Jonathan's Reviews > Fear City: New York's Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics

Fear City by Kim Phillips-Fein
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's review

it was amazing

I read Kim Phillips-Fein's "Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal" several years ago, and "Fear City" is a perfect complement that likewise enriches our understanding of the collapse of the social democratic consensus and the rise of neoliberalism. In both books, she astutely observes the build-up of causes, reordering of power, and individual and collective actions that, over time, effect a shift in economic paradigm. As "Invisible Hands" tracked the evolution of conservative political forces, "Fear City" looks at the remaking of liberalism in the interest of high finance.

"Fear City" focuses on New York City's 1973 financial crisis, the result of which was a steep retrenchment of city government -- which no longer provided the robust public services that it had by mid-century. As Phillips-Fein observes, contrary to the neoliberal mantra of "there is no alternative," there were many alternatives at every step of the way leading to New York's near-bankruptcy. Many of the roots of the crisis were out of New York City's hands, instead the results of federal policies that incentivized out-migration into suburbia and state policies that hamstrung the city's ability to raise tax revenue.

Among the central features of neoliberalism is the demarcation of "the economy" as a realm outside of politics and democratic will. Phillips-Fein shows this well, as New York City's predominantly rich and predominantly white (and predominantly male) elites (elected and not) used the crisis as an opportunity to restructure the city and the social contract on which it had rested. If the city had gone through bankruptcy, the courts would have dictated New York's actions and priorities without democratic input. What happened was little different (although, as she makes clear to point out, it did not go uncontested).

The restructuring of New York was not the result of a masterminded conspiracy of an ideological treatise, but of the opportunistic use of power by those who had a very different vision for what the city could be, one which would serve their interests.

As Phillips-Fein makes clear time and time again (and we must too), whether or not we "can have nice things" is a political question, not a mere accounting one.

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Reading Progress

July 13, 2018 – Started Reading
July 15, 2018 – Finished Reading
July 26, 2018 – Shelved

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