Money, money, money

Rereading books from the thirties and compulsively listening to The Velvet Underground generate many things in people, but in my case in particular they reactivated a certain curiosity related to the value of money. For instance, in Ask the dust (by John Fante) an incredibly starving Arturo Bandini, surviving solely on tangerines and owing many months of rent in his broken down pension, saves his life when he manages to sell his first short story to a literary magazine and receives a check for 500 dollars. Aso, in I’m waiting for the man, Lou Reed tells us about his experience of buying heroin in the intersection of Lexington and 125th, waiting with 26 dollars in his hand, waiting for his man who, obviously, is always late: First thing you learn is that you always have to wait. Then: ¿How much money was keeping Bandini turning between life and death, in today´s standards? ¿How much money would Lou Reed need today to go back to that corner to buy his heroin?

To answer this it is necessary to have some measure of inflation, that is, of how prices in general rose, how the cost of life rose, and information on this topic is available in each country´s statistical information department; with this and some patience we can surely see some interesting facts.

1. The Velvet UndergroundI’m waiting for the man

Released in 1967 the first demos are from 1965, so we are talking of 26 dollars to buy heroin in 1965 in north Manhattan (that is, Harlem, a black ghetto then). The problem is we don’t know quality or quantity of the heroin Reed was buying, so it is hard to compare this cost with whatever heroin costs today in New York. Also, the Consumer Price Index for the US (and all other countries) is calculated based on a basket of representative goods, which does not include heroin. So we will be calculating the cost of heroin based on the assumption that heroin price rose more or less in line with all other goods in the economy, ignoring any change in supply or demand that could have happened in the last 40 years. So the question is, how much money would we need today to buy exactly the same thing Lou Reed bought in 1965. And the answer is about US$ 193.07, which is less than what I expected but still a considerable amount. This song always got me thinking and it is actually the starting point for this whole blog post, as today listening to Lou Reed having 26 dollars in his hand in a ghetto does not seem that suspicious; after all 26 dollars is something almost everybody would have in his or her wallet on a given day. Taking it to current values shows Lou Reed should have been nervous, his waiting there should have been more excruciating that what the song suggests at first impression, waiting there half an hour or a full hour with 200 dollars in his hand and on top of that having a dude coming up and saying Hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown, that’s no easy task. The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman for heroin overdose made the topic hot again and we have more and more information on heroin prices in the United States; different journalists mention different heroin doses can be found for 10 to 15 dollars, on the street, or for up to 40 to 50, depending on the area, purity and quantity (discount by bulk buying!). This tells us that either heroin is cheaper than in 1965 or Reed was buying large quantities of exceptional purity or, it would not be the first time, Lou was just lying to us: Rolling Stone magazine reports Lou once said Everything about that song holds true, except the price. 

2. B. B. King - Sweet little angel

Actually Sweet little angel is an adaptation of a classic blues song (Black angel blues)  initially recorded in the 30′s’ King records his version in 1956 and adds (as far as I know it was not initially there) the verse You know I asked my baby for a nickel / And she gave me a $20 bill, which at today’s prices would mean old King was asking for 43 cents and his angel gave him about 172 dollars. Which means B.B was short for buyin Reed’s heroin, so to say.

3. Johny Cash - Get rythm

The Man in Black wrote this song about a young shoeshine boy who resists humiliation and frustration of long working hours in a crappy job just by putting rythm on it, that is, polishing at the tune of blues and rock and roll. It is an optimist song about just taking it and going ahead. And Cash sells the services or the young man by singing It only costs a dime, just a nickel a shoe / Does a million dollars worth of good for you, which means, considering the song was written in 1956, polishing your shoes should cost about 86 cents, 43 a shoe, and would be worth about US$ 8,599,852.94. Which is a huge bargain. It is an incredible bargain especially if we consider for instance this website offering shoe polishing services for 9 dollars. This illustrates shoeshine workers have really gained in terms of quality of life since Cash’s time, or that, viceversa, shoeshine workers were really screwed back then in the fifties. Which is quite a good reason to write them a song.

4. Beggars’ spare change: Bing Crosby - Brother, can you spare a dime?; Creed - Pity for a dime

A song written in 1930 that became popular almost instantly given the Great Depression, Brother, can you spare a dime? speaks of a worker that helped building prosperity and now, starving, begs through the voice of Bing Crosby for ten cents. The song by Creed is more introspective and involves some very depressed individual who ends up saying sell my pity for a dime. Anyway, written in 1997, it shows the ten cents coin still has some referential value. The thing is, a dime given to Crosby would be today about US$ 1,40, while a dime given to the Creed guy would be only 15 cents today. This illustrates that keeping very low denomination coins for long periods of time (or shorter periods with high inflation) is quite bad for beggars, as inflation erodes the value of coins while people keeps giving beggars just “loose change”.

5. 883Con un deca

Leaving the United States for a while, italian band 883 wrote this song in 1992, and in order to understand it it is important to know that deca is the italian term for 10.000 liras. Which generates additional complications as Italy adopted the euro around the year 2000. Also, the song makes reference, in my understanding, to what can and cannot be done with a deca (and, so it seems, there is not much you can do with it: con un deca non si può andar via / Non ci basta neanche in pizzeria). It is not clear for me if maybe the song is a bit nostalgic about a time in the past in which something could be done with a deca. In any case, considering the euro got introduced with an exchange rate of 1936 liras per euro, and that the lira was abandoned in 2002, adjusting by exchange rate and inflation leads to finding a decca in 1992 would be today about US$ 12.58 (or about 9.1 euros). That is, still, there is not much you can do with a deca in Italy.

6. Bersuit VergarabatDiezmil

20 millions of argentinian pesos is quite a lot of rmoney, and in this song the band speaks about some guy who wins that insane amount of money in the national lottery and then turns into a very very nasty person, in a classic example of “money takes your soul” song. Here we also have additional complications as the argentinian government is under reporting inflation in the last years. Using IMF estimations and assuming the song was written circa 1992 (as it is included in the 2002 record De la cabeza, which celebrates 10 years of the release of the bands’ first CD), 20 million pesos that some moron won in 1992 would today be 73.949.916,4 pesos, that is, almost 74 million pesos. Now, in 1992 fixed exchange rates in Argentina meant this 20 million pesos would be identical to 20 million dollars, this updated figure at the actual current official exchange rate turns into a little bit more than 9 million dollars (US$ 9.377.958,6). Let’s see this again: if you won 20 million pesos in 1992, that’s the same as winning 74 million in 2014, but in 1992 that would be 20 million dollars as well, while in 2014 that is just a little bit over 9 million dollars. Which means, the evolution of the exchange rate more than compensates the updating of the prize due to inflation. Which is another exhibit that shows in Argentina it always pays to save in dollars. And it’s Bersuit Vergarabat saying so, not me of course.

7. Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra - Sanela

With a very reduced understanding of serbian (and/or bosnian) I came up with the conclusion that Sanela is a first name. In this song (included in that excellent record that is Unza Unza Time) the narrator cries, about stuff, to Sanela. Where are the boats, what’s going on, what happens with foreigners, uh Sanela? But the song ends with the singer (crazy great Dr. Nele Karajlić) insisting: fifteen dollars, fifteen dollars, fifteen dollars honey. Released in 2000, maybe the song was written before, with some imagination one can think it is a lament regarding the illegal prostitution nets that seek balcan girls and trick them into going into the west, for little money; after all fifteen dollars are fifteen dollars. But leaving wild stereotypical imagination aside, what’s going on with these fifteen dollars? First of all, coming from the US, we should note 15 dollars in 2000 amount to about 20 (US$ 20.38 more precisely) in 2014. But, like in Argentina, the exchange rate is a mess: a dollar was 11.6 serbian dinars in 2000 but jumped to 84.67 today; Sanela’s 15 dollars in 2000 where 174.14 dinars back then but would be 1725.57 serbian dinars today. Which means serbian people are probably still wondering why everything is so expensive and it probably paid to save in dollars there as well.

8. Iron Maiden22 Acacia Avenue

The song was released in 1982 in their third record The number of the beast (great record) and has a simple basis: if you are not feeling fine, we can go to 22 Acacia Avenue and Miss (or Mrs?) Charlotte will help you have a good time, for 15 quid. You see, everybody has a price. For a little context: Acacia Avenue is a generic way of referring to a middle class neighborhood in a middle class city in England. Middle class or not, whatever Charlotte does should cost today around 35.51 pounds (per day, per hour, per whatever she does). For some context on this, see below.

9. Poor Punks: The SlitsShoplifting; The exploitedMaggie

Shoplifting by the Slits is one of those songs that have received a lot of attention in history of music (and history of punk) but that definitely ended up being less harsh than what one expects (especially considering how the movement evolved into hardcore and other faster and stronger sounds). In any case, Ari Up and friends were shoplifting small stores back then, getting some cheese, some other stuff, about 10 quid the lot. Though it was probably written before, it was released in 1979, so in todays’ prices the Slits where shoplifiting about 37.29 pounds of stuff each run. Which is relatively significant: living in England I spend a bit more than that each week at the supermarket.

By 1985 the scottish punk band The Exploited had completed the transition into hardcore and was in full frontal war against Margaret Thatcher; Maggie is one more example of that hatred that, by the way, was reciprocal. In this song Wattie Buchan complains of the cost of life and implicitly on the cuts on the welfare state, leaving him with 25 quid a week for survival: Twenty five quid to live on / Seven days a week to survive… …Twenty five quid of insult / Two meals soon kills your health / They want to see you suffer / They want to see you dead. Even without going to CPI information you can tell 25 pounds a week is little money, considering the Slits where stealing 10 a run in 1979. Turns out that in todays’ prices Wattie would be complaining about surviving with 55.78 pounds a week. Which is very little money, indeed. Maybe that explains the chorus: Maggie, maggie you cunt.

10. Tom Waits: 29 dollars y 9th and Hennepin

Tom Waits is a master of many things. In an interview he once stated that upon arriving to a city he would randomly pick a cab on the street and ask for the guy to take him to a hotel in Lincoln (or Washington, I don’t remember) street, and that there always is a street with that name that has a low life hotel filled with stories waiting to be told. Waits  is a master, among many other things, of odd places, or urban and suburban weirdness. In 29 dollars (coming from his 1978 record Blue Valentine) Waits tells us about this young girl who just arrived to a small town, having only 29 dollars in her alligator purse. At night and notoriously looking as someone from out of town she ends up making bad decisions (Remember suckers always make mistakes / When they’re far away from home) and ends up in a hospital, with a little bit less blood than normal and without her 29 dollars and her alligator purse. Blue Valentines is not my favorite Waits record (as it is one of the few coming before his style change seen starting with Swordfishtrombones) though it has wonderful pieces as Blue valentines or Romeo is bleeding; I remember  listening the song for the first time and being surprised about the 29 dollars: leaving for another town, looking for a fresh start, with only 29 dollars, is quite reckless, I mean, there is not much you can do with 29 dollars actually, you can’t get a room and eat with that. But turns out that in todays’ terms that would be around US$ 104.4, which means that at least a couple of warm meals and a roof could be affordable, maybe for a few days.

9th and Hennepin (from Rain Dogs, 1985) is a little masterpiece about a particular corner: Well it’s Ninth and Hennepin / All the doughnuts have names that sound like prostitutes… …And all the rooms they smell like diesel / And you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here. It’s an early attempt of something that Waits would do over and over again, these narrative and disturbing songs and/or pieces (like What’s he building in there). In that corner, there is a bar, with a counter, and, of course, a woman: And the girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear / “One for every year he’s away”, she said / Such a crumbling beauty, ah / There’s nothing wrong with her that a hundred dollars won’t fix. It’s a subtle violence, here, to match the woman behind the bar with an object, with something that would be fine given one hundred dollars for maintenance, like a car or a bike needing paint. I always imagined Waits meant with this line something like a change in clothing, maybe make up, hairdressing, maybe a quick visit to the dentist; one way or the other Waits is saying something as “the girl is pretty but it’s hard to realize given the circumstances”. Also, Waits never explicitly mentions beauty, he’s just saying that one hundred dollars “fixes it”. In a way, knowing how much those dollars are worth illustrates what kind of problems Waits has in mind: if you fix it with 10.000 dollars maybe we are speaking of plastic surgery, it we are talking about 10 dollars it’s just some mints for her breath. The reader should think for him or herself what is Waits speaking about, I will just say that in todays’ prices Waits thinks that there’s nothing wrong with her that US$ 217.4 won’t fix.

11. The million dollars: Tina TurnerPrivate dancer;  Barenaked LadiesIf I had a million, SublimeSanteria

Just like in Austin Powers everybody laughs when the villain asks for a million dollars in exchange for not destroying the world, the “million dollar” issue is the other side of the beggars problem with small change: though the cultural meaning of “a million dollars” remains there, the actual value of a million dollars has changed with time and, in fact, getting a million dollars has gotten easier and easier. Maybe that’s why (as I discuss below) rap and hip hop artists have entered some sort of inflationary battle. But, well, in these cases Tina Turner tells us (in a song coming form her 1984 album) about a private dancer, probably a stripper, who resists the nastiness of her job by thinking and focusing on her main goal in life: making a million dollars, having a husband and kids, buying a house by the sea, etc. Barenaked Ladies (in 1993) and Sublime (in 1996) discuss more or less the same idea and use the “million dollars” as an expression or synonym for being rich, having problems in life solved, etc. The thing is, due to the passing of time the strippers’ million bucks is actually worth more money today (US$2,251,357.07) than the million Barenaked Ladies and Sublime would like to have (which end up being US$1,490,860.42 and US$1,618,795.85 respectively). That is, a million dollars has less and less purchasing power with time, so those who want to have “a million” in 1985 actually want quite more stuff than those wanting it ten years after. The question is, when does this “million dollar” thing start? For a partial answer, see below.

12. Cab CallowayMinnie the moocher (30´s video, 80´s video)

This song is linked to the previous discussion on the cultural meaning of the “million dollars”, but it also links to the next discussion on “gangsta inflation”. First recorded in 1931, Minnie the moocher is a song with a lot of slang, quite sordid. Low life jazz slang (the infamous jive) ended up being complex enough that the very same Cab Calloway published in 1939 a dictionary ( Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive), such that public could understand the sub texts of jazz songs, and could understand, for instance, that Minne had fallen in love with a guy that quite liked cocaine (She messed around with a bloke named Smokie / She loved him though he was cokey) who took her for some opium smoking (He took her down to Chinatown / And showed her how to kick the gong around). The story obviously ends up badly, but Smokey, as a guy with a lot of money, first gives Minnie at least a million dollars: He gave her his townhouse and his racing horses / Each meal she ate was a dozen courses / Had a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes / She sat around and counted them all a million times. By 1931 the one million dollars figure is quite scary, especially considering that Bing Crosby was asking us for a dime more or less at the same time, and that in 1985 Turners’s stripper just wanted a million as well. A look at inflation rates shows in current prices Minnie’s million would amount to a bit more than 15 million (US$ 15.389.210,53). That she would in the end lose. Which explains the end of the song: Poor Min, Poor Min.

13. Gangsta inflation: Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Kanye West and such

Finding a 1931 song mentioning the million dollars is interesting, finding out that the song mentions the figure in the context of drug linked and mob linked characters is more interesting, but it is even more interesting seeing how the inflation adjusted Cab Calloway ends up being surpassed by today’s hip hop and rap artists (as my friend Nils points out, given my scarce knowledge on the topic). Calloway is overridden for instance by Jay-Z, who in the song u dont know says One million, two million, three million, four / In just five years, forty million more / You are now lookin at the forty million boy / I’m rapin’ Def Jam ’til I’m the hundred million man, and in the song kanye´s appaled when he says I lost 30 mil, so I spent another 30 / Cause unlike Hammer, thirty million can’t hurt me. Maybe the most excessive one is 50 Cent in Straight to the bank: When I made fifty mill, Em got paid / When I made sixty mill, Dre got paid / When I made eighty mill, Jimmy got paid. That is, the level of wealth, income, and showing off that the new generation of rappers has, goes above and beyond the shady business of the 20′s and 30′s jazz people. And it goes well above and well beyond, when one thinks that 50 Cent made 80 millions at some point for some reason. This 80 million in 2014 would be around five million in 1931 (US$ 5.198.447,3 to be precise). In fact any mention to the symbolic million dollars would be short of today’s 80 million, even if it was made as early as 1913 (which is the earliest year for which I have data to work with). I have two interpretations for all this. One is just noticing that in terms of purchasing power the rappers today directly make more money than jazz people in the 20′s and 30′s, period. The other one would be noticing that the Consumer Price Index measures a basket of average consumption goods, which should not include luxury items: maybe gold, jewelry, diamonds and mansions actually rose much more than CPI and then today’s rappers are just keeping up with this trend and would be short in terms of gold and diamonds compared with Cab Calloway. CPI figures show prices of the average consumption basket went up by a factor of 15 between 1931 and 2014, while gold price went up for a factor of at least 77. That is, Jay-Z and 50 Cent may be able of giving more dollars to whoever they want, good old Smokie could give Minnie more gold than they could. And I don’t know if this is good or bad.

In the end, updating values that one listens to in songs around can be interesting, as it shows Lou Reed had quite some money in his hand and thus reasons to be nervous, Johny Cash was concerned about really poor people when he started singing (and probably during his whole life), some punks really did not have much money so to say, pseudo gangsters of 20′s and 30′s jazz actually sang about a lot of money, and today’s artists from the hip hop and rap world are making immense amounts of money, even when compared against the 20′s and 30′s jazz people (though not in terms of gold necklaces). Knowing that “a million dollars” is less and less every year, it can be better understood this “music inflation” seen in new songs. It can also be better understood that this “music inflation” partially responds to battles between artists, as they mention each other all the time and somehow compete on who spends more money on stupid stuff. It seems they did not pay much attention to that hip hop classic that is Mo money mo problems, by The Notorious B.I.G..

 

Bonus Track: Alfredo Zitarrosa – Doña Soledad

In this classic song released in 1968 by uruguayan singer-songwriter Alfredo Zitarrosa, Doña Soledad argues over a vinten, which is a colloquial way of referring to two cents of uruguayan peso, back in the fifties and sixties. Applying the inflation rate we see that in first terms this Doña is arguing over 19.587,36 uruguayan pesos. But we are forgetting that in 1974 the military dictatorship, due to high inflation, introduced a new peso, that would replace the old one, on a rate of 1000 to 1. So this makes the argument about 19,59 uruguayan pesos. But, again, the second democratic government we had did the same trick in 1994 due to high inflation, changing the new peso for the peso (again at a rate of 1000 to 1), which means the argument was on 0.01959 pesos, or what is the same… two cents of uruguayan peso. Which really really changes the interpretation of the song, as Doña Soledad is arguing on really really little money.

…and in the end Arturo Bandindi got a check for US$ 8294.89 for his first story.

*special thanks to Ana Arioni for proofreading and song suggestion.

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Left Unity

imagesOn November 14th in the center of London Left Unity, a new british left wing party that aims at grouping all to the left of the Labor Party, held its founding conference. I participated in this congress, of which I present now a brief chronicle.

Historical context. The Labor Party was for many years the left wing party in the United Kingdom; deeply linked to the labor movement it was founded in 1900, preceding the foundation of other classical left wing parties as communist or socialist parties. Traditionally, the other parties lived under the shadow of Labor and split many many times[1], to the extent that sectarianism and the capacity of splitting of the left even got its Monty Python´s sketch in Life of Brian. Labor got to rule some times, and another times was part of coalitions, and in fact is deeply affected by Margaret Thatcher´s government. One of the biggest impacts of Maggie´s government was the ideological revolution (towards the center) that she managed to provoke within the Labor Party, something that was quite evident in the policies of Tony Blair (labor) when he came to power after the conservatives (1997). Blair distanced himself from the “traditional left” branch of the Labor Party and was one of the main persons behind the movement of Labor towards the Center of the political spectrum.

Recent context: the coalition now in power (Tories and Liberal Democrats) has been battling against the economic crisis for years. Years. And the main economic policy applied so far has been austerity: chopping public expenses, health, education, investments, the classical package. The interesting thing is that looking forward towards the next elections, the Labor Party has not totally rejected this way of action, and many elements within Labor have stated that the party may not go back on some of these measures. It´s about managing austerity and not reverting it. And this has not been taken well within left wing people. Ken Loach, famous filmmaker (of Trotrkyst tendencies, author of Tierra y Libertad, among other “committed” films) got angry and directed The spirit of ´45, a film focused on the commitment of the Labor Party, after the second world war, with a wide series of measures and principles aimed at attacking social problems of the period (as unemployment and inequality) and crafting a serious, working, welfare state. The movie shows a stark contrast between Labor´s attitude today and 1945, so after getting angry at it Loach made a call to unite all things left of Labor, for real this time, in order to challenge the austerity measures and coming up with some real alternatives to the current economic policies, aiming, precisely, at tackling social problems of today (that, according to Loach, look similar to those of 1945).

After some months of formation of discussion groups, the idea of a founding conference starts to grow, and is set for November 14th. The conference would be useful to discuss the inner structure of the new party, the long and short term goals, the electoral strategy, foundational principles, the program, etc. After hearing about this in the news (via New Statesmen, as The Guardian seems to have ignored the topic) I exchanged some e-mails with the organization and they kindly invited me to affiliate and attend as founding member, something that for unknown reasons is not prevented by my condition of being foreigner. So on a saturday morning (after reading all the available material) I took the underground to go and found a political party.

First of all, everything was very very neat. All participants were very punctual and around 10AM everybody was already there (around 600 members plus press and observers), in some sort of conference hall in a hotel by Russel Square, Bloomsbury neighborhood. Upon arrival I received an adhesive label in which to write my name, a folder with all the materials for discussion, and a piece of cardboard with the Left Unity logo to be used for voting. Once inside I sat in the middle, one or two seats away from a young guy who had a piece of paper with “Platform 9 3/4” written in it, that is, next to an ally. I was surprised by the attendance, people, so many people, so many young people, old people, so many everything. Disabled people sitting in the front, organization staff with microphones, everything well amplified, neat neat neat.

Organization informs us the agenda for the day and what´s the procedure for arguing at each stage, and reminds us that we have a pretty loaded agenda so as a big part of the discussion was already carried out by the internet and/or at the discussion groups that organized the conference, each speaker will have no more than two or three minutes. The first point in the agenda is the safe spaces policy, which is better understood once the scandal in the Socialist Workers Party is mentioned. Last year a young female member of the party denounced another member for sexual harassment. Apparently, rumors had been going around for some time and the topic was discussed withing the party and finally settled, without anybody presenting the case to the judiciary system (something that looks like the procedure of the Church when confronting cases of child abuse). The intervention of the justice generated a crisis in the party. The safe spaces policy consists on four or five pages that state commitments and procedures to prevent this kind of situations happening (abuse/discrimination/etc., and if it happens, guarantees as to have the authorities jumping in). Organization people informs as that in theory everybody already read the five pages and thus discussion will consist only on whether we approve the policy or if we postpone it and it is discussed in an inner committee that will get together in three months; we have time only for one speaker against and one in favor, two minutes each. The crowd is a bit angry, some shout “how democratic this discussion is” while others are against specific parts of the document; finally we vote and we fail to approve the document, the safe spaces policy will be discussed in three months.

And then the main moment arrives: the discussion of the “platforms”. The founding congress is structured around the contributions of discussion groups formed in different areas of the United Kingdom (and different areas of London, in London) and/or coming from other small already existing parties. On the internet and upon arrival we received many sheets of paper with the different platform proposals, which are proposals for the aims, goals and principles of the new party. Different groups have different platforms, and so we have the Left Party Platform, the Republican Socialist Platform, the Communist Platform, the Platform 9 3/4, the Class Struggle Platform, the Socialist Platform and the Tower Hamlets / Hackney Platform (Tower Hamlets being the borough in which I live). And this is when surrealism starts.

Surrealism starts as the first round of discussion and voting is about amendments and corrections to the platforms, for instance to see if we say “central planning” or “democratic control of the means of production”, and the like. A lot of people choose to abstain at this stage as it is clear that the main moment is when platforms compete, though I slowly realize that there is some strategic voting here: people that will vote for platform A still votes in favor or against of amendments to platform B so to make it “less desirable” for other people or to make it “less bad” in case platform A is rejected. A high point in the discussion is one of the articles in one platform that states the new party will not, under any circumstance, participate in coalitions (national, regional, local) with other “capitalist” parties. I think that a moderate block of the people here understands that if the idea is to dispute spaces to Labor and stop austerity measures, one way of doing so if “from within”, as part of a coalition. Some speakers argue against coalitions and mention other european parties as Die Linke in Germany, which lost some left wing vote after joining coalitions with center-left, center (or green) parties and being co-responsible of unpopular measures. Vote on the amendment fails and the original article prevails (and this is the moment in which I understand that some people who will not vote for this platform were still voting in favor of the amendment to minimize the negative impact of this platform, in case it is approved). Discussion is brief as we only have two minutes per speaker, but it goes around whether the new party is “europeanist” and it should “fraternize” with other similar parties in Europe (with Die Linke in Germany and Syriza in Greece being the prime examples to follow / not to follow). There is no clarity on the topic.

Then, the arguments in favor and against each platform. The organization committee calls an “official” representative of each group. Here, hilarity ensues. For instance, the representative of the Republican Socialist Platform starts criticizing other platforms: Platform X is a blueprint copy of the principles of the labor party of 1945, as we see in Loach´s movie. Platform Y is a blueprint copy of Lenin´s 1917 revolution. But the criticism aims not at stating the other platforms are “old”, but at stating the other platforms are not old enough: the speaker reminds the crowd “in the year sixteen hundred and bla bla bla, The People kicked out King Whatever” and the crowd cheers; “in the year sixteen hundred and so so, The People executed the King Whoever, and the Republic was proclaimed!”, and more applause and cheers. Behind me, three or four individuals start waving and jumping. People keep clapping and clapping. And the main argument of the guy is that before taking the revolutionary slogans of 1917 or 1945, we should first rescue the revolution of the XVII century, crush the monarchy and start a parliamentary republic and just at that time start thinking about socialism and stuff. To a certain extent this is a moderate position but it is achievable, it is the most reasonable and doable position in the room so it ends up being a very anachronic call for something that is in fact quite revolutionary. Cheers and applause in the room. I think the platform is nice.

Then, the representative of the Plataform 9 3/4, who makes a very very bad presentation of a platform that is a combination of surrealism and situationism (main reason why I am here actually). The document presented by these guys puts forth a 10 point plan for liberation and happiness, and the actual platform has only four points, proposing NOT to discuss strict aims (that is, not to discuss if the party aims at controlling the means of production or not, and/or how to do so), and actually proposing that the new party has to be a fun party, a party to which members like being a part of, and proposing to give a cake each year to Ken Loach as a thank you for the initiative. It is the most moderate and radical proposal at the same time, that lets go on the discussions everybody else is having on specific points of the platforms (if the party is anti imperialist or anti capitalist and what that actually means) and aims at generating a party that has consensus mainly on a set of concrete and specific policy measures and proposals, but having at the same time a radical set of goals, as Happiness: the aim of any revolutionary movement is not to eliminate capitalism but to achieve happiness, and “democratic control of the means of production” might be a way to achieve so. Or it might not.

The Class Struggle platform has some brief paragraphs that look like principles (socialist, anticapitalist, feminist, etc.) and then a set of six proposals for immediate action and mobilization against the coalition government. Particularly some of them aim at regaining control of unions, who are accused of bureaucracy and being allies of the moderate (and traitor) laborism. It is a platform that mostly discusses action right here right now and does not focus that much on principles.

Tower Hamlets platform looks relatively nice, as it structures measures and principles around topics, for instance by saying “on public services, we are in favor of X and against Y, on taxes we are in favor of X and against Y” but still has some paragraphs on “internationalism” and “anti capitalism”, thought they more moderate than other platforms, for instance by saying “We are  ultimately for a radical social transformation based on the principle of ‘people not profit’ and  drawing on the  best  of the cooperative, radical democratic, feminist, green, and socialist traditions (although we may disagree on how such a transformation  can eventually be achieved).” You can tell the moderate line with the use of “ultimately”, and with the recognition that people can dissent about how this transformation should be reached.

The other platforms are almost strictly ideological: Socialist platform, Communist platform and Left Party platform. The opening paragraph states: “The [Left Unity] Party is a socialist party. Its aim is to bring about the end of capitalism and its replacement by socialism” for the first case and “The [Left Unity] Party is a socialist party.  It seeks to bring about the end of capitalism and its replacement by the rule of the working class. Our ultimate aim is a society based on the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. A moneyless, classless, stateless society within which each individual can develop their fullest individuality.” for the third. In fact, before actual voting we hear that the Communist platform (or was it the Socialist one? I don´t remember) has been withdrawn due to too much coincidences with the other two, and after the approval of the amendments earlier today it is not necessary to vote on this platform anymore.

It is impossible to comment on each platform and its details, but it is interesting to read each one and compare them. It is interesting how many platforms “deep down” go in the same direction but still have differences in how they express and define things and terms. For instance there is a platform that calls for the democratization of the State, which is attacked later under the argument that the State cannot be democratized as it is an instrument of oppression and that the idea is to overcome the State and move towards something else (people making this argument support platforms that don´t say much about the State of course). Also, some platforms explicitly speak of Working Class while others lack this term. Interestingly, after the “official” presentation of each platform random people from the audience can argue for their choice; people start arguing, two/ three minutes per person. The first five speakers all argue in favor of the Communist platform so the crowd protests, the organization committee asks people to argue for other platforms. As the party is against discrimination, priority is given to speakers from the audience that happen to be women, disabled or minorities, so most of the arguments come from women with very very strange accents.

To a certain extent, the discussion looks like the discussions I used to have with my friends at age sixteen/seventeen, in barbecues or gatherings we used to have on the weekends. Maybe getting radical when it comes to principles distances yourself from potential voters, maybe thinking of voters from the start is a problem, or not, maybe being a “social revolutionary” party is not something to be ashamed of but to be proud of and thus it should be in the aims of the new party, maybe ideological discussions just divide people within the movement and we should have some generic aims and then get picky with the actual policies and measures to be proposed, maybe trotskists behaved badly in the past (?). Some funny things happen: a guy speaks against sectarianism and fractions and makes a Freudian slip by saying “well, these things should be done by the Internal Democracy Fraction, no, I mean, Internal Democracy Committee“; a woman says she is a revolutionary socialist and a feminist and although she likes platform X she is first committed to feminism and then to revolutionary socialism so she calls for a vote for platform Y (which is explicitly feminist, or, in any case, more feminist than the other one), many people argue that it is better to change the name and call the platforms “goals” instead of “principles” and thus change the tone of the discussion, many other individuals argue about the international character of the party (as some platforms specifically mention that the new party will try and collaborate with Die Linke and the like, while other platforms don´t say a word). 90% of the people who speak refer to the audience as “Comrades” and to other individuals as “Comrade”. Some lost guy speaks about cooperatives, a guy speaks against the current political parties and is interrupted by someone from the audience that says in the United Kingdom we currently have only one party with three faces, the party of the rich and privileged; others boo him for interrupting. One person speaks of XXI Century Socialism (briefly), only one women mentions the Soviet Union (ambiguously), nobody mentions China or Cuba.

And then, it´s voting time; some tense moments as I discover each platform will be voted upon independently (so more than one platform can be approved!). But first there is a proposal to postpone the platform vote as it is better to have a broader principle declaration (as “for justice and equality”) and then fine tune the measures in internal committees. The proposal fails. Then another proposal says we should change the name of the vote and vote “general orientations” of the party instead of principles, the proposal is approved (by few votes). And then the platform vote is shaken as before the vote we are informed that the Republican Socialist and the 9 3/4 platforms are withdrawn. I am sitting next to a young guy with his “platform 9 3/4″ sign and later I would speak with him about this.

When voting, if vote was clearly in favor or against the option was to skip the counting; now that the platforms are being voted things get a little tense as it seems the Left Party platform is approved, and the woman from organization asks “should we count?” and we hear a great “NOOOOOOO” coming from the room with some isolated voices of “yess” and the woman insists two or three times until she gets angry and states “so, let´s see, anybody who wants a recount? as long as we have at least one person wanting a count we will count!” so they do the counting, and the platform is approved. This implies the third paragraph of the party´s aims/statement will say “We are socialist because our aim is to end capitalism. We will pursue a society where the meeting of human needs is paramount, not one which is driven by the quest for private profit and the enrichment of a few. The natural wealth, and the means of production, distribution and exchange will be owned in common and democratically run by and for the people as a whole, rather than being owned and controlled by a small minority to enrich themselves. The reversal of the gains made in this direction after 1945 has been catastrophic and underlines the urgency of halting and reversing the neo-liberal onslaught.” The other platforms (an particularly the more “concrete” ones) lose badly one after the other, and the other ideological platform also is rejected after waves and waves of vote counting and recounting. The only “concrete” platform that is passed is the Tower Hamlets one (by five or six votes). Around 12:30 we hear we are running behind schedule by half an hour so maybe we should do the lunch break now. And we do. As Platform 9 3/4 was withdrawn I decide to leave, and proceed to eat some lasagna in a small italian place a couple of blocks away from the conference; I keep the voting cardboard as a memory. Though I went with the idea of abstaining in all voting I ended up voting in a couple of occasions, though my vote was not decisive (fortunately).

When leaving I bump into the guy of platform 9 3/4, why did you withdraw the platform I ask, due to lack of support he says, but the guy that argued in favor did a lousy job, yes he says, I came here just to vote for this platform I say and he remains quiet, puzzled and surprised in a way. He seems heart broken. Also, when leaving I also see the Republican Socialist guys (the ones saying we should continue the XVII revolution first) and they give me a flier and why did you withdraw the proposal and the same thing, due to lack of support, before losing very badly we chose not to participate in the voting and keep building up support.

I eat the lasagna recalling the funny moments of the morning; when voting platform after platform votes for and against would come from more or less everywhere in the room, while when voting the platform proposed by the communist votes in favor would mostly come from a specific location in the room, front left: they were sitting all together; the audience claps and laughs quite a lot. Also, I think about the other participants, some unionists or activists that seem to have some trajectory, other common people as well. To my left, a very very VERY old lady, over seventy or eighty years old, does not pay much attention to the debates, does not vote anything when we discuss amendments (she does not even raise her arm when the abstentions are counted, as I do), she is half deaf or something, from time to time she asks the platform 9 3/4 young guy where we are (and he says “page 20, platform X” and so) until we get to the point in which we vote for the communist platform and she is the very first person to raise her hand to vote in favor, smiling with her bad lipstick smile, and votes against everything else from that moment on. I am surprised to hear that there is child care and that the organization can cover the expenses of those coming from outside London. I am surprised by the press, the photographers, the order and general civilization with which everything is conducted, organization, microphones, the almost obsessive idea of making things in a fair and transparent way.

Then, of course, I was expecting something else. Even in terms of radical left, for instance, knowing that Eric Hobsbawm was British I was surprised by the lack of mentions to his thinking or historical legacy. Likewise I was surprised by the lack of mentions to the group of thinkers clustered in what was called the September Group, a bunch of neo-marxists (or not that marxists) guys, many of them british and/or operating in England (as G.A. Cohen, John Roemer, Jon Elster, Eirk Olin Wright, Philippe van Parijs, among others). I mean, given the theoretical production of, say, Erik Olin Wright, on the concepts of social classes (trying to come up with modern thinking around “working class” and “bourgeoisie” and all that) I was really expecting some discussion that would not ignore all these things and would go less in a bolshevik-menshevik fashion (as my friends and I used to do, many years ago) and more in other terms. I was extremely surprised by how many people would enthusiastically claim that Marx was right but would cheerfully ignore all work done by others who came after and tried to keep the “good part” of Marx and re-build / fix the “bad/problematic” part. I was surprised by the relative absence of beards, and by the use of technology (part of the pre congress debate was carried by internet forums, the event had a twitter hashtag, and was broadcasted live on the internet). I also felt a bit insulted when a guy (with a beard) spoke about revolutionary socialism and mentioned armed struggle; but not as something to be excluded on principles but on strategic grounds, that is, the bearded guy stated that if he had been in the sixties/seventies in Latin America, he would have been an armed revolutionary. Meanwhile I was thinking that if it is already quite easy to say “I would have done X if I had been in Y situation”, it is even easier to say it so in the current England under the protection of the English welfare state, a welfare state that indeed is in crisis and is being dismantled but is still working quite good according to latin american standards (say, less than 15% of the population has private health care, as the public NHS is preferred). I am surprised by the fact that cooperatives are mentioned in abstract terms, and no one mentions the problems that the main cooperative bank is having currently in the UK.

I finished my lasagna, I went home, I ended my affiliation and links with the party (by e-mail). Now I am following the internal situation in the Labor Party, where, some weeks ago, some movement has been seen, slowly, once again, towards the (center) left. .


[1] to the extend that they had the British Socialist Party in 1911-1920, The Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920-1991, the Communist Forum in 1986-1987, the Communist League of Great Britain, the Workers Communist League of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) in 1969-1981, the International Leninist Workers Party in 1979-2006, the International Marxist Group in 1968-1981, the International Socialist Group in 1987-2009, the Marxist Party in 1987-2004, the Revolutionary Communist League of Britain in 1968-1998; The Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944-1950, the Revolutionary Socialist League in 1938-1944, among many, many others.

Notes on inequality (I)

Inequality is a hot topic these days. Income inequality, for instance, has grown in the United States and in other parts of the “developed world”, in the last years. Likewise, discussion has also centered on wealth inequality, differentials in educational opportunities, and other related issues. For a whole set of reasons (corresponding to a different blog post) I agree with the idea that inequality is an important topic and I do support redistributional policies, but in this particular case I would like to briefly present some points arguing that some inequality level is unavoidable and, perhaps, even desirable.

The first argument is linked to intergenerational differences: in a given moment in time, inhabitants of a certain place have different ages, they belong to different generations, they are in different stages of their lives. If we think of a highly simplified world in which all individuals are identical (same educational level, income, tastes, expenditures, saving rate, etc.) and they retire at the same age, we will still observe some level of wealth inequality. If everybody saves 20% of their income in order to have some money for when they retire, then savings (that is, wealth) grows with age: a 25 year old has less savings than a 35 year old who has less savings than a 45 year old and so on and so forth until retirement age, when savings should start falling. There is some level of wealth inequality that stems as a pure “age effect”. There are economic models of overlapping generations with this type of results, however I believe that the idea so far is quite intuitive.

The second argument is also intergenerational, but goes through a different channel: experience. In the last paragraph I assumed a world of identical individuals. If we stay in that world (and we insist on having individuals with the same skills, ability, IQ, etc.) it suffices to admit that there is some sort of learning in a job to have inequality appearing again. In a world in which everybody is equal, it is still reasonable to expect that a 35 years old teacher is “better” than one in her first year in the position, due to a sheer “on the job learning” effect, that is, due to experience. The 35 years old teacher will need less time to grade and prepare classes, will have higher capacity to deal with unexpected situations in the classroom, and a better grasp of the needs and difficulties of her students, etc. Note that I am NOT resorting to previous or innate differences in individuals: the 22 year old teacher and the 35 year old teacher have the same IQ and everything else, except for experience everything else is identical. It suffices that this experience differential is carried somehow into income differentials to have, again, some level of income inequality, which is a sheer “experience effect”. And this is in fact another form of the “age effect” (as experience is just age on a job). And this income differential deepens the previously described wealth differential.

The third argument is intragenerational, applies to a cohort of individuals (everybody born in 1984, for example), and is known as the principle of compensating differentials of Adam Smith: even in a world in which all individuals are identical, jobs are not identical; some are “better” and some are “worse”. Each job has advantages and disadvantages: being a pre-school teacher probably is better than being a garbageman that is probably better than being an executioner. Smith noticed these kind of things and quite reasonably he argued that “bad” jobs (or, for instance, dangerous) require higher pay in order to attract people to them. Taking all individuals born in 1984 and assuming they have the same level of education, talent, abilities, etc., differences in jobs lead to the existence of some level of income inequality (and maybe this is even necessary to keep the world turning).

The fourth argument is also intragenerational and the most used or the classic one in inequality discussions: people are different. This is a complicated argument as it leads to discussions on the origins of differences between individuals (are these differences “natural” and “innate”? or are they the result of differences in socialization, resources at birth and early childhood, quality of parenting? is it nature or nurture?). But anyway, the idea is that if individuals are different in their abilities or characteristics, this could translate into income differentials. Having big hands is an advantage to play piano, being tall to play basketball, and so on and so forth. To the extent that “being a better piano player” is linked to “having more income”, there is some level of inequality related to ability differentials. Furthermore, if we imagine a world in which everybody has the same income level av birth, the same educational system, the same family love, the same everything, still, “biological” differences will lead to some level of income inequality. Note that this does NOT imply the opposite: I am NOT saying that the differentials that we see are due to biological differences (“poor are poor as they are stupid” is not allowed here).

So far I did not need to develop a specific theory that links income with capacities, it is enough to have some intuitive idea stating that income grows (or should grow) with talent/skill/productivity, without a specific understanding of how and why this happens. This, also, will go in a different blog post.

iguales pero distintos

same but different

The last point is the serious one, and is related to the contributions of economist and philosopher Amartya Sen (explicit in his piece “Equality of what?”). The starting point is also that individuals are different, but the point is not to argue that this leads to income differentials, but rather than this requires income differentials, if you have egalitarian goals. Sen´s point is that the important thing is not “justice” in terms of income, but in terms of other things he calls capabilities and functionings, and that we can summarize or translate in “the possibility of living life as we want to live it”. The mentioned piece has crystalline examples: the same income level provides different possibilities to me and to a paraplegic person. The paraplegic person needs way more income in order to attain a quality of life that will actually never be like mine. A heavily myopic person needs more income to buy heavy glasses in order to get the same juice I get out of my university classes. And so on and so forth. When it comes to transforming economic resources into other things, individuals have different skills, information, alternatives, opportunities, etc., and this causes that the same income level leads to different outcomes. This argument line is related to the literature on Equality of Opportunity, that more or less aims at justifying the government intervention to guarantee people with different “starting points” (rich and poor kids, for instance) still have the same development possibilities, so that outcomes in life depend more on individual effort, personal desires and life project, and less on the cursed inheritance of having been born in a slum and having gone to a hideous school. In a way, the old marxist adage that states “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” does not imply an egalitarian society but an inegalitarian one, in which those in need receive more (or as Artigas used to say, a society in which “the most unhappy will be the most privileged“).

One way of measuring inequality levels of some variable is with the Gini Index (which for the case of Uruguay shows improvements, that is, a reduction in income inequality in the last six or seven years). This Index takes values between 0 and 1, where 1 is a society in which one person has ALL the income (or wealth, or whatever we are measuring) and 0 is a society in which income is split in an exactly equitable way. In terms of income for 2012 we have values of 0.226 for Norway; 0.278 for Afghanistan; 0.469 for the United Stantes. Namibia got to 0.743 in 1993 (which implies 90% of the income went to about 15% of the population). The point is, getting to a Gini of 0 is not the goal. And in fact, a Gini around 0.2 is achievable in a rich country (Norway) and a poor one (Afghanistan). Falling inequality in Uruguay is a nice thing, but we will always have some inequality levels, and if this inequality reduction goes and in hand with a deterioration of benefits and services for the poor (or for society as a whole), from Sen´s perspective and Equality of Opportunity perspective, we are in trouble. Because if income is better distributed but the capacity of transforming this income in “the life we want to live” falls, then we are cheating at solitaire.

——-

This is the first of a series of posts on inequality and related topics. To be continued.

Let’s Do It A Dada: Savages y Bo Ningen make a Sonic Poem

First, the setpoint: “London bands SAVAGES and BO NINGEN are teaming up to write and perform a SONIC SIMULTANEOUS POEM entitled ‘WORDS TO THE BLIND’ at THE RED GALLERY – on May 29th. This is an EXCLUSIVE PREMIERE of a unique EXPERIMENTATION inspired by the early DADA concept of SIMULTANEOUS POETRY – a situation where poems are recited simultaneously onstage in different languages “in such a way that the resulting combinations account for the total effect of the work, ELEGIAC, FUNNY or BIZARRE” quoting the leading Dada artist Hugo Ball. THE SONIC SIMULTANEOUS POEM alludes to the purpose of bringing a solitary voice back to itself. The voice and sounds become immersed and must fight to be heard, and fight to find their path. The ineluctable rhythm and noise of the world threaten to destroy the individual, but it shows resistance. The figure stands amongst the cacophony.”

Second, the facts: two drum kits, three guitars, two bass guitars, two singers. For starters a poem said by both singers alternating between french (by Jehnny Beth) and japanese (by bass player / singer of Bo Ningen), and then said simultaneously. Then, imprivisation (or something like it), Fay Milton following the other drummer and the other drummer following Fay Milton; post punk psychodelia as far as it goes, a lot of shoegazing, seas of delay, reverb, double drum kits synchronized giving birth to cacophonies that bounce around going one place to the other. Gemma Thompson in fact plays her Fender Mustang with her right hand while hitting another Fender that hangs from the ceiling with her left hand (with a timpani mallet!). Savages flooded the art gallery where this is happening with signs and posters stating please no cellphones, no smartphones, long live the ephemeral. Nobody takes pictures. Nobody does nothing actually, it´s quite a lot of noise and quite intense, intense and nice/pleasant. Quite Zen so to say, quite not-thinking, audience is quite conscious of the fact that we are all here, now, in this, for this.

Aftershow. Bo Ningen people evaporate. Savages are nicer, I ask Ayse Hassan where the hell did she learn how to play bass like that (years of practive until I got the sound I liked, she says); while having some small talk on the dada movement Jehnny Beth strongly recommend seeing Bo Ningen live some other time. I take the overground back home with a big poster with some signatures on, some sense of augmented reality and quite some urge to make some music. It´s been a while since a contemporary band gave me some desire to make music. Meanwhile I also think that whatever I might write won´t do justice to the show; in the meantime, Savages continues scorching London, and best of it is, they don´t seem to care too much about it.

Interview with Dorothy Gambrell: Cat and Girl and more

To launch the new hosting and domain of the blog today it’s time to interview Dorothy Gambrell!

As a historical introduction: back in 2002 a participant in a newsletter / forum dedicated to punk music and culture sent this cartoon as only contribution. Girl’s in a cafeteria fight was the first strip I knew from Cat and Girl, a quite particular artistic project that Dorothy Gambrell runs nonstop since 1999, quite more than ten years. In all these years the strip has mutated but has also remained faithful to istelf, secondary characters have spawned new series (as The New Adventures of Death) and also Dorothy has launched and participated in other projects, as drawing some cartoons for a book of essays about Chekhov, run a couple of quite particular blogs and play the guitar in a fistful of bands always about to make it to the underground.

At the centre of the stories we have Cat, a large anthropomorphic cat quite unscrupulous, reckless, irreflexive and impulsive who enjoys eating lead based paint and partying; and Girl, a girl (of undetermined age) who has among her activities fiercely critizing almost any topic. Among secondary characters we have Grrrl, a northamerican-nineties-punk spirited girl (a Riot Grrrl); Boy, a quite insecure and rather uncool (at least on the outside) boy, and a Beatnik Vampire, who is simply maravelous and who oddly in the last years of the strip has changed a bit (ie, dropping the dark shades and getting a job).

The strip is full of humor, and although it commonly deals with consumer society and capitalism in general, Cat and Girl has an extremely sharp, almost cynical, sense of humor, for instance regarding mass culture. As an example see I hear a symphony, Cat and Girl wait for New Wave’s big comeback, The trap, Followed (these last two on social networks) among many others. It should be noted that Cat and Girl also deal with more “conventional humor” and that my selection of strips for this blog post is a bit biased. It is also to be noted that there is a way to make your own Cat and Girl strip.

As another thing that makes it interesting, the strip also plays and jokes quite freely with references to the world of art and of “high culture” (where we usually find Cat making the jokes). See for instance Cat puts things in his pipe and smokes them (for another Magritte reference), or others herehere and here and especially here. Also, the strip is one of the new things coming from the USA that I’ve seen can build humor based on smart references to communism, proletariat and social classes in general (here, here, here, here and here, for example), or ideology and even situationism.

 But also the strip allows some joking on itself so to say, as it is quite critical on the same cluster of hipsters / bohemians / pseudointellectuals that make their characters (and probably also readers). In the past and more and more in recent times Cat and Girl show this criticism as can be seen  here, here, here, herehere and here. Cat and Girl has also a strong existentialist branch, in which characters question others, the readers and themselves about the meaning of existence, the construction of the self, artistic creation (seen also here and here), communication, and death. This last item is very interestingly captured in three strips in which Girl asks the others “so how do you stay warm in the cold shadow of death?” (see answers of Grrrl, Beatnin Vampire, and Cat, who obviuosly rocks).

Regarding aesthetics, the style has changed with time; characters are nowadays more stylized and neat so to say. Nevertheless and very interestingly again, for some months starting around October 2011 (and coincidentally with her moving) Dorothy  just took a risky move and chose to present the strip kind of “embedded into real life” (see here and here for the moving, or here and here for weirder strips). About non aesthetics, Dorothy makes a living out of her art, maybe based on a quite curious work ethics: not only does she sell comic strips originals and merchandising (incluiding three tomes  comprising all these years of Cat and Girl), but also she launched the Donation Derby. Promoted by the author as Support my lavish lifestyle! Donate $5 or more and I’ll draw you a picture of how I spend it. Include your address and I’ll mail it to you, it actually consists more or less precisely on that: Dorothy accepts donations by PayPal but commits herself to ddraw a small cartoon or strip illustrating what she did with the money. You could then think that Dorothy is living partly from representations of her own (daily) life; in the past this money allowed an interesting tour around some parts of the USA.

cartoon of Donation Derby

Besides, in 2012 Dorothy also launched Fun Club, presented by the authors as a year-long subscription to odd things in the mail, it also consists precisely in that: you sign up and month after month receive odd / weird stuff on the post. I do not know of any other authors / artists having such a peculiar way of turning followers or fans into small patrons. Another projects of her include incursions in music with her band  Jenny and the Holzers, in photography through a  flickrsome sporadic contributions in other blogs, webcomics, newspapers or publications in general, and the blog Very Small Array, that could be said focuses on processing data with strange output. For instance down here we see occupation of main characters in movies of 2011, plotted considering also age of the actor/actress and gender. We see that older men tend to play pirates for instance, while it seems patients, authors and scientists are mainly women. Interesting.

It should also be noted that some years ago Dorothy also started sharing publicly her financial situacion, that is, how much money a year she makes  (dissagregated by source of income). This is quite a lot of public exposure for a person that does not have (or at least doest not seem to have) a Facebook or a Twitter account. About herself we know little more than what it says (for more than ten years) in her website: Dorothy Gambrell was born in Illinois, and educated at Illinois College and Union College of Law. She was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1891 to 1895, during which time she became the leader of the free silver movement. Her later years were devoted to the advocacy of fundamentalism, most notably as a prosecutor during the Scopes monkey trial. 

Dorothy herself has appeared more than once in Cat and Girl, sometimes just to clarify that author and character are not the same thing (here and here for instance) and very interestingly in 2000 (Cat and girl feign interest) to complain a bit about her life choices and in 2009 (Cat and Girl follow up) to conclude that her life/career choices had been just crazy. Looking forward to knowing a litle bit more about this versatile and very very aged artist Dorothy kindly acceeded to answer a bunch of questions (out of a quite long and tedious list I sent to her by e-mail)

1) You started C&G, at least online, in 1999. Eversince your online bio has stayed the same; so I might ask: how did it felt to be a member of the House of Representatives? Also, is there anything valuable you learned from your experience as a prosecutor?

I’m flat-out terrified to see the idea of a Gold Standard revived. And it’s still hard to get Americans to accept evolution! We really wasted the 19th century.

2) You have drawn C&G for more than ten years now. Though in Cat and Girl follow up you stated this decision meant going with ‘crazy’, how do you feel about C&G now, in comparison with how you felt at the beggining?

 Ten years ago Cat and Girl was a hobby, done when I had the time, but it was also the only creative outlet I had. Naturally as you get older “I MUST express these IDEAS and FEELINGS” settles into “I want to make something GOOD.” And now making Cat and Girl is a central activity that I schedule other things around, but also one of many creative projects I’m working on in any one week.

3) Readers have seen many changes in the comic strip in time. Do you think your past strips hold the test of time, that is, are still actual or meaningful? Do you draw current stripes taking this into account?

There’s no point in drawing for a future audience – we as humanity are remarkably bad at predicting things, and guessing what will still be relevant in the future is a losing game.

4) Characters have changed quite a bit also. What happened to the Vampire Beatnik? He kind of “sold out” to a certain extent! Do you relate this to to changes regarding the popularity of ‘hipster culture’, so to say?

He’s the only character who tries to keep up with the present! Which is a definite act of faith.

5) It also seems that you use secondary characters a bit less frequently; what have been Boy and Grrrl been doing lately?

Grrrl is learning to screenprint and Boy is breaking down acts of grand self-reinvention into to-do lists. He will get three items in before leaving the list on a bus.

6) How do you manage to keep finding ideas, fresh ideas, for the comic strip?

Well nuts! Our lives change. You can walk by the same building every day for a decade but how you see that building will change. There are always new ideas. Every morning we walk out into a new and different world.

7) How do you deal with feedback from your followers/fans? How has your fanbase reacted to changes across more than ten years of comic strips?

It is a mark of what a small fish I am that almost everyone I speak and write to has been extremely kind and supportive.

8) How did you come up with the idea of the Donation Derby? Why do you publish the amount of money you make, what made you make this decision?

 In 2002 the Paypal donation button started popping up on peoples’ websites. I like free money just as much as anyone else, but I didn’t feel comfortable taking money without giving anything back. And how I was spending my money, especially then – I wanted people to know their donations weren’t going to scallops and Faberge eggs. By drawing how the money was spent and mailing that drawing to the donor I hoped to create an exchange out of a one way street.

Some people buy comic merchandise because they want the book or the shirt, but more and more people make a purchase to “support” the creator in what they do. So, like Donation Derby, making my finances public was an attempt at transparency. I want anyone who donates money to know what I spent the money on, and I want anyone who buys a t-shirt to know how much that means to my monthly finances. 

9) In previous interviews you have stated some concern about the fact that you end up recording figments of your life and social interactions that is mediated by money. Why are you concerned about this?

Let’s say a great Saturday night is going to a house party. Mister Chen buys a six-pack before I meet up with him. We talk to people about religious pilgrimages in Spain, half-agree to be in a Bangles cover band, and six hours later we arrive home with a jug of apple cider, two decorative pumpkins and a pineapple. I haven’t spent any money! And I only draw Donation Derby strips when I’ve spent money. So this party fades away. But that one time I met up with someone, paid $10 for two beers and we talked about something boring for 40 minutes – that’s something I’ll always remember. Not because it’s public, but because I’ve taken another 40 minutes to draw it.

10) Do you have social comment as a goal when doing ‘very small array’ as well? Or what is it that catches your attention?

A nice thing about charting information is that, even if you have an agenda going into it, that agenda is often shaken, twisted, or just plain disproven by the time the chart is completed. 

 11) Do you draw having a prototypical reader in mind? Atlernatively, what do you think a typical reader/follower of C&G and your other work is/thinks/expects/looks like?

When I imagine someone who’s reading Cat and Girl, I imagine someone with about the age and gender and background of… me. I expect that people reading Cat and Girl imagine I have about the age and gender and background they do.

 12) Do you think C&G has any sort of impact on the people following it? on their believes, thoughts and behaviour?

I was sitting at a comics show once and someone walking by yelled “I tried to read your comic, but it was too sad!” 

13) What’s your view on the current state of northamerican society? (reading the news from here looks like the political debates resembles much more a culture war that anything else)

We’re always heading for a new apocalypse. It’s never different and it’s always new.

14) How’s fun club have been doing? where did you get this idea, and how have people  been reacting to the packages they have been receiving? do you plan to continue it next year?

When you make things for the internet you can’t help but be aware of the potential audience. Anything put online can explode in popularity, even if few things ever do. And whether you want that popularity or not – even when you’re just talking to friends about nothing of interest to anyone else – that potential audience is there, lurking at the back of your interactions. I began to feel like it was a poison, that everything I put online was, at some level, begging for that larger audience just because it was online. And if that’s what I was doing, I wasn’t even any good at it!

Rather than working in a medium with that distant constant possibility of BIG, I wanted to start something that was purposefully, stubbornly SMALL. So I started Fun Club, where – this past year – 150 people have been mailed a new, physical object thing every month. Some of these would be possible to put online, but they’re not. They’re in the hands of 150 people who got them through the mail. And that’s it.

Fun Club 2013 opens up for membership November 1.

15) How’s the band going, by the way?

Still, always terrible! Such are the pains of the dabbler.

 15) y 16) Do you feel influenced by any writer, filmmaker, musician or artist? Have you read any book or listened to any record that you would like to recommend, lately? / C&G are, in their sayings and their attitudes, quite radical, noncomformist characters. You have stated in other interviews that, for instance, you are not Girl. Have you ever drawn a comic strip that you disagree with, or with views that you particularly oppose?

Dorothy Gambrell
(c) The Jenya

I don’t hold a lot of ideas to be true but often think about dialogues I believe to be important. Any dialogue is between two poles of certainty -  I agree with the uncertainty strung between them.

17) and finally, do you have any plans for next years? (say, you and C&G) moving again? changing update days? anything we should know?

 I’m planning on eating lunch later today. That’s as far as I’ve gotten.

 

 

Thanks Dorothy!