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Plague Profiteering and Water Privatization


If you know me (hi, all five of you), you know I’m obsessed with how water became privatized in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. How did the source of life–abundant, common, spirit-matter—get transformed into a source of private profit? How did something people across cultures agreed was a common good turn into something that could be bought and sold as a commodity?

Today’s slice of the story comes from Gotham, a doorstop history of early New York by Edwin Burroughs ad Mike Wallace. It involves the plague, a 1798 outbreak of yellow fever in New York City that killed approximately 5% of the population and which caused the city’s wealthy residents to flee the city while the plague did its terrible work.

The yellow fever’s mass deaths galvanized public and political will to clean up a classically oozy eighteenth century North Atlantic city with garbage in the streets, open sewers, and overflowing cesspools. As a result, almost all of the city’s fresh water supplies were polluted.

In response, New York’s Common Council drafted a bill for the creation of municipal waterworks to supply the city with fresh water. The bill was explicit: this was to be a not-for-profit project.

It’s at this point that the popular will for an ambitious water-infrastructure project was subverted by the profit motive of New York’s political and capitalist elite. Several leading figures, including Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, argued against a non-profit water supply. Instead, they advocated the formation of a private company that would supply the city water and that would be empowered to use surplus capital for “monied transactions or operations.”

Burr’s ultimate goal was to use the water company to form a bank. And this is what happened. Burr and company found investors, formed the Manhattan Company, formed a bank, and quickly used the leverage of its backers to force the city of New York to becomes its customer. This would become Chase Manhattan Bank (that Chase Manhattan, as in JP Morgan Chase Manhattan Bank).

While the bank thrived, the Manhattan Company’s system of water supply was disastrous. Against engineers’ recommendations, the company used hollow pine logs to pipe water. These would quickly rot. Instead of steam engines, they used a horse-drawn pump. Instead of a reservoir of a million gallons the city estimated it needed, the company’s reservoir was 132,600 gallons. After two years, the project had managed to lay only six miles of pipe and supply only four hundred homes. These were decisions that quite nakedly favored shareholder profits over public health.

The city wouldn’t have a decent water supply for four decades. Over this time water-borne cholera outbreaks would kill thousands of New Yorkers. The privatization of the water project, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton contributed to the deaths of thousands of New Yorkers.

There’s another cruel inversion here: water is one of the most fundamental common resources. The Manhattan Company turned the public provision of water into what would become a huge cog in global banking, part of the engine of private accumulation and capitalization. What was to become a local public good, became instead, the seed of international capitalist finance.

In the nineteenth century, the Manhattan Company would invest heavily in the slave economy – cotton, sugar, and the triangle trade. This investment in slavery is also a story about water and who owns it. New York banks extended credit to southerners who wanted to establish or expand plantations. This credit was crucial in driving the further, violent dispossession of indigenous people from their lands and waters. This dispossession was the first step of moving many of these waters from use based systems of property to private ownership, the transformation of places defined by indigenous peoples’ and political structures’ overlapping use rights to violently homogenized commodity landscapes (not without resistance or exception (see JT Roane’s work, for instance)). I need to know more about this in the American context. Research for another day.

Anyway, mind the gap between popular will for change and elite translation of that will into policies and institutions that serve their own ends.






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shut it down / lv letter

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Just Buffalo made live a recording of my poem “The Wound,” read in front of Rust Belt Books. Flatsitter recorded it on a day the wind was blowing hard across Lake Erie (and edited the video). Buffalo’s Noah Falck had much to do with making this series (Lit City Voices) happen. It’s a sort of poetic geography of Buffalo, perhaps a counter map to the ones defined by consumptive tourism, that has more to do w/where ppl spend their lives and breath and the places their minds revolve around. The full roster is in the promo video. Poems by Kristianne Meal (that howl!) and Brandon Williams are already up. I believe in a poetics w/one foot in the municipal; this poetics is acutely aware of geography as it is, as its been made, the more just geographies and organizations and use of spaces that have been fought for and won and lost. I’m also interested in the places on these maps that are silent, left blank and how space might be made for them to speak.

When titling this poem, I was recalling the Octavio Paz poem “Dawn.” Which is one I carried w/me for a number of years in my twenties. It references, obliquely, an event a number of ppl I know took part in, singing over Buffalo’s arch-reactionary Carl Paladino, who had captured a school board seat and was pushing forward self-serving, community-harming privatization measures. This was part of a larger effort to shut down BPS board meetings until Paladino was removed. It worked. This poem is really meant to be a bridge between other poems charting, through this poet’s keyhole, on-the-ground organizing and activism in Buffalo between 2016-2018. A lot of ppl were working damn hard to draw the links between Buffalo’s corrupt, patronage driven ruling class (Democrats and Republican alike) and the people and (white-supremacist, settler, necro-capitalist, etc) policies of the Trump administration. I mostly think of these poems as for performance only, particularly for performance in Buffalo. Here, I thought, it might work if it’s a recording in Buffalo. City Hall is lodged in my ear in the still above.


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What are our options? // casa del popolo // house of the people // campaign infrastructure into shelter

Parable/Casa Del Popolo: in the early 1900s socialism was slowly gaining traction in Italy. In 1914 the people in Abbadia di Montepulciano elected its first socialist municipal councilor. Elites reacted against this minor socialist inroad. One form of this was their refusal to rent spaces to socialist organizations.

Socialists could win a little election but could not legitimately hold space.

Their response? We can’t know all of it. Probably a lot of flaming the local elite-friendly press. Probably a lot of pointing at elite hypocrisy in pre-twitter bars and cafes. But also this:

They decided to build their own space. They collected money, they bought materials. On Sundays and after work volunteers raised timber and laid brick. They did not wait to vote themselves into more and higher offices of the state. In 1917, they completed their house of the people. It included a library, a consumer cooperative, meeting rooms for youth and women’s groups. In the words of Margaret Kohn, “The house of the people was a site of recreation, socialization, and the realization of an alternative moral universe” (96). It was a place for the left to know and hold itself, a ground to hold and defend. 

It was the opposite of the plague house, a house on lockdown, the long wail typed into the ether. Other houses of the people included restaurants, adult education programs, theatres, bars, newspapers, spaces for affiliated cultural organizations, headquarters for producer cooperatives, bakeries of cheap bread. They sometimes made things free, served “communist soup.” They didn’t only train people, they made jobs. 

There’s a real danger that the energy and resources of electoral assemblages will disappear. Many people are asking what’s next. One way is to concretize the advances of a leftist, more just politics into a physical infrastructure for interlinked horizontal organizations, where people don’t have to wait for the realization of their values through the electoral process. What if we make spaces where we can live them–and which make life possible in the face of a death-driven state?


This is drawing from Kohn’s work on houses of the people Radical Space.


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New Review of My New* Book (*Old)



Dear child that I was, that has split from my anxiety wracked, grey-shot self and is wondering the hallways of my memories as they slowly distend, split, and crumble into the void between synapses–so dramatic! lockdown!–tell me a story about 2018.

Sir, in 2018 you published a book. Do you remember? Do you remember how excited I am about your book then?

Yes, child, I do believe you. Though the world has changed. That book is an old thing. It does not matter now.

But it matters to me!

Yes, child, I suppose it did. [Blows the dust from laptop. Boots up Stardew Valley. Picks at scabs.]


[Actually, I could use going back to thinking about Utopias.]

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[walkoffs + refusing trash]

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In Pittsburgh, garbage workers walked-off the job, blocking city buildings with their trucks. They’re saving lives by taking away that vivid matter  in which mingles what our bodies touch. They’re dumping that matter into a sort of shadow-polity–the dump, where we come together less than six ft apart. 

And though sanitation workers are saving our lives by taking away a disease vector, they’re not protected from the disease. So they walked off the job. And they may continue to walk-off the job if they’re not protected as clinical waste piles up. On one day, February 24th, Wuhan, China produced 200 tons of medical waste.

Crisis is a sort of new sun. It’s light at a different spectrum, its position and incandesence revealing the striations of surfaces that had remained smooth, throwing into relief the cracks in what seemed whole. The sun burns through the night. And then those cracks widen.

In sanitation strikes, workers often demanded things so necessary and mundane that it’s almost unbelievable they don’t have them in the first place. Pulling a few files: Isidro Gutierrez led sanitation workers on strike in Lubbock, TX in 1968. Part of their demands? Uniforms, gloves, drinking water.

Gloves that work, a thin layer of plastic or weave of fabric.That sanitation and sterilization workers don’t have these speaks to how deeply their labor has been devalued. I also suspect that the devaluation of waste remediation work is the reflection of the value system of not just a capitalist society but of a capitalist setter-colonial society. Rather than value workers which allow society to reproduce itself  (waste remediation being crucial to this), a settler-colonial society values workers who violently enforce and expand borders and workers who extract resources. It erases people to create internal and external frontiers for extraction and it pays and protects those who guide and perform the work of clearance, eradication, and extraction. A settler-colonial society doesn’t value waste works because it is designed to move away from and forget its messes, its waste, its shit, in pursuit of the production new frontiers.  Anyway.

Lubbock’s mostly Mexican-American sanitation workers struck because without department provided uniforms, the work destroyed their clothes. Without water, they were forced to drink from water houses in yards, and without toilets at the landfill they were forced to shit behind piles of garbage. So, organized by Isidro Gutierrez, they struck. 

As Wendi C. Thomas’ historical journalism reminds us, the famous 1968 sanitation strike involved a public works department that refused to protect its workers from the waste they managed. A racist city policy forced black garbage men in bad weather into the backs of the trucks, where garbage was fed into the compactor.The policy killed two workers on Feb 1, 1968 when on an “especially rainy Thursday afternoon, city sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker took shelter in the back of a garbage truck when it malfunctioned.” Their deaths precipitated the strike where MLK took his labor turn. Sanitation labor action sits at the crux of some crucial chapters of American history.

Sheldon White in Pittsburgh 2020: “We want better equipment, better protective gear, we have no masks.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports one worker claiming “The gloves they currently use don’t protect their hands and allow water and liquids to drain down inside.” The New England Journal of Medicine article every one has been citing finds the coronavirus can last up to 24 hours on cardboard, on plastic for up to 3 days. It doesn’t mention how long it can last in wet mixture of the two plus food scraps and tissues smeared with body.

A friend in healthcare gives me stats that haven’t reached the paper yet: over dozen sick at one workplace, Buffalo hospitals filling up and scrambling for masks, clinics asking ppl to sow masks and gowns. 

A British colonial administrator in the 1878 Times of London after breaking a strike of garbage carters in Mumbai: “The men may perhaps have some grounds for their complaints, but cannot be permitted to endanger the public health by way of bringing their claims forward; and we understand that none of the ring-leaders will be again employed by the Municipality; and in fact none of the employes who do not at once return to their duty.” I don’t know what the ruling class is saying to themselves about these walkoffs yet. I guess I should read the Financial Times.

Give the sanitation workers, the insta-carters, the Whole Foods clerks and stockers, the warehouse pickers and packers what they want; give them what they need. Garbage strikes forever.

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[Pump state nostalgia, hoarders and memory]

[I’m wrecked in sadness. But I wrote this and figured I’d push it out–this mix of the past and present, the odds and ends of my scholarship that resonate with this moment. Nothing feels right right now but writing this is part of what I’ve had to do to just stitch my world together, keep going]

Make live. The textbook case: John Snow, the English epidemiologist, who in 1854, convinced local officials to remove the handle of the Broad Street pump in the London suburb Soho. Snow knew residents were drawing Cholera-contaminated water from the pump and dying as a result. Pumps like this throughout London were the focal points of the waves of cholera that wracked the city. Once the Broad Street pump’s handle was removed, the local outbreak virtually stopped. It was partially in response to Snow’s intervention and the research and theorization of disease transmission that underpinned it, that London modernized its municipal water supply and sewerage, saving thousands of lives yearly by providing cheap or free clean enough drinking water and adequate sewerage. In doing so, the city expended massive amounts of resources and reformed a system of water supplied by a patchwork of private companies piping water that might have animal hair in it and pumps and wells first sunk time out of mind. Snow and the life-saving municipal infrastructure he helped make way for represent the pastoral face of the state, biopower’s desire and capacity to make live.

Now let me finally make my case for hoarders and panic buyers, something I said I’d do a few posts ago. Might they have intuitively known known the federal government, headed by a deranged hegemon, would respond to the threat of millions sick and thousands dead by first tending to the health of the economic body in the form of monetary policy then by backing actions such as tax cuts and oil and gas industry bailouts, all of which set the terms of the debate in the legislature, narrowing the horizon of what was possible in the massive coronavirus relief bill as the left spent its time and energy removing provisions like this that did nothing to help those who needed it most. 

People often make decisions based on past precedent. They remember. They might remember the sub-prime mortgage crisis, which ballooned into the larger 2008 financial crisis. They might remember that the state opened its veins to protect lenders and investors while forcing working class people to jump through a series of shrinking hoops for relief that was entirely inadequate. Many people do not remember that the state could do anything in time to save their lives because it has not. So when President Glitching Turd says that states should bid against each other for live-saving ventilators then outbids them, this might be, to them, totally normal. They are used to the fact that in an emergency the state will force as much risk and cost onto individuals as it can get away with. They have no trust the state can save human lives.

As I stood, a few days ago, in several drug stores looking at empty shelves, did I think that the city, county, state, or fed would have a thermometer for me? I wanted them to. They did not. I do not trust the state will save my life.

I was part of the skeleton crew at my work for about a week into the pandemic. Then my boss told that skeleton crew to work at home. On the morning of my first true day of lockdown, a Lieutenant Governor announced he was “all in” on risking his health for the health of the economy, suggesting that America was also full of grandpas willing to jump into the maelstrom of consumption and production, selling cars and eating at Applebees, to further the national economic project. Really, the lieutenant governor was trying to measure the appetite of the country for killing people in the name of restructuring the economy to look as it did (inequitable) before the smash-job of the virus while normalizing the idea by presenting himself as an example. I’m reminded again that a mystical displacement is occurring. The political right has created a mythic over-body, the economy, which, in discourse, constantly eclipses the health and flourishing of actual human beings. Neoliberals are perhaps more pernicious as they present the economy not as the frail god-child that demands blood but as equivalent to human beings, wring their hands at length at having to choose between the two ten choose the economy while throwing a sop to people and saying they’re not. Their imagination is so bankrupt they cannot imagine a different economic order based on the flourishing of people. And this is the point: the economy is a economy, constantly reproduced and restructured by numerous actors. This could be a chance to restructure the economy in a just way. As the scholar of imperialism Ryan Kaveh Sheldon writes (on IG!) on the economy in this moment: “‘The  economy is not a transhistorical or natural entity. ‘Our’ economy could–and indeed, will, one way or the other–be restructured. The capitalist class is considering how best to do that to its own advantage. It is using this crisis. That is what ‘getting back to normal’ means. We need to fight back to live.”

If the state has been retreating from its pastoral role, the make live of “To make live and to let die,” then when disease returns, aren’t hoarders correct to assume the state might abandon them if they were to be impacted? Or in the agon that seizes up the state–whether or not to assume the pastoral role, the indecision and negotiations between executives and legislators–they may assume that enough people in charge see their life as secondary to maintaining the health of the current, vastly inequitable economic order and that the state will act too late. A premise or two for hoarding and panic buying may be right, though the actions are wrong. And, of course, the capacity to hoard often means one is substituting one’s self for someone far more vulnerable and far more likely to suffer the worst of the pandemic’s fallout. 

I have nothing biographical to write at this point. No bright feeling. No connection still warm with human touch. I am stuck in my apartment like you are stuck in your apartment while some people in charge can only imagine saving people by putting them back to the work which may kill them. When the state gives up the make live of biopower, it becomes a necropolitical state, because the state maintains the fiscal and coercive power it used to make live and now turns it toward making death. Achille Mbembe’s formula for necropolitics: let live, make die.

On April, 4th 1865, a crowd including 300 members of parliament, 17 lords, and 2 archbishops gathered at the Abbey Mills Pumping Station to celebrate the commencement of its operations. The Victorian pumping station was the great heart of a massive redesign of London’s sewer system, which, before, consisted of a patchwork that included leaky cesspools, drainage ditches and canals muddily making their way to the Thames. It’s only a slight exaggeration to imagine London floated on a lens of shit for much of the 19th century. Waste water constantly infiltrated sources of drinking water resulting in deadly cholera outbreaks. The pumping station signalled to the people that the state was taking action to solve this problem. The Prince of Wales ceremonially turned on the pumps, adding the royal touch to the city’s anus and guts.

Well, the station wasn’t exactly the city’s anus–that would be the point where sewage was pumped into the Thames–but it gave that anus its energy, and it was beautiful, cathedral-like, in a gauche, Victorian way.

As a fifth-rate eighteenth century scholar, I’m interested in the Abbey Mills Pumping Station. As someone trying to stay sane on coronavirus lockdown, I am also interested in how interested the internet is in a big sewage pump. This narrative has been copied, pasted, tailored across a strange spiral of sites, from Atlas Obscura to Hyperallergic (an excellent article by Claire Voon) to this one. 

Perhaps people find it strange–remarkable–that a state could care for their lives and that this is what it could look like, a glamorous, utilitarian thing–a huge pump for shit made also art, a municipal anus that everyone saw and applauded. I suspect that there is a difficult to articulate nostalgia for the capacity of government to make live via municipal works. Socialists and trains. Most people and toilets that don’t empty into their own yards.

I’ve recalled Snow’s water pump and the Abbey Mills sewage pump from the leaky archive of my grad school years (w/very little citation!) because they mark transformations in trust. In 1854, the residents of Soho were drinking cholera-contaminated water without a second-thought. Upon Snow’s intervention, a partnership of scientific study with local officials who had the power to remove the pump handle, they had to accept the beginnings of the scientific municipal administration of one of the fundamentals of life. The elaborate 1865 opening of the Abbey Mills Pumping Station marked the governments’ effort to mythologize their receipt of this trust via high pageantry. A trustee acts in the best interest of other parties than themselves. 

But we shouldn’t raise a flag for any king, or Prince of Wales. We should remember that British engineering capacity–waterworks–were also used to destroy communities and steal lands at home and abroad. Dams, canals, and irrigation projects were instruments of colonial domination. Often state or municipal trusteeship was the result of political struggle not benevolent, forward thinking elites. A great deal of political organizing by everyday people at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century was done in the name of forcing municipalities to provide services to its people, to create, take in hand, and maintain services and infrastructure. This movement, socialist municipalism, rejected the privatization of fundamentals for city-life and had great faith that collective provision could be supplied through the vehicle of the municipality. 

The lockdown grinds on. My state, New York, with one hand, transforms a convention center into a field hospital to save lives. With the other, it works to repeal bail reform, to keep more people simply charged with crimes in the jails that have some of the highest rates of infection in the world. If New York doesn’t want to run death camps, it should open the jails. New York needs to open the jails.

My toilet flushes though I’ve been told to insure the 100 year old line and the city website makes clear that work on city waterlines could very well collapse private stem lines (i.e. my own). In such instances, you’re shit out of luck. Buffalo’s guts are brittle and public repair cascades into private damage. But this is abstract and a problem of relative privilege. 

A friend lets me know that the virus has now hit Buffalo and that hospital floors are filling up with people suffering with covid. What can we do?

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Thermometer, Empty Shelves


Vision of Plenty, Main & Somewhere

It’s a new day, the first on lockdown in New York State–Sunday, March 22. At 8 PM the Governor’s order to  suspend almost everything and stay inside begins. In the morning, Buffalo’s skies are cloudless, eggshell blue, and cold. I’ve been thinking about hoarders and panic buyers and standing, sick, in a Walgreens looking at a shelf where thermometers should be a few days ago. In that moment I thought, fuck those motherfuckers. Those motherfuckers being the previous purchasers of thermometers. Fuck them because I assume they do not need either the thermometers at all or the quantity of thermometers they have bought. And motherfucker has a wider definition beyond the shoppers of this Walgreens. Those motherfuckers include every hoarder, every irrational purchaser in the nation slowing down shipments between warehouses and individual retailers, reducing the number of thermometers available to ship, decreasing the frequency of shipments, putting people at risk because they could not see past their fear. In this way, fear spreads like a contagion. Without a thermometer, my imagination of my own illness was running wild. How deep did my sore throat go? Did my chest hurt? I’d travelled and had a runny nose and sore throat. A nurse at my doctor’s office told me over the phone to check my temperature and call back, which sent me out into the world.

The day I set out for a thermometer on doctor’s orders, I hit three drug stores–a CVS, Walgreens, and Rite-Aid–each at a different position on two linked traffic circles. Pulling into the first, I thought I’d hit the jackpot: no racing around town for me. Pulling out of the last, back into the circles, I knew I was stuck in a purgatorial loop. I was alarmed. Each drugstore had a similar layout and signage; in each, it seemed, there was a surgical carveout in the inventory. Where thermometers should be the bare bone of the shelf. 

I drove away, finally, thinking fuck those motherfuckers. Twitter told me to think, also, fuck those motherfuckers, constructing brief, caustic portraits of pathologically selfish upper- and middle-class subjects whose decisions were killing the working poor. I have no doubt that in this moment of crisis upper- and middle-class subjects are making decisions that may kill everyone else.

Still. Today, sitting at my dining room table, outside of my anxiety and anger, thermometer in hand, I know that the totality of causation (why are there no thermometers) can’t only be attributed to personal decision making or even an aggregate of individual decisions. Anger at hoarders should only be the beginning of the flowering of multifarious, systemic critiques, an unpacking of what conditions the decisions we can make. That’s a job for further posts.

It was through a friend that I finally got my hands on a thermometer. And now I’m turning to read a horoscope a friend has been sending me every Tuesday. And I will turn and turn to friends and work to be there when they turn to me.