Observations from the Front Line: The US State of Denial By William Bowles

16 February, 2008

Observations from the Front Line

Manhattan, 13 February, 2008 — For the first time, almost exactly thirty years ago, I sat where I’m sitting now, writing this, in the Broome Street Bar, corner of Broome and West Broadway. I was building the Cayman Gallery a couple of hundred yards away further up West Broadway for my good friend Jack Agueros, who later was to hire me as the designer/constructor of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem.

In those days, SOHO (South of Houston Street) was full of empty sweat shops and industrial buildings that the owners were only too happy to rent out for whatever they could get. A couple of thousand square feet could be had for as little as $800 a month and on a ten-year lease.

Thus began the loft boom which has utterly transformed not only this neighbourhood but also the Brooklyn neighbourhood my former wife and I were later to move to, DUMBO (Down Underneath Manhattan Bridge; New Yorker’s and their love of acronyms) and many more beside including Harlem (the inexorable march of Capital in search of valorisation is unstoppable, even into the former no-go areas, for whites that is, of places like Harlem).

The Broome Street Bar is about the only thing that hasn’t changed in SOHO although on the surface almost everything looks the same barring the plethora of overpriced boutiques and trendy restaurants. But New York City has undergone a radical transformation, and in spite of the crashing US economy, NYC has all the appearance of a boom town, with new builds and conversions going on everywhere, even in the Bronx where back in the 70s landlords were torching buildings for the insurance, leaving a literal wasteland behind them as the former white inhabitants fled to the ‘burbs.

Much of Manhattan, Brooklyn and now even sections of the Bronx have become enclaves of the rich and the obscenely rich exactly as Jack London described in his novel ‘The Iron Heel’ one hundred years ago.

But some things haven’t changed, the subway system for example is as decrepid as ever, and travelling on it, I see the same weary working class faces for all the world looking as if they’re on a one-way ride to Hades, which in a way they are, just like the rest of us (many are, just like me, plugged into their mp3 players, nodding to the rythmns of another, more perfect world).

Above the subway, in Mid-town Manhattan, around Times Square, it’s a riot of neon some of which has crept down off the buildings onto the sidewalk beneath our feet, so as you walk, words stream endlessly, a photonic treadmill, advertising this and that. In the words of the Crazy Eddie TV commercial of the 1970s, it’s “absolutely insane!”.

Absorbing all this after an absence of fifteen years has been difficult for me, made all the more so by those who are no longer with us or who have succumbed to the various diseases of age and the ravages of living in a rapacious and unforgiving environment.

The changes are perhaps best reflected in the TV commercials, dominated as they are by an avalanche of ads for ‘medications’, health insurance (which most cannot afford) and all manner of ‘lifestyle’ ads which guarantee you happiness and escape from the daily grind of survival in the dog-eat-dog society that is, we are told, ‘the best of all possible worlds’.

The ‘news’ programmes explain much about US capitalism’s ability to block out the reality of the situation, with virtually no coverage of the world beyond the US, even the obscenity which is the US occupation of Iraq gets no mention at all, nor even the sub-prime mortgage crash, they simply don’t exist. You have to read the ‘quality’ newspapers like the New York Times to even see it mentioned, never mind explained (the latest stat put the total number affected at around 100 million which seems a staggering number and if true must surely spell a social disaster of gargantuan proportions). But the only disasters allowed are the ‘small’ personal ones, murders, rapes and robberies, these are after all, events that everyone can relate to, or the inevitable natural ones, some of which are actually anything but natural).

This is denial on a grand scale. But above all don’t refer to anything that might disturb the apparently placid waters of a society teetering on the edge of a precipice. But occasionally reality breaks through. One story tells us that the United Auto Workers Union has just signed a new contract with General Motors that cuts workers’ wages by 50% for the same hours. But that’s about it, there’s no comment, merely a statement of fact, time to move on.

Yet and still, the US I left fifteen years ago is basically the same one I returned to, what has changed is the frantic nature of the drive to consume, keep on buying, keep the ‘wheels of industry’ turning. Rack up the credit debt like there’s no tomorrow (maybe because there isn’t).

Frankly, I find it extremely difficult to communicate the nature of contemporary US society, it’s so over the top as to defy description even for someone raised in a so-called developed country like the UK or for someone who lived in the Big Apple for seventeen years. And as the contradictions of a capitalism in crisis increase, so too does the frantic nature of its desire to justify itself by any means necessary, including the use of the enormous force of the machinery of state.

It’s the impact on people, like a very close friend of mine here that typifies the paradox involved, for when confronted with the reality of life here by my writings, she gets defensive, even as she knows that as a black woman, she has borne the brunt of this society for her entire life. But who can blame her, she has to live here and deal with it 24/7, who wants to be reminded of the fact, especially by a foreigner like myself, friend or no friend.

For the fact is, I like Americans, they are a generous, friendly and uninhibited people, especially working class Americans, people I find I have more in common with than the Brits (which is perhaps one of the reasons I lived here for seventeen years).

But at the same time they are totally ignorant of the real state of the world and their own country and kept that way by a corporate media and an mis-education system that corrupts young minds. Blind even to the reality of their own lives because they have been brainwashed into thinking that ‘failure’ is the result of their own personal failure as human beings, not that of the system which screws them every which way, literally from cradle to grave.

It’s a lose-lose situation with no obvious solution short of total meltdown, which is no solution at all. More likely in time the solution will be provided by the rest of the planet, perhaps as JG Ballard suggested in one of his novels by enforced isolation, ring fence the monster.

Without an opposition, let alone an alternative, the future looks bleak and not merely for the US given the central role US capitalism plays in the affairs of humanity. Yet paradoxically, I remain optimistic, don’t ask me why except to say that this situation can’t continue, quite simply it’s unsustainable.

The pressing issue is how do we communicate this to the rest of planet, for surely once they are fully aware of the gravity of our circumstances they must realise that action has to be taken to halt the behemoth, stop it in its tracks before it’s too late. So for the time being forget socialism, of any kind, for what we are confronting is whether our species and our planet can survive the battering it’s taking.

Confronted by this reality, the November US elections pale into insignificance dominated as they are by the promise of change that is no more than an empty slogan designed to lull the populace into accepting the continuation of an unsustainable status quo.

But could it be that should Obama or Clinton get elected and the much touted but unidentified ‘change’ fails to materialise that this might signify a ‘tipping point’? Or is this no more than wishful thinking on my part? For it should surely be obvious that given the disastrous state of the nation, unless real change is delivered there are going to be an awful lot of very pissed off people, which could be the signal not for progress but for out and out fascism.

Addendum: A couple of days later—I’m waiting in another shopping mall with runways attached, this time in Charlotte, NC and an obviously middle class black guy strikes up a conversation with me in a bookshop. He’s perusing the displays and he expresses surprise that Obama has written not just one but two books. So I ask him if he’ll vote for him and he’s in two minds, perhaps he’ll vote for McCain he says. McCain I gasp, but he’s a warmonger and a nutter. Well, he says, if Obama is elected and he does try to make real change, they’ll just blow him away, which doesn’t explain why he contemplated voting for McCain but at least it does explain something about the state of confusion that exists in the minds of the US electorate.

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