Reviews — From the October 2015 issue

Means of Dissent

America’s lost culture of opposition

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We live in an age of atomized economic suffering. As Celia Weaver, a housing organizer in Brooklyn, tells D. W. Gibson in his fascinating oral history of gentrification in New York City, The Edge Becomes the Center, new people moving into poor neighborhoods “maybe don’t have that different of an income than the longtime residents, but the income potential is different. . . . There are race differences, there are age differences, there are social capital, if not actual capital differences.” Some of these gentrifiers are people with the finest motives, who are sensitive to the material ordeals of the people around them. All but those from the wealthiest backgrounds could experience a reversal of material fortune in an instant. The youngest of them, living in cramped apartments with usurious rents, most likely have student loans to repay. They are socially removed from the poor and elderly people they are unwittingly driving out. But they are not that far removed.

Gibson’s book, with its many examples of people fighting the pulverizing power of concentrated wealth, is a somewhat heartening retort to Fraser’s pessimism. Amid all this social instability, the most effective social advocates are often people with the material ballast to keep their balance. Lacking material obstacles, wealth is able to keep an unobstructed view of the future. Gibson writes about forty-year-old Matt Krivich, whose affluent parents divorced when he was young. Krivich spiraled into anger and drugs, ending up addicted to heroin and living on the streets. Now he is the head of the Bowery Mission, in Manhattan, which offers food and shelter to thousands of homeless people every year.

Protesters at a Days of Rage demonstration in Chicago, organized by the Weathermen to protest the Chicago Seven trial, October 11, 1969 © David Fenton/Getty Images

Protesters at a Days of Rage demonstration in Chicago, organized by the Weathermen to protest the Chicago Seven trial, October 11, 1969 © David Fenton/Getty Images

“Money has presented us with an abstract of everything,” Spinoza once wrote. In a sense, these books by Fraser, Gibson, and Burrough are histories of the struggle for what you might call class confidence in the face of abstraction. The villains in all three books — in Burrough’s book, anyway, they appear as the villains for the counterculture — are impersonal forces so elusive that it is difficult to react to them effectively. The violence of the 1960s and ’70s now seems like an attempt to confront the abstractions of money with concrete realities. As for today, society seems to have acquiesced to the domination of concentrated wealth because, to a great extent, we are so inured to change that the idea of radical social transformation seems redundant or impossible. Gibson sums up the resulting state of affairs nicely:

We have settled into the choice to let money frame our relationship to land. This abstract thing called money is, itself, in the process of abstracting land: a patch of earth where a building was constructed and used for work and shelter by one group of people has become an investment for another group of people in another neighborhood or state or country.

You could say the same thing about the impossibly abstract nature of packaging basic human needs like shelter into derivatives, a practice still robust and healthy as ever. In some ways, the gap between rich and poor is really the chasm between people who flourish amid abstraction and are immune to the harsh edges of reality, and people who are deprived of material wealth and depend on matter for assurance that they are safe. In other words, it is the difference between confidence and lack of confidence. It is the difference between wearing shorts in March and a heavy winter coat in April.

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’s Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence will be published in January by Yale University Press, and his memoir about money will also be out next year, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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