|March 10, 2014|
|Jan Koum and Brian Acton, the founders of the messaging software WhatsApp, have ample reason to celebrate this week’s 25th anniversary of the Internet’s World Wide Web. The pair have just become billionaires.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest billionaire ever, gave Koum and Acton that distinction last month when he gobbled up WhatsApp for $19 billion. The three of them have lots of online company in the global billionaire club. Forbes now counts 120 other high-tech whizzes with billion-dollar fortunes.
The Internet has become, in effect, the fastest billionaire-minting machine in world history. Should we consider this incredible concentration of wealth an outcome preordained? Did the last 25 years of online history have to leave us so much more unequal? We ask that question in this week’s Too Much.
And what about the future? How might we change the online world to help create a more equal real world? We ask that question, too.
|GREED AT A GLANCE|
|New European Union rules adopted last year limit banker bonuses to no more than triple their base salary. Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian Green Party lawmaker, led the drive for that cap, and now he’s struggling to stop the British government from letting UK bankers sidestep the EU’s modest new pay restrictions. One such sidestep: Banking giant HSBC is now paying its CEO Stuart Gulliver an extra $53,500 every month as an “allowance.” Lamberts wants the EU to take the UK to court. Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins, for his part, is defending his bank’s bonus culture. Nearly 500 power suits at Barclays, half of them in the United States, are taking home at least $1.6 million a year. Paying them any less, says Jenkins, would force his bank into a “death spiral.” To do business in America, adds the CEO, we must “reconcile ourselves to pay high levels of compensation.”
Don’t talk to Miami maritime lawyer Jim Walker about greedy bankers. The real greedy, says Walker, are running cruise lines and incorporating their operations offshore to avoid U.S. taxes and wage laws. The greediest cruise character of them all? That might be Carnival Cruise chair Micky Arison. He’s now selling off 10 million of his Carnival shares, a sale that figures to bring in $395 million and still leave his family holding over $6 billion in Carnival stock. Arison’s share sale began as passengers left adrift last year on a faulty Carnival cruise ship were testifying on the lawsuit they’ve filed against the company. That incident subjected over 4,200 passengers and crew to five days of overflowing toilets and rotting food. Carnival is dismissing the suit as “an opportunistic attempt to benefit financially” from “alleged emotional distress.”
You won’t find any billionaires standing in line to get their family heirlooms appraised on the hit public TV series Antiques Roadshow. But the world’s ultra rich, luxury editor Tara Loader Wilkinson noted last week, are definitely “going gaga for antiques.” The average billionaire, calculates a new billionaire census from the Swiss bank UBS and researchers at the Singapore-based Wealth-X, holds $14 million worth of antiques and collectibles. Why are so many uber rich hungering for antiques? French antiques expert Mikael Kraemer notes that “anyone with enough money can buy a jet.” Not everyone, he adds, has “what sets one billionaire apart from another”: enough “culture and knowledge” to find and buy something like an 18th century antique royal chandelier.
Quote of the Week
“Do you recall a time in America when the income of a single school teacher or baker or salesman or mechanic was enough to buy a home, have two cars, and raise a family? I remember.”
|PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK|
|Fracking can be a dirty business. Big Energy CEOs don’t mind. Can’t let those environmentalists endanger our energy security, they like to insist. Unless the environment at risk happens to be their own. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has joined a lawsuit that’s trying to stop the construction of a 160-foot water — for fracking — tower near his manse north of Dallas. Tillerson isn’t talking about his lawsuit. But an Exxon flack says his boss doesn’t object to the tower “for its potential use for water and gas operations for fracking.” He’s just upset because the tower would be “much taller” than originally proposed. If the lawsuit fails, Tillerson might have to buy the tower site himself to prevent the fracking eyesore. He can afford it. His 2012 Exxon take-home: $40.3 million.||
|IMAGES OF INEQUALITY|
The promoters of the new “Wealth Badge” are either cynically exploiting a new luxury niche or acutely exposing the cultural depravity of our unequal times. Their new Web site offers the affluent a metal pin that reads “Because I can.” The cost: $5,000. Explains the Wealth Badge pitch: “The idea is simple: If you buy something just because you can, you are truly rich.” The site claims to have sold 61 badges — and features photos of privileged people showing them off. The pins have begun drawing media play. But no one has so far answered the basic question: Is the Wealth Badge crew trying to make money or a point?
|PROGRESS AND PROMISE|
|Few people have contributed as much to our online world as Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist who helped pioneer — and label — what we call “virtual reality.” Lanier has been wondering of late about his fellow contributors, those hundreds of millions of Internet users who donate — for free — the information that a tiny cohort of tycoons has been able to crunch into billion-dollar fortunes. In his latest book, Lanier envisions a “universal micropayment system” that pays people who go online for whatever information of value their online clicks may create, “no matter what kind of information is involved or whether a person intended to provide it or not.” Such a system, says Lanier, would help us “see a less elite distribution of economic benefits.”||
Youth groups eager to help young people understand inequality’s impact on how we relate to each other can download the Theatre and Education Resource Guide from the London-based Equality Trust, part of a package of interactive learning materials.
|inequality by the numbers|
Stat of the Week
The world’s “ultra high net worth” crowd — individuals worth at least $30 million — now number 167,669, says a new Knight Frank report. Their total wealth: $20.1 trillion in 2013, almost half as much as the combined net worth of the 4.2 billion global adults who hold less than $100,000 in wealth.
A Thought for the Web’s Silver Anniversary
Let’s learn from our not-so-distant past and share the gold. New technologies don’t have to bring us new inequalities.
Exactly 25 years ago this week the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee conceptually “invented” the World Wide Web — and began a process that would rather rapidly make the online world an essential part of our daily lives.
By 1995, 14 percent of Americans were surfing the Web. The level today: 87 percent. And among young adults, the Pew Research Center notes in a just-published silver anniversary report, the Internet has reached “near saturation.” Some 97 percent of Americans 18 to 29 are now going online.
Americans young and old alike are using the Web to work wonders few people 25 years ago could have ever imagined. We’re talking face-to-face with people thousands of miles away. We’re finding soulmates who share our passions and problems. We’re organizing political movements to change the world.
Life with the Web has become, for hundreds of millions of us, substantially richer. Not literally richer, of course. The same 25 years that have seen the Web explode into our consciousness have seen most of us struggle to stay even economically. The Internet and inequality have grown together.
Tim Berners-Lee never saw this inequality coming. The ground-breaking research he published on March 12, 1989, the paper that proposed the system that became the Web, carried no price tag. Berners-Lee would go on to release the code for his system for free. He didn’t invent the Web to get rich.
But others certainly have become rich via the Web. Fabulously rich. Forbes magazine last week released its annual list of global billionaires. Some 123 of them, Forbes calculates, owe their fortunes to high-tech ventures. The top 15 of these high-tech billionaires hold a collective $382 billion in personal net worth.
Numbers like these don’t particularly bother — or alarm — many of today’s economists. Grand new technologies, their conventional wisdom holds, always bring forth grand new personal fortunes for the entrepreneurs who lead the way.
In the 19th century, points out this standard narrative of American economic progress, the coming of the railroads dotted our landscape with the fortunes of railroad tycoons. In the early 20th century, the new automobile age created huge piles of wealth for car makers like Henry Ford and the oilmen who supplied the juice that kept his auto engines humming along.
Why should the Internet age, mainstream economists wonder, be any different? A new technology comes along that alters the fabric of daily life. That new technology gives rise to a new rich. The one outcome naturally follows the other. No need to get bent out of shape by the resulting inequality.
But epochal new technology doesn’t always automatically generate grand new fortunes. The prime example from our relatively recent past: television.
TV burst onto the American scene even more rapidly — and thoroughly — than the Internet. In 1948, only 1 percent of American households owned a TV. Within seven years, televisions graced 75 percent of American homes.
These TV sets didn’t just drop down into those homes. They had to be designed, manufactured, packaged, distributed, marketed. Programming had to be produced. Imaginations had to be captured. All of this demanded an enormous outlay of entrepreneurial energy.
But this outlay would produce no jaw-dropping grand fortunes, no billionaires, even after adjusting for inflation. That would be no accident. The American people, by the 1950s, had put in place a set of economic rules that made the accumulation of grand new private fortunes almost impossible.
Taxes played a key role here. Income over $400,000 faced a 91 percent tax rate throughout the 1950s. Regulations played an important role as well. In television’s early heyday, for instance, government regs limited how many commercials could run on children’s TV programming. TV’s original corporate execs could only squeeze so much out of their new medium.
And television’s early kingpins couldn’t squeeze their workers all that much either. Most of their employees, from the workers who manufactured TV sets to the technicians who staffed broadcast studios, belonged to unions. TV’s early movers and shakers had to share the wealth their new medium was creating.
Today’s Internet movers and shakers, by contrast, have to share nothing. In an America where less than 7 percent of private-sector workers carry union cards, online corporate giants seldom ever need bargain with their employees.
In a deregulated U.S. economy, meanwhile, these Internet kingpins face precious few public-interest rules that keep them from charging whatever the market can bear — and rigging markets to squeeze out even more.
And taxes? Today’s Internet billionaires face tax rates that run well less than half the rates that early TV kingpins faced.
We can’t — and shouldn’t — fault Tim Berners-Lee for any of this. He freely shared, after all, his invention with the world.
“I wanted to build a creative space,” Berners-Lee observed in an interview a few years ago, “something like a sandpit where everyone could play together.”
Some people didn’t play nice.
Isaiah Poole, Paul Ryan Misses Top Reason We Haven’t ‘Won’ the War on Poverty, OurFuture.Org, March 4, 2014. That reason: policy decisions that concentrate wealth in the top 1 percent.
Joseph Olanyo, African growth fails to bridge inequality gap, Observer, March 4, 2014. Nations need tax systems that could redistribute wealth more fairly.
J.D. Alt, Forget The 1%, New Economic Perspectives, March 5, 2014. They serve no useful social function.
Wayne Besen, Will Economic Inequality Undermine LGBT Equality? Falls Church News-Press, March 5, 2014. Growing divides spawn powerful right-wing movements that scapegoat minorities.
Kathleen Geier, The IMF (Finally) Admits That Inequality Slows Growth, Nation, March 6, 2014. Good background on an important new IMF study.
Colin Gordon, Our Inequality: An Introduction, Dissent, March 6, 2014. Exploring U.S. inequality and antidotes to it.
Yves Smith, Tax Havens Make US and Europe Look Poorer than They Are, Naked Capitalism, March 6, 2014. Around 8 percent of global financial wealth is now sitting in tax havens.
James Kwak, Posturing from Weakness, Baseline Scenario, March 6, 2014. The tax hikes on the rich in the new Obama budget: only for show?
“Make room for The Rich Don’t Always Win on your book shelf right next to Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of America.”
|NEW AND notable|
A Statistical Guide to Our New ‘Plutonomy’
Sherle Schwenninger and Samuel Sherraden, The U.S. Economy After The Great Recession, New America Foundation, Washington, D.C., March 4, 2014.
Need to better understand how the Great Recession — and the political responses to it — have played out? This no-nonsense set of slides brings together, in one place, the key trends that have defined the the U.S. economy since the Great Recession hit in 2008. Just a few of the report’s many choice tidbits . . .
Good times at the top: From 2009 to 2012, America’s top 1 percent incomes grew by 31.4 percent. Bottom 99 percent incomes rose all of 0.4 percent.
Shrinking returns to labor: From 2007′s fourth quarter to 2013′s third, the labor compensation share of national income declined from 64 to 61% percent. If this labor share of national income had remained at the 2007 level, American workers would have earned $520 billion more in 2013 than they actually did.
Enter the “plutonomy”: The U.S. economy is revolving ever more around consumption by the rich. In 2012 the top 5 percent of American income earners accounted for 38 percent of domestic consumption, up from 28 percent in 1995.
Ronald Reagan meets Black Power:
Stokely Carmichael electrified civil rights in mid-’60s, battling conservatives and moderates in his own movement
Stokely’s antiwar speeches and draft status combined to make him a powerful symbol of defiance, for both radicals and conservatives, of the increasingly controversial Vietnam War. Throughout the second half of 1966, politicians and bureaucrats urged military officials to draft Carmichael and send him to Vietnam even as he vowed to go to jail rather than fight. His bold antiwar posture garnered renewed controversy but also further praise, especially from college students who sympathized with words of fire directed against Lyndon Johnson. Carmichael defined the Vietnam War as a microcosm of the many ills plaguing American democracy. At first, he called for an end to the war. Later, he would call for America’s military defeat. Carmichael’s reputation transcended American borders, stretching into the political consciousness of black soldiers in Vietnam. The Baltimore Afro-American’s report of discrimination facing “tan servicemen” in Saigon featured black GIs who embraced Carmichael’s militancy. “We have manifested a 100-per-cent pride in being black,” explained one soldier. “We want to be black . . . even in Vietnam. Damn the civil rights bill. We want our constitution.”
Carmichael’s brilliant essay “What We Want” in the September 22nd issue of The New York Review of Books defined Black Power as a political philosophy born of deeply personal experience. He blamed SNCC for serving as an unwitting buffer between white society and the black masses, as racial interpreters who helped to maintain the illusion that American democracy required little more than reform. SNCC and other civil rights groups underestimated the depth of institutional racism, the jagged edges of democracy, and the deep-seated hostility of whites against even the appearance of black advancement:
For too many years, black Americans marched and had their heads broken and got shot. They were saying to the country, “Look, you guys are supposed to be nice guys and we are only going to do what we are supposed to do—why do you beat us up, why don’t you give us what we ask, why don’t you straighten yourselves out?” After years of this, we are at almost the same point—because we demonstrated from a position of weakness. We cannot be expected any longer to march and have our heads broken in order to say to whites: come on, you’re nice guys. For you are not nice guys. We have found you out.
According to Carmichael, blacks, disabused of blind faith in whites, could now embark on a political mission to transform the nation on their own terms. Black Power’s significance lay in its uncompromising assertion that blacks could independently define social, political, and cultural phenomena. This meant wrestling with the way in which race and class shaped hope, opportunity, and identity. SNCC’s time in the Mississippi Delta and Alabama’s Black Belt convinced its young organizers that power could alter the wretched socioeconomic conditions faced by black sharecroppers. Yet even this change, Carmichael admitted, would provide only incremental relief: “Ultimately, the economic foundations of this country must be shaken if black people are to control their lives.”
“What We Want” intellectually disarmed some of Carmichael’s fiercest critics and in the process announced SNCC’s chairman as a formidable thinker. For readers of The New York Review of Books, the essay was a revelation that easily transcended clichés surrounding black radicalism. “We won’t fight to save the present society, in Vietnam or anywhere else,” Carmichael concluded. “We are just going to work, in the way that we see fit, and on goals we define, not for civil rights but for all our human rights.”
Shortly after Carmichael’s essay appeared, CBS News broadcast on September 27 a special report, “Black Power, White Backlash.” Carmichael, wearing the African robe given to him by Guinean President Sékou Touré (via Jim Forman), spoke to correspondent Mike Wallace from SNCC’s Atlanta headquarters. Carmichael once again defined Black Power as an act of political self-determination and countered Wallace’s attempts to link the slogan to violence. “Now, I’m not concerned about the question of violence,” said Carmichael. “It seems to me that will depend on how white people respond. If white people, in fact, are willing not to bother black people because they are black, then there’s going to be no question of violence.” Carmichael described urban riots as “rebellions,” offering an alternative to Wallace’s “white backlash” thesis. From this perspective, waves of civil unrest in black communities reflected the depths of a social order created and maintained by white society. The cure for violence, he said, lay in black consciousness. Political self-awareness would lead to community control over housing and resources and turn ghettoes into thriving neighborhoods. “And the means you will use to achieve all of this?” asked Wallace. “Any means necessary,” replied Carmichael.
Offered the chance to speak directly to white America, Carmichael issued a stark indictment:
I would say, “Understand yourself, white man.” That the white man’s burden should not have been preached in Africa, but it should have been preached among you. That you need now to civilize yourself. You have moved to destroy and disrupt. You have taken people away, you have broken down their systems, and you have called all this civilization, and we, who have suffered at this, are now saying to you, you are the killers of the dreams, you are the savages. . . . Civilize yourself.
Two days after the CBS broadcast, Carmichael was the subject of a wiretapped conversation between Martin Luther King and Stanley Levison. National unrest disappointed King, who recounted his recent conversation with Whitney Young when both men contemplated resigning from their respective organizations, a thought Levison dismissed as insufficiently symbolic. The gubernatorial nomination on Georgia’s Democratic ticket of the openly segregationist Lester Maddox depressed King. He and Levison discussed Carmichael’s role in shaping contemporary political currents and jointly agreed “Stokely must be politically isolated.” They discussed how moderate civil rights leaders found Carmichael’s behavior appalling, suggesting that he be treated as a “black Trotskyite,” and blamed Maddox’s nomination on Carmichael. FBI informants reported that King had received assurances from Carmichael that same evening that he would temporarily halt Black Power demonstrations until after the mid-term elections. The accord formed part of a back-channel request from President Johnson to ease the pace of escalating racial tensions connected to civil rights demonstrations.
Carmichael spoke to a packed audience of Black Power militants in Detroit on Tuesday, October 4. At least fifty whites joined thirteen hundred blacks at Black Power theologian Reverend Albert Cleage’s Central Congregation Church. Cleage, along with attorney Milton Henry, who also spoke, represented the vanguard of the Motor City’s black militants—activists whose extensive political portfolios included establishing intimate alliances with Malcolm X that stretched back to the 1950s. Henry was a former air force lieutenant, and his political association with Malcolm X thrust him into the upper echelons of black political radicalism by the early 1960s, buoyed by keen business instincts that found him marketing black political radicalism through his own media company. Henry’s introduction paid tribute to Malcolm and Stokely while noting the historic vulnerability of radical black political leaders. “We need to erect monuments to our Stokely Carmichaels everywhere while we still have them” since “we didn’t do it to Malcolm,” said Henry with a tinge of personal regret overwhelmed by a cascade of applause that continued as Carmichael walked to the podium.
Before speaking, Carmichael paid his own tribute to Rosa Parks, whom he called his “hero” and who was now serving on Michigan congressman John Conyers’ staff. “Individualism is a luxury you can no longer afford,” Carmichael said in a speech that balanced his anti-Vietnam message with an indictment of the black middle class as racial poseurs who abandoned their less successful brothers and sisters in urban ghettos. Over repeated interruptions of applause, Carmichael touted the creation of cooperative stores, credit unions, and insurance companies as more humane an alternative to modern-day capitalism, applauded Muhammad Ali and Adam Clayton Powell as symbols of Black Power, and vowed to make black people recognize their own beauty, which they remained frightened of. “I’m six foot one, 180 pounds, all black and I love me,” said Stokely. “We’re not anti-white, it’s just that as we learn to love black there just isn’t any more time for white.”
Carmichael’s electrifying appearance at Central Congregation brought together two generations of civil rights and Black Power activists, offering a new genealogy of both movements. The presence of Parks, lauded as the spark of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and symbolic progenitor of the Civil Rights Movement’s heroic period, elegantly reflected the era’s ideological and organizational diversity. Cleage and Henry illustrated the often-times hidden passions and spectacular ambitions of a northern black freedom struggle that, in certain instances such as Detroit’s Walk for Freedom, converged with more-conventional civil rights demonstrations. Carmichael (whose business suit hinted at the civil rights movement’s lasting influence on him) represented the most unique political activist of his generation, having served on the front lines of southern civil rights demonstrations and northern Black Power insurgency. Stokely now served as a living bridge between civil rights and Black Power activists.
But moderate civil rights leaders were publicly opposing Black Power. In a manifesto statement issued on October 13, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Wilkins, Young, and National Council of Negro Women president Dorothy Height, but not King, signed a statement titled “Crisis and Commitment” denouncing Black Power. King’s signature was noticeably absent. Only in private would he discuss the issues raised in the statement. Meanwhile, in a New York television studio on The David Susskind Show, Carmichael dismissed those who blamed him for tipping primary election results in Georgia and catapulting Ronald Reagan to front-runner status in California’s gubernatorial race. “If I’m responsible for all of these elections,” he quipped, “SNCC wants me to run for president.” In Atlanta, reporters pestered King, conspicuously absent from the anti-Black Power screed, for comment on the entire matter before wrestling tepid words of support for Stokely that Friday’s headlines twisted into a whole-hearted endorsement.
In California, Reagan deftly exploited racial fears in the weeks leading up to the November election. Reagan’s outspoken criticism of Carmichael served as a prelude to his blood feud with the Black Panthers and enmity toward radical activism in general. On Tuesday, October 18, Reagan sent Carmichael an open telegram asking him to cancel an appearance at the University of California, Berkeley, that “could possibly do damage to both parties.” California’s embattled incumbent, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, rejected Reagan’s overtures to join him in his request and accused his challenger of pandering to conservative voters and black militants. “Carmichael and his black power friends are doing everything they can to defeat me and elect Reagan,” Brown lamented. “They don’t want peaceful progress, they want panic in the streets and publicity. And Reagan serves their purposes by helping to give them both.”
If politicians were scapegoating Stokely, in private he was getting it from all sides at SNCC. His lecture and speaking fees were now SNCC’s main source of income and an invaluable organizational resource if properly harnessed. Though Carmichael rationalized his schedule as an example of political commitment to the movement, the constant attention and adulation he received in black communities fed his ego.
Things came to a head at a central committee meeting in Knoxville, during the weekend of October 22–23. On Sunday, Carmichael, in an Oral Report of the Chairman cloaked as a mea culpa, passionately defended his tenure. “Rhetorically, there have been a lot of mistakes made,” he admitted. Since the last central committee meeting, Carmichael had spent the bulk of his time up north, visiting experimental SNCC offices in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Carmichael suggested correctly that his rhetorical excesses jeopardized SNCC’s embryonic northern inroads and placed the group in an even more precarious political and financial state. But North and South were very different. “One of the problems we have in the North,” he lamented, “is that we do not understand political machinery.” Carmichael offered the rare but telling admission that, despite his considerable gifts, national leadership required new levels of political sophistication. Carmichael reported that across the nation, projects were in a state of disarray: Los Angeles and San Francisco offices moribund; Atlanta’s in flux; Harlem’s promising efforts at community control offset by opposition from Bayard Rustin and Whitney Young; Alabama in danger of having only one organizer, H. Rap Brown; and Mississippi sorely missing the leadership and presence of Cleve Sellers, who had as program secretary frequently traveled with Stokely and was no longer able to concentrate on local organizing. In a move that would have surely have made Jim Forman smile, Carmichael tasked the central committee with instilling unprecedented levels of organizational discipline, instead of merely assuming people were “working on our programs.”
Verbally chastised by Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Faye Bellamy, future program secretary Ralph Featherstone, and others, Carmichael preached consensus by suggesting the central committee establish clear “guidelines” for his public speeches. Beyond petty jealousies and private grievances over Stokely’s celebrity, staff chafed against public perception that their new chair controlled them and grimaced each time his personal opinions ran ahead of, or contradicted, organizational policy. Chastened, he expressed regret for political transgressions and promised to halt his speaking tour after December 10 to focus on staff development and SNCC’s “internal structure.”
Efforts to contain Carmichael’s rhetorical escapades paralleled SNCC’s organizational crisis. Two-thirds of the group’s 135 members now operated in Atlanta or northern cities. The South’s remaining staff suffered from creeping disorientation over SNCC’s Black Power thrust, a feeling exacerbated by a lack of resources, apathy, and burnout. Efforts in Harlem, Philadelphia, and Chicago offered promising opportunities to transplant SNCC’s organizing prowess to cities but just as often invited new waves of official repression. The remainder of Sunday’s meeting broke along twin fault lines of ambition and dysfunction, resulting in plans to send a delegation to Africa in the New Year, assign a fundraiser to southern projects, and pay the rent for Atlanta staff by cutting salaries in half. Some of the proposals, most notably for establishing SNCC’s International Affairs Committee, would flourish amid organizational decline over the next two years but most would remain stillborn. Jim Forman urged the group to develop long-term political education programs, recommending a period of study to prevent growing apathy and political lethargy. Five and a half months into his chairmanship, Carmichael complained that it was “impossible” to serve the dual roles as “administrator and fundraiser,” already guessing that he would spend the rest of his tenure fundraising.
Carmichael struggled to fulfill his role as SNCC chairman even as acting attorney general Ramsey Clark and FBI official Deke DeLoach debated prosecuting him on federal charges. The FBI pressed Clark for wiretap surveillance of Carmichael, sensing an opportunity to corner the inexperienced AG. Clark refused the bureau’s request for telephonic surveillance, fearing a public relations disaster if news of the wiretap leaked, noting Carmichael’s reputation as a civil rights leader, and not wishing to risk future legal prosecution. Sensing DeLoach’s disappointment, Clark asked him if the bureau “would elaborate” on its reasoning for the Carmichael wiretap. DeLoach replied that director Hoover’s request came at the insistence of the president, who “wanted to make absolutely certain the FBI had good coverage on Carmichael.” Absent microphone surveillance, the bureau’s investigation remained hamstrung, and since Carmichael’s “activities and statements bordered on anarchy,” the FBI felt comfortable with the request. While the bureau had Carmichael’s Selective Service records, they had failed to procure his college files and required fresh intelligence regarding “where Carmichael was getting his money, whom he was taking orders from, whom he associated with, and his plans for the future.” Fearful of communist subversion in the black movement, the FBI imagined that Carmichael received direction from foreign outposts; it routinely investigated wild rumors and false sightings that connected the SNCC chairman to the Communist Party and related organizations.
The Carmichael wiretap request exposed a rift between Hoover and Ramsey Clark that would grow over the next two years. DeLoach’s efforts to box in Clark by leveraging the White House’s interest failed. Even as Clark took pains to relay a message to Hoover that he was not “deliberately delaying action on the Carmichael request,” he steadfastly refused wiretap approval. Clark’s political independence and reverence for civil liberties and the rule of law made him a political enemy of the FBI, whose forces he nominally led. Hoover considered Clark’s philosophy of “combating crime through an attack on poverty” both politically naïve and dangerous. As attorney general, Clark refused calls to arrest Carmichael on sedition charges and developed a thoughtful, deliberative political style that made him the rare White House official who balanced growing hysteria around Black Power, race riots, and social unrest with political restraint.
Justice Department officials debated Stokely’s fate on the same Thursday that he reported to a pre-induction facility in New York City. Carmichael’s fitness to serve in Vietnam would hinge on the results of his latest medical evaluation. Draftees, mostly from the working and welfare classes, fought the Vietnam War, on the American side, and the draft exemptions of celebrities were given particular scrutiny in the media. Stokely’s draft status ranked behind actor George Hamilton (who was dating a daughter of President Johnson) and Muhammad Ali as the public’s third-most popular Selective Service inquiry. After a preliminary interview with a psychiatrist, Carmichael arrived at St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens for physical and mental tests. Carmichael’s vociferous antiwar speeches placed his 1-Y exemption (available for service in emergency, but exempt because of health or other reasons) under official scrutiny, but he refused to back down. On Friday, Carmichael returned for a final medical evaluation. After completing his exam, Carmichael departed the induction center’s rear entrance in a vain effort to avoid journalists. “I’d rather go to Leavenworth,” he told reporters, insisting that he would refuse to serve “on the grounds of my own conscience.” From the induction center on his way to a brief reunion with Mummy Olga in Harlem, Carmichael teased reporters that he wore tinted granny glasses “because they make me look non-violent,” joked with the cabdriver that all this media attention meant that “somebody must have stolen something,” and, once he arrived at his destination, wolfed down a plate of rice and beans and chatted with relatives. Determined to hail down a black cabbie on Harlem’s 125th Street to take him to the airport, Carmichael paused as a Puerto Rican taxi pulled up. “Close enough,” he said and hopped in. At Kennedy Airport, before boarding a flight to California, Carmichael repeated his promise to go to prison rather than Vietnam.
The interest of the FBI and White House in Stokely’s draft status surpassed that of journalists, politicians, and the general public. Naked political calculations fueled the White House’s secret request to the FBI in September concerning Carmichael’s Selective Service status. The FBI responded three days later, furnishing sensitive information deliberately withheld from Ramsey Clark. The confidential records revealed that Carmichael’s first pre-induction exam on January 21, 1965, resulted in his draft status reclassification from 1-A to 4-F, which rendered him medically ineligible for service. The evaluating psychiatrist misidentified his civil rights activities as taking place in CORE rather than SNCC but concluded that his arrests revealed no inherent pattern of antisocial behavior. Disqualified for medical reasons, Carmichael took a second physical examination a year later, on February 14, 1966. “Has had two additional episodes of decompensation,” the examination noted, “in the past following the shooting of two of his friends.” The “decompensation,” or paralytic nervous breakdown, followed the killings of Jonathan Daniels and Sammy Younge. Both incidents burdened the usually self-assured Carmichael with bouts of inconsolable grief and a sense of helplessness, which he overcame through organizing. The chief medical officer of the induction center gave Carmichael a “Y” symbol following this second examination, making him eligible for military service in times of war. They suggested his status be re-evaluated and updated after one year.
At the University of California, Berkeley, on Saturday, October 29 with his pre-induction physical weighing heavily on his mind, Carmichael delivered his most important antiwar speech. This galvanic address, carried by newspapers across the nation, made him America’s leading critic of the Vietnam War. He arrived at Berkeley with better antiwar credentials than Martin Luther King. The speech marked a crucial turning point in antiwar activism among white radicals in the New Left who organized the conference. It also showcased Carmichael’s complicated relationship with white activists. Three months earlier, Carmichael had brokered the release of a joint antiwar statement with SDS president Carl Oglesby. Now, his effective linking of Black Power insurgency to the war in Vietnam offered white activists a new entrée into the black movement if they dared. Carmichael’s presence in Berkeley explicitly invited whites to participate in a larger anti-imperialist movement that SNCC had sketched at the beginning of the year in its controversial antiwar statement. But, as usual, Stokely did so on his own terms. He admonished student activists for their reticence in opposing the draft with the imposing authority of an icon who had defiantly proclaimed his draft resistance before Muhammad Ali, but he offered no specific organization vehicle or interracial alliances to facilitate this objective. Following Carmichael’s speech, SDS would take matters into their own hands, organizing a vast array of campus antiwar activism. Over the next two years, the Black Panthers would offer SDS and the wider New Left access to participate in the broader revolutionary struggle that Carmichael and SNCC first outlined. Despite his reluctance to actively work with white radicals, Carmichael’s bold antiwar rhetoric provided the intellectual and political contours for whites to engage in a global assault against American imperialism. Stokely’s increasingly hard public line against the possibility of interracial alliances obscured his continued personal and professional relationships with whites. Away from the media gaze, he followed his Berkeley speech by attending a party in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where he openly consorted with white friends and intimates in a manner that contrasted with his public stance. Carmichael enjoyed the sexual freedom, casual use of marijuana, and social pleasures that both the times and his celebrity status offered. Before fame, Stokely possessed the charm and charisma to attract the attention of a variety of women. After, his opportunities and appetites increased.
At Berkeley, Carmichael’s discussion of Black Power’s relationship to larger failures of American democracy soared into the high ground of rhetorical eloquence as it plumbed the racial and historical depths of black life. Standing at the podium of the Greek Theatre, scanning the overwhelmingly white crowd, Stokely might have rationalized his presence at Berkeley as a kind of missionary work, since, as he remarked at an earlier press conference, “it is white institutions which perpetuate racism within the community.” In California, Stokely entered the ranks of black America’s iconic leaders, joining a pantheon that stretched from Frederick Douglass’ abolitionism to Ida B. Wells’ turn-of-the-century anti-lynching campaigns, through the controversy between Booker T. Washington (accommodation) and W.E.B. Du Bois (activism), the Marcus Garvey movement, and Malcolm’s and King’s parallel and morally charged political and religious crusades.
Dressed in a suit and tie, he resembled a campaigning politician. Carmichael’s conservative attire contrasted with the radical themes he preached in a clipped accented voice. Like an itinerant evangelist, Carmichael turned the Greek Theatre into a mass political meeting that took on the energy of an outdoor religious revival. He diagnosed America’s rulers as sick with the disease of racism. Before the biggest audience so far in his speaking career, Carmichael defined racism’s uncanny influence on every aspect of American life, one that he challenged Berkeley students to dismantle. “A new society must be born,” he thundered. “Racism must die. Economic exploitation of non-whites must end,” said Carmichael. “Martin Luther King may be full of love, but when I see Johnson on television, I say: ‘Martin, baby, you have got a long way to go to accomplish anything.’”
The great contradiction of the civil rights movement was that although whites were “the majority” and thus accountable for “making democracy work,” blacks inevitably bore the burden of this responsibility. Blacks faced death on the racial front lines of the South even as most whites recoiled from such sacrifice. “The question,” according to Carmichael, was, “how can white society move to see black people as human beings?” In hundreds of talks over the next year he would hone this theme into a dazzling stump speech that imagined novel connections between race and war and found intimate kinship between Black Power and American democracy.
Carmichael sounded like a university professor: “The philosophers Camus and Sartre raise the question of whether or not a man can condemn himself. The black existentialist philosopher who is pragmatic, Frantz Fanon, answered the question. He said that man could not.” Born in Martinique in 1925, Fanon settled in France as a young man and became a psychiatrist. During the French-Algerian War, he supported the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). His book, The Wretched of the Earth, an exegesis on revolutionary violence’s powers of renewal, partially obscured a radically humanist philosophy that implored oppressed people the world over to search for new forms of humanity free of racial and economic exploitation. Translations of Fanon’s French-language books afforded him a global following that ran past his premature death from cancer in 1961 at age thirty-six. Media depictions of Carmichael invariably portrayed his temperament as running hot, ignoring the cool side that enjoyed precise intellectual and philosophical discourse.
Carmichael implored those in attendance to use their individual will to form a collective barrier against escalating war. Echoing Sartre, Carmichael criticized national political leaders who made war instead of peace. “There is a higher law than the law of a racist named [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara,” said Carmichael, “a higher law than the law of a tool named [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk, a higher law than the law of a buffoon= named Johnson—it is the higher law of each of us.” Waves of applause overtook his defiant roll call of White House officials escalating the Vietnam conflict. “We can’t move morally against Lyndon Baines Johnson,” he contended, “because he is an immoral man who doesn’t know what it is all about. We must act politically.” He challenged his student audience to question the basic assumptions about American democracy and join SNCC in exposing “all the myths of the country to be nothing but lies.” Carmichael reveled in highlighting America’s moral and political failures even as he indicted white liberals as feckless and white students as unsophisticated. “It is white people across this country who are incapable of allowing me to live where I want to live—you need a civil rights bill, not me,” he said. “I know I can live where I want to live.” This last line drew a burst of applause and helped to introduce a larger discussion of white privilege that became the core of the speech:
The question then is how can white people move to start making the major institutions that they have in this country function the way it is supposed to function. That is the real question. Can white people move inside the old community and start tearing down racism where in fact it does exist—where it exists. It is you who live in Cicero and stop us from living there. It is white people who stop us from living there. It is the white people who make sure we live in ghettos of this country. It is white institutions that do that. They must change. In order for America to really live on a basic principle of human relationships, a new society must be born. Racism must die. The economic exploitation of this country on non-white peoples around the world must also die—must also die.
Hysteria greeted Carmichael’s Berkeley speech. Governor Pat Brown and his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, both decried Carmichael’s appearance although each knew that it boded well for Reagan, already riding a wave of popularity buoyed by “white backlash” against black militancy. In Washington, Ramsey Clark received a fresh batch of requests from congressmen to prosecute Carmichael for promoting draft evasion. The Mississippi senator and arch-segregationist James Eastland telegrammed Clark that Carmichael’s “reckless and inflammatory speeches” promoted “acts bordering on treason.” But Stokely found at least one high-profile supporter, who intensely watched his every move despite an outward pose of studied disinterest. At a press conference in Norfolk, Virginia, following a sermon that warned against racially separate paths to power, Martin Luther King defended Carmichael’s antiwar posture, telling reporters he would be the first to support an individual whose political actions were motivated by a call to conscience.
Excerpted with permission from “Stokely: A Life,” by Peniel E. Joseph. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.
l haven’t seen “Her,” the Oscar-nominated movie about a man who has an intimate relationship with a Scarlett Johansson-voiced computer operating system. I have, however, read Susan Schneider’s “The Philosophy of ‘Her’,” a post on The Stone blog at the New York Times looking into the possibility, in the pretty near future, of avoiding death by having your brain scanned and uploaded to a computer. Presumably you’d want to Dropbox your brain file (yes, you’ll need to buy more storage) to avoid death by hard-drive crash. But with suitable backups, you, or an electronic version of you, could go on living forever, or at least for a very, very long time, “untethered,” as Ms. Schneider puts it, “from a body that’s inevitably going to die.”
This idea isn’t the loopy brainchild of sci-fi hacks. Researchers at Oxford University have been on the path to human digitization for a while now, and way back in 2008 the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford released a 130-page technical report entitled Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap. Of the dozen or so benefits of whole-brain emulation listed by the authors, Andrew Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, one stands out:
If emulation of particular brains is possible and affordable, and if concerns about individual identity can be met, such emulation would enable back‐up copies and “digital immortality.”
Scanning brains, the authors write, “may represent a radical new form of human enhancement.”
Hmm. Immortality and radical human enhancement. Is this for real? Yes:
It appears feasible within the foreseeable future to store the full connectivity or even multistate compartment models of all neurons in the brain within the working memory of a large computing system.
Foreseeable future means not in our lifetimes, right? Think again. If you expect to live to 2050 or so, you could face this choice. And your beloved labrador may be ready for upload by, say, 2030:
A rough conclusion would nevertheless be that if electrophysiological models are enough, full human brain emulations should be possible before mid‐century. Animal models of simple mammals would be possible one to two decades before this.
Interacting with your pet via a computer interface (“Hi Spot!”/“Woof!”) wouldn’t be quite the same as rolling around the backyard with him while he slobbers on your face or watching him dash off after a tennis ball you toss into a pond. You might be able to simulate certain aspects of his personality with computer extensions, but the look in his eyes, the cock of his head and the feel and scent of his coat will be hard to reproduce electronically. All these limitations would probably not make up for no longer having to scoop up his messes or feed him heartworm pills. The electro-pet might also make you miss the real Spot unbearably as you try to recapture his consciousness on your home PC.
But what about you? Does the prospect of uploading your own brain allay your fear of abruptly disappearing from the universe? Is it the next best thing to finding the fountain of youth? Ms. Schneider, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut, counsels caution. First, she writes, we might find our identity warped in disturbing ways if we pour our brains into massive digital files. She describes the problem via an imaginary guy named Theodore:
[If Theodore were to truly upload his mind (as opposed to merely copy its contents), then he could be downloaded to multiple other computers. Suppose that there are five such downloads: Which one is the real Theodore? It is hard to provide a nonarbitrary answer. Could all of the downloads be Theodore? This seems bizarre: As a rule, physical objects and living things do not occupy multiple locations at once. It is far more likely that none of the downloads are Theodore, and that he did not upload in the first place.
This is why the Oxford futurists included the caveat “if concerns about individual identity can be met.” It is the nightmare of infinitely reproducible individuals — a consequence that would, in an instant, undermine and destroy the very notion of an individual.
But Ms. Schneider does not come close to appreciating the extent of the moral failure of brain uploads. She is right to observe an apparent “categorical divide between humans and programs.” Human beings, she writes, “cannot upload themselves to the digital universe; they can upload only copies of themselves — copies that may themselves be conscious beings.” The error here is screamingly obvious: brains are parts of us, but they are not “us.” A brain contains the seed of consciousness, and it is both the bank for our memories and the fount of our rationality and our capacity for language, but a brain without a body is fundamentally different from the human being that possessed both.
It sounds deeply claustrophobic to be housed (imprisoned?) forever in a microchip, unable to dive into the ocean, taste chocolate or run your hands through your loved one’s hair. Our participation in these and infinite other emotive and experiential moments are the bulk of what constitutes our lives, or at least our meaningful lives. Residing forever in the realm of pure thought and memory and discourse doesn’t sound like life, even if it is consciousness. Especially if it is consciousness.
So I cannot agree with Ms. Schneider’s conclusion when she writes that brain uploads may be choiceworthy for the benefits they can bring to our species or for the solace they provide to dying individuals who “wish to leave a copy of [themselves] to communicate with [their] children or complete projects that [they] care about.” It may be natural, given the increasingly virtual lives many of us live in this pervasively Internet-connected world, to think ourselves mainly in terms of avatars and timelines and handles and digital faces. Collapsing our lives into our brains, and offloading the contents of our brains to a supercomputer is a fascinating idea. It does not sound to me, though, like a promising recipe for preserving our humanity.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com
If one’s experience as a PhD student is dominated by hierarchy, perhaps that also says something about the changes occurring in academia more generally.
One predictable response to pieces that are critical of the hierarchical structure of relating that seems to inform the PhD is that “that’s just the way it works.” The academic version of Thatcher’s “there is no alternative.” Academia, in other words, is approached as a structure that is beyond the possibility of any PhD student not only to change, but even simply to criticize. This argument is usually buttressed by the suggestion that the PhD is a necessary evil to overcome, before getting into the exclusive club that will provide those “special privileges” that were denied to you as a student (you will, in other words, get some kind of “immunity” from the nuisances you had to face up to that point).
This is a position I can understand, despite disagreeing with it. I can understand, in fact, that hierarchies can embed themselves in the very ways one is able to think about the world. In a feudal world dominated by hierarchical relations, after all, even God will come to be pictured as a superior of all earthly superiors. Some people, perhaps, are never too bothered by any of this. I like to think that this is also a consequence of the fact that the changing face of academia as a whole is rarely considered relevant when one discusses the pitfalls of a PhD. What I aim to do with this piece, then, is to offer an alternative approach to scrutinizing the PhD experience, no longer understood as something isolated and insulated from the rest of the university world.
What academia is becoming, as a whole, sometimes shines in the way that one experiences it through the PhD. So that, if one’s experience as a PhD student is dominated by hierarchical, authoritarian relationships, perhaps that also says something about the direction of change inside the wider world of higher education.
In my experience as a PhD student, there are often teaching duties to be dealt with. The university as a whole has a policy of setting a maximum amount of hours, as well as guidelines on how those hours should be computed. Unfortunately, however, it has equally been my experience — as I mentioned in another piece — that these guidelines are interpreted rather creatively (such as by restricting the count to actual lecture time, so that preparation, office hours and so on are excluded from the count, and basically done in the student’s own time). Forget that this slowly turns a full-time research PhD into a part-time teaching position — without a formal employment contract.
It seems rather funny that academics should pull on each other cheap tricks of this sort. Haggling on what the rules really mean. Or on whether they are binding or just “guidelines” that can offer no protection from an excessive teaching load (all this, while teaching to students about the evils of the “casualization of labour”). I do understand that departments, sometimes, can get swamped by teaching, and academics think that this is the only way to solve the problem of their own excessive teaching load. They may think this is the only way, but it needn’t be so.
What attempts of this nature disclose — to interpret entitlements in such a way as to inflate the PhD teaching load — is a willingness to keep relationships with PhDs in a hierarchical, authoritarian mode. This allows for a department to meet their teaching needs, without having to take into consideration the needs of PhD students. If I take away your entitlement to a limit in your teaching, and/or interpret it against you, that means I position myself as a hierarchical superior. I can order you to do what I say, as opposed, perhaps, to being clear about the department’s needs and subsequently asking for, rather than commanding, your help.
Hierarchical roles can therefore get rehearsed in “admin” mode, such as when teaching is being allocated, but they can carry over even into other aspects of the PhD relationship. Once you know you are supposed to take orders from more senior academics, on penalty of “consequences” (losing a scholarship, failing an upgrade, etc.), those “consequences” might colour your whole PhD relationship with tinges of servility. The outcome, of course, is that while the PhD may be touted in advertising leaflets as the ultimate “free-thinking” experience, that free-thinking is often a sham. For how can you breed freedom through relationships based on hierarchy and “following orders”?
What I am beginning to notice, however, is that this same quality, this same embeddedness in a hierarchical, pyramidal world, will probably not disappear the moment you manage to make it through doctoral boot camp. Consider how, for instance, university management often rehearses hierarchical roles by taking on categories of university workers that are farthest from the academics themselves, say catering or cleaning services. They may get pay cuts, or get outsourced. Equally often, these workers are also left alone. Their struggles are not considered worthy to be taken up by most (not all) academics (students, to be fair, seem to care more). What academics fail to understand, however, is that — if you let management get away with it — the hierarchical roles of a pyramidal governance structure are consolidated. So that, when management turns their eyes to academics, their position in that conversation will be even more dismal and subordinate than it would have been had they not allowed hierarchy to play out in relation to the cleaners.
In this sense, I would argue for the interrelatedness of the question of the PhD teaching load with that of the freedom to pursue one’s research ideas, and of these issues with the more general problem of fostering horizontal, non-hierarchical solidarity across all the different groups of people that somehow make the university. When hierarchy is cultivated in the admin aspects of the PhD, it might spill over into the more idealistic aspects as well, breeding little soldiers that might do well on the battlefield of the job market, at the cost of becoming enslaved inside.
Similarly, when hierarchical forms of relating are allowed inside the university, for instance, by failing to take a stand in solidarity with cleaners and caterers (under the assumption that what happens to them is something academics are immune to) the university becomes less of a breeding place for freedom, and more of a feudal structure — one where, inadvertently, people begin to turn to the wrong God.
At the height of ’60s counterculture, the sexual revolution found itself an unexpected bedfellow: Devil worship
A mining expedition in the South American jungle: Edward MacKensie, jealous of his business partner’s lover and wanting to keep the expedition’s riches for himself, engineers an “accident” that kills the partner and his lover. Twenty years later, MacKensie is a rich and successful man, married with a teenage daughter. Despite (or perhaps because) of his wealth and success, MacKensie finds himself bored with life, in particular, his sex life. He pays the office boy and secretary to have sex in front of him, and then cruelly mocks them when they do not perform to his expectations. He searches for hookers who might better understand his peculiar “tastes,” which center on sadistic forms of torture and humiliation, and longs for the Victorian era for the fabled abandon of its sexual underground. “Now there was an era,” he laments to himself, “when a woman like Mrs. Berkeley would earn a thousand pounds for inventing a whipping horse on which a pretty girl could be postured in a thousand different lascivious ways for the lash.” After another humiliating failure with a prostitute, MacKensie meets the mysterious Carlos Sathanas, a worldly, rich sophisticate. Their conversation quickly turns to “unusual pleasures.” “To put it bluntly,” he tells MacKensie, “for all this talk about the new sexual freedom, I for one fail to perceive it except in the huge dissemination of titallitory books and magazines and movies, which are nothing more or less than pure psychic masturbation. They depict fantasies that are not in existence, but perhaps were in another century.” Sathanas confides that he is the founder and sole proprietor of “the Satan Club,” an organization devoted to fulfilling the most bizarre sexual desires of its secret, exclusive membership. MacKensie joins eagerly and soon finds himself participating in a series of increasingly exotic sexual scenarios.
Three weeks into his membership, MacKensie anticipates what promises to be the most provocative show yet, the one that will make him an official member of the Satan Club for life. Encouraged to partake of a very special mixture of Spanish fly—an hallucinatory blend discovered by Sathanas himself—a blindfolded MacKensie is escorted into a basement and strapped into a strange device called “the chair of Tantalus,” guaranteed by Sathanas to enhance his sexual arousal to unprecedented heights. With the blindfold now removed, a curtain parts to reveal two nude women intertwined on a couch. Aroused to point of physical pain, MacKensie looks down to see there is a collar device attached to his penis making orgasm impossible: the chair of Tantalus! But his horror and despair are only beginning. As the effects of the Spanish fly begin to wane, he recognizes the two women on the couch as his wife and her recently hired personal masseuse. They mock him with contemptuous laughter as their sexual escapades become more intense. Worse yet, his teenage daughter now enters the tableau on all fours, eagerly mounted by the family dog! The agony of arousal and humiliation is overwhelming, and MacKensie begs for release. Calm and collected, Sathanas appears on stage to explain. He is in fact the business partner MacKensie left for dead twenty years ago in the jungle. Having been told of MacKensie’s murderous past and philandering ways, his family now hates him— utterly. All money and property have been transferred to the wife, who plans to divorce him and run away with the masseuse. His daughter no longer has any interest in men, only her beloved German Shepherd. His former partner’s revenge is complete. The show is over. Later, as the lights go up, MacKensie is alone but still strapped into the chair of Tantalus. He realizes the night’s spectacle has unfolded in the basement of his very own Long Island home—of which he is now dispossessed. Destroyed by material and erotic greed, he stares “unseeingly at that stage where all his life had collapsed about him.”
As a book trading in sexual fantasy, the very “psychic masturbation” so deplored in the text by Sathanas, “The Satan Club” is rather relentless in its emphasis on frustration, failure, and damnation. As one would expect from a “dirty book,” MacKensie’s saga links a number of extended and graphically rendered sexual interludes clearly crafted for the reader’s arousal. Yet the overall structure of the book, despite its “immoral” status as pornography, is strangely, even prudishly moral in its actual execution. We must assume until the very last page that Sathanas is in fact Satan himself, tempting MacKensie’s desire for ever more perverted sexual scenarios in order to take possession of his soul. In any case, MacKensie’s lust does lead to his “damnation,” broke and humiliated in Long Island if not actually burning in hell. Sexually adrift through most of the novel, MacKensie learns a powerful lesson about fantasy and desire, a lesson, in turn, that one would think might prove unsettling to the man who would seek out and buy a copy of “The Satan Club” for his own arousal. What exactly is the pleasure to be had in following the inexorable downward spiral of a man seeking to realize his own sexual fantasies? Moreover, what is gained by situating this prurient yet prudish narrative within the “satanic” conventions of temptation, trickery, and damnation?
“The Satan Club” serves as a reminder that of all the various avenues of morality policed by religion, none absorbs more mental and social energy than sexuality. Innumerable historians of religion, culture, and sexuality have discussed how civilization emerged (at least in part) from the social regulation of unfettered sexual expression, leading in the West to the eventual ascendance of property relations, heteronormative monogamy, and reproductive futurism—as well as all of this social order’s attending “discontents.” Playing on these repressions, Lucifer’s role within modernity has focused most intently on tempting the chaste to overthrow their superego masters, profane their faith, and reclaim forbidden desires and practices, forsaking the stabilizing institution of monogamous reproductive marriage for the entropic energies of “unbridled” lust. In modern fiction, this template is at least as old as J. K. Huysmans’s scandalous account of fin de siècle Satanism, “La Bas” (1891). Huysmans’s narrator, Durtal, a bored author interested in learning more about satanic sects said to be proliferating within the Catholic Church, infiltrates a Black Mass presided over by one Paris’s most respected priests. Like any good decadent, he assumes the rite will at least be diverting. Attending with his lover—the wife of a rival author—his bemusement turns to horror as the priest “wipes himself” with the Eucharist, women writhe in ecstasy on the floor, and the choirboys “give themselves” to the men. Escaping this “monstrous pandemonium of prostitutes and maniacs,” Durtal flees with his mistress (a possible succubus) to a seedy hotel, where he is then seduced (seemingly against his will) in a bed “strewn with fragments of hosts.” Satan makes no definitive appearance in “La Bas”—like much nineteenth-century fiction, Huysmans’s realism emphasizes the plausible horrors of clerical contamination over the gothic pyrotechnics of supernatural intervention—but the novel’s interlinking of power, profanity, sexual transgression, and shame remains central to the genre even today.
Published in 1970, “The Satan Club” stands at the threshold of the most recent wave of popular interest in Satanism, one that traces its beginnings to the social transformations of the 1960s, especially the baby boomer alignment of sexual, spiritual, and psychedelic politics attending the so-called hippie counterculture. By the end of the 1960s, “Satanism” assumed an increasingly public identity, traceable in large part to the efforts of Anton Szandor LaVey. Although neither a hippie nor a baby boomer, this former carnie and crime-scene photographer exploited the countercultural currents of San Francisco when he founded the Church of Satan in 1966 (see figure 9.1). Fluent in the art of self-promotion, LaVey garnered international press in founding the church, including pieces in such journalistic mainstays as Time, Life, Look, and McCall’s. LaVey also appeared as a guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and as the devil himself in Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), a film that ushered in a decade-long wave of satanic fictions. “The Exorcist” (1973), “The Omen” (1976), and their various sequels further mined this vein, as did a made-for-TV movie asking the question: “Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby?” (1976). By the mid-1970s, Satan had become such big business that Alan Ladd Jr., then president of Fox’s film division, noted that “almost every movie company has five or six Devil movies in the works,” a sentiment echoed by Ned Tanen of MCA: “Devil movies” have “eclipsed the western in popularity all over the world.” The reason, for Tanen, was clear, a logic still invoked to explain any and all trends in moviemaking: “Devil movies play equally well in Japan, Ecuador, and Wisconsin,” he observed. A more “pop” Satan also became a staple of the Christian-publishing industry in this period, most notoriously in the widely read screeds of Hal Lindsey, including “The Late Great Planet Earth” (1970) and “Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth” (1972). Long before the “Left Behind” series transformed the Book of Revelation into an epic soap opera, Lindsey scoured the headlines for signs of the antichrist’s arrival and the onset of the apocalypse. Flirtations between rock music and Satanism are well know in this period, from Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s purchase of Aleister “the Beast” Crowley’s Boleskin House to the coded imagery of the Rolling Stones’ album, “Goats Head Soup.” The devil was such a ubiquitous presence in the American popular culture of the 1970s that minister C. S. Lovett even penned a diet book in 1977 under the alarming title: “Help Lord—the Devil Wants Me Fat!” “When You’re Watching tv, the commercial break is one of the devil’s favorite moments,” warns Lovett. He then suggests a script for warding off Satan’s “food attacks”: “I know you’re trying to dominate me with food, Satan. So, in the name of Jesus Go . . . get off my back!”
Beneath this sheen of Hollywood “black horror,” devil rock, and mass-market Satanism, however, lurked another circle of hellish cultural production. Shadowing “mainstream” Satanism was a cycle of sexploitation films, pornographic magazines, and adult paperbacks that—like “The Satan Club”—centered not so much on the gravitas of demon possession, the antichrist, and the apocalypse, but on a more licentious engagement of sexual tourism and erotic experimentation. As the dark overlord of a larger interest in occult sexuality, Satan presided over a ludic proliferation of transgressive temptation and “forbidden” pleasures in adult media of the 1960s and 1970s. Explicit paperbacks of the era promoted Satanism as a nonstop orgy in such titles as “Infernal Affair” (1967), “Devil Sex” (1969), “Sex Slaves of the Black Mass” (1971), and “Satan, Demons, and Dildoes” (1974), to name only a few. At the grind house, sexploitation movie titles also foregrounded the lure of satanic spectacle with such offerings as “The Lucifers” (1971), “Satanic Sexual Awareness” (1972), “Sons of Satan” (1973), “The Horny Devils” (1971, aka “Hotter Than Hell”), and the perhaps inevitable Exorcist knock-off: “Sexorcism Girl” (1975). In the increasingly targeted market for print pornography, magazines such as Sexual Witchcraft and Bitchcraft specialized in provocative images of occultists staging sexualized rituals (“Nudity in Witchcraft! The True Inside Story,” proclaims one banner headline). Even the infamous Ed Wood Jr. threw his hat into the occult-sex ring by appearing (most painfully) in the 1971 cheapie, “Necromania.”
Already a central figure in the West’s psychic economy of sexual prohibition (at least in its religious iterations), the devil’s historical relation to God, religion, and faith made “occult sex” a fundamentally perverse genre, even when tales such as “The Satan Club” ultimately sided with “real-world” explanations over the supernatural. As the Christian embodiment of evil temptation, Satan promised access to any and all sensual pleasures—an invitation to lustful exploration that resonated within the postwar era’s ongoing disarticulation of sex, marriage, and reproduction. And yet, as a product of the authority of religious morality, this eroticized occult could not, by definition, escape the very moral order it sought to evade, undermine, or destroy. Satan (or a surrogate such as Sathanas) is both a saboteur of morality and its most damning enforcer, the ambassador of temptation and the executioner of guilt. Drawing his prey from their moral orbit by appealing to their most base and selfish of desires, Satan—in his supernatural, dialectic relation to God—ultimately reasserts the very repression that a bored MacKensie foolishly believes might be overcome. Such is the essence of “taboo” pleasure—a desire to violate convention and custom that ultimately reaffirms the authority of the law on which the taboo depends. This dynamic made satanic sexploitation a doubly perverse genre—“perverse” in its appetites and its effects. Although such fare offered the lure of ever-more “exotic” sexual adventures, for both protagonist and audience, the horned ambassador of such indulgence demanded nothing less than the sexual adventurer’s eternal soul!
The “Black Pope”
As the author of “The Satanic Bible” and self-appointed spokesman of modern Satanism, LaVey frequently spoke to the press as the authority on Satanism’s history and future—a heritage LaVey often cast in terms of sexual indulgence. “The Satanic Age started in 1966,” LaVey explained. “That’s when God was proclaimed dead, the Sexual Freedom League came into prominence, and the hippies developed as a free sex culture.” Within the sweeping social transformations of the postwar era, LaVey’s brand of Satanism contributed to a significant rewriting of the devil, one that cast Satan more as a dandy or libertine than the Lord of Darkness. This “urbane” Satan was largely a function of growing secularization and new strategies for organizing erotic and social life within the so-called sexual revolution. Hoping to compete with the growing popularity of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, Stanley Publications introduced Satan magazine in 1957, billing it as “Devilish Entertainment for Men.” The magazine only survived for six issues, leading historian Bethan Benwell to speculate, “There were limits to how far the ‘playboy ethic’ could be pushed.
Perhaps . . . the magazine’s title and allusions flaunted the libertine ideal a little too brazenly.” Certainly, not everyone saw this new sexual “ethic” as progress—satanic or otherwise. “Increasing divorce and desertion and the growth of prenuptial and extramarital sex relations are signs of sex addiction somewhat similar to drug addiction,” accused Pitirim Sorokin in his book “The American Sex Revolution” (1956). It was a claim that has resonated with moral reformers to this very day. Responding to Sorokin, Edwin M. Schur commented in 1964 that many sociologists of the era believed “there really may not have been any startling change in sexual behavior in the very recent years.” Schur located perceptions of a sexual revolution more in an ongoing redefinition of the socioeconomic relationship between the individual and the family, pushing this “revolution” back even further in time by citing Walter Lipmann’s observation in 1929 that once “chaperonage became impossible and the fear of pregnancy was all but eliminated, the entire conventional sex ethic was shattered.” Whether sexual practices were actually changing across the 1950s and 1960s was less important than the widely held perception that more people were having more sex in more “liberated” scenarios. This sense that individual desire, expressed in sexuality and selfishness had eclipsed familial and social responsibility and would remain a core moral debate of the twentieth century, creating the conditions not only for LaVey’s Satanism, but also the Moynihan Report, Thomas Wolfe’s “The Me Decade,” and Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism.”
Promoting the Church of Satan in 1966, LaVey frequently invoked the libertine connotations already attached to such satanic sophistication, even as he attempted to distance his new religion from mere hedonism. Sex might lure converts to the church, but LaVey’s ambitions for his “religion” were more about philosophical empowerment than licentious abandon. In truth, LaVey’s Satanism had little to do with Satan. Although he was never reticent to appear in the trappings of Christianity’s satanic dramaturgy—donning capes, horns, and pentagrams for the camera—LaVey took great pains to divorce his version of Satanism from any actual biblical entity, his devil having more in common with Zarathustra and Ayn Rand than Lucifer the fallen angel. Although aspiring to provide a new philosophy of the mind, LaVey’s background in carnie ballyhoo made him more than willing to hustle some flesh in publicizing the church. An early promotional event involved LaVey booking a San Francisco nightclub to stage an eroticized witches’ Sabbath, a theatrical piece concluding with then stripper and soon-to-be Manson murderer Susan Atkins emerging nude from a coffin. Ever the showman, LaVey sparked another round of national press by performing a satanic wedding ceremony in 1967, complete with a nude redhead serving as the altar. “The altar shouldn’t be a cold unyielding slab of sterile stone,” reasoned LaVey, but “a symbol of enthusiastic lust and indulgence.” He also cultivated a public relationship with sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, leading to the rumors of her conversion to Satanism, amplified in the wake of her untimely and gruesome death in a car accident in the summer of 1967. Yet despite the salacious aspects of the early church (“Phase One . . . the nudie stuff,” LaVey would later call it), LaVey also made several attempts to deemphasize the sexual abandon seemingly promised by the “religion,” no doubt to defend against the many “sex criminals” who apparently contacted him just prior to their release from prison in hopes of joining the congregation. Many potential converts, he reported, were disappointed to discover there were no “orgies” in the ceremonies; indeed, LaVey appears to have had only contempt for the type of orgiastic ritual imagined by Huysmans and, according to LaVey, allegedly still practiced in the “amateur” Satanist congregations of Los Angeles (presided over, according to LaVey, by “dirty old men”). The church made no judgment about the morality of any sexual pursuit, advocating “the practice of any type of sexual activity which satisfy man’s individual needs, be it promiscuous heterosexuality, strict faithfulness to a wife or lover, homo-sexuality, or even fetishism,” in short, “telling each man or woman to do what comes naturally and not to worry about it.” Those looking to affirm their sexual appetites, whatever they might be, were welcome at the church; those actually looking to have sex were not. “There are some beautiful women that belong to the Church,” claimed LaVey, “but they don’t have to come here to get laid. They could go down to any San Francisco bar and get picked up.”
Building on fantasies of libertine conquest and masculine sophistication, LaVey was savvy enough to recognize that one growth market would be sexual empowerment for women. Toward that end, he published “The Compleat Witch” in 1971, a manual teaching women how to seduce or otherwise manipulate men through witchcraft. Writing at the high-water mark of second-wave feminism, LaVey’s advice is strangely prescient of Camille Paglia and other postfeminist provocateurs. “Any bitter and disgruntled female can rally against men, burning up her creative and manipulative energy in the process,” he writes. “She will find the energies she expends in her quixotic cause would be put to more rewarding use, were she to profit by her womanliness by manipulating the men she holds in contempt, while enjoying the ones she finds stimulating.” No doubt such advice was appealing to women hoping to find a strategy for sexual success, and male readers fantasizing that they themselves might become the prey of such “sexual witchcraft.” LaVey’s practical advice for the aspiring witch included such tactics as positive visualization (“Extra Sensory Projection”), “indecent exposure” (showing as much flesh as legally possible—a “power” denied to men, notes LaVey), and not “scrubbing away your natural odors of seduction” (including keeping a swatch of dried menstrual blood in an amulet). As this is a book about witchcraft, LaVey includes some thoughts on the art of “divination,” but even here his comments are more in line with the art of the con than the art of the occult. A woman willing to follow LaVey’s sartorial and psychic program was promised an enhanced sense of personal power over the weak-minded male of the species, the book combining a rather conservative view of feminine seduction with a sexual will to power. Here LaVey put an occult spin on Helen Gurley Brown’s “Sex and the Single Girl,” another book notorious for allegedly empowering women by cultivating their essentialized wiles. Indeed, Dodd and Mead’s print campaign for “The Compleat Witch” dubbed it a study of “hex and the single girl,” suggesting the publisher saw the book more as a “relationship” title than a primer in black magic.
LaVey may have had his own detailed ideas about the philosophy of his religion and great ambitions for the future of Satanism, but he ultimately had little control over how the satanic 1960s and 1970s would play in the popular imagination; indeed, much of LaVey’s time as Satanism’s “official” spokesman appears to have been consumed in distancing his church from the atrocities of Satan-linked killers such as Charles Manson, “Nightstalker” Richard Ramirez, and dozens of cat-killing teenage boys in the Midwest—not to mention the general religious competition offered by the Process, the Raelians, the People’s Temple, and California’s other proliferating sects, cults, and “kooks.” Satan may have just been a convenient symbol for LaVey, but Lucifer’s very real presence in the lives of those hoping to either invoke or avoid him made it difficult for LaVey’s more “magical” form of Randian Objectivism to gain traction. Moreover, by building his church’s public facade, not on rock or sand but on images of a devilish libido and fantasies of a guilt-free eroticism, LaVey’s brand of Satanism could not help but be linked to the era’s larger transformations in sexuality, especially among those already intrigued or repulsed by the highly visible growth of various “countercultures” of the 1960s. As a “hot” new scenario promising unlimited sexual action and erotic power, LaVey’s bid to resurrect self-interested materialism became more naughty than Nietzschean, emerging as a prominent subgenre in the era’s developing and increasingly brazen pornography industry.
Excerpted from “Altered Sex: Satan, Acid, and the Erotic Threshold” by Jeffrey Sconce in “Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution,” edited by Eric Schaefer. Copyright Duke University Press, 2014. All rights reserved.
Popular Resistance Newsletter
Above: OWS Puppets protest the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The Joy and Resolve of a Movement Built on Creative Resistance
Beginning with the iconic image of the ballerina on top of the Wall Street Bull, art has been central to occupy and was an important reason for its powerful impact.
Art adds vitality and energy to advocacy; and it reaches people at deeper emotional levels and in their hearts conveying what cannot be said with mere facts.
We had been covering art as part of our reporting on the movement at Popular Resistance, but it wasn’t enough. There has been so much artistic activism that we decided it needed to be highlighted with its own website, Creative Resistance.org. It is a place where community members, activists and activist artists can connect and inspire each other. We encourage everyone to find ways that art can be incorporated into your actions and into the work in your community.
Art Builds Commitment, Community and Movement
One goal of public protest is to pull people to the movement in order to grow into a mass movement that cannot be ignored. Activist art turns a protest into a spectacle, from a turn-off to a turn-on, from an event ignored to one that is widely reported. The protest becomes art itself. If done well and with intention, it will draw people to the movement.
For example, before a protest or other event, a community art build can be organized where people involved in advocacy create art together; and where families, community members, professional colleagues and others are invited to co-create. This process builds stronger connections within the community, deepens the understanding of the issue and provides a way for individuals to express their personal relationship to the issue.
As Tatiana Makovkin, an organizer with Creative Resistance, wrote recently: “Art is good for our communities, and artistic collaboration is a bonding experience. We make art together, not just because of the changes it can bring to the world around us, but because of the way it changes us internally.”
Another group that uses the creation of art as a catalyst for change is the Bee Hive Collective. This Maine-based group tells stories through incredible graphics. They are done in a sophisticated cartoon-like style in order to make them accessible and engaging. The stories are based on concerns that communities have about their lives and the environment. They have gone to the coal fields of Appalachia, refugee camps in Latin America and partnered with other communities whose voices need to be amplified, whose stories need to be heard and whose struggle for social and environmental justice needs to be told.
Sometimes art lifts a protest to what Bill Moyer of the Backbone Campaign calls a “spectacle action.” We’ve been involved in protests against the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Moyer and each was a spectacle action. In a recent TPP protest we draped four massive banners on the building of the US Trade Representative, across from the White House complex. The action, which the Washington Post called the greatest guerrilla theater in DC history, created images used by media all over the world and showed people who are opposed to the TPP in other countries that there is opposition in the US too.
In a protest in Salt Lake City as TPP negotiators were inside a hotel conducting secret negotiations, the Backbone Campaign and other groups flew massive weather balloons holding a banner outside their conference window saying “Psst TPP. What are you hiding?” The banner used humor to mock their secret negotiations and raise the issue of why they were hiding from all of us who will be impacted by the deals they make behind closed doors.
These spectacle protests also sent a message to our adversaries that we are a force to be reckoned with because we were willing to take risks and were clear in our denunciation of their unpopular, anti-democratic actions. They were put on notice – proceed and you should expect resistance.
That same type of message has been sent all up and down the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring toxic tar sands sludge from Canada through the farm belt of America, over precious fresh water sources and to the Gulf of Mexico to be processed for transport overseas. When the Tar Sands Blockaders began in the southern portion of the pipeline, they put up massive banners in the trees where activists were doing tree sits. The message on the banner: You Shall Not Pass was a clear threat of resistance.
In the South and in the northern part of the pipeline where Obama has not yet approved construction, indigenous peoples, landowners, ranchers and farmers have joined people concerned about climate change and ecological destruction to protest in creative ways like putting up a solar energy producing barn where the pipeline is planned to go. TransCanada is so afraid of this resistance they are urging police to treat protesters as terrorists, including an absurd glitter terror case in Oklahoma.
The use of art in resistance can make protests less frightening and something people want to attend and join. Protest signs that advertise an event or are used at the event draw attention and spread our message, as do the massive puppets seen at many protests produced by groups like People’s Puppets, Bread and Puppet Theater, the Backbone Campaign and others. As these puppets march through neighborhoods accompanied by singing and chanting, people are drawn to them and some end up participating. Street theater is another way to attract people. Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir is one example of many groups who perform.
A book which shows the breadth of creativity in activism is Beautiful Trouble. It compiles hundreds of examples of creative resistance. The authors write, “The realization is rippling through the ranks that, if deployed thoughtfully, our pranks, stunts, flash mobs and encampments can bring about real shifts in the balance of power. In short, large numbers of people have seen that creative action gets the goods — and have begun to act accordingly. Art, it turns out, really does enrich activism, making it more compelling and sustainable”
Reaching People Beyond Their Heads
To be effective in our advocacy it is not enough to provide facts, figures and graphs and reach people in their heads. Studies have shown that facts that contradict someone’s belief are often ignored and even have the opposite effect of strengthening people’s preconceived notions. In order to change people, we have to reach them at a deeper, more emotional level.
The Center for Artistic Activism describes their rationale for the use of creative resistance writing:
Throughout history, the most effective political actors have married the arts with campaigns for social change. While Martin Luther King Jr is now largely remembered for his example of moral courage, social movement historian Doug McAdam’s estimation of King’s “genius for strategic dramaturgy,” likely better explains the success of his campaigns.
Dramaturgy means the art or technique of dramatic composition and theatrical representation. One of the co-founders of the Center for Artistic Activism, Stephen Duncombe, describes the story of how King used drama when the civil rights movement selected Birmingham, AL as the place for protest by creating a confrontation with Police Chief Bull Connor. Connor had been an abusive police chief in Birmingham for 23 years and in 1961 had abused the Freedom Riders. Connor tried running for mayor, but lost the election. The day Connor lost the election, King’s group announced Project C (for confrontation) challenging the racist police practices of Connor. The goal was mass arrests and confrontation that would overwhelm the police and penal system. King’s arrest led to his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
On May 2, 1963, King’s group used a new tactic in Birmingham by having children march through the streets, resulting in 959 children aged 6 to 18 being arrested. The next day large numbers of protesters came out and Connor turned the dogs and fire hoses on them. This went on for several days and produced images that created anger at Connor and support for the civil rights activists. Three thousand protesters were arrested over a five day period. The impact on the reputation and economy was extremely negative causing a majority of businesses to reach agreement with King to desegregate lunch counters, rest rooms and drinking fountains on May 10. The businesses also helped to get the protesters released and created systems for black-white communication. On May 11, Connor was ordered to leave his office.
King had picked the stage, the antagonist and protagonists. The narrative was predictable because they knew how Connor would react and the civil rights activists had been trained to respond appropriately. Through dramaturgy, King had created a dramatic composition that was vivid, emotional and engaged the American people – based on the truth – to tell the story of racism in Birmingham and advance the cause of civil rights by reaching people beyond their minds, deep into their emotions.
Think of the iconic photos of African Americans being attacked by dogs and having the fire hoses turned on them; and of children being arrested. These iconic images are still carried with many Americans because they reached deep down into people. Sometimes when the stage is set and the narrative is being told, the iconic image, unimagined before it happens, is created and advances a movement.
Another path into the emotions of people is humor. The Yes Men are one of the groups that have used humor to make a point. The Yes Men describe their work as “Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them, and otherwise giving journalists excuses to cover important issues.” And, they have mocked some of the biggest corporate criminals on the planet. Their method is to put these corporations in an uncomfortable position, forcing them to respond to hoax news that ‘reports’ the corporation is going to do something good. The corporation then responds – ‘no we’re not going to do something good.’
The Yes Men are now working to share their experience and broaden the talent of hoax humor activism with the Yes Lab. Their goal is to help activists carry out media-getting creative actions through a series of brainstorms and trainings. They call their tactic that creates a public spectacle to spark public debate “laughtivism” as they recognize that humor opens people’s minds.
Another powerful artistic tool is music. It draws people in and can open the door to a movement message. From hip-hop to folk music to rock and roll, there is musical activism. And it is also a tool for creating solidarity and confidence when activists face difficult situations.
Creativity sustains movements
The struggle for social justice is a long-term endeavor that goes through periods of ups and downs. Artful activism in resistance movements can provide new energy and make the goals feel more tangible. Art allows us to imagine the future and sense the world differently.
Art does not have to be expensive. It can be as simple as a can of spray paint for graffiti. The artist Bansky has brought street art to a new level, but at its root it is simple and accessible. Another group that takes graffiti to a new direction is the California Department of Corrections, which ‘corrects’ billboards to put forward a social and economic justice message by adding their comments or changing a few words on the billboard.
Bread and Puppet Theater describes the birth of the “Cheap Art Philosophy … born in 1979 when [they] filled their old school bus with hundreds of small pictures painted on scraps of masonite, cardboard and newspaper, painted slogans and statements about art and Cheap Art, and hung them on the outside of the bus. Then they drove it to neighboring towns and sold the stuff for 10 cents to 10 dollars.” They report the idea has spread:
“Today Cheap Art is practiced by all kinds of artists and puppeteers all over, and continues to cry out: Art is Not Business! Art Is Food! Art Soothes Pain! Art Wakes Up Sleepers! Art Is Cheap! Hurrah!”
Isn’t this the sharing world want we need to see? Imagine art builds in every town bringing communities together and deepening commitment, massive puppets and balloons carrying the message of justice in parades and protests across the country, entertaining and educating theatrics in the streets, music reaching the uninvolved and strengthening the resolve of the already active. People sharing and participating together in building a movement of creative resistance whose foundations are joy and resolve spurs us to re-imagine and create the world we want to see.
Through reflections on Occupy’s politics, Heathwood Press has been at the forefront of a reconfiguration of critical theory for revolutionary practice.
By Richard Gunn, Robert Smith and Adrian Wilding
During the cycle of struggles which opened in 2011, and which saw the emergence of Occupy movements around the globe, a much-echoed slogan was “You can’t evict an idea”. The slogan repays attention, not least because so many occupations were oppressed or evicted — with water cannons and riot police and the forces of terrified states. In the aftermath of such evictions, should the slogan be read as a reassuring mantra? Should the phrase “You can’t evict an idea” placate us by advising that, although the battle on the streets has been lost, the real struggle — the struggle in learned journals, or on the internet, or in the republic of letters — still has to take place?
Such a reading strikes us as mistaken. It embraces defeat, by construing a defiant assertion as a stoical commonplace. It misunderstands the relation between theory and experience which characterizes revolutionary ideas. If ideas support what Max Horkheimer terms “quietism or conformism” then, to be sure, everyday life bows to circumstances and theory goes its own, supposedly self-sufficient, way. If, on the other hand, “every part of the theory presupposes the critique of the existing order” (Horkheimer again), theory and experience entwine together and reinforce one another in unforgettable fashions.
Like a question that, once asked, continues to press for an answer, revolutionary theory — in Horkheimer’s term, critical theory — points towards alternative horizons and to possibilities and challenges that refuse to go away.1 The importance of such ideas, and of the events which inspire them, is not that (in the terminology of traditional Marxism-Leninism) consciousness has been raised. It is that the texture of experience has been enriched in a self-transformative and self-educative manner. You can’t evict an idea — not because ideas are invincible but because a new beginning has been made.
It is in this spirit that Heathwood Institute and Heathwood Press has published, on its website (www.heathwoodpress.com), a series of articles that explore the ideas of the Occupy movement. The series does not attempt to prize a reader’s attention from political issues but to show how, in the light of Occupy, theory and experience interfold in novel and self-emancipatory ways. Stated differently, our aim is to highlight possibilities that the years 2011-’13 have made clear. If theory is currently on the revolutionary left’s agenda, this is not because stoicism has taken over but because, after decades of neoliberal hegemony, ideas which point towards the future have become subjects of debate.
On Heathwood’s website, articles by R.C. Smith and by Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding (who write together) have addressed questions raised by the Occupy movement. In what follows, we sketch Smith’s contributions before outlining Gunn’s and Wilding’s work.
Two articles by Smith are relevant in the present connection: “In Defense of Occupy’s Emphasis on Non-Dominant, Hierarchical Organisation” (published here on 15 September 2013) and “In Defense of Occupy’s Politics” (published here on 15 November 2013). In the first of the two papers, Smith argues that Occupy’s emphasis on establishing a social dynamic that fosters mutual subject-subject relations should be commended as truly radical — as courageous, in the face of coercive social relations — and that it is mistaken to characterize the movement as unable to sustain itself. Against comments made by Robert Reich and Slavoj Žižek, to name just two, Smith claims that Occupy Wall Street was entirely correct to refuse to replicate ideologies of hierarchy by submitting to a new dominant leader. Smith emphasizes the importance of understanding Occupy-style events as alternative public spaces that promote and support the notion of a free flourishing and liberated subject.
Carrying forward these arguments, Smith’s follow-up paper, “In Defense of Occupy’s Politics,” addresses some of the deeper criticisms leveled against Occupy’s alternative politics. Smith explains why it is fundamentally mistaken to conflate Occupy’s inclusive and open politics with liberalism, and argues that the philosophy and foundational structures of Occupy’s non-hierarchical, horizontalist politics is the mark of a radical and revolutionary horizon. Building upon the work of Gunn and Wilding, Smith emphasizes the importance of understanding Occupy’s grassroots politics as “mutual recognition” (see below), commenting in turn on several themes raised by Occupy, ranging from a critique of politics to non-violence, radical participatory democracy and an alternative understanding of processes of social (historical) change.
With mutual recognition seen as fundamental to a radical political horizon, Smith’s analysis and defense of Occupy’s politics intersects with another strand of work being published by Heathwood. This strand concerns the development of an alternative philosophy of systemic change. This project considers the relation between theory and experience and addresses the problem that commons-specific movements lack an adequate foundation in critical theory. Smith’s primary aim when addressing systemic change is to formulate a radical foundation that involves re-conceptualizing modern political economy. In the process, he explores revolutionary grassroots politics and introduces a transitory, integrative, multidimensional notion of fundamental social change — one that works toward an alternative epistemology, cosmology and anthropology together with the notion of a liberated, efficacious and mediating subject.
In connection with Occupy, a further sequence of Heathwood-published lectures is relevant: Smith’s ”Revolution, History and Dominating Social Systems: Notes on a Foundational Approach to Systemic Change” (published here on 20 January 2014). In these lectures, several key themes in Heathwood’s work are laid out and expanded. Drawing again from Gunn and Wilding’s work on recognition and his own Frankfurt School-inspired interdisciplinary studies, Smith elaborates on what a revolutionary grassroots politics might look like, theoretically and practically.
Smith emphasizes the importance of understanding emancipatory social movements as prefigurative. If the ultimate goal or rationale of Occupy-style events is mutual recognition, and if commoning entails participatory public engagement, then Occupy and commoning see emancipation in identical terms. They prefigure the same alternative world. In this connection, Smith (like Gunn and Wilding) underlines the importance of prefiguration — a term to which this article returns — and engages with a number of important themes. The themes include a critique of dominating social systems, a critique of epistemology and a critique of some of capitalism’s fundamental inner workings.
We turn now to Heathwood contributions by Gunn and Wilding, which, although complementary with Smith’s work, have a distinctive emphasis. The emphasis is on the category of recognition: Gunn and Wilding are guided by a contrast between contradictory recognition (which, following Hegel’s writings, they see as subsisting throughout history) and mutual recognition (which must exist if emancipation is to be real).2 This contrast leads them to a specific view of how the Occupy movement may be assessed. On the traditional left, it has been standard to judge Occupy instrumentally, in terms of its impact on government policy. Gunn and Wilding focus instead on what goes on in the occupations themselves, finding there a principle of mutual recognition — an egalitarian and emancipated form of interaction — which consciously breaks with the hierarchical and undemocratic nature of the capitalist world.
In their commitment to horizontalism, direct democracy and mutual aid, occupiers prefigure a post-capitalist freedom. Occupied spaces became exemplars — to be sure, experimental and tentative exemplars — of the world at which revolution aims. Insofar as Occupy-style movements might agree to be measured by criteria, they present themselves not as ventures which may or may not bring about specific reforms but as promissory notes on a social world which is yet to be. No doubt, opinions may differ — may reasonably differ — on the question of whether the world is poised on the brink of emancipatory change, as a prefigurative stance may sometimes seem to claim. But anyone interested in bringing such change into existence must be impressed by the circumstance that, in occupations, mutual recognition is an already existing principle rather than an evanescent dream.
Thus, in their article “Occupy as Mutual Recognition” (published here on 12 November 2013), Gunn and Wilding argue that the revolutionary implications of Occupy can be grasped only when occupied zones are seen to anticipate, and point forward towards, a social existence where mutual recognition obtains. In arguing for this position, Gunn and Wilding distinguish sharply between their own understanding of recognition and the understanding that academic political theory — most notably, political theory associated with Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth — presents. Whereas mutual recognition is understood in the Hegelian tradition as a realm of free and unstructured interaction, present-day political theory links recognition to reformist perspectives and clips the concept’s revolutionary wings. An emphasis on mutual recognition sharpens the challenge of Occupy and distances itself from academia in the same breath. Whereas recognition is a term that revolutionaries should take to themselves, it is a term which neoliberal establishments should dread.
A second related discussion at Heathwood follows Smith’s “In Defense of Occupy’s Politics” in addressing criticisms which Occupy has faced. In their “Hierarchy or Horizontalism? Critics of Occupy” (published here on 31 January 2014), Gunn and Wilding discuss issues raised by Nancy Fraser and David Harvey. Against Fraser’s revamped notion of a “public sphere” (a revamping that, seemingly, presupposes representative democracy), Gunn and Wilding point to the virtues and resilience of horizontalism and the unstructured interaction that it entails. Against Harvey’s measuring of Occupy against tacitly hierarchical organisational criteria, Gunn and Wilding stress recognition — a theme where Harvey has little to say. In addition, the latter essay discusses what Harvey terms the “problem of scale” — and suggests a way in which, compatible with a politics of mutual recognition, the politics of scale may be addressed. Exploring the politics of mutual recognition suggests alternatives to the dirigisme which Harvey, along with Slavoj Žižek, sees as the only solution to global-scale problems such as climate change.
Underlying both of the Gunn and Wilding articles mentioned here is the notion that Occupy-style politics have a relevance not restricted to 2011-’13 events. Occupy-style politics is, as Smith and Gunn and Wilding claim, ongoing. In the Heathwood discussions, theory does not lick its wounds in a period of defeat but points forward to initiatives which have yet to be made. In a recent article for Occupy.com, organizer Justin Wedes says that he writes as a keeper of “faith in another possible world”. We share this faith, in the sense that theory and experience circulate — in a prefigurative sense. Through a theory of mutual recognition, we consider, revolutionary practice can understand itself and gain a strategic perspective. Through reflection on the events of 2011-’13, critical theory can shed its reformism and point itself towards what may be.
Our comments so far have focused on articles which have been published and perspectives which have been sketched. In what directions may Heathwood discussions on Occupy develop? An obvious desideratum is: more, much more, website discussion. When the river beds of discussion break their banks, and the horizontalism of good conversation flourishes everywhere, the aims of the website are fulfilled. So to say, discussion of Occupy practices what it preaches. A further, more specific, desideratum is that the Occupy-style themes that have been underlined need to be given an international dimension. Beyond the public squares and parks of Northern Hemisphere cities, prefigurative politics in Latin America and the Global South generally are alive. The very phrase “Occupy-style politics” — but is there an alternative? — has, perhaps, a parochial ring. If occupations of the last two years have rejuvenated critical theory, the sources which can nourish forward-looking perspectives are all around us.
Following on from this, Heathwood intends in the coming months to link critical theory more closely with revolutionary practice. How can we as theorists and political activists support the growing range of prefigurative political and social movements across the globe? How can critical theory be used to analyze and aid these movements as they work toward defending and widening “the commons”? Having laid the foundations in our research series on Occupy, we now plan to explore these questions and a range of issues spanning critical discussions of power and violence — and to undertake further studies of radical, participatory democracy and economic alternatives.
The present article has sought to bring out the many-sidedness of Occupy-related discussions on the Heathwood website. The aim of these discussions is not to anatomize a movement which critics see as having gone into abeyance. Nor is it to transfer the significance of Occupy from interaction on the streets to the republic of letters — or to the internet. On the contrary, the articles take as their starting point the slogan that “You can’t evict an idea” – and understand the slogan in a specific sense. The slogan does not imply that ideas inhabit an eternal realm, which (after defeat) may be invoked in a stoical or consoling sense. What it does imply is a political beginning: one where events point towards questions which hegemonic liberalism finds difficult — if not impossible — to still.
The questions are, we suggest, ones which concern recognition. In the articles that we have referred to, mutual recognition is understood in a prefigurative fashion and only a single rule is acknowledged: emancipation must continue as it means to go on.
1 For Horkheimer references in this paragraph, see Max Horkheimer “Traditional and Critical Theory”, in his Critical Theory: Selected Essays (New York: SeaburyPress 1972) p. 229.
2 See, for discussion of the contrast between contradictory and mutual recognition and for an account of Hegel, Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding “Revolutionary or Less-than-Revolutionary Recognition?” published here on 24 July 2014.
|March 3, 2014|
|America isn’t just becoming more economically unequal. America is becoming more economically segregated. New national numbers on this segregation have just emerged, and we take a look at this fresh data in this week’s Too Much.
But sometimes we need local anecdotes to really make national trends come alive. Here’s one: In San Francisco today, not one single home or apartment is currently on sale at a price an average local public school teacher can afford.
What’s driving this incredible mismatch? Inequality, of course. Deep pockets spending lavishly on housing are driving up San Francisco home prices. These deep pockets see no particular need to support local public schools. With shrinking local support, San Francisco teacher paychecks are shrinking, too.
Could tax reform reverse the wealth concentration that triggers all these discouraging dynamics? Congress now has a brand-new — and rather surprising — tax reform package now pending. We explore it below.
A technical note: We’ve just switched to a new email delivery service for Too Much, and a transition snafu left some readers missing our last two issues. Our apologies! Please check our Too Much archive for all past issues. Thank you!
|GREED AT A GLANCE|
|Airlines chasing after well-heeled flyers are now offering a goodie that goes far beyond king crab and Grande Cuvee: plenty of distance from the peasants who have to fly coach. To give first-classers “an almost private jet-like experience,” airlines like United and Delta have set up first-class only private airport suites and now drive high-end passengers from one gate to another in luxury cars. Lufthansa has an entire special first-class terminal in Frankfurt. Gulf Air continues the extra-special treatment with on-board first-class chefs. The aroma from the fine cuisine these chefs are cooking sometimes drifts out into coach class, notes air travel expert Henry Harteveldt, just another reminder to squeezed coach passengers how “unimportant as a traveler” the airline considers them to be . . .
The latest trend in luxury real estate: “iceberg extensions.” Global billionaires are thinking iceberg, reporter Patrick Gower observed last week, because the mansions they covet in neighborhoods like London’s Knightsbridge simply “lack the space and amenities the richest homeowners expect.” So those rich are digging deep into their pockets — and underground — to expand regal homes with multi-floor giant basements. London’s current iceberg king: telecom magnate John Caudwell. He recently won approval for an underground extension that will connect his two Mayfair manses. The 10,000 square-foot extension — four times the size of a typical U.S. home — will boast a games room, plant room, media room, kitchen, pool, sauna, and car lift. His new digs, realtors are estimating, will be worth $250 million . . .
Have communists seized the International Monetary Fund, modern capitalism’s go-to institution for enforcing market “discipline”? Policy wonk Howard Schneider raised that tongue-in-cheek possibility in the Washington Post last week after the IMF released a “staff discussion note” that skewers conservative orthodoxy on taxing the rich. Such taxes, this orthodoxy holds, turn economies into sluggish basket cases. But the new IMF research — the first ever to incorporate pre- and post-tax data from a broad swatch of nations — concludes that taxing the rich has a “generally benign” impact. The new IMF findings, says one Canadian analysis, will boost policy makers “who regard high levels of income inequality as not only a moral stain on society but also economically unsound.”
Quote of the Week
“I consider income inequality the most dangerous part of what’s going on in the United States. You can see the deteriorating impact of that on our current political system, and you cannot talk about politics without talking about its impact on the economy.”
|PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK|
|The CEO of a luxury company that markets $800 sequined dresses and $250 clutches believes that America’s 99 percent should stop bellyaching about the 1 percent — and realize that they’re wealthy, too. Enough “woe is me, woe is us,” Nicole Miller CEO Bud Konheim exclaimed on CNBC last month. Insisted the chief exec: “We’ve got a country that the poverty level is wealth in 99 percent of the rest of the world.” Someone making $35,000 year, added Konheim, “the guy is wealthy” in “China, anyplace.” Konheim’s tirade, says the Yale business school’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, “shrieks of insensitivity and grandiosity.” Serendipity, Sonnenfeld goes on, figures in every CEO’s individual success. One percenters like Konheim need “to have the humility to recognize that.”||
|IMAGES OF INEQUALITY|
Carson the butler and all the rest of the servants in the 1920s Britain the hit TV series Downton Abbey so vividly portrays lived in a society slightly “less unequal” than today’s United States, says economist Peter Lindert, the author of a new National Bureau of Economic Research study. Adds MarketWatch analyst Brett Arends: “Half of our country are just like Daisy the kitchen maid or Thomas the scheming footman a hundred years ago. They basically have nothing.”
Compare Your Country/ Are Americans overtaxed? You can use this interactive OECD online tool to compare actual tax burdens, on everything from personal income to corporate profits, for any developed nations.
|PROGRESS AND PROMISE|
|Fix the Debt, the faux “grassroots” lobby, is “shedding staff and going into hibernation,” in a major defeat, says Institute for Policy Studies analyst Sarah Anderson, for the corporate CEOs behind it. Fix the Debt began arguing two years ago that only tax breaks for business and cuts to Social Security could ensure “our economic survival.” But think tanks like IPS revealed that Fix the Debt CEOs were using tax havens to avoid billions in corporate taxes — and sitting on personal pension windfalls. Real grassroots groups like National People’s Action then highlighted Fix the Debt’s core hypocrisy at anti-austerity protests the nation over. Says Anderson: “Through creative jujitsu, non-moneyed interests can turn extreme wealth and privilege into an extreme liability.”||
From Ghent in Belgium to California’s Santa Rosa, citizens worldwide are organizing “Sharefests” to kickstart local sharing efforts. Learn more and launch a Sharefest in your community.
|inequality by the numbers|
Stat of the Week
The top exec at private equity powerhouse Apollo Global, Leon Black, collected $369 million in dividends in 2013 from the Apollo stock he owns. Over the course of last year, notes Bloomberg News, Black took in from his dividends “every 21 minutes what a worker on the federal minimum wage earns in a year.”
A Tax Turnabout in the Ranks of the Right
A prominent conservative in Congress has released a tax reform package that actually will not leave the rich significantly richer. Should we be grateful for small blessings — or suspicious? Or both?
The two cousins who run the private equity giant KKR, required disclosures revealed last week, together took home an astounding $327 million in 2013.
Even more astounding: Analysts expect that the top execs at two of KKR’s biggest private equity rivals, Leon Black of Apollo Global and Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group, will end up with considerably bigger 2013 windfalls than KKR cousins Henry Kravis and George Roberts.
The three biggest players at the Carlyle Group already have. William Conway Jr., David Rubenstein, and Daniel D’Aniello, news reports indicated last Thursday, will split $750 million for their 2013 private equity “labors.”
A hefty chunk of all these outrageously lush private equity windfalls comes via “carried interest,” Wall Street-speak for the cut that financial fund kingpins take on the profits they make on the money they invest for their investors.
Kravis and Roberts each pulled in $43.3 million in carried interest last year. Uncle Sam won’t get much of that. Taxpayers with carried interest income enjoy one of the most generous loopholes in the entire federal tax code.
Thanks to this convenient loophole, private equity wheelers and dealers face just a 23.38 percent federal tax on their tens of millions in carried interest, a rate well off the 39.6 percent rate on ordinary income over $450,000.
In other words, on every $10 million in carried interest that private equity and hedge fund masters of the universe collect, the carried interest loophole saves them over $1.6 million in taxes.
Will this situation ever change? Maybe. A surprising new “change agent” has just emerged. Representative Dave Camp, the Republican chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, last week proposed a tax reform package that would repeal the carried interest loophole.
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This same package includes a variety of other moves that progressive tax justice activists have been demanding for years.
Camp’s tax plan, for instance, denies corporations tax deductions on any annual corporate executive compensation that runs over $1 million — and also calls for a special tax on the assets of too-big-to-fail banks.
All these proposals represent an abrupt and rather amazing about-face from the “no-new-taxes” orthodoxy that congressional GOP leaders have robotically mouthed over recent years. Camp even describes his proposals with phrasing that Republican lawmakers typically dismiss as pure “rich-people bashing.”
“Stop Subsidies for Excessive Compensation,” reads the title that Camp’s official summary places over his proposal to limit how much corporations get to deduct off their taxes for executive pay.
“Today,” Camp’s description for this proposal continues, “Wall Street tycoons” are receiving “compensation packages riddled with special tax-exempt treatment — courtesy of hardworking taxpayers.”
A powerful Republican going after tax loopholes near and dear to “Wall Street tycoons”? This turn of events last week had veteran Capitol Hill observers scratching their heads — and searching for the catch. They found a bunch.
Yes, the Camp proposal does go after some longstanding loopholes that have funneled huge tax savings to America’s rich. But Camp’s tax plan also lowers the top tax rate on both individual and corporate income.
The Camp tax reform package drops the top personal federal income tax rate down to 25 percent from the current 39.6 percent. A surtax he proposes does bring that top rate up to 35 percent on “certain types” of family income over $464,000. But those certain types don’t include all capital gains and dividend income, the prime source of wealth for America’s super rich.
The loophole-plugging proposals in the Camp plan, for their part, turn out to have some leaks. Camp’s limit on how much corporations can deduct for executive pay only applies to a few top executives at each corporation.
Reform legislation introduced last year by Senators Jack Reed and Richard Blumenthal, by contrast, would apply a $1 million deductibility limit to all corporate power suits.
Camp’s tax reform package, economist Dean Baker points out, also leaves untouched the tax code provision that lets corporations deduct off their taxes the interest they pay on loans, the loophole that makes private equity wheeling and dealing so fabulously lucrative in the first place.
The Camp tax plan essentially gives America’s top income-takers a free pass from higher taxes — and, as a result, will make no dent whatsoever on America’s staggering levels of income inequality.
If the Camp tax plan becomes law, the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates, tax bills for taxpayers reporting over $1 million in income will actually fall slightly in 2015.
Affluents in the $200,000-to-$1 million per year income range, interestingly, figure to see a slight increase in their tax burden.
Should these affluents on the outside of the top 0.1 percent looking in be worrying about the Camp plan actually becoming law? Probably not. Both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders are declaring that Camp’s tax package has zilch chance of passage any time soon.
So why pay the Camp plan any attention at all?
One reason: The bill reflects the first crack in the GOP’s stonewall against undoing tax code provisions that tilt the wealthy’s way. Senior GOP legislative heavyweights like David Camp are clearly sensing deep public anger over an economic system that privileges the rich.
Astute conservatives are realizing they can’t afford politically to keep handing Wall Street blank checks. Something, they understand, has to change — if only for show.
But show can have consequences. Conservatives can’t call for ending subsidies for carried interest and executive pay and then holler when progressives push legislation that actually sets out to accomplish these same goals.
Representative Camp has pushed open a door. Advocates for greater equality in America now need to rush in.
Roni Bar, Who’s afraid of a maximum wage? Haaretz, February 25, 2014. Not this Israeli journalist, who’d like to see CEO compensation capped as a multiple of worker pay.
Leo Gerard, The Billionaires’ Scheme to Destroy Democracy, In These Times, February 25, 2014. The Steelworkers union president on one dollar, one vote.
Mark Bittman, Rethinking Our ‘Rights’ to Dangerous Behaviors, New York Times, February 25, 2014. Let’s prevent CEOs from getting super rich off products that cause premature mortality.
Bob Lord and Emily Schwartz Greco, The Way Forward: Tax and Spend, OtherWords, February 26, 2014. A strategy to reduce joblessness and inequality.
Dean Baker, Washington Post Complains that Bill Gates’ Riches Come at the Expense of Everyone Else, CEPR, February 26, 2014. Actually, this leading economist points out, the Post has once again done the reverse, blaming public workers for fiscal problems the 1 percent create.
Simone Pathe, A new study: How overpaid CEOs tank their firms, PBS NewsHour, February 26, 2014. CEOs who receive higher incentive pay display overconfident behavior, taking risks that undercut future returns.
Robin Hayes, Why Ivy League Schools Are So Bad at Economic Diversity, Atlantic, February 27, 2014. Elite schools should not be asking, “Why do we have so few low-income kids?” but “How do we have so many wealthy ones?”
David Ferguson, Bill Maher wants to give self-pitying billionaires something real to cry about, Raw Story, March 1, 2014. Like FDR’s 1942 proposal for a maximum wage.
James Surowiecki, The Mobility Myth, New Yorker, March 3, 2014. Why we need more talk about redistribution.
“Make room for The Rich Don’t Always Win on your book shelf right next to Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of America.”
|NEW AND notable|
The Best Look Yet at Corporate Welfare?
Phil Mattera, Subsidizing the Corporate One Percent, Good Jobs First, February 2014.
The good folks at Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, have been tracking the subsidies that state and local governments shell out to businesses — in the name of “job creation” — ever since 1998.
That hasn’t been easy. States and localities love to hand out our tax dollars to business. They don’t particularly enjoy keeping good — or even any — records on what those subsidy dollars actually achieve. So Good Jobs First has had to develop its own “Subsidy Tracker” database.
Findings from this database’s latest iteration appear in this new report, a stunning study that David Cay Johnston, the nation’s premiere tax journalist, is calling the “most thorough analysis to date of corporate welfare.”
America’s largest corporations, the new Good Jobs First study shows, are receiving the bulk of the subsidies that states and localities distribute. Fortune 500 companies alone have received $63 billion in handouts over the last two decades. And almost all the big names of Corporate America — from Boeing and IBM to Alcoa and Google — have been collecting our tax dollars.
Average Americans, in effect, have been directly subsidizing companies that need no subsidizing. Those excessive paychecks that go to the CEOs of these companies? Our tax dollars are pumping them up ever higher.
What can we do? We clearly need more transparency. Lawmakers need to require full and detailed disclosure of all the subsidies corporations are receiving.
The next step? We could make sure that any subsidies that do go out support jobs for average Americans and not paychecks for rich ones. We could — and we should — deny subsidies to any corporations that pay their top executives over 10 or 25 or even 100 times what they pay their top executives.
American CEOs in 2012 took home 354 times average worker pay.
Last week, in Washington, D.C., representatives from the AFL-CIO, America’s labor center, and Wagemark, the new Toronto-based campaign for wage decency, joined to discuss — you can watch the video here — how campaigns that leverage pay ratios could help change the face of our modern economies.
Let’s start that changing soon.
Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/jeanbaptisteparis
The following is an edited transcript of remarks given by Noam Chomsky via Skype on 4 February 2014 to a gathering of members and allies of the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, PA. The transcript was prepared by Robin J. Sowards and edited by Prof. Chomsky.On hiring faculty off the tenure track
That’s part of the business model. It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Wal-Mart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line. The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities. The idea is to divide society into two groups. One group is sometimes called the “plutonomy” (a term used by Citibank when they were advising their investors on where to invest their funds), the top sector of wealth, globally but concentrated mostly in places like the United States. The other group, the rest of the population, is a “precariat,” living a precarious existence.
This idea is sometimes made quite overt. So when Alan Greenspan was testifying before Congress in 1997 on the marvels of the economy he was running, he said straight out that one of the bases for its economic success was imposing what he called “greater worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations’ economic health. At the time, everyone regarded Greenspan’s comment as very reasonable, judging by the lack of reaction and the great acclaim he enjoyed. Well, transfer that to the universities: how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”? Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more. That’s the way you keep societies efficient and healthy from the point of view of the corporations. And as universities move towards a corporate business model, precarity is exactly what is being imposed. And we’ll see more and more of it.
That’s one aspect, but there are other aspects which are also quite familiar from private industry, namely a large increase in layers of administration and bureaucracy. If you have to control people, you have to have an administrative force that does it. So in US industry even more than elsewhere, there’s layer after layer of management—a kind of economic waste, but useful for control and domination. And the same is true in universities. In the past 30 or 40 years, there’s been a very sharp increase in the proportion of administrators to faculty and students; faculty and students levels have stayed fairly level relative to one another, but the proportion of administrators have gone way up. There’s a very good book on it by a well-known sociologist, Benjamin Ginsberg, called The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011), which describes in detail the business style of massive administration and levels of administration—and of course, very highly-paid administrators. This includes professional administrators like deans, for example, who used to be faculty members who took off for a couple of years to serve in an administrative capacity and then go back to the faculty; now they’re mostly professionals, who then have to hire sub-deans, and secretaries, and so on and so forth, a whole proliferation of structure that goes along with administrators. All of that is another aspect of the business model.
But using cheap labor—and vulnerable labor—is a business practice that goes as far back as you can trace private enterprise, and unions emerged in response. In the universities, cheap, vulnerable labor means adjuncts and graduate students. Graduate students are even more vulnerable, for obvious reasons. The idea is to transfer instruction to precarious workers, which improves discipline and control but also enables the transfer of funds to other purposes apart from education. The costs, of course, are borne by the students and by the people who are being drawn into these vulnerable occupations. But it’s a standard feature of a business-run society to transfer costs to the people. In fact, economists tacitly cooperate in this. So, for example, suppose you find a mistake in your checking account and you call the bank to try to fix it. Well, you know what happens. You call them up, and you get a recorded message saying “We love you, here’s a menu.” Maybe the menu has what you’re looking for, maybe it doesn’t. If you happen to find the right option, you listen to some music, and every once and a while a voice comes in and says “Please stand by, we really appreciate your business,” and so on. Finally, after some period of time, you may get a human being, who you can ask a short question to. That’s what economists call “efficiency.” By economic measures, that system reduces labor costs to the bank; of course it imposes costs on you, and those costs are multiplied by the number of users, which can be enormous—but that’s not counted as a cost in economic calculation. And if you look over the way the society works, you find this everywhere. So the university imposes costs on students and on faculty who are not only untenured but are maintained on a path that guarantees that they will have no security. All of this is perfectly natural within corporate business models. It’s harmful to education, but education is not their goal.
In fact, if you look back farther, it goes even deeper than that. If you go back to the early 1970s when a lot of this began, there was a lot of concern pretty much across the political spectrum over the activism of the 1960s; it’s commonly called “the time of troubles.” It was a “time of troubles” because the country was getting civilized, and that’s dangerous. People were becoming politically engaged and were trying to gain rights for groups that are called “special interests,” like women, working people, farmers, the young, the old, and so on. That led to a serious backlash, which was pretty overt. At the liberal end of the spectrum, there’s a book called The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, Joji Watanuki (New York University Press, 1975), produced by the Trilateral Commission, an organization of liberal internationalists. The Carter administration was drawn almost entirely from their ranks. They were concerned with what they called “the crisis of democracy,” namely that there’s too much democracy. In the 1960s there were pressures from the population, these “special interests,” to try to gain rights within the political arena, and that put too much pressure on the state—you can’t do that. There was one special interest that they left out, namely the corporate sector, because its interests are the “national interest”; the corporate sector is supposed to control the state, so we don’t talk about them. But the “special interests” were causing problems and they said “we have to have more moderation in democracy,” the public has to go back to being passive and apathetic. And they were particularly concerned with schools and universities, which they said were not properly doing their job of “indoctrinating the young.” You can see from student activism (the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movements) that the young are just not being indoctrinated properly.
Well how do you indoctrinate the young? There are a number of ways. One way is to burden them with hopelessly heavy tuition debt. Debt is a trap, especially student debt, which is enormous, far larger than credit card debt. It’s a trap for the rest of your life because the laws are designed so that you can’t get out of it. If a business, say, gets in too much debt it can declare bankruptcy, but individuals can almost never be relieved of student debt through bankruptcy. They can even garnish social security if you default. That’s a disciplinary technique. I don’t say that it was consciously introduced for the purpose, but it certainly has that effect. And it’s hard to argue that there’s any economic basis for it. Just take a look around the world: higher education is mostly free. In the countries with the highest education standards, let’s say Finland, which is at the top all the time, higher education is free. And in a rich, successful capitalist country like Germany, it’s free. In Mexico, a poor country, which has pretty decent education standards, considering the economic difficulties they face, it’s free. In fact, look at the United States: if you go back to the 1940s and 50s, higher education was pretty close to free. The GI Bill gave free education to vast numbers of people who would never have been able to go to college. It was very good for them and it was very good for the economy and the society; it was part of the reason for the high economic growth rate. Even in private colleges, education was pretty close to free. Take me: I went to college in 1945 at an Ivy League university, University of Pennsylvania, and tuition was $100. That would be maybe $800 in today’s dollars. And it was very easy to get a scholarship, so you could live at home, work, and go to school and it didn’t cost you anything. Now it’s outrageous. I have grandchildren in college, who have to pay for their tuition and work and it’s almost impossible. For the students that is a disciplinary technique.
And another technique of indoctrination is to cut back faculty-student contact: large classes, temporary teachers who are overburdened, who can barely survive on an adjunct salary. And since you don’t have any job security you can’t build up a career, you can’t move on and get more. These are all techniques of discipline, indoctrination, and control. And it’s very similar to what you’d expect in a factory, where factory workers have to be disciplined, to be obedient; they’re not supposed to play a role in, say, organizing production or determining how the workplace functions—that’s the job of management. This is now carried over to the universities. And I think it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has any experience in private enterprise, in industry; that’s the way they work.
On how higher education ought to be
First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory.
These are not radical ideas, I should say. They come straight out of classical liberalism. So if you read, for example, John Stuart Mill, a major figure in the classical liberal tradition, he took it for granted that workplaces ought to be managed and controlled by the people who work in them—that’s freedom and democracy (see, e.g., John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, book 4, ch. 7). We see the same ideas in the United States. Let’s say you go back to the Knights of Labor; one of their stated aims was “To establish co-operative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage-system, by the introduction of a co-operative industrial system” (“Founding Ceremony” for newly-organized Local Associations). Or take someone like, John Dewey, a mainstream 20th-century social philosopher, who called not only for education directed at creative independence in schools, but also worker control in industry, what he called “industrial democracy.” He says that as long as the crucial institutions of the society (like production, commerce, transportation, media) are not under democratic control, then “politics [will be] the shadow cast on society by big business” (John Dewey, “The Need for a New Party”). This idea is almost elementary, it has deep roots in American history and in classical liberalism, it should be second nature to working people, and it should apply the same way to universities. There are some decisions in a university where you don’t want to have [democratic transparency because] you have to preserve student privacy, say, and there are various kinds of sensitive issues, but on much of the normal activity of the university, there is no reason why direct participation can’t be not only legitimate but helpful. In my department, for example, for 40 years we’ve had student representatives helpfully participating in department meetings.
On “shared governance” and worker control
The university is probably the social institution in our society that comes closest to democratic worker control. Within a department, for example, it’s pretty normal for at least the tenured faculty to be able to determine a substantial amount of what their work is like: what they’re going to teach, when they’re going to teach, what the curriculum will be. And most of the decisions about the actual work that the faculty is doing are pretty much under tenured faculty control. Now of course there is a higher level of administrators that you can’t overrule or control. The faculty can recommend somebody for tenure, let’s say, and be turned down by the deans, or the president, or even the trustees or legislators. It doesn’t happen all that often, but it can happen and it does. And that’s always a part of the background structure, which, although it always existed, was much less of a problem in the days when the administration was drawn from the faculty and in principle recallable. Under representative systems, you have to have someone doing administrative work but they should be recallable at some point under the authority of the people they administer. That’s less and less true. There are more and more professional administrators, layer after layer of them, with more and more positions being taken remote from the faculty controls. I mentioned before The Fall of the Faculty by Benjamin Ginsberg, which goes into a lot of detail as to how this works in the several universities he looks at closely: Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and a couple of others.
Meanwhile, the faculty are increasingly reduced to a category of temporary workers who are assured a precarious existence with no path to the tenure track. I have personal acquaintances who are effectively permanent lecturers; they’re not given real faculty status; they have to apply every year so that they can get appointed again. These things shouldn’t be allowed to happen. And in the case of adjuncts, it’s been institutionalized: they’re not permitted to be a part of the decision-making apparatus, and they’re excluded from job security, which merely amplifies the problem. I think staff ought to also be integrated into decision-making, since they’re also a part of the university. So there’s plenty to do, but I think we can easily understand why these tendencies are developing. They are all part of imposing a business model on just about every aspect of life. That’s the neoliberal ideology that most of the world has been living under for 40 years. It’s very harmful to people, and there has been resistance to it. And it’s worth noticing that two parts of the world, at least, have pretty much escaped from it, namely East Asia, where they never really accepted it, and South America in the past 15 years.
On the alleged need for “flexibility”
“Flexibility” is a term that’s very familiar to workers in industry. Part of what’s called “labor reform” is to make labor more “flexible,” make it easier to hire and fire people. That’s, again, a way to ensure maximization of profit and control. “Flexibility” is supposed to be a good thing, like “greater worker insecurity.” Putting aside industry where the same is true, in universities there’s no justification. So take a case where there’s under-enrollment somewhere. That’s not a big problem. One of my daughters teaches at a university; she just called me the other night and told me that her teaching load is being shifted because one of the courses that was being offered was under-enrolled. Okay, the world didn’t to an end, they just shifted around the teaching arrangements—you teach a different course, or an extra section, or something like that. People don’t have to be thrown out or be insecure because of the variation in the number of students enrolling in courses. There are all sorts of ways of adjusting for that variation. The idea that labor should meet the conditions of “flexibility” is just another standard technique of control and domination. Why not say that administrators should be thrown out if there’s nothing for them to do that semester, or trustees—what do they have to be there for? The situation is the same with top management in industry: if labor has to be flexible, how about management? Most of them are pretty useless or even harmful anyway, so let’s get rid of them. And you can go on like this. Just to take the news from the last couple of days, take, say, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase bank: he just got a prettysubstantial raise, almost double his salary, out of gratitude because he had saved the bank from criminal charges that would have sent the management to jail; he got away with only $20 billion in fines for criminal activities. Well I can imagine that getting rid of somebody like that might be helpful to the economy. But that’s not what people are talking about when they talk about “labor reform.” It’s the working people who have to suffer, and they have to suffer by insecurity, by not knowing where tomorrow’s piece of bread is going to come from, and therefore be disciplined and obedient and not raise questions or ask for their rights. That’s the way that tyrannical systems operate. And the business world is a tyrannical system. When it’s imposed on the universities, you find it reflects the same ideas. This shouldn’t be any secret.
On the purpose of education
These are debates that go back to the Enlightenment, when issues of higher education and mass education were really being raised, not just education for the clergy and aristocracy. And there were basically two models discussed in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were discussed with pretty evocative imagery. One image of education was that it should be like a vessel that is filled with, say, water. That’s what we call these days “teaching to test”: you pour water into the vessel and then the vessel returns the water. But it’s a pretty leaky vessel, as all of us who went through school experienced, since you could memorize something for an exam that you had no interest in to pass an exam and a week later you forgot what the course was about. The vessel model these days is called “no child left behind,” “teaching to test,” “race to top,” whatever the name may be, and similar things in universities. Enlightenment thinkers opposed that model.
The other model was described as laying out a string along which the student progresses in his or her own way under his or her own initiative, maybe moving the string, maybe deciding to go somewhere else, maybe raising questions. Laying out the string means imposing some degree of structure. So an educational program, whatever it may be, a course on physics or something, isn’t going to be just anything goes; it has a certain structure. But the goal of it is for the student to acquire the capacity to inquire, to create, to innovate, to challenge—that’s education. One world-famous physicist, in his freshman courses if he was asked “what are we going to cover this semester?”, his answer was “it doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.” You have gain the capacity and the self-confidence for that matter to challenge and create and innovate, and that way you learn; that way you’ve internalized the material and you can go on. It’s not a matter of accumulating some fixed array of facts which then you can write down on a test and forget about tomorrow.
These are two quite distinct models of education. The Enlightenment ideal was the second one, and I think that’s the one that we ought to be striving towards. That’s what real education is, from kindergarten to graduate school. In fact there are programs of that kind for kindergarten, pretty good ones.
On the love of teaching
We certainly want people, both faculty and students, to be engaged in activity that’s satisfying, enjoyable, challenging, exciting—and I don’t really think that’s hard. Even young children are creative, inquisitive, they want to know things, they want to understand things, and unless that’s beaten out of your head it stays with you the rest of your life. If you have opportunities to pursue those commitments and concerns, it’s one of the most satisfying things in life. That’s true if you’re a research physicist, it’s true if you’re a carpenter; you’re trying to create something of value and deal with a difficult problem and solve it. I think that’s what makes work the kind of thing you want to do; you do it even if you don’t have to do it. In a reasonably functioning university, you find people working all the time because they love it; that’s what they want to do; they’re given the opportunity, they have the resources, they’re encouraged to be free and independent and creative—what’s better? That’s what they love to do. And that, again, can be done at any level.
It’s worth thinking about some of the imaginative and creative educational programs that are being developed at different levels. So, for example, somebody just described to me the other day a program they’re using in high schools, a science program where the students are asked an interesting question: “How can a mosquito fly in the rain?” That’s a hard question when you think about it. If something hit a human being with the force of a raindrop hitting a mosquito it would absolutely flatten them immediately. So how come the mosquito isn’t crushed instantly? And how can the mosquito keep flying? If you pursue that question—and it’s a pretty hard question—you get into questions of mathematics, physics, and biology, questions that are challenging enough that you want to find an answer to them.
That’s what education should be like at every level, all the way down to kindergarten, literally. There are kindergarten programs in which, say, each child is given a collection of little items: pebbles, shells, seeds, and things like that. Then the class is given the task of finding out which ones are the seeds. It begins with what they call a “scientific conference”: the kids talk to each other and they try to figure out which ones are seeds. And of course there’s some teacher guidance, but the idea is to have the children think it through. After a while, they try various experiments and they figure out which ones are the seeds. At that point, each child is given a magnifying glass and, with the teacher’s help, cracks a seed and looks inside and finds the embryo that makes the seed grow. These children learn something—really, not only something about seeds and what makes things grow; but also about how to discover. They’re learning the joy of discovery and creation, and that’s what carries you on independently, outside the classroom, outside the course.
The same goes for all education up through graduate school. In a reasonable graduate seminar, you don’t expect students to copy it down and repeat whatever you say; you expect them to tell you when you’re wrong or to come up with new ideas, to challenge, to pursue some direction that hadn’t been thought of before. That’s what real education is at every level, and that’s what ought to be encouraged. That ought to be the purpose of education. It’s not to pour information into somebody’s head which will then leak out but to enable them to become creative, independent people who can find excitement in discovery and creation and creativity at whatever level or in whatever domain their interests carry them.
On using corporate rhetoric against corporatization
This is kind of like asking how you should justify to the slave owner that people shouldn’t be slaves. You’re at a level of moral inquiry where it’s probably pretty hard to find answers. We are human beings with human rights. It’s good for the individual, it’s good for the society, it’s even good for the economy, in the narrow sense, if people are creative and independent and free. Everyone benefits if people are able to participate, to control their fate, to work with each other—that may not maximize profit and domination, but why should we take those to be values to be concerned about?
Advice for adjunct faculty organizing unions
You know better than I do what has to be done, the kind of problems you face. Just got ahead and do what has to be done. Don’t be intimidated, don’t be frightened, and recognize that the future can be in our hands if we’re willing to grasp it.
Prof. Chomsky’s remarks in this transcript were elicited by questions from Robin Clarke, Adam Davis, David Hoinski, Maria Somma, Robin J. Sowards, Matthew Ussia, and Joshua Zelesnick. Noam Chomsky’s OCCUPY: Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity is published by Zuccotti Park Press.
- Zoë Corbyn
- The Observer, Saturday 22 February 2014
Poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti came to San Francisco in 1951 because he heard it was a great place to be a bohemian. He settled in the Italian working-class neighbourhood of North Beach with its cheap rents and European ambience. And before long he put the city on the world’s counter-cultural map by publishing the work of Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. But despite his status as world and local literary legend, the 94-year-old co-owner of the renowned City Lights bookshop and publishing house doesn’t feel so at home in the City by the Bay anymore.
He complains of a “soulless group of people”, a “new breed” of men and women too busy with iPhones to “be here” in the moment, and shiny new Mercedes-Benzs on his street. The major art galley in central San Francisco that has shown Ferlinghetti’s work for two decades is closing because it can’t afford the new rent. It, along with several other galleries, will make way for a cloud computing startup called MuleSoft said to have offered to triple the rent. “It is totally shocking to see Silicon Valley take over the city,” says Ferlinghetti, who still rents in North Beach. “San Francisco is radically changing and we don’t know where it is going to end up.”
Until recently, San Francisco, California – a small city of around 825,000 poised on the tip of a peninsular on America’s western edge that sprang up during the 1840s gold rush – wasn’t thought of as a centre for business. Rather, it was famed as an artistic, bohemian place with a history of flowering counter-cultures that spilled over and changed America and the world, from the beats in North Beach to the hippies in the hilly region of Haight- Ashbury to the gay rights movement in the Castro neighbourhood. Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner called it “49 square miles surrounded by reality”.
But times have changed in Ferlinghetti’s city. San Francisco has become the hype- and capital-fuelled epicentre of America’s technology industry, which has traditionally centred on the string of suburban cities known as Silicon Valley 40 miles to the south. In 2011, Mayor Ed Lee introduced tax breaks for Twitter and several other tech companies to encourage them to settle in and revitalise the downtown San Francisco neighbourhood South of Market, or Soma, and help the city climb out of the recession. Soma has become home to some of the most important companies in the new economy, such as Twitter and Dropbox, and many small startups hoping to challenge them. AngelList, a networking site for investors, now lists 5,249 tech startups in San Francisco, each worth $4.6m (£2.8m) on average and offering an average salary of $105,000 (£64,000).
In one sense, San Francisco is thriving. The unemployment rate is just 4.8%, compared to 8.3% for California as a whole. In 2013 job growth in San Francisco County led all others in the nation. But the influx of so many young, rich tech workers has caused significant tensions. Starting in mid-2011, rents and house prices began to soar. Eviction rates soon followed as property speculators sought to cash in by flipping rent-controlled apartment buildings into flats to sell. Evicted residents have found themselves unable to afford to live in their city anymore and many businesses and non-profits have been squeezed. “There is only a handful of cities in the world that have such an extreme problem of gentrification,” says Richard Walker, an urban geographer at the University of California, Berkeley.
The facts are stark. The median household income of the San Francisco Bay Area is now higher than anywhere else in America, and San Francisco has twice as many billionaires per capita as London (financial analysts PrivCo estimated that Twitter’s stock market launch in November 2013 created more than 1,600 new millionaires in a single day, mostly employees). The median monthly rent is already the highest in the country and is still increasing at a rate three times the national average. Based on official figures from the San Francisco Rent Board, the San Francisco Tenants Union estimates that no-fault evictions displaced nearly 1,400 renters in 2013. About a third of those evictions were under California’s Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants and sell their apartments. A City study from October 2013 says Ellis Act evictions increased by 170% from 2010 to 2013. There are also untold numbers who have left the area after accepting buyouts.
It isn’t as if San Francisco hasn’t seen a tech boom before. Silicon Valley’s dotcom boom of 1998 to 2001 also led to significant displacement in San Francisco. But this latest one is focused on the city and visibly changing it faster. Many long-time San Francisco residents worry not only about being forced out of the city they love, but also that their city is being changed for the worse. Critics say that San Francisco’s communities of alternative culture, ethnic or otherwise – the soil of its creative mojo and legendary social movements – are being turned into playgrounds for rich people. If San Francisco’s soul is its social and economic diversity and status as a refuge for those outside the mainstream, then it is being lost.
Artist Zeph Fishlyn, aged 47, came to San Francisco in 1988 and settled in the working-class Hispanic Mission District, drawn by the large lesbian community there. In late 2012 she and 16 other artists who were part of the Million Fishes Art Collective were kicked out of the studio space they had lived and worked in for almost a decade. Rents have soared in the Mission, which is conveniently located for the freeways to Silicon Valley and has become a fashionable place to live. A new landlord had bought the building and, citing non-compliance with zoning laws, kicked them out.
Unable to afford to stay in San Francisco, Fishlyn moved east across the bay to Oakland, where the burgeoning art and activism scene is buoyed by a steady flow of economic refugees. “Anybody spending their time doing something that doesn’t come with a big pay cheque is having to move,” says Fishlyn, “and that includes the creative sector and any kind of social justice work.” So many creative types have relocated to Oakland that Oakland’s mayor, Jean Quan, recently likened the city to Brooklyn (San Francisco was Manhattan); San Francisco-based street artist Eclair Bandersnatch, whose stencil portrait of Edward Snowden recently featured in the Guardian, says so many of her friends have moved away that she feels like an anomaly. The irony, she notes, is that “with money you get people who are more into the arts”.
The Mission and Ferlinghetti’s North Beach are “ground zero” for gentrification, says Ted Gullickson, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union. Others have already been subsumed including, he says, the Castro district, the world famous “gayborhood” synonymous with progressive hero Harvey Milk. The area was hit badly by evictions in the first dotcom boom, he says, and has been finished off by the latest tech surge. “It is more homeowner and much straighter, much whiter and much more conservative.” In late 2012, the elected representative of the Castro introduced a measure to ban public nudity outside of festivals in San Francisco – despite, or perhaps because of, male nudity being commonplace in the Castro for decades.
There are others who see what is happening in San Francisco in a different light. Fred Turner, an American cultural history professor at Stanford University, argues that gentrification driven by white, middle-class newcomers to the city is nothing new, and has even underpinned its famous counter-culture movements. The arrival of the bohemians in North Beach began the displacement of the working-class Italians; the arrival of the hippies in Haight-Ashbury displaced some of the long-standing working-class residents; and the Castro had a large working-class Irish population before it became a gay mecca. The latest incarnation – digital workers displacing working-class Latinos and artists from the Mission District who themselves were already gentrifying it – is not radically different. “Nearly everything that is said about them – the taking of public resources, the pushing out of poor folks and different ethnic minorities – was said about the hippies of the 1960s and not without good reason,” says Turner.
In his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, he even argues that today’s tech culture is a direct descendant of the hippy movement. The techies are far richer and aren’t a counter-culture, but like some hippies they have the same sense of social mission to transform the world for the better with technology. Likewise the way that tech culture mixes work and play and emphasises personal growth has echoes of hippy life. “The same logic that was driving the counter-culture – and that continues to drive much of San Francisco today – is the very logic that drives Google,” says Turner. “In a limited sense, the 1960s are turning around to bite San Francisco.”
Stewart Brand, who personified the link between San Francisco’s 60s flower power and the emerging technological hub of Silicon Valley, lives on a houseboat in Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge. He is watching with pleasure as the tech boom enfolds San Francisco. Now 75, Brand came to the Bay Area in 1956 and became famous for publishing the counter-cultural bible the Whole Earth Catalog which recommended the tools, technology and attitudes hippies would need to advance themselves and society as a whole.
As Brand sees it, history is being made again in the city. There is the suburban version of Bay Area cyber-business and there is a new urban version being created in San Francisco. “Market Street has been this sleepy dead street for a long time,” says Brand, referring to the thoroughfare that bounds Soma. “Well, it is lively and exciting again now, thanks to the tech guys… A creative form is a creative form.” Brand is convinced that the injection of so many young people with technical skills, money to play with and no family ties will spawn new ideas in San Francisco, a well-heeled, much needed creative renaissance.
He has little sympathy for those displaced along the way. San Francisco is a small corner of the Bay Area, he points out, and the rest still has significant economic diversity. Even if San Francisco becomes a Manhattan-like redoubt of the rich, the area as a whole will see benefits. “One side effect of this may well be that Oakland, which is pretty damn interesting, becomes even more interesting.”
Curiosity drew Zeph Fishlyn back to Million Fishes’s old building last year. She found it occupied by a startup called Bloodhound that had moved in mid-2013 and was paying two and a half times the old rent. The company designs apps to make exchanging contact details with people easier in work situations. Its founder and CEO is Anthony Krumeich, a 27-year-old dropout from Stanford University’s Symbolic Systems course, which has produced senior executives for companies such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn. On Twitter, he describes himself as: “Inventor, dog owner, free and present thinker, entrepreneur, drop-out, sailor.”
Originally from suburban New York, Krumeich has curly hair, thick-rimmed glasses and wears a plaid shirt – standard urban hipster uniform. He arrived in San Francisco in late 2010, after a couple of years trying to get Bloodhound going in Silicon Valley. The company now has 15 employees and nearly $5m in investment funding including from Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and the first investor in Facebook. Bloodhound has revenues but not profits and Krumeich moved his company to the Mission from Soma in search of lower rents and some soul. The office’s aesthetic is white space, wood and large Apple computers. It overflows with signs of a start-up culture – there are also soft furnishings, a table-tennis table and a copy of the tech entrepreneurs‘ bible The Lean Start-up. Employees who commit to not driving get a custom-made bike from a local bike shop and three days a week a chef cooks the office a wheat- and dairy-free lunch.
Krumeich and I walk the one block to Lower 24th Street, San Francisco’s most vibrant centre of Hispanic culture and commerce. It has the highest concentration of Latino businesses in the city, an eclectic mixture of speciality stores, Mexican bakeries, grocers and butchers. But 24th Street is in transition. High-end coffee shops and restaurants are poking in, along with a fashionable Jewish deli selling $13 sandwiches. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who has a second home in the Mission, has been spotted there.
Krumeich is busy with the kind of project that Brand claims will define San Francisco’s future. Inspired by the housing crisis, he and his companion – a Boxer dog – have just moved into what he calls an “alternative living situation”, a shipping container on a flatbed truck. Krumeich is converting it into an off-grid, mobile living space that he says will be self-sustaining in its finished form. Solar panels provide electricity and a system of plants is to be used to recycle grey water. He thinks more mobile living might be the future.
But unlike Brand, Krumeich believes new San Francisco doesn’t have to eradicate the old. The big ground-floor windows of his office are currently exhibiting canvases painted by an Oakland-based artist. A couple of weeks ago he held his first “artists’ showcase”, where he opened the doors to passers-by and had various local artists show their work – and he is thinking about a new kind of app to connect artists with potential buyers.
All this was inspired by finding out that Million Fishes had been in the space before, courtesy of Fishlyn. “They had an interesting place,” he says, and while he is determined not to suffer from “tech guilt” he is thinking about the role he can play in his community. “I don’t have a lot of preconceived notions about how this should work, but I am just going to start from: I care about other people; I am trying to do interesting and good things; I would like my presence here to be a contribution.”
That kind of tech-led mission might be possible, but perhaps first an endangered species needs to be saved from extinction. Since late 2013, neighbourhood marches and blockades against Google’s commuter buses have captured local, national and international attention. Tenant and neighbourhood organisations are working on proposals to be taken to San Francisco voters in November – suggestions include a moratorium on no-fault evictions. In January, the mayor responded to the growing pressure, urging people to stop demonising tech workers while announcing a seven-point housing plan which includes a target of 30,000 new homes by 2020, at least a third of which will be affordable. More immediately, he plans to try to reform the state’s Ellis Act.
The San Francisco peninsular is where the world’s new dominant industry – information technology – is most concentrated. Its tensions between highly paid tech workers and the communities that came before them may be a preview for other places. “What happens here may well happen in similar ways elsewhere, such as the emerging tech zones in London and Berlin,” says Turner. “San Francisco is a canary in a coal mine.” What reinvented San Francisco will look like when the dust settles is difficult to predict. But the nature of urbanity is that people packed in together do encounter each other and discover history and traditions. “Cities are more resilient than you might think,” says Richard Walker. It’s unlikely to be all doom for old San Francisco.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for one, is still convinced that the San Francisco he knows ultimately can’t be engulfed by Silicon Valley, seeing too strong a connection to its geography, with water on three sides. “It still has an island mentality,” he says. “At nearly 95, all I can say is good luck!”