Tuesday, January 29, 2013 12:37 PM
This essay will appear in the next issue of
and appears at TomDispatch.com.
Shakespeare’s Polonius offered this classic advice to his
son: “neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Many of our nation’s Founding Fathers
emphatically saw it otherwise. They often lived by the maxim: always a
borrower, never a lender be. As tobacco and rice planters, slave traders, and
merchants, as well as land and currency speculators, they depended upon long
lines of credit to finance their livelihoods and splendid ways of life. So,
too, in those days, did shopkeepers, tradesmen, artisans, and farmers, as well
as casual laborers and sailors. Without debt, the seedlings of a commercial
economy could never have grown to maturity.
Ben Franklin, however, was wary on the subject. “Rather
go to bed supperless than rise in debt” was his warning, and even now his
cautionary words carry great moral weight. We worry about debt, yet we can’t
live without it.
Debt remains, as it long has been, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde of capitalism. For a small minority, it’s a blessing; for others a curse.
For some the moral burden of carrying debt is a heavy one, and no one lets them
forget it. For privileged others, debt bears no moral baggage at all, presents
itself as an opportunity to prosper, and if things go wrong can be dumped
without a qualm.
Those who view debt with a smiley face as
the royal road to wealth accumulation and tend to be forgiven if their default
is large enough almost invariably come from the top rungs of the economic
hierarchy. Then there are the rest of us, who get scolded for our impecunious
ways, foreclosed upon and dispossessed, leaving behind scars that never fade
away and wounds that disable our futures.
Think of this upstairs-downstairs class calculus as the
politics of debt. British economist John Maynard Keynes put it like this: “If I
owe you a pound, I have a problem; but if I owe you a million, the problem is
After months of an impending “debtpocalypse,” the dreaded “debt ceiling,” and the “fiscal
cliff,” Americans remain preoccupied with debt, public and private. Austerity
is what we’re promised for our sins. Millions are drowning, or have already
drowned, in a sea of debt -- mortgages gone bad, student loans that may
never be paid off, spiraling credit card bills, car loans, payday loans, and a
menagerie of new-fangled financial mechanisms cooked up by the country’s
“financial engineers” to milk what’s left of the American standard of living.
The world economy almost came apart in 2007-2008, and
still may do so under the whale-sized carcass of debt left behind by financial
plunderers who found in debt the leverage to get ever richer. Most of them
still live in their mansions and McMansions, while other debtors live outdoors,
or in cars or shelters, or doubled-up with relatives and friends -- or even in
debtor’s prison. Believe it or not, a version of debtor’s prison, that relic of early American commercial
barbarism, is back.
In 2013, you can’t actually be jailed for not paying your
bills, but ingenious corporations, collection agencies, cops, courts,
and lawyers have devised ways to insure that debt “delinquents” will end up in
jail anyway. With one-third of the states now allowing the jailing of debtors
(without necessarily calling it that), it looks ever more like a trend in the making.
Will Americans tolerate this, or might there emerge a
politics of resistance to debt, as has happened more than once in a past that
shouldn’t be forgotten?
The World of Debtor’s Prisons
Imprisonment for debt was a commonplace in colonial America and the early republic, and
wasn’t abolished in most states until the 1830s or 1840s, in some cases not
until after the Civil War. Today, we think of it as a peculiar and heartless
way of punishing the poor -- and it was. But it was more than that.
Some of the richest, most esteemed members of society
also ended up there, men like Robert Morris, who helped finance the American
Revolution and ran the Treasury under the Articles of Confederation; John
Pintard, a stock-broker, state legislator, and founder of the New York
Historical Society; William Duer, graduate of Eton, powerful merchant and
speculator, assistant secretary in the Treasury Department of the new federal
government, and master of a Hudson River manse; a Pennsylvania Supreme Court
judge; army generals; and other notables.
Whether rich or poor, you were there for a long stretch,
even for life, unless you could figure out some way of discharging your debts.
That, however, is where the similarity between wealthy and impoverished debtors
Whether in the famous Marshalsea in London where Charles
Dickens had Little Dorritt’s father incarcerated (and where Dickens’s father
had actually languished when the author was 12), or in the New Gaol in New York
City, where men like Duer and Morris did their time, debtors prisons were
segregated by class. If your debts were large enough and your social
connections weighty enough (the two tended to go together) you lived
comfortably. You were supplied with good food and well-appointed living
quarters, as well as books and other pleasures, including on occasion
manicurists and prostitutes.
Robert Morris entertained George Washington for dinner in
his “cell.” Once released, he resumed his career as the new nation’s richest
man. Before John Pintard moved to New Gaol, he redecorated his cell, had it
repainted and upholstered, and shipped in two mahogany writing desks.
Meanwhile, the mass of petty debtors housed in the same
institution survived, if at all, amid squalor, filth, and disease. They were
often shackled, and lacked heat, clean water, adequate food, or often food of
any kind. (You usually had to have the money to buy your own food, clothing,
and fuel.) Debtors in these prisons frequently found themselves quite literally
dying of debt. And you could end up in such circumstances for trivial sums. Of
the 1,162 jailed debtors in New York
City in 1787, 716 owed less than twenty shillings or
one pound. A third of Philadelphia’s
inmates in 1817 were there for owing less than $5, and debtors in the city’s
prisons outnumbered violent criminals by 5:1. In Boston, 15% of them were women. Shaming was
more the point of punishment than anything else.
Scenes of public pathos were commonplace. Inmates at the
New Gaol, if housed on its upper floors, would lower shoes out the window on
strings to collect alms for their release. Other prisons installed “beggar
gates” through which those jailed in cellar dungeons could stretch out their
palms for the odd coins from passersby.
Poor and rich alike wanted out. Pamphleteering against the
institution of debtor’s prison began in the 1750s. An Anglican minister in South Carolina denounced the jails, noting that “a person
would be in a better situation in the French King’s Gallies, or the Prisons of
Turkey or Barbary than in this dismal place.”
Discontent grew. A mass escape from New Gaol of 40 prisoners armed with pistols
and clubs was prompted by extreme hunger.
In the 1820s and 1830s, as artisans, journeymen, sailors,
longshoremen, and other workers organized the early trade union movement as
well as workingmen’s political parties, one principal demand was for the
abolition of imprisonment for debt. Inheritors of a radical political culture,
their complaints echoed that Biblical tradition of Jubilee mentioned in Leviticus, which
called for a cancellation of debts, the restoration of lost houses and land,
and the freeing of slaves and bond servants every 50 years.
Falling into debt was a particularly ruinous affliction
for those who aspired to modest independence as shopkeepers, handicraftsmen, or
farmers. As markets for their goods expanded but became ever less predictable,
they found themselves taking out credit to survive and sometimes going into
arrears, often followed by a stint in debtor’s prison that ended their dreams
However much the poor organized and protested, it was the
rich who got debt relief first. Today, we assume that debts can be discharged
through bankruptcy (although even now that option is either severely restricted
or denied to certain classes of less favored debt delinquents like college students). Although the newly adopted U.S.
Constitution opened the door to a national bankruptcy law, Congress didn’t walk
through it until 1800, even though many, including the well-off, had been
lobbying for it.
Enough of the old moral faith that frowned on debt as
sinful lingered. The United
States has always been an uncharitable place
when it comes to debt, a curious attitude for a society largely settled by
absconding debtors and indentured servants (a form of time-bound debt peonage).
Indeed, the state of Georgia
was founded as a debtor’s haven at a time when England’s jails were overflowing
When Congress finally passed the Bankruptcy Act, those in
the privileged quarters at New Gaol threw a party. Down below, however, life
continued in its squalid way, since the new law only applied to people who had
sizable debts. If you owed too little, you stayed in jail.
Debt and the Birth of a Nation
Nowadays, the conservative media inundate us with
warnings about debt from the Founding Fathers, and it’s true that some of them
like Jefferson -- himself an inveterate, often near-bankrupt debtor -- did
moralize on the subject. However, Alexander Hamilton, an idol of the
conservative movement, was the architect of the country’s first national debt,
insisting that “if it is not excessive, [it] will be to us a national
As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton’s goal was to transform the former 13 colonies,
which today we would call an underdeveloped land, into a country that someday
would rival Great Britain.
This, he knew, required liquid capital (resources not tied up in land or other
less mobile forms of wealth), which could then be invested in sometimes highly
speculative and risky enterprises. Floating a national debt, he felt sure,
would attract capital from well-positioned merchants at home and abroad,
especially in England.
However, for most ordinary people living under the new
government, debt aroused anger. To begin with, there were all those veterans of
the Revolutionary War and all the farmers who had supplied the revolutionary
army with food and been paid in notoriously worthless “continentals” -- the
currency issued by the Continental Congress -- or equally valueless state
As rumors of the formation of a new national government
spread, speculators roamed the countryside buying up this paper money at a
penny on the dollar, on the assumption that the debts they represented would be
redeemed at face value. In fact, that is just what Hamilton’s national debt would do, making
these “sunshine patriots” quite rich, while leaving the yeomanry impoverished.
Outrage echoed across the country even before Hamilton’s plan got
adopted. Jefferson denounced the currency
speculators as loathsome creatures and had this to say about debt in general:
“The modern theory of the perpetuation of debt has drenched the earth with
blood and crushed its inhabitants under burdens ever accumulating.” He and
others denounced the speculators as squadrons of counter-revolutionary
“moneycrats” who would use their power and wealth to undo the democratic
accomplishments of the revolution.
In contrast, Hamilton
saw them as a disinterested monied elite upon whom the country’s economic
well-being depended, while dismissing the criticisms of the Jeffersonians as
the ravings of Jacobin levelers. Soon enough, political warfare over the debt
turned founding fathers into fratricidal brothers.
Hamilton’s plan worked -- sometimes too well. Wealthy speculators in land like
Robert Morris, or in the building of docks, wharves, and other projects tied to
trade, or in the national debt itself -- something William Duer and grandees
like him specialized in -- seized the moment. Often enough, however, they
over-reached and found themselves, like the yeomen farmers and soldiers, in
default to their creditors.
Duer’s attempts to corner the market in the bonds issued by
the new federal government and in the stock of the country’s first National
Bank represented one of the earliest instances of insider trading. They also
proved a lurid example of how speculation could go disastrously wrong. When the
scheme collapsed, it caused the country’s first Wall Street panic and a local
depression that spread through New England, ruining “shopkeepers, widows, orphans, butchers...
gardeners, market women, and even the noted Bawd Mrs. McCarty.”
A mob chased Duer through the streets of New York and might have
hanged or disemboweled him had he not been rescued by the city sheriff, who
sent him to the safety of debtor’s prison. John Pintard, part of the same
scheme, fled to Newark, New Jersey, before being caught and jailed
Sending the Duers and Pintards of the new republic off to
debtors’ prison was not, however, quite what Hamilton had in mind. And leaving them
rotting there was hardly going to foster the “enterprising spirit” that would,
in the treasury secretary’s estimation, turn the country into the Great Britain
of the next century. Bankruptcy, on the other hand, ensured that the
overextended could start again and keep the machinery of commercial
transactions lubricated. Hence, the Bankruptcy Act of 1800.
If, however, you were not a major player, debt functioned
differently. Shouldered by the hoi polloi, it functioned as a mechanism for
funneling wealth into the mercantile-financial hothouses where American
capitalism was being incubated.
No wonder debt excited such violent political emotions.
Even before the Constitution was adopted, farmers in western Massachusetts,
indebted to Boston
bankers and merchants and in danger of losing their ancestral homes in the
economic hard times of the 1780s, rose in armed rebellion. In those years, the
number of lawsuits for unpaid debt doubled and tripled, farms were seized, and
their owners sent off to jail. Incensed, farmers led by a former revolutionary
soldier, Daniel Shays, closed local courts by force and liberated debtors from
prisons. Similar but smaller uprisings erupted in Maine,
Connecticut, New York,
and Pennsylvania, while in New
Hampshire and Vermont
irate farmers surrounded government offices.
Shays' Rebellion of 1786 alarmed the country’s elites.
They depicted the unruly yeomen as “brutes” and their houses as “sties.” They
were frightened as well by state governments like Rhode Island’s that were more open to
popular influence, declared debt moratoria, and issued paper currencies to help
farmers and others pay off their debts. These developments signaled the need
for a stronger central government fully capable of suppressing future debtor
Federal authority established at the Constitutional
Convention allowed for that, but the unrest continued. Shays' Rebellion was but
part one of a trilogy of uprisings that continued into the 1790s. The Whiskey
Rebellion of 1794 was the most serious. An excise tax (“whiskey tax”) meant to
generate revenue to back up the national debt threatened the livelihoods of
farmers in western Pennsylvania
who used whiskey as a “currency” in a barter economy. President Washington sent
in troops, many of them Revolutionary War veterans, with Hamilton at their head to put down the
Debt Servitude and Primitive Accumulation
Debt would continue to play a vital role in national and
local political affairs throughout the nineteenth century, functioning as a form
of capital accumulation in the financial sector, and often sinking
pre-capitalist forms of life in the process.
Before and during the time that capitalists were fully
assuming the prerogatives of running the production process in field and
factory, finance was building up its own resources from the outside. Meanwhile,
the mechanisms of public and private debt made the lives of farmers, craftsmen,
shopkeepers, and others increasingly insupportable.
This parasitic economic metabolism helped account for the
riotous nature of Gilded Age politics. Much of the high drama of late
nineteenth-century political life circled around “greenbacks,” “free silver,”
and "the gold standard." These issues may strike us as arcane today,
but they were incendiary then, threatening what some called a “second Civil
War.” In one way or another, they were centrally about debt, especially a
system of indebtedness that was driving the independent farmer to extinction.
All the highways of global capitalism found their way
into the trackless vastness of rural America. Farmers there were not in
dire straits because of their backwoods isolation. On the contrary, it was
because they turned out to be living at Ground Zero, where the explosive energies of
financial and commercial modernity detonated. A toxic combination of railroads,
grain-elevator operators, farm-machinery manufacturers, commodity-exchange
speculators, local merchants, and above all the banking establishment had the
farmer at their mercy. His helplessness was only aggravated when the
nineteenth-century version of globalization left his crops in desperate
competition with those from the steppes of Canada
and Russia, as well as the
outbacks of Australia and South America.
To survive this mercantile onslaught, farmers hooked
themselves up to long lines of credit that stretched back to the financial
centers of the East. These lifelines allowed them to buy the seed, fertilizer,
and machines needed to farm, pay the storage and freight charges that went with
selling their crops, and keep house and home together while the plants ripened
and the hogs fattened. When market day finally arrived, the farmer found out
just what all his backbreaking work was really worth. If the news was bad, then
those credit lines were shut off and he found himself dispossessed.
The family farm and the network of small town life that
went with it were being washed into the rivers of capital heading for
On the “sod house” frontier, poverty was a “badge of honor which decorated
all.” In his Devil’s Dictionary, the acid-tongued humorist
Ambrose Bierce defined the dilemma this way: “Debt. n. An ingenious substitute
for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.”
Across the Great Plains
and the cotton South, discontented farmers spread the blame for their
predicament far and wide. Anger, however, tended to pool around the
strangulating system of currency and credit run out of the banking centers of
the northeast. Beginning in the 1870s with the emergence of the Greenback Party
and Greenback-Labor Party and culminating in the 1890s with the People’s or
Populist Party, independent farmers, tenant farmers, sharecroppers, small
businessmen, and skilled workers directed ever more intense hostility at “the
That “power” might appear locally in the homeliest of
disguises. At coal mines and other industrial sites, among “coolies” working to
build the railroads or imported immigrant gang laborers and convicts leased to private concerns, workers were typically
compelled to buy what they needed in company scrip at company stores at prices
that left them perpetually in debt. Proletarians were so precariously
positioned that going into debt -- whether to pawnshops or employers, landlords
or loan sharks -- was unavoidable. Often they were paid in kind: wood chips,
thread, hemp, scraps of canvas, cordage: nothing, that is, that was of any use
in paying off accumulated debts. In effect, they were, as they called
themselves, “debt slaves.”
In the South, hard-pressed growers found themselves
embroiled in a crop-lien system, dependent on the local “furnishing agent” to
supply everything needed, from seed to clothing to machinery, to get through
the growing season. In such situations, no money changed hands, just a note
scribbled in the merchant’s ledger, with payment due at “settling up” time.
This granted the lender a lien, or title, to the crop, a lien that never went
In this fashion, the South became “a great pawn shop,”
with farmers perpetually in debt at interest rates exceeding 100% per year. In Alabama, Georgia,
90% of farmers lived on credit. The first lien you signed was essentially a
life sentence. Either that or you became a tenant farmer, or you simply left
your land, something so commonplace that everyone knew what the letters
“G.T.T.” on an abandoned farmhouse meant: “Gone to Texas.” (One hundred
thousand people a year were doing that in the 1870s.)
The merchant’s exaction was so steep that
African-Americans and immigrants in particular were regularly reduced to
peonage -- forced, that is, to work to pay off their debt, an illegal but not
uncommon practice. And that neighborhood furnishing agent was often tied to the
banks up north for his own lines of credit. In this way, the sucking sound of
money leaving for the great metropolises reverberated from region to region.
Facing dispossession, farmers formed alliances to set up
cooperatives to extend credit to one another and market crops themselves. As
one Populist editorialist remarked, this was the way “mortgage-burdened farmers
can assert their freedom from the tyranny of organized capital.” But when they
found that these groupings couldn’t survive the competitive pressure of the
banking establishment, politics beckoned.
From one presidential election to the next and in state
contests throughout the South and West, irate grain and cotton growers demanded
that the government expand the paper currency supply, those “greenbacks,” also
known as “the people’s money,” or that it monetize silver, again to enlarge the
money supply, or that it set up public institutions to finance farmers during
the growing season. With a passion hard for us to imagine, they railed against
the “gold standard” which, in Democratic Partypresidential candidate
William Jennings Bryan’s famous cry, should no longer be allowed to “crucify
mankind on a cross of gold.”
Should that cross of gold stay fixed in place, one Alabama physician
prophesied, it would “reduce the American yeomanry to menials and paupers, to
be driven by monopolies like cattle and swine.” As Election Day approached,
populist editors and speakers warned of an approaching war with “the money
power,” and they meant it. “The fight will come and let it come!”
The idea was to force the government to deliberately
inflate the currency and so raise farm prices. And the reason for doing that?
To get out from under the sea of debt in which they were submerged. It was a
cry from the heart and it echoed and re-echoed across the heartland, coming
nearer to upsetting the established order than any American political upheaval
before or since.
The passion of those populist farmers and laborers was
matched by that of their enemies, men at the top of the economy and government
for whom debt had long been a road to riches rather than destitution. They
dismissed their foes as “cranks” and “calamity howlers.” And in the election of
1896, they won. Bryan
went down to defeat, gold continued its pitiless process of crucifixion, and a
whole human ecology was set on a path to extinction.
The Return of Debt Servitude
When populism died, debt -- as a spark for national
political confrontation -- died, too. The great reform eras that followed --
Progessivism, the New Deal, and the Great Society -- were preoccupied with
inequality, economic collapse, exploitation in the workplace, and the outsized
nature of corporate power in a consolidated industrial capitalist system.
Rumblings about debt servitude could certainly still be
heard. Foreclosed farmers during the Great Depression mobilized, held “penny
auctions” to restore farms to families, hanged judges in effigy, and forced
Prudential Insurance Company, the largest land creditor in Iowa, to suspend foreclosures on 37,000
farms (which persuaded Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to do likewise). A Kansas City realtor was
shot in the act of foreclosing on a family farm, a country sheriff kidnapped
while trying to evict a farm widow and dumped 10 miles out of town, and so on.
Urban renters and homeowners facing eviction formed
neighborhood groups to stop the local sheriff or police from throwing families
out of their houses or apartments. Furniture tossed into the street in eviction
proceedings would be restored by neighbors, who would also turn the gas and
electricity back on. New Deal farm and housing finance legislation bailed out
banks and homeowners alike. Right-wing populists like the Catholic priest
Father Charles Coughlin carried on the war against the gold standard in tirades
tinged with anti-Semitism. Signs like one in Nebraska -- “The Jew System of Banking”
(illustrated with a giant rattlesnake) -- showed up too often.
But the age of primitive accumulation in which debt and
the financial sector had played such a strategic role was drawing to a close.
Today, we have entered a new phase. What might be called capitalist underdevelopment and once again debt has emerged
as both the central mode of capital accumulation and a principal mechanism of
servitude. Warren Buffett (of all people) has predicted
that, in the coming decades, the United States is more likely to
turn into a “sharecropper society” than an “ownership society.”
In our time, the financial sector has enriched itself by devouring the productive wherewithal of industrial America through
debt, starving the public sector of resources, and saddling ordinary working people with every conceivable
form of consumer debt.
Household debt, which in 1952 was at 36% of total
personal income, had by 2006 hit 127%. Even financing poverty became a lucrative
enterprise. Taking advantage of the low credit ratings of poor people and their
need for cash to pay monthly bills or simply feed themselves, some
check-cashing outlets, payday lenders, tax preparers, and others levy interest
of 200% to 300% and more. As recently as the 1970s, a good part of this would
have been considered illegal under usury laws that no longer exist. And these
poverty creditors are often tied to the largest financiers, including Citibank,
Bank of America, and American Express.
Credit has come to function as a “plastic safety net” in a world of
job insecurity, declining state support, and slow-motion economic growth,
especially among the elderly, young adults, and low-income families. More than
half the pre-tax income of these three groups goes to servicing debt. Nowadays,
however, the “company store” is headquartered on Wall Street.
Debt is driving this system of auto-cannibalism which, by
every measure of social wellbeing, is relentlessly turning a developed country
into an underdeveloped one.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are back. Is a political
resistance to debt servitude once again imaginable?
Steve Fraser is a historian, writer, and editor-at-large
for New Labor Forum, co-founder of the American Empire
Project, and TomDispatch regular. He is, most recently, the
author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace. He teaches at Columbia University. This essay will appear in
the next issue of Jacobin magazine.
Copyright 2013 Steve Fraser
insurrection in Pennsylvania,”
depicting the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion (R.M.
Monday, December 31, 2012 3:11 PM
This article originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.
are about to take this house over, okay?” shouted Reneka Wheeler, speaking
slowly and emphasizing each word as she stood in front of a vacant house in
southwest Atlanta two weeks ago. It wasn’t really a question; the home had
already been cleaned up and secured, and the only thing left to do was turn the
key. It was a small, pastel-pink bungalow in the middle of the Pittsburgh
neighborhood in Atlanta,
the type of community where more plywood boards than children’s faces peek out
from first-floor windows.
small crowd gathered in front of Wheeler cheered in affirmation. The woman —
flanked by her partner, Michelene Meusa — bounded up the front steps and
entered her new home with a quick jangling of her wrist. Their children, Johla
and Dillon, soon followed. Dillon exposed a buck-teeth smile and Johla’s pink
hair beads tossed from side to side. The last six months hadn’t been easy for
the two children; since July, the family had been shuffling from shelter to
shelter, where Dillon and Johla often found that other adults didn’t approve of
their mothers’ relationship.
M&T Bank — a commercial bank
headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y. — claimed to own the house, an
allegation it would soon enforce. But, for the moment, Meusa and Wheeler had
enacted a new vision and definition of housing rights — not by petition or
proposal but by altering the reality on the ground.
going to change the way we do business,” declared Doug Dean, a former state
representative from Pittsburgh,
Ga., on the women’s new front
lawn. “Whether you agree with how we’re doing it, the fact of the matter is
that freedom is not free. We must take back our community.”
December 6, the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Homes movement, Meusa and
Wheeler were only two among thousands of people who gathered for coordinated
direct actions focused on the human right to housing. Building on a year filled
with eviction blockades, house takeovers, bank protest and singing auction
blockades, the anniversary of Occupy Homes demonstrated that the groups were
still committed to risking arrest to keep people sheltered. Yet, even more
significantly, the day’s events demonstrated a crystallization of the
movement’s central message: that decent and dignified housing should be a human
right in the United States.
Alma Ponce and supportive community members from various Occupy groups rallied
inside and outside Ponce’s
home, which was scheduled for eviction on December 6. In Minneapolis,
John Vinje, a veteran who had been evicted from his family’s home by U.S. Bank
and Freddie Mac earlier this year, worked with Occupy Homes MN
to take over a bank-owned home on the south side of the city. In St. Louis, a
handful of housing advocates temporarily occupied a Wells Fargo branch and
began auctioning off the contents of the bank — including the Christmas tree,
paintings and computers, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho! Corporate greed has got to
go!” Other actions occurred in Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Mendham, N.J., and cities
actions appear to be snowballing. In Atlanta,
Occupy our Homes took over a second house on December 8. In Minneapolis, the group opened up another
house on December 23 in an action led by Carrie Martinez, who refused to
celebrate Christmas with her partner and 12-year-old son in the car where
they’d been living since their eviction in October.
the first Occupy Homes day of action on December 6, 2011, the events
demonstrated a high level of coordination and communication among housing
groups in various cities — this time drawing on the language and tactics that
had been successful throughout the past year.
the small crowd marched to Meusa and Wheeler’s new home, for instance, people
chanted, “Empty houses and houseless people — match them up!” This was a
refrain that echoes the rallying cry commonly used by J.R. Fleming, chairman of
Anti-Eviction Campaign. (His wording is to match “homeless people with
peopleless houses.”) Later, after much of the fanfare had died down, Johla and
Dillon began planting flowers and vegetables in the front yard, an action that
is reminiscent of when Monique White, a mother in Minneapolis, planted a massive garden in the
weeks before her scheduled eviction to demonstrate that she was not leaving.
(U.S. Bank caved and canceled the foreclosure.)
in Woodland, activists covered Alma Ponce’s lawn
with tents — an allusion to the fall 2011 occupations that has also been used
in eviction blockades in Alabama and Georgia over
the last year. Ponce’s
home had been the site of successful eviction blockades in May and, given the
heavy activist presence on December 6, the sheriff refused to show up.
important shift evident on the anniversary is that Occupy Homes groups have
started rallying more and more behind a rights-based framework to explain why
they are pursuing direct action.
is a human right, not for the banks to hold hostage,” Michelene Meusa said a
few days after the action, when, at M&T Bank’s request, the Atlanta Police
Department arrested her and three others for criminal trespassing. When she
refused to leave, she made an explicit comparison between her civil
disobedience and the actions of the civil rights movement.
shift towards a human-rights framing of the housing movement and away from
following the Occupy movement’s focus on economic unfairness — i.e., “Banks got
bailed out, we got sold out” — is significant. The human rights framework is
often more powerful in movements led by people of color, drawing strength, as
Meusa did, from the civil rights era and cutting through the class divisions
that plague housing in a way that movements focused only on mortgage loan
get explosively excited about organizing to protect their rights,” said Anthony
Newby, one of the organizers with Occupy
Homes MN. A year ago,
Newby and the Minneapolis
campaign were more focused on organizing for principal reductions and holding banks
accountable while setting aside more confrontational actions like outright home
liberations for a later date. Yet, as John Vinje’s home liberation in south
Minneapolis on December 6 showed, the group had transformed over the course of
the year into one that is willing to challenge the logic of class-based housing
discrimination: a logic that denies that access to decent housing is, in fact,
a right to be protected rather than a privilege to be bought — on credit, of
she waited for the sheriff inside her home in Woodland, Alma Ponce expressed a similar
commitment to the rights-based framework. Explaining that the rest of her
family doesn’t speak English, she said, “They’re very scared and I know I’ve
been — what is that word? — taken advantage because I am Latina, and they think I’m not going to be
able to defend myself.” Switching to Spanish, she later added, “We Latinos have
to come out and defend our rights. Because we do have rights here in California, and if we
unite, we can keep moving forward.”
the continued onslaught of foreclosures across the United States, the question
remains: How much will these movements have to scale up to make structural
changes, rather than just individual changes?
organizing during the Great Depression provides some instructive parallels. The
economic devastation since 2008 has been quite similar to what the nation
experienced throughout that period. In 1933, for example, banks foreclosed on
an average of 1,000 homes every day. In 2010, the rate of displacement was
comparable: The average number of foreclosures was more than 2,500 homes a day,
and the population has increased two-and-a-half fold.
scale of housing organizing during the early 1930s, however, dwarfs what we
have seen so far today. Crowds of hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of
people, mobilized to stop evictions in New York,
other urban centers, mostly under the direction of the Communist Party. As in
much of current housing organizing, women were often on the front lines. Masses
of these women filled the streets as others climbed to the roofs and poured
buckets of water on the police below. Women beat back the police officers’
horses by sticking them with long hat pins or pouring marbles into the streets.
If the police were successful in moving the family’s furniture out to the curb,
the crowd simply broke down the door and moved the family’s belongings back
inside after the police had left.
were times that landlords were saying, ‘You can’t evict anymore in the Bronx. These people control the streets,’” says Mark
Naison, a professor at Fordham
University and one of the
nation’s leading researchers about housing organizing during the Depression.
communities also formed anti-foreclosure organizations, combining the fight for
housing with the fight for fair wages, especially in the sharecropping South.
Hundreds of thousands of farmers came together to form anti-eviction and
tenants-rights groups like the Farm Holiday Association in the Midwest, the
Alabama Sharecroppers Union in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and the
Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which stretched from Tennessee to Texas. The
groups descended on farm auctions en masse to intimidate investors and speculators
and then bet on the property with absurdly low prices — a penny, a dollar —
until the property was returned to the owner. They also banded together to do
eviction defense, which, in rural areas, was simple and classically Southern.
was people with rifles standing there and defending the house,” said Naison.
encampment protests called Hoovervilles spread across the country, entirely
built, governed and populated by the displaced. Accounts of the mutual aid and
self-governance in these encampments testify to the similarities between
Hoovervilles and the Occupy encampments in 2011. The only difference, perhaps,
is the former’s longevity; one of the largest Hoovervilles, located in Seattle, stood for 10
years, housed more than 1,000 residents at its peak and held its own elections
for the community’s mayor.
movement achieved substantial legislative gains. Housing policy became a major
part of the New Deal, culminating in the National Housing Act of 1934, which
established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to provide affordable
loans to spur homeownership, and the Housing Act of 1937, which established
public housing authorities across the country.
the era’s housing activists like Catherine Bauer were involved in the drafting of
this new legislation, the laws were far from full victories. The FHA, in
particular, was a highly conservative and often racist lending agency whose
main objective was reigniting housing construction rather than helping
individual homeowners — a mission that led to massive and ongoing federal
handouts to industry. Still, the establishment of public housing systemically
changed the landscape and ideology around housing in the United States
and was “one of the most successful federal programs in the 20th century,”
according to Damaris Reyes, the executive director of the public housing
advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side.
this measure, the Occupy Homes network and aligned housing movements still have
light-years to go — a reality that many organizers acknowledge. Yet the
conditions have changed since 1930s, suggesting that what we need are not
massive federal construction and lending programs, but rather a shift in the
way housing rights are perceived and enacted in the U.S. Rather than coping
with the scarcity of the 1930s, the United States now confronts vast,
unprecedented wealth and gaping economic inequality — a condition that is
perhaps best illustrated by the fact that there are upwards of a dozen empty
and unused houses for every homeless person in the nation.
more than enough wealth and roofs to provide safe and dignified homes for the
country’s population, the challenge today is to demonstrate that this situation
of desperate need coexisting with wasted excess is not one we need to accept.
Doing so requires the protests of people like Reneka Wheeler, Michelene Meusa,
John Vinje, Alma Ponce and Carrie Martinez who are willing to defy the law — on
camera and unafraid. And it will take these actions happening again and again.
As John Vinje in Minneapolis explained, “If the police come and decide that
they’re going to kick us out, we’ll make our stand up to the point where if we
have no option but to retreat, we’ll just go and find another one. And take it
over. And hopefully we’ll wear them down to the point that they’ll quit trying
to come and kick us out.”
resilience is just what the Occupy Homes network showed on December 23, with
the city’s second home takeover led by Carrie Martinez. And, while questions of
strategy and ability to scale remain, Martinez
reminds us that the purpose is always to enact the human right to housing — one
family at a time.
happens, we’re just grateful not to be living out of our car and to have
somewhere warm to spend our holidays,” Martinez
Mark R. Brown/mrbrownphoto.com.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012 3:19 PM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
We’re at the
edge of the cliff of deficit disaster! National security spending is being, or
will soon be, slashed to the bone! Obamacare will sink the ship of state!
Each of these
claims has grabbed national attention in a big way, sucking up years’ worth of
precious airtime. That’s a serious bummer, since each of them is a spending
myth of the first order. Let’s pop them, one by one, and move on to the truly
urgent business of a nation that is indeed on the edge.
Spending Myth 1:
Today’s deficits have taken us to a historically
unprecedented, economically catastrophic place.
This myth has
had the effect of binding the hands of elected officials and policymakers at
every level of government. It has also emboldened those who claim that we must
cut government spending as quickly, as radically, as deeply as possible.
In fact, we’ve
been here before. In 2009, the federal budget deficit was a whopping 10.1% of
the American economy and back in 1943, in the midst of World War II, it was
three times that -- 30.3%. This fiscal year the deficit will total around 7.6%.
Yes, that is big. But in the Congressional Budget Office’s grimmest projections, that figure will fall to 6.3% next
year, and 5.8% in fiscal 2014. In 1983, under President Reagan, the deficit hit
6% of the economy, and by 1998, that had turned into a
surplus. So, while projected deficits remain large, they’re neither
historically unprecedented, nor insurmountable.
still, the size of the deficit is no sign that lawmakers should make immediate
deep cuts in spending. In fact, history tells us that such reductions are
guaranteed to harm, if not cripple, an economy still teetering at the edge of
A number of
leading economists are now busy explaining why the deficit this year actually ought to be a
lot larger, not smaller; why there should be more government spending,
including aid to state and local governments, which would create new jobs and
prevent layoffs in areas like education and law enforcement. Such efforts,
working in tandem with slow but positive job growth in the private sector,
might indeed mean genuine recovery. Government budget cuts, on the other hand,
offset private-sector gains with the huge and depressing effect of public-sector layoffs, and have
damaging ripple effects on the rest of the economy as well.
When the economy is healthier, a host of promising options are at hand for
lawmakers who want to narrow the gap between spending and tax revenue. For
example, loopholes and deductions in the tax code that hand enormous subsidies
to wealthy Americans and corporations will cost the Treasury around $1.3 trillion in lost revenue this year alone -- more, that
is, than the entire budget deficit. Closing some of them would make great
strides toward significant deficit reductions.
deficit-reduction fever that’s resulted from this first spending myth has led
many Americans to throw their support behind de-investment in domestic
priorities like education, research, and infrastructure -- cuts that threaten to undo
generations of progress. This is in part the result of myth number two.
Military and other national security spending have already taken their
lumps and future budget-cutting efforts will have to take aim at domestic
The very idea
that military spending has already been deeply cut in service to deficit reduction is not only
false, but in the realm of fantasy. The real story: despite headlines about
“slashed” Pentagon spending and “doomsday” plans for more, no actual cuts to
the defense budget have yet taken place. In fact, since 2001, to quote former Defense
Secretary Robert M. Gates, defense spending has grown like a “gusher.” The
Department of Defense base budget nearly
doubled in the space of a decade. Now, the Pentagon is likely to face an
exceedingly modest 2.5% budget cut in fiscal 2013, “paring” its budget down to
a mere $525 billion -- with possible additional cuts shaving off
another $55 billion next year if Congress allows the Budget
Control Act, a.k.a. “sequestration,” to take effect.
But don’t hold
your breath waiting for that to happen. It’s likely that lawmakers will, at the
last moment, come to an agreement to cancel those extra cuts. In other words,
the notion that our military, which has been experiencing financial boom times
even in tough times, has felt significant deficit-slashing pain -- or has even
been cut at all -- is the Pentagon equivalent of a unicorn.
What this does
mean, however, is that lawmakers heading down the budget-cutting path can find
plenty of savings in the enormous defense and national security budgets. Moreover,
cuts there would be less harmful to the economy than reductions in domestic
A group of
military budget experts, for example, found
that cutting many costly and obsolete weapons programs could save billions of
dollars each year, and investing that money in domestic priorities like
education and health care would spur the economy. That’s because those sectors
create more jobs per dollar than military programs do. And that
leads us to myth three.
Government health-insurance programs are more costly than private
about the higher cost of government health programs have led many people to
demand that health-care solutions come from the private sector. Advocates of
this have been much aided by the complexity of sorting out health costs, which
has provided the necessary smoke and mirrors to camouflage this whopping lie.
is indeed growing faster than any other part of the federal budget.
It’s gone from a measly 7% in 1976 to nearly a quarter today -- and that’s
truly a cause for concern. But health care costs, public and private, have been
on the rise across the developed world for decades. And cost growth in
government programs like Medicare has actually been slower than in private health insurance. That’s because the
federal government has important advantages over private insurance companies
when it comes to health care. For example, as a huge player in the health-care
market, the federal government has been successful at negotiating lower prices
than small private insurers can. And that helps us de-bunk myth number four.
The Affordable Care Act -- Obamacare -- will bankrupt the federal
government while levying the biggest tax in U.S. history.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, this health-reform legislation
will reduce budget deficits by $119 billion between now and 2019. And only around 1% of American households will end up paying a penalty for
lacking health insurance.
Affordable Care Act is hardly a panacea for the many problems in U.S. health
care, it does at least start to address the pressing issue of rising costs --
and it incorporates some of the best wisdom on how to do so. Health-policy
experts have explored phasing out the fee-for-service payment system -- in
which doctors are paid for each test and procedure they perform -- in favor of
something akin to pay-for-performance. This transition would reward medical
professionals for delivering more effective, coordinated, and efficient care --
and save a lot of money by reducing waste.
Care Act begins implementing
such changes in the Medicare program, and it explores other important
cost-containment measures. In other words, it lays the groundwork for
potentially far deeper budgetary savings
down the road.
the landscape of four stubborn spending myths, it should be easier to see
straight to the stuff that really matters. Financial hardship facing millions
of Americans ought to be our top concern. Between 2007 and 2010, the median
family lost nearly 40% of its net worth. Neither steep deficits, nor
disagreement over military spending and health reform should eclipse this as
our most pressing challenge.
skipped the myth-making and began putting America’s resources into a series
of domestic investments that would spur the economy now, their acts would yield
dividends for years to come. That means pushing education and job training,
plus a host of job-creation measures, to the top of the priority list, and
setting aside initiatives based on fear and fantasy.
, is senior research
analyst at the
and lead author of the new book
A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget.
TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook, and
check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
Image by Brendan C,
licensed under Creative
Friday, October 28, 2011 10:58 AM
Considering the maddening details behind our nation’s current socio-economic struggles, it’s natural for many to ask: Where is the art to help us deal with our troubles?
In this second installment of the “This Art Is Your Art” series, we’ll look at what role popular music had played in helping people survive tough times in the past, and what role it is playing in the struggles of today.
It was bound to happen. After nearly four years of prolonged economic struggle
, lingering joblessness, an ever-increasing income gap, declining household wealth with an incongruent gain in corporate wealth, and a resulting explosion of mass frustration, people were bound to start asking: Where is the music that speaks to my problems? “Every successful movement has a soundtrack,”
New York Times
recently quoted former Rage Against the Machine member Tom Morello telling reporters during a rally at the Occupy Wall Street Protest. Others concurred with Morello. NPR’s Ann Powers had run a similar story two weeks earlier. 24-year-old college student Martían Hughes told the Times: “I have not heard a single song that sums up what we are trying to do here,” and a clever wag joked on Twitter: “
Really torn by the Occupy Wall Street movement because I agree with the message but I fucking hate drum circles.”
These concerns raise questions. First, has there actually been, during past struggles, music that
spurred on mass protests movements or that soothed and inspired struggling masses of Americans
? And, if so, is it reasonable for people to insist that such a soundtrack emerge for a protest movement that is so young it has yet to even decide what it is protesting exactly? And, perhaps most importantly, if we need music to raise us out of the muck, what is it about drum circles that fail to satisfy this desire?
Today, we can look back from our safe remove at past eras of suffering and despair—the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, or the sustained economic troubles of the 1970s—to examine the role music may have played in helping society deal with times of systemic troubles, how it may have given solace to the suffering or provided inspiration, and how it may even have helped affect change. And we can take heart in the fact that conditions today are the same as they ever were, and also completely different.
The Music of the 1930s: Daydreams and Defiance
The Great Depression struck the country with the suddenness of a howitzer shell. After a decade of brisk economic growth, bustling consumerism, and a resulting speculative bubble in Wall Street, the Black Tuesday stock market crash of October 29, 1929, ushered in a quick economic decline that would culminate in 1933 with a 25 percent unemployment rate (from a near-0 percent rate in 1929), a 37 percent drop in gross domestic product (from its high in 1929), and a debilitating deflationary spiral. Millions of displaced workers stood in bread lines. Families struggled with widespread anxiety and despair. Local union workers fought harassment by union-busting companies. Displaced and bankrupt workers were forced into itinerancy. And through it all an ineffectual government remained uncertain about the best course to take to solve the nation’s troubles.
At the time of the Wall Street crash, jazz was the ascendant style of music, and through the 1930s jazz vocalists such as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Rudy Vallee, Ted Lewis, Dick Powell, Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, Kate Smith, Billie Holliday, and Ethel Waters would provide a soundtrack for the Depression. As with most eras of American popular music, the radio air waves of the 1930s were filled with fluff—songs of unrequited or jilted love, songs hoping for a chance at love, and songs celebrating the acquisition of love. But there was also, as early as 1930, an undercurrent in the time's popular music suggesting that life had changed. In January, 1930, “Why Was I Born?",
from the Jerome Kern musical Sweet Adeline, captured a sense of the year’s uncertainty in its lyrics:
Why was I born?
Why am I livin’?
What do I get?
What am I givin’?
Why do I want for things
dare not hope for?
What can I hope for?
I wish I knew.
The song that many consider to be the anthem of the Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, followed in the same vein. Written in 1931 and recorded by Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby in 1932, the song recounts the heartache and frustration of a narrator who, just a few years before, had helped build railroads and skyscrapers, and had marched alongside his victorious countrymen in 1918. That the song struck a nerve with thousands of displaced American workers was evident in the fact that both Crosby’s and Vallee’s recordings reached the top of the hit charts that year.
Beyond the music of the popular airwaves, a resurgent “folk” music in the 1930s—created by figures like Jim Garland, Woody Guthie, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly—further explored the injustices faced by millions of ordinary citizens whose lives had been disrupted by the Depression. Songs like Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World No More” told stories about migrant workers, families reduced to poverty, and people forced to live in hovels and worker camps. Florence Reece’s 1931 song “Which Side Are You On?” channeled the anger and frustration of Kentucky miners facing union-busting activities during a labor strike. And Jim Garland’s 1933 song, “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister (All I Want),” spun the sentiments of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” into even more defiance.
We worked to build this country, Mister,
While you enjoyed a life of ease.
You’ve stolen all that we built, Mister,
Now our children starve and freeze.
So, I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.
Not all Great Depression music was as despairing. A certain American optimism filled the radio air waves alongside these other, more dour songs. In February, a song appeared in a movie called Chasing Rainbows
that would become another great anthem of the Great Depression. Though written in reference to the end of World War I, “Happy Days Are Here Again”
struck such a catchy, joyous message of hope that it inspired many Americans too look beyond their current troubles to when times would one day improve. The song’s sentiment was so popular it appeared in more than twenty movies during the Depression’s height (1930-1933), and then in nearly twenty more as the downturn lingered through the rest of the decade. Other songs based on this forget-your-troubles-be-happy model were common throughout the Depression: “On the Sunny Side of the Street” from the 1930 Broadway musical Lew Leslie's International Revue;“Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” performed by Rudy Vallee in 1931; “
Help Yourself to Happiness,” from the Ziegfield Follies of 1931, “Looking at the Bright Side” performed by Gracie Field in 1932, and so on. One such song became so popular it helped make the film it appeared in—the Busby Berkeley choreographed spectacle Gold Diggers of 1933—the biggest box office hit of that year. “We’re in the Money,” written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, epitomized the cheering quality of much music of the Depression, even as it added a thumbed-nose to the whole idea of Depression in the final line of the chorus.
We’re in the money, we’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money, that sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression, you are through, you done us wrong.
Both aspects of Depression music—the indignation and defiance in songs like “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and the roll-up-your-sleeves optimism in songs like “We’re in the Money”—spoke volumes about the values of the times. While people suffered, faced hopeless job markets, and had their families torn apart, this was still an age when the idea “American know-how” had currency. Many of us have heard stories about how our grandparents and great grandparents survived the Great Depression through a collective sense of determination, pluck, and thriftiness. My own grandmother used to keep a drawer full of old, used tinfoil—even well into the 1980s—because “you just never know when you’ll need it.” Franklin Roosevelt, a Democratic presidential candidate who broke a 12-year Republican hold on the office in 1932, won election that year by emphasizing American’s natural perseverance and ingenuity, and stressing how much we have relied on each other to get by. In his inaugural address—the famous “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech—Roosevelt spoke words that might have come from the mouth of a folk singer of the era:
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline…. With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.
The 1970s: Songs of Anger and Songs of Pain
Considering the similar trajectory of the 1970s recession to the turmoil of the 1930s, it’s no surprise that the music of the later era followed a similar pattern to the music of the Depression. As with the Great Depression, the lingering recession of the 1970s came after a long period of economic expansion. Both downturns lingered for a decade or so after the initial recessions had technically ended, and both were precipitated by a single event. (In the 1970s, the event was the 1973 oil crisis that followed the OPEC oil embargo on the United States that began on October 17, 1973.) Therefore, it did not take long for American ears in the 1970s to turn to music that spoke to the pain of era. In November, 1973, Stevie Wonder released his single, “Living for the City.” While not as sharp a commentary as songs he would write a few years later, this composition strung together a blunt series of images depicting the nature of American city life. Meanwhile, that same week on the opposite end of the musical spectrum, country-western star Waylon Jennings released his depiction of a laid-off factory worker, “If We Make It Through December.” The similar sense of empathy that these two very different artists feel for the downtrodden reveals the universality of artistic concern in a troubled time.
Plenty more popular music depicted the troubles of the times as the nation struggled after 1973 with joblessness, inflation, and stagnant economic growth. J. Geil’s Band’s “Detroit Breakdown,” Supertramp’s “Crime of the Century,” Hudson Ford’s “Burn Baby Burn,” Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Winter in America” and spoken-word album “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Don McLean’s “Homeless Brother," 10-CC’s “Wall Street Shuffle,” and the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” all appeared in 1974. Note: While some have adapted this last song as an ode to American acquisitiveness, a glance at the song’s lyrics make clear the O’Jays’ original intentions:
For the love of money
People will lie, Lord, they will cheat
For the love of money
People don’t care who they hurt or beat …
I know money is the root of all evil
Do funny things to some people
Give me a nickel, brother can you spare a dime
Money can drive some people out of their minds
In 1975, gritty looks at the times included “Hard Times” and “Never Say You Can’t Survive” by Curtis Mayfield, “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers, and “Rich Get Richer” by the O’Jays. In 1976, Stevie Wonder filled an entire album—Songs in the Key of Life—with songs that reflected his increasing dismay and bitterness at the way the country was being run. The album included the stark and angry “Have a Talk with God,” “Village Ghetto Land,” and his tour de force “I Wish."
By 1977 and 1978, the times were so frustrating that artistic anger led to the rise of a new, underground musical genre. These so-called “punk” bands played spare, loud, and angry songs about
the frustrations of the working class—the class from which most of the performers came—and of the hypocrisy and control exhibited by the rich and powerful
. Among the punk acts that appeared between 1974 and 1977 were the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, t
he Sex Pistols, the Boomtown Rats, the Undertones, the Buzzcocks, the Damned, the Clash, the Suicide Commandos, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Crime, the Nuns, the Tupperwares, VOM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, the Slits, the Subversives, and the Runaways. “
All the power’s in the hands of people rich enough to buy it,” screamed the Clash angrily in its 1977 song “White Riot,” “while we walk the street too chicken to even try it.”
As this new, energetic underground flourished on the indignation and anger of the times, similar sentiments filtered into even the most mainstream of music between 1976 and 1979. Songs like Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Angry Young Man” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Factory” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” more tunefully expressed the frustration felt by young people with few options for success in their lives. Even the biggest band in the world at the time, the hyper-successful Rolling Stones, who had little real reason to be upset in 1978, couldn’t keep the frustrations of the time from creeping into their feel-good brand of rock ’n’ roll. Their song “Shattered” spoke of the rising crime rates, the “money grabbers,” and the maggots overrunning New York City. “You got rats on the West Side,” Mick Jagger moaned, “bed bugs Uptown. What a mess, this town’s in tatters. I’ve been shattered.”
And you know once Mick Jagger is feeling frustrated, then it’s a safe bet that the masses are dealing with some pretty serious troubles.
Today: Music of Distraction
The breadth and depth of the anger and the haunting depictions of pain that was commonly written into the music of the 1930s and 1970s—as well as the popularity of such songs among the angry and frustrated masses—might lead one to expect a similar occurrence today. Thus, the questions raised today by Tom Morello and Ann Powers
are completely valid, especially when considering the breadth and depth of musical response to bad times in the past. While mainstream pop charts of today are, as in times of past, filled with songs of frivolous distraction and the obsessive pursuit of (or pining after the loss of) love/sex, what’s different now is that, unlike in the past, there has been little sign of the troubles of these times in the charts of musical hits. (Just to cite one example, in the Billboard list of the top 100 hits for 2010
there was only one song—Jay-Z’s somewhat gentle depiction his life on the streets of New York, “Empire State of Mind” (#21)—that includes any sort of social content, and no song that examines the anger or frustration of the times.) If pop music is to be believed today, no one seems to care to hear their own life frustrations reflected back at them in their music. (If pop music is to be believed, in 2010 Americans spent its spare time clubbing, cruising, and “doing it big all over the globe.”) In pop music today, no one seems to have any interest in venting their worries and frustrations or in being uplifted beyond the troubles of the current times.
There may be several reasons for this social disconnect in mainstream pop music. In an age when the lilting spiritual-cum-protest song “Kumbaya” is deemed an embarrassing national joke, we may have come to consider ourselves too savvy, too cynical, too clever by half to have our emotions and feelings depicted and manipulated by something so banal as a song. Indeed, several musical acts, in several different musical genres, go so far as to suggest that the protest song is dead. This includes the heavy metal band Foundation, who released their song “No One Writes Protest Songs Anymore” in 2011; the modern folk-rock group GioSafari, who produced an entire album called Protest Songs (Are Dead) in 2011; and, finally, and most famously, there’s Hugh Laurie’s send up of the protest song, “Protest Song.” This song
appeared on national TV just as the country began tipping into the economic abyss in 2008. As Laurie sings it, the answers to the country’s lingering problems—“poor keep gettin’ hungry, and the rich keep gettin’ fat,” etc.—are easy: “All we gotta do,” he sings, before mumbling an incoherent (nonexistent) answer.
So we may have—despite the wishes of Morello (wishes that, actually, may be self-motivated; see more on this below) and Powers—moved as a culture beyond the protest song. It’s possible that we live in a time when our values have turned so inward into personal introspection and self-regard that we find it impossible to gather together and sing about a common cause. Or else protest music may simply be too embarrassing a relic of the past, of a time when such well-meaning sentiment actually meant something. Today is a different age, we prefer to think, when problems are so complex, so difficult to solve that they’re not even worth bringing up in polite society. Considering all of these attitudes, it makes sense that the music that has thus far dominated the Occupy movement—the ever-present drum circle—is essentially an act of solipsism, in which a person with a loud percussive instrument expresses himself loudly without regard to whether or not anyone really wants to listen to the racket. And this may be the one object-lesson of today’s protests: Most of us, no matter our sympathies one way or another, can agree on one thing. We hate the music of the Occupy movement.
There may also be another, somewhat related reason that protest songs today simply don’t have the sticking power of the past. We may not only be prone to dismiss such music as out of touch with the times, but, as Live Aid founder Midge Ure suggests, we may also be living in a culture that makes it impossible to hear such music. “The protest song isn’t quite as relevant right now,” Ure said at a recent conference on politics in the digital age. “The world certainly has enough turmoil going on in it for people to write about. I just think maybe the vehicle to hear those songs has changed, or broken, or disappeared.” As Casey Rae-Hunter of the Future of Music Coalition recently pointed out in an NPR story, ours is a “fractured culture,” sliced up in so many different ways that we lack much common cultural ground now. In an age when people carry in their pockets devices that hold upwards of 10,000 songs of their own choosing, when satellite and internet radios offer access to hundreds and thousands of radio stations of every particular bent, when Spotify allows you to tap into the music collections of your entire network of friends, when we have, in a word, unlimited amounts of choice about which music to consume, it makes sense that songs of complex or troubled sentiment might be lost in the mix.
Still, the fracturing of our culture is not necessarily a completely bad thing, as Rae-Hunter explains, because it gives a “plethora of folks who otherwise would’ve had no shot of getting on commercial radio” a change to be heard. And, as it happens, this dynamic is analogous to the changing nature of protest that has become apparent in the Occupy movement itself. Today, the traditional trappings of protest—rallies, speeches, song circles—seem less important than the constant stream of chatter that is made possible through social media. “In the 1960s music was the social media of the day,” said Ralph F. Young, a professor of history at Temple University, in a recent Time magazine story. “Today protesters have Facebook and Twitter to disseminate their message.” And in an age of flattened discourse—made possible by universal access to the Twitter stream—music ends up being far less of a player in the debate than in the past.
In the end, apparently, it may no longer really matter whether or not artists are writing meaningful music about the times. Which is unfortunate in a way, because
in fact there are plenty of songs of protest and complaint to be found if you’re willing to look beyond your own iPod’s playlists. The New York Times story, of course, lists a few—by Ry Cooder, Justin Sane of Anti-Flag, and Aloe Blacc. But the list could be much more expansive, including a wide range of genres and takes, including: “Survival of a People” by Gabriel’s Grandzjuk, “Sounds Like Life to Me” by Darryl Worley, “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)” by John Wesley Harding, “Ponzi” by the Felice Brothers, “Shutting Detroit Down” by John Rich, and entire albums by Robb Johnson (Some Recent Protest Songs) and the Nightwatchman, a.k.a. Tom Morello—no wonder he wants us to reconsider the protest song (World Wide Rebel Songs).
And then there’s my own personal current favorite song about the times, one that I would gladly share with anyone who comes within reach of my own ear buds: Jeremy Messersmith’s recent composition “Blue Sky (Corporations Are People My Friend).” In this simple, tuneful song Messersmith finds an accessible, endearing way to put his musical thumb right on the deep, raging, universal vein of frustration that is nagging at the so-called “99 percent.”
We don’t have money
We don’t have guns
Off shore accounts
Or mutual funds
But from the suburbs to trailer parks
We’ve got each other, and that’s a start.
While Messersmith’s song may not change the world, in this age of iTunes and Spotify, and it may not find its way onto the Billboard charts, by sharing his take on the times through this song I can honestly say he’s changed my life just a little bit. And that’s a start.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
Read more of the “This Art Is Your Art” series.
Lead image by David Shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
Additional image by Jessica Warren is licensed courtesy of Getty Images. © 2011 Jessica Warren. © 2011 Getty Images. All rights reserved.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011 11:43 AM
This post originally appeared at
As intense protests spawned by Occupy Wall Street continue to grow, it is worth asking: Why now? The answer is not obvious. After all, severe income and wealth inequality have long plagued the United States. In fact, it could reasonably be claimed that this form of inequality is part of the design of the American founding -- indeed, an integral part of it.
Income inequality has worsened over the past several years and is at its highest level since the Great Depression. This is not, however, a new trend. Income inequality has been growing at rapid rates for three decades. As journalist Tim Noah describedthe process:
“During the late 1980s and the late 1990s, the United States experienced two unprecedentedly long periods of sustained economic growth -- the ‘seven fat years’ and the ‘long boom.’ Yet from 1980 to 2005, more than 80%of total increase in Americans' income went to the top 1%. Economic growth was more sluggish in the aughts, but the decade saw productivity increase by about 20%. Yet virtually none of the increase translated into wage growth at middle and lower incomes, an outcome that left many economists scratching their heads.”
The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated the trend, but not radically: the top 1% of earners in America have been feeding ever more greedily at the trough for decades.
In addition, substantial wealth inequality is so embedded in American political culture that, standing alone, it would not be sufficient to trigger citizen rage of the type we are finally witnessing. The American Founders were clear that they viewed inequality in wealth, power, and prestige as not merely inevitable, but desirable and, for some, even divinely ordained. Jefferson praised “the natural aristocracy” as “the most precious gift of nature” for the “government of society.” John Adams concurred: “It already appears, that there must be in every society of men superiors and inferiors, because God has laid in the… course of nature the foundation of the distinction.”
Not only have the overwhelming majority of Americans long acquiesced to vast income and wealth disparities, but some of those most oppressed by these outcomes have cheered it loudly. Americans have been inculcated not only to accept, but to revere those who are the greatest beneficiaries of this inequality.
In the 1980s, this paradox -- whereby even those most trampled upon come to cheer those responsible for their state -- became more firmly entrenched. That’s because it found a folksy, friendly face, Ronald Reagan, adept at feeding the populace a slew of Orwellian clichés that induced them to defend the interests of the wealthiest. “A rising tide,” as President Reagan put it, “lifts all boats.” The sum of his wisdom being: it is in your interest when the rich get richer.
Implicit in this framework was the claim that inequality was justified and legitimate. The core propagandistic premise was that the rich were rich because they deserved to be. They innovated in industry, invented technologies, discovered cures, created jobs, took risks, and boldly found ways to improve our lives. In other words, they deserved to be enriched. Indeed, it was in our common interest to allow them to fly as high as possible because that would increase their motivation to produce more, bestowing on us ever greater life-improving gifts.
We should not, so the thinking went, begrudge the multimillionaire living behind his 15-foot walls for his success; we should admire him. Corporate bosses deserved not our resentment but our gratitude. It was in our own interest not to demand more in taxes from the wealthiest but less, as their enhanced wealth -- their pocket change -- would trickle down in various ways to all of us.
This is the mentality that enabled massive growth in income and wealth inequality over the past several decades without much at all in the way of citizen protest. And yet something has indeed changed. It’s not that Americans suddenly woke up one day and decided that substantial income and wealth inequality are themselves unfair or intolerable. What changed was the perception of how that wealth was gotten and so of the ensuing inequality as legitimate.
Many Americans who once accepted or even cheered such inequality now see the gains of the richest as ill-gotten, as undeserved, as cheating. Most of all, the legal system that once served as the legitimizing anchor for outcome inequality, the rule of law -- that most basic of American ideals, that a common set of rules are equally applied to all -- has now become irrevocably corrupted and is seen as such.
While the Founders accepted outcome inequality, they emphasized -- over and over -- that its legitimacy hinged on subjecting everyone to the law’s mandates on an equal basis. Jefferson wrote that the essence of America would be that “the poorest laborer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest millionaire, and generally on a more favored one whenever their rights seem to jar.” Benjamin Franklin warned that creating a privileged legal class would produce “total separation of affections, interests, political obligations, and all manner of connections” between rulers and those they ruled. Tom Paine repeatedly railed against “counterfeit nobles,” those whose superior status was grounded not in merit but in unearned legal privilege.
After all, one of their principal grievances against the British King was his power to exempt his cronies from legal obligations. Almost every Founder repeatedly warned that a failure to apply the law equally to the politically powerful and the rich would ensure a warped and unjust society. In many ways, that was their definition of tyranny.
Americans understand this implicitly. If you watch a competition among sprinters, you can accept that whoever crosses the finish line first is the superior runner. But only if all the competitors are bound by the same rules: everyone begins at the same starting line, is penalized for invading the lane of another runner, is barred from making physical contact or using performance-enhancing substances, and so on.
If some of the runners start ahead of others and have relationships with the judges that enable them to receive dispensation for violating the rules as they wish, then viewers understand that the outcome can no longer be considered legitimate. Once the process is seen as not only unfair but utterly corrupted, once it’s obvious that a common set of rules no longer binds all the competitors, the winner will be resented, not heralded.
That catches the mood of America in 2011. It may not explain the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it helps explain why it has spread like wildfire and why so many Americans seem instantly to accept and support it. As was not true in recent decades, the American relationship with wealth inequality is in a state of rapid transformation.
It is now clearly understood that, rather than apply the law equally to all, Wall Street tycoons have engaged in egregious criminality -- acts which destroyed the economic security of millions of people around the world -- without experiencing the slightest legal repercussions. Giant financial institutions were caught red-handedengaging in massive, systematic fraud to foreclose on people’s homes and the reaction of the political class, led by the Obama administration, was to shield them from meaningful consequences. Rather than submit on an equal basis to the rules, through an oligarchical, democracy-subverting control of the political process, they now control the process of writing those rules and how they are applied.
Today, it is glaringly obvious to a wide range of Americans that the wealth of the top 1% is the byproduct not of risk-taking entrepreneurship, but of corrupted control of our legal and political systems. Thanks to this control, they can write laws that have no purpose than to abolish the few limits that still constrain them, as happened during the Wall Street deregulation orgy of the 1990s. They can retroactively immunize themselves for crimes they deliberately committed for profit, as happened when the 2008 Congress shielded the nation’s telecom giants for their role in Bush’s domestic warrantless eavesdropping program.
It is equally obvious that they are using that power not to lift the boats of ordinary Americans but to sink them. In short, Americans are now well aware of what the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Illinois’s Dick Durbin, blurted out in 2009 about the body in which he serves: the banks “frankly own the place.”
If you were to assess the state of the union in 2011, you might sum it up this way: rather than being subjected to the rule of law, the nation’s most powerful oligarchs control the law and are so exempt from it; and increasing numbers of Americans understand that and are outraged. At exactly the same time that the nation’s elites enjoy legal immunity even for egregious crimes, ordinary Americans are being subjected to the world's largest and one of its harshest penal states, under which they are unable to secure competent legal counsel and are harshly punished with lengthy prison terms for even trivial infractions.
In lieu of the rule of law -- the equal application of rules to everyone -- what we have now is a two-tiered justice system in which the powerful are immunized while the powerless are punished with increasing mercilessness. As a guarantor of outcomes, the law has, by now, been so completely perverted that it is an incomparably potent weapon for entrenching inequality further, controlling the powerless, and ensuring corrupted outcomes.
The tide that was supposed to lift all ships has, in fact, left startling numbers of Americans underwater. In the process, we lost any sense that a common set of rules applies to everyone, and so there is no longer a legitimizing anchor for the vast income and wealth inequalities that plague the nation.
That is what has changed, and a growing recognition of what it means is fueling rising citizen anger and protest. The inequality under which so many suffer is not only vast, but illegitimate, rooted as it is in lawlessness and corruption. Obscuring that fact has long been the linchpin for inducing Americans to accept vast and growing inequalities. That fact is now too glaring to obscure any longer.
Glenn Greenwald is a former constitutional and civil rights litigator and a current contributing writer at Salon.com. He is the author of two New York Times bestselling books on the Bush administration's executive power and foreign policy abuses. His just-released book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful(Metropolitan Books), is a scathing indictment of America's two-tiered system of justice. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism.
Copyright 2011 Glenn Greenwald
Image by david_shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, October 14, 2011 12:22 PM
In a buck-stops-here, brass-tacks era of hard economic choices, there will always be some who ask the inevitable question: What is the purpose of art? As it turns out, there are nearly as many answers to this question as there are artists. To Picasso, the purpose of art was “washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Josef Albers thought art was for visualizing “the human attitude towards life, towards the world,” while Jean Anouilh thought art was meant “to give life a shape.” Even ancient Aristotle, when he wasn’t inventing logic, had an opinion on the matter. “The aim of art,” he said, “is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
Despite this divergence of opinion, you’ll note that these answers agree on one thing. Art is definitively worth something. It's not an idle pursuit meant “to waste time,” or “to fill empty space.” Art is about being engaged in the world, about grappling with what needs to be grappled with.
And in fact, despite the grim view of policy makers, when times are tough people tend particularly to seek art out. During
past national moments of crisis—the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, and the prolonged 1970s R
a wide number of artists addressed the challenges of their times through their music, visual art, films, plays, and literature, and
people soaked their art up.
Consider the song
“This Land Is Your Land,” for a moment. Written by Woody Guthrie at the tail end of the Great Depression, just a year or so before the United States entered into World War II, it was meant as a response to the Irving Berlin’s blandly patriotic song, “God Bless America.” Though Berlin wrote his song in 1918, in 1938 he revised it for the singer Kate Smith to use on her weekly radio show. Guthrie grew tired of hearing Smith sing the song, which he considered insipid and out-of-touch, so he wrote a more realistic, if sweeping, portrait of the country that also encapsulated the feelings of people who had been shut out from the good life during the Great Depression. The genius of “This Land Is Your Land,” perhaps, was that the Depression-inspired protest in the song’s central lyric (“This land is made for you and me”) was subtle, voiced not as a complaint or call to arms but as a positive (yet still socialistic) sentiment of equality and belonging. At the time of the song’s composition, Guthrie was experiencing minor success in his career. He sang on and off in those years for radio shows in Los Angeles and New York, and he performed around the country at small venues. As the country reveled in its victory over fascism after 1945, folk singers like Guthrie faded from the collective consciousness along with their music. But Guthrie and “This Land Is Your Land” would rightly come back in favor. In the late 1950s, city kids began revisiting and reinterpreting the folk music of the earlier age, and Guthrie was a key figure in this revival. “This Land Is Your Land” would become Guthrie's signature song in these years, and over time it would come to occupy a central position in the American musical canon. (This is evident in the fact that the Library of Congress chose to include the song as one of the first 50 recordings to be preserved in the National Recording Registry alongside recordings of Gershwin playing “Rhapsody in Blue,” Bessie Smith singing “Downhearted Blues,” Elvis Presley’s “Sun Records sessions,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.)
If you look at the long view, art’s strength
and perhaps its highest purpose
is its ability to lift humans above their temporary troubles. When Guthrie sang of his people standing in lines at the relief office, “some grumblin’ and some wonderin’,” he was not fretting over his own petty concerns and struggles, he was making a universal and beautiful statement about the human condition. This is why it’s natural
as the maddening details behind our nation’s current socio-economic struggles are revealed daily
for us to wonder today: Where is the art to help us cope with our troubles? Where is the contemporary music to ease our aching souls? Where are the movies and plays and books to help us examine and understand the human condition? Where is the visual art that lifts us with visions of a better world?
In this space over the next few months, I will explore these particular questions about the arts of today
first popular music; then theatrical and literary forms like films, plays, radio and TV shows, and books; and finally visual art
—by examining the fraying and neglected artistic infrastructure of our fraying and neglected nation for any sign of a clear artistic response to our current “Great Recession.” Also, to determine the state of our national psyche today relative to past times of struggle I will compare and contrast the art being made today to that during the Great Depression of the 1930s and during the 1970s Recession (ca. 1973-1979).
If you have suggestions for any contemporary music, movies, books, plays, or visual art works you think should be included in this discussion, please send them along. (After all, we’re talking about art that was made for you and me.) Ultimately, the hope is that we can, together, discover the most artful and creative ways of understanding and rising above this mess we're in currently.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
The photograph used above is a work for hire created prior to 1968 by a staff photographer at
New York World-Telegram & Sun
It is part of a collection donated to the Library of Congress. Per the deed of gift, New York World-Telegram & Sun dedicated to the public all rights it held for the photographs in this collection upon its donation to the Library. Thus, there are no known restrictions on the usage of this photograph.
Thursday, May 12, 2011 10:02 PM
Editor note: Make sure to also check out an article from the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader on this topic, “Turning Suffering into a Still Life: ‘Ruin porn’ aesthetically disconnects human suffering from devastation”
Leave it to the French to find a strange and poignant beauty in the reeling and degraded remnants of the once-great American nation. This past April, after more than five years of exploration amid the back alleys, ruined halls, pot-holed streets, and emptied factories of the failing Queen of Midwestern Cities, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre released their photographic homage to the place, The Ruins of Detroit. And the results of these two French artists' prurient and somewhat sordid interest in the fallen city reveals—in much the same way that porn reveals—something about the hidden beliefs, latent habits of thought, and dark submerged impulses that exist in some subterranean place in the heart of our culture.
Detroit’s fall is poignant in both its rapidity and completeness. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, up until the 1960s, Detroit was widely acknowledged to be a key American manufacturing center. The city's population swelled mid-last century to become the fifth-largest of all American cities, and, as Detroit's rose, the local cityscape filled with beautiful monumental structures: The United Artists Theater, the Whitney Building, the Farwell Building, Michigan Central Station. As Edmund Wilson said of Detroit in the 1930s, as was quoted in Thomas Sugrue’s essay accompanying the book, “You can see here, as it is impossible to do in a more varied and complex city, the whole structure of an industrial society.” Detroit was famous for making cars of course, but also for its establishing a massive war manufacturing works during World War II, for producing a national musical sound, and for being a touchpoint for industrial caprice and the accompanying labor unrest. “There is no better place than Detroit to observe the dialectical forces of modern capitalism,” Segrue writes, “often in their most exaggerated forms. Detroit is a place of both permanence and evanescence, of creation and destruction, of monumentality and disposability, of place and placelessness, of power and disempowerment.”
The initial frontispiece (untitled) image in The Ruins of Detroit
shows a plastered, faded aerial photograph of Detroit at its height. Parts of the image-within-the-image are peeling away, revealing chipped and gouged paint on the wall underneath, and in the middle of the image someone has spray-painted, "You are here," with an arrow pointing to the top of a central muscular skyscraper. Despite the fading colors of the photographed city, the peeling paper and wall paint, and the spray paint, the image still clearly shows a once-regal city. The buildings in the picture are strong, ornate, erect—if somewhat overly muscular in that way of America during its 20th century rise to power and riches. The boulevards are wide, and they angle in toward several lovely open public spaces and walking plazas. Detroit at its height was as beautiful and golden a place as there was in the world, which is world's away from what the city is now.
y, all-but abandoned by a diminished industrial base (that moved off-shore) and all-but evacuated by the white middle-class (that fled to the suburbs), Detroit has become, symbolically speaking, an urban hooker with a heart of gold. Compare for instance the faded photo of Detroit at its apex to another look at the same landscape taken by Marchand and Meffre from inside a now-ruined downtown building, “View on Woodward Avene, Broderick Tower." In the latter image, the city's once-elegant buildings have faded to squalidness. They are cracked and crumbling, hard and gray. The wide boulevard is uninviting, almost devoid of the former bustle of the mid-20th century version of the city. And this doesn’t even begin to describe the cracked, dingy, neglected interior of the Broderick Tower. Detroit in this image is a clearly diminished place, whose strength and beauty has faded under sustained abandonment. The once-beautiful woman, at least in these artists' view, has been used up and cruelly cast aside.
Dozens and dozens of images in The Ruins of Detroit explore this loss of vitality and beauty. And many reveal the violence inherent in such decay and ruin. In "Ballroom, Lee Plaza Hotel," the irrevocable destruction is fully on display. The once-luxurious, excessively ornate decor of the ballroom—all the plaster and marble and gilt that once covered the arches, vaults, recessed window bays, and doorways—is now cracked, crumbling, and turned to dust. The walls and floors are coated with ghost-white and dingy residue as thick as after a nuclear winter. And in the middle of the room, resting on its side as if violently cast aside, a grand piano gives another hint at the space's former grandeur. It looks, in its toppled state in this image, much like the "Dying Gaul," if that sculpture had been left out on the field of battle. These ruins, this decay—the dying piano seems to be saying with its wrenching last words—this is a death not just of a city and its monuments. This is the death, the piano gasps, of an entire culture.
On their website, Marchand and Meffre justify their sordid interest in Detroit by saying that "ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes ... the volatile result of the change of eras and the fall of empires. This fragility leads us to watch them one very last time: to be dismayed, or to admire, it makes us wonder about the permanence of things." What this means is scores of images of imploding or exploding buildings, blown-out, windowless, and element-ravaged; suddenly abandoned and ruin-strewn spaces, including schools, libraries, theaters, ballrooms, churches, and other sad remnants of a formerly thriving culture; and emptiness and squalor where a beautiful and vibrant city once existed. These photos of a shockingly ruined Detroit illustrate how transient and fleeting are youth, beauty, power, wealth—especially in a nation unwilling or unable to protect or care for such virtues.
Fascination with the ruin of Detroit, of course, is not particularly new. Books and photographic projects started appearing just before the turn of the last century, when what was happening to the city was becoming more apparent to observers. The DetroitYes web project, for example, has chronicled the decline of Detroit online since late 1997. The website, run by the artist Lowell Boileau includes thousands of web images, descriptions of lost and ruined historical and cultural treasures, and a discussion forum. And in Camilo Jose Vergara's book American Ruins parts of Detroit are featured alongside the ruined and decayed areas of other cities like New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Gary, and Los Angeles. Still, the fascination with Detroit as the emblematic paragon of American decay has accelerated in recent years, coinciding with the recessionary times since 2008. In the past year alone, three large-format coffee table books depicting the squalor and ruin of Detroit have been released by major publishers. These include Marchand and Meffre’s book, as well as Lost Detroit by author Dan Austin and photographer Sean Doerr and Detroit Disassembled by Philip Levine and Andrew Moore.
To understand why Detroit so fascinates us today, we’d have to look back to what the “hooker with a heart of gold” archetype, which, while nearly as old as literature itself, continues to fascinate a variety of cultures. Characters as diverse as Mary Magdalene (from the New Testament) and Vasantasena from an ancient Sanskrit drama, Fantine from Les Miserables and Violetta Valery from La Traviata, and Vivian Ward from the movie Pretty Woman, Latika from Slumdog Millionaire, and pretty much any Heather Graham role (Boogie Nights, Hangover, etc…) are typically seen as a symbolic representations of good people (women) forced into desperate life situations by powers beyond their control. These characters serve as gentle warnings that even good people sometimes end up—despite their best intentions, despite their natural goodness—in less than savory life situations. Detroit has been degraded, debased, and turned to a shadow of what she once was, not by any inherent fault of her own—or, more to the point, by any fault of our own—but just because that’s the nature of the world.
Some cities in this world, in this heartless country of ours, are meant to be treated and feted like royalty. And others are meant to sell themselves off piecemeal to keep from starving. That’s just how it goes.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
All photos, which originally appeared in Marchand and Meffre’s book The Ruins of Detroit, are included here courtesy of Steidl Press.
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