Conservative Policies and the Rust Belt — A Review of “Manufacturing Decline”

Hackworth, Jason. Manufacturing Decline: How Racism and the Conservative Movement Crush the American Rust Belt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.

Reviewed by Kenneth Alyass

During the turbulent 2016 election campaign Donald Trump spoke at a rally in Akron, Ohio, about the crisis of American cities. In what was advertised as a “pitch to minority voters,” the then Republican frontrunner claimed, “you could go to war zones in countries that we’re fighting and it’s safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats.” Forty years earlier Ronald Reagan had told an angry crowd in the South Bronx that Jimmy Carter’s interventionist policies were the source of the poverty and abandonment of their neighborhoods. Why have conservatives tried to position themselves as champions of the Rust Belt?

In Manufacturing Decline: How Racism and the Conservative Movement Crush the American Rust Belt Jason Hackworth makes the bold and persuasive argument that the decline of Rust Belt cities was neither fate nor misfortune. Rather, it was a planned, strategic, and deliberate political program launched by conservatives in the wake of the social upheavals of the 1960s and economic crises of the 1970s. Hackworth argues that images of urban distress, especially of cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland, have been used to “craft dog whistle messages to racially resentful whites in the Midwest and beyond.” These messages not only consolidated votes for the Republican Party, but also became the justification for imposing limits on the autonomy of majority black cities. While structural forces such as deindustrialization and suburbanization drove the flight of people and capital from these cities, the “othering” of such places exacerbated and hastened urban dislocation there. The criminalization, demonization, and penalizing of these cities created what he terms “conservative bonding capital,” which melded together white fears of Black political power and urban crisis with critiques of state intervention to build support for deeply unpopular austerity and deregulation projects.

Husks of factories like this stretch across the gridded streets of the city, a reminder of the town’s industrial past. Patrickklida, “View of the Fisher Body Plant in New Center, Detroit,” 2009, Wikimedia Commons.

Organized into two parts, the book examines how the forces of urban decline, racial threat, and the conservative movement interacted with each other to produce a set of policies focused on deprivation and carcerality. The chapter on the “conservative myth of Detroit,” in particular, illuminates how conservative scholars and think-tanks have utilized the woes of the city to denigrate local Black leadership while justifying the notoriously anti-democratic emergency management imposed on the city in the wake of the 2013 bankruptcy. By portraying Coleman A. Young, the city’s first Black mayor, as a figure of racial hostility and corruption, conservatives succeeded in casting Black Detroiters as unworthy of state aid and as deserving of a heavy dose of austerity and policing. Ironically, as Hackworth points out, Young was far more cooperative with the business community than his white predecessors and regularly levied layoffs and budget cuts when the coffers ran dry.

Despite the historical reality, conservatives in Michigan (especially in the state legislature) boosted the myth that associates blackness with urban decline. They formulated a logic of disinvestment, deprivation, and discipline that reconfigured urban policy to contain and constrain majority Black cities. Austerity and law-and-order politics exacerbated the Rust Belt crisis. And the social, political, and economic upheavals generated by decades of these policies were and continue to be spun into a web of myths that culminate in justifications and “evidence” for more austerity and policing. The result is that despite being the largest city in Michigan, Detroit has been politically defanged, disinvested, and overpoliced. This slow-moving shock gutted the social economy, promoted deregulated market conditions, and opened the city for capital. Hackworth’s book provides us with evidence of the racialized origins of neoliberalism in the United States, something most scholars either touch on briefly or avoid entirely.

An abandoned house in a field of snow. In the background is a larger apartment building, also empty. N4yana23, “KATSU Detroit,” 2013, Wikimedia Commons.

Situated at the intersection of urban geography and history, the book positions the emergence of the conservative movement in a coherent theoretical grounding while contextualizing it within the many social, economic, and political crises of the late twentieth century. The schema he sets up of the ways in which the interplay of urban decline, racial threat, and the conservative movement combine to produce “organized deprivation” reorients the history of Rust Belt cities—away from declensionist narratives and towards a more active and dynamic way of understanding the rise of the right, neoliberalism, and the urban crisis. When you put this book down, you leave with a powerful understanding of the forces and whose choices made the Rust Belt what it is today. Urban decline was not a natural reaction like the metal that oxidizes into rust, but a planned and crafted program to manufacture decline in what was the nation’s social democratic heartland: the Midwest.

Kenneth Alyass is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Harvard University. He studies modern U.S. history. His proposed dissertation, “From the Motor City to the Murder City: Race, the Carceral State, and the Deindustrializing City,” examines the history of policing, black politics, and economic crisis in late twentieth century Detroit to understand how black-led cities responded to the upheavals of the period.

Featured image (at top): Massive steel furnaces that once dotted the urban landscape in the Midwest. Arthur S. Siegel, “Hanna Furnaces of the Great Lakes Steel Corporation, Detroit, Mich…” 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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