Detroit's Collapse Reveals Awful U.S. Dystopia
Source Dave Anderson
Date 13/07/21/11:40
Detroit's Collapse Reveals the Awful Dystopia that the United States Is Becoming
The Motor City's problems -- deindustrialization, robotification,
long-term unemployment, racial division -- are America's problems.

By Juan Cole

THE BIG question is whether Detroitís bankruptcy and likely further
decline is a fluke or whether it tells us something about the dystopia
that the United States is becoming. It seems to me that the cityís
problems are the difficulties of the country as a whole, especially
the issues of deindustrialization, robotification, structural
unemployment, the rise of the 1% in gated communities, and the racial
divide. The mayor has called on families living in the largely
depopulated west of the city to come in toward the center, so that
they can be taken care of. It struck me as post-apocalyptic. Sometimes
the abandoned neighborhoods accidentally catch fire, and 30 buildings
will abruptly go up in smoke.

Detroit had nearly 2 million inhabitants in its heyday, in the 1950s.
When I moved to southeast Michigan in 1984, the city still had over a
million. I remember that at the time of the 1990 census, its leaders
were eager to keep the status of a million-person city, since there
were extra Federal monies for an urban area of that size, and they
counted absolutely everyone they could find. They just barely pulled
it off. But in 2000 the city fell below a million. In 2010 it was
714,000 or so. Google thinks it is now 706,000. There is no reason to
believe that it wonít shrink on down to almost nothing.

The foremost historian of modern Detroit, Thomas J. Sugrue, has
explained the cityís decline. First of all, Detroit grew from 400,000
to 1.84 million from 1910-1950 primarily because of the auto industry
and the other industries that fed it (machine tools, spare parts,
services, etc.) From 1950 until now, two big things happened to ruin
the city with regard to industry. The first was robotification. The
automation of many processes in the factories led to fewer workers
being needed, and produced unemployment. (It was a trick industrial
capitalism played on the African-Americans who flocked to Detroit in
the 1940s to escape being sharecroppers in Georgia and elsewhere in
the deep South, that by the time they got settled the jobs were
beginning to disappear). Then, the auto industry began locating
elsewhere, along with its support industries, to save money on labor
or production costs or to escape regulation.

The refusal of the white population to allow African-American
immigrants to integrate produced a strong racial divide and guaranteed
inadequate housing and schools to the latter. Throughout the late
1950s and the 1960s, you had substantial white flight, of which the
emigration from the city after the 1967 riots was a continuation. The
white middle and business classes took their wealth with them to the
suburbs, and so hurt the cityís tax base. That decrease in income came
on top of the migration of factories. The fewer taxes the city brought
in, the worse its services became, and the more people fled. The black
middle class began departing in the 1980s and now is mostly gone.

Other observers have suggested other concomitants of the decline, like
poor city planning or the inability to attract foreign immigrants in
sufficient numbers. I suspect that the decline of Detroit as a port is
important somehow to the story (only one of the four old locks at
Sault St. Marie lets big ships come down to the lower Great Lakes and
therefore to Detroit any more. A new, big [pdf] modern lock is being
built to accommodate larger vessels, but it will be a decade before it
opens. Some observers point out that Detroit would make sense as a
Midwest hub port for international shipping containers if its harbor
was expanded and linked by rail to the cities of the region, but I
suspect the new lock at the Soo is a prerequisite.

After all these decades of dashed hopes, it is hard for me to take too
seriously any assertions that the city is about to turn the corner or
that some renewal project is about to succeed. At this point it seems
to me a question of whether you retain some of the population that
will otherwise leave. I find particularly unlikely the idea that urban
farming is part of the solution. It sounds cute, but farmers donít
make nearly as much money as urban industrial workers, which is why
they mostly went to the cities. You canít put money into a city that

While other cities have avoided Detroitís extreme fate, I think the
nation as a whole faces some of the intractable problems that the city
does, and I donít think we have a solution for them.

Take robots (and I really just mean highly mechanized and computerized
production of commodities). More and more factory work is automated,
and advances in computer technology could well make it possible to
substantially increase productivity. This rise of the robots violates
the deal that the capitalists made with American consumers after the
great Depression, which is that they would provide people with
well-paying jobs and the workers in turn would buy the commodities the
factories produced, in a cycle of consumerism. If the goods can be
produced without many workers, and if the workers then end up
suffering long-term unemployment (as Detroit does), then who will buy
the consumer goods? Capitalism can survive one Detroit, but what if we
are heading toward having quite a few of them?

It seems to me that we need to abandon capitalism as production
becomes detached from human labor. I think all robot labor should be
nationalized and put in the public sector, and all citizens should
receive a basic stipend from it. Then, if robots make an automobile,
the profits will not go solely to a corporation that owns the robots,
but rather to all the citizens. It wouldnít be practical anyway for
the robots to be making things for unemployed, penniless humans.
Perhaps we need a 21st century version of Ďfrom all according to their
abilities, to all according to their needs.í

Communally-owned mechanized/ computerized forms of production would
also help resolve the problem of increasing income inequality in the
United States. The top 1% is now taking home 20% of the national
income each month, up from 10% a few decades ago. The 1% did a special
number on southeast Michigan with its derivatives and unregulated
mortgage markets; the 2008 crash hit the region hard, and it had
already been being hit hard. The Detroit area is a prime example of
the blight that comes from having extreme wealth (Bloomfield Hills,
Grosse Pointe) and extreme poverty (most of Detroit) co-existing in an
urban metropolitan area. It doesnít work. The wealthy have no city to
play in, and the city does not have the ability to tax or benefit from
the local wealthy in the suburbs. These problems are exacerbated by de
facto racial segregation, such that African-Americans are many times
more likely to be unemployed than are whites, and to live in urban
blight rather than in nice suburbs.

The crisis of capitalism is being delayed in part because of the rise
of Asia and the emergence of new consumer markets in places with
rapidly growing populations. American corporations have relocated to
those places with increasing numbers of people and cheap labor,
leaving working communities like Detroiters abandoned and idle. US
companies are making goods in Vietnam to sell to middle class Chinese
and Indians. But the world population will level off in 2050 and
probably will decline thereafter. At that point, consumerism will have
reached its limits, since there will be fewer consumers every year
thereafter. (There is also the problem that classical 1940s and 1950s
consumerism is environmentally unsustainable).

With robot labor, cheap wind and solar power, and a shrinking global
population, post-2050 human beings could have universally high
standards of living. They could put their energies into software
creation, biotech, and artistic creativity, which are all sustainable.
The stipend generated by robot labor would be a basic income for
everyone, but theyíd all be free to see if they could generate further
income from entrepreneurship or creativity. And that everyone had a
basic level of income would ensure that there were buyers for the
extra goods or services. This future will depend on something like
robot communalism, and an abandonment of racism, so that all members
of the commune are equal and integrated into new, sustainable urban

Insisting on a 19th century political economy like barracuda
capitalism in the face of the rise of mechanized smart labor and the
decline of human-based industry produces Detroit. Racial segregation
and prejudice produces Detroit. Shrinking and starving government and
cutting services while forcing workers to work for ever shrinking
wages (or even forcing them out of the labor market altogether)
produces Detroit. In essence, Detroit is the natural outgrowth of the
main principles of todayís Tea Party-dominated Republican Party. It
doesnít work, and isnít the future.

The future is not Detroit or todayís GOP-dominated state legislature
in Lansing. It is Something Else. Michiganís slow, painful decline is
trying to tell us something, that robots, race and unhealthy forms of
globalization are death to cities under robber baron rules. We need
new rules.

Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and
maintains the blog Informed Comment.

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