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.