Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 16, 2011

Imported from Detroit

Filed under: financial crisis,workers — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

One of the most widely-discussed commercials that premiered during the Super Bowl this year was for the Chrysler 200. It features Eminem, the misogynist white rapper from Detroit, in an effort to dramatize the slogan “Imported from Detroit”.

The ad does not shrink from showing images of urban decay that these words accompany:

What does this city know about luxury, huh? What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well, I’ll tell you — more than most. You see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.

Because when it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from as who it’s for. Now, we’re from America, but this isn’t New York City or the Windy City or Sin City, and we’re certainly no one’s Emerald City.

It also shows images from the Detroit’s storied past, including an identified mural that is unmistakably 1930s WPA type art, with muscular auto workers on the assembly line. It turns out that the mural Detroit Industrial was painted by Diego Rivera, a Mexican artist with well-known sympathies for Leon Trotsky. His wife Frida Kahlo, a great artist in her own right, had an affair with Trotsky when he lived in Coyoacán.

For a good overview on Rivera’s mural, I recommend the article Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry: What Was, Is and Will Be whose author is unidentified, although obviously something of an expert on left culture. He or she writes:

In 1933, during the Great Depression, Diego Rivera completed his monumental mural Detroit Industry in the central court of the Detroit Insitute of Arts. The commission was made possible due to a large donation from Edsel B. Ford, the son of Henry Ford and the President of Ford Motor Company.  The 27-panels of fresco capture a unified and optimistic vision of Detroit industrial life.  Created after a month of observing the inner workings of Ford’s River Rouge complex the mural tells a story of a meticulously organized and efficiently productive factory.  On the north wall assembly line employees of all races work together pushing, pulling, and building the various parts of motors and engines. On the south wall the plant workers continue welding and riveting bodies of automobiles in different states of completion. It is hard to image the sense of union and hope that Rivera expressed in these paintings coming out of the Detroit that we know today. In the over 75 years since the creation of Rivera’s mural Detroit has been through a tremendous amount of change. It went from being the golden automobile empire of America to being the host of deadly and damaging race riots to a city struggling with drug abuse to a ghost town of post-industrial collapse and crime and violence. Detroit is steeped in this history, yet its current identity does not end here. It also embodies a frontier-like spirit. With its artist’s collectives, activists and experimental architects Detroit feels like it is on the verge of becoming something exciting and new amidst all of the urban decay and ruins. There is no better time than at this transitional point in the city’s history to re-examine the mural that once embodied all the power and glory that is now lost and to trace it’s meaning from its inception in 1932 to its role today in contemporary Detroit.

The Detroit Industry mural was created in the monumental fresco style. In the same way that Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescos of 1305 speak to the power of catholism and the early renaissance, Rivera’s frescos speak to industrialization and man’s relationship to industrialized work. Considering that Rivera belonged to the Communist Party his homage to industralization in a capitalist country seems to expose a personal dichotomy. Yet Rivera maintained a marginal Marxist belief that technology would speed up the destruction of a capitalist society and in turn social inequality, “as portrayed by Rivera, machines were benevolent and triumphant, the redeeming engines of the utopian future” (Hamill 156). When Rivera arrived in Detroit to begin work on the murals the city was in a state of turmoil:

Rivera came to Detroit at the depth of the Great Depression in the spring of 1932. In most ways, things couldn’t have been worse. Half the autoworkers in the city were out of jobs. The banks were all closed, with the city printing its own worthless scrip just so people could pay bills. A month before Rivera’s arrival, the Ford Hunger March had taken place, when police shot dead four demonstrators at the Rouge River plant (Herron 679).

Rivera believed that the machines of recent technology would liberate man from the devastating forces of nature and social inequality (Anreus 206). His aim in depicting this idealized vision of industrialization and work was not to accurately document the current reality of Detroit industry but instead to inspire a hope and faith that Detroit would overcome its present dire situation.

One can imagine the clever copy-writers hired by Chrysler purposely including Rivera’s mural since as was the case when it was originally created it, like the ad it appears in, was meant to inspire a hope and faith that Detroit would overcome its present dire situation–a situation that the big 3 auto makers had a major role in.

In distinction to the period that Detroit was about to enter into when the mural was commissioned, the trade union movement is in no position today to challenge the malefactors of great wealth, as FDR dubbed them.

Although the Youtube clip shown below is for a movie that exists only in someone’s imagination (what they call a concept trailer), it is a pretty good depiction of Detroit realities in the late 1930s. I got a chuckle out of seeing Charlize Theron cast as the Trotskyist leader of the woman’s auxiliary Genora Johnson!

These struggles were from the heroic days of the UAW. Today, it is reduced not only in numbers but in class consciousness. Once a part of a fighting movement, now it is a hollowed-out shell good for lavishing its members money on candidates who return the favor by kicking them in the teeth.

After being owned briefly by private equity firm Cerberus from 2007 to 2008, 55 percent of Chrysler ownership went into the hands of the UAW. Or more specifically, the union’s retirement health fund. In exchange for assuming the risk of a troubled company, the UAW made a series of concessions. Most notably, all new hires would be paid $12 to $14 per hour, just one step up from Walmart or Home Depot and competitive with non-union companies in the South like Honda and Toyota.

The World Socialist Website had this to say on the agreement:

The UAW, which is being advised by the Wall Street investment firm Lazard, will gain seats on the auto companies’ boards of directors and will play a major role in restructuring and downsizing the firms, from product selection and ensuring “competitive labor rates” at key suppliers, to reviewing the company’s global production plans.

Once thousands of jobs are cut and the workers are stripped of what remains of the gains won in past struggles, the share value of Chrysler and GM will rise, guaranteeing vast profits for Wall Street and its junior partner, the UAW.

The UAW is seeking to ram through the new contract with Chrysler in a ratification vote today—less than 24 hours after workers were given the UAW’s list of contract “highlights.” Even what the UAW executives have chosen to include in their handout to the workers—as always, a dishonest and self-serving document designed to conceal more than it reveals—demonstrates that the UAW is a “union” in name only.

Everything workers have traditionally associated with a trade union—the right to strike, higher wages and benefits than non-union workers, shop floor protections, a chance to retire with a secure pension and health care benefits—has been jettisoned.

There will no longer be even the pretense of collective bargaining and contract guarantees. Instead, according to the contract summary, wage and benefit rates “will be based on Chrysler maintaining an all-in hourly labor cost comparable to its US competitors, including transplant automotive manufacturers.”

In other words, the UAW brass was carrying out the same agenda that the Governor of Wisconsin is carrying out against public workers unions. The fact that the company is mostly owned by the workers (whatever that means) should give ideologists of co-ops something to chew on.

The Chrysler ad is not getting fairly heavy play on television now, but without Eminem’s presence—only his voice-over.

The notion of an automobile renaissance in Detroit is rather far-fetched, if one thinks that workers will be part of it. Unlike Michael Moore’s misty-eyed nostalgia for the partnership that once existed between labor and capital under FDR, those days are gone forever. Barack Obama’s connivance in shafting the UAW rank-and-file should be evidence enough of that, even though probably nothing could shake Michael Moore out of his Democratic Party illusions.

Also of interest is the question of American manufacturing making a comeback, even if the workers are reduced to wage levels barely capable of keeping a roof over their heads. Is a new cycle of capital accumulation in store? Are we seeing a “creative destruction” in Schumpeterian terms that can lead to a new expansion of the means of production?

British Marxist economist Michael Roberts thinks not. On his blog he asserted that “US capitalism is no longer a progressive force in the development of productive forces.” He did not use the word progressive in the sense that it is used on Rachel Maddow’s show but in the Marxist sense:

But US capitalism has now got old and less and less progressive. The US capitalist economy now has more sectors of its economy that act as a parasite on the productive sectors of the economy, living off the value generated there. These parasitic sectors do not produce value but merely usurp or extract that value from the productive sectors, indeed to the point where they seem more profitable. These unproductive sectors include finance, real estate, insurance (called FIRE), wholesale merchanting, advertising and marketing and government. Many of them may be necessary to capitalism in lubricating the system with credit or providing a healthy and educated workforce. But they are at a cost to the productive sectors, like manufacturing, agriculture, mining, utilities, transport and communications.

His graphs are very instructive, including one that shows that “by 1937, the productive sectors of the US economy were predominant, contributing nearly 60% of annual output. The really parasitic parts of the economy (FIRE) were still little more than 10% of annual output.”

As it turns out, 1936 and 1937 were exactly the years in which the Flint Sit-Down strikes took place. It is not too hard to figure out that when manufacturing predominated in the U.S., the workers had much more leverage in wresting demands from the bosses. Closing down GM, Ford and Chrysler plants in the late 1930s were tantamount to small general strikes that could force the bosses to stand down. Today, a sit-down strike at the plant that churns out Chrysler 200s would likely lead to the UAW brass condemning the workers and very possibly persuading the bourgeois investors in the company to relocate it to Mexico or shut it down completely.

Leon Trotsky and Diego Rivera’s Marxism is “Fordist” in its conceptions. It posits a country that is heavily industrialized. In our “post-Fordist” world new thinking has to prevail. It is one thing for an advertising agency to con television viewers that the clock is being turned back in Detroit. It is much more likely that money will continue to flow toward places where the greatest return can be made. That, after all, is what the capitalist system is about, not raising up workers’ standard of living. The sooner that workers wake up to that reality, the closer we will be to transforming a system that is not only not progressive in the sense conveyed by Michael Roberts but that is a threat to our continued existence.


  1. Check this out – kunstlercast.com/shows/KunstlerCast_143_Imported_From_Detroit.html

    Comment by Fred Murphy — February 16, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  2. “Leon Trotsky and Diego Rivera’s Marxism is “Fordist” in its conceptions. It posits a country that is heavily industrialized. In our “post-Fordist” world new thinking has to prevail.”

    I agree. And what this means has to be thought through.

    I Like the post but I have some quibbles/questions/thoughts. What does it mean to say, as Roberts does, that “US capitalism is no longer a progressive force in the development of productive forces”? I would assert that this is not obvious. Globally capitalism seems to be developing productive forces quite rapidly. ‘US Capitalism’, assuming for the moment that it still exists in some sense as a discrete entity, has a big role in this. It seems to me we are talking about development of productive forces in the US domestically whether by US, foreign or transnational capital. Maybe this is true domestically but it seems to have a lot of regional variation and variation by industry sector. Certainly, the auto industry in Detroit is not coming back any time soon. I also wonder if the characterization of FIRE as simply rentier isn’t simplistic. It seems to me that some components of this play a vital role in the functioning of capital and the economy as it currently exists. It in fact seems to me ‘Fordist’ to dsimiss this sector as simply rentier, though there also rentier components. What is true is that the landscape of capital and class has complete and irreversibly changed from the 1930’s to now, and we have to deal with that.

    Comment by dave x — February 16, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

  3. I don’t necessarily agree with Michael Roberts but I thought it would spark discussion by throwing him into the mix.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 16, 2011 @ 8:57 pm

  4. I could tell. And it has.

    You posted a link to this interview with Jeffrey Sachs on the list a while back:

    You said he sounded like Nader. And he does. And it is a remarkable interview. But Sachs is a very different person than Nader and he represents very different social forces. Nader is basically petty bourgois but Sachs is and has always been a voice for Big Capital, very powerful, very financialized, transnationalizing Capital. It seems to me that this is an indicator of a political crisis in the US that is largely internal to the capitalist class. A crisis of ‘governance’ if you will. Obama came in, heavily supported by the tech and financial sectors, and he was going to generate all these to tech-oriented investment opportunities, create a ‘green economy’. This basically fell flat. There are components of this in the new budget as well but many doubt that they will get through. It seems to me that this does represent the agenda of a powerful section of the capitalists but the political system is basically all blocked up and very dysfunctional. Maybe dealing with that is what this:
    is all about? I don’t know.

    Comment by dave x — February 16, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

  5. misogynist, yeah, but Eminem’s had some good songs.

    Comment by Jenny — February 16, 2011 @ 9:38 pm

  6. And so misogynist. Is there anything contained in the concept ‘misogyny’ which implies the songs are musically bad? Aesthetic and moral categories are not mutually reducible and can’t be substituted for one another.

    Comment by dave x — February 16, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

  7. Yes, a remarkable interview (Jeffrey Sachs)… a remarkable amount of truth coming out of a man of his background — and in the mainstream media, to boot. Things are getting interesting.

    Comment by alan2102 — February 16, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

  8. Murray Bookchin and others on the left often wrote about the liberating aspects of technology and industrial production. We would have more and more free time as machines fulfilled our needs with less human participation of the kind previously associated industrial production. We could then create a sustainable society in which we decide how to best give expression to our capabilities.

    It’s wasn’t that far-fetched. The only problem, and its an enormous one, is that all that increased productivity, and resultant decline in manufacturing employment, has been directed towards enriching a small segment of the global population, while impoverishing much of the rest, particularly those who were employed in industrial production. The neoliberal solution is, as described by Geithner the other day, the creation and marketing of more and more exotic forms of credit to induce people to marketize their social life to the extreme. For Geithner, the more that FIRE predominates as the dominant sector of one’s economy, the healthier that it is, the more strategically placed it is to benefit from emerging global trends. Given the current unassailability of such thinking at the G-20 level, an even more explosive social catastrophe is probably likely.

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 17, 2011 @ 12:58 am

  9. “Today, a sit-down strike at the plant that churns out Chrysler 200s would likely lead to the UAW brass condemning the workers and very possibly persuading the bourgeois investors in the company to relocate it to Mexico or shut it down completely.”

    So what do you suggest they do?

    Comment by The Idiot — February 17, 2011 @ 10:24 am

  10. just so you know, the narration of the commercial is very obviously by some movie-trailer-type announcer, and NOT by eminem, who only speaks a couple lines at the end and in person (ie, not “narration”). at least try to tell the difference in the voices, and you will seem like less of an old-timer out of touch with the youth and popular culture…

    otherwise good article

    Comment by much younger than louis proyect — February 17, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

  11. So what do you suggest they do?

    I have no idea. People in the labor movement will have to figure this out.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 17, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

  12. @The Idiot. I would humbly suggest that the workers in Detroit take over the town and convert it into a liberated zone in the heart of the United States, that they draw resources from wherever possible and deploy them to build their people, their children, their women. That they focus on their wellbeing, their health, their education, that they restore and refurbish the urban infrastructure to foster a vibrant collective life. I also suggest that the left in the U.S. and the world over support the efforts of the workers of Detroit to rebuild their town on a new technological, social, and human foundation.



    Comment by Julio Huato — February 17, 2011 @ 8:37 pm

  13. “I also wonder if the characterization of FIRE as simply rentier isn’t simplistic.”

    Simplistic? Maybe. But I think it’s still valid no matter how many people shout “producerist”. Withholding your labor just isn’t much of a threat in a low-job rentier/welfare/police economy.

    Comment by Rojo — February 17, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

  14. Oh really? The US is the biggest manufacturer in the world. If the workers shut that down for any period of time it would effect the entire planet. Of course the capitalists know that. Why do you think serious strikes are threatened with National Guard attacks?

    Where do you think value comes from?

    Comment by swpatrout — February 17, 2011 @ 11:56 pm

  15. The US is one of the biggest agriculture producers as well. Should the focus be on farmers?

    The US is still the largest manufacturer but the manufacturing employment trendline isn’t good.

    Ignorning the evolving nature of a national capitalist economy is a mistake.

    Comment by Rojo — February 18, 2011 @ 12:17 am

  16. […] for Detroit, Diego Rivera, and Eminem.  Deconstructing the most watched Super Bowl ad (Louis Proyect) Related Articles:Around the Web 1/18Around the WebAround the WebAround the Web todayAround the Web […]

    Pingback by Around the Web | Left Eye On Books — February 18, 2011 @ 1:21 am


    Comment by jUAN — February 20, 2011 @ 7:00 am

  18. @julio: wonderful thought. very difficult project of course. drop me a line at alan2102 [at] gmail.com if you like to discuss.

    Comment by alan2102 — February 20, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

  19. This company should have been left to die along with GM. Crappy cars. Buy Ford, they didnt take any tax payer money or buy any other manufacturer.. just not Chrysler nor GM

    Comment by chryslershouldcease — March 1, 2011 @ 2:07 am

  20. unfortunately wsws, sectarian descendants of Gerry Healy, has declared that the UAW is not really a union anymore and refuses to defend it, laying down its main fire on the UAW as the principal prop of capitalist relations in auto, an approach it took during the last strike. In doing that it confuses the union as a working class institution with the bureaucracy running it, providing a left cover for ruling class company efforts to demoralize the rank and file.

    Comment by Tom Cod — March 2, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

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