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Forging the American Empire

Is it possible to perceive the making of modern America as a sort of colonial project? One in which the new American capitalist class colonizes the so called American wilderness for the benefit of Capitalism? This is the argument Andrew Brooks makes in his recent book – The End of Development:

On 4 July 1776 the newly independent United States of America consisted of 13 colonies that were formally ceded by Great Britain in 1783. The United States then expanded Westwards, and by the time of the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico in 1853, the modern boarders of the contiguous United States were established.

American expansion.jpg

Formal territorial expansions were legally and politically essential. Annexation first provided new space for capitalism, then new Americans came, conquered and combined land, labour and capital to generate wealth. Fundamentally though it was the direct control and space and the westward advance of Europeans and their conflicts with other Americans that were the real means of making the nation.

The whole history of the United States is one of occupation and land seizure: rather than territorial colonialism abroad,  there was unprecedented territorialism at home. Ironically, the American war of Independence (1775 – 1783), far from being a pure anti-colonial struggle, was rather a moment that enabled expanded imperialism led by the European Americans. Once the revolution had freed the settlers, they conquered the res of the North American continent and reorganized the space for capitalism. This meant removing the Native population to make room for an expanding immigrant population, as was advocated by Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franlklin Colonialism Indians.jpg

The popularization of the notion of ‘wilderness’ was a key ideological tool which promoted this expansion Westwards – the great interior of the new United States was portrayed as wild country which was the antithesis of civilization, full of wild savages, both of which needed to be overcome in order for progress to be made.

(Of course in reality, neither were true, many Native American Tribes had rich cultures which managed the land they had occupied for centuries in a sustainable manner).

In the 19th century, the American capitalist was a colonist at home, enjoying what the European capitalist had to travel to Africa or Asia to achieve: profits were accumulated through imported slaves, and later indentured Chinese labour on the Pacific Coast.

Profit was also accumulated via exploitation of Native Americans through trade. Indigenous peoples exchanged pelts for fish hooks, guns and knives, which benefited whites and forged a relationship of dependency.

Rifles changed the balance of power between tribes, causing warfare between native peoples, as well as intensifying hunting practices. Established cultures and ways of life that had existed for centuries were wiped out in a few short decades. For instance, muskets used by Metis hunters nearly wiped out buffalo in the Red River valley of North Dakota.

Metis-indians buffalo-bones.jpg
Metis indians shipping buffalo bones in North Dakota

Fur trading was one of the first major economic activities, but American capitalism soon diversified and grew as it learnt the lessons of the industrial revolution in Britain, and it was a rapid industrialization as the USA was both unencumbered by old social relations such as Feudalism, and all the necessary resources to fuel industry were on home soil.

Ultimately, Brooks argues that any time Washington, Hamilton, Adams or Jefferson referred to the ‘Federal Union’ in their presidential address, they were really referring to the process of forging an American Empire – except they didn’t need ships to go and do it in far away places, they had plenty of ’empty’ territory right next door.

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The Industrial-Capitalist Model of Development

In order to understand what Modernisation Theory is, it’s useful to have an understanding of what the ‘Industrial Capitalist’ model of development is. The United Kingdom and America, the two leading super powers in the world up throughout the last two centuries, both followed an industrial-capitalist model of development,

There are obviously two bits to ‘industrial capitalism’:

INDUSTRIAL + CAPITALISM 

The first requires more explanation….

Capitalism and Development 

Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production (land, raw materials, technology, factories and offices) and where production is carried out for a profit.

Under capitalism, any individual with sufficient capital (defined as resources which are available to be invested rather than saved for emergencies or simply consumed) is free to set up a business and produce a good or a service which can then be sold for a profit in the market.

In theory, Capitalism is the most efficient way of ensuring that people get the goods and services they want at the cheapest price. The reason for this is that if a Capitalist sees someone else making a profit (selling blue widgets for example), they will see an opportunity, and start producing blue widgets themselves, wanting to profit themselves.

This creates competition between the two producers, which should have three effects – competition should drive prices down, because consumers want the cheapest product, and/ or it should also push quality up, because consumers want the best quality for the cheapest price; it should also encourage innovation, as each capitalist receives a lower profit for blue widgets, they might try making fancier or different colored widgets, thus generating new demand.

In reality, what happens is all of the above – capitalist production creates new markets in varying qualities of widgets (different for different people with differing income levels) and innovation – as more producers come in seeking profit through production.

Crucial to the capitalist mode of production is labour power – capitalists buy labour power through paying wages (on the ‘job market’) – in Marxist theory, this is an exploitative relationship as the capitalist extracts surplus value from the workers by paying them less than the value of the goods they produce, but pro-Capitalists argue that it’s a win-win situation, as under free-market Capitalism, anyone is free to sell their labour elsewhere, or set up their own business themselves.

Communism – the ‘opposite of Capitalism’ 

The opposite of pure, free-market capitalism is Communism – where there is no private property and the state owns and controls the means of production. Under state-communism in Russia during most of the 20th century, the state decided what people and society needed and dictated to factories what was to be produced in five year phases. Thus there was no role for the profit motive or entrepreneurial innovation.

Goods were effectively rationed, and distributed according to need rather than by being sold on the market place.

It follows that in ‘pure communist systems’ people had much less economic freedom than under Capitalism.

NB – the above is a very rough account!

The role of the state in ‘free-market’ capitalist systems

In most European societies today, the state (governments) regulate the ‘free-market’ – so the ‘free’ in the ‘free-market’ is a very relative concept.

For example, there are lots of laws about health and safety, and environmental protection and worker rights (the minimum wage) which restrict the freedoms of capitalists; and there is also taxation which allows the state to provide some services for free to everyone (along Communist lines) – in the UK for example we have free state provided health and education, and security (the police) – so there is a very limited ‘free-market’ in these areas.

Industrialization and Development 

Industrialization refers to the process of moving from an agricultural to a factory based economy, which in turn involved harnessing the power of coal, oil and gas to power machines in factories to produce goods rapidly and efficiently.

The best example of the industrial mode of production is Henry Ford’s Ford motor plant, in which he organised the production of cars along a conveyor belt system – where workers would stand in one ‘post’ and progressively add bits onto a car which came past them.

Industrialization went hand in hand with Capitalism, as organizing workers to work in a mechanized factory was the cheapest way to produce massive amounts of goods for sale and thus to maximize profits for individual capitalists.

Fast forward to the present day and many areas of production have been ‘industrialized’ – pretty much all forms of transport, clothing, computers, and even agriculture (thought tractors etc).

So what is the Industrial-Capitalist mode of development?

It basically refers to the past 200 years of economic development in Europe and America, which has since spread to many other parts of the world. The UK went through this phase in the 19th century, the USA in the 20th.

The industrial-capitalist mode of development consists of an economic system which allows (relatively) high amounts of freedom to capitalists to invest and make a profit – it was the Capitalist class (e.g. Henry Ford) who effectively industrialized the production of most goods for example.

This had the knock on effect of creating lots of jobs and secondary business, and eventually a surplus which the government could tax in order to provide a range of welfare benefits to populations for free.

It is this mode of development which Modernisation theory suggests developing countries should adopt in order to develop, thus following in the footsteps of the UK and the USA.

Disclaimer – I wrote this off the top of my head in 20 minutes! 

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Are cuts to community policing making it harder to prevent terrorism?

Government cuts to community policing have made it harder to prevent terror attacks, at least according to Ed Davey, the Shadow Home Secretary, as stated in an interview on C4 News (Sunday 17th Sept 2017).

Ed Davey MP
Ed Davey MP: ‘cuts to community policing are making it harder to prevent terrorism’

Robert Quick, Britain’s former counter-terrorism chief agrees. Back in June he said “Counter-terrorism funding is ring fenced but cuts to the general policing budget has impacted on neighbourhood policing teams in many parts of the country including London.” (1)

Quick, along with a whole range of other people working in anti-terrorism argue that funding has been moved towards more ‘reactive policing’ (such as armed police units) and away from community policing, so policing has become more ‘reactive’ and less ‘preventative’.

The reduction in community policing has reduced the capacity of the police to work in communities building relationships and trust to in turn generate community-based intelligence about persons of concern.

Another factor which prevents the police from ‘preventing terrorism’ is that, as other public services have been cut, demands on police have increased as they have to spend more time dealing with those with mental health problems.

Relevance to A level Sociology

Theoretically, what’s being discussed here are criticisms of the move away from Left to Right Realist policies of policing.

Methodologically, it’s worth noting that it’s difficult to assess the impact of community policing on preventing terrorism – because it is so intangible: how can we ever actually MEASURE and prove that ‘increased trust’ between local communities and ‘police’ result in information which in turn prevents a terror attack?

Intuitively I agree with the idea that community policing is the most effective prevention strategy, but is it possible to move from intuition to actual fact in this case?

Finally, it’s highly likely that David Garland’s theory of popular punitiveness is at work here – increasing funding to armed police units is a very visible strategy which makes the government look like they’re doing something to ‘prevent terrorism’, which is likely to increase their popularity, whereas if they were to increase funding to community policing, this isn’t as visible, and so has no ‘political purpose’, even if it is more effective….

Armed Police UK.jpg
Armed Police – A visible but ineffective means of preventing terrorism?

Sources 

(1) Guardian article (June 2017)

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Is China’s Involvement in Africa a new form of Colonialism (i.e. neocolonialism)?

China’s development over the last three decades has depended heavily on its investment in Africa: it relies on a number of natural resources extracted from Africa, and is also one of the major leasers of land in Africa (which it uses to export crops back to China). In order to facilitate the extraction of natural resources, return, thousands of Chinese workers now live and work in Africa, and the Chinese have developed infrastructure (roads for example) in many African countries.

The Chinese claim that most partnerships between Chinese businesses in Africa are mutually beneficial, a win-win arrangement between the Chinese and the ‘host nation’ – China gets resources, Africans get jobs and development.

Critics, however say that what the Chinese are doing in Africa is just a continuation of colonialism, and another form of neo-colonialism: it is basically a wealthier nation extracting resources as cheaply as possible from desperately poor countries and giving them as little as possible in return.

The three articles below are well worth a read to get an idea about the range of opinion on this matter:

  1. This Global Policy article: ‘The New Colonialism in Africa’ makes the case (as you can tell by the title) that China are basically neo-colonists
  2. This Guardian Article is more neutral.
  3. This Harvard Political Review article seems to take a more sympathetic view towards China, focusing more on the benefits of development for African nations.

Students might like to read through them, compile a list of arguments and evidence for and against the view that China’s involvement in Africa benefits Africa, rather than just China. 

 

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Asking Questions about Theories and Concepts in Sociology

My weekly ‘Monday teaching and learning’ post: I’ve been thinking about questioning in A-level Sociology recently,* in particular I’ve been asking myself ‘what are the best quick-fire questions to ask students about theories and concepts’ and ‘what’s the best way to present these questions’?

By ‘best’ I mean what kinds of questioning style will most effectively develop knowledge recall, understanding and the skills of application, analysis and evaluation? And how can this be done quickly!

I’m only really interested here in questioning as a review activity (not the kinds of question you ask during a regular lesson), so this is meant for recapping previous lessons work, as part of a plenary, or as part of a revision lesson.

As I see it, the most effective way to ask questions is to do so in a hierarchical order, starting with basic recall, and moving up through application, analysis, and evaluation, and you could even tag on a conclusion type question at the end.

I tend to ask eight questions to recap any theory or concept… In the example below,  I used these questions on a PPT with the headings as titles and the prompts in the main body of each slide. This was a simple, verbal pair-work recap task (with the usual further development questions tagged on). There’s also nothing from stopping you dumping these questions onto Socrative.

Why poor countries poor

I also use prompts to speed things up, and you could of course make these prompts as cards and for each slide get students to do ranking/ sorting exercises.

Eight Questions About Dependency Theory

(which could be asked about any other theory or concept)

  1. (AO1) Explain why poor countries are poor according to Dependency Theory

HINT: Use the following concepts…

  • Marxism
  • Colonialism
  • Neocolonialism
  • Exploitation
  • Core-Satellite
  • Communism
  1. (A01) Give some examples which best illustrates Dependency Theory
  • Try to think of one ‘developed’ and one ‘less developed’ nation
  1. (AO2) Apply Dependency Theory to something else…
  • Use Dependency Theory to evaluate Modernisation Theory
  • What do you think the function of education in poor countries might be according to Dependency Theory?
  1. (A03) Analyse Dependency Theory: How does the theory/ concept relate to the following concepts below:
  • Marxist theory more generally
  • Inequality
  • Power
  • Capitalism
  1. (A03) Analyse Dependency Theory
  • Who developed it (where did it come from)?
  • If you could convince everyone it’s true, then whose interests does it serve?
  1. (AO3) Evaluate Dependency Theory using evidence
  • Identify as many pieces of supporting evidence as you can
  • Identify as many pieces of counter-evidence as you can…
  1. (A03) Evaluate using other theories
  • HINT: What would Modernization Theory say about this theory?
  1. (AO2) Interim Conclusion – How useful is Dependency Theory?
  • HINT: Where ’10’ is explains everything and 0 is explains nothing, what score would you give Dependency Theory out of 10 in explaining why rich countries and rich and poor countries poor?

Asking these eight questions in relation to other theories and concepts…

Other topics I’ve used this template with recently include (with different prompts) The Functionalist View of Education, The Correspondence Principle (focusing in more deeply on just one Marxist concept of education), The Neoliberal Theory of Economic Development and the concept of Gross National Income as an indicator of development (the kind of concepts this 8 question hierarchy works well for might actually surprise you).

Of course this won’t work for everything and will need tweeking, but to my mind, this is a nice general questioning structure that ticks my 20-80 rule – spend 20 mins prepping to get 80 mins of students doing – NOT the inverse!

 

*I’m fairly sure this is a big contributor to mental illness among teachers, it’s exhausting.

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Is Britain Racist?

Just a round up of some relatively recent evidence of discrimination against ethnic minorities in the U.K. (and the odd stat from the USA!)

  1. 50% increase in unemployment for young ethnic minorities – have the coalition abandoned 16-24 year old black and Asian youth?
  2. Ethnic minorities face barriers to employment, despite having better qualifications (Guardian article 2014)
  3. The fake CV experiment – suggests UK employers are racist (Guardian summary of a field experiment)
  4. David is more likely he hired than Dante – Summaries of experiments which suggests racial bias is strong in the USA (YouTube video)
  5. Wave of Hate Crime following Brexit (Independent article – 2016)
  6. Black people are 17 times more likely than white people to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Furthermore, 56 percent of Black inpatients in mental health units have been sectioned, more than any other ethnic group, and they much less likely to receive talking treatment but higher doses of medication.

According to psychologist Malcolm Phillips this is because black people are more likely to be seen as a threat and thus given a more serious diagnosis, and thus more likely to be sectioned and forcibly medicated.

This issue is explored in more depth in the BBC3 documentary ‘Being Black, Going Crazy‘. (iplayer link – only available until February 2017)

 

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The End of Development?

20170923_100207A summary of The End of Development: A Global History of Poverty and Prosperity, by Andrew Brooks (2017)

This blog post covers Part 1: Making the Modern World

Chapter 1: environmental determinism and early human history

The argument in this chapter is that nature (as in the natural environment) does not determine human society and culture, rather it is more accurate to talk of humans shaping nature, especially since the emergence of agricultural societies 12000 years ago.

From between 12-8000 years ago, agricultural societies emerged independently in 11 distinct places, and in each region, these societies domesticated crops and animals, thus adapting to and changing local environments in different ways.

Agricultural societies eventually came to dominate hunter gather societies because they are more resistant to environmental shocks, given their greater capacity to store food to see them through famine periods.

Early agricultural societies also allowed for the development of a specialized division of labour, and were organised along feudal lines, with a tiered hierarchy of ruling classes taking tribute from those working the land. Europe in the 15th century was only one such system among many historical antecedants.

Brooks rounds this chapter off by reminding us that Europe did not colonize the rest of the world because of some kind of manifest destiny based on a unique set of environmental and cultural advantages, there were plenty of other cultures existing around the world in the 15th century that had similar features to the European feudal system.

What Europe did have was an emerging capitalist system, it is this that sets it apart and explains its rise to globalpower from the 15th century onwards.

Chapter 2: colonizing the world

This chapter outlines a brief history of colonialism, starting with the early colonial projects of Spain and Portugal in the Americas, which provided the silver and gold which kick started the global capitalist economy.

Brooks goes on to outline European colonial expansion across the globe more generally, arguing that European big business, governments and religion all worked together to dominate The Americas, Asia and Africa – often exploiting existing power structures to establish rule: profit, politics, piety and patriarchy all played a role in reshaping the colonial world from 1992 to 1945.

Brooks breaks down the history of colonialism something like this:

1500 – 1650 – Spanish and Portuguese colonialism – which involved the extraction of gold and silver, which was used to finance wars against Islam and other European nations. Spain also borrowed heavily from Holland on the basis of expected future returns from its mines in Latin America.  This led to the establishment of financial centers in Holland, and increasing wealth. Span eventually went into decline as its wars were unsuccessful and its colonial returns decreased

1650 – 1900 – Dutch and British colonialism – A newly rich Holland and Britain took over as the main colonial powers – state building was essential to this – a combination of political power and the granting of monopolies to the Dutch and British East India companies (for example) led to the increasing dominance of these two powers.

Brooks also outlines how slavery and the industrial revolution were crucial to the rise of these two powers, and includes a section on the famine in India to illustrate how brutal their colonial projects were.

It’s also important to realise that increasing inequality was an important aspect of Colonialism – obviously between Europe and poorer parts of the world, but there were also some colonies which were more prosperous (such as Australia) and also, within the the mother countries and colonies, this period of history led to increasing inequality.

The chapter rounds of by pointing out that from 1900, the base of world power is already starting to shift from European centers to America.

Chapter Three: American Colonialism 

This chapter starts with the ‘rise and fall of Detroit‘ which illustrates how industrial capitalism led to huge economic growth in America from the late 19th century to the 1960s, only to decline once industrial production moved abroad.

Brooks now argues that, following US Independence in 1776, American capitalists essentially focused on colonising the homeland rather than overseas territories, as there was so much land and so many resources within America – typically treating native Americans as non-people, who ended up in reservations.

There was some expansion overseas during the 19th and early 20th centuries – most notably with establishment of the Panama canal, but the ideology of American isolationism prevented this from happening.

It was effectively WW1 which led America to become to the world’s global hegemon – through lending money to the Allies, it built up huge economic dominance, which only grew as Europe was thrown into turmoil during WW2, following which America rose to dominance as the country which would seek to ‘develop’ the rest of the world, which is the focus of part two of the book….. (to be updated later)

 

 

 

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The End of Poverty? A Documentary taking a ‘Dependency Theory’ View of Underdevelopment and Development

This 2008 Documentary seeks to answer the question of why there is still so much poverty in the world when there is sufficient wealth to eradicate it.

In order to answer this question, the video goes back to 1492, which marks the start of European colonialism and the beginning of the global capitalist system, making the argument that European wealth was built on the back of a 500 year project of extraction and exploitation of the Americas, and then Asia and Africa.

Using various case studies of countries including Venezula, Bolivia, and Kenya the video charts how brutal colonial policies made the colonies destitute while the wealth extracted led to the establishment of global finance, the industrial revolution, and the foundation of a global capitalist system which locked poor countries into unequal relations with rich countries.

Following Independence, a combination of unfair trade rules  and debt, managed through global institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation have effectively kept these unequal relationships between countries in place, meaning wealthy countries have got richer while many ex-colonies have remained destitute.

This video is quite heavy going, and jumps around from continenent to continent a bit too much for my liking, which, combined with a lot of sub-titles (as many of the people interviewed are not English-speakers) does make it quite hard to follow. Nonetheless, this video does offer a systematic account of a Dependency Theory view of underdevelopment and development, including interviews with numerous politicians and activists from development countries as critical thinkers such as Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Naomi Klein, among many more.

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What is Capitalism?

 

capitalismYou really need to understand what Capitalism is in order to understand Marx. Wikipedia (1) is actually a useful starting point here, defining Capitalism as

“an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned; decisions over what is produced and what is bought and what prices should be are determined mainly by private individuals the free market, rather than through a planned economy; and profit is distributed to owners who invest in businesses.”

 

There are three (+1) main components of Capitalism (2)

  1. Private ownership of the means of production – rather than collective or state ownership.
  2. Goods are produced for sale in the free market – rather than for personal use of for barter.
  3. The reason producers produce goods is because they wish to make a profit – the profit motive is central.
  4. To the above I would add a fourth component- which is wage labour – The majority of people in a Capitalist system make their money through wage labour – by selling their labour power to their employers.

Four arguments for Capitalism

  • It is the best economic system for bringing about economic growth, or a sustained increase in the total value of goods and services that are produced,
  • It is the best system for ensuring that what is produced matches up to the needs and wants of the people – because producers only make a profit if they supply what people demand.
  • Thirdly it is argued that production should be efficient because Capitalists are in competition with each other – and the more efficient one’s business is, the lower the cost of production, the lower the price and higher profit.
  • Defenders of Capitalism argue that the genius of Capitalism is that it transforms individual self interest into collective good – selfish capitalists want to make a profit, but they have to produce what people want in order to make a profit!

Capitalism is a dynamic system – it is always transforming the world around it

Capitalism is an incredibly dynamic system – because it induces Capitalists to complete, they are ever looking for new opportunities to invest and make the best rate of profit –There is a natural tendency for this system to change societies and expand globally. Capitalism is restless and Marx was very aware of this fact –

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones … All that is solid melts into air”(4)

Of course, all of the above advantages are contested – Marxist writers generally arguing that there are contradictions within the Capitalist system that make it fundamentally flawed – one such writer is Alex Callinicos…

Alex Callincos (3) – Two contraditions within the Capitalist system

According to Callinicos, the above factors mean there are two fundamental forms of conflict, inherent to the Capitalist system –

  • Firstly, because the Capitalist class exploits labour –the interests of the Capitalist class are in conflict with the interests of the working class.
  • Secondly, each individual member of the Capitalist class is in conflict with other members of that class – Capitalists compete with each other to attain an ever greater amount of profit and an ever greater share of wealth.

Capitalism tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few and lead to greater exploitation of the many

enjoy_capitalism_2_Each individual cpitalist, faced with competition from other Capitalists, seeks to maximise profits relative to his competitors. One way in which this can be done is through technological innovation, thus lowering the costs of production below the average costs of production in the sector, which will increase the rate of profit. This will attract further investment (capital).

The problem with this is that it is only a short term solution because eventually other Capitalists will innovate in the same way and the competitive advantage will be nullified, and we return to a level playing field.

Of course some capitalists are unable to afford these technological innovations and go bankrupt, causing unemployment which reduces the bargaining power of those in work, which allows the remaining Capitalists to reduce the wages of their workers, thus increasing the rate of exploitation. At the same time, surviving capitalists buy up the means of production of those firms that have bankrupted at below market value thus leading to a concentration of ownership and a concentration of power in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

From the Marxist point of view therefore, the logic of Capitalism that wealth gradually becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and the masses get ever more exploited and impoverished.

Sources

(1)  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitalism – my version is modified slightly

(2)  Ingham, Geoffrey (2008) Capitalism, Polity – see this for a fuller account of definitions and history of Capitalism

(3)  Callinicos, Alex (2003) An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto, Polity

(4)  First appears in ‘The Communist Manifesto’, 1848. – http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/

http://www.learnoutloud.com/Podcast-Directory/Philosophy/Political-Philosophy/The-Communist-Manifesto/22023 – free podcast of the Communist Manifesto

http:/manybooks.net/titles/marxengelsetext93manif12.html – download free ebook – I have a copy permanently on my ipod! – Ironic I’m sure.

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The Rise and Fall of Detroit

The history of Detroit, USA from 1900 to the present day present offers an interesting case study in the benefits of industrial modernity in the early 20th century, and the problems caused by modernity’s decline from the 1960s.

Detroit underwent a rapid process of industrialization in the early part of the 20th century, which led to enormous prosperity and wealth being generated which was, by and large, shared by the majority of the city’s population. Detroit is synonymous with Henry Ford, and the particular model of industrial-capitalism which he basically invented – mechanized production and decent wages and benefits for his workers.

However, the second half the century saw Detroit spiral into a decline of de-industrialization, state-bankruptcy, inequality, and social unrest.

Detroit – linked to East and West coast USA via river and rail.

The Rise of Detroit: Industrialization from the 1900s to the 1950s

In its hey day, Detroit represents one of the most successful case studies in Industrialization in world history. The case of Detroit helps us to understand why Modernization Theorists in the 1940s and 50s were so keen on exporting Capitalist-Industrialization as a model of development for other countries: basically industrialization brought about many positive developments and so it seemed logical to export it. 

By the late 19th century Detroit’s industry included leading shipbuilding, pharmaceutical and railway businesses. Detroit was successful because it was strategically located near to natural resources and markets via railroads and steamboats, and from the mid 19th century there was no place that better represented American progress and power.

Detroit was the Motor city that helped drive the United States forward,  and the most well-known company which was based there was the Ford Motor Company – in 1932, its Rouge River industrial complex was the largest integrated factory in the world, with its own docks, railway lines, power station and plant, and over 100 000 workers, and 120 miles of conveyor belt.

Raw materials including iron ore and coal arrived by barge and rail and completed for Model Bs rolled off the end of the vertically integrated production lines.

Ford’s River Rouge Industrial Plant

In 1932 Henry Ford’s son commissioned the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint scenes of the nearby Ford factories, which can today be viewed in the Detroit Institute of Art. Rivera’s murals captured the heat, energy and dynamism of the factories, but also the political and social tensions of time. Rivera was a communist, while Ford was a staunch opponent of labour organisations, and Rivera’s murals show workers working in harmony with machines, but also hint at the struggles between management and employees, which would become much more marked in the following decades.

One of Rivera’s murals commissioned by Ford

Through industrialization, both the human bodies of the workers and the landscape came to serve the needs of industrial capital, and women and men experienced this in very different ways, with men working in the factories, and women, by and large, staying at home, restricted to the private sphere.

The Ford family grew incredibly wealthy through their mastery of technology and production lines and their extraction of surplus value from the labour of workers. Mass production was perfected by Ford – his famous Model T was launched in 1900, and by 1918, half of all cars in America were Model Ts.

Ford not only transformed the economic organisation of society, he also helped transformed its social organisation – he invested much of his profit into social welfare – by establishing an art institute and the Henry Ford Hospital, for example, while the relatively high wages he paid to his workers helped them to increase their consumption and enjoy new leisure opportunities, helping to forge a new consumer culture. This compromise between capital and labour is known as Fordism.

The Henry Ford Hospital

In the 20th century, Detroit became a booming metropolis. The Ford Factory was only the largest of 125 motor factories in the city in the early 20th century, and there were many other industries to. The population of Detroit soared from under 80 000 in 1870 to over 1.5 million in 1930, making it the fourth largest city in America at that time.

The assembly lines and the rhythms of work gave new arrivals a purpose and set in motion a relentless movement towards modernity and progress. Mass production would lead mass employment and in turn enable mass consumption. Detroit was the world’s greatest working-class city in the most prosperous nation on earth. The automotive industry and the giants such as Ford and General Motors and Chrysler that dominated Detroit were what California’s Silicon Valley and the tech monopolies of Apple, Google and Twitter are to today’s era of smartphones, software and social media.

The Great depression of the 1930s struck a devastating blow as automobile sales fell rapidly, but the city was revitalized by the Second World War as car factories were rebooted to produce tanks and planes for the US military and its allies. Detroit became the ‘arsenal of democracy’.

Following victory the whole American economy was booming and a second great period of Fordism surged forwards as mass automobile ownership spread across the United States. Great chrome Cadillacs and luxury Lincolns sailed off the production lines in the 1950s like polished ocean cruisers….

Cars manufactured in Detroit in the 1950s transformed America

However, from the late 1960s onward, a combination of the growth of industrial competition from abroad and underlying social and ethnic tensions in Detroit would lead the city into a spiral of de-industrial decline…..

The Decline of Detroit 

Beneath the gloss of mass consumption Detroit always hid inequalities.

On July 23 1967 police busted an illegal after-hours salon in a black neighborhood. 85 people were arrested and tempers rose between the detainees and the officers. A five day riot ensued which was quashed by 17000 police, national guard and troops resulting in over 7000 arrests.

Black people were expressing their resentment over limited housing and economic opportunities and a history of racial discrimination and violence. Detroit increasingly became a black majority city as the white working classes moved to the suburbs (80 000 left in 1968 alone), leaving Detroit city in a decline of mass unemployment and rising crime.

A downward spiral continued into the 1970s as American manufacturers faced increasing competition from abroad and moved production to cheaper locations to cut cost, leaving further unemployment in their wake.

Downtown Detroit 1991

Detroit city further suffered because remaining managers and workers moved out to the suburbs or smaller towns just outside of the city – because tax revenue was heavily reliant on property taxes, Detroit city lost a considerable amount of its tax revenue, while the administrative centers around Detroit were well funded by the relatively well off workers who had moved to them. Detroit became a divided city – with wealthy, well funded suburbs and a declining, underfunded central city authority with massive social problems.

The 2007/08 financial crisis shook the auto industry to its core – but companies such as Chrysler and General Motors were bailed out by the Federal government, and have since recovered – Across metro Detroit half a million people still work in manufacturing, 130 000 in the auto industry, and they earn 75% above the state average salary.

Detroit city, on the other hand, did not fare so well during the financial crisis and in 2013 underwent the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.

To emphasize the inequality in Detroit:

  • In Livingstone county, which is 96% white,  the median household income is $73000
  • In Detroit City, which is 82.7% black, the median household income is $26, 000 and nearly 40% of people live in poverty.

Detroit south of the 8 Mile boundary – made famous by Eminem’s 8 Mile movie, is considered to have one of the highest murder rates in the country, and there are over 100 000 empty properties.

 

There are some positive development projects going on in Detroit, but the stark difference between rich and poor in the wider region is plain for any observer to see.

Lessons from Detroit 

Detroit is important because it is a signal case for what is happening in many industrialized countries around the world – across the rust belt in America and mirrored in Southern European countries and northern England as well.

It reminds us that impoverishment is not just limited to the global south.

Sources: 

Modified from Andrew Brooks (2017) The End of Development (I’d classify this as alefty take on development!)