Sociology

New Books in October

As the days cool and leaves turn so should your new book pages! This month our new book titles will go great with your favorite hot drink.

sentient fleshExamining black performance practices that critique Western humanism, R. A. Judy offers an extended meditation on questions of blackness, the human, epistemology, and the historical ways in which the black being is understood in Sentient Flesh.

In Sensory Experiments, Erica Fretwell examines how psychophysics—a nineteenth-century scientific movement originating in Germany dedicated to the empirical study of sensory experience—became central to the process of creating human difference along the lines of race, gender, and ability in nineteenth-century America.

Brigitte Fielder presents an alternative theory of how race is constructed in Relative Races with readings of nineteenth-century personal narratives, novels, plays, stories, poems, and images to illustrate how interracial kinship follows non-heteronormative, non-biological, and non-patrilineal models of inheritance in nineteenth-century literary culture.

The Sense of Brown, which he was completing at the time of his death, is José Esteban Muñoz’s treatise on brownness and being as well as his most direct address to queer Latinx studies. Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong′o have edited the book and written an introduction.The Sense of Brown

Lyle Fearnley situates the production of ecological facts about the likely epicenter of viral pandemics inside the shifting cultural landscapes of agrarian change and the geopolitics of global health in the timely new book Virulent Zones.

Amalia Leguizamón reveals how the Argentine state, agribusiness, and their allies in the media and sciences deploy narratives of economic redistribution, scientific expertise, and national identity as a way to gain the public’s consent to grow genetically modified soybeans despite the massive environmental and social costs in Seeds of Power.

Drawing on ethnographic research with policy makers, politicians, activists, scholars, and the public in Manchester, England, Hannah Knox in Thinking Like a Climate confronts the challenges climate change poses to knowledge production and modern politics.

Wild Things with border In Wild Things Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which the wild—a space located beyond normative borders of sexuality—offers sources of opposition to knowing and being that transgress Euro-American notions of the modern subject.

Saiba Varma in The Occupied Clinic, explores spaces of military and humanitarian care in Indian-controlled Kashmir—the world’s most militarized place—to examine the psychic, ontological, and political entanglements between medicine and violence.

With Cowards Don′t Make History, Joanne Rappaport examines the work of a group of Colombian social scientists led by Orlando Fals Borda, who in the 1970s developed a model of “participatory action research” in which they embedded themselves into local communities to use their research in the service of social and political organizing.

Vanessa Freije explores the causes and consequences of political scandals in Mexico from the 1960s through the 1980s in Citizens of Scandal, showing how Mexico City reporters began to denounce government corruption during this period in ways that defined the Mexican public sphere in the late twentieth century .

In Building Socialism, Christina Schwenkel analyzes the collaboration between East German and Vietnamese architects and urban planners as they attempted to transform the bombed-out industrial city of Vinh into a model socialist city.

Political theorist and anticapitalist activist Sabu Kohso uses the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster to illuminate the relationship between nuclear power, capitalism, and the nation-state in Radiation and Revolution, showing how nuclear power has become the organizing principle of the global order.

blackdiamondqueens In Black Diamond Queens Maureen Mahon documents the major contributions African American women vocalists such as Big Mama Thornton, Betty Davis, Tina Turner, and Merry Clayton have made to rock and roll throughout its history.

Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan in The Globally Familiar examines how the young men of Delhi’s hip hop scene construct themselves on- and off-line and how digital platforms offer these young men the means to reimagine themselves and their city through hip hop.

In essays addressing topics ranging from cinema, feminism, and art to hip hop, urban slums, and digital technology, Sujatha Fernandes in The Cuban Hustle explores the multitudinous ways ordinary Cubans have sought to hustle, survive, and create expressive cultures in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

In Genetic Afterlives, Noah Tamarkin illustrates how Lemba people in South Africa give their own meanings to the results of DNA tests that substantiated their ancestral connections to Jews and employ them to manage competing claims of Jewish ethnic and religious identity, African indigeneity, and South African citizenship.

Shane Denson examines the ways in which computer-generated digital images displace and transform the traditional spatial and temporal relationships that viewers had with conventional analog forms of cinema in Discorrelated Images.

Media Primitivism by Delinda Collier finds alternative concepts of mediation in African art by closely engaging with electricity-based works since 1944.

writing in spaceWriting in Space, 1973-2019 gathers the writings of conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady as edited by Aruna D’Souza, including artist statements, scripts, magazine articles, critical essays on art and culture, and interviews.

Acknowledging the difficulty for artists in the twenty-first century to effectively critique systems of power, in The Play in the System Anna Watkins Fisher theorizes parasitism—a form of resistance in which artists comply with dominant structures as a tool for practicing resistance from within.

Filled with advice from over fifty contributors, this completely revised and expanded edition of our popular book The Academic’s Handbook guides academics at every career stage, whether they are first entering the job market or negotiating post-tenure challenges of accepting leadership and administrative roles. The volume is edited by Lori A. Flores and Jocelyn H. Olcott.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for our e-mail newsletters, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

New Books and Journals in Sociology

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August marks the beginning of the fall conference season, when we usually look forward to greeting authors and editors at our booths. Unfortunately, most conferences have been cancelled for the rest of 2020 or have gone online only. The American Sociological Association will hold its online meeting August 8-11. Although we can’t greet you in person at our booth, we invite you check out our web page for the conference and peruse our sociology catalog. You can save 30% on all books and journal issues using coupon code ASOCA20.

Editor Elizabeth Ault was supposed to attend ASA for the first time this year. Instead, she offers you some highlights from our sociology list here.

EAult_webGreetings, sociologists! I’m really sad not to get the chance to meet up with folks in person in San Francisco. Not only because, well, San Francisco!!, but also because this was supposed to be my first ASA as the editor primarily responsible for our sociology lists here at Duke. It’s an honor to be stepping into a strong list in a field that has lots of important insights to offer about the current uprisings against white supremacy and anti-Black policing, the healthcare disparities being laid bare by COVID-19, and so much more. I’m disappointed to miss out on the chance to celebrate the publication of important books like We Are Not Dreamers, a collection of work by undocumented scholars, edited by Leisy J. Abrego and Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales; Symbolic Violence, a new engagement with Bourdieu from Michael Burawoy; and Nandita Sharma’s crucial work on sovereignty and migration, Home Rule

Even without meeting in person, though, there’s lots to look forward to: I’m eager to see how Duke Press’s recent books on intersectionality, by Patricia Hill Collins and Jennifer Nash, are changing conversations and methods! And I’m really excited about the highlighted conversation on  “Power, Resistance, and Inequality in Tech,” which I know will draw on important insights from Ruha Benjamin’s edited collection Captivating Technology. I am looking forward to learning from you all as we continue the conversations represented by these books and begin new ones. 

A little bit about me: I’ve been acquiring books primarily in disability studies, Black studies, trans studies, global urban studies, and African and Middle East studies. I’m also interested in Latinx and other critical ethnic studies, critical studies of policing and prisons, and higher education. I know there’s lots of great work on these topics happening in sociology!

To give us the opportunity to meet face-to-face, I’ll be holding Zoom office hours, in lieu of the casual chats we might have had in the book room (or at the hotel bar!) on the Monday and Tuesday of the conference. You can sign up for those here. And you can always find me on Twitter.

If you were hoping to connect with Elizabeth or another of our editors about your book project at ASA, please reach out to them by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our new online submissions guidelines here.

In addition to the panel featuring Ruha Benjamin that Elizabeth mentions above, several of our authors are presenting at the virtual ASA conference. Michael Burawoy has organized the panel “The Neoliberal University,” is a discussant on the panel “Canonization,” and will serve as a moderator on the panel “The Specter of Global China.”  And Trevor Hoppe, co-editor of The War on Sex, has organized the panel “Deviance and Social Control.”

978-1-4780-0840-8This week we are also pleased to launch the first in a series of online conversations we are planning for the fall. Watch Alex Blanchette discuss his recent book Porkopolis with Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker. 

Flip to page 15 of our virtual sociology catalog to peruse imaginative new journal issues on disability, sanctuary, alternatives to policing, Indigenous land reclamation, and more.

And finally, we’re really going to miss one of our favorite conference traditions, the in-booth photos of authors with their recent books. Please check out our album of author selfies instead. We’ll be posting those photos on Twitter this weekend as well.

Although you can’t pick up books in our booth this year, you can save 30% online with coupon code ASOCA20. If you live in the UK or Europe, head to Combined Academic Publishers and save there with coupon code CSDUKE30.

Virtual Events in August

Please join our authors for these online events this August.

978-1-4780-0954-2Katina L. Rogers is participating in a three-part reading group about her book Putting the Humanities PhD to work. This discussion group will be structured as series of three videochats focusing on two to three chapters per week, beginning tomorrow, August 5, and continuing on August 12 and 19. Each week will be moderated by a guest host, and Rogers will participate in discussions and field questions. There’s no obligation to attend every session. If your pre-ordered copy of the book hasn’t arrived yet, you can send your receipt to Katina Rogers by email and she’ll get an electronic copy to you while you wait for the print. Preregister for the event to get the links.

A number of our authors are presenting at the virtual conference of the American Sociological Association. Catch Ruha Benjamin, editor of Captivating Technology; Michael Burawoy, author of Symbolic Violence; Trevor Hoppe, co-editor of The War on Sex; and Sara Ahmed, author of, most recently, What’s the Use? on various panels. The conference is free to ASA members and only $25 for non-members. Come back to the blog this Friday for a post on our recent sociology scholarship.

978-1-4780-0840-8Later this week we will be posting an online conversation between Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker and Alex Blanchette, author of Porkopolis. Check our YouTube page this Friday for the link. We’ll also be posting it to our Twitter and Facebook pages.

On August 7, David Palumbo-Liu, author of The Deliverance of Others; Lauren Berlant, editor, most recently, of Reading Sedgwick; and Mackenzie Wark, who has a book coming in 2021, are participating in a conversation entitled “Wildcats, Boycotts, and Academic Capital.” They will discuss the University of California Boycott movement supporting striking graduate students. RSVP to get the link.

On August 11, Ronak Kapadia, author of Insurgent Aesthetics, will give a virtual public seminar entitled “On the Skin: Drone Warfare, Collateral Damage, and the Human Terrain.”  

On August 18, Emily J. Lordi will discuss her new book The Meaning of Soul as part of the Popular Music Books in Progress series. Email Eric Weisbard (contact info on the series page) to get the Zoom link.

We hope you get a chance to check some of these out.

French Book Week

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Literally Swiss, the European Literature Network and Pro Helvetia have launched the first French Book Week, an online forum dedicated to French literature, translation and publishing in the UK. We’re happy to share our new and upcoming French Studies titles as part of the celebration. UK customers can purchase these books from our European distributor, Combined Academic Publishers.

978-1-4780-0823-1_prThe Birth of Solidarity: The History of the French Welfare State by François Ewald is edited by Melinda Cooper and translated from the French by Timothy Scott Johnson.  The Birth of Solidarity—first published in French in 1986, revised in 1996, with the revised edition appearing here in English for the first time—is one of the most important historical and philosophical studies of the rise of the welfare state. It’s is a classic work of social and political theory that will appeal to all those interested in labor power, the making and dismantling of the welfare state, and Foucauldian notions of governmentality, security, risk, and the limits of liberalism.

Paris in the Dark: Going to the Movies in the City of Light, 1930–1950 by Eric Smoodin  takes readers on a journey through the streets, cinemas, and theaters of Paris to sketch a comprehensive picture of French film culture during the 1930s and 1940s. Judith Mayne says, “Paris in the Dark is an outstanding study of the spaces and places of Parisian filmgoing and a major contribution to French film studies.”

Wombs of WomenThe Wombs of Women: Race, Capital, Feminism by Françoise Vergès will be published in August. Translated by Kaiama L. Glover, The Wombs of Women examines the scandal of white doctors forcefully terminating the pregnancies of thousands of poor women of color on the French island of Réunion during the 1960s, showing how they resulted from the legacies of the racialized violence of slavery and colonialism. Vergès traces the long history of colonial state intervention in black women’s wombs during the slave trade and postslavery imperialism as well as in current birth control politics. She examines the women’s liberation movement in France in the 1960s and 1970s, showing that by choosing to ignore the history of the racialization of women’s wombs, French feminists inevitably ended up defending the rights of white women at the expense of women of color.

We also invite you to check out our journal French Historical Studies, the leading journal on the history of France, which publishes articles and commentaries on all periods of French history from the Middle Ages to the present. The journal’s diverse format includes forums, review essays, special issues, and articles in French, as well as bilingual abstracts of the articles in each issue. Also featured are bibliographies of recent articles, dissertations, and books in French history and announcements of fellowships, prizes, and conferences of interest to French historians.

Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination

rhrPolicing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination,” a new issue of Radical History Review, is now available free online through the end of September.

The issue, edited by Amy Chazkel, Monica Kim, and A. Naomi Paik, helps us imagine a world without police by examining historical cases in which people resolved social problems and maintained social peace through means other than relying on formal institutions of law enforcement. Contributors consider what new relationships and ways of dealing with violence and harm might emerge when we focus our gaze on those specific historical moments when people chose to carve out communal relations that operated beyond the policing function of the state.

Several articles from RHR‘s archive that address policing are also freely available through the end of September—see the full list on RHR‘s blog The Abusable Past.

Start reading “Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination” here. To subscribe to Radical History Review or purchase an issue, visit dukeupress.edu/rhr.

Political Protests and Movements of Resistance Syllabus

politicalprotestsOur syllabi series highlights articles, books, and journal issues that encourage thoughtful discussion of today’s most pressing issues. The Political Protests and Movements of Resistance Syllabus, new today, lists titles that tackle topics of political protest, resistance, and activism. Subjects include transnational social movements, spatial reclamation, student occupation, protest literature, and more.

All journal articles and issues in this syllabus are freely available online until August 31, 2020. The books in this syllabus can be purchased from your local independent bookseller, from online booksellers, and at dukeupress.edu.

Start reading the Political Protests and Movements of Resistance Syllabus, or explore our full list of syllabi, many with free journals content.

New Titles in Latin American Studies

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Our editors look forward to meeting their authors at conferences every year and are sad to be missing out on that this spring. The annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association would have taken place May 13-16 in Guadalajara, Mexico this year. We know that many of you look forward to stocking up on new books at special discounts at our conferences, so we are pleased to extend a 50% discount on all in-stock books and journal issues through May 25.

Instead of greeting Editorial Director Gisela Concepción Fosado in person this year, check out her recommendations for new titles in the discipline and a great round up of other ways to learn about all the new scholarship that we planned to present at the conference.

¡Saludos afectuosos a todxs mis colegas de LASA!

I hope everyone is taking care of themselves and their communities as much as possible during these challenging times. I’m so sorry that we’ll all miss coming together in person this year. I’m particularly sad to miss the bustle of the book exhibit and all of the enthusiasm LASA members invariably extend towards our new releases. We can’t offer you our usual piles and piles of beautifully crafted books, but I can share with you a few highlights that represent a small slice of our newest Latin American studies books.

Kregg Hetherington’s thought-provoking new book, The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops traces well-meaning attempts by Paraguay bureaucrats and activists to regulate the destructive force of monocrops. Although Paraguay’s massive new soy monocrop brought wealth, it also brought deforestation, biodiversity loss, rising inequality, and violence, all beyond the scope of the toolkit of the current government.

We’re thrilled to be publishing an English edition of Isabella Cosse’s award winning book, Mafalda: A Social and Political History of Latin America’s Global Comic. Winner of LASA’s Premio Americano, Mafalda represents transnational cultural history at its absolute best. Analyzing how the comic strip, Mafalda, reflects generational conflicts, gender, modernization, the Cold War, authoritarianism, neoliberalism, and much more, Cosse demonstrates the unexpected power of humor to shape revolution and resistance. Engagingly written, Mafalda is a great course book for graduate and undergraduate level courses.

Eric Zolov’s brand new book, The Last Good Neighbor: Mexico in the Global Sixties, presents a revisionist account of Mexican domestic politics and international relations during the long 1960s, tracing how Mexico emerged from the shadow of FDR’s Good Neighbor policy to become a geopolitical player in its own right during the Cold War. If you’re looking for an engaging and brilliant book on Mexican politics and foreign relations, written by one of the most talented historians around, this one is a must-read.

Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible, by renowned anthropologist and social theorist Arturo Escobar, fits perfectly with LASA’s theme this year, “Améfrica Ladina: vinculando mundos y saberes, tejiendo esperanzas.” In the book, Escobar engages with the politics of the possible and shows how established notions of what is real and attainable prohibit the emergence of radically alternative visions of the future.

Like Escobar’s work, Kristina Lyons’s new book is also based on ethnographic fieldwork in Colombia. Vital Decomposition: Soil Practitioners and Life Politics tells us a timely story of human-soil relations. Lyons examines the practices and philosophies of rural farmers who value the decomposing layers of leaves, which make the soils that sustain life in the Amazon, and shows how the study and stewardship of the soil point to alternative frameworks for living and dying. Like Escobar’s work, Lyons beautifully centers local knowledge to open up new ways of collective living and knowing, “vinculando mundos y saberes.”

Two exceptional newly released art history books include Ana María Reyes’s The Politics of Taste: Beatriz González and Cold War Aesthetics and Mary Coffey’s Orozco′s American Epic: Myth, History, and the Melancholy of Race, which are both gorgeously illustrated in full color.  In The Politics of Taste, Ana María Reyes brilliantly examines the works of Colombian artist Beatriz González and Argentine-born art critic, Marta Traba, who championed González’s art during Colombia’s National Front coalition government (1958–74). Mary Coffey’s sophisticated and theoretically nuanced book looks at José Clemente Orozco’s twenty-four-panel mural cycle entitled The Epic of American Civilization. An artifact of Orozco’s migration from Mexico to the United States, the Epic stands as the only fresco in which he explores both American and Mexican narratives of national history, progress, and identity.

This truly represents a small slice of our new books in Latin American studies.  Please check out our two most recent catalogs to see our full list of new releases!  Cuidense mucho y nos vemos el proximo año.

If you were hoping to connect with Gisela or another of our editors about your book project at LASA, please reach out to them by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our new online submissions guidelines here.

We’d also like to let you know about a few of our great new journal issues in Latin American studies. Contributors to Radical History Review’s “Revolutionary Positions: Gender and Sexuality in Cuba and Beyondexplore the impact of the Cuban Revolution through the lens of sexuality and gender, providing a social and cultural history that illuminates the Cuban-influenced global New Left. “Mesoamerican Experiences of Illness and Healing,” new from Ethnohistory, addresses how Mesoamericans experienced bodily health in the wake of the sixteenth-century encounter with the Europeans. And the Hispanic American Historical Review always publishes excellent scholarship in Latin American history and culture.

Once again, we’re sorry to miss you in person but hope the 50% discount will make it possible for you to pick up some new books and journal issues. Use coupon SPRING50 at checkout and see the fine print on the sale here.

Labor and Precarity Syllabus

The rise of precarious and contingent labor has been one of the major economic changes over the past few decades, especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007–2009.

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That precarity impacts many roles within the economy—gig workers, warehouse workers, day laborers, sanitation workers, and beyond—that all share a similar set of uncertainties, such as limited or no permanent employee rights, work-based payment, and insecure/unprotected households.

These books, journal issues, and articles in our new Labor and Precarity Syllabus address the many faces of precarity around the world. All journal articles and issues in this syllabus are freely available online until July 31, 2020. The books in this syllabus can be purchased from your local independent bookseller, from online booksellers, and at dukeupress.edu. All book introductions are freely available online.

Explore the Labor and Precarity Syllabus.

New Books in May

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We’re pleased to announce that we’ve extended our Spring Sale through  May 25, which will allow you to pick up some new titles at 50% off this month. Use coupon SPRING50 to save.

In the beautifully illustrated, full-color book  AFRICOBRA, painter, photographer, and cofounder of Chicago arts collective AFRICOBRA Wadsworth A. Jarrell tells the definitive history of the group’s creation, history, and artistic and political principles and the ways it captured the rhythmic dynamism of black culture and social life to create uplifting art for all black people.

Eric Zolov presents a revisionist account of Mexican domestic politics and international relations during the long 1960s in The Last Good Neighbor, tracing how Mexico emerged from the shadow of FDR’s Good Neighbor policy to become a geopolitical player in its own right during the Cold War. Look for a Q&A with Zolov on our blog later this month.

Through innovative readings of gay and lesbian films, Lee Wallace offers a provocative argument in Reattachment Theory that queer experiments in domesticity have profoundly reshaped heterosexual marriage to such an extent that now all marriage is gay marriage.

François Ewald’s The Birth of Solidarity—first published in French in 1986 and appearing here in English for the first time—is one of the most important historical and philosophical studies of the rise of the welfare state. This edition is edited by Melinda Cooper.

Louise Amoore examines how machine learning algorithms are transforming the ethics and politics of contemporary society in Cloud Ethics, proposing what she calls cloud ethics as a way to hold algorithms accountable by engaging with the social and technical conditions under which they emerge and operate.

In Re-enchanting Modernity, Mayfair Yang examines the reemergence of religious life and ritual after decades of enforced secularized life in the coastal city of Wenzhou, showing how local practices of popular religion, Daoism, and Buddhism influence economic development and the structure of civil society.

In Writing Anthropology, fifty-two anthropologists reflect on scholarly writing as both craft and commitment, offering insights into the myriad roles of anthropological writing, the beauty and the function of language, the joys and pains of writing, and encouragement to stay at it. This collection is edited by Carole McGranahan.

In Beijing from Below, Harriet Evans tells the history of the residents in Dashalar—now redeveloped and gentrified but once one of the Beijing’s poorest neighborhoods—to show how their experiences complicate official state narratives of Chinese economic development and progress. 

Alex Blanchette explores how the daily lives of a Midwestern town that is home to a massive pork complex were reorganized around the life and death cycles of pigs while using the factory farm as a way to detail the state of contemporary American industrial capitalism in Porkopolis. As the coronavirus tears through meatpacking plants around the U.S., Blanchette’s analysis is highly relevant. We’ll feature a Q&A with him on our blog later in the month.

Drawing on examples of things that happen to us but are nonetheless excluded from experience, as well as critical phenomenology, genealogy, and feminist theory, Cressida J. Heyes shows how and why experience has edges, and analyzes phenomena that press against them in Anaesthetics of Existence.

In The Government of Beans, Kregg Hetherington uses Paraguay’s turn of the twenty-first century adoption of massive soybean production and the regulatory attempts to mitigate the resulting environmental degradation as a way to show how the tools used to drive economic growth exacerbate the very environmental challenges they were designed to solve.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for our e-mail newsletters, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

 

The Virus in Detroit: A May Day Post by Philip Conklin and Mark Jay

For May Day, here’s a guest post by Philip Conklin and Mark Jay, authors of the new book A People’s History of Detroit, which uses a class framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present. 

Peoples History of DetroitSince the outbreak of the coronavirus, two notable strikes took place in the Detroit area. On March 17, bus drivers from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 walked off the job in protest of fatal work conditions, shutting down Detroit’s public transit system. Among the workers’ complaints were unhygienic buses, lack of access to rest rooms, and forced close proximity to maskless passengers. Detroit is the poorest large city in the US, and due in part to the high cost of auto insurance more than a third of Detroiters can’t afford a car; the result is that, even as the pandemic ravages the city, hundreds of thousands of Detroiters are forced to rely on the underfunded, overcrowded bus system to get around. “This is death walking around here,” Roderick Nash, a city bus driver, said. “And nobody’s taking it serious.” The city government responded to the strike by suspending bus fare collection during the pandemic to limit passengers’ interaction with drivers, providing masks for passengers, and making more toilets (including porta potties) available for drivers. But days after the strike, drivers reported that conditions remained unsafe, with passengers still lacking access to masks. The government’s safety measures came too late for Jason Hargrove, a city driver who, just days after posting a video on social media complaining about safety conditions on his bus, died of coronavirus.

Two weeks after the bus drivers’ strike, 40 workers at an Amazon warehouse in nearby Romulus launched a protest action of their own. According to organizer Mario Crippen, Amazon treats their employees as “expendable.” “It’s a scary, scary place to be right now,” Crippen said. “There’s no hand sanitizer, no face masks given out. We’re limited on glove use. . . . They’re not worried about anyone’s safety, they’re worried about shipping out packages.” Amazon responded to a similar strike in Staten Island by firing the lead organizer and deriding him as “not smart.” Following a precedent set by Henry Ford a century ago, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has decided it’s simply better business to deploy harsh union-busting tactics than to acquiesce to the basic, humane demands of his workers.

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As we argue in our A People’s History of Detroit, Detroit has long served as a metonym for the myths and fantasies of urban life in the United States, a sort of endlessly generative symbolic backdrop for our national unconscious—from the industrial miracles of the early 20th century, when Detroit was the manufacturing hub of the world and the birthplace of the manufacturing middle class, to the deindustrialized landscape of poverty, crime, and decay from the latter third of the 20th century up to the present—or, rather, the recent past. Now, Detroit is being hailed as the “greatest turnaround story in American history,” as billions of dollars of real estate investments transform the derelict cityscape into an urban playground of consumption, entertainment, and white-collar industry. In light of this “funhouse mirror” effect (to quote local celebrity journalist Charlie LeDuff), one might wonder, what can the Motor City tell us about the coronavirus epidemic? Indeed, Detroit has also magnified the problems of this virus, as Michigan falls just behind New York and New Jersey in COVID fatality rates, with Detroit tallying 35 deaths per day in early April.

Crises, however universal they appear, have unequal effects, which reflect the inequalities of society more broadly. Much like “natural” disasters, epidemiological ones hit hardest among the most vulnerable sections of the population. On the other hand, crises can also serve as catalysts for coordinated action on the part of these groups. Detroit autoworkers took advantage of the high demand for labor during World War II to jockey for better working conditions at the notoriously dangerous and enervating auto factories that had been converted to produce military equipment, striking despite a nationwide strike ban negotiated by union leaders and government officials behind the backs of the rank-and-file. In early 1944 Detroit workers averaged a dozen strikes per week, making the Motor City the leading center of workplace militancy. That year one workplace death, five amputations, and one hundred serious injuries occurred per day in Michigan.

The two recent labor actions in Detroit highlight a similar dynamic of workplace unsafety and worker power during crises—the essential difference now is the severity of generalized precarity among the working classes. Amazon warehouses are particularly illustrative of the current situation. The corporation has opened several massive “distribution centers” in the Detroit area in recent years. Employees inside these behemoths have denounced their “inhumane” working conditions, decrying the company’s union-busting techniques, as well as productivity standards that force people to stay on their feet all day long and leave no time for bathroom breaks. One undercover reporter described “employees collapsing at work, suffering panic attacks, pulling muscles and more.” Even in the midst of the pandemic, Amazon continues to hire workers for its Metro Detroit warehouses, despite workers’ insistence that the work they’re doing is not essential. “People are ordering the same stuff as usual,” one employee who took part in the strike explained. “If it was purely medical supplies and if Amazon actually stepped up and did that then I’d be much more willing to put myself [on what feels like] the front lines because we get stuff from everywhere, but that’s not what’s going on. . . . It’s people ordering the same cat litter, toys, ramen noodles.” According to another worker, “We aren’t heroes and we aren’t Red Cross workers—we are working people who pack and deliver goods. We’re working through a crisis not by choice but by necessity.”

Although most of the media coverage surrounding these and other workplace concerns have understandably focused on the particulars of the coronavirus, it’s important to bear in mind that deadly work conditions and worker “expendability” are nothing new in Detroit. If there is an abiding truth of the past 100 years of Detroit’s history, it is this: the city’s prosperity is built on its workers, and its hardships have likewise been borne by them. And a cursory glance through the annals of the modern Motor City shows the high cost even of this “prosperity,” which at every turn was wrenched from the living grasp of labor.

A 1973 report by the US Department of Labor found that significantly more people died each year inside U.S. factories than on the battlefields in Vietnam. The report “estimated 65 on-the-job deaths per day among auto workers, for a total of some 16,000 annually.” These deaths pale in comparison to the toll of industrial diseases, which the Public Health Service estimated took a remarkable 100,000 lives each year at this time. Foundry workers, machinists, and coarse-metal finishers were at significantly greater risk of fatal heart disease and lung disease than other workers. These were the jobs that Detroit’s black workers were primarily assigned, making the city’s black population particularly vulnerable to premature death—just as black workers and those living near polluting factories are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus today.

In their struggle for safe and dignified living conditions, Detroit activists have not only come up against profiteering businesses, but also governments who have slashed public programs and the social safety net in favor of subsidies to these same businesses. For decades, organizers such as Maureen Taylor and Marian Kramer, have been leading the struggle for a universal living wage and adequate healthcare for impoverished Detroiters. If their basic demands had been met, non-essential workers would not have to risk their lives by getting on the bus each day to get to degrading, underpaid jobs throughout the metro area. But instead, tax breaks for big business and austerity for the masses have been the order of the day, compounding the devastation of the COVID-19 crisis.

To get a sense of the government’s priorities, consider the fact that in recent years, the Detroit government spent $547 per capita on police, whereas, throughout Michigan, per capita spending on food stamps was $22, and per capita spending on public health was less than $13.

Across the country, and the world, urban landscapes have been vacated to stop the spread of coronavirus, with images circulating online showing abandoned streets in usually bustling areas. The eerie emptiness of tourist traps and national landmarks is enough to spook even a nonbeliever. But ghostly landscapes are nothing new in Detroit. A New York Times writer recalled being “unnerved” by the emptiness of Detroit’s downtown back in 2001. “It felt like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie,” he wrote.

Starting in the 1940s, the “Big 3” auto companies fled Detroit precipitously, first to the suburbs, then increasingly to low-wage areas across the world. By the late 20th century, after decades of federal cutbacks and failed initiatives to lure investment to the Motor City, signs of this corporate abandonment were unmistakable. This dramatic situation led to a range of competing visions for the future Detroit.

One vision was to make the city a spectral theme park of decay. Camilo Jose Vergara, the famous Chilean photojournalist and author of American Ruins, made the following suggestion for Detroit in the April 1995 edition of the leading architectural magazine Metropolis: “As a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers [should] be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis…Midwestern prairie would be allowed to invade from the north. Trees, vines, and wildflowers would grow on roofs and out of windows; goats and wild animals—squirrels, possum, bats, owls, ravens, snakes and insects—would live in the empty behemoths, adding their calls, hoots, and screeches to the smell of rotten leaves and animal droppings.” Coronavirus has given us a glimpse of this dramatic vision, as animals have ventured into urban spaces formerly occupied by humans.

Against this fetishization of decay, a second vision for Detroit’s future was proposed by the late activist Grace Lee Boggs, who saw in Detroit’s abandonment the seedbed of revolution. Boggs was inspired by the fact that, as Detroit hollowed out, activists were responding in a myriad of inspirational ways, by repurposing vacant buildings, creating communes, community schools, starting small businesses, and planting urban farms:

Detroit, which was once the symbol of miracles of industrialization and then became the symbol of the devastation of deindustrialization, is now the symbol of a new kind of society, of people who grow their own food, of people who try and help each other . . . When you look out and all you see is vacant lots, when all you see is devastation, when all you see—do you look at it as a curse, or do you look at it as a possibility, as having potential?

Boggs’s vision is a powerful one; but it was not only activists who saw potential in the city’s emptiness. “Detroit has bottomed out,” Dan Gilbert’s business partner John Linkner wrote in Forbes in 2012, “so now, there’s nothing but upside.” In recent years, investors have pounced. Gilbert has led the way, purchasing around 100 buildings in the city, making him the owner of more than half of downtown Detroit. Even after Gilbert wrangled hundreds of millions in government subsidies, at one point even threatening to move his company QuickenLoans to Cleveland, the corporate media has hailed Gilbert’s efforts. The Atlantic wondered if he was “Detroit’s New Superhero,” while the New York Times called him a “missionary.”

Repudiating Vargas’s American Acropolis, companies and wealthy individuals are buying up the quintessential subjects of ruin porn photography to enact their own vision. And there is no more dramatic ruin than Michigan Central Station, which, when it was built in 1913, was the tallest train station in the world. Closed in 1988, the abandoned train station has for decades been a mecca for urban spelunkers, the subject of myriad investigative reports, and a go-to backdrop for post-apocalyptic Hollywood action films. Now, in an almost too-perfect metaphor for the current remaking of Detroit, Ford plans to turn the train station and its surrounding area into a 1.2 million-square-foot “innovation hub” geared toward “mobility solutions that will shape the future of transportation.” According to a local columnist, “Ford’s act of faith in Detroit’s future with the enormous investment it will bring signals a new era.… From now on, redevelopment will occur as the natural and expected outcome in a city once again on the move.” Corporate investment is seen by those in power as the solution to Detroit’s abandonment. But even while these investments have failed to address the needs of poor Detroiters, the coronavirus epidemic has shown just how fragile this “solution” is even for those on the receiving end of its benefits.

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As workers in Detroit, and around the world, protest against deadly workplace conditions, capitalists are using the crisis as an excuse to justify automation. This is nothing new. There is a long history of capitalists using worker protests against inhumane conditions as a pretext to invest in labor-saving technology, leading to unemployment and an increasingly hectic pace of work, as human labor is forced to adapt to “the inhuman speed of the machine.” Under the banner of public health, the current wave of automation is sure to reproduce these same effects, barring coordinated government intervention or a robust response from workers’ movements.

As people around the world attempt to maintain their work and their lives during the pandemic, they are forced to find creative ways to adapt to the limitations imposed by the crisis. While the ensuing innovations are an encouraging sign of our collective imagination and resilience, one can’t help but wonder whether these adaptations will serve to further the encroachment of labor-saving technology into new realms. To give just one example, academic workers are being forced to find ways to provide instruction virtually. This happens amidst an already prevalent trend toward online education; as the CEO of online learning platform Coursera has explained, “The current crisis will accelerate this trend.” The implications for the casualization of academic labor attendant to this trend are already being felt. At UC Santa Cruz, the pandemic hit in the middle of a months-long labor action by underpaid graduate student workers, and the move to a virtual learning and working environment has undermined their ability to withhold their labor and to disrupt the functioning of the university, which insists on “business as usual” during the pandemic.

What first appear as “innovations” and “creative adaptations” to the pandemic, take on another valence: they are forced accommodations to a “leaner”, more exploitative regime of capital accumulation. In effect, workers are being compelled to participate in their own devaluation. In the last half-century, political elites of deindustrialized American cities dealt with its growing “surplus population” and the recalcitrance of radical labor activists by hounding them with police and throwing them in prison. With millions more workers slated for redundancy as the coronavirus accelerates automation, and amidst unprecedented (and ever-increasing) ecological catastrophe which threatens humans and ecosystems across the globe, we shudder to think how the coming crises will be resolved.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the fault lines of our unequal society, it’s no wonder that Detroit, which has long been a benchmark of the extremes of urban life in America, has been hit harder than most cities by the coronavirus, and also had already evinced many of the crisis tendencies wrought by this virus. Deadly working conditions, abandoned urban landscapes, structural unemployment due to automation, and extreme precarity—these have been the order of the day in Detroit for the better part of the last 100 years, coronavirus or not. Today in Detroit, a corporate revival is hailed as the answer to the city’s protracted decline, but this has proved tenuous for the Detroiters hardest hit by recent dispossessions. Even as the New York Times acknowledged that “there are no real assurances that gains will be spread democratically across the city, or that city planning and public resources will serve the needs of everyday Detroiters,” it found solace in the vague “hope . . . that private individuals will keep the greater good in mind.” If this hope seemed far-fetched before, in the midst of the devastations wrought by COVID-19 it now appears so remote as to appear ridiculous.

Leaving aside the fact that a primary source of pandemics lies in the ravages of the capitalist system, we can see that COVID-19 is an accelerator of global capital’s rampaging devastations. However, like other crises, it also presents an opportunity for workers to assert their power, for the animation of our political imaginary, and for a radical restructuring of society’s priorities. 52 years ago tomorrow, May 2, 1968, 4,000 workers walked off the job in protest of deadly conditions at the Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck. DRUM’s actions inspired dozens of other anti-capitalist unions to form across the city, and they all eventually coalesced into the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, an organization committed to challenging the power of the “parasitic, cannibalistic, vulturistic corporate elites who ruled Detroit. If the latter continue to have their way, crisis will remain the norm for most Detroiters.

Mark Jay is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Philip Conklin is a PhD student in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After attending the University of Michigan, they met while working as tutors in Detroit public schools. They lived and worked in Detroit for about seven years, during which time they founded a small literary magazine and continued their work with Detroit’s youth. A People’s History of Detroit is available for 50% off during our Spring Sale with coupon SPRING50.