Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Richard Swift

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Richard Swift

As the gap between rich and poor widens and western economies continue to struggle, more voices are added to a growing chorus of individuals disillusioned with the capitalist dream. Viable alternatives however are scarce on the ground.

Enter Richard Swift and SOS: Alternatives to Capitalism (Between the Lines Books). Both practical and visionary, SOS aims to address the possibilities contained in systems of socialism, social democracy, anarchism, ecology and degrowth. A must-read for those interested in contemporary economics, Richard's text looks beyond the academic to the everyday.

Today Richard joins us as part of Open Book's At The Desk series, in which authors speak about their writing processes and the workspaces that inspire them, and how their environments affect their creative output.

Richard tells with Open Book about breaking the rules of ergonomics, what SOS stands for in this case and how spending time in Dominica's unique environment — both ecological and economic — affected his writing.

I don't actually have a treasured old desk with its comfortable and familiar mess from which I write. I am rather a kind of vagabonish undisciplined writing style varying widely in both position and location. I write hunched over in coffee shops or lying on my back or stomach in city parks. I am at times castigated by those who predict the onset of crippling repetitive strain injury for defying the ergonomic rules associated with heavy computer use. I have so far avoided these which I put down to the sheer variety of positions that defy the repetition required for the strain.

My usual (but not essential) requirement as a non-fiction writer is that I have internet access. Otherwise I end up touting large numbers of texts in my bike carrier that I ferry from home to the Jet Fuel Cafe on Parliament Street in Toronto or Boris's Cafe on Park Avenue in Montreal. The spread of Wifi into public space has greatly expanded the variety of potential writing locations. In this somewhat unorthodox fashion I have written several non-fiction titles on Mosquitoes, Street Gangs and Democracy. My most recent book entitled SOS: Alternatives to Capitalism is a kind of cri de coeur on my part — SOS standing for Save Our Species. This book was largely written with the computer resting on my stomach as I lay in my hammock on the Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica where I have come to spend my winters. The view over the bush to the islands spectacular mountainscape here replaces the urban buzz of coffee shops. It is up to the reader to decide if it has leavened the frenetic journalism with a more reflective quality.

Dominica is an interesting place to write about capitalism. The Island still deals with a kind of grab-what-you-can variety of the capitalist ethos involving phantabulous and highly unlikely get-rich-quick schemes — as a friend of mind aptly puts it “Dominica: where dreams come to die”. Even estate slavery, one of capitalism's must brutal forms of worker exploitation, never really worked here. Slaves found they could easily survive in the fertile jungle where they set up hidden maroon communities that thrived on natures' bounty. Several such communities remain to this day such as the village of Paix Bouche — the French/Creole is 'pas bouche' no mouth or more bluntly 'shut up' — and don't let them know we are here. To this day somehow Dominica has avoided allowing capitalist individualism from seeping into its bones. People's relationship to nature and each other is still formed to a large degree by a sense of reciprocity. The competitive ethos, while not absent, is kept in check by a sense that we are all in this together. Politicians are judged not by the abstractions of patriotism, national security and balanced budgets but by whether the roads are getting paved, crime kept in check and the schools doing a reasonable job. Food in this cash poor society, while also a vital commodity, is also frequently a gift expressing this Dominican notion of reciprocity.

So from my hammock, overlooking the volcanic Trois Pitons and Diablotins, the idea that there is alternative to our present notion of 'business-as-usual' progress becomes, at least in my mind, more robust. I find amongst my friends and neighbours a kind of mutuality or 'baseline communism' as celebrated by the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber in his wide-ranging explorations of human relationships in many societies. This also works for Dominica's close relationship with the natural world and its food economy as what you eat is grown or gathered by your neighbours — you might call it 'the one mile diet'. The stunning beauty of the place continues to give me the sense that there is still much to fight for in this sad and beautiful world. The hammock, while an imperfect writing place leading at times to stiffness of limbs and sore backs, allows me to see the sun both rise and set. It is my hope that this sense of time passage and renewal informs the writing.

— Richard Swift

Richard Swift was co-editor for The New Internationalist magazine from1984 to 2007 and is based in Toronto. He has written and broadcast on questions of ecology and democracy for many years. In 2011 he won the Daniel Singer Millennium Prize for an original essay which helps further socialist ideas.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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