A Review by Peter Gelderloos of George F.’s Good Times in Dystopia (Zero Books, 2019).
Good Times in Dystopia follows George F. on a rambling odyssey through a succession of London squats, mass protest in Paris, an anti-gentrification riot in Berlin, gate-crashed music festivals, and radical land projects in southern France. The novel—most of which is too weird to be made up—centers on a group of friends at a particular moment in history, when the London squatting scene is scraping bottom, and anticapitalist movements in northern Europe are starting to heat up again, but before the insurrectionary intensities that have now become commonplace had come to define the era.
The milieu from which George F. writes is one that would surely have been left out of the annals if not for their own insistence on recording their passing: chaos punks. Too bizarre for mainstream historians to wrap their heads around, too crusty for anthropologists to embed themselves amongst, too incoherent for respectable anticapitalists to engage with, the chaos punks were nonetheless there, at the frontlines of the hopeless battle against gentrification from Shoreditch to Friederichshain, a faltering autonomous movement from London to Berlin to Barcelona, the riots of a waning tradition of antiglobalization summit protests, and a vast archipelago of countercultural spaces some have referred to as Nowtopias.
The author is a skilled writer; his voice reminds me of the pensiveness of a George Orwell trapped in the madcap trajectory of a William Burroughs, patiently narrating all the while. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the narration is the immense love he has for his characters, his friends, as they struggle with the realities of extreme precarity and a society that does not want them, lensed through the distorting gravity of addiction, depression, and romance.
F. describes a world that is irremediably, proudly filthy, bringing to mind the many artists and theorists who have described filth as a subversive practice against bourgeois morality. Indeed, in their “rotten squats” in Shoreditch, the protagonists inhabit a space of contradiction. They constitute an eyesore that stands out against the march of gentrification, and also a source of fascination for the gentrifiers and tourists. Some of the squatmates even take up the practice of dumpstering or collecting well-to-do tourists eager to go slumming for a few nights.
In their radical activity, the protagonists also move comfortably through spaces of contradiction, supporting the performance politics of the Rebel Clown Army in one moment and in the next, arming themselves with rocks and joining a riot. Theirs is a hedonistic politics not concerned with theoretical coherence but with a way of living life that, oddly, starts to make joy and misery indistinguishable, and that centers on practices that are clearly emancipatory: creating your own freedom, and turning scarcity into abundance.
It would not be entirely unreasonable to claim that punk was a marketing scheme from the very beginning; nonetheless, taking it seriously enough, upping the punx beyond what any Hot Topic punk would countenance, eventually leads one to extremes that are impossible to market. If it is true than anything can be recuperated, the opposite is also true: anything can be subverted.
I find myself in a strange place, reviewing this book (not least of which because I briefly appear in its pages). I have always been at the monkish, clean, austere corner of the squatting scene, nearly the opposite of the chaos punks George F. writes about. Yet I am grateful to George F.’s book for bringing me to this strange place. I can begin by discarding any moralistic disapproval; it would be as meaningless as it would be clichéd. Instead I can interrogate the discomfort F.’s story provokes in me. What is it about this strange place that estranges me?
In my time in Barcelona, I found the chaos punks to be annoying at best, and generally clueless of the revolutionary possibilities of a given moment. All the same, I can recognize my disdain as emotional distance, a way of explaining unavoidable tragedies as, for instance, I watched the one I knew best, one I might easily have cared for, progress inexorably through alcoholism—waking up in his own vomit becoming a weekend ritual, haughtily renouncing his anarchist phase as an excuse for his stagnation—to a full betrayal of the final set of principles he held dear to, those of squatting, eventually lending his talents to the landlords and gentrifiers as he climbed out of the pit of addiction.
Rejecting the slope that falls from depression and powerlessness into addiction and filth, while it constitutes an instinct for self-preservation, is also a fear of the void. George F. writes from within that void and shows that life goes on, and with it love, and resistance, and joy, and friendship, and adventure.
Good Times in Dystopia is a story that deserves to be told, written from the margins of a society that deserves to be set aflame, and even now is being scavenged, mocked, defied, and subverted, from many corners all at once.
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