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Remembering Robert Fitch | The Nation

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Remembering Robert Fitch

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My old friend Robert Fitch, a brilliant and prolific radical journalist and troublemaker, died on March 4 at the age of 72. Sadly, too few people know what a loss that is.

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I met Bob in the late 1980s—can’t remember exactly when. He was just resurfacing after several years underground. A major publisher had given him a big advance to write a book about New York City, and he found it impossible to deliver. Bob delisted his phone number, gave up writing for union organizing, and tried to keep the collection agents at bay. After several years on the lam, he was resurfacing at the Village Voice, and half of the Nation’s current London office, Don Guttenplan, introduced me to him.

On Don’s recommendation, I’d just read Bob’s fantastic essay “Planning New York,” in a now out-of-print anthology on the urban crisis of the 1970s. It was about the 1929 plan for New York City drawn up by the Regional Plan Association. It laid out the outline for an auto-centered metropolitan region, including the highway system that would later be attributed to Robert Moses. What impressed me about the piece was that it detailed just how precisely planned by elites over the very long term the physical and social evolution of New York City has been. One’s casual impression of the city is that it’s unplanned and chaotic, but it’s long been anything but that.
 
After our meeting at the Voice’s delightfully shabby old offices on Broadway, Bob and I became good friends. Much of the friendship was conducted on the phone. We talked three or four times a week, often for an hour or more. I learned a lot from him.

Although I’d been living in New York for a decade when we met, I really didn’t understand how the city worked politically. Talking with Bob made it all pretty clear. We talked endlessly about the role of Wall Street and the real estate elite in planning the city (themes he would put between covers in The Assassination of New York, published by Verso in 1996). So many of the things that were attributed to anonymous global forces, like the deindustrialization of the city and its transformation into the prototype of the globally oriented post-industrial metropolis, were consciously guided by bankers, developers, and their hired hands. They used all the instruments of state power—subsidies, zoning laws, eminent domain—to get their way.

The landscape of the city—the propinquity of skyscrapers and slums, of the very rich and the very poor—reflected the kind of hollowed-out society that a FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate)-dominated economy created. Neighborhoods that once housed factories and their workers were either emptied out or gentrified. If you were employed in the FIRE sector, you could do very nicely. If you were employed in one of the elite service industries—advertising, consulting, and the like—that populated those skyscrapers, you could do pretty nicely. Not as nicely as a bond trader or a dealmaker, for sure—but a lot better than the messengers, busboys, and bootblacks that did the scut work for the service aristocracy.

Normally, political progressives might attribute this sort of thing to the “right,” meaning largely Republicans. But that was not the way things worked in New York, which was, at least until recently, essentially a one-party (Democratic) town. Sometimes the Dems would sound progressive—in the early 1990s, there were David Dinkins and his “gorgeous mosaic”—but on the stuff that really mattered, like budgets and land use, they were always loyal servants of their FIRE masters. Today, people bemoan the Wall Street rule of billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but it’s unlikely that a Democrat would have done anything different. I doubt I’d understand that had I not spent so much time talking with Bob.
 
Fitch’s critique of the Democratic Party earned him a few enemies, but that wasn’t all. He was at least as withering on the topic of unions in New York. In a series of pieces for the Voice throughout the 1990s, he detailed the corruption and compromises of the labor movement in the city—stolen elections, stolen money, sweatshops with the union label, complicity with FIRE’s economic vision for the city.

Bob took that critique to the national level with his 2006 book, Solidarity for Sale, which focused on the taboo topic of union corruption. Why is it, Bob asked, that no other labor movement in the First World is so full of mobsters, shakedown artists, hacks, and thieves? Here’s the beginning of an answer, from an interview he did with Michael Yates of Monthly Review:

Essentially, the American labor movement consists of 20,000 semi-autonomous local unions. Like feudal vassals, local leaders get their exclusive jurisdiction from a higher level organization and pass on a share of their dues. The ordinary members are like the serfs who pay compulsory dues and come with the territory. The union bosses control jobs—staff jobs or hiring hall jobs—the coin of the political realm. Those who get the jobs—the clients—give back their unconditional loyalty. The politics of loyalty produces, systematically, poles of corruption and apathy. The privileged minority who turn the union into their personal business. And the vast majority who ignore the union as none of their business.

It wasn’t all analysis, though. Bob tried several times to put together groups of intellectuals and activists to devise an alternative economic strategy for New York—some kind of reindustrialization that would put people to work and counter the polarization that has characterized the city for the last 30-40 years. I worked with him on several of those efforts, but we could never get it off the ground. There was no funding, no institutional base, few people familiar enough with the issues—and even fewer willing to risk alienating the Democrats or the unions by signing on. Jobs and reputations were at stake.

(Bob once thanked a union economist in a footnote in a journal article. The economist called him, his voice full of alarm. He was afraid that merely incurring Bob’s public gratitude could put his continued employment at risk.)

And I haven’t even mentioned his study of Marx while he was working for army intelligence, his early work on Ghana and Wall Street control of corporate America, or his tenure as an editor at Ramparts. His tales of Berkeley in the 1960s were wonderful to listen to; fear of litigation keeps me from repeating the best of them.
 
For all his truth-telling, Bob was ostracized not only by the progressive establishment in New York but also by academia, which found him not only too outspoken, but too polymath as well. Universities like well-behaved specialists, not rude questioners. Though his material situation improved somewhat in recent years, he lived most of his life on very little money. His major sources of income were freelance writing fees, small book advances, and the sweatshop wages enjoyed by adjunct faculty (which is what you call a temp worker with a PhD). As Guttenplan, the former Village Voice editor who introduced me to Bob, wrote just after his death: “[It’s a] scandal that they scrape the barrel to give these so-called genius grants to third-rate conventional fakers when Bob Fitch, a man who did his own thinking and his own research, and who came up with truly original insights about some pretty important topics—urban planning, organized labor, critical journalism—had to live like a luftmensch.”

Much to my regret, I’d fallen out of touch with Bob in recent years, and had just resolved to reverse that. I missed his mind—and, though he could be a prickly character at times, his warmth. RIP, Bob. They don’t make many like you.

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