Monday, November 16, 2009

Gimme shelter

The recent decision of Pfizer, the $48-billion-dollar drug company, to reneg on its promise to build a new research division in New London, Connecticut and instead relocate elsewhere (taking some fourteen hundred jobs with it), is part of a scenario that has sent spasms of rage among conservatives and libertarians. Not that the rightists question the privilege of a corporation to do whatever it pleases--since corporate self-interest, along with absolute property rights--is at the very core of their ideology. Nor that they likely care the city will lose all those jobs.

Rather, their ire derives from the fact that Pfizer's offer to New London was predicated on the government seizing private property for the proposed research structure through the process of eminent domain, which is usually employed to meet some urgent public need (road safety, a water line route, a hospital, etc.). To the economic right, public need is virtually non-existent; private property is sacrosanct; therefore government seizure is the very essence of evil.

As a consequence of the seizure, several people lost their homes. So I find myself in a once-in-a-lifetime agreement with the right wingers, but for the opposite reason. I have never considered property ownership inviolable--and I say this as a small property owner myself, as well as a renter. To me, it is the right to affordable shelter--a very pressing public need--whether through owning your own home or renting it, that is, or should be, beyond question. My opposition, then, is that the Pfizer scenario reflected the dominance of corporate self-interest over public need.

In most cases today, the loss of one's shelter is a function not of an independent government's "interference" in the market economy, but of dominant private interests--capitalists--who, acting in their own self-interest, exercise undue influence to get government to do their bidding. As clich├ęd as it sounds, it is the private sector behemoths that pull the strings under which government officials act.

Think of the innumerable gentrification battles in New York City, Boston and other municipalities between gargantuan landowners and beseiged residents, mostly tenants but also small shop keepers. Think of every instance in which large landlords seek to evict tenants clinging to the few government protections they have, in order to make room for higher paying tenants. (In most of New York City's Manhattan neighborhoods today, a one-bedroom apartment typically rents for around $3,000 a month!)

As one who has fought for years against the dislocation of residents--tenants and small businesses--before the onslaught of corporate expansion and landlord greed, I have experienced time and again how large private sector interests dominate the urban economy, making life precarious for all but the very wealthy. In these battles, the government may be the public face of the "enemy." Behind the scenes, however, it is always the giant private interests--large real estate developers, landlords, highway promoters, universities (which are non-profit, but in name only) and others, that are the key actors. Funding them, of course, are banks and other private financial entities.

Therefore, it seems to me that the New London City's action, rather than consitituting an assault on private enterprise, was business as usual in a capitalist economy. You don't have to agree fully with Karl Marx, who (at least according to Leon Trotsky) regarded government, or "the state," as little more than an "executive committee of the ruling class." But he did have a point. Because while such a formulation may appear simplistic today, the New London/Pfizer case seems to typify that very government-corporate relationship. Pfizer made known its desire; the city government jumped to do its bidding; and people lost their shelter, all for a pie-in-the-sky promise of economic development that never took place.

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