Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

A Radical response, in a traditional fully socialist view, would approach inequality in a quite different way. It would define unjust inequality not in terms of the quantitative mal-distribution of the wealth of society but in terms of the source of that mal-distribution, economically in the exploitation of labor by capital (which includes the maintenance of unemployment to create a “reserve army of the poor” at the bottom to buttress the power of employers), and politically in the oppression of the ruled by the rulers.  The injustice of inequality lies, in the Radical view, not in the quantitative dimensions of inequality, as in Piketty, or simply in the harm to those at the bottom, as in the Liberal view, to be dealt with by anti-poverty programming.The injustice  lies in how the mal-distribution of wealth and incomes came about in the first place — David Harvey formulates it that it was largely acquired  by the dispossession of the 99% by the 1% to begin with. Yet the Progressive view generally focuses simply in the quantitative differences in wealth and power per se, which are self-reinforcing and must be countered together. In the Radical view, by contrast, the injustice stems from the source of those differences: the actions of those at the top in depriving those at the bottom of the share of the common wealth which in a just society they should have.

Taking some of the wealth of the rich and using it for the poor is thus just, but it is not enough; it does not address the source of that wealth, the conduct of the 1% that created the inequality to begin with. Redistribution is a remedy that only ameliorates the consequences after the damage is done; it doesn’t prevent the damage. Ironically, it has similarities to the criminal justice system: it punishes the guilty and compensates the victims, but it doesn’t address the causes of crime.  It is fair, or, indeed, by definition, just, but it assumes the structural arrangements of the society in which it exists, in which exploitation and oppression are legally permitted, in fact essential parts of the system, if subject to some limits.  In the Radical view a revolution is needed really to address the structures that support unjust inequality, including such aspects as the definition and enforcement of property rights in the economic system and electoral arrangements in the political system that limit participatory democracy or render it ineffective. Radically, the argument goes.  A revolution is needed which continually seeks to end exploitation and oppression and regulate the conduct which creates them, going beyond simple amelioration of the unjust inequality which they quantitatively produce.

The Radical response to quantitative  inequality  is to seek it sources in the structures of the status quo, and to pursue an economic as well as political revolution to limit inequality only to just inequality.

The kinds of goals a radical/socialist answer to inequality might lead to might include (for suggestive purposes only!):

  • A guaranteed annual income to all, at a standard commensurate with the real capacities of the productive system, perhaps something above today’s Average Metropolitan Income;
  • Either direct government or non-profit voluntary private responsibility for the production of the goods and services minimally required for that standard of living;
  • Nationalization of all major productive enterprises, with compensation limited to non-financialized values or less;
  • Confinement of profit-motivated activities to minor production of goods and service over and above the necessary , and for research and development above that level;
  • A sharply progressive to confiscatory tax on incomes and wealth over some socially defined ceiling;
  • Education at all necessary social levels public and guaranteed free, above that voluntarily undertaken;
  • Cessation of productions of all munitions;
  • Procedures for fully participatory and democratic decision-making at all levels of public action, with public support for the necessary implementation;
  • Environmental standards set and implemented at levels to maintain fully sustainable levels of desired health for all;
  • Recognition that the unjust inequalities produced by exploitation and oppression are linked together, and must be treated as a whole, and the process of undoing them must be comprehensive in scope and depth;

And, importantly:

  • The issue of unjust inequality would then simply disappear, because, with all having enough for a really fulfilling life and limits established on wasteful excesses of privatized wealth, the incentive to exploit or oppress, would imply disappear, and there would be  no reason for concern s about  comparative incomes or wealth that logically fuel current concerns about inequality.

These are obviously utopian goals, and practically relevant only in so far as they may provide a standard for evaluating the desirability of pursing specific realistically achievable goals. But to thinking through and visualizing alternatives to the existing along the above lines – playing with reality-based alternatives  for an ideal society, as was common in critical parts of human history in the past but has virtually disappeared from today’s intellectual or artistic life, might indeed be a generally  welcome development .

In the context of the present presidential electoral campaign in the United States, no major figure would espouse such goals, but neither would any explicitly defend the level of quantitative inequality that exists today. The more moderate wing of the Republican Party and the more conservative side of the Democratic Party espouse a Liberal approach, differing from each other mostly in the extent of its implementation. The further left voices in the Democratic Party lay claim to a Progressive response, in rhetoric sometimes similar to that of the Radical, but pragmatically toned down, so that revolution is spoken as reform of the political system, not in basic economic structures.

Politically, on the electoral campaign the view on the Republican side is conservative and the existing inequality, if acknowledged at all, is not seen as a major problem.

On the Democratic side the Liberal position is widely seen as desirable in principle but subject to a touchy debate to be resolved by compromise in realistic political terms;

The Progressive position is seen to have significant popular support, but unlikely to gather enough political momentum to be implementable to the extent necessary;

The Radical position is not seriously considered, however idealistically it may be discussed at the fringes of present realities, and espousing it may in fact weaken even serious Liberal and Progressive attempts at change.

A different response is needed. Blog # 81e – Other Forms of Radical Responses: Towards a Transformative Approach to Unjust Inequality, will suggest a possible step toward such a different response.


This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.





Blog #60 Toward a Housing Strategy for New York 1

Notes Towards a Housing Strategy for New York City

That there Is a housing crisis in New York City for the majority of its residents, and particularly severe for lower income and “discriminated-against minority groups,” hardly requires further documentation.[1] And there is an emerging consensus amongst housing advocacy groups and community-based and progressive political groups that strong measures, from administrative changes to even radical legislation, are needed to remedy the situation. It may be useful to try to put together what a comprehensive agenda for legal, political, and administrative change might look like, on whose substance common agreement might be developed. And the language with which we discuss urban issues needs to be looked at carefully, for the implicit bias much of it contains.

A. sets forth the premises of the strategy.
B. lists some of the concrete programs that might be foregrounded as demands.
C. lists some of the words that are often mischievously used in housing discussions.

A. The strategy accepts the following premises:

1. That there is indeed a crisis in housing, that it inequitably negatively affects particularly low-income and discriminated-against minority groups and inequitably favors higher income groups and profit-motivated suppliers of housing in the housing industry.
2. That the market, given the gross and inequitable inequalities of income reflects these inequalities, and cannot be expected to be a tool to end this crisis; its natural tendency is indeed to exacerbate it, and it requires radical control from government to act otherwise.
3. That community-based decision-making, accepting broadly-defined principles of justice, non-discrimination, and participation, is an essential element in developing a housing system that is equitable and free of crisis.
4. That, while some reforms may meet general approval and be win-win measures, any serious attempt to resolve the housing crisis will involve sharp conflicts of real interests, both material and ideological, and full consensus of serious reform is not to be expect. Rather, conflicts, in which grass-roots organizations and social movements need to play a critical role, are inevitable, and must be anticipated and planned for.
5. That the very words used in debates about housing policy can operate to vitiate meaningful research and be used as tools to influence the outcomes of conflicts over policy.

B. In outline, then, the measures that together might implement a serous strategy [3] addressing the housing crisis might include [2]:

2. Adopting public policies that predictably serve to reduce discrimination, reinforce equity, and help end the housing crisis, including :

a. Ending upmarket rezoning, which produces displacement, discriminates against the interests of those most in need of housing, and produces exclusionary communities.
b. Participatory budgeting, allocating significant sums for housing programs expanding options for affordable housing.[4]
c. Reinterpreting ULURP to required 4/5 majority of City Planning Commission and city Council votes to override a CB vote, thus reversing an opinion of the Planning commission’s counsel that the Charter Revision creating the Community Boards did not give their votes any legal force or effect. [5]
d. Revising City procedures for the handling of properties whose future use is within its power to influence, to give priority to uses expanding housing opportunities for lower-income households and development, to promote ownership and/or management by non-profits in the form of non-profit coops or condos or community land trusts or mutual housing associations community-based non-profit non-governmental organizations.
e. Amending the real estate tax system to serve social policy purposes as well as raise revenue, by increasing taxes for underused and speculatively-held vacant properties, imposing a speculation tax on the profit from rapid turnover of properties acquired for resale.
f. Requiring a registry of residential properties (lots, buildings, units) held vacant for over 3 months and imposing significant fees for late registration or failure to register, steeply increase with time, and authorizing filing of a lien.
g. Rent control, with limits pegged at the lower of tenant affordability and landlord break-even in the aggregate. Eliminating vacancy decontrol.
h. Public housing support and new construction, with continuing occupancy at proportionately increased rent if income increases over limits for entry.
i. Minimum wage and pro-labor organizing measures, with the understanding that they ameliorate the housing crisis, but do not establish an equitable housing system, and are ineffective unless coupled with rent and price controls. (Likewise, health insurance, unemployment compensation, and parallel measures).

C. In research and advocacy, avoiding language that cloaks serious issues or act as euphemisms for actions that would be recognized as undesirable if properly named.[6] Such terms, which often reflect implicit but heavily
Ideologically biased concepts, include:

a. Density, when put forward as if increasing density is per se a suitable goal for a housing policy, or as a simple way to produce affordable housing
b. Affordable housing, when used without recognizing that the definition of what is affordable must take into account that the need for housing becomes greater as incomes decline.
c. Market, when only the private profit-driven market in meant, rather than a system of shaping the distribution of goods and serves, and of public policies, to reflect varying individual and social preferences.
d. Up-zoning, rather than upmarket zoning
e. Wealth creation, if seen as a goal of housing policy for home owners, treating housing, not as a necessity of life valued for its use, but rather as a commodity invested in for it the profit to be derived from it
f. Government intervention, if suggesting there is a “natural” private housing system not fully dependent from the outset on governmental action.
g. Diversity, if used to encourage introduction of higher income or higher status households into lower income communities or communities of color.
h. Color blindness, if used to preclude examination of patterns that my reflect discrimination on the basis of color.
i. Environmentally Sustainable, when excluding the consideration of the social environment.
j. Displacement, when limited to the immediate eviction of households, excluding 1) precautionary or “voluntary” displacement undertaken ahead of but because of the immanence of rising unaffordable rents/costs or foreclosure actions, excluding 2) secondary displacement resulting from price changes in areas outside the immediate area of a given change but required because of it, and excluding 3) excluding prospective displacement, the prevention of households moving into -moving into a neighborhood desired by and otherwise affordable for them because of rising prices. [7]
k. Gentrification, when used as synonymous with neighborhood improvement, rather than its accurate definition as in-movement of higher income households into a neighborhood displacing lower-income households.
l. Integration, desegregation, mixed income, when used to support-movement of a white non-Hispanic population into a community displacing lower income and/or minority households. [8]
m. Growth, when used as a self-evident goal of public policy per se, neglecting what is to be grown and for whom, the relation between the various forms and directions of growth and social justice .
n. Competitiveness, when used as a desirable goal of city policy per se, neglecting questions of the net social desirability of aiding the competitive position of a given city against other cities in terms of the impact on social justice and the differential impact of economic competiveness on different economic and ethnic and racial goops.
o. City, as in ”the city,” when used to suggest that the city is an organic entity in which a benefit to any one part is a benefit to all, avoiding acknowledgement of the multiple conflicting interests in the city and the recognition that benefits for some, most frequently the upper income and elite, is likely to be at the expense of others, most likely the poor and minorities, e.g. wage levels.
p. Filtering, the assumption, contrary to fact, that benefits at the top of the income social, ethnic and racial ladder will filter down and benefit those below as well. As their higher-income residents move in, the tendency is rather to displace than to benefit lower-income ones. [9]
q. Transformative, unless used to separate radical from reformist proposals or policies. [10]

1. See, for instance, the several excellent studies of the Furman Center for Real Estate at New York University, the trenchant studies of many
3.For the distinctions between reformist and transformative proposals, see, “Blog #30 – Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas”
4. See Marcuse, Peter. 2014. “Participatory Budgeting–Expansion.” In City Limits web site,
5. A vote of the City Council, or even a new Charter Revision may be necessary for this purpose, and might expand the Board’s access to information and revise Board procedures improving the availability of technical assistance outside of city government if needed.
6. Marcuse, Peter, 2006. Expert Report, In Mhany Management Inc., And New York Communities For Change Vs. Incorporated Village Of Garden City and Garden City Board Of Trustees, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York Case 2:05-cv-02301-ADS-WDW Document 413 Filed 12/06/13 Page 1 of 65 PageID #: 10601, cited at page 41.
7.For a fuller discussion, see Marcuse, Peter, “Gentrification, Abandonment, and Displacement: Connections, Causes, and Policy Responses in New York City,” Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law, Vol. 28, 1985, reprinted in revised form as “Abandonment, Gentrification and Displacement: The Linkages in Nw York City” in Neil Smith and Peter Williams, eds., Gentrification of the City, Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986, pp. 153-177, and in Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly, eds. The Gentrification Reader, 2010, London, Routledge, pp. 333-348.
8.As a sample of the mischievous use of the term: a chair of the New York City Planning commission argued: “gentrification is merely a pejorative term for necessary growth.. “ “Improvement of neighborhoods – some people call it gentrification – provides more jobs, provides housing, much of it affordable, and private investment, which is tax revenue for the city,” she said.
9. Leo Goldberg’s draft for his research spells this out.
10. See, Blog #11, Reforms, Radical Reforms, and Transformative Claims.

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:


  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: 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 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.