Blog 122c -Non-Causes of Poverty, Jobs, Welfare Responses


Blog #122c – Non-Causes of Poverty, Jobs, Welfare Responses

Why is there poverty in the United States today?[1] Most anti-poverty policies rely on one or more of four theories about the causes of poverty: the lack of jobs, the shiftlessness of the poor, the changing technological composition of production, or the scarcity of resources to provide for all. None of the four holds up.

We don’t have enough jobs. Not so. “Unless we create more jobs, there will be unemployed and thus poverty,” many believe. But unemployment is low, whatever the weaknesses of its measure, and most poor people are already employed. They already have “jobs,” or at least work, and very often hard work, often part- time, insecure, without benefits, almost always devalued. It is the substandard quality of the jobs we have that undergirds poverty.[2]  Killer jobs, not job killers, are the real problem.

And that so many jobs are substandard is not by accident. Simple economics dictates that employers will always push wages as low as they can: wages to workers are income to employees, but expenses for employers.  Matthew Desmond’s trenchant article[3] provides the figures, and lays out the consequences, in well reasoned and human terms. What’s needed are good jobs, paying living wages, secure over time, organized so as to be manageable along with meeting all the other obligations of complicated lives

They are poor because they are lazy. Not so. “They don’t want to work, or they drink, or are addicted, or mentally ill,” some argue. But, as noted above, most poor are in fact working, but at jobs with less than living wages or unsustainable working conditions Blaming the victims for their poverty will not work

Technological change requires workers with skills the poor don’t have. Yes but. A high school education may be increasingly needed to get a good job, but lack of a high school education is not voluntary for most without it. Getting a good education is not so simple for many, and especially for those that begin poor. Lack of good schools, of health care, of transportation, of housing, of physical security, of social encouragement, all play large roles. There is no evidence that, given the opportunity, poor people are not able to handle work that requires a post-high-school education. The poor may indeed have less education than those better off, but not because they are stupid.

Technological advances should in fact increasingly be able to provide enough for all, so that there would be no such thing as poverty, if they were appropriately socially organized.

There will always be winners and losers. The poor are simply the losers. No longer so. “The poor will always be with us is an old argument. It is increasingly wrong. Our societies are able to produce enough so that no one needs to live without adequate housing, food, clothing, rest, security, or the other things a decent standard of living in a technologically advanced society can produce. The statistics on inequality are clear. Even a modest redistribution from the top 1% would mean that all of the other 99% could live well above poverty levels.

 If none of these four explanations accounts for the widespread existence of poverty today, what does?

Two factors basically explain the existence of poverty today.

First, major real conflicts of material interest underlie poverty.  As pointed out above, simple economics dictates that for-profit businesses will always push wages as low as they can: wages to workers are income to workers, but expenses for for-profit businesses. Thus, poverty benefits powerful economic and political interests, powerful both in establishing economic relations, and in politically establishing governmental policies that further business interests opposing the steps necessary to eliminate poverty.  And,

Second, the necessity of dealing with immediate and critical human problems detracts from confronting these real conflicts, creating an incentive to downplay the existence of these conflicts politically as well as ideologically, even among well-meaning advocates of policies challenging the underlying causes of the conditions whose consequences they seek to ameliorate, so-called anti-poverty and social welfare programs.

So what is to be done to reduce and ultimately eliminate poverty from rich societies such as ours?

 Immediate actions. We have some limited but moderately effective social-mobility programs: minimum wage laws, restrictions on hours of labor and unhealthy working conditions, subsidized health care, unemployment benefits, public financing of elementary education. They need to be adequately and securely funded.[4] They should be championed, expanded, and stripped of any draconian and counterproductive work requirements. But more is needed.

Ultimate goals must be kept on the agenda as ultimately needed, goals such as a real right to housing, to free medical care, to free public education through college, an adequate income should be considered, and seen as obvious governmental functions, just as are police or fire services or streets and highways or sanitation or environmental controls or providing for holding democratic elections or public parks or clean water. So one might consider adopting as ultimate asocial goals for social action the elimination of poverty entirely and the provision of a right to a comfortable standard of living commensurate with what society is already in a position to provide, given a commitment to use it so that its wealth is distributed equitably among all individuals and groups in the society, commensurate with individual and group needs and desires. The even broader goal might be expressed as the just and democratic control of the economy as a whole and in its parts.

Transformational Measures. But to achieve such goals, shorter-term steps also need to be pursued, measures that move in these directions but that do not promise more than are immediately political feasible yet can contribute to meeting long-term goals.. [5] We should not neglect the importance of the poverty fixes we already have. Safety-net programs that help families confront food insecurity, housing unaffordability and unemployment spells lift tens of millions of people above the poverty line each year. By itself, SNAP annually pulls over eight million people out of poverty. According to a 2015 study, without federal tax benefits and transfers, the number of Americans living in deep poverty (half below the poverty threshold) would jump from 5 percent to almost 19 percent.[6]

  1. Improving minimum wage laws. Moving towards the ultimate goal of stablishing a standard of living for all that guarantees not only the necessities of life but at a level consistent with a comfortable and secure standard of living and a level commensurate with the productive capacity of society, appropriately organized to fullfill social needs and enforced well enough to prevent destructive competition- among businesses based on how little they pay their workers.
  2. Strengthening workers’ rights, moving in the direction of fair wages for all, including strengthening requirements for fair labor standards in the work place. Encouraging self- organization workers and poor households along diverse lines needing publii representation..
  3. Expanding the public and non-profits sectors, in the direction of recognizing the benefits of using social contribution as the motivation of provision of goods and services, rather than profit to be made by furnishing them, e.g. in housing, health care, education, recreation, transportation, environmental amenities, creative arts.
  4. Terminating public expenditures whose motivation is economic development and growth for their own sake, and focusing them on their contribution to meeting social goals, including provision of socially desired levels of goods and services. Publicly subsidized job creation as part of and motivated by economic development interests will simply benefit employers unless coupled with living wage and decent working condition requirements. Adding a work requirement to the receipt of social benefits is likewise a painfully ironic was of reducing such benefits to their recipients in a system in which if they do not produce profits for an employer, over and above their wages they will not be hired.[7]
  5. Making the tax system strongly progressive, lower at the bottom, higher at the top, moving towards the broad reduction of inequality and targeting them to the encouragement of socially desirable activities.
  6. Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of imaginatively recasting budget priorities, specifically reducing the military budget, funding anew climate -change-centered civilian conservation corps, increasing foreign aid aimed at alleviating conditions that lead to emigration etc.
  7. Recasting the public thinking about the meaning and values of work, the causes of poverty, the values implicit in alternative approaches to inequality and injustice. [8]

In Matthew Desmond’s eloquent words, “We need a new language for talking about poverty. ‘Nobody who works should be poor,’ we say. That’s not good enough. Nobody in America should be poor, period.”  He’s right.[9]

[1] The official poverty rate is 12.7 percent, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates. That year, an estimated 43.1 million Americans lived in poverty

 [3] Matthew Desmond, “Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not,” concludes simply: “the able-bodied, poor and idle adult remains a rare creature “Why Work Doesn’t Work Any More,” The New York Times  Magazine, p. 36ff. Available at                             https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/magazine/americans-jobs-poverty-homeless.html

[4]

[5] For a further discussion of the concept of transformative measures, see pmarcuse .wordpress.com, blogs 81a-81e, 97, and 99, Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

[6] Mathew Desmond, op. cit., p. 49.

[7] Mathew Desmond in a factual, tightly argued, and very persuasive article effectively demonstrates the futility of work requirements attached to the receipt of social benefits. Today, 41.7 million laborers — nearly a third of the American work force — earn less than $12 an hour. the New York Times Magazine of September 11, 2018,

[8] Matthew Desmond, op. cit., writes ”No single mother struggling to raise children on her own; no formerly incarcerated man who has served his time; no young heroin user struggling with addiction and pain; no retired bus driver whose pension was squandered; nobody. And if we respect hard work, then we should reward it, instead of deploying this value to shame the poor and justify our unconscionable and growing inequality.”  And Joanna Scuffs, in a rich and provocative article , writes of ”the slipperiness of the term ”work”, from work  as a daily grind into work as “life’s work “oeuvre, art,  the reason you’re here on earth.” The’Linguistic Chamelion” of Work,In These Times, April  2018, [[. 65ff.

[9] Op. cit., p. 9.

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Blog #53 – Density, Inclusionary Zoning, Housing Planning: Cautions on de Blasio’s Plan


Density, Inclusionary Zoning, Housing Planning: Some Cautions on  the           de Blasio Plan.

Mayor de Blasio’s Housing Plan is a far better plan than anything we’ve had since LaGuardia, and worthy of full support. But there are four large issues that need to be addressed, some in its principles, some in implementation: Density, Growth, Equity, and Comprehensiveness.

Density leads to gentrification and displacement, if not controlled [1]. There is a natural tendency look to the market to determine where increased density will work, to support increased density by zoning decisions, infrastructure investment location, tax policies, eased building height and FAR requirements, support for mega-projects, where the market indicates there is effective demand. That means, specifically, where there is the proverbial rent gap: where increased real estate values, particularly land values, suggest higher profits are to be gained by improvements, whether modernization and upscaling or higher and more dense new construction. Permitting such “improvements” thus is synonymous with increasing the prices of housing, not only in the locations made more dense, but in their surroundings. That in turn means one of the principal causes of gentrification and displacement is is advanced by public policy.

But there are good ways and bad ways of increasing density, if the purpose is to address housing needs in an equitable fashion.

Bad:

  • Permitting demolition of low-rise low-rent housing in favor of denser more expensive housing.
  • Permitting new housing in public housing sites for occupancy at market rates, where low-rent, i.e. subsidized housing could be built. Increasing density in already gentrifying neighborhoods.
  • Permitting densification without neighborhood rent regulations, fair and strictly enforced.
  • Permitting open and undeveloped space to be built on without regard to existing neighborhood use and needs.
  • Disregarding unbiased neighborhood opposition and community-based planning goals.
  • Increasing congestion and pollution without adequate transportation provision.
  • Providing bonuses permitting development beyond existing planning limitations

Good:

  • Increasing density by requiring that partially-occupied and vacant properties being held off market for speculative purposes be made available for occupancy, at affordable rents.
  • Improving public housing.
  • Increasing the supply of subsidized housing.
  • Controlling against the displacement effects of gentrification by rent regulation strictly enforced.
  • Make every program increasing density subject to open Community Board review, with over-riding of its vote only by a super-majority of Planning commission and City Council.
  • Investing in remediation of brownfield sites while preserving compatible industrial or commercial uses providing benefits equitably distributed.
  • Complying with community and city-wide planning standards regarding contextual development, light and air standards, accessibility provision and congestion avoidance.

Inclusionary housing can lead to neighborhoods further functionally segregated by race and income, if not controlled, and can be an inefficient use of governmental subsidies if provided. Inclusionary housing only works where the market is strong enough so that a developer or landlord can make a profit from market prices high enough to cover the provision of below-market rate units. Thus, it will only work in higher income neighborhoods, predictably more non-Hispanic white than the in the city as a whole. That effect will be particularly strong the lower the income of the target population to be benefited, in the development, because it will require a greater cross-subsidy, hence higher market rate units, hence even more likely non-Hispanic white. . And if it is limited to already higher income neighborhoods, it is likely to increase the concentration of significantly segregated residences in the city if it provides bonuses for buildings which result in a net increase of the proportion of high-income uses in the larger community. A very delicate balancing is required, with opposing dangers.

Further, the higher the effective subsidy needed, the higher the rents/prices of the market rate units needed to make inclusion profitable. If owners are permitted to select the tenants providing meting inclusionary requirements, they will discriminate in favor of the highest permitted income and the most “responsible” (“acceptable” ) tenants, creaming among applicants by considerations other than the need for housing. With the large majority of residents of an inclusionary development paying market plus rents, their demands on neighborhood facilities and services will be very different from those of the residents of the below-market rate units, to the latters’ disadvantage. Identifying the below-market rate units as such permits a likely stigmatization and pressure to separate out their residents. The worst case scenario might be the equivalent of servant’s quarters in a private residence.

But there are good ways and bad ways of designing and implementing inclusionary zoning, if the purpose is to address housing needs in an equitable fashion.

Bad:

  • Permit the market to determine where inclusionary housing will be provided.
  • Implement it particularly in transitional neighborhoods where the probability and disadvantages of gentrification are greatest.[2]
  • Let owners determine selection of residents for below-market-rate units.
  • Permit external identification of affordable units, or their isolation.
  • Ignore neighborhood impacts of construction, and neighborhood needs for facilities and services.
  • Make inclusionary development financially profitable by allocating public subsidies , including tax and other benefits, to support their rentals, effectively reducing the pressure on market-rate rentals and reducing cross-subsidy effect.
  • Provide as bonuses deviation from neighborhood planning and construction standards and limitations, e.g. height limits, zoning restrictions.
  • Permit obligation to provide below-market rate units to expire.

Good:

  • Make inclusionary housing mandatory, and target city programs of support in such a way that they draw on the developer’s profits over subsidies to support them.
  • Require a high enough number of below-market-rate units in any building to permit the provision of neighborhood facilities and services for the needs of all residents.
  • Permit city control of tenant selection for below-market units, perhaps using Housing Authority waiting lists and criteria.
  • Hold to planning-established limits on height, set-backs, etc. avoiding the granting of zoning and building exceptions’ or bonuses for inclusionary developments.
  • Provide for major participation in design and implementation of proposed beneficiaries in need of affordable housing.
  • Make every program subject to open Community Board review, with over-riding of its vote only by a super-majority of Planning commission and City Council.

Conclusion: Inclusionary housing can be an excellent program, but requires caution in its application. The devil is in the details. On-going effective participation of intended beneficiaries in need of housing is key in design and implementation.

A good Housing Plan requires long-term considerations beyond its immediate measures.Desirable provisions of a housing plan for New York City might include a city-wide housing plan developed as part of the city’s comprehensive planning process, that would deal with goals and standards for decisions on the location of housing and population distribution and density. Such a plan should deal explicitly with issues of segregation and equity among income groups and by race, color, ethnicity, age and gender. Zoning should be an important part of the implementation of such a plan, and specifically should include consideration of income-targeting land use allocation, as in providing income targets in the definitions of residential zones.

It should be comprehensive, and consider issues such as: zoning regulations facilitating for low income housing; Rent regulations. Tax action policies, taxing profits fairly, holding down depreciation deductions to match reality, surtaxes on flipping housing units, taxing quick turnover sales as ordinary income, making real estate taxes progressive, conforming to binding 197-a comunity plans, calling for equity impact statements on planning decisions, adopting clear city equity standards.Make a housing plan part of the city’s planning process, including goals for an agreed-upon equitable distributing of locations for housing development.[3] Adopt anti speculative warehousing legislation to deal with the full use of vacant units. Give due weight to the need for open space and active public political uses as well as recreational and passive. Integrate with regional considerations.

A general concern with the plan may arise from the process envisaged to put it into effect. The de Blasio Plan states:

“the City will conduct the analyses required for development of a mandatory inclusionary zoning program that satisfies sound land-use planning and legal principles, then will engage a broad group of housing stakeholders to solicit their input into the modifications and expansions of the Inclusionary Housing Program, and will work with stakeholders moving forward to ensure that the program functions smoothly to support development while also meeting the needs of communities” p. 31.

But if all “stakeholders,” regardless of their position, resources, and needs are treated as equals, equity is ill served, and inequalities are as likely to reinforced as reduced. A more robust arrangement for public participation is required, in which community and grass-roots active participation is supported.

A comprehensive look at the extent of the long-term over-all need for better affordable housing will show that the de Blasio plan is only one step, although an important one, in meeting the full need.[4] The private profit-driven market should be brought in to contribute. But to rely on public-private partnerships to solve the problem is ultimately a refusal to recognize that it will not do so, and cannot be expected to do so. Ultimately public provision is an inescapable necessity. The private housing sector should contribute to the necessary resources, by tools like mandatory inclusionary zoning, and certainly by progressive taxation, but the responsibility to pursue equity in housing is a public, not a private, responsibility.

Growth is not per se desirable. There is an underlying assumption running through the plan that considers growth to be a value for itself, development to be per se a good thing, even though it is often qualified as having “serving community needs” or “serve low and moderate income households.” It is an assumption that deserves examination. New York City today is a city where “growth” is largely led by its financial sector, whose prosperity becomes a threshold factor in the establishment of priorities.

Growth, generally, is desirable that reduces inequality.[5] Is growth desired if it increases inequality? Or increases segregation? Both short and long term factors come into play, and perhaps complex economic analyses, but should equity not be of fundamentally importance, rather than growth for its own sake?

Framing an equitable plan for housing is a complex process. De Blasio’s plan is a major step forward. But there is more to be done.

[1] For a look a the historical treatment of density in New York City’s development, see Marcuse, Peter. 1993. “Density and Social Justice: Is There a Relationship? A Historical Examination” Columbia Documents of Architecture and Theory (D), vol. Three, pp. 50‑87.

[2] De Blasio’s plan speaks of focus on transitional neighborhoods, p.8 but it also calls for it “in all medium and high density districts where rezonings provide an opportunity for significantly more housing.” P.30

[3] The plan speaks encouragingly of following policies “that [satisfy] sound land-use planning and legal “Principles; p. 31. They need to explicitly deal with issues of equity and segregation. ”

[4] The data in the Plan itself support this conclusion, as well as the detailed figures from the Housing and Vacancy Survey and studies of the Furman Center and a number of other sources.

[5] Reducing inequality is well known as a key de Blasio concern, and that is reflected frequently in the plan, e.g. p. 26, but requires concretization in application.

Blog #39 – Participatory Budgeting – Potentials and Limits


Participatory Budgeting – Potentials and Limits in New York ‘City               Peter Marcuse

Participatory budgeting, by which in New York City open public assemblies, in the district of each city councilperson choosing to participate meet and hear and debate proposals for the use of those limited capital funds allocated at the discretion of the council person. Their recommendations to him or her are in practice largely effective. It is a major approach to the difficult question of how to make governmental decisions both reasonably efficient and well structured, and at the same time really democratic, participatory, and transparent, all at the fundamental grass-roots level. [1]

The approach underling participatory budgeting can have, if fully pursued by a comprehensive Participatory budgeting system, a fundamental and quite radical impact on the nature of local government.  In two distinct ways: democratic participation, and democratic decision-making. As to participation it is a method of permitting input from citizens in a detailed, concrete, transparent fashion, open not only to essentially reactive public reactions to governmental proposals, but also permitting the injection of citizens own ideas and proposals into the political process. As to decision-making, it represents a degree of decentralization from the larger city-wide urban level to the districts of the 51 council members (the discussion here focuses on the program in New York City, now , thus approaching  its third year of use), a degree of decentralization approaching the old town meeting forms of direct democracy widely used at that much smaller scale in the early days of the United States in a largely rural society..

Participation could thus be much broader, more direct, and democratic. And decision-making could be much more directly open, grass-roots, and transparent.

In practice, the implementation of such a fully pursued comprehensive approach in New York City is very much more constrained and piece meal, very limited as to the subjects of participation and not pursued very far in the in decision-making process. . The scope of participation limited to the amounts in any council persons’ discretionary budget, typically around     $1,000,000[2] out of a total city budget of $100,000,000,000, including capital expenditures, typically about $20,000,000,000.  The council persons’ discretionary budgets are today limited to capital expenditures; operating costs of programs whether for job creation, job training, early childhood education, planning of transportation routes, zone changes, land use planning senior programs, etc., etc. are not included. Typically, city agency capital budgets are not reviewed, although they vastly exceed council discretionary budgets. The results of the neighborhood assemblies are not binding on council persons, and indeed open to being manipulated by them with an eye to solidifying a political base of support in the district.

The issues involved in the expansion of participatory budgeting as it now exists in New York City, to what a full-fledged comprehensive approach might be, are substantial, both politically and conceptually. Politically, the simple fact that only 9 of 51 council persons have agreed to participate, despite a multi-year effort, speaks volumes: active “outside” participation is seen as an infringement on their discretion even as to the expenditure of their limited discretionary funds; the concept of expansion to other budgetary decisions, and even policy decisions, may well not be greeted enthusiastically by most elected officials. A mayor’s position may be more open. Wider participation may be seen as a limitation on his discretion also, presenting new political problems. It may also be seen  as a substantive shift of power towards the mayor, as the original establishment of the 59 community boards in New York City was seen by then Mayor Wagner.

But to the conceptual problems. Simply to list them:

——————–

  1. How should the scope of assembly-type participation be defined? All capital expenditures taking place in or affecting a district? The district operating budgets of all city agencies operating in the district? Some set proportion?
  2. How can city-wide, as well as district-level, interests be taken into account? In the early models of participatory budgeting, e.g. Porto Alegre, sectoral assemblies were established, which included representatives of every district but examined the distribution of expenditures among districts to insurance equity.
  3. How should districts be defined for purposes of participation? As it is, they are city council electoral districts. But electoral districts are notoriously defined by political result. Community district lines, postal Zip codes, school and operating agencies boundaries (already subject to a mandate for limited congruity). The process of defining electoral boundaries has resulted in massive data that could result in new district definitions. How should the problem be handled?
  4. There is a history of expanding democratic participation in the City which needs to full reviewed. Perhaps most critically is the nature and role of Community Boards. They are an explicit move in the direction of decentralization of decision-making power and participation in public deliberations, including already a specific if limited role in budgeting. The present arrangement in effect creates a competing line of organization of local participation. Can the two be merged? Could they be integrated, by mutual consent, in deliberations? Should there be an effort to make the logical but even bigger move, to merge the boundaries for council districts and community boards, a logical but potentially treacherous political goal?
  5. Can the innovative procedures for democratic participation pioneered by participatory budgeting movement be expanded to affect the city as a whole? Could the grass-roots strength of the existing assemblies be marshaled in a joint form, perhaps borough-wide (as community boars now are) or an assembly of assemblies, in any event ins such fashion that support for the process can be politically marshaled?
  6. What should the city government’s role in the process be? Clearly, independence is sine qua non. But wouldn’t funding without control except for graft be a major support for the process? How far can volunteer and foundation-funded staffing go, what role should city agency employees be asked to play or be limited to playing?
  7. How should participation in expenditure decisions be related to revenues derived from decisions as to taxation and handling of city economic development policies? Should not, for instance, the sale of city-owned property, or the privatization of service it is the city’s responsibility to deliver, e.g. garbage collection, security, building code inspection, park maintenance, be subject to participation?
  8. Are there any structural changes in the organization of city government that might enhance the participatory budgeting process? For example, history the City Planning commission had the responsibility to review and act on the city’s capital budget before it went to the City Council. Might restoring its role provide a non-partisan and expert overview of local decisions that would be of benefit to all concerned? It might not be greeted enthusiastically by a mayor fearing diminution of his (or her?) own power—unless, that is, it is in fact seen as a  move towards further modernization and efficiency,  as well as a democratically related improvement in a difficult and complex process?
  9. Participatory Budgeting is grounded in the desire to expand the scope of democracy in local government. That demand is sometimes in tension with the demand for social justice; often the two are seen as parallel but separate demands aiming at the creation of the Just City. But sometimes it is frankly generally recognized that the two can be in tension with each other, and one can be pursued without necessarily a commitment to the other. Where does the participatory budgeting process in New York stand on the issue? Is social justice a major element in its philosophy and practice? Can there be general guidelines for the objectives a proposal considered in the participatory budgeting process should follow (see 10. below?)
  10. Should there be a set of principles expected to be followed by all decisions made through the process, e.g. non-discrimination, affirmative action, weighing of environmental consequences, social impact statements, inequality reduction?
  11. How politically controversial should advocates for the participatory budgeting process get? Should they only promote the policy where those in power are friendly to it, or should they see it also as a part of an effort to further democracy where those in power are reluctant to potentially weaken their power by its introduction? Should proponents of the process be willing to be critical of the opposition to it, take on their arguments against it directly at their home base as well as commenting on it internally? Should they advocate for the City Council to adopt policies encouraging participatory budgeting in all districts, regardless of individual council members desire? Or format formal procedures for participatory budgeting that could be adopted by any council member at his or her option – perhaps creating controversy in some non-adopting districts? Or should they shrink back even from that?

Participatory budgeting can be a significant step forward in the exploration of ways of achieving real democracy at the grass-roots level, immediately in capital budget planning (by itself a key element in the shaping of the built environment and social structure of cities), but also more generally in the search for the mechanisms by which truly democratic planning and decision-making  might be accomplished, keeping in mind the legitimate needs for efficiency and the practical needs for political realism.

But participatory budgeting can also be a will-o-the-wisp, or worse. It can be used simply as a sophisticated way for those already in position of political power and influence to get information about what some active among their constituency think and want, akin to polling, but with the added advantage of giving the respondents the feeling they are participating in decision-making, While in fact their participation if at a minimal level of power over a minimal range of decisions.  Thus it can be a co-optive mechanism using sophisticated technical forms to reinforce existing patterns of conduct by those in power. The devil is both in the details and, perhaps even more, in the broader perspective in which it viewed.


[1] The process, and a quite general statement of its goals, are at: http://www.participatorybudgeting.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Rulebook.pdf. What follows may be seen as a commentary addressed to those goals and the strategic issues involved in their possible implementation.

[2] A minimum. See http://council.nyc.gov/downloads/pdf/budget/2014/14budget.pdf for a simplified presentation. Some of the funds further have specific restrictions, e.g. for non-profit social service agencies, senior services, youth programs, etc.

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.

————————–

[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 #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.

****

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!

Blog #17 – 99%/1%: The Slogan and the Reality


Blog #17 – 99%/1%: The Slogan and the Reality

There are five blogs dealing with:  the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Right to the City Alliances, as representative of the 99%, who is in them and who in the 1%, why historically they have arisen now, how they have changed since their beginnings, and what their future demands and strategic possibilities and dangers might be.

They are divided as follows:

Blog #12 – We Are the 99%: The Slogan and the Reality

Blog #13 – Who are the 99%? The Exploited, the Discontented, the Oppressed

Blog #14 − Who is the 1%? The Ruling Class and the Tea Party

Blog #15 – The Right to the City and Occupy: History and Evolution

The Death and Life of the Right to the City Movement

The Four Faces of the Occupy Movement

Blog #16 – The Future: Transformative Demands, Transformative Strategies

Blog #12 provides a detailed Table of Contents.

THIS IS BLOG #17, WHICH ASSEMBLES THESE FIVE BLOGS, BLOGS 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, INTO ONE.. The only difference is that footnotes for all five blogs are endnotes in blog #17, and page references are accurate in Blog #17. The argument is presented both ways only for possible convenience in down-loading (and my uncertainty on the best way to use a bog!).
Continue reading “Blog #17 – 99%/1%: The Slogan and the Reality”

Blog #16 – The Future: Strategic Implications


Blog #16 – The Future: Strategic Implications

 

A.     Transformation

 

So: since 1968, at least, the situation seems to have been ripe for transformation., objectively the material and technical prerequisites for a more socially supportive and equitable society are all there, the contradictions within the existing system blatant. But the relative strength of the forces supporting the status quo, compared to those resisting its consequences, are such as to take transformative change off the immediate agenda. The contradictions in the system are manifold, but the subjective forces for change are inadequately mobilized, the conservative forces still too strong.[1] Within the existing relations of power, those who are objectively potential agents of change are not subjectively adequately organized to marshal 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.[2] As one formulation puts it, “…contradictions do not explode by themselves,”[3] contradictions only produce change when there are agents of change with the desire and the ability to catalyze that change.

 

Some believe that, despite these dangers, “we are on the threshold of a new era.”[4] Potentially, yes. But there is much to do before we get there.

 

The resulting strategy of both Occupy and the Right to the City movements leads towards formulating immediate demands that are transformatively anti-capitalist in direction but not in immediate goals. Demands are formulated seeking immediate gains and are at most transformation sector by sector.  They reflect the limitations imposed on them by the absence of more radical possibilities.

 

How far the Occupy movement and the Right to the City movements (and kindred) will go depends, I believe, on four questions of basic strategy:

 

  1. Understanding who the 99% are, and bringing enough of them into the fold, whether by joining, forming alliances, or common actions, to have the power successfully to confront the 1% (see Blog #13);
  2. Achieving clarity of long-term and transformative goals while pursuing immediate, concrete, and achievable gains for the exploited, the discontented, and the excluded.
  3. Dealing with how the existing organizations of those resisting, such as militant workers’ organizations and groups such as Occupy Wall Street and Right to the City Alliances handle the continuing changes in their character and deal with the internal and external dangers they face;
  4. What strategy for transformation step by step, perhaps seeking transformation sector by sector or institution by institution, will progressively lead to comprehensive and radical social changes, capturing the positive aspects of capitalism, putting them in a new framework, and rejecting its inherent undesired characteristics (see examples below).

In terms of actions: there is visible a convergence of the power of the exploited in progressive labor  actions, the concrete but more limited demands of the Right to the city movements, and the broad inchoate but deeply felt demands of the discontented in the Occupy Wall Street movement.. Not crossing a threshold; at best in the direction of transformative actions and transformative demands:

 

Transformative actions, pushing the limits of participatory democracy, espousing direct action as an everyday tool, and combining the power of the exploited, the discontent and the excluded, linking the concrete but more limited demands of the right to the city movements with the broad, sometimes inchoate but deeply felt demands of the occupy movement together.

 

Transformative demands, pointing in the direction of radical change, perhaps sector by sector, pushing the possibilities of direct democracy,[5] extending the range of governmental decisions over the market, constantly showing the extent of real change necessary to achieve their full goals. In a way, to join the pressures of the included to get in with the pressures of the already included to get out, to get everyone into a new and better society.

 

The convergence of actions by organized workers, the exploited, with the groups in the right to the city movement, the excluded and oppressed, and with occupiers, the discontented, is in fact taking shape.[6]  There is much evidence that such convergence in the shaping of individual demands, but aiming them towards a transformation of the whole, is happening.  The national Right to the City Alliance’s program to define transformative and develop transformative demands explicitly recognizes the necessary direction, the planning for the future of the General Assembly and Working Groups of Occupy Wall Street does so also. The mobilization of students and their allies in Quebec heads in the same direction. So do efforts such as those of the Brecht Forum in New York City, radical caucuses in mainstream organizations, small but well-organized small radical and Marxist groups. Thoughtful examinations such as Jeremy Brecher’s pieces and others in The Nation,[7] journals such as “transform: the european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue,” and many others, mostly small, many fiercely independent, but all seeking for radical alternatives, moving generally in the same direction.

 

So what specifically is that direction? What are the implications for strategy for those that desire transformative change?

 

B.      Concrete Individual Demands, but Aimed at the Whole.

 

Almost any demand for immediate and feasible change can at the same time raise the real long-term structural change that fully dealing with the issue would require – can contain a critique of the whole. . Making clear what ultimate solutions to a problem would look like, while pursuing immediate reforms, makes that pursuit also part of an educational process that can endure beyond the immediate effort. Andre Gorz spoke of the difference between reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms; the former can be converted into the latter with inclusion of the ideological issues, long-term implications of the reform.

 

Community Voices Heard,  a member organization of low-income people, predominantly women with experience on welfare, building power in New York City and State,” puts it this way:

 

We aim for policies that will truly improve our members’ lives and change the balance of social, economic and political power, while negotiating for concrete wins along the way.[8]

 

The Right to the City Alliance, at the national level, has defined transformative demands as those which follow five principles:: 1) People over profit; 2) Social Ownership; 3) Democratic control; 4) Scale; and 5) Consciousness.[9]

 

Many examples could be given:

 

In housing, working to prevent foreclosures and evictions can be exposed as coupled to the inevitable and logical working of a private market in housing, in which housing is treated as a commodity, for its exchange value, not its use value.

 

In housing, pushing for affordable housing can suggest the possibility of distribution of housing based on need, not wealth or ability to pay, or nationalization of land.

 

In education, working to reduce student loans and interest rates on them can be linked to the call for completely free public higher education for all.[10]

 

In educational reform, not seeing education as the solution to inequality, but as a matter of right, and thus not joining the job-oriented rejection of the liberal arts and social sciences in educational reform efforts.

 

In transportation, fighting congestion and pollution can raise the issue of free public transportation and public investment in mass transit.

 

In taxation, demands for progressivity in tax rates could suggest the substitution of income and wealth taxes with a reasonable absolute ceiling in lieu of all other revenue-targeted taxes, to be collected by national governments and redistributed to states and localities, or include an anti-speculation tax.[11]

 

Demanding full insurance coverage for necessary health care can be liked to calling for health care based on need, not fee for service.

 

Protecting the natural environment in the name of sustainability can be linked to valuing and affirmatively enhancing it for its own sake; rejecting the value of growth for ITS own sake

 

Contesting abuses of the criminal justice system, stop and frisk laws, excessive and negative incarceration, can expose the need to the causes of criminal conduct and shutting down the system of incarceration as the solution.

 

Cultural demands for support of artistic and related activities can be linked to their service as a vehicle for cultural and social criticism, valuing culture as itself a transformative activity.  Bread and Roses in the Lawrence strikes of 1912 was already a convergence foreshadowing the exploited and discontented united demands of 1968, and the approach of Occupy today.[12]

 

Reform of business practices can point towards the elimination of profit motives from a whole range of activities, and steadily enlarging the public sector or communal control of actions necessary for social welfare. The tactic of using stockholder activism to change corporate policies is not likely to go far[13]., but can point     to the withdrawal of corporate involvement in socially undesirable activities altogether, from warfare to pollution damaging health.  stockholder control, but most stockholders are notlikely to be  sympathetic to criticism of capitalism;.[14]

 

C.      Unity: The Right to Occupy the City.

 

The exploited, the discontented, the oppressed, have different grievances against the capitalist order, but the different parts of the 99%  have in common (see Blog #13 D)  the desire and the need to transform the system. It will take their combined power to do so, and coalitions, alliances, joint campaigns, will be of the essence of such efforts to unify their actions and join their separate powers together. That does not mean losing their separate interests, but merging them with others in analysis and action: working in unity.  Maybe no single slogan can capture the claim, but perhaps:

 

“THE RIGHT TO OCCUPY THE CITY”

 

More fully, it might be:

 

“THE RIGHT TO OCCUPY THE WORLD, ITS SPACES, ITS ECONOMY, ITS GOVERNMENT”

 

would be more comprehensive, but less but less declaim-able.

D.     Transformative education, ideology: culture.

E.      Ideology and Values

 

Van Jones, from a liberal-to-radical point of view, writes:

 

Without question, within a broad, progressive alliance “the socially responsible and eco-friendly” businesses must be a part of it. But I question if that alliance itself should declare itself pro-capitalist. It seems to me that what is needed is an alliance built around a

program on the issues. Debate should take place about what are the best ways to address the range of system-produced crises – climate, health, unemployment, housing, education, cultural violence, inequality, etc. – without the alliance having an explicitly pro-capitalist, pro-socialist, pro-libertarian, pro-anarchist or any other historically-based ideology.[15]

 

In “Channel the Anger and the Hope,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, lavishes praise on the Occupy movement and then goes on to write:

 

“For me the central question now is how to channel the anger and hope of Occupy into strategies that will forge a new politics and economy. … This requires a politics of conviction…”

 

“A politics of conviction.” That is, a politics funded on an ideology[16], a belief system, logic and emotion, cultural[17] factors rather than material needs.

 

Joseph Stiglitz makes the same point, in a piece titled “The 99 Percent Wakes Up”

:

Around the world, the financial crisis unleashed a new sense of unfairness, or more accurately, a new realization that our economic system was unfair.[18]

 

Material needs and cultural needs are different, and lead to different forms of resistance in a society that fails to meet needs when it has the capacity to do so.  The relationship between material factors and ideological ones was formulated in classical Marxism as between base and superstructure, but further development of the approach in the neo-Marxist literature, and certainly in more mainstream approaches, gives greater weight to the independent influence of cultural factors.  Even such obviously material an issue as poverty is today acknowledged to have a significant cultural, or relative, content. As society has developed an ever greater ability to produce and distribute material goods, the importance of the cultural factor grows. More and more political and social actions are determined by cultural values, values which are heavily influenced by material circumstances but also in critical ways separated, almost independent, of them.

 

Dissecting the basis of the values, the cultural issues, which provoke resistance among the 99%, is well beyond the scope of what is here undertaken.[19]  Yet naming these values can be important politically, for it may suggest important points in common between the resistance part of the 99% and many of those well to the conservative side of them.  The integrity of the individual and the desirable scope for the individual’s development, the desirability of various levels and sources of inequality, the importance o democratic participation, the varying motivations for work, the nature of creativity, are all subjects of interest to many viewpoints, and open discussions of them may open a door for the resistant part of the 99% to expand its influence within the whole.

 

To summarize this argument: there are a number of values in common among the 99% that are likely to resonate well among others whose support the active 99% would like to have. . They include an aversion to injustice, solidarity with kindred, valuation of human life, appreciation for beauty, the importance of love in human relationships, a rejection of force in the making of social decisions. Their elucidation may actually be an organizing tool for the 99%.

 

Further, speaking explicitly about values can be important practically both to avoid the accusation of  selfishness, of  merely wanting more of what others have, as well as opening the door to discussions of those ideologically supporting the established order, the 1%, who in fact will share many of exactly these values.

 

In those discussions, many of the points in contention turn out to be really issues of fact and careful analysis. What sociology has to say about motivations to work and about creativity, what political science and political economy have to say about effective participation, what economic analysis has to say about the respective role of government and markets in the production and distribution of goods and services, what history teaches about the role of civil liberties and civil rights, , what psychology and philosophy have to say about nature and nurture in the formation of ideas, are all topics to which all people  can come from very different starting points, even with very different initial material interests, and lead to some common understanding and perhaps some common approaches to policy issues. Power will ultimately determine actual outcomes, but rational discussion, and social formats that would promote it, can influence relations of power along the way. In an age of super-pacs, Citizen’s United decisions, media monopolies, with critical material consequences at stake, the importance of ideological work and debate is greater today than ever.

 

All this suggests the strategic importance of ideology,[20] analysis, understanding, and specifically understanding the relationship between the 99% and the 1%, the cause and effects of poverty, discontent, and oppression, etc. While values will shape the responses to the findings, there are essentially question of fact involved in describing them accurately and laying out causes, determining who benefits and who suffers and in what ways, what regularities determine individual behaviors and social actors conduct, and what effects each is likely to have. Education and theoretical work are of major and growing importance a

 

Thus clarifying values and understanding the dynamics of behavior becomes an increasingly important part of the construction of resistance within the 99% — and to some extent even among the 1%. Ideology, liked to culture broadly viewed, today demarcates the fault lines relevant so social change perhaps as much as or even more as the traditional purely materialist definitions of class.  As Joe Biden’s Middle Class Task Force put it: “middle-class families are defined more by their aspirations than their income,” although some, from the more traditional end, making a different point, complain: “Stop Using ‘Middle Class’ to Depict the Labor Movement.”[21]

 

A transformed understanding is needed for clarity on the issues.

F.      Patience for the Long Haul

 

The whole thrust of the argument here is that, while conditions call for radical structural social change, the present constellation of power does not permit it to be accomplished today. Yet its necessity remains, and its potential to be achieved in the future remains. The implication is clear: patience, thought, including theory, and planning are necessary.

 

In 1968, at the height of the protest demonstrations in Berlin, Rudi Dutschke, one of their most prominent leaders, spoke of a “long march through the institutions.” That made and makes sense. Change will be a long process; patience is necessary, and targeted, planned, actions, campaigns. The call for progress towards change sector by sector is another way of saying the same thing.

 

As Guy Debord already wrote in 1967 for the French 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.

 

G.     Transformative Strategies

 

Transformative demands, a key part of any transformative strategy, are outlined in B. above, are specific and concrete, and seem reasonably clear to me. But PLEASE NOTE: The Transformative Strategies presented below are only intended as a preliminary check-list of possibilities worth discussing; obviously each one deserves far more than the short paragraphs here, but looking at each in the context of the others may be a useful way to inform thinking through the best ways to go forward.

 

The earlier argument leads to a number of different strategies, mutually consistent, that can be considered. They are simply outlined below; a number of current initiatives, such as the Right to the City Alliance’s work on transformative demands, and a variety of manifestos and declarations circulating on the web, provide much more detail and many other possibilities.

 

 

1.     Recognizing Practical Minority status

 

During this likely long waiting period, those desiring radical change must perforce recognize that, while  they may speak for the overwhelming majority of humanity, the 99%, they are not themselves anywhere near that number. Neither the exploited, nor thediscontented, nor the oppressed, by themselves constitute the 99%, and the active among them indeed are a relatively small number. Their hopes to achieve change rest on their cooperation with others who are similarly moved but not yet in action in the same direction.

 

That means, among other things, that electoral strategies under present rules will not work. The forces for change, absent a crisis, are unlikely to beat the 1% by reaching to the point of 51% or more. . That limits possibilities of a simple electoral strategy. The recent Wisconsin results in the recall election suggest the reality of the situation. The intensity of support does not directly translate into quantitative majorities.

 

3.     Direct Action.

 

Direct action, by itself an ambiguous term, here means the dramatic, visible, usually audible, demonstration, with their physical presence and actions, of the strength of a particular conviction, program support, criticism, opposition, as by marches, demonstrations, occupations, as of homes threatened with foreclosure or businesses or public or private spaces, strikes and picket lines, Jeremy Brecher’s article, noted above, gives many examples. They are important not only for those whose attention is caught by them among non-participants, but also for the participants themselves, as  way of solidifying solidarity and expanding united action.

4.     Illegal disruption: e.g. occupying Wall Street offices

 

The power of the police, ultimately the control of organized force by the 1%, is today in most situations adequate to prevent serious disruption and immobilize its practitioners. Physically defending illegal occupations has been tried in a few instances, e.g. Oakland, ineffectively. In a few cases, house occupations, mass picketing, there have been temporary successes, and, more important, increasing awareness of injustice. The symbolism of such actions can be potent; the actual results achieved by the use of “illegal” physical measures are likely under today’s circumstances to be negligible. Preventing furniture from being put out on the street in evictions, sitting in in factories, booing a speaker, can have some, but probably limited, effect. As the civil rights movement has shown, however, and Frances Piven and Richard Cloward have convincingly recounted in history,[22] under other circumstances the results may be dramatic, and unachievable by any other means.

 

It does seem clear that the situation in 1967 is not the same as that of today. Then, according to Nathan Glazer, quoted approvingly by Daid Patrick Moynihan:

 

…disaffected groups, whether blacks or the poor, or students, can act as if the state were a dictatorship, can gain wide sympathy for their position, and can maintain the kind of disruption that makes it impossible for many institutions important for the society to operate. Thus universities can be brought to a standstill. High schools and now even elementary schools can be disrupted…[23]

 

Similar examples today would be few and far between.

 

5.     Spaces of hope: Model-Building.

 

The idea that specific spaces could become examples of what a utopia might be like, or become the incubators of resistance that would produce basic social change, has been a fervent hope.  From Fourier to St. Simon to Robert Owen to Joseph Smith to the stalwarts of the California communes,[24] to some of the occupiers of Liberty Plaza, the effort to build model utopias has been seen as a promising route to broader social, but historically none have ever lived up to such expectations. They may in fact distract from a direct involvement in the on-going process of political confrontation and social action in the society as a whole, outside the model. Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey have stressed the role of cities a incubators and supportive battlegrounds for broader change,[25] but that is not the same thing as saying that efforts to produce particular places as “spaces of hope” is a practical priority in the struggle for social transformation,[26] although they may light the way to the desired shape of transformations that others produce.

 

If such spaces are not outward-looking, expansionist, actively proselytizing for, rather than just model building, they are likely to become simply an island isolated off the shore of the real economy and political life.

6.     The solidarity economy

 

Solidarity economic activities: worker ownership, bartering, cooperatives, autogestion, can be seen as sorts of “economic space of hope,” and have both the positive aspect of their spatial analogy and the same limitations. Embedded in a capitalist economy, they can rarely survive in areas subject to market competition in which the exploitation of labor plays a role, because by definition the solidarists won’t exploit, and so will have higher prices than those willing to pay less for the labor they use. Different incentives, stronger motivation, better skills, greater flexibility, may compensate to some extent, but the potential depends ultimately on the way such solidarity activities can be linked to broad systemic, transformative changes in the economy as a whole.

 

7.     Building coalitions, then alliances, around consistent demand

 

That single-issue coalitions, leading to multiple-issue alliances, are critical for strategic action is already well known and widely practiced. As an arbirary example, look at the protests at Bohemian Grove, in Monte Rio, California where annually “2,000-3,000 rich and wealthy men have gathered every summer for 133 years in a private 2,800 acre ancient redwood retreat to celebrate themselves with parties, entertainment, and speakers.”

 

The protest [against the gathering] will feature Occupy groups as well as other organizations including Code Pink, Peace and Justice Center, ANSWER Coalition, Project Censored, Bohemian Grove Action Network, Veterans for Peace, National Lawyers Guild, Round Valley Indians for Justice, and various others groups focused on key issues, such as climate change, human rights, Palestine, Cuban Five, and a living wage.[27]

 

Affirmatively calling together such coalitions, trying to cement them into lasting alliances, is an obvious route to g. Occupy can be a non-turf-threatening instrument to move in that direct. Doing some careful analysis of what groups are likely participants, perhaps using an analysis such as that here discussed, can make recruitment and solidarity more effective.

 

 

8.     Winning over those with inconsistent demands, including the tea party.

 

Activists, those with their roots among the exploited, the discontented, and the oppressed, and already seeking transformative change, are still a small minority in the population. But they in fact share the values and much of the life experiences of every-day life with many, many more, ultimately perhaps reaching close to 99%.  Every opportunity can be taken to find common ground with those not already engaged on the side of resistance. Highlighting shared values, pushing the links among them, exposing inconsistencies, carrying on continuing constructive dialogue with others whose have every reason to be sympathetic, is usually a better option than negative polemics or overt hostility. The self-identified “middle class,” who are insecure in their status, see their children with limited opportunities and increasing debt, , all those who the current crisis is already affecting are clinging to what they have with real fear for the future, those who, for instance, are a major constituency of the tea parties, should be a fertile (if often difficult!) target for persuasion.

 

9.     Taking advantage of weaknesses and contradictions within the 1%.

 

One can even imagine cooperation with some of the 1%, who are after all human beings also and have, despite their position within the 1%, the full range of human desires, emotions, and aspirations.

 

Who are the 1% , after all? Can they be part of the 99%? Ask Prospero, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He has controlled everything, made everything bloom, but at the expense of enslaving Caliban and the unfreedom of Ariel and all the other spirits of the island. He is touched by remorse, and voluntarily gives up his magical powers, and contents himself with his human ones. Realizing at last that he has accomplished all he can and should, he abjures power, and realizes he is mortal, a human, with death as the ultimate ending. His power, his magic, is real, but it is also an illusion. Like the magic of capitalism, converting relations among men and women into relationships among things, the fetish of commodities?

 

More realisstically, the 1% is hardly internally homogeneous.[28] Reactions of its members to the Euro crisis now in sway are sharp; it is hilariously described by John Mauldin.[29] In general, as Joseph Stieglitz has written, “There are good reasons why plutocrats should care about inequality anyway—even if they’re thinking only about themselves.´[30]  And there are sharply conflicting interests among members of the 1%. Real estate interests, for instance, have very material incentive to push housing costs up and up. Employers, on the other hand, have a direct interest in having housing available at rents and prices affordable to their employees, thus reducing the pressure on wages employers need to pay to get and keep workers.  Pressures for maximum develop of buildable open space is a goal of developers; it may stand in the way of tourist development or amenities for the rich. Donald Trump’s antics and developments are not universally favored by the 1%. Some billionaires support Obama, even if most support Romney. So he 1% is not homogenous, although structural pressures will always influence them to act in concert, and there is no reason those resisting some should not make temporary marriages of convenience with one or another of them opportunistically around specific issues.

10.           “Occupy” does not mean Fetishizing Space.

 

“Occupy” had, originally, a literal and spatial meaning. But clinging to that narrow focus for the movement is no longer useful.[31] See my Blog #5. In addition to the problems discussed there, three other weaknesses arise if the term “occupy” is assumed to have one and only one meaning. But when a campaign goes under the name of Occupy Our Homes, or joins campaigns to prevent foreclosures and evictions with the Home Defenders Leagues, occupying is meant literally, but as a positive for keeping the occupants of that which is occupied where they are, a defensive move rather than a demand for a change in occupancy. Further, occupations can be by forces and for purposes that most in the occupy movement would clearly oppose, as in the occupation of the West Bank by Israeli settlers taking over Palestinian-owned lands.[32] Finally, as pointed out above, “occupy” can have a no-spatial meaning, as in Occupy the Economy or Occupy the Euro. As suggested above, “occupy” in such cases simply means: “take militant action to transform.”

 

 

11.           Electoral Strategies..

 

The change desired by the occupiers will not be achieved through victories in any immediate electoral campaign, but neither are immediate elections a matter of indifference. This is a matter of tactics as well as strategy; the devil is in the details of how that role should be played. The discussions here are on-going; I doubt if there is a perfect answer. By and large, I would support the position of Robert L. Borosavage and Katrina vanden Heuvel of critical engagement;[33]  Jeremy Brecher speaks of it as a “non-electoral 99% opposition”

 

An opposition not to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party but to the corporate party of the 1 percent, which dominates the entire political system?[34]

 

It is a strategy that harks back to the identical strategy put forward by Rudi Dutschke in 19968, largely if only briefly and partially followed at least in Germany and France: that of an “APO”  an “AuserParliamentarische Opposition,” an opposition outside of Parliament. The devil will again lie in the details.

 

*    *   *    *

The argument for a transformative strategy, a strategy of concrete individual demands aiming them towards a transformation of the whole, is compelling, and I believe shaping such a strategy is already well under way.

 


[1] It is still unclear whether the current crisis is deep enough to to either cause splits and eakening on the conservative side or broad enough outrage on the radical side to produce braod structural changes; even basic sectoral changes do not seem imminent. The crisis does seem deep (David Harvey, Rick Wolff), but But time will tell.

[2] See the earlier blogs on the necessity of bringing large elements of the right, such as the tea party supporters, over to the side of transformative change., and the emphasis, in the writings of H. Marcuse and David Harvey, among others, on the need and the possibility of individuals remaking themselves as part of the social processes of change.

[3] Herbert Marcuse,  One-Dimensional Man, 1974, p. 197.

[4] See, for example, Joseph Stiglitz: “The 99 Percent Wakes Up,”

From Cairo to Wall Street’ edited by Anya Schiffrin and Eamon Kircher-Allen. 272 pp. The New

Press. $17, extract available at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/05/02/joseph-stiglitz-the-99-percent-wakes-up.html

 

 

 

[5] See, for instance, Mark Purcell, 2008,  Recapturing democracy: neoliberalization and the struggle for alternative urban futures. Routledge: New York.

 

[6] Occupy Wall Street got glowing endorsements in both speeches and informal discussions [at the recent Labor Notes conference.]. You could see the influence everywhere from the transit workers€™ orange “Occupy Transit” t-shirts to the many references to the 1% and the 99%. In fact the official theme of the conference   was “Solidarity for the 99%.” Occupy Chicago was represented by Jan Rudolfo of National Nurses United and Andy Manos. At a labor education workshop, Steve Ashby of Occupy Chicago’s Labor Outreach spoke of the cordial relationship between Occupy Chicago and labor that helped create a number of solidarity actions including a march of thousands against the Mortgage Bankers Association who met at the Art Institute last fall. They Call Themselves the Troublemakers Union. By obboSphere.Daily Kos May 07, 2012 Available at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/05/07/1089585/-They-Call-Themselves-the-Troublemakers-Union

 

[7] My own piece on the mortgage foreclosure crisis might be another example.

[9] Housing & Land: A Need for Transformative Demands

Right to the City’s Transformative Demands Working Paper Series– Edition #1

 

[10] Free public education pre-school through graduate school is already one of  Quebec stludent demands: The Threat of Quebec's Good Example. Peter Hallward. The   B u l l e t: Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 647, available at June 6, 2012 http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/647.php#continue

 

[11] See for instance the tax proposals in The People’s Budget of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. For a brief summary, see David Moberg, “What Americans Want,” In These Times, June 2011, p. 20.

[12] It would thus recognize the political part of the argument Herbert Marcuse makes in The Aesthetic Dimension as to the inherently critical role of art. –the aesthetic dimension of discontent.

 

 

[13] only 4% voted to restrict salaries at a Wells Fargo meeting, despite an aggressive camaign. By E. Scott Reckard, Los Angeles Times , Protesters disrupt Wells Fargo shareholder meeting, April 25, 2012, available at

  1.                      I.            Protesters disrupt Wells Fargo shareholder meeting. And see Huffington Post, “99% Spring Has Sprung: Shareholder Actions Underway Across the County,” Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy catalogs some of the actions that Occupy groups, unions, and community organizing groups have planned for May Day as part of ongoing campaigns to challenge corporate America.

 

[14]

 

 

[15] From Rebuild the Dream

[16] I use the term “ideology” in the sense of a set of explanatory theories relating to observed social developments, rather than the more specialized meanings of Karl Mannheim and the Frankfurt School, which should also be brought into play here, but transgress the bounds of this article.

[17] Again, I use the term “culture” in its anthropological sense, including, for instance, sense of ethnicity, or sexual orientation, rather than in its cultural studies sense. For definitions and sources see Marcuse, Peter. 2007.”The Production of Regime Culture and Instrumentalized Art in a Globalizing State.” In Globalizations, vol 4, no. 1, March, pp. 15-28. Reprinted in Globalization Of The World Economy,  ed. Manfred Steger, Series Editor: Mark Casson. Edwin ‘Elgar: Cheltenham, 2012.

[19] Blog #17 –poverty, inequality power,– the moral and/ideological basis of the resistance is an attempt under development to be more detailed than the discussion here.

[20] For the importance of ideology in Vietnam, see http://links.org.au/node/2891. “Growth, but not at any cost,” seems a wishy-washy position of the VCP.

[21] Nelson Lichtenstein, in  http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/

[22] See Poor People’s Movements.

[23] Nathan Glazer, “For White and Black Community Control is the Issue,” The New York Times Sunday Mgazine, April 27, 1968; quoted approvingly by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, p. 2ne. 1970, p. xi-xii. Interestingly, “acting as if the state is a dictatorship” is a plague on many analyses. See Peter Marcuse,“The Myth of the Benevolent State and “The Myth of the Malevolent State.”

 

[24] Perhaps even from St. Augustine. See my  Blog, :On reading David Harvey on the Tarmac with the Help of Jesus.”

[25] See his Spaces of Hope and Rebel Cities. Both effectively argue the potential of the recognition of space, , particularly both in and of cities,as a factor in supporting efforts for radical change.

[26] See Blog #  , On Fetishizing Space.

[28] See the discussion in Blog # .

[30] Joseph Stiglitz, The 1 Percent’s Problem, VaityFair, May 31, 2012, available at http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/2012/05/joseph-stiglitz-the-price-on-inequality

[31] See Roger Keil, “’Occupy the strip malls’: Centrality, Place and the Occupy Movement,” http://suburbs.apps01.yorku.ca/2011/11/17/%E2%80%9Coccupy-the-strip-malls%E2%80%9D-centrality-place-and-the-occupy-movement. November 17th, 2011

 

[32] See also the reaction of movements in Vancouver, New York, and Boston in the context of the rights of indigenous peoples to land taken over by their present occupants, http://www.democracynow.org/seo/2011/10/11/indigenous_groups_at_occupy_wall_street.

[33] “A Politics for the 99 Percent,” The Nation, June 25, 2012, pp. 18-21.