James and Grace Lee Boggs, ‘Rediscovering the American Past,” Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, 1974
“Thus the United States became the only nation in history whose best and brightest minds first led a revolution from colonialism in the name of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all men, and then built a contradiction into their society by explicitly denying human dignity to a quarter of the population they aspired to govern. The Constitutional Convention had exposed and polarized real contradictions in the country. But in the interests of unity, the Founding Fathers covered up the contradictions. They evaded their political responsibility to carry out ideological struggle and create a principled political leadership for the country. They thereby laid the groundwork for the Civil War. ”
James and Grace Lee Boggs, ‘Rediscovering the American Past,” Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, 1974
Living for Change News
October 24th, 2017
REVIEW: The Fifty-Year Rebellion
“Detroit has been the in the forefront of the deindustrialization of the urban cores and the institution of neoliberal policies in U.S. cities that primarily hurt communities of color,” argued Scott Kurashige in a recent interview with the International Examiner.
Kurashige, a Japanese-American whose mother’s family is native to Seattle, is a University of Washington, Bothell, history professor and writer of the recent book, The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit. The election of President Donald Trump and the strong move toward pro-corporate environmental and labor policies, in addition to the support for aggressive police tactics that disproportionately hurt communities of color nationwide, is not surprising to Kurashige. Detroit has already seen these policies and in full force and so it comes as no surprise to Kurashige, a former Detroit resident, that they are being exported across the United States.
Kurashige and his publisher, the University of California Press, released the book to coincide with the 1967 rebellion of African-Americans in Detroit against police brutality, sub-standard and segregated housing, and discrimination in the workplace. Kurashige’s first chapter addresses the causes of this rebellion while emphasizing that to many whites and those in government it was a “riot.” Kurashige quotes Chinese-American activist Grace Lee Boggs as saying, “We in Detroit called it the rebellion [because] there was a righteousness about the young people rising up.” This is juxtaposed with a white Detroit police officer quoted by Kurashige who described the rebellion as “more than a riot […] this is war.” Kurashige quotes a member of the Michigan National Guard, called to Detroit by Governor George Romney, as saying “I’m going to shoot anything that moves and is black.”
This first chapter sets the tone for Kurashige’s 143-page, quick moving and easy to read book that portrays Detroit’s demise and conflict in non-ambiguous racial terms. Kurashige states both in his book and interview with the Examiner that Detroit was ravaged by white flight that severely hurt Detroit’s public services and left the Detroit area segregated into a decaying, black urban core and an economically prosperous suburban area.
This decay of Detroit’s African-American, urban core was furthered by predatory lending practices that disproportionately hurt African-American communities. Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy was the culmination in a process of marginalization of Detroit’s black community at the hands of a neo-liberal, white elite and a number of willing black collaborators. Kurashige details the emergency management of bankrupt Detroit by Kevyn Orr, a black corporate lawyer doing the bidding of Wall Street at the expense of Detroit’s struggling yet still existing black-majority communities.
Kurashige does an excellent job of finding smoking guns that vividly demonstrate the racism inherent in prominent individuals and policies aimed at dispossessing black Detroiters of power and dignity. Kurashige leaves no room for plausible deniability regarding the roots and motivations for the hollowing out of Detroit. For instance, at the beginning of his fourth chapter that details the racist neoliberal management of Detroit by Orr, Kurashige quotes Detroit’s chief financial officer under Orr, a 60-year-old white man named Jim Bonsall, as asking “Can I shoot anyone in a hoody?” as a way to belittle Trayvon Martin. The comment was made in front of many black co-workers as part of a discussion on how to prevent arson during Halloween.
Kurashige also points out the hypocrisy inherent in the bailouts of Wall Street from 2008-2009 but the unwillingness to bailout a bankrupt Detroit in debt to many of those same Wall Street banks.
When the Examiner asked Kurashige to make a comparison between the historical experience of Detroit’s communities of color and those of Seattle, Kurashige said the major difference is that Seattle did not experience anywhere near the level of white flight that Detroit did. Seattle always maintained a majority white population and as such its downtown never suffered the same neglect as that of Detroit.
Detroit, on the other hand, was and still is a majority black city that fully suffered the withdrawal of white capital.
This withdrawal of white capital, while one of the causes of Detroit’s economic decay and ultimate bankruptcy, is actually seen by Kurashige as presenting a chance for positive and creative change. In Seattle, the local economy is strong and even those who work in lower-end jobs are invested in working within the existing economic and political system because they too can gain to a certain extent by a strong economy. In our interview with Kurashige, he cited the successful campaign for a 15-dollar minimum wage and the general acceptance—however reluctant—of the business community as an example of how those on the low-end of the socio-economic scale are working within the mainstream economic and political system in Seattle.
In Detroit, however, the mainstream economic and political systems have failed so horribly that people have no choice but to look for alternative beyond the system. Kurashige’s book ends with a chapter dedicated discussing alternative local business models, ways in which Detroiters have combated aggressive, inhuman police techniques, and alternative types of schools that have been developed by and for the Detroit community. In a neoliberal economic and political system that is often imposed in a top-down manner by corporate boards and lawyers like in the case of Detroit’s bankruptcy, Detroit’s citizens are providing an alternative model to the existing system. Kurashige told us in our interview that this is crucial because “protesting and pointing out problems is not enough. An alternative social, economic, and political vision is necessary” to enact real change to an increasingly radical and inhuman neoliberal system.
Unfortunately, as Kurashige himself laments, his chapter on Detroit’s alternative communities is far too short and limited. When asked about other resources to further explore these communities, he points to the book he co-wrote with Grace Lee Boggs titled, The Next American Revolution, and the documentaries, Urban Roots, Grown in Detroit, and The American Revolutionary as good starting points. He also recommended attending the Detroit Allied Media Conference in June as a way to see up close the alternative communities and visions in Detroit.
Do Labels Define a Person’s Worth?
An Evening with Author Janice Fialka
Thursday, November 2, 7 pm
Crazy Wisdom Book Store
Ann Arbor, MI
Her book, What Matters: Reflections on Disability, Community and Love, is the powerful story of Micah Fialka-Feldman, who has an intellectual disability, his community, and the ground breaking journey of full inclusion in K-12 schools, college work and life. Learn what it takes to ensure that labels such as “low IQ” do not define one’s ability to contribute to the world and live a meaningful life. Discover why Krista Tippet of On Being praises the book as “mind-opening, life-altering, soul stretching.” A book of practical guidance, wisdom, and humor for all, because we all need to be included. Janice Fialka, LMSW, ACSW is a nationally-recognized speaker, author, award-winning social worker and advocate on issues related to disability, inclusion and family-professional partnerships. She is also a compelling storyteller.
The mother of Micah and Emma, Janice brings grace and grit to her conversations. Hosted by Bill Zirinsky, owner of Crazy Wisdom.
For more information: Contact Janice Fialka at www.danceofpartnership.com or email@example.com
Automation and the End of Wage Labor: Job’s News or Boggs’s News?
In June, a group of junior researchers from the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University Berlin invited me to chair a session of their discussion group on “The Future of Work”.
Just like in the US there is a lot of talk in Germany about this topic these days, particularly about the possible effects of automation on the labor market and society in general. The tone of this conversation is often alarmist. And how could it be any different? In a society which rests on the premise of wage labor, in which the individual is defined and cherished as a wage laborer first and as a human being second, a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers which predicts automation to have terminated up to 35% of all current jobs in Germany by the early 2030s (in the US, even 38%) can only be perceived as Job’s news.
This development would gravely increase the number of those at risk of securing the basic means of subsistence in a wage economy. Without a wage one has no sufficient access to food, clothes and shelter. But this is not what politicians and commentators seem to be concerned about. Rather, they are spooked by the damage mass idleness supposedly does to the character of those who are no longer needed. Many see the social peace, the prerequisite for our economy to continue working undisturbed, at risk. An opaque fear is taking hold in Germany and beyond. Looming on the horizon is a growing jobless surplus population which can no longer be controlled by the disciplinary corset of wage labor.
To provide a different perspective on this scenario, I decided to have the group discuss excerpts from James Boggs’s The American Revolution. In this pamphlet Boggs makes the bold statement that “automation is the greatest revolution that has taken place in human society since men stopped hunting and fishing and started to grow their own food”. How can he say that, though? Through supplanting humans with robots, automation pushes more and more people out of their jobs, and thus plunges them into existential danger and misery.
This seems to be anything but revolutionary if one understands revolution to be the process of continuous evolution towards social and personal emancipation. Here, Boggs simply asks us to alter our perception; to see automation not as a job-destroying threat, but rather as a possible means to liberate us from the burden of wage labor and the social system it rests upon. Undermining the wage relation, automation and the transformations it brings about, urge us to rethink the very foundations of our economy and society, to “find a new concept of how to live and let live” in Boggs’s words.
One researcher in the group connected this idea to recent discussions in Europe and the US about the implementation of an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). The UBI would secure people access to their basic means of subsistence while freeing them from the necessity of engaging in wage labor. As a result, they would be free to use their capacities to care more for each other and the environment, to engage in politics and social action, to be creative or contemplative, or simply to rest.
Doing away with the necessity to engage in wage labor also calls on us to rethink our definition of who has the right to live in our society, Boggs points out. In a wage economy only those able to engage in wage labor have the unquestionable right to live. Those who cannot work or are no longer needed are pushed into precarious conditions which threatens their very survival. Unable to produce, their right to continue living in our midst is also questioned. They become subjects to be controlled, policed and incarcerated—deviants, outcasts, prisoners.
Thus, defining human beings only according to their ability to engage in wage labor, ultimately deprives them of their humanity. Automation, Boggs highlights, finally presents us with the means to transcend this inhumane way of thinking, to help us become “more human human beings”.
Inspired to have these kinds of conversations based on what we had read, the participants of the discussion group were shocked to find out that Boggs had published The American Revolution already in 1963. His ideas seem so timely; perfectly fit to provide a fresh perspective on our current moment. This shows us that those voices from the past we have not been aware of—partially because we simply did not know they existed or have deliberately been taught to not know them—can help us make sense of our present predicament. It is the task of the historian to help those voices find listeners today. Because they can help make the difference.
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