Abstract: The city staff has proposed a Strategic Plan for Berkeley. The Plan occurs in the midst of severe crises besetting Berkeley, distracting from their resolution. It promotes the interests of the staff as a seemingly autonomous “organization” within city government, rather than an instrument of local democracy. Reducing the people to political consumers, and limiting them to non-participant “input,” it enlarges the structural chasm between the people and the government that is one of the sources of the present crises.
On January 31, 2017, the city manager presented a report to City Council on a Strategic Plan for Berkeley that staff is developing. The motivation for this Plan (as the city manager puts it) is a need to “have an idea of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re going to accomplish it.” In other words, it is a plan to make city government more effective and more efficient. Its purpose is to “articulate the long-term goals” of the city and “short-term projects designed to advance those goals.”
The odd thing about it is its appearance right in the middle of a number of crises besetting the city. These crises (concerning homelessness and affordable housing) have been the context for a change in City Council itself, and would seem to call for very focused administrative attention, rather than a diversion to a number of other “long-term” goals. It is as if (by analogy), while the Oroville Dam was coming apart under torrential rains, California engineers spent their time proposing different engineering princples for building dams. In the midst of crisis, that might be beside the point.
This is not a capricious analogy. Rent levels are so high in Berkeley that low income families, if they lose their lease or succomb to exorbitant rent increases, will be “washed out” of town. Homelessness is increasing precisely because fewer and fewer people can afford the rent. Whole neighborhoods are being displaced and dislocated. The African American population of Berkeley has dropped from 25% to 8%. Five homeless people have died of exposure during the autumn and winter of 2016. Four people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning in the area because of faulty (unmaintained) heaters. And there has been a forceful (police) repression of a homeless political movement, an intentional community demanding humane resolution of the entire homeless situation.
These crises and their attendant tragedies are not the result of government inefficiency. They result from governmental refusal to confront the impact of economic forces that, if left unchecked, will eventually destroy the economic infrastructure of low income neighborhoods. The implication of the “Strategic Plan,” that “we don’t have an idea of what we’re doing,” is belied by the many neighborhood gatherings that have proposed real resolutions to the crises. So what is the real “strategy” here?
The thrust of the plan
The Plan’s development has a structure as well as a pragmatic dimension. To initiate the Plan, staff first polled and surveyed itself (during 2016), generating discussions that produced the Plan’s categories and goals. After that was done, the City Council was brought into the process. And after that, residents and constituents are given a chance for “input” (via a webpage). That is, Council and constituents are presented with the option to add, subtract, or provide feedback on what has been created by the staff. This creates a procedural hierarchy in which staff holds hegemony. The people come last, and councilmembers are upstaged concerning their own job.
The pragmatic dimension of the plan is what one would expect. It enumerates governmental responsibilities such as city maintenance, preservation of infrastructure, community amenities, safety and health, and economic stability. These are listed as “goals,” a category that includes efficiency, inclusivity and constituent participation.
And here, a red flag goes up. Why would the responsibilities that constitute the very purpose of government in the first place be listed as “goals”? What might that mean?
For instance, to list “inclusivity” as a goal admits there is an extant degree of exclusion. Does that refer to a prior deafness to neighborhood needs? Or is the Plan initiating a different kind of inclusivity? It offers no critique of any old exclusionism, nor the many forms it took. One encounters an “old form” of exclusion in Council meetings. People would line up to speak for a minute without effect, and developers would call neighborhood meetings that were strictly pro forma. This new plan only gives people a webpage on which to have “input.” Without dialogic engagement in policy-making, there is no real participation. “Participation” becomes an empty rhetorical term, as does “efficiency.” A councilmember once said (last year), “If fewer people would come to speak at these hearings, maybe we could get some work done.”
The Plan’s “effectivity” is focused on who benefits from the achieved goals. In “effectively” accomplishing goals, the city seeks to become the provider of a product. “Benefit” signifies the successful operation of a service organization. But that in turn reduces those who benefit to the level of “consumers,” rather than participants – that is, the Plan implicitly equates “participation” with “consumption.” Has government just become another corporate structure?
Real participation would involve people in policy-making, fostering togetherness in dialogues by which people discuss with each other what needs to be done, and from which policy would emerge. One does not create participation by exchanging an amorphous “inclusion” for a previous “exclusion.” One includes by transforming a structure based on monologue into one based on dialogue.
The plan does not speak of dialogue, but rather of inclusion and input.
In her report to Council, the manager announced that webpage responses had already pointed to the issues of homelessness and affordable housing. But that only means they have been reduced to input. That which is destroying people’s lives gets reduced to “issues.”
Born of hierarchy, the Plan neglects to include the democratizing of city processes (hearings, development, planning, police comportment, etc.) which should form a basis for resolving the city’s crises. Instead, one detects a form of fetishist narcissism insofar as the Plan includes itself as one of its own goals.
Some special attention must be given to one of the Plan’s goals. It is called “equity.” The goal is “to promote and demonstrate racial and social equity.” What does equity mean?
The term is originally economic. It refers to corporate stocks, to securities representing ownership interests, and to funds that give owners a claim on profits or earnings. A shareholder’s claim to capital proceeds would seem to be fairly far afield from racial equality. But the term can also refer to a body of legal and procedural rules – i.e. doctrines by which people are treated in an equitable manner. Thus, it can signify a certain freedom from bias, favoritism, or hierarchy. It implies that a person has a claim on a situation, and a claim on being respected, as well as on an ability or right to participate. In that sense, “equity” marks an antipole to exclusion, standing in opposition to inequality, by which it becomes a synonym for “equality.”
But we have to be careful here. Equity does not refer to anyone’s claim on another individual. One can claim treatment equal to other individuals with respect to institutional operations (such as government or the court system). But that is not a claim on an individual. It is a claim on an institution with respect to others. In short, equity refers to a relation between individuals and institutions.
“Equality,” however, is bigger than that. Equality is assumed in treating people equitably. It is one’s social equality that is recognized when an institution does so. And it is equality that is suppressed when it doesn’t. For instance, when the police racially profile people on the street, it marks a refusal to treat people equitably, and thus withholds recognition of equality. Equality becomes an issue when it is a question of an institution approaching an individual.
In short, equity and equality are not the same. Individuals can claim equity (that is, equitable treatment) when they approach institutions. When institutions approach individuals, they can either recognize their equality by treating them equitably or not. Where equity refers to what people can claim, equality refers to what people must defend in the way institutions approach them. Equity is relational and pragmatic, and equality is inherent and fundamental. They move in different ethical directions.
Against slavery, for instance (whether chattel or wage slavery or debt slavery or sex slavery), the desire for freedom expressed in running away or in organizing rebellion is an affirmation of equality against its withholding by the enslaving institution. The bond-laborer seeking freedom is not opting for equity in the institution but expressing equality with it in moving against it. Equity will reappear, perhaps, with the issue of reparations.
In council hearings, constituents come forth and offer input or commentary. They have equity insofar as they are granted equal time in which to speak, as a recognition of their equality with each other. But insofar as the institution (council hearings) only allows them to have a minute or two to speak, and deprives them of the ability to dialogue with councilmembers, they are denied equity with respect to it. They have no claim to have the council listen to them, or to take their concerns to heart. Insofar as this locks them out of the policy making process, it renders the councilmembers an elite.
(To democratize the council’s hearings would require shifting its meeting structure whenever a significantly large group of people showed up on an issue, opening the meeting to a form that would enable dialogue between the people and the council, rather than only monologic “input.”)
When an institution withholds equity from persons, it is in effect imposing inequality on them. In other words, inequality is something that is done to people through social institutions (and those social institutions can include cultural structures, such as patriarchy or white supremacy).
Equality gives power to humans, to be assumed in the face of institutions, and equity gives power to institutions, against which humans can only make claims and applications. For a democracy, equality of personhood must be an assumption, not an issue. It does not need to be promoted or demonstrated, since it is already the foundation on which people make political decisions about their collective needs. To reduce democracy to a service organization is to reduce equality to equity.
When the Strategic Plan states that one of its goals is to “promote and demonstrate racial and social equity,” it is adopting an institutional perspective, that of granting equity. This “granting” then expresses another form of hierarchy, the assumption of the power to withhold equality that already characterizes city government. To foster racial equity, what is needed is the cessation of withholding of equity by institutions, an end to the creation of inequality.
In prioritizing institutionality (fostering equity rather than equality), the Strategic Plan reveals an ideology of organization, and a consciousness of that ideology. The staff refers to itself as “the organization.” This is a strange mode of self-reference for city employees. Those in a political party, for instance, may refer to it as “the party,” and those in corporate management often refer to it as “the company.” In such references, they are recognizing a certain identity and autonomy in which to locate themselves – a sense of social belonging (“our thing,” which translates in Italian as “la cosa nostra.”) What autonomy is the city manager and staff recognizing when they refer to “our organization” or “the organization,” as they do some seven or eight times in their report? We are speaking about a city government here.
Such reference does not appear in the Plan itself, but in the thinking of the staff, as a sense of identity. And this conforms with the staff’s proviously mentioned self-prioritization. The staff’s goals and priorities initiate the Plan’s central values, to which the rest of the city is subordinated as “input.” Overall, it betrays a recognition of boundaries, a status constituted by those borders, and a sense of identification with them. The identity of “the organization” constitutes a presence that lurks behind walls, a flaunted independence toward the practical work of political implementation, and thus a political distance between government and people.
This is not farfetched. After last November, with a new council elected, the city manager was entreated to stop the police raids on the homeless community – as a temporary measure while the new council articulated a better policy. The manager refused, and the police continued their assaults, as a direct repression of this community’s political statement.
It was gratuitous repression. The manager and the police chief knew about executive discretion. They could have chosen to leave enforcement in abeyance for a while. In choosing not to, they expressed their organizational autonomy as a priority over both the council and the people.
To the extent this Strategic Plan is based on hierarchy, a boundary between an autonomous “organization” and the constituencies of Berkeley (now represented by the locked doors requiring access procedures in City Hall), it constitutes a disservice in three ways. It disrupts the urgent social responsibility of city government to resolve the crises the city faces now. It reduces people to consuming objects, rather than presenting itself as an instrument for facilitating greater popular self-governance and self-determination. And it widens the chasm between the people (relegated to monologic “input”) and dialogic participation in policy and decision making that is the hallmark of democracy.
The city staff may think of the plan in a problem solving manner, for which a service organization may be most efficient. But the political purpose of defending the people against dislocation and displacement, and against the miseries attendant upon gentrifying development, is not “problem-solving.” And the staff might euphemize the organizational distance between governance and the people as leadership. But it reduces leadership to an elitist rule-governed exclusion from democratic governance. To arrest the current corrosion of communities requires political will, and involvement of the communities themselves that are affected by that corrosion in making decisions in their own interest.