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Rampaging capital lays waste to the nation and the world – the principal source of war and the despoiler of American cities. By now, every civilized segment of humanity has come to realize that a wild herd has been loosed on the planet, and has captured the government of the United States. Murderously jealous of all freedoms except its own, this green-eyed monster screams its demands at the community of nations, strips them naked of their sovereignty, distorts their institutions and shreds their dreams to suit its rapacious purposes, then leaves the people exhausted, spent, and more impoverished than before.
It is a sadistic force – or rather, hyperactive capital is deployed as a weapon by sadistic men who call their victims “markets” and force them to dance, jump, and sing capital’s praises as they line up for the big event: The Race to the Bottom, a competition to decide who can be exploited most, soonest. Everybody loses, especially the winners, who get to the bottom first.
The race has become intolerable, not only for the peoples of the Third World, where wages have been depressed below levels required for the maintenance of life, but also for the battered and confused population of the United States, the folks who thought that “their” corporations would never treat them like “foreigners.” Late in the game, American workers discovered that capital has no nation and no loyalties, just an omnivorous appetite. Unrestrained capital comes and goes as it pleases – the only freedom that its handlers recognize. Putting a leash on the monster is humanity’s common mission, from Mombasa to Montevideo to Milwaukee. The alternative is to be chewed up and spit out, each “market” in its turn.
African Americans know what it is like to be pushed and pulled around by capital, having once been chained to the marketplace as human goods, capital investments. The African American story began when capital made humans into commodities. This unwanted intimacy with capital did not end with Emancipation. Masters of capital alternately chased the freedmen away from land and work, or nailed them in place through both legal and lethal instruments. Blacks learned that capital creates a social marketplace that values some people’s labor above others, and devalues everything in the vicinity of those places that Black people seek to call home. Indeed, “home” has been a transient thing for successive generations of African Americans, never quite knowing if they were running to or from somewhere, always wondering what their “worth” would be at the next stop.
Nobody consulted Black folks when the powers-that-be decided to flip the script on human living patterns after World War Two, transferring wealth from the central cities to new places called suburbs, a national project subsidized by the people’s money that added value to previously cheap locations and left the urban cores Black and hollow. In America, divestment goes with the racial territory, and freedom is defined as the right to break the social contract at will.
Capital both paved the way for, and followed, whites to the sprawling horizons. Behind lay dark, devalued people encamped atop perfectly good urban infrastructures, soon to be assaulted by redlining and rot, the quiet crimes of capital’s unseen hand. Purposely excluded from the suburban mega-project – the largest sustained capital transfer in national, if not world, history – Blacks translated their growing presence in shrinking cities into nominal political power.
Nothing could possibly have prepared the Black body politic for its post civil-rights era encounter with urban electoral power. The Western Hemisphere had seen nothing like the Great American White/Capital Exodus since the Maya abandoned their cities around 900 A.D. A people who had been flung, chased and lured across the geographic and social spaces of the continent found themselves in charge or on the cusp of power in many of the great urban centers of the nation in the early Seventies – just as the postwar boom was going bust and political support for cities had passed its zenith.
The massive postwar withdrawal of capital and whites from American cities, set in motion by publicly financed, corporate-inspired transportation policies, shocked the sensibilities of much of the world – and still does. How could the planet’s greatest economic power (in 1950, the U.S. manufactured 70 percent of the world’s durable goods) whose skylines dazzled the global imagination, suddenly forsake the social investment model of every previous human civilization? But such is the caprice of capital, which saw in the segregationist imperatives of white Americans the opportunity to create another America, with a new set of housing, lifestyle and product demands – the greatest development project ever known.
However, the cities and their Black populations couldn’t go anywhere, and descended into crisis. Most Blacks and whites saw only the (very real) racial aspect of the urban free fall – although from different perspectives. Whites in general, including much of organized labor, pretended that the crisis of the inner cities was not a labor or national problem, at all. The broad white consensus held that it was perfectly logical for both corporations and average people to put distance between themselves and Black “pathologies.” They would be singing a different tune when their turn came to be rationalized out of productive existence.
In fact, we know in hindsight that by the early Seventies the domestic version of the Race to the Bottom had begun. The withdrawal of capital from the cities, creating new markets while satisfying white segregationist impulses, was accompanied by divestment of northern manufacturing in favor of the lower wage, non-union sun belt – the first lap in what would become a global competition for the benefit of capital.
Black unemployment, only 3.8 percent among males in 1968 and 1969, soon soared to the astronomical levels that inner-city dwellers have come to accept as part of the urban landscape. And increasingly, Black mayors and city councils were expected to do something about it.
Newly ascendant Black politicians were immediately challenged to correct the mess made by white and capital flight – the Great Urban Divestment. We focus here on African American politicians, because race was widely assumed to be at the heart of the worsening national urban problem. After all, avoidance of Blacks is first-nature to American whites, so no further explanation of urban decline was necessary – for either of the racial parties. Thus, Black cities failed because they were Black, but New England and upstate New York were said to be in trouble because their factories were old and outdated.
Capital’s one-two punch left the cities wondering what hit them. The implosion of so many American cities was the result of both general divestment of cities and a decision to first move and then shut down the nation’s manufacturing base. One of the causes is well understood, while the other is entangled in questions of race. The central fact is that both of these nation-shaking, overlapping divestments were driven by capital’s desire for higher profits. The stability of the nation did not figure in the calculation.
Black politicians set out to prove that they could run cities just as well as whites. Besides making city administrations look more like the voters, most African American officeholders had one paramount goal: bring back capital and jobs, which was soon amended to, any kind of jobs. To that goal was later added: bring back the whites; more recently amended to, bring back the suburban Blacks.Beggars’ politics
The revitalization “strategy” – if it can be called a strategy – was, essentially, to give away the public’s assets. In addition to direct gifts of land and structures, plus tax abatements stretching into future generations, an array of federal and state programs evolved to subsidize the return of private capital and affluent populations. Municipal powers of eminent domain were made available to condemn, clear and shape the economic and physical contours of the city to capital’s specifications, all wrapped up in a bright, freshly cut ribbon.
Typically, City Hall asks only that some portion of jobs and contracts go to the locals. Big city mayors have been reduced to a bizarre class of beggars, lining up at corporate doorsteps with gifts of public resources. Urban executives extend permanent invitations to private capital managers to do whatever they want with constituents’ property and futures, but please do something! Rarely do they have anything resembling a plan of their own, beyond a firm determination to accept whatever capital offers, and a willingness to out-grovel the next mayor in line.
Cities can no more hope to win this bidding war among themselves – a municipal Race to the Bottom – than Third World nations can expect to earn the lasting loyalty of multinational capital through gifts of their sovereignty and resources – an analogy that has become common during the past decade.
The rules of the game must be changed if the words “democracy” and “development” are to have any meaning to city dwellers:
Redefining what’s public
Cities (and counties) have formidable powers to arrange and enhance their assets – and do so all the time to suit the demands of capital. Capital flight (divestment) and the resulting municipal bidding wars have led cities with large low-income populations to fritter away the assets that were left to them, and to view government as a facilitator of whatever schemes “developers” present. Basic public functions such as zoning have become processes through which corporations plot the destinies of cities. Elected officials are neutered and their publics are not served, the root of the political crisis that afflicts Black and brown cities.
But it is worse than that. Few cities have ever audited their assets to determine how the various parts interact with one another: how population densities and nexuses of activity create potential opportunities for or threats to internal commerce, for example. In the absence of comprehensive audits, there can be no such thing as city planning, which for the people’s intents and purposes hardly exists in the United States.
Capital makes plans and gathers data, constantly. Corporate planners dig for data that serves their schemes, to reposition or remove populations they have no use for; to cash in on layers of public subsidies with no strings attached (because the city’s bargaining agent knows less about the city than they do); to leave quickly by nightfall.
Urban America’s development menu is dictated almost entirely by the whims of private capital. If it’s not on the corporate menu, you can’t have it, and if you choose an item from their menu, you must be prepared to subsidize the project, transfer public assets to private hands, defer taxation for a generation, and shape your urban vision to that of the corporation.
If cities truly had no value, of course, gentrification would not be an issue. In fact, the Great American White/Capital Exodus that followed World War Two has exhausted itself. Capital must be made to pay the price of re-admission. Cities must identify and arrange the totality of their assets, protect them, and decide precisely what kind of development can be allowed or encouraged to occur, in which places, for the enhancement of the whole city. This is the real stuff of democracy.
Capital always has a plan. We have seen where these plans lead: to a harrowing roller coaster ride that ultimately ends at the bottom. If the people of American cities are not to be victimized by the next wave of investment-divestment by the managers of capital, they must formulate their own plans for development of the ground on which they stand.
For African Americans, transformed by the whims of capital into primarily an urban people, there is no alternative but to “cast down your bucket where you are.”
Capital’s “Trojan Horse”
The cities are desperately in need of planning to meet the people’s needs, and access to capital to implement the people’s vision of urban life. The men who set in motion the disinvestments that nearly destroyed America’s cities, and then turned on the working people of the suburbs and the sunbelt, sending their jobs to foreign shores, did it with other people’s money. This is the open secret that the managers of capital want to keep hidden.
An estimated $7 trillion of the money that capital managers play with comes from pension funds, the deferred wages of American working people. The grand schemes and lifestyles of the men who brought us urban blight and who now pit American workers against dollars-a-day labor in the Third World, are financed by tens of millions of shareholders who have until recently had little say in how their money is invested. These “stakeholders” are knocking on the boardroom doors, demanding that corporations account for the social as well as financial consequences of their actions.
Organized labor’s pensions are the biggest single source of investment capital. The managers of Enron lost or stole $1 billion in pension money, estimates Tom Croft of the Heartland Network, part of an alliance that promotes “jobs-oriented investment strategies.” By Croft’s count, Wall Street threw away $1 trillion in pension funds during the Nineties bacchanal and bust.
The “social accountability movement” is “capitalism’s Trojan Horse,” warned Professor Jon Entine, speaking at a June gathering of the rightwing American Enterprise Institute, in Washington. “[T]he disruptive impact of what is essentially an anti-free market movement…is all to real and growing,” said Entine.
Organized labor is at the center of this movement, finally awakened to the fact that the managers of capital have hijacked the people’s money – public dollars and private pensions – for their own enrichment. In the process, these “free marketers” have disrupted the people’s lives and plunged the world into an all-against-all competition for a job, any job.
Black labor knows that story all too well. Twenty percent of African Americans live in union households, and their jobs are disappearing faster than anyone else’s as corporate divestment stamps out what’s left of the nation’s manufacturing base. Black labor, like the vast bulk of African Americans, has the greatest stake in the sustenance and empowerment of the nation’s cities. They have no choice but to cast down their buckets where they are.
Just after World War Two, gangsters hijacked Teamsters pension funds to found a town that has grown to a metropolis in the desert – a place where a city should not be. America’s other urban centers are far better situated than Las Vegas. They too can survive, with the help of union brains and money, guided by the powerful social message and historical experience of Black unionists. They know what the bosses are up to.