29 August 2011

Changes in the spatial organization of domination

Response to “Apprehensions of the social”, part 2 of 4
By Chris Wright

We have passed from what Guy Debord called urbanism to what I would call suburbanism. Suburbanism is a new resolution to the spatial problems which arise with capitals main dynamic of separating the producers from the means of production, from each other, and from their products, while then needing to bring them back together in a manner appropriate to valorization. All of the above not only applied to the labor process inside a production facility; it applied to the entire structure of space.

The de-linking of lived space from worked space in the form of workers moving to the suburbs (and not even to the suburbs their job moved to) breaks the relationship between workplace and residents. The effects of this break were visible in many strikes in the 1980s and 90s, where workers in the plants were often white and had fled from the now Black and Latino neighborhoods where the plants were located, undermining any possible unity. The Chicago and Detroit newspaper strikes were an especially stark presentation of this problem.

In the United States in particular, a series of national peculiarities came together to allow a singularly divisive housing policy: suburbanization.

Blessed with vast masses of arable and livable land relative to a rather small population, land was cheap. Unlike Europe, the United States had no laws barring the owners of mass transit systems from speculating in land. The US also had abundant sources of cheap wood and the balloon frame house which had developed in the late 1800s became an expedient, cheap, mass assembled housing option. Already booming by the 1920s in a country where home ownership was already at 48 percent of families in 1928, suburbs and sprawl cities, which already had developed around the electric rail car system (Los Angeles was a product of the electric trolley, not the automobile), were given a massive boost by the FHA, the Federal Home Loan Insurance Company, and the GI Bill during the New Deal, and further by the Interstate Highway Act under Eisenhower.

These massive public programs carefully privatized social expenditure, and also thoroughly racialized it. 99 percent of GI Bill home loans went to whites. The FHA refused to back developers who did not include racially exclusive covenants until 1948, and legally refused to lend to people living in “red line” districts, which were defined in the Underwriters Manual created in 1935 as areas with any Black people. None of this was seriously undermined until the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and even now enforcement of the act is spotty at best.

This form of private home ownership was also the means to equity, which in a country in which healthcare and post-secondary education were largely private, for-pay affairs, meant a source of secure wealth that could be borrowed against in times of need.

As suburbanization took deeper and deeper root, the shift away from downtown, urban shopping areas to malls and todays megastores was only a matter of time. Travel then becomes a matter of having a car, since post-WWII suburbs are almost uniformly pedestrian unfriendly, especially with the zoning laws disallowing shared areas between residential, commercial and industrial facilities.

The reason I say this is suburbanism rather than suburbanization is because these very same processes also transformed the city; the space of production was changed as much as the space of consumption, and most importantly space is increasingly reduced to either the space of production or the space of consumption, with no other space available. This shift in the form of spatial domination is not merely one of housing, but of the transformation of space into a network of infrastructure allowing for the breaking up of home and work, of residential and work neighborhood. Cities went from industrial centers with large working class populations to more and more financial centers with limited industrial areas, decaying downtowns, a shrinking tax base, and an increasingly large base of ghettoized minority residents with access only to the lowest paying kinds of work, corroding or non-existent public transportation, and faced with police forces that in the city were meant to keep them in, and in the suburbs were meant to keep them out. Not surprisingly, the first major breakup of home and work is at the base of bourgeois gender division, so it should be no surprise that suburbanism entailed a re-gendering as well as a re-racialization.

That is, the present shifts were not just surface, but represented an actual break with the dynamic of the urbanism that had dominated the period from the late 1700s to the 1930s. This was especially blatant in the US, but the EU already in 2003 had recognized the incursion of the American Model on European development.

This did not simply take place against labor. The victory of labor at the level of unionization and private union-based pension programs and benefits took the place of socialized healthcare, social housing programs, socialized mass transit, socialized post-secondary education, and so on. In each instance, wherever the problem was addressed nationally vis-à-vis the state in the form of public services, in the US the most massive social programs in history were undertaken to build up and support private wealth and private acquisition of wealth. Openly public programs were slandered as a handout for the lazy, the shiftless, the credit unworthy, and frankly, for the not-white not-quite-citizens. As James Baldwin noted, the saved always have to be able to locate the damned.


  1. This is a very helpful characterization of developments under Fordism, but neoliberalism has seen the modification and partial reversal of some of what you describe. Old downtowns have seen new concentrations of capital, jobs, and high-end residences; initiatives to beautify them, revive public transit, and clear them of poor residents have followed. The Latino and especially black underclasses have been pushed further from the new concentrations of jobs and transit and remain highly segregated. But the racial landscape among professionals and in the suburbs has been complicated by the increasing number of Asian immigrant or immigrant-descended entrants as well as the trickle of black and Latino professionals. And changes in the regime of gender under neoliberalism have, of course, been the most pronounced of all.

    Would you interpret these developments as basically working in the same direction as those you describe, or do you think changes in the urban/suburban fabric under neoliberalism have created new possibilities?

  2. I don't think the change in direction you mention was linked per se to Fordism, a term I find somewhat unhelpful, actually. Or rather, my entire conception of how to periodize capital rests on cycles of valorization and de-valorization, with their attendant changes in the labor/valorization process (my thought on this is largely derivative of Hans-Dieter Bahr's 1978 "On the Class Structure of Machinery".)

    That said, i think you have to look at the specifics of what you mention.

    Old downtowns are not coming back. The new downtowns are actually modeled on the suburb.

    The new concentrations of capital are primarily financial (FIRE). They aggravate wealth and income differences in the cities and they don't create job for the bottom 60% except in services, which are poorly paid. they won't lead to the kind of consumption union jobs in industrial workplaces did. Nor will they reverse the treadmill effect.

    Reviving public transit frequently does not go beyond the areas where gentrification is taking place, and that is not oriented towards moving within the city, but towards traffic between the city and suburbs. Except for the BART in San Francisco, a new subway system has not been built on the scale of what exists in Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc. since the early 1900's. Sure, Washington D.C. did a huge revamp and light-rail has been put into a few cities, but light rail sucks compared to a proper subway. Really, it does.

    The pushing of the Black population out of city centers is certainly not a new trend. Before abandoning the cities, that was already the trend. It shifted in the 1960's and 70's, and then the current trend of gentrification that began in the 1980's (as inner-city real estate became really cheap and FIRE realized that centralized offices in downtown areas still had significant efficiencies) and continues today.

    The Latino and Asian populations cannot simply be lumped into this change. The Mexican and laboring Latin American populations often move straight to the suburbs now because they are getting hired into whatever industry is left. The inner city Latino populations varies by area, but the prominence of Mexican workers nationally has increased, but I would not lump their situation in with Black people. For example, private home ownership and suburban residence is actually higher for Latinos across the board, than for the Black population.

  3. The Asian population is more complicated, in part because it is more diverse (which Asians from where?), but also because it tends to be from more educated, upper-class populations in the country of origin (the Vietnamese form a definite exception to this, but outside of Texas, Chicago and the West Coast, this is not a major population.) It tends to be in a few sectors economically, and it tends to be assimilated to the white population rather rapidly, especially East Asians. Inter-marriage between whites and East Asians is higher than for any other group, but whites and Latinos are right behind them. Not surprisingly, though it has become more common, inter-marriage between Black and white individuals remains among the least common. In this sense, one might say that the racial landscape is tending towards the whitening of Latinos and Asians rather than towards a lessening of racialization. Such is the peculiarity of racial formation in the U.S.

    This certainly indicates a change, but hardly a de-racialization, any more than changes in gender relations have meant a lessening of gendering as such. I have to say, as a father and friend of many other parents, I have watched the brutal re-gendering, but not to a 50's housewife model, but of the aggressive hyper-sexualization of girls and young women. No one in 1975 would have suspected that in 2011 10 and 11 year old girls would be walking around with PINK across their backsides and low-rise jeans with exposed thongs would be common clothing for middle school girls or that Bratz and the like would be the toy du jour for girls. Barbie is feminist icon compared to this. Nor does this go hand-in-hand with anything like income parity between the sexes.

    What is common in terms of both race and gender is that women and "minorities" have become targetable market segments in a new way. Women are recognized as having their own income and their own needs, that is, their own but also "their own" as a target market for new products they didn't know were a part of being women before. In the same way, as the race to the bottom proceeds and a larger and larger part of the population is more or less permanently redundant, capital markets to that very redundancy as an identity.

  4. None of this indicates a fundamental change in the direction of suburbanism as a new organization of spatial domination. It can change shape, like urbanism did, without losing its basic form, up to a certain point. So re-urbanization looks like nothing so much as restructuring the city like a suburb or set of suburbs, with malls, sprawl, gated communities, whole areas with a surprising degree of income uniformity, and so on. Also, urban population growth is only happening in the top 10 cities. Every other indicator points to the continuing expansion of the suburbs. And of the cities that are growing, almost all of them are Southern cities based on the LA sprawl model which is the city designed like a suburb: without decent public transportation, extremely low population density, poor social services, car-dependent. Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Charlotte, Albequerque, El Paso, Jacksonville. Only san Jose and Denver are non-Southern cities with a growth rate over 1.5%.

    Population decline has been the tune played in the old industrial cities which had traditionally better public transportation, social services, high population density, etc. The only exception is New Orleans, and that is for obvious reasons.

    You might also want to note the racial makeup of most of the expanding cities. I believe every one of them is majority white. Jacksonville and Charlotte are exceptional in having about 30% of their population made up of black people, and another 10-15% technically non-white. The majority Black cities are in very bad condition: Birmingham, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, Jackson, Memphis, Montgomery, Cleveland, Newark, Washington D.C. And these are only cities with more than 200,000 people. If you go to cities with more than 40%, you now include Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Little Rock, Rochester, Greensboro. This is not only a list of cities in decline, it is also largely a list of rust belt cities, even some of the southern cities, like Birmingham and Baltimore.

    Are there indications of cracks?

    I believe so, not the least of which is that suburbanism is a far less sustainable model then urbanism was financially and ecologically. Suburbanism was deeply dependent on a certain kind of energy production that is less and less viable and whose replacement by non-fossil sources will have to happen even in terms of capital's own long-term viability (however, likely at such a low level of profitability that it can be implemented only insofar as it leads to near free energy downstream to other capitals). Re-wiring the electrical grid of a suburbanist landscape is a much more daunting venture than re-wiring a city. Cities can much more easily take advantage of wireless communications. High-density populations in a world of non-fossil workplaces and non-nuclear energy could also be quieter and less dirty in the immediate environment (I used to live in Chicago and we would go down to the steel mills on the Indiana-Chicago border and the street signs were covered in black soot from the steel mills and the coal-fueled power plant.) However, if a new model of spatial organization is emerging, it is likely one in which the poor will be pushed out into DMZs, maybe a nastier version of Continental European suburbanization, where the workers were pushed into industrial suburbs and the elites remained in the cities.

    In any case, it is too soon to tell. I think we won't really see it until after the fact. What I do see are irreversible problems for suburbanism as the organization of spatial domination for capital, and many of these do have a liberatory potential. Their transformation, much less their resolution, will involve the same kind of massive and fundamental changes in energy production and distribution, transportation, housing, and changes in production and distribution that were central to this last shift.