In the United States, we make an economic distinction between “needs” and “wants”. We teach children (here, here, and here, for example) to recognize and manage the difference between their needs and wants. Subsequently, we re-code these management skills in terms of individual ethics — good people recognize their needs and wants, and then make rational choices to live within their means. In contrast, bad people make irrational choices based on uncontrolled desires that lead to debt and bankruptcy.
The flip response — “one girl’s need is an aging man’s want” — to this statement merely confirms the underlying double bind of this economizing morality. In this financial literacy exercise, for example, only the social facts of suburban car culture, supermarkets, and fast food restaurants conspire to make white bread, bottled water, and a tent vacation “needs” in contrast to the “wants” of a bicycle and a pizza. What if our built environment depended on bikes for transportation? What if we were homeless and the best we could cobble together was a tent made of discarded plastic and corrugated steel? In these situations, the economizing morality is to recalibrate our personal needs and wants rather than to challenge the inequality that poses this choice as reflecting real world conditions.
All this to say: the economizing morality of individual needs and wants is the elementary school version of neoliberal ethics.
I’m thinking about individual needs and wants and neoliberal
immorality for two interrelated reasons. At the level of urban planning, given the prime location of urban villages and the lack of developable plats in Shenzhen, the villages were targeted for redevelopment (or renovation — 更新 as a verb). In turn, the need for neighborhoods for the working poor has been recoded as the need for individuals with Shenzhen hukou to find affordable housing. A shift of hand, and the debate ceases to be about communities and becomes one of individual economies. Moreover, convenience, access to schools and social infrastructure, as well as economic opportunities are concomitantly transvalued as wants to be satisfied through economizing.
On January 31, 2013 for example, the Municipality made available 13,496 units of public housing. Of that total, all are located in the outer districts (guanwai) and the majority (11,111) are located in Longgang, roughly 35 kms from the city center. To allocate these units, Shenzhen will be testing what is known as the 轮侯制 or “revolving wait system”. Basically, this system entails meeting conditions, including hukou status, time in Shenzhen, and maximum income to apply for a residence. When any of these conditions change, the family has to move out of the unit, thus opening it for another. The family also has to find another place to live.
In Shenzhen, those opposed to urban renovation projects have been reminding the Municipality out that urban villages like Baishizhou already provide low-cost housing and small scale economic opportunities for working poor families. Moreover, the given the Municipality’s demographics 13,496 housing units are sufficient to absorb displaced populations only when those with hukou may apply. Point du jour: locating public housing far from urban centers only makes moral sense (cents!) in a world in which individual economizing ideologically justifies disrupting neighborhoods for the working poor in order to pave the way for developers. And yes, this is just more evidence that China and the United States really are the same country.