Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Detroit - a city of hope or in despair

Detroit, motor city, what will be the future, if like a wheel which has come off a car and runs down the freeway, alone? This I saw when visiting Detroit in 2003. It reminded me of a colt breaking free and attempting to make a get away. But to see a single wheel running down the freeway past all the other cars was a weird sight.

In Detroit can be seen the murals the Mexican painter Diego did. The mural depicts how mechanical life of a city has become from when it is time to leave home to making it on time to the first, second or third shift for the assembly work at one of the three big car-makers. And it does not end with that mechanical dictate of life. For after work, it means again getting into the car to drive endlessly past similar suburbs till before reaching home, one stops by the supermarket with again everyone lining up in the shopping carts at the cashier to pay for what they had selected.

Rich Feldman works at Ford. He joined it as a student to link up with the workers as outcome of the '68 movement. He constructed trucks. Then, he wrote an impressive book about working conditions. It is called: "At the end of the Line". It contains interviews with workers he met at the plant. A certain categorization makes their respective profiles become more visible e.g. the foreign worker, the single worker, the Hispanic compared to the Black worker. All of them have something in common, Rich found out, namely they wish nothing more or less at work: Respect. They wish respect for the work they are doing, and therefore for themselves as human beings doing that work. After the publication of the book and after having worked himself up in the ranks, Rich, always talkative and jovial, but serious and devoted to democracy, became head of the union. When visiting him in 2003 and while walking through the plant to a meeting with management, he said it took a long time to come this far. He meant the built up of inner democracy within the trade union.

Rich Feldman and Janice Fialka introduced me in late autumn 1987 when I visited them for the first time to James and Grace Boggs. Together we talked about the prospects of the German Greens to alter politics in Germany and in Europe. We talked about philosophy and politics. And we turned our attention to what SOSAD represents: Save our Sons and Daughters! The organisation was founded by James and Grace Boggs, so that children stop killing other children. In 1987 there were more children killed than the number of days in a year. When visiting one of those meetings and seeing a few rows in front of me a little child her skin color as black as that of her mother sitting beside her, and playing with a white doll with blond hair, I thought of Eldridge Cleaver's book "Soul on Ice". In that book he states one of the problems the Blacks of America have is that they internalized the white man's definition of beauty. Aesthetics of resistance would be needed of a different kind.

Detroit offers dreams and breaks hope till only despair walks the streets. In those burn out areas close to the centre figures linger about in sparely lit streets. It seems already evident from a distance that they are on drugs. Later, in one of his famous campaign speeches, Barack Obama would emphasize the need of the Black man to assume responsibilities for his family. Too many leave behind the women and the children while they walk not a straight line down a nearly deserted street in an abandoned area.

By 2011 statistics reveal the population of Detroit has dipped below one million. They are even close to that bench mark when a certain funding from the federal state ceases because they are even below 700 000 or so inhabitants. Shea Howell, who comments regularly together with Grace Boggs, developments in Detroit, would say to this surprise expressed by the mayor that it should not come at all as a surprise. People have been moving out of the inner core to ever further out suburbs.

It is like Andre Loeckx described it in his lecture at the Fifth Seminar held in Athens 1994, fragmentation in cities begin when those with higher income move out or never move into certain areas. It leaves those without the financial means and human resources (trust in other people and access to a network of people) literally stranded, afraid of the others who move in and who appear to be better networked. That fear marks as well developments in European cities with politicians claiming that the model of multi-culturalism no longer works. They claim that when in fact cultural diversity is a daily lived reality in especially those areas which used to be economically potent due to their vast industrial structures and who have to search in the wake of de-industrialisation search for alternative economies.

In Detroit this process of decay, literally speaking, can be observed when driving through empty streets with but few people remaining to roam these empty spaces. That hits all the more home when driving past the small hall where Ford built or rather technically constructed his first car in three days, as explained by Kenneth Galbraith in his famous book 'The New Industrial State'. Kenneth Galbraith meant by this it took Ford three days because he collected materials on the first day, assembled the car on the second, and proceeded to sell it on the third day. By comparison, he went on, the modern industry is determined by technology which requires a planning horizon of at least four to six years from design till the car finally comes of the belt ready for being sold around the world. That alternation in time horizon changes the industry being able to respond or not to market demand. For who can predict what lies four years ahead. As a consequence, companies require from the state some kind of guarantee that the risks for making such an investment are covered in one way or another. They can be 'hidden' agreements to purchase so many cars or to give the company so much tax break as to lower the costs for having to make the investment with such a risk that only a certain amount of cars shall be sold and not all. The risk is well spread but amounts at the same time to limiting more or less the over capacity of being able to construct more cars than demanded in reality. It entails a special unknown in the economic equation and which has as well an impact upon a city like Detroit.

Thanks to the Boggs Centre with Grace Boggs continuing to upheld the legacy of her husband, James Boggs and author of the book 'The American Revolution', these developments at community level can be followed even from a distance. Crucial is a key theory by Grace Boggs insofar as work is being destroyed from both sides: management which see in work merely a cost factor, and from the side of the trade unions who reflect the common thinking that work to make money is but a waste of time and steals from one's free time. Overseen is that work has, however, another meaning when perceived as prerequisite for personal development based on work experiences, including the working together with other people. Not merely automatization but also modern management approaches wishing to lower costs wherever possible, have contributed towards this reduction of value of 'honest work' as still perceived by Marx being not merely a source of alienation, but also of insights into what will free the human being from being chained merely through his needs to a life in poverty.

The American Dream has been to be free from the coercive powers of necessity; it prompted as a kind of realistic utopia other than what Communism aspired, a search for life in richness. It has become over time, however, something like Rodea Drive where not goods but money is being consumed and where luxury seems not to know any limits, while many more struggle to realize this dream while being anything but convinced what development this has led to.

In the United States of America there is lived not only a dream and beside it a nightmare, but equally the gap between private and public interests are so huge, that ideology has been replaced by various forms of Moralisms. The latter include religious fervor and remind of what Ernst Bloch said about the slave language being reproduced by the poor people's preachers who use their rhetorical skills to make people believe there is just one simple solution for all the mess they have gotten into collectively without knowing really what this collectivity is all about. For lack of an alternative, the blame is heaped upon the state and more specifically the Federal State. One crucial rallying cry always works, namely let us lower the taxes. It goes without saying that a company like General Electronics pays at best 7% taxes despite a corporate tax being as high as 22%, but then the legal system has contrived many loopholes by which tax exemption can be claimed. So circulated in 2011 the news that if one had housed a foreign student in 2010-2011, one can claim tax deduction - a clear message to America that some can afford tax deductions like these where others have not even an extra bedroom to let the many kids sleep by themselves rather than sharing the bed with the parents. And if this is not all, then the allusion to richness in contrast to prevailing poverty means all but the Middle Class feels another kind of threat to the way they had envisioned life. And the news cannot be good when for the first time the USA looses the AAA rating due to its mounting debt which the Bush Presidency has left behind as legacy and as a way to tame state power. For the power still resides with money, but then the America of today has to look towards China as the government which continues to bail the USA out of its mounting debt.

Walking through Detroit can give one many thoughts, but still amazing is the courage of Grace Boggs and all those who make Detroit be a city of hope and not just one of despair.

Hatto Fischer


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