Last week in the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party pulled off a stunning result in a snap general election called by Tory PM Theresa May. Though Labour didn’t win, they gained their biggest vote share increase since 1945, largely by campaigning against neoliberal privatizations, austerity politics, and the imperial terror abroad that leads to its reproduction at home. It was an exhilarating moment for the Left around the world, as the conventional wisdom for weeks had held that the socialist Corbyn was due for a demoralizing, overwhelming defeat (indeed, such a belief was why May had called the utterly unnecessary election in the first place).
But trailing in the election’s wake are the legions of conventional-wisdom-peddling pundits who can’t seem (or refuse) to grasp the overwhelming lesson that Corbyn’s Labour has provided (and that Bernie Sanders’s continued popularity here indicates): that people are completely fed up with neoliberalism. Those of us who are “extremely online” have been privy to this reality-denying phenomenon for a while now. It’s not the reality denial of Donald Trump & Co., but that of the self-proclaimed “centrists” and their fellow travelers who made him possible in the first place; those who simultaneously deny that Neoliberalism is even a thing while promoting its “virtues” as the only pragmatic solution to the world’s ills.
Well, I’m here to say that 100% it definitely exists and we’ve been “living” it (well, I wouldn’t call it living, my friend) for the past 40 years. In fact, it’s the central theme in NYU historian Kim Phillips-Fein’s excellent Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics. “But wait!” You say, “That says ‘austerity politics,’ not ‘neoliberalism’!” Buddy, I’ve got some news for you, they’re a package deal. As Phillips-Fein writes of the neoliberal shift during the 1970s, “In place of the Great Society there would be welfare reform, privatization of city government, stringent fiscal policy, establishment of charter schools, opposition to civil servant unions (especially teachers’ unions), and the introduction of broken-windows policing strategies.”
So how did we get to such a place of dire, dispiriting anti-politics run by financiers? The grand answer is: go read your Marx. The U.S.-centric answer involves post-WWII suburbanization and white flight spurred by federal policies that dispersed and decentralized urban populations while keeping metropolitan areas deeply segregated. As Phillips-Fein points out, these kinds of federal policies had ruinous effects on more localized polities that had developed robust social democratic cultures by destroying the tax base that supported social democratic institutions. “It was the result of the dismantling of the urban manufacturing economy, the flight of companies to poorer parts of the world, the construction of highways that made suburban life more appealing,” she writes. NYC was the most prominent locale, but not the only one: “All across the country, cities had been hollowed out by white flight, suburbanization, and the movement of manufacturing to the South and overseas in search of lower wages and more compliant local governments.”
Phillips-Fein’s focus is what happened in the wake of 1960s social upheaval and global economic shocks of the early 1970s—specifically, the increasingly debt-strapped NYC’s March 6, 1975 municipal bond auction, in which for the first time no bonds were bought, setting off in earnest the city’s downward spiral. Anyone who has seen British documentarian Adam Curtis’s film HyperNormalisation will recognize this scene, as well as one that comes later in the book: Donald Trump’s friendly redevelopment deal for the Commodore Hotel, which exemplified the new private capital-oriented vision of what a major city could and should be. (Phillips-Fein notes that “as of 2016, Trump’s tax break has cost New York City $360 million in uncollected taxes.”)
“The seventies,” Phillips-Fein writes, “marked the moment before the rise of neoliberal New York, the emergence of Donald Trump, the stock market’s climb—a time when New York (and America) still felt open, when one could dream of a different future in a way that no longer seems possible.” By 1975, however, NYC’s bankers and financiers “no longer saw their economic and political interests as being inextricably linked to those of the city.” A new age arose in which the “corporate and financial elite, along with technocratic politicians responsive to that group,” prioritized the interests of the wealthy and the business community. In this vision, giving tax breaks to luxury developers takes precedence over functioning public schools (why let schools work when your charter school pals stand to make bank via union-busting schools that don’t even perform better than normal ones?).
New York City became a model for how other decimated municipalities could deal with their bleak situations: “the city was now the only place in the country where a court had ruled that repaying creditors legally trumped any other obligation.” Budgets were trimmed accordingly, but the result was a social crisis that all observers who weren’t ideologically in thrall to markets had repeatedly predicted. What we now know as gentrification was peddled as a cure 35-plus years ago, with Ed Koch describing NYC as a frontier full of “new pioneers.” Anyone with half a brain will recognize the classist and racist ways in which America’s new urban frontiers have been conquered and exploited. Fitting, really, for a nation founded on genocidal settler colonialism.
“Ever since the 1980s, the embrace of private enterprise as the sole way to fuel social development has helped to justify and legitimate the economic inequality that seems to define our day.” The now-antiquated vision of the city “celebrated municipal generosity and provision of services rather than corporate-style success.” Lately, people have been wondering, What is the responsibility of government? Is it to guarantee “a set of social rights for all” or is it “to make the city an attractive place for businesses and corporations”? In exploring potential avenues out of this mess, it’s worth reading Fear City to see how the latter vision got us here in the first place.