The Politics of Urban Liberation
Stephen Schecter, Black Rose Books, 3934 rue St. Urbain, Montreal, Quebec, 1978, $5.95 paper.
The domination of inflation and austerity in the national political concern is a case of calling an old conflict by a new name. Following from the logic of monetary and fiscal policy are the issues of continued viability of national political coalitions and urban independence, investment of resources to enhance monopoly capitalist growth, the changing position of the United States in the international system,and the direction of democracy as special interest groups obtrude on governability.
The restrictions of Carter administration policies on wages and prices are partly a response to the consequences of the Vietnam War and of the widespread mobilization begun in the 1960s of blacks, youth. liberal and leftist activist groups, state workers, women and poor people. The effectiveness of their political demands was the basis of the leap in the growth of government budgets after 1964. Domestic resistance coupled with a commitment to international expansion precluded a guns or butter tradeoff in the national budget. Rather than raise taxes, the Johnson administration (as countless governments before it had done) financed war with inflation. But as inflation began to run out of control while growth lagged in the early 1970s, expanding social expenditures quickly became less supportable.
Carter's reaffirmed fiscal conservatism in acting directly against inflation rather than unemployment is fundamentally a response to a conjunctural change in the political-economic system. During the late 1960s American industry rapidly expanded into overseas (especially European) mar- kets. Indicative is that in 1965 there were only thirteen American banks with foreign branches; by 1972 there were 107 banks with 588 branches holding about $80 billion in assets. Monopoly capital was experiencing a profit squeeze as well, as inflation generated successive rounds of wage and price increases. The decision not to pay for the Vietnam War with taxes, but to expand the money supply, stimulated needed demand and enhanced the basic trend of dollar inflation. This set the stage for the monetary crisis of 1972, when the international monetary system fell apart and the dollar was devalued twice in three years. Subsequently, to preserve the value of the dollar, stem balance of payments and trade deficits, shore up American power and the trading position of American industry in the world, Carter has proposed zero growth in the national budget to prevent "fiscal drag" on economic growth and tight money to choke off inflation. It remains to be seen whether or not the Congress will go along.
Clear enough, though, is that anti-inflationary policies seek to chasten the politics which help promote and sustain inflation. For monopoly capital to have a greater share of re- sources for continued growth, state budgets must be cut and reoriented to productivity. All the groups whose demands were satisfied or bought off by government money and programs (and moreover those who weren't satisfied, etc.) must now be satisfied to have less income and control. The aftermath of the 1975 coup in New York City is an example of the severe possibilities. The policy shift also has worked against organized labor, a partner in the old Democratic presidential coalition, which is being called upon to sacrifice part of its corporate share of income or its political position. Here, too, it remains to be seen how people who are used to a particular or expanding living standard will be convinced by the new political line, especially if they are in a strategic position as is organized labor. If they are not convinced, and state expenditures remain high while economic growth lags and thus state revenues are relatively low, a political crisis appears inevitable. The state must either expand absolutely its share of the national economy or seek further to suppress group demands.
Stephen Schecter presents a short but wide-ranging argument for the key position which urban struggles have in the crisis of the state. The proposition arises from a general premise that cities are major links between daily life and the global realms of economy and nationstate (p. 9).Liberals and Marxists might emphasize different aspects of the global presence in cities, inasmuch as cities enhance capital accumulation and circulation, consume production and services and house labor power. But a libertarian socialist perspective, Schecter suggests, would identify the economic mode of production as only one element in a larger civic life, of habitat and the yearning to be and live the good life. Since the Paris Commune, the apparent radicalism of daily life in the city has been hailed by libertarians as a well-spring of practical resistance to global economic and political domination. Much of the new political mobilization has been in cities and it's there that fiscal retrenchment is most severely felt.
From the re-analysis of the political-economic crisis, Schecter perceives the possibility of a libertarian socialist strategy which could burst the state at its fiscal seams. He identifies recent examples in Chile, France and Italy plus his own experience with the Montreal Citizens' Movement as prototypes for this strategy. Yet, as lucid a strategic analysis as it is, the mixture of May 1968 terminology of daily life with the traditional socialist mechanism of historic lessons and missions breaks the stride of his radical criticism. Despite silly melodramatic references to demonic "preying" capitalism (p. 124), the book nevertheless is a reaffirmation of strategic thinking in a short-sighted era and is firmly grounded in the political-economic life of the city. The persistent concern of Black Rose Books to promote renewed discussion of urban questions should be commended.
By a logic similar to the struggle in the factory over control of the work process, urban struggles over government-provided services and goods of all kinds, which support monopoly capitalism, may call into question the defensiveness and restriction of social life. But urban liberation needs more than application of traditional socialist concepts. A new conceptual effort is called for. Following political-eco- nom ic phenomenoiogy is the objectivist critique of political-economy, leaving to the dialectical objectivist explanation to revive strategy and qualitative change. On the one hand, the city has undoubtedly become closely entwined through its economic functions with the development of capitalism. Commercial capital built port cities and trading centers. Industrial capital escaped the city and set itself up in the countryside, drawing cities around it. And with the development of enormous diversified and integrated bureaucratic businesses, the city once again has been wrenched and wrought. Widespread decentralization of industry and habitat to suburbs is matched by the buildup of administrative centers in the central cities. Since the 1930s the American government has abetted this development on a continental scale.
On the other hand, focus on the traditional workplace (factory) struggle misses the development of urban life in the government service center, home, school, "public space" and neighborhood. As a model of industrial struggle the traditional view appeared to be a faithful explanation. But the new urban struggle is something other and more than a deduction from the factory. To emphasize the development of capital and describe the new cities as corporate cities (even if critically objective) obscures the ambiguity of social practice. Or, as Schecter says, it would imply that capital has had it all its own way (p. 11).Rather, the political life of cities new and old is the outcome of a continuing conflict among citizens and their habitat over various urban and social values (p. 69). While the control of work is one of these values, the extension of capitalist relations broadens that struggle.
Urban politics in France, Italy and Quebec raises the possibility that something new can be started. The objective conditions of fiscal crisis can be played with and politics brought home by struggles for daycare, cheap housing and transportation, clean air and water, more and better city services, welfare and unemployment benefits,and power over city development. When effective, these demands all can be explicit challenges to the domination of the agents of capitalist and statist practice. Grasping the dialectic of strategy implicit in the linkage of the everyday with the global is the beginning of a revolutionary praxis. As Schecter reports, urban struggles in France have begun to link these issues with the capitalist organization of cities, creating a new opposition to domination. But involvement in these struggles by unions, the Communist Party and vanguard parties has reinforced the old approach and hindered autonomous action arising from direct daily experience.
The most remarkable developments are those in Italy during the past five years. In the crisis there, linkages have been recognized more widely and self-governing action has been more successful. Massive resistance has been organized to attempts to take back in rent, telephone, transportation and electric rate increases the wage gains won in industrial conflicts. Resistance has been organized in many cities by neighborhood-initiated joint citizen-union committees. An especial strength for the Italian urban movement was previous experience with union-party conflict which had resulted in autonomous shop committees. When urban struggles were begun neighborhood committees were created independently of unions and the Communist Party, which then impelled the CP and CP-dominated unions to respond favorably to direct action. However, resistance to the state's functions in support of monopoly capitalism went beyond CP policy of seeking to control the state. Urban struggles not only exacerbated the state's fiscal crisis, but revealed an autonomous social practice based upon an everyday rejection of the ideology of dependence and constraint.
In Quebec, where the crisis has been less acute partly because managed by the Parti Quebecois, Montreal activists have sought to cohere and direct widespread opposition to the municipal regime. This experience has perhaps the most to say to Americans. In 1970, a radical city political party, FRAP, was created by representatives of the community organizing movement which for years had organized around a wide range of specific issues and of the radicalized Quebec labor movement. Part of the more general social movement in Quebec, FRAP split apart in the aftermath of the crisis provoked by the Front de Liberation du Quebec, while the acrimonious general strike of 1972 dampened movement initiatives. In 1973, however, another municipal party was established, called the Montreal Citizens' Movement, by the Montreal labor councils, the Montreal branch of the PQ and community and university activists, plus the Quebec New Democratic Party. Less programmatic at its founding than FRAP, the MCM included divergent strategies, which appeared soon after the 1974 elections in which the MCM received 45 percent of the vote and elected eighteen city councillors (of 50 total). A strong parliamentary and reformist wing pursued a traditional course while the radical, anti-capitalist wing, which in 1975 was elected into the party executive, sought post facto to develop a mass base.
Partly from the unresolved tension between the two wings, Schecter reports, energies were diverted into party organization rather than popular mobilization. Although the MCM has been beset with serious difficulties and has retained its electoral support in the 1978 elections while failing to elect anyone, the practical experience gained with political resources has illuminated the range of problems encountered in a North American context of domination. Beyond the strictures set by the crisis, these problems seem to have been the result of the absence of a critical mass of left-wing Montrealers to conceive of programmatically manipulating the latitude in the urban situation in a libertarian direction. The urban context for radical action was a new one, while the MCM left was inexperienced, theoretically unsophisticated and unfamiliar with the libertarian tradition. At the same time, against the creation of a practical strategy to mobilize everyday opposition and take advantage of the key position of Montreal in the crisis were Marxist-Leninists (mostly outside the MCM) comfortably repeating the formulas of other places and times and social-democrats (inside the MCM) emphasizing the electoral strategy. Specifying and developing a libertarian socialist approach as a practical matter thus ran into limits. So, while the MCM program contained remarkably libertarian and "populist" principles and goals, such as strong neighborhood councils and free transit, the practice of the MCM dealt with internal heterogeneity of interests, making district autonomy work for securing collective political goals, dealing with and pushing past the bounds of reformism and mobilizing a base with consciousness of the potential breadth of the movement.
The conception of libertarian socialist strategy discussed by Schecter emphasizes the freedom of action possible in a given dynamic situation rathe than the objective limitations of it. The conditions of autonomy at the daily level are naturally seen as a strength, not an organizational weakness, while breaking the domination of daily existence is the goal. (This is why Schecter's use of determinist language seems so out of place.) The logic of the crises in France, Italy and Quebec are similar to that outlined in the United States. The urban element here is equally clear, but as was evi- dent in Montreal there is no necessity that it will successfully be made explicit in practice. Greatly increased fiscal dependence on the national government and monopoly capital and their lowly status in the.federal system have made cities the most vulnerable places to impose austerity. At the same time such a global strategy is full of risks and uncertainties. Cutting back urban programs with strong social control functions will impose the crisis in the daily lives of people the most exposed to the diverse possibilities of social life and the most liable to resistance given the opportunity. Praxis in this conception is the systematic expression of the crisis for the everyday, with the untypical coherence and reinforcement of an analysis of the conditions of domination and opposition. But as long as strategy is not conscious of itself the conditions of urban liberation will only issue into reform. Conscious of itself and its situation, a popular strategy can seek to take advantage of the limitations posed to the agents of domination.
- Stephen Amberg