Readers of the venerable New York times were greeted this week with two stories whose general incongruence deserve some reflection. First, over the weekend the paper published a story regarding the record breaking prices being set for luxury properties on the island of Manhattan. Even with the political uncertainty surrounding events in the Crimea, it seems Russian buyers are still eager to invest their millions in the world’s most famous city. And if not Russians, wealthy Chinese, Brazilians, and other members of the world’s transnational elite are eager to snatch up a small piece of the Manhattan playground. Real-estate prices, like the stock market in the last couple of years, just can’t seem to stop climbing. As the article puts it:
Condominium prices at the high end of the market are surpassing levels reached during the peak of the last real estate boom, and developers are buying up sites at a frenzied pace. New projects, planned with billionaire foreign buyers in mind, are altering the landscape of the city. Perhaps most notable is the spate of super-tall, narrow towers in the works along West 57th Street, their long shapes casting a shadow on Central Park.
But just minutes across the East River in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a a very different story presented itself. Kahton Anderson, a 14 year old 8th grader, reportedly pulled out a .357 revolver on a public bus. He aimed it at a fellow teenager and fired. The bullet missed its target and mistakenly struck Angel Rojas, a 39 year old on his way home from work. Rojas died soon after. Kahton was quickly arrested and will now be prosecuted for murder as an adult.
How am I to make sense of these two stories I see in front of me, set side by side across my web browser? Of course I am shocked and saddened by the terrible incident on the bus. It is a senseless loss for the family of the murdered victim- I could not bare the idea of losing one of my loved ones in such a random, pointless manner. Yet it is also an exacting tragedy for Kahton Anderson and his family. There is tremendous risk that Kahton’s incarceration in the violent, over-stocked penal system will actually serve to further criminalize him.
To her credit, the NYtimes journalist who reported the story, Vivian Yee, sought to find the social causes of the violence on the bus, contextualizing the action as a result of a multitude of factors: micro-gang cultures surrounding notorious public housing precincts in Brooklyn such as the Marcy and Tompkins houses; school systems and parenting networks that fail to provide adequate support and role models; the way the internet has served to amplify neighborhood rivalries by digitally publicizing every social slight; and of course the easy availability of guns.
And yet when the tragic shooting is set beside the journalistic glee over 80 million dollar penthouse apartment sales, the clanging difference seems too surreal to bare. These two social arenas- Manhattan and Bedford-Stuyvesant- are so close to one another geographically, and yet so starkly divided in terms of material wealth, cultural capital, educational access, and class-interests.
How are we to make sense of a world in which such fundamentally distinct social zones in human development can exist beside another, their clashing narratives- gang-violence vs. Central-Park extravagance- being presented to us as if things were just destined to be this way, as if there was nothing particularly odd about having extreme wealth and extreme misery stacked beside one another?
The problem with the NYTimes, as with so many journalistic outlets, is that they don’t have anything resembling a systemic analysis of the news they report on. They present these two stories side by side, just a click of a mouse away from one another, but no attempt is made at interrogating the relations between them, as two distinct phenomenon imbedded in one and the same social system.
For contrary to what some political perspectives would have you believe, these two stories are not wholly disconnected from one another. It is not just some kind of passing coincedence that zones of great wealth exist next to zones of great material inequity. The reality we must confront is that in one and the same world 88 million dollar penthouses sellout to the global superrich while quite literally down below, just a few miles across the water, lower and middle class people shoot themselves amidst petty turf wars.
The next question surely becomes: how did a social system evolve in which land values on one side of the East River soared to the hundreds of millions for a tiny section of the global elite, while on the other side entire communities struggle with grinding poverty, familial dysfunction, and under-funded social services, with the illusory freedom of digital media only serving to mask the lack of social opportunity which defines their lives?
If one accepts the notion that the value of every human life should be the same despite differences in gender, ethnicity, race, or nationality, than the obvious question has to be: how can we accept such an obscene division of wealth and resources in our society? And more to the point: what is the logic through which an economic system functions to produce and reinforce, rather than minimize, these inequalities?
This would lead us in two different but equally important directions. First, we would need to reckon with the problem of capitalism itself- what is it as a social system? How has it evolved to systematically disenfranchise so many people across America, while working to monopolize wealth for a global super-elite?
The critique of capitalism, as old and tired as the grand old man of socialist letters himself (Marx), is still fundamentally necessary. You would be shocked at how many people who work on Bay Street or Wall Street- whose labor is vested at the very heart of the financial beast- still have no systemic understanding of the economic world which defines their lives. Marx’s Capital should be necessary reading for all high-school students, and it should be read again in the first-year of university, regardless of one’s major. It should be taught by competent and engaged teachers and it should be used as a provocation for young people to think seriously about the systemic coordinates that undergrid their lives.
You don’t have to agree with Marx’s political solutions to the problem of capitalism, but his diagnosis of the structural limits of the system is a necessary truth that all people should hold in their hearts. For such a diagnosis appears correct again and again as we totter from crisis to crisis in every successive generation. You want to know if Marx was right in his critique of capital? Just open up the newspaper, you will find all the proof you need.
Second, we need to probe into the concrete, local conditions of struggling communities. In Bed-Sty, we need to ask ourselves how a 14 year old got it into his head that pulling out a gun and firing it at a fellow teenager on a public bus was an appropriate and necessary action. We need to understand the concrete details through which Kayton went from a child fresh out of the womb to a gun-carrying social subject at 14 years of age. Was school, family, creativity, travel, intellectual engagement, and curiosity about the future present in his life? Why did these forces not mitigate against him doing such a rash and foolish thing? And why did he find the gang-rivalries of his peers so appealing? Why could he and his friends not devote themselves to music groups and filmmaking clubs rather than gun-totting conflicts across housing projects?
I know these questions are tinged with the inevitable elitism of an educated outsider who has never once experienced middle or lower class life in a place like Bed-Sty. I profess no knowledge about these communities, and I portend to make no sweeping generalizations about the people therein. I am smart enough to know that we all need to listen, to learn, to ask questions from community leaders, and to work towards locally-constructed solutions to the challenges of human development that exist within Brooklyn (or our own country Canada for that matter).
These two articles thus push us into an examination of the economic and social system at a local, national, and global level. It pushes us to understand the roots of inequality and violence, so that in diagnosing these ills, we can move to build a social system in which they cannot (structurally) exist.
Such an alternative social system has no name as of yet. It would have to take the best elements history has offered us- associationalism, individual sovereignty, gender, racial, and sexual equality, human sensitivity to suffering- and mould it into a syncretic alternative.
I cannot give you a magic bullet that will instantly unfurl this alternative before us. We can only ask the right questions, be diligent in our research, and build concrete political options step by step.
As a provisional suggestion for easing social inequality, one wonders why the city of New York could not add a 0.5% tax to luxury real-estate purchases (let’s say single-unit sales above 10million) for a social development fund. That fund would be used to sponsor local cultural initiatives in the poorest communities in the city, working with local social workers, teachers, parents, and community leaders to do so. I’m talking about film clubs, dance troupes, history workshops, visual art lessons, digital media groups, marathon and running clubs, soccer teams- the kind of cultural activity that engages young people and reminds them that their is such a dazzling world beyond the confines of their own neighborhood.
And every year each of these cultural clubs would put on a performance at New York’s most important cultural venues- lets say maybe the MOMA or the MET. The audience? Those very same luxury real-estate buyers whose money was used to fund the public initiatives. Young kids could show them short films, dance routines, research projects, or musical tracks that they have been working on. The rich could see the concrete, empowering work that their money was used for. After the show, one member of the super rich would be paired up with one student, acting as something of a mentor to him or her. One could make their ownership of luxury property in Manhattan legally contingent on their willingness to enter into this mentorship program- to meet with the students at least once a year, to talk to them, to get to know them, to offer advice and support.
In that way, these communities could be brought together. The rich could see the need to invest their money in communities with so much unrealized human potential, while the kids from the Marcy or Thompkins houses could see that a whole world awaits beyond the neighborhood block- and that the social system hasn’t totally turned their back on them.
I know my intellectual friends will tell me that what I am describing here is the worst kind of liberal-guilted charity. It no doubt is. Certainly, massive re-investments in schools, hospitals, and community centers in these neighborhoods are far more useful than a once a year rich-meets-poor cultural initiative. Yet I still think the city of New York should pursue this social development tax. One can discount the claim that such a tax would dampen the investment market. New York will always be New York- the superrich will not shy away from having to pay a fraction more on their 88 million dollar penthouse. In fact, the tax would make them feel even better about their purchase- buy a piece of the sky, re-invest in Bed-Sty!
Yet the tax, above all else, would be a symbol: Manhattan is the site of luxury; but it must also be the site of social justice. It must be a city in which social suffering cannot be idly accepted as just the natural course of things. Human degradation is not something that the rich can escape from- no matter how high the build their gleaming towers, no matter how much of the sky they attempt to occupy.
It is only on the basis of this refusal to accept social suffering that the mind-bending incongruity of the super-rich and the super-poor can be effectively addressed.
For if we were truly serious about social equality, how could we accept for even one minute the presence of 88 million dollar condos sitting serenely across the water from decrepit public housing projects? Such disparity is an affront to any pretense that we live in a society in which social justice exists for all.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.