THINKING FOR OURSELVES
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 2011
President Obama’s effort to pass a new jobs plan has opened an important conversation about what kind of economy we want. This week his plan to reduce the deficit has sparked basic questions of fairness and what kind of obligations we have to one another.
Detroit has much to offer to this national debate. As the old song says, many of us have learned that our lives are more than our work. And our work is more than our jobs.
We have lived with the loss of jobs for decades. Beginning in the 1950’s we saw the introduction of new technologies into manufacturing. Automation promised to take over much of the back–breaking work of car production and to provide new opportunities for leisure. For a brief moment unions talked of 30 hour work weeks and job sharing.
Instead, automation meant layoffs. Over the decades it became clear to all of us that high tech mass production means high unemployment. Auto plants that employed tens of thousands were able to produce the same number of cars with a few thousand people.
These changes in production were coupled with the flight of capital. Plants closed down in Michigan and reopened in Georgia, Mexico and points south. Looking for cheap labor and lax environmental controls, manufacturing industries closed shop in communities that had supported them for decades. They took their jobs and left behind decaying factories, polluted waters and spoiled land.
Many of our neighbors followed the hope of jobs, going south and west. Bumper stickers read, “Last one out of Michigan, turn out the lights.”
Those of us who remained spent years looking for the next big job producing industry. Out of a growing desperation we flattened whole communities for new high tech auto plants. We offered tax breaks to entice employers into the state, eroding our ability to provide basic public services. We built hotels, entertainment venues, stadiums and casinos, all with the hope of reviving jobs. None of it worked. Detroit has consistently had almost double the national unemployment rate for decades.
These experiences taught some of us a hard truth. The era of high employment through mass production that built cities like Detroit is over. It is now commonplace to say that Detroit is the first post-industrial city.
For many this means a city in ruins. But for growing numbers it has meant a reimagining of urban life. More and more people began to say, “Jobs aren’t coming back.” Yet we realized there was much work to be done. In pockets around the city people began to look at how we might create lives of meaning, providing for ourselves and one another.
This spirit sparked the development of community gardens. It is fostering new forms of art and entertainment. It is creating imaginative community enterprises and small businesses committed to community development as well as personal profit.
These efforts provide the foundations of hope for a new city. Their energy and vision are why young people are seeing new possibilities in Detroit. Following passions to create, to produce and to care for one another, a new kind of economy is slowly emerging.
Detroit is teaching all of us that there is much work to be done. We can build together a new kind of economy that fosters the development of people and communities. This new economy is not based on mass production or large-scale industry. Instead it is finding the ways to support one another as we build lives following our passions while providing for our neighbors and ourselves.
We are living in the midst of a human transition as great as that from hunting and gathering to agriculture. It is a moment to explore new possibilities for how we shall live.