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Issue #1605      August 7, 2013

Culture & Life

Detroit: An object lesson

As everyone knows now, the city of Detroit – once the third largest in the USA – has filed for bankruptcy. Pleading that the city has no money to pay for them, even essential services like fire-fighters, emergency medical care and garbage collection are being cut to the bone. Once synonymous with US manufacturing might, Detroit – world headquarters of the car and truck industry, also called “Motor City” – has become a victim of the chaos and lack of planning inherent in capitalism.

Employees working at the Packard Motor Car Company in Detroit in the 1920s.

The unionised workforce waged many long and bloody battles with the hired thugs of Ford and GM to achieve union recognition and then good wages and conditions. Today, of course, the pundits of the Right blame the unions for the present desolate state of the city. It’s all the fault of greedy workers, you see. It has nothing to do with greedy bosses who won’t plan for the city’s future when they can instead make bigger profits by shutting their plants in Detroit and moving their production to low-wage states in the south, or low-wage countries abroad.

This phenomenon is hardly new, even to the US car industry. Detroit, Ford’s centre, is in Michigan. The nearby city of Flint was headquarters for GM, until the General shut the plant and moved production to a Southern state with no minimum wage and no protection for unions. It was this economic disaster inflicted on the people of Flint that made the editor of the local newspaper take up documentary films as a way to fight back. His name is Michael Moore and he has been exposing the injustices and iniquities of capitalism ever since.

In the absence of a strong workers’ political movement, and a climate of bank foreclosures and spontaneous but ineffectual popular resistance movements, neo-fascist outfits and other reactionaries inevitably made progress amongst Michigan’s workers. The Governor of the state, Rick Snyder, is a member of the extremely right-wing Tea Party movement.

But the reactionaries have no plans for securing the state’s industrial base. They have no answers to the flight of industry to where wages are lower and conditions more conducive to increased exploitation of labour. Oh no.

Instead, retired municipal workers will have their annual pensions dramatically slashed. Of course: they didn’t cause Detroit’s financial crisis, profit-hungry business did – but you cannot expect business to carry the can for its own inadequacies, can you? At the same time, Detroit’s asset strippers are even going to sell off the art works in the city museum.

As Dave Zirin wrote in The Nation at the end of July: “This will include a mural by the great radical artist Diego Rivera that’s a celebration of what the auto industry would look like in a socialist future. As Stephen Colbert said, the leading bidder will be ‘the museum of irony’.”

But never fear, for capitalism is not totally bereft of ideas on what to do to overcome this civic disaster. In the best Tea Party traditions, almost simultaneous with declaring Detroit bankrupt Governor Snyder approved a plan to hand over US$283 million of public funds to subsidise the construction of a new hockey arena for the Detroit Red Wings ice-hockey team, owned by billionaire “entrepreneur” Mike Ilitch. Snyder actually said that the new stadium would make Detroit “a place that will be recognised across the world as a place of great value and a place to invest”.

Critics have pointed out that the city already has two other publicly funded major sports stadia, each of which “was billed as a ‘remedy’ to save the city” notes Dave Zirin. “Each has obviously failed.”

Zirin quotes Neal DeMause, “who runs the indispensible website Field of Schemes”: DeMause is of the opinion that “putting money into fixing city schools or restoring streetlights would do far more for Detroit’s business prospects than a hockey arena. This just goes to show the problem with carving out shares of tax revenue to go to development authorities – they end up basically serving as slush funds for developers, even when the city treasury is otherwise empty.”

Zirin’s Nation article goes on: “There is a right-wing narrative about Detroit that the city is in peril because of some combination of the 1967 ‘race riots’ and greedy unions. The reality is that black and brown residents of Detroit made Motown and those ‘greedy unions’ built a stable working class that could realistically dream of a better life for their own children.”

But not any more, and the destruction of Detroit epitomises the crisis that confronts capitalism – that in fact is capitalism: trying to solve problems like those confronting Detroit by attempting to create an opportunity for some other capitalist to make a profit is futile. This kind of “corporate welfare” siphons money out of the city services – things like schools and hospitals – while failing to provide any jobs paying union wages. “No living wages. No job security. No tax base” notes Zirin.

Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs summed up the situation as “a conservative agenda has been strip mining by privatising almost all services, attacking public workers and their unions, while at the same time providing billion-dollar tax cuts for large businesses and cutting revenue sharing to the cities.”

What is really significant in all this is the growing level of dissatisfaction within US public opinion at the behaviour of their corporations, their institutions and their government. They may not know what is wrong with the system but they are increasingly conscious that something is radically wrong. They are fighting wars but achieving no victory, the rest of the world is supposedly envious of them but everywhere they meet hatred and disgust. They are told they are the richest country in the world, but their economy is steadily sliding downhill.

No wonder so many are asking what has gone wrong? They need only look at Detroit to see the answer.   

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