Great is the Emergency Manager; The Trains Will Run on Time

The vast American tourist class, which includes bankers, editors, senators and representatives, mayors and mayoresses, army officers and just plain 'folks,' returned to its native land, where railroading is an accepted institution but not necessarily a yardstick for patriotism, and roared in unison, 'Great is the Duce; the trains now run on time.'
--George Seldes, Sawdust Caesar: The Untold History of Mussolini and Fascism (1935)

Sheila Cockrel's recent op-ed in the Detroit Free Press was a depressing nadir for Detroit's liberal intelligentsia, to say nothing of a radical tradition in which she herself played such a prominent role. Her argument, which will garner some support in a town where everyone in power not named Snyder has essentially thrown up their hands, amounts to the following: democracy notwithstanding, Detroiters should welcome an Emergency Manager because Detroiters have a right to city services. "Voting is a fundamental right, of course," she concedes; "but isn't the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of equal importance?"

Given most people's disaffection with voting and with local politicians, it's a tempting bargain, to be honest. If only it were an honest one. Cockrel is no fascist, of course, but at the risk of making a brazen analogy, it's worth pointing out that the logic at work here is that of law-and-order authoritarianism. We don't even have trains anymore, like Mussolini did, so the best we can hope for is that by sacrificing local elected government, "the police will show up on time" or "the street lights will shine on time." Cockrel is right in recognizing that appeals to abstract principles like "voting rights" may not convince many Detroit citizens so weary of poor city services. What matters more to you: the job security of your city council member or the fire department?

The trouble is that such defenses of EMs are made in terribly bad faith, based as they are on an illusion that the mandate of the Emergency Manager is, in fact, to improve services, rather than to repay Detroit's creditors. What reason, other than faith in a loving God who wants us to have a public library, do we have to expect anything other than substantially worse services? Cockrel celebrates, but does not bother to identify, the examples of Emergency Managers that have improved the quality of life in poor, industrial cities like Detroit. One can only conclude that she doesn't name them because they don't exist. The Free Press editorial board, in its own editorial shrug, concedes that city services may well deteriorate under an EM, but simply hopes that things might improve.

The other troubling claim Cockrel makes is her treatment of "rights" as discrete and particular -- some rights are less important in certain places rather than others -- rather than universal, as liberals have always claimed as a fundamental, bedrock principle. Cockrel's retail approach to democracy is also a misunderstanding of how rights work: in a truly democratic society, it's not life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, best two out of three, but all of them, together, of equal importance. You can't lose one without degrading the others. To rationalize otherwise means that this sort of liberalism is really as bankrupt as the city is about to be.

But you can put the Declaration of Independence aside. Liberal arguments for Emergency Managers are not based on any real principle. They're little more than concessions to present state and national political trends, where austerity rules and Wall Street always wins: the only really convincing argument for an Emergency Manager is that there's no point in arguing with him. He's coming whether you voted or not.