There’s no doubt that economic inequality is growing within the great cities, in the United State and around the world. The question is, is inequality killing what is great about those cities?
According to a new report by Alan Berube and Natalie Holmes for Brookings (in an update to an earlier study), inequality in the 50 largest cities in the United States (measured in terms of the disparity between the bottom 20 percent and the top 5 percent) is much higher than the national average.
Across the 50 largest cities, households in the 95th percentile of income earned 11.6 times as much as households at the 20th percentile, a considerably wider margin than the national average ratio of 9.3. This difference reflects the fact that in big cities the rich have higher incomes, and the poor lower incomes, than their counterparts nationally. From 2012 to 2013, the inequality ratio widened in both cities and the nation overall, as incomes at the top grew somewhat faster than incomes at the bottom. Notably, incomes grew faster for both the rich and poor in cities than they did elsewhere.
Similar trends have been reported elsewhere, in London and other major cities. (Baltimore, for those keeping track, was ranked twelfth in 2013 inequality, with a 95/20 ratio of 12.3.)
So, are these obscene levels of inequality destroying our cities?
Paul Krugman is not too sure about the historical lessons—but he does admit that “we’re now arguably looking at something new,”
as the really wealthy — domestic malefactors of great wealth, but also oligarchs, princelings, and sheiks — buy up prime real estate and leave it vacant, creating luxury-shopping wastelands at best (I know, snobbish Upper West Side bias), expensive ghost districts at worst.
David Harvey [ht: sk], for his part, sees increasing urbanization around the world connected to widespread “discontent emerging around the quality of urban life.”
So you can see this discontent producing uprisings in some instances, or mass protests like Gezi and what happened in Brazil shortly after Gezi. There is actually a long tradition of urban uprisings — the Paris Commune in 1871 and other instances well before that — but I think that the urban question is really becoming a central question today, and the qualities of urban life are moving to the forefront of what contemporary protests are about. . .
So we are seeing these sorts of emerging urban uprisings in a patchy way all around the world: in Buenos Aires, in Bolivia, in Brazil, etc. Latin America is full of this sort of stuff. But even in Europe we have seen major urban unrest: in London, Stockholm, Paris, and so on. What we have to do is to start thinking of a new form of politics, which is what anti-capitalism should fundamentally be about. Unfortunately, the traditional left still focuses narrowly on workers and the workplace, whereas now it’s the politics of everyday life that really matters.
The problem, as I see it, is neither Krugman nor Harvey offers a convincing class analysis that connects inequality with what is happening to and in the world’s cities. For Krugman, it’s a tiny group of wealthy oligarchs versus everyone else; Harvey seems to believe the “revolts in Baltimore and in Tahrir Square and so on” have nothing to do with the proletariat, at least as envisioned by Marx and Engels.
Now, I’m the first to admit the world has radically changed since the mid-nineteenth century. But that only means we have to update our class analysis of what is occurring within cities—where, to my mind, there is a broad class that is still doing most of the work and a tiny class at the top that is managing to capture a large portion of what those workers produce (within those cities and, in some instances, from cities across the globe). Otherwise, we’re going to fail to recognize the complex class dynamics of what is currently happening in our cities, and of course how they might be reshaped into urban centers that are worthy of the name of great cities.