On August 8, KOMO news reporter Joel Moreno posted a story that deserves the kind of examination an entomologist applies on a wasp: “Neighbors create guerrilla garden after Seattle sweeps homeless camp.” What’s stated in the headline is indeed what’s found in the story, which concerns an unauthorized “community greenspace” that’s “on N 96th St, just off Aurora Ave,” and appeared right after a homeless camp was swept by the city. Moreno writes: “Neighbors call it guerrilla gardening and it’s a new approach to keeping encampments cleared from coming back.”
This tactic has a name. It’s called a “green deterrent.” Gardens certainly attract rabbits, but apparently they keep away humans perceived as having no economic value and leaving trash everywhere. This article is, of course, selling the feeling that the city is doing nothing about public safety and so it’s up to the productive side of society to protect itself. The people of North 96th Street are being resourceful in a way that’s distinctly Seattle. They are putting the guerrilla back into guerrilla gardening. This is a tactical move in the war between those who have something and those with absolutely nothing.
The initial target of guerrilla gardening was none other than capitalism, a system that restructures “all-sided” human interdependence into “the independence and indifference of the consumers and producers to one another.” This description of a society dominated by the logic of the market is profound. It’s at once anthropological (we are a social animal) and explains precisely what’s historically specific to capitalism (it captures this organic sociality and transforms it into its opposite—a system that rewards indifferent egoism). Guerrilla gardening in its initial form returned the community feeling and practice to spaces that are not officially public or private. A similar objective is found in the edible landscape movement. The idea is to make some of our basic needs less dependent on a system that, as several radical economists realized long ago (particularly, Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky*) is not about humans at all.
But the action on North 96th Street reveals how easily anticapitalist projects of its kind can be easily emptied of meaning. Indeed, I think that one of the reasons the artist Sarah Bergmann pretty much abandoned her “Pollinator Pathway” in Seattle and moved to the East Coast is because she was under continuous pressure to make the project accessible to people who felt the need to do something good. But she was imagining the real transformation of urban organization, a real disruption and reorientation between the urban and natural. She didn’t want to create a biodiverse pathway that could also, without much effort, be used to protect property owners from the grim realities of capitalism. Indeed, activism directed at preventing or blocking sweeps fears no such capture and emptying that is happening on North 96th Street. Helping the homeless in a real way apparently doesn’t make a homeowner feel good.
What's next? Maybe letting artists do their thing with eco-blocks in the manner of the Storefronts Program for public art.
Install Eco blocks near the schools. pic.twitter.com/r5El1eiWZO— RustyBucket (@DammitIggy) August 2, 2022
*I will say more about the pre-revolution Russian economist Tugan-Baranovsky at another time, but I think it’s no accident that he has never been translated into English. Our access to him in this language has been primarily provided by the American Marxist Paul Sweezy, and translations of Rosa Luxemburg and Michał Kalecki.