Demotix/Eric Smith. All rights reserved.
“Detroit is an apocalyptic vision for when a city and a social system fails. From the moment you get to the airport of this once great American city, things start getting weirder and weirder. It’s disconcerting at first, you say ‘my god, that’s a street light being pulled down by scrappers’. Then you see a burned down house. Then you see another burned down house. Then you see fifty. And then no houses”. I was on the phone with Julien Temple, director of the documentary ‘A Requiem for Detroit’, a few days before the beginning of the “Real Life Dystopias” project for openDemocracy. The once great American city now seems to be the closest thing western civilisation has to a real-life dystopia.
A financial meltdown after the death of the auto-industry, sent the city spinning on the way to ruin. But even before that, there were other issues at hand. The city’s economic core was rotten. Built around a single big industry, its economy was based solely on capitalist growth, ignoring the busts and booms it brings with it. This economy wasn’t only unsustainable as such, but fed racial class discrimination, as Niki Seth-Smith shows in her piece for the series. When the money disappeared, the divisions were the only thing left behind. The result?
“It was like the aftermath of a war.” Temple tells me. “You get this feeling walking in the city amongst ruins, the biggest railway station in America, skyscrapers as big as the ones in NY from the 30’s, abandoned hulks. You’re looking at the ruins of civilisation, and then you realise it’s your own civilisation, not Rome or ancient Greece.”
Detroit’s decline was inevitable, it happened gradually and then suddenly, until last week its bankruptcy was declared. The dystopic condition, the “condition of suspended animation, experienced in a banal and trivial way, in which an individual is rendered passive and unable to influence factors and/or outcomes in his life, while being increasingly deprived of access to financial, cultural and social capital”, set in for good.
It’s not just Detroit that brings to mind images of the dystopias we grew up with in film and literature. Millions of displaced Syrians are facing a very rough winter in tents hastily set up near the borders with Lebanon. The beginning of their suffering was again rooted in a system that invested in divisions and economic tyranny of the few over the many. And, even in this crisis, still the drive for profit is beating down on human lives. Not only smugglers charging Syrians exorbitant amounts to get them over to Europe, but in Lebanon also, the exploitation of these refugees has no end. Molly Crabapple was recently there, writing an excellent piece for the New York Times. I got in touch with her to see what was happening on the ground:
“Lebanon denies that there are any camps (they're afraid what happened with the Palestinians in Lebanon will happen with the Syrians) but if you go to the Beka'a valley there’s one on rented land every 200 yards. People from all across the political spectrum, much fucked over by the UN, spending their life savings on painfully fixed up tents, unprepared for the coming winter. But offering you coffee and cigarettes anyway”. I ask her, “Aren’t there any international organisations on the ground there?”. “Yes, the UN (incompletely and incompetently), various Muslim aid organisations. I'm sure there are many more, but that's what I saw. Some of the private land was rented to the refugees at gouging rates. Other chunks of the land (and incomplete buildings) were given for free by sympathetic Lebanese.”
Rent-seeking is the norm everywhere, even in the face of absolute human suffering. Regardless of the name or the 'ideological label' of the system a country lives under, in the world today, we see the breakdown of the post-capitalist apparatus, the one that grew out of the 70’s, reached adulthood in the 80’s and came home to roost after the ’08 financial crisis. Extractive financial institutions set up under various guises, are enacting brutal agendas characterized by debt, soaring inequality, the trampling on human and civil rights, and the normalisation of poverty and exclusion.
In Syria, it bred civil war. In Greece, it gave rise to extreme tendencies in the country’s psyche, tendencies we all thought long buried. In Detroit, it burned houses and forced millions to leave the city. History repeats itself over again in different settings, as this isn’t of course a new phenomenon, but rather a historical reality, present in the downfall of many great and diverse civilisations, like the Roman and the Mayan. Europe as a whole has turned itself into a walled community, purposefully ignorant of its own decline. “Fortress Europe”. The place that the displaced from capitalist fallouts dream of, the Utopia. At the same time, the jail for a generation of Europeans that is paying for an unspecified crime, and the same sort of fallout in the shape of unemployment and little prospect of a future.
But it is in the very nature of this late capitalism to manifest in these extreme ways. Historically, the more extreme the extractive nature of the financial institutions ruling a society, the more extreme the reaction it produces. There is little difference between the results it can breed in the Middle East, or in Europe, past or present, as it becomes increasingly more authoritarian and out of touch. Once social trust breaks down, there’s almost no way to go back to what was previously there.
I argue that all dystopias are capitalist in nature, especially in the cinema. Informed by our surroundings, by the system we live in, it’s hard for the auteur to express anything else. Some might argue that communism and fascism have given us their fair share. But for communism, this didn’t happen before it became an extractive institution as well, under Stalin for instance, that sought to maintain power by force and benefited the few in the process, while the latter is an extreme capitalist ideology to begin with, backed by the upper classes wherever it gained power, from Italy and Germany in the 30’s, to Greece right now. That’s how extractive institutions work. And make no mistake, neoliberalism is an ideology that manifests through such institutions. After these institutions fall though, the only way to go is forward.
As Julien Temple tells me, “There’s some hope in that. When the rule of law fails everybody, people there need to come up with new rules. Rules that work for their lives now, rather than the old ones that destroyed their lives.” Costas Douzinas also argues just that, in his piece for this series.
“It is a dystopian cinematic paradise,” Temple continues, “for people who want to shoot the end of the world. Detroit is the place. But you know, the notion of cinematic dystopias comes from real dystopias. Coming back from the war, you got Jean Cocteau making ‘The Beauty and the Beast (1946)’ based on the ruins of Berlin. I think Mad Max and all those post-nuclear catastrophe films are informed by situations like Hiroshima, real examples that you see translated into expressions of cinematic dystopias."
It’s these situations that we should be following and analysing as what they are: fallouts which bear more similarities than differences. What can we hope to make out of them? The growing awareness of financial inequality and the conditions that drive poverty is a sign that, despite the massive loss our societies confront in the face of financial and cultural capital, they are making up the lack with social capital for the first time in decades. 2014 is set to see mass unrest, with movements like that of the Arab Spring and OWS springing up everywhere. Economies grow while people go hungry. New movements are bound to be born. The ones that came before may have been unfortunately co-opted by political interests, like in Egypt or Libya, or transformed into other forms of resistance, like OWS. But the rebirth of the civic identity in Turkey is a sign of hope, Ukraine’s blind demand for a European future shows that the desire for change is there, and we just need to provide the information. This is happening as we speak.
The entrenched institutions are fighting back, often with physical violence, like what was witnessed in UCL during the 3 Cosas/Cops Off Campus campaigns. Economic violence is also rampant, with Tories sniggering in the House Of Commons when told that people were fighting over cheap food in the super-markets. It’s time we recognize that behind their superficial differences and bickering, as a society, we are the victims of a global minority that prospers on our misery, and is united in more important things than mere ideology. Why Syrians suffer and why Britons suffer ultimately comes down to our leaders who studied in the same schools, hung out in the same Swiss ski centres and talked business in the same conferences. Once we see beyond their disguise, we can truly evaluate our predicament, realize our modern condition, and mobilize further to avert the true catastrophe, whose shapes we’re already witnessing.