Metropolitics and the Defense of Wealth

This is a very intriguing post by Destin Jenkins at the Organization of American Historians blog Process. Jenkins argues for looking at the phenomena lumped together as the “racial wealth gap” from the side of the possessors of wealth, asking how advantage accumulated. Jenkins particularly wants to challenge recent, but ahistorical, critiques from the left. Both politicians like Bernie Sanders and crossover heterodox economists like Thomas Piketty have identified the 1980s and 1970s respectively as decades when inequality accelerated. These arguments are not so much wrong, per Jenkins, as grossly incomplete, focusing on

implicit archetypes of deracialized middle class and poor Americans getting the short end of the stick while a deracialized wealthy elite collects the spoils. Though strong on explaining the expanding wealth gap, their histories miss how changes over the last fifty years, whether under the guise of such metanarratives as neoliberalism, financialization, or post-industrialism, compounded the deeper history of racial disparities in wealth. Indeed, one wonders whether it is the growing wealth gap amongst white Americans that has forced pundits to engage with wealth disparities.

Jenkins notes, building on work by Ira Katznelson and citing a recent Demos report “The Asset Value of Whiteness” by Amy Traub, Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, and Tom Shapiro, that researchers have built a solid case for extending the temporal frame of the wealth gap back to the New Deal era, when social support for housing helped white Americans to begin building wealth in home equity while excluding Americans of color.

Yet, Jenkins argues, a still longer frame, informed by W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, allows historians to understand a far longer pattern of forcible and legal dispossession of Black Americans. This is a move of consequence, because it forces us to think not only of the incomplete development of U.S. social democracy (a problem  potentially fixable) but also of a more insidious history of dispossession by legal and extralegal means.

Most analyses of the racial wealth gap focus primarily on disparities in the acquisition of wealth. Hence they use the language of amassing, inheriting, accumulating, references to “inherited poverty,” and claims that black people are “late comers” to acquiring wealth. But we should also think about the racial wealth gap in terms of racial disparities in the defense of wealth: the relative ability to defend wealth from expropriation, whether through violence, state-sanctioned seizure, and sometimes both. After all, what good is wealth if you can’t defend it?

The historical record of whites’ ability to defend wealth and Americans of color’s relative inability to do so is bloody and brutal, and Jenkins’ focus on the period between Reconstruction and the New Deal bridges a gap between works like Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White as examinations of the links between state power, capital, and racism.

As a metropolitan historian of the later 20th century, I see an indirect connection to my own work, which deals less with overt violence and more with the ways that institutions can be mobilized and manipulated to defend the value (market and affective) of white-owned property, among other prerogatives. This is reflected in suburban incorporation and secession movements, where political boundaries are changed to enhance or protect wealth. This is still a fairly controversial proposition, and outside of fields influenced by critical race theory, the contingent and contested nature of political boundaries, like the inherent racial inflection of property value, is not always readily grasped, even by insightful analysts.

This kind of institutional politics requires ideological support to make the specific advantage of one group appear to be an expression of the general good: of freedom of choice, the market, or the American Way. I’ve written about the way that nascent public choice theory in the 1950s, which applied neoclassical economics to the organization and operation of local governments, both reflected and helped to defend and normalize the metropolitan fragmentation that accelerated in the postwar era. As suburban developers and homeowners in Lakewood, California and surrounding suburbs of Los Angeles County formed cities to capture local tax revenue, they fought against metropolitan cost sharing and defined a narrow and local sense of community that rejected wider ties.

Crucially, the ground-level work of these political entrepreneurs was mirrored by a group of academic entrepreneurs at UCLA, who theorized fragmentation not as a wasteful duplication of resources or a means of exclusion, but as a necessary adaptation of local government to market dynamics. I argued that the real intellectual work done by public choice theory was not descriptive but normative; the theory, adopted in bowdlerized form by political conservatives in governor Ronald Reagan’s orbit, effectively mandated a more competitive relationship between local governments, delegitimized metropolitan government, and raised the stakes of competition between local governments so that some would win and some would lose. For residents of cities like Compton, the consequences were devastating, as Black and Latino homeowners found that their home equity was tied to their city’s status as a losing competitor in the game.

This is why I’m quite interested to read Nancy MacLean’s forthcoming book Democracy in Chains, which is reviewed in Jacobin by Colin Gordon (certainly not coincidentally an urban historian whose work has detailed the economic and political consequences of public choice metropolitics in greater St. Louis). MacLean’s book mines the papers of James McGill Buchanan, a political economist and Nobel Laureate notable not only for his contributions to public choice theory but for his successful institutional entrepreneurship. Buchanan established numerous funded institutes dedicated to reorganizing social institutions around market principles, ultimately facilitating the Koch brothers’ beachhead in academe.

Unfortunately, as Gordon notes in summary of MacLean, Buchanan’s

market fundamentalism, and the policies that flow from it, are essentially faith-based — and either blind or indifferent to their own contradictions.

Here, MacLean echoes the recent work of the sociologists Margaret Somers and Fred Block, underscoring the many ways in which “free” markets are embedded in social relations. Ignoring this fact simply camouflages advantage and disguises the reliance and dependence of successful market actors on conditions (property rights, contract law, patent protection, worker suppression) secured by state action.

As Gordon notes, mostly (but not exclusively) Southern “Freedom Caucus” politicians carry this tradition forward today in Congress. But of course, campaigns for suburban secession, tax revolts, and other metropolitical battles also evince this

conviction that the polity could be cleft between “makers and takers,” and that it was the “takers” who, by employing state power to tax wealth and income, were doing the exploiting.

I found this thread running through the words and deeds of anti-tax politicians, advocates for incorporating new cities, and secession advocates in north Fulton County, and it runs through the strong support for Donald Trump and backlash politics in many American suburbs, as well as the right’s predilection to concentrate power in state governments through federalist devolution from Washington and preemption of local action.

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