Thursday, February 03, 2005

City mice

The other day while walking E home from kindergarten she mentioned that her teacher, Mrs. C, was telling the kids that she lived out in the country, and was therefore a "country mouse," while the paraprofessional who works in her classroom was a "city mouse." E quickly surmised that she herself was also a city mouse, like Mrs. L, the paraprofessional.

Mrs. C is a bright, energetic young teacher, several years younger than I am, a fairly recent graduate of the university here, which draws students from all over New England, mostly from the middle-class suburbs of Boston and Connecticut. Mrs. L is significantly older, and her francophone last name likely come from the French Canadians who migrated here in the nineteenth century to work in the textile mills and whose descendents make up a sizable part of the city's working class to this day.

There are no textile mills in New England these days, of course. That industry left for the American south before World War II, when the process we now know as globalization didn't have to be quite so global. Low wages and violent repression of strikes were accessible to northern capital just by moving south of the Mason-Dixon line.

I heard on a radio program a few months ago that, statistically, New England has been deindustrializing for over one hundred years. Before the Civil War, the mills of New England were the brain and heart and muscle of the American economy, generating the capital which made possible the building of the railroads, a circulatory system that sucked in agricultural products from the midwest and pumped our products out to the frontier towns, filling the shelves of the mitochondrial general stores.

Capitalism thrives not simply by exploiting workers, but by separating the hand and the head. The knowledge that is essential to any work process is abstracted and given to "managers," while workers are expected merely to rent their muscle to their employers for the day. Brain and muscle, managers and workers, headquarters and production, core functions and outsources, the imperial center and periphery, the pattern of dualism and alienation spreads ever outwards. "An honest day's pay for an honest day's work" is not a slogan which addresses this; it was a strike in a New England mill town that gave us one of the greatest of workers' slogans: "Bread and Roses."

New England still boasts a big head — we have the headquarters of GE and many other companies, and the suburbs of Connecticut still house much of the upper-level management of the financial capital of the world, New York. But our body is old, rusty, has been cast aside so many times for the south, then Mexico and now China.

It's enough to break your heart.

Everything in the natural universe has a center and a periphery. Inside the atom, protons and neutrons are bound together in a nucleus and electrons swirl around them, their motions determined by forces that are as fundamental to the universe as gravity and electromagnetism yet operate only on this tiny scale. Gravity holds stars together into galaxies, and galaxies into clusters. The repel-and-attract of the matter and energy that makes up the universe does not distribute itself randomly or evenly across space, but coalesces into spheres and discs and orbits.

The one thing which does not have a center, oddly enough, is the universe itself. Space is curved in ways which we cannot really grasp. We keep trying to project a center onto the universe, because our human lives are so dominated centers and peripheries.

I do not think that Mrs. C does really lives in the country, but in the proto-suburbs known as "sprawl" which are taking over the rural townships around here. Every township has some kind of center, a village or sometimes just a "junction," and many of them used to be a vital part of the functioning of the town, with perhaps a general store or a grange hall, a place for the distribution not just of goods but of news and ideas and sociability.

Now, though, developers simply hack off chunks of land in a township for development, often those nearest the nearest city, with no regard for the biological life of the township. One township, just to the north of us, is now the third biggest municipality in the state, but I'll bet that most of its population have never been to the actual village, which lies well to the north of the subdivision sectors, still surrounded by farms. The subdivision sectors, of course, are built right up against the city line, for those who want to escape the supposed dirt and crime of the city but don't want to deal with the rough bodily inconveniences of actual rural life. More ominously, another township to the southeast of us has sprouted a whole tumor of "big box" stores like Walmart right along our border, sucking commerce from our downtown and the old township center alike.

Marx wrote that one of the dire effects of capitalism upon human society was the "metabolic rupture" of the symbiosis between city and countryside, and he hoped that its replacement with socialism and communism would help restore balance between the city and the country, humans and nature. Just as American society has produced a blanket denial of the class contradictions between workers and capital, we have produced a blanket denial of the rupture between city and country: the suburb.

Suburbs have no center, or at least they pretend to, grandiosely insisting on the privilege of the universe itself. The conceit of the suburb is that each home is a castle, dependent on no center, free to choose from any of the big box stores and shopping malls that line the boulevards separating the subdivision sectors.

But of course people need social centers, so we Thank Goodness It's Applebees and we throng in the malls, trying to defibrillate these prosthetic hearts. It doesn't work, because malls will not sell us what we need — the challenge of others, the slight air of danger that pervades all of real life, the cracks that you can finger tenderly because they hurt but you can't stop from trying to pry open because it's the cracks that let the light in, the breaks that let the truth out.

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