By Ignacio Valero

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” So reads the U.S. Declaration of Independence, drafted primarily by Thomas Jefferson. In spite of its patriarchal flavor, this Declaration represented a notable human advancement. But the actual practice of such lofty ideals has borne varied interpretations and many deep contradictions, even when we include women to the generic “men” of the period.

There is the Lockean hypothesis, wherein Jefferson would have been influenced by John Locke’s equating happiness with “Property,” as “life, liberty and estate,” in his Second Treatise, where: “Man being born, as has been proved, with a Title to perfect Freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the Rights and Privileges of the Law of Nature, equally with any other Man, or number of Men in the World, hath by Nature a Power, not only to preserve his Property, that is, his Life, Liberty and Estate, against the Injuries and Attempts of other Men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that Law in others, as he is perswaded the Offence deserves, even with Death it self, in Crimes where the heinousness of the Fact, in his Opinion, requires it.” (Ch. 7, § 87, emphasis added).

Another interpretation of Jefferson’s democratic life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would arise from his documented admiration of Epicurus philosophy, including its idea of happiness, emphatically not the hedonistic Epicurean caricature, but rather the absence of pain and hunger, through a life of justice, wisdom, empathy, and moderation, closer to a sort of Buddhist commons and primitive Christianity, and the ideals of the European Enlightenment—where the good and happiness of all is inextricably linked to our own. That Jefferson’s Declaration draft was accepted by Franklin, Adams, and the Second Continental Congress speaks volumes as to how happiness was then regarded. Because it was much more than a subjective feeling, it was to be one of the pillars of the nascent democracy. Where, moreover, a thoughtful education was key, as again Jefferson put it, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Fast-forward to the present, and to the San Francisco Bay Area, and it may be relatively clear to see how pursuing one interpretation over the other may lead to drastically different outcomes for us all, whose consequences will confront this and future generations. If our view of happiness corresponds to a more balanced and moderate practice, then it may lead to the greatest good for the greatest number. But, if happiness is purely personal and narrowly defined as my “Property,” my Estate, where I have a “Title to perfect Freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment,” then anything goes, and eventually we’ll all be lunch, except for the most powerful and alienated.

There are some troubling signs that we may be going in that direction, globally, nationally, and locally: a great concentration of wealth, a worsening of climate change, and a great loss of biological and cultural diversity. In this global age, we cannot be impervious to the outside, as in fact we are in so many ways, both inside and outside. In the Bay Area, the Gini coefficient (a measure of income distribution, 1 = absolute inequality, one person owns all; 0 = perfect distribution), hovers around 0.50, not very good when compared to, say, Sweden’s 0.23 or Canada’s 0.32. There are many factors involved, but in the last couple of decades, our proximity to the Silicon Valley may have been a particularly mixed blessing. The Valley is, simultaneously, a hotbed of entrepreneurial change, marketing savvy, and libertarian ideals, though not always of true innovation, scientific, social, and technological, in spite of the hype. This has led to the rapid accumulation of vast wealth in the hands of very few, and large impacts on the region.

Before there was a “Silicon Valley,” San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and their surrounding urban mesh had been for decades a magnet to scores of young creative talent, artistic, scientific and technological, and a global and local center for socially progressive ideas and cultural diversity, due perhaps to a felicitous combination of mild climate and beautiful geography, world-class research universities, esteemed art institutions, generous state policies, and an ingrained rebelliousness that has tended to attract admiration, fear, curiosity, or scorn and certainly millions of visitors—a sort of mecca, a mirage, a golden goose. It has not all been paradise, as at various times, historic, worker, race, gender and gay rights, and student struggles have been sustained. But something drastic has been happening during the last 15 years that has accelerated and deepened its periodic booms and busts, causing much pain and dislocation along with ever-growing piles of cash, speculation, and ultra-expensive real estate.

On the surface, everything is relatively placid and fun—from club to club, we welcome a break from so much conflict elsewhere—but the grasshopper cannot live forever on the back of its ants, and one day winter or the rise of the oceans may come, and we will be left stranded without raft, shelter, or fresh bread. A couple key indicators tell the unfolding story: commuting and gentrification—according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bay Area leads the country in mega-commuting (an average 90-minute morning commute of at least 50 miles). It’s a dubious honor that presents a disquieting paradox: commuters who work and service the core area but cannot afford to live in it, and commuters who work outside the area but have no problem affording the very high rents and housing. In fact, the latter, along with other highly paid workers living in the city, are largely driving the relentless price escalations, endangering the cultural vitality and diversity of the area, enfeebling the golden goose, and potentially turning it into a theme park servicing their needs. Many of the top Valley companies, in their fierce competition to recruit young talent not willing to live in the suburbs, provide them with dozens of daily private shuttle trips covering hundreds of miles that bus their workers to and fro.

But instead of turning this contradiction into a source of deep resentment, taxing the physical and community resources of the urban areas affected, this could be a great teaching moment in which we could all rise to the occasion, shifting from a zero-sum game of winners and losers to a Jeffersonian social compact, where the good and happiness of my neighbor is linked to my own. What if the social progressivism for which the area is known can serve us as a moral frame with which to experiment with alternative visions and practices, where young and elder, long-standing resident and newcomer can all mutually benefit? For the newcomer to understand that the very quality of life s/he is attracted to is the result of a massive regional and communal effort that has taken decades to build up and may be imperiled by simply “using” the city, and not seeing it as a live, organic whole. In turn, it is suggested that the long-term residents welcome the new migrants as sources of renewal and economic potential, inviting them to share more generously according to their larger wealth and the benefit they obtain from living in such a desirable environment.

We could, perhaps, engage in a practice, which I have called elsewhere ecoDomics—“an art of living, making, and dwelling in common(s),” a sort of ethical, aesthetic, and ecological economics. Understanding that for this bio-political practice to flourish, we need to be truly aware that we are not separate atoms or fragments merely colliding in social and physical space, that as mutually involved and cooperating citizens, we need to develop new ways of sustainable sociality. This ecoDomic practice could be advanced through an “aesthetic(s) of the common(s),” that is, by developing empathic “communities of sense,” attending to the varied material, emotional, and cultural connections of the city, region, country, and planet.

Perhaps Asterisk, as an emerging quintessential San Francisco Bay Area publication, could help foster, in collaboration with other interested groups and individuals, a welcoming conversation on these urgent topics. Asterisk, the “little star,” the character reminding us of omissions, unattested forms and hypotheses, could indeed help shine a little light on the Bay.

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This article was published in:
Idea Issue - Released March 2013
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Issue 12
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