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Contributing Writers TWISTED MORALITY - June 2018

Half Actualized: Why getting better is getting slowed down

Photo by Kumoma Lab

Written by Rachel Plett

Maslow’s Hierarchy is a triangle-shaped theory of psychological health. It’s probably popped up at least once in your feed, posted by one of your self-help guru friends. It starts with clean water and enough sleep, and ends with being the best you can be and finally founding that iguana cafe you’ve always dreamed about starting. You know, the one where folks can get a good latte and cuddle with big lizards at the same time. What’s less-known is that later in life Maslow added another tier to his self-help pyramid called self-transcendence. Props to Abe for adding the dimension of caring for others; but in asserting that caring for others comes after, or is morally superior to, caring for and discovering yourself, the man made a mistake. By defining self-actualization as a precursor to self-transcendence, Maslow reveals the ways in which his thinking is touched by his era and gender. All this would be NBD if this categorical error was confined to one humanist psychologist, however, this particular bias extends beyond psychology into our social, governmental and monetary systems, where it has had a profound impact on the ways in which we organize societies, governments, and markets – that is where things begin to get problematic.

Before getting into the history and economics, let’s take a look at the logic and assumptions behind putting self-transcendence at the top of the pyramid. Self-actualization is defined, simply, as the discovery and fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities. It is essentially exploring and understanding what you’re good at and who you’re capable of being. Self-transcendence is doing something for the sake of someone else, or because of a moral/ideological stance; most moral/ideological stances are beliefs rooted in how one should treat “others.” There’s nothing in the definition of self-actualization that would make it a defacto precursor to self-transcendence. If anything, self-transcendence reads best as a subcategory of self-actualization; a good way to discover your talents and potential.  

The issue with thinking about self-actualization as we currently do is that it’s regularly reinterpreted as self-interest – interest in one’s self, personal advantages, growth, and improvement. However, knowing yourself and looking out for yourself are not the same thing. Knowing yourself (self-actualization) is the goal; focusing on yourself (self-interest) and sharing with others (self-transcendence) are the parallel means of achieving that goal. In reality, everything we know about ourselves stems from our reflections on the other’s reactions to what we do. In the words of the excellent hippy Alan Watts, “Self and other define each other mutually.”

On an individual level, putting self-transcendence at the top implicitly suggests that meaning and the personal growth, joy, and satisfaction that comes with caring for others should be postponed until after one has hurdled a long (often growing) list of self-interested goal posts. This sets up a toxic “I can’t be good until I’m good enough” cycle.

It also contributes to a misalignment of self-interest and self-transcendence within society – where one is imperative and the other is impossible. The attainability of self-transcendence within society – more often referred to as altruism – is an ongoing debate that, all to often, elevates altruism to an unrealistic, unrealizable “God status” that one can’t, and shouldn’t be held accountable to. What is worse, some scoff at the whole idea as being a religious fantasy, a psychological balm devised to make this “dog eat dog” world bearable. By making altruism appear as something so unattainable or unreal, we say to each other that the best you can be is Kanye, while dismissing the path to becoming Mother Teresa, Ghandi, or MLK Jr. as impossible. So we reward absorption, enrichment, and dominance with our time, money, and attention, and wring our hands together in bewilderment, wondering why, with all this wealth, the world isn’t getting better faster.

Photo by Jose Martin Ramirez

One (if not the biggest) hindrance to this envisioned better world is the fact that we – western, politically democratic and economically liberal societies – have institutionalized the subordination of self-transcendence (caring) in relation to self-interest by relying, almost exclusively, on tax dollars and donations to fund the work and economics of caring. This institutional arrangement creates a perverse incentive system that puts economic quotas on caring and turns self-transcendence into a luxury experience reserved for the well-off, rather than presenting it as an inborn motivation that each of us should be rewarded for acting upon. The alliance of market capitalism and philanthropy is the institutionalization of the “do good after you’ve done well” relationship discussed earlier, and while the desire to recycle one’s excess should be lauded, there are a few issues that emerge from this arrangement. One of the most obvious being high net worth individuals, removed as they are from need and the social issues they aim to impact, generally lack the knowledge and on the ground insight to effectively impact the problems they aim to solve. Another issue is the fragmentation of the capital market that funds the caring economy. According to the SSIR, $390 billion in philanthropic donations are made annually, plus many hundreds of billions in government grants and contracts. However, because those contributions come from hundreds of different foundations, faith organizations, as well as state and federal governments, they create a capital market that is inherently volatile and subject to the whims and pressures of those with political and economic power, rather than being responsive to the needs and demands of the issues and communities actually being targeted. Finally, by setting up a system where the money for care work comes from donations or tax dollars, the system ensures that self-transcendent activities and enterprises have to survive on a trickle of the economic rewards generated by the provision economy, our self-interested endeavours, rather than growing organically to meet our demand for a better world.

If self-interest and self-transcendence are companion paths to self-actualization, and provision and caring are dual requirements for our health and wellbeing, how have we made it to 2018 with an efficient economic system for one and a proverbial cash pinata for the other? Part of the answer is the rise in monogamy and the domestication and disenfranchisement of women. This shift in norms and the social contract coincided with the rise of agriculture and private land ownership. Compared to the 300,000 years of humankind, monogamy is a relatively new social innovation. Current research suggests that monogamy did not emerge as a normative behavior until around 12,000 years ago; the same time society transitioned from hunter-gatherer tribes to agrarian settlements. With this transition came growing obsession with the concept of property and women got folded into this narrative. With few exceptions, these emerging agrarian societies began to treat both women and land like assets; units of productivity traded among families rather than independent citizens. As financial and governing institutions began to crystallize, women were famously excluded from the conversation; they were denied the rights to representation, vote, and own property. Furthermore, as the delegation of the of society’s three fundamental activities – protection, provision, and  caring – formalized, women’s biology predisposed them to become the primary participants in the caring economy. The benefits and injustices of this arrangement are hotly debated and not the focus of this article (many others have covered this debate and done it better). The focus of this article is the impact this arrangement has had on the evolution of our economic systems and financial institutions; what we’ve gotten right and what we’ve neglected to build in.

Photo by Rob Curran

Despite what the ideologues would have you believe, capitalism is not a natural order. It’s a social system that has evolved over thousands of years. From the first green revolution to the current data disruption, it has been enabled and renegotiated with every productivity evolution. Capitalism is a cultural system rooted in the need for individuals and investors to turn a profit. This system orchestrates a positive feedback loop where greater efficiency means more productivity (more stuff), lower prices, more demand, more money, and ultimately greater efficiency again. By design, capitalism rewards provision and motivates self-interest. It’s the best system we have for incentivizing increases in efficiency and productivity that make it possible to provide a growing variety of better quality products and services to global markets. This excess doesn’t always make it to where it’s needed, but it is produced and distributed at peak efficiency. This efficiency is a testament to the success of capitalism as a social system.

If all we required is provision to be healthy and happy, then capitalism is the only economic system we would ever need. For a growing majority, however, wellbeing no longer hinges on provision. Increasingly, our individual and collective happiness hinges on the opportunity we have to hope, find meaning, and forge durable connections; all outcomes that are tied to caring and self-transcendence. That we are drowning in an overabundance of products and options while fretting about the fraying edges of our social fabric, and struggling with loneliness, existential anxiety, and growing tribal animosity is a testament to the fact that uses for capitalism are limited to efficiency and provision and it is failing when it comes to incentivising and rewarding prosocial outcomes that are continually growing in demand.

Social liberals blame this unraveling on social media, and social conservatives point to the decline of family values, but everyone agrees that when both adults in a home “work”, time pressure and stress increase. But, there it is, in that word, “work.” We don’t see self-transcendence as a viable economic motivator. We don’t see care-work as work. We definitely don’t treat caregiving professions like good jobs and the reason for that is simple. The major formal institution that governs exchanges of the care economy’s value is marriage. In this system women and the value generated by the work they do, are traded as an asset between father and groom. But people aren’t assets, and being a care-worker should not economically shackle one person to another, nor should the economy that incentivizes this kind of work be confined by the profit motives of the provision economy and/or the political jockeying of political and religious leaders. Caring needs its own economy, one that can grow or shrink with demand; one that can take into consideration the idiosyncrasies of care-work that prohibit it from fitting comfortably into the dynamics of capitalism.

Traditionally, women have done most of the of the work in the care economy: caring for children; caring for the sick and aging, organizing communities, fortifying social safety nets and norms, and investing in education. In some cultures, if the productivity of one woman wasn’t enough you got another wife – in others, you bought a slave. Either way, the development of socioeconomic contracts that can efficiently broker the exchange of value within the care economy have been stunted by the fact that, for most of our history, care workers have been treated and traded like property. Even when institutions have stepped in, those institutions have been devoid of female leadership. Religious organizations like the Catholic Church were among the first to bring a formal structure beyond matrimony to the care economy; while nuns were the primary purveyors of care, women were barred from priesthood and therefore from the design process of one of the first civil society institutions. The same is true for government. At the time governments began establishing social programs women didn’t even have the vote, let alone equal representation in civil society and government. So, while the policies and norms were laid down for the system we have now, almost none of the primary actors informed or deliberated on the process. Man to man exclusion has led to demonstration, revolt, revolution, and war, and while this may have been disruptive and bloody, it has driven market economics of the provision economy to evolve in ways that the economics of the care economy have not.       

The communist/capitalist debate is hack. Today, the majority of countries have mixed market economies – a mixture of command (government controlled) and market (privately held) structures. However, as we discussed earlier, the care economy is mostly a command economy with limited accountability to end consumers. There are other and better answers to the question of: “how do we incentivize self-transcendence and economically reward the work of caring?” (other than through taxes and tithing). Hope, generosity, empathy, idealism, love… These are all powerful, self-transcendent motivators. The fact that we haven’t designed an efficient system to tap into and empower them is proof of the limited amount of innovation and insight that comes from excluding more than half the population – the half tasked with self-transcendent work – from the design process; not proof that the motivation is not genuine or actionable. Self-transcendence is only second to self-interest because our founding fathers and famous philosophers wrote it to be so, while their wives were busy transcending themselves every day in caring for their families, friends, and community.

Give it a little time. Us ladies are just getting to the table.

Contributing Writers Creative Pieces TWISTED MORALITY - June 2018

GreenWar: Because the Earth is worth the fight!

Photos courtesy of GreenWar

Presentation by Selçuk Balamir, Mathieu Grosche and Shabnam Zeraati

GreenWar – Corporate Identity from GreenWar on Vimeo.

Wars have always caused major destruction and loss. But they have many positive externalities as well. We would not have tin cans if Napoleon had not urged his engineers to invent a way to conserve food. We would not have computers, if the Germans had not wanted to conquer the world. And even the internet was invented by the Pentagon.

So let’s face it: wars are here to stay. It is quite unrealistic to anticipate the end of wars in the 21st century. At the same time however, it is equally impossible to ignore the environmental challenges in front of us: if we expect to keep on fighting throughout this century, we cannot just sit and do nothing about the climate crisis, deforestation, disappearing species and so on.

Our sustainable military development company GreenWar is an innovative brand adopting a unique strategic position in the industry. We see ourselves at the crossroads of arms manufacturing and eco-design. We can help you make environmentally-friendly, energy-conserving, carbon-neutral, ecological conflicts.

But of course this does not mean the end of casualties. Quite the opposite actually! At GreenWar, we see well beyond the simple human criteria. We are in a global ecosystem where each and every being contributes to the cycle of life, where “human loss” equals “unleashing springtime”. Death should not be perceived as a loss, but as an essential part of natural cycles. Cradle-to-grave and all that.

For us “sustainability” means to satisfy the need of the present generation to wage wars, without compromising the need of future generations to wage theirs. At GreenWar, ecology is a war that never ends.

Photos courtesy of GreenWar

Here is our flagship product. Bullet for the Earth is made out of eco-friendly materials and it contains seeds that grow after use. Thus every shot gives a chance to make a tree grow. Would soldiers not be more motivated, if ammunition contained rare plant seeds? After all, they would contribute actively to the cycle of life. Enemies could become trees, a true benefit for all.

Many scenarios are possible; lost bullets, bodies left in battlefields and mass graves might all potentially give life to whole forests. An offshoot can also be sent to the soldier’s family along with his ID tag, making it possible to plant it in one’s garden, keeping the memory alive for generations. The seeds contained in the bullet are of different species. Hence a large variety of forests will take place after every war.

Next year we are launching our new product: seed bombs. Much more effective than individual bullets. Drop one and let a thousand flowers blossom!

Photos courtesy of GreenWar

We run a partnership programme with Monsanto, famous for their terminator seeds, to develop genetically modified seeds specially designed for particular conflict zones. India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine, the Balkans… you name it. We make it.

We are also pleased to have worked with the Obama administration, which obviously did not impede the  US war efforts, but nonetheless opted for more environmentally-friendly alternatives. I watched Mr. President himself give a little gesture towards Mother Nature: a fighter jet that runs on biofuels. Named the Green Hornet, it was Launched on Earth Day.

Fortunately, the US is not the only one seeking solutions! A few years ago, we were invited to this charming event at the European Parliament, the best place in the universe. It was such a timely initiative, considering that 2010 was the year of biodiversity.

However, I must admit that I was utterly disappointed when we were told that we should not expect fancy new weapons. Instead, the panelists spoke about awareness-raising campaigns reminding soldiers to switch off the light before leaving the room. If European soldiers are getting killed during convoys transporting bad, unsustainable diesel fuel to military bases, it is because of the unsustainable soldiers that forget to turn off the lights. Henceforth, the panelists agreed on the need to invest in renewables.

The world is a pretty dangerous place, but it doesn’t have to be this way anymore. We strongly believe that wars of the third millennium can be ecological, humanistic and poetical. Men should have no reluctance about going to war, they should have a good reason: ecology. Because the Earth is worth the fight!

Contributing Writers HOMEWARD - May 2018

Home of the Global Citizen

Photo by Don Ross

Written by Tuisku ‘Snow’ Kolu

The world is more interconnected than ever before, and while most still have some sense of home that is tied to a singular location – a family home, a city, a nation – this growing interconnectedness has created new groups and waves of people whose idea of home can be more convoluted.

Expatriate communities have been growing at an exponential level in recent years, leading to a new phenomenon of home identity. In 2017 there were an estimated 258 million people living outside their nation of origin according to UN statistics, compared to the 154 million in 1990. This is more than three and a half times larger than the population of the United Kingdom and about half the population size of the EU. While it is accurate that many of those living abroad may still have a sense of home tied to their origin nation, there is one particular group resulting from such migration trends that illustrate how the changing nature of global society has altered the concept of home –  Third Culture Kids (TCKs).

TCKs are individuals who spent some or all of their formative years in one or more countries outside their parents’ home country. The name comes from the idea that such a child would have three cultures – their parent’s native culture, the culture of the country they partially grew up in, and finally a combination of the two. This combination is a mixed identity that combines their parents’ culture and the culture(s) they grew up in. Many who feel an affinity with this definition have lived in several different nations by the time they are adults, allowing their cultural identity to include ideals and values of different origins. TCKs can develop into adults with a sense of global citizenship, belonging everywhere and nowhere all at once.

Many TCKs can find the traditional concept of home with its ties to a location unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable. TCKs often experience discomfort with their identity on return to their nation of origin. Some psychologists discuss this as ‘cultural homelessness’, as many TCKs find it difficult to associate with a singular culture. There is a sense of otherness that develops from this. Personally, I found returning to my native country to be more confusing and alienating than when moving somewhere unfamiliar. To an extent, this often comes from an experience of ‘otherness,’ feeling foreign and disconnected. While I still felt some affinity with certain cultural elements, much was at odds with my identity. As such for many TCKs the concept of a singular location as a home can be inconceivable. There is an abundant amount of memes online attempting to put words to this experience – from the question ‘where are you from?’ setting off a full-blown identity crisis, to the confusing attempts at explaining why your accent seems to fluctuate between 3 or 4 different vocations.

However, much of this discomfort may come from the pressure to feel an affinity with the traditional concept of home. In a childhood where your head is cracked open beyond this notion – allowing the creation of an identity which attempts to compile an understanding and relationship to completely different sets of histories and peoples – this concept of home has to be explored in a different way. Because, once it is cracked, returning to a familiar national identity is easier said than done.

When releasing the concept of home from nationality, one can begin to assess the less tangible elements associated with it. This can be explored in how we discuss home. The idiom “in the comforts of one’s own home” suggests that people tend to associate home with a feeling of comfort; of familiarity. Moreover the saying “home is where the heart is” suggests a need for loved ones and community. I would also argue that this ties in a sense with our traditional understanding of home being tied to a nation, as home appears to be seeking the feeling of being understood.

Attempting to understand comfort and familiarity in relation to the life of a TCK can feel inherently flawed. There is not a lot of stability/consistency in the life of a TCK due to the often changing environment. However, life is change. Change is now one of the most familiar and comfortable feelings I experience in adulthood. This feeling of excitement for the unknown and the approaching change is wonderful. Arguably many TCKs are accustomed to change, understand it better than most, and are generally considered highly effective at assimilating to new situations and cultures. Hence many of us feel most comfortable in a migrating lifestyle and continue to do so into adulthood. As such, change is home because it feels consistent due to its inherently inconsistent nature.

Photo by Milada Vigerova

By understanding home in relation to community and loved ones, constant movement can once again feel at odds with such a development. As I discussed earlier, TCKs can find a considerable feeling of foreignness in relation to the country of their origin. Studies show that TCKs are often quick at developing friendships and creating a community in new surroundings, due to their ability to assimilate. As such much of the feeling of a sense of belonging can come from these ties with friends and family. However, I would argue that there is a further level understanding of your friends and community that is needed to feel ‘home’. Beyond your own assimilation, it is the feeling that someone else fully understands your identity. Arguably many TCKs struggle to find this as adults due to a migrating lifestyle and being surrounded by those who identify closely with nationality.

To an extent, TCKs have found new ways of achieving this with the help of technology and increasingly cheaper travel. TCKs have developed a considerable web presence, allowing individuals with similar childhoods to come together online and share their common experience. This includes discussion and advice forums, blogs, and a heavily dedicated meme culture. As such, there is a sense of a community of people who can come together due to a common set of TCK experiences. Occasionally you also get the joy of running into another TCK in real life and connect over the similarities in lifestyle. As such I would argue there is a similar bond between TCKs as there are between those that derive their sense of home from nationality. This is due to both groups sharing a common set of experiences. Cheap travel and social media also allow the TCKs of today to stay better connected to their friends and family.

I have been incredibly fortunate, meeting marvelous people throughout my travels that have given me a sense of community and understanding over time that has succeeded to allow a sense of home.

With regard to the changing nature of our society, it may be time to reassess our traditional conception of ‘home’. An exploration of the ideas related to home can allow those that may not seem as connected to feel more comfortable with their sense of identity, and less lost within such a concept. In taking time to reassess seemingly uncomplicated ideas such as ‘home’ in light of the changing nature of society, it may allow us to better understand and feel comfortable in this change. Although at first, it can feel at odds with what we traditionally consider home, it is arguably more similar than we may give it credit, in its seeking of comfort and community. There is some power in the ability to find home beyond a single nation, in seeking it in the large scale of fluidity of the modern global society. Being comfortable with such an identity can allow an exploration of ideas from several different perspectives – some call it a “three-dimensional” worldview.  

Contributing Writers THE CITY - April 2018

Understanding Cities through Metaphors

Photo by Chuttersnap, Unsplash

Written by Max Muller

Although I have never been to an Alicia Keys concert, I imagine it must go something like this: first you excitedly wait in line, eagerly waiting for the moment you’re allowed to enter the sold-out stadium. After you and your friends have found your seats, you share some food and thoughts on her latest album. Then, the lights fade. The buzzing noise of chatting people immediately follows suit. A few seconds later, a roar from the crowd breaks the silence: she has arrived. You sing and dance your heart out to her classics, including “If I Ain’t Got You” and “No one”. You get a sore throat and you’re exhausted from the intense experience. And yet… something is missing. Until you realize she has saved her best song for the finale: “Empire State of Mind (Part II)”:

“Baby, I’m from…

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of

There’s nothing you can’t do”

You finally find closure, as she has put the cherry on the cake.

Well, at least that’s how I imagine the experience. To me, that’s her best song. Her beautiful voice and talented piano playing notwithstanding, there is another element of the song that appeals to me. It’s the lyrics: they’re clever. The comparison of New York with a “concrete jungle” strikes me as particularly insightful.

Transformations of Meaning

In 1980, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote their now seminal book Metaphors We Live By. Until their work, the role of metaphors in philosophy and linguistics had only been deemed of peripheral interest. Lakoff and Johnson made huge swathes of people realize that metaphors are not just stylistic devices to spice up a mediocre novel. They showed, on the contrary, that they’re essential ingredients for people to concoct an overarching view of reality. In other words: people largely understand the world through metaphors.

Consider, for instance, the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This conception of arguments or discussions is deeply entrenched in our understanding of the concept. Our language betrays it. For us it is completely natural to say things like:

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • His criticisms were right on target.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.

Chances are you haven’t even realized that we use ideas from wars to metaphorically speak about arguments. Moreover, Lakoff and Johnson point out that we do not just talk about arguments in terms of war. We actually win and lose arguments. The idea of war thus gives us an indispensable tool that allows us to understand the concept of having an argument.

Throughout their book (which I heartily recommend) they give countless other examples of metaphors we use to grapple with complex phenomena, including IDEAS ARE RESOURCES (“he ran out of ideas”, “don’t waste your thoughts on useless projects”), LOVE IS MADNESS (“I’m crazy about her”, “she drives me out of my mind”), and SEEING IS TOUCHING (“I can’t take my eyes off him”, “he wants everything within reach of his eyes”).

Perhaps that is why Alicia Keys’ lyrics stuck with me. Though I sympathize with her fondness for New York in particular, I think it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to view all cities as forests, or, within an even wider perspective, ecosystems.

Let’s confine ourselves a bit and stick with the metaphor CITIES ARE JUNGLES. Obviously, the buildings are trees in this regard. It is perhaps for this reason that the English expression “to climb up the stairs” exists. In addition, hints of organic perceptions of cities can be found in sentences like “these are the world’s fastest-growing cities” and “Beijing is expanding rapidly”.

The process of incoming and outgoing commuters bears some similarity to the rhythmic movements of lungs filling and releasing air. Just like photosynthesizing trees that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, the buildings of the city can breathe people in and out. Antonio Gaudi’s “La Sagrada Familia”, a church that seems to have grown organically from the ground upwards, epitomizes this conception of buildings.

Illustration by David Fleck, 1972

Baucis, the tree city from Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” , as illustrated by David Fleck. The motif of the city as a forest also appears in Calvino’s book “The Baron in the Trees.”

Modern man has thus linguistically incorporated cities as a natural place to live, just like early humans discovered that they could find a safe haven away from the savanna and into the forest. The trees provided shelter against the rain and their height proved very useful for evading predators. The higher and bigger the tree, the more protection it could provide.

Joseph Campbell in his book The Power of Myth, points out that one can tell what’s informing society by what the tallest building is. In medieval towns, it was the cathedral. In an 18th century town, it was the political palace. Whereas in modern cities, the tallest buildings are the office buildings. We attach great significance to our centers of economic life. This is consistent with the cultural value “Bigger is Better”, which in turn is coherent with Lakoff and Johnson’s metaphor GOOD IS UP (“we hit a peak last year, but it’s been downhill ever since”, “he does high-quality work”).

Another metaphor that pervades our languages and myths is that of Mother Nature. Thus we undoubtedly attribute nature with feminine characteristics. It is a bringer of life. The ancient Greeks, who coined the term “metropolis”, highlighted the nurturing character of cities as forests in particular. The word is a combination of the words mḗtēr (mother) and pólis (city). From their perspective, the city lied at the very heart of the origins of life. Since then, cities have only become more and more important. Nowadays, more than half of the world’s population consists of urban dwellers.

If cities are so important to us, it is perhaps not so surprising that the CITIES ARE JUNGLES metaphor is not the only one that has entered our collective subconscious. Concepts that are at once important to us and difficult to understand require multiple ways of viewing them.

This is because when we focus on one aspect of the concept, we necessarily leave out or ignore many others. Take love, for instance. Not only do we take the above-mentioned metaphor LOVE IS MADNESS into consideration when we speak and think about it. We also have the metaphors LOVE IS A PATIENT (“they have a healthy marriage”) and LOVE IS MAGIC (“she cast her spell over me”) in our mental repertoire. These other metaphors enable us to look at and think about love from different angles.

Berlin is, like, a pretty cool guy

So where does that leave us with regards to our beloved cities? Again, Lakoff and Johnson provide us with a hint, as they explain that personification is a widely employed metaphorical device. We could say, for instance, “his theory explained to me how tidal movements work”. In this case, the theory of tidal movements is personified. We conceptualize the theory as a person, or perhaps more specifically as a teacher.

Cities, too, are seen as people. Each of them has its own, distinct personality. Evidence of this is found in the adjectives to describe them. We use words such as “charming”, “rebellious”, “enterprising”, and “endearing” to speak about them. In turn, they reveal how we think of these places.  

Who wouldn’t agree with me that Amsterdam is a rebellious, free-spirited, slightly scruffy but also strong, experienced, and battle-hardened guy with a mustache? He’s a man of extremes: both a party-person and a sophisticated art-lover, at once a rich business man and a poor, single father with a kid.

On the other hand we have Chartres, the medieval French town with the beautiful cathedral. She is more of a charming woman with long, brown hair and an elegant ocher dress. Whereas Amsterdam is tall and heroic, Chartres is petite and endearing. If Amsterdam is bustling and vibrant, Chartres is calm and composed.

Of course, cities are often too big to be described as having monolithic personalities. Amsterdam, for instance, is composed of a mosaic of different neighborhoods, each with its own personality traits. Amsterdam Zuid is old, rich, cultured, and of high stature. But Noord is more like the Wild West: adventurous, enterprising and experimental.

Some neighborhoods harbor multiple personalities. As a result of the quick gentrification process, the Pijp is hip, upcoming, and expensive. Its trendy restaurants and cafés act as magnets to young urban professionals hailing from all over the country. But it used to be the true Amsterdammers who lived there.

A glimpse of Amsterdam’s topographically
distributed personality types, by Nomad List

A while ago, I saw the words “Alle yuppen de Pijp uit!” (“All yuppies – young, urban professionals – should leave the Pijp!”) sprayed on a wall on the Albert Cuyp market. Viewed from a metaphorical perspective, the words signified a clash of personalities to me. It was also an expression of frustration about what kind of personality or image the neighborhood ought to have.

I hope this description of metaphors gives you some insight in the way we perceive our cities, and that it can aid you as a conceptual tool for greater understanding of all sorts of things. Considering cities in particular, we might wonder where the branches of the trees are in cities, if they are jungles. And if they are people, how do they relate to one another? How do their personalities change? Are there any other metaphors that characterize cities? I leave these questions for you to answer.

Contributing Writers THE CITY - April 2018

Who you calling a bitch?

Photo by Julian Howard

Female rappers on the sexual dynamics of street culture

Written by Dorothy Carlos

“Instinct leads me to another flow

Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho

Trying to make a sister feel low

You know all of that gots to go”

In Queen Latifah’s Grammy award-winning song “U.N.I.T.Y.” off her 1993 album Black Reign, she speaks out against street harassment which is pervasive in cities. In the song, she responds to being groped by a man passing her on the street by punching him in the eye. Catcalling, as well as other acts of sexual harassment, are often criticized by female rappers from the late 1980s to now. In fact, the gendered experience of the city – a field of sexuation one has to navigate – has been one of the major themes of female rap since its beginning.

Everyone from Monie Love to Roxanne Shante has explored the mistreatment of women in the streets through their music. Salt N Peppa discusses the issue on the track “Tramp” from Hot, Cool, and Vicious, warning fellow women that if they respond to a catcalling they might become a “victim of circumstance” and be subject to harassment.

The cross-street proposition of the catcall communicates little else but a crude libidinal drive. What could possibly prompt someone to pursue a romantic/sexual interest via catcalls? One couldn’t possibly expect a positive reaction from yelling at a stranger on the street.

Female rappers articulate the fundamental antagonisms of social life, both gendered and class-based. They serve as a counter to what is going on in male hip-hop culture: a hypersexualization of women in order to gain social capital. Because of the way young men from impoverished neighborhoods, especially young black men, are forced to navigate a power structure which will be largely against them, they grasp at power by means of the social domination of others via catcalls and additional forms of sexual harassment.

Personally, I don’t know any rap songs about a love that isn’t broken or perverted. Slum Village’s “Fall in Love” from 2000 is exemplary of the way love is navigated in hip-hop music and in poor neighborhoods:

“Don’t sell yourself to fall in love”. Although one could argue that love in our society, in general, has been replaced with sexuality, the vulnerability of love is not easily found in rap music, which is often an expression of the hardness and resilience of an individual who comes from a broken environment.

Photo by Robert Katzki

While there are factors that are unique to our historical epoch, such as the building and subsequent neglect of segregated housing by the US govt, this is a broader issue of capitalist modernity. In the Metropolis and Mental Life, Georg Simmel discusses the blase attitude of individuals living in cities at the beginning of the twentieth century. The manifestation of this is the reduction of social interactions to capitalistic exchanges between city dwellers. For example, in smaller communities you might have a personal relationship with someone who produces a product for you such as a baker; in a metropolis, a personal relationship is unlikely to develop because of the fact that consumers are unknown to the producers. Interactions become matter-of-fact and people of the metropolis develop a hardness towards others.

Simmel did not live long enough to see the crushing effects Robert Moses had on the socio-economic landscape of cities all across the United States, but perhaps his essay was a prophecy of what is to come for modern cities. In the 1930s the imperious approach of Moses prompted a radical reorganization of cities; concentrating poverty in housing projects as a means to abolish it from the city as a whole. Areas with housing projects, such as the South Bronx in New York City, which was directly impoverished by Moses’ construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, are extremely underserved by the state and harassed by police.

In the aftermath of the famous Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, Northern states, where the biggest cities were located, believed the ruling did not apply to them and made no attempt to desegregate. Even though de facto segregation was just as prevalent in the North as it was in the South, there were no laws enforcing it. There were schools for black neighborhoods and schools for white neighborhoods and this was a just product of the city structure, making it easy to perpetuate the lack of support for poor neighborhoods.

In an environment where individuals with little social and economic power are constantly in survival mode trying to make ends meet, love is compromised, and sex gladly takes its place. This is obvious if one pays attention to the explicitly sexual lyrics that make up a lot of contemporary hip-hop.

Many of the more contemporary female rappers sexualize themselves as part of their rap persona—reinforcing this idea of sex as a means to gain social capital; consider rappers such as Trina, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B, to name a few.

When asked about how to gain self-confidence, Cardi B told Hypebae: “If you feel you’re ugly just walk around the projects or something and see how many niggas holla at you.” Cardi B herself is from the Bronx and her community most likely began to experience the effects of the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway decades ago. Although parts of the female rap community have accepted the culture of sexual harassment, I believe this to be almost inevitable if you come from an impoverished, urban environment.

Within the sexual maze of the metropolis, women are caught somewhere in the middle as men try to navigate their sexuality. Because women are not as bound to heteronormative standards, they aren’t controlled by the system in the same way as men, largely due to the fact that women as a whole are often oppressed for being sexual regardless of whether or not they operate within heterosexuality. Although artists like Trina, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B have succeeded in gaining power via their sexuality, they compromise their own identity by hyper-sexualizing themselves in order to do so. Ultimately the women caught in situations of urban poverty are oppressed by the state in the same way men are. However, when women try to grasp at power via sexual domination they are likely to face oppression from their own communities, as well.

Contributing Writers THE CITY - April 2018

The Reality of Mixed-Income Housing

Photo by Tom Thain

Written by Rosalie Lucretia Ekstein, M.Sc.

Over time the development and growth of cities has been largely organic in nature. People are drawn to other people and resources. Especially when there are lots of pull-factors, this can lead to large concentrations of people in one place. That this might result in problems is no new insight. In Medieval times, for instance, the elite often perceived the poor as a risk simply because they lived nearby. On one hand this was sometimes ideological and political, but on the other hand, there was an objective threat as well, due to their poor hygiene. Living together in impoverished conditions, allowed diseases to spread easily amongst the poor, with many of these diseases being life-threatening, it’s not hard to imagine that the elite was worried about staying safe. Further, the concentration of different social groups on tight space led the elites to worry about their valuables and upcoming criminal behavior amongst the poor. Early forms of urban planning and healthcare hence focussed on combating disease and crime to protect the elites. Later, with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution factories and housing for workers had to be built. This posed new challenges for urban planning as novel threats arose.

There are multiple ways to deal with a growing population and both the real as perceived problems that come with it. Urban planning is still very much alive. Gentrification, mixed-use development, and mixed-income housing are important concerns faced by urban planners today. Just like in the Middle Ages, one can question which individuals benefit from which forms of urban planning, as well as the motivations behind the plans that currently change the face of our cities worldwide. Mixed-income housing, the focus of this article, refers to the process of building an area with houses in different price ranges in order to attract people from different socioeconomic groups. Policy makers and public administrators seem to only focus on the sunny side of mixed-income housing. Let’s have a look at the motivations and the social reality of it. 

One motivation for mixed-income housing seems to be countering segregation. Segregation, on the other hand, refers to the process of people with a similar demographic and socio-economic background grouping or being grouped together, either willingly or forced. In the United States, for instance, this has happened to the African American community, who was forced into segregation through institutional racism.  Also in the Netherlands racist implications of certain housing regulations are slowly coming to the surface. Another factor that contributed to segregation is the “white flight” a term that originated in the U.S. during the 1950’s and 60’s and refers to whites migrating from the city center to the suburbs. The definition has evolved and can adopt different connotations depending on the context, but it always refers to a change of population from whites to people of color. These trends have led to the emergence of relatively homogenous neighborhoods in bigger cities around the globe.

Evidence shows that economically deprived segregated neighborhoods had higher numbers of crime, noise, and litter. Often only neighborhoods with people from low socioeconomic status are considered problematic, according to many policymakers, politicians, and people from high or even middle socioeconomic status. It is true that in those areas one will find a different situation than in richer areas. One of the problems is crime. Yet, the crime rates might be heavily influenced by structural forces, such as institutional racism, and hence shouldn’t be seen as an actual reflection of what is going on. For example, the rate of incarceration for African Americans is far higher than for any other ethnic group in the U.S. The reason for this is not an objective feature of African Americans that leads them to be more prone to commit crimes, but an implicit racial bias of American institutions, specifically amongst the police forces. Another problem is the neighborhood effect and the resulting lack of certain forms of social capital. The neighborhood effect is a concept introduced by William Julius Wilson in 1987, which supposes an effect on individuals as a result of the neighborhood they live in. There is quite some research that shows us that where you live, influences your chances in life, whether it be health, voting behavior, or chances for upward mobility, and plenty of research that criticizes this idea as well. Social capital, a concept introduced by sociologist David Émile Durkheim in the 19th century, can improve an individual’s position within a network, or neighborhood. Just like economic capital, can influence an individual’s well being, social capital similarly affects one’s chances in life through social ties, networks, knowledge etc.

Photo by Vladimir Chuchadeev

A quick anecdotal comparison might better illustrate this point: When I was at university, there was a young man in my class whose family moved here from Afghanistan. Nobody in his family spoke Dutch and there were few social ties to local people with resources. He made it to university, but struggled with financing, language, skills and even health. For me, my parents financed my entire education. When I struggled with math, they knew someone who could tutor me. When I was sick, my parents knew a specialist, while this young man, on the other hand, had great troubles simply being understood by his physician and was forced to miss classes due to health problems that in my case, would have been resolved the next day. Up to this day, I think he was smarter than me, but he didn’t have the chances that I was granted. He couldn’t pass the first year, while I received my master’s degree. After all,  living a segregated life can severely influence the chances of an individual in a negative way. Of course, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by social scientists, politicians, and policymakers who try to intervene.

But there’s another side to this story, which focuses more on the experience of people from outside. It has been suggested that individuals who haven’t lived in segregated areas, lack the first-hand experience and also might be biased in their interpretation of the existing problems. People often interpret the world from a value specific standpoint that they take as being universal. However, if one would take a look at other cultures, times, or meta-ethics, the conclusion would be that there is no such thing as a universal set of norms and values. Instead, it seems to be a pragmatic notion that enables a person to judge others. What I find ‘unacceptable’ could be totally fine for you, and I have no right to tell you that what you’re doing is ‘antisocial’. If you are in a rich area, it will tend to look tidy and be quiet. If you go you a less privileged area, you are likely to hear music, see more damaged houses or vehicles,  and people sitting outside, talking louder than what you might be used to, and perhaps even drinking. It never bothered me that much. However, it does bother other people a lot. Dutch people have all kinds of nasty words for inhabitants of areas like that, including some racial slurs. In the U.S. as well, for example Harlem and The Bronx, have had bad reputations not only due to objective criteria, but due to many subjective ones as well. The idea is that ‘deprived’ neighborhoods have more ‘problems’. I could write a whole paper on what these perceived problems are and why they might not be problems, what matters is that in the minds of policymakers and politicians these neighborhoods are problematic. The fact that there are complex social forces at work here which play a large part in this, is easily overseen or simply unknown (even though within social science, there is so much research regarding these topics!). Also, in these deprived neighborhoods, a term which in itself speaks volumes about this bias, social control, social ties, and cohesion still exist, but in different forms. Research usually doesn’t focus on things like the ability to get non-European hair done, or how residents might share food with each other, or how peers support each other emotionally. So the question here is determining which factors play a role in the life quality of inhabitants and which factors might be biased towards a subjective and value specific norm. The idea that these neighborhoods are just problematic and have nothing valuable in themselves and therefore should be torn down to make room for new houses and new people, might be crude. There’s a risk of tearing down social cohesion and ties, which still matter a lot for people and could even contribute to their welfare, well being, safety, and chances in life.

Mixed-income housing is an idea based on the exchange of social capital between groups, and the possibility for those problematically called lower socioeconomic groups to elevate themselves. This is the recipe: you take one piece of land, you put in some cheap flats, some nicer apartments, and some bigger houses. The first would be for rent and the latter for buying. What happens is that the people that used to live there, are being forced out of their homes. Only a small portion of them can move back, due to a significantly smaller amount of cheap housing. So instead of being surrounded by your peers, you will be confronted with different people for once. Then, of course, you will start to mingle with them. Friendships are formed and people can learn from each other (i.e. the rich will elevate the poor, by increasing their social capital). Sounds neat huh? Guess what: it hasn’t happened so far. It seems to be mere wishful thinking because the sad reality is that even if people live on the same street, they are still segregated. In the Netherlands, sociological research shows that the average income of the neighborhood does go up after establishing mixed-income housing, however, those individuals who came from a low socioeconomic status are not being elevated into said status.

Even though residents’ chances for a better income does not rise, many politicians and policymakers still believe in the supposed neighborhood effect. Between 2008 and 2012, the Netherlands invested hundreds of millions in neighborhoods which were deemed ‘highly problematic’. There was a top 40 of problematic areas, called the ‘Vogelaarwijken’. I have lived in number two on that list during my own sociology study, after growing up in quite a rich area, and I have never been in a warmer, friendlier, and yes even safer area. The people knew each other and took care of each other. Then the whole block got restructured and the prices doubled. The social fabric of that place has been torn down. In the U.S. as well, there is plenty of research pointing into this direction. For example, the work of Ellickson (2009) shows that mixed-income projects in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, did not bring about the desired outcome. He concludes that “the benefits of social integration are seldom as great as advocates of mixed-income projects suppose. The high costs of producing these project thus can rarely be justified on this basis”. Sociological research has not only shown that the neighborhood effect does not seem to exist, but that people with low socioeconomic status might actually be worse off after moving into areas characterized by mixed-income housing. Instead of exchanging social capital, people in the social housing are confronted with the social and economic distance they have from their neighbors.

It seems that there are many flaws in the assumptions underlying mixed-income housing policies and the results are by no means successful enough to justify the fact that these policies are still being used worldwide. The rise and continuation of these policies can be explained by the political influence of those who gain from supplying these developments, and not by positive results for the population inhabiting the area. Too often it seems to be the case that the underlying assumptions of policy and planning are ideological instead of factual, and only seem to represent the view and needs of the already privileged.

Contributing Writers POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

PLANNING EVOLUTION? Why we cannot blueprint our progression

Photo Bruno Cervera

Written by Brennan Reichmann

On April 12th, 1961, a human being broke through the atmosphere of planet Earth. That same year a few months prior, following an aviation accident, two nuclear bombs fell on North Carolina, only two loose wires spared the accidental target from utter destruction.

If one takes the time to fully examine and weigh human history, one may notice a correlating trend between human scientific progress, and the exponential growth of potential human devastation. The progress and evolution in medicine, engineering, and the natural sciences has gone hand-in-hand with advancements in weapons technology. We live in a constant state of development. Yet, this also entails the exponential research and expansion of nuclear power as means of harnessed and weaponized energy. Albert Einstein realized the dangers of these developments, “As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable. That is not an attempt to say when it will come, but only that it is sure to come. That was true before the atomic bomb was made. What has changed is the destructiveness of war.”

Humans have been capable of devastation long before we were capable of much else. This was once instinctual and reactive, until we saw the development of the human frontal lobe, from whereupon language and society began to mold. From here, we witnessed violence evolve into a new state, a state of intent. Harm was now more than survival. When we created hammers, we simultaneously and inadvertently created a weapon more ergonomic and capable of damage than simply having a large rock in your hand. We stimulated progress in either direction at once, and this has remained the case for most human advancement up to now. Not necessarily always so acutely or directly, but that factor of coinciding progress remains.

At our core, we are all individually striving for forward progression. That definition is, of course, subjective, but it can be agreed that no human acts with regressive intent, even if the action is consciously calculated to be, say, two steps back. Humanity has never produced results of any kind, without there being a forward driving intention. Progress is hardwired into our fundamental human instincts. Our survival instinct fuels our need to creatively progress. This need for progression is responsible for our evolved state of violence, but also for our evolved state of learning. Human minds are evolving every day, striving to adapt to new and ever-present circumstances. Hence, derived from the very same source, our capabilities grow in both directions – towards progression and destruction.

Photo by Mickey O’Neil

Humanity is racing against itself. As we push ourselves deeper into the space frontier, the technological transcendence of the human body and mind is within our near future, out of the sheer necessity to continue our progression in the solar system. We integrate ourselves into technology more and more every day, propelling human evolution down a twisted, capitalistic, classist, and yet scientifically progressive path of technological advancement. As we dive deeper into virtual reality and artificial intelligence, we get closer to humanity’s full emancipation from biological restraints. A research and development team from Japan recently formulated the algorithm necessary to eventually transfer human consciousness onto a hard drive. This should allow for our consciousness to be ‘turned on and off’ as easily as a computer. The only component they are still lacking is the means of implementing the algorithm. Once completed though, humans would no longer require a biological body. Worries about diseases, famine, and death would become irrelevant, while things like deep space exploration would come within reach. This example illustrates human progress towards not only the preservation of our species, but its advancement and direct evolution.

Simultaneous to this rapid technological development is the development of treacherous weaponry designed for mass destruction. Within the past century, we have gone from harnessing automatic fire via gunpowder, to mass-destruction through radioactive and cyber warfare. There is enough active and armed weaponry on this planet lying in wait to entirely obliterate all human matter in the solar system. Our ability and knowledge on nuclear fission teeter on the same balance as our ability to further our knowledge on how to install consciousness onto a hard drive. Therefore, it is impossible to further expand our knowledge of one, while restraining progress for the other. Our future lies in the hands of progress, both in terms of creation and destruction.

Humanity will see its next stage of life in the near future. Every day, we strive towards certain aspirations and certain dreadful possibilities, and this self-prescribed balance will exact our salvation or downfall. As humanity sees itself progress deeper into a  state of earthly chaos, marked by disease, resource shortage, and overpopulation, we will see a coinciding trend of rapid scientific development. Alongside, we will experience growing tensions due to increased possibilities and means for complete destruction. Where and how we progress is entirely up to us. Living in a universe of unlimited potentials and uncertainties, this applied balance seems almost instinctual for humans – to create order and structure, to carve a beaten road through the universe of unknowns.  

Photo by Tim Mossholder

This attempt to control, to consciously decide on human evolution, is what has placed us in this teetering balance between progress and destruction.  This attempt, though, is a primitive and redundant effort, stemming from our natural instincts to preserve and survive. Outdated and useless, a call to direct action implies, that there is need for decision in order for natural progress to occur. If humanity were to remove the restrictions on progress, we might see our progress freed what we deem necessary for the survival of our species. This is mere speculation, but it can be recognized that our greatest feats of innovation and progress have occurred by ‘accident’. Flight, telecommunication, propulsion – all of these achieved by humans, pursuing goals outside the boundaries of what was deemed necessary for our survival. It is a fallacy to assume that we can decide on that which we don’t know, simply because we have the ability to decide. Rather, it is left to our ability to pursue uncertainty that in turn fuels our progress. In layman’s terms: you cannot know what you don’t know, but you can know that you don’t know. Acknowledging this is the first step towards progress.

To take a decisive position on the path of the unfolding universe would be to limit yourself. There is no way to solidify a response to the unknown natural process that will determine our future, in which we will either evolve or vanish. Any attempt to do so would suggest that one thinks themself wise enough to direct this process. We are not here to make it happen. We are here to see what happens. That alone will guide us down a path of creative and destructive progress.

Contributing Writers POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

Sex Isn’t Gender and Gender Isn’t Set

Photo by Kira Heide

Written by Niklas Illenseer

I grew up in the pallid, yet peaceful, German countryside. Like other boys, I joined the soccer team and spent my days playing in the dirt and chasing farm animals. Growing into my enlightening teenage years, I realized that I didn’t fit in as much as I’d thought I did. I loved cooking and baking, asked my grandmas for sewing advice, and had mostly girl friends, but no girlfriends. I joined the soccer team, but also the orchestra. I listened to rock, but also to Shakira. And I was obsessed with horses.

My difference eventually peaked with a relative slandering my parents for raising a ‘faggot’, because they let me paint and play with dolls.

Obviously, there was something intrinsically confusing about my behavior that set people off or made them wonder about me. A few years have passed, and the political landscape has progressed socially in many ways, while has also becoming even more divisive, even more divided. Various campaigns rally to rethink outdated gender structures and inequalities, while a pussy-grabbing misogynist reigns across the sea. Welcome to the gender debate.

Although this topic is ever-so divisive, opinions are strangely uninformed. There seems to be continuing confusion about simple terminology. For many, it’s the very definition of gender that causes bewilderment. I’ve learned that when thinking about biological sex we ask about our bodies; whereas when considering gender, we ask, ‘What defines a man/woman?’ and ‘How does one fit in with such characteristics?’. In highly simplified terms, sex is about what’s between your thighs; gender is about what’s between your ears. While one can potentially measure organs and hormones, one can’t do such a thing with gender. In most societies, your gender is assigned, often falsely, according to sex. If you are born with a vagina, you are a girl, and are told what it means to be one and how to behave like it. You are predestined to be caring and tidy, kind and cute. This false correlation between gender and sex is incredibly influential in our daily lives. We live with these stereotypes and keep educating categories we are not born into but are put into. Put ourselves into.

Photo by Harlie Raethel

The social construct

Two words, overheard and overused. Gender is a cognitive category, a box that helps sort things into different branches to help us understand, but the attributes are no more than commonly held assumptions we try to align with our fallacious binary understanding of sex. Yet however much we talk about social constructs, in the end, men do on average produce more testosterone and have biologically more muscle strength. Taking this as a whole explanatory argument, however, is flawed. Instead, we should treat it as the starting point.

At first glance, biological sex seems objective; gender and society does not play a role. This misleads us to believe that masculine aggression, for example, is a result of inherently higher levels of hormones such as testosterone. What is often neglected in this seemingly simple correlation is the role of our socialized behavior. Only recently has research begun to consider societal and social influences. Whereas hormones do influence our behavior, our behavior also influences our hormones. Challenging, competitive situations activate testosterone; this testosterone, in turn, amplifies such aggressive behavior, generating more testosterone, generating more such behavior – an upward spiral. Interestingly, research further suggests that testosterone alone actually does not induce aggressive behavior, but only “underlying motivations and reaction to environmental conditions. A trigger is needed to activate the aggression. Moreover, testosterone falls when men become fathers or practice extensive childcare. From this, we can see that it is our behavior and particularly gender infused stereotypes that mobilize such hormone mechanisms.

This misleading concept of a gender-sex connection is at the core of why various attributes are almost exclusively assigned to either men or women. We keep perpetuating the belief that each of these characteristics belongs strictly to one gender. While we allow women to show weakness, it counts publicly as improper for men, and while men are naturally dominant leading figures, seeing this trait in women is less easily accepted. In many ways, society is hyper-masculine; we reward aggressive, competitive, and risky behavior more than traditionally feminine tendencies. To endure in society, one must show such characteristics eventually, and this becomes apparent looking at the market. We have to be competitive; we have to behave aggressively (to a certain degree) to succeed. While jobs in child or elderly care, typically held by women, have disproportionately lower salaries. Rewarding ‘masculine’ traits leads us to adjust our behavior accordingly. Men and women alike are pressured to behave correspondingly and perform the respective gender stereotype. Again, yes, men are born with naturally more testosterone, but gender socialization contributes to genetic differences. Although heritable hormone differences are important, they are only part of the explanation. Socialization along lines of gender is often wrongly overlooked, causing a very one-sided account. Our behavior influences our biology, and biology is no destiny.

The important point is: we are not born with either masculinity or femininity, and neither of them can be found in our genetics. This becomes painfully obvious when we look at the varying and dynamic scope of gender-appropriate behavior or characteristics across cultures. As a concept, gender and its norms continuously change with society. For instance, prior to the Second World War, and Eleanor Roosevelt rocking her tender rose dress, pink was the color for men, viewed as both strong and blunt, daring and confident. Blue, by contrast, was the suitable color for girls and women, displaying fragility and softness. If the colors that are associated with personality traits can change, then the attributes that hide behind them can as well. Just as neither blue or pink are intrinsically masculine or feminine, neither are traits such as kindness and aggression, or strength and vulnerability. Once we realize that gender is something we produce and perform, we come to understand that nothing about it is fixed. Gender as a concept is not rooted in genitalia, bodily physiques, or chromosomes. It is human-made and exists primarily in our minds. Taking this thought still further, we realize that we can and should do without such division.

Photo by Anna Sastre

The gender burden

Why should we care – what’s so wrong with it? Clear categories make our life easier, and as people we can’t help putting things in boxes to make sense of them. However, getting rid of this categorical thinking does not take away from anyone, it only gives. To everyone. Often overlooked, particularly by men, is the fact that the eroding of gender norms benefits women and men alike, even when most men have not realized that they suffer from these norms in the first place. Consider that once we loosen our mental grip on gender norms, employers will likely see the benefits of extended parental leave for both women and men. Giving both parents a free decision between family or career, and relaxing the pressure on them to work or stay home. Naturally, as long as we connect women with the ‘softer’ traits that remain unrewarded in our society, women will earn less, and will ultimately be the ones staying at home. It’s a vicious circle. Revoking gender norms lifts that wrong correlation and will be a step towards truly equal pay and equity.

The notion of supposed gender neutrality stems yet another obscured suggestion: gender-neutral means that all our features vanish into a grey blob of indefinability. That is, of course, erroneous. Such a way of thinking of gender and considering the possibility of gender neutrality does not aim to eradicate any identity affiliation one could have with one’s gender. On the contrary, it takes the hurdle and enables us to see ourselves for our qualities more than for how much we fit into a social governance. If we start thinking of us as strong instead of as masculine and consequently strong, and as kind instead of as feminine and consequently kind, we, if anything, simply take yet another impediment away from how we see and value ourselves and others. After all, norms are relational; we see something as masculine only because we know that there is a counterpart. Without femininity, there would be no masculinity. Without such dichotomous thinking, that is so fallaciously connected to the sex division, there would be no separation to begin with.

As demonstrated earlier, almost always it is our predispositions that influence our decisions. A world, that dissolves such gender-related pressures and attributes marks an incredible leap in all forms. This, by no means, is advocating to ignore and blindsight anything attributed to gender and call it gender-neutrality. Instead, we reach this by being aware of what we do, what we say, how we act and react, what we expect and give. This is not only about kids playing with dolls, it is about teenagers subconsciously choosing ‘appropriate’ classes and hobbies in school, about adults choosing ‘appropriate’ jobs, and the way politicians decide legislation. It is incremental to become aware of the fact that this gender debate is not about artificially adding gender to something; it has been there all along, only unquestioned. Much more, it is about reflecting on how we have made gender work until now.

Everyone thinks in categories, even those who retort it. Everyone thinks in defaults. I believe this is not something we can fully eradicate, most definitely not in the short-run. However, acknowledging that we might never reach the goal of default-free thinking should not keep us from trying. Accustoming ourselves to categories, taking them for granted and leaving them unquestioned is not doing us any good. A utopia would be a future that lightens the burden of gender condemnation from the shoulders of women and men alike. In the beginning, I pointed out that there was something intrinsically confusing about my behavior. I was lucky enough to grow up in a supportive home, and with a confidence to counter more than frequent comments. Not everyone has this luxury. Getting rid of the tight-knitted gender web would save everyone from experiencing scrutinization, inequality, and shame for unintentionally swimming against outdated currents.

Contributing Writers POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

Home Sweet Profit

Photo by Cindy Tang

Written by Jessica van Horssen

I grew up in a city near Amsterdam, and when I turned 17 I moved out to the big city. I have always loved the city for its diversity, its open-mindedness, and its cultural heritage. However, over the past 10 years, it has become increasingly difficult for people from lower or lower-middle class backgrounds to find affordable housing.

Something I wondered about along the way is whether or not housing should be seen as a basic human right. We all need the basics to survive, food, water, shelter, and community, yet somehow those basics have been turned into commodities. Something with which to acquire and exercise power over others. It’s absurd that in these modern times, we still have to fight to have our basic needs met, while there is, in fact, plenty for everyone.

According to article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, a standard which includes food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of their living conditions. This implies that governments have a duty to create affordable opportunities for living for their citizens. In actual fact, the ‘financialization’ of housing appears to be a growing phenomenon, to the extent that housing is becoming disconnected from its social function. This contributes to the growing levels of inequality experienced by residents of cities like Amsterdam.  With homelessness rates reaching 49% in cities like LA, it looks like governments are failing to help us.

Data from Statistics Netherlands (CBS) and Kadaster show the biggest price increases for resale properties in 16 years when comparing house prices in January 2018 with the same month in 2017. That puts the Netherlands in third place in Western Europe when it comes to the increase of house prices; in 2017, they rose by 8,2 percent. In that year, only Portugal and Ireland’s house prices increased at high rates, 12,5 and 11,8 percent respectively. Wealthy people, with higher levels of education, are able to find a house much more easily, simply because they are able to afford these skyrocketing prices. While bankers from London find house prices in Amsterdam relatively cheap in comparison, their moving to Amsterdam pushes the prices up still further.

But it’s not only about Amsterdam. Speaking to friends from the States, Canada, and other countries, it is clear that the same problem seems to exist everywhere. And it all comes down to the capitalization of housing. Houses shouldn’t be something to make money off. Housing should be a basic human right!

Article 22 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.”

Photo by Brian Sugden

Well, as a single mother and full-time university student I struggled over the past two years to find an affordable house, without any success. Friends ask why I don’t apply for something called a “Priority Case” for social housing, and are surprised to hear that when I did apply I was rejected. Twice. The reason for the rejection was that I already have a place, and if the house I currently live in (which I accepted with the father of my child) is too expensive, I should have never accepted it in the first place.

If you don’t laugh, you cry. I was lucky to have found this place. If I hadn’t, I would now be homeless with a kid. The municipality also said I should go check into the homeless shelter. I asked the woman straight to her face if she had children, and whether she would go check into a homeless shelter if she was in my situation. I was then told by the housing committee that I had no right to ask any personal questions to a person representing the municipality.

It’s outrageous how government institutions treat hard-working young people – sending them off to a homeless shelter rather than actually helping them to realize a better future. A homeless shelter is a great place to raise a kid! It is hard to see how that Article 22 is being put into practice by the government in this story.

But this isn’t just about me. I know other struggling single mothers, mothers who are way worse off than me.  And even two-parent households, and students without dependent children, are faced with difficulties. Barratt Developments found that in Amsterdam 37% of the wages are spent on rent. If housing is defined as a basic human right, it is absurd that nearly 40% of our time and energy goes to being able to afford a roof over our heads.

We have the right to live, or we wouldn’t have been born. We have the right to eat and drink water. And since governments are the institutions tasked with preserving order, defending against external enemies and managing economic conditions, they should provide affordable housing for their people, ensuring that the human rights treaties they signed are executed in a proper manner. If you ask me what’s wrong with politics today, I would say that capitalism has become a disease. Politics is money driven, and people have been taken out of the equation. Let’s not forget that human capital is valuable as well. So if governments are truly serious about managing economic conditions, wanting economies to flourish, they had better start taking people into consideration.

Contributing Writers POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

Interrogating Utopia

Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov

Written by Christian Cail

Capitalism is “the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds.” – often attributed to John Maynard Keynes

Utopian thinking, at its best, requires the meeting of both a firm foundation in the material factors of our moment and history – how we reproduce ourselves and how we got to this point – and an imagination unbound by the very conditions under which we currently exist. Utopian thinking is a lost art. Most people know that the end of everything is becoming inevitable. The rise in sea levels, drought, crop failure, etc. will eventually create a mass refugee crisis which will make the Syrian Civil War (sparked by drought) almost cute in comparison. The positivists among us think there is still time and hope that neoliberalism will create a savior; but no savior will come. We cannot expect the greediest among us, through the individual drive of profit, to save humanity. Theodor Adorno once said that ideology is only exposed during violence. Likewise, the structure of our economy, a now globalized totality, will be laid bare when the cracks in its logic – the exceptions – become the cannibalistic whole. We are slouching toward Ouroboros.

There was once a time, within the golden age of Keynesian social-democracy, that the future was an option. Science fiction, modernist architecture, the space race, and the designs of Buckminster Fuller all pointed to a bright future. John Maynard Keynes himself believed that by the 1970s labor would be reduced to near utopian terms through automation. Now, in pop-culture, the future is always dystopian. It brings only barren destruction and inequality whether it be Mad Max, The Hunger Games, Elysium, Children of Men, or even WALL-E. It is in this moment that we should strap utopia to a chair and beat it until it gives us answers. In order to do this, we have to look into history. History itself has been ruined by the sclerotic rot of positivism and technocratic sycophantism, but in the large shifts of the past – between the cracks – one can see a sliver of the future; not the future we have, but one which is still waiting for us.

For a majority of human history, we have lived under some form of communism. This may come as a shock to the reader for we, as a whole, suffer from extreme historical amnesia. Marx dubbed this mode of production “primitive communism”:  a system whereby labor is equally performed and production is universally consumed. Within this historical space there is no private property, aka productive means which are held privately for others to use (to be fiercely distinguished from personal property). Marshall Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics is a good resource for understanding this era of human history. The goal of the modern communist is to look at history from the largest vantage point possible, collect the most liberatory and egalitarian features of each phase, and understand how each can be synthesized today.

Our amnesia has even caused us to forget capitalism’s uniqueness. Capitalism has not always just been there, nor was it lurking in the shadow of every exchange within the feudal mode of production. Capitalism was and is one of many possibilities of human organization. Capitalism is a relatively young phenomenon which originated in England, whereby the desire for increased productivity by landowners forcibly pushed peasants off the land. Whereas formerly the wealthy mercantile drive was of buying low and selling high, the new impulse was of productiveness, increased output, property, and enclosure. This has not changed. The peasants who once made for themselves, paid tax, and owned their tools were now forced into abject poverty in the countryside and often moved into cities where the first factories were sprouting. This was the very beginning of the industrial age. Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism details this moment well. With capitalism came increased colonialism, slavery, and robust defenses thereof. The laws conformed to this new trend, bringing property rights for the wealthy and slavery for the dispossessed. Freedom became the foremost value of the bourgeoisie, but only for the bourgeoisie. Karl Marx outlines this in the first section of The Communist Manifesto.

Photo by Pawel Janiak

Wherever capitalism went, reaction was sure to follow. Not only were there intense peasant revolts in England, there were also proto-communists – aggrieved by the trend of private property and wage slavery. Historian Christopher Hill  writes thusly of the early communist Gerrard Winstanley and the “Diggers” movement:

An important aspect of the battle of ideas (was) the abolition of wage labour…Winstanley wanted to organise a national strike of wage labour so that the rich wouldn’t be able to get their lands cultivated, wouldn’t be able to sell the proceeds and so would be reduced to the level of everybody else. If they chose to turn their land into the common stock they might get some compensation, but this would be a voluntary cession of their land.

Winstanley himself writes in his 1649 tract The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men:

In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another.

The French Revolution also gave way to dissenting proto-communists. The most famous is Gracchus Babeuf who masterminded the “Conspiracy of Equals”, a failed coup in 1796. Babeuf, disgusted by the bourgeois plutocrats, wanted to remake the republic in the people’s image. His programme remains extraordinarily radical and is not unlike Engels’ programme in The Principles of Communism:

Economic decree:

  1. There shall be established a great national common wealth.
  2. It will take ownership of the nation’s unsold goods, the assets of enemies of the revolution, public buildings, commonly-owned goods, almshouses, and assets abandoned by their owners or usurped by those who have used their posts to enrich themselves.
  3. The right of inheritance is abolished. All goods will return to the common wealth.

On work for the common wealth:

  1. Every member must work…
  2. The administration will promote the use of machines and the procedures necessary to reduce the burden of work…
  3. Workers will be deployed by the administration according to their understanding of necessary tasks.

After the industrial revolution proper, wherein peasant universally became proletarian, there was an even greater appearance of socialist ideals in the face of capitalism’s ravages. Robert Owen was a former capitalist who, after taking possession of cotton mills in Scotland, was so horrified by the conditions and lives of his workers that he decided to make a more just society with capitalism. Children were habitually orphaned, women worked to death while pregnant, and the men were abject drunkards. Owen initially cut their hours, increased their wages, and educated their children. Unfortunately, these early Utopian Socialist (as Marx would call them) projects were doomed to eventual failure. Though Marx greatly respected these socialists, he dreamt of something larger. This eventually led to his scientific diagnosis of capital in Das Kapital.

Photo by Jayphen Simpson

Where does this put us? Though the West no longer lives in total wretched misery like the average Victorian wage laborer, the general structure of capitalism is still present. The most horrid conditions capitalism brings have been outsourced to the Global South through centuries of extractionary imperialism and brute force. Neoliberal hegemony is for the subaltern a diseased gifter; and the third world is blessed to win its favor. An economic offer no one can refuse, as to do so brings sanctions, embargoes, and discipline. At any time the skeleton holding up our society could be made bare and those with will become distinct from those without. The Gilded Age only feels over. We still have our Carnegies and Fords, but they are now called Bezos and Musk. This social relation has been palliated, pacified, and smoothed out by false consciousness, gaudy luxury, increasingly decadent entertainment, and all-consuming advertisement – but it remains the same. America is a high budget third-world country and when the destruction is reaped from the crop currently sown, the ideology of the system – its violence and irrationality – will be naked. Class society is still the structure under which our lives are led and the need for a truly democratic and equal global society is not forfeit.

Almost all of us feel cheated, because we are. Even in America, where socialism is perhaps the only worst thing next to atheism, class consciousness is ever-present. The irony is, the bourgeoisie have managed to use the language of class to obfuscate it. Republican leaders talk incessantly about the “elites” and “globalists”, but have tied those terms strictly to the Democratic Party, a party for which this is true. Gore Vidal once said, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party… and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” For the Republican solutions are in further neoliberal privatization: class preservation through working class extraction. American conservative ideology is sadomasochistic: they want freedom and maybe equality, but they listen to their slavemaster’s solutions. Therefore, Wayne LaPierre, executive of the NRA, can gleefully chastise “the elites” and weave them into denunciations of socialists while precisely being the “elites” he criticizes. The latest GOP tax bill, Citizens United, constant privatization – all to benefit whom exactly? False consciousness is the “American Dream”.

Utopian thinking is not a luxury, it is a necessity. With global eco-holocaust threatening the existence of most living creatures on earth, it is our responsibility to think of alternatives past capitalism. We must take heed Winstanley’s ancient words: to be true stewards of our earth – taking care not to poison it for profit – and live absent of the unnecessary hierarchies which place power, wealth, and choice in the hands of those most willing to commit evil. Mark Fisher quotes Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson in Capitalist Realism, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Jameson himself recently published his own answer to utopia in his work An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army. Within it he lays out a programme involving universal conscription into the army, a transformation in class relationship, the subversion of the political as such. It is this sort of imagination we need for a post-capitalist society. Soon, though, we won’t have to merely imagine, and when that moment comes, we should be prepared to fight those who control our world and create the impossible: utopia.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.