Like Halloween at the Foreclosure Mill: On Sadistic Devotions
Cruelty in Capitalism and Austerity
In late-2011, Steven J. Baum PC, a legal “foreclosure mill” operating in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY, issued a public apology. Not long before, an employee had leaked photos from the firm’s previous year’s Halloween party featuring other employees dressed in costumes mocking foreclosure victims, foreclosure rights attorneys, and a judge critical of their unscrupulous practices. The Baum firm, explained NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in a 2012 legal settlement, “cut corners in order to maximize the number of its foreclosure filings and its profits.” According to Schneiderman, “From at least 2007 through sometime in 2009, Baum Firm attorneys repeatedly verified complaints in foreclosure actions stating, among other things, that the plaintiff was ‘the owner and holder of the note and mortgage being foreclosed,’ when, in many securitized loan cases, the Baum Firm did not have documentary proof that the plaintiff was the owner and holder of the note and mortgage.” In other words, the firm had been taking advantage of the massive housing crisis by collecting fees from huge banks and foreclosing on homes under false, shaky, or incomplete rights to do so. But there was no soul-searching by Baum PC employees.
One of the most noteworthy pieces of the Halloween party’s carnival of contempt for those evicted by the crisis was its construction of a “shantytown” within which the costumed foreclosure processers (most not lawyers) held signs reading: “*@!$%^& (* Foreclosure! I’m current!!” and “3rdParty Squatter. I lost my home and I was neverserved!!”) The signs displayed a perverse pleasure in cruelty, which was still abhorrent then and is revoltingly commonplace now. If not an admission of guilt, carnivals of this kind at least trace the complex contortions demanded by systems of debasement rather than simply reflecting poor taste. Not only did the 2007 economic crisis bring to a head the contradictions of key trends within millennial capitalism, it transformed homes and communities across the US (and the world) at the hands of eviction officers armed with papers processed by firms like Baum. But, even further, the crisis forced an ideological reckoning with a set of assumptions about the free market, responsibility, and economic ethics. In this new impoverished environment, some acted to resist and restrain predatory capitalism, some found even greater resonance with democratic socialism, others confronted this reckoning with additional contempt for the poor, the different and the marginalized. Illustrating the latter, part of the Baum firm’s temporary house of horrors was a row of mock “foreclosure sale” properties. And, they weren’t alone in their heightened reactionary contempt. While nationally, blame for the crisis was leveled at the poor themselves, it was the foreclosure mills, state austerity policies, real estate developers, and those who were evicting them, that extended the crisis, rigging foreclosure auctions, transforming the shape of communities, and getting rich doing it. To look at transformations in the city is to see, not just bureaucratic evils, but in many corners of that seemingly banal system a sadistic devotion to it, to unfair rules, to social inequality, and to pain-by-bureaucracy. In many cases there was no banality to speak of—only lenders, developers, hedge fund managers, foreclosure processers, etc., conspiring to wrest as much money and as many assets as possible from the socially vulnerable.
Any interest in the US “rustbelt” encounters a landscape twisting under pressures from connected forces, particularly where I live near Toledo, OH and Detroit, MI. The material-ideological dimensions of cities and urban landscape reveal traces—an “autobiography,” in geographer Pierce Lewis’s terms—of the various struggles that have been developing over the redefinition of places for over 100 years, over the contending claims to their popular meanings, and over the physical re/construction of neighborhoods and communities as part of those contending definitions. In Detroit’s struggles one finds a chaotic spectrum of kindness and frustration, which engenders different versions of hope and long-term imaginations of the past and future. Since the formal crisis, the Detroit landscape has transformed wildly in some places (e.g. Corktown’s gentrification, the new “Chinatown,” the Little Caesar’s Arena, state imposed “emergency financial management” and municipal bankruptcy) and has stagnated in others (e.g., nearly triple the national poverty rate, almost double the eviction rate, housing at hyper-vacancy rates). A decade ago (and perhaps since 1967), Detroit was popularly seen as an “unruly” place, as out of bounds or a frontier to be tamed, explored, and developed. Alistair Bonnett, in his book Unruly Places, marshals this term to describe disorganized sites that people feel are peculiar, scary, or different. But Bonnett, like many self-described psychogeographers and urban explorers, approaches unruliness from a rather sentimentalist and exoticizing starting point. For instance, echoing popular and scholarly criticisms of suburbanization, sprawl, and corporate urbanism, Bonnett explains: “The rise of placelessness, on top of the sense that the whole planet is now minutely known and surveilled, has given this [pervasive] dissatisfaction a radical edge, creating an appetite to find places that are off the map and that are somehow secret, or at least have the power to surprise us.” But one need only be a foreclosure processer to see that simply finding “off the map” places is a relatively dull edge for radicalism.
This can be seen clearly in Detroit: the world doesn’t need more ruin pornographers. Merlin Coverley looks at things similarly in his Psychogeography, that “If psychogeography is to be understood in literal terms as the point where psychology and geography intersect, then one of its further characteristics may be identified in the search for new ways of apprehending our urban environment. Psychogeography seeks to overcome the processes of ‘banalisation’ by which the everyday experience of our surroundings becomes one of drab monotony.” But Coverley doesn’t stop there. Channeling filmmaker Patrick Keiller, he critically notes, that “psychogeography [is] increasingly preoccupied with its own practices as an end in themselves, no longer the tool of any larger political or even cultural project but simply a self-contained and self-immersed movement with little significant impact on the environment whose redevelopment it has so vocally denounced.” Was it possible to simply wander (anymore or ever) in the city or explore urban ruins for the satisfaction of personal “surprise” or excitement? After the financial collapse? After gentrification? After the Detroit water crisis? After lead poisoning in Flint?
In a similar timeframe, McKenzie Wark writes rousingly in the Spectacle of Disintegration about some of the main popularizers of wandering, drifting, dérive, or exploring the psychogeographies of cities, Guy Debord and the Situationist International movement:“Debord’s sometime comrade Raoul Vaneigem famously wrote that those who speak of class conflict without referring to everyday life, ‘without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.’ Today this formula surely needs to be inverted. To talk the talk of critical thought, of biopolitics and biopower, of the state of exception, bare life, precarity, of whatever being, or object oriented ontology without reference to class conflict is to speak, if not with a corpse in one’s mouth, then at least a sleeper. Must we speak the hideous language of our century?”
And perhaps we might say that those simply seeking excitement in the city, without contemplating the violence of capital’s circulation or of class conflict are engaging in a kind of celebration of suffering—though, certainly not as conscientiously contemptuous as the Baum firm’s Halloween party or as naively “self-immersed” as ruin porn. Still they are, so to speak, walking on corpses. Between 2007 and 2011, the Baum foreclosure mill filed over 50,000 New York cases. The New York Attorney General’s office reported in 2012 that, “Statewide, an average of 1 in 10 mortgages [was] at risk of foreclosure. The approximate number of individuals living in homes that [were] either in foreclosure or at risk of foreclosure [exceeded] the populations of Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse combined.” The stakes are high in our urban landscapes and we must always see the brutal within the banal.
This is the post-recession world. Poor. Put out. Pissed. Prone to fakakta saviors. (Admittedly, it’s not too different from the pre-recession world). The rules of this world are bound to austerity, to diminished public services, to forced municipal bankruptcies, to more privatization, and even to the criminalization of private debt (i.e., return of debtors’ prison, against which the ACLU acted in 2018). Austerity must not just be seen mathematically (granted, at times actual math would be a treat!) or philosophically. Rather, austerity has to also be understood emotionally, as a visceral impulse to tough love—like the conversations one hears at strange family holidays, full of hidden grudges, disproportionate hostility, and proud recollections of long-past suffering as the rationale for the torment of a new group of children.
Mark Blyth notes in a 2013 Foreign Policy feature that “Austerity is a seductive idea because of the simplicity of its core claim—that you can’t cure debt with more debt. This is true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.” In his book, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, Blyth invokes John Quiggin’s notion of “zombie economics,” or “economic ideas that will not die despite huge logical inconsistencies and massive empirical failures.” Austerity, Blyth continues, “is a zombie economic idea because it has been disproven time and again, but it just keeps coming. Partly because the commonsense notion that ‘more debt doesn’t cure debt’ remains seductive in its simplicity, and partly because it enables conservatives to try (once again) to run the detested welfare state out of town, it never seems to die.” Indeed, beyond the evidence that austerity doesn’t work, the inequality, the instability, and the asymmetrical burden it places on the poor, have, as Blyth notes, dangerous implications. As a case in point, amid the ongoing horror of Flint’s toxic water supply, to remark of austerity programs’ fiscal savings is not only obnoxious but misleading, given the additional health and infrastructural expenses it caused. And this is the key—Whatever impulse there is to tally up the balance sheets betrays the idea’s most dangerous play: its incessant rationality (e.g., how much money is a life worth?). But, the idea of austerity also feels good to certain segments of the capitalist world, or segments of the capitalist “mind” (whatever that might be). As we starve one beast, we feed another.
In her 1995 classic, Landscapes of Power, Sharon Zukin writes, “We are fascinated by Los Angeles and Miami because we think they show us the future.” More than twenty years later, we encounter a future that often appears catastrophic, cataclysmic, or apocalyptic. The “imagineers” and “hotel-civilization” of the 20th century represented, correctly to Zukin, a “power to lure the imagination” and its corollary, “the domestication of fantasy in visual consumption.” This domestication of fantasy, both tamed and compliant to the 20th century’s privatization of social life, seems to have matured its internal contradictions over these two and a half decades and we now see something beyond the façades of theme parks and resorts: unlivable rents, mass shootings, deadly struggles over racialized police power, rising child poverty, and poisoned natural resources. What fantasies remain? Perhaps terraforming Mars? But it is also in this context that the project of “domestication” lives on. With chaos comes a new demand to bring unruly spaces under control. The austerity project, as Stuart Hall remarked of Thatcherism, “moulds people’s conceptions as it restructures their lives [and] shifts the disposition of forces to its side.” And this impulse of domestication has found in our era, not just the amusement park but also the landscapes of crisis management and emergency as its preferred format. Despite the delight contemporary populist politics seem to take in cruelty, mass movements sprout against that tide: The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Detroit Water Brigade, Black Lives Matter, the national Incarcerated Worker’s Strike, Me Too, Standing Rock water protectors, Medicare for All, and the list goes on. The contest for the future will implicitly be urban, as it is now, struggling to redefine the social meanings of common resources, pollution, debt, inequality, public speech and protest, and development in so-called poor and rich countries alike. The contested cityscapes of the future will be implicitly devoted to what many urbanists call “the right to the city” as a political question: who has the right to control our social products and, ultimately, the production of our own social nature? This is a technological, legal, and ideological problem. It is also implicit in contemporary considerations of democracy.
One of the key ideological contradictions of the neoliberal era, of the era of austerity and cruel pleasures, is the mismatch between the physical capacity of the world economic system and the deprivation experienced by so many. Why less, given our productive capacity? Who makes those choices? The National Conference to Defeat Austerity, held in Detroit in March, 2018, recently defined their counter-narrative as the following: “defeating the war being waged by the banks, corporations, and government against the workers and oppressed.” When we look at the delight in contempt and cruelty that the Baum firm’s Halloween party represented, its mockery of destitute lives and its crass cynicism, we see the depth of the political crisis at hand. But perhaps we might even hold some sympathy for the employees whose livelihoods are beholden to making people homeless. Should we hold those office workers in a contrary contempt? Or do we see carnivals of that kind as expressions of the emotional repetitive stress injuries of neoliberal capitalism? Beyond marking enemies, it is out of austerity’s and neoliberal capitalism’s contradictions with concepts like dignity, equality, the commons, and even democracy that we find new meanings built for and into our urban resources. And it is on that platform against austerity and against the pleasures of cruelty, for abundance and sustainability, for equality and innovation, that new struggles for meaning can find the city as something to be remade along the path of their aspirations. That platform must target the force of the prevailing systems of cruelty—the rights to the city and to our very nature that banks, corporations, and political budget mongers currently occupy. It is on this platform that the struggle for democratization must proceed.
This text is the modified foreword to Josh Atkinson/Clayton Rosati: Alternative Spaces/Transformative Places: Democratizing Unruliness in an Age of Austerity, about to be published by Peter Lang.