Blog #44 – Poverty or Inequality: What’s the Problem?

Poverty or Inequality: What’s the Problem?

The language in the slogans used to address what most see as the basic social problem in the United States varies significantly. The key terms run from “war on poverty” to “ladders of opportunity” to “upward mobility” to “fight against inequality.” President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York in his inaugural address as Mayor of New York City called on the City “ to put an end to economic and social inequalities,”[1] President Obama before his second inaugural wanted to make inequality the “defining issue” of his second term,[2] but that language changed to creating “ladders of opportunity” in his State of the Union address.

Do those different terms all mean the same thing, or what difference is there among them? Lots.

The War on Poverty (see Blog #43 on the phrase), in fact as well as in words, addressed itself to the condition of the poor: lack of educational opportunities, weak family structure, discrimination in employment, residential segregation, gender discrimination, inadequate workplace safety, predatory ending. It contained an undercurrent focusing on encouraging the poor to help themselves, “empowerment,” enabling the poor to pull themselves up by their boot straps. That undercurrent becomes the dominant theme in the conservative Republic answer to poverty through education and job training of the poor, “making the workforce investment system more responsive to the needs of employers.”[3]

The ladder of opportunity” language to which President Obama has turned at least permits the image of a ladder with both a bottom and as well a top. De Blasio’s language of inequality pushes that image to recognition of the fact that those at the top are in fact responsible for the fact that others stay at the bottom. Recent research on upward income mobility similarly raises the question of the inability of the poor to improve their relative position over several generations.

The conclusion, then, if inequality rather than just poverty is the focus, is that something must be done about what keeps some so rich, as well as what keeps some so poor.  Calling in “inequality” is easily mistaken for substituting a measurement for a cause. The conservative challenge that inequality doesn’t cause poverty is quite right. But the conclusion that limiting the wealth of the rich won’t help the poor is quite wrong. It raises the question of the relation between rich and poor, exactly the question that the language of the War on Poverty or the enabling/opportunity approach conceals.

For in fact it is indeed the way the rich obtain their wealth that accounts for the poverty of the poor. A short piece like this is no way to engage that issue fully, but the outline of an answer may be suggested: The specific mechanisms are known:

  • Exploitation at the work place. Keeping the pay for workers as low as possible is an inherent part of running a business and making a profit: the lower wages are, the higher profits are. Employers are “job creators” only against their will; the fewer workers they need use to produce a different product or service, the better off the employer is. The high pay for business executives and dividends to shareholders are directly at the expense of the workers in their businesses. .
  • Exploitation at the consumption end. Increasing the demand for ever more consumers goods, of course necessarily paid for out of wages, increases the profits of the producers of those goods and the wealth of the owners of the firms that produce them. Inducing demand artificially, through advertising and the wide array of cultural patterns of the kinds long documented by sociologists and economists,[4] supports the consumption exploitation of poor (as well as middle class[5]) consumers, to the benefit of the rich.
  • Exploitation at the financial end. Where, after all, do extraordinary profits of hedge fund managers and bankers come from? Ultimately, of course, from the prices paid by the purchasers of the goods and services they are financing. Their interest and dividend incomes and high salaries are really based on the profits of those making their money from more direct exploitation of the poor.
  • Exploitation of the benefits of land ownership, an obvious and pervasive monopoly, paid, as economists put it, by rent not for anything that the recipient of rent payments has produced or done, but solely extracted by him through the possession of something in limited supply for which there is demand. Property owners and developers are among the richest of the rich (think Donald Trump), in large part because they are able to benefit from the speculative increases in the pries of land which they own.  Ultimately, those benefits are paid for in the prices consumers pay and the rents that tenants pay, a regressively distributive system enriching land owners at the expense of all others.
  • All four of these forms of exploitation are among the primary causes of poverty and, centrally, inequality.

Digging deeper into what a war on poverty ought to be about would lead to examining, not only how the poor might be directly helped, but also how the rich might be constrained in those actions that keep the poor in poverty. Digging deeper into how inequality might be reduced would lead not only to measuring the extent to which it is reflected in income inequality and be ameliorated by boosting the incomes at the bottom rungs of the ladder of opportunity but would lead also to the same concern for limiting the way the rich get to the top of the ladder to begin with.

The dispute between Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio over the financing of preo-kindergarten for poor children a vivid example of the difference, Cuomo’s insistence on paying out of general funds, does help to alleviate poverty, but it also avoids de Blasio’s proposal for  paying through a dedicated tax on incomes over %$500,000 addresses inequality directly. Thus Cuomo may alleviate poverty but de Blasio aims further to directly reduce inequality, looking both at the top and the bottom of the ladder. Reducing poverty is much less controversial than reducing inequality, which confronts more basic vested interests.[6]


[1] Text at

[3] Republican Senator Tim Scott, setting out h is bill to implement the war on poverty, at

[4] See the work of writers such as C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Thorsten Veblen, and many others.

[5] It should be clear that exploitation is not limited to “poor”  workers, but is drawn from the contributions of the unemployed, the excluded, as well as the “idle class,” in the multiple ways they contribute to the functioning the system that perpetuates the unequal division of wealth.

[6] The debate between David Brooks who has the same political analysis as above and comes to the conclusion we should all focus “on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness.” and Robert Reich,who concludes “The concentration of power at the top — which flows largely from the concentration of income and wealth there — has prevented  Washington from dealing with the problems of the poor and the middle class,”, reflects almost exactly the above discussion.

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Blog #46 – The Ethics of Gentrification, Social and Personal

The Ethics of Gentrification, Social and Personal

Gentrification is an ethical problem. At the societal level, it is a problem of social justice.

At that level, some quite clear guidelines for an ethical approach can be developed. At the individual level, however, there may be more complicated answers, more dependent on individual circumstances

 The following discussion takes it that the undesirable consequences of the displacement caused by gentrification are by now well established, [1] and the issue is how to address such displacement to obtain a more social and ethically just result. A number of approaches are the first section. The second section deals, less satisfactorily, with the issue of individual ethics, with only one firm conclusion.

The Transformative Ethical Societal Measures:

 The general principles should be clear by now:


I) Where there are vacancies, provide for some limited middle income in-movers into workng class neighborhoods, in numbers and under conditions acceptable to existing residents, conditions established through democratic controls. Those numbers and conditions should include measures to prevent speculation in increased housing values both by limited equity and income controlled occupancy, as with community land trusts or mutual housing associations, or by local BID-like residential stabilization district tax and planning programs. In New York City empowering existing but democratically selected community boards in threatened districts to determine the limits of such development, as through effective more than advisory ULURP proceedings, would make a major difference. Encouraging rising incomes of existing residents through general economic policies and community economic development is a longer-time but more fundamental solution. .

 II) Require that all new construction be of mixed income housing, in sensitively planned developments with publicly established and legally controlled balanced price and occupancy limits, as part of a broad program for adequate housing supply across incomes.

 III) Strictly limit the ability of upper-income households to make or keep neighborhoods exclusionary. Prohibit such actions by development controls on occupancy through zoning, confiscatory taxation of speculative real estate land transaction and profits therefrom, rent controls throughout the system, high progressive property value taxes with revenues partly dedicated to subsidizing the provision of housing under 1) and 2)

IV ) Reexamine and adapt all existing governmental programs and controls, at local, state, and national levels, to take into account these principles[2]

 And one could list the specific guidelines that would go in the right direction:

 1. First principle. No Displacement. Period. No evictions. No one moves unless they agree they’re better off after, and want to.
2. Any replacement housing must protect social ties.
3. Where displacement is not an issue, including economic displacement, etc., the first priority is looking at area needs of all  those potential in-movers in need of housing, and providing for them first, based on need, not on income.
4. For any action whatsoever, community control is key, and not for every community, but for those serving residents based on need — i.e. limited community control where it’s a high income exclusionary community, according to general principles for community goals, outlawing exclusion.
5. Heavy anti-speculation taxes, virtually eliminating profit for increases land values.
6. Widespread use of alternate tenure forms taking housing out of the market, e.g. community land trusts, mutual housing associations, public land banks, public financing and resales controls.
7. Extensive public or community investment in shared facilities: kitchens, libraries, recreation and sorts, education, security, all under community control (but #4).
8. Willingness to use militant tactics and strategies to achieve just ends.           9. More research, not simply descriptive of extent of gentrification and its causes, but also on what has or could work to deal with displacement. on what has worked are good)..
10. Public education advancing critical understanding, demolishing established ideological shibboleths such as balance as a goal in the allocation of public resources (high-income folks’ needs don’t deserve “balancing” against low-income folks needs).

 Such answers are not likely to be easily or fully implemented in any private market economy in the near future. But the effort to adopt them can be transformative. Efforts to implement them can help move the decision-making as to residential patterns from the market, which reflects the inequalities and injustices of the capitalist system, to the public sector, where the terrain for decision-making is substantially more democratic (even if with severe limits) than in the market.

 The Individual Ethical Measures:

 “Gentrifier? Who, Me?” is the aptly named sensitive recent article by John Joe Schlichtman And Jason Patch,[3] and poses the individual ethical question clearly. If displacement from gentrification is wrong – the issue of social ethics – then are gentrifiers who displace ethically wrong in the individual actions in moving in where they’re not wanted? But gentrifiers are people too, with their own needs and facing their own constraints. Studies from the very beginning have shown that they are often people just like those that study them and what they do – just like us. Damaris Rose found that to be true at the very beginning of research on the subject. So did Neil Smith, writing on gentrifiers as pioneers. And so did Lance Freeman, implicitly. But what makes these decent people displace other people with lower incomes in a worse position to find decent housing than they? Not their moral turpitude, but, at least, in many cases, their lack of available alternatives affordable to them.

 If the world of residential real estate most gentrifiers would look at is divided among working class/lower income neighborhoods, middle income largely suburban neighborhoods, and rich exclusionary neighborhoods, and if decent gentrifiers like us don’t want to live in suburbs for a variety of good reasons, where can they go? Either up or down. They can’t go up to pricey neighborhoods, often gated, racially exclusive. Expand their own neighborhoods? They are too limited, and either subject to too strong upward price pressures from upscale conversion, or too run down physically, to provide long-term answers.. So: move down, price-wise, to working class neighborhoods in tolerable condition and still marginally reasonably priced, displacing those already there, whose housing needs are even more constricted than theirs? A set of Hobson’s choices, for socially concerned gentrifiers.

 Schlichtman and Patch point out that some young urban researchers are reluctant to engage with questions of gentrification out of embarrassment that they are themselves gentifiers, and thus in no position to crilticize gentrification while at the same time takng advantage ofit. . It is an honorable dilemma. A young researcher able to pay more for a given apartment than another with a slightly lower income may find that other justly aggrieved, but his or her refusal therefore to bid on the apartment will not help produce a more just distribution of apartments – unless it is part of a social action, e.g. for boycotting a landlord, or adopting rent controls, or endorsing or opposing a given zoning change. . Individual young researchers live in a market economy, and should conscientiously examine how their individual decisions as to where to live can best contribute to a socially just distribution of apartments, what alternatives they have, at what cost. If university-controlled space available only to university affiliates is available to them, and reasonably equivalent to gentrifying space, they should take the university unit. But they may well find that the contribution they make by refusing to contribute to gentrification by their choice of an apartment is less than the contribution they can make to limiting gentrification by their political activity, their solidarity with neighborhood movements to limit gentrification, the use they make of their research skills, including their findings from their own personal experience.

 The ethical obligation of young researchers studying gentrification does impose  other ethical obligations on them that indeed require careful attention, and whose pursuit will contribute more to curing the ills of gentrification than their choice of where to live. That is the obligation to draw conclusions from their own research, and as they learn more of the injustice that gentrification causes, to become actively engaged in the fight against it, to use their research skills to spread recognition of those injustices, to help formulate and implement the kinds of measures suggested under Transformative Ethical Societal Measures above. That’s the hard-core ethical course confronting them.


Peter Marcuse

 [1] Serious scholarly consideration largely took off from Fried, Marc. 1963. “Grieving for a Lost Home: Psychological costs of Relocation,” in Leonard J. Duhl, The Urban Condition: People and Policy in the Metropolis, New York: Basic Books, Chapter 12, pp. 151‑171; recent empirical work is well rerpesented by Fullilove, Mindy Thompson, M.D. Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It.. One World/Ballantine Books, June 2004, and the work collected in The Gentrification Reader eds. Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvyn Wyle, Routledge, Milton Park, UK, 2010.

[2] For discussion of some possibilities at the local level in New York City, see Marcuse, P. (1985b) ‘To control gentrification: anti-displacement zoning and planning for stable residential districts’, Review of Law and Social Chang, 13, pp.931-945.

[3] Schlichtman, J. J. and Patch, J. (2013),” Gentrifier? Who, Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

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Blog #47: Anti-Poverty Measures Alone Won’t Do

It’s good that the Nation[1] calls attention to shameful way in which our economy exploits the poor and how inadequately our government responds to the problem. But calling the problem “poverty” focuses on just half of the problem. It accepts the idea that the poor are responsible for their own problems, and government needs simply to be ‘helping families pull themselves up through hard work” to let them “climb the ladder of opportunity” (Obama in the State of the Union address). But that skirts the fact that then you have to confront the other half of the problem, the fact that the poor are so poor because the rich are so rich – the two-sided problem of inequality.

Inequality isn’t wrong per se. People are different; they don’t all have the same abilities, the same interests, the same motivations, some are able to do more than others, some have greater natural abilities than others, some need more than others for a decent life. We wouldn’t want everyone to have exactly the same incomes; that would be unfair. But we don’t want anyone to be homeless, or sick, or uneducated, or excluded from the benefits of a socially just society, just because they don’t have an adequate income. And our society is rich enough that it can afford a good bit of inequality and yet provide adequately for all. Why doesn’t it?

What makes inequality an appropriate concern for public policy is not just how much inequality there is, but what its mechanisms are and what the justice or injustice of its effects is – a sort of cost-benefit analysis of inequality. “Inequality”  is not an actor, a thing; beware the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Inequality is the result of the actions of a variety of actors, they produce ine1quality by their actions, and then inequality in turn affects others.

The gross disparity between the rich and the poor is intuitively shocking. Without reflection, most of us believe (using Rawls’ approach to defining justice) that having one person get 1,000 times more of what society produces than another person gets is on its face unfair, inequality can’t conceivably be justified at that scale by any moral standard or rational analysis.

But that intuition needs to be examined. As to moral standards or values, there’s no magic number for what the range should be. Most of us would look at the criteria by which some get more than others, the reasons for the inequality, not simply the extent of it. The question is partly one of analysis: why some are so poor, is it their own doing, are they poor or homeless or unemployed or sick or incarcerated or discriminated against when they could rectify their situation through their own efforts? If so, attention should be focused on the characteristics of the poor and how to influence their behavior. If their poverty is not subject to their remedy, if they are to a significant extent the victims of conditions outside their control, then as a matter of policy  we as a society should be concerned to make sure every individual really has the “inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”

There is I think a general consensus that such a right exists and should be implemented by e effective public anti-poverty policies. That’s one question. How we shape policies to deal with it depends further on rational analysis of the causes of the problem. Public policy will undoubtedly either increase or decrease inequality, but it’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether a given measure leads to more or less inequality.  It’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether it leads to more or less inequality. The discussion on this question is what the debate about anti-poverty policy and it successes or failures is all about – see Blog #43. Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?

Poverty is only half of the issue of inequality. One person can be poor all by him or herself, but it takes two to be unequal. The relative wealth of the rich compared to the poor must take into account not only whether the poor deserve their poverty but whether the rich deserve their wealth. Again, it’s both a matter of the analysis and the moral and justice evaluation of the result.  It’s quite possible that, as a matter of analysis, it doesn’t matter to anyone else if the wealthy have private yachts and 100-room mansions, so long as the poor are not poor below some level considered adequate for a rich democracy. Having great wealth is not in itself bad or unjust.[2] ; It’s rather the social consequence of that wealth, how it was obtained, and the equality or inequality of its distribution, that should concern public policy. The question for analysis here, then, is whether it matters to the poor how rich the rich are.  Are the poor more poor because the rich are so rich, or might it even be that the poor are less poor because of the wealth of the rich, who are the “job-creators?” Again, it’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether it leads to more or less inequality.   The discussion on this question is what the debate about inequality should be all about, but unfortunately is not. (yet?)

An exclusive focus on anti-poverty measures targeted at the poor can shift attention from exactly this discussion and its policy implications.  Addressing the role of the rich in creating and maintaining the poverty of the poor smacks of “class war,” raises uncomfortable questions about the 1% and whether they deserve to reap so disproportionate a share of the wealth that increasing productivity provides .It’s no wonder such questions are rarely raised. What’s wrong with inequality is not only that increasing wealth bypasses the poor, but that it increases their poverty.  Seriously addressing poverty requires addressing inequality at both ends, the wealth of those that have as well as the poverty of those who have not, reining in the rich as well as uplifting the poor.

An anti-poverty movement needs to be willing to say that, out loud.

Peter Marcuse[3]

[1] Greg Kaufman, “Building an Anti-Poverty Movement,” The Nation,  [February. 2, 2014]

[2] Although some religions seem to so hold: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

[3] This is a substantially revised version of a letter in The Nation, Marcuse, Peter . 2014. “Call It Anti-Inequality.” March 3, p. 26.

The discussion is extended in blogs from Blog #43 on, and will be extended in Blog #48, .What’s so Wrong About Inequality.

Posted in Inequality, Planning, Poverty, Social Justice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Blog # 45 – Consensus on Inequality Unlikely

Consensus on Inequality Unlikely

It’s good to call attention to the shameful way in which our economy exploits the poor and how inadequately our government responds to the problem.[1] But calling the problem “poverty” focuses on just half of the problem. It accepts the idea that the poor are responsible for their own problems, and government ‘helping families pull themselves up through hard work’ will let them ‘climb the ladder of opportunity’ ” (Obama in the State of the Union message).. But that skirts the fact that the poor are so poor today because the rich are so rich, because the poor have been exploited by the rich for so long, because inequality is so great..

The focus on poverty can obscure that important conclusion. Not by accident. Criticizing the rich smacks of “class war,” raises uncomfortable questions about the 1% and whether they deserve to reap so disproportionate a share of the wealth the increasing productivity of the 99% provides. Seriously addressing inequality rather than just poverty would undercut the President’s justification of inequality in that message, that “we don’t resent those who, by virtue of their efforts, achieve incredible success.” Even if their efforts come from financial and employment practices that cause wide-spread low pay and joblessness from which the poor suffer?

Tackling poverty involves tackling inequality, involves tackling the wealth of the rich as well as the poverty of the poor. An anti-poverty movement needs to be willing to say that, out loud.  An inequality reduction strategy has some win-win aspects (see Keynesian arguments), but it has some win-lose aspects too, and the rich prospective losers are likely to fight it. Consensus won’t be reached. That has to be faced by any ultimately effective anti-poverty program.[2]

Peter Marcuse

[1] As in: “Building an Anti-Poverty Movement” The Nation, February. 2, 2014

[2] An expansion of this argument is at Blot #44, “Poverty or Inequality,” at

Posted in 99%, Inequality, Loaded Language, Politics, Poverty, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog #43 – Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?

Blog #43 – Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?

Odd, in all the discussion of whether “we” lost the war on “poverty,” the question of who the combatants were or are quite escapes notice. Presumably, if the war was lost, the “poor” were the losers – but they’re not the “we” who undertook that war, but if anything they are third party beneficiaries, in the eyes of those who “declared” the war. A cynic might of course argue that some who voiced support for the war were as much concerned with social peace and undercutting of the painful protests of the 60’s urban uprisings and the currents that led to President Kennedy’s assassination as they were concerned with justice for the poor. But be that as it may, if the poor were the losers, who were the winners?

Calling it a war on “poverty” is an elegant way of avoiding that question. “Poverty” is not a combatant, a set of people, of actors, but a condition from which some people, the poor, suffer, a condition other people create. . A real war on the causes of poverty would have to look at who the poor are – surely we are not declaring war on the poor, but rather on those who are causing their poverty. And the question is “who,” not “what,” is responsible: the conditions, institutions, laws, economic and social relations, policies, that produce poverty in as rich a society as ours. These are all conditions produced by “who’s”, by people. And, unless one wants to revert to the discredited mantra of blaming the victim, it is the non-poor who are responsible for poverty. But while that formulation may be logically and morally correct, but it will hardly fly politically. Hence, opportunistically, a war on a condition, not its cause.

So, generally, it must be the non-poor who are the winners, who are or believe they are better off if the war on “poverty” is lost. Are they the 1%, or the top 10%, or those earning over a million dollars a year, or simply those “in power?” A debatable question, but one which the language of “a war on poverty” elegantly avoids.

A war on inequality would be another story. If taken seriously, it highlights that some are getting more, and others less, of society’s wealth. It requires, if really thought about, naming the winners as well as the losers in the fight. That is the Pandora’s Box the Occupy movement’s 1%/99% opens, and that Bill de Blasio highlighted in attacking inequality in the New York City mayoral race. But think about it this: a tax increase of less than ½ of 1% on those earning over $500,000 to help poor children have pre-kindergarten, as he proposes – if that is defeated, won’t it be crystal clear who lost the war on poverty, and who won it?

(On “poverty” vs. “inequality” as the target, see Blog #44, coming.)

Peter Marcuse



The debate between Governor Cuomo’s Pre-K plan and Mayor de Blasio’s plan  is a perfect example of the different between attacking poverty and attacking inequality.  Both wish to provide universal pre-kindergarten education of all children. Governor Cuomo wishes to finance it out of general revenues, and combine it with tax cuts primarily favoring corporations and upper income households.[1] De Blasio wants to finance it with a dedicated tax on incomes of $500,000. Cuomo’s approach is legitimated as an attack on poverty, de Blasio’s as an attack on inequality.


[1] On the proposed tax cuts, see Michael M. Grynbaum and Thomas Kaplan, “Pre-K Plan Puts Cuomo at Odds with de Blasio,” New York Times, January 22, 2014, p. 1 and 16.

Posted in austerity, Congress, Justice, Social Movements, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blo #42 – Neither Austerity Nor Affluence, but Abundance

Austerity, Abundance, or Affluence: Visions for a Post-Scarcity World


Is ending poverty really the limit of our ambitions for a good society? Is equality really the right measure of our ultimate hope for a re-imagined city? We don’t want austerity, and we question affluence; what do we want?

At a recent Re-imagining the City visioning session, the term “abundance” was suggested as characterizing the desirable city being envisioned. It was in the context of what public policies are ultimately wanted to achieve a sound vision of a good thoroughly re-imagined city. It aroused the beginning of a serious discussion. And provoked the following thoughts, focusing on the concept of abundance as the answer to the controversial current policy issues of austerity and growth.

As a first reaction: we have too much abundance now. Even if “abundance” is not limited to the physical, we have too much of the physical aspect for an ecologically sustainable city,  We need, if anything, a redistribution of what we have to those that need it most, and most of us have more of it than we need or can really appreciate. And even in the non-physical area, we have too much communication pressing in on us, too many demands on our time, too many people we would enjoy seeing more of but don’t have the time for, too many things we want to see and do and experience for our limited lifetimes. So not abundance, with its implication of more, but rather less, but differently distributed and maybe differently formed.

But there’s another way of reading the claim for “abundance.” Over the long course of history, and until very recently, most societies have struggled to create both the social relations and the physical goods necessary to meet all people’s basic needs: the needs for adequate shelter, food, water, security, care, that are necessary to sustain life.[1] They have been societies of scarcity. Consequently, some measure of austerity was inevitable, even as to basic needs, and if some were in a position to get more than they needed, that was at the cost of even more austerity for the rest. Even if  slowly a net societal surplus was created, it did not eliminate austerity, because of two limiting conditions:  1) the ability to produce a surplus over basic needs was still limited, and 2) the social arrangements included inequalities of power that permitted some to take more than they needed, reducing what was available for others. Thus, a large measure of austerity as to basic needs was existed for very many. Not to speak of austerity as to the many elements that would be desirable for a rich and fully developed human life to flourish for all.

But times have changed.  Neither of the limiting conditions that have brought about austerity the past longer need to exist. As to the technical, since at least the middle of the last century technological advances have gone so far that it is readily possible for a society to produce enough to provide all with the basic necessities of life and in addition  produce a surplus to enable all lives to flourish. Even with today’s technology, if we eliminated both the production of the weapons of war and the devastation their use causes, if we ended the waste in the production and marketing of socially unneeded goods, if we stopped making luxury goods and providing luxury services used more as shows of status than for actual use, we would have an abundance of what was actually needed. And today, as to the social, we have the knowledge to organize our societies rationally and to organize production and distribution in a way to enable a just and sustainable life for all. (The difficulties in applying that knowledge is discussed below) Austerity is no longer needed.

The opposite of austerity is abundance. Abundance is today both technologically feasible and desirable.

But an abundance of what, and how much of it? No absolute answer can be given to either  question, but some conclusions relevant to public policy and social relationships can be suggested. They lead to one answer: what is desired in abundance is what is appropriate not only for the basic necessities of life, the traditional physiological needs for food, water, and shelter, but includes the availability of the social services and supports that are generally accepted as being among the rights of man, things like health care, education, recreational opportunities. And beyond these basic necessities, the higher levels of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, for social solidarity, security, respect, belonging, opportunities for self-expression, etc. . The aspiration for a level of abundance that can fully meet the hopes of all for this full range of needs, for what constitutes a full, rich life, is today a reasonable and feasible aspiration.

Abundance is a good term for what is wanted. Its precise formulation can, and should be, debated. It is not “growth,” for its own sak, certainly not as measure by GNP, or average incomes. Rising tides don’t lift all boats  equally, and growth of some activities can be positively harmful. “Abundance”  as used here is the generous availability of that which permits human flourishing and supports the full development of individual capabilities, that which optimizes happiness for all, that which promotes  living the most fully possible human life.[2] The aspiration for abundance goes beyond goals such as the elimination of poverty, the reduction of inequality, even the provision of justice based on performance. These are criteria that belong to a society of scarcity; in a society of abundance, they can be met and exceeded.

I take it for granted that what is wanted must meet criteria of social justice[3] and of sustainability. Neither of those criteria requires austerity today; both can be met consistent with the provision of abundance through the reasonable uses of technology and reasonable social arrangements.

So, as a matter of policy, austerity is not needed today as to neither the basic necessities of life, or as to the conditions permitting life beyond the basics to flourish. Imposing austerity on the level of governmental and social provision and actions is clearly the opposite of what is wanted, and stands in the way of achieving the good city and society that can be re-imagined today. Abundance is what is wanted.

But the question of the how much abundance is desired must also be answered.  Whatever that level is, it must of course be within the limits of ecological sustainability. That such a limit can technically be met and yet permit production of what is needed is not seriously debated.  It will certainly require alteration of some basic social arrangements. Detailing the requirements in concrete detail is in fact is one of the purposes of advocating re-imagining the city; the point here is only to clarifying the goal. The next step is appropriately a matter for democratic decision-making, there being agreement on the goal.

But, under existing social and political arrangements, there is a difficulty here. For there is a tendency among some within the  affluent portion of today’s societies to read into the goal of abundance, into the definition of what they need to flourish, an desire for recognition of  superiority,  a desire to have more than others, for a level of conspicuous consummation over and above their needs. The capitalist system inherently is based on the drive to accumulate; accumulation is an end in itself. We have the knowledge to change this and to do better, but the system blocks putting that knowledge to use. And it has been enormously successful in producing great wealth for some with poverty for others. And it is a self-perpetuating arrangement, for the possession of wealth brings with it power to keep the arrangements that provide it. Capitalism provides more than abundance for the affluent, and leaves less for the non-affluent, leaving as a result abundance for the few and austerity for the many.

Nor is that result accidental, or even unwanted, by the affluent.   The very dictionary definition of affluence makes the point clear

Affluence in the United States refers to an individual’s or household’s state of being in an economically favorable position in contrast to a given reference group.[4]

Affluence for the few contradicts abundance for the many.

And it is not only for the very few really affluent that this negative argument holds. The system that produces affluence for the few also creates a desire for affluence by many.  When people are asked why, if their income is modest, they object to raising taxes on the very rich, many answer that they hope to be very rich themselves some time in the future. They hope to change their position from one less favorable than that of the already affluent to one of affluence for themselves. Hence the phrase “affluent society,”[5] is used not because everyone in it is affluent, but because the pursuit of affluence is seen as a driving force in the whole society.

So the re-imagined image of the desirable society is neither one of austerity nor one of affluence, but one of abundance, somewhere in between.

A final important note: the vision of a society of abundance includes a vision of human beings quite different from what they tend to be in societies of austerity or of affluence.  They will not be like the suffering, worried, insecure, exploited and discontented and oppressed members of a society of deprivation and austerity. Nor will they be like the driven, one-dimensional, competitive, aggressive, self-satisfied but insecure top echelons of the society of affluence. Abundance would permit a society of individuals at peace with themselves, each other, and nature, relaxed, secure, other-regarding men and women. Acquisition of goods and services will not be for their commercial value, their exchange value, but for their direct use, in ways fostering sharing with others both for reasons of efficiency and solidarity.

No one will have to worry about whether they have enough of what they really need, as in a society of austerity, nor will anyone worry that others might have more than they have, as in a society of affluence.

The above description sounds utopian and a pipe dream. Abundance will not by itself produce such a society, but will make it possible. The path to it begins with a rejection of the necessity for austerity and a rejection of fixation on ever growing affluence, and an alteration of those social arrangements that today block the peaceful road to creating abundance for all.


[1] There’s a long discussion in the sociological literature about just how to define these needs. Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–96. is probably the seminal text, suggesting a hierarchy of needs, ranging from Physiological needs to Safety needs to needs for Love and Belonging to Esteem to Self-actualization. I use “basic needs” generically here as equivalent to physiological needs, and consider the other four as needs needing to be satisfied for a flourishing life. .

[2] For urban policy, Susan Fainstein’s The Just City, Cornell University Press, 2010, is good starting point for an examination of the possibilities, but the definitions of the good life have concerned philosophers, religions, political theorists, sociologists, economists, from time immemorial.

[3] Many different definitions of social justice have of course been put forward, with key contributions ranging from Plato to Kant to Marx to Rawls to Harvey to Fainstein and my own. The issues there involved again are not pursued in this paper.

[4] From  Cambridge International Dictionary of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995

[5] The phrase was first popularized by John Kenneth Galbraith. In “The Affluent Society” Fortieth Anniversary Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, 1998. It was further critically explored in the appropriately named talk on “Liberation from the Affluent Society,” reprinted in Unpublished  Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume III:The New Left and the 1960s (Routledge, 2005),

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Blog # 41 – Right to the City – Organizational Realities

Reading the Right to the City – Organizational Realities

The practices of Right to the City-affiliated organizations around the world vary widely, but have much in common. Reports from groups in Europe and the United States, from Greece to Hungary to Germany to France to Portugal to Spain to the United States – presented at a recent conference in New York [1] — revealed both striking similarities and striking differences, with a common impetus behind them and a common enthusiasm in action. What follows is an attempt at a framework to separate out the components of the policies of these groups, and is based on the exploited, excluded, discontented analysis.[2]  with hypotheses as to what kinds of answers might be generated. The question might be asked, how each component might relate to the varying readings of The Right to the City listed in an earlier discussion.[3]  The listing is not intended to be comprehensive, nor to make value judgments as to a “right” or “wrong” approaches, but to be an aid in furthering the discussion of alternative goals and practices.

1.         Target constituency? How are they defined? As the poor, the working class, immigrants, minority ethnic or “racial” or religious groups? By age? By legal status, by gender, by sexual orientation? By work-place relations, unionization, wage rates, work conditions?

Hypothesis: Open to all in theory, but in practice: groups among the exploited, the excluded, and the discontented, with a  common denominator: ill served by market-oriented capitalism and urbanization, among these groups focus determined by history and existing socio-political situation.  In practice,  “all people” are not the constituency  except in the very long run — some already have the right to the city, and use it to exclude others.

2.         Problem Focus? Gentrification/displacement almost always, directly or indirectly, affordable housing, homelessness, environment, health care, welfare programs, jobs, discrimination based on “race,” ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, immigration status, poverty, globalization, local community development/preservation?

Hypothesis: Community rather than work-place issues, almost always single issue focus among them, most frequently gentrification/displacement or housing/homelessness, but involved in and supportive of other campaigns and groups.

3.         Base of organization?  Issue-based? Community or neighborhood-based? City-based? National? Active as one organization, or coalition of organization? Membership-based, with “allied” non-members? Paid staff and/or volunteers? If local, link to national Alliance? Global links?

Hypothesis: some level of paid staff necessary; membership dues helpful for organizing but not adequate for funding desired activities, principled relationship to finding sources but with tensions. Actions more often organized by individual member groups of Right to the City Alliance than of coalition/alliance itself, but hope for high levels of cooperation and unity. Links to national and global groups boost morale and info, but are essentially separate from local activities.

4.         Internal organization?  Participatory democracy? Formal democracy? Strong leadership? Spontaneity desired?  Explicit self-education and training programs? Use of outside educational opportunities/organizations?

Hypothesis:[ Little direct information available.]   Strong emphasis on participatory democracy, but in practice significantly dependent on extent and quality of leadership, with occasional tensions between effectiveness and democracy. A shared and unfulfilled need for expanded education and internal discussion.

5.         Strategies, tactics? Demonstrations? Picket lines? Public Relations? Petitions? Involvement in electoral politics, around issues? Around candidates? Around parties? Sit-ins? Occupation of public and/or private spaces? Strikes, work-place based?

Hypothesis: All groups learning from experience, their own and each others. Relations with media important, deserving of focused attention. Level of militancy more externally determined (level of crisis, etc.) than by internal decisions. Partially dependent on ideological position as to desirability of consensus/winning conflicts over power..

6.         Historical situation?: How will answers to any of above depend on level of economic prosperity? Economic crisis? Sense of improvement or decline in living standards? Policies of the l1%? Level /position in process of globalization? Historically established legal, governmental, cultural forms? Involvement in War? Role of military? Corruption?

Hypothesis:  Dependent, not on absolute level, but on both perceived change: conditions improving or worsening, and on perceived injustice: inequality increasing or declining, respect accorded or denied?

7.         Role of state? Is state seen as enemy? An (un)-reliable friend? A secondary consideration? A battlefield? A target of action?

Hypothesis: Attitude will depend on policies of the 1%: are they seeking to co-opt and mollify, as in welfare state policies, or to control, and if control, by force, police suppression, criminalization, or by tolerating/encouraging righto-wing oppositional groups, as Tea Party or skinheads?  Austerity measures? Neo-liberal ideological offensive?   Does formal structure of government allow for meaningful influence by groups?

8.         Motivation? What drives the membership: Economic hardship? Insecurity? Loss of benefits, current or prospective? Frustrated present or expanded aspirations? Sense of injustice? Offenses to dignity? Instincts, “consciousness,”[4] theoretical analysis? Belief system, historical or manipulated?

Hypothesis: Certainly material condition for exploited and excluded, built for them as well as for discontented issues of dignity, respect, discrimination, injustice, substantial.

9.         Guiding Theory? What explanation of present conditions guides the strategy? Marxist? Class conflict? Keynesian? Inherent tendency to crisis? Foucault? Lefebvre? Saul Alinsky? Piven and Cloward? Pluralism? New Left? Globalism? Anarchist? Agency vs. Structure? How does theory influence strategy? Is it reflected in a Mission Statement?

Hypothesis: Development of explicit theory largely guided by need to put immediate actions into a context, avoidance of grand theory. Reliance on generalized understanding of lived experience. Often reactive to dominant theory, e.g. austerity promotes growth, minimum wages cost jobs, providing affordable housing undermines work incentive. Limited use of “allies.,“ interaction with discontented. “Anti-capitalist” may be a good common denominator.

Putting the Hypotheses together might be a sort of outline of the collective experiences of the groups.


1. Sponsored by and held at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in New York City, Novmber 22, 2013. See

2. For an earlier version, see Blog #6 –“For Occupy, What Does 99% Mean”, at

3.  See Blog #40 – “Reading the Right to the City,” at [1]

4. See Herbert Marcuse, Essay on Liberation

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