Sunday, January 01, 2012

Zombie America - installment 1

(First in a series)

I was awake most of the night last night (New Years Eve/New Years Morning) thinking about things over which I have no control.  The downward spiral of obsessive thought began with something very personal - my mother's mental decline into dementia - but I was quickly distracted into much more far reaching national, international, even species (human species) issues over which I have no control.

America is in decline. The signs are all around us.  I started thinking about those signs in the wee hours last night (and will discuss some of them in a few moments). For decades I have been waiting for the "beginning of the end," the moment when it all begins to unravel, the day that the "shit-hits-the-fan."  [I'm currently reading a right-wing paranoid post-apocalyptic sci-fi mystery that does a good job of imagining the consequences but not the causes of the day "The Shit Hits the Fan."] Last night, it came to me that that day, that moment came and went a long time ago. We're on the downward slide, not waiting to go over the crest.

We probably never will be able to fix a firm date on the beginning of the end of United States as a developed first world country. The causes are far too complex and are inevitable results of the multiplicity of contradictions buried within industrial capitalism. If you're the kind of person that wants to understand the whys and look for the beginnings, there are plenty of good books you can read, such as:
  • Grant McConnell's Private Power and American Democracy (Vintage Books 1966)
  • James O'Connor's The Corporations and the State: Essays in Theory of Capitalism and Imperialism (Harper and Row 1974) and The Fiscal Crisis of the State (St. Martins Press 1973). [The latter book goes to show that social theorists on the left understood about the dangers of deficit spending decades before the first Tea Partier took up the chant].
  • Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Avon Books 1977)
  • Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison's The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry (Basic Books 1982)
  • Donella Randers, Jorgen Meadows, and Dennis Randers' Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update (Chelsea Green Publishing 2004) [original Limits to Growth was 1971]

Most of these books have more recent editions, but I refer you to the originals so that you can see that causes of Americas decline was thoroughly analyzed and well understood thirty or more years ago; some people did bother to listen, they just lacked the numbers, the money or the political power to do anything about it.
What are these signs of decline in to third world status that I'm talking about? This isn't an exhaustive catalog, just a few telling indicators.
The first sign is the abandonment, boarding up and eventual leveling of American towns and urban and suburban neighborhoods.
It began in the rural areas.  The long term demographic transition of industrialization, that began in the 1880's in the United States, involves the shift in population from rural areas, small towns and villages In the 1950's the declining population of rural communities is viewed as progress. "How you gonna keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?" asks a popular song of the 20th century, speaking of soldiers returning from World War I and World War II. Mechanization and science take over farming, fewer farm workers are needed, and industrial growth in the nations cities and suburbs beckon young people from farm to city. American government farm policy of the 1950's was to actively wring the people out of agriculture.
There was a brief exurban surge in the late 1960's and early 1970's, of "back to the land" folks, former hippies, disenchanted urbanites and the first trickle of elderly retirees taking advantage of improved social security benefits to return to their childhood home towns. I helped document this five or six year demographic reversal for sociologist and demographer Thomas Ford at the University of Kentucky in 1976.  But it was short lived and the larger population shift away from rural areas re-emerged in the late 1970's.
It's was then that we begin to realize that there's something wrong, and that people who wanted to be farmers and small town dwellers were being forced off their land and out of their communities.   By the early 1980's farmers started to organize nationally and regionally, and popular culture got on board with institutions like Farm Aid (first concert in 1985), to assist farmers and farming communities facing crushing debt from mechanization.
But rural farming communities were not the only ones hemorrhaging population, the mechanization of coal mining and timbering both, helped depopulate non-farming rural areas as well.
Today its become so common place that we've stopped noticing it, stopped being aware that far from stopping, it is getting worse than ever. You drive through small rural towns through out this nation and what you see are empty store fronts, boarded up windows, and empty lots where buildings have been torn down. Around those empty down towns, there are empty houses, in various stages of decay and demolition.
But it didn't stop in the small towns. The industrial cities that rural people flocked to from 1880 to 1970, are now experiencing abandonment, decay and desolation. We noticed it first in the inner city slums of east coast cities in the 1960's. Factories moved out, property values skyrocketed, middle class families moved out, and slum landlords turned once prime housing into substandard apartments for poor people who paid exorbitant rates for tiny pockets of ill-maintained space. Then along came urban renewal and gentrification in the 1960's and the 1970's. Convention centers and upscale shops got built, upper-middle class urban professionals renovated 100 year old row houses in "transitional" neighborhoods, and built rental apartments in their basements. Only the deterioration of the inner cities continued around the convention centers, and not all urban neighborhoods made the "transition".
In some cities whole neighborhoods became ghost towns, boarded over, condemned and in some cases razed. While portions of most of the large industrial cities of the east coast, and upper mid-west have been lost, there are some cities, like Detroit that are more striking than most

Photo of Detroit skyline copyright by Z. Fein Photography

Only about half the population lives within Detroit city limits compared to the city's height in the 1960's. Gone are the automotive jobs, and so are the people, leaving behind empty skyscrapers, office buildings, schools, police stations, and thousands of empty homes, and empty lots where homes once stood.
We know these things, we see the pictures of the deteriorating urban landscape in our movies and television shows, as the back drop to gritty stories of crime and drug wars. We forget that those are not movie sets, but are real places that are no longer habitable neighborhoods and communities.
The second indicator of decline will be discussed in the next installment.

No comments: