Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Capitalist City or the Self-Managed City?

(An excerpt of this article by Tom Wetzel originally posted here)

Anti-gentrification protests, rent strikes, and squatting buildings are examples of what I called class struggle over the built environment. Working class politics can't be reduced to the politics of the labor movement but derives from the various strands of struggle that emerge from working class communities; that is, communities of people who aren't bosses and whose life prospects are shaped by selling their time to employers.

Nonetheless, labor or workplace organizations are an important potential force for change because the system can't function without the work people do every day.

A weakness of the American labor movement is the domination of most national unions and large, amalgamated locals by rigid, professional cadre hierarchies that don't work the jobs that the members do. The professional cadre will tend to disfavor mass mobilization and militant struggle because of its risks to the union as an institution, and because it puts the rank and file into the center of the action. The power and careers of the hierarchy are based on their relative monopolization of expertise and levers of decision-making.

A different kind of industrial organization is needed to develop the capacity and self-confidence of workers for making their own decisions, controlling their own lives. Collective action and self-management of the struggle by the rank and file are crucial to developing a movement that workers can feel is "theirs."

In the past the labor movement in the USA has made major forward strides only during periods of mass upheaval, as in the years before World War I and the 30s. During such periods new types of organization tend to be created. A new labor rebellion would pose the possibility of new self-managed worker organizations emerging.

Since the emergence of the "new social movements" (of women, racial minorities, gay people, the disabled, enviros) in the 60s/'70s period, a number of the organizations these movements generated came to be dominated by professional/managerial cadres. Because class circumstances shapes the life prospects of women and people of color, for example, the needs of working class women or workers of color are often not adequately addressed by such organizations. My earlier discussion of New Urbanism illustrates how environmental organizations sometimes ignore the impacts of their proposals on working class communities.

Women, people of color, gay folks and the disabled have specific concerns that also reflect their class situation. There is no impermeable barrier between the "new social movements" and class politics.

To be a force for change the working class needs to be more than just a heterogeneous collection of population groups. Solidarity is at the heart of working class politics. Solidarity implies concern for others in a context where they are in struggle against those who dominate them in some way, and where it is understood there is at least the possibility that you might require their solidarity in the future.

Development of an intra-class alliance presupposes some process by which the concerns of specific groups can be communicated to, and become the concerns, of, other groups, thus expanding the boundaries of their solidarity. The concerns specific to women or people of color, for example, need to become concerns of other organizations such as unions or housing groups.

An important milestone in the development of the working class into a more cohesive force are unifying moments, situations where much of the population is drawn into thinking of themselves as "us" versus "them." The general strikes in San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis in 1934 were unifying events that shaped class consciousness in that period in the USA. What if, for example, the unions in California were to organize a mass march of tens of thousands on Sacramento to protect public workers against cuts, and to defend the communities they serve?

Class politics includes struggles around needs not adequately met through the market - affordable housing, public transit, democratic media, universal health care, good low-cost child care, and protection of the environment. Movements around such social goods can help to bring together a variety of sectors of the population.

Movements can and do make demands on the government for social goods that augment inadequate wage income. Concessions can sometimes be won through protest and struggle because the government must maintain a facade of "representing everyone" in order to maintain its legitimacy.

High-quality, low-fare public transit is a social good that can provide access to all that a city has to offer - jobs, housing, entertainment, medical offices and so on. A point to cheap fares is to ensure that everyone has equal access no matter how low their income is.

Neo-liberals, on the other hand, propose privatization and competing services for public transit. This program has been disastrous when carried out in Great Britain and Santiago, Chile. Competing services degrade accessibility because of the lack of seamless connectivity between all the operators. Private competition leads operators to creaming off a more affluent clientel, leaving areas and groups underserved.

Flexibility and ease of access for transit riders requires a network that is a single, comprehensive system of reliable, frequent services, with low fares and free transfers. A bewildering array of private operators who may go out of business next week creates barriers to travel flexibility and access for riders. This is why public transit was historically regarded as a "natural monopoly." In practice the main aim of transit privatization in the USA has been to drive down the wages of transit workers.

These considerations lead some to defend statist central planning. But this also has its problems: it subordinates the transit workforce to an authoritarian hierarchy, leads to management empire-building, and disempowers low-income bus riders who get overcrowded and inadequate services at high fares.

However, there is a third model for public transit based on direct negotiation between workers and riders. This would presuppose the creation of an organization through which the transit workers would manage the transit system. Many of the decisions in the day-to-day management of a transit system mainly impact the workers. The principle of self-management says people are to have control over the decisions that impact them. Self-management of the transit system avoids a bloated managerial hierarchy.

But many of the decisions about the operation of the transit system directly impact the riders - cleanliness and safety, reliability and frequency of service, fares. To empower the riders to have a say over these decisions a riders council could be created to negotiate with the workers organization over the issues that impact riders. The direct worker/consumer negotiation model could be applied to other social services such as health care, education, and public utilities.

Applying this to my earlier discussion of community land trusts, we could envision a CLT negotiating construction with a non-profit construction workers co-op.

Direct worker/consumer negotiation points us in the direction of a global alternative to capitalism. Participatory economics (ParEcon) is a vision of a non-market, socially-owned economy based on grassroots participatory planning and direct negotiation between workers and consumers. The building blocks of a participatory economy are self-managing bodies such as workplace councils and neighborhood assemblies. The neighborhood bodies provide the channel for consumer input.

In ParEcon people in their councils develop proposals for what is to be produced. Both individually and in groups we figure out what we want to do at work or to consume. These proposals filter outward through organizations over a larger geographic scope, depending on where the proposals would have impact. Through a give-and-take process the proposals would be refined to develop comprehensive agendas for what is to be produced. The essence of ParEcon, says Michael Albert, is "a cooperative, self-managing negotiation of collective well being rather than a top-down or competitive pursuit of narrow advantage."

For cities, ParEcon poses the possibility of a horizontal, self-managing regionalism in planning investment in public goods such as transportation and other infrastructure and in meeting social needs such as housing, child care and health care.

The way that we organize today helps to determine future possibilities. Self-managed mass organizations are necessary if the working class is to develop the self-confidence, skills, and self-organization that would enable it to emancipate itself from subjugation to an exploiting class.

Building self-managed institutions (CLTs, media collectives, etc.) and developing mass organizations (such as unions) through which rank-and-file people can self-manage their struggles is prefigurative in the sense that it points beyond capitalism, towards the Self-managed City.

Tom Wetzel has worked as a gas-station attendant, philosophy teacher, typesetter, and technical writer. He is president of the San Francisco Community Land Trust.

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