Exploring the chaos of how an idea begins.
Written by Max Muller
According to the philosopher – and former sufferer of psychosis – Wouter Kusters, wisdom lies behind madness. There are multiple ways by means of which useful knowledge can be gained from mental illnesses. For instance, one may be able to formulate deep insights about oneself from the talks about one’s own personal road to insanity.
In addition, mental illnesses can teach us important lessons about our own society. According to this doctrine, madness is not so much a signal of individual mental health problems. Instead, it signifies problems on a societal level. Like canaries in a coal mine, those with psychotic disorders alert us of a society in which interpersonal relationships are suffocating. According to this view, psychosis is more of a vision than a confused malfunction of the brain. It is a healthy reaction to a sickening environment (such a conception of mental illness was also advanced in Jurek’s article for this month’s issue).
From this point of view, it follows that we can unravel certain negative and debilitating aspects of our society if we can adequately describe what ails those who have gone mad. In a sense, those with mental problems can pinpoint the weaknesses and evils of the society in which they live.
Let us consider, for instance, the case of a mental illness that has, by and large, disappeared by now. An illness that has prevailed within a certain time frame and geographical area is called a transient mental illness. Such a type of madness is not some mental malfunction that comes and goes in this or that patient. It is a type of madness that exists only at certain times and places.
In Mad Travellers, the philosopher of science Ian Hacking chronicles the story of the transient mental illness called fugue. It began one morning in July 1887, when a young man arrived crying in a ward in the ancient Bordeaux hospital of Saint-André. His name was Albert Dadas. He was 26 years old, and the first fugueur. Albert became notorious for his extraordinary expeditions to Algeria, Moscow, Constantinople and other places.
While those expeditions are interesting in their own right, there was something else remarkable about them; they were made, in a certain sense, unconsciously. Albert traveled obsessively, as if under a spell. While he traveled, he often did not carry identity papers. Indeed, he did not know who he was or why he traveled, and he only knew where he was going next. When he arrived at a certain location, he had little recollection of where he had been. It was only under hypnosis that Albert could recall lost weekends or even years.
As word about his travels spread, Albert initiated a small epidemic of compulsive, mad voyagers. At first, hysterical fugue was diagnosed only in Bordeaux. Soon, however, it spread to Paris. Later, people all around France were found who supposedly suffered from this mental disease. It subsequently spread to Germany, too.
It is interesting to note, however, that people have been making strange and unexpected trips – often in states of obscured consciousness – for a long time. Only in 1887, when the young medical student Philippe Tissié described it in his thesis, did it arise as a specific, diagnosable type of insanity. Why did the identification of this type of mental illness happen to take place specifically during the end of the 19th century in France? Why did it spread so rapidly? And, perhaps equally important: why did the phenomenon fade away after a while? The last conference on fugue took place in Nantes, 1909. Between 1887 and 1909 fugue was a significant, if transient, mental illness. And then it was no more.
To be able to grapple with these questions, we must delve into Hacking’s notion of the so-called ecological niche. It is a metaphor for a framework that allows us to understand why certain types of mental illness and some arrangements of symptoms proliferate at some times and places, while they are absent in others. The ecological niche is a concatenation of a large number of diverse types of elements – including social factors, biological origins of the patient, and medical viewpoints – in which some particular types of illness can thrive. We call these components vectors.
Please note that just because a mental disease is transient, it does not mean it is not “real.” It is never merely a social construct. These people genuinely suffered. There are two possibilities for the transient aspect of the disease. First, it could merely mean that the symptoms of the disease are later subsumed within other mental illnesses, rendering the diagnosis of the old disease impossible. On a related note, our ideas about what constitutes a mental illness change over time. Homosexuality used to be typified as a mental disease, but not anymore.
Second, it could mean that the vectors supporting the niche within which it thrives at some point erode or even disappear. This makes the disease possibly less prevalent, or its symptoms less severe. Societal influences can amplify or diminish the severity of mental diseases that have biological origins, or even account for their existence.
In the case of fugue, its ecological niche consists of four principal vectors: cultural polarity, release, observability, and medical taxonomy. Let us examine the first two of these vectors. By cultural polarity, Hacking means that fugue fitted between two important social phenomena in fin de siècle France: romantic tourism and criminal vagrancy. The second half of the 19th century was, among other things, the era of popular tourism. It was not limited anymore to the highly affluent aristocrats. With the advent of a widespread railway network across Europe, travel agencies, and efficient, steam-powered trains, tourism became available to the masses.
However, Albert and most other fuguers were not part of the middle class. They were members of the working poor. As such, they were not able to take part in touristic activities like their wealthier contemporaries. Fugue literally provided a way out. It allowed relatively poor men (for they were almost always male) to escape and see the world.
While tourism was the virtuous side of travel, its polar cultural opposite was vagrancy. Vagrancy was seen through the lens of France’s degeneracy program. This was the set of beliefs that identified the decline of France compared to Britain and Germany, and it was exacerbated by France’s loss of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and massive unemployment during the Belle Époque. It was connected with low birth rates, suicide, prostitution, homosexuality, and insanity.
To the French people in the 1880s, the vagrant signified racial degeneracy, no reproduction, or reproduction of those very features that the French race ought to get rid of. Thus, tramps came to be seen as a critical social problem. In 1885, a fierce set of anti-vagrancy laws was passed. Vagrants were degenerates and should be medicalized.
In this regard, it is easy to see that many fugueurs came to be seen as vagrants. They were often seized by the police, who claimed they had found yet another antisocial vagabond. However, psychotherapists insisted fugueurs were afflicted by a very real mental affliction and should be treated as such. Thus fugue became part of a power struggle between medical men on the one hand and police on the other. The doctors relieved those with fugue from their individual responsibilities, for their behavior resulted from mental illness.
Therefore, fugue thrived between two cultural opposites. On the one hand, fugue became a pathological variant of tourism for those who could not afford more customary ways of travel. It provided men with a kind of release from their duties and boring lives back home. On the other, fugue hovered just above crime. Those afflicted escaped harsh penalties for vagrancy, for a type of insanity they could not control that caused their behavior. Those in the medical establishment protected the status of fugue as a form of madness, thereby ensuring its legitimacy.
One of the reasons fugue did not continue to be a significant mental disease was the gradual disappearance of the vagrancy scare and its corresponding overarching degeneracy program. Furthermore, tourism itself became more and more entrenched in French society. Its novelty had worn off. Thus, two important vectors of the ecological niche for fugue disappeared. Finally, the definition and the symptoms of hysterical fugue were subsumed within a new framework of mental illnesses. By 1990s criteria, some of those old fugueurs probably suffered from head injuries, some from temporal lobe epilepsy, and some from a new disease called dissociative fugue.
We will not go into the details of the process by means of which fugue gradually died out. For our discussion of the topic, it suffices to note that a certain ecological niche allowed fugue to thrive in a certain time and place. When the niche disappeared, so did the transitory mental illness as a species within it. We might wonder what kind of ecological niche(s) we can observe nowadays, allowing contemporary types of insanity to flourish in our society.
The cultural polarity vector of the ecological niche for fugue represents the basic premise of psychoanalysis:; mental illness concerns the collision of desire and its prohibition. The working poor in 19th century France longed for fantastic journeys, but they were inhibited by the duties they had to fulfill for their families, and by limited financial means. They found their release in quasi-criminal, mad travel.
This conflict between desire and its prohibition concerns the demands of society that go against the desires of the individual. What kinds of societal demands are nowadays imposed on us? In On the new discontents of civilization, the philosopher and psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe observes that we currently live in a so-called neoliberal meritocracy.
Neoliberalism refers to the idea that every market regulates itself, and should, therefore, be steered as little as possible, in order for everyone to get equal opportunities. While this may sound like an admirable arrangement, the model often results in very negative consequences for people in places where it is implemented. In a meritocracy, everyone is responsible for his or her own success, and for his or her own failure. It propels the myth of the self-made man.
The Dutch government adopts this line of reasoning. They even radically extend it to domains vastly beyond the reach of the economic sphere. People are held accountable not only for their own welfare (resulting in enormous economic disparities), but also for the wellbeing of nature, the environment and the dangerous effects of climate change. Interestingly enough, the government often turns a blind eye to polluting companies. People and companies are not held to the same standards.
In the 1990s, the Dutch government’s policies were redolent of neoliberal ideology. Within that context, the governmental organization Postbus 51 formulated the slogan, “Een beter milieu begint bij jezelf” (A better environment starts with yourself). On the surface, it is a rather innocent statement, encouraging people to be more environmentally aware. However, it is an insidious psychological trick, emphasizing our individual responsibilities with regards to climate change.
In the wake of carbon-induced rising temperatures, we are obliged to behave as formidable, responsible model citizens. We must live frugally, emitting as little greenhouse gasses as possible. We must turn off the lights, drive as little as possible, and re-use our plastic bags. We are obliged to insulate our houses, go vegan, and replace our gas stoves with their electrical counterparts.
Yet at the same time, we must behave as frantic consumers, supporting the companies that act as pillars of the neoliberal economy. It is paramount we buy biological eggs, fair-trade chocolate, and recyclable clothes without animal fur. We are encouraged to buy plane tickets, but should also pay a carbon tax for the resulting emissions. Living green should be our number one priority, never mind the prohibitive costs and the difficulties it imposes on our lives.
Both of these contradictory lines of thinking emphasize the same message, if disastrous climatic consequences unfold, you are to blame. We, as individual citizens, are held accountable for the rising sea levels and massive ecological devastation. The government’s slogan capitalizes on our feelings of guilt and shame. As individualized people, we all carry it on our own. Individuality has led to less solidarity. This makes it even harder to bear.
It is perhaps not surprising that in such a social climate, new transient mental illnesses arise. In the Tegenlicht episode “Worsteling van de Groenmens“(Struggle of the Groenmens), people are shown to be struggling with their perceived individual responsibilities to save the world from climate catastrophes. One poignant example is Babette Porcelijn. At one point during the documentary, she confesses that she even had suicidal thoughts. After all, it would be best for the climate if one were not alive anymore. If you kill yourself, you cannot cause the environment and the climate any more harm.
This extreme compulsion to alleviate the harmful consequences of individual emissions on the climate and the environment was coined “ecorexia”. I believe this neologism hits the nail on the head. It is an allusion to the clothing industry that sets unrealistic beauty standards for women around the world. This industry thereby causes widespread insecurity among women, and in severe cases it results in anorexia. Both anorexia and ecorexia are examples of symptoms of greater societal problems.
Akin to the clothing industry, the Dutch government and the neoliberal meritocracy it embraces provide the base for the ecological niche in which ecorexia can proliferate. Oddly enough, psychologists and medical experts have not systematically studied it yet despite multiple cases already being reported (here, here, and here). I think it is only a matter of time before the diagnosis of this mental ailment will become endemic to Western culture.
As we have seen from our discussion of fugue, however, mental illnesses can be transient. Ecorexia, too, could be a case of such a disease. Just as it arrived within a certain ecological niche, it could be one day be eliminated, too. The niche counts the neoliberal meritocracy, government propaganda, and a highly politicized and heated debate about climate change among its vectors.
Babette Porcelijn is our modern-day Albert Dadas. From her we have learned that our current approach to climate change mitigation is harmful to regular people, possibly even lethal. We ought to change our society in such a way that we can remove the vectors supporting the niche for ecorexia. First and foremost, we should replace the neoliberal meritocracy with a more humane societal system. A system in which cooperation, solidarity, and interdependency are stressed. This will allow for the sharing of the burden of responsibility.
Furthermore, the focus of responsibility for climate change should be transferred from citizens to large corporations. People’s behavior is not the main cause of climate change. Between 1751 and 2010, 63% of all global industrial gas emissions came from just 90 companies. In the Netherlands, households pay almost two-thirds of environmental taxes, while they emit only one-fifth of the total amount of carbon dioxide. It is not the people, but the large companies that are largely to blame. The government should hold them responsible and tax them accordingly.
Hopefully, this will alleviate Babette’s symptoms, and minimize the possibility of other people struggling with them in the future.
Written by Jessica Van Horssen
“If you judge a fish on its ability to climb, it will spend its whole life believing it is an idiot.”
As a mother I can now see that by the age of 2 a child’s temperament and personality starts to show. I believe that when a child is born into this world, he or she comes with a certain temperament, a blueprint of potential. I believe that very much like a plant, a human being needs the right kind of nourishment to flourish. Just like plants, no two humans are the same. While a cactus doesn’t need much water, a tropical plant needs lots of water to thrive. Similarly, different types of humans need different types of nourishment in terms of friends, surroundings, and activities. Some humans are extroverts, some introverts, and some ambiverts. If the right circumstances are not provided for a human being, or trauma happens without enough time for recovery, mental illness can develop. On this issue, the nature-nurture debate has been going on for years and the big question is: Are we really born with mental illnesses or are they made?
After years of observation and work as a social worker, along with my personal experience of mental illness, I have come to believe that most “mental illnesses” are made (with the exception of spiritual awakenings that seem to happen in some people who go through depression or a burnout).
I’ve met this woman, now in her thirties. She is articulate, beautiful, and if you look into her eyes you see a bright sparkle, a lust for life. She also has a dark side. She stopped believing in herself. She is very insecure. While she has a very dominant personality, her dark side prevents her from fully coming into blossom. She has no control over this dark side (yet) as it is still very much in her subconscious, carefully protected by a huge fear. She knows it, she sees it, but the fear of really stepping into her power prevents her from becoming all that she can be. Maybe she is a late bloomer? Maybe she is deeply hurt? I think it’s the latter.
Go back in time, say around 30 years ago. The girl was born into a family with parents who suffered from childhood abuse. Because of their abusive upbringing, the parents developed disorders themselves, such as OCD and PTSD. However, they never spoke of such a thing, not to each other nor to anyone else. It was all swept under the rug. So imagine this girl, sensitive and bright, born into an environment of shame and silence. She could sense what was going on, and could even express it to her parents, but was shamed for voicing the pain that was hidden in her family; even blamed for it.
Being intuitive and smart, she could see and feel things that others would not notice. Now, take this gifted child into a school system that wasn’t ready for kids like her. Unlike the numerous children being labeled as having ADHD today, labeling was a lot less specific back then. Kids were just labeled as a “problem child” or “difficult”, especially when the child happened to be a female. Additionally, the school this girl went to was in a poor neighborhood. A neighborhood where intellect wasn’t valued very much. So although she was very smart, her school failed to recognize it. Her mother did, but no one believed her. At the time, this school was run by people who had positions but no real passion for teaching. They were the kind of people who used their power to make themselves feel better, not for the sake of teaching children or helping them grow. They were just in it for the paycheck and wanted children to follow their orders instead of encouraging them to thrive. So instead of getting extra work at school, the girl was told to clean closets.
This girl was not the kind of girl who would shut up and listen to someone saying: “Because I say so”. This girl happened to be a whistleblower, saying out loud what she saw and perceived. We all know what happens with whistleblowers though – they get punished. Instead, they deserve a stage, since they are among the only people courageous enough to stand up against injustice.
So, this girl has been going through years and years of punishment and shaming, while also growing up in a culture of bullying (in her school). She found out very quickly that she’d better adapt to survive. So, she changed herself to fit in.
By the time she reached puberty, she lost the core of her being. She became depressed because she felt like an alien. She felt like a kid who was forced into an adult world she wasn’t ready for. The only thing she knew she could do well was studying, so she studied hard for good grades. But emotionally, she didn’t feel connected with her classmates. Because she was both troubled at home and in school she slowly sank deeper into a depression. She didn’t know who she was anymore and started hating herself. Why couldn’t she just be normal? Why couldn’t she just fit in? Why was she feeling the way she felt? Where did it all come from? She channeled all her self-loathing into cutting herself.
That was the only way she could cope, carefully hiding it from everyone by wearing long sleeves all the time. Insecure and unable to proceed, she discovered marijuana. It brought temporary relief. So much relief that she started missing school for it; she got kicked out of high school by the time she was 16, and out of her home a year later. Did she end up in a better environment? Yes and no. She got the freedom she wanted, but got trapped in an abusive relationship full of violence and drugs, experiencing more mistreatment on top of what she already went through in her childhood.
This girl is now a fully-grown woman. A woman who has been diagnosed with about three different types of mental illnesses. A woman who has undergone extensive therapy but never got to the bottom of her dark side. A woman who doesn’t know how to relax or feel rested, as if being haunted by something. A woman who has considered killing herself like so many of her friends.
Mental illness, while being extensively researched, is still a bit of a black box. The nature-nurture debate is an ongoing debate that doesn’t seem to have a clear cut answer to the question of how mental illnesses come to exist. I know it’s a very individual process and not one person is the same. Furthermore, there are many biological processes that can play a role in the development of mental illness, as well as things like (teenage) substance abuse that can changes one’s brain chemistry. But prolonged physical and/or mental abuse can do that too. The problem is that the label of mental illness has too much stigma to it. When people think of a person with a borderline personality disorder, they think of a crazy person, as if that person has done something wrong, while most of the time that person has been a victim of childhood abuse in some way.
So I’d like to advocate to drop the label or call an illness by its proper name such as “childhood abuse disorder”, or “lack of proper nourishment”. This will help relieve people of the stigma that comes with a disorder and also provide more room for growth. Some famous people have opened up in the last years about their “mental illnesses”, such as Prince Harry, The Rock, Trevor Noah, Jim Carrey and many others, so it’s clear that with the right kind of nourishment and circumstances, people with a history of abuse can flourish. Let’s start to fix the environment too instead of just focusing on changing the individual.
Change must go beyond what one person is capable of. Let’s, for starters, stop stigmatizing people with a so-called “disorder”. Let’s change the mental health care system so that proper treatment and help becomes available in all layers of society. Let’s focus less on diagnoses but more on what an individual needs to thrive. And, foremost, let’s look each other in the eye and admit that we are all “disordered” in some way, say something that would make the whole thing much lighter and less alienating. We are all social creatures and, as much as individualism has given us freedom, we still need each other too. Excluding or shaming people is not helpful and we all deserve to flourish as human beings – disordered or not. Let’s create a society that promotes healing for all its inhabitants, because when a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix its environment, not the flower.
Written by Tuisku “Snow” Kolu
Creativity can be a kind of madness, taking over your motive and drive whenever or wherever it pleases. This can be problematic when you’re on the road and have limited supplies to express yourself. But the Creative needs to be fed. Limited supplies doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the Creative, but rather reforms its drive to find a way to express itself. Hence you find yourself painting with a messy brush that is falling apart onto a piece of bark ripped from a tree. For now, your mind can be still from the need to create, but not for long.
Written by Rachel Plett
Maslow’s Hierarchy is a triangle-shaped theory of psychological health. It’s probably popped up at least once in your feed, posted by one of your self-help guru friends. It starts with clean water and enough sleep, and ends with being the best you can be and finally founding that iguana cafe you’ve always dreamed about starting. You know, the one where folks can get a good latte and cuddle with big lizards at the same time. What’s less-known is that later in life Maslow added another tier to his self-help pyramid called self-transcendence. Props to Abe for adding the dimension of caring for others; but in asserting that caring for others comes after, or is morally superior to, caring for and discovering yourself, the man made a mistake. By defining self-actualization as a precursor to self-transcendence, Maslow reveals the ways in which his thinking is touched by his era and gender. All this would be NBD if this categorical error was confined to one humanist psychologist, however, this particular bias extends beyond psychology into our social, governmental and monetary systems, where it has had a profound impact on the ways in which we organize societies, governments, and markets – that is where things begin to get problematic.
Before getting into the history and economics, let’s take a look at the logic and assumptions behind putting self-transcendence at the top of the pyramid. Self-actualization is defined, simply, as the discovery and fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities. It is essentially exploring and understanding what you’re good at and who you’re capable of being. Self-transcendence is doing something for the sake of someone else, or because of a moral/ideological stance; most moral/ideological stances are beliefs rooted in how one should treat “others.” There’s nothing in the definition of self-actualization that would make it a defacto precursor to self-transcendence. If anything, self-transcendence reads best as a subcategory of self-actualization; a good way to discover your talents and potential.
The issue with thinking about self-actualization as we currently do is that it’s regularly reinterpreted as self-interest – interest in one’s self, personal advantages, growth, and improvement. However, knowing yourself and looking out for yourself are not the same thing. Knowing yourself (self-actualization) is the goal; focusing on yourself (self-interest) and sharing with others (self-transcendence) are the parallel means of achieving that goal. In reality, everything we know about ourselves stems from our reflections on the other’s reactions to what we do. In the words of the excellent hippy Alan Watts, “Self and other define each other mutually.”
On an individual level, putting self-transcendence at the top implicitly suggests that meaning and the personal growth, joy, and satisfaction that comes with caring for others should be postponed until after one has hurdled a long (often growing) list of self-interested goal posts. This sets up a toxic “I can’t be good until I’m good enough” cycle.
It also contributes to a misalignment of self-interest and self-transcendence within society – where one is imperative and the other is impossible. The attainability of self-transcendence within society – more often referred to as altruism – is an ongoing debate that, all to often, elevates altruism to an unrealistic, unrealizable “God status” that one can’t, and shouldn’t be held accountable to. What is worse, some scoff at the whole idea as being a religious fantasy, a psychological balm devised to make this “dog eat dog” world bearable. By making altruism appear as something so unattainable or unreal, we say to each other that the best you can be is Kanye, while dismissing the path to becoming Mother Teresa, Ghandi, or MLK Jr. as impossible. So we reward absorption, enrichment, and dominance with our time, money, and attention, and wring our hands together in bewilderment, wondering why, with all this wealth, the world isn’t getting better faster.
One (if not the biggest) hindrance to this envisioned better world is the fact that we – western, politically democratic and economically liberal societies – have institutionalized the subordination of self-transcendence (caring) in relation to self-interest by relying, almost exclusively, on tax dollars and donations to fund the work and economics of caring. This institutional arrangement creates a perverse incentive system that puts economic quotas on caring and turns self-transcendence into a luxury experience reserved for the well-off, rather than presenting it as an inborn motivation that each of us should be rewarded for acting upon. The alliance of market capitalism and philanthropy is the institutionalization of the “do good after you’ve done well” relationship discussed earlier, and while the desire to recycle one’s excess should be lauded, there are a few issues that emerge from this arrangement. One of the most obvious being high net worth individuals, removed as they are from need and the social issues they aim to impact, generally lack the knowledge and on the ground insight to effectively impact the problems they aim to solve. Another issue is the fragmentation of the capital market that funds the caring economy. According to the SSIR, $390 billion in philanthropic donations are made annually, plus many hundreds of billions in government grants and contracts. However, because those contributions come from hundreds of different foundations, faith organizations, as well as state and federal governments, they create a capital market that is inherently volatile and subject to the whims and pressures of those with political and economic power, rather than being responsive to the needs and demands of the issues and communities actually being targeted. Finally, by setting up a system where the money for care work comes from donations or tax dollars, the system ensures that self-transcendent activities and enterprises have to survive on a trickle of the economic rewards generated by the provision economy, our self-interested endeavours, rather than growing organically to meet our demand for a better world.
If self-interest and self-transcendence are companion paths to self-actualization, and provision and caring are dual requirements for our health and wellbeing, how have we made it to 2018 with an efficient economic system for one and a proverbial cash pinata for the other? Part of the answer is the rise in monogamy and the domestication and disenfranchisement of women. This shift in norms and the social contract coincided with the rise of agriculture and private land ownership. Compared to the 300,000 years of humankind, monogamy is a relatively new social innovation. Current research suggests that monogamy did not emerge as a normative behavior until around 12,000 years ago; the same time society transitioned from hunter-gatherer tribes to agrarian settlements. With this transition came growing obsession with the concept of property and women got folded into this narrative. With few exceptions, these emerging agrarian societies began to treat both women and land like assets; units of productivity traded among families rather than independent citizens. As financial and governing institutions began to crystallize, women were famously excluded from the conversation; they were denied the rights to representation, vote, and own property. Furthermore, as the delegation of the of society’s three fundamental activities – protection, provision, and caring – formalized, women’s biology predisposed them to become the primary participants in the caring economy. The benefits and injustices of this arrangement are hotly debated and not the focus of this article (many others have covered this debate and done it better). The focus of this article is the impact this arrangement has had on the evolution of our economic systems and financial institutions; what we’ve gotten right and what we’ve neglected to build in.
Despite what the ideologues would have you believe, capitalism is not a natural order. It’s a social system that has evolved over thousands of years. From the first green revolution to the current data disruption, it has been enabled and renegotiated with every productivity evolution. Capitalism is a cultural system rooted in the need for individuals and investors to turn a profit. This system orchestrates a positive feedback loop where greater efficiency means more productivity (more stuff), lower prices, more demand, more money, and ultimately greater efficiency again. By design, capitalism rewards provision and motivates self-interest. It’s the best system we have for incentivizing increases in efficiency and productivity that make it possible to provide a growing variety of better quality products and services to global markets. This excess doesn’t always make it to where it’s needed, but it is produced and distributed at peak efficiency. This efficiency is a testament to the success of capitalism as a social system.
If all we required is provision to be healthy and happy, then capitalism is the only economic system we would ever need. For a growing majority, however, wellbeing no longer hinges on provision. Increasingly, our individual and collective happiness hinges on the opportunity we have to hope, find meaning, and forge durable connections; all outcomes that are tied to caring and self-transcendence. That we are drowning in an overabundance of products and options while fretting about the fraying edges of our social fabric, and struggling with loneliness, existential anxiety, and growing tribal animosity is a testament to the fact that uses for capitalism are limited to efficiency and provision and it is failing when it comes to incentivising and rewarding prosocial outcomes that are continually growing in demand.
Social liberals blame this unraveling on social media, and social conservatives point to the decline of family values, but everyone agrees that when both adults in a home “work”, time pressure and stress increase. But, there it is, in that word, “work.” We don’t see self-transcendence as a viable economic motivator. We don’t see care-work as work. We definitely don’t treat caregiving professions like good jobs and the reason for that is simple. The major formal institution that governs exchanges of the care economy’s value is marriage. In this system women and the value generated by the work they do, are traded as an asset between father and groom. But people aren’t assets, and being a care-worker should not economically shackle one person to another, nor should the economy that incentivizes this kind of work be confined by the profit motives of the provision economy and/or the political jockeying of political and religious leaders. Caring needs its own economy, one that can grow or shrink with demand; one that can take into consideration the idiosyncrasies of care-work that prohibit it from fitting comfortably into the dynamics of capitalism.
Traditionally, women have done most of the of the work in the care economy: caring for children; caring for the sick and aging, organizing communities, fortifying social safety nets and norms, and investing in education. In some cultures, if the productivity of one woman wasn’t enough you got another wife – in others, you bought a slave. Either way, the development of socioeconomic contracts that can efficiently broker the exchange of value within the care economy have been stunted by the fact that, for most of our history, care workers have been treated and traded like property. Even when institutions have stepped in, those institutions have been devoid of female leadership. Religious organizations like the Catholic Church were among the first to bring a formal structure beyond matrimony to the care economy; while nuns were the primary purveyors of care, women were barred from priesthood and therefore from the design process of one of the first civil society institutions. The same is true for government. At the time governments began establishing social programs women didn’t even have the vote, let alone equal representation in civil society and government. So, while the policies and norms were laid down for the system we have now, almost none of the primary actors informed or deliberated on the process. Man to man exclusion has led to demonstration, revolt, revolution, and war, and while this may have been disruptive and bloody, it has driven market economics of the provision economy to evolve in ways that the economics of the care economy have not.
The communist/capitalist debate is hack. Today, the majority of countries have mixed market economies – a mixture of command (government controlled) and market (privately held) structures. However, as we discussed earlier, the care economy is mostly a command economy with limited accountability to end consumers. There are other and better answers to the question of: “how do we incentivize self-transcendence and economically reward the work of caring?” (other than through taxes and tithing). Hope, generosity, empathy, idealism, love… These are all powerful, self-transcendent motivators. The fact that we haven’t designed an efficient system to tap into and empower them is proof of the limited amount of innovation and insight that comes from excluding more than half the population – the half tasked with self-transcendent work – from the design process; not proof that the motivation is not genuine or actionable. Self-transcendence is only second to self-interest because our founding fathers and famous philosophers wrote it to be so, while their wives were busy transcending themselves every day in caring for their families, friends, and community.
Give it a little time. Us ladies are just getting to the table.
Presentation by Selçuk Balamir, Mathieu Grosche and Shabnam Zeraati
Wars have always caused major destruction and loss. But they have many positive externalities as well. We would not have tin cans if Napoleon had not urged his engineers to invent a way to conserve food. We would not have computers, if the Germans had not wanted to conquer the world. And even the internet was invented by the Pentagon.
So let’s face it: wars are here to stay. It is quite unrealistic to anticipate the end of wars in the 21st century. At the same time however, it is equally impossible to ignore the environmental challenges in front of us: if we expect to keep on fighting throughout this century, we cannot just sit and do nothing about the climate crisis, deforestation, disappearing species and so on.
Our sustainable military development company GreenWar is an innovative brand adopting a unique strategic position in the industry. We see ourselves at the crossroads of arms manufacturing and eco-design. We can help you make environmentally-friendly, energy-conserving, carbon-neutral, ecological conflicts.
But of course this does not mean the end of casualties. Quite the opposite actually! At GreenWar, we see well beyond the simple human criteria. We are in a global ecosystem where each and every being contributes to the cycle of life, where “human loss” equals “unleashing springtime”. Death should not be perceived as a loss, but as an essential part of natural cycles. Cradle-to-grave and all that.
For us “sustainability” means to satisfy the need of the present generation to wage wars, without compromising the need of future generations to wage theirs. At GreenWar, ecology is a war that never ends.
Here is our flagship product. Bullet for the Earth is made out of eco-friendly materials and it contains seeds that grow after use. Thus every shot gives a chance to make a tree grow. Would soldiers not be more motivated, if ammunition contained rare plant seeds? After all, they would contribute actively to the cycle of life. Enemies could become trees, a true benefit for all.
Many scenarios are possible; lost bullets, bodies left in battlefields and mass graves might all potentially give life to whole forests. An offshoot can also be sent to the soldier’s family along with his ID tag, making it possible to plant it in one’s garden, keeping the memory alive for generations. The seeds contained in the bullet are of different species. Hence a large variety of forests will take place after every war.
Next year we are launching our new product: seed bombs. Much more effective than individual bullets. Drop one and let a thousand flowers blossom!
We run a partnership programme with Monsanto, famous for their terminator seeds, to develop genetically modified seeds specially designed for particular conflict zones. India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine, the Balkans… you name it. We make it.
We are also pleased to have worked with the Obama administration, which obviously did not impede the US war efforts, but nonetheless opted for more environmentally-friendly alternatives. I watched Mr. President himself give a little gesture towards Mother Nature: a fighter jet that runs on biofuels. Named the Green Hornet, it was Launched on Earth Day.
Fortunately, the US is not the only one seeking solutions! A few years ago, we were invited to this charming event at the European Parliament, the best place in the universe. It was such a timely initiative, considering that 2010 was the year of biodiversity.
However, I must admit that I was utterly disappointed when we were told that we should not expect fancy new weapons. Instead, the panelists spoke about awareness-raising campaigns reminding soldiers to switch off the light before leaving the room. If European soldiers are getting killed during convoys transporting bad, unsustainable diesel fuel to military bases, it is because of the unsustainable soldiers that forget to turn off the lights. Henceforth, the panelists agreed on the need to invest in renewables.
The world is a pretty dangerous place, but it doesn’t have to be this way anymore. We strongly believe that wars of the third millennium can be ecological, humanistic and poetical. Men should have no reluctance about going to war, they should have a good reason: ecology. Because the Earth is worth the fight!
Written by Tuisku ‘Snow’ Kolu
The world is more interconnected than ever before, and while most still have some sense of home that is tied to a singular location – a family home, a city, a nation – this growing interconnectedness has created new groups and waves of people whose idea of home can be more convoluted.
Expatriate communities have been growing at an exponential level in recent years, leading to a new phenomenon of home identity. In 2017 there were an estimated 258 million people living outside their nation of origin according to UN statistics, compared to the 154 million in 1990. This is more than three and a half times larger than the population of the United Kingdom and about half the population size of the EU. While it is accurate that many of those living abroad may still have a sense of home tied to their origin nation, there is one particular group resulting from such migration trends that illustrate how the changing nature of global society has altered the concept of home – Third Culture Kids (TCKs).
TCKs are individuals who spent some or all of their formative years in one or more countries outside their parents’ home country. The name comes from the idea that such a child would have three cultures – their parent’s native culture, the culture of the country they partially grew up in, and finally a combination of the two. This combination is a mixed identity that combines their parents’ culture and the culture(s) they grew up in. Many who feel an affinity with this definition have lived in several different nations by the time they are adults, allowing their cultural identity to include ideals and values of different origins. TCKs can develop into adults with a sense of global citizenship, belonging everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Many TCKs can find the traditional concept of home with its ties to a location unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable. TCKs often experience discomfort with their identity on return to their nation of origin. Some psychologists discuss this as ‘cultural homelessness’, as many TCKs find it difficult to associate with a singular culture. There is a sense of otherness that develops from this. Personally, I found returning to my native country to be more confusing and alienating than when moving somewhere unfamiliar. To an extent, this often comes from an experience of ‘otherness,’ feeling foreign and disconnected. While I still felt some affinity with certain cultural elements, much was at odds with my identity. As such for many TCKs the concept of a singular location as a home can be inconceivable. There is an abundant amount of memes online attempting to put words to this experience – from the question ‘where are you from?’ setting off a full-blown identity crisis, to the confusing attempts at explaining why your accent seems to fluctuate between 3 or 4 different vocations.
However, much of this discomfort may come from the pressure to feel an affinity with the traditional concept of home. In a childhood where your head is cracked open beyond this notion – allowing the creation of an identity which attempts to compile an understanding and relationship to completely different sets of histories and peoples – this concept of home has to be explored in a different way. Because, once it is cracked, returning to a familiar national identity is easier said than done.
When releasing the concept of home from nationality, one can begin to assess the less tangible elements associated with it. This can be explored in how we discuss home. The idiom “in the comforts of one’s own home” suggests that people tend to associate home with a feeling of comfort; of familiarity. Moreover the saying “home is where the heart is” suggests a need for loved ones and community. I would also argue that this ties in a sense with our traditional understanding of home being tied to a nation, as home appears to be seeking the feeling of being understood.
Attempting to understand comfort and familiarity in relation to the life of a TCK can feel inherently flawed. There is not a lot of stability/consistency in the life of a TCK due to the often changing environment. However, life is change. Change is now one of the most familiar and comfortable feelings I experience in adulthood. This feeling of excitement for the unknown and the approaching change is wonderful. Arguably many TCKs are accustomed to change, understand it better than most, and are generally considered highly effective at assimilating to new situations and cultures. Hence many of us feel most comfortable in a migrating lifestyle and continue to do so into adulthood. As such, change is home because it feels consistent due to its inherently inconsistent nature.
By understanding home in relation to community and loved ones, constant movement can once again feel at odds with such a development. As I discussed earlier, TCKs can find a considerable feeling of foreignness in relation to the country of their origin. Studies show that TCKs are often quick at developing friendships and creating a community in new surroundings, due to their ability to assimilate. As such much of the feeling of a sense of belonging can come from these ties with friends and family. However, I would argue that there is a further level understanding of your friends and community that is needed to feel ‘home’. Beyond your own assimilation, it is the feeling that someone else fully understands your identity. Arguably many TCKs struggle to find this as adults due to a migrating lifestyle and being surrounded by those who identify closely with nationality.
To an extent, TCKs have found new ways of achieving this with the help of technology and increasingly cheaper travel. TCKs have developed a considerable web presence, allowing individuals with similar childhoods to come together online and share their common experience. This includes discussion and advice forums, blogs, and a heavily dedicated meme culture. As such, there is a sense of a community of people who can come together due to a common set of TCK experiences. Occasionally you also get the joy of running into another TCK in real life and connect over the similarities in lifestyle. As such I would argue there is a similar bond between TCKs as there are between those that derive their sense of home from nationality. This is due to both groups sharing a common set of experiences. Cheap travel and social media also allow the TCKs of today to stay better connected to their friends and family.
I have been incredibly fortunate, meeting marvelous people throughout my travels that have given me a sense of community and understanding over time that has succeeded to allow a sense of home.
With regard to the changing nature of our society, it may be time to reassess our traditional conception of ‘home’. An exploration of the ideas related to home can allow those that may not seem as connected to feel more comfortable with their sense of identity, and less lost within such a concept. In taking time to reassess seemingly uncomplicated ideas such as ‘home’ in light of the changing nature of society, it may allow us to better understand and feel comfortable in this change. Although at first, it can feel at odds with what we traditionally consider home, it is arguably more similar than we may give it credit, in its seeking of comfort and community. There is some power in the ability to find home beyond a single nation, in seeking it in the large scale of fluidity of the modern global society. Being comfortable with such an identity can allow an exploration of ideas from several different perspectives – some call it a “three-dimensional” worldview.
Written by Max Muller
Although I have never been to an Alicia Keys concert, I imagine it must go something like this: first you excitedly wait in line, eagerly waiting for the moment you’re allowed to enter the sold-out stadium. After you and your friends have found your seats, you share some food and thoughts on her latest album. Then, the lights fade. The buzzing noise of chatting people immediately follows suit. A few seconds later, a roar from the crowd breaks the silence: she has arrived. You sing and dance your heart out to her classics, including “If I Ain’t Got You” and “No one”. You get a sore throat and you’re exhausted from the intense experience. And yet… something is missing. Until you realize she has saved her best song for the finale: “Empire State of Mind (Part II)”:
“Baby, I’m from…
New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothing you can’t do”
You finally find closure, as she has put the cherry on the cake.
Well, at least that’s how I imagine the experience. To me, that’s her best song. Her beautiful voice and talented piano playing notwithstanding, there is another element of the song that appeals to me. It’s the lyrics: they’re clever. The comparison of New York with a “concrete jungle” strikes me as particularly insightful.
Transformations of Meaning
In 1980, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote their now seminal book Metaphors We Live By. Until their work, the role of metaphors in philosophy and linguistics had only been deemed of peripheral interest. Lakoff and Johnson made huge swathes of people realize that metaphors are not just stylistic devices to spice up a mediocre novel. They showed, on the contrary, that they’re essential ingredients for people to concoct an overarching view of reality. In other words: people largely understand the world through metaphors.
Consider, for instance, the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This conception of arguments or discussions is deeply entrenched in our understanding of the concept. Our language betrays it. For us it is completely natural to say things like:
- Your claims are indefensible.
- His criticisms were right on target.
- I demolished his argument.
- I’ve never won an argument with him.
Chances are you haven’t even realized that we use ideas from wars to metaphorically speak about arguments. Moreover, Lakoff and Johnson point out that we do not just talk about arguments in terms of war. We actually win and lose arguments. The idea of war thus gives us an indispensable tool that allows us to understand the concept of having an argument.
Throughout their book (which I heartily recommend) they give countless other examples of metaphors we use to grapple with complex phenomena, including IDEAS ARE RESOURCES (“he ran out of ideas”, “don’t waste your thoughts on useless projects”), LOVE IS MADNESS (“I’m crazy about her”, “she drives me out of my mind”), and SEEING IS TOUCHING (“I can’t take my eyes off him”, “he wants everything within reach of his eyes”).
Perhaps that is why Alicia Keys’ lyrics stuck with me. Though I sympathize with her fondness for New York in particular, I think it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to view all cities as forests, or, within an even wider perspective, ecosystems.
Let’s confine ourselves a bit and stick with the metaphor CITIES ARE JUNGLES. Obviously, the buildings are trees in this regard. It is perhaps for this reason that the English expression “to climb up the stairs” exists. In addition, hints of organic perceptions of cities can be found in sentences like “these are the world’s fastest-growing cities” and “Beijing is expanding rapidly”.
The process of incoming and outgoing commuters bears some similarity to the rhythmic movements of lungs filling and releasing air. Just like photosynthesizing trees that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, the buildings of the city can breathe people in and out. Antonio Gaudi’s “La Sagrada Familia”, a church that seems to have grown organically from the ground upwards, epitomizes this conception of buildings.
Modern man has thus linguistically incorporated cities as a natural place to live, just like early humans discovered that they could find a safe haven away from the savanna and into the forest. The trees provided shelter against the rain and their height proved very useful for evading predators. The higher and bigger the tree, the more protection it could provide.
Joseph Campbell in his book The Power of Myth, points out that one can tell what’s informing society by what the tallest building is. In medieval towns, it was the cathedral. In an 18th century town, it was the political palace. Whereas in modern cities, the tallest buildings are the office buildings. We attach great significance to our centers of economic life. This is consistent with the cultural value “Bigger is Better”, which in turn is coherent with Lakoff and Johnson’s metaphor GOOD IS UP (“we hit a peak last year, but it’s been downhill ever since”, “he does high-quality work”).
Another metaphor that pervades our languages and myths is that of Mother Nature. Thus we undoubtedly attribute nature with feminine characteristics. It is a bringer of life. The ancient Greeks, who coined the term “metropolis”, highlighted the nurturing character of cities as forests in particular. The word is a combination of the words mḗtēr (mother) and pólis (city). From their perspective, the city lied at the very heart of the origins of life. Since then, cities have only become more and more important. Nowadays, more than half of the world’s population consists of urban dwellers.
If cities are so important to us, it is perhaps not so surprising that the CITIES ARE JUNGLES metaphor is not the only one that has entered our collective subconscious. Concepts that are at once important to us and difficult to understand require multiple ways of viewing them.
This is because when we focus on one aspect of the concept, we necessarily leave out or ignore many others. Take love, for instance. Not only do we take the above-mentioned metaphor LOVE IS MADNESS into consideration when we speak and think about it. We also have the metaphors LOVE IS A PATIENT (“they have a healthy marriage”) and LOVE IS MAGIC (“she cast her spell over me”) in our mental repertoire. These other metaphors enable us to look at and think about love from different angles.
Berlin is, like, a pretty cool guy
So where does that leave us with regards to our beloved cities? Again, Lakoff and Johnson provide us with a hint, as they explain that personification is a widely employed metaphorical device. We could say, for instance, “his theory explained to me how tidal movements work”. In this case, the theory of tidal movements is personified. We conceptualize the theory as a person, or perhaps more specifically as a teacher.
Cities, too, are seen as people. Each of them has its own, distinct personality. Evidence of this is found in the adjectives to describe them. We use words such as “charming”, “rebellious”, “enterprising”, and “endearing” to speak about them. In turn, they reveal how we think of these places.
Who wouldn’t agree with me that Amsterdam is a rebellious, free-spirited, slightly scruffy but also strong, experienced, and battle-hardened guy with a mustache? He’s a man of extremes: both a party-person and a sophisticated art-lover, at once a rich business man and a poor, single father with a kid.
On the other hand we have Chartres, the medieval French town with the beautiful cathedral. She is more of a charming woman with long, brown hair and an elegant ocher dress. Whereas Amsterdam is tall and heroic, Chartres is petite and endearing. If Amsterdam is bustling and vibrant, Chartres is calm and composed.
Of course, cities are often too big to be described as having monolithic personalities. Amsterdam, for instance, is composed of a mosaic of different neighborhoods, each with its own personality traits. Amsterdam Zuid is old, rich, cultured, and of high stature. But Noord is more like the Wild West: adventurous, enterprising and experimental.
Some neighborhoods harbor multiple personalities. As a result of the quick gentrification process, the Pijp is hip, upcoming, and expensive. Its trendy restaurants and cafés act as magnets to young urban professionals hailing from all over the country. But it used to be the true Amsterdammers who lived there.
A while ago, I saw the words “Alle yuppen de Pijp uit!” (“All yuppies – young, urban professionals – should leave the Pijp!”) sprayed on a wall on the Albert Cuyp market. Viewed from a metaphorical perspective, the words signified a clash of personalities to me. It was also an expression of frustration about what kind of personality or image the neighborhood ought to have.
I hope this description of metaphors gives you some insight in the way we perceive our cities, and that it can aid you as a conceptual tool for greater understanding of all sorts of things. Considering cities in particular, we might wonder where the branches of the trees are in cities, if they are jungles. And if they are people, how do they relate to one another? How do their personalities change? Are there any other metaphors that characterize cities? I leave these questions for you to answer.
Female rappers on the sexual dynamics of street culture
Written by Dorothy Carlos
“Instinct leads me to another flow
Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho
Trying to make a sister feel low
You know all of that gots to go”
In Queen Latifah’s Grammy award-winning song “U.N.I.T.Y.” off her 1993 album Black Reign, she speaks out against street harassment which is pervasive in cities. In the song, she responds to being groped by a man passing her on the street by punching him in the eye. Catcalling, as well as other acts of sexual harassment, are often criticized by female rappers from the late 1980s to now. In fact, the gendered experience of the city – a field of sexuation one has to navigate – has been one of the major themes of female rap since its beginning.
Everyone from Monie Love to Roxanne Shante has explored the mistreatment of women in the streets through their music. Salt N Peppa discusses the issue on the track “Tramp” from Hot, Cool, and Vicious, warning fellow women that if they respond to a catcalling they might become a “victim of circumstance” and be subject to harassment.
The cross-street proposition of the catcall communicates little else but a crude libidinal drive. What could possibly prompt someone to pursue a romantic/sexual interest via catcalls? One couldn’t possibly expect a positive reaction from yelling at a stranger on the street.
Female rappers articulate the fundamental antagonisms of social life, both gendered and class-based. They serve as a counter to what is going on in male hip-hop culture: a hypersexualization of women in order to gain social capital. Because of the way young men from impoverished neighborhoods, especially young black men, are forced to navigate a power structure which will be largely against them, they grasp at power by means of the social domination of others via catcalls and additional forms of sexual harassment.
Personally, I don’t know any rap songs about a love that isn’t broken or perverted. Slum Village’s “Fall in Love” from 2000 is exemplary of the way love is navigated in hip-hop music and in poor neighborhoods:
“Don’t sell yourself to fall in love”. Although one could argue that love in our society, in general, has been replaced with sexuality, the vulnerability of love is not easily found in rap music, which is often an expression of the hardness and resilience of an individual who comes from a broken environment.
While there are factors that are unique to our historical epoch, such as the building and subsequent neglect of segregated housing by the US govt, this is a broader issue of capitalist modernity. In the Metropolis and Mental Life, Georg Simmel discusses the blase attitude of individuals living in cities at the beginning of the twentieth century. The manifestation of this is the reduction of social interactions to capitalistic exchanges between city dwellers. For example, in smaller communities you might have a personal relationship with someone who produces a product for you such as a baker; in a metropolis, a personal relationship is unlikely to develop because of the fact that consumers are unknown to the producers. Interactions become matter-of-fact and people of the metropolis develop a hardness towards others.
Simmel did not live long enough to see the crushing effects Robert Moses had on the socio-economic landscape of cities all across the United States, but perhaps his essay was a prophecy of what is to come for modern cities. In the 1930s the imperious approach of Moses prompted a radical reorganization of cities; concentrating poverty in housing projects as a means to abolish it from the city as a whole. Areas with housing projects, such as the South Bronx in New York City, which was directly impoverished by Moses’ construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, are extremely underserved by the state and harassed by police.
In the aftermath of the famous Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, Northern states, where the biggest cities were located, believed the ruling did not apply to them and made no attempt to desegregate. Even though de facto segregation was just as prevalent in the North as it was in the South, there were no laws enforcing it. There were schools for black neighborhoods and schools for white neighborhoods and this was a just product of the city structure, making it easy to perpetuate the lack of support for poor neighborhoods.
In an environment where individuals with little social and economic power are constantly in survival mode trying to make ends meet, love is compromised, and sex gladly takes its place. This is obvious if one pays attention to the explicitly sexual lyrics that make up a lot of contemporary hip-hop.
Many of the more contemporary female rappers sexualize themselves as part of their rap persona—reinforcing this idea of sex as a means to gain social capital; consider rappers such as Trina, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B, to name a few.
When asked about how to gain self-confidence, Cardi B told Hypebae: “If you feel you’re ugly just walk around the projects or something and see how many niggas holla at you.” Cardi B herself is from the Bronx and her community most likely began to experience the effects of the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway decades ago. Although parts of the female rap community have accepted the culture of sexual harassment, I believe this to be almost inevitable if you come from an impoverished, urban environment.
Within the sexual maze of the metropolis, women are caught somewhere in the middle as men try to navigate their sexuality. Because women are not as bound to heteronormative standards, they aren’t controlled by the system in the same way as men, largely due to the fact that women as a whole are often oppressed for being sexual regardless of whether or not they operate within heterosexuality. Although artists like Trina, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B have succeeded in gaining power via their sexuality, they compromise their own identity by hyper-sexualizing themselves in order to do so. Ultimately the women caught in situations of urban poverty are oppressed by the state in the same way men are. However, when women try to grasp at power via sexual domination they are likely to face oppression from their own communities, as well.
Written by Rosalie Lucretia Ekstein, M.Sc.
Over time the development and growth of cities has been largely organic in nature. People are drawn to other people and resources. Especially when there are lots of pull-factors, this can lead to large concentrations of people in one place. That this might result in problems is no new insight. In Medieval times, for instance, the elite often perceived the poor as a risk simply because they lived nearby. On one hand this was sometimes ideological and political, but on the other hand, there was an objective threat as well, due to their poor hygiene. Living together in impoverished conditions, allowed diseases to spread easily amongst the poor, with many of these diseases being life-threatening, it’s not hard to imagine that the elite was worried about staying safe. Further, the concentration of different social groups on tight space led the elites to worry about their valuables and upcoming criminal behavior amongst the poor. Early forms of urban planning and healthcare hence focussed on combating disease and crime to protect the elites. Later, with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution factories and housing for workers had to be built. This posed new challenges for urban planning as novel threats arose.
There are multiple ways to deal with a growing population and both the real as perceived problems that come with it. Urban planning is still very much alive. Gentrification, mixed-use development, and mixed-income housing are important concerns faced by urban planners today. Just like in the Middle Ages, one can question which individuals benefit from which forms of urban planning, as well as the motivations behind the plans that currently change the face of our cities worldwide. Mixed-income housing, the focus of this article, refers to the process of building an area with houses in different price ranges in order to attract people from different socioeconomic groups. Policy makers and public administrators seem to only focus on the sunny side of mixed-income housing. Let’s have a look at the motivations and the social reality of it.
One motivation for mixed-income housing seems to be countering segregation. Segregation, on the other hand, refers to the process of people with a similar demographic and socio-economic background grouping or being grouped together, either willingly or forced. In the United States, for instance, this has happened to the African American community, who was forced into segregation through institutional racism. Also in the Netherlands racist implications of certain housing regulations are slowly coming to the surface. Another factor that contributed to segregation is the “white flight” a term that originated in the U.S. during the 1950’s and 60’s and refers to whites migrating from the city center to the suburbs. The definition has evolved and can adopt different connotations depending on the context, but it always refers to a change of population from whites to people of color. These trends have led to the emergence of relatively homogenous neighborhoods in bigger cities around the globe.
Evidence shows that economically deprived segregated neighborhoods had higher numbers of crime, noise, and litter. Often only neighborhoods with people from low socioeconomic status are considered problematic, according to many policymakers, politicians, and people from high or even middle socioeconomic status. It is true that in those areas one will find a different situation than in richer areas. One of the problems is crime. Yet, the crime rates might be heavily influenced by structural forces, such as institutional racism, and hence shouldn’t be seen as an actual reflection of what is going on. For example, the rate of incarceration for African Americans is far higher than for any other ethnic group in the U.S. The reason for this is not an objective feature of African Americans that leads them to be more prone to commit crimes, but an implicit racial bias of American institutions, specifically amongst the police forces. Another problem is the neighborhood effect and the resulting lack of certain forms of social capital. The neighborhood effect is a concept introduced by William Julius Wilson in 1987, which supposes an effect on individuals as a result of the neighborhood they live in. There is quite some research that shows us that where you live, influences your chances in life, whether it be health, voting behavior, or chances for upward mobility, and plenty of research that criticizes this idea as well. Social capital, a concept introduced by sociologist David Émile Durkheim in the 19th century, can improve an individual’s position within a network, or neighborhood. Just like economic capital, can influence an individual’s well being, social capital similarly affects one’s chances in life through social ties, networks, knowledge etc.
A quick anecdotal comparison might better illustrate this point: When I was at university, there was a young man in my class whose family moved here from Afghanistan. Nobody in his family spoke Dutch and there were few social ties to local people with resources. He made it to university, but struggled with financing, language, skills and even health. For me, my parents financed my entire education. When I struggled with math, they knew someone who could tutor me. When I was sick, my parents knew a specialist, while this young man, on the other hand, had great troubles simply being understood by his physician and was forced to miss classes due to health problems that in my case, would have been resolved the next day. Up to this day, I think he was smarter than me, but he didn’t have the chances that I was granted. He couldn’t pass the first year, while I received my master’s degree. After all, living a segregated life can severely influence the chances of an individual in a negative way. Of course, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by social scientists, politicians, and policymakers who try to intervene.
But there’s another side to this story, which focuses more on the experience of people from outside. It has been suggested that individuals who haven’t lived in segregated areas, lack the first-hand experience and also might be biased in their interpretation of the existing problems. People often interpret the world from a value specific standpoint that they take as being universal. However, if one would take a look at other cultures, times, or meta-ethics, the conclusion would be that there is no such thing as a universal set of norms and values. Instead, it seems to be a pragmatic notion that enables a person to judge others. What I find ‘unacceptable’ could be totally fine for you, and I have no right to tell you that what you’re doing is ‘antisocial’. If you are in a rich area, it will tend to look tidy and be quiet. If you go you a less privileged area, you are likely to hear music, see more damaged houses or vehicles, and people sitting outside, talking louder than what you might be used to, and perhaps even drinking. It never bothered me that much. However, it does bother other people a lot. Dutch people have all kinds of nasty words for inhabitants of areas like that, including some racial slurs. In the U.S. as well, for example Harlem and The Bronx, have had bad reputations not only due to objective criteria, but due to many subjective ones as well. The idea is that ‘deprived’ neighborhoods have more ‘problems’. I could write a whole paper on what these perceived problems are and why they might not be problems, what matters is that in the minds of policymakers and politicians these neighborhoods are problematic. The fact that there are complex social forces at work here which play a large part in this, is easily overseen or simply unknown (even though within social science, there is so much research regarding these topics!). Also, in these deprived neighborhoods, a term which in itself speaks volumes about this bias, social control, social ties, and cohesion still exist, but in different forms. Research usually doesn’t focus on things like the ability to get non-European hair done, or how residents might share food with each other, or how peers support each other emotionally. So the question here is determining which factors play a role in the life quality of inhabitants and which factors might be biased towards a subjective and value specific norm. The idea that these neighborhoods are just problematic and have nothing valuable in themselves and therefore should be torn down to make room for new houses and new people, might be crude. There’s a risk of tearing down social cohesion and ties, which still matter a lot for people and could even contribute to their welfare, well being, safety, and chances in life.
Mixed-income housing is an idea based on the exchange of social capital between groups, and the possibility for those problematically called lower socioeconomic groups to elevate themselves. This is the recipe: you take one piece of land, you put in some cheap flats, some nicer apartments, and some bigger houses. The first would be for rent and the latter for buying. What happens is that the people that used to live there, are being forced out of their homes. Only a small portion of them can move back, due to a significantly smaller amount of cheap housing. So instead of being surrounded by your peers, you will be confronted with different people for once. Then, of course, you will start to mingle with them. Friendships are formed and people can learn from each other (i.e. the rich will elevate the poor, by increasing their social capital). Sounds neat huh? Guess what: it hasn’t happened so far. It seems to be mere wishful thinking because the sad reality is that even if people live on the same street, they are still segregated. In the Netherlands, sociological research shows that the average income of the neighborhood does go up after establishing mixed-income housing, however, those individuals who came from a low socioeconomic status are not being elevated into said status.
Even though residents’ chances for a better income does not rise, many politicians and policymakers still believe in the supposed neighborhood effect. Between 2008 and 2012, the Netherlands invested hundreds of millions in neighborhoods which were deemed ‘highly problematic’. There was a top 40 of problematic areas, called the ‘Vogelaarwijken’. I have lived in number two on that list during my own sociology study, after growing up in quite a rich area, and I have never been in a warmer, friendlier, and yes even safer area. The people knew each other and took care of each other. Then the whole block got restructured and the prices doubled. The social fabric of that place has been torn down. In the U.S. as well, there is plenty of research pointing into this direction. For example, the work of Ellickson (2009) shows that mixed-income projects in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, did not bring about the desired outcome. He concludes that “the benefits of social integration are seldom as great as advocates of mixed-income projects suppose. The high costs of producing these project thus can rarely be justified on this basis”. Sociological research has not only shown that the neighborhood effect does not seem to exist, but that people with low socioeconomic status might actually be worse off after moving into areas characterized by mixed-income housing. Instead of exchanging social capital, people in the social housing are confronted with the social and economic distance they have from their neighbors.
It seems that there are many flaws in the assumptions underlying mixed-income housing policies and the results are by no means successful enough to justify the fact that these policies are still being used worldwide. The rise and continuation of these policies can be explained by the political influence of those who gain from supplying these developments, and not by positive results for the population inhabiting the area. Too often it seems to be the case that the underlying assumptions of policy and planning are ideological instead of factual, and only seem to represent the view and needs of the already privileged.