What Mayor Bloomberg, Economists Can Learn From Occupy Wall Street

11/29/2011 05:08 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

Police barricaded both sides of the street, funneling protestors in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street from Foley Square to the Brooklyn Bridge on November 17th. The crowd moved at a sluggish clip through the cold night. I was in good company, though, immediately around me were singular, older women carrying battle-worn faces; a group of Latina teenagers danced as they chanted; a man carried on his shoulders his 5- or 6-year-old daughter whose energy far surpassed my own. Were these some the same criminals and anarchists, I wondered, that Mayor Bloomberg often referred to when speaking of Occupy Wall Street protesters?

While the mayor's take on Occupy Wall Street has been often contradictory and logic defying, one message of his has been consistent: the threat the protesters pose to the rest of the city. At Zuccotti Park, for instance, protesters removal was necessary for their challenging "the quality of life for residents and businesses in this now-thriving neighborhood." And here's what I mean by logic defying: the need to remove people, many of them citizens of the city, in order to protect the citizenry of the city.

Among the lesser-examined stories of the Occupy Wall Street movement is how, in New York as well as cities across America, it has represented the first legitimate challenge to a new urban political regime that has emerged over the past few decades. Under this regime, politically "progressive" mayors have appealed to urban liberals on social issues while slashing social services, privatizing government, and generally ruling for and with the support of corporations. The recent clashes between Occupy Wall Street protestors and mayors for whom they might have voted for in the past exposes just how great the gulf is between the rhetoric of this progressive urban regime and the reality of the city it has made for us: one that works for corporations instead of people, and has sanctioned the turning of our cities into failed experiments in neoliberal capitalism.

It's easy to cast Bloomberg in particular as a pro-corporate villain, but in many ways his stance as mayor is undifferentiated from that of most other mayors of major American cities who have governed over the past few decades. Confronted with a federal government determined to subsidize suburbanization (and, in effect the subprime mortgage crisis which compelled our current recession) and the near-abandonment of welfare-laden inner cities, the corporation has become the most important constituency of urban governments in the U.S.

Accordingly, the job of the mayor has been made to adjust to this reality. The model of the traditional pro-labor populist Democratic mayor has been replaced with a new kind of leader of which Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel are representative. These are socially liberal entrepreneurial types who rule with the interests of and large support of corporations.

Governing through a new kind of fractional politics -- as our cities now contain the extremes of the burden of wealth disparity -- this new politician unites dissimilar groups in appealing to issues that unite urban liberals of many classes such as environmentalism, gay marriage, and support for the 'creative economy.' Never mind that, for example, the dealings of many of corporations for which they are apologists often contradict social and ecological sustainability.

We are attracted to cities for the way they contain a multitude of possibilities, possibilities of the city yet to come, the city we cannot yet imagine. For its possibilities, we love the city, yet at the same time that we are estranged from it for the reason that many of the things we would love from it (justice, equality, meaningful employment) don't yet exist. Writing about his city of Vancouver but in a way that is applicable to all contemporary "world cities," the critic and poet Jeff Derksen argues that the tension of this contradiction "creates highly affective forms of collectivity, imagination, and agency, for we also cohere to declare and demand these things for and from the city."

Derksen says governments have taken to appealing to our love of the city-as-it-could-be in a way that replaces the failed belief in the utopia of modernism with a belief in the benevolent growth of neoliberalism. The invocation of the improved welfare of the city creates "a very real tension," Derksen writes, between what we aspire to and what is actually being offered: "The language of creativity and of sustainability often represents these concepts as if they are for the city itself, for the good and the life of the city as a totality, rather than the people whose every action makes an urban territory a city."

It is this politics of acting for the city in name that enables the contradictory action of removing people from space in order to protect people in space (just ask the homeless, who are the real victims of this logic), as well as a host of other urban policies. Derksen proceeds to ask the questions we ought to pose to Mayor Bloomberg: "But should not a sustainable city sustain life for those who live in it? And should not the creative city make life more creative for all of its citizens?"

Neoliberal capitalism's ability to incorporate critique, and especially incorporate the notions of the progressive city is a powerful move that serves to blunt one of the most productive tools we have for change: ourselves, and our ability to work for the city we love that does not yet exist. Under the logic of "the creative economy," which is being utilized as a strategy to regenerate cities across the country, creativity is desirable only when it can be utilized as an economic resource. And in this process, Derksen says, creativity "is no longer the antidote to dehumanizing relations and modes of economic production, as it historically has been mobilized."

The protesters in Foley Square around me chanted many things, among them was the phrase: "Mayor Bloomberg / who you calling lazy!" Participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement these past few months have embarked on the work that has defied economists and policy makers for several decades: employing those who live in cities in ways that create value, efforts towards a more equitable and just city, and is meaningful to them (it just so happens that this "work" turned out to be attempting to dismantle an economic system that so often fails to meet any of these criteria and is often harmful to us). While some may utilize appealing rhetoric and claim to work in our name, it is clear that no one else is going to create the city we imagine for us, this is our job.