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Corporate Power and Urban Crisis in Detroit
By Lynda Ann Ewen
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
In the past decade the urban crisis has become defined as one of the most acute internal social problems that has ever faced the United States. The contradictions of the cities — poverty; the civil rights movements against discrimination in housing, education, and employment; increasing strikes and walk-outs in the factories and the increasing militancy of white collar employees — have exploded into the public consciousness. These contradictions are discussed and analyzed in the media and academia as symptoms of what is wrong in American society — what isn't working right about urban planning, what isn't working right about democracy, what isn't working right about capitalism.
In general these analyses have accepted the given framework — the American way of life. The dilemma that has been posed, then, is to find a solution, given the existing premises of contemporary capitalist society. Even those who advocate a "radical" solution rarely go so far as to advocate the qualitative transformation of social relationships that might infer communism.
The past decade has seen no solution, however. The urban crisis intensifies as the energy shortage, spiraling inflation, unemployment, and the deterioration of urban living standards continue. The liberal reform solutions of the mid-sixties — the war on poverty, the job corps, urban renewal, the Occupational Health and Safety Act-have all failed to make any significant progress toward solution. It has become increasingly clear that there may be no solutions within the liberal reformist framework. Edward Banfield clearly acknowledges this dilemma when he writes:
"What stands in the way of dealing effectively with these problems (insofar as their nature admits of their being dealt with) is mainly the virtues of the American political system and of the American character. It is because governmental power is widely distributed that organized interests are so often able to veto measures that would benefit large numbers of people. It is the generous and public-regarding measures — for example, the minimum wage and compulsory high school attendance — the ultimate effect of which is to make the poor poorer and more demoralized. Our devotion to the doctrine that all men are created equal discourages any explicit recognition of class-cultural differences and leads to 'democratic — and often misleading — formulations of problems...."
Banfield goes on to propose that the minimum wage be repealed, that high-school compulsory attendance be eliminated, that the poor be encouraged to sell their children, and that those in the lower class who might potentially become troublemakers be placed in institutions before they have the opportunity to make trouble.
Banfield has been attacked on a number of grounds. But his vulnerability is essentially that he was one of the first social scientists to expose the inherent failure of reformism to resolve the urban dilemma. Banfield has clearly moved to the "right" — the charge that his solutions smack of fascism is not unfounded. But he poses the critical question: everything else has failed, so what else is there to do?
This study attempts to answer this question. It poses the historical response to the fascist resolution — Marxism-Lenin ism and socialism. By analyzing the historical development of the class contradiction in a major urban area of the United States — Detroit — this book attempts to pose the questions in a qualitatively different way. These questions are based on scientific socialism — a methodology for the study of human societies that challenges the most fundamental premises of contemporary social science. The reader may find these premises confusing or even threatening, for the vast majority of people in the United States have never had Marxism presented to them as a science, only as a dogma. As in any science, the results of testing and theoretical development are cumulative. The growth of understanding a phenomenon is aided by objective historical developments that lay the basis for a further growth in understanding. Thus, the application of Marxism-Leninism to the reality of the United States is not to deny that the objective historical conditions we face are vastly different from those which Marx observed. But we also understand that our technological growth has not invalidated Newton's law of gravity or Copernicus' observations that the planets travel around the sun. In other words, the fundamental scientific laws observed and developed by Marx remain valid, but they have also been developed and expanded by such men as Lenin, Stalin, Dimitroff, and Mao Tse-tung, as well as other socialist theoreticians.
The fact that scientific socialism makes very explicit its historical role in aiding the working class movement is essentially no different from the role that ruling class theory plays in justifying and legitimating ruling class interests. To argue that the resolution of the urban crisis lies in the resolution of the class contradiction and the movement for socialism is no more biased than to argue that the resolution of the urban crisis lies in making the mechanisms of capitalist democracy more efficient. Both approaches represent class interests. Banfield's study may never mention the interests of the large corporation, but his solutions are obviously in the interests of the wealthy, not the poor. This study represents the class interests of the working class, and its solutions are in their interests, not the interests of the ruling class.
Since the time that Marx and Engels first laid out the fundamental premises of scientific socialism, the clear and obvious relationship between the exploiting capitalist class and the exploited working class has been complicated by a number of factors — although the essential relationship remains as true today in the United States as it was in the time of Marx. The theories of Marxism have provided the means by which working class movements all over the world have organized and struggled for their rights, and in some countries have succeeded in establishing socialist states. The emergence of such socialist states introduced a major factor into the world arena of struggle. The growth of militant working class movements forced the ruling class to develop reformist programs to ameliorate some of the worst conditions for certain sectors of the working class. At the same time, the ruling class clearly understood the threat of a Marxist analysis, and built a complex system of media information, public relations, and public education ("citizenship training") that justified and argued the American way of life as more civilized, superior, and the best ever, while it portrayed all the nasty evils of communism. Using the theories of functionalism, the ruling class hired the best social scientists to devise both explanations and programs to manage the continuing struggles engendered by the disparity of growing wealth and increasing poverty and exploitation. And in the United States the ruling class continued to develop more sophisticated mechanisms of dividing the working class on the basis of nationality (including race), sex, age, and life styles.
There are those who would not deny the existence of a ruling class, nor the power it exercises. But the difference between acknowledging the existence of such a class and perceiving an alternative is a fundamental difference. Some argue, for example, that such concentration of power is necessary, if exercised benevolently, and that existing problems come from the failure of the population to cooperate — the stupidity of bureaucrats, the apathy of the workers, and the extremism from the left and right. This view holds that without the people with the power nothing in Detroit would get done or, as the Detroit News puts it: "'Who runs Detroit?' Who makes things happen or keeps them from happening? Who are the movers and shakers, the people who get things done? Who puts up the buildings, helps the needy, provides the jobs, loans the money, plans for the future, pulls the levers of power? Who's in charge? In short, who are Detroit's big wheels?"
Those who argue this position understand the breakdown of democracy and believe that without the consent and legitimation of the ruling class, little can be accomplished. Accepting the dominant ideology, they believe that the members of the ruling class know what is best, since the ruling class is the social element that most clearly epitomizes the material values of the society. What is in the interest of the ruling class must therefore be in our interest. If we hope someday to be rich and powerful we must protect their right to be rich and powerful.
This perspective is not limited to the underlings hired by the ruling class who, if they serve faithfully, may succeed in marrying their son or daughter into the ruling class. This view may also be accepted by members of the working class who accept the myth of individual success as their only hope out of current material conditions.
And, finally, there are those "realists" who argue that the benevolence or malevolence of the ruling class is not at issue, for, since the ruling classs has the power and, they argue, since there will always be a ruling class, one must act realistically and accommodate oneself to the realities of life. In the social sciences this position is often taken by the liberal who is ethically repulsed by the excesses of American society as measured by war, poverty, and cultural impoverishment but who is also aware that his own advancement in academia, the media, or a profession is dependent upon his acceptance of the given power distribution. The resulting cynicism may be expressed through bitter criticism or through satire, but it is never expressed in terms of viable alternatives to the existing power relationships. Indeed, the existence of such cynics and critics legitimates the freedom of expression and pluralism of the social institutions. This kind of intellectual cynicism is, however, different from that of the working class individual who may understand that his probability of ever making anything but a marginal living is so small as to be unrealistic. This individual is a cynic because, at a gut level, he understands the lie and because he sees no alternative to the situation. But, unlike the intellectual cynic, whose welfare is predicated on not identifying alternatives, the working class cynic, when given a viable alternative, may actively move to challenge existing power and to struggle for a social redefinition because it is in his class interest to do so.
A Marxist-Leninist analysis of the urban crisis not only identifies a capitalist ruling class, identifies the interests of that class, and challenges the ideology and theory that legitimates that class's existence but also argues the historical limitations of that class and the future possibilities for a more humane and just society. The capitalist ruling class identifies Marxism-Leninism as a threat to their interests. It is.CHAPTER 2
Detroit: A City in Crisis
Detroit's problems as an urban area can be most directly gauged by the amount of money and energy that is spent in assuring the general public that "Detroit is Getting Better" and that "Detroit Is a Wonderful Place To Live." The Junior League sponsored a forty-page supplement to the Detroit Free Press in 1971 entitled "The Lord Helps Towns That Help Themselves." In the lead-off article the Junior League stated:
"They say Detroit is dying ... becoming uninhabitable ... deteriorating ... or what other words would they choose? But who are they ... fearful ... of little faith ... clinging to facts of the moment ... refusing to look at the lessons of the past ... or the hopes of the future....
"There is strength here, there is vision and the will to get things done, and you will sense that as you read the messages focusing on Detroit, the city that is finding greatness in its diversity."
The Junior League, the Chamber of Commerce, and other Detroit boosters were reacting to the spate of publicity following the rebellion of 1967, which focused national attention on the problems of Detroit. But the concern is not limited to Detroit. The late sixties saw a general national concern with the urban crisis that affected all major metropolitan areas. As Fortune magazine described it:
"A nation that has often lived dangerously now stands at the volcano's rim. ... It would be reckless indeed to underestimate our danger, to assume that because we have mastered other crises we will master this one. But it would be just as disastrous to assume that there is no possibility that we can restore our essential social unity.
"The United States, however, will not surmount the racial crisis unless it makes rapid progress toward resolving a broader, though less acute, crisis — that of 'the city.' In this context, 'the city' means not just the great core cities of our metropolitan areas; it refers to the whole situs of contemporary American civilization, the nationwide complex, including satellite cities, suburbs, and towns. This has become one vast pulsing organism."
The urban crisis may appear to be a contemporary event — one of many crises this nation must master, as Fortune points out. But the social ills of the city cannot be separated from the history of the city. The current crisis is not a transitional phenomenon nor a temporary aberration; it is, rather, deeply embedded in the development of the social structure and classes that make up the city.
It is true that the definition of the crisis that the mass media projects has changed through time and that the social expectations around the quality of city life and services have become more demanding as technology creates new possibilities. But it is not correct to assert, as Edward Banfield does, that because individuals now believe it is possible to solve the problems of the city, the belief in solution creates the "crisis." What is different in this period is not a function of changing definitions or rising expectations. In the City of Detroit, the wealthy have always been able to enjoy a higher standard of health, style of living, and more creative and safer jobs than the vast majority of urban citizens. The fires that swept dilapidated wooden tenement houses, the incidence of tuberculosis, malnutrition, and accidents at place of work leading to disability or death, have always indicated to the working class that they were subjected to problems that the wealthy in general escaped.
The working class in Detroit has historically sought improvements in living conditions and employment that they believed were possible because they could observe a class that already enjoyed those benefits. But the depths of the current crisis are not simply a question of "more" poverty or "more" hardship. Indeed, contemporary social scientists have often become bogged down in the sterile debate as to whether things are, in truth, getting better or worse. Such a debate focuses upon statistical indicators that are static and fails to reveal the interconnection and developmental processes that are involved in the social crisis. Even the Chamber of Commerce of the United States recognizes this dialectic (although in a different context): "... in the large city, even though it is not different from the small city in producing segregation, the spatial scale of the segregation is such that the difference in degree becomes almost a difference in kind."
What, then, is the overall process that lies at the base of the contemporary urban crisis in the United States? It is the inherent contradiction within capitalism between the ever-increasing productivity and potential of the forces of production (new technology, better machines, new uses of resources, new techniques) and the decreasing capacity to distribute what could be potentially produced for the greatest benefit of the general society. Instead, capitalism measures its success by the profit mark — the possibility of greater productivity is increasingly held back in order to preserve a system of distribution that insures greater profits for the rich and, conversely, proportionately less for the majority. The potential of our technology is enormous, but uses for which it has been developed — profit maximization — are increasingly inconsistent with the general needs of society.
Excerpted from Corporate Power and Urban Crisis in Detroit by Lynda Ann Ewen. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- Frontmatter, pg. i
- PREFACE, pg. v
- TABLE OF CONTENTS, pg. ix
- CHARTS, MAPS, AND TABLES, pg. xi
- CHAPTER ONE. Introduction, pg. 1
- CHAPTER TWO. Detroit: A City in Crisis, pg. 12
- CHAPTER THREE. Detroit History: The Ruling Class, pg. 46
- CHAPTER FOUR. Detroit History: The Working Class, pg. 78
- CHAPTER FIVE. Minorities and the Detroit Working Class, pg. 105
- CHAPTER SIX. Ownership and Control in Detroit: The Largest Firms, pg. 128
- CHAPTER SEVEN. Ownership and Control in Detroit: The Families Behind the Firms, pg. 157
- CHAPTER EIGHT. Ownership and Control in Detroit: Ideological Dominance, pg. 178
- CHAPTER NINE. Social Planning and Social Control, pg. 216
- CHAPTER TEN. Working Class Organization: The Role of the Union, pg. 249
- CHAPTER ELEVEN. Conclusion: Political Alternatives, pg. 286
- BIBLIOGRAPHY, pg. 297
- INDEX, pg. 307