In the wake of George Floyd’s death and nationwide BLM protests, the head of my economic growth agency — I work for a local development authority — sent out a lukewarm email telling us that our mission was now more important than ever and that we had to “bake equity” into everything that we do. The words seemed as though they had been regurgitated from a McKinsey slide deck (the infamous consulting agency has millions of dollars in contracts with my agency, and has made over $100 million in advising local governments on their bumbling coronavirus responses). Not once did he state, “Black Lives Matter,” though paying lip service without any substantial change is not necessarily an improvement.
I became an urban planner because I care about cities and the built environment. I love cycling and green spaces and public transit — the things that make us feel connected and human and part of something bigger and more beautiful. After leaving planning school though, I realized that while urban theory is inspiring and exciting, the day to day work is at the behest of capital. My work in economic development is a perfect example: my agency provides relocation tax breaks to wealthy companies and supports big real estate to redevelop opportunity zones (and thereby finances gentrification), among other well-meaning but ultimately misled programs. Policies can be thoughtfully researched and well-intentioned in helping disadvantaged communities but they will never succeed in the capitalist system.
For the past few months, my agency has been disbursing small business grants for coronavirus relief. People email me constantly, saying that they will have to close their business, that they are deep in debt, that they need assistance as soon as possible. The grants average a couple thousand dollars: for most businesses, this doesn’t even cover a single month’s rent. This effort, like so many others, is well-meaning but useless, especially when you consider that over 22% of small businesses have closed during the pandemic and that number is almost doubled at 41% for black-owned businesses. It’s simply a way for elected officials to feel proud of their efforts and gain momentum for their next campaign. Meanwhile, big companies and the banks get bailed out time and time again. They don’t need to send extensive documentation to prove their marginal need or promise best-effort to keep all employees on board. Government and big corporations after all, play for the same team: capital.
Marx talks about how we are alienated from our labor, how instead of having autonomy over our work and our actions, our activities and work are determined by the bourgeoisie. For so long, I sought out public sector work, convinced that in this realm, I could do something productive and useful to help others, beholden not to shareholders, but to citizens. I realize now, how mistaken I’ve been all along. Public sector or private — everything is set up to benefit the bourgeoisie, to keep capitalism thriving, to keep workers tied up. Realizing how crushing capitalism is can be depressing and disillusioning, but also illuminating: I finally see the world for what it is and I cannot unsee it.