Who cleans up this mess?

Christian Andersonby Christian Anderson, City University of New York

The short film Trash-Out (freely viewable at http://www.pbs.org/pov/trashout/full.php through August 2014) offers an unflinching look at the nitty gritty of the ongoing economic crisis. It shows a team of people who make a living cleaning up homes in the aftermath of foreclosure. They find children’s toys, medication, clothing, letters, x-rays, and photographs—the intimate and abandoned stuff of private lives suddenly disrupted; haunting traces of a very collective failure that has largely been borne on the backs of individuals and families. “I don’t think I am doing the world a whole lot of good by what I am doing right now”, one of the men on the job remarks forlornly, “I’d rather be doing a lot of other different things that are helpful to the world…I mean, it’s just motivation for me to see this happening to so many people because I could be right there with ‘em two weeks from now”. There are tensions here that radical geography may have yet to fully come to terms with.

Much has now been written about the causes of the economic crisis. We know about the historical context and many of the factors that contributed to it (Crump et al. 2008; French et al. 2009; Strauss 2009), that it may signal key shifts in the mode of accumulation (Peck et al. 2009; Kappeler and Bigger 2011), and that it presented an opportunity for radical political praxis (Harvey 2009) which has been partially realized on the streets of cities throughout the world. Most of this analysis is steadfastly insistent that macro-structural forces are the root of the crisis. Such arguments are crucial in order to dispel any notions that blame should fall on victims and mythical irresponsible borrowers. As the recent Countrywide Settlement demonstrates, an uneven—raced, classed—structural violence has been perpetuated by powerful institutions. Geographers and others have done right by calling attention to this.

But what next? Has geography successfully moved from a necessary focus on the causes and effects of the crisis to thinking about the kinds of (as yet unarticulated?) geographies that will be necessary to adequately respond to the deep social injustices that are still being wrought? On a gut level, it feels like a very diverse range of concrete struggles have been mounted by people now dealing with what is, on the ground, a very nebulous and messy array of problems. At the same time, the research on this messy landscape of response feels very underdeveloped. Have our macro-structural analyses of causes, so politically necessary during the early moments of the crisis, now ossified in our thinking, lent conjuring power to the abstractions that we used to understand what happened, and pre-scripted our orientation to potential responses? Somewhere between the scales of global capital and the visceral despondence of anonymous people like those sifting through the wastes of foreclosure, it feels like there are crucial connections yet to be made.

Perhaps it is time to put our collective intellectual powers to work subverting the dominant narrative—and not merely discursively. The problem may be macro-structural, but an adequate response almost certainly has to be organized from below. Lawrence Weschler, Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities, recently wrote a piece called ‘Time to Start Preoccupying Wall Street’ in which he worked through the increasingly prominent idea of organizing a coordinated debtors strike involving student loan and mortgage holders. This sentiment resonates with struggles that are already under way (Occupy Wall Street of course, but see also Occupy Student Debt and Occupy Our Homes). The goal would be to let the financial institutions be the ones to worry and sacrifice over the debt. If millions agree to stop paying on debt to the banks, debt would become the bank’s problem. Financial institutions have profited enormously and unscrupulously from this mess, and they—not the families, workers, students, poor people, and others who have been left to deal with it so far—are the ones with the resources sufficient to absorb the burden. Debtors could collectively demand that financial institutions allow them to reset the terms of existing debts to amounts that are more reasonable for current economic conditions. This would not only be good politics, but might also make good economic sense.

This is not an idea to be taken lightly. Such a debtors strike would involve significant risks for those involved. Weschler argues therefore that, “[w]hile organizing the signers, the movement would also need to be developing support systems: legal aid cooperatives, alternative credit societies and the like (cooperatives whose seed funding could be provided by supporters not directly called upon to sign the growing commitment petitions, and which could in themselves grow into vital alternative institutions).” It is here that the really radical potential of the proposition becomes clear—it is not only about negotiating terms, but also about starting to nurture new social and economic relations in the spaces where previous ones have proven unjust and insufficient.

This is just one idea among many. The end goal is one that folks of all sorts of radical stripes should be able to get behind. Meanwhile, the challenge of organizing across space and imagining new ways of being collective is one that geographers could clearly extend an imagination to play a role in.


Crump J, Newman K, Belsky E, Ashton P, Kaplan D and Hammel D (2008) Cities destroyed (again) for cash: Forum on the US foreclosure crisis. Urban Geography 29:745-784

French S, Leyshon A and Thrift N (2009) A very geographical crisis: The making and breaking of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 2:287-302

Harvey D (2009) Their crisis, our challenge. Red Pepper http://www.redpepper.org.uk/Their-crisis-our-challenge (last accessed 10 January 2012)

Kappeler A and Bigger P (2011) Nature, capital and neighborhoods: “Dispossession without Accumulation”? Antipode 43:986–1011

Peck J, Theodore N and Brenner N (2009) Postneoliberalism and its malcontents. Antipode 41(6):1236-125

Strauss K (2009) Accumulation and dispossession: Lifting the veil on the subprime mortgage crisis. Antipode 41:10–14