I’ll never be a radical. My upbringing was too affluent, and my social circles are too steeped in power. You can’t be a radical when you have more to lose from the overturning of the system than you have to gain from it.
But in Oakland and Berkeley it’s impossible to avoid spending time with radicals, and I find them to be really interesting. Like all progressive-type people, I was raised with a distrust of radicals. Progressives believe in a neat coloring-within-the-lines view of social justice. The struggle for gay marriage is a perfect example of a progressive social movement: highly educated people and well-funded organizations that carefully used the ballot box and the court system in order to enact social change.
Radicals are different. They’re less organized. Less coherent in their plans and their appeals. Progressives are always complaining that radicals, whether it’s Occupy or Black Lives Matter, have no platform and no concrete set of demands, and no matter how much the two groups talk to each other, they can never make each other understand.
Progressive: “What do you want?”
Radicals: “To overthrow the system.”
Progressive: “Okay, yeah, but what laws and government programs do you want.”
Radical: “The end to entrenched systems by which a small part of the American population is able to perpetuate its control, year after year, over all the major institutions in American life.”
Progressives: “Okay, yeah…so…some kind of redistribution of wealth? And student loan forgiveness? And an end to three-strikes laws?”
Radical: “Yeah…all of that. Plus also that think about ending the entrenched system…”
I think progressives find it hard to understand that radicals genuinely want to live under a very different social system. They see this one as corrupt, and, to a large extent, they see progressive programs as a means by which the existing system perpetuates itself. Redistribution of wealth is fine, but when that redistribution is accomplished through a massive government program, then it becomes a sword that can be used, as was the case with welfare programs, to break up families or to keep people in servile situations. Or they can be implemented selectively, as was the case with Federal mortgage loan guarantees, so that white people benefit and nonwhite people don’t, with the end result being a world where black people, in particular, have no part in this nation’s largest source of middle-class wealth
I find that this comes up quite often in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco with regards to our rent control laws. These laws are not economically or politically efficient. They provide benefits indiscriminately, so that it’s possible for tech people earning 100+k to live in $500 rooms or $1200 apartments. And they don’t take money from the richest–the millionaires and billionaires–they take it from small landlords. Not poor people, obviously, but not the largest sources of wealth amongst us. Furthermore, they distort the housing market, reducing the number of free units. And they reduce the amount of political will for increasing the amount of housing stock, since long-time tenants who are protected by rent-control tend to also exhibit some of the same not-in-my-backyard sentiment towards new construction that we normally associate with landlords.
And progressives know this. They say that rent control isn’t the answer. The answer is an increase in low-income housing and an expansion of Section 8 housing vouchers. They say the solution is more and better development, and more and better public transportation, so that people who live farther from town can still commute in an efficient way.
And because radicals keep advocating for an expansion in rent control, progressives shake their heads over how unsophisticated these radicals are.
But what they don’t understand is that radicals don’t trust their social programs. Radicals don’t even trust rent control laws, not really. They know that rent control is something you can only assert by going to the courts. But rent control laws tend to be enacted through ballot initiative, and they tend to be simple and easy to understand rights. And once the law is passed, rent control isn’t something that can be taken or given away by a bureacrat. it’s not something that can be applied selectively, or that can be slowly stripped away. It’s a right. Radicals might not trust the system, but when they deal with it, they prefer to have rights that are simple and well-enshrined. If a bureacrat denies you a Section 8 voucher, what do you do? Who do you go to? How do you fight the housing authority? But if a landlord claims your unit isn’t rent-controlled, then you can sue his ass. That’s the difference between a government program and a right. Radicals like to fight and they know how to fight and they tend to support programs that privilege the fighters.