From the Editor: Field Notes
A friend of mine worked for years as a clinical psychologist at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris—the official think tank for the top capitalist economies—managing the anger of the managers and the anxieties of the economists. She told me her clients, at best pretty disturbed, really began to flip out when the Great Recession hit in 2008. Presumably they’re calmer these days, now that the OECD has announced that “economic growth is gaining momentum in the United States, Europe, and other advanced countries despite temporary setbacks.” Or maybe not. Didn’t Larry Summers (who would have been Fed Chairman if not for his unusually bad personality), announce at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund that, to the contrary, the global economy is facing long-term or permanent stagnation?
I feel a touch of schizophrenia myself: While economic growth is unquestionably not “gaining momentum,” Brooklyn—even East New York—hardly looks like the pictures of the Great Depression we’re all familiar with. There are a lot of workers’ caps, but they’re worn by baristas and their customers, not long lines of unemployed waiting for handouts. Semi-employed 30-year-olds, not to mention immigrant extended families, may be living five in a room in Queens, but they’re not sleeping leaning against a rope for 25 cents a night, despite the rising numbers of people who have to choose between rent, heat, and food. Is this difference from our images of social disaster, drawn from the past, what explains the eerie social calm, as society’s wealth continues to flow from the 99% to the 1%?
The current depression feels different in cities like New York, Berlin, Paris, and London, where the 1% and their hangers-on congregate. Here, inequality means not doing as well as the 20%. Maybe you can’t eat at a restaurant anymore, but you can still buy beer (and it’s really, really good). What’s going on is clearer in Istanbul, Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, Mumbai, which might account for the periodic eruption of protests and riots in such places. In early February, protesters seized the central hub of Rio de Janeiro’s public transportation system, letting a city full of commuters ride for free, despite police attacks with clubs and tear gas. When they get around to raising subway fares here—the bondholders must be paid—will it occur to New Yorkers that if we all jumped the turnstiles, chained open the gates, it might make quite an impact, with not many arrests? The general air of compliance, if not complacency, suggests that we are far from that kind of mass action. But you never know, as the Lottery guy intones. I didn’t expect Occupy to happen either.
What is clear is that the hum of commerce that is still the prevailing tune in a place like New York floats above a ground bass of gathering trouble: increasing homelessness and hunger, accumulating student and consumer debt, and the elephant that’s just about to walk into the room: permanent mass youth unemployment, the college-educated included. And that’s not even mentioning climate change, with its onrushing catastrophes and the promise of more. It’s hard to really believe what we’re hearing, because it’s not a familiar refrain, and it doesn’t harmonize with the dominant music. But at the same time, it’s somewhere in everyone’s earphones. No doubt that’s why there’s a sudden fashion for Marxism, and even the once-unspeakable words “socialism” and (gasp) “communism” are in the air, if you listen carefully. Books with titles like Why Marx Was Right are cropping up, and even non-ideological writing in places like the Onion begins to sound like socialist propaganda.
The Rail has something to contribute to creating the conditions for coherent thinking about what’s happening to us. FIELD NOTES intends to gather information about life in our age of austerity, and to think about it as clearly as possible. We’re interested, to begin with, in the everyday, rather than more rarified realms of theory, without shying away from seeking conceptual tools that might help make our experience of the present—its dangers and possibilities—more comprehensible. We’re watching what happens locally, but eager to hear about the rest of the world (as this month’s offerings demonstrate).
We’re looking for writers who have something to report, and something to say about it. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.