New York City, “the capital of the world.” Seat of global capital. One of the international free trade ports left over like backwash from the British Empire, scattered strategically across the world’s trade routes. Money both dirty and cleaned slithers in from across the planet, accumulating here as salaries in the finance industry and as new architecture rising from the megalopolis’ construction sites. Income inequality stalagmites. Memorials to the massive transfers of wealth that define the early 21st Century. Dollars and fractions of fractions of dollars harvested in vast quantity transformed in aggregate into a new inhuman urban landscape. Physical accumulations of high-interest credit card charges and arcane banking penalties stabbing out from New York’s desperate aspirational hustle. The money that could sustain a middle-class frozen in place as glass, steel, and concrete.
At ground level, most of the human labor that assembles and fabricates these new seats at wealth’s table is veiled behind temporary metal scaffolding and dark green plywood walls covered in ads for another inaccessible season of luxury clothing. Above, the nascent buildings pupate shrouded in cocoons of safety-orange plastic netting. Obscured behind these temporary barriers actual human beings still drive the earth movers and cranes, pour the cement, and rivet together the steel I-beams. In another generation, this work might be performed by machines tele-operated over the internet from Nigeria or Indonesia, in another two generations by autonomous robots—but today actual living men and women commute in and work on site.
Who builds these buildings? Along with money, human beings also gush into Gotham City to service the money’s desires. From distant working-class enclaves in the outer boroughs. From the suburbs and the exurbs. From Mexico and Central America. From across the globe. “Legal” residents and migrants without papers—all in search of a living and a better life for their family. A never-ending grind for food and clothing and shelter and children.
An economy also exists to service the people who make a living wearing a blue collar here. People just scraping by selling other people in similar circumstances the cheapest products of China’s fecund factories and corn-byproducts from America’s stagnant “heartland.” The sustenance and necessities of life taken home in cheap disposable plastic shopping bags.
Once disposed of, these bags–and all the equally disposable future trash they carry in their fleeting life of use–becomes another kind of monument. A memorial in reverse dedicated to the lives that exist in numbers comprehensible only to algorithms—hundreds of millions—billions—of human lives spent building and maintaining this world while receiving greasy toxic trash, poorly made consumer goods, and alternative facts in return. A buried underground un-victory arch dedicated to the 50% of the Earth’s population whose wealth is equal to the wealth of the eight men perched at the apex of the percentage pyramid. To all the human beings one puny pay-check away from a bed of cardboard and a black trash bag filled with clothes for a pillow. A distributed cenotaph of high and low density polyethylene exported from America’s disintegrating middle-class dream and interred in the world’s landfills. In our world, wealth is usually inherited. Something for nothing. Wealth’s absence is also inherited. In return for a life of manual labor, a disinheritance. Nothing for something.
– Josh Kline