Inheriting the Grid #8

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

Crisis is not an unusual event for capitalism. This is something we have to be reminded of—for it is easy to forget since we are not often encouraged to know history beyond our own lifetime, or the lifetime of our parents. But maybe you were around for 1973/74 after the “oil crisis” and subsequent stock market crash. Or see if you can find someone alive from 1929-1933 when Wall Street crashed: maybe they will know someone from the period of 1873-1896 which was known as the “great depression” before the next few depressions took the title away. Even as far back as 1837 a depression was also caused by real estate speculation. These crises are a part of capitalism and if you ask someone who was in a precarious place during periods of relative prosperity, then they will tell you just how relative those periods were.

It has been a helluva challenge to keep up with the news over the last year. First it was sub-prime mortage meltdowns, then it was election season, then it was the series of mutliple and overlapping bailouts that never stopped. All that on top of changing strategies in Iraq, the inauguration, huge layoffs all over the labor market, and here in Chicago the buzz around BlagoObama, and the Olympics is enough to occupy your thoughts 24/7. And that doesn’t even leave much room for your own life to be drama-filled and exciting! It is enough to make your head spin, make you want to do something crazy, or to focus inward. But it’s important to try to understand what has actually happened, and what the strategic responses from below might be.

The contributions to this issue of AREA Chicago articulate a diverse range of responses to money generally and the current economic crisis specifically. Some of the texts function as proposals for where we should do in the face of exploitation or crisis. Others suggest more modest meditiations on money, work and life.

Several contributions pick up the criticism of the “non-profit industrial complex” [1] and attempt to locate it here in Chicago (a task taken in in numerous issues of AREA over the past four years). This conversation is particularly relevant at this moment as so many non-profits are shutting their doors or being forced to cut back in myriad ways [2]. Other texts in this issue try to tackle issues of organizational structure—how to be lean and agile as well as create space for mutual aid and support of many aspects of people’s lives. This desire for organizations and projects that help us meet our basic needs as well as our more complex desires becomes ever more acute in these (economic) times. Basically, the challenge emerges: how are we going to care for one another in a long term, sustainable way? And will that support structure be a part of overcoming capitalism as we know it, of behaving as if it doesn’t matter, or of reproducing more of the same?

It was partially the war machine of World War Two which got the U.S. out of the Great Depression, drastically changed our domestic economy and our role in global politics. The period of relative prosperity that followed was also accompanied by the combination of increased government provisions for social welfare as well as social unrest on the ground, in the classroom and in the halls of government. As that welfare state was dismantled and our economy privatized and deregulated, it was progressive, liberal and Left organizations and movements that stepped up to care for the residents of this country through the formation of small, community-based non-profits as well as new or expanded national charities and service agencies. And who can blame them—for while our movements strive for making the world more egalitarian and better in a plethora of ways, when push comes to shove we’ve got to work to make sure our communities’ most basic needs are addressed before more radical transformation begins. Or so, this is how it worked out. The result was certainly mixed, with many Left organizations uncomortably participating in the semiprivatization of the social service sector and losing their capacity to be more radical and critical.

Today we have organizations for everything and everyone. Today if you have an “entrepenurial spirit” you are just as likely to find yourself starting a non-profit as a small business. If the global north’s non-profits were a national economy, they would be the eighth largest national economy in the world [3]. Today the vast majority of Left-leaning groups take the form of the non-profit, leaving the cooperatives, parties, and federations to relatively few, or to the past. And today, we face the prospect of seeing many of them shut down because their funding is tied up in government spending that is getting cut because of deficits, endowments that were tied up in the speculative financial sector losing value, and donations or other fundraising techniques falling short. So there is a strategic question to be asked – how are we going to reorganize our social and political movements in the face of this crisis? Can we continue to entangle our money in speculative markets and expect that to be sustainable? Is it appropriate for civil society to be organized around tax deductions and providing programming we should demand for tax dollars to pay for in the first place?

And what should we expect from government? In past issues of AREA we have focused intensely on issues of public housing, schools and other State-sponsored resources getting defunded, privatized or transforming in Chicago. For some people that is the absolute priority—get the public infrastructure (infrastructure defined in a broad sense) working for the people! While others have given up on that possibility or find it to be compromising in unacceptable ways—they say the state abandoned us, it is designed to oppress us and so we need our own social institutions. These seemingly incompatible views are often presented alongside one another in the pages of AREA. They are significant political divides that don’t get enough attention. But in a moment when the very idea of unregulated capitalism—the free market—is falling apart in front of our eyes and receiving massive amounts of bailout money from the state, it puts the biggest of the big questions front and center: what is capitalism and where is it going? And what do we expect from the government that keeps it afloat?

As Eric Hobsbawm recently wrote, we don’t understand everything about the present crisis but we do know that it will “mark the end of the sort of free-market capitalism that captured the world and its governments in the years since Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan” (4). For the last eight years Leftists have had things easy on at least one level—the level of the scapegoat. The previous administration was easy to demonize. The Left’s approach to that moment perfectly embodied the scapegoat mentality—all the problems have nothing to do with how society is organized but simply are the result of these corrupt and murderous politicians, greedy capitalists, and imperialist neoconservatives. But how will we relate to Obama? And how will we relate to the State if it resembles more of a social democracy—where there is enough redistribution of wealth floating around to make life easier and to make it somehow harder to complain (it could make it easier, I suppose)? What will we do if those ideas from back in the mid-1930s, credited to John Maynard Keynes, really get tested out? What will we do with all of our non-profits and small organizations that have sprung up to respond to the abandonment of the people by the State, if all of a sudden the State starts giving more money to the programs it has defunded for so long? And what will we do if the redistribution of wealth doesn’t happen—and what we really witness in a moment of crisis is just more of the same and not a shift in priorities?

With a bit of a longer timeline this issue of AREA could have dealt with the number of responses from grassroots organizations to the stimulas package and bank bailouts of the Obama administration. What a great opportunity to talk about “money issues” at a larger scale! Most projects and organizations in this issue are excited to get a few hundred or a few thousand dollars through fundraising—but what about the impact of the $5,054,512,268 that Illinois is getting through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act [5]. Will we see the “grassroots” chasing those funds the same way they have been said to chase and adapt their programing to private donors and foundations? And how can we speak critically about this phenomenon, at the same time recognizing that people (including activists, educators, and artists along with everyone else) need jobs. And if jobs come from the state, or if jobs come from the 501(c)(3) sector or somewhere else—they are part of the basic building blocks needed by people to keep their heads above water [6].


AREA’s Money Issues

The first three issues of AREA were funded by a $15,000 grant from the Stockyard Institute (June 2005-October 2006). This was great because we didn’t have to hit anyone up for money until we had something to show for it. Issue #4 was funded by a combination of smaller grants (Fire This Time Fund $1000, Synapses Foundation $2000), personal donations, and a fundraiser at Danny’s Tavern ($400). But it was strange to be in a position of applying for small grants, many of which were the same ones that projects written about in the pages of AREA were applying for. Why should we compete for funding with those groups? Issue #5 was supported primarily through a $3000 Crossroads Fund grant, and the design was paid for by the Stockyard Institute as part of a trade for programming a lecture series at the Hyde Park Art Center for them, as well as personal donations. Issue #6 was supported by the December 2007 auction and individual donations solicited through mail and email to supporters. Issue #7 was supported by a residency at the Jane Addams-Hull House Museum ($20k). Issue #8 is being supported by the December 2008 auction and t-shirt sales, the sale of our first-ever classified ads, a $500 grant from the Fire This Time Fund, and small individual donations collected in the fall. Issue #9 will be funded through some summer 09 fundraising, a collaboration with the Smart Museum’s Heartland exhibition, and possibly through other institutional connections we are currently pursuing (get in touch if you want to collaborate!).

Generally we have seen AREA’s needs expand to around $22k per year. In the scope of non-profit budgets and considering all that we do in a year, that is pretty small. But raising it has been an experiment along the way—on the one hand, there are plenty of urgent concerns that should get money before AREA does, on the other—we think and others think that there are many good reasons for this project to exist. Finding some way to make this bare bones operation work is something very much on all of our minds.

This issue of AREA is special for many reasons. One simple reason is that for all of 2008 we had mostly taken a break from doing “open calls for submissions” to the publication (AREA #7 had a CFP but most of the content came from direct solicitation). This meant we were able to develop our research process and work with some contributors who had been talking about doing ambitious writing for a while. This also meant that we didn’t get as many new contributors as we were used to from the previous five issues. Finally, to kick off 2009 we did a big call for proposals for this issue and got a huge number of proposals—many of whom were first-time contributors. This experience is always rewarding—getting to see the myriad of different ways that people imagine or interpret a theme, many of which we could have never expected. So the results of that process are in your hands.

The other unique feature of this issue is that we are printing for the first time an epilogue/afterword—an outro—written by guest authors. It has been common in the past to solicit “guest editorial introductions” to an issue where a local thinker uses their ideas as a way to introduce and frame the content of that particular issue for the reader. Such contributions have come from Pauline LipmanClaire PentecostChristopher HayesRyan HollonDave StovallNic Theodore and in issue 7 the work was divided between co-editors—myself, Aaron Sarver and Rebecca Zorach. For this issue we have worked with a new political theory reading group, the Chicago Political Workshop, to produce a reflection on the content of the issue. This is different than previous guest editorials in a few ways—first off, it actually comes at the end instead of the begining and therefore doesn’t have the pressure to frame how a reader looks at the content of the issue. The task instead is to frame how a reader reflects on what they have read and what they do with that experience. And secondly, the other unique thing about this contribution is that it is somewhat critical of AREA and the writing in AREA. It is certainly appreciative of the work put into producing this publication and the work of all of the authors—but it also seriously asks the editors, the authors and the readers challenging questions about what we are doing, thinking and saying and where we want to go in the future.

The future of AREA is unfolding. It is being plotted and planned. This year the advisory group of AREA has committed to meeting every other month to discuss our visions for the future of the project—with special attention being given to where we want to be when we reach our 10th issue and five years of publishing and organizing events in the summer of 2010. We are discussing possibilities for increased attention on our website—looking to produce more frequent content based on all of the themes the printed publications have dealt with and with additonal focus on new media (audio and video) for the web. Other ideas getting discussed include taking more seriously AREA’s potential as a independent group for learning about politics and urban issues in community with others. Finally, we have decided to publish only one issue of AREA Chicago in 2010—the 10th issue—which will be focused on issues of scale and longevity in our movements under the framework of “Infrastructures and Institutions.” We will also put energy into releasing a publication that year which will address the first five years of AREA and discuss strategies for the next five years. Please feel free to get in touch if any of this sparks your interests.

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