Redefining “Progressive” as Neoliberalism

This new book by the Berkeley based author Randy Shaw about the housing crisis is currently making the rounds.  It is even being featured on left wing websites such as Counterpunch as a “progressive” take on the affordability question.

Generation Priced Out:  Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America.

The book features chapters on affordability crises in several American cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and others.

Does the book feature a chapter on Austin?  You betcha.  What does it say, according to Counterpunch’s Steve Early?  Read it and weep:

“In Austin, Texas, Shaw finds that a “beacon of progressivism in a deeply conservative state” has a dark underside of “tenant displacement, neighborhood gentrification, and rising social and economic inequality.”  Fifty-five percent of Austin residents are renters. But the African-Americans, Latinos, and whites who can’t afford to buy a home have few rights and protections. Fortunately, a younger generation of political activists, including 29-year old city councilor Gregorio “Greg” Casar are helping low-income tenants get organized so they can challenge and change land-use practices that restrict housing supply and increase home prices.”

Who did the author speak to in Austin?  Here is who he thanks in the acknowledgements:  Stephanie Trinh, Shoshana Krieger, and Victoria Jara.  No one at Community Not Commodity, the city’s leading NIMBY organization, was contacted, or at least included in the book.  I certainly wasn’t, and as a fellow longtime affordable housing advocate and activist I have a historically grounded local as well as international perspective on these matters that the author could have found useful.

I find it dishonest and intellectually problematic to take seriously an author who spends so much time berating “NIMBY’s” who won’t take the time to actually speak with those groups.  All politics is indeed local, and while there are similarities between the Proposition 10 debate in California and the Austin fight against CodeNEXT, the situation prevailing on the ground in both places is fundamentally different. That this nonsense is now being pitched as nectar for young left wing activists is profoundly troubling.

I should note that Stephanie Trinh is no friend of the poor.  If her actions are a guide, she is a neoliberal paternalist.  Not only did she helicopter into Montopolis regarding the Cactus Rose Trailer Park controversy while purporting to represent trailer park residents as an uninvited TRLA attorney [it wouldn’t be the first time a crusading legal aid attorney crashed and burned in a vulnerable and gentrifying community; she later found more pliable clients along the East Riverside Corridor representing families being displaced by the construction of Oracle’s new campus], as a policy advisor to close friend council member Greg Casar she has also worked to minimize the political influence of Montopolis — a.k.a. “Poverty Island” — on the Community Development Commission, by assisting the city’s lawyers in drafting and implementing undemocratic and disproportionate rules and bylaws changes to the composition and freedom of that commission.  Those controversial changes are now the subject of a complaint to TDHCA.

The redefinition of supply side and neoliberal policies as “progressive” and even “left wing” has been an interesting project to see unfold, particularly among the Millennial and Generation Z crowd.  Clearly folks such as Gregorio Casar are at the forefront of it.  Useful token and freshly re-elected District 3 city councilman (with a staggering runoff voter turnout of less than 2 percent) Pio Renteria is quoted the morning after as proclaiming that “I think we’re going to have a very progressive council,” showing that the old dog still has the capacity to properly accept his training and stay on script.

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Meanwhile, over in District 8, newly elected council member Paige Ellis says that she plans to “put the environment first.”  If that’s true, I expect her to support the climate change based Passive House affordable housing resolution I got passed through the Community Development Commission and the Joint Sustainability Committee, and to facilitate the urbanist densification of her district post haste.  Because over here in East Austin and Montopolis, not to mention Dove Springs and Del Valle, we too have a fragile natural and cultural environment we would like to protect.

Carefully coordinated use of the term “progressive” by politicians such as Renteria has been rendered easy now that the meaning of the word has assumed proper Orwellian dimensions.  The term has a dictionary definition and a political history, but that doesn’t matter.  What of course never gets mentioned is this:  the outsized role real estate zealots and interest groups now play even inside supposedly “progressive” organizations such as the DSA.  The complicity of groups and foundations affiliated with neoliberal elements of the democratic party in all this is transparent to those paying attention.  These arrangements are now increasingly seen as normative as whiteness.  Folks are not even bothering to pay attention to the fact that the majority of Renteria and Casar’s contributions come from real estate developers and their trade groups.  

Many of these fools have become so deranged as to actually believe that densification and other urbanist dogmas constitute the civil rights struggle of our time.  The evangelical nature of their self-righteous strutting is on full display at Austin’s Planning Commission, and henceforth at the city council.  In a recent Twitter exchange with me one of Austin’s “urbanists” actually had the brass to declare that the fight for a more “densified” city was akin to the African-American struggle against the poll tax.  With historical amnesia and intellectual sleepwalking such as this, is it any surprise that “left wing” activists can now find themselves on the same policy page as the Chamber of Commerce?  Oligarchs and autocrats, the true enemy, are surely heading into the 2018 holiday season laughing at such tomfoolery.  For them, it’s money well spent.

Meanwhile those of us on the actual left stare at this stuff with a mixture of disgust and bemusement.  Are there really “no alternative[s]” to neoliberalism?  There of course are, but neoliberals have been working hard to ensure such thoughts become unthinkable as fast and thoroughly as possible.  Real progressives should be fighting this, not participating in it.

Adolph Reed, Jr. has written that identity politics is the left wing of neoliberalism and that race politics is not an alternative to class politics, it IS a form of class politics. 

Austin is a terrific case study of what Reed is talking about.