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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
can no more hope to win this bidding war among themselves –
a municipal Race to the Bottom – than hird 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.
rules of the game must be changed if the words “democracy” and
“development” are to have any meaning to city dwellers:
- No project can be viewed as “development” that does not on
balance benefit the people who already live in the city.
Cities are comprised of people. It is a contradiction in terms
to pretend that cities are “improved” by projects that lure
and serve future populations, to the general detriment of existing
residents. This principle has particular relevance to gentrification,
but also to the full range of commercial and industrial projects
to be considered.
- City government must act as an engine for economic and social
uplift, and an arbiter of who is, and who is not, a good corporate
citizen of the city. These are the general aims of the Living
Wage Movement: to “raise the floor” for all workers by barring
from city contracts, subsidies and other favors those companies
that fail to provide minimum terms of employment. Companies
that benefit from the people’s poverty must be locked out
of the public treasury.
- The totality of a city’s resources, public and private – every
thoroughfare, building, cable connection, vacant lot, vista,
riverbank, swamp and repository of human skills – must be viewed
as a public asset, the people’s bargaining chips and a moral
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
$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.
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
“social accountability movement” is “capitalism’s Trojan Horse,”
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.
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.
labor knows that story all too well. Twenty percent of African
Americans live in union households, and their jobs are disappearing
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.
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.
here to read Part 2 of this series.
here to read Part 3 of this series.
here to read Part 4 of this series.
here to read Part 5 of this series.