Urban planning paradox

So I was listening to a podcast of The Forum, and the ’60 second idea’ to improve the world, presented by historian Robert Tignor, made me think.

His idea derived from a pet peeve – namely having to negotiate a busy pavement in a densely populated city and constantly running into people going the other way, or getting stuck behind people walking slowly arm-in-arm.  Amen to this! I thought.  He suggested that the pavements are separated by direction (one way traffic on each pavement, either side of the road) and speed (fast and slow lanes).

It seems an elegant solution, and one that I admit to thinking of often during frustrating walks.  But herein lies a valuable lesson to everyone interested in politics, to be wary of jumping on attractive ideas, no matter how well reasoned they appear.  I am ashamed to say that I was almost totally sold on this.  I was uncomfortable with the implied level of law enforcement, but academically assuming that everyone is law-abiding for a moment, it seemed a plan that would be beneficial to all.

However, other panellists on the show strongly disliked the suggestion.  The first objection was for the reason already raised – the need for ‘walk police’.  But the later main objections were, to me, far more powerful:

  1. The proposal removes all opportunity of bumping into friends; it removes the joy of chaos and chance encounters that is the essence of city life.
  2. Roads and pedestrian routes (especially in the US where this historian is from) are already policed and restricted enough (e.g. the crime of ‘jaywalking’ a.k.a. crossing the road), to the extent that walking is more difficult than driving, so the pavements are spacious but empty, and everyone is in their cars.  Hence even less chance of bumping into your friends.  It can be argued that demarcated pedestrian lanes is the ‘thin end of the wedge’ that leads to an LA-style pedestrian-less street.
  3. A recent study apparently found that there are less traffic accidents when there are less rules, because drivers take more care and more personal responsibility.  This is perhaps an unexpected result, that suggests it would be better to let pedestrians negotiate their way around each other.

Maybe objection 3 was made about motorised transport too, after the first few years of cars, when speed limits and road markings were proposed. And maybe they were right!  But would you be happy if the council scrubbed out all the road markings tomorrow?  Probably not.

It’s remarkable how society collectively gets used to things.  I suspect most would oppose pavement laws as too oppressive, but few would vote for abolishing traffic laws.  Why, realistically?  Because cars are dangerous? Yes, but with no traffic laws people would quickly learn to drive slower to mitigate the danger.  Ah, but then what is the point of having cars, if you have to go slow, taking care of others on the road?  Good point.  Or to look at it from the other side of the looking glass – the viability of car transport in cities is proportional to how heavily the roads are policed in the car drivers’ favour.  In some countries (and I speak from personal experience) you can get chased across the road by a cop with a gun for crossing outside of the pedestrian crossing markers.  This is nominally because the police are protecting your safety, but really because they are protecting the drivers’ rights to dominate the highway.  In other countries where pedestrians, cyclists, cars and occasionally livestock have equal road rights, human self-propulsion usually proves to be most effective.  And then there are the middle ground countries like the UK which seem to be optimised for no-one.

What does this tell us?

That only extreme management or extreme lack of management are effective in traffic planning, and perhaps in government of society at large? (And it’s up to you which is more desirable…)

That, despite a myriad of government sustainable transport initiatives, if traffic laws continue to prioritise the interests of motorists over all other highway users, the government is essentially fixing the match, and the car will always remain king?

That it is difficult to know how groups, crowds or society will react (e.g. to the imposition of traffic or pedestrian laws) until it has been tried?  And so what might seem like a genuinely well-meaning good idea to one man might be a disaster for a whole city?

Yes, I think all three.  And that last point, relating to the very start, gave me a jab in the ribs.  No matter how attractive the proposal, imposed laws will probably always have unexpected consequences.  I think most of us would be in agreement that one man should not be allowed to impose laws inspired by his pet peeves.  But it makes me wary of any imposition of laws that control people’s freedom of movement for the benefit some ‘greater’ good.

Further reading: Ivan Illich – Energy and Equity

Robert Tignor

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The ethical consumerism vs. pure revolutionary anarchism debate

“We live in the world we are given and we have to act with what we’ve got. There is no such thing as a pure revolutionary act. But we’ve got the difficult decision of choosing those activities which increase our autonomy from the commodity sphere. Is it squatting or buying a farmhouse with fields? is it theft or growing our own food? Is it workers struggles or environmental direct action? Of course, we choose as best we can depending on what’s most useful at the time in terms of building a mass movement quickly i.e. what strategically makes sense at any ONE time (difficult to judge though huh?). These are not principled ways of living that we are selecting from, to do so would be to become some kinda Kantian moralist, abstracting from any given situation and then applying that abstraction universally and at all times.

We should cover all bases: anti- consumerism, ethical consumerism, theft, bin diving, growing veg, collective work place struggles, environmental struggles, the challenge is to minimise our undermining of the effectiveness of one of these struggles through another. For this reason, its very important to communicate with each other. The guiding motivation of all our involvements is to build a mass movement which is sustainable i.e. one that doesn’t have to go back to work in the morning. Remember, it is work and consumption that reproduces the wage relation- that which reproduces capital as a social relation.

We must do things as a matter of strategy to increase our autonomy rather than as lifestyle choices. This means that, at the same time as being involved in building collective struggle and attacking corporations, we can also explore and nurture ways of living that could decrease our dependency on having to work.”

– QUICK (libcom user 9666)

Thanks to ‘Students in Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Iceland’ for this image. (Ironically, the country with the highest carbon emissions per capita in the whole world…)

So much intelligent stuff has been written on these issues that for me to add to it would only be to stroke my own ego.  Instead, this week, I offer you no original material, but an utterly inspiring reading list.  However, as always please feel free to use the comments on this entry as a debating platform if you wish.  But do check your argument has not already been presented and ripped apart in the original comments sections before launching into your keyboard, claws-out.

The Flaw of Modern Environmentalism / The Flaw of Western Economies
by Marcin Gerwin, Ph.d. in Political Studies. Via Mark Boyle, Freeconomy.

Libcom – Ethical Consumerism. Well?
Concise but impactful.

Libcom – Anarchism used as an identity instead of social change?
Very long forum discussion.  Don’t bother with the whole thing, but if you can persevere through the first 2 pages (past the first Nazi analogy!) there are many gems to be found.

And how do I feel having read these? I think I agree with QUICK.

And how does that relate to the fact that currently I do have to go back to work in the morning? My hazy plan involves co-operatives, Freeconomy, what activism I can fit in during my spare time, and funding other activism when I can.  Not perfect, but I’m working on it.

Criticisms welcome.

live in the world we are given and we have to act with what we’ve got. There is no such thing as a pure revolutionary act. But we’ve got the difficult decision of choosing those activities which increase our autonomy from the commodity sphere. Is it squatting or buying a farmhouse with fields? is it theft or growing our own food? is it workers struggles or environmental direct action? Of course, we choose as best we can depending on whats most useful at the time in terms of building a mass movement quickly i.e. what strategically makes sense at any ONE time (difficult to judge though huh? ). These are not principled ways of living that we are selecting from, to do so would be to become some kinda Kantian moralist, abstracting from any given situation and then applying that abstraction universally and at all times.

We should cover all bases: anti- consumerism, ethical consumerism, theft, bin diving, growing veg, collective work place struggles, environmental struggles, the challenge is to minimise our undermining of the effectiveness of one of these struggles through another. For this reason, its very important to communicate with eachother. The guiding motivation of all our involvements is to build a mass movement which is sustainable i.e one that doesn’t have to go back to work in the morning. Remember, it is work and consumption that reproduces the wage relation- that which reproduces capital as a social relation.

We must do things as a matter of strategy to increase our autonomy rather than as lifestyle choices. This means that, at the same time as being involved in building collective struggle and attacking corporations, we can also explore and nurture ways of living that could decrease our dependency on having to work.”

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Responses to ‘What am I doing here?’ comments

A considered response to the many comments on this entry.

Thank you for your intensely thought-provoking comments, all.   You have all made some very good points, and don’t let me be misunderstood, we are largely in agreement.  However, as my aim in this is to weed out the differences and problems in various positions, please forgive me if I focus on where I disagree or do not understand.

By the way, just to be totally clear, although this discussion has gone pretty global in perspective, I am still essentially trying to determine what my path should be, not the one and only path.  There are of course many different personal paths that I will not follow due to personal preferences and abilities, but for which I have total solidarity (e.g. social worker, nurse, teacher) provided they are followed for the right reasons.

@ placid

In your third comment you question the standard Marxist 2-class model and the assumption that economics is the be-all and end-all.  You should read the libcom / PPS debate Shitehouse mentioned (discussed below).  If you’re anything like me you will start off thinking “Hey, these PPS guys are onto something!” then read on and start finding problems with their positions.  I don’t think you will agree entirely with either side, but it will interest you and provoke thought, I expect.  I have made significant notes on it and would be up for further discussion and/or a dedicated blog entry on it if you are interested.

By the way, an admission, I think you and I have both strayed a bit close to vanguardism / Trotskyist ways of thinking of things, especially in assuming that anarchism would be ‘imposed’.  That is quite the opposite of what anarchists intend, of course.  I’m not sure where that acknowledgement gets us though, because it just makes the achievement of stable anarchism even less likely…

@ Anonymous commenter

You make a good (and comforting!) point with

“Nobody expects that as an anarchist you ought not to compromise regardless of its effects on you personally – otherwise you’re held to ransom by the principles of anarchism as much as by the economics of capitalism, which sort of defies the point.”

Your point on not voting however… while it is well reasoned on first reading, I have two qualms.  It disregards any possibility that positive outcomes can be achieved through democracy, which is debatably just as ‘historically contingent’ as the examples you criticised Monbiot for.  But more significantly, it is precisely the type of absolutist position that you have said “nobody expects” with regards earning a living.  So if you abstain from democracy because you think the system in itself is unfair, how do you justify not abstaining from the myriad other things with equally dubious ‘systems’, for example animal products, products and services contingent on oil, coal, and other extractive industries?  (I am not preaching from a higher position on this, merely questioning your uneven, partly purist, partly pragmatic one.)  Unless that abstention is purely symbolic, in which case nobody in ‘the system’ will know why you abstained, and you did so anonymously, so what has your symbol achieved?

In general, I am puzzled that your response seems to be based on a very black and white model of human society: it can either be anarchist or governed by an élite with malign intentions.  I think the word ‘government’ is as problematic as the word ‘capitalist’ here, because the word is sometimes used to mean “anything that isn’t anarchist” yet also conjures imaginations of something like what we currently have.  Can you not imagine any other arrangement?  For example, one that runs essentially along the same lines as a co-op?  Or a Cuban voting arrangement, but without the ‘party’ vanguard?  One of the main jists of Monbiot’s book is a proposal for global democratic institutions (including a “world government”) to replace institutions like UN, IMF, and the World Bank. These existing global institutions are undemocratic unions of mostly democratic countries … which is pointless, because at these institutions the representatives are not answerable to their country’s population.  The alternative would probably look something like proportional representation by recallable delegates, not necessarily divided along country borders, referendums for important topics, and no veto powers for any regions.

By the way, I find your criticism of Monbiot rather odd.  He does not publish his books or Guardian blogs with the intention of being an autocrat any more than I do.  To list 100 people he thinks are amazing does not imply he intends to form a government out of them!  It is merely a piece of inspirational writing to congratulate those doing good work.  I could only understand your rather angry stance on Monbiot if I assume you are against the publishing of all ‘opinion’ pieces on politics, which I am sure you’re not.

Moving on, you very neatly summarise the reasons for anarchism – which I’m grateful for the succinctness of, although I did already get it thanks.  But your dismissal of any non-anarchist alternative (I’m avoiding the word government) as “either inherently flawed or unnecessary” seems to conveniently ignore a lot of truths.  First of all, you haven’t spotted that exactly the same logical test can be applied to anarchy, with the same resulting incoherency.  If we can all be trusted, what is the harm in having some elected people running centralised/regionalised services, to help society run more smoothly?  If we can’t all be trusted, then why would you choose a social model that contains no checks and balances, and would not defend the majority from the malign intentions of a few?  I think we can safely conclude which circumstance is true: that not everyone in the entire planet can be trusted.  Therefore I think the answer to the fact that neither anarchy nor conventional government pass this logic test is to attempt to derive something in-between.  Whether that is like Monbiot’s proposal or something else.  I am not totally sold on Monbiot’s proposals by the way, but it is an interesting “jumping off point”.

Your argument ignores the enormous ‘added value’ that a little bit of organised administration and infrastructure can give to society (re. health services, electricity supply, etc.) that “freely associating communities” would really struggle to provide.  That doesn’t necessarily require government in the current nation-state kind of way, it can just mean institutions that run certain services, potentially in a global way and/or in a local way.  It probably does require elected delegates and some technical specialists, but they wouldn’t need to be given ‘governing’ powers – as per description of Monbiot’s proposal above.

It also ignores that a sizeable proportion of the population is apathetic and lazy, and want someone (currently the government, but not necessarily someone who ‘rules’ them) to run the big complicated things.  Have you ever been to a university student’s union meeting?  If not, then you yourself have had apathy over some aspects of your life. (You may have abstained because in your opinion it doesn’t affect you, but if you are a student there, the issues discussed do affect you, and your assumption otherwise would come from exactly the same place as apathetic people’s desire to ‘stay out’ of political/environmental/social action of any sort.)  And if you have been, you have seen what a small proportion of the university attends these public meetings.  As placid said, “anarchist visions of society rest on people essentially “all getting along”” – but they also rest on people all giving a fuck.  And as much as I wish both were true, a political ideal that only works if these highly unlikely circumstances exist … well it seems to me that you might as well pray to god to fix everything, or hope that humans evolve the ability to breathe in space so we can run away from the climate crisis … these are about as likely to happen.

And finally, you ignore the small proportion of the population who actually have malign intentions.  Or rather you don’t ignore, but you assume that they will get into positions of power only through government type arrangements, rather than the possibility of them also getting into power in stateless situations. And that is what Monbiot’s example of Sierra Leone and other stateless parts of national histories was about.  Neither I nor Monbiot were suggesting the “rebels” of Sierra Leone are anarchists – quite the opposite.  The point was that they are an example of the kind of characters that typically come to the fore and dominate in a ‘stateless’ condition.  I understand that if my argument were “anarchism has not worked before, so it never will” with Sierra Leone as an example of an attempt, then of course the argument would be weak.  But that is far from what was suggested.

My questioning of anarchism does not come from the “it has not worked before” corner at all.  It comes from the problematic requirement for revolution to be simultaneously gradual and instantaneous for it to work.  (See below for more on this.)

@ shitehouse and anonymous commenter

I’m not talking about abstract philosophy here, as I detect some might be.  Abstract philosophical discussions are great fun, but this blog exists because I am trying to discern a political aim that might actually be realised.  So while I very much appreciate the principles behind your calls for eternal struggle etc, I do not feel that either of you have addressed the primary problem with anarchism that I perceive: the impossibility of it ever coming into being in a lasting way, starting from the society we have now.  I apologise if this issue bores you.  I am quite aware that I have a strong tendency for ruining people’s enjoyment and spontaneity by asking about plans, details, logistics.  But when the topic of conversation is the type of human society you want to see, surely these are questions worth asking.

None of us are in a position to effect major political change in the foreseeable future of course, so I am not saying this as though I or any of you are going to flick a switch and try it out tomorrow, based on the outcome of this discussion.  Therefore, logistics perhaps seems irrelevant.  But if there is a logical contradiction that precludes a decent attempt at anarchism even being possible, should we still struggle towards it?  Should we not direct our efforts towards an aim that improves lives of as many as possible?

I anticipate the response “Just because it’s probably not going to happen doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try” or a repeat of the anonymous commenter’s historical contingency point.  To these, it reply thus: If the very unlikely target being aimed for were, say, the complete eradication of HIV, I would say yes you should try.  That’s because widespread benefits are achieved (the drastic reduction in instances of HIV/AIDS) even if the final aim is never reached.  However, with anarchist society as the final aim, the mid-way points are likely to be bloody revolution, invasion and domination by non-anarchist states, large scale blood-letting and/or the “wrong kind” of statelessness.  Put another way, it would be the pursuit of an economic ideal at the cost of almost everything else.

Please, if you can, try to answer me why anarchy is something we should still aim for, given what I’ve said.  Please don’t give me abstract ideology though… please answer the issues raised.

@ shitehouse

Thank you for the pointer to the libcom/PPS debate, I read it cover to cover.  (I tried to do part of that reading on the free internet at London St Pancras station, but it seems National Rail is into the censorship of political ideas – both pages were blocked!)   I found I agreed with much of both sides, but could not agree entirely with either.  I would like to outline my conclusions from reading that debate, but it’s really an entry in itself, so I’ll come to that later.

On the topic of class…  I have similar problems to placid about the over-simplified class model for modern society.  What you say about class struggle is meaningful to me, but as always I am uncertain where I stand in this.  At the moment I am on the lowest rung of my “green” employers, though I expect I will not be there forever.  But my interest in climbing the ladder and gaining more power is in order to have more influence in the renewables industry, not to earn more money or dominate others.  I acknowledge that amongst those with managerial ambitions, this position is probably rare.  But is it allowed by / where does it fit into your class struggle model?

Responses welcome from others too!

– K

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What am I doing here?

(Thanks to http://www.rescuegreen.com, Greenpeace, and http://www.flickr.com/photos/murplejane for the photos)

What is my long term plan?

Outwardly, I am obviously a person of principles; perhaps too obviously. I am an environmentalist; I am a vegetarian; I am a philanthropist, volunteer, renewable energy engineer, activist, anticapitalist, egalitarian.  And I avoid all of those labels if I can, because to me that list sounds like one big ridiculous tautology.  For example: of course I am a vegetarian and an anticapitalist if I am an environmentalist, it ought to go without saying.  So I grapple for a word to cover all of the things I am or aim to be, and flinch that the only words and phrases I can come up with are essentially saying the same thing: a good person.  What a snooty thing to say!

However, at the same time I feel that my life is in parts very contradictory.  For example, I am attempting to address my perceived issues with the world in three different ways simultaneously:

  1. Paid work in a “green job” furthering renewable energy;
  2. “Mainstream” activist work: writing letters to my MP, attending protests, sponsoring campaign charities, signing petitions;
  3. Underground, revolutionary* activism: Anarchism.

*(i.e. sudden and drastic, not by evolution or reform)

1 and 2 are reasonably compatible on the face of it, but under scrutiny less so.  Many of the biggest players in the renewables industry are no longer the 1970s tree-hugging engineers that founded the industry.  It has been largely taken over by the same big players that operate everywhere else, big oil and gas companies at the foremost.  But that’s a story for another day.  The more stark contradictions are between 3 and the others.

The type of activism that falls under 3 largely denies options 1 and 2 as impotent and too reformist to make a big difference from within the current system.  Likewise, mainstream activism largely dismisses hardcore anarchist types as too shocking, offensive and absolutist to ever convince the masses to take part in the popular revolution they demand.

But are these polar differences only perceived?  George Monbiot (Age of Consent) and Genderbitch (Activist Modus Operandi: Methods of Communication) both argue that (a) those who follow these different approaches should come together for a common goal, and (b) they should consider a little of each other’s methods.

My anarchist friends would (and have!) dismissed both authors as typical appeasers who are too ready to compromise.  After a year of sampling the anarchist way of doing things though, I still can’t see how anything can be achieved by absolutist, slash-and-burn revolution, with no transition plan.  I have tried to put my logistical concerns aside and be idealistic enough for straightforward anarchism.  “You don’t have to have a model society in mind to have a revolution” my anarchist friends have explained, “the post-revolution society will have to decide for itself how it wants to run (or not run) things.”  When I was getting used to the idea, my objection was always “What about services that require state, businesses or centrally-run services to keep going, and without which many would suffer – electricity supply, water supply and hospitals in the short term – medicines, transport, communications and food distribution in the long term (but still sufficiently short term to hit us well before we have figured out to do these things non-hierarchally!).  I still struggle with imagining how these would work, but even suspending the part of my mind that is ever worrying about future plans, I now have a more fundamental practical problem courtesy of Monbiot.

“At first sight, anarchism appears more compatible with the ideas of the global justice movement. […] Anarchism’s purpose, of course, is to reclaim human freedom from the oppressive power of distant authority.  Every atrocity committed by the state is a standing advertisement for self-government.”

“But the history of the past century, or even, for that matter, the past decade, is hardly an advertisement for statelessness either.  When the government of Sierra Leone lost control of its territory, the lives of its people were ripped apart by men described as ‘rebels’, but who possessed no policy or purpose other than to loot people’s homes and monopolize the diamond trade.  They evolved the elegant habit of hacking off the hands of the civilians they visited, not because this advanced any political or economic programme, but simply because no-one was preventing them from doing so.  Only when foreign states reasserted governance in Sierra Leone were the bandits defeated and relieved of their weapons.”

“Anarchists would be quick to insist both that there is a difference between the stateless chaos of places like [Sierra Leone] and true anarchism (in which freely associating communities can seek mutual advantage through co-operation) and that many of the recent atrocities in stateless places were caused either by the collapse of the state or by the aggression of neighbouring states.  We will turn to the first point in a moment, but it must surely be obvious that the second argument causes more problems for the anarchist position than it solves.  Unless anarchism suddenly and simultaneously swept away all the world’s states and then, by equally mysterious means, prevented new states from emerging, it is hard to see how the people of anarchist communities could survive when thrust into conflict or competition with a neighbouring state, which – by definition – would possess the wherewithal to raise an army.  It is just as difficult to see how they could defend themselves from the robber barons arising within their own territories, who would perceive this collapse not as an opportunity to embrace their fellow humans in the spirit of love and reconciliation, but as an opportunity to embrace their undefended resources.”

Now the only conceivable answer to my early objections to an anarchist world system is a gradual conversion, but the only conceivable answer to Monbiot’s point is instantaneous world revolution.  If we choose the former, the theoretically perfect stateless society won’t survive.  If we opt for the latter (which is virtually impossible and highly hypocritical anyway, as an instantaneous revolution would require the world’s biggest ever exercise in mass media and coercion to bring it about!) the stateless condition may survive, but as far as I can see, huge numbers of innocent individuals won’t.

Right, so I’ve just talked myself out of anarchism it seems.  But now what?  I have just added another anti- to my list of labels for myself, but with no better idea of what I am pro-, let alone how I will go about getting it.

I think that’s enough reading for one night.  But while I tuck myself into bed and switch off the light, here’s one last bedtime story to remind you and myself…

…whatever the conclusion I come to at the end of this self-exploratory multi-part rant, it cannot be just to “be the change I want to see”!

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Welcome to ‘Knee Deep in Panaceas’

Knee Deep in Panaceas is a blog to be read and contributed to by whoever is interested.  But primarily, Knee Deep is not a performance piece; it is not trying to impress you and is certainly not trying to change your mind.  Knee Deep exists to scratch an itch.

The author is frequently flattered to be told that she is excellent at public speaking, explanation and the art of persuasion.  She is, however, piss-poor at carrying out any kind of decent internal monologue.  She, like many, seems best able to understand her own thoughts only when she is explaining them to others.

Lately, the author has had her opinions and assumptions challenged by a number of inspiring individuals, causing her to attempt to rethink her moral and political positions, and her ambitions to somehow enact these.

So this blog exists because the author has some difficult things to think about.  She has spent a year or more alternately staring up into the sky or down into a tea cup, trying to internally reason with herself.  She has read a few books and blogs, and had endless house-party kitchen table debates with most of her friends.  Throughout, she has continued to get involved with various actions, campaigns and projects; still she struggles to define her views.  She is surrounded and influenced by people proposing political, economic and environmental cure-alls, but keeps finding contradictions in their logic, and her own.  She is Knee Deep in Panaceas and trying to find her way out.

Here and now, she hopes to thrash it out, and make up her mind.  And then go forth with that made up mind and CHANGE SHIT.

This blog is written anonymously.  Not because the author has anything to hide, but simply because it’s easier to speak your mind when you’re not worrying about avoiding offence to family, friends and neighbours. It won’t be updated on a regular schedule, but reasonably frequently as topics arise.  Readers are very warmly encouraged to contribute – the author wants to know what you think.

– K

PS.  From this point on, the author promises to stop writing in the third person!

PPS. Yeah, Panaceas, not Pancreas.  I know, they look the same…

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