The decline of Detroit – an emblem of the failure of American capitalism

There is an old saying of ‘a picture tells a thousand words’.

The veracity of this proverb is underlined by the following series of photographs, taken by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, and published in the Guardian newspaper regarding the catastrophic economic and demographic decline of the city of Detroit, Michigan. Once a major urban industrial centre and home of large auto-manufacturers, Detroit is now littered with abandoned hotels, ruined schools and hospitals, vacant lots and decrepit buildings.

The photographic collection is stark testimony to the destructive consequences of the demise of American capitalism. A once-teeming metropolis, with many suburbs and co-mingling communities, has now become a virtual ghost town, with decaying infrastructure and abandoned housing. Detroit was home to 2 million people in the 1950s; currently it is an emblem of the decline of American empire. The town now has a crumbling transport infrastructure, a shortage of law enforcement personnel, a rising crime rate and an unemployment rate that is twice the national average.

Towards the end of last year (2012), policy planners and Michigan officials were considering declaring the entire city of Detroit bankrupt. On March 1 2013, the city of Detroit was taken over by the state of Michigan authorities, and an emergency manager was appointed to head the city. There was no consultation with ordinary Detroiters, and the people of Detroit have no say in the decisions that the emergency manager makes.

Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, to oversee the implementation of a financial plan that will assault the basic working conditions, wages, and pensions to pay for an economic recovery where the already-wealthy will see their wealth protected. The cost of restoring social services will be shifted onto the shoulders of the working class and poorest people in the city. The economic restructuring undertaken by Orr will preserve the wealth of the financial elite, and facilitate greater hardships for the working people. For instance, Orr has indicated that the wages of the Detroit fire-fighters would be cut, as part of the overall cost-cutting program that will witness further privatisation of social services. Orr’s program will only exacerbate the worsening economic and social situation.

Detroit has undergone a process of deindustrialisation, and has lost 25 percent of its population over the last decade. As Aric Miller wrote in the Socialist Worker article covering the Detroit crisis;

Fundamentally, the job of emergency manager is to shift responsibility for capitalism’s crisis away from bankers, CEOs and hedge-fund managers and onto the backs of the most vulnerable. In the case of Detroit, that means poor and working-class African Americans who make up the vast majority of the city’s population.

One report has stated that nearly half of adult Detroiters are ‘functionally illiterate’. A population that is functionally illiterate provides prime cannon-fodder for the military and police services, occupations that have boomed over the past decade with the ongoing ‘war on terror’ and the accompanying militarisation of American society.

The crisis and collapse of Detroit is emblematic of the ongoing decay of American capitalism. The descent into ruinous degradation is the result not just of a demographic exodus from the city, but the conscious political and economic decisions to preserve the wealth of the financial oligarchy while transferring the social costs onto the majority of the population. These decisions are made by the industrial and financial elite, the 1 percent that is keen on maintaining a system of economic and social inequality.

The news is not all bad; workers at fast-food outlets in Detroit and other American cities are organising on a collective basis for better wages and conditions, and understand that the program of institutionalising social inequality has to be reversed. Jobs in the fast-food sector are among the most common in the United States, and among the lowest paid jobs. Detroit’s austerity and emergency management has to be seen in the wider context of the ongoing implementation of neoliberal austerity in many parts of the world, including Europe. What is taking place in Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, Spain and other crisis-wracked European countries is nothing short of a social counter-revolution, rolling back the social gains made by workers over the last fifty or sixty years since the end of World War Two. However, there is one village in Spain that is defying the trend, and demonstrating that there is an alternative to neoliberal capitalism.

Marinaleda, like the rest of Spain, has been hit hard by the capitalist economic crisis. Unemployment and the associated social ills of poverty, household debt and family breakdowns have hit the Spanish working class, just like in the rest of economically devastated Europe. But in Marinaleda, the political leadership has taken a different direction:

Marinaleda is run along the lines of a communist Utopia and boasts collectivised lands (1,200 previously unused hectares, seized by a mass land-grab in 1990 from an aristocrat’s estate) which offer every villager the opportunity to work the fields, tending to root crops and olive groves. In Andalusia, where jobs are currently being lost at the rate of about 500 a day, any work is good work.

Marinaleda’s mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, has gained national notoriety and has even been dubbed the “Robin Hood of Spain” after he and a group of labourers refused to pay a supermarket for 10 shopping trolleys filled with food, which they distributed to the area’s food banks, sparking headlines in countries as far away as Iran.

The mayor of Marinaleda, Sanchez Gordillo explained that:

Mr Sánchez  Gordillo believes Spain’s deep recession is the fault of its government. “Unfortunately, this [national] government’s policies have not been directed towards the people’s problems; they were directed towards the banks’ problems,” he says. “People are more important than banks, particularly when the profits are received by a handful of bankers who have speculated with basic human rights. The money they’ve provided doesn’t reach the base of the social pyramid, which is why the economy is paralysed. It’s the small property holders and businesses who have been hurt the most. [We have] six million unemployed and twice that number living in poverty.”

Marinaleda is being rebuilt for the benefit of its people; meanwhile Detroit is being restructured to benefit the wealthy while its infrastructure falls to pieces.

Go read the story of Marinaleda here in The Independent newspaper.

2 thoughts on “The decline of Detroit – an emblem of the failure of American capitalism

  1. It is interesting to see that the state officials/governors do not take measures to prevent decline in the first place. And then they resort to attack the people’s wages etc. I would also like to know how many more cities/states are on their way to decline.

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