Recently I viewed two different stories. One was an article in the Washington Post by Saif Al-Azzawi titled I despised Saddam’s police state, but the Islamic state would not exist under his rule. The other story was Anthony Bourdain’s hour long program on the city of Detroit. Both these stories reported how once relatively thriving cities have been nearly destroyed. Understanding the history of these two cities, we can see a certain similarity as to the cause of their demise.
Saif Al-Azzawi reported that up until he was aged ten, he lived an uneventful childhood. His parents were middle class. Iraq was a largely secular state. His mother wore western clothes and never covered her hair. People from Arab countries came to Iraq for its university and its health care system. Then, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States went to war.
The U.S. military deliberately bombed the infrastructure of Iraq. This meant that Al-Azzawi’s family no longer had access to water. A water tank was placed on the roof of their home, and this was the family’s new source of water.
The Iraqi weather can be swelteringly hot. Without electricity there was no air-conditioning. Yet at night windows were closed to keep out the mosquitoes.
In 1990 before the war a flat of eggs cost two Iraqi dinars. By 2003 these same eggs cost thousands of dinars. Al-Azzawi’s job as a pharmacist paid him 50,000 dinars per month.
Al-Azzawi’s conclusion from his experiences was that “All these people–both Americans and Iraqis who have died since 2003–died for nothing.”
Certainly Al-Azzawi considered Saddam Hussein to be a tyrant. However, the United States government has a routine policy of supporting ruthless dictatorships. In fact, the U.S. government supported Hussein for about thirty years.
The standard of living improved in both Iraq and Iran when those nations nationalized their oil reserves. The United States used the C.I.A. in both these nations to overthrow the governments that nationalized the oil. In Iran the Shah came to power, and in Iraq Saddam Hussein became the dictator.
When a popular revolution overthrew the Shah, the U.S. government gave support to Saddam Hussein in his war against the revolutionary Iranian government. I’ve read estimates that as many as one million people died as a result of that war.
After the United States armed forces defeated Saddam Hussein the soldiers in the armed forces of Iraq lost their jobs. Today the United States is waging war against the organization ISIS. This organization is made up largely of former Iraqi solders who lost their jobs when the United States took over Iraq.
The story of Detroit is different. In order to begin to understand what happened to this city we need to look at a bit of labor history.
We might say that the labor movement started in this country in the year 1877. This year marked the end of the relatively democratic reconstruction governments in the former confederate states. This date also marked the defeat of the Native American nation known as the Nez Perce. This defeat marked the near end of about 100 years of genocidal warfare against Native Americans.
1877 also saw the great rail strike that erupted in that year. For almost sixty years the labor movement waged numerous strikes against employers. The large majority of these strikes ended in a defeat for the workers. Then, in 1934, during the middle of the depression, three strikes won union recognition. These victories paved the way for millions of workers to be organized in unions.
During the Second World War, the United States government demanded that workers forget their labor demands and join the war effort. This meant that corporations would reap windfall profits while the wages of workers were frozen.
During the war years the United Mine Workers Union violated the governments no-strike laws. Also, Black workers continued the fight against the institutionalized discrimination they faced.
After the war, working people continued their fight against our real enemy. The largest strike wave in the history of the United States erupted all across the nation.
Outside of Detroit in Dearborn, Michigan, the Ford Motor Company built their River Rouge plant. Henry Ford pioneered the idea of an assembly line to manufacture automobiles. Before the assembly line the production of autos was highly skilled requiring blueprints for each vehicle.
Many workers in Michigan didn’t want to do the monotonous, dangerous, and stressful work on the assembly line. Black workers, who had escaped the Jim Crow segregation in the South were looking for any work they could find. This is why Henry Ford began a deliberate policy of hiring Black workers.
Under these conditions, the United Auto Workers Union needed to fight against discrimination in this country. By doing this they demonstrated to Black workers that the union supported their interests. Eventually the United Auto Workers Union became one of the largest in the nation. The union as well as auto production was centered in the Detroit area.
U.S. government assistance to auto corporations
The original method of mass transportation in the United States was rail. Rail transport is much more fuel-efficient than automotive. Rail can also run on electricity that doesn’t need to be powered by oil. Oil reserves in the world will begin to run out in the next fifty years. Ever since 1945 there have been over 30,000 deaths due to auto accidents every year.
With this kind of record, one would think that the government would have made it a central priority to promote rail transport. This would have especially been effective in cities where the entire population could be supported on rail transport.
However, this did not happen. Politicians in this country took money from all the corporations associated with the manufacture of autos. In turn, the government promoted the idea of building highways, roads, tunnels, and bridges for auto transport. The money spent on these efforts must have amounted to trillions of dollars in government spending.
Without these roads, automobiles have little value. In other words, the automotive corporations may have had some of the biggest government handouts in the history of the world.
Because of these government handouts and the labor of workers in the auto industry, the auto corporations became the largest in the world. Because of the union, workers began to have benefits they never had before. Workers won the eight-hour day, and many could afford a home, a car, and even college education for their children.
Then, with no vision of the future, the auto companies manufactured eight cylinder gas gulling cars en mass. This appeared to be all right while the price of gas was about thirty cents per gallon. During these years the quality of new cars was not a major concern. When I grew up, they used to call a FORD a, “Fix Or Repair Daily,” or a “Found On the Road Dead”
The Japanese auto manufacturers saw how they could take advantage of these problems. Japanese workers began to produce quality cars that were fuel-efficient. The result was that the Japanese auto companies took about twenty-five percent of the auto market away from the big three U.S. auto corporations. Today, Toyota is the largest auto manufacturer in the world.
The population of Detroit has declined from nearly two million in 1950, to about seven-hundred-thousand today. All social services have been cut, including the fire department. Abandoned homes have been used for selling drugs. The speculation is that neighbors dealt with this problem by burning abandoned houses down. These fires keep the fire department extremely busy.
The auto corporations not only shut down entire facilities, they didn’t have the decency to properly demolish the buildings where these corporations reaped super-profits. Anthony Bourdain likened the auto factory ruins to the ruins of ancient cities in Europe. These ruins are also monuments to the effects of massive government support to the auto-manufacturing corporations.
Yes, this is the story of two cities. One city was nearly destroyed by war. The other was nearly destroyed by development. The United States government needs to be held accountable for the destruction of these two cities.
After the Cuban Revolution, the new Cuban government made a decision not to prioritize the modernization of the city of Havana. The priority was to develop the rest of the island that had been neglected due to imperialist exploitation.
The development of Cuba has been hampered by the fact that the government only had a single crop economy to work with when they came to power. Another problem has been the embargo by the United States government.
However, with all these problems, today every Cuban has a lifetime right to health care and education. With its extreme limitations Cuba has made the needs of the people its top priority. Recently, Cuba has sent 165 health care workers to Africa to aid in the fight against the Ebola virus.
As a result, today Cuba has an infant mortality rate that is equivalent to some of the most developed nations in the world. This infant mortality rate is much lower than that same rate in the urban centers of the United States.
The reality of Cuba today demonstrates how the tale of two cities doesn’t need to be the future of humanity.