Wake Up About Detroit

Today, we are hearing about the Republican governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, appointing an Emergency Financial Manager to take over the city of Detroit, one of this country's great cities.  Emergency Financial Managers, under Michigan law, have almost unlimited powers and effectively replace the democratically elected city government.  The city cannot pay back the money that financial institutions have lent it in the past, so it faces "bankruptcy".  The Emergency Financial Manager will, predictably, end the union contracts of city workers and further cut city services, in order to pay back these loans, in full, if possible. The city and its inhabitants will suffer more to minimize the losses borne by the bankers.

Detroit is the shell-shocked survivor of last 40 years of rule by the conservative capitalist worldview, a 'logic' that gained power in the 1970's and has governed this country and culture ever since.  And that worldview was born in the counter-revolution against the last flowering of the liberal spirit, the social progressivism of the 1960's, which had been fueled by the African American movements.

Detroit was the "Promised Land of the Working Man". People from all over the country came to Detroit to build cars.  In the 1960's and early 1970's the explosive power of Black Militancy was stirring up with the United Auto Workers, pushing that union out of its accommodation to the auto companies.

The auto companies decided to disinvest in Detroit and Michigan and move their operations into more white and non-unionized parts of the country.  And after the 1967 uprising, whites stampeded out of Detroit, and African Americans came to dominate city government.  

Detroit did not "decline" or "suffer hard times" or any such euphemism.  Detroit was divested; all forms of capital withdrew from Detroit because there they faced a sophisticated, experienced, industrialized and militant African American population.  Detroit is one of the largest abandoned places of the Empire.

Who pays for this?  Who pays the bills for the city that has been wrecked and abandoned?

Under the logic of the conservative era of the last 40 years, the people who didn't leave Detroit pay for it.  After all, "the poor shall pay their debts to the wealthy" is the first commandment of finance capitalism, and "thou shalt have no other obligations before us" sayeth the 1%.

According the prevailing conservative logic, we are to draw a little mental line and place the people of Detroit on the other side of that line.  They are beyond our care and we must steel ourselves to their suffering.  After all, they deserve it; they asked for good jobs and good wages and good benefits and good health care and a city government which was on their side and police that didn't act like an occupying army.

So now, the people of Detroit stand in the same hard place that the union workers in Wisconsin stood, and all union workers in Michigan stand, and every young adult crushed by student loan debt and every  homeowner facing foreclosure, and every employee in every business who works under the threat of outsourcing and offshoring.  Not only are the wealthy insanely more wealthy than we are, but we still owe them money and they insist on being paid.  (Indeed, all of us are in the same position as the wealthy agitate to reduce our future Social Security benefits to keep their taxes low now.)

And whatever mechanisms we have for fighting back, unions, local government and even our vote, must be limited to keep us from resisting.  Economic exploitation requires political oppression.

That is the logic of the last 40 years.

But a Great Awakening of the Liberal Spirit is underway.  It will come as each of us moves that little mental line separating the people we care about and the people about whom we are indifferent.  William Ellery Channing, that great spiritual teacher of the American liberal tradition, reminds us that the free mind "sets no bounds to its love."  We will wake up to the situation of the people in Detroit, and imagine how it must feel to them to be told that they must suffer more to pay debts to the wealthiest among us.  Imagine how it must feel to hear the grotesque shadefreuden, the patronizing sympathy of those who see the plight of  Detroit as confirmation of their own racial and class bigotries.

Move the boundary of your love to include the people of Detroit in your circle of care, for today, it is not an overstatement to say that we are all Detroit.


  1. This is a fine "rant" about Detroit, its past, and its present. Its dissolution was brought on by greed in every quarter: industry, the unions (especially teamsters) with their mob connections, the people who bought cars and wanted something newer and glitzier each year. My father grew up in Detroit and worked in the auto industry (Pontiac Motors, now defunct). Most of my cousins lived there until we all dispersed across the country in the '60s and '70s, following education and jobs and lives. Each time I return to that area I experience a new wave of sadness at the current condition of the city and its environs.


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