The city of Benton Harbor in Michigan has now had its democracy abolished. Earlier this month, right wing Republican Governor Snyder secured from the State legislatures the power to declare a ‘state of emergency’ in any area he deemed to have financial woes.

Under the new legislation, this ’emergency’ gives him the power to appoint a person or company to run the city or area in question. The person he appoints has, in turn, the power to abolish any local elected officials, or even to dis-incorporate the town if they so wish.

For context, watch this terrifying clip from the excellent Rachel Maddows from a month ago or so:

You will be astounded to learn, I am sure, that the first town to have its democratic rights removed under this legislation is 92% black.

Of course it would be easy to shrug this off as an example of how kooky Americans are. But I think that this is as foolish as it is xenophobic. Because no Michiganders voted for a governor saying he was going to do this. Mass protests across the state have shown that the abolition of democracy in American cities is as unpopular as it would be in British cities.

Nope, As Rachel Maddows says at the end of the clip, this is classic shock doctrine: a fiscal crisis has been fabricated in order to push through measures that neo-liberals really wanted anyway. And while there is a myth that capitalism and democracy walk hand in hand, the truth is that they are opposites. For capitalism is about one dollar one vote, whilst democracy is about one person one vote.

And the idea of corporate run cities is in fact nothing new. I remember reading comment pieces last year in the FT (I’m afraid I can’t find the link*) proposing that corporations establish and run cities in developing countries, with no democracy. The theory goes that people can choose to live there, or not to: literally, people can vote with their feet. Obviously this ignores the fact that people can’t just up and go every time they want a different decision made about how their community operates. It ignores the fact that people are tied into jobs and families, and that the poorer people are the harder it is for them to move.

So it would be naive to look at Michigan and to believe that what is going on there is unique to Michigan. The belief that the free market should rule over democracy is central to neo-liberal doctrine. It is why Conservatives hand our democratic (ish) NHS to the market, why they hand our community run comprehensive schools to the private sector, why they privitise our forests and sell off our care homes.

So what we are seeing in Michigan is not just about Michigan. It is the end point of the road to neo-liberal dystopia. If we let them sell our NHS, and sell our schools, and sell our forests, if we let them dismantle the democracy in our national institutions, then the institutions of democracy itself will be next up against the wall. I am not saying this will happen in this Parliament, and I am not saying there is currently some conspiracy to end local democracy in the UK. But I am saying that this is what happens when we get to the end of the road down which we are currently accelerating. And if that sounds like cloud cuckoo land, then just ask the people of Benton Harbor if they’d have believed, a year ago that their democracy would be abolished.

* update – here they are – Thanks to Keshav Dogra

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.