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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn
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The Parable of the Shopping Mall

Comment

The savage reverses for capitalism, the gaping wounds in its pretensions, comprise the single most salient feature in the world today. Whether in the collapse in the western banking system, the agonies of post-Soviet economies like the Baltic and Eastern European Republics, the rubble of Indian neo-liberal policies, the economic mantras of an entire generation are going up in smoke. For the left it should be a time of unrivalled opportunity.

Take as an example the shopping mall, which changed the American landscape within the course of a generation. The left, by and large, never much cared for malls. They represented privatized space, the collapse of the public realm, and the freedoms — of association and public protest — protected in public space. Malls, whether in strip or covered form, symbolized a conversion of people from citizens to consumers, the death of Main Street, architecture reduced to utter banality.

Today, mirroring the distress in the mother ship of capitalism, its colonies and settlements are in decay. Consider the Bayshore Mall in my own town of Eureka in Northern California — a covered, pedestrian arcade opened in the 1980s, owned by the Utah-based General Growth Company. Located on the edge of Humboldt Bay, though facing the opposite direction towards Highway 101, our mall was an optimistic place in the early days. People dressed up to go there. Every pretty girl in Humboldt County wanted to work there, to see and to be seen. People drove for three hours through the Yolly Bolly wilderness all the way from Redding in the Central Valley to savor its glories. There were stylish concerts in its ample Food Court.

Today the Bayshore Mall molders, embodying the misfortunes of General Growth — the second largest mall owner in the United States — whose stock trades now for 55 cents, down from $44 last May. Some major retailers, like Lauren's Polo, have long since fled. Walk east along one of the arcades and you come to a wall of plywood, behind which lies the desolation that was Mervyn's, a clothing chain that has now filed for bankruptcy. The little stores nearby have a somber mien, like people compelled to live in the chill shadow of a funeral home. The food court, serviced by six or seven fast food businesses, is becoming a sanctuary for the poor.

Across the past 40 years some 200 cities built pedestrian malls. Today, only 30 remain. Drive around any town and one can see strip malls in similar decline, their parking lots nearly empty, boarded stores in the retail frontage like a mouth losing its teeth, as the lights of Circuit City go out and Linen 'n Things, Zales, Ann Taylor and Sharper Image retrench or collapse entirely.

Out of crisis comes opportunity, one that's been discussed for some years by movements such as the New Urbanists and crusaders for the refashioning of the American urban landscape such as James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere." A mall can be razed to the ground, like the Belle Promenade, on the west bank of the Mississippi in New Orleans.

Eureka's too poor a town to do that. But a mall can be refashioned into a more congenial quartier, albeit one blessed with easier parking.

In the same way that coastal cities finally realized the asset of nineteenth-century quaysides with their warehouses and customs depots, today's failed or failing malls can be reconfigured, converted to mixed use, with residential housing, public spaces and constructive social uses. In the Bayshore even now I see groups of the mentally ill being brought along for an outing in a place that's sheltered, still physically safe, and equipped with bathrooms, and plenty of space with chairs or benches where they can relax.

In many towns one can imagine that energetic councils and resourceful financing could offer the reeling mall operators terms and take the properties off their hands, reconfiguring the malls as social assets.

On the larger economic front, similar reconstructive engineering for the public good is vital, however adamantly Wall Street, Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers and President Obama may proclaim earnestly that the architecture of "free enterprise" capitalism must be preserved. We're at that stage that Thurman Arnold captured so wittily in his 1937 book, "The Folklore of Capitalism."

In an early chapter, "The Folklore of 1937," Arnold describes with vivid humor the tenacity with which supporters of untrammeled "private enterprise" held to beliefs whose operating principles had engendered the Great Depression. He likened it to the University of Paris insisting in the seventeenth century that bleeding was still the cure for malaria, even though quinine, promoted by the Jesuits in Peru, seemed to offer a more effective remedy. But, Arnold wrote, "The medieval physician could see no profit in saving a man's body if thereby he lost his soul. Nor did he think that any temporary physical relief could ever be worth the violation of the fundamental principles of medicine. Of course, patients sickened and died in the process, but they were dying for a medical principle."

Is there a better description for the Republicans opposing the stimulus plan on principle, or Geithner stoutly proclaiming his zeal to preserve the banking system as presently constituted?

Opportunity is there, to be seized from the jaws of capitalism's shattering reverses. This is a chance richer than the opportunity offered and annulled in the mid-70s. Circumstances will in all likelihood push Obama's government to the left, just as they did FDR when orthodoxy failed. The left should not be shy about pressing the challenge out of some misguided notion of preserving a polite progressive consensus. From the malls to the commanding heights of the economy, let the Reconquest begin.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.



Comments

2 Comments | Post Comment
Oh boy, here's an unrepentant socialist who's finally gotten his chance. But, as distinguished commenter Mr. Sweeney has noted aptly before, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Well, now it's Mr. Cockburn's time to shine. But what is coming is not "socialism" per se. We have to return to Mr. Hagel for the right approach: Capitalism is the "thesis," socialism is the "antithesis," and God knows what we will call it will be the "synthesis" born of the conflict. ........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
What synthesis will achieve, if we are to continue as the species that calls the shots on this planet, is getting our "leaders" to take a hard look at the the list of things we hate to confront because it just doesn't feel good. There at the very top can be found the very thing that our current woes are signaling in spades: The final merging of economic and environmental collapse. .......................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
None of our economic models can find a way to produce economic growth without population growth. We are populating the planet into environmental oblivion, and all the cool talk about clean energy and green this and that does nothing more than spin fantasies for us about how finding exactly the right arrangement of the chairs on the Titanic is the way to keep the good ship afloat. We haven't even begun to crack open our eyelids after this last bender. ........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
Now, one must understand that Mr. Cockburn, who never misses an opportunity to play devil's advocate, does not believe in global warming and apparently thinks destroying the natural carbon sink provided by the world's rain forests coupled with with massive increases in carbon dioxide production (not to mention increased production of all the other "greenhouse" gases, including the glorious hydrogen) is not something to worry about. Okay, he's a journalist, and doesn't really understand the applicable science, which you can't learn in a couple of college courses where you get good grades by writing impressive essays. So let's leave the complicated science aside, and just talk about the old rat cage. You know, that little world, where rats go about their daily business, which stays the same size no matter how many rats propagate inside of it. Eventually it becomes a matter of understanding the power of that axiomatic principle known as the piss-and-poop to available-space ratio. .........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
But I digress. Let's just say that, by the time we get finished with finding a way out of our current mess, and we had better do it fast if we want to continue to have a planet we actually want to live on, no one will be able to fathom how in the world trivial little things like nationalizing the banks could ever have been seen as controversial. .......................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
Whether we are headed toward socialism isn't the question any more. We already have it for the corporate elite. The question is how to make it work, and how to finally cast off the old, failed economic superstitions that are choking us to death like the carapace of a molting crab that just won't crack.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Masako
Mon Feb 23, 2009 8:19 PM
Oh Jeez, I confused the spelling of the surname of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich with that of Chuck, who's also kind of cool...
Comment: #2
Posted by: Masako
Mon Feb 23, 2009 9:04 PM
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