Los Angeles and the Bi-Polar Economic System
Los Angeles serves as a microcosm for the rest of the United States. Its cultural beginnings are a mish-mash of competing ideologies overrun by the same human failing that eats into the heart of all cultures: greed and excess. As Fogelson notes in The Fragmented Metropolis, such was the case from the days of the early missionaries to the rancheros who secured for themselves huge tracts of land following Mexico's independence from Spain. Then throughout the early 20th century, Los Angeles became a place ruled by a criminal underworld, where vice was available 24-7 and where people routinely bought their way to the top. In effect, the divide between rich and poor in Los Angeles has always been the result of a moneyed "class" making sure that it stayed "moneyed" while the poor grew poorer. As the wealthiest 1% in America continue to become even wealthier at the expense of the middle class, which is shrinking (as the poorer class grows), Los Angeles may be deemed in hindsight a vision of what was to come all across the U.S.L.A. truly represents a bi-polar economic system drained of any ability to actually provide economic fairness. This paper will explain the evolution of this skewed bi-polar economic system and show how Los Angeles offers a good glimpse of the contraction of the middle class in America.
From the beginning, the "Californians based their economy and society on vast estates known as ranchos" (Fogelson 8). The same was true across all America -- not just the West Coast. One might just as well call the Founding Fathers the original land barons. It was a system of haves and have-nots set up by the haves in order to exploit the land and the have-nots -- and this was the foundation in California -- and the labor of the have-nots was exploited, first by the slave-owners then by the bosses employing the immigrants and the desperate. This was certainly the case in California, where "the Indians, not the Californians, made up the labor force" (Fogelson 8).
And yet California was promoted as a kind of place where the American Dream could be had. In this sense, California itself became a commodity, as Davis suggests. It became "a mirror of capitalism's future" (Davis 21) -- a sign of the times and of things to come, a destination for dreamers, not just for the state but for the entire nation. If capitalists were driven by a need to exploit and the capacity to enforce exploitation through the law, then California was a capitalist's dream -- which is exactly why men like Bugsy Segal and Mickey Cohen thrived there. They were capitalists-extraordinaire -- taking what they wanted, or at least what they could get away with.
Over the years, however, Los Angeles was transformed from a place of rancheros...
This was the result of a series of booms -- oil, banking, military-industrial. Los Angeles represented "dream machinery" that devours all, including the commentators and analysts who would have us understand Los Angeles from a certain perspective (Davis 24). The reality is that L.A. cannot be defined simply even though one can nonetheless trace its evolution through the dreamscape.
For example, by the 1880s, Los Angeles had essentially been privatized: "domestic water, street railways, public utilities, and real estate" had all gone into the hands of a select, powerful few (Fogelson 41). Still, the bond between private and public was evident as contracts were awarded and municipal positions were bought and sold. Thus began the political machine to facilitate the dream machine, the mechanics of which were essentially greased by the exploitation by the haves of the have-nots. Reforms swept through at the beginning of the 20th century, but "reform" has always been short-lived. The 1909 election was just one example of the reality underneath the "reform dream" as the city's mayor, police chief and crime lord were all implicated in a scheme to "monopolize the city's prostitution trade" (Fogelson 213). It was, on one level, all organized crime -- from the bankers' financing of the expansion of the railroads to the underworld's financing of political campaigns. Caught in the middle was the middle class, which bought into the dream only to be served up a dish of cold reality instead.
Yet the reality was that even among the elite there was fragmentation, as the separation of WASP and Jew power structures indicated (Davis 119). The powerful forces behind Hollywood were unwelcome in the WASP circles outside the entertainment industry -- so they cultivated their own island in the sun -- and the Downtown was transformed so as to fit the "needs" of the latest elite. These were the new-wave "haves" who had emigrated from Eastern Europe and been backed by European bankers, creating "separate upper-class universes of Downtown and the Westside" as Jewish elites competed with the city's WASP elites (Davis 125) in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. L.A. was essentially divided up among the rich, while the rest were left to fend for themselves. Politicians continued to be propped up by the competing power structures, as had always been the case. Rather than a revolution from below, L.A. was a "revolution from above" -- a revolution by and for the rich rather than one by and for the lower classes (Davis 129). By the 1990s, L.A. was a place where the world's richest could come and overnight take hold of the city. L.A. was, in short, America.
What happens to the middle class in such a paradigm? It shrinks, of course -- for the goal is not elevation of the middle class but exploitation of the middle class. It is there to be used as…
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