Detroit Five Years After Bankruptcy

by Josh Roose, Tom Barnes and Bryan S. Turner

27 Jul 2020, 1:47 p.m.
Josh Roose, Tom Barnes and Bryan S. Turner


The bankruptcy of the City of Detroit in 2013 was widely viewed as ‘rock bottom’ for a city that once stood alone as the world’s centre for automotive manufacturing. Detroit’s population had dwindled from a peak of almost two million in 1950 to just 700,000 in 2013, whilst the city had amassed almost $20 billion in debts. Notwithstanding Detroit’s extensive history of racial tensions, the city would, to outsiders, become the definitive global case study of catastrophic industrial decline. Yet there is of course much more to the story.


As researchers from Melbourne, Australia, we were drawn to conduct research in Detroit in an attempt to seek international comparative examples for our own work on industrial decline and the impending death of the automotive industry in the cities of Melbourne and Geelong as the major car manufacturers left the country. The right-wing coalition government had announced in 2013 that subsidies to the car industry in Australia would be cut and the Federal Treasurer famously dared General Motors Holden (Headquartered in Detroit) to leave the country; they subsequently did. We approached the research in Detroit very conscious of our position as outsiders, and fortunate to be welcomed by colleagues at Wayne State University, whose location central to the challenges faced in the city offered valuable insights.


Research drew on three main data sources including the January-March 2016 State of the State Survey (SOSS), a random phone based survey conducted across Michigan three times a year since 1994, 28 semi-structured interviews with civic leaders across Detroit a year after the city emerged from bankruptcy and an analysis of legal documents, court transcripts and media related to the bankruptcy court proceedings from July 2013 until, November 2014.


Based on external representations, we expected to encounter widespread animosity to the bankruptcy and subsequent austerity measures amongst the population. Whilst initially opposition to the bankruptcy and austerity measures was strong, a year later residents of Michigan and Detroit had both evolved to frame the bankruptcy as a ‘necessary evil’. Survey data indicated that 80 per cent of Detroit residents considered the city ‘better off’ whilst interviews added a layer of nuance to this, with many interviewees framing the city as having ‘turned a corner’, with the bankruptcy as having ‘saved the city’ and as giving the city a ‘fresh start’. This was despite the significant initial pressure to support austerity measures.


It became clear that our initial expectations were wrong; yet a significant body of theoretical work provides explanatory frames for this paradoxical process. Here we drew upon Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and specifically his argument that political actors need to win consent to legitimise their roles and actions. In this case, we argue, the deployment of language has been a particularly powerful tool, with elites appropriating the language of working people to frame the bankruptcy and austerity as necessary; a process by which ‘normative grammars’ take the form of storytelling as a means of political legitimation.


This article adds a layer of complexity to how we understand the response of working people to extreme austerity and economic coercion, encouraging scholars to explore invisible, yet no less significant structures of power that shape these responses.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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