The New Elite

Recently I read a new book from UGA Press, GUTEN TAG, Y’ALL: GLOBALIZATION AND THE SOUTH CAROLINA PIEDMONT 1950-2000 by Marko Maunula. Maunula’s coming to speak this fall at the Spartanburg County Library, and his visit should prompt a lively discussion.
A strange result of reading Maunula’s book about Spartanburg is that it started me thinking that maybe opposition to land use in Spartanburg County is simply the latest chapter in an old time-worn development story.

Maunula, a history professor at Clayton State University, understands South Carolina and Spartanburg: early on in his introduction he explains how “South Carolinians in general and Spartans in particular do not believe in revolutions or quick fixes of any sort.”

Even though Spartanburg doesn’t believe in revolutions, Maunula makes a good case that it was pulled into one concocted by Dick Tukey, CEO of the Greater Spartanburg Chamber of Commerce from 1951 until his death in 1979: the revolution now called globalization.

Spartanburg, under Tukey’s leadership, was transformed into “a regional and even national leader… of international recruitment and far-reaching globalization.” Tukey was responsible for spearheading the recruitment of dozens of foreign companies, setting off a virtual tsunami of foreign investment for our community.

The Spartanburg Tukey successfully sold to the world in the 1970s and 1980s “proffered itself [to foreign business interests] as a massive country club, a semisecluded community where business and pleasure mingled without outside interference, a place where the needs of its industrial bigwigs were met with a servile smile and friendly nod from staff and fellow members of the club alike.”
And how did Spartanburg get an edge on all the other communities that wanted foreign investment?

The historian argues that for decades our community’s industrial elite successfully defended their “dream trifecta,” a Spartanburg work force that is “relatively skilled, not prone to unionization, and inexpensive.”

Spartanburg still seems generally happy with that image of itself as a “place with no outside interference,” though the story has become harder and harder to sell in the modern connected world.

Maunula describes the power structure in Spartanburg as “hierarchical,” meaning those at the top generally get what they want. So who are the new power brokers in a post-industrial South?

As a group, developers have taken their place alongside the vanishing industrialists as power brokers. Tom Wolfe wrote about this shift a decade ago in A MAN IN FULL, the story of fictional Atlanta developer Charles Crocker.

Today, many powerful or persuasive developers and home builders in Spartanburg have held the front line against planning and regulation. They hold tight to the values they believe made the older generation of power brokers prosperous in the 1980s.

You could say that lower costs of raw land and lack of development regulation are the power brokers’ symbolic equivalent of low wages in this modern post-industrial world, a line worth fighting for in the back rooms, a political position to hold against change at all costs.

So far the power brokers have been successful in delaying any progress in land use planning.

Are we better off because the old industrialists collectively opposed higher wages for decades? Scholars have argued that it depends on whom you direct the question toward. No doubt industrialists were better off, but the workers and common people were still exploited.

Who or what will be exploited if County Council goes forward with virtually unregulated land use in Spartanburg County? Once again it would be those with the least power.

As always, the land will take whatever we heap upon it. Air and water quality will surely continue to suffer.

The power brokers think they must oppose ideas that have become common currency nationwide: sensible land use planning and reasonable regulation. County Council needs to know that many of us don’t agree with them.

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