Reclaiming Sewer Reformism

Anyone who reads this blog knows I think that the approach many American leftists take toward urban policy is fundamentally broken.  It’s easier to come up with a critique than to propose a positive agenda, though, and it’s taken me a while to come up with the beginnings of one. Things started to crystallize a bit after the kind of remarkably random interaction that really only Twitter can enable:

I’m sure y’all can look it up yourselves, but for the record Emil Seidel was one of several Socialist mayors of Milwaukee between 1900 and 1960, serving from 1910-1912–indeed, the first elected Socialist mayor of a major city in the US (and no, I don’t know who runs the account, but they’re very thoughtful!).

As I mentioned on Twitter, Milwaukee’s Socialist tradition is indeed extraordinary, in part because the concerns of the city’s Socialist mayors seemed excessively mundane to many more ideologically inclined leftists. Indeed, ideologues gave the Milwaukee tradition the sobriquet “Sewer Socialism,” an intended insult that the Milwaukee crew adopted as a compliment.

Let’s take a look at some of the tenets of Sewer Socialism. The Wikipedia article linked above is pretty good, but I found this 2009 Journal-Sentinel article by John Gurda particularly accessible and informative; not by accident given what I will argue, the title is “Here, Socialism meant honest, frugal government.” Here’s what Gurda has to say:

The key to understanding Milwaukee’s Socialists is the idea of public enterprise. They didn’t just manage, and they didn’t just enforce laws and regulations. They pushed a program of public necessities that had a tangible impact on the average citizen’s quality of life: public parks, public libraries, public schools, public health, public works (including sewers), public port facilities, public housing, public vocational education and even public natatoria.

Underlying their notion of public enterprise was an abiding faith – curiously antique by today’s standards – in the goodness of government, especially local government. The Socialists believed that government was the locus of our common wealth – the resources that belong to all of us and each of us – and they worked to build a community of interest around a deeply shared belief in the common good…

The Socialists governed well, and they did so without breaking the bank. Contrary to another popular myth, these were not tax-and-spend radicals intent on emptying the public coffers. They were, in fact, every bit as frugal as the most penny-pinching German hausfrau. The Socialists managed civic affairs on a pay-as-you-go basis, and in 1943, Milwaukee became the only big city in America whose amortization fund exceeded its outstanding bond obligations. It was, in other words, debt-free.

Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialism placed good government–including good fiscal management–at the forefront of its public-facing persona. Not just something you had to pay homage to on the campaign trail, this ideology recognized that for government to win the confidence of the people and further an agenda of the common good, it had to prove its competence and earn that confidence. Placing something as “boring” as goo-gooism at the center of a political and governing ideology may indeed be “curiously antique by today’s standards,” as Gurda says–but perhaps it is a heritage that we should pay attention to.

Though socialist governance of any kind was rare in American cities, it was not limited to Milwaukee alone. Barre, Vermont also elected a pair of Socialist mayors in the early 20th century, as Robert Weir details for the Vermont Historical Society. As Weir argued, “municipal socialism” in Barre took on a very similar tinge to Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialism.

both Gordon and Suitor brought Barre into the modern age with relative efficiency. In the decades following the Civil War, American cities faced the challenge of transforming themselves from merchant hubs into industrial, commercial, and retail centers. Rapid urban growth quickly revealed the utter inadequacy of antiquated city infrastructure, often with disastrous results (epidemics, floods, poverty, class conflict). Every upgrade that cities needed—from tenements and streetcars to sewers and sidewalks—entailed enormous expense, hence opportunities for graft. The same was true of the incidentals associated with technological change, including the paving of roads to accommodate automobiles, the building of airports, the issuance of radio licenses, and the location of electrical and telephone poles. That Gordon and his protégé Fred Suitor helped Barre make these transitions without a whiff of scandal and with the interests of the citizenry in mind should not be remarkable, but it was.

As in Milwaukee, Barre’s leftists recognized that competence, honesty, and good government were essential to place at the center of any viable agenda.

Nor would I want to leave the impression that this emphasis on good, competent government was limited to the socialist or radical fringe. Not to keep it in the family too much, but I’ll refer to my dad’s book about Portland, OR, and specifically to the chapter about Harry Lane, mayor of Portland from 1905 through 1909 and later a Senator. A doctor by training, Lane was generally identified with the capital-P Progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

An interviewer asked Lane in 1914 to name the major problem with American municipal government. “Decentralized power,” Lane replied without hesitation. Lane went on to state, “A benevolent despot, if he is honest and capable, can manage a city better than can 50 men filling a dozen different offices…I would run a big city or a little city with one, two, or three men at the most.”

Unsurprisingly, Lane’s critics accused him–and other Progressives–of being technocratic elitists, but we can see the commonality with Sewer Socialism in the emphasis on efficiency and honesty. And indeed, my father–inclined as he is to be sympathetic to the petite bourgeoisie–defends Lane as a champion of the principles of small business rather than organized capitalism, and as a trenchant critic of technocracy who championed centralization because he thought it would be easier to hold a centralized government accountable.

To be sure, there were then and are now a wide variety of ideological differences among urban leftists. Weir analyzes some of the differences in the first few decades of the 20th century:

Gordon and Suitor, like most goo-goos and Progressives, believed in efficiency, industrial progress, and the material improvement of society, but they sought to expand democracy, not contract it. Barre’s socialist mayors were not revolutionaries, but neither were they seduced by the blind belief in experts, a hallmark of Progressive thinking. As Bruce Stave observed, “socialists generally opposed . . . attempts to institute city manager or commission forms of government,” staples of top-down Progressive urban reform. Gordon and Suitor encountered and resisted calls for commission-style government. As their battles with public service boards, power authorities, banks, and traction companies reveal, Barre’s socialist mayors were suspicious of the “experts” that Progressives thought should manage cities. The socialist perspective was the difference between trusting the masses to make bottom-up changes, and the Progressives’ paternalistic belief that meaningful reform should be imposed from the top, often by unelected policymakers….

There were other stylistic differences between Progressives and municipal socialists. The first group longed for consensus politics and sought order; the latter averred that political change was inherently chaotic. Progressive reformers sought centralized programs; socialists demanded grassroots local control. Socialists favored public enterprises often deemed unrealistic by Progressive reformers who believed (romantically) in the benevolence, efficiency, and civic pride of the private sector.

Emphasis mine. (Note: I’m sure my dad is going to comment here and say Weir’s view of Progressivism lacks nuance)

But I’m interested in looking at the emergent commonalities, not the differences. Whether against capitalism or for regulating it, what can the Left of the early 20th century share with the new urban age?

  • Milwaukee, Barre, and Portland all adopted competence-based leftist governance at a time of rapid growth. It’s hard to imagine today given the prevalence of NIMBYism from both limousine liberals and concerned poor communities, but there was a time when dealing positively with growth was recognized–properly, in my mind–as a Left issue, precisely because the newcomers were often vulnerable. Perhaps there is, after all, a Left ideology that can be recovered to help guide growth instead of resisting it.
  • Both Sewer Socialists and Progressives placed “taking on entrenched interests” (primarily, of course, corporate interests) at the center of their agenda. One challenge the Left has been slow to adapt to in contemporary high-demand American cities is the need to recognize that “entrenched interests” are not solely corporate, but sometimes come in the form of “the people”–and most specifically, homeowners who follow perceived self-interest at the expense of others.
  • Though some Progressive reformers sought an elegant urban model, most urban leftists seem to have understood–as in the bolded passage from Weir above–that change is both necessary and chaotic. In a sense, this understanding is a key counterpoint to the Modernist planning ideology that has captivated the US public mind–the idea that “order” is important and there’s a right amount of tinkering that can be done to produce an optimal city. (in an earlier post, I called the dissemination of this idea in homeowner circles the Bootstrap Theory of Urban Development) Rather, the Sewer Socialist/Progressive idea stresses getting the fundamentals right, probably but not necessarily under public ownership, and allowing democratic society to flourish and provide the rest. In that sense, it seems to share a lot with Jane Jacobs’ fear of too much government involvement and quasi-libertarian ideas about urban business; but that’s a much longer paper.
  • This really shouldn’t need saying, but reform is not neoliberal. There’s been a tendency on the Left of late, I think, to present all attempts at reform or making government more efficient as corporate raids intended to weaken government and privatize services. Some certainly are–cough, “education reform,” cough–but we should remember that there’s a proud, though perhaps neglected, Left tradition of prizing competence and efficiency precisely as a Left value . One wonders what impact such an agenda might have on relations with some civil service unions…

I’ll end this here, because it’s already been a very long post. Still kind of short on details, I think, but perhaps I have made some progress in recovering an intellectual tradition that can, with modifications, be of use in 2016 and beyond. I certainly think we could do a lot worse.

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7 thoughts on “Reclaiming Sewer Reformism

  1. This was great. Good to hear younger people on the Left embracing pragmatism (efficient, honest, productive government) as a worthwhile value.

    One comment raised an eyebrow — did your statement about “home owners” suggest you believe we should end private ownership of property? Didn’t quite follow the problem created by home ownership or what you thought could be done to counter whatever that perceived problem is.

    • Hi Jerry,

      Glad you enjoyed! I actually want to quibble with something, though–while I’d say I’m for *practicality*, I don’t see that as being quite the same thing as pragmatism–indeed, there’s a fairly sweeping agenda that I think needs to be enacted. I just think the way to get there is by proving ourselves, rather than pure ideology.

      To answer your question, I certainly don’t want to end private property, nor am I really in favor of nationalizing most businesses, utilities, etc. My problem with homeowners as a class is not the act of homeownership itself (although I think it’s clearly not all it’s cracked up to be), but the consistent tendency of that class to organize and act politically in ways that hurt anyone who isn’t lucky or privileged enough to own a home. You see this in paranoia about multifamily housing; you see it in gentrifying cities where neighborhoods with a high percentage of owner-occupied housing tend to resist any change at all and spiral into unaffordability. Renters are generally unable to participate in the political process to the same extent, and as a result the public policy outcomes are generally awful. So I want policymakers to recognize that and work to create a more equitable playing field.

      • Thanks again Sandy for weighing in on this. It’s been good to get your thoughts on our project of reviving the name sewer socialism, which I would loosely define as a left politics that combines practical urban and metropolitan reform with radical analysis and ambitions. It’s been great to get a conversation going, regardless of what you may agree or disagree with.

        Jerry, I’m probably more radical than Sandy, who seems to be shying away from the “socialist” part. This is fine, because apart from its radical aspirations, the old sewer socialists were quite similar to the municipal progressive reformers of the day. So I wanted to address your question about homeownership, and touch on property generally. I would second Sandy’s comments about homeowners as a class exerting a disproportionate influence on our local politics. I would add that the racist application of these subsidies contributed to the urban crisis of the late 20th century, and the commodification of home loans contributed to the economic crisis of the early 21st.

        Sewer socialism, however, is not a dogmatic vision of the “best” system of property ownership. Capitalism tends to overvalue private ownership, while bureaucratic collectivism (Soviet-style “socialism”) tended to overvalue national ownership. Rather that pick a “best” kind of ownership, we should find the best forms of property for different situations, according to what is most likely to secure the common good. Personal ownership is ideal for consumer goods and some housing, because people have a right to own the things that they use in their daily lives. Capitalist ownership should probably be tolerated for startups and small businesses, because they are too small or are growing too fast to impose more complex forms. Worker ownership is better for medium-sized stable businesses, because workers and communities build their lives around where the jobs are. Networks of worker-owned cooperatives are best used for larger businesses, because the Mondragon cooperatives found that cooperatives became unwieldy when they exceeded about 150 members. Community ownership is appropriate for local banks, an arrangement that is already widespread in the form of credit unions. Municipal and metropolitan ownership are effective tools for natural monopolies or networks, such as utilities or regional transit systems. National ownership is necessary for industries whose prudent management is in the national interest. For example, capitalist ownership of energy causes ecological crises, and investment banking causes financial crises.

        There examples of each of these in various parts of the world, but the transition is a tall order, and it happens in addition to, not instead of, building social democracy along the lines of Costa Rica or the Nordic countries. I assert that this is nontrivial task, and people on the far left tend to think it’s easier than it is. I conclude that it requires both a powerful coalition of social movements, *and* an array of planning and technical specialists working in service to those movements and accountable to democratic decision-making at the appropriate level. However, the best place to start building both is in our cities. Because of this, you could say that sewer socialism is the left wing of urbanism.

      • Emil – I assume from your comment that you deem personal home ownership for individual home owners to be “best” given that people live in their homes and therefore have that “right”

        Yet, you and Sandy also point to some negatives that come from home owners as a class voting etc for whatever maintains or increases the value of their homes.

        How do we limit the ability of people to vote in such a manner?

        As for gentrification – how about laws requiring buyers in certain areas to live in the homes they buy for certain number of years? That would cut down on developers tho it wouldn’t stop new people committed to the neighborhood from moving in etc.

        And would any of the concepts you speak of be Constitutional? Or do you envision Amendments? or actual revolution and an entirely new Constitution?

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