Oikonomikos/Polis

 

- WHAT -

A thesis about housing

- WHEN -

Aug '17 - present

- WHERE -

Pittsburgh, PA

 
 
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- THIS THESIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS -

The market-driven development of the city, and more particularly, the housing stock, has perverted the idea of house, redefining housing as commodity, discarding the social function of home and house. Whether in the form of mortgages or rent, the general public has been consigned to living in conditions of perpetual debt.

This thesis hypothesizes that living spaces can promote more communal understandings of property and space, lessening the cultural conflation of house and commodity, subverting the power given to real estate by market driven economies, in pursuit of a more equitable and just form of housing.

As Maggie Thatcher so eloquently professed, “Economies are the method. The object is to change the soul.”  It becomes this projects imperative to ask the question, can the social, the polis, the collective good, can politics change the soul?


OIKINOMIKOS AND POLIS

The Ancient Greeks believed there were two models of rule: democracy and tyranny. They were perpetually locked in an alternating cycle — one system would rise, swell, peak and eventually recede, leaving room for the other to rise and swell and so on.  When democracy prevailed, the interests of the people, or the polis, were upheld, this was known as politics. But when aristocrats, autocrats, or mafia-like families rose to power, the state suffered in a period of oikonomikos, or the success of the klan interest, the individual household. This was economics.

In the Greek city, civilization was not a given — it was tenuous and fragile. There persisted a constant struggle to preserve civilization. Always a struggle to triumph over a private, individual interest, in order to achieve civilization through politics and through city interest. Though Aristotle and Plato provide different nuanced reasoning, they generally agree that democrats promote stability and unity, avoiding mob rule and suppressing private privilege. While tyrants pursue private wealth, land ownership, and control by military force. Because these two forces are irreconcilably opposed, the shift in power produced a civil war, a moment of stasis — pausing civilization in order to resolve power disputes.

ECONOMICS AND POLITICS

By the 1990s neoliberalism had become tenuously linked to an equally pervasive form of social conservatism. However, understanding this liberalism and conservatism as two parts of the same whole would be a mistake. The former finds its roots in the individual, the market and the non-interventionist state — economics. The later is fundamentally rooted in nostalgia, an effort to resurrect a past set of social conditions — politics. While the two can often be indistinguishable from each other in contemporary American politics, we should instead understand economics and politics as ideological opposites. (The same goes for the conflation of Keynesian economics and progressivism, one is a set of economic theories, the other is a social philosophy.)

Contemporary public behavior such as xenophobia or intolerance, nationalism or racism is positioned as political talking points, political problems. Yet they arise when one group feels its status and power, its prosperity, is being critically threatened. These attitudes should be understood, then, as forms of tyranny - prioritising the private power, private profit (oikonomikos/economics), over the collective public and the common good (polis/politics).

If the contemporary moment can be understood this way, one would conclude that the current state of global civilization is entering an instance of stasis. The period of mass political reform, collective enfranchisement, social democracy, the period of politics, long ago gave way to an era of profit-driven greed and inequality, the rise of economics. Political impulses are gone and neoliberalism has become naturalized as the ‘only’ choice available to cities in the United States and elsewhere (Hackworth, 2007).

NEOLIBERALISM AND CAPITALISM

Neoliberalism emerged as a salve in the early 1970s to the political and economic unraveling of the city. Government failures have become the central justification for the rollback of intervention, while the notion of market failures have virtually disappeared from policy debates. Even in a post-2008 recession United States, a “good” government is largely defined as one that, for all intents and purposes, looks and functions like the corporate community that it claims to regulate. While the operation of the city and its government under neoliberalism is heavily intertwined with a specific form of capitalism, this thesis is not a critique on capitalism. 

It is important to note, that Marx never uses the word ‘capitalism.’ He refers to ‘capital,’ ‘capitalists,’ and the ‘capitalist mode of production,’ capitalism, however, emerges as shorthand for what ‘capitalists’ do — strive to accumulate capital. The meaning of ‘capitalism’ continues to develop into its contemporary understanding, what Marx refers to as “the capitalist mode of production.” This throws an umbrella over an entire ensemble of social relationships, institutions, practices, ideological mechanisms, and so on. These sometimes discreet but often interconnected elements become the tools and puppet strings from which a certain brand of capitalists bend and sway social conditions, crafting a state as favorable to their accumulation of capital as possible.

The contemporary moment provides a context in which it is incredibly difficult to distinguish between capitalism and neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the most pro-capitalist ideology and it has become the default ideology of almost all capitalists (Hackworth, 2007, Harvey, 2005). Neoliberalism and capitalism are not the same thing, and as Jeremy Gilbert emphasises, they are not the same kind of thing. Capitalism is an economic practice. Neoliberalism is a philosophy - an “ideology of no ideology” (Gilbert, 2015).

None of this is to say that the economic practice of capitalism and the philosophy of neoliberalism are not intertwined. As Jason Hackworth writes, “It [neoliberalism] is not everything related to business and capitalism, but it is changing the way that both work.”

THE NEOLIBERAL CITY

In the last four decades, the boundaries of urban governance have shifted dramatically. In part due to structural constraints placed on governments in the capitalist world, but also due to a related ideological shift toward neoliberal governing practices (Goonewardena 2003).

This new ideology of governance has made a sport out of attributing market failures to generalized failures of government (Meier 1993, Chang 1997). Any failures of the market, any moments of chaos or instability, any ‘crashes’ are quickly hidden in the shadow of governmental “inefficiency, inequity, and corruption” that tries to regulate outside of a market mechanism (Hackworth, 2007). Neoliberal policies seek to dismantle Keynesian artifacts (public housing, public space, city commons), policies (redistributive welfare, food stamps, healthcare), institutions (labor unions, HUD), and agreements (Fordist labor arrangements, federal government redistribution to states and cities). Neoliberalism replaces these policies and artifacts with practices and ideas (government-business consortia, workfare) that more proactively promote the future of neoliberalism (Hackworth, 2007).

While neoliberalism is neither a monolithic or static phenomenon, its evolving forms have been playing out in cities across the US and across the world for decades. These cities are as diverse as the problems that neoliberalism presents there. Neoliberalism is not monolithic nor homogenous, and neither are its problems. There’s a certain depth and certain nuance that must be investigated in order to critically respond.

It is within this context that this thesis investigates the space in which neoliberalism has so strongly reared its head in the contemporary city — housing.