Monday, March 24, 2014

a little 'urban disorder' among friends

This article, from the Cameroon Tribune, unfortunately demonstrates the insanity and inanity of most writing about System D.

As a symptom of persistent "urban disorder," the newspaper in the Cameroonian capital presents this scenario: "It's 10 am and the weather is bright. Pauline Mangne, 27, a Yaounde inhabitant who works as a housemaid, was seen buying some food items in a small market or 'petit marcher.'"

The article continues: "A market normally is constructed and well planned in any city. But that is not the case in Yaounde. These unplanned markets are found mostly in main junctions, entrance into some schools and institutions of higher learning, financial institutions and beside motor parks. The items that are commonly sold in these markets are vegetables, fruits, palm nuts and maize among other perishable foods." Martine Messina, a roadside merchant who journeys from her farm to the city and back every day, told the paper, "Anything I harvest in the farm I come and sell in Yaounde." She insisted that it was the only way for her family to survive.

It's astonishing to read articles that assert that a farmer selling produce at the side of the road is pernicious. Just what is so disgraceful about a farmers market?

No matter where you go in Africa and Asia and South and Central America, city-built markets don't work for small-scale merchants and farmers. The obvious conclusion: the planners who keep planning these unsuccessful markets are wrong. And the folks who sell at the side of the road are right. Let's hear it for a little 'urban disorder' among friends.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

are street vendors terrorists?

Is this man part of a terrorist network? A retired Tunisian military man sure thinks so. Mokhtar Ben Nasser, a retired colonel and former spokesperson for the Tunisian military, is the sole source for this International Business Times article asking the question.

“There is a confirmed relationship between smuggling and terrorism,” Ben Nasser told the paper, arguing that militants offer the smugglers protection, sometimes in the form of extortion, in addition to demand for their supplies, while smugglers provide food, equipment, untraceable cash and knowledge of unguarded routes in the country’s interior and across borders. “Militants and smugglers have shared interests."
But, at a conference at Stanford ten days ago, a respected security analyst came to the exact opposite conclusion. I asked Niklas Swanström, head of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, who spends a lot of time in criminal havens like North Korea, Tajikistan, and Dagestan and is an expert in transnational crime, about this exact issue.
He insisted that most smugglers and informal wholesalers and retailers don't need or want to work with terrorists. He said that, by their nature, terrorist organizations are slow and cumbersome -- more worried about ideology and furtive spycraft than rapid action. Smugglers, by contrast, have little use for ideology. They simply need to move their goods -- and getting in bed with terrorist networks doesn't make good business sense.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

the tshukudeur

On a seriously good day, Biamungu, who lives in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, makes 10 euros, transporting goods on his handmade wooden bicycle, called a tshukudu.

"I make sure to bring home the basic necessities: flour for the fufu [cassava paste], cooking oil and salt. If I have some money left, we feast on tomato sauce or meat," he tells Radio Netherlands (via allAfrica).

Being a tshukudeur is incredibly taxing work -- requiring brawn and energy. And his work has been made harder by the rebellion and conflict in that region of the DRC.

Two caveats about this report, though:

first, I cringe when any reporter, no matter how sympathetic, says, "Riding his large wooden bicycle, Biamungu, with his muscular, sweaty body, looks like a character from a novel." 

second, in many African countries, fufu, sometimes called garri, is the staple food. I ate vast quantities of it every day in Nigeria. When I was in Kenya, I ate massive amounts of ugali -- a similar starchy sponge concoction made with corn. Though I am sure Biamungu's family's limited diet is nutritionally lacking (I most often had some vegetable stew and a small piece of boiled meat with my plate of fufu), a messload of starch and carbs was, to me, the perfect way to eat in that climate.

the street market of life

Juan Goytisolo's novel Makbara, which starts in the 'self-confident Eurocraticonsuming city' of the West, culminates in an appreciation of its Hegelian antithesis--the street market (his real-life model is Jemaa el-Fnaa, in his adopted hometown, Marrakesh):

'an agora, a theatrical performance, a point of convergence: an open and plural space, a vast common of ideas
peasants, shepherds, soldiers, tradesmen, hucksters who have flocked to it from the bus terminals, the taxi stands, the street stops of the jitneys poking drowsily along: coalesced into an idle mass'

'offerings on the open market, within reach of anyone willing or able to give value for value received: far from the irreducible molecular order of the great industrialized European city: the hostility of the clock, the pressure of time, rush hours, infinite loneliness shared bumper to bumper'

'creating structures to welcome the world-wanderer'

'survival of the nomad ideal as a utopia: a universe without a government or a leader, the free circulation of person and goods, land owned and used in common, the tending of flocks, sheer centrifugal force: the abolition of private property and hierarchy, of rigid spatial boundaries, of domination based on sex and age, of the ugly accumulation of wealth: emulating the fruitful freedom of the gypsy who respects no frontiers: encamping in a vast present of quests and adventure....a calligraphy that over the years is erased and then retraced day after day'

Here, in the gaudy market, his omniversal unipresent characters find a 'tiny little island of freedom and rejoicing in an ocean of wickedness and misery, giving them and giving myself the necessary strength to complete the day's journey, to gather up our belongings and prepare to move on, to seek shelter, to lull ourselves to sleep with the idea that tomorrow everything will be better and they will still be with you, as will I, all ready to invent new and even more marvelous adventures, finding a welcome refuge, if it be God's will, in the free and easy, kindly tolerance of the public square'

This is, of course, the endless presence, the eternal now--duplicitous and dramatic, monotonous and unique, shared and solitary, everything and nothing

The street market of life

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Against Economics

Andro Linklater’s latest and, sadly, last book (he died as it was being published) started as his attempt to make sense of the global economic crash and mutated into a paean to the potential and problems inherent in private property.

He knew this was an extraordinarily old-fashioned approach to modern fiscal analysis. But, as he writes toward the outset of Owning the Earth, “The idea of individual, exclusive ownership, not just of what can be carried and occupied, but of the immovable, near-eternal earth, has proved to be the most destructive and creative cultural force in written history. It has eliminated ancient civilizations wherever it has encountered them, and displaced entire peoples from their homelands, but it has also spread an undreamed-of degree of personal freedom and protected it with democratic institutions wherever it has taken hold.”

This shouldn’t give you the idea that Owning the Earth is a heartless, self-congratulatory free-market screed. Rather, Linklater’s villains are the Austrian School (those two patricians, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, in particular) and all those who confuse the production of individual wealth with democracy and the promotion of purely private interests with the public good. “The iron law of private property,” he concludes, “turns out to be a paradox. Although it promotes individuality, it only works by giving equal weight to the public interest.” His heroes, then, include Adam Smith (not for the “invisible hand” but for its corollary: the idea that the market is designed and tempered to the public interest), James Madison (for having “embraced the diversity of opinion as evidence of free society”) and Wolf Ladejinsky (who pioneered land redistribution while working for Douglas MacArthur in the 40s and early 50s.)

Linklater romps through history with the insouciance of Minnesota Fats attempting a five-ball bank-shot combination to either beat or sucker a pool hall opponent. The book hopscotches centuries and continents and moves from the Levelers to Lehman Brothers, with Locke, Lenin, Lincoln, Ladejinsky, Linux, and the Louisiana Purchase in between. He concludes that private property promotes democracy – but only when it’s an expanding resource, available to all, cheaply and efficiently. Once the frontier closes or is disposed of (or, in global intellectual property agreements, if patents held privately are given the force of law while varieties of communal ownership are not) the egalitarian and equitable teamwork between property and democracy breaks down. 

His assertion that the massive government-led rescue plans developed after the recent financial meltdown proved that "the Austrian experiment had failed" may be an overstatement--after all, free market absolutists are still vocal, almost everywhere. But Linklater is more interested in small futures than big ones. As he notes, rivalries over land and resources may create vicious conflicts, but don’t always cause the many types of legal and quasi-legal sharing arrangements to rupture. “Even three wars between India and Pakistan have not caused either of them to break the Indus Water Treaty they signed in 1960. Underpinning these formal regulations for sharing water, as well as thousands of other informal arrangements, has been the understanding that it is worth limiting individual needs so that everyone benefits from a limited resource. However bitter the disputes, it is overshadowed [grammatical oddity in the original] by the realization that taking whatever one wants risks destroying the entire system and ruining everyone.”

Owning the Earth flips traditional pieties about property on their head. Linklater doesn’t cite Peter Kropotkin or Karl Polanyi or E.F.Schumacher or Elinor Ostrom – but his work is imbued with their spirit.

“There is an alternative to the single, ultimately unviable measure of success imposed by economics,” Linklater concludes. “Around the world and throughout history, neighborhoods have succeeded in a million different ways.”

In that spirit, he offers a political slogan for the 21st century:  “It’s the neighborhood, stupid.”



one querulous cavil: Oddly, Owning the Earth contains some grammatically questionable constructions and lots of oddball spellings (among them: Hayek is "Friederich" instead of Friedrich, the Chinese city Shenzhen is "Zhenzhen," Mao Zedong is spelled "Zhedong" on first reference, and George H.W. Bush is referred to as "George H. Bush.") Misspellings can creep into any volume, but these seem egregious.

Monday, December 23, 2013

danger: flea markets ahead

Police declared downtown Hamburg a "danger zone," giving them the right to search and detain people without initial suspicion, as they prepared to evict squatters from Rote Flora, a theater complex that has been squatted since 1989, Al Jazeera reports.

Rote Flora, a half-destroyed theater built in 1888, was legally leased by left-wing squatters in 1989 and turned into a cultural center that regularly organizes parties and flea markets.

The police action came after protests sparked by the threat of eviction after the city sold the site to a developer. Residents also demonstrated against forced evictions in the Reeperbahn red-light district and demanded better rights for refugees.

It's amazingly two-faced. Western democracies are outraged when authorities claimp down on freedom of assembly and expression in places like Tahrir Square, but engage in military-style repressive clamp-downs on their home turf

Friday, December 20, 2013

The fault, dear Brutus ...

... is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Grand rhetoric courtesy of William Shakespeare. But not a particularly ringing endorsement of the possibility of social change.

Which is why Roger Cohen's heartfelt column in the international edition of the NYT seems oddly bloodless. He's right in his diagnosis: inequality is a massive problem -- in India and throughout the world. 'When a phrase like “the bottom 90 percent” [or, I might add, 'we are the 99 percent'] rolls off the tongue as if this were a normal state of affairs,' he writes, 'something is amiss.'

But what's his prognosis? Only that nugget from Shakespeare. "Policy change can help," he writes in his last sentence, but the real change "must come from within each of us."

Well, sure. Duties and obligations, as Simone Weil wrote decades ago, come before rights.

Indeed, to look at the full quote from Shakespeare (full text of the play here), reveals that the Bard was not making a plea for inward inquiry but rather one for revolution: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.' Cassius, who speaks this line, wants Brutus to join a bloody plot to oust the current leader, Julius Caesar, and seize power.

Yes, as Cohen notes, the system is rigged and "the common man and woman have been had." But individualism -- a.k.a. the profit motive -- got us into this mess. Individualism -- a.k.a. charity, or, in Cassius's and Brutus's case, the desire for power and fame -- is not what's going to dig us out.

There are lots of things groups can do collectively to promote change and reduce inequality. Here's one place to start: the mass of people -- the squatters and System D merchants who are actually the bedrock of every city in every developing world country -- need to organize and empower themselves. Their self-mobilized, self-governing groupings will lead the way to development that is more democratic and egalitarian.

As Nobel-prize-winner Elinor Ostrom wrote in a paper that's as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1994, "we will all be the poorer if local, self-organized institutions are not a substantial portion of the institutional portfolio of the 21st century." 

tip o' the hat to Jacqueline Novogratz, a.k.a. @jnovogratz, for the link to the Roger Cohen article.