Malaise In the Neoliberal City

1 02 2012

Why bother?

I vaguely remember being pugnacious about the direction our leadership was taking the city in, of having some degree of passion about what was wrong and what was right–or at least, what was wrong and what was potentially better. I filled notebooks–I’m flipping through one now–with ideas for articles and research projects that could contribute, in some way, to avoiding calamity, to exposing the material reality under the political rhetoric. Flipping through these notebooks now, scrolling through the myriad unpublished drafts, nothing stirs me. What I feel is more akin to a sad curiosity, how it must feel to look at optimistic battle plans scrawled on maps for some war that was lost long ago.

Our biggest enemy, I realized, is a lack of ideas for how to improve the human family. A complete lack of ambition to create a better world from yet another generation. Chicago, the laboratory neoliberal city, doesn’t belong to us anymore. It’s a “global” city belonging to people who don’t even live here, and we have no ideas how to take it, or any other city, back from them.

When Rahm Emanuel announced his candidacy for the Mayor’s office, it was taken as assumed that he’d win. The media never treated any of his opponents seriously–and perhaps they should not have. Though it is a bit of an observer interference problem; the media treatment of candidacy certainly has an impact on their chances of success. Emanuel won the neoliberal’s way: he tapped his connections to international business, and particular finance, and drown his opponents in cash. A quirky twitter account got more coverage than his opponents. That was that.

He has since pursued a “business-friendly,” or actually working class-hostile, agenda. Nevertheless, people who consider themselves “liberals” and “progressives” support those policies for the same reason they support Barack Obama’s neoliberal policies: out of deference to party labels, personal careerism, and forest-for-trees interest in technocratic solutions that nibble at problems.

Politics in Chicago are wholly uninteresting. We’ve been reduced to sadly cheerleading the release of data as progressive victories for “the people.” What else is there to cheerlead? In the neoliberal city, we have to pretend there’s been a regime change–we have to play the pretend game Emanuel represents a substantive break from the Daley administration–he does not.

The only difference between Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley is that Emanuel is going to do what Daley wanted to do much, much more efficiently. He will chase out the poor and call it attacking crime; he will privatize the school system and call it No Excuses Reform; he will create a Surveillance State and say it is for the children. What is progressive about any of this? How is any of this giving people the power to govern themselves?

What Daley started, Emanuel is pursuing indefatigably (as the fawning puff pieces never fail to remind us); the working class was hounded out of the city through gentrification and the liquidation of affordable housing, Chicago remains appallingly segregated, dependence on “corporate partnerships” has bifurcated the city between the affluent and the poor. There is a class of well-off and their servant class. The time-tested avenue to the middle class for the working class–i.e., organized labor–is the Mayor’s biggest enemy. Woe!

You know you’re in trouble when Tom Friedman, potentially the biggest nitwit to put pen to paper on politics, is praising a “Progressive in the Age of Austerity.”

He’s not The Beast, don’t get me wrong (Emanuel, not Friedman. Friedman may be). Mayor Emanuel is creative, energetic, and certainly well intentioned. He’s doing precisely what you’d expect from the man who was integral to Mayor Daley’s fundraising, engineered passage of NAFTA, torpedoed public health care and comprehensive immigration reform, and made millions on Wall Street. He’s approaching governing our city like he’s approached his entire career: show the rich guys you’ll be obedient, and they’ll keep the spigots on, and you get to act tough. Like the little guy who hangs out with the jocks so he can be a bully, too.

In other words, Emanuel isn’t powerful, not really. Nor are the many functionaries and consultants who work for him. They think they’re powerful and influential, but they’re not. They’re actually remarkably weak. They’re constrained in what they can accomplish by what interstate and in fact international forces would consent to. And it isn’t just Chicago. It’s everywhere. Even if some big progressive groundswell retook the city, it’d be smothered to death quickly.

This week, the Civic Federation put out a report on the state of Illinois’ deteriorating debt problem. The only real solution to Illinois problem would need to be a national fix to Medicaid. Illinois simply cannot continue to serve this many working class people who need health care without adequate federal funding for Medicaid in a way that doesn’t burden states. But of course, the entire reason Medicaid is structured the way it is is so that it will crumble.

In a society where economic democracy is anathema and “entrepreneurs” are exalted as secular saints, any solution to social ills that can in any way be interpreted as “hostile” to “free enterprise”–in other words, that demands some responsibility from the powerful–is smothered in the crib.

States are forced into a race to the bottom so that they can never raise taxes or make demands of employers. We throw tax money at them and never get any solid promises in return. The same way that nations are forced to compete for capital’s favor by driving down their own standards of living. Progressive groups flog the same demands for higher taxes on “the rich,” and support politicians whose entire approach to political organizing is, essentially, organizing the rich in order to temporarily convince just enough working class people that they’re the lesser evil.

We’re hopelessly fucked, in other words, unless we can start to think big, really big, about how to reorder a society that has no meaningful avenues for self government. I’m not nearly smart enough to come up with those ideas, and so I’ve lost my taste for nibbling at the margins of this or that petty fight we’re bound to lose in the long run.

Our schools will be privatized and begin to churn out standardized students with little critical thinking skills, and that’ll be hailed as brave reform by six-figure liberals at think tanks and foundations. Our city will become geographically divided between those who will live in carefully guarded sparkling communities and service-sector debt peons in dilapidation. Labor will continue to be immiserated by politicians on the grounds that only immiseration can prove to all mighty entrepreneurs that we’re worthy of employment.

I expect the powerful to cop these attitudes, but what is disgusting and unforgivable is the supposed progressives who have convinced themselves, more likely than not because it’s good for their careers, that spontaneous order and entrepreneurial ability will somehow end the debt peonage the working class is drowning in, and the prison-industrial complex that has chipped away at whatever gains the civil rights movement made, and de facto segregation, and malaise, malaise, malaise, of any and all of us not born into privilege–while at the same time, it just so happens, not causing them any discomfort whatsoever. What a convenient worldview.

Generations from now, when our grandchildren are forced to actually deal with the fallout of so many years of small thinking and neglect, they’ll look at the liberals and progressives of this time as particularly pernicious, as much objects of pity for their weakness as objects of scorn for their dishonor.

You’ll forgive me in the meantime if I don’t think your campaign for state senate is particularly compelling.


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