By Nicholas Caleb
Through a process of losing confidence that has spanned my twenties, I’ve finally given up on national politics and find it incapable of being reformed through existing institutional reform mechanisms (except maybe a constitutional amendment coming from a state driven convention; different can of worms for a different post). The lack of meaningful campaign finance limits, the way the revolving door between government and corporations has become the norm, and a slew of other rancid realities render our system irreformably corrupt. The entirety of the content on this blog could be devoted to existing problems in the power structure. Luckily, these critiques have been developed over the years and clarified in the wake of the most recent financial collapse to the point where I can simply reference or summarize the best (quick plug: everyone MUST read David Graeber’s Debt, David Harvey’s Rebel Cities, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, and watch Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job). Spoiler alert: shit is fucked up and bullshit.
However, I’m still not willing to concede that all is lost. I feel that there are realistic ways of re-establishing democratic control over the things that most affect our lives, but in order to get there, we must depart from the traditional way of thinking about separation of powers and established federal hierarchy. In my opinion, we have to start by taking back our cities, ‘radicalizing’[1. I often use the world “radical” to describe what I think are pretty common sense approaches. Unfortunately, neoliberals have succeeded in convincing everyone that infinite growth on a finite planet is a realistic and proper way of thinking. So, “radical” is just an acknowledgment that I’m departing from the insanity that is the status quo.] them (democracy is and has always been a radical concept in the United States), and confidently asserting the primacy of a bottom up models of governance in the face of resistance from the top. This means thinking about democracy as citizen-actors who want to participate in decision making instead of accepting and engaging in the legalistic abstractions that can lead to absurd reasoning like “Corporations are people” or “Commerce trumps the health and safety of real people and environmental harm.” If we disagree with this mode of reasoning, and we must at a very deep level, the only solution is to take off the gloves and become antagonists and obstacles in the way of continued environmental degradation and human exploitation. Though it challenges the logic of anyone who took high school civics (and especially the logic of those who went to law school), we need to repudiate the concept that the Supreme Court, or the Executive of Congress for that matter, are the final arbiters what is Constitutional. We have to opt into taking literally the largely mythical propositions of the origins of our nation and really believe that the fucking people are the final arbiters of what is good and right. Simple regime change will not do. Weak institutional rationales aside, the last two Democratic administrations have shown the inability and unwillingness of the government to stop the advance of neoliberalism or reign in the military. Let’s transition.
So, why cities and how do we radicalize them? Well, cities are smaller than states and the nation, haven’t been fully corrupted, and exist at a level where we can actually (mostly) understand how things function without getting too abstract and disconnected from reality. This isn’t to say that cities aren’t complex. They clearly are; and increasingly so as population rises. But, geographical realities underlying words like “city” and “metropolitan area” are meant to describe shared physical space. Of course there are abstractions involved in defining a city, but these abstractions seem more manageable for the brain than the ridiculous complexities that inhere in the abstraction that is the nation state. For me, it seems a more manageable scale for analysis and action.
Additionally, cities have real power. They have large budgets, resources, infrastructure, commercial networks, and lots of creative people. They have big streets and glorious common spaces (though increasingly subject to privatization). [2. We should make more common spaces. “The common is not to be construed, therefore, as a particular kind of thing, asset or even social process, but as an unstable and malleable social relation between a particular self-defined social group and those aspects of its actually existing or yet-to-be-created social and/or physical environment deemed crucial to its life and livelihood. There is, in effect, a social practice of commoning. This practice produces or establishes a social relation with a common whose users are either exclusive to a social group and that aspect of the environment being treated as a common shall be both collective and non-commodified–off-limits to the logic of market exchange and market valuations. This last point is crucial because it helps distinguish between public goods construed as productive state expenditures and a common which is established or used in a completely different way and for a completely different purpose, even when it ends up indirectly enhancing the wealth and income of the social group that claims it. A community garden can thus be viewed as a good thing in itself, no matter what food may be produced there. This does not prevent some of the food being sold.” Harvey, David. Rebel Cities, p. 74.] They can pass laws. They can regulate development. They can regulate their environments above and beyond the weak state and federal ‘protections’ currently in place. They have land to grow food on. They can lobby states and lead them in policy efforts by example. And these powers can be utilized for the advancement of human rights rather than the interests of bankers and developers if we build the right coalitions and seize the reins of municipal governments. Activist groups have been creating autonomous spaces within cities around the world for a long time. [3. i.e. ”The organizers of low-income and precarious labor in Baltimore declared the whole Inner Harbor area a “human rights zone”–a sort of common–where every worker should receive a living wage.” Harvey, p. 79. Occupy Wall St. and its progeny are other examples in the US. Worldwide, there are far more.] I propose that we begin to envision what it would be like to turn an entire city into an autonomous zone existing for the betterment of the lives of citizens and serve as a model for others who might pursue similar activities.
Take Portland, for example (mostly because I live here). Like any city, it has lots of problems. These problems, and solutions to them, will be explored at length on this blog. But, I want to focus on one in an effort to show how a city with a strong human and environmental rights approach might handle it. Let us analyze the global scourge commonly encapsulated in the words coal trains. [4. On this issue, the Oregonian has managed to suspend its normally very shitty reporting to do some pretty decent journalism.]
Coal trains are literally trains filled with coal that corporations — like Ambre Energy and their Portland PR lackeys Gard Communications [5. Gard’s clients also include OHSU (strong emphasis on public health), Portland State University (strong sustainability focus), and the Oregon Department of Transportation (Oregon has a strong climate plan). Keep in mind that they are headquartered in Portland, which also has a strong climate action plan. It strikes me as inherently fucked up that a PR firm based in Portland is lying to citizens so we can help contribute to climate change. Call this number if you want to give them a piece of your mind: 503-221-0100.] – are currently extracting in mass quantity from the Powder River Basin in order to sell at discount rates to China. This process involves shipping the coal through the Northwest; first on trains and then onto ships. Three big problems (there are more) with this are that coal dust tends to find its way off of the trains and into the bodies of human beings, the burning of coal contributes greatly to climate change, and the pollutants from burning the coal in dirt(ier) [6. There’s no such thing as clean coal.] Chinese powerplants will blow back across the pacific and damage the local environment. It’s very possible that companies will include Portland in this route.
Here’s what coal trains look like rolling down the Columbia:
To me, this is ridiculous on so many levels. Why should the Northwest, one of the most environmentally conscious places on the globe, be consenting to huge environmental degradation and allowing the health and safety of our citizens to be further endangered to further a fossil fuel economy that needs to end? Portland needn’t take any part in this. So what could a radicalized city do? Doesn’t this boil down to a question of separation of powers? Doesn’t the commerce-obsessed judiciary say we must allow commerce to proceed if they say so? Are we simply outgunned?Note the haze. That’s coal dust. Yuck.
Well, even without considering the city as medium for social transformation, city governments in the region are passing non-binding resolutions against coal and our local politicians have joined in promising at least this much. [7. Jefferson Smith on coal. Charlie Hales on coal.] The notable exception to this trend is super-progressive Steve Novick, who apparently hates coal, but can’t fathom that a city could do anything about it. Though his reasoning is unclear, I’m willing to wager that his stance is a traditional deference to the federal hierarchy (due to his former federal prosecutor roots).
The problem with the resolution method is that it is non-binding. It’s the we’re-mad-but-all-we-can-do-is-make-a-formal-sounding-objection approach. Instead, we should be passing binding ordinances against coal and amending our city charter/constitution to assert environmental and human rights. In other words, we should change the law to reflect our values. If we really don’t want our children poisoned and care about preserving the human and natural environment, let’s stop the project. We have police. Why not train them to enforce our environmental laws? If we are going to be poisoned, make the federal government exert its power to show us that the needs of multinational corporations, as expressed in legalese by an undemocratic Supreme Court and bought-and-paid-for federal laws and regulations, trump the rights of flesh and blood human beings. Think about it: this is really a battle of an abstract consideration like “Commerce” put up against real and demonstrable harm to human bodies and the environment. How would the federal government enforce the transport of coal if we just decided physically not to allow it. The imagery that immediately pops in my mind is of the national guard clearing paths during school desegregation in the South. Imagine the scene of the Army[9. No governor is sending in the national guard for this.] clearing railroad tracks to allow the poisoning of citizens. Is the federal government really willing to take these sorts of steps to ensure coal delivery? If it would, why would we care about its laws anyway? This sounds a bit outlandish, but it’s useful to consider where these types of conflicts could lead.
The discomfort people obviously would have with such an approach is that it is provocative and calls into question the legitimacy of the power structure. That’s scary. I get it. But what choice do we have if we really want to succeed? If we bother to detach ourselves from the abstractions that rule our lives and think about the real-world effects of policies, this is where we arrive. All of the rationales that we have erected as to why these active steps are not necessary have been exposed as clever fabrications. I mean, if we have environmental laws that work, why is the federal government giving permits to companies to mine coal in the first place? The top-down regulatory approach has been wholly corrupted (if it ever worked at all), everyone knows it, and we are still having a hard time wrapping our heads around where to go.
I don’t think that there are tons of institutionally educated folk who will readily drop the hard-learned legal abstractions and join me on this plane right away. It takes a lot of pill swallowing (in the metaphorical sense) and reflection to get to a place where open defiance seems like the most reasonable option. But, if you bother to deal with the unfortunate realities, it’s not hard to see that the world isn’t the artificially categorized abstractions taught in universities or pushed on the evening news. In the real world, commerce can and does kill. The ‘wealth’ generated from the so-called real economy is actually not so real. What’s real are the effects of running an infinite growth economy on a finite planet. We simply choose not to account for damage in the bottom line of a corporation or a summary of the national economy. We call them externalities; costs shifted from those that benefit financially onto everyone else. Externalities are a nice euphemism for environmental degradation, massive pollution, resource wars, military spending, and in the end, human health. The secret is that the exceptions in economic models (externalities and transaction costs) are actually the rule. The real world doesn’t run like a computer simulation. The economy doesn’t grow forever because a quant says it should. The point is that we can come back to the ground and actually start accounting for these costs locally and start implementing a different conception of economy. First, we have to acknowledge what is really going on and stop it.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke at a rally in Pioneer Square a few months back and told us in great detail how coal will corrupt, pollute, and exploit us. He said keep it out at any cost. The stakes are high and we need to be prepared to have these conflicts if we take democracy seriously. Over time, we have got to assert the right to a clean and healthy environment. It has to start somewhere. It should be here. And, if we do it, the model will catch on and soon there will be leagues of cities practicing this form of resistance and self-governance. All it takes is a flip in the way we have come to view political power. Rights based binding ordinances have and can further succeed because they are an expression of common sense and fall in line with deeply held American notions of self-governance. Winning a victory in this city increases the chance of a regional victory and could impact the global fossil fuel based economy. These are the victories that are needed to open up the niche for real renewable energy solutions. Waging a really noisy complaint in the form of a resolution without any possibility of enforcement doesn’t take us there.
In addition to changing the laws and causing long overdue conflicts in how the system is and should be structured, the city has leverage in dealing with people who will lose out when we stop coal. To be sure, there are jobs at stake. Loading coal isn’t a particularly sexy job, but it puts food on the table for families. What kinds of arrangements with local food producers and community partners could the city help to create? Surely, the costs saved in health care from unpolluted local commerce would far exceed the cost of creating a fund to help offset the immediate financial deprivation of laborers. City based welfare isn’t a long term solution to problems of unemployment, but despite assurances to the contrary, there is a lot of money in the City of Portland’s budget. [11. Grabbing it from development funds and creating more revenue through progressive taxation instead of austerity cuts are different topics entirely.] Creatively using said cash as we transition to a full cost accounting economy seems like a really positive use of city funds as far as I’m concerned. Further, why not eliminate outrageous funding of the Sustainability Center [12. Erecting a large building is already outside of the category of sustainable. It is a monument to excess and an exercise in irony.] , scrap the ridiculous expenditures on consultants for the Columbia River Crossing, and actually spend our money to practice sustainability instead of just talking about it all the time? Once you open up this line of thinking, there are a lot of different ways of structuring a local economy. Of course, these are things that the state and federal governments should be doing. But they’re captured by special interests. Since we can actually feasibly liberate city government, this is the next best thing.
Outside of implementing measures for stopping coal, there are myriad ways in which cities can become more democratic. Participatory budgeting, having permanent citizen review committees, and incentivizing more local food production other are ways of ensuring democracy and creating security for citizens. These topics deserve more attention, but I’m simply too tired at the moment.
In coming articles, I also want to start generating some dialogue about the sorts of institutions, existing and imagined, that can create a culture that will push us in the direction that a different sort of active political mindset can emerge. We’ve seen an awakening in political consciousness and from speaking with people around the city, I know that there is a desire to actually try new approaches to political economy. Let’s see what we can come up with.
Nicholas Caleb is an attorney, college professor, and activist.