Governing With 'Class': Politics The Bloomberg Way

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As only the fourth modern New York mayor to secure a third term, Michael Bloomberg’s impact will be deeply etched in the city’s physical shape and political culture. But it won’t be a simple legacy. In “Bloomberg’s New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City” (University of Georgia Press, $69.95, cloth; $24.95, paper), Julian Brash argues that the mayor’s aversion to traditional politics was, in fact, the hallmark of a new kind of politics—one that reconciled tensions between government and corporations by remaking the former in the image of (and for the benefit of) the latter. Here is an excerpt:

While corporate language and management practices in government have become more common in recent decades, the Bloomberg administration was more than inflected or influenced by the corporate experience of the mayor and his key economic development officials. Instead, corporate rationality was pervasive and foundational, the DNA of the Bloomberg Way. This gave economic and urban development policy a coherence and comprehensiveness lacking in the past.

The corporate rationality of the Bloomberg Way, and the development agenda that emerged from it, clearly reflected the experience, underwrote the power, and furthered the interests and desires of the city’s postindustrial elite. Yet the Bloomberg Way was represented as serving the interests of the city as a whole, as providing a path to shared prosperity, as “preparing all of New York to compete, and to win, in the future,” to quote the Mayor.

Inherent in this approach to urban governance was an insistence that a single, overarching interest of the city could be not only identified but also achieved if the right policies were pursued. These results could be obtained, the mayor promised, if New Yorkers kept “the good of our whole city ahead of any narrow ideological or political interests.”

Thus the Bloomberg Way constituted a denial of the legitimacy of struggles among various constituencies even as it was itself a product of such struggles. It was simultaneously deeply antipolitical and deeply political. This was the crucial and constitutive contradiction of the Bloomberg Way.

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Bloomberg’s refusal to participate in the glad-handing, back-slapping, baby-kissing theater so often described as “politics” received much attention. But the Bloomberg Way attempted a more profound submergence of politics: a denial of the inevitability, let alone the desirability, of conflict in a city teeming with diversity and inequality.

The antipolitics of the Bloomberg Way were deeply rooted in its corporate nature. By casting the city government as a corporation, businesses as clients, and the city as a product, the administration made the implicit claim that the fundamental aim of economic and urban development policy was as clear and well defined as the fundamental aim of a firm.

Whereas competitiveness in the name of profit is the overriding objective of corporate management, the Bloomberg Way posited urban competitiveness toward the end of economic growth as the overriding objective of urban management. Such growth would supply increased tax revenues that the mayor argued represented the only long-term solution to the city’s recurrent budget crises and the only way in which high-quality city services could be maintained. Economic growth would also provide more jobs, which Bloomberg was wont to call “the most effective social policy.”

This had two important implications. The first was the radical reduction of the possible standards of urban development policy to one: the ability to attract and retain targeted businesses and individuals, that is, to enhance the city’s competitiveness. Even a cursory glance at New York City history, to say nothing of urban history in general, indicates that economic and urban development policies and projects are inherently divisive and conflictive. But the overwhelming focus on competitiveness marginalized questions of distribution, whether of jobs, income, tax burdens, state largesse, or economic benefits.

The second was the model of accountability intrinsic to the Bloomberg Way. The mayor, armed with his own business expertise and that of his economic development officials, claimed the prerogative to determine the most efficient and effective strategy to enhance the city’s competitiveness, while asking to be judged on the basis of the success of this strategy.

Just as the mayor had expected his employees at Bloomberg LP to defer to his decisions and judge him by the firm’s bottom line, so New York City’s citizenry was expected to defer to the CEO mayor’s decisions and reserve their judgment until the “accountability moments” provided by elections. This translated into a prioritization of outcome-based accountability over the sort of procedural accountability that might ensure public participation and input into governmental decision-making.

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If the Bloomberg Way represented a direct assault on politics, it was a deeply contradictory one. For this approach to urban governance was itself deeply political.

At its heart, the Bloomberg Way was a class project, an effort to legitimize the power and wealth of the members of this class alliance and to reshape the city in line with its interests and desires. This class project was now working directly through the mechanism of state power. The marriage of class to state power made the Bloomberg Way a remarkably coherent and focused approach to governance, one that had the potential to put the city on a sustainable political-economic footing. However, it also generated new forms of division and conflict that undermined claims that it somehow transcended politics.

Indeed, the Bloomberg administration’s approach to development had profound implications for the nitty-gritty issues of urban politics: land use, real estate value, the distribution of tax burdens, the provision of services, and so on. The mayor’s luxury city strategy privileged the needs of high-value-added companies (and their elite employees) for which the value of a New York location outweighed the cost, to the detriment of more cost-sensitive industries and residents. It proposed to restructure the city as not just a space of residence and identification but an economic field—to the benefit of certain interests (such as the media, finance, business services, and information technology sectors in which the postindustrial elites had incubated) and the detriment of others.

While the adverse implications the luxury city strategy had for small businesses and industrial and manufacturing interests (to say nothing of the millions of individual New Yorkers for whom the city’s high costs of living posed a daily challenge) were important, it was its implications for the city’s heretofore-dominant real estate interests that were especially noteworthy. For the first time in decades, state action in the development arena did not have the provision of nearly unconditional support for real estate interests as its raison d’être, instead focusing on a broader strategy of interurban competitiveness that at times worked directly against the interests of real estate.

The postindustrial elite asserted that it was their interests rather than those of real estate that hewed closest to the interest of the city as a whole and that, via their control of the local state, they were best suited to lead the city toward that interest.

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The centralization of all the city agencies related to economic and urban development, under the command of Deputy Mayor Doctoroff, was especially important in this regard, as it gave him control of what one reporter aptly called “an awesome arsenal of city development agencies” with power over almost every aspect of the city economic and urban development policy.

Doctoroff’s centralized control over the city government’s development apparatus gave him the ability to mete out rewards to real estate developers and others who chose to follow the administration’s dictates and punishments to those who did not. While the administration steadfastly rejected the notion that the deputy mayor took advantage of this ability, it was effective nonetheless as many in the real estate industry certainly saw the fate of their projects as dependent on staying in the good graces of the deputy mayor.

This newly assertive and coherent stance on the part of the local state was widely noted—at times in praise and at times in condemnation. While liberals and good-government types cautiously praised the Bloomberg Way’s assertion that “the city’s interests” should guide development policy rather than “the market,” many real estate elites and conservative advocates of small governments interpreted it as a sudden and jarring incursion of the state into the private sector. This led to the labeling of Mayor Bloomberg as, depending on one’s political stripes, either a “left-leaning progressive” or a typical, big government, urban liberal.

While in keeping with the orthodox dualism that dominates American political discourse, such formulations missed the crucial fact that the newly invigorated ability of the local state to act in a coherent and forceful manner was supplied by shared class interests, experiences, desires, and practices.

What was at issue was not the shifting boundary between the state and society but the way in which the postindustrial elite, through its mobilization and participation in governance, had transformed the local state into a vehicle for class politics and—thus rendered this boundary largely irrelevant.

The Bloomberg Way, to use John Clarke’s fortuitous words, represented a “politicized assault on ‘politics,'” and in so doing was a continuation of the broader class war from above raging in New York City and the United States for the better part of four decades.

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