Race, Class, and Social Reproduction in the Urban Present: The Case of the Detroit Water and Sewage System


In the last decade, espe­cially after the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis, the urban cen­ters of the Mid­west such as Chicago and Detroit, but also in the North­east, such as Bal­ti­more and Philadel­phia, have devel­oped a new dynamic: the use of the state (in the form of local or regional gov­ern­ments) to trans­fer infra­struc­tural resources and their con­trol out of or away from mar­gin­al­ized urban pop­u­la­tions, which are pre­dom­i­nantly black, brown, and immi­grant.1 These infra­struc­tures range from health and edu­ca­tional resources to nat­u­ral and civic resources such as water and sewage sys­tems. There has been a ten­dency to read these bat­tles around infra­struc­ture as just another round of neolib­er­al­ism – another exam­ple of the “shrink­ing state.” Such an approach, how­ever, seems unable to grasp how these infra­struc­tural grabs, rather than a con­se­quence of the state shrink­ing, are in fact a dis­tinct kind of raced and classed resource trans­fer mobi­lized and sanc­tioned by the state. Nowhere is this clearer than in Detroit, where the pre­dom­i­nantly white sub­urbs suc­ceeded under the cover of Detroit’s 2013-14 bank­ruptcy pro­ceed­ings to pry the pos­ses­sion of the water and sewage infra­struc­ture away from the city proper. Not only have the mostly African-Amer­i­can res­i­dents of the city lost con­trol of these infra­struc­tures, they now have to sub­si­dize the social repro­duc­tion of the pre­dom­i­nantly white, wealth­ier Detroit sub­urbs.

We frame these ongo­ing resource grabs by engag­ing with recent work that has attempted to the­o­rize infrastructure’s con­nec­tion to mod­ern forms of power. Brian Larkin, per­haps the most promi­nent the­o­rist of the recent boom in work on infra­struc­ture, has defined infra­struc­tures as “mat­ter that enable[s] the move­ment of other mat­ter.”2 As such, infra­struc­tures are sys­tems, ones which are fre­quently hid­den from view and con­sid­ered neu­tral, one of whose func­tions is to dis­trib­ute resources and gov­ern pop­u­la­tions: they “com­prise an archi­tec­ture for cir­cu­la­tion.”3 Our con­tri­bu­tion here is to exam­ine how these sys­tems of cir­cu­la­tion have been newly politi­cized and how social-repro­duc­tive infra­struc­ture, as a means for the cir­cu­la­tion of resources, has become an object of polit­i­cal con­tes­ta­tion, a means of coer­cive racial and class con­trol, and also pro­duc­tive of race and class itself.4

We take up the Detroit “water cri­sis” as a case study for think­ing about the con­nec­tion between the suc­cess­ful social repro­duc­tion of pre­dom­i­nantly white com­mu­ni­ties and the expo­sure of African-Amer­i­can and immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties to pre­ma­ture death and fail­ing repro­duc­tion. We develop in two ways the con­nec­tion between social repro­duc­tion and race. First, we track the repro­duc­tion of pre­dom­i­nantly white com­mu­ni­ties – that is, their pro­vi­sion­ing with the resources and infra­struc­tures (water, hous­ing, edu­ca­tion, etc.) for repro­duc­ing cer­tain con­di­tions of exis­tence and capac­i­ta­tion. Sec­ond, we exam­ine how race and racial dif­fer­ence are them­selves repro­duced through dif­fer­en­tial access to the means of social repro­duc­tion.5 The case of Detroit illus­trates how urban social infra­struc­tures vio­lently pro­duce and repro­duce race and its urban geo­gra­phies, shap­ing the flows of peo­ples, bod­ies, and access to resources.

We need to say a word about the class and racial dynam­ics of Detroit. The demo­graph­ics of the Detroit metro area (the sub­urbs as a whole are more than 80 per­cent white, while the city is 83 per­cent black) have shaped to a great degree the form that the strug­gle over infra­struc­ture has taken in the region. Because of the sharp demo­graphic split between white and black pop­u­la­tions across city and sub­ur­ban lines, bat­tles over infra­struc­ture have been racial­ized along a black-white/city-suburb bound­ary and marked by a per­sis­tent, ongo­ing, long-term anti-black­ness local­ized against the city of Detroit. It is crit­i­cal to under­stand how this anti-black racism has deter­mined infra­struc­tural bat­tles and the forms they have taken in the region and also how social infra­struc­ture itself has been used to pro­duce and repro­duce the area’s rad­i­cal binary racial divide. This means that the mate­rial and social lives of non-black com­mu­ni­ties of color and immi­grants, while sub­ject to dif­fer­ent forms of racism and struc­tural dis­crim­i­na­tion, are often sub­sumed by the binary racial logic dom­i­nat­ing the city’s geog­ra­phy, infra­struc­ture, and polit­i­cal dis­course. Thus, non-whites as well as poor whites in the sub­urbs often ben­e­fit from the anti-black racism of the pre­dom­i­nantly white sub­ur­ban polit­i­cal elite. Sim­i­larly, the pos­si­bil­i­ties for social repro­duc­tion of white and non-black groups within the city lim­its have been dif­fer­en­tially shaped by the anti-black racism that has marked flows of and access to infra­struc­ture in the city.

The specifics of the case of Detroit, although famil­iar to many post-indus­trial cities in the Mid­west, may not be directly gen­er­al­iz­able to other urban areas which might have more spa­tially com­pli­cated forms of class and race dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and urban/suburb gov­er­nance.6 How­ever, it can help us bring out how, across the urban United States, the social-repro­duc­tive means of com­mu­ni­ties of color and immi­grants are sub­ject to con­di­tions of intense attack through the exist­ing social infra­struc­ture. Urban stud­ies schol­ars have shown how wel­fare infra­struc­tures and the social dis­tri­b­u­tion of resources, while mak­ing a vast num­ber of mar­gin­al­ized pop­u­la­tions depen­dent on them, were deployed strate­gi­cally as a means of social con­trol and social reg­u­la­tion, of racial­iza­tion, of spa­tial seg­re­ga­tion, and of repro­duc­ing social mar­gin­al­ity. In the con­text of neolib­eral restruc­tur­ing, these exist­ing depen­den­cies are being exploited and turned against the mar­gin­al­ized in par­tic­u­larly egre­gious ways, through the sys­tem­atic expro­pri­a­tion of access to the resources nec­es­sary for basic repro­duc­tive needs. These occur through with­drawals, shut-offs and clo­sures, extor­tion, exces­sive mon­e­tary pun­ish­ment, and crim­i­nal­iza­tion, keep­ing those on the mar­gins sub­or­di­nated to a regime of poverty, debt, and exploita­tion.

All these instru­ments have the dou­ble effect of expro­pri­a­tion and pun­ish­ment, of pro­duc­ing mar­gin­al­iza­tion and pun­ish­ing the mar­gin­al­ized. While they have effec­tively become new forms of expro­pri­a­tion and dis­pos­ses­sion, they also wield new forms of dis­ci­pline and social con­trol that are speci­fic to the neolib­eral regime and that oper­ate on the ter­rain of social repro­duc­tion. Work­ing dif­fer­ently than the reg­u­la­tory regimes of the wel­fare state, these are new forms of coer­cion, repres­sion, and social con­trol over com­mu­ni­ties of color, immi­grants, and the poor, repro­duc­ing the struc­tural con­di­tions of their class. In other words, infrastructure’s func­tion is to extract, besides resources, com­pli­ance and obe­di­ence to the work and debt regime, and also to ensure that mate­rial wealth and class power remain struc­turally unavail­able to these com­mu­ni­ties.7

In the fol­low­ing, we open with how the polit­i­cal and eco­nomic elites of the pre­dom­i­nantly white sub­urbs of Detroit have waged a juridi­cal and leg­isla­tive war since the 1970s in order to pry the pos­ses­sion of the water and sewage infra­struc­ture away from the city proper before turn­ing, by way of con­clu­sion, to some of the his­tor­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions that can be derived from this case study.

Making Detroit the “Minority” Partner: The Battle for the Detroit Water and Sewage System

After years of debate and spec­u­la­tion, the largest met­ro­pol­i­tan bank­ruptcy in U.S. his­tory became a real­ity when the city of Detroit filed in fed­eral court on July 18, 2013. It was not the mayor and city coun­cil who came to the deci­sion to file for bank­ruptcy, how­ever. Rather at this moment the city was under con­trol of a gov­er­nor-appointed emer­gency man­ager. An “emer­gency man­ager” is a juridi­cal device, which exists in the state of Michi­gan, in which the gov­er­nor, hav­ing decided that a munic­i­pal­ity is in a state of “finan­cial emer­gency,” can send an offi­cial to take con­trol of said munic­i­pal­ity. The offi­cial then assumes all pow­ers of, and over­rides, the mayor, city coun­cil, and other elected gov­ern­ing bod­ies, gain­ing the abil­ity to break con­tracts, out­source work, and reor­ga­nize any part of the admin­is­tra­tive struc­ture in order to return the local gov­ern­ment to “finan­cial health.” Before Detroit exited bank­ruptcy in 2014, it has been esti­mated that over half of Michigan’s African-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion was under the non-demo­c­ra­tic rule of emer­gency man­agers.

The deci­sion by the Detroit Water and Sewage Depart­ment (DWSD) to begin turn­ing off the water of res­i­dents behind in their pay­ments in April of 2014 received a great deal of national media atten­tion.8 Roughly 30,000 peo­ple had their water dis­con­nected in 2014; 25 per­cent were unable to have it turned back on in 48 hours. More­over, in the city water rates have risen 119 per­cent in the last decade.9 Protests swelled through­out the sum­mer and were given a national pro­jec­tion when the shut offs were con­demned by the United Nations. The shut­offs came dur­ing the final months of the nego­ti­a­tion of the Detroit bank­ruptcy. As was widely reported, hold­ers of DWSD bond debt had been demand­ing that the depart­ment demon­strate that it would have a more sta­ble rev­enue stream in the future. The shut­offs and their polit­i­cal fram­ing were read as a cri­tique of Wall Street and finance cap­i­tal – which would not be entirely wrong.10

How­ever, such fram­ing of the shut-offs misses two his­to­ries. The first one is the his­tor­i­cal rela­tion, sketched above, between the social-repro­duc­tive resources of mid­dle- and upper-class, mostly white pop­u­la­tions and those of black, brown, immi­grant, and poor com­mu­ni­ties, which have shaped con­tem­po­rary urban geo­gra­phies of class and race. The sec­ond one is the sub­urbs’ long-term strug­gle to pry con­trol of the water and sewage infra­struc­ture from the city, as a means of secur­ing their abil­ity to gen­er­ate rev­enue for their own com­mu­ni­ties. While the shut-offs were a con­se­quence of debt nego­ti­a­tions and the bank­ruptcy of Detroit, they were also the result of this longer strug­gle to secure and pro­mote the social repro­duc­tion of white com­mu­ni­ties, a strug­gle which has become more acute in the moment after the 2007-08 finan­cial cri­sis.11

The Detroit met­ro­pol­i­tan region is com­posed of four pri­mary enti­ties: the city of Detroit and the coun­ties of Wayne, Macomb, and Oak­land. The city runs to the bor­der of the coun­ties where the sub­urbs begin (roughly bounded by 8 Mile Road on the north and Telegraph Road on the far west). Since the 1950s, the pop­u­la­tion of the city has shrunk and the racial com­po­si­tion has changed dra­mat­i­cally. As Math­ieu Desan writes:

Between 1950 and 2010, Detroit’s white pop­u­la­tion fell from 1.5 mil­lion to 75,000, with close to half of that loss occur­ring between 1950 and 1970, before the elec­tion of Cole­man Young [Detroit’s first black mayor]. Mean­while, Detroit’s black pop­u­la­tion has gone from account­ing for 16 per­cent of the city’s total pop­u­la­tion in 1950 to roughly 83 per­cent today, stand­ing at 590,000 (US Cen­sus Bureau). Detroit today remains one of the most seg­re­gated cities in Amer­ica if one con­sid­ers the met­ro­pol­i­tan area as a whole. Whites respec­tively make up 81.4 per­cent and 91.6 per­cent of the sub­ur­ban coun­ties of Oak­land and Macomb, while Wayne County, if one excludes Detroit, is 83.7 per­cent white and only 8.3 per­cent black.12

Like many met­ro­pol­i­tan areas, the water sys­tem of the sub­urbs was an exten­sion the city of Detroit’s sys­tem. This has meant that the city of Detroit, at least until the 1970s, con­trolled most aspects of the sys­tem, from price or rate set­ting to debt issuance to rev­enue. The sub­urbs have bought their water whole­sale from the city, at a price set by the city, and then sold it on to their sub­ur­ban cus­tomers. The rev­enue from the sys­tem was used by the city to main­tain the phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture, but as rev­enue it could also be used for any other pur­pose for which the city saw fit.

The water sys­tem, and the city’s con­trol over it, has been a tar­get of sub­ur­ban politi­cians since the 1970s. Because the coun­ties have few levers of power over the city proper, their means for doing so has been juridi­cal and leg­isla­tive and their pri­mary objec­tive has been the cre­ation of a new, regional gov­ern­ing body which they would con­trol (their aim has been to shift Detroit to being the “minor­ity” part­ner, in one county commissioner’s lan­guage). From 1977 to 2013, the water sys­tem was under the over­sight of a fed­eral judge due to non-com­pli­ance with Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency reg­u­la­tions. While Judge Feikens (1977-2010), and sub­se­quently Judge Cox (2010-13), declined to cre­ate a regional author­ity ex nihilo, the very fact of their over­sight was the first bridge­head into the city’s author­ity and their approval and pro­mo­tion of debt-led and neolib­eral solu­tions has weak­ened the city’s power over time.13 In the 1990s, when Repub­li­cans con­trolled the gov­er­nor­ship and both houses in the state of Michi­gan, sub­ur­ban Detroit leg­is­la­tors made numer­ous attempts to cre­ate a regional author­ity at the state level. They finally suc­ceeded in pass­ing leg­is­la­tion in 2004, but then-Democ­rat gov­er­nor Jen­nifer Granholm vetoed it. In an action from 2011, the mayor at that time Dave Bing and local politi­cians and com­mu­nity lead­ers protested against the attempted takeovers. It high­lighted the his­tor­i­cal legacy of appro­pri­a­tion and showed the level of impor­tance in the city con­cern­ing the value of the water sys­tem. Bing’s com­ments at this event expressed what was the con­sen­sus amongst black (and other) politi­cians in the city: “It’s ludi­crous for Detroit to own the sys­tem, to have all the debt but doesn’t have con­trol of man­age­ment of the sys­tem.” (Bing’s com­ments (being made extem­po­ra­ne­ously – thus their gram­mar) can be heard in this news­cast.))

How­ever, what pri­mar­ily white sub­ur­ban lead­ers couldn’t accom­plish through juridi­cal or leg­isla­tive means, the fiat of Detroit’s emer­gency man­ager could make real. Part of the bank­ruptcy agree­ment – ham­mered out under the author­ity of emer­gency man­ager Kevyn Orr, was the cre­ation of a regional water board, The Great Lakes Water Author­ity (GWLA). By estab­lish­ing the board, the sub­urbs finally accom­plished their goal of wrest­ing con­trol of the sys­tem from the city.14 Under this new deal, Detroit retains “own­er­ship” of the sys­tem but leases it to the author­ity for $USD 50 mil­lion a year.15 The new board is com­posed of six rep­re­sen­ta­tives, with only two from the city, one each from Wayne, Oak­land and Macomb coun­ties, and one appointed by the gov­er­nor (cur­rently Rick Sny­der). A super-major­ity of five out of six votes is now needed for any “major ini­tia­tives such as rais­ing rates, bor­row­ing money, and hir­ing or fir­ing a direc­tor.”16 What this means is that the city has lost con­trol over price or rate set­ting, and it has also lost con­trol over the rev­enue from the sys­tem. Per­haps most impor­tantly, the agree­ment states that the GLWA can step in to set the city’s rate (i.e., the price cus­tomers pay), and takeover or out­source their col­lec­tion process, if cer­tain con­di­tions are not being met.

Thus, as we argued above, the water shut­offs were not just an out­come of the need to pla­cate Wall Street bond­hold­ers but were also part of a longer strug­gle opened up by white sub­ur­ban elites, who in last decade have been largely suc­cess­ful in pry­ing key pieces of infra­struc­ture from the city.17 Sub­ur­ban author­i­ties now have a tool they can use to shield their com­mu­ni­ties from any future crises with the water sys­tem and to social­ize those crises onto the res­i­dents of the city of Detroit. Given the racist on-record state­ments of county lead­ers like Oak­land county com­mis­sioner L. Brooks Pat­ter­son, one should not hope for a lot of fair play in this regard.18 In essence, the bal­ance of power with respect to con­trol of the water sys­tem has been almost com­pletely reversed.19 Once the owner of the sys­tem, the city is now reduced to less than a cus­tomer, as the GWLA retains a de facto over­sight of city rate set­ting and col­lec­tions. Through this infra­struc­tural vec­tor, Detroit res­i­dents will now sub­si­dize the repro­duc­tive resources of upper- and mid­dle-class, mostly white, sub­urbs.

Racialized Control of the Means of Reproduction: Towards A Genealogy

We want to use this analy­sis of the Detroit water sys­tem to reflect on the his­tory of how white com­mu­ni­ties, since the incep­tion of white­ness in the United States, have con­trolled the repro­duc­tion of and access to the means of social repro­duc­tion of immi­grants and com­mu­ni­ties of color – and to reflect on how the present moment is both linked to and dif­fer­ent from these his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions. While it is not pos­si­ble for us in the short space of this essay to develop a detailed his­tory, we want to sig­nal some impor­tant ways that this con­trol over resources and repro­duc­tion (social, indi­vid­ual, and famil­ial) has been thought in the prior lit­er­a­ture in order to estab­lish a genealog­i­cal sketch of the bat­tles over infra­struc­tural resources and means of repro­duc­tion in the present.

The con­trol of black women’s repro­duc­tive capac­ity and the social repro­duc­tion of black com­mu­ni­ties was foun­da­tional to the U.S. slave sys­tem, and in the last decade a rich vein of fem­i­nist schol­ar­ship has shown how this con­trol was essen­tial to the mate­rial func­tion­ing and ide­ol­ogy of New World slav­ery.20 For exam­ple, Pamela Bridge­wa­ter argued that, as the Atlantic slave trade was closed in 1808, the south started “pro­duc­ing” its own slaves, mark­ing a shift towards dis­courses and prac­tices around “breed­ing,” rewards for hav­ing chil­dren, and coerced repro­duc­tion as a source of profit.21 As Wal­ter John­son noted in his recent River of Dark Dreams, slave­hold­ers were very clear that the social repro­duc­tion depended on “the bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion of the peo­ple they owned” or that the suc­cess­ful repro­duc­tion of white com­mu­ni­ties and fam­i­lies depended on the con­trol, not just of slave labor power, but on the resources for and “raw mate­ri­als” of black bod­ies’ self-repro­duc­tion:

It was not exactly that slave­hold­ers were indif­fer­ent to the repro­duc­tion of their slaves. Cer­tainly […], most rec­og­nized that their own social repro­duc­tion, their own legacy to the future – as a class, as mem­bers of fam­i­lies, as fathers – depended on the bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion of the peo­ple they owned. As with other forms of prop­erty, slave­hold­ers used enslaved peo­ple to artic­u­late the con­nec­tions between white house­holds and gen­er­a­tions. As a slave­hold­ers’ say­ing had it, there were three things nec­es­sary to begin­ning a fam­ily: a wife, a house, and a slave to work in it.22

The active con­trol of repro­duc­tion of black and immi­grant pop­u­la­tions has been cen­tral both to white dom­i­na­tion and to the suc­cess­ful repro­duc­tion of white com­mu­ni­ties. Repro­duc­tion of white com­mu­ni­ties in the United States was never “self-suf­fi­cient” as the logic of neolib­er­al­ism would have us believe; rather, it has depended his­tor­i­cally on the con­trol of the means of social repro­duc­tion of black, brown, and immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties, to secure its flour­ish­ing, while also serv­ing as a vec­tor of white dom­i­na­tion. Both of these aspects are present in the cur­rent appro­pri­a­tion of urban infra­struc­tures by major­ity white com­mu­ni­ties in the Detroit sub­urbs.

Post-slav­ery, the dif­fer­en­tial chan­nel­ing and appro­pri­a­tion of resources by whites has passed through three pri­mary moments. One of the crit­i­cal pieces of the New Deal, the Social Secu­rity Act, left out both domes­tic and agri­cul­tural work­ers who accounted for 90 per­cent of the black, as well as most of the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can and immi­grant, labor force in that moment.23 More­over, as Mary Poole recently showed, the exclu­sion of African Amer­i­cans was not merely the result of an anachro­nis­tic south­ern racism, but rather enacted nation­ally by “a shift­ing web of alliances of white pol­i­cy­mak­ers that crossed regions and polit­i­cal par­ties” who “shared an inter­est in pro­tect­ing the polit­i­cal and eco­nomic value of white­ness.”24 The same is the case for the post-war period in which the mas­sive flows of Fed­eral dol­lars that poured into local com­mu­ni­ties did so in ways to pref­er­en­tially sup­port the social repro­duc­tion of white com­mu­ni­ties by pro­mot­ing white flight and extend­ing seg­re­ga­tion­ist prac­tices into the sub­urbs. With the rise of the penal or carceral state that Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Loïc Wac­quant have described, these insti­tu­tional arrange­ments were con­tin­ued and refash­ioned through a trans­fer of resources out of the wel­fare state and into the war­fare state (to use Wilson’s lan­guage).25

In the case of the Detroit water sys­tem takeover, these his­tor­i­cal dynam­ics take on new inflec­tions, in par­tic­u­lar in how infra­struc­ture has been newly tied into the repro­duc­tion of race and eco­nomic mar­gin­al­ity. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has argued, racism is “the state-sanc­tioned or extrale­gal pro­duc­tion and exploita­tion of group-dif­fer­en­ti­ated vul­ner­a­bil­ity to pre­ma­ture death.”26 Although there are mul­ti­ple ways in which this vul­ner­a­bil­ity is pro­duced, the with­draw of infra­struc­ture that deliv­ers essen­tial resources, while not entirely “new,” is, we sug­gest, being recon­sti­tuted uniquely within the U.S. sys­tem of struc­tural racism as it par­tic­i­pates in spa­tial regimes of class power. In these con­tem­po­rary con­fig­u­ra­tions, the social repro­duc­tion of white com­mu­ni­ties, through state mech­a­nisms, is sup­ported by or par­a­sit­i­cally feeds upon black, brown, and immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties and resources. At the same time, the water sys­tem and its with­drawal has been con­verted into a tool for inten­si­fy­ing class oppres­sion. Res­i­dents are now forced to choose between pay­ing water bills and buy­ing food or school sup­plies. It also appears that the recent spike of fore­clo­sures in the city of Detroit can at least be par­tially attrib­uted to res­i­dents falling behind on mort­gage or prop­erty tax pay­ments due to increas­ing water bill pres­sures.

These seizures of infra­struc­ture are struc­tured by processes that are both his­tor­i­cal and emer­gent. Cer­tainly, they form a part of the geneal­ogy of state-sanc­tioned forms of resource seizure from or trans­fer out of eco­nom­i­cally and racially mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. While far-right posi­tions around the need to limit the carceral state gain steam, our intu­ition is that the com­plex sys­tem form­ing around infra­struc­ture, social repro­duc­tion, and racial and social mar­gin­al­ity rep­re­sents a poten­tially new site of repro­duc­ing class and racial dom­i­na­tion through the two-fold dynamic of both extract­ing resources from the poor and com­mu­ni­ties of color and coerc­ing them into com­pli­ance.27

To say this in a slightly dif­fer­ent way, we gen­er­ally find the most con­vinc­ing accounts of neolib­er­al­ism, such as Loïc Wacquant’s, to be those that focus not on the shrink­ing of the state, but rather on the trans­fer of resources from the wel­fare state into the carceral state. This essay has traced another form of trans­fer, omit­ted by accounts like Wacquant’s, namely, the trans­fer of infra­struc­ture. To some extent, cap­i­tal­ist cities have his­tor­i­cally been sites of pop­u­la­tion con­trol, but the state-sanc­tioned or autho­rized trans­fer of resources and capac­i­ties for social repro­duc­tion in and out of dif­fer­ently raced and classed com­mu­ni­ties via infra­struc­tural con­trol turns the city itself into a site of inten­si­fied coer­cion and repres­sion. Lim­it­ing or con­di­tion­ing access to the infra­struc­tural means of repro­duc­tion thus becomes an effec­tive dis­ci­pli­nary instru­ment involved not just in the biopo­lit­i­cal gov­er­nance of “life” (the way Fou­cault has defined the lib­eral and wel­fare state) but that suc­cess­fully mobi­lizes the specter of death, famine, home­less­ness, prison, ill­ness and aban­don to exert coer­cive con­trol.


We would like to con­clude with a few obser­va­tions of a polit­i­cal nature. Most often, the pol­i­tics one finds in the 1970s lit­er­a­ture on social repro­duc­tion blends some form of anti-cap­i­tal­ism with a turn to the state, requests to the state for fund­ing, or an ori­en­ta­tion towards the state as a site of strug­gle. We think that the present moment demands that we begin to address these his­tor­i­cal lega­cies of reliance on the state and think dif­fer­ently about pol­i­tics around social repro­duc­tion.

If pol­i­tics of social repro­duc­tion in the 1970s blended anti-cap­i­tal­ism with a turn to the state, what feels dif­fer­ent about the present is that much of the state appa­ra­tus, to deploy Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s dis­tinc­tion, has been trans­ferred from wel­fare to war­fare. It is hard to imag­ine turn­ing to the state in the present – where there once might have been points of entry for nego­ti­a­tion, coop­ta­tion, and medi­a­tion, today one more often finds doors lead­ing into the carceral, judi­cial, and depor­ta­tion sys­tems. We know, of course, that his­tor­i­cally the state and infra­struc­tural appa­ra­tus attached to it have always been used to dis­ci­pline. What is per­haps dis­tinc­tive in the present is that the wel­fare jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of these tools of dis­ci­pline has dropped away or rather the bal­ance between the state’s “wel­fare” and “war­fare” func­tion­al­i­ties has tipped more deci­sively in the direc­tion of war­fare.

These resource and infra­struc­ture seizures in the present gen­er­ate, almost imme­di­ately, acute crises of social repro­duc­tion. If you live on a block where the major­ity of res­i­dents have no run­ning water – before there can be a polit­i­cal project of wrest­ing con­trol of the infra­struc­ture back from the sub­urbs – one is faced with the imme­di­ate daily prob­lem of how to source water. At the same time, another par­tic­u­lar­ity of the present, is how one community’s cri­sis under­pins another’s suc­cess­ful repro­duc­tion. Where once there was at least a pre­tense to main­tain­ing a reserve army in con­di­tions in which they could be drawn into the labor force, now, instead of min­i­mal con­di­tions of life, one finds deep­en­ing cri­sis and a widen­ing sep­a­ra­tion between major­ity white com­mu­ni­ties in which social repro­duc­tion is pos­si­ble and those which have been increas­ingly sub­or­di­nated by the state and cap­i­tal to regimes of poverty, debt, and exploita­tion. One of the tasks of the present then will be to find a way through this sit­u­a­tion, a ter­rain of social repro­duc­tion defined more by war­fare than wel­fare, one defined less by biopo­lit­i­cal forms of wel­fare state dis­ci­pline and more by forms of the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the dis­rup­tion of group, famil­ial, and indi­vid­ual processes of social repro­duc­tion. His­tor­i­cally, strug­gles around social repro­duc­tion have opened onto the forg­ing of autonomous forms of gov­er­nance, net­works of mutual care, sur­vival, and well­be­ing, and invite com­mu­ni­ties to take back the resources and knowl­edges nec­es­sary for car­ing for each other and repro­duc­ing and con­tin­u­ing to sur­vive on a daily basis. Our sense is that autonomous forms of orga­niz­ing will be an impor­tant part of any polit­i­cal project address­ing cur­rent crises in social repro­duc­tion. Clearly though, putting into play infra­struc­tural sys­tems will also greatly chal­lenge, due to their com­plex mate­rial and tech­no­log­i­cal lega­cies, a pol­i­tics of mutual care and auton­omy. How­ever, rather than a per­ma­nent obsta­cle to strug­gle, work­ing through these kinds of chal­lenges are what it would mean to learn to strug­gle anew on the ter­rain of social repro­duc­tion in the present.

  1. This essay was writ­ten in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Rada Kat­sarova. 

  2. Brian Larkin, “The Pol­i­tics and Poet­ics of Infra­struc­ture,” Annual Review of Anthro­pol­ogy 42 (2013): 329. 

  3. Ibid., 328. 

  4. The the­o­ret­i­cal propo­si­tions advanced in this arti­cle have emerged from a long series of con­ver­sa­tions about how to under­stand the cur­rent water cri­sis in Detroit, but also other sce­nar­ios, par­tic­u­larly in Chicago, such as the pub­lic school clos­ings, the elim­i­na­tion of men­tal health clin­ics, and most noto­ri­ously, the city’s refusal to open a trauma cen­ter on the south side of Chicago after the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago closed its trauma cen­ter to south-side res­i­dents in 1988, leav­ing the entire south side of the city with­out Level 1 emer­gency care. The Michael Reeze Hos­pi­tal in Bronzeville, which was the only Level 1 emer­gency care left on the South side, sub­se­quently closed in 1991. Just recently, south-side orga­niz­ers won, after years of sus­tained and per­sis­tent strug­gle, forc­ing the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago to open a trauma cen­ter, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the City of Chicago and Holy Cross Hos­pi­tal (part of the Sinai Health Sys­tem). 

  5. Our thought on this point is very influ­enced by Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s argu­ment that we should under­stand racism as “the state-sanc­tioned or extrale­gal pro­duc­tion and exploita­tion of group-dif­fer­en­ti­ated vul­ner­a­bil­ity to pre­ma­ture death” Golden Gulag (Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2007), 28. 

  6. An inter­est­ing case in this respect is the recent 2015 water cri­sis in the city of Flint, Michi­gan. While Flint is major­ity African Amer­i­can (56.6 per­cent in the last cen­sus), it is a city that con­tains sig­nif­i­cant class and race dif­fer­ences (includ­ing a siz­able white pop­u­la­tion, Arab com­mu­ni­ties, and a grow­ing Latino pop­u­la­tion). The city, also while under an emer­gency man­ager, “decided” to dis­con­nect from the Detroit water and sewage sys­tem and to begin draw­ing its water from the Flint river. After roughly a year of pub­lic out­cry at the qual­ity of the water, it was shown that the water being sup­plied was dan­ger­ously high in lead and other con­t­a­m­i­nants – to the point that doc­tors and hos­pi­tals in Flint pub­li­cally advised res­i­dents to not drink the water. The gov­er­nor quickly inter­vened and 12 mil­lion dol­lars was found to re-attach the city of Flint to the Detroit sys­tem. We are con­fronted here with a case in which the class and racial dynam­ics are both famil­iar but also dif­fer­ently inflected. The deci­sion to dis­con­nect from the Detroit sys­tem is dri­ven by the same sus­pi­cion of (or anti-black racism towards) the city’s con­trol over and han­dling of the water sys­tem, but, clearly, the class and race dif­fer­ences inter­nal to Flint (as well as how Flint activists were able to mobi­lize state-wide and national atten­tion) impacted the state government’s response to the after­math of the deci­sion to dis­con­nect from the Detroit sys­tem. For some back­ground on the Flint deba­cle see Jim Lynch and Charles E. Ramirez, “Flint Recon­nects to Detroit Water Sys­tem,” The Detroit News, Octo­ber 16, 2015. 

  7. His­tor­i­cally the bur­den of cuts to social repro­duc­tion has fal­len most heav­ily on women, both mate­ri­ally and through the dis­ci­pline enacted on women’s bod­ies and auton­omy through the wel­fare sys­tem. For a his­tor­i­cal dis­cus­sion, see our piece in the cur­rent issue, “Repres­sion and Resis­tance on the Ter­rain of Social Repro­duc­tion.” We believe that this is also the case with respect to the water sys­tem in Detroit, and we would need to do more research to move in this direc­tion. The speci­fic forms of gen­der­ing these resource grabs have taken, and the kinds of hard­ships it has imposed on women, remain to be explored. 

  8. The deci­sion was announced in March, the shut­offs began in April; for one account of this his­tory see “Detroit Water Shut­offs Time­line,” ClickOn­De­troit, August 25, 2014. 

  9. Run­away Water Rates and the Case for Non­pay­ment,” Detroit Water Brigade, Feb­ru­ary 25, 2015. 

  10. See for instance, “Let­ter: Detroit Water Brigade Part of Larger Strug­gle,” The Detroit News, Feb­ru­ary 6, 2015. 

  11. The work of Elvin Wyly et al. in “New Racial Mean­ings of Hous­ing in Amer­ica,” Amer­i­can Quar­terly 64, no. 3 (Sep­tem­ber 2012) is inter­est­ing in this respect. One of their argu­ments is that the period before the 2008 cri­sis wit­nessed the going “main­stream” of preda­tory lead­ing, out of the urban core and into white (and mixed race) sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties. This has led to a desta­bi­liza­tion of the U.S. racial for­ma­tion. They argue that after World War Two “the inno­va­tions of preda­tory cap­i­tal were safely con­tained by the spa­tial sep­a­ra­tions of the city-sub­urb divide and neigh­bor­hood-level processes of class dif­fer­ence and racial and eth­nic seg­re­ga­tion. But things changed dra­mat­i­cally after 2001, when the appetite for yield required vol­ume – thus neces­si­tat­ing an expan­sion of pre­da­tion into the mar­kets of white­ness in Amer­i­can hous­ing” (579-580). Our intu­ition is that this insta­bil­ity in the racial for­ma­tion and its mate­rial sup­ports is part of what is dri­ving the seizure of infra­struc­tural resources, at least in the Detroit area. The dif­fi­culty of sub­urbs in secur­ing their own repro­duc­tion can be seen in the fact that on June 30, 2015 Gov­er­nor Sny­der declared Wayne County to be in a state of “finan­cial emer­gency” – after hav­ing been asked to do so by Wayne County’s chief exec­u­tive. 

  12. Math­ieu Hikaru Desan, “Bank­rupted Detroit” The­sis Eleven 121, no. 1 (April 2014): 125. 

  13. More­over, Feikens in par­tic­u­lar favored con­cen­trated, non-demo­c­ra­tic author­ity, which has had dev­as­tat­ing out­comes for the city. He allowed for­mer mayor Kwame Kil­patrick addi­tional author­ity (the abil­ity to approve con­tracts with­out going to city coun­cil) and appointed Vic­tor Mer­cado DWSD direc­tor ­– both of whom were later pros­e­cuted and con­victed on cor­rup­tion charges. The DWSD debt that was taken out dur­ing their tenure and on Feikens’ watch was one of the key ele­ments which led to the bank­ruptcy of the city. 

  14. Tech­ni­cally, a regional board had existed since 2011 but the GLWA is the first with undis­puted con­trol over the infra­struc­ture and rate set­ting and with the major­ity of seats held by the coun­ties. 

  15. How­ever, Detroit cus­tomers will pay for 30 per­cent of this 50 mil­lion. More­over, the city is required to spend this money on sys­tem improve­ments. It is explic­itly for­bid­den to divert any of the lease pay­ments into the city’ gen­eral fund. Thus, the sub­urbs are in a sense requir­ing the city to spend this money on sys­tem improve­ments that ulti­mately improve water deliv­ery to the sub­urbs. 

  16. See Esther Galen, “Detroit to cut 81 per­cent of water and sewage jobs,” World Social­ist Web Site, August 13, 2012. 

  17. Two of the most high-pro­file cases have been the regional author­ity, which in 2009 assumed con­trol of the Cobo con­ven­tion cen­ter, and the on-going dis­man­tling of the sys­tem of pub­lic edu­ca­tion in the city of Detroit. 

  18. “I made a pre­dic­tion a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reser­va­tion, where we herd all the Indi­ans into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blan­kets and corn.’” Paige Williams, “Drop Dead, Detroit!The New Yorker, Jan­u­ary 24, 2014. 

  19. The agree­ment for cre­at­ing the Great Lakes Water Author­ity also includes lan­guage, which indi­cates that if the city is unable to col­lect pay­ments, the GLWA can takeover or out­source the col­lec­tion process: the City of Detroit “is des­ig­nated as GLWA’s Agent for retail rate set­ting and col­lec­tions such that GLWA may replace the City in the event that the City does not set rates or col­lect billings to meet its oblig­a­tions.” 

  20. See for instance Marie Jenk­ins Schwartz, Birthing a Slave: Moth­er­hood and Med­i­cine in the Ante­bel­lum South (Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2006); Pamela Bridge­wa­ter, Breed­ing a Nation: Repro­duc­tive Slav­ery, the Thir­teenth Amend­ment and the Pur­suit of Free­dom (Brook­lyn, NY: South End Press, 2014); Gre­gory D. Smithers, Slave Breed­ing: Sex, Vio­lence and Mem­ory in African Amer­i­can His­tory (Gainesville: Uni­ver­sity Press of Florida, 2012) and Jen­nifer Mor­gan, Labor­ing Women, Repro­duc­tion, and Gen­der in New World Slav­ery (Philadel­phia: Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia Press, 2004). For a wide-rang­ing and more con­tem­po­rary take on race and repro­duc­tion, see Dorothy Robert’s now clas­sic Killing the Black Body: Race, Repro­duc­tion, and the Mean­ing of Lib­erty (New York: Vin­tage Books, 1997). These works trace as well the forms of resis­tance and alter­na­tive forms of inti­macy, com­mu­nity and knowl­edge pro­duced by black women and com­mu­ni­ties in these dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. 

  21. Pamela Bridge­wa­ter, Breed­ing a Nation

  22. Wal­ter John­son, River of Dark Dreams: Slav­ery and Empire in the Cot­ton King­dom (Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2013), 193. 

  23. The immi­gra­tion legal sys­tem is a vast and com­plex web of dif­fer­en­tial polit­i­cal, mate­rial, and occu­pa­tional exclu­sions, which have rarely been accounted for in work on the wel­fare state. Some of them con­sti­tute clas­sic forms of expro­pri­a­tion and resource trans­fer out of those with the most sev­ere legal and eco­nomic pro­hi­bi­tions on their lives, and research on these ques­tions is, in many ways, just begin­ning. Gen­er­ally, immi­grants with a legal “per­ma­nent res­i­dent” sta­tus have a rel­a­tively wide range of access to fed­eral and state-funded social pro­grams, although as part of the dis­man­tling of the wel­fare sys­tem in the 1990s, the gov­ern­ment fur­ther lim­ited access to fed­eral funds for per­ma­nent res­i­dents and other legally resid­ing immi­grants who qual­ify for some pro­grams. How­ever, his­tor­i­cally, undoc­u­mented and pre­car­i­ously-doc­u­mented immi­grants have always been excluded from all fed­eral wel­fare and health­care pro­grams, even though a great major­ity of them pay Social Secu­rity and Medicare taxes. For a recent study on how immi­gra­tion fig­ured into the for­ma­tion of the wel­fare state between 1890-1930, see Cybelle Fox, Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immi­gra­tion, and the Wel­fare State from the Pro­gres­sive Era to the New Deal (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press 2012). 

  24. Mary Poole, The Seg­re­gated Ori­gins of Social Secu­rity (Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina Press, 2006), 6. 

  25. In the case of Detroit, William Bunge’s for­got­ten clas­sic of Marx­ist geog­ra­phy, Fitzger­ald (Uni­ver­sity of Geor­gia Press, 2011 [1971]), demon­strates how the urban “ghet­tos” of the 1960s were not (merely) sites of aban­don­ment but rather of the mas­sive trans­fer of income, via rent, to the sub­urbs: “The afflu­ent sub­urbs own Detroit’s heart. All told, money is sucked out of the peo­ple of Fitzger­ald by the afflu­ent white sub­ur­ban­ites in Grosse Pointe like lam­prey eels suck the juices out of Michi­gan Lake trout” (132). 

  26. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag, 28. 

  27. In a recent essay, Ruth Wilson Gilmore decries a recent “ten­dency to cozy up to the right wing, as though a super­fi­cial over­lap in view­point meant a uni­fied struc­tural analy­sis for action.” “The Wor­ry­ing State of the Anti-Prison Move­ment,” Social Jus­tice Jour­nal, Feb­ru­ary 2015. Her essay is, in part, a response to mem­bers of the far right (with lib­er­tar­ian lean­ings), such as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, com­ing out in sup­port of cer­tain prison or crim­i­nal jus­tice “reforms.” In April 2015, the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice (at NYU Law) pub­lished Solu­tions: Amer­i­can Lead­ers Speak Out on Crim­i­nal Jus­tice, con­tain­ing essays from Joe Biden, Hillary Clin­ton, Ted Cruz, Mike Huck­abee, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie (amongst oth­ers). While not all the essays tout “reform” (Biden’s in par­tic­u­lar), many do and the col­lec­tion as a whole was framed as: “Mass incar­cer­a­tion. In recent years it’s become clear that the size of America’s prison pop­u­la­tion is unsus­tain­able – and isn’t needed to pro­tect pub­lic safety. In this remark­able bipar­ti­san col­lab­o­ra­tion, the country’s most promi­nent pub­lic fig­ures and experts join together to pro­pose ideas for change.” 

Author of the article

is a writer and activist.