierist search for just the right pleasures, but also to reflect, on the other, very uncertain supply chains—with everyone making the best of it, purchasing their cup of choice with everything from tokens valuable only because they will continue to be accepted to the sort of “hard,” state-backed currency brandished, a bit aggressively perhaps, by the gentleman in the expensive traveler’s gear.
There’s a little essay that might be written about the organization of the lines around the coffee cart, as I imagined it and sketched it in my notes. But perhaps the general principles behind the various kinds of transactions so briefly described aren’t so hard to discern.
I will confess that, as the scene materialized in my notebooks, one of my first thoughts was of some pictures of multi-drawer cash registers I had seen when doing some other research. Aha! I thought. I bet there’s one of those 6-drawer monsters behind that “custom” line, stuffed perhaps with tentatively sorted stacks of a whole world’s worth of local currencies.