a better world
is probable
  1. Hold your burgers! Hold your fries! We want our wages super-sized!

    May 20, 2013

    My latest for Socialist Worker is now online. It’s a report from the recent fast food workers strikes that took place in Detroit.

    DSC_0123THE STRIKES in Detroit, backed by a coalition that includes the Service Employees International Union and other labor organizations, comes at a moment of existential crisis for organized labor in Michigan….

    The potential, however, for actions by low-wage workers fighting for justice to galvanize the labor movement was well illustrated at the strike’s closing rally at the headquarters of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT). The DFT was hit hard when former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm put the Detroit Public Schools under emergency management in 2009. As a result, the DFT headquarters is largely abandoned and is up for sale.

    But on May 10, the energy of the hundreds of low-wage, unorganized fast-food workers and their supporters, marching and protesting after a long day of historic strike action, provided a hopeful contrast to the large, yellow “For Sale” sign hanging from the façade of the DFT headquarters.

    Read the rest here.

    There were plenty of inspiring stories that I didn’t share in this article for the sake of space. Maybe I’ll write more here soon.

  2. The Last White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy: The Meaning of the Meme

    May 3, 2013

    wedg

    The White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy (WEDG) meme has turned into the quintessential Frankenstein’s Monster.  What began as a cathartic venting mechanism for Detroiter’s anger and frustration has been inverted into a self-congratulatory “dialogue” rehabilitating the image of the city’s entrepreneurial clique.

    The meme mocked Jason Lorimer, the self-described “nonconformist” and co-founder of Dandelion, a consulting firm for social entrepreneurs and investors.  It was sparked by this self-aggrandizing article written by Lorimer for Model D, and gained a significant following and press attention.

    The message from bloggers like Aaron Foley, of the Gawker media affiliated blog Jalopnik, and Jeff Wattrick at Deadline Detroit appears to be “We had some laughs, but it’s all good now.”

    Foley and Wattrick are quick to apologize, in part because they completely misplaced the meaning behind the meme.  Foley, for instance, explained that the real problem lies with the local press who gives undue attention to Detroit’s white entrepreneurs at the expense of Black businesses.  Wattrick similarly blamed the “rhetoric bubble” exposed by Lorimer’s loathsome, jargon-laden writing style that forces one to picture themselves at the end of a Human Centipede made of corporate hacks.

    Two of the most vocal bloggers about this controversy, therefore, dumbfoundly concluded that the White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy meme had nothing in particular to do with white entrepreneurial Detroit guys.

    Of course, nobody can conclude with hard, scientific precision exactly what made the meme so explosive.  Nevertheless, one can make the case–as Wattrick and Foley have–for how one should read the meme and for what it can tell us.

    One thing it tells us is that there is at least a significant–if not large–audience of people in Detroit who have lost patience for complacent social entrepreneurial wonkery and bullshit.

    And why shouldn’t they have?  The vast majority of the city’s residents continue to suffer under deplorable living conditions that should be considered criminal in a country as wealthy and affluent as the United States.  The people who continue to write self-congratulatory pablum about the growing community of young entrepreneurs rebuilding Detroit over-and-over again would be embarrassed for themselves if they had one scrap of shame or humanity in them.

    Such a contradiction, however, is the inevitable result of decades of neoliberal urban policy, which has succeeded in its push to wholly restructure the city in favor of attracting private investment.  “Neoliberal urban policy,” which has become standard in the post-civil rights era, explains the Marxist geography David Harvey in his book Rebel Cities,

    concluded that redistributing wealth to less advantaged neighborhoods, cities, and regions was futile, and that resources should instead be channeled to dynamic “entrepreneurial” growth poles.  A spatial vision of “trickle-down” would then, in the proverbial long run (which never comes), take care of all those pesky regional, spatial, and urban inequalities.  Turning the city over to the developers and speculative financiers redounds the benefit of all!…The idea that a city can do well (in terms of capital accumulation) while its people (apart from a privileged class) and the environment do badly, is never examined.

    One can easily see this reflected in a recent Financial Times article by Richard Florida, where he celebrates Detroit’s “turnaround” led by “a coalition of profit-led entrepreneurs, philanthropic foundations and grassroots groups unhindered by city government.”

    The fact is that, whatever good intentions the newly arrived entrepreneurs might claim they have, the needs of the vast majority of Detroits residents do not square with their business interests.  Firms like Dandelion, for instance (which, as many have noted, is the flowering part of a weed–and a weed of course being an undesirable thing that chokes the life out of those nearby), shamelessly adopt pleasant phrases like “social entrepreneurship” to advance the myth that entrepreneurial interests can be seamlessly aligned with those of the poor.  That this is essentially just a recycled, less fowl smelling form of Reaganomics is never acknowledged.

    The kind of entrepreneurial renaissance being promoted by people like Lorimer and Florida requires the taming, slashing, and burning of the public programs that poor people depend upon, in order to make the city more attractive to wealthy investors–especially the creditors that often provide start-up capital to new businesses and construction.  This is precisely the agenda the city’s recently appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, is charged with administering.  But it goes far beyond our Honorable corporate overlord.  Long before Kevyn Orr’s rise to power, for instance, Detroit’s brand new Whole Foods was handed $4.2 million in incentives.  So while Detroit foodies can celebrate new access to healthy and organic food, $683 million was just cut last month from Michigan’s food assistance program (meanwhile, Whole Foods’ CEO claims he’s”going after racism“).

    Demographic and population shifts are also required in order to meet the needs of new investors.  Programs like public housing, in other words, are not only inconvenient expenditures that could otherwise go toward posh grocers.  The very existence of public housing and the poor acts as a physical barrier to urban renewal.

    While the New York Times can celebrate the renewal of downtown Detroit (again and again), therefore, nearly 200 senior citizens are being evicted from their Section 8 apartment building to clear the path for development.  Not too far away on Henry Street almost another 100 occupants of the Cass Corridor are being evicted.  Additionally, the Free Press recently reported that there have been over 4,100 foreclosures in Wayne County since January 2013 (that’s down 46% from 2012’s first quarter of over 7,700 foreclosures).  And it’s a widely known fact that Detroit lost over 237,00 residents over the past decade.

    Meanwhile, however, “thousands of residents, including designers, techies and music makers,” have moved into the cities central neighborhoods, as Florida put it.  We’re constantly told about the wave of young professionals and neo-urbanites moving into neighborhoods like Downtown, Corktown, Woodbridge, Midtown, Hubbard Farms, Lafayette Park, the Villages, etc.  The readily deployed phrase “urban pioneer” aptly describes the scenario–evoking the history of the pioneers that cleared the old West of its native population in order to make way for new development.  Put in this context, expressions like, “Get your ass to Detroit,” as Lorimer exclaimed, or “Outsource to Detroit” become far more suspicious.

    Writers like Florida that favor the neoliberal policies plaguing Detroit’s poor frankly acknowledge the consequences of their proposals.  “A cynic might say business interests and corporate urban pioneers are merely colonising the one economically viable district,” writes Florida,

    “leaving those in distressed areas to the mercy of its broke, powerless government…Nonetheless, if it can be sustained, the downtown revival will be a first step to creating the jobs, economic activity and tax revenues needed to underwrite broader recovery.”

    Florida not only plainly favors the entrepreneurial and business interests over people, therefore, but seems not the least bit ashamed that his proposal could be so easily compared to colonization–which, one might recall, was once also justified with the claim that it was good for the indigenous population.

    Frustrations shouldn’t be aimed at “outsiders,” however, as the Huffington Post and others would have it.  Such answers completely miss the point. People should move wherever they want to.  The fact is that in a city home to enormous corporations like General Motors–which just posted $1.8 billion in profits for the first quarter of 2013–nobody should have to be evicted from their home to make room for others.  No one should have to be unemployed, or starve, in order to employ or feed others.  People’s anger and frustration should take aim at the familiar claim that there is no way out for Detroit other than by attracting youthful profiteers at the expense of Detroit’s poor.  The lackeys that advance this banal refrain–Florida, Lorimer, The Times, and others–are the real cynics.

    The fact that social entrepreneurs and jargon laden consulting firms cannot address the vast and complex needs of Detroit’s residents does not need to foredoom the city.  But it needs to be acknowledged that there can be no resolving the crisis so long as we’re constrained by the narrow interests of business and profit.  The needs of the city’s poor residents need to be placed first, and not mediated or reduced to some pro-business policy gimmick or sleight of hand.  Such a change will require a political solution outside of city hall, or any legislative or business body–it will have to come from the people in the streets.  Luckily, Detroit has a long and proud history of such struggle from which to take guidance and inspiration.

  3. Detroit: The Athens of the Midwest

    March 2, 2013

    delta1

    Detroit was once called the “Paris of the Midwest,” but following yesterday’s announcement by Republican Governor Rick Snyder that Detroit will run by an emergency manager, Detroit may be more accurately compared to Athens.

    In 2009, the troika–a political body made up of Europe’s most powerful financial institutions–demanded that the Greek government pass a series of harsh austerity measures.  When George Papandreou, acting as Prime Minister at the time, put the measures up for to a popular vote, the troika simply removed him and replaced him with a banking executive.  Following the removal of Papandreou, the BBC commented that, “for whatever reasons, George Papandreou was standing up for democracy.”

    While it’s an admittedly weak analogy–maybe putting style ahead of substance–the imposition of an emergency manager to oversee Detroit is not totally dissimilar from the troika‘s takeover of Greece.  Austerity measures have been imposed on a crisis laden government without the slightest illusion of democracy in the name of averting further crises.  In Greece, as in Detroit, unemployment and poverty levels have skyrocketed to jawdropping levels, and yet further sacrifices are demanded from the poor and working class populations who benefit the most from the programs being cut.

    Michigan’s emergency manager law is likely the most extreme austerity measure in the United States.  The original law was enacted in 1988 during the administration of Democrat James Blanchard to allow for state intervention in local governments facing bankruptcy. The law was expanded in 1990 to encompass school districts.  Emergency managers were rare, however, until the administration of Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm.  Under Granholm, it was used to take over the cities of Highland Park, Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Pontiac, as well as the Detroit Public School system (all majority Black cities or districts).  Granholm’s ready use of emergency managers beat the path for Governor Snyder’s expansion of the law after he was elected in 2010.  Since then Snyder has used emergency manager law to take over the cities of Flint, Allen Park, and the Muskegon Heights and the Highland Park school system (which were both handed over to private charter school operators last year).

    In November 2012, Michigan residents voted in favor of a ballot referendum that would eliminate the emergency manager law altogether.  That December, however, state legislators voted to enact a new emergency manager law, in spite of the electorate’s efforts.

    Under an emergency manager, the power of local elected officials is suspended after the governor declares a city to be in a financial emergency.  The manager than takes control of the municipality’s finances and resources.

    According to the Detroit Free Press when asked if local elections for city council and mayor would continue under an emergency manager the paper responded that “Detroiters will have a primary in August and a general election in November. What powers those elected officials will have — and their salaries — ultimately will be up to the EFM.” [Emphasis mine.]

    In addition to overriding local democratic institutions, the emergency manager will have the power to restructure or eliminate city services and departments, impose new labor terms, sell and privatize public assets, institute layoffs, and declare bankruptcy (thereby taking the city out of its obligation to retirees).

    With Detroit under an emergency manager, over half of the state’s Black population will have no say in local government–objectively rendering their votes meaningless.  The law relies racist dog whistles that appear colorblind, but fall into the tradition of racist stereotypes of Black people, e.g. “financial irresponsibility,” combating “entitlements,” etc.  The emergency manager law, therefore, has specifically targeted majority Black cities in the state.  The only majority white city to be under an emergency manager, Allen Park, asked for an emergency manager.

    Of course, while there can be no doubt that city of Detroit is clearly in a state of crisis, and has been for decades–over half the city is unemployed, and nearly 40% of the city lives below the poverty line–the city’s financial problems have been wildly misrepresented in the mainstream press.  The city’s monumental debt is not the result of overspending or even financial “mismanagement” per se, but the result of tax-free interest bearing debt owed to bond holders–banks like UBS, for instance, which was implicated in last years Libor scandal.  Furthermore, during periods of economic crisis, its expected that municipal governments will run into a deficit.  But both of these things have already been acknowledged in both the mainstream press and even by Governor Snyder’s own appointees–yet both the local press and the administration continue to clamor for emergency management.

    The fact is that this has never had anything to do with fiscal “mismangement.”  Rather, it is part of the general trend of deflecting responsibility for the economic crisis onto the backs of the most vulnerable in our society–something which cannot be left up to democracy, since rarely do people ever vote to slit their own throats.

    Detroit’s Democratic Mayor Dave Bing put it plainly when he insisted that he does, in fact, have a plan for restructuring the city, and that therefore no emergency manager is needed.  The only problem, he said, is that he’s “hindered by several factors, including the City Charter, labor agreements, litigation, [and] governmental structure.”

    Put another way, in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Harvey argues that democracy is a luxury for the few in an age of neoliberalism.  He sums up the ideological foundation for the emergency manager law when he says that democracy is reserved only for,

    conditions of relative affluence coupled with a strong middle-class presence to guarantee political stability. Neoliberals therefore tend to favour governance by experts and elites. A strong preference exists for government by executive order and by judicial decision rather than democratic and parliamentary decision-making.

    While this is a crisis for democracy, the emergency manager law has to be seen in the context of the more general (and global) crisis of austerity.  This is perhaps best illustrated that, only hours after Governor Rick Snyder announced his plan to appoint an emergency manager over Detroit, President Obama signed the order to begin cutting $85 billion dollars from the federal budget–the so-called “sequester.”

    This points us toward the need to not only oppose the emergency manager, but to fight against the austerity agenda in general, no matter who is cramming it down our throats,  whether it be the democratically elected city council cutting their staff’s pay, or an emergency manager privatizing city services.  The 1% can abide democracy as long as it works in their favor–what they cannot accept is a barrier to their profit.  Unwavering opposition to austerity has to be central to our campaign.

    In Greece, austerity has been met with a heroic struggle in the streets: since the crisis hit almost 20 general strikes have been called, the old government of pro-austerity social democrats has been tossed into the dustbin of history, a new coalition of radical Leftists and revolutionaries has surged in the polls, and broad alliances of Greek and immigrant workers have been formed to combat the rising specter of extreme right-wing racism and xenophobia.

    We in Detroit are a far way away from that level of resistance. However, there are lessons we can take.  Voting for Democrats cannot be a solution to this crisis since they set the stage for this crisis.  They are just as willing to use emergency management to dissect public education or privatize public services as the Republicans are.  Neither is the ballot a solution: the government doesn’t even pretend to respect our vote, as we saw in December.

    Our fight back in Detroit has to be rooted in the streets–and cannot be limited to the narrow scope of lawsuits, referenda, or elections.  The only fight that can restore democracy is a broad, mass struggle aimed at smashing austerity using every means at our disposal. In short: Greek-style austerity must be met with a Greek-style fightback.