The Myth and Reality of the Rust Belt
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Photo: photo: Galvanic Games/The Rust Belt

The Myth and Reality of the Rust Belt


When I was in the United States Army, I bought one of the last Winchester rifles made with U.S. steel.  However, that rife was not produced in the central Midwest, but in the state of Connecticut, which could be associated with the Northeast part of the United States, the last borderline states of what is commonly called the Rust Belt.  To create a practical metaphor for the decline of the steel industry in the Midwest and Northeast part of the United States, it is best to think of a soldier going into battle against an invader with an ammo belt full of rusted casings across his chest that are going to be useless to him once the rounds are put into the firing chamber, because they won’t actually fire when most needed.  In a word, the steel product is only as good as the steel industry that creates it.  We all know that the overused cliché “Guns and Butter” concerns not only necessary products in industrial states but also such products that can only be produced through the infrastructure of stable domestic industries that give rise to economic and social stability for the working classes.

Upton Sinclair, the great American writer, wrote a classic work of fiction called “Little Steel” in which he describes how a small Ohio town and its various social classes block the town’s political organization from building a steel industry that could have been dynamic as an economic force providing jobs and creating a vital social community.  Upton Sinclair spoke sarcastically about the men and women of the capitalist industrial class, and now the new Globalist industrialists, who do not care about the economic well- being of ordinary working people: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” In the United States, even in its decline and implosion, there are serious studies, as well as histrionic articles about the slow death of the American steel industry, but also of other mental and synthetic products as well.  It is essential to understand the history of this self-destruction, which I will now attempt to explain.

According to the American author, Anne Trubek “but in the end, anywhere an economy was previously based on manufacturing and has since been losing population can be part of the gang.”[1], and she would add the defining afterthought that “This is true internationally— China and Russia and Germany and just about any country with a history of manufacturing have rust belts where economies were once based on industry and now no longer are; at least, that is how such declining regions are described in news headlines.”[2]  Therefore the American steel workers are no longer working in steel factories in Ohio, when on September 19, 1977 the Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Ohio was shut down completely, leading to a loss of some forty thousand jobs, and transformed that region into economic stagnation even into the 21st century.  It is one of the many collapses of steel factories in Ohio and beyond that have led specifically the white American working class into an economic, culture and political crises as to how they now define their actual position in the United States. They have always thought themselves as special, even though since the beginning of the Industrial age in America, they were no different in being exploited like other workers of national minority origin. It is however true that they were given privileges as part of the oppressor class who contributed in exploiting other workers in the oppressed countries or nations.  It was this political naivety, even backwardness and primitiveness of these workers that made them vulnerable to political opportunists and proto-fascists political forces assigned by the Trump organization to play on their pseudo-exceptionalism as ‘white workers’ who would always be taken care of and wooed within the white culture status quo.

However, even with my own views of what I see as a troubled white working class culture reminding me to an extent of the dissatisfied workers in pre-Nazi Germany, and which I admit can be viewed as an aberration of traditional American political thought, I would contend it is a historical social observation in understanding the people of the Midwest and those border states which can be included in the Rust Belt.  At the same time, it should be remembered that is was from Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania that the great armies of the Union Army were formed in the struggle against the dissolution of the United States and the issue of slavery. And this observation is also embedded in the outlook of Tocqueville, who studied the early post-revolutionary American Character, and who knew and wrote about the courage and strength of this heartland of America—now termed the Midwest region in the modern sense of regional identity.  I should like to quote again the perceptive author, Turbek, about the complexity of the people there and the layers of social and economic complexity that exist in the core of the Rust Belt:              

 At a time when it is more important than ever to understand the nuances of this complex region, what is published instead are often articles on the “typical” Rust Belt resident — more often than not a white male Trump supporter. Generalizations about the region’s population are now as popular as simply ignoring the Rust Belt was just a few years ago. Most are wrong. Some important facts: Many Rust Belt cities have minority populations that statistically outpace those in other parts of the country. The largest per capita Muslim population in the United States is here, in Dearborn, Michigan. With so much emphasis placed on the manufacturing sector, many overlook the largest employers in the region: hospitals, retailers, and institutions of higher education.[3]

Where there was once a large population of non-English peoples including a Jewish population in this Midwest region, there is now a very strong and vibrant Muslim population in Dearborn, Michigan.  However, there exist social and ethnic tension that for me is reminiscent of the kind of ethnic tension that was also part of the Russian landscape in Czarist Russia and the pogroms that took place there before the coming of the Russian Revolution.  Therefore, there is indeed creative periods in the Rust Belt and even “happy childhoods or the successful community ventures or the sheer beauty”[4] as Trubek sees it, but that idealist vision excludes the economic and social disorder, and even potential for urban violence that could rise up.  In other words, the workers in Cleveland, Ohio and Flint Michigan, suffer not only from a lack of work opportunities but even the most basic needs of clean water. These problems are part of the overall struggle of local governments who imply they will answer these people's’ needs, when the vote at the ballot box is needed.  This general hypocrisy of the modern American political regimes towards the peoples of the Rust Belt goes back to the Reagan era to the present decadent and imperial nostalgia of the Trump regime, who only listen to those workers and only promise them work and economic assistance, when they want their vote. Then these promises for economic change in the Rust Belt comes to nothing. To quote on these specific issues of local needs and the actual reality of what is not always a part of ‘happy childhoods’, the Brooking Institute has observed:

These challenges are mirrored in the region’s strained local fiscal capacity. As the Trump administration and Congress consider proposals that could ask state and local governments for the lion’s share of resources to rebuild America’s infrastructure, state and local tax policies in Michigan and other Midwest states have not adapted to a changed economy and population. Many of their communities have lost residents, thus diminishing property values and tax bases, constraining local municipal revenue-raising opportunities, and reducing state revenue sharing. As a previous post explored, these dynamics go hand-in-hand with the region’s high levels of racial segregation. At the same time, these communities still bear the costs of maintaining existing infrastructure designed for larger populations, delivering services to remaining residents, and paying generous health and retiree benefits to municipal workers and retirees promised during the region’s economic salad days.[5] 

The salad days are over, and many dissatisfied workers who now feel betrayed or ‘suckered’ by Trump as they would say in their direct Midwest street language are exhausted and bitter by their economic suffering.  The delusional belief in economic ‘reforms’ will not be the answer, as the local and Federal bureaucracies will obstruct or hinder those economic funds from reaching the American workers who need not only work, but their social and working class dignity.   However, what is interesting is that American social historians are acknowledging that an Urban Agrarianism Revolution is being created in the Rust Belt region. Its possibilities are immense as they are also limited due to a neo-liberalism opportunism among the capitalist classes who could exploit the immigrants, as well as the African American and Mexican American peoples. It is a large swath of the American national minorities who are turning abandoned factory areas, deserted parking lots belts and unused lands into community agriculture lands to cultivate their own vegetables in order to stay alive in a wrecked urban landscape. As the Hoffman Post wrote about this unrecognized revolution in 2012 that had worked its way into the complex American landscape:

Cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Buffalo have shown special promise as sites of food production. By melding a critical analysis of the corporate food chain with innovative and resourceful community-based production techniques, grassroots groups in these cities have reclaimed large swaths of vacant land for a range of urban agricultural experiments. After more than a decade of experimentation, urban food justice groups have matured into a powerful movement by promoting the most fundamental principle of self-determination: the ability of a community to feed itself.

The organizations on the frontier of urban agriculture in the Rust Belt are bringing the movement back to its roots. One of the earliest attempts to get urban food production to scale was Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree, who launched a systematic effort to feed those newly impoverished by the Depression of 1893 by employing residents to tend small patches of city-owned land. Pingree Potato Patches soon sprouted up in other industrial cities throughout the Great Lakes…

With a compelling critique of how the existing food system extracts wealth from already impoverished communities, pushes unhealthy and fattening processed foods and limits choices, the urban agriculture movement has developed a range of techniques that are beginning to prove their ability to feed the people.[6]

However, the hard social and economic questions must be addressed: Is this experiment simple going to create neoliberal American citizens who will not have the capacity for the far-more educational understanding on how to face off the exploitation that has to do not only with industrial capitalism, but also with agriculture capitalists whose main agenda would be to take over this urban agriculture movements in the Rust Belt?  Thus a new slave labor force could develop, that the United Farm workers had fought to overcome in their historical struggle against the traditional landowners.  Or is there a possibility that these innovative people with their new-found urban agriculture movement become a great, militant working class force not seen since the time of the American Revolution?   I am not a prophet, so I can only question the possibility of such reaction or great change.

Can the urban decline be reverted in the Rust Belt in the United States?  Can the American people protest vigorously against the reactionary economic traffics of protectionism as advocated by Trump who wishes to have a hegemonic world on his terms, and his terms only?  I am not an economist, but a historian, so like Tocqueville, I can only observe and try to stay true to the factual reality of times I live in, even regarding the mythical and factual features of the Rust Belt. I remember a letter that Frederick Engels wrote to the socialist thinker, August Bebel, in 1882 regarding what he envision of the American industry, in which he said “Since American industry continues to produce mainly for the protected     home market, the rapid increase in production can easily cause a local intermediate crises over there, but in the end it will merely help to reduce the period of time. America needs to become an exporter and to enter the world market… I therefore do not believe, and Marx is of the same opinion, that the real crises will occur long before its proper time…”[7] Is now the “proper time”? Globalization did play a role in the destruction of the American steel industry in what is known as the Rust Belt, but also the capitalist classes also played their role in the diminishing of the ‘protected home market’ through its lack of concern for the overall welfare of its workers’ economic and social lives.            

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[6] With a compelling critique of how the existing food system extracts wealth from already impoverished communities, pushes unhealthy and fattening processed foods and limits choices, the urban agriculture movement has developed a range of techniques that are beginning to prove their ability to feed the people.

[7] Marx and Engle, Marx and Engels on the United States (Progress Publisher, Moscow,1979) 277-278.

Author: Luis Lázaro Tijerina