Wednesday, October 5, 2011

New York City shows the ill effects of income and wealth inequalities

Poet Christopher Ketcham has posted an excellent historical analysis of income and wealth inequalities, and their dire social consequences: The Reign of the One Percenters: Income Inequality and the Death of Culture in New York City. Ketcham includes important socio-economic statistics, and wonderful short summaries of the good work of Henry George, and the not-good work of J.P. Morgan. An excerpt:

President Grover Cleveland, aghast at the scope of the division between the few very rich and the many poor, concluded that the “wealth and luxury of our cities,” primarily enjoyed by the industrial monopolists and the financier and Wall Street class, was “largely built upon undue exactions from the masses of our people.” The exactions in New York, as with every city where unregulated industrial capital ran amok, were most felt in the profitable horrors of wage slavery: the fourteen-hour workdays, the miserable pay, the children forced into labor, the dangerous conditions on factory floors, the rents extracted by landlords for the opportunity to live in windowless, rat-infested, soul-destroying tenements.

In answer, across New York City throughout the 1880s there were strikes, marches, boycotts, gigantic torch-lit demonstrations. New York’s Central Labor Union (CLU), a branch of the Knights of Labor, whose national membership approached 700,000, welcomed all the “producing classes,” skilled and unskilled: the bricklayers, the jewelers, the printers, the industrialized brewers and machinists, the salesclerks, bakers, cloak makers, cigar makers, piano makers, musicians, tailors, waiters, Morse operators, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, whites and blacks, men and women. The only people they refused to welcome in their ranks, wrote historians Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, were “bankers, brokers, speculators, gamblers, and liquor dealers”—what the Knights and other radicals of the time called the “fleecing classes,” the “parasites,” the “leeches.”
Ketcham uses his personal experience to show us how the financialization of New York City's economy - the domination of the city by the "fleecing classes" of the "financial services industry" have destroyed the cultural creativity the City was once known and celebrated for. The only thing missing is a reference to Thorstein Veblen's explanations of how pecuniary culture comes to dominate a society.
[A friend] attempted to start a small newspaper in Brooklyn. The investors weren’t interested. “They want digital projects that promise an all-or-nothing billion dollars,” he tells me. “I just don’t get that buzzy creative vibe from New York anymore. I see mercenarianism. Cynical ambition. Monied dullness. People trying to get rich and cash out. It’s always a CEO and CTO and CFO launching a new web property. Not writers and editors getting together because they have common visions.”

This is old news. Technologic advances in the digital world order now mandate that the journalist vies in the editorial room with technocrats advising on the method for tweaking headlines and articles to the rhythm of Google. The model is from advertising: find what people want to hear, then echo it in the news so that they will be attracted to hear more of it. “If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money,” writes author Jaron Lanier. “If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless… Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.” No surprise then that the most lucrative “creative” jobs in New York for the “aggregating” of “content” are not in journalism but in corporate media, advertising, and marketing—the machines of manipulation and deceit.
In France, a Resistance fighter against the Nazis, now in his 90s, reminds us that the present financial feudalism is NOT what he fought for:
The author is a ninety-three-year-old French diplomat named St├ęphane Hessel, who, during World War II, trained with the Free French Forces and British secret service in London, parachuted into Vichy France ahead of invading Allied troops in 1944, fought in the Resistance on his native soil, was captured by the Gestapo, and did time in two concentration camps. In “Cry Out!” Hessel reminds us that among the goals of the fight, as stated by the National Council of the Resistance following the defeat of Nazism, was the establishment in France of “a true economic and social democracy, which entails removing large-scale economic and financial feudalism from the management of the economy.” “This menace,” he writes—the menace of the fascist model of finance feudalism—“has not completely disappeared.” He warns that in fact “the power of money, which the Resistance fought so hard against, has never been as as great and selfish and shameless as it is now.”
Ketcham closes with this worthy advice:
What is needed is a new paradigm of disrespect for the banker, the financier, the One Percenter, a new civic space in which he is openly reviled, in which spoiled eggs and rotten vegetables are tossed at his every turning. What is needed is a revival of the language of vigorous old progressivism, wherein the parasite class was denounced as such. What is needed is a new Resistance. We face, as Hessel describes, a system of social control “that offers nothing but mass consumption as a prospect for our youth,” that trumpets “contempt for the least powerful in society,” that offers only “outrageous competition of all against all.”
Read the entire article! It is excellent. The Reign of the One Percenters: Income Inequality and the Death of Culture in New York City.

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