Yesterday, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn delivered the State of the City address, focusing mainly on what we’d expect from a mayoral candidate: unemployment and local development. Both are big problems in need of big solutions, and Quinn delivered accordingly, proposing a CUNY budget boost, an integrated education network for city children, and a $10 million small business loan fund. In her speech, though, she also veered in an unexpected direction:
We’re going to work with Kickstarter and Council Member Al Vann to help people raise money for creative businesses and projects in neighborhoods with high unemployment. Every month the City Council will highlight a new set of people working to transform their communities. . . .
Local residents will have the chance to contribute to projects they want to see in their neighborhood. And people all over the city – and all over the world – will be able to support New Yorkers who are making a difference and giving our economy a boost.
The main gist of Kickstarter can be found here; basically, it’s a way to crowd source fundraising. On its surface, this initiative has everything progressives love in their economic plans -- the innovative accessibility afforded by Internet democracy and some old-school civic projects, all wrapped up in the fashionable local movement. It has the potential to be an effective tool to help New York’s cash-strapped government: citizens have their say on a local level, which allows their specific needs to be filled more effectively than anything a hulking bureaucracy could accomplish. As residents of an increasingly expensive city, it’s refreshing to be able to control where our money goes.
But wait – isn’t that the point of democracy? We pay taxes, we vote, and the person we vote into office directs our tax money into the projects we want to see. Involving Kickstarter, a for-profit business, just privatizes that process. Speaker Quinn is encouraging citizens to act as agents of change through consumption of Kickstarter’s services. This makes democracy just another product in what SlavojŽižek calls cultural capitalism -- buying into a progressive identity through purchased goods. Local funding could become a fashionable part of an activist identity, just like eating locally grown food.
The problem is not with Kickstarter itself; I have great faith in the revolutionary powers of the Internet, and Kickstarter embodies them better than many other sites. The problem is one of emphasis. The emphasis placed by Speaker Quinn on the Kickstarter partnership and the attendant media attention dwarfed any importance placed upon the council’s public solutions. Yet the resources of government far outstrip Kickstarter’s. When politicians encourage participation in the products of cultural capitalism over the available public solutions, government is not performing as it should. Consumer identity and private companies take the place of the duties of citizens and governments, creating yet another private solution to a public problem.
Yes, what we need to boost the economy are civic projects like the ones Speaker Quinn is talking about. But “empower[ing] people to invest”, as Quinn advocates, should be one small private option within a larger government-driven solution.