By Scott Kurashige, author of The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit
Engulfing cities in both literal and metaphorical flames, a wave of rebellions erupts across the nation amid a pandemic killing tens of thousands of people while unemployment surges to levels unseen since the Great Depression. The response of the recently impeached president demonstrates no regard for the Constitution, the basic tenets of democracy, or the sanctity of human life. Taylor Swift is moved to condemn Trump for “stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism your entire presidency,” garnering over 2 million likes and the most for any tweet she has ever posted.
This year has already produced one stunning development after another. No one can claim to have predicted this exact series of events, yet the signs of instability and volatility were visible to anyone paying attention.
They were particularly visible to me as I lived and worked in Detroit in partnership with the revolutionary philosopher-activist, Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015). One decade ago, our book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (2010), opened with scenes of a dying empire and a system in the midst of collapse. With more than a small nod to Marx’s and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, we highlighted the ongoing economic meltdown and environmental calamities; the resurgence of racism, patriarchy, jingoism, and authoritarianism; and the specter of looming pandemics—all on page 1 of the book’s introduction.
Grace and I, however, were never in the business of prognostication. Our view of what was coming in the United States was based on seeing Detroit as the proverbial miner’s canary. Detroit stood at the forefront of the social and economic advances made possible by rapid industrial development, labor organizing, and civil rights. In dialectical fashion, Detroit became a place of abandonment where those who remained were forced to imagine news forms of survival and resistance that were necessary and possible in the wake of white flight, capital flight, and the neoliberal assault.
As such, Detroit’s most visionary movements sought neither to restore a past period of ostensible glory nor achieve equality with the predominantly white suburbs that were born of sprawl, reaction, and resource hoarding. They have fostered models of survival, resilience, and self-determination that project a world beyond not simply the inequity of the present but the defiling of all human relations by the commodification of everything and reduction of all human worth to a capitalist price tag. These still growing and evolving movements project a different model of living, loving, and thriving through the formation of freedom schools, urban farms, cooperative economics, mutual associations, and peace zones for life.
Drawn from the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, the concept of peace zones is especially crucial in this moment, where a transformative justice response to rampant police killings must transcend empowering the state to judge and prosecute offenders. Instead, as the Detroit Justice Center advocates, we must dream of a future where reliance on police, prosecutors, and prisons is not needed because ongoing practices to nurture community health and wellbeing through solidarity make de-escalation, nonviolent conflict resolution, and restoring offenders to their communities part of a routine and daily practice to stretch humanity and transform oppressive structures.
I sought to expand on these concepts and trace the historical context for their development in The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit (2017). The book begins with the truism that the urban uprisings in Detroit and around the world in the late 1960s were not riots of a general disorder but rebellions of the oppressed fed up with both intolerable levels of abuse and false promises of reform. However, the writings of the late Immanuel Wallerstein pushed Grace and I to see the late 1960s and early 1970s not only as the turning point from liberalism to neoliberalism but a point of no return marking a terminal crisis of a system which cannot resolve its underlying contradictions. Since then, the legitimacy of the political center has increasingly waned as the dialectic of rebellion versus counter-revolution takes prominence.
The crisis in Detroit has epitomized the end of the liberal, reformist, and relatively stable era of global capitalism, culminating in Michigan’s state government orchestrating a hostile takeover of Detroit that gave an unelected “emergency manager” autocratic powers to “cram down” neoliberal austerity measures based on a corporate model of bankruptcy drawn up by Wall Street financiers to serve billionaire developers and investors. As Grace commented in 2013, this was the upshot of the right-wing counter-revolution against the modest steps toward racial integration and economic levelling that liberalism offered. Advanced by Nixon, Reagan, and Bush—at times with bipartisan support from Clinton and other Democrats—the counter-revolution has pushed openly towards fascism and white supremacy with the ascendancy of Trump. It is no surprise then that the corporate “looters” of Detroit—including the leader of the campaign to privatize education, Betsy DeVos—would now find a home in the White House.
First drafted in 2016, I believe this closing excerpt from The Fifty-Year Rebellion still stands as a statement of the crisis confronting humanity at this time on the clock of the world:
Popularized by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the mantra of neoliberalism has been “there is no alternative.” The collapse of Detroit, a one-time stronghold of labor and civil rights, should awaken us to see how much the promise of freedom under neoliberalism not only carries hidden costs for ourselves but also comes at the cost of coercive behavior toward others. The drive to put a price tag on every aspect of life and subject it all to the winning and losing outcomes of the commercial market has intensified the suffering of those who are poor, elderly, disabled, and most vulnerable in society. It has breathed new life into the “survival of the fittest” discourse that gave rise to Social Darwinism and scientific racism.
The showdown in Detroit, seeking to bring what I have called a 50-year rebellion to a decisive end, is thus a prologue of the showdown for the United States and the world. Schools, communities, cities, states, and nations spanning the globe are confronting the crises wrought by privatization, financialization, and dispossession. While Detroiters are dealing with the aftermath of deindustrialization, the people in Standing Rock, Chiapas, Palestine, and many other sites are struggling against neoliberal dispossession to preserve indigenous lands and cultures. Unfettered trade and commercialization have created an ecological crisis and spurred toxic forms of nationalism in reaction.
From a global perspective, we can see the economic dislocation and chaos that neoliberalism has sown in Detroit building steam as it rolls on. The loss of work in the Rust Belt to outsourcing has resulted in rapid and chaotic industrialization in China, where labor, feminist, human rights, and environmental activists are grappling with a qualitatively new set of problems and consequences. In 2010, the massive Shenzhen complex where iPhones are made was home to 420,000 of Foxconn Technology’s 800,000 employees in China—dwarfing the peak industrial-era employment figures of Ford and its River Rouge plant. Symbolizing the traumatic rupture of life in China, Foxconn was moved to install safety nets surrounding its buildings to stop dejected workers from leaping to their deaths. Industrialization has proceeded on such an accelerated timetable in China that workers are already facing the calamitous effects of automation and outsourcing. One factory making cell phone parts in Dongguan downsized its workforce from 650 employees to 60 by using robots to boost productivity by 162 percent. Transnational firms are also shifting labor-intensive work to Vietnam and Bangladesh, where the wage rates are more than 50 and 75 percent cheaper, respectively, than those in China.
The globalization of production and capital flight have challenged Detroit activists to respond to this increasingly transnational character of capitalism. They bring to their work an immense amount of pride in the city and their local communities. Nevertheless, their localism rejects the parochialism of NIMBY (“not-in-my-backyard”) activism, which works not to remedy social problems but merely push them onto less privileged communities. It is also not interested in becoming “equal” to suburbs produced by racial segregation and sprawl. Instead, it is an intercommunal form of localism that seeks to connect with place-based struggles around the globe that refuse to be absorbed into a dehumanizing and unsustainable system.
Having traced the ways in which our current crisis began in Detroit, I conclude with clarity rather than certainty. The end of reform is heightening contradictions, removing the reformist middle path, and pushing us back toward 19th-century conditions of freedom for the haves and disenfranchisement of the have-nots. At the same time, amid the resurgence of open bigotry, the end of reform is stripping away illusions. It is reminding the people of Detroit and all of us, as Karl Polanyi identified in his classic text The Great Transformation, how the earth became commodified as land, how work became commodified as labor, how local economies were eclipsed by the power of global commerce and finance, and how democracy has always been a radical and dangerous concept.
These are the profound terms of struggle that make our times rife with immense danger and boundless possibility. Historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein argues that the global capitalist system will not survive past 2050. Like the fluttering of butterfly wings that shape a hurricane thousands of miles away, small acts and breakthrough ideas will tilt our society toward a whole new social order that could be more democratic or authoritarian, participatory or exclusionary, egalitarian or plutocratic, sustainable or suicidal. The fate of humanity rests on our capacity to think and act conscientiously.