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Ça Suffit? Politics In the Early 21st Century

by Chavell, adapted for the Pigeon Palace and the SF Community Land Trust

by Chavell, adapted for the Pigeon Palace and the SF Community Land Trust

First, a huge thanks to everyone who supported the Pigeon Palace effort. It seems that we are going to be able to stay here in our home on Folsom Street in San Francisco permanently! There are some final hurdles to overcome, but it’s looking pretty solid at the moment. By the end of summer we should be celebrating; we’ll also be dealing with organizing ourselves internally to self-manage our building, and to oversee a huge process of rehabilitation and improvement in our century-old Victorian. Our apparent victory here is already inspiring lots of other folks in San Francisco, people facing eviction as well as the thousands who are in precarious rental situations who may be able to follow this path too. We hope to be a strong source of support going forward for others to achieve similar results.

The radical class and ethnic cleansing underway in San Francisco is paralleled in many other major cities around the world competitively styling themselves neoliberal capitals. In Paris in June, I saw a city that has been gentrified for more than a century—reading David Harvey’s excellent Paris: Capital of Modernity reveals a process pursued during the Second Empire (1849-1871) by the famous urban planner Hausmann based on debt financing, spatial and social restructuring, slum clearance, road building, etc. The result was the expulsion of much of the industry that had developed in the heart of Paris, along with the new industrial working class it employed. Social classes were segregated into different districts (newly created arrondisements) while incessant rent increases fueled a great concentration of wealth and the steady impoverishment of the majority of the population. Meanwhile, new trends in merchandising (e.g., the department store), and a deliberate fostering of new fashions fueled a boom in consumerism that also stimulated the economy when it had been languishing in depression at the end of the 1840s. (It didn’t hurt that the California Gold Rush was sending lots of money into the French economy at the same time!)

Anyway, our apparent lucky “lottery win” of our home in San Francisco’s Mission District, against all odds, settles—for we few lucky ones—the terrible insecurity and uncertainty dominating most local renters’ daily lives these days. Psychologically, I can finally stop fretting about where I’m going to be, and get back to focusing on how to engage with where I am. The fact that we are part of a Land Trust means I don’t have to worry about housing values, future rent increases, or any of the usual issues that accompany either ownership or tenancy. There will be other issues to be sure, self-management is its own reward and headache (we almost jokingly put a slogan on the building “We want Headaches, Not Equity!”). But with the major fears and concerns aside, I feel my home is “enough” as it becomes a foundation from which I can pursue other interests and activities.

Maintaining our homes is one of the basic fundamentals beneath a good life. But the overarching logic of this society is focused on incessant growth, which the ideological promoters insist will eventually give everyone a good life—even though it’s perfectly apparent that the growth economy produces the opposite: a growing number of displaced and impoverished people globally, an ever wealthier few who own more and more of everything, and a planet being choked and degraded by the rapacious exploitation of every corner and every resource. For the millions working in the factories and offices of the world, work is constantly speeding up and being made more intense and taking longer (whatever happened to the 8 hour day or the 40 hour week?), while space for creativity, art, music, and self-expression, not to mention nature itself, are radically diminished.

To the dead of the 1871 Paris Commune in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

To the dead of the 1871 Paris Commune in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

In the catacombs of Paris...

In the catacombs of Paris…

Another kind of death.... department stores!

Another kind of death…. department stores!

In the past few years a new movement has emerged under the rubric of “Degrowth,” though it sounds a lot better in French or Italian where the theoreticians have done most of the writing (décroissance or descrescita… in the Italian scene, the expression has been “decrescita feliz” or happy degrowth!). A friend suggested a better term in English might be “sufficiency” which trumps the awkward negative connotations of ‘degrowth’ and also leads our thoughts into a different direction than the much co-opted term “sustainability” (which by now seems to be about sustaining growth itself!). The French words in the title of this post, ça suffit, mean “that’s enough,” and I am very interested in developing a common political discourse that focuses on “enough-ness.”

I wrote Nowtopia a while back (published in 2008 in English, 2009 in Italian, last year in Brazilian Portuguese), which set out to describe a new politics of work, based on the common experience of people taking their time and technological know-how of out the market. When they aren’t at their paid jobs making money, they are often doing hard, worthwhile, but unpaid work. This Nowtopian work often addresses the crises of planetary ecology, social anomie, and isolation in local ways, but also allows the practitioners to engage in technological and social creativity in ways that wage-labor rarely allows for. When I traveled in Italy in 2008 with my book, I met Maurizio Pallante, author of Sustainable Happiness, and a man dedicated to the new politics of Degrowth.

DegrowthNow a new book has been published in English called Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era and it’s an important contribution to rethinking politics in the 21st century (full disclosure, I wrote one of the 51 short essay/definitions in the book on “Nowtopians”). This slim volume is packed with big ideas organized into 3-page essays that define the key terms, such as Commons, Conviviality, Bioeconomics, Environmental Justice, Political Ecology, Autonomy, Commodification, Emergy, Imaginary, Happiness, and much more. But the collection doesn’t shy away from the many contradictions embodied in the emerging critique of capitalist growth—in fact many of the essays in the book directly conflict with each other, which bolsters the book’s credibility and importance in my eyes. I also appreciate that the book includes forthright critics of capitalism (such as myself) and various Degrowthers who are ambivalent about markets, money, and commodities, and some who consider these aspects of today’s world unchangeable. In another article published in 2014 in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, called “Degrowth and Demonetization: On the Limits of a Non-Capitalist Market Economy” Andreas Exner develops a pretty thorough critique of the fantasies held by many eco-inspired radicals that there is a role for money and markets in a post-capitalist world. Going back to Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the assumption that non-capitalist money and markets could exist “blooms in the discourse on regional currencies, time banks, and local exchange trading systems (LETS)… [which] is also at the core of the ‘green money’ debates.” For Exner, “only reciprocity allows democratic governance and participatory planning.”

The Degrowth collection is organized by the vocabulary it seeks to insert into political debates. Many of the terms don’t immediately seem familiar. Here’s a bit of “Metabolism, societal …”

To meet the requirements of socio-economic systems such as the contemporary ones in the Global North, which operate with high economic diversity, high dependency ratios (due to a rising proportion of elderly persons and a higher average age of schooling) and high percentage-wise contribution of the service sector in the economy, it is likely that more workers and more working hours will be required to maintain the current metabolic patterns of societies as fossil fuels dwindle. This points to a contradiction with the degrowth proposal, which calls for reducing work hours (worksharing). In a future scarce in energy we will have to work more, not less. (by Alevgül H. Sorman, p. 43)

Many of us attracted to a degrowth agenda are interested also in finding an approach to both reducing work and making it fully under the control of those who do it. As the previous quote makes clear, a shrinking economy imposed (as it might be) by scarce and expensive energy will require even more work to maintain our customary comforts. But seeking an economy based on a concept of “enough” or what is sufficient for a good life, might also be possible with rather less energy and less “metabolic throughput” than we are currently using.

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History History Everywhere!

It's no wonder so many of our romanticized utopian fantasies involve canals and bicycles... Amsterdam is in our dreams whether or not we've ever visited!

It’s no wonder so many of our romanticized utopian fantasies involve canals and bicycles… Amsterdam is in our dreams whether or not we’ve ever visited!

Ubiquitous Dutch cargo bikes, mostly used to schlep kids around...

Ubiquitous Dutch cargo bikes, mostly used to schlep kids around…

We arrived in Amsterdam to start this journey, a driving trip around France for myself, Adriana and my parents, but we start here so Adriana and I could present at the “Unofficial Histories” conference held at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. We arrived a couple of days before the conference, which gave us a chance to overcome our jet lag, and also to do some walking around town, and obligatory museum visits.

One of the many gorgeous 17th century paintings documenting the enormously self-satisfied new bourgeois at the heart of the early Dutch imperialism...

One of the many gorgeous 17th century paintings documenting the enormously self-satisfied new bourgeois at the heart of the early Dutch imperialism…

We started with the Rijksmuseum, one of the world’s great collections. Having just read Russell Shorto’s excellent history of Amsterdam (“A History of the World’s Most Liberal City”), I loved doing an intensive visit of the 2nd floor’s presentation of the Dutch masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, Rembrandt and many others I’ve never heard of. But the images of the new bourgeoisie, the Dutch investors who invented the multinational corporation, who invested in the ships that opened trade with Indonesia, Africa, South America, and even established New York, are remarkable. Combined with landscapes and daily life scenes from that long-ago pre-modern era, the recording of history through these paintings is itself historically fascinating. I felt I was intensively visiting with the newly emergent/triumphant bourgeoisie of Amsterdam’s Golden Era in the early 17th century. The painters of the era brilliantly capture the self-satisfaction and confidence of the newly wealthy. There were even paintings of some of the colonial outposts in “Batavia” (Java in Indonesia), or Recife in Brazil, which do nothing to explain the attitudes of the colonists, or the deep roots of the ethnic tensions that are now percolating throughout the former imperial centers in Europe. Still, amazing to see the forts and trading posts in places that were the beginnings of today’s far-flung networks of global trade.

A pre-urbanized, pre-industrialized Holland, painted in the 1600s.

A pre-urbanized, pre-industrialized Holland, painted in the 1600s.

Later I went over to the Amsterdam Museum to see how it presents the history of this storied city. I got a good (better) sense of the original delta/wetlands and the system of pilings on which everything sits. The evolution of the town is well-presented in the main museum; in one area a large map of the 16th century city has a series of buttons that can be pressed to bring up further images and explanations of the buildings and social activities in each area of town. The city declined during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but as the Industrial Revolution took off, Amsterdam managed to recover from its earlier loss of empire—though the city’s comfort and prosperity cannot be separated from its centuries-long exploitation of colonies in Indonesia, South America, and Africa.

Prior to entering the full museum though, visitors are shunted into an upstairs exhibit called “Amsterdam DNA” where you are prompted to use a QR code on your museum pamphlet’s back cover as a trigger for various multimedia presentations. I found the whole DNA exhibit terrible, oversimplified, and annoying. In one spot you are invited to climb on a freight bike and a video in front of you plays to show you what it was like to cycle in 1940s Amsterdam. When you ring the bell you flip the video to a contemporary view of the same streetscape. Sorry to say it was hiccup-y and kept stalling. And when it did work, it was so brief as to be meaningless. The one-room DNA exhibit tries to tell the whole history of the city in about 45 minutes, motivated by the staff’s realization that most people weren’t making it through the whole museum. So they created this gimmicky, shallow, and technology-reliant summary as a quick alternative to a more thoughtful and thorough visit to the whole museum.

A better use of technology in the main Amsterdam city museum. Each button pops up close-up images and a brief explanation.

A better use of technology in the main Amsterdam city museum. Each button pops up close-up images and a brief explanation.

What it looks like when you select something.

What it looks like when you select something.

I did both the DNA and the rest of the museum, and I was pretty tired by the time I finally got to the end of the chronological presentation. The fascinating story of the Provos in 1965-66 finally appeared in the last room, though I’d seen a number of crusty white bicycles in the courtyard and in a couple of spots around town, with links via QR code to an app that provides a self-guided, multimedia walking tour of Amsterdam following the locations that became famous as a result of the Provo movement. More »

Pigeon Palace Protest May 5 video

Ten minutes from our May 5 Demonstration in front of the building during the last open house before offers went in… some words from Carin McKay, Kirk Read, and Chris Carlsson, all tenants, and a short postscript from Mokai… video by Nick Kasimatis … many thanks!

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