Notes On: "Prisoners of the American Dream" by Mike Davis

Mike Davis’ first published book, “Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class” is one I’ve been meaning to get to for a while. Davis, who died last year, was a lifelong activist and writer, and for someone who occupied a (perhaps marginalized) corner of U.S. academia, he still kept his edge. Take this quote from a 2016 interview: “I manifestly do believe that we have arrived at a ‘final conflict’ that will decide the survival of a large part of poor humanity over the next half century. Against this future we must fight like the Red Army in the rubble of Stalingrad.” While it would be a stretch to characterize his politics or analysis as Third-Worldist, much of his work does focus on social classes that many U.S. academic Marxists would prefer to forget about (like the global urban poor written about in “Planet of Slums”). And this book, while still shying away at points from a deeper critique of modern-day economic imperialism or a “world-systems” understanding of the U.S. position in the world, certainly offers a detailed analysis of what Davis sees as the “proximate causes” explaining the failure of the U.S. labor movement to ever advance beyond chauvinist, nationalist, and essentially class-collaborationist politics. Written in 1986, the book also analyzes the rise of Reagan and puts forward a theory of a new and complete middle-class hegemony in electoral politics that holds up pretty well today.

Even though this book has an essentially “internal” lens on developments in American class structure and class politics, much of it actually complements an “external” viewpoint that sees these developments in the context of contemporary imperialism, core/periphery relations, and the formation of a labor aristocracy. If contemporary theories of imperialism explain why the popular classes of the U.S. benefit from imperialism, this book help explains how these benefits came to be distributed (unevenly and racially), how they have erased the terrain of class struggle (through trade-union reformism, chauvinism, and collaborationism), and how the potential exclusion of key segments of the U.S. working class from these benefits could lead to a rebirth of some kind of real, anti-imperialist, revolutionary politics in the coming decades. Crucially for U.S. anti-imperialist activists, Davis warns against majoritarian thinking, recognizing that at least at first (and barring significant “re-ordering” of the world-system), principled revolutionary and anti-imperialist politics will not be broadly popular and will often face vicious attacks (including from the social-democratic left). The book is short on prescriptions for action. It is more valuable as an autopsy of the 20th century U.S. labor movement and organized left, and a call to create something better - a call to wake from the nightmare of “late imperial America”.

Part One: Labor and American Politics

Chapter 1: Why the American Working Class Is Different

Davis opens by tracing the development of the U.S. working class from the founding of the country onwards, and the major factors inhibiting any early development of radicalism.

An early note on the lack of “popular class” influence on the American Revolution:

Another important difference between Europe and America was the class composition of the leadership of the democratic movement. In Europe, bourgeois liberalism had (at least until 1848) generally taken a position of adamant opposition to ‘democracy’. Its strategic aim was to mobilize the plebeian masses against aristocratic power without thereby being forced to concede universal suffrage. The manipulation of the English working classes by the Whigs in reform struggles of the 1820s and early 1930s was a classic case. To the extent that the bourgeois revolution actually became a ‘democratic’ revolution, it was because elements of the plebeian strata (urban artisans, petty bourgeoisie, declassed intellectuals, supported by the multitudes of journeymen, laborers, and sections of the peasantry) violently assumed leadership, usually in the context of a life-or-death threat to the survival of the revolution or temporizing betrayal by the haute bourgeoisie (France in 1791 or Germany in 1849). Furthermore, by the 1830s, surviving elements of this plebeian Jacobinism were rapidly being transformed, under the impact of industrialism, into a proletarian proto-socialism (Blanquism, the Communist League, etc.
In the United States, by contrast, the commanding heights of the bourgeois-democratic ‘revolution’ were dominated, without significant challenge, by the political representatives of the American bourgeoisie. Thus, in a certain ironic sense, the American bourgeoisie (in a definition encompassing historically specific configurations of large merchants, bankers, big capitalist landowners or planters, and, later, industrialists) was 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 regimes.
This was partly a result of the fact that the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolution in America was not an uprising against a moribund feudalism, but rather a unique process of capitalist national liberation involving, in the period from 1760 to 1860, a multi-phase struggle against the constraints imposed by a globally hegemonic British capital on the growth of native bourgeois society. It is possible to see the Revolution of 1776, for instance, as very much a civil war against Loyalist comprador strata, and the Civil War as a continuing revolution against an informal British imperialism that had incorporated the cotton export economy of the South in an alliance of neocolonial dependency. In the first phase, a merchant-planter coalition overthrew the obstacles to internal expansion, and in the second, an alliance of fledgling industrial capital and Western farmers created the preconditions for national economic integration.

As Davis points out, there was never any thorough-going “democratic revolution”, even through civil war:

The same factors also gave the democratic movement in America its relatively ‘conservative’ cast. In contrast with the anti-feudal revolutions of France or Spain, for example, there was no broad, radical assault on the legitimating institutions and ideology of society which might later serve as a model for working-class revolutionism. The plebeian colonial masses did not rise up under the leadership of their planter and mercantile ‘revolutionaries’ in 1776 to ignite a worldwide democratic revolution—as the sans-culotte followers of Saint-Just and Robespierre would aspire to do a few years later—but rather to defend the special gift of popular liberty that God and Locke had granted their Puritan ancestors. Similarly, in arousing the North in 1861, Lincoln and the Republicans vehemently rejected the revolutionary slogans of Garrison and the Abolitionists (the extension of ‘equal rights’ to Afro-Americans and the destruction of the slave order) to appeal, instead, to the ‘preservation of the Union and Free White Labor’. These ideological nuances have far more than incidental significance; they testify both to the solidity of bourgeois political domination and to the inhibition of ‘permanent democratic revolution’ in America.

Here he introduces a theme he will return to many times, the rivalry of early European immigrant groups at a crucial point in the labor movement, as well as pointing out a uniquely strong religiosity in American culture (although, interestingly, the late 20th century growth in evangelicalism doesn’t feature strongly in his later analysis of Reagan’s America):

Partly rooted in purely economic rivalries in the labor market (although modern labor historiography has uprooted the hoary old myth that the Irish arrived in New England textile mills as strike breakers), the Yankee-versus-immigrant polarization in the working class also reflected a profound cultural antagonism that would hinder efforts at labor unity for more than a century. It would be easy to define this cleavage as a persistent opposition between native-Protestant and immigrant-Catholic workers; yet this antinomy does not sufficiently capture the complex nuances of how, on the one hand, religion, ethnicity, and popular custom were concatenated into two rival systems—or, on the other, how they were integrated into the matrix of a global, and highly distinctive, American bourgeois culture.
The central paradox of American culture is that while Engels was correct when he labelled it the ‘purest bourgeois culture’, Marx was equally right when he observed that ‘North America is preeminently the country of religiosity’. In the absence of a state church or aristocratic hierarchy, secularization was not a requirement for liberalism, and America did not experience the kind of ‘cultural revolution’ represented by Jacobin anticlericalism in Europe. Nor did the American working class develop the traditions of critical, defiant rationalism that on the Continent were so vital in orienting the proletariat toward socialism and in establishing an alliance with the intelligentsia. Instead, the industrial revolution in America went hand in hand with the reinforcement of religious influences upon popular culture and working-class consciousness.

And here’s the really big one:

This account of the working class in the 1850s would be incomplete without discussing a third divisive force: racism. American democracy was, after all, the most spectacularly successful case of settler-colonialism and the correlative condition for ‘free soil, free labor’ was the genocidal removal of the indigenous population. Moreover, as Tocqueville observed, the antebellum North was, if anything, more poisonously anti-Black than the South.
An already consolidated white racism tied to the myth of a future Black flooding of Northern labor markets led most native workmen to oppose social equality and suffrage for Black freedmen. From Boston to Cincinnati, the white lower classes periodically rioted, attacked communities of freedmen, hounded Abolitionists, and imposed color bars on their crafts. Northern Blacks were everywhere excluded from the universalization of manhood suffrage in the 1820s and 1830s, and on the eve of the Civil War only four states in the Union allowed freedmen even a qualified franchise. The rise of the Republican Party and massive Northern opposition to the extension of slavery contributed little to changing these prejudices. The young Republican Party carefully skirted or openly opposed the integration of Blacks into Northern society; deportation to Africa, in fact, was the favorite solution. Although segments of the native white working class, especially in New England, eventually embraced Abolitionism, they remained a minority whose opposition to slavery was most often framed within a pietistic religious ideology, rather than within a clear political analysis of the relationship between capitalism and slavery. Unfortunately more articulate and widely heard voices in the working class were those of ‘labor leaders’ and disgruntled Jacksonian radicals like Orestes Brownson or George H. Evans, who, in the guise of class politics, advocated an alliance of Northern labor with the slaveowners against ‘capital’.
Among the immigrant proletariat, on the other hand, a section of the German workers possessed a more or less revolutionary understanding of the political implications of the slavery crisis for the future of American labor. They attempted to mobilize support for Abolitionism, and denounced the efforts of pro-slavery demagogues like Herman Kriege and the New York Staats-Zeitung. But these ‘Red 48ers’—including the vanguard ‘Communist Club’ of New York—were ghettoized by language and their lack of understanding of the culture of American labor. Their heroic efforts had little impact upon the mainstream of the labor movement.

After a discussion of attempts by some Irish republican radicals to push abolitionism in the U.S.:

Thus, despite Garrison’s and O’Connell’s combined efforts, Abolitionism failed utterly to stir the most exploited and outcast strata of the Northern working class. Although the Irish stood loyally by the Union in the Civil War (few as Republicans, most as ‘Union Democrats’), anti-Black racism grew as the rising cost of living combined with a class-based conscription system to further increase the miseries of the immigrant ghettoes and fuel the distorted perception that ‘the Blacks were to blame’. The great Draft Riot of 1863—the bloodiest civil disturbance in American history—exhibited the schizophrenic consciousness of the immigrant poor: their hatred of the silk-stocking rich and their equal resentment against Blacks. Although attempts have been made to rationalize the sadistic attacks by the Irish on freedmen as the consequences of a desperate rivalry for unskilled jobs between the two groups, this analysis has lost ground in the face of growing evidence that Blacks had already been excluded from most categories of manual labor and that the competitive ‘threat’ was totally one-sided—directed in fact against Blacks.
Perhaps the racism of the Irish must be seen instead as part and parcel of their rapid and defensive ‘Americanization’ in a social context where each corporatist lower-class culture (native-Protestant versus immigrant-Catholic) faithfully reflected through the prism of its own particular values - the unifying settler-colonial credo that made them all ‘CITIZENS’.

Here, instead of choosing the facile explanation of Debsian socialism and it’s decline (they were simply outfought or repressed) Davis looks deeper:

Underlying the debacle of 1896, however, was more than simply the successful conspiracies of Gompers and the conservative Populists to derail a radical farmer-labor coalition. Even when full allowance is made for the demoralization and confusion created by the infighting within the AFL and the Populist party, a great discrepancy remains between the radicalism of the veteran trade-union militants—Debs, McBride, Morgan, etc.—and the apparent apathy or indifference of the majority of the urban and still predominantly unorganized working class. Despite the fact that Depression-era Chicago was frequently described by contemporary observers as a city ‘trembling on the brink of revolution’, the Labor-Populists won only about twenty percent of the potential labor vote (40,000 out of 230,000) at the height of their influence in 1894. Moreover, in a pattern of regional exceptionalism that would be repeated again in the twentieth century, the movement for an independent labor politics failed to grow in the other major urban-industrial centers outside of the Chicago-Northwestern area. Were there not, therefore, other, more profound forces acting to disrupt the advance of Labor-Populism and to deflect the development of American labor from the path traced by British and Australian labor parties?
Two factors stand out most clearly. First, the united rebellion of the Southern yeomen and farm tenants—the cutting edge of agrarian radicalism—was broken up by a violent counterattack of the regional ruling class which counterposed ‘Jim Crow’ and redneck demagogism to the Farmers’ Alliance and interracial cooperation. A vicious panoply of Black disfranchisement, racial segregation, and lynch terror was installed in the nineties to suppress militant Black tenants, to keep them tied to the land, and to prevent their future collaboration with poor whites. At the same time, the defeat of the great New Orleans General Strike of 1892 destroyed the vanguard of Southern labor and wrecked interracial unity among workers. Out of its ashes arose a stunted, Jim Crow white unionism on one hand, and a pariah Black sub-proletariat on the other. These twin defeats of Southern tenants and workers were decisive in allowing merchant-planter reaction to block the development of a free labor market: freezing the Southern economy for more than half a century in the disastrous mold of a servile cotton monoculture.
Secondly, this Southern counter-revolution was paralleled north of the Mason-Dixon Line by a resurgence of nativism and ethno-religious conflict within the industrial working class. In the bleak depression days of the mid-nineties, many native as well as ‘old’ immigrant workers came to believe that burgeoning immigration was creating a grave competitive threat.
Finally, it must be noted that the renaissance of the ethno-religious and racial conflict at the end of the nineteenth century was intimately connected with a far-reaching transmutation of popular ideologies. In the face of the race terror in Dixie and the demands of US expansionism in the Carribean and the Pacific, the old popular nationalism framed by Lincolnian Unionism was being remolded into a xenophobic creed of ‘Anglo-Saxon Americanism’ based on social Darwinism and ‘scientific racism’. The coincidence of this ideological torsion within popular culture with the second major recomposition of the American working class, fed by the new immigration, provides a context for understanding the increasing rightward shift of the AFL after 1896 towards Jim Crow unions, immigration restriction, and narrow craft exclusivism. Although trade unionism for the first time survived a serious depression, the later nineties were reminiscent of the 1850s, by reason of the intensity of the working-class dissension and fragmentation as Protestant was again mobilized against Catholic, white against Black, and native against immigrant.

Chapter 2: The Barren Marriage of American Labor and the Democratic Party

Here we enter the 20th century, and trace the development of the labor movement through the crucial 30s and 40s.

The Communist Party tries to get in on the New Deal coalition:

On the other side, the CP’s turn toward Lewis, under the rising star of Earl Browder, was a logical part of a broader maneuver to legitimize the Communists as the left-wing of the New Deal coalition. In time they would have to pay a terrible price at the hands of their erstwhile allies for this ‘center-left coalition’. Meanwhile, the Party’s work in the unions began to take on a totally new character as the exigencies of intra-bureaucratic struggle assumed priority over the defense of rank-and-file democracy or the creation of a mass socialist current in the unions. Communist criticism of Lewis (and later of Murray) ceased, the call for an independent labor party was muted, and by 1938, the party’s factory cells and plant papers were abolished.

Here Davis looks deeper than the standard narrative of “bureaucratization” or betrayal for an explanation to the essential conservatism of the trade union movement:

It would be mistaken to assume, however, that the rightward and divisive posture of the AFL in the late thirties was exclusively the result of its ossified bureaucracy defending its traditional sinecures. Equally important was the fact that the ancien régime ultimately drew its solidity from the relative conservatism of its predominantly skilled, native-Protestant and ‘old immigrant’ membership. It was, moreover, precisely this stratum of the working class which was most susceptible to the ideological and cultural pressures of the petty bourgeoisie. The relative social gravity of the middle strata and the degree of permeability between its lower levels and the upper sections of the working class have both been unusually high in the United States—perhaps higher than in any other industrial country. An adequate theoretical approach to the history of labor in the thirties would have to chart the course of the various movements and perturbations of the different middle strata and their mediating impact upon the development of working-class consciousness (and vice versa). Suffice it to say, that while middle-class insurgencies of the first Roosevelt administration tended in a generally ‘populist’ direction that politically buttressed the New Deal, after 1937, there was a profound middle-class counter-reaction to the CIO and the growth of the left. This anti-CIO, anti-radical backlash, incessantly fanned by the press and the corporate media, contributed to the retrenchment of the AFL bureaucracy and provided it with a broad patriotic sanction for opposing the new industrial unions. At the same time, the resurgence of the AFL in the context of the rightward shift in national politics put the CIO leadership under increasing pressure—especially after the Ladies Garment Workers and the Milliners union rejoined the AFL in 1940 in protest at the dominant ‘center-left’ alliance within the CIO. Under siege, Lewis and Hillman clung even more desperately to their links to Roosevelt and the shrunken liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

The CP undergoes “deproletarianization” as they abandon trade-union militancy and absorb themselves even further into the New Deal coalition:

The sycophantic policies of the Communists did little, however, to broaden their base in the industrial working class. Although the party reached the zenith of its popular influence in this period, with perhaps 75,000 members and a periphery of more than 500,000, a majority of its growth came from an influx of second-generation Jewish white-collar and professional workers. Between 1935 and 1941, the non-blue-collar component of party membership jumped from barely 5 percent to almost 45 percent, while the New York component more than doubled from 22.5 percent to nearly 50 percent. As Nathan Glazer has pointed out in his study of the party’s changing social composition: ‘During the thirties the party was transformed from a largely working-class organization to one that was half middle class … even though the party had increased five-fold since the late twenties, there had been no such increase in the cadres in important industries. The party strength in the unions—except for maritime and longshore and the white-collar unions—was not a mass-membership strength. It was based on organizational control.’ While the Communist Party was undergoing this paradoxical process of simultaneous growth and relative ‘deproletarianization’, the rest of the left was near collapse. The Socialist Party, unable as always to give its trade-union interventions any strategy or coherent leadership, virtually disintegrated in a series of factional splits and defections after 1936, while the Trotskyists were seriously weakened by major doctrinal schisms in 1940. The curious result was to give the CP a resonance in national politics and a hegemony on the left that was quite unequalled since the heyday of the old Socialist Party in 1910–12, while at the same time the party was becoming more detached from strong roots in the newly unionized industrial working class.

Davis summarizes the new labor peace post WWII:

In contrast to World War One, when the army had been obdurately uncooperative with business’ efforts to coordinate procurement and production, the generals and the admirals now entered into a new and permanent collusion with war contractors and their political agents. The emergent ‘military-industrial complex’ succeeded where the NRA had failed in melding the political and economic ingredients for state monopoly capitalism.
But this new coordination between private accumulation and the imperialist state required a level of labor productivity and industrial peace which could only be secured through the willing collaboration of the trade-union bureaucracy. Interestingly, the CIO leadership on the eve of World War Two (and under the influence of Catholic corporatist theories) submitted precisely such a plan for permanent harmonization of the interests of capital and labor through an integration of collective bargaining with scientific management. The proposal that Philip Murray took to Roosevelt in December 1940 as a basis for the organization of defense production advocated the formation of ‘industrial councils’, which would allow unions to participate in various aspects of plant management while encouraging a common interest between workers and the front office in raising productivity. Murray made the argument—later expanded by Walter Reuther—that the greater the degree of formal union ‘partnership’ with management and government, the more effective the control which the union leadership could exercise over disruptive or subversive ‘minorities’ in the rank and file.

WWII as the last opportunity for creation of a truly multi-racial labor movement, and the predictable failure to take this opportunity:

The weakness of left influence over wartime labor militancy also diminished one of the few counterweights to the pervasive and growing racism of the white working class in the war plants. At the beginning of rearmament, Blacks had been universally excluded from defense jobs, and it was only after the rise of the ‘March on Washington Movement’ in 1941 organized by a Black trade unionist, A. Philip Randolph, that Roosevelt reluctantly signed an executive order against job discrimination. Although real job equality was never remotely achieved, significant numbers of Black workers did obtain footholds (usually the worst jobs) in aircraft, vehicle assembly and shipbuilding, where they often worked side by side with newly proletarianized whites from the rural South and Southwest. The result was that the wartime insurgence against working conditions and the no-strike pledge often overlapped with racist attacks on the new Black workers. Between March and June 1943, over 100,000 man-days were lost in a wave of ‘hate-strikes’ against the upgrading of Black workers. One of the largest occurred at the Packard Works in Detroit during April 1943, when 25,000 whites struck ‘in retaliation for a brief sitdown of Blacks protesting their not being promoted’. Two months later, all of Detroit erupted into anti-Black pogroms and riots which took thirty-four lives. A year later, and following innumerable other incidents in shipyards and rubber plants, a massive racist outburst in Philadelphia, sparked by the refusal of white streetcar employees to work with Blacks, forced FDR to send 5,000 federal troops to restore order.

Here (and elsewhere) Davis focuses his attention on cultural and ideological roots, and sidenotes the “powerful material supports” and “new structural position of the American working class within a postwar world economy” without elaborating further - again, a hesitance to acknowledge the power of the sheer economic forces at play:

But there were deeper reasons for the sudden riptide of anticommunism, which pulled asunder the decade-old ‘left-center’ alliance within the CIO. The integration of the unions into the Cold War consensus was correlated with a far-reaching rearticulation of the cultural universe of the American working class. The Second World War, in particular, was a watershed of enormous importance—comparable to the 1890s—in reforging blue-collar identity. Earlier, I contrasted the immanently solidaristic and perhaps even social-democratic thrust of the CIO with the recharged conservatism of the AFL, as well as with the anomie and racial conflict produced by the wartime recomposition of the industrial working class. By themselves, these divergent ideological currents only denoted the contradictory possibilities of the period and the highly unsettled, transitional state of proletarian consciousness. What ultimately created the basis for a new cultural cohesion within the postwar American working class was the rise of wartime nationalism. It must be recalled that ‘Americanism’ had previously served as a watchword for successive nativist crusades, as broad strata of the ‘new immigrants’ stubbornly clung to their old ethnic identifications and patriotisms, refusing to submit to a coercive cultural assimilation. Even the savage official jingoism of the First World War, far from welding together a nationalist unity within the working class, further divided it through its antagonism to the Germans, alienation of the Irish, and persecution of more radical immigrant groups. The significance of the new nationalism that had been incubated in the thirties and fanned to a fever pitch by the war mobilization was that it was broadly inclusive of the white working class (Blacks, Mexicans and Japanese-Americans need not apply) and, moreover, was propped-up by powerful material supports. The latter included the job-generating capacities of the permanent arms economy, and, in a more general sense, the new structural position of the American working class within a postwar world economy dominated by US capital. With the adoption of peacetime universal military service in the late 1940s—whose burden fell almost entirely on working-class youth via a system of class-biased educational and occupational deferments—the American state acquired a potent instrument for inculcating patriotic, anti-radical and pro-authoritarian attitudes in each generation of workers.

This section introduces a central theme: the intertwined defeats of the labor movement and the Black liberation struggle.

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. The abandonment of ‘Operation Dixie’ in the face of systematic repression and the CIO’s own internal Cold War contradictions was an almost fatal blow to the once bright hopes for such a labor-based rebellion in the South. At the same time, the national CIO’s gradual backtracking on civil rights (a trend again intimately connected with the rise of anticommunism) left the Black movement even more vulnerable to the racist backlash which swept the country in the late forties. This disarticulation of the labor and Black movements had devastating consequences for both. Its immediate result was to give the ancien regime in Dixie a new lease on life and to allow the Dixiecrat secessionists of 1948 (who bolted the regular ticket in protest over Truman’s civil rights platform) to triumphantly re-establish their power in the Democratic Party during the early 1950s. In the long run it made the civil rights revolution incomparably more difficult and bloody, reinforced white working-class racism, and forced Black liberation into a more corporatist mold.

Again here a slight over-emphasis on culture/voluntary actions of CIO:

There were, of course, moments in the thirties and forties when the struggle for industrial unionism seemed to be creating an alternative culture and a new mode of daily life. The sight of the Women’s Auxiliary driving the police off the streets of Flint, or the sound of ten thousand Ford strikers singing ‘Solidarity Forever’, were experiences that transcend the smug equations in latterday textbooks on the ‘Dynamics of Wage Determination’. But the overall character of trade-union militancy in the 1930s and 1940s was defined, as Dubofsky has recently emphasized, by the limited, episodic participation of most industrial workers. The wartime recomposition of the working class introduced a basic discontinuity which was reflected in the contrasting internal dynamics and political resonances of the 1934–37 and 1943–46 strike waves. Add to this the persistence of labor disunity, and it is clearer why CIO militancy lacked the experiential power and coherence to create the embryo of a new working-class ‘culture’. What was created, instead, was a new nexus of relations and alliances in the workplace that provided sufficient unity to ensure the effectiveness of the union, while outside the plant the working class continued to find its social identity in fragmentary ethnic and racial communities, or in a colonized leisure.

Chapter 3: The Fall of the House of Labor

Bringing us up closer to the time of publication, Davis starts to describe how the post-war ‘Fordist’ regime has come apart and what is replacing it.

As the old system of industrial relations is torn apart, American management is baring something of its real soul. As Howell John Harris has emphasized in his important study of the origins of collective bargaining, the majority in management has always held to an attitude of conservative ‘realism’, and remained unreconciled to the principles of unionism, dealing with unions only as a ‘necessary evil’. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that there never was a peaceful settlement of the American class war, much less a ‘social contract’ between labor and capital, but rather an armed truce which lasted only as long as: 1) the deepening of internal mass demand was the primary engine of capital accumulation; and 2) unions could sustain a credible threat to resume the offensive against capital. When both of these conditions were eroded by far-reaching political and economic changes (to be discussed in greater detail in chapter five), and in the balance of class power, a thoroughgoing crisis of the institutional forms of collective bargaining became inevitable.

The auto industry as the model for US post-war industrial relations:

The articulation of collective bargaining with the political economy was fought out in the three great wage rounds of 1946, 1948 and 1949. Although Lewis’s coalminers were, as usual, the first in the door, winning pensions in 1946 and health benefits in 1949, it was the protracted struggle between the autoworkers and General Motors that cast American labor relations in their postwar mold. As the Editors of Fortune interpreted it, the ultimate Treaty of Detroit was a basic ‘affirmation … of the free enterprise system’: first, the autoworkers accepted ‘the existing distribution of income between wages and profits as “normal” if not as “fair”’. Second, by explicitly accepting ‘objective economic facts—costs of living and productivity—as determining wages,’ the contract threw ‘overboard all theories of wages as determined by political power, and of profit “as surplus value”’. Finally, ‘it is one of the very few union contracts that expressly recognize[s] both the importance of the management function and the fact that management operates directly in the interest of labor’

On “international Fordism” (again, here “mass consumption” in the core countries and the global conditions necessary for that consumption take a backseat in the analysis):

The ‘deep structure’ of the postwar boom was the expansion of the internal markets of the three metropolitan zones (North America, Western Europe and Japan) through the coordination of mass consumption with continuous productivity increases. The integral linkage of this coordination was provided by the new socialization of the wage relation achieved, at least partly, through the struggles of the American working class. In all the advanced capitalist societies, this socialization had three generic characteristics: 1) the more or less extensive substitution of some form of collective bargaining for the individual wage contract; 2) the more or less extensive insulation of the real wage from deflation through arbitrary wage competition, and the linkage of the nominal wage to the advance of social productivity (rather than merely individual effort); and 3) the collective provision of social security and some more or less extensive social ‘safety net’. In every other respect, however, the institutional forms through which this socialization of the wage relation was achieved differed across the OECD zone. It is not merely that there are different industrial relations ‘systems’ in the various social formations, but the very nature and scope of what constitutes ‘industrial relations’, as distinct from social security or state administration, differ as well.

Once again Davis unfavorably compares the U.S. labor movement to European labor movements, without necessarily drawing attention to the limitations of those movements in their own right:

In contrast to European or antipodean labor courts, the control of the apparatus of arbitration is private and involves a much expanded role of union staff experts, personnel managers and outside arbiters. To operate this system and to maintain a far more decentralized galaxy of individual contracts (over 125,000) has entailed the growth of union officialdom into a bureaucratic stratum qualitatively larger than in any other capitalist society. By 1962, for instance, there were 60,000 full-time, salaried union officials in the United States (one for every 300 workers), as contrasted to 4,000 in Britain (one for 2,000) or 900 in Sweden (one for 1,700).
In summary, nowhere else have ‘industrial relations’ (i.e. the regulation of the bargaining process) been spun-off with the same sub-systemic autonomy and institutional self-interest as in the United States. Nowhere else has there developed such a dense mass of private ‘common law,’ nor so extensive a substitution of legal bureaucratization and arbitration for administrative state intervention or a public judiciary (as in the Australian system of labor courts). The driving logic of the system has been the collusion of union officialdom and management to prevent any ‘statization’ of collective bargaining or, for that matter, the emergence of any ‘dual power’ such as that achieved in postwar Britain by the strength of independent shop-steward organization.

Turning his attention to the political-economy developments of the 60s and 70s that led the way to the collapse of organized labor:

Not only did the AFL–CIO have desultory and declining successes in organizing within the rapidly industrializing urban areas of the Southeast and Southwest, but it egregiously failed to coordinate the efforts of individual unions fighting plant relocation in right-to-work states. During the 1960s, 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 Sunbelt 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.
Although this strategy has occasionally backfired—as in the case of the memorable rebellion at GM’s ruralized super-assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio—it was more often successful, resulting in a new union-resistant geography of American industry. United States capital has gone furthest to break up the power of urban-union industrial agglomerations. As Lonsdale and Seyler point out, ‘Without a minimum of formal federal policy on the matter, the United States has probably experienced more decentralization, and, in effect, non-metropolitan industrialization, than any major industrial nation, capitalist or socialist.’ With cheap energy as a key factor in allowing industry to disperse in the search of malleable, non-union labor, non-metropolitan manufacturing increased faster or as rapidly as metropolitan production in every region except the West, and nearly ninety percent of new manufacturing jobs were created outside the old unionized Heartland.

Summarizing the state of the labor movement in the 80s, his predictions here, of a slow decline and continued conservatism, have largely been borne out in subsequent decades:

To understand the current status of unionism, it is useful to imagine the American labor-force roughly divided in half. One half, including goods-producing industries along with transportation and government, is weakly organized, about thirty percent; the other half, including services, trade and financial services—is basically an open shop (only seven percent union). Within the weakly organized half of the economy, moreover, the only sector of unionism demonstrably able to hold its own is the public sector, which in 1984 for the first time became the largest single contingent of the trade union movement (5.661 million versus 5.302 million in manufacture and 2.146 million in transportation-communications)—a shift which will probably have increasing consequences for the AFL–CIO’s internal balance of power as well. Yet even within the state sector, the organized share has only been maintained by vigorous new recruitment in the face of the sweeping privatization of public services sponsored by the Reagan administration at all governmental levels.
It is likely that this decline will continue and perhaps even accelerate in some sectors like construction and trucking. The US trade-union movement has yet to pass through the eye of the storm. The plunge in membership caused by the 1980–82 recession, followed by the offensive power of management through the subsequent recovery, presages even harder times when the economy again goes into a downswing, or some of the landmines in the financial system explode. Unionism is probably not headed toward extinction, but toward a kind of Babylonian captivity in a system of decentralized industrial relations dominated by the corporations and conditioned by the great mass of unorganized labor outside. As union bargaining power declines, it is also likely that union leaders will embrace political alliances with their corporations to demand greater protectionism or restriction of immigration. In the face of the real challenge of a new international division of labor, quasi-racialist calls to defend American standards and products may be the easiest and most demagogic way out for embattled trade-union bureaucrats. Certainly there are many precedents, including the AFL’s ill-fated alliance with the American Legion and the Taylor Society during the 1920s, or the AFL–CIO’s current bed-sharing with the military-industrial complex.

This part may be questionable - with hindsight, we can see both the destructive effects of neoliberalism and the effects that have worked to strengthen core country “mass purchasing power” - namely, that the movement of industrial and other production to low-wage countries has made many goods cheaper and more plentiful in the West:

At the same time, it would be delusory to imagine that the decline of union wage power will lead to some new rearticulation of industrial relations along a ‘neoliberal’ model. The success of the current management offensive is destroying the foundations of the political economy of Fordism, without establishing any new linkage between the transformation of the conditions of production and the growth of effective demand. The partial desocialization of the wage relation depresses mass purchasing power and creates further segmentation in the working class. The great danger, of course, is that concessionary bargaining, by weakening the unions’ role in the regulation of the economy, invites the return of some of the central contradictions of the old liberal regime of accumulation, including underconsumptionism.

Part 2: The Age of Reagan

Chapter 4: The New Right’s Road to Power

It is hardly surprising that California politics provided the primitive accumulation of conditions for the emergence of the New Right and the presidential ambitions of Ronald Reagan. California, as everyone knows, is the prefigurative laboratory for national political trends: its internal antinomies usually anticipate the form and content of social conflicts elsewhere. It is sufficient to recall Berkeley, Watts or Delano, which literally and symbolically
heralded the movements of the late sixties, or Orange County, the antediluvian suburb universally recognized as both the birthplace and promised land of the New Right. The rabid polarization of the Southern California suburbs against the campuses and ghettoes, together with iron-heeled power of the corporate growers, created a ripe political context for new modes of right-wing mobilization. Indeed, one of the most important sequences of experiences through which the New Right came to recognize its power was the series of referenda that united a middle-class and white working-class backlash against integrated housing (1964–65), abolition of the death penalty (1965, 1976), the rights of farm labor (1972), school busing (1979) and property taxes (1978).

This is followed with more detailed discussion of Californian party politics, direct democratic aspect of referenda (which allows more direct buying of policies), direct mailing as a new mobilization tactic, etc.

Here he draws attention to the jockeying for power between different class fractions of the bourgeoisie:

The American political system differs radically from other parliamentary democracies. It is wrong to imagine that it can be analyzed as a special variety of European politics minus
a working-class party; equally, the positional signifiers ‘right-left-center’, which in Europe automatically condense stable congruences of class and ideology, are often inapplicable, if not positively misleading, in describing American political alignments. Central and exceptional characteristics of American party politics include: the subordination-integration of organized labor within one of the capitalist parties; the political segmentation of the proletariat and middle strata by racial and ethno-religious conflict; the singular weight and episodic militancy of the petty bourgeoisie; the distinctive complexity and fluidity of the internal structure of the big bourgeoisie; and the importance of regional polarizations within a federal political structure.
These last two factors are especially important in understanding the internal politics of the modern Republican Party and are closely related to one another. Regional conflicts have often refracted the prolonged struggles for power between different capitalist fractions, while the successive appearance of industrial ‘frontiers’ has created opportunities for the emergence of new regional centers of capital. In contrast to the geo-financial centralism of other capitalist countries, the dominance of Wall Street has always been qualified by competition with financial centers in Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco and, more recently, Los Angeles and Houston. As a result, the privileged access to national government enjoyed by older sections of the bourgeoisie has been repeatedly challenged by the assault of newer, regionally based capitalist groups—a conflict facilitated by a relatively decentralized political system that permits consolidation of local citadels of capitalist power on a state or municipal basis. These complex struggles between capital have tended to shape competing coalitions of interests within the bourgeoisie. At the level of national politics, it is possible to distinguish a traditional core fraction of finance capital, as well as successive peripheral fractions in opposition.

On the success of mobilizing right-wing bases on single-issue campaigns (notably the things many leftists dismiss as “culture war” issues):

Simultaneously, the sustained, systematic expansion of single-issue movements under right-wing control was creating an unprecedented array of interlocking organizations and constituencies, ranging from ‘law and order’ interest groups (Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, National Rifle Association, etc.) to ‘new Cold War’ lobbies (American Security Council) or politicized fundamentalism (Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority). The largest and most effective category of single-issue groups, however, were those devoted to the defence of the sanctity of white suburban family life, including dozens of mass anti-busing movements, Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-ERA Eagle Forum, Anita Bryant’s anti-gay-rights campaign, and—largest of all—the ‘Right to Life’ crusade. Significantly, several of these single-issue blocs—the pro-Cold War, anti-busing and anti-abortion movements in particular mobilized widespread support from classical New Deal blue-collar constituencies, thus demonstrating that social conservatism, racism and patriotism provided powerful entrees for New Right politics where Goldwaterite economic conservatism had dismally failed. As Viguerie explained in 1981: ‘It was the social issues that got us this far, and that’s what will take us into the future. We never really won until we began stressing issues like busing, abortion, school prayer and gun control. We talked about the sanctity of free enterprise, about the Communist onslaught until we were blue in the face. But we didn’t start winning majorities in elections until we got down to gut level issues.

On the Eastern Establishment / core bourgeois and its growing non-partisanship, and a good note of the growing power of think-tanks and other “parastate” organizations in building bourgeois consensus:

To a profound degree, the ‘core’ had disengaged itself from a specific or permanent commitment to a particular wing of the Republican party or even to the GOP per se. With the presidency in virtually uninterrupted crisis from 1965 onwards, and with a general weakening of the role of regular party apparatuses in the face of the ‘new politics’, the political articulation of core interests became increasingly dependent on the strengthening of parastatal rather than partisan institutions. First, as a result of Vietnam and the world economic crisis, there was a massive reinforcement of the ‘bonding’ between the key corporate foreign and macroeconomic policy organs (the Council on Foreign Relations, Committee for Economic Development, and so on) and their corresponding departments and cabinet positions in Washington. In the same spirit, David Rockefeller’s Trilateral Commission represented an unprecedented (and largely unsuccessful) attempt to create a network of bipartisan support for what was intended to be a unified program of the core’s domestic and transnational interests. Secondly, the new linkage between PACs and single-issue politics spurred an expansion and reorganization of corporate lobbies and employer associations. The ‘interest group’ level of American politics became more important than ever, while simultaneously becoming less dependent upon partisan affiliation. The number of corporate PACs exploded from a mere 89 at the end of 1974 to 954 in January 1981, while a powerful new alliance of the largest corporations—the Business Roundtable—was organized to coordinate congressional lobbying.

Further fragmentation of “working-class” identity and the growing hegemony of middle-class politics:

The stagflation of the 1970s transformed the objective terrain and subjective discourse of politics in America in a way which encouraged the growth of right-wing neo-populism. While traditional depressions have tended to achieve a levelling effect in the composition of the working class, stagflation worked oppositely, deepening and exaggerating intra-class differentiation. Where differentials have tended to be as historically great, and labor market segmentation as extreme, as in the United States, protracted stagflation produced chasms of inequality between working-class strata. In the 1970s, for instance, the wage differential (not including supplementals) between steelworkers and apparel workers virtually doubled; or in absolute terms, where the difference between their wages in 1970 was $83, in 1980 it was $277! This has led some analysts to go so far as to suggest the existence of a tendential ‘Brazilianization’ of the American social structure, as it polarizes not only between classes, but within classes, to create opposing camps of inflationary ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. The consequent fragmentation of the class structure facilitated the recomposition of politics around the selfishly ‘survivalist’ axis favored by the New Right: ‘The complexity of the “restratification” of the working class has aggravated the tendency in American politics for class issues to become lost in a welter of sectoral and stratum divisions. This, in turn, has helped promote a politics that is not only more than usually self-interested and short-sighted, but also centered increasingly on a narrowed range of “social” issues, especially those of home and family. Where relative prosperity or impoverishment may hang on the timing of a house purchase or the fact of working in (say) the aerospace rather than the auto industry, or having been born in 1940 rather than 1950, the sense of commonality of experience and needs disintegrates.’
As we shall see in more detail in the next chapter, the divisive impact of stagflation upon the working class was further abetted by the dramatic reversal in the levels of activism sustained by the left and right respectively. As the movements of the sixties declined, new movements of the right surged forward. Black power and women’s liberation were eclipsed by middle-class militancy, as unprecedented numbers of white-collar, professional and managerial strata became active in single-issue campaigns or local politics, often abandoning their old party affiliations en route. Although a radical minority of these movements acted to recycle the personnel and concerns of the New Left, the mainstream flowed rightward with strong overtones of racial and sexual backlash. This ‘greening’ of American politics effectively disfranchised the poor, while simultaneously ensuring that the new activism of the middle classes acted as a ventriloquism for the voices of corporate PACs and New Right lobbies.
In the absence of pressure from the left, the momentum of conservative activism has pushed the ‘center’ many leagues rightward. Much has been written about the collapse of liberalism among congressional Democrats since Reagan’s inauguration, but well before the election, leading figures on the Democratic ‘left’ were staking out new homes further right. It should be recalled that it was Frank Church, not Jesse Helms, who orchestrated the outcry against Soviet troops in Cuba (who had been there since 1963), while George McGovern was supporting revival of the B-1 bomber project and Alan Cranston was proposing ingenious ways to transfer social spending to the Pentagon. Like the GOP, the Democratic Party has also undergone profound transformations in its internal power structure: as the influence of the trade-union movement declines and big-city machines disappear, an increasing number of Democratic congressmen have become dependent upon corporate PACs and correspondingly sensitive to the pressures of New Right single-issue campaigns. Most suburban Republicans and Democrats have become virtually indistinguishable, and, as the votes over budget cuts during Reagan’s first term illustrated, the support of conservative Democrats provides the regime with a functional majority in the House as well as in the Senate. Several years ago, the United Auto Workers organized a conference to explore the prospects for a new ‘Progressive Alliance’ based on labor, minorities and women; little or nothing came of this initiative. Indeed, it was probably almost a decade too late to resurrect successfully the New Deal coalition. It is chastening to recall Irving Howe’s warning in 1964 that the failure of the labor movement strongly to ally itself with Blacks was enabling the New Right ‘to enter its “take off” phase’. Seventeen years later, it landed.

Chapter 5: The Political Economy of Late Imperial America

The purpose of this chapter is to try to identify the social forces and circumstances that have brought about the transition to Reaganism and a newer, but not necessarily ‘higher’, stage of American imperialism. My central hypothesis is that the historical era defined by the equation of ‘Americanism’ with democratic capitalism—that is, by the progressive expansion of bourgeois democracy and mass consumption under the aegis of the United States—is approaching its terminus. The root cause of this crisis, I will argue, is only partially located in the internal contradictions of the labor-process and profit cycle of the ‘Fordist’ regime of accumulation that has been the institutional order of postwar metropolitan growth. Fully as important as the gradual exhaustion of the sources of productivity and profitability in the old system of accumulation have been the politically imposed limits on geographical expansion—represented in this account primarily by the defeat of reformist capitalism in Latin America—and to its domestic deepening, in the United States, with the halting of the ‘Second Reconstruction’. The ‘pure’ logic of the system has, to so speak, been over-determined and overridden by, first, successful resistance among the oligarchical strata in the class structure of a large part of the semi-industrial periphery, and, secondly, by mobilization of a heteroclite coalition of sub-bourgeois strata in the United States. The result, I shall argue, is both a ‘structure of crisis’ and a nascent politico-economic coherence, as what I term the logic of ‘overconsumptionism’ increasingly directs the restructuring of American hegemony.

The point he makes late in the second paragraph hints towards an acknowledgement of benefits of imperialism to US citizens (although is still more focused on military-industrial profits and geopolitical maneuvering as opposed to ‘unequal exchange’ as a transfer mechanism):

This quasi-absolutist centralization of strategic military power by the United States allowed an enlightened and flexible subordinancy for its principal satraps. In particular, it proved highly accommodating to the residual imperialist pretensions of the French and British—the mock-heroic secession of the force de frappe and the enduring myth of the ‘special relationship’. This flexibility has been grounded in the particular disjunction of economic and military power, and expenditure, which the structure of American hegemony has permitted. The Yankee legions on the Elbe and along the DMZ, together with the nuclear umbrellas that protect them, made it possible for the European and Japanese economies to provide, respectively, high social-welfare overheads to integrate labor, and vast trade and agricultural subsidies to preserve international competitiveness—with each keeping up a strident ideological mobilization against communism all the while. In other words, the major allies, with the signal exception of Britain and its high per capita military outlays, have reaped the social-conformist fruits of militarism without having to pay the real market price.
On the American side, analysts have frequently alluded to the tradeoffs between the costs of the permanent arms economy and the low relative levels of welfare provisions and employment security. Yet this has seldom ruffled a public opinion trained since Lend-Lease to equate military expenditure with job creation and general prosperity. Even those sections of capital outside the lush gardens of the defense industry have gained from the innumerable spin-offs and multiplier-effects of the military budget, including the vast state subsidization of research and development. Finally, as hegemon, the United States has been uniquely able—by virtue of specific conjunctural circumstances—to ‘cash in’ its integrative military supremacy for enhanced economic advantages. An outstanding example of such an operation, of course, was Nixon’s and Kissinger’s manipulation of the Arab bourgeoisies’ military dependence on the United States to reassert American control over both oil and petro-dollars, to the detriment of European and Japanese production costs and trade balances.

In describing the Fordist cycle of accumulation - rising productivity, profits, wages - David paints a largely domestic picture, ignoring the global circumstances and outside inputs that made this cycle possible:

The first pattern of accumulation—what Aglietta terms the ‘intensive regime’—was based on the full-circuiting of rising productivity, profits and wages via multi-year collective bargaining and a super-liquid domestic credit system supported by federal home loans and tax relief for mortgages. Previously, during the first great consumer-durable boom of the 1920s, the majority of the semi-skilled industrial working class remained trapped in poverty-level incomes, unable to participate in the hoopla of car and house buying. (In this sense, incipient Fordism was defeated by the very success of the employers’ ‘American Plan’ in uprooting trade unionism and blocking wage advances.) As we have seen, it took the decade-long struggle of the new industrial CIO unions to force the way for union recognition and the codification, in the collective bargaining agreements of 1948–50, of a dynamic wage system that synchronized mass consumption with labor productivity. In this fashion, perhaps a quarter of the American population—especially white-ethnic semi-skilled workers and their families—were raised to previously middle-class or skilled-worker thresholds of home ownership and credit purchase during the 1950s. Another quarter to one-third of the population, however, including most Blacks and all agricultural laborers, remained outside the boom, constituting that ‘other America’ which rebelled in the 1960s.

This paragraph is as true as it was in the 80s, but what have been the political consequences of this low-wage growth? Immense low-wage employment is almost the “dark matter” of American political economy, a heavy weight that appears politically inert:

Thus, relative poverty is being mass produced, not only through the exclusion of third-world men from the primary labor-market, but especially through the dynamic incorporation of women into burgeoning low-wage sectors of the economy. Low-wage employment, far from being a mere ‘periphery’ to a high-wage core, has become the job growth-pole of the economy.

Here is a clear statement of his “overconsumptionism” idea, which certainly has some resonance with contemporary theories of imperialism. In his view, the traditional petty-bourgeois has been enlarged and benefited instead of the (white) working class benefiting as much as it used to:

Similarly, as stronger unions bargained for ‘welfare states in single industries’ via contractual health and retirement supplementals, the general thrust for national, inclusive welfare policies was diffused and weakened. Moreover, at the height of the antiwar and Black-power movements in 1968–70, the old-line craft unions, along with their allies in the Mafia-controlled teamsters and maritime unions, wrecked any hope of a New Deal-type social alliance by viciously attacking antiwar protests, opposing schemes for Black control of local institutions (like the police or schools), rejecting demands for affirmative action in apprenticeship programs, and, in a majority of cases, aligning with the urban-Democratic anciens régimes against ghetto and campus demands, even frequently against newly unionized public-sector workers. Because the trade union movement was fundamentally disinclined to become a genuinely hegemonic reform force—or, still less, to accept the lead of the civil rights movement—a welfare-statist or ‘neo-Fordist’ outcome to the social and economic crises of the next decade was almost a priori excluded. Finally, as we have seen, while business unionism rested comfortably in the niche of the high-wage sector of the economy, it had little incentive in vulgar cost-benefit terms to organize low-wage workers, even when they were centralized in giant hospital or office complexes. The result of this abdication was that American trade unions surrendered their ability to influence the processes of class and occupational formation in the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, including the new science-based industries.
What then did occur in the 1970s—with the exclusion of any social-democratic alternative—was the emergence of a new, embryonic regime of accumulation that might be called overconsumptionism. This has little to do with the sumptuary habits of the very rich, whose wasteful profligacy with yachts, mansions and exotic drugs is an incomparably smaller social problem than their control over the global means of production. Rather, by overconsumptionism, I wish to indicate an increasing political subsidization of a sub-bourgeois, mass layer of managers, professionals, new entrepreneurs and rentiers who, faced with rapidly declining organization among the working poor and minorities during the 1970s, have been overwhelmingly successful in profiting from both inflation and expanded state expenditure.
Unusually large middle strata and a plethora of people in ‘contradictory class locations’ have been permanent features of the twentieth-century American social landscape; what is new is the way in which the ‘tertiarization’ of the economy has been harnessed to the distributive advantage of an expanded managerial-professional stratum, as well as opening new frontiers of accumulation for small and medium-sized entrepreneurs. Correlatively, the Fordist circuitry of patterned wage/productivity agreements, which used to assure the channelling of part of the social surplus back into the expansion of real wages and the upgrading of labor-power, is breaking down. The old charmed circle of the poor getting richer as the rich get richer is being superseded by the trend of poorer poor and richer rich, as the proliferation of low-wage jobs simultaneously enlarges an affluent market of non-producers and new bosses.

Electoral politics is now more than ever the arena of the middle classes:

The organized expression of this socioeconomic program was the rolling earthquake of suburban protests after 1976, including the anti-busing movements, campaigns for a return to educational ‘basics’, landlord and realtor mobilizations (truly massive, with hundreds of thousands of ardent members organized against rent control and public housing), and, most importantly, what the Los Angeles Herald Tribune once called the ‘Watts Riot of the Middle Classes’—Proposition 13 and its spin-off revolts, which forced nineteen states to enact legislative or constitutional limits on property or income taxes. Although obviously besotted with law-and-order and racialist themes, these campaigns were in most cases organized on a different socioeconomic plane—with a more hegemonic political project—than the earlier backlash outbreaks of the ethnic Northern working class or the national Wallace movement.
They tended to move from mere defense of existing socioeconomic inequalities (as symbolized by the political integrity and fiscal autonomy of white suburban areas) to shrewd, assertive strategies for new upward redistributions of power and income through shifting tax burdens, privatizing collective consumption, and removing obstacles to the exploitation of cheap local labor. More than merely transient forms of protest against minority group demands, these mobilizations have been exploited to reinforce a now dense infrastructure of local interest representation and political influence which safeguards and perpetuates the position of the popular nouveaux riches. Overrepresentation at the electoral level has been creatively manipulated to consolidate overconsumptionism at an economic level.

Chapter 6: Reaganomics’ Magical Mystery Tour

An analysis of the Reagan era reconfiguration of the “ruling bloc”:

According to Edsall, the oil independents, flush with new billions from the 1970s energy price explosion and rapidly diversifying into real estate and leisure industries, have provided the ‘financial glue’ between the New Right and the Republican Party. Constituting an estimated one-third of the major joint contributors to Republican and conservative causes, the oil independents are the core of a new power-bloc which, thanks to the continuing shift of capital and tax revenues to the West and the South, is displacing Northeastern multinationals in the active control of the Republican apparatus. In this sense, the recent near-extinction of ‘moderate Republicanism’—i.e., the Dewey-Rockefeller wing dominant from 1940 to 1964—is part of a larger pattern involving the supplantation of Fordism and the rise of new rentier and military contractor networks. Profiting so stupendously from the recent infusion of debt and defense spending, together with the perpetuation of the Sunbelt boom, the new powerbrokers of Republicanism, for all their anti-state rhetoric, are unlikely to act as anything other than the most avid supporters of the current, pathological prosperity.

How much of this, about US hegemony now disorganizing the relatively stable post-war world system, holds? The “shift in […] mass consumption towards surrogate affluent and military markets” is a little confusing to me.

Where US military hegemony and monetary sovereignty once provided coherence for this system of interrelationships, it now has become the principal disorganizing force. First, the shift in internal American demand from mass consumption towards surrogate affluent and military markets has generated, as we have seen, the spiralling budget and trade deficits that have further unbalanced the ‘great triangle’ of intermetropolitan trade, while simultaneously siphoning off European and Japanese savings. Secondly, the collective trusteeship now operated by the Western banks over the economies of Latin America has confiscated whatever developmental gains they might have achieved in the current expansion of US trade. Indeed, the traditional relationship has been stood on its head, as Latin America runs a trade surplus and exports capital to the United States. The neoclassical burden of adjustment to this new trading order has been borne by the poorest inhabitants of the hemisphere, including the five millions of flagelados (or ‘scourged ones’) estimated to have starved to death in Northeastern Brazil in the course of the first Reagan administration.

Chapter 7: The Lesser Evil? The Left, the Democrats and 1984

Davis turns his attention the organized left and how they have responded to the moment.

The cadre groups (eg New Communist Movement groups) merely misread the moment, while the opportunists completely absorbed themselves into the moment - and equally gained nothing!

From the McGovern candidacy of 1972, however, sections of the former New Left, together with a younger cohort of 1970s activists, began to slip back into Democratic politics, initially on a local level. At first there was no sharp ideological break with the sixties’ legacy. The ‘New Politics’, as it was typed, seemed just another front of the antiwar movement or another tactical extension of the urban populism espoused by SDS’s community organizing faction. By 1975, with the sudden end of the Vietnam War, a strategic divergence had become more conspicuous. On the one hand, an array of self-proclaimed ‘cadre’ groups, inspired by the heroic mold of 1930s radicalism, were sending their ex-student members into the factories in the hope of capturing and radicalizing the widespread rank-and-file discontent that characterized the end of the postwar boom. On the other hand, another network of ex-SDSers and antiwar activists—of whom Tom Hayden was merely a belated and media-hyped example—were building local influence within the Democratic ‘reform movement’: the loose collocation of consumer, environmental and public-sector groups, supported by a few progressive unions, that had survived the McGovern debacle.

Davis returns again to the primacy of Black liberation, and how under-appreciated its defeat has been:

Although its significance was only vaguely grasped at the time, this increasing polarization between workerism and electoralism coincided with, and was immediately conditioned by, the decline of the Black liberation movement that had been the chief social motor of postwar radicalism. A dismaying, inverse law seemed to prevail between the collapse of grassroots mobilization in the ghettoes and the rise of the first wave of Black political patronage in the inner cities. While Black revolutionaries and nationalists were being decimated by J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program of preemptive repression and infiltration, Black community organization was being reshaped into a passive clientelism manipulated by the human-services bureaucracy and the Democratic Party. Although, as we have seen, the civil rights movement remained an unfinished revolution with an urgent agenda of economic and political demands, its centrality to the project of a popular American left was tragically, and irresponsibly, obscured in the late 1970s. The ranks of the white, ex-student left, preoccupied with academic outposts and intellectual celebrities, showed a profound inability to understand the strategic implications of the halting of the civil rights movement. For all the theoretical white smoke of the 1970s, including the endless debates on crisis theory and the nature of the state, the decisive problem of the fate of the Second Reconstruction was displaced beyond the field of vision. With minimal challenge or debate, leading journals like Socialist Review and Dissent tacitly demoted Black liberation—the critical democratic issue in American history —to the status of another progressive ‘interest’, coeval with sexual freedom or ecology.
An even more profound crisis has reshaped Black politics since 1978. The incorporation of Blacks into the Democratic Party, and the deradicalization of the civil rights movement, have depended on the precarious material infrastructure of expanding federal employment programs and urban grants-in-aid. The new Black professional—managerial strata of the 1970s have been disproportionately employed in the management of the social services and educational complexes of the inner city, as well as in administering the network of Great Society programs that provided temporary employment and minimal welfare to the ghetto poor. Similarly, the ability of Black Democratic city halls to pacify the cities and ameliorate their decay on behalf of their corporate landlords has been in direct proportion to the federal funding of urban budgets.
Underlying this apparent collapse of political will has been the insurgent power of middle-class voters, who, in collusion with corporate lobbyists and an avaricious Pentagon, have created a new, implicit consensus in US politics. Choosing between the vast income transfer programs that disproportionately subsidize the middle class (Social Security, federal aid to education, mortgage interest deductions, and so on), the new arms race, and the much smaller sector of means-tested assistance to the poor, the neoconservatives and the neoliberals have banded together to slash the last. For its part, as Kim Moody has shown, the AFL–CIO has also retreated, since the emasculation of the Humphrey–Hawkins employment bill in 1978, from any energetic advocacy of full employment measures, emphasizing instead the protection of its own organized sectors. Left without allies or partisans, Black America has been savaged by a new immiseration. Nearly half of all Black children are growing up in poverty, and in the upswing of the Reagan ‘recovery’, the Black unemployment rate, which historically has been double the white rate, is now three times higher (at 16 percent).

On the radicalism of the Jesse Jackson campaign:

Meanwhile, the Jackson campaign first befuddled, then enraged its erstwhile liberal critics (who, like the New Republic, had a priori dismissed it as a demagogic exercise in Black sectionalism) by unveiling a coherent, alternative foreign policy—more comparable to a Nonaligned Movement manifesto than to any hitherto imagined Democratic platform. This foreign policy, with its central emphases on ‘support for liberation struggles’, US non-intervention, and nuclear disarmament, was elaborated through an extensive dialogue that involved the Hispanic community, the peace movement, the Catholic left, and the oppositional foreign policy establishment (notably the Institute for Policy Studies), as well as Black pan-Africanists and nationalists. Jackson personally underwrote the priority of these planks in his campaign by audacious meetings with Ortega and Castro, as well as by his visible participation in left-led demonstrations against the invasion of Grenada and intervention in Central America. These initiatives far exceeded the functional requirements of the primary campaign as a simple Black protest against Democratic neglect. As Maulana Karenga has pointed out, Jackson’s defiance of the rules of the Cold War courted repudiation by the ‘new Black patriotism’ that had been ostentatiously endorsed by various Black sports and entertainment celebrities. Instead, he won an overwhelming voter support, seconded by significant sections of the Hispanic electorate, that can only be interpreted as a popular mandate for the Rainbow coalition’s strategic linkage of full employment, disarmament and anti-imperialism. Given the generally dismal historical record of international social democracy on imperialism (from the capitulation of the Reichstag deputies to Prussian militarism in 1914, to the supine support of the British Labour government for US genocide in Southeast Asia), the combination of Jackson’s economic and social with his foreign policy positions was extraordinary indeed.

Jackson’s campaign faced blatant racism and red-baiting from much of the social-democratic left:

The chic racism that had invested liberal critiques of the Jackson campaign in the spring came flooding down the spillways after November in even more strident forms. Nor was the putatively left press immune to such fulminations. In January, In These Times published a retrospect of the Rainbow Coalition’s role in the election by James Sleeper that sounded, even if more gently and paternalistically, many of the same themes of the New Republic: Jackson’s rallies ‘were group exercises in therapeutic self-assertion, bonfires that failed to illuminate the larger political landscape because they generated few constructive programs for American society as a whole … Jackson’s upfront appeals for racial solidarity in the election arena violate(d) traditional American political culture…’ Dissent, for its part, brought an ex-Black revolutionary turned born-again Jew, Julius Lester, to denounce Jackson as a racist and anti-Semite, of ‘questionable morality’, who had tried to pretend that he was a Black ‘Wizard of Oz’. Lester blamed the Rainbow for attempting to build a futile coalition of ‘rejected groups’ instead of looking towards the broad middle classes, the true source of ‘empowerment’. Meanwhile, for Social Democrats USA, Bayard Rustin was on hand at Norman Podhoretz’s birthday to denounce Black extremism and to praise the great man for ‘refusing to pander to minority groups’ in his fight against quotas and Black studies.

Some theses Davis ends the chapter with:

(1) The turn of the ex-New Left toward the Democratic Party coincided, almost to the exact moment, with the liberal retreat from the Great Society program and the beginning of the abandonment of a hegemonic reformism that included the Black poor. Almost every major theme of Reaganism was prefigured in the 1977–78 domestic and foreign policy shifts of the Carter administration (thereby inviting one to reverse Ted Kennedy’s description of Carter as ‘Reagan’s clone’).
(2) The ascendency of electoralism on the left, far from being an expression of new popular energies or mobilizations, was, on the contrary, a symptom of the decline of the social movements of the 1960s, accompanied by the organic crisis of the trade-union and community-service bureaucracies. Rather than being a strategy for unifying mass struggles and grassroots organization on a higher, programmatic level, electoralism was either imagined as a substitute for quotidian mass organizing, or it was inflated as an all-powerful catalyst for movement renewal.
(3) Most of the pro-Democratic left generally misread the direction of the class and racial polarization taking place in the United States and its impact on traditional electoral alignments. Starting from the misconception that a ‘left’ politics (whether hyphenated with liberalism or socialism) could be re-established directly on the basis of anti-Reagan populism, it seriously underestimated the power of the petty-bourgeois insurgency which is sweeping both parties and recomposing their leaderships. By the same token, it wildly overestimated the attraction of the Democrats, who lack any serious alternative economic program, to a divided and socially dispirited working class.
(4) The naive belief in a hidden left majority indicated a deeper incomprehension of how the electoral arena is socially structured and technically manipulated. Refusing to recognize the implacable fact that the power of US capital is reinforced by a field of property interests millions strong, the electoralist left acted as if middle-class and corporate domination of the institutions and media of the political system could be equalized merely by mass voter registration—at times appearing to give credence to the parliamentary cretinism that believes the electoral system to be a level playing field between social classes. In fact, the American electoral system, historically the most structurally antagonistic to radical or independent politics, has virtually become an extension of the advertising and television industries (See above, chapter four).
(5) The role of the trade-union movement in 1984 demonstrates all too clearly the contradictions of attempting to manipulate the system through its own elite apparatuses. The AFL–CIO Executive mobilized a great deal of organizational and financial clout, with only paltry political result.
(8) Because, as James Weinstein has pointed out, the historic social-democratic leadership has conceived itself playing an essentially ‘courtier’ role vis-à-vis the trade-union and Democratic leaderships, it was unwilling to ally with the one mass left constituency in American politics: the Black electorate. Indeed, with its explicit anti-imperialism, the Jackson campaign probably invited an impossible leap from DSA leaders like Harrington or Howe, who have given life-long dedication to liberal zionist and anti-Communist causes. Moreover, the absence of any serious debate about the election in DSA, except from a passionate group of Black members, leaves open (and unlikely of positive resolution) the question of whether even the ‘Debsian’ grassroots of that organization are capable of challenging its traditional mortgage to Israel and the Cold War, or of realigning the organization toward mass political currents that do not have the endorsement of liberalism.
(9) At its worst, the backlash among sections of the white left against the Jackson campaign exposed an ugly neo-racism. More generally, the patronizing reactions to the Rainbow Coalition revealed how profoundly ‘white’ the self-concept of many left-liberals had become, and how unwilling they remain to accept even a modicum of non-white leadership. The contrasting reactions to Ferraro and Jackson are sobering in that regard. Moreover, as the shrinkage of the gender gap in the election indirectly showed, no matter how important feminist consciousness must be in shaping a socialist culture in America, racism remains the divisive issue within class and gender. There can be no such thing as a serious reformist politics, much less an effective socialist practice, that does not frontally address the struggle against racism and defend the full program of a Second Reconstruction.

Epilogue: Inventing the American Left

Davis concludes by taking stock of Reaganism and what might lie ahead.

Ominous end to this quote, on the “true politics” of overconsumptionism:

Reaganism, in contrast, has had the success of a transitional form, temporarily welding together, through military Keynesianism and financial hyper-accumulation, the interests of all propertied layers at the expense of a new immiseration for the poor and a broken social truce for the unions. It has been an attempt to preserve the entire structure of property values and capitalization accumulated by the bourgeoisie, the middle strata and the more privileged segments of the white working class over the past thirty years—a popular front against the depreciation of inefficient fixed capital or the deflation of speculative equities. But the very success of the first phase of Reaganomics, as I argued in chapter six above, has only prepared the way for the inevitable second phase of conflict and zero-sum competition within the Reaganite coalition itself.
My central point in the preceding chapters is that the common program of the new Progressivism is unlikely to charm a new golden age of high growth into existence. Its deployment of state spending, fiscal transfers and deregulation to fertilize the entrepreneurial and professional opportunities supposedly immanent in the new technologies and services can at best stave off the inevitable day of reckoning for the imperial hegemony of the US economy. A more likely scenario is that the middle strata and the nouveaux riches will have to confront in the next downturn what they feared (but avoided through Reaganomics) in the last: a closing frontier of income and status mobility. Only when broad sections of the middle classes have had to live for a time on diminished rations will the true politics of ‘overconsumptionism’ become visible in mature form.

Describing a future that has already arrived?

At one pole will be the sumptuary suburbs and gentrified neighborhoods occupied by the middle classes, the rich and elements of the skilled white working class. Undoubtedly, neoliberalism will seek to preserve the superstructures of social liberalism—sexual toleration, free and virtually unlimited choice among cultural commodities, and the general ethos of human potential—while building new parapets between this gilded paradise and the other social orders. Outside, in the first circle of the damned, will be the ghettoes and barrios, now joined by déclassé and deindustrialized layers of the white working class. Possessing ‘citizen’ rights to a minimal social safety net, this enlarged low-wage working class would remain politically divided and disenfranchised, as unions continue to be destroyed and the influence of labor and minorities within the political system declines. With fading hopes of entry into the norm of consumption defined by the boutique lifestyles of the middle strata or the ‘secure’ employment status of the shrunken core workforces of the great corporations, this sector of the nation will increasingly encounter social degradation and relative impoverishment in the next crisis cycle. But by 1990, there will also be a large outer perimeter of US society composed of workers without citizen rights or access to the political system at all: an American West Bank of terrorized illegal laborers or, if the Simpson–Rodino legislation is successful, of officially third-class Gastarbeiter. In the next twenty years, this third tier could be a social layer of twenty to thirty million people, a poor Latin American society thrust into the domestic economy.
Policing the widening divisions in American society in a time of economic crisis and vanished hopes for the return of a full-employment economy may involve not only futuristic techniques of surveillance and preemptive repression (sanctified by the longevity of the Burger Supreme Court), but also the further dissemination of a culture that justifies the spiralling viciousness necessary to justify socioeconomic apartheid. This ideology, already on the horizon in such night-time TV staples as Miami Vice, Hunter, and Hill Street Blues, and in the streets in the disgusting popular outcry in support of the New York City ‘subway vigilante’ Bernhard Goetz, reposes on a simultaneous sentimentalization of middle-class life and a demonizing of a putative ‘underclass’. Insider the laager of Yuppie comfort and professional–managerial values, an enlightened psychological sensitivity informs the management of human relations, while outside, in the second and third tiers of US society, there exists a virtual free-fire zone. Girding themselves for the defense of their accumulated affluence, the new and old middle strata are taking on the armor of merciless resolution—celebrated in New Republic editorials and iconized in popular consciousness by films like Rambo and Sudden Impact—to exclude and repress the dangerous classes that prowl the circumference of their pleasure dome.

The note here about a possible “new, Bolivarian scale” of struggle in Latin America was prescient, but of course has also faced predictably brutal repression by the U.S. Also interesting is the prediction that “American hegemony will increasingly depend upon the substitution of US military for economic power in an unstable international configuration” (unstable a.k.a. multipolar?):

The same survivalist instincts will regulate neoliberalism’s approach to international affairs. Bereft of any grand design for restoring order to a world market rocked by financial defaults and huge trade disequilibria, a neoliberal regime, after fruitless wrangling for multilateral coordination, would probably resort to bilateral diktats aimed at extracting drastic economic accommodations from unwilling ‘allies’. As the protectionist tide bursts its dike, US trading partners will be faced with a broad range of retaliatory threats, from the restriction of their imports to the pullback of US troop deployments in Europe and Northeast Asia. Great as tensions between Japan and the United States may well become, the new economic nationalism is likely to reach even more acute pitch in the Western Hemisphere, as future administrations accelerate the trend towards the integration of North America into a single, complex economic system. The management of Mexico’s unemployment and social unrest could eventually require militarization of the border zone (as opposed to the half-hearted militarization of the current INS regime), and, not impossibly during the 1990s, a return to the intervention of the Wilsonian period.
I have earlier argued that the emergent system of post-Fordist American hegemony will increasingly depend upon the substitution of US military for economic power in an unstable international configuration. If there is a long interregnum of financial disorder and declining trade through the 1980s or early 1990s, a virtual social collapse of many of the already stricken societies of the Southern Hemisphere cannot be excluded. In that event, whatever the immediate outcome of US intervention in Central America, Washington would probably be confronted with a revolutionary crisis of much wider proportions in South America within the decade. Although the variety of forms this crisis will assume cannot be entirely foreseen, its dominant ideological colour, unlike in the Middle East or East Asia, is more likely to be an insurgent socialism than any other—perhaps on a new, Bolivarian scale.
The bunkered, economically insecure middle strata of the USA—the mass ruling class of the American world system—will not look with sympathy upon further revolutionary unrest in the Western Hemisphere. It is scarcely plausible that, having turned their backs on the new poverty of US cities, they will endorse the level of economic aid and co-development necessary to restore growth and absorb escalating social tensions in Latin America. More likely is the prospect that the current counter-revolutionary interventions in Central America are merely opening salvos in a generalized social war pitting the insurgent poor of the Hemisphere against not only their local ruling classes but, increasingly, the rich classes in the North as well. For the ‘broad right’ in North America would, in these circumstances, see the revolutionary process in Latin America and the Caribbean (including the potential Yankee Ulster of Puerto Rico) as an immediate and overarching threat to a US economy that has become increasingly entrenched in its hemispheric fortress.

Could just as easily have been written in 2016 or 2020:

If the details of this scenario—hastily sketched but not, for all that, empty exercises in imagining the future—strike the reader as unduly pessimistic, the reason why they are so drawn is that the political and economic supports for a more humane capitalism no longer seem to exist. The view expressed here is diametrically opposed to that of many recent left-liberal and social-democratic writers, who profess to see vistas of new liberations and reformist possibilities in late imperial America. A virtual cottage industry has come into existence since 1980, providing visionary recipes for workers’ control, the restoration of craft production, expanded welfarism, economic democracy and social control of investment. Most of these heartening schemes, typically offered as brains trust advice to the left wing of the Democratic Party, have been characterized by a complete absence of strategic design: that is, they lack any specification of the means for their realization. They contain no hint of how, in a period of rampant deunionization and the self-immolation of traditional liberalism—when to stem the tide of either would suppose some massive shift in the balance of forces to the left—they could find a conceivable agency.

Davis once again summarizes some key strands of his argument, and the key question at the end of this quote is one we still need to answer today:

The Fordist absorption of the new immigrant strata and their eventual ‘Americanization’ during the 1940s and 1950s destroyed the social and cultural base of the existing forms of American socialism and communism. Their project could not be revived, as NAM and others essayed, by personal witness and local activism, however cleverly blended with popular culture. Nor is it likely, given the record of such movements up to the present and the growing fractures among various economic strata described above, that a mass socialist politics could ever grow incrementally from molecular conversions or from single issue campaigns of a sporadically radical character. It is equally implausible that such a mass movement could take the form of an ‘extension’ of American laborism, as much of the traditional left has consistently imagined. For all its recurrent threats to form a third party, the trade-union bureaucracy remains firmly and closely, for this generation at least, tied to the Democratic Party. In turning from its original Debsian ideal toward entrism into the Democratic Party, most of NAM and the intellectual left aligned with it tacitly abandoned the hope of an explicit socialist politics, to become what Irving Howe has described as ‘loyal allies and supporters’ or ‘friendly critics’ of liberalism.
In the wake of these failed projects and lost directions, it remains to be asked whether there is any visible social constituency in the United States for a popular left. Or, to frame the problem in Lenin’s terms: are there any subaltern strata whose class position is fused with a special oppression that transcends the limits of bourgeois political reform, and whose struggle for daily survival, therefore, generates anti-systemic elements of protest and political solidarity?

Davis concludes with interesting but somewhat vague calls for a focus on regional solidarity and internationalism, as well as a focus on building organization among the Black and Latino working classes:

But the ability of any resurgent social movement in the ghettoes, barrios or factories to challenge the present mass property bloc of capital and the middle classes in the United States is more closely linked today than ever before to the fate of US imperialism on a world scale. If one precondition for the future of a popular left in the United States is a revived struggle for equality based on independent socialist political action, the other and equally crucial condition will be increasing solidarity between the liberation movement in Southern Africa and Latin America and movements of the Black and Hispanic communities in the USA.
The possibility for organizing mass solidarity must be one of the principal hopes of international socialism. Just as the struggles in South Africa and Central America can provide models of commitment, creativity and organization to youth in the inner cities, so could the development of a broadly based solidarity movement in the United States act as a major constraint on America intervention abroad, and a common basis for political action that crosses the color barrier which has inhibited much of the left’s political activity during the past decade. It is no disparagement of the existing anti-nuclear or anti-intervention movements to insist that the real weak link in the domestic base of American imperialism is a Black and Hispanic working class, fifty million strong. This is the nation within a nation, society within a society, that alone possesses the numerical and positional strength to undermine the American empire from within.
Ultimately, no doubt, the left in the United States will have to confront the fact that there is never likely to be an ‘American revolution’ as classically imagined by DeLeon, Debs or Cannon. If socialism is to arrive one day in North America, it is much more probable that it will be by virtue of a combined, hemispheric process of revolt that overlaps boundaries and interlaces movements. The long-term future of the US left will depend on its ability to become both more representative and self-organized among its own ‘natural’ mass constituencies, and more integrally a wing of a new internationalism. It is necessary to begin to imagine more audacious projects of coordinated action and political cooperation among the popular lefts in all the countries of the Americas. We are all, finally, prisoners of the same malign ‘American dream’.