a better world
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  1. Detroit: The Athens of the Midwest

    March 2, 2013


    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.

  2. Obama and Romney have been fighting over who’s hardest on the poor

    September 18, 2012

    It was recently revealed by Mother Jones magazine that Mitt Romney hates poor people. Surprise!

    At a private fundraiser Romney said that:

    There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.

    There you have it. Mitt Romney believes that 47% of America are entitled, food eating motherfuckers living it large on government cheese.

    Some pundits have said this about seals the deal for Obama to coast back into the White House.  Which would be great for the 47% of people that Romney basically called dependent leeches, right?  A Romney presidency would be disastrous for people on government assistance (which was estimated by one Census study to be almost 20% of the US population in 2009).

    The Obama campaign has been making it a point to attack Romney on welfare. But they’re not arguing that Romney is too hard on welfare recipients.  Instead, Obama’s campaign is arguing that Romney is too pro-welfare.  In an article from Jacobin magazine the author quotes one Obama campaign ad which,

    Charged that Romney “petitioned the federal government for waivers that would have let people stay on welfare for an indefinite period, ending welfare reform as we know it, and even created a program that handed out free cars to welfare recipients.”  Only Obama can protect us from a Republican regime of hand-outs and Oprah-style free cars for the undeserving poor.

    Check out this ad where Obama’s campaign attacks Mitt Romney for being “flexible on welfare,” and proudly defends Obama’s conservative position on welfare “reform.”

    Obama has been attacking welfare recipients as far back as his first election campaign in 2008, when he said that he wants to

    restore some balance to our economy so that middle class families who are working hard – they’re not on welfare, they’re going to their jobs every day, they’re doing the right things by their kids – they should be able to save, buy a home, go on a vacation once in a while.

    Obama echoed these same racist, classist stereotypes of poor people as lazy criminals and unsuitable parents at a fundraiser in August, when his message to donors was that, “We need better role models…we have to provide stronger role models than the gang-banger on the corner.”

    Rather than defend the idea that people should have access to welfare and should be entitled to food, housing and healthcare, the Obama campaign is competing with Romney over which candidate has the most backwards, conservative stance on welfare recipients.  Both can agree, welfare recipients are lazy and don’t want to work.  They’re bad parents and they are a drain on the system.  Romney’s just more of an asshole about it — sort of.

  3. The Democrats and the European Elections

    May 9, 2012

    Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza Party (Coalition of the Radical Left)

    While eating lunch at work I started flipping through today’s Wall Street Journal that was sitting on the desk beside me.  No surprise that the central theme in today’s WSJ is “All Eyes on Europe.”  The Wall Street Journal is filled cover-to-cover with commentary and reportage on the recent French and Greek elections.  Voters in both countries threw out both the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and the centrist PASOK (Socialist) Party in Greece.  In both cases voters turned to more Left alternatives.  In France, Francois Hollande won the Socialist Party’s first presidential election in over 17 years.  In Greece the far-Left Syriza party (or the “Coalition of the Radical Left”) won an unexpected second place position in Greece (denying any major party a clear majority, creating turmoil in forming a stable parliament, which will likely cause another election).

    The European turn to the Left has thrown pundits into a bit of an uproar.  The notable Clinton-establishment liberal Robert Reich for instance, came out to ensure American progressives that socialism isn’t the answer, instead what we need is “capitalism for the vast majority.”  Of course, Reich doesn’t understand that, 1) Hollande likely agrees with most of what Reich is saying, and 2) what he’s asking for is impossible, given the internal nature of how capitalism works.  Nevertheless, for Reich, the answer of course is vote for the right people (Democrats) and hold them accountable for a “fairer” capitalism.

    Meanwhile, the right-wing is horrified at what this bodes for the volatile European economy.  The Economist shrieked that Hollande is a “rather dangerous” man who “genuinely believes in the need to create a fairer society.”  The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion article titled “What the Greek Left Wants” in which the author criticizes Syriza’s stubborn rejection of “teachers’ evaluations  [trans. “standardized testing”]…reducing state bureaucracy [budget cuts and privatizing public services] or reforming the inflexible Greek labor market [busting unions].”  Imagine that!  A party that actually stands up for unions and against budget cuts?  What a nightmare.

    At the same time they’re hopeful that this European incumbent trashing might mean that Obama will suffer the same fate as France’s Sarkozy in the upcoming US elections, and that Mitt Romney will be swept into the White House on a wave of voter frustrations with the economy.  This speculation however, ignores the fact that European voters weren’t just throwing out incumbents.  European voters were decisively rejecting austerity, an electoral option that U.S. voters simply do not have between the two mainstream parties.

    The Democrat’s don’t carry the same charm they might have had in 2008.  Not by any stretch.  This however has nothing to do with any sort widespread embrace by Americans of  “fiscal responsibility” or austerity, quite the opposite in fact.  Obama’s embrace of austerity, his spreading of the wars across the Middle East, and so on, has exposed people to the fact that the Democrats and Republicans share the same basic capitalist agenda.  The only thing Obama has to win support is the fact that he’s not Romney.

    No doubt many people will turn toward “lesser evilism” and hold their noses while they pull the lever for the Democrats, out of rejection of the lunacy of the Republican Party, but many people are starting to take notice that lesser evilism simply doesn’t work to create the change our society needs.

    Unfortunately, so far, in the U.S. there is no electoral alternative for working-class and oppressed people to turn toward and pose a challenge to the two capitalist parties.  Our challenge, therefore, has come from outside the two mainstream parties (and even if there were a Syriza-like party, our challenge to the capitalist must always pivot around mass struggle–we cannot legislate socialism; we must fight for it and build it).  What the two capitalist parties fuck up we must fix in the streets.

    No surprise the Wall Street Journal doesn’t accept this as an option.  In one feature on the European elections the author suggests that the Democrats need not worry too much about the European elections because the U.S. “doesn’t have the same kind of backlash from austerity politics seen in Europe.”  Right.  Nobody in the U.S. is angry about austerity.

    Of course, anyone who hasn’t had their head in the sand will notice the millions of people across the U.S. marching, Occupying, and taking a stand to defend them from widespread foreclosures, layoffs, racist and sexist attacks that the Democrats refuse to challenge.  People are rapidly becoming frustrated with the sham elections in the U.S. in which we’re presented with either the party of war and austerity, or the other party of war and austerity.  Which gives those of us committed to real social change the opportunity to organize and create a real movement independent of the two parties of the 1%.