Can These Bones Live: Urban Decay Chic

I don’t remember how I came onto this blog, but the author of this piece (link below) makes a couple of very incisive points:

1) People who move into abandoned, decaying urban areas desire that type of environment, and any change, any improvement, will upset them, not just gentrification. This is a big problem in the “East Village” of New York, but one which is growing smaller as this population ages.

2) If people feel the need to live in these areas, they still exist. Cleveland, Detroit… Detroit! They privatized the government and turned off the water to those who cannot pay! If you’re an artist and need that type of deprivation, it’s there waiting for you!

Can These Bones Live: Urban Decay Chic.

Foreign Scientific Jargon

I am working on a piece, the second of three, that deals with stealth gentrification, and I noticed that the author of the essay I’m quoting from uses the word entrepreneur to describe small-business owners that moved into the Lower East Side during the period of her study. “Why does she use that term?” I wondered.

I thought about other French terms: bourgeois, petite-bourgeois,* proletariat, that fall into the general category of French terms that describe (or obscure) capitalist social relations, but these terms evoke a different response in the reader than entrepreneur. Some people even consider them to be cliché (although they’re fine with the word cliché!).

It’s not that they’re French (or non-English, as it were), that people shy away from these words, it’s that they denote class position. Despite what George Orwell says: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent,” if you were to replace these with English terms, e.g., if you were to say “small-business owner,” instead of petite-bourgeois, it changes the meaning. The first is “the lifeblood of our economy,” the second is a deviationist, and resorts to fascism in times of crisis.

“Working class” is better than proletariat; the terms for the capitalist class are the problematic ones. Nobody says bourgeois as a compliment. No one ever says “Those are some fine bourgeois values you have!” If I say I want to open a store, no one would say “You’re a real petite-bourgeois now!”§

I still don’t know why she used the word entrepreneur though, even if she doesn’t say petite-bourgeois. Instead of:

    Such tactics have been deployed by a diverse succession of actors — from squatters and artists, to local entrepreneurs and hipsters, to real estate investors and brand-name retailers.

why not say “local small-business owners”? She must have had a reason, I just wonder what it was. She doesn’t write “bourgeois” (petite– or otherwise) anywhere in the essay. She uses the term entrepreneur 18 times!

I don’t like the word entrepreneur. The etymology of entrepreneur in the Oxford Concise Dictionary is “Origin: early 19th cent., from French, from entreprendre ‘undertake’ (see enterprise)”. “Enterprise” as in “free enterprise”. It’s understandable why capitalists prefer euphemisms to “capitalist,” but why the author of an essay on stealth gentrification?

Un…less…

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* I prefer petite to “petty” because “petty” means “insignificant” or “trifling, and while small businesses might be insignificant or trifling, it’s their smallness that I mean to convey.
§Actually, friends of mine would probably say this!
Politics and the English Language. Accessed August 18, 2014.

Which Good Old Days?

Hardly a day passes that I don’t read a comment on some blog or news site that longs for a return to an earlier period of “East Village” history. So I thought it might be fun to see which period people would prefer.

Below is a poll, with descriptions taken from Janet Abu-Lughod’s book
“From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side.”

1

 
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1 Janet Abu-Lughod, From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995), 342-345.

The Shadow, Reanimated

Last year, at the Tompkins Square Park 25th Police-Riot Reunion, it was announced that The Shadow was going back into print. The Shadow was a monthly, anarchist newspaper that started in 1989. It was an interesting paper, during an interesting time. I don’t remember it in great detail, but I remember that my favorite section was Cop Watch, where people reported on the activities of cops in the neighborhood. I also remember that they advertised the sale of the encryption program PGP for $10, even though the download from MIT was free.

If you want to get an idea of what it was like, check out their archives on the Wayback Machine. Unfortunately, it only starts in 1997 (the Wayback Archive started in 1996), but you’ll get a good idea of what the paper was like, especially compared with today.

The key thing is that it was more of a real newspaper. They still borrowed (liberated?) other people’s writing, but there was much more of their own. Today, it’s almost all borrowed. It’s basically a printed version of a Google search for, let’s say, “conspiracy theories.”

Their first re-issue features a piece written by Michael Parenti in 1996 (!), about the Kennedy assassination conspiracy (Yawn); an obituary of Mae Brussell (a conspiracy-monger who died in 1988) taken from a 1994 book by Paul Krassner; a review of a Kennedy-conspiracy book written in 2012; a Kennedy-conspiracy article; another Kennedy-conspiracy article…

Apart from the conspiracy nonsense, none of the articles are particularly bad, they’re just not news. For that matter, they’re not even new. There’s a long (of course) article about Bill de Blasio and Hillary Clinton that tries to be “local”:

In his 2000 book Rogue State, anti war writer William Blum indicated some of the reasons the husband of Hillary Clinton was considered responsible for war crimes by many anti war activists on the Lower East Side in 1999…

Their editorial headline is “The Honeymoon is Over: America Grows Weary of Barack Obama”. I have to wonder, as anarchists, was there ever a honeymoon period? This was written by A. Kronstadt, a pen-name used back in the 90s also, but who knows if it’s the same person?

They’ve dropped the banner “The Shadow is New York’s ONLY underground newspaper” from the paper itself, but they’ve added it to their Facebook page. Maybe the claim should be “The Shadow is Facebook’s only underground Facebook page!”

The Spring 2014 issue is better only because it’s not filled with Kennedy-conspiracy drivel. There’s another long article on Bill de Blasio and Hillary Clinton, an obituary of Al Goldstein, who died in 2013, and a lot of other non-news articles.

Probably the worst thing about The Shadow today is that I now have to pay $1.00 for a copy! Back when it was worth reading, it was free. Now that it’s all recycled internet articles, I have to pay for it. It’s not really worth it.

Finally, here is a screen shot of their web page:

the-shadow-web-site

Who knows what evil lurks in your closet? The Shadow knows!

All Art is Propaganda

[This is part of the Release the Kraken! series.]

July 17, 2013

In “No Local,” that I just finished reading, Greg Sharzer mentions George Orwell’s book “The Road to Wigan Pier”. Because I almost never buy books any more, preferring to borrow them from the library instead, I checked to see if the library near me had a copy. They didn’t. They did, however, have a collection of essays, that is itself a collection of previous collections of essays, titled “All Art is Progapanda”.

I liked the title right away, especially having delved into the ideological underpinnings of reform movements in this neighborhood. I didn’t think it would deal with art as a means of reproducing the ideology of any particular class, but more in the sense of Althusser’s dictum that ideology is material.

It was nothing of the sort. The title comes from the first essay, on Charles Dickens:

I have been discussing Dickens simply in terms of his ‘message’, and almost ignoring his literary qualities. But every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message’, whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda.

What I want to quote from here is from an essay titled “Inside the Whale”. He writes about Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”, but it’s as if he’s writing about the “East Village”:

During the boom years, when dollars were plentiful and the exchange-value of the franc was low, Paris was invaded by such a swarm of artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sight-seers, debauchees, and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen. In some quarters of the town the so-called artists must actually have outnumbered the working population — indeed, it has been reckoned that the late twenties there were as many as 30,000 painters in Paris, most of them impostors. The populace had grown so hardened to artists that gruff-voiced lesbians in corduroy breeches and young men in Grecian or medieval costume could walk the streets without attracting a glance, and along the Seine banks Notre Dame it was almost impossible to pick one’s way between the sketching-stools. It was the age of dark horses and neglected genii; the phrase on everybody’s lips was ‘Quand je serai lancé’. As it turned out, nobody was ‘lancé’, the slump descended like another Ice Age, the cosmopolitan mob of artists vanished, and the huge Montparnasse cafés which only ten years ago were filled till the small hours by hordes of shrieking poseurs have turned into darkened tombs in which there arc not even any ghosts. It is this world — described in, among other novels, Wyndham Lewis’s “Tarr” — that Miller is writing about, but he is dealing only with the under side of it, the lumpen-proletarian fringe which has been able to survive the slump because it is composed partly of genuine artists and partly of genuine scoundrels.

Notes on the Last Day of 2013

I guess there’s always a catch.

I reported in Debt and Caruso that I was going to get a free copy of Janet Abu-Lughod’s book “From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side” (UVEV) from Amazon, by using points I had accumulated on my credit card. I ordered it on December 23 and the package arrived on December 26 (coincidentally enough, the same day I wrote “Debt and Caruso”). I was psyched about receiving this book, after reviewing the Table of Contents on Amazon:

Part 1 – “The Past is Still There”

  1. The Changing Economy of The Lower East Side
  2. The Tenement as a Built Form
  3. A History of Tompkins Square Park
  4. Deja Vu: Replanning the Lower East Side in the 1930s

These are all of the things that are overlooked ignored by unknown to most local reporters, in their ruthless defense of everything that exists, or that existed up to the line they drew in the sand. I have great hopes that the second piece, “The Tenement as a Built Form”, will be helpful when I finally start working on the piece I have planned, tentatively titled “What Are We Defending When We Defend Working-Class Neighborhoods?”

Part 2 – “The Process of Gentrification”, deals with much of what I’ve already read on the topic of gentrification, including a piece by Neil Smith. Part 3 – “Contesting Community: The Issues and Protagonists” also looks interesting, but Parts 1 and 2 are definitely my main draw. The book is organized exactly the way I would read the pieces if I happened onto them randomly (except the History of Tompkins Square Park, maybe) which is a big part of my attraction to it. Anything organized the way I would organize it has to be worth reading!

So where’s the catch, you ask? I opened the package as soon as it arrived, only to discover:

I contacted the seller, who just happened to be on Staten Island, of all places, and am arranging its return. If I hadn’t been sick all week, I would have taken the ferry over and returned it in person!

***

It’s probably just as well that this happened, because I also recently received Robert A. Caro’s “The Power Broker”. Given my nearly-absolute lack of time for reading, and the immensity of this book, if I had put off reading it until after “UVEV”, I might never have got to it, and it would have moved from the mental list of books I want to read, to the actual stack of books I want to read, someday.

I might write about my progress reading this, maybe in weekly installments. We’ll see. I have a problem with biographies, in principle. Abstracting an individual from the social forces at work, showing how he made the times instead of how the times made him – it creates a false history. Plus, I wonder: to what degree does the biographer create the man? Does Caro create the early Moses in order to posit the later Moses against him? Can you accurately write the beginning when you already know the ending, without it all being a fait accompli? Biographies of aristocrats make sense, for the reason that the King is born the King. Bourgeois biographies are not the same; everyone knows now that history is the movement of class forces, and withdrawing one man from his milieu… well, as I said, it creates a false history.

I’m still reading the book though. I read elsewhere that Caro incorporates a lot of New York history into the book, and you certainly can’t write a 20th-century New York history without Robert Moses.

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:

stealth-05-clayton
 
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.

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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.

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.

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.

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