Knowing and Rebuilding After the Storms

Here’s a long essay that I found worth reading.

A political system haunted by racial violence and terror. An economy delivering great wealth for the few amid stagnation and indebtedness for the many. A rising millennial generation with deteriorating prospects increasingly willing to put their bodies on the line for something better. A climate catastrophe already beginning to unfold on the flooded streets of our largest cities. With the profoundly troubling events in Charlottesville—and before that in Ferguson, Berkeley, Baltimore, and elsewhere—the ghosts of America’s past have come crowding in. And the ghosts of our future made landfall with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Like all such ghosts, these demand a response. We must now produce one that is both deeply moral and capable of getting at the heart of our difficulties. We must overcome the nightmares of fear, hatred, and isolation that have seized our politics with a strategy that can deliver solutions commensurate with the scale of the problems we face.

[…]

He may stand at the head of some of the most sinister forces in American political life, but the present crisis long pre-dates Donald Trump. Exploding economic inequality, wage stagnation, poverty, deindustrialization, economic and political disenfranchisement, disinvestment—for decades, under Clinton and Obama no less than Reagan and the Bushes, most of the gains from the richest economy in the history of the world have gone only to the very top. Real wages for the vast majority of American workers have been stagnant for at least three decades, while the income share taken by the top one percent has jumped from ten percent in 1980 to more than 22 percent today. In terms of wealth, the top ten percent now command around three quarters of the total, with the richest four hundred individuals amassing more wealth than approximately the bottom 190 million Americans combined. There are also growing disparities between black and Hispanic Americans, on the one hand, and white Americans on the other. Over the past thirty years, for instance, the average wealth of white Americans has grown a fifth faster than that of Hispanic Americans and by more than three times that of black Americans. And all of this inequity has been driven by an economic system addicted to growth, all too happy to “externalize” the consequences for our ecological future.

We are now living the consequences of these dangerous patterns. Many communities are falling into decay, their social bonds dissolving. Violence remains endemic (including shocking levels of violence against women). Civil liberties are eroding. The lives of millions are compromised by economic and social pain. Health inequality is on the rise, with the life expectancy gap between rich and poor people born in 1950 up significantly over those born in 1920. The labor force participation rate has declined for two decades—and is projected to decrease still further. Young people are saddled with ever-growing debt, including (but by no means limited to) a staggering $1.3 trillion in student loans. The incarceration rate has more than quintupled since the 1970s, and remains among the very highest in the world with people of color incarcerated at dramatically higher rates than their white counterparts. Polling on everything from Congress to the media shows a significant fall in public trust. At some point something had to give. This is the context that permitted the monstrous rise of Trump.

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From upstate New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, community after community has been destabilized by waves of deindustrialization. Once-great cities have been thrown away, whole regions left behind, and around five million manufacturing jobs lost since the mid-1990s. From Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, communities denied any alternative path cling tenuously to the false promises of the extractive economy, fueling our planetary carbon nightmare. The terrible political consequences of all this are now coming home to roost.

Trump himself ran hard against neoliberal finance and trade, striking a chord in the abandoned towns of the Rustbelt and rural Appalachia, which proved willing to give him a chance. These are not all the racists of Charlottesville who—clad in golf shirts and khakis or military-surplus gear—resemble more the traditional fascist mix of bourgeois and “lumpen” elements. Rather they include ordinary working families whose anger is understandably boiling over at a system they know is stacked against them. An election-day poll found 72 percent of Americans—a supermajority—in agreement that “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.” Trump flipped a third of counties that had previously voted twice for Obama. We urgently need to rise to the challenge of this profoundly dangerous era of pain and difficulty.

To do so means adopting a multi-pronged strategy for building community wealth and transforming our economies, thereby defusing some of the pressures currently being exploited by right-wing forces. Examples of the power of such strategies can already be found in places where they might least be expected. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, for example, organized for participatory planning around a post-coal future in Appalachia, fighting for the Clean Power Plan when it was blocked at state level—a prefiguration of the kind of intransigence and indifference we now face at the national level. Greensburg, Kansas became—in a deep red state, under a Republican mayor—one of the greenest towns in the country when the government acted as partner and catalyst to rebuild the town after it was leveled by a tornado. Chattanooga, Tennessee has one of the fastest internet connections in America—thanks to a municipal fiber broadband network whereby public ownership of digital infrastructure is driving local economic revitalization. Such approaches point in the direction, ultimately, of rebuilding a power base—in both red states and blue cities—for a transformative new politics capable of standing on its own feet, operating within ecological limits, and managing our economy for the benefit of the many and not the few.