Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Homage To Detroit

One of the books I've been meaning to read for awhile is George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. I'm fascinated about this period when anarchy was not just a theory, but a real force on the ground. As I always emphasize, I think it's important to study history to inform ourselves about what's possible. I would say that studying the history of this period in Spain is essential for those who are interested in ideas of anarchism, collaborative decision-making and self-government, worker self-direction, collective ownership, and similar ideas, and there's much to learn from it. Experience trumps theory ten times out of ten.

Now, unfortunately, my knowledge of this historical period is quite limited. However, it drifted through my head when I read the following article in The New York Times just a few days before Detroit's recent municipal bankruptcy hit the headlines:
 But as with many here who have wrestled with the practical realities of living in this city, Ms. Boyce said she would not mind if some entity other than the city took over the management of Belle Isle, a park whose plan was conceived in the early 1880s by Frederick Law Olmsted. Ms. Boyce goes to the park for exercise, wearing a fanny pack that at times contains a gun — “Do you see any city police here?” — and bemoaning several locked restrooms that have portable toilets planted in front of them.
“I would love to see it leased to the state,” she said of the park. “They’d take better care.”

Recent developments among Detroit’s elected leaders have only added to the sense that significant changes in the city are perhaps even preferable. Two of the nine City Council members have resigned. (One said he was leaving to work for the emergency manager’s office.) Then, Charles Pugh, the Council president, had his salary stopped and power stripped by Mr. Orr after the councilman abruptly stopped showing up for meetings and disappeared from public view.

“Where Is Charles Pugh?” a headline at the top of the front page of The Detroit Free Press asked.

“For a lot of people, I think city government has become a nonentity here,” said Kurt Metzger, the director of Data Driven Detroit, which tracks demographic, economic and housing trends in the region. “People almost feel like the city goes on in spite of city government — that city government in this case certainly doesn’t define the city — and that affects how they’re feeling about what comes next.”

Recently, Mr. Orr indicated that Detroit was getting out of the business of electricity distribution. An independent authority is already planning to take control of the city’s streetlights, 40 percent of which, Mr. Orr’s office said, were not working in recent months. Similar handoffs are being weighed for the water and sewer services, and possibly more.

While many who have been through municipal bankruptcies say such moves often mean more budget cuts to city services, Mr. Orr has called for spending about $1.25 billion over the next 10 years on improving city infrastructure and services, including the police. Last week, James Craig, Mr. Orr’s choice for police chief, arrived to face a city that had seen five chiefs in as many years and had the highest rate of violent crime in 2012 of any city with more than 200,000 residents, according to a report by Mr. Orr.

“Whatever the solution is — a negotiated plan or a bankruptcy proceeding — the end result is going to be better services,” Bill Nowling, Mr. Orr’s spokesman, said. “This is all about getting Detroit strong, viable and solvent.”

Frank Ponder, 45, who works at a hospital here, said major changes in the city, even bankruptcy, now seem all but certain. “Everybody had all these ideas about saving Detroit, and nobody’s ideas actually worked,” he said. “At a certain point, you have to stop fooling yourself.” 
Financial Crisis Just a Symptom of Detroit’s Woes (NYT)

Here's an idea: Anarchism! It sounds like you're pretty much there already, folks. Like Catalonia during the civil war, there is literally nothing to lose! There's an idea that hasn't been tried.

The immediate thought that went through my head upon reading those paragraphs was this one: why don't the people just take these things over and run them themselves? Why wait for some "other entity" to take over management of the parks, why not just do it yourself? After all, joblessness is rampant, so plenty of people have the time. It's not like there's a shortage of personnel.

And why "get out of the power business?" You should be doing the exact opposite! Take over the electric company and run it for the good of the community, for your own use, instead of for profits to absentee investors. Please, don't sell off your sewer and water systems to "a private entity," collectivize it and run it yourselves. If people have power and sanitation, they can bootstrap whatever else they need.

Don't sell of your assets off to private investors, collectivize them! You have everything you need already. Don't be a victim. Don't be steamrolled by the neoliberal steam train. Don't play along with the Shock Doctrine, that's exactly what they want. That's why they brought you to your knees in the first place, and now they're going to take it all.

Why put up with lousy public services? Collectivize and provide those services for yourself. After all, they literally can't be worse. You have nothing to lose; there's no farther to fall. It's the ideal scenario. Anarchist Spain provides a historical precedent. It would seem from the above article that Detroit is the ideal place for an anarchist revolution, much like Catalonia in the teeth of its civil war. After all, reading that article, I ask you, what is there to lose? I mean, to large extent, Detroit already is in a state of anarchy. Reading the above, it seems like government is more a fiction on the page than a reality. And it's much easier to do this on a municipal level than the level of a nation-state, where it's nearly impossible.
Much of Spain's economy was put under worker control; in anarchist strongholds like Catalonia, the figure was as high as 75%, but lower in areas with heavy socialist influence. Factories were run through worker committees, agrarian areas became collectivized and run as libertarian communes. Even places like hotels, barber shops, and restaurants were collectivized and managed by their workers. George Orwell describes a scene in Aragon during this time period, in his book, Homage to Catalonia:

    ­"I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.--had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master."

The anarchist held areas were run according to the basic principle of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." In some places, money was entirely eliminated, to be replaced with vouchers. Numerous sources attest that industrial productivity doubled almost everywhere across the country and agricultural yields being "30-50%" larger, demonstrated by Emma Goldman, Ausgustin Souchy, Chris Ealham, Eddie Conlon, Daniel Guerin and others.
Despite the critics clamoring for maximum efficiency, anarchic communes often produced more than before the collectivization. The newly liberated zones worked on entirely libertarian principles; decisions were made through councils of ordinary citizens without any sort of bureaucracy. (The CNT-FAI leadership was at this time not nearly as radical as the rank and file members responsible for these sweeping changes.)

In addition to the economic revolution, there was a spirit of cultural revolution. For instance, women were allowed to have abortions, and the idea of "free love" became popular. In many ways, this spirit of cultural liberation was similar to that of the "New Left" movements of the 1960s.

But maybe I'm being idealistic. Maybe I'm being unrealistic. It's probably just a pipe dream, but it seems so frustrating that the ideal conditions for this are occurring right now, and Detroit could be a point on the way forward rather than be just another fire sale for the one percent to come in, buy up assets forged over generations, and become an aristocratic rent-seeking class. New ideas can only emerge when the old ideas have passed away and are no longer viable. Imagine African-Americans, after all they've been through in the last century, running a city for themselves, by themselves. They can hire whatever expertise they need. I'm sure there are a few radical economists willing to lend a hand, if the will is there.

I feel like I'm sitting here impotent on the sidelines, but I hope somebody, somewhere, will read these words and take them to heart. Maybe the people of Detroit just aren't up to the challenge. And that's too bad. But I wish more idealistic and committed radical folks would get there, start organizing, and start creating a DIY alternative to the current dysfunctional system. It's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. (And yes, the idea has floated through my head, but I already live in a Rust-Belt town on the other side of da lake der hey, and I'd like to think I'm needed here - it is my home, after, all). Here's a positive comment posted today on Naked Capitalism that describes one such person who's put their money where their mouth is:
Enticed back in ’09 by those “Houses for $1″ stories on the web, our family decided to give it a go in a city similar to Detroit. After two years of looking at houses and learning about the auction and Fannie Mae hustles, we found (on Craigslist, of course) a lot with two houses in a palatable location for less than $4,000.

Neither house was occupied. The larger two-family had been unoccupied for at least ten years according to our neighbor. We decided to focus on the two-family since it was already gutted, i.e. most of the plaster and lathe had been removed along with the wiring and plumbing except for the drain system under the basement floor and the water line coming in from the street.

We moved into the house after installing one bathroom, the electric panel and getting a few rooms wired. We created privacy with black plastic walls (like “Dexter”), heated with ventless propane and electric heaters and dressed warmly inside for what was fortunately a mild winter.

Two years later, we’re finished with wiring, and we’re installing a second and third bath and putting up our last load of drywall. We’ve done all the work ourselves, and while everything took longer and cost more than originally estimated, it’s all been done without incurring any debt.

We picked up the lot behind us after the house was condemned and the property tax foreclosed. It cost us $1 plus shipping and handling. The neighbor to the north offered us his four-plex for $1 since he’s given up on rehabbing it and owes $10,000 in back taxes. We’ll wait for the tax foreclosure since that provides an ironclad deed under state law.

The neighborhood is ethnically mixed. There are whites of mostly eastern European descent. (We have a great Slovenian restaurant around the corner.) There are African Americans. And there are Asians (we’re at the edge of the area with most of the Asian restaurants, supermarkets, etc.) Right in our neighborhood, an old school has been torn down and replaced with a year-round urban farm that employs more than a dozen people. The state’s extension service has moved into the one part of the school that remains and will be offering classes in food growing and preservation along with free plants.

We’re a ten minute bus ride from a downtown that houses a great public library, a fine theatre district and major sports stadiums/arenas. It’s a ten minute drive to cultural district with great art museums and a concert hall. We’re less than two miles away from the large university our adult children will be attending in the fall.

Has it been trouble free? Our old car was stolen a year ago from the front driveway, though it was recovered 5 days later more or less undamaged about 5 miles away. A Chinese restaurant at the end of the street is a regular source of violence with shooting deaths every year or two. The chain pharmacy a half a block away is held up a couple of times a month. These are all issues not with our neighborhood’s residents but because these are establishments at or near major crossroads and attract those with criminal intent from other parts of the city.

We’ve done this as a family. I think it would be even more successful if done by a group of people committed to a similar project. Go for it.

Nice work. That's what I'm talking about.

Yes, Detroit, by all means stop fooling yourself. Stop fooling yourself that the professional political and investor classes give a damn about you, that selling out to the money men will make things better, that bankruptcy without profound social change will turn things around, or that the current economic paradigm works, and that you are powerless and helpless before it. It's got to stop. The above commenter quotes the Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti:
“It is we [the workers] who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. [...] That world is growing in this minute.”


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Fruit seeds can't germinate unless the fruit itself is rotten.

  3. Eh... what Detroit is doing is piratization. You sell off the city properties once funded by the taxpayers, and the money either disappears or goes to support what remains of the corrupt and inept officialdom. Piratization was perfected in the former satellite countries in central and eastern Europe.

    1. David Harvey, in his Short History of Neoliberalism identifies the financial crisis in New York City as the starting point of the rise of the Neoliberal doctrine in the United States (prior to Reagan). If I get a chance, I'll have to do a review or write up - I picked it up in Italy.

  4. Someone will knowledge of the history of communes, anarchism, etc., needs to go there and organize and inspire.

  5. Speaking of "Homage to Catalonia", here's another George Orwell book recommendation: "The Road to Wigan Pier".

    1. I've heard reference to that elsewhere too. I'll have to check it out, thanks.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.