Most prophecies, when specific, are bound to be bad, for, throughout history, there are always new terrors - even if a few disappear, yet there are no new happinesses - happiness is always the old one. It is the modes of struggle for this happiness which change. -John Berger
By Philip Mirowski.
Neoliberals are not fundamentalists. But they approach crises with a certain logic—one that is directly relevant to comprehending neoliberalism’s unexpected strength in the current global crisis.
For some time now, social scientists have been debating the merits of established social theory to explain our ever elusive racial realities. The 2008 election of Barak Obama has initiated truck loads of scholarship concerning the so-called ‘post-racial’ society, and it seems like almost every conversation around race and racism is obliged to acknowledge that, despite Obama’s position as leader of the free world, some form of racial bias or racist structure persists unabated through this or that set of institutions. Interestingly, this common-sensical framing of the conjuncture, with all of its doldrum and predictability, has indirectly animated a confrontation between two competing conceptual frameworks that attempt to give form to race relations.
In the current issue of Ethnicity and Racial Studies, sociologists Joe Feagin and Sean Elias contend with Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s well-established racial formation theory by providing an alternative explanation for patterned racial iterations. Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory became the dominant view of race relations in the social sciences during the 80s and 90s, arguing that race is not biological but a social construction, that racial categories are made, destroyed and remade through micro and macro ‘racial projects’ working between the state, institutions, economies and social movements. Feagin and Elias note that while this analysis of race importantly illuminate the ways in which race functions, it obscures the systemic aspects of racism and the role of white power structures in maintaining and benefiting from that racism. The preverbal line in the sand is thus drawn between studying race or studying racism, between racial formation uncovering the processes of race and systemic racism illuminating the reproduction of racism by whites. In this way, Feagin and Elias take a page straight out of Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, suggesting that much theory has only interpreted race, the point however is to dismantle racism.
The benefit of the systemic racism theory is that it accounts for the structure of whiteness, exposing the historical continuity of racial power as anchored in a racism which whites wield through various social, political, and economic institutions in order to subjugate non-whites (this framework is not new, of course, as Black studies and Chicano studies have argued this for decades). The systemic racism theory, however, leaves very little wiggle room for whites to contest or non-whites to be incorporated into the machine of racism. Conversely, Omi and Winant provide a picture of race as a product of contestation, but then take a Laclau-and-Mouffe jump off the materialist cliff into a diffused sea of discourse, leaving the only semblance of determination to an allusive “state” that eventually, but not finally, codifies racial meaning through policy, law, decree, etc. Under this conceptualization, race is a relatively fluid zone of meaning-making without any ‘fundamental’ social forces determining the content and contours of race and racism. (Side bar: This issue of ‘determination’ is perhaps the sole reason why the field of Critical Ethnic Studies has emerged, arguing that U.S. race and ethnicity are fundamentally determined by white supremacy, anti-blackness, settler colonialism, etc.).
While I agree with this provocation, and admit that the analysis of systemic racism and racial formation is necessary, especially in a technocratic field like sociology, I don’t completely agree with either camp. Although both theories can be used to interpret and deconstruct race relations in various contexts, the salience of race over other important categories makes the debate seem too narrow and overly academic (this is a general problem: the competitive nature of academia is governed by staking out a subfield and claiming categorical supremacy, and in the field of race/ethnicity studies, this sort of racial focus is not so surprising). If Feagin and Elias were truly concerned with producing an analytical tool kit to interrogate race and racism in a politically strategic way, their conception of race would be a bit more amendable to the social fact of gender, class, sexuality, contingency and struggle. For example, how do we account for the emergence of Black and Latino broker classes that have been brought into the orbit of the administrative state and free market capitalism? How do we interpret intra-racial conflitcs mediated by class difference? How can we understand racism as co-produced through the control of sexual deviancy and gender non-normativity? How do we analyze the effects of gentrification in white working class neighborhoods like South Boston? How can we interrogate the conditions and possibility of a broad-based alliance for the creation of the commons against neoliberal austerity? etc. With that said, the theoretical debate between racial formation and systemic racism is an important one, but one that must be triangulated with other equally important modalities of social struggle toward the end of producing categories for political strategy alongside existing and emerging social movements.
I continue to suspect that Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism, as the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, may provide the much needed political stakes and strategy in racial conjunctural analysis.
Oakland “sideshows” demonstrate the public presence of youth of color in the region. Initially popularized in 2005, sideshows appear to be making a big come back this year, according to local police officials.
contradictory stratum among the rank and file
Unionization protest outside McDonald’s at Times Square in New York, November 29, 2012
"We’re seeing a zillion battles across the country in state capitols, in front of McDonalds, in warehouses, in the port of Los Angeles. Difficult times for working people have put these questions on the forefront. Labor’s on the defensive, but occasionally on the offensive also." - Joshua Freeman, professor of history at CUNY’s Queens College and the Murphy Institute
Oren Yiftachel, “Theoretical Notes on ‘Grey Cities’: The Coming of Urban Apartheid?” Planning Theory 8:1 (2009): 92
Two stories related to downtown development appeared in today’s L.A. Times, reiterating the continued intensification of downtown gentrification and the newspaper’s interest in mediating the conflicts arising from the transformation of the city core. The L.A. Times has, time and time again, proven to be a important ideological lubricator for this particular growth alliance, and such ‘top featured’ stories provide yet another window into how the paper tries to resolve the internal battles of downtown development by uncovering impasses while pointing toward a common ground of consensus.
In "Downtown property owners fight back MTA subway tunnel plans," the MTA’s planned $1.4-billion regional rail line connector, which would carve open tunnel through Flower Street between 4th and 6th Street, has conflicted with key hotel-office-retail propertied interests who argue that construction will disrupt commerce and profitability. Thomas Properties’ City National Plaza, the largest office complex in the city (two 52-story skyscrapers with four underground levels of parking/shopping/restaurants facing Flower Street), is leading the opposition along with minor support from the Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suits and others. A slew of lawsuits have been filed against the MTA through all sort of pretenses, citing damages ranging from safety risk, aesthetic despair, environmental degradation to seismic vulnerability (yes, if an earthquake hits, all the buildings would go down and kill the 12,000+ people that frequent this corridor each day.. that’s, like, OMG, way more than Sept. 11!).
While the ‘Flower Street rentier gang’ remains intransigent to the the gentrifying mayor’s assurance of smoothing out construction obstacles, cooler-heads at the L.A. Chamber of Commerce (or the bastard committee of the local bourgeoisie) have assured the public that long-term transit development in the busy commercial district is worth the temporary dip in profit margins. After all, as MTA executive officer Diego Cardoso so kindly reminded us at the very closing of the article, “We’re reinventing Los Angeles, basically.” Basically, basically. And why not? No cost is too high to reinvent an entire city in order to fundamentally renew the rent gap (the relation of potential rent to current rent) for landowners, line the pockets of developers with public subsidies, and expand the luxury service sector for yuppies, hipsters and other residents with readily disposable income to spend (all at the direct expense of the city’s working class of color bus riders, downtown immigrant shop-keepers and Skid Row residents’ access to public housing and social services, to name a few).
In related news, "Some chafe at downtown L.A.’s business improvement districts" uncovers the increased revulsion of downtown’s Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs, which provide designated areas with a private army of security guards and clean up crews in order to help market those areas for investors, businesses and residents. And the revulsion isn’t over their aggressive and often abusive police tactics against local “undesirables” (homeless, skateboarding kids, Occupy protestors, etc.), in fact, those tactics are lauded by local business owners and investors. No, this time it’s over a form of tax BIDs levy from landowners and businesses. According to the article, eight downtown BIDs collect roughly $15 billion in tax assessments every year, and the property owners are revolting. This is like a mini prop. 13 tax revolt, sort of. The major differences are that the BIDs are private/public entities, and the landowners’ withdrawal of revenue this time is not against the urban black and brown working classes (although, they do that too, in other ways), but against BIDs’ autonomous political-bureaucratic power and the services they say are no longer necessary. As a loft developer in the arts district who filed suit said, “This concept of BIDs, for me, is kind of something of the 80’s and 90’s. I think there are better ways to enhance the quality of life.” On the flip side, BID managers retorted by reminding the landowners how crucial they have been in helping gentrify their districts, with councilman Jose Huizar suggesting it would be “dangerous” to remove BIDs.
What’s striking about this piece is the uncritical and ahistorical approach it takes in framing the BID debate. On the one hand, the BIDs are said to have been very important in maintaining social order, cleanliness and institutional cohesion in business districts that, especially after the 1992 L.A. uprising (read: damn poor people, messing everything up!), have been transformed from shitholes to premier investment locations. On the other hand, BIDs are said to be parasitical, bureaucratic and wasteful entities whose functions have expired. Both of these arguments assume the hostile privatism of urban governance, an all too common situation today in which private interests (whether it be in the form of a BID or another more privatized governance structure that’s being called for by downtown landowners and businesses) trump public good, where ‘growth’ through rising rents, profits and entrepreneurialism eclipses democracy based on social responsibility, rights to housing, a living wage, etc.
Both stories here illustrate not only how the L.A. Times attempts to facilitate a “growth consensus” around downtown development adventures, either through the hiccups in transit-oriented gentrification or privatized governance, but that it does so by uncovering the limits and, thus, provides possible answers, to an emergent and fragile neoliberal urban growth ‘alliance.’ Indeed, as a new development regime stumbles downtown, the L.A. Times is apt to enlist its more than a century of experience garnered from assisting other flimsy regimes find stable footing.
Ramiro Gomez’s L.A. street art gives us something to think about
By EBONY MONTENEGRO
It’s Banksy’s public “guerilla” art with a touch of Diego Rivera’s social realism on the streets of Beverly Hills. With that in mind you can begin to understand artist Ramiro Gomez’s vision.
In a recent interview with Jorge Rivas of Colorlines.com, the Los Angeles native spoke about his work.
Gomez creates cardboard cut-out paintings of labor workers and peppers them on the lawns and homes throughout affluent Beverly Hills. As a nanny, artist Gomez wants more than anything to spur conversation around “illegal immigrants,” and draw attention to the headlines about the Arizona and Alabama legislatures’ immigration rulings.
To see more from Gomez, check out his blog.
This is part one of Mike Davis’s biography of Harrison Gray Otis, the first of nine episodes, which will be serially published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Future installments will include Otis’s interlude as “emperor of the Pribilofs,” his military atrocities in the Philippines, his bitter legal battles with the Theosophists, the Otis-Chandler empire in the Mexicali Valley, the Times bombing in 1910, the notorious discovery of fellatio in Long Beach, and Otis’s quixotic plan for world government.
Harrison Gray Otis and Eliza Wetherby Otis
EPISODE ONE: BROOM OF DESTRUCTION
General Harrison Gray Otis is the wrathful gargoyle with a walrus moustache and Custer goatee who glowers down on us from the battlements of Los Angeles’s Open Shop era. The proprietor of Times-Mirror Company from 1882 to 1917, he was recently hailed in a PBS documentary as the “inventor” of modern Los Angeles, both as an individual and via his descendants, the Chandler family.
Yet his eminence in the city’s history is cast almost entirely as shadow. Five or six serious books have been written about the Los Angeles Times and the Chandlers, but there is no published biography of the dynasty’s founder and leviathan. This is a major missing thread in the narrative tapestry of the current renaissance of Los Angeles history, but given the archival and literary obstacles in any potential biographer’s path, it is not surprising.
First, no one has yet excavated the pharaoh’s tomb. Rumors abound, especially in the tearoom of the Huntington Library, about family archives kept in a San Marino vault. But it is also possible that son-in-law and successor, Harry Chandler, destroyed many of Otis’s private papers when he ordered his own files burned after his heart attack in 1944. (Chandler might have been reacting to the literary and cinematic assaults on fellow-publisher and chief competitor, William Randolph Hearst.)
Second, any biographer has to tackle the fact that Otis was probably the most hated man in Ragtime America. His enemies ecumenically spanned a spectrum from evangelists to citrus growers, socialists to robber barons. Although chiefly remembered for his relentless crusade to destroy the labor movement in Los Angeles, Otis waxed most savage in his attacks on reformers within his own Republican Party. Progressive Republicans, in turn, repaid his vitriol with eloquent interest.
Knocking back a Bud Light with a taco in hand at a backyard party, breaking for traffic on the 101 as a lawnmower bangs the front of a pick up’s bed, mopping a dark and empty office hallway around midnight, or tented outside the local K-Mart with gift-bag giveaways, the bumping sounds of corrido, banda and ranchera music constitute a significant aural landscape in the City of Angels.
But is it political? Despite various differences within Mexican communities in Los Angeles, political subjectivities are collectively nurtured within quotidian sites of regional Mexican culture. According to geographer Clyde Woods, subaltern communities in struggle create regionally situated cultural institutions with highly developed traditions of social interpretation that morally instruct their collective thoughts and actions among themselves and against external forces of exploitation and domination. As the raw materials of aggrieved working-class experience are signified through available cultural frameworks appropriate to a group’s distinct position, the majority-Mexican immigrant community in Los Angeles share a collective understanding of the social, political and economic relationships that shape their everyday lives.
Spatial barriers between various migrant communities, for example, are often overcome through the electromagnetic power of radio waves. Geographically traversing the cityscape in automobiles equipped with radios regularly tuned into popular Spanish-speaking programming featuring hilarious locutores (radio jockeys) spinning regional Mexican music hits, Mexican migrants in Los Angeles are interconnected through shared sonic space. During the early 1990s, the power of regional Mexican music radio programming in Southern California exploded with the introduction of Los Angeles station KLAX (“La Equis”), achieving an astonishing 8.4 Arbitron rating that suggested roughly a quarter of a million listeners tuned in at peak hours.
At a time when a high-energy banda dance called la quebradita (“the little break”) became extremely popular, radio stations innovatively tailored their programming to the musical desires of an increasingly Mexicano Los Angeles. These radio stations facilitated a popular form of regional Mexican culture by promoting local banda nightclubs, music events and jaripeos (Mexican-style rodeos), creating what many commentators are now referring to as the “Nuevo L.A”. KLAX’s highest-rated program at the time was Juan Carlos Hidalgo and Jesus “El Peladillo” Garcia’s morning “drive time” show, which broadcasted regional Mexican music punctuated by banter on a variety of controversial issues that concerned their immigrant working-class listeners. The successful program format combined music, call-in system, caustic immigrant slang, explicit pro-immigrant views, discussions of social/legal issues, and humor directed at cultural and political figures. Other Spanish-language radio stations in Los Angeles such as KBUE (“La Que Buena”) were modeled after KLAX’s format in order to capture a share of this new lucrative radio market. Although commodified and contained, this new regional Mexican formation in Southern California provided a sense of cultural pride to immigrants in an era of migration and low-wage work.
Indeed, the transpatial medium of regional Mexican radio produced an aural community for working-class immigrants and promoted an awareness of affiliated political interests. Music scholar Josh Kun suggests that popular sound culture in the transnational economy of late capitalism is capable of supplying forms of imagined community to aggrieved populations sundered and separated by borders of various kinds. These aural spaces are simultaneously representational spaces or, as Kun argues, modalities of “audiotopia” that cognitively remap the imaginaries of subordinated communities with new meaning in new contexts of social struggle.
The regional Mexican audiotopias of Southern California were in fact constituted during a critically new period of anti-immigrant politics. In 1994, amid economic recession and demographic change, the popular passage of California Proposition 187 sought to deny undocumented people access to public education, social services and non-emergency health care. Known as the Save Our State (SOS) initiative, Proposition 187 was supported by then-governor Pete Wilson and signaled a historic resurgence of nativist hegemony. In response to the socio-political war against migrant communities, Spanish-language radio became an important discursive site for disenfranchised and working-class immigrants to circulate and articulate collective outrage and opposition. Popular locutores dedicated airtime for commentary and discussion about the political fate of their listeners’ communities, often deploying satire to ridicule racist politicians who fomented anti-immigrant hysteria and allowing callers to share opinions and voice dissent.
In this historical context, emergent regional Mexican cultural institutions in Southern California were infused with political significance and served as cultural corollaries to the mass mobilizations against Proposition 187 and other forms of exploitation. Banda social clubs in the early 1990s, for instance, functioned as important resources for mobilizing Los Angeles drywalleros, or drywall workers. Not only did cultural spaces of leisure reinforce political affinities of labor in a new economy characterized by low-wage immigrant work, but more importantly, regional Mexican cultural formations sustained social claims by subaltern populations when formal political paths were closed. In this way, Spanish-language radio in the era of migration and low-wage work has become a medium for the circulation of various struggles in Southern California. A veritable technique of potential counter-power.