Class war in the urban core

Building power from the cities out

This is the second of a two-part series covering the fragmented geography of national break-up in the U.S. The first part was an overview of a recent book by Phil Neel, Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict, which illuminates the growing fractures between urban and rural, and within metropolitan areas themselves. Here I offer my own analysis, with some ideas on how to begin bringing it back together again. 

No one should doubt a class war is underway. Even Warren Buffett admitted it. “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Never more than in the past year. Buffett should know. He recently joined the literal one-billionth percent. That’s the eight individuals in a world population closing on eight billion whose personal assets exceed $100 billion. As of June 14 they together possessed $1.14 trillion, according to the daily updated Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Of course they leverage many trillions more in corporate assets. Bezos, Arnault, Musk, Gates, Zuckerberg, Page, Brin, Buffett. The 0.000000001%. 

Latest numbers show 2,755 billionaires worldwide possessing $13 trillion in assets. Their ranks grew by 660 and assets by $5 trillion over just the past year. The wealth of the 719 billionaires in the U.S. slightly more than doubled to $4.56 trillion during the pandemic months between March 2020 and April 2021. Meanwhile, a new investigation reveals that billionaires, including several in that one-billionth, pay no or only only nominal taxes on their wealth gains.

Is it any wonder that Phil Neel and others see nothing but continuing social degradation under capitalism, and a future of brute class struggle, riots, and disruption of the economy’s circulatory infrastructure as the only way out? It is clear that the acceleration of the wealth divide, leaving ordinary people under increasing economic stress, is bound to spur intensifying social conflict. Nick Hanauer, self-described member of the .01%, has warned “my fellow filthy rich . . . If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t come out.” 

The poster for class war is Jeff Bezos commissioning a half-billion-dollar yacht with its own support yacht, the latter carrying its own submarine, while preparing to be shot into space, at the same time inhuman quotas force his warehouse workers and drivers to pee in bottles, and intimidation tactics knock down warehouse union organizing campaigns. I actually saw the filthiest of filthies on the street in Seattle one day in early 2019. At $109 billion he had already clocked past Gates as world’s richest. I did a double take walking out of Café Umbria on Occidental Square. There was a short balding man talking with two blue-jeaned guys wearing sport jackets. Yup, it was him. One of the two looked at me sharply when I sighted Bezos. I assume they concealed some pretty heavy heat under those jackets. I wonder if an additional $95 billion later, Bezos still goes out in the street with only two guys. If he’s listening to Hanauer, one of his original Amazon investors, he might be considering beefing up his security detail. There’s worse than pitchforks on these streets. 

Ironically, I saw the world’s richest man a block-and-a-half south of the original place called skid row. Loggers stripped the rich stands of old growth trees that once occupied the hills above, then skidded them down to Yesler’s sawmill. The skid road is now called Yesler Avenue. Seattle started as a timber boomtown selling to cities around the Pacific Rim. It was a bastion of the global market economy from the start. In the degraded conditions of boomtown capitalism, the people soon followed, forever giving the world the phrase, “on the skids.” 

The sawmill is gone, but the discards of an increasingly unequal society still remain on nearby streets. People who for a variety of reasons, addiction, mental illness, simple poverty, can no longer afford to keep a roof over their heads, and come out from tent encampments and shelters during the day. Seattle goes from one boom to another. In today’s technology boom, housing costs have been rising at some of the fastest rates in the nation. Meanwhile, tech billionaires such as Bezos fight taxes to pay for affordable housing and adequate drug treatment and mental health services. I’ve experienced this from the other side fighting for progressive taxation in Seattle, where a regressive, sales-tax-based system favors the rich, and hits poor and working class people the hardest of any place in the U.S.  

Above these streets rise the towers Neel saw when he arrived in Seattle, the “urban palace” of the “creative class” where construction cranes sprout. It is the “green zone” soaring beyond the increasingly poor and multiethnic southern suburbs of the city where Neel first landed and found work in an industrial kitchen. I was especially attracted to Neel’s book because we have shared common geographies. I have lived in the rural and urban Northwest, seen the poverty and increasing reactionary politics in natural resource-based communities, and the growing divides across the metropolitan landscape between the gentrifying urban core and the decaying fringes. In my younger life, I have even been “on the skids.” I know what it is to live in my car. 

It is just those experiences living on a fracturing geography that have instilled the dread of the U.S. future of which I have written here and here. That sense that the United States is approaching some sort of national break-up. For it is hard to find a region in the U.S. where the fractures of the cold civil war are appearing more clearly. Two of the most liberal-lefty cities in the country, Democratic-voting Seattle and Portland, and several college towns are in proximity to increasingly Republican rural and exurban areas with some of the most virulent far rightists anywhere. Only a few hour’s drive separates Seattle from the survivalist “redoubt” of Northeast Washington and Northern Idaho, the old “White Aryan Homeland” where accelerationist militias practice for “the day.” Matt Shea, who has represented exurban and rural areas near Spokane in the Washington State House, has justified biblical war against non-believers and helped plan a “Patriot” takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. 

When convoys of Trump-flag-bearing pickups rammed through Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Portland last summer, soaking protesters with bear spray, it seemed only a preview of the urban warfare that could break out. When armed rightist protestors later broke into the Oregon State Capitol to protest pandemic restrictions, aided by a since-expelled rural Republican senator and foreshadowing the U.S. Capitol riot a few weeks later, the picture became even clearer. The fragmented geography of a U.S. in the process of breaking apart is nowhere more visible than on the divided landscape of the Pacific Northwest. 

That draws me back to the urban core. It is where progressive forces can draw together and build a base of power to confront what’s coming.  Neel does a good job portraying the “near hinterland” of the urban fringes as a crucial arena of struggle, with its increasing populations of surplused and downgraded people living aside its most vital circulatory routes. But I don’t think he places enough focus on the critical field of struggle within the urban core itself. In a fragmenting U.S., cities and their immediate surroundings are where progressives must build power. They are where political movements can coalesce around a comprehensive vision of a just and democratic future. Such movements can lattice urban and metropolitan regions across the U.S. and extend into rural areas suffering as much as anywhere from a system that privileges the wealthy over the rest of us. 

Large populations living close to the edge, and over it, still live within the urban core. There are also class complexities toward the middle that provide openings. Economic stress cuts across the income spectrum, from working class to white collar.

  • While low wage workers suffered a 5% wage decline between 1979 and 2013, middle income workers saw only a 6% growth, compared to 41% for the very high-wage class. 

  • By 2018, average incomes of the top 0.1% reached 196 times those of the bottom 90%. That compares to 35 times in 1975, when the income gap was the narrowest since the 1930s Depression. The divide has been widening since the tax cuts and union busting of the Reagan era. 

  • In 2018, the top 20% of households, those making $130,000 annually or more, took more than half of all income, 52% compared to 43% in 1968. Each of the four other fifths below them has declined in relative share. 

Though stressed by increasing housing costs, those bottom 80% and 90% still constitute most of those who live in the city. The urban landscape is a complicated patchwork. Downtown and upper-income neighborhoods which predominantly support the status quo definitely fit the “urban palace” description. But much of the terrain is covered by lower-to-middle-income neighborhoods that form the basis for urban political movements. 

On my turf in Seattle, such movements have been the basis for the $15/hour minimum wage victory that has now spread across the nation, restrictions on evictions, and a “boss tax” that makes corporations such as Amazon pay a percentage of what they reimburse highly compensated employees. The class politics includes many urban professionals, including people in the well-paid tech sector. At the cutting edge, organizing for a Seattle Green New Deal, focused on building and maintaining affordable housing in neighborhoods well served by transit, has merged with work among communities of color aimed at redirecting police spending to social services including housing. 

Can urban movements linked across the landscape build to the profound changes needed in a system where billionaire wealth has more than doubled in a year? That is the question, and the answer is unclear. What is clear is that something is deeply wrong with such an order. Changing it will require more than reformist tinkering around the edges. Needed is a vision for systemic change that genuinely brings more democratic power and management to society and the economy. Organizing around such a vision, we might begin to heal our fractured land. 

The Raven will next turn to how we begin to assemble a democratic vision in the places where we live, including the vital question of scale. Can we really build democracy on a continental scale, or do we need a more decentralized order centered on places and regions?