The Colonial Bakery and Donuts is on the corner of 4th and Pacific just across from the train tracks, the border between east and west Long Beach, the last stop before downtown transitions to a checkered maze of re-designed eateries and boutiques. The remaking of downtown over the past several years has transformed gathering places into hubs for chatting about dinner plans and the best shopping deals, making cafes in some older sense where locals commune to spout the wisdom of the day---like the Birdcage Cafe, a mere stone's throw from the Colonial---nearly extinct. Given a dearth of such throwback spaces, it seems only natural that other ones have taken over their function.
A contingent of locals arrives early at the Colonial most every day to mull over the banalities of existence. The conversation is muted for the most part but yeasts with the events of the day at the initiative mostly of Al Shayne who's lived in the same building a few blocks away for twenty years. He doesn't remember much about the political waves of the late 1960s---his political consciousness erupted in the mid-to-late 1980s---but his take on the foibles of the contemporary world is largely shaped by that era. I first met Al a few years ago when he approached me with comments about a story we printed from Tom Hayden about the 2016 election. He was engaged about its content and began contacting the author. We've been breezing about the state of things ever since.
Though approaching his 88th birthday, Al is as insightful and articulate as any citizen in their thirties. He evokes the enthusiasm and wisdom of one who's directly experienced the contradictions of our world---not gaining his awareness solely through books first---and is privy to its workings. His background as a laborer and craftsman, as well as electronics inspector for the LA County Department of Parks and Recreation, speaks to this. His perspectives on the world grew through this experience and led to his profession as a free-lance writer, which began in the late 90s. He's a citizen in the great American tradition consummated by Walt Whitman: an insightful critic of our institutions but a passionately patriotic believer in their potential. He served extended stints in both the Navy and Air Force.
On this day Al's inner circle is present, strung out along a table in the corner: Bob Miller, Chuck Terry, Bob Dziewit, and Simon. Al sits against the western wall, his familiar roost, and feeds us provocative morsels. Jennifer tends the doughbar, her warm welcome unsullied by a touch screen.
"The whole problem we're having now...the whole problem with the system is greed, the money that the political scientists have and use to control us," he blurts in response to my opening volley.
"You mean the power brokers...those who really run the system, not just the politicians from each party?"
"Yeah...those behind the scenes with the power and the money who pull the strings."
"Not the politicians?"
"No...they're only their pawns."
"You mean something like the 'deep state'... the career technical and political class that's always influencing decisions?"
"Yes, but it's those outside of government... in the private sector who everyone has to answer to."
"Like the Robber Barrons in the old days, the Rockefellers and others from that era...or today the Koch brothers or...Sheldon Adelson or...George Soros?"
"And...many more we don't know about."
"Most of these are sympathetic with the Republicans, the right...when Obama was in office the Koch brothers spent a lot of money trying to block him."
"Yes, but more and more the party in power doesn't matter. I've been a Democrat my whole life but things have really changed."
"It seems the Democrats aren't the party they used to be. They're mostly funded by the same interests."
"They've all been hijacked by greed!"
"What do you mean by this? Greed it seems has always been an issue in this country. Those who have so much never seem to get enough. But are you saying that this is a moral problem? The greedy would just say they're successful and the system returns many material rewards to those who work hard."
"Definitely a moral issue...it's just not right that there's so much wealth at the top while so many in the country struggle."
"So the issue for you is that their gain has something to do with others' losses? Their power and position allows them to take from others or...exclude them from positions?"
"Yes...yes...that's the problem. Greed has to be controlled. It's like some sort of drug that addicts people."
"Nice way to put it. Materialism as a drug that never really satisfies them so they have to have more?"
"And junkies are blind to most everything around them. How long has this been your view? This seems like what the Occupy movement talked about seven years ago. They were camped out just down the street. They got the discussion going about greed and the 1% and how much wealth and power they wield. My book, A People's Manifesto, is about the Occupy events here in Long Beach."
"I've been interested in the issue of greed for much longer than that. I remember when that happened. Lots of people around that time started to get interested in this issue and I put together a book, Follow the Money, in 2014. My interest in greed goes back to my youth...I've always been concerned with injustice but it's our wars that are behind it, our domination and control over other societies to benefit our own."
"The military gets too many resources for its ventures and this causes many to lose things here, at home?"
"It's been getting too much since WWII... especially since the Korean War."
"And from there Vietnam, the Mideast and..."
"...yes, Vietnam...that was an even bigger blunder...that whole decade. We were so afraid of the commies, spent so much on this 'enemy' instead of working for world peace."
"Exactly what Tom Hayden believed."
"He did. And all of our conquests have really been about resources, especially oil, to satisfy our greed. I published a pamphlet, Petrolimania, in 2017, about this."
"It was about oil in our next venture too...our new enemies in the Mideast, the Afghanis and the Iraqis."
"That period, the late 80s and early 90s, was when I really started to get interested in these issues and.to look back at history."
"We were very direct about our oil interests in these recent wars."
"We backed Kuwait and marched into Iraq and. the start of the war that can't be completed. We're still fighting it!"
"It seemed that the war was over in 1991, especially since it was pretty quiet through the rest of the decade."
"But we were working behind the scenes to get the oil, doing a lot of damage, stepping on a lot of toes."
"That contributed to 9/11, right?"
"Absolutely! We got more aggressive in the Mideast because the Soviet empire collapsed, giving us more freedom to expand our interests, and a lot of people weren't very happy about that."
"So you support Chalmers Johnson's idea of 'blowback'?"
"Yes. The more we push into countries and impose our will the more resistance builds up and..."
"...now it looks like we're threatening to invade Venezuela, which has the world's largest oil reserves."
"We need to stop grabbing other countries' resources...let them develop their own way and pursue their destiny."
"But the greedy aren't going to just stop being greedy, are they?"
"So it will take some catastrophe to reverse course? Is that what you mean in your pamphlet, The Stepping Stones to the Apocalypse?"
"Yes...we're headed toward a catastrophe for sure if something doesn't help us change course."
"We just have to wait it out...nothing we can do?"
"Humanity must endure a painful evolutionary process."
"Before finding a new course? Won't that mean there'll be a lot of innocent victims...that evil will reign?"
"Our only hope is a world government that will control nationalism and racism and religious craziness and make us freer and more democratic."
"You mean something like benevolent globalization? Do you see that evolving?"
"No, not.really. We have to stop making enemies of our neighbors like we did with the communists. Now I guess Russia---no longer communist---is one of our new enemies."
"Trump wanted to be friends with Russia, at least.but he's mostly making enemies."
"That's why we need new leadership to turn this around."
"The next election then is very important. Which Democratic candidates do you think will offer the best hope?"
"Sanders, but he's too old."
"Barely older than Trump and Biden, who's ahead in the polls."
"They're all too old. We need a new generation. Harris, Warren...maybe Beto."
"They're exciting candidates for sure. What do you think they'll offer?"
"Hopefully they'll at least start small and get money out of politics."
"And maybe help develop some new habits for our nation that will lead to the elimination of greed?"
"Without that there's no hope."
"You seem very...utopian. Maybe that's why you like Hayden so much. His movement, SDS, was considered very utopian. You aspire toward some pretty big positive changes but...I also noticed you seem resigned to the fact they won't soon arrive. Historically, those who believe in these extremes seem prime candidates for a drop out life, or at least one fairly far removed from a mainstream existence. You mentioned you built cabins for many years in the Mojave and that seems very consistent with this."
"I was up there from 1972 until 2005, in a lot of different places...Joshua Tree, Oak Hills, Johnson Valley, Lucerne Valley. I built and sold cabins and made a good living."
"So you were a...businessman...a capitalist?"
"Well...my background is in construction. I was a carpenter and an electrician. So I was interested in building quality and affordable cabins for people to live in. I wouldn't call myself a capitalist exactly. I made money but not that much. I sold them at a fairly cheap price."
"You made a profit but a moral one?"
"I was only interested in a fair return on my labor and the satisfaction the work gave me in contributing to the growth of these communities."
"That sounds socialist. Do you consider yourself a socialist?"
"I've never been part of any movement or party but I believe in the fair exchange of value to help in small ways to get rid of greed. The only complete way to do this would be to stop using money and begin to exchange goods and services through barter."
"That's the only way to expunge exploitation according to that famous German philosopher. And the only way to really put that into practice would seem to be in small communities. The high desert area you worked in is famous for experiments like this. It's full of cults, dropouts, and utopian groupings. There was a famous utopian experiment over a hundred years ago at Llano del Rio. Its ruins are still there. Aldous Huxley lived near there for a while and wrote about that place. Is that the answer to our ills, returning to small scale human experiments? Huxley also wrote about this idea in Brave New World Revisited"
"That would be the best solution.it would give more people a chance to control their lives.and especially the greed and special interests. Democracy would work better."
"That's what the Founding Fathers believed in, decentralization and local control. Thomas Jefferson, a hero for Tom Hayden and SDS, went even further and stressed that the people themselves should directly participate and control the government, bypassing representatives. Think the mayor has reserved an outreach space in our shiny new government buildings for raising the consciousness of Long Beach residents about Democracy? Maybe the first cell of a retro form of Direct Democracy will sprout in this neighborhood!"
"Hopefully by the end of summer!"
Stop by the Colonial for a donut hole and fill your void with special spheres of insight proffered by Al and friends...