Saturday, April 7, 2012

Detroit: America's Greece

As most everyone knows by now, Greece is broke. The government has borrowed all there is to borrow. They've made all the promises they can possibly make. And they're going to be able to deliver on neither obligation. Bondholders and citizens alike have discovered that the well of unending plenty is dry. But this didn't happen overnight, and even now there is much denial of the final outcome, although the signs have been on the horizon for years. The euro-based Greek economy is dead; what the establishment will do to recreate a replacement "official" economy is yet to be seen. Nor is Greece the only euro-state in trouble. Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain are in similar shape, with many others not far behind.

Meanwhile, the Greek people are seeking their own ways around the mess that their national leaders have created, to some degree with the cooperation of those leaders, as we discovered in Greece Surrenders to the Underground Economy.

Detroit, like Greece, has failed. The government of Detroit is collapsing, soon to be replaced, one way or another. Battles have erupted between the Detroit City Council and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to determine which group will take temporary control of the city (and eventually the ultimate blame for the collapse of Detroit's political machine).

There's no magic solution on the horizon for Detroit's terrible financial situation. Neither party is likely to overcome the more than $10 billion in accumulated debt. Detroit’s annual debt payments of $600 million a year exceed its primary tax revenue by $60 million. There is no ultimate solution short of bankruptcy for the political machine. Yet even now, Detroit's leaders are resisting demands that they stop the gravy train cold if they're to expect any help from the state. U. S. Representative Hansen Clarke is asking the federal government to bail out Detroit as a way to circumvent the plans of the Governor.

Meanwhile, not all Detroit residents are standing idly by, waiting for the government to fix problems in large part caused by the very agencies others are looking to for solutions. As in Greece, voluntary efforts by the citizens to take back their communities are on the rise.

No story illustrates this so well as the story of 101-year-old Texana Hollis, who has moved back into a home the banks foreclosed and officials condemned, later reclaimed and resurrected by her neighbors' voluntary efforts.

People are working to reclaim not only single houses, but their own neighborhoods. Wayne Curtis, his wife, Myrtle Thompson-Curtis and their garden are a prime example. The garden they started, which now covers four lots, is one of more than 1,500 involved with the nonprofit Greening of Detroit. After a year in the organization's apprenticeship program, the former soldier and Black Panther established the plot that has brought the neighbors together to learn new skills.
The way you change the world, he says, is face to face and hoe to hoe. You start with family and bring in anyone else who shows an interest. You give young people something to take pride in and contributors something to take home.
Now, the effort is expanding. Four wooden racks of honeybees, kept in violation of yet another city ordinance, are thriving, with the promise of honey, mead and wax strong in the air.

Other volunteer activities are gaining traction as well. During this year's annual Detroit Partnership Day, more than 1,500 University of Michigan students and about 200 Chrysler employees cleared graffiti, cleaned up parks, planted flower beds, boarded up vacant buildings, tidied up elementary schools and prepared vacant lots to become urban gardens.

Even self-defense is on the rise. Justifiable homicide in the city shot up 79 percent in 2011 as citizens, no longer relying on a dwindling police force to keep them safe, are taking matters into their own hands. The local rate of self-defense homicides is now 2,200 percent about the national average.
Detroiters are arming themselves with shotguns and handguns and buying guard dogs. Anything to take care of their own. And privately, residents say neighborhood watch groups in Detroit are widely armed.

“It’s like the militiamen who stepped up way back when. That’s where the neighborhood folks are," said James “Jackrabbit” Jackson, a 63-year-old retired Detroit cop who has patrolled the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood for years.
In the wealthier areas of the city, private security firms take the place of the neighborhood watch. Some are getting out while they can, after having experienced the problem first-hand. Kevin Early, director of the criminal justice studies program at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus, packed up and left only weeks after being held up at gunpoint outside his home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Neighbors called the police, who arrived 25 minutes later.

These are not the limits of citizen involvement. Microbusinesses are erupting across the Detroit landscape. Small-scale solar and weatherization projects are fueled by community learning enterprises. Local media resurrection projects are underway. But it's not all smooth sailing.
Detroit is in the throes of rebirth, but it’s not a lockstep march toward a glorious future. There are challenges, both internal and external. The single greatest source of opposition facing Detroit’s progressive community may be the city and state government.

Adrienne Brown, co-coordinator of the Food Justice Task Force, says, “The mayor's instinct to look outside the city for planners and proposals, as opposed to looking to communities, organizers and community groups for the ideas and solutions the city needs -- that's the main obstacle right now. Instead of being able to just move forward the solutions the city needs, organizers have to split their time trying to stop the mayor from moving forward on proposals which come from people who don't know and love the city and its people.”
That battle goes to the core of what this Tireless Agorist has referred to as the Phoenix Society. "The political machine yearns for the return of olden days -- worker, employer, work in, paycheck out, with orders coming straight down from the top. This hierarchical model has been dominant since the advent of industrial capitalism."

But the residents are reimagining a city more like that of the Phoenix Society. Urban gardening, artists cooperatives, and light manufacturing co-ops are flourishing in Detroit. But the vision is anything but pervasive.
The situation is further complicated by the reticence of some citizens to engage with other sectors of the growing alternative economy in hopes that salvation might someday come in another form. Why waste your time with"bean patches" (as Jesse Jackson referred to urban gardens) when manufacturing jobs might be just around the corner?
The Great Recession is far from over. As city and state governments across the country flounder for solutions that will not be found in the only toolkit they own, Detroit's residents are finding their own solutions. In place of the failed top-down system that has created the disaster, solutions are sprouting in abandoned lots and community centers and the micro-businesses that are bubbling in the underground economy.

Certainly there are differences between Greece and Detroit. Yet we should look to Detroit as a cautionary tale, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in our own Dickensian national tale. Because there is a fundamental similarity, one shared with virtually every politicized society, everywhere, including the federal government, and the more than 40 states that are projecting billions of dollars in budget shortfalls for fiscal 2012.

In every case, between the people and their future stand out of control governments unable to run a tight financial ship, given to spend, spend, spend, and spend, come hell or high water. In every case, we find out of control governments calling barter tax avoidance, declaring it illegal to engage in any form of production or commerce without their benevolent oversight.

And in every case where governments have run amok, we find individuals becoming communities once more, reclaiming their society, engaging in accidental agorism "to provide new guards for their future security."

...and that's all I have to say about that.


  1. Do you think, then, it would make sense for active agorists to move to Detroit and use the city's new-founded underground economy as a way to jumpstart some kind of market anarchist movement?

    1. Now that's thinking outside the box! I'm not sure Detroit is the right place, but the concept make a lot of sense. It's a different approach to the "Free State Project" in New Hampshire, a "Free City Project" It would take a much smaller population shift to take over a city. Detroit's not the only city in trouble. What criteria would you look for to pick a city? I really like this idea.

    2. Not sure, but if the city has a growing underground economy I'd look into it.

      I'm not an agorist and I highly doubt agorism would work in a place like New Hampshire (which is where I'm from), simply because the high quality of life entails that hardly anyone would have an incentive to go black/gray. Black/gray markets flourish in areas which are overflowing with poverty, or where infrastructure has collapsed, not in lily-white suburban areas where everyone is middle/upper-middle class and has a decent white market job.

    3. I think I heard something about PorcFest being a fairly agoric celebration, but that's just one week a year. However, I did run across a forum where FSPers were discussing what sounded like a growing underground in and around Keene.