DISPATCHES AGAINST DISPLACEMENT: Field Notes From San Francisco's Housing Wars by James Tracy AK Press OCT 2014
James Tracy has been one of those tireless housing fighters and a hero of mine since the 90's. So please take my criticisms of the book as ideological arguments from an armchair anarchist socialist. This book is essential to anyone that has organized for housing rights or wants to. Not because of it's depth…it is too short as most of his books are…and not because of it's lack of all reaching economic analysis. He leaves that heavy work up to others.
I have never had the patience to spend the thousands of hours that people like him do (and so many others you will learn about in this book) because I've always felt that these important local gains have no long term effect due to the nature of the global FIRE sector and the fact that the right wing shift of the liberal party since the early 90's is going to starve our cities even more with austerity. Also because of my personality and politics. I am the last person that would do heavy work over years to secure one building for my own class. I can only be involved in a mass anti capitalist organization that strives to sow the seeds of a new participatory world. And I hate middle of the road american liberals who still claim the democrats will save us. You have to deal with them in a complimentary and nice manner to get local laws passed.
But that doesn't mean ever in my life have I damned the workers/activists that do this. There has always been attainable goals in USA cities and many have been made by what a typical anarchist like me would label derisively 'one issue politics'. Thousands of my neighbors were saved from eviction first in the late 90's boom (which is wrongly labeled the dot.com bust-that era was also marked by massive speculation and government encouragement of gentrification, assets bubbles, not just by a tech bubble), by people like him, by the EDN, by MAC…and they did it again during the asset/fraud bubble lead up to the global recession of 2008, and are doing it now again. Tireless is too bland of a word. Heroes: white, brown, asian, black-all really amazing people. A hero to me in a community social perspective is someone that gains very little political power, or personal gain, and whose name may not even be known to the majority of the working class still living in San Francisco. A real hero, the anarchist ideal actually, is someone so imbued with a passion for social justice and community democracy, that those rewards are not really the goal.
This is one of the books shortcomings due to its shortness. There are so many fascinating individuals he has been involved with since the 90's, that I wanted much more background, anecdotes and even more dirt.
But Tracy is an 'activist', not an academic, or social anthropologist. So the bulk of the important points, as the title suggests, are full of interesting and relevant re-examinations of mixing ballot politics with mass based community organizing mixed with NGOs.
There is a complete lack of blow my own horn, and not a hint of narcissistic grandiosity here. The writing reflects him as he is face to face. A willing reformer, to get good works done, as well as a radical that is very well aware of how much compromise must be made with liberals to get even crumbs. And these 'crumbs' do effect the working and 'middle' class of the city. There are numerous people that he notes, that are carrying on the fight. VanishingSF and the Anti-Eviction Project. Who are doing great research and agitation that is completely necessary for even a 'crumb' of community health and working class action. He is a bridge builder up to a point. He does not compromise for power, only for specific gains. The book does reflect his radical side in a well thought out manner, that a simple economic change or bust can wipe out gains.
This obvious fact of life brings me to my main criticism. There is some sort of ideological or provincial barrier that bottom up housing activists in the bay area have put up against the recognition that this 'economy' is not the new normal. That even with the global recession of 2008, we in SF are still somehow in a pocket of only hinterland affect (Silicon Valley) albeit greatly affected by state and Fed policy and local effect; the influx of 40,000 well paid tech workers in just five years. That the boom or bust just in Tech stocks, or venture capital pulling back fast from IPO's is the barometer of a coming bust. For proof of this barrier I claim, go to any website of all bay area (amazing) groups of housing activists, and there are no articles, no links, barely a mention of the global FIRE sector from China to the USA to the EU, and that all of these three main economies have been following an asset pumping central bank debt model. That is, nothing has really changed since 2008. It is the same actors, the same 6 too big to fail global institutions running the game, from stock buy backs to create fake value even in blue chip stocks, to commodity manipulation on the Chicago Exchange.
In my opinion this is disastrous that the most eloquent, tireless and locally knowledgeable can't see a massive global recession coming quickly that will probably spiral into a worldwide depression. On many other links and articles on this site, I bring up the fact that Google or Twitter did not alone cause massive property value rise in the bay area.
Rents to rise yes. But these SF companies have very little to do with property valuation itself. It's a federal policy ramped up by Obama and his chosen that follows exactly the same disastrous road that Clinton and then Bush pursued. It comes from $5 trillion dollars of quantitative easing by the Fed since Obama took office. Including $12 trillion in no interest loans to the too big to fail. Among other hot money sources.
That last part of chapter three says : "While today's tech might not maintain its current breakneck pace, hopes for a correction are sadly overblown. Tech 2.0 is heavily integrated into everyday business communications, and surveillance industries."
Apples and oranges. The egregious rent pumping influx of high paid tech workers into SF is coming from non-production tech companies. Apple didn't move an iPod manufacturing center here, nor a big campus. Intel, Cysco (cutting workforce already). IBM, Microsoft (cutting US workforce also) or the various homeland security government 'production' type companies did not either. The majority of the influx that drove rents up, is from soon to be off shored or soon to be irrelevant application and advertising companies. I'm sorry to go on about this, but it is important to understand that this asset bubble of every large company from GE to Apple to some new Twitter like IPO, is all bubble. You can't segment it. Reasonable economists say overvaluation at 200 to 400%.
His view of micro Bay Area economics leads him into chapter four, towards the great idea of community land trusts. Wherein, residents are owners, but not allowed to speculate or later sell for a profit. It's a working idea. And sounds great, for the minority of working class people that can and do benefit. But this idea is blind to the fact a real depression is coming. There will not be a dime from anywhere you will find to buy land. He does touch on 'peoples' seizure' in several parts of the books, so I am not saying Tracy is naive and believes city financials allow or big state funds are forthcoming for these projects.
He also recognizes in several passages that only a large outside the ballot box organization can keep the pressure on, preserve gains, and create new opportunities. Therein I wholeheartedly agree. That point is the lack of our 'real' strength.
His open-mindedness is his strength as both an activist and radical. He has spent his whole life searching for other examples and answers.
The honesty and clarity of his actions and writing and the praise he rightly gives to so many others, is more important than my macro view plea, within the context of learning and becoming a fighter for housing rights. Hence the title. Yes my review comes off as more about my opinions than real life action and work, so read the book.