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Abstract

This dissertation offers an ethnographic accounting of state intervention into financial crisis in Detroit that tracks the fiduciary and actuarial restructuring of the body politic’s assets and obligations alongside the conceptual and affective restructuring of its foundational narratives and exclusions. While the economic heft of the city’s industrial legacy has been restructured outside of the city’s taxing authority and state’s regulatory reach, its majority-black, working-class constituencies have persisted in fighting for self-determination for the embattled municipality and a fair share of the American prosperity. While the city’s reputation has been sensationalized by images of industrial ruination and criminal corruption, these headline-grabbers did not force the low-income city into its acute cash crisis: rather, structural insolvency was precipitated by predatory refinancing of critical infrastructures and public pensions that crashed along with subprime mortgage markets. Facing its own deficits and falling behind in the accelerating global competition for technological innovation, the State of Michigan declared emergency for its largest city in March 2013, courting controversy by authorizing an emergency manager with extraordinary powers to bypass the city’s charter, elected officials, and collective bargaining agreements, so as to remake structures of governance from the balance-books up. As protests mounted challenging the compromise to democracy disproportionately borne by African-American citizens and the integrity of state promises to workers, Detroit’s emergency manager heightened anxieties by filing for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, threatening to liquidate invaluable public assets and decimate retirement benefits promised to a civil service integrated by the city’s first black mayor. Yet, the court’s redemptive legal arc served to air and relieve these anxieties, while forcefully offering its closed-door negotiations as a means of adjudicating historical disputes and building consensus around promise revitalization. By November 2014, the City of Detroit successfully exited Chapter 9 as the largest and most complex case in US history, in record time. This ethnography illuminates Detroit’s case as: 1) a precedent in legal practice, in subsuming constitutional principles of citizenship into contractual standards of due process; 2) a model for municipal governance, stewarded by expensive experts, oriented by private investment, and consumed by public safety. While the technical and procedural content of bankruptcy proved opaque even to stakeholders in the process, I show the court’s process offers its own pedagogy of post-bankruptcy citizenship in its dramatic staging of the city’s fall from financial grace and resurrection to a life of renewed credit. I argue the story of the body politic imposes a locus of identification through which to conceive the differential status of debtors, overdetermined by a virtue-ethics grounded in white normativity and decontextualized from the entangled histories and predatory markets by which debt is valued. The image of survival by which the City escapes fiscal death thereby renews the conceptual armature of the American social contract, while offering a feeling of rupture from its protracted structural contradictions: a hyper-masculine ideal of self-sufficiency and tamed risk, predicated on writing off bad debts of slavery and settlement, feeding off reproductive labors of care, and riding on a secular claim to divinely-authorized domination. I suggest it is easier to reject this ideal than the embodied disciplines, anticipatory logics, and racial calculi of emergency management that protect it, structuring the very rules of the game of surviving restructuring institutions, whether as investors/workers, citizens/scholars.

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