Gone Global in Rockford, IL

I’m on the familiar Rockford/O’hare shuttle.  I’ve been on this bus a number of times before, to get from Chicago to Dhamma Pakasa–a Vipassana meditation center I go to occasionally.  This time I am going back to Chicago, after attending the third annual Go Global conference–a business conference focusing on the Rockford, Belvedere, I-90 corridor.   The idea is to encourage companies and business ventures in the area to work on making global partnerships.

Why would I go to this?  I registered as part of Compass Group, a cultural co-research group I proudly associate myself with.   Actually, maybe we just call ourselves Compass now.  We talk about regionalism, and specifically a region we call the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor.  Though Compass produces knowledge and cultural capital, the central focus is the production of relationships for their own sake, and well, I guess also for the sake of growing a particular politics.  In and of itself Compass is decidedly not a capitalist or business venture.  At times it is anti-capitalist, really, but I think it is useful to remain mercurial and uncalcified about that for a lot of reasons.  And–though I did do a little thrifting to put together a professional look–I decided there was no need for me to go and misrepresent myself, my agendas, or my work to anyone at this conference, this place where I was in some ways totally out-of-place. (Ironically I feel my education and privileged upbringing were training me for a future at events such as this–luckily that all collapsed in the early 90’s when it became clear that I couldn’t stick with the program even if my life depended on it).  When asked about Compass Group by other conference goers I quickly developed a somewhat standard,  honest response.  The first couple of attempts made for some slightly awkward interactions…

Me wearing my professional-look.

My professional look.

So the bus goes directly to the Clock Tower Resort and Conference Center.   The hotel has two pools which were both empty, to give you an idea of how the Rockford economy is doing.  Oh, the 22 percent unemployment there should also tell you something.  The conference was attended by maybe just less than 200 people. I don’t have much to compare it to–attendance-wise or vibe-wise–since it it’s my first business conference, but it seemed like they had food and seats for a lot more.  I was amazed that the panel presented by national business liaisons from India and China had little more than a pity audience of five or six. I mean, there were people from China and India offering assistance to build partnerships and nobody had any interest?  C’mon Rockford region business people, when do you get to hang with guys from China and India and ask them anything you want about starting businesses in their countries?!

I am not the least bit surprised, but it seems important to say that these people are thinking about economies in the same short-sighted, linear way that got us into most of the catastrophes we face at this moment.  Everybody was still just talking about  “growing the economy to make jobs.”  There was a little bit of banter about the green-collar sector, but even that was mentioned almost begrudgingly in some cases.  What’s more, it’s not even a different way of thinking.  It’s just a misguided cooptation of the environmental movement (…come to think of  it, it’s fair to assume at this point that some of the environmental movement only ever wanted to maintain the status-quo.  I mean that wouldn’t be the only part of the 60’s and 70’s counter-culture that ended up acting that way).   Let’s get it straight, at least right here, this way of thinking has nothing to do with sustainability as I understand it.   That is, it has nothing to do with altering our relationship to the land and people we depend on to live, but everything to do with keeping all of those relationships the same, based in exploitation and extraction.  It has nothing to do with making places where everybody can live and work with dignity and self-determination.  It is an outmoded, old-fashioned way of making an economy and structuring relations, and the longer we continue the sooner it will become a life-and-death situation for more and more people, as it already is for many people around the world.

Speaking of old-fashioned solutions, there was a panel about how to do contract work for the military as well as one about how to export munitions and defence articles.  The keynote speaker on the second day was a former Air Force general and Boeing VP, one of the largest contractors for the military, if not the largest.   This was a useful exposure to reality for me.  Nobody seemed to have a problem with becoming further entrenched in a war-based economy.  In fact people seemed pretty excited about it.    I also learned about a couple of developments in transportation and logistics in the region that I’m not sure what to do with, but they somehow pique my interest.  One, in Rockford (and eight other Illinois towns) there is what is known at a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ), which is a federal designation, an area where the tariff and duty laws work differently.  Basically manufacturers who import parts can get a better deal on these fees if they are in an FTZ.  So the Rockford International Airport is in one of these FTZ’s and it turns out that it’s the 19th busiest air freight airport in the country,  its shortest runway is longer than the longest runway at Midway, and it can even handle one of those super gigantic Russian cargo planes (these are the kinds of factoids trotted out in business promotion).   My point is, interests in the Rockford region business community are working to position Rockford as a growing air freight hub.   Oh, that reminds me, I learned that aerospace is one of the large industries in the Rockford area too.  The other big transport and logistics thing I learned about the greater region is that right now they are building a massive, really massive rail road hub outside of Springfield to move a lot of the rail freight traffic out of Chicago.  One of the speakers indicated that this would open up a lot of prime land for development in Chicago.  Of course I’m just thinking more weeds and abandoned places to explore in Chicago.  But I also can’t help wonder about the rail workers losing their jobs or being displaced, and what’s being destroyed in Springfield?

…Nearly the entire first day of the one and a half day conference was a time of feeling awkward and insecure about being there.  It’s good to be able to live with this feeling.  I wonder if it will ever get easier?  Anyway, the answer I gave people when asked about the Compass Group was that I am not part of a business at all but Compass is a group of artists and academics who have been researching the midwest as a region for a couple of years and sharing the knowledge and understanding gained through different publications and cultural institutions and that I was there to learn about the business world and the Rockford area in general…or something like that.  Some people perhaps perceived the fact that I really was not sure what I was doing there at all and therefore had no interest in talking to me.  One guy seemed to turn nostalgic about his youthful wanderlust and had a short reverie about a trip he made to North Africa when he was my age.  I liked him.  One guy seemed on the verge of offering me a graphic design job to help him with a pamphlet for a virtual business incubator called AgTech that is looking to develop new ways making money using, so-called, low value, agricultural bi-products (oh the assumptions!).   I told that guy he might be interested in the Land Institute.  He made a note of it.  Some folks I spoke with were on auto-pilot and answered any question I asked because they were treating me as a possible client, partner, or whatever, out of habit.  Or they were just friendly and appreciated my curiosity.   This auto pilot is what makes infiltrating this kind of thing for Yes Men type antics all too easy, which I couldn’t help thinking of while I sat, out-of-place at this conference.  I think I will try to return again next year.  At some point though I’d be interested in presenting my ideas as a cultural worker at a conference like this, not as a prank but in total transparent sincerity.  I think it might be an interesting negotiation to be at a business conference and find ways to bridge the gaps between capitalists and those of us more interested in what happens beneath capitalism, to present my agenda as a cultural worker interested in building non-capitalist economies and ways of relating to each other.   Though I can’t see working really hard  make a proposal to this conference a huge priority–I mean I could never get it to work right now for one thing–but a few years down the line it might be a snap.  Anyhow, I’m glad I went global.  G’bye for now Rockford.


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