By Stan Goff
There is a common misconception among environmentalists and peak-oilers (I count myself among both) that cars created the suburbs. The car suburb, however, became what it is with regard to cars only incidentally. The real motive for the suburbs was plain garden-variety white supremacy. Cars simply became necessary to facilitate the spatial segregation that simultaneously confined African America largely to decaying urban spaces and built the 'burbs as white enclaves. It's not that simple any more, of course. All things change all the time - as we'll see momentarily - but it was white fear and loathing of the Dark Other that set the whole process in motion.
The sudden discovery - still ongoing - that most of us (more than half the US now lives in Suburbia) are trapped here if and when our private automobiles run out of gas (or the money to buy it), came after suburbanization was a fait accompli. This is the stage in any historical process where people begin to indulge themselves in disambiguation of the past - simplifying what has happened until it appears that it was predictable all along. Since we believe this - that things are predictable - we are easily convinced that correlation equals causation in our reconstructions of history; and we apply those correlatives that are familiar and comfortable. Ergo, because oil companies and auto manufacturers participated in the development of Suburbia, they were the conscious agents of it all along. White environmentalists and many white peak-oilers are not well-versed in the history of race, and they have shitty heuristics for understanding how it is constituted.
Not surprisingly, their heuristic - the equivalent of what we call intuition, or common sense - is that of Suburbia, which has been the predominant mode of white American thought since the late 1960s. It is what Matthew Lassiter calls "the prevailing language of middle-class meritocracy and color-blind innocence."
The City of Richmond's present pattern of residential housing... is a reflection of past racial discrimination contributed in part by local, state, and federal government... Negroes in Richmond live where they do because the have no choice.
-Bradley v. Richmond (1972),
District Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr.
We think that the root causes of the concentration of blacks in the inner cities of America are simply not known.
-Bradley v. Richmond (Appeal, 1972),
Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals
Highway construction, urban renewal programs, loan policies, municipal annexations, and court decisions that re-coded race as untouchable-class, were all instrumental in the development of Suburbia, and the concomitant development of the Black ghetto. These practices were not accidental or self-organizing or the product of "market forces." They were systematic, intentional, and imposed. When the preponderance of evidence showed in court (Bradley v. Richmond) that this was the case, the Fourth Circuit established the official federal position on the matter. "We don't remember how it got to be this way; therefore we can do nothing about it."
I mention this just to set the stage for my main thesis. The history of this development is ably and accessibly articulated in Matthew Lassiter's very important book, The Silent Majority - Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt (Princeton University Press, 2006).
The population shift to the suburbs and the power shift to the Sunbelt economy requires a new metropolitan framework for political history and public policy that transcends the urban-suburban dichotomy and confronts instead of obscures the pervasive politics of class in the suburban strategies of the volatile center. Surely an honest assessment of the nation's collective responsibility in creating the contemporary metropolitan landscape remains an essential prerequisite for grappling with the spatial fusion of racial and class politics that ultimately produced an underlying suburban consensus in the electoral arena. If "the problem of the color line" represented the fundamental crisis of the twentieth century, the foremost challenge of the twenty-first has evolved into the suburban synthesis of racial inequality and class segregation at the heart of what may or may not be the New American Dilemma. (Lassiter, p. 323)
Lassiter's "dilemma" was that of racial segregation, segregation which was spatial instead of formal... segregation which required no White and Negro water fountains. The court-supported myth that the new segregation is de facto and not de jure flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is very much like the Israeli "facts-on-the-ground" approach to the occupation of Palestine; and the condition of the vast majority of African America remains structurally more colonized than merely unequal.
But I want to look at another dilemma that has settled in on the suburbs themselves, and which has pushed the entire United States into a potentially calamitous conjuncture.
If we do not understand the suburb - as a system - based on its historical development, then we cannot understand the post-Apartheid "Sunbelt" South, which is fundamentally based on the expansion of suburbs, and with it the expansion of political power in the suburbs. This expansion of political power would culminate with the 1972 re-election of Richard Nixon.
Contrary to popular belief, Nixon was not primarily re-elected because of opponent George McGovern's ardent opposition to the Vietnam War. By 1972, a majority of the American voting public had grown sour on the war. The issue that Nixon rode back into the White House in a historical landslide (McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Colombia) was busing.
The 50s and 60s brought two tectonic social phenomena together in a potentially explosive combination: the Cold War and the Black Freedom Struggle, the latter of which took form as what is now called the Civil Rights Movement.
With the post-war collapse of the old Euro-based colonial order, and the global challenge offered to US influence by the Eurasian communist bloc, the US found itself having to justify its domestic policies to the emerging post-colonial world... post-colonial nations themselves the victims of Euro-American white supremacy.
The US appeal to a liberal vision of democratic rights - as an alternative to the "authoritarian communists" (which most of them were, significantly in masculinist reaction to hostile encirclement) - was undermined by the de jure system of racial-caste Apartheid that was practiced in the United States' former Civil War Confederacy.
The political establishment in the US found itself on the horns of a historical dilemma. Near-term political ambition, which had to take account of the South's bank of federal electoral power, was at odds with Jim Crow as a political embarrassment in US foreign policy.
The backdrop cannot be overestimated, even though it remains little remarked in most histories of the era. The average history treats these two phenomena - Cold War and Civil Rights Movement - almost as if they were hermetically sealed from one another.
These were more than merely ideological contradictions. The economic "location" of African America was such that the domestic economy of the South and the North was rigidly imbricated with this vast pool of colonial-level labor; at the same time, access to the post-colonial nations abroad represented an essential field of "primitive accumulation" upon which to construct the next upwave of capitalist valorization in the still-young American post-war system.
Deconstructing Jim Crow without undermining the economy, losing the electoral South, or making space for a social revolution would be a perilous and lengthy process.
Lassiter makes a prima facie case that this was accomplished through suburbanization.
Mass movements and grassroots rebellions compel American politicians to respond to them. This is a widely acknowledged fact on the left; yet on questions of voting and mass movements the left generally has little to say that is more than polemical. Lassiter's work - like that of "radical urban theorists" with whom he associates himself - is an important exception.
While there has been much written and reams of analysis on the Civil Rights Movement, there is a paucity of critical work on how white America has reacted to that mass movement with one of its own. Consequently, we generally share a purely ideological account of politics: Republicans are right-wing, Democrats are bourgeois good-cops, the two-party system is a ruling class fix, everyone sits at some point on a continuum from reactionary on one end to communist on the other, et cetera.
I will acknowledge demographics; that is, African Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, white men are more likely to vote Republican, and so forth. I also acknowledge how racial attitudes (and less often point out how gender) is a factor in people's political-electoral behavior.
We pay too little attention, however, to the built spatial environment.
The majority of Americans now live in suburbs; and suburbs have for decades now had a particular political character and identity. That identity, and the fact suburban voters constitute the most effective voting bloc in the US, has more than any other factor facilitated the narrowing of differences between the two dominant political parties.
Suburban voters have the highest rates of voter turnout; and they represent more than half the total population of the US.
Suburban life has a number of distinctive qualities that harmonize the political interests of suburban residents. Much lip service is paid by radicals to the role of work in the formation of "consciousness." The emergence of critical geography, which studies the determinants of personality and ideology in the more general environment - in particular the spatial aspects of social development - has added a fresh and, I would argue, critically important dimension to the "materialist conception of history."
A snapshot of suburban life reveals:
•· that we are organized into exclusively residential enclaves that are bounded by a series of circumferential cul-de-sacs;
•· that we are married with children; that we are mostly "white collar" (or aspiring to be white collar);
•· that we work away from these residential enclaves, often substantial distances away, and therefore are absolutely dependent on personal automobiles and the money to maintain and fuel them;
•· that our public lives are divided between these far-flung work spaces, as well as zoned and concentrated consumer spaces; that one's local public school complex is where children spend most of their days;
•· and that the relationships formed by children as well as a common interest in schools are the source of most local social networking (adult relationships are more often formed at work).
The latter is politically significant because political power is organized spatially, with voting precincts at the most local level, followed by various subdivisions, beginning with school board districts. People are dispersed for their work, which no longer then corresponds to locally-consolidated and personally-networked political interests.
David Harvey has written on the global contradiction between the "financial logic of capital" and the "territorial logic of the state," and how there is an incipient crisis in this cross-logic. Following that argument down diminishing fractal scales, I will suggest that there is a cross-logic at work in the continuing evolution of the suburbs, between the territorial (and therefore local) logic of electoral-political practice and the trans-local grid upon which Suburbia is seemingly inextricably dependent.
Lassiter explains in his book that the suburban political identity is threefold: school parent, homeowner, and consumer-taxpayer. I will expand that identity further down; but these are essential to understand because other issues for Suburbia will inevitably relate back to one or another of these aspects of suburban political identity.
The political potency of local spatial concentration (and political debilitations inhering in spatial expansions) is a key issue in any critical analysis of the seeming political malaise of the left, which has been overwhelmingly oriented on economic class as the "primary social contradiction."
When the labor movement was at its most effective in the United States, workers and working class families were concentrated both on the job and in the residential concentrations specifically built to house workers near these points of production. With the dispersion of workplaces, and the even more dramatic dispersion of living space, and the growing non-correspondence between work and residence, many solidarities were spatially disassembled. We then saw a concurrent (and I would argue, causal) free-fall of union density in the US. Certainly, other factors, such as anti-union policies and laws, as well as the dramatic off-shoring of certain manufacturing production over the last two decades, are determinative as well. But union organizing doesn't primarily happen on the job. It happens on house visits. When those houses are dispersed over hundreds of square miles even around a single point of production, that constitutes an exponential increase in the difficulty and expense (in time, energy, and money) of something as simple yet critical as the organizers' house visits.
On the issue of class, the left has traditionally defined class in a fairly limited and mechanical way, as one's "relation to the means of production." While this may serve as some quasi-objective description of one component of class, it is inadequate to get at many aspects of class reality that actually translate into political action... in particular, the "subjective" experience of class, which varies so wildly and is so multiply inflected, that honesty compels us to admit that basic "relation to the means of production" standard is - in any real instantiation - hopelessly reductionist and inadequate.
The experience of class for American Suburbia is largely seen by the residents themselves as something called "middle class." The left is correct to say that this taxonomy obscures certain realities from the people themselves; but at the same time, the perception of the suburban middle class that they are unique is essentially correct. The reason their lives are perceived as different from that of people living in urban US ghettos or Brazilian favelas or factory towns in China is that their lives are different from all those places.
Suburbia is a cyborg. It is a techno-industrial grid within which its human residents are trapped, conformed, dependent units in a vast, entropic feedback loop. It is also - as a whole - dependent on an inconceivably extravagant and uninterrupted inflow of materials from across the globe. Without that uninterrupted inflow, Suburbia will convulse and perish.
The process of consuming these materials creates the Suburban consequence of waste. Volcanically growing islands of landfill - so vast that there is now a global import-export industry for trash, for all that abandoned technomass; and we live in an ever more micro-toxified environment.
Cyborg: an organism that is a self-regulating integration of artificial and natural systems.
Suburbia is also a spiritual wasteland, a place where the wonder of nature is desecrated ubiquitously with corporate logos and all the artifacts of late technological society.
I myself was sitting in my front yard today, where I have kept an organic garden through a struggle against the homeowners association. Everything edible except my leeks are out now, leaving a few pansies, geraniums, heather, and the toughest of the marigolds. I also have one feral red onion. The soil is resting and matted with the red clover I planted in early fall. The breeze was blowing on my face and the apple and birch trees were dancing. There was a squirrel making circles with her tail on top of the bluebird house. A wren was on an old Haitian drum. Cardinals and mourning doves pick in the wheat straw I used for winter mulch.
I am surrounded by people who never see these things, even though it is all around them. My grandson and I look at the moon through binoculars on the front steps at night. No one else here seems to be doing these things; but they are spending plenty of time buying more technology... and nowadays struggling to balance the demands of obligatory middle-class consumption with a growing pre-volcanic debt.
Max Weber called this phenomenon "disenchantment." Commoditized culture is manipulative and utilitarian (not to mention highly bureaucratic). One of the main political identities of Suburbia is commodity "consumer."
Not surprisingly, the one truly integrated space in the US is consumer space... the mall.
It is this extreme instrumentalism - the old joke about the dog having no use for anything it couldn't mate with, piss on, or eat - that leads directly to our loss of enchantment with nature... precisely because nature is free-of-charge, and therefore without value. Worthless, and often worse... dangerous... hence, suburban germophobia, hatred of "weeds," the association of nature with dangerous disorder.
The post-Freudians called psychic connection to things beyond ourselves "cathexis." Audre Lorde called it erotic energy, "that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge."
Commoditized, instrumental culture has separated us from these deeper, non-rational psychic connections; and I will argue that inherent in this process of separation - this disenchantment - is a collective narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
I am highly suspicious of the whole notion of individual personality disorder, but I'll table that critique here, because NPD can serve a heuristic purpose.
General guidelines for NPD are (1) grandiose sense of self-importance, (2) preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, perfect beauty, idealized love, etc., (3) belief that one is "special" and explicable only by others who are almost-equally special, (4) obsessive need for attention and admiration, (5) powerful sense of entitlement, (6) instrumental attitude toward human relations (using others, or taking advantage of them), (7) low index of felt-empathy (feigned empathy is in the repertoire of manipulation), (8) feels excessive envy and suspects envy of others for him/herself, and (9) displays of arrogance... there are a few others. Psychiatry says that any five of these suggests NPD.
Not only are these characteristics not abnormal in Suburbia - or even the general American culture - they are cultivated as norms by our ideology of social Darwinism, and ceaselessly reinforced by commoditized culture through brand-name status competition, advertising, and the cultural norms of the gender hierarchy (masculinity and femininity).
Another aspect of NPD, that is also intrinsic to American Suburbia's worldview, is a hair-trigger perception of victimization. This is the twin of a sense of entitlement.
This is the most dangerous aspect of the Suburban character. Within the intellectual barricades of middle-class belief in their own meritocracy, any challenge to the myth that Suburbia is a social outcome of (natural) Market TM forces is conflated with the Dark World vestiges of propaganda from the Cold War, from the Negro threat, and now from "terrorism" and the demographic attack of the "illegal immigrants."
The suburban populism that Lassiter describes - which emerged as a struggle to prevent school integration by busing - adopted the color-blind language of Dr. Kings speech on "the content of their character," and reiterated their claim that their rights were being violated... the spatial segregation of suburb and ghetto was rewritten as class, not race, in order to provide Suburbia what Lassiter calls "color blind racial innocence."
In the same move, Suburbia flipped the script on the Civil Rights movement, and claimed oppressed status at the hands of the federal courts (beginning with Brown v Board of Education). This epistemological theft was facilitated by the Fourth Circuit's reversal-on-appeal of Bradley v. Richmond, wherein the real history of urban renewal, zoning, districting, and transportation policy and planning - which were the de jure instruments of re-segregation - were erased from juridical memory.
STAN GOFF is the author of Hideous Dream, Full Spectrum Disorder, The Military In The New American Century, and Sex And War. He also manages his Feral Scholar website and is familiar to many Truth To Power Readers as a result of his monumental series published at From The Wilderness on the death of Pat Tillman--a series to which many attribute Congressional investigation of that event.