London. Jet-lagged. The view out my friends’ penthouse shows the four-year lapse since I was here: to one side, beyond Tower Bridge and the now dwarfed London City building, rises a Renzo Piano skyscraper, to be the tallest in London, a thousand and some feet. Out another window in the City is the nearly-completed foil to Foster’s Ghurkin, a vertical slab to counter its bulbous form. And there are too many other leaps of hyper-modernity to tally. The South Bank, a dank and presumably dangerous area of my youthful stays in London – 1963 – and still similar when I stayed in in 1978 and then again in 80-81 – then a place of abandoned warehouses, narrow alleys, cheap working-class pubs and drugs has been subject to total urban renewal and is now home to swank apartment buildings,renovated warehouses with costly lofts, glittering office towers, boutiques, classy restaurants, and a generalized Disneyfication which runs from the London Eye ferris wheel across from the Houses of Parliament all the way down river past Tower Bridge to the failed Millennium Dome. It is a place of mass tourism, with such gems as the National Theater (an architectural bit of 1970’s ugly “brutalism”), the Tate Modern made of the revision of a massive mid-20th century power station, the hokey half-timber replica (sort of) of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, and endless pubs, restaurants, shopping malls and the like lined up along the Thames, crowded with tourists and Londoners. The only risk of the neighborhood remaining is of joining the lemming herd buying the costly baubles on offer: 15,50 sterling to enter the Tate’s Miro exhibit, 3.75 quid for a beer, or 4 for a Brit style hot-dog. A one-day Tube pass for Central London runs 6.50 Sterling, or 10 bucks. Though it would cost more if you merely took 2 short rides. (A pound is $1.40 or so these days.) Everything else is similarly scaled, meaning to enter into the consumerist wallow assumes a very healthy income, or a willingness to run up a pile of debt. I suspect it is this latter, which merely emulates what the large scale economy did on a personal level. I took a long walk today, a Sunday, and avoided buying anything, though mingling with the many tongued mass was inescapable. Elsewhere across the city – in Chelsea and South Kensington near the mythic consumer temple of Harrods, or in Oxford Circus, or Soho, or Portobello Road, or myriad other magnets of this vast city, similar hordes checked out the things on offer, usually for a stiff price. Thankfully the major museums remain, as yet “free” though large signs urge that you donate 10 Pounds or so at each doorway. Few seem to do so.
On the way back, after a calming stop at Southwark Cathedral during a service, I passed over the once-wobbly Foster-design Millennium footbridge towards St. Paul’s done, and on then through parts of the Sunday becalmed City, the financial district. It is surely this area which has accounted for the flush of wealth which saw this transformation of London come to pass. Frankly Britain doesn’t make much anymore – it’s industrial base is withered, a ghost of its once busy self (something readily noticed in the cities of the Midlands and north) and while tourism is a major economic factor in London’s economy, it doesn’t nearly make the kinds of money which has essentially rebuilt the city in the last 2 decades or so. It has been the financial industry which did it – though as elsewhere this rickety house of cards, though capable of generating wealth, does so in curious ways which seem to side-step most of the community. And it does as elsewhere in the world, warping the economy so that prices shift to match the sudden new wealth, however unevenly distributed. So that a friend of mine, living in her family’s house in the Portobello area, which some decades ago was run-down, a haven for artists, musicians, drug-users and the like, now finds herself surrounded by investment bankers and their BMW’s and other accoutrements. The area is now busy with fancy restaurants, costly antique stores, boutique fashions and the rest of what the wealthy new inhabitants “need.” The locals who previously were the neighborhood find themselves forced out by a silent economic dictum. And now, with the new government of Cameron and Clegg, local amenities like the public library, swimming pool and other “commons” are being closed down or privatized. Luckily my friend, at least for the moment, can hold on to her house, the value of which has sky-rocketed, as property taxes for residences in London have a cap on them, such that whatever the market value, the top rate is as if it were worth 350,000 pounds. Or if unoccupied then it is zero. So for the moment she is able to manage, though, as she has no job and lives frugally, friends suggest she should sell out. I suppose her place is “worth” some million and more quid. She insists on staying.
Curiously on arriving here my hosts had just returned from the Edinburgh Film Festival, since a few years moved from its old slot in the midst of the August Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which in the decades since I was there last has ballooned into a massive affair in which the film folks seem to have gotten lost. They now do their thing in June. My friends brought with them a DVD of a film they hadn’t managed to catch, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. It is a very well done “talking head” film, cross cutting nicely done such heads, aerial over-views of the canyons of Manhattan, and news footage (most more talking heads, though some of prostitutes and coke snorting), all done in a brisk manner, quickly delineating this heist of the new century. It back-tracks in history to the Reagan first steps towards deregulation of our economic mechanisms, all in the name of the theory that the “free market” is self-correcting, and in effect always comes up a winner. Then to the Clinton-signed nullification of the Glass-Stegal Act which long ago – in the 30’s – limited the kinds of investments banks could make. And then on through the wild west ride of the last several decades, with bubbles growing and bursting – dot.com etc. – on up to the 2008 housing mortgage bust. The main characters are put in the place – Greenspan, Bernanke, Paulson, Geithner (the whole revolving-door system in which members of Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street titans go in and out of government service to the Fed or Treasury, rigging things for themselves) – and the steps by which the end-times Bush collapse came to be. Then Paulson, Sec. of the Treasury, announced with a trembling Bush at his side that the global economy would simply collapse if the Federal government didn’t pony up a mere 800 billion dollars to the banks. Now! No questions asked! He did as commanded, and his successor, Mr Obama has done likewise, acquiescing to every wish of our financial titans. The reason is simple: the financial community some time ago simply bought the entire governmental system – the Congress, the Executive and the Judiciary. Hence, though as Inside Job clearly points out, while vast frauds and crimes were the root source of the economic crisis of 2008, virtually no one has been prosecuted or imprisoned, short of the sacrificial goat of Bernie, a small-fry Ponzi-schemer with good connections. On watching the film clips of the sweaty, inarticulate likes of Angelo Mozilo (head of Countrywide mortgage outfit), or Lloyd Blankfein (CEO Goldman Sachs) during the mild Congressional questioning one could only think of mafioso dons, who these characters looked like, and seemed to act like, with their hands caught in the Fed’s fat cookie jar. However, today they still masquerade in the same banker’s pin-stripes rather than in the other kind they properly should be wearing in the Big House.
Today, across the English Channel, comes the news that the French government is busy scrambling to salvage the nation’s banks from the effects of the looming Greek default. As it happens they (along with other European banks, and by extension America’s – since the US banks loaned heavily their cheap .5% Fed loans to them for a far higher rate, a true cash-cow if ever there were one) are deeply enmeshed in the Greek situation, and should Greece default rather than bend to the extortionist’s demands of the banks, suddenly many a European bank will be minus hundreds of billions of Euro. Poor dears. Of course it is supposed to be that we should tremble at this word. (Note: Goldman Sachs was deeply involved in teaching the at-that-time right-wing/conservative government of Greece how to cook the books to meet EU community entry requirements. Doubtless the same Goldman Sachs, knowing the truth, bought insurance on the collapse and will make a bundle when it happens.) So the dominoes hidden from sight continue to tumble and the bankers and governments scramble to keep the illusion afloat. And perhaps for some more months, or even a year or two, they’ll manage to juggle enough to do so. Or perhaps not.
When it is all done, perhaps the Tube will cost a lot less since it is difficult to extract money from those with none of it. Unless, of course, you’d like to borrow as some pleasant rate.