Radical Approaches to Social Work
Homelessness and the Revolutionary Practice of Social Change
[This was written in the 90's when I was invited to speak at the Bertha Capen Reynolds Society, around 1994 in Seattle,WA. Bertha Capen Reynolds was a socialist social worker who was inspired by the Seattle General Strike. The ending is lost to the dustbin, but it discusses many of the events that let to the most recent economic crisis. My theory of the transition period has evolved since then, but not too serious of mistakes. This is from a Marxist-Humanist perspective, based on the concept of the self-determination of the oppressed as force and reason. Unlike Marxist-Leninism, we see the masses not the party as the "vanguard" of the movement, or the element that creates the jump forward and from which the new stage of consciousness will arise.]
I. "The System": Co-option versus Self-Determination
Marxism rejects the dichotomy of "inside" and "outside" the system because it covers over the essence of revolutionary method: self-determination of individuals. As people dedicated to the betterment of oppressed peoples, we must always stay on the side of the self-determination of the people we try to help.
The danger runs when people feel compromise with the state, media legitimacy, etc., is more important or essential than self-determination of the people. This happens when organizers believe they know what is in the best interests of others better than they know themselves.
This mistake also has as a presupposition that legitimacy is won through the media, the wealthy, and ultimately the state. This presupposition sets a limit on our goal, reducing freedom to institutionalization: we use the media to advertise the need for our programs and get funding from the wealthy, and ultimately get the state support and recognition - possibly some laws in our favor.
I do not oppose institutionalization of laws and programs to aid oppressed groups; what I do oppose is ending the fight at that point which just reduces all that work, all those battles, and a major victory to co-option by the state and the reduction of our programs to nothing more than the appearance that something is being done.
In the case of the homeless, I support the legislation and federal funding for guaranteed permanent housing for everyone with a standardized minimum level of upkeep by the state. But even at the moment of free housing, I do not see a final victory because so long as government exists as something outside of people that is imposed on them, those gains are only temporary - at any moment due to economic crisis in capitalism, these gains will be taken away.
It is only at the moment of true self-government, the abolition of social classes (be they rich/poor, white/black, men/women, youth/adult, straight/queer); the abolition of the means of production so that there is free access to the means of producing your life - so that humanity can start from itself, having removed the means and causes of oppression, from the free release of creative energies. That free release, the plunge towards freedom, must be our ultimate goal as workers of social change. Whether that release turns into demonstrations, strikes, riots, or full blown social revolution and the reorganization of society, it is essential to our activities in communities to provide the practical as well as intellectual support that can bring about a passion for life - to live for themselves and not their exploitation.
So, I propose replacing the typical framework of legitimacy - media, wealth, state, with our own determinacy - create and seize our own media, redistribute the wealth and abolish the upper classes, and abolish the state. As the International Workers of the World said, we must "bring about a new world in the ashes of the old."
II. The Importance of History and the Struggle of the Homeless
I spoke in a graduate class here at the University of Washington and I asked people if they were taught any history of social movements in the school of social work. I was astonished when they said no because how are you supposed to know what people want if you haven't studied their history? Likewise, without studying the history of thought which has tried to comprehend the struggles; communist, socialist, anarchist, etc. - you have no theoretical framework for which to understand this history.
So too ( and possibly especially ) with the issue of homelessness. I have difficulty using the term "homeless" because it only represents one factor of these people's conditions. The terms unemployed and underemployed are much preferable because it presupposes more complexity to the social problem. As a Marxist, I want to use the category of working class, but with hesitation.
I hesitate because the term is so misunderstood nowadays. People think when you talk of the "working class" you are talking of the employed; this is a lie, and the vast majority of the working class in the world are unemployed. The definition of working class is those who own no means of producing wealth other than their labor (power).
In the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism, we reject the narrow class politics used by post-Marx Marxists. We don't see revolutionary classes, but revolutionary Subjects - people who in the activity of their struggles against oppression, have created new ways of being and thinking. In the U.S., these Subjects include Blacks, Women, Youth, and Workers; but, it is different for every region and every country.
Marxist-Humanism also expands the definition of class from its typical economist use to Marx's original expression of it in his 1844 Manuscripts as a division of society into mental and manual laborers - one class makes the decisions and another carries them out. Therefore, I view the divisions of leaders and ranks, patriarchy, racism, and ageism as class issues that aren't solved through economic measures, but by individuals and classless reuniting their intellectual and physical capacities to become a whole human being again.
These various divisions between revolutionary Subjects - race, class, sex, age, etc. - are means that the oppressing class tries to exploit to keep people divided. In the case of the anti-homeless laws here in Seattle, they first passed a "drug-loitering" law which mostly effected Blacks. Then they used criminal trespassing agreements against the youth while they developed the anti-sitting laws, which are used mostly against white homeless males. All these strategies were used during different time frames to stop a solid movement from developing; but these laws were all done under the federal "Weed and Seed" program and only by raising people's awareness to the interconnectedness of the struggles can we organize an united fight.
Along with the subjective element, it is important to consider the objective economic and political conditions faced. For the unemployed, this is a continuing and growing depression starting as far back as 1976-78. I wasn't even 10 years old then, but by 1988, I was very aware of the drastic economic and political changes that took place under Reagan: the war on drugs (which is really a war on the poor - especially black youth) was a complete turn around from the near legalization and decriminalization of marijuana under Carter.
What changed with Reagan-Bush was the approach to economic crisis. Since the end of World War II, economists had thought central planning could overcome the internal Crisis of Capitalism so that economic crisis would be mostly avoided and temporary. this changed in the late 1970's as top government economists started quoting Karl Marx's crisis theory saying he may have been right about the inevitable doom. Capitalism was no longer capable of expanding at the rate it had in the past, and state control, rather than preventing crisis, was now causing it.
The change that came with Reagan-Bush was an acceptance of an inevitable economic crisis, and so rather than build long-term, they went for "quick fixes" : they lowered the unemployment rate by changing many full-time positions to part-time; bailed out the banks by covering withdraws rather than the entire loss; lowered the cost or reproducing labor by cutting welfare and childcare programs; etc. What is important to understand is these were temporary ways of putting the crash off until later.
Other methods was the bringing in of outside investments (which increased our national debt) and the deregulation of various industries. This pushed us from a state run economy into a world run system and is the secret behind our near World War: the U.S. and the U.N. are forcing resistant governments to join the economic order through war measures. The struggle between national and international economies is also the source of the new rise of racial nationalism the world over.
The acceptance of economic disaster would also demand political preparation. The main thrust came with the "war on drugs" which was an excuse to unite police and military and turn the police force into urban paramilitary operations. Reagan expanded the Presidential Powers in cases of national emergencies which allows for military occupation of U.S. cities, suspension of the Constitution and Congress, the arrest of political dissident and the poor; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was transformed from an agency to respond to national disasters into a network to impose martial law, and Reagan had WWII concentration camps used on Japanese citizens rehabilitated for political dissidents and the homeless.
With the acceptance of no economic growth, the surplus labor pool (or the unemployed) are no longer necessary to capitalism and are now just leaches off their profits. This is the logic behind the laws passed against homelessness; people ask "Where do they expect the homeless to go?" The answer is they want them to die.
This is also the logic behind the new "welfare reform," the 30% cuts to Aid to Families with Dependant Children (AFDC), and the attack on labor rights: in a nationally organized economy, it no longer is necessary for General Motors to cut wages at a particular factory to cut the cost of reproducing the labor force; they can cut it directly by cutting aid to un-wed mothers, unemployment benefits, welfare, etc.; with NAFTA, they can also move factories to Mexico and drive peasants off the land.
These are the hardships that people of all oppressed classes have had to face, and homeless people have taken the hardest blows so far; but in the face of such overwhelming opposition, we have also seen amazing courage, from Los Angeles to Chiapas. The same is true of the homeless.
The struggles of the 80's and the 90's have ranged from squatting rights, homesteading, land issues, settlements and camps, struggles against laws and outright street fighting with the cops. if you don't know the history of the New York Squatters Movement (not to mention England), Thompson Square Park in NY, People's Park in Berkley, the fight of Food Not Bombs in San Fransisco, I recommend researching the politics of these struggles. Some were pacifist, some weren't, but they all fought from a revolutionary perspective because many of the homeless know their only hope is the complete transformation of the social and economic system.
As I stated before, when social classes oppose to the system of domination, they create new social relations between themselves and creates new possibilities for doing and thinking. By being able to see and understand these new realities, we can provide a solid ground for the reorganization of society on new beginnings, which as workers of social change, we have taken a certain degree of responsibility for.
In the struggles of homeless individuals, we can find two strong phenomena: (1) a rejection of centralized authority and a strive for consensus decision making; (2) a negation of private property which prevents the homeless from living in otherwise available housing. In my opinion, the homeless have developed the Idea of Communism from the dead tokenism it represented in China and Russia of centralized planning, to the living idea of direct community control, the decentralization of power, and the abolition of the exclusion from property. This is what the homeless have been striving for - consciously and unconsciously.
Last year I was part of a week long movement of homeless youth in Seattle's University District which had taken a revolutionary stance from the beginning. It included police confrontations, marches, and building take-overs. After long debate over our relationship to the media, we finally decided that the only purpose of talking to the press was to get out our message - that we can have a different way of life - a different society.
Since the press couldn't get the type of statements they wanted from the youth, they turned towards the social workers who reassured the public that all we wanted was more social workers who reassured the public that all we wanted was more shelter space and that if their programs were getting more funding things like this wouldn't happen. This was a complete betrayal of the homeless community - to water down their aspirations and struggles for public consumption is an attempt to sell-out their struggles and use them to better your program; it does not aid the self-determination of the homeless and the development of a new consciousness of the struggle.
The struggles of the unemployed have historically been against their exclusion to the means of production which forms the basis for their oppression. In times of riots this takes the form of looting; in times of revolution, unemployed people have taken over closed factories, buildings, and stores, and have begun to run things themselves. At the time of the Paris Commune in Marx's day, employment was 20%-30% and the majority of workers control was enacted by previously unemployed workers. This struggle can rightly be called socialism - or the elimination of class privilege.
Being a revolutionary isn't something you can be just on the weekend, or on Monday and Tuesday, but not the rest of the week. It is something that defines you as much as you define it; it is a constant process of thinking and re-thinking what you are doing and who you are.
What I am dedicated to is the development of a revolutionary praxis (or unity of theory and practice) or methodology, which is directly opposed to strategy building. Strategizing is usually limited to single issue politics, however so-called "revolutionary" organizations also use this style of organizing.
What happens is what you're doing, what effects and goals you desire are left abstract, or the connection between your short term and long term goals is an abstraction of words. The goal - freedom, social change, etc. - is posed as an "after the revolution," or "after the elections," but the means often stand in direct opposition to the goal. How can you destroy the social hierarchy if you're building one to replace it? This contradiction of means and ends is in my opinion why we have experienced so many failed revolutions.
As a Marxist-Humanist, I reject the concept of "After the revolution" in place of the philosophy of Revolution-in-Permanence - that revolution is a process of confronting each emerging contradiction, finding new solutions, and reorganizing relations when more humane methods are discovered. This is my unique approach to the question of the "transition period."
Marx posed the transition period this way (see "Critique of the Gotha Programme"): there will be workers who represent the interests of the people and act as social organizers. The point is to reorganize society to eliminate the possibility of class oppression. In other words, it should be the goal of every social worker to eliminate the need for their work. But in fact, some groups like National Coalition for the Homeless have actually took part in planning to put homeless people in old concentration camps.
As we can see by the way social work agencies tend to try and perpetuate themselves, so long as a basis for class oppression exists, the class of social workers can form a new elite class as they did in Soviet Russia. Marx called for the "whithering away of the state" and said that the degree we have approached a truly free society can be measured by to what degree we are still dependent on these social workers; but this whithering doesn't just happen - there are very real social and class contradictions that need to be broken. That is why it is important to develop a praxis.
Praxis is dedicated to re-developing the idea of freedom rather than organization/coalition building. In place of the hierarchy of leadership strategies is the logical development of the idea as it emerges out of the social struggles and leads to new possibilities of social practice. Gramsci had a way of posing revolutionary praxis as posing yourself as part of the contradiction and struggling to find your way out. Many activists and social workers may find that an accurate description of your life.
What Gramsci adds, though, is that we must raise the struggle to the point of a principle: we must strive towards a theory, a conclusion, which then becomes a new beginning for us.
It is important to realize that the problems that face us both among ourselves and our ability to organize, are the same problems that face the oppressed classes, but they are posed differently: we see them as theoretical questions, while for them it is practical problems. But each strives for the other as theory and practice try to unite in the solutions to an historic problem.
By finding the link between the personal and the political to the struggles happening here and in other parts of the world, we can pose the contradictions in their historical framework - or what I would call philosophically. And the contradiction I feel our age is facing is to find a unity of our vision of a new society and our organization of it here and now.
This process of Revolution-in-Permanence develops along what can be called a revolutionary dialectic. Dialectics is the science of the development of contradictions and was first developed scientifically by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. In his Science of Logic, he outlines the development of a contradiction as a negation of the negation.
The way I was taught this was first you negate what is, then you do something else - negate your negation. But, while this is a double negation, it isn't a complete transcendence of the contradiction: what you are doing is still defined by what you oppose and it isn't free; there is a further negation you must go through where you realize what you are doing and what you oppose are still the same thing in the end. This second negation is where Marx posed the revolutionary subjects - as those who create the new society.
In order to make that leap, we must be involved in the social project of creating new human relations and breaking down social barriers; only then can we be in a position to grasp the new idea in a real, practical way that it can become the basis - the new beginning - for the reorganization of society.
IV. Diversity and Multiculturalism
By viewing the situation from the possibilities to come, revolutionary strategy emerges from itself as creating situations which encourage the realization of these possibilities toward self-activity.
For example, one way to raise the struggle of the homeless to the struggle of the unemployed is to leaflet at the unemployment offices. By building care networks between employed and unemployed, we encourage class solidarity on economic issues. By building coalitions between Unions, Rank & File Labor, unemployment and welfare rights groups, and civil rights and other minority groups we can contribute to breaking down the divisions between different social classes.