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The Zeitgeist Tracked Down Bill de Blasio | The Nation

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The Zeitgeist Tracked Down Bill de Blasio

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Bill de Blasio campaigns at a subway stop in New York, Monday, November 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Launched in the mid-1970s, the neoliberal offensive exalted the role of markets over government in every dimension of economic and social life and, here as elsewhere, led to a series of policies, now familiar to all, that produced enormous wealth disparities and growing financialization of the economy. Social spending was cut, unions attacked, industry deregulated, global trade restraints lifted, and tax rates slashed for the wealthy. 

The New York City fiscal crisis in the mid-’70s was a crucial milestone in the corporate offensive. Proponents of austerity seized on the city’s crisis as a critical opportunity to roll back gains in social provisions won by New York’s working people in the New Deal era, thus setting a national example and at the same time laying the foundation for New York’s particular version of urban neoliberalism. William Simon, President Ford’s treasury secretary, advocated imposing bailout terms in 1975 that would be “so punitive, the overall experience so painful, that no city, no political subdivision would ever be tempted to go down the same road.”

The result was an increase in privatization, the taming of municipal labor, the elimination of free higher education, increased transit fares, and cuts through the muscle and bone of public schools, parks and welfare services. As Josh Freeman has written, New York’s fiscal crisis spread “the belief that the market could better serve the public than the government, that government was an obstacle to social welfare rather than an aid to it, that the corporate world, if left alone, would maximize the social good. Because New York served as the standard-bearer for urban liberalism and the idea of a welfare state, the attacks on its municipal services and their decline helped pave the way for the national conservative hegemony of the 1980s and 1990s.”

Forty years on, the consequences of market fundamentalism run amok are clear and well documented: soaring corporate profits and obscene executive salaries, extraordinary Gilded Age disparities of wealth, a national economy built around financial speculation rather than production, and mass insecurity for the poor and working class. Indeed, for most Americans, the notion that we have been in an economic recovery since mid-2009 is a cruel joke. But from the perspective of “the richest strata of the population”—particularly the top 1 percent, who have garnered 95 percent of the “post-recession” income gains—the neoliberal project has been an unmitigated success. 

New York City’s elite has enjoyed its own heyday under the current regime. Unquestionably, some elements of the city’s revival are of critical importance to all New Yorkers, the remarkable drop in crime foremost among them. But the city’s reconstruction on a foundation of finance, tourism and culture created the backstory for de Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities.” Foreign and domestic moguls drop $40 million, $50 million, even $90 million on penthouse apartments while foreclosure rates soar in southeast Queens and Staten Island. Homelessness is at record highs. Wall Street shells out $20 billion a year in bonuses while 55,000 fast-food workers scrape by on an average wage of $8.25 an hour. Municipal workers have gone as long as five years without a raise. And after years of cuts, social services remain inadequate. 

Despite such clear and growing evidence of the devastating impact of the corporate offensive on the majority of Americans, market fundamentalism has gone largely unchallenged for most of the last four decades, deferred to by Democrats and Republicans alike. Indeed, the notion of ensuring a “better business climate” through deregulation, low taxes and curbs on union power acquired the status of “common sense” among mainstream policy-makers—until, that is, the neoliberal model spectacularly imploded in 2007 and 2008. Wall Street and deregulation lost their sheen, and the space suddenly opened up for a reconsideration of the dominant economic models. 

Much as in the Great Depression, crisis did not immediately produce a mass popular response. Indeed, economic insecurity and anger over the Wall Street bailout, coupled with a strong dose of resentment against the first African-American president, initially fanned the big-government fears of many older white Americans, producing the Tea Party reaction of 2010. But by 2011, a progressive, populist resistance had erupted, first in Wisconsin, then in the dramatic, almost magical appearance of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The actual Occupy encampments were relatively short-lived—armed force was often deployed to make sure of that. But the impact of Occupy endured. The theme of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent fundamentally reshaped the parameters of dialogue about the US political economy—not least because forty years of neoliberal policies have made it an entirely accurate description of how the economy has been working. 

Despite Occupy’s disavowal, for the most part, of mainstream political activism, the movement and its message have played a role in shaping the electoral landscape, beginning with the 2012 election. Voters rejected Mitt Romney’s characterization of the 47 percent of the nation that depends on Social Security, Medicare and other social benefits as “takers”; they knew the real takers were the Forbes 400 wealthiest billionaires—like Michael Bloomberg—who paid a lower tax rate than they did. Even more dramatically, Elizabeth Warren’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race—and her rock-star appeal to grassroots activists across the country—gave political expression to a new and compelling brand of anti–Wall Street populism. As Robert Borosage has argued, we are living in a post-Occupy zeitgeist, a time when the electorate is searching for policies that will offer an alternative to the bitter trickle-down fruit of neoliberalism.

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