The Isle of White: a Tale of the Have-Lots Versus the Have-Nots

Photograph Source: Jason Philbrook – CC BY-SA 2.5

The island of North Haven in the Penobscot Bay, Maine, is an eastern establishment, white-shoe summer-place overlain on a diesel swilling, bottom feeding lobster-industry that supports the year-round residents of this tiny, fractal-shored resort. It is washed by the Gulf Stream and reports the fastest rising ocean temperatures in the Western hemisphere, dramatic sea level rises and a devastated eco-system. Comprehensively cleared of its old-growth hardwood forests in the nineteenth century, its second growth pines are now attacked by bark beetles moving north under the duress of a warming climate. In place of the diseased trees, the severely invasive, non-native Buckthorn is proliferating. Lashed by several hurricanes in the twentieth century, the island now awaits the first of this century’s superstorms. Already, beaches are eroding into the bay at alarming rates.

But some still say it is paradise. Expensive yachts crowd its harbors and summer visitors wave cheerily to each other as they drive or bicycle along its well-paved roads. The summer houses of the rich and discreet spot its meadows, bays and palisades. Vacation revelers eat ice cream and drink the craft-beers of North Haven Brewery along the harbor front, eat gourmet pizzas, and enjoy coffee, movies and ping-pong at Waterman’s, the community center. Lily-white youngsters learn to sail off the Casino dock. There are a couple of art galleries, a hotel and restaurant and, in the summer months, a farmer’s market.

This east coast summer enclave of wealth and privilege was originally founded between 1910 and 1920 by Wall Street luminaries, including the Morgans, the Rockefellers and the Lamonts. Shortly afterwards, Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, established a 300-acre summer estate along the island’s northern shore. Several generations of their descendants still summer on this gilded isle, joined now by other families of post-Second World War, Twentieth-Century wealth.

The island is unspeakably white. There are other ‘white’ summer enclaves (and certainly not all are islands) just like it up and down the east coast of America. They are where many of the wealthiest, of old money and new, go to live the summers of their dreams–a summer amongst their peers, with just enough poor and middle-class workers to service their every need and, perhaps, to add just a little historical authenticity to their Fantasy Island.

North Haven is powered by three gleaming (white) wind turbines, discreetly located on an adjacent island. They illustrate the uncanny ability of the rich to thrive in green, sustainable communities while the poor often remain in the polluted cities, suburbs and exurbs from whence wealth is extracted. The island demonstrates the dark survival of what we can quaintly call the class struggle whilst establishing the evolution of that conflict within a subsuming ecological crisis.

Deregulation, since the early 1990’s, has facilitated the globalization of the economy and the out-sourcing of production to regions of low-cost labor, primarily Asia. This trend is resisted politically by the poor and middle class who have found a salve to their financial wounds in fierce nationalisms that cohere around skin-color, religion and territorial origin stories. This much we know. It is Bruno Latour, the French philosopher, who has added a third dimension to this dynamic by suggesting that those made wealthy in this global revolution are very aware that the climate catastrophe will now further curtail the well-being of most of humanity. In Latour’s telling (Down to Earth, 2018) the uber-rich have made the calculus that the world will be increasingly riven between the haves and the have-nots and that they will make no attempt, either politically or economically, to heal the rift. Indeed, they will, he suggests, continue to assiduously corral the world’s resources for their own benefit since there is not now, and likely never will be, enough to go around in a world closing in on eight billion people and whose natural beneficence is increasingly disrupted by weather terrorism.

The class struggle has metastasized, gone global, and is now conjoined wit the fight to maintain a habitable planet. The apparent prosperity that existed in the United States post 1945 allowed for a brief flickering of hope for something like wide-spread well-being (at least as evidenced by the white population’s material prosperity). Three decades of this historically anomalous economic circumstance were coopted by the state as an ideological weapon in the cold-war, but shortly abandoned in the mid-1970’s when corporate America reacted to the social challenges presented by the revolutions of the1960’s by self-interestedly assuaging calls for personal freedom and expressions of individuality by reducing security of employment and initiating the beginnings of the gig-economy. It was Luc Boltanski and Eva Chiapello, in The New Spirit of Capitalism, 1999, who painstakingly connected the dots. The increasing precarity this caused served the wealthy elites, while Bill Clinton’s vicious Violent Crime Control & Enforcement Act of 1994, enacted policies of mass incarceration, further intimidating neighborhoods already suffering from this financial destabilization.

It has only gotten worse. Wars waged against the poor, on drugs, on terror, on health, on welfare and on immigrants are all in service to protecting those elites, who, having abandoned all aspirations towards universally equitable social improvement, if indeed they ever harbored them, are now engineering the impoverishment of those eight billion ‘others’ with whom they nominally share the planet. As the global elites’ press their advantage in this war of the have-lots against the have-nots, some, in the most disaffected communities, retreat to the politics of extreme nationalism and race, manifested at the margins by apparently irrational mass violence. Perhaps white supremacists perceive their skin color as their only asset as they fight a rearguard action against diminished prospects of achieving self-respect and economic viability; extreme nationalists may perceive their birthplace as conferring special privileges within ancestral origin stories which are threatened by the arrival of the non-native born – their worth daily diluted. Whatever the motivations of the disaffected, they risk becoming grist to an over-arching war on the poor and middle-class – either coopted by governments as their shock-troops or used as a pretext for draconian social controls.

We live in a new era of exclusion and extirpation that is fundamental to the vision of America not-so-secretly harbored in the hearts and minds of the powerful and well-heeled. Spot fires of deadly violence inevitably flare up amongst the underclass, unknowingly aping the ideologies of the ruling caste who then lightly condemn them. As Todd Miller shows in Empire of Borders, 2019, U.S. border protection radiates beyond the homeland far across the planet – where its agencies attempt to hold the line against the infiltration of…’your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore’… and the non-white. Our southern border is the last in line of serried ranks of exclusionary practices made manifest and is the notorious site of graphic barbarity practiced for the edification of the world.

The United States displays exemplary leadership amongst those states in the Global North committed to harassing, impoverishing, quarantining, deporting, imprisoning and denying quality education and health care to most of its citizens (and almost a totality of its undocumented inhabitants). As Paul Street succinctly establishes here, this country no longer represents even a notional leadership in democracy; instead, for the last forty years we have led the world in income triage, abandoning fully ninety percent of the population in a relentless quest to achieve obscene levels of wealth disparity. This amassing of great wealth (which represents access to resources) is the ultimate hedge by global elites against a collapsing eco-system amidst catastrophic climate change. In this country it is practiced by the uber-wealthy with a sublime disregard for the immiseration caused by their wealth-hording.

Those who are politically & philosophically engaged in the travails of the Anthropocene understand that a revolution that attempts to install democracy in the United States is irrelevant unless it is framed within the larger struggle of the poor against the rich, which is a entwined with the war to preserve a viable planet for our shared future. Historically, it is has taken power and resources to destroy the environment – the traditional purview of the wealthy. The poor are but instruments of this depredation, as, for instance, miners, drillers, builders, fishers, farmers, soldiers, policemen and ultimately, as consumers.

If we continue to triage humanity along the wealth divide only the rich will live green, along with their select non-human companions, in their urban principalities, country estates, mountain aeries or idyllic islands. Others will endure in the brown fields of environmental devastation amidst the carnage of the sixth extinction, while the violence of the most disaffected bubbles up around them, disguised as nationalism, race-hate or religion. These ‘others’ may wait at the gates or loiter along the shores, and idly engage in discussions of freedom and democracy, but the vortices of effective power swirl ever further beyond their reach.

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. 

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