Tuesday, March 08, 2005


The Horrors of Improvement

The following essay was origionally posted at William Grim's Z.C. Portal site.

When one walks through a formally “bad” neighborhood and sees the emergence of new hotels, apartments, and chic restaurants, the word gentrification may likely come to mind. Gentrification is one of those words that’s ultimately rather neutral but is seldom used in describing a neutral observation. To the contrary, when this word does come up it’s typically stated with the same implications as, “Die yuppie scum.” Nothing arouses the battle cries of class envy more than gentrification.

Throughout history most of human kind lived hellish lives in harsh labor for the cause of mere subsistence and early death. Since living standards in modern times have improved considerably for those of us in the developed world, the most pampered among us can now complain about the very advances we thrive among. Some would no doubt like us to return to a Stone Age world of simplicity (ala Rousseau). Perhaps after a nostalgic return to rampant disease, tooth decay, and twisted limbs they’d look more fondly upon our world of coffee shops, cd downloads, and other modern improvements.

Only in the warped worldview of the pseudo-rebel, could the concept of improvement be seen as something bad.

This paradox struck me in a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City in the Socialist “Republic” of Vietnam. The heart of the city is still called Saigon by many but officially it’s referred to as “District 1” (can one imagine a musical with the romantic name, “Miss District 1).

Like many cities in transition, commerce is putting a dynamic new face on what was undeveloped stasis. The socialist/communist enterprise, in itself, rarely moves above mere subsistence. The desire for equality exceeds the toleration of something as “bourgeois” as progress or improvement.

A gentrified area of any city looks different than one less blessed. Something as simple as a street with less litter can often exemplify an area in transition. Around the big hotels, tourist’s centers, and places of foreign investment, the streets of Saigon have seemed to organically sprout a more hospitable ambience. In gazing at Saigon’s skyline, I fancied that such buildings were popping up like flowers in a patch of weeds. Socialism’s solution to rampant societal “weeds” had merely been to outlaw the growth of flowers. To those who hate the process of gentrification, it is perhaps seen as “unjust” for tourists and locals to walk among a more refined existence while “others are left behind.” Of course, it would never occur to the anti-capitalist mentality that it might actually be a good thing to take the first steps in rising all to a higher level of existence. No, the standard stance of resentment says, “If some are poor, all must remain so” -- “Equality!”

Saigon is clear testimony to the nature of a society in transition. The surreal atmosphere there is one where hammer and sickle flags are still displayed with cheesy posters of a god-like Ho Chi Minh guiding smiling peasants and tanks into a utopian future. The scene wouldn’t have had half the comic effect if it wasn’t for the American flag scarves I saw everywhere with “Texas” plastered across them.

The Vietnamese themselves appear to be natural Capitalists. The tragic war between my own country and their imposed leadership doesn’t appear to have embittered them for long. Among most tourist items was a rich array of fake “American War” trinkets. Strangely, Michael Moore’s bitter tomes are ever-present, sold on the streets to those who care about such things (I doubt if the locals know or care about this bloated ego-maniac’s obsessions).

Gentrification comes easily to a location that was beautiful in its past. There’s a certain charm in crumbling French architecture (just as there’s a certain charm in crumbling French civilization). If the French had simply stuck to things like building design rather than political philosophy, the world would no doubt be a better place.

The big picture reality of gentrification in a place like Vietnam is ultimately nothing less than the emergence of a middle class and all those oft derided attributes of bourgeoisie society – the growth in values like cleanliness, honesty, ambition, individualism and self actualization. It seems that no one hates the middle class more than its pampered children. A college professor once told our class that the middle class is the only calls that rebels against itself – ain’t it the truth.

The most ridiculous issue to confront while appraising Vietnam, is the fact that it, like all communist countries, it is poor, has crime, and contains a normal spectrum of human attributes (from friendliness to selfishness and “greed”). Its citizens are hardly “equal” among themselves or before the law. So, what exactly is the reason communism is imposed on any society? They still possess the societal attributes they supposedly hate, add authoritarian domination and economic stagnation, and then say they’re on the road to paradise. Ironically, the first steps to anything even vaguely resembling paradise occur when the first free transaction in commerce takes place – when the human mind chooses personal improvement over obedience to an abstract overlord.

My reveries regarding Saigon’s gentrification reminded me of earlier observations I had made in New York City and Denver, Colorado. The few years I had lived in each city, I had seen old abandoned warehouse districts replaced by beautiful galleries and entertainment venues. In each case I remember someone pointing out the “gentrification” with disdain. Did they really think that dilapidated buildings and high crime areas were somehow degraded by their transformation into areas of bustling activity where people spend their disposable good fortune on worldly pleasures and leisure?

The economics in all of this is simple of course. Our options for the running of a modern state’s economy are ultimately limited:

A government can either prevent (outlaw) the production of wealth thus leaving virtually everyone poor (i.e. North Korea). Permit the seeds of capitalist economy to produce some wealth, which is then confiscated and punished to a degree where further growth is discouraged or stopped in it’s tracks (i.e. several Socialist/Capitalist fence sitting countries dotting the world today). Whine and rant about the “injustice” of an unequal outcome of wealth distribution, while the slow process of a prosperous middle class society emerges over time (i.e. the initial conditions that resulted in today’s most prosperous and developed countries).

Radical egalitarians are simply unwilling to wait for the last option to occur and, lets face it, don’t like the “bourgeoisie “ society that would result anyway. They’d gladly accept the distributed poverty and Stone Age subsistence of a Stalinist police state over the dynamic, diverse, and widely distributed energy that open society and free markets produce.

Some philosopher’s critiques of Bourgeoisie society inevitably chastise it for its alleged “materialism” (assuming themselves to occupy loftier realms beyond the material). They fail to recognize that the mere act of taking a bite from an apple is ultimately a “materialistic” act (which may be why the efficient production of apples and everything else is thwarted in the anti-capitalist society).

Even China and Vietnam have come to realize that it’s probably better to have a prosperous society with poor people than a poor society with an unfounded illusion of no poor people.

Aside from periodic Internet crackdowns and oppression against those who believe in higher values beyond “The Party,” Vietnam appears relatively stable.

I think the Vietnamese will ultimately pull off the gentrification thing successfully. A few diehards for the Socialist cause will mourn the loss of simpler and more regimented days but all in all the young will march gladly into a future of cell phones and mini-disc players and the fact that others may call their values materialistic or decadent will fail to dissuade common folks from merely seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

It’s unfortunate that the very idea of increasing freedom and prosperity is so offensive to some. At this point in the history of economics and politics, it can probably be concluded that the first sane step in striving for utopia is to recognize that there is no such thing. It may also help to recognize that improvement (gentrification) is a good thing, and that the human spirit unbridled has an infinite capacity to innovate and improve.

Imagine a whole world gentrified, poverty and squalor reduced to a mere fragment of the world’s population. Nothing would make the Left more furious, because nothing would steal their corrupt thunder to impose non-solutions, maintain the growth of the state, and perpetuate the sorry illusion that poverty is noble -- if it’s equally distributed and prevents some from reaching higher.

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