My interview with the Socialist Worker published yesterday, and was a rare opportunity to describe my notions of how homelessness and incarceration link as issues and the overall landscape of our times. They did a really nice job of going to the core of a very long interview and making me sound smart. I'm beginning to get past my innate bias against the silliness of the sectarian left and am learning to love the International Socialists. God help me. Here's an excerpt:
IF SEATTLE continues down this road of criminalizing poverty and decides to go ahead with the new jail, what should we expect in the future?
WHAT'S FUNDAMENTALLY at stake here and everywhere is our vision of the future. We're sliding down a path of a continual increase in the numbers of incarcerated and homeless, continual impoverishment on the lower end of the scale, continual erosion of the middle class and the increased economic vulnerability that comes along with that. More vulnerability to falling over the edge, into that class of people who exist in the land of no return.
There is a lot of mystification around the homelessness issue. You get these complete BS reports out of Washington and the Department of Housing and Urban Development that have all this rosy news about how homelessness is being ended. Anybody who is on the ground dealing with homelessness and seeing the reality knows that there are more people, that the desperation has increased, that things are worse now than they have ever been. This rosy view that things are working is a big smokescreen to placate people.
Homelessness cannot be ended without addressing the root causes that are driving it, that have to do with the economies of labor, and who wins and who loses in this system. The government isn't going to address that, because it can't without threatening itself.
So the response that you see is one of appearing to address homelessness that is really about maintaining their own political legitimacy. They cannot ignore the moral crisis of homelessness without appearing unjust and illegitimate. They cannot address the crisis of homelessness without going to these root causes, which they're institutionally ill-equipped to do anything about.
A theologian named Walter Bruggeman says that situations of cultural acceptance breed accommodating complacency. I think that is the core insight that applies to the times we live in.
As a culture, we have accommodated ourselves to what, at a glance, should be a completely unacceptable reality. There are institutions in place whose primary purpose is to make that accommodation acceptable, to lull us into the sense that things are more or less okay, that the system is functioning normally, and that there is a kind of benign welfare state that is doing its best to take care of people.
That is all an ideological smokescreen. The reality is that about 10 percent of us have been completely written off, thrown to the wolves and have no alternative but to continually cycle through survival systems. Just bare subsistence survival activity--the desperation of which would blow most people's minds if they really understood it--vulnerability to incarceration, and very little prospect of ever escaping that system. That is the core reality of our time, that anybody who has a sense of universal love and concern for their fellow human beings should be completely outraged by.
What we see in the Third World should give us all nightmares. There's been radical growth of urban slums in the Third World over the last two decades--also a response to the global economy, where globalization has driven the rural poor into the containment of the urban slums. The larger ones are 25-40 million people who are living in these shantytowns, where people are living in toxic waste dumps of low-value land, which means floodplains, earthquake-prone slopes, cities built on shit, literally. Smells horrible, no infrastructure, rampant disease. It is a vision of Dante's hell.
The reason we don't have more of that here--although I do think we're starting to see it--is that some of those contested urban spaces are still being contested. And the containment systems are less visible, but are equally horrendous--for instance, the conditions within the prison system, where rape is casually accepted as an unofficial method of dehumanization, of discipline really.
The expansion of maximum-security institutions, in which people are subjected to a form of ongoing torture; the acceptance of dehumanizing conditions within emergency shelter systems--they're different containment systems that dehumanize in different ways.
So one future is continuing along that trajectory. And the economic collapse in the U.S. offers the potential that that curve will again shoot up. In recent years, the rates of growth in incarceration and homelessness have declined slightly--they haven't stopped growing, but they're growing less rapidly.
But our capacity to mitigate this disaster through the provision of human services--which at least offers some sort of a lifeline to those who are most vulnerable--is being reduced, and horrendous cuts are on the table. So we're very likely to see an acceleration in all these trends.