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“Debtpocalypse” looms. Depending on who wins out in Washington, we’re told, we will either free fall over the fiscal cliff or take a terrifying slide to the pit at the bottom. Grim as these scenarios might seem, there is something confected about the mise-en-scène, like an un-fun Playland. After all, there is no fiscal cliff, or at least there was none—until the two parties built it.
And yet the pit exists. It goes by the name of “austerity.” However, it didn’t just appear in time for the last election season or the lame-duck session of Congress to follow. It was dug more than a generation ago, and has been getting wider and deeper ever since. Millions of people have long made it their home. “Debtpocalypse” is merely the latest installment in a tragic, forty-year story of the dispossession of American working people.
Think of it as the archeology of decline, or a tale of two worlds. As a long generation of austerity politics hollowed out the heartland, the quants and traders and financial wizards of Wall Street gobbled up ever more of the nation's resources. It was another Great Migration—instead of people, though, trillions of dollars were being sucked out of industrial America and turned into “financial instruments” and new, exotic forms of wealth. If blue-collar Americans were the particular victims here, then high finance is what consumed them. Now, it promises to consume the rest of us.
Scenes from the Museum
In the mid-1970s, Hugh Carey, then governor of New York, was already noting the hollowing out of his part of America. New York City, after all, was threatening to go bankrupt. Plenty of other cities and states across what was then known as the “Frost Belt” were in similar shape. Yankeedom, in Carey’s words, was turning into “a great national museum” where tourists could visit “the great railroad stations where the trains used to run.”
As it happened, the tourists weren’t interested. Abandoned railroad stations might be fetching in an eerie sort of way, but the rest of the museum was filled with artifacts of recent ruination that were too depressing to be entertaining. True, a century earlier, during the first Gilded Age, the upper crust used to amuse itself by taking guided tours of the urban demi-monde, thrilling to sites of exotic depravity or ethnic strangeness. They traipsed around “rag-pickers alley” on New York’s Lower East Side or the opium dens of Chinatown, or ghoulishly watched poor children salivate over toys in store window displays they could never hope to touch.
Times have changed. The preference now is to entirely remove the unsightly. Nonetheless, the national museum of industrial homicide has, city by city, decade by decade, grown more grotesque.
Camden, New Jersey, for example, had long been a robust, diversified small industrial city. By the early 1970s, however, its reform mayor Angelo Errichetti was describing it this way:
It looked like the Vietcong had bombed us to get even. The pride of Camden…was now a rat-infested skeleton of yesterday, a visible obscenity of urban decay. The years of neglect, slumlord exploitation, tenant abuse, government bungling, indecisive and short-sighted policy had transformed the city’s housing, business, and industrial stock into a ravaged, rat-infested cancer on a sick, old industrial city.