early last year i wrote about the joy of using JUMP e-bikes during a short stay in San Francisco1. Turns out that less than one and half years after being introduced, these bikes, while still being perfectly good and much needed, are getting retired and destroyed by the truckload.
I have sometimes wondered if that post was not too much in terms of expressing admiration for an UBER owned service, but i really did enjoy riding on those bikes. So i am somewhat relieved to find out that i am not the only one who admired these particular bikes. As Kurt from the bikesharemusuem observes: “Put simply, the JUMP e-bike is a wonderfully clean and well thought-out design, straight out of The Jetsons; just substitute the wheels for rockets. This made the experience of riding all the more exciting, in the same way some become giddy at the thought of driving a Lamborghini at 10 mph: It’s not that you’re doing anything extreme, it just feels special.” ↩︎
This is the second book i have read this year that has the words ‘capital’ and ’21st century’ in its title. While this smells a lot like free-riding on the popularity of the other book, it is not 1.
Capital by Rana Dasgupta chronicles the last one-and-a-half decades of the Indian capital Delhi. It is a mix between encounters (not in the indian sense of the word) with (moneyed) inhabitants of Delhi, snippets of history and more abstract reflections on the city in an globalized world.
It is a fascinating book that describes a city that is torn loose from its history and thrown into the maelstrom of globalization. I have been privileged to vist the Delhi a number of times between 2003 and 2006 and observing some of the transitions that Dasgupta describes. I also spend some time among the ‘bohemian artists and intellectuals’ that he found himself among and who were fueled by the energies unleashed by Delhi’s transformation:
But the anticipation of those years has a much larger scope than the city itself. It sprang from a universal sense: What will happen here will change the entire world.
The people i met were cosmopolitans, and they were delighted to see the walls coming down around india. They disdained nationalism and loved the new riches that reached them via the internet. But true to their own skepticism – and the history of anti-imperialist thought in this part of the word – they were also critical of the economic and social bases of western societies – and the last thing that they wanted from this moment of India’s opening-up was that a similar society be established here, Much of their intellectual inspiration came from Western capitalism’s internal critics: from American free software theorists, from the squatter movement in the Netherlands, from artists in Great Britain who challenged corporate food and property cultures, from Harvard and Oxford legal scholars who imagined alternative possibilities for the ownership of seeds, images and ideas.
Mingling with these people has had an enormous influence on my own intellectual development and the same is true for witnessing the transformation of the urban landscape of Delhi. Compared to what was going on in Delhi at the time, the social dynamics back home felt stagnant. The most obvious illustration of this was provided by the Delhi Metro2: When i first came to Delhi the first section of the Delhi metro had just become operational, yet by the time of my last visit at the end of 2006 the Delhi metro was already having more daily riders than the entire dutch railway system.
During those years I have spend a fair amount of time in the city exploring it by bicycle and i recognize lots of places that Dasgupta describes in Capital (most vividly parts of a hike along the west bank of the Yanuma that he describes towards the end of the book). While i am familiar with many of the localities featured in the book i have been almost entirely unaware of the secluded oases of wealth that Dasgupta describes rather vividly. Reading about them, and the role played by the moneyed business elites explains a lot of what i observed but did not really comprehend back then.
This is also where Capital comes very close to Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Woven through Dasgupta’s book is a recurring theme of how a small business elite is ruthlessly riding the wave of transformation and harvesting almost all the wealth generated by it. In this sense Capital can almost be read as a case study illustrating the effects described by Piketty (r > g) in a turbo charged economic catch-up scenario3. In line with Piketty’s main argument Dasgupata recounts how the business elites leveraged existing capital assists (mainly in the form of real estate) to disproportionally benefit from the transformation of the urban economy.
Unfortunately for Delhi and the majority of its inhabitants, this accumulation of wealth is unlikely to benefit the city as a whole. In what is maybe the most important insight provided by Dasgupta he points out that the relationship of Delhi’s elites with the city that provides the foundations for their wealth is fundamentally different from the relationship between the past elites of places like New York, Amsterdam or Berlin and ‘their’ cities. He observes that 21st century elites seem to have stopped to invest in the social fabric of their citie because the incentives to do so have largely disappeared in a globalized world:
Delhi does not hold the overwhelming significance for the super-rich that New York did for the [American elite of a century ago]: it is just a place where the accumulate income, and they have rather little inclination to turn it into an urban masterpiece. They have no personal need of such an enterprise because they have been used to seeing the world’s existing ressources as their own: they do not need to build great universities for themselves because they have already been built for them – in the United States.
Such a feeling is not confined to Delhi. It applies to elites everywhere. members of the Dehi elite are identical to their peers from Paris, Moscow or São Paulo – in that they possess houses in London, educate their children in the United States, holiday in St. Tropez, use clinics in Lausanne and keep their money – offshore, nowhere. That circumstance in which great quantities of private wealth were ploughed back into the needs and concerns of one place, which was ‘our place’, no longer pertains. Not here not elsewhere.
I have to admit that when an internet search for Piketty’s book turned up this one i almost filed it away as click-bait. Only when i noticed the name of the author i realized that this might actually be worth reading. ↩︎
On a recent trip to Mexico city (to attend a Creative Commons LatAm meeting) while we were waiting to be cleared for take-off, i overheard my neighbour in seat 21C (one of the best economy class seats on this type of plane, that is usually occupied by frequent flyers) talking on the phone to his family at home. Somewhat surprisingly he expressed astonishment about the size of the plane (‘there is a staircase next to me’) and curiosity about how he would handle a flight this long (12.5 hrs). While i usually avoid talking to seat neighbours like the pest, this tickled my curiosity and after we were on the way i found myself inquiring where he was headed and about the purpose of his trip.
More specifically, he mentioned, he used to run a family farm, growing tomatoes and other vegetables in a small number of green-houses but about five years ago he had to sell the business because he could not scale up to remain competitive. Nowadays, he told me he was working for one of the large tomato conglomerates as a quality inspector.
This company had been hit pretty hard by the EHEC crisis two years ago when pretty much their entire European market (read: Germany) had collapsed. This had led them to decide that they needed to diversify there and become active in other markets outside of Europe.
As a result the company started to explore the possibility of licensing the production of snack tomatoes to US companies that would operate greenhouses in Mexico producing snack tomatoes for the North American market. They has recently completed the first such deal and given that his manager who would usually oversee these kind of operations had just gotten a baby and prefers not to travel that far, here he finds himself in an aeroplane, the size of a greenhouse flying across an ocean for the first time in his life in order to spend a week in Mexican greenhouses to ensure that the Mexicans do not mess up the carefully controlled Dutch formula that is supposed to produce thousands of thousands of identical small red snack tomatoes. Makes me wonder what i will be doing in five years from now…
Migration and media-activists gather with theorists and labour organizers to discuss and share best practices in the fight against precarity and insecure labour conditions. Sharing inspiring examples of social justice unionism and creative campaigning like “Justice for Janitors” in the U.S. and “Cleaners For a Better Future” in the Netherlands. The aim is to challenge traditional labour practices, syndicate and inspire a sharper network of social activists, academics, media makers and artists to join contemporary urban labour struggles and confederate into a globalization from below.
This mini conference, which brings together lots of people i have been working with over the past few years, should be extremely interesting for anyone being even remotely interested in issues of migration and labour. Originally it was planned as part of the escalation strategy of the Cleaners For a Better Future campaign here in the Netherlands.
As part of this campaign cleaners, organized by the FNV trade union, in collaboration with activists from social movements in the Netherlands fought for a minimum hourly wage of €10 and a number of other social befits. The campaign made heavy use of direct actions (which is relatively new and uncommon for unions in the Netherlands) and ultimately succeeded in realizing all the demands of the cleaners:
We won 10 euros an hour for everyone starting on January 1st 2009. Workers above 8 years seniority will get the 10 euros in April of this year while everyone else will go from $8.50 to $9.70 an hour in April as well. We got an extra paid holiday, additional travel pay increase, Dutch and vocational training on company time for every worker, initial language to protect staffing levels upon contract change and full access. The contract will cost employers and clients 135 million euros. This is a national agreement covering 150,000 cleaners.
As far as i can tell this is mighty impressive (although V. who expected this struggle to go on for much longer describes this sudden victory as a ‘premature ejaculation’). It seems as if there are very few places in the world with a minimum hourly salary of 10 euros for cleaners (ironically one of them seems to be the kingdom of Belgium, where the minimum hourly salary for cleaners is €10.73 – but then cleaners are called ‘surface technicans‘ in Belgium).
In eastern Germany you get your abitur (the secondary school exam that entitels you to study at a university) after 12 years (where i grew up you have to do 13 years of school for the same exam), but apparently it also gets you less:
There are areas in east germany where more than a quater of the population is unemployed. And that is after the young and educated have left to find their luck elsewhere. This picture taken in greifswald (a port city in the north of meckelemburg vorpommern where unemployment rate is something like 19.8%) sums up the misery pretty well – if you ask me:
There are two stickers on the car. The white one advertises a personal housekeeping service, that is flexible, fast and cheap (eg an activity all the way at the bottom of the capitalist chain of exploitation) and the yellow sticker proudly states that the owner of this car has just (summer 05) gotten his or her abitur…