The Collapse: Chicago In a Neoliberal World

7 03 2011

Ed Burke has been encircled. Like the last noble loyal to Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, he must look at a map of the realm and despair. Where once he was among the most important men in a vast empire, the mere mention of its legions enough to induce action or, even better, forbearance, now all his compatriots have seceded, have declared their various independence, shifted their loyalties. The Empire, like the Machine and its successor, had always been a precarious balance of power centers, provincial warlords, regional alliances, and assimilated kingdoms. One look at the election returns, and its obvious: the ramshackle political establishment has been subsumed.

The precinct-level electoral map is a grim sight for a man like Ed Burke. Not because he once had some iron-fisted authority over the whole city; more like watching the team break up. Maybe another analogy is in order; I’ll indulge myself, that’s kind of my thing. He’s been playing on the Harlem Globetrotters, gleefully beating the Washington Generals (no pun intended; take a minute with that) but now he’s got NBA teams on his schedule. Suddenly, buckets of confetti and shorts-yanking won’t cut it.

Chicago Is a Global City

Chicago in going into a new era. As with most things, though, there was no clean break; it didn’t happen episodically. Since the mid-90s, Chicago has been churning towards membership in a network of “global cities.” I mean this in a very narrow sense. Chicago has been a no-quotes global city since the turn of the last century, when immigrants began pouring in in immense numbers and Chicago provided commodities to the entire planet and transportation to the nation. The “global network” I mean is the various outposts of transnational business. If that sounds nefarious, I don’t mean it to; the somewhat welcome breakdown in trade barriers and international monetary regimes allow financial firms to move fluidly over borders–which makes the borders less meaningful. Lopsided income distribution is putting more and more into the pockets of an ever-tightening group; whether that’s good or bad, it leaves it as a fact that there’s a smaller pool of people who can spend ever more money. For example on politics.

A search of news databases showed the the phrase “global city” did not appear in the same article as the words “Mayor Daley” until 2004. After 2004, it appeared over a dozen times, the first time the man himself using the phrase in 2007. By contrast, between 1989 (Daley’s election) and 2004 the “global city” and “Chicago” popped up together 83 times–nearly four times as often after 2004. What’s the point of all this? Only that the Mayor began focusing on transforming Chicago into whatever he imagined a “global city” to be fairly recently in his mayoralty.

Overlapping with this focus is the acceleration of privatization. The city has privatized 34 city services since 1990, with the vast majority, in terms of value and quantity, coming since 1995–also the year the schools came under Mayoral control. The Office of Management and Budget released a report finding that the City has saved up to $270mn+ between 1990 and 2002. Of those since 1995, by a significant margin the biggest instances came since 2004, including the Monroe Street garages, the Skyway, and of course the parking meters. The Skyway lease happened in 2004; the rights to it for 99 years were sold for just under $2bn to–wait, do you want to guess? A foreign firm. A Spanish consortium fund. Global city.

Juiced In

Mayor-Elect Emanuel represents the completion of that process. This is neither necessarily good, nor necessarily bad. But here’s what his election showed: that there was a new source of power in local politics, and it came from that global class. It’s an undeniable fact that Emanuel’s ability to bring seemingly infinite resources to bear first discouraged competition, then neutralized what opposition resources (when I use that word, I mean money, by the way) there were, then, as victory appeared inevitable, drew institutional, organizational, and financial support to itself. Cash loves a winner, and so does power.

Mayor Daley’s kludge-y version of his father’s political machine, which I’ve shorthanded as “Machine Lite,” menaced community groups, contractors, political rivals, with the ability to command $30,000 from the Plumbers. Emanuel raised nearly $800,000 on his first day of fundraising. His first day. That’s new money to the game, and spells the end of the hinky “powers” of a big city machine. Get some construction law firm partner to underwrite a mailing to ward residents? Oooh, scary. Chicago politics are now juiced in to big money.

But, one might object, campaign contribution limits kicked in on January 1st. Haim Saban can’t drop $300,000 into anybody’s checking account.

Good thing, then, that an organization like For a Better Chicago exists! Imputing nothing nefarious or even negative, some facts: For a Better Chicago hasn’t disclosed its funders, can raise money in any amount from any party, can spend it on “electioneering” under the Citizens United regime that hasn’t yet created meaningful disclosure laws, and it shares Rahm Emanuel’s values. He’s not even the Mayor yet. Would it be more prudent to assume: (a) this trend will decelerate, and these types of entities will become less influential; or (b) this trend will accelerate, and these types of entities will become more influential.*

Riposte! You say, because you’re a nerdburger like that: Yes, but as more of them pop up, they’ll offset each other!

Maybe…but remember earlier, when we were talking about how the objectively increasing disparity in income–income, cash, not buying power or durable goods, cash–means fewer and fewer people have it? So that’s one thing; presumably the same person won’t give cash to two entities that are odds with one another policy-wise. Here’s another: on big, fundamental issues, do you think the people in that increasingly small group of people have a wide disparity of views? Sure, they disagree about many, many things; but I think, given their significant community of interest, they probably agree about a lot of fundamental things–say, the virtues of creating markets, and the vices of public sector unions.

It looks like we’ve reached a somewhat troubling place. Cheer up though! It doesn’t have to be all bad. Business is business and politics is politics, and at some point it becomes bad business to support bad politics. It is still incumbent on people to actually disagree when they disagree; to vote against what they don’t want, to organize with their neighbors to address problems. I worry though;–and I’d encourage you to at least think about it–with the cash so heavily weighted on one side, that most people will only hear one side. Imperfect information creates irrational consumers.

Back to cheering up: Mayor-Elect Emanuel’s campaign in announcing their fundraising, said, “If elected, he will ask these donors and other leaders around the country to commit to investing in Chicago’s future.” I have no reason not to believe the Mayor-Elect when he says he will do this. And we would all benefit if these donors–described earlier in the release as “business and philanthropic leaders”–backed up their investment in a single man with investment in millions of Chicagoans. If they can make a buck while creating stable, living-wage jobs, what type of contrarian would complain about it? I know I for one will be paying attention as these investment are made, to properly acknowledge those who make them.

No, Seriously

I’m not joking. There’s a not unlikely chance the Mayor-Elect has the type of high-level connections to big business, international corporations, and federal agencies that could lure good jobs to the city–and when I say good jobs, I mean jobs that pay enough to support a small family, provide enough that people can save, provide cheap health care, and afford those who hold them the freedom of conscience to associate and assemble. For those with no jobs, any job will do; but a city with a huge population relying on jobs that don’t pay enough to provide some security is no kind of “global city”: it’s two cities. Perhaps you believe that nobody deserves a job like that, since you, for example, don’t have one. Go ahead and run on that platform.

I’m certainly not going to lament the end of a political establishment that enjoyed about twenty years of no meaningful competition, engaged in no meaningful debate, and otherwise squelched the type of organizing that connects people in a meaningful way to their own governance. Good riddance to all that. Perhaps this new era of enormous money from fewer and fewer interests will mean more democracy, more competition, and will encourage people to organize to govern themselves. And that’d be a huge improvement.

The Incredible Mr. Burke

I’m not worried about Ed Burke. He is more than capable of taking care of himself. The man has survived in politics in this city since the DuMont Network. And hey, it’s not like the nobility who survived the break-up of the Holy Roman Empire ended up destitute. If Alderman Burke holds on to his important Committee Chairmanship over Finance, he’ll still wield influence, and people will have to deal with him.

Our city is weird. For such a supposedly political city with a supposedly mighty political machine–why does nobody vote in local elections? I can understand why they didn’t vote in the last few cycles–no meaningful choices–but why not this time around? An open Mayor’s seat! With more money spent on that race than ever before! Shouldn’t that have driven people to the polls?

It didn’t. Chicagoans didn’t care enough to vote. The measure of a political establishment’s effectiveness is its ability to win, not get people to vote. Unfortunately, that’s not the measure of a democracy’s health, and tacit consent is not the same as affirmation. Mayor-Elect Emanuel won about 22% of the true electorate’s vote. About 20% outright voted against him, and 60% didn’t think it was worth it to either vote for or against him.

In that kind of atmosphere, Ed Burke will be fine. Don’t count him–and the remnants of the old establishment–out quite yet.

But take a moment and think about what you expect from this global elite that paid for this last election, and seems ready to pay for more, through outfits like For a Better Chicago. Think about what we’ve been promised, and why we’re supposed to take the infusion of so much cash into politics, the selling of our assets to global capital, and the welcoming of profit-seekers into our schools as good things. If those good things don’t materialize, I welcome you to let this administration know.




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