If you are under the impression that there’s nothing more to be said about the demise of the auto industry and its terrible impact on working people after Michael Moore, you owe it to yourself to see “Detropia”, a documentary that opened yesterday at the IFC Center in New York (screening information for other cities is here). Dispensing with Moore’s by now narcissistic intrusion into the narrative, “Detropia” allows Detroit’s African-Americans to tell their own stories. Thankfully, it is also free of Moore’s mawkish Capraesque pieties about “turning things around” by getting Obama elected. Among the lessons we learn from “Detropia” is that General Motors has used taxpayer money courtesy of Obama’s “rescue” of the auto industry to set up shop in China to build the Volt, their new electric car.
Oddly enough, the Ford Foundation funded the film, something I would liken to the German high command furnishing the sealed train that returned Lenin to Russia in 1917. Apparently the liberal program administrators there hoped that the film would raise awareness about Detroit’s phoenix-like return to prosperity, embodied in the closing moments of the film by a couple of white out-of-towners who came there in search of a cheap loft. If so, their money was wasted since the ineluctable message of the film is that capitalism has destroyed the city that once symbolized its rise under the rubric of Fordism, the very engine of growth that made the Ford Foundation possible.
Serving as a Greek chorus on the city’s decline is a cross-section of the Black community, including Tommy Stevens, the owner of a blues bar who is a retired schoolteacher, a young blogger named Crystal Starr, and local auto union president George McGregor.
We meet Starr walking through the ruins of an old building taking pictures with her cell phone. She muses as she walks, “Who lived here?” “Where did they go?” “What the fuck happened”? Those, of course, are the same exact questions that any sensible person would ask who remembers Detroit from the 1950s as the steam engine that was propelling America into a glorious future.
The press notes provide some quantitative answers:
- In 1930, Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world. (The Guardian)
- Detroit’s population shrank by more than 25% in the last decade. The city’s population has fallen from over 1.85 million in 1950 to 713,777 in 2010; a drop of almost 240,000 residents in ten years. That’s 100,000 more than Katrina-ravaged New Orleans lost. (The New York Times)
- Detroit has about 40,000 abandoned homes and 100,000 vacant residential lots. (The New York Times)
- The average price for a home in Detroit $7,100, down from $73,000 three years earlier. (The Wall Street Journal)
As a UAW official, George McGregor has his own set of answers, revolving mostly around the greed of some of the major automobile companies and their suppliers, including American Axle Company that used to be one of the city’s main employers. Axel has left Detroit except for one plant whose workers have been presented with an ultimatum. Workers have to sign a contract based on wage cuts of up to 25% or else. When we see them at a meeting voicing opposition to the contract and a willingness to fight, we probably anticipate what happens next: American Axle shuts down the plant and moves production to Mexico.
One of the points made unintentionally by the film is that working-class weakness is tied directly to the disappearance of jobs. Classical Marxism has always been premised on the idea that struggles at the point of production will escalate until the workers realize that their only option is to seize the means of production and produce for their own benefit rather than that of the bosses.
In the 1930s, when Detroit was the fastest growing city in the U.S., a militant trade union movement found itself on a collision course with the Henry Fords of the world. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler had no other option except to produce cars within our nation’s borders and workers could use their collective strength to force retreats. Ultimately, a reformist leadership of the UAW struck a Grand Bargain with the bosses that made business unionism acceptable and a good life for the workers the norm.
The emergence of powerful competitors in Japan, Korea and Europe made that Grand Bargain not worth the paper it was written on. Unfortunately for the working class, the UAW still acts as if it is still in place. But even if it didn’t, there is some question about its capacity to push back the bosses on their heels. In the late 70s, when the American Trotskyist movement embarked on its ill-fated “turn to industry”, it assumed that we would be reenacting the 1930s with the working class at “center stage”. As it turned out—in the words of Peter Camejo in 1983—the opposite was true:
If any class has stood in the center of U.S. politics in the last ten years, it has been the bourgeoisie. Following its sharp divisions during the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal, it has been able to reunify itself (a unity which may be once again coming into question), and go on the offensive. The industrial working class — along with the oppressed nationalities, white-collar workers, women and students — responded to the attacks in disarray and disunity. No leadership arose in these defensive struggles to promote an effective united response, nor has there yet been any nationwide class struggle political alternative to challenge the complete dominance of the bourgeoisie in electoral politics.
As the economic crisis has grown, generating an increasing number of unemployed and worsening conditions both on the job and in life in general, there has been a reaction reaching into the industrial unions. The capitalists, forced by their drive to maintain their profits under increasingly difficult economic conditions, have begun testing and challenging the power of the industrial unions. The results at this stage are a stand-off. While the ruling class has made some important gains and has forced a series of concessions, they have not been able in open struggle to destroy any major industrial union. All their victories, at least in terms of the relationship of forces, can be rapidly put in question by the first generalized upsurge of the industrial workers.
The only modification I would make to Peter’s words, with the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight is to change “The results at this stage are a stand-off” to “The results at this stage are a blitzkrieg victory of the ruling class.”
It would be too much to expect co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who worked together on the excellent “Jesus Camp”, to tackle the problems facing the working class, who in the final analysis is the only force capable of changing Detroit, America and the planet, and put forth any kind of strategy for social change. If they did, you can bet that the Ford Foundation would have opened the trap door beneath them.
Despite the lack of an answer to Detroit’s problems, the filmmakers have performed a major service to the left and to the socially aware film audience (my readers, in other words) by putting the challenge on the front burner. This is a film that is must-viewing for anybody who is unhappy with the mounting class divisions in the U.S. today.
As blues bar owner Tommy Stevens put it, America is facing a situation in which the ruling class has more wealth than at any time in our history while the middle class (in other words, the Fordist working class of the 50s and 60s) is rapidly disappearing. Those left at the bottom will only have a single recourse, and that is to overthrow the capitalist system. Those are his words, not mine.