On East Grand Boulevard in north-east Detroit stands the Packard Automotive Plant – or what’s left of it, at any rate.
Once the most advanced car manufacturing facility in the world – at its peak in the 1930s and ‘40s it employed 35,000 workers – the plant is now little more than a concrete frame sheltering thick layers of rubble and dust.
As symbolic urban monuments go, it couldn’t be more fitting.
At one time, Detroit was a thriving industrial metropolis fuelled by the growth of iconic American companies such as Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. Today, it registers some of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment anywhere in the United States.
In the mid-20th century, Detroit began haemorrhaging jobs, investment and, eventually, people to areas with lower labour costs. Between 1950 and 2012, its population shrank from 1.8 million to 700,000. Two years ago, city authorities were forced to file for bankruptcy, citing unserviceable debts of $20billion, a record in American municipal history.
“Detroit is what happens when the free-market fails,” one embattled resident told me. “Plenty of bust but no boom to clear-up the damage.”
Americans, famously, don’t ‘do’ socialism. The last confirmed leftist to mount a sustained bid for the presidency – the Green Party’s Ralph Nader in 2000 – scraped into third place with barely three percent of the vote.
That could be about to change.
Over the summer, 74 year old Vermont senator and self-described ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders emerged as a powerful voice in mainstream American politics.
Sanders is competing with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee at the 2016 general election.
In New Hampshire and Iowa, where the first Democratic primaries will be held early next year, Sanders either leads Clinton or trails her by a handful of points.
Unlike Clinton – an archetypal career politician and establishment centrist – Sanders is generating huge amounts of enthusiasm at the grassroots level. 10,000 people turned-out to see him speak at a recent event in Madison, Wisconsin, and another 19,000 attended his rally in Portland, Oregon, on 9 August.
For a candidate with scarce private resources, Sanders has amassed a sizeable war-chest. Over the last three months alone, he has attracted $26million in campaign contributions, mostly from small individual donors. (Clinton, by contrast, gets much of her cash from Wall Street and a clutch of other elite benefactors.)
The key to Sanders’ appeal is the clarity of his radicalism. Using simple, populist language, he argues that the US economy is “rigged” in favour of unaccountable “corporate interests.”
And he’s right.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, US commercial profits have sky-rocketed while ordinary Americans have hit crisis point. According to staggering new figures from the US government, 51 percent of American workers – upward of 100 million people – earn less than $30,000 (£19,000) per year and nearly 40 percent earn less than $20,000 (£13,000).
“We need a political revolution in this country and I want to lead [it],” Sanders has said. “The billionaire class hate my guts. I welcome their hatred, because I am going to stand with working families.”
The Sanders’ phenomenon (or ‘Feel the Bern’ as it has been christened on Twitter) is a visceral, bottom-up response to the rampant inequalities that characterise modern America. But the anger is directed as much towards progressive political leaders as it is conservative ones.
In 2008, Barack Obama ran for the White House on a pledge to “change” American society for the better, and in many ways he has. The Affordable Care Act, which extends the availability of health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans, the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, and new laws to combat gender pay discrimination all rank high on President Obama’s list of accomplishments.
But the stark reality is that, under Obama, America’s wealth has become even more densely concentrated in the hands of an oligarchic minority.
Sanders’ proposition – which seems revolutionary by American standards – is to reduce the widening income gap by building an economy that works, in the Senator’s words, “for the benefit of the 99 percent and not the one percent.”
To do this, Sanders intends to raise the federal minimum wage, spend $1trillion repairing and improving America’s infrastructure and reverse international free-trade agreements that have sucked the life out of the American manufacturing industry.
The odds, of course, very heavily favour the status-quo.
Hillary Clinton lost seven years ago to an outsider whose candidacy was routinely dismissed as too radical for middle America. She won’t want to make the same mistake again.
But it is just possible that she will. And here’s hoping that she does, because Americans need Bernie Sanders. They need him because they know what capitalism looks like when it is left to run wild. It looks like Detroit.