The social and political context of the Germanwings disaster

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By Peter Schwarz
28 March 2015

The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in France, which sent 150 people to their deaths, was, according to investigators, the result of the deliberate actions of the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz.

Following an evaluation of evidence from the voice recorder, specialists from the French Civil Aviation Authority (BEA) and the Marseille public prosecutor, Brice Robin, have come to the conclusion that after the pilot left the cockpit, the 27-year-old co-pilot manually reset the Airbus A320’s autopilot to take the plane from 38,000 feet to 96 feet, the lowest possible setting. Lubitz then refused to allow the pilot back into the cockpit and quietly remained at the controls until the plane crashed into the side of a mountain.

Investigators say this could not have been an accident. From the quiet breathing of the co-pilot, who can be heard on the recording, they conclude that he was fully conscious until the impact.

No sooner had this highly troubling analysis been made known than the media, assorted politicians and the Lufthansa management sought to present the disaster as an incomprehensible event without deeper social significance.

The crash was a tragic fluke that the best security procedures and psychological safeguards could not have prevented, said Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr. In his “worst nightmare” he could “not have imagined that such a thing could happen one day.”

On the web site of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, editor Mathias Müller von Blumencron wrote, “This accident has to be explained, as that is the only way we can come to terms with it.” But he sought the explanation exclusively in the individual psyche of the culprit, declaring: “At the heart of the explanation is one person, more precisely, his head, his possibly misguided brain… It is the psyche of Andreas Lubitz that caused the incomprehensible. On the basis of the present state of things, the solution can be found only in the person of the co-pilot.”

Really?

Of course, one has to establish what motives, personal issues or psychological problems drove Lubitz to do this terrible deed. But the psychological background alone cannot explain a disaster of this magnitude. Lubitz acted within a particular social environment. To understand his actions, one must understand not only his individual malady, but also the society in which he lived.

What immense social pressures are required to drive a young man—described by all of his acquaintances as unobtrusive, quiet, pleasant and easy to deal with—to murder 149 people? Why had no one seen the warning signs of the coming disaster?

To probe these questions inevitably necessitates going beyond the “possibly misguided brain” of the culprit and considering a social context that is characterized by increasing occupational stress, economic insecurity, public anxiety, social tensions, state violence and militarism.

The Düsseldorf Public Prosecutor’s Office raided Lubitz’s apartments in Montabaur and in Düsseldorf but found neither a letter of confession nor evidence of a political or religious motive. But they discovered evidence of possible mental distress. They found a torn doctor’s note recommending time off from work, including the day of the crash, and concluded that “the deceased had concealed his illness from his employer and professional colleagues.”

Why did Lubitz go to work despite having a sick note? Did he fear losing his job, which was apparently his dream job? He had joined the local glider club as a 15-year-old and was trained by Lufthansa as a pilot after leaving high school in Bremen. However, he interrupted his training for six months due, according to unconfirmed reports, to depression.

Was Lubitz unable to cope with the increasing work pressure, which is constantly growing, especially at Lufthansa and its low-cost subsidiary Eurowings? This issue has been the source of a year-long industrial dispute by pilots.

Work-related stress and associated mental disorders have increased tremendously, not only in the aviation industry, but throughout society. According to a study by the World Health Organization, 5 percent of the German population of working age, or 3.1 million people, suffer from a major depressive illness. The number of days of sick leave due to mental illness has increased in recent years—18-fold, according to health insurance companies. In 2012 alone it increased by 10 percent.

Lubitz must have felt himself under enormous pressure to commit such a monstrous act. Even experienced psychologists cannot recall a similarly extreme case.

While there is the phenomenon of extended suicide, where a suicide victim kills others in addition to himself, the other victims are usually relatives or people with whom the perpetrator has a personal relationship. Lubitz’s actions can only partially be compared to killing sprees such as the Columbine High School massacre in America or the bloodletting at Erfurt Gutenberg Gymnasium in Germany.

In such events, the victims usually come from the perpetrator’s social milieu and are targeted because of some perceived offence. In the Germanwings disaster, however, 149 people whom Lubitz in all probability did not know were randomly sent to their deaths simply because they happened to be aboard the airplane.

One would expect that even a mentally ill and depressed person would have inhibitions against committing such a massacre. That these were apparently not present should be seen against the backdrop of a general devaluing of human life.

Andreas Lubitz was 11 years old when the Bundeswehr went into Yugoslavia in the first foreign operation of the post-World War II German military. Thereafter, he lived through one war after another in which American and German troops killed thousands and officials publicly boasted of the number of alleged terrorists “taken out.”

In the Mediterranean, thousands of refugees drown each year while the European Union erects new barriers to prevent them from reaching the continent. The austerity cuts demanded by the German government push millions into poverty in Greece and drive unknown numbers of people to suicide.

The explanation for the Germanwings disaster cannot be found simply in the mind and psyche of Andreas Lubitz. Rather, one must place his sickness within its real context—that of a dysfunctional and diseased social order.

At the same time, the wave of sympathy, human solidarity and eagerness to help with which the population reacted in the crash area, throughout France and in the home countries of the victims brought something different to light—a deep yearning for a truly humane society.

The politicians who commemorate the victims will not fulfil this need. They return from the memorial ceremonies to pursue their policies of welfare cuts, labour market “reforms,” ever expanding police powers at home and increasingly bloody wars abroad.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/28/wing-m28.html

New research suggests certain parasites may be subtly tweaking our health and even our personalities

The parasite made me do it: How a common infection could manipulate our behavior

The parasite made me do it: How a common infection could manipulate our behavior

(Credit: pogonici, via Shutterstock)

This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanImagine a world without fear. It might be empowering to go about your daily life uninhibited by everyday distresses. You could cross highways with confidence, take on all kinds of daredevilry and watch horror flicks without flinching. Yet consider the prospect a little more deeply, and the possibilities become darker, even deadly. Our fears, after all, can protect us.

The basic aversion that a mouse has for a cat, for instance, keeps the rodent out of death’s jaws. But unfortunately for mice everywhere, there is a second enemy with which to contend, one that may prevent them from experiencing that fear in the first place. A unicellular organism (a protozoan), Toxoplasma gondii, can override a rodent’s most basic survival instincts. The result is a rodent that does not race away from a cat but is instead strangely attracted to it.

Toxoplasma‘s reach extends far beyond the world of cat and mouse. It may have a special relationship with rodent and feline hosts, but this parasite also infects the brains of billions of animals on land, at sea and in the air. Humans are no exception. Worldwide, scientists estimate that as many as three billion people may be carrying Toxoplasma. In the U.S., there is a one-in-five chance that Toxoplasma parasites are lodged in your neural circuits, and infection rates are as high as 95 percent in other countries.

For most people, this infection appears asymptomatic, but recent evidence shows that Toxoplasma actively remodels the molecular landscape of mammalian brain cells. Now some researchers have begun to speculate that this tiny single-celled organism may be tweaking human health and personalities in stealthy, subtle ways.

What the cat dragged in

Researchers first discovered T. gondii in 1908, and by the end of the 20th century they had a good grasp on how people could pick up this parasite. The story starts with cats: for reasons that scientists have yet to unravel, Toxoplasma can sexually reproduce only in the feline gut. The parasite breeds within its feline host and is released from the feline’s tail end. Cats are such obsessive groomers that it is rarely found in their fur. Instead people can become infected from kitty litter or by ingesting it in contaminated water or food.



Within a new host the parasite begins dividing asexually and spreading throughout the host’s body. During this initial stage of the infection, Toxoplasma can cause the disease toxoplasmosis in immunocompromised or otherwise susceptible hosts, leading to extensive tissue damage. Pregnant women are particularly at risk. If a woman is infected with Toxoplasma for the first time during pregnancy, the parasite may invade the developing fetus, cutting through tissues and organs as it spreads from cell to cell. Infection early in pregnancy can result in miscarriage or birth defects.

In otherwise healthy individuals, however, the only symptoms during this period are brief, flulike discomforts such as chills, fever and body ache. Within days the immune system gets the parasite under control, and Toxoplasma retreats into a dormant state. It conceals itself within a hardened wall in the host’s cells, a structure called a tissue cyst.

This stage of the infection has no other discernible symptoms, but individuals with dormant infections who develop compromised immune systems—because of AIDS, an organ transplant or chemotherapy—may experience severe complications. With the body’s defense systems weakened, Toxoplasma can reactivate and grow uncontrollably.

Once infected, a person will remain a carrier for life. Our immune system is apparently incapable of eliminating the tissue cysts, nor can any known drug. Nevertheless, the infection, detectable with a blood test, has long been viewed as relatively benign. After all, many people carry this parasite with no obvious ill effects. Only recently have scientists begun reexamining this belief.

Eat me, Mr. Kitty

In the 1980s researchers noticed unusual behaviors in Toxoplasma-infected mice. The rodents became hyperactive and groomed less. In 1994 epidemiologist Joanne Webster, then at the University of Oxford, observed that rats harboring tissue cysts behaved differently from their uninfected counterparts. Instead of fleeing from cats, the infected rodents moved toward them—making them easier prey.

Webster suspected that this “fatal feline attraction,” as she called it, was a crafty way for the parasite to get back into a cat’s belly to complete the sexual stage of its life cycle. In the years to follow, this idea gained ground: a large body of work now shows that the parasite can indeed manipulate rodents’ behavior by altering neural activity and gene expression.

Several well-controlled experiments have shown that although uninfected rodents avoid areas that have been infused with cat stench, infected rodents do not seem to mind. Even more bizarre, in 2011 neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, molecular biologist Ajai Vyas of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and their colleagues found that—at least in terms of neural activity—infected rats appeared to be sexually attracted to cat scent.

In the mammalian brain, the “defensive” and “reproductive” neuronal pathways run in parallel. These pathways start at the olfactory bulb, involved in odor detection, and ter-minate at the limbic system, an area critical to basic reactions such as fear and arousal. Their proximity may partially explain how the parasite manipulates rodent behavior.

Working with 18 infected and 18 uninfected male rats, Sapolsky and his colleagues studied the rodents’ behavior when they were exposed to either the odor of female rats or cat urine. Then they sacrificed the animals and looked at their brains. The researchers found a slight enrichment of parasite cysts in the limbic system compared with other brain areas.

They also assessed which parts of the brain had been operating during exposure to odors by staining the cells with a solution that revealed c-Fos, a protein expressed when neurons are active. The Stanford researchers discovered that infected rodents had high levels of engagement in their brain’s reproductive pathway in response to the odor of both female rats and felines. In addition, the team found that infected rodents exposed to cat urine showed activation in the reproductive pathway similar to what uninfected rodents showed for the scent of a female rat. These results suggest that in infected rats, neural activity shifts from the defensive to the nearby reproductive pathway. Instead of smelling danger, the rats smell love.

Scientists are not sure how exactly the parasite elicits this fatal attraction, but one clue surfaced in 2014 in Vyas’s laboratory. Vyas and his colleagues showed that Toxoplasma increases its host’s levels of a neurotransmitter involved in social and sexual behavior. To accomplish this task, the parasite alters DNA methylation. Methylated genes are silent, blocked by a molecular cap. Toxoplasma uncaps a group of genes that spurs the creation of the sex-promoting neurotransmitter. Vyas and his team discovered this trick by performing the process in reverse: when they administered a chemical compound to the infected rats that silences the associated genes, the rats’ peculiar attraction to feline odor vanished.

Kiss and spit

With evidence mounting that Toxoplasma can influence its host’s brain, other scientists set out to understand the parasite’s effects at a much smaller scale: within each host cell. Their findings suggest that this microbe is particularly insidious—the changes it makes may be permanent.

To replicate, Toxoplasma must invade a cell. Stanford parasitologist John C. Boothroyd has dubbed this process “kiss and spit.” The parasite first attaches to the host cell (the kiss) and then releases an arsenal of foreign proteins into that cell (the spit). Toxoplasma then enters the host cell, and the injected proteins help it redecorate its new home.

The parasite’s first act is establishing a protective bubble in which it can divide in peace without attacks from host cell proteins. (Later, during the infection’s dormant stage, these bubbles thicken to become tissue cysts.) The parasite then moves the mitochondria, which serve as the cell’s powerhouses, to be adjacent to the protective bubble. It also acts on the cell’s DNA, inhibiting the expression of some host genes while activating others. Finally, Toxoplasma modifies host proteins to alter their function and inhibit the immune response.

Altogether, these modifications ensure that the host cell will live a long time and supply energy to the parasite, without alerting immune cells that a parasite has moved in. Although these findings have principally been made with rodents, work with human cell cultures suggests that the same changes probably take place in the human body. In our labs, we are studying how Toxoplasma replicates and interacts with its host in an effort to develop new drugs to treat this infection.

Remarkably, a study that Boothroyd’s group published in 2012 showed that Toxoplasma not only spits into the cells it invades but also spits into cells that it does not infect. This behavior—spitting proteins in passing without lingering in the cells—is a recent discovery in the microbial world. Consequently, cells that are not harboring Toxoplasma contain parasite proteins that can co-opt and reprogram that cell. In the brains of infected mice, cells that have been spat into but not invaded are even more common than ones containing parasites. This widespread scattering of proteins means Toxoplasma can affect its host at a global level, making it easier to imagine how the parasite might manipulate the activity of an entire animal.

In 2013 biologist Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues found that a rodent’s strange attraction to cat odors may be permanent, even if there are no longer signs of infection. In one study, Eisen exposed mice to a mutant strain of the parasite that does not appear to form brain cysts. Four months later the infected mice had no detectable parasites in the brain, yet they were still attracted to cat odors instead of repelled. This finding suggests that even if the parasite can be removed from the body, behavioral changes may persist. The infection leaves a mark, like a permanent parasite-given tattoo.

The human connection

The fact that people do not throw themselves into the lion cage at the zoo strongly argues that Toxoplasma does not affect humans in the way it transforms mice. Mammalian brains are not all the same, and Toxoplasma‘s tricks are most likely specially suited for rodents. The parasite has little to gain, in evolutionary terms, by adapting to control the human brain. We are, after all, a “dead-end” host—the parasites within us are unlikely to return to the cat gut for breeding. Nevertheless, these cysts lodged in our brains could be manipulating us in subtle, unexpected ways.

A large body of research, mostly conducted by parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague, supports the idea that Toxoplasma harbors the potential to change human behavior. In a series of personality assessments spanning more than a decade and involving nearly 2,500 individuals, Flegr and his colleagues found that certain traits often coincide with a Toxoplasma infection. For example, infected men tend to be introverted, suspicious and rebellious, whereas infected women tend to be extraverted, trusting and obedient.

Using a simple reaction time test, Flegr has also found that infected individuals are slower to respond than uninfected peers. This lag may relate to another correlation he has identified. In a 2009 analysis of 3,890 military conscripts in the Czech Republic, those with latent toxoplasmosis who also had a negative blood type, meaning they lacked the protein RhD, were six times more likely to be in a fender bender than those who were Toxoplasma-free or who had a positive blood type. The function of RhD is unknown. Flegr’s results suggest RhD somehow protects people against Toxoplasma‘s effects, but how it does so remains a mystery.

More recently, Flegr and his colleagues found that some of the changes that occur in mice also exist in humans—albeit in a gender-specific manner. In 2011 the researchers asked 34 Toxoplasma-infected students and 134 noninfected students to rate the intensity and pleasantness of urine samples from different animals. Curiously, infected men found cat urine odor more pleasant than uninfected men; in women, the opposite occurred.

Another line of research has focused on a potential link between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia. In 2001 psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and neurovirologist Robert Yolken of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine reported significantly more antibodies associated with Toxoplasma in patients experiencing their first schizophrenic episode as compared with healthy peers. Although this initial study was limited to only 38 people, additional studies in the ensuing years have largely supported this link.

Fascinating and attention-grabbing as these studies may be, they come with several caveats. The sample sizes are relatively small, meaning the findings are preliminary. They do not definitively demonstrate that Toxoplasma causes behavior changes in humans. In the case of schizophrenia, it is important to note that the condition is complex and may involve many triggers. The parasite may be one contributor, but it is also possible that people with schizophrenia may simply behave in ways that make them more likely to pick up an infection. No hard evidence has emerged to date that directly implicates the parasite as a cause for any psychosis, including schizophrenia.

Ultimately these provocative findings probably reflect a complex exchange among various factors. Certain genetic predispositions, for example, or even an interaction between Toxoplasma and another infectious agent could mean that some people are more susceptible to the parasite’s persuasion. Only larger studies from multiple research groups will determine precisely what this parasite may do to the people it infects.

An accidental meddler

As researchers continue to uncover the astonishing effects that Toxoplasma has kept secret for so long, many scientists are beginning to think that Toxoplasma‘s impressive cellular and molecular tricks make it capable of causing disruptions in a human host. At the very least, the findings from human surveys beg for further clarification.

If you are curious whether you carry the parasite, you can get a blood test. In the meantime, you can increase your odds of staying Toxoplasma-free by maintaining good hygiene for you and your feline friends. If cats wander through your yard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing gloves and a mask when gardening and keeping any sandboxes closed up when not in use. Other basic health tips—cleaning fruits and vegetables, thoroughly cooking meats and washing hands regularly—are also important for avoiding an infection.

The notion that Toxoplasma could radically reorient the brain and behavior is certainly disturbing. But perhaps these findings are a reminder of a more basic truth. Each person is actually a rich ecosystem. For every human cell in the body, there are 10 more bacterial cells that influence physiology, metabolism and health. The protozoan Toxoplasma is just another stowaway within the system and one that warrants further study. After all, we will never fully understand ourselves without learning about our microbial companions.

http://www.salon.com/2015/03/27/the_parasite_made_me_do_it_how_a_common_infection_could_manipulate_our_behavior_partner/?source=newsletter

 

US House passes sweeping new bipartisan assault on Medicare

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By Kate Randall
27 March 2015

In a 392-37 vote, the US House on Thursday approved a bill that makes sweeping changes to the Medicare program that provides health insurance to more than 54 million seniors and the disabled. The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act must be approved by the US Senate and signed into law by President Obama, who indicated his support for the measure earlier this week.

The bipartisan bill, drafted by Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, ties future payments to doctors for Medicare services to “quality of care,” shifting away from traditional fee-for-service payments. And for the first time, the universal Medicare program will institute means testing for higher-income seniors, requiring higher premiums for these individuals to access benefits.

The bill constitutes a historic attack on the Medicare program. Boehner called it the “first real entitlement reform in nearly two decades”—a reference to the assault on welfare launched under the Clinton administration in 1996. “Today is about a problem much bigger than any doc-fix or deadline. It’s about solving our spending problem,” he said.

Pelosi echoed Boehner’s comments, declaring that it had been a “privilege” to work with the House leader, and that she hoped the agreement “will be a model of things to come.”

The coming together of the Republican and Democratic Party leadership behind the overhaul exposes the unanimity within the ruling class on the need for sharp cuts in “entitlement” programs—Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

It provides a permanent “fix” to a 1997 law that tied doctors’ Medicare fees to overall economic growth. As overall health care costs have risen sharply, that formula threatened deep reimbursement cuts to doctors, cuts that Congress has blocked with patchwork measures 17 times since 2002.

The House bill will do away with the scheduled payment cut, set to kick in April 1, and replace it with a 0.5 percent yearly raise in payments through 2019. After this, a new payment system based on “quality of care” will be implemented.

Such language has been adopted by Medicare in other frameworks, and is generally measured by readmission rates and similar statistics. In other words, doctors who see more of their patients readmitted will receive cuts in reimbursement. However, readmission is closely correlated with poverty and other social factors, thus cutting spending on health care in lower-income and working class areas.

By disconnecting reimbursements from services provided, doctors will also be incentivized to ration care and cut back on testing—the overarching aim of all the health care “reform” proposals backed by both Democrats and Republicans. The change will result in reduced services for Medicare patients overall and deep spending cuts by the government.

This shift has long been promoted in the private insurance sector. It is also a key goal of the Obama administration, which earlier this year set a goal to tie the vast majority of Medicare payments to programs promoting cost-cutting.

The second main feature of the bill would institute means testing for Medicare recipients, requiring higher-income seniors to pay more toward Medicare premiums for insurance and prescription drug coverage. Initial estimates are that this change would result in Medicare savings of around $30 billion over the next decade.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike are well aware that this fundamental change opens the floodgates for transforming a program that for the last half-century has provided health care insurance to those over the age of 65, regardless of income, into a poverty program available to only those poorest segments of society. This is seen as a first step in it being starved of funds and ultimately dismantled.

Boehner, salivating at these prospects, commented, “We know we’ve got more serious entitlement reform that’s needed. It shouldn’t take another two decades to do it.” He indicated that the Republicans would continue to push for funding cuts to other federal benefit programs.

Some Congressional Republicans balked at the overall cost of the measure, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates at $214 billion over the next decade. This would be paid for through $141 billion in new spending, with the balance divided between higher monthly premiums for higher-income Medicare recipients and payments by nursing homes and other health care providers.

Boehner and the Republicans see the implementation of means testing—and the subsequent savings for government—as a starting point for future overhauls to Medicare and other federal programs. This particularly applies to Social Security, the universal retirement program enacted in 1935 in the wake of the Great Depression.

Both Medicare and Social Security are not “gifts” by the government, but benefits based on the funds workers pay into these programs for their entire working lives through deductions from their paychecks.

As window dressing, the bill also provides two more years of funding to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which serves 8 million low-income children, as well as to the nation’s 1,200 community health centers. While Pelosi and the White House had pushed for four-year extensions for both of these programs, the majority of Congressional Democrats willingly compromised on this issue in order to push through the changes to Medicare.

The bill also includes abortion funding restrictions at community health centers, incorporating components of the so-called Hyde Amendment, which forbids federal funding of abortion except in the cases of rape, incest, or the endangered life of the mother.

Leaders of the House “pro-choice” caucus assured skeptical Senate Democrats that the bill’s language provides no additional abortion restrictions beyond those that already apply. In fact, the Obama administration acceded to these reactionary and unconstitutional restrictions in language in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Speaking Wednesday on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of his signing into law of what is popularly known as Obamacare, the president indicated his support for the new bipartisan Medicare bill. “I’ve got my pen ready to sign a good bipartisan bill,” he said.

The coinciding of the ACA’s anniversary and the current bipartisan bill is noteworthy. From the start, Obama’s health care overhaul has been aimed at a fundamental restructuring of the health care system, aimed at lowering costs for the government and corporations while slashing health care services for the vast majority of Americans.

Taking its cue from Obamacare, the change in Medicare represented by Pelosi and Boehner’s bill will set an example that can rapidly be extended throughout the health care system. Despite many Congressional Republicans’ vocal opposition to the ACA and vows to see it repealed, they are in agreement with its aim of rationing care and funneling more money to the health care industry.

Although the bill faces some opposition in the Senate, it is expected to pass, either before Congress leaves for spring recess today or on its return in two weeks. If it does not pass before the recess, Congress will likely pass a temporary fix to the Medicare payments to doctors.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/27/medi-m27.html

Poor fetishes, poor critiques: gentrification as violence

By Gloria Dawson On March 23, 2015

Post image for Poor fetishes, poor critiques: gentrification as violenceHating on hipsters is not the answer to gentrification. If we want to reclaim our cities, we should organize for genuinely affordable housing in common.
Recently, ROAR published an article entitled The Poor Fetish. The piece argues that in cities like London, bored and alienated middle-class people working in ‘bullshit jobs’ are driving gentrification because they pursue and participate in the commodification of ‘working-class’ and minority cultural pursuits and spaces. While I agree that this process of commodification exists, I want to counter some of the ways in which the author uses general observations about class and culture to draw incorrect conclusions about the social and cultural exclusions and enclosures that occur in major cities today.As someone who researches and organizes around the displacement and immiseration of those of us on low incomes, I think that at least a basic understanding of the political economy of cities is essential for the effort of formulating an appropriate answer to gentrification and displacement.

Hating on hipsters

The article, like several others that have been doing the rounds recently, follows some of the common themes of what I call the ‘hating on hipsters’ critique of gentrification, according to which it’s the consumption patterns of individuals that are ultimately to blame for the displacement of working class communities. I don’t have any substantial dispute with the claim that people often practice a form of cultural tourism (while at the same time trying to keep other cultures at arm’s length) or that for most people in the cities of the Global North work is emotionally demanding, demeaning and pointless. However, a critique of forms of consumption and affective labor doesn’t get us very far in correctly and powerfully understanding the violence of gentrification.

It is true that people who are not poor get off on poverty chic and it is also true that that this appropriation can be hurtful if you happen to be poor (and I mean poor in many senses, rather than just having little money). It is also true that people make money from that desire for a certain kind of consumption; this is a form of commodification. But we should avoid the assumption that we profess to despise: that there is somehow an ‘authentic’ culture which can only be produced and consumed by the poor, people of color, and the underclass. The logical extension of some of these arguments can be fairly damaging.

For example, alongside some persistent, intersectional and effective organizing around social and private rents in Berlin (another hotspot for both cultural appropriation and gentrification), there have been attacks on middle-class students and foreign workers in the name of ‘anti-gentrification’. These incomers represent a ‘hipster’ dweller resented by those who see themselves as ‘indigenous’ and authentic to the area, and rightly or wrongly see their claim to that area under threat. Here we see that even in the multicultural cities of the Eurozone, culture-based analyses of gentrification can lead to xenophobia.

In another example, a recent US blog on gentrification in West Coast cities recommended its middle-class, incomer reader to combat gentrification in their neighborhood by shunning culturally appropriative spaces like chic lo-fi coffee bars and instead stick to ‘mom and pop’ shops that had existed in the neighborhood before they moved in.

The problem is that a consumption-based analysis of gentrification leads people to attempt to preserve the ‘authentic’ nature of a particular area. If only all of us had lived long enough to understand that in no meaningful way are cities everlike they were before. As this excellent piece on aesthetics and gentrification puts it, “the failure to challenge the formal identity between aestheticisation and commodification makes any attempt by first-wave gentrifiers to somehow ‘stay true’ (on an aesthetic level) to the spirit of the areas they are gentrifying seem ludicrous, if not… downright offensive.”

The urban middle class: privileged or precarious?

My main issue, however, is with the author’s claim  that “with intimate knowledge of how the other half live comes an ugly truth: that middle-class privilege is in many ways premised on working class exploitation. That the rising house prices and cheap mortgages from which they have benefited create a rental market shot with misery.”

Here, the author equates ‘middle-class’ with ‘property-owning’. Yet many fully middle-class professionals on higher than median wages can only ever dream of buying property, especially in London and the South-East. On the other hand, many older working-class people own their own homes. Indeed, the ‘right to buy’ council housing has been a specific policy driven by the ideology that cities must be ‘regenerated’ — in other words, placed in the hands of private (individual and business) ownership — in order to promote and expand the ‘home-owner’ class.

The class analysis of the article thereby manages to exclude practically everyone I know. The author claims that “never will they [the middle-class consumer] face the grinding monotony of mindless work, the inability to pay bills or feed their children, nor the feeling of guilt and hopelessness that comes from being at the bottom of a system that blames the individual but offers no legitimate means by which they can escape.” With the growing precarization of even previously stable forms of ‘middle-class’ labor (medicine, law,  teaching, especially in higher education), few of us are really immune from these anxieties and risks. Yet according to this piece, the middle-classes never suffer wage repression, retaliatory eviction, redundancy, battles with the JobCentre, and so on.

Secondly, even if this class delineation were correct, the power over property ownership in cities like London does not primarily lie in the hands of middle or higher-income workers, but in the hands of private developers, large-scale landlords, and government itself. Gentrification, as Rachel Brahinsky puts it, is “capitalism playing out in the landscape. It is essentially our economy’s urban form.” It is a process involving time, land and rent, and it cannot occur without a planning and governmental framework to support it. The root of gentrification is the ability of landlords to command higher and higher rents after a ‘rent gap’ has been established in an area that has experienced less investment than other areas (or, in London, just that it’s not as expensive as everywhere else).

It’s capitalism, stupid!

Gentrification is therefore complex and cyclical, and undoubtedly the presence of coffee shops allows landlords to charge more to (housing and business) tenants. It also concurrently involves wholesale privatization of public spaces, especially retail. But if poverty and culture are sometimes commodified, buildings and land always are. The Poor Fetish article identifies gentrification as “different kinds of shops opening up,” but apart from its odd presentation of the significance of property ownership, it doesn’t actually talk about housing. Espresso Bars are symptoms of gentrification far more than they are the underlying causes.

The problem, of course, is that the causes of gentrification are hard to spot — by the time the coffee shop has opened, or the big art gallery, or the enormous utopian hoarding has gone up, a lot of its processes have already taken root in the area. Contracts have been signed. Money has moved. Investment funding has been leveraged. Visible and objectionable as they may be, cultural appropriation or ‘fetishisation’ is not what’s violently displacing low and middle-income people in the capital; it’s capitalism, stupid!

In my work on traditional retail markets and city center regeneration, I see how the consumption and culture-based analysis of gentrification I am critiquing here quickly becomes an argument about changing consumption preferences. This argument is then repeatedly used as a reason to privatize, reduce and displace small businesses, despite them being popular and profitable. In other words, local government and the private sector use the very arguments made by ‘hating on hipster’ critics to entrench socio-economic divisions and displace low-income businesses and consumers.

Yet even as a critique of retail gentrification, the piece fails, because it pins consumption patterns on the preferences of individuals and cultural groups, and not on the way in which regeneration and commercial rents are largely controlled by state and private actors. Indeed gentrification (in its guise as ‘regeneration’, which usually involves retail, business, leisure, other amenities and housing destruction and redevelopment) is often at its most vicious and comprehensive when conducted by these actors in the name of ‘regeneration’ and ‘renewal’.

The Elephant and Castle regeneration scheme in South-East London, a partnership between a large local authority and a large international property developer, is perhaps the most outstanding example of this in London at the moment. Have a look at wonderfully comprehensive web archives like HeygateWas Home or Ward’s Corner Community Coalition and tell me whether you still think it’s the art students shopping at small businesses and markets and entrepreneurs opening up coffee shops who are the problem here.

Reclaiming our cities as commons

Perhaps the most unhelpful aspect of articles like this one (and they are, as I have indicated, all too frequent) is that they give no indication that this situation can be changed. In the ‘hating on hipsters’ vision of gentrification, the middle classes are bound to live boring lives and their escape from these boring lives is fundamentally doomed. The working class, meanwhile, can only look on in horror as their authentic culture is destroyed. No one has any agency. Indeed the article itself, like the system it identifies, serves mainly to blame the individual while offering no legitimate means by which they can escape.

For few years now I have been working on, organizing around and thinking about how we can reclaim and rebuild cities that are, for want of a better phrase, held in common; and I see a great deal of inspiring action and a very effective push-back against these gentrification phenomena, especially in London. Thanks largely to committed, cross-tenure, networked organizing, condemned social housing is being re-occupied, tenants are staying in their homes, community-led regeneration plans are receiving planning permission, and some local authorities (mainly due to the pressure from below and their appallingly long housing lists) are actually building social rented housing.

Networks of organization around the principles of the right to the city are forming, recognizing that we are all people who live, work and purchase things and experiences. There is not always a simple class struggle in this process, but there are alliances and commonalities around the principles of displacement, community and the public housing system which bring together huge numbers of people who are realizing what they share. Those who stand in the way of these commons are now being named: large private developers, politicians and unelected council officers, and complex multi-actor mechanisms known as Private Finance Initiatives (PFI).

The answer to gentrification is not agonizing over where you sip your coffee, snort your coke (if you must) or choose your cauliflower. If we actually want to build a city for everyone, we should support and participate in those organizing efforts against displacement, against privatization, for housing held in common and at rents everyone can afford. Those of us writing about the misery-inducing phenomena produced by capitalism have a constant responsibility to understand and explain these issues in terms that allow us the possibility to destroy, re-form and transcend them.

Gloria Dawson is a writer and researcher, focusing on housing (particularly precarious and temporary housing) regeneration and social movements. Originally from London, she now lives in Leeds, UK. She blogs attrespassingassemblies.tumblr.com.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/03/gentrification-critique-structural-violence/

 

BLOGGER COMMENT:

The gentrification problems, the terrors of displacement and cultural annihilation, are directly attributable to the forces of “free markets.” libertarian excess, or what we currently call “capitalism.” Hard to define the system these days — oligarchy? — but the forces of capital in the hands of a few — venture capitalists, real estate investors, and, in San Francisco at least, the tech corporations — have created an imbalanced social structure that begs for redress.Personally, I don’t blame individuals, tech workers, wealthy “hipsters” and the like, for creating the problems. The anger should be directed at big, voracious corporations like Google, Apple, and FaceBook as well as the overvalued “unicorn” corps.

On a more existential level, however, I think much of the negative class conflict in SF arises from the arrogance and elitist attitudes of many of the tech workers towards those who have less than they, or who are not members of the tech class.

 

American Apparel now airbrushing nipples and pubic hair off models

The chain recently made a bold move to embrace the bush. Now it seems to think natural bodies are too risqué

American Apparel now airbrushing nipples and pubic hair off models

It wasn’t so long ago that American Apparel introduced mannequins with pubic hair into one of its stores, but oh, how times have changed. The brand, which has long been known for its “natural” model aesthetic (meaning that some of its scantily clad, overwhelmingly thin/white models sport visible pubic hair in advertisements), now seems to be taking a different approach to portraying women’s bodies. It’s one that includes no pubic hair and no nipples, and also a whole lot of airbrushing.

According to ANIMAL New York, there have been several striking changes in the lingerie section of American Apparel’s website over the past week, with models that had previously been shown with both nipples and pubic hair suddenly devoid of both. ANIMAL’s Prachi Gupta (formerly of Salon) took a series of screenshots to illustrate the changes, which show women “airbrushed to look like plastic dolls rather than real women.”

The alterations were initially flagged by anti-censorship activist Michelle Lytle, who accused the company of trying to distance itself from the infamously provocative marketing strategy instituted by ousted founder and former CEO (and alleged sex offender) Dov Charney. And, as Gupta points out, the change likely does reflect American Apparel’s efforts to overhaul its advertising, which has been criticized for sexualizing girls and objectifying women:



New CEO Paula Schneider is trying to distance the brand’s from its “borderline pornographic” aesthetic, as the New York Times described it. In July, she told the Times that she wanted to make keep the brand edgy without being overtly sexual. “This is an edgy brand and it’s always going to be an edgy brand, and it’s about social commentary, it’s about gay rights, and it’s about immigration reform. It’s about the things millennials care about,” she said.

But the fight to uncensor nipples and body hair in media, on the Internet and in real life are very much issues that millennials care about. For years, feminists have been arguing for equal rights to be topless with Free the Nipple movement, which has gained the support from the likes of Scout Willis, Miley Cyrus and Rihanna. Activist and Free the Nipple documentarian Lina Esco framed the problem when she shared a surprising statistic: “Did you know an American child sees over 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders on TV before they turn 18 and not one nipple?”

As Lytle put it, American Apparel’s strong stances on other key social issues only makes its approach to gender equality more upsetting. “It’s kind of laughable for them to think that removing nipples from their images of their sheer lingerie is the best way to do this considering their questionable ad choices in recent years,” she told ANIMAL. “This is a step in the wrong direction and is contributing to the sexualization of a woman’s body at a time where there is a large and growing movement for equality.”

 

Jenny Kutner is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on sex, gender and feminism. Follow @jennykutner or email jkutner@salon.com.

 

Obama set to veto any cuts to Pentagon war machine

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By Bill Van Auken
19 March 2015

The Obama administration is prepared to veto any cuts to the 2016 Pentagon budget, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the House Armed Services Committee in testimony Wednesday.

Carter said that President Barack Obama would reject any proposal that includes the sequestration caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which the Democratic president supported and signed into law following the staged crisis over the debt ceiling that year.

The statement came as both major parties sought ways to circumvent the mandated cuts in military spending.

Obama, significantly, has made no threat to veto budget proposals imposing spending caps on vital social services. Indeed, while traveling the country touting relatively minor programs that are likely to be trimmed or eliminated in budget negotiations with the Republican congressional leadership, his administration is proposing to implement some $400 billion in cuts to future Medicare and Medicaid spending, even as he seeks to slash corporate tax rates by up to 10 percent.

The president’s threat to veto sequestration for the military while remaining silent over social spending dovetails with Republican policy, which centers on raising arms spending while offsetting it with even deeper cuts to domestic programs.

While the White House is arguing for ditching sequestration when it comes to military spending, the House Republicans this week made an attempt to square the circle with their budget proposal. It leaves the sequestration caps in place but adds tens of billions of dollars to the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, a kind of off-the-books slush fund that pays for US military interventions abroad.

The Obama administration has requested $561 billion for the Pentagon base budget, and OCO war funds of $51 billion. The House Republicans have proposed $523 billion—formally adhering to the sequestration spending caps—while pouring $94 billion into the OCO with the idea that the military can dip into it to meet other spending needs. The two combined sums are roughly equal.

The Senate budget committee, meanwhile, submitted its own proposal Wednesday explicitly rejecting the OCO gimmick proposed by fellow Republicans in the House. Likewise pretending to abide by the budget caps for the Pentagon, it introduced its own gimmick, creating a “deficit neutral reserve fund,” which has no appropriations but serves as a placeholder for additional military spending to be negotiated later this year.

Carter’s testimony Wednesday capped a series of appearances by both the uniformed chiefs and civilian secretaries of the armed services, all of whom issued the direst warnings of what would happen without substantial increases to Washington’s gargantuan military budget.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, for example, warned that sequestration “is going to place American lives at risk, both at home and abroad.”

“Missions will take us longer, it will cost us lives and create more injuries,” Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno said.

General Martin Dempsey, chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted that the US military’s “forward presence will be reduced by a third,” meaning “less influence” in the world.

In his own testimony, Secretary of Defense Carter stressed the need to fully fund the global reach of American militarism, while making it clear that the Pentagon is preparing for even bigger wars, specifically against China, Russia and Iran.

“Across the world,” Carter told the committee, it is only the US armed forces that “stand between disorder and order.” US troops, he said, “stand up to malicious and destabilizing actors”—i.e., anyone challenging US hegemony—”while standing behind those who believe in a more secure, just, and prosperous future”—i.e., US imperialism’s puppets and client regimes.

The Pentagon’s spending, he insisted, must be driven by the 2014Quadrennial Defense Review, a document that insisted on strengthening the US military’s “global war-fighting capability” and elevated China and Russia as the most likely targets of US military action.

The Pentagon chief said the proposed budget “puts renewed emphasis on preparing for future threats—especially threats that challenge our military’s power projection capabilities.” He indicated that the reduction of troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq following a decade of wars and occupations provided an opening to prepare the US military for far greater wars.

“Being able to project power anywhere across the globe by rapidly surging aircraft, ships, troops and supplies lies at the core of our defense strategy,” he said. Such unfettered ability to attack and invade anywhere was key to protecting US interests as well as to assuring “freedom of navigation and overflight” and allowing “global commerce to flow freely.” These last supposed principles have repeatedly been invoked in Washington’s escalating confrontation with Beijing over the South China Sea.

Carter specifically pointed to Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, warning that they “have been pursuing long-term, comprehensive military modernization programs to close the technology gap that has long existed between them and the United States.” He added that “significant investments” in both infrastructure and forces were needed “particularly in the western Pacific.”

Carter ticked off the budgets proposed for the main branches of the armed services and what they would pay for, giving a glimpse of the massive scale of the US war machine.

The Army, he said, would receive a base budget of $126.5 billion, supporting the deployment of over 1 million troops—475,000 active duty soldiers, 342,000 in the Army National Guard and 198,000 in the Army Reserve. In terms of major expenditures, the Pentagon is calling for $4.5 billion to spend on attack and transportation helicopters.

For the Navy and Marine Corps, the proposed allocation is $161 billion for 2016, paying for a fleet of 282 warships that year and 304 by 2020. The force consists of 386,000 active-duty and reserve sailors, as well as 222,900 active-duty and reserve Marines. The Navy’s proposed spending on new warships amounts to $5.7 billion for 2016 and $30.9 billion through 2020, paying for two new DDG-51 destroyers a year and two new Virginia-class attack submarines a year, while supporting 11 carrier strike groups.

The proposed budget for the Air Force is $152 billion, supporting a combined force of 491,700 active-duty, guard and reserve airmen. It includes spending $6 billion in the upcoming fiscal year and $33.5 billion through 2020 to acquire a total of 272 F-35A Joint Strike Fighter planes, which have become the most expensive weapons system in the Pentagon’s history. Another $2.4 billion will go to buy refueling tankers, and $904 million will pay for an additional 29 MQ-9A Reaper drones in 2016. The Pentagon proposes to buy 77 of the remotely piloted assassination weapons by 2020 at the cost of $4.8 billion.

In terms of the $50.9 billion OCO war-fighting fund, the lion’s share, $42.5 billion, will go to cover continuing US military operations in Afghanistan, while $5.3 billion is proposed for the new US intervention in Iraq and Syria. Also proposed is $789 million for a “NATO Reassurance” fund, which is to pay for the escalating series of provocative military operations on Russia’s borders.

Finally, Carter said that the Obama administration’s proposed Pentagon budget includes $1 billion in 2016 and $8 billion by 2020 for a key component in the preparation for global war: ensuring the “security, and effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent, as well as the long-term health of the force that supports our nuclear triad.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/19/budg-m19.html

Paul Krugman: Pizza explains American politics

That slice of pepperoni is more partisan than you may think

Paul Krugman: Pizza explains American politics -- seriously
Paul Krugman (Credit: Reuters/Anton Golubev)

Why is pizza so Republican?

In case you weren’t aware of pizza’s partisan proclivities, Bloomberg reports that big pizza companies give a staggering amount of their political contributions to Republicans. That major corporations are supporting Republicans may seem like a classic dog-bites-man story. After all, aren’t Republicans the party of big business? Well, yes, but many industries hedge their political bets, contributing heavily to both Democrats and Republicans. (This is about more than playing it safe; it also says a great deal about the corporate-friendliness of the “new” Democratic Party. But we digress.) What’s notable about the pizza companies’ contributions is how tilted they are toward the GOP. Little Caesar’s, one of the least Republican companies, still gives 73 percent of its contributions to the party’s candidates and committees, while Pizza Hut sends 99 percent of its contributions to Republicans.

What gives? In his New York Times column today, economist Paul Krugman tackles the question, and argues that pizza illustrates much about the current state of American politics.

Not surprisingly, pizza companies favor the Republicans because the GOP has crusaded against even modest government efforts to reform the food industry. As Krugman notes, the fight isn’t over whether Papa John’s should be allowed to stack even more pepperoni onto that pie; instead, Republicans have allied with the food industry to oppose encouraging companies to offer healthier options and to fight labeling requirements. (The GOP may be the party of the free market, but it’s not so keen on free and informed choice within it.)

Given that obesity and conditions like heart disease entail large social costs, there’s more at stake in these fights than an individual’s waistline. But don’t count on Republicans to be moved by such concerns; Krugman concludes reflexive ideology and an aversion to empiricism blind the party:



At one level, there is a clear correlation between lifestyles and partisan orientation: heavier states tend to vote Republican, and the G.O.P. lean is especially pronounced in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the “diabetes belt” of counties, mostly in the South, that suffer most from that particular health problem. Not coincidentally, officials from that region have led the pushback against efforts to make school lunches healthier.

At a still deeper level, health experts may say that we need to change how we eat, pointing to scientific evidence, but the Republican base doesn’t much like experts, science, or evidence. Debates about nutrition policy bring out a kind of venomous anger — much of it now directed at Michelle Obama, who has been championing school lunch reforms — that is all too familiar if you’ve been following the debate over climate change.

Pizza partisanship, then, sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. It is, instead, a case study in the toxic mix of big money, blind ideology, and popular prejudices that is making America ever less governable.

Luke Brinker is Salon’s deputy politics editor. Follow him on Twitter at @LukeBrinker.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/03/06/paul_krugman_pizza_explains_american_politics_seriously/?source=newsletter