Blog #39 – Participatory Budgeting – Potentials and Limits


Participatory Budgeting – Potentials and Limits in New York ‘City               Peter Marcuse

Participatory budgeting, by which in New York City open public assemblies, in the district of each city councilperson choosing to participate meet and hear and debate proposals for the use of those limited capital funds allocated at the discretion of the council person. Their recommendations to him or her are in practice largely effective. It is a major approach to the difficult question of how to make governmental decisions both reasonably efficient and well structured, and at the same time really democratic, participatory, and transparent, all at the fundamental grass-roots level. [1]

The approach underling participatory budgeting can have, if fully pursued by a comprehensive Participatory budgeting system, a fundamental and quite radical impact on the nature of local government.  In two distinct ways: democratic participation, and democratic decision-making. As to participation it is a method of permitting input from citizens in a detailed, concrete, transparent fashion, open not only to essentially reactive public reactions to governmental proposals, but also permitting the injection of citizens own ideas and proposals into the political process. As to decision-making, it represents a degree of decentralization from the larger city-wide urban level to the districts of the 51 council members (the discussion here focuses on the program in New York City, now , thus approaching  its third year of use), a degree of decentralization approaching the old town meeting forms of direct democracy widely used at that much smaller scale in the early days of the United States in a largely rural society..

Participation could thus be much broader, more direct, and democratic. And decision-making could be much more directly open, grass-roots, and transparent.

In practice, the implementation of such a fully pursued comprehensive approach in New York City is very much more constrained and piece meal, very limited as to the subjects of participation and not pursued very far in the in decision-making process. . The scope of participation limited to the amounts in any council persons’ discretionary budget, typically around     $1,000,000[2] out of a total city budget of $100,000,000,000, including capital expenditures, typically about $20,000,000,000.  The council persons’ discretionary budgets are today limited to capital expenditures; operating costs of programs whether for job creation, job training, early childhood education, planning of transportation routes, zone changes, land use planning senior programs, etc., etc. are not included. Typically, city agency capital budgets are not reviewed, although they vastly exceed council discretionary budgets. The results of the neighborhood assemblies are not binding on council persons, and indeed open to being manipulated by them with an eye to solidifying a political base of support in the district.

The issues involved in the expansion of participatory budgeting as it now exists in New York City, to what a full-fledged comprehensive approach might be, are substantial, both politically and conceptually. Politically, the simple fact that only 9 of 51 council persons have agreed to participate, despite a multi-year effort, speaks volumes: active “outside” participation is seen as an infringement on their discretion even as to the expenditure of their limited discretionary funds; the concept of expansion to other budgetary decisions, and even policy decisions, may well not be greeted enthusiastically by most elected officials. A mayor’s position may be more open. Wider participation may be seen as a limitation on his discretion also, presenting new political problems. It may also be seen  as a substantive shift of power towards the mayor, as the original establishment of the 59 community boards in New York City was seen by then Mayor Wagner.

But to the conceptual problems. Simply to list them:

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  1. How should the scope of assembly-type participation be defined? All capital expenditures taking place in or affecting a district? The district operating budgets of all city agencies operating in the district? Some set proportion?
  2. How can city-wide, as well as district-level, interests be taken into account? In the early models of participatory budgeting, e.g. Porto Alegre, sectoral assemblies were established, which included representatives of every district but examined the distribution of expenditures among districts to insurance equity.
  3. How should districts be defined for purposes of participation? As it is, they are city council electoral districts. But electoral districts are notoriously defined by political result. Community district lines, postal Zip codes, school and operating agencies boundaries (already subject to a mandate for limited congruity). The process of defining electoral boundaries has resulted in massive data that could result in new district definitions. How should the problem be handled?
  4. There is a history of expanding democratic participation in the City which needs to full reviewed. Perhaps most critically is the nature and role of Community Boards. They are an explicit move in the direction of decentralization of decision-making power and participation in public deliberations, including already a specific if limited role in budgeting. The present arrangement in effect creates a competing line of organization of local participation. Can the two be merged? Could they be integrated, by mutual consent, in deliberations? Should there be an effort to make the logical but even bigger move, to merge the boundaries for council districts and community boards, a logical but potentially treacherous political goal?
  5. Can the innovative procedures for democratic participation pioneered by participatory budgeting movement be expanded to affect the city as a whole? Could the grass-roots strength of the existing assemblies be marshaled in a joint form, perhaps borough-wide (as community boars now are) or an assembly of assemblies, in any event ins such fashion that support for the process can be politically marshaled?
  6. What should the city government’s role in the process be? Clearly, independence is sine qua non. But wouldn’t funding without control except for graft be a major support for the process? How far can volunteer and foundation-funded staffing go, what role should city agency employees be asked to play or be limited to playing?
  7. How should participation in expenditure decisions be related to revenues derived from decisions as to taxation and handling of city economic development policies? Should not, for instance, the sale of city-owned property, or the privatization of service it is the city’s responsibility to deliver, e.g. garbage collection, security, building code inspection, park maintenance, be subject to participation?
  8. Are there any structural changes in the organization of city government that might enhance the participatory budgeting process? For example, history the City Planning commission had the responsibility to review and act on the city’s capital budget before it went to the City Council. Might restoring its role provide a non-partisan and expert overview of local decisions that would be of benefit to all concerned? It might not be greeted enthusiastically by a mayor fearing diminution of his (or her?) own power—unless, that is, it is in fact seen as a  move towards further modernization and efficiency,  as well as a democratically related improvement in a difficult and complex process?
  9. Participatory Budgeting is grounded in the desire to expand the scope of democracy in local government. That demand is sometimes in tension with the demand for social justice; often the two are seen as parallel but separate demands aiming at the creation of the Just City. But sometimes it is frankly generally recognized that the two can be in tension with each other, and one can be pursued without necessarily a commitment to the other. Where does the participatory budgeting process in New York stand on the issue? Is social justice a major element in its philosophy and practice? Can there be general guidelines for the objectives a proposal considered in the participatory budgeting process should follow (see 10. below?)
  10. Should there be a set of principles expected to be followed by all decisions made through the process, e.g. non-discrimination, affirmative action, weighing of environmental consequences, social impact statements, inequality reduction?
  11. How politically controversial should advocates for the participatory budgeting process get? Should they only promote the policy where those in power are friendly to it, or should they see it also as a part of an effort to further democracy where those in power are reluctant to potentially weaken their power by its introduction? Should proponents of the process be willing to be critical of the opposition to it, take on their arguments against it directly at their home base as well as commenting on it internally? Should they advocate for the City Council to adopt policies encouraging participatory budgeting in all districts, regardless of individual council members desire? Or format formal procedures for participatory budgeting that could be adopted by any council member at his or her option – perhaps creating controversy in some non-adopting districts? Or should they shrink back even from that?

Participatory budgeting can be a significant step forward in the exploration of ways of achieving real democracy at the grass-roots level, immediately in capital budget planning (by itself a key element in the shaping of the built environment and social structure of cities), but also more generally in the search for the mechanisms by which truly democratic planning and decision-making  might be accomplished, keeping in mind the legitimate needs for efficiency and the practical needs for political realism.

But participatory budgeting can also be a will-o-the-wisp, or worse. It can be used simply as a sophisticated way for those already in position of political power and influence to get information about what some active among their constituency think and want, akin to polling, but with the added advantage of giving the respondents the feeling they are participating in decision-making, While in fact their participation if at a minimal level of power over a minimal range of decisions.  Thus it can be a co-optive mechanism using sophisticated technical forms to reinforce existing patterns of conduct by those in power. The devil is both in the details and, perhaps even more, in the broader perspective in which it viewed.


[1] The process, and a quite general statement of its goals, are at: http://www.participatorybudgeting.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Rulebook.pdf. What follows may be seen as a commentary addressed to those goals and the strategic issues involved in their possible implementation.

[2] A minimum. See http://council.nyc.gov/downloads/pdf/budget/2014/14budget.pdf for a simplified presentation. Some of the funds further have specific restrictions, e.g. for non-profit social service agencies, senior services, youth programs, etc.

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Blog #38 – Community Land Trusts: Empty, Moderate, and Full-bodied.


Community Land Trusts – Empty, Moderate, or Full-bodied?

Community land trusts,[1] as a legal form of ownership of land, can come in three different forms: empty – available to any group for any purpose; moderate – to deal with serious but limited problems for a limited group, or full-bodied – handling both immediate problems but with a broad social justice perspective pushing transformative content and actions.

The differences are significant. Community land trusts can simply be an expanded form of co-operative ownership used by those protecting an already strong position in the housing market, insulating its members from outside influences by exclusion. The legal form of land trust is available to all, and ”community” can be interpreted restrictively by the well-to-do as easily as broadly by less well-off users. Thus, community land trusts as an empty form.

At the other extreme on a scale of social justice, community land trusts have the potential to play a transformative role in our housing systems, favoring lower-income households and all those ill served by existing markets, including poor households, the homeless, African-Americans and ethnic minorities, many women, households diverse by gender relations, age, and background.  -justice focused community land trusts can whittle away at the dominance of the private market as a method of allocating housing. Community land trusts can be models of democratic governance, both internally and at a larger scale of governance. And they can help in the political processes by which public resources are allocated to establish and implement a meaningful right to housing for all. Thus, necessarily, full=bodied community land trusts .

Community land trusts may also be transformative in a quite different context: achieving effective grass-roots democracy. If extended, community land trusts may be seen as a form of neighborhood self-government, in fact controlling land uses and what goes with them in an unquestionably powerful manner, viz. having legal title to the land. But such a potential for community land trusts is not at this point seriously in the picture. The tie-in with other social movements pressing for democratization of land use controls and the planning function of government should not be ignored, however.

In between these two extremes lie a wide variety of variations in form and content. The exclusionary use of community land trusts would presumably be rejected by most. There is a danger of co-optation by interests posing community land trusts  as an alternative to public housing or rent regulation or subsidies or favorable tax treatment for those in need. Presumably, also, a formal commitment to principles of social justice and serving those in need would be part of any mainstream moderate position. But how sharply to focus their immediate goals, how widely or narrowly to devote their energies, how to use limited resources, with whom to ally and who to confront in adversarial fashion, how far and in what manner to be politically engaged, are all matters in which strategy as well as principle. Compromises will be inevitable. Thus, moderate community land trusts.

Where in this spectrum of possible community land trusts  a given effort stands seems to me to depend on three factors.

  1. How seriously is “community” taken? Community land trusts can be simply a legal form of holding title, used for tax and financing purposes, but in daily use essentially a management company, negotiating with utilities, contractors, maintenance staff, etc. Or it can be seen as a part of an effort for form and maintain a communal level of social interaction, involving not only collective democratic decision-making but a sharing of activities, of information, of social responsibilities, of political involvement. It can affirmatively work on positive relationships with its outside neighboring community, having not only neighborhood representatives on it boards but helping integrate its residents in its community, more widely defined, sharing facilities, activities, information, as circumstances suggest. Likewise, it can affirmatively look to achieve and make use of a diversity of residents, including both levels of recognition and of assimilation comfortable to each.
  2. How, and how clearly, is the constituency of the community land trust understood? A community land trust has control over who its members are, can have processes similar to those of cooperatives in interviewing potential new members. But there are general principles that must be established, and they will influence not only who is in the community land trust but what its relations with its outside community and government will be. Specifically, income levels and household composition can be defined as criteria.
  3.  If the principles of social justice are followed, it also becomes more likely that the community land trust will operate as a full-bodied trust.
  4. How does the community land trust see its political role? Every community land trust except an exclusionary one of the well-to-do faces the reality that many to whom it would like to be open cannot afford even the non-profit real costs of decent housing. The need may go from an immediate need for help even with basic costs or special needs to an on-going concern about rising costs or changed incomes limiting what a household can afford.  That inevitably means a concern with governmental subsidies, levels of taxation, utility costs, building codes, public services, public facilities. But the problems community land trusts  face are shared by a large part of the population as a whole. If the community land trust sees itself as part of a broader movement to achieve social justice in the provision of housing, perhaps as part of a broad right to housing movement, it will be more and more a full-bodied community land trust both in its inception and its ongoing daily activities.

A note on the ideological and economic aspects of community land trusts:

The idea of community land trusts resonates with an old theme in economics: that of land as a common natural resource, one not the product of human efforts, and therefore not to be appropriated by individuals for their private use, but to be shared among all. Community land trusts can be seen as an implementation of that view, at least on a small scale: no individual has the legal right to dispose of his or her interest in a community land trust for personal gain. Yet, theoretically, the ability to sell an interest in a building built on land in a community land trust at a price for that building fixed in a private market will take into account that that interest is made more attractive by its ground lease. Thus a likely profit can in fact ensue to the seller of a community land trust unit, amounting to an ability to make a private profit from a natural resource,. The market value of a building or unit in a community land trust building is technically the price of a commodity.. The land itself may be decommodified, but the right to use it is valuable, and could be realized by a sale of what is on the land and benefits a private owner from its common ownership. The land is decommodified, but not necessarily the building on it, to which the value of participation in the community land trust accrues.

What makes the typical community land trust radical is not the separation of land from building and its character as natural resource, but rather the restrictions that the classic community land trust, moderate to full-bodied, imposes on those leasing the right to occupy from the trust. Those restrictions typically regulate the price at which a housing unit in a community land trust can be sold. In these community land trusts , the leases to occupant members either prohibits the occupant from selling the unit except at a price established by the board of the trust, or gives the trust itself the right to buy at a fixed and limited price if the unit is put up for sale. . In this way community land trusts operate as would a limited equity co-op; the separation out of land ownership is simply another way of controlling collectively the price of units in it, as well usually as the characteristics of new buyer occupants. It is the restrictions in the permitted sales of units in a community land trust which make it an ideologically radical idea, and the terms of that restriction set the extent of the radicalism. If limited to an original price, originally set not aiming at a profit, and usually increasing only to the extent of the occupants own investment of money or labor in the unit, that makes it radical, for it effectively takes the unit out of the housing market and eliminates its use as a provider of private profit. A resident of a classic community land trust has virtually all the rights of a home owner, except the right to sell at a profit.  It turns housing into a set of use values, rather than of exchange values.[2]

Community land trusts may also be transformative in a quite different context: achieving effective grass-roots democracy. If extended, community land trusts may be seen as a form of neighborhood self-government, in fact controlling land uses and what goes with them in an unquestionably powerful manner, viz.having legal title to the land. But such a potential for community land trusts is not at this point seriously in the picture. The tie-in with other social movements pressing for democratization of land use controls and the planning function of government should not be ignored, however.

All this has two implications. One is that such a community land trust cannot be seen as a “creator of wealth.” The opportunity to benefit from a speculative increase in the value of land is denied the owner. That may make a community land trust less attractive to some, but may be welcomed by others, and should in any event be clear in the use of the community land trust form of ownership. The other implication is the need for thoughtful consideration of how permitted sale prices are established. While the principle of non-speculation is clear, its definition is not quite. Specifically: typically, the seller is allowed to recover his or her purchase price plus investments. But usually that purchase price is adjusted by some formulae, such as changes in the cost of living, benchmarked to some measure of the rate of inflation, at least on the up side. That means it has some characteristics of an investment that does have market advantages: it is protected from erosion by inflation. It has the additional market advantage, the more full-bodied the community land trust is, of having collective backing against personal misfortune; foreclosure is technically impossible and eviction for non-payment of rent is handled more humanely than it is in the market, again to varying degrees. That benefit is of course realized to some extent in directly market terms when it comes to financing; a bank is likely to recognize the stability provided by the collective responsibilities and spread out risk inherent in the community land trust form as opposed to conventional single-family home ownership.

So “decommodification”  is not complete, but is certainly ideologically challenged by the use of the community land trust form, and its extent will vary with the details of the trust instrument and the leases given pursuant to it.

And if the above economic analysis is right, it provides some solace for potential participants in a community land trust that, while they may not accumulate speculatively-driven wealth by participation, they do achieve definite economic advantages in terms of security, both of occupancy and of return of original investment.

My own take, again if the above analysis is correct, on implications for community land trust practitioners:

Be clear who your constituency is. (Point 1 above.)

  1. Stress the “community” in community land trusts when presenting them. (Point 2
  2. Be clear and up front where you stand on the importance of social justice in the spectrum between moderate and full-bodied community land trust.  (point 3)
  3. Be politically active in coalition formation with other social justice oriented organizations and actors, and join with them both in obtaining the necessary support and subsidies for community land trusts  and in supporting other housing rights organizations program proposals for governmental action in the housing field, particularly on financing and rent regulation and affirmative non-discrimination. (Point 4.)
  4. Be up front about community land trusts’ impacts on wealth accumulation (minimal) and its other economic advantages: security of tenure and investment.  (Note on ideological and economic aspects.)

pmarcuse.WordPress.com  Blog#38.

[1] A community land trust is a legal form in which the ownership of land is held in the form of a trust and separated from the ownership of any structures that may be on it, which are privately (often in the form of a co-op or mutual housing association) built, occupied, and managed, subject to the term of a land lease from the trust. The trust is typically controlled by a board in which the actual users of the buildings on it are the primary members, together usually with representatives of the neighboring community and/or relevant government representatives. The leaseold interest with the users of the building have can be sold  subject to the provisions of the lease from the trust, which typically limits its resale price and must approve the buyer. An excellent fact sheet,  which also contains further useful links,.is at http://picturethehomeless.org/publications.html,,

[2] The myth that home ownership per se is a reliable way to accumulate needs to be dispelled. Home owners accumulate wealth only through two aspects of home ownership: one is savings, the other is speculation. The savings are essentially the forced setting aside of money to pay off a loan, the mortgage. Alternate investments of savings might do even better, and be subject to less risk. The other source of additional wealth creation from home ownership lies in the possibility of capturing the increase in the value of the house, which is fundamentally of the location on it is built, for the physical building itself depreciates. Again, that’s a speculative investment, and not always a safe one, as today’s economy shows. And see the historical experience recounted in Sclar, Elliott, Matthew Edel. and Daniel Luria. 1984. Shaky Palaces: Home ownership and Social Mobility in Boston’s Suburbanization.  New York Columbia University Press 1984.

Blog #37 – Lopsided Language


Loaded Language

Language is a political tool. That’s generally recognized.  What speakers mean when they use words like “freedom,” “security,” “justice,” or “democracy” says a great deal about where they stand politically, and such terms are deliberately used for their political effect. It may not be immediately apparent on which side of what argument the users stand, but it is obvious that the meaning is controversial and needs to be looked into.

Other terms that sound good are already clearly identified with a particular cause, and are open about it. If someone says “affirmative action,” or stresses “balancing budgets,” or “job creators,” or “all life is sacred,” we are immediately on notice that, while they sound good, there is a political position being put forward, an argument being made that requires reflection and proper contextualization. They are used as propaganda. Propaganda includes the artful choice of words to give a persuasive political message; those in the business make no bones about why they use some words and not others

More insidious, however, is when words are used that have an apparent obvious and noncontroversial meaning, that are customarily taken at face value and without refection, that are not reacted to as propaganda, but yet are just as much propaganda as the more obvious ones. And this often happens, not by what meaning is accepted for the words, but what meaning is avoided, suppressed distorted. These are words tacitly accepted as either good or bad, as non-controversial with an implicitly accepted meaning, that if they were seen as politically serving one purpose or another, would be the subject of debate. They are words like “consensus”, “growth,” “innovation,” “sustainable,” “resilience.” Some have indeed been subject to quite controversial scrutiny: “tolerance,” for instance, or “democracy“, on “inclusive.”  But others, such as those examined here, are generally used without particular attention being paid to their political implications, and operate, in a way subliminally, below the threshold of conscious examination,[1] to buttress a particular political position or world view, generally that of the establishment.

Take the words “poverty” and “inequality.” Which is the problem, poverty or inequality? Well, both, of course. But we have had a “War on Poverty” substantially funded at the national level and implemented in cities throughout the land, but when a candidate for Mayor of New York City makes a call to reduce inequality a key part of his platform, he is attacked as being “divisive,” and tea party Republicans denounce advocates of social welfare measures as fomenting a “class war” in the country. The difference in the phrases is telling. It is acceptable to declare “war on poverty,” because no-one is being attacked, Studies of how to wage it focus on the poor, their social capital or lack of it, the poor need education, contacts with middle-class folk and their job opportunities and their moral customs, maybe child care are health care or even jobs, for which of course they need the training. All may be true, and even helpful if seriously addressed. But the rich are not involved, certainly not seen as part of the problem, part of the causes of poverty. We need to reduce the gap between rich and poor, but certainly not by measures that reduce the wealth of the poor, according to the dominant thinking and language.

Yet inequality has a certain resonances, enough to be of concern to the establishment. Not many go so far as Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, who even accepts and justifies it, arguing it shouldn’t have such a bad rap. Bizarrely, he argues that inequality is good for the poor:

“Other cities have much lower inequality levels,” Mr. Bloomberg’s press secretary, Marc LaVorgna, said, citing Detroit and Camden, N.J. “Are those better places for low-income families to live? Or would they be better off if they had more wealthy people, and a larger income gap,”

Or, to quote Tony Auth’s cartoon, what Bloomberg might say:

“As not what you can do for equality. Ask what inequality can do for you.”

But even Paul Krugman, an energetic defender of the interests of the poor, feels forced to argue that, after all.  Helping the poor will help everybody, because what they will buy with increased incomes will be goods sold by to them by the rich and thus rebounding to the benefit of rich as well as of poor. And the even those not willing to go so far, and presenting impressive documentation on the extent of the growing inequality and its injustice, focus their arguments on the difficulties that the poor face, with some attention to the benefits to the rich, but rather little on how those benefits to the rich in fact are founded on the poverty of the poor. Only died-in-the-wool Marxists seem today to have picked up on the implications of concepts such as surplus value, which suggests that the profits of businesses and the wealth of their owners is directly related to how little they can pay the workers that produce what they sell.  There are words whose usage is tabooed, as well as words in lopsided usage.

A War on Inequality threatens the rich, a War on Poverty does not. “Poverty” is an acceptable term in mainstream discourse; Inequality rather slips to the side.

There is a political logic in this pattern of word usage. The ability of the 1% to maintain their position, both in politics and in the economy, rests not only on their physical power but also, and perhaps more and more, on their ability to contain the opposition of the governed, of the poor and of the middle “class” as well. Jürgen Habermas wrote of the Legitimation Crisis, the need of those on top to justify their positions to those below. This is accomplished in part by the handling of words, of language. Specifically, a major part of their argument is that there is a commonality of interest, not a conflict, between rich and poor. How each does is independent of how the other does; the poor may deserve more, indeed it can be recognized  that they do and that some level of charity and fairness must be shown them, but not at the expense of the rich or their practices. The poor must be helped to change; the rich need not do so.  The reality of a conflict of interest must be suppressed, and indeed is better not even let surface, and the lopsided use of words having a conventionally established meaning bottling up any incentive to challenge that meaning is a large part of the process.

Take other language. “Inclusion” and “exclusion” are words frequently used in policy discussions by political leaders, researchers, journalists, talking heads. “Inclusion” of course is a good thing, devoutly to be wished; to be excluded is undesirable. Right? But note the passive voice, which reads quite naturally – yet it already conceals the agency of the excluders in the exclusion. The focus is on those who are excluded, not on those who do the exclusion. They are not doing so well because of their characteristics: they lack education, skills, maybe morals, etc. They are overcrowded in insecure, unsupportive neighborhoods; they are not included in healthy middle class or better ones, and should be. The social city program of the European Union is addressed to deal with the problem, teaching those in such neighborhoods how to behave, how to improve themselves, so that they will be more acceptable in better communities. That the better communities in fact achieve their quality in part by their ability to exclude, that pubic actions support the “two cities” phenomenon partly be looking only at one of the cities, that of the poor, without analyzing the functioning of the other, of the better off – that’s a question the term “inclusion” might be thought logically to raise, but it’s conventional and overwhelmingly accepted usage does not raise, It is a lopsided usage, but the prevalent one.[2]

And there are terms whose conventionally and overwhelmingly accepted usage simply smothers any potential critical content. Terms such as “tolerance”, “diversity,” “sustainability,” all have important and good meanings, consistent with the achievement of social justice. But they can unexamined, be co-opted and used for their opposite. Tolerance can mean acceptance of racism, homophobia, arrogance, chauvinism. Diversity can be used to support the presence of the poor in all neighborhoods, as contributing to a desired diversity, without questioning the existence of poverty or the harm it can do to those at the bottom, as in gentrification which increased diversity but displaces the poor. Not everything should be sustained; on its face, sustainability almost calls for a continuation of the social status quo, usually less by aiming to do so as by never reaching the question. Such concepts are two or many sided; a lopsided usage implicitly supports existing social relations.

Of course, ultimately, we are all in it together, ultimately it is indeed to everyone benefit that all of us should be included and treated fairly in one world, one united city, one society in which each is tolerant of all other, all enjoy the benefits of diversity. But pretending, deliberately or by omission, that we are already there defeats the purpose of getting there. If we’re already there, no reason to change anything to get there. The very use of the word “we” in sentences such as the above is a tip-off to the lopsided understandings ordinary words can be given. “We” are a very disparate group of people; some of us are already tolerant and enjoy diversity and it’s to “”everyone’s” benefit that “we” act in solidarity with each other. But “we” also excludes a lot of people whose interests today are very different from each other, whatever they may ultimately” be. We can’t all be winner. If there are winners there must be losers. To try to make all of us winners while the game continues to make winners and losers won’t work.

“We,” as it’s most generally used,[3] should actually mean “some people” – a wag once suggested it should only be used when it means “me and my friends.” Lopsided meanings given to such words, many words, which conceal alternate meanings and wash out contradictions and conflicts among groups and interests, get in the way of changing things so that “we” could actually mean “all of us,” not just some of us. Straightening out the lopsided uses of language would be a big help.


[1] Herbert Marcuse has a long riff on the subject of language, pushing it further to argue that the very structure of grammatical laws has such political implications. See One-Dimensional Man, Chapter 4.

[2] A recent report to URBACT II, May 2013, Against Divided Cities In Europe, brought to my attention by Ivan Tosics of Hungary, is a welcome exception , calling explicitly in 0065amining “divided cities” for “planning and interventions across the whole city (which includes rich areas.)” p. 6

[3] A detailed example is at Blog 35, “Watch your Language, Krugman,” at http://www.pmarcuse.wordpress.com.