Bike Co-Op Blues

Two weeks ago, I bought a bike.  I was committed to buying a used bike—seeing the carcasses of cheap, mass-produced bikes around Oxford scared me off of new ones—but was also wary of purchasing something from Craiglist and feeding into Berkeley’s rampant bike theft.  I lucked out, though, and found a store that refurbishes old bikes.

The dated Schwinn road bike I bought needed some repairs before I drove it off the lot (so to speak), but I was assured they would be done in a week.  I gave it an extra day, and called to see if it was done.  No one answered, and their voicemail box was full.  After waiting another day, I decided to just go to the store—no easy feat since, given my lack of a bicycle, I had to walk three miles.  I arrived to discover that, in the last week, they had done absolutely nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.  After pointing this out to the mechanic on duty, he set to work, promising that he could recable it by the afternoon.  Again, though, I played it safe, waiting until the next day to call and see if it was done.  Once again, no one answered, so once again, I trekked to the shop.  At this point, the bike was even less rideable than the day before; shortly after I left—I was informed—the mechanic disappeared, and he wouldn’t be back for a few days.  The staff member who was there proceeded to try to convince me to take another bike—in this case, a run-down children’s mountain bike—but I passed.

This is, you might say, no way to run a business.  But here’s the catch: the store from which I bought my bike isn’t a business, at least in the conventional sense.  It’s a workers-owned cooperative.  The idea behind Recycle Bike is a great one: take the abandoned bikes left by students every year and give them at low cost to people who need them.  Unlike some of the other anarchist-inspired cooperatives I’ve visited, both the store’s customers and workers are a racially and socioeconomically diverse bunch.  In short, there was nothing not to like about Recycle Bike—except, as it turned out, that it kind of sucked at providing bicycles.

Community-run cooperatives do not have a monopoly on inefficiency.  Despite the faith Americans place in financial incentives and free markets, I’ve had plenty of bad customer experiences at for-profit businesses.  But, to some extent, I expect it there—businesses that exist to make money, not serve people, tend to be better at making money than serving people.  Cooperatives like Recycle Bike, on the other hand, combine a commitment to helping people with humane labor practices and a lot of good intentions—and yet, somehow, these things concatenate into dysfunction.  It’s a paradox I’ve experienced with many a leftist movement: a tendancy for innumerable positive qualities of the individuals participating to lead to outcomes that are somehow much less than the sum of their parts.

I did eventually get my bike.  Ultimately, I just showed up and refused to leave sans wheelsThe guy who performed the final tune-up was so kind and apologetic that I couldn’t help but feel bad for my frustration.  I rode home, my faith in humanity restored.  At least until the chain fell off.

Broken Bones and Open Borders

Here’s an exciting life update: I broke my wrist.  I’m not going to go into how it happened, except to state that it did not involve alcohol and that my cover story is that it involved a fight with zombie ninja pirates.  Not a huge deal, but definitely a frustrating and unneeded at a stressful time of the year.  At least I could get a jet black cast that matched my wardrobe.

Immediately after the “incident,” I pushed myself through five hours of statistics in the library before heading off to a review session, at which point some of the more reasonable students in my program convinced me to go to the hospital to get my now comically swollen arm x-rayed.  They bid me adieu with the standard but ominous NHS send-off: “I hope you don’t have to wait too long.”

I’ve approached every experience I’ve had with the NHS so far as if it is the ultimate show-down between private and socialized medicine, with me as scorekeeper.  I’m ready to concede now, though, that – as enthusiastic as I am about participant-observation as a mode of research – the experiences of an accident-prone twenty-three-year-old are probably not sufficient for making a conclusive declaration about either system’s relative merits.  Sure, I didn’t have to wait more a few hours, and I definitely appreciate the $0 bill—but then again, I don’t have cancer and am not waiting for elective surgery.  Thus, I’m abandoning wholesale evaluation in favour of something a bit more obscure: metaphor and symbolism.

One thing that hit me during this most recent visit to an NHS “Accident and Emergency” Room was how little information they wanted about me.  Of course, they wanted to know my date of birth, medical history, and all about my injury.  But certain things we in the U.S. are accustomed to putting into endless forms – occupation, address, nationality, insurance – just don’t matter that much.  The NHS’s goal is to serve the person in front of them, not track them down with a bill or pick a fight with an insurance company.

The brilliance of it is that the NHS is, at least in some ways, impossible to exploit: I can lie or misrepresent myself to no end, and it doesn’t much matter, because the system doesn’t much care who I am so long as I need medical treatment.  We live in a world where government’s exist to categorize and classify and monitor—and yet the NHS is, in a weird way, surprisingly anonymous.  Somewhat counterintuitively, this makes me feel much more like a human being and less like a statistic.

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This week in class, we’re discussing “statelessness.”  By “stateless,” we don’t mean refugees who have been ejected from their nations; instead, the term refers to people who literally have no nationality at all and thus—in a world where there is practically no designation more important than citizenship—do not really exist.  It’s a form of non-status that affects fifteen million people worldwide, non-persons ranging from Turkish Cypriots to the children of undocumented immigrants in countries that do not grant birthright citizenship.

All of the literature we’ve read on statelessness focuses on the stateless people as the problem: how, in the modern world, does anyone manage to have no birth certificate or passport?  And how do we fit these square pegs into the round holes of the nation-state system?  How do you legislate for people that are, just by merit of their persisting physical presence, lawless?  I think these are all stupid questions, to be honest.  For most stateless people, having no nationality is a horrible thing—but for some (I’m thinking, for example, of Roma, some indigenous groups, communards), perhaps it reflects their realization of how absurd our modern ideas of citizenship are.

The recent crackdown in Arizona has thrust immigration back into my brain in a big way again for the first time since I stopped taking classes with Professor Fernandez-Kelly at Princeton.  Freshman year, I spent dozens of hours collecting statistics and studies about undocumented immigration, in the hopes that the accumulation of piles of data would convince people that immigration is actually good for all concerned.  With the benefit of a few years of experience—and having watched comprehensive immigration fail over and over—I’m convinced that advocates for sane immigration policy need to go beyond reason.  We need to ask why it is that so much hinges on the lotteries of birth, and why categories and boundaries are so important.

When I think about problems like “statelessness”, I can’t help but think that the problem isn’t with the people, but with the states that throw up barriers between them.  My utopian imagination is once again drawn to a vision of a borderless world, in which we find a better way to sort ourselves than by pre-natal dice-rolls and invisible lines scrawled across the map.  I imagine states that exist to support whomever knocks on the door—acknowledging that we are, after all, in this together—rather than bringing one group in and leaving another outside.

It’s a weird time to live in Europe.  With politicians across the continent talking about gut-wrenching cuts to public services, I can’t help but think that I’m witness to the demise of one of the world’s great political experiments: social democracy.  Of course, I’m pretty sure the creators of the NHS didn’t have such lofty goals as universal citizenship in mind, but—metaphorically at least—I think they’ve created something that reaches towards them.  I’ll be sad if I have to see that go.

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Jukebox: Gaslight Anthem – The Boxer