The breathtaking statistics on paper wealth suddenly extinguished and once mighty bastions of capital laid low, do not begin to describe the economic meltdown’s effect on finance capital’s ability to rule the rest of us. It is not merely that giants such as Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and others have been swept into the historical dustbin, as if by a righteous, wrathful storm. The demise of investment banking as a central tool of capitalist planning means the rich have at least temporarily lost the ability to remake the cities as they see fit. While some gentrification projects are on hold, due to the death or ill health of the investment bankers at the heart of most “Black removal” schemes, tenant and community forces must “seize the time” to devise their own plans for rational ways of living in post-meltdown urban America.
Progressives must become city planners, and in the process of devising these plans forge unity among the various contesting communities that comprise the city. Corporations have always dominated the mechanisms of urban planning, not just through bribery and subversion of all potential opposition, but because capital always has a plan. It is the giant investment banking firms that provided the generalship, the strategic and tactical headquarters, for most of the grand schemes to purge the Harlems of America of non-white working class populations. Before residents and community organizations have any inkling they are about to be exiled from their neighborhoods, corporate planners have already researched every aspect of the targeted area, rationalized the new corporate project’s impact on conditions (and profits) elsewhere in the city and region, drawn up enabling zoning and other laws and regulations to legalize the theft, and enlisted local non-white allies to run political interference.
The investment bankers, the generals of finance capitalism, had their Waterloo in September, victims of fundamental contradictions made more explosively lethal by greedy genius. At the moment, the “system” has no command center — the strategic function of investment bankers, now dead, dying, or on “capital injection” support. Disoriented, capital’s various sectors behave like chickens with their heads cut off — because that is almost literally what has happened. If there is any juncture in history for progressives to formulate their own “development” plans, it is now, while the beast lies crippled and incoherent.
In New York’s Harlem, epicenter of the national corporate vision to remake the cities without their existing populations — the New Orleans exodus without the flood – finance capital’s darker political vassals are experiencing their own crisis. Sugar daddies like Lehman Brothers and Wachovia Bank were great sources of bribes, and gave critical support to dependent social service and cultural outfits, as sweeteners for their toxic scheme to reap billions from the methodical expulsion of Black and brown residents. While working class folks should be savoring a reprieve from exile — dancing at the Wall Street wakes! — the bankers’ Black and brown political dependents mourn the “tragic” loss of “their” fat cats. It is a pitiful sight, like house servants tearfully burying the “good” master who only sold off the field slaves.
The “crash” — of which we have seen only the beginning — is more than an opportunity for progressives and popular forces to seize the initiative in planning the nuts and bolts of a new dispensation. The void left by finance capital’s catastrophe demands that the Left — most particularly, the Black, urban left — make sense of the chaos and stench left by wounded and dying corporate elephants. The banker-bought ghetto politicians and poseurs are now at their weakest, cut off from their sources of funds and ghetto fabulousness. With the corporate trickle-down dried up, these masterless samurai lose their reasons for existence. Progressive organizers are obligated to step into the vacuum while the bamboozlers are still reeling and scratching, to provide explanations (analysis) of what has occurred and introduce the process of democratic, informed, inclusive community planning — the indispensable first step toward community empowerment.
The discipline of city planning forces various organizers from diverse ethnic backgrounds to find rational solutions to common problems. Personalities and prejudices diminish as obstacles when people are compelled to tackle the complex, material problems of making neighborhoods and cities work for the folks who live there. During a discussion of the “Wall Street Bust and the End of the NYC Real Estate Boom” at the City University of New York (CUNY) Social Forum earlier this month, a young Chinese American organizer recounted how she and her colleagues debated how to resist corporate efforts to gentrify Chinatown. “Some said, ‘We need to unite as Asians…I don’t care about the Latinos or the Blacks,’” said the activist. Her organization chose “the alternative, to unite as working people to fight this racism.”
Unity around principle is always easier when the practical tasks at hand demand common action. The systemic demise of the investment banking mechanism of urban gentrification requires the various affected communities to engage their constituents in a common project of community planning — to show what alternative development looks like, and how people can be tangibly served. If this cannot be accomplished now, when the corporations are in confusion and disarray, then it can never be done.
But of course, it can and will happen, because the moment demands it. People cannot forever tolerate living under constant threat of removal. Corporate gentrification requires the deployment of what Harlem Tenants Council executive director Nellie Hester Bailey calls “weapons of mass displacement” in the form of zoning laws and abuse of eminent domain. Organizers must counter such corporate weapons with inclusive community planning that excites and involves the people so that they combine as an even more powerful weapon: communities in defense of themselves and each other.
But there’s gotta be a plan.