News From Nowhere

We did some traveling last week for the first time in two years and I flew for the first time since 2013. On our trip to the in-law’s reunion I was struck by how much of this country is made up of liminal spaces, as if the whole landscape were one long, dead mall corridor leading nowhere.

It’s common to see these vistas as a kind of moral/aesthetic failure rather than the landscape of a capitalist system that has to always be in motion or it will end up in crisis. It’s no coincidence that most of our land is devoted to constant churn, movement and commerce. As David Harvey points out, the first thing that president G.W. Bush suggested we all do before the dust even settled on the World Trade Center was not to stop, contemplate, pray or meditate but to, “Go shopping!” That is, to drive to the mall and spend some money. Capitalism’s need for constant motion results in a landscape that operates like a long, circular airport corridor with no end. The point is the churn not the destination.

It’s shouldn’t be a surprise that in a system based on motion and individualism that the automobile would dominate. For years I fought for better bike infrastructure here in Los Angeles. The enemy was “car-centric planning” or so I thought. But we live not in car-centric cities but capitalist cities. Cars are just one more way to build capital. They are, after all, packaged debt that just happens to have an inefficient mode of transit attached to it. We’re all forced into cars because that’s the best way to wring profit out of the transportation sector. For this reason we should never shame people for driving a car because we live in a system that forces us to.

Our airport hotel even had an upscale weed shop in the parking lot.

Denver, where I was visiting the in-laws has many beautiful streets, parks, the stunning Rocky Mountains in the distance (obscured by the fires burning in California) and one hell of a lot of weed shops. To be clear I fully support legalized pot but I can’t help but think that so many people are self medicating to relieve the misery of meaningless low paid work, the anxiety of the pandemic and life in this meaningless corridor leading to nowhere.

It would be a mistake to just go along and accept this world as it is, to think that it’s just a matter of morality or that we can somehow go back to a previous “golden age” way of doing things. As Angela Davis said in a lecture in 2014, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Let’s work on exiting this endless corridor.

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  1. Why are low paid jobs necessarily meaningless? Don’t most of them involve helping people? You sound materialistic…

    • Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. I think his point is likely someone is shilling a product for low wage while the purported proprietor is probably the one reaping all of the benefits.

    • I put a strike through “meaningless” because you are correct that a lot of low-paying jobs are things that are essential–like farm labor, home health care, grocery work etc. I’d also add that in a just society workers would share in the profits and a lot of workers that are now low-paid would would get a substantial raise. In other words home health care workers should make more than, say, marketing executives.

  2. James Kunstler’s “Geography of Nowhere” is a great book that goes into detail about this subject, which is really an existential crisis of our modern souls being subjected to the aesthetics you touch on. Just spent last weekend driving around the Sacramento area, where it’s just large boulevards connecting to large boulevards, obnoxious amounts of traffic lights, (intense amounts of stress as everyone is in a hurry)… all leading to the same-looking shopping areas…jamba juice joints, starbucks, fast food, etc…..we all see it all the time, everywhere. Us regular folks know it exploits low wage workers and the environment, but feel powerless to find an alternative, because the powerful elites that are the ownership class, own it all and see nothing wrong with this arrangement.

    • With the exception of a few, mostly very wealthy areas, most of this country is roads and strip malls. Los Angeles, where I live, is the poster child for terrible sprawl. Like Sacramento, the central part of Denver is really nice but also full of large car-centric high-speed boulevards.

      I was thinking a lot about Kunstler when I wrote this post and very much enjoyed Geography of Nowhere when I read it years ago. In fact, the title of this post is a cheeky and perhaps obscure reference to both Kunstler and William Morris’ book News From Nowhere. But I decided to take a look at where Kuntsler’s at now via his blog and it put into focus the problem I have with him. He’s funny and good at describing the crushing ugliness of the post-WWII landscape but he’s ultimately a Malthusian. The problem in his mind is that there’s just too many poor (lazy?) people gobbling up limited resources and what we need to do is go back to some sort of trad pre-industrial agrarian society. Personally, I think the problem is more that we have the resources to tackle problems like climate change and health care but those resources tend to be overly concentrated in the hands of people like Jeff Bezos who have so much money that they can turn space travel into a personal hobby.

  3. Actually one of the first things president Bush did after the dust settled was to try and blame everything on Iraq. Like Afghanistan, all those lives lost and resource spent accomplished worse than nothing. Like most geo-political labels, most economic terms, including capitalism, have been so twisted and abused by those in power that they mean less than nothing now. Labeling is everything today but the tags are all counterfeit. In some sense, the natural system(s) share concepts with capitalism – competition, supply and demand, private actors trying to protect what is theirs. It’s no surprise that humans, perhaps the least intelligent species, abuse their economic models exactly like they abuse the real world never realizing their utter dependence on the delicate balance of a complex system more powerful than any ego. In the final irony, our modern debt based systems along with the mathematical and biological insanity of never ending growth will hand a final grotesque gift to our insatiable human greed. Sorry, I need more coffee.

    • I feel like another coffee or maybe a glass of bourbon? It certainly is a difficult time. The wars we fought in the last few decades have squandered trillions of dollars that could have paid for any number of worthwhile things–health care, infrastructure, education etc. And Marx makes an interesting point in a footnote in Capital relating to the theory of evolution. He notes that, while evolution is undeniable as a way that nature works, the idea that it’s always based on competition is not necessarily always true. Nature also uses cooperation and symbiosis. Marx thought that Darwin was biased due to his class–he was married to Emma Wedgewood, an heiress of the Wedgewood pottery business, very much a part of industrial 19th century Britain. Marx thought that this close relationship to the industrialist class tended to bias his theory towards competition rather than cooperation.

  4. For over 30 years, I have lived in a small town in South Texas that is surrounded by farms, ranches, rural vistas, and, most of all, peace and quiet.
    Now, the developers are swooping in, frantically building housing developments, strip malls, etc. For sale signs are going up, offering many acres for sale. I am being pestered by strangers who want to buy my house. I have no intention of selling, but I do worry about what is coming.

    • The pictures in this post were taken in a distant suburb of Denver that was once farmland and is now a tawdry cluster of hotels and mini-malls.

  5. (scratches head)

    I feel like your readers already know the problems.

    I feel like most of us are also trying to find and implement what solutions we can during our lifetimes rather than wallow in the pit of despair.

    Maybe we could get back to that?

  6. I stopped fretting over the meaningless sad liminal suburban spaces when I realized 1) People actually like them briefly when they’re new and shiny. 2) They were always temporary and never meant to last. 3) After they lose value and cultural relevance they very quickly revert to dust and are recolonized by nature. No one will miss them and no one will care when the old parking lots, Burger Kings, and Jiffy Lubes become compost. Stop kvetching. This too shall pass.

  7. I live in a small rust belt town, and churning is the perfect description for what is going on here. Each new strip mall project is hailed as a sign of economic progress, but the amount of business doesn’t grow. It just migrates into the new strip mall and leaves the old one to rot, until our tax dollars are used to pull the old one down.

    Every strip of green space gets turned into another gas station or fast food restaurant, which reduced an existing one into an empty shell. All the abandoned land is so full of lime and gravel that it may never grow anything again. Yay progress.

  8. When did you become conciliatory towards vehicle drivers? From your post in 2007: “ As someone who uses a bike to get around it scares us to think about how easy it is to renew a driver’s license. . .. Are you homicidal, schizophrenic, elderly, partially blind, or all of the above? No problem! Just step up, have your picture taken, take a vision test that could easily be cheated on, pay $27 and you can legally get behind the wheel of a 4,000 pound exhaust-spewing death machine.”

    • Some of my 2007 writing makes me cringe. It took awhile to develop a voice on this blog without punching down. I’m still not a fan of cars but I understand better that it’s not a matter of personal choice. We live in a system that forces many people to drive. This has become clearer as my own city has gotten increasingly expensive to live in. If you’re not lucky enough to have already owned property near the city center (as we do) you have to live in increasingly distant suburbs.

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