Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Less Amelioration, More Agitation

I was on an ending homelessness panel tonight at Seattle University. The small auditorium was full. The panel covered the spectrum of approaches. Bill Kirlin-Hackett of the Interfaith Task Force sat to my left and said "No one is to your left."

He was speaking figuratively, I guess.

When it came my turn to solve homelessness in six minutes (Nancy Amidei was having entirely too much fun with her kitchen timer), I said we need less amelioration and more agitation.

I said we know how to solve homelessness because we've solved it before.

America's last period of massive homelessness, like the one we have now, was also the result of major economic dislocation. Civil War demobilization collided with industrialization to release hordes of hungry war-torn men to unemployment at a time when the rural and home-based economies were being destroyed by the factory. Between then and World War II, there were three depressions, and hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of men roamed the country in desperate search of work.

Skid Rows were born, with whole economies of cheap rooms, baths, food, booze, and sex to meet their needs. Hobo camps were ubiquitous. The homeless were a despised class, viewed with disdain and scorn by those whose positions were more secure.

World War II ended all of that with full employment, but the demobilization this time was entirely different. Even after kicking all the women and Blacks out of the factories, there would not be nearly enough work. The government had a choice.

Did they really want a to turn a bunch of deeply disillusioned hungry men out into the streets? Men who had seen war, were expert in the use of small arms and explosives, and not in the mood to take any shit?

They did not. Most of the white guys got the GI Bill, which delayed the shock by absorbing many into the university system. This was perhaps the greatest engine of class mobility this nation has ever seen. There were FHA loans that made homeownership broadly accessible. Roads were built. Ambitious public works projects meant good jobs. The 1949 Housing Act promised decent housing to all. A pact of sorts existed between government, business, and the civil sector that recognized a mutual interest in some pursuance of the common good. This led to modest but steady economic growth and declining rates of inequality right up to 1973.

Homelessness had been ended. A few small missions looked after the winos and hard cases. Nearly anyone could manage a roof over their head. There was plenty of cheap housing. The bottom rungs of it had been built before the war to satisfy a large market of migratory labor. It was still there.

Homelessness was solved by the same policies that boosted the middle-class and brought prosperity to many. Then, over the seventies and with Reagan, things pretty much went to hell. The economic restructuring this time around was globalization, and as bad as things are, they could well get much, much meaner.

Corporate control of our politics has reduced government to a means of enhancing the bottom lines of global entities run by an elite floating class of the super-rich. Prisons are big business and one in ninety-nine Americans is behind bars. I'm not making that up.

No Child Left Behind is to education what Ending Chronic Homelessness is to poverty: a big fucking photo-op smoke screen to hide the obvious fact that poor people are getting raped a little harder every day. Higher education at any university that could actually change your class standing is largely out of reach of the bottom 80%.

There is no money to rebuild the decaying national infrastructure because we're too busy shoveling dough to warlords like Dick Cheney so that they can steal Iraq'a oil and start World War III.

And housing? No money for that. Too busy cutting taxes for the rich. Grover Norquist's dream is coming true. Soon, government will be small enough to be drowned in a bathtub.

We're in some sort of post-1973 parallel reverse universe, where everything about the economy that worked for the majority has been turned into its opposite.

And then, as I gazed into a sea of impressionable young faces, I heard myself saying that the Black Panthers had it right. You need to do the work that meets people's needs and brings them together, and you have to make revolution.

And given the above, who can argue with that?

After I got home, I started thinking about what it meant that I had been out telling college students to be revolutionaries. It felt a bit like I'd turned a corner. Had I just advocated for the overthrow of the United States government? These are dangerous times for that sort of thing.

And my immediate thought was, "what government?"

Government, in a way, is a sort of a neutral entity. It's a set of administrative functions concerned with budgeting and oversight and such. The question is who owns it? Are the people in there anywhere, or has it mostly just become a vehicle for the furtherance of elite interests?

So to me, being a revolutionary is about understanding that inequality is about two sides growing further and further apart, with the benefit to one coming at the expense of the other, and that this other side is willing to do almost anything to keep what they have and get even more.

They always want more.

Revolution, in terms of a social change strategy, is really the only viable option. The power of the ruling class has to be challenged. And the bottom 80% or so of us and more have a mutual interest in taking the bastards on. From there, it's just a question of tactics.

Strategies of mitigation don't touch the logic of the capitalism that we have. If we want to end homelessness, it's a fact we have to face. And we'll all benefit when we do.

Less amelioration, more agitation. I think I'm making a bumpersticker.


Diane Nilan said...

Maybe we should privatize the revolution!

I wish I could argue with your depressing assessment, but as usual you are right. Glad you have the courage to say it.

Bruce Triggs said...

Let's have a poll:

[ ] Revolution

[ ] Amelioration

[ ] Accordionation!

(Oh, one of those goes under the "music" thread of this blog.)

Jim Page said...

Great post! I have to disagree with diane who said it was a "depressing assessment." I think any time you can clarify the situation and begin to focus in on the solutions things are lees depressing. Like my favorite bumper sticker says, "direct action is the antidote to despair."

Jim Page said...

PS I meant to say "less depressing." But you knew that...

Diane Nilan said...

Well, I don't think we disagree on what needs to be done, and my choice of word "depressing" might have been a reflection of some circumstances I heard about that paralleled Tim's bleak assessment of reality.

Direct action, I'm all for it. It's the only thing that will keep us sane (assuming...). And knowing what we're up against is why I like Apesma's Lament so much. Time doesn't mince words.

Diane Nilan said...

Tim doesn't mince words either!