VIEWS OF THE NAKED CITY: PICTURES FROM THE DAILY ROUND IN A CITY OF EMPTYING STREETS
In the middle of March, I started to post short photo essays on my social media feed. These snapshots were inspired by daily walks and bicycle excursions in Toronto as well as news from around the world about the spread of COVID-19.
The multiple crises that come together in the current pandemic harbour great dangers, including rampant Social Darwinism and a move to authoritarian rule. In turn, they offer openings for all of us interested in emancipatory ways out of the crises. In this conjuncture, Rosa Luxemburg’s dictum (“Socialism or Barbarism”) is as pertinent as ever, as is the basic idea that a future worth living can only be built in egalitarian, ecological, and democratic ways, through forms of planning understood as a “radical democratization of the economy” (Michael Löwy).
The premise of the following two snapshots is that to understand the dangers and possibilities of the current situation, one needs to attend to the manifold tensions of everyday life. One way of unearthing these daily disjunctures is to follow Marshall Berman’s advice and read “the signs in the street”.
Not Staying Home
There is much talk about ‘staying home,’ for many good reasons. But during my walks, I notice numerous people who are not home; as result, the streets are not always as empty as expected. Next to workers on constructions sites, I see many who are out for reasons other than getting some fresh air: homeless people lining up for a meal, small groups chatting at a distance while drinking a cup outside a coffee joint, clerks in grocery stores, bakeries, drug and liquor stores, cooks in restaurants and cafés offering take out, truck and van drivers, platform workers delivering food, transit bus drivers, cabbies, care workers in long-term and elderly care homes, paramedics and firefighters, private security personnel and concierges. Needless to say, many of these people do not look like Justin Trudeau (Prime Minister of Canada), Doug Ford (Premier of Ontario) or John Tory (Mayor of Toronto), or, indeed, myself.
Most of these people will not ‘go home’ any time soon, for various reasons. They may not have homes to go to. Their regular drop-in centres may have shut down, or they stay away from shelters, which are inhospitable even in ‘normal’ times. They may not be able to live, work or study at home all day because their single-occupancy rooms are too small, or because their rental apartments are overflowing with roommates or family members. Finally, they cannot afford to stay off work, are not allowed to work remotely or are employed in the very many industries listed as essential by the province of Ontario.
As many have put it from early on in this crisis, “some are out so that others can stay home”, and vice versa. In a society where these egalitarian impulses are institutionalized, people in official capacities would say so naturally and spontaneously, and make regular public service announcements that (1) detail where to get the supports necessary to stay (or get a) home, (2) describe the protocols for all leaving home to do so safely, and (3) acknowledge that generous public space is not “what is outside”, as Ilaria Agostini says; it is not a frill but a necessity to live in dignity, in common and in difference.
Judging by the (mostly Canadian, French, and Swiss) radio stations, websites and newspapers I listen to and read every day, institutional announcements are not as generous. Instead, workers, inhabitants and organizers are in a permanent uphill battle to fight for the conditions that may make it possible for all to survive this crisis, medically or financially speaking. Ignoring such uphill battles, public health pronouncements risk doing what they have done frequently since the inception of public health in the late 19th century: mix up vital medical concerns with class-based, gendered and racialized moralizing. They resort to denouncing people’s behaviour while ignoring the constraints within which they live. Today, not everyone flouting public health rules is a yahoo partying on a beach in the Carolinas.
No Lousy Cadillacs Here
James Baldwin, in an interview with Studs Terkel in 1961, said that “one of the many things wrong with this country is this notion that IBM Machines and Cadillacs prove something.” Confronting the spread of mass consumption in the postwar period, Baldwin was adamant that freedom had nothing to do with a “lousy Cadillac.” “Do you think this is what the country is for? Do you really think this is why I came here, this is why I suffered, this is what I would die for? A lousy Cadillac?”
Now, during this pandemic, it is easy to cross streets without a single Cadillac in sight. Even for people who would have had to suffer much less to get to the point of buying a car than African Americans in the 1960s, today’s emptying streets and closed stores make it easier to imagine a different urban experience, one no longer defined by the consumption of commodities and what makes it necessary: the commodification of land and labour-power. Among other things, a different experience would have to be based on a reorganization of needs and aspirations. For Baldwin, it was inconceivable that needs denied by a white supremacist society (human dignity, individuality, love) could be met by satisfying consumer demand.
In a recent interview based on a book published last year (Les besoins artificiels), Razmig Keucheyan argued that the current crisis offers us another chance to rethink human needs before it is too late because of the ongoing and accelerating climate crisis. While not forgetting about all the basic needs that go unmet right now, Keucheyan’s main concern is with the additional social needs that have been generated in the history of capitalism, desires for sneakers and sports stars, cell phones and beach vacations, some of which are now impossible to pursue.
In a society no longer saturated by the commodity in all its forms, one would have to ask: which of these socially generated needs should we still try to meet? Which ones should be discouraged? Can the desire for objects and icons be replaced in part by desires for new forms of social life, human relations defined by dignity, conviviality, generosity, and sustainability (glimpses of which we can see in practices of mutual aid during the current crisis)? We must ask these questions with particular vigour in the global North in order to heed Adam Hanieh’s advice: challenge the imperial relations that the current pandemic crises reveal and threaten to intensify.
Wherever they are posed, these questions are political. They can only be answered properly in a collective, strategic and democratic manner that is impossible within capitalism, the short-termism of which allows for planning only in a myopic sense, as István Mészáros put it. Integral planning entails processes of decision-making that link producers and consumers of goods and services in various industries and sectors, with multiple temporal horizons, and at various scales in and beyond workplaces and neighbourhoods. Is such base-democratic deliberation possible at the end of our emptying streets, perhaps starting with public debates about producing essential medical supplies instead of, well, Cadillacs?
Stefan Kipfer teaches at York University, Toronto
Ilaria Agostini (2016) “Public Spaces Must be Reconquered After Domestic Confinement” https://global.ilmanifesto.it/public-spaces-must-be-reconquered-after-domestic-confinement/ April 26.
James Baldwin (1961, 2014) “An Interview with James Baldwin”, The Last Interview
and Other Conversations (Brooklyn: Melville House) 26
Marshall Berman (1999) “The Signs in the Streets” Adventures in Marxism (London:
Pierre Gilbert (2020) “Le Covid 19, la guerre et les quartiers populaires”
metropolitiques.eu April 15
Adam Hanieh (2020) “This is a Global Pandemic: Let’s treat is as such” https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4623-this-is-a-global-pandemic-let-s-treat-it-as-such
Razmig Keucheyan (2020): «La sobriété ne peut s’organiser que collectivement»
Médiapart March 28.
Michael Löwy (2011) Ecosocialisme: l’alternative radicale à la catastrophe écologique
capitaliste (Paris : Milles Nuits) 58
Rosa Luxemburg (1987/1915) “Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie” in Politische
Schriften (Frankfurt: Athenäum) 255.
István Mészáros (2008) The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time (New York:
Monthly Review Press) 383