Blog #90 – The Paradox of Trump and his Followers

What follows is a Work in Progress  attempting to explain a quite  apparent paradox: how is it that Donald Trump, a billionaire real estate developer,  whose claim to fame includes popularizing the slogan : “You’re fired!” can  end up leading a right wing populist following that in fact is plagued by the very  activities he as businessman epitomizes? How it is so many people enthusiastically and vociferously support him, in apparent contradiction to their own interests?

The argument here begins by suggesting that Donald Trump is in fact operationally three different persons, three Trumps (perish the thought, if taken literally!), three entities he has struggled to keep separate: Trump the Individual, Trump the Businessman, and Trump the Political Campaigner. His individual psychological characteristics, idiosyncrasies, if not neuroses, have been extensively examined elsewhere, and are not examined here.

As Businessman, Trump’s activities are a combination of conventional exploitation, underpaying workers in the conventional businesses he operates, principally managing real estate, and an entrepreneurial instinct expanding profit-making by commodifying desires for consumption, for luxury activities providing status over and above actual use. He seeks support as a Political Campaigner for his political ambitions as well as for his businesses, by exploiting conventional aspirations for economic security and social safety, both linked to private enterprise and dreams of wealth accumulation.

As Political Campaigner Trump gains support by latching onto what might be called a Deep Story, an emotionally held ideology and set of values that explains, rationalizes, and legitimates how the world works. Such a Deep Story has long existed as to how the industrialized capitalist world works.  Trump has modified that old Story to proclaim a New version counting on the vulnerabilities of voters and popular media to changes in the economies of the world that have frightened masses of ordinary people seeking assurances that the supposed promises of the old Deep Reality, seemingly vanishing, could be restored quickly and easily by his authoritarian rule. He has used promises of “Making America Great Again” to propagate a new right-populism and a New Deep Story appealing to those susceptible to promises of quick and easy solutions to deeply threatening and hard to understand changes.

Major economic and social developments in the Deep Real Economy have underlain Trump’s success as a Businessman. In these developments profit is derived not primarily from industrial  production but also in the process of its realization in user consumption. The commodification of luxury consumption in which Trump specializes, and the financialization which he is adept at manipulating, is then justified by a New Deep Story resting on a widespread popularly accepted account of how the changed reality works.

I hope in the next week to flesh out the argument here in a series of perhaps six blogs, perhaps as follows

This Blog #90 – The Trump Series: The Paradox of Trump and His Followers

  1. Blog #90a – The Three Trumps: Individual, Campaigner, Businessman
  2. Blog #90b -Trump the Businessman: The Commodification of Luxurious Living
  3. Blog #90c – Trump the Campaigner and his Opposition
  4. Blog #90d – The Deep Realities and The Deep Story of Industrial Capitalism
  5. Blog #90e – The New Deep Realities of the New Economy and its New Deep Story
  6. Blog #90f The Philosophic Explanation of the Persuasive Power of the new Deep Story
  7. Blog #90g The Alternative Reactions to the New Deep Reality: Right, Middle, and Left

****   WORK IN PROGRESS   ****


Blog #74 – On the Relevance of Herbert Marcuse Today

Blog #74 – On The Relevance of Herbert Marcuse Today:

NOTE: This Blog #74 is a short piece on the relevance of Herbert Marcuse’s work of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s to the 21st century, arguing it reflects a major historical turning point. It reflects the possibility of the abolition of scarcity and the possibility of the creation of a new society, and at the same time requires a redefinition of the meaning of revolution today, adding new ideological issues to continuing material one .It was the opening Welcome talk at the biennial conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society at Salisbury University in November, 2015.


I think this is the right time for this conference. It may look, judging from the apparent direction of the political winds, as if it is the Right’S time, and yet, it seem to me, the state of the world today demands that it be the Left’s time – that it is in fact High time that the left should get its act together and show that the Left in fact has it right, and set about winning the battle to convince our fellows around the world that we must move from right to left. Not that the Left has all the answers, but it does have many of them, and conferences such as this can help us move to clarify even more.

And our work is particularly important at this time, historically. One Dimensional Man was published in 1964, and Essay on Liberation in 1969. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 (the movie on its history, tellingly entitled: “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” is just being widely released, and I encourage you if you have the chance, by all means to see it.) Both the books and the movie, in quite different ways, spoke of revolution. Neither, in the lifetimes of their protagonists, achieved their objectives. I think both would be forced to agree today that the basis for revolution, certainly for violent revolution, is not present today, and that the path to real progress, the path towards implementing left and radical and Marcusian and black liberation hopes, is today necessarily heavily ideological, requires the kind of educational work, both in pedagogy and in theoretical understanding, which makes this conference so important.

We are not today where we were in the 1950’s and 1960. I think the left critique developed in the 60’s was right, but it leads to a shift in the meaning of revolution that we have not fully appreciated. What my father and the critical theory of the 60’s pointed out was that the society today had reached a post-scarcity stage technologically, where Want is no longer necessary, that there was no reason for increasing impoverishment, for hunger or homelessness or failing health care or limited education or the struggle for limited resources that have fueled so much of the hostilities that we see today.

And yet Paul Krugman, an honest and very intelligent liberal, writes in the U.S. newspaper of record, the New York Times, quoting a study of the rising rate of suicides in the U.S. that people have “lost the narratives of their lives,” “people who were raised to believe in the American Dream [are] coping badly with its failure to come true….there is today a wide-spread feeling that something is basically wrong with the path we are on…. There is a darkness spreading over a part of our society. And we don’t really understand why.”,

Well, I would suggest that he read some of Herbert Marcuse’s writings and those of others advancing critical theory, then and now. They reveal, I think, that we have come to a turning point, where the attitude towards the American Dream as a goal is changing. We are at a point where the discontent and the demand for radical change comes not from the continuance of poverty, although that poverty is indeed also continuing, but comes from the nature of the American Dream itself, not only from the failure to realize it for so many but for the growing realization that it is not worth its costs, that its pursuit is fundamentally anti-human, flattens out life into a single dimension that does not permit the realization of an alternate dimension, one comprising the richness of life that society is now capable of producing for all its members. A society that produces one-dimensional men and women, and suppresses the other dimensions of life, substituting insecurity and increasingly violent, oppression and exploitation – what Marx called barbarism –for the dimension of utopian-tinged peace and freedom – what Marx saw as a dimension of socialism. A society that produces the need for new forms of even revolutionary reforms

And it is to disentangling and clarifying these dimensions of life that I see this conference as dedicating itself; clarifying why with all the promise that civilization could fulfill today people today people have lost the narratives of their lives, lost the ability to capture a second dimension of beauty and peace and hopefulness, lost a positive perspective that seems dominated by a reactionary longing for some past that some nameless force has prevented us from achieving – a nameless force whose very name they rarely dare think about, let alone name: ”the system”, a system that blocks and distorts their aspirations, a system that needs to be named: a system called capitalism.

Paul Krugman, at the end of his column, almost comes to that point, to naming the blockage, because he accurately perceives and names the policies and practices that create and defend the system, when he writes – going from talk to practice, a route I hope we will also go, from words to actions and policies, and Krugman concludes:
“While universal health care, higher minimum wages, aid to education, and so on would help a lot of Americans in trouble, I’m not sure whether they’re enough to cure existential despair.”

He’s not sure? He, and many many others like him, would benefit greatly from being at this conference! I’m delighted we can all be here!

Blog 66 Just Housing Draft

Blog #66 –Just Housing? –Public Housing’s Past, Present, and Potential Future

In three parts: First, an argument about public housing and the concept of justice , suggesting that public housing is part of a whole housing system, private and public, shaped both by forces internal to it and external pressures from other parts of the system, justice being thus far a minor criterion for it operations.
Second, a history of public housing’s roles in the past, suggesting it ranged from being a chain of oppression, to being a pacifier of social protest, to be a pawn of special interests, to being a beacon of hope for a more just world;
Third, some policy implications of the analysis, divided between immediate efforts to address internal weaknesses to broader transformative efforts to address its social role in society, to possibilities for system-changing efforts –from an oppressive chain to a beacon of hope.__

The paper derives from a presentation on The Future of Public Housing,” part of a series on “Housing for All,” at the University of British Columbia. My keynote was entitled: “Just Housing? ” with a question mark, and both its title and the tile of the series, gave rie to ambiguities that already open the door to my main points and led directly to my agent.

HOUSING FOR ALL: put public housing isn’t housing for all, and shouldn’t be; it’s for those who need it and don’t have it.. It must necessarily be at the expense of those who have more than they need. Not for all.—except in the longest view. Will be conflict: goal is not consensus, but justice

JUST HOUSING? Is housing just, and is it just housing that decide? Can you have jus t housing if it is embedded in an unjust society??

First, then, the argument:

1. Public housing is part of a much larger system of housing, production, distribution, management, financing, and regulation, and is subject to both internal and external constraints that any discussion of the future of public housing must consider both internal and external, not just the internal, in any discussion of the future;
2. Justice should be a major criterion in any such consideration. Public housing is important not judge as a means of providing shelter for the poor, but as a way of handling a major social institution and shaping fundamental social relationships among all sections of society. Justice requires not just alleviating poverty but reducing inequality, affecting what goes on at the top of the social and economic scale as well as what goes on at the bottom.
3. Therefore, conflict is to be expected, and consensus is not a feasible ultimate goal, in any measures dealing with public housing . Ad they will not only be conflicts about details and methods, will involve a wide array of vested interests outside of housing – both internal issues and external pressures, and will be fundamentally political more than technical.

To be clear, what we’re talking about: what’s unique about public housing? Two things:

1. It’s outside of the market, at least as to the fixing of rents, but
a. Construction still generally private, so developer lobbies, ca be public, WPA First Houses
b. Land purchased privately so costs market dependent. can be eminent domain, high tax
c. Management public, can be outsourced, to a non-profit, e.g. tenant corporation, which could be elected, or CLT model
d. Ownership public, so no profit motive, although efficiency concerns because tax supported, but not just subsidized non-profit, call that social housing. Non-profit involvement is also important, but is not the final solution; it remains with its priorities privately set, not democratically publicly established.
2. It’s based on social need, family size, income, health, existing housing. Has had other: wartime production workers, needed for displaced by urban renewal or public projects.

So certain conclusions flow from these essential characteristics of public housing —-

1. Its purpose is cannot be just housing as shelter, but just housing, housing that serves goals of social justice.
2. That means it can’t just deal with housing; it has to look at impact on jobs, discrimination, status, security culture, education
3. And Justice in housing involves looking at full range of housing system, rich as well as poor, gated communities as well as ghettos.
4. It further means it will always be conflictual: justice involves distributional issues, which means there will be winners and losers.
5. It will always involve relations of power; issues of planning, construction, design, programming, will be important , but not decisive.

Second, the history: If we look at its history, internationally, the results on the ground of these characteristics of public housing have varied:

1. Sometimes public housing has been among the losers: as a set of chains binding its resident to their prescribed place within the status quo, akin to a ghetto or a prison, functioning as an instrument of oppression; (Baltimore, sometimes New York City.)
Increasingly today, concentrations of crime, police surveillance, stigmatization indicator, a controlled slum
2. Sometimes as a pacifier, to prevent the very worst problems of homelessness and shelter, it could be worse remember, be quiet and seek small improvements
Bismarck, the New Deal
3. Almost always as a pawn, serving multiple interests , developers, land owners, , in fill, economic development , aesthetics, slum clearance, votes, ideology (government good, governments bad)
First Houses
4. But can be a threat to power also, because conjures up the image of what good housing can be, in a good society; it can be a beacon of hope and a spur to organized resistance, a radical utopia. In two ways:
a. As itself the basis for organization, a platform and site of action, a model community, a bubble utopia in practice. In day to day work. Or
(Vienna, The Bronx coops, Howard’s Garden Cities.)
b. As a model, an image of what a whole society might be organized to look like and provide, what the role of government should be. ideologically, theoretically: A beacon.
Utopian Communities, 60’s communes

With that history, what’s the future of public housing? How might its potential best be realized?
The answer, of course, is clear! What any economist will tell you:“ It Depends!” But on what? Well, on politics.

Not greater knowledge, better design, more sophisticated financing, more caring officials , better behaved applicants , fairer admissions or continued occupancy criteria – but, to put it plainly, on the distribution of power at the local and indeed higher levels of government and policy determination, on what politics in a democracy ought to be.

But, in today’s world, on who already has the power, already are the key actors: tax sensitive politicians, ideological politicians , developers, financiers up to hedge funds, private landlords, real estate agents/boards, employers, –and how others might be brought in as significant players, neighborhood merchants, ethnic groups , LGBT, residents, those in need of housing. On the ability to organize the politically unorganized and underrepresented..

Third, the Policy implications For the Future of Public Housing

A, Immediate policy implications.
1. Improvements possible. Knowledge, research, technical competence useful
• fair eviction proceedings,
• More efficient personal security, housing authority special police.
• better and more responsive management,
• Adequate funding for maintenance and repairs,
• Empowerment of residents and residents’ councils, for their knowledge, and support and pressure capabilities, to make actual policies bottom up.
• Hiring practices, including training of residents
• Provision of ancillary facilities and spaces for activities: health clinics, pre-school, recreation, meetings.

2. Some tough policy issues, needing research and thought, as in conferences like this
• Based on need, or good tenancy record, or family record?
• Mixed, set aside units for higher, (part from raising funding): for interaction? But less for very poor?
• Hire tenants, but social problems, less competence.
• Is inclusionary zoning for private housing a good idea as an alternate? With public housing management?
• Coalition building: with whom? middle class? Developers?
• B. Radical transformative possibilities. Defined as:
• Recognize conflict, willing to fight, not convince for consensus
• Talk about justice, inequality at the top, not just poverty at the bottom.
• Open a vista of even more, face up to the realities of capitalism and its weaknesses.

C. Systemic changes:
Fund public housing adequately. Fund distributionally, tax the rich, profits.
Decommodify land, and housing (up to mid-level?)
Empower residents of public housing, perhaps C.L.T. model, with legal authority.
A right to housing, globally recognized. 


Four take-aways:
1. Public housing is part of a system, both a system of providing hosusing an a system of social and economic relations in the society as a whole: both an internal and an eternal system
2. Justice should be a major criterion for a public housing system and not just at the bottom, not just the alleviation of poverty, but also at the top, the reduction of inequality. They are inter-related, and both are needed.
3. There for conflict is to be expected, and power will be involved, and not only more knowledge and technical competence is needed, but also political organizing and democratic involvement.
4. Public housing can be an instrument , a chain, of oppression, a pacifier of social resistance, a pawn for special interests, or a beacon pointing to just housing in a just society.

Everything need not be done at once; not a revolution, but transformatively towards social justice beyond housing,
Public housing is today a pawn in the hands of often conflicting but powerful groups in our society
But there are also movements to turn it instead into a beacon exposing injustice and pointing the way to better
a future for public housing worth fighting for, well within public housing’s dna:
Public housing as a beacon illuminating the possibilities of a just society, not a pacifier, not a pawn in power plays.
And at all costs not a stick to beat the poor.

The motto might be: break the stick, discard the pacifier, capture the pawn, relight the beacon!

If you believe all that, , better gird your loins for the battles that are surely ahead, and I suspect better started in many places already . Indeed, under way from the beginning of public housing’s history.

But it’s a battle worth waging.

Blog #58b: From Civil Rights to Human Rights via Transformative Rights.


Blog #58b: From Civil Rights to Human Rights via Transformative Rights.


The issues raised by the discussion of utopias in Blog #58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands, have a striking parallel in the discussion about rights, ranging from civil rights to human rights via transformative rights.



I.                 Rights: Human Rights and Civil Rights


“Rights” has many meanings, as in: ” human rights,” ” the right to the city,” “the rights of man,” “women’s rights’ or “minority rights.” When we speak of minority rights, we mean the rights of minority groups to be treated fairly and equally in matters in matters in which treatment should not vary by minority status, e.g. color of skin. What “fairness” and “equally” mean may be debatable, but what “rights” means is clear. It is a claim that the law, the existing judicial system, must see to it that the desired end is achieved, and if they do not do so, they should be changed so that they will. It is a critical, but not a radical or revolutionary, call.

A.    Human Rights

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson speaks of right that is self-evident: “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”[3] The French revolution’s “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” and Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man” saw rights in a quite different sense: as a revolutionary change in the entire structure of society, certainly of the nation, as an ultimate goal, not one or a specific set of rights, but a claim to a system, to an independence, that would permit rights to be pursued, not within the existing, but within a new, society”Rights,” in the minority rights meaning of the term, is a claim for a change in legal standing within an existing system; in the French or revolutionary meaning, it is a goal for a movement of fundamental social change. . For The socialist Jaurès the French revolution’s “rights of man” “anticipated socialist utopianism, not legal internationalism.”[4]


B.    Civil Rights

Jefferson’s right, an inalienable human right, is clearly a right to change the system; it is, after all, in a revolutionary Declaration of Independence. Civil rights, historically, are rights within the system, rights in fact the system itself is called on to guarantee.

The point is more than an academic one. It came quite dramatically to fore again in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960’s, when a significant part of the movement began to make it clear they wished, not simply to be included within the existing framework of laws and government, but within an entirely new one.

In Sam Moyn’s excellent story of the varing role of “rights” discussions over the course of history, the tension between civil rights and human rights formulations reflects somewhat the same difference in the meaning of rights, from immediate demands to broader goal statements. Human rights claims, in W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King are on the other hand more on the order of what Moyn calls “transformative utopianism.” Moyn also highlights the relationship between internal human rights efforts as going beyond more limited domestic and practical claims, as in Stokely Carmichael’s move from a United States-centered to an internationally-oriented effort, and Malcolm X’s vision of “human rights—but in the sense of collective liberation from imperial subordination.”[5] It is a movement between a critical and a radical or revolutionary meaning, between  change within and change of, the system, the underlying structures of of power that define how a society operates. It is a movement which depends on the historical possibilities of the particular moment.

C. Transformative Rights

While the right literature on rights offers much more material for examining the questions raised above than is possible here, the suggestion of linking internal political struggles around civil rights and international struggles around human rights, clarifying the implications of each for the other, as Sam Moyn ‘s work does, should have wider attention in social movements which often use the language of rights to formulate their claims. As with utopianism there is the danger that human rights is pushed into a limited consideration of what the United Nations of international law are willing to recognize and enforce, neglecting to examine what taking human rights seriously might mean for changes not only within the existing systems of international law but also for changes in the very meaning of “civil law” within national states. It is fertile ground for further constructive exploration. The concept of transformative rights might be useful.


[1] Significantly, it is a singular right that Jefferson cites, one big one, to a new country in the context, not multiple immediate if critical rights within existing national relationships.

[2] Moyn, op. cit., p, 40.

[3] Significantly, it is a singular right Jefferson cites, one big one, to a new country in the context, not multiple immediate if critical rights within existing national relationships.

[4] Moyn, op. cit., p, 40.

[5] See Samuel Moyn. 2010, The Last Utopia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., pp, 104-106. Moyn does not generalize to the conclusion I suggest in the text, but focuses on the multiple ways “rights” have been political issues over the course of history, suggesting how their meaning has changed with their context, and I believe the dichotomous meanings referred to here are revealed in many instances.

Blog #58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands.

Blog 58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands.

The Occupy movement was frequently criticized for not making immediate and concrete programmatic demands. The movement challenging climate change and calling for society to become managed along ecological lines is sometimes charged with the same failure. The slogan, “Cities for people, Not for Profit,” and the Right to the City movement, are likewise often faulted in the same way, charged with being utopian, unrealistic, naïve. The tension between efforts to bring about changes within the system, to meet priority needs as a priority goal, or to change the system itself to deal with long-term causes and consequences, is a tension fraught with difficulties, both in theory and in practice. Examining the handling of utopias and utopian ideas , while on its face perhaps theoretical, can provide some illumination as to the practical alternatives for social movements as well.

I. Utopian Utopias and Non-Utopian Utopias

A. Utopian Utopias, “utopian” ideas.

“Utopia” and “utopian”: those are two quite different words, often used with quite different meanings and, if they are used without attention to the difference, they can have quite different, even contradictory, practical implications The discussions of utopia go far back in history, at least to the Greeks, recurs in the discussions of and within the Occupy movement, and is the source of on-going tensions in discussions of strategies of social change all over the world: are the goals of this movement or the assumptions of this program or that utopian, or is the spelling out of a vision of utopia now a mobilizing impetus for movements of social change? The focus on such questions was hot in the 1960’s, in the new left, in the anti-colonial struggles and movements for national liberation, in the peace movements. They perhaps came most sharply into focus in 1968, with Herbert Marcuse’s talk on The End of Utopia in Berlin[1] and in the signs displayed by the students on the streets of Paris that year: “Be Realistic; Demand the Impossible.”

Recognizing the differences in the two meanings, the positive meanings of “utopia” and “utopian” as ideally desirable and the negative meaning of the two terms as meaning “impossible” and “unattainable” leads to the question

“Is utopia still a utopian concept?”

Using utopia in the positive meaning and utopian in the negative.

Thus: “is an ideal society still unattainable? “

So we need to distinguish between two concepts of utopia: that of 1) a an imaginable but unattainable perfect future state, a utopian utopia, and that of a good, or a just, society, in which the principles of social justice would prevail, a just utopia seen as the goal of actual political social, and economic societal arrangements, a concrete, really attainable utopia: an attainable utopia, for short, as the word will be used here, “attainable” as opposed to “utopian.”   It was then argued that by the 1960’s there should be an end to the painting of an utopian utopia because an attainable utopia had become possible, and continuing to define it as utopian was conservative if not self-defeating.

B.    Attainable Utopias

In what sense could there be an attainable utopia? In 1967, it was said in Berlin

“Today any form of the concrete world, of human life, any transformation of the technical and natural environment is a possibility, and the locus of this possibility is historical. Today we have the capacity to turn the world into hell, and we are well on the way to doing so. We also have the capacity to turn it into the opposite of hell. This would mean the end of utopia, that is, the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities. It can also be understood as the “end of history” in the very precise sense that the new possibilities for a human society and its environment can no longer be thought of as continuations of the old, nor even as existing in the same historical continuum with them. Rather, they presuppose a break with the historical continuum; they presuppose the qualitative difference between a free society and societies that are still unfree, which, according to Marx, makes all previous history only the prehistory of mankind.”[2]

There are other interpretations of the End of Utopia formulation, notably by Russell Jacoby and Sam Moyn, which however use the concept,[3] 20 some years after Herbert Marcuse used it, in a quite different way from his use. They consider it still as the exercise of picturing a perfect although unattainable world and pursuing it, and see the ending of that result as a defeat of the aspiration for a radical change in society.[4] Herbert Marcuse, I believe, would have agreed, but differentiated a utopian utopia from an attainable utopia, from the real possibility of making a close to perfect world no longer unattainable, no longer utopian as a unrealizable ideal, but a goal now possible of achievement.

The political implications of taking all utopias to be utopian are strong. If one wants to use utopia in that sense, it follows that striving for utopia, or even spending time thinking through and imagining what a utopia might be like, is a useless exercise. If, however, one wants to argue that today utopia is no longer a utopian, in the sense of unrealizable, vision, but rather one that can be a concrete goal of human (political) activity, what follows is rather an incitement to concrete political action. It was an optimistic vision, as opposed to Moyn’s implicit assumption that utopia and utopian are necessarily associated and unachievable concepts. But I argue that an attainable utopia today is both optimistic, in its presentation of a lofty goal that is achievable, although pessimistic in agreement with Jacoby and Moyn, that the effort to achieve it as an immediate goal seems quite remote, depending on how one reads history. But I argue that there is a new real historical possibility of the realization of an attainable utopia requires a change in policy and program, in which the realization of that possibility, while it cannot be seen as an immediate goal (pessimism), can yet inspire individual partial steps towards its realization that may, as they come together, still make ultimate success possible (optimistic).

Thus, today, implicitly to label all discussions of utopia as utopian is politically loaded, conservative, hostile to efforts for fundamental social change.

It would not always have been so. The End of Utopia argument, as the long quotation above suggests, is made in a specific historical context, and I would rather read Moyn and Jacoby as reading that historical context today as different from what it was in the 1960’s. If the historical context indeed does not support the contention that attainable utopias are today possible, if the “historical continuum” in which earlier discussion of utopias still continues unbroken, then indeed today all utopias really are utopian. The belief that there has been a fundamental historical change, some time after World War I and increasingly thereafter, in which technological development has advanced far enough to make a society of abundance, of plenty for all, a real physical possibility, is a belief that has substantial support, and seems, if one things about it, intuitively plausible: if all the waste that goes into production for war, for unsatisfying luxury consumption and satisfaction of inflated and “false” needs, for competition for status and conspicuous consumption, for growth for its own sake, for legal and illegal theft, were instead funneled to challenges into ending existing inequities, into production of the necessities for a decent life for all in a society that put justice above profit and power, could not abundance for all, a real utopia, be realized today, even though hardly foreseeable in any earlier historical period?

The point is simple: an attainable utopia, not “utopian” in the sense of “unrealizable,” is a possibility today more than it has ever been before in history.

C.    Critical Utopias.

But even in earlier historical periods, the criticism that talk of utopias was useless and irrelevant to positive social change is only partially correct. It is correct, for instance, if heaven is seen as a utopia to be achieved in the hereafter, not in the now, thus preaching submission and patience and tolerance of injustices that will be rewarded, not in this life, but after it. This idea of utopia explicitly confined to the bye and bye indeed justifies that comment in the opening quotation: they are conservative if they amount to

“the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities.”

For this use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities is aspect of some historical discussions of utopia that have a most critical edge, and that conceivably still have, even if indeed history is still tilted against their concrete realization

For many, perhaps most, imaginings of utopias historically have not as their purpose the presentation of an ideal society to be achieved, but rather have been a criticism of the societies in which they are written. They were not arguments for the realization of a particular utopia, a particular new society differently structured and different motivated, but rather efforts to show how ludicrous existing arrangements were, how badly they required change. Whether that change was through reform or revolution, liberal or radical, was often not elucidated. One thinks of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, H. G. Wells A Modern Utopia, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This use of utopias as critical was thus indeed utopian, in its unrealistic sense, but not, in its historical context, an argument against social change, but rather one for it. How far concrete utopias might in their day be realized was quite different from how that might be realized today. Their political position then was as critical of the existing societies as discussions of utopia can still be today, if their ultimate attainability is not rejected ab initio. The purpose of these critical utopias was very much the same, if upside down, from novels appropriately called dystopian—the opposite of utopian—by writers such as Jack London in The Iron Heel or George Orwell in 1984. Dystopias are the presentation of an imaginary world, not as likely to be achieved, but to expose how the existing one was deficient. Utopias did it by showing what the better alternatives could be imagined, dystopias by what worse alternatives might be imagined to They were not intended to be blueprints for a new society to be achieved. Both critical utopias and dystopias were critical calls to action, in fantasized forms, intended to influence actions required to be undertaken in their contemporary societies.

So one may speak of a utopian utopia, a critical utopia, and an attainable utopia: a utopian utopia conservative in its political implications, a critical utopia or dystopia critically reformist in its political implications, and an attainable utopia, radical in its ultimate political implications, each very much dependent on its historical context.

There remains, then, the question of whether the historical context today is still the same as that of the 1960’s, whether indeed the optimism of those days on the streets and universities around the world was justified, and if not, what the conclusion as to the utopianism of utopias is today. It is hard, in a time of economic instability, high unemployment, increasing inequality, environmental degradation, unaddressed climate change, war and campaign of bombing and attrition, strong right-wing and racist tendencies in even the most formally democratic countries, to visualize even the possibilities of an attainable utopia.[5] Martin Jay certainly felt, in 1999, that visualizing the concept, as in Herbert Marcuse’s essay, “now reads like a document of a long lost civilization,[6] Is there then, at least in the short term, any surviving political relevance to the concept of utopia?

D.    Utopian Communities as Models for Transformation.

The term “utopian community” is often used to describe planned communities built in the last two centuries, and Sam Moyn uses the term “transformative utopianism” to describe “minimalist, hardy utopia[s] that could survive in a harsh climate.”[7] His reference is to the idealism of some of the protests of the the 1960’s, but the term might also be used to describe the planned communities like or Brook Farm or New Harmony or Oneida in the United States, or, very recently, eco-villages or planned communities or utopian experimental socialist models. Many were limited to attempts to implement different models for the physical growth of a community, laying out town plans and land use arrangements in a critical direction, as the Garden City movement. One might call various efforts to approach efforts of fundamental change as partially utopian in a limited way, as in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement and its spin-offs. And very down-to-earth reforms such as expansion of cooperative structures to broad sectors of the economy, worker-owned enterprises such as Gar Alperovitz espouses, have a touch of utopianism about them, if very much in Moyn’s sense of minimalist for harsh social climates. The issue of whether what is espoused represents change within the system or of the system is not always clear; the underlying hope is undoubtedly for both.

II. Transformative utopianism

Utopian, however, in almost all historical usages, carries with it the idea of complete change, a different society as a whole, as in its original use by Sir Thomas More and the subsequent thinkers discussed above. A “partial utopia” is really an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Striving for efforts at reform, by definition less than a complete or revolutionary change, can thus only properly be called “utopian” in the sense that they may prefigure one part of a utopia, on step towards complete change, part of a transition towards something more. Rather than call such efforts “utopian,” with its dominant usage as unrealistic, desirable but unattainable, does its transformative potential a disservice. There is a continuum in efforts of social change, ranging from small-scale, clearly piece-meal actions and ideas – “increase the amount of affordable housing till no one is homeless” – to large-scale goals, such as “provide housing on the basis of need rather than ability to pay.” It is stretching it to goal the former utopian,” but it may in fact be seen, and advanced, as part of efforts to attain the latter, maybe a utopian housing system, a partial utopia. I think it would be more effective to speak of such a partial, or even sectoral, goal as transformative utopianism.[8]

And in this more limited meaning, but still at the forward edge of the politically relevant, I believe pressing the case for a long-range and comprehensive perspective of social change, efforts to work out the outlines of an attainable utopia, of a critical utopia, of a transformative utopia, can still play an important and positive role. Immediate and concrete programmatic demands for reforms need such utopian perspective today if they are to have a lasting impact tomorrow. The trick is formulating and fighting for demands that both secure immediate benefits but raise the possibilities of broader social transformation; demands that address the narrow immediate but open to vista to the whole, demands both for change within the system and change of the system.

[1] lecture delivered at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967. Reprinted in                                   vol   of

[2] Herbert Marcuse, The End of Utopia, First Published: in Psychoanalyse und Politik; lecture delivered at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967, included in Herbert Marcuse, Marxism, Revolution and Utopia, ed. Douglas Kellner, Routledge, 29014, also available at and at ttps://

[3] Samuel Moyn, 2010, The Last Utopia: Human Right in History, Cambridge, Mass, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Russell Jacoby, 2,000. The End of Utopia Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. Basic Books.

[4] For a short overview of other uses of utopias, see Marcuse, Peter. “Utopias and Dystopias in Brecht (with a side glance at Herbert Marcuse)” in Silberman, Marc, and Florian Vassen, ed., 2004. The Brecht Yearbook 29, The International Brecht society: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 23-30., available

[5] Herb Gans has tried to do so, in a thoughtful way, in Imagining America in 2033: How the Country Put Itself Together After Bush University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2009. But it has not attracted the widespread attention it deserves

[6] Review in London Review of Books, “The Trouble with Nowhere” June 1, 2000, p. 23.

[7] Op. cit. pp. 119, 120.

[8] For more on the concept of transformation, see my Blog #30, Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas, at

Blog # 55c – The Blocked Questions on Inequality.

Blog # 55c – The Blocked Questions on Inequality.

[Blog #55a has tried, in outline form, to explain the existence of inequality in the U.S.A.]

[Blog #55b has asked mores specifically how that inequality came about and why it is tolerated in a democracy.]

This Blog #55c gives three examples, from different points of view, of how challenges to that inequality are blocked in the discourse about it.

The limits of Piketty.

 Thomas Piketty’s work has received deserved acclaim among economists in the mainstream, and even among some on the left. He clearly relates increased inequality to the growth of wealth and capital, Iin other words, inequality is increasing because the 1%’s share of growth is increasing. Historically, Piketty argues, as Steven Pressman, in a review in the “social justice and economic democracy committed” journal Dollars and Sense,[1] summarizes it, although inequality had been declining, “in the 1970’s or1980’s…the moneyed class revolted and began to influence policy. Top income-tax rates fell, income and wealth inequality rose rapidly.” The focus is clearly on the 1%. The conclusion is to tax it more heavily again, both its wealth and its income. But, Piketty concedes, an unlikely immediate development. Period.

What Piketty brings to the discussion is very much; what is surprisingly missing is as great. His analysis seems to cry out for answers to questions he does not ask: how does that wealth of the 1% come to them in the first place, what in the process of production that Miller refers to gives them their wealth, how come when the moneyed class revolted it was able to influence policy so strongly, why is it unlikely to be taxed down? “When the rate of return to capital (r) exceeds the growth rate of the economy (g)… more money flows to those at the top and inequality increases.” Obviously; that’s simply stating a tautology: when capital gets more of growth, non-capital gets less. Money seems to flow up-hill quite naturally, in such an economy. Wouldn’t the logical next question be, if the concern is for inequality, how could one reverse the flow? But the existence, and propriety, of the reverse gravity is simply taken for granted.

And the progressive economist reviewing Piketty has no better conclusion than to wish for “even more fire in [Piketty’s] soul for a global wealth tax.” His consolation for Piketty’s pessimism is that Malthus was pessimistic too, and look, he was wrong; maybe Piketty will be wrong too.[2] The problem is not so much that Piketty’s recommendations, or the reviewer’s wishes are wrong. Indeed a global wealth tax is well worth fighting for. The problem is that neither is pushing their questions to the next logical level of inquiry: how the difference in wealth between the 1% and the 99%, capital and non-capital, comes about in the first place.

Leveling down or leveling up.

 We read in a brief summary of how to deal with inequality dealing with “the underlying causes of our continuing high degree of poverty and inequality,” by a well and properly respected liberal sociologist and veteran of the anti-poverty wars, that the choice is between two approaches: Leveling Down the 1% or Leveling up the 99%.[3] Leveling Down, in the form of “increasing tax rates on the 1% would… ineffectively combat the continuing production of wide-ranging poverties and inequalities.. .”[4] The simple idea that levelling down the 1% might in fact be the best way to leveling up the 99%, because the profits of the 1% are built on the lower wages of the 99%, simply does not appear in the discussion. Miller might well agree that it is so; he points out that financial industries captured 40% of all business profits…and they certainly did not provide 40% of all jobs, while making a substantial contribution to income and wealth disparities.”[5] But the logical conclusion that limiting the profits of the business sector might help level up the incomes and wealth of the 99% is not pursued.

But what are underlying causes of our continuing high degree of poverty? “The American Economy is shaping up as a low-wage economy producing …” poverty. “…the production of these low-wage jobs is a great obstacle to… contraction of poverties and inequalities.” These jobs are in the “low-wage service sector.” “Yes, we should definitely seek to improve wages in that sector,” but the better route is to reduce the role of those jobs and rather foster jobs in construction, for instance, where the pay is better.

The point here is not that Miller is wrong in his recommendations; they should be supported as part of a broad effort to reduce inequality. The point is that what is missing in his discussion is any confrontation with the simple fact that the wealth and income of the 1% are related to the lack of wealth and incomes of so many of the 99%.

Low wage jobs are simply accepted as low-wage jobs; the wages should be higher, but low wage is simply what those jobs are. The financial industry makes 40% of the profits of business. That’s too much, but it’s not an “underlying cause of inequality.” And the jobs that need creating are not simply jobs that pay well, but jobs that do useful work, not speculate better or privatize more.

No larger pie. The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter, in his Economic Scene column in that mainstream paper, believes he has the answer, gotten by “Taking a Hard-Eyed Look At U.S. Income Inequality and the Problems Behind it.”[6] At various points he quotes, apparently approvingly, Gregory Mankiw, an economic advisor to President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, advocates focusing on “increasing educational attainment,” and holds, in as forthright a conservative statement as one would want, that “Inequality itself is the wrong thing to look at… The question is, how do we help people at the bottom, rather than thwart people at the top? … “Policies that address the symptom rather than the cause include higher taxes and a more generous social safety net,” says Mankiw. So helping people at the bottom doesn’t work, perhaps because it might thwart those at the top? “The best way to address inequality is to focus on increasing educational attainment [because] technological progress has benefitted well educated workers.” But then there are a series of comments pointing out that “education isn’t doing it” either. Nor does “technological progress” seem to be the answer either, for “the real problem is slow growth.” according to Mankiw‘s presumably hard-eyed look.

But, Porter says at the end of his discussion, apparently sympathetically, getting to “the nub of the issue,” that, “as the richest Americans capture a larger and larger share of the fruits of growth, for many people the essential question becomes: What is the point of creating a larger pie?” Well! So it is the division of the pie that counts, after all, and maybe those at the top do need to be thwarted, if the nub is to be dealt with?

Although Porter has thus gone much further than the avowedly liberal Miller in linking the growing wealth of the 1% to the poverty of the poor, charging that the rich are capturing – presumably from the poor – a large part of the pie, he seems to go back to an earlier comment in the middle of his piece, said more or less in passing: “even avowedly liberal social scientists have had a tough time figure out the negative consequences of the rise of the 1 percent.” Without noticing that he has himself just figured it out, he concludes with a classic cop-out: “That’s the post-Great Recession reality.”



[1] “Piketting Wealth Inequality,” July/August 2014, p. 26.

[2] P. 37

[3] S.M. Miller, “Breaking the Low-Wage Syndrome, Poverty & Race, vol. 23, No. 4, July/August 2014, p. 9.

[4] Miller also properly points out that the effort to tax the 1% has been largely unsuccessful but does not address the question of why that is, the main point raised here.

[5] Ibid.

[6] July 30, 2014, p. B1, B8.

Blog #54 – Community Land Trusts as Transformative Housing Reforms

Community Land Trusts as Transformative Housing Reforms

That New York City has a housing problem is rather well known. The devil here is indeed in the big picture as well as in the details. 47% of the city’s low-income renters[1] pay more than half of their incomes to obtain housing. Imagine what paying half your income just for housing means for the ordinary person, let alone one with limited income. 24% live in overcrowded quarters, more than 1.5 persons per room in the standard definition. Neighborhoods are clustered by race, ethnicity, income, household composition –what impolite critics call segregated, one of the most segregated (84.3 on the widely used dissimilarity index, where 100is completely segregated. Only Gary, Detroit, and Milwaukee, of the 314 other metropolitan area in the United States, are more segregated.[2] 224,000 units were in physically poor conditions. 164,000 units were vacant but not available for sale or rent, according even to the official figures.[3]There were 15,993 mortgage foreclosures in the city in 2013;

Bloomberg News[1] headlined the fact:


Community Land Trusts may have a significant effect on New York City’s housing crisis, may affect struggling and even prospering neighborhoods, may achieve significant savings in the city’s budget for housing while increasing the afford housing supply for families in trouble. But their long term impact may go further, and be a transformative new way of looking at the housing market and its limits, and model the way it can best function to serve the needs of all the city’s resident.


The federal government has, in its fashion, responded to such problems; New York City has the highest number of public housing unit, owned and managed, and maintained (in niggardly fashion) by the New York City Housing Authority itself. New York State has, if reluctantly, permitted the city to establish limits on the rents that can be charged for a declining portion of the city’s large renal stock. Mayor Bloomberg responded by pushing for extensive new construction of units, with a minor allocation to those most in need. Mayor de Blasio has put forward an extensive and expensive new housing plan that envisages 200,000 new units, and more, in the next 10 years.


But of course, when we say “New York City has a housing problem,” hat does not mean everyone in the city has a problem. The New York Real Estate Board holds that the real estate market has rebounded from the bursting of bubble that the industry, with the active encouragement of the financial sector, itself produced so recently. Rents going up are good news for landlords, if bad for tenants.[5] Mortgage foreclosures by banks and other financial institutions provide opportunities for big operators to buy up homes at a bargain, throwing home owners willy-nilly onto the rental market, shattering hopes of accumulating wealth by investing in “asset building” in a housing market sure only to go up, not down. At the same time, a Rent Stabilization Board makes sure rent regulation won’t prevent landlords from covering the costs when they go, protecting the profits from their investments, regardless of whether that means their tenants chances of meeting their basic needs are widely jeopardized. Talk of inequality!


A tiny new non-profit, called NYCCLI, somewhat incongruously pronounceable as “nicely,” the New York City Community Land Initiative,has just been incorporated in New York. What does it hope to offer to deal with this situation? Quite a bit, it turns out. NYCCLI’s formal incorporation papers describe it purpose as “advocating for community land trusts.”


And what is a community land trust? A community land trust is a trust that typically owns land, on which the housing unit or units are leased, for 99 years, to a limited equity co-op which provides homes for households, typically lower to moderate income, who occupy the buildings as members of such a co-op and have all the rights a home owners would have except for the right to sell the unit at a profit. Their sales price is set by a formula approved by the trust, typically permitting recovering the purchase price plus improvements plus some cost-of-living adjustment, but excluding the value of the land, which of course remains with the trust. The trust that owns the land also sets some basic rules for its use, basically to ensure that the housing on it will be permanently available to household who need it at the most affordable rents possible. The board that runs the trust is typically composed 1/3 each of residents of it housing, residents of its neighborhood, and supporters, who may come from government, advocacy groups, or technical experts who may be helpful to the trust. [6]


What good are community land trusts? They have four major advantages:


First, they make possible the creation of affordable housing on a permanent basis, especially for lower income households. CLTs make a key trade-off: they give up the possibility of speculating on an abnormal increase in the dollar value of the home in return for the security of knowing there is no threat of loss if housing prices go down and no danger of eviction if the cost of occupancy become unaffordable because of job loss or ill health or other circumstances beyond a household’s ability to control. And unlike almost all currently existing affordable housing programs, if a community land trust receives public subsidy, its benefits remain permanently available to their targeted low/moderate income recipients, and do not expire after a fixed time period of 20 or 30 or 40 years, and costs for such future residents have been permanently fixed to exclude any increases in the speculative value of the unit.



Second, community land trusts build communities and stabilize neighborhoods. They provide for deeply democratic management of their housing. By having not only residents but also neighbors and supporters from the wider community on their boards, they can provide diversity, establish priorities for expenditures, achieve efficiencies of scale, and put the strength of the trust behind individual members falling on hard times


Third, community land trusts represent a whole new approach to the principles governing the way housing is distributed, occupied, and used in a democratic society, limiting the intensity of the inequality induced by a private market which sees housing as a commodity to be bought and sold for its exchange value, for the profit it may produce, instead of for the needs it may satisfy, its social use value. NYCCLI’s approach can help change housing from a symbol and magnifier of inequality to address at least in part one of inequality’s main causes.


But fourth, and in the long run perhaps most important, they can be transformative.


Community land trusts challenge the arrangements of a housing market used to the pleasures and pains of speculating on housing value, which is, economically, fundamentally speculating on the value of a given location, and instead see housing as a necessity of a decent life and a supportive environment for all. And they provide the same opportunity for “wealth creation” or “asset building” as does buying a house with a mortgage and paying off the mortgage: put the equivalent of what is put into paying off the mortgage principal and interest on the land into a savings account or other good investment, and you have the accumulation with perhaps even less risk. Putting this together, they can move from seeing housing as a commodity, valued for its exchange value, the profit it can produce, and see it rather as a necessity of life, even perhaps up to a certain configuration as a public good.


The different tenures of housing and the legal and financial relationships householders have to the housing they occupy have major implications for the way people live. Community land trusts can provide a form of home ownership for a resident that combines the privacy and security and insulation of the American Dreams’ single family suburban house with the solidarity and support and social richness of the ideal urban life-style. Immediately, to reach the lowest income groups, they will need some public support for acquisition or basic running costs, and they richly deserve such support.[7] In the long run, transformatively, they can benefit not only their residents but the neighborhoods and the housing system



[2] Censusscope, available at

[3] The Census Bureau’s Housing and Vacancy Survey for 2011,. The count by Picture the Homeless suggests a significantly higher figure.


[5] The Real Estate Board summarizes:

“,,,notable gains this quarter, as compared to the second quarter of 2013, included: the 19-percent-increase in the average sales price for all homes in Brooklyn to $715,000; the 15-percent-boost in coop sales in Queens; and the 13-percent-increase in the average sales price for a coop in New York City to $768,000. The residential market in Manhattan also remained strong with the average sales price for all homes increasing by six percent to $1,491,000 year-over-year”

[6] Detailed information is available from the national Community Trust Network, whose website, at, contans extensive references to further materials, as do NYCCLI’s own educational materials.

[7] And remember the enormous subsidy that inures disproportionately to higher income households from the mortgage interest deduction in our income tax system.