Manufacturing consent, manufacturing decline
Do we have a “Classics in Urban Geography” series in Urban Geography? I can’t remember. Can I nominate Jason Hackworth’s book, Manufacturing Decline: How Racism and the Conservative Movement Crush the American Rust Belt? This is a truly remarkable book. In a crisp, gripping, concise narrative packed with fresh insights on every page, Hackworth distills multiple, vast literatures on urban geography, political economy, policy analysis, and critical race theory to show how racist ideologies and practices produce a particular kind of urban system that has become central to American memory and politics. The places that were, not so long ago, the leading urban edges of positivist settler-colonial capitalist modernity – the “Fordist” cities of the Manufacturing Belt around the Great Lakes – have been deindustrialized, dismantled, and de-urbanized. These processes are neither natural nor inevitable; they are fundamentally racialized. Black spaces have been systematically rendered “pathological,” and then devalorized by the withdrawal of capital, people, and political autonomy. Urban decline was planned, Hackworth demonstrates in a brilliant spatialization of Polanyi’s maxim that “lassez-faire was planned.” Decades of comprehensive public subsidies and aggressive state interventions were designed to build and protect free-market utopias for white people. As American urban decline has become more severely racialized and spatially refined, it has been politically weaponized. From George Wallace and Barry Goldwater through Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and Ronald Reagan’s treasonous appeals to “states’ rights” to Donald Trump’s “American carnage,” conservatives have refined a powerful electoral strategy of deploying manufactured mythologies of black neighborhoods as the pathological cause of an urban decline that is always at risk of spreading everywhere: “We don’t want to become Detroit!” is a polyvalent policy mantra uttered in cities across the U.S. and around the world. The agnotological, twisted logic of blackness→inner city→decline reproduces a dog-whistle urban decline discourse that speaks directly to hardcore “racially resentful” whites while providing a veneer of benevolent social concern appealing to “racially anxious” whites.
To call Manufacturing Decline a classic, however, is dangerous, perhaps offensive. The term implies the ultimate kind of conservatism. On today’s cutting edges of urban theory, “classic” is an epithet. The word doesn’t just mean what I intend (“a work of enduring excellence”); it also carries the linguistic stratigraphy of Eurocentric Western elitism: “a literary work of ancient Greece or Rome,” from classicus, Latin for “the highest class of Roman citizens,” “of the first rank,” and even, in the context of something “typical,” an “example of guilt by association” (Woolf, 1977, p. 206). Hackworth’s achievement is a dialectically revolutionary assault on classical assumptions, logics, and hierarchies. It’s an urban-theory counterpart to Martin Bernal’s (1987) linguistic and archeological reconstruction of the Afro-Asiatic histories of Western civilization in Black Athena, and a forensic empirical analysis of the racialized spaces produced by Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) political economy of mass media in Manufacturing Consent. At first glance, Hackworth’s fusion of critical race theory and fine-grained spatial analysis renders a distinctive twentieth-century American story; but it also allows us to see the wider vistas of past and future in globalizing racial formations. Manufacturing Decline enters the literature at the precise moment of departure of Immanuel Wallerstein (1930–2019), whose travels in Africa in the 1950s helped correct what he called “the most stultifying” parts of his American educational heritage; Africa taught him the lesson of the century, “the struggle to overcome the control by the Western world of the rest of the world” (Genzlinger, 2019). To be sure, Wallerstein’s admonition that his world-systems analysis is not a theory, but rather “a protest against neglected issues and deceptive epistemologies,” is attuned to contemporary currents in urban theory emphasizing the provincialization of the West, the Global North, America, and the whiteness of centuries of knowledge production (Roy, 2016; Sheppard et al., 2013). This is urgent and long overdue. And yet even as rich historical literatures excavate deeper in the political and legal infrastructures that have manufactured American whiteness (Guglielmo & Salerno, 2012; Maghbouleh, 2017), we see new kinds of Wallersteinian world systems of cosmopolitan, post (and neo) colonial hierarchies and hybrid identities in today’s re-ascendant planetary racial formations (Robinson, 1989/2019, p. 189ff).
At the same time that America’s collapsing global imperial position now holds on by intensifying the militant mobilization of desperate white rage filtered through the disproportionate eighteenth-century colonial calculus of the Electoral College in the suburban and rural spaces of American whiteness, we see the future in the vast, complex new urban hierarchies of India, China, and so many other epicenters of today’s multipolar, transnational world system. Inequalities between and within these urban hierarchies are rationalized by variegated and distinctive ideologies and material practices, each with its own indigenous ancestry. The concept of “urban renewal” and “improvement” devised and imposed throughout the colonial world urban system has been subjected to generations of “indigenous calibrations” that “are as important to the genealogy … as its original European form” (Ranganathan, 2018, p. 1386). And yet, from Buffalo to Bangalore, from Lord of the Flies land-market fundamentalism (Hackworth, 2019, p. 138) to the “marketized improvement of the world-class city” by mobilizing “corrective behaviors related to property and propriety” to escalate the economic valorization of urban space (Ranganathan, 2018, p. 1386), the essential logic is the same. The racist “conservative bonding capital” of self-reproducing stereotypes of people and place that Hackworth diagnoses in America’s rust belt is one set of mutations in a fractal planetary circuitry of competition, capitalization, and coercion: spatial inequalities are reproduced and legitimated through the cultural and political construction of mythologies of hierarchical human difference.
When we read Manufacturing Decline alongside current debates over planetary urbanization versus postcolonial urbanism and “ordinary” cities, Hackworth’s achievement in the American rust belt helps us discern the dangerous essence of the nexus of conservatism and race in all its varied manifestations. We see one form of spatiality in the squalid work camps for immigrant Asian construction workers on the outskirts of the neoliberal urban hallucination called Dubai – which is either “a sequel to Blade Runner” or “Donald Trump on acid” (Davis, 2006, p. 49). We see another spatiality in the Indian far-right’s Citizenship Amendment Act, which stigmatizes a population equivalent to the world’s eighth largest country – the same population as Nigeria. “There’s no way to put 200 million people into a concentration camp,” Vijay Prashad (2020) reports from Kolkata during what may be the largest general strike in world history; but the “social toxicity” of the BJP’s “firm anti-Muslim agenda” certainly is able to create coercive hierarchies of civil rights. While Smith’s (1996) New Urban Frontier in America etches a racialized electoral binary in a network of rust belt cities where the precision of Hackworth’s (p. 89) analysis of correlations from 1932 to 2016 documents how “Voting Republican has become increasingly associated with whiteness,” in the P.R.C.’s western province – Xinxiang is Mandarin for “new frontier” – the largest internment of humans since the Holocaust (Kristof, 2019) is managed through the technology of “DNA phenotyping” connecting biometrics with facial recognition systems to distinguish ethnic Uyghur from ethnic Han in the CCP’s attack on what it defines as “poverty, backwardness, and radical Islam” (Wee, 2019). Another post-Cartesian spatiality appears in the luxury gated communities near Johur Bahru on the islands between Singapore and Malaysia, where the very first “public” service is a private U.S. Christian boarding school, while security is provided by a private police force employing only Chinese officers in order to reassure anxious Chinese buyers fearful of the Malay Muslims nearby (Mahrotri & Choong, 2016; Moser, 2018; Qin, 2018).
The inventory of Western racism is being embellished, and so is that of non-Western racisms. Eurocentric white supremacy is being challenged, but the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd at the September 2019 “Howdy, Modi!” rally with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in Houston, Texas narrate the emergence of ever more adaptive and resilient hierarchies. If George Wallace had lived as long as Kirk Douglas he would have invited Dinesh D’Souza and they would have sat in the front row to hear Modi declare, “Howdy, Texas!” 1 When Modi assured the crowd of 50,000 that “Everything is fine in India!”, he embodied the latest refinement of a cosmopolitan supremacy of planetary intersectional diversity that manufactures its own distinctive forms inequality, segmentation, and hierarchy. Hackworth’s brilliant Manufacturing Decline is the revolutionary classic that we must use to destroy all ideological infrastructures of inequality – the “classical” Western ideological naturalization of economic market freedoms and racist divisions of humanity as well as the multitude of reascendant non-Western cosmopolitan post- and neo-colonial urbanizations of hierarchical social difference.
Elvin Wyly University of British Columbia