Blog # 117a – Boss Trump and the Uses of Humiliation

Blog # 117a – Boss Trump and the Uses of Humiliation

The manipulation of emotions and their consequences plays a major role in the politics of power i n America today. The emotion of humiliation is a weapon in the hands of Boss Trump, strengthening is power by undermining the resistance to it. Their victims in the broader society litter the landscape of political action. The search for dignity, which may be seen as the opposite of humiliation, is partly in response to humiliation by its direct and indirect victims.  The causes and consequences of humiliation need to be understood by those opposing its human cost.

Calling Michael Cohen “incompetent” as a lawyer is an obvious example, meant to denigrate him and undercut anything he might say. It’s become  standard practice for Boss Trump to let loose twitters aimed at humiliating critics of any of his policies or positions by name. It leaves his victims with a choice between an ongoing contest with someone with a wide audience and a sharp tongue, or endure the humiliation in a silence that is in itself humiliating in its necessity, the choice that Attorney General Sessions seems to be making.  And humiliating his critics directly has a wider benefit for Trump: those witnessing his humiliation of his critics themselves become intimidated by what they see, and restrain any inclination to join in. That they feel thus constrained is itself internally humiliating, and a further defensive reaction can be to accept Trump’s side of the story and persuading oneself of its correctness, a many seem to be doing vociferously at Trump rallies and in interviews. They thus justify a potentially humiliating exchange with an apparent show of support, joining Trump’s reputed hard core loyal base.

But humiliation plays a broader societal role, a role of which Trump is a beneficiary but not a principal cause. It often produces the clichéd “white working class,” response of those who may be active in the work force but still feel insecure, underpaid, working below their capacity or deserts. It can be expressed as a claim to a lost dignity, a feeling of helplessness in conceding to bosses’ power, a feeling that has often fueled labor unrest, but that can also lead to a form of inhibition in its expression by an attribution of the result by defenders of the status quo to lack of ability,  lack of education, laziness, the victim’s own conduct, own fault. That can be a humiliating perception, and because so widely accepted and so insistently reinforced by those in power like but not limited to Donald Trump and his direct entourage, it is also likely to lead to humilitation inhibiting fighting back.

uch self-blaming, such created humiliation and the inhibition to which it may lead is often reinforced by well-meaning critics of the reality it reflects. When Hilary Clinton spoke of “the deplorables,” when the Harvard grads or the lucky investors or those in securely positioned armchairs who view the passing parade and “don’t understand how anyone can swallow Donald Trump’s lies or condone his behavior,” they can easily be perceived as looking down on their fellows, as being members of an elite not recognizing the lived experience of the less fortunate. If many of the “white working class” are emotionally humiliated in the social structure of society as they experience it, so are many of “the elite” inhibited from questioning those social structures that have produced their own advantages for fear of having to face some humiliating causes.  The elite may find it hard to accord to others less well stationed than themselves the dignity that those others feel they also have a right to demand.

Humiliation can also lead to a variety of emotional responses. Opioid addiction, gang membership, street violence, domestic abuse, can  all be read as distorted reflections of a search for a dignity which prevailing relationships do not provide for their  victims.  An unconscious and inhibited identification with the boss can play a role, a desire to be oneself a boss, to have all that freedom which the real bosses have and which they are often faulted for exercising. Such responses often create difficulties of understanding in well-meaning efforts to address their causes

Conclusion: If humiliation is a widespread and debilitating emotion, its existence is not an inherent aspect of human nature. If there is humiliation, there are humilitationees and humilitationors.

When Trump humiliates anyone, what he is doing can be explicitly labeled and condemn as such, without long arguments about who’s right and who’s right in the dispute. Boss Trump can be challenged for simply acting like a bad boss, and who likes a bad boss, even if they’re right every now and then. And if those who are being deprived of their dignity by a bad boss or his lackeys, what is going on can be pointed out without reinforcing it by another form of humiliation in how it is pointed out as a necessary lesson the more well-off need to teach their less understanding others. .

  My thanks to Don Bushnell and Thomas Scheff for the provocation that lead to these thoughts                                                                .          They should not be blamed for the result.

Blog #93 – Election figures show Trump with only 27.2% of eligible voters: What Mandate?

Donald Trump aimed his New Year’s Eve tweet at “my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do.” Leaving aside the incredibly childish gloating over “his enemies,” from someone who occasionally talks about “bringing our nation together,” has Trump’s staff succeeded in keeping from him all knowledge of the actual vote counts in the 2016 election, in which his leading opponent, far from “losing badly” to him, in fact got 2,000,000 popular votes[1] more than he did?

Or has his staff not let him learn that, out of some 232,000,000 persons eligible to vote [2] in 2016, only 62,000,000 actually voted [3] for him, not only less than for Clinton , but also only 27.2% of those who were eligible [4]. 79% of those who were theoretically eligible to vote for him did not do so– less a glorious victory for Trump than a rejection of his candidacy by a large majority of Americans, a failure of the Trump campaign, hardly a victory.[5]

Or has his staff not let him learn that the roots of the compromise that resulted in Article Ii of the Constitution creating the Electoral College, was the founders’ distrust of grass-roots democracy and later white leaders concerned to hold down freed black voting impact, coupled with the gerrymandering of Republican-led legislatures o distort their states’ votes?[6] Or is Trump simply incapable of acknowledging facts that undermine his claims to have a broad popular mandate in this election?

The argument in defense of the Electoral College, now sometimes made, that it did not affect the outcome in the 2016 election, even though a national popular vote shows Hillary Clinton winning over Donald Trump now by over 2,000,000 votes; if the rules had been to have the popular vote determine the result Trump would have campaigned differently and won anyway. Indeed, Trump may have campaigned differently and gotten a different result; but so would Clinton. There is no reason to believe it would have made more of a difference in the number of voters voting for Trump than the in the number of those voting for Clinton.


So on the figures, it was Donald Trump who “lost so badly” in the 2016 national election, who often seems not to know what he will do, whose mandate, if he has one, is a negative mandate, a mandate to follow the wishes of the electorate and serve all of the people of the country, not just his friends, ignoring those who disagree with him as “his many enemies.” Susan Douglas lists multiple cases in which opinion surveys clearly reveal the majority differing from Trump on key police issues, speaking of them as an “anti-mandate” to his claims.[7] His true mandate, from the figures, is one to unite and to seek compromises and unity for the good of all Americans, inclusively.

[1]So on the figures, it was Donald Trump who “lost so badly” in the 2016 national election, who often seems not to know what he will do, whose mandate, if he has one, is a negative mandate, a mandate to follow the wishes of the electorate and serve all of the people of the country, not just his friends, ignoring those who disagree with him as “his many enemies.” Susan Douglas lists multiple cases in which opinion surveys clearly reveal the majority differing from Trump on key police issues, speaking of them as an “anti-mandate” to his claims.[7] His true mandate, from the figures, is one to unite and to seek compromises and unity for the good of all Americans, inclusively. > “Trump’s Antii-Mandate,” I These Times, January 2017, p. 8.
[2] The actual figure is “almost 3,000,000”: 65,844,954 – 62,979,879 =2,865,075
The actual figure is 231,556,622 (
[4](62,979,879 / 231,556,622) = 0.2719847891026844
[5] Why for whom they would have voted had they voted must necessarily remain speculation, logic suggests categories:
a. prevented from voting by deliberately restrictive provisions;
b. dissatisfied with all the alternatives , or
c. happy to let the then predicted if mistaken expectations of majorities for Hillary Clinton become effective without needing heir vote .
If a, they would hardly be likely to vote for the Republicans who by and large were behind the increasing voting restrictions ;
if b. believing their inaction would result in the victory of the predicted for Clinton, were satisfied with that second-best non-Trump result ; or
if c. supporting a Trump defeat, believed their votes not necessary to ensure that result.
In any of those cases, non-voting voters were logically more likely Trump critics than supporters
But ignore these speculations, the broad parameters of the argument that Trump has only minority support in the electorate, still stands.
[6] A good summary of the history is at For a more extended discussion see: . Perhaps it is now time to rid ourselves of the last constitutional vestige of the peculiar institution: the electoral college.” P. 1155, 1156. Finkelman, Paul, “The Proslavery Origins of the Electoral College” (2002). Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 23, 2002. Available at SSRN: The author concludes: “Over one hundred and thirty-five years ago the United States rid itself of slavery. Perhaps it is now time to rid ourselves of the last constitutional vestige of the peculiar institution: the electoral college.”
[7] “Trump’s Anti-Mandate,” I These Times, January 2017, p. 8.

Blog #90b – Trump the Businessman in the New Post-Industrial Economy: The Commodification of Luxury

Blog #90b – Trump the Businessman in the New Post-Industrial Economy:  The Commodification of Luxury

[Last pre-election blog — voting now is critical! More afterwards…]

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 within industrial production, as in the classic capitalist pattern, but also in the process of its realization in user consumption.[1] The new 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 purveying am account justifying his activities

Paul Krugman, in his column in the New York Times, has written that Donald Trump as businessman symbolizes this new class in its most crass form today.

[Donald Trump] is a pure distillation of his party’s modern essence. He had solid [Republican] establishment support until very late in the game. And his views are …very much in his party’s recent tradition.[2]

True, but over-simplified (never mind that distilling today’s Republican establishment into one essence is a task that party’s establishment itself has not succeeded in doing to date). Rather, I would argue, there is a clear difference between the Party establishment‘s  older base in the older industrially-oriented economy and those in the modern economy that Trump  as businessman reflects, the purported billionaire, real estate mogul, restless entrepreneur, competitor and winner in the world of big business. And there is a pretty clear distinction between what moves those in older establishment positions—political party leadership and candidates for office and their divisions – and those affected by that new economy in which Trump the Businessman flourishes.

And it is further necessary to examine what Donald Trump the Campaigner says and does in campaigning for office, which often seems to reflect a nostalgia for the campaign.[1]


Paul Krugman, in his column in the New York Times, has written that Donald Trump as businessman symbolizes this new class in its most crass form today.

[Donald Trump] is a pure distillation of his party’s modern essence. He had solid [Republican] establishment support until very late in the game. And his views are …very much in his party’s recent tradition.[2]

True, but over-simplified (never mind that distilling today’s Republican establishment into one essence is a task that party’s establishment itself has not succeeded in doing to date). Rather, I would argue, there is a clear difference between the Party establishment‘s  older base in the older industrially-oriented economy and those in the modern economy that Trump  as businessman reflects, the purported billionaire, real estate mogul, restless entrepreneur, competitor and winner in the world of big business. And there is a pretty clear distinction between what moves those in older establishment positions—political party leadership and candidates for office and their divisions – and those affected by that new economy in which Trump the Businessman flourishes.

And it is further necessary to examine what Donald Trump the Campaigner says and does in campaigning for office, which often seems to reflect a nostalgia for the good old days, when “America was  Great,” before the insecurities of the modern essence. And the three Trumps are fundamentally out of sync.

So the hypothesis here is that Trump the Businessman does indeed reflect the distilled essence of the modern businessperson in a post-industrial more market-based economy and neo-liberal political society, but that Trump the Campaigner appeals to an audience suffering from the transition from the preceding industrially-based society to its present new form, producing an intrusion of populist rhetoric in a presentation that fundamentally serves his business purposes. Therefore the paradoxical contradiction between Trump the Campaigner and Trump the Businessman, a billionaire leading the downtrodden, the ignored, and the insecure.


So what does a modern businessperson like Donald Trump do in a post-industrial economy?

In one word: he commodifies everything in sight, focusing on the desire for luxury among the newly rich, profiting handsomely from the process, seeing the wealthy as the market to be targeted, ignoring the consequences to those of lower income.

What did Trump do before he entered the contest for President? He got his start in real estate, doing some building, but less and less himself, rather buying or financing or marketing or reselling or harvesting governmental  subsidies in the development process. He did not himself “produce” anything much material, in the old sense of industrial production; he rather profited from the production of others, often with a global reach, e.g. steel from China. What he added to the work of others was often simply the use of his Brand, the name Trump, sold as denoting luxury, as a separate item in the development process, an item of value in itself.

There is one word which neatly describes the common underlying approach to all Trump’s activities, including real estate development: commodification.

Commodification is a term generally over-loaded with a pejorative meaning, as intended here, but becoming close to jargon in usage. The sense in which it is used here should be clear and critically important. It is a shifting in the value of a product, a resource, or an activity, from its consideration for the direct benefits of its use to its owner to a consideration of what it could be bought and sold for – the treatment of use values solely as exchange values.

Look at Trump’s activities, successful and unsuccessful[3]. The point is not that there aren’t already real commodities involved, e.g. steaks or villas office chairs or golf courses or buildings, (see the listing below). Nor is the argument that Trump has pioneered a business that is centered on exchange values; all commercial activities do that and always have. Nor is it that there are not use values at the beginnings of the chain of transactions in which he is involved: an apartment in Trump Tower or a golf game in Florida are of real use to their possessors. . It is rather that he has involved himself in these activities solely for their exchange value. In his hands they are transformed into commodities valued for their possibilities of exchange, reflected in prices determined by what buyers would be willing to pay for the thing at any given moment.

Dealing in commodities is of course nothing new; it is the life-blood of all commercial transactions. Treating commodities as commodities is what defines them. What is new, in Trump’s activities as a businessman, is turning things into commodities that historically have not been seen as separable commodities—e.g. marketing a brand as such, permitting it use in exchange for money, instead of as an attribute of a particular object or service to which it is attached. . A steak or a perfume or a chair an airplane ride or a golf course is of no greater use because it carries the label “Trump” than if it did not, but its exchange  value is increased by the brand; the brand itself is a commodity. Some goods or services should not be bought and sold for profit: natural spring water, the ability to walk in a natural landscape, the view of a city out a window. Trump has converted things into commodities, goods, products, services, that were not treated as commodities before, things like education, safety, natural resources, human beauty, human worth — things that should be distributed to those in need of them or where they will do the most good, with distribution socially determined, rather than by ability to pay, in a system still with gross inequalities of income and wealth and power.

Trump is not involved in the production of their underlying   use values. What he has added to them, with his name branding, is a valuable certification of its arcane exchange value in the market for luxury in which that item is bought and sold.  Such items may be treated simply as an investment, in which an owner has no interest in putting to use the item itself, to living in the apartment or playing golf on its greens. . A conspicuous personal use of a branded luxury good may also provide the value of social status, with the possibility of top level business contacts for the buyer before its resale – a “use” of the item, indeed, but stretching the meaning of the word rather far.

What Donald Trump essentially commodifies is luxury, luxury buttressing social status and the representation of power, wealth able to produce further wealth . The New York Times summarized his secret: “Strategy: Sell the Name.”[4] And make the name synonymous with luxury, appealing  to those with wealth and power  and happy to impress others with their possession.

Look at the list of Trump’s “assets,” the term used for things treated as commodities:

According to Forbes, the “Definitive Net Worth of Donald Trump” is $3,700,000,0000 (#3.7 billion) [5]  His assets include (hardly a definitive list, not all successful): [6]

The commodification of recreation:

10 golf clubs in the United States alone worth $206,000,000, including:[7]

Trump International Villas and Golf Club in the Grenadines, membership starting at $1,000,000[8]

Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen, Scotland,

Trump Tower, Tampa, FL

Trump Atlanta

Trump Ocean Resort, Baja

Trump at Cap Cana, Dominican Republic

Trump National golf club, Washington, DC

Trump National golf club, Philadelphia

ALM/Lawyer Invitational golf tournament

Trump Golf Links, Ferry Point

Trump National Golf Club Philadelphia

Trump National golf club, Jupiter, Florida

Trump National golf club, Colts Neck, New Jersey

Trump National golf club, Charlotte

The commodification of luxury in housing

Trump Towers Pune, India

Trump International Realty

Trump Dubai Tower, United Arab Emirates

Trump on the Ocean

Trump Tower Philadelphia

Trump Tower, Batumi, Georgia

The commodification of education

Trump Institute

Trump University

The commodification of luxury in eating

Trump Steaks

Trump Vodka

DJT restaurant

The commodification of beauty.

Miss Universe

The commodification of excess:

New tower at Trump Taj Mahal

The commodification of communication:

The Trump Network

Trump Magazine

Trump Tycoon

Trump Securities, Llc

The commodification of luxury consumer goods

Trump Home

Trump Office Chairs

The commodification of luxury air travel

Trump Airlines.

And, of course, the pure commodification of ambition, hope, yearning. dreaming

The casinos

Mississippi Casino

Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel

Trump Plaza Casino

And commodification of exchange value pure and simple, in the commodification of the Brand Trump itself for use independently of what the use of the object to which it is attached may be:

Brand licensing in Brazil

Brand licensing in India

Trump the businessman has become Trump the billionaire through a process of relentless commodification of a luxury level of goods and services that contribute nothing to advance the social welfare of society. Trump the Political Campaigner completely ignores what Trump the Businessman actually does. And Donald Trump  has been surprisingly little challenged on this in the course of the campaign.[9]

And he has been surprisingly little challenged on this in the course of the campaign.campaign.[1]

[9]A recent story in the New York Times by David Barstow on November 5, 2016, is well worth reading. It is headlined “Thin Line Splits Donald Trump’s Politics and Businesses,” and questions whether Trump is using  “his business  prowess in service of the American people,” and focusses on some of the most egregious examples of self-profiting from his “public” endeavors.
Available at  “


Blog90c    will examine Trump the Campaigner pursuant to the outline of blog90

[1] David Harvey has recently explicated this argument in these terms.

[2] New York Times , October 10, 2016, p. A21.

[3] Taken largely from the listing at


[5] Other estimates put it at $4.5. There is little suppot to his oft repeated claims of being worth over $10 billion.  But what difference does $1 or $2 billion make among  friends?

[6], and contains a suggested  itemization of wht is assets are worth.




Blog90c    will examine Trump the Campaigner pursuant to the outline of blog #90


Blog #90a – The Three Trumps – The Individual, the Businessman, and the Political Campaigner

How do we explain the wide success that Trump has achieved, despite everything that we know about him today?

The argument here is that there are basic lines of division and conflict in society, divisions that have shifted dramatically in the last half century or more from an industrially—based old economy to a high-tech consumption based new economy, profiting some groups at the expense of others, and shifting the lines of division among them (see Blogs #90d and #90e). In reality, Deep down under, those shifts explain how people act politically, including how they vote in elections. Trump has taken advantage of these shifts to promulgate a Deep Story that justifies his own behavior and now underlies his campaign for the presidency. As a businessman, he takes full advantage of the new consumer-based economy while he continues to exploit those in the old economy with whom he has direct business dealings. In his political campaigning, he holds himself out as working for those hurt by the economic change, the loss of industrial jobs, the newer and greater exploitation in the processes of consumption. And as an individual, he claims that his conduct as an individual is an irrelevant and largely malicious topic that should not be related in any way to his activities as a businessman nor his qualifications for the public office for which he campaigns.

So  there are in fact three Trumps: Trump The Individual, Trump the Businessman, and Trump the Political Campaigner, and he keeps the three quite separate so, that their real contradictions do not become painfully obvious, distorting the Deep Story he trumpets on  Twitter, in which his individual characteristics are not relevant politically, his business activities in fact entitle him to public leadership even though they are largely anti-social, and his campaign rhetoric is almost transparently opportunistic

Trump embeds the businessman the campaigner displays in a seductive new Deep Story: the story of a past great America where everyone had job and people knew their places and were happy with them, a Deep Story in which Trump promises as part of a fairy tale to restore a better old world with a sweep of his magical (small?) hand. And many of those hurting from the change from old to new economy, seeing no alternate rescue in sight, buy his new Story, even though, analyzed, it is a jumble of incoherent and little thought out impulsive Twitter feeds..

To look at the Three Trumps one at a time:

To begin with, what sort of person is Trump the Individual? Repulsive, conventionally sexist and racist, with really no self-awareness, ability to see himself as others see him, to the point of obvious excess. That’s Trump, as an individual, an aging bundle of prejudices and jumbled ideas and values, of uncontrollable tics. That’s Trump the Individual. He’s the one who, intrudes on women in the dressing rooms of beauty contestants and gropes them on airplanes and in elevators, insults virtually every minority group in society and one majority group, lambasts war heroes and makes fun of disabilities and displays an egregious egotism and inability to accept criticism.

Perhaps we may also see him for that very reason, as sad, even pathetic, out of control by the forces that control him. And a lot of discussion and theorizing has gone into his psychological make-up, what makes him behave as he does, so often irrationally. Trump the Individual is not, however, the one on whom this article wants to focuses.[1] Rather it is Trump the Businessman who is of concern, the one whose conduct ought theoretically to repel precisely those who proclaim their allegiance to him. He’s the Trump whose actual business policies, writ large, are so much at odds with concepts of social justice

As for Trump the Businessman, the purported billionaire, the real estate mogul, the restless entrepreneur, the competitor and winner in the world of big business, the winner and loser in real life games with large odds, he’s independent of the other two, although he doesn’t fail to have is campaign activities contribute to the income from the various private enterprises n which he has an interest  as a business  matter. And the three Trumps are fundamentally out of sync.

And Trump the Campaigner is of concern even more, the public figure, the candidate for high public office, even trying to imagine what policies he might pursue or endorse as President produces nightmares. . Trump the Individual may have engaged in locker room talk about groping women, but according to Trump the Campaigner he had never, never, never actually done such things. Trump the Campaigner is the one who knows more about military strategy than  the generals, who alone can right the economy, produce jobs, handle Wall Street, deal with Putin. And Trump the Campaigner is not  Trump the Businessman , who exploits his workers, makes money by manipulating banks and credit  institutions extensively uses governmental assistance and  subsidies  in those businesses he actually runs, takes advantage of the bankruptcy laws to avoid paying his creditors when his businesses fail.

What follows is an attempt to go beyond any one of these three views, which deal separately with Trump the Individual, Trump the Campaigner, and Trump the Businessman.  I focus below first on Trump the Businessman with an under-explained pattern of conduct, and then turn to the reality that underlies his business activities and finally to the political implications for Trump the Campaigner of the changes in that reality. I take a key underlying line of division in that reality to be the line that divides a base in the traditional industrial capitalist economy from one based on the new less industrially -based higher-tech market economy.

My hypothesis is that Trump the Businessman represents the distilled essence of the modern businessperson in a post-industrial more market-based economy and neo-liberal political society, and that Trump the Campaigner appeals to an audience suffering from the transition from the preceding industrially-based society to its present new form, producing an intrusion of populist rhetoric in a presentation that fundamentally serves his business purposes in the changing economy. What is happening is essentially a real conflict between those involved in the class conflicts of the old industrial capitalist system as it the have evolved in the new less-industrially based market system. The contradiction between Trump the Campaigner and Trump the Businessman is a widely accepted paradox, that a billionaire should be leading the downtrodden, the ignored, the insecure.

(Whether there is now in fact a “new” class structure in creation, or simply a new aspect of the on-going development and transmogrification of the old capitalist and working classes, is still a matter under serious debate, but  the answer is not critical for the present analysis, at least in the near future. Likewise, whether today’s economy is post-industrial or not is a matter of much dispute, but by-passed here, simply differentiating the old from the new by the terms “industrial capitalist” vs. “market,” accepting the fact that the two are inextricably mixed.)

The election, and the distribution of support for Trump among the electorate, is unfortunately not a good test of the hypothesis, because Trump the Individual features much more prominently in voters’ decision-making than it does in the analysis here. You might think, if the hypothesis above is correct, that Silicon Valley and the hedge fund industry would be strongly pro-Trump as all participants in the new economy, but with minor exceptions they aren’t. Nor should blue-collar working class members be supporting a candidate who has never lifted a finger in his extensive business dealings or as an individual to show any concern for their welfare. But they do support him.

One explanation for this apparent logical discrepancy lies in the image of Trump the Individual and his conduct and rants. It may be that Trump loses support among the college-educated because of the danger they see to the rational conduct of public affairs if he is elected, which may over-ride such other affinities they may have with him as a businessman. Or it may simply be that I, as a college-educated blogger with a real fear of a Trump presidency, simply assume that others similarly situated would be as afraid of a victory by Trump as I am. Or there may be some antipathy for Hillary Clinton, having nothing to do with her actual substantive platform, whose cause lies outside anything discussed here. In any case, election results are not an easy way to test the three-Trump hypothesis.

Neither are the frequently developed analyses of the elections that uses demographic divisions among citizens to predict voting–age, color, gender, generation, education, ethnicity, for example, useful in testing the hypothesis about economic divisions among the electorate. While such divisions are easily analyzed statistically for their level of correlations with voting behavior, some may conceal more fundamental divisions along economic, income, and occupational as well as racial and gender lines.

Demographic categories used statistically, such as millennials, or male and female, or 1% and 99%, or college educated and more and high-school educated or less, are only marginally useful, and their importance needs an explanation if they are to be seriously considered. Categories such as middle class themselves demand explanation if they are to be useful. The prevalence of demographic analysis to explaining political behavior leaves a lot to be desired.

But superficial attributions of cause and effect to demographic changes are only part of the explication of why the Deep Stories that Trump trumpets, described in detail in Blog #90f, have been as effective as they have been in attracting his supporters.


In what follows, then, we begin first with  Trump the Businessman, then turn to Trump the Campaigner, , and then view how Trump tries to bring the two together in the Deep Story that he assumes will  justify the actions of both.

So what does a modern businessperson like Donald Trump do in a consumer-based post-industrial economy?

See Blog #90b – Trump the Businessman: The Commodification of Every-day Life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Marcuse



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


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

Blog # 41 – Right to the City – Organizational Realities

Reading the Right to the City – Organizational Realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

4. See Herbert Marcuse, Essay on Liberation

Blog #40 – Reading the Right to the City

Blog #40 – Reading the Right to the City


It’s no accident that the discussion about the right to the city emerged just when it did, or that it has become a hot formulation again just now.

To summarize, the critical milestones (viewpoint: U.S.A./Europe) were perhaps –

1919, unrest and failure of the classical Marxist revolutions in /Europe, expected to arise semi-automatically out of the exploitation and immiseration of the working class and their understanding of their exploitation., led by the working class and party.

1934 – election of Hitler, resulting from that immiseration plus the insecurity of the middle class, successfully manipulating discontent culturally/ideologically towards fascism

1946 – defeat of fascism, replaced by the welfare state, dealing with the same issues by concessions and the counter-manipulation of the promise of consumption, One-Dimensional Man, rapid technological advance

1960 – wide=spread unrest, led not by working class but in the United States at least by those excluded from the welfare state, discriminated against in recognition and benefits, primarily African-Americans, and by revulsion against the ideological manipulation and emptiness of values of consumption , led by the discontented, supported by groups of the excluded, barely by the exploited, with tensions among them

1970 – calming/suppression of the unrest, period of prosperity, conformity/collaboration with the system, rising public benefits and private consumption, globalization of production

Today, 2080-2010 – growing disillusionment, growing criticism of capitalism, financialization, growing search for alternatives, by the excluded, the exploited, the discontented.

A growing body of theory has analyzed these developments. Key contributions appeared in the aftermath of the unrest of the 1960’s, largely relying on new readings of Karl Marx and  including work of Henri Lefebvre, critically paralleling analyses of the Frankfurt School and particularly Herbert Marcuse[1]. It sought to go from critique to the possibilities of fundamental social change.

But where to turn to find agents of such social change? Henri Lefebvre, facing that question, developed the formulation of call for “the Right to the City” as an answer.

What he meant by that was not always clear; I have dealt in several pieces with alternate reading of what he has written.[2] It is relatively clear that he continued to see the working class as important actors in efforts for social change, but as increasingly inadequate and often recalcitrant ally in efforts for change. Rather, he saw the motor force for change outside of the work-place, not in the factories or the offices, but in the experiences of everyday life of all kinds of people in their home, in their schools, in their communities – and, yes in their cities.


Lefebvre’s own reading. For Lefebvre, the right to the city is a political claim: a cry and a demand, for social justice, for social change, for the realization of the potential that technological and human advances had made possible after the second World War. It was a battle cry, a banner in a fight, not simply for the eradication of poverty but for the abolishment of unjust inequality.

In a way, it was an ill-chosen formulation, because it was not intended to be taken literally: Not a Right in the sense of a legal claim enforceable through the judicial system, but a moral right, an appeal to the highest of human values. And it was not a right to the City, not a right to be included in what the city already was, but rather a right to a city that could and should be, to the city as a metaphor for an new way of life, one whose characteristic were directly related to the new processes of urbanization, which for Lefebvre encompassed a new way of life, of everyday life as well as of government, or a social system as well as, even more than, a physical place, a particular built environment or legal jurisdiction.

For Lefebvre, the call for the Right to the City was a revolutionary call, a call produced by and justified by the urban revolution of which he wrote as a new stage in the historical development of civilization.

And it was not limited in any way to the physical city, but understood “city” as a synecdoche for “urban society:”

As Lefebvre put it,   the city

“cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right or as a return to traditional cities. It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life as long as the ‘urban’ [is a] place of encounter, priority of use value,.”[3]

Lefebvre even says, at one point:

“…from this point on I will no longer refer and to the city but to the urban”[4]

Lefebvre’s reading clearly implies the necessity for an analysis of the structures of power that hold back the transformation of life that he envisages. Lefebvre’s own analysis is essentially Marxist, even if it does not expore that analysis as intensively as, say, the New Left, Herbert Marcuse,, or David Harvey have. But some such analysis is required to make it effective.

2.      The strategic reading. In practice, the Right to the City banner has been picked up as the umbrella under which a wide variety of groups suffering from the existing conditions of their lives in the new urban society: the very poor, the homeless, those dependent on welfare grants or charity, those discriminated against because of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mal-educated, the legal restrictions of citizenship laws, gender inequality. These are groups whose economic position does not give them the power, through the withholding of their labor, to threaten the functioning of the economic system, and whose political power can be effectively reduced through the power of the 1%, despite their much larger numbers, in a democracy still subject to the disproportionate power of the rich. It was the basis for the formation of coalitions of those groups, realizing that they needed to pool their efforts to have any influence at all. The the formation of the national and local Right to the City Alliance in the United States and abroad.

 For them, the impulse of their action is initially simply to be included in the existing city, to obtain the benefits of existing city life from which they have been excluded: to obtain decent shelter in existing empty and warehoused living units, to get paid at least living wages in the already existing jobs, to be treated with the dignity and respect accorded as of right to all other citizens of the city, to be protected by the  police that provides security for others, rather than being stopped and frisked routinely without cause.

The strategic reading of the right to the city  is not in contradiction to the Lefebvre ran reading, but in a sense a step towards it, but one with more limited claims, but perhaps also more urgent ones.

Look at the members of that coalition in New York City, as an example:

The Right to the City Alliances in in the United States, and the Right to the City Alliance inNew York city, are both alliances of other, preexisting groups, 43 for the national, [5] 12 for the New York City Alliance. All of the member organizations of the two pre-existed the formation of the respective alliances. They represent a wide range of interests: Homeless, welfare recipients, ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, LGBT, folk, service workers, environmental groups:

[The Right To The City Alliance] is a multi-issue national alliance of base building and grassroots organizations and allies working to advance an urban strategy to ensure the rights of low income people of color to urban places and spaces in our cities.[6]

They cooperate closely with labor unions who are interested in cooperating with them. E.g. the Service Workers International Union, both unions are not members. The Alliances represent the deprived, both of material welfare and of dignity. But they do not occupy positions immediately essential to the operations of the system that is oppressing them, as unions and their working class members do – if clearly less so that 50 years ago. Bringing Alliance member groups together with each other, and then with organized (and unorganized, as in Workers’ Centers) workers is a matter of urgent strategic necessity. Both are materially deprived of material goods, but also of the dignity and respect which members of a just society should accord each other. They are, together, large in numbers, but weak in economic power, as technological advances, automation and globalization permit the system normally to remain profitable without their active consent.

Bringing these forces together in a strategic alliance requires an analysis of the power relations that underlie its necessity, and that links those supporting the call together. In practice, that analysis certainly has to include a discussion of existing relations of power, and what changes might be produced within those relations as they exist. It may or not press that analysis into specific examination of the possibilities of fundamentally changing those relations of power. How far the analysis then goes, and how convincing it can be made to the members of the Alliance, will determine whether it pursues Lefebvre’s own reading of the Right to the City, or limites itself to intermediate goals that may or may not lead in that direction.

3.      The discontented reading.  For many of those not thus excluded inclusion in the existing city was not enough. Lefebvre’s call was for a new and better city, new and better way of life. Many of those already included in the existing were discontented, and profoundly. They felt their own potentials were constricted, their human values distorted, their aspirations for the future pushed into a quest for conspicuous consumption, their search for social support and solidarity defeated by the pressures of competition, competition for goals they did not share but were force to pursue – and convinced to value by an extreme cultural and ideological apparatus, against their own deepest desires.

 The discontented, in this reading, were those that were the activists of the New Left, about whom Herbert Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man: students, teachers, intellectuals, artists, idealists, those that felt themselves misfits in a society over which they had no control.

But the analysis underlying the discontented reading does not suggest an overall path towards achieving its goals. No one argued that the discontended, while having the demand for the right to the city, had the power to achieve it. Herbert Marcuse was explicit in saying that, while they might provide leadership, it required larger forces, in particular among the exploited and excluded, to achieve it. That in turn required changes from within those groups: to achieve anew society, new men and women are required. But to support the development of new men and women, a new society was required – a paradox to which he proposed no solution other than its recognition. Lefebvre’s reading implicitly agreed; as David Harvey reformulated Lefebvre, the argument was that the right to the city included was “a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”[7]

In practice, the focus on discontent as the motor of efforts to achieve a right to the city that will deal with its particular manifestation is likely to lead to a leading role for those most directly affected – not somuch the exploied or excluded, but the students, artists, idealists etc. who are generally materially free to concentrate on such concerns. That leads to the dangers of elitism, to tensions among those sharing a material interest in the principles of the Lefebvre’s reading of the right to the city. In terms of policy polsitions, it is a tension between shorter and longer-term goals; in organizing, between, in this case, members of the constituent groups with the Right to the City Alliance and their “allies, ” often academics and intellectuals generally more in a position to elaborate analysis and program details.

4.      The spatial reading. Many read Lefebvre’s right to the city call as one aimed specifically and literally at the city as a built environment, as physical space, and saw the call of the right to the city as a call for designing and running a better city, a more beautiful city, and healthier and more environmentally sustainable city. Some were professionals, architects, urban designers, planners, geographers, who used the call for the right to the city as support for calls for the better utilization of what they were trained to do, and wanted to do. And they saw their work as supporting and modeling what a right to the city for all might look like, in the flesh.

In practice, the spatial reading is a narrow reading of the right to the city. It appeals to specific disciplines, professionals, interests focused on the material built environment of the city, and often tempted to see such changes as dictating social patterns and determining issues of justice and well-being by themselves. Some argue for what might be called a modelling approach, the development of model communities, model businesses, model spaces, that might demonstrate in the flesh what is possible: spaces of hope, new economies. In more comprehensive struggles. The spatial reading may be one that is distracting from broader goals, one that is more likely to demonstrate alternatives for the discontented than to change the power relations that lead to exploitation and exclusion. Linked to analysis that includes a central place for consideration if issues of power and conflicting material interest, it can be a useful adjunct to movements for the right to the city.

5.      The collaborationist reading. Then there is a reading which uses the call for the right to the city as in fact support for their own efforts at mild reform, the reformist reforms of which Andre Gorz wrote and which are that matters about which liberal and conservative supporters of the welfare state content. To many, recalling Lefebvre’s own reading of the right to the city, this is pure co-optation, a distortion of the radical content of the slogan. When the right to the city becomes embodied in an officially adopted Charter of the City, adopted by public institutions, whether local, national or international, that have neither the power nor the desire to implement such rights, however defined, the fact that Lefebvre’s call recognized the inevitability of conflict, the necessity for struggle, is blatantly denied concealed, made toothless behind a façade of good intentions, rationality, quest for consensus.

Needless to say, a collaborationist reading interferes with, rather than promotes, militant action to achieve in the real world of inequalities of power and conflicts of interest. A litmus test might be the view of the right to the city a a right for all, as to which consensus is the goal, rather than a redistributive and transformative approach to change.

6.      The subversive reading. A very political reading of the right to the city is however also possible, one that combines the thrust of Lefebvre’s own radical intent with the practical realities confronted by Lefebvre’s own reading, the strategic reading and the discontented’s reading. Such a subversive reading is implicit in, and has surfaced in, the Right to the City Alliance in the United States, in its search for transformative[8] claims and demands, for programs and goals that will both give priority to the immediate needs of the excluded, the ultimate goals of the discontented, and the claims of those not (maybe not yet?) accepting the slogan or understanding its content, but yet exploited by the same existing patterns from which the deprived, the excluded, and the discontented suffer – specifically, the working class, labor, organized and not, the very poor, the discriminated against, the excluded.

The strategy here is implicitly founded on the same understanding guiding the Right to the City Alliances, as in community-labor centers, etc. The key word used in this subversive reading is “transformative:” demands and claims action for which can produce immediate results, but which point towards the radical goals of Lefebvre’s original work, and the related goals of the social movements and economics struggles that produced and have continued to inspire political protest movements throughout history.


 The six different readings of the Right to the City suggest different strategies. A further  possible strategy might be to work sector by sector, looking at sectors as wholes interdependent with each other but having different problems and different potentials for change. Such a strategy might focus on expanding existing areas of public provision, as in police protection, fire protection, public education, some forms of research and development, fighting privatization of public functions and pushing the desirability instead of expanding the public sector. Socialism one sector at a time, perhaps,[9] or the long march through the institutions.

Revolution as such remains off the range of possibilities, force available to the elite is overwhelming, viz. Near East. But the Occupy movement suggests another and further possibility: physical space not contested in its built form, not building physically a new city, but Occupying an old one with a new content.  The slogan there after all is Occupy Wall Street, with both a spatial and an economic and political meaning  Build on the existing, keep some of its usable forms, but change the power relations that determine how they will be used. That, perhaps occupying one sector at a time, seems to me a possible path ahead.

But that’s a long discussion, for another time.

[1] Marcuse, Herbert. 1972. One-Dimensional Man, .Boston: Beacon Press, and Marcuse, Herbert. 2005. The New Left and the 1960s, vol. 4 of Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, edited by Douglas Kellner, Oxford: Routledge. While technology plays somewhat the role with Herbert Marcuse that urbanization plays with Henri Lefebvre, their fundamental analyses are largely similar.

 [2] Marcuse, Peter. 2011. “From critical urban theory to the right to the city : What right, whose right, to what city, how?” in Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse And Margit Mayer, eds. Cities For People, Not For Profit: Critical Urban Theory And The Right To The City, London: Routledge.

[3] Lefebvre, Henri. 1996 [1967]. “The Right to the City.” In Writings on Cities, ed. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, London: Blackwell, P. 158

[4] Lefebvre, Henri. 2003 (1970).The Urban Revolution. Foreword by Neil Smith. Translated by Robert Bononno. University of Minnesota Press, p. 45.

[7] David Harvey, “The right to the city,” New Left Review 53, September-October 2008, available at

[8] See Blog #30, Beyond Immediate Proposals: Some Transformational Provocations, at

[9] See Marcuse, Peter. 2010. “Socialism One Sector at a Time.” ZNet and in: Charles Reitz, ed. Crisis and Commonwealth: Marcuse, Marx, Manifesto, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books