Friday, June 3, 2016

Food Justice Politics moving

Hi all,

I'm monetizing my creative work by combining my Confessions of a Mad Redneck vlog with this blog on Patreon.  Anyone who subscribes at the $20 dollar level will receive a free signed copy of Confessions of a Mad Redneck: A Birmingham Boy's Struggle to Create Himself and His Home once it is released.  Please support. Confessions of a Mad Redneck

Peace y'all

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Gentrification: Uneven by Nature

At this point, I'm basically just gloating.  Public opinion has turned from ra-ra save Birmingham gentrification to some middle path that the revitalization is uneven (NPR's words) like somehow we can make it even.  Capitalism is uneven by nature.  Look at the globe.  The defining feature of the globe is uneven development, hell, we even have a name for it - the first world and the third world.  This is how capitalism works.  It develops the places that are profitable and underdevelops the places that aren't.  People invest in New York City over Ghana because you can make a lot more money in former than the latter, and people invest in downtown because you can make a lot more money there than West End.  Why would any capitalist invest in West End?

There are two processes to uneven development - differentiation and equalization.  When capitalists see a geographic area in which the potential profits are higher than the actual profits, they sink money into that area.  The City of Birmingham signaled this by investing in Downtown.  Early adopters and first to market in these areas are generally the most profitable, the pioneers if you will.  Eventually, because of competition, profits equalize in that geographic area and investors leave it to rot until there is a large gap between the potential and actual profits and the cycle starts over.  So, it's sort of capitalist whack-a-mole.  They dump money into a geographic area until it's not profitable and then move and it happens from the global scale to the local.

In Birmingham there were and are three distinct phases of this.  First, heavy investment into a new city creating the steel industry; the steel industry left as did whites and the era of suburbanization (investments in interstate highways and other infrastructure to support suburbs) and people commuting to downtown Birmingham for medical and financial jobs began.  Finally, capital returned to invest in the three Rs of gentrification - retail, real estate, and restaurants and bars.  The latter two invested very little into working class and poor communities which, in Birmingham, are almost exclusively black.  The popular narrative is that white flight killed the city, but I would argue that deindustrialization hurt worse.  The white folks that left weren't spending their money in black businesses anyway.  Thus, the shape of development throughout the region and across the globe is and always has been unstable and uneven, subject to boom and bust cycles even between adjacent neighborhoods in the city.

It's funny that NPR would choose the word uneven to describe Birmingham's development, I think suggesting that it should be even.  But, their observation is apt.  Gentrification is uneven by nature and nothing is going to change that, nothing.  The only way to change it is to change development strategies to a new economy strategy.  It needs to be cooperative, small, sometimes cottage industries, small loans from community controlled banks, novel methods of land management controlled by the community such as community land trusts, and a branding strategy that sells the city as a model city for the 21st century.

And tell Brookings Institution to go take a hike.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Explosions: Repeasantization of the Urbanizing (Global) South

I spent most of Thursday in Jackson discussing cooperative strategy with regional movement leaders.  The experience was very revealing and enlightening drawing clear distinctions between the Birmingham cooperative movement and the rest of the South.  Particularly the notion that reruralization is not only a thing, but the future of the movement for justice in the South.  Serendipitously, on the same day, I received Neil Brenner's edited volume Implosions/Explosions: Toward a Study of Planetary Urbanism.

There are some important caveats about this volume's arguments, the biggest of which is that there are no longer rural areas or cities, but global processes of urbanization.  The globe is essentially a network of territorialized capital, sociocultural, political, and socionatural process.  I say socionatural because one of the central arguments in the book is that there is no wilderness since all of nature has been shaped by human hands - or at least climate change, itself a function of urbanization.

As such, an urban place is not a discrete entity, but a dynamic, constantly transforming agglomeration of these processes, many of which are contradictory.  For instance, in Birmingham, regional governance would be great for capital, but is politically impossible because of the politics of race.  Capital is trying to territorialize the entire region, while political processes are defending the boundaries.

Uneven development also plays a major role in the emergence of megacities, which hold two thirds of the American population and just under half of the global population.  Within these urbanized spaces exists centers of decision making and wealth creation, while, increasingly, the peripheries are places of profound lack.  One billion people live in slums in peripheries of megacity regions.

Even those that don't live in megacities are urbanized through transportation networks, media, and information technologies.  People in Harlen County, Kentucky are singing along to the same music as the Southside of Chicago.

While there was once hope that cities offered real opportunity for some utopian future, that hope has faded.  Across the globe capital has seized on urbanizing processes and produced staggering profits for a very few.  However, there are opportunities.

Much of the arguments in Implosions/Explosions revolve around the work of Lefebvre, probably the most important urban theorist in history.  He argues that one of the major processes of urbanization is the destruction or agrarian economies and industrialization and automation of them.  The city exists because of industry.  Thus, my question is why can't we create an alternative form of urbanization using a cultural, political, and economic agenda of repeasantization?  (I understand that the term peasant in the west has a negative connotation, but it is not meant this way in academic literature.  I'm specifically invoking the research of anthropologist, Eric Wolf and his analysis of peasant societies as dynamic and fully integrated into the modern world.  It means a group of people who have a distinct style of life and who farm, often with time honored techniques.  For more information of Wolf's ideas see here.)

A rough outline of such an agenda follows:

 Economic - seizing of land through legal or extra legal means and turning it into productive landscapes, community owned housing, or other assets.  Land banks could be used.  Aquaponics is highly desirable because of its productivity and ability to produce strong revenues.  Long term, strong, autonomous, sustainable energy cooperatives are a must.
Cultural - This should be worked out particularisticly by communities in resistance, but should include some broad notion of shared wealth.  It should also include a clear narrative articulating values through as many different media outlets as possible.  Clever, sensational, and attention-getting protest is a plus.
Political - a broad agenda for public money spent on productive agrarian industries that should include a strategy for every level of governance from global to local since these political processes combine to help produce the urban.

I want to end with a story from Alabama.  Uniontown in Perry County has become a hot site for activists, who have helped the people there bring a great deal of attention to the plight on the Uniontown residents with coal ash.  It is important to recognize, however, that the coal ash dump is a process of urbanization.  The coal is dug in a poor town in Appalachia, shipped to a plant, used to generate electricity, which satisfies demand of urban residents, and then shipped to Uniontown.  The coal ash exists because of demand from urban residents.  Uniontown is being urbanized in a particularly oppressive way.

However, the creation of autonomous, sustainable energy cooperatives, long term would erase the existence of coal ash, and reterritorialize the urbanization process of energy production.  The only way to stop the dumping of coal ash in poor communities is to eliminate demand for the coal, to urbanize alternatively.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

November 9, 2016

Dear American Left,

As we sit here attempting to pick up the pieces and debating about what went wrong, we must face the fact that Donald Trump is the president.  After parsing all the data and analyzing the campaign, we will realize one thing - that this failure is a generational failure of the left to build a truly imclusive coalition that actually includes the 99%.  The simple fact is that after McCarthy, we abandoned class politics, wholesale, and left the largest group of oppressed people, the white working class, to twist in the wind and be lured by white nationalism, gussied up with fresh local food and other purity narratives about nature and community.

This is not your mother's white nationalism.  It includes queer people, feminists, and even some people of color.  Hell, it may not even be white nationalism, but simply nationalism fortified by the arguments of taken-for-granted intellectuals like Milo Yiannopoulos, who is gay by his "choice." This white nationalism is cool, youthful, irreverent and fun.  It's a snarky, freewheeling, and energetic white nationalism, and we took it for granted.

What we took for granted was that the working class is utterly sick of being talked down to while at the same time seeing their bank accounts drain to nothing.  We told men just laid off at the plant that they were doubly privileged for being white and male, and while though it may be technically true, it's kinda assholish and a dramatic political miscalculation.

This is not to say that we should have ignored our traditional strongholds or race, gender, and sexuality, but to acknowledge that the creation of a strong justice oriented working class identity that is hopeful and an economic program that truly addresses both who they are and their growing despair was necessary to beat the right.  And they beat us, fair and square.  The right deserves credit.  They revamped old ideas, made them more palatable.  But, much of the blame is ours.  Our political philosophies became old, rigid, institutionalized, and virtually impossible for the white working class to decipher.  We didn't realize how many of them there were until Trump broke every turn out record in the book.  We became more wedded to dogma than efficacy.

And we lost, badly.

Zac Henson

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Better Privilege Concept

The idea of white privilege has been around in at least some form since Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in America in which he said that whites received a psychological wage.  Peggy McIntosh popularized the privilege discussion with her invisible knapsack, which purported to list experiences that white people shared.  The privilege discussion is an important part of the activist repertoire, but has increasingly become a litmus test for in-group activists and out-group activists.  Much of this is due to the inherent essentialism in the current privilege concept, which tends to get read as all whites have white privilege all the time.  I would like to argue that privilege is not eternal or essential, but context dependent.  It is spatialized.  Let me explain.

When I go to a department store, I am not followed around or questioned about my intentions.  My presence in the department store is deemed in place.  This is not as simple as it sounds.  The department store is a socially produced space, meaning that institutional, cultural, and economic aspects of that space exist that create the situation where I am deemed in place and a black person or another person of color may be deemed out of place.  It's not just a racist security guard or store clerk, but the whole institutional, cultural, and economic milieu.  The interaction between my identity and that space produces privilege.

However, I deliver papers for a local newspaper and my route takes me into Mountain Brook, an incredibly wealthy suburb of Birmingham.  When I go into stores in that community, I am invisible, meaning that I am so out of place that no one even sees me.  Why is this?  It's because the working class part of my identity interacts with the space in Mountain Brook in a way that oppresses me.

We should see white supremacy (and other forms of oppression) as a set of practices that produce and reinforce contexts or spaces in a more or less automatic way, but also that those practices are place dependent.  Thus, instead of seeing white privilege as a universal for all whites and oppression as a universal for all people of color, we need to read social contexts to understand how those contexts or spaces interact with identities to produce privilege or oppression, and since all identities are multiple and sometimes people are oppressed and privileged at the same time, depending on the context and scale, it eliminates essentialism and creates and analytical tool that can better help us to understand how systems and practices of oppression and privilege work in a given context or space.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Tactical Urbanism

I'm really becoming a fan of Neil Brenner. His book New State Spaces is both enlightening and frightening. But, he also runs the Urban Theory Lab at Harvard where they promote something called Tactical Urbanism, which basically starts with the assumption that global capital is entirely too powerful to challenge on their own turf, an assessment that I agree with. The power of global capital is really unreal. They can, more or less, force governments - from national to local and even sublocal - to create institutional arrangements favorable to the extraction of wealth from local communities. This is what gentrification is all about. The local government and economic development orgs are merely appendages of global capital, which is reshaping Birmingham in profound ways (outside agitators anyone?). The government can no longer challenge this power in any way. The only thing that can challenge this power are institutions of labor.

This could come in two forms. 1) A global labor movement confronting global capital on their own terrain. This is symmetric warfare. This is unlikely because of the difficulty in organizing so many different cultures, languages, etc and because unions have been virtually destroyed. 2) The other option is Tactical Urbanism, which basically means to create institutions of labor on the local level that produce small spaces where the rules of global capital don't dominate or, at least, are lessened. In theory, these would build wealth and grow to the point of being, if not a threat, a real alternative to institutions of global capital and the style of life that they promote. What MCAP does can be categorized as Tactical Urbanism. This is asymmetric warfare.

I think that this is important because it is not possible to lobby the government for any significant changes at this point in history. Cities are pitted against other cities in competition for investment, globally. Birmingham is in competition not just with Chattanooga and Jackson, but also with Acapulco and Timbuktu, which puts global capital in the position to dictate to governments, particularly city governments, how to set up their institutions. This is as much about the Violence Reduction Initiative (privately funded) as it is about Avondale (privately funded). This is also why local leaders are travelling the globe looking for investment capital.

I don't think that this can be understated. A far left party, Syriza won the election in Greece, recently. Greece, which is in debt, and thus in heavy need of global capital held a referendum on whether or not to reject global capital and default. The people voted to default. Nonetheless, Syriza capitulated and accepted all the terms of the banks. If a far-left government has to bend to the whims of global capital, why would our little city be any different? The only option is to use the government the same way that global capital uses the government - for resources. If we can get 5% of what global capital gets in terms of resources, we can build real alternatives.

Global capital has more power than any class of people have had in the history of the planet. We have almost no institutions with which to fight back. We must begin building them

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The State of Our World

I feel compelled to write this post because we are at an unprecedented time in human history, and, though it has been said before, capitalism is on the brink.  The capitulation of Syriza was unfortunate, but the distance that it went and the resolve of the people to say "we will take a lesser life if we are independent" is just the beginning of the new age of revolution.  I want to talk about what has us on the brink, which in my view are two interrelated but very specific things.

Most of the world's economy operates under conditions of debt.  In the U.S., the Federal Reserve Board, a quasi-private institution, buys debt from the U.S. Treasury and lends new money based on this debt to private banks.  The Fed, as it is known, has been lending this money to banks for virtually free since the recession of 2008.  This has encouraged banks to lend, putting more money into the economy.  If the Fed did not do this, which is to essentially print money backed by debt as an asset, the global economy would spin into deflation (a situation of low prices and scarcity of money), caused by the refusal of banks to lend.  It must also be noted that banks lend on the basis of fractionary reserve lending, which essentially means that they can lend more than they hold on account.  If a bank has ten dollars, it can lend as much as $100.  More money created as debt.

This system spins like a top until those who are indebted (non-core countries or cities, individuals) quit paying their bills.  This is what happened in the 2008 crisis - all the value that had been artificially created through derivative trading based largely on the housing market was destroyed when folks stopped paying their mortgages.  However, nothing has essentially changed in the derivative market, which is valued at almost $600 trillion dollars.  To put that in perspective, the GLOBAL GDP is approximately $74 trillion dollars.   That means that the derivative market, based almost exclusively on debt, is valued at 9 times the global economic output!

Enter Syriza.  Syriza, faced with mountains of debt that it did not create, was on the brink of telling the European banks "screw you, we will build our own economy."  This significance of this was that Greece, Syriza, and especially the people of Greece were read to essentially say that they don't care about foreign direct investment, the banks, or the credit rating of their country.  They would have to go it alone.  Greek banks would have to print money to keep the economy going which would lead to rampant inflation, think Zimbabwe.  What it means is that the Greek people were ready to say no to tutelage to international banks and to build their own economy.  If this had happened, and other indebted, non-core countries had followed suit (and there are many) the $600+ trillion in debt, which folks had stopped repaying, would have to be written down.  Banks would stop lending and there would be a worldwide depression that would probably make the Great Depression look like a walk in the park.  (In case you think this doesn't connect to Birmingham, global banks walked away with $5 billion dollars in the sewer deal and now Jefferson County basically has water austerity.)

With no real writing down of global debt, the Fed's measures over the last 7 years have basically just slo-mo'd the meltdown.  Nothing has changed and capitalism's contradictions are as dangerous as ever.  It is not a matter of if this debt must be written down; it is a matter of when.

The other major looming crisis at this stage of capitalism is the complete undermining of life on Earth.  Part of the turn to debt-based money from commodity-based money is that capitalism is growing past the ability to legitimately value natural resources.  Global capitalism as so destroyed the natural resource base that there is literally a crisis in every sector of nature: agriculture, water, timber, precious metals, fossil fuels, and so on.  We are literally running out of shit.  This is not primarily because there is not enough stuff on the planet; it is primarily due to lifestyles of core countries, which are fundamentally unsustainable.  Make no mistake - what humans have done technologically is nothing short of amazing.  It has not be available to all, but shooting someone to the moon is an impressive feat.

Combined with the impending collapse of the global financial system and the increasing scarcity of resources, the planet is in for a very significant lifestyle change, especially in the Global North.  We have to create a new economy and a new style of life that is adapted to the precarious situation that we find ourselves in.  That work must be done now, not tomorrow, not next week, not next year.  Now.

I will end with this.  Value in the capitalist system, at this point in history, is based on keeping countries, cities, and individuals indebted, which will wed them to the global capitalist economy.  This indebtedness in turns leads to the over-exploitation of natural resources to pay those debts.  The banks profit and everyone else is their peon.  We have to start being independent and do for ourselves.