“We Took Something that was Property and Made It Life”: On Everything for Everyone

By Juno Jill Richards [1]

In the first year of the plague I watched all the dystopias. They were like a fungus, doubling overnight. There were the environmental apocalypses—with ice or desert or too much water or not enough water. There were zombie worlds, some comic, some ghastly, some with people banded together, some with a person all alone. There were plane crashes in the middle of the forest dystopias, fascist resurgence in urban wasteland dystopias, dystopias with alien spaceship takeovers of earth. 

In the second year of the plague, I tired of certain apocalypses, especially those featuring a foreign pathogen that destroyed everything in its wake, leaving behind a radically diminished population or a world teeming with zombies. It was apocalypse overload, with the forests burning, heat waves, fascists in the streets. I still liked the fantastic dystopias, with aliens or upside-down worlds, because their chaos felt companionable but not too close. 

This boom in cultural production is all about the end of the world, not the end of capitalism, as the oft-quoted phrase goes. So it is all the more striking, as we enter year three, to encounter a utopian reckoning amidst this proliferation of burning death-worlds, in the co-authored speculative fiction, M.E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi’s Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune 2052-2072 (Common Notions). Through a series of fictionalized oral histories, Everything tells the story of what happens when the revolution wins. This is an abolitionist imagination, one intent on furnishing new forms of social life without money or markets, prisons or police. Here emerges a finely detailed narration that fills out the particulars of the aftermath: after the family, after private property, after landlords, after the nation-state. There is demolition in this accounting, but more attention falls on the creative, collective matter of building new forms of survival in the day to day.

Interviews take place in New York, but many have a much more international scope, to chronicle the global character of the revolution. From the cafeteria of the Bay Ridge Commune, we hear a first-hand account of the liberation of Palestine, part of a wider string of uprisings in the Arab world taking place in the 2010s and 2020s. Another interviewee chronicles the internet’s sublation through the ingenuity of a youth party circuit through the Indian Ocean cities. A collaboration of “dance kids and vets,” the dance barges host huge servers that transmit to port cities across the Jakarta Circuit. They do double duty as a months-long floating party with stops in port city shanties and communes along the way. The family of Quinn Liu, migrants from Guangxi, smuggle themselves to Hangzhou, scene of the arson-filled 2046 factory occupations. Bangladeshi immigrants narrate the organization of hospital workers, including strikes over pay and patient care. Workers sabotage the billing process, so that medical debt “would mysteriously disappear from people’s accounts.” A post-revolutionary climate restoration project works off the coast of Vancouver, while another interviewee recounts drone work on the Azerbaijani border. 

This is just a sample of the oral histories on offer, which string together a wide variety of perspectives and personas. As a narrative form, the oral history allows this book to feel like a chorus, a collection of we’s, rather than a singular account of a world historical shift. This we is prismatic, in that it encapsulates different intersecting voices and collectives. In this way, the use of oral history as a narrative frame offers a corrective to another version of communist literature, Nanni Balestrini’s The Unseen (1987), which chronicles the Italian Autonomia movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Balestrini famously rejected the I of the traditional novel in favor of we, as a way to channel the voices of a mass movement. But his we still feels like a single character, an often heroic cis-masculine worker. It’s a we that can’t possibly get pregnant or raped or colonized or queer bashed. It’s a we that doesn’t migrate countries or transition genders or have abortions or lose their homeland, because these experiences are not within the scope of the white cis-hetero working class. 

As an unapologetically antiracist, anticolonial, queer/trans alternative to this masculinist leftist tradition, it is a pointed thing that Everything for Everyone takes, as its title, one of the rallying cries of the Autonomia movement. But the book doesn’t replicate the we of Balestrini’s canonical novel. Instead, to make room for these other voices, for an everyone that does not level out into sameness, the frame of the oral history project formulates a speculative future through the voices of many different speaking I’s

If anything, the main character of the book might be the commune itself, and with it the process of collectivizing resources, which is explained by Miss Kelley in the first interview. After her start in the Bronx through organizing fellow sex workers, Miss Kelley becomes a pivotal figure in the establishment of a mutual aid network that intersects with other characters of the book. When asked what the commune means to her, Miss Kelley responds:

It means we take care of each other. It means everything for everyone. It means we communized the shit out of this place. It means we took something that was property and made it life. (30)

Much of Everything for Everyone fills out the cavities of this we, giving it texture and complexity while allowing for ties of solidarity to emerge through the work of communization. This work, here brilliantly defined as the transformation of dead property to life, takes resources that were once private and remakes them for everyone, creating an infrastructure of schools, detox centers, hospitals, factories, and food distribution networks. In this accounting, communization is a transformative process that redistributes social goods, but also builds new lines of solidarity between the people who do this work. With a shared investment in the everyone that thrives, new affinities emerge, bringing together dance kids, vets, first nation peoples, sex workers, migrants, street gangs, hospital workers, techies, and trans and gender nonconforming folks. 

One line of solidarity I want to highlight here, in this post-Roe moment, emerges around reproductive justice, through claims on bodily autonomy that draw together sex workers, cis-women, children, and trans folks. We can see this intersection towards the end of the book, in the interview with Latif Timbers, a gestation care coordinator. By this date, in 2069, all genders can gestate and children belong to no single person. “Almost anyone can get a womb now. You don’t have to have been born with one,” Timbers explains. One of the youngest interviewees, born just before the liberations, Timbers is aghast at the prospect of an earlier history when access to care depended on the nuclear family: 

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine making all your choices based on blood! Why would it matter so fucking much who gave birth to you? Or who you fell in love with or who happened to have the same parent. Like, what if those people were straight up assholes? Or just didn’t know how to take care of you? And people only had two parents? Who were expected to take care of everything? (180-1)

Timbers finds it difficult to imagine the nuclear family because their life story begins after its abolition. This is not an entirely volitional experience, but a result of historical circumstance. Timbers grows up in a Prospect Park tent city amongst other children who had lost their parents to the wars with the NYPD. This group squats brownstones together before joining a commune with a teen crèche, where adolescents are afforded partial autonomy. The teen crèche is a kind of family, with some adult oversight, that is given support from the larger commune.

Timber’s interview comes near the end of the book and Miss Kelley’s opens it, but between them emerges an affinity that resonates with contemporary debates about trans healthcare and abortion. In different ways, these oral histories take bodily autonomy as a given, seen through all manner of perspectives. Everything for Everyone is a world of people who can choose to be pregnant or not pregnant, sex work understood as work, independent teenagers, non-biologically based networks of care, adventurous gender exploration, and easily obtained  gender confirming hormones and surgery. To be sure, Miss Kelley’s access to gender affirming healthcare as a trans woman is not the same as Timber’s right to gestate as a person assigned male at birth. But the interviews resonate against one another, so that Miss Kelley and Timbers emerge as different voices in the same chorus, one promoting the absolute need for bodily autonomy for pregnant people, teenagers, trans folks, and sex workers alike. 

In this way, the oral histories make up  a chorus of people that share needs and desires, but do not meld seamlessly into one voice. Indeed, almost every interview is littered with accounts of the formation of assemblies, as a necessary structure for people to talk through and argue over what will happen next. There are family meetings at the teen crèche, check-in’s amongst reassembled family blocks in the communes, special sessions called to make decisions about child abuse, parties that turn into outdoor assemblies, negotiations amongst commies, nationalists, and paramilitaries through dance solidarity. As a whole, there is so much process in this text, down to the nitty-gritty. It’s like a communist Frank O’Hara poem—we did this, we did that, in granular detail, as old structures are dismantled and new ones set up in their place, then reconfigured, then talked and argued over, then reimagined again. 

Everything for Everyone  is not a dystopian end of the world, nor even a singularly perfect utopia, but something between. It is a process of making new forms of collective life as the content of  revolution, shorn of romance. Indeed, nostalgia is a posture the book pointedly refuses, for the ways that it makes rigid a single version of revolutionary change. A more flexible alternative to left melancholy, though not quite a how-to, Everything maps out the affinities that draw individual voices into a we, without leveling them out into a single, representative speaker. The oral histories offer a narrative form that can accommodate collectivity, centering the process of turning everything into a resource for everyone. In Miss Kelley’s words, they take something that was property and make it life.

[1] Editors’ note: This is the first of two reviews Blind Field will present on M.E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi’s speculative fiction novel Everything for Everyone. The book is a revolutionary approach to narrating revolution and is deeply aligned with Blind Field’s political and aesthetic mission. We hope to be a forum for commentary on utopian visions of an anti-capitalist, feminist future and welcome additional submissions commenting on this visionary book.

Author Bio: Juno Jill Richards is the author of The Fury Archives (2020) and co-author of The Ferrante Letters (2020)They are an associate professor in the English Department and affiliated faculty in Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Yale University.

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