Category Archives: Struggle & Movement

From the Ground Up: The Environmental Justice Movement

I love From the Ground Up, Luke Cole and Sheila Foster provide such a great introduction to environmental racism and the spirit and struggle of the environmental justice movement in From the Ground Up. I wish I had read it while I was organising, but it rings so true from the first page. Look at this preface.

Preface: We Speak for Ourselves.

Stories are one way we transmit our history, share our successes, and learn from our losses. Stories are also an important part of the movement for environmental justice, which has as one of its central tenets the idea “We speak for ourselves.” This book tells the stories of ordinary men and women thrust into extraordinary roles as community leaders, grassroots experts, and national policymakers. (1)

They open with the battle in Kettlement City against a toxic waste dump, the finding of the Cerrell Report done for the California Waster Management board in 1984, which

suggested to companies and localities that were seeking to site garbage incinerators that the communities that would offer the least resistance to such incinerators were rural communities, poor communities, communities whose residents had low education levels, communities that were highly catholic, communities with fewer than 25,000 residents, and communities whose residents were employed in resource-extractive jobs like mining, timber, or agriculture. (3)

Can what we’re up against be clearer than that?

Introduction

So to start with the basics.

Environmental hazards are inequitably distributed in the United States, with poor people and people of color bearing a greater share of pollution than richer people and white people. This intuitive idea…has been borne out by dozens of studies completed over the past two decades. The disparate impact documented in studies has given birth to the term “environmental racism.” (10)

So how do we approach this as communities, as allies, as academics? They talk about their approach as internal and external — from the point of view of communities themselves and from the ground up — and the external view looking at the political economy of environmental degradation. They describe the need for both perspectives.

The internal perspective, they argue, is that of grassroots accounts, which tell a crucial narrative that — and they have a great quote from Iris Young here, pulled from Democracy and Difference —reveals the particular experiences of those in social locations, experiences that cannot be shared by those situated differently but that they must understand in order to do justice to others.” (12) Thus

This book contains stories, collective insights, legal understandings, and a political economy that ‘examines the relationship among economic, political/legal, and social forces as they influence environmental decision-making processes and environmental outcomes. (11)

I love too the broader vision of social and environmental change that this kind of engaged scholarship can support and help develop.

This broader analysis, in turn, forces us to go beyond framing the problem as merely a distributive one–certain communities get an unfair environmental burden–and to reconceptualize grassroots activism as more than an attempt to disrupt the decisions of private corporations and state agencies. Instead grassroots struggles are a crucial arena in which to restructure social relations through systems of localized environmental decision making. (13)

This is what transformative politics looks like, right? Where the Environmental Justice Movement

is not the “elevated environmental consciousness” of its members but the ways that it transforms the possibilities for fundamental social and environmental change through redefinition, reinvention, and construction of innovative political and cultural discourses and practices. … This transformation takes place on a number of levels–the individual, the group, the community–and ultimately influences institutions, government, and social structure. (14)

This has to start with the individual and the community, but it cannot end there…it has to grow, engage, have a sense of a broader coalitional politics.

The other thing?

Words have power.

Just that. What a movement is called, the words it uses, are important. They use environmental justice

because it both expresses our aspiration and encompasses the political economy of environmental decision making. That is, environmental justice requires democratic decision making, community empowerment, and the incorporation of social structure. (16)

They also broadens definition of environment to be ‘where we live, where we work, where we play, and where we learn.’ Environmentalism is linked to material environment and community through long decades of struggle. It also encompasses both home and community. (16) It is fought on multiple fronts, both fighting toxic land uses as well as working to improve lives through clean jobs, sustainable economy, affordable housing, achieving social and racial justice.

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

This movement is firmly rooted in past justice movements. There is no single date or event that launched it, but a collection of key points. 1982 struggle of African American community against toxic dump in Warren County, NC. The drowning death of an 8-year-old in a garbage dump in Houston, 1967. MLK’s work in Memphis supporting striking garbage workers, 1968. UFW’s fight against pesticides through the 1960s. Native American struggles since European’s arrived.

They describe it as a river with many tributaries — the Civil Rights Movement, Anti-Toxics Movement. Academic work identifying its structural, systemic nature. Native American struggles. The Labor Movement. And to a small extent, traditional environmentalism. All coming together at the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Those amazing resolutions they put forward that are so powerful still today (see them along with a brilliant article by Dana Alston here).

Cole and Foster describe three characteristics uniting the many tributaries, key for those who believe movement and social change must be driven by those experiencing oppression:

Motives: ‘Environmental justice activists usually have an immediate and material stake in solving the environmental problems they confront’ are being made sick, dying, have a personal stake (33)

Background: ‘largely, though not entirely, poor or working-class people. Many are people of color…’ (33)

Perspective: have a social justice orientation, seeing environmental degradation as just one of many way their communities are under attack…seek remedies that are more fundamental…view the need for broader, structural reforms… (33)

The Political Economy of Environmental Racism (Chester residents Concerned for Quality of Life) — a case study on what can go right and wrong. I used to tutor kids in Chester, working class white kid parachuted into a neighbourhood via an elite College program, earning some extra money driving the van back and forth. Wish I’d been a little more woke back then. I still think about those kids sometimes.

Anyway, there are some lessons here about the dangers of relying entirely on legal action — now that is so so familiar. But Chester is also used to look ‘Beyond the Distributive Paradigm’. It helps open up the unequal distribution of toxic waste and industry shaped by structural factors — deindustrialization, white flight, segregation. Incinerators become an opening point for exploring these processes and patterns, and recognizing that despite the clear intersections of race and class, the US reality is that race is better correlated to exposure to environmental dangers. Only by ignoring the structural causes can these injustices be blamed on simple market dynamics and choice, or on lifestyle. But of course, that happens all the time.

There is also a need to examine the definition of racism — this has been steadily narrowed over the years through the courts, constructed as simply “race discrimination” or intentional, purposeful conduct. Under such a limited view, environmental racism requires a bad actor making very conscious decisions. Instead, Cole and Foster argue that

Understanding environmental racism thus requires a conceptual framework that (1) retains a structural view of economic and social forces as they influence discriminatory outcomes, (2) isolates the dynamics within environmental decision-making processes that further contribute to such outcomes, and (3) normatively evaluates social forces and environmental decision-making processes which contribute to disparities in environmental hazard distribution. (65)

And of course, you can trace so much of this back to segregation, deeply, historically embedded into America’s geographies. There’s a nice quote from Richard Ford: “race-neutral policy could be expected to entrench segregation and socio-economic stratification in a society with a history of racism.” (67)

The stories of specific campaigns are so powerful, opening a number of windows into the nature of struggle over time. Buttonwillow is a rural town in California, which is host to CA’s three toxic waste dumps. They give a powerful quote from Lupe Martinez, who had been working with residents on loan from UFW — but I think this is the fear of all organizers:

My fear, when it came down that I had mixed feelings of whether I was going to leave or not, was that it was going to die. That’s the organizer’s nightmare. That everything that you did might not be there at all. Maybe what you did was not what you thought you had done. And so when I left, when I was about to leave, I felt that “what if I didn’t do it right? What if all of a sudden I’m gone and it’s dead , and nothing is going to happen? So, everything that I did was for nothing then.’ (87)

Over time much has been won, but…there has been no clear victory here. Cole and Foster write

On another level, however, the struggle has been a failure: not only is the dump expansion moving forward, but many Padres members have been demoralized by the seven-year struggle. “I feel like I’m throwing rocks at the moon,” sighs Paco Beltran, “and catching them on my head.” (102)

This seems familiar, I have never been so poetic about it though. Despite the losses, there has been a rise in political consciousness, this is also familiar:

The activism of community groups like the Padres in Buttonwillow often begins as a reaction to the impact of increasing numbers of polluting facilities on the community residents’ health and quality of life. However, their activism quickly becomes as struggle over the legitimacy of decision-making processes, the exclusion from and the marginalization of disaffected residents during those processes, and the structural forces that constrain individuals in these communities from fully participating in decisions that fundamentally affect their lives. (103)

I love these stories — and I suppose I often feel more is to be learned where things falter and fail. This one highlights how important the relationship between individual organizer and community members is to these struggles — it’s curious that the whole point of organizing is not to be central to struggle, and yet I think it takes a certain kind of person to create a process where consciousness is raised, people do learn and grow collectively. That may be a different kind of person in different circumstances depending on the mix of personalities. Alinksy writes a lot about this, and it’s a conundrum I turn over in my head — the role of the individual in collective action. It’s why I think spaces like Highlander are so important, and it is happiness to see Highlander appear here, hosting workshops and providing space for discussion and reflection and growth in support of the process of struggle.

Processes of Struggle

It’s all about this:

the grassroots organizations created in the midst of struggles for environmental justice are crucial in creating an ongoing role for community participation in all decisions that fundamentally affect the participants’ lives. When local groups are able to link their victories in the environmental realm to broader political and economic struggles, the potential exists to redefine existing power relations, to unsettle cultural assumptions about race and class, and to create new political possibilities for historically marginalized communities… (105)

This comes through taking power, through redefining power relations. It means that communities must always speak for themselves, ‘that those who must bear the brunt of a decision should have an equal and influential role in making the decision’. (106)

This is not your liberal pluralism though. ‘Pluralism, in practice, tends to exclude those lacking the material prerequisites to equal participation.‘ (109) Instead we see a beginning look at the creation of a deliberative process, where ‘citizens thus create the common good through discourse, as opposed to discovering it through prexisting preferences.’ (113) I quite like this way of thinking of these conflictual and deliberative public conversations, not as public school debates but as collective endeavours to grow and learn and reach a decision. This is–or could be–the essence of what Freire describes in his work on pedagogy, much different than the European body of work around discourse gets to (though perhaps Nancy Fraser and Iris Young bring it closest).

There are challenges here too of course. This is hard. But they are trying to move towards a transformative politics. The ways in which moving from bystander to participant in struggle is transformative, but also at the community level ‘a collective emergence of solidarity, action and rebelliousness that builds on itself in an organic manner’ (156). They draw on Gaventa’s study of power and silences and struggle in Appalachia, which I love so much. They also gave this idea of institutional transformation developing through the EJ movement:

the important power building that is occurring between the Environmental Justice Movement and other social justice activism, what we call “movement fusion”: the coming together of two (or more) different social movements in a way that expands the base of support for both movements by developing a common agenda. (164)

This fusion continues, and EJ principles and learning are so clearly foundational for so much of what is coming out of the Right to the City Alliance, the Movement for Black Lives…there is so much brilliance in the US at this level.

[Cole, Luke W. and Foster, Sheila R. (2001) From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York and London: New York University Press.]

from Matsutake mushrooms to entanglements, patches and methodologies

I found Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World such an extraordinary book. I love particularly how it stretches to understand and theorise complexity in a way closely tied to justice struggles, that includes but is hardly limited to political economy and ecology.

It opens with this idea of entanglement, and its challenges to more traditional theorising around capitalism, nature, knowledge. I love her language, her style and the way it in turn allows such an intense grappling-with-things-as-they-are. She talks about enabling entanglements, all that this allows us to think through:

Ever since the enlightenment, western philosophers have shown us a Nature that is grand and universal but also passive and mechanical. Nature was a backdrop and resource for the moral intentionality of Man, which could tame and master Nature. It was left to fabulists, including non-Western and non-civilizational storytellers, to remind us of the lively activities of all beings, human and not human. Several things have happened to undermine this division of labor. First, all that taming and mastering has made such a mess that it is unclear whether life on earth can continue. Second, interspecies entanglements that once seemed the stuff of fables are now materials for serious discussion among biologists and ecologists, who show how life requires the interplay of many kinds of beings. Humans cannot survive by stomping on all the others. Third, women and men from around the world have clamored to be included in the status once given to Man. Our riotous presence undermines the moral intentionality of Man’s Christian masculinity, which separated Man from Nature. The time has come for new ways of telling true stories beyond civilizational first principles.

There is no question of what the stakes are — this wonderful idea of riotous presence. She continues

Without Man and Nature, all creatures can come back to life, and men and women can express themselves without the strictures of a parochially imagined rationality. (vii)

She continues:

My book then offers “third nature,” that is, what manages to live despite capitalism. To even notice third nature, we must evade assumptions that the future is that singular direction ahead…Yet progress stories have blinded us. To know the world without them, this books sketches open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life, as these coalesce in coordination across many kinds of temporal rhythms. (viii)

This ‘crippling assumption’ of linear progress is critiqued again and again, as is the reduction of theory:

While I refuse to reduce either economy or ecology to the other, there is one connection between economy and environment that seems important to introduce up front: the history of the human concentration of wealth through making both humans and nonhumans into re-sources for investment. This history has inspired investors to imbue both people and things with alienation, that is, the ability to stand alone, as if the entanglements of living did not matter.’ Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere.’ This is quite different from merely using others as part of a life world—for example, in eating and being eaten. In that case, multispecies living spaces remain in place. Alienation obviates living-space entanglement. The dream of alienation inspires landscape modification in which only one stand-alone asset matters; everything else becomes weeds or waste. Here, attending to living-space entanglements seems inefficient, and perhaps archaic. When its singular asset can no longer be produced, a place can be abandoned. The timber has been cut: the oil has run out; the plantation soil no longer supports crops. The search for assets resumes elsewhere. Thus, simplification for alienation produces ruins, spaces of abandonment for asset production. Global landscapes today are strewn with this kind of ruin. Still, these places can be lively despite announcements of their death; abandoned asset fields sometimes yield new multispecies and multicultural life. In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin. (5-6)

Again this is creating theory able to think in new ways about an all-pervasive precarity, all-pervasive spaces of abandonment and ruin (at the same as possible spaces of life and hope), and the entanglements that are part of this in complex ways. On precarity:

Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves. Unable to rely on a stable structure of community, we are thrown into shifting assemblages, which remake us as well as our others. We can’t rely on the status quo; everything is in flux, including our ability to survive. Thinking through precarity changes social analysis. A precarious world is a world without teleology. Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible. (20)

On assemblage, which she draws on a great deal and I confess I’ve never much cared for… but I love the idea stretched to be wielded in this way, these lifeways.

The concept of assemblage is helpful. Ecologists turned to assemblages to get around the sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological “community.” The question of how the varied species in a species assemblage influence each other—if at all—is never settled: some thwart (or eat) each other; others work together to make life possible: still others just happen to find themselves in the same place. Assemblages are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them. They show us potential histories in the making. For my purposes, however, I need something other than organisms as the elements that gather. I need to see lifeways—and non-living ways of being as well—coming together. Nonhuman ways of being, like human ones, shift historically. For living things, species identities are a place to begin, but they are not enough: ways of being are emergent effects of encounters. Thinking about humans makes this clear. Foraging for mushrooms is a way of life—but not a common characteristic of all humans. The issue is the same for other species. Pines find mushrooms to help them use human-made open spaces. Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways; they make them. Thinking through assemblage urges us to ask: How do gatherings sometimes become “happenings,” that is, greater than the sum of their parts? If history without progress is indeterminate and multidirectional, might assemblages show us its possibilities?

Patterns of unintentional coordination develop in assemblages. To notice such patterns means watching the interplay of temporal rhythms and scales in the divergent lifeways that gather. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a method that might revitalize political economy as well as environmental studies. Assemblages drag political economy inside them, and not just for humans. Plantation crops have lives different from those of their free-living siblings; cart horses and hunter steeds share species but not lifeways. Assemblages cannot hide from capital and the state; they are sites for watching how political economy works. If capitalism has no teleology, we need to see what comes together—not just by prefabrication, but also by juxtaposition. (23)

I love how for her this fits into the landscape — a term with immense baggage in the world of geography, but still very useful I think. It moves into questions of methodology, where I also find so much to think about here, draw into my own work.

Telling stories of landscape requires getting to know the inhabitants of the landscape, human and not human. This is not easy, and it makes sense to me to use all the learning practices I can think of, including our combined forms of mindfulness, myths and tales, livelihood practices, archives, scientific reports, and experiments. But this hodgepodge creates suspicions—particularly, indeed, with the allies I hailed in reaching out to anthropologists of alternative world makings. For many cultural anthropologists, science is best regarded as a straw man against which to explore alternatives, such as indigenous practices.12 To mix scientific and vernacular forms of evidence invites accusations of bowing down to science. Yet this assumes a monolithic science that digests all practices into a single agenda. Instead, I offer stories built through layered and disparate practices of knowing and being. If the components clash with each other, this only enlarges what such stories can do. (159)

The concept of salvage, something I also find really useful:

‘taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control…”Salvage accumulation” is the process through which lead firms amass capital without controlling the conditions under which commodities are produced. Salvage is not an ornament on ordinary capitalist processes; it is a feature of how capitalism works. (63)

On supply chains, commodities, what a mushroom can teach us about the contemporary nature of capitalism, the idea of translation:

A supply chain is a particular kind of commodity chain: one in which lead firms direct commodity traffic.’ Throughout this part, I explore the supply chain linking matsutake pickers in the forests of Oregon with those who eat the mushrooms in Japan. The chain is surprising and full of cultural variety. The factory work through which we know capitalism is mainly missing. But the chain illuminates something important about capitalism today: Amassing wealth is possible without rationalizing labor and raw materials. Instead, it requires acts of translation across varied social and political spaces, which, borrowing from ecologists’ usage, I call “patches.” Translation, in Shiho Satsuka’s sense, is the drawing of one world-making project into another.2 While the term draws attention to language, it can also refer to other forms of partial attunement. Translations across sites of difference are capitalism: they make it possible for investors to accumulate wealth. (62)

and this:

Global supply chains ended expectations of progress because they allowed lead corporations to let go of their commitment to controlling labor. Standardizing labor required education and regularized jobs, thus connecting profits and progress. In supply chains, in contrast, goods gathered from many arrangements can lead to profits for the lead firm: commitments to jobs, education, and well-being are no longer even rhetorically necessary. Supply chains require a particular kind of salvage accumulation, involving translation across patches. The modern history of U.S.-Japanese relations is a counterpoint of call-and-response that spread this practice around the world. (110)

She continues with what helped out allow the global shift to outsourcing but following the commodity chain of the matsutake — this is a long quote but traces this way of unraveling how things work, fit together, of seeing absences as well as presences, of bringing together multiple ways of understanding how a thing works and how assemblage might be a useful concept along more traditional concepts used in looking at capitalism like alienation:

…I let the thread of the story unroll quite far from matsutake. Yet at each step I need the chain’s reminders to resist the lull of current erasures. This is not just a story, then, but also a method: big histories are always best told through insistent, if humble, details.

In collecting goods and people from around the world, capitalism itself has the characteristics of an assemblage. However, it seems to me that capitalism also has characteristics of a machine, a contraption limited to the sum of its parts. This machine is not a total institution, which we spend our lives inside; instead, it translates across living arrangements. turning worlds into assets. But not just any translation can be accepted into capitalism. The gathering it sponsors is not open-ended. An army of technicians and managers stand by to remove offending parts—and they have the power of courts and guns. This does not mean that the machine has a static form. As I argued in tracing the history of Japanese-U.S. trade relations, new forms of capitalist translation come into being all the time. Indeterminate encounters matter in shaping capitalism. Yet it is not a wild profusion. Some commitments are sustained, through force.

Two have been particularly important for my thinking in this book. First, alienation is that form of disentanglement that allows the making of capitalist assets. Capitalist commodities are removed from their life-worlds to serve as counters in the making of further investments. Infinite needs are one result; there is no limit on how many assets investors want. Thus, too, alienation makes possible accumulation—the amassing of investment capital, and this is the second of my concerns. Accumulation is important because it converts ownership into power. Those with capital can overturn communities and ecologies. Meanwhile, because capitalism is a system of commensuration, capitalist value forms flourish even across great circuits of difference. Money becomes investment capital, which can produce more money. Capitalism is a translation machine for producing capital from all kinds of livelihoods, human and not human. (133)

Gives examples of children reclaiming precious and dangerous metals from cell phones as another example of salvage — not anything thought of as capitalist labour, yet important to more traditional forms of labour such as the making of new phones.

However, there is something peculiar and frightening in this dedication salvage, as if everyone were taking advantage of the end of the world to gather up riches before the last bits are destroyed. (274)

These different forms of exploitation alongside each other makes theorising and organising for a better world difficult, but it is the task before us. Salvage is perhaps a term that can help get us where we need to go:

The challenges are enormous. Salvage accumulation reveals a world of difference, where oppositional politics does not fall easily into utopian plans for solidarity. Every livelihood patch has its own history and dynamics, and there is no automatic urge to argue together, across the viewpoints emerging from varied patches, about the outrages of accumulation and power. Since no patch is “representative,” no group’s struggles, taken alone, will overturn capitalism. Yet this is not the end of politics. Assemblages, in their diversity, show us what later I call the `latent commons,” that is, entanglements that might be mobilized in common cause. Because collaboration is always with us, we can maneuver within its possibilities. We will need a politics with the strength of diverse and shifting coalitions—and not just for humans. The business of progress depended on conquering an infinitely rich nature through alienation and scalability. If nature has turned finite, and even fragile, no wonder entrepreneurs have rushed to get what they can before the goods run out, while conservationists desperately contrive to save scraps. The next part of this book offers an alternative politics of more-than-human entanglements. (134-35)

And so we return to methods, to storytelling, to knowing place:

Telling stories of landscape requires getting to know the inhabitants of the landscape, human and not human. This is not easy, and it makes sense to me to use all the learning practices I can think of, including our combined forms of mindfulness, myths and tales, livelihood practices, archives, scientific reports, and experiments. But this hodgepodge creates suspicions—particularly, indeed, with the allies I hailed in reaching out to anthropologists of alternative world makings. For many cultural anthropologists, science is best regarded as a straw man against which to explore alternatives, such as indigenous practices.12 To mix scientific and vernacular forms of evidence invites accusations of bowing down to science. Yet this assumes a monolithic science that digests all practices into a single agenda. Instead, I offer stories built through layered and disparate practices of knowing and being. If the components clash with each other, this only enlarges what such stories can do. (159)

History is central to this, but what is it exactly? What does it need to be?

“History” is both a human storytelling practice and that set of remainders from the past that we turn into stories. Conventionally, historians look only at human remainders, such as archives and diaries, but there is no reason not to spread our attention to the tracks and traces of nonhumans, as these contribute to our common landscapes. Such tracks and traces speak to cross-species entanglements in contingency and con-juncture, the components of “historical” time. To participate in such entanglement, one does not have to make history in just one way.’ Whether or not other organisms “tell stories,” they contribute to the overlapping tracks and traces that we grasp as history.2 History, then, is the record of many trajectories of world making, human and not human. (168)

Just two other tidbits to end:

Privatization is never complete; it needs shared spaces to create any value. That is the secret of property’s continuing theft–but also its vulnerability. (271)

I just need to sit and think about that. And this, which perhaps is the real challenge this book seeks to address, the need for these new ways of thinking, studying, understanding:

Progress gave us the “progressive” political causes with which I grew up. I hardly know how to think about justice without progress. The problem is that progress stopped making sense. (25)

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Red Vienna, A vision of Housing

There may be loads written on this, but very little of it is available in English in anything resembling an affordable edition. Almost nothing. The book I most wanted by Eve Blau The Architecture of “Red Vienna” 1919-1934 starts at £130, still, I found a lovely article by her which this pulls from a bit en masse. But the lack of literature is an immense frustration.

After the electoral victory of the Austrian Social Democratic Worker’s Party (SDAPÖ) in May of 1919 Vienna, the new socialist council accomplished great things to improve the lives of workers. Housing was only one of the things they did, they looked at education and health as well. But more on that is here. The new government under mayors Jakob Reumann and Karl Seitz worked to build as much housing as quickly as they could. And it is splendid. It was ‘organised communally and jointly on a community aid basis‘, designed by architects like Adolf Loos, Josef Frank, Margarete Lihotzky and Franz Schuster and the whole advised by others like Otto Neurath.

The settlers’ collectives and cooperatives were in most cases sub-organisations of the SDAPÖ, which was a guarantee that neither anarchy nor a proprietary bourgeois ownership mentality prevailed, but above all that party-political and unified action was encouraged and reinforced, through educational and community-oriented organisational forms such as political and cultural education courses (adult education programme, adult education centres), libraries, clubs, workers’ clubs (Schutzbund) and youth groups (Wiener Kinderfreunde, Rote Falken, Naturfreunde),

From a present-day viewpoint, the formal achievements of “Red Vienna” are of less importance than its social achievements, because the allocation of housing according to the determination of need, i.e. objective urgency, rather than through interest or purse, the instilling of a spirit of community and shared responsibility in a longed-for democratic welfare state by means of architecture and improved living conditions, the demand for healthier, decent housing with local infrastructure, not at the cost of the weak, are (still) real-socialist goals which remain to be achieved today. (Zednicek 11-12)

I found a slightly different take here, from Eve Blau in an article on an earlier exhibition touring the US ‘The Vienna Model: Housing for the 21st Century City’ (would have loved that…)

To begin, it is important to emphasize that the municipal project of Red Vienna was not a housing program, but an urban program. It was a comprehensive urban project that set itself task of making Vienna a more equitable environment for modern urban living. The building program – which involved the construction of 400 buildings known as Gemeindebauten, in which housing, social services and cultural institutions were distributed throughout the city – was the primary instrument of that project.[1] By 1934, when Red Vienna itself came to a violent end with the Austrofascist rout of the socialist administration by Dollfuss and the Heimwehr, 200,000 people – one-tenth of the population of Vienna – had been rehoused, and the city provided with a vast new infrastructure of health and welfare services, clinics, childcare facilities, kindergartens, schools, sports facilities, public libraries, theatres, cinemas, and other institutions.

When the first socialist mayor of Vienna was elected in 1919, the Social Democrats determined to make Red Vienna a model of municipal socialism. “Capitalism,” Robert Danneberg, president of the new Provincial Assembly of Vienna declared, “cannot be abolished from the Town Hall. Yet it is within the power of great cities to perform useful installments of socialist work in the midst of capitalist society.”[2] Red Vienna, in other words, was a project to change society by changing the city (Blau).

Most of the flats built were modest, all had an internal toilet (revolutionary!) but many were lacking other amenities now considered necessary. But they held so much more, and embodied a vision of social transformation:

The Gemeindebauten were conceived as the “social condensers” of Red Vienna, the vehicles for transforming the city. They contained housing, but also the Social Democrats’ extensive new infrastructure of social and cultural institutions that were embedded in them. They therefore created a new network of socio-cultural nodes throughout Vienna. It is important to note that the Social Democrats could not have focused on housing and social infrastructure if the previous Christian Social administration of mayor Karl Lueger (1844-1910) had not put in place the extensive network of technical infrastructure – electricity, gas, drinking water, sewage, tramlines, and a new metropolitan railway – in Vienna a generation earlier. The Social Democrats not only profited, but also learned a great deal from that earlier program (Blau).

Look how much they managed before this brilliant moment was crushed by fascism. Small wonder they campaigned around it.

SDAP’s Election Campaign Poster, 1932 [Design: Siegfried Weyr] © VGA

A striking feature of all “Red Vienna” municipal housing projects is the inscription in red metal lettering: “Built by the Viennese municipal authorities from funds raised through the housing construction tax in the years …” Notwithstanding their stylistic similarities, the municipal developments are characterised by a wide range of architectural solutions and building typologies, whereby, with the typology of the “superblock”, for the first time in urban development morphology both a new building typology in housing construction and a change in scale in Vienna’s urban landscape appear. The homogeneous giant blocks containing over 800 individual flats, but also some big estate settlements with between 400 and 800 settler’s holdings, burst asunder the traditional architectural and structural fabric of the city. The new, unfamiliar “colossal” scale of the municipal developments gave rise to new problems both in terms of urban the planning and also in the way the dimensions of the buildings rage and were handled architecturally. The monumental-emotional excesses of the “superblocks”, which because of their size and mass dominated the urban space, were perceived as a unified “Red Front” against bourgeois-conservative Vienna. (Zednicek 35)

Eve Blau brings out more nuance in this, partly by describing the traditions of architecture, planning and transport design they drew from as well as their goal. I wouldn’t have said they felt all that much like a front, with perhaps the exception of Karl-Marx Hof. They fit the fabric of the city quite well.

At first glance the Gemeindebauten appear to be traditional Central European perimeter blocks that have been monumentalized and provided with large garden courtyards so that they often occupy an entire urban block and sometimes several. Because of their seeming conventionality, the Gemeindebauten were sharply criticized at the time by architects of the modernist avant-garde and by architectural historians later, most notably, Manfredo Tafuri, who criticized them for their apparent lack of typological innovation.[6]

But in fact, they did represent innovation:

By bringing the public space of the city into the interior (and traditionally private space) of the block, the Gemeindebauten effectively turned the traditional urban block of the Central European city inside out.  In so doing, they created hybrid spaces that were both part of the public domain of the city and part of the private and communal space of the new housing blocks. 

The buildings themselves also challenge traditional concepts of boundary and type. Part dwelling space, part institutional space, part commercial space; they are multi-functional, multi-use structures that operate as both housing and urban infrastructural nodes, distributing the social services and cultural facilities provided by the Social Democratic municipality across the city. In short, they reproduced the city while reallocating its spaces and amenities.

and further:

In short, the Gemeindebauten not only appropriated what would normally have been private space in the city (the interiors of the city blocks) for public use, but also created a new kind of commons, a new form of communal space in the city. And they did this without destroying the existing scale and fabric. Today, this kind of commonly owned space has more or less disappeared from the city.

Marvelous.

A display from the exhibition:

We headed to the Ringstrasse of the Proletariat — I mean, we heard that such was its name once upon a time and so of course we did. Not all the buildings we saw are on this map but this is the key grouping:

Franz Domes-Hof

We start from the top, walking down from the Margaretengürtel station. We found these nowhere clearly mapped, so had no idea quite what we were looking for, or how much we would find (and missed one with crazy balconies right across the street).

Ernst Hinterberger Hof

Reumann Hof

This was impressive — nine stories in the center flanked by two smaller blocks of seven stories. The courtyards they hold and the different levels are wonderful, as is the welcoming garden in front of the center building. It was meant to be impressive, ‘since it reflected in idealised form the ideological power-political and cultural reality right at the beginning of “municipal socialism’ (Zednicek 54) .

Architects Hubert Gessner/Josef Bittner, built 1924-26

Metzleinstaler Hof

This feels both subdued and ornate alongside Reumann Hof

Metzleinstaler Hof

Matteotti Hof

There is clearly another in the curve of the road, I thought Matteotti was the end…but we had the biggest yet to come. Still, I appreciated seeing these more I think, one alongside each other you get a real sense of how they are each distinctive yet the characteristics they share.

Karl Marx Hof

This monstrous flagship of the social democratic administration and building ideology bears all the hallmarks of a built political manifesto. The grand gesture already expressly demanded by the municipal planning department when inviting competitive design proposals required a distinctly “triumphal architecture”, which the official town hall architect Karl Ehn implemented in ideal form with his colossal design. The gigantic housing complex of, originally, 1,300 flats with exemplary infrastructural amenities has a facade almost one kilometre in length which gave rise to how the problem of how to deal with the structural dimensions and divide them harmonically… solved through the effective scaling of the structure in individual blocks. The prestige project with its plainly designed and divided blocks was consciously conceived as an antithesis to the otherwise preferred pathos of the “people’s palaces”. (Zednicek 14)

It was built in 3 stages as part of the 2nd 5-year plan of housing constrcution, first occupied in 1930 and completed in 1933. Such an incredible thing after July 1927, the burning of the Palace of Justice and bloody street fighting — which cannot but be connected to the civil war of July 1934.

Pictures from the Red Vienna exhibit website of when it was first built — and by whom!

Karl-Marx-Hof, Commemorative Courtyard with Sculpture „The Sower“, ca. 1930, Photo: Martin Gerlach jun. © Wien Museum
Karl Marx-Hof, Assembly for Gas-, Water and Electricity Systems, ca. 1929 © Wien Museum

This is another settlement all together, but gives a sense of the cooperative building.

Siedlung Rosenhügel, Settlement, 1921 © Wien Museum

And these the books used to track people’s labour:

A model building of a settlement house by Adolf Loos. Splendid

There is a map of course, but it is large and we saw it at the Red Vienna exhibition but could not take it with us…

Blau, Eve (n.d.) Re-visiting Red Vienna as an Urban Project, https://www.austria.org/revisiting-red-vienna.

Zednicek, Walter (2009) Architektur des Roten Wien. Vien: Grasl Druck & Neue Medien.

Red Vienna in Exhibition

This was splendid, how lucky we were. There was loads here about housing, but more on that later, but it was amazing. Red Vienna was amazing. After the electoral victory of the Austrian Social Democratic Worker’s Party (SDAPÖ) in May of 1919 Vienna, the new socialist council accomplished great things to improve the lives of workers. There was a moment of reactionary violence in 1927. Then in 1934 civil war, Red Vienna crushed beneath violence and bloodshed by the Nazis and I had never heard of a civil war…I know I keep discovering my own ignorance.

But the exhibition is a moment to look at all they dreamed and all they accomplished, and their bravery in the struggle to keep it.

This was perhaps one of my favourite concrete things:

Red Vienna Exhibition

A one piece cast-concrete kitchen scullery designed by Margarete Lihotzky to conserve as much space as possible for the new housing units. She did it based on observation of how women worked and what they needed — something that had not been done before (surprise surprise). She would go on to design the Frankfurt kitchen (which I will get to see in Berlin!), and then fight Nazis and she still lived to 100. She is marvelous, I will be writing more about her I think (but more is here). Her plans are below.

Red Vienna Exhibition

She is one new hero, there were others on these walls.

globemallows

Marie Jahoda, psychologist, fighter for freedom, incarcerated by the fascists, set free in 1937 and left for Britain. I found her career interests here (how cool is she):

Career Focus: Unemployment; positive mental health; anti-semitism and prejudice; psychoanalysis; non-reductionistic social psychology; field methods.

Her study of the effects of long-term unemployment on mental health:

globemallows

Adelheid Popp, feminist and socialist.

Red Vienna Exhibition

Käthe Leichter, feminist, economist, journalist. Murdered by Nazis. Her women’s network:

Red Vienna Exhibition

Otto Neurath again — I’ve written about his work developing isotypes, making knowledge visual — the photographs and charts covering all of these walls are the results of his work. Splendid.

globemallows

But perhaps most splendid this little elephant that he often used instead of a signature to sign all of his letters.

Red Vienna Exhibition

But he is one of teh driving forces behind these amazing infographics, this one exploring everything that goes into the building of a home. Damn. Awesome.

Red Vienna Exhibition

A selection from their library, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Ship of Fools by B. Traven.

globemallows

Paul Robeson needs no introduction, this is one of the best covers ever.

globemallows

Otto Neurath’s efforts to visualise and make intelligible data continues on in current illustrations — I love these social network diagrams.

globemallows

It’s possibly this book that was my favourite non-concrete thing. More precisely the fact that there exists a book on the riots in Vienna which has been stamped with the word lies. I think I would like such a stamp myself.

globemallows

There was also an array of brilliant political posters.

globemallows
globemallows

Inspiring. If you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna before next January, go see it.

I’ve not been well at all, have had no time no heart for writing much. But I’m off for a while, find this soothing. It’s 21st of June and I am only now able to look back, put up some thoughts about these amazing few days. And so I am following the timeline of memory creation, not of its documentation…

Kropotkin: or things we knew already in 1880

In periods of frenzied haste towards wealth, of feverish speculation and of crisis, of the sudden downfall of great industries and the ephemeral expansion of other branches of production, of scandalous fortunes amassed in a few years and dissipated as quickly, it becomes evident that the economic institutions which control production and exchange are far from giving to society the prosperity which they are supposed to guarantee; they produce precisely the opposite result. Instead of order they bring forth chaos; instead of prosperity, poverty and insecurity; instead of reconciled interests, war; a perpetual war of the exploiter against the worker, of exploiters and of workers among themselves. Human society is seen to be splitting more and more into two hostile camps, and at the same time to be subdividing into thousands of small groups waging merciless war against each other. Weary of these wars, weary of the miseries which they cause, society rushes to seek a new organization; it clamors loudly for a complete remodelling of the system of property ownership, of production, or exchange and all economic relations which spring from it.

‘The Spirit of Revolt’ 1880

Benjamin Zephaniah’s City Psalms

I loved this collection, loved it. Here are small snippets of just two passages that spoke to me this morning from longer poems, and a bit of Benjamin Zephaniah himself in full flow, because these are meant to be spoken, right? This is a battle cry for language as it is spoken, as it comes to us, as we live it and scream it. For poems that take a stand, speak to life, to reality, to global warming and bombings and arms dealing and police brutality and capitalism and politricks and punks fighting nazi skinheads. For being cold in this cold cold place. I didn’t include the amazing poem ‘The SUN’, I might be saving that for when I am really angry at some point in the future.

Me green poem

Everybody talking bout protecting the planet
As if we just cum on it
It hard fe understan it.
Everybody talking bout de green revolution
Protecting de children an fighting pollution
But check — capitalism and greed as caused us to need
Clear air to breathe, Yes
When yu get hot under de collar
Yu suddenly discover dat yu going green all over,
Fe years
Yu have been fighting wars an destroying de scene
An now dat yu dying
Yu start turn Green

Money (rant)

Food is what we need, food is necessary,
Mek me grow my food
An dem can eat dem money
***
Money made me gu out an rob
Den it made me gu looking fe a job
Money made de Nurse an de Doctor immigrate
Money buys friends yu luv to hate
Money made Slavery seem alright
Money brought de Bible and de Bible shone de light,
Victory to de penniless at grass roots sources
Who have fe deal wid Market Forces,
Dat paper giant called Market Forces



Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

I had a crazy day today. So much work to get through before taking a break. I am so deeply grateful for a life where I can take breaks. Deep excitement about teaching housing, but a bit nervous too. A bureaucratic meeting in which Foucauldian theories of governance became real with an extraordinary intensity. A meeting with the mayor in which it turns out we are all thinking different things about this research. Much needed pints with some of the more awesome academics I know to talk about radical housing and radical research. A long day.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, after finding it in looking for something else but it came to mind again this evening. I wrote it almost ten years ago and hadn’t read it since then to be honest, and I know it’s not available anymore from Perspectives Journal, who I wrote it for (which explains some of the references). Back before I was an academic. A year after I had left LA, quit organising. I was still thinking about it. For all I’ve learned and written since then I’m still not sure I know more really than I knew then, though I phrase many things differently. Leonardo Vilchis is still my hero, still smarter than me.

In other news, isn’t Killing Eve the best thing you’ve seen on television in ages (I know I’m a little behind on this)? Much as I love Jodie Whitaker…

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

Introduction:

In August of 2002, two different families came to Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) because the manager of the Morrison Hotel had stopped accepting their rent. As tenant organizers, we had found this to be a common tactic to evade the laws of rent control and illegally force people from their homes. Typically the managers would not accept rent for a couple of months, then tell tenants that they had to leave. If the tenants did not leave they would be evicted in court for non-payment of rent, their only defense a claim that the managers had refused their rent. The managers themselves would contradict this while under oath, if it ever actually went before the judge. Such a tactic generally came into play when an owner was trying to empty a building, either to sell for higher profit, or to rehabilitate it and then rent the apartments at four or five times the original rent.

The Morrison Hotel is a 117-unit building situated only a few blocks from the Los Angeles Convention Center, in the midst of a flurry of new construction and luxury lofts. Famous as the cover of The Doors’ album titled The Morrison Hotel, over the years it had become a residential hotel. Essentially it had become housing of last resort, single rooms, with over half of them sharing public restrooms and showers. The managers sat in a small glass-fronted room facing the doors so that they could monitor everyone who came in or out. Knowing that many managers are unhappy about the presence of tenant organizers in their buildings, we went in on a Sunday morning while they were in church. Upon entering, fleas and insects attacked us, roaches were everywhere, and the smell of sewage was overpowering. Mold covered bathroom walls, paint peeled from the ceilings, plaster cracked, fire doors sat broken, panes of glass were missing from windows and balcony doors. The entire building seemed to be full, with a slight majority of the tenants being families with small children. We met one family of five whose two children had suffered from severe lead poisoning and permanent brain damage due to the flaking paint. While Los Angeles County had ordered the owners to rehabilitate that individual unit, only a few years later it was once again in very poor condition. The owners were not ordered to rehabilitate the rest of the building, nor inform other families of the lead hazards. Apart from families, the other tenants were single individuals or couples on general relief or disability. For all of them, the Morrison Hotel was the housing of last resort before the streets.

Within three months, more than 70 of these units would be empty. Not one of them was vacated under the legal requirements of rent control. Some families were evicted in the courts after the managers had withheld all mail informing them of the eviction process against them. The sheriff informed them of their eviction orders when he knocked on their doors. Tenants testified to physical assault, sexual assault, constant insults, and the intimidation of both themselves and their children. Several tenants told of being threatened with the manager’s dog, a pit bull. Threats alone were enough for many to just walk away, others were paid sums ranging from $25 to $4,000 to vacate.

While several tenants who had been threatened verbally were brave enough to come forward to file police reports, the police told them that “until it became physical” they would do nothing. At the same time, the police were being used to keep us—tenant organizers—out of the building.

All of these tactics were set into motion when the owners put the Morrison Hotel up for sale for $8,000,000 and drew up initial plans to convert it into a boutique hotel. They had bought the building for $1,000,000 eight years before, and after years of collecting rent while investing the absolute minimum to keep the building standing, they were looking to gain a substantial profit. The legal system that had failed to ensure the building’s maintenance was used to keep community workers out of the building, and thereby facilitate the owners’ attempt to circumvent California housing law by emptying the building by any means necessary.

This story exposes two things: the first is the changing dynamic of property development and profit in city communities, and the second is the ugly reality that under our legal framework, property rights take precedence over all else in the United States.

And so what better place for radical struggle? In this story, and others like it, lies not only grave injustice, but also what we would call a teachable moment, a place where people can break down for themselves the powerful American mythology of both development and the private property that is so foundational to our current system. What happened in this building (among so many others), exposes the essence of capitalism and its human cost, and demands an alternative vision for our society. Without grasping this
moment, critically analyzing it in light of theory, folding it into a greater movement and building on it, this story is nothing more than a story, and represents a struggle with a beginning and an end that makes little difference in the world as it currently exists, or in the hearts and minds of those who fought. This is the importance of theory for the people.

The importance of these stories for theorists is that they represent the harsh reality as lived by America’s poor and working class. It is the reality in which any radical movement needs to ground itself, and a field of battle where those who suffer the most from capitalism can drive the effort towards changing it. Voline wrote:

The key idea of anarchism is simple: no party, or political or ideological group, even if it sincerely desires to do so, will ever succeed in emancipating the working masses by placing itself above or outside them in order to “govern” or “guide” them. True emancipation can only be brought about by the direct action…of those concerned, the workers themselves, through their own class organizations…and not under the banner of any political party or ideological body. Their emancipation must be based on concrete action and “self-administration,” aided but not controlled by revolutionaries working from within the masses and not from above them…i

The question has always been how can this be achieved? The masses will never organize themselves around abstractions while they have to remove cockroaches from their children’s ears, or try to channel the water from a leaking roof away from their beds. They will organize around their key issues: security in their home and community, justice in their workplace, healthcare, a decent education and a future for their kids. It is the role of the radical organizer to ensure that these struggles open up an understanding of the structural realities that have made them necessary. It is also their role to ensure that each struggle builds community and horizontal organizations that will continue working together after the immediate struggle is resolved, to bring theory and practice together, and to tie local struggle into a greater movement for change.

Several things are required to build such a movement. The first is a deeper understanding of the forces operating in our local communities, the tides of disinvestment and investment that have caused such devastation, and how this fits into the larger framework of capitalism, globalization and neoliberalism. And we need to share lessons learned through practice, to build stronger horizontal organization and greater consciousness of struggle and change. This article will briefly look at the forces behind the new gentrification and how these can be challenged in practice. It will do so through brief case studies of the organizing work of two community-based non-profits in Los Angeles, SAJE, where I worked as an organizer from 2001 to 2007, and Union de Vecinos, through the words of Leonardo Vilchis, a cofounder and organizer. Both organizations are working to organize, to educate, and to build a greater movement for structural change.

SAJE

SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy) was founded in 1996 to improve economic conditions and opportunities for low-income families in Los Angeles. Initially, SAJE worked with various worker-owned and run cooperatives, and also organized campaigns around banking rights, working to ensure that welfare recipients could open bank accounts rather than being forced to pick up their checks at the local check-cashing outlet. SAJE is also the convener of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, which won the largest Community Benefits Agreement of its time against Phillip Anschutz and AEG when they attempted to expand the Staples Center and is now working on issues regarding the University of Southern California’s responsibilities to the surrounding community through what is called the UNIDAD (United Neighbors In
Defense Against Displacement) campaign.

Although winning the Community Benefits Agreement with AEG, there were clear limits to the victory, as the construction of LA Live would lead inevitably to the wholesale displacement of the residents who were supposed to benefit from the agreement. So, SAJE committed itself to working in the Figueroa Corridor, an area consisting of 40 blocks of Figueroa Street that stretch from the Staples Center and downtown Los Angeles on the North, to the University of Southern California on the South. Surrounding this commercial strip and comprising a 12-square-mile area are neighborhoods that house 200,000 people whose median income is 49% of the City’s median. A majority are people of color, among them Latinos, Blacks and recent immigrants. Eighty-six percent are tenants.

Through door-knocking and tenant organizing work, SAJE worked with tenants to fight illegal evictions, harassment, and displacement. It built tenant organizations in both individual buildings and larger community areas, and challenged the city’s redevelopment plans for downtown and South Central.

Union de Vecinos

Union de Vecinos was founded in 1996. It emerged out of a decade of work organizing with the Catholic Church in the tradition of Liberation Theology, and was started as a purely volunteer organization in an effort to save the Pico Aliso housing projects in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles from demolition. Over the past thirteen years, it has grown beyond its initial base in the projects to become a larger network of communities in different parts of Los Angeles County. They work mostly in Boyle Heights, but Union de Vecinos communities can also be found in Hollywood, North Hollywood, South L.A. and Maywood. It is a network that consists at any given time of between 25 and 30 different communities. Leonardo Vilchis defines a community as a small neighborhood, a group of people in a small enough area where it is possible for everyone to know each other. The communities that Union works with organize around the specific needs around their neighborhood. Within these communities, people develop their own programs to improve their neighborhoods and tackle specific issues. All of them come together periodically to organize broader campaigns around the key issues arising from their neighborhood work that affect everyone. Union has also worked to form building committees to address tenant rights issues, the protection of rent control, and the improvement of housing quality.ii

Since 1992, Boyle Heights has lost approximately 2,000 affordable housing units to publicly funded projects, which does not count the displacement caused by private owners and development. There were 1,500 units lost with the destruction of public housing, another 150 units with the construction of a new metro line, and 60 units lost for the building of a new police station.iii

Organizing Methodology:

Who Drives Change

The principal point of departure for both Union and SAJE is that for real and lasting change to be effective, it must be driven by those most affected by injustice. For Union this comes explicitly from the tradition of Liberation Theology and its preferential option for the poor, while for SAJE it is an explicitly theoretical position. For Leonardo Vilchis, this is also a very practical choice:

 … you could do a whole campaign on improving housing in Los Angeles where no tenants would be involved, and where you would raise your voice about the injustices within housing. You could put the data on the table and say this is why this is unfair. You could have all these middle-class people, educated people, college students (in the context of the United States, white people) to organize, and it would be a just cause, it would be the right thing, but I don’t think that that is the point of departure. The point of departure are the tenants themselves and the poor … the analysis, the description of the problem and the solution would be completely different from what this other group of people would make.iv

To build organization in the community you have to start where the people are, and any structures of cooperation have to be based in resolving community problems in ways that community involved actually have faith in. The struggle for bare survival is intense, and it is both a matter of respect and practicality to acknowledge that people will not get involved in anything that does not have an immediate impact on their lives.

It seems a simple enough proposition, and yet the hardest to actually practice for various reasons. The first lies in actually believing that it is possible when everything in a capitalist society tells you it is not. Even among those paying lip service to such an idea, it is difficult for many to put aside the preference and privilege assigned to education and professionalism, and far too often, race and language. And after years of working in the political arena when an organizer can often accomplish something through a few phone calls to City Hall, regular analysis is required to identify when to simply move forward on goals as defined by the community, and when to build capacity by stepping back and allowing people to take it to the city themselves. A clear and collective understanding needs to be built about how those who are educated and who hold professional qualifications should be of service in achieving the solutions as defined by the community, to the problems that the community itself has identified as the most important.

In practice there is a great complexity in this seemingly simple commitment. The poor and working class are constantly under attack on a multitude of fronts ranging from obscure changes in legislation that will have far-reaching negative impacts, to the criminalization of daily activities and the emptying of entire buildings and neighborhoods. It is a world of constant emergency where doing anything but immediately reacting is hard. And there is always the balance between doing anything possible to quickly stop something terrible, and building capacity through longer processes that often move more slowly and involve more risk than an orchestrated campaign following traditional organizing models. It is all too easy to get caught up in a struggle moving at a pace, and being fought at a level of technicality, that results in the poor being simply mobilized in support of an idea or strategy. But it is only through struggle and reflection upon struggle that people and the society they create are transformed.

It is also difficult because too often the poor are not organized. Horizontal structures of direct democracy have to be built in a community to direct the work for change, and this is a long, difficult, often heart-breaking process of many years. This is why we have much to learn from traditional community organizing, despite its self-imposed limits when it comes to real and lasting political change. Groups practicing direct democracy are necessary not only to have collective voice and power, but also to create a space where people can challenge themselves to think critically, to learn and to grow. These are often the only safe places where gender, race, nationality, and class can all be broken down, and the very nature of capitalism understood and rejected. Traditional community organizing has taught us that this doesn’t happen automatically,
and that building power for an oppressed group does not necessarily mean that they are incapable of then becoming oppressive to others.v This makes a guiding ideology and a methodology for making this happen all the more important. The power of such organization to stand up for itself is a beautiful thing when it exerts itself.

Union de Vecinos was founded exactly in a place where people were being silenced, and where the most poor were being pushed away from the decision-making process. There were a lot of people who said that they knew what the problem was with public housing. They were mostly politicians, mostly urban designers, planners, and bureaucrats. And they said the solution for public housing was a) to have more mixed income housing and b) to demolish the projects. And in that process a whole sector of the population was silenced and pushed aside from speaking. If you had asked the people in the projects the solution to public housing, they would’ve come up with a completely different list of answers. They told us yes, we want people to fix our homes. Yes, we want to have nicer services. But we want to stay here. Because, over the years the people who lived in the projects had built a community. Now the bureaucracy wasn’t functioning, the whole system was broken, but the way they solved it was by demolishing it and pushing people out of there. Our community had a different kind of solution. And so Union de Vecinos was started by bringing those people together who were being silenced and ignored by everybody else.

So the idea was to stop the demolition of the projects, to develop a system of relocation that would identify the real people who wanted to move out, and to talk about the preservation of public housing. And we did it totally in the margins, we didn’t have work anymore because the organization I worked for didn’t want us to continue organizing the community. We had to go find other jobs, and the tenants themselves had to do all of the work because we couldn’t be organizing, we could only provide technical support. So it became a strong volunteer organization where everyone was doing the work. We were getting together in the parking lots, in the yards, in people’s living rooms. But as the organization grew, we didn’t have a place to stay, we didn’t have a place to put our papers away, so a group of residents in the projects started saving some money and at some point they called for renting a place, and then we found a place in the community that we started renting. And for me that is very important, because they were the ones who were building the organization, they were the ones who were taking control of this process. We were providing all of the technical support that we could, but we didn’t want to be the ones pushing this, we wanted to know that it was coming from them. So they rented this place, and that is when Union de Vecinos got started. vi

Methodology:

Popular education is also foundational in the methodology of both organizations, closely intertwined as it is with the idea of being driven from below. Based on Paolo Freire’s work and writings, in essence it is a way of collectively building knowledge. It is a teaching methodology that rejects the idea of a student as a vessel to be filled with knowledge, but rather sees a process of learning as an interaction between student and teacher, growing out of the student’s lived experience. It is a collective process of learning, as well as a fundamentally political process of asking why the world is the way that it is, and how we can act together to transform it. Popular education as the basis for a method of organizing that builds critical consciousness and leads to concrete change is exemplified in this quote from Leonardo:

… I think the role of organizer, and I would slash it with organizer /popular educator/facilitator/animator is to bring people together to reflect on their reality, to define their reality, and then based on their own experience and their own condition, to seek for ways to change it in an organized way that deals with the social, economic, political, ideological, race and gender dimensions within the world. To get there the point of departure is the practice of being able to describe your world. …vii

What the popular educator brings to the conversation is the ability to move the description of the world to a critical analysis by asking questions, to move a conversation to an act of transformation. It does not mean remaining trapped in the initial world of students, circling, in the words of Freire, “like moths around a light bulb.”viii Their experience is only the starting point.

In this way, people “learn to learn,”ix they learn to deconstruct their environment and layers of oppression, and find themselves as creative and critical individuals able to act upon and change the world. It is for organizers to identify the teachable moments as they arise in the work, to leverage the daily struggles into a greater consciousness of the world and the underlying forces that have created it.

 … As organizers and popular educators, anything that the community talks about we see as a point of departure to do a social, political and economic analysis of the world. Anything can do it, a stoplight in an alley can take you to the issues of safety in the community and the need for light illumination and gangs and problems in the community and the social problems that come with gangs and you can follow that thread. Or you can talk about the budgetary reasons why they don’t want to put those lights and how the budget is allocated and where the priorities are and why they choose to put more police instead of more lights on the street and you can have a conversation on that. Or it can take you to going to the local neighborhood watch and asking the chief of police to sign a letter asking for new lights and finding out that the chief of police doesn’t care about putting lights on the street but only about putting people in jail so it leads you to understand the relation of power within the city, within the community, and the police and so on and so forth. So we use that a lot, we use these little moments, these situations, as tools to analyze the whole. … ”x

Leonardo’s description of identifying and using the teachable moment illustrates the key to popular education as a constant practice. Below is a more formal illustration of the methodology for collectivizing experience and continually building on that experience.xi

It provides a classic example of popular education theory in practice, an invaluable way of both adding theory to lived experience in a way that prioritizes one but values both, and of reflecting on past experience to build more effective campaigns in the future in a continually expanding spiral of experience, theory, and action.

The Challenges of Organizing: Organizing building by building:

The combination of traditional community organizing and popular education means that both Union and SAJE work on the issues that people themselves identify, though SAJE has chosen a more explicit focus on housing, development and displacement. The nature of the work requires that much of the organizing has to be done at a building level, side by side with tenants facing harassment, intimidation, and eviction. Working at this level to solve immediate problems gets people involved and offers a great starting point for connecting the issues of daily life to community wide problems, thereby creating a framework for and analysis and understanding of the world. It also carries many limitations however, that somehow have to be overcome for it to build towards a larger movement.
SAJE’s campaign in the Morrison Hotel showed this clearly. After getting in on the Sunday we set a date for the first building meeting at the St. Francis Center, a local service organization with whom we had built a strong partnership. We attempted to get into the Hotel again, but were physically kept out, first by the managers and their pit bull, then by armed security guards hired especially to keep us out. The police continued to take the side of the managers and the guards. The tenants brave enough to invite us in were physically threatened and faced with eviction, had their electricity turned off, and were thereafter prevented from having any visitors at all. In this climate of fear and intimidation, we worked to form a tenant union in the building. Not too many people attended the first meeting, and we essentially introduced ourselves, gave a broad picture of our experience with what was happening in the community, and allowed everyone to speak about the problems they were experiencing. People agreed to bring more of their neighbors to the next meeting, and we continued our attempts to get into the building.

The meetings began growing as people realized that they either had to fight or leave their homes. At the second meeting we began our analysis by putting a piece of paper on the wall and drawing a little cartoon building in the middle. And then we began to draw out who had power over the building. It started with the owners of course, and that is where most people’s initial analysis ended. We didn’t know a lot about the owners at that point, except that everyone had heard they owned a lot of buildings. So we asked the question, who has power over the owners?

And then we began an analysis of the city, drawing out the different structures of the Housing Department and the City Attorney’s Office. Over these we added the city council, made up of 15 elected representatives, the Mayor, and the City Attorney (another elected position in L.A.). We also looked at the County Health Department, and the County Board of Supervisors. We drew in the different state and city laws that protected tenants. And we looked at the city’s accountability to its residents, and the tenant’s own leverage over the owners.

We returned to this drawing to deepen collective analysis of the role and effectiveness of the city as we filed complaints on violations of rent control and habitability regulations. We also carried out participatory research on who exactly the owners were, what else they owned, what their business practices were. We found out that they owned or had owned at least 50 other properties through a complicated network of limited liability companies controlled primarily through the owner’s business, Phoenix Mortgage Corporation. We created a map of their business to be able to both analyze how they worked and who they were. This moved us into a discussion of the practice of rent collection in slum buildings while paying as little as possible in maintenance as one of the ways that these owners made their profit, and the extreme cost of those business practices to tenants. We talked about how the city not only failed to stop this, but often facilitated it, and why. We talked about the changes in the neighborhood and how those had changed the owners’ business practices. We discovered the discrimination in the owner’s business model shown by the differences in how they maintained their apartment buildings in Beverly Hills and their slum buildings concentrated in our own neighborhoods around downtown.

We were also able to see who exactly we were going up against, and the results of earlier attempts, which was important for strategy. As in many slum buildings, the two brothers who were actually responsible for the building’s conditions had distanced themselves from ownership on paper and legal liability as much as possible. The building was officially owned by the Hope Pico Limited Liability Company, which was registered in the state of Illinois and formed in turn by Phoenix Mortgage Company and two money investors. The Danpour brothers were the principals of Phoenix Mortgage, and in investigating them we found that Henry Danpour had two previous convictions for improperly maintaining his buildings. They both owned buildings, either jointly or passed back and forth, that had been identified by various city programs as violating basic habitability requirements. We were able to show that they had been sued multiple times by the tenants in their different buildings, and that several local tenant rights organizations had organized against them. By uncovering these facts together we were able to work with tenants towards a deeper understanding of the structures of oppression. The Morrison Hotel was also perhaps the best example we had of the ineffectiveness of city and county government when it came to enforcing their own codes against private owners. This was further tested by our own collective experience in navigating the city process.

We did similar analyses in each of the buildings that we organized. And every analysis led to deeper discussions of race and class, economics and gentrification. But building work was always intensive, and limited the number of people we could reach. The greatest struggle was always balancing the need to build towards a community-wide response to the problems, while also dealing with a constant level of emergency in the midst of a struggle. The Morrison Hotel was a campaign of extraordinary intensity and required a huge time investment to build trust among tenants, and between tenants and our organization. It was challenging to bring together a population made up of monolingual Spanish speaking families, African American veterans, and a handful of single people of various races, many of whom were rather eccentric, regular drinkers or users of varying levels of drugs, and some mentally ill. All meetings were carried out with simultaneous translation and it took some time to break down the barriers of language and race. Many of the elderly men really did not like small children, and in spite of on-site childcare, there were enough interruptions that it became a point of tension early on. The most effective thing in bridging these tensions was simply regular meetings and discussions, working together towards a common goal and building trust through knowledge of each other. These meetings would immediately address the many personal issues that arose, and, where possible, address them collectively.

Looking back, I know that we seriously under-estimated the investment of time that would be required of us, two years of weekly meetings with tenants, sometimes daily emergency visits to the building, regular one-on-ones, and constant negotiation with the lawyers and city officials who also became involved in the struggle. The symbolic victory was huge when the owner was convicted on 21 criminal counts by a city that had not taken a landlord to trial for decades. And we transformed how the city itself prosecuted problem owners. They began doing the same research that we had done: this resulted in their prosecution of both corporations and the individuals behind those corporations and considering the entire extent of an owner’s holdings when taking them to trial. The city has also begun working in partnership with community organizations.
And yet when looking at the scale of tenant participation, and our ultimate goal of building movement, there is definitely an argument that the Morrison Hotel campaign was a tactical mistake in building a larger base of tenants working together in a long-term way as part of a larger struggle around the causes of displacement in the community. We knew this possibility when we made the difficult decision to jump into a campaign there; we felt in the final analysis that it was too important of a symbol to allow it to fall without any struggle at all. Of all the tenants in the Morrison Hotel, only one leader has remained really active in the struggles of other tenants, though several have remained in touch and supportive of SAJE, donating either money or coming to occasional events. This is an all-too-common issue with many organizers, how to keep people involved in the struggle after their own immediate and pressing issues have been solved.

Overcoming Limitations, Building Structures for Participation:

At SAJE we had always identified this as an issue, and to ensure that our efforts were never limited in scale to a single building, our strategy had been to create a tenant clinic and something we called a Displacement Free Zone. We wanted the clinic to be a place to collectivize tenant experiences, to provide a foundation of knowledge about basic tenant rights and how these fit into a political and economic landscape, and work to build a sense of individual evictions as a community issue. Union de Vecinos has used similar clinics towards the same goal.

… At the clinic when people come together and start sharing their story one after another there is an awareness that we are not alone. There’s an awareness that this is not something that just happened to us because we didn’t pray enough or because we didn’t work hard enough or because they’re racist, there’s also an awareness that this happens because we are not organizing. … xii

Looking back to evaluate our success in these clinics, I believe the area we pulled tenants from was too small. As a result we never had a critical mass together in one place at one time to run a full workshop as we had planned, instead we usually ended up doing more work one-on-one with families, either as they trickled into the clinic, or when they came into the office with emergency situations requiring an immediate response. We were able to achieve some level of education and politicization, but not the strong collective sense of the problem that we hoped for.

We were more effective in building the Displacement Free Zone. As building blocks of the DFZ, we built tenant unions in various buildings, at one point we had eight tenant unions working on campaigns around improving conditions, preventing evictions, and stopping the harassment of tenants by landlords. The buildings themselves had regular meetings where tenants came together to discuss their issues and collectively make decisions on their own campaigns and strategies.

Volunteers from each of the buildings also came to DFZ meetings, which became a space to coordinate support for each other amongst the different buildings and begin to confront the wave of evictions and displacement changing the face of the neighborhood. We carried out an information and education campaign through door-knocking in the neighborhood to let other residents know their rights and where they could find help. This initial committee was gradually expanded to three committees in three different neighborhoods where we were doing building organizing. Although most of the tenants from the different buildings did not really continue in their support of other tenants after the particular campaign in their building had finished, they remained in contact with us and we had a core of people from each of the buildings who remained active in the struggle to improve the conditions in the community for everyone.

This system of working in multiple buildings at once worked reasonably well while the buildings we were involved in did not require a huge investment of our own time. The Morrison Hotel, however, put a huge strain on us, and maintaining active committees while simultaneously supporting campaigns in other buildings proved to be incredibly difficult. I don’t believe we adequately took into account the amount of time needed for tenants with no previous experience in political or community activities to have the confidence and the capacity to run regular meetings and activities on their own. And, of course, I believe we could have done better in giving them the tools required, and in using every meeting as an opportunity for people to develop those skills. It felt at all times as though we were incredibly stretched, and while we had a lot of idealism, our own practical skills were continually developing as none of us had come to the work with much experience either. We definitely learned that certain key skills such as meeting facilitation were incredibly difficult to build in everyone.

Union de Vecinos has been more successful in creating a large base of members that are working actively, many of them with minimal support from the organizers. This only underlines the importance of successful organizers sharing their experience and knowledge. Over two decades of working in the neighborhood, Union de Vecinos’ organizers have created a broad feeling of community that is not always necessarily active, but can come together when necessary. As Leonardo puts it:

 … Overall we have between 25 and 30 committees. It fluctuates because in the community, you know, people aren’t as involved if nothing is happening. Sometimes if an alley was the core of the problem in that community and you take care of that and there are no gang members and there are no buildings with problems, then people … well, they’re still your friends, they’re still part of your larger community even though they feel they no longer need to meet as a committee for a while. Just like with your friends, you don’t always see each other all the time. So those communities disappear and then others emerge in the process … xiii

They also grow in an organic way, through the members themselves talking to their neighbors. And over time there are now a number of committees able to maintain themselves on their own, though Union de Vecinos stays in regular contact with all of them.

…The way they (the committees) develop is that our members talk to other members, they learn about the issues and invite us to some meetings. Now sometimes it happens that they hold their own meetings and invite us to come and talk to them, and then they continue their meetings and we don’t see them for three months and then they invite us again. Our goal as organizers, our goal as staff to this organization, is to be in touch with the people in every committee, and to keep an ongoing relationship with every committee… ”xiv

It is this loose structure of keeping involved those wanting to be active, creating a space that allows committees and people involved to come and go, to take time off if burned out and easily pick up again, and building skill and capacity in individuals that has allowed such a small staff to build an impressive network of grassroots organization.

The committees also vary tremendously in size depending on the community and the people involved, but they have been successful as long as a core group of people are committed to the long-term and big-picture struggle. At SAJE it certainly took us a while to learn how to start building movement while also winning battles. Again, as Leonardo puts clearly:

 … The smallest committee is six people, but going back to the traditional organizing model, we do pay attention to the balance of power. We want to have an impact, we want to have influence in the community. So if it is six people who just want to meet with us and talk to us about their problems but they’re not involved in anything in the community, and don’t want to be involved we really don’t work too much with them. But if it is six people who are involved and who are able to move the community we work with them. … ”xv

When we first started doing the tenant organizing at SAJE, we more than once invested a lot of time in helping individual families who weren’t at all interested in giving back to the greater community. By doing this we made a great difference in individual lives, but it did not contribute to building something larger. In the face of desperate need, it is often difficult to limit your own involvement. It is only through commitment to the bigger picture that this becomes possible.

Building Scale:

The biggest keys in building the numbers and level of organization needed to have an impact on the larger problems facing a local community seem to come down to a few key principles. The first is to organize around what the people in the affected neighborhood want to organize around, typically things that are immediately relevant and meaningful in their lives and capable of providing concrete victories. The second is to target your efforts to those who share a similar commitment to you, and will help you organize something greater than a single victory. The third is to create fluid yet stable horizontal structures that allow people to be involved over a long-term period, and can be reanimated if the community becomes inactive for a time. And the last is simply to make a long-term commitment to a community and to individual development; what Union de Vecinos has created was built by key organizers’ working in the same community over a span of twenty years.

Yet even so, many of the problems that organizers face have roots far distant from the local level. Local action can be capable of only so much when facing the regional, national and global economic realities that define life in the inner city. One of the most vital areas of study is how to build cohesive and useful coalitions of organizations on every scale, from the city to the region to the state to the nation to the globe.

For organizations and groups committed to being driven by those they are organizing, this presents a particularly difficult problem. There is a risk that pressure could be brought to bear from the top down and coalition work turn into a simple mobilization of local residents. To prevent this from happening while still facilitating useful work, safeguards and a strict decision-making process must be set in place. At the same time, the process must be as streamlined as possible to reduce the additional burden of work on already overburdened organizers or it will simply not be possible. The process and the work must always be immediately relevant, reinforcing the need for theory and big-picture strategies. And best practices for integrating high-level campaigns with those working on the ground need to be investigated, developed, and shared. Both SAJE and Union de Vecinos are members of various coalitions on a city-wide level, and for the past two years have been part of a new and promising national coalition of organizations and theorists called Right To The City. This is certainly an area where much more needs to be written, and their efforts to build national organization amongst organizations that are committed to radical community organizing needs to be evaluated and shared.

Conclusion:

The eternal organizing problem is the unending succession of emergencies, of actions, of things that must be done. There is never enough time to do everything that requires doing, and making the effort to lift your head to look where you are going often seems impossible. This problem is compounded when you have to sort through the huge amount of theory and political thought that is not grounded in practice, and does not serve community building in immediately meaningful ways. This is no reflection on the usefulness of theory in understanding the world, simply that for those immersed in grassroots work, it is hard to find time and space to reflect on the abstract.

There is also very little written on the practice of radical community organizing, and the difficulties in creating sustainable and long-term horizontal community organization. There is even less on how to use every meeting and every campaign, however small, to constantly build towards a scale of involvement and power that can
have a real impact.

This essay is a beginning attempt to start thinking through what I have learned over years of work, and is only a very small contribution towards how we can more concretely respond to overwhelming challenges while remaining true to the belief that real change must come from the masses. How we can undermine the dominant ideas of private property, and propose alternatives. How we can create sustainable communities of critical analysis and action that operate through direct democracy. It has possibly raised more questions than provided answers and the ultimate question is whether such work could ever be enough. I don’t know that it is a question that can be answered, but it should be raised by anyone committed to these ideals as way to measure our own efforts and the usefulness of our theory. To organize certainly requires a great faith in the knowledge and abilities of the poor and working class, but also a recognition of the organizer’s place in a long line of people working for social justice both leading up to this time, and taking over after we are gone. I want to end with Leonardo’s answer to the question of what he thought was the most important advice he could give to other organizers:

“ …We have to understand that we are not operating on the time of the here and now. We are operating at the time of history, so these things take a lot of time. We need to think in terms of generations. A lot of times I think that the leaders that we are working with right now, the adults in the community, are not the main beneficiaries of this process. It is the kids who grow up in an environment where their parents are organized, where their parents come to these barbecues that Union de Vecinos is organizing, and who come to these actions. These kids grow up in a completely different world than they would have if they hadn’t been part of this movement, and that’s what I’m kind of hoping for in terms of the work of Union de Vecinos. Our results are not the stuff that we did 10 years ago, it’s the stuff that will happen in 20 years, and for that you have to have a different kind of patience.

You need to think in terms of making history, that you’re part of a historical process, of a social process. Social processes don’t get developed overnight. You’re talking about changing culture, changing values, changing society, changing the way everything is organized. And that is also why we are different in terms of a community organization. In most community organizations you only work in terms of the specific, the achievable, and the measurable. If it is not specific, if it is not achievable, if it is not measurable you don’t do it. We do here. We do it because it may not be specific, but it may be meaningful. And if it is meaningful it appeals to your consciousness, and if it appeals to your consciousness it changes how you look at the world, and if it changes how you look at the world it changes how you act on that world … there are signs of hope everywhere, we need to pay attention to them, we need to build on them, we need to become stronger every time we are part of them. But still, it is going to take time. … ”xvi

Works Cited

Arnold, Rick et al, Educating for Change. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991.

Fisher, Robert. Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Truax, Eileen. “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.

Notes

i Volin, cited in Daniel Guerin, Anarchism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 37.
ii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
iii Eileen Truax “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.
iv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
v Fisher, 65.
vi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
vii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
viii Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 70.
ix Freire, 81.
x Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xi Rick Arnold et al, Educating for Change (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991), p. 38.
xii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xvi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification
Perspectives Journal, 2009

Gary Okihiro on subject, struggle, liberation in decolonial politics

Part two of writing up notes and thoughts on Gary Okihiro’s Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation. The juicy bit for me I think. (Part 1 is here).

So we have thinking about world systems: imperialism, colonialism and settler colonies… all of it driven by the desire to dominate and underpinned by white supremacy. But Okihiro makes the point that ideology is always fragmentary and contradictory, this is what allows for contestation and change. He gives a useful short list of the theorists that can handle this — Marx, Freud, Saussure, Lacan (oof, I haven’t read Lacan because I don’t like what I know and wish we could all just read Fromm instead, but this is making me realise I maybe need to to challenge myself), Foucault, Gramsci, Althusser — these are the theorists of power and change. He writes:

There are no sovereign subjects with agency over their consciousness. Subjects are produced through discourse. As we will see, subjectification and not identity formation is the analytical category for Third World studies. (110)

So what is the world that white supremacy embedded within the violence of colonialism and imperialism has created?

Self-hatred is a consequence of the colonial condition, and loving oneself can constitute an anticolonial affirmation of human dignity and self-determination. (110)

But of course, this isn’t just about race, it is about the biological model underpinning the many intersections of difference, and the ways that difference itself is constructed as constitutive of social ills rather than the subject of oppression which is itself the cause.

In these biological models of human development, deviations from the norm constitute unnatural and even pathological conditions. Central to that assumption is the normative, white, heterosexual, middle-class, citizen man, and degenerations from that standard invite racism, sexism, homophobia, exclusion, laws, poverty, and personality disorders. (112)

This requires a certain kind of liberatory praxis to shift

Still, per Freire and Mills, we must position the subject-self within the social formations to be “truly human.” Our liberation depends upon that apprehension. (113)

I truly love, here, the problematisation of experience. I have been struggling with this so much recently. He draws on Raymond Williams theorising how experience ‘involves the whole consciousness or being — the personal, subjective, and emotional’ (113). This is the power of it, but just ‘experience’ is not enough. Okihiro writes

Difference and experience are social constructions and require deconstruction… Experience adduced as uncontested evidence reproduces rather than refutes discourses of oppression and hegemonic systems involving sexuality, gender, and race. (114)

This. I am so all about this. I am in meeting after meeting with ‘experts by experience’ but it is this level of experience. There is no critical reflection, no collective thought. Freire offers a way through this. I’ve also been thinking about the role of scholars and love this, love Alcoff though I have not read enough:

Scholars, Alcoff argues, must speak for and about others to nurture a critical consciousness and promote social change. A retreat into silence is not liberating and, in fact, advances disempowerment. Further, to speak only for oneself falls back to the old liberal humanism and individualism that isolate the self from society as if one is not constituted by or related to others. (115)

Okihiro makes a clear distinction between this third world conscious and liberatory praxis, and identity politics.

Identity politics, as charged by critics of post-1968 ethnic studies, is not the breeding ground for Third World Studies. Subjectification understands the subject not as humanism’s “I am” but as complex subjects in formation and in constant engagement with society. That recognition emerges not from a trivial, youthful search for identities but from profound acts of power or agency. Self-determination by the oppressed against the forces of colonial, hegemonic discourses and material conditions is the objective of subjectification; the agency of the subject-self drives the movement for Third World liberation. (119)

As so we turn to racial formation, and the ways that ‘as coined by Omi and Winant, has deservedly captured the field of post-1968 ethnic studies‘ (122). He quotes Omi and Winant in defining it as:

the process by which social, economic and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings. (123)

It is ceaselessly contested and in motion, subject to change. Race is neither epiphenomenon or superstructure, not false consciousness. It is instead a fundamental organizing principle of social relations at both the individual and societal level. He draws on Mills again here, the work on whiteness by Ian Haney-Lopez (which I have only dipped into). Okihiro continues:

The white subject position, hence, is normativity, privilege, and domination. Correspondingly the nonwhite subject position is marginality (deviance), disadvantage, and subordination. (129)

This binary is of course disrupted by the various kinds of racial hierarchy always at play. Just one example, of course, is

the crazy conniptions of the census, in which white has remained constant but other racial classifications constantly shifting (130) … The US census produces race (and citizenship) and confirms what the courts have historically ruled: white and nonwhite are not scientific concepts but categories of privilege and rights as determined by whites. (133)

In the census, however, ‘white’ remains unproblematised, and Okihiro highlights the need to racialize whites. Du Bois of course did the same thing, he wrote The Souls of White Folk (much harder to find) as well as writing The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois was just so fucking awesome, right? The more I read the more in awe of him I am, despite those talented tenth missteps. Anyway, Du Bois decades ago showed that ‘whiteness has a history… whiteness is a discourse, subjectivity, and social practice‘. By doing so, Okihiro writes ‘Du Bois marked what had been left unnmarked: he rendered the transparent visible‘ (134). And of course, since 1968 there has been a white ethnic revival and a new rise of white identity politics, both of which have employed the ideology of self-determination as voiced by Third World Peoples. All part of a wider backlash decrying racialism, and putting forward an ideology of color-blindness (135).

So where are the tools that we need to better talk about these complex dynamics, to locate and fight oppression. Okihiro writes

Masters tools can only partially dismantle the master’s house, we need to supply alternative languages and ideologies (136)

There is much in teh third world movement to draw upon–and of course Vijay Prashad documents so beautifully the power of that movement. Feminism, of course, has developed a powerful set of analytical tools. This is necessary given that Okihiro argues that while racial formation and critical race theory have been a huge step forward, they still are not really able to manage multiple intersecting oppressions.

Thus we have the movement towards theorising ‘social formation’. The tools emerge out of activism — from SNCC to the Black Women’s Liberation Caucus (which then changed its name to Black Women’s Alliance (BWA)) to the Combahee River Collective (I am so looking forward to reading How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor). So for Okihiro

Power becomes the organizing principle, its locations and articulations the objects of analysis. This is expressed along lines of color and gender, but also sexuality, class, nation, discourses not just identities (141)

Social formation allows, like articulation, an understanding of how these evolve over time (and space)

Social formation, then, marks the forms of society in their entirety and their passage and changes over space/time. Power and its articulations around the discourses and material manifestations of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation conceive and cultivate the social structure. (143)

This concept of social formation is not just a sum of oppressions, but it maps points of intersection as well as resistance, and how mutually constitutive and shifting relations between discourse and material conditions works. It

supplies a rubric for affiliations among discourses of racial formation, feminist, queer, Marxist, and critical theories and for solidarities in political insurgencies emanating from people of color and across imposed divides of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation. (144)

I need to think about this more. I keep coming back to Hall’s ideas of articulation, Patricia Hill Collins’ domains of power, these different ways of trying to grapple with immense complexity in ways that can feed effectively into victorious struggle.

Okihiro, Gary (2016) Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Gary Okihiro on Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation

I loved Gary Okihiro’s book Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation, I wish I had read it as a student — but it’s not been out too long, so I can’t be too sad about that. I wanted to give it to everyone I know though, just because of the brilliant ways it pulled together so much of what I’ve been struggling with while also recalibrating my perspective on world history and important events the same way that Vijay Prahad‘s work helps me do. I would love to teach it, perhaps one day I will have the chance. A very different kind of view of a global world and struggle from Wallerstein‘s, though it finds his work useful and builds on it in interesting ways.

As always my disclaimer that there is much more detail/history/context in the book that I am not exploring here, this first post is just pulling out some of the main concepts in the first half of the book. The second post focuses more on social formation, subjectification and struggle. But just to give it context, I found this brilliant short description (and a brilliant short lecture) of what the book is trying to do:

In 1968 the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State College demanded the creation of a Third World studies program to counter the existing curricula that ignored issues of power—notably, imperialism and oppression. The administration responded by institutionalizing an ethnic studies program; Third World studies was over before it began. Detailing the field’s genesis and premature death, Gary Y. Okihiro presents an intellectual history of ethnic studies and Third World studies and shows where they converged and departed by identifying some of their core ideas, concepts, methods, and theories. In so doing, he establishes the contours of a unified field of study—Third World studies—that pursues a decolonial politics by examining the human condition broadly, especially in regard to oppression, and critically analyzing the locations and articulations of power as manifested in the social formation. Okihiro’s framing of Third World studies moves away from ethnic studies’ liberalism and its U.S.-centrism to emphasize the need for complex thinking and political action in the drive for self-determination.

Instead of racial formation Okihiro uses the term social formation, drawing on the work of Omi and Winant as well as Charles Mills to analyse the ways in which:

the formations of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation as discrepant and intersecting constructions and practices conceive and cultivate the social formation. Attending to the multiplicity of these forces ceaselessly at work in the locations and exercises of power, the social formation demands a complexity in our thinking and action to engage and resist the forces that oppress us all. (2)

This is a world in which European settlers have worked to implant and to sustain white supremacy, but of course this was recognised long ago.

W.E.B. Du Bois delineated that global color line as the problem of the twentieth century, which was colonialism (material relations) and racism (discourse), the ideology that upheld white supremacy and nonwhite subservience. (5)

He stood in sharp contrast to what was being undertaken by the University of Chicago, and of course suffered for that to the great loss of Sociology. Du Bois did his amazing  academic work in Philadelphia and Atlanta even as  Chicago’s Sociology department worked to develop the discipline, constructing the fields of race relations which ‘sought to understand and control the challenges posed by nonwhites to white rule‘ and ethnic studies, which ‘conceived of ethnicities or cultures as the way to preserve white supremacy by assimilating problem minorities into the dominant group‘. (6)

Okihiro writes that

Black (or brown, red, and yellow) power is a potent antidote to the poison of white supremacy, but it follows and is in reaction to white power and is accordingly limited by its model and prior conditions. (3)

But there was a different current of rebellion and of thought that grappled with the full complexities of social formation, and looked to move beyond the racial binary.

The Third World Liberation Front’s course of study was directed at liberation, called self-determination. The Third World curriculum was designed to create “a new humanity, a new humanism, a New World Consciousness,”… (5)

Okihiro writes further

A third world consciousness sustains the theory and that intersectionalism draws form the lived experience of the subjects of Third World studies–the oppressed, the masses. Social formation theory purports to explain the structures of society in their totality and their changes over space/time. The theory understands power or agency as the means by which societies are organized and changed, and social structures involve primarily race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation. (12)

The state, then, is also central within these structures.

The sovereign nation-state is both spatial and social. It is marked by borders within which rulers rule over people. In the narrative of nation the people were related biologically and were thus referred to as races. They shared a common descent and were of one blood. In addition, under patriarchy men occupied the public sphere or the state because of their alleged virtues, while women were confined to the domestic sphere because of their presumed deficiencies. Families constituted the nation, and sexuality and marriage were thus state prerogatives. Under capitalism inviolate was the bedrock of possession of property, including land, goods and dependents–women, children, slaves. The nation-state accordingly was designed to install and interpellate hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, class, and (national) citizenship. Those relations of power privilege the few and oppress the many (7)

This book explores these categories and how we understand them, explores the struggle both to conceptualize them and to ensure that such work contributes to liberation within a wider, repressive academic arena even as it connects it to liberation movements emerging from the two key historical moments for world struggle: the Pan-African Conference in 1900, and Bandung in 1955. See, recalibrate that.

So we come briefly to power and agency — this is explored more in the 2nd post.

Power in the physical world is expressed as energy: power in the social realm is realized as agency. As Foucault points out in his critique of the sovereign model of power that reduces complex relations to a single dialectic, power is dispersed throughout the social order. that fragmentation, however, does not preclude the possibility, indeed the necessity of locating power, apprehending its workings, and contesting its consequences. Third World studies subscribes to that species of positivism for the imperative of pointing to privilege and poverty, exploitation and oppression, revolution and liberation. (15)

Oh hell yes. He draws on Franz Fanon’s work to explore the ways in which the

divide and hierarchy of race and class placed white, capitalist expansionists from the first World over colored, native workers of the Third World. The former were humans and individuals; the latter, nonhuman and faceless masses (17).

Du Bois and Fanon could have been foundational, but instead it is this other psychology that underpins so much western academic work, it is hard to see what is worth rescuing sometimes.

This understanding brought to bear on the city and the impacts of immigration resulted in the incredibly famous and terribly flawed models of the Chicago school that I see repeated as almost a matter of faith in urban study after urban study. Okihiro writes:

Within that flattened world of the modernizing, homogenizing city Chicago sociology abandoned race for ethnicity, and European ethnic immigrant groups constituted the model for the progressive ethnic cycle of immigration, contact and interaction, competition and conflict, and accommodation and assimilation (23).

This allowed race to be removed from the discussion, for the horror of racism and redlining and slum housing to become naturalised, part of a cycle that just represented the way things were:

This, in the language of ecological succession, the “invading race,” as posed by Park, whether black, brown, or yellow, was the problem, not white supremacy or the ideology and material environments and conditions that sustained white rule. (25)

Urban studies for the most part continue citing Parks, failing to grapple with white supremacy instead. Not that this has gone uncontested. There is always a return to the counter arguments, the grassroots battles, the search for a more productive and liberatory way of thinking here.

I had no idea of the student struggles, the pressure on University administrations to allow in a broader spectrum of students which in the end led to Merritt College in Oakland offering black studies classes in its experimental programme. Who was in that? Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Ernest Allen, Richard Thorne, Marvin Jackman. God damn. And for all that went wrong, for the ways in which ‘patriarchal nationalism‘ came to ‘eclipse Third World consciousness and solidarity‘, this was still a beautiful moment (31).

This book is full of such beautiful moments.

Global constructions

As early as 1906 Du Bois was writing of the colour line as a world wide issue — ‘The Color Line belts the world‘ he said. He was also the first to explore the ways in which this line was a construction.

It is important to consider that the essentializing color line of white and nonwhite emerged in the late nineteenth century at the height of imperialism. (41)

I know I haven’t thought enough about colonialism and imperialism. Okihiro looks at the ways in which imperialism is both ideological and material, how it is involved in discursive conquest, and hierarchies of merit and worth. It is also a historical phenomenon, a phase of capitalism beginning in the fifteenth century — first through mercantilism, then industrial capitalism. Okihiro draws on Wallerstein’s world-systems theory here.  Colonialism is defined as

the discursive and material subjugation of extraterritorial spaces and their life forms, including life forms, including lands and waters and all of their properties. (84)

I love this definition, it helps broaden how we think abut these logics and how they are applied. He also brings in Fanon’s point on the ways in which colonialism worked to deny people their past. Okihiro writes:

While one in general features and functions, extraterritorial colonies were of two main varieties: extractive colonies and settler colonies. (85)

The world system is anchored by these colonies with their boundaries,  but migrant labor remains as a product and vital element of the world system. (87) He describes how Polynesians were taken to Peru, the Chinese and Indians to plantations. He writes of the attempt first to kill the Indian in the Americas, and then to kill the Indian in him.

So what does struggle against oppression at the world-system level need to draw on? Okihiro moves on to think about what theory is useful for liberation and starts with Freire. Hurrah. Because of course central to Freire is engaging with social and material constructions, entering the struggle and only becoming truly human through that struggle. When thinking about how white supremacy works and the damage that must be undone, could there be any other choice I wonder? It rests on a certain view of power:

Power is thus relational: it circulates and is never localized; it is not a commodity; it is deployed, not possessed. Individuals are mere vehicles of power/ Power’s strategy of segregation is mirrored in taxonomy and the structuring of knowledge into discrete disciplines (discourses) to attain finality as closed, self-contained systems. (108)

I love this acknowledgment of how power is used to segregate, and the ways it it is wielded to accomplish this in the world are the same ways it is wielded to divide up knowledge into academic disciplines. This is also discussed by Wallerstein of course.

Anyway, more on theory, subject, power, struggle next.

Okihiro, Gary (2016) Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation. Durham & London: Duke University Press.