Tuesday, September 24, 2019

"Talking about a new society requires being able to discard [time]:" An Interview with Estelle Ellison

This post was made possible by support from my Patreon! All patrons who pledge $5+ per month will also get access to an exclusive cooking blog. And while you’re at it, follow Abolish Time on Instagram and support her Patreon as well.

If you enjoyed this piece and want to see a full transcript of the conversation (lightly edited for readability), click here.

On a temperate September afternoon in Oakland’s Lower Bottoms, Estelle Ellison and I sat across a table from each other. We talked for well over an hour about her project, Abolish Time. We covered a lot: burning out of leftist organizing spaces. Making mutual aid more expansive. Answerability and accountability. Afrofuturism and Afro-pessimism. Cooking. And, of course, abolishing time.

A few hours after we were done, you could look out any of the living room windows of the house and see, across the port, the sun setting behind San Francisco. If you brought your view in closer, you could see the husk of a burnt-out car just across the street. Closer even than that, houses standing vacant. And in the reflection of that window: a lived-in space under threat of eviction. From the silhouette of Salesforce tower to the half-empty condo complex down the street, gentrification still looms over the Bay Area.

Our first topic was Left Unity. I self-described as a “communist who only hangs out with anarchists;” Estelle self-described as an “Afrofuturist Autonomist.” We’re both skeptical of the impulse, despite these differences. We can both also see the utility of it.

Estelle described seeing ISO members in the wake of Trump’s election shouting about Left Unity while hawking papers and rehearsing recruitment tactics. And then she hit on the heart of it:
Estelle: For the people who were showing up in the street it made sense. You don’t want to have an ideological conversation when you show up ready to put your body on the line. But at the same time it’s like, well, no, it’s doesn't make sense. Striving for Left Unity is fine. But if you’re not actually having the conversations to bridge together those schools of thought it’s artificial. It’s surface level. It’s just going to dissolve as soon as the immediate threat is lessened. Which has kind of happened! It’s not like there are deep inroads between organizations and affinity groups right now. It was just this initial moment of showing some force to dissuade fascists.
Without putting too fine a point on it, this is what we are trying to accomplish. Not striving toward an abstraction like Left Unity, but having a conversation where difference – of history and biography, of orientation toward the future – can be held up and acknowledged while also sharing skills and knowledge. We’re not doing some pantomime of “reaching across the aisle” to better accommodate each other’s political positions. We’re building trust and affinity.

Once we solved the problem of Left Unity, we began to talk more directly about Estelle’s project, Abolish Time. She notes that her Patreon is already most of the way to its (current) final goal, where she’ll be releasing zines – physically to $5+ donors, and possibly for free to anyone who signs up for an email list – that might contain some "spicy" exclusive content like a Letters to the Editor feature or even submissions. On the project itself:
Estelle: I guess [the title is] simultaneously hyperbole and literally what I think the goal is. The idea I had behind the title was obviously to grab people’s attention, but also by demanding something that intense I think it makes it easier to have conversations about how we whittle away at the foundations of society as we know it.

Some people talk about, y’know, burn it all down. We need a new world. But so many of the schools of thought we’ve inherited over the last two hundred years I don’t think go into much detail about – what would selves look like? What aspects of the culture that we’re in do we have to literally shed?

In careerist organizing spaces it’s almost like clocking in. Who cares how you got here. You might be middle class, you might be working class, but once you’re here it’s time for the work. The path to the future is when you clock in. It doesn’t matter what happens outside of that.

But it does matter! What happens outside of that is actually more important than whatever liminal projects we’re pursuing. No doubt it’s important to do tangible work that impacts people’s lives positively. But I think it’s a trap of capitalism to think, “oh yeah, it’s okay that I’m not pushing back against my bosses, it’s okay that I’m not interrogating these power dynamics that I navigate every single day, because for some part of my week or some part of my month I’m with comrades who have this shared vision.”

Bee: Right. And a specific project that you can deliver at the end of the month or whatever, and see your ROI in the world.

Estelle: Right, exactly. So yeah, Abolish Time is like, what happens if we discard that framework for organizing society. Because I don’t believe capitalism, imperialism, iterations of workers states, I don’t think any of them can function without this notion of time and productivity. This way of galvanizing people to show up at the same moment. It’s certainly not the only way to converge, because people converged before we had mechanical clocks or even sundials.

It’s just an awful thought experiment to have a society that shows up at the same time. Time helps people show up to their shifts on time, but it also prevents us from meeting outside paid work. I just think it deeply fucks up our social relations, and talking about a new society requires being able to discard that tool.
After a detour through the question of why she chose Instagram as a place for text – it’s a fascinating answer that you can read in the full transcript, covering everything from Instagram being the social media of choice for the radical queer community to getting burnt out on writing theory to having comrades like Subversive Thread and The Comrade Closet pioneering some of the work she wanted to do – we went a little deeper on the Abolish Time project.
Bee: In part 2 of the Mutual Aid Series you wrote: “We should be cautious of work that does not replenish what it demands of its organizers.” And since then you’ve tackled things like burnout culture, transparency, patriarchy and a bunch of other things. My question is: what does bringing all this under the title of mutual aid do? Or, what does mutual aid mean in your theory or practice?

Estelle: It’s a lot of things, it’s interesting. Every time I finish a draft of a piece I’m like, okay, which series does this belong in. And there’s a brief round of debate on both sides of that question. Once I settle on which series it is, it’s usually, I’ve decided at the end of the day this broadens our ability to establish relationships of mutual aid. And so my definition of mutual aid is less theory-based. [...]

It feels like having a mutual aid series that has that much breadth is kind of an attack on, again, the white punk anarchist image that people have in their minds that capitalism actively uses to divide people. Like ‘outside agitators’ or ‘white people with trust funds breaking windows.’ And it’s not until you’re in a place like Oakland and are on the ground and you’re like, I don’t know where they are. Or when you do see them they’re fighting fascists, or running interference on the police.

Bee: The closest you get to that out here is the juggalos, and they are not fucking trust fund kids. They’re mostly poor white folks who come in, fuck shit up and leave. But y’know, they’re also juggalos, so. Family.

Estelle: Oh my god.

Bee: MCL.

Estelle: You know. We all come from our respective backgrounds.

Generally my idea of mutual aid is like, how do we make our capacity to struggle sustainable? Or a renewable resource, to use an analogy. I feel like mutual aid is, at the end of the day, the most necessary part. You can’t have a sustainable political project if it’s not renewing what people are offering.
We talked more about accountability and how it is weaponized in organizing spaces. Estelle has an alternative to it: Answerability.
Bee: You touched a little bit on the weaponization of accountability. [...] I’m curious about what you mean by [answerability] and why you think it’s a necessary or useful term to introduce, rather than sticking by words like accountability or transparency, maybe? Which sort of also cover similar territory but not quite the same.

Estelle: For sure. I mean honestly in a large way it’s a thorn in my side from the group I burned out of. But also on the flip side, my boss talks about accountability. I’m walking on the street in Rockridge hearing white businesspeople talk about accountability referring to their employees. To say nothing being in a literal bank talking about accountability and talking about debt culture. Accountability just felt like this expectation. I guess I’ll back up.

So my idea behind answerability is, not taking away from the positive impact of people taking responsibility for their actions or trying to do harm reduction or, if they can, helping the person harmed heal and repairing that relationship. I’m just not against those things. But I don’t want to take all these other uses alongside my desire for those kinds of social transformations/good. And so answerability for me, writing about it, instead of having this leader in my head feeding me this stuff, if I make it more about, if I can use a dynamic term – not unlike calling my project Abolish Time, maybe it helps broaden people out or, if nothing else, when they hear accountability they’ll pause and check to see how is this being used. Is this being used coercively, is this appropriate for this scenario?

Bee: Reframing accountability in a new way – it’s almost like there’s a competing term now where you can be like, well, does that work better? Does that apply to the situation better? Do I need to be answerable right now rather than accountable? And maybe sometimes you need to be fucking accountable, and doing the work of answering peer to peer questions is not relevant.

Estelle: You bring up an interesting question. On the one hand, I’m not in the business of policing people’s language. At the end of the day a lot of the writing in Abolish Time is a rhetorical device that’s designed to start a discourse that someone can take autonomously into their lives or into their networks. [...] Pursuing that line of thought you brought up, does answerability have the ability to get us there?

You answer for your actions in this peer-to-peer format. If you’re answering for your actions you’re admitting it, you’re naming your fault. And I think answering centers that you’re in relationship with another person or community. Whereas accountability can be made into this individualistic thing you do in isolation. Even talking about this most recent background with organizing, the main takeaway is that when you have an intervention it doesn’t work unless there’s community. You can’t have a successful process in isolation that’s just the person who was harmed and the harmer.

So in answering, if you have a conversation, you’ve admitted you’ve done this. Here are the impacts. If you’re willing to admit it, what are we going to do about it. That’s what I imagine is the extension of answerability. Because you’ve answered for your actions you do have a responsibility to follow through and address what went wrong.

Bee: And what the needs of the person who was harmed are. That sort of thing.

Estelle: As opposed to, oh, I’m accountable. I cost them this itemized list and I need to repay my debt. It becomes more transactional, and there’s more pressure on the person who did harm to arrive at accountability on their own. It doesn’t always hold space for what in their life, what enabled that harm to be committed in the first place.

And answerability might include addressing the fact that a harmer doesn’t have housing or, y’know, lost their job. At that point, when you’re talking about precarity, asking them to be accountable might just be like, you’re going to be unhoused. Or you have to leave town. Maybe you’ll have the resources to correct your behavior, maybe you won’t. But you have to be accountable. So.
Estelle’s discussion of answerability touched off some personal feelings for me. I’m currently in a community where the question of accountability processes is looming large. Over that, though, is the threat of legal repercussions for callouts and a rising tide of right-wing gamers trying to weaponize the fear of “cancel culture” in their latest attempts at organizing around culture wars.

Because of that I asked a long-winded question about peer-to-peer vs structurally imbalanced accountability/answerability processes. I wanted to know Estelle’s thoughts on how to engage with these sorts of processes, whether from the perspective of the person who was harmed or from the perspective of the person who has done harm. From there we talked a bit about non-peer processes and taking account of your leverage.
Estelle: It is a sorely needed skill and experience. Part of the reason I ended up in community work was because I kept having friends... or myself, being in situations where I was being harmed. And I was just like, oh my god, we need someone who can do this. This is an apparent need that will keep coming up. And it’s just very difficult.

I feel like the simplest answer is just to build mutual aid with your network before something happens. And that gives you the best chance of coming out of a process alive, or intact.

Bee: Right. And that goes for people who did harm unintentionally or because of lack of knowledge. If you have people who understand you and aren’t just going to blindly defend you because they like you better than the person you’ve done harm to, everyone comes out better for that. Even though it can be miserable and tricky and very difficult also.

Estelle: I mean, yeah. If the person who did harm doesn’t trust that the person they tell won’t immediately discard them they’re not going to tell anyone. Then it becomes other people’s responsibility to coax it out of them. It’s not truly other people’s responsibility! At the end of the day, ideally you have a person who has done harm who can recognize that what they did was outside of their values and wants to do something about it. And they need to be proactive.

When a person that’s more insular is moving from that basic fear [of disposability discussed in the post When Hurt Feelings Become an Excuse], there’s only going to be an intervention once someone else discerns what’s happening and chooses to intervene.

Bee: And then that can turn into big blow-ups or ostracization or other things that often don’t take into account what they’re making this person be accountable for. Like you were saying earlier, if they are in a precarious position, or if they’re somebody who has done truly bad things and is not willing to own up to them, and then you just kick them out, they go integrate in a different community where the callout hasn’t reached yet. And you’ve protected yourself at the expense of others.

Estelle: And that happens in the Bay Area! I know two not-insignificant instances of someone who had a process or was called into a tribunal and just peaced out and relocated here. And it took a couple years for people to get up to speed here, and who knows where they are now.

But yeah. I think, assuming you haven’t already developed those networks, the first goal is understanding the network. Understanding who is connected to the survivor, understanding who has the closest relationship to the person who has done the harm gives you an idea of what first steps might be.

Bee: Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Estelle: In the instance of a callout. What does the interaction look like? We have restorative justice that’s focused on the survivor. It’s just focused on the healing. It may include the person who has done harm making amends or supporting that process. Or it may not even include them at all. You can have a successful restorative justice intervention that has nothing to do with the person who did harm. Whereas transformative justice is that plus what do you do about the person who did harm.

Bee: Right.

Estelle: So obviously with the survivor it’s like: understanding what their needs are, understanding who they trust, understanding the capacity of the person they trust, figuring out who has capacity to support them in this process for however long it needs to go. But with the person who did harm it’s like, how do you get them in the room with you? And I think the answer to that is you need to know who they trust. Or if you can’t do that, you’re talking about potential violence basically. Not always.

Bee: This is a broad spectrum of things we’re discussing.

Estelle: Exactly. Do you show up at their work? Do you put public notices if they’re unresponsive? I think all of those are messier, more... I don’t want to say reckless. Because in some instances that’s the righteous choice.

But the likelihood that the person’s going to, of their own volition, want to conquer their own harm, or whatever in them generated that harm in the first place. If you have a friend who’s like “hey, I know what happened, I’m really disappointed, I want to see you do better. What would that look like for you? What do you need in order to do something about this?” That’s just your ideal scenario regardless. Because it’s always uncomfortable talking to someone who has done harm. But if that person just feels like, “the end of this is me being disposed of,” it’s just a bad leverage tool.

Bee: Because of my own situation I’m thinking about non-peer interactions. Where one person has significant privilege or structural power over another. [...] I’m curious if you think the same general rules apply? Should you be conscious of the abusers fears in that situation and think about them in the same way you might think about someone whose more obviously disposable in that community? Does it require a completely different approach at that point? You don’t have to have an answer for this, I’m just curious about your thoughts.

Estelle: It’s tough. I mean, it doesn’t sit well with me.

Around the time I joined (or started) my mentorship (or whatever) a friend had already called me in and asked me to help with a process that involved a stranger who had done harm, where there weren’t any community links to the person. And it was difficult. We were doing intel about how to contact the person. I don’t want to get too much into it, but getting him in the room was unsuccessful.

I was pretty cautious in that scenario. I was opting into, “no, we need to lie to get him in the room so we can confront him.” And another person was more impatient, was like, is that transformative justice if we’re being dishonest? It’s like, no. It’s leverage. This person used power to harm someone. We need to use our power to get them in the room.

So the intervention was unsuccessful, but the restorative side of it ended up being successful. And that ended up looking like meeting every month or two, or twice a month, to just have dinner with the survivor and talk to them about what’s going on. Checking in, [seeing] how their therapy’s going.

But I mention that to say, immediately I asked my mentor “what would you do in a scenario like this?” And she was just like, “None of my tools work in non-peer based situations.” And she was like, “well I have someone who was in my cohort who did work like that.” And when I met her she was like “Oh I don’t really do that anymore.” It wasn’t sustainable work. That’s where the deep discomfort comes.

Because then you’re in a situation where you’re gaining intimate knowledge of how terrible someone is. Y’know, working from a place of powerlessness. Again, mutual aid comes up. What can you do when you’re trying to survive but also respond to and anticipate this person acting in bad faith or continuing to harm or gaslighting or trying to do a preemptive campaign to ostracize the survivor? It’s being willing to process things with the group that’s being impacted or the person that’s being impacted. And on the flip side being willing to take stock of your leverage options. And having stages of escalation.

Best case scenario, the person’s like “I’m terrible, I feel horrible about this, what can I do.” Worst case being like, “Fuck you, no one will believe you.” What do you do when they’re receptive to a process? and what do you do when they’re outright hostile towards it? And you just can’t answer that question without being in conversation with the people who are affected. And the answers are going to look different depending on the context and the people involved.

I wish a more clear-cut answer came easily to me. But I don’t believe that’s well-trod ground. I think that’s where callout and disposability culture comes back. If we can’t do the successful abolitionist intervention, we can cancel them.

Bee: This is where we have leverage, basically.

Estelle: Exactly. In that sense it’s like, it is what it is. That’s the consequence for a person who has done harm, it's disposability. And at the end of the day that’s the consequence of their actions. Whether or not we want disposability to be there.

Bee: Right. Because it just comes back to the larger question of capitalism, right? We live in a society in which disposability is central to keeping wages down and shit like that. So we can’t just say, like, “Well, I don’t want to see people as disposable, so therefore they aren’t,” because they are.

Estelle: And that’s kind of the slippery slope I’m seeing. Because in those instances it’s pressure on the survivor to forgive the person who harmed them. To maintain their purity from disposability. And that just seems fucked to me. It’s like no, it’s not the survivor’s responsibility to forgive. Not forgiving the person who harmed you is not the same as incarcerating them! But that’s the rhetorical rabbit hole that people are falling into. Because it’s way easier. It’s a simple solution. And it’s even more confusing when it’s people who are major proponents of transformative justice kind of waltzing, lock-step, into the rabbit hole.
At this point we had been recording for forty minutes and I was feeling a bit raw, so we took a quick break. I sat outside and stared at the city for a few minutes, and at the port, and at the charred carcass of a car. I came back in and got some water. We checked in – was I feeling okay? (I got there.) Did she have another commitment soon? – We set up for another half hour or so of recording before her out. Would you be surprised if I said we went over that 30 minutes? Because we sure did.

I reopened the conversation with a long quotation from her post Erasing Patriarchy from the Future. The segment I pulled talks about the different ways trans men and trans women deal with transphobia in community spaces. I think it’s one of the only genuinely good takes on the different experiences trans men and trans women have of transphobia that I’ve seen; I’ve seen too many that treat one experience as less valuable than the other.

That was obviously all prelude to this question:
Bee: I'd be curious to know a little more about your process in terms of writing. When you're thinking through these questions do you try to keep your eye on the ball (staying laser-focused on the topic at hand), take the lay of the land, or some third thing entirely? How do you manage that?

Estelle: It’s interesting. I appreciate how the project (especially having patrons who support the project) has really challenged me to refine my process. That one in particular was kind of dialed in a little bit, just because there was – I thought I would have more wiggle room to make the one about Why Men Must Perform Care Work. I thought people would okay sitting with it in isolation – but because of the discourses you mention I realized it was more urgent to respond and flesh out some of the stuff I couldn’t fit into ten slides. Which really, now that I have a Patreon tag and title card, it’s eight slides.

For that one, I remember I took bullet points on people’s comments and the conversations that came up around it. I start with bullet points. My first step is still to go for breadth. What is thematically linked? That flushes out the main takeaways. Once I feel the bullet points are substantial enough I basically make a thesis. I’ll start building the connections, like slightly longer bullet points. Once I have those I’ll start writing above it, and as I mention points I’ll cross off the bullet points. So I have a reference of what I’ve already explored, and from there I just feel out the transitions.

It’s odd, now I can look at Google Docs and be like, that paragraph fits in a slide. And it’s a really good pacing queue, in trying to limit my meandering. That has a stronger effect. I try to make it so that each slide has some reward for the reader, as opposed to like, “Oh, where’s this going.” So it’s kind of both. I try and limit myself to certain breadth of the theme, but I also try and distill some depth from each of those bullet points.
At this point I cut in to ask about another pair of posts: How White Supremacy Made Your Solidarity Anti-Black, and the earlier 4 Steps Toward Ending Anti-Blackness.
Estelle: Yeah. Another comrade, one of the people who pushed me to become an anarchist, who is also a scholar in their own right of Afro-pessimist thought and texts, they exposed how the first post (about 4 steps) was kind of a sleight of hand.

I was using some of the framework of Afro-pessimist thinkers but trying to apply them to tangible actions that I don’t think any of the authors of those major texts would necessarily spend any time talking about or writing about.

And so that friend was like, “hey, I see the use of these things, and can we acknowledge a lot of the purpose about talking about anti-blackness and misogynoir is recognizing that white and non-black people of color are participating in anti-blackness?”

And they went even further, which is true, the whole notion that even the category of human isn’t for black people. When someone talks about equity or recognizing our humanity is a fatalistic relationship to a world that constructs black people as socially dead.

Bee: Right.

Estelle: And in our back and forth conversation, I said, hey, some of this shit makes me feel despair. And I see other prominent Afro-pessimists who are super in your face about the rhetorical arguments of Afro-pessimist thought. Not to pathologize, but I also see some of them being like, “I’m literally suicidal. I literally can’t find love.” They’re speaking from the harm that they’ve experienced also. And it’s more about affirming that and bringing people’s attention to that than it is about making a foundation for people to make some headway on the social effects that make black folks feel that way.

Having some distance from it, and hearing back from my friend who went to Indonesia and was talking about bonding with black folks out there, and just remembering that anti-blackness is global, it just felt right for me to dive into that and tackle the sleight of hand that I performed last time.
One last time, I’m going to point you to the full transcript here. At this point we talked about Estelle’s post The Scale of Our Struggles (which is probably my favorite post she’s done), Rasheedah Phillips’ Black Quantum Futurism project, antifa militias and queer self-defense. We moved on to global vs local revolution and the question of prefigurative politics and organizing as science fiction. Seriously, check it out.

Right around when we needed to wrap, I realized we hadn’t talked about half of the Abolish Time project. The Mutual Aid Series is augmented by the Mapping Time series. It’s been a somewhat tough concept for me to wrap my head around, so I asked:
Bee: What is mapping time, can you give some examples of it, maybe, or some structures for other people to do it?

Estelle: Yeah. It’s pretty simple? Part of the simplicity is that there’s not a single method to do it. Again, it’s based almost exclusively on Rasheedah Phillips’ Black Quantum Futurism: Theory and Practice. I made a primer about that thesis, about different ways of reading the future.

Breaking it down, mapping time is trying to share a stream of consciousness with someone, where it’s done with someone else. For your own self, you’re mapping out points in time where your agency is significant. The only times I’ve done it in group have been in a workshop in a transformative justice context.

Individually I’ve done it when I've been the go-to person for an interpersonal conflict. I used mapping time to grasp the past context and plot out where things might go, what likely variables might be or diverging points. Organizing what incremental progress, what iterative cycles might need to be contended with first.

I’ve also done it privately for myself when I was being abused and needed to figure out how I was going to survive in the workplace while this conflict was dragging on. Trying to embrace the worst case scenario, and from there trying to see what’s likely, what should I be pushing for, what should I be mindful of.

It’s almost like a self-soothing strategy in that instance. You don’t want to do it because you’re afraid of the worst case scenario, but once you get the worst case scenario on paper it feels more distant and foreign, and you see like, “Oh, this timeline is more likely. This seems doable. I should push for this.”

Bee: When you do it do you draw it out like a literal timeline? Or is it like bullet points?

Estelle: I’ve done a few. I’ve seen in graphic design, there’s a treeing process where there’s like, an arm and then a fan of possible choices, and then one of them is chosen and it grows into another fan point. To throw back to videogames, in Detroit: Become Human – which is just straight up anti-black. I saw the trailer and I was like, why would they do this? In Detroit of all places? The writing is simplified Martin Luther King.

Quick aside: I think most, if not all, robot stories are anti-black.

Bee: I think I can follow you there.

Estelle: In any case, what they do, since it’s very choice-based and there are arcing timelines: every time you finish a chapter you can see what the possibilities were (and that encourages replay value). The maps I’ve made – prior to that game coming out – do honestly look a little bit like that. You’re thinking through what’s the most likely. And you’re charting: of the things that were likely, of the things that are likely, of the things that will be likely; it’s like a map of where you’re at along that timeline. It’s like a temporal compass in a way.

Bee: And you said that each point is a point where you have or had agency? Can you expand on that just a tiny bit?

Estelle: Yeah. So one of the maps I made was for the process I was supporting. I marked the date when the conflict happened. I marked how that was the product of the two people living together suddenly, without expecting to share living space. And marking, okay, things de-escalated when they were able to stay with someone else. And then a room opened up here. And that was another node.

So there was a node when someone was able to give them a place to move for a short period of time, and there was another node when I could help them have housing. In that sliver of the timeline, there was change because agency was exerted.

Bee: Right, okay.

Estelle: You plot out the time so that a line becomes, once that change is implemented, there’s going to be some degree of coasting where the effects of that point are seen. But it won’t necessarily be the catalyst for complete restoration until that person, in recognizing that they won’t have to worry about living with the person who harmed them, if they express agency from that point of stability, that’s another node.

Bee: Right.

Estelle: So then it’s like: are they more stable, do they have more resentment, where do they go from there now that that material part of their life is addressed.
At this point we did the plugs: follow the Instagram, back the Patreon. Estelle mentioned that the zines are coming off the heels of the last goal met, where she will be writing “anecdotal vignettes about my experiences on the left.” A novel in the works, and an invitation to “a collection of Afrofuturist political writing that is supposedly coming out in Spring of next year.”

We turned off the recording. I was prepared to look out that window one last time in an act of literary closure. Then I mentioned that I had never got around to asking about reproductive labor.

At Estelle’s insistence, we fired the recording back up and talked for another twenty minutes. Consider it a post-credits sequence after the final shot of the sunset behind Salesforce tower, landlords slowly encircling.
Bee: So I’ve asked you for a couple of definitions about answerability and stuff like that so far. I wanted to ask one more that’s maybe a little self-indulgent. Maybe it’s a little more hopeful also? I don’t know. You have been talking about reproductive labor since the second part of your Mutual Aid series, [...] so for most of the last three months. I have been writing about reproductive labor in various capacities for a very long time.

Estelle: I liked your Patreon post about it.

Bee: The cooking one?

Estelle: Yeah.

Bee: Thank you. That was somewhat inspired by you.

Estelle: Aww.

Bee: Can you talk about what reproductive labor means to you, and how you conceptualize its transformation over the course of the struggle we have going forward? [...]

Estelle: Yeah. My first introduction to it was through Marxist Feminism. The way it was explained to me then was like, bosses and capitalists don’t want to pay for our care. They don’t want their profit to be spent on that. Their profit in that way is not possible unless there is someone doing free labor. Extensive labor. Probably the most labor there is. We all eat everyday, we all hopefully have a home that we live in every day.

Bee: That needs to be cleaned and upkept, and, yeah.

Estelle: Exactly. And then when there’s childcare involved it’s tenfold. You’re literally caring for a new life 24/7. That’s, arguably, a larger industry than Amazon even though that’s historically the biggest company we’ve ever seen. But there’s no pay for it outside of domestic nurse work.

Bee: There’s no pay for it except where it can be profitable for a capitalist somewhere.

Estelle: Exactly. And that’s not to, obviously mad respect for people who do reproductive labor for a living individually. But yeah, it’s not the state. It’s not even built into our wage really. It’s just the bare minimum. It’s similar, just like how you can’t have a conception of time that’s universal, you can’t have the social status of whiteness without anti-blackness, the same way you can’t have male privilege without reproductive labor being forced onto women, largely, for free.

I really like Silvia Federici’s recent work returning to the witch trials and the commons, and how that struggle was largely about transforming society to give men privilege over women and their bodily autonomy. That’s kind of the precursor to the figure of men as the “breadwinner.” Siloing women with this work and making them dependent on the income of men.

And I think cis identity only exists to enforce that division of labor. So with men and reproductive labor, that’s the critical struggle. It’s a struggle we see every single day. When you see the couple with the kid out, who is attending to the child?

I work a retail job at a bookstore. And I can tell when it’s dad’s turn to be in charge of the kid. Just by walking in, him being unresponsive, being frustrated, the kid acting out. He doesn’t have the interpersonal skills to even care for his child in a lot of instances. And this isn’t universal. Sometimes I see a “good dad” and it’s refreshing.

So with patriarchy, it’s based on the entitlement to that division of labor. I don’t need to care for you because you have girl friends. I pay for things here so I don’t need to participate in the housework/reproductive labor. So in a way it’s a miniature class war between individuals.

And on the flipside of that, with internalized misogyny, you have women who pride themselves on that work and wouldn’t have it any other way, or it doesn’t make sense to confront the men in their lives for being comfortable with that inequity.

The main goal is interrogating that and pushing back. Y’know, self-defense against men who are abusers but also social pressure against men who haven’t been challenged on this. Who do want loving relationships, do want community, but just don’t have these skills. And figuring out how you bring them into that world of compulsory skills without it being anyone’s responsibility but individual men, is the challenge. Like, how do you instill genuine self-motivation to dismantle yourself, really?

As a non-binary person, I'm like, destroy all gender. But it doesn’t seem reasonable to want everyone to unmake themselves. So I’m open to the possibility where we have cisgender people who will completely transform what that even means, where their identity isn’t based on the subjugation of another.

Bee: Yeah. I think everything you said there is absolutely correct, 100% in agreement with all of that. But I end up focusing a lot more on the reproduction of the self as well as the body, maybe?

I think of a lot of media in terms of reproductive labor. You have to go home, you have to eat, you have to sleep in order to go back to work. But you also need to decompress with alcohol or weed or videogames or TV or whatever. And how much that is reproducing yourself for work, and how that is itself a weird, specific thing where it’s all part of a market in the way that a lot of reproductive labor... Well. I guess that all reproductive labor is engaged in markets. You have to go buy the meat that you’re going to cook your husband or whatever. You have to buy sheets and cleaning products and etc. etc.

But there’s a more direct relation, where you buy the new Wolfenstein game so that you can sit there and play it for 30 hours and find out it’s actually quite good, and I enjoyed it very much! But that allows you to do things like think about the kinds of questions you want to ask someone for your Patreon. Or, y’know. I’m a bad example of this right now because I’ve been out of work for entirely too long.

Estelle: Wage work.

Bee: Yes. Yeah. Yes. Very true. I’ve been reproducing myself and others during that whole time. [...] The reason I ask the question of transforming reproductive labor over the struggle rather than abolishing it is because there’s no abolition of reproduction. I mean. There is. It’s death. And extinction. That’s it.

Y’know, I’m a nihilist. I have ideation problems sometimes. But I don’t really want to build my theoretical understanding of the world around like, what if everyone just died? That’s boring. I’m curious about, in terms of maybe keeping cis people but fundamentally rearranging how that identity is based around exclusion, is really interesting to me.

Because I’m also interested in thinking about – maybe this is the point I’m trying to make. I’m really fascinated by the idea of art under communism, or what does art look like? What do we do to mentally and selfishly reproduce ourselves under a system other than capitalism? And like, I don’t know? But I want to. And it’s hard to think through. And I think your talking through the gender stuff and the race stuff is actually really helpful in thinking that through also.

Estelle: Thanks. It’s somewhat related to the Scale of Our Struggles post about iterative cycles. On a certain level we’re giving ourselves to the unknown by setting out to change the world. Because we’re stuck reproducing ourselves without pay or compensation, we have intimate knowledge of what we want and need. And I don’t think we’ll opt into abstaining from the more joyful parts of reproduction.

I do think the more men who do reproductive labor, the less gendered reproductive labor will be. And that opens up a whole lot of new possibilities. It either will mean you can’t know who's more likely to cook, or it might mean everyone knows how to cook. And what does our collective capacity look like when that’s the case?

I think that, you talking about art and how things transform, I think that’s something our future selves are going to have to decide! Ideally, if we’re making progress, we’ll be able to decide because we’ll have consensus around what is entrapping us right now. It will be more comfortable not to know, because we will know what the points of struggle are. In the meantime, we’ll always have something to measure our actions against. And whoever, whenever those things are buried, I think there will be a spontaneous recognition of what’s possible.

That’s kind of a non-answer. But I don’t think there’s a way to know otherwise.

Bee: I think it’s as close to an answer as we can reasonably get under the current conditions that we live under. We have to do the work! And doing the work will destroy some things and open up others. And maybe one of those things that gets destroyed is time.

Estelle: True. True.