Raising the Drawbridge

TO RECAPITULATE, between the Second World War and the 1970s, the world of Anglophone economics was ripe for a revolution. A revolution which, as we have seen from the last four chapters, 9 through 12, could have happened.

But, ultimately, the revolution never happened. And a large part of the reason why it never happened was that values ruling the wider political system became ‘colder’ and more unwelcoming.

Liberty remained to the fore, while Equality and Solidarity faded away.

At this point it’s necessary to to ask why our values shifted, and to devote a few more chapters to that question in the following, final section of my Utopia Thieves.

In this second section, I will endorse the now-topical view that neoliberalism is really a form of ‘colorblind racism’.

That is to say, that neoliberalism is not only a shift toward a more unwelcoming type of society but also, that the unwelcoming values of neoliberalism are specifically directed at pulling up the drawbridge against youthful urban populations of colour.

Even if the means employed are those of pulling up the drawbridge against everyone — pulling away the welcome mat, reducing social aid, forcing us all to fend for ourselves — the populations most affected are youthful and recent urban migrants of colour with the least amount of privilege, in the same way that a law forbidding rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges will mostly affect the poor.

Crucially, also, the issue is an urban one, one that is deeply bound up with urbanisation, urban growth and what used to be known, in the sixties, as the ‘urban crisis’. A crisis that is still with us, of course, and which now takes new forms.

For the economic revolution that never was, was also a revolution that would have secured what the French intellectual Henri Lefèbvre once dubbed ‘the right to the city’. The right to prosperity, security, good jobs, affordable housing, public spaces where it is easy to meet people and make friends, and all the other things that make city life worthwhile.

The modern condition, according to Lefèbvre, was one of the ‘total urbanisation of society’, of the reduction of country life to a residual in demographic terms, in the sense that after a while, just about everyone lives in the city or its suburbs and fewer and fewer live as farmers any more.

Indeed, the decline in the farming population in Western countries and even in supposed farming nations like New Zealand is spectacular when measured in terms of percentages of the total, from something like half at the time of the American Civil War to ten per cent, or less, today.

Moreover, the rural residual is itself plugged into the city these days, in a sense that has been forced upon the countryside by modern communications, by agribusiness, and by attenuated, extended commuter suburbs that often extend far out into the agricultural hinterland.

It follows from this analysis, pioneered by Lefèbvre and others of like mind, that the most important everyday issue in 21st century politics is whether the totally urbanised world of tomorrow will be a Utopia, welcoming and hospitable for all, or a Dystopia, run not for the many but for the few, in a spirit of Malthusian overpopulation and ‘too few lifeboats’.

Leaving aside such existential threats as climate change for the moment, practically every other political issue that you can think of is either itself an aspect of the great urban question sketched by Lefèbvre, or else, of secondary importance.

The messages of recent popular culture, from Rollerball and Blade Runner back in the seventies and early eighties through to Elysium, Snowpiercer and The Hunger Games in more recent times, all reinforce this conviction. Will the totally urbanised world of tomorrow be a Utopia, or a Dystopia? It’s the question that has launched a thousand films.

But if so, we have to ask why it is that we appear to have lost sight of the challenge of building Utopia and have, instead, embraced Dystopia, by supposing that city life must forever be an undignified struggle for the lifeboats, between individuals.

While such a great breakdown of solidarity favours the exploiters amongst us, the exploiters alone could not have brought it about by themselves. It was abetted by two, intertwining cultural factors, both of which were bound up with white racism and its reaction to the increasingly multicultural city.

All great cities exercise a pulling-power from near and far, and thus have a tendency to become multicultural sooner or later.

Rather amusingly, the historian Mary Beard reminds us that even in Imperial Rome, the old families of the city, by then a million strong, would sniff that hardly anyone was a ‘proper’ Roman of the sort that had inhabited the city in the days of the Republic, when it was far smaller.

For similar reasons, London has been a diverse sort of a place for longer than we now tend to imagine.

But these days, cities the size of Imperial Rome or Victorian London are no longer as exceptional as they once were. And so, our modern society is also more multicultural than it ever was.

To the extent that it finds a prejudiced audience hankering in some way for the ‘good old days’, the multicultural reality of the modern city undercuts the attempt to create a welcoming metropolis.

It stokes the idea that the old, established white population, the equivalent the ‘proper’ Romans, should pull up the drawbridge and whip away the welcome mat, that it should make life really difficult for immigrants of every kind and cut back on welfare programmes, job-creation and affordable-housing schemes.

In the lands of settler colonialism, where one may reasonably object that the white population is entirely made up of immigrants itself, there is a further aspect to the reaction against multicultural modernity. This takes the form of an over-identification with past rural frontiers. With the idea that the ‘real nation’ is to be found in some rural Heartland still populated by cowboys.

In this way, investment in its youngest, most recent and most struggling urban populations can be rendered illegitimate without being accused of hypocrisy: at least, so long as nobody mentions the GI Bill or any of the other past assistance that was, historically, extended to white suburbanites.

All of this is familiar enough in the American setting. What’s interesting, though, is the way that strong parallels can also be found in New Zealand, parallels that haven’t been written about nearly as much but which go a long way toward confirming the ‘colorblind racism’ theory of neoliberalism.

It’s to the exploration of neoliberalism as colorblind racism in the New Zealand setting that I turn in the following chapters. It’s an argument that I’m going to ease into, after first taking a look at the widespread but erroneous notion that the true essence of the New World nation — whether we are speaking of the USA or New Zealand, or of several others — is to be found on its bygone rural frontier or present-day ‘Heartland’.

Click here to go to Chapter 13

Jump back to the start of Chapter One

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Chris Harris

Chris Harris

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I am an urban historian from New Zealand with a special interest in New World cities. Somewhere along the line I picked up a PhD on planning and economics.