February 13, 2011


Jefferson Cowie, Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and The Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2010) (The early seventies' political confusion had its analogue in the discontent boiling up on the shop floors. Employees at the Wixom Ford Plant where Burton worked were a minor part of a national epidemic of industrial unrest in the first half of the 1970s. The fought with supervisors on the line, clogged up the system with grievances, demanded changes in the quality of work life, walked out in wildcat strikes, and organized to overthrow stale bureaucratic union leadership. Yet it was a conflicted set of movements. As Dewey [Burton] explained, workers were harnessed to union pay but longed to run free of the deadening nature of the work itself--and sometimes free of the union leaders who spoke on their behalf. 'Once you're there, there's no other way to make as much money and get the benefits. Ford's our security blanket. I'm a scaredy-cat. If I leave, I lose eight years of seniority,' he lamented. Chained to his paycheck, he dreaded his future at the plant. 'Each year I felt like I accomplished something. Suddenly I realized that I'm at a dead end and I'll probably be hacking in the line for 30 years.' . . . As one of his co-workers lamented, 'here's only three ways out of here. You either conform and become deader each day, or you rebel, or you quit." Id. at 7. "For Lasch, the roots of the problem went all the way back to the Fordist bargain. In the 1920s, Taylorism and Fordism removed the skill and the independence from the workplace. Workers' mental and physical labors were separated through advanced management techniques, leaving a decline from the all-around craftsman capable of designing and building a product to workers as modern day appendages to machinery. It was the very problem that caused the Lordstown workers to rebel and that Harry Braverman had brilliantly outlined as the 'degradation of work in the twentieth century' in his 1975 study Labor and Monopoly Capital (which influenced Lasch). In exchange for leaving their souls at the plant gate, workers were promised a cornucopia of consumption, Lasch explained in a letter to the White House. What Caddell had noted as the 'ennui of affluence' (quoting an editor at U. S. News & World Report) was actually a crisis of the collapse of the bargain based on consumption in exchange for soul-killing work--that is, the crumbling of an entire paradigm upon its own vacuity. The system urged gratification but could not deliver. To correct the course of the nation, Lasch urged 'a decisive turn to the left.' [President] Carter turned rapidly to the right." Id. at 305. "Bestial metaphors swirled around the press and white popular discourse to describe the looters and arsonists on the 'night of the animals.' Historian Herbert Gutman, writing in the New York Times, tried to remind the city that Jewish women taking part in a 1902 kosher meat riot had also been described as 'animals' and 'beasts,' 'vultures' and a 'jackal pack.' He was not even trying to create a direct comparison between the events, merely arguing that animal metaphors served to separate 'the behavior of the discontented poor (striking, rioting, looting, boycotting) from the conditions that shape their discontent.' He noted how 'history teaches us that a thin line connects the orderly and the disorderly, but the animal metaphor transmutes that thin line into a space--a crevice'--that separates 'us' from 'them.' The pile of letters arriving at the Times proved the city's white ethnic population would have nothing of the comparison. Their ancestors worked hard and made some thing of themselves,; their ancestors rose above; their ancestors' protests were moral acts. These people, came the white consensus, were different." Id. at 221. "Class, always a fragile concept in American civic life, died the death of a thousand cuts in the 1970s, but few problems sliced as deeply as how race and class were set against each other. Class and race are fundamentally intertwined social identities, mutually constructing each other, marbled together into a sociological whole, but a whole that has proven to be one of the most elusive identities in American history. White working people have typically chosen their race over their class; black workers have generally expressed themselves though a politics of racial oppression that has had more traction in American politics than class. Despite the Roosevelt coalition's linking of black and white working people politically, the tensions within the coalition ran very deep, and , in popular discourse, 'working class' still meant white. In the 1970s, race and class were often at odds, trumping any possibility of drawing together the class-based politics of the thirties with the racial freedom of the sixties into that most elusive of things in American history-- an interracial class identity. This is not to say that civil rights undermined the cohesion of class--far from it. I is to say that the nation proved incapable of speaking of both at the same time. Rather than synthesis, the seventies were a time of eclipse." Id. at 223. Nearly forty years later, we Americans remain unable to form an interracial (working) class identity. It will be interesting to see how class and racial/ethnic identities play themselves out in the second decade of the twenty-first century as American grapple with the realities of prolonged economic decline, as even more American workers and professionals are required to leave their souls at home.).