Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Legitimation Crisis

The class that I teach on Streetpapers, Homelessness, and Poverty each spring at the University of Washington starts this Friday, and I've been working up the syllabus and building the wiki this week. This will be my fifth year doing this course. After flailing around for awhile, I've decided that the ways in which homelessness is understood serve mostly to deflect attention from what's really going on.

As I was working up the reading list, I remembered an article by Peter Marcuse that made a huge impression on me in the late 80s.

Massive homelessness within a wealthy nation such as the US, he argues, can be understood as clear evidence that our economic system is not meeting the needs of a great many people and needs to change. This could conceivably present a "legitimation crisis" for the whole capitalist system.

On the other hand, homelessness could be framed as a problem of individual dysfunction and the need for more social services to fix all those screwed up people.

This would be the, "It's the people who are broken, not the system" argument, which seems, over the past few decades, to have largely prevailed.

First published in Socialist Review in 1988, Peter Marcuse's influential Neutralizing Homelessness article shows up in a great number of lefty academic bibliographies, but proved remarkably hard to find today. The Seattle Public library does not carry this particular journal.

The article was excerpted that year, however, in Shelterforce and in Christanity and Crisis. While the library's subscription to Shelterforce did not start until 1990, they had the other one on microfiche.

Here's the first paragraph:

"Homelessness has three related causes: The profit structure of housing, the distribution of income, and government policy. Housing is supplied for profit, as a commodity. There is no profit in supplying housing for those now homeless. The cost of provision has increased, and alternate uses are more profitable. Changes in the economy have deprived many people of the income needed to pay for housing. The government only acts to provide housing for persons unable to pay the market price when the economy may need such people in the future, or when those people threaten the status quo. Neither situation prevails today."

You gotta love a good bracing Marxist analysis. No wonder the library didn't see fit to order the leading socialist journal in the fucking country!

Anyway, I walked down to the library, printed out the microfiche, scanned it into my laptop, and turned it into a PDF, which is here. I'm still working on getting the more detailed original article, and when I do I'll post that as well.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good posting I look forward to your follow-up.

Here's a gassy response in the interim.

Streetpapers, in my mind, are an example of reasonable and logical exploration of alternate frameworks and options from inside a broken economic system. That our economic system is not meeting the needs of a great many people and needs to change is clear in my head. I believe different frameworks for the provision of housing options should also be explored from inside a broken economic system - more responsively and logically.

As somebody who has worked intensively, since the mid-to-late 80's, in the provision of
both government inspired/supported low and high-end market housing in our capitalist system, I have some observations and an inductive argument to share from that viewpoint.

My argument, admittedly, remains undeveloped in form. It includes arguments dealing with generalizations from my own past experience, appeals to signs, common sense evidences and causal relationships. It's a premise offering reasons supporting a "probable truth" in my mind that it is controversial on face.

You shared a notion: "Housing is supplied for profit, as a commodity. There is no profit in supplying housing for those now homeless."

Agreed. Inside our current context and economic system there is no profit motive for supplying only Nordstrom-level options for a demographic needing instead “Everything for Under a Dollar” options. It’s an unworkable proposition. The missing profit motive represents for me a fundamental flaw in reason and logic inside the economic system we got. Meaning our objective is right (serving homeless people) and our approach is all wrong (requiring all housing be Nordstrom’s level housing units) -or- our approach is right (requiring all housing be Nordstrom’s level housing units) and our objective is wrong, (serving homeless people.)

Maybe we could begin by assuming our approach is wrong.

As a provider of housing, I understand housing includes “shelter” but I sense that it is something much larger. Shelter has recognizable form: single-family homes; high-rise condos; single room occupancy buildings, homeless shelters, campervan; tent; rain protection under a bridge, etc. In obtaining housing, vs. shelter, I sense one secures higher access to "a package of products" that contributes to one's ability to access improved quality of life. (i.e., condominium marketing assumes shelter in addressing only the “lifestyle” package.)

We might shift our housing paradigm onto a broader framework to open some doors. Our current approach to housing solutions is expressed and driven quantitatively, the typically something like, "number of code and zoning compliant housing units." Either one has one of those housing units or one does not.

There is an inherent issue in this. There exists heavy regulation surrounding the provision of a housing "unit." In our current context, the spectrum, or the range of "what a housing unit is", in Seattle, minimally requires from some source up-front capital of about $20K for land, $80K for hard costs (construction) and $10K - $20K more for all the associated soft costs. Add a profit incentive needing for undertaking the endeavor and for risk providing a unit of housing. These costs roughly represent fixed costs of providing "a unit" of housing that will meet all current regulatory codes and zoning.

You also shared the notion: "The cost of provision has increased, and alternate uses are more profitable."

Agreed. This is the playing field we are on. And accordingly, on this playing field I believe different frameworks for the provision of housing options should be explored more responsively and logically.

We might consider “housing” other than highly defined thus expensive and unworkable "units" in our current context. We might consider housing provision as a broader range of shelter types with minimal and varying (decent) packages or total living environments - that simultaneously generated income and employment opportunity.

Basically, I'm proposing, "What if we agreed to support, (demonstration projects?) exploring the challenges of supplying a range of housing supply and instead allowed "Everything for under a Dollar" housing options vs. allowing only Nordstrom’s level options?

It seems to me that despite obvious warts, Tent City, has in fact for many years offered for many without housing "units", a package or living environment preferable to our current "or nothing" option.

Again, I acknowledge my reasoning in this is remains inductive.

Thanks
-Scott

Anitra said...

The argument "It's the people who are broken, not the system" did not prevail all by itself. "The system" is not some abstract collection of spontaneously generated memes that operates under its own power for its own motives, manipulating human beings who are helpless in its grip.

I recommend the book Free Market Missionaries by Sharon Beder, which documents the campaign to convince the American public that the untrammeled pursuit of wealth by the few is necessary to the common good, that poverty is the result of personal flaws, and that government intervention in the economy is a moral evil. It was that campaign, financed and orchestrated by "Big Business," that created the "neoconservative" movement and invested it with moral legitimacy. It didn't "just happen."

It will take an equally extensive, passionate, and deliberate campaign to change those social attitudes. Street newspapers are part of that campaign.

I think one of the links that needs to be broken is the idea that "wealth" equals "power." The root of that idea is the assumption that nobody does anything except for money. That assumption was sold to us by the "free market missionaries," and it is disproven by ordinary human beings every day; by mothers, fathers, friends and neighbors.

Human beings have many motivations, which means that human economy is much more complex than free market ideology paints it to be. There are many ways for human beings to provide food, shelter, and other necessities of life to each other. The present system is designed to only allow those transactions that result in the accumulation of wealth under the control of a few at the top. Any transaction that subverts that concentration of wealth is creating change.

There's empowerment.