Last week I attended the Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference in Paris. This was my first Crossroads conference and incidentally my first trip to Paris. I have many fond memories of France but the one time my family ventured into a major French city we ended up in a car crash. So it was much to my pleasant surprise that Paris was as beautiful as it is made out to be, and I was lucky enough to spend it with two very lovely people.
Unfortunately I missed the keynotes, but thankfully Jeremy Gilbert has posted his excellent discussion of the challenges of neo-liberalism on the OurKingdom section of openDemocracy (here). In it he argues that the various cultural and political movements of the 1960s represented a democratic surge that threatened the status-quo by asking a number of dangerous questions relating to the distribution of wealth, economic and military power and crucially how we live to together. The strategy of capital in response to this upsurge has, in Gilbert’s words, been to ‘meet precisely those amongst that set of demands which would not threaten the over-arching goal of capital accumulation, while determinedly opposing the realisation of those which would.’ People protested and demanded and critiqued. The market gave the people what they wanted, but in commodity form and on the market’s terms.
This is one of the major problems of critiquing capital. As a system it is incredibly resilient, precisely in this ability to give us what we want, but not on our terms (a mechanism well captured by the second part of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ mini-series). It is this adaptability in the face of critique that leads Gilbert, near the end of his article, to note that:
‘Almost everything I was afraid of happening over the past 30 years has happened. Everything my political mentors warned might happen, since I was a boy growing up on a poor council estate (that’s a housing project, if you’re American) in the North of England in the early 80s, or a high-school student reading denunciations of Thatcherism in the left press a few years later, has turned out just as badly as they said it would. And yet I don’t wish I was living 40 years ago. The point seems to be: this is the world we were all afraid of; but it’s also sort of the world we wanted.’
One of the problems with critique is that there is no exterior to launch a critique from, seemingly no viable alternative. Communism, at least in its past forms, looks to be a dead end, and the nihilistic hope for some sort of terror led revolution by people such as Zizek leaves me queasy. This is the reason that some academics are keen to hold up groups seemingly untouched by capital relations. As one of the two lovely people said over a fine meal in a Parisian cafe at 11:30pm, the previously colonized subjects of anthropology are now being held up as models for the future.
This brings me to the book I am reading at the moment, ‘How to build an Independent Country (独立国家の作り方)’ by Sakaguchi Kyōhei. In all honesty I bought it because I liked the title and wanted something to read on the Shinkansen from Fukuoka to Tokyo, but it ended up in the bottom of my bag. I fished it out again on return to the ‘long toothache’ that is the UK, and am about a third of the way through it now. Although I was pretty skeptical at first, I am finding it quite interesting for at least two reasons. The first is that it offers up a model of a different attitude to living derived from a group that has fallen through the cracks: homeless people living in Tokyo. The second is that his argument so far has been a lot less about theorizing and a lot more about getting on and doing something.
So to begin with I was skeptical. Its all very well and good holding up homeless people as paragons of virtue but (a) shouldn’t the state have stepped in to make sure they didn’t become homeless in the first place and (b) wouldn’t the homeless people themselves rather be, you know, home-d? Both these points are still niggling away as I read the book, but lets put them to one side for a moment and see what Sakaguchi has to say.
Sakaguchi’s main point is that the vast expense incurred by either renting or owning a house is actually, when you think about it, ridiculous. People grind away at work in order to pay that 100,000 a month rental bill or the equivalent in mortgage payments. For the majority of people outlay on their housing will eat up the lion’s share of their wages, meaning that they have to work harder and longer in order to provide for all the other things they need in life. Indeed, Sakaguchi seems to suggest that this system was set up intentionally as a way of integrating people into the economy.
In this he is backed up by scholars such as Hirayama Yosuke. Hirayama argues that homeownership was vigorously promoted by the Japanese government in the early post-war period as the key means by which people could gain security for their old age. Japan is interesting in that it is one of the very few developed capitalist nations that did not produce a comprehensive welfare system. Provision of welfare was mostly left to corporations and security (in the sense of the long term prospect of stability) was promoted through the prospect of homeownership and a pension. As long as you worked hard and paid off your loan you could look forward to stability in your old age, drawing a pension and living in your fully paid for house.
However, since the 1990s this system has been breaking down. Neoliberal reforms and casualisation of the labour force have taken their toll. The rise in fixed term contracts, permanent part-time work and falling wages means that the prospect of living on one’s own, let alone buying a house, is becoming less and less achievable. The pension system is also under ever increasing strain due to the dual problem of an aging population and declining birthrate. For many young people the old social contract simply does not work anymore.
It doesn’t work, but it still has a ring of commonsense to it. In the book Sakaguchi notes time and again that the idea of paying lots of rent, or getting a 35 year loan to buy a house is hardly questioned in Japan (and I would argue that it is hardly questioned here either), even though it is increasingly difficult to do so. To a certain extent there is anecdotal evidence that attitudes to housing are changing and the notion of shared-living is getting some interest in the media (witness J-Pop phenomenon Arashi’s new segment on their show ‘Secret Arashi’, where they welcome guests into their own ‘share-house’ studio). However, renting an apartment and eventual homeownership is still the generally accepted norm.
So, Sakaguchi, a trained architect, sees the housing system as a transparent way of getting people to work and pay taxes. His solution to this problem was to look for ways to build houses that cost as little as possible and avoided the tax system. This is where Tokyo’s homeless come in. While walking around the Asakusa area Sakaguchi met with a number of homeless people who nevertheless had homes. Small, yes but homes nonetheless. These homes were built out of what he refers to as ‘gomi’ (rubbish), such as discarded pieces of wood and blue sheeting, but were also augmented with solar power generators and car batteries rigged to produce 100v electricity. Local parks offer water sources and toilets, libraries bookshelves, the local public bath in place of the shower. Food is a little more difficult — many homeless in Tokyo receive handouts from restaurants and supermarkets — and I doubt many people would be comfortable with this arrangement. However, the idea was there in principal: a radical rethink of what is needed to live and the relationship between the public and the private sphere.
It is this relationship that Sakaguchi continues to probe in the book. He refers to the bureaucratic world of Japan as ‘anonymous’ (tokumeika sareta) and relates it to the proliferation of private house buying, and the concomitant steady encroachment of the private into the public. Part of his ‘mission’ (his words not mine) is in questioning this privileging of the private over the public and the effect this has on human relations. Perhaps if there was a reconsideration of the relationship between private and public the anonymity of the system would be replaced with more enduring human relationships: going to the library to get your books means you have to talk to people and share a public space; likewise with going to public baths. And perhaps with the cost of housing reduced more people would have time to sit in parks and talk to each other.
Of course there is also the problem of the law. But here Sakaguchi found that as long as your home has wheels it is not legally classified as a house and therefore it is not taxed. He also found that there are pockets of land in Tokyo where long running disputes over ownership have left them ostensibly free to use — something that he hasn’t talked about much yet but will, I am sure, make a reappearance later in the book. Anyway, armed with this information he built a small (3 tatami mat) house for around 30 000 yen (£250), put wheels on it and, after negotiating with the owner, set it up in a car park. He even got a Pizza delivered to the house as proof that it was actually a house.
The point that comes through here is that Sakaguchi didn’t come up with a clever theory of emancipation from capital relations. He just saw something that looked like a viable alternative and started an experiment. Now of course we could argue that he is still embedded in ‘the system’: the fact that he is pumping out books and making money would seem to undercut his efforts at extraction. He still bought his materials from a DIY shop. He still has an iPad and buys clothes from, you know, shops. Hypocrite, right?
I’m not so sure. Sakaguchi uses the strategies of homeless people as an example because they have been forced by the their situation to develop a new way of living, not necessarily outside capital relations but certainly on the margins. They have been forced to use their own resources by neoliberalism, incidentally what this particular ideology is all about, and in doing so they offer a model for something different. Again I can’t quite shake the feeling that the state should be stepping in to help, but perhaps state intervention that stops people from having to fundamentally rethink value systems is part of the problem. What Sakaguchi is doing is working through the consequences of a shift in perspective on the meaning of home, the relationship between public and private and the relationship between work, property and stability that comes from having to piece together a life on Japan’s streets. Lots to think about anyway, and I haven’t even got to the bit where he sets up his own country.
Here is a trailer for a documentary that follows his project: