America underneath New York

Mariano Aguirre
18 November 2004

Also in openDemocracy's Multiculturalism debate, the pioneer of cultural studies, Stuart Hall, analyses another world city pressed by social inequality and political change in the context of immigration and neo-liberal globalisation; see "Divided city: the crisis of London" (October 2004)

They say that New York is not the United States. The fact that the majority of New Yorkers preferred John Kerry to George W Bush in the presidential election seems to confirm this. Maybe. But many of the elements that made the election result possible are – actually and symbolically – present in New York.

When friends visit the city, I first take them for a ride on the subway. Cities are appreciated at street level but some aspects of society are better understood from below ground. The New York subway shows the fragmented diversity, the alienating poverty (exotic to many tourists) the noise of iron against iron interrupting your thoughts, and the sheer exhaustion of people who spend hours a day on these trains only to go to work.

From the subway, you do not see the Manhattan of Woody Allen, the beautiful art-deco Chrysler Building, the romantic architecture of Central Park or the grand museum halls. The hundreds of miles of the subway system are home to poverty, inequality and exclusion. The Belgian essayist, Luc Sante wrote in his book Low Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003): “New York’s ghosts are the unresting soul of the poor, the marginal, the dispossessed, the depraved, the defective, the recalcitrant.”

The most intense feeling in the subway is the diversity (350 languages are spoken in this city) and the isolation. Many analysts say that the United States is a divided country, but in fact, it is a fragmented society. The widening income gap between professionals and the less-educated working class is felt in a New York social geography that reveals pervasive segregation of white, African-American, Latino and Asian communities. This segregation has been in part aided by the federal government’s delegation of power to local authorities, which (according to the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights) paradoxically accentuates the exclusion of minority groups.

An aspect of segregation is that, as poor neighbourhoods gentrify, their former inhabitants are displaced from the city and return there only to work in the service sector. According to the Center for an Urban Future, 32% of New York’s citizens are in the lowest-wage jobs – the fourth-largest proportion in the nation.

Theda Skocpol asserts that the failure of social provision in the US has been critical in driving this growing inequality: “High earners enjoy tax-subsidized employee benefits, and they can fill any gaps by purchasing quality child care, elder care, and enhanced pensions or health services on the private market. But Americans who earn modest or poverty–level wages are stuck” (“The Political Bind”, Boston Review, February–March 2002).

The reality in New York is a mirror of the growing inequality throughout the country as the role of the state as main provider of social security, education and health care declines. Although this has been exacerbated under the Bush administration, exit polls reveal that many poor people vote according to their “moral values” rather than their economic interests.

The sociologist Alan Wolfe, analyst of religious and political life in the United States, put it crudely: “Secularism has its greatest appeal among upper-middle-class liberals and professionals, while poorer Americans tend to be more religious” (“The God gap”, Boston Globe, 19 September 2004).

The ability of America’s leading political force to create and sustain a coalition that encourages such voting patterns and ways of thinking has had a powerful, innovative effect. Millions of people voted not for a party platform or programme, but for candidates who appealed to a right to bear arms or opposition to gay marriage and embryonic stem-cell research. It is an impressive, but also worrying, achievement.

The tracks of social change

A ride on the New York subway at 8am reveals this social fragmentation and raises three critical issues.

The first is the problem the state has in offering a universal sense of citizenship to unite its people. The neglect of subway stations is an insight into a mode of governing that combines patriotic symbols with policies that corrode shared, public experiences. The effect is to undermine in practice what is affirmed in rhetoric: the sense of belonging to one nation.

The second is that the responsibility for this inability to imagine a united country does not lie with its immigrants. These immigrants live within an international economic system that presses millions of people to leave their homelands in search of work and then offers them jobs working up to fourteen hours a day to earn $1,000 a month in the United States. In a struggle for a temporary, hourly job in a complex society, millions of people live with one foot in their homeland and one foot in their new land – seeking refuge in themselves, their families and their communities when they can.

The third is the way that the absence of universal citizenship and the enforcement of an individual struggle for survival combine to affect the key relationship between immigration, community and the state. When real (as opposed to formal) citizenship is lacking, membership of an ethnic, religious, racial, or sub-national community can substitute for wider, affective social loyalties that embody one of the essential components of a healthy society: trust in strangers.

In this way, individualism and communalism are embedded in the social structure of the modern United States. They are reinforced by constant immigration that creates a relentless, competitive demand for cultural and political space. Some political agendas seek to mobilise this proliferating diversity of communities, identities, and interests by deepening their potential for social segregation.

But the notions of individual empowerment and of community are also associated with a multitude of projects and ideas that promote the socio-economic advancement and rights of marginalised groups. A remarkable number of civil-society networks, initiatives, and research projects are underway across the United States – on a scale and in a detail that is virtually unknown in Europe and Asia.

The economist Gar Alperovitz, in his book America Beyond Capitalism: reclaiming our wealth, our liberty, and our democracy (Wiley, 2004), offers a way to understand this progressive social dynamic: as an evolving public-private project that encourages communities to develop a “pluralist commonwealth” able to recover the principles of equality, liberty, democracy, and the responsible use of shared wealth. These communities too will be critical in the fragmentation or the reconstruction of the American state – and the results will be appreciated on the streets of this country as well as below ground.

This article was translated from Spanish by Megan Burke

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