Sunday, December 11, 2011

Element-in-Tension: Production (Part II - Neoproduction & Postproduction)

In 1989, President Perez took office in Venezuela promising to fight U.S. pressure and oppose structural adjustments demanded for IMF loans. But once elected, Perez rolled over and pursued neoliberal policies, imposing austerity measures cutting social spending, devaluing the currency, liberating price increases for domestic goods (including gasoline), and installing business leaders in key government posts. The policies quickly doubled the price of gasoline, critically lowering living standards for the lower and middle classes.

On February 27, 1989, food riots/looting broke out across Caracas. President Perez was overwhelmed, and declared a state of emergency putting Caracas under martial law. Suspending several articles of constitution, Perez then deployed the army into the barrios against rioters. The resulting massacre of civilians, known as el Caracazo, left hundreds or thousands left dead (depending on who’s counting). The results were especially brutal in the poorest neighborhoods.

Outrage over el Caracazo ultimately set stage for the entrance of Hugo Chavez’ socialist Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Chavez was born poor, but gained influence by rising successfully through the military to become a paratroop commander. During his career development, Chavez idolized Caraqueno Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s liberator from Spain who had dreamed of a strong, united, and independent Latin America. Chavez also read many leftist thinkers, and came to believe the military should act forcefully in the interest of the working class if the ruling class was corrupt.

Before the Caracazo occurred, Chavez had secretly started a leftist Bolivarian revolutionary movement within the military. During the Caracazo, he refused to participate in the army action, describing it as “savage repression” by a “genocidal regime.” In response to the massacre, Chavez and his loyalists began plotting a coup d’état. In 1992, their coup attempt against Perez failed, and Chavez was imprisoned until 1994, gaining great popularity with the poor during his well-publicized incarceration. Upon his release from prison, Chavez used his visibility to organize the “Bolivarian Revolution.” By 1998, popular sentiment swept Chavez into the presidency via a landslide election, and by 1999 he had a new Venezuelan constitution approved. 

Since that time, Chavez (Venezuela’s first visibly African-indigenous president) has provided strong influence for the poor in the federal government, nationalizing industries and sharing revenues through social programs. Such changes do not come without conflict. His pro-poor policies even saw Chavez temporarily removed from power and detained in 2002, when a massive bourgeois demonstration marched on the presidential palace and demanded his resignation. In reprisal, a popular uprising among the poor was mounted, and eventually supported by the military-- within 48 hours, Chavez was reinstated as president. 

With regard to urbanism in Caracas, Chavez’s ongoing validation of the voice of the poor has drawn the social production of the city into palpable conflict. While the elite living in, or invested in, the city seek to produce to a formalized urbanism showcasing their vested interests in speculative development, financial solvency, and material wellbeing, the poor in the barrios desperately struggle to improvise an urbanism that meets even their day-to-day needs for secure food, water, shelter, and community. 
Country Club vs Barrio
Which of these objectives is the legitimate social production of the city? In BE 551 this quarter, we have talked at length about the diversity of perspectives regarding small and midsize cities, enough that I do not believe I can summarily address the “character” of such cities. The city is a multi-faceted production, its meaning constructed and perceived in myriad ways by interested observers. When many observers share the same perception of a city’s essence, we may be tempted to name an existential quality of the place, e.g. “Abuja is disappointing… Astana is hopeful… Brasilia is sterile… Belgrade is grim… Dubai is oppressive… Songdo City is ambitious…” Yet, regardless of common perceptions, opinions of a city’s essence must be understood as perspectival. 

So, if real estate investors laud Dubai as inspirational, but the children of abused workers in Dubai’s service sector want to burn the hateful place to the ground, is there one true quality of the city that may be assessed?

Although estimates of a city’s character will always be perspectival, there are functional outcomes of urbanism that are more empirical. A city expands or contracts, densifies or thins, exports or imports, conserves or consumes, provides or neglects. In assessing such functional urbanism, it seems that upholding basic human rights would be one reasonable minimum threshold for legitimacy. From this perspective, the bourgeois productions of urbanism that demolish slums and project billon dollar towers toward the stratosphere while nearby impoverished masses fight for clean water, although potentially marketable as “improvements,” are also pragmatically troubling.

In strictly monetary terms, it is easy to justify fairly divergent approaches to development. Would barrio dwellers reliably make wise decisions if handed the billion dollars that was going to be used to build an office tower? The answer to that question is clearly “no,” yet the premise of the hypothetical is also compromised by the artificial nature of monetary economics. If development options are evaluated in terms of the irreducible currency of life- energy- rather than it’s surrogate, money, then assessment of the options change. Could barrio residents reliably make good use of the vast amount of energy (caloric, human, mechanical, chemical, thermal etc.) that is captured in the financing and construction of an office tower?

We live in a closed system, energetically speaking. In contrast to fiat currency, which is created apropos of nothing and is technically both inexhaustible and worthless, the energy in our world originates in the sun, is finite in quantity and is invaluable for life. Of course, it is understandable that fear of unavoidable demise could lead to popular denial of the finite conditions of life. Thus, conversion of energy into money and its analogues, seeking to capture and horde finite resource in a form that may be eternally passed along via estates, is a comprehensible (if weak minded and futile) effort to escape expiration. Perceiving life in monetary terms helps sanitize this behavior that would otherwise be of concern. When our neighbor first filled her house, and then her porch, and then her yard, with piles of worthless junk, we assessed the behavior as hording and considered her demented. How is it different to horde vital global energy in the accrual of monetary wealth or in unnecessary development tantamount to fiat currency?

While it is impossible to say what is a legitimate approach to urban development in truly universal (ontological) terms, we do seem to have a somewhat useful global scale of reference provided by the inescapable gruesome truth that we are human. As predominantly self-aware beings, we know our limits and (try as we might) we cannot escape knowledge of our finite nature. Accordingly, with an end in sight, we cannot avoid reasoning about the condition of our ephemeral lives. In the most basic of terms, we know what seems fair. While, linguistically, something about the term minimum dwelling unit sounds haughty, implying unilateral sacrifice on the part of the poor, we nevertheless seem to have an innate idea of what constitutes a defensibly reasonable dwelling unit. Let's find out:

Is this (Charlie Sheen's mansion) a reasonable dwelling?
Are these African shanties reasonable dwelling units?
Is this high rise tower reasonable dwelling?
How about this one: reasonable?

Is this new monster craftsman, dwarfing the old monster craftsman next door, a reasonable dwelling?

Is this (our rental house) a reasonable dwelling? I am still debating.
I wager most of us had discernible feelings about whether these residences were reasonable. When it comes to resource utility, we have a sense of justice well-honed through millenia of pre-industrial struggle for the survival of our species. The abstractions of the monetary economy confuse rational arguments a bit, but we still sense what is fair. An instinctive part of us knows that life on earth is a zero sum game in which we may manipulate and distribute, but not ever really create, fundamental resources. Someone’s gain is another’s loss. 

I’m no great capitalist, so I have no qualms positing that equitable distribution of resources among all people seems pretty reasonable to me. Of course, I don’t know exactly how we get to equitable distribution. There are a lot of people, so it would certainly take work-- but if we can recreate a miniature model of the world of out man-made islands in the Persian Sea, I really can’t find a justifiable excuse for not even trying. 

There may be no definable right or wrong ideological model for producing Caracas, but the results of different urbanisms yield either more or less equitable distribution of resource, either increasing or decreasing human suffering. In continuing the difficult task of holding production in tension, there are a couple of approaches toward instrumentality being pursued, tuning elements in hopes of increasing equality and reducing suffering. I'll address those in my next entry.

1 comment:

  1. thank you for this article and all of the ones on your site (I am still reading them). I had social conscience once (I think you are re-awakening it again). My health has recently improved and so has my outlook on what is social justice and what is not. Is it social justice that 5% of Americans hold 60+% of the wealth, I don't think so. Life is so short and it still amazes me, especially today, how we can accept the fact that it is so miserable for so many people, in fact a vast majority of people. I don't blame anymore, I'll just keep a conscience for change.