The Rebirth of Detroit
by Tom Stephens
There are three Detroits: a gentrifying central business district; a larger Black and Latino city of poverty and oppression; and the rich surrounding suburbs. “The first two ‘Detroits’ within the city are to be conformed to better serve the wealthy, white suburban periphery of the third ‘Detroit.’”
The Rebirth of Detroit
by Tom Stephens
“From here, there is no roadmap for Detroit’s Recovery…” – New York Times, July 19, 2013
“Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved
Pain. Bankruptcy. Disinvestment. Regional racism. Deindustrialization. The lack of any national urban policy. Betrayed pensioners and workers. Austerity. Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr of the Jones Day law firm, corporate “restructuring counsel” for Detroit, ignited a verbal firestorm among corporate media talking heads on July 18, 2013, merely by doing what many (including me) had long predicted they would do: filing a Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy action in federal court.
“If you took any large country and took the poorest part and said, ‘You’re on your own,’ there would be problems, and that’s precisely what we’ve done in our metropolitan areas,” said Nobel-Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz. “Detroit is the best example of that, but it is something going on in many communities around the United States,” he added.
This means simply that there is a vast difference between the insistent cries about greedy unions, stupid liberals, lazy “minorities,” unsustainable debt and the whole corporate media side show, on the one hand, and the reality of Detroit’s life and death as a community, on the other. It’s the system, stupid. Struggling back from the depths of this clusterfuck will require solidarity, rebellion, counterculture, alternative, community-based economic development, vision, guts, strategy and love. Fortunately, Detroit has much more of these renewable and vital resources than is generally acknowledged.
“The transformation will be deemed ‘successful’ insofar as it denies any equity to working class Detroiters, predominantly African-American and Latino.”
How many more corporate killings will Jones Day and their allies make in the process of People waking up to the abusive and self-serving reality behind corporate “restructuring?” How many ordinary working People will be hurt in the process? This class conflict frame will reveal the answers to such questions in due time, although they may be hard to see in the throes of the bankruptcy agony and the crushing austerity imposed on Detroiters.
Having discussed this slow-moving train wreck in exhaustive detail for well over a year now, at this critical stage I want to sketch out the prospects and possibilities for recovery, rebirth, renaissance, reboot and the like in Detroit’s current situation. Because before you decide what to do, you have to know what you want to do. Let’s talk it over,
The Dominant Paradigm
In white supremacist, imperial Jones Day World, the City of Detroit is a debtor who needs to get its balance sheet cleared up. “Restructuring” is merely a nicer-sounding word for bankruptcy. It aims essentially to qualify Detroit, via improved management and debt-to-assets ratio, to access capital markets for credit (i.e., more debt) on reasonable terms. Within the political economic frame of the dominant capitalist paradigm, this makes sense, and “There Is No Alternative.” How well does this frame fit the real-world conditions of life in the streets and neighborhoods of Detroit?
Not very well at all. No better than it fits the global energy crisis. Or the planet’s climate crisis. Or the other multifaceted ecological crises like extinction, water depletion, loss of arable soils, access to food and the like. Nor any better than it fits even on its own terms the global, national and local economies of our era. This misprision of policy and lived reality has given us new terms of cognitive dissonance like “jobless recovery,” “too big to fail,” and the “shock doctrine” that characterize our times.
Trying to fit this ill-suited neoliberal bill of goods to Detroit’s prominence as an object lesson in failure leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Thus the recent corporate media liberal/conservative pissing matches, over the blame to be assigned to unions vs. corporations, racism vs. corrupt leadership, etc. But which ‘Detroit’ are we talking about, really?
“Detroit today is actually three different defined communities.”
Aside from ‘Detroit,’ the domestic US auto industry, there’s the ‘Detroit’ cultural, spiritual and political fire of Motown, the CIO and ultra-deep Black Power roots like Coleman Young’s instructions on the finer points of English pronunciation to the House Un-American Activities Committee (“The word is ‘Negro,’ Senator…”). But of course in the bankruptcy discussion those aren’t consciously the ‘Detroit’ at issue. Just repressed avatars of the fires of 1967 and the transformations to come. (discussed further below)
The really existing community of ‘Detroit’ today is actually three different defined communities, in geographical and social terms. Which one you’re talking about is the most decisive factor in terms of the dominant ideology’s ongoing debate over emergency management, bankruptcy and Detroit’s uncertain future.
Two of today’s ‘Detroit’s’ are within the urban limits of the City of Detroit proper; what leading national urban policy guru Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution calls “the tale of two cities.” First, the 7.2 square miles in the heart of downtown that is the target of major new (white) corporate and philanthropic investment. Second, the other ‘Detroit’s’ 131.8 square miles of urban wasteland, “ruin porn” and a periphery of viable neighborhoods, which is the site of ‘Detroit’s’ pain, poverty, and urban drama. This is the geographic area defined as problematic by the dominant paradigm (although the real problems are with the policies implemented in the other two ‘Detroits’ that cause so much pain in the predominantly People of Color, working class neighborhoods).
The third ‘Detroit’ is the whole region encompassing the city and its suburbs, including very wealthy white communities (Grosse Pointes, Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham, etc.), comprising the dysfunctional and racially polarized socio-economic region of southeast Michigan. The hostile relationships and history of discrimination in favor of the white suburbs are essential elements of the EMF’s corporate ‘restructuring’ of city government. Briefly, the first two ‘Detroits’ within the city are to be conformed to better serve the wealthy, white suburban periphery of the third ‘Detroit.’ Seeing these 3 ‘Detroits’ as they really are, both individually and collectively, puts the crisis in a whole new light of systems failure and class struggle, and also suggests a completely different paradigm for revitalization of “Detroit.” (discussed further below)
“The hostile relationships and history of discrimination in favor of the white suburbs are essential elements of the EMF’s corporate ‘restructuring’ of city government.”
But the city’s emergency management restructuring counsel Jones Day and its minions, clients and cronies, from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to the Mackinac Center for Public [sic] Policy, are having none of that. Their ‘restructuring’ focuses on a “complex analytical process” whereby the “highly complex” budgetary ‘balance sheet’ the city’s government has today will be subjected to management interventions and bankruptcy law proceedings, intended to create the new balance sheet needed to make the city what they want it to be. Hallelujah and pass the government privatization contracts! Even more crushing austerity approaches. The transformation will be deemed ‘successful’ insofar as it denies any equity to working class Detroiters, predominantly African-American and Latino.
The “restructuring” process intended to achieve this profoundly sick vision will supposedly work in the following sequence: 1) Figure sustainable revenues out; 2) What is the cost of adequate services? 3) What is the capital expenditure needed for state of the art infrastructure? 4) Settle up with the bondholders; Jones Day and their “symbiotic” investment bank partners Miller Buckfire negotiate with Detroit’s creditors; and 5) File a Chapter 9 bankruptcy action, which they did on July 18, 2013, leading the New York Times, among others, to acknowledge, in the quotation at the beginning of this piece, that nobody has the faintest idea where we will ultimately end up from here.
“There are so many other cities in Detroit's position.”
The ultimate problem with all this – still sticking for now to the terms of the dominant discourse – was highlighted by Troy, Michigan bankruptcy lawyer Scott Wolfson of Wolfson Bolton: the best-case scenario, according to Wolfson, is for the city to exit “with a new, court-approved contract with its creditors, known as a plan of adjustment that will permit the city to live within its means.” On the terms of the current, failed US economic system, that’s the best case scenario; and if the city’s “means” continue to reflect concentrated and racialized poverty, obscene economic inequality, high unemployment and low wages with few benefits for those who have jobs, as well as the rest of the litany of 21st century “spatial racism” and “jobless recovery,” that means the vast majority of ordinary Detroiters will gain nothing from its new, ‘cleaned-up’ balance sheet. “Best” case scenario.
Former Michigan state treasurer Robert Kleine made this point well in a recent Detroit Free Press op-ed: “I do not believe bankruptcy will solve the problem given Detroit’s inadequate tax base. Detroit cannot be a viable city without outside help, which no one is prepared to offer. Detroit’s underlying problems are the result of the downsizing of the auto industry, racial tensions, meaningless jurisdictional boundaries, state neglect and inattention, and the Great Recession. Balancing the books in a technical sense will not address any of these fundamental issues.”
In other words, Detroit is not simply a bankrupt city. It’s what left economist Richard Wolff aptly described as “an example of a failed economic system… The rest of the country is looking at this because there are so many other cities in Detroit's position... It is class war... It is taking the United States to another level of economic inequality..." There will be no rebirth of Detroit on these terms. Like it or not, if we want all this pain to actually mean something for ordinary People, we absolutely must look beyond the current system of militant neoliberal corporate state capitalism.
The Emerging Alternative World
Fortunately, and although corporate media ignores them, there are creative, courageous and morally and intellectually robust alternative grassroots political and social currents moving Detroit toward an authentic rebirth. One of them is the “Peoples Platform,” addressing Detroit’s needs primarily in terms of land justice, food justice, transit justice, good jobs and governance.
The Peoples Platform (only one of many worthwhile and practical Detroit grassroots efforts) describes itself as “a broad network of Detroit-based social justice organizations, activists, and residents committed to bringing about just transformation in politics, economics and social dynamics through popular education, celebration, and political activism.”
Regarding the “restructuring” of Detroit (and in language contributed by me), the Peoples Platform notes: “Restructuring the political, economic, and social life of Detroit, a city which in spite of its vibrant culture and political life, has long been plagued by ills associated with mass poverty, official corruption, physical blight, and bitter racial conflict, would arguably be a good thing.” It also asks: “But by whom and in whose interests? How? With what consequences for Detroit’s People, especially the most vulnerable victims of poverty and racism?” These are the essential, universal justice questions of ‘Who decides, who benefits, and who pays” that Governor Snyder’s Jones Day EMFs simply refuse to address, in favor of vapid calls for “relentless positive action.” No rebirth for Detroit, in any sense worthy of praise or imitation elsewhere, can occur without satisfactorily addressing and resolving such elemental, just questions.
“The simple truth about Detroit today is that it will be necessary for us to deal with poverty.”
A prominent theoretical basis for the alternative paradigm on Detroit comes from our legendary philosopher activist Grace Lee Boggs, the 98-year old public treasure who is fond of asking “What time is it on the clock of the world?” Grace’s answer moves us well outside and beyond the dominant neoliberal worldview. She patiently describes how contemporary realities of the environment, energy, political economy, technology, education, and other broad factors of production and social reproduction have shaped our era in ways that are comparable to the transition a couple eons ago – from hunter-gatherer existence to the origins of agriculture and human settlements. Somewhat less remotely, we are living thru transitions somewhat like those from the ensuing feudal era to the origins of the industrial revolution.
At such a time of broad, long-term transition and real, deep “restructuring” of the very terms of our lives on the planet and in our communities, we face wrenching changes in how we provide for ourselves, our families and our economies. In the very definition of “work,” the essential values, and the material and intellectual basis, of society. These issues can’t be articulated in a motion in bankruptcy court, of course. But they are very real, and very essential and present in Detroit. Ignoring them delays Detroit’s rebirth, and harms our current residents who need real answers to our real problems, not the ideologically-driven corporate jargon spewed by Jones Day.
On a less lofty intellectual level, the simple truth about Detroit today is that it will be necessary for us to deal with poverty. (This includes racism, in the context of Detroit.) Dealing effectively with, much less ‘solving,’ poverty will take decades if we ever collectively decide to do it. This absolutely essential central reality of 21st century Detroit will not be governed by the bankruptcy court’s scheduling order. When and if regional and political leadership, in collaboration with the proliferating grassroots scene, ever gets around to dealing in any realistic way with poverty, Detroit will start its painful process of rebirth. Until then, no real rebirth will be possible, only continuing processes of exploitation and corporate opportunism for Jones Day and their clients and cronies.
“Restructuring” is a necessary process. More than a feel-good alternative corporate word for bankruptcy, it should include regional social justice, racial reconciliation, reality-based economic theories and development strategies, and universal accountability to the “triple bottom line” of equity, ecology and economic benefit. It will only happen in the context of what the Civil Rights Movement came to call The Beloved Community. And that lies beyond the dominant paradigm and beyond capitalism.
Until now, based on the flood of lies coming from Jones Day and the corporate media, “restructuring” has been about blaming victims, empowering corporations and screwing working People. Let’s take it over.
Tom Stephens is a people’s lawyer in Detroit. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.