The social ideology of the motorcar

Image: Stuart Richards

by André Gorz

The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratized. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it. On the contrary, everyone diddles, cheats, and frustrates everyone else, and is diddled, cheated, and frustrated in return.

This is pretty much common knowledge in the case of the seaside villas. No politico has yet dared to claim that to democratize the right to vacation would mean a villa with private beach for every family. Everyone understands that if each of 13 or 14 million families were to use only 10 meters of the coast, it would take 140,000km of beach in order for all of them to have their share! To give everyone his or her share would be to cut up the beaches in such little strips—or to squeeze the villas so tightly together—that their use value would be nil and their advantage over a hotel complex would disappear. In short, democratization of access to the beaches point to only one solution—the collectivist one. And this solution is necessarily at war with the luxury of the private beach, which is a privilege that a small minority takes as their right at the expense of all.

Now, why is it that what is perfectly obvious in the case of the beaches is not generally acknowledged to be the case for transportation? Like the beach house, doesn’t a car occupy scarce space? Doesn’t it deprive the others who use the roads (pedestrians, cyclists, streetcar and bus drivers)? Doesn’t it lose its use value when everyone uses his or her own? And yet there are plenty of politicians who insist that every family has the right to at least one car and that it’s up to the “government” to make it possible for everyone to park conveniently, drive easily in the city, and go on holiday at the same time as everyone else, going 70 mph on the roads to vacation spots. The monstrousness of this demagogic nonsense is immediately apparent, and yet even the left doesn’t disdain resorting to it. Why is the car treated like a sacred cow? Why, unlike other “privative” goods, isn’t it recognized as an antisocial luxury? The answer should be sought in the following two aspects of driving:

  • Mass motoring effects an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the level of daily life. It gives and supports in everyone the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else. Take the cruel and aggressive selfishness of the driver who at any moment is figuratively killing the “others,” who appear merely as physical obstacles to his or her own speed. This aggressive and competitive selfishness marks the arrival of universally bourgeois behavior, and has come into being since driving has become commonplace. (“You’ll never have socialism with that kind of people,” an East German friend told me, upset by the spectacle of Paris traffic).
  • The automobile is the paradoxical example of a luxury object that has been devalued by its own spread. But this practical devaluation has not yet been followed by an ideological devaluation. The myth of the pleasure and benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread its superiority would be striking. The persistence of this myth is easily explained. The spread of the private car has displaced mass transportation and altered city planning and housing in such a way that it transfers to the car functions which its own spread has made necessary. An ideological (“cultural”) revolution would be needed to break this circle. Obviously this is not to be expected from the ruling class (either right or left).

Let us look more closely now at these two points.

When the car was invented, it was to provide a few of the very rich with a completely unprecedented privilege: that of traveling much faster than everyone else. No one up to then had ever dreamt of it. The speed of all coaches was essentially the same, whether you were rich or poor. The carriages of the rich didn’t go any faster than the carts of the peasants, and trains carried everyone at the same speed (they didn’t begin to have different speeds until they began to compete with the automobile and the airplane). Thus, until the turn of the century, the elite did not travel at a different speed from the people. The motorcar was going to change all that. For the first time class differences were to be extended to speed and to the means of transportation.

This means of transportation at first seemed unattainable to the masses—it was so different from ordinary means. There was no comparison between the motorcar and the others: the cart, the train, the bicycle, or the horse-car. Exceptional beings went out in self-propelled vehicles that weighed at least a ton and whose extremely complicated mechanical organs were as mysterious as they were hidden from view. For one important aspect of the automobile myth is that for the first time people were riding in private vehicles whose operating mechanisms were completely unknown to them and whose maintenance and feeding they had to entrust to specialists. Here is the paradox of the automobile: it appears to confer on its owners limitless freedom, allowing them to travel when and where they choose at a speed equal to or greater than that of the train. But actually, this seeming independence has for its underside a radical dependency. Unlike the horse rider, the wagon driver, or the cyclist, the motorist was going to depend for the fuel supply, as well as for the smallest kind of repair, on dealers and specialists in engines, lubrication, and ignition, and on the interchangeability of parts. Unlike all previous owners of a means of locomotion, the motorist’s relationship to his or her vehicle was to be that of user and consumer-and not owner and master. This vehicle, in other words, would oblige the owner to consume and use a host of commercial services and industrial products that could only be provided by some third party. The apparent independence of the automobile owner was only concealing the actual radical dependency.

For the first time in history, people would become dependent for their locomotion on a commercial source of energy.

The oil magnates were the first to perceive the prize that could be extracted from the wide distribution of the motorcar. If people could be induced to travel in cars, they could be sold the fuel necessary to move them. For the first time in history, people would become dependent for their locomotion on a commercial source of energy. There would be as many customers for the oil industry as there were motorists—and since there would be as many motorists as there were families, the entire population would become the oil merchants’ customers. The dream of every capitalist was about to come true. Everyone was going to depend for their daily needs on a commodity that a single industry held as a monopoly.

All that was left was to get the population to drive cars. Little persuasion would be needed. It would be enough to get the price of a car down by using mass production and the assembly line. People would fall all over themselves to buy it. They fell over themselves all right, without noticing they were being led by the nose. What, in fact, did the automobile industry offer them? Just this: “From now on, like the nobility and the bourgeoisie, you too will have the privilege of driving faster than everybody else. In a motorcar society the privilege of the elite is made available to you.”

People rushed to buy cars until, as the working class began to buy them as well, defrauded motorists realized they had been had. They had been promised a bourgeois privilege, they had gone into debt to acquire it, and now they saw that everyone else could also get one. What good is a privilege if everyone can have it? It’s a fool’s game. Worse, it pits everyone against everyone else. General paralysis is brought on by a general clash. For when everyone claims the right to drive at the privileged speed of the bourgeoisie, everything comes to a halt, and the speed of city traffic plummets—in Boston as in Paris, Rome, or London—to below that of the horsecar; at rush hours the average speed on the open road falls below the speed of a bicyclist.

When everyone claims the right to drive at the privileged speed of the bourgeoisie, everything comes to a halt, and the speed of city traffic plummets

Nothing helps. All the solutions have been tried. They all end up making things worse. No matter if they increase the number of city expressways, beltways, elevated crossways, 16-lane highways, and toll roads, the result is always the same. The more roads there are in service, the more cars clog them, and city traffic becomes more paralyzingly congested. As long as there are cities, the problem will remain unsolved. No matter how wide and fast a superhighway is, the speed at which vehicles can come off it to enter the city cannot be greater than the average speed on the city streets. As long as the average speed in Paris is 10 to 20 kmh, depending on the time of day, no one will be able to get off the beltways and autoroutes around and into the capital at more than 10 to 20 kmh.

The same is true for all cities. It is impossible to drive at more than an average of 20 kmh in the tangled network of streets, avenues, and boulevards that characterise the traditional cities. The introduction of faster vehicles inevitably disrupts city traffic, causing bottlenecks-and finally complete paralysis.

If the car is to prevail, there’s still one solution: get rid of the cities. That is, string them out for hundreds of miles along enormous roads, making them into highway suburbs. That’s what’s been done in the United States. Ivan Illich sums up the effect in these startling figures: “The typical American devotes more than 1500 hours a year (which is 30 hours a week, or 4 hours a day, including Sundays) to his [or her] car. This includes the time spent behind the wheel, both in motion and stopped, the hours of work to pay for it and to pay for gas, tires, tolls, insurance, tickets, and taxes .Thus it takes this American 1500 hours to go 6000 miles (in the course of a year). Three and a half miles take him (or her) one hour. In countries that do not have a transportation industry, people travel at exactly this speed on foot, with the added advantage that they can go wherever they want and aren’t restricted to asphalt roads.”

It is true, Illich points out, that in non-industrialized countries travel uses only 3 to 8% of people’s free time (which comes to about two to six hours a week). Thus a person on foot covers as many miles in an hour devoted to travel as a person in a car, but devotes 5 to 10 times less time in travel. Moral: The more widespread fast vehicles are within a society, the more time—beyond a certain point—people will spend and lose on travel. It’s a mathematical fact.

The reason? We’ve just seen it: The cities and towns have been broken up into endless highway suburbs, for that was the only way to avoid traffic congestion in residential centers. But the underside of this solution is obvious: ultimately people can’t get around conveniently because they are far away from everything. To make room for the cars, distances have increased. People live far from their work, far from school, far from the supermarket—which then requires a second car so the shopping can be done and the children driven to school. Outings? Out of the question. Friends? There are the neighbors… and that’s it. In the final analysis, the car wastes more time than it saves and creates more distance than it overcomes. Of course, you can get yourself to work doing 60 mph, but that’s because you live 30 miles from your job and are willing to give half an hour to the last 6 miles. To sum it all up: “A good part of each day’s work goes to pay for the travel necessary to get to work.” (Ivan Illich).

In the final analysis, the car wastes more time than it saves and creates more distance than it overcomes.

Maybe you are saying, “But at least in this way you can escape the hell of the city once the workday is over.” There we are, now we know: “the city,” the great city which for generations was considered a marvel, the only place worth living, is now considered to be a “hell.” Everyone wants to escape from it, to live in the country. Why this reversal? For only one reason. The car has made the big city uninhabitable. It has made it stinking, noisy, suffocating, dusty, so congested that nobody wants to go out in the evening anymore. Thus, since cars have killed the city, we need faster cars to escape on superhighways to suburbs that are even farther away. What an impeccable circular argument: give us more cars so that we can escape the destruction caused by cars.

 Since cars have killed the city, we need faster cars to escape on superhighways to suburbs that are even farther away. What an impeccable circular argument: give us more cars so that we can escape the destruction caused by cars.

From being a luxury item and a sign of privilege, the car has thus become a vital necessity. You have to have one so as to escape from the urban hell of the cars. Capitalist industry has thus won the game: the superfluous has become necessary. There’s no longer any need to persuade people that they want a car; it’s necessity is a fact of life. It is true that one may have one’s doubts when watching the motorized escape along the exodus roads. Between 8 and 9:30 a.m., between 5:30 and 7 p.m., and on weekends for five and six hours the escape routes stretch out into bumper-to-bumper processions going (at best) the speed of a bicyclist and in a dense cloud of gasoline fumes. What remains of the car’s advantages? What is left when, inevitably, the top speed on the roads is limited to exactly the speed of the slowest car?

Fair enough. After killing the city, the car is killing the car. Having promised everyone they would be able to go faster, the automobile industry ends up with the unrelentingly predictable result that everyone has to go as slowly as the very slowest, at a speed determined by the simple laws of fluid dynamics. Worse: having been invented to allow its owner to go where he or she wishes, at the time and speed he or she wishes, the car becomes, of all vehicles, the most slavish, risky, undependable and uncomfortable. Even if you leave yourself an extravagant amount of time, you never know when the bottlenecks will let you get there. You are bound to the road as inexorably as the train to its rails. No more than the railway traveller can you stop on impulse, and like the train you must go at a speed decided by someone else. Summing up, the car has none of the advantages of the train and all of its disadvantages, plus some of its own: vibration, cramped space, the danger of accidents, the effort necessary to drive it.

And yet, you may say, people don’t take the train. Of course! How could they? Have you ever tried to go from Boston to New York by train? Or from Ivry to Treport? Or from Garches to Fountainebleau? Or Colombes to l’Isle-Adam? Have you tried on a summer Saturday or Sunday? Well, then, try it and good luck to you! You’ll observe that automobile capitalism has thought of everything. Just when the car is killing the car, it arranges for the alternatives to disappear, thus making the car compulsory. So first the capitalist state allowed the rail connections between the cities and the surrounding countryside to fall to pieces, and then it did away with them. The only ones that have been spared are the high-speed intercity connections that compete with the airlines for a bourgeois clientele. There’s progress for you!

The truth is, no one really has any choice. You aren’t free to have a car or not because the suburban world is designed to be a function of the car and, more and more, so is the city world. That is why the ideal revolutionary solution, which is to do away with the car in favour of the bicycle, the streetcar, the bus, and the driverless taxi, is not even applicable any longer in the big commuter cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, Trappes, or even Brussels, which are built by and for the automobile. These splintered cities are strung out along empty streets lined with identical developments; and their urban landscape (a desert) says, “These streets are made for driving as quickly as possible from work to home and vice versa. You go through here, you don’t live here. At the end of the workday everyone ought to stay at home, and anyone found on the street after nightfall should be considered suspect of plotting evil.” In some American cities the act of strolling in the streets at night is grounds for suspicion of a crime.

So, the jig is up? No, but the alternative to the car will have to be comprehensive. For in order for people to be able to give up their cars, it won’t be enough to offer them more comfortable mass transportation. They will have to be able to do without transportation altogether because they’ll feel at home in their neighborhoods, their community, their human-sized cities, and they will take pleasure in walking from work to home-on foot, or if need be by bicycle. No means of fast transportation and escape will ever compensate for the vexation of living in an uninhabitable city in which no one feels at home or the irritation of only going into the city to work or, on the other hand, to be alone and sleep.

“People,” writes Illich, “will break the chains of overpowering transportation when they come once again to love as their own territory their own particular beat, and to dread getting too far away from it.” But in order to love “one’s territory” it must first of all be made livable, and not trafficable. The neighborhood or community must once again become a microcosm shaped by and for all human activities, where people can work, live, relax, learn, communicate, and knock about, and which they manage together as the place of their life in common. When someone asked him how people would spend their time after the revolution, when capitalist wastefulness had been done away with, Marcuse answered, “We will tear down the big cities and build new ones. That will keep us busy for a while.”

These new cities might be federations of communities (or neighborhoods) surrounded by green belts whose citizens-and especially the schoolchildren-will spend several hours a week growing the fresh produce they need. To get around everyday they would be able to use all kinds of transportation adapted to a medium-sized town: municipal bicycles, trolleys or trolley-buses, electric taxis without drivers. For longer trips into the country, as well as for guests, a pool of communal automobiles would be available in neighborhood garages. The car would no longer be a necessity. Everything will have changed: the world, life, people. And this will not have come about all by itself.

Above all, never make transportation an issue by itself. Always connect it to the problem of the city, of the social division of labour, and to the way this compartmentalizes the many dimensions of life. 

Meanwhile, what is to be done to get there? Above all, never make transportation an issue by itself. Always connect it to the problem of the city, of the social division of labour, and to the way this compartmentalizes the many dimensions of life. One place for work, another for “living,” a third for shopping, a fourth for learning, a fifth for entertainment. The way our space is arranged carries on the disintegration of people that begins with the division of labour in the factory. It cuts a person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices so that in each one you are a passive consumer at the mercy of the merchants, so that it never occurs to you that work, culture, communication, pleasure, satisfaction of needs, and personal life can and should be one and the same thing: a unified life, sustained by the social fabric of the community.

From Le Sauvage September-October 1973. Translator not known.

André Gorz was a philosopher, journalist, and writer. He was known as one of the first ecosocialists and political ecologists. 

 

 

July readings

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

For the summer months, we’re doing something a bit different. On top of sharing the usual editors’ picks, we’ve invited two scholars to contribute some of the best readings and resources in their respective fields. For July, political ecologist Salvatore De Rosa is joining us. Check out his list below, and scroll a bit further to find other worthwhile articles selected by us Uneven Earth editors! Oh, and follow our brand new Instagram account.

 

Salvatore’s links

I was asked by Uneven Earth to put together a list of my favorite readings in recent years, during which I deep-dove in Political Ecology and related fields and animated, with the fantastic ENTITLE Collective, a blog of collaborative writing around scholarly and academic takes and issues in Political Ecology.

Admittedly, this list does not follow a structure or predetermined path, rather reflecting my idiosyncrasies, the mutating focus of my interests and the associative links nurtured by a broadly defined interest in human-environment relations and in the eco-political performances of grassroots environmental activism.

Tentacular thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene

Let’s start with heavy thoughtful artillery. There’s a lot of talk on the Anthropocene lately, but few original and genuinely critical takes on the issue. Amazing exception, this piece of Donna Haraway that opens up the Anthropocene narrative and goes forward in thinking its implications towards politically enabling, culturally decentering and vertiginously uplifting connections.

David Rumsey map collection

Are you in search of maps to study, revisit, deconstruct or add to your presentation on spatial imaginaries? Nothing better than the David Rumsey map collection: thousands of maps from all ages, freely downloadable in hi-res.

The next wave of extremists will be green

Leaked documents reveal counterterrorism tactics used at Standing Rock to “defeat pipeline insurgencies”

A theme that has always interested me is the relation between grassroots environmental activism and repressive and delegitimizing techniques implemented by governments against it around the world. To get a sense of how environmental mobilizations from below are increasingly considered a ‘serious’ issue by state, and often a ‘threat’ to national interests, the above readings can surely help.

Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist

If you were wondering why a feeling of looming desperation settled in your thoughts when you have just been reading the news, the answer may be that you suffer from climate depression.

Age of grief

Proposing a similar diagnosis but from an entirely different standpoint, the anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan invites us to “face the loss”.

Here’s to unsuicide: An interview with Richard Powers

To recover and to fight back, maybe it is time to turn upside down some deep seated assumptions about nature. Maybe it is time to recognize that the gap between humans and all other living things is made and remade by our drive of dominion and destruction. Wise words can be heard on this from Richard Powers.

End the “green” delusions: Industrial-scale renewable energy is fossil fuel+

Did you think top-down, large scale renewable energies infrastructures, like windmills, will solve the world’s hunger for energy without hurting ecosystems? Think again…

Friday essay: recovering a narrative of place – stories in the time of climate change

For a bit of meaning and hope, here is a reading on how we should work on recovering narratively community and place, to have the “feet firmly on the ground while reaching for the stars”.

Why “Warning to Humanity” gets the socio-ecological crisis (and its solutions) wrong

Finally, one reading from our ENTITLE Blog, that criticizes the mainstream scientific diagnoses and solutions to the environmental crises spread by articles like the “warning to humanity”, and invites to join the fight right on the frontlines of ecological friction points!

Enjoy!

 

Uneven Earth updates

We are now on Instagram! Follow us here.

July | Link | “She enjoys the way they fill the space with artificial flight; an awkward posture that makes their death seem comical.”

 

News you might’ve missed

Crops are dying. Forests are burning. This summer’s heat wave has fueled natural disasters around the world. Here’s a list of them.

Rising temperatures linked to increased suicide rates

The first ever feminist school in Uganda was held this year by The Rural Women’s Movement

A new report shows how the world’s 35 largest meat and dairy companies will increase their emissions and derail global efforts to prevent dangerous climate change.

As Indigenous peoples wait decades for land titles, companies are acquiring their territories

Investing in Indigenous communities is most efficient way to protect forests, report finds

Deadliest year on record for environmental land defenders: A report by Global Witness. Also covered in The Intercept here.

2,500 scientists warn against the border wall’s huge environmental cost

 

New politics

A “happy” world requires institutional change

Meet the anarchists making their own medicine. The Four Thieves Vinegar Collective is a network of tech-fueled anarchists taking on Big Pharma with DIY medicines.

Standing Rock medic bus is now a traveling decolonized pharmacy

Women’s fight to feed the world. Women Who Dig takes a global look at food, feminism and the struggle to make a future.

The teenagers fighting for climate justice

Here’s why we’re planting trees in northern Syria. This land was liberated from Bashar Al-Assad and Isis. Now we need help to keep it alive.

How to build a culture of good health. “If we wish to take full responsibility for health in our society, we must not only be vigilant guardians of our personal well-being, we must also work to change structures, institutions, and ideologies that keep us mired in a toxic culture.”

Out from emergency. Today’s crises call on humanity to act collectively, but this possibility seems more and more remote. How do we break the cycle? A dialogue between Katrina Forrester and Jedediah Purdy.

 

Radical municipalism

Seattle flirts with ‘municipal socialism’. The $15 minimum wage was just the beginning. Now Seattle is trying to build a whole safety net for workers—and triggering a war with its biggest companies.

Degrowth and Christiania – I saw how Copenhagen’s collective living experiment can work

Iceland’s slow-burning digital democratic revolution.

How community land trusts create affordable housing

Visions of a new economy from Detroit: A conversation with Malik Yakini. “That whole idea of private ownership of land, which in large part is how wealth is generated in capitalism, is problematic. The question of access to land is critical… The other flaw—which can exist in socialism, also—is the idea that the earth is a commodity, and what we need is more production, more extraction. I think a new way of looking at our relationship to the earth is required.”

Everything we’ve heard about global urbanization turns out to be wrong

Most public engagement is worse than worthless

‘Climate gentrification’ will deepen urban inequality, and Coastal cities are already suffering from “climate gentrification”.

Seattle and the Socialist: The battle raging between Amazon and the far left

A world class divide: Seattle vs. Vancouver on the housing crisis

A nationwide campaign to take back cities from the corporations that rule them

Barcelona’s experiment in radical democracy

Municipalism: The next political revolution?

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Losing Earth: the decade we almost stopped climate change. And an important response by Naomi Klein: Capitalism killed our climate momentum, not “human nature”.

Systems seduction: The aesthetics of decentralisation. “We don’t need totalizing visions but a proliferation of daydreams: lateral, experimental and situated within the localities of lived experience.”

Wildfires in Greece—the price of austerity

Science denialism is dangerous. But so is science imperialism. Calls for strict science-based decision making on complex issues like GMOs and geoengineering can shortchange consideration of ethics and social impacts.

The limits of green energy under capitalism

What are human rights good for?

Nature defends itself. Review of The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World by Andreas Malm.

The cashless society is a con – and big finance is behind it. Banks are closing ATMs and branches in an attempt to ‘nudge’ users towards digital services – and it’s all for their own benefit

Karl Polanyi and the formation of this generation’s new Left. As the democratic Left spirals ever downwards, the worrying forces of populism and neoliberalism seem to be emerging from the ashes. Could the visionary thinking of economic historian Karl Polanyi provide a feasible fix in the 21st Century? An open‐ended approach might be just the ticket to rescue global politics from a far right explosion – and it’s not rocket science…

Growth for the sake of growth. “Growth for the sake of growth” remains the credo of governments and international institutions, Federico Demaria finds. The time is ripe, he argues, not only for a scientific degrowth research agenda, but also for a political one.

 

Just think about it…

We can’t do it ourselves. How effective is individual action when it is systemic social change that is needed?

Is the global era of massive infrastructure projects coming to an end?

How to survive America’s kill list. “This is how America’s post-9/11 move toward authoritarianism has been executed: without massacres or palace coups, but noiselessly, on paper, through years of metronome insertions of bloodless terms in place of once-vibrant Democratic concepts.”

Intellectual extractivism: The dispossession of Maya weaving

What is metabolic rift? The ecosocialist idea you’ve never heard of and might need.

Think everyone died young in ancient societies? Think again

Conflict reigns over the history and origins of money. Thousands of years ago, money was a means of debt payment, archaeologists and anthropologists say.

In praise of doing nothing

The medium chill: a philosophy that asks the important questions. “We’re going to have to scale down our material expectations and get off the aspirational treadmill. So how can we do that? How can we make it okay to prioritize social connections over money and choice hoarding?”

Participatory budgeting increases voter likelihood 7%

Cesspools, sewage, and social murder. A riveting history of early environmentalism in 19th-Century London.

Steven Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. These eight graphs show why.

The free speech panic: how the right concocted a crisis

How tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse

The case for building $1,500 parks. A new study shows that access to “greened” vacant lots reduced feelings of worthlessness and depression, especially in low-resource neighborhoods.

 

Resources

The best books on Radical Environmentalism

After 30 years, Science for the People has relaunched!

Science for the People engages in research, activism, and science communications for the betterment of society, ecological improvement, environmental protection, and to serve human needs. Members of Science for the People consist of STEM workers, educators, and activists who are socially and ethically focused, and believe that science should be a positive force for humanity and the planet.

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn) and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter? Subscribe here.

June readings

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

In June, we read stories about new political strategies, decolonial re-imaginings, community resilience, and revolutionary ideas around the world. We also included articles about the escalating climate crisis and the root causes of climate and environmental injustice.

 

Uneven Earth updates

The team expands: Anna Biren, who has been working on these newsletters for the past 6 months, is now on board as a new editor at Uneven Earth!

Science Fiction Belgrade | Link | Imagining different realities in the works of Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić

The promise of radical municipalism today | Link | Politics is about bringing people together and taking control of the spaces where we live

Science fiction between utopia and critique | Link | On different perspectives used in science fiction narratives, situated knowledge, and how discontent is useful

What’s it like for a social movement to take control of a city? | Link | For Barcelona En Comú, winning the election was just the first step

The swell | Link | “We were waiting to be accepted as refugees in Iceland, the only country left in the region with stable electricity from their geothermal resources, and the only place that would take UK citizens.”

 

News you might’ve missed

‘Carbon bubble’ could spark global financial crisis, study warns. Advances in clean energy expected to cause a sudden drop in demand for fossil fuels, leaving companies with trillions in stranded assets.

Meat and fish multinationals ‘jeopardising Paris climate goals’. New index finds many of the world’s largest protein producers failing to measure or report emissions, despite accounting for 14.5% of greenhouse gases.

World’s great cities hold key to fossil fuel cuts

San Francisco residents were sure nearby industry was harming their health. They were right.

State land grabs fuel Sudan’s crisis

Rural poor squeezed by land concessions in Mekong region: report

Andhra Pradesh to become India’s first Zero Budget Natural Farming state

India faces worst long term water crisis in its history. Droughts are becoming more frequent, creating problems for India’s rain-dependent farmers.

Trees that have lived for millennia are suddenly dying

The discovery of a map made by a Native American is reshaping what we think about the Lewis & Clark expedition. “We tend to think that [Lewis and Clark] were traveling blind into terra incognita. That is simply not true. Too Né’s map lifts the expedition’s encounter with the Arikara to new prominence.”

Why grandmothers may hold the key to human evolution. “While the men were out hunting, grandmothers and babies were building the foundation of our species’ success – sharing food, cooperating on more and more complex levels and developing new social relationships.”

How our colonial past altered the ecobalance of an entire planet. Researchers suggest effects of the colonial era can be detected in rocks or even air.

 

New politics

Tracking the battles for environmental justice: here are the world’s top 10

How the environmental justice movement transforms our world

5 ways indigenous groups are fighting back against land seizures

Occupy, resist, produce: The strategy and political vision of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement

The town that refused to let austerity kill its buses

A sense of place. “There are many historical and modern day examples of how human beings, all over the world, have managed to meet the needs of locally adapted, place-based communities within the limits of their local environment.”

Roadmap for radicals. Mel Evans and Kevin Smith interview US-based organiser and author Jonathan Smucker, whose new book Hegemony How-To offers a practical guide to political struggle for a generation that is still ambivalent about questions of power, leadership and strategy.

How my father’s ideas helped the Kurds create a new democracy

Building autonomy through ecology in Rojava

Cooperation Jackson’s Kali Akuno: ‘We’re trying to build vehicles of social transformation’

A socialist Southern strategy in Jackson

Rebel Cities 6: How Jackson, Mississippi is making the economy work for people

This land is our land: The Native American occupation of Alcatraz. How a group of Red Power activists seized the abandoned prison island and their own destinies.

The environment as freedom: A decolonial reimagining

Interview: Decolonization towards a well-being vision with Pablo Solon

A world more beautiful and alive: A review of The Extractive Zone. From Ecuador, Perú, Chile, Colombia, and Bolivia, Marcena Gómez-Barris describes “submerged perspectives,” the decolonial ways of knowing that unsettle colonial relationships to land and the forms of violence they reproduce.

Feeling powers growing: An Interview with Silvia Federici

Municipalism: an Icarian warning

What would we eat if food and health were commons? – Inspiration from indigenous populations

Introducing ‘systems journalism’: creating an ecosystem for independent media

Seeding new ideas in the neoliberal city

Worker-owned co-ops are coming for the digital gig economy

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Letter to America, by Rebecca Altman. Everything is going to have to be put back.

Our plastic pollution crisis is too big for recycling to fix. Corporations are safe when they can tell us to simply recycle away their pollution.

How the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals undermine democracy

The remaking of class. “Class is contaminated water and children with chronic pain and fatigue. It is living downhill of the pond where fracking fluids are stored.”

Richard Powers: ‘We’re completely alienated from everything else alive’

The Enlightenment’s dark side. How the Enlightenment created modern race thinking, and why we should confront it. And a brief history of race in Western thought.

The enlightenment of Steven Pinker: Eco-modernism as rationalizing the arrogance (and violence) of empire

Puerto Rico is a “playground for the privileged”: Investors move in as homes foreclose & schools close. While healthcare, the public school system and infrastructure in Puerto Rico are flailing nine months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, wealthy investors have descended on the island to turn a profit. An interview with Naomi Klein and Katia Avilés-Vázquez, a Puerto Rican environmental activist.

How climate change ignites wildfires from California to South Africa

Feudalism, not overpopulation or land shortage, is to blame for Hong Kong’s housing problems

When New Delhi’s informal settlements make way for something ‘smarter’

The left in Syria: From democratic national change to devastation

A new era of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon? With scant data on risk, Republicans push to open a ‘perfect’ mining opportunity.

Rent strikes grow in popularity among tenants as gentrification drives up rents in cities like D.C.

Increased deaths and illnesses from inhaling airborne dust: An understudied impact of climate change.

‘Processing settler toxicities’ part 1 and part 2. An Indigenous feminist analysis of the connections between industrial capitalism and colonialism, imperialism, and the pollution and destruction of human and nonhuman worlds.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things review – how capitalism works

Anthropocene? More like ‘Capitalocene’. Jason W. Moore on the human impact on the world ecology. “My hope is that this theoretical research may provide useful insights for the social movements around the world that are fighting not only the effects, but especially the root causes of climate change.”

Carbon Ironies: William T. Vollmann on the hot dark future. A review of William T. Vollmann’s Carbon Ideologies—a book that is rightly sarcastic and pessimistic about the prospects of “solving” the problem of climate change but stuck in the false either/or choice between solving everything and doing nothing whatsoever, argues Wen Stephenson.

Patterns of commoning: Commons in the pluriverse. An essay by Arturo Escobar.

The mask it wears. Pankaj Mishra reviews and compares the propositions about how to work for equality in The People v. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It by Yascha Mounk Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World by Samuel Moyn.

 

Just think about it…

Laziness does not exist, but unseen barriers do

The Transition Towns movement… going where? A critique.

The dark side of nature writing. The recent renaissance in nature writing also revives an overlooked connection with fascism.

Minimum wage? It’s time to talk about a maximum wage

It takes a village, not a European, to raise a child. White people, through systematic oppression, actively create, profit from and maintain a market that institutionalizes children throughout Africa.

The unbearable awkwardness of automation

The power of giving homeless people a place to belong

 

Sci-fi and the near future

Anthony Galluzzo — Utopia as method, social science fiction, and the flight from reality (Review of Frase, Four Futures)

 

Resources

The community resilience reader. Essential resources for an era of upheaval, available for free.

Visualizing the prolific plastic problem in our oceans

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

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The promise of radical municipalism today

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

by the Symbiosis Research Collective

Our cities are being hollowed out. Real estate developers carve up downtown areas for profit, displacing the poor to the urban periphery. One by one, public spaces are disappearing; cafés and libraries are closing down, and parks are increasingly patrolled by private security. Metropolitan sprawl swallows the countryside, mega-agglomerations stretch across continents.

Urban transportation is dominated, even colonized, by the car. Small grocery stores get shuttered; life happens on strip malls and at gas stations. Neighbourhoods that once had a thriving street culture a generation ago are now quiet, and neighbours barely talk. Politics is reduced to a vote; there is little we can do to have a say and take control over our own future.

It’s no surprise that we are today more lonely than we’ve ever been. Around the world, people experience the steady erosion of community ties, loss of traditions, and a deep sense of alienation. The opioid crisis in the United States is just one symptom of a toxic epidemic of isolation.

A municipalist movement

Despite this bleak reality, a new kind of politics is emerging: a politics rooted in people’s everyday lives, which offers a sense of belonging and gives people a voice. This way of doing politics is materializing all around the world.

To take one example, Jeremy Corbyn put forward his party’s new economic platform this February. In his speech, he named an idea that has been simmering for a while now: socialist municipalism. What does this involve? For Corbyn, it means “the renaissance of local government for the many, not the few”.

The past decade has seen a steady shift toward municipalist-oriented politics on the UK left. The Radical Housing Network in London has been part of this shift, where activists in every neighborhood started sharing resources and linking people fighting eviction and increased rents.

When Grenfell tower rose up in flames, killing 72 people, this network was essential to the provision of much-needed support – and raised up the voices of the survivors who lost their home.

Plan C, another key group organising and coordinating leftist action, has also taken a decidedly municipal turn. In their pamphlet put out last June, Radical Municipalism: Demanding the Future, it states that “the ‘municipal’ – whether we’re talking about towns, cities or city-regions – might be a fundamentally important scale at which, and through which, to generate progressive movements towards post-capitalism.”

In the US, the recent wave of municipal and state-legislative wins of lefty and even socialist candidates was a small, but necessary, victory. Crucially, the growing Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) played a key role in these victories.

Across the country, tenant’s rights groups, often non-hierarchical and democratically organised, are self-organising and challenging a rampant real estate industry based on speculation and predatory lending. These movements and organisations have brought together people across racial and class divides, often becoming a site for people to organize for the first time and develop a political consciousness.

In Jackson, Mississippi, a growing movement for a just and democratic local economy has laid the groundwork for a new municipalism, led by black communities and revolutionaries. Their neighborhood-level base-building has fostered cooperative workplaces and housing, as well as the momentum that allowed them to take over city hall.

Beyond the UK and the USA, there are vibrant movements in Barcelona, Spain; Rojava, Syria; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Oaxaca, Mexico that have been organizing for decades to take direct control of their local government. These movements are helping to build a new vision for emancipatory politics.

Why municipalism now?

For socialists, power has always been in the workplace. This is where people can easily get together, where they have the most leverage against those who make the rules.

But the above campaigns and movements have taken place where people live, on their way to work, and in town halls. In the face of alienation, they bring people together. Against ever-expanding urbanisation, they create meaningful places for people to discuss what matters in community with one another.

 What is unique about the municipal level, and should a municipal strategy replace workplace organising as the primary tactic to leverage power against the state?

Why is this happening now? What is unique about the municipal level, and should a municipal strategy replace workplace organising as the primary tactic to leverage power against the state? Can they work together?

In the previous installments of this column, we laid out our framework of combining local democratic autonomy with creating networks of co-dependency and dual power at higher scales, and used the recent case of Barcelona as an example of such a social movement that has taken over their city.

In this piece, we reflect on the current global economic situation and why the city and town matter more than ever as sites for organising.

Planetary urbanisation

First, if we want to understand why municipalism is on the rise, we have to understand the present global economic reality. Increasingly, capital investments are being redirected from the production of material goods toward real estate and urban development.

The city has become the most profitable site of profit and speculation. The scale of this can be difficult to grasp. Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Shenzhen: these cities have outgrown New York City in mere decades. We can hardly call them cities: they are part of a continuous landscape of urban sprawl.

Even cities in the West are now being shaped by foreign direct investment, privatisation, and securitisation of public space.

Work is also changing. In the past, the factory floor was an active site of politics: the shared experience of work let people get together and block the flows of profit to the bosses. Especially in the deindustrializing and increasingly service-oriented economies of the global North, the workplace has become smaller and more surveilled, and jobs increasingly feel like useless bullshit.

 Today’s factories are fast food restaurants, diners, transportation, and customer service call centers.

Gone are the days of workers’ pride in their achievements: today’s factories are fast food restaurants, diners, transportation, and customer service call centers. At the same time, the economy is getting progressively more unequal, with a greater percentage of the profits going from the working class to the owners of capital. Given that work has become more isolated and fractured, the workplace is getting more difficult to organize in.

Globally, an intricate web of supply chains has solidified into what geographers are calling “planetary urbanisation”. What we usually call the city has become absorbed into what Andy Merrifield calls a “shapeless, formless, and apparently boundless” mesh.

Rural areas are being transformed into stockpiles or sacrifice zones for urban consumption—rainforests in Borneo turned into palm oil plantations, fishing villages on coasts globally decimated as factory-like fishing fleets have brought 30 percent of the world’s fisheries to the point of collapse.

Peasants are left destitute, with rampant farmer suicides and many forced into urban-rural migration, subject to the ebbs and flows of the global economy. Traditional ‘hinterlands’ are increasingly part of a globalised urban fabric.

For many, the urban core has also become inaccessible. Gentrification has “regenerated” areas that just a generation ago had been left to rot by the state. Through that same process, poor people are being forced to move to the suburbs—where there are inevitably fewer amenities like clinics, social centers, and public space.

At the same time, what Ray Oldenburg calls the “great good place”—the pub, the cafe, the library, where people could relax and mingle—is being shuttered everywhere. Through these rapid changes, life has become atomised, isolating. There is no one you can turn to for support, the parents are never home, and neighbours are worlds apart.

Urbanisation vs. cities

Cities have always been places of conflict: full of positive and negative potential. Historically, many cities were places where people experimented with and invented non-hierarchical forms of politics. The city, at its best, represents the ideal where every citizen can participate in the shaping of their own future.

At their worst, human settlements are tightly regulated spaces, controlled by an administrative elite separated from the population. In such spaces, people are no longer citizens, and policies are determined by technocrats and the elite.

The promise of the city is what Hannah Arendt, in one essay, called “the promise of politics”. Real politics is a promise because it remains an unrealised ideal. If politics is the ability of diverse people to come together and intentionally guide their own future, then the city is the space where people are able to do so.

Here it is useful to distinguish between the city and the urban. The promise of the city is what Hannah Arendt, in one essay, called “the promise of politics”. Real politics is a promise because it remains an unrealised ideal. If politics is the ability of diverse people to come together and intentionally guide their own future, then the city is the space where people are able to do so.

The urban, on the other hand, is managerial space. Being ruled by a central administrative body, it systematically undermines organic interactions—anything unplanned is abhorrent.

In the book Urbanization without cities: The rise and fall of citizenship, Murray Bookchin calls urbanization “a force that makes for municipal homogeneity and formlessness”. What should be dynamic and exciting, a space of organic possibility, becomes a space where all interactions are pre-programmed.

It is this kind of space that is now spreading across the world, from Singapore to Lower Manhattan. Urbanization relies on a vast interconnected network that systematically undermines people’s ability to be self-sufficient. As people lose the power over their own economic production they are forced to rely on goods and materials from elsewhere. The urban becomes a space that is unable to limit itself; it can only expand.

More than workers

We are at a key historical moment. The global deployment of hierarchical and undemocratic urban space, speculative urban real estate development, and increased social atomization all combine to disempower the citizen. At the same time, this urbanization of the planet through the undemocratic control of an elite class is a central feature of our impending planetary ecological crisis.

Marxist urban geographers like David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre have long identified these trends, and argued that socialists must go beyond organising on the basis of work alone, for class struggle extends far beyond the point of production.

As working-class people, we face a kind of double exploitation: at the workplace – increasingly fractured and alienating – and where we live – itself a site of profit and surveillance. By taking control over urban space, demanding the right to the city, we can force elites to make concessions and bring capitalism to heel.

People aren’t just workers: we are neighbours, citizens, strangers, acquaintances, and lovers. Without the spaces for meaningful relationships, the ability to practice conviviality, and the freedom to pursue our desires, we lose our humanity.

But it’s not just about taking elites to task. People aren’t just workers: we are neighbours, citizens, strangers, acquaintances, and lovers. Without the spaces for meaningful relationships, the ability to practice conviviality, and the freedom to pursue our desires, we lose our humanity. We become monads, atoms – free from responsibility, but alienated from each other.

The answer to planetary urbanisation, social isolation, the privatisation of our cities, and the ecological crisis is the building up of popular power – to make citizens of residents and consumers, of workers and neighbors. Radical municipalism is the idea that we can build popular assemblies and neighborhood councils, where people learn to manage their common life through face-to-face politics and develop the skills and the power to seize control: to take the city.

A repertoire of strategies

It is in this political and economic context that the worldwide turn to municipalist strategies makes sense. New economic and social conditions have led organisers to focus on the neighborhood level, going to where people are and building solidarity in a world of isolation. But that itself has led to new definitions of what socialism would mean.

With this has come a new repertoire of strategies. From cooperative housing to community gardens, land trusts to democratically-controlled renewable energy, spontaneously organised tenant strikes to social movements sweeping into power in city hall – all of these are part of a kind of bottom-up socialism, helping us to imagine a more ethical, democratic, and just economy.

While the workplace remains a crucial place for building solidarity, the municipality is increasingly at the center of political action. For us, the promise of municipalism is that it can bring people together where they live, and offer concrete resources to battle poverty, displacement, and isolation.

Radical municipalism carries the promise of real politics: through face-to-face interaction, we can undo the bureaucracy that structures and constricts our lives.

Radical municipalism carries the promise of real politics: through face-to-face interaction, we can undo the bureaucracy that structures and constricts our lives.

In this piece, we aimed to show how radical municipalism arises out of the material conditions of the present moment—at the intersection of the history of capitalism and the expansion of a ruling managerial class.

In the next instalment, we explore some of the limits of municipalism that our movements must overcome. In the face of world-scale crises like climate change and growing authoritarianism, can a municipal strategy scale up beyond the local?

The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev. This article was written by Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi) and originally published on The Ecologist.

Degrowth in Detroit?

 

detroit future city 9

by Seth Schindler

Speculative lending practices and the securitization of sub-prime mortgages were largely to blame for the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis was particularly severe in cities where the lack of liquidity in the financial system made it difficult for municipal governments to respond to the wave of foreclosures and resultant shrinking tax bases. With the worst of the crisis seemingly behind us it is time to reflect on its long-term impact on American cities.

Perhaps the most extreme example of a city in crisis is Detroit. The city’s beleaguered finances proved to be no match for the global economic meltdown and in 2013 Detroit filed for bankruptcy. This part of the story is well known, but much less attention has been paid to the vision of Detroit’s future development around which a consensus among local elites coalesced in the year-and-a-half since its declaration of bankruptcy.

While this plan retains some elements of out-of-the-box urban development programs, it dispenses with a growth-based strategy geared toward rejuvenating the city’s manufacturing base. Instead, it recognizes the likelihood of further economic decline and its emphasis is on improving the quality of life of Detroit residents, economic diversification and environmental sustainability.

In order to understand the willingness of policy makers in Detroit to relinquish the dream of returning to a golden era of Fordist manufacturing it is necessary to put the 2008 crisis in context. Like many American cities, Detroit is a casualty of the prolonged economic crisis that began in the 1970s. Auto manufacturers relocated production facilities to southern states and then overseas in an attempt to outflank organized labour and to counter a falling rate of return. The collapse of Detroit’s manufacturing base left the city’s finances in tatters, and policy makers responded by embracing market-oriented solutions that were in fashion in the 1980s.

detroit future city 3

There was a broad shift in the United States during the 1980s, in which the primary function of municipal government went from managing day-to-day service delivery to fostering economic growth. To this end “growth coalitions” emerged in many cities. These coalitions practiced “growth machine politics” aimed to augment land value and attracted inward investment. Public bodies assumed risk for large-scale urban development projects while private firms reaped the financial rewards.

This led to a perception among investors that municipal bonds were safe investments that offered lucrative rewards, so when Detroit’s municipal government sought to make up for its shrinking tax base by issuing bonds there was no shortage of willing investors. By 2012 Detroit’s deficit stood at $326 million while its tax base and population continued to shrink.

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The textbook response to crisis in many cities has been to intensify neoliberal policies. Thus, when growth coalitions failed to attract investment or augment land value, the response has oftentimes been to offer even more favourable terms to investors while cutting back on services. This has led many scholars and activists to despair that while neoliberalism is the cause of the current crisis it is also perversely embraced as its solution.

Many municipalities have indeed imposed fiscal austerity since the onset of the financial crisis as a means of attracting investment. Some of these cities may have fundamentally sound finances, and policy makers may view fiscal austerity as a short-term detour aimed at calming skittish investors. According to this reasoning the pain caused by austerity will be offset in the near future once the growth coalition is able to resume a cycle of development and growth.

In the case of Detroit this optimism would have most certainly be misplaced because even the most aggressive version of fiscal austerity would not have reversed the city’s decades-long decline. This begs an obvious question: Why should a city endure the pain of austerity if further decline is inevitable from the outset?

Detroit’s elites decided that, while austerity was in the best interest of extra-local creditors, it also promised to make life even more difficult for residents, and they decided to repudiate the city’s debt and take the historic step of declaring bankruptcy. By freeing the city of its debt burden, bankruptcy has allowed Detroit’s future to be re-envisioned.

detroit future city 8

A coalition among Detroit elites coalesced around this emergent vision, which is based on creative land-use, environmental sustainability and economic diversification. It is articulated in a 345-page document entitled Detroit Future City (DFC). It reads like a master plan and focuses on five “planning elements”: economic growth, land use, city systems, neighbourhoods, and land and buildings assets.

Unlike entrepreneurial urban policies whose time horizons are measured in quarters and election cycles, DFC aims to rejuvenate Detroit’s economy in the course of the next five decades. The first step is to make the city liveable in order to stem the tide of out-migration, and to this end the plan calls for investments in neighbourhoods. Residents in neighbourhoods characterized by high levels of abandonment are encouraged to relocate to neighbourhoods with high population densities. Fordist manufacturing is rejected in favour of economic diversity, the single-family detached home is rejected in favour of densely populated diverse neighbourhoods, and in a major shift for the Motor City the plan envisions an efficient public transportation network. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the DFC is “the re-imagination and reuse of vacant land for productive uses or, where there is excess vacant land, returning it to an ecologically and environmentally sustainable state.” The emphasis on sustainable land use is a significant departure from growth machine politics aimed at augmenting land value.

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It is too early to tell whether the vision articulated in the DFC will be realized or if it will indeed guide policy for the next fifty years. Nevertheless, it is important to note that bankruptcy gave Detroit the opportunity to chart a new path. I refer to this as degrowth machine politics because it takes the further shrinking of Detroit’s economy for granted, and rather than placate creditors policy makers are focused on improving the quality of life for city residents.

The concept “degrowth” is not new but it has historically been used primarily by activists and scholars because politicians do not win elections by campaigning for shrinking the economy. This is changing since the onset of the financial crisis because there are many places in which degrowth simply seems to be a reality that cannot be reversed by fiscal austerity.

For example, elements of degrowth are beginning to enter mainstream policy discourse in southern Europe. Voters in Greece recently rejected fiscal austerity, and the concept has begun to enter mainstream discourse elsewhere in southern Europe. In the United Kingdom the Scottish National Party has chided mainstream political parties – and most notably the Labour Party – for not repudiating austerity.

detroit future city 6

Thus, it is possible that we could see the emergence of other degrowth machine political coalitions, and this provides an answer for the pressing question: What comes after neoliberalism? The transition to degrowth is not a linear advancement to a new political system based on purportedly universal ideology. Instead it is a mixture of locally adapted policies whose coherence lies in their intended outcomes rather than ideological underpinnings. The objective is to simply do more with less and thereby improve the quality of life, and this will oftentimes (1) reduce the quantity of resources used and (2) put localities – and local elites who were hitherto part of multi-scaler growth coalitions with extra-local financiers – at odds with their creditors whose main priority is protecting their investment.

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Detroit may provide lessons for degrowth coalitions elsewhere. First and foremost, Detroit demonstrates that the intensification of fiscal austerity is not the only response available to policy makers faced with an economic crisis. In spite of declaring bankruptcy Detroit was not punished by creditors. On the contrary, the repudiation of debt transformed Detroit into an attractive destination for investors. For example, Goldman Sachs launched an initiative to invest $20 million in Detroit’s small businesses. Quite simply, an institution that is unburdened by debt seems like a better investment than one that cannot hope to repay its debt without the support of a guarantor (in this case the State of Michigan).

The reason why Detroit is able to attract investment is because its degrowth machine politics has clearly articulated an innovative plan for the city’s future. Thus, the rejection of austerity for austerity’s sake must be accompanied by a clear set of policies aimed at managing decline in a way that makes cities more liveable. In other words, the repudiation of debt should not be understood as a strategy to attract capital from different investors, but to rework with relationship with all investors so that any inward capital is leveraged toward the realization of a sustainable and equitable future.

 

Seth Schindler is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Sheffield.