Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Rootless - A Decidedly Minor Meditation

The loveliness of Paris
Is somehow sadly gay
The glory that was Rome
Is of another day
I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan...

- Cory & Cross, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" (1953)
The Financial Times has published an opinion piece on the concentration of the world's wealth and power...and now the world's wealthiest and most powerful, into a top tier of what it calls global cities:
Priced out of Paris
by Simon Kuper


Global cities are turning into vast gated communities where the one per cent reproduces itself. Elite members don’t live there for their jobs. They work virtually anyway. Rather, global cities are where they network with each other, and put their kids through their country's best schools. The elite talks about its cities in ostensibly innocent language, says Sassen: "a good education for my child," "my neighbourhood and its shops". But the truth is exclusion.

When one-per-centers travel, they meet peers from other global cities. A triangular elite circuit now links London, Paris and Brussels, notes Michael Keith, anthropology professor at Oxford. Elite New Yorkers visit London, not Buffalo.

Sassen says: ...These new geographies of centrality cut across many older divides – north-south, east-west, democracies versus dictator regimes. So top-level corporate and professional sectors of São Paulo begin to have more in common with peers in Paris, Hong Kong et cetera than with the rest of their own societies."
First, those who read the FT are almost all either in the 1%, are aspirants to being in the 1% or have fallen out of the 1% through lassitude or ill-luck. How many of the readers have turned to the mirror after reading the piece and said, "This is an essay about me and what people like me are doing to the world. How do I stop myself?"

Second, the Tokyo Metropolitan District and Japan in general have for the most part opted out of participating in the crafting of a global superelite -- or if they are participating, they are doing so in an idiosyncratic way. Tokyo is an expensive place to live, a center of global finance and head-and-shoulders above the rest of Japan in terms of density of talent and wealth. The disportionality in international stature of Tokyo as compared to other Japanese cities indeed fuels a politics of resentment, the most obvious manifestation being the rise in the Osaka area of the Ishin no Kai.

Tokyo super-elites tend, however, to be just that: Tokyo super-elites. Only the tiniest sliver, and not an influential one, of its members can truly be said to be international or internationalized. A person famous and successful in Japan cannot and frequently does not aspire to fame and success on a global stage. 

[An aside, but one of the chief reasons famous Japanese choose to reside overseas is for the anonymity it affords them.]

Even in terms of wealth, power and influence, Tokyo and Japan remain parochial. Except in terms of design, Japanese influence on the rest of the world tends to be muted. Few Japanese are in positions of international power, fewer still take part in the global elite conversation. Ask a member of the global elite the name of a famous Japanese author or thinker and you will draw a blank, or if they do name someone it will be Murakami Haruki, who is as much a marketing phenomenon as a writer.

Most Japanese lack a portable reputation, such as is possessed by members of the international elite Kuper describes. In life, after corporate or keiretsu identity comes Japaneseness, followed in some cases by religious affiliation, then education, then class.

The relative unimportance of class may be a significant reason why life in Japan and even in Tokyo remains basically decent for all. Japan does have a high and increasing Gini coefficient (Link). However, public transportation remains affordable and available in the remotest communities where it has no business being. Public housing is still being built (or nowadays being rebuilt) right next door to the toniest private residences, with the many economic strata represented shopping at the same supermarket, getting their shoes repaired by the same leather shop, grabbing a ramen and beer at the same hole-in-the-wall and receiving home delivery of the same newspaper.

Elites in Tokyo may grumble about subsidies and tax breaks their poorer neighbors may receive but they are still neighbors. The upper crust and the lower depths still mingle. Contrast the everyday life of Tokyo elites with the totalizing and totalized world of elite education, personal safety, health and wealth of the globalized meritocracy -- and I do know about you but I will take the Tokyo model, thank you very much.

So when I have seen op-eds about the declining number of Japanese undergraduates studying in the world's top universities (graduate studies is another matter) or the inability of Japan to attract highly skilled immigrants, my quiet pleasure has been to say to myself, "And thank goodness for it! Society is already stratified horizontally into good livelihoods and bad ones, and divided vertically into family lineages. The last thing the country needs is a super-strata of fluttering, mobile talent perched on top." When I see Third Arrow proposals for special deregulated zones where non-Japanese can live and do unfettered business, with international schools operating under special circumstances and non-Japanese doctors treating patients outside of domestic controls, I want to take the plan, attach it to brick and drop it off a pier.

Globalization, meritocracy, freedom to immigrate and emigrate -- these all open wonderful opportunities for the betterment of the lives of ordinary citizens...the trick, of course, is making sure that ordinary citizens receive the benefit.


Ἀντισθένης said...

Not I, but some may argue with your politics; however, your descriptions are spot-on.

kamo said...

Interesting. The concept of global cities is nothing new of course. The standard model looks at three spheres of influence - Political, Economic, and Cultural - and contends that there are only three truly global cities of the first tier: New York, London, and Tokyo. The standard caveat is that Tokyo's place in that rank is disproportionately owed to its financial clout, which would rather back up a lot of your points here.

"globabalized meritocracy"

Unless you tell me otherwise, I shall choose to believe that the misspelling of globalized is intended to suggest that both words are equally nonsensical and the the 'meritocracy' is no such thing. Subtly done sir, bravo.

miffy said...

Reminds a lot of Malaysia. Our elites do send their kids to foreign boarding schools.
But let's not forget that Japan does have elites particularly the political elites that this blog love to mention.
Even though these elites might buy the ice cream at the combini (hi there taro), they and their creed are mostly untouchable unless they fucked up big time like Hashimoto
Different (galapagos!) but similar does not excuse the stagnation of the status quo

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention the dear friend of Tokyo, Tyler Brule, surely a member of top 1%. Not sure if he has a flat here, but he certainly enjoys his visits.

Depends also on where you live I guess. I note distinct differences between Hiroo (where I often work) and where I live (Suginami). Although Suginami seems bafflingly to be regularly described amongst Japanese as a nice place, it seems really down at heel in comparison to Hiroo. Then again, if you look at Hiroo/Azabu and then look at Kensington/Chelsea etc. I certainly know which one I would choose to live if I could afford it.