Filed under: Critique, Gentrification, Labor, Ontario
The following editorial was originally published on North Shore Counter-Info.
So now sleepy little Hamilton has joined the likes of London, Greece, Paris and Hamburg, having recently been treated to a shortlived spree of public disruption and vandalism. To what do we owe this promotion? Are we really beset by the same woes as the great cities where such acts have become commonplace? Thanks to the ubiquity of market forces, we have all been excessively financialized to the point of vulnerability, so yes– the intended targeting of upscale districts checks out within the bigger picture. The daft denizens of our boutique streets likely haven’t given it a single thought, but such actions don’t occur in a vacuum. On the other hand there is a small but motivated bunch of people who refuse to accept the harsh contradictions of life under these conditions, who can’t stand that so many are left broken in the dust while a few complicit players profit regardless, and are willing to do something about it.
It is not the aim of this piece to explain or justify the events on Locke St. One only has to show interest and pay attention to learn something about one’s opponents. They may introduce unfamiliar analyses or arguments to the discussion, but be forewarned: they have pondered their position at length. Any incomprehension must lie on the part of the status quo who it seems have never undergone earnest, detailed criticism of their own habits and life patterns. For this is where we must turn our inquiry now: it has to be asked of the dominant culture and its catering classes, “What do you really stand for?”
As a thought experiment it is worth imagining the life of a minion at different times throughout history: early Rome, northern Europe in the middle ages, Ming dynasty-era China may offer some examples. There would have been much cruelty and injustice to be found in these times of course, but putting aside many misgivings about such things, there did also appear to be an ideal project or vision at the core of these societies. People were animated by divine guidance, or an instilled sense of identity that could be widely shared, or by cultural and technical advancements that broadened horizons and inspired growth. Epictetus started life as a crippled slave and went on to become an influential philosopher. Arts and crafts of great sophistication were produced several hundred years ago mainly by illiterate peasants. Countless explorers and fortune seekers arose from the underclasses of their day according to opportunity and aspiration. Many courageous ventures took place at a time of unknowns and great risk. There must have been something other than straight profit to spur people on, and contemporary accounts from these eras seem to bear this out.
Now flash forward to the deeply superficial age in which we find ourselves: neoliberalism. Forget that we’re supposed to be democratic and progressive… I’m talking about the real existential question of our time: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”
Let’s look at the landscape of Locke street. What constitutes the bulk of business here are trendy restaurants, places offering treats like gelato, gourmet donuts, cute cupcakes, cocktail bars and lifestyle cafes. There is a nice bookstore and a barber shop too, but those seem to be throwbacks to a simpler time; no, this is a place where people come to consume on a grand scale, and expectations had better be met or there will be hell to pay on Google reviews. There’s a specialty health food store too, but no grocery stores, certainly nothing modest for buying everyday staples like you’d find in Asian or European cities. This is a place that has evolved to indulge the fickle whims of a clientele that seeks novelty and unapologetic gluttony. It is a reflection of the aspirational concerns of upcoming consumers as well as the guiding principles of those who reached the upper echelon long ago—give us the best of everything, ‘cause we deserve the best. Appetite is the cure and the symptom. The hungry ghost, never satiated and not at all interested in philosophy or transcendent matters, does seem to signify the inner workings of those who fully accept the program of getting and spending.
But we must return to our question, also adding others: What do you stand for? This outrage you felt at the disturbances that fateful night… is it rooted in something nobler and greater than market value or personal success? Do you believe that the pursuit of wealth is an end in itself through which other needs are satisfied, like attracting the mate you prefer or growing a happy family? Do you view your political allies as visionaries with bold ideas, or are they more recognized as high status people that can be persuaded or manipulated? Do you consider your condominium towers and web solutions to be on par with the cathedrals and public works of past civilizations? Are you familiar enough with the practical underpinnings of your world to the point that you could fend for yourself without elaborate technical assistance or publically supported infrastructure? How well do you understand the resources that fuel your activities—energy, minerals, agricultural land, ‘humans’—are they there for the taking, endlessly appearing, with no consequences? And hey, why not ask: Since when was money not the measure of all things?
Having long observed the ways and behaviours of the dominant culture, it is possible for those of us in the subservient strata to arrive at some decisive conclusions of our own. It seems apparent there’s a loosening grasp of reality in the minds of the ambitious, and a willful insensitivity to the destiny of those lacking such ambition. Such people don’t mind living with growing disparity or worsening social conditions. Folks should work harder, stay in school, invest in the market, get their lives together instead of focusing on justice and solidarity: these are the responses we get to hear. All very interesting… let’s see how these suggestions bear out. Let’s see… if you can find a job anymore it is likelier to be impermanent and precarious. As for school, we’ve got graduates everywhere waiting tables or driving Uber. As for the market, it has already drained our shared economy of most of its real value to the point that any honest reckoning will tell you it’s a walking corpse now. And every swingin’ dude knows the best drugs and wickedest times can be found among the ‘in crowd’, the alpha males and the high street traders.
Do we truly have a great ideal to hold up and refer to anymore? Does a nice house with all the material comforts represent the pinnacle of achievement for all human effort? Is there no greater project or endeavor for us than a market-driven economy? And what do we tell our children then: “Gee, it sucks that you’re broke, but I just made a killing flipping that property yesterday! You gotta strike while the iron’s hot!”
Without a deep foundation, there is no base for building. Without a core structure, what you get is just scaffolding holding up more scaffolding.