FROM BOB FITCH TO DONALD TRUMP: "UNFRIENDLY FIRE"
Sixth Annual Robert Fitch Memorial Lecture, April 27, 2017
LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York
Good afternoon, and welcome to the sixth annual Robert Fitch Memorial Lecture. When I gave the first, in March 2012, I was nervous there wouldn’t be a second, but now we’ve gone way beyond that.
Bob was a brilliant polymath—and a generous, warm human being. Though he had many interests, the political economy of New York City, and his careful attention to its ruling class centered in finance and real estate, was always central to his thinking. I learned more from reading and talking with him about how this city works than from any other source. He taught at LaGuardia from 1993 until his death in 2011. In fact, he sustained the injury whose complications would kill him just up the street. He was deeply devoted to the college and his students, and this is the right place to honor him.
Before introducing today’s speaker, Peter Marcuse, I should say a few words in memory of last year’s speaker, Peter Kwong, who died in March. Like Bob, Peter Kwong was a deeply humane scholar, specializing in Chinese–American studies, and a politically committed one. The best way to remember both Peter Kwong and Bob Fitch is to follow their model of scholarship devoted to human flourishing.
And now Peter Marcuse. Peter was a lawyer for a little while, but then got a PhD in urban planning. He taught at UCLA for a few years in the 1970s, and then moved to Columbia University in 1975, where he’s spent most of his academic life. He’s written extensively on how capital and class play themselves out in cities, and how housing, a basic human need, should be taken out of the realm of speculative trading and recognized as a right.
To prepare for this, I read some of Peter’s recent writing on Donald Trump. Peter sees him as an archetypal businessman of our time, marketing his brand and commodifying luxury. He does all those things, but he’s also an asset-stripper, an ironic strategy for a real-estate guy, since real estate is typically associated with building (though to be more precise, it’s the financial structure designed to extract value from and organize ownership around the mundane, primary sector activity of construction). His casinos, for example, failed—and that’s saying a lot, since it’s usually hard for the house to lose in a gambling establishment. But they lost money because he loaded them up with debt and siphoned as much cash out of the operation as he could, leaving them unable to service their debt or pay their bills.
Besides being a vicious ignoramus (to steal a phrase Christopher Hitchens once applied to Reagan), Trump is a freebooter. He has few ties to the New York real estate world, and lots of bankers hate him because he’s a serial defaulter. He had little support among the big capitalists and financiers. He’s managed to win some of them over with promises of tax cuts and deregulation, which is all that this rotting formation cares about, but there was little doubt that they preferred Hillary going into the election. He has few actual friends; he and Melania spent Thanksgiving with Fabio and Don King. His administration is a grab-bag of asset-strippers like himself (with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in the lead), right-wing ideologues, and genuine maniacs, with national security professionals like H.R. McMaster as something of a stabilizing force. A society that could produce this leadership has some serious problems.
Trump is an endlessly fascinating topic. Just how did he come to be, whom does he represent, and what will he do to us and the rest of the world? Will he make it to 2021? I’m really looking forward to hearing what Peter Marcuse has to say about all of this.
Bob Fitch made two great contributions to urban thinking and action: highlighting the inevitable role of conflict in urban development, and illuminating the difference between reform that is “friendly FIRE” and that which is “unfriendly FIRE.”
FIRE, the business of the Financial, Insurance, and Real Estate industries, he argued was the spearhead of the vested interests that were undermining what city life should be for the majority of it residents, and he traced in concrete detail how their material self-interest distorted the priorities of presumably democratic and friendly governments. He saw a conflict of interest at play, and argued strenuously that that conflict was inevitable, and that the goal of a harmonious consensus on fundamental issues of urban development was a misleading hope that needed to be abandoned.
Then he traced how the FIRE businesses used limited reform or the pretense of reform both to distract attention from what such reforms were actually doing, and to cover their actual substance with a friendly face—“friendly FIRE.” The underlying conflicts are over material benefits—to be specific, profits—but are submerged in a fundamental ideological belief in the market as the best allocator of resources among society’s members, with competition as the best way of achieving efficiency in the production of those resources. The winners after all were winners, and deserved their power, and appropriately make both public and private decisions. And part of the winners’ ability to keep their power is their ability to convince the losers at they are powerless. The losers are then inevitably frustrated, angry, dissatisfied.
This is where Trump comes in. Not in helping his "losers" by facilitating redistribution of wealth, not by sharing power with them, but rather Trump purports to welcome losers into participating in the system of from which they are suffering: “you too can be wealthy, act like me, and you can be like me.” Trump’s "winners" can be read as the Occupy movements’ 1%, his losers as the 99%. It’s the 99% that have to change to improve their condition.
In this lecture, I will discuss these issues and conclude with three suggestions as to how to cope
with the problems that are presented.
* * *
Fitch’s FIRE analysis is a starting point for looking at what is happening in the economy as a whole, but it is limited. Contrast it with what we see and read and hear, not just in the media but in the academy as well, for what is happening in the global economy: investment is moving to financial assets, oil prices are rising or falling, new institutions are arising with the globalization of economies. The concentration of ownership is increasing, inequality is increasing, and the middle class is dwindling or reawakening. All good and true.
But note the passive voice: these are events that are happening of their own accord. There are no actors buying or selling things, no governmental organizations being created by anyone in government, no one making profits, no one speculating in prices; these things just happen.
And in fact what is described is really happening, but it is happening because specific people, acting separately or together, with specific interests, goals, connections, histories, make them happen. There are specific individuals and groups who benefit, others who are hurt, exploited, manipulated. Some will fight to protect what they already have and are doing and are getting; others will fight to oppose them. Fitch focuses on the doers, the perpetrators, effectively naming villains and victims. His case studies name names, dates, places, action, profits made, incomes lost. For anyone concerned to do something about that which is wrong in our economies today, that’s a major contribution. Name our enemies, be clear who your friends are, identify the actors on both sides.
How do those that benefit from these arrangements, how do the winners in the inevitable conflicts, justify their rewards? Donald Trump’s underlying assumption is it’s a result of their superior abilities, foresight, ability to negotiate to get what they want. But even the winners must acknowledge that some people are left worse off, even to the point of starvation, penury, homelessness, shortened life expectancy, harshly constrained opportunities. And the winners have a heart; they don’t like to see people on the streets begging for a crust of bread. So they, the winners, support anti-poverty programs or help the losers. They measure the level of poverty, and are happy to help reduce it. There might even be a touch of a guilty conscience at play in some. But within limits. Fitch’s work, and that of many others, points out that the remedy for poverty put forward by what Fitch calls “friendly FIRE” is all focused on the position of the poor themselves: are they adequately educated, single parent, lacking in morality, needing discipline and help, do they need in to be taught to help themselves, with limited and paternalistic help from their betters? The focus for friendly FIRE is not what FIRE has done to create poverty, hold low wages down, and replace workers with machines wherever possible. That winners necessarily mean losers as well is far from their point.
So what can be done?
One possibility is of course to replace the winners and gain control over the way they make their winnings. There are procedures in place, hard fought for, that were meant to facilitate such a democratic ways of making decisions. They fundamentally rest on the idea of electing people to office in government that will see to fairness and equality in the distribution of public and private resources, and that the notion that the actions of government should reflect the desires of its citizens. But the holders of power influence elections also, by whom they support, whom the control, what and who they finances. This power is in reality overwhelming.
Democracy, in normal times, is a weak instrument to assure equity in governmental action. And certainly there will not be unity around any major redistributional government activity. Government may help, but given the existing distribution of power it is unlikely to commandeer the wealth of the rich in order to change the position of the poor. Anti-poverty, perhaps; equality, no.
So what can be done? It‘s not an issue Fitch wrote much about, that I’m aware of. Fitch was pre Trump, although inequality was a major problem well before this president. One of Fitch’s last speeches, however, in Harlem, where he spoke of the implications of Obama, was quite pessimistic. He was rebutting the notion that there is a common good, and if we only sit down rationally to discuss it, we’ll all agree on it because it’s in the common good. Fitch said:
What is the common good that tenants and landlords share? Not a lot I can think of. Maybe that the building doesn’t burn down? But some of you remember the ’70s when landlords burned down their buildings in poor neighborhoods to cash in on the insurance.
The haves and the have-nots have different and opposing interests—landlords want to get rid of rent stabilization; tenants have an interest in keeping it. Workers want to save their jobs; bosses want to save their capital, which means cutting workers. In pursuing their opposing interests, the have-nots are forced take up the weapons of the weak— demonstrations, direct action; filling the jails with conscientious objectors; taking personal risks. Who benefits when one side gives up without a struggle? The Haves or the Have nots? Frederick Douglass reminds us: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did. It never will.”
When the Third Way advocates insist that we share a common good; when they refuse to recognize that the interests of the oppressed and the interests of the oppressors don’t exist on the same moral plane; when they counsel us to stop being partisans of those interests—they’re not being non or post partisan; they’re siding with the powers that be.
Trump, analytically, I could argue, is irrelevant. In terms of analysis, he is a pawn in the hands of those Fitch identified—the FIRE complex—a charge Fitch even laid out in his brilliant examination of Chicago politics and Obama’s role in his youth. But many of those who worked with Obama in local contests in Chicago are with Trump today, not particularly because they like him. What has happened is that the winners, FIRE expanded—the ruling class, capital,
however you want to characterize it (Fitch, to my knowledge, always paid respect for Marx,
but never considered himself an orthodox Marxist, or defined the divisions in society in strictly Marxist class terms) —today the ruling class is not simply controlling the key decisions made at the governmental level, but has in fact become directly the decision-makers. It does not merely dominate government under Trump, it IS the government under Trump. Look at the Cabinet, the heads of administrative agencies, the top advisors, and they simply ARE members of the ruling class, FIRE and its expanded configuration in a global and financialized age.
The ruling class is of course not simply the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate business of the FIRE acronym. It certainly still includes the titans of manufacturing, high tech firms, the large media, some of the top academics, writers, and IT technicians, and altogether is increasingly globalized both in its operations and its ownership. But that does not change its fundamental class character, and the basic structural relations it has with the other class groupings on which it depends, from factory workers to service workers to agricultural. That antagonistic and largely exploitative relationship between the two large groupings remain.
And that ruling class holds power, incontestably. It is not about to have “a change of heart, give up self-interest; stop always asking ‘what’s in it for me?’” as Fitch asked in his speech on Obama. He meant “it” not only as to the ruling class, but also as to the exploited and the dominated, those whose material interests were adverse to the ruling class’s interest but who nevertheless voted for Trump and in our lifetimes effectively augmented the power of FIRE and its allies. Today their power is too strong to make direct fundamental contestation effective. Revolution Today is not a useful slogan in the United States (yet?). Instead, getting there must be a more gradual process.
So, again, what is to be done? As a suggested 3-point program:
1. A continued engagement with the opportunities and problems that our political system still
provides to affect directly who holds power, to do what, and for whom. Trump was elected, not
by a majority of the people (only 27% of eligible voters, in fact, under our electoral system as today structured). But it can be changed—anti-Trump interests are large, and Trump is not the ruling class’ ideal candidate either. So point one is continued political participation in the conflicts around power and policy, including in electoral campaigns. As to policy, focus on immediate and concrete issues: minimum wage, welfare rights, health care for all, affordable housing, public transportation, environmental regulation, and so on.
2. But in each of these cases, put our demands in the context of greater demands that go beyond those that presently feasible, that are transformative, that lead beyond demands that are presently feasible, that in the long are absolutely essential. demand that go beyond their narrow
language and initial goals:
not affordable health, but free health care for all;
not college loans at low interest rates, but free higher education;
not carbon taxes, but enforced pollution control, with adequately
not affordable housing for middle income households, but public
housing for all in need;
not anti-discrimination laws, but affirmative action;
not homeless shelters for the homeless, but homes.
These demands insist on what can be obtained now, but always coupled with what a fair and just
society should today be able to provide for all its residents. They have the background of a
utopian vision of what cities and urban life could be.
3. And finally, and as a consequence, work on working out what utopian socially just urban systems would really look like. What if suddenly we were all, winners and losers alike, to have what we most dearly want in our hearts? What would our cities look like if America needs a change of heart: her people need to give up selfishness; all Americans rich and poor, white and black, the hod carrier and the hedge fund operator must give up self-interest, stop always asking “what’s in it for me?” We need an affirmative vision of what, in the end, it’s all about: a realistic vision of ultimately possible goals that we really believe in, that we can defend are simply right and human. A bit of overt moral judgment wouldn’t hurt. We need to couple detailed criticism of details on grounds of efficiency or cost or complexity or procedures to issues of simple justice, individual and social.
Fitch wrote: “We have to make some distinctions: between the change they believe in and the change we believe in; between our interests and theirs; between a notion of community that scapegoats the poor and one that respects their human rights” He addressed that job of recognition, of clarification of what we believe in, of what he called Friendly and Unfriendly FIRE, in astonishing detail, eloquence, and conviction. We need his work to continue.
Peter Marcuse is a professor emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York. Peter writes extensively on issues of the right to the city, as well as critical and progressive urban planning. Peter sits on the editorial board of Progressive City in addition to his extensive personal blog and published works including his most recent book co-authored with David Madden: In Defence of Housing: The Politics of Crisis (2016) published by Verso Books.
 See my blogs Blog #93 – Election figures show Trump with only 27.2% of eligible voters: What Mandate? and Blog #94 – In What Ways is the Electoral College Illegitimate Today? and Blog #95 – Given the Electoral College, who “won” the 2016 Election, all at pmarcuse.wordpresss.com.