So I read this article, How San Francisco Became a Failed City(external link). I was going to save it as a link post, but then the text of my link post got so long that I thought I should post it as an actual post. It’s about how “leftist” city officials in San Francisco have presided over escalating social problems in the city, and how the school board has reportedly become utterly dysfunctional (prioritising identity politics virtue-signalling over effectively running schools). I don’t agree with every line of the article (or at least, I feel like it glosses over the underlying issue of capitalist inequality in favour of a narrative that props up cops), but I’ll tell you what it reminds me of overall.

When I was active in a socialist organisation a decade ago, I would frequently hear about the toxicity of “identity politics”. I’d hear about how it was paralysing, self-destructive, a poisonous contagion that destroyed organisations and wrecked any kind of struggle for social progress. It’s not that socialists are anything but stridently against sexism, racism, homophobia and so forth – I’ve never known a group of people angrier about these things – but they see them as products of capitalism, not something separable that can or should be fought instead of so-called “economic issues”. At the time, I thought that their attitude to identity politics was kind of harsh, and that they were being insensitive to the concerns of women, POC, and so forth. As time has gone on, though, I’ve realised they were totally right. The weaponisation of terms like “white supremacy” to slander anything the identitarian left doesn’t like (like building more housing, or the concept of grading schoolwork) is absolute divisive bullshit that does nothing to advance the struggle against capitalism. Dare I say, that’s the entire point 🤷🏻‍♀️

San Francisco’s problems are complicated and I’m not some all-knowing clairvoyant who can prescribe a course of action that’s guaranteed to fix all their woes. Still, some things that stood out to me in this article:

  1. Why are people homeless? Partially because there’s not enough housing, particularly if you restrict your field of view to the Bay Area itself, so yes, that should be fixed. The other part of the problem, though, is that “the market” is such a shitty dysfunctional way of allocating housing. People need to be able to AFFORD housing, too. And in Australia, at least, “oversupply = rental costs come down by magic” never happens because investors prefer to sit on empty properties than rent them out cheaply (or they turn them into AirBNBs). You can’t just add more supply to magic your way out of a housing crisis unless you do something to stop hoarders of empty or AirBNB’d properties, too. Then people need enough money to afford the damn properties, including if they don’t have jobs. And in the case of San Francisco, it’s also the case that homeless people from far and wide come to the city because of its reputation of actually caring for the homeless (even if imperfectly), sooooo, housing issues are something that needs to be fixed beyond just San Francisco, too.
  2. Why do people get addicted to drugs? It’s not because the legal penalties for drug use are so minimal that they’re just like, “what the heck”. People don’t expect to get caught in the first place, for a start. And increasing penalties, or ramping up enforcement, won’t stop people getting addicted to begin with, even if you can get them off the streets later by imprisoning them. Studies on rats have shown that rats have no interest in taking drugs if their lives are happy and satisfying – rats only want to take them if they’re kept in miserable conditions, as a form of escapism. There is no evidence that humans are any different. If life under capitalism were not so stressful and alienating, there would not be such a problem with drug addiction. This is not really something San Francisco City Council can fix by itself – it’s a broader systemic issue – but it is a systemic issue that people everywhere should talk about fixing. I do think that if people are openly psychotic on the streets they should not be allowed to remain there, but there need to be high-quality mental health facilities in place so the alternative is not imprisoning them. And that’ll take a shit-ton of investment (especially paying workers enough to entice them into that environment) but it should be done. There’s also an anecdote in this article where a guy got brutally bashed and “homelessness advocates” encouraged the guy not to get in an ambulance and he later died… well, ambulances and medical care should not cost the people who use them anything, let alone the vast sums charged in the US. So this is primarily a problem with the US’s lack of public healthcare, rather than a problem with homelessness advocates.
  3. Why does crime (like theft) occur? Again, it’s not because the penalties are so light and inadequate (perpetrators of crime are largely not expecting to get caught in the first place). In general, crime rates are higher in places of high economic inequality, especially when combined with a high degree of social segregation so rich people and poor people alike can barely conceive of members of the other group as individuals to empathise with. So, inequality and segregation by wealth are some of the first things to fix. You could also add to that there needs to be a better sense of social responsibility, in place of greed, individualism and selfishness (the rich who vote down anything that could increase their taxes are particularly to blame for the lack of this at present, imo). If you look at East Asian countries, for example, even where wealth inequality is higher than it should be, crime rates tend to be low while that sense of social responsibility is high. Then, you also kinda need to fix other related problems like drug addiction, people going without treatment for mental health problems, etc. to prevent people committing opportunistic crimes out of desperation or lack of impulse control or whatever.

I hate the cops as much as any leftist but I do not think it is realistic to just get rid of them, or stop prosecuting anything short of egregious violence, without doing anything about the underlying causes of crime in the first place. On the other hand, I think it’s really urgent to do something about those underlying causes so we can abolish the police (and replace them with some more appropriate institution) ASAP. And a huge part of that has to be fixing the shit deal that the majority of people get under capitalism. We need vast amounts of (preferably public) affordable housing built, and mixed in with existing housing stock (especially in rich-people areas) to prevent economic segregation. We need investors prevented from hoarding housing that they’re not going to rent out fairly or maintain. We need better, more accessible healthcare, including mental healthcare, and it needs to be free at the point of use. We need a total reevaluation of workplace relations, so people are not overworked, overburdened with stress, unsupported, underpaid, fearful of randomly losing their jobs, and denied necessary flexibility (e.g. sick leave as needed, hours that account for childcare obligations).

I mean, ultimately I think we need to get rid of capitalism altogether. But reforming this stuff at least would be a great start.