Neoliberal (Mis)Governance

Undemocratic regional governments

Neoliberalism is more than an epithet. It’s more than an economic program, or another name for globalization. It may be all of these, but most importantly, it’s a political practice. The dominant political practice of our overlords.

The problem, however, is that neoliberalism as politics rarely has a bright light shown on its shadowy manipulations. Recently 48hills, a SF Bay area news website, published an exposé on precisely that. It reveals Silicon Valley billionaires, real estate developers, academics, non-profit leaders, local politicians and, of course, ill-informed journalists all conniving to further an agenda hidden from public scrutiny. The smell of rot pervades the scene. The scene being a stew of secret meetings.

So, what’s this all about?

In case you haven’t heard, the San Francisco Bay area is facing a housing crisis and the cabal mentioned above has banded together to solve it. How great! The trouble is that they are collaborating to provide self-serving solutions behind the backs of the populace, but on their (our!) dime.

Corruption? What’s new? This isn’t Tammany Hall or Chicago’s Daley Machine, but a new sort of corruption that fits the definition of neoliberal governance, or rather, misgovernance if we assume that the public’s “business” should be conducted in a democratic manner.

Let’s start with some definitions, like the term “governance.” Neoliberalism appropriates this term from management studies where it stands for governing through the interplay of contending parties. In the context of public policy, neoliberal decision-making results from “stakeholders” contributing their perspectives and arriving at agreements legitimated through state actions: new legislation to facilitate funding through fees, taxes, subsidies or other forms of state assistance.

The thing is in this process, that the state, as represented by a “sympathetic” legislator, is but one of a number of stakeholders. Included, notably, is private business. And for purposes of authoritative weight, and depending upon the overall social impact of a specific proposal, an array of scholars, consultants and non-profit executives are invited to be stakeholders. Neoliberalism advocates the “market-place of ideas.” In this market, we know who has their thumb on the scale. And note that direct public input is absent from the deliberations. The public, after all,  is bothersome for expedited action.

The assumption behind this sort of governance is not only that the public is a nuisance, but also that the state is broken. Which means mainly it is bedeviled by arcane practices that create snail-paced progress when what’s needed, the neoliberals plead, is immediate action to deal with one crisis or another: expediency dominates the process; capital likes to move fast these days.

“Arcane practices,” however, are usually venues for public comment and deliberation, and while many may agree that state deliberations need rehabilitation, mainly through greater transparency, without them the role to government to represent the common interest is abandoned, creating a vacuum of power.

And who rushes into the void? Yes, the private sector and its agents (see above).

This is all by way of introduction to the specific situation that applies to the SF Bay area, but, I believe, not only there.

All across the country, but especially in large urban complexes, regional governments have arisen. Whether they are inter-county affairs or cross-state institutions, they have one thing in common: little to none public input. Some states limit regional functions, while others give them greater powers, like taxing authority, but none establish direct citizen selection of those who govern a region.

In the SF area the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is the regional government for the nine counties that surround SF Bay and lower Sacramento River feeding into it. This regional government, for instance, collects the tolls from the eight bridges that span the bay and river. It’s a major player in the area not only because of its multi-million dollar revenue stream from tolls ($720,784,303/2016 – 2017), but also because it has the power to put funding propositions on the ballot for voter approval.

MTC, building on its experience with regional transportation issues, recently began encroaching into the area of land use. The details of this power grab are laid out in detail on 48hills. Suffice it to say here that transit-oriented development, a program pushed nationally to provide dense housing near transportation hubs, offered MTC the wedge it needed to pry open new territory for its expansion.

And here is where the story gets interesting. It turns out that Facebook funds the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative run by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, his wife. This is not a philanthropic outfit, but a Limited Liability Corporation, so that the funds it disperses can be kept from public view.

Some clever journalistic sleuthing uncovered that CZI has been funding a slew of stakeholders involved with the expansion of MTC’s regime, including an academic entity on the University of California campus. The goal here is to have the state legislature endorse the expansion of regional government into land use issues, ostensibly to grow housing by overriding local control of zoning. Demonstrating to the state legislators in Sacramento that a wide variety of stakeholders support expanded regional control and, further, providing the intellectual heft academic authorization bestows, cinches the deal. It is impolite to mention that Facebook finances this chorus.

It’s not news that San Francisco has experienced a major catastrophe housing its citizens. And it’s not news that this calamity resulted from Silicon Valley hiring thousands and providing no place for them to live. As a result, the SF real estate market metastasized: long-term tenants got priced out as richer newcomers gobbled up landlord-inflated rentals. The result: a significant majority of the homeless in the SF Bay area are former tenants.

The high-rise apartments that the regional government and their allies are planning  will not house the homeless, nor newly hired schoolteachers, much less school janitorial staff. The aim is to erect housing that is “affordable” which means in the SF Bay area an income of at least $80,000. Salaries for new Berkeley teachers start in the $30,000 range.

The opposition to neoliberal misgovernance doesn’t really exist as such, though there is pushback on specific policy issues. The advocates for the homeless, for example, want their constituency to be prioritized, but they don’t attack the undemocratic process of expanding regional housing policies as fundamentally flawed. Their reluctance is easily understood. Since the Reagan administration, through Clinton’s regime to the present, neoliberalism has been the program of both parties. This top down, opaque governance model is like the wallpaper in the halls of power. It’s just the way “things are done.” Even the current mayor of Berkeley, a young Latino Sanders supported, plays the game. So much so that he got the Berkeley City Council to unanimously endorse the regional government takeover of housing policy.

What to do? How should neoliberal misgovernance be confronted? First, it needs to be exposed for its connivance with capital, in this case with the real estate developers, and by extension, the banks and hedge funds. Second, its antidemocratic process must be condemned: No Taxation Without Representation! But exposure and condemnation are only the first steps.

Public policy needs ethical guidelines that circumvent the establishment of power brokers. If we state that housing is a right (as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights mandates) and if this baseline demands achieves support (which requires decontaminating pubic misconceptions) then popular power can be mobilized to demand policies that end corruption at the core of neoliberal misgovernance. Accepting that housing is a right assumes profit making is secondary to that end. In practice this means housing must be removed from the marketplace. There is ample precedent for this in the history and practice of cooperative housing. The Green New Deal references the original New Deal and we should recall that cooperative housing was integral to its vision of a vibrant society.

Bernard Marszalek is an activist in the alternative alternative economy sector. A former worker-member of a cooperative printshop for decades and currently agitating for a society beyond jobs, where the substantial activity of society melds work and play into a new conception of personal realization collectively attained. He archives his writings at his website Read other articles by Bernard.