Disaster capitalism is a permanent state of life for too many Americans

According to the Department of Homeless Services, the number of homeless people in New York City has risen by more than 20,000 over the past five years. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the United States, disaster has become our most common mode of life. Proof that our daily existence was something other than a simmering, smoldering disaster has been historically held somewhat at bay by the myth that hard work equals some kind of subsistence living. For the more deluded amongst us, this ‘American dream’ even got us to believe we could be something called ‘middle class’. We were deceived.

For those not yet woke, I don’t see how y’all can stay asleep when story after story proves how screwed we are.

The New York Post, no bastion of bleeding heart liberalism, reported on Monday that “Hundreds of full-time city workers are homeless”. These are people who clean our trash and make our city, the heart of American capitalism, safe and livable, including for those who plunder the globe from Wall Street. These are men and women, living in shelters and out of their cars, who have government jobs – the kind of workers conservatives love to paint as greedy, gluttonous pigs.

When a full time government worker can’t “find four walls and a roof to call his own” in the city he serves, we are living in a perpetual state of disaster capitalism.

Across the country, the San Francisco Chronicle told the tale of the “Tech bus drivers forced to live in cars to make ends meet”. It’s arguable whether living in your car can really be considered “making ends meet”, but what can you expect of a newspaper serving a city where tech is supposed to answer all of our needs. Where housing is even more stupidly expensive than in New York City.

This, too, is perpetual disaster capitalism, creating havoc and inflicting disaster upon individual souls for corporate greed without even needing the pretense of a crisis for an excuse.

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein defined “disaster capitalism” as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting marketing opportunities”. She was riffing on neoconservatives using Hurricane Katrina as an excuse for a New Orleans land grab. She witnessed the same phenomenon in the 2004 Asian Tsunami and in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq.

The concept of public plunder after disaster has been embraced in similar linguistic terms by Democrats and Republicans alike. Condoleezza Rice famouslycalled 9/11 an “enormous opportunity”, and indeed it was a profitable one, for war contractors anyway. Similarly, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before”. Emanuel was good to his word. While American workers lost their jobs, lost their homes and even took their own lives as a result of the 2008 financial meltdown, the Obama White House instituted financial “reforms” that arrested no Wall Street executives, and left even Forbes predicting “ten reasons why there will be another systematic financial crisis”.

When our daily life is one of a state of chaos – and with hundreds slaughtered by police annually, and folks who work full time unable to stave off homelessness, and white anchors shot on live TV, and black worshippers shot up in church, and incarcerated victims behind bars “taking their own lives” daily, it’s hard to say that it’s not – the continuous state of disaster justifies disaster capitalism continuously, and we’re barely able to notice it, and powerless to stop it.

We live in such an interminable state of disaster, we barely see the locusts for the plague. Take the other major sad story this week: that Silicon Valley investor Martin Shkrelli has bought the drug Daraprim, raising its price 5,000%. No crisis necessitated this increase. The drug is 62 years old, and its initial costs had long ago been absorbed.

It’s easy to be angry at Shkrelli, his smug smile and his greedy choices that may well equal the deaths of those priced out from the malaria, Aids and cancer medicine they need. But Shkrelli is just a tool. He lives in a world where disaster capitalism will reward him. He now says he will make the drug “more affordable,” but the richest nation on earth can’t stop him from deciding what “affordable” will mean. He may repulse us, but he represents our American way of disastrous living. Disaster capitalism no longer just reacts to chaos for profit, or even creates chaos for profit. It creates the conditions by which the spectre of social, spiritual and biological death hang over our heads on a daily basis so oppressively, the crises become seamless.

And it asks us to accept that when you work full time driving workers to the richest corporation in the history of the human race and must live in your car, you should be grateful that you’re “making ends meet”, keep calm and carry on.


Is Gentrification a Human-Rights Violation?


A Brooklyn-based group is arguing that the displacement of longtime residents meets a definition conceived by the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II.

No one will be surprised to learn that the campaign to build a national movement against gentrification is being waged out of an office in Brooklyn, New York.

For years, the borough’s name has been virtually synonymous with gentrification, and on no street in Brooklyn are its effects more evident than on Atlantic Avenue, where, earlier this summer, a local bodega protesting its impending departure in the face of a rent hike, put up sarcastic window signs advertising  “Bushwick baked vegan cat food” and “artisanal roach bombs.”

Just down the block from that bodega are the headquarters of Right to the City, a national alliance of community-based organizations that since 2007 has made it its mission to fight “gentrification and the displacement of low-income people of color.” For too long, organizers with the alliance say, people who otherwise profess concern for the poor have tended  to view gentrification as a mere annoyance, as though its harmful effects extended no further than the hassles of putting up with pretentious baristas and overpriced lattes. Changing this perception is the first order of business for Right to the City: Gentrification, as these organizers see it, is a human-rights violation.

Gentrification, human rights—these are broad terms for complicated ideas.  To understand how these activists could claim that the manifestation of the former is a violation of the latter, it’s helpful to consider the history of both. The modern concept of human rights took shape in the years immediately after World War II, when world leaders came together to devise a doctrine that would serve as a legal and intellectual buttress against another Holocaust. In 1948, at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document identifies several universal rights, including education, healthcare, and freedom from torture. Nowhere, though, does it say anything about gentrification.

Nor could it have. That term didn’t come into use until nearly two decades later, when Ruth Glass, a British sociologist, coined it to describe the growing phenomenon of young bohemians moving into a section of London that had fallen into neglect and disrepair. At the time, there was a theory that gentrification was a natural process that inevitably played out when artists and other adventurous types struck out for the urban frontier. Later in the decade, that perception changed, and this boundary-pushing came to be viewed as the result of some larger forces. As Neil Smith, the late influential geographer, put it in Gentrification of the City, a 1986 collection of essays, “It is apparent that where urban pioneers venture, the banks, real-estate companies, the state, or other collective economic actors have generally gone before.”

Smith’s work is an important touchstone for the members of Right to the City, who view gentrification as the result of a “systemic” effort to drive up profit margins for real-estate developers. Through rezonings, tax abatements for developers, and the privatization of public spaces, local governments and federal agencies often work to change low-income neighborhoods at the encouragement of developers, they argue.

It is the resulting displacement of people who can’t afford increased rents that, in the eyes of these activists, amounts to a human-rights violation. (Homeowners, at least economically, stand to gain from the changes, since their property values often rise as a result.) Drawing on Le droit à la ville, a 1968 work by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre whose title translates to “The Right to the City,” the organization argues that all people, including the disenfranchised, have the right to remain in their apartments and homes and shape the political and cultural landscapes of their communities. The UN Declaration of Human Rights alreadyasserts that everyone has the right to be protected against “interference with his… home.” Lenina Nadal, the communications director for Right to the City, says the group hopes to build on this idea. “It is an ideal time to  expand the idea that inhabitants not only have a right to their home, a decent, sustainable home,” she said, “but also to the community they created in their city.”

At first, the alliance consisted mostly of community groups from Brooklyn and other obvious magnets for wealthy young professionals, such as the Bay Area and Los Angeles. But in the past few years, it has garnered interest from places like Lexington, Kentucky, and Springfield, Massachusetts—the sorts of smaller cities where people have traditionally gone to escape the economic pressures of the Bostons and New Yorks. Right to the City promotes the idea that gentrification isn’t something limited to big cities on the coasts.

The organization is up against the fact that there isn’t even a consensus that gentrification is bad in the first place, much less bad enough to be classified as a human-rights violation. What some see as gentrification, others see as revitalization. Real-estate development, after all, often brings jobs, resources, and infrastructure improvements to neighborhoods that were previously starved of them, potentially benefiting low-income residents. In Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality, the sociologist Patrick Sharkey studied black neighborhoods that grew whiter between 1970 and 1990. “There is strong evidence that when neighborhood disadvantage declines, the economic fortunes of black youth improve,” he wrote, “and improve rather substantially.”

But what happens to those people who can’t afford to stay in these “revitalized” neighborhoods? Thomas Angotti, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, told the website Curbed that there’s a refusal in public-policy circles to “incorporate displacement into the analysis of the discussion.” Right to the City wants to rectify this. A report by Causa Justa, a San Francisco-based community group and a member of the alliance, found that the separation of low-income families from their communities can result in higher transportation costs, the loss of jobs and income, and, for children, a decline in school performance—in other words, a compounding of the problems that cause people to live in poor neighborhoods in the first place.

Right to the City is organizing a series of “renters’ assemblies” in cities around the country, with the ultimate hope of building support for policies that protect low-income renters, particularly renters of color, from getting priced out of their communities. It is one way that the organization is trying to influence the national discourse about gentrification, much like the Occupy movement did for income inequality and #blacklivesmatter did for race and policing.



Brentwood Parade 7


For me the 4th is always associated with happy memories I have of the holiday in my home town of Brentwood, PA.  As my disenchantment with San Francisco’s technotopia grows, I find myself reaching back to the community of small-town America, and on this special day the iconic Independence Day celebrations.  Those celebrations always began with the community parade and the core of that event was the appearance of the volunteer fire trucks.
The volunteer fire department is emblematic of the difference between small-town America and the big cities.  Kurt Vonnegut, himself a volunteer fireman, called volunteer firefighters “… the only examples of enthusiastic unselfishness to be seen in this land.”  Imagine.  Citizens putting themselves in harm’s way, protecting their communities, for free.  Yes.
My father was a member of Brentwood’s Volunteer Fire Department and some of my earliest memories involved riding on the big Mack Firetrucks in the 4th of July Parade as a small boy.  Norman Rockwell moments and, indeed, American was a different place back then.  Especially small-town, tight communities.  I’m really feeling the lack of caring community these days.  My neighborhood has been destroyed and I’m surrounded by cold, uncaring tech bros who come and go.  I suspect they use Ocean Beach as a kind of holding area while they look for accommodation in the Golden Mission.  La Playa has become “gasoline alley.”  Ugh.




Wishing all my readers a Happy Easter. After a bone dry winter it’s raining here on Ocean Beach in San Francisco. April showers bring May flowers. Easter, no matter what you believe, is the Spring time of hope for the future. Seeds are planted in the hope of a bountiful harvest; the Earth is reborn after the death of winter. Wishing each of you happy beginnings and fruitful outcomes.

Monster bubbles: the delayed crisis of capitalism resurfaces

By Jerome Roos On March 30, 2015

Post image for Monster bubbles: the delayed crisis of capitalism resurfaces
Seven years since the bursting of a US housing bubble led to financial meltdown, investors and policymakers are already well on their way to the next.
If there’s one lesson from the history of financial manias, panics and crashes, it’s that bankers never solve their own crises: they merely move them around, eternally passing the hot potato of impending catastrophe on to others and systematically displacing the burden of adjustment onto the weaker members of society. As a result, the way in which a particular crisis is “resolved” inevitably ends up laying the seeds for the next one. This time has been no different.
In recent months, amidst growing enthusiasm about an incipient global recovery, some investors and regulators have been starting to express their concerns over the inflation of a set of large asset bubbles spread across the world economy. Whether it’s skyrocketing property prices in London, a record-breaking bull market on Wall Street, or investors falling over themselves to lend to heavily indebted European governments and flailing energy and tech start-ups in the United States, one thing is clear: we find ourselves in the middle of yet another major speculative frenzy.This observation may seem odd to some. Aren’t we supposed to still be in the final stages of the last crisis? Why would anyone want to gamble with their capital if profitable investment opportunities are still so few and far between? Well, that’s precisely the problem: asset prices have now completely decoupled from their underlying fundamentals. In recent years, the crisis of casino capitalism has been successfully delayed through the central bank-led inflation of a new set of monster bubbles in property, stocks and bonds. While the rest of us linger in “secular stagnation,” the speculators are having a field day.

In other words: the root causes of the 2008 financial crisis were never truly resolved — policymakers simply moved around some of the symptoms (and not even all of them!). Governments bailed out insolvent banks with taxpayer money, heavily indebting themselves in the process, while central banks turned on the printing presses to pump trillions of dollars into the financial system. The result, in simple terms, has been the accumulation of a vast excess of money in the financial sector and an acute shortage of it everywhere else.

What we are dealing with, then, is a classical example of what David Harvey refers to as the capital surplus absorption problem: an excess of idle money capital lies side by side with an excess of labor power — and somehow the system can’t combine the two to bring about productive outcomes. As one banker toldthe Financial Times, “what’s really driving all this activity is the availability of capital rather than the underlying fundamentals. It just comes down to people needing to deploy capital.”

Investors have dealt with this problem in the same way that they always have: by scouring the surface of the Earth in a frantic quest for the highest possible yields. As long as demand remains low and growth stagnant, yields in so-called “productive” investments will not be very attractive for the average gambler. And so investors have been turning to the same kind of speculative high-risk/high-return bets that caused the 2008 financial meltdown to begin with.

The results have been stark. Just three years after Greece concluded the largest sovereign debt restructuring in the history of capitalism, global bond markets are back on fire. In a UK survey, almost four in five fund managers for major bond-trading firms expressed a concern that bonds are currently “more overvalued than ever before and that government bonds are the most overvalued asset class of all.” John Plender of the Financial Times accuses the ECB of directly stoking this bond bubble through quantitative easing:

Government bond markets are supposed to be sedate places, devoid of the thrills and spills that characterise equities. Not any more. Since central banks started enlarging their balance sheets sovereign bonds have become exciting to the point where investors have bought more than $2tn of them on negative yields, mainly in Europe. Even in the Depression of the 1930s interest rates never fell below zero. Is this that rare thing — a bond market bubble?

It’s not just government debt that’s booming. Last year alone, US companies issued an astonishing $1.43 billion in corporate bonds; 27 percent more than they sold at the peak of the last bubble in 2007. In fact, a reasonable argument could be made that the supposed US recovery of the past years has been based entirely on an energy bubble — which has already burst due to the oil price collapse — and an even larger tech bubble. Billionaire investor Mark Cubanrecently warned that the latter is “worse than the tech bubble of 2000” and is now on the verge of bursting as well.

When this over-excited US corporate bond market collapses, it will inevitably take the stock exchange down with it. Stock valuations have been rising steadily ever since they bottomed out, in March 2009, following the last crash. The S&P 500 has shot up an astonishing 200% since then, while the Nasdaq recently breached 5,000 points for the first time since the collapse of the Dotcom bubble. The fact that this six year bull market has coincided with the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression should suffice to give pause for thought.

Finally, with memories of the subprime mortgage crisis still fresh, investors are already expressing fears over the build-up of a new housing bubble. The Wall Street Journal points out that UK property prices are now a third above their pre-crisis peak, while property in Australia, Canada, Sweden and Norway is also massively overvalued. Cities like New York, San Francisco, Miami, London, Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam are all experiencing rising real estate prices without any real accompanying improvement in the underlying fundamentals. Even property prices in Spain and Ireland now appear to be rising again.

The conclusion is clear: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. All this time, policymakers have tinkered around the edges with half-hearted measures, but none of the structural problems have ever been addressed. Instead, governments bailed out the gamblers as central banks inflated a set of new bubbles to cushion their fall, cover the debris, and delay the final moment of reckoning. Still, down in the real world, blowing bubbles can only take you so far. Nearly seven years since the last financial meltdown, investors and policymakers are already well on their way to the next.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @JeromeRoos. This article was written for TeleSUR English.






I watched “Boyhood” last night. Didn’t think I could deal with a film running nearly three hours focused on the reality-based coming of age theme. I was, however, much impressed by the epic technical achievement the film represents, and I was deeply moved by the genuinely human intimacies shared throughout. The ending was a powerful insight into the human condition.

Got me to thinking about the values of the tech-fueled Bay Area where I live.

I really loath, truly hate, the materialistic, money-fueled tech culture that has enveloped San Francisco. And it’s not the technology per se. I’ve been using and building computers since 1985. It’s the disgusting excess and glorification of same.

Interestingly, watching “Boyhood” last night reminded me that there are other, more appealing, lifestyles and choices still available in the country. The main character in the film was not obsessed with tech. He questions the value of the ubiquitous smart phone. He works after school. Middle class. He doesn’t dream of going to Stanford or MIT, etc., to get a degree in CS and code. Hell, he wants to be an artist. He’s interested in the meaning of life. Like people I used to know in school and throughout my life. He represents my American Dream. Not this SF version with conspicuous consumption and phony hipster culture.




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,700 other followers