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
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 (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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been trying to move towards better understanding how things fit together at a global scale, and Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis has been coming up often. I seem to have so much less time these days for just blogging to better understand something, but trying to be better at working it in when I can. The scale at which Wallerstein is working is the level that I find hardest to understand while also connecting to the multiple variegations of particular histories and geographies as they are shaped locally. I just finished Beck’s Empire of Cotton which is tremendous and does this in a rather incredible way, but I like too this brief more theoretical laying-out of what is happening at this scale. It is undoubtedly very introductory, an entry into a much more detailed body of work. I missed the details though. More to read I suppose, but anyway.
The proponents of world-systems analysis, which this book is about, have been talking about globalization since long before the word was invented not, however, as something new but as something that has been basic to the modern world-system ever since it began in the sixteenth century. We have been arguing that the separate boxes of analysis-what in the universities are called the disciplines-are an obstacle, not an aid, to understanding the world. We have been arguing that the social reality within which we live and which determines what our options are has not been the multiple national states of which we are citizens but something larger, which we call a world-system. We have been saying that this world-system has had many institutions-states and the interstate system, productive firms, households, classes, identity groups of all sorts-and that these institutions form a matrix which permits the system to operate but at the same time stimulates both the conflicts and the contradictions which permeate the system. We have been arguing that this system is a social creation, with a history, whose origins need to be explained, whose ongoing mechanisms need to be delineated, and whose inevitable terminal crisis needs to be discerned.
In arguing this way, we have not only gone against much of the official wisdom of those in power, but also against much of the conventional knowledge put forth by social scientists for two centuries now. (x)
In a nutshell.
On science, knowledge and epistemologies
This work started in the early 1970s ‘as a new perspective on social reality’ (1). It was geared to bring back together philosophy and science, which it argues were broken apart and institutionalised by those promoting empirical methods as the only way to truth. Wallerstein thus outlines and problematises the ways that Western institutions and universities have constructed and constrained knowledge. The two sides of knowledge production became drawn:
The emphasis of the sciences was on empirical (even experimental) research and hypothesis testing. The emphasis of the humanities was on empathetic insight, what later was called hermeneutic understanding. (3)
History was restricted to studying the past, and insulated from economics, political science and sociology — matching the three social spheres of market, state and civil society belonging to liberal ideology — which studied the present. These became drawn into understanding how
these spheres of life-the market, the state, and the civil society-were governed by laws that could be discerned by empirical analysis and inductive generalization. This was exactly the same view as that which the pure scientists had about their objects of study. So we call these three disciplines nomothetic disciplines (that is, disciplines in search of scientific laws) as opposed to the idiographic discipline which history aspired to be-that is, a discipline that is predicated on the uniqueness of social phenomena (6).
Of course, these studies of the present only related to the ‘Western’ world, not the vast areas being brought under colonial control — thus we have anthropology and orientalism
The early anthropologists studied peoples who were under actual or virtual colonial rule. They worked on the premise that the groups they were studying did not enjoy modern technology, did not have writing systems of their own, and did not have religions that extended beyond their own group. They were generically called “tribes”: relatively small groups (in terms of population and the area they inhabited) , with a common set of customs, a common language, and in some cases a common political structure. In nineteenth-century language, they were considered “primitive” peoples.
Their methodology was
ethnography, based on “fieldwork”… It was assumed that the peoples had no “history:’ (7)
Some world yet remained, the ‘large regions outside the
pan-European zone which had what was called in the nineteenth century a “high civilization”–for example, China, India, Persia, the Arab world… (8)’
This drove the rise of Oriental studies in all their problematic force.
1945 saw massive changes, WWI and II had shifted everything. The US became the hegemonic power, with its university systems also thus becoming hegemonic. The ‘Third World’ was rising up and demanding independence. And more and more people were becoming part of a new world academia as a growing economy and democratic structures opened up these institutions. Havoc was wreaked on neat bounded structures. The US solution was found in ‘area studies’, which worked to ‘train historians, economists, sociologists, and political scientists to study what was going on in these other parts of the world (10). These continued to hold, however, to a theory of development, in which societies and civilizations moved through a series of stages, all of which culminated more or less at the same place as US and European societies (not that this was new).
It meant that the “most developed” state could offer itself as a model for the “less developed” states, urging the latter to engage in a sort of mimicry, and promising a higher standard of living and a more liberal governmental structure (“political development”) at the end of the rainbow. (10)
There is an ongoing struggle over these many different boundaries, theories and ways of knowing.
Background and nature of world-systems theory:
Wallerstein names four debates between 1945-70 that ‘set the scene for the emergence of world-systems analysis:
- the concept of core-periphery developed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) and the subsequent elaboration of “dependency theory”;
- the utility of Marx’s concept of the “Asiatic mode of production;’ a debate that took place among communist scholars;
- the discussion among historians of western Europe about the “transition from feudalism to capitalism”;
- the debate about “total history” and the triumph of the Annales school of historiography in France (11)
The standard at this time was the national state, so above all this new way of thinking forced a move to the scale of world-systems.
Instead of national states as the object of study, they substituted “historical systems” which, it was argued, had existed up to now in only three variants: mini-systems; and “world -systems” of two kinds– world-economies and world-empires. Note the hyphen in world-system and its two subcategories, world-economies and world-empires. Putting in the hyphen was intended to underline that we are talking not about systems, economies, empires of the (whole) world, but about systems, economies, empires that are a world (but quite possibly, and indeed usually, not encompassing the entire globe). This is a key initial concept to grasp. It says that in “world-systems” we are dealing with a spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and cultural units, one that represents an integrated zone of activity and institutions which obey certain systemic rules (16-17).
This shifted the unit of analysis from the state, insisted on the importance of a historic view, and insisted on multidisplinary study. You can imagine it was not popular with the institutions of learning and all those who had invested their careers in them. It is an unceasing effort to grapple with complexity.
World-systems analysts insist that rather than reduce complex situations to simpler variables, the effort should be to complexify and contextualize all so-called simpler variables in order to understand real social situations (19).
This means that both time and space are also understood as socially constructed, and part of the social reality we are trying to analyse. Some key concepts (there is so much packed into this little volume):
What we mean by a world-economy (Braudel’s economie -monde) is a large geographic zone within which there is a division of labor and hence significant internal exchange of basic or essential goods as well as flows of capital and labor. A defining feature of a world-economy is that it is not bounded by a unitary political structure. Rather, there are many political units inside the world-economy, loosely tied together in our modern world-system in an interstate system (23).
And a world-economy contains many cultures and groups-practicing many religions, speaking many languages, differing in their everyday patterns. This does not mean that they do not evolve some common cultural patterns, what we shall be calling a geoculture. It does mean that neither political nor cultural homogeneity is to be expected or found in a world-economy. What unifies the structure most is the division of labor which is constituted within it. (23)
Wage-labor has also been known for thousands of years. We are in a capitalist system only when the system gives priority to the endless accumulation of capital. Using such a definition, only the modern world-system has been a capitalist system. (24)
Conversely, a capitalist system cannot exist within any framework except that of a world-economy. We shall see that a capitalist system requires a very special relationship between economic producers and the holders of political power. If the latter are too strong, as in a world-empire, their interests will override those of the economic producers, and the endless accumulation of capital will cease to be a priority. Capitalists need a large market (hence mini-systems are too narrow for them) but they also need a multiplicity of states, so that they can gain the advantages of working with states but also can circumvent states hostile to their interests in favor of states friendly to their interests. Only the existence of a multiplicity of states within the overall division of labor assures this possibility. (24)
Core, periphery and semi-periphery states:
The axial division of labor of a capitalist world-economy divides production into core-like products and peripheral products. Core-periphery is a relational concept. What we mean by core-periphery is the degree of profitability of the production processes. Since profitability is directly related to the degree of monopolization, what we essentially mean by core-like production processes is those that are controlled by quasi-monopolies. Peripheral processes are then those that are truly competitive. When exchange occurs, competitive products are in a weak position and quasi-monopolized products are in a strong position. As a result, there is a constant flow of surplus-value from the producers of peripheral products to the producers of core-like products. This has been called unequal exchange.
There is also plunder, often used extensively during the early days of incorporating new regions into the world-economy (consider, for example, the conquistadores and gold in the Americas) …. Still, since the consequences are middle-term and the advantages short-term, there still exists much plunder
in the modern world-system…
Thus, for shorthand purposes we can talk of core states and peripheral states, so long as we remember that we are really talking of a relationship between production processes. Some states have a near even mix of core-like and peripheral products. We may call them semi peripheral states. (28)
Class, family, identity:
Classes however are not the only groups within which households locate themselves. They are also members of status-groups or identities. (If one calls them status-groups, one is emphasizing how they are perceived by others, a sort of objective criterion. If one calls them identities, one is emphasizing how they perceive themselves, a sort of subjective criterion. But, under one name or the other, they are an institutional reality of the modern world- system. Status-groups or identities are ascribed labels, since we are born into them, or at least we usually think we are born into them. It is on the whole rather difficult to join such groups voluntarily, although not impossible. (36)
Of course, the powers that be in a social system always hope that socialization results in the acceptance of the very real hierarchies that are the product of the system. They also hope that socialization results in the internalization of the myths, the rhetoric, and the theorizing of the system. This does happen in part but never in full. Households also socialize members into rebellion, withdrawal, and deviance. To be sure, up to a point even such antisystemic socialization can be useful to the system by offering an outlet for restless spirits, provided that the overall system is in relative equilibrium. In that case, one can anticipate that the negative socializations may have at most a limited impact on the functioning of the system. But when the historical system comes into structural crisis, suddenly such antisystemic socializations can play a profoundly unsettling role for the system. (37)
Universalism | Racism & Sexism
Universalism is a theme prominently associated with the modern world-system. It is in many ways one of its boasts. Universalism means in general the priority to general rules applying equally to all persons, and therefore the rejection of particularistic preferences in most spheres. The only rules that are considered permissible within the framework of universalism are those which can be shown to apply directly to the narrowly defined proper functioning of the world-system. (38)
(but universalism has always been racialised! I have to think more about this, it seems too abstracted from the concrete realities of colonial and imperial expansion)
Let us look at what we mean by racism and sexism. Actually these are terms that came into widespread use only in the second half of the twentieth century. Racism and sexism are instances of a far wider phenomenon that has no convenient name, but that might be thought of as antiuniversalism, or the active institutional discrimination against all the persons in a given status-group or identity. For each kind of identity, there is a social ranking. It can be a crude ranking, with two categories, or elaborate, with a whole ladder. But there is always a group on top in the ranking, and one or several groups at the bottom. These rankings are both worldwide and more local, and both kinds of ranking have enormous consequences in the lives of people and in the operation of the capitalist world-economy (39)
The bottom line is that the modern world-system has made as a central, basic feature of its structure the simultaneous existence, propagation, and practice of both universalism and anti- universalism. This antinomic duo is as fundamental to the system as is the core-peripheral axial division of labor. (41)
The Rise of the States-System
The modern state is a sovereign state. Sovereignty is a concept that was: invented in the modern world-system. Its prima facie meaning is totally autonomous state power (42).
But of course, modern states, most of them, don’t actually wield totally autonomous state power given that they are part of a world system.Despite the many arguments in geography to the contrary, the state hasn’t quite withered away. Wallerstein writes:
The relationship of states to firms is a key to understanding the functioning of the capitalist world-economy. The official ideology of most capitalists is laissez-faire, the doctrine that governments should not interfere with the working of entrepreneurs in the market. It is important to understand that as a general rule, entrepreneurs assert this ideology loudly but do not really want it to be implemented, or at least not fully, and certainly do not usually act as though they believed it was sound doctrine. (46)
There are a number of roles the state plays in supporting the market, one of the key ones is control over labour and the boundaries that contain labour:
The trans-boundary movement of persons has always been the most closely controlled, and of course concerns firms in that it concerns workers.(46)
Wallerstein cares for liberals as much as I do…particularly their slow enfranchisement of various groups of people after they had proved they were worthy — many would probably object to this understanding of liberalism but not I:
They argued that all others should slowly be admitted to full
citizens’ rights when their education had become sufficient to enable them to make balanced choices. By embracing progress, the liberals sought to frame its definition in such a way that the “dangerous classes” would become less dangerous and those with “merit” would play the key roles in political, economic, and social institutions. There was of course a third group, the radicals, who would associate themselves with the anti systemic movements, indeed lead them for the most part. (52)
They also often leave unchallenged the ways that nations are invented, and the role of the state in that social creation. These states with their carefully constructed histories and key characteristics, form part of the world-system, and do not exist independent of each other. There have also been attempts to construct world-empires, defined by Wallerstein as:
a structure in which there is a single political authority for the whole world-system.
He gives Charles V in the 16th century, Napoleon and Hitler as examples of failed attempts at such a structure. There are three examples of powers that
achieved hegemony, albeit for only relatively brief periods. The first was the United Provinces (today called the Netherlands) in the mid-seventeenth century. The second was the United Kingdom in the mid-nineteenth century. And the third was the United States in the mid -twentieth century. What allows us to call them hegemonic (57) is that for a certain period they were able to establish the rules of the game in the interstate system, to dominate the world-economy (in production, commerce, and finance), to get their way politically with a minimal use of military force (which however they had in goodly strength), and to formulate the cultural language with which one discussed the world. (58)
The Creation of a Geoculture
This section might be a bit too Western for me, a bit too focused on European understandings as hegemonic, but given colonialism there is perhaps a level of justice in such a claim. He sees the French Revolution as the turning point and basis for:
the geoculture of the modern world-system: the normality of political change and the refashioning of the concept of sovereignty, now vested in the people who were “citizens.” And this concept, as we have said, although meant to include, in practice excluded very many.
This is a rather interesting definition of ideology as well, I am still thinking it through:
An ideology is more than a set of ideas or theories. It is more than a moral commitment or a worldview. It is a coherent strategy in the social arena from which one can draw quite specific political conclusions. In this sense, one did not need ideologies in previous world-systems, or indeed even in the modern world-system before the concept of the normality of change, and that of the citizen who was ultimately responsible for such change, were adopted as basic structural principles of political institutions. (60)
He sees such ideology at play in liberalism, and the concept of the liberal state developed between 1848 and WWI.
states based on the concept of citizenship, a range of guarantees against arbitrary authority, and a certain openness in public life. The program that the liberals developed had three main elements: gradual extension of the suffrage and, concomitant with this and essential to it, the expansion of access to education; expanding the role of the state in protecting citizens against harm in the workplace, expanding health facilities and access to them, and ironing out fluctuations in income in the life cycle; forging citizens of a state into a “nation.” If one looks closely, these three elements turn out to be a way of translating the slogan of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” into public policy.
Interestingly, he sees liberals backpedaling after the failed uprisings and repression of 1848 and it actually being conservatives who saw it as a sensible compromise to stem revolutionary tendencies, Disraeli among them. The radical struggle became centered on the state and the use of formal rights of citizens to take state power and thus implement change under the slogan of liberty, equality, and fraternity. As he writes it, they succeeded in full integration and achievement of the vote, yet failed to use this power to transform society. Wallerstein describes the growing proletariat as remaining essentially outside of this dynamic however.
The Modern World-System in Crisis
First to define a crisis — that word is used a lot. This narrows it down a bit:
But whenever the difficulty can be resolved in some way, then there is not a true crisis but simply a difficulty built into the system. True crises are those difficulties that cannot be resolved within the framework of the system, but instead can be overcome only by going outside of and beyond the historical system of which the difficulties are a part. (76)
We are in such a crisis, but it is a long-term kind of crisis (I am not so sure of this use of crisis, which can go on for ‘another twenty-five to fifty years’ (77). He continues:
Since one central feature of such a transitional period is that we face wild oscillations of all those structures and processes we have come to know as an inherent part of the existing world-system, we find that our short-term expectations are necessarily quite unstable. This instability can lead to considerable anxiety and therefore violence as people try to preserve acquired privileges and hierarchical rank in a very unstable situation. In general, this process can lead to social conflicts that take a quite unpleasant form. (77)
There is a reference to the Kondratieff B-phase — I really need to get my head around that, but not today. It describes the rise of neoliberalism and this is essentially where it ends. Our current conjuncture is indeed unpleasant — such a funny polite word. This is quite a polite, measured, abstract book quite different from Walter Rodney or Eric Williams, but useful in starting to see how things connect and fit together at the global scale. I am itching to leave the abstraction though, and examine the detail of racialisation, imperialism, struggle.
Wallerstein, Immanuel (2005) World-systems analysis: an introduction. Durham: Duke University Press.
I’m not the only one who thinks this is extraordinary, but it is still something that maybe not everyone reads and it really is worth spending some time with Gilding the Ghetto, published in 1977. It’s a strange moment to be reading it really, after so many years of austerity, facing many of the same issues with the same roots, but in vastly different contexts. Still, both periods were framed in terms of crisis.
Towards the end of 1976 among the endless reminders of Britain’s economic predicament another theme was brought to public attention: the urban crisis.
This is how it opens – but they are quick to note that this urban crisis was not new — crisis was never new. Forty years later that shit is still not new.
Anyway, In the late 60s and early 70s a number of projects were started — and I found them fascinating so explore them in potentially boring detail here. For the most part they were attempted, they were awesome, but then they were finished and buried, and this cycle is so familiar.
Yet today there is an official silence about these programmes of the late 1960s and early seventies. A striking silence.
This report goes back to the early stage. Written by a group of workers from the National Community Development Project it tries to make sense of the spate of government ‘poverty initiatives’ beginning in 1968 of which CDP was a part. It is written from inside but, we hope, for an outside world. It comes from our own experience as some of the state’s ‘poverty’ workers, and from the doubts that experience raised in our minds about what our employers were really intending.
This sounds so familiar:
The Home Office, with James Callaghan as Home Secretary, embarked on CDP in 1969. The idea was to collaborate with local authorities in setting up local projects, each with a five- year lifespan as ‘a neighbourhood-based experiment aimed at finding new ways of meeting the needs of people living in areas of high social deprivation’. There were to be twelve projects … Their brief rested on three important assumptions. Firstly, that it was the ‘deprived’ themselves who were the cause of ‘urban deprivation’. Secondly, the problem could best be solved by overcoming these people’s apathy and promoting self-help. Thirdly, locally-based research into the problems would serve to bring about changes in local and central government policy.
Makes me really angry of course. Also unsurprising:
A few months’ field-work in areas suffering long-term economic decline and high unemployment was enough to provoke the first teams of CDP workers to question the Home Office’s original assumptions. There might certainly be in these areas a higher proportion of the sick and the elderly for whom a better co-ordination of services would undoubtedly be helpful, but the vast majority were ordinary working-class men and women who, through forces outside their control, happened to be living in areas where bad housing conditions, redundancies, lay-offs, and low wages were commonplace.
So they started organizing the people they were working with, using their research to pressure local authorities and councillors and investigating the structural issues at play – and that’s when they were shut down and buried really. In 1973 a central CDP Information and Intelligence Unit was set up and published a series of (probably embarrassing to the government) reports: The Poverty of the Improvement Programme, Whatever Happened to Council Housing? Profits against Houses and the Costs of Industrial Change. In 1974 central government asked for a review of the programme, with a goal of controlling, curtailing and closing down. (5)
Only six weeks after publishing the highly critical report on the government’s public spending cuts, Cutting the Welfare State (Who Profits), the Home Secretary ordered the closure of the unit.
This pamphlet was written in 1977, when a few projects were still running out their time, but finding it hard to coordinate work or collectively make sense of the findings.
This report is part of that attempt. Though it is not an account of our experience – that is to be found in the various local and inter-project reports — it tries to locate and explain that experience in the context of the series of government moves of which CDP was one….Still we hope that our analysis will help to clarify for others as it has for us, the role of government in relation to both the demands of the economy and pressures from the working class, and the part that such programmes we describe here as the ‘Poverty Programme’ play in maintaining the status quo. (6)
Part 1: The Poverty Programme
The men behind all of this top down malarky, well the men still look the same. Glasses are different of course.
The Welfare state was under pressure, government unsure what to do, this all sounds familiar too. It was an experiment— the word comes up again and again — conducted with very limited resources in many separate laboratories. The central state drew in the local authorities, disregarding their traditional departmental boundaries. ‘Citizen involvement’ and ‘participation’ were recurring themes. Most important, all the schemes took as their testing grounds, small, working-class districts of Britain’s big cities and older industrial towns. These were the ‘areas of special need’ which had first come to the centre of official concern; soon they were being called ‘pockets of deprivation’. (9) In describing the programming that emerged in response, James Callaghan, Home Secretary said it was:
to provide for the care of our citizens who live in the poorest or most overcrowded parts of our cities and towns. It is intended to arrest, in so far as it is possible by financial means, and reverse the downward spiral which afflicts so many of these areas. There is a deadly quagmire of need and apathy. Hansard, 2.12.68 (10)
Quagmire. Right. Still, I’m only just beginning to realise what a big deal it has been, the centralisation of funds and control over programmes, so this is important
Responsibility for Urban Aid was located in the Community Relations Department of the Home Office, the department also responsible for the Community Relations Commission. The money made available for Urban Aid was not an extra government grant, but money already existing in the Rate Support Grant which was taken out of the general allocation and put into the Special Grant category. This allowed the government to have for the first time some direct control over what was going on ‘at the grass roots’. Local authorities could apply for grants from this Special Grant for specific projects which could be financed for up to five years on a 75/25% basis (10)
It still seems to have been quite decentralised, and going into quality programmes:
As the local authorities grasped the new idea and sent back descriptions of the areas they regarded as being ‘of special social need’ the kinds of projects supported through the Urban Aid Programme widened in scope. From the nursery schools, day nurseries and children’s homes, family advice centres and language classes for immigrants of the earlier phases, it had extended its embrace to many more informal kinds of organisation by the later phases. The Home Office actively encouraged local authorities to support autonomous forms of organisation that were already active in their areas. Women’s Aid centres, holiday play schemes, housing and neighbourhood advice centres, family planning projects were all included in later phases of the Urban Aid Programme. (11)
But of course there was never enough funding
there have been around five times more applications made than those granted. In 1971 for instance the London Borough of Lambeth submitted applications for projects to cost £103,500 – only £13,650 of this was approved (11)
In 1969 the Home Office set up its version of ‘action research’: This included an array of programmes: Urban Aid (a neighbourhood-based experiment aimed at finding new ways of meeting the needs of people living in areas of high social deprivation; by bringing together the work of all the social services under the leadership of a special project team and also by tapping resources of self help and mutual help which may exist among the people in the neighbourhoods. Home Office Press Release 16.7.69 (12)); the Educational Priority Area (EPA) action-research project; Neighbourhood Schemes intensively targeting money into small deprived areas to complement the other programming; and the National Community Development Project. In the words of civil servant Derek Morell who pushed this through:
The whole project is aimed against fragmentation … The starting point of the project is that ours is a fragmented, disintegrating society. But the project aims at evolutionary changes, not revolution. Depersonalisation is another problem. The technical juggernaut is taking over and we are no longer the masters. The most difficult step will be how to discover how to perform the crucial task of raising the people of Hillfields from a fatalistic dependence on ‘the council’ to self-sufficiency and independence –Minutes, 14.7.69
That all sounds familiar too. And as if it were a race, the Department of the Environment announced in quick succession its own ‘total approach’ scheme: the Six Towns Studies.
In our approach to the environment, we have endeavoured in the first two years under the new DoE to make a switch of resources to bad areas .. . I believe that the next most important step for any department is to bring about a total approach to the urban problem. In the past the attitude has been a series of fragmented decisions not properly co-ordinated and not bringing about the improvement of urban areas which is necessary. –Peter Walker, then Secretary of State for the Environment, in the Budget Debate 1972, quoted in Community Action No.8. (13)
The Department of Health and Social Security (Sir Keith Joseph Minister), then set up a working party to explore ‘whether the cycle of transmitted deprivation would be a fruitful area of research’…investigating how ‘deprivation’ is passed on through the family. (13) Ah, how I love to hate that old chestnut. 1973 brought Quality of Life Studies, courtesy of the Department of the Environment, looking at improving access to leisure activities. They were a bit worried about how to coordinate it all by then, so created the Urban Deprivation Unit (UDU), and the Comprehensive Community Programmes. These were all partnerships between local and national government, but the European Economic Community (EEC) was also involved, and sponsored its own ‘Poverty Programme’ focused on the ‘chronically poor’. The research proliferated.
2. The (non) eradication of poverty
The aims of the EEC programme sound familiar: ‘to develop clearer perceptions of a complex problem and pioneer new techniques for tackling it‘.
The results? Mixed. The effort – beggars belief really.
The inner city areas of Liverpool are the delight of every deprivation theorist. They have been treated with each of the government’s urban deprivation programmes in turn, sometimes with several at a time. An EPA in 1969, a CDP in 1970, a Neighbourhood Scheme in 1971, an Inner Area Study in 1973 which then sponsored an Area Management experiment have all been tried there, and up to 1974 £1,707,213 had been spent on a stunning total of 146 different Urban Aid projects.
In 1968 when the poverty initiatives came to town, 25,000 people were registered as out of work on Merseyside. Four years later their numbers had more than doubled with 52,000 people unemployed. Today, 85,600 men and women, 11.3% of Merseyside’s population, are out of work. Even these telling city-wide figures cover up the real story of the inner-city areas. There the predicament of would-be workers is even worse with up to 20% unemployed and up to 30% among younger people. (19)
It’s all structural, innit. No one wants to tackle that though.
Both the CDP and the Inner Area Study agreed that immediate action was needed to tackle inner-Liverpool’s housing crisis. But though the message of their reports became more insistent, the actual housing output declined. (20)
It all boils down to this, always and everywhere seems like:
The poverty initiatives then have clearly not made any great inroads on inner-Liverpool’s real material problems. All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time.
Let’s just repeat that, because we are still doing it.
All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time.
Right, to continue:
If you live on Merseyside you have a better than average chance of being made redundant, being on the dole for a long time, living in slum conditions, being evicted, and forced to wait over six months for hospital treatment. Your children are more likely to die in infancy, or when, after getting no nursery schooling, they finally get to school, of being in larger classes in worse buildings, only to emerge finally onto the dole. Over 10,000 people leave Liverpool each year as a way of avoiding these problems. Those who are left can debate them in the neighbourhood councils and area management experiments left behind by the ‘poverty projects’. But, as they well know, talk is not going to make any impact on the worsening situation that faces them. (20)
12.5% households were still without hot water in 1966, though that had dropped to 6.5% by 1971 (21). Homelessness figures, though, were rising:
Homelessness has doubled since 1970. On an average day in that year there were 12,874 people applying for temporary accommodation throughout Britain: by 1975 this had increased to 25,120 people a day. Meanwhile there are one million households still on local authority housing waiting lists throughout England while in London alone the total number on the housing waiting list increased from 152,000 in 1965 to 233,000 in 1974. (21)
So what change was achieved?
The problems of ‘deprivation’ then would seem to be as acute as ever for those who live them, and the prospects are bleak. Neither the poverty initiatives, nor the government’s more general policies towards the poor could be said to have had much impact on the problems facing the people who live in the older urban areas. But the programmes have always been small compared to the size of these. Not so much geared to solving the problems, they set out to provide the basis on which policy at both central and local government levels could be improved. Did the EPAs, Inner Area Studies, CDPs and the rest at least succeed in this respect? When it came to it neither Tory nor Labour governments seem to have taken much notice of the major policy recommendations emerging from the programmes although several years have now passed since their first reports were available. (22)
For housing specifically:
In housing too the pattern is much the same. One of the major recommendations of all three Inner Area Studies was the need for more spending on house improvement, with changes in policy to allow poorer owner-occupiers to take up improvement grants and more powers to enable local authorities to ensure that rented property was improved. The local authorities got their greater powers in 1974, as part of the Housing Action Areas scheme, but powers alone are useless without money, and they have now been denied the resources to carry out these proposals at all as government spending on improvement grants has gradually been cut back from £195.2m in 19734 to £85.8m in 1975-6. (23)
1976 brought in a renewed period of cuts — more money going to the ‘urban problem’, but not as much as was being cut in other spending in face of national economic crisis. So – it’s structural inequality. A great quote from the quote from the Liverpool Inner Area Study:
A number of issues emerge from this description of inner area characteristics and the work carried out by Inner Area Studies. The chief one is the poverty and neglect of the area and its people in every sense. To a great extent this poverty is a reflection of inequalities in society as a whole. Clearly the scale and character of the problem is too great for policies concerned solely and specifically with inner areas to be effective. Any fundamental change must come through policies concerned with the distribution of wealth and the allocation of resources. IAS/L1/6 Third Study Review, Nov. 1974. (24)
Next post — the larger political economy of the 1960s, and just why all this spending on certain kinds of solutions could never provide the right answers. I can’t believe we’re still having that conversation, but the CDP did it masterfully.
Acaba de leer La ventana en el rostro, que no he leído por anos, y en este entonces no sabía nada de las referencias a Nazim Hikmet, no apreciaba tanto Federico García Lorca. Este libro publicado por la UCA e imprimido en El Salvador, traído a Los Ángeles por Don Toñito. Uno de los pocos libros, junto con Poemas Clandestinos, que he guardado conmigo desde este entonces, ya casi veinte años.
Junto al dolor del mundo mi pequeño dolor,
junto a mi arresto colegial la verdadera cárcel de los hombres sin voz,
junto a mi sal de lágrimas
la costra secular que sepultó montañas y oropéndolas,
junto a mi mano desarmada el fuego,
junto al fuego el huracán y los fríos derrumbes,
junto a mi sed los niños ahogados
danzando interminablemente sin noches ni estaturas,
junto a mi corazón los duros horizontes
y las flores,
junto a mi miedo el miedo que vencieron los muertos,
junto a mi soledad la vida que recorro,
junto a la diseminada desesperación que me ofrecen,
los ojos de los que amo
diciendo que me aman.
Pero Cantos a Anastasio Aquino? Híjole, son los que mas me encantaban esta vez.
Anastasio Aquino fue la encarnación del más antiguo
ideal del hombre pacíficamente americano: el ideal de
convivir con la tierra, con la libertad, con el amor
En el año de 1832, exactamente un siglo antes de la
dolorosa epopeya de Feliciano Ama y Farabundo Martí,
padres de la patria futura, Anastasio Aquino se rebeló al
frente de la comunidad indígena de San Pedro Nonualco,
contra el sistema opresor de los blancos y ladinos ricos
que comerciaban, como ahora comercian, con el hambre
y el dolor del indio.
Después de muchas batallas victoriosos, fue capturado
por las fuerzas del gobierno salvadoreño y fusilado el
24 de junio de 1833.
Tu pie descalzo ante la dura tierra: barro en el barro.
Tu rostro unánime ante el pueblo: sangre en la sangre.
Tu voz viril de campo enardecido: grito en el grito.
Tu cuerpo, catedral de músculo rebelde: hombre en el hombre.
Tu corazón de pétalos morenos, sin espinas: rosa en la rosa.
Tu paso hacia adelante presuroso: ruta en la ruta.
Tu puño vengador, alzado siempre: piedra en la piedra.
Tu muerte, tu regreso hacia la tierra: lucha en la lucha.
Anastasio Izalco, Lempa Aquino:
desde que tú nacistes se ha hecho necesario apedillar
la lucha y ponerle tu nombre.
(Fuego desde el Jalponga y el Huiscoyolapa,
grito desde el añil, amor desde la hondura de tus puños,
lava desde tu pecho hasta el Chicontepeque,
pueblo desde el ayer hasta la vida.)
Río y volcán: un hombre.
Para la paz
Será cuando la luna se despida del agua
con su corriente oculta de luz inenarrable
Nos robaremos todos los fusiles,
No hay que matar al centinela, el pobre
sólo es función de un sueño colectivo,
un uniforme repleto de suspiros
recordando el arado.
Dejémosle que beba ensimismado su luna y su granito
Bastará con la sombra lanzándonos sus párpados
para llegar al punto.
Nos robaremos todos los fusiles,
Habrá que transportarlos con cuidado,
pero sin detenerse
y abandonarnos entre detonaciones
en las piedras del patio.
Fuera de ahí, ya sólo el viento.
Tendremos todos los fusiles,
No importará la escarcha momentánea
dándose de pedradas con el sudor de nuestro sobresalto,
ni la dudosa relación de nuestro aliento
con la ancha niebla, millonaria en espacios:
caminaremos hasta los sembradíos
y enterraremos esperanzadamente
a todos los fusiles,
para que un raíz de pólvora haga estallar en mariposas
sus tallos minerales
es una primavera futural y altiva
repleta de palomas.
Eric Williams on Capitalism and Slavery is, of course, a classic, and yet another one I wish I had read some time ago. It’s key points — racism emerged out of the economic relationships of slavery, not slavery from racism. That economics remained primary to the motivations of UK statesmen as they first instituted then abolished slavery, as they supported Colonialism, turned against it, then returned to the carving up of Africa. I am more used to the complexities of culture and hegemony and social formations in thinking about race and capitalism, they are still at play here but not explored as much as they are elsewhere. That doens’t stop this from being bad ass.
A quick overview of the narrative, that cuts much out for which I apologise.
Origin of Negro Slavery
Eric Williams notes how the practice of white indentured servitude prepared the way for slavery — and no, it wasn’t the same. But it established a profitable pattern that could be improved upon.
The servant expected land at the end of his contract: the Negro, in a strange environment, conspicuous by his color and features, and ignorant of the white man’s language and ways, could be kept permanently divorced from the land. Racial differences made it easier to justify and rationalize Negro slavery, to exact the mechanical obedience of a plough-ox or a cart-horse, to demand that resignation and that complete moral and intellectual subjection which alone make slave labor possible. finally, and this was the decisive factor, the Negro slave was cheaper. The money which procured a white man’s service for ten years could buy a Negro for life. .. But the experience with white servitude had been invaluable…white servitude was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed.
Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial… (19)
The crux of it all really, but there is so much more here of course. A little on the rationalisations of the times. Climate is a familiar one — it was just too hot and unhealthy for Europeans. But really, all that indentured white servitude had already proved that wrong. As the economy came to be all about sugar in the Carribean, tobacco and cotton on the mainland, plantations grew and labour needs changed.
I can still be shocked by how quickly these changes took place, how fast small farms (and the hopes and dreams of white men often fleeing desperate poverty, even if founding their dreams on conquest) were swallowed up by big ones: Barbados in 1645 — 11,200 small white farmers, 18,300 whites fit to bear arms and 5,680 Negro slaves; 1667 — 745 large plantation owners, 8,300 whites fit to bear arms, and 82,023 slaves (23). I can’t actually imagine that shift in 27 years. This happened on island after island. Nevis, white men decreased by 3/5 between 1672 and 1708, Montserrat over 2/3 between 1672 and 1727 (24). We see a steady process of the dispossession of the dispossessors in a way that works contrary to all myths of meritocracy and promise, even if you are able to take at face value a civilization based on enslavement, rape and genocide.
The end of slavery did not mean the end of the plantation. But Black people got the hell out of there, whites were too high status for that work, so new labour sources had to be found — East Indians. Trinidad imported 145,000 East Indians, British Guiana 238,000 between 1833 and 1917. It boggles the mind. These things boggle my mind even now.
The Development of the Negro Slave Trade
Of course, slavery was a long time developing. The 1st English slave-trading expedition was led by Sir John Hawkins, 1562. It continued, though in a small way, until the establishment of the Caribbean colonies and the introduction of sugar. Eric Williams, like Rodney Walters, ties the development of England tight to the slave trade and its destruction of Africa and the New World, one country profiting from the exploitation of many others. I am going to depart from Williams here to separate out the different cities, trace their individual connections. But without forgetting how they are woven into the whole of this history — see post two for that. This initial step was under the banner of mercantilism.
The slave trade [as compared to East India or China] was ideal in that it was carried on by means of British manufactured goods and was, as far as the British colonies were concerned, inseparably connected with the plantation trade which rendered Britain independent of foreigners for her supply of tropical products. (37)
Under such a profitable system, the courts very quickly inscribed the lives and bodies of slaves as property, Judge Mansfield ruling in 1783 that ‘the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard‘ and awarding thirty pounds to the ship’s investors for each of the 132 slaves thrown overboard when the vessel grew short of water. No homicide charges were contemplated. (46)
British Commerce and the Triangular Trade
So Williams moves on to the rise of the triangle trade we learned about in school, returned to it all of the horror our textbooks stripped away along with a deeper understanding of its profitability: (1) Negroes purchased with British manufactures, (2) transported to plantations to produce tropical goods which created new industries in England, and (3) their maintenance and that of their owners provided another market for British industry, new England agriculture and Newfoundland fishing industries. This wealth did more:
The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution. (52)
This led to the growth of Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow first, that would go on to be invested in manufacture and machinery. Thus these cities of original wealth ‘occupied…the position in the age of trade that Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield occupied later in the age of industry‘ (60). I learned more about British manufacturing here than I ever knew before.
Until the tremendous development of the cotton industry in the Industrial Revolution, wool was the spoiled child of English manufactures. It figured largely in all considerations affecting the slave trade in the century after 1680. The cargo of a slave ship was incomplete without some woolen manufactures–serges, says, perpetuanos, arrangoes and bays. (65)
Which led to some absurdities still with us as a manner of custom:
That woolen goods should figure so prominently in tropical markets is to be attributed to the deliberate policy of mercantilist England. … Woolen undergarments are still common in the islands today, though more among the older generation, and suits of blue serge are still a sign of the well-dressed man. (67)
The West Indian Interest
And so for a while, before this rise of the industrial revolution, the West Indian planter was the great wealth and power, and they much preferred England.
The West Indian planter was a familiar figure in English society in the eighteenth century. The explanation lies in the absentee landlordism which has always been the curse of the Caribbean and s still one of its major problems today. (85)
The curse of the absentee landlord seems ubiquitous. There is also this:
The wealth of the West Indians became proverbial. (91)
They held a monopoly of all seats but one in Bristol for a long time, and represented various other areas in parliament, which I can also still find bewildering. For example, John Gladstone represented Woodstock then Lancaster:
it was his pleasure to listen in May, 1833, to the maiden speech of his son, MP for Newark, in defense of slavery on the family states in Guiana. (93)
These families of slave-generated wealth also entrenched themselves in the House of Lords, and married into high families — ‘There are few, if any, noble houses in England…without a West Indian strain.’ (94)
British Industry and the Triangular Trade
Williams goes on to look at where this power was directed and wealth invested:
Banking: helped provide the large sums needed for cotton factories and building of canals connecting Manchester and Liverpool
Heavy Industry: West Indian trade capital financed James Watt and the steam engine. Antony Bacon early war profiteer — engaged in trade in both victualing troops and ‘supplying seasoned and able Negroes for government contracts in the West Indies‘. Set up iron works in Merthyr Tydfil, rapidly expanded to fulfill government contracts during the American war, set up another furnace at Cyfartha. (103) Just a few examples.
Insurance: Obvious this one.
The American Revolution
This played a big role in the politics of the new world, and not in the way that Americans are taught to understand our early history. New England in particular had problematic relationship with England as it grew to become a competitor with British goods rather than a consumer — which in some ways was what the revolution was actually all about. But initially it was well integrated into the triangle trade as another exporter to the West Indies (with British policy ensuring the West Indies did not produce for themselves, of course).
I just hadn’t realised how closely connected the islands were with the mainland. Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis. Many owned plantations both in the islands and in the South. American succession had a huge impact on them, and one thing I do wonder is why they weren’t incorporated in the new US… I suppose perhaps because they were already in decline. Instead, they were just left.
Fifteen thousand slaves died of famine in Jamaica alone between 1780 and 1787, and American independence was the first stage in the decline of the sugar colonies. (121)
‘The Caribbean ceased to be a British lake… The center of gravity in the British Empire shifted from the Caribbean Sea to the Indian Ocean, from the West Indies to India. In 1783… prime Minister Pitt began to take an abnormally great interest in the British dominions to the East. In 1787 Wilberforce was encouraged by Pitt to sponsor the proposal for abolition of the slave trade. In the same year the East India Company turned its attention to the cultivation of sugar… (123)
Jesus. Profit falls and people starve.
The Development of British Capitalism 1783-1833
This becomes the period of the huge growth of cotton manufacturing (see Manchester), wool suddenly becomes an import, primarily from Australia whose whole economy shifts. Profit interests shift from West Indies to South America and India as UK becomes exporter of manufactured goods worldwide — thus exploding the need for earlier Mercantilism wisdom of monopoly. Manchester and others wished to trade with everyone, no barriers — and so, the rise of free trade movement. Well, it was coming soon.
Mercantilism had run its course. It was necessary only to give political expression to the new economic situation. (133)
It would be good for the West Indies.
The New Industrial Order
That’s because the West Indians stood for monopoly and mercantilism, and both were going down.
The attack on the West Indians was more than an attack on slavery. It was an attack on monopoly. Their opponents were not only the humanitarians but the capitalists. The reason for the attack was not only that the West Indian economic system was vicious but that it was also so unprofitable that for this reason alone its destruction was inevitable. (135)
The attack falls into three phases: the attack on the slave trade, the attack on slavery, the attack on the preferential sugar duties. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery in 1833, the sugar preference in 1846. The three events are inseparable. The very vested interests which had been built up by the slave system now turned and destroyed that system. (136)
It’s an extraordinary about face.
The growth of Anti-Imperialism
There’s this strange period that I never knew about, after the loss of the original colonies, when the West Indies no longer of any importance to anyone but its plantation owners, when prevailing attitudes were against Empire. It didn’t last that long, obviously. But it did exist for a while, while greater profits were to be found in free trade.
The colonial system was the spinal cord of the commercial capitalism of the mercantile epoch. In the era of free trade the industrial capitalists wanted no colonies at all, least of all the West Indies.
The trend dated back, as we have seen, to the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Its development paralleled the development of the free trade movement. The whole world now became a British colony and the West Indies were doomed. The leader of the movement was Cobden. Cobden referred approvingly to Adam Smith’s chapters in his “immortal work” on the expense of colonies. (142)
And part of the global politicking? Destroying the immensely valuable French colony of Saint Domingue.
Pitt’s plan was twofold: to recapture the European market with the aid of sugar from India, and to secure an international abolition of the slave trade, which would ruin St Domingue. (146)
He failed in both — West Indians managed to keep import duties high, and he couldn’t get the Dutch, Spanish and French to abolish slavery. After the French Revolution, England attempted to take the colony by force — as Williams notes, Pitt couldn’t then have had a successful sugar colony and the abolition of slavery.
But instead, they didn’t capture the colony, just helped destroy it. Abolition wasn’t so important, and Pitt stepped back from it. The slave trade doubled in fact, and Britain conquered Trinidad and British Guiana. It became clear that sugar was most profitable in new territories, with its slash and burn agriculture dependent on fresh soil. Old colonies were saturated, even with destruction of St Domingue the West Indies were still not profitable, instead Cuba and other islands succeeded in producing cheaper sugar.
Wilberforce rejoiced: West Indian distress could not be imputed to abolition. Actually, abolition was the direct result of that distress. (150)
West Indies unable to compete,with Brazil and Cuba. Williams writes:
Overproduction in 1807 demanded abolition; overproduction in 1833 demanded emancipation. (152)
British Capitalism and the West Indies
And so a remarkable change:
Whereas before, in the eighteenth century, every important vested interest in England was lined up on the side of monopoly and the colonial system; after 1783, one by one, every one of those interests came out against monopoly and the West Indian slave system. (154)
“The Commercial Part of the Nation” and slavery
News flash. Capitalists only occasional abolitionists.
The “Saints” and Slavery
So we can’t completely forget the actual abolitionists, Williams admitted it was ‘one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time‘ (178). Of course it wasn’t sentimentality but economics that were the main driving force, but it’s nice to believe it was ‘justice, humanity and sound policy‘ as the bill said it was.
There is an indictment of Wilberforce in here, not that he’s hard to go after…I loved it though, having read quite a bit about the awfulness of the Clapham Sect.
There is a certain smugness about the man, his life, his religion. As a leader, he was inept, addicted to moderation, compromise and delay. He deprecated extreme measures and feared popular agitation. He relied for success upon aristocratic patronage, parliamentary diplomacy and private influence with men in office. He was a lobbyist, and it was a common saying that his vote could safely be predicted, for it was certain to be opposed to his speech. (181)
Their campaign was only directed at abolishing slavery in the West Indies, and only of Blacks. The Clapham Sect had various interest in East India and they didn’t want those troubled.
The Slaves and Slavery
Can’t leave out the agency of slaves themselves, of struggle, of uprising. And of course Eric Williams doesn’t. This is because:
Contrary to popular and even learned belief, however, as the political crisis deepened in Britain, the most dynamic and powerful social force in the colonies was the slave himself. This aspect of the West Indian problem has been studiously ignored. (201)
This despite the power and inspiration of the Maroons of Jamaica, Bush Negroes of British Guiana, the revolt of St Domingue. And endless revolt. In 1808: a slave revolt in British Guiana. 1816, Barbados. 1823, British Guiana again — fifty plantations, 12,000 people. Continued unrest. 1831, Antigua then Jamaica over Christmas that spread. 1833, emancipation.
So a few ideas and principles in the form Eric Williams gives them:
The decisive forces in the period of history we have discussed are the developing economic forces
The various contending groups of dominant merchants, industrialists and politicians, while keenly aware of immediate interest, are for that very reason generally blind to the long-range consequences of their various actions, proposals, policies. (210)
The political and moral ideas of the age are to examined in the very closest relation to the economic development.
An outworn interest, whose bankruptcy smells to heaven in historical perspective, can exercise an obstructionist and disruptive effect which can only be explained by the powerful services it had previously rendered and the entrenchment previously gained.
The ideas built on those interests continue long after the interests have been destroyed and work their old mischief, which is all the more mischievous because the interests to which they correspond no longer exist. (211)
Next post, a bit more on how city by city the UK was linked and remains linked to slavery in the New World. All of these the kind of insights that stay with you.
[Williams, Eric (1989 ) Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch.]
I read the short version of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography many years ago and it impressed me so deeply, I had always meant to read the longer version — one of them at least. Too many years separate them for me even to be sure of the differences, apart from the recounting of the scene where Douglass stands up to Covey — much expanded here, but I am not sure more powerful for that. Still. The moment where enough is enough, where resistance is embraced fully, where everything changes. An incredible moment. But this is a book of powerful moments. So much of what is theorised over the next 150 years is here already, though always in a way that pathologises slavery not those bound and tortured by it. If only we had kept to that tradition.
Geneological trees do not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence here in the north, sometimes designated father, is literally abolished in slave law and slave practice. It is only once in a while that an exception is found to this statement. (34-35)
Of course, Douglass’s father was white. Master or overseer, he is not explicit — does not know, does not wish to know, does not wish to say.
The practice of separating children from their mothers, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with a brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and the heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution. (37-38)
Frederick Douglass belonged to the Lloyds, a plantation along the Wye river named after the river in Wales whence they came. Knowing the Wye river — it brings these connections home. From rural wales to owning slaves in Maryland.
Frederick Douglass grows up. Always cold. Always hungry. Always questioning.
The old doctrine that submission is the best cure for outrage and wrong, does not hold good on the slave plantation. He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest; and that slave who has the courage to stand up for himself against the overseer, although he may have many hard stripes at the first, becomes, in the end, a freeman, even though he sustain the formal relation of a slave. (95)
There is, of course, a line to be walked here because too much and they will just shoot you — this is clear in the text despite the numerous forceful statements like the one above.
I’ve just finished re-reading Du Bois on The Souls of Black Folk, and found it powerful that Douglass too spends time on the songs sung by slaves and their meaning and importance. It was often demanded of them that they sing, you cannot plot while singing, you cannot run away. But song transformed into something else. Douglass relates that it is not until after escaping slavery and looking back that the real meaning of the songs struck him.
They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of these wild notes always depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness… Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery… (99)
But then, still a child, he is sent to Baltimore, and it is strange to think, that without this arbitrary decision the future course of his life might not have been possible. For here he has opportunity to learn to read, to play with poor white children, to ask questions, to obtain knowledge, to see a world beyond the plantation. And, in the beginning, to have a taste of something different.
At first, Mrs Auld evidently regarded me simply as a child, like any other child; she had not come to regard me as property. This latter thought was a thing of conventional growth…it took several years to change the natural sweetness of her temper into fretful bitterness. (144-145)
Douglass illustrates time and time again how the structures of slavery constrain the humanity of both slave and slave-owner. The nature of slavery is such that there can be no good owner, no kind mistress because to own a slave is to deny the humanity of another human being. Mrs Auld begins kindly — begins to teach him to read, and is stopped in her tracks by her husband. It becomes fully brought home to her that reading and slavery are incompatible. In bowing to this, she loses her own self as she must.
As Douglass comes to understand this, the bewildering changes from kindness to bitterness, the reminders of his place in the household, he is also working out the nature of his own morality under slavery. That within a structure that has robbed him of both liberty and all reward of his labour, his right to steal for self preservation cannot be questioned. With no freedom of choice, no slave can be held morally responsible or accountable, rather all responsibility lies with those who created an enforce slavery.
There are insights too, into slavery’s impact on the class distinctions made in the South:
Slaves, too, readily distinguish between the birthright bearing of the original slaveholder and the assumed attitudes of the accidental slaveholder; and while they cannot respect either, they certainly despise the latter more than the former. (192)
Refusing to call him Master only one of many subtle ways of showing this. But it is so clear that status is entirely bound up in ownership of other human beings at this time, even though a certain level of privilege is granted to all those with white skin. Douglass is thinking all of these things, but can do little. At the age of 16 he is sent to work for a man named Covey for year, to be broken. And after 6 months of being broken, he stands up, refuses to be whipped, fights back.
…this battle with Mr Covey–undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is–was the turning point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I was A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. (246)
He was never whipped again. He does wonder why he wasn’t just killed — the punishment decreed by law for such defiance. The loss of face that Covey would have incurred is most likely the reason, but he himself has seen someone murdered for less. He describes the price of being a man — being willing to die. He also notes the many other things that work to keep human beings enslaved. Ties to family and friends, to place and familiarity. The granting of holidays, and other things that keep ‘minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they are deprived. A certain degree of attainable good must be kept before them’ (253).
One of teh most powerful sentences I think:
The thought of only being a creature of the present and the past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future–a future with hope in it. (273)
I think this is perhaps the terror of poverty as well, though it cannot be compared to slavery. But it appears again in one of the speeches at the end. A future could only lie in freedom. He plans an attempt at escape with a group of dear friends and is betrayed, but without quite the proof needed to convince his owner that the freedom break was actually going to be attempted. So while threatened with sale to the South, he is not in the end taken there. He is sent back to Baltimore, and apprenticed in the shipyards.
He has the shit beaten out of him by white apprentices there, partially at the instigation of the white carpenters who stand and watch it all. He notes that one of the elements in slavery is this:
the conflict of slavery with the interests of the white mechanics and laborers of the south. … The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black man himself… The slave is robbed, by his master, of all his earnings, above what is required for his bare physical necessities; and the white man is robbed by the slave system, of the just results of his labor, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages. (309-310)
Douglass writes this will set the white laborers in the vanguard against slavery — it’s curious that he is right and wrong, for in much of the north and in California they surely are against slavery, but equally against Black labour. Still, we see here the intersections of race, economic systems, labour, struggle…
He escapes. Wanders lost in NY afraid for his life and recapture, no money, no friends. He doesn’t wonder that some return South. But he reaches safety with the abolitionists and they recommend he move to New Bedford. Which sounds bad ass. He tells a story in which a newcomer threatens one of the community with informing on him to his old master. A meeting is called of the whole Black community, and at the end of it
…at the close of his prayer, the old man (one of the numerous family of Johnsons
) rose from his knees, deliberately surveyed his audience, and then said, in a tone of solemn resolution, “Well, friends, we have got him here, and I would now recommend that you young men should just take him outside the door and kill him. (348)
He escapes, sadly. But Douglass writes
A slave could not be taken from that town seventeen years ago, any more than he could be so taken away now. the reason is, that the colored people in that city are educated up to the point of fighting for their freedom, as well as speaking for it. (348)
That brings a tear.
So Douglass comes to the attention of the abolitionists as a speaker, begins to travel and lecture. He reads more, speaks more, thinks. He is fucking brilliant, far more so than those around him and they don’t like it, tell him to speak more like a slave, to just give his story and let them denounce the wrongs and provide the solutions. Whites in the audiences start murmuring at his eloquence, refuse to believe that he is a slave as he doesn’t speak like one or act like one. Makes you want to throw things.
And so Douglass writes the first version of his autobiography to free himself from these insinuations…which is, of course, a huge risk and means his almost certain recapture. And so he goes to England. where like many others before and after, he is treated as an equal (though all this would change for other generations of Black people coming to England). Money is raised to buy his freedom so he can return to the US without the threat of recapture hanging over him. (He is criticised for allowing this, by those who don’t know what it is like to be owned or to have the fear of being taken back hanging over them.) More money is raised to provide him with a printing press, so he can begin his own paper. And the white abolitionists really fucking hate that, as you can imagine — they argue it’s not needed, that it will interfere with the lecturing they have planned for him, that he is a better speaker than writer, and that it can’t succeed. William Lloyd Garrison has his own paper after all. So Douglass moves to Rochdale to avoid competition with them. They hate it even more when, upon deep thought, Douglass decides that they are wrong in their analysis of the issue and in their tactics of refusals to vote and demands that the slave-states be cut free from the union.
He notes near the end, the many instances of racism in the north. The prejudice that existed even among abolitionists and the awkwardness of their denials underlining how deeply it ran. Like their insistence they were ‘not afraid to walk with him’. He resists the existence of ‘Jim Crow’ cars in trains and trams, refusing to move and fighting any attempts to so remove him. Jim Crow this early, in name and in segregated carriages. I had forgotten. He is such a well-connected figure by this time, his battles are successful.
At the end are a collection of speeches and damn. They are incredible, what a thing to have heard him speak. Above all the speech for the 4th of July, which I have read before. But some excerpts, first from his reception speech at Finsbury Chapel.
I am here to say that I think the term slavery is sometimes abused by identifying it with that which it is not. Slavery in the United States is the granting of that power by which one man exercises and enforces a right of poetry in the body and soul of another. The condition of a slave is simply that of the brute beast. He is a piece of property–a marketable commodity…to be bought or sold at will and caprice of the master who claims him to be his property; he is spoken of, thought of, and treated as property. His own good, his conscience, his intellect, his affections, are all set aside by the master. The will and the wishes of the master are the law of the slave. He is as much a piece of property as a horse. If he is fed, he is fed because he is property. If he is clothed, it is with a view to the increase of his value as property. Whatever of comfort is necessary to him for his body or soul that is inconsistent with his being property, is carefully wrested from him, not only by public opinion, but by the law of the country. He is carefully deprived of everything that tends in the slightest degree to detract from his value as property. He is deprived of education. God has given him an intellect; the slaveholder declares it shall not be cultivated. If his moral perception leads him in a course contrary to his value as property, the slaveholder declares he shall not exercise it. The marriage institution cannot exist among slaves, and one-sixth of the population of democratic America is denied its privileges by the law of the land. What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage? (408)
And then this rousing finale
The slaveholders want total darkness on the subject. They want the hatchway shut down, that the monster may crawl in his den of darkness, crushing human hopes and happiness, destroying the bondman at will, and having no one to reprove or rebuke him. Slavery shrinks from the light; it hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest its deeds should be reproved. To tear off the mask from this abominable system, to expose it to the light of heaven, aye, to the heat of the sun, that it may burn and wither it out of existence, is my object in coming to this country. I want the slaveholder surrounded, as by a wall of anti-slavery fire, so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light. (418)
There is the letter to his old master, written on the anniversary of his escape. It is excoriating, and also moving…
The fact is, there are few here who would not return to the South in the event of emancipation. We want to live in the land of our birth, and to lay our bones by the side of our fathers’; and nothing short of an intense love of personal freedom keeps us from the South. For the sake of this, most of us would live on a crust of bread and a cup of cold water.(424)
At this moment, you are probably the guilty holder of at least three of my own dear sisters, and my only brother in bondage. These you regard as your property. They are recorded on your ledger, or perhaps have been sold to human flesh mongers, with a view to filling your own ever-hungry purse. Sir, I desire to know how and where these dear sisters are. Have you sold them? or are they still in your possession? What has become of them? are they living or dead? And my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse, to die in the woods—is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them. (426-427)
Speech on The Nature of Slavery:
First of all, I will state, as well as I can, the legal and social relation of master and slave. A master is one—to speak in the vocabulary of the southern states—who claims and exercises a right of property in the person of a fellow-man. This he does with the force of the law and the sanction of southern religion. The law gives the master absolute power over the slave. He may work him, flog him, hire him out, sell him, and, in certain contingencies, kill him, with perfect impunity. The slave is a human being, divested of all rights—reduced to the level of a brute—a mere “chattel” in the eye of the law—placed beyond the circle of human brotherhood—cut off from his kind—his name, which the “recording angel” may have enrolled in heaven, among the blest, is impiously inserted in a master’s ledger, with horses, sheep, and swine. In law, the slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home. He can own nothing, possess nothing, acquire nothing, but what must belong to another. To eat the fruit of his own toil, to clothe his person with the work of his own hands, is considered stealing. He toils that another may reap the fruit; he is industrious that another may live in idleness; he eats unbolted meal that another may eat the bread of fine flour; he labors in chains at home, under a burning sun and biting lash, that another may ride in ease and splendor abroad; he lives in ignorance that another may be educated; he is abused that another may be exalted; he rests his toil-worn limbs on the cold, damp ground that another may repose on the softest pillow; he is clad in coarse and tattered raiment that another may be arrayed in purple and fine linen; he is sheltered only by the wretched hovel that a master may dwell in a magnificent mansion; and to this condition he is bound down as by an arm of iron.
From this monstrous relation there springs an unceasing stream of most revolting cruelties. The very accompaniments of the slave system stamp it as the offspring of hell itself. To ensure good behavior, the slaveholder relies on the whip; to induce proper humility, he relies on the whip; to rebuke what he is pleased to term insolence, he relies on the whip; to supply the place of wages as an incentive to toil, he relies on the whip; to bind down the spirit of the slave, to imbrute and destroy his manhood, he relies on the whip, the chain, the gag, the thumb-screw, the pillory, the bowie knife the pistol, and the blood-hound. These are the necessary and unvarying accompaniments of the system. Wherever slavery is found, these horrid instruments are also found. (429-430)
It is only when we contemplate the slave as a moral and intellectual being, that we can adequately comprehend the unparalleled enormity of slavery, and the intense criminality of the slaveholder. I have said that the slave was a man. … The first work of slavery is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims which distinguish men from things, and persons from property. Its first aim is to destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility. It reduces man to a mere machine. It cuts him off from his Maker, it hides from him the laws of God, and leaves him to grope his way from time to eternity in the dark, under the arbitrary and despotic control of a frail, depraved, and sinful fellow-man. (431)
Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? (441)
Those words are still pretty true.
America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! (442)
What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? (444)
Words cannot express my admiration or respect. Yet I am still full of questions, about the wife who came from Maryland also, about her life, about the day to day…more to read, always more to read.
Douglass, Frederick (1969 ) My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.