Thursday, August 25, 2011

From the Archives: Detroit and Bourgeois Coldness

Nobody could plausibly argue that capitalism is a system operates according to principles of justice. The call to rectify historical injustices (e.g. slavery and its afterlives) registers as little more than noise to an economic mechanism that only speaks the language of profit. Capitalism is an inhuman system in which the demands of capital accumulation act as the steering mechanisms for investment, employment and production. Resources are haphazardly shuffled around in the pursuit of profitable investment opportunities. Human needs as such are not registered by the system's internal logic. Accordingly, where there are no short-term profits to be made, there is no investment or employment. As G.A. Cohen puts it, "The same system that overworks people in the interests of profit, also deprives them entirely of work when its not profitable to employ them."

Enter Detroit. For many, Detroit is synonymous with urban decay, business failure, high unemployment, economic misery, and crumbling infrastructure. Large parts of Detroit are in such bad shape that they appear as though they've been bombed out. Think Europe post-WWII. As TNR notes, "Unemployment in Detroit stands at a staggering 28 percent. And, in key measures of economic vitality in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions, Detroit finishes dead last." If you haven't ever been, it's instructive to move about in the city using Google maps street view. What seems like it should be a dense urban area on a map looks like a remote rural area with high grass growing out of broken roads and sidewalks. It's chilling. Moreover, as we've recently learned, 25% of the population of Detroit left the city in the last 10 years. The population is now roughly 700,000 (identical to its 1910 levels, before the auto industry really took off), down from its peak in the 1950s at nearly 2,000,000. Of course, population loss is but one of the many problems facing Detroit and, indeed, it is more a symptom than a cause.

What is the problem? The basic problems are the decline of manufacturing due to capital flight and rapid suburbanization over the last 50 years, but especially after the early 1970s. Why did this happen? Who is to blame?

Global capitalism went into deep crisis in the early 1970s. The long post-WWII boom during which living standards grew modestly for many had come to an end. As David Harvey has pointed out in various places, from a ruling class perspective the crisis of the 1970s was caused in part by the "excessive" power of organized labor. Labor was "too powerful" and was able to bargain too effectively. In other words, labor's power was getting in the way of profitability insofar as trade unions were able to win decent contracts with relatively high wages, good benefits, pensions, and all the rest of it. The power of labor and social movements meant that the state was, relatively speaking, under pressure from below to meet some degree of human needs it had ignored in the past. Moreover, the relative power of the nation state in the global system meant that it was not easy to move capital around globally.

The big problem for the ruling classes in this situation was that they were being taxed too heavily and made to negotiate with labor on terms that were far too close (for the liking of the ruling class) to equality. Mind you it was never anything like "dual power" between labor and capital --capital was always firmly on top-- but even this modestly equitable arrangement was not to the liking of capital once a global recession set in and profits were down across the board. Something had to give.

One strategy was to loosen up immigration controls. Xenophobic immigration barriers were lifted in the US in the 60s in order to try to undercut the bargaining power of organized labor and drive down wages. It didn't work. Thus, the ruling class pushed for the "liberation" of the financial institutions so that they could more easily move capital all over the globe. This enabled off-shoring and outsourcing so that capital could get access to the global "reserve army" of labor. This enabled it to avoid having to face head-on the social power of labor in the advanced capitalist nations. This was later coupled with another strategy: direct assaults on organized labor (e.g. Thatcher vs. the Miners, Reagan vs. PATCO), many of which were very successful in breaking the back of the labor movement for years to come.

These processes lead to the sharp decline of US manufacturing in the 70s. Millions of jobs were lost as the ruling class closed factories, downsized and moved their capital elsewhere. Former industrial centers were reduced to rubble. Those who could afford to move elsewhere in search of work did so, but many were barred from moving.

Suburbanization (which is bound up with this process of de-industrialization) is also a key to understanding this cluster of mutually re-inforcing processes that caused US cities to crumble in the 70s and 80s. Suburbanization, from the very beginning, was always a process shot through with racism and class contradictions. Roughly speaking, suburbanization and all its attendant spin-offs (cars, refrigerators, interstate highways, etc.) underwrote a large degree of the post-war economic growth from 1945-1973. This meant depopulating urban areas (where there were relatively few places to absorb large amounts of surplus capital) and reconfiguring large swaths of people in low-density built environments requiring heavy-car use, all populated by large single-family homes.
Suburbanization also dispersed large sections of concentrated working-class populations in dense urban areas, shuffling them to a consumer-dominated social landscape in which public space and the potential for organized revolt were both in short supply.

of course, black people were shut out of this new social environment entirely. Federal law as well as extra-legal coercive enforcement mechanisms ensured that this new suburban space would be closed off to all black people, regardless of ability to pay. Federal law also consolidated and reinforced racist attitudes and norms by staking the value of white homeowners' property on there being near-zero levels of black people living in proximity to them (Federal law used a home appraisal system when subsidizing mortgages in which an "A" or "B" rating could only be given in the event the area surrounding the house was less than 2% black... more than that was automatic cause for a low rating). In the context of widespread struggles against racism in the 60s and early 70s, many racist whites decided to flee to the all-white suburbs. To be sure, "white flight" was also a result of the devastating effects of de-industrialization. But there could have been no "black flight" since black people were barred by racist laws, white violence as well as various economic barriers from leaving declining cities for the suburbs. The cumulative effect of punishing poverty, racial oppression, and police brutality ultimately resulted in a series of urban rebellions in the 1960s that shook the urban power structure to the core. Whereas this discontent produced concessions from elites in the 60s, as time went on the strategy from above shifted to one of indifference and abandonment of black populations enraged over the horrible conditions in which they were forced to live. Today, the ruling class only concerns itself with poor urban black populations to the extent that it can criminalize millions of people and shuffle them into the (increasingly profitable) prison-industrial complex.

This is the context in which we must understand Detroit.

What should be clear is that few if any of the causes of misery are peculiar or "internal" to Detroit. And for this reason, the solutions to Detroit's woes cannot be wholly internal; they must come from without. They must, in other words, be part of a much larger mobilization to curb the global economic forces that have sapped the city's ability to flourish. Broken cities don't rebuild themselves, nor do jobs materialize out of thin air. These things require large-scale investments of capital. What Detroit really needs is a Marshall Plan.

As TNR has put it:
"Institutions developed at the height of Detroit’s postwar prosperity remain--and provide the city with advantages that similarly depressed industrial cities cannot claim. It has educational institutions in or near the city (the University of Michigan, Wayne State) and medical institutions (in part, a legacy of all those union health care plans) that are innovative powerhouses and that currently generate private-sector activity in biomedicine, information technology, and health care management. And there is already a smattering of examples of old industrial outposts that have reacquired relevance. An old GM plant in Wixom has been retrofitted to produce advanced batteries. There’s a new automotive-design lab based in Ann Arbor."
This is just to say that the public infrastructure and productive forces in Detroit, dilapidated though they are, are nonetheless developed to a relatively high degree given the city's past. The biggest problem is that this productive capacity lies misused or unused entirely.

So, what Detroit needs is a massive influx of public funds. Some will say: but how could we afford this? I think this is a short-sighted objection. We can afford to drop bombs, kill people and destroy infrastructure in the Middle East and elsewhere, but somehow we're supposed to believe that we can't rebuild things and help people here at home? This isn't even to speak of the fact that our society still produces enough of a surplus to fund both the imperialist adventures and a far more ambitious domestic spending agenda (that's just to say how large the surplus is, not that we shouldn't want to end the wars). The surplus exists, but it's use is presently dictated by the constraints of profitability. A just society, in contrast, would mobilize the surplus to assuage suffering and cultivate human flourishing.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing Detroit is indifference. This has both racist as well as capitalist overtones (to the extent that we can disentangle the two). The racist dimension lies in a tendency for whites to gawk at black misery in such a way that poor blacks become dangerous, dark "others". This was, of course, true even during the "golden years" of Detroit when the auto industry was booming. But this deep indifference has increased with the rapid decline of the city. This tendency undermines bonds of solidarity between whites and black people, since many whites tend to see black misery as "their problem" and not a social problem of wide significance to all. The result is that black people aren't seen as fellow comrades, fellow citizens whose plight is of interest to everyone. So when a city as heavily black (over 81%) as Detroit is in deep trouble many whites see it as a problem that doesn't concern them. This was true in post-Katrina New Orleans as well as in many other cases. There is a profound lack of solidarity here: the suffering of the black population of Detroit is not internalized and identified with enough by whites. What's needed is a Left politics grounded in uncompromising solidarity.

The capitalist dimension is similarly dehumanizing. Capitalist investment is blind to human needs as such. It only aims to maximize profit. So human suffering that cannot be exploited profitably simply doesn't register. The system doesn't take note of it- and capital is not invested to assuage it. As far as the "Free Market" is concerned, Detroit is invisible. It doesn't matter how talented or deserving residents are- capital investment is not an ethically sound process in which the deserving get their just deserts. It is thoroughly impersonal, and has no regard for human development. This is reification at work- the tendency to see ensembles of social relations and even human beings as mere exchangeable objects to be exploited when its profitable or cast aside when its not. This is what Adorno called "bourgeois coldness". Clearly it is to blame if we're to understand why the people of Detroit have been allowed to undergo such steady decline and misery for the past 40 years.

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