Office of Citizen
Rest in Peace,
The Neo Liberal City - Cleveland, Ohio
Submitted by Randino on Thu, 01/05/2017 - 20:05.
January 2017 Author’s Note: The Neo-Liberal City was an act of dissent that was clandestinely distributed in the early 1990s as what we called Urban Samizdat – after the clandestine critical writings of the old Soviet Union. It was clandestine because the author and the co-conspirators in the project worked in city government or other venues that would not have received the message of The Neo-Liberal City very kindly. It was during the administration of Mayor Michael R. White who was notorious for firing people on the whim. So, discretion was called for. The details described may date it, but the basic bones of what it describes are still the ruling realities of Cleveland.
Randy Cunningham aka Vincent aka Randino
This essay is the second of two that were inspired by the recent article in Cleveland magazine, concerning the impact on Cleveland’s neighborhoods of Neighborhood Progress Inc., the non-profit funding institution that has revolutionized the world of non-profit development corporations. The title of this essay is the Neo Liberal City. It attempts to move from a focus on NPI, to a broader focus on how Cleveland has and is being reorganized since the end of the Kucinich administration and the resulting consolidation of private power during the Voinovich and White administrations. This essay is not intended to be an academic essay, a policy analysis, or a muckraking exercise. It is an unabashed polemic. It seeks to develop broad themes and ideas about where Cleveland is at today, and where it is going. Since a polemic is a call to action, it attempts to begin the development of an alternative politics of activism to combat what the author feels is an insidious, anti-democratic and unjust new order in our city.
With the advent of the Clinton administration, and the end of twelve years of Republican rule, a form of neo-liberalism has developed that is a politics based on social tolerance without social justice. Gone are the crude appeals to national chauvinism, and the worship of the privileges of wealth, gender and race. Gone is the reactionary holy war rhetoric of a Patrick Buchanan. This neo-liberalism is far more palatable for many sectors of the middle class – particularly the Baby Boomers. But it is very much a middle class politics that is culturally tolerant, but economically and socially conservative. It does not question the logic of market, or the power of the private sector. It just wants the state to insure that they don’t drive us over a cliff, recognizing what the Reagan crowd never understood – that capitalism left to the capitalists is a catastrophe. It does not question the existing distribution of wealth and power in this society. It, like its predecessor, looks upon the behavior of the poor, instead of persistence and growth of poverty, as the problem. It is a politics with the cultural sensibilities of the 1960s, but without that decade’s sense of social conscience and moral outrage. I call the urban form it is creating in Cleveland the Neo-Liberal City.
The characteristics of the Neo-Liberal City are the following: (1) It is politically based in the middle class, the suburban middle class in particular. Some explanation is due here. The suburban middle class is not the electoral base of the Neo-Liberal city, of course. But it does dominate many of the most crucial institutions of the city. Middle Class suburbanites staff and lead many of the non-profits. They staff the foundations. They certainly staff the private corporations and institutions that set the agenda in Cleveland. The social weight of the suburban middle class in the affairs of Cleveland is equal to, if not superior to that of any other group in the city. (2) The governing elite in the Neo-Liberal city is an equal opportunity elite. It is open to all races, and minority groups, does not discriminate by gender or sexual preference. This is a tremendous strength of this politics, because it gives it a layer of protection against the identity centered activism of today. At the same time, this is continuation of a very old tradition in Cleveland of enlisting the elites of particular racial or ethnic groups, in order to control those groups. It was done in the time when traditional European ethnic groups dominated the city; it is done with the current racial and ethnic mix. On the one hand the represented groups do derive some marginal benefits from the arrangement, and given their precarious status this in not to be dismissed. However, with the benefits comes the price of acquiescence to elite power, and a severely limited political and social arena to work within. For the elite of the particular groups, the ride to power can be a ride on the back of a tiger. Their utility to the real powers in the city, is limited to their continued ability to serve and control their communities. When issues arise that force them between their masters, the stage is set for high drama. Such a drama was played out in the Michael Pipkins case, where the African American elite did their job of keeping the peace, but at the price of revealing the social and class divisions within the African American community for all to see. Divisions that the African American elite has spared no effort in concealing, since the myth of representing a united community is the basis of their power before the white corporate elite. (3) Political decisions are shifted from such forums as city council, to a wide variety of private forums, committees and other unelected bodies – usually of a “blue ribbon” nature, ie heavily weighted to the economic elite, and discreetly removed from all but the most token displays of citizen participation. Playing a particularly pernicious role in these decisions have been the foundations of Cleveland, who have virtually taken over public policy in the neighborhoods. While they are generally regarded as benevolent philanthropies, they are also power brokers and instruments of social control that are totally unaccountable to the public. Now that they have centralized their efforts through NPI, their power has exponentially increased to the point that they are almost a private government ruling over Cleveland as their whims and inclinations dictate. (4) In the Neo-Liberal City, neighborhood based organizations that were historically developed as vehicles of citizen participation, are incorporated into the power structure as transmission belts of policies arrived at by the aforementioned institutions. This helps take care of a historic worry of the centers of power, namely how to keep the neighborhoods pacified and out of the way of the real decision making process. (5) The hero of the Neo-Liberal City is the entrepreneurial technocrat. Such a person must be distinguished from the Wall Street raider who managed the “savage capitalism” of the 1980s. Such people move easily between the world of non-profits, City Hall, the private sector, or NPI. Instead of being motivated by the pursuit of great wealth, they are motivated by a love of the deal, with the opportunity it affords them to show their technical and business virtuosity. A regime of the “best and the brightest” has been installed to carry out a virtual Neo-Liberal “revolution from above”. Thus we have an almost hot house operation occurring churning out novel policy ideas for virtually every topic conceivable. As history shows in tragic clarity, such elites can soon come to live in their own worlds, and lose contact with a reality that can wreck their best plans, like a reef laying just beneath the surface of a calm sea. Infinitely more palatable than the Gordon Gekoes of the world, they have a market based view of the world and its possibilities, but a kinder and gentler variety that doesn’t glory in the frequent social destruction the free market brings. (6) The Neo-Liberal City is governed by a growth coalition composed of real estate developers, law firms, banks, sports and entertainment businesses, hotels and information and communications based enterprises. The corporate backers of the Mike White re-election campaign compose a virtual membership list of this coalition. (7) Development is centered on the consumption and entertainment needs of the suburban affluent. Just as underdeveloped countries have existed for the benefit of foreign powers, so the Neo-Liberal City exists for communities outside the city limits in an almost colonial arrangement. The Neo-Liberal leadership aspires to turn the city into a playground, shopping center, and office for the surrounding suburbs, while also serving as a reservation for the control and containment of the poor, thus insuring that they do not invade and disrupt the idyllic world of suburbia. Transportation planning is designed to get suburbanites in and out of the downtown area without having any contact with the social decay present in the neighborhoods. Downtowns undergo “class cleansing” by the careful removal of agencies and businesses that cater to the poorer classes, to outer lying areas where they will be out of sight and out of mind. A subtle, but clear process of development is initiated to create two cities – one for the affluent, and one for everyone else composed for the most part of the poor. (8) The labor policies of the Neo-Liberal City mimic those recent policies of the private sector, with its demands for maximum management flexibility, minimum labor rights and a labor force that can be summoned and dismissed at will. Thus we see the continuing attractiveness of the privatizing of public services, and the “take no prisoners” style of contract negotiations both at Cleveland City Hall and the Cleveland Board of Education. (9) There is a militarization of the police force rationalized by officially organized and sanctioned crusades such as the War on Drugs. This is accompanied by an expanding private police force that insures that the malls, research centers and other venues of consumption are protected and safe from those who are not invited to the Come Back City party. Unwilling and unable to do anything about poverty and its accompanying evils, the Neo-Liberal City is left with no other option that the militarization of our urban areas in order to protect the haves from the have nots. (10) Finally the sober, cautious and conservative spirit of the Neo-Liberal City must be put in the context of a larger phenomenon evident throughout the post Cold War world. The message behind the capitalist triumphalism that has celebrated the end of communism, is the repudiation of the very idea that an alternative to the present social, political and economic status quo is desirable or even possible. After more than 200 years of trial and error, and speculation articulated by movement both obscure and massive, the search for a fundamentally better social order has been called off as unrealistic, foolish and dangerous. The effect of this is to drive a stake into the heart of movements for social change that could challenge the politics and logic of such entities as the Neo-Liberal City.
What must be recognized in addition about the Neo-Liberal City and its politics is the enormous debt it owes to the Reagan Bush era that preceded it. The reactionary politics of the previous era acted as a wrecking crew that prepared the site for what the neo-liberals have begun to build. Just as neo-liberal governments in Latin America have sprung up from the bloody ground of previous military regimes, the neo-liberals of today have profited from the former reactionary holocaust that swept away the social reforms of the 1960s and even 1930s. They have inherited a populace whose expectations of their society, government, institutions and even of themselves have been dramatically lowered. The result is a population that has been demobilized from the mass movements and everyday insurgencies of the recent past and is now accepting of the imposition of new hierarchies and new forms of authority. The previous era also broke the back of a generation of activists that had helped organize those past movements. Finally, the neo-liberal administrations don’t have to do much to please the stunned survivors of the Reagan era. They have left that era in such an intimidated state and are so grateful for the smallest of favors, that for the time being their good behavior is practically guaranteed.
The New Civic Ice Age
One of the characteristics of the post Kucinich era in Cleveland has been the great silence that has descended over the city, where once stormy debate raged over who should decide the city’s future and who should define such terms as democracy, justice and community. The reconsolidation of elite rule in Cleveland has been remarkable in its level of success. Of particular importance is the consolidation of the alliance of Mike White’s administration with the corporate sector. The raising of one million dollars for his mayoral campaign, signals the birth of a political machine with virtually unlimited financial resources. Such a force, especially in an impoverished city such as Cleveland, will signal the end of even the appearance of a competitive politics, to say nothing of what it will do to anyone aspiring to field a true opposition to the new governing coalition. The chilling effect of this development on the politics of the city, and the ability to raise issue before the public cannot be underestimated. The drive to consolidate corporate power in Cleveland which began with the overthrow of the Kucinich administration, has now reached a level of power and sophistication that is beyond the wildest dreams of all the plutocrats who have ever wielded power in Cleveland’s history. Using such devices as Neighborhood Progress Inc., they have bought the neighborhoods. Using Mike White’s slush fund, they have bought City Hall and the Cleveland Board of Education. There is no telling what is next on the list of acquisitions. What is irrefutable is that the already constrained and narrowed space for a democratic life in Cleveland has become even smaller. The silence is showing every sign of becoming a civic Ice Age, whose duration is certain to be long.
This silence demands a strategy to restart the collective conversation that was ended in the 1980s. We can restart this conversation by questioning and redefining terms and ideas that few people have examined lately. In doing so we will redefine our ideals, our values and our priorities. In doing so we will build a new democratic culture in Cleveland. A democratic culture will have to come from the grassroots, not from the technocratic wizardry residing in the foundations and city hall.
It is not appropriate in this brief essay to outline an entire program. The author does not wish to replicate the folly of the neo-liberal technocrats. What can be stated are some of the guiding principles and themes that would hopefully guide any programs that an alternative politics would promote. These themes are: (1) An alternative politics that would be unafraid to join the battle of ideas with the neo-liberal governing coalition. (2) A pro-urban philosophy that values the city for what it has represented through thousands of years of human history, instead of chasing the suburban mirage. (3) Development that is dedicated to developing the citizens of Cleveland as powerful participants of a robust and expanding democracy, not humble recipients of adventures in brick and mortar. (4) Public policy based on a preferential option for the poor, in the spirit of the Catholic Church’s declarations from the 1968 conference of Latin American bishops, that gave birth to liberation theology. (5) A resurrected and democratized public sector. We will now discuss these themes in greater detail.
For a New Alternative Politics
One of the deficits that we face in Cleveland is the lack of any alternative politics and vision that could be a credible alternative to the neo-liberal policies of the present governing coalition.
This void has remained unfilled since the demise of the Kucinich administration and its much touted but seldom defined urban populism and the end of community organizing as a vital movement in our neighborhoods.
This is not an appeal to revive either of these movements in their original forms, although both have features that would be essential parts of an alternative. The problem with populism is that it has had its meaning destroyed by being adopted by everyone from fascists of the extreme right to activists of the socialist left, with Republicans, Democrats and billionaire demagogues like Ross Perot claiming the definition in between. This one size fits all explains the terms popularity, as it diminishes its usefulness. An alternative must do better in defining what it stands for and where it wants to take the citizens of Cleveland. At the same time the virtue of urban populism of the Kucinich era was its willingness to bite the political bullet and contest for political power against the elites that have always held sway over the city’s political life. Such political rebellions have been a feature of the political history of Cleveland and there is nothing to say there will not be future such movements – in spite of the post-Kucinich leadership’s almost fanatical determination to bury the legacy of that era, defame its memory, drive a stake through its heart, and post a guard over its grave.
A movement contemporary with Kucinich’s urban populism was led by the community organizing groups that mobilized neighborhood residents for grass roots democracy and neighborhood empowerment. The politics of this movement possessed an animosity toward politics in the usual understanding of the word. The groups had a deep seated suspicion of politics as being inherently corrupt and favored direct democracy in mobilizing their constituencies to represent their demands and wishes directly without relying on the good graces of mediating institutions such as city council, etc. The groups did work with these institutions, but it was very much in the spirit of dealing with the devil. It was perhaps inevitable given the political activism of Kucinich, and the non-political activism of the community organizations, that they became sworn enemies during Kucinich’s administration. They were both competing for who would represent “the people” and both practiced a rough and ready “them and us” style of confrontational politics. Unfortunately, the outcome of the conflict was oblivion for both camps, and a lost opportunity for the founding of a progressive coalition in Cleveland that must rank as one of the great tragedies of Cleveland’s political history. “The People” ended up the greatest losers of all in this disaster. Yet it is impossible not to review this era of grass roots organizing without feeling the magnitude of the loss the neighborhoods have suffered in the absence of the often fierce advocacy of their old community organizations. Their idealism, irreverent sense of humor and dedication to “the people” was beyond question and this to must be carried over to any alternative, as with the hard ball political activism of the Kucinich era.
An alternative to the neo-liberal agenda must be based on demands to radically democratize both Cleveland and the entire society. At its most basic level, it must reopen debate and discussion concerning the meaning of terms that have become mere slogans in our society. It must reconquer the political language of our society and force both its friends and its foes to discuss what they mean by democracy, justice, equality and liberty. What do we mean by the term community? When we discuss the future of the city, how do we define the city? Is it just downtown? Is it just a collection of buildings surrounded by an invisible legal boundary line? Is it just a place to get rich in, and then flee at the first opportunity? We should ask not only what it is, but what it should be. All of these efforts must be directing us towards a new social contract to be built from the bottom up, instead of imposed from the top down. A new social contract that can the current moral and ethical wilderness of all versus all bequeathed to us by the Reagan era, and now repackaged by neo-liberalism.
Many may recoil from a battle of ideas as too cerebral and prone to turning off anyone whose support would be needed in the neighborhoods where a new alternative politics must be cultivated. This hesitancy should be rejected for three reasons.
First, the elite in this city, as everywhere else in the world, do not rule by force or trickery. They recognize that to control the political agenda, they must control what ideas are considered “reasonable: and what ideas are dismissed as “not serious”. They have sold the ideas that of using tax abatement and public subsidies for downtown development, that the future of civilized life in Cleveland depends on convention centers and hotels, and that the market should be the supreme arbiter of society’s decisions. They have condemned to the wilderness such ideas as urban populism, community organizing for empowerment, “confrontation” politics, or the silly notion that corporations should pay their way in the world and not always in line for government handouts. The moral of the story is that the powers that be do not hesitate to fight for their interests with ideas, and neither should their opponents.
Third is the fact that what could be called the political class in this country is united across ideological lines by one central belief. That the American people are a stupid bunch of fools who must be manipulated and managed as you would a class of kindergarten children. Like children they have to be talked down to and led around by the hand. The certainly are too dumb and dim witted to waste your time with concerning basic ideas and questions that humanity has been struggling with for thousands of years. So don’t waste your breath. Appeal to them as you would barn yard animals – by appealing to their fears, their hates and the narrowest set of self-interests you can find. Don’t ask them to aspire to anything better, or higher, or nobler. Don’t ask them to better themselves as human beings. Keep them where they are. They don’t deserve anything else.
This essay believes that average people throughout history have managed quite well in grasping ideas both simple and complex and when given the chance have turned history upside down in the process. To say that a contest of ideas cannot reach out to average people in the neighborhoods is to say that their talents, intelligence, abilities and power should remain stunted and unrealized. In saying that, one also says that the people should continue to be herded like a bunch of sheep by the elites that currently rule. It is also to say that democracy is an empty idea that sounds good in speeches, but has no merit in real life.
Cleveland: Who Needs It?
This may seem a flippant, if not absurd question. In the aftermath of the Los Angeles rebellion, an electorate whose majority resides in the suburbs and the rise of such urban formations as the Edge City, it is a deadly serious question. American society has never liked cities. It is still in love with the Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of small farmers, even though non one living today has ever been a part of such a society. Yet not since the decades leading up to the Civil War, have tow such different societies lived so cheek by jowl as today with Urban America and Suburban America.
Suburban America sets the standard for American society, because Suburban America is based on mass consumption, the central source of meaning and status in this society. This suburban dominance is reflected in the urban development plans of the dominant forces in Cleveland. The goal of urban development in Cleveland is to suburbanize Cleveland. The dominance of suburbia in the politics of Cleveland is shown in Mike White’s comment that he was not bothered when pundits said he was the best mayor Cuyahoga County had ever had, in the aftermath of the Gateway vote that lost in the city, but won in the suburbs.
Any alternative will have to define itself quite clearly, unapologetically and indeed almost defiantly as urban. By urban we mean a form of human settlement and interaction that values public space, diversity of population, face to face relationships characterized by tolerance of diversity and a devotion to egalitarian values. An alternative must be pro-urban, stating unequivocally that the city – not the suburb- is the birthplace of civilization and culture, and that the future of the city is the future of human society. It must state that an American society that abandons its cities is an American society that has no future. It should also point out that a future of ecological sanity depends on the existence of compact communities such as cities, though of the course the cities must be ecologically redeveloped as well. Ecological sanity certainly doesn’t belong with the suburbs, with their voracious appetite for land, and the death sentence that appetite decrees for the countryside and plant and animal diversity.
An alternative must have a strong cultural focus. The fact is that Suburban America has been a wasteland when it comes to social, cultural and artistic creativity. Commentators since the very beginning of suburbia in the 19th century have commented on its stultifying boredom, suffocating conformity and mindless consumerism. Muzak and Easy Listening may be the sound of suburbia, but our urban areas have given us and the world such musical forms as Rap, Rock’n’Roll, Soul Music, Jazz, Hip-Hop and Salsa. Suburban teenagers dress in urban ways, and listen to urban music. Suburbia is culturally parasitic. It consumes and commodifies, it does not produce. Urban areas are culturally rich because of their diversity, because they offer refuge to those the suburbs scorn and because artistic, intellectual and cultural life thrive on this stew. Artists, writers and itinerant intellectuals have historically found refuge in the cities, from ancient times to today. The proximity of comrades they can relate to and share ideas with is one factor. In addition many of this community live financially tenuous lives, and must depend on the same cheap housing and available services as the poor they share the city with. Finally they find the tolerance and diversity a haven from the social intolerance and conformity of small towns, suburbs and rural communities. As the old saying from the feudal cities said, “City Air is Free Air.”
Development, Democracy and Participation
The past decade has seen an almost single minded emphasis in the neighborhoods of Cleveland on development. Development is not a negative focus, but we must recognize it for what it is good for and what it neglects.
Development contributes to the community services and resources the neighborhoods of Cleveland desperately need. It is a morale booster for neighborhoods to see new or renovated housing or a new commercial center. Symbolically it means that all is not urban gloom, doom and despair. Development is not, however, democracy. Development is not justice. Development cannot advocate for those who are oppressed, abused and forgotten. Bricks and mortar do not indicate the state of a neighborhood as a moral community capable of governing itself and charting a worthwhile future for itself. Without the creation of such communities, development is a sand castle. Magnificent but ephemeral.
What must be recognized is the importance of democracy in the life of Cleveland’s neighborhoods. We must reaffirm the importance of democracy as a moral right. Democracy is right, because it is right for people to control their lives, that without that control, life is cheapened and demeaned. Democracy is also a call for a public morality, not focused on private behavior, but focused on what values will guide our public and collective lives. In American society today, social problems are defined by what they cost the country in productivity, insurance claims or in the ability of the country to compete in a global economy. Accountants define our social problems and values for us. The fact that social problems cause human suffering, or create inequities and injustice is purely secondary, if it is mentioned at all. Our commercialized public morality has given us the scandals of the past decade and has destroyed a sense of social conscience in our society.
Democracy is not only important for its own sake. It is important in determining what sort of development we are to have. We can have development in our neighborhoods imposed by technocratic dictat. This is the quintessential style of NPI, which looks upon the neighborhood development that came before it as being hopelessly unproductive, inefficient and ineffective. It does not matter that the existing groups have developed over the years as expressions of the local communities they have served. In the no-nonsense world of NPI this does not matter. Only production matters.
For all the hard headed, no nonsense, business like logic of top down development, there is a certain irrationality to it. Advocates of this method of neighborhood development would be well advised to forsake their spread sheets for a moment and consider the history of another brave new effort this country saw in the past – that of urban renewal during the post war era of the 40s, 50s and early 60s. It too, looked impressive on paper, was praised by politicians as the salvation of the city, and the herald of a new urban dawn. What it failed to take into account were the opinions and interests of the residents of those neighborhoods whose lives it turned upside down. Their response to top down development in that era, was to organize and rebel against the initiatives of the cities that were in charge of urban renewal. This resistance is cited by many students of the recent urban past, as a contributing factor to a generation of organizing, protest and in some cases outright insurrection that convulsed America’s inner cities and made the term urban crisis common to our language. The recent turmoil on the Near West Side over the planned expansion of St. Ignatius High School, may be a dry run for future such conflicts. Though the institution initiating the expansion was a Catholic high school, the resulting controversy over the secrecy of the plans, and the arrogance of the school’s administration towards the neighborhood, created a firestorm. A firestorm that drew in local development corporations, and local politicians, harming the reputation of both. Most of the time institutions can get away with such high handedness, just through their ability to steam roll, or stone wall the opposition. But what may work in the short term, can come back at you in the long run through the gradual accumulations of grievances and resentments in the local community, and through the loss of the legitimacy institutions once enjoyed in their locales. The state can thus be constructed for a rebellion, either via the ballot box, or in the street. Unfortunately for the new wizards of NPI, there is no computer program that can track such dynamics, and so when they break out under them, they are utterly astonished.
We can have development democratically arrived at that values how development will impact a neighborhood, that looks at who it will benefit and who it will cost and that cares about who will control this development. Such development will not be glamorous. Pharaonic construction projects may not come from it. The careers of directors of non-profits may not be advanced by it. It may not fit into the media’s idea of Cleveland as a “comeback city”. It may not cause one suburbanite to set foot in the neighborhood, for shame. But it may give the citizens of that neighborhood development they feel they need, not what some technocrat thinks they should have. Such development may not enjoy a high level of support, and save development corporations from walking blindly into a buzz saw of opposition. It may cause people to start looking at themselves as participants, not just spectators in the life of their community. And the development of people and not bricks and mortar, is the best and most enduring form of development anyone could hope for.
A Preferential Option for the Poor
The persistence and growth of poverty in our city, makes a mockery of the great Comeback City Celebration that is so breathlessly announced by the political, civic and media spokespeople of Cleveland. Such a celebration is only possible if one willfully chooses to ignore the horrific and scandalous social statistics that have accumulated in our neighborhoods over the past decade. These statistics are a casualty report of the price paid by Cleveland for the corporate campaign to restructure the economy of the region, the nation and the world. The result has been the gutting of working class wages and a full-fledged assault on the already pathetic benefits for the poor.
These developments must be countered with a politics that gives a preference to the poor. It must state some hard truths about the price to be paid by societies or cities that choose to tolerate poverty and social inequality. It will state that poverty is a fundamental violation of human rights, no less heinous than ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or death squad killings in El Salvador. It will state that societies and cities should be judged on how they treat the least of their citizens, not how they gorge the elite, or fawn over the middle classes. It will show how poverty pits ethnic and racial groups against each other, as they fight for scarce public resources, and how this competition weakens the poorer classes, and strengthens the power of elites. It must state that no matter how many Gateways are built, hotels constructed, or new housing developments started, without a concerted, militant and comprehensive fight against poverty the Comeback City will only be able to exist behind walls, gates, and surveillance cameras in a city occupied by its own security forces. It will show that the Neo-Liberal City is a nightmare masquerading as a dream, symbolized in Cleveland not only by the shining skyscrapers of downtown, but also by the Orwellian jail annex at the Justice Center.
A politics of preference for the poor must be confrontational. When the boosters point to new housing, we must counter by pointing to neighborhoods that look like war zones, and remind the city of its citizens who must pay all their income for rent, and then must rent wretched housing as well. The opening of a new mall should be mocked with pictures of devastated commercial districts that resemble sets of sci-fi movies about the collapse of civilization. At every ribbon cutting, groundbreaking and every grand opening, someone should ask the questions no one wants to hear. “Will this house the poor? Will this give people decent jobs that will raise you out of poverty, instead of just subsidizing your poverty? Is this for the residents of the city, or is this another subsidy for suburbanites?” We should insure that for the Neo-Liberal City that if there is no justice, there will be no peace. We must make it impossible for the powers that be to ignore the challenge of poverty in Cleveland.
The Essential Public Sector
In the 1990s the utopians are no longer from the left, but are instead from ranks of the devotees of classical economics, who worship the free market as the solution to most of humanity’s problems. The Free Market Utopians came to power during the Reagan revolution and have consolidated the revolution under the neo-liberals. Their impact can be seen nationally with the Clinton administration’s backing of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Locally we see it in a pro-business administration at city hall that calls upon the “corporate community” ie the people who own Cleveland, to share the same wisdom and brilliance the private sector displayed in the savings and loan fiasco, and the rape and pillage economics of the 80s, in solving the problems of our schools and neighborhoods. The effect is to create a community consensus that the public sector is bad and the private sector is good, that government will always mess things up and that business with its no-nonsense, hard headed realism will always straighten the mess up. This is a fiercely ideological position, pushed by the business sector, acquiesced to by a public sector that almost apologizes for its own existence, and buttressed by a society whose primitive and dogmatic school of capitalism has earned it a reputation throughout the world as a socio-economic Jurassic Park.
There is no way that aspirations for a more just and egalitarian society can be realized without a rehabilitation of the public sector, and its expansion into areas of concern that have heretofore been the sole prerogative of the private sector. The budget cutting of the 80s and the continued hesitancy to fund the public sector has been devastating for the poorer sectors of our population, and has undermined the well being of people in the middle classes as well. We must recognize the following facts of life and reject the pie in the sky promises of the Free Market Utopians.
First we must recognize that however much the government has been hijacked by private interests throughout our history, and however many crimes it has been guilty of, it is ultimately the court of last resort for the least of us. Those of us who have had our rights trampled on, do not pen letters, grievances or court cases to the Growth Association. We take our petitions to our councilman, representative, senator, mayor or president and ask them for mercy or justice. Our government has been throughout our history both the Whore of Babylon and the Tribune of the People. The people in the Midwest are not waiting for the market to repair the damages of the flooding. They are turning to the government.
Second, we must examine what happens in societies that turn their agendas over to the private sector and look to the market to solve their problems. In country after country around the globe, the turn to the market also ends up being a turn towards greater poverty, increased inequality, increased social polarization, a diminished concern for social justice and an ethic – if you could dignify it with that term – of selfishness, greed and an anti-social form of hyper individualism. In short the market isn’t pretty, and it isn’t nice and neither are societies that allow it free reign.
Third, a large public sector helps diminish inequality in the overall society. An illustration is with jobs. The public sector has been a source of employment and with it a sane and dignified standard of living for those ethnic and racial groups that have faced rampant discrimination and limited opportunities in the private sector. In the past Irish, Italians, Jews and more recently African Americans and Hispanics have found occupational refuge in the public sector. The drive to privatize, is a drive to kick the ladder of upward mobility away from the poorer, minority communities of this society who have found public sector employment to be a critical first step towards dignity.
Fourth, as corrupted and bastardized as the public sector frequently is, it is one of the few sectors in our society where there are some fragile shreds of a concern for the common good, and an ethic that is not based on greed and the bottom line. As perverted as it can be, there is some sense of service to others, and a dedication to duty and responsibility to someone other than yourself. Again, this is not to gloss over the many small and major horrors one finds in the public sector, but compared to the private sector it is a utopia of selflessness, idealism and commitment to the common good. The discounting of the public sector cannot happen without a discounting of those values.
Fifth, we must recognize that many of the public policy plans under the now sacred label “public private partnerships” are smokescreens intended to maintain the conservative ideology of the last several decades, and to distract the public from the ruin unleashed on our inner city neighborhoods by the rollback of government programs during this time. Such partnerships are trotted out with much fanfare and publicity. Careers are made. Foundations are impressed. Future funding is guaranteed. And our neighborhoods and city continue to go to hell. The fact of the matter is that all these programs put together would not do one tenth as much good for our communities, as the restoring of pre-Reagan budgets and the full and adequate funding of our public services would do. The “new” “daring” “innovative” programs we see today as a way of saving our cities are little like Nouvelle Cuisine, to a person who is suffering from chronic, long term malnutrition. It is pretty, brilliantly executed, quite tasty and better than nothing, but it will not save the patient. The problem is that the overall effect of these programs is to act as a narcotic for those active in public policy who know very well what the real problems are, but feel it is “unrealistic” to hope for an adequately funded public sector. It is the same type of realism, that causes poor inner city residents to find escape from their environment through crack. The eternal hunt for a program that make the foundations happy, while basic unexciting services rot, is the crack cocaine of the urban policy class. It makes you feel good for a moment, but then the pain and longing return.
Sixth, as desirable as the author of this paper may feel a resurrected public sector may be, the inevitable problem of bureaucracy must be tackled. The way we can tackle this issue is to link the restoration of our public sector, with the struggle to expand and deepen local democracy in our city. The two have to progress in step, otherwise both will fail. The expansion and promotion of democratic living in all arenas of Cleveland society, should be considered a legitimate public purpose of city government, just as police protection, water and sewer services, and other ordinary city services are today. The city government should seek way of democratizing its own work places. It should encourage the establishment of worker, community controlled economic enterprises based on the belief that democracy should not end when a worker clocks in. The educational system should ditch curriculum that teaches children that democracy only means dutifully trudging off to the polls to take place in periodic electoral ceremonies. Efforts should be made to democratize and increase the availability to people of our city’s cultural life. Ways in which public facilities can be made available for meetings, conferences, debates and discussions should be explored. Ways should be sought to change the charter of the city to give neighborhood councils – arenas of direct democracy – a prominent place in the governing of the city. Public policy should explore ways of creating an organization friendly atmosphere that would be conducive to the formation of neighborhood organizations, advocacy groups, and other forums of citizen organization and empowerment. Finally the city should recognize the inherent corrupting influence of money upon democracy and should seek to erect as massive a wall between wealth and the political process, as presently exists between religion and government. Ideally, this means public funding of political campaigns and the strict abolition of any private campaign fundraising. If the ideal cannot be immediately met, then public policy in Cleveland should strive to come as close to that ideal as possible. Above all, we must recognize that democracy can only survive by advancing, entering new areas of life, and deepening its hold on those areas where it is already present. In America, and in Cleveland in the 1990s, it has been a while since democracy has advanced and as a result it is not in the best of health.
The past dozen years in Cleveland have witnessed the development of a new regime that we have characterized as the Neo-Liberal City. This is a technocratic urban order which combines a liberal social agenda, with a corporate agenda of conservative economic and political policies. It uses both public and private institutions to centralize and project its power throughout all levels of civic life in the city. The result of these policies is an economically and socially polarized city devoid of any democratic life aside from the usual periodic electoral rituals. In contrast to the often raucous debate, and conflict over public issues in the recent past, a silence has descended over the city with no dissent tolerated from the smug celebration of the Comeback City.
This silence must be ended because it is a silence that covers up the poverty, injustice and social decay that is evident to anyone who bothers to leave the downtown area. A new politics of radical urban democracy must be developed that will challenge the Neo-Liberal City point for point. Such a politics must revolutionize the very idea of politics from its infamy of today, into a redefinition of politics as a means to personal and social development and power for all our citizens, but particularly those who have been powerless for generations. This politics must be pro-urban and champion Cleveland as a city, not as a suburban wannabe. It must state clearly that what is good for the Jacobs, Squires & Sanders, Forest City and the banks is not necessarily what is good for people who live on Kinsman, or W. 54 and that when their interests clash with the interests of our downtown aristocracy, the people will be the favored party. It will state that the primary aim of development in the neighborhoods is the development of people – not brick and mortar or the resumes of technocrats. It will endeavor to create a civic culture that values grass roots democracy, social conscience and solidarity between individuals and communities. It will build a Cleveland noted for the qualities of its communities and citizens, instead of the boastful and vain arrogance of its skyscrapers and the downtown monuments to the inflated egos of its elite. The end result will not only be a great city, but a just and good city as well.
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