A Gentrification Carol

On Monday, Carol, a feature film starring Cate Blanchett. will shoot a scene in Over-the-Rhine. The neighborhood is a stand in for 1950’s New York, where the film is set. Carol is the latest film to shoot in and around Cincinnati, three years ago, George Clooney directed and starred in The Ides of March, and much like Ides, Carol is getting a lot of coverage in the press. But what the press ignore, and what Carol represents, at least during its filming in OTR, is a rewriting of the history of the neighborhood to suit the ideology of gentrification.

As with the actual removal of people from Over-the-Rhine, here we get a removal of the neighborhood’s history. In the story told by gentry, there is a tendency to downplay or forget large sections of the history of the neighborhood. What is striking is that the history that is ignored is that which is most relevant to its current condition, notably, the history of a black and appalachian diaspora which populated the neighborhood starting in the second half of the twentieth century. One of the most egregious cases of this comes from Michael D Morgan, who wrote Over-the-Rhine: When Beer was King. The book centers the history of OTR on its apparent hey-day in the late 19th century, when it was populated primarily by beer-loving German immigrants and their descendants. At the end of the book, published in 2010, Morgan imagines an Over-the-Rhine of the future that rekindles the spirit of these early residents. A neighborhood of beer halls, and culture and a sometimes oppressed ethnic minority. But of the period from 1950 on, Morgan has only this to say: “waves of appalachian migration in the mid-1900s dramatically changed Over-the-Rhine and so did a shift in racial composition that occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century…. these stories are as compelling as the story of the neighborhood’s original era, but they are of the place that had become obsolete (153).”

He reduces sixty years of history into a few sentences. While Morgan writes at length about several anti-german riots in the mid 1800’s he ignores black uprisings in the later era, he even seems afraid to use the word “black” to describe the later “shift” he speaks of. While he writes of the development of Music Hall, with its origins in the beergardens, he ignores the creation of Elementz and OTR’s role in the incubation of many rappers today. This is a deliberate move meant to serve the interests of himself among the rest of the gentry in Over-the-Rhine. The only relevant history is that which serves the monied. The neighborhood they wish to create has no relevance to the long-term residents, so the stories that are told are stories that don’t involve them, that don’t even call them by name.

The crew of Carol will turn the corner of 12th and Vine into a 1950’s Brooklyn, removing non-period signage and replacing it, temporarily, with props that are more appropriate for the desired setting. But Carol’s temporary transformation has the backdrop of a permanent removal of the feel of the neighborhood. One block north of the shooting, some three dozen households are being removed from their building at 1305 Walnut to make way for 3CDC’s next project to turn the low cost apartments into another set of condos or market rate apartments. One block West, the stretch of Vine street has been renamed “The Gateway Quarter” to better suite the block’s branding to a new group of people living, working and shopping in the area. One block East, Japps (“since 1879″) is home to mixologists who infuse cocktails at inflated prices. And a block south, central parkway serves as a reminder of who is all for: the people in the skyscrapers. Developers, bankers, capitalists.

Originally published in Streetvibes.

Capitalist Innovation

Punk Johnny Cash’s piece on innovation is a good reminder that the ability to create is not a historical trait unique to the capitalist system. While I agree with the conclusions–of the need for a reorganization of society around cooperation, a society where, as Marx wrote, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”–its worth taking a closer look at the individual points.

First, PJC insists that innovation occurs not because of capitalism, but despite it, as if innovation is held back by capitalism. While the rest of the piece supports this to a point (the idea that an egalitarian economy would allow the free time for all to create for the benefit of all), the notion that capitalism cannot be a genuine place for innovation falls short. This is not meant to be a defense of capitalism, but a critical examination of the system. Why has appeared to be so successful if that is not the case? I am not necessarily countering PJC’s main point when I argue that much of that “success” has been because of a kind of innovation that only capitalism can foster.

As Marx and others stressed, capitalist endeavors require growth in order to stay alive, and the development of new technologies is part of that growth. Capital, as a relation, functions such that a venture’s return must exceed its investment, Marx illustrates this relation as M-C-M. Money-Commodity-Money. The commodity should sell for more money than was invested in it. Generally, that excess money comes from the exploitation of labor, where the productive worker is paid for only a portion of the total time they spend in the firm. The excess may also come from the investment in fixed capital–machines, factory space, etc–that more efficiently use the worker’s time. By paying workers less for their time and their output, the firm is able to extract more excess value (closely related to, but different than, profit) out of the process. In this sense, capitalism relies on innovation in order to grow. In other words, innovation is central to capitalism.

The computer is a perfect example of this. Not only did the development of computers give firms advantages over their analog-using counterparts, firms that stayed ahead with the continually developing computer technology (especially the computer manufacturers themselves) are among the most profitable businesses in the world today. This continual innovation allows companies to extract more surplus value from their labor base, and in turn, pour that surplus into the development new technologies to stay ahead of their competitor (or in many cases buyout potential competitors before they grow too large–see Google, Microsoft and Facebook for examples).

Capitalism also has the ability to build a market around every product and exploit every type of labor. The example that PJC gives around open source software has, unfortunately, not been the case for some time. It is (sadly) not true that the open source community develops for the sake of the public. The amount of labor and time that developers pour into open source projects is very often contingent on decisions made in major corporations. For example, Adobe, one of the largest software manufacturers on the planet actually pays its employees to spend a portion of their time working on various open source projects. The result is two-fold. First, it allows their developers to serve as ambassadors to people who may be otherwise averse to a company so far embedded in the establishment. Providing some ideological cover for the company’s actual aim, which is the second result: it allows Adobe to control the direction of these project by anchoring the interests of the developers, many of which are paid very handsomely, back to the mothership. Thus, any innovation that can be packaged and marketed for top dollar is.

This follows the general trend of the closing off of public research and development. In agriculture, companies like Monsanto work in partnership with the top technical universities in the world to develop more efficient and resilient crops primarily for the benefit of their own bottom line–not for the benefit of the public. Medical research around some of the most devastating illnesses is no longer done with the aim of producing a healthy populace, like the polio vaccine, but is instead marketed on television and sold for thousands of dollars a year to patients who will need the drugs for the rest of their lives. Management before cures. Profit before health.

Still, Marx writes in the Communist Manifesto that Capitalism’s greatest contribution is the condition for its own demise: the working class. It is the new global masses–whose historical role is the destruction of capitalism, the deposing of the bosses, and the realization of their place as the ruling class in a new democratic world.

One last point. While Van Gogh may have been an unsuccessful artist in his own time, it certainly hasn’t affected his success in the long term. Is there any artist whose work has been more commodified? This commodification has acted as a vampire, sucking the meaning of Van Gogh’s work straight out of the picture. The Starry Night becomes less about an artist’s lens on the world, and more about a vehicle to create profit for manufacturers of knick knacks. Wheatfield with Crows has become less of a dark meditation on the place Van Gogh may have killed himself and more of a way to add a splash of color to a drab room. This is another area of capitalist innovation–the ability to suck and create a market around everything, to commodify everything.

The kind of innovation that capitalism fosters is not the kind that delivers for the benefit of all. On a large scale, capitalist expansion is the cause for contemporary war and plunder in the global south. Capitalism’s early development in America created slavery of a quality and quantity unlike any kind the world had ever seen. Capitalist innovation in communications tethers workers to their phones and computers well after working hours. Put simply,  we should recognize that capitalism can breed innovation but does so with some enormous caveats that illustrate the true nature of the system.

Against Economic Diversity: Radical Praxis in our Movement

In our work in liberatory movements, in a time when such movements have become small and disjointed, there is an insistence that we need a “broad-based strategy” that encompasses as many people as possible. This typically means that regardless of a person’s stake in a given problem, they have a place in the movement that seeks to solve the issue. While this would seem to promote basic principles that have historically propelled movements forward (solidarity, diversity, etc), the result can actually be the opposite of the desired effect. In Cincinnati, an incomplete analysis of past movements means we continue to repeat the problems that caused those movements to fail. This is the case when we promote ideals that may fall under the umbrella of “economic diversity” both within our movements and as a stated goal of them.

To understand this, it is important to realize what kind of movement is needed to win. To really win. The ultimate victory in the protracted economic war is the total and complete annihilation of our enemies in the capitalist ruling class. No exaggeration is intended; only by removing the economic elite from power can the goal of economic equality be achieved. By letting those that rule into our movements, we lose sight of what is achievable. A movement against the power of landlords should not include the landlords. A movement against the power of bosses should not included the bosses. A movement against the power of private institutions in public life should not include private institutions. These contradictions cause friction within movements that muddy the waters and crucially cause us to set our sights too low.

The most apparent limitation created by such an alliance with the bosses or the landlord relates to numbers. While those who may not suffer from perennially unstable housing or labor conditions may be able to interact with the oppressors, those that are being directly affected by a social problem can’t enter into a coalition with those that are the purveyors of those problems. Employees in a workplace can’t become allies with their boss in a time when the boss is threatening layoffs. The landlord who is putting his tenants out to renovate the building will not fight for the interests of his tenants at the cost of his own interests. Thus, to enter into a coalition with bosses or landlords means we exclude large amounts of workers and tenants whose interests are in direct opposition to those individuals.

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