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Understanding the ‘emergency’ takeover of Detroit 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.
– “Overstanding Detroit”.
WORKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness, by Frederick Turner (1983)
The Making of the English Working Class, by E. P. Thompson (1963)
The Making of Global Capitalism; The Political Economy of American Empire, by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (2012)
“The old is dying and the new cannot be born, and in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
– Antonio Gramsci
How did we get into this mess? Beset by a triple existential crisis of energy, ecology and economy. Facing an educational morass of cynical child abuse via high-stakes testing, privatization and systemic corporate media assaults on the capacities for critical thinking needed to deal with the crises. Further and even more pressing public services cutbacks, human rights carve-outs and bankruptcy cram-downs of retirement assets threaten the ability of many thousands merely to survive.
In Detroit, democracy and the rule of law were suspended by a brutal white supremacist, neoliberalizing corporate patriarchal takeover. For the barely concealed purpose of imposing the terrible costs and burdens of the Wall Street crash of 2008 on the most powerless and vulnerable among us. Violence, crime, blight, dispossession, disenfranchisement, discrimination, deception, trickery, fraud, exploitation and injustice. It’s all partly captured and simultaneously obscured by characteristic Detroit political code words: ‘disrespect’ for us; ‘opportunity’ for colonialist-minded ‘progressive’ entrepreneurs in the ‘Detroit Future City.’ Whew!
In the face of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the Jones Day law firm’s voracious, chaos-inducing disembowelment of our community, I recently undertook some radical remedial reading. The point is systems thinking about ‘the root’ of what ails us, underneath our distressed circumstances of forced unemployment, secret government mis-rule and austerity dispossession.
I returned to Frederick Turner’s “Beyond Geography” for its poetic narration of spiritual history and displacement of earth-based human reality, in the course of Europeans ‘discovering’ gold and stolen lands. To E.P. Thompson’s visionary “Making of the English Working Class” for its paradigm-breaking, bottom-up insight into the original industrialization & proletarianizing processes, foundational of those that later formed the human working ‘Detroit’ we know (and a few of us even revere) as the ‘arsenal of democracy.’ Finally (the more recent work that in fact sent me back to the first two), Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s “The Making of Global Capitalism: the Political Economy of American Empire” brilliantly and rigorously brings those demonic possession and enclosing dispossession stories up to date – now gone global, far beyond the realms of magical thinking, propaganda and greed tended by ideological gatekeepers of bipartisan orthodoxy and corporate media.
Touching on these three visionary works collectively traces thousands of years of human history, leading up to Detroit’s fraudulent corporate and racist ‘restructuring’ introduction to the 21st century. I hope to shed some of their light on ‘overstanding’ our real situation. I previously summarized this as involving “multi-level relationships between race, regional power, political economy and ‘development’ as ideology and domination.” Again, whew!
Bilateral vision in the physical world helps us judge depth, relations of movement to time and space, and (among many other crucial issues) ‘fight or flight’ reactions to attacks and confrontations. Employing these three works as sources of historical memory, diverse frames and lenses, I hope to apply a sort of trilateral vision – encompassing key elements of spirit, class and political economy: toward the development of a new, bottom-up perspective on Detroit’s restructuring, emergency management and bankruptcy.
Contrasting such a grassroots view with the elites’ top-down perspective based on ‘power-over’ our community may help us assess where we really stand and what we must do. Our ‘power-to’ have a meaningful voice in Detroit’s historic transformations is ultimately not dependent on Snyder, Jones Day, the Regional Chamber of Commerce or their piratical contractors. The ultimate lesson from studying histories like this is that our voice depends on us.
Capital is experimenting here with whatever it might have of a gated, contaminated, extreme-energy and -climate future. Hundreds of thousands of People are being used & abused here as pawns of an urban renewal (or “Negro removal”) process, without principles, human rights values or human dignity. The gravity of our situation, and its importance as a lens for understanding what we must do, are as hard to overstate as they are to overstand.
I hope you will bear with me for a difficult and challenging intellectual odyssey. If not, one can always blithely accept the top-down essence of Snyder’s ‘emergency management’ policy: at least the ‘trains run on time.’[i] The trains don’t really run on time – indeed, there aren’t even any trains except out of town – but it’s comforting for our corporate white overlords to claim they do.
Demonic Possession of Spirit
Be wise and learn my secrets, how disease is healed, how man and beast and plant may talk together and learn one another’s missions. Go and live with the trees and birds and beasts and fish, and learn to honor them as your own brothers. – Words of the last of the Stone Giants to an Iroquois hunter lost in the woods
(from the introductory “Extracts” to Beyond Geography)
In their ‘hero’ narratives “myth-bound peoples of the world dramatized a crucial ideal: the maintenance of stable and cooperative communities in the midst of the endless vagaries of existence through equally endless regenerations of spirit.”
– Beyond Geography (“Mythic Zones”)
I don’t pretend to relate in a personal way, or even know much about, the bedrock political institution of late 20th century Detroit, the Black Church. But considering race relations in a spiritual context has underpinned American ‘development’ since the days of Columbus. The Christianizing, whitening theft-via-salvation of the continent’s riches has covered up a lot of sins. The antithesis to that ugly, genocidal heritage is a new civil rights race spirit, and the spiritual dimension of racial identity, that was central to Detroit’s flowering as a Black cultural metropolis. That heritage has been much maligned during our long decline to blight and bankruptcy, as an institutional support for local government patronage and corruption. The paradox of spiritual reality in a technological age is part of the self-images and misunderstandings that are endemic among Detroiters of all races, throughout the segregated southeastern Michigan region. In Beyond Geography, Frederick Turner lifts up the deep back story of this spiritual devolution, from nature, myth and animism, to a post-modern Christian white supremacist righteousness that is ‘throwing the book’ at Detroit’s stereotypical racial scapegoats.
We need not look very far for miseducation. In the midst of Detroit’s morally bankrupt ‘restructuring,’ the elected Chief Executive of Detroit’s wealthy white suburban neighbor Oakland County, former Ku Klux Klan school bus bombers’ lawyer L. Brooks Patterson, largely a fossil relic of previous eras of race relations, shot off his fool mouth to a reporter who told the truth. In the piece “DROP DEAD, DETROIT!” in the January 27, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, Patterson was quoted as follows: “What we’re going to do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.”[ii] There you have it: Emergency management of Detroit, as seen from the suburban county seat named after the Patriot Chief Pontiac.[iii] I can think of no better local benchmark from which to examine how racism and kindred immoral emotional plagues produced this crisis and confrontation over the soul of Detroit.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s policies of ‘emergency management’ for People of Color communities are about a lot of things: greed, racial domination, socializing costs and privatizing benefit, forcing the weakest and most vulnerable to bear the costs of profitable excesses by the rich and powerful, etc. But at bottom these unprecedented state takeover statutes and their real-world consequences, currently being implemented in Detroit at a pace and scale that is hard to grasp – represent a deep spiritual crisis. Detroit is not only occupied by mercenary agents of capital. We are possessed by demonic spirits of illegitimate power, intellectual bankruptcy and moral corruption. And it’s normalization of this invisible demonic spiritual possession that makes the emergency manager’s suspension of human rights, legal rules of order and democratic procedures possible.
Beyond Geography traces the spiritual roots of the exploration, discovery, genocide, development, mass racial incarceration and emergency management colonial cycle to the abandonment of a sense of integration with nature and the universe – embodied by myth-bound Peoples – in favor of the Judeo-Christian heritage’s linear, historical narrative of salvation for white chosen People. In such light, Detroit’s auto industry development, labor- and civil-rights social history, and subsequent abandonment and decline over the last 50 years can be seen as America’s history of alienation and racial oppression in microcosm.
From the planting of European crown-chartered corporations in the east coast forest lands, to the rise and fall of great auto factories, and now Detroit’s $95 million corporate restructuring contractors leeching off a bankrupt city. Madison Avenue and Hollywood tropes, from “winning of the west,” to the “new model city” that hosted the 1967 uprising, and now increasing “density” by adopting “green and blue infrastructure.”[iv] From the massacre at Wounded Knee and its continuing legacy of oppression, to today’s street violence and militarized policing, it has always been convenient for self-satisfied white Americans to mistake the actual genocidal smallpox and starvation they bring to the table for their rhetorical “blankets and corn.” Whether our future arc will re-enact a dimly sensed mythical hero narrative of “separation, initiation, and return” to spiritual regeneration; or it will echo Native- and African-American histories-as-tragedies of dispossession, displacement and death of “the other,” is perhaps the most under-appreciated, yet crucial dimension of Detroit’s 21st century emergency restructuring. Turner says that “Initiation in these [mythic hero] narratives equals transformation.” Hopefully it is still possible in our era of screens, memes and extremes.[v]
What does such visionary “transformation” discourse have to do with Detroit’s restructuring thru bankruptcy? Our inability to answer this question begins to measure the infinite gap between our cultural politics and any sort of “spiritual regeneration.” What could hold out a realistic promise of establishing “stable and cooperative communities” under the neoliberal lash of austerity and Snyder’s “relentless positive action?” European commercial and missionary invaders entered the “new world” as white Christian entrepreneurial saviors, bearing gifts to trade with its inhabitants for land. Corporate state and philanthropic occupiers of Detroit today seem utterly convinced of their essential righteousness, and of Detroit’s dark, wretched ruination. This combination of spiritual hubris, political power and unequal wealth with blindness to the human rights and the humanity itself of the emergency-managed, may yet prove to be as deadly as Patterson’s smallpox-laden blankets, unless we find sufficient moral and spiritual force to confront, oppose and fight back against such manipulative ‘us vs. them’ agendas.
Beyond Geography doesn’t limit its spiritual exegesis to the bloody mass murder perpetrated across the American continents by the European invaders implementing whiteness. Its setting is the “wilderness” with its life-sustaining materials for food, water, shelter, and even more important its immaterial dimension: “the vast, untapped spiritual reservoir the New World had always constituted.” Professor Turner could well be charting a course for resistance to emergency management, austerity and the destruction of human rights-based democracy: “Hesitant, fearful, ignorant as we all must be in the presence of such matters,” careful attention to the humanity of The Other promises “a brief but vivid glimpse of that spiritual bond between humans that always lies awaiting acknowledgment.” Could this be the other side of Michigan’s democratic emergency? Could seeing and understanding such a powerful but invisible social reality put Detroit on “a trail that leads to more genuine treasure” than the clean balance sheet promised by Jones Day via bankruptcy?
Like Euro-American land claims around the Great Lakes and Louisiana Purchase (“756,961,280 acres of tribal holdings”) that were “utterly insupportable by any moral or international code and indicative in their greed and ignorance of the future treatment of the lands,” the state-forced bankruptcy and contractor-enriching restructuring of Detroit today reveals the seed of its own corrupt and destructive consequences. Are we doomed to repeat that old racist legacy of unjust enrichment, displacement and conquest? Must land speculators in cheap urban real estate be empowered to herd urban residents off to new waste lands, repeating the old patterns of conquest-followed-by-abandonment, the ones repeated already by the auto industry’s relationship with Detroit? Did the Wall Street crash of 2008, like the serial busts of the 19th century that accompanied the ethnic cleansing of North America, presage “spiritual bankruptcy” as well as financial?
Turner marvels at the 19th century realization that “there were no limits to what could be done in America.” (his emphasis) What, if any, limits exist in Detroit today that white supremacist corporate patriarchy, veiled in the velvet gloves of philanthropy and enforced by emergency managers, are bound to respect vis-a-vis the People and resources of our city? The answer – indeed, the existence of any such limit itself – isn’t clear yet. Beyond Geography teaches that it lies in a spiritual realm, where our humanity, our resources and the legacies of our past and future temporal existence are the moral equivalents of what we’ve learned that the bankruptcy courts call “secured obligations.” They can’t be taken away if we refuse to give them up. Like the poet says, “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”[vii]
Have the descendants of Detroiters who built this multicultural union town, profoundly changing the world 2 or 3 times in terms of our modes of transportation, production and cultural consciousness, attained a rootedness in this place, perhaps evolving into collective consciousness “infused with spirit life,” that could inform a shared “sacred bond” with effective political and concrete material implications? Does the eventual outcome of our confrontation with the injustice represented by “emergency management” ultimately turn on such questions? Could it be that, behind the fog and obfuscation of corporate media, legalese and politics-as-usual, there’s a whole different, human-centered “development” and spiritual “possession,” beyond the demonic, racist political geography of “emergency management?” What’s that sound? (Motown, jazz, techno, MC5…)
I respectfully suggest that the potential answer to all these questions (except the last one) is “yes.” Indeed, I believe that is why Snyder, Patterson and their anti-democratic corporate emergency management policies are so extreme, thorough and viciously destructive of the managed communities’ political, cultural and human integrity and freedoms. Like the Euro-American settler state that had to not only conquer, but massacre and extirpate every trace of aboriginal consciousness and culture, from the Taino, Arawaks and Pequots to the corpse-filled ditches of Wounded Knee and My Lai, Emergency Manager Fascists (EMFs) are on a mission from a God (or idol) of their choosing, for purposes of conquest, domination and greed. Detroit is the cradle of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, Nation of Islam, the transformation of Black Power rhetoric into African American governing power over one of the nation’s great cities, and an African American cultural Mecca. Our rugged, hallowed, historic, funky, liberated existence proves another world and another USA are possible. That’s why – from their perspective – it simply must be saved/destroyed by emergency management.
Further study in this essay, and further action in the streets of Detroit, will test the prospects for their 17th century “development” ideology in 2014 and beyond. Like the Roman Emperor Constantine restructuring the insurgent spiritual light of original Christian faith, into the official imperial Church whose bloodstained history is chronicled in Beyond Geography, 21st century capital has perverted faith, hope, charity and the tarnished American Dream into ‘emergency management.’ From the depths of our collective unconscious, our untold mythic prehistory and our nevertheless still-immanent possible spiritual regeneration and urban revitalization, our only hope of surviving this civic apocalypse, we now transition into the messy political stage of class conflicts driving history.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit EM Kevyn Orr.
“The Beast & the Whore rule without control.”
– William Blake (quoted at the beginning of the first chapter of The Making of the English Working Class)
Having crossed the ocean (under various conditions of discovery, servitude and misery), stolen and tamed the wilderness, and then created an industrial dynamo, Detroit’s Black and White working masses spent the middle decades of the 20th century creating the so-called “middle class.” They paused to help their English, Soviet and other brothers & sisters in arms & war plants defeat Euro-fascism. Then we spent the next 50 years paying the terrible price of that violent, heroic emergence into history. Evidence of this process includes the fantastic post-industrial ruins of Fordist industrial Detroit today. 20 years before Turner published Beyond Geography, during the peak of the American civil rights revolution, E.P Thompson’s epic Making of the English Working Class unearthed in depth the three dimensional dynamics of such a laboring culture, working and rising up collectively to achieve class formation as the motor of modern history.
Just what do we mean by “class?” Thompson’s classic preface sets the stage for his bottom-up reconstruction of the dawn of industrial history, as well as for the UAW-CIO’s constructive welding of class and race solidarity into instruments of urban development:
“By class I understand a historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasise that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.
More than this, the notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. Like any other relationship, it is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomise its structure. … The relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real context. … [C]lass happens when some men, [sic] as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”
The ahistorical nature of American law in general, and of bankruptcy procedures for adjusting economic failure and loss in particular, reifies, obscures and even misrepresents what dynamically and “in fact happens” around Detroit’s regional development, labor market and racial power plays, particularly public accountability for corporate abuses of People & the commons. In Gov. Snyder’s emergency management, restructuring and bankruptcy narrative, enormous socioeconomic and cultural resources have been invested in creating a sense of “inevitability,” for something that is in fact unprecedented, extreme, one-sided, experimental, improvised and grotesquely unjust, even evil. But class dynamics ignored in law, education, corporate media and polite society, when seen and understood (especially by People who have little or nothing to lose) can reveal strategically advantageous terrain for resistance. We’ve been here before. Thompson, as usual, put it best – referring to fierce class conflicts from the 17th century “Levellers” to the age of revolutions at the end of the 18th century: “It is the old debate continued. The same aspirations, fears, and tensions are there: but they arise in a new context, with new language and arguments, and a changed balance of forces.” So it goes today.
In 21st century Detroit, broadly speaking, two diametrically opposed perspectives frame the city’s fiscal crisis, restructuring, emergency management and bankruptcy: the corporate, property interest-based view vs. the community, human rights-based view. The former – top-down, market-oriented in rhetoric, ideologically neoliberal and exercising power over the scene and its People. The latter – bottom-up, justice-driven, ideologically diverse within broad left conceptions, and learning to exercise power to affect events and circumstances. We are looking at the same things, but from our very different perspectives. Well-paid public liars in the “restructuring” enterprise hasten to denigrate the views of those who disagree with their masters as engaged in “magical thinking.” This profound difference in appreciation for the context and human consequences of the restructuring of Detroit is based on class.[viii]
Corporate media and emergency management supporters cannot acknowledge the existence of such diverse truths. To do so would betray their own propaganda and instrumental functions in the system of class domination. Exploding inequality, injustice and impunity for the powerful are the social context for the Detroit bankruptcy. These are class dynamics. Resistance can – and must if it is to succeed while the emergency managers’ vicious austerity policies inevitably and gradually fail – continually articulate and exploit such diverse frames and narratives. Free People can never allow ourselves to be defined and pinned down by corporate property-based definitions. In corporate media, Detroit is bankrupt because of corrupt and incompetent elected local leaders. In the real world of history-driven-by-class-conflict, the incompetent and corrupt leaders (as well as those who were reasonably competent, honest Democrats co-opted by capital’s power over all of us), failed to come to grips with the huge political economic forces of racism, neoliberalism, empire and the evisceration of social welfare by global capital. Running the Motor City in the post-WWII golden age of US world hegemony, they tried and failed to please capital, based public development on private profit, and didn’t seriously look for the path out of the corporate globalization trap.
Detroit leaders’ inattention to the larger forces that shaped the city’s downfall is somewhat understandable. What other legislative or executive authority, anywhere, did come to grips with them? The US Congress today is owned by Wall Street. The Michigan state government, like most of the upper Midwest, is completely captured by ultra-right wing “tea party” ideologues driving policy from one neoliberal to the next Koch-libertarian extreme after another. The terrifying underlying triple crisis of the unbalanced corporate economy, the gasping planetary ecology and the global warming fossil energy system is not even named, much less on the governing agenda anywhere. Such “disaster capitalist” measures as emergency management and austerity for suffering, vulnerable places like Detroit are the perfect elite policies at such times. They demonstrate vigorous action and yield windfall profits for a few, without promising any solutions in a mass-suicide era of interlocked crises that have no clear or simple solutions.[ix] Just keep on keeping on with publicly subsidized corporate development of your downtown corridor, refining poisonous high-carbon tar sands in southwest Detroit, and driving cars everywhere, while Jones Day cleans up our city’s balance sheet. The atrophied imaginations[x] constructing this corporate hologram are frauds and targets for framing alternatives. They have no other real value. The bottom-up perspective of self-initiated class agency profiled in Making of the English Working Class points the way to the target, and defines useful new frames and possible futures.
Having first touched on spirit, and then related that ancient heritage to working class political consciousness and economic power in the material conditions of Detroit’s life, we are finally in position on terrain where we live, in the jaws of powerful neoliberal counter-revolution. The political economy of ‘emergency management’ is Detroit’s answer to 21st century global capitalism. Understanding this is a necessary step to formulating our answer – and taking our humanity – back.
Political Economic Delusions vs. Reality
“…[I]f jobs and the communities that depend on them are to be saved in a way that will convert production and distribution to conform with ecologically sustainable priorities, there must be a break with the logic of capitalist markets rather than the use of state institutions to reinforce them.”
– The Making of Global Capitalism
At the same time that the 21st century was taking shape on Wall Street, and in the antidemocratic dynamics of the ‘emergency management’ relationship between Lansing and Detroit, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin brought the structural evolution of capitalism story up to date in Making of Global Capitalism. I picked up their book in late 2013, seeking insight into Detroit’s restructuring process as it was rapidly escalating all around me. As this essay indicates, I found much more than I bargained for.
The themes running thru Making of Global Capitalism include several related systemic features of 21st century political economy that help shed light on Detroit’s emergency restructuring via managed bankruptcy:
The centrality of US corporate capital to all major political decisions, and government’s consequent first priority of enabling capital’s global freedom of action as bedrock policy;
* The leading role of Fordist auto technology and production techniques, as well as the 1950 “Treaty of Detroit” between General Motors and the United Auto Workers, in setting the pattern for global labor markets and the regime of capital accumulation that drove the rise and fall of Detroit in the 20th century;
* The reality that these policies and their results were choices made by powerful leaders, not the inadvertent consequences of impersonal “market forces;”
* The continuing, critical relevance of class dynamics in 21st century Detroit, as found by E.P. Thompson in and around 18th and 19th century Manchester;
* The continuing, dynamic interrelationships between corporate profits, weakening of labor, environmental damage, technological change and financialization driving social change for the last 50 years and more of Detroit’s epic journey to emergency management.
Among many other things, Making of Global Capitalism provides a whirlwind tour of 20th century evolution in social modes of industrial production: “With the institutional crystallization of American capitalist class power in the modern corporation, and the defeat of the late-nineteenth century challenges that had emerged from what was then the most militant industrial working class in the world, as well as from the radicalized farmers’ movement, US capitalism entered the twentieth century having demonstrated a remarkable capacity to integrate and subsume under its hegemony not only small business but also professionals, middle class strata, and working class consumers. And it was on this basis that the US developed the key industrial innovations that came to be known as “Taylorism” and “Fordism” [so-called “scientific management” for maximum productivity of workers’ time, and the mechanized assembly line] - which together reorganized mass production in such a way as to make a high-wage proletariat compatible with and actually functional to industrial capitalism.” Welcome to the middle class, and to Detroit as America’s world shaking mid-century industrial powerhouse.
Of course this system of power relations goes far beyond industrial production technology and social organization of the workplace. Commercial and cultural spheres such as consumption, capital’s occupation of consciousness (as well as unconscious desire), and debt are also among its crucial terrain and roles. “In 1927, Edwin Seligman’s The Economics of Instalment Selling captured the ethos of Fordism in the new mass consumer age. He extolled credit-based marketing for not only increasing spending but ensuring that “a family with car payments to make would be forced to work hard to make the payments.” The embedded state of this ethos in today’s regional discourse around Detroit – entrepreneurialism, work-readiness, anti-welfare “dependency,” and cruel violations of labor and pension rights – is undeniable. On its economic level, emergency management is advanced life support for a zombie living dead system of mass consumer wants, in the face of contradictions involving Detroit’s massive unmet human needs, especially after the disappearance of that high-wage proletariat, the Wall Street crash and Great Recession of 2008.
This heightened, sharpened, exploding contradiction of Detroit going bust in Panitch and Gindin’s financialized Global Capitalism, has been coming for a very long time. Indeed, Making of Global Capitalism – from the crisis of ‘stagflation,’ OPEC, UAW wage and benefit levels, and American war in Vietnam during the 1960s and 70s, coincided for over 40 years with Detroit’s gritty decline from Motown to ghost town. Black Power, Leagues of Revolutionary Black Auto Workers, Mayor Young, and all the rest of the high-wage, multi-racial proletarian Detroit that’s so abhorred by Brooks Patterson & his ilk, were the restive uprising soul and spirit of Detroit’s blighted corpse today. All of it was symbiotically connected to the evolution of global capitalism at the highest policy levels. Between the end of WWII and the 1980s, “A resolution of the contradiction between the need for mass consumption and the fear of worker militancy only finally emerged out of a combination of direct state intervention to limit union strength, government-encouraged private consumption through interest-rate ceilings and mortgage guarantees, and the crucial subsequent “settlement” between capital and labor in industry.” It was forty year slide from there to “ruin porn,” the attempted obliteration of state constitutional protection for public employee pensions, and the bankruptcy fire sale privatization of Detroit’s regional water and sewerage department, art treasures, sanitation, transit and everything else that’s not nailed down.
In Detroit in the middle of the last century, a tense, conflicted accord created the multi-racial industrial middle class: “…[T]he most important event in resolving the contradiction between the need for private consumption and the dangers posed by wage militancy was the 1950 “Treaty of Detroit.” When General Motors, the largest manufacturing company in the world, and the UAW, the most prominent union in the country, institutionalized the “Fordist” link between mass production and mass consumption through this path-breaking collective agreement, they went far beyond anything that Henry Ford ever imagined” with his $5 day. “The Treaty of Detroit, followed by similar agreements throughout the auto sector and other industries, was key to the resolution of the dilemma US capital had faced at the end of the [second world] war. The organized American working class would now become the backbone of a high-wage and high-consumption proletariat, but its unions were no longer prepared to challenge capital’s right to manage production, let alone question the “capitalist system” along the lines often heard in the 1930s.” As they used to say here on the east side, “There goes the neighborhood.”
Today’s neoliberal plan for renewed prosperity of the few entails rewriting that social contract, imposing harsh austerity on a service-industry precariat, eliminating social benefit from corporate growth, socializing Detroit’s loss and privatizing its downtown and riverfront core, directly accessing one of the most lucrative international border crossings in North America, in the midst of the planet’s ‘North Coast’ of unequalled fresh water resources, relatively sheltered – compared to the other coasts – from major natural catastrophes such as hurricanes and earthquakes. A stupendously valuable strategic location for investment in an age of climate uncertainty, if it weren’t for those descendants of militant working class black church and civil rights indigenes occupying the surrounding, raggedy neighborhoods. So the key is to blame those losers’ unions, pensions funds, civil rights protections and sick, allegedly anti-business mind sets for their problems.
The reality of capital’s implementation of its victory reveals a different narrative. With the organized bargaining representatives of the workers having accepted capital’s “right” to manage and invest according to its selfish, unilateral priorities, Detroit was abandoned to the People who elected Coleman Young mayor in 1973. For half a century now, and increasingly in the current era of corporate globalization, the ideological imperative held: “What was good for General Motors was now good for the world. The Treaty of Detroit epitomized what was meant by the term “productivism,” which under the Marshall Plan also became the model for the export of American labor relations to Europe, and it gave enormous legitimacy to what the US was doing there. … Meanwhile, financial institutions of various types not only participated in the rapid growth of industry across the country but also found ways to encourage and take advantage of rising consumerism to draw in the working classes, especially through state-backed mortgage securities and consumer loans. … Put simply the US investment banks wrote the rules while everyone else … was busy trying to work out what investment banking was all about.” (quoting Tony Golding, “The City: Inside the Great Expectations Machine” (2001)” We’ve learned only recently how far the potential for fraud and abuse inherent in that scenario would take us down.
By the crashing fall of 2008, Detroit had already been suffering for decades in wave after wave of deindustrialization, white flight, capital flight, middle class flight, so-called “free trade” offshoring of investment and living wage jobs, subprime mortgage predation, derivative speculation and the housing bubble. Because of Wall Street’s blow to “consumer confidence,” Panitch and Gindin explain, “… when a housing bubble bursts it affects not just the financial system, but the whole economic system, in a way stock market meltdowns do not.” This time “a slowdown in consumption preceded the beginning of the recession in late 2007, and turned into a massive collapse in the second half of 2008.” The rest of the world, from Greece, Egypt, Italy, and Spain, to Portugal, Ireland, Iceland, Cyprus, Puerto Rico, Ukraine and points beyond, tumbled into the debt-leveraged abyss, along with Detroit and what used to be known as the “Third World.” It was time for some major restructuring. First Wall Street, then two of the three formerly Detroit-based US auto companies, were bailed out by taxpayers in the era of “too big to fail.” Gov. Snyder’s first emergency management statute followed in March 2011. Then a rewritten, Detroit bankruptcy-focused version was forced thru the lame duck December 2012 session of the Michigan legislature, after the People of Michigan invalidated the first one in a voter referendum.
In 2010, all the advanced capitalist states had showed “neoliberal solidarity” by “embracing fiscal austerity as the primary means of coping with the so-called ‘exit costs’ of the crisis.” “Rescue packages” were provided to Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and imposed on their working classses “with conditionalities of austerity and privatization that were just as draconian as those that had been attached to IMF structural-adjustment programs for developing countries in the 1980s.” Meanwhile, “a capitalist crisis of historic proportions was still playing itself out in high unemployment and a stagnating economy.” US unemployment had doubled “from 7 million in 2006 to 14 million by 2009, a level that remained largely unchanged two years later.” But “corporate profits had quickly recovered from the 2009 downturn, and by mid 2011 were not only 23 percent above the mid 2007 level but even 16 percent above their record peak in mid 2006.” It was good to be a corporate “person.” It’s a really bad time to be a public servant, or dependent in any other way on wages or salary to survive. The racial implications of the divide are too stark to even be discussed in most polite company.
The pattern for restructuring Detroit was set in this marathon orgy of victim-blaming, white racial privilege and real estate speculation. The stark class bias in the federal government’s response to the Great Recession was evidenced by their “preventing the ‘pay czar, whom [President] Obama appointed to oversee executive salaries in the businesses that the US government now formally owned, from drastically cutting the salaries of Chrysler and General Motors managers, even though the conditions imposed under the March 2009 bailout legislation required massive concessions on wages, pensions, and working conditions from the rest of the workforce … the system of class power and inequality that had generated the crisis was being reproduced.” The political economy of emergency management, austerity, worker and union suppression, corporate impunity and power to negate social benefits and human rights, was unleashed. It runs roughshod, entitled and voracious today.
Detroit’s ‘emergency management’ corporate apologists argue that the legal bankruptcy and attendant governmental operations and social ‘restructuring’ are necessary to ‘clean up Detroit’s balance sheet’ of debt and annual budget deficits, gussying us up as attractive potential debtors to serve Wall Street by attracting new loans, new investment, and a new-model mythical neoliberal future world, that will never actually come to pass. But it makes excellent ad copy. Lying to People in order to get money from them is an old habit from Wall Street to Main Street, from Detroit’s Coleman A. Young City Hall to the Governor’s mansion. It will be hard to break. If ordinary Detroiters have any hope for a future, if we retain any significant spiritual and militant class heritage, we have to break that habit for them. As if our lives depend on it. Because they do.
Beyond Bankruptcy: The Making of Detroit’s Future
“Until you hit bottom, people are reluctant to invest.”
– Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans and downtown Detroit real estate gentrifier[xi]
“Economists and the business-dominated media like to talk about crises by using terms like the markets. The markets say this or say that, as if they were actual persons. This de-personified choice of concepts serves to hide the fact that there is no such thing as the markets, per se. The markets are not some objectified thing, they are comprised of people, financial investors, dominated by finance capitalists worth more than $100 million in investable assets.”
– Dr. Jack Rasmus[xii]
For readers who are still with me (if any), thank you from the bottom of my broken heart.
There is no such thing as Detroit’s ‘balance sheet.’ It’s an ideological weapon of mass destruction, that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, the Jones Day law firm, their economic hit man Kevyn Orr and their $95 million squadron of overpaid corporate ‘consultants’ are using to bludgeon the People of Detroit. The idea that it will benefit Detroit or its People is just silly. As the bankruptcy reaches a crucial stage in the next few months, it is quite likely that virtually no one will believe it.
Malcolm X famously said that “Just as a tree without roots is dead, a people without history or cultural roots also becomes a dead people.”[xiii] This is the true objective of ‘emergency management.’ A “larger suite”[xiv] of investment, insider urban planning, partisan political, and ostensibly technocratic fiscal interventions in a context of white power and corporate domination, aimed at exploiting the rich prize of Detroit’s 139 square miles of cheap urban land on one of the busiest international border crossings in North America, in the heart of the planet’s greatest fresh water resource, and in the midst of a global capitalist crisis-of-opportunity.
“What time is it on the clock of the world?” asks our home-nurtured elder revolutionary genius Grace Lee Boggs. What time, indeed? Time to realize that there’s really no such thing as Detroit’s ‘balance sheet’ in these mean streets, and to act accordingly in defense of our families, our communities and ourselves. Turner recalled our ancient transition from the wild man of the wilderness and myth, to agricultural civilization and history. Thompson chronicled the emergence of a proletariat, thru self-initiated political activity and industrial revolution. Panitch and Gindin’s global precariat are now struggling for survival, with Turner’s spiritual regeneration and Thompson’s class conscious culture as potentially transformational resources.
Kevyn Orr and Jones Day arrived in Detroit one year ago and commenced in earnest their filthy campaign of economic violence. Today they face massive legal, political, economic and logistical obstacles to their proposed ‘plan of adjustment’ and exit from bankruptcy.[xv] Their eventual failure, as one part of the inevitable slow failure of the whole mad, unnatural neoliberal project, will come in time. Only the extent of the casualties along the way, and the shape of the future, are in question. The biggest potential obstacle they face and fear is the aroused spiritual and class power of 700,000 Detroiters and our allies, if we learn to cut thru their mind games and resource grabs toward an authentic political economy of sustainability, survival and justice. Detroit lives!
The author is on the left, incompetently carrying a sign asking a question.
Tom Stephens is a coordinator of the communications working group of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM). Their web site is at: http://d-rem.org
Dedicated to 3 Detroiters who clearly got it, passionately did it, and still inspire us today: Grace Lee Boggs, Fredy Perlman and Jeanie Wylie-Kellerman
[i] One of ‘emergency management’s’ most aggressively irresponsible apologists, former Detroit City Council Member Sheila Murphy (who used her late husband radical lawyer Kenny Cockrel’s name to win office), has repeatedly indulged in this disgusting line of argument. See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-patrick-leary/detroit-emergency-manager_b_2924604.html Murphy Cockrel’s colleague at Wayne State University John Patrick Leary thoroughly exposed her unethical and totalitarian illogic as: “…a depressing nadir for Detroit’s liberal intelligentsia… The trouble is that such defenses of EMs are made in terribly bad faith, based as they are on an illusion that the mandate of the Emergency Manager is, in fact, to improve services, rather than to repay Detroit’s creditors. What reason, other than faith in a loving God who wants us to have a public library, do we have to expect anything other than substantially worse services? … in a truly democratic society, it’s not life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, best two out of three, but all of them, together, of equal importance. You can’t lose one without degrading the others. To rationalize otherwise means that this sort of liberalism is really as bankrupt as the city… But you can put the Declaration of Independence aside. Liberal arguments for Emergency Managers are not based on any real principle. They’re little more than concessions to present state and national political trends, where austerity rules and Wall Street always wins: the only really convincing argument for an Emergency Manager is that there’s no point in arguing with him. He’s coming whether you voted or not.”
[ii] Detroit News Editor Nolan Finley’s written defense of this amazing, frankly genocidal perspective is, if possible, even more enlightening about the degraded attitudes of Michigan white power brokers toward Detroit, that underlie ‘emergency management:’ “…the remark was crude, but not far off the mark.” “In defense of L. Brooks Patterson” http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140121/OPINION01 Patterson has repeatedly maintained, even in his 2014 ‘state-of-the-county speech, that his obnoxious statements were “taken out of context,” without either denying them or explaining what conceivable context would render them somehow less hateful or racist. The New Yorker’s one-line response speaks volumes: “The notion that any of these quotes are fabricated, or presented out of context, is ludicrous.”
[iii] Beyond Geography evokes an unheralded tradition from an obscured his-story: “The colonists left behind [by Columbus] as an outpost of progress had become utterly abandoned. They had gone into neighboring territories in search of gold and native women and had taken what they could find – three and four women apiece. This first exploration had its inevitable ending. Caonabo, first of the America’s patriot chiefs, took summary vengeance, slew the whites to the last man, and burned the settlement.” There is an incredibly long line of “that fated and fatal role that Alvin Josephy has called the ‘patriot chief’ – a role in which there is neither exit nor encore.” Does it extend this deep history of implacable malevolence toward “the other” too far, if we see in it something of the historical contempt many white suburbanites express for Detroit’s first black mayor Coleman Alexander Young, and in return something of the xenophobia in contemporary Detroit’s African American neighborhoods toward ‘hipsters’ and immigrants? See Josephy, “The Patriot Chiefs”
[iv] The “Detroit Future City” plan has been developed with tens of millions of philanthropic dollars. http://detroitfuturecity.com/ It has been criticized by grassroots community groups and scholars, including me, as insufficiently engaged with Detroit’s community, racial and regional reconciliation, or with much else about our actually existing reality, as explored in this essay. Highly focused on “density” and buttressed by progressive buzz words like “green” (ecology) and “blue” (water), it unsurprisingly reaches the same conclusions about “shrinking” the city’s “footprint” – i.e., stripping infrastructure from poor People’s communities and cutting back services, that its proponents started out with before investing heavily in consultants.
[v] In addition to the now common notions of extreme weather and extreme energy, the 20th century was aptly labeled The Age of Extremes, by Eric Hobsbawm (1994)
[vi] Great photos of the Packard plant can be viewed at: http://www.freep.com/article/20121202/NEWS01/312020100/History-Packard-Plant
[vii] Bob Dylan, My Back Pages
[viii] As so eloquently defined in Thompson’s quoted preface, “class” here is intended to be a supple, finely crafted analytical toolbox that is intentionally broad enuff to include race, gender, religious and ethnic communities, and other collective historical dynamics, as well as economic classes defined by their relationship to means of production.
[ix] Jamie Peck, “Framing Detroit” at the University of Michigan Detroit School, January 31, 2014 http://media.rackham.umich.edu/rossmedia/Play/afa23ac545364438b3d700748882d45e1d
[x] Michelle Martinez “atrophied imaginations” e-mail message, 3/16/14
[xi] quoted in the New York Times on February 4, 2014: “While Asking for Help, Detroit Sells a Comeback” by Steven Yaccino
[xii] from “Bernanke’s Bank, An Assessment” http://www.kyklosproductions.com/posts/index.php?p=219 (January 28, 2014)
[xiii] “History is a Weapon” (February 1965) http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/malconafamhist.html
[xiv] This phrase was the key part of a shocking, but little-noted admission by Kresge Foundation Chairman Rip Rapson about the true scope of ‘reform’ in Detroit, published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle newspaper: “The Emergency Financial Manager’s appointment is a single component in a larger suite of activities through which the city is accelerating its transformation. The manager’s efforts will stand alongside a robust and multifaceted machinery of investment and engagement that is expanding opportunities and supporting the continued emergency of a vibrant and essential Detroit unimaginable to some outside observers.” http://record-eagle.com/opinion/x63039659/Phil-Power-Groups-step-up-to-lead-urban-revival The explicit connection between emergency management and foundation-funded development programs is rarely so openly stated by their proponents, presumably for political reasons.
[xv] The Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM) formal objections filed (by me) on March 17, 2014 in the Detroit bankruptcy court summarize an alternative view and approach, the full details of which are beyond even the sprawling scope of this essay: “These proceedings and Detroit’s situation require a power shift to deeper democracy for the benefit of the People who are most directly and significantly affected. The restructuring and rebirth of Detroit will not be delivered by a state-imposed emergency manager, nor through Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings, foundation contributions, closed door deals, or other devious and misleading corporate schemes. Detroit’s rebirth will be the result of the People’s unrelenting demand for democratic self-governance, equal access to and management of the natural and economic resources of the city. Further detail in support of this objection is available in the People’s Alternative Plan for Restructuring Toward a Sustainable Detroit at: http://www.d-rem.org/peoplesplan/”