economy, 'technology', public space, San Francisco past and present, class, books

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Life in a Neoliberal Crockpot

These red arrows only capture some of the construction frenzy underway now in San Francisco.

These red arrows only capture some of the construction frenzy underway now in San Francisco.

San Francisco is nearly at full boil. Rampant eviction and displacement, combined with a nearly unprecedented frenzy of new construction, and a wild west of new restaurants, boutiques, and other establishments opening and closing like a spinning top, is changing the face of the city so rapidly that it’s becoming unrecognizable even to those of us who have lived here for decades. Hardly a day passes without news of another friend losing their home to a new buyer who is determined to evict either using “owner move-in” or the state “Ellis Act” which allows owners to leave the rental business and clear their buildings.

My last friends in the Haight evicted last month.

My last friends in the Haight evicted last month.

LisaRuth suffering the indignity of an "owner move-in" and her displacement....

LisaRuth suffering the indignity of an “owner move-in” and her displacement….

Curiously, thousands of apartments are estimated to be lying empty in San Francisco, held as investments by distant speculators. Thousands more lay unused by the elite who maintain empty apartments in so-called “global cities” spanning the world, pied-a-terre’s for the 1% who drop in once and a while for fun or business. Many more homes have been informally converted into temporary tourist dwellings via the latest dotcom scourge AirBnB, and similar predatory neoliberal business models masquerading as “the sharing economy.”

San Francisco progressives, once known as the Left, but today a bit too compromised and confused to earn consistently even that tepid moniker, are a paper tiger, unable to contest or even slow down the onslaught ripping the fabric of the city. The long-term demise of organized labor, holding on for dear life among city workers, transit workers, and some hotels and the building trades, is an important part of the shrinking of social opposition, but it goes a lot further than that.  In the first dotcom boom-and-bust in 1999-2000 a spirited movement emerged, centered in the Mission District and with activist pressure showing up in most parts of town, but an equivalent effort at contestation has simply not appeared this time around. Protests echoing the decade-ago efforts have not drawn the numbers or the attention in 2013; the fact that gentrification has proceeded stealthily and steadily all these years has already radically altered the demographics of the city. Thousands of wealthy people are now living in new condominiums in the South of Market, downtown, Mission Bay, the Haight-Ashbury, the Fillmore, and the Mission District. Thousands of old Victorians have been bought and removed from the rental market, now owned by the burgeoning population of well-paid lawyers, financial analysts, medical and biotech workers, and of course the much-blamed tech workers of the social media empires.

karl book 2258_regTrying to make sense of the trajectory from the much-heralded Left Coast City of the past to the increasingly brutal neoliberal cauldron of today is difficult, but two new books published this year offer complementary analyses that help start the introspection. Karl Beitel’s Local Protest, Global Movements: Capital, Community, and State in San Francisco (Temple University Press, Philadephia: 2013) and Jason Henderson’s Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco (Univ of Massachusetts Press, Boston: 2013) both set out to analyze the state of progressive politics, albeit from different points of focus (I should say that I consider each of these authors my friend, too). street fight 9781613762608Beitel hails from a more traditionally left perspective, and he’s trying to reconcile the history of mass movements and political parties with an eco-Marxist perspective in his focus on housing politics in San Francisco from the 1970s to the mid-2000s. Henderson is a critical geographer teaching at SF State and his book focuses in on the transportation realm, identifying three ideological poles (conservative, neoliberal, and progressive) that have confronted and compromised with each other to create the stalemate we face daily, leaving everyone dissatisfied whether motorist, bus rider, bicyclist, or pedestrian.

Both of these slim volumes provide great histories: Beitel highlights the early history of resistance to redevelopment and highrises and how that led to the inadequate-but-better-than-nothing rent control that passed in 1979 (and we still have now, strengthened in subsequent years by savvy ballot-box efforts led by the SF Tenants Union). In a later chapter he recounts the rise of the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition (MAC) and its relationship to the Willie Brown era of unrestrained for-profit building during the first dot-com boom (which really is still ongoing, we now know). Henderson usefully tells the story of the original Freeway Revolt in the 1950s-60s and shows how the coalition that stopped the road builders then was as much conservative as progressive. In a later chapter he gives a great history of the 2nd Freeway Revolt of the 1990s that took place in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the opportunity it presented to tear down the Embarcadero and Central freeways. He shows how progressive activists came to accept neoliberal arguments about profitable real estate opportunities as a way to forge an alliance against the conservatives who insisted the city government bolster and expand automobility by repairing the damaged freeways.

These two books, which often parallel each other in interesting ways, also demonstrate one of the problems they’re describing: the isolation of local-issue campaigns from one another. They also both demonstrate the problem of academic theses, that the focus must always be narrowed to an acceptable topic at the expense of a more comprehensive and complex approach. The book market in general is in trouble, and broad analytical works are growing harder to find. Publishers, even academic ones, seem to prefer the easily categorized topical treatments—in this way political writings mirror the separations that political movements keep reproducing, at least in the U.S. More »

What is Relevance?

I’m cross-posting this, which I also put on the San Francisco Critical Mass blog page.


June 2013 Critical Mass on Larkin in Civic Center.

June 2013 Critical Mass on Larkin in Civic Center.

It’s the last Friday of July, 2013, and of course San Francisco’s Critical Mass will be rolling around 6:30 or so from Justin “Pee-Wee” Herman Plaza, as it has for the past 20 and a half years. I’m not going today, but it’s not because I don’t generally still show up and usually enjoy myself, but because I’m doing something else at the same time that I bought tickets for.

As it happens this is the same week that Joe Eskenazi’s article “Critical Mass Goes Round and Round” appeared in the SF Weakly. I’ve had a few friends wonder what my take on it is, since he attempts to summarize the political impact of 20 years of Critical Mass in the context of bicycling politics and city transit priorities more generally. I’m also quoted in the piece a few times, a product of an hour I spent speaking with Joe a month ago or so.

Another "circling up" at Mission and South Van Ness in June 2013.

Another “circling up” at Mission and South Van Ness in June 2013.

I don’t love having a complex set of ideas and experiences reduced to a few out-of-context soundbites that just serve to reinforce my apparent disconnectedness from what matters in terms of the realpolitik of San Francisco. But that’s what mainstream journalism, even or especially in an alt-weekly, will do. Overall I don’t think he did a bad job of capturing the current malaise that besets Critical Mass (a malaise that is only visible to those of us who have long harbored more ambitious hopes for radical social change), and I think he was spot-on in highlighting the severe limits of the narrow corporatist agenda of the SF Bicycle Coalition, both in terms of its self-proclaimed successes and in terms of the actual state of things on the ground in San Francisco for bicyclists.

Parents still bring kids to the ride regularly.

Parents still bring kids to the ride regularly.

Critical Mass, of course, is not an organization, and thus has no agenda, and never did. One of the originating impulses for it was the experience many of us had of so commonly being treated as second-class citizens on the roads by motorists and by the shape of the infrastructure itself. Eskenazi suggests that our early years’ “success” was to insinuate into the DNA of the city’s people the awareness that cyclists are here and deserve accommodation. I think that’s basically true. But for me, Critical Mass was always about a lot more than mere bicycling. As he rather drippingly notes, I lament that the SFBC and its gov’t allies “have no particular problem with wage labor,” and they are narrowly focused on simply “getting more people on bicycles.” Bicycling is great for all kinds of intrinsic reasons, but bicycling per se is simply not enough.

Indeed, the bicycle for me was always a transportation choice that was obviously superior to other choices, but insofar as we gathered en (Critical M)asse, it quickly became obvious that much more is at stake. Our paucity of public space and opportunity to gather and meet and discuss anything publicly without being subjected to the endless imperative to buy something immediately rose to the foreground as an important element of why Critical Mass mattered.

Fell street in June 2013

Fell street in June 2013

In our book “Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20” we gathered essays from two dozen contributors spread across the world’s cities showing how Critical Mass spread far and wide and repeatedly changed those cities where it appeared in similar ways. As Eskenazi notes, I wrote in my opening essay in that volume that I’d seen a kind of “life cycle” of Critical Mass in different places, usually involving the hopeful, utopian, and open-ended experience that has captivated so many of us lasting about 5 years, give or take. After that the animating spirits of that “golden era” often turn to other ways to pursue their hopes and goals, whether by launching more mainstream advocacy organizations, turning to other activities entirely such as urban agriculture or free software (just as often, of course, activists from those arenas had joined with other cyclists to spur on Critical Mass from its inception, whether in Brazil or Mexico or Italy or Hungary), or beginning DIY skill-sharing “bike kitchens.”

The spate of horizontalist social movements that are continuing to erupt suddenly across the planet, most recently in Brazil, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Egypt, often find Critical Mass cyclists at the heart of those upheavals. This is not to credit CM with being the necessary precursor or essential causal agent, just to note that our shared experiences in making Critical Mass in over 400 cities around the world during the last two decades has already profoundly affected how we think about and engage in politics, civil society, urban planning, and much more. More »

Spook Governments, Networked Movements, Shifting Subjectivities

Mysterious view towards downtown from hilltop above Hunter's Point shipyards; eventually this will be residential housing...

Mysterious view towards downtown from hilltop above Hunter’s Point shipyards; eventually this will be residential housing…

Everyone is chiming in on the Ed Snowden/NSA story. It’s great that Snowden has released all this information, just like it was great that Wikileaks released all those diplomatic cables, and great that Bradley Manning (evidently) leaked it to Wikileaks in the first place. We need to honor and defend these people, who are acting on behalf of a much greater cause than personal gain or fame. They are one important wing of the general delegitimizing of the United States and the neoliberal imperial project that the U.S. has pushed so hard for the past four decades.

But I’ve been surprised that the response to the NSA gathering everyone’s phone calls and emails has been so narrowly focused on the ostensible violation of personal privacy. The real issue is not the privacy of your personal communication. The NSA program is the government’s attempt to get a handle on networked uprisings, not so they can pre-empt them (though of course they’d like to), but to respond them as quickly as possible as they unfold. The goal of gathering all this meta-data is to be able to identify where the “hubs” are, who the people are who sit at key points in networks, helping pass news and messages along, but especially, who the people are who spread ideas and information from one network of people to the next, who help connect small networks into larger ones, and thus facilitate the unpredictable and rapid spread of dissent when it appears.

Sociologist Manuel Castells’ latest book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Polity Press: 2012) reaches for a much less academic and more popular tone than he usually does. He examines the new social movements that erupted since 2011, giving a helpful summary of the course of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, and the U.S., going behind the simplistic claims of a “twitter” or “social media revolution.” He shows how the presence of those technologies was important and indispensable for the development of these movements, but that it was the synergy between social media and actually existing networks, combining in public squares and camps, that took things to a new level. Elsewhere, Rodrigo Nunes wrote last summer on Mute Magazine’s web site a smart analysis of the organizational forms that emerged during 2011 and subsequently, arguing that the generally weak connections that prevail on social media could amalgamate into something greater:

under certain special conditions, the quantity of connections enabled by social media can indeed produce the quality of stronger ones – a marginal effect that weak ties always possess that is intensified by favourable circumstances, and which we could describe as a general lowering of each individual’s participation threshold.

We can see how the NSA spying program is geared to penetrating these new, not-really-spontaneous organizational forms that emerge on an adhoc basis and don’t seem to produce lasting institutional forms (at least not yet). Without the familiar unions or political parties as targets for infiltration and manipulation, the spooks in charge of imperial “peace” have been scrambling to head off the mysterious new ways people are figuring out to radically challenge the way life is shaped. Here’s Nunes again:

If there can be mass movements without mass organisations, it is because social media amplify exponentially the effects of relatively isolated initiatives. But that they do so is not a miraculous phenomenon that can magically bypass quality by producing quantity out of nothing; it requires the relay through hubs and strong tie groups and clusters that can begin to operationally translate ‘chatter’ into action. As that happens, under propitious conditions, the spread of information also aids the development of strong ties down the long tail: once a friend or family member goes to a demo, or you see stirring images of one, you are more likely to go, and so on. So we can only speak of ‘spontaneity’ if we understand the new flows of information and decision making as also being necessarily routed by previously existing networks and organisations and more tightly knit affinities, and thus along the lines of previously given structures that no doubt were transformed in the process; certainly not in the sense of an ideal ‘association of individuals’ who previously existed as individuals only.

Banner hanging at the former Hayes Valley Farm, taken over on June 1 by folks who dubbed it "Gezi Gardens" in solidarity with the Turks... they were evicted by heavy police attack on the night of June 12... other photos from the short-lived occupation appear below.

Banner hanging at the former Hayes Valley Farm, taken over on June 1 by folks who dubbed it “Gezi Gardens” in solidarity with the Turks… they were evicted by heavy police attack on the night of June 12… other photos from the short-lived occupation appear below.

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