Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thoughts for the Season

So I woke up this morning thinking about "The Homeless," which is only natural in weather like this, I suppose.

The emergence of "homelessness" as an identity category reveals the repugnance of the neoliberal version of social activism at its bluntest. "Homelessness" was invented as a social status—the equivalent of an estate--over the 1980s with the collusion of government agencies, academics, foundations and advocate/activists. The Grand Compromise, fitting the terms of "activism" under emerging neoliberalism, was to accept recognition of the "homeless" as a population with special needs for social services—shelters and reform of shelter administration, treatment for addiction, mental disorders, emergency housing, pro forma job counseling etc. Everything, that is, except a stable, secure, and decent place to live, which would require limitation of the juggernaut of urban redevelopment and bolstering social wage protection. The "activist" justification for this compromise was a combination of rationality and immediacy of need. The larger and deeper sources of homelessness are too big to tackle and certainly not in a way that can address people's immediate needs. So, the question became, what can we do to make people's lives better that takes as given that they have no place to live? (Social scientists, of course, particularly those cavorting between Hyde Park and Evanston, played a substantial role in providing a legitimizing "it's not so simple as providing housing for people" discourse in all the predictable variants. I recall getting the dinner guest tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright—or maybe Frank Lloyd Wright's student-designed home of a colleague who was then writing his explanation of why it's more complicated than that—really just a fanciful taxonomy of types of homelessness based on a dearth of direct experience that would have shamed Richard Hakluyt—and his proposal to bring back tiger cage housing as a more humane modification of the hazardous shelters) And here we are. Homelessness grows unnoticed; a social service apparatus—largely privatized—has grown, with its own political economy, around minimally ameliorating its effects, or appearing to do so, and young people—the ones who are to lead us to a better world that coincidentally looks suspiciously like nothing more than a superficially more rationally administered version of this one—imagine that ladling soup at the church kitchen or picking up people to take to cooling or warming centers, getting to know and be enriched by their personal stories, getting a mother and her three kids into an SRO motel, etc is fighting for social justice and, of course, a good way to soak up Life and boost the extracurrics on the Harvard Law application.

And then there are the more serious activists, the ones who have ideas about prefiguration and embodying alternatives. I've been involved in three public housing displacement fights, in Chicago, Stamford CT and New Orleans post-Katrina. The first was led by an activist tenants association that had official recognition as a representative body in the CHA system, even though the latter's public rhetoric, along with the City's, kept insisting that the body that it recognized as the official representative of Cabrini-Green tenants represented no one other than themselves. Because of the scale and power of entrenched interests on the other side, including Allison Davis's Habitat development company to which Valerie Jarrett had connections and Obama more indirect ones, from the outset it was clear that the only hope was to negotiate the best possible terms of surrender. We were able to get what we got partly because the Canadian bank that was the central financier was getting skittish about the project, and Daley and the CHA didn't want to go to trial, and even that settlement was sold out after the fact in implementation. The Stamford campaign was led by a coalition of unions, a quirky concatenation of circumstances that worked in our favor: a multi-union, wall-to-wall organizing campaign going on in the city, the fact that the lead organizer of the campaign was politically very savvy and had a history as a housing activist, and the fact that because housing costs in Stamford are so high, many unionized public sector workers lived in public housing. An additional quirk was that the Fortune 500 firms located in Stamford couldn't give less of a shit about the downtown revitalization interests that were driving the hastily put together HOPE VI project, or at least gave much less of a shit about it than they did about having their low-wage maintenance and clerical workforce nearby and not having to depend on their training in from Bridgeport nearly a half-hour away and subject to the vagaries of Metro North system delays. So it was possible to mobilize some support among them. The campaign won, partly through undercutting developers' and the housing authority's purchase of the black ministers by mobilizing clear-headed and active dissent in their congregations against them and exposing, or threatening to, the corrupt deals they were trying to make. This in turn enabled us to turn up the heat on the blacks on the city council. We also were able to get the Columbia Urban Technologies Action Project (run by an ex- though all too repentant Maoist) to do a structural assessment of the projects in the housing authority's sights, defeat the claim that the buildings were unsound and propose renovations like wiring the entire building for the internet, creation of on-site job development and day care centers, etc. The developers backed down. The outcome of the New Orleans case is well known. The only support for tenants, who themselves of course were largely dispersed, were the small clusters of left activists with no institutional capacity or ability to do anything except disrupt momentarily. That's all there was to do, and people did it admirably. Sometimes it's true that the only action available is bearing witness with the knowledge that there is only the slimmest imaginable hope that that action might spark a prairie fire. In the vast majority of instances they don't; I suspect they never do in the absence of a cadre force capable of fanning the sparks, even though we all have some romantic affinity for the heroic spontaneist narrative. (I've been struck lately, by the way, at how much what calls itself the left likes to bond around offhanded disparagement of Lenin and Leninist parties.) In fact, like propaganda of the deed under fascism, that's a political mode that speaks more of desperation and the reality of defeat than demonstration of power or capacity. It can be principled and is sometimes all we can do, but especially in a society like this it doesn't put us in position to fight for, or for that matter against, anything.


ht alr