March 2011, Week 3


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Tue, 15 Mar 2011 21:51:30 -0400
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Remembering Robert Fitch

By Doug Henwood
The Nation
March 15, 2011


My old friend Robert Fitch, a brilliant and prolific radical
journalist and troublemaker, died on March 4 at the age of
72. Sadly, too few people know what a loss that is.

I met Bob in the late 1980s - can't remember exactly when. He
was just resurfacing after several years underground. A major
publisher had given him a big advance to write a book about
New York City, and he found it impossible to deliver. Bob
delisted his phone number, gave up writing for union
organizing, and tried to keep the collection agents at bay.
After several years on the lam, he was resurfacing at the
Village Voice, and half of the Nation's current London
office, Don Guttenplan, introduced me to him.

On Don's recommendation, I'd just read Bob's fantastic essay
"Planning New York," in a now out-of-print anthology on the
urban crisis of the 1970s. It was about the 1929 plan for New
York City drawn up by the Regional Plan Association. It laid
out the outline for an auto-centered metropolitan region,
including the highway system that would later be attributed
to Robert Moses. What impressed me about the piece was that
it detailed just how precisely planned by elites over the
very long term the physical and social evolution of New York
City has been. One's casual impression of the city is that
it's unplanned and chaotic, but it's long been anything but

After our meeting at the Voice's delightfully shabby old
offices on Broadway, Bob and I became good friends. Much of
the friendship was conducted on the phone. We talked three or
four times a week, often for an hour or more. I learned a lot
from him.

Although I'd been living in New York for a decade when we
met, I really didn't understand how the city worked
politically. Talking with Bob made it all pretty clear. We
talked endlessly about the role of Wall Street and the real
estate elite in planning the city (themes he would put
between covers in The Assassination of New York, published by
Verso in 1996). So many of the things that were attributed to
anonymous global forces, like the deindustrialization of the
city and its transformation into the prototype of the
globally oriented post-industrial metropolis, were
consciously guided by bankers, developers, and their hired
hands. They used all the instruments of state power -
subsidies, zoning laws, eminent domain - to get their way.

The landscape of the city - the propinquity of skyscrapers
and slums, of the very rich and the very poor - reflected the
kind of hollowed-out society that a FIRE (finance, insurance,
real estate)-dominated economy created. Neighborhoods that
once housed factories and their workers were either emptied
out or gentrified. If you were employed in the FIRE sector,
you could do very nicely. If you were employed in one of the
elite service industries - advertising, consulting, and the
like - that populated those skyscrapers, you could do pretty
nicely. Not as nicely as a bond trader or a dealmaker, for
sure - but a lot better than the messengers, busboys, and
bootblacks that did the scut work for the service

Normally, political progressives might attribute this sort of
thing to the "right," meaning largely Republicans. But that
was not the way things worked in New York, which was, at
least until recently, essentially a one-party (Democratic)
town. Sometimes the Dems would sound progressive - in the
early 1990s, there were David Dinkins and his "gorgeous
mosaic" - but on the stuff that really mattered, like budgets
and land use, they were always loyal servants of their FIRE
masters. Today, people bemoan the Wall Street rule of
billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but it's unlikely that a
Democrat would have done anything different. I doubt I'd
understand that had I not spent so much time talking with

Fitch's critique of the Democratic Party earned him a few
enemies, but that wasn't all. He was at least as withering on
the topic of unions in New York. In a series of pieces for
the Voice throughout the 1990s, he detailed the corruption
and compromises of the labor movement in the city - stolen
elections, stolen money, sweatshops with the union label,
complicity with FIRE's economic vision for the city.

Bob took that critique to the national level with his 2006
book, Solidarity for Sale, which focused on the taboo topic
of union corruption. Why is it, Bob asked, that no other
labor movement in the First World is so full of mobsters,
shakedown artists, hacks, and thieves? Here's the beginning
of an answer, from an interview he did with Michael Yates of
Monthly Review:

Essentially, the American labor movement consists of 20,000
semi-autonomous local unions. Like feudal vassals, local
leaders get their exclusive jurisdiction from a higher level
organization and pass on a share of their dues. The ordinary
members are like the serfs who pay compulsory dues and come
with the territory. The union bosses control jobs - staff
jobs or hiring hall jobs - the coin of the political realm.
Those who get the jobs - the clients - give back their
unconditional loyalty. The politics of loyalty produces,
systematically, poles of corruption and apathy. The
privileged minority who turn the union into their personal
business. And the vast majority who ignore the union as none
of their business.

It wasn't all analysis, though. Bob tried several times to
put together groups of intellectuals and activists to devise
an alternative economic strategy for New York - some kind of
reindustrialization that would put people to work and counter
the polarization that has characterized the city for the last
30-40 years. I worked with him on several of those efforts,
but we could never get it off the ground. There was no
funding, no institutional base, few people familiar enough
with the issues - and even fewer willing to risk alienating
the Democrats or the unions by signing on. Jobs and
reputations were at stake.

(Bob once thanked a union economist in a footnote in a
journal article. The economist called him, his voice full of
alarm. He was afraid that merely incurring Bob's public
gratitude could put his continued employment at risk.)

And I haven't even mentioned his study of Marx while he was
working for army intelligence, his early work on Ghana and
Wall Street control of corporate America, or his tenure as an
editor at Ramparts. His tales of Berkeley in the 1960s were
wonderful to listen to; fear of litigation keeps me from
repeating the best of them.

For all his truth-telling, Bob was ostracized not only by the
progressive establishment in New York but also by academia,
which found him not only too outspoken, but too polymath as
well. Universities like well-behaved specialists, not rude
questioners. Though his material situation improved somewhat
in recent years, he lived most of his life on very little
money. His major sources of income were freelance writing
fees, small book advances, and the sweatshop wages enjoyed by
adjunct faculty (which is what you call a temp worker with a
PhD). As Guttenplan, the former Village Voice editor who
introduced me to Bob, wrote just after his death: "[It's a]
scandal that they scrape the barrel to give these so-called
genius grants to third-rate conventional fakers when Bob
Fitch, a man who did his own thinking and his own research,
and who came up with truly original insights about some
pretty important topics - urban planning, organized labor,
critical journalism - had to live like a luftmensch."

Much to my regret, I'd fallen out of touch with Bob in recent
years, and had just resolved to reverse that. I missed his
mind - and, though he could be a prickly character at times,
his warmth. RIP, Bob. They don't make many like you.

[Doug Henwood is a Contributing Editor, and is also the
editor of the Left Business Observer, is working on a study
of the current American ruling class, whoever that is.]


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