Chicago Offers Textbook Case of Woke Neoliberalism in Action 

Since the recent passage of Illinois’ much-reviled SAFE-T Act, which hamstrings law enforcement several perverse ways, conservative pundits have been taking digs at the Land of Lincoln. Most have focused exclusively on the new law, only occasionally taking note of the already poor law enforcement situation in Cook County. Part of the reason for this is that the Windy City’s dysfunction, if examined fairly, would indict the political Right as much as the Left. 

How is that possible in one of the bluest cities in the nation? Let’s first stipulate that we’re talking about the American Right as it actually exists, which is to say, as an essentially economically libertarian interest group pushing for all manner of unwise neoliberal innovations. And this faction has had influence outside of the Republican Party. It’s common knowledge, for instance, that Bill Clinton designed his successful 1992 campaign as social liberalism tacked onto economic “conservatism.” Reaganism with a liberal face. Mises with a saxophone. 

Understood that way, we can consider the situation in Chicago more carefully. 

On the one hand, we have the woke-led charge against prosecutions and for so-called “decarceration.” On the other hand, the city has privatized parking payments (and violations), privatized the Chicago Skyway, and routinely tickets drivers for minor infractions via red-light cameras and discreetly placed speeding sensors. On top of that, they have institutionalized bizarre traffic courts that are essentially extensions of the Department of Finance.

What we end up with, from the citizen’s perspective, is a system in which dangerous felons are allowed to remain on the prowl, but in which simultaneously, normal city residents are punished again and again for minor infractions—like trying to make a traffic light on their way to work, or for getting back to their parked cars five minutes late. There is no mercy for these “offenses,” even while the same city officials are happy to release repeat felons back into neighborhoods they have just violated. It’s a bizarre and untenable system that deserves daily denunciation. 

But the situation is revealing: the Left has opposed and opposes the Right’s privatization of parking and roads, while the Right has opposed and opposes the Left’s weak-on-crime policies. But neither side seems able to recognize that the two things are just two sides of the same problem.

That problem is neoliberalism. Private parking, public debt. Private police, public consequences of crime. What we call “woke” ideology functions as the human resources wing of neoliberalism, as the friendly face of predatory capitalism.  

Look at the ostensible logic behind the 75-year lease of city parking to a private investment firm. Here’s how the Chicago Sun-Times explained the situation last May: 

Private investors from as far away as Abu Dhabi would have made out even better if they hadn’t brought in a new investor and borrowed $22 million at 15% interest to get through the pandemic. That loan was fully repaid last year.

What’s more, four underground city-owned parking garages took in $22 million last year, up 35.8% from the $16.2 million made in 2020.

Thanks to higher traffic and yet another increase in tolls, the privatized Chicago Skyway generated $114.3 million. That’s a 24.2% increase in revenue and well over the $92 million in annual Skyway revenues in 2019, the year before the stay-at-home shutdown.

Not a penny of those revenues went to ease the burden on Chicago taxpayers, who had to absorb a $76.5 million increase in the city’s property tax levy after a $94 million hike in real estate taxes the year before.

Got that? Had the city simply white-knuckled it through budget shortfalls in 2008 or raised property taxes slightly, it would already be millions in the black. Or, perhaps instead of pulling in money hand over fist, officials might have reasonably righted the city’s budget and kept parking affordable. As it is, however, street parking has gone from $3 an hour in 2008 to $7 this year. And exactly none of this money is going into the city’s coffers. None of it.

So they sold off the rights to their own public streets for close to a century to avoid raising property taxes? And then what happened? They raised taxes anyway. Property taxes have been going through the roof in Cook County. In some gentrifying and largely Hispanic neighborhoods, in particular, the increase is driving residents from their homes.

And who is profiting from this? Initially, it was Morgan Stanley. But then approximately half of the investment was purchased by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. And this investment group, known as Chicago Parking Meters LLC, is entitled to compensation every time the city seeks to waive parking fees for events or indeed to block streets for this or any other reason—even parades, for instance. Nor can they waive parking fees on holidays or change the fee for any reason without approval from investors who appear to have little connection to Chicago—or even to America.

And if you accumulate more tickets than you can pay? Or if you can’t afford to pay $7 an hour day after day? Well, if you can’t afford it, they can seize your car. That’s unsurprising, you might say. But pay attention to the details: if you can’t afford to pay a private company that now owns the parking rights to public streets, the city, acting on behalf of that private company, can impound your vehicle. The vehicle you use to get to work. 

But this disastrous stupidity wasn’t even the first of its kind: then-Mayor Richard M. Daley had already sold the Chicago Skyway for $1.8 billion in 2005, giving Chicago the dubious honor of containing the first privatized highway in the United States. Initially sold to Ferrovial, a multinational corporation based in Spain, it was then acquired by three Canadian pension funds a decade later in a deal valued at $2.8 billion. Subsequently, the majority stake has passed to Atlas Arteria Group, an Australian company. The details are tedious and depressing, but the upshot is clear enough: investors with no connection to Chicago or even the United States are making gobs of money from a road that, by all rights, should belong to the citizens of the city. Instead, their taxes are going through the roof to make up for the fact that Daley sold their road for a short-term profit worth a fraction of the revenue the road would have generated for the city over the course of the 99-year lease. 

This is essentially asset stripping on a municipal level, as opposed to at the level of an individual business. But it isn’t just the roads: the people driving on them are being plucked like chickens, too. Consider the profoundly unpopular speed sensors and red-light cameras now peppered throughout the city. Generating over $90 million in 2021, the city’s speed sensors are programmed to ticket anyone going even 6 miles an hour over the speed limit. Similarly, the notoriously unreliable red-light cameras provided the city with $52 million in 2020. 

And these aren’t just grifts in themselves, though surely they are that. They have also brought with them a galling amount of corruption—even by Chicago standards. There are already multiple local and federal investigations into corruption related to SafeSpeed, one of the companies behind these revenue-generating monstrosities. An Illinois state senator and at least two former suburban mayors are involved, as well as other local politicians. The company itself hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing. Then again, why would the company bother with such low-level corruption? They already have access to a legal method for sucking every last cent out of Chicago’s residents. Once again, we see the relationship between corporations and politicians—and it resembles that of the relationship between pimps and whores. 

And now we come to the SAFE-T Act, Illinois’ latest venture into insanity. Much attention has been given to the abolition of cash bail, but this is only one of the many demented provisions in the law, currently on hold pending an Illinois Supreme Court decision. Some of the others include: ignoring for 48 hours the disappearance of any defendant on electronic monitoring; making it more difficult for prosecutors to argue that a defendant poses a danger to their community or a flight risk (and therefore less likely that they will be remanded before trial); and getting rid of the longstanding requirement that complaints against individual police officers include the identity of the accuser.

And the law is nearly as unpopular as any sane reader would expect. A recent poll found that only 32 percent of Illinois voters view it favorably. The perception is that it will make things much easier for criminals. As Alderman Anthony Napolitano put it: “It’s just completely wrong in the direction we are going with crime and punishment. The SAFE-T Act basically says if you commit a crime, you get a strike two, a strike three, a strike four, a strike five. It’s just the wrong way to go about it.”

All of this is on top of the presence of notorious State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who has been in office since 2016. Taking matters into her own hands in 2017, she enacted bail reform by fiat, declaring that the prosecutor’s office would no longer oppose the release of defendants who were unable to pay a cash bond of $1,000. She has also declined to prosecute thousands of cases. As one Sun Times editorial put it: “Throwing the book at thousands of low-level, non-violent offenders, the best research has found, does nothing to make our streets safe, in part because most offenders come out of jail or prison in worse shape than ever.”

So-called progressive groups concurred, and Foxx received support for these policies for years, especially in the aftermath of the George Floyd incident. The problem is that crime statistics over the course of her tenure tell a much different story. It’s difficult to say exactly how much worse the crime picture has gotten since Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office in 2019, both because some types of crime are clearly underreported and because there has been some variation over the past few years, but at a minimum, crime is up a full 40 percent in the city. And while murders in 2022 were slightly better than in 2021, they are still close to all-time highs of the early ’90s gang-war era. Indeed, they are significantly higher than those recorded in New York City or Los Angeles, coming in at 29 per 100,000 in 2021, which is three times the rate in L.A., and nearly six times the rate in New York. It is also roughly 4.5 times the national average.

Now, crime in Chicago has been higher than in New York and Los Angeles for some time; however, the current rate is significantly higher than it was during the first 15 years of this century. In 2010, it was 16 per 100,000, and in 2013 it was 15. The lowest it has been since Lightfoot and Foxx took over was in 2019, at 18. Yet that is clearly an outlier. In 2017, it was 24, and in 2020 it was 28. For some perspective, the highest number of murders on record was in 1992, at 33 per 100,000. In other words, the city is now closer to its all-time high than to any of the good pre-Foxx years. One is tempted to say that there’s a pattern here. 

Similarly and illustratively, carjackings are up in Chicago. The city already held the national record for this particularly frightening type of crime, but the total has increased significantly, from 600 in 2019 to 1,415 in 2020 to roughly 2,000 in 2021.

It seems fairly obvious from the foregoing that the SAFE-T Act is going to push the city further in the direction Foxx and Lightfoot have already taken it by recommitting the city to the same failed, weak-on-crime policies. The city is headed toward more crime, less public trust, and ultimately more population loss. Businesses have been leaving over the past few years, often citing a combination of crime and increasing taxes as the reason, and individuals have been doing the same—tired of the bleed-over of violent crime into formerly safe neighborhoods, tired of increased rents, often a result of property tax hikes, and tired of gaslighting from the mayor’s office when they bring up very real concerns over both issues. Similarly, these trends have kept tourists away, which is another gut punch to the city from a revenue perspective. 

So while many fail to see the problems of privatized roads and parking as related to the problem of crime. there’s a clear throughline here—one that requires us to put away some of our pat Left-Right assumptions if we want to see it clearly. 

The thinking behind the SAFE-T Act’s abolition of cash bail, for instance, is that poor people in court for petty crimes cannot afford bail. And yet, the “logic” behind the speed sensors and red-light cameras is basically that working Chicagoans can afford endless fines, which wind up functioning like extra tolls or taxes. Ditto the more-than-doubled street parking costs. Woke thinking decides which put-upon element gets subsidies and which provides them. 

The only reasonable name for this is woke neoliberalism. Here’s how it works: you don’t have a right to feel aggrieved or afflicted when you get two or three speeding tickets taken by a sensor or a red light camera; you don’t get to feel angry that you have to pay premium parking prices not to the city you live in, but to a private investment firm based overseas. The people who get to be aggrieved are those we used to call criminals, who are now cast as victims. This is the essential point. These victim-criminals are to be pitied because it is not their fault that they’ve acted in an anti-social manner—they are pushed to it by society, by inequity, and (let’s confront the elephant in the room) by racism. They’re pushed into crime by an unfair arrangement

And what does this say to the working class schmuck paying fines every month—paying, essentially, a hidden tax to be permitted to get to and from work? 

And there’s another irony here, too. As Alderman Napolitano explained, it’s like the city wants to give third and fourth chances to every criminal it encounters. Yet how many chances do law-abiding citizens get when they’re accused of minor infractions like slipping through a light as the yellow turns to red? Exactly none. 

The same city that wants us to have endless patience for violent street thugs suggests that they have no patience for us. If we’re living paycheck to paycheck and can barely afford to cover our ever-rising rents, that’s too bad because now we have to come up with yet more money for the odd $40 or $100 fine—based on unreliable red-light cameras and speed sensors. And once given such tickets, we have no recourse whatsoever. 

This is anti-citizen and anti-working class. It’s a strange combination of the worst aspects of nanny-state leftism and neoliberal privatization, with the offloading of public costs onto particular and unlucky (not to mention harried) private citizens. It’s also a kind of balancing act: pluck every penny from working citizens so that you can fund poorly conceived “social justice” programs.

Woke neoliberalism is just a dressed-up version of neoliberalism proper, but with more crime thrown in for seasoning. The major difference is that the HR department of neoliberalism has been farmed out to the crusading, progressive Left and no longer excuses itself with Reaganesque rhetoric about freedom or efficiency, or about the private sphere doing a better job than the public. Well . . . there’s still some of that, but it’s taken a backseat to “social justice” babble. The underlying organization of the thing is still privatization and corporate welfare, with costs borne by the working and middle classes—but the new version has a pretty bow on top and a ready theoretical justification for just why the working citizen should be exploited. It even comes gift-wrapped: privilege

Working citizens are privileged by comparison to the criminal population and the ghetto underclass and, therefore, logically, in some sense to blame for the grotesque amount of crime in the city—not the criminals themselves or even the multinational corporations that shipped all of the industrial jobs away from the South Side and overseas. No, the real problem is the working citizen who is just trying to keep his head above water. He’s part of the system and, therefore, a fit target both for the petty criminals and for the more accomplished criminals at City Hall—both the politicians and their corporate cronies. 

And this is the situation not just in Chicago but in cities across America. It’s the reason why many of the new woke attitudes and poses—whether on “gender” or race—are being pushed by corporations, the Biden Administration, CEOs, and activists alike. It’s far easier to blow smoke and strike poses over activist-approved social issues than to do anything about the miserable pay offered to employees. You can even strike break, as Jeff Bezos has discovered, as long as you put up some BLM or trans fluff on your website. 

Next to this abomination, most of the traditional Left-Right debates fall away. The “populist” or “nationalist” Right—whatever you want to call it—might consider that its strategy should be more straightforwardly supporting the working- and middle-classes against the corporate center and its street-level criminal enforcers and fetish objects.

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