Detroit was the second American city I ever visited. It was fifty years ago, and it was then at the apogee of its prosperity. It never occurred to me—I don’t suppose it ever occurred to anyone else either—that half a century later it would be an inhabited ruin, a dystopian novel come to life, a city that has taken a book by J.G. Ballard not as a warning but as a blueprint.
Not long ago I was invited to a conference in Dearborn, still the headquarters of the Ford Motor Company. I could see Detroit in the far distance from my hotel window, dominated by the dark round towers of the Renaissance Center. The Renaissance Center—I like that: it testifies to Man’s permanent temptation to magical thinking. If one gives a thing a name, it will become or act like that name. In Britain, we give the vertical concrete prisons in which we incarcerate the young unemployed, the schizophrenic, the domestically-abused single mothers, the asylum-seekers, and the psychopathic drug dealers, the names of great writers—Addison House, Jane Austen Tower—in the hope that it will educate them and refine their behaviour.
My request that I should visit Detroit was greeted by the conference organisers much as if I had gone to the manager of the hotel and asked him for the keys to the rooftop so that I could throw myself off. In the event, I went straight back to Detroit airport without having visited the city, and have had to content myself since with the irresistibly titillating photojournalism (abandoned mansions, feral dogs roaming the deserted and crumbling streets) that appears from time to time in British and French newspapers and magazines. “See what America has come to!”—the Schadenfreude is unmistakable. The misfortunes of others, especially of the rich and powerful, are the greatest balm known to the human soul.
Having some slight personal connection with Detroit, I bought a novel just published recently in France in which the city is the protagonist. The novel is called Il était une ville (There Was Once a City), by Thomas B. Reverdy. It was published during that curious and uniquely French phenomenon, la rentrée littéraire, the flurry of books, especially novels, published to coincide with the return of most of France from its summer holidays at the end of August, as if, refreshed by sun and sea, they were ready to resume reading.
Reverdy, born in 1974, has already published novels about the post-9/11 situation in America and the post-Fukushima situation in Japan. No doubt he feels, as most of us do unless we stop to think about it, that extreme situations tell us more about human nature than do everyday ones: we do not find out who we really are until we are put to the most stringent test. If we crack under stress, like an aeroplane wing after too much flying, does it mean that we are not really who and what we thought we were before we cracked, that it was all but a veneer? Mark Tapley, in Martin Chuzzlewit, was a notably cheerful individual, but he thought there was no merit in his cheerfulness so long as the conditions in which he found himself were tolerable, and he deliberately sought to test himself by seeking out more and more discomfort to find out whether his cheerfulness survived, in other words whether his cheerfulness was a sham.
In Il était une ville a young French engineer, Eugène, who works for a giant globalised car company called only the Enterprise, is sent to Detroit to study the possibility of manufacturing there a kind of template for a car to suit, with necessary variations, all markets in the world, to be called the Integral. He falls in love (for the first time in his life) with a local barmaid, who herself has been associated in the past with a pimp and drug dealer. A parallel plot relates how this man organises a large group of adolescents who have run away from home into a kind of criminal collective, living in an abandoned school in a deserted part of the city. He is the Fagin de nos jours; while the collective itself has some of the characteristics imagined by William Golding in Lord of the Flies.
The depiction of Detroit in ruins is very convincing (which is not to say that it is accurate, though I suspect that it is: but one is often convinced by the inaccurate). Anyone who was able has left the city; only the trapped, who would leave if they could, remain behind. Reverdy describes—lovingly, or at least with relish—the worst aspects of American civilisation. Here is what is to be found on the shelves of the shop attached to a service station:
There were packets of crisps of all flavours, many chicken with barbecue sauce, doughnuts of all colours iced with a smooth layer of synthetic sugar that could have been plastic toys for the bath presented in transparent packages, there were cans of corned beef and re-constituted ham, a fatty compressed purée, vaguely gelatinous …
It says something about the almost miraculous adaptability of Man’s physiology that he can survive many years a diet composed of such things.
Eugène knows from the first that his project is futile, that there is no possibility of its succeeding; but the Enterprise, which is on the verge of bankruptcy, is a bureaucracy as inflexible as any government ministry. At the end of the book, when he receives the news that the Enterprise will build no new cars in Detroit and that it is indeed bankrupt, he sends his letter of resignation to his superior in the organisation in Paris, known only as his N+1, presumably Niveau + 1, the person one level above him. (As we have seen, the bankruptcy of an organisation in the modern world does not mean that it cannot continue in existence.) In his letter of resignation he assigns blame for what in Detroit is called “the Catastrophe”:
Dear Mr N+1, this is not against you personally, please understand that. I have no desire to add to the vicissitudes of the Enterprise or to the torments of the Hierarchy. Please believe when I say that I am not at all a revolutionary, neither for fun of it nor from a spirit of rebellion. I shall not besiege Wall where the price of your shares is crumbling, even if I believe that certain heads well deserve to roll …
The Enterprise is bankrupt. The Integral project will never be completed here but in China, perhaps you don’t even realise it yourself, I was told by the Americans. It is a matter of a year or two, time to displace a few people like me and to make thousands more people unemployed, here [in America] or in Europe. Enough time to announce a new strategy, reassure the markets like a phoenix that cannot die, because capital cannot die, because money must circulate. There will be a difficult moment, but you have already won.
You will say: the invisible hand has reshuffled the cards, but everything will re-equilibrate one day. That’s false, and you know it. You will say: it’s the only rational solution. But it is a rational disaster.
And then Eugène describes the city: “There are children here who join gangs because there’s no more work in the factories …” The chapter, the last in the book, in which his resignation letter appears, is called “La main invisible” (The Invisible Hand).
Before he was sent to Detroit, Eugène spent two years in China, in one of the Enterprise’s factories in a horrible, featureless, polluted town (whose very name he has forgotten), called into existence by the factory on the site of a village.
Thus the novel gives us an apocalyptic vision of the coming world: Detroit for the West, horrible, polluted, featureless Chinese towns for the East, all to the benefit of a few financiers.
This is gratifyingly simple, and plausible because it contains elements of truth. Detroit is terrible, there are Chinese towns such as he describes, and financiers do benefit. But Detroit is not necessarily the shape of things to come in America, there are particular local reasons for its implosion; and many millions of Chinese have been lifted out of abject poverty by the development of towns such as that to which Eugène was sent. The emergence from mass poverty has never been pretty.
This essay appears in the latest edition of Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
And the alternative is what, precisely? Protectionism? It is necessary to keep in mind the insight of the great French economist Bastiat, that in economics there are always things seen and unseen. The author does not comprehend the necessity. If he had not dilated simplistically on the causes of the Catastrophe, if he had only described it, his book would have been much stronger.