Every day, hundreds of thousands of us head off to work or to school, and we use the “T”—the bus, the subway, the commuter rail—to get there. We file into poorly ventilated stations, pack ourselves like sardines into buses, and wait for long stretches on crowded platforms draped with advertising. In the midst of rush-hour, it’s difficult to repress the thought: we are all little more than cattle from the perspective of the system under which we live—agglomerated, anonymous labor-power to be shuttled back and forth in freight-cars, eye-balls to be sold off to the highest bidder.
We depend upon this public service, have our lives shaped by this common space and by the people we share it with, our fellow commuters. It’s time we owned that fact. For we are under attack.
As things stand now, the fares we pay are going up and up, and yet they do not even guarantee us a seat. We pay for the privilege to stand, to be crammed, to be packed and shipped, just to get to work or to school and back. For the “privilege” of working, so we may live, and so the “1%” can get even richer off our labor. Even after a long and grueling day, though our legs and backs ache, we are supposed to just stand there and take it.
But what if instead of just taking it, we took it over?
The subway stations. The bus stops, too. What if the “cattle” stood up and started talking to one another? What if we turned the commute into a community?
It’s time we stopped pretending that the train station or the bus stop was some kind of “non-place,” merely an “in between,” and started actualizing its social possibilities, lifting our heads, looking around and recognizing our common lot as T-riders and as members of the 99%.
Imagine if T-riders made common cause with T-workers too—with subway operators and bus drivers and other necessary public employees—opposing those who would pit us against one another (“consumer” vs. “producer”; “customer” vs. “employee”)? Imagine the alliance we could build?
Together, we have the power to keep this system running, or to stop it in its tracks.
It’s not just about defending ourselves against fare hikes, service cuts, and layoffs, though that’s part of it. To defend mass transportation is to fight for the common good: to stand up for public health, for the global and the local environment, and for a world where all the treasures of the city are available to all people, not just those with the money to get around.
Mass transit is far cleaner than car travel in terms of local air pollution, as well as in terms of the carbon emissions that are driving climate change. And it is more energy efficient. It’s a far better way for people to move about than our present auto-addicted system can ever hope to be—especially in urban areas.
Further, mass transit doesn’t take up nearly the space or the time in traffic that car travel does. Imagine a city without all the cars, without parking lots, without all the ugly rivers of concrete and asphalt, without all the immense waste of human time and energy represented by bumper-to-bumper traffic
Then there is the matter of access. Let’s face it: a society that makes access to resources and opportunities dependent on personal finances (or car ownership) is fundamentally undemocratic. Those who have money will have access, and those who lack money, won’t.
The current political and economic system is so irrational and out of touch with people’s needs that many public transit systems across the United States are currently being cut back and made less accessible, when they should be expanded. We’re being told that we cannot afford the inadequate mass transit we have now, let alone the better systems we need. We are being told that we must pay more for less.
What’s worse, these cuts and hikes are going to meet the demands of predatory financial investors, who have our transit systems locked into deep and long-term debt-repayment agreements. Essentially, the MBTA and the State Legislature are making riders swallow fare hikes and service cuts so that the 1% can continue to siphon off greater and greater interest rate profits from our system. You must pay more for less so that Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase can take more and more.
Of course, the problem runs deeper than just the MBTA. The federal government’s underfunding of mass transit dramatizes the deeper injustice and irrationality in how resources are allocated in U.S. society. The government has trillions for wars and bank bailouts, and billions for prisons, but they can’t find an extra $100 million for the T? Here’s an idea: Why don’t we take all that blood-soaked Pentagon cash, and make public transit free and accessible for all?
So then. Next time you are waiting on the platform, try this: Ask your fellow commuter what they think about having to pay more for less so the bankers and bondholders can get even richer. Ask them what they think about a system that cuts back on mass transit when the planet demands it more than ever. Ask them what they think about a government that has endless resources for warfare, but pretends to be penniless in the face of genuine human needs. See what they say and tell them what you think. A little cooperation and communication, every day, goes a long way.
Occupy your commute.
This article is adapted from a longer essay, “Revolution Underground?: Critical Reflections on the Prospect of Renewing Occupation,” which will appear in the November 2012 issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy,www.sdonline.org.