Leaderless democracy

No, not the kind that continues to bottle us up in debt-ceiling kabuki. The other kind:

What was the occupiers’ one demand? They never said. And as they practiced a leaderless form of democracy, there was no one to say. The movement did have a slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent,” informed by recent economics research exposing the gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else. Yet the occupiers didn’t seem particularly inspired by the technical solutions that economists proposed. When Joseph Stiglitz, the World Bank’s former chief economist and a critic of unregulated capitalism, came to Zuccotti Park to complain about how financial markets had “misallocated capital,” he looked adorably out of place in his collared dress shirt and khakis, surrounded by activists in kaffiyehs, baseball caps, and hoodies.

Journalists trying to understand this inchoate insurgency turned for answers to Graeber, a seasoned veteran of the global justice movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s and a central figure in Zuccotti Park. It helped that he was a witty commentator with a knack for summing things up crisply. He’d been the one to suggest the language of “the 99 percent,” which he’d adapted from an article by Stiglitz. Graeber was also, as some of his fellow occupiers were surprised to learn, a major anthropological theorist. Starting as an expert on highland Madagascar, Graeber had become a free-range thinker specializing in questions of hierarchy and value but interested in virtually everything. He’d recently written a 600-page ethnography of the protests against neoliberal globalization—protests he’d joined himself.

Leaderless decision-making is the route to the real possibility, messy and littered with threat and chaos though it is. And that’s just the point – Graeber was absolutely correct about the limited political horizons [most] people come to expect. And of course we are taught this, to make nice, to play well with others, even if they actively mean us harm. And make no mistake, there are actual antagonists in our midst and we’re definitely not talking about the horn-hatted, shirtless spear holders. These are people in suits, and many of the issues that stir madness within those impatient with a complicit media or corrupt pols are seen only as rounding errors by the faceless conglomerati.

No one will be allowed – that is, given permission – to do anything about climate change, income inequality or anything else. Some call it anarchy, but being stuck with oppressive systems is a refusal to re-imagine. It’s fear – fear of messes, fear of change, fear of losing security – as if. Meanwhile, tides are lapping. Leave the grand historical narrative to Marx.

Suppression flimflammery as GOTV?

Well, whadya know? All the Republicans’ high profile efforts to get the attention of the people they are trying to disenfranchise is actually working!

Via our comrades at Balloon Juice.

Keep it up, state- and national-level Republicans. You can do this!

Asset Class not in Session

Exotic financial instruments. Linking ‘investors’ and funding to projects to weave profits out of insurance or management strategies designed to ease or hasten climate adaptation… doesn’t actually work:

That’s because of the nature of the underlying “asset.” Sure, in theory, you could securitize the construction of a seawall and capture returns via fees from wealthy coastal dwellers or local councils. But seawalls are not widgets. Each has to be uniquely designed for a specific location and its conditions. There are few economies of scale.

There’s also no established norm about how the costs of climate adaptation projects should be shared among those who are being protected. Will enough residents willingly pay for our theoretical seawall, either directly or via their taxes? Who’s being protected, and at whose expense? Structures that protect one stretch of beach can often create problems further along the coastline.

Adaptation doesn’t fall into a neat category. It can mean investing in infrastructure or designing programs to protect nature. It can involve constructing big sea walls, but it can also be about retaining trees on city streets, or ensuring access to clean drinking water. Right now these measures are too small to interest big pension funds and asset managers. A report by UNEP and others found only about two dozen projects larger than $25 million over the last few years.

Important to separate the reality that climate measures are necessary, and will necessarily save money down the road, from the notion that they represent just another opportunity to build a new revenue stream. The article wisely links climate to justice, and as much as it pains many Americans, there is no way around that. It has been true for even longer than it’s been evident – and it’s been evident for a very long time: people cannot live without justice. Racial. Climate. Economic. These are non-negotiable bonds, in the common parlance. We will do it for its own sake, because it benefits people. THAT’s the return. Clean up the rentier class soiling the revenue stream, the water will run clearly.

Image: Photograph: Emory Kristof/National Geographic/Getty Images

Don’t Look at This

Years ago, I worked construction. Mainly residential stuff but several projects were connected to renovations of a downtown business. The address had(has) a courtyard with large steel gates and several times we had to do some welding on said gates in proximity to pedestrians passing on the sidewalk. During these occasions, we would station one of the guitar players laborers next to the action with a sign telling curious passersby something like, ‘Welding, Don’t look!’ Invariably, said passers would look directly at the sparkling blinding arc.

Nutso Trumpers have spooked politicians in D.C. today, saying they were returning for Trump’s inauguration and return to power. Trump himself has still been saying he won the election and is the real Preznit. Meanwhile, the government has done not so much about anything that happened on 1/6. Dallying about legislative fixes, allowing elected hucksters to read fantasies into the record, hold-up nominations, water down bills and glad-hand insurrectionists.

They are traitors. They broke more than norms. Come out smoking. Grab Hawley by the scruff of his IV neck and let him know his Jeff Davis-abetting will not be tolerated starting last Tuesday. Push the new Voting Rights Act. Put Harriet Tubman on the 20. Make DC and PR states. Get. In. Their. Faces.
The whole shebang remains on the cliff edge. Don’t look.

More than a feeling

Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir
With the Lost Photographs of David Attie
by Truman Capote
Let this be the last election in which Republicans are allowed to vote against people voting. To win office, you must be required to win more votes, rather than suppress or decrease the number of voters. The only way to be prepared to govern – not reinforce your advantages, not reward your nests or feather your friends, however the saying goes. Unfettered capitalism has done more to undermine capitalist systems than an army of Engelses and a brigade of Marxes. Speaking of whom, To the Finland Station:

“To the Finland Station” is different. The structure is simple: the decline of the bourgeois revolutionary tradition after the French Revolution, as Wilson sees it reflected in the writings of Jules Michelet, Ernest Renan, Hippolyte Taine, and Anatole France; the emergence of revolutionary socialism, seen through the writings of Saint-Simon, the communitarians Charles Fourier and Robert Owen, and Marx and Engels; the triumph of Communism, illustrated by the careers of Lenin and Trotsky. There are things Wilson minimized that would have complicated this narrative: the persistence of a non-Communist socialist ideal in Western Europe; the liberal tradition in Russian politics (to which Nabokov’s father belonged); the success and failure of the Mensheviks, of whom Wilson did not make much. And, of course, if the book were being written now, the vicious side of Marxist and Leninist thought, mostly a subtext in Wilson’s account, would guide the narrative, and the story would touch down in Siberia or Berlin rather than at the Finland Station.

But we don’t read “To the Finland Station” as a book about the Russian Revolution anymore. What draws us now is the subtitle: “A Study in the Writing and Acting of History.” History is the true subject of Wilson’s book, and what he evokes is what it felt like to believe—as Vico and Michelet, Fourier and Saint-Simon, Hegel and Marx, Lenin and Trotsky all believed—that history holds the key to the meaning of life. The evocation is successful because when Wilson began writing “To the Finland Station” he believed in history, too. He thought that history had a design, and that the Depression was an event fully comprehensible within the context of that design: it was the long-predicted collapse of the capitalist order. “To the Finland Station” is valuable as a window on the nineteenth century, but it is also a poignant artifact of the nineteen-thirties, a time when many people thought that history was something you could get on the right side or the wrong side of. It was an idea indistinguishable from faith, and Marx was one of its prophets.

It’s a dirty foul that American school kids don’t learn about Jules Michelet. We must get beyond this aversion to learning about certain histories, be it socialism or the 1619 project, whatever. The less you know, well, the less you know and suddenly another Trump falls off the turnip truck yesterday and the corporate types get summoned to the cut of his jib, obscuring the more accurate assessments, ‘something just ain’t right with that boy.’

Image by David Attie, 1959, from the NYRB

What does Bruised Red mean?

More ridiculous by the day, wasted time, wasted lockdown, wasted lives for reasons unexplained. People are not human resources.

Stuffed in a new thing:

He didn’t mean to use the word enemy, but now that he had, it was difficult to take back. What’s worse is that he was less confused than ever. Sides had been taken and _____ knew, like people always know, what side they are actually on. The more dangerous slide waited at the very beginning of every turn, steeper for those shod with the wrong footing or none at all, quick decisions about direction that appeared at first correctable were only so because of the misplaced training. Maybe the training had all been designed, at the turn away from classical disciplines, to produce this very result, but choosing that cynicism inferred a luxury it had also already eliminated. The speed and efficiency were proportional to the devastation. People completely bought into how fast everything was happening even though nothing outside of them had changed. Nothing beyond their own habits and consumptions against missing out, losing something nonexistent, closing an opportunity – ideas that had long been propagated on the under-educated.

Requiescat in pace, John Lewis. The great man.

June 4, 1989

crowds on a green football pitch

A very weird time, compared to now. Both in its strange surreality at the time, and within the context of the even more bizarre and dangerous fascism of today, the protest and massacres of hundreds during the student-led movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989 are a haunted monument to breakdown.
The Chinese state de-legitimized itself with the actions of the People’s Liberation Army on that day and the days that followed. It was only for the people to forget and become accustomed to the new stance of the state, and begin to defend it against further incursive protest. Fortunately, even with all of their successful efforts along so many economic fronts, the state has performed woefully in the fight against memory.

Many millions of Americans watched in awe at the courage of the protestors in the square, their wonderful, makeshift Lady Liberty, and then in horror as the square was cleared. Did we understand the source of the bravery of the individuals, the solemn esteem, honor and homage they presented to some of our very own institutions and well-noted principles in yearning for their own? We allowed ourselves to be flattered, perhaps even extended pre-virtual hand of support, of course otherwise held harmless. The protestors are right! How dare the Army? How dare the government kill its own people!

Having fetishized liberty and freedom practically of all meaning, what remains of our ability to reject, to fight oppression and coercion, to remember? We know what we are seeing this week. Can we recognize it?

Image: Hongkongers remember Tiananmen dead in Victoria Park, June 4, 2020

Wasn’t Just Orwell

Bertolt Brecht:

Under Ni-En’s [Stalin’s] leadership industry was being constructed without exploiters and agriculture collectively organized in Su [the Soviet Union]. But the associations [parties] outside Su decayed. It was not the members who elected the secretaries, but the secretaries who elected the members. The political line was decreed by Su and the secretaries paid by Su. When mistakes were made, those who pointed them out were punished, but those who committed them remained in office. Thus they were soon no longer the best, merely the most compliant… Those in authority in Su no longer learned any facts, because the secretaries no longer reported anything that might not be welcome.

Me-ti, the Book of Twists and Turns.

Not the Same as it Ever Was

Things shutting down, a leadership vacuum and sports leading the way to a quieter next few weeks brings up a lot of possibilities that fall on the interesting/frightening continuum. What will be the new normal that follows this different normal?

Virtually every activity that entails or facilitates in-person human interaction seems to be in the midst of a total meltdown as the coronavirus outbreak erases Americans’ desire to travel. The NBA, NHL, and MLB have suspended their seasons. Austin’s South by Southwest canceled this year’s festival and laid off a third of its staff. Amtrak says bookings are down 50 percent and cancelations are up 300 percent; its CEO is asking workers to take unpaid time off. Hotels in San Francisco are experiencing vacancy rates between 70 and 80 percent. Broadway goes dark on Thursday night. The CEOs of Southwest and JetBlue have both compared the impact of COVID-19 on air travel to 9/11. (That was before President Donald Trump banned air travel from Europe on Wednesday night.) Universities, now emptying their campuses, have never tried online learning on this scale. White-collar companies like Amazon, Apple, and the New York Times (and Slate!) are asking employees to work from home for the foreseeable future.

But what happens after the coronavirus?

In some ways, the answer is: all the old normal stuff. The pandemic will take lives and throttle economies and scuttle routines, but it will pass. Americans will never stop going to basketball games. They won’t stop going on vacation. They’ll meet to do business. No decentralizing technology so far—not telegrams, not telephones, not television, and not the internet—has dented that human desire to shake hands, despite technologists’ predictions to the contrary.

Yet there are real reasons to think that things will not revert to the way they were last week. Small disruptions create small societal shifts; big ones change things for good. The O.J. Simpson trial helped tank the popularity of daytime soap operas. The New York transit strike of 1980 is credited with prompting several long-term changes in the city, including bus and bike lanes, dollar vans, and women wearing sneakers to work. The 1918 flu pandemic prompted the development of national health care in Europe.

It seems like a good time to wonder: do you have stuff to Read? Write? Paint? Plant? Play?

Work on other stuff, or just yourself. Rest, and stay healthy. Think about what ‘different’ might be like, how it could be better.

Squamish Nation not squeamish on blending indigeneity and urban design

Clunky title, but this story on the re-development of one of Canada’s smallest First Nations reserves mixes boldness with vision for Vancouver that is easy to romanticize but more nearly resembles a living model for cities going forward.

Few First Nations reserves in Canada are found so centrally in urban areas, and this unique location has given the Squamish Nation a chance to explode local city-building norms. Construction begins in 2021, and at more than 500 units per acre, Senakw’s density will reach Hong Kong levels – a fact that is only allowed because Senakw exists not on city land, but on reserve land, which is technically federal.

Another striking feature is that only 10% of apartments will include parking, unlike the city’s rules that mandate one parking space per unit. The buildings will also forgo the podium-and-tower design that’s become a hallmark of “Vancouverism” in favour of slender high-rises maximising public space. The buildings could be up to 56 storeys tall, towering above the low-rise neighbourhoods nearby.

But beyond even the serious density considerations, there is the language slight of hand that gets at something far more pernicious:

“In the early history of Vancouver, and colonial cities generally, there is this opposition assumed between the civilization cities are imagined to represent, and the imagined savageness of Indigenous people,” [Stanger-Ross] says. 

The ways that the terms ‘urban areas’, ‘cities’, and even abstractions like ‘density’ have been co-opted as code words for racist politicking is maybe coming full-circle. Hopeful, I know. But good work, First Nations folk. Right racists depend on decent people being too nice, too squeamish, plus the ever-present lack of temerity to call out, punch back, or in this case, build up. Re-take the words, then re-make the savage cities with civilizing force of architecture.