Street art in Černivci, Ukraine,
by artist Teck.
Photo by Teck.
31 October 2015
In an October 23 speech at the University of Chicago Law School entitled “Law Enforcement and the Communities We Serve,” FBI Director James Comey declared that “something deeply disturbing is happening all across America.”
What Comey found so disturbing was not that hundreds of unarmed people in the United States are gunned down by the police every year, and that every day in cities and towns across the country cops abuse and attack workers and young people. No, what he denounced as “deeply disturbing” was the fact that these crimes are being exposed by means of videos posted on the Internet and opposed by protesters demanding that killer cops be brought to justice.
In his speech at the University of Chicago, as well as a follow-up speech on October 26 at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago, Comey argued that increased scrutiny of the police in the aftermath of the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has led to a nationwide increase in violent crime.
He complained of a “chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year,” and declared that “in today’s YouTube world,” officers are “reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime.” He attributed this to a “political leadership” that “has no tolerance for a viral video,” and warned of “profound consequences” should this trend continue.
The clear implication of Comey’s argument is that those who uncover police criminality, whether a bystander with a cell phone camera or a newspaper that exposes police corruption, serve to promote violent crime and should be suppressed. It is, in essence, an argument for a police state.
Comey’s statements are a full-throated defense of the reign of police violence in working-class communities across the US. Tens of thousands of people have lost friends, family and loved ones at the hands of cops who routinely get away with murder. Residents of poor and working-class neighborhoods confront in the police a massively armed occupying force that functions as a law unto itself.
On Monday, the same day that Comey addressed the police chiefs’ convention, the world was shocked to see footage of a police officer, in the middle of a math class, brutally grabbing and dragging a 16-year-old South Carolina girl, still seated at her desk, and throwing her across the floor.
In keeping with Comey’s views, the assaulted girl’s classmate was arrested for having had the courage to record the incident on video.
The following day, officials in Seneca, South Carolina announced that no charges would be filed against the police officer who fatally shot 19-year-old Zachary Hammond in July, even as they released footage clearly showing that the cop was in no danger when he fired two bullets, point blank, into the young man’s head.
The previous week, the Guardian newspaper revealed that 7,000 people had been secretly detained at the Chicago Police Department’s Homan Square torture facility, twice as many as the newspaper had previously reported.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest distanced the Obama administration from Comey’s remarks. But on Thursday, following an unannounced Oval Office meeting between Comey and President Obama, the White House declared its unequivocal support for the FBI director. Earnest told the press corps that Comey would continue at his post and enjoyed the “full confidence and support of the president.”
In his own speech on October 27 to the chiefs’ convention, Obama did not mention Comey’s remarks and reiterated his administration’s defense of the police. He began by eulogizing the police, declaring, “You serve and protect to provide the security so many Americans take for granted.” He concluded, “May God protect our cops.”
He criticized the media for focusing “on the sensational and the controversial” in its reporting on police violence, and commiserated with the police chiefs over the fact that to millions of Americans “every police officer is suspect no matter what they do.”
He decried the fact that 32 officers have been shot and killed in 2015, while making no mention of the fact that nearly a thousand people have been killed by the police in the same period.
He alluded to his role in supplying police departments with military-grade weapons such as assault rifles, armored vehicles and helicopters. “Over the past six-and-a-half years, my administration has invested more than $2 billion to retain or hire 10,000 police officers,” he said, and added, “Right now, we’re helping make sure departments throughout the country have the equipment they need.”
Obama’s speech—and more importantly, his record in supporting cover-ups of police killings and the exoneration of killer cops, and his endorsement of police-military crackdowns against protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere—demonstrate that his differences with Comey are of an entirely secondary and tactical nature.
The Obama administration has sought to obscure its unequivocal support of the police with hypocritical gestures of sympathy for the victims of police violence and two-faced statements of solidarity with “communities of color.” This is part of a calculated effort to enlist the civil rights establishment and pseudo-left purveyors of racial politics in containing and dissipating social protest over police brutality by keeping it bottled up within the orbit of the Democratic Party.
The prevalence of police violence is not a mere aberration. It cannot be explained away as a matter of a few rogue cops or “bad apples.” The fact that it is such an ingrained feature of American life testifies to its being deeply rooted in the structure of social relations.
Is it any mystery that in a country where the wealthiest ten percent of the population controls more than 75 percent of the national wealth, and 95 percent of income gains go to the top 1 percent, the ruling class feels the need for a massive and brutal repressive force?
All the more so under conditions where the political system can offer no solutions to the growth of poverty and decline in living standards of broad masses of people.
The police are an agency of the state, which is, in essence, an instrument of the ruling class to hold down those it exploits, the working class, ultimately through the organized application of force. Under conditions of ever-rising social inequality, and, consequently, the growth of social discontent and opposition from below, the corporate-financial elite builds up its police force and arms it to the teeth. This is how it prepares for the inevitability of social upheavals.
One can trace the parallel trajectory of rising inequality and the transformation of the police in America over the past half-century into a paramilitary occupation force in working-class cities devastated by plant closures and budget cuts.
The endless wave of police killings is an expression of the contradictions and crisis of American capitalism. That is why putting an end to the reign of police terror and defending democratic rights requires nothing less than the independent social and political mobilization of the working class in opposition to the capitalist system.
By J. Armstrong and Ben Case. Photomontage by yumikrum, via Flickr.
“It was a time when the unthinkable became the thinkable and the impossible really happened…”
– Arundhati Roy
Digital technology is often seen as a curiosity in revolutionary politics, perhaps as a specialized skill set that is peripheral to the hard work of organizing. But the growing trend of “cyber-resistance” might hold more potential than we have given it credit for. Specifically, the popularized use of encryption gives us the ability to form a type of liberated space within the shifting maze of cables and servers that make up the Internet. The “web” is bound by the laws of math and physics before the laws of states, and in that cyberspace we may be able to birth a new revolutionary consciousness.
The use of open source encryption allows for the oppressed to take control of the means of communication, encoding a worldwide liberated zone within the fiber of the Internet. Cyber-resistancei has been viewed (or ignored, or derided) as a hacker thing, something undertaken by those with science fiction equipment in their basement. But if it is embraced by mass movements, it has great potential as a prefigurative strategy for liberation.
Prefiguration is vital for radical and progressive forces in the current moment. The building of prefigurative spaces — spaces that model revolutionary values and resist state violence — is crucial for successful movements from both the anarchist and Marxist traditions. As the old saying goes, revolutionary movements use prefiguration to plant the “seed of the future society in the shell of the old.”
Internet interactions are often juxtaposed with interpersonal interactions, so the idea that cyber-resistance could be prefigurative might seem counter-intuitive for a humanistic revolution. However, cyber-resistance might well hold the key to vibrant prefigurative struggle in the 21st century.
Popularized in the 1970s and 80s, prefigurative political struggle has experienced an upsurge in the 21st century. It has been experimented with in the “Arab Spring,” in the squares of Spain with the indignados, and in the Occupy movement, as activists seized public space and held it in common while building political consciousness and fighting for structural changes in the system at large (differences between and problems with these models notwithstanding).
Prefigurative methods are also deployed by many left-wing armed forces. From the Zapatistas in Mexico to the Naxalites in India and the Kurdish militias in Syria and Turkey, building prefiguration into armed struggle has been effective for many groups facing intense repression. In fact, an argument for building cyber-resistance as a form of prefiguration for socio-political struggle can be found in an unlikely source: Maoist guerrilla warfare strategy.
A Prefigurative Lesson from Guerrilla Warfare
Many militant leftists have criticized certain attempts at prefiguration, often forgood reasons. But the logic behind it — that in order to build a revolutionary future we must practice a revolutionary present — is essential for all liberation movements. And although it is less often emphasized, that logic has worked very well in modern guerrilla warfare.
Many rebel forces have developed strategies of protracted popular armed struggle, but since the early 20th century this method has been primarily linked to the military strategy of Mao Zedong. The strategy of a “protracted people’s war” was laid out in Mao’s famous guerrilla war manual, written in the context of Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation.
While Mao himself certainly has a dubious legacy, the protracted people’s war strategy has been embraced by millions of people in the past century and has been used effectively to build revolutionary movements all over the world.
When it is dissected into its strategic components, people’s war has a lot to teach us in our 21st-century moment. The strategy is composed of three overlapping phases. The first is “strategic defensive,” where rebels establish base areas in remote regions. The second is “strategic stalemate,” where the base areas are developed into a liberated zone. Finally, there is a “strategic counter-offensive,” where insurgents engage and defeat the state in conventional warfare.
For the first phase to begin at all, it is crucial that the base area be established in a secluded region with rugged terrain that is difficult for the state to access, since the rebel fighting force is not yet equipped to confront the enemy head on.
Building has to begin in the state’s blind spots. Once an area is identified, insurgents focus on political education and grassroots organizing, providing medical care and other services to grow consciousness and mutual trust in order to develop the proverbial “water” in which the revolutionary “fish” will swim.
In the second phase, as the insurgents become more entrenched, they gradually establish their own institutions and form a revolutionary government based on a combination of community traditions and communist ideology. As they gain legitimacy, rebel institutions such as schools, clinics and courts expand and interconnect to replace the state in rebel-controlled areas.
This creates a “counter-state” (or, arguably in more libertarian versions, an anti-state), called a liberated zone. The liberated zone is a contested, semi-sovereign area organized into associations that are characterized by radical values — for example equity, minority ethnic rights, and feminism — where people live the revolution and where the rebels can rest, organize, train and develop resources.
In this way, people’s war can be seen as the construction of dual power, where the institutions of the state and the liberated zone coexist and compete for legitimacy. Today, many dual power strategists advocate the building of alternative institutions in the global “center,” within the cracks and fissures of the existing state, as we simultaneously attack oppressive systems with social movement mobilization.
However, this has proven difficult in many cases, as alternatives are vulnerable to state repression. What makes the prefiguration of people’s war so powerful is that it creates an area that the state cannot reach and in which alternatives can be safely constructed.
Most Maoist insurgencies never succeeded in (or even entered) the third phase, but historically the people’s war strategy has been very successful in creating stalemates — that is, in creating vibrant, stable, liberated zones. Politically, this has resulted either in a negotiated settlement with the government, as in El Salvador and Nepal, or intractable conflicts, as in India and the Philippines.
The fact that Maoist guerrilla strategy thrives in the second phase is instructive. The brilliance of this strategy might be not in the war-making, but in the prefiguration-building. The strategy is effective in large part because it forcefully opens up social and psychological space to experiment with radical systems and to embody the revolution in practice. It opens up space not only to see a revolutionary world, but to touch it, to be it. It wins people with practice as much as with ideas. This element of Mao’s strategy demonstrated the power of prefiguration long before that term was coined or popularized.
The Strategic Importance of Shadow
The single most important environmental condition required for people’s war is the existence of remote areas where connections to the central state are weak. At early stages of struggle, these are the only areas that are eligible to build autonomous systems, since the presence of the state forecloses on many possibilities for alternative practices.
Areas of operation must be out of the state’s sight in order for the revolutionaries to make alternatives visible to themselves and to the people. In other words, the state must be blind in order for the people to see one another as revolutionaries.
There are few unseen regions left in the 21st century world, and fewer still in the Global North. In the US, there is hardly a nook or cranny that is not mapped by satellite or categorized by title law, instantly accessible by drone and wiretap.
Proponents of dual power increasingly focus on creating prefigurative spaces, but they also tend to draw inspiration from armed struggles such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas or the Kurdish rebels in Rojava, which are taking place in areas that conform more closely to the formal liberated zone model.
Of course, this is not to say we cannot learn a great deal from those fronts, nor is it to say allies should not support these crucial struggles in any way we can. But most organizing in the Global North takes place in cities, and the conditions in western Kurdistan and the mountains of southeast Mexico bear little resemblance to those in the urban United States or Europe.
Not only is there a lack of secluded physical space in which to build a liberated zone, there is decreasing psychological space in which to build liberated minds. In the industrialized countries, modern state control has gone far beyond mapping physical space to mapping our very individualities. Today, their visibility extends beyond the physical.
Mass Surveillance and Panoptical Control
In order to assert their control, less developed state-forms used to publicly execute dissidents via torture or lock them in a dungeon and throw away the key (some still do). These practices obviously have devastating effects on the target individuals and their families, but the possibility of constant surveillance with the threat of punishment has a greater effect on a society’s behavior at large. Michel Foucault famously recognized Bentham’s “perfect” prison, the panopticon, for its political implications in this regard.
In contrast to dark, linear dungeons, Bentham conceived of a bright, open, circular prison, with a watchtower in the center and inward-facing cells around the periphery. Each cell would have a window to the outside that would back-light it, making the prisoner’s body visible to the tower. The tower, shaded by design angles, would be dark to all prisoners.
The effect is simple: at all times a prisoner is aware they could be watched by the guards, but they will never be able to know for sure when. This hierarchical arrangement of bodies in space — a few in the tower watching, many in the cells being watched — carries with it a power dynamic that effectively modifies the behavior of everyone subject to it.
In this arrangement, Foucault says, the prisoners, who are isolated and unable to communicate or act without being seen, begin to police themselves. The more the prisoners internalize this dynamic, the less actual force needs to be used to maintain order. In its extreme, the theory goes, an entire population of docile prisoners can be self-policed with no coercion whatsoever. Prisons around the world have since adopted aspects of this principle into their architectures.
The unverifiable but assured possibility of surveillance represents the epitome of state control. In its most advanced form, those in power not only have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; they come to never need to use it to maintain their legitimacy. Foucault acknowledged that panopticism was directly applicable only to populations small enough to be arranged within the prison architecture, but he believed its logic could be applied to society at large.
Technology has evolved so that mass surveillance can psychologically take the place of the physical arrangement of bodies. Today the average American citizen spends over 11 hours a day engaging with electronic media. The public is increasingly reliant on the Internet, smartphones and social media for daily life, and we have become accustomed to omnipresent cameras, satellite photographs and wiretaps.
In 2013, the NSA completed a facility in Bluffsdale, Utah where the agency can store 1,000 times the data of the entire Internet, a “Yottabyte” of data. In order to fill this facility with information, the NSA is currently tapping most of the key fiber optic cables that make up the worldwide web and accessing the servers ofall major Internet companies. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know just how comprehensively state security forces collect this data.
This content and meta-data collection involves the capture and storage of all messages, with the goal being complete visibility of digital communications. Ultimately, the attempt is to tie all those communications to geo-location, physical data and relational meta-data; in other words, where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with.
Of course the NSA does not necessarily examine all of our digital conversations. But they could. And you have no idea if they are. You probably don’t really understand how they can, but you are vaguely aware that they can. It is a paralyzing feeling, and that is the essence of panoptical control.
In an era of increasing global control, pushing back against oppressive systems and liberating physical territory to prefigure our own alternative institutions is increasingly necessary, but it is difficult in full sight of the state’s forces. Knowing we are being watched, we aren’t even aware of the degree to which we police ourselves into docility. In the context of the surveillance state, creating the space to discuss and plan and grow the struggle is a prerequisite. When state control is a spotlight, revolutionaries need to create shadows.
Wikileaks, Encryption and Cypher-Shadows
To date, Wikileaks has been the most effective group in casting an electronic shadow. The NSA documents leaked by Snowden show that as early as 2010, Julian Assange and the human network that supports Wikileaks were on the NSA “manhunting” target list for extreme no-holds-barred surveillance. Even through this level of surveillance, Wikileaks has maintained their nine-year track record of never giving up a source.
In 2015 alone, Wikileaks have published NSA intercepts, drafts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, 600,000 cables from the Saudi embassy, and judicial gag orders — without ever having been implicated in outing a source. Wikileaks accomplishes this by effectively creating a shadow that even the most sophisticated government eyes cannot see into, and they do this through the use of open source encryption technology.
Most people already use encryption every day, and just not in their personal communications. Encryption is used in many common applications, from garage door openers to online money transfer sites, but the technology has been tightly controlled by the state, first through arms regulations and later through proprietary standards and funding restrictions.
Encryption sounds fancy, but it really just means writing in code. Current encryption programs apply advanced mathematics to the basic process that all people engage in when creating languages or dialects. Most importantly, the best programs are free and anyone can do it.
Current applications of this technology allow for any person with access to a computer to create encryption so advanced that it cannot be broken by all the computer power in the world. To quote Snowden: “Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto-systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.”
Due to its strategic importance, states have historically declared cryptographic skill and science to be theirs alone. But in 1991, as an act of resistance in support of anti-nuclear protesters, a coder named Phil Zimmerman released an open-source encryption program called PGP onto the Internet for free. When Snowden released the NSA’s own documents from 2012, they show that the agency isunable to break PGP (and other) open-source encryption even after more than 20 years.
Proprietary software like Microsoft and Apple operating systems impose legal and technical prohibitions on users and engineers that prevent them from viewing the codes that make the computer programs run. Open-source software like Linux or Debian allows for software engineers and users to fully control all aspects of a computer system.
Among other things, open-source programs mean transparent and verifiable software improvements. These improvements are not dependent on a closed group, which could be collaborating with, for example, the FBI or NSA. They are also free to use and distribute. Many countries, including the governments of Uruguay, Ecuador, and Brazil, are now running most of their information technology on open-source platforms.
Open-source encryption programs allow for free access to “end-to-end” encryption. These, as well as encrypted texting and talking phone apps like Signal and Redphone, are becoming more accessible and popular by the year. Free open-source programs — like PGP, OTR, Tor, and Tails OS — offer encrypted document creation, sharing and web research on any modern computer, and their use is increasing rapidly.
The journalists working with Snowden have reconfirmed the security of these tools through action, as open-source encryption has allowed them to effectively hide the documents Snowden leaked to them from governments that desperately wanted to destroy them.
Beyond the primary benefit of keeping organizing information hidden from authorities, using open-source encryption to “shadow” our connections, our work and our transactions from the state may enable us to create a digital liberated zone on the Internet, a form that transcends physical geography.
We can begin to create this by expanding our capacity and moving to make the use of these tools our default, first for radicals and progressive allies, then for communities and nations.
A Call to Cryptographic Arms
Discussion of encryption feels alienating to many folks. A lot of people think it is over their heads or they find the techno-babble obnoxious (the self-described hacktivist who once mansplained all this to you probably doesn’t help). Nevertheless, because the US and other governments are engaging in global mass surveillance, we find ourselves in a situation where encryption is necessary for the security of even basic organizing — it is usually unwise to invite the police to action planning meetings.
Beyond the security aspect, it holds massive potential.
Global South activists in Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and elsewhere are now facing the full repressive capacity of imperial violence — but some of those areas remain at least somewhat shrouded from mass surveillance technology. The US and other neo-imperialist governments are currently interested in popularizing use of the Internet and social media to areas of the Global South who have yet to “go digital” to enable corporate profit in those untapped markets.
In addition to the capitalist motive, the techno-colonial project would bring the entirety of the planet within view of imperial centers of control. This provides us with a window of opportunity where Global North governments are more engaged in expanding their digital empire and encouraging the Global South’s adoption of their technology than they are in unleashing the full arsenal of mass surveillance on their own populations.
It is critical that we exponentially increase the use of encryption in both the Global North and Global South during this period. Growing the use of open source encryption could be the most powerful instrument in securing revolutionary potential for generations to come, as they can enable us to safely communicate across blocks and borders. The tools are already there; all it takes is our foresight, will and passion for freedom to make their use into a reality for all.
Guerrilla liberated zones are highly effective in opening physical prefigurative space in an isolated area. At the same time, they are also limited by that isolation and by barriers to participation in guerrilla war.
Cyber-resistance does not offer the physical space that liberated zones do, but digital liberated zones are not constrained by geography or borders, and the barriers to use of encryption are surprisingly low. The combination of encryption basics with open-source hardware (and perhaps cryptographic currency, like Bitcoin-based Freicoin) has the potential to grow into a network of direct working-class control of the means of communication, production and exchange on a global scale.
This network can be used as a weapon to create a sort of liberated e-zone that is beyond state control despite being physically located within oppressive states. The more resistance is hidden from the state, the more imperialism must rely on its most base method of control: coercive force. Though it is the state’s foundational tool, the naked use of violence erodes the state’s legitimacy.
As the state must increasingly rely on its most violent capacity for control, online liberated zones could facilitate both the desire and capacity for resistance. Human surveillance and infiltration such as the use of informants and agent saboteurs can be highly destructive for individuals and movement groups, but nowadays even these rely heavily on digital information gathering.
As the state becomes blinder, it increasingly becomes more desperate. And when it gets desperate, its moves tend to backfire. Meanwhile, as our vision brightens, so does our spirit. Through cyber-resistance we can strengthen existing liberated zones and prefigure new ones, growing revolutionary values and practice even inside the cities of the attempted panopticon.
Our secure communications, leaks and skill-shares could eventually create a chain reaction of interconnected revolutionary upsurges on the scale of the “Arab Spring” of 2011. But instead of being based in popular control of public space alone, they will now also be prefigured in the collective control of a truly liberated space, from the means of communication to the totality of society.
i A note on terminology: While we say cyber-resistance here, more accurately we are talking about cypher-resistance. Cyber refers to anything digital, while cypher is a process that can encode any language, encryption is a general term for that process, and cryptography is the scientific study of the two. Sometimes the root crypto is used to modify other words as well, such as “crypto-currency.”
Ben Case is an organizer and activist from New Jersey and is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He is co-founder of the University of Pittsburgh’s Student Anarchist Graduate Association and is a member of the Organization for a Free Society.
J. Armstrong is a secure communication specialist and movement trainer. He has run encryption trainings for radical organizers and professionals from five continents, working with direct action movements, formerly incarcerated people, sex workers, veterans and revolutionary organizations. He is a member of the Organization for a Free Society.
Fueled by years of record-low interest rates, a new housing crisis is rearing its head from London to L.A. This time, however, it will not go uncontested.
This article was originally written for teleSUR English. Photo: a protest for increased corporate taxes and affordable housing in San Francisco.
Capitalism is a strange beast. Though incredibly resilient in the face of systemic crises and remarkably adaptive to ever-changing conditions, it never truly overcomes its structural contradictions. As the Marxist geographer David Harvey often points out, it merely displaces them in space and time.
The global financial crisis of 2008-’09 has been no exception in this regard. In fact, the very response to that calamity has already laid the foundations for the next big crisis. And just like its immediate predecessor, it looks like this one will be centered, at least in part, on a massive speculative housing bubble.
Officials and investors may still be turning a blind eye, but the warning signs are flashing red everywhere. From Shanghai to San Francisco, from London to L.A., a wave of real-estate speculation is washing over the world, gentrifying popular neighborhoods, pushing housing prices and rents to historically unprecedented highs, and forcing low-income tenants out of their increasingly unaffordable homes. The result is widespread social displacement and deepening discontent.
Unlike the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-’08, which was centered on the complex packaging of risky loans to low-income households across the U.S., the new housing crisis is a product of real-estate speculation in the world’s major metropolitan areas. Take London, which according to the Financial Timesfinds itself confronted with “its biggest housing challenge since the Victorian era.” Residential property prices in the British capital have risen 44 percent since 2008, and are now well above their pre-crisis highs.
According to an analysis by the UK charity Shelter, there are currently only 43 homes in Greater London that could still be considered affordable to the average first-time buyer, pushing everyone but the richest of the rich into the rental market, where landlords are known to exact more than a pound of flesh in return for a roof and running water. In the majority of London boroughs, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is now over £1,000 per month. On average, Londoners spend about 60 percent of their income on rent.
A similar picture has emerged in New York, where property prices — in thewords of the BBC — “have gone turbo-ballistic, as global capital in search of a safe haven has rocketed in.” The average monthly rent in Manhattan now exceeds $3,800, even as half of New York’s urban population lives near or below the poverty line. As a gubernatorial candidate for New York once aptly pointed out, “the rent is too damn high.”
Again, the unsurprising result has been widespread social displacement. Al Jazeera recently reported that “evictions [in New York] have reached epidemic proportions and created a new homeless crisis born out of an affordable housing shortage.” Other major cities like Boston and Los Angeles are not doing much better, as gentrification proceeds apace from coast to coast. Today, even the downtown area of derelict Detroit is rapidly gentrifying, while much of the city still languishes in a state of post-industrial decline.
It is San Francisco, however, that has emerged in recent years as the most paradigmatic case of unbridled gentrification. With median monthly rent hitting $3,530, the city has become the most expensive in the U.S. Desperate to get rid of old tenants who still enjoy rent controls and attract high-income professionals from the tech industry in their place, landlords have gone on an eviction spree: in the past five years, the eviction rate has soared more than 50 percent. Immigrant and working class neighborhoods like the Mission have been reduced to multi-million dollar playgrounds for the “bohemian bourgeois”, complete with snazzy coffee places and expensive vegan restaurants.
The urban sociologist Saskia Sassen has encapsulated the nature of this violent process in strikingly succinct terms: the social reality of financialized capitalism, she argues in her book Expulsions, is all about “systemic complexity producing simple brutality.” And as usual, those feeling the brunt of this brutality are the urban poor and marginalized communities, especially immigrants and people of color, who — along with artists and precarious youths — are increasingly being displaced from city centers towards the periphery.
It is not just cities in the advanced capitalist countries that have been undergoing this turbulent process of urban stratification: the major metropolitan areas of the Global South are firing on all cylinders as well — with the notable difference being that the bubble in emerging markets already appears to be in the process of popping, raising fears of a new international financial crisis centered on China, Brazil and Turkey, among others.
In China’s biggest cities, property prices shot up 60 percent between 2008 and 2014, with residential prices in Shanghai and Beijing rapidly closing in on those of London, Paris and New York. According the consultancy firm McKinsey, some$9 trillion — almost half of China’s total debt, excluding financial sector debt — “is directly or indirectly tied to real estate.” Price increases have exceeded the rise in income by 30 percent in Shanghai and by 80 percent in Beijing.
Other major cities that have been experiencing similar real-estate booms include São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where residential property prices in the most-desired neighborhoods doubled between 2008 and 2013, and Istanbul, along with the other big cities of Turkey, where a credit-fueled construction boom has accounted for 30 percent of GDP in the period since Erdogan’s AKP came to power on the heels of a previous financial crisis in 2002. Since 2007, property prices in Turkey have shot up 36 percent.
To be sure, the local specificities vary from place to place. In London, the housing crisis has been fueled at least in part by massive capital inflows from wealthy elites in countries like China, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, as well as the municipality’s failure to build adequate housing for the large influx of new inhabitants. In Barcelona, by contrast, it has been driven primarily by the tourism industry, while in San Francisco it is largely driven by the tech industry. In Rio, the process has been intensified by preparations for the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, while widespread cronyism and corruption have been an important catalyst for the construction boom in Istanbul.
Yet for all differences between them, the gentrification processes and housing crises in each of these global cities share two crucial commonalities: first in their causes, and second in their consequences.
In terms of the underlying causes, the new housing crisis should be seen as a direct outcome of the response to the previous crisis, which was based on massive bank bailouts and central banks opening the floodgates of cheap credit. With the notable exception of the ECB, which only embarked on quantitative easing earlier this year, the world’s largest central banks dropped interest rates to historic lows, kept them there for years on end, and pumped trillions of dollars of fresh liquidity into the global financial system, effectively subsidizing private investors out of bankruptcy.
This unlimited flow of free money (for the 1% only, of course) produced a tide of surplus capital that had to be absorbed somewhere. With “secular stagnation” taking hold across the developed world, investors were still wary to direct this surplus towards the productive economy, where profit margins remained relatively low. And so, in their insatiable quest for yield, they turned to speculative investment in various asset classes instead: stocks, bonds — and, once again, real-estate. The profits were phenomenal. By 2012-’13, the resulting speculative boom had led U.S. corporate profits back to a new all-time high.
But now that the first signs of overheating have become apparent, we can already begin to identify the second crucial commonality between today’s urban housing crises; a commonality that sets the current crisis apart from the last one: in almost all of the major world cities today, ordinary citizens are already actively mobilizing and fighting back against processes of gentrification, dispossession and displacement, building innovative social movements and powerful political platforms in the process.
From urban insurrections to defend the last-remaining green space of Istanbul or the favelas and public transport system of Rio, to the local direct action of anti-gentrification activists targeting Google buses in the San Francisco Bay Area and reclaiming housing projects in London, it is already clear that the next major crisis, unlike the last one, will not go uncontested.
Of all the urban struggles that have ignited across the globe in recent years, the radically democratic municipal platforms of Spain are undoubtedly among the most advanced and the most promising. With the left-wing anti-eviction activist Ada Colau now holding the mayoralty of Barcelona, an important sign is being sent to the landlords, gentrifiers and real-estate speculators of the world: even in the deepest crises, there will be a limit to your capacity to evict us from our homes and destroy our cities — and that limit, ultimately, is us.
By Patrick Martin
30 October 2015
Media commentary and analysis of the third Republican presidential debate, held Wednesday night in Boulder, Colorado, has focused mainly on the horse-race aspects of the contest for the Republican nomination: which candidates “won” and which “lost,” which candidate expected to pick up big money support (Marco Rubio, from casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson), which candidates may be soon forced out of the race (Rand Paul, Chris Christie).
The performance of the candidates at the debate was assessed based on who had the most insults and one-liners against various rivals, or directed at the panel of moderators from CNBC, who served as doormats and whipping boys (and girls) both during and after the two-hour televised spectacle.
There has been precious little discussion of what was actually said by the candidates about the nominal subject of the debate, US economic policy, or what this reveals about the nature of the Republican Party and of social conditions and class relations in the United States.
If one were to summarize the outlook of the candidates—and they all expressed nearly identical right-wing viewpoints—it would run something like the following. Ordinary Americans are facing terrible economic conditions, spreading poverty, low wages, even social devastation. This is not due to the profit system, in which all the increases in wealth and income of the past three decades has been monopolized by a tiny financial elite. It is entirely due to something called “big government,” sometimes referred to simply as “government” or “Washington.” Once “big government” is dismantled, the American economy will bloom like a garden and everyone will live happily ever after.
A few citations demonstrate this fairy-tale theme:
Dr. Ben Carson, the new frontrunner in national polls after taking over Donald Trump’s position, perhaps the most politically ignorant person on the stage in Colorado, although he had stiff competition: “It’s so important, this election, because we’re talking about America for the people versus America for the government.”
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, speaking about the crisis of college student debt, now higher than credit card debt: “We don’t need the federal government to be involved in this, because when they do, we create a $1.2 trillion debt.” How the federal government helped “create” this debt, when it is the result of huge increases in tuition and fees charged by private and state colleges (and decades of low wages), he did not explain. He nonetheless continued, with typical Bush syntax, “It’s always a solution of the left to create more government from the federal government. It is broke, it is not working.”
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky: “Liberty thrives when government is small. I want a government so small I can barely see it. I want a government so small that the individual has a chance to thrive and prosper. I think, though, government is too big now.”
Similar sentiments were sounded by the “undercard,” the four Republicans who debated separately and earlier on CNBC because they failed to reach three percent in published polls.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, whose state is bankrupt and has never recovered from the combined blows of Hurricane Katrina and the oil price collapse: “I’m the only one that’s reduced the size of government. Let’s shrink the government economy. Let’s grow the American economy.”
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum: “I’m the one in the—on this stage and, frankly, on both stages that has actually gone to Washington, said we would shrink government, said we would shake things up and actually delivered for the conservative cause, everything from welfare reform, which was the largest, most significant accomplishment in the last 25 years for conservatism.”
Some of the candidates doubled down on the denunciations of “big government” by claiming that big corporations were allied with “big government” in a conspiracy against ordinary Americans. Thus Senator Ted Cruz: “The truth of the matter is, big government benefits the wealthy, it benefits the lobbyists, it benefits the giant corporations. And the people who are getting hammered are small businesses, it’s single moms, it’s Hispanics.”
Cruz is telling a fraction of the truth, albeit in highly distorted form, while lying about his own attitude to this alliance of the capitalist state and big business. His own campaign is largely financed by one wealthy investor, hedge fund mogul Robert Mercer, and Cruz has a record of shamelessly sucking up to every multi-millionaire and billionaire in sight. He seeks to disguise this with populist demagogy that takes advantage of the right-wing record of the Obama administration to advocate even more right-wing policies.
Carly Fiorina followed the same tack, declaring, “Big government favors the big, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected, and crushes the small and the powerless.” Once she got started on this line of argument, it proved impossible for the CNBC moderators to divert her and slow down her diatribe.
“The more the government gets engaged in the economy, the slower the economy becomes,” she declared. “There is no constitutional role for the federal government in setting up—retirement plans. There is no constitutional role for the federal government to be setting minimum wages.”
It was noteworthy that not one of the other nine Republican candidates on the stage with Fiorina disputed her remarkable assertion that both Social Security and minimum wage laws are unconstitutional. Nor did any of her media questioners challenge this claim.
She went to declare that the alliance of “big government” and big business constituted “socialism,” and that the United States was well on its way there. “You see, folks, this is how socialism starts. Government causes a problem, and then government steps in to solve the problem.”
Fiorina’s presentation was particularly bizarre since her claim to credibility as a candidate consists in her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, one of the 50 largest corporations in America, and a huge government contractor (particularly of the National Security Agency) making her the personification of the alliance of big business and “big government” which she was stridently condemning.
What do the Republican candidates actually mean by their demonization of “big government”? It is notable that none of them condemns or proposes to shrink the single largest part of the federal government, the gigantic military-intelligence apparatus that constitutes the biggest threat both to the democratic rights of the American people and the physical survival of the human race.
Consider the distribution of federal employment in 2010, well into the third year of the Obama administration. There were just over three million people employed by the federal government. Of these, 391,800 worked in departments largely concerned with domestic social services: Agriculture, Commerce, Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Interior, Labor, Transportation. But some 2,980,400 worked in departments related to military, intelligence and domestic repression (CIA, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, State, Veterans Affairs).
The latter figure balloons still further, to 5,580,400 working for the federal agencies concerned with repression and war, when one adds the 1.5 million Pentagon and intelligence agency contractors, and 1.1 military reservists, available for mobilization either for war or national emergency. That does not include members of the National Guard or state and local police forces.
The Obama administration, like its predecessors for the previous six decades, since the United States became the dominant imperialist power, presides over a state machine whose main function is spying and mass murder. The social programs run by the federal government are only a veneer applied to conceal the essentially repressive nature of the capitalist state.
When the Republicans demonize “big government,” they are targeting solely the 12 percent of federal workers who enforce health, safety and pollution regulations, administer federal social programs like Social Security and Medicare, or assist and subsidize largely state and local public services like education and transportation.
In other words, their focus is not on the federal agencies that threaten the democratic rights of the American people, or spy on, attack and kill the citizens of other countries, but the federal agencies that restrict in any way, however slightly, the operations of the giant corporations and banks. While employing somewhat different rhetoric, the current administration has pursued the same aim laid out by the Republican candidates by privatizing public education, undermining regulations on corporations and attacking social programs.
By David Brown
29 October 2015
Figures released Wednesday by the Social Security Administration (SSA) show that the majority of workers in the United States earn an income that puts them at or near the poverty level for a small family.
Over half of US workers make less than $30,000 per year, and a staggering 40 percent of workers make less than $20,000 per year. The federal poverty line for a family of four is $24,250 and the line for a family of three is $20,090.
The Social Security Administration’s Average Wage figures are compiled by the agency from federal income taxes and employer W-2 forms. The report this year showed that the median wage for American workers in 2014 was $28,851, and that nearly a quarter of wage earners make less than $10,000, while the poverty rate for an individual is $11,770.
In short, America is a country where the vast majority of the population is impoverished or nearly so.
For many, low wages make it impossible to start a family or purchase a home. Home ownership rates have plunged to the lowest levels since 1967. Only two-thirds of adults aged 18-34 currently live outside of their parents’ household.
The rise of mass unemployment and poverty wages has left 14 percent of all households food insecure during 2014, according to the US Department of Agriculture. This has led the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue new guidelines for pediatricians screening all American children for hunger.
Meanwhile, an increasing share of households are dependent on a single income as the labor force participation rate has declined from its peak in early 2000 to its current rate of 62.4 percent, the lowest since 1977. About 46 million US households have only one wage earner, and another 30 million have no wage earners. The current average number of incomes per household is just 1.28.
Since the 2008 economic crisis, corporate profits have soared while teachers, autoworkers and oil workers have been told in contract negotiations that there is no money for raises, that health care costs need to be cut and that retirees are “living too long.”
Retirees have been particularly hard hit by these economic shifts. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released earlier this year, 29 percent of US households aged 55 or older have no retirement savings or pension plan. These households have a median yearly income of just $19,000, median financial assets of $1,000 and a net worth of $35,000. In short, they are completely unable to afford retirement and increasing medical expenses.
A growing share of older workers plan on delaying or entirely putting off retirement, but the GAO noted that over half of retirees were forced to stop working earlier than they planned “due to health factors, changes at their workplace, or other factors.”
Adjusted for inflation, there has been no increase in US wages since 1998, even as labor productivity has continued to increase. In the second quarter of 2015, labor productivity rose at an annualized rate of 3.3 percent compared to the first quarter, while real compensation dropped by 1.1 percent in nonfarm businesses, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Even as wages have stagnated, the stock market has soared, with the Dow Jones Industrial average growing by 131 percent since 1998. Following the 2008 crash, the markets have more than tripled, with the Dow reaching new heights of over 18,000 earlier this year, more than 4,000 higher than the former peak at the end of 2007. The CEOs riding this stock market boom have been compensating themselves handsomely for the cuts they have made to employee compensation.
The top-earning US 100 CEOs are sitting on personal retirement funds of $5 billion, according to a report published Wednesday by the Institute for Policy Studies. The report noted, “The company-sponsored retirement assets of just 100 CEOs add up to as much as the entire retirement account savings of 41% of American families (50 million families in total).” Overall CEO compensation has skyrocketed to record highs with the top 200 US CEOs averaging $22.6 million in compensation for in 2014.
The man at the top of the list is David Novak, the executive chairman of Yum Brands, who has a retirement fund of $243 million. This is enough to provide him payments of $1.3 million per month for the rest of his life. That means that every month he will receive more than the yearly income of 45 workers making the median wage.
Yum Brands owns Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC, fast food restaurants notorious for paying their workers minimum wage while refusing to schedule them full-time in order to avoid providing health insurance or retirement benefits. Novak’s current yearly compensation is $10.5 million plus benefits.
The continued impoverishment of US workers takes place as countless billions are expended on the military. The US Air Force announced Wednesday that it had awarded an $80 billion contract to Northrop Grumman Corp. to design the next generation of strategic bombers and build a fleet of 100. This is part of a broader push by the Obama administration to modernize the entire nuclear arsenal at an estimated cost of $348 billion over the next 10 years.
The initial bipartisan budget agreement reached by the Obama administration and congressional leaders Monday would provide the military with over $600 billion in funding. When combined with continuing costs from America’s wars, nuclear armament spending and veteran care, the total spent for 2016 will be around $1 trillion: Enough to give every wage earner making less than the median a bonus of more than $12,000.
The stagnation of wages is the outcome of the program carried out by major corporations and both big business parties, working together with the trade unions, to make the working class pay for the decline of American capitalism and the economic crisis that erupted in 2008. American banks and corporations have sought to restore profitability by slashing labor costs, gutting pensions and eliminating health care benefits.
The goal of the government and trade unions has been to restore American “competitiveness” on the basis of permanently reduced labor costs. As part of the auto industry bailout of 2008, the Obama administration supported the expansion of second-tier workers who would make only $14 per hour, half of the wages paid to older workers. In the latest contract negotiations, the auto bosses and their trade union allies are seeking to further expand the share of workers paid such poverty “new-hire” wages.