Currently there is a debate raging about the pros and cons of Save-on-Meats in the Downtown Eastside. The latest is a polarizing sandwich token program to help feed the poor. According to the plan, restaurant customers can purchase tokens from Save-on-Meats and donate them to people in the neighborhood. Critiques have been made here, here, and here, as well as at The Mainlander, with Peter Driftmier’s “Beggars Can’t be Choosers” (Peter used to be a sandwich maker at Save-on-Meats).
The reception of these debates runs a winding path but gravitates to the falsely-posed question of whether people “like” or identify with the entrepreneurial genius behind Save-on-Meats: Mark Brand. “The frontier,” Neil Smith wrote in his New Urban Frontier, “represents an evocative combination of economic, geographical and historical advances, and yet the social individualism pinned to this destiny is in one very important respect a myth.” Mark Brand, treated as either a hero or villain of the urban frontier, enters the field of mythology and becomes a new Jim Green figure for our time, garnering a similar respect for balancing “social” and business concerns (if Green started in politics and moved into business, Brand seems to finish where Green left off and moves back into “politics”).
I.) In a time of periodic riots, enthusiastic uprisings and the rejuvenation of mass mobilizations of the oppressed, a new rebellious subjectivity has re-emerged onto the scene. For a moment in recent history no future appeared for this class of the excluded, because a common collective present was held captive by the rule of profit and the logic of disempowerment. Today, however, a new rebellious class is emerging that is recommencing a history of struggle. Simultaneously destructive, dynamic and creative, this project has advanced the capacity to unlock and forward a formerly inexistent possibility: a universally viable project for emancipation outside the regime of dispossession, acculturated lifestyles and callous self-interest.
II.) Contemporary emancipatory politics makes room for that which was formerly inexistent. The examples of this form of subjectivity are as numerous as they are brilliant: indigenous councils in Bolivia; the emergence of Syriza, the Coalition of Radical Left in Greece; tenant organizing from Shanghai to Vancouver; weekly student demonstrations in Quebec. In these instances, the new lexicon for political consciousness is immediately produced, formed through occupations, strikes and grassroots organizing. From the perspective of the struggle, the terrain of politics has shifted both at the level of praxis — in terms of the novel invention of new organizations and movements — but also with the medium of thinking the political conjuncture and its contradictions through mass mobilization. For those who have made it their priority to side with mass politics, the assumed inevitability of the class relation no longer appears inevitable. The long twilight of left-wing melancholia that has tainted potential militants with cynical nihilism and pious self-righteousness has lost legitimacy, insofar as greater numbers are determined to throw every molecule of their being into the dawn of communism’s rebirth. The historical project of emancipation is no longer held in by the seal of obsolescence, or worse, treated longingly with nostalgia. If there is any sort of critique of the market that has gained relevance, it is a critique sutured to an emancipatory project that is intent on abolishing the class relation and the existing state of things.
Yang Fudong’s highly-stylized, black-and-white film, Fifth Night (2010), best resembles a state of purgatory. Threadbare proletariat, ripped at the collar, drag themselves through a movie set that imitates a Shanghai city-square. Although the setting is dated to the 30s and 40s with vintage cars, plaid suits, and tramways, the temporality of the film is indeterminate. More like a nightmare, the film resists any historical specificity. Wandering nowhere in particular, Yang’s actors appear as they are imprisoned in a world not of their choosing. Not one of them possesses the capacity to speak. Dirtied by soot and grease, their bodies are marked by nights of labour and slowed by fatigue. Commanding an insubstantial weight, their poverty is extreme: they even do not own their own exhaustion. Despite their poverty their stature is monumental and their faces oscillate between the reserved and the searing. Counterposed to the rambling labourers, two elegantly dressed upper-class women are admixed with the setting. Despite their class position, they share the same countenance of the laborers: melancholic, distraught, wistful. Isolated from one another, each character treats their surroundings with a good mix of suspicion, contemplation and disbelief. Ultimately caught in solitude, these characters trawl themselves through the square with hesitation, or at times, stumble backwards in shock.
Juan Manuel Sepúlveda’s film, Every Image calls for its Redemption – Matter is not created nor destroyed (it only changes form) (2012) sets off from the Zacatecas community a couple of months after a blockade at Goldcorp’s Peñasquito mine in Mexico. Installed outside the entrance of the SFU Audain Gallery for the MFA exhibition Apparitions (2012), the installation format is peculiar and unconventional. The installation, split in two, begins with an interview with a rural ejidatario (communal land owner) who gestures without sound as he drives his truck through the Mazapil city centre. His body mimes a testimonial address, but the sounds that emit from the installation’s headphones are instead the ambient everyday noises found on any Vancouver side-street: a bus moves along an electric-wire; indiscernible shouts and murmurs ring along the sidewalk; police sirens annoy without end; footsteps advance down a hall with added weight and resonance. Yet from the truck ride, the sequence quickly moves from intimate address to the unending descent down a craggy dirt road towards the Peñasquito mine.
It’s nice that people are rising to the defence of the CBC, which has genuinely been in the Harper government’s crosshairs from day one. But I find the rhetoric of this Reimagine CBC project perplexing and more than a little problematic. Its primary mission is clearly to rally Canadians behind the CBC as the Conservatives proceed to slash the much-loved Crown Corporation’s budget. The campaign has undertaken a “crowdsourcing” effort to address some of CBC’s deficiencies and channel the institution into the 21st century. But the overall tone of the project is much more laudatory than critical, and this prismatic “reimagining” actually amounts to little more than a tepid request that the government reverse the cuts and the CBC tweak its programming strategy.
EDITORAL INTRODUCTION | From the start, Vancouver has been marked by a history of racism against Chinese and Asian immigrants, a fact which few commentators can overlook (although not few enough, as this article demonstrates in its sharp critique of Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk). Part I of this three-part essay by Nathan Crompton reaches into contemporary Vancouver to find that despite the passage of time, original assumptions and archetypes of race and class have proven indispensable for an ongoing history of scapegoating – a history that has, according to Crompton, reached a peak in today’s discussion of housing in Vancouver. Far from signaling the simple break away from the city’s colonial past, the mystical real-estate economy proves fertile grounds for the re-capitulation of the time-tested logic of political scapegoating. This three-part essay is sure to have an impact not only for its use of historical and empirical research to blow the lid off assumptions that Vancouver’s housing crisis can be explained by Asian capital, but for its direct critique of household politicians and commentators. From Sandy Garossino to Gregor Robertson, few are spared in this militant clarion-call to move beyond the present by clearing out the skeletons of history.
At different points throughout the 125 years of its history, colonial Vancouver has blamed its problems on others. The relation between “citizens” and “foreigners” underlying the identity of Vancouver has been at times explosive – as when anti-Asian riots attacked Chinatown and Japantown in 1907. Flashpoints occurred again in the 1880s, the 1900s, the 1930s, the 1970s and 1990s, always with the same result: to draw up new lines of exclusion and discrimination while deepening the political disorientation of the times. At other moments the relationship has been segregated but passive, embedded in the habits and rituals of the city. Today, when it is assumed that xenophobic movements could not gain the same momentum as 100 years ago, the penchant to blame “foreigners” for local problems continues. In an assessment of contemporary Vancouver, Henry Yu once asked presciently, “is Vancouver the future or the past”? If the question reads like a riddle, it is because the answer is equally uncertain. As extreme-right movements today pick up momentum in Europe and elsewhere in the context of financial crisis and long-term economic stagnation, it is now more than ever that we should examine global and local histories of racism and xenophobia.
Fin de siècle Vancouver
There was recently a telling moment when Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk used his column to target Vancouver school board trustee, Allan Wong. Hasiuk attacked Wong for a motion put forward at the school board calling on the province to incorporate the history of British Columbians of Chinese descent into the regular provincial curriculum. Curriculum changes were not needed, according to Hasiuk, since there is already too much Chinese Canadian history taught in the secondary curriculum. Hasiuk moreover mocks the Head Tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Canadian Pacific Railway as a “holy trinity” in both the curriculum and cultural memory of Vancouver.
Today Vancouver is conceived as a monopolizable totality, everywhere placed in circulation for consumption and contemplation. As every square-inch of the city becomes privatized for Vancouver’s capitalist class, the balance of forces veer in favor of profit, enjoyment, and the preservation of crisis. Beating with the mercurial blood of surplus value, the pulse of the city is tightly constricted by the developer-monopoly tourniquet — a tried, tested and true apparatus of monopoly-capitalist development that equilibrates the terms of supply and demand in order to keep housing prices impossibly high.