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


WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? NOT JUST INEQUALITY

Inequality today is usually equated with the extent of the gap between the 1% and the 99% that that the Occupy movement brought to public attention, or that Bernie Sanders highlights in properly criticizing the distribution of wealth and income in the United States. But this is a mischievously facile definition of inequality. Some inequalities are in fact fair, and result from differences in talent, physical strength, luck, and commendable effort. Gross disparities are a vivid indicator of a problem, but do not draw attention to its causes, which lie in critical social, economic, and political relationships,. To focus on the gap itself and to address it with remedial measures aimed at narrowing its extent detracts attention from those causes.[i]

 Just and Unjust  Inequality: Why the Difference Matters

Equality and inequality are deceptively simple concepts. In the modern era they came into prominence with the French revolutionary slogan of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,[ii] where equality meant political and legal equality, equality of “rights,” equality in relation to the state, as it did in the United States  Declaration of Independence’s “All men are created equal” as to “certain inalienable rights.” [iii] Rights to the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Man Equality did not mean equality in incomes or wealth or in the distribution of goods and services, which were seen as dependent on equality of legal and political rights, Equality in material distribution of material goods was seen as a concomitant of social justice, not its center.

Comparing equality as a goal to justice as a goal[iv]  brings the realization that not all inequality is unjust. Not all differences are unjust. There is natural inequality, of physical and mental capacities: not all humans are of the same height or weight or prowess, not all are the equals of Einstein or Jacki Robinson or Martin Luther King. We consider some inequality in the distribution of wealth and power fair: it may derive from natural inequalities, it may be earned by hard work, or by social contribution, what Piketty calls the common utility, or be justified by different needs. In some cases unjust inequalities may be built on natural or earned “not-unjust ” inequalities, but their extreme extent then built on power, part of their wealth earned, another part not: Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton? Thomas Edison? Jeff Bezoz?  There is a balancing involved. Granted a Hollywood star or tennis champion or skilled artisan deserves to earn more than the average, how much more is just? A tricky question, but the answer can be one produced through democratic processes, and would, for instance, lead to decisions as to how progressive the tax structure should be. Similarly, a person who is ill, or suffering from a disability, or is limited by conditions end his or her control, might be entitled to more governmental support than the average, and again at what levels is an appropriate subject for democratic decision-making, leading to decisions as to the levels of welfare benefits reimbursement for health care expenses, and so forth.[v]

There is thus “just inequality” and “unjust inequality.” How does one generalize the difference?

What Is The Key Difference?

Inequality is unjust,[vi] I propose, if it derives from the exercise of power used for the exploitation or oppression of one person or group by another. The resulting distribution of goods and  services, of wealth and income , the gap between the 1% and 99% is unjust, not because of its size, but because of its origins. What is “just” is then a matter that is socially defined – Rawls’ definition of justice or fairness could be useful, what would be decided by people acting behind a “veil of ignorance” as to their own position.

The results of not-unjust inequalities in the distribution of goods and services can then e countered by appropriate public policies of redistribution of those goods and services, e.g. by taxes or public provision.

But the results of unjust inequalities need to be addressed at their source in the social, political, and economic relations among individuals and groups which skew the distribution of goods and services, and result from the skewed distribution of power.  Acting on the results of just-inequalities can be guided by democratic procedures, debates on over values, the use of reason. Acting on the results of unjust-inequalities necessarily involves dealing with the distribution of power, and durable consensus of those benefiting from unjust inequality with those suffering from it should not be expected, and should not be an aim of public policy.

Justice is a moral formulation for the prevention of unjust inequalities. Politically, dealing with all forms of inequality, just and unjust alike, through redistribution of their results is can be done by consensus reforms, and should be facilitated by democracy. But dealing with the bases for unjust inequalities likely requires more radical politics. This may be the difference between Hilary Clinton’s and Bernie Saunders’ in the political campaigns of the moment.[vii]

The issues around inequality are complex for practice, as well as theoretically challenging; the answers make a significant difference in matters of immediate policy as well as in philosophy and world outlook.

———————-

[i] For striking examples, see my Blog #48 Writing about Inequality, at pmarcuse.wordpress.com.

[ii] The 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of the Right of Man begins with: “art. 1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” [http://www.hrcr.org/docs/frenchdec.html] considers egalite in terms of legal equality and merit-based entry to government (art. 6): [The law] “must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.”

[iii] “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”

[iv] As Susan Fainstein does in The Just City, for example, in a wide-ranging discussion. Fainstein, Susan. 2010. The Just City. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, P.   36ff.

[v] Rawls definition of justice or fairness as what would be decided by people acting behind a veil of ignorance as to their own position is I believe consistent with this approach.

[vi] Piketty uses a definition, benefitting most those most in need, akin to Rawls’ definition of justice, But he writes that fuller discussion of the meaning of justice is beyond the scope of his tome, and it is well beyond  the scope of this essay.

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

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

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

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

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

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

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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 www.marcuse.org/herbert/ and at ttps://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/marcuse/works/1967/end-utopia.htm

[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. Mahagonny.com The Brecht Yearbook 29, The International Brecht society: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 23-30., available http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/German/German-idx?type=turn&entity=German.BrechtYearbook029.p0042&id=German.BrechtYearbook029&isize=M

[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 pmarcuse.wordpress.com.

Blog #33 – The Five Paradoxes of Public Space, with Proposals


Blog #33  – The Five Paradoxes of Public Space, with Proposals

A key, but not the only, aspect of public space is the role it plays in permitting popular public participation in democratic governance, democratic political decision-making. For the United States, it might be called “First Amendment Space,” after the provision in the U.S.A. Constituting establishing the rights of free speech and free assembly.  In a broader sense, public space should also be available democratically and based on equality of rights  for a full range of social interchanges, for recreation, sports, picnicking, hiking,  running, sitting, chatting, simply enjoyment, by all people, equally. Such uses, carried out democratically, are in turn necessary for democratic governance, but in a different way. Let me call them “Social Spaces.“ And they may be divided between Convening spaces, where convening for the purposes of political effectiveness may be planned, and Encounter Spaces, where chance meetings and discussion may btake place without prior planning/convesning.  “Infrastructural Spaces” are also social spaces but in a different sense, not directly political: spaces for transportation, streets, sidewalks, recreational areas, parks, hiking trails, bicycles partially. he term “Third Space” is sometimes in fashion in a similar sense, and often defined as somewhere between public and private.[1] More on social spaces elsewhere. When public space is referred to here, it is in the sense of political public space,  First Amendment space in the United States. Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Playa of Mothers in Buenos Aires, the Mall in Washington, D.C., Zuccotti Park in New York City, perhaps Central Park or Fifth Avenue, with its parades and marches, but also the fenced in space under the West Side highway at the time of the Republican Convention, and perhaps the indoor space of the Convention Center, as used for convening for discussions of alternate proposals for rebuilding after 9/11.

Five paradoxes, five proposals, one warning.

Paradox 1: The paradox of public space and democracy:To have truly democratic public spaces, you have to have a truly democratic society.But to have a truly democratic society, you have to have democratic public spaces—

The means and the end are inseparable: as we are witnessing today throughout the Near East, a public  space in a society that is not (yet, at least) democratic will not remain open for vibrant democratic discussion long. Only in a democratic society will the state’s use of tear gas be unthinkable.The effective use of public space is almost a sine qua non for the achievement of a democratic society, again as we have recently seen in the Near East.

The connection between political democracy (see economic democracy below) is most obvious in the ways in which the state regulates public space, and the decision-making process by which its regulations are agree upon. The process as it now stands in the United States in a sense ignores confronting the relationship between democracy and public space. The regulation of public space is largely administrative, e.g. Park Department rules, with minimal informed public participation. For instance, I have tried to find he criteria by which he use of Bryant Park is determined by he Park Department, and have just gotten the run-around; the rules are just submit your application, and if it fits we’ll let you know. Even more seriously, the provision of democratic public space is not seen as a formal function of government. The constitution proclaims a right of free assembly for the presentation of grievances;; should it not be understood that that implies an affirmative obligation to make space available for such free assembling?

So:

Proposal 1: Each city should have a public democratic First Amendment spaces plan as part of its regular plan for the city’s development and administration. That plan should include not only the desired extent, locations, and design features of public space in the city, but also the principles for the regulation and management of the uses of all public owned or controlled spaces permitting full exercise of democratic political (first amendment) rights, giving such rights priority.

Much of what is now public space is already owned by and planned for by cities: parks, plazas, sports facilities, waterfronts, streets for parades and street fairs, auditoriums in public schools . There should be a comprehensive plan regulating all such places and uses, taking into consideration a priority for the defined exercise of constitutional rights of assembly, and expanding such places if they are inadequate.

Paradox 2: The paradox of public space and equality

To have truly democratic public space, you cannot have gross inequalities of wealth..But to limit gross inequalities of wealth, you need to have truly democratic public spaces.

It is not a coincidence that when Zuccotti Park was put to a classic First Amendment use, it was done under the banner of Occupy Wall Street, taken as a symbol of grossly unequal wealth. . Inequalities of wealth and democracy are in constant tension with each other.  Our experience in the United States,  as in the last election and recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, is a classic example of that tension.     A gross inequality in wealth results in a gross inequality in political power, which in turn leads to a gross limitation of democracy. In order to address gross inequalities of wealth, you need true democracy, for which in turn (paradox one) you need truly public space in which citizens may assemble for the exercise of their democratic rights.. But in turn, to have truly public space, you need to address gross inequalities of wealth. Not unexpectedly, our billionaire mayor in New York City whose firm is based on reporting on Wall Street’s ups and downs, disagrees.

But even further gross inequalities of wealth lead to gross inequalities in the ownership of land and the buildings built on land. For the greatest restraint on the ability to assemble freely in public spaces is in practice the limited availability of such spaces (and the lack of planning for them, as above discussed). But stepping back, the biggest reason for the limited availability of such spaces is, simply and tautologically, the dominating presence of non-public spaces, that is, private spaces, and their control through a system of property rights in which economic wealth and power largely dictate what uses are in fact permitted and what are not.

So:

Proposal 2: The city should, based on the plan of Proposal 1, have a capital budget that provides for the acquisition, by eminent domain if necessary, of adequate public space to serve democratic political purposes,

Paradox 3: The paradox of public vs. private spaces.

Certain types of private spaces are essential for the functioning of public spaces.

But the privatization of public space also inhibits their public use.

On the one hand, some enhance public use.  On the other hand, the existence of certain kinds of private space is essential for public spaces to best serve their desired functions.

Some commercial uses can serve to enhance the public use and enjoyment of a park, or other public space. The availability of food service is a classic case, and vendors are unobjectionable from almost any point of view. If it enhances other public uses, recreation, education, appreciation of nature, simply enjoyment, fine. Sidewalk cafes an obvious example, and even take into account one First Amerndment right, although not the one we are here concerned with, limited commercial uses can actually facilitate peaceable assembly (fast food vendors at the Mall in Washington).[2]

Some private uses in fact enhance the purposes of First Amendment public space. For most political actions in fact start there. Democratic political action does not ultimately spring from organized political action, but democratic political action rests on a citizenry brought together in social, rather than political or commercial, forums, which are today not a subject of governmental action. [3].

On the other hand, permitting private uses of public space may limit their availability and usefulness. Bryant Park, on 42d street in New York City, behind the New York Public Library and five minutes from Times Square, one of the busiest places in the world, is clearly a public space that lends itself ideally for public events, including First Amendment types. But its use is controlled, by law, by a private corporation, the Bryant Park Corporation. The Corporation  is open about its missions: they include “enhance[ing] the real estate values of its neighbors,”[4] and it is “privately funded and operates Bryant Park with private sector techniques and management methods. “  It is open about its available uses of the space. In applying for a use, the applicant is presented with a questionnaire, which includes the question: “Is the event public or private,?” but no detail is readily available at what private events would be considered. Nor is information given as to the criteria by which conflicting requests for use are judged.

Some purely commercial uses obviously preclude such a public space from performing its function as First Amendment space.; other commercial uses may enhance its effectiveness for political discussions and  even assemblies. But others do not: Fashion shows, shooting movies that involving blocking off and limiting access to the space involved, do not enhance the use and enjoyment of that space.

Putting public space to effective First Amendment thus use requires a calibrated relationship to private spaces and private uses. There pressures to see it as a possible money-maker, enabling ita to become “self-supporting,”  are understandable But iIt would be ironic if the maintenance of public space could only be provided for by its privatization, taking it out of public use.

So:

Proposal 3a: For democratic political uses, the private use of spaces, both publicly owned and privately owned, and their relation to each other should be carefully scrutinized, and made subject to direct local input or more depending on scale,[5] as proposal 1 suggested.

The concept of places of public accommodation is well known in the context of civil rights: there are permissible and impermissible uses of such places, and they are clearly subject to law. Some places of public accommodation: banquet halls, community rooms, lobbies and plazas, are open by law or zoning codes, and can reasonably be used for occasional public discussions, with discrimination prohibited. 60 Wall Street is a recent ideal example.

They might be made subject to open use subject to first amendment requirements, which include the preparation of regulations as now permitted governing reasonable time, description of place, and manner.

Would not a simple provision in the zoning code providing for bonuses for the provision of space specifically designed and managed for use as political public space, geared to the availability of such space in each neighborhood, be a useful possibility? But such possibilities are not even on the table today, not even for discussion. You would need a very self-confident, seasoned, committed democratic governments to do so, because the spaces requested might well be used to criticize the very government that permitted its use. They should be.

Perhaps it might be called a Plan for Communal spaces Perhaps the way in which city owned or leased spaces are used by community boards, in the city’s 59 community districts, could be an example. Or private adaptable communal spaces could be given real estate credit in any building providing them, conditional on their being publicized. Perhaps even temporary communal uses of empty store fronts, as targeted by No Longer Empty, might be models.

Public policy recognizes the problem in many ways: zoning imposes limits (but only hesitantly)  is pro-active in promoting particular uses – bonuses for plazas, theaters, tax exemptions for certain uses, etc.. The proposal for zoning bonuses mentioned above would be a positive addition to that list. Making provision for public political use a requirement goes a step further, and directly limits the power of wealth reflected in private ownership to constrain the exercise of democratic rights of assembly and democratic political participation.

Proposal 3b: Affirmative inducements may be provided publicly for private property owners to permit or even encourage the use of private property for public First Amendment purposes.

Paradox 4: The social and convening and infrastructure uses of public space contradict each other.

The use of public space for social purposes can interfere with its use for convening free assemblies. But social spaces are necessary for the organization of convening assemblies.

You cannot have chairs and tables, such as facilitate social interaction and initial organizing, scattered around a space where a mass assembly of people is to be convened.

Proposal 4: Utilize the advantages of technology and good design to make space adaptable, as in the New York convention center assemblies on the planning of the World Trade Center site after 9/11, or the design of Time Square serving both social and emergency transportation needs., or bullarards and barriers see used both for security and places to eat lunch on.

FINALLY, AND MOST CRITICALLY:

Paradox 5:  the best use of public space is illegal, and necessarily so.

To get the attention necessary for fully democratic discussion, a disruption of normal routines, of expected occurrences, is optimal. But that means disregarding normal rules and regulations,

And often for purposes critical of the instuitutions imposing such rules.

Unplanned, unpermitted use of public spaces by assemblies increases their visibility and their often desired disruptive capacity. But by the same token they contravene law and official regulations.

The most important democratic political use of public space is for the exercise of the First Amendment right of peaceable assembly for the redress of grievances, grievance addressed specifically to the government that makes the public space available. But any government thus far known to man or woman would feel itself attacked by such assembling, and have a strong interest in restraining it. There is thus an inevitable tension arising from the clear incentive government has to restrict the use of space being used to criticize it. It is no coincidence that police departments use heavy-handed tactics in destroying Occupy encampments wherever they feel they lawfully can.  (toss books in dump trucks, destroy food, take away heaters, make arrests, use billy clubs.

Proposal 5: Accept the fact that it is so, and educate law enforcement and court officials to respect the motives of those breaching regulations on the use of space in how offenders are treated.  Do the exact opposite of what is increasingly the common practice in the handling of such breaches through the criminal justice system.

These five paradoxes can perhaps be seen as instances of a larger vicious circle, an expansion of  Paradox 1: “to achieve a free society, you need free individuals, but you can only have free individuals in a free society.”[6] A vicious circle, but not a deadly one. It simply means that the two are inseparable, and one has to move on the two fronts simultaneously, in parallel. So specifically, in the context of this conference, it means that the effort to create democratic public space must be seen as part of the effort to achieve democracy itself. The two must go hand in hand.

 * * * * *

And so a warning . It is ultimately the importance of democracy that makes achieving democratic public spaces so important, and that undergirds the argument that they be well designed. . The availability of public space for democratic purposes should not be fetishized,[7] and the role of good physical design in its use should not lose sight of the greater purpose to be served: the promotion of democracy.  The design process itself, as well as its results, can be a contribution to that goal. But formal legal and management arrangements are, in the first place, critical. Legalizing Zuccotti Park, for example, or any occupied site, is not a goal in itself; dealing directly with the inequalities of wealth and of undemocratic power, is.

The goal is democracy, not a particular form of public space, although it can be an important means to that end.

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[1] The term “third space” or its equivalent has been used in many different ways: spaces between home and work (Oldenberg Oldenburg, Ray (1989). The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day. New York: Paragon House and (2000). Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories about the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities. New York: Marlowe & Company. Sociologists sometimes use the term to describe neighborhood or community spaces that are not publicly owned nor privately exclusive. For a set of well-done examples, see the special issue of Shelterforce, Hearts of the Neighborhood, National Housing Institute, Montclair, New Jersey, Fall 2012. Edward Soja has used the term in what has been called post-modern fashion in Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1996. Places of public accommodation, in civil rights law, has a similar intermediate meaning. Virtual space is a quite difference meaning of the same “third space” term.

[2] The other First Amendment right, freedom of speech, can come into play here too. Sidewalk displays and sales of art, or perhaps of books, are treated differently from sales of sunglasses or umbrellas in New York City.

[3] The discussion above neglects an important aspect of public space, alluded to in the opening: democratic public space also involved equality of rights in its use for a full range of social interchanges, for recreation, sports, picnicking, hiking,  running, sitting, chatting, simply enjoyment, by all people, equally. For such uses in turn promote the capacity and the desire of citizens to exercise their rights in all spheres, to address together issues of democracy and equality. Their importance adds to the challenges to both the design process and design results

[5] Simpler and even more democratic forms of land ownership may simplify and further democraticiz the use of land. The suggestion of the Planners Network of the United Kingdom goes in that direction:

Sustainable places cannot be achieved without the public and community sector having a long term stake in land and development. We must learn the lessons of New Towns and Garden Cities, and successful community development trusts in the UK, where land is held in common ownership by local authorities or trusts. In these communities, the benefits of land value uplift and the income from developments on community owned land are recycled back into the community to spend on services, better maintenance of property, parks and playgrounds, and on building housing or workshops for local need. In this model, the community is the long term steward of the land, looking after it as an asset for present and future generations http://pnuk.wikispaces.com/file/view/20121027pnukmanifesto.pdf  Draft Manifesto on Land Use Planning and Development, Planners Network of the United Kingdom

[6] As formulated in depth by the Frankfurt School and I think most sharply by Herbert Marcuse.

[7] See Blog #5. The Purpose Of The Occupation Movement And The Danger Of Fetishizing Space, at pmarcuse.wordpress.com.

[Revised version of a paper prepared for the Conference, “Putting Public Space in its Place,” at Harvard University, March, 2013, hosted by Prof. Jerrold Kayden. ]

 

Blog #29 – Premature Democracy, Congress, the 99% and the Tea Party


What’s the matter with the United States Congress? Too much democracy? ? “Premature democracy”? If the 99% are dissatisfied with the status quo and it only benefits the 1%, why don’t they change it? What explains the Tea Party’s positions and its power? Need it be dealt with? How?

 To put it another way: Why do we have serious problems of poverty, inequality, discrimination, poor education, unemployment, unaffordable housing, unaffordable health care, social aggressiveness and exclusion, insecurities of all sorts, all in a country that has the resources and claims the values to remedy them. Why then do they exist, why is not the government addressing them actively and effectively? Is the problem with our democracy?

Blog #29 suggests three answers; Blog #30 gives examples..

Summary:

 1)      Political procedures and material development. Congress’s rules are quite democratic (small d). They are not so different, for instance, from those governing Occupy Wall Street’s General Assemblies, although they do need significant change. Nor is the material level of development that is sometimes held a prerequisite for democracy missing, although also needing significant change.  Specifically, inequality in wealth permits undue influence  to be exerted in the electoral and political processes, over and above procedural rules and practices.

2)      Consciousness: Cultural, ideological, and behavioral patterns. What keeps the 99% from acting in its own interests is the gross disparity in power between the 99% and the 1%, both in political governance and private wealth. It is power both reflected in and buttressed by a set of cultural, ideological, and behavioral patterns, a consciousness, which results in substantial support for the 1% even among the 99%, a support represented by the tea party movement in the United States.

3)      The need for radical/utopian critical challenges. Those patterns, and the material economic relations on which they are based, need to be addressed directly and frontally at the ideological level as well as the political and economic if fundamental change is to take place. Liberal reforms are needed. But they must ultimately challenge the underlying structural aspect of power which keeps the 1% where they are, even at the expense of being called utopian. The ideology and consciousness that must be challenged is represented, symbolically, by the tea parties and their elected representatives in political office. The challenge must be addressed front on.[1]

 * * * * *

 1)      Political procedures and material development.

 “Premature democracy” is a phrase Slavoj Žižek refers to in a provocative discussion[2] of current criticisms of democracy. It suggests that you can’t expect democracy if the ground is not prepared for it.

 There are many in the mainstream who so hold.  They may allude to “failures of democracy” in countries recently moving from real existing socialism towards capitalism as in Eastern Europe and China, or in countries with deep ideological or religious cleavages, as in the Near East, or countries with deep ethnic or tribal divisions, as in parts of Africa. Perhaps some level of economic development is necessary before democracy can work, they argue.[3] A significantly high level of nationalism supporting a unifying national identity may be necessary, others hold. Or a sufficiently sturdy set of institutions. Or a consensus on the very idea that democracy is desirable. Or simply time, experience with democracy in practice.

 But the material developmental conditions for democracy in the United States seem to be sufficient. The evidence is overwhelming that the country has ample resources and productive capacity to feed, clothe, and decently house its entire population, and provide it with the material conditions of life adequate for the full and free development of all members of society. Living conditions that would have been considered utopian in any previous era, and that to many may still seem so today in comparison to what they experience, are in fact well within reach today. Lack of material actual productive capacity is not the problem.

 Nor are the formal rules of political participation necessary in a democracy fundamentally lacking. A focus on the actual procedural rules being followed, both for voting in and for Congress, are  a part, but only a part, of the problem.  Pointing at the procedures Congress follows as undemocratic and requiring reform isn’t enough. Occupy Wall Street struggled to put into practice as thoroughly democratic a process as is to be found in public use today. It allowed for anyone wishing to speak at a meeting on an issue to speak, in the order requesting permission, it provided for voting by show of hands almost by request any time (and informally by hand gestures after any speaker), for super- majorities to carry a vote, and even then Occupy permitted anyone with deeply felt objections to block the result. Anyone displaying an interest was entitled to vote. Some objected that it was not a very efficient way of making decisions, but it was considered an affordable price to pay for a vibrant democracy, which indeed it was.

 Surprisingly, Congress actually follows the rules Occupy uses pretty closely in practice.  It isn’t that Congress’ formal procedures are non-democratic. Those that are, like gerrymandering or interference with the ability to vote, could all be changed by Congress if it wanted, even  within existing procedures, to do so. It could regulate campaign expenditures more than it does, even given current Supreme Court rulings, and the impact of those expenditures depends on many factors other than their quantity.

 The problem Congress faces goes beyond procedure. What Republicans do now that is called undemocratic, like the filibuster,  Democrats might wish to be able to do if party strengths were reversed, and it is a form of protecting rights of small minorities. Arguably even removing the road-blocks to fairness in existing procedures would only make a marginal difference in the results, and going whole hog to the Occupy model might have even worse results. Apparently even the massive money sloshing around and used in the last election did not make a major difference. Private lobbying, given members of integrity, is not per se undemocratic.

 Blaming “Congress” for the current impasse on budget expenditures and taxes, and arguing that a change of rules would solve the problem, is in any case fallacious. It is the position of the Republicans, and only some fraction of them, that is immediately to blame.  Wherever the difficult line between the protection of minority rights and the implementation of majority desires might be drawn, few would argue on principled procedural grounds that it has been crossed. The filibuster rules in the Senate are perhaps the one exception, but even those can be changed under the Senate’s own rules as they now exist.

 So it is not that Congress is fundamentally an undemocratic institution, but that it substantively reflects the fact that a significant part of the electorate disagrees significantly with the majority, a large enough part so that according them minority rights does not violate fundamental democratic precepts.

 But does Congress really reflect the electorate?  the hope for democracy in the United States premature?

 That depends on how democratic the election process is, and thus on what the rules for electing members of Congress are. There are certainly large questions about how democratic those rules are. But the election of right-wing Republicans is not solely dependent on the bias in those rules. Conservatives benefit disproportionately from those rules, but their successes are only in part due to them. Certainly there are problems with registration procedures, with gerrymandering, with the Electoral College, big problems with access to the media and the role of money in elections. And certainly those rules can and should be made very much more democratic. The end result would be much more reflective of what one person – one vote would produce if all the ideal formal rules of democratic procedures were followed to the letter.

 Yet one would have to admit that, if Obama squeaked through the 2012 election with a mere 52% of the votes on a moderately liberal platform, whether the percentage of votes going to a more challenging platform have been greater, or lesser,  is an open question, even under procedurally better conditions.

 So all of the necessary conditions for success by any of these standards exist in the United States, and none of the conditions predicting failure.

 But the conditions need examination. Both the effectiveness of the procedural rules of democracy, and the benefits of the existing productive capacity, are dependent on the distribution of power that lies underneath them, and that in turn is determined by something other than sheer numbers involved in voting or in production.

 2)      Consciousness: Cultural, ideological, and behavioral patterns.

 If all rules achieved perfect democracy, there would be, in today’s United States, a substantial minority that would support the position of the right wing Republicans, say of the Tea Party. It is substantial even if only 8% of voters consider themselves Tea Party members (already a significant number, since membership implies active support, not simply voting), but according to polls 30% look favorably on it, and only 49% do not.[4] It is a large enough minority to be entitled to a substantial role in the deliberations of any democratic body, even with discounts for all the undemocratic elements contributing to its electoral strength. If there is substance, even if not mathematical accuracy, behind Occupy’s slogan: “we are the 99%, they are the 1%” why do 48% of the electorate vote with the 1%? Are their votes “freely” cast?

 The argument is strong that voters are not free to decide for whom to vote, in any but a limited formal procedural sense. The votes of a substantial number today do not reflect their actual material interests, or the results would be much closer to the 99%/1% split of Occupy. As Arundhati Roy frequently says, “We are many, and they are few.” Material interests are important, and material inequality stands in the way of a full actual realization of material equality, a realization sharp enough to determine a vote. Voters are in fact very unequal and those at the losing end of inequality are not free in their voting.

 To be fully free, voters would have to be in a position to have access to and interpret the necessary information free of manipulation by others. They would have to be free of material pressures forcing a vote against long-term interests, requiring a suppression of actual preferences in favor of satisfaction of immediate needs. That would require a higher level of material equality than we have today, one at least guaranteeing for all some minimum threshold, of income, education, health, personal security, the effective ability to exercise political, social, and economic rights. Material burdens get in the way, in a vicious circle, of the ability to comprehend the cause of those burdens. Even for Tea Party members not immediately subject to direct want, the worry about the future, interpreted for them by others in so many ways, has the same effect as if it were actually fully present today, whether or not its danger is in fact real, as it is for some.

 These material burdens could, theoretically, be changed immediately by the strong concerted action of the 99% that would benefit from change. Yet the strength of the labor movement, which might be taken as one indicator of the power of that 99%, is weaker today than it was at any time since the New Deal, and the militancy of social movements today is demonstrably less than it was then. But even a return to New Deal levels of political and social action seems remote today.

 The problem has a deeper dimension.  Even, say, a return to the social provisions of the New Deal, or even of the most social welfare oriented countries of Europe today, would likely make a limited difference. Such provisions might deal with one dimension of the problem, but a deeper dimension would remain: the ideological/psychological. It is the blocked dimension of the consciousness of alternatives. The blockages keep individuals from realizing, from visualizing, what the alternatives might be to the problematic situations they face now. Other dimensions deal with what the relations among people would be in a truly  equal society, what alternatives for the organization of society might exist, what other motivations besides profit might drive the economic engine – and what individual values might provide satisfaction  with one’s life.

 The realization of these alternate dimensions is blocked by characteristics imposed subtly but pervasively on individuals in our present society: the felt need to consume ever more goods, live in ever bigger houses, compete forever for greater incomes and wealth and power. Culture is a weak name for the pattern. Ideology, the explicit formulation of the rationale behind the system as it is, is another contributor to the blockages. Ideologies are of course directly connected to material relations, but not automatically, and are part cause as well as consequence of the material, and retain an independent and growing role in the nature of the order of society.  As long as these characteristics of the present social and economic relations persist, political relations will be subject to their influence, and the steps from 52% voting majorities to close to 99% voting majorities will be blocked.

 3)      The blockage of radical/utopian critical challenges.

 The first task to achieve real democracy is to remove the rules and procedures that prevent us from having a truer democracy, and the second is to reduce the power of those who create and benefit from the inequality of others. But undertaking those tasks needs to keep in mind the third task, opening awareness to the further dimension that is possible, the alternative dimension, perhaps seen as utopian today, but yet completely possible given the productive capacity our society has achieved. Immediate gains need to be linked firmly to a vision of the full potentials of a democratic society.

 The problem of the tea party—of a response to the problems with which the existing system seems incapable of dealing—is one embodiment of what needs to be dealt with. The tea party is made up of many diverse types, and supported financially by some in different positions but having a vested interest in its success.  For an apparent majority, the liberal side, the apparent slight majority within the 99%, the system produces enough to prevent reactions of desperation for material change, and provides enough immediate benefits to suppress troubling consciousness of underlying problems mentioned at the beginning.  More, its benefits block    visualization of how change could fundamentally create the better society necessary to deal with those problems.

 The tea party reacts to those deep-seated problems from the right, as the discussion here reacts from the left. Lacking a vision of a different future, it looks to the past it believes it had, realistically or not. It embeds the concerns it does have in a framework that past, one which includes belief in what it considers free markets, competitiveness, individual responsibility, the value of consumption, small government, nationalism verging on imperialism. That ideological frame needs to be criticized, explicitly and directly. But for most in the tea party, that frame is probably best not criticized at the beginning, but rather starting from a base of agreement on the problems and some immediate steps towards solution on which agreement can be reached, then linking those steps to a critique of a frame in which they ought to be embedded, showing how logically the immediate leads to more and more radical and even utopian visions of what in the long run needs to be done.

 * * * * *

Conclusion:  The first task to achieve real democracy is to remove the rules and procedures that prevent us from having a truer democracy. That will help with the second task, but is not sufficient for it: to reduce the power of those who create and benefit from the inequality of others. Undertaking those tasks needs to keep in mind the third task, which again will help with the first two: opening awareness to the further dimension that is possible, the alternative dimension, radical and perhaps seen as utopian today, but yet completely possible given the productive capacity our society has achieved. Immediate gains need to be linked firmly to transformative proposals based on a vision of the full potentials of a democratic society.

 That is the third task that needs to be undertaken. Blog #30 addresses how this third task might be addressed, with some examples intended as provocations rather than full-fledged proposals.


[1] I have elsewhere written of this, following the reasoning of Herbert Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation, as the need for the “liberation of consciousness.” See my article in Andrew Lamas, Ed, Occupy Consciousness: Reading the 1960s and Occupy Wall Street with Herbert Marcuse, in Radical Philosophy Review, Volume 16, 2013, forthcoming.

[2] Slavoj Žižek “What Europe’s Elites Don’t Know:When the blind are leading the blind, democracy is the victim” Available at http://inthesetimes.com/article/14617/what_europes_elites_dont_know1

[3] Suggested by Zakaria, Fareed. 1997. “The rise of illiberal democracy.” Foreign Affairs, Vol 76,No. 6 (November-December), pp. 22-43, in the article from which Zyzek quotes the phrase.

  [4] According to a new Rasmussen Reports poll, available at http://www.allgov.com/news/controversies/tea-party-membership-or-those-who-admit-to-it-plunges-to-8-130110?news=846706. And see my Blog #14: “Who is the 1%: The ruling class and the tea parties.”

Blog #25 – Re-imagining the City critically


Blog #25 – Re-imagining the City critically

Re-imagining the city can be a provocation to reconsider and expand the range of possibilities for a city in the future. It can simply be an opportunity for an unfettered imagination physically to design something completely new and different, not tethered to the existing city. Or it can open the door to a fundamentally critical view of the existing city, questioning the social and economic and organizational principles that underlie its present constitution and are normally taken for granted. The best of classic utopias do both. What follows focuses only on the latter, on the imagining not of the physical but of the human principles and practices on which an imagined city could be based. It raises some critical questions about some of principles and practices as they implicitly exist today and imagines some alternatives.

If we were not concerned with the existing built environment of cities, but could mold a city from scratch, after our heart’s desire, Robert Park’s formulation that David Harvey is properly fond of quoting, how would such a city look? Or rather: according to what principles would it be organized? For its detailed look, its physical design, should only then be evolved after the principles it is to serve have been agreed upon.

So what, in our heart of hearts, should determine what a city is and does?

I. The World of Work and the World of Freedom

Why not start, first, by taking the question literally. Suppose we had neither physical nor economic constraints, what would we want, in our hearts? Never mind that the supposition posits a utopia; it is a thought experiment that may awaken some questions whose answers might in fact influence what we do today, in the real world, on the way to an imagined other world that we might want to strive to make possible.

It may be hard to imagine such a counter-factual, but there are three approaches, based on what in fact we already know and want today. The first two rest on a single distinction, that between the world of work and the world outside of work, a key implicit division that underlies how we plan and build our cities today, a division that largely parallels that between, as various philosophers have phrased it, the system world and the life world , the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom, the world of the economy and the world of private life, roughly the commercial zones and the residential zones. One approach is then to imagine reducing the realm of necessity; the other is to imagine expanding the realm of freedom.
Most of us probably spend close to a majority of our time in the world of work, in the realm of necessity; our free time is the time we have after work is over. Logically, if the city could help reduce what we do in the realm of necessity, our free time would be expanded, our happiness increased.

II. Shrinking the Realm of Necessity

Suppose we re-examined the composition of the world of necessity that we now take for granted.. How much of what is there now is really necessary? Do we need all the advertising billboards, the flashing neon lights, the studios for the advertising agencies, the offices for the merger specialists, for the real estate speculators, for the high-speed traders, the trading floors for the speculators, the commercial spaces devoted solely to the accumulation of wealth, the consultants helping to make unproductive activities produce only more wealth, not goods or services that people actually use? If not do not need all of them, do we need all the offices for the government employees regulating them? Do we need all the gas stations, all the automotive repair and servicing facilities, all the through streets to serve all the cars we would not need if we had comprehensive public transit? Do we need all the jails and prisons and criminal courts? Are these parts of the realm of necessity today that are really necessary?

How about the ultra-luxury aspects of the city today? How do we see the multi-story penthouses in Donald Trump’s buildings? The virtually fortified enclaves of the rich in high-rise enclaves in our center cities, the gated communities with their private security in our inner and outer suburbs? The exclusive private clubs, expensive private health facilities, ostentatious lobbies and gateways and grounds where only the very rich can live? Are McMansions and true mansions necessary parts of the realm of necessity? If conspicuous consumption, a la Veblen, or positional goods, are in fact necessary for the well-being of their users, than something is wrong here: such marks of status, such conspicuous consumption, surely is not ultimately as satisfying for its beneficiary as other more socially rich and personally productive and creative objects and activities might. Or are these expensive attributes of wealth part of the real freedom of their possessors? But the realm of freedom is not a realm in which anything goes: it does not encompass the freedom to harm others, to steal, to destroy, to pollute, to waste resources. Imagine a city where there are limits on such things, in the public interest, freely and democratically determined, but in which what is provided for (but all of it) is what is really necessary for a meaningful freedom to be enjoyed.

Conclusion: the realm of necessary work could be shrunk significantly without any significant negative impact on a desirable realm of freedom.

III. Freely Doing the Necessary

A second way the necessary world of work could be reduced would be if some of what is in it that is truly necessary could be freely done, moved into the world of freedom. If in our imagined city what we do in the world of work could be converted into something that would contribute to our happiness, we’d be way ahead of the game. Is that possible – that we would do some of our presently unpleasant work freely, enjoy our work as much as we enjoy what we do outside of work? That we would in fact at the same time reduce the amount of work that is really necessary, and also convert much of the remainder into work that is done freely, in fact part of the realm of freedom? And if so, could a city contribute to making that possible?

But why “unhappy?” Couldn’t some work that is now being done only because it’s paid for, unhappily at least in the sense of not voluntarily done but only done because of the necessity of making a living, also be done by volunteers, under the right conditions And even provide happiness to those doing it?

The Occupy Sandy movement these past few weeks provides some hints.

In Occupy Sandy, volunteers have been going to areas devastated by the hurricane Sandy, distributing food, clothing, helping folk made homeless find shelter, water, child care, whatever is needed. Under the name of Occupy Sandy, many veterans of Occupy Wall Street and other occupations, but they are not doing it to build support for Occupy movement, but out of the simple desire to help fellow human beings in need. It’s part of what being human is all about. It’s been discussed, as part of what sociologists call the “Gift Relationship, ” but not the relationship of giving where you expect something in return, like exchanging gifts with others at Christmas, and it’s not just with people you know, but with strangers. It’s an expression of solidarity: it says, essentially, in this place, this city, at this time, there are no strangers. We are a community, we help one another without being asked, we want to help each other, we stand in solidarity with each other, we are all parts of one whole; that’s why we bring food and blankets and moral support. The feeling of happiness, of satisfaction, that such acts of solidarity and humanity provide are what a re-imagined city should provide. A city where no one is a stranger is a profoundly happy city.

Imagine a City in which such relationships are not only fostered, but ultimately become the whole basis for the society, replacing the profit motive for personal actions with the motivation of solidarity and friendship, and the sheer pleasure of the work.. Think of all we already do voluntarily today that is really, in the conventional sense, work. Imagine something very concrete, something maybe very unlikely but not so difficult to imagine. Imagine what you would do if you didn’t have to work, but were guaranteed a decent standard of living: all the voluntary organizations we belong do (de Tocqueville noticed that long ago), the collectively way houses were built and roofs raised in the early days of the United States, the clubs, the street parties, the volunteers staffing hospitals and shelters, the Occupiers of all sorts doing what is really social work as part of their freely given support for the movement, the houses built by volunteers with Habitat for Humanity. Think of volunteers directing traffic in a blackout, sharing generators when the power goes off, giving food to the hungry. In many religions, carrying for the stranger is among the highest of virtues. And think of artists doing chalk pictures in the sidewalk, actors putting on street performances, musicians playing publicly for pleasure as much as for donations. Think of all the political activity that we engage in without any expectation of return other than a better city or country. Think of all that retired folk do voluntarily that they used to be paid for: teachers tutoring students, literacy volunteers helping immigrants, women who had worked at home and still do also helping in the kitchens of shelters and community clubs, volunteers cleaning trash on trails and roadsides. Think of all the young people helping their elders to master new technologies. Isn’t the city we want to imagine one where these relationships are dominant, and the profit relationship, the mercenary relationships, the quest for profits and ever more goods and money and power, were not what drove the society? Where the happiness of each was the condition for the happiness of all, and the happiness of all was the condition for the happiness of each?

Some things in the realm of necessity are really necessary, but are unpleasant, uncreative, repetitive, dirty – yet get done today because someone gets paid to do them and is dependent on doing them for a living, not because they get any pleasure out of doing them. Part of the work done in the realm of necessity is not really necessary, as argued above. But some is: dirty work, hard work, dangerous work, stultifying work: cleaning streets, digging trenches, hauling cargo, aspects of personal care or treatment of diseases, garbage collection, mail delivery – even parts of otherwise rewarding activities, like grading papers for teachers, cleaning up in hospitals, copying drawings for architects or fussing with computers for writers today. Could any of this be freely done if the conditions were right? Some of this work can undoubtedly be further mechanized or automated, and the level of unskilled work is already steadily being reduced, but it is probably a fantasy that all unpleasant work could be mechanized. Some hard core will remain for some unhappy soul to do.

But as to such pure grudge work, would not the attitude towards doing it be much less resentful, much less unhappy, if it were fairly shared, recognized as needed, efficiently organized? In some social housing estates in Europe, tenants were accustomed to sharing the responsibility for keeping their common areas clean, the landing in their staircases, their entries, their landscaping. They were satisfied that it was properly organized and both the assignment of tasks and the delineation of physical spaces was something worked out collectively (in theory, at least!) and generally accepted as appropriate. Most took pride in this unpaid, unskilled work; it was an act of neighborliness. Once we watched a fast-order cook flip pancakes, tossing them in the air to turn them over, grinning as he served them to an appreciative diner. Craftspeople traditionally took pride in their work; today there are probably as many hobby potters as there are workers in pottery factories. If such facilities were widely available in a city, might not many people even make their own dishes out of clay, while automated factories mass-produced ones out of plastic?

So one route to re-imagine the city from scratch is to imagine a city where as many as possible of the things that are now done for profit, motivated by exchange, competed for for personal gain in money or power or status, or driven by necessity alone, are done out of solidarity, out of love, out of happiness at the happiness of others. And then imagine what are all the things we would change?

To put the challenge of reo-imagining a city most simply, if a city could be fashioned for the purposes of the enjoyment of life, rather than for the purposes of the unwelcome but necessary activities involved in earning a living, what would that city be like? At a minimum, wouldn’t it shift the priorities in the uses of the city from those geared to “business” activities, those pursued purely for profit, in “business” districts, to those activities done for pleasure and their innate satisfaction, in districts designed around the enhancement of residential and community activities?

IV. Expanding the Realm of Freedom

As an alternative way of re-imagining, a city could also be re-imagined based on the day to day experience with what already exists in the realm of freedom in the city as we have it now. And if so, could a city contribute to making that possible? Making available other facilities necessary to sustain the realm of freedom in the re-imagined city? Community meeting places, smaller schools, community dining facilities, hobby workshops, nature retreats, public playgrounds and sport facilities, venues for professional and amateur theaters and concerts, health clinics – the things really necessary in a realm of freedom?

We might give the possibilities shape by examining how we actually use the city today, when we in fact are not concerned with making a living but rather with enjoying being alive, doing those things that really satisfy us and give us a feeling of accomplishment? What would we do? How would we spend our time? Where would we go? In what kind of place would we want to be?

One could divide what we do into two parts: what we do privately, when we are alone or just with our intimately loved ones, and what we do socially, with others, beyond our core and intimate inner circle. The city we would imagine would make sure each has the first, the space and the means for the private, and that the second, the space and the means for the social, are collectively provided. For the first, the private, what the city must provide is protection for space and activities that are personal. The second, the social, this is what cities are really for, and should be their main function. Cities, after all, are essentially defined as places of wide and dense social interaction.

So if we look at what we already do, when we are really free to choose, what is that we would do? Probably very much some of the same things we do now, when we are free – and, possibly, if one is lucky,, they might be some things one is also getting paid to do now. Some of us love to teach; if we didn’t have to earn a living, I think we’d like to teach anyway. We might not want to have a 9:00 a.m. class, or to do it all day or every day; but some we’d do for the love of doing it. Many of us cook at least a meal a day, without getting paid for it; would we maybe cook for a whole bunch of guests in a restaurant if we could do it on our own terms, didn’t need the money, and weren’t getting paid? Would we travel? We would take others along if we had room? Entertain guest, strangers, from time to time, out of friendliness and curiosity, without getting paid, if we didn’t need the money? Would we go to more meetings, or be more selective in the meetings we go to. Would we go for walks more often, enjoy the outdoors, see plays, act in plays, build things, design things, clothes or furniture or buildings, sing, dance, jump, run, if we didn’t have to work for a living? If none of the people we met were strangers, but some were very different from us, would we greet more people, make more friends, expand your understanding of others?

Imagine all that, and then imagine what we would need to change in the city we already know to make all that possible.

What would that imagined city look like? Would it have more parks, more trees, more sidewalks? More schools, no jails; more places where privacy is protected, and more where you could meet strangers? More community rooms, more art workshops, more rehearsal and concert halls? More buildings built for effective use and aesthetic pleasure rather than for profit or status? Fewer resources used on advertising, on luxury goods, on conspicuous consumption?

What would it take to get such a city? Of course, the first thing is unfortunately very simple; we’d need the guaranteed standard of living, we’d need to be free of the need to do anything we didn’t like to do just to earn a living. But that’s not so impossible; there’s a whole literature on what automation could do, on what waste there is in our economies (23% of the Federal budget goes to the military; suppose that money didn’t get paid for killing people but for helping them)? And wouldn’t we be willing to share the unpleasant work that remains if it were the means to live in a city that was there to make us happy?

All that takes many changes, and not only changes in cities. But the thought experiment of imagining the possibilities might provide an incentive for actually putting the needed changes in effect

V. From the Real City to the Re-Imagined City: Transformative Moves

Beyond thought experiments, provocative as they may be , what steps can be imagined that might pragmatically move us towards the re-imagined city of heart’s desire? One approach might be to start by seeking out existing aspects of the city activities that either already offend our hearts and moving to reduce them or that already give us joy and moving to expand them.

If then we were to reimagine the city pragmatically but critically, starting with what’s already there, the trick would be to focus on those programs and proposals that are transformative, that would deal with the root causes of problems and satisfactions, that would be most likely to lead from the present towards what the city re-imagined from scratch might be. In other words, to formulate transformative demands, one that go to the roots of problems, what Andre Gorz called non-reformist reforms.

it is fairly easy to agree on much that is wrong in our cities, and to go from there to agreement on what might be done in response. Then putting those pieces together, a re-imagined image of the city, perhaps not as shining as one re-imagined from scratch but more immediately realistic and well worth pursuing, could emerges.

Look individually at what those pieces might be (there are of course more, but the following are examples of key ones).

Inequality. We know high and rising levels of inequality are at the root of multiple tensions and insecurities in the city, and that a decent standard of living in the city depends on its residents having a decent income. Strong living wage laws, and progressive tax systems, are moves in that direction. The transformative demands here would be for a guaranteed minimum annual income for all, based on need rather than performance.

Housing. Decent housing for all, eliminating homelessness, over-crowding, unaffordable rents, would be key ingredients in any properly re-imagined city. Housing vouchers, various forms of subsidies, even tax incentives, zoning bonuses for mixed-rental construction, are all moves towards ameliorating the problem. For homes threatened with foreclosure, reducing principal or interest and extending payments is helpful short-term, but likewise does not deal with the underlying problem. Transformative, however, would be the expansion of public housing, run with full participation of tenants and at a level of quality removing any stigma from it residents. Community land trusts and limited-equity housing likewise points the way to replacing the speculative and profit-motivated component of housing occupancy from it use value, stressing the community ingredient in housing arrangements. That does address the roots of the problem of unaffordable quality housing.

Pollution and congestion. Automobile fumes congestion, inaccessibility except by care for needed services can all be serious problems, and regulating emission levels on cars and congestion pricing are useful means to ameliorate the problem. Transformative are measures such as closing streets (the Times Square experiment vastly expanded), and lining it with much improved pubic mass transit, encouraging adaptation of heavy usage areas to bicycle access, mixing uses, all go further to attacking the roots of the problem, to suggesting transformation towards re-imagined cities.

Planning. The lack of control over one’s environment, the difficulties of participating actively in the decisions about the future of the city in which one lives, is a major issue if the quest is for happiness and satisfaction in the re-imagined city. Public hearings, the ready availability of information, transparency in the decision-making process, empowered Community Boards. But until Community Boards are given some real power, rather than being merely advisory, alienated planning will continue. Real decentralization would be transformative. The experiment in Participatory Budgeting now under way in New York City and elsewhere is a real contribution to potentially transformative policies.

Public Space. After the experience of the evictions from Zuccotti Park, the need for public space available for democratic actions has become manifest. Adjusting the rules and regulations governing municipal parks, permitting more space, public and public/private, to be available for such activities, are steps in the right direction. Protecting the right of the homeless to sleep on park benches is a minimalist, although basic, demand, obviously not a demand aimed at ending homelessness. Expanding the provision of public space and giving priority for its uses for democratic activities can be transformative, and would be a component of any re-imagined city. (See my Blog #8).

Education. Adequately funded public education, with the flexibility of charter schools but without their diminution of the role of public control, would be a major step forward; for students presently in higher education forgiveness of student loans is a pressing demand. But the transformative demand would be for totally free higher education, available to all, with the supportive conditions that would permitall students to benefit from it.

Civil Rights. Organization is a key factor in moving towards an imagined transformed city, and the city of the present should facilitate democratic organization. Other issues mentioned above: public space, education, housing and incomes making real participation feasible, are all supportive of an expanded conception of civil rights. So, clearly, is the end of many practices restricting organization, from police limitations on assemblies and speech to so-called “homeland security” measures to simple use of the streets for public assemblies, leafleting, etc. Transformative here would be oversight measures seriously limiting the unfortunately inevitable tendency of government officials and leaders to try to control critical activities within their jurisdictions, critical activities sure to be found short of the achievement of the re-imagined city, and perhaps even there.

Put the goals of all such transformative demands together, and you have transformed a purely imagined city into a developing and changing mosaic based on the existing, having its roots in the present reality, but slowly flesh on the bones of what imagination will generate.

NOTE

A warning: Re-imagining the city can be fun, it can be inspirational, it can show doubters that another world is possible. But there is a danger:

Re-imagining the City should not be seen as a current design project, laying out what the physical city could look like if we had our way, what utopia would look like. What the city needs is not redesign, but reorganization, a change in who it serves, not how it serves those who now are served by it. It needs a different role for its built environment, with changes adapted to the new role, not vice versa. A re-designed city is a means to an end. The end is the welfare, the happiness,, the deep satisfaction, of those whom the city should serve: all of us. We should not spend much time physically designing what those reimagined cities would look like except as a provocation to thought, for which however they are useful – and which is the intent of this piece. The actual designs should be done only when there is actually the power to implement them, by the people who would then use it. Designs should be developed through democratic and transparent and informed processes.

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For an immediately practical proposal to make the re-imagination of the city a politically useful next step, see Blog #26.

  1. But a caution here, for what the heart desires can in reality be manipulated. Herbert Marcuse deals with this issue in making the distinction between authentic and manipulated desires, authentic and manufactured needs. See Collected Writings, ed. Douglas Kellner, vol. VI.
2. Similar to Jurgen Habermas’ formulation.
3, Hegel, Marx, Herbert Marcuse
4. How to define what is “really necessary” is of course a tricky proposition. For one fruitful approach, see Herbert Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
5. Richard Titmus, The Gift Relation, 1970.
6. Maimonides, St. Francis.
7. Are parts of the struggle for competitive or simple existence, not done for the satisfaction of productive work well done that they provide., Herbert Marcuse has it in Essay on Liberation.
8. Marx’s fantasy, in the Grundrisse, commented on in Herbert Marcuse vol. VI, Collected Papeers, Douglas Kellner, ed., Routledge.forthcoming,
9. For the present situation, focusing on white collar work, see Brynjolfsson, Erik and McAfee, Adam (October 2011) Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Digital Frontier Press. ISBN 0-984-72511-3.

Frivolous Appendix

Isaiah 40:4 is used in the text of Handel’s Messiah, in a passage in which the prophet tells the people to prepare for the coming of the Lord by making a highway for him through the desert, and then:

“Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”

Reading this as a political metaphor for the social and economic constitution of an imagined city, it is eloquent. It might be read as a metaphor in the debate on income tax rates under way as I write this, as well as for the appropriate goals of the criminal system and the need for transparency in public actions.

But read as a design for an imagined physical city, it would be the opposite of good planning. Environmentalists would shrink from it in horror, architects would rend their garments, criminal justice reformers might see it as a call for more jails, historic preservationists see it as threatening the legacy of the traditional quarters of old cities. Isaiah is not around to defend himself, but surely his meanings were closer to the political/social than the physical.

Beware of presenting social issues in physical metaphors, lest they be taken literally!