Keep The “East Village” Weird?

Back in April, Reverend Billy came to preach in Tompkins Square Park.


 
Anyone who’s seen the show Portlandia is no doubt familiar with the unofficial slogan of the town that’s shown in the opening credits: Keep Portland Weird. It’s the slogan on over 18,000 bumper stickers1 in the Portland area, and many more t-shirts, no doubt. What people probably do not know is that Keep Portland Weird is a marketing campaign:

    Keep Portland Weird is about supporting local business in the Portland Oregon area. We want to support local business because they make Portland stand out from other cites and make it a more unique place to live. They do this by providing consumers a wide range of products that represent the different cultures that make up Portland.2

Culture is expressed through one’s purchases. The web site itself is an online shop, where KPW tchotchkes can be bought.

kpw-whats-weird

Weird umbrellas! Weird soy candles! Weird keychains! Weird stickers!
Weird refrigerator magnets!

Weird.

This campaign is modeled on a similar one in Austin Texas, with a surprisingly similar name: Keep Austin Weird. The campaign was launched by the Austin Independent Business Alliance, with the same goal of promoting shopping at small businesses in Austin.

But this isn’t about Portland, it’s about the “East Village,” and what could be the development of a similar strategy here. Reverend Billy says “We’re not the product of a corporate marketing campaign,” but to what degree is the “East Village” the product of a small-business marketing campaign? To what degree does someone “make themselves up” when all of the accessories are already on the shelves, ready to buy?

It may not be a concerted effort yet, but it’s just a matter of time. The sensibility is there, and so is the language. Key words are: sustainable, responsible, local, community. You almost never see one of these words without the others. Once you see the word “weird” in this mix, you’ll know it’s started.

***

Probably the most insidious thing about the Weird movement is its racism. A resident of Portland, Linda Ueki Absher, wrote a piece for Counterpunch called Keep Portland White!

    But as I wander pass the organic coffee houses chock-full of thirtyish men with full-on lumberjack beards and defiant beer bellies, or boutiques filled with mock Goodwill cardigans selling for prices once considered exorbitant monthly rent, the message is unmistakable: I am not a member of the Keeping-it-Weird club.

After retiring from the Univesity of Pennsylvania – Johnstown, former Economics professor Michael Yates spent some time travelling around the country, and wrote about his adventure in a book called “Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue.” About Portland, he wrote:

    The most distressing thing about Portland, and the fact that most belied its liberal image, was its racism. A writer once called Portland the “last bastion of Caucasian culture.” It is certainly a white town; less than 7 percent of the population is African-American. Even the city’s homeless are nearly all white, as are all the young people asking for money. Blacks who gravitated to Portland to work in the wartime shipyards were housed in a flood plain of the Columbia River and were soon enough driven out by high waters. The ghettoes where they were next allowed to live were destroyed by highway construction. Today the tiny black community is scattered over several mostly poor neighborhoods. Despite the small number of black residents, whites were inordinately hostile to them.

    There is a growing Hispanic community in both Portland and the rest of Oregon. … Not surprisingly, anti-immigrant sentiment resonated in Portland. A history of racism – Oregon had anti-miscegenation laws until the Supreme Court overturned these in the late 1960s – and high unemployment made workers susceptible to immigrant-bashing.

Maybe this is a Portland thing, but the group that showed up to see Reverend Billy this day was entirely white. The neighborhood is changing. According to the always-helpful city‑data.com:

Races: White Alone
white-alone-recent

Races: Black Alone
black-alone

Hispanic
hispanic

Races: Two or More
two-or-more

If you click on the maps it will take you to the site, where you can get a better sense of things.

***

While I’m on the subject, I never cared for Reverend Billy. The whole evangelist schtick was played out a long time ago. I remember when he first went into the Disney Store in Times Square. It may have been the first time but maybe not. I have a friend who was very excited about it and went. I was curious, but for some reason I couldn’t make it. I’ve seen him all too many times since then, but I’ve never been won over.

His whole spiel is to stop shopping, but here he is exhorting people to do exactly the opposite: Go to “these small shops you can’t find anywhere else” and buy crap. What exactly can you not find anywhere else? Let’s not forget that the stuff sold here is manufactured first. It’s only then that the small shops you can’t find anywhere else stock it. There’s no factory churning out commodities that are sold in only one location, or that can’t be bought online. And Alphabets isn’t any different than Spencer’s Gifts, found in every mall.

***

Finally, while researching this piece, I discovered that KPW’s web site is a do-it-yourself mess! From “What’s Weird About Portland?”:

kpw-about

From the Soy Candles page:

kpw-soy-candles-lorem-ipsum

Is this supposed to be part of their appeal?

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1Keep Portland … quaint?
2Keep Portland Weird

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?

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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.

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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.

Pro-Market Localism

Localism has developed into many different streams which can be roughly grouped into localists who support capitalism and those who want to overcome it. Pro-market localists suggest that market regulation can create ethical local capitalism. Some build small businesses, while others promote non-profits and cooperatives. Locally-owned businesses are supposed to keep money in the local communities and, since they’re small, treat workers and the environment better.

Pro-market localists say that if the economy is just a collection of use-values, then we can make capitalism better by producing fewer, high-quality goods. Markets are good things and they can be regulated, providing they are operated according to principles of social justice. The answer is to make the economy less efficient.

They also claim the small scale of local business makes it more ethical. Big business separates owners from those who work and consume; bring them together, the localists say, and business will be more personal. In these circumstances, labor exploitation no longer matters: “even autocratic control is no serious problem in a small-scale enterprise which, led by a working proprietor, has almost a family character.” As long as the business is small, “private ownership is natural, fruitful, and just.” Capitalism is fair as long as it’s done correctly. Profit can be made optional by caring about the proper, local size.

This points to a key confusion at the heart of localism: it conflates the size of ownership with the size of production. The two are very different: while larger production needs concentrations of machinery and labor power, larger ownership doesn’t. Confusing facilities with ownership allows localists to echo Adam Smith’s promotion of small, equal capitals. Opposed to a capitalism controlled by monopolies, Smith believed that markets could be self-regulating and competitive if producers and consumers were kept small. Smith had the benefit of describing his own historical period: during the 18th century, small companies battled it out to control local markets. Not today: small business is less important to directing economic activity.

Idealizing small business is simply a form of nostalgia for earlier forms of capitalism, which weren’t necessarily any better. Small, family-owned businesses also pay poor wages, price-gouge customers, and destroy the environment. As of 2010, U.S. small business owners were 83% white, married, older men. That figure shrank only 4% from 2000. This means that the small business culture localists defend is also fairly exclusive.

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Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 20-23, 29.

Localism and Community

[F]aced with the unpalatable conclusion that small alternatives won’t out-compete or destroy capitalism, localists cling to a fierce faith in communities to band together and do it yourself.

Localists yearn for community, freed from the uniform mediocrity of anonymous, corporate-controlled spaces. However, the petite bourgeoisie’s way of life precludes a community, since members of the class rely mainly on themselves for economic progress and emotional support. Community members are either fellow petite bourgeois competitors or customers demanding lower prices. Perhaps this is why so many localists have such a strong nostalgia for community as an ideal place where business happens and values take shape. Farmers markets aren’t just a place to shop, but a place to socialize: since “consumers have ten times as many conversations at farmers’ markets as the do at supermarkets… You go from being a mere consumer to being a participant.”

Why do localists want their shopping trips to include personal conversation? Alternately, you could appreciate the anonymity and speed of supermarket transaction if you have other ways to socialize. But it makes sense that the petite bourgeois, trying desperately to succeed in the marketplace or gain control on their own merits, would feel lonely. They try to re-forge the social connections lost in the marketplace in the same individual way they advance. Consumption is where they compete to achieve the symbols of habitus. The desire for friendly consumption is as close as the petite bourgeois get to stepping outside their daily antagonisms.

Just as ideology is a single class’s way of life generalized to all of society, community for the petite bourgeois becomes community for them alone. Wendell Berry criticizes corporations, governments and schools for concealing a “private aim (which) has been to reduce radically the number of people who, by the measure of our historical ideals, might be thought successful: the self-employed, the owners of small businesses or small usable properties, those who work at home.” This persecution of petty capitalists sets local community advocates against “Communists and capitalists (who) are alike in their contempt for country people, country life, and country places. They have exploited the countryside with equal greed and disregard.” The local community are “small farmers, ranchers, and market gardeners; worried consumers; owners and employees of small businesses; self-employed people; religious people; and conservationists.”

The inference is clear: the working class isn’t part of the community. [Emphasis mine.] The images are of the town square, the main street where everyone knows your name, the butcher, baker and small shopkeeper. These evoke market towns where residents distributed commodities made elsewhere. In contrast, industrial towns were often centers of intense class struggle between owners and workers. Not coincidentally, industrial towns created close community networks forged in that struggle. These close-knit communities of workers also demonstrated all the values of collective self-sacrifice, yet localists never mention them, preferring fuzzy invocations of consumerist fantasy.

The problem lies in how malleable the term community is, including capital, the state, and workers — groups whose interests are fundamentally at odds. By suggesting workers are at most another group making demands on the state, the designation of community hides power relations. It replaces class with innumerable differences of income, culture and other sociological categories, bounded by geography rather than a common exploitation. This blurring of conflict is fundamental to localism. By invoking community, localism attempts the political equivalent of Proudhon’s fair markets for small artisans, imposing a false social peace by eliminating the working class rhetorically.

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Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 98–101.

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