Two Tales Of Two Cities

Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty of New York City is shaping up as a textbook example of Roderick T. Long’s account of how electoral politics works in practice:

“… via a façade of opposition between a purportedly progressive statocracy and a purportedly pro-market plutocracy. The con operates by co-opting potential opponents of the establishment; those who recognise that something’s amiss with the statocratic wing are lured into supporting the plutocratic wing, and vice versa. Whenever the voters grow weary of the plutocracy, they’re offered the alleged alternative of an FDR or JFK; whenever they grow weary of the statocracy, they’re offered the alleged alternative of a Reagan or Thatcher. Perhaps the balance of power shifts slightly toward one side or the other; but the system remains essentially unchanged.”

Sure enough, de Blasio’s victory seems at first glance an embodiment of New Yorkers finally getting sick and tired of the overt pro-rich, authoritarian records of Giuliani and Bloomberg. His campaign featured some of the farthest-left rhetoric by a winning New York candidate since the New Deal. His inauguration speech promised to “take dead aim at” wealth inequality and decried “trickle-down economics” and “rugged individualism.” Red-baiters have plenty of fodder in de Blasio’s Sandinista support and Cuba honeymoon. Repeals of some of the most egregious anti-civil liberties and economically regressive policies are likely.

But the smart money is on de Blasio’s term panning out as a far cry from the sea change promised. The New York Times notes that

“The fierce liberal who electrified voters in the Democratic primary has so far produced a cabinet that any of his more centrist rivals might have appointed: Mr. de Blasio has surrounded himself with alumni of Goldman Sachs and the administrations of former Mayors Rudolph W. Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg, his bête noire on the campaign trail.”

(Thus bearing out power elite theory.) Doug Henwood sums up de Blasio’s track record as the career of “a real-estate friendly guy out of the medical-industrial complex.”

Expect de Blasio’s “progressive” attempts at making New York City affordable to resemble his endorsement of the Atlantic Yards subsidy, a perfect embodiment of corporate welfare, as long as some affordable housing was also in the deal. Corporatism gets spurred while some of its symptoms get mitigated (Henry George’s 1886 New York City mayoral run, which outpolled Theodore Roosevelt’s, proposed abolishing land speculation altogether). As for civil liberties, the inaugural promised a mere “reform” of the despised stop-and-frisk policy.

A successful populist movement, in or out of New York City, would focus on building voluntary alternatives. Economic centers of power would be made obsolete and pressured from below, not reined in by political power. Any echoes of New York City electoral history would not be of the paternalistic New Dealers invoked by de Blasio. They might be of George’s labor-backed campaign to address “the shocking contrast between monstrous wealth and debasing want” via laissez-faire. Or Norman Mailer’s 1968 mayoral campaign program of decentralization to neighborhood-level control of political power and social services. For instance, schools would not be expanded cradle-to-adulthood, but broken up into Paul Goodman’s autonomous “mini-schools” [PDF]. The final line of the inegalitarian Tale of Two Cities invoked by de Blasio just might be a quote of a Mailer campaign button: “POWER TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD.”

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