Four decades have passed since Howard Zinn published A People’s History of the United States, retelling the history of the most powerful capitalist nation-state through the eyes of the downtrodden and oppressed. In its own peculiar way, Zinn’s text was something of an unintended rejoinder to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign slogan: “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Organized labor and the powerful social movements of the 1960s and early ’70s found themselves on the back foot as factories shuttered across the industrial heartland and a pervasive sense of decline spread throughout much of the U.S. populace. If, on the one hand, Zinn rejected the notion that the United States represents some sort of “shining city on the hill,” on the other hand, he expressed great reverence for its storied tradition of popular resistance to exploitation and domination. This type of “history from below” enjoyed a mini renaissance under the administration of Donald Trump, another right-wing former entertainer who captured the presidency after promising to make America great again—albeit this time amid rumblings of a new round of incipient left-wing social struggle.1
It is a testament to the clarity and scope of Mark Jay and Philip Conklin’s vision that A People’s History of Detroit—which went to press prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the onset of the most severe capitalist crisis since the 1930s, and the eruption of an unprecedented nationwide uprising (with global reverberations) against police brutality—is replete with insights for those trying to make sense of these deeply uncertain and troubling times. Zinn was wary of romanticizing the oppressed and “invent[ing] victories for people’s movements,” taking the view that “the cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.” Jay and Conklin go further, recognizing that “in order to give a true ‘people’s history,’ one must do more than condemn the malevolence of those in power and celebrate the activists who have struggled for justice; one must also come to terms with the social system in which these people lived. In our case, this means confronting the logic of capital.” They ground their narrative in the dialectical interplay between two concepts that are rarely considered together: creative destruction and mythology. In so doing, they “seek to shed light on the ideologies that have masked capitalism’s destructive tendencies and shifted the blame for social dislocations onto discrete, identifiable groups.” Their project, in other words, is “to break the hold that myths have on history.”2
From Rust Belt Capital to Comeback City
Few U.S. cities are steeped in as much mythology as Detroit, the birthplace of Henry Ford’s Five Dollar Day, the moving assembly line, and the Motown sound. Yet the Motor City quickly became the unofficial capital of the Rust Belt; it lost almost two-thirds of its peak population during the second half of the twentieth century, and its municipal workforce was slashed in half between 1990 and 2013. Things bottomed out in 2013, when Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The restructuring of $18 billion of debt was overseen by Kevyn Orr, a Black corporate lawyer appointed “emergency manager” by Michigan governor Rick Snyder. This cleared the way for another round of punishing austerity for poor and working people, with the city selling off public assets, deregulating industry even further, and requiring that current pensioners accept reductions to 74 to 96 percent of their original value. As the flow of capital back into the city began to pick up steam once again, Orr received ERASE Racism’s Abraham Krasnoff Courage and Commitment Award for his services in the bankruptcy proceedings, and Detroit acquired the moniker of the Comeback City.3
Jay and Conklin portray the “post-post-apocalyptic Detroit” of the twenty-first century in gripping prose that reads like a marriage of Mike Davis’s dystopian chronicles of urban life and David Harvey’s analyses of the built environment in capitalist accumulation. On the one hand, outlets such as the New York Times heap lavish praise on billionaire investors like Dan Gilbert and the late Mike Ilitch, calling them the saviors of downtown Detroit. More than $9 billion flowed into downtown real estate developments between 2006 and 2014. Hordes of young professionals have quite literally followed the money and a variety of shops and service providers have in turn followed in the footsteps of these new arrivals, catering to their middle-class consumption habits. On the other hand, out in “the neighborhoods,” one is more likely to confront the daily reality of water shutoffs (40 percent of the city’s residents were affected between 2010 and 2018), school closures (more than two-thirds of Detroit public schools have closed over the past two decades), and home foreclosures (in 2017, Detroit had approximately one-third fewer occupied homes than ten years prior). In some areas, there is fewer than one job for every ten people! The spatial dimension of the ongoing processes of revitalization and abandonment is stark; one only wishes that there was more visual representation of the dizzying array of material cited in the text—such as a map of the numerous neighborhood development projects—to better orient the reader.4
How did we get to this point? Orr’s assessment is quite simple: “For a long time the city was dumb, lazy, happy, and rich.” Other liberals have dusted off parts of the Kerner Commission of 1968, such as its denunciation of “white racism” and its declaration that “our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white—separate but unequal.” At first, this diagnosis may appear to describe contemporary Detroit well; it “is an overwhelmingly black city, but if you walk around Downtown, you see a preponderance of white faces.” Yet the authors refuse to accept such facile and mythological explanations. This is not a tale of two cities or a problem of so-called race relations. Rather, they argue that there is one Detroit and it exists within a broader class society. “Downtown development and dispossession on the periphery are not two separate processes; they are two elements of the same process of uneven development,” a process that depends heavily on the state to legalize theft, subsidize capital with public money, and protect the hording of property through force. Moreover, “the police force tasked with securing the city’s revitalization,” through paramilitary-style SWAT raids and secret facial recognition technology, “is now headed by a black police chief and is composed of mostly black officers.”5
Capitalist Despotism and the Not-So-Golden Years
We are witnessing the city’s transformation from an industrial to a postindustrial economy. “In contrast to the East, where industrial satellites grew up around commercial centers,” Detroit was, alongside other Midwestern cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Buffalo, and Cleveland, one of “the first true industrial cities in America.” Accumulated capital grew 360 percent during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and the Ford Motor Company began to dominate the city during the first two decades of the twentieth. By this point, more than half of Detroit’s workers were employed in the auto industry. It was here that the world’s first moving assembly line was inaugurated in 1913, bringing with it Taylorist forms of “scientific management,” a tyrannical control over the labor process, and dizzying rates of worker turnover, which reached an astonishing 370 percent that year.6
Capitalists like Ford adopted many strategies to clamp down on worker militancy, ranging from the institution of the Five Dollar Day for some workers to the development of an extensive system of spies and close collaboration with the local police. They made a conscious effort to drive a wedge between Black and white workers, deploying the former as strikebreakers and private guards, assigning them “shit work” in the factories, and forcing them to live in segregated housing owned by predatory absentee landlords. In the first eight months of 1925 alone, Detroit police shot fifty-five Black people—more than were lynched in the entire South during this time. A splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan known as the Black Legion murdered nearly as many people during the 1930s. Their terroristic practices included “the bombing of union headquarters and the slaying of prominent communist organizers.”7
Intense labor strife raged throughout Detroit up until the end of the Second World War, with the Industrial Workers of the World, the Auto Workers Union, and then the United Auto Workers (UAW)—which pioneered the great sit-down strikes of 1936 and 1937—leading the charge. After nearly sixteen thousand Black workers refused to act as strikebreakers during a walkout, Ford finally recognized the UAW in 1941. Even though the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 imposed serious restrictions on labor activity, autoworkers continued to mount impressive strikes and walkouts against production speedups until the Big Three (Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors) signed contracts with the UAW in 1950. The so-called Treaty of Detroit granted UAW workers annual cost of living agreements, unemployment benefits, and pensions, inaugurating a new era of organized labor throughout the country. It is this period that Trump hearkens back to when he talks about making America great again. Yet for all the nostalgia associated with the Golden Years, they left much to be desired—even for those lucky enough to be unionized autoworkers in Detroit. To gain these benefits, the UAW signed no-strike pledges and ceded control of the shop floor to management, hastening the bureaucratization of the union’s upper layers, as well as creating the conditions for wildcat strikes against dangerous speedups. Full employment was nowhere on the horizon: 10 percent of all unemployment in the country was located in Metro Detroit in 1952, and the city lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs between 1947 and 1963. Those who held onto their jobs faced compulsory overtime and, as usual, “black workers were generally the last to be hired and the first to be fired and were made to work in the least-skilled, most dangerous positions.”8
Outside of the factories, a policy of “slum clearance” was leading to the displacement of poor Black people and rolling out the carpet for middle- and high-income residents. Fifty tenants’ rights organizations formed in the city during the mid–1960s, launching rent strikes and holding demonstrations. The Detroit Police Department (DPD) responded by massively expanding its Red Squad (which was tasked with monitoring and infiltrating radical groups) and introducing new “tactical mobile units.” It is not difficult to see why Detroit, supposedly the poster child of postwar U.S. prosperity, was also the site of the bloodiest of the “civil disturbances” of the 1960s. Forty-three people lost their lives during five days of unrest known as the Great Rebellion of 1967. More a political uprising than a “race riot,” this epochal event ushered in a short transitional period “characterized by the conflict between revolutionary forces calling for a refashioning of Detroit’s political economy,” such as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the local chapter of the Black Panther Party, “and repressive state forces allied with corporate interests vying for a continuation of capitalist accumulation.” The League was a self-identified Marxist-Leninist organization that saw Black workers, who by 1968 constituted a majority in the production departments of the Big Three, as the vanguard of the revolution. The Panthers, meanwhile, sought to organize dispossessed populations into a revolutionary force.9
Capital Flight and Surplus Populations
The state had decisively defeated these groups by the middle of the 1970s, thanks in no small part to the deadly use of force. It was nonetheless a Pyrrhic victory: industrial capital continued to flee Detroit, the city’s homicide rate tripled as the drug trade expanded during the 1970s, and a string of Democratic mayors struggled to entice other fractions of capital back to the city. Coleman Young used public money in an unsuccessful effort to “turn Downtown Detroit into a vibrant commercial center.” His successor Dennis Archer pushed for the construction of several sports stadiums and casinos. The administration of Kwame Kilpatrick moved to integrate the city more tightly into global financial markets, issuing $1.4 billion dollars in securities to Wall Street banks in 2005 alone. These efforts bore little fruit: Detroit’s population declined by two hundred thousand during the 1980s, the official unemployment rate was 25 percent during the mid–1990s, and by the time the city declared bankruptcy, it stood at an astonishing 45 percent.10
Of course, moments of neglect and despair are necessary in the cycle of capitalist accumulation and destruction. “What is unique about Detroit,” Jay and Conklin posit, “is the amount of time [the transition from an industrial to a postindustrial economy] has taken and the immensity of the disinvestment and poverty it has incurred in the meantime.” One might add that the flip side of this is that the city may actually be ahead of the curve in offering a frightening image of what threatens to emerge from the rubble of the current crisis, during which states across the nation have seen their financial obligations increase and their sources of revenue dry up. The very same people who administered Detroit’s bankruptcy and corporate restructuring have already overseen the more recent debt structuring in Puerto Rico. If the federal government remains steadfast in its refusal to bail out states and municipalities, who cannot print their own money and are often hemmed in by balanced budget requirements, a wave of devastating bankruptcies and more punishing austerity is sure to follow.11
In Detroit and other U.S. cities, mass incarceration and the militarization of police forces during the post-Fordist, neoliberal order are best understood as methods for controlling surplus populations under a particularly revanchist capitalism, as developers and real estate capitalists seek to “take back the city.” Beginning in 2013, the DPD launched a series of seventeen SWAT police raids in the poorest areas of the periphery with the ostensible goal of busting low-level drug dealers—terrorizing inhabitants but often finding nothing. At the same time, the average police response time for the most serious crimes in the periphery, including armed robberies and homicides, was fifty-eight minutes. Indeed, the DPD has not emerged unscathed from the recent round of austerity, shrinking by 25 percent since the financial crisis of 2007–08. The simultaneous existence of under policing and over policing helps explain why some poor Black residents actually support the paramilitary raids and why others—particularly those in the middle class—have even formed “community crime patrols.” Meanwhile, Dan Gilbert’s poorly paid private security guards patrol the downtown area in concert with the DPD.12
This raises questions about whether it is possible to assemble the type of political coalition necessary to win meaningful and necessary reforms around abolishing or defunding the police, or whether, given the looming austerity and balance of forces, political elites may be able to use this slogan as cover to make their police departments even less responsive to any type of democratic accountability through privatization, without any concomitant increase in funds for social services. The speed with which the Democratic establishment, liberal media, and nonprofit industrial complex moved to channel the anger on display during the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder into various iterations of “woke capitalism” was remarkable, if not particularly surprising.13
Myths on the Left
“Myths,” Jay and Conklin write, “tell stories that map on to our desires about how the world ought to be rather than how it actually is.” In this sense, myths can be something of a substitute for political programs with “a positive, emancipatory vision for society.” This explains why “the prevalence of myths…can be understood only alongside the formation and repression of political movements that advocate radical social alternatives.” That is, they tend to shore up bourgeois rule by presenting it as natural and eternal. How do we square this with Jay and Conklin’s insight “that some might view [their own] narrative as yet another myth”? The writers offer a tentative solution, noting that, unlike the myths propagated by apologists of capitalism, theirs is footnoted and thus transparent. But is this the case for all left-wing myths? Roland Barthes pulled no punches in arguing that these result precisely from the failure of the left to fundamentally transform society. In effect, their emergence signals the transformation of the “revolution” into “the left.” The passage of Black Power aesthetics into the realm of mythology is, indeed, largely a consequence of the defeat of the most radical elements within the broader movement.14
One is tempted to return to Karl Marx’s wry observation on the 1848 French Revolution: “Just when individuals appear to be revolutionising themselves and their circumstances, in creating something unprecedented, in just such epochs of revolutionary crisis, that is when they nervously summon up the spirits of the past, borrowing from them their names, marching orders, uniforms, in order to enact new scenes in world history, but in this time-honored guise and with this borrowed language.” But Marx was not passing judgment on the reclamation of historical figures and imagery for revolutionary movements in general—he also noted how “the resurrection of the dead” in the seventeenth-century English Civil War “served to glorify new struggles, not to parody the old; to magnify fantastically the given task, not to evade a real resolution, to recover the spirit of revolution, not to relaunch its spectre.”15
Some have argued that “the oppressed” may make use of mythology to hasten the development of a political consciousness on the path toward revolution, but a full two decades after the formal elaboration of this concept, it still lacks any real proof. It is hard to escape the conclusion that “compulsive magical thinking obscures any honest inventory of resources, strategies, timetables, mistakes, and failures—all the accounting necessary for a serious-minded political strategy.”16 Jay and Conklin are right to be critical of the limitations of recent horizontalist organizing in Detroit, but they frame much of the discussion around the potential for cooptation by capital and political elites, rather than already existing weaknesses. This mythologically inflected strategy may certainly serve as the handmaiden to political cooptation, but it is also—and perhaps more fundamentally—the product of prior political defeats. The first step toward building the mass working-class movement we so desperately need is to recognize that it does not yet exist. It is our task to rebuild it.
- ↩ Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492–Present (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005). See, for example, Beacon Press’s release of titles such as An Indigenous People’s History of the United Statesand An African-American and Latinx History of the United States as part of its ReVisioning History series.
- ↩ Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 10; Jay and Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, 7, 13.
- ↩ Jay and Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, 45, 47.
- ↩ Jay and Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, 17, 29.
- ↩ Jay and Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, 25, 40, 46, 70.
- ↩ Sidney L. Harring, Policing A Class Society (1983; repr. Chicago: Haymarket, 2017); Kim Moody, Tramps and Trade Union Travelers (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019), 83, 38.
- ↩ Jay and Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, 83, 85–86.
- ↩ Jay and Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, 95, 111, 112, 114, 132.
- ↩ Jay and Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, 15–16, 134–35, 141.
- ↩ Jay and Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, 186, 208, 214, 218–19.
- ↩ Jay and Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, 47, 72.
- ↩ Mark Jay interviews Cedric Johnson, “Abolish the Conditions,” The Periphery, July 2020.
- ↩ Adolph Reed Jr., “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence,” Nonsite, September 16, 2016; Jay and Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, 60, 66.
- ↩ Jay and Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, 13; Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1957), 234. Author’s translation.
- ↩ Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Later Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 32–33.
- ↩ Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000); Amber A’Lee Frost, “The Poisoned Chalice of Hashtag Activism,” Catalyst 4, no. 2 (2020): 246.