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To fight climate change and capitalism, we must decommodify public transit


An empty subway car in Toronto. Photo by Matt Wiebe/Flickr.

The following is an excerpt from James Wilt’s new book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age Google, Uber, and Elon Musk, released this year by Between the Lines.

The power of transit isn’t simply about helping people get from one place to another in a timely and free way—although it is, of course, that. The fight for genuinely public transportation is one for democratic control over communities. The universal right to transportation serves as a foundation of a broader struggle against capitalist commodification and exploitation.

Bus network designs and congestion pricing are fine in theory. But they often keep power in the hands of technocrats and away from communities of low-income riders and transit workers who have the best sense of the limitations that hold systems back. The world under neoliberalism is already intricately planned by capitalists, developers, and landlords. Our struggle is to seize those existing powers and deploy them democratically through planning councils and community organizations populated by transit riders and workers.

It’s not enough to rejig a few zoning bylaws and developer regulations, or even pick better routes that serve low-income communities. We have to confront the extreme wealth that holds our governments hostage and deprives transit systems of the funds they need for a rapid escalation in service, access, and affordability. Enormous amounts of money are being hoarded by capitalists and used for their political gain—resources that can and should be used for public transit, housing, social services, and more.

According to a 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute, the top 1 percent of families in the U.S. earned an average of 26.3 times as much income as the bottom 99 percent; that ratio increases to 44.4 times in New York and 39.5 times in Florida. As of late 2017, the three richest people in the U.S.—Bill Gates of Microsoft, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway—own the equal amount of wealth as the bottom 160 million people in the country. Bezos’s company, Amazon, earned $11.2 billion in profits in 2018 but didn’t pay a single dollar in federal income tax, and instead received $129 million in tax breaks and credits.19 In January 2017, Oxfam reported that two men in Canada—David Thomson of Thomson Reuters and Galen Weston Sr. of George Weston Limited—had the same amount of wealth as the bottom 30 percent of the country.

Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 cut the highest tax bracket from 39.6 percent to 37 percent (while also increasing the income threshold), doubling the estate tax deduction and slashing the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. The bill also cut the rate of corporate income coming back to the U.S. from foreign jurisdictions and exempted foreign income from U.S. tax. At the time, the tax changes were predicted to cost an incredible $2.3 trillion over ten years. Advocates for corporate income tax cuts said the policy would increase investment by companies, in turn creating more jobs and spending. Yet a January 2018 analysis indicated that 36 percent of gains were going to shareholders in the form of share buybacks and dividends, 23 percent to capital expenditure, and only 12 percent to higher worker wages. In August 2018, Goldman Sachs predicted that U.S. companies would hit $1 trillion in share buybacks over the year, calling it “a direct result of tax reform.”

As revealed by the Panama Papers—and promptly ignored—an astonishing amount of money is being offshored by the rich; economist Gabriel Zucman pegs the total at a minimum of $7.6 trillion. The organization Tax Justice Network estimates tax haven hoarding at between $21 and $31 trillion.

Unless such incredible inequities are meaningfully addressed, it will be impossible for transit agencies to massively improve their systems at the rate and scope needed to avoid catastrophic climate change and another generation’s worth of racist and classist transportation policies. The continued enforced use of automotive modes—including privately owned vehicles, ride-hailing services, and autonomous fleets—represents a further privatization of transportation and dodging of the desperate need to redistribute wealth to build legitimately public transportation.

Extreme concentrations of capital plague cities and towns with rampant gentrification, real estate speculation, uneven development, and violently unpredictable employment patterns that undermine any ability to publicly plan in an effective manner. Ending such destructive chaos requires the decommodification of housing and planning through the mass buildout of public stock and nationalization of key sectors of economies.

“Everybody will agree that we need better transit, but in order for that you need a political and social movement that is demanding that the super wealthy and big business be taxed in order to expand those investments,” Kshama Sawant of Seattle City Council told me. “You can’t do it on the backs of already burdened working people. We need to tax big business and the wealthy to massively expand public transportation, and to make it affordable or free to everybody, and to make it possible that people don’t have to drive their cars every day and not depend on app-based corporations and entirely rely on public transportation. That automatically means putting working people and the environment first, not the interest of Uber’s profits.”

Governments spend a phenomenal amount of money on institutions such as the military, policing, prisons, and courts. They take up ever-increasing portions of budgets while imposing punishment and surveillance on predominantly low-income communities of colour—the same communities that have the worst access to affordable transportation. A February 2017 report by the Prison Policy Initiative estimated that mass incarceration in the U.S. costs $182 billion per year. Such systems are both extremely cost-intensive and deeply racialized, devastating entire low-income communities of colour with family separation, unemployment, and disenfranchised voting rights. In a cruel twist, New York governor Andrew Cuomo is now expanding transit police powers by spending $249 million over four years to hire an additional five hundred officers, instead of working toward the far cheaper option of abolishing fares and improving service.

We can reallocate massive funding for military and carceral institutions that destroy the lives of people in low-income communities in the Global North and entire countries in the Global South into areas like public transportation. Such a shift would help address long-standing racial and class-based oppressions. It would also drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which have the greatest impacts on such communities.

These issues have the potential to bring together many different struggles. Rights in Transit author Kafui Attoh says that the most successful transit campaigns have been those that knit together labour groups, environmental organizations, and community members. Attoh told me: “The ecological crisis and economic crisis are collective action problems. The solution lies in cooperation. Solving the ecological crisis means we have to cooperate with other nations and other people to solve something that goes beyond our borders and households. Public transit represents the ethos that is required to solve those problems, as well as a practical solution: more buses rather than cars. I feel like it captures everything.”

Yet the class implications of transit policies aren’t always obvious to the public. Cohen says that community members looking to organize around such issues need to become “way more interested” in building compelling narratives and class-based coalitions. Sawant says Seattle’s increasing of the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2021, following community organizing by fast food workers, unions, and political groups, is an example of how to “build to struggle against a billionaire class and political establishment that is hostile to working people and environmental goals.”

There is plenty of desire for this kind of shift. In an early 2019 poll, the proposal by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to tax incomes above $10 million at a rate of 70 percent received support from 59 percent of registered voters. Similar support is present in Canada: 69 percent of respondents to a 2019 federal poll think that the rich should be taxed more—and only 27 percent believe that corporations are paying a fair share. At a far more fundamental level, the collection of any profits in the first place depends on the theft of surplus value from workers, environmental destruction, and maintaining of colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands. Viewing the world through such a lens, “fair taxation” isn’t nearly enough—we need to dream far bigger.

No matter how good our plans are for a just transition from fossil fuels, the ideas won’t matter unless we can take genuinely public control of the production and distribution of industries, including transportation, housing, and energy. Consumption “choices” like driving and suburban living are available in a capitalist system only because automobiles, suburban homes, and the resources required to fuel them are profitable to produce.

Some busy transit lines may be profitable—but many are not, especially feeder lines from low-income and low-density neighbourhoods. Politicians looking for excuses to privatize or close down transit services can erode the remaining profitability over time. The response to this trend should not be to argue for transit on the merits of potential moneymaking; that is buying into the logic of capitalism that prioritizes exchange over use value. Our struggles should be grounded in the decommodification of society, funding programs and services with resources expropriated from rich households and corporations.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.


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