Mike Davis Revisits His 1986 Labor History Classic, Prisoners of the American Dream
The late socialist writer Mike Davis’s first book was Prisoners of the American Dream, a deep exploration of how the US labor movement became so weakened. Nearly four decades later, Davis revisited the book in an interview with Jacobin.
- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
The death of the legendary socialist writer Mike Davis last week of esophageal cancer at age seventy-six has produced an outpouring of tributes and remembrances of Davis, including several here at Jacobin. But particularly in mainstream outlets, few have spent time on Davis’s first book, published in 1986: Prisoners of the American Dream. His New York Times obituary said little more than “the formidable title was off-putting, and so was the text”; his Los Angeles Times obituary didn’t even mention it.
But Prisoners is one of the most rigorous, searching explorations of American labor history in the last half century. Which is why, last summer, Davis spoke with Daniel Denvir, host of the Jacobin podcast The Dig, to revisit the book as part of a discussion of how labor ended up in such a desiccated position today. You can listen to the full interview here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In your book, Prisoners of the American Dream, written at the height of the [Ronald] Reagan era, you set out to determine why the United States had long been so exceptional. You write, “A signal absence of working-class self-organization and consciousness comparable in scope to that represented in every other capitalist country by the prevalence of laborist, social-democratic, or Communist parties is the specter that has long haunted American Marxism.”
What was the general question you were trying to answer, and what was your general answer? And to what degree do you have the same analysis today, more than three decades later?
The book was written in the mid-1980s. It was an attempt to address that particular moment, just after Reagan’s reelection, at the beginning of a massive US intervention in Central America and sweeping changes in the American economy, including the beginning of plant closures.
The book has two parts. The first part looks at the question of American labor’s failure to obtain independent representation of its interests via a socialist or labor party. That’s a very traditional question that quite a few books have tried to address. The second part is an anatomy of Reaganism, and the deep transformations of the social structure and the economy at that time.
Traditionally, there have been two approaches to the question of why there was no socialism in America and no labor party. The classical Marxist approach conceded that the American working class was simply still in formation. It was an immature working class, which would rapidly mature, in an explosion of militant class struggle. Soon, it would follow what you might call the “normal” path of labor movements in Western Europe, Britain, and in its colonies of white settlement.
[Karl] Marx, [Friedrich] Engels, [Karl] Kautsky, and [Vladimir] Lenin all believed some form of this.
Yeah. Engels came to the United States with Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, at a time when the Knights of Labor were at their height. He was very excited and thought this was the transforming moment. His visit also coincided with Henry George’s successful campaign for mayor of New York. George, the most important American homegrown radical of the period, narrowly lost the election but dramatically overwhelmed the third candidate, Theodore Roosevelt. To Engels, this seemed to be the moment of maturation. But of course, within five years, the Knights of Labor had become marginal.
Subsequently, Lenin [examined] American labor, in particular the great strikes that followed the end of the World War I in 1919, one of the two greatest strike years in American history. And [Leon] Trotsky looked to the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations [CIO], and particularly the sit-down strike wave in 1937 and 1938. But the idea of a normal path to class consciousness and class political unity were proven to be false in the case of the United States.
In these debates about the absence of a labor party or socialism, the tendency has been to fall back on idealistic or essentialist interpretations of American history. For example, the absence of feudalism in the United States, or the fact that the United States, according to the Louis Hartz school of political historians, was the most advanced fragment of British society and had been relocated to the new world.
Hartz argues that America was born with this kind of Lockean liberal essence that precluded socialism. People with this point of view often argue that socialism and laborism in Europe were the result of the conjoined struggle for unionization and for suffrage. Whereas, in the United States, universal suffrage for white males was already very common at the time of the revolution, and was achieved almost universally in the Jacksonian period in the 1830s.
I take a different approach, which rejects both a universal or normalized path of development for labor during the course of industrial revolution or these essentialist analyses of the deep, enduring structures that supposedly disable worker consciousness. My approach could almost be described as a military history in that it focuses on successive ways of labor organization, militancy, and class struggle. These reached, in some instances, an actual insurrectionary level, as occurred in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 or during the Pullman Strike a generation later.
You have these upsurges that open up new possibilities for broad solidarity among workers, that at least temporarily overcome the divisions inside the working class — between Protestant and Catholic, black and white, older immigrants and newer immigrants. The outcome of these battles and these attempts to translate economic militancy into political consciousness determine the fate of subsequent moments in history.
This series of defeats circumscribes — not necessarily permanently or completely — the opportunities to find a political expression of the labor movement that unifies workers and defends their elementary interests. For example, in the way that the labor parties in England, Australia, and New Zealand have done historically, which emerged at the end of the 1890s.
A major theme of your book is the role that democratic struggles play in socialist and left politics. A foundational example of this is the American Revolution.
You write, “The American bourgeoisie is the only classical revolutionary-democratic bourgeoisie in world history, all other bourgeois-democratic revolutions have depended, to one degree or another, upon plebeian wings or surrogates to defeat aristocratic reaction and demolish the structure of the ancien régimes.” The United States, by contrast, was a “unique process of capitalist national liberation.”
Explain how the nature of the American Revolution, its bourgeois character and the role of smallholder agriculture and religion in American life, made the democratic struggle such a fundamentally conservative one.
We should remember that in the French Revolution, the classical revolution, the bourgeoisie’s role is a very complicated question. It’s been contested from different sides. Politically, it was led by people like lawyers and ex-priests, but its greatest energy came from the Parisian artisans in the working class and peasants in the countryside.
But in the American case, you had an alliance of merchants and Southern plantation owners that had a very clear idea of the future. It can be seen in the United States from the beginning. Even before it can see the United States as a republic, it conceives of the United States as an empire.
One of the major causes of the American Revolution was the British attempt to establish a border to Western settlement to confine the population to the East Coast and behind the “line of demarcation.” A mutual interest in conquering the First Nations and opening up frontiers for settlement was an overriding goal of the revolution. But it was overdetermined by the popular classes, at least the white popular classes and artisan classes, who wanted the revolution to also become a movement for equal rights and against the class divides that were rapidly developing in the United States.
This is an example of colonial-liberation and bourgeois revolution where merchants and planters play the leading role. But they’re always challenged by artisans and small farmers to extend the boundaries of the revolution to turn it into something more like the French Revolution.
From that period until the Civil War, the problem with the initial vision of an American Empire is that the United States remains economically dependent on Great Britain; it’s unable to achieve real economic autonomy. After the beginning of the cotton boom, following the War of 1812, the southern economy in large part becomes fully integrated into the British economy. The cotton that was the backbone of the Industrial Revolution in England was produced by slaves on Southern plantations.
In the tradition of those who regard it as a second revolution, I believe that the Civil War was fought to achieve real, complete economic autonomy and to create the conditions for industrial revolution. But that could only be done by, at the same time, sponsoring the mobility of workers and farmers. The slave system also had to be crushed to create the full conditions for the capitalist economy: an economy that was free of dependency on and control by the City of London.
You note that there was no strong labor abolitionist wing to Lincoln Republicanism. Even though the Civil War obviously smashed the slave system, it was not due to Republicanism being powered by a more radical ideology.
Because the Civil War had aspects of a revolutionary war — like the English Revolution or the French Revolution — it had its own internal dynamic, particularly in the core of the Union Army that pushed toward an embrace of abolitionism and full, representative democracy.
The labor movement exploded from the 1830s onward in Atlantic seaboard cities and in a few places in the Ohio Valley. But it was confronted in the 1850s, first of all, by a huge wave of immigration, driven by famine and counterrevolution, from Ireland and Germany. It also faced attempts to align, through the Democratic Party, the rebellion of Eastern workers with the support of slavery on the idea that the best allies to the labor movement on the Atlantic seaboard were actually slaveowners — not slaves, not people of color. So labor abolitionism was stillborn, for the most part.
It ran up against the hardcore anti-black racism of Irish immigrants.
Of course, that racism was created in the United States. It wasn’t brought over from Ireland any more than a strong sense of Irish national identity was brought over. That, too, was created in America. People came over from Munster, Antrim, or Cork City. Only when they faced this huge wall of hostility did they fully embrace Irish nationalism.
The immigration coincided with the great emancipation struggle in Ireland. It’s noteworthy that Daniel O’Connell — the champion of Ireland, the leader of the emancipation, the most famous Irishman of the day — himself was a fervent abolitionist. He was a radical democrat. He even warned that he would basically excommunicate the Irish in America unless they supported the abolition of slavery. But his warning was largely ignored. There are still debates as to why that happened. Noel Ignatiev wrote a famous book called How the Irish Became White that looks precisely at this question.
German immigrants are so neglected in most accounts of American history. However, they were a different species: so many of them were artists and intellectuals fleeing from the defeat of the Revolution of 1848 and from Prussian repression. German-American workers tended to be the great exception; far larger numbers were abolitionists and radical democrats in a consistent way.
They formed the core of the American left and American socialism for the next fifty years or more. Socialism in the United States becomes largely a story of German-speaking workers in the upper Midwest. It was only in the 1890s that Jewish socialism became a major force in New York and a few other cities.
After the Civil War, the Knights of Labor, the Farmers Alliance, and the whole populist movement emerges. It did attempt, in Aziz Rana’s phrase, to “universalize American freedom.” It tried to create an expansive working-class culture and labor movement, though there were important exceptions to its universality, such as Chinese workers.
What allowed for this moment of radical politics to take shape after the Civil War, and why were its attempts to build working-class power ultimately frustrated?
You point to a number of factors: the expanding settler-capitalist frontier, patterns of uneven capitalist development across the expanding country, the nativist reaction to new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, the rise of urban political machines, the white Southern reaction against Reconstruction, and the Southern reaction against interracial agrarian populism. How do these factors explain the destruction, at the end of the nineteenth century, of this seemingly very promising postbellum radical moment?
The destruction was not inevitable. Opportunities were there. They were never fully developed for one reason or another, but historical possibilities existed, and they crystalized new forces. The Civil War itself overcame much of the division between native-born Protestant workers and Irish and German immigrants. You saw extraordinary unity in the urban uprisings that supported the great railroad rebellion in 1877.
This was America’s equivalent to the Paris Commune, in which tens of thousands of workers and people from the slums of Chicago and other great cities fought against the railroad barons. The railroad corporations were the first national corporations, and the railroad working class was the first segment of the labor movement to be organized nationally. So the great class struggles of the second half of the nineteenth century all tended to originate as labor rebellions organized by railroad workers.
Again in the 1880s, you had two or three years of sustained insurgency and violent battles on the railroads, which was linked to a rebirth of unionism in many northern cities. This is the period when Henry George ran for mayor of New York and almost won on a Workingmen’s Party platform.
Beginning in the late 1880s but coming to fruition in the 1890s was this astonishing movement, whose base was largely in the South. In Texas, there was a rebellion of small tenant farmers, both black and white, against the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow order.
Poor whites were disenfranchised by poll taxes and other tactics intended to strip the vote away from blacks in the South. Several million poor whites were also reduced to the status of cotton tenants, which was a form of peonage in America. By the 1920s, there were some twenty million American sharecroppers in the South and the Southwest. This was their first rebellion, and it took on an interracial form.
At the same time, there was a powerful labor movement in New Orleans. The docks were divided into two groups of workers and two union locals: one black and one white. These groups nonetheless collaborated in the 1890s, making New Orleans the most powerful center of labor insurgency in the South.
This was somewhat astonishing: that the radicalism was now in the periphery — in the South and the West. In the West, that radical energy was with railroad workers and miners.
The People’s Party emerged as a national movement based on this growing discontent. It alerted progressive labor leaders — former Knights of Labor or the left wing of the new American Federation of Labor [AFL] — to the possibility of a farmer-labor movement independent of both the Republican and Democratic Parties.
The People’s Party was an agrarian coalition between small Southern and Western farmers and larger commercial farmers: the grain growers, wheat growers, and corn growers of the Midwest. The commercial farmers were dominant, and they bolted to William Jennings Bryan, with his promise of cheap credit through silver currency as a panacea.
But that might not have been a complete disaster, except for the sustained offensive that broke a general strike on the river in New Orleans and the racial terror that destroyed the the Farmers’ Alliance in the Deep South.
You mentioned that the left wing of the AFL played a role in the populist moment. And you write that the AFL, which ultimately became the most reactionary force in American labor, was not inevitably going to become a conservative business union federation. Why is this important to remember?
The AFL was a hybrid. It included the organized craft aristocracy of American labor, who, by the 1890s, were facing the bank-directed reorganization of American industry into giant corporations, followed by massive attacks on the power of skilled workers.
Through the 1890s, in a typical steel plant or a pioneering electrical plant, skilled workers still had great job autonomy. Once, when I was teaching in the Northwest, I went on a tour of a timber mill. The sawyer, who sharpens the saws, worked in a totally enclosed room. It was blacked out so the bosses couldn’t see him. If they didn’t know what his actual craft was, they couldn’t study it or control him. That’s a dramatic example, but that kind of autonomy was widespread during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution in America. It was under sustained attack from the 1890s onward.
These skilled workers were one part of the AFL. But the AFL also included groups like the United Mine Workers [of America]. In hard rock mining there was a skilled–unskilled divide, but the United Mine Workers, by the essence of their work and the nature of their industry, were an industrial union. In a sense, they were the first real industrial union in the country.
So the AFL had various possibilities. It had a strong left wing. Labor Day, for instance, was not created as an alternative to May Day, a radical holiday. Its greatest advocate was one of the socialist leaders of the AFL.
The division between the AFL and the mass of unorganized industrial workers only solidified in the labor struggle just before World War I, when skilled craftsmen in mass-production industries and in steel betrayed rebellions of Eastern and Southern European new immigrants who comprised most of the manpower in the factories. This was the labor rebellion organized by the Industrial Workers of the World [IWW] in many places.
At this time of corporate consolidation of manufacturing, many different currents were competing for control of the labor movement, including socialists and other radicals. The shape of the movement was up for grabs.
Is race segmentation of the working class the reason it took on a conservative shape? Skilled workers were thought of as white and American, while semiskilled and unskilled workers were thought of as immigrant or foreign.
The new immigration of the 1890s, from Southern and Eastern Europe, gave a new life to nativism and something called the “American Protective Association,” which was an anti-immigrant movement that had support from sections of the native or older immigrant working classes.
A new system of production was also created in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was based on the division of work into simple tasks, which could then be rationalized. All you needed was somebody with the muscles and stamina to perform the same simple, short tasks repeatedly, at the fastest possible speed. This was the essence of mass production.
This system still included a large role for skilled workers, even if their autonomy was under attack. There’s a huge gulf in a typical factory between the native or old immigrant skilled workers and this new class of people. They weren’t unskilled workers; they were the semiskilled, the factory operatives, a class which first appeared in the 1830s in Lancashire in England. And of course employers use ethnic segmentation too. One practice was to divide departments according to ethnicity to divide workers up.
In 1909, a strike started at a huge plant that made railroad boxcars, the Pressed Steel plant just outside of Pittsburgh. Nine or ten thousand immigrant workers rose up in a sustained struggle, and they were betrayed by their skilled white counterparts who refused to support the strike. But nevertheless, they won a stunning victory.
Subsequent analysis showed that the new immigrants, far from being just peasants from southern Italy, Hungary, and Eastern Europe, actually included large numbers of blacklisted labor militants from Europe. This Pressed Steel plant had veterans of Austrian social democracy, Italian anarchists, members of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and British ex-shop stewards.
Their combined experiences gave this struggle a sophistication that was incomprehensible to both the media and the employers themselves. That’s when the IWW stepped in to lead the strike wave in many cities because the AFL was reluctant to do so and often in downright opposition to the strikes.
The division of American labor between skilled and unskilled, and between ethno-religious groups, persisted right through the great struggles of the 1930s and the birth of the CIO.
You say these same divides were replicated within American socialism, which “remained a series of ethnically and linguistically segmented socialisms.” You also write that the “discord between the struggles of the craft unions and unorganized immigrants was carried into the Socialist Party in the form of a conflict between its reformist and syndicalist wings.”
You say that both failed to grasp what might have been the winning formula, and that Eugene Debs was often alone in pushing for American socialism to head down that path.
Eugene Victor Debs is an extraordinary figure in American history. He was by no means a theoretician or a great intellectual. But his immense practical experience leading the railroad union during the Pullman Strike convinced him that the solution had to be unitary, industrial unionism — rather than the craft monopolies that had come to dominate the AFL or the IWW’s attempt to create industrial unions as revolutionary organizations.
Virtually every bit of the American left carries a lot of IWW genes in their political chromosomes. The IWW was exceptional at reinforcing rank-and-file militancy and participatory democracy in the labor movement. But the IWW took a more syndicalist direction in the course of these great strikes. And they had no real solutions to the problems of immigrant workers as citizens. They had no real answers to the political patronage machine that controlled immigrant votes or to the everyday struggles of rent and housing.
The IWW’s sole focus on industrial organization gave them tremendous energy and sustained commitment. But it only answered some of the questions that poor immigrant workers would ask of organizations: they were not just worried about how to organize at the point of production, but also about how to protect their communities, how to deal with high housing and food prices, and how to handle right-wing local government.
Debs had that all-embracing vision, as did other members of the left wing of the Socialist Party. The most important of these was “Big Bill” Haywood, who served as the bridge between the IWW and socialism, but he was purged during the 1910 campaign by the right wing of the Socialist Party.
The right wing of the Socialist Party was largely German. It had already attained political power in places like Milwaukee, and it was based in craft unions, like cigar makers and brewery workers. It would go on to further split the party in 1918, causing another disastrous divide in the history of the American left.
The Industrial Unionism Moment
The ’20s were a decade of reaction, following the reactionary moment of Americanism, nativism, and antiradicalism of World War I. But then another big opportunity for the American working class emerged from the labor revolts of the 1930s, stretching from the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, which inadvertently set off a strike wave, to the sit-down strikes of 1937.
You write that the radicalized second-generation children of new immigrants were key to all this, as was the fact that skilled workers had come under such intense attacks. They were more sympathetic to industrial unionism than they had been during the strike wave of 1909 to 1922.
Why was it possible, at that moment, to overcome the conventional divides that consistently undermined working-class power in the United States? And why didn’t that unity and militancy lead to the creation of broad-based radical unions or a labor party?
What’s often overlooked in histories of the 1930s is that the single most important issue to the rank-and-file workers who led these revolts from 1934, which saw three municipal general strikes in the United States, to the peak of the sit-down wave in 1938 was not wages or the length of the working day. Those issues were important. But the central issue was despotism at the point of production. It was the unchecked and almost fascistic authority of foremen and supervisors.
Many Americans have never learned about what it was like to work in an auto plant. Henry Ford inaugurated the $5-per-day wage, which was seen as an immense breakthrough in conciliation between labor and capital. But he also had a company police force, which had a huge arsenal of machine guns, Tommy Guns, and tear gas. They would terrorize and beat up workers on the assembly line.
The rubber industry had its own internal vigilantes, groups of skilled or pro-company workers who were paid extra to spy on other workers. In so many industries in the United States, the minute you stepped through a factory door you were subjected to this demeaning tyranny of managers. Above all, the foremen acted in many ways more as cops than as directors of production.
So the great demand in the early ’30s was to establish real control over the labor process, especially over the speed of the production lines, and to establish some modicum of democracy or worker power in the factories through the shop steward system. We know about the great strikes of the 1930s: the general strikes in San Francisco, the auto strikes in Toledo. But there were also thousands of mini-strikes and job actions. Often, these were directed precisely at this assertion of democratic rights inside the factory itself.
In this period, you also had, to a far greater extent than ever before, an internal cadre of leftists. The Communist Party was the largest and most important, but the groups differed regionally. In Minneapolis, it was what became the Socialist Workers Party, who were Trotskyists. The Teamsters union in Toledo, which launched one of the most important strikes of the early ’30s, was led by the pacifist socialist A. J. Muste. His very interesting little socialist sect included people like John Dewey, a famous American liberal who had become radicalized for a while in the early 1930s.
All this reached its height with the sit-down strikes. Why go out on the picket line and be beaten and shot at by the police? Why wait outside while the company marched in armies of strikebreakers and desperate unemployed people to take your jobs? Take over the factories instead.
The sit-down strikes came out of an international movement. The first sit-down strike occurred in Czechoslovakia and spread to France, then to the United States. In the United States, the tactic grew out of basic industry, out of rubber. Then, the great sit-down strike produced the unionization of General Motors.
But these strikes occurred everywhere, including among women workers at Woolworths, the five-and-dime stores that were in even the smallest towns in America. They started sitting in at Woolworths: closing the doors, locking themselves inside, refusing to leave, and refusing to be dismissed. This was the most radical moment of the whole period.
But what followed the victories was a replacement of the shop committees and rank-and-file leadership who had been driving these struggles with full-time union employees, with business agents. The doctrine of collective bargaining also evolved, based on trading for wage and welfare advances, but allowing employers to reclaim power over the assembly line and the production process.
The Communist Party, in this period, underwent a great change from serving as the tribunes of rank-and-file unionism to becoming an important part of the bureaucracy, in alliance with other nonsocialist forces and the big unions. This gave them a great deal of political power in the unions, but it broke down many of the bonds that had tied party members and organizers to rank-and-file workers.
There is one sensational study, long out of print, on the microdynamics of plant organization by a labor historian called Peter Friedlander, The Emergence of a UAW Local. It shows that the impetus for organizing the local came from the most skilled workers, the tool and die makers who, after the bitter assaults on skilled workers for the previous thirty years, had come to embrace the idea of industrial unionism. Several of the leading people in the plant, the tool and die makers, were socialists. They aligned with some other radicals in the plant and formed the core of an organizing committee.
But the key victory in the plant came from the people who did the dirtiest work in the plant, in the paint shops, or in the forges. They were Polish street kids that all belonged to a much-feared Polish street gang, and they were basically apolitical until that moment. But when they embraced the union, they embraced it with such militancy and physical power that the union crossed the threshold to being able to go on strike and win recognition. That’s really how the ’30s have to be understood: on the micro level, as well as on the macro level.
We often think of this moment as the CIO strikes. But you write that the CIO bureaucracy’s cooptation and absorption of rank-and-file militancy was formalized in the United Auto Workers [UAW] 1950 “Treaty of Detroit” with General Motors, which was a “contract with its five-year no-strike pledge that symbolized the end of the long New Deal/Fair Deal cycle of class struggle and established the model of collective bargaining that prevailed until the 1980s.”
You call this an “armed truce,” which incorporated huge sections of the white ethnic, semiskilled working class into middle-class consumption. What were the conditions that enabled this truce? And what did it mean for labor when those conditions began to crumble?
Why did a racially and otherwise circumscribed form of mass unionization and collective bargaining suit American capitalists until it didn’t, and why did that whole settlement prove so fickle?
First of all, we need to understand that in 1938, the country returned to the depths of the Depression. A conservative alliance of Southern Democrats and Republicans came to a majority in Congress and became an immense obstacle to New Deal reforms. All this stiffened the resolve of holdout employers to resist unionization — the smaller steel companies and Ford Motors being leading examples.
In that same period, the CIO crystallized its own body of intellectuals much influenced by Western European, but particularly British, developments. The AFL had always opposed federal welfare provisions. It was against any federal intervention in labor negotiations at all. It was opposed to laws that would fix labor conditions because it grew up in an environment where the courts were straightforwardly the enemies of labor and most labor legislation was in fact pro-employer legislation.
But the CIO, from 1938 through World War II, formed an alliance with the New Deal to bring about the equivalent of the reforms won in England after the Labour Party entered government in 1942 after defeating [Winston] Churchill at the end of the war. After taking power, they organized collective bargaining systems and universal social welfare programs. This British-inspired program was embraced by a very diverse group of people, but certainly by the major intellectuals of the CIO and those on the left wing of the New Deal.
The war brought about a recomposition to the labor force. As millions of people from the rural south were mobilized into wartime industries, black and white, there was a very nasty series of hate strikes against integration of shipyards, but above all of bus lines and public transport. Franklin D. Roosevelt [FDR] had to send combat troops into Philadelphia to break one of these hate strikes.
The end of the war produced an unsettled situation. The 1946 elections, which it was universally believed would be a return to the New Deal, brought Republicans to power in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1928.
It was a situation in which the social welfare parts of the platform of the CIO — universal health care and public housing, which were championed by the great New Deal senator Robert Wagner from New York — were defeated. But even though the political climate had deteriorated for New Deal reforms, the unions were more powerful than ever at the point of production. With the UAW leading the way, two things were accomplished that set the parameters for the great Korean War to mid-1970s expansion of the American economy.
The UAW won a landmark agreement that tied wages to productivity, guaranteeing workers a share of the surplus created by greater productivity in the plants. The rich would get richer, but the poor would get richer as well. Workers could count on a regular increment in their income.
But, to achieve that, the UAW surrendered much of the control over the labor process, and abandoned in many respects the aggressive protection of workers’ rights through the shop steward system and grievance procedures.
Second, because of the failure of the housing and health care acts, the most powerful industrial unions began to negotiate their demands with employers. And so, General Motors and UAW won a health plan and an enhanced pension plan. These were in large part workers’ deferred wages, but there was an employer contribution.
What that meant was that American workers who belonged to powerful unions could get the benefits of a welfare state through collective bargaining and through negotiation. But everybody else was left out in the cold and we can see what it meant in terms of health care provision in the United States.
The United States had once been distinctive in the industrial world for its high-quality, universal public education. By the 1970s, what made it most distinctive was the soaring costs of medical care and its unequal provision — the lack of basic welfare rights that had been won in almost every other industrial country.
But that was the labor peace they negotiated, against the background of the Cold War and the purging of the Left from the CIO unions. It also provided the essential conditions for the boom in the ’50s and ’60s, along with federal programs like [Federal Housing Administration] loans and tax deductions for mortgage and interest payments, which promoted suburbanization and homeownership. Also the GI Bill allowed half the veterans of World War II to go to college at the end of their service. This created an educational revolution, giving white workers and their kids unprecedented mobility and access to a growing number of public teaching jobs but also entry into the professions with a high level of mobility.
Cold-War Liberalism and Labor
A major casualty of the labor movement’s turn to Cold War liberalism was the labor movement. Labor’s second so-called “civil war” caused the decimation of left-led unions like the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers union and the enormous United Electrical Workers union.
Also, you write, it led to the total failure of Operation Dixie, where anti-communism overwhelmed and undermined the effort to organize the South. You write that the CIO “failed to make a sustained attack on the citadel of right-wing political power: the rotten-borough system of the South. The enfranchisement of the Southern masses should have been the key to the recomposition of the Democratic Party and the consolidation of a liberal-labor congressional majority. But the problem of suffrage was inextricably bound up with the existence of those two other pillars of class rule in the South: Jim Crow and the open shop. Only a massive unionization campaign closely coordinated with full support for black civil rights could have conceivably generated the conditions for interracial unity and a popular overthrow of Bourbon power.”
You write that Martin Luther King Jr and his Poor People’s Campaign saw the need for this partnership, but organized labor failed to meet the moment. How did what you call a “disarticulation” of the labor and black movements take shape amid the Cold War? And what were the consequences?
In 1937, at the height of the sit-down strike wave, there was also a national movement to form independent labor parties: the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota and the Commonwealth Federation in Washington. This was a key opportunity to translate economic militancy into political programs separate from the big-city political machines and reactionary Southern politicians who dominated the Democratic Party.
But it was at that moment that the AFL made a great comeback. The CIO represented about a quarter of organized American workers, and the rest remained with the AFL. The AFL leaders were often aligned with this conservative coalition in Congress and openly supported anti-communism. It was a way to undermine the CIO, as the two labor federations become directly competitive in organizing various sectors of the economy. This was the civil war within the labor movement that disabled the movements for independent political representation in the later ’30s.
Because Southern Democrats were usually elected for twenty or thirty years on the basis of a radically restricted electorate, they tended to be heads of the important committees in the House and dominate in the Senate. And so, much of the defense spending during the war was allocated to the southern states, as well as to western states. The South suddenly seemed to be undergoing its own industrial revolution, so it was all-important for the unions, both craft and industrial unions, to stake out territory in the New South.
The Communists — and this is where they differed from the Socialist Party before the 1920s — believed in combining union organization with civil rights and black liberation. It wasn’t always a successful amalgam in the party. But they understood that to organize in the South, you had to organize on the basis of racial unity. To win the conditions for organizing — that is, freedom of speech and democratic rights to organize — you had to support the enfranchisement of people of color, and you had to attack Jim Crow.
But the Communists had been purged from the CIO, and some of their most powerful unions had been weakened. The United Electrical Workers had been the one big union for the entire electrical industry, and in some ways it had a more powerful position than the UAW. It had been split up in an attack on its left leadership.
So, when Operation Dixie was unleashed after the World War II, it immediately ran into a series of roadblocks. First, the purging of the largely communist left, who had an advanced perspective on organizing. Second, the increasing accommodation of AFL unions to white supremacy in southern industries and southern crafts. What people looked at with great hope — as a movement that would modernize the South and break the shackles of oppression on its black population — turned into a stinging and lasting defeat. It basically led to the extirpation of progressive politics in the South for a long historical period.
FDR did make one heroic attempt to [transform Southern politics] in 1937 to 1938, when he supported a series of progressive candidates and tried to overthrow the most conservative Bourbon Democrats in the South. But that was also largely a failure.
There were great hopes in the late ’30s and ’40s that a real revolution in the South had become possible — an end to the control of the racist plantocracy and Southern banks over the economy. This created the conditions for massive resistance against the Civil Rights Movement and the violence that later ensued, absent what would have been powerful union allies to support the Civil Rights Movement in its hometowns and states.
When it comes to the end of the New Deal labor bargaining order, you argue that it was the parochialism of labor defending the narrow interests of particular white workers that ultimately made it so vulnerable when the axe came down. On the one hand, it had a relatively narrow social base and also a thin social base, because unions were so heavily bureaucratized. You write, “In virtually every industry, the supposedly ‘marginal’ periphery of non-union production has in fact been the redoubt from which, during the 1970s, major assaults have been launched against wage levels and bargaining patterns.”
In other words, unorganized places and unorganized people became the springboard for the assault on the entire New Deal order. You write that this happened early in the meatpacking industry and then in forestry, construction, trucking, and mining. Could you lay out what happened to the meatpackers to illustrate the larger phenomenon?
The packinghouse workers under Ralph Helstein, the president, was the sole example within the CIO of successful interracial unity. It was a far more democratic union than the [United] Steelworkers or even the UAW. The union had a heroic history because the original 1919 drive to organize packinghouse workers in Chicago was a long, protracted strike, which was broken up by racial terrorism. The Democratic Party employed a street gang called Ragen’s Colts, whose leader was a street hooligan known as Daley. He would later become the honorable Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago. The gang set fires in the Slavic section of Chicago behind the packinghouses, hoping to incite a race riot that would break up the organizational campaign. But the packinghouse workers persisted.
What happened in the 1980s and the late 1970s was an entry of a big nonunion company into beef packing: Iowa Beef Processors. Armand Hammer, the oil billionaire who has a museum named after him in Los Angeles, had bought this company. This was the era of conglomerates when, for instance, US Steel was divesting from steel plants to buy an oil company. People were buying up and trying to manage two or three major companies in completely different parts of the economy.
So Hammer moved into beef processing, and he introduced a new technology. In the past, the animals were fabricated into cuts directly after slaughter; they cut into the soft meat with knives. Now, they’re cut into quarters, frozen, and cut up with the equivalent of a chainsaw, which was an incredibly dangerous change in technology. They used foreign workers and different kinds of immigrant workers to run these nonunion plants. From beef processing they then moved into pork processing. And this led to the destruction of any number of locals of the United Packinghouse Workers union. It also produced some of the great labor struggles of the 1990s.
Some unionism persists, but now we see people in the packinghouses with the most dangerous working conditions, standing shoulder to shoulder, wielding chainsaws. These packinghouses became epicenters of the coronavirus. It’s a testament to the degradation of working conditions that occurred in the Reagan period, with the de-unionization of so many sectors and the deregulation of so many industries.
People tend to look to the ’70s as the turning point when labor spun into crisis with the rise of neoliberalism. But you write that it was in the ’60s that “a majority of corporations resorted to the radical socio-spatial strategy pioneered by GE and the non-union sector in the 1950s: building smaller factories for greater managerial control (500 employees was often reckoned optimum); decentralizing them in weakly organized regions of the Sun Belt or the Midwestern rural periphery; recruiting workforces (farmers or housewives) without previous union experience; and implanting, from the beginning, the manipulative structures of the ‘communications’ model of personnel management geared toward worker individualism.”
How did labor’s fragmentation during the heyday of organized labor not only facilitate a more exploitable, segmented labor market for capital, but also mean that the labor movement lacked the political and economic power during the height of Cold War liberalism to resist capital mobility? Did this prevent the labor movement from resisting capital mobility? This mobility was funded by the New Deal order and the Cold War state, and it created this new geography, which to this day is incredibly consequential for Sun Belt–ascendant capitalism: a geography that was so uneven precisely because of the labor movement’s failure to organize the multiracial working class and exercise power outside of the industrial heartland. How did that all unfold?
It unfolded in a series of political defeats. First, on the national level, was the passage of the Taft–Hartley Act during the [Harry] Truman period. Passed by the conservative majority of Southern Democrats and Republicans in Congress, it essentially outlawed forms of union solidarity that had been so vital in the struggles of the 1930s: things like sympathy strikes and boycotts. It created huge obstacles to union organization.
The second political defeat was on a state level. That was the movement to pass “right to work” laws, which basically outlawed union shops by allowing workers to opt out of paying union dues. These laws also protected nonunion employers from organization. Later, in the 1970s, this would be hugely reinforced by massive illegal violations of the National Labor Relations Act by companies. They found it far cheaper to simply refuse to accept the result of certification elections and pay some fine for that to the National Labor Relations Board than to accept the result and allow unions.
Right to work states, mainly in the Midwest and the South, and the large nonunionized companies that survived to become hotbeds for anti-union campaigns together created ideal conditions to decentralize production. The 1937 Flint general sit-down strike was so successful because it took place at one of two plants that produced the dies for the current model of GM cars. So if you close that plant down, you basically close down GM production across dozens of other plants. GM decided to never become vulnerable to that again by decentralizing production and producing key components at multiple plants.
But with the rise of right to work states, there was an enormous attraction to decentralize production. You could seek nonunion sources of labor in areas where the political system was decidedly anti-union and anti-labor. Already in the 1950s, manufacturing employment was increasing but was decreasing in the major traditional industrial cities.
I should point out that there were other federal programs that made this possible, including the Interstate Highway System, which suddenly put previously difficult-to-access rural places only two or three hours away from Detroit. You begin to see factories organized spatially along the lines of interstate highways. From Detroit, you had this whole corridor going south, with key auto suppliers in nonunion states. There was very little opposition from within the ranks of labor itself to these investment decisions. There was very little opposition in the big industrial cities to the beginnings of capital flight and disinvestment.
By the late ’70s, this process was internationalized, and American companies began to see plants as overseas investments. You begin to see really internationalized production lines for the first time, which were later called “value chains.” My book had no apprehension of the revolution that was wrought by the industrialization of China and Southern China’s Pearl River Delta becoming the new workshop of the world.
At the time, Japan was the major focus of your analysis of Asian economics.
Yes, and this was the period that led into this incredible obsession with Japan as a superpower — the inheritor of America’s global role. It was also the first inkling of a new organization of the labor process, which would really work itself under the [Bill] Clinton administration in the ’90s. American Taylorism, the Henry Ford system of the early twentieth century, had been all about dismantling skilled work, by taking craft knowledge and transferring it from skilled workers to a handful of engineers. The Japanese system — which is actually modeled on a critique of Taylorism from American manufacturers in the early 1920s — sought instead to exploit workers’ mental skills and their understanding of production. It found a tremendous new mother lode of profit from mining workers’ knowledge and creativity.
The American auto industry had responded to Japanese competition in the ’70s with a more brutal version of the drive system: raising profits by speeding up work and imposing brutalizing conditions, rather than adoption of new systems of organizing production or cultivating workers’ ideas about the assembly process. This is a major reason, of course, why the American auto industry soon fell so far behind the Japanese and European auto industries.
The Rise of the Sun Belt and a New Immigrant Working Class
In terms of the rise of the Sun Belt, what was the relationship between the geographic reorganization of American capitalist production and the geographic reorganization of the working class? There was the black Great Migration north, the less-discussed but huge white migration south and west, and the migration from Mexico into the Southwest.
What became the Sun Belt was politically constructed. The agrarian South and the West had been the hinterlands of the industrial heartland. They contained less than 15 percent of all manufacturing jobs and had an almost neocolonial relationship to New York finance and midwestern industry. That changed during the New Deal in a spectacular way. In 1934, the so-called progressive capitalists, who supported the New Deal, convinced Roosevelt to adopt the National Recovery Act as a way to stimulate demand by allowing sectors of industry to regulate prices and wages.
That proved to be a disaster, as unions took advantage of one clause of it — on the right to representation, the famous section 7a — to organize. So pro-Democratic industrialists and bankers bolted from the New Deal, and it left a power vacuum in which the rising power in the Democratic Party was now the unions and the CIO. Left forces, like Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California [EPIC] Campaign, were positioned to seize control of the party. So Roosevelt turned to an odd coalition of Western and Southern industrialists. These included A. P. Giannini, the head of Bank of America in California, and Marriner Eccles, the most important Mormon banker who was also one of the few actual Keynesians in the 1930s. But above all, it was coordinated by the towering figure Jesse Jones, “Mr Houston” — really the political tsar and creator of modern Houston.
This group of Western and Southern capitalists saved the New Deal from capture by its own left wing or by labor. And they extracted, along with the leverage given to them by southern seniority in Congress, larger shares of federal spending and investment, including a federally subsidized and directed revolution in southern agriculture that would displace as many as ten million people from the land — but also the siting of war industries and federal investment in places like Houston, the Gulf Seaboard cities, New Orleans, and some investment in the intermountain states.
This was a new alliance of what had been outside capital, which took tremendous advantage of New Deal policies, to transform what had been a hinterland into what by the 1970s had become a developed part of the United States. By the Reagan era, more than the majority of manufacturing investment in the United States was in the states of the South and West that were called the Sun Belt by political pundits at the time. The consequences of this: white workers who were displaced from the land and white tenants moved to southern cities and found jobs. Blacks weren’t allowed to have these jobs. So black Southerners displaced from the land by the mechanization of cotton ended up in northern cities.
During World War II, there was tremendous demand for labor, but there wasn’t such a demand during the Korean War boom. Blacks were almost totally excluded during that. They ended up in the worst place at the worst time for basically unskilled migrants with none of the opportunities that Irish or Southern and Eastern European immigrants had at the height of the second industrial revolution in the early twentieth century in mass assembly. They were basically shoved off the land into positions of permanent unemployment in northern cities.
What about the Mexican migration that the Sun Belt boom sparked?
The first migration was migration out of the South that started during the war but then became in many ways flight from the South, particularly of black Southerners who were unable to get jobs in the new Southern industries. The second migration, as the South and West not only industrialized but began to attract high tech investment as well, was from the North to the South — above all to Texas, Florida, and the part of rural Virginia that was becoming the suburbs of Washington, DC. And as Northerners moved south, either simply as blue-collar workers looking for better employment opportunities in the South or as professionals, they were easily integrated into the racial caste system of the Southern states.
Many of them remain Democratic voters through a period, but then began to bolt from the Democratic Party with native Southern white workers in the 1960s to George Wallace, who crafted the kind of racist neo-populism with the pretense of also being anti-oligarchical and anti-Eastern establishment, which [Richard] Nixon then adopted and became the motif for the Republican Party after Reagan’s victory over [Nelson] Rockefeller in the 1980 Republican Convention.
One key feature of this geographic reorganization was how it shaped the uneven integration of the US and Mexican economies, making it so “Mexico alone provided an almost infinite reserve army of labor for the Sun Belt. The neocolonial logic of Sun Belt capitalism ensures that no fundamental challenge can be mounted against the domestic low wage economy without a simultaneous change in the borderland structures of hyper-unemployment and domination.”
It’s a powerful set of lines. Explain how the border, both literally in terms of la línea and also more generally and abstractly, as the system that produces undocumented worker status, became this core democratic conflict that’s fundamental to the economic balance of power in this country — something similar to what the exclusion of black workers that we’ve been discussing has long presented.
The border is usually talked about as a wall, but in fact it’s always operated as a dam. It creates a reservoir of labor regulated by police power and by violence to supply the needs of Southwestern agriculture and, to some extent, already at the turn of the twentieth century, railroad labor and mining. The epic change began to occur in the late 1960s, but above all in the 1970s when both long-resident Mexican-American populations and new immigrants began to find more entry into traditional blue-collar occupations, above all into low-wage occupations.
One of the great stories of the late 1970s and the 1980s was that for every manufacturing job created, there were ten jobs created in the tertiary sector or the “service sector” (though it’s much more than that) — above all, in things like health care, banking insurance, and the fast food industry. This is all happening during a period when women are entering the labor force in larger numbers, usually into poorly paid or lower paid jobs. But the border then becomes an essential part. What had basically been a system to regulate the supply of agricultural labor, and also to prevent its organization, becomes a new labor source for low-wage sectors of the economy which are growing rapidly in the Reagan period.
Suddenly the American auto industry, under tremendous competition from Japan, begins to use Mexican labor. Mexican labor tends to be as well-educated in most cases as American labor to produce auto parts. Finally you get to the stage of the last fifteen years where even the most complex things like engines are made in Mexico. This is a universal phenomenon of globalized production where in Eastern Europe, for instance, Slovakia and Poland become the kind of Mexicos of West Germany, or Vietnam and Indonesia become the assembly platforms for Japanese and now Chinese investment.
You end up with three working classes in the United States: The remains of the unionized working class with decent wages, which is shrinking in the private sector but growing in the public sector — public-sector jobs became in the early Reagan era the major source of new high-wage shops in the country; you also have this rapidly expanding sector of low-wage employment in services and health care; and then you have a workforce that has no citizenship rights at all, is made the most vulnerable both to workplace abuse and oppression, but when it attempts to organize can also be deported by employers. This has grown to be a very large and very integral part of the American working class.
If you say that the Voting Rights Act and the civil rights revolution enfranchised millions of new black voters, a much larger number of workers in the American economy have lost or never possessed the right to vote because of their immigration status. With the adoption of more militarized methods of controlling the border, the character of immigration has changed. It used to be a flex back and forth, following the tides of the business cycle, of male workers from Mexico working in construction and agriculture. Then it became necessary for people to stay. It was too costly to go back and forth. The female component of the non-documented workforce increased dramatically. So you have this class in America that reproduces and represents in the current generations the role of cotton peonage and servitude played after Reconstruction, or slavery before the Civil War.
The Haves Coalition
Reagan and the whole New Right arose not only because of this geographic reorganization or because corporations got newly mobilized in groups like the Business Roundtable. But most importantly, you argue that because of a mobilized and revanchist middle class, the core of what you call a “haves coalition” throughout the ’70s led these huge fights against the “have nots” by opposing school integration by way of busing, housing integration, and property taxes, all while national economic debates were increasingly shifting into the guise of social issues and culture wars.
How did the economic dynamics of stagflation in the ’70s and in its resolution by way of the Volcker Shock create the sense of scarcity and middle-class militancy against the poor, particularly poor people of color? And why and how were portions of the white working class drawn into this alliance?
The strategy that had been outlined in the late ’60s for Nixon by Kevin Phillips and Pat Buchanan said that the real opportunity for creating a durable Republican majority has to be to win over New Deal blue-collar workers, ethnic white workers in the Northern states. The major issue was school integration, because the structures of segregation proved so much more powerful and durable in the North than in the South itself. There were no breakthroughs equivalent to the Birmingham struggle or Selma in Northern cities, quite the opposite. Look at the defeat of Martin Luther King Jr’s campaign to integrate housing in Chicago, for instance.
They outlined the program by which you take two or three cutting-edge issues like resistance to racial equality or resistance to women’s rights and abortion, because that directly appealed to evangelical Protestants, but particularly to traditional Democratic, Catholic voters. That became a kind of new template in the Nixon area. But it was further transformed in the Reagan era by the rise of huge protest movements based in northern suburban fringes of large cities.
If you look back at the second half of the twentieth century in the United States, the biggest protest movements were not the Civil Rights Movement and the antiwar movement. Far larger and politically more consequential were these middle-class protest movements against school integration by busing and against property taxes. These engaged tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of white suburban voters, both blue-collar but especially middle-class, in defense of those suburban sanctums and privileges.
In California, where the tax revolt became the engine that propelled Reagan into power, suburban white populations, many of which had been poor white immigrants to California in the ’40s and early ’50s — their kids are now through high school and maybe even through college. So the huge investments in public education in California that had given such startling mobility to their children, to blue-collar white kids like me who grew up in the ’50s — their kids were now aging. There is no similar commitment to provide the same opportunities to black or Latino kids. They not only were opposed to racial equality, they were opposed to the cost associated with maintaining public education systems or welfare systems that were not directly beneficial to them.
One of the hallmarks of the Nixon period was that he actually increased public spending, but he took urban funds and transferred them from inner cities to white suburban areas. You can see an increasing political subsidization of middle-class Republican voters in the suburbs, as well as this politics of racial revanchism to white workers, who in this period were also beginning to flee the central cities in large numbers and move to the suburbs.
But the political economy of the country was changing. The Business Roundtable, which had organized against the attempt at labor law reform — the last great political offenses of the AFL-CIO in 1978 under [Jimmy] Carter — was an unprecedentedly broad and powerful organization of the largest two hundred corporations in America. But in some ways, they were not the major beneficiaries of Reagan’s election. It was the new and old middle classes. It was the incessant privatization and cuts in public spending that created entrepreneurial opportunities in what had been the public sector. The main voter attraction that the Republicans offered was massive tax cuts for the upper echelons of the income pyramid.
Increasingly, politics turned into a machine to subsidize and win over upper-level white workers and middle-class voters to a politics that also allowed the big corporations the freedom that they had never possessed since the 1940s through deregulation of major industries and then later under Clinton the deregulation of banking.
Is there a through-line from the early new right Goldwater-ites through Reagan and then to [Donald] Trump in this petty bourgeois and middle strata–meets–lumpen-billionaire-reactionary alliance, which accounts for everything from reflationary populism and protectionism to racism and nationalism?
It’s interesting that the Southern-Western coalition of independent industrialists and bankers is behind FDR in 1934. Many of them like the Houston oilmen, the Murchisons and the Richardsons, became the financiers of the far right and the John Birch Society in the 1950s, and then the chief supporters of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and of Reagan in the 1980 election. What has changed so much over the last fifteen years is the fact that there is no longer a Business Roundtable. The biggest industrial corporations play a much smaller role in the economy, and they have a much smaller political presence. The Reagan boom created conditions for the emergence of new fortunes, turning local millionaires into billionaires like the Waltons in Arkansas or the Kochs in Texas and Kansas. It’s this new billionaire class, which you might call the lumpen-billionaires, who have been the major supporters and beneficiaries of Trump’s election.
The 2016 election is not the political realignment that so many people believe it was, where suddenly Trump won over this large mass of northern white blue-collar voters. What in fact happened in the North was that so many of the voters who’d flocked to Wallace and then to Reagan went back to supporting Democrats on a local and state level, or ended up supporting Clinton or even [Barack] Obama. It was not a permanent switch in the North; it wasn’t the South. In the South, the political loyalties were entirely inverted, but not in the North.
The key thing about Trump’s victory was this group of political ideologues and media experts that have been assembled by the Mercer family, the billionaire hedge fund dynasty, to support Ted Cruz. After it was certain that Cruz was defeated, they cut a deal with Trump, which basically was that they would give their support to Trump but he had to fully accede to the traditional agenda of the Christian right. This allowed Trump to do what everybody thought was impossible, which was to win most of the voters who voted for [Mitt] Romney in the last election: the evangelical base and Southern supporters. He gave them the Republican platform, and they were allowed to write it — the most reactionary platform of any party since the 1850s.
But the conundrum that hasn’t been fully resolved and needs to be debated is how have these guys, these regional billionaires, who were formally second- or third-echelon figures, come to dominate national politics in the way they have for the last four years. And whether this is not the last hurrah or the final act before a new majority takes power or not. It is a very startling fact to see that the traditional Eastern establishment capital plays a small role in Republican politics today. The Republican politics has been reinvented as an isolationist, economic-nationalist politics of the same sort that existed amongst the hardcore anti–New Dealers and the Liberty League of 1939 or 1940.
The Left, Defeated
Some of the most powerful passages of the book are on why liberals and the Left, respectively, were so helpless against Reagan. You criticize Michael Harrington and the old Democratic Socialists of America [DSA] for backing the labor-backed, Cold War liberal [Walter] Mondale over Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the 1984 Democratic primary. How did this conflict between a black-led, social democratic movement and Cold War liberalism emerge — with DSA oddly at its back? And how did the rise of New Democrats like Gary Hart, who was also a candidate that year, representing this new politics of post-1968 neoliberals, fit in?
The election was the transition from the remnants of a New Deal Democratic Party to a new party dominated by neoliberals. Many of them were young Democratic governors in the South and the West, people like Hart or Bill Clinton in Arkansas. Michael Harrington was always the one figure who stood out in a socialist stratum blinded by anti-communism, including major intellectual figures like Irving Howe. But when the New American Movement, with about twenty five hundred or three thousand members, merged with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, the Harrington and Howe group, [to form DSA in 1982,] it ended up being on the terms of the latter, not the former.
In many ways, the New American Movement lost its New Left identity in the merger, and some of its leading lights and people who formerly considered themselves revolutionaries embraced the whole traditional agenda of the League for Industrial Democracy and the remains of the American Socialist Party, which was to realign the Democratic Party in alliance with UAW and other big progressive unions. Following this theory, the Democratic Party was really the functional equivalent of social democracy in this country and every priority was less than ensuring the continuing realignment of the Democrats to the Left.
What had actually been happening is under Jimmy Carter, particularly the second half of his tenure after 1978, the party had been moving to the right and beginning to shed the single most important aspect of its New Deal identity: full employment. Full employment had been the alpha and omega of the postwar Democratic Party, but its commitment to jobs that offer opportunities for mobility began to be abandoned. Mondale moved away from it.
Hart represented the new liberal breed. He was also reactionary on fundamental labor questions and, like Mondale, was an interventionist in terms of US foreign policy. But because of the abandonment of full employment and the New Deal agenda, first by these older mainstream Democrats and then more emphatically by the younger neoliberals, it created a space, which was then filled by Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition.
It started off as Jackson’s attempt to do what had been the black power strategy of Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] in the 1960s and 1970s, which was to use black political independence to leverage more concessions from a Democratic Party that otherwise regarded blacks as a captive vote. It rose out of a historic progressive series of black political conferences.
But as Jackson immediately discovered, loads of other people supported his agenda. He had this striking, dramatic success in winning white working-class voters and unionists in the upper Midwest who were willing to support black equality because the Rainbow Coalition also represented the defense of the historic rights of labor and the dream of full employment. He tested the waters for the politics which has emerged in the last four or five years, but he ended up attacked from all sides, including by some of the newly minted social democrats who joined DSA.
The thing that distinguishes the Rainbow Coalition in its first incarnation in 1984 from the [Bernie] Sanders campaign over the last five years, however, is that Jackson had a very specific, explicit foreign policy. It was anti-imperialist, anti-interventionist — United States out of Central America. This was a much larger part of the politics of the Rainbow Coalition than has been the case with Our Revolution and the Sanders movement, which has abated foreign policy issues as much as possible.
I don’t know that the Bernie movement has abated it as much as possible. I agree that there’s a contrast there, but if you look at Bernie’s leadership in terms of breaking with pro-Israel orthodoxy in the Democratic Party and also in terms of the campaign to end US support for the war on Yemen, it has been a distinguishing factor.
I disagree to some extent. I think that it’s been a kind of minimal program. I think everyone understands where Bernie’s heart lies and understands his past history of support for revolutions, but I think this is an internal crisis of the current generation of the American left. It is so completely focused on domestic equality and social justice.
Two key litmus tests were the questions of nuclear disarmament and Third World poverty and death. Were they raised in any of the primary debates or in any of the major speeches by either Sanders or [Elizabeth] Warren? The answer is no. I think in the 1970s, in the kind of experimental social democracy under black leadership that the Rainbow Coalition represented, there was a far more internationalist consciousness. This was the time of the beginning of massive intervention and counterrevolution in Central America.
And the anti-apartheid struggle.
And the anti-apartheid struggle was beginning to pick up. So a lot of people who pat themselves on the back were missing for years and years when the only anti-apartheid actions were carried out by a couple of small black groups, particularly one in Los Angeles.
In terms of the black leadership at the time, how was it that DSA and Harrington failed to see the obvious opportunity that Jackson represented to lead precisely the sort of realignment that ostensibly people like Harrington wanted to pursue? What is the reason that they couldn’t recognize that this was an opportunity to build what you call a “neo-Fordist social democracy with a multiracial mass constituency”? Was it because it appeared with black leadership and anti-imperialist politics?
No, it wasn’t. It was because they were so firmly in the pocket of labor and so firmly convinced that the Walter Reuther wing of the labor movement was the chief dispensation that God had given to the American left to create a lasting progressive politics; and the fact that they were willing to concede to Lane Kirkland’s continuation of the [George] Meany leadership of the AFL-CIO. That was the fundamental problem. It was their problem back in the 1960s in their attitude to the New Left and the antiwar movement. They wouldn’t do anything to alienate Detroit. Also many of them had been tied to the old guard like [David] Dubinsky’s clothing union in New York, which was a progressive union, but was a racist union internally with huge abuses of the rank and file.
The same people did not put themselves behind a big revolt of rank-and-file workers and wildcat strikes from 1968 to 1973. So, in effect they become in-house intellectuals for a left wing of the US labor movement that was rapidly disappearing after Reagan’s election.
You do also write, though, about the white left that “the decisive problem of the fate of the second Reconstruction was displaced beyond the field of vision, that they didn’t take the centrality of black freedom struggles seriously enough.”
As I mentioned earlier, there are people who have said that because there were not standing democratic tests before the American working class like the struggle for suffrage in Europe, you couldn’t have a socialist or radical working class. But emancipation and black liberation have been this central, abiding, revolutionary, democratic task — something that has been also the original sin of the American left again and again in the nineteenth century and also in the case of the Debsian Socialist Party.
Part of the Communist Party’s great attraction was its attempt to combine revolutionary democratic struggle for black and Latino liberation with industrial unionism and make the factories crucibles of equality and integration so large union locals could then become chief supports to African American communities. That happened to some extent. The packinghouse workers were the one union who dared to march on the streets with Martin Luther King Jr demanding housing integration in Chicago; the auto workers, who were becoming more autocratic vis-à-vis their own membership, were the one union that supported nonviolent civil rights struggles across the country.
This has always been the defining and urgent democratic task, and what we see today is very interesting. You have this full-scale assault on the second Reconstruction and on the civil rights revolution, which has always had the flash point of police violence. It’s the attempted attrition of black voting power, the fact that black community since 2008 found itself in a new depression, with economic inequality growing ever greater. But also the children of the Baby Boomer generation and their children suddenly find themselves in the most unfavorable position for mobility, future income, and house ownership of any generation since the Great Depression of the 1920s.
What has been so outstanding in so many of the [2020 Black Lives Matter] protests has been the role of first-generation college students from African-American and immigrant families: Latino, Asian, and Filipino families. They are faced with the fact that their families have made enormous sacrifices to send them to college, only to graduate with degrees that offer little more mobility than a job as a barista with Starbucks. It’s been this fusion of attacks on the civil rights gains of the 1960s and, at the same time, the startling downward mobility of college graduates, particularly those from working-class and immigrant families, that have created a whole new set of political possibilities in the United States. For the first time in American history, you have a demographic which holds at least 50 percent in favor of socialism and capitalism, whatever socialism may mean specifically to people. That’s an astonishing thing.