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Reclaim the Neighborhood, Change the World

Vijay Prashad teaches international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. His latest book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York: The New Press, 2007).

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 448 pages, hardcover $27.95.

In 1988, the National Urban League reported, “More blacks have lost jobs through industrial decline than through job discrimination.” For a civil rights organization, this was a remarkable observation. Born in the era of Jim Crow racism, the Urban League championed the aspirations for upward mobility among urban African Americans. When banks refused to lend money to black entrepreneurs or when municipalities failed to service the black community, the Urban League intervened.

One of the demands of the Urban League was for public goods to be shared across racial lines. While the organization was not on the frontlines of the civil rights struggle, it would have been a major beneficiary of the movement’s gains. But the tragedy of the civil rights struggle was that its victory came too late, at least thirty years late. Just when the state agreed to remove the discriminatory barriers that restricted non-whites’ access to public goods, the state form changed.

Privatization and an assault on the state’s provision of social welfare meant that it was not capable of providing public goods to the newly enfranchised citizens. At the same time as the state retreated from its social welfare obligations, the industrial sector in the U.S. crumbled in the face of globalization. Industrial jobs, once the backbone of the segregated black communities, vanished.

The weakening of racism in the housing market meant that African Americans with some means moved out of the enclaves of black life. The sociologist William Julius Wilson places tremendous analytical weight on this middle-class migration out of the ghetto, which became then an incubator of what Wilson called “ghetto-related behaviors” (such as substance abuse, violence, and gang organization). Wilson’s allowances for the roots of behaviors could lead either to Michael Harrington’s 1962 concern for the “culture of poverty,” which would be ameliorated when economic conditions were bettered, or else to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1964 “tangle of pathology,” which saw such social outcomes as intrinsic to black culture.

With the shifts in the U.S. economy, Moynihan’s thesis was cheaper and more attractive to the ruling class: the “underclass” needed to be managed, either by sealing their enclaves through effective policing or else through migration of these populations into prison. During the Clinton administration (1993–2001), the number of those supervised by the correctional system increased from 4.5 million to 6.4 million, with a disproportionate number being African American. By the midpoint of the Bush administration, the number reached 7 million, that is, 1 in 32 U.S. residents are either on probation, in jail, or on parole. In 1996, Wilson gestured to the central reason for this rise in incarceration, “A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which people are poor and jobless. Many of today’s problems in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods—crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization, and so on—are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work.” Wilson’s argument, which echoed Harrington’s, was not heeded by his own advisee, President Clinton.

Those who must live in enclaves where jobs have disappeared must forge their own means of survival. These “disposable Americans,” as the New York Times’ Louis Uchitelle calls them, are neither subject to any state-led policy for employment generation nor are they visible in the academic literature devoted to the “underclass.” The assault on welfare and the degraded conditions of life for those who were once on some state support has, however, produced the only vibrant literature on this class—and it has come, in the main, from feminist sociologists, historians, and political scientists. Sociologists, who write about the African American populations who live in endemic poverty, apart from those who write on welfare from a feminist standpoint, tend to do their work with government statistics rather than with the people themselves. This is why Sudhir Venkatesh’s book is so refreshing. Venkatesh, who studied with Wilson, knows his numbers. But he knows the people as well. His new book, Off the Books, is an empathetic, and unromantic, documentary of the lives of people in one Chicago neighborhood.

Going behind the image of the “underclass” as exemplary of anomie, Venkatesh finds out not only how the disposable Americans survive, but also by what framework of rules they play. To survive, those with few means turn to economic activity that is on the borderland between licit and illicit, from selling homemade food to selling secondhand guns—all of which is, as Venkatesh’s central metaphor goes, off the books. This off-the-books activity, which is ubiquitous, is not without its order, for “there are always rules to be obeyed, codes to be followed, and likely consequences of actions.” The matrix of social order is not governed by the law. As Venkatesh put it, “The Southside residents must differentiate between those who harm and those who annoy, between those who make a little money on the side and those who jeopardize the community, recognizing all the while that they may be the trader one day and the one passing judgment the next. The judgments are not easy, nor made lightly, for dollars are scarce, times are hard, and compromises must be made if life is to go on.”

Venkatesh does his analysis through a conflict over a public park and a commercial street in the heart of his Southside Chicago neighborhood, Marquis Park. In 1999, when the cocaine trade went into a slump, and as the city of Chicago condemned the nearby Robert Taylor Homes, a gang, the Kings, moved into the neighborhood in force. To compensate for the slowdown of drug profits, the gang extended its hustle into the shady parts of the neighborhood’s economy: the gang imposed a tax on off-the-books trade. But this hustle was not simply exploitative, for, “as the gangs began moving into underground economies—drugs, larceny, extortion—they became ‘corporate’ entities, organized to support the material as well as the social needs of young people.” Problems occurred when the gang brought its activities into the full light of the public park: merchants, the preachers, and street hustlers as well as home workers, bristled at this exertion.

Off the Books uses this conflict to delve into the lives of those who work from their home and from the streets, the small merchants, the churches, and the gang. These are the main actors of Venkatesh’s world. It is easy enough to see how those who work and those who trade function in the borderlands with those who extort. But what about those who pray? How do they fit in? “The shady world,” Venkatesh writes, “provides a place to locate goods and services for congregants, including (but not limited to) quick sums of cash, jobs, and access to credit and financing. Like their flock, pastors must also contend with the complexities of life where the underground may be the only available resource.”  Venkatesh skillfully shows how these various social groups relate to each other, in a world where resources are scarce and the state has simply become a repressive entity. He brings to bear the entire sociological apparatus, concepts such as social capital for example, to explain how a neighborhood is able to flourish in its own way despite being considered a cesspool by the rest of society. Such an account resembles what Mike Davis calls a “government of the poor.”

If the “ordered environment” of Marquis Park is only viable in the short term, as Venkatesh points out, then what is the long-term dynamic of this unemployed, off-the-books, working-class community? What are its prospects for social change? The preachers and the merchants are able to hold the fabric together with their tattered authority, and the street and home workers collude with them as long as they are able to make a living alongside gang activity. But none of these actors hold the promise of a new world nor, in Venkatesh’s account, do they seem interested in fundamental change. Do they possess historical agency—the ability and desire to advance a transformative agenda?

In American Project, Venkatesh’s book on the Robert Taylor Homes, he describes a number of people’s organizations, or, as two residents call them, mama’s mafias (such as Mothers on the Move Against Slums). Residents, mainly women with children, seized their homes just as the Argentine workers took control over their factories: the latter to recuperate abandoned factories and the former to revive their lived environment. The Robert Taylor residents, mostly without the kind of jobs that are unionized, prevented the decline of their projects by self-organizing its functions (such as running the elevators by “elevator committees”). Cathy Blanchard, one of the mothers, told Venkatesh,

“By us watching over our kids, we learned how to fight to get what we deserved, you understand me. We marched with our kids to the police station, we went to the alderman, we yelled at garbage truck drivers, we learned we couldn’t just sit back ’cause they wouldn’t give us nothing. That’s what got us fighting for our rights and that’s what got us involved in making sure people had a decent place to live.”

A few years later, the city of Chicago demolished the Robert Taylor Homes. Blanchard’s energy is not evident in the world of Marquis Park, where the people tend to turn to the merchants, the priests, or the gangs to do their bidding.

In Planet of Slums, Mike Davis warns, “the future of human solidarity depends upon the militant refusal of the new urban poor to accept their terminal marginality within global capitalism.” This is true, but how will it happen? Marquis Park, one such slum, shows us how creative people can be to survive, but not how they might lead a struggle against the financialized world. By the end of Venkatesh’s book, the conflict over the park comes to a close. The preachers, merchants, and home and street workers have tried to mediate their problems through regular meetings with the gang leader, Big Cat. The Kings, who are themselves interwoven into the community, are willing to make some small concessions to the local gentry.

Since community policing, the hallmark of Clinton liberalism, failed to achieve its objective, this conclave encouraged the neighbors to come to a “community’s court,” where they could get their grievances heard by the gang and the gentry themselves. The main problems the people raised were the gang’s drug-trafficking in public spaces and the gang’s extortion of off-the-books businesses. As the story unfolds, and Big Cat loses control both of the community court and his own gang, one feels the walls move in. The claustrophobic social world does not allow Ventakesh to valorize the shady economy, for “the underground enables poor communities to survive but can lead to their alienation from the wider world.”

In his new book on Katrina, organizer Eric Mann reminds us, “The movement cannot advance by imagining new groups, new politics that do not exist outside the actual class struggle.” Mann summons a new generation of mature grassroots leaders to fight for a “Third Reconstruction,” to roll back the neoliberal assault that rendered the civil rights movement anachronistic, to re-envision the compact between the state and society. Even Marquis Park holds the potential, the vitality of the people who are fed-up with the way things are. These are a people in search of an organization capable of reclaiming their lived environment and taking the small steps toward the transformation of their world.

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