Listen To This Story
The other night, I went to a crowded art opening on Eldridge Street. Eldridge Street, below Delancey, has retained its gritty New York City character, racially diverse, with galleries, bars, and underground clubs near low-income housing projects. The opening reminded me of old times when I used to go to many such events. I even saw some of the same people from 20 years ago, now gray-haired, marked by age, although still dressed like bohemians and skate punks. The art in the group show was, typically, inconclusive.
Someone had taken pieces of fake fur, dyed them different colors, and stuck them on the wall. A few paintings were semi-surreal and abstract. As with so many exhibits I have seen at similar tiny storefront galleries, it was unclear if the work wanted to be decorative, funny, or, somehow, avant-garde. From what I could see, most of it managed to be none of these things.
Fairly soon, my friend and I walked away from the gallery. As we passed a rundown bodega on the corner, a beggar — a Black man, probably a bit younger than me, a nondescript homeless person, his beard flecked with gray — asked us for four dollars. I found this an oddly specific request. When we didn’t respond, he shouted, “Did you hear me?” As we passed, I more or less mumbled something like “Sorry.” In response, he spit at us, hitting my friend directly on the back of her head, shocking us both.
It has been many years since I experienced this kind of thing in New York. The sense of foreboding keeps increasing. Actually, a few years ago, post-pandemic, I was with another friend at a Mexican restaurant on St. Marks Place when a crazy-looking homeless man stopped in front of us and announced he was going to kill us. That was unnerving. But he didn’t physically touch us or throw anything at us. We left the restaurant nervously looking over our shoulders.
I have no doubt the beggar intentionally spat on my friend rather than me. Of course, I would have much preferred if he had spat on me. I suspect he was challenging me, as “the man,” to see if I would confront him over this, knowing if I didn’t I might look like a coward or a wimp to my friend. But I am far from a street fighter. For all we knew, the guy might have been carrying a knife or other weapon. Of course, another option was to find the police and report him. But this would have been laborious. It would have ruined our night. So we swallowed our pride. We walked away, furious and shaken, but at least physically unharmed.
“People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”
New York is now the most expensive city in the world, and Manhattan, apparently, is, per capita, the richest borough of any city in the world. It is also startlingly uncared for — both the people, particularly the poor and mentally ill, and the urban landscape we all share. There is scaffolding on many buildings, garbage everywhere, and rats skittering around. As I wrote recently, the city is a travesty. Our corrupt new mayor isn’t likely to help.
For an hour or two after the spitting incident, we both felt angry and upset, particularly my friend. We wished terrible things on the bum. We had been looking forward to seeing each other and this event cast a pall for a while. Finally we managed to dispel it.
Late that night, I felt an unexpected surge of compassion toward this wretched person. I could easily put myself in his shoes. I could imagine how painful it would be to have no opportunities, nothing to look forward to, to watch cheerful couples passing, chattering happily, dressed for a weekend date, while you stood out in the cold, alone. Most of the passersby were white — the same white people who rigged the system to always win. To have to beg, stake your little claim for a paltry few dollars so you could get a beer or a fix or a sandwich, over and over again, with nobody caring or listening or giving a shit.
I felt the depth of my own anger toward this system which has ravaged a whole planet in the name of insipid consumerism, meaningless progress, and elite privilege; that takes us further and further away from authentic community and communion with source.
It is hard to find a proper outlet for this fury. I wish there was an inspiring social movement addressing the need for system change in a convincing way.
Among the people I know, few believe in collective action anymore. I sympathize with this also. Radical social movements end up replicating other political systems, with old-fashioned psychological dynamics playing out, leading nowhere.
For most of my life, I have believed we need some kind of revolution — ideally a peaceful one, although that is unlikely. Any “revolution” is unlikely. Considering many factors (some discussed in my recent essay on philosopher Byung-Chul Han), it is difficult to imagine how a radical new awareness might take root and grow. “People power” has been cunningly neutralized — by mass prescriptions of antidepressants, synthetic opiate epidemics, overwhelming police power, surveillance systems, mass media, criminalization of dissent, and so on.
I have been skimming the devastating new report issued by OxFam, Survival of the Richest (read it here). Luke Savage published a good summary in Jacobin: “Democracy is the Solution to Davos Elites’ Global Oligarchy.” He writes:
Not only do the richest 1 percent hold 45.6 percent of all global wealth, but the poorest half of the world holds just 0.75 percent. As the world population surpasses eight billion people, fewer than one hundred billionaires have more wealth than the four billion poorest people combined. And as inflation outpaces the wages of 1.7 billion workers worldwide, the world’s billionaires are seeing their fortunes increase by $2.7 billion every single day. The gap, moreover, continues to widen, with the top 1 percent capturing nearly two-thirds of all new wealth created since 2020 — nearly twice as much as the other 99 percent of the global population.
According to the OxFam report:
For too long, governments, international financial institutions and elites have misled the world with a fictional story about trickle-down economics, in which low tax and high gains for a few would ultimately benefit us all. It is a story without any basis in truth. It is a story, and an economic system that has left us without the tools or even the imagination to face this new age of crisis. It is a system that is largely discredited, yet continues to monopolize the minds of our leaders. It is a system that continues to work very well indeed for a small group of people at the top — predominantly rich, white men based in the global north.
Recently, most of my financially well-off friends have moved away from cities like London and New York to places like Ibiza, New Zealand, Wyoming, and Puerto Rico, where they live in sequestered communities of privilege, close to what now passes as pristine nature. I can understand the impulse — who wants to get spit on by a bum in front of a rundown bodega (or stabbed by one) when they could be splashing in Mediterranean waves? But I doubt such a retreat will give anyone much protection for long, considering the geopolitical cataclysm rushing toward us when temperatures reach 3 or 4 degrees Celsius warmer than they are now.
Many of these people are among the most thoughtful, cultivated people I know. Many of them realize, on some level, that capitalist accumulation and humanity’s future survival are in direct conflict. I feel sad, at a time when the world needs them to step up, they have largely converged on an ideology that values personal contentment and stewarding their privilege over responsibility to the collective. Unfortunately, the growing “consciousness industry” is part of the problem, as it provides an alibi for endless self-development and personal healing work.
At this point, I wish these people would stop meditating and sitting in ceremonies — new, more sophisticated kinds of self-focused entertainment — and apply their intellect and spiritual energy to build a far more equitable system to replace this capitalist death trap. Of course, doing this will cost them most of their privileges and luxuries. That would be their initiation. In fact, there are no good alternatives. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it, “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.” This seems quite accurate.
We don’t need self-driving cars, Mars missions, or AI chatbots. We need redistribution of wealth, participatory democracy, truthful media, and system change. There is no reason our world has to be like this, except to serve the myopically short-term interests of a tiny elite.
Collectively, we need to laser-focus on the ecological emergency and wealth inequality. This requires breaking through the obstructions caused by the design of our economic system, which continues to pursue development and short-term profit over long-term resilience or the needs of the Earth.
I hear estimates that 2 to 3 billion people will perish over the next two or three decades due to droughts, famines, and natural disasters. But this doesn’t have to happen. We possess the physical resources and technical systems needed to prevent it. But neoliberal capitalism — or any system that allows for extreme wealth concentration — makes this impossible.
So why don’t we change it?
A version of this piece was originally published in Daniel Pinchbeck’s Newsletter.