“As we ever expand, as civilisation grows and spreads, the demand for space, for homes and resources increases.”
From Emma Kathryn
…Which in turn leads to the forced removal of the poor. It happens the world over. As we ever expand, as civilisation grows and spreads, the demand for space, for homes and resources increases.
This last couple of weeks, this issue has hit closer to home.
Regular readers will know I live on a council estate in the middle of England. Many of us on the estate fall into the category of the working poor. We live here because we cannot afford to live anywhere else, but more than that, its home. Many of us have lived here for decades. Lasting friendships are formed, as are allegiances. We stick up for and look out for our own.
A couple of weeks ago, the residents received letters letting us know that the future of the estate is uncertain,that they are looking into regenerating the area and that the council would be undertaking resident surveys to find out the wants and needs of the residents.
Sounds good, doesn’t it.
Only of course, we all know that our opinions won’t get taken into account. Not really. As ever, money talks, and that’s the real issue here. You see, the council are selling off more land to housing developers.
One of the only open large green spaces this end of my town has already been sold off. The playing field has four football pitches and extra space besides. It is the only place where the kids from the estate can go and play for free, where dog walkers can amble and let the dog off the lead, or just for anyone to enjoy spending time outside. It’s a busy place in spring and summer. The council want us, the community, to welcome this change, to really want it and so they tell us about the new and improved sports facilities they will build, but we all know that those facilities will not be free, that the kids from the estate will be priced out of using these if they do in fact appear at all. The council want us to believe that they are doing this for our benefit, that our lives will be improved, and that the proposed two hundred homes that will be built on this land has nothing to do with it.
When are we going to stop believing the authorities?
The fear for the estate is that it will be sold out from under us. After all, it’s land that could be used, that could be sold off to the highest bidder. Money talks and the poor don’t count.
Don’t believe me? All you have to do is look at the Grenfell tower tragedy that dominated the UK news last year.
For those that don’t know, Grenfell tower was a tower block of flats, council owned, in one of the richest boroughs of London. The posh Kensington and Chelsea borough council had decided to regenerated the area, covering the eyesore of a building in cladding designed to improve the view for the towers rich neighbours, because you know, god forbid they should have to look at the reality that many have to face, have to endure, day in, day out.
When fire ripped through the building, killing seventy-one people and leaving many others homeless and with nothing, it soon came to light that the cladding the council had chosen had made the fire worse than it would have otherwise been. Tower blocks are designed to contain a fire breakout in the flat it starts in (and the advice to tenants who live in high rises in the event of fire is to stay inside their flat). The cladding was not flame retardant and instead fuelled the fire, helping it to spread through the entire building quickly.
The council, again, one of the richest, had decided against spending five thousand pounds more on fire-retardant cladding, instead choosing one that isn’t recommended for buildings as high as the tower block. Again, because the poor don’t matter.
The tower is currently nothing but a burnt out skeleton, and many of the former residents are still homeless, despite the public coming together and raising millions of pounds for the victims (though where that money is now, well, that’s another article for another day, but needless to say it isn’t where it should be, helping those for whom it was raised).
More than that though, do you think the land will be used to create housing for those who have lost everything? I would wager not.
I bet land developers and the council couldn’t believe their luck. Prime London land is now unoccupied! When enough time has passed for people to have moved on and forgotten, the council will sell the land and build more homes and services for those with money, for those who either willfully or not serve the capitalist agenda.
I hope that we don’t forget, that those poor and displaced people will fight for what they have lost, will hold the government and authorities to account.
The poor are being squeezed out of London. In fact the poor are the first ones out whenever the land they’re on is needed.
Sporting events such as the Olympic Games displace the poor. When Brazil hosted the games, officials evicted many families before the 2016 games. For example, to make way for one high-speed bus lane, some three hundred and eighty-five families were relocated, sometimes as far as thirty kilometres away.
Sometimes support networks including familial and friendship relationships can be a lifeline for those in need. Friends and family help one another out, whether that’s the lending of money for something to eat, childcare enabling a parent to work, advice and so on. When these support networks are torn apart because of forced removal, it becomes more than land rights.
You could also go one further and say that forced eviction is an act of violence. Whenever and wherever we look to for examples of forced removal or eviction, we see violence. Why else would people leave their homes with little or nothing? Because of the threat of violence. And what can be more violent than war? In war we see the displacement of people, and this is an act of forced removal.
Whatever you think about the politics of refugees, and in this age, there are many differing opinions, no matter your political leaning, there can be no doubt that a war zone forces many to leave their homes.
If we look past the politics of war, past the soldiers who fight in them, past all of that and really see the war machine, then we cannot deny that war is big business. Weapons and other war technologies are for sale to the highest bidder. And after the war is over, why, there’s land that’s going to need to be developed, and there’s going to be all kinds of infrastructure to be laid down. Money money money.
That’s why when world leaders go on state visits to other countries, they take with them arms dealers, construction CEOs and so on.
I don’t know what will happen to where I live. I wish I could say that we will rise up, us residents and fight the council tooth and nail, but I don’t think that will happen, least of all because there are too many who can’t be bothered. There are some who believe the council when they say it will be better, it’ll make their lives better. And there are a few of us who are angry.
I don’t know what we will do. I know I will fight it every way I can, but I don’t think it will be enough. I think the council have already made their minds up, that it doesn’t really matter what us, the residents, think or say. If they really needed land for homes, then why allow companies to build massive carparks in the middle of residential areas (there are two recently new built carparks in the town where I live, one of which is smack bang in the middle of a residential area). The council could have sold that land to housing developers, or refused planning permission for the carpark, but no. It’s all about the money.
I feel connected to the land where I live, where I have lived my whole life. The playing field is home to a host of trees, plants and fauna. The spirit of the place, of the land, of the trees, plants and animals. All of this will be lost, and I fear it’s one more step closer to our disconnection from the land.
My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!
I’m sitting in a punk bar in April with an out-of-town socialist. He gets passionate, telling me how disappointing he finds May Day rallies back home – how the local AFL-CIO plays it safe by stumping for Democrats, while other activists demonstrate about immigration, feminism, and “anything besides class.”
“Why can’t this one day be for workers?” he sighs.
Overall, they both claim that US progressivism must pick one of their two competing orientations: liberal centrism or social democracy. Identity politics or universalism – which way forward?
Should workers have a holiday to themselves?
But there’s a flaw underlying the clashing-visions narrative. Both worldviews fundamentally misunderstand the nature of race, gender, class, and capitalism – and they do so in precisely the same way.
But in pre-capitalist society the work of each member of the community of serfs was seen to be directed to a purpose: either to the prosperity of the feudal lord or to our survival. To this extent the whole community of serfs was compelled to be co-operative in a unity of unfreedom that involved to the same degree women, children and men, which capitalism had to break. In this sense the unfree individual, the democracy of unfreedom entered into a crisis. The passage from serfdom to free labor power separated the male from the female proletarian and both of them from their children. The unfree patriarch was transformed into the “free” wage earner, and upon the contradictory experience of the sexes and the generations was built a more profound estrangement and therefore a more subversive relation.
Liberals say that opposing identity oppression means letting class politics go. Social democrats respond that they can walk and chew gum – class-based organizing can and should coexist with a strong anti-discrimination program.
But does either stance square with what race, gender, and privilege materially are?
Under capitalism, most people take part in the work that keeps society running and produces all goods and services. Sometimes that work is paid; sometimes it isn’t. In either case, though, it isn’t controlled by the people who do it. Rather, economic activity is governed by a ruling class of investors and business owners, called capitalists. They accumulate wealth by exploiting the paid and unpaid work carried out by everyone else: the working class, broadly defined. The capitalist class holds power by owning capital (productive property, the objects that workers use to produce goods and services).
The capitalist economy is enormously complex. It requires an elaborate, worldwide division of labor. The ruling class dictates the terms on which that happens. Further, the capitalists know that they don’t actually contribute to the work. Their role boils down to accumulating capital and keeping themselves in charge.
So, when dividing up labor, they hit two targets at once.
But the ruling class has figured out that it can associate different social categories with the expectation and/or requirement that their members will engage in certain types of work. When they do that, the working class itself begins to organically adapt to the capitalist division of labor. The gender role of womanhood, for instance, has unpaid gendered labor built into it. The capitalist class doesn’t send a memo to every individual woman each morning that reads, “Today we need you to clean the kitchen and comfort you boyfriend when he’s upset.” But on the ground, women, not men, are almost always the ones who do that type of work. How does that happen? Well, men have learned a social role that includes having that done for them, and women have learned one that includes doing it. Every time they re-enact those roles, they re-create them; the repeated experience of behaving the way others expect based on gender causes people to internalize those expectations, which then leads them to project them back onto others. The division of labor happens through identity categories, and it plays out in a way that keeps reinforcing them.
Of course, capitalists don’t rely on the working class to keep doing that entirely on its own. They actively intervene in daily life to keep the categories strong. While that does involve the mass media, religious doctrine, and the education system promoting stereotypes and unequal expectations, propaganda is only part of the story. Rather, the ruling class sustains and reinforces identity groups by treating some of them much worse than others. By punishing (legally or socially) those who cross category lines, it keeps the distinctions clear. Racial profiling by police helps keep certain neighborhoods white. When a church excommunicates gays, it ensures that its parishioners’ households are headed by men and produce lots of children.
Additionally, by granting cultural, legal, and material benefits to some identity groups but not others, the ruling class shores up its power. After all, when part of the working class does comparatively better as a result of the division of labor, it’s less likely to unite with the rest of the class to challenge the system overall. That’s how privilege works: it simultaneously emerges from and contributes to the capitalist division of labor, and does so in a way that pits privileged workers against the rest of their class.
Activists must understand the ways that the particular historical experiences of the United States wove race and class together that makes fighting white supremacy central to any revolutionary project. In other words, those who wish to fight against all forms of authoritarianism must understand one crucial fact of American politics—in America authority is colored white.
Race and gender don’t hover out there in the aether, independent of economic reality. If something exists, it exists in the material world. Nothing within the class system is outside the class system. Economics is more than dollars and class is more than tax brackets. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and empire aren’t extraneous features of capitalism. They’re as fundamental to it as selling products on the market. They exist because every day, people make goods and services, keeping society alive according to the division of labor embodied by identity divisions. Combined with unequal treatment, that makes sure the division of labor will still be up and running the next day. Without such a division of labor and disparity of benefits, the working class would not be as productive as the ruling class needs it to be. Without privilege to undermine the basis for class unity, the capitalists would have a revolution on their hands.
My acquaintance in the punk bar, however, didn’t view gender and race as indispensable ingredients of the class system. He wasn’t a bigot, and he supported anti-racism and feminism on moral grounds. Even so, his understanding didn’t root them in the everyday, material life of capitalism. He knew that women workers and immigrant workers are workers, no less than their white male counterparts. But, he still operated with the implicit assumption that capitalism, in general, tries to make workers as interchangeable as possible.
Apart from the skilled trades, the only jobs in which individual qualifications make a substantial difference are professional and white-collar work. Now, it’s true in principle that a less-diverse and less-qualified administrative workforce operates less effectively than one that rewards talent, rather than whiteness and maleness. But a big-box retailer doesn’t need a stocker to have an unusual talent for stacking boxes. The nature of the work is such that most any worker can do it as well as another. For most jobs, unique individual qualifications don’t really make much difference.
As more and more jobs get de-skilled, employers lose the incentive to hire based on applicants’ distinctive qualifications. Over time, specialist knowledge declines as a factor in assigning work. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism don’t. Maintaining those divisions of labor allows companies to exploit non-white, non-Western, and non-male workers at extra-high rates. That then creates downward pressure on privileged workers’ pay. De-skilling doesn’t make the working class less differentiated. It makes it more so.
And every corporation knows that whatever it loses by discriminating against qualified administrators, it makes up a thousandfold by keeping the overall division of labor intact.
Capitalism is a totalizing social system. It’s not just fiscal. Race, nation, and gender are among its components. Without them, it could not function. Had it not imposed them, it would not have been able to come into being. But social democrats and liberals don’t quite grasp that. Instead, they view gender, class, and race as more-or-less independent “vectors of oppression” that might inflect each other when they intersect, but still don’t reduce to any shared underlying cause.
And so, liberals and social democrats end up holding in common the view that class, in principle, is ultimately raceless and genderless. They agree that capitalism and privilege exist, but that opposing one doesn’t require opposing the other. They differ on only one point: social democrats say “both/and” to identity and class, while liberals say “either/or.”
Neither view is adequate. Their shared assumption isn’t true.
White supremacy is a system that grants those defined as “white” special privileges in American society, such as preferred access to the best schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and health care; greater advantages in accumulating wealth; a lesser likelihood of imprisonment; and better treatment by the police and the criminal justice system. In exchange for these privileges, whites agree to police the rest of the population through such means as slavery and segregation in the past and through formally “colorblind” policies and practices today that still serve to maintain white advantage. White supremacy, then, unites one section of the working class with the ruling class against the rest of the working class. This cross-class alliance represents the principle obstacle, strategically speaking, to revolution in the United States. Given the United States’ imperial power, this alliance has global implications.
The central task of a new organization should be to break up this unholy alliance between the ruling class and the white working class by attacking the system of white privilege and the subordination of people of color.
But what difference does this make on the ground? Doesn’t good socialist practice still mean pro-worker economics plus anti-racist, feminist social politics? Whether or not it’s all a unitary system, what is concretely at stake?
If race, gender, and empire are inherent to capitalism, the meaning of “good socialist practice” starts to shift.
If a socialist revolution is to happen, the working class must unite. If the class is to unite, revolutionaries must challenge the material and cultural basis of its disunity. So, every political project the Left undertakes needs to specifically challenge privilege within the working class, not sweep it under the rug to avoid “divisiveness.” If your organizing doesn’t meet that standard, you’re not building class unity. You’re tearing it down. There is no raceless and genderless class politics because there is no raceless and genderless class. So, trying to compartmentalize anti-privilege and anti-capitalist work is implicitly chauvinistic (except when it’s explicitly so!). The Left must reject all politics that doesn’t break down intra-class privilege, even when it comes from “our side.”
The social-democratic revival waxes nostalgic for the postwar welfare state, calling for “universal social goods” with anti-discrimination laws tacked on. Its proponents posit a revival of Scandinavian-style social programs as a bulwark against the populist Right and a viable “long game” anti-capitalist strategy. But welfare nostalgia doesn’t naturally lead towards revolutionary socialism. Due to its backwards-looking frame of reference, it fits more intuitively with welfare chauvinism: the tactic used by far-right leaders, from Marine Le Pen to Richard Spencer, of promising to restore not only the social-democratic redistribution, but also the much harsher identity hierarchies of the pre-70s years. And in practice, even avowedly left-wing social democrats are not immune to welfare-chauvinist temptations. Jeremy Corbyn and Sahra Wagenknecht‘s stated anti-racism hasn’t kept them from demanding immigration restrictions. Angela Nagle‘s claimed feminism doesn’t stop her from scapegoating trans people for the sins of online call-out culture.
The social-democratic “both/and” doesn’t work. Why should it? It attempts to sidestep the question of privilege within the class, not attack it. Opposing privilege as a matter of class-neutral morality rather than working-class strategy leans, over time, towards chauvinism.
For the consequences of the ending of white supremacy, which can only be ended by mobilizing and raising the consciousness of the entire working class, would extend far beyond the point of spreading out the misery more equitably. The result of such a struggle would be a working class that was class conscious, highly organized, experienced and militant – in short, united – and ready to confront the ruling class as a solid block. The ending of white supremacy does not pose the slightest peril to the real interests of the white workers; it definitely poses a peril to their fancied interests, their counterfeit interest, their white-skin privileges.
Does this mean radicals should take a two-stage approach: anti-discrimination now, socialism later?
Both privileged and specially-oppressed parts of the working class have two sets of interests: long-term and short-term. For non-privileged workers, there’s a long-term interest in abolishing capitalism and a short-term interest in eliminating privilege. Privilege is part of capitalism and specially-oppressed workers stand to benefit straightforwardly from getting rid of the system and all of its parts. Privileged workers, though, are in a bind. They share other workers’ long-term interest in ending capitalism. But in the short term, privilege makes their lives better. So, their long-term and short-term interests contradict each other; they share the former with their entire class, but the latter keeps them from recognizing it. Strategically, the trick is to organize privileged workers around their long-term interests – even though that means opposing their own short-term interests.
Liberal anti-discrimination, however, doesn’t do that. It doesn’t want to. There’s a reason it focuses on academia, middle-class professions, and the coverage of media stars with oppressed backgrounds. That flows naturally from its class basis. It aims to remove the barriers that keep middle-class and upper-class members of oppressed identity groups from enjoying full middle/upper-class success. However, that success consists of exploiting working-class people, including those who share their identities.
Privilege and class aren’t separate. The Left’s work against them can’t afford to be, either.
If May Day is about immigrants and feminism, doesn’t that mean it’s about workers?
So how should the Left proceed?
If the unitary view of class and privilege rejects liberal anti-discrimination, it also leads away from standard welfare-statist anti-austerity. Should leftists oppose austerity? They shouldn’t support it, since its implementation (like the welfare state’s before it) is done in a way that strengthens capitalist rule (including by shoring up privilege). But the Left’s goal can’t be a return to the postwar “golden years.” Revolutionaries can’t afford nostalgia.
Rather, directly tackling the basis of class rule (including privilege) can best happen outside the framework of state services and legislation. You can conceptualize it through an anarchist, Marxist, municipalist, or whatever other lens, but in the end, only the dual power strategy‘s institution-building approach allows radicals to confront the capitalist class while challenging the division of labor it imposes.
What does that look like in practice?
Q-Patrol in Seattle, WA claims that gentrification in the gay district is behind the past several years’ sharply-rising hate violence. The influx of wealthy software engineers drives up rent and displaces LGBTQ people (replacing them with sometimes-homophobic tech yuppies). Consequently, the neighborhood’s ability to function as a safe haven declines. Losing that “critical mass” of LGBTQ people makes the area more attractive to straight college students looking for nightlife. So, with more drunk, conservative straight people in the district, increased hate violence isn’t exactly a surprise.
Gay business owners, though, have called for more police in the area to quell attacks. But a greater police presence actually accelerates the process. The people most targeted by homophobic and transphobic assaults are often people of color, unhoused people, and/or sex workers. The police themselves harass and sometimes attack members of those groups. Meanwhile, their ambient presence emboldens the same well-off bigots who are behind the violence in the first place.
Q-Patrol’s solution is a community safety patrol, preventing and intervening in attacks while monitoring the police, Copwatch-style. Q-Patrol therefore resists gentrification (which threatens all working-class people in the area, LGBTQ or straight) by displacing an ostensible function of the police (protecting the community). The institution-building strategy hinges on this kind of function displacement. Capitalist institutions organize different aspects of life in ways that reinforce privilege and the division of labor. If leftists build counter-institutions, people can use them organize those same parts of life in ways that don’t do that.
Because its basic work is preventing hate violence and its roots are directly in the LGBTQ community, Q-Patrol directly challenges straight privilege. However, it does so in a way that simultaneously furthers the interests of the neighborhood’s entire working class, straights included. There’s no “both/and”-ism – it doesn’t artificially pin anti-discrimination onto supposedly raceless and gender-free “class issues.” Instead, its work intrinsically and organically does both at once.
That’s the approach the Left needs. The conflict between social democracy and “identity politics” is a red herring. They share a worldview in which privilege and class exist independently of each other. Because of that, both end up supporting capitalism and privilege, since materially, they are the same system. Neither liberals nor social democrats, though, are interested in attacking that system as the coherent, integrated whole that it actually is. Revolutionaries can’t afford that limited perspective. If May Day isn’t about women and immigrants, then it’s not about class.
The Left must confront the class system itself, challenging the ruling class and its division of labor. Radicals shouldn’t fight one limb of the system in a way that strengthens another. Autonomous working-class politics, based on the dual power strategy of institution-building, has a chance of breaking out of that trap.
According to the United Nations, there are currently more displaced people on the planet than at any other time in recorded history. Nearly sixty million people have fled or have been driven from their homes on account of war, violence, political destabilization, or severe economic conditions, compared to around 38 million a decade ago. 1 out of every 122 humans on this planet is currently a refugee, and 9 out of 10 of them are in regions considered to be underdeveloped by international standards. While the Syrian war is currently the largest contributor to such displacement, displaced people hail from every corner of the world, from Haiti to Pakistan to Senegal to Colombia.
More than half of the world’s sixty million refugees are children.
“you only run for the border when
you see the whole city running as well…”
Refugees flooded into Europe in record numbers last year, comprising the largest influx of migrants from outside the European continent in modern times. While the majority of refugees fled from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, they came from every corner of the world; from Haiti, Mali, Senegal, Eritrea, Pakistan. The vast majority of them landed on Greek shores, but they also flooded into Hungary, Italy, and Turkey, desperately hoping to eventually reach Northern Europe.
They are fleeing civil wars, sectarian conflicts, and widespread poverty caused by both natural disasters and social forces. They are leaving their homes, their ancestral villages, and their families, with many never to return, risking their lives in an attempt to reached a promised land of safety that in reality is often quite harsh and unwelcoming. While the conflicts and tragedies that drive them from their homelands are varied in both complication and scope, nearly all are bound by the common roots of imperialism and colonialism.
In response to this “migrant crisis,” the affected countries of the European Union (mind you, the very same countries that have financially benefited for centuries off the same imperialist meddling that is at the root of the current conflicts) have recently moved to close borders, restrict free movement, and otherwise thwart the attempts of the refugees from reaching Northern Europe.
The rhetoric employed by both government and media throughout Europe in order to justify these actions follows the same tried-and-true scare tactic formula that immigration foes have effectively used throughout recent history: dire warnings that the migrants will “game the system,” “refuse to assimilate,” “steal jobs,” as well as contribute to “moral decline” on account of their differing “culture” and “values.”
American lawmakers and media personalities have also similarly politicized the refugee crisis, using both the aforementioned rhetoric as well as fears of “terrorism” in order to turn an easily manipulated populace against the idea of supporting refugee resettlement in the United States.
Their tactics are no different from the rhetoric of a century ago, even two centuries ago. The exact same dire warnings were once used by American “settlers” against the Irish, and later the Italians, Chinese, Greeks, Portuguese, Hungarians and Jews. Nowadays they are used against immigrants from both Latin America and the Middle East. And both then and now, such arguments only further benefit the ruling class at the expense of the oppressed.
“go home blacks,
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers,
sucking our country dry
…messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up…”
But while this rhetoric negatively affects the level and effectiveness of humanitarian efforts, it obviously does nothing to stem the tide of people fleeing their homelands. Well over a million refugees flooded into and moved through Europe last year, comprising the largest influx of migrants from outside the European continent in modern times.
“the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off…”
A hundred years ago there were also a million people per year moving through Europe. But instead of risking their lives to reach Greece, Hungary, and Italy, they were risking their lives to migrate from these very countries, in many cases due to sociopolitical conditions very similar to those that are triggering the current migration crisis. They fled war, poverty, natural disaster, starvation, and religious persecution, embarking on perilous voyages across the sea only to arrive in a foreign country that was harsh and unwelcoming, treated them with great prejudice, and often subjected them to severe exploitation.
Where did they flee to, you ask?
They fled to America.
“you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay…”
When it comes to why refugees are currently fleeing Iraq or Syria, the basic answers are readily at the tip of everyone’s tongue. War. Conflict. Terrorism.
But ask the average American why their own ancestors came here, and they tend to respond with either or both of the following vague answers: they either came for “religious freedom” or for “a better life.” And while these answers are not necessarily untrue, they painfully oversimplify and sanitize the myriad of complex factors that triggered massive waves of immigration to America.
Immigration functions as a “push” or “pull” phenomenon: in short, those who migrate from one place to another are either being pushed out of a specific region due to specific negative sociopolitical factors and/or they are being pulled into a specific region due to specific positive factors, factors that frame the belief that immigrating to said region will allow for “a better life.” The standard American narrative around the immigration journey emphasizes and glorifies both the pull of America in terms of its religious freedom and promise of prosperity while stressing the great sacrifices that our ancestors made coming to America.
But what is often overlooked and forgotten in that narrative are the very reasons that so many made such a sacrifice in the first place. The pull factors are stressed, but the push factors that led to large-scale immigration to America are minimized and rarely ever summarized beyond the simple statement of “a better life.” Which then leaves unanswered the specific question of why thirty million people fled Europe over a span of a hundred years for a better life in the first place.
And in ignoring that question, we ignore both our roots as a nation as well as the struggles of our ancestors.
One of the most crucial and yet most overlooked aspects of white American identity is the fact that with very few exceptions, we are all descended at least in part from people who fled from war, persecution, starvation, and/or poverty, and who risked their lives and left everything they knew behind to do so. We categorize them as “immigrants” or “pioneers,” but in reality so many of them were refugees, no less refugees than many of those currently fleeing the Middle East for Western Europe.
“you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land…”
In November of 1913, sixteen year old Sofia Manossadakis arrived on Ellis Island after a three-week journey at sea. Sofia and her three siblings were among nearly a million immigrants that arrived that year, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. For her, a better life meant the chance to escape the sectarian violence and political instability that had characterized her homeland of Crete for well over two centuries.
The Ottoman Empire took possession of Crete in the mid-1600s after several hundred years under Venetian rule, and the Greek Christian population of Crete spent the next two hundred and fifty years consistently and actively resisting Turkish rule, culminating in several notable revolts and rebellions. From the Daskalogiannis Revolt in 1770 to the numerous Cretan revolts throughout the 1800s, the island was consistently destabilized by violence. Uprisings and riots in the mid-1890s culminated into the Cretan Revolt of 1897, which directly coincided with the Greco-Turkish War being fought on the Greek mainland, a war fought over the possession of Crete. The overlapping of these two conflicts and the resulting violence led to an intervention by the great powers, who declared the Cretan state an autonomous territory under Ottoman suzerainty.
It was also in 1897 that Sofia Manossadakis was born in Livaniana, a tiny settlement high in the mountains of Sfakia on the south-west coast of Crete.
Sfakia had been a stronghold of Christian resistance against the Ottomans since the Daskalogiannis Revolt, which originated in the mountains of Sfakia in 1770 and was brutally suppressed by the Turks. The village of Livaniana itself had lost nearly half its population during the uprisings of 1821, and had suffered further violence in the subsequent uprisings throughout the rest of the century.
By the time Sofia was born, the population of Livaniana as well as the surrounding villages was significantly dwindling, with more and more peasants either fleeing for mainland Greece or risking the voyage to America in order to escape the violence. The autonomous designation of the Cretan state did little to quell the chaos, with sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims breaking out throughout the first decade of the twentieth century. Revolts in 1905 prompted another intervention by the great powers, and the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 prompted Crete to declare union with Greece. The international community refused to recognize the union, triggering yet another series of revolts. A few years later, the Ottoman Turks went to war with Italy over control of Libya and were easily defeated, a defeat which prompted the members of the Balkan League to then declare war on a weakened Ottoman Empire.
It was against this backdrop, with seemingly no end to the violence and hostilities, that Sofia, her two sisters, and her older brother sailed for New York on the RMS Carpathia, which departed for New York from Trieste on November 5, 1913. Their passage was paid with help from their oldest brother, who had established himself in Massachusetts after immigrating a few years earlier and who they planned to reunite with in America. Their parents stayed behind in Crete, never again to see their children.
A little over a week later, while the Manossadakis siblings were partway across the Atlantic, the Greeks and Ottomans signed a treaty officially ending the hostilities between them, at which time the Cretan union with Greece was finally recognized. Only a few days after the Carpathia docked in New York Harbor and Sofia was legally admitted to the United States, the Greek flag was finally raised at Firkas Fortress in Chania, Crete after centuries of struggle.
“no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck…
feeding on newspaper unless the miles traveled
means something more than the journey…”
Nobody will ever know for certain how Manuel Cardozo made his way to America, but by far the most plausible scenario is that he smuggled himself to New England on one of the countless whaling ships that came through the Azores on their way across the Atlantic.
Thousands of Azoreans made their way to port cities in New England via whaling ships in the late 1800s, most notably Bristol, Rhode Island and Fall River, Massachusetts. Those who could leave the Azores freely usually sought employment on the ships in exchange for passage to America, but those who could not leave freely had no choice other than to travel as a stowaway. And Manuel Cardozo could not leave freely.
Uninhabited when claimed by Portugal in the early 1400s, the Azores were first settled by Portuguese prisoners under the direction of Prince Henry the Navigator. “Free” settlers soon followed; peasants from the Algarve and Madeira, Sephardic Jews and New Christians who were expelled from Spain and Portugal under the Catholic monarchs, former Moorish slaves and prisoners exiled from the Portuguese, as well as peasants and merchants who migrated from war-torn Flanders. The islands were established as series of ports serving the Portuguese crown, and for the next five hundred years the Azores were treated similarly to many other colonial possessions in that they served a dual purpose as a source of profit for the mainland and a convenient place to exile the unwanted and dispossessed. The well-being of the peasants themselves was rarely an afterthought.
For the next five hundred years those living on the Azores suffered through poverty, starvation, famine, and a series of wars initiated by both the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. With a terrain inadequate for sustaining the population in even the best conditions, and a land-ownership system that prevented peasants from ever attaining any sort of upwards mobility, many Azoreans started to again migrate beginning in the 1600s, most often to the newly-founded Portuguese colony of Brazil.
Those who stayed continued to suffer for generations, and a series of crop failures combined with natural disasters in the mid-to-late 1800s once again spurred a wave of migration driven by desperation and poverty, this time to the New World. However, while so many of the impoverished and oppressed throughout Western Europe were able to migrate via steamship to Ellis Island, the illiterate peasants of the Azores faced unique barriers to “legal” immigration, given that it was the most impoverished region in Western Europe.
Not only was the cost of and access to a steamship voyage to America financially unfeasible for most Azorean peasants, but males who had yet to complete the mandatory period of military conscription required by the Portuguese government were legally barred from leaving the islands unless they posted the equivalent of $300 as bond, a figure ten times higher than the $30 average steamship passage that was already out of reach for most.
As a result, the whaling ships functioned as the primary means of immigration for Azoreans, whether legal or illegal, whether as employee or stowaway. And at sixteen years old, Manuel Cardozo had every reason to take his chances as a stowaway rather than spend the next four to eight years of his life helping to expand the Portuguese empire only to then to be forced back into a life of ever-worsening poverty and starvation with absolutely no hope for mobility.
Manuel arrived in Bristol, Rhode Island around 1899, established himself and found work amongst the Portuguese community in Bristol, and a few years later married a woman of Portuguese descent who “legally” came to America by way of Hawaii. And despite lifelong illiteracy and a lack of fluency in English, Manuel supported a family of sixteen through hard work and determination, finding employment in factories and second jobs as a night watchman throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
He lived and died as an “illegal alien” in this country, having never received a single benefit throughout his entire life, but his sacrifice and hard work (along with the magical powers of “assimilation” and “whiteness”) ensured that his children and grandchildren had the opportunity to both contribute to and benefit from the “American Dream.”
On one hand, it can be fairly stated that people have been driven off of land through actualized or threatened violence since the beginning of recorded history. But the specific geopolitical and economic forces and conditions that triggered both the colonization of the Americas as well as the eventual push of mass migrations of Europeans to the New World were dependent on a very specific process known as “primitive accumulation.”
Primitive accumulation is the process of seizing land that was previously regarded as commons for the purpose of commodification, a process that first developed in Europe during the Middle Ages and was central to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In Karl Marx’s words, primitive accumulation was “the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.” Those displaced producers, generally known as peasants, are then reliant on the market for survival, which tends to force them into urban areas seeking wage-labor jobs, leading to industrialization due to the sudden and enormous pool of desperate workers.
This process, which echoes and repeats clearly and continuously from 12th century Flanders to the effects of NAFTA in the late 1990s, still continues to this day in places such as Nigeria and the Amazon, triggering the same consistent patterns of violence and displacement that have been fueling migration for hundreds of years. Waves of primitive accumulation throughout Western Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries not only drove direct emigration, but also triggered a cascade of socioeconomic conditions that led to later waves of migration, most notable the thirty million immigrants that came to America between 1850 and 1934.
Primitive accumulation also factors prominently in the accumulation of the land the eventually became America in the first place. This accumulation, which came at the price of around 100 million indigenous people, quickly developed into an economic powerhouse due to its investment of 20 million African slaves, which in itself can be seen as another form of primitive accumulation.
Going back even further, it was in fact primitive accumulation that financed the “discovery of America” and sparked the colonial era in the first place.
In the sanitized version of history propagated mainly through American public school textbooks, Christopher Columbus discovered America while sailing under the flag of Spain. This narrative is problematic for many reasons (most of which others have elaborated on much better than I ever could), but aside from its sanitization of details and pro-colonialist framework, it is also most often problematically presented as having occurred in a vacuum.
While such a voyage, whitewashed or not, may have signaled the “birth” of the New World from a European colonial perspective, the voyage occurred at a pivotal moment in European history, standing as a symbolic consummation of a fledgling power that came to be known as Spanish Empire. The rise of that power, a victorious culmination of hundreds of years of warfare, would not have been possible if not for the sudden and consistent influxes of wealth generated through what was arguably the very first instance of what came to be known as primitive accumulation.
In 711 AD, Moorish armies invaded the Iberian peninsula, establishing what would eventually be known as the kingdom of Al-Andalus. Within a decade, the vast majority of the peninsula was under Muslim rule, and the various Christian kingdoms in Iberia spent nearly eight hundred years fighting to reclaim Iberian territory from the Moors.
This campaign, known as the Reconquista, gained strength in the 9th century with the alleged discovery of the remains of St. James in Galicia, transported and then enshrined in a town that came to be known as Santiago de Compostela. This discovery sparked a pilgrimage route through northern Spain that quickly became the most popular medieval pilgrimage route through Europe. The influx of pilgrims across what became known as the Way of St. James was of both financial and social benefit to the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain, who were able to strengthen their position and finance further mercenary armies to reconquer Iberia from the Moors.
The Moors, meanwhile, had imported merino sheep from North Africa into Iberia, and as the kingdom of Castile gradually retook land from the Muslim kingdom, the Christian aristocracy recognized the potential for merino wool as a lucrative cash crop that could reliably fund the Reconquista.
Common lands throughout Castile were then seized for the purpose of sheep grazing. The Castilian crown quickly prospered and amassed significant wealth due to the demand for wool in northern Europe at the expense of the peasantry who were displaced en masse and left to starve. Unlike the later cycles of primitive accumulation that affected England, there were no industrialized cities desperate for exploitable wage labor for the peasants of Iberia to flee to. In many circumstances, the only viable (and bitterly ironic) alternative to starvation for Iberian peasants was to join the very armies that were funded by the commodification of the lands they once lived on.
By the mid-1300s, the crown of Castile controlled the majority of the Iberian peninsula, and a hundred years later the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon created a consolidation of power that would bear fruit in 1479 when Ferdinand succeeded his late father as king. The combined union of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon then successfully conquered the last Muslim kingdom of Granada thirteen years later, in January of 1492.
It was only weeks after the fall of Granada in 1492 that the court of the kingdom of Castile agreed to finance Columbus’ voyage. Columbus had been presenting his case to the Spanish court for a few years at that point, but the completion of the Reconquista meant that the profits from Castilian wool were no longer needed to fund armies and mercenaries. That wealth could now be used to fund “exploration” with the purpose of acquiring further wealth.
And so as peasants faced the choice of migration, starvation, or conscription while sheep comfortably grazed on their former lands, Columbus set sail for what he thought would be the Indies financed by the profits derived from those sheep. The voyage, as we know, did not lead him to the Indies, but instead he landed on the shores of an island known to its Taino inhabitants as Guanahani.
The Italian explorer and his crew expressed their gratefulness towards Taino hospitality by committing horrifying atrocities against the Tainos and by seizing several Tainos as slaves that they then took back with them to Spain, an action repeated by Columbus on subsequent voyages, as well as by Amerigo Vespucci a few years later. By the time Columbus left what was by then called Hispaniola for the last time, the Taino population had been reduced from eight million to less than 100,000. Not long after, slaves from other islands had to be imported to Hispaniola from other possessions of the Spanish crown as the native Taino population had been decimated by murder and exploitation to the point of extermination.
The taking of both land and slaves for the sole purpose of exploitation and profit eventually progressed into the accumulating genocidal force that we know today as global imperialism, and those takings are the foundation on which the United States was built.
A hundred years after immigration peaked at Ellis Island, the New World that once provided a remedy for the intertwined issues of land and scarcity in Europe is now the epicenter of an end-stage crisis that is a direct continuation of the same cycle that produced America in the first place.
The crisis is most often coded in the languages of development, policy, and economics, deliberately isolating it from its historical roots or patterns, but it is neither a new process nor one confined to the terrain of cities or the field of urban planning. While one was obviously a much more physically violent and bloody process, especially on American soil, overall there is little difference between the mechanisms of gentrification in America and those of colonization as a whole. The specific modes and methods of violence and oppression differ greatly, but both are processes sparked by the intertwining forces of scarcity, commodification, and speculative profit, the same processes that have been driving displacement and migration for centuries and that forced so many of our ancestors to leave their homelands for the New World.
In turn, several generations after the completion of the massive land grab that was America, the descendants of that massive wave of immigrants are now learning the hard way that the limits of the “American Dream” are congruent with the physical limits of available, affordable and viable land. But unlike a century ago, this time there is no viable pull, no newly colonized landmass for the current crop of landless peasants to settle on and continue the cycle of oppression.
In the fall of 2007, I sold nearly everything I owned, packed what I had left into my van, and drove across the country from New York City to Oregon. I had little to no connections in Oregon, no job prospects, and no concrete plan on how I would survive. But despite these unknowns, I knew that the possibilities that lay before me on the other side of the country still held more promise than what I was leaving behind.
I was an economic migrant, driven from NYC at the height of late-stage gentrification. I could not find an affordable piece of land to live on, which forced me to leave my “homeland” in order to seek out “a better life” on the West Coast where land was not as scarce and in demand.
I was the first American-born member of my direct lineage to make such a journey. Neither my parents nor my grandparents ever needed to migrate for socioeconomic reasons, as the privileges we call whiteness, assimilation, and citizenship allowed them to generate wealth and stability through the American Dream of property ownership. But my journey into adulthood was congruent with what’s now been referred to for at least two decades as an “affordability crisis,” and property ownership is now out of reach for a significant portion of my generation due to a manufactured scarcity of viable housing.
This scarcity of available and viable places to live combined with job scarcity and depressed wages has not only led to a newly proletarianized white middle class (in as much as the opportunity to generate wealth through land ownership has been newly denied to them), but it has also led to widespread migrations from economically saturated urban areas as a result of inflated housing prices. And those migrations inevitably result in triggering the cycle of gentrification in the areas that they settle.
A decade later, three thousand miles from my homeland, I myself am a part of and am witnessing this very effect. The same cycle of gentrification that drove me from New York a decade ago has now thrown my adopted home of Portland in crisis, erasing any potential of a better life in terms of economic security. And yet, despite this crisis, I am still in an infinitely safer position than some of my fellow economic migrants, whose lack of privilege in contrast to my own has resulted in their being forced to exist in some of the most dangerous and squalid conditions imaginable.
* * *
Across the street from my building in downtown Portland, a homeless camp slowly but steadily formed over the past several months. While homeless camps have been sprouting up with frequency throughout America for at least a decade now, the growth of a camp literally in my front yard in tandem with the growing refugee crisis in Europe made the similarities and shared causes and circumstances impossible to ignore.
In technical terms, “refugee” is reserved for displaced people who cross a border seeking refuge. Those who do not cross a border but are still displaced are referred to the UN as “internally displaced persons.” And while the UN may not categorize the ever-growing population of homeless in the United States as internally displaced persons in terms of their reports and statistics, there is little difference between the sociopolitical forces that produced the camp across the street and the sociopolitical forces that produce many refugee camps around the world. Once we strip away the specific signifiers (“homeless,” “bums,” “travelers,” etc.) that we use in our culture in order to characterize them, they are simply landless peasants, displaced persons, economic refugees and migrants.
One of the great myths that drives homeless policy on the municipal level in the United States is the belief that the majority of homeless people in any given area are not actually local but from somewhere else, and that they migrated to the city in question because it’s somehow better for homeless people there than wherever they came from. Often presented as incontestable truth by both local politicians and business owners, the myth is used as a justification for not funding services or shelters, as it is stressed that doing so will “enable” and “attract” these supposed masses of migrants from elsewhere.
That this idea is myth as opposed to truth is incontestable: federal data consistently shows that the majority of homeless persons within any given urban area are local to at least the county if not the city itself. And yet this myth is still consistently and successfully wielded as a weapon as it serves the ruling class on multiple levels. Not only does it exploit the same fear-of-others tendency that is also central to anti-immigrant rhetoric, the myth also serves to placate and flatter the citizenry and to create a false impression of economic stability within the community. By positioning the community at issue as a “draw,” the myth reinforces the idea that the community is such a desirable place to live that homeless folks would travel from all over the country to take advantage of the quality of life that the taxpayers enjoy, as well as create the false assumption that poverty is not a severe issue in their community.
If the visibly poor are conveniently regarded as being from elsewhere, denying and/or hiding the severity of poverty in any given community becomes much less of a challenge. Poverty itself becomes the other.
Such inaction, combined with criminalization, only exacerbates the problem of homelessness. While the federal government estimates around 600,000 homeless people currently living in the United States, that number is widely regarded as a dramatic undercount due to the federal government’s narrow definition of homeless combined with a significantly flawed data collection process. When the definition of homeless is expanded enough to include those living in cars, motels, and those who are temporarily living with family and friends, the number of American displaced persons and economic refugees rises to well over eight million people.
Though not (yet) as severe in its scope, the “homeless crisis” is to present-day America what the “refugee crisis” is to present-day Europe, and the myth of the other, the “migrant” seeking to “take advantage” of local communities echoes with eerie similarity throughout the politics and rhetoric around both crises and across two continents. And of course, that rhetoric is no different from the rhetoric that so many of our ancestors in America once faced.
It is for these reasons that I can’t walk past the camp without thinking simultaneously of the refugee camps of Europe, of my own economic migration, of the journeys of my own ancestors, and of the cycles of accumulation and displacement that lies the root of all of it.
“It is the basic contradiction in our entire history as a nation. The first European settlers who landed on these shores saw themselves as creating a great new experiment in democratic government. Yet they were enslaving a whole population of human beings, Africans, and committing genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America. As a nation, we have never really dealt with this contradiction. We’ve only picked around the edges of it.” – Anne Braden
On one hand, I am undeniably a child of empire, born and raised on unceded Lenape land that colonial occupiers renamed “New Jersey” after driving the Munsee out in the 1600s. I am a product of the same American Dream that is theoretically afforded to everyone under the protection of this empire, and despite my lack of access to land ownership I am the recipient of an immeasurable amount of privilege purely on account of my European ancestry.
On the other hand, while raised in relative stability as the descendant of two generations’ worth of landowners, once I step back any further in my family line I am a descendant of refugees and illegals. And those ancestors, who suffered through war and poverty before leaving everything behind to come to America, were in turn descended from countless generations of landless and exploited peasants.
It is variations of this contradiction that most white Americans cannot escape, the often coterminous roles of oppressed and oppressor. And in facing that contradiction we also must face our ethical obligations and closely examine our actions and attitudes towards both historic and present victims of oppression. For whether it’s the homeless already in our back yards, or the refugees risking their lives to reach our borders, to turn our backs and other them is not only a refusal of basic decency and hospitality in the face of suffering, but a painful hypocrisy given the histories of so many of our own ancestors.
When we deny hospitality and safety to the displaced, when we refuse and dismiss those begging at our door seeking safety and relief from war and poverty, we in turn deny our own past, we dismiss the trials of our ancestors, and we erase our own truths.
A few weeks ago, the camp that had built up over months across from my building was suddenly and harshly evacuated by law enforcement, with dumpsters and personnel on hand to confiscate and destroy any trace left after the residents were forced to leave. A few days later, the refugee camp in Calais known as “the Jungle,” one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in Europe, was also bulldozed and evacuated.
In both cases, those displaced were given nowhere to go. They are without land, without possessions, once again victimized by a cycle of displacement that has been benefiting the few on behalf of the many for nearly a thousand years.
A cycle that will never end for as long as the value of land carries a higher worth than the value of people.
This piece is dedicated to the estimated 2,500 refugees who died at sea trying to reach Europe in 2015, and was originally posted at The Wild Hunt.
It was written under the guidance and with the persistent urging of my own ancestors, most notably my maternal great-grandfather and paternal great-grandmother, whose stories I shared in this piece.
What is remembered, lives.
The italicized quotes running throughout this first half of this piece are excerpted from ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet currently living in the United Kingdom. The poem in its entirety can be found here.
Alley Valkyrie is a social activist, writer, artist, and spirit-worker living in the Pacific Northwest. She currently divides her time between Portland and Eugene. Alley has spent the past several years working with homeless and impoverished populations in Oregon. She is also a freelance visual artist and photographer, and produces a clothing line called Practical Rabbit. She is a co-founder of Gods&Radicals.
Fighter jets are flying overhead; their screeching rage punctuating the rumbling roar of heavy-tread machines behind me. Particles of dust and exhaust cling to sweat-drenched skin in the searing sun. Everything feels dry, desiccated, as if all the shadowed life of this place has been swept over by a sudden desert.
My attention’s drawn to something unexpected–four red strokes against white, crimson vivid as blood, pasted against a steel pole. It’s a glyph, a sigil, with a power steeped in terror. I need to leave this place to find a friend, but my attention is held. Something hardens in me as I stare, a sorrow awakening in veins constricted by anger.
I cannot believe what I am seeing. I look around myself to see if others note it. Women wearing head-scarfs are gathered nearby, speaking to each other quietly next to buildings which soon, too, will become rubble to be hauled away. It’s unlikely they’ve seen this mark.
I scrape it off the pole. No one seems to note my actions, neither the uniformed man who watches the gathering of Arabs a hundred feet from this pole, nor all the others passing by. It peels off easily, and I slip it into a pocket to show others, just as another aerial machine-of-death makes a second pass over where I stand.
I’m standing on a street corner in Seattle, not the Middle-East.
There’s a naval celebration going on–those jets are The Blue Angels a military performance troupe. I’m not in the middle of a declared war-zone, but I am in the middle of an occupation. And the sticker? It was three K’s, placed on a light pole in the middle of a traditionally black neighborhood undergoing massive gentrification. The bulldozers behind me are tearing down old homes and shops to make room for high-priced condominiums.
This was not far from the house I’m staying at. My host has been a First Nations man who was adopted out as a child to a white family who actively worked to keep him disconnected from his indigenous past. Neither of us have ancestral connections to Seattle, though he’s got closer claims to actually being on this land than I.
Also, he’s gay, like I am. Seattle’s a remarkably “tolerant” place for sexual minorities who play the middle-class games. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve stayed here so long, why I returned here after being gone for a year. I was elsewhere, searching for home, but this place called me back.
But by being here, I’m helping to displace the people who lived in this neighborhood before. In fact, this was one of the few places where blacks could live in Seattle due to redlining and other practices. I’ve met folks who still remember when it was called “coon town.” They’re younger than you’d think.
White, mostly liberal folks, flooded this area after the recent housing-price collapse, buying up foreclosed homes. Many of those evicted were black. Many, from the stories I’d heard, had taken out equity loans on houses that their grandparents were born in and found the sudden inflation of rates meant they couldn’t pay it back. Real estate agents harassed the residents who hadn’t lost their homes; My neighbor and friend complained of still getting unsolicited offers from white realtors several times a week. The poor, mostly minorities were pushed out, and bourgeois entered.
Blacks were hauled over in slave ships to help white people make money in America. Immigrants were brought in to build the railroads and then vehemently oppressed when they were finished. And all these groups helped displace the indigenous First Nations before them.
Did I just say displaced? I’m sorry. I meant slaughtered.
You used to be able to get money for “Indian” scalps. The U.S. government once encouraged people to shoot buffalo to help starve the First Nation resistance to westward expansion. Freed-slaves who joined the army were heavily involved in the Indian Wars and called Buffalo soldiers. And even today, “Indian Country” is U.S. Military slang for enemy territory.
But because of all that violence, the smallpox blankets and massacres and starvation, this open, tolerant, liberal city I live in has space for me. I’m “free” to practice my Pagan religion now, and the same military which killed natives now officially recognizes both my religion and my sexuality. This is all supposed to be “progress,” except I just saw a KKK sticker in a traditionally black, gentrifying neighborhood, and we’re all on stolen, conquered, and occupied land.
We Inhabit The Past
What we know and believe that the past and our histories greatly determine how we encounter the present. Without knowledge of slavery, for instance, I might be inclined to see the poverty of minorities in America as some sort of problem inherent within their cultures or, worst of all, intrinsic to their very nature. And if I am ignorant of that past, I might encounter all the anger, rage, and despair of minority communities as unwarranted, unjustified, and dangerous.
Most everyone, though, knows about slavery and has at least a vague understanding of the slaughter of First Nations people on this continent, so the matter is less what is actually known than what is actually believed about those things.
As I’ve mentioned before, belief affects human actions, not just human perceptions. Our accepted histories are not mere narrative. They rise to the category of belief precisely because they determine the way we encounter the present.
One of the most difficult problems in our histories is the notion of “progress;” the Enlightenment notion that we have moved beyond the past into a better present. This Progress Narrative is a way of divorcing and disconnecting our present from all the atrocities of the past while justifying our actions now. Once, Americans held slaves and treated minorities as less-than-human, but now, we are equal. Once, Americans slaughtered indigenous peoples on this land, but now we’ve passed to a more progressive, enlightened state.
It’s a narrative of the past, certainly, but it defines what we think of ourselves now. Post-Colonial, Marxist, and Anarchist scholars have variously noted how Western civilization creates a conception of itself which poses all other present and former societies as primitive, existing in a less (politically, economically, and socially) evolved state. That is, it “others” all societies besides itself, positions itself as the most-evolved form of society humanity has yet attained, and then sees all societies (including itself) through this filter.
A particularly pernicious effect of this, though, is that parts of our own society that do not fit this narrative become ignored, made invisible by the story we tell about ourselves. We see moments of crime against sexual, religious, and racial minorities as aberrations to the liberal, tolerant society in which we live, as if all the past is behind us and all the blood of scalped and starved natives, of tortured slaves, of murdered immigrants do not, even now, fertilize the ground upon which we plant our organic gardens. And when we look at our past, we disconnect those events from the present in which we live. The displacement of peoples, slavery, First Nations genocide–those happened then, but we live in now.
But history is full of processes, not just events and presences, which continue to haunt and continue to not just shape but inhabit our modern interactions with each other.
The post-colonial historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty, writing about European mode of disenchantment and secularism, noted:
what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is the very fact that these worlds are never completely lost. We inhabit their fragments even as we classify ourselves as modern or secular (Provincializing Europe, p112).
This has a terrifying consequence. Our notion of being different and removed from the atrocities of the past is utterly false, even more so when those atrocities are unacknowledged and unrepaired. White Americans do not currently own African slaves, but the conditions of slavery continue to affect the descendants of those slaves and the wealth derived from slavery continues to benefit the descendants of those owners and American society. The land taken from indigenous peoples through violence is where we all now live. We’re not just the inheritors of atrocity–we are also the beneficiaries and the continuation of them.
We can look at our present through this lens and start to understand much of our current political, racial, and economic crises and how we, willingly or more often inadvertently, continue the atrocities of the past into the present. The United States of America was birthed in colonization with the oppression of peoples. Is it any wonder that our government supports other governments doing similar things? It took a very long time for the U.S. Government to stop supporting Apartheid in South Africa precisely because “European settlers on non-European land” looked awfully familiar. We can see the same thing in the Middle-East, as well. Regardless of what one thinks of that conflict, it should give us pause that the U.S. Government has given more military aid to the Israeli government since the second World War than to any other country in the world.
“Not in My Name”
From the frontispiece of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes
Speaking of governments, one of the other legacies of The Enlightenment besides Capitalism, Nationalism and Democracy, is the notion of complicity. Like egregores, the modern state demands a shared identification of its people. That is, since sovereignty no longer derives from the land or the gods and now is said to derive from “the people,” it’s become difficult to separate the actions of a government from the people whom they are said to represent.
This is different in other countries though. I first noticed it with a German friend. She and I had been talking about American CIA involvement in the overthrow of socialist governments in the Middle East and South America. I’d said to her something regarding how “we claim to believe in Democracy, but will undermine it when the people vote for someone we don’t like.”
“Why do you keep saying ‘we?’” she asked me.
I didn’t understand the question.
“We? Why ‘We’? You weren’t there, and you didn’t do it. The government did. Americans often say ‘we,’ and I don’t understand why. Germans don’t do that.”
I’d noticed this, but had thought it was merely a linguistic difference. “You never say ‘we’ when talking about Germany?”
“That’d be silly,” she replied. “I’m not Germany. I’m German, but I’m not Germany. You’re not America, either.”
I still think on that matter. It was relieving to understand that I was not personally responsible for everything the U.S. government had ever done. It was also terrifying, because I began to understand the meaning of implicit consent; how people in power were bombing children in Afghanistan and Iraq as if they represented my interests, and I was helping to pay for it with taxes from my paltry wages.
Before I’d understood this, my reactions to the founding (and foundational) violence of America were most often ones of disbelief. Sometimes I’d accuse the historian of such horrors of lying, or twisting facts towards an agenda. But I realized I was mostly just being defensive, because I couldn’t believe “we” had done such a thing.
Thing is, “we” didn’t. Others did, just as others do now. But they did it in “our” name, just as they do now.
I’m a vehemently anti-racist Pagan Anarchist. On what grounds could a government ever have thought I’d want them to kill indigenous people? Or buffalos? Or allow and encourage people to own slaves? And how could they possibly think that they’d be accurately representing my will by dropping bombs on children in the Middle East?
The answer’s awfully obvious. No government such as that could ever speak on my behalf.
There’s another side to this idea of sovereignty and complicity. If the actions of a government are a reflection of the will of the people, then it makes perfect sense that our government was wrong to attack us directly. For any government to attack the people for whom that government is a mere proxy. After all, governments just do what they’re elected to do, right?
Many Gods, No Masters
So here I am, a gay Pagan living on stolen land. I didn’t steal it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was stolen. Not having been directly responsible, I cannot personally make amends, nor can I, with all the magic of the gods and spirits, hope to resurrect the dead, to undo those crimes.
More difficult, I have little choice in this matter. I live where I can; where I can afford; where things are open to me; where I feel safe. And I’m bound by the citizenship conferred to me at birth. I cannot merely “go back to Europe,” to my ancestral lands, because I have no legal claim to do so.
I guess I could perhaps do what many people do, which is ignore the whole thing, tuck the horrors away into a neat little envelope called “past” and pretend like these things don’t still happen. The more I work with spirits, though, the more I realize the dead don’t just go away like that. Besides, the horrors continue. Poor minorities are still shot dead on American soil by city militia. The descendants of slaves continue to live in deep poverty and are thrown in prisons now, instead of slave ships. And the government which claims to represent me, which derives sovereignty from my “consent,” slaughters people in other countries, too.
Knowing all that, I cannot look away.
This, too, is why it’s impossible for me not to see conflicts elsewhere as part of the same legacy of which we, in America, still re-enact. Watching the conflict in Israel/Palestine, I cannot help but think both of the plight of the people in the occupied territories and their poverty as being similar to what the indigenous people around me suffer. Simultaneously, I cannot help but identify with people in Israel who did not themselves choose to steal land from others. Many of them are the descendants of people who moved elsewhere, some are also people who fled from violence and hatred elsewhere.
Besides thinking Capitalism is the worst thing we’ve ever come up with, this is why I’m an Anarchist. The foundational violence which haunts every “freedom” in America was perpetrated by people who were not me. The violence which America still enacts in the world is committed by people who falsely claim to be acting on my behalf. I did not consent to those horrors, nor do I consent to them now, nor will I allow them to do those things on my behalf.
Anarchism doesn’t stop at rejection of a government. Recognizing that the suffering of other people relies on my implicit consent, I cannot allow that violence to occur. Governments who claim to represent my interests and who extract money from me in order to commit atrocities must be toppled, and the conditions which have allowed them to thrive must be changed so that they no longer may do so.
My Anarchism, however, is also my Paganism. The gods and spirits we’ve pushed out of our present continue to exist, as do the dead. Just because I live in the present, I am not absolved from my inheritance, nor of my legacy. I cannot perform rituals on stolen land without working to have it returned, I cannot worship gods of place and people without fighting those who’d poison those places and sever those people from their gods.
There’s something really liberating about this knowledge, though. The notion that the past is dead is false, and this means we Pagans who are attempting to reconstruct ancient worship of ancient gods are still living among fragments of those religions. We don’t need to prefix what we’re doing with “neo-,” even if what we come up with, guided by our gods, is a different configuration from what our ancestors had.
That is, if the past is not ever truly gone, it can be rewoven, reshaped. It’s around us now. Processes which started centuries ago and continue to this day can be ended and amended. Fragments buried in plain sight under our illusion of being modern can be teased out from their hiding places.
We only need to stop claiming that the past is over, so we can own up to the past that is still with us.
[This piece first appeared on The Wild Hunt on August 9, 2014]
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.
A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here is due to ship soon.
Full disclosure: I absolutely loathe the phrase “self-care”. I also deeply dislike the way we talk about the concept, especially without deconstructing the social class privilege that comes with it. B. Loewe wrote a great piece about this and many other problems in the cultural construct of self-care. I believe its important to re-define what we mean by self-care that does not come with capitalist or Middle-Class assumptions about accessibility and productivity. In a nutshell: not everyone can afford a spa day nor should be driven into the dirt by the capitalist boot heel.
That being said, praxis of self-care may be useful. Also, what is self-care? A general definition of self-care that I have found useful is, self-care is any sort of action you do to take care of your health in various its domains (physical, mental, emotional) with an emphasis on intentionality. It is intentional actions to care for yourself. This can be as basic as making a meal for oneself or having a good cry.
In each of our worlds, we face difficult challenges. Many of us also face structural challenges that have immediate harm for us or may include long-term effects on our physical and mental health. Not only is this a compelling acknowledgement for self care in general, I believe that this highlights the need for self-care on a deeper, spiritual level. A lot of talk about self-care emphasises tripartite model of mind-body-emotions, but I see many other domains of our lives that could benefit from self-care. How about the health of our families, our communities and our spiritual selves?
What can spiritual self-care look like? Some immediate ideas are energetic or chakric cleaning. Many of us have practices to cleanse our spiritual body through different means. Washing with agua florida, smoke cleansing, balancing chakras with stones, casting circles are all some examples of this psychic cleansing.
I would also argue that the structure of ritual or following seasonal patterns, and celebrations etc. could provide a meaningful experience in connecting to the spirit world and validating our spiritual selves. This may also include connecting with other pagans, witches and wyrd folk: social connection as self-care.
Connecting to creativity is something that many practice as a self-care activity. Being creative doesn’t have to mean artistic production; you can get creative with some kitchen witchery or try your hand at spell craft. I’ve found anti-anxiety spells on Tumblr and Deborah Blake provided a great “chill out” spell in this years Llewellyn’s Witches’ Datebook that I like to think of as an anger management self-hex!
To personalize this essay, I want to reflect on how gentrification has affected my mental health and how I am combating it through spiritual self-care. My city has changed a lot. Many times I do not even feel that it belongs to me anymore. Many of the places I used to frequent no longer exist. Many of my friends are moving away because they cannot afford to live here. I fear the time when I too, will not be able to remain in this place. This city had been un refugio for me for so long but that has changed.
I have worked in mental health and community organizing for over a decade and now more than ever I am hearing from people about the depression and anxiety that comes with income inequality and gentrification. I feel it in my bones as well. I absolutely believe that gentrification has mental health consequences. A quick internet search finds articles from the CDC, academic journals and even Everyday Feminism talking about the negative health outcomes that are being discovered as cities gentrify (please see the further reading section).
What can we do about it? I was heartened to read about the collective WITCH in Chicago, who perform ritual/art to protest housing inequality and it galvanized me to organize something similar here in the Northwest. I’ve had friends gather at my home to make hex bottles for combating neighborhood gentrification; we attend hearings on housing and post fliers warning neighbors of impending construction of luxury condos. Perhaps a more visible action is warranted.
For me the creation of hex bottles taps into both my creative side as well as my empowered, brujx identity. I feel as though I am fighting back. It’s like creating war water, I am going into battle for the soul of the place I reside in. It’s my town, it’s my home and I have a duty to protect it. Spending all my time complaining about gentrification only gets me so far, it doesn’t make me feel better in the way that action does.
To wrap up this essay, I want to touch on a recent discovery of mine and how it can help human beings (and perhaps especially pagans) in times of suffering or mental health distress. I came across the biophilia hypothesis in my professional work and it totally connected to my worldview as a pagan and a person coming from a subaltern cultural experience. The biophilia hypothesis was posited by Edward O. Wilson and proposes that human beings have an intrinsic need to seek out connection with the natural world. This idea of interconnectedness has been a focal point of indigenous cultures the world over.
Perhaps with the advent of capitalism, industry and colonialism, many cultures and peoples have been torn away from this connection. Perhaps reconnected with naturaleza is a way to heal from these wounds. When we talk about gentrification and the way that cities are constructed, I think the biophilia hypothesis has great implications for how we cope with the negative mental health effects (as well as physiological problems) that are associated with displacement and gentrification.
In connecting to nature or other living beings, we reaffirm our place in the world as connected to others. If we turn towards this interconnectedness and really start caring for the land and the other beings who live with us, perhaps what we love will save us after all.
Simcha is a rad non-binary QPOC brujx, community activist & voodoo devotee living on occupied Kalapuya & Chinook territory. By day they work in community mental health & by night they can be found spinning in circles & dreaming of faraway desert lands.
Gods&Radicals is a non-profit Pagan anti-capitalist publisher. We are always grateful for your support!
I stood in the street-front garden on a languid August evening. The sun had set, the heavy Friday commuter traffic dwindled on the arterial street before me, a pause of quiet settling over the city before the raging hoards of week-end revelers awoke to earlier memories of life.
The gloaming light faded just as the street-lamps ignited, shining amberic yellow across the concrete stones radiating the last of the day’s heat into the cooling night. I breathed in, deeply, taking in the intoxicating scents around me. Nicotiana filled the heavy, thick drunk air as I unraveled the garden hose, my bare feet brushing against chamomile and mint. I opened the spigot, directing a slow spray of water on the baked-earth in which nasturtium, victorian lilac, and heather rooted amongst human-high blades of vetiver and taller-still sunflower.
Nothing ready to harvest those weeks in August; all the greens had long-before gone to seed, and the tomatoes and peppers not yet ready. I liked that time of year best, in between one harvest and the next, my garden planned to explode in heady blossoms while vegetables and roots swelled pregnant in the long heat.
This was my home, a shared house in the middle of the city in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, then still an enclave of queers, artists, urban service workers, hipsters, and old Black families sharing the same streets and cafes in the 10 blocks near my garden. One of the first neighborhoods established on the forested hills, ancient trees still winning out over perpetually cracked concrete, centuries-old roots throwing off asphalt and brick with easy indifference.
The house was built early in the 1900’s, but I was much newer to it, having moved just after the WTO protests in the last year of the last century. The neighborhood was gorgeous, playful, the spirits and animals curious and kind, the side-streets as much a foot-path as the sidewalks, alleys hiding mysteries, swelling with quiet contentment. It was a good place, all I needed and wanted of a neighborhood, a city, a world.
That night I stood outside to water my garden somewhat distracted. Several things weighed on mind, particularly the increasing costs of living where I did. The neighborhood was in upheaval, that slow war of gentification and displacement, increasing costs without increasing wages. The rent on our place had not yet gone up, but all the other expenses were becoming difficult to manage on my full-time social work income, even after sharing the burden of rent, utilities and food with my lover and roommates.
My lover was inside at the time, with another lover. I’d wanted to give them some time to each other, and I’d wanted to stand in the garden. I’d suspended candle lanterns from the branches of an Elder tree another lover had rescued 6 year before, other lanterns swayed from wrought-iron sections of fence we’d found in alleyways and converted into trellises for climbing Cathedral Bells, Morning-Glories, and Black-eyed Susan vine. Amongst those planted vines, ivy–cut back years before—crept back to war with a rather resilient clematis, and amongst those candles and vines, wild lupine and scotch broom and opium poppy peeked through, each flower and shrub and vine a story, each planting of it a relic of my life always ready to be relived.
I sat for awhile, perhaps over-watered, lingering, wondering if they’d had enough time alone, wondering if I should make maybe take tea in thegarden. It was a beautiful night–all options seemed pleasurable, all paths leading towards contentment. I’d decided on tea, but just as I turned, I heard my neighbors’ voice call out.
“Hey! You got a transfer?” he asked. I turned, glad to see him. We’d known each other for over a decade, and he’d been there long before I’d arrived. At 15 years in my home, I was a newcomer—he’d lived there his entire 45 years, which were short compared to his grandmother’s 96 years.
“Yeah,” I said, digging the paper bus ticket from my over-full pockets.
We had an illegal trade going. He started it a decade ago, running across the street to hand me a crumbled purple ribbon of newsprint, an unexpired bus transfer. I’ll admit, a stranger running at you, shouting as you wait for a bus, is a bit startling, and I was probably awfully defensive that first time.
“Don’t pay,” he’d said, stopping in front of me. “I got a transfer.”
At first I’d refused. Metro transfers are non-transferable, and I was more a liberal then, and less the anarchist. I imagined it my moral duty to pay for public transit, regardless of how poor I was. But the man was nice, and he’d sprinted a hundred feet across a busy street to give me a free ride, so I accepted.
That act started our long friendship. Whenever I’d see him, I’d say hello, and offer him any unexpired transfers that I had if he was waiting at the stop. Sometimes he’d leave his on the sign-post by the bus shelter, and then I started doing that too.
My large balcony overlooked the street and the bus stop, and I’d sometimes spot him offer used transfers to others, too. Most would refuse, particularly the well-dressed white women, and I’d watch their body language show their fear or disgust of the large Black man trying to save them a couple of dollars.
That evening, I handed him mine–an ‘Owl’ transfer, good until the next morning, and then offered him a cigarette, though he hadn’t asked. I enjoyed his company, despite always forgetting his name. He always forgot mine, too, no matter how many times we’d offer them to each other. After most of a decade of talking, laughing, sharing a beer or sprinting across a busy street to save the other guy a few dollars, names really didn’t matter as much as everything else.
We stood outside together, talking, watching the street lamps flicker and the increasing weekend traffic begin to flood the street. My mind was still a bit distracted by my lover’s guest inside, though not from jealousy. The man inside was a writer, too, a left-leaning journalist for a local alternative paper, who’d written several articles about this recent wave of gentrification in our neighborhood. We didn’t agree on much—he saw the changes as good and inevitable; I saw them as horrifying as my steady income seemed to pay for less and less each month. We’d talked amiably about it, though, but the matter weighed on me.
In the garden, I asked my neighbor and co-conspirator against the rising cost of public transit a question I’d been meaning to ask for several months. As my friend had lived in his home his entire life, and his grandmother was the first to live in their century-old house, I figured he’d have some insight. And I’d wanted to know how he’d fared during the sub-prime era a few years before, when predatory mortgage brokers would go door-to-door trying to get poorer families to take out equity loans or to sell their home altogether.
“Hey,” I asked. “Did you and your grandmother ever get hit by the loan sharks a couple of years ago?”
“Shit,” he’d said, dragging his cigarette, one eye scanning the street for the bus. “We still do, and the real estate agents. There was a woman here just yesterday–she comes by every week trying to get my grandma to sell.”
I probably looked a bit stupid from the shock. His grandmother was almost a hundred years old, suffering from age-related dementia, could barely remember her own name let alone make such a decision.
He told me he had to chase another out of his house a month before–his grandmother had let the real estate agent in while he was gone, and by the time he’d arrived his grandmother was already fumbling with a pen to sign away the home she’d been born into. He’d torn those papers up in a fury and pushed the woman out.
A house next to us had sold for almost a million dollars a few years before, after its owner had paid my landlord and another to cut down trees to increase the view from its windows onto Lake Washington and the Cascade mountains (I never learned how much my landlord was paid). The house next to my friend’s rented for six thousand dollars a month, the house on the other side of him had sold and was being torn down for new apartments.
The hyper-inflated market for housing in a dense and vibrant neighborhood offered quite the buy-out for those whose desire for money outweighed their sense of place and ties to their home. For him, though, despite being employed only part-time while caring for his very elderly grandmother, it made no sense to sell and move from the house built by his great grandfather.
He told me there’d been plenty of times he was tempted when the electricity was about to go out because of unpaid bills. Worse, several of the mortgage brokers pitched hard–he was in his mid-forties and had never owned a car, never traveled. A mortgage or a sale would mean he could buy a car and wouldn’t need to bus all the time, wouldn’t need to trade transfers with his neighbor to make ends meet.
Making a Killing
You might not know the scam here, particularly if you are white–I was ignorant of this myself until about a decade ago.
Black home-owners are continuously targeted by real estate agents and predatory lenders in neighborhoods primed for ‘urban renewal’ (that is, gentrification). Because they’re minorities, their plight and position elicits little sympathy and solidarity from the middle-class white liberals who dominate the politics in many cities, and their high unemployment rates often mean they are more likely to endure long periods of poverty and have less access to the lines of credit freely offered to middle-class whites.
But many of them owned homes, particularly in areas that were once considered poor and undesirable neighborhoods. And for families like my friend’s, the home was theirs, long-ago paid off or never borrowed for in the first place. Without income, though, and without easy credit, the house becomes the only thing they can draw from, and banks are too-often willing to take a house as collateral on an ‘equity loan.’
There are many ways a loan can go wrong, the most obvious one being that jobs are lost or medical crises ensue, and the failure to repay that loan (often for relatively small amounts compared to the value of the house) means everything is lost.
Because we live in a racist, Capitalist Democracy, profit is the only religion and any problems you endure are considered your own responsibility, even if those problems were caused by manipulative land speculators and bankers composing confusing loan agreements. And speculators often target Black home owners because they know they are poor, often strapped for cash, less educated than their white neighbors, and their lack of political power means their complaints are often ignored or considered hysteria by those outside their communities.
Mortgage brokers and loan officers (who, like real estate agents are often paid on commission) see Black home-owners as easy targets, particularly since the pay-off for a loan default is often extra-ordinarily high compared to the amount lent. During the sub-prime mortgage crisis, when interest rates were low and regulation was lax, brokers and real estate agents targeted Black home owners particularly, approving loans with variable rates (often interest rates that tripled after a year of repayment), making a ‘killing’ in new housing markets.
During the heady days of the ‘sub-prime’ mortgages, it seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about the new rage in home ownership from friends and strangers. Everyone wanted to get in on ‘Flipping,’ where you buy a house, hold it for a year or two, and sell it for $50- to $100 thousand more than your original loan, pocketing the difference as profit.
“In fact,” a long-time friend of mine explained after he flipped his first house, “you wouldn’t have to work for others anymore. Rhyd–you could write while fixing up a house. And they don’t care how much money you’re making now–they’ll give a loan to anyone. You’d be stupid not to.”
Lax regulation, high unemployment, and government policies to push home ownership as the ‘American Dream’ created an overheated engine of profit for those who did the transfers. And each sale meant a little more profit, and many people were buying only to sell again, with no interest in the communities they bought homes in.
It all seemed really, really wrong…and it was.
A friend got caught on his second house as the market collapsed, and he, along with many, many other people, were all ‘underwater’ (owing more on their loans than the resale value of their houses). But worse than the obvious game and great ‘forgetting’ of everyone involved (they, like me, had witnessed the dot.com bubble in Seattle, after all), was the fact that this shell game was being played at the expense of poor and Black folk, who lost their homes in droves when the money they’d borrowed to pay down medical debt, perform long-needed repairs, or get them through an economic rough-patch couldn’t be paid back. They lost not only the roofs over their heads, but also the decades and almost centuries of rootedness that came from living in the same home as your ancestors.
And in the last 6 years, another round of the shell-game had begun in our city and our neighborhood. Large internet technology companies had begun expanding their profit-ventures and needed more workers to help them do it. Traditionally Black and gay neighborhoods became war zones again, threatening to push both him and I out in favor of a whiter, straighter population.
Ancestral Trauma and the Cycle of Violence
The ancestors of many Black folk in America were hauled from their homes in chains in the hulls of ships, becoming an uncompensated labor force to subdue the colonized lands of the Americas. From one great break of ancestry to another, the descendents of folks living on the continent of Africa found their traditions severed by the ravenous lust of Capital both through slavery and through the pillaging of land speculation.
Marxist historians speak of a process called “Primitive Accumulation,” [Primitive as in ‘primary’ or ‘initial,’ not as in the ‘opposite of civilized,’] the plundering of natural resources (wood, minerals, people). This accumulation usually involved violence–the Crusades, imperial conquest of South America, and slave-taking were all acts of Primitive Accumulation, and all resulted in great wealth for European rulers and merchants. That initial accumulation of wealth at the point of the sword then became the wealth that we now call Capital.
Primitive Accumulation caused massive displacements of people and destruction of societies–the deaths from conquest in the Americas and the hauling of humans in chains across oceans being obvious examples. But this way of gaining wealth is never very sustainable–one can only plunder so many ancient cities of their gold and people before there’s no longer any gold or people left to plunder.
Capitalism is a more systematic and efficient method of plunder, as it invests those stolen resources into localized cycles of oppression. Consider–the effort to hire an army willing to risk death to conquer another people for its wealth is intense, requiring state sanction and ideological support (the Crusades, the War on Terror)–and this method is usually only available to kings. For lesser lords (and their descendents, the ‘Bourgeoisie’), it was easier to exploit the people around them rather than traveling overseas.
But Capitalism operates, still, on the same logic as primitive accumulation–the ‘creation’ of wealth from finite resources. Humans can only work so long before they tire, and consumers can only buy so many of the same dress before they no longer need any more dresses. There is always a limit to the amount of money that can be made in any venture, whether it is conquest of ancient societies or mass-produced trinkets. The wells run dry, the mines empty, the storehouses fill to overflowing.
The Capitalist, like the conqueror, is never sated, since the entire point of both Capitalism and Conquest is to gain ever-increasing amounts of wealth (unlike for the worker or the slave, which is do do as little work as possible while still surviving or not getting beaten). So Capitalism must find new ‘markets,’ new fields of conquest from which wealth can be derived. And sometimes, it does so by destroying what is already there in order to make profit from rebuilding it.
When a neighborhood undergoes gentrification, land and buildings are changed or replaced in order derive more wealth from them. Old houses that are only being lived in or rented at stable rates become targets for Capital-seeking investors and real-estate agents. If you own a house your entire life, you’re not making money for anyone else by living there. Renters provide some wealth for landords, but because there’s only so much that can be squezzed from a renter’s income before they must move, Capitalists actively displace renters in favor of higher-income people.
Old houses are torn down to make room for denser apartments and condominiums, old apartments are renovated or sold as condominiums, and the people who lived previous are either ‘priced out’ or forced to leave through lease terminations.
This cycle of upheaval is not new.
Consider some of the earliest upheavals caused by Capitalism, not in the Americas or in Africa, but on the very islands where Capitalism started. The Highland Clearances and other Enclosure movements were the first salvos in the transition from Primitive Accumulation to Capitalist exploitation of peoples.
Wealthy landlords and tribal chieftains pushed people (often kin) from land they’d worked for centuries in order to derive more wealth from that land through ‘improvements’ (in essence, the beginning of industrialised farming). Some were sold as indentured servants because of unpaid rents, others were marched away and left to die, and the vast majority faced a choice–move to the towns and work in the factories other Capitalists had set up to turn their lifeblood into wealth, or travel across oceans to the conquered lands of North America and Australia in order to start again.
Of course, the lands those displaced peoples moved to were already inhabited, and the history of all European colonies is written in the blood of indigenous peoples. Those First Nations and Aboriginal peoples had varying responses to these newcomers. Some sought peace, others sought war, but neither tactic proved successful in keeping their own ancestral lands from the Enclosures that sprung from the British Isles.
The United States, particularly, has seen multiple waves of displaced peoples. Enslaved peoples from the African continent, indentured servants and refugees from the “Progress” of Capitalism in Europe, and of course, the very people who lived on this land before the whole cycle began–they are all victims.
‘Round the Prickly Pear
Gentrification is seen by many as a natural process. In a way, it is– it;s initiated by a very small but particularly destructive element of the natural world—humans, or more specifically, Capitalist humans. And though displacement of peoples is not new, the kinds of economic displacement seen since the birth of Capital, is a different thing altogether than what was seen in the past.
Gentrification is a kind of opening of a new Capital-producing market , created by destroying what was already there–and it’s a super-heated engine of destruction in many cities of the United States currently. I’ve many friends in the Bay Area, for instance, for whom the exorbitant rent-increases has become so absurd that they’ve taken on a sort of war-trauma. The same occurs in Seattle now, with apartments friends rented 4 years ago at $1000/month now renting for $2000, a 100% increase over half-a-decade.
Similar in Portland, Oregon, as well as neighborhoods in large cities across the country. In other cities, natural disaster (like in New Orleans) or economic collapse (Detroit) have led to even more damage to Black folk, as investors and traitorous politicians have colluded to rebuild cities without their traditional inhabitants. In all cases, though, the mechanism is the same, and the victims have much more in common with each other than they do with new residents moving into their respective cities, yet rarely do they fight in solidarity.
But why not? Some of this absence of solidarity derives from racism, but there’s an understated problem in our understanding of Gentrification which also prevents united fronts against Capitalist displacement.
Too much written about this process situates it in a narrative of cycles, a progression of neighborhoods derived from natural law and inevitability. From this view, the answer to complaints about rising rents and destroyed communities range between ‘get over it’ or ‘there’s nothing that can be done.’
A less-heard point sometimes arises, though, and it has more merit. I heard it often from my anarchist friends in the middle of the last decade, an important reminder that whites did this to First Nations peoples before, and we’re all on stolen land.
This is true. Unfortunately, the result of that argument is usually a complete dismissal of the very real damage done to people when their homes are taken through predatory loans or their rents increased so much they have no choice to become displaced.
The problem arises because so many different peoples, of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, have all fallen victim to Capitalist displacement. The land I currently live on was stolen from the Duwamish peoples more than a century ago; it is still stolen from them, and worse–the Federal Government does not recognize them as an tribal group, and therefore all their claims are legally null. The Black families who lived here were descendents of people displaced by force from their homes in Africa, victims of primitive accumulation and the European thirst for Capital.
And then…there’s me. Some of my ancestors were displaced from the British Isles during the Enclosures and the birth of Capital. Others fled mainland Europe during the Enclosure of their land, or became refugees of Capitalist wars. Not all, mind. I’ve a rumored but unverified First Nations ancestor on one side of my family, and on the other, an unfortunate “Boston Brahmin” ancestor. And I’ve already been displaced several times in my life through poverty or rent-increases.
We could construct a hierarchy of victimhood in the relentless history of displacement by employing metrics of innocence, complicity, and ancestral ties. And we should and must tell those stories, and we should and must do everything to right those wrongs.
But here’s the problem– the insidious trick of Capitalism is that the violence it perpetrates upon people determines their future actions, too. White (a false racial construction) settlers, displaced from a myriad of European lands, helped displace (sometimes by direct violence) indigenous peoples and each other, like abused children who grow up to repeat their childhood trauma upon others. The violence enacted on them became the violence they enacted upon others.
More horrifically, Capitalism offers a path out of poverty and ancestral trauma if one agrees to renounce all kin, class, and ancestral ties. The descendent of African slaves who becomes an immigration enforcement officer, the victim of the Enclosures and the Clearances who agreed to help the English enforce its laws against the Irish, or became a colonial administrator in India, the Irish descendents who swelled the ranks of violent police forces in New York, Boston, and San Franscisco, the “Buffalo Soldier,” the Tribal leader who signed away mining rights for personal benefit, the poor-born of any race who becomes a manager or foreman–each is preyed upon twice-over by Capitalism, forced into horrible circumstance and then offered a treasonous path to personal survival.
When we try to parse out all the histories of complicity, we miss the point, much like sorting buckets of bailed water on a sinking ship according to half-full/half-empty dichotomies. The question should not be, “who suffered most?” but rather “why haven’t we stopped this suffering?”
In a gentrifying neighborhood, newcomers are often confused by the reactions of those their presence is displacing. No one person displaced another; in San Franscisco and Seattle and in all these other cities, each person is making an individual choice to live in a different place, often times following work. The problem is never each individual person, but the systematic weakening of the communities being displaced (long before real estate agents and property owners identified the neighborhood as a new market), a state which not only enables but often encourages the destruction of older neighborhoods, and under all of this, entire societies which have lost touch with the spirit of the land beneath their feet and the meaning of place.
And it’s that weakening of ties to place where our primary resistance and revolutionary assault against Capitalism must begin.
From Strong Roots, We Fight
Capital requires new markets to expand, but the earth is limited and we only need so much shit. Enclosures are an old trick, and the displacement they cause generate both more profit for the rich, but do something even more vital for the smooth running of Capital: displaced peoples lack community, become desperate, and most significantly of all, have no access to their history.
Slaves hauled across oceans cannot visit the graves of their ancestors; peasants forced off land cannot visit the old wells and stones which rooted their world firmly in the other. Old contracts with the land are broken, old gods forgotten, and the standards once used to judge if an act would serve the community or damage it fall away.
Capitalist displacement is also Capitalist disenchantment; it is the reason for which the traditions of people are perpetually destroyed. Rootless people are easily controlled and coerced, people without the stories, myths, and spirits of a place have nowhere to turn beside the market for the creation of their meaning.
Capitalism needs us to be displaced, pushed around by its invisible hand. We must stand in fight, root ourselves in place, learn the names of our neighbors and the trees on our streets, seek out the sources of our water, trace our streams under pavement, learn the origins of our food and the histories of our homes.
We must tell the stories of our place to each other, creating new communities, new peoples unwilling to move when they tell us to go, untempted by profit in other towns, unafraid to confront the haunting ghosts of those buried in our graveyards, uncowed by threats of property laws and poverty outside the logic of the time-sheet and the work-day.
For those of us in the Americas or in other former colonies of the proto-Capitalist empires in Europe, we must begin by seeking out, offering our aid, and helping to restore the peoples displaced by our ancestral traumas. The Duwamish are not the only First Nations people written out of existence in the United States, and the successor states of British Imperialism have a particularly horrible history of violence against the people they conquered—the British, after all, started Capitalism.
We must become rooted in the land and communities, and we must refuse the Capitalist’s game of divide-and-conquer. In cities like Seattle and San Francisco, waves of ‘tech workers’ are displacing others. They, moving to cities for high-waged work, have no ties to the land, and no community when arriving except their (Capitalist) employer and others working for them. The 100-year old Black woman whose house they might purchase means nothing to them; they don’t know her story any more than they know that of the land upon which her home was built.
But we must remember—they are mere tools, ‘buying in’ to new Capitalist ventures and selling their labor to powerful Capitalists. They contribute to the destruction of communities by renting and buying homes at exorbitant rates (against their own self-interest). They become the weapons Capitalists wield in new wars of accumulation, often unwitting and too-often indifferent, rootless themselves, colonial settlers no different than those who became colonial servants in India for the British crown. They are not the direct cause of gentrification, but they become ‘class traitors,’ slobbering on their knees and choking at the altars of Capital—just like the rest of us. They, and we, must refuse to destroy the lives of others in return for scraps from the tables of the rich.
And from our position of rootedness and solidarity, we must directly attack Capital. It is the Capitalists who are in power, who start this engine and keep it stoked hot, making a killing from our attempts to make a living. Aided by complicit governments bloated and drunk on tax money, political donations, and their lust for power, the Capitalists have perfected the pillaging wars of Colonialism in a system so pristine we cannot fully unravel its knotted patterns of destruction.
But that knot cannot be unraveled; it must be cut. We cannot ever hope to find an answer to Capitalist displacement of peoples without fighting Capitalism, nor can we hope to rectify the wrongs that Capitalism has caused to peoples until Capitalism is no longer a threat.
The answer’s under our feet, in the places we live, the communities from which we’re alienated, in the spirits of the air and tree and grass in our neighborhoods.
The answer is both a change of place consciousness and a resurrection of class-consciousness, a solidarity between peoples and the spirits of place, a new treaty with the land and its inhabitants (living and dead, seen and unseen). Even when displaced (as I was), we must see every place as our home and a site of beautiful resistance. And those who refused to leave, those who, like my transfer-trading friend and neighbor, who bravely choose land, history, and community over the treason of the Capitalist buy-out, must be be honored, supported and defended, because it is they who can show us best the importance of roots.
We have allies, seen and unseen.
We must join their fight.
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Rhyd is a nomadic autonomous Marxist witch-bard, devotee of the Raven King, the Lady of the Flames, the Crown of the North, the Harrower, several sea witches and quite a few mountain giants. He’s also the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. Find his work on Paganarch and support his forest-soaked revolution here.