Detroit: The Athens of the Midwest

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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.

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8 Responses to Detroit: The Athens of the Midwest

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    As they say in America…s–t just got real. Detroit is what Chris Hedges would call a “sacrifice zone”.

  2. cookatude says:

    I would not wish Detroit “a Greek-style fightback” because there is no such thing. Unfortunately people in Greece have passively accepted their fate. I hope Detroit people actively create their own future.

    • carjacker says:

      20 general strikes and polls suggest differently.

      • cookatude says:

        Only a minority participates in those strikes because people do not trust the unions anymore. One would have thought that at least the unemployed would protest but for a reason they don’t either. One clear example of the apathy is this: seamen and ferry workers went on strike for being unpaid for months, they were mobilised by the government (!!) and nobody reacted. I don’t know which polls you’re referring to, most polls still show confidence in the government despite the widespread discontent. Crazy, I know. However, a spark is bound to appear and when is does it won’t be pretty.

        • carjacker says:

          Of course I don’t know the reality on the ground in Greece as well as somebody who’s from there. I’m trust you when you say that it’s only a minority participating in the strikes.

          Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that with the rise of new party formations like SYRIZA (favored to overtake New Democracy if there were a new round of parliamentary elections), and a wave of general strikes (even if they are only the act of a “minority”), the stakes for the pro-austerity forces have been raised. Sure, the struggle that has been mounted hasn’t been powerful enough to stop austerity. Yet. But that’s the nature of movements in their embryonic stage. The movements aren’t powerful enough to win–all sorts of factors act against it: it’s too small, too disorganized, not confident enough, etc.–but the movement can grow yet, and mount a successful struggle if sufficiently strengthened, fortified, etc. The point should be for people to join in and support the strikes, etc., and work to strengthen them. Not dismiss it for its immaturity. I hope that all makes sense.

        • carjacker says:

          Furthermore, the point here is that whatever embryonic movement has emerged in Greece to combat austerity, relative to the level of movement in America (perhaps especially Detroit) what is happening in Greece is downright revolutionary. Detroit has never seen one general strike, let alone 20 in a period of two-to-three years.

        • cookatude says:

          SYRIZA make one mistake after another unfortunately, last one being their support for the Eurozone which is, in my personal opinion, catastrophic. They also have difficulty in dealing with the fact that they could be government. The way things stand, if there were elections tomorrow, SYRIZA would win by a very narrow margin without being able to form a coalition.

  3. cookatude says:

    It’s impossible for me to draw a parallel since I’ve never even been to Detroit. But I feel that the American people can surprise us all.

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