Thursday, August 11, 2011

From Urbanism to Suburbanism: The Domaination of Space and the Short-Circuiting of Experience

                The contemporary rise of right-wing populism in the U.S. is a historically specific phenomenon partially expressing the transformation of the U.S. from an urban to a suburban country.  Insofar as the capital-labor relation is a relation of spatial domination as well as of temporal domination, experience in and of capitalist society takes place in space and through the transformation of space to match capital's needs.  In Capital, Marx focuses on the temporal element of domination in capitalist society, in the production process, in the exchange process, in the circulation process.  Time is explicitly at issue, but space only implicitly so.  The classic, if largely ignored, Marxian discussions of the spatial dimensions of domination are Engels' On The Housing Question and Debord's Society of the Spectacle, both of which were products of the period in which capitalism was almost unquestionably an urbanizing phenomenon and urbanism could provide a concept for the spatial organization of domination.  We have grown up within a shift which requires a new concept of spatial domination.  I believe what I will herein refer to as 'suburbanism' gives us critical insights into the nature of this shift and especially into the current political situation in the United States which treats its historical specificity without discounting its roots in a long-term secular trend.            
                Suburbanism is a new way that spatial organization shapes experience of the fundamental categories of capital, specifically in ways that hope to reinforce this inverted world by resolving the contradictions of urbanism.  Suburbanism tries to solve the problem of safeguarding capital by ensuring the atomization of workers through their diffusion, decentralization, and homogenization.  If the city became the locus of history because of its concentration and centralization of social power, suburbanism seeks to de-concentrate and de-centralize power, to declare itself the virtual, rhizomatic locus of a world without a center, a clock time-driven world outside history.  Suburbanism is therefore not merely a synonym for suburbanization, but a concept which grasps the reshaping of the relation of rural, urban and suburban which sublates the urbanism which was at the center of the world taken up by Engels and Debord, and which appears already on the horizon of Debord's world in the 1960's.
                In working up this concept we must begin to develop an adequate concept of experience instead of the current tendency of Marxists to seem satisfied that the material conditions of capitalist society will compel revolution, not unlike, I would suggest, a preacher inveighing to those he would convert that "The power of Christ compels you!"  When I use the word "experience" I have in mind Aldous Huxley's quip that "Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him."  It is not enough to suffer domination or exploitation, but to comprehend on a practical and theoretical level its root.  There is no comprehension of domination which does not go through the experience of domination.
                If it is not possible to adequately understand the rise of revanchist populism in the United States over the last 60 years without comprehending suburbanism, the shift cannot be treated as merely identical with suburbanization or increased levels of home ownership.  Already in 1929 some 46% of households owned their own home.  Even with the brief downward trend in the 1930's, by 1937 home ownership rates had already returned to their 1928 mark and would continue to rise more or less unabated until the most recent popping of the housing bubble.  One thing this indicates is that home ownership did not directly undermine labor militancy in the 1930's.  Home ownership is common in many countries, including in England, China, Brazil, Mexico, and Japan, with rates often as high as or higher than in the United States.  At issue is what home ownership entails under suburbanism, in which home ownership acted first as a replacement for social democratic reforms within the U.S. and now as a lever to enact neo-liberal type attacks on social democratic arrangements everywhere.
                Suburbanism is a particular expression of the defeat in victory-victory in defeat of the power of labor redirected into the power of private consumption and individual household accumulation, but also the end, within capitalism rather than through the abolition of capitalism, of the working class as an estate.  In its turn, this incorporation of part of labor became the foundation of tremendous economic growth and the domestication of the worker into the citizen-worker and mass consumer.  Suburbanism also negates urbanism's cosmopolitan tendencies, reinforcing isolation, privatization, provincialism, racial and gender division and oppression, infantilization, cultural narrowness, and national chauvinism in all its various modes, and so I will spend the rest of this time discussing aspects of each of these, along with some of the history of the progression of suburbia and the restructuring of cities, and why this tends strongly towards the production of a revanchist political culture.
                Before we delve deeper, I would only note that I am highlighting a moment of the transformation of the capital-labor relation in the United States since WWII.  A more developed treatment would require discussion of the temporal elements of domination, of the transformation of the valorization process, of culture, of consumption, and even of the spatial relations of domination on a global scale where suburbanism does not contradict the relentless concentration of massive populations in vast urban centers from Mexico City to Sao Paulo to Shanghai to Mumbai to Lagos, but entails their lumpenized character.
                The common images of suburbanism are easily conjured.  Endless highways covered by cars.  Massive malls and outlet stores.  Row after row of architecturally abusive sameness distilled into essentially less than a dozen models of home.  The built-in hostility to difference, to closeness, to integration, and not merely in the obvious sense, but of an integrated life-world.  Residential zone - commercial zone - industrial zone.  The endless repetition of the same, so that going from one place to another in America guarantees nothing so much as a perverse version of Nietzsche's eternal recurrence of the same as an eternity of boredom which has lent itself to sheer madness.  And of course white flight from the darkening inner cities: Suburbia is privatization and tribalism on a hitherto unimagined scale.  Not only is it the opposite of urbanism's city, but it must render the city into its own fantastical nightmare image.  Just as the anti-Semite would have to create the Jew if there were no Jews, so suburbanism has to reduce the city to the awful, dirty, crime-ridden disaster ready to be remodeled along suburban lines in the name of "revitalization" also known as gentrification.
                Suburbanism not only re-segregates America or offers an individualistic resolution of the housing question, but it restructures the experience of the class relation.  Part of comprehending this shift is involved with the role home ownership plays in the U.S.  A private home owner benefits in at least 6 ways:
The state provides a huge tax write-off, giving back significant income.  With the end of the heavily graduated income tax in the late 1970's, more people were taxed at lower income levels than in the 1930's, 40's or 50's, and so the tax refund on the mortgage became even more important.
Given the low rates of interest and tax subsidies a mortgage can be much, much less than rent for an equivalently-sized home.  This particularly depends on relatively low property taxes, however, which in the suburbs are the single most important source of revenue for services provided by the town/city, such as police, fire, roads, and schools.  The other major source of income comes from taxation on industrial and commercial properties, which are key to keeping property taxes low for home owners.
A house acts as equity, improving the owner's credit rating thus allowing them to borrow considerably more for considerably lower rates of interest, and the house itself can be used as collateral.  For most families in the bottom 80% of the population, the house is by far the single most valuable item they own and generally the only one which they can use as a significant source of collateral.
A house acts as a form of inter-generational wealth transfer and income security.
The value of the house can be expected to increase in value over time.  Thus the asset becomes a source of increasing one's wealth.
The combination of increasing value and equity also become a means of making it possible for one's children to go to university and escape the orbit of working class labor.
                Politically these six aspects of home ownership were racialized by the housing policies of the FHA and HUD.  For example, prior to 1948 the FHA refused to back mortgages and developments that did not include racially-restrictive covenants ensuring that no white home owner would sell to a black family.  This remained de facto policy, though it could not be legally demanded, until 1968 with the passage of the Fair Housing Standards Act.  Time and again real estate developers would intentionally sell homes in all white neighborhoods to a few Black families and then they introduce a panic in order to get whites to sell their homes at a discount before their values "really dropped", in a strategy known as "block busting".  Since Black families purchasing a home in a community would automatically devalue homes, in the few cases in which they could even qualify for housing assistance and loan support, home ownership went hand-in-hand with the desire for racial isolation and against integration.  This racialization of housing, equity, and property values, especially after the end of de jure segregation in the South in 1964 and 1965, meant that the threat of integrated housing became one of the single biggest sources of the right-wing shift of white workers to the Republican Party in the 1968, 1972, and 1976 elections.[1]  White renters were statistically significantly less opposed to integration/de-segregation, in housing and in education, both before 1964 and after 1968.
                Home ownership thus has a strong relationship to political conservatism, but it is not necessary to stretch one's imagination very far to understand the further transformation of experience entailed with home ownership.  Here I will just briefly list some of the key points:
Hostility to any policies which might lower housing values.  Not only does this include the aforementioned racism, it also includes hostility to public housing programs and subsidized apartment programs which do not lead to home ownership, as these tend to lower property values by introducing lower-income families with worse credit ratings.
Hostility to anything which might increase the tax burden, including property taxes.  This includes providing for services which would be available to everyone in a community, and not merely home owners.  The current push among the Tea party-types to privatize education and fire departments provides a particularly nasty example.
Any threat towards the privilege of being given huge tax breaks for home ownership.  Renting is in effect penalized several times over and home owners have a vested interest in not being reduced to renters again.
                What is at issue is not merely the title, but the ability of the home to act according to the 6 characteristics outlined above.  It also depends on the degree to which home ownership is supposed to compensate for a lack of a social safety net.  The United States may not have the absolute highest home ownership rates, but it does have the highest inequality between top and bottom of any industrialized nation.  More than any other developed country the US depends on a high level of debt, based on the equity derived from the home and the better access to credit sources like credit cards.  This tremendous debt in turn relies on the global role of the dollar as world money, both because oil is only bought and sold in dollars, and because were the United States to default on its debt, it would likely drag the world down with it.
                American prosperity floats on a bed of debt with no safety net below them except their home, and the equity it conveys, in a global economy predicated on the role of the dollar and hence U.S. military viability as well. 
                Suburbanism is part of what makes all of these elements subsist as the organization of space and the space of domination.
                The genesis of suburbanism is in flight, in the idea that one can run away from central problems and find an individual solution while leaving others to rot.  Suburbia does not have its own locus, but is always a relationship to cities which is formed of a mass of individual lines of flight which in the end seek to make the best of it, to make peace with this society at the expense of those who cannot afford to make this same peace. 
                Suburbanism is the extension of the private into the public, of the transformation of the public into a private affair.  It is not an accident that suburbanization should give rise to a politics of re-privatization.  The retreat from a communal or collective existence is central to Suburbanism, to the creation of the experience in one's private space of what previously had to be experienced publicly.  The home is no longer simply a place to eat and sleep, but a self-sustaining microcosm in which the outside world only enters via electronic mediums such as television, radio and computers.  The home becomes a refuge.  At the same time the yard provides a (fenced-off) replacement for parks and playgrounds and other public facilities in which nature might be experienced collectively in an urban city.
                Suburbia also is premised on a guarantee of homogeneity.  The very structure of suburban development depends on developers creating large areas with relatively similar incomes and for a long time legally it was required that the community be racially homogeneous.  Single women were also blocked from access by social conventions and credit rating based on gender conventions.  Overall, suburbanization was fueled by a flight from people 'not like us', which was to say away from different races, creeds, ethnic groups, etc.  The combination of development encouraging homogeneous income groups and de jure and de facto forms of segregation enforcing cultural and social homogeneity and conformity means that suburbanization has a logic of experience unlike that of the city.
                It is necessarily an impoverishing influence insofar as the goal is to escape and keep out the Other, to create a community of no conflict, a community sharing a common hatred and fear of the city as home to lots of Others.  The conflicts of class, race, sexuality, gender, religion, etc. are driven into a conflict between city and suburb.
                This homogeneity is also viewed as a source of safety.  The absence of obvious class differences in a community where one leaves one's work somewhere else, where work and non-work life are cordoned off, the absence of 'the lower classes' or 'the poor' or what is in fact the absence of those without sufficient access to credit, tends to result in reduced crime.  The city is increasingly policed to keep people in their neighborhoods, while suburbs are singularly policed in order to keep people out.  Profiling is exceptionally effective in suburbs due to their propensity for homogeneity.  Being of a different race, driving a rusted old car, and walking on foot are all equally tell-tale signs of exclusion, of being Other.  The gated community, a feature now also introduced into cities, is merely the most obvious, overt expression of this inherent tendency.
                Thus the world outside the suburb is already prefigured and thus experienced as threatening, dangerous and particularly as criminal.  People from the cities want what people in the suburbs have, but living in the cities they cannot, by definition, have them, so they can only steal them or achieve them by a degree of undeserved privilege.  When George Bush Jr. announced that terrorists hate us for our freedom, he did no more than enunciate the common sense of the suburban experience towards the dangerous masses of the cities.
                The hostility to intellectual and cultural maturation as bourgeois, as elitist, is the reaction of both the hillbilly and the slave master to modernization.  Anyone who recognizes and has the temerity to suggest that their provincial utopia is not as good as it gets is automatically a snob.  Even as provincialization cannot be reduced to suburbanism, it reinforces it.  Intellectual language is also transformed into the language of the administrative side of society.  Those who feel outside of or unfairly constrained by the administrative logic of liberalism thus find their orientation towards tribalism, insularity and corporatism reinforced.  Suburbanization magnifies and intensifies the experience of this alienation from the liberal administrative consciousness, even as it exists completely in dependence on state subsidization, especially from the militaristic and overtly oppressive sections of the state.
                Suburbanization tends towards infantilization and feminization.  It needs to be understood in the case of feminization that what is meant is not a domination of some essential female values, but the extension of the root of gender relations in capitalist society, the separation of home and work.  Suburbanization extends this division by putting work in one place, maybe even a completely different suburb or in the city, so that one no longer lives where one works and the people who live near a workplace largely do not work there.  This is the same dynamic of the separation of domestic, unwaged labor from workplace-based, waged labor as the root if the gender relation, so that the social orientation of both men and women in suburbia is the home.  Where work traditionally also meant that the worker who brought home the income participated in public activities, whether carousing in bars or union activities or social clubs, non-work life is increasingly oriented towards housework: mowing the lawn, gardening, fixing up the house, working on the car in the garage, etc.  The fetish of sports as both a communal voyeurism and a social imperative goes hand-in-hand with suburbanism.  Football is the most watched sport, asserting violent masculinity and tribal collectivity, alongside the overwhelming popularity of golf, which is the actually-played sport of choice because it requires little physicality, is very individualistic and is associated with social status both because it is expensive to play and takes place in another manufactured, pseudo-natural but utterly tame space. 
                The same dynamic at the root of infantilization provides one of the exceptions to this, the extreme orientation towards the children.  Public life ends up in many cases being about taking the kids to their 'activities'.  In many cases the original excuse to move to the suburbs is 'for the schools' and to have a 'healthy environment' in which to raise the kids.  The children become another kind of Big Othe, a super-egoic compulsion to suburbanize.  It is no accident that both parents and children resent each other in such situations.
                Of course, the deracination of the cities does make them more dangerous.  Anyone old enough to remember the impact of capital-flight and white-flight on cities like New York and Chicago and Baltimore and Detroit from the 1960's onward can tell you what a lack of jobs, collapsing property values, and the influx of drugs can do to a city.  Insofar as cities like any other place depend on money to finance the range of services they provide, including the maintenance of diverse cultural and social institutions, public services, etc., gutting cities of a substantial section of the middle 60% of tax payers as well as large parts of industrial and commercial investment results in their infrastructural decay, or collapse in the case of some cities.
                Crime and violence are absolutely central issues for people living in cities.  Life is increasingly organized in many parts of cities around the underground economy of the drug and sex trades.  The drug trade in particular expanded with such ferocity from the 1970's to the 1990's that the organization of markets in a trade formally outside of the law took the form of massive outbreaks of lethal violence.  In the case of some cities, such as Detroit and Baltimore, the culture of the city itself, its norms of daily interactions, have become shaped by the drug trade and the gangs which run it.  The problem of crime has become a problem of how to survive in a completely monetarized economy while being simultaneously and systematically excluded from consistent wage labor.  The drug and sex trades have both kept many cities from complete economic collapse while simultaneously institutionalizing and brutalizing daily life.   
                Another key feature of suburbanism is the drive to make the extreme state subsidization of private wealth disappear from view while attacking public-oriented expenditures as "socialism", "parsitism", sustaining "cultures of poverty" and "welfare queens", etc.  From FDR forward, the goal was to engage in a social democratic level of spending that would avoid being accused of socialism, a concern that is obviously pertinent today.
                These politics expressed themselves in many different forms over the last 60 or so years, starting with McCarthyism and the rise of Goldwater Republican populism, and going through the Taxpayers Revolt of the 70's to Reaganism and the rise of the Christian Right.  The Tea Party of today is only the latest incarnation of this political trend, heightened by the threat to the financial conditions which made suburbanism possible.  Suburbanism depended on a number of features, not the least of which was a capitalist expansion linked to productivity rates outstripping income growth so that income growth could continue.  Suburbs depended on very low tax rates, especially property taxes, and the need to provide very minimal social services (little or no public transportation, little or no cultural institutions, etc.) because commercial and industrial developments could be taxed more heavily (albeit at levels still lower than that in cities).  De-industrialization, the movement of production facilities to other countries or their, etc. all contributed to increased dependence on state and federal funding, but states also found themselves in dire straits.  This political milieu seeks to relieve its problems by poaching the wealth of the cities and the tax base of the most urbanized areas.
                The political crisis in the cities, due to the combination of the crisis of valorization and a shrinking revenue stream, has lead to their extreme polarization.  The hollowing out of the cities left a lumpen-ized element parasitically living off of a marginalized precariat with little direct social power in the cities on the one side and gentrifying refugees from the banality of the suburbs.  Transformations in the labor process and thus the valorization process further undermined the elements that provided the foundation of progressive political and social organizations in the cities. 
                With the end of the Civil Rights movement and the end of de jure segregation, racism is not gone, but class differentiation within the Black population has deepened considerably and a large layer of the Black middle classes work in mainstream corporate America to the point that one can no longer refer to corporate America as "white America" in any simple sense.  At the same time, a layer of the Black bourgeois makes its living parasitically off of the lumpen cultural artifacts, as its purveyors in music, film, TV shows, and even in print.  In a sense, at the very moment that identity politics was taking on its most self-conscious expression in the 1970's and 80's, it was also collapsing as an oppositional political force and instead became the ideology of newly established middle class elements looking to justify their political and market niche incorporated within and policing that racialized market through the state.  If there is a lingering but seemingly unsurpassable split within suburbanism's construction of space racially, it is not merely between the credit-worthy and the unworthy, but between the denied and openly acknowledged dependence on the state.
                Suburbanism is the spatial form in the U.S. of what Gaspar Tamas refers to as post-fascist politics.  The key political features of post-fascism include:
an extreme feeling of resentiment towards the poor or not credit worthy, the Other who is Boogeyman
an extreme feeling of resentiment towards any kind of cultured or intellectually sophisticated, wordly sorts of people.  Feeling at home in the world, instead of only at home, is a sign of corruption and treason
a sharp separation of those who are credit-worthy from those who are not
extreme denial of their own dependence on state subsidization
an orientation towards the privatization of all social services that do not directly support suburbanization
overt identification with capital
perpetual concern that people aren't carrying their own weight, which of course is also a projection
a lack of interest in non-work except for ritualistically masculine activities aka sports
extreme nativism
fear and thus hatred of anything one doesn't understand (linked to nativism, religiosity, militant heterosexuality, conformism, etc.)
At root, the creation of a dual-state where "true citizenship" goes hand-in-hand with one's credit score, race, religion, etc.  In other words the death of universal citizenship within the state.
                The political implications of all of this would be considerably worse if not for suburbanism's own contradictions.  Suburbanism requires infinite expansion into space based on low-density, automobile-based development succeeded under conditions where the United States was the world's auto maker and in fact the core of global production and relatively independent of foreign markets in key ways.  Today the auto companies are in crisis and in fact wages have been largely stagnant overall since the late 1970's, while housing prices have risen dramatically.  The U.S. worker no longer has an increasing income hitched to an even more quickly increasing productivity of capital.  The movement of industry and business into the suburbs out of the cities turned into the movement of capital out of the U.S. entirely, or simply the downsizing and dismantling of large parts of the old infrastructure.  The stability and advantages of the dollar as world currency are also more in question than ever before.  If the dollar is not under immediate threat, the development of global rivals weakens the ability of the U.S. to leverage its indebtedness as a form of blackmail: If I fail, we all go down together!

                Unfortunately, post-fascist politics has grown up on the gravesite of the overt, radical working class culture which saw itself as excluded from The experience of capitalist society under suburbanism is one element of what inhibits the conceptualization of different forms of social mediation other than labor, capital, money, market and the state, of the conditions of experience which buried the old working class culture. (whether structurally or contingently by undemocratic bosses) capitalist society and the capitalist state.
                This raises significant issues for a Marxian critique of capitalist society because generally there has been a lack of adequate conceptualization of experience.  Critical theory must strive to comprehend why the contradiction between our vast material wealth and its constraining and irrational social form as Value has not manifested in a consciousness of that contradiction.  I am suggesting that between this objective contradiction and a consciousness adequate to the resolution of the problem we find the problem of experience.    To be meaningful, to contribute to overcoming this domination by the value-form, Marxian critique must adequately conceptualize the problem of experience in relation to the real appropriation of contemporary capitalist society.  Robert Hullot-Kentor's formulation of the problem is a propos:
"The problem for critical thought, now, is how to make reality break in on the mind that masters it."

[1] C.f. Racial threat Revisited: Race, Home Ownership, and White Working Class Politics in the U.S., 1964-1976, Richard Aviles, 2009.

No comments:

Post a Comment