How Detroit is being stolen

August 20, 2013

I WANT to thank Lance Selfa for his excellent report on the bankruptcy crisis facing Detroit ("The strangling of Detroit"). Needless to say, for those of us on the ground, this has been a heated topic of discussion. Lance's article is a useful aide in moving that discussion forward.

I'm writing to add some brief details to the picture Lance has already painted and raise some of the issues that have so far missed the coverage of the bankruptcy. Of course, this subject is far bigger than can adequately be covered by any one article or letter (which is partly the cause for the lateness of this letter).

For now, the bankruptcy has been stalled in legal battles. This is a good thing, but it's far from being enough. It's clear that Michigan's ruling class wants this bankruptcy to go through and has already made it clear that it has little regard for democratic procedures.

The emergency manager law that gives Kevyn Orr, Detroit's de facto dictator, the power to file for bankruptcy was already overturned by a wide majority of Michigan's voters last November. Rather than respect basic democratic principles, however, Michigan's legislature simply signed it back into law. Even partners of Kevyn Orr's law firm, Jones Day, acknowledged that the appointment of an emergency manager to oversee Detroit "echoes...a fascist takeover of local government."

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Hyperbole aside, I think this reflects the urgent need for this fight to be brought to those arenas where workers really find their power--in the workplaces and in the streets. Unfortunately, however, most of the fight against the emergency manager law has been relegated to elections, court battles and largely symbolic demonstrations--which all have their place, of course, but will not be enough.

Generally, I think that the challenge for the left with regard to the Detroit bankruptcy is to articulate a substantive alternative to either the deep and protracted crises that has plagued Detroit since the post-civil rights era. Simple appeals to stop the next wave of cuts don't appear to convince many Detroiters, no matter how dire the consequences. While it's clear that things cannot go on as they have, I don't think appeals for essentially keeping things as they are are considered terribly inspiring.

Unfortunately, I believe, in the absence of any realistic left alternative, the right (as well as big developers) have been able to present themselves as some kind of alternative through drastic neoliberal restructuring--the emergency manager, the bankruptcy, privatization and a relatively massive investment boom (which has, of course, been heavily publicly subsidized).

This is one reason why the virtually ubiquitous media coverage that has emphasized Detroit's abandonment can obfuscate the broader processes at play in the bankruptcy.

While it's apparent that Detroit has suffered (perhaps historically unprecedented) divestment and depopulation, the "ruin porn" reading of Detroit can tend toward portraying the city as somehow on the "margins" of capitalism (a very common refrain, especially among anarchists of the autonomist persuasion), rather than being actively shaped by it--poverty, unemployment, and segregation, of course are endemic to capitalism, not exceptional to it. The bankruptcy, therefore, appears to be seen mostly as the last act of a dying urban center, rather than the very purposeful restructuring of the city for the benefit of bankers, real estate developers, etc.

Obviously, there is much more to write about. Much more than can be fit into this letter. So I'll leave on this final relatively minor point:

Given the blatant disregard for democracy shown by the Republican-led Michigan state legislature, it may be easy to view Gov. Rick Snyder as a Tea Partier, as Lance does. However, I think that's inaccurate. Snyder was elected in 2010 by branding himself as a "moderate" Republican and continues to try to do so. The fact that he's signed legislation like right to work, (both) emergency manager laws, and other laws discriminating against women, LGBT people, Muslims and so on only proves that there is no such thing in reality as a "moderate" Republican.

However, it remains generally accepted, I believe, that Snyder isn't part of the Tea Party Republican wing, and I think that's important. I think that it says something about the state of the right wing in the United States that a popular politician like Rick Snyder can call themselves a "moderate" while showing such a blatant disregard for democratic rights, and the rights of workers, women, LGBT people, Muslims and African Americans.

I want to thank Lance and again for covering this topic. Hopefully, myself and others will have more to contribute to this discussion and to thinking through this unfolding crisis in the near future.
Aaron Petkov, Detroit

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