James Westcott

The Ground Zero Culture Wars

One of the last crumbs of hope for imaginative, forward-looking urban renewal at the new World Trade Center has just been swept away. On Wednesday, New York Governor George Pataki -- a Republican presidential hopeful for 2008 -- wiped the International Freedom Center from redevlopment plans at Ground Zero.

Pataki's intervention into a project he himself had originally signed off on (together with the increasingly impotent Lower Manhattan Development Corporation) came in response to pressure from Debra Burlingame's activist group, Take Back the Memorial, and the many people they brought on board: nearly 50,000 signatories to an online petition, members of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, The New York Post, and even Senator Hilary Clinton.

These critics feared that the IFC, which would have been a gateway to the underground memorial and memorial museum, would have drowned out the "story" of 9/11 with irrelevant political causes célèbres. Any discussion of the history and concept of freedom, which the IFC proposed to host as a constructive intellectual response to the 9/11 attacks, would have too easily turned controversial, thus defiling the "sacred ground" of World Trade Center.

There were certainly good reasons even for progressives to think twice about the now-extinct IFC: 9/11 would have implicitly stood at the apex of the world's lumped-together freedom struggles, and one has to be suspicious of putting "freedom" in a museum, a place normally reserved for the rare and antiquated. But even with these reservations and risks, it would have been better to build the IFC than not.

The IFC, and the new World Trade Center as a whole, appear to be victims of an intensifying culture war at Ground Zero, which the forces of reaction are winning, hands down. As it did on the national political level, mourning has morphed at Ground Zero into a sense of exalted privilege and unlimited sovereignty for some of the 9/11 victims' families, and into a deep suspicion of placing the attacks into a global context -- even without the slightest intention of excusing them.

Take Back the Memorial and its more extreme supporters seem to want, in effect, to preserve a 16-acre plot of Lower Manhattan as the cemetery Osama bin Laden turned it into. They don't want a vibrant urban culture emerging on the site of so much pain, even though this, alongside a respectful memorial, would seem to be a pretty good response to 9/11.

What remains at the new World Trade Center on paper is the foreboding fortress of the "Freedom Tower," several other corporate castles housing 10 million square feet of office space, a vast and solemn concrete plaza dotted with ready-made instant trees, 500,000 square feet of retail space and a bloated memorial museum that will now also colonize the IFC-less World Cultural Center building. To top it off, Pataki's office just announced the approval of an absurdly baroque new PATH transit hub on the site. If the IFC would have desecrated holy ground, as its opponents claimed, what about all these developments?

Another, less well-reported development at Ground Zero along with the eviction of the IFC also hints at the growing sense of entitlement and isolationism: the New York Times' Nicholas Ouroussoff reported on June 19 that the architects of the 9/11 memorial, Michael Arad and Peter Walker, have acceded to families' demands for private grieving rooms and a private entrance to the memorial.

One can only assume that victims' family members will carry a special key to bypass the tourists and access restricted parts of the memorial. This demand for hierarchy and privacy at the memorial is part of the the same line of thinking that led to the ouster of the IFC.

"Just Don't Fund It"

"There is most definitely a resonance of the culture wars here," Burlingame told me in an interview the day before Pataki nixed the IFC. Burlingame pointed to the lesson of Rudy Giuliani and his fight against the Brooklyn Museum exhibition "Sensation" in 2000. The court ruled that you can't fund a public institution and then withdraw that funding when it features something you don't like -- in this case provocative works by the Young British Artists of the late 1990s.

The obvious takeaway from this ruling, Burlingame said, "is not to fund the IFC in the first place." This turns out to be the only way to fulfill Pataki's stipulation earlier this month that the IFC give an "absolute guarantee" that it would never "disparage" America or risk offending victims' families: you can't ask a museum to censor itself, in advance, in perpetuity. Burlingame said of the IFC, whose board featured human rights and ACLU luminaries: "They want a mini-U.N. down there. They've told us that in advance. So don't fund it." Well, she won.

It's clear that the IFC debate was about more than just the perceived encroachment of a happy-clappy institution on "sacred ground." You could hear it in the tone of voice of the speakers at a Take Back the Memorial rally at Ground Zero on September 10, when they listed with contempt some of the issues the IFC would apparently concentrate on at the expense of 9/11: "The struggle of Tibetan monks, democracy in Ukraine..." You could see it the placard that read: "A shrine for heroes or the whine of zeroes?" and in another one about the "Liberal media."

Most of all, you could see it in the refusal to acknowledge that a museum focused only on the single day of 9/11 was also a deeply ideological gesture, just as the IFC would have been -- Burlingame was correct -- an ideological gesture. There was no way to avoid being political with the memorial museum and the IFC.

Burlingame, whose brother was the original pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon, told me she wasn't against the IFC in principle. "Do I want somebody to stand up on a soap box and talk about America's foreign policy leading to 9/11? Personally, that would be painful for me. But yes, they can do it. Just not there. This is about respectful boundaries," she said. "Some people are so narcissistic that that they think they can impose their opinions anywhere."

If all these battle-lines in the Culture Wars -- neutrality, offense, sanctity, free speech -- are wearyingly familiar, one interesting new feature is the way Burlingame and others on the right have taken the arguments about competing and comparing narratives and turned them to their own ends. The IFC was "lumping together historical events and diminishing their meaning," Burlingame said. "It's an anti-intellectual way of understanding history. You can't make the Holocaust into a human rights issue of tolerance."

For Burlingame, it was all about "stories." In her Wall Street Journal op-ed that launched the anti-IFC movement she said: "9/11 is not only a story of loss, it's an uplifting story of decency triumphing over depravity." It's strange to hear talk from the right about 9/11 as if it's a story just as much as a real event, especially since this implication carries with it the now-annoying lefty idea that everything is a text, open to contestation.

In a New York Times interview on August 12, Burlingame delivered the same message, but with an interesting addition: "They're trying to hijack the meaning of 9/11; we're trying to rescue it. It's not just a story of death and loss. It's a love story of human decency triumphing over human depravity." What's weird here is how the dominant narrative -- the one espoused by the president and the mainstream media -- is apparently under threat from a subtly violent attempt to stifle its legitimate means of self-representation.

But the reality is that the "story" of 9/11 that was apparently being drowned out by the IFC was always going to be told next door to the IFC in the memorial museum, a separate institution. It was never the zero-sum game that the opposition painted it as. The memorial museum, which was never going to be replaced by the IFC anyway, was originally designed larger than either the Whitney or the Guggenheim. Such was the vulnerability of the simple, local 9/11 "story."

Now that the IFC has been evicted from the World Cultural Center building next door, the governor's office has announced that this space will also be occupied by more 9/11 memorabilia. So now the memorial museum will probably be bigger than the Whitney and the Guggenheim combined.

Private Grieving

The proposal of private grieving rooms is difficult to verify, incidentally, since no other reference has been made to it apart from one Ouroussoff article in the Times, and since the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation refused to grant an interview with the memorial's architects and failed to respond to multiple requests for a fact-check. But even if the concept only exists as an idea, it is still significant, and also plays into this myopia, albeit much more ambiguously.

In her book "Precarious Life," the theorist Judith Butler laments how an event that violently, horribly, revealed our inescapable global interdependence became a general cause for hunkering down at home and lashing out abroad. Vulnerability was not something to be acknowledged and explored, and maybe shared more evenly. Instead, we would try to eradicate our vulnerability.

The new World Trade Center, perhaps with a semi-privatized memorial and certainly sans the IFC, and with an array of skyscraper-castles devoid of any public or progressive programming -- like theaters, apartments, or rooftop wind turbines, for example -- seems to encapsulate this mentality.

The introduction of exclusive areas at a public memorial suggests something more than a necessary, sympathetic privacy for family members who have no cemetery to visit. This need should be met somehow. But we also have to recognize at the same time the dangers of this proposed private grief, and its perhaps unconscious motivations. Although it's something hard to question without sounding callous, the idea of private rooms at the memorial carries with it a subtle, but palpable, sense of a velvet-rope mentality, a quieter version of the elevated entitlement and bullying bluster that did away with the IFC.

But 9/11 was a horrifically public atrocity that affected all people; even if they were outside of New York or didn't lose family members or friends. To imply there's a place in the memorial where some can feel grief more profoundly and purely than in the public areas -- and to imply that grieving is more valuable if done alone -- does a disservice to the millions that will visit the memorial.

Just as the defunct IFC proposed to invite people other than those directly affected into the "story" of 9/11, so a fully public memorial would acknowledge the fact that some suffered more than others. It would also defend the idea that access to grief, and the possibility of unlimited empathy, is universal. Otherwise, the message that's given at the memorial, and perhaps at the new World Trade Center is: you wouldn't understand, you weren't there, this is my tragedy and only mine, and nothing positive can be made from it.

The Iraq War as Entertainment

Images of the Iraq war are superabundant, and, in contrast to the CNN videogame simulations of the Gulf War, the style is now raw, on-the-ground, and usually in-your-face. They come not just from CNN, but from an overwhelming array of sources: frontline blogs, digital photos, terrorists' snuff movies, al-Jazeera footage of collateral damage, embedded news reports, short "War Zone" films, a dramatization of the war on cable TV, and a plethora of indy exposé documentaries like Gunner Palace, Uncovered: The Truth About the Iraq War, and Control Room.

The amateur internet and digital footage is usually too repulsive to watch, and even when it's not, a feeling of unseemly access attends it - should we really be watching this? But the slick, produced material on the news, on cable, and in the cinema - where most people still absorb Iraq, despite the new digital frontiers - now aspires to the rawness of the amateur stuff. Different genres of representation are melding together. Revelations and hard-hitting drama are promised, unprecedented access is granted, and a total view seems possible. What we're left with, though, is an increasing A.D.D. about Iraq - an inevitable effect of the glut of representations of the war, all of which claim to bring it all back home like never before. But they pose an ethical dilemma: Is it acceptable to be entertained by an "epic series" like FX's "Over There" while the war is still happening?

Another problem arising from Iraq's relentless mediation - a problem that I'm guilty of enacting right here in this essay - is that talking about media representations of Iraq becomes an easy substitute to talking about what the hell to do about Iraq itself. But one documentary in particular called Occupation: Dreamland, out in September, comes closer than anything else about Iraq to connecting us to the raw experience on the ground - and, hopefully, leading us to a real reckoning. Before we get to that, however, let's trace the winding path that will eventually lead to us to the elusive realness of Iraq.

Why "Over There" stays over there
At the end of episode one of FX's "Over There," a fictionalized drama about American soldiers in Iraq which attracted a handsome 4.1 million viewers and is already available on DVD, a troop carrier reverses gently onto a roadside bomb. We know what's going to happen because we are shown an extreme close-up of the fat tire rolling, with agonizing inevitability, towards a small white flag in the ground. Then, just before the anticipated contact, we get a zoom-out shot that neatly encompasses the whole scene for maximum explosion effect.

Film School 101: If you signal to the viewer that a bomb is about to go off, that's suspense - a classic filmic technique. If a bomb just explodes in your face out of nowhere, that's surprise - that's real, and that's how it happens in Iraq. But we can't begrudge too much that Steven Bochco, producer of the famously gritty "NYPD Blue" and now of "Over There," introduces dramatic effects - it is fiction he's dealing in, after all.

What's annoying, though, is the show's persistent claims of unflinching verisimilitude. Despite the arsenal of raw-and-real special effects employed to try to make events properly harrowing and immediate - an Iraqi's legs taking a couple of final steps independently of the severed, fallen, torso, for example - the show's ultimate special effect is to keep the trauma safely over there, on the other side of the world, and in the periphery of our consciousness. You can do about ten things while watching "Over There" and still maintain the necessary concentration - about the same required for a music video.

"Over There" is so obsessed with realness, yet so impatient with it, that it lapses in to the hyper-real: In the shoot-outs, we get juddery sequences that occasionally have the feeling of being played backwards - maybe to signal the disorientation of the battlefield. Lenses are warped, camera angles jagged and tilted, colors saturated. But the viewer retains her privileged perspective of events, and the stylization is so intense that we are never allowed to forget that we're watching "high" TV.

Plot-wise, the problem is not just that the characters are appalling clichés - the soldier whose father "went out for cigarettes" years ago and never returned, the boozy wife back home, the cruel-to-be-kind sergeant. Even the sensitive attempts at bucking stereotypes by including, for instance, an Arab American soldier, and a vicious female soldier who treads on corpses' hands - all this smacks of a dutiful complexity demanded by focus group consultation. And the requisite fog-of-war ambiguity in battlefield decisions is also approached clumsily, through the insertion of obviously important but evasively small-scale ethical conundrums: a car approaching a checkpoint won't slow down - should you shoot everyone in the car?

But the show is predictably allergic to the larger ethical conundrums of the war. Unlike the real soldiers, these characters never once question, even implicitly, why they're there. The characters and scenarios in "Over There" really have nothing to do with Iraq; you feel like the dramas could be played out in any war -- or, for that matter, in a hospital, police precinct, or law firm -- just as effectively.

The show's theme song, an acoustic ballad written by co-creator Chris Gerolmo, features the lyric: "Ours is not to reason why," as if the Iraq war is beyond human ken, just something that you have to get on with. Bochco has said that, with regard to introducing politics in the show, he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. But the show's paranoid neutrality isn't fair and balanced, some admirable feat of TV writing; it's just cowardly avoidance, and a terrible missed opportunity. It would have been perfectly possible to make a drama that was politically alive without being partisan.

Gunner Palace wants its MTV
A politicized documentary - though with an equal emphasis on (hyper)realism - Gunner Palace is on the opposite end of the spectrum from "Over There." It arrived in multiplexes early last year, heralded by a poster of a photoshopped rosey-cheeked (child?) soldier, and tantalized us with the tagline: "Some war stories will never make the nightly news." But you know within a few seconds that it too will fail to really bring Iraq home: filmmaker Michael Tucker mumbles, Martin Sheen-style, something about being stuck in Baghdad for a year and not being able to change the channel. Juxtaposition - of commercialized mass youth culture with war - substitutes for insight in Gunner Palace. It's a dumb politics that stifles narrative. And, worse, the style is deeply patronizing to the soldiers. Nearly every shot shows them goofing around in Uday and Qusay's old playboy mansion, which has been converted into a Spring Break-style frat house. The young men and women frolic in the pool, freestyle to the camera, or grope inarticulately for something profound in response to a rushed, unearned question. Tucker disses MTV in his commentary, yet aspires exactly to its hyper-real slick 'n gritty aesthetic. And this is sold to us as the hardcore, unseen reality of Iraq.

Occupation: Dreamland and real time
Occupation: Dreamland is political too, but not preachy. Angered by the "growing sense of unreality" that both the Bush Administration and the media were "folding into everyday life" before, during, and after the invasion of Iraq, filmmakers Garret Scott and Ian Olds went to Fallujah in the winter of 2003 - before things got really bad - to document events for themselves. They lived at the appropriately-named army base, Dreamland, with a unit of confused but clever, engaged soldiers from the 82nd Airborne division.

The portrayal of the soliders is generous and occasionally gentle, and the rhetorical restraint about to the larger question of the war is staggering, and occasionally even a bit frustrating. The film still stamps its deeply skeptical political message into your head by letting the unfolding events speak for themselves. Olds says: "The soldiers in the film, regardless of whether they're on the left or the right, all recognize their own experience in it. There were so many chances to push things a little further, to make this guy say a bit more," he says. "But we tried to reflect the complexity of a subjective experience, and to put your finger on the scale and overdo it undermines all the work you're doing. Any political relevance it could have would be wiped away."

When an improvised explosive device detonates near the end of Occupation: Dreamland, there's no stylistic or filmic warning. It comes from nowhere. But the entire film has been a slow-burning revelation of the growing frustration in Fallujah that produced that bomb. Two moments are particularly chilling. During one of the many almost farcical stop-and-chats in the city streets, where soldiers have the impossible task of placating citizens' anger at not having electricity or jobs, one man wags his finger and warns, in English: "Be careful of Fallujah." Later, after a house-to-house raid - another of the film's repeated dramas, or anti-dramas - a soldier distrusts an Iraqi who insists he is "not opposed," and says dismissively: "Fuck this guy. Zip him up." A bag is put over his head (in "Over There," detainees are blindfolded), and he's driven away.

Scott and Olds left Fallujah shortly before the contractors were strung up from the bridge, before the insurgency intensified, and before the city was all but destroyed and turned into a veritable concentration camp with compulsory labor, shoot-on-sight curfews, and retinal scans for its registered residents. Scott says he wasn't disappointed, for the film's sake, that he missed the calamity. "Considering what we were interested in, which was a phenomenon, a state of experience, the big combat was not so important," Scott says. "You could go in at any time and a thousand precious, amazing, and terrible things would happen. I feel that the most fascinating things happen in the most mundane ways in day to day life, and it's just a matter of observing them."

We may miss the big action, and the biggest explosions, but Occupation: Dreamland reveals something rare and important: a slice of life that we couldn't see on the nightly news, on FX, or in the slew of in-your-face "revelatory" documentaries -- not because it's too shocking or too political, but because it's too complex and too slow - necessarily so. The film treads the fine line of representing boredom without being boring. Nothing is revealed quickly and simply, and we don't always have the best view of events. Seen from a distance by the camera, a good-willed - and probably bored stiff - soldier on night-watch tries to engage an Iraqi in a friendly cultural exchange, which gradually becomes embarrassingly stultified. In a debriefing, the unit's commander talks himself into a realization: he doesn't know why they are there. Earlier, a group of children wave - menacingly? - at the soldiers and at the camera as their truck drives away.

Most of all though, there is waiting. The footage in Occupation: Dreamland has the same dreamy-real feel as the addictive "Raw Video" that Reuters streamed on its website during the invasion of Iraq: barely edited, long-lasting shots of the desert, personnel carriers rumbling along, soldiers milling about or rounding up detainees - all without commentary, without captions, without logos, ads, explanations, or pre-emptive interpretation. Because nothing is happening specifically for you and your privileged TV-viewing perspective, you really do feel like you're there. Slowness, which no other media or movie has the guts to give us, seems to be the surest path to hard-hitting verisimilitude - and, maybe, to a real reckoning.

Slum Politics

In the last three months, the Bombay Municipal Corporation has demolished 80,000 shanties in a city where 3 million people are slum dwellers. The local government recently granted legal status to homes built before 1995, and bulldozed everything else. The devastation is "tsunami-like," according to the Indian Inter Press news agency. Three hundred and fifty thousand people have been made homeless but only 50,000 new apartments have been provided. The program is part of Bombay's plan to re-model itself on the ruthlessly prosperous Shanghai, which has tried to eradicate its slums.

But Shanghai's slums remain, as they do in other cities, as part of an inexorable global trend: 200,000 people a day are carrot-and-sticked from the countryside to cities that then refuse to accommodate them. In Bombay they end up in shacks by the road, on railway tracks and next to the airport – embarrassingly visible from landing planes. In Lagos, two-thirds of which is made up of slums, a shanty town has sprouted up on an enormous, slowly burning garbage dump. In Kibera, the slum surrounding Nairobi, raw sewage flows over the few water pipes, and latrines are so scarce that people simply defecate in plastic bags and then throw them as far away from their dwelling as possible – a phenomenon called "flying toilets."

Eighty-five percent of the developing world's urban population now lives in slums, and 40 percent of slum dwellers in Africa live in what the UN calls "life-threatening" poverty.

Elsewhere though, squatter communities are so well developed that they can't properly be called slums. With multi-story buildings, shops, businesses and offices – even a squatter town hall – Sultanbeyli in Istanbul is now almost indistinguishable from the adjacent "legal" city. Despite the varying conditions, the world's squatters hold certain things in common: they live in semi-sovereign, if squalid, mini-city states, paying no taxes and leaching services like water and electricity and, occasionally, some rights, from the legit world. They operate in an illegal or informal economy, and have only the most tenuous relationship with the state. According to the UN, by 2030 a quarter of the world's population will be living like this. In the midst of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe of slum-growth, we could be in for some major social, political and economic consequences that are only just starting to be discussed.

The rock star philosopher Slavoj Zizek has called the growth of slums the "crucial geopolitical event of our time," and an "opportunity" for a truly "'free' world." Slum dwellers, though in sore need of health care and minimal means of self-organization, are free in the double sense of the word, says Zizek, writing in the London Review of Books: "'free' from all substantial ties; dwelling in a free space, outside the regulation of the state." Zizek warns against idealizing squatters as a new "revolutionary class" – their freedom really is another word for nothing left to lose – but in the next breath he marvels at how beautifully squatters seem to fit into Marx's definition of a proletarian revolutionary subject.

With the apparent collapse of the anti-globalization carnival and the impotence of the anti-war movement, could the left be on to something, at last, with squatters – not the anarchists in developed cities who do it as a lifestyle choice, but the billion ex-peasants, entrepreneurs and derelicts who are starting to numerically dominate every city in the world outside of the northern and western hemispheres?

Two new books touch tentatively – inadvertently even – on this possibility, without endorsing it. It might seem pretty callous to speculate from the comfort of the West about political "opportunity" in third world slums when people don't have clean drinking water or flush toilets. Or is it utterly necessary to move beyond the standard pity and fear of slum-dwellers and start recognizing them as political agents, not just victims?

This seems to be Robert Neuwirth's aim in Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (Routledge), although he doesn't actually note or promote the development of squatters' political capital. Neuwirth, a journalist based in New York, spent two years living in some of the world's burgeoning slums. He was dazzled by squatters' resourcefulness and doggedness, but these individualistic qualities don't seem to lend themselves to the building of co-operation within or between communities. While living among relatively prosperous squatters in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro's 150,000-strong shadow city, Neuwirth says that people hardly noticed the army's forced eviction of squatters in the capital, Brasilia – "Their solidarity did not extend much beyond their street."

The most interesting section of Shadow Cities isn't the reportage, which is often robotic and impatient, like a 30-second TV news piece. It's the chapter on "Proper Squatters, Improper Property," where Neuwirth discusses political scientists Hernando de Soto and Peter Marcuse's views on squatters, which represent the difficulties of grappling with the phenomenon of squatting in traditional ideological terms. De Soto, a free marketeer, wants to release the "dead capital" that squatters' property and entrepreneurship represents by immediately granting legal title deeds. Then the credit cards and consumerism will come. Marcuse, looking from the left, surprisingly seems to have rather less hope for squatters. As a result of their selfish pursuit of their own betterment, Marcuse says that squatters' communities – if they can be called that – are disorganized and inefficient, no model for a radical urban future.

There are further complications to the seductive idea of squatters harboring – or already enacting – some revolutionary potential. Rocinha, the largest of Rio's 600 favelas, now has all the trappings of normal urban life: grocery stores, banks, video rental stores, restaurants, a nightclub, even three health clubs and a postal service. Rocinha also has a small McDonald's, credit card companies, loan shops, and a cable TV supplier – there are more TVs than fridges in the favela.

This is asfaltiza̢̤o: the inevitable, probably welcome, gentrification of slums that will eventually happen everywhere if governments Рmade to feel insecure by people who apparently don't need them Рcan resist the temptation to tear down these rebellious neighborhoods. But does asfaltiza̢̤o mean that these lawless, propertyless rugged individualists simply can't wait to integrate their slums into Mall World, where the rest of us live? Who can blame them?

In Planet of the Slums (Verso), another new book (to be released in June) on the urban poor, sociologist Mike Davis is cautious about perceiving slums as bubbling political volcanoes: "the [l]eft [is] still largely missing from the slum," he says. Islam and Pentecostalism are the unifying forces in the slums of Morocco, Latin America and Africa, occupying "a social space analogous to that of twentieth-century socialism and anarchism." While squatters don't fit into old-fashioned categories, or demonstrate much political solidarity, Davis notes that slum dwellers are "the fastest growing, and most unprecedented, social class on earth." We didn't forecast the catastrophic growth of slums, and we may not be able to predict the political implications either – but there must be some.

Are we really seeing an accelerated version in the developing world of the slum stages that western cities went through, as Neuwirth intimates? Or are we seeing a humanitarian crisis of a different order, one caused by neo-liberal pressures on agriculture and simultaneous loss of jobs in cities? Planet of the Slums is a more foreboding book than Shadow Cities: Davis sees an under-recognized humanitarian catastrophe, and not much redeeming political opportunity, yet. Worse, it's a catastrophe that is irreversible under present conditions: "The labour-power of a billion people has been expelled from the world system, and who can imagine any plausible scenario, under neoliberal auspices, that would reintegrate them as productive workers or mass consumers?" The development of Rocinha offers one such scenario of integration – or appropriation – of the outside world into the (former) slum, but this is only a tiny sliver of the humanity that has been rendered surplus. Who knows if this model of slum gentrification will transplant itself, and should we care if it neuters the possibilities of new models of ownership and informal economic activity latent in the world's slums?

After speaking to Celine D'Cruz, one of the founders of Slum Dwellers International (Zizek would surely find the name encouraging), such intellectual and theoretical questions suddenly seemed frivolous in the face of the immediate and perpetual crisis her organization deals with. SDI was founded in South Africa in 1996 to give more than a token voice for the urban poor in the decisions made by lofty NGOs, development agencies, the UN, and local municipalities. There are now dozens of groups affiliated with SDI across the global south, but according to its web site, the primary focus of the group is "emphatically local."

I phoned D'Cruz in Bombay shortly after she had visited one of the freshly demolished slums. People had started to rebuild their homes, she told me, but that day the Municipal Corporation had paid another visit and attempted to remove the roofs of the hastily reconstructed shacks. "When the city comes with force like this it's very difficult to resist. People get pissed off," she said. "They sometimes throw chile powder in [city officials'] eyes, scream and shout, stand in front of their house. Today they had a big fight, the [corporation] guys got frightened and they left. But it's no fun guarding your house every day."

SDI is trying to negotiate the proper resettlement of Bombay's squatters. This means including them in the process – not, as has happened in the past, housing fishermen and vendors in high-rise new tenements where they can't carry their equipment up the stairs. When you don't ask squatters where and how they want to live, D'Cruz says, "you deliver and construct houses that aren't good enough for the poor." So it's no wonder they often just sell the property that was given to them and move to another shanty town where they can determine their own lives again.

Still, D'Cruz is wary about "romanticizing" the impressive defiance of the squatters (something Neuwirth occasionally lapses into in Shadow Cities). She insisted that none of them relish their place on the margins. "Speak to any woman: she doesn't want to live on the street or on railway tracks. She dreams of a better home for her children. She doesn't want to leave them plastic sheets when she's dead."

Eighty percent of the membership of SDI is women. "That's a big difference from conventional movements," said D'Cruz. "I think housing is something that's very important to women. A man can come to a city and live under a bridge, a sheet, anywhere. But if a city can't provide for a woman, she's extremely vulnerable. Women have a much greater stamina for dealing with the complexities" of securing housing rights.

The composition of SDI is one aspect of an unfamiliar but also unassuming radicalism. D'Cruz says that slum dwellers don't necessarily have a macro view of the neo-liberal conditions that shape their lives, "But they are surely able to make choices in their cities that work for them without holding the city to ransom." SDI seeks local and immediate solutions – they're don't seem to be interested in big rhetoric or new theories – and then shares their knowledge internationally: "Our point is if a Japanese businessman can go to the other side of the world to do business, what's to stop a slum dweller representing themselves in another part of the world?" With that, D'Cruz had to leave, with a delegation of slum dwellers and NGO representatives, to catch a plane to Kenya for an international SDI board meeting. On the agenda: AIDS, demolitions, the loss of a lot of their leadership in the tsunami, and resettlement of its living victims – the harrowing practicalities that come before theory.

On the Take

When the Forja auto plant in suburban Buenos Aires closed down after Argentina went bankrupt in December 2001, even the pigeons deserted the factory. "There were always so many pigeons in here," says a tearful laid-off worker named Freddy as he revisits the factory with his old colleagues two years after they lost their jobs. This incursion into the defunct factory is the first step in the workers' 'Take' – taking back the company – and the most poignant moment of "The Take," Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein's documentary about the National Movement of Recovered Companies (MNER) in Argentina. A year later, Freddy and his buddies at Forja would be back on the shop floor, forging parts again – their bosses nowhere to be seen.

Klein, the author of "No Logo," the bible of the Seattle-Genoa global justice movement, and Lewis, host of the TV show "Counterspin," made "The Take" in response to their opponents' persistent question: "We know what you're against, but what are you for?" When they heard about worker-run factories in Argentina filling the vacuum left by corrupt managers, the husband-wife team found something concrete that they were for: democracy in the work place.

Expropriated companies (the legal term for businesses that are stolen, or stolen back by the workers) nearly always become more productive than they were under the old managers. The Zanon ceramics factory in the southern city of Neuquen now produces more tiles and employs more people than it did under the old management structure. Brukman, a garment factory in downtown Buenos Aires, fought off eviction, paid overdue gas and electricity bills and resumed production even though they couldn't legally issue receipts for the suits they made. According to the solidarity group Workers Without Bosses – who are making an appeal on behalf of the Brukman seamstresses for machine parts and instruction manuals – there are now about 200 worker-run factories in Argentina, employing around 10,000 people.

"The movement isn't exploding, but it is undergoing stable growth," Lewis said in a Q&A after a screening of "The Take" in New York, where it had an initial run last week. "There were halcyon visions of a shadow economy developing. But it's not an alternative economy, and it's not necessarily how we should proceed in this country. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution."

So instead of propogating a factory-takeover system, the documentary focusses on small, usually emotive details of the workers' struggles. We see Forja workers doing target practice with slingshots and marbles in preparation for a forced eviction; the women of Brukman – with the whole community behind them – repelled by teargas and water cannons when they try to force their way back into the factory; and lots of moody shots of derelict buildings.

Because Klein and Lewis focused on the human-interest approach, a lot of details are fustratingly absent: Did the workers have to raise capital to restart their machines? How exactly do worker-run companies gather the expertise to start trading? Was there any hint of Animal Farm-type power-grabs in the nascent worker collectives? Perhaps the biggest unanswered question though is exactly how the Forja workers, and others, secured legal expropriation of their factories – the most important part of a take. The movie doesn't show how the workers afforded lawyers, and under what precedent – if any – they made their case for expropriation. But we do see the Forja workers weeping when the decision finally goes their way on appeal.

This focus is deliberate, Klein told me in an interview. "We didn't want to make a lecture. A film should grab people emotionally and from there get them to read a dissertation on bankruptcy law," Klein said. "We aren't constitutionally capable of writing a manifesto. Even if I could write one, I really don't think I'd want to. I'm not hungering for ideology."

A polemic may not have been appropriate since workers at Forja, Zanon and Brukman reclaimed their factories more through pragmatism than ideology: without social security and jobs in Argentina, what else was there to do? When Freddy attends an MNER meeting for the first time, there is a vague sense of something potentially radical going on in Argentina. But he doesn't make a speech about workers of the world uniting; he tells everyone how hard it has been supporting his family since he was laid off (again, weeping).

Unlike worker-run factories in the old communist states, worker self-management in Argentina is starting from the bottom up, Klein said, and this is what interests her about the movement. Still, the movie's apparent phobia of ideology – the word "Marxism" is never uttered, but there is a glib aside from Lewis: "Think Russia, think Cuba" – actually saps power from the narrative. Without a historical framework or a real political punch, we're left with a rather sentimental and suprisingly timid account, devoid of policy detail. A folk song on film.

A general phobia of ideology might hobble the MNER too. They seem to lack political clout, and neither Nestor Kirchner nor Carlos Menem had anything good to say about worker-run factories in the 2003 presidential elections, which form the backdrop to the movie. Kirchner won, and although he is continuing Argentina's relationship with the IMF, Lewis said he's doing nothing to hurt the MNER – but nothing to help it either. "The real test will come when Argentina stabilizes and there are new elections," Lewis said. It's uncertain whether the courts and politicians will continue to tolerate the idea of worker-run factories when allowing them to function is no longer simply a question of political and economic expedience – the lack of a viable alternative.

In the movie, the filmmakers seem to be in love with the idealistic young activist Maddie and her abstention slogan: "Our dreams don't fit on your ballots." But what about making a place on the ballot for the apparently realizable dream of democracy in the work place? Can this happen without ideology, without manifestos, and without leaders?

Maybe. Klein has her own ideas about the way the worker-run factory movement could spread – somewhere between a meme and a revolutionary spirit blowin' in the wind. "Ideologues love to believe that they can write a book, tell people how the world should work, and that it will be imposed exactly as they imagined it. I believe in a more fluid kind of political change: you throw an idea out there and it travels, and it changes. Some of the workers are Marxists," Klein says. "But more interestingly, they situate what they are doing in a Latin American context, drawing inspiration from the Zapatistas in Mexico and the landless movement in Brazil." The MNER has been called Zapatismo in the city, and their slogan is the same as that of the MST (Landless Workers Movement): Occupy, resist, produce. MST did it in the countryside in Brazil, Brukman and Forja are doing it in Buenos Aires.

Something similar has even happened in Canada. When management announced the closure of the Alcan aluminum smelter in Quebec in January this year, workers occupied the factory and ran it themselves for two weeks (exceeding normal levels of production). Apparently, there doesn't have to be a nationwide catastrophe before workers can seize the means of production – just local catastrophes, Klein said. In American towns where the primary employer has closed down, Klein believes that "People are absolutely ready for desperate measures." Lewis cited the Oneida flatware factory in upstate New York, where 500 workers recently lost their jobs, as a prime example of where a take could happen – if the idea catches on.

But could a take happen where perhaps it most needs to – in the sweatshops in Export Processing Zones that Klein wrote about in "No Logo"?

Klein is sadly doubtful. Brukman and Zanon were defended by their respective communities, but in an EPZ there is no community. "The point of these zones is to deracinate production from the community. It takes production and jails it – literally fences it in, with massive security," Klein said. "No one lives inside and no one from the outside who doesn't work there is allowed in. And the factories are specifically prohibited from selling in the local market, so the model of community support is broken. It made me realize how dangerous these zones are as economic models." Still, Klein says that the flexibility in the idea of worker-run factories is its strength. "I believe workers in Export Processing Zones in China can figure out how to make it work."

Shop Till You Stop

"Take your hands away from the product!" roars Reverend Billy. His Church of Stop Shopping -- about 12 people dressed in gold robes and rocking side to side as they sing an anti-consumerist gospel -- pull their hands violently up and away from an imaginary Mickey Mouse toy made by sweatshop labor, or from a $5 latte, or from one of FAO Schwartz's "war toys."

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