The dead motor
We had, up here in the High Doganate, succeeded until this moment in resisting the temptation to mention Detroit, a city which does not seem able even to declare itself bankrupt successfully, now forty-six years after it should have begun processing the papers. For the entire city resolved to surrender to rioters in 1967; to not even clean up after them. That was when they should have declared complete public incompetence, & submitted their collective application to be enslaved.
Looking at the pics the media have exhumed of the decay & abandonment, it struck me that the ruins of Detroit are more haunting & beautiful than Motor City ever was. And yet part of this beauty is in the ache for that lost past: for the men & women who made “normal” lives here, once upon a time — who went about their jobs & housework; raised whining kids, made their mortgage payments; watched movies & television; pressed their noses into the shop windows; ate hamburgers, & macaroni with processed cheese. And see the pride of the world in these gutted mansions, where the more successful accountants used to live. How grand they must once have been: the turrets & the gardens & the servants bringing iced tea!
(Of course, there is always more to it than that, more in every life, even among the most craven materialists. And perhaps that, too, is easier to see when the people are ghosts, & nothing can be concealed any longer; & even the houses are ghosts, & we can see right through. We know, that because they were human, these people who lived & died in Detroit had joys & loves, fears & hatreds, precious memories & precious things. We know that each was a secret universe, shared only in moments with his neighbour, & then only partly seen. We know, or should know, that each life was worth living, regardless of the externals. But here I am only discussing the externals.)
Detroit embodied our North American promise of “equal opportunity” — wealth in return for willingness to work. Arbeit macht frei. The promise was empty, as all such promises are empty, that turn on the wheel of fortune. The city was built on false promise. It died. It is true that you could once get a job, in return only for docile behaviour; that you could once get rich, if you had the right sort of insolence, & luck. But even those promises stale-dated.
And now that part of Michigan is a suburban encampment of economic refugees; a ring in space around a black hole. From the Google height, of low orbit, one may detect the crescent of malls & parking lots, the spread of docile labour in their ticky-tack boxes, & of gated management in their monster homes — all of it pushing outward in search of fake freedom, or spinning inward to the expanding hole. And rather ugly, except the flowers & trees.
The term that stabs is “equal opportunity.” The rich & poor had always lived together, everywhere else in the world. One might argue that America’s chief export has been “the gated community,” at the crown of a system of segregation or “apartness”; of by-laws enforcing neighbourhood by class. It works with retailing by market stratum, & “lifestyle” advertising to postal location; everyone within a given neighbourhood having tastes & wants much the same. By increments we have become a continent gerrymandered for “democracy” — for the purposes of mass marketing, & mass politics, also much the same.
Detroit developed this product of the Industrial Revolution. It went beyond what Birmingham & Manchester had achieved. Race was added as a self-organizing factor, & another poison to hasten its demise. The city became an array of non-communicating cells, a “multiculture.” European cities survive to the degree that they do not import this disease, & people of different classes still mix. But each is now under siege, being ghettoized by unassimilable immigration, into mutually uncomprehending sheikhdoms.
London we may still have, for some years yet, because after the riots two summers ago the neighbours came out in solidarity with their brooms, the morning after — in Hackney, Brixton, Chingford, Walthamstow, Peckham, Enfield, Battersea, Croydon, Ealing, Barking, East Ham. It was as if they were confronting the rioters, by turning the other cheek. I was deeply impressed by that spontaneous response, from Londoners I thought had nothing left in them; by all those “middle class” petit-bourgeois types (of quite various races), actually taking responsibility upon themselves, & not waiting to blame the politicians they had elected. And when the Mayor turned up to deliver a little speech, his constituents drowned him out with, “Where’s your broom?” — until he stopped blathering & started sweeping.
The “white flight” to the suburbs — not only in Detroit — was, it seemed to me even at the time, the domestic equivalent to the American surrender in Vietnam. Ditto the surrender of college administrators to over-indulged, rioting students; & a hundred other indications that defeat was now being accepted by the “silent majority,” wherever it was made available to them. They would vote for Nixon, & leave it to him. They would meanwhile retreat inside their (literally or figuratively) gated communities. Having lost round one, they would now wait, patiently & apart, until they were entirely outnumbered. They would, when required, pretend to like it, & give lip-service to anything the Zeitgeist now ordained. They would even agree to be called “oppressors,” when in fact they were simpering cowards.
It is almost half a century since Americans (including Canadians) decided that our habits & values were not worth defending, that in the larger Darwinian view we ought to be extinct. Everything from Roe v. Wade to “same sex marriage” declares, in one ascending voice: “We are not worth saving.” And now we discover that even some fey Europeans have more spine: one vertebra still connected to another, among people not yet isolated by class; a moral order not as fully disintegrated, & therefore less amenable to arbitrary change. (Though pretty darn amenable notwithstanding.)
I noticed several Detroit photographs were spoilt, aesthetically, by the sight of glass office towers in the distant background — erected, as I understand, thanks to the major subsidies, insider tax breaks, & focused planning corruption of urban regeneration schemes. They are, or were, Nanny State’s way of saving the city — big business & big government in partnership to provide gleaming anthills of fresh bureaucracy. And now they ruin the harmony of the ruins. But they will fade in when they, too, are abandoned in due course.
Detroit was marked for self-destruction from the beginning, by the grand scheme. It was Henry Ford the Soviets so admired. Good old Henry “Bunk” Ford provided their model of industrialization: smokestacks, not spires. The Red Chinese in their turn have done a better job of exploiting the history-is-bunk worldview, building instant cities, starting from Shenzhen — perhaps the ugliest urban agglomeration ever assembled by compelled human labour, until it was overtaken by a dozen more in the same country. They have created, on the improved Detroit model, fantastically large conurbations in which “the people” may work & sleep, eat & defecate; skyscraping concrete hives for their worker bees. Cities built yesterday; without history, without flavour, without “soul.” And now, strange to say, I gather Chinese planners have begun to fear these omissions, & seek some “spiritual” component they can somehow plug in, before the whole thing blows up in their faces.
The desire for bread alone will never keep people working. It will only keep them working until they get the bread.
This is a principle of economics that Joseph Schumpeter partially discerned, or saw more clearly than the other Austrian economists — that liberal democratic capitalist materialism is, in its very nature, self-defeating. It cannot generate anything but decadence. It decays inevitably, in meandering welfare socialism. At heart (not according to Schumpeter but to me) materialism is boring. In a sense, Detroit died of boredom. It made money, lots of money once upon a time. But it had very little use for the money. A few nice museums, & churches while there were still Christians, but the rest was all production & consumption of essentially worthless goods. That is to say, goods that are merely the means to some end that was never thought through; not goods of any intrinsic merit. Production line goods, like cars: faster & faster ways to get nowhere.
Decades ago, the high-paid workers began welding beer cans inside the fenders on the automobile production lines. They were dying of consumption. They couldn’t be bothered competing any more. “These jobs aren’t good enough for Americans.” They were only good enough for Asiatics, who work desperate & cheap. (And now they are welding beer cans to the fenders in Shenzhen.)
That, I earnestly believe, is where the “opportunity” society checks out: at the Dollarama. Man cannot live by bread alone, nor on empty abstract expressions: “democracy,” “progress,” & all the other cant. We need another reason to live, as an older, & quite explicitly Christian, Middle America once had. As even Detroit had, before religion & family bled away.
You can’t kick start an economy that has burnt itself out, as the Japanese have also discovered, through the generation since they caught up with America, materially. You can’t regrow a world without children, or rekindle belief without belief. But let me not get carried away. Eventually hunger will kick start us again: hunger alike for bread & for meaning.