Bill de Blasio, the newly elected Mayor of New York City, is, at least for now, a populist hero of our times. And he’s not the only one. In Lorain, Ohio a group of disgruntled trade unionists from that death zone of de-industrialization, took over the City Council, ousting the sitting Democratic geriatric old guard. Socialists, long thought to be an extinct species in the American heartland, were recently spotted wining a city council election in Seattle and nearly winning one in Minneapolis. Meanwhile, the national Democratic Party is experiencing a deja-vue-all-over-again moment, rediscovering its anguish over inequality as a vendible political commodity.
Should we count these as straws in the wind? Is a revived Populism blowing in that wind? Maybe so. Signs of a change in the weather have been sprouting here and there. There was the occupation of the State House in Madison. And then there was the occupation of Wall Street. Mini uprisings of the most abused and intimidated workers at fast food outlets, car washes, even at Wal-mart register not so much desperation as bravery, a will to resist. State and local ordinances mandating living and minimum wages overwhelm the inbred timidity of Washington’s political establishment.
So the answer to the question about whether we should anticipate major political climate change might be a qualified yes. After all de Blasio’s landslide victory was predicted by no one just months before it happened. Then the wave of populist sentiment that swept him to victory repudiated a whole era of Wall Street/real estate domination presided over by that sector’s favorite son, Michael Bloomberg. The glaring inequities of life in the city together with the ineptitude, greed, and criminal malfeasance of financial titans finally proved to be too much to bear. Absent for so long, an outpouring of sympathy for hard-pressed working people, the working poor, and the workless poor, for abused racial minorities, and others, found release in a man who campaigned without shying away from targeting the centers of power and wealth.
In our day and age this was a rare political spectacle. Still, if there are reasons to be optimistic there are reasons to be cautious.
The Mayor’s powers are limited. There can be no populism in one city, not to mention socialism in one city. Authority over most taxes, the regulation and flow of capital resources, budgets, and other vital matters often lie outside municipal precincts. But not entirely. As Dean Baker has pointed out, the city could levy a small but not insignificant tax on financial transactions, one on real estate trades, another on vacant property held by development speculators, and so on. City government has the power to pass ordinances that would make work life less difficult, including flex time and work sharing; even subsidies for retrofitting homes.
On most matters, however, De Blasio can propose, but Albany and Washington will dispose. Moreover, it is by no means self-evident just how far the new Mayor will venture. His initial appointees to various city offices were at best a mixed bag: a police commissioner with a questionable vita on racial matters, a cluster of deputies and advisers seasoned in the politics of the usual under Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani, even someone from Goldman Sachs to run programs in housing and economic development (talk about the fox guarding the hen house). On the other hand his hand-picked candidate for City Council President is a veteran of the labor movement and the new head of the Department of Education seems to have little use for “data-driven”, teach- to- the-test protocols, charter schools, or scapegoating teachers.
What does this political collage convey about the populist mayor’s intentions? Hard to say. But it is fair to assume without impugning his motives that what he has in mind, even under the most auspicious circumstances, remains within the framework of what might be called “civilized capitalism.” Nor does de Blasio pretend otherwise. He is after all a life-time Democratic Party functionary. That party has for a generation been dominated by economic and cultural elites who simultaneously subscribe to the basic free market outlook of neo-liberalism and to the social liberalism which gives them a base among urban, well-educated middle classes. While the Mayor occupies what now passes for the “left-wing” of that party, he and his like-thinking associates in the labor movement, among community activists, all through the ranks of the “progressive” political universe accept as essential and inevitable the ground rules of the regnant form of political economy. They work gamely and with sincerity to lighten the burden it often places on ordinary people.
Why not? The civilized version of capitalism – the one that comes with a modicum of social security, that evens out a bit the distribution of income and wealth, that protects people from bitter exploitation and intimidation at work, that makes space for people to live in some comfort, that make invisible people visible, silent people audible – is a great deal more humane than the one on offer from the “barbarians at the gate.” From those circles, who occupy the commanding heights of our economy, as well as our political and cultural life and who don’t for a moment think of themselves as “barbarians,” we nonetheless get the sweatshop, the de-industrial blues, the spy-state, endless war, ravaged landscapes, predatory social relations, and pervasive anxiety about tomorrow. Attempts to cauterize the fatal wounds opened up by such an order of things are well worth the effort.
How viable they may be, however, is questionable. First of all, the sorry state of our financialized economy, which has systematically cannibalized the productive economy for nearly a half century, has diminished the wherewithal to deliver the material goods. Even the jobs being created now in the faux “recovery” are overwhelmingly low-wage, long hour, and dead-end work. We are not so much recovering as recovering by regressing.
Perhaps more fatal than that is the absence of an enduring mass movement. De Blasio is a plebiscite phenomenon. His election was the atomized, shapeless expression of discontent. The labor movement had little to do with his primary victory. After that the result was a foregone conclusion so the endorsement and even the leg-work of the city’s unions were about lubricating their own access to the new administration more than placing that administration in any debt to the movement. And that labor movement today is a frail reed anyway when it comes to mobilizing people. Community and civil rights organizations and non-profits of various sorts also pitched in, but none of this amounts to a robust structure of massively mobilized power existing outside the Democratic Party. Indeed one reason some of the Mayor’s appointments have been disappointing is precisely because there is no “shadow government” so to speak from which to choose such functionaries.
This organizational desert in turn is the outcome of the most disabling feature of our modern predicament. That is the fealty to capitalism. In the past a pervasive atmosphere of anti-capitalism supplied much of the spiritual energy that drove mass movements including the Populist of old, the anti-trust crusade, many of the labor uprisings and organizations spanning the period from the Gilded Age through the Great Depression and numerous others. Even while the anti-capitalist sentiments and visions that inspired those insurgencies were left unsatisfied their power is the main reason civilized capitalism was compelled for a time to supplant its more barbaric, Darwinian forerunner. For decades the political landscape was forested with a great variety of social organizations that embodied an ecology of resistance and rebellion to capitalism tout court. Together they comprised a culture of solidarity.
De Blasio won. Is victory then its own justification? It might be telling to look at the campaign of someone who more than a century ago ran for the same office and lost. That defeat can instruct us on what we too may have lost. It was 1886. In New York relations between “the classes and the masses” had been bitter for years; a rolling series of strikes preceded and followed May 1st, a day that marked the apogee of the country’s Eight Hour Day movement and that a year later would be inscribed as the international working class movement holiday. And Henry George was running for Mayor.
George was by then a famous social reformer, author of the best-selling Progress and Poverty, and advocate of the single tax on land rend as a way to flush out idling pools of parasitical capital so they might flow into more productive uses. His United Labor Party campaign attracted the support of the city’s Central Labor Union, the Knights of Labor, socialists, anti-monopolists, and others. In addition to the single tax the campaign proposed public works, a municipally owned transit system, and the end of “class legislation” and police intimidation of demonstrators.
George’s campaign presented the political face of the mass strike and its “strange enthusiasm” for an ecumenical social solidarity that had been sweeping across the country since the Great Railroad Insurrection of 1877. As election day neared, thirty thousand marched in an evening rainstorm past the landmarks of working class fortitude, including Tompkins Square and Cooper Union College, sites of earlier confrontations. It resembled a great artisanal festival of olden times, signs held aloft – “We are striving to elevate or craft” – fireworks, Chinese lanterns, and chants like “Hi-Ho-the-Leeches Must Go.” Talk of a “Gettysburg of Labor” filled the air. There were hundreds of street corner rallies spilling out of saloons and union halls. African-Americans and immigrant workers joined in. A version of Catholic radicalism was preached by Father McGlynn rooted in the Irish war against landlordism at home and here in America. No ordinary political assemblage, the coalition crossed boundaries of race, class, ethnicity, religion, craft, ideology, and politics. “Ecumenical and militant,” noted one historian, it extended an open invitation to all those threatened by the on-rush of capitalist primitive accumulation and “wage slavery”: dispossessed craft workers and unskilled immigrant industrial peasants, land reformers, conventional trade unionists and Knights from the Holy Order, Irish radicals and German socialists, neighborhood businessmen and tenement dwellers, advocates of the eight hour day as well as greenback currency proponents. The campaign was enveloped in a wave of strikes: twelve hundred involving one hundred and eighty thousand workers, with plenty of victories along the way, culminating in a city-wide streetcar strike of great violence about which William Dean Howells would write with tragic pathos in Hazards of New Fortunes.
George lost. But he did astonishingly well. He finished second to the Democratic Party candidate who was himself a reformer and a one-time defender of trade unions. And the charismatic single-taxer even polled more votes than the Republican nominee, Theodore Roosevelt. He prophesied “a new division of parties soon to take place which would for the question of industrial slavery do what the Republican Party did for the question of chattel slavery.”
George was far from a revolutionary. His pre-occupation with the single tax turned out to be a programmatic dead-end, the idee fixe of cranks. And he felt uncomfortable with the collectivist sentiments that ran through the labor and radical movements and would soon enough draw back from these associations. He saw himself as a conciliatory figure and feared the bestiality of proletarian life, seeking instead a pass-way to social concord.
Nonetheless, his campaign was vilified by the city’s patricians as an anarchist agency of revolution. His Democratic rival called these political rebels “enemies of civilization and social order.” Local government, the press, the judiciary, and clergymen from the tonier denominations let loose a torrent of abuse. The Brahmin editor of The Nation attacked “the securing of impunity for the use of violence and coercion in support of strikes.” More damaging than the nasty verbiage were the injunctions that rained down against striking and boycotting.
And in some sense George’s foes were right. They sensed the underlying hostility to the fundamental order of things that had made the mayoral campaign a chapter in a larger story of anti-capitalism, a narrative of such force it had nearly occupied the government of the largest and most important city in the country. Had George won these upper class circles would have not have been offering their services to his administration. Nor would he have needed them to do so.
Steve Fraser is a writer and historian. His next book is The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Ruling Elites (forthcoming from Little Brown).