Stealth Gentrification

The bar Max Fish closed yesterday. Since Max Fish was one of the first of the gentrifying establishments to open in the Lower East Side, I thought it would be fitting to note its passing by focussing on one of the techniques by which it came to be.

Lara Belkind introduces her essay Stealth Gentrification: Camouflage and Commerce on the Lower East Side, thusly:

    This article describes current adaptations of the traditional environment of New York’s Lower East Side. It examines how global factors such as expanding “content’ industries, market differentiation, and the internet have reinforced perceptions of the area as real and authentic while opening it to dramatic change. Specifically, the article considers a recent trend of commercial camouflage — hidden shops, restaurants and clubs that “re-present” tradition by meticulously preserving defunct façades, signage, and other physical traces of the neighborhood’s working-class and immigrant past. Urban camouflage, in various guises, has played a role in the transformation of the Lower East Side since the late 1970s, and has been employed by a succession of actors, from squatters to global retailers. As a cultural strategy, it has been inherent to the economic restructuring of the area, helping to overcome barriers to redevelopment that have persisted for more than five decades.

She divides the period into three stages: 1980–1994; 1995–2002; 2003–2005. I’m just focussing on the first stage:

    Max Fish quickly became a destination for consumers of the downtown scene. … And it made Ulli Rimkus one of the first of a set of successful local artist-entrepreneurs.

    Stealth aesthetics emerged almost immediately as an expression of this new bohemian movement, signifying authenticity, membership in the downtown avant-garde, and a condition of being “underground,” or beyond the realm of middle-class consumerism. This signification contained an inherent contradiction, however, because many of these new residents arrived with very middle-class objectives. In particular, they were seeking to buy property or to create small businesses — opportunities they were finding increasingly out of reach in other Manhattan neighborhoods.

    Yet, despite expressions of solidarity with the local working-class, and despite positioning themselves as activists or bohemian outsiders, the motivations of many artists who moved to the Lower East Side were essentially middle class. By contrast, the very opportunities that attracted them to the area, to own property or start a small enterprise, were beyond the reach of most of their neighbors. Indeed, the concept of “pioneering’ in a residential community, even a battered one, inherently separated new residents from existing ones.

    [M]any of the bohemians who arrived on the Lower East Side in the 1980s adopted countercultural elements as a commercial strategy. … But art that borrowed the found qualities of these spaces quickly evolved into a trademark aesthetic that was used to attract middle-class consumers.


There was one part of the article I found a bit disturbing:

The drug trade that existed in this area was responsible for countless deaths, family crises, homelessness, as well as burglaries and muggings. Clayton Patterson says this was a good thing. Was it a good thing for the people living there before 1980? Do you think they had the view that the drugs were a trade-off, necessary to keep the middle class away? I think this is appalling.

1Lara Belkind, Stealth Gentrification: Camouflage and Commerce on the Lower East Side, Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (FALL 2009), pp. 21-36.

Six Months of Quilas

It’s hard to believe, but Quilas turns six months old today! Yes, it’s been six months since my first post, Quilas. It seems like just yesterday!

To celebrate, we are conducting a survey, to see what our many readers have to say about Quilas. Please take a moment to respond. Thank you!

[Survey closed.]

Localist Moralism: The Locavore

When localists aren’t listened to, consumers change from being the solution to being the problem. Barbara Kingsolver is scathing about the food decisions of poor people: “we complain about the high price of organic meats and vegetables that might send back more than three nickels per buck to the farmers.” Meanwhile, “if many of us would view this style of eating (local food) as deprivation, that’s only because we’ve grown accustomed to the botanically outrageous condition of having everything, always.” She recognizes that consumption rises to deal with stress of working lives, but “much of it simply buys the services that make it possible for us to work those long hours.” The capitalist imperative to increase productivity turns into its opposite, a personal choice of workers themselves.

A concrete example of localist moralism is food politics. The petite bourgeoisie’s judgments on food stem directly from its habitus.

Food choices are a consequence and not a determinant of class. Thus it is possible to deduce popular tastes for the foods that are simultaneously most ‘filling’ and most economical from the necessity of reproducing labor power at the lowest cost which is forced on the proletariat as its very definition.

Ignorance of this relationship confounds the locavores. The compulsion of wage-labor makes taste “a forced choice, produced by conditions of existence which rule out all alternatives as mere daydreams and leave no choice but the taste for the necessary.” Failure to grasp this forced choice allows localists to pose a moral one.

Commodity fetishism, the basis for habitus and its choices, gets erased in favor of a nebulous and ever-present culture, morality and laziness. Food localism becomes the latest sign of “class racism” against the ‘sheeple’ who are too brainwashed to know what’s good for them. There is no difference between criticizing an unhealthy diet and criticizing one that doesn’t come from the proper, local place. In fact, local food is even further from the taste of necessity, since it’s a moral obligation to taste and the environment, not just to one’s own health.

Pierre Bourdieu suggests that the petite bourgeois get disillusioned as “they grow older and as the future which made sense of their sacrifice turns sour.” There’s no impugning the motives of the petite bourgeoisie: their personal sacrifice, creating schemes that are supposed to grow, comes at great emotional cost. The next step of looking for someone to blame seems only natural, and what better target is there than the poor and the working class, who for some strange reason continue to shop at Wal-Mart and eat at McDonald’s?


Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 113-119.

The Small Business Myth

Via From the archives: the small business myth, by Doug Henwood.

What I find more surprising, and disturbing, is the tendency of some folks on the left to embrace small business with some passion. This is particularly true in the unfortunately named anti-globalization movement—as if internationalization itself were the problem rather than the way it’s carried out. Their anti-globalism is connected to a desire to “relocalize” economies, and with them to reorient production on a much smaller scale. These aims seem more motivated by nostalgia—and, in many cases, by a nostalgia for something that never existed—than any serious analysis.

Larger firms are also far more productive than smaller ones. Small-is-beautiful advocates rarely tell us how tiny enterprises would produce locomotives, computers or telephones; maybe they’d prefer to do away with these things and revive a hunter–gatherer society. But if that’s what they intend to do they should tell us.

And people who presumably care about workers should also rethink their passion for tininess: the experience of actually existing small businesses show that they’re not great employers, with poor pay, cheesier benefits and more dangerous workplaces. Bigger firms are easier to regulate, more open to public scrutiny, friendlier to affirmative action programs and more vulnerable to union organizing.

No 7-Eleven’s Nativism

Two recent tweets from an organization dedicated to preventing the “whitewash[ing of] our community.”

Localism adopts the premise that people have free choice to structure a capitalist economy. But when people make the wrong choices, then localism can become right-wing and anti-immigrant. It critiques globalization for strengthening multinational corporations at the expense of communities.

A distrust of foreign people creeps in. Being rooted in a place enhances relationships, whereas “(m)obility erodes community.” Migration brings displacement and alienation. This parochialism extends to non-local workers, who don’t contribute to local economies and spend what they earn elsewhere. Since value for localists is created only through exchange, foreign workers bring no benefit.

Ethical Consumption

Despite the problems I described in Consumers in Capitalism,

wages are the focus for all pro-market localist schemes. If consumers buy locally-sourced goods from ethical sellers, it is claimed, they’ll shrink the economy to a more rational sustainable level.

It’s true that the West consumes too much; people buy what they don’t need or too much of what they do need. Businesses spend vast amounts of money to convince people that their lives are incomplete without the latest gadget. People who reject this oftentimes get drawn into their own form of elitism, paying huge sums for the coffee and gadgets that define their counter-cultural cachet.

Localists frame this by aggregating individual consumption choices. It’s assumed that we’ve all chosen, on our own, to consume too much, and this individualism marks localist thinking. Individual choices, it’s said, put together, will change the system. Making numerous small choices will add up to changing big ones. Consumers can change not only their spending habits but entire industries. Michael Shuman names ten different areas shoppers could buy locally, imagining a consumer-led panacea of local business, finance and technology to bring the community together “to envision a better economic future for all of its members.”

But capitalism does a lot more than offer different products for people to buy. The market coordinates production globally, which makes it very hard to reproduce in miniature. For example, localists acknowledge that the quality of local food isn’t consistent. It’s hard to get and often costs more, both because of economies of scale and because its production and distribution aren’t subsidized. Consumers are supposed to compensate for this by paying more.

The problem is that the capitalist economy is too complex for individuals to change at a micro level. But rather than democratically plan the economy, allowing social need and not profit to dictate what gets made and how, consumers are supposed to refuse to “give in” and cope individually with market anarchy.

If ethical consumption relies on consumer preferences, then consumers can equally choose not to participate. In a system where consumers are workers with nothing to sell except their labor power, it’s rational to buy goods as cheaply as possible. And this is what happens when capitalism goes into crisis.

Still, ethical consumption remains popular: after all, it’s a way to feel you’re changing the world by spending a little extra. But the question is whether it’s actually changing the production and distribution circuits of capital. At what point will the number of ethical consumers peak, when those with no disposable income can’t participate? And, since it can’t change the global drive to reduce costs below the average global price, what distinguishes ethical consumption from charity, a way to salve the consciences of the well-to-do, leaving the structures creating inequality intact and growing?

The assumption behind consumer activism is that we’re limited to shopping to express our discontent. This is effectively saying the neoclassical economists are correct: the economy runs on consumer preferences, not exploitation. This shifts blame onto individual consumers for the failings of the system: if there’s alienation and environmental misery, it’s your fault for buying the wrong things. Yet consumers are also workers who must sell their labor power or lose their livelihoods. They buy what makes their wages stretch further.

In fact, the vast majority of people in the world need to consume more; capitalism isn’t meeting their needs. Billions of people live on less than $2 a day. In this context, calling for people to consume less misses the point. Real ethical consumption is collective. Capitalism makes it impossible for most people to meet their needs on their own, but as a society, we could provide houses, hospitals and schools for everyone. Obviously, this implies a vast change in the structure of ownership and consumption, but it’s a far more positive vision than localism’s individualism.


Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 33-38.

Consumers in Capitalism

Before I address the issue of “ethical consumption” in my next post, I need to take on the topic of consumption itself.

According to neoclassical economics, a consumer is an informed individual, making rational decisions in the marketplace to maximize his/her self-interest. There’s no surplus, growth is an accident of production, and capital comes from investors beating the odds for a while. Workers and owners are just temporary categories; we’re really just individuals who come to market to meet our infinite needs, and some of us are lucky enough have extra cash on hand to sell goods to others. By demonstrating a preference for particular goods, consumers can change the way those goods are produced and distributed.

In reality, this doesn’t describe most people, who consume according to standard patterns, socialized through culture and family. However, it does describe capitalists, who come to the market as a purchaser (consumer) of labor power.

Neoclassical economics focuses on consumers, but this reflects reality only for the capitalist. Any economic theory beginning with consumers, consumption, or exchange adopts the capitalist’s point of view. This is flawed in two ways:

  1. Wages don’t create all demand: they’re just one way for capitalists to realize the capital invested in commodities. There are three other circuits that supply public and private goods at all stages of production. Most people encounter the market when they shop, so it seems natural to think that capitalism exists to satisfy their consumer needs. But while the market in consumer goods is constantly on display, exploitation is hidden. Workers matter only as providers of labor power, the source of surplus value: they’re only able to receive and spend a wage if their employer makes a profit first. Moreover, capitalists also create commodities (the means of production), that only other capitalists buy. For example: steel producers buy coal to make steel; manufacturers of coal-mining equipment buy steel to produce mining equipment; mine owners buy mining equipment to mine coal, that they then sell to steel producers. There are enormous areas of the economy where workers’ spending power has no impact at all.
  2. Money capital funds every circuit: it not only provides start-up capital but helps workers’ wages circulate by providing personal credit, increasing capital through banks and corporate self-financing. New forms of credit continue to spawn, both because industries self-finance, and because speculators can suck up surplus value that can’t be reinvested profitably. To influence this process, consumers would have to find some way of controlling investment decisions at all stages of capital circulation, including private investment and state purchase of goods. Otherwise, capitalists would pull investment dollars from the more expensive, less technically-developed, ethical local industries.

Consumer spending is a form of distribution, it represents the reproduction of workers’ own labor power, not control over the entire process. The idea that workers could control the circuit of capital repeats Ricardo’s error by assuming workers receive the full value of their labor, rather than the value of their labor power in production. Even if localist advocates convinced all workers that local consumption could change the world, workers could, at best, change the conditions of production for their own housing and durable goods, a small portion of the overall capital circuit.

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