Issue #8, October 1993
In the middle of this past August, the elementary school across the street from me was encased in scaffolding and then wrapped in plastic. I watched it happen from my upstairs window. I spend a lot of time by this window because my desk and computer are there, and what was being done to the school formed an odd counterpoint to the work I was doing for the season premiere issue of Bad Subjects. When I first moved in here four years ago, the school — which extends for two blocks up the street from my house — wasn't being used, except for a small group of special education students whom I would see and hear regularly in the west-end schoolyard (which I can see from my window). Two years ago the building was reopened for regular use once again as an elementary school. About a year ago the schoolyard's pavement was removed and replaced by a large open grassy area with a paved track around it. And one day late this summer a man painted a few test patches on a small area of the school. 'How nice, ' I thought, 'they're going to paint the school.' I understood what was going on when they put up the scaffolding, along with a temporary chain-link fence around the school. I was utterly mystified, however, when they began to encase the school in huge sheets of semi-transparent plastic.
The school immediately took on a disturbingly art-installation, Christo-like appearance: an entire large institutional building had been tightly sealed in plastic right across the street from me. Once the wrapping was complete, fans somewhere were turned on, evidently sucking air in from the outside, producing a shrink-wrapped effect. I had no idea why the school had been wrapped. It was somehow both clearly purposeful but also seemingly arbitrary, like weather or economic cycles. Whatever was being done to the school was both fascinating and alienating, exciting yet ominous. It turned out that the school's exterior was being cleansed of toxic asbestos-containing, lead-based paint, but I didn't know this when I began to see the workers in full-body isolation suits with gas masks moving around on the scaffolding in the space between the wrapping and the school.
I lacked information. I remember having received a small number of notices over the past couple of years about public meetings for my neighborhood regarding the re-opening and renovation of the school. Perhaps something about the paint-removal was said, and I don't recall it because I didn't read the notice carefully and I don't attend those meetings (I confess to being derelict in that area of my duties as a citizen). Perhaps a notice had gone out to my neighborhood and my house was randomly missed. In any case, the first formal notification and explanation I received came when the work was almost completed, in early September. However, the men in space suits and the wrapping brought one quickly to the conclusion, even in the absence of specific information, that something menacing was going on. The theory was confirmed by the small 'DANGER: ASBESTOS' warning signs on the safety fencing near the entrance just up the street, an entrance that had been modified with a home-made airlock of sorts. Significantly, the only marks on the wrapping itself were repetitions of the word 'exit' and arrows pointing the way, written in red spray paint on the inside.
As I continued to contemplate the wrapped school, the wrapping through which I could only dimly see the reality of what they were doing began to be associated in my mind with my ignorance about, and lack of control over, what was happening. And perhaps more importantly, it more and more became a figure for the imaginary relationship my situation necessarily required me to have with the reality of the event. I speculated as to the roles of the various workers I saw regularly around the school. I wondered about who had made the decisions that led to this work, and how and when. I tried to imagine what it was like to be one of the workers, almost all of whom involved in the toxic paint-removal appeared to be Mexican in ancestry or nationality. How did they feel and think about the potentially deadly work they were doing? I pondered this last question most intently after watching a number of Spanish-speaking women, wearing plastic body suits but no gloves or protective masks, who were picking up strips of toxic dust-covered plastic left from tearing down the wrapping and stuffing them into some kind of plastic biohazard bags — and all the while laughing and joking amongst themselves.
This is when I began to appreciate how the wrapping around the school was oddly comforting as well as ominous: I wasn't too sure, finally, how much I really wanted to know about or be involved in the practical and moral complexities of what was happening across the street from me. For example, I could have walked right over and asked any of a number of workers to tell me more about what was going on, so that my imaginings might be closer to the reality. But who was I to question their work? And what was I to do with whatever I learned? And so my lack of information and my sense of powerlessness became, like the school's wrapping, a comforting screen between my own perceptions and the hard truths of what I was trying to understand.
In other words, I more or less self-consciously and deliberately entered into a state of denial about the implications of what I was seeing. I knew that the people of my lower middle-class and working-poor neighborhood were receiving genuinely beneficial attention from governing authorities: the infrastructure was being repaired. Yet I could also plainly see that this benefit was being had at the expense of other even less fortunate people, who were doing the dirty work that the beneficiaries would find too dangerous and/or unpleasant. I wanted the school de-toxed and renovated (I like the new cheerful colors — aqua and beige with purple trim), but I felt guilty about the exploitation that was making it possible. That's a predicament familiar to leftists and liberals, and like so many others I remained passive even though conflicted, and restricted myself to an imaginary relationship with the wrapped school in which I saw its reality only through a curtain of rationalizations and excuses.
My relationship with the work being done to the school was a small model of ideological thinking in action. As even the title of this essay indicates, I related to the wrapped school as a thing, a sheer fact of existence seemingly come out of nowhere, rather than as a set of human actions and relations. As a thing, the wrapped school seemed so autonomous and mystifying as to put it out of my hands completely, relieving me of responsibility; but if seen as a set of human relations in which I could participate if I so chose, it challenged me with my own guilty passivity. I tried to fall back upon the well-worn mental pathways of commodity fetishism, through which I could enjoy the results of someone's exploitation while 'forgetting' the exploitation itself.
However, in this case the forgetting was more difficult to accomplish, since I was reminded of the human labor involved in the production of this particular 'commodity' (a refurbished school) every time I looked out the window. And so I responded, as most people do in such circumstances, with various forms of denial. Denial is easier than a commitment to some form of active engagement with the problem. Yet the problem remains, and at some level we are aware of it. Like the plastic wrapping around the school, willful denial offers some psychological protection from an uncomfortable reality but cannot totally conceal it from us.
As I continued to ponder the weirdly transformed structure across the street, my relationship to the wrapped school began to represent to me the relationship most of us have to our social institutions in general. Much of the actual work required to keep the infrastructure functioning, and particularly dangerous and dirty work like asbestos removal, is something that we are discouraged from seeing clearly or that we try not to see at all. We treat our government in much the same way we treat the workers who clean up toxic waste: we want results, but we don't want to think about, let alone actively participate in, what it takes to achieve them (that's what we pay other people to do for us). And doesn't it seem that most of what we think of as 'political' these days, in the sense of what we expect from our public institutions, involves some kind of literal or figural clean-up work?
Thinking of the wrapped school as a stand-in for social institutions in general helped me to define the question it seemed to ask: What exactly is the alternative? This question is almost obscenely obvious, yet I understand that what makes it so hard to ask is that it's so hard to answer. Any objection I might raise about the work being done to the school would inevitably confront me with a choice to act in some way or not, if my objections were to amount to more than a morally unsatisfying, merely philosophical argument. And this dilemma is generally true for everyone, especially the more 'socially-conscious' among us: any perceived wrong or injustice holds out a kind of demand that, bluntly said, we put up or shut up. Do something or live in guilty denial. In a world so routinely and ruthlessly unjust as our own, it's no wonder that even the opposition is attracted to the idea of giving up on the possibility of something radically better.
So if I wasn't willing to become an activist of some sort in response to my alarm over aspects of the work being done on the school — even if only to the limited extent of writing a few letters or attending neighborhood meetings — then what other individual alternative did I have but to rationalize and deny, to more or less consciously decide to have the same imaginary and ideological relationship with the wrapped school that I have with any number of other social wrongs, from ordinary commodities to the homeless people who have increasingly become surreal aspects of our 'natural' environment here in Berkeley? And why is it, I also wondered, that this is such an easy rationalization to make for so many of us? Of course, there is only so much work an individual can do, and even the most committed political activists must accept complicity with certain kinds of injustice in order to have the energy and concentration to oppose other kinds of injustice.
And what sustains us in our rationalization and lets us live with our various compromises is, I want to believe, an underlying deep hope for a world in which we could trust others to take care of the problems we can't take on ourselves. Activists must take it on faith that others will fights the battles they cannot fight themselves; ordinary citizens take it on faith that the government is ultimately on their side and will protect their interests. Clearly, this faith has been deteriorating for decades, and our new national 'common sense' is a bitter and often mean cynicism: the national mood is that of the hardened survivor of abuse, whose outwardly tough indifference masks a terrified vulnerability and an expectation of further injury.
Whatever a leftist political culture might seek to accomplish, it won't get very far until public faith in both ourselves and our institutions has been restored. In fact, perhaps what we need most is greater faith in a meaningful idea of 'the public' itself. A perennial mantra of leftist political activists has been the phrase, 'Grass Roots Organizing.' And indeed, it's an absolutely fundamental principle, the bedrock of democracy in action. However, 'grass roots organizing' is a means to an end, not an end in itself — or at least it shouldn't be. There is nothing intrinsically progressive or leftist about it, as demonstrated by the vast successes the religious right has been having with its own grass roots organizing efforts since the 1970s, launched in imitation of leftist tactics. And just as the right took some of the methods of the left and used them to serve their own concerns, perhaps it's time for the left to respond by taking some of the right's concerns and addressing them with its own methods.
Despite the cynicism that dominates our cultural and political sensibilities, I think there must still be huge reservoirs of hope out there for the possibility of substantive changes at all levels of society. And not just among fanatical conservatives. If Ross Perot has proved nothing else in the past two years, he has certainly proved that a great many fairly ordinary people, if presented with something that at least appears to be a promising and genuine alternative to the status quo, will stir themselves from their routine complacency and get actively involved to some extent in the public realm. The fact that Perot has been such a spectacular disappointment, not a real alternative to business as usual after all, should not lead us cynically to dismiss or underestimate the hope and the willingness to trust public authority, that his 'grass roots' supporters demonstrated — and which many others, including myself, felt in the early stages of his campaign. Much the same might be said about Clinton's campaign (as opposed to the predictable although no less revolting betrayals during his actual presidency).
All over the culture there are signs of a deep hunger for what has traditionally been called participatory democracy. On the left, 'participation' has always meant much more than the simple casting of votes to delegate responsibility to others; it means taking on some of those responsibilities oneself and along with others. The Perot phenomenon, talk shows, electronic communication networks, even youth gangs — all of these things can be read as symptoms of an otherwise unsatisfied need among people to work with others in order to take care of themselves. They are also signs that, as people have been noting for some time, the institutions and processes that are associated with 'politics' in the governmental and institutional sense are are increasingly seen as unresponsive or irrelevant to our needs, or even actively hostile.
But despite the cynicism and alienation, there is still a desire to participate in some way; it's just that the available choices are clearly not appealing enough. Certainly this is true for the left. While leftists talk a lot about grass roots organizing, they do not talk nearly enough, it seems to me, about why the 'grass roots' have not been more willing to be organized for progressive purposes. Bitter condemnations of the masses of middle-class America are not likely to enlist the sympathies of those same people, even if the left's agenda really is in their best interests; and large-scale social transformation in America will not be possible without the support of ordinary (that is, not overtly 'political' and also usually middle class) citizens. Equally unhelpful is the implicit message of so much leftist rhetoric that if you aren't on the approved list of victims, and you aren't willing to subordinate your interests to theirs, then you are by default one of the oppressors.
One thing that progressive activists have always been very good at in Third World or underdeveloped nations (or underveloped areas within the United States) is organizing local populations and teaching them how to take care of their own interests. This sort of Peace Corps-type intervention is not necessarily leftist, but it certainly can be performed as an extension of the general leftist commitment to fostering self-determination and participatory democracy. In organizing a village to build a school or hospital or whatever, you teach its residents a lesson about the power of collective cooperation and action, as well as providing them with needed institutional structures. The problem with the left has been its almost exclusive focus on providing this sort of assistance and organizational energy to those it considers the 'real victims' of society, at home or abroad, while ignoring the more privileged middle classes, who are already said to be receiving precisely those benefits that have been withheld from others, which is how they came to be 'victims' in the first place.
In other words, the left doesn't offer the middle classes much more than opportunities to atone for the guilt of their relative comfort by working to alleviate the relative misery of others. This leaves the middle classes no choice but to turn to the already-existing social processes and institutions when they need something done for themselves, and that means ending up with something like the wrapped school across the street from me. I'm glad the government is maintaining the infrastructure, but there is nothing especially participatory or democratic about the way in which it is going about the work. And so my thoughts about the wrapped school, middle class guilt, participatory democracy, and the inadeqacies of current leftist practices all finally come together in a possible answer to question posed above: what's the alternative?
It seems to me that high on the agenda of any leftist politics truly committed to greater participatory democracy (let alone anything as fantastic as a renewed socialism) must be a re-education not only of the poor and the working classes, but also the middle classes, about the possibilities and pleasures of public participation and public service. The middle classes need to know that the left has more to offer them than liberal guilt and atonement. The left can learn from the success of the right among the middle classes by taking their complaints and needs seriously, and by finding solutions to the middle classes' problems that are also demonstrations of the left's core belief in democratic and participatory communities.
Which brings me back finally to the wrapped school. The alternative to the way I saw the work actually being done would be to organize the means by which our neighborhood could perform the work itself. After all, the school is used by the community, so why shouldn't the community take responsibility for maintaining it? The cynical response is that people are too lazy or apathetic. But I think the more generous and even realistic response is that most of us wouldn't know how even to begin such an effort, let alone carry it through to completion. And that is precisely where the left could come in and be helpful: leftists have the organizing skills needed to teach ordinary people of modest means and relative comfort how to come together as a community and get something done.
Think about it: you could draw upon the people who already have needed skills and abilities both to do work, and to teach others who want to learn how to do that work. People would have to talk with each other and arrive at decisions; they would learn community through practical experience. They would have a whole new relationship to the school because they will have invested some of their own labor in it: it would be their work, and therefore they would probably be more inclined to take care of it in the future. I am even confident that enough people would be willing to do even the dangerous work like asbestos removal, if they were also participants in arranging the safety precautions and no one had to do more work than they had freely chosen. And perhaps best of all, the community wouldn't have to feel guilty that the real good of the renovated school was made possible through the exploited labor of people less fortunate than themselves.
As to the very real problem of getting people to participate, that's one of the challenges the left would most benefit from taking on. This sort of thing has been done on other occasions; what I'm talking about is making it an integral part of a new leftist political program appealing to the middle classes, in addition to the left's traditional advocacy of the interests of the oppressed and marginalized members of society. There would be all sorts of problems and obstacles, many of them legal in nature (building codes, labor laws, insurance issues, etc.), many of them involving getting hold of the proper resources. However, these are just the sort of difficulties that grass roots organizational techniques have been developed and honed to deal with. And to the extent that this approach to repairing the middle class infrastructure would require a radical departure from the traditional practices at almost every step, the effort would necessarily entail a utopian use of imagination, a valuable collective re-thinking of a whole array of interlocked social relations. It would be a social experiment, an attempt to find out what it takes to set up the conditions in which people can confidently and communally take responsibility for themselves — and succeed.
Of course, I am not personally willing to take on this particular challenge. I choose to direct my energies elsewhere. But if we can do nothing else, we can at least keep alive the hopeful fantasy that such utopian projects are eventually possible. Thinking about the wrapped school has led me to wish for a world in which, because of our communal participation, the wrapping could not function as a metaphor for guilty complicity and ideological mystification, but would be merely a material resource useful for a particular task — and this in truth and not just in our rationalizations. In such a world, the wrapped school would simply be a building sealed in plastic for a practical purpose, and not a reminder of our alienation from a world that others have made and continue to make, without our full understanding, and largely without our consent.