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Will Detroit disaster lead to new revolts?

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Issue 2363

Detroit, I Do Mind Dying, by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, paints a marvellous portrait of a great industrial city pulsating with working class revolt. 

It looks at Detroit in the aftermath of the rising of 1967.The book’s title comes from Joe L Carter’s song about deaths on the assembly line—“Please Mr Foreman I Don’t Mind Working But I Do Mind Dying”. 

The struggle against exploitation in the workplace and the movement for black self-determination are portrayed as intimately interwoven at the high point of radicalisation in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The politics of race and class is also at play—in a much more malign way—in last week’s announcement that Detroit is suing for bankruptcy. It is nearly £12 billion in debt. 

This represents an astonishing decline. Detroit’s role at the centre of the US auto industry—the biggest in the world—meant it had the highest income per head in the country in 1960.

Now many of the skyscrapers and mansions that Detroit’s rich built to display their wealth have disintegrated into boarded up ruins.

Whole neighbourhoods have fallen apart. In Michael Moore’s film Farenheit 9/11 Detroit is presented as an economic war zone almost as devastated as Iraqi cities.

Detroit’s transformation is the product of two processes. The first is white flight. The city’s population peaked at two million in the 1950s. Now it has sunk to less than 700,000.

After the 1967 rising—which involved black and white Detroiters battling paratroops—many more affluent white households moved out to the suburbs. They took with them the taxes they paid.

The result was a vicious downward spiral in which declining revenues led to deteriorating public services that provoked yet more emigration.

The second is the restructuring of the US auto industry. It would be foolish to represent Detroit’s bankruptcy as a symbol of the decline of American capitalism. 

The American ruling class is extremely tough and resourceful, and can draw on vast wealth in its battle to preserve its profits and privileges.

In the mid-1970s New York City nearly went bankrupt. This led to a bank-supervised restructuring of the city that many see as a pioneering experiment in the neoliberalism that Margaret Thatcher brought to 1980s Britain.


Detroit’s Big Three—General Motors (GM), Ford, and Chrysler—were driven into crisis by the competition of more efficient Japanese rivals in the 1980s.

This led them to run down production in their Mid-Western heartlands and to build plants especially in the South, where wages were much lower and the unions weaker.

The bankruptcy imposed by Barack Obama’s new administration in 2009 on GM and Chrysler accelerated this.

The United Auto Workers were bullied and bamboozled into making even more concessions, accepting plant closures and inferior wages and conditions for freshly hired workers. 

As a result of this state-supervised reorganisation, GM has made a vigorous return to profitability.

Auto jobs out of Detroit shrank from just under 300,000 to barely 150,000 between 1990 and 2013. This has further accelerated the city’s economic decline. 

Its bankruptcy will be used, on the model set in New York long ago, to slash public services and city jobs.

As I’ve already emphasised, Detroit’s fate shouldn’t be confused with that of American capitalism. Indeed, the bankruptcy underlines the theme of Carter’s song. 

America’s auto giants built Detroit, sucking in the labour of hundreds of thousands of workers and sucking the life out of them one way or another.

But now capital has moved on. It doesn’t need the labour of Detroit’s workers—or not in anything like the numbers of the past. And so they have been abandoned.

The Trayvon Martin case shows that the mechanisms of racism are still very much alive in what is supposed to be a “post-racial” society.

This will ensure that black people suffer worst. But somewhere—maybe in Detroit, certainly elsewhere—class exploitation and racial oppression will fuse again to provoke new revolts.

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