Monday, December 5, 2011

Element-in-Tension: Organization

Organization occurs in many different forms. In the city of Caracas, we can point to at least two very distinct modes of organization. In the formal city, we recognize the (nominally) democratic and (realistically) oligarchical market-driven structures that organize the content of day-to-day life, per the standards of the neoliberal agenda. In the informal city, we sense that organization occurs and structures the content of life into meaningful and effective apparatus, though in forms that we global northerners fairly struggle to discern and classify.
Organization in Tension in Caracas
I will not spend much time discussing the typical formal organization of life for the upper-middle and above classes in Caracas. To some degree, we each live those lives here in Seattle. We wake, rise, groom, drive, work, buy, dine, play, love, rest… and repeat... in various groups and settings, according to the organizing principles of consumption under the grand neoliberal ethos of the “global city.” There is little that significantly changes the content of these well-insulated lives, little to prompt activism. Observe the lack of profound change wrought by our unprecedented election of Barack Obama. The take home lesson: in the neoliberal regime, if you want change, don't get too worked up. Buy something new.
Consuming Caracas
Organization of life in the lower classes of Caracas is a different story. Rather than structuring life according to models of passive consumption, the organizational tasks in the barrios consist of direct engagement in addressing concrete problems facing the “collective social subject,” with the expectation that no worthwhile activity will occur without overcoming resistance[1]. Barrio residents organize to create their own education, health, retail, security, social support, utility, and waste management systems. Over half of the workforce in Caracas is thought to labor within this informal sector of urbanism. Without glossing over the concrete problems that face the barrio residents, and without romanticizing the dire conditions that make the activist organization more survivalist than aspirational, I am still moved by the empowerment inherent in the volitional collective organization. This is not a setting in which the majority of the population would disinterestedly wait to learn the popular outcome regarding an issue in question. The people participate in forming their fate.
Creating Caracas - Sabana Grande Blvd, previously lined with shops and cafes, 
now taken over by buhoneros (street vendors)
This differences between the formal and informal functional structures in Caracas – between more passive consumption and active survivalism – draw the methodology and legitimacy of organization into tension. In validating both organizational modes, the city may be instrumental in forming a thoroughly engaged urbanism representative of divergent constituent desires, whether corporate or humanist. With the element of organization held in tension, the ends of the organizational spectrum are in contact, and learn from each other. As such, Caracas showcases impactful demonstrations of a more active populace than I’ve seen in the U.S., on both ends of the political spectrum. The passive consumers have learned activism from their survivalist opposition. And the city currently tensely accommodates the physical product of both organizational models as legitimate.

This aspect of Caracas seems to contrast with the other S&M cities we have studied, in which the element of organization has been drawn into tension by the natural diversity of fast-growing populations but allowed to break in favor of the ruling classes. In Abuja, 800,000 informal homes have been bulldozed since 2003[2]. In Brasilia, the poor occupy only satellite cities far from the city center. In Songdo city, every fiber of the city is structured to only allow organization under neoliberal guidelines.

Thus, in persevering to continue holding the opposed organizational modes in tension, Caracas seems unusual, maybe even exemplary. Even so, as the formally organized sector controls the vast majority of resource in Venezuela, the informally organized are constantly under threat. At any time, the tension could reach a breaking point in favor of the formal sector. In eliminating police support for the barrios, in turning off the water, in cutting the electricity, the formal sector challenges. The informal sector mobilizes in response…

[1] Lester, J. (2009). Prometheus unbound in caracas. Socialism and Democracy, 23(3), 61-88

[2] The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), Geneva, Switzerland. 2006. Forced Evictions: Violations of Human Rights - Global Survey 10.

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