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Overstanding Detroit


Force them to expose their hand so bad that they lose even when they win.

– General Baker, 12/14/13

Detroit’s challenges have taken center stage.  Michigan Governor Rick Snyder imposed radical ‘emergency management’ policies.  They are being implemented by the giant Wall Street law firm Jones Day and their economic hit man Kevyn Orr.  All on behalf of the wealthy and powerful corporate special interests they represent and support.

Understanding this ‘emergency’ takeover depends on ‘overstanding’ complex relationships and dynamics: socioeconomic class; class conflict; government powers theoretically constrained by the rule of law but actually exercised at will without checks, balance or accountability; and the nuances of multi-level relationships between race, regional power, political economy and ‘development’ as ideology and domination.  Such flexible ‘systems thinking’ can help us come to grips with hard truths.

Everyone (including me) is so confused!  What is happening in Detroit today is of earth-shaking historical importance.  A diverse group of about a dozen of us recently drafted and posted the People’s Declaration of Detroit’s State of Emergency as a living document, to spur contributions to a more reality-based discussion:

“Detroit has been plunged into a state of emergency.  We exist under a siege of financial dispossession, massive unemployment, elimination of basic welfare supports, and suspension of democratic rights — all fostered by the bankers, the multinational corporations, the far right, and the U.S. ruling class.  … Tens of thousands of people in our City face circumstances far below what might be considered normal.  As the winter sets in, they will suffer hunger, homelessness, joblessness, illness without medical relief, and a total lack of support for themselves and their children.” (

In the annual solstice pause for taking stock and planning ahead, I want to try to break down our apocalyptic state of emergency a bit, and draw on more diverse voices to begin sketching out a vision of what’s going on, and what we have to do about it.

Detroit’s fiscal crisis is at bottom a failure of our whole system; failure of capitalism as well as democracy, even of culture and the social ecosystem as a totality.  The ‘solution’ on offer from Snyder, Jones Day and their partners in pension theft is ludicrous; a desperate attempt to hold off and profit from the collapse of a dying, destructive setup.

The prime directive for those running and benefiting from this failing system is maintaining the existing distribution of power, authority and wealth, in order to exploit it for themselves.  Doing anything that would actually help our poverty-stricken city or residents is simply out of the question.  Indeed, we are the victims to be dispossessed of our city, pensions, culture, water resources, land and citizenship.  In this, Detroit is merely an extreme example of the current global phenomenon of ‘mafia capitalism.’

Notable trending examples of this ongoing global corporate coup are the pending Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the prototypical job- and community-killing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Lori Wallach explains these new corporate power instruments masquerading as ‘free trade:’

“Together, the TTIP/TAFTA and the TPP would form an economic empire capable of dictating conditions… The TTIP/TAFTA negotiations are taking place behind closed doors. The US delegations have more than 600 corporate trade advisers, who have unlimited access… Draft texts will not be released, and instructions have been given to keep the public and press in the dark until a final deal is signed.  By that time it will be too late to change.” (

On the local level of this corporate invasion, articulate critiques have reframed Detroit’s bankruptcy as systemic failures: see, e.g., Richard Wolff ( , and; and Glen Ford (

“… the global financial octopus is squeezing the life out of society, stripping away public and individual assets in a vain attempt to fend off its own, inevitable collapse. … However, nothing can save the banksters from inevitable, and increasingly imminent, collapse.”

Strange and extremely frightening to say, even the international corporate coups represented by these ‘free trade’ and Wall Street ‘bail-in’ scenarios only scratch the surface of the kinds of domination power plays we face.

Christina Sarich notes that, because of the effects of financialization, the entire US economy has become ‘one big hedge fund’ (  In Michigan, Darrell Dawsey recounts our state leaders’ obscene preference for rich CEOs over children suffering in brutal poverty, by cutting the earned income tax credit for poor People while also cutting already-low corporate taxes: (  And in terms of what little remains of the tattered US social ‘safety net,’ Dean Baker tells us “At a time when we are seeing the largest upward redistribution [of wealth] in the history of the world” a long list of corporate-funded  organizations are trying “to divert attention from the class war on the nation’s middle class and poor” by assaulting social security and Medicare.(

As General Baker opened his speech that’s quoted at the beginning of this piece: “Look, it’s real simple.  We’re in a class war.

Accepting this reality, and the need on moral grounds to do something about, is the essential community agenda in Detroit for 2014.  The powers that be in a globalized finance capitalist ruling class have to decide what to do in the wake of their ponzi scheme economic crash of 2008.  They face severe environmental and energy constraints, probably an ‘inflection’ or ‘tipping’ point in history as far as our modes of production and reproduction of our society.  Masses of People living in key countries on the periphery of their empire – the Middle East, Southern Europe, Asia and Latin America, are often in open revolt, and many others will soon be as the resource scarcity and human insecurity consequences of climate change explode.

To no one’s surprise, the corporate Masters of the Universe decided that their completely unaccountable governments would respond by partnering with too-big-to-fail corporate capital, in brutally unjust programs of political dictatorship and economic pillage.  All justified with the oppressively idiotic repetition of ‘reality,’ ‘jobs,’ ‘development,’ and every other sucker line they can dredge up, of course.  Governor Snyder’s oppressive ‘emergency management’ is just another one of their crazed, last-ditch attempts to avoid paying the bill for generations of abuse, past, present and future.

We have no short-term leverage over their insanity.  Under these circumstances, our best hope lies in embracing an authentic collective leadership from below that is based on our past experiences and designed to respond to the actual historic conditions we face today.  Some elements of a strategic perspective based on actually-existing ‘reality,’ rather than the corporate fake, and exercising such authentic collective leadership could, at a minimum, include the following:

1. A radical analysis of power that intentionally and explicitly calls for transformation of society on the basis of justice and human rights, not for its corporate-dominated ‘restructuring’ or capitalism with a human face;

2. Asking always ‘What do People need?’ as the basis for making important decisions (not ‘What’s in it for me?’) – as a [r]evolutionary paradigm shift; and

3. Asking always ‘What can we do?’ within a framework of unity at the grassroots (not forgetting or neglecting our continuing, crucial debates over tactics, strategies and other particular issues).  Recognizing that the capacity to achieve our goals is always the real issue, and where the essential goal is to save the Children.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Authentic Collective Leadership from Below

This basic vision and path has been charted by the World Social Forum and the global Occupy uprising.  We’ve learned that looking (and voting) for charismatic individual leaders to tell us what we should do isn’t the way to go.  Instead, we live in an era when People respond better to ‘horizontally’ linked structures where we’re all responsible, accountable, autonomous and empowered to take action.

We need shared values, vision, projects and goals.  We don’t expect elected officials beholden to this dying system to lead or effectively serve us.  We expect this will take a while.  But we demand action now.  We know where we’ve been, and that the road ahead is a hard one, probably even dangerous.

We trust the leadership of resilient working class women of color who have demonstrated that they care for more than only themselves.  We reject corrupt corporate whitemen like Snyder blathering about ‘relentless positive action’ (and their loyal scumbag retainers like Kevyn Orr).  As Shea Howell recently observed, they “make the laws to protect their own interests, then claim logic and reason to cover greed.” (  That foolishness is over.

Radical Analysis of Power

What is ‘power?’  Who has it, and why?  What can be done about that?  As summarized above, what does the world, and what do our options, look like when we focus on power dynamics at the personal and public levels, instead of what white supremacist corporate patriarchy calls ‘reality,’ ‘legal’ or ‘right?’  If we stop assuming that we have no power, just because they pretend that’s so, and decide to try to discover and use our power, what could happen?

We should begin to be the change we want to see in the world.  Work together with others for ‘power to’ do what we must, not ‘power over’ others.  Share and grow power on the micro-level in our individual and group relationships, and denounce the wanton exercise of illegitimate power all around us.  Don’t demand, take action.  Build alternative structures that meet immediate needs and lay foundations for further advance.

What do People Need?

First, the basics: food, shelter, clothing, transportation, clean water and air, and all the essential ingredients of education and health.  Communities of refuge where People consciously, intentionally and strategically choose to share, fight back, never give up and win a better world or die trying.

Then the sense of agency and power that authentic collective leadership can provide: 1) a clear call by recognizable, trustworthy voices for mobilization; 2) a clear subversive analysis and narrative that describes the problems we face in terms that intersect meaningfully with our daily lives; and 3) a clear alternative solutionary path forward starting from where we are that’s reasonably calculated to get us where we need to be.  Please accept this as an attempted contribution.

What Can We Do?

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something and the most important thing is that we try.  In the face of political dictatorship, we demonstrate democracy.  Instead of the dominant system’s economic austerity, we must have sustainability of our resources, our lives and communities.  Under the shadow of ecological catastrophe, we choose health and justice for survival.  All of this in our governments, our neighborhoods and our personal lives.  The real issue is always our capacity.  But by admitting our limitations and moving ahead with the fight – the construction of alternatives, and the peacemaking – anyway, we do what we can now.  Then we can begin to do what we must do to win. We have to start somewhere.

So we start here and now.  Rather than settling for politicians’ empty promises of ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ we will reinvent work, think globally and act locally.  Instead of merely voting for corrupt and feckless overseers, we have to democratize politics.  Suspending democracy and the rule of law – the essence of Snyder’s ‘emergency management’ – is not an appropriate response to the crisis of economy, energy and ecology that defines our era.

Rather, recognizing that the personal is political and the ends do not justify the means, we will be acting ourselves, collectively and in our own interests to define the problem and its solutions.  Turning our backs on the corrupt and ridiculous Snyder/Jones Day piracy, at the local level we can only revive Detroit if we come to understand, believe and act as if another world is possible.

In a brilliant retelling of the destructive history of the neoliberal era that got us here, Andrew Levine notes that before its wholesale privatization, deregulation, and tax cutting frenzies, “the idea that a major city like Detroit would go bankrupt seemed about as likely as that a meteor would flatten it.” (  The broad political economic context and implications are clear:

“…[F]inancial markets rule; they determine what the direct producers’ share will be.  Governments, it seems, have no choice but to accommodate to their demands.  In this sense, political power too is neutered; real power lies elsewhere — in global markets that operate beyond human control.  But this is an illusion.  Because the political order is the condition for the possibility of neoliberal rule, human beings can break free from it – by defeating it politically.  It is an old truth that bears restating: what human beings have made, human beings can undo and transform.  But that will require a new politics because the politics people everywhere nowadays regard as “normal” is part of the problem.”

Therefore, in these first years of the 21st century, it is far easier to imagine the death of life and our planet as we know it – from endless resource wars, pollution, climate chaos, spreading poverty and authoritarian violence combined with exploding street crime and other normalized forms of death – than it is to imagine alternative social, political, economic and ecological arrangements that could transform our world into something sustainable, thriving, beautiful and beloved.

Our task is to imagine, and then make this change.

In the new world that’s possible, the new USA that’s necessary, and the new Detroit that’s happening behind the corporate media’s nonsense, ‘development’ is no longer only about corporate developers’ interests, investments and profits; it’s community-based and human rights-centered, with the intentional results of developing healthy human beings, sustainable communities and democratically-driven policy choices.

In this real world that is already replacing the corporations’ nightmare fabrication, property rights are the basis for defending and expanding the commons, our collective survival and thriving.  Our organizations – land-based and dedicated to education and building viable economic alternatives as well as exerting political pressure – tell the earth’s story about survival, growth and justice, not the empire’s lies about domination, destruction and exploitation.  David Korten has outlined this change:

“The old economy of greed and dominion is dying.  A new economy of life and partnership is struggling to be born.  The outcome is ours to choose.” (  Lost Generation:

In the late 1960s and early 1970s People rose up; since then capital crushed our movements and, for a time, even our hopes, dreams and visions.  But the change in terms of engagement around new visions like Black Power, democratization, La Raza, feminism, People with different abilities and freedom of sexual identities persisted and is ineradicable. Formerly excluded Peoples became agents of our history.  That changed consciousness, which can change everything.

In “Notes for a political economy of creativity and solidarity,” Hilary Wainwright makes a crucial contribution to recapturing our history and envisioning our future:

We should distinguish two features of what has happened since the uprisings of the late 1960s. The first is the decisive defeat of the historic institutions of the post-war Northern labour movement and the severe weakening of new radical movements; and the second, the deeper changes in consciousness irreversibly produced by the challenges of the late 1960s to the post-war order.

“The neoliberal 1980s, 1990s and early twenty-first century were not simply a defeat, a rupture from the 1960s and 1970s. Aspects of the new consciousness generated in those years became a source of innovation and renewal.  As capitalism has now lost its shine for the aspirant young, both morally and materially, the desire for personal autonomy and meaning is finding expression in a growing and hugely varied civil economy, and a diffuse and often individual or networked entrepreneurialism.  Are we seeing here the emergence of decentralised planning, alongside distributed production, and with it enhanced possibilities for a democratic socialising of the market without a centralised planning system?”  (

The gigantic debt owed by this piece to her chapter must be obvious, and is acknowledged.

Detroit’s new corporate-funded mayor-elect Mike Duggan, opportunistically taking office without accountability under the Wall Street-oriented dictatorship of Governor Snyder and Jones Day, styles himself a savvy, business-oriented ‘turnaround’ expert.  As such, he’s fond of repeating the bromide that “The first rule of any turnaround is ‘face reality.’

By ‘reality’ of course he means corporate neoliberal, white supremacist and patriarchal empire, and the disaster it has caused in Detroit, coming soon to a town near you if you don’t already live in Cairo, Athens, Rio, Rome, or other uprising cities.  The time of profitable ‘turnaround’ is over.  Our time for the prophets, rebirths and changes mentioned here has come, or else there’s no time worth talking about at all.

The Snyder/Jones Day bankruptcy of 2013-14 is Detroit’s passing nightmare, albeit a vivid and terrifying one.  When we wake up to our power, and to the deeper reality of the ground we stand on, our time on the clock of the world, the water all around us, and the air we breathe, our basic human rights to do what we must to survive and thrive in the face of the system’s madness (i.e., ‘reality’ – this fever dream of capital) will out.  Our possibilities will open up us.

Not easy, simplistic, wasteful (or ‘dumb, lazy, happy and rich’ as Kevyn Orr, in one of his several not-as-sharp-as-a-tack moments, put it to a fawning reporter from the Wall Street Urinal).  Real life itself, including hopes, rights, and transformational changes.  Absolutely necessary to save the children.

Yours for New Year’s [R]evolution!

Thomas Stephens is a lawyer in Detroit.

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