Global class conflict is still playing out on a local scale.

Writing in Saturday's Financial Times's, John Lloyd included my book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited, in his essay on last year's London riots. He noted that:

Florida believes the London riots were really about the growing social divide; the rioters’ “inchoate rage”, he says, is that of a marginalised group who see vast wealth and luxurious consumption all about them. The riots “should serve as a wake-up call ... it’s little wonder we find ourselves in an increasingly fractured society, in which growing numbers are ready to vote — or tear — down what they perceive to be the economic elite of our cities and the world”.

Below is an abridged and revised excerpt of material from my book which addresses the deepening class divide in London and other global cities:

Our global cities may well be the world’s economic engines, but they are increasingly divided.

Globalization has made the world smaller and brought its economies and peoples closer together. But instead of reducing and flattening economic and class distinctions, it has sharpened them, bringing them into ever-clearer relief. We make a big mistake when we look out from our aeries in London, New York, or Los Angeles across the peaks of privilege to Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, and Mumbai and tell ourselves that the playing field is level.

Today, our great global cities risk being torn apart by class.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in the shadow of Wall Street and by October 15, 2011 had spread to 951 cities in 82 countries, was a harbinger of the worse to come — as were the riots that had exploded in London, just a few months before.

Commentators on the right mostly put the blame for London’s unrest on hooliganism; those on the left cited frustrations with the U.K.’s faltering economy and the Conservative administration’s newly imposed fiscal austerities. But more than youth or race, the riots were about class.

What happened in London  — and what is happening in other great cities, as I noted in the Financial Times at the time — is global class conflict, played out on a local scale.

On the one hand, London is a magnet for the international super-rich, who come seeking tax shelters and shopping opportunities. On the other, it attracts unskilled immigrants, hungry for better lives. In between are the local populations, left behind by fast-moving economic change.

London certainly has its rich and poor districts. But in contrast to the segregation that you see in most American cities, London’s privileged and its poorest citizens often live right on top of each other in rapidly gentrifying enclaves. Rising housing costs, the concentration of wealth, and divergent life prospects are there for all to see. As the multinational global super-rich skate by, virtually unscathed by the economic crisis, young unskilled people are out of work for longer and longer periods, their life prospects fading as the economy worsens and budget cuts take hold.

The riots can also be seen as a reaction to the unvarnished corporate re-making of London. As is happening in so many other global cities, the vast majority of London’s political energy seems to be directed towards the needs and interests of an elite sliver of its population. The transformation of London into an “Olympic City,” which involves not just the redevelopment of stadium and venue sites but the physical relocation of whole neighborhoods, fueled additional resentment. With the social compact eroding and a lack of viable political institutions to channel the mounting frustrations, what comes out is not a coherent voice or movement, but inchoate rage.

And then there’s this: our greatest cities are not bland monocultures. Some of the very features that make them economically and culturally dynamic also contribute to their political instability. Eric Hobsbawm long ago noted that density and the closeness of the poor to centers of political influence and power made old cities centers of insurrection. My own research has shown that the most innovative and creative cities in the U.S. also have the highest levels of political protest and among the lowest levels of social capital.

In Toronto, the city where I live, these pressures have come to a head. In 2010, Mayor Rob Ford rode to office with the support of lower middle-class, working-class, and new-immigrant voters who resented Toronto’s downtown yuppies and hipsters, and the city’s unionized public-sector workers. More than a conservative or the Canadian version of a Tea Partier, Ford is one of the most anti-urban mayors ever to serve in a North American city. Upon assuming office, he declined to attend the city’s famed gay pride festival. Adding injury to insult, his brother Doug, his close adviser, slighted Toronto’s leading literary light Margaret Atwood, who gave them the handle “twinfordmayor(s).” Their plan to turn Toronto’s waterfront into a mega-mall, complete with a monorail, Ferris wheel, and boat-in hotel sparked a public fury (of which I was a part) and was quickly shelved — only to be replaced by a push to build a mega-casino on the Lake Shore.

All of this shocked and challenged me because I had long seen Toronto as a bastion of progressive urbanism, notable for its commitment to justice and fairness for all of its residents. But then I looked at a map (below) prepared by my Martin Prosperity Institute research team that overlaid Toronto voting patterns with the locations of its creative class, working class, and service class jobs, and it all became clear.

Toronto is divided by class, as the map above shows. The creative class is densely concentrated in a T-shaped pattern in and around the downtown core and closely clustered along its east-west and north-south subway routes. This is where Ford’s liberal and left-leaning challengers are located. The service and working classes are pushed off to the periphery in more outlying areas. Only a handful of districts where working class jobs predominate remain within city limits, and one of them is the mayor’s.

In the United States, the political divide is also a jurisdictional divide, pitting city against suburb. But in Toronto, as in London, it is happening within the city itself. 

If globalization and post-industrialism have been a boon for some, huge numbers are being left behind. Left to its own devices, the unbridled operation of the free market will only exacerbate this globalized urban class divide.

The long-term prosperity of London, New York, Toronto and other great global cities requires more than new condominiums, sports complexes, casinos, and cultural districts. Real opportunities must be provided for all residents, so that the rewards and promises of the creative city can be shared more equally.

If the world is taking on a Hobbesian cast, that’s because globalization has given rise to a new sorting process that geographically separates economic and social classes, both domestically and globally. Social cohesion is eroding within cities and countries as well as across them. It’s little wonder we find ourselves living in an increasingly fractured society, in which growing numbers are ready to vote — or tear — down what they perceive to be the economic elite of our cities and the world.

Those who continue to ignore these new divides or try to sweep them under the rug do so at their peril.

Ultimately the best way to overcome these divide is to forge a new social compact that harnesses and rewards the creativity of all workers and citizens, which Lloyd summarizes this way:

What’s needed is the “creatification” of everyone; creativity lurks inside us all, waiting to be drawn out. That is right; a movement to give workers more autonomy and creativity in their work should be at the centre of government concern, and could re-animate union movements still being drained of members.

The choice, he adds, is between "rage and reformation:"

Reform, as Florida observes, is usually better than revolution. London, along with all our other cities, needs another deep draught of it, at least comparable to that which the English social reformer Charles Booth, and his fellow late Victorians saw as their duty to administer to those people Booth described as living “the life of savages”. These three books, in differing ways, clear some of the ground for modern reform: creative architects are now required.

Photo: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

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