Blog #48 – Writing About Inequality


To the Editor, The New York Times,

(re: Changed Life of the Poor: Better Off,but Far Behind”.. (Front page, May 1, 2014)

 A researcher is quoted as saying: “the poor are better off than they were… but they have also drifted further away.” “Drifted away,” indeed! The story says: “…the poor have fallen further behind.” They have “fallen?” What images does such writing conjure up? Inequality increases because the poor drift away from being better off, the silly, ne’er-do-wells? They can’t keep their balance, these helpless people? That’s surely not the intent, but it’s the effect of using stock formulations without thinking about them.

Would a formulation like: “While the poor fell behind or drifted away,the rich rose higher and marched further ahead” pass muster?

Or would formulations to explain increasing inequality like: ““The rich have gotten even richer on the backs of the poor,” or “The poor have been pushed even further down by the growing wealth of the rich” pass muster at the Times? After all, it takes two to be unequal. The victims shouldn’t be blamed for their poverty without examining what happened at the other end of the divide. Inequality increases because the rich get richer as well as the poor getting poorer. A coincidence?

 Peter Marcuse                                                            May 1, 2014.

 

 

Blog #37 – Lopsided Language


Loaded Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Blog #35 – Watch your language, Krugman and the Rest of “Us.”


Watch your language, Krugman and the Rest  of “Us.”

Paul Krugman, a favorite of mine, in writing about the present currency crisis in the New York Times, August 30, 2013,[1] brings to mind an old joke:

 The Lone Ranger and his Indian friend Tonto are riding out in the wild west when they are about to be surrounded by a band of hostile-seeming Indian warriors. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says: “Tonto, I think we’re in trouble, we better get out of here.” Tonto looks at him and at the Indians and says, “What do you mean, ‘we,’ white man?”

 Who does Krugman mean by we? Krugman’s headline is, “Why don’t we learn from financial crises?” He asks, about the current Indonesian currency crisis, “…should we be worried about Asia all over again?” The crises show “low little we learned from that crisis 16 years ago. We didn’t reform the financial industry…”

 But who “we?” Sometimes he’s quite clear: He cites the Time magazine cover with Robert Rubin, then Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, his deputy, under the caption “The Committee to Saves the World.” Clearly it’s the 1%, saving “the World,”, that is, all the rest of us included, from disaster.  Krugman is quite clear on his analysis about who’s responsible: he later, for instance,  refers to the policy makers, talking of the International Monetary Fund. But the language he uses is slippery, and has subliminal meaning he doesn’t intend. When he asks why don’t “we” learn from the last crisis, who does he mean? Larry Summers and Robert Rubin are doing quite well in this crisis also; who didn’t learn? The 1% or the 99%?

 When Krugman writes: ”…we’re actually doing much worse this time around.”  he means the 99%; the 1% are doing quite well, looking at the profits of the banks, the stock market, the growing share of the national income the 1% are receiving. Using the “we” serves to implicitly avoid the question of responsibility, who has benefited and who lost, who made the decisions and who was subject to them. “We” didn’t reform the financial industry. “We didn’t”? You and me? No. The financial industry fought off the regulation. But the “we” makes it seem: “We’re” all in this together, one (1%) for all, and all (99%) for one. Implicitly and I believe unintentionally,  the language used blames the victims as much  as the perpetrators.

 This failure to identify actors, to clarify who is doing what to whom, to highlight the conflicts of interest that underlie policy, ultimately to point out who’s on what side and what must politically be done, comes about just from the habit of using conventional terms without thinking about them, to accept dominant modes of speaking and describing without realizing the content they convey in ordinary discourse.

 The same is true when the subjects of actions are not identified: “the more austerity fails, the more bloodletting is demanded.” It’s a policy that’s failing, not some particular persons nor groups who have the power to make policy that are failing – and failing whom? Not themselves. The 1% who make the policy are doing quite well by it, by and large they are hardly “failing.” “Deregulation went full speed ahead.,” Krugman writes of the past. By itself? Or did it get pushed, and if so, by whom, how.? “…huge inflows of foreign money [go] mainly to the private sector.’ By themselves, like water running downhill? Who’s sending it, who’s benefiting from the flow, who suffering, is not deliberately concealed; it just doesn’t rise to the surface, from the language.

 When the slippery “we” is coupled with “learn,” the political implications become even clearer. “Why don’t ‘we’learn’ from financial crises?” “We” here might in fact mean everybody, although that’s actually not what Krugman means. But, whoever it is, is learning what’s required? If everyone accepted Krugman’s perceptive analysis of the crisis, would all of us be better off? Isn’t it rather that some, the 1%, understand very well, and mold the response to their own interests, and the rest, the 99%, even if they understood (and many certainly do, including most of Krugman’s readers, but are powerless to put their understanding into practice? Using the language of learning to describe the problem implicitly makes it one not of political conflict and conflict of interests, but one of education. Well, Krugman is a teacher; if your tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail; if your tool is teaching, every problem is one of learning. Krugman certainly knows better, but the language doesn’t reveal that.

 This is not just stylistic nit-picking. It is language that depoliticizes what goes on in the world; it has to do with a political world-view. On the one side, one may see policy differences and conflicts of interest as parts of a learning process, in which all citizens participate in an effort to achieve a just result for all – a process where there is a real and all-inclusive “we.” Or one may see the world, or at least that is made up of different nations different classes, different genders, different interests, as one in which conflicts of interest are pervasive, in which power is widely sought, unevenly gained, constantly exercised by and on behalf of specific groups and individuals and at the expense of other specific groups of individuals. To the extent that language plays a role, consciously or not, the “we”-ing and references to actor-less actions implicitly supports the first world view, rather than the second. And that necessarily has implications for political thinking and action. In this case, it’s likely unintended, but unclear.

 It should always be clear, even on a quick reading, who is doing what to whom.

 Peter Marcuse                                                 September 3, 2013

Blog #28: Sandy, Housing, the Market, and the State’s Planning Response


Blog #28: Sandy, Housing, the Market, and the State’s Planning Response
The attempt by government to mix the public and private market response to disasters such as Sandy, or indeed to mix the two in dealing with the crisis in housing for lower-income households, will bear some strange fruit. The likely effect will be to increase segregation and inequality, based on experience with the workings of the private market in housing. Two examples illustrate the danger: Governor Cuomo’s plans to deal with units damaged by Sandy, and Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to deal with the underfunding of public housing.

The alternative in both cases seems clear, but raises tabooed issues. To take them one at a time:

THE PLAN FOR SANDY: Cuomo’s plan for housing damages by Sandy is to offer to buy up, at their prior damage value, any home whose owner wishes to sell and leave, and to offer those who wish to stay a grant to defray the costs of storm-proofing their residences.
The New York Times describes it succinctly as follows:[1]
“The governor’s plan would pay the full pre-storm value of a house to owners who agreed to sell, with a 5 percent bonus to those who relocated in their home county. The plan would be voluntary; a homeowner could simply refuse to participate, and presumably elect to rebuild, despite higher insurance rates that doing so would entail.
The Cuomo administration estimates that 10,000 or so homes sit squarely in the danger zone, but, only a fraction — 10 percent to 15 percent — of these owners might actually participate in this program. The plan would not cover high-end properties like a wreck of a beachfront house in the Rockaways that is now on sale for $3 million “as is.” But the price tag could go as high as $300,000 per dwelling, assuming the Department of Housing and Urban Development approves the plan.
For those who chose to stay, the administration would offer another option: grants to help owners flood-proof their homes. That could include rebuilding a house on or near the beach on giant pylons at least 2 feet above the projected flood level, which could mean 15 feet or more above ground level — a costly prospect.”
What would be the likely market-induced result of the plan?
Owners with the resources to stay will grab the grants offered to help flood-proof their homes, add their own resources, and stay. Those without the resources, i.e. lower income households, will sell, and the government will take down their homes and convert their lots to some form of park or waterfront public use. The net result will be higher income owners have units on a less crowded waterfront, where no further building will take place on newly-added public open space, thus in fact increasing their property values after the deals are done. Lower-income households will have been removed from the areas, in any event back from the waterfront, since the required cost of storm-proofing is high, and be left to face the private market elsewhere.
So, net, a more exclusive enjoyment of the amenities of the waterfront for the well-to-do, a displacement of the less well-to-do from their desirable locations to the ordinary market in land. All government instigated and largely paid for. Hardly equitable.

THE PLAN FOR PUBLIC HOUSING: Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to deal with the very substantial short-fall in Federal funding for public housing, with the apparent approval of the chair of the New York City Housing Authority, is to lease for the long term available vacant land within and around existing public housing projects to private developers. In the words of the chair of the Housing Authority, it will be
“forming partnerships with real estate developers to create a mix of affordable and market rate housing on under-used NYCHA sites. Doing that can generate hundreds of millions of dollars – every penny of which will be re-invested in NYCHA and used to fix roofs, elevators, and building facades. And it will create thousands of units of new housing, of which a substantial portion will be affordable. Let me repeat that: it will create thousands of new market-rate and affordable homes.”[2]

What does that mean? Apart from the obvious failure to specify the number of “affordable” units to be built, or even whether “affordable” means eligible for public housing or some more moderate set off income limits, and apart from the disruption caused in the lives of the residents of the developments in the middle of which these new and expected high-rise structures will be built, there is the further elimination of the open space surrounding the high-rise public housing buildings, mostly built with a minimum of such space to economize on land costs from the very beginning, and already offering only very limited breathing space for project residents for open air, relaxation, sports, outdoor activities, and necessary parking. The new privately built units, already informally called luxury housing, on the other hand, will have privately provided internally and for their own residents amenities not available to the residents of the existing units, such as health clubs private security, probably parking, and others.

“Internal documents obtained by the Daily News show the planned 4,330 apartments in eight developments are all in hot real estate neighborhoods, including the upper East and West Sides, the lower East Side and lower Manhattan. Developers will get a sweet deal: a 99-year lease with the lease payments to the authority frozen for the first 35 years. … the land to be leased includes playgrounds, parking lots, and community centers — basically necessary amenities for those who live in public housing. And in the place of a playground for their children, tenants will instead look out on luxury housing.”[2a]

Mixing in this way is more likely to create tensions among neighbors that the “diversity” so admired in the abstract in housing discourse. Those tensions will be aggravated because the developments being considered for surrender of their land to market-rate housing are those where land values, low when the projects where built, are now the highest, in Manhattan on the upper West Side and the middle and upper East Side. The minority status of low-income, and undoubtedly minority, households in these areas will only be accentuated.

Hardly equitable.

THE ANSWER: What ought to be done is painfully obvious. If maintenance of public housing is inadequate, because of lack of funding, that funding ought to be provided, and provided by government, which after is created to secure access to the necessities of life for its citizens. And it should be provided by the federal government, which has access to the most equitable source of the necessary funds, a progressive income tax system. Further, it is ironic that the whole scheme proposed rests on the historic action of government to take undesired land of low market value for its projects. Now that that land has become valuable, the drive is to make more and more of its remaining limited available space available to the market. Should not the benefit of the improved conditions that have made their land so valuable today accrue to those who have been asked to live there when conditions were not as favorable?

The political problem here is also not abstruse. The answer suggested above strikes anyone using common sense, attuned to the realities of life, honestly facing the facts as they are, as totally impractical. Raising taxes to provide benefits skewed to the poor will never pass Congress today. It is not worth even discussing. And that is the problem: the real answers are not on the table, are not even argued in mainstream, by politicians, in the media, in electoral campaigns, in the halls of legislatures. The discourse of housing policy is one-dimensional,[3] its language is itself one-dimensional, a dimension restricted by confinement to things as they are, surrender to the limited apparent possibilities of the status quo. An adequate public housing program is in an alternate dimension, that of the potential, the possible but not yet factual. It is simply not on the table. The next task for housing advocates is to get it back on the table.

—————————
1. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/06/opinion/gov-andrew-cuomos-sandy-plan.html?_r=0
2. Speech by NYCHA chairman John B. Rhea before Association for a better new york
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2012, available at http://search1.nyc.gov/search?q=cache:OzTbkrGADyoJ:www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/downloads/pdf/ABNY-SPEECH-NYCHA-CHAIRMAN-JOHN-B-RHEA-9-24-12.pdf+nycha+plan+to+build+market+rate+vacant&access=p&output=xml_no_dtd&proxystylesheet=agency_frontend&client=agency_frontend&ie=UTF-8&site=default_collection&oe=UTF-8
[2a] http://gawker.com/5983190/is-building-luxury-housing-on-the-playgrounds-of-public-housing-the-worst-idea-ever-yes-yes-it-is
[3] See “The One-Dimensional Language Of Collaborationist Analysis,” forthcoming

#10 – The Changes in Occupy and the Right to the City


Blog #10 – The Changing Character of Occupy and the Right to the City

I. The Historical Roots of Occupy and the Right to the City

Both the Occupy movements and the Right to the City movements, two of the most active and most influential nation-wide groupings in the progressive urban arena today, spring out of deep dissatisfaction with things as they are.. That system is broadly known as capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system, with social, cultural, and political aspects, that has produced rapid technological progress, major material benefits, and been accompanied by new social and cultural patterns. But capitalism has also been accompanied by with many severe drawbacks, initially inevitable as the system developed, but no longer necessary. Alternatives are feasible today; another world is today possible, in which the full development of each and all individual’s capacities is set as the goal of social organization, replacing the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth as the driving force of the society.

The contradiction between the existing and the possible has surfaced periodically over time, in the anti-colonial struggles, in working class organization, in artistic expression, in human behavior in everyday life. It came together a one articulate burst in the explosions of 1968. Three sources of frustration with the existing can be distinguished: the materially exploited, the socially and politically oppressed, and the intellectually and culturally discontented. Fundamental structural change seemed possible, even revolutionary change. There is today no objective reason why poverty needs to exist, why inequality stunts the development of some and enriches others beyond use, lets some groups oppress others, sanctions wars and violence to resolve disputes; the system is today capable of creating would have been a utopian a hundred years ago. That fact is an objective one; and its recognition might have objectively led to an explosion such as that of 1968, but reaching much deeper and more broadly. Yet the subjective conditions that were also necessary for it to find expression were not adequate; the power of those who might be the agents of change towards a different society were not powerful enough to overcome the strength of the forces sustaining the status quo. The system still delivered the goods, at least widely enough to prevent broad resistance. The situation did not develop as those prominent in the movements for change had hoped. In short, revolution did not occur, the power of the movement abated, protest and resistance remained, but revolution did not take place and is not today on the agenda. Thus the underlying impetus for revolutionary change that had flowered in 1968 remained underneath, but its concretization in revolutionary change was off the agenda.

That the spirit of 1968 has continued and is part of the DNA of the Occupy movement and the Right to the City movements in following years can be seen from some of their slogans:

CAPITALISM ISN’T WORKING
WE WANT FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE, NOT ELECTORAL POLITICS
IF VOTING CHANGED ANYTHING, THEY’D MAKE IT ILLEGAL
OCCUPY WALL STREET, SHUT DOWN CAPITALISM

What both Occupy and Right to the City wanted was—even if the word was not often used—revolution [note to pm: resist the temptation to capitalize!). What to call it, retaining both its historical meaning but avoiding the shock of its initial reception in the public sphere, could be called other things, blending the process with its desired outcome (a distinction deserving further comment):

“Major change” or “structural change” or change“ affecting the totality of a social complex ”or “outside of the established framework
“Another World” but that might mean many different things;
“Progressive change,” or “social democracy” – But the terms seem to induce an eyes=glazed-over indifference among the larger public;”
“Socialism” – a plausible formulation if taken in its essential rather than really-existing meaning, but withmuch to much baggage needing unpacking to be useful in most discussions; or, from a socialist, to avoid the bagage:
A system with “such dramatic change that it can no longer be regarded as capitalism.”
“Transformation” – a rather bland term, but useful term precisely because of its generality. It can be given concrete meaning as the totality of those changes in individual components of the system but not fully effective without changes in the system as a whole, that are transformative, contributing to transformation.

In what follows the terms “revolution” and “transformation” are used interchangeably.

I. The Objective and Subjective Conditions for Transformative Change

S0: since 1968, at least, objectively, the situation is ripe for transformation. The contradictions in the system are manifold, but the subjective forces are inadequately mobilized. Within the existing relations of power, those who are objectively potential agents of change are not subjectively dedicated to marshaling their power to achieve that change, and those among them who are nevertheless thus dedicated face the subjective unreadiness of others as a present objective roadblock to progress. In one formulation, “…contradictions do not explode by themselves,” contradictions only produce change when there are agents of change with the desire and the ability to catalyze that change.

But there is a problem here: agents desiring change may well have that desire, but not the ability to bring it to fruition. Objectively, the class forces supporting the essential status quo may be too strong, have advanced technology of repression at their disposal and be willing to use it brutally in many countries (Libya, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc.). In technologically further developed societies they can still produce the goods well enough so that, while the forces of resistance may be allowed to manifest their unrest, they are prevented from getting the support necessary to overcome the ideological and social and economic weapons, as well as the brute force, at the disposal of those in power.

What do social forces do when they want revolution, but the time isn’t ripe for it?

Henri Lefebvre and Herbert Marcuse, in over-lapping but not identical ways, gave expression to the dilemma in the context of 1968:

H. Marcuse, in 1969.:

One can rightfully speak of a cultural revolution, since the protest is directed toward the whole cultural establishment, including the morality of existing society? There is one thing we can say with complete assurance: the traditional idea of revolution and the traditional strategy of revolution has ended. These ideas are old fashioned. What we must undertake is a type of diffuse and dispersed disintegration of the system.

H. Lefebvre in 1970:

The massive involvement of those affected would alter this state of afairs [the blockage of the exploration of the possible.] Would it enable those thoughts and projects to cross the threshold before which they seem to hesitate [pm-the threshold of revolution?] Possibly. But that involvement has never taken place. .. there has been no trace of any political movement—that is, the politicization of the problems and objectives of “construction.”

Guy Debord already in 1967 for the Situationists:

[Revolutionary critique must] work among the irreconcilable enemies of the spectacle, and admit that without them it is nothing; [in between times,] it must know how to wait.

II. Transformation

The concept of transformation can indeed be seen as an updating of the concept of revolution, in a post-socialist, post-Fordist, urban and one-dimensional world.

“It may be ruled out that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historic events; they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life”.

“transformation”, … in everyday political language mostly involves a process of restructuring of society over long periods of time and in the midst of tedious disputes, [with] an additional aspect: subjectivity.

In concrete terms relevant to the future work of Occupy or Right to the City groups, this means several realizations:

1. Immediate goals must be seen in long-term perspective, linking “tedious disputes” to fundamental broad objectives;
2. A wide variety of tactics must be considered must be considered in conjunction with each other, ranging from dramatic and militant protest to influencing legislative and electoral decisions and attention to public relations on a continuing,
3. “Internal “education and organization must have a prominent place in all campaigns for change, linking the immediate and the transformative goals of action;
4. “External” education, of those who objectively have in common the experience of exploitation, domination, and exclusion, but do not subjectively link their experience to the nature of the dominant social structures, is vital, if the objective relations of power which are to be changed to permit transformation;
5. Clarity must be achieved in the understanding and analysis of the causes of those common negative experiences, perhaps using the recognition of the meaning and functioning of capitalism as its centerpiece, the framework for most detailed analysis.

III. The Multiple Lives of Occupy and the Right to the City

What the various Occupy and Right to the City movements have done while waiting have taken quite diffused and dispersed forms, have politicized the problems they saw in quite varying ways over time and space. So varying, indeed, that one might speak of quite different manifestations of each, , leading quite different lives, different targets, different organizational forms, different spatial forms, much so that one might almost speak of the three different lives of the Occupy movement and the three different lives of the Right to the City movement, roughly appearing in chronological order but very much overlapping and simultaneously active.

While the two organized movements with roots in 1968 discussed here , the right to the city and the Occupy Wall Street movements .both reflect the underlying impetus for change, the congealed demands of the exploited, the oppressed, and the discontented, they have not replaced earlier similarly based movements: those of the working class, the anti-colonial, the anarchist, the communist, the urban social movements, the pro-democratic. But these two are the most active and interesting today; in any event, they are the ones discussed below. .
A. The Right to the City movements.

The web site of the Right to the City Alliance provides the following history:

Right to the City was born out of desire and need by organizers and allies around the country to have a stronger movement for urban justice. But it was also born out of the power of an idea of a new kind of urban politics that asserts that everyone, particularly the disenfranchised, not only has a right to the city, but as inhabitants, have a right to shape it, design it, and operationalize an urban human rights agenda.

In the realm of ideas, a key resource and touchstone is “Le droite à la ville” (Right to the City) a book published in 1968 by French intellectual and philosopher Henri Lefebvre. In the sphere of human rights, this powerful idea was adopted by the World Urban Forum and elaborated into the World Charter of the Right to the City in 2004.

Building from this powerful idea, international principles, and forward looking grassroots organizing, the Right to the City Alliance was established in January 2007.

We can already trace the three elements of the Right to the City in the formulation.

1. Right to the City One: The ideological concept.

Historically, going back to in its current meaning, developed in 1968 by Lefebvre and popularized in the demonstrations in Paris and other cities. In Lefebvre, the city, the urban, is seen not as the existing, but as the alternative content in a new society, perhaps implicitly assumed to be socialist in Lefebvre’s somewhat undisciplined writings. There is by now an enormous literature on this, with many open questions as to precise meaning. Common to most understandings is that the term “city” is used, not to mean the existing city, but as a synecdoche, a metaphor, for a society implementing an idealized vision of what urban life could and should be, that “right” is taken as a moral claim, not a legal proposition.

In this usage the right to the city is a “cry and a demand,” a slogan that legitimates and ties together many concrete demands but is not limited to them, but envisages a revolutionary change in what current cities are. Lefebvre does not pay explicit attention to the means by which the city he speaks of would be brought about. When he speaks of an urban revolution, he is speaking of the transformation of society from an industrialized to an urbanized contour, not a set of actions that would produce a further change. The right to the city is a slogan that has caught on, and is used as a framework for much of the activity covered by Right to the City Three.

2. Right to the City Two: the liberal version.

Here the slogan becomes an abstract statement of theoretical human rights, as in Declarations of the Rights to the City in the World Charter and other international conferences. It includes an assembly of separate programmatic immediate realistic goals, seen as achievable and enforceable with the prevailing systems of law and governance. It has a potential to assist in bringing together at an international level, many complimentary campaigns and organizations, but it is only thinly linked to Right to the City One.

3. Right to the city Three: Alliance of Individual Issues.

The use that reflects the existing practice, urban social movements/organizations banding together in a Right to the City Alliance, an assemblage of specific diverse groups, ranging from the homeless to GLBT, to welfare recipients, to public housing tenants, etc., addressed by more or less militant action but within the system. The transformative nature of the demands made may or may not lie in the background, but the view that the problems are caused by common characteristics of the system is nevertheless shared.
B. Occupy

“Occupy,” as the term is used by the various groups using it as part of their names, has very different meanings: the word “occupy” in “Occupy Wall Street” means one thing, in “Occupy Los Angeles” another in “Occupy Brooklyn;” it means something else again “Occupy Everything;” in “Occupy Wikipedia” something other than in “Occupy police., or in “Occupy Peace, or in “Occupy the System.”.” The only definition that would permit its substitution for the term in each usage would be: “Actively Engage in Changing _______” But it can have an ambiguous meaning: Liberate a foreclosed home, or occupy a factory in a sit-in, as well as Occupy the West Bank to displace its occupants. It is used here in the sense of the original Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City, as liberatory in a progressive direction. (see Occupy One below.) Of course the Occupy movement is not a formal body and has many and divergent positions within it, but I believe the discussion below reflects the predominant voices and views.

Schematically, then:

1. Occupy One: Class Targeted Discourse.

Wall Street as symbolic of the ruling elite, l% if not just income. Wall Street as representative of the ruling elite, seen as in conflict with the 99%, rejecting compromise/consensus seeking solutions. . Aimed at raising consciousness, affecting the discourse, getting picked up by others e.g. in election campaigns, and eschewing specific concrete “demands” and programmatic goals in favor of principled positions. Seeking transformation in the social structure as a whole. Thus far, avoiding direct dealing with issues of power and real-politik.

2. Occupy Two: Physically Take Over Spaces.

Literally, occupy spaces, originally those directly sympbolic of and/or locted in the heart of the beast, as in Zuccotti Park, or Oakland. The expansion of this approach to site occupation to explore the uses of public space in particular, and to focus on the democratic aspect of arrangements for the provision and use of public space, is consistent with Occupy One, but something of a dilution of its confrontational and class-related aspect., dealing with much less than the systemic whole of the former. But It can lead to what I have called a fetishized conception of space.

3. Occupy Three: An Umbrella Function.

All Occupy groups have been very open and supportive of other campaigns that they see as moving in the same direction as their own broad vision. This includes both campaigns with immediate and limited goals, e.g. picket lines at anti-union employers, as well as less immediate goals, as in in Occupy Los Angeles, , or Occupy the Economy, or Occupy Columbia, or Occupy Production. Here Occupy has by and large subordinated its transformative approaches to the immediate needs of the action it is supporting.

4. Occupy Four: Occupy as Process.

From the start, Occupy groups have been very conscious of their internal procedures of discussion and decision-making. Occupy spatial encampments are seen by their participants as models of what democratic processes would be. The General Assemblies, at which all members can speak and vote, with instant voting by show of hands and hand gestures, with 90% majority requirements and attention being given to the varying strength of individual objections, are all seen as prototypes of how a society as a whole might operate. Attention is not, however, to my knowledge, focused on how such techniques might be carried over into actual governmental or organizational procedures outside of the encampments.

IV. Conclusion: Evolution to Revolution?

While each of the forms of the Right to the City and the Occupy movements co-exist with each of the other forms, there is a pattern of development that becomes apparent. It runs from a full-blown commitment to social transformation to more narrowly focused attention to specific sectors of the existing structure in need of change to a practice in which immediate campaigns for reform are supported theoretically as parts of a comprehensive attack on the whole but in practice become increasingly ends in themselves. In the process, the historical current of deep dissatisfaction remains underneath all developments, but the sharp focus on the critique of the existing system, of capitalism, moves to the background, is subject to co-optation, is split up into multiple separate issues, the common source of each reflected more in individual practical actions than in ideological analysis and consciousness.

In general, the movement can be seen as being objectively in the direction of transformation, but its subjective focus becomes dimmed in the face of the apparent impracticality of successful attack on the system as a whole. The fact of this subjective weakness becomes a part of the objective reality confronting the movements, and of necessity influences their shorter-term practices and goals. While achieving certain important rights in the city, ensuring the democratic occupancy of effective public spaces in cities, moving the public discourse to greater concern with issues of inequality and participatory democracy, are important goals in themselves, they are not the ultimate goals that inspired these movements in their early days.

That development is then a logical, if not inevitable consequence of the real historical situation in which the participants find themselves, in which the objective conditions for transformation, for revolution, initially seem to be present, but in which immediate transformation, the likelihood of revolution in its classical sense, undercuts that real potential and seems to become a utopian chimera. Piecemeal evolution, abandoning the possibility of a wholesale transformation, seems the only sensible answer to the problem to the constraints of historical reality. A complete transformation from one explosive manifestation, the traditional view of revolution, certainly does not seem to be in the cards. Is evolution to revolution, transition to transformation, possible?

There is, I believe, increasing recognition of the need to confront this situation within the movements themselves, and to consider alternative paths ahead. In the next blog, #11, some possibilities are explored.

On Reading David Harvey on the Tarmic with the help of Jesus


ON READING DAVID HARVEY ON THE TARMAC IN TORONTO, LISTENING TO JESUS’ VISION

” The term “city” has an iconic and symbolic history that is deeply embedded in the pursuit of political meanings.  The city of God, the city on a hill, the city as an object of utopian desire, …  give it a political meaning that mobilizes a crucial political imaginary.  [Lefebvre] saw … [urbanization] was “going global” and that under such conditions the question of the right to the city (construed as a distinctive thing or definable object) had to give way to some vaguer question of the right to urban life which later morphed in his thinking into the more general question of the right to The Production of Space (published in 1974).” – David Harvey, 2011.

 

Sitting on the tarmac at Toronto airport, reading David Harvey’s HENRI LEFEBVRE’S VISION OF THE RIGHT TO THE CITY, waiting for congestion at LaGuardia Airport to clear so we could take off. I had gotten the last seat on our flight, and was seated next to an elderly gentleman of dark skin and distinguished demeanor, with whom I had exchanged pleasantries waiting on line to get on. We were stuck, the pilot told us, for perhaps two hours, till the congestion at LaGuardia cleared enough for us to land there.  I opened my laptop to read Harvey’s piece on the vision of the city.

My companion glanced over at what I was reading, and after a discreet silence asked, “Do you believe in Jesus?” Taken aback, I thought, better end this quickly, and simply said, but with a smile, not wanting to be rude: “No.” But he continued: “What do you believe in?”  That took a bit longer to deal with, but, quick-wittedly, I said: “reason,” and hoped that would end the conversation and I could get back uninterrupted to Harvey’s tract, more in my atheist’s zone  of comfort. It was not to be.

My seat mate pursued the issue., ”I asked because I saw you were reading about a Vision of the City on a Hill. I believe in Jesus because I had a vision when I was young…” That struck me as a conversation-stopper, and I ignored it, but then thought, well, why not, how often do I get to talk to a Jesus freak in a leisurely manner and on a friendly basis So I said, “no, it’s not that kind of vision he’s writing about. The city on a hill is meant symbolically, not in a religious sense, although I know the phrase comes from St. Augustine.” “”No, it doesn’t,” he said; “it comes from Matthew in the Bible, and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount,” which Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem..” “Oh,” I said, thinking this might actually get interesting. “And what did Jesus mean by it? Cities aren’t usually built on hills, they’re usually built in valleys.” “He,” my companion answered, capitalizing ‘He’ in tone, of course) “meant it symbolically, as a vision of the good, the desirable, perhaps the paradise of the future.” “Oh, all right, but why ‘city” in particular? [thinking to myself, what would Lefebvre say?] The mount of olives,” I continued, “is hardly in the more city part of Jerusalem [hardly an urban setting, , Lefebvre would have said.] ‘”No,” my companion said, “Jesus didn’t mean it that way. The Bible always speaks of “the city” this way, not of any particular city, not a city like Sodom and Gomorrah, for sure; the Bible says King David built the City of Zion on the top of Mount Zion.” “He did,?” I said, incredulously; that’s an odd place to build a city. “But he did,” he responded, “the Bible tells us so.  The Bible means the city on the hill as the vision that men must pursue in this life, if they want to go to heaven in the next life.”

“Oh,” I said, “I’ll have to look that up.” “Do that, he said. “Jerusalem is the  city of Zion, on a hill for all to see.” Then the conversation drifted into the after-life, the role of gospel churches, whether God had deliberately arranged the boarding of the plane so that I sat next to him, and arranged the congestion at LaGuardia so there would be plenty of time, and he could tell me about Jesus, and about other miracles he had seen. He did not believe in coincidences. I told him I didn’t believe in miracles.

Epilogue.

When got up to deplane, I bent over to look for my reading glasses, which I thought I had dropped under seat when I first sat down. “Did you find them,” he asked? “No.” I said, I reached across, got my jacket out of the overhead compartment, and put it on. “Here they are,” he said, reaching over and taking them out of my jacket breast pocket and handing them to me. When he saw the surprised look on my face, he put on the biggest grin I had seen all day on his face.

And the congestion at LaGuardia was over.