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Detroit: lights out for capitalism

John Bell

September 25, 2013

I love Detroit. Growing up in London, Ontario, equidistant from Detroit and Toronto, there was no contest. Neighbourhood bars where someone always had a cousin who lived in Canada and who bought you a drink; the Diego Rivera murals at the Art Institute; live blues, rock, jazz and soul artists playing in intimate clubs; real soul food; great sport venues: Detroit had it all. And now my dear Detroit is “bankrupt”.
In 2012, the Republican-dominated Michigan government enacted law PA436, which allows the state to dissolve any municipal or local government they deem “fiscally irresponsible”. Not surprisingly, they have targeted communities that are predominately working class, poor and black—like Flint and Detroit. In place of an elected government the state can appoint an “emergency manager” who wields dictatorial powers.
On September 11, in the midst of a late summer heat wave, areas of Detroit’s power went out for over four hours. Hospitals, seniors’ homes, courthouses, schools and streetlights went dark. Hundreds were trapped in sweltering elevators. Public buildings were evacuated. The reason? State appointed dictator Kevin Orr ordered public facilities to turn off their air conditioning to save power and strain on the city's aging infrastructure, and to save money. In the words of Orr’s spokesperson, Gary Brown: “People didn’t respond as fast as we would like them to, so we had to send them a strong message, by turning off the power.” Brown then went on to tout privatization as the solution to the problem.
Why is Detroit broke?
How does a city go from being the richest (per capita) in the US in 1960 to bankruptcy in just over 50 years? Detroit was synonymous with the auto industry, the intersection of steel and fossil fuel that epitomized twentieth century capitalism. It also epitomized the contradictions of capitalism: a massive, efficient and collectivized workforce producing an isolated, inefficiently and individual mode of transportation. At one point there were over 300,000 unionized autoworkers at the heart of Detroit’s economy. Today less than 10 per cent remain.
Right wingers have their own explanations for Detroit’s fall. One points to the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, both in 1970, and lays the blame on “government regulation” for getting in the way of free enterprise. According to the Detroit Free Press, city administrators foolishly “gifted” workers with pensions and health care. Then when times got tight they refused to bust unions and take back workers’ rights. And all this took place against the backdrop of NAFTA, as the US shipped jobs to low-wage plants in Mexico.
There is a theme that runs through these explanations: unionized US workers were (and are) overpaid and “entitled”. There was also an overabundance of democracy. City administrations were elected to see to the welfare of citizens. Workers with long and faithful service could expect a decent life in retirement thanks to contracts that deferred pay to the future—that’s what pensions are, after all. There was also the democratic muscle of their union organizations, trying to protect workers as their industry literally went south.
As a socialist I have many criticisms of the slow, concession-granting strategy of auto and steel unions through the 1970s and 80s. But for right wingers like the Republicans who rule the state government, the continued existence of any union power is an affront. Chief among the dictatorial powers granted to the “emergency manager” is the power to rip up union contracts.
Black power meets union power
Key to the decline of Detroit is the flight of money and population to the suburbs and beyond. And embedded in the way most analysts report this is racism.
In 1967, Detroit was the site of one of the biggest urban riots in US history. Of course the riots were primarily about race. They were the translation of the southern civil rights movement into the northern, urban environment of segregated neighbourhoods, racist hiring practices, and brutality on the part of an almost exclusively white police force. Detroit was about “black power.”
But there were other currents of rebellion and revolution in the air. In particular, the growth of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement attempted to fuse revolutionary politics and anti-racism to union organization in the auto plants. This history is brilliantly covered in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, a great book dealing with the real history of the US working class. White and black revolutionary socialists were advocating solidarity and joint action, and beginning to win a hearing with white workers.
What followed was an opening of opportunities for blacks in many areas of employment, and simultaneously the beginnings of a flight of capital out of Detroit. Corporations sought to put an end to the threat epitomized by Detroit’s combination of black power and union power, planned their exit strategies and fled. Accommodation on the surface masked the deeper betrayal.
Detroit is capitalism’s essence. Its great art deco buildings were the product of its heroic youth, in the 1920s and 30s. Its auto industry flourished in the 40s and 50s thanks to war and the growth of the US empire. But capitalism always creates its own crises and its own gravediggers. Capital flees from the spectre of organized, self-aware workers, but ends up creating more gravediggers in another part of the world.
Capitalism has run out of places to run to, so it must smash down the remaining rights and power of all workers. To me, Detroit is a barometer of capitalism’s desperation and decline. It admits it cannot continue to offer even the hint of a good life, and democracy must be extinguished. But the memory of power and organization remain in its people, and I predict Detroit will not roll over and die. Recently, Detroit fast food workers have been part of the wave of fast food strikes sweeping the US.
Turning the lights off on 9/11/13 was an attempt to punish the workers of Detroit that will backfire. If capitalism offers only darkness, now is the time for a brighter alternative.

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