Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Where neoliberalism ends and community resiliency begins

You've heard the news from Detroit (or even from Cleveland, Hartford or the Bronx for that matter). People living in certain parts of the city continue to be subjugated to toxic living conditions. 48217 is the most polluted zipcode in the state of Michigan. Industrial complexes larger than neighbourhoods provide nothing but suffocating air and brownfield land to the people living in their vicinity.

The government--federal, state, or city--provides no favours to these people. It can seem that all the government cares about is tax breaks to the rich and preserving their elite status. That is why public school teachers are continually laid off, and funds for basic city services such as law enforcement and fire protection are hacked. The New International Trade Crossing, the publicly-owned bridge being proposed between Ontario and Detroit, will provide a handful of temporary construction jobs, and even fewer permanent jobs, while cementing the relationship of this culture on large-scale manufacturing and ecologically degrading industrialism. Money laundering, corrupt politicians, government kickbacks run rampant in the City of Detroit, where until recently, city council members were elected at large, thus holding them accountable to no one other than their colleagues and cronies. At the same time, as Ulrich Beck notes in Risk Society, industrial modernity makes it close to impossible to link long-term human health impacts to the slow violence of pollution. People do suffer, the environment does suffer, at the hands of this culture. Regardless of your position on these issues, people such as those in Delray, and our Earth are being continually oppressed and polluted.

In response to these issues, I have wondered whether it is possible to develop community resiliency, which I conjure as a reliance not on changing who is in office or expending energy on failed politics, but rather on dealing with issues at a more tractable level, a level at which community members can participate directly and are appreciated, while at the same time creating small institutions that directly address complicated problems. Recently, urban gardens in Detroit and other cities across the country have provided wonderful models of how community-based, community-scale projects can foster neighbourliness and provide healthful food opportunities for youthful engagement with the land. Are there other ways in which communities of oppressed people can address the problems they face themselves?

In some sense, such community resiliency may seem like a form of the libertarian and neoliberal agenda...People doing it for themselves. YEAH! Screw government. YEAH! Screw regulation. YEAH! (Followed closely by, Lower taxes. YEAH!) However, I see stark differences between the neoliberalism of industrial, corporate capitalism and the community resiliency I describe above. People that have bought into the neoliberal agenda believe that the government hinders their ability to earn money for themselves. They believe that only if the government got out of the way, they would create long-term employment for people and "economic growth", while changing global standards will in time address the massive ecological issues we face. (I haven't drunk that warped Kool-Aid.) On the other hand, community resiliency, like that fostered in the urban gardening movement, first and foremost recognises that the lines between government and the private sector are blurred, that indeed they rely on each other for stability, that they do not care about you or me, let alone oppressed peoples. A government guided by neoliberal principles is not interested in community development or neighbourliness or the capacity of people to endure changes themselves. Community resiliency is the antidote to such principles. Community resiliency is about what we can build for each other, not for our individual selves. Collective, small-scale action allows us to imagine and live new possibilities without reliance on misguided economic and social philosophies.

Of course politics need to change. Of course we must fight corruption and get politicians at every level of government to care about the people they represent and the environment we live in. But who knows, maybe those oppressed know best about what is oppressing them, making them best people to address the problems head on.

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