Saturday, September 07, 2013

Bloomberg and the Invisible Rules

In a new interview for New York Magazine, New York City's outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg offers a few comments about the election campaigns underway, including the campaign to replace him, where there is a competitive Democratic primary.

The leading candidate in that primary campaign is Bill De Blasio, who has made social stratification in New York a major theme of his campaign, calling it a "tale of two cities" (one for the working class and one for the rich).  He has also made an issue of "stop and frisk" policies that heavily target non-white races for spontaneous police questioning and physical searches.  De Blasio is taking the liberal position of addressing the inequality through taxation and other progressive reforms, and curtailing "stop and frisk."

To start off, Bloomberg bizarrely accuses De Blasio of running a "racist" campaign by making appearances with his family. "It’s comparable to me pointing out I’m Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote," he says.  But surely Bloomberg would not ask a Jewish candidate to hide their Jewishness.  Candidates, of course, are known for campaigning with their spouses and children, but in De Blasio's case it is "racist" because his wife, Chirlane McCray, is black and they have two children.  See what Bloomberg is doing there?  If De Blasio was married to a white woman, his appearances with her would seem normal and pro forma.  But his wife is dark-skinned, and so Bloomberg views these appearances with suspicion.  This is, after all, Mayor "Stop and Frisk."  The man who insists that New York has been made safer by racial profiling.  But he's not racist at all: it's that De Blasio and his afro-sporting son (who made a potent criticism about "stop and frisk" that dramatically embodies the injustice of it).

Moving on, Bloomberg repeats this reversal with respect to class struggle in New York:

...his whole campaign is that there are two different cities here. And I’ve never liked that kind of division. The way to help those who are less fortunate is, number one, to attract more very fortunate people. They are the ones that pay the bills. The people that would get very badly hurt here if you drive out the very wealthy are the people he professes to try to help. Tearing people apart with this “two cities” thing doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a destructive strategy for those you want to help the most. He’s a very populist, very left-wing guy, but this city is not two groups, and if to some extent it is, it’s one group paying for services for the other. 
See what he's doing?  The guy who talks about the reality of class division is accused of causing the division -- by talking about it.  It's like accusing scientists of making up climate change -- oh right, that happened, too.  The taboo against talking about class and power in our society has loosened considerably -- thanks in no small part to the Occupy movements of 2011-2.  (A movement Mayor Bloomberg worked very hard to crush using police brutality.) 

The invisibility of class power was key to suppressing discussion of it.  Instead, the dominant ideology has been just as Bloomberg states it earlier in this interview:

If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.
Who’s paying our taxes? We pay the highest school costs in the country. It comes from the wealthy! We have an $8.5 billion budget for our Police Department. We’re the safest big city in the country—stop me when you get bored with this! Life expectancy is higher here than in the rest of the country—who’s paying for that? We want these people to come here, and it’s not our job to say that they’re over- or underpaid. I might not pay them the same thing if it was my company—maybe I’d pay them more, I don’t know. All I know is from the city’s point of view, we want these people, and why criticize them? Wouldn’t it be great if we could get all the Russian billionaires to move here?

There was, not long ago, a time when politicians would disguise this sentiment because the class bias would seem too overt.  But Bloomberg asserts the ideology quite earnestly:  the wealthy minority are the benefactors of society.  If working people continue to work hard all their lives and refrain from demanding higher wages and better working conditions or a more equitable society, then the minority will continue to be successful.

That's the order of things.  The mass of people work extremely hard all their lives, sacrificing financial security and quality of life and even the environment that sustains their life, so that a few 'benefactors' may live in opulence.   It is a curious arrangement, isn't it?  With the concentrated wealth comes political power, social status, and cultural prestige.

In order to preserve this arrangement, reformers who make an issue of class disparity are accused of "class warfare."  In this interview, the first assertion that De Blasio is running "a class-warfare campaign" comes from the interviewer, Chris Smith. The press helps maintain the social order by enforcing certain rules of discourse.

And so the interview continues, with Bloomberg minimizing the inequity or letting it remain invisible.  He claims the number of private sector jobs has gone up, ignoring the issues of falling wages, wage theft, and financial insecurity.  He chastises readers concerned about the working poor and the vanishing middle that compared to the rest of the world, our poor people are doing great.    More apartments have air conditioning now!  But never mind that it is harder than ever to afford the rent.  And he leaves invisible the structure of class power itself.

What is fascinating about this for me (and why I continue to subject readers of this blog to these little essays) is the invisibility of these rules.  When Bloomberg states that he doesn't think he has changed much from when he was a young man cooking his own meals (before he became a billionaire), I believe he believes that.   I believe that on an emotional level, he really does believe the gospel of trickle-down economics -- that society prospers if we all do what we can to make the rich even richer.

Most people still accept this as a natural order of things, not as a state of affairs created by human beings.  Many people don't see these rules or examine them at all.  It is a repressive order, and to a vast extent it is enforced from within our consciousness.  That's fascinating.

And this interview demonstrates how the media participates in maintaining this dream.  Although, on the surface, Smith challenges Bloomberg, he actually doesn't question Bloomberg on an ideological basis.  The basic premises of the ruling structure are maintained.

1 comment:

Ung Kwan said...

Class and white privilege are major blind spots in our society. Unfortunately, the ideas of a society's ruling class tend to be the dominating ideas in the society. How do we break this hegemony?