Action in Austin

Received over the transom, a couple of updates on activist innovation in Austin:

Wal-Mart wants to build a store in Austin’s first mall, built in the 70s and now quite dilapidated, as a part of the mall owner’s plan to redevelop it. This being Austin, where most politics gets played out as neighborhood struggle, area residents have created a group called Responsible Growth for Northcross to oppose the Beast of Bentonville’s sinister designs. The good (white) liberals/progressives in the surrounding neighborhoods–whose property values have risen magnificently in the last decade, though whether that’s despite or because of the bumper crop of “Another American for Peace” signs and anti-SUV stickers in the area is unknown–are concerned for several reasons: the project may not be consistent with the city’s policy of encouraging denser, pedestrian-oriented development; they’ve heard that the company does not treat its employees very well; there was no neighborhood input on the scope and character of the project; Wal-Mart, unlike, say, Target or local low-wage darling Book People, is evil.

Of course in a way it’s hard to object to most of this: Wal-Mart does suck, denser development is desirable, especially for a city growing as fast as Austin, etc. And one could even overlook the group’s advice-to-capital politics–its homilies about quality of life, responsible growth, community, and democracy, its praising of the already-booming small and local businesses in the area, its vigorously pro-development stance–if it didn’t so loudly proclaim itself as a neighborhood movement. Which means, of course, that its primary function is to police the boundaries of the neighborhood, and this entails creating and enforcing racial boundaries. Responsible Growth for Northcross is quite open about its mission, as its number-one beef against Wal-Mart is that the area in which the company builds a store sees a large increase in crime…. Perhaps this requires a bit of decoding: You see, it’s the blacks and the Latinos that both work and shop at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart brings with it a dark criminal underclass that ruins neighborhoods and threatens property values. This, more than its corporate irresponsibility, poor treatment of workers, and gauche image and product line, is its greatest sin.

***

The Jensenites have undergone a bit of rebranding. Like the Democratic Party that they’re not so far away from as they believe, they’ve decided to reach out to the religious community. Here’s a description of their latest endeavor, called Last Sunday and billed as a “gathering of the secular and spiritual, the political and social–with great music”:

Our goal hasn’t changed. Many people recognize the deepening crises–economic, political, cultural and ecological–that we face in the contemporary United States and the wider world. Yet as we grapple with these issues, many of us fear that institutionalized religion and traditional political parties are inadequate to meet these challenges. How will we build the relationships and organizations that will allow us meet our obligations to each other and the world? There are no easy answers, but the solutions will have to come out of community, out of our commitment and connection to each other.

Of course people are free to form any political affiliations they wish, and people can believe whatever spiritual nonsense they want to, but what interests me here is how completely compatible the Jensenites’ brand of progressive politics (a sort of [very] soft Chomskyianism) is with liberal religious thought: the thorough intermixing of the apocalyptic and the messianic, the utter skepticism of existing forms of institutions but unyielding faith in some recoverable essence of those institutions (the problem is “institutionalized religion” but not religion, “traditional political parties” but not parties), the notion of relationships having content primarily if not exclusively because of the ends they bring about (“meet[ing] our obligations,” justice, truth, heaven). It’s hard to read this philosophical gumbo, with its balance of fear and hope, suspicion and acceptance, and its reduction of affect to utilitarianism, as other than instilling the faith that allows one to still pay taxes, vote, and go to work.

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