Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Some Comments on the Possibilities for Mormon Socialism, or Communalism, at the Present Time

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

1) First things first: obviously, there isn't any real world possibility for the (re-)emergence of Mormon socialism, or communalism, at the present time.

2) That doesn't mean there aren't any Mormons anywhere who advocate for one or another version of socialism, or live in some kind of commune, or both; there certainly are, especially outside the United States. Still, given that (broadly speaking) Mormon culture is pretty authoritarian, and given that (again, broadly speaking) the clear majority of Mormon leaders who wield that authority--certainly the American-born ones, at least--are more or less obviously politically conservative, economically libertarian, and/or just plain tend to vote Republican, for lots of geographic, demographic, and theological reasons, the prospect of a large number of Mormons, particularly in the U.S., organizing around specifically Mormon articulations of socialist or communalist economic alternatives is pretty unlikely.

3) This is unfortunate, since as many of those close to the grass-roots where experiments with and arguments about socialism and communalism are most vigorously taking place can affirm, the Mormon history with both of those ideological constructs--which of course were never used under those names, but it's hard to imagine just what "united orders" and calls for "stewardship" and "consecration" involved if not what those constructs imply--is filled with instructive parallels to how those ideas are developing today.

4) I won't pretend to be neutral in this matter; I'm deeply committed to doing what little I can to get liberals and progressives and anyone else even just vaguely counter-cultural to become cognizant of the fact that employing terms like "socialism" or "communalism" in describing efforts to extend equality and strengthen community no longer automatically implies something revolutionary or anti-religious. It never did, necessarily (there were numerous radical Christians and democrats and anarchists who were taking up Marxist ideas but shelving their materialist and revolutionary conclusions while Marx himself was still alive), but things are especially different today.

5) Whether you want to attribute it to Bernie Sanders or COVID-19 or any number of other generational or technological variables, the truth is that the past decade has witnessed more and more activists, scholars, teachers, politicians, and most of all just ordinary folks like you and I, dealing with an often dysfunctional government and an increasingly unequal economic system, embracing local, collective, mutualist solutions. Call it the sharing economy, call it the new communalism, call it decentralized socialism--whatever its name, the number of community gardens, ride-sharing networks, mutual aid societies, neighborhood associations, church-based co-ops, employee-owned start-ups, and all forms of internet-enabled crowd-sourcing that we've seen multiply over the 2010s, both in the United States and around the world, are underline the same development: anti-capitalism has taken, at least in the eyes of many, what might be called a consecrational turn.

6) That's a broad claim, to be sure. Still, when the Democratic Socialists of America hosted a recent conference on "Building the Religious Left," with a huge range of panelists from diverse religious traditions, many of whom focused on state-level organizing regarding the usual (and necessary!) left approaches--immigration reform, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, cancelling student debt, etc.--I don't think it escaped anyone's attention that the conversations so often ended up revolving around what local congregations and faith communities were doing, in terms of providing welfare and sanctuary and building sustainable alternatives for people locally in need. And the fact that Mormon perspectives were so often entwined with these conversations (nearly half of the participants in one "Protestant" break-out group had a Mormon or Community of Christ background), with the conversation often turning to Doctrine and Covenants 42 and the law of consecration, which just happened to be the assigned Sunday School reading for the day? That may be just a grand coincidence...or perhaps it isn't.

7) The Mormon experience with consecration isn't unique, of course; as I explained in my contribution to the conference, the idea of building a better world "horizontally"--by gathering together around principles of mutual support and shared resources, enabling all who come together to partake commonly and equally in a spirit of love, as opposed to attempting to shape society more broadly through top-down actions--has been a constant throughout Christian history, going all the way back to the earliest Jesus communities described in the Book of Acts. But the Mormon experience provides particular inspiration nonetheless (see my discussion with a present day commune in Wyoming here). It is unfortunate that the rich Mormon legacy of socialist experimentation, of egalitarian communities and of consecration to the local, collective good, is so little appreciated among its own descendants, at a time which challenges to the capitalist order are both intellectually and practically more amenable to decentralized communal and cooperative efforts than has been the case in more than a century.

8) Little appreciated, perhaps, but not little noticed, if only people can learn to recognize what is right before their eyes. So much of the Intermountain West was developed, irrigated, and constructed through communalist pratices; every time a Salt Lake City Mormon (or anyone else) walks into the ZCMI Center Mall, they're moving through a space originally defined by Zion's Co-operative Mercantile Institution--a company which the Mormon church built with the explicit purpose of enriching the saints collectively, rather than rewarding investors with profit. That purpose has been abandoned (the church sold off ZCMI in 1999), but its built legacy remains.. and that means its communalistic, even socialistic, aspirations remain embodied for all to see and learn from. For folks like me, that's a hopeful thing.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Regarding Mutualism, Cooperativism, and Other (Interstitially) Anti-Capitalist Alternatives

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

If future historians wish to find some silver lining in COVID-19, the rise in mutualism in response to the shut-downs and dislocations it made necessary may be a good candidate. Community gardens, neighborhood associations, right-to-repair networks, business co-ops, crowd-sourcing approaches to providing health care and jobs and basic financial support: all increased in number and reach over the past 15 months, sometimes greatly. Examples can be found everywhere, from major American metropolises to small Welsh towns. To be sure, the pandemic has not transformed the American economy into a 21st-century version of Spain's famed Mondragon (the worker cooperative founded by the Catholic priest José María Arizmendiarrietain in 1956 in accordance with the principle of solidarity, which has flourished and been much imitated ever since). Still, over the past year business advisory groups, scholars, and think tanks have more and more often embraced the local and the cooperative as crucial for charting a sustainable, post-pandemic path forward. Whether this burst of interest in mutualist economic alternatives will last remains to be seen--but at the very least, those who have long worked to build these alternatives ought to be feeling some gratification right now.

This shift hasn’t been solely the result of the pandemic, of course—more democratic and decentralized economic forms, and the arguments on behalf of such, have been achieving greater prominence for well over a decade now. This prominence has inspired some writers to look back, allowing those who have long been refining their communalist, mutualist, and cooperative alternatives a chance to make their case. Perhaps by studying these cases, and thereby adding to the foundation of this shift, we can strengthen it, or even encourage ourselves to get involved in these projects (or start our own!).  But if that strengthening is to happen, it will require, I think, a clear sense of what these alternatives are premised upon, and how those premises prevent them from falling into centralized, capitalist ruts.

But before premises, some particulars: what is meant by mutualism and cooperativism, and why should they be understood as standing distinct from the usual capitalist routines of our economy? The simplest answer is that any organization of economic activity that has woven egalitarian and communitarian practices into their daily operations—whether in terms of ownership, production, decision-making, pricing, wage scales, distribution, or anything else—is, to one degree or another, pursuing a path which gives place to something other than profit-maximization and consumer-individuation, and thus is departing from the ideal capitalist form. That doesn’t mean that profit and consumption never matter to communes or co-ops or credit unions or anything else crowd-sourced; the human desires and pressures that give rise to markets can’t ever, and shouldn’t ever, be ignored. And by the same token, it's not as though the capitalist form has ever existed anywhere solely as a pure ideal, without any concern for community or equality. The point to grasp is simply that mutualist economic alternatives emerge organically, democratically, as people confront the failures of the market and work out ways to change or improve or work around them. They are, by definition, works of compromise, though no less aspirational for all that.

Thus a “mutualist economic alternative” could be something as formal as a utopian commune, with people living and eating in the same buildings, satisfying their limited needs entirely through agrarian autarkic practices. Or it could be something as informal as a group of neighbors spread out over a few suburban blocks, who got to know each other through church or work or their kids' school, who all share a single lawnmower, rotated according to a vaguely defined schedule, with everyone filling it up with gas when they finish using it. The pandemic may not have provided us with many more of the former, but much evidence suggests that the past 15 months (or, for that matter, the past 13 years), we’ve been seeing more and more of the latter. (The economist Juliet Schor noted this slowly emerging transformation--which she called the shift towards "plenitude"--over a decade ago.)

The one thing this enormous range of local and collective actions have in common is that they are all, as the late Marxist scholar Erik Olin Wright thoughtfully labeled then, “interstitial.” Wright links together religious monasteries, labor unions, Amish farming villages, employee-owned businesses, mutual aid associations, and many more, presenting them as all part of the distinctly non-revolutionary project of “eroding” (not smashing--even the most convinced socialist probably knows that this is and must remain a historical dead end--but rather resisting and taming and dismantling and escaping) capitalism. “We can get on with the business of building a new world, not from the ashes of the old, but within the interstices of the old” (How to be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century [Verso, 2021], p. 63).

True, enlisting all co-ops, communes, credit unions and crowd-sourcing networks into a single “anti-capitalist” project is a harder sell for some than others. Consider two recent books, Nathan Schneider’s Everything for Everyone: The RadicalTradition That is Shaping the Next Economy and Sara Horowitz’s Mutualism: Building the Next Economy from the Ground Up. Both are excellent. They are also quite different, despite their shared, hopeful conviction that the “next economy” is going to be a more democratic, more social, more cooperative, and more mutual one, and despite essentially addressing a more or less identical range of alternative economic forms. Most importantly, though, they both show, in different ways, the difficulty, I think, of accepting the “project”-implications of what they describe.

Schneider’s book is the more comprehensive of the two. Published in 2018, Schneider explores the whole economic and social history of people forming cooperative associations to access markets, share information and resources, and strengthen their communities. The book is full of insightful observations, beginning with the dual inspiration of Elinor Ostrom’s important work on how communities manage “common-pool resources” (key point: borders and enforcement mechanisms are essential) and the Roman Catholic catechetical teaching of “the universal destination of goods” (which means, among other things, that “private property is an aberration, though under the conditions of fallen human society…a necessary arrangement”—pp. 20-21, 23-24). This mix of the practical and the moral is exactly what those thinking about communitarian alternatives need, and it shapes Schneider’s engagement with cooperative groups, businesses, and organizations both locally and internationally. In following examples from Kenya to Colorado, his awareness of the precariousness of communal alternatives—the way they require both “a supportive, nourishing culture from below and enabling policy from on high” (p. 14)—is a constant, and that’s valuable, encouraging stuff.

I wonder, though, about Schneider’s perspective on building cooperative alternatives to capitalism in today’s thoroughly globalized world. Given both his generation (he was born in the 1980s) and his vocation (he is a journalist and scholar of media studies), it is perhaps to be expected that Schneider would spend large part of his book discussing the (arguably entirely hypothetical) community-building potential of phone apps and crypto-currencies. While he is fully conscious of how “the lords of the cloud” will never allow the internet to become “an egalitarian commons of borderless, permissionless, peer-to-peer productivity,” he nonetheless appears ambivalent about attempts to reclaim the faded, real-world cooperative accomplishments (the grain elevators, the fisheries) of “sedentary peoples,” with he and his family instead being committed to “staying as nomadic as we can manage” (pp. 215-217). This is unfortunate, I think; it reflects a disengagement with place which leads Schneider to be more enamored of whatever he can designate as “half-socialist, half-libertarian”—really, anything that replaces government with “cooperative mechanisms” (pp. 185-188)—than perhaps he should be. The reality is that building sustainable alternatives must engage multiple levels of governance, taxation, and regulation—what he elsewhere wisely calls the “local, diverse, compromised legacies” of co-ops across the country and around the world—if they are going to have the social and economic power to maintain their ground. He is absolutely correct that “a generation gap divides the cooperative movement today” (pp. 232-233); it’s a gap that I think he recognizes his own place within, and one that I trust he will move out of, eventually.

Horowitz’s book similarly makes use of history to make an argument for cooperative alternatives that is both practical and moral, but the history she makes use of is intensely personal, something Schneider's writings could only invoke to a limited extent. Horowtiz’s frankly remarkable family history (her father was born in 1918, and worked closely his own father in building up union power for garment makers and others in pre-New Deal days) allows her a perspective on the possibilities for mutualism which is much needed in America today. Far from encompassing a wide range of communalist endeavors, Horowitz sees mutualism as most obviously something built by those looking to establish the conditions under which they work under industrial capitalism—in other words, through the building of unions. While her history makes use of Marx, Proudhon, Tocqueville, and many others, the heart of her historical argument never really strays far from the way Roosevelt’s New Deal, through legislation like the National Labor Relations Act, legitimated and empowered the associational efforts of people like her grandfather and father, only later to see that power taken away. As she somewhat rhapsodically describes those years:

[T]he success of Roosevelt’s top-down approach to social change via government programs created the sweeping national initiatives—the Civilian Conservation Corps, the orks Progress Administration, and so on—that we associate with the New Deal today….But I see another important element to the story. Roosevelt recognize the limits of what government could accomplish on its own….Rather than build new institutions from scratch, he looked at the ecosystem of mutualist organizations that already existed and realized that unions were the perfect tools to find workers where they already were….[The New Deal] would enshrine, protect, define, and bolster the labor movement, and in particular the strategy of industrial unionism. Whereas before…organized labor had been a diverse and idiosyncratic mutualist movement that was constantly experimenting….Roosevelt had in effect given unions a “job” in the post-New Deal economy. By putting a legal structure around the right to collectively bargain, Roosevelt had given unions a mandate--to bargain for higher wages--while also giving their economic model a regulatory backdrop….The New Deal created the business model that let unions thrive through the middle of the twentieth century (pp. 150-152).

Horowitz is not a labor historian, and there are many that might dispute the mutualist sympathies she sees embedded in that legislation. Still, her perspective--as the child and grandchild of labor organizers, she has an intimate understanding of the pre-political, associational, communal histories of diverse workers striving to carve out for themselves a place in late 19th- and early 20th-century industrial America--should be taken seriously. In fact her tale, and the way she extends it into such practical matters of raising capital and establishing revenue streams to support mutualist organizations, probably captures the point of Schneider’s observation about alternatives to capitalism requiring both a supportive culture below and enabling policy above better than any story he actually shared in his own book.

Like many others who succeed in building alternatives, though, Horowitz tends to see her particular alternative as a singular, necessary answer. A life-long contract worker, who founded the Freelancers Union and the Freelancers Insurance Company, she is quick to take decentralization to an extreme: “We live in a decentralized economy, and the next safety net will be no less decentralized” (p. 45). Her contempt for a Democratic party whose demographic base today is mostly disconnected from unionization and prefers national, redistributive solutions instead isn’t as great as her contempt for a Republican party which has consistently worked to undermine union power...but it is pretty great nonetheless. (Her story of how the FIC found itself discriminated against by President Obama's Affordable Care Act is one every reformer should read.) Her insistence that “[t]here’s no reason that proposals for nationalized health care can’t co-exist with mutualism, but mutualist organizations themselves—unions, cooperatives, mutual aid societies, faith communities—are uniquely position to be the delivery mechanism for that care” (p. 191) makes obvious sense…until one remembers that she is essentially describing Canadian Medicare with their Local Health Integration Networks, and now here come the (basically accurate, I would say) accusations of “socialism” again, which Horowitz insists--wrongly, I have to say--“couldn’t be more different” from her mutualist approach (p. 49). It would be interesting to know if Horowitz imagines a mutualist potential embedded in President Biden's American Rescue Plan Act, and if she doesn't, where exactly she thinks difference between Biden's ambitious and Roosevelt's actually lay.

These kinds of arguments--which really come down to what kind of "project" one is willing or unwilling to see one's alternative aspirations to encompass--all turn on the degree to which one understands these efforts in terms of people as opposed to ideas, and it is here where a return to Mondragon is helpful. Both Schneider and Horowitz dedicate part of their book to the aforementioned Mondragon Corporation, and it is worth considering its example as an important complement--and perhaps correction--to some of their insights. Father Arizmendiarrieta, universally known as “Arizmendi,” arrived in the Mondragon Valley of the Basque region of Spain in 1941 and began to teach, with an emphasis on vocational skills and cooperative techniques, with the aim of building up the collective wealth and the sense of solidarity within his community. When he established, along with five graduates of the school he’d established, the first Mondragon co-op, manufacturing paraffin burners, his goal was--and remains for the next 20 years, until his death in 1976--to change lives by changing, cooperatively and mutually, the economic conditions within which those lives were lived. "The interesting and key thing," he wrote, "is not the cooperatives, but the cooperators. Likewise, it is not democracy, but democrats. Not so much ideas as life experiences."

Since his death, Mondragon has expanded internationally, moving into multiple areas of manufacturing, retail, and finance, with its mutualist and cooperative principles mostly holding firm. For example, to enable to genuine mutual feeling between workers and managers, wage differences are tightly controlled, with the democratically chosen directors of different Mondragon cooperatives earning wages no greater than 9 times that of the lowest-paid worker in the firm, with the usual difference being held to 5-1. Unsurprising, many socialist thinker—including Wright—have seen this successful commercial venture, the seventh wealthiest company in Spain in terms of assets, as a vital anti-capitalist model for others as well.

Whether it is or not will be argued about for as long as the terms themselves are debated. But whatever its correct description, it is unfortunate that Arizmendi’s collected Reflections—the which are only now finally being made available in English thanks to a translation project spear-headed by Solidarity Hall—weren’t available to either of the authors discussed here, or so many others who strive to hold build communalist or mutualist or cooperative economic alternatives. (Though Schneider provides a forward to the Solidarity Hall publication.) Arizmendi and those who followed him have negotiated, experimented, tapped local resources, lobbied national parties, and appealed to international bodies; they have, in short, truly lived out Arizmendi’s profoundly pluralistic vision of cooperative empowerment. In the end, if the goal is worker empowerment, community solidarity, and Christian love, then focus first on the person, and who cares what ideological category such a personalist focus falls under? The radical possibilities of disparate alternatives which emerge over time and experimentation must not be disregarded just because they seem to challenge accepted patterns of economic behavior, whether left or right:

Our cooperatives must primarily serve those who wish them to be bulwarks of social justice, and not those who see cooperatives as refuges or safe spaces for their conservative inclinations….We cooperators have in our minds the idea that the future society will probably have to be pluralist in all aspects, including economics: the state and the private sector, the market and the planned economy, various entities, be they paternalistic, capitalist, or socialist, will be combined and coordinated. If we really believe in and love people, their freedom, justice and democracy, we will need to treat each situation, the nature of each activity, the level of evolution and development of each community, on the basis of an approach that is overarching but not exclusive (Arizmendi, Reflections, p. 100).

Popular discourse in the United States today—as well as in many places around the world—hasn’t been so open to alternatives to the liberal capitalist mainstream for close to a century. Partly this is a result of the economic catastrophes of recent years: the beginnings of the Great Recession 13 years ago, and of course the consequences of COVID-19 pandemic, beginning last spring. But it is also the result of political leaders who have been willing to forthrightly identify themselves with different forms and degrees of anti-capitalism, and even more so it is the result thousands of people--both those who have labored, locally and collectively, over decades to hold on to and to share the resources their communities and vocations and places have brought to them, as well as those who are attempting, for reasons of both curiosity and desperation, to rediscover these mutualist, communalist, and cooperativist possibilities today. Being clear on the levels involved in building and recovering such practices, and being willing to embrace their sometimes discomforting ideological plurality and breadth, will be essential for anyone who hopes, in the neighborhoods and churches and communities, to do their part. Schneider’s and Horowitz’s books provide some excellent perspective and guidance, and I strongly recommend them. But I also recommend contacting and learning from those who are doing this collective, cooperative work, whatever they may call it, wherever they may be. Whatever such hands-on learning involves and whatever ways it is described, Arizmendi would be proud.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

What Hath Bernie (Ideologically) Wrought?

[The online magazine Current asked me to write something about Bernie Sanders, so I did. This is a slightly longer, slightly different, and more personal version of that essay. Consider it my benediction on the first genuine passion for a presidential candidate I have ever experienced as a voting, adult citizen--that is, a benediction on my own weirdly populist/localist/communitarian take on the Bern.]

With President Biden strongly pushing for trillions of dollars in covid relief, infrastructure building, education funding, health care support, and more, the support his progressive agenda has enjoyed both among his fellow Democrats and in national polls has been seen by many as at least partly the result of Senator Bernie Sanders’s transformative runs for the presidency. The argument is that Biden, because of his reputation as pragmatic centrist and a reliable member of the Democratic party establishment, can move forward with essentially the same rather radical (and mostly quite popular!) agenda which Sanders developed in a way that Sanders himself, with his proud “democratic socialist” self-identification and his independent (though inconsistent) refusal to ever formally join the Democratic party, never could have. As The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch put it, repurposing the old saw about how President Nixon’s anti-communism made it politically possible for him to open up diplomatic relations with communist China, “Only Biden Can Go to Norway.” 

For those who view ideologies as tools, with moral principles and social theories packaged together solely for the purpose of advancing political policies, this is fine. In fact, they might even say it’s the best possible result: radical ideas becoming sufficiently normalized that someone without any attachment to the socialistic ideology through which they were articulated (which certainly describes Biden) can advance them under a different label entirely! Arguably, that's the story of all radicalism movements in American history. But for those whose commitment to their ideological preferences is great enough for them to persevere through opposition and actually shape those ideas in the first place--and obviously, for anyone who has read the stuff I write more than just once over the years, this is where I would intellectually situate myself--this kind of result may generate ambivalence.

Sanders himself is not at all ambivalent about Biden’s efforts thus far: he fully supports them and hopes to build upon them further. Among the aforementioned true believers though, or at least a few of them, this complicates Sanders’s relationship to the ideological package which he has trumpeted more successfully than any other American politician since Eugene V. Debs a century ago. If Sanders’s “democratic socialism” is the sort of thing which he can endorse as being effectively, if not entirely, advanced by an American president with no interest in socialist analysis and no intention of thoroughly democratizing wealth in America, then just what was the ideological distinction of his socialist claims in the first place?

The responses to this question range from those on the left who insist Sanders was never a true socialist anyway (and thus is a distraction), to those on the right who are delighted to paint Biden’s progressive liberalism with the same socialist accusation they’ve employed against Democrats for close to a century (and thus should be denounced). In the midst of these responses, though, there is the fact that over the years of Sanders’s presidential campaigns there have been significant increases in the number of Americans who sympathize with socialist goals, and an increase in the number of arenas—both local and national, both strictly economic and broadly cultural—within which this sympathy has been expressed. The growth of the Democratic Socialists of America—a “multi-tendency organization” with significant differences between its hundreds of chapters, an organization which has prominently benefited from Sanders’s campaigns, despite his never having joined it—is perhaps the most emblematic example, but it isn’t the only one. (As a long-time member of the DSA, my opinions here are obviously less than neutral!)

Those who insist upon a definition of socialism which preserves the historical materialism of Karl Marx—that is, that socialism must involve a collectivization of the economy, one achieved through the actions of the working class (making use of captured state power, at least under most construals of Marxism)—the lack of ideological rigor in these various calls for “equity” or “fairness” or “justice” may be annoying, to say the least. As part of a long, thoughtful essay, full of genuine (if often back-handed) praise of the Democratic Socialists of America, author Frederik deBoer expressed doubt that “the average DSA member could give you a coherent definition of what ‘democratic socialism’ even is,” but also reflected that while the those who identity with socialist causes today haven’t accomplished much on their own terms, “neither has Black Lives Matter, or MeToo, or any group (or individual) which has participated in this confused and substance-free ‘social revolution’ we are supposedly living in.” This is, to be sure, a rather cynical take on political developments of the past half-decade—yet it also touches on something vital, which makes deBoer's insight relevant. Specifically, it points us toward the question of how seriously we should take the likely connection between Sanders’s radical insistence (given the realities of American politics) upon the validity of “democratic socialism,” whatever its ideological inconsistencies, and the broad emergence of groups and causes which, in their own sometimes anarchic ways, similarly embraced a democratizing aim. (Yes, it's easy to point, as counter-evidence, to conflicts between Sanders and Black Lives Matter protesters on the campaign trail, or the serious limits in African-American support for his candidacy, or the declarations of right-wing pundits that Sanders's radicalism had nothing to do with--or at least has "lost control of"--the anti-establishment energy of 2020. But all that is marginal, I think, when compared to the indisputable connection which BLM and other radical leaders and thinkers and activist organizations posited between what Sanders represented and was trying to do, and what they want to see happen.)

The scientific socialism of Marx presented the alienating effects of concentrated socio-economic power as something that could only be smashed through revolutionary action. Later thinkers saw that this revolutionary logic did not reflect the actual socio-economic developments of the industrial world, and argued that socialism could be build electorally in the midst of the marketplace—which is what gave us “democratic socialism” (and later “social democracy,” such as is well represented by countries like Norway, and by the Sanders—and arguably the current Biden!—platform).

The late sociologist Erik Olin Wright, however, suggested that socialists should see the obstacles to the democratization of wealth as something that can be “eroded” as well as smashed or tamed. How? By building and advocating for alternatives “interstitially.” Wright acknowledged that focusing on the many different ways in which social goods can be produced and distributed besides the capitalist marketplace—including “within the intimate relations of families; through community-based networks and organizations; by cooperatives owned and governed democratically by their members; though nonprofit market-oriented organizations; through peer-to-peer networks engaged in collaborative production processes,” etc.—would not be sufficient to accomplish the aims of socialism; instead “we need a way of linking the bottom-up, society-centered strategic vision of anarchism with the top-down, state-centered strategic logic of social democracy.” Nonetheless, the relationship between the two are vital; writing in an article in Jacobin published before his death, he argued that it is through such open-ended and organic associational efforts that we can “get on with the business of building a new world—not from the ashes of the old, but within the interstices of the old.”

The democratic socialist banner which Sanders has long inspired people with is obviously far more on the social democratic side than the anarchic one. And yet, it would also be simply perverse to claim that Sanders’s constant emphasis on income inequality and worker disempowerment had no relevance whatsoever to the explosion of interest of late in diverse radical movements for recognition and justice, or—especially during the pandemic—cooperative efforts to provide mutual aid. Whether obvious or not, that relevance, it seems to me, always eventually emerges. Michael Harrington, the founder of Democratic Socialists of America, towards the end of a decades-long engagement with socialist debates, concluded in his final book that socialism had to move towards a “decentralized conception of its goal”—going so far as to ask if a “socialist republicanism” was possible (Socialism: Past and Future, p. 277). (And if an organizer like Harrington doesn't persuade you, maybe the late in life discovery of decentralization by the Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen can.) Perhaps looking back historically over the Sanders’s ideological impact on the 2010s will similarly oblige us to recognize that his greatest accomplishment wasn’t in serving as the fulcrum by which the mainstream of the Democratic party was made comfortable with certain (re-named!) democratic socialist ideas, but as having helped bring into the mainstream a fruitful, disparate mess of radicalisms, all of which are busy promoting their own alternative democratizing visions.

In his essay “Bernie Sanders’s Five-Year War,” a detailed but also touching retrospective on what Sanders meant for many of those of us on the left, Matt Karp observed: “If Bernie Sanders was not fated to be the Abraham Lincoln of the twenty-first-century left, winning a political revolution under his own banner, he may well be something like our John Quincy Adams—the ‘Old Man Eloquent’ whose passionate broadsides against the Slave Power in the 1830s and 1840s inspired the radicals who toppled it a generation later.” This is, I think, is correct. I firmly supported Sanders, but probably more because I could see in his campaigns an ideological richness, a genuine multiplicity of possibilities--both  egalitarian and localist as well as even conservative or Christian--that extended far beyond the neoliberal homo economicus which remains too often our default today, than because I wanted him to win. That is, I wanted his ideas to win, and that means for his ideological construct to expand and multiply and flourish. To see ideological constructs such as that which Sanders long employed (and still does!) as static and linear is to perhaps misunderstand the organic character of ideological constructs in general. Yes, Bernie Sanders failed to win the presidency--but still, he didn’t fail to fertilize, with his words and actions, long moribund ideas in America. The diverse, disparate ideological growths in his wake will likely be with us for a while yet. Or so I hope, anyway.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Teaching (or Cultivating) Sustainability (or Inhabitance), Ten Years On

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

For ten years now, I've been teaching one version or another of a class on personal simplicity and economic and environmental sustainability here at Friends University, a formerly Quaker, non-denominational Christian, small liberal arts college in Wichita, KS. Though I teach at a religious university, I don't teach religion myself--and for that reason, I at first doubted that Jennifer Ayres's Inhabitance: Ecological Religious Education would much that would be pedagogically relevant to me, despite my strong sympathy with her subject matter. In this, I was partly wrong. While Ayres's book includes many intriguing (and a few borderline outrageous) educational suggestions, its greatest value to me as a teacher is the way it inspires me to take stock of what I've tried to do with with my sustainability class, and to perhaps rethink what my primary goals in that course should be.

My original aim in the design of this class--about which I've probably shared my thoughts about too many times already--was always primarily getting students out of the classroom and into the growing, producing, fecund Kansas ecosystems all around us, showing them that there are patterns of life that can keep people fed and housed and happy without committing oneself to the rat race. It shouldn't have been a shock to me, after I'd lived in Kansas for a few years, to realize how many of my students really had no connection with farming or food systems--but it was, nonetheless. Sometimes broad popular stereotypes about "living in the heartland" would be confirmed as I talked with the students taking the class, and some of them would end up taking the lead in teaching me about cattle ranching or winter wheat or regenerative agriculture. But more often than not, my own agricultural background, limited as it is, nonetheless greatly eclipsed theirs. And so I figured that, whatever else I might be able to communicate to my students about Wendell Berry or John Woolman, I should at the very least get them out of the city and take them to some farms--as well as urban farmers markets and community gardens and other kinds of local sustainable business operations, perhaps going so far as to work on one of our own.

In doing all of that, I'd like to think I've been fairly successful, at least insofar as the "getting them out of Wichita" part is concerned. Even in the midst of the worst of the pandemic last summer and fall, different butchers and ranchers and food producers were willing to sacrifice some of their busy days to let students--majors in Conservation Science, Health Science, History & Politics, and more--come and tour their land, their independent meatpacking processing operations, their homemade tomato and lettuce greenhouses, their cheese-making and milk processing facilities, and so much more. These kinds of experiences don't, I'll be the first to admit, necessarily provide the students with the sort of detailed know-how necessary for them to develop more sustainable practices in their own lives. But as Ayres herself insists, knowledge about one's ecological surroundings are only the tip of the iceberg; as she writes, "Cultivating [the] capacity for inhabitance"--which she defines as "seeking to know and love and particular place in some detail and honoring its [ecological] rhythms, limits, and possibilities"--"requires personal and social transformation at a level far deeper than that of figuring out ‘greener solutions'" (pp. 3, 17). Thus the aim of those who aspire to "educate for inhabitance"--which I realized, in reading this book, clearly describes me--has to involve figuring out ways to engage the affections of others, their bodies and appetites and emotions and creative imaginations. If that seems intuitively true, it may be simply because philosophers from Aristotle to Polanyi have consistently argued that nothing can so engage people as real tactile experience, and real practical work. So far as that goes...as I said, I think I've done fairly well on the first, though not so much on the second.

To be clear: any success I've had with the first has to be attributed, first and foremost, to having an exemplar to draw upon, and becoming friends with Leroy Hershberger--a mechanic, handy-man, cook, juggler, bicyclist, and born story-teller, all with a degree from Yale--a decade ago has made all the difference in my life and the life of so many of my students. Some of them from years before have told me that dinners at the Hershbergers were one of the highlights of their entire college education. They remember well Leroy's glorious beard (that he shaved it off during the pandemic came as profound shock of several of them!), the kind words of his mother Mary, the inquisitive questions of his father William (who passed away at the age of 80 during the pandemic; Leroy's tribute to his father was touching, kind, and wise), and most of all the joy the whole Hershberg family take in being able to introduce young people a life more focused on the land, on real material productivity, and in that way a whole ecosystem--both ecological and economic, to say nothing of also spiritual--that exists and enlivens the worldview of many outside the hustle and bustle of our urban college campus.

I've sometimes been challenged--or, indeed, given the vicissitudes of trying to do my part to not just educate students but also keep my tuition-driven college campus alive and functioning, sometimes I have challenged myself--as to the real "outcomes" of this class and these excursions. Am I trying to turn my students into farmers, into rural proprietors and local producers? If so, why, and am I at all successful at it anyway? Every educator in today's late capitalist world confronts those questions of metrics and assessments at one point or another, and it's hard for me to conceive of anyone serious about the teaching profession who doesn't recognize the harmful framing they introduce into the very idea of paideia--that is, of the formation of the human person which a proper education should involve.

That may not mean that such questions can--much less should--be simply dismissed as irrelevant; our students live in this late capitalist world too, and are looking to find ways to discover livelihoods, relationships, and most of all places of productive inhabitance within it. If we as teachers provide no bridge from the formation we hope to introduce to their affections to the challenges facing them upon the conclusion of their education, then we haven't served them well at all. Ayres reminds me of all this, with wise comments on matters of both paideia (which she presents as an acknowledgement of the communities within which we are formed, and the responsibility of constructive critique which community membership must entail--p. 62) and place (which she defines as any location which, through human inhabitation, "is imbued with meaning, with histories, and [most crucially] with contestations"--p. 88). Creating, through my classes, opportunities for my students to come face-to-face, and hand-to-hand, with people like the Hershbergers and dozens of others who have exemplified simpler and more sustainable forms of life hopefully also gives them 1) a model of the love of place, and 2) the incentive to recognize, come to know, and thereby carefully--but unsparingly--critique their own places. 

Do I imagine that such incentives and models will automatically transform my students into ecologically, environmentally, agriculturally informed inhabitants of wherever they live? Obviously not, especially since my own inhabitation still falls short in so many ways. But life is long, and beginning students along a path scattered with seeds for reflection, fits in, again, with the kind of trust in the slow pace of creation which Ayers speaks of eloquently:

[S]low knowledge is the kind of knowledge necessary for an ecologically conscious person or community. It is cultivated together and shared, is deeply related to the context in which it is nurtured, and acknowledges--indeed, embraces--human limitations....[M]ost importantly, it demands human patience and attentiveness. It will not be rushed. In the not rushing, in the attentiveness, wisdom is cultivated and inoculates human consciousness against the seductions of technological progress and the quick fix....

In formal education settings, the push toward more content coverage and measurable success makes the proposal of slowing down, reading less, and reflecting more somewhat of a pedagogical and institutional risk. In religious communities, "slow learning" meets other institutional pressures: in a season of anxiety about declining religious affiliations and lackluster participation in education programs, religious and educational leaders might be seduced by slick curriculum packets that promise effortless preparation and meaning engagement with learners. The principle of slow knowledge, however would suggest that efficiency and meaning are sometimes at cross-purposes. Meaning takes time (pp. 72-73).

The relevance of ecological language to the slow formation of ideas, in the lives of students or parishioners or anyone else, contrary to what Ayres calls--learning heavily on Berry, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Wes Jackon, David Orr, and many others--the "uncritical embrace of the efficiencies and networking capacities of technology" (p. 4) should be obvious. Equally obvious is how committing to the enacting of that slow formation--such as by growing a garden--can only strengthen that relevance. But that, of course, is where things get exponentially harder. It is one thing, in the midst of whirlwind of experiences that make up a college education, to get students to pause for an hour, or a day, or maybe even longer, and enable them to put their hands on the soil and the food and the people who can provide them with real models of belonging and critique. It is an entirely different thing to commit students to fill up that pause with the daily, weekly, monthly work of growing things in a garden, and to be able to see and, eventually, taste the results of their own re-orientation.

For close to a decade, many of us here at Friends have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to commit our students--and ourselves!--to projects requiring some genuine husbandry in a garden space on our campus. Sometimes there have been real successes, and sometimes the space has lain almost entirely forgotten for an academic year (or more). The space in general has much improved since the early conversations about it, and the first rush of enthusiasm to transform what was a vacant lot beside a student housing complex. But an entirely sustainable component of Wichita's local food system--much less even just Friend University's!--the garden is absolutely not. It remains, month in and month out, dependent upon the vision and determination of a few of us, and the occasional student or two or five who find ways to make the time spent working in the garden satisfy either their own personal commitments or their academic responsibilities or both. But even in those happy situations, we'll likely only have a season or two from the students in question: they are, after all, young people, seeking to gain the learning (and the certification of having received such) that will enable them to find their own place, and make their own commitments, on their own schedule, not necessarily Mother Nature's. So we make the most of the seasons we have, and continue to try our best to get the carrots and arugula and potatoes to grow, in the same way I try my best to make my classes spark agrarian and ecological ideas that might never have occurred to the students before. Sometimes, it all works. And when it doesn't, we trust in God's grace and the fecundity of both the Kansas soil and the college student's mind, and try again.

That kind of attitude is always going to be dispiriting to some. They might look at Ayres's book and note that she hardly ever addresses the complex structural forces which likely make it difficult for an education in inhabitance to translate into the creation care she considers imperative. The same criticism could made of the three-credit hour college class I teach once a year at a not-especially-notable Christian college in the middle of Kansas, of course: how is that really addressing the obstacles to inhabitance. But as utopian as "religious education" and "local food tours" it may seem, that doesn't mean we still can't approach them with a hope for real formation work in mind. Or at least I do--and I thank Ayres for reminding me of that ideal. She is a teacher speaking to other teachers, like me. She is urging, through her book, those of us who have grasped the imperative of seeking to cultivate a greater concern for ecological and economic and spiritual sustainability to “envision...a way of inhabitance that may not yet be entirely possible,” holding on to the faith that the communities we might be building through our teaching “can imagine and do and become that which one person cannot on their own” (p. 129). Perhaps "envisioning for inhabitation" isn't a bad goal for my class, as I take it into its next decade.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Eight Inter-Connected Observations about Complexity, Liberty, and the City of Wichita

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

1) Cities are complex systems—that is, they are places where different groups of people organize, worship, trade, celebrate, work, and simply live in close proximity to each other, all in different ways and with different goals in mind. In other words, cities are pluralistic, with different sectors and levels all interacting in complex ways. Obviously not all cities are equally pluralistic and complex—the size of the city matters, its economic and racial and religious and regional history matters, and the way it is governed matters. Still, the one common feature of every modern city--meaning every built community that isn’t a rural village and exists in the wake of the democratic and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries--no matter what its relative size or history or location or politics, is simply this: its day-to-day operation is a complex, and by no means necessarily automatic, matter.

2) That doesn’t mean a large portion of what happens in any given city on any given street on any given day isn’t significantly automatic, because in a healthy city an awful lot of it will be. This was the crucial insight of Jane Jacobs, probably the most famous observer of cities in the 20th century: that in the midst of the “seeming disorder” of the city, you actually have “an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.”  But Jacobs also insisted that the natural emergence of this “orderly whole” depended on putting in place (or removing out of place) the basic tools (or the basic obstacles) which cities require (or inevitably, unfortunately, produce). Call it a matter of putting in place, or enabling city residents themselves to put in place, good “infrastructure,” broadly defined, and get rid of the bad.

3) However, a lot of Americans, including a lot of Kansans, and perhaps especially a lot of Wichitans, have an ideological resistance to complex operations. They tend to believe that dealing with complexity, with the problems of good and bad infrastructure (the construction and renovation of roads, the maintenance and evaluation of schools, the expansion and restriction of police departments, etc.), is always going to result in someone, somewhere, capturing some resource that will enable them to limit someone else’s choices. This isn’t entirely incorrect: while the economic and social opportunities of city life have long been empowering and thus freedom-expanding to many, it’s also true that people under complex systems are often subject to--in the words of Louis Wirth, an early 20th-century urban sociologist--“manipulation by symbols and stereotypes managed by individuals working from afar or operating invisibly behind the scenes.” In other words, when things get complex, it’s easy not to know who is really making decisions, or to think that you’re in control of your choices when actually you’re not. So any society that takes individual dignity seriously has to recognize this, and work to make certain that the liberties provided by cities don’t crowd out those of the other type.

4) In our city, however, this structural dynamic is often flipped on its head, with those urban forces that push for the expansion of economic and social opportunities—including those involving environmental sustainability, civic health, democratic accountability, and more—having to prove themselves again and again against a less-complex, more libertarian default. Since Wichita is, in fact, a genuine metropolitan (if mid-sized) area, and simply isn’t—despite the convictions of many of its residents—a small town where (as my city councilmember, Bryan Frye, optimistically but, I think, incorrectly put it) everyone is only “one degree of separation” separated from everyone else, the reality of pluralism, and the need to deal with its complexities (whether through parties or procedures or some combination thereof) cannot be denied. Still, such denial is common, and thanks to the influence of major city players like the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Policy Institute, and most of all Koch Industries, it is likely to continue to form a conceptual stream that those who engage city issues will have to struggle with.

5) That struggle has taken and will take many forms; I don’t mean to suggest that this is the secret history of every and any city controversy. (To believe that—that is, to believe, for example, that Charles Koch alone is solely responsible for Wichita’s profoundly underfunded street repair and public transit systems, despite evidence which might support that conclusion—would in itself constitute another form of denial of Wichita’s ideological complexity.) Depending on the issue and context, the disposition of so many in Wichita against urban complexity and in favor of a simplistic historical or market liberty may be more obvious or less so. On the more obvious side, you have the anti-government responses whenever city leaders suggest encouraging transportation alternatives or citizen groups advocate against the overuse of non-recyclable plastic bags. Or you have the fact that, when confronted with declining tax revenues or questionable management, the privatization of city resources—golf courses, the ice rink, or Century II itself—always seems to be preferred, as opposed to re-organizing or cutting back on the sort of services typically more valued by those with a property-centric libertarian perspective.

6) A less obvious manifestation of this perspective might be the way in which concerns about democratic accountability (that is, the ideal that anything the government does will reflect something that at least some portion of citizens actually want to have done), whether expressed in the context of political parties or city regulations or national polls, seems like a needless complication, an additional demand that gets in the way of simple, individual liberty. This is probably a stretch on my part, but when I look at a recent attack upon a fairly anodyne column of mine, it’s what first comes to mind.

7) To focus on that attack just for a moment (click through and read it if you’d like; I’ll wait), consider: why would implying, as I did, that challenging the use of the term “democracy” when thinking about the legitimacy of governmental actions was a distraction itself constitute “a disgraceful attempt to get people to accept [my] version of reality”? The version of reality which the author insists I am foisting upon my unsuspecting students and the reading public is that version wherein a constitutional republic like ours, one with elections, representative legislatures, and the bedrock principle that it is “We, the people” (the demos) who ultimately govern, is a “democracy” in the same way that a Starbucks Caffè Misto is a “coffee” and a walking, talking American citizen is a “human being.” In other words, unless the author is operating under a serious terminological misunderstanding, one which leads him to confuse fundamental categories with their particular types (I wonder if he believes that, because the United Kingdom has a monarchy, no one is ever actually elected to Parliament?), I suspect that he wants to push back against the case I made for acknowledging concerns over “democratic legitimacy” simply because, frankly, it is frustrating to have to admit that the people, pesky creatures that they are, might have mutually contradictory views about what they want those whom they have elected to do. Invoking the majesty of the U.S. Constitution has its place, surely, but doing so in a way which suggests that the pluralistic interests of the many different sectors and levels of America’s democracy can be cleanly resolved through a few lawsuits is, I think, once again, engaging a simplistic kind of denial.

8) My point in all these observations comes down to this: here in Wichita there is a strong tendency by many to deny the almost inevitable liberal fundamentals which, sooner or later, quickly or slowly, emerge in cities. This denial isn’t universal, but it is common; it scales all the way down to neighborhood arguments and all the way up to presidential elections. Don’t read too much into that “almost inevitable” bit; Wichita is far more divided than it is blue, and likely to remain that way for a good while yet. Still it’s simply impossible, I think, to be both honest about our city and simultaneously insist that its pluralistic reality can and should be reduced to a simple set of libertarian lessons, wherein urban needs and disagreements resolve themselves naturally in the marketplace. For better or worse, we’re bigger and more complex than that. Doubling down on that reduction only makes the already difficult task of managing Wichita’s infrastructure even harder, and leaning too hard on the “small town” ideal only ends up excluding some of those who came here looking to enjoy freedom and opportunity as well. Let’s not do that, shall we?

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

20 and 15 Years, and More

20 years ago today--May 12, 2001--I was awarded my Doctor of Philosophy in Politics from Catholic University of American in Washington, DC; I became a Ph.D. And yesterday, with the submission of my final grades, I completed 15 years of teaching here at Friends University in Wichita, KS, the school that I have come to identify with so strongly that I hope to work here for another 15 years (or 20 years) more. Which means that, if God and family and my health is willing, my life as a Ph.D. will end up as having been, for all intents and purposes, basically synonymous with teaching our mostly south-central Kansas students here at Friends about political ideologies, American history, constitutional law, and theories of government and sustainability and economy, as well as playing the professor of political science in the local media and on civic boards when it comes to elections and court decisions and whatnot. As Robert Bolt's version of Thomas More once said, "not a bad public that."

Looking back over the past 15 and 20 years, I can see I've written a lot about how I think about it all: figuring out my place within academia as a small liberal arts college professor in Kansas, figuring out what kind of politics I can or should be teaching to these kind of students in this kind of mid-sized place, figuring out what I really took from my graduate education and experience (which was in some ways very cosmopolitan, and in other ways very parochial), and how much what I became as a professor can be traced back to those years in Washington DC, as opposed to something which came along later from hours in the classroom, from interactions with colleagues, and from the ever-changing vicissitudes as well as the constant recurrences of academic life. Looking back on some of those posts, I'm a little embarrassed--but only a little. My vision for developing a "political science" that would fit what I had offer and what Friends University could support from back in 2009 seem kind of immature to me now (but hey--I was only an associate professor back then). Looking back 5 years ago, I think 10 years of teaching and professing, in the classroom and around the city, had given me a little more perspective on what in my understanding of my own vocation had changed, and how much the place in which I was practicing that vocation was responsible for those changes. By now, stuff that was just developing at that time has born some genuine fruit: my major is now "History & Politics" (hopefully the last name change for a good long while!), my teaching and research is strongly focused around matters of urban democracy and sustainability, and my approach is sufficiently divorced from our increasingly statistics-driven Social & Behavioral Science division that I've moved my program (because at a SLAC, the faculty can decide such things) over to Theology & Humanities, where I also hope it'll stay. In short: it's taken a while, but I can see that I've built something over the last 15 years--not what I originally expected to build, to be sure, but something I'm committed to nonetheless. And I definitely want to be able to plan on another 15, or perhaps 20, years of teaching to build it further.

As for my Ph.D. experience, now 20 years gone, I now find it returning to me in a way I never anticipated before. Our oldest daughter (a mostly proud KU graduate!) is following the Ph.D. route, pursing a doctorate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in their e-mails and phone calls home I'm occasionally thrown back into that maddening world of "read another book!" whenever confronted with questions structural or theoretical or historical or critical. And yet, as hopeless as I know their prospects likely are--just as I know how hopeless the prospects of every other student I've ever taught who has ever expressed any sort of admiration or envy or desire in regards the possibility of being lucky enough to become a college professor like myself--I cannot get myself to pretend that my graduate education (for all its ups and downs, for all its costs and consequences, for all the ways it both opened up and empowered my mental world as well as failed to prepare my mind for the future or actually prepared me for the wrong things) wasn't pretty great. I loved it, and yes, I love being able to see my daughter--hopefully with their eyes fully open to the costs and consequences which are shaping them!--going through the same experience, and sometimes being able to get tastes of it through them. Their Ph.D. experience isn't mine, but still, the memories--at least of the good times--are strong.

I'm not sure what else to say. 15 years, or even 20, is just a drop in the bucket in the long run, and what seemed obvious to me when I was 40 isn't exactly the same as what seemed vital to say when I turned 50, even if the continuity between them is obvious, and will always remain so, even if I was inclined to attempt to separate myself from it all, which I'm not. Friends might go bankrupt tomorrow, or Kansas could turn overnight into a tyrannical fascist state, or some other personal or family catastrophe might happen, and everything that came before--my Ph.D., my teaching career, the roots I've put down in this place and before these students and these neighbors and fellow citizens--could go up in smoke. I sure hope not, though. I want my 20-year-old and 15-year-old histories to continue into the future, to throw out ever more branches and build ever stronger continuities and connections, through our children and our friends and more. This year, a Friends University teaching award that I cannot deny I'd envied for 15 years was awarded to me; far from feeling like a summation, it feels to me like a landmark, a signpost of a continuing vocational, academic, and personal journey...one that I'm a good long ways into, for certain, but one that I will, hopefully, still have a while to work on and improve and grow larger and deeper yet. I'm a lucky man, and for all the rough passages along the roads I've biked over so far, I have to call myself blessed. For anyone who has read this far: thanks for being part of the ride.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

"Twas a Matter of Timing and the Timing Was Right"

Exactly one year ago--March 27, 2020--Bob Dylan dropped "Murder Most Foul," without any public announcement or preview or warning--his first work of original music in over 8 years, in preview of his first album of new music since 2012's Tempest. I'm not a Dylanologist like many fans out there; I recognize that he's arguably been one of America's most important poetic voices for 60 years now, but even the Nobel Prize people know that. I am comfortable saying that Rough and Rowdy Ways in one of my favorite Dylan albums, and "Murder" is one of the primary reasons why. 

It's not the sort of song that I have any particular interest in listening to at any given time, but sometimes, like almost any truly great poem or work of art, the strange, haunting, tragic, but perhaps even weirdly hopeful incantation of Americana that this song provides is--like "Desolation Row," another one of Dylan's masterpieces--something that I just really want to hear. I'll put it on, and for the next 17 minutes I'm carried away. The greatest poets, like all the greatest artists and performers, are never solely about their chosen medium; they are also about the connection which they, through their various Muses, are able to provide between their times, their moment, and the medium in which they work. Dylan, whatever other criticisms one can make of the man--and surely those criticisms are legion--has continually, over more than a half-century, been able to bizarrely, unsettlingly, regularly connect with and/or comment upon his times. For him to have released this compelling dirge just as American settled into the third week of so of the pandemic, realizing that the year to come would not be a year of quick containment and renewal, but rather a year of difficult, despairing adjustments and realizations...well, some would call it prophetic. Which is a label Dylan has received often before, and hearing it again, would probably just make him shake his head once again, smile his creepy smile, and pick up his guitar again. 

Anyway, thanks Bob, I guess. Can't imagine what America will be like when you're no longer with us, watching us all, and writing your songs. Worse, I suspect.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Biden and (Some) Better Times for (Some of) Wichita

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

When President Joe Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan (ARP) a little more than a week ago, I commented to some friends that this may arguably turn to be one of the best things that has happened to Wichita in a very long time. Let me explain that argument here—starting with a rephrase of my original comment: the ARP will likely turn out to be one of the best things that has happened for many Wichitans in a very long time.

Why the change? In part because there are a thousand ways to think about a city, depending on the perspective of the person doing the thinking, and for every metric I or someone else might propose, someone else can surely come up with a different, countering one. While I don’t think that makes it impossible or inappropriate to talk in generalities about the common good (actually, I think it is both possible and necessary to do so), it does mean that I have to respect the perspective of tens of thousands of Wichitans, or more, who, for any number of reasons, hate (or at least have been told to hate, or hold to a political orientation which presumes—wrongly, I think—that they are supposed to hate) this latest stimulus.

Note however, that there are fewer such people than you might believe. While there were nearly 30,000 more people who voted for Donald Trump than for President Biden throughout Sedgwick County last November, leading the former president to win the county with 52% of the vote, that doesn’t hold for the city of Wichita itself, as this precinct-based graphic makes clear:


The city of Wichita isn’t entirely blue—not yet, anyway, and maybe not ever. But from Oaklawn to Bel Aire, the zoo to Eastborough, the default Republican preference of Kansans was challenged in our city, with a majority of voters throughout Wichita’s precincts going for Biden. Which means, if nothing else, that the passage of the American Rescue Plan is, for those voters, a huge confirmation of their political choice--a win, in other words. And not just a political win, obviously; nearly 100,000 households across Wichita are going to receive the $1400 per person stimulus checks (it would have been nearly 120,000 households, or easily 75% of the total population of the city, if moderate Democratic and Republican senators, including Wichita’s own two, hadn’t balked).

The Republicans of our city could push back at this point: the CARES Act which Trump pushed for did that too! True, but not to the same extent, and not as effectively. The ARP is actually giving more money to more people than did the CARES Act, which spent nearly three times as much money on businesses than on individuals and households. And while that money, mostly administered through the Paycheck Protection Program, was a lifesaver for some businesses, it was poorly administered, with comparatively little going to the employers that needed it most, thus having much less of an impact as it might have had, not to mention generating a lot of frustration and abuse along the way, as Wichita knows from plenty of local examples.

This can be debated, of course, as anything that involves hundreds of millions of people and hundreds of billions of dollars can be. Those who see the ARP as the second coming of the New Deal--whether hopefully or fearfully--should be prepared for disappointment; fundamentally, it’s really just another emergency stimulus package, first and last. It’s even possible that the CARES payment, when one really gets into the weeds, did more for working people than the ARP will. Now, if it works out that the additional child tax credits and increased unemployment and pension assistance which the ARP provides are made permanent—and the language of President Biden himself surely indicates that such is his intention—then that would retroactively turn the ARP into a genuinely transformative accomplishment, as much as Social Security or Medicare were. So if Wichita’s Republicans want to insist Biden didn’t do anything Trump didn’t already do, insofar as actual cash investments in the lives of struggling parents, workers, and retirees are concerned, the fairest answer may be: maybe; let’s wait and see.

But fortunately, there is an additional element to the ARP which we won’t have to wait a long time for, which demonstrates the true value of the act to Wichita’s development, and which involves something that the CARES Act barely touched upon: namely, direct aid to cities. Not just states (though they’ll getting plenty of support for all the programs they’re obliged to carry out too), but the municipal governments of "metropolitan cities," to use the actual language of the law. Wichita’s budget is facing estimated shortfalls of nearly $30 million over 2020-2021 thanks to the pandemic, with more likely to come in the future; the fact that the ARP will likely deliver close to $73 million to the city (according to the latest estimates) will make a massive difference in the costs which that revenue loss will mean to the quality of life in our city. 

(As an important aside, note that by setting up a program which bypasses states and counties, Wichita, and cities like it, may be able to avoid what looks likely to become a sticky constitutional and political fight, as some state leaders--including our own Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt--have argued that they ought to be able to use the ARP funds which will be given to states to cover new tax cuts, leaving the issue of making up for budget cuts to state programs aside. And that doesn't even touch the proposal by some Kansas legislators to grab up to $100 million of federal relief funds, presumably out of that which would be directed to Kansas counties, and use it to compensate businesses for their losses as punishment for the counties having imposed shut-down mandates as the governor directed. Wherever these destructive arguments go, they should touch that money directed to Wichita itself.)

I wrote “quality of life” up above purposefully. Thanks to the covid budget priorities the city council established last August, in which the Wichita Police Department enjoyed (in the midst of much protest and counter-protest) a large increase, the cuts which were introduced were overwhelming in the area of public arts, city libraries, capital improvements, parks and trees and sidewalks and bike paths and like. While clearly ARP funds will need to be used to first and foremost to support and supplement various localized covid-relief and anti-poverty measures (though honestly, given the distribution of responsibility between the city and the county, those should mostly come out of the $100 million or so which the Sedgwick County Commission will receive), if the spirit of this aid is adhered to by our city council at all (perhaps as encouraged by concerned citizens like you and me?) then we’ll see this important source of relief used to help begin to rejuvenate, and perhaps even re-direct, a city whose cultural offerings and music scene and patterns of growth (or lack thereof) have been taking major hits not just throughout the past year, but for quite a few years previously.

What is the “spirit of this aid” I mention? Simply the fact that the Biden administration, as it shaped and pushed for this relief package, had a set of priorities very different, and far more urban, than those of the Trump administration. The latter was happy to contribute to already deepening divisions in American society by tweeting at great length about “Democrat-run cities” with their “anarchist jurisdictions,” which is the sort of thing which leads Republican politicians like Kansas First District Representative Jake LaTurner to dismiss the whole thing as a scam to “bail out liberal states.” Those who are actually involved in administering cities, whether in red states or blue ones, know that is absolutely not true, and have said so at length. But the real story is buried within many and various ideas, plans, and people which Biden has brought with him to Washington.

While Trump’s re-election built itself in part upon distracting claims about how Biden’s crazed socialist ideas were going to destroy the (white) American suburban ideal, Biden’s campaign instead recognized that America’s suburban homeowner form houses a lot of racial and ethnic minorities, whose social and economic challenges required a response quite different from Trump’s culture war attacks. Biden’s push for more racial equity and low-income options among America’s suburban development goes hand-in-hand with lessening exclusive zoning requirements, encouraging greater density in development, and looking to expand transportations choices beyond just the well-subsidized suburban access roads and freeway on-ramps which have defined metropolitan sprawl for far too long, which in turn makes his nomination of Pete Buttigieg--a favorite of the Strong Towns movement!--as Secretary of Transportation potentially so important.

To be sure, you can legitimately criticize all of these supports as something that will actually undermine, rather than democratically empower, localities; I take all these criticisms seriously (even, to my surprise, the ones about zoning reform), and so should anyone else with genuinely localist and small-d democratic concerns about urban spaces in general. And yet, to see all of this happening in Washington, and underwritten at least in part by the ARP, at the same time that Wichita’s leaders are finally seriously talking about these related matters via their Places for People initiative, makes me wonder if there isn’t some kind of unforeseen alignment taking place. An alignment that will allow the different Wichita that is out there to take the support being offered it, and use it to build and encourage, in the midst of what is sure to be a long and difficult economic recovery, the kind of culturally-enriching, family-rewarding, individually-satisfying, community places and practices that Wichita has too-often sacrificed in the name of its usual, easily-fallen-back-into growth-centric routines.

It won’t come easily, of course, and it may not come at all. And if it does come, it won’t be a change that pleases the large number of Wichitans who look upon any push for greater urban sustainability, density, and equality in this city as antithetical to the small-town conservatism which they want to continue to imagine is appropriate for an urban area of a half-million people. That’s fair, I suppose. But I also suspect that, as a great many Wichitans emerge from what was probably, for the majority of us, one of the worst years of our lives, at least a few of us can see the possibility of some better—and even, maybe, differently better—times ahead. And even if not—well, 2021 can’t get any worse than last year, can it?