Crisis and Resistance in the Neoliberal City : A Conversation with David Harvey, Max Rameau, Shiri Pasternak, and Esther Wang

Crisis and Resistance in the Neoliberal City : A Conversation with David Harvey, Max Rameau, Shiri Pasternak, and Esther Wang

Opening Night

David Harvey: This foreclosure crisis, this financial crisis, has to be thought of as a crisis of the city, a crisis of urbanization – and if it’s a crisis of the city and of urbanization, then the solution has to be a
reconfiguration of the city and a redirection of what urbanization is about.  The pattern of this crisis is not anything new; and one of the things that happens in the U.S., and on the left in general, is that we seem sometimes to suffer from amnesia as to what has happened in the past. I would like to recall that the last biggest crisis period of capitalism, from around 1973 to 1982, was a deep crisis of urbanization. It began with the collapse of global property markets in the spring of 1973, leading to the bankruptcy of several financial institutions, followed of course by the Arab-Israeli war and the oil price hike (which everybody remembers more than they remember the property market crash). This was followed by a crisis of municipal finance and the disciplining of almost all cities, not only in the U.S., but around the world, to a new regime of financial terror, what I’d also call “neoliberal politics.” Understanding what this regime was about is crucial because it was part of the solution to the crisis of the 1970s, a solution which underpins the nature of the crisis we are currently in. This is a terribly important point to make, because how we come out of this crisis is almost certainly going to define the nature of the next crisis down the road – unless we decide to say, “To hell with capitalist crises! To hell with capitalism!” 



In the 1970s it was clear that corporate America was in difficulty, economically and politically. Economically, it decided to try to get out of it by confronting and disciplining labor, big time, and it had a number of means to do that. First, it opened up immigration, for instance the 1965 Immigration Reform Act in this country.  It’s very interesting to remember that in the 1960s and the 1970s the Germans were importing people from Turkey, the French were actually subsidizing bringing in immigrants from the Maghreb, Britain was of course accepting people from the ex-empire, and the Swedes were bringing in people from Yugoslavia.  Immigration became one of the capitalist class’ main tools to try to solve the “problem” of the power of labor, the scarcity of labor, and the high level of wages. Second, they tried to use technological change to throw people out of work as much as possible,  through labor-saving innovations.  The third was the invention of interesting politicians with names like Reagan and Thatcher, whose main mission was of course to screw labor and destroy labor organization – they did it democratically while Pinochet did it through military violence in Chile.  And finally if this political assault on labor didn’t work you could always offshore production to Mexico or the Philippines or Bangladesh or ultimately even to China. 


By all these means, capitalists successfully disciplined labor in the 1970s and early 1980s, such that by the time you get to 1985 the labor question is no longer a serious barrier to capitalist accumulation. What that meant however, was that labor had very little power in the market, and as a result of that, real wages did not increase anywhere in the world, even in the United States, from the 1970s to the present day. We’ve been through 30 years of wage repression, guaranteeing capitalist profits, with a  public policy which was actually oriented in that same direction.  I always remember that Margaret Thatcher’s economic advisor said in effect, sometime after he left the postion, that he really believed that the fight against inflation was really a cover to bash the workers and create an industrial reserve army so that capitalists could have easy profits ever thereafter.  


What we’ve seen since then is of course a tremendous increase in inequality and a tremendous concentration of wealth in the upper classes. The story we’re told is that the upper classes should have that wealth, after all, they invest, and as they invest they create jobs and aren’t-we-all-grateful-to-them-for-doing-so. The idea that we could actually get jobs by other means is ruled out of the picture, of course. But in fact the capitalist class doesn’t particularly care about creating jobs, it cares about making money. And it soon found, in the 1980s in particular, that it could make money by investing in asset values rather than in production, so it started to invest in the stock market, in property markets, in oil futures and so on. New markets were developed in which you could actually make even more money than you could spending your money on assets through purchasing derivatives of assets – and  very soon you could buy on derivatives of insurances of derivatives of assets and so on. 


What resulted was a financial asset bubble, rather than at real expansion of production and real jobs. The rest of us were reduced very frequently to service functions, reconfiguring the class structure. We went through deindustrialization in this country, through a reconfiguration of the nature of job structures and also of the kinds of people who can occupy those job structures. This was crucial to fueling the bubble that grew in the 1990s in particular. During that period, if you asked where to put your money, you were told to put it in property markets. It’s important to remember that we’ve had many financial crises over these last thirty years, and many of those crises have been related to urbanization, and have been about property.  We had the Savings and Loans crisis in 1987-89, when somewhere around 600 or 800 banks or financial institutions were declared bankrupt, and this was a crisis tied very much to commercial property. In 1992 the Swedish banking system went bankrupt over excessive property development.  In 1989 the Japanese economy crashed around land market prices. What we’ve had is a whole series of asset bubbles and we seem to forget what these asset bubbles are about. These asset bubbles are like Ponzi schemes: people put money in the stock market, the stock market rises, and people put more money in the stock market, and it just keeps going like that, the same with property markets, the same with oil futures. And this leads us to a point where, finally, the asset bubble breaks. It breaks big time this time, not like it did in 1987, which was sort of contained, but in a much bigger way, that becomes global immediately, as the 1973-75 crisis was global.  That then poses the problem: what exactly are we going to do about this? 


Now the answer to this lies in the way we came out of the crisis in the 1970s, when the New York investment banks acquired vast quantities of money from recycling petro dollars. Their big problem was where to invest it–the economy wasn’t doing well, so where do you put your money to make a sufficient rate of return? One of the things they decided on was lending to developing countries–because the good thing about lending to countries is that countries can’t disappear, you know where they are and you know you can go get your money. So in the 1970s they lent to places like Mexico. Then they raised the interest rates and Mexico couldn’t pay, and was going to go bankrupt–which meant that the New York investment banks could go bankrupt. So at that point, the government stepped in, the treasury and the IMF got together, and they bailed out Mexico so that Mexico could bailout the New York banks. But they bailed out Mexico in such a way that the Mexican population suffered a drop in living standards of about 20% in the next two to five years. This is what’s called saving the banks and socking it to the people. 


Now I defy you to look at what’s been going on in this country in terms of its public policy and say its anything other than saving the banks and socking it to the people. We’re the ones who are paying, they are the ones who are benefitting. This is a class project, it was a class project back in the 1970s and it continues to be one now. If we come out of this crisis with this class project intact then we are in deep trouble. We have to turn it around in such a way that government policy gets turned into support of the people, not support of the banks. The banks should be nationalized, turned into public utilities which serve people, not capital. And this is something on which we really need to concentrate our ideas on, right now. In particular, the biggest danger of all is that the stimulus package which is being passed is going to be handed out to mayors, handed out to cities, handed out all over the place, in such a way that there is absolutely no control over exactly what’s going to be done with it. So what’s going to be done with it is that people are going to be use it to fund their favorite projects. Mayor Bloomberg’s favorite project is to give $45 million to retrain Wall Street executives, which seems to me an astonishing way in which to spend the money – but that’s the way Mayor Bloomberg thinks. But I think we have different ideas; in New York, together with the some of the social movements who are forming the Right To The City group, we would like to suggest a whole different set of ways the stimulus package could be spent in order to benefit people rather than capital. Along with that, we have the supreme irrationality that you have tent cities arising in California and elsewhere, increasing homelessness, at the same time that you have all these vacant properties around. Is that a rational situation? And it seems that this is a situation where political activism can take very direct action–for instance, Picture the Homeless in NYC tried to commandeer a building last week–and this is the kind of thing we need to be supporting publicly as much as we can. 


Max Rameau: I think we’ve identified that most people here are here because we’ve identified that there is a serious and ongoing crisis, and that this crisis represents an opportunity.  And while it’s important to identify that, particularly for the social justice movement, it is insufficient to stop there. In addition to identifying the fact that there is a crisis, we have to identify the specific nature of the crisis, first, and then we have to craft a series of strategies and tactics which are specifically engineered to address the crisis given the way we would like the world to be at the end of the crisis.  


We, in the social justice movement, need a theory of how real social change is made.  Significant social change happens when there’s a crisis and then as a result, there’s a social clash, a banging of heads of two or more ideas, and then, as a result of that social clash, a new reality emerges – something new is created.  The job of the social justice movement is to determine (or play a significant role in determining) what that new reality is.  Of course, the job of the system is to resist this new reality from coming into being, or to shape this new reality in such way that it benefits them, rather than benefitting human beings.  


The reason why this so important now is because up until this point we have had three major social clashes in the US and we are about to head into the fourth.  The first major social clash was centered around the civil war, where you had two economic systems battling against one another (slavery and emerging industrial capitalism), and the result was the era of reconstruction – and labor and the economic system in the US has never been the same since.  The second major social clash centered around the crisis of the great depression, and as a result of the great depression and the demands made by labor, we had the New Deal, and you never would think about labor and the social safety net in the same way again. And then the third major clash was around the civil rights movement (and the anti-war movement).  You had the black community standing up and saying we’re not going to tolerate the kind of treatment we’ve received, and as a result, you had the Great Society and the additional social safety nets, and you’d never think about race and race relationships in the same way in the US.  


We argue that we are on the verge, the cusp, of entering into the fourth major social clash, and it is our job to figure out what the nature of this social clash is, now, as it begins, and make sure that we fight for the things that we want to come out of it in the end.  We’re talking about here “crisis and resistance,” but most of the time oppressed people and supporters of oppressed people are already in a mode of resistance. When you think about resistance, you think about someone hitting or stabbing  someone, and that person resisting, trying to stop that from happening. This is what happens the majority of the time for the social justice movement, we’re resisting, we’re fighting against the actions of the system.  What’s so unique about this moment is that we are entering a time of not just resistance, a time where we are not just limited to resisting, but where we could actually be advancing.  We need to prepare for that.  This is important, because if we’re going to be advancing, we need to know where we’re going to be advancing to, and what we are advancing towards: huge gains can be made, but also significant mistakes.  We can learn, for instance, from the mistakes of the civil rights movement.  According the book Black Power, being black in the US consisted of two fundamental problems: one was being black and the other was being poor. Both problems had to be addressed by the civil rights movement, or at least should have been.  Due to a number of factors, including the direction in which the media and those in power took it, but also because of the class makeup of those who were leading the civil rights movement, being black was addressed but never being poor. We can not repeat the same kind of mistake in this next social clash.


I’m arguing that the economic crisis we are experiencing here is fundamentally rooted in land–and therefore, that the clash that results is going to be about land.  At the end of this crisis, people will be thinking about land in a significantly different way than we do now.  Today, for the most part, if you ask people if a bank has a right to buy a house and leave it empty for years on end, most people would still say yes. At the end of this crisis, I don’t think that’s going to still be the case: people will be thinking about land in a different way.  But this isn’t a foregone conclusion–things could take a significant turn in the other direction. At the end of this crisis, we’re either going to think about land in a way which gives more rights to human beings, or in a way which gives even more rights to corporations. We’re going to help determine in which direction this goes, but of course so is the system, and that’s why we have to figure out where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.    


We’re asserting that this current social clash is made up of two fundamental ideas, two rights or perceived rights, which are hitting up against one another. On the one hand, we have the right of human beings to housing, and on the other, you have the right–or perceived right–of corporations to make a profit. And increasingly it seems that these two rights are mutually exclusive. If everyone gets housing, corporations can’t maximize their profit, and conversely if corporations maximize their profit, then everyone can’t get housing. Take Back the Land asserts that the right of human beings to housing supersedes the right of corporations to make a profit. 


How does this play itself out on a practical level?  For us, Take Back the Land, it’s very simple–on October 23rd, 2006, a group of about 20 of us arrived on a vacant lot on the corner of 62nd St. and Northwest Seventeenth Ave. in the Liberty City section of Miami.  We seized control of the government owned lot, and we built a shantytown named the Umoja Village Shantytown there.  The Shantytown stood for six months, and we housed over 150 people all together.  We seized control of the land, and we decided  what was going to happen on that land rather than allowing elected officials and developers to come in and decide what was going to happen on that land. The Umoja Village burned in a suspicious fire six months later, but we felt that the ideas behind the Umoja Village remained just as valid as they had been. Consequently, starting in October of 2007, Take Back the Land began identifying vacant, government owned and foreclosed homes; we entered the homes and moved homeless people into peopleless homes, and have been doing that ever since. This is the way that we’re going to assert that the right of human beings to housing supersedes the right of corporations to make a profit–by taking vacant land, using it for the purposes  we feel are most appropriate for our community, and not allowing the system to do whatever it wants to with that land.  That’s the way we’re going to force this issue–and this needs to happen on a scale which compels a change in the laws on the ground about how land and land relationships are formed. These takeovers needs to happen on such a large scale that it forces the system to realize that it is actually going to cost them less money to give all these units away then it’s going to cost to take all these units back a second, a third, a fourth, and a fifth time from the people who are taking them over. That’s how, on the ground, we’re going to make the challenge that land belongs to human beings, rather than corporations.  


Shiri Pasternak: I was involved in a project with David Wachsmuth called “Abandonment Issues” in Toronto. This was before the economic crisis hit.  The scale of abandonment in Toronto is pretty small compared with what’s happening in the U.S., and even smaller thinking about what’s happening in the states now with the foreclosure crisis.  But we saw that there was a problem of abandoned buildings in Toronto, and a problem of tens of thousands of people on an affordable housing waitlist, and we thought that there’s a kind of math here that’s really easy to do from a social justice standpoint.  If there’s people with no houses, and houses with no people, we should really brings these two things together.  So we pushed for a “use it or lose it” bylaw, which is before City Council this spring, and hopefully will get passed.  If it is, that would mean abandoned or vacant properties in the city would be expropriated and turned into affordable housing. 


One of the big challenges of this project is that it really forced us to think about property.  There’s an underlying question of the inequalities of how property is distributed, and so we thought that this was a project that helped resocialize the way we think about law and help think differently about who gets to have shelter, who gets to have property, and how property is distributed.  In Canada, these questions are extremely salient right now.  What I want to talk about tonight is one of the most powerful social movements happening in Canada today: an indigenous movement of resistance against colonialism and neoliberalism, but a take back the land movement that poses a challenge to urban activists: to think about how living in cities disconnects us from the resources we depend on, and also disconnects us from the histories of colonialism and the histories of expropriation that we’re imbricated within and that we benefit from on a daily basis ...


(Shiri’s further remarks in the discussion largely follow the contours of the article she wrote for this paper on page 7.)


Esther Wang: I am an organizer with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities in NYC.  I want to share a little bit about what CAAAV does, so you have a grounding in where what I’m saying is coming from.  Next I want to talk a little about conditions both in Chinatown in NYC, not just in the current context of the economic crisis but over the past decade or so – what’s it like to live in NYC, particularly if you’re a working class or low-wage worker (and immigrant workers in particular.)  And then finally I want to share some thoughts that I and others have had in NYC, both in CAAAV and in the Right To The City NY Alliance around what are some of the opportunities in the current moment that weren’t present even six months ago and what are some of the strategies that we can use to actually create the world I’m sure that we all want to live in.  


I think we all know that we’re in a moment of deep economic crisis, and I know a lot of the focus in the media at least has been on how the crisis has been impacting the financial sector and the financial sector workers.  As Professor Harvey was saying, Mayor Bloomberg in NYC has this multi-million dollar plan to retrain the now unemployed financial sector workers to be enterpreneurs, but where is the program for other workers, particularly low-wage workers and working class workers who don’t have any of the social safety net that other folks do and who are really feeling the brunt of this economic crisis?  As we all know, low-wage workers are often the first to be cut loose when there’s any sort of economic crisis, whether they’re nannies, service workers, construction workers, restaurant employees.


Like many people have said, cities are really the location and the site of the struggle against neoliberalism and against capitalism.  They’re the sites of production in the current moment that we find ourselves in.  And especially in NYC, as a global city, it’s really important that we organizers and groups and individuals in NYC and other cities around the US really think of strategies that we can implement in this current time.  As other people have said, there’s a lot of ways we can leave this crisis,  and it’s up to us and others who do organizing to determine how it is that we are going to leave this crisis and what kind of society we’re going to live in once that happens.  


We know that people are feeling the brunt of this crisis – people are losing jobs, people are losing their homes, and we have to think of strategies that can address those key critical needs.  But I think an exciting part of the period we find ourselves in is that there are possibilities for action and for organizing that six months ago or a year ago most of us in this room would probably have said: there’s no way that’s going to fly in this country. There’s no way people are going to be able to do that, there’s no way anyone is going to support this kind of work, the work of Take Back the Land, for example, the work of Picture the Homeless in NYC, or the work of the Republic Window factory workers in Chicago. All of those things would have been almost impossible to think of even six months ago. And yet now we’re finding that there’s a lot of popular support behind these movements.  I think that’s exciting, and I think that part of our job and our work as organizers is to really push the enveloppe in terms of what kind of organizing we do.  


I want to start off by talking about a little bit about CAAAV.  CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was founded in 1986 by a group of Asian women to combat anti-Asian hate crimes in NYC.  Over time what we’ve evolved to do is community based organizing work. So we do organizing work in the Southeast Asian refugee community that’s in the Bronx that was relocated by the government in the 1980s, after the war in Southeast Asia. We also organize low income tenants who live in Manhattan’s Chinatown to combat gentrification and displacement. Our work is about combatting really deep systemic institutional violence and racism against Asian immigrants and refugees in the United States. We also connect our work to the broader social justice movement in the United States and internationally, through a lot of the alliance and coalition work that we do, especially with Right To The City New York and the national Right To The City National alliance.


Our work on a local level is to fight the displacement and gentrification that has occurred in New York City (and particularly in Chinatown) as a result of the neoliberal urban policies that were instituted in the wake of the crisis of the 1970s. What were the conditions in Chinatown? These conditions are not necessarily unique to Chinatown–if you go to any other working-class, low-income, community of color in New York City–Harlem, for example, Spanish Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens–you really see the same things happening there. You see the same things in cities across the United States. 


Neoliberalism in the housing market means, essentially, that private land developers and private land ownership trumps any sort of basic human rights. You see the free-market really making the decision over who gets housing and who doesn’t. So, for example, there’s no new public housing being built in New York City. Any sort of affordable housing that is built in NYC is almost completely market driven, driven by the whim of any real estate developer who is willing to take some sort of tax break if he includes 20% of affordable housing in his project–and by affordable housing we mean affordable for a family who makes $60,000 or more a year–which is clearly not affordable for a lot of the working class folks that we organize and that make-up the majority of New York’s population.


What do we see in Chinatown as a result?  Chinatown to begin with is traditionally a community of immigrant, working class, low-wage workers. It’s a huge community – about 100,000 people and that’s just talking about Manhattan’s Chinatown, not taking into account the other Chinese neighborhoods in New York City. Chinatown like many other low-income communities of color in Manhattan is  surrounded by “luxury neighborhoods.” It’s bordered by SoHo, by Tribeca, and by the Financial District–which is rapidly becoming a residential neighborhood. It’s a low-income community that amazingly has been able to survive given the skyrocketing of land values in Manhattan in the recent past. Housing conditions for low-income workers and tenants in Chinatown are really bad–tenants  overwhelmingly live in really overcrowded conditions due to the fact that housing prices have gone up so much–people are forced to triple up, quadruple up, in small tenant apartments, and they still pay a thousand dollars a month (or more) for their apartment. The buildings in Chinatown are almost all overwhelmingly really old–some of them are almost 100 years old and they’re not very well-maintained by their landlords. You see a lot of landlords, slumlords really, deliberately harassing their tenants in order to get them to move out of their apartments so that they can raise the rents to market rates and bring in wealthier tenants. Chinatown tenants have actually been facing a crisis for a really long time, a crisis that started long before this current economic crisis hit New York City and this country. These are trends that are actually getting worse now that low income workers are losing their jobs in mass numbers.  And these trends have been accelerated by the financial housing bubble that created all this fictional wealth in this country–what we’ve seen in the past decade or so is that luxury development in the community has increased dramatically. You see condos sprouting up throughout Chinatown with apartments selling for a million dollars or more–you see luxury stores and restaurants opening up on streets where there used to be none. All of this development only increases the pressures that low income tenants and small businesses face in Chinatown. 


I wanted to paint you a picture of what is going on in Chinatown to give you a framework for thinking about how we organize–how we prioritize our organizing and why we think the strategies that I’m about to layout are really the ways we can see this current crisis as an opportunity and as a way to move toward a society where housing is a human right.

There are different components to how we prioritize our organizing. First, we prioritize base building. What that means for us is really building a movement to scale with numbers made up of people that are directly affected by systematic oppression in this country. For us, that means the low income, working class residents of Chinatown. This is really relevant at this current moment because even though we have all this exciting organizing happening, our movement is still not big enough, still not to scale–we still don’t have masses of people behind our work.


Related to that is doing really serious leadership development with our members. I want to echo what a group in San Fransisco called Power said: “Our work is really about building conscious organizers and conscious organizers that are people of color.” We take that to mean that leadership development is a key component of all of our work: our movement should be lead by the people that are most directly affected.


Another really important component of our work is waging and winning campaigns that make concrete changes in our community. And what’s really exciting now is that campaigns that we thought would never have traction a year ago or six months ago now do and we can think of bigger and broader campaigns that are actually winnable and will actually make concrete changes in the lives and conditions of working class people of color in this country.


I want to end with some thoughts about the current moment. How do we really organize so we reach the masses of people who are feeling fucked over by the system, who’ve lost their jobs, whose homes are being foreclosed, who maybe aren’t getting unemployment anymore, whose schools they send their children to are getting cut, whose teachers are leaving, how do we really reach a mass number in the work that we do and actually win some concrete changes?  I think that is the crux of our work in this moment and I want to echo what David Harvey said earlier: what we need to be doing is saying “to hell with capitalism!” I heard that and I thought that that’s of course what we should be doing, but the hard part is, how do we get numbers and masses of people to say that as well?


Some of the things that people have been talking about in New York City, particularly Right To The City in New York, is definitely around the stimulus package. There’s all this money coming to cities, with mayors getting a lot of the money. From what I can gather, mayors have a lot of discretionary authority to determine how they want to spend the money and what kind of projects they want to spend the money on. How do we as organizers and as people who work in low-income, working class communities–or no-income communities–think about the stimulus money? What are the projects we want to push our city or state governments to spend the money on? So one thing that has been floated in NYC as part of the RTTC New York alliance is getting the government to actually take that bailout money and either buy abandoned condo buildings that haven’t been finished due to the credit crunch or actually build new affordable housing in NYC. That’s one way that the federal money could actually go to fill a huge need in NYC for truly affordable low-income, low-cost housing.  


What’s really exciting about the period we find ourselves in is that we should be thinking about any and all tactics when we’re talking about how to combat this economic crisis.  We can go the legislative route, we can push the government on the stimulus money they’re spending, supposedly to revive the economy. But we can also do things like housing takeovers, land takeovers–let’s actually take back warehoused housing and reclaim it for low-income or no-income homeless people. We can think creatively and actually begin to move towards the world we all imagine.   


We’ve been thinking a lot about how different sectors can work together in this moment–for example, how can housing organizers work with unions? How can alliances of migrant workers work together with Right To The City?  How can the National Alliance of Domestic Workers work together with Right To The City or with labor unions? It’s exciting that these conversations are actually happening among all the national alliances in this country that organize different sectors. A really exciting thing about Right to the City is that it brings together people who share a common framework, and who all do anti-gentrification work in one form or another. But some of the groups specifically do housing work, some groups do more environmental justice work, some groups do health justice work–but everyone has a common analysis and through Right To The City we’re able to think about campaigns we can all work together on. 


I’m excited by the moment we find ourselves in. I’m not old, but I’ve read about past movements and been inspired by them, and what I’m hoping is that out of the times of really deepest crisis is when people can be really creative and do some really kick-ass, amazing organizing, and I think now is the time for us to do that