Friday, May 15, 2015

Book Review: Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie

Cowie, Jefferson.  Stayin Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Jefferson Cowie's informative and provocative history of working class America does what a good history book should do - enlighten the present.  For the book traces how Americans discarded their class identity and embraced cultural identity.  Culture remains the buzzword of the 21st century; it's a highly prized commodity. Look at any progressive leaning online magazine such as Slate or Buzzfeed and the cover page will showcase articles on the newest trends in racial, gender, and sexual identities.  Class, in most cases, plays a peripheral role in these discussions. 

Economists overwhelmingly agree that the wealth gap in America widened considerably over the past decades. While the economic collapse in 2008 brought class issues back for a brief period, reaching its apogee with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the moment ended with a whimper. Cowie, a history professor at Cornell, who I'm sure is sympathetic to the left, does take the left to task for abandoning the working class to their fate. This is a complex story.

When the 70s kicked off the time seemed right for a rejuvenated labor movement, one poised to build upon the triumphs of FDR's New Deal.  A new generation of workers brought a "Sixties" attitude into the ranks of labor, often putting them at odds with post-war labor leaders who maintained a patronizing attitude towards their fellow members. The leadership believed workers were content simply with higher wages and benefits. And yet a restlessness grew among laborers. Blue collars wanted more control over the means of production, chances for advancement, and most important of all - dignity.  

In 1968 the political fault lines shifted dramatically. Robert Kennedy's intrepid presidential campaign envisioned a broad alliance between blue collar workers of all races.  RFK understood the dependable New Deal coalition, of which blue collar workers were the foundation, stood on shaky ground.

Meanwhile a resurgent conservative movement took advantage of the new political situation.  George Wallace and Richard Nixon both managed to channel the subterranean rage of the working class. Wallace, longtime governor of Alabama and champion of State's Rights, attracted national support in the 1968 race for his opposition to a big government of elitist liberals.

Nixon played a more complex game. His patriotic appeals and racially encoded language of restoring law and order to the streets spoke directly to his "Middle Americans." Nixon promised a "peace with honor" in Vietnam as half the country still supported the war. His narrow victory in 1968 turned into a landslide one in 1972. Republicans realized they were building a new majority.

As always with Nixon, the contradictions multiply.  Despite his divisive rhetoric many historians consider him the last liberal to occupy the White House.  His plans for welfare reform and affirmative action at least showed a concern for the working classes, specifically the working poor.  An admirer of the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli who brought conservative reforms during the Victorian era, Nixon envisioned something similar for America. Not ignorant to the challenges facing the working class, he at least tried to do something. Despite his cultural conservatism, his domestic programs would be considered progressive in 2015.

Cowie also integrated pop culture into his analysis, specifically the changing representations of working people in TV and film. If the 1930s found working class heroes in Tom Joad and Woody Guthrie; the 1970s had Archie Bunker, the lovable bigot of the CBS sitcom All in the Family.  Archie as portrayed by Carroll O'Conner personified the workingman's blues.

Movies in the 70s turned the white working class male into a dangerous, often violent figure. In the 1970 film Joe, Peter Boyle played a racist machinist who turns vigilante, ending with him joyously mowing down hippies. Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, features the repressed and terrified Travis Bickle who decides to clean up the streets of New York. Although not mentioned, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took things even further: the dispossessed rural folk are inhuman monsters. 

As the culture wars turned hot in the 70s over abortion, women's liberation, school integration - conservatism made further inroads. Labor's influence subsided with competition from abroad leading to massive layoffs and plant closings throughout the Midwest.

Intellectuals observed a shift towards a hyper individualism. Tom Wolfe in his epochal article "The Third Great Awakening" argued too much prosperity and purchasing power made workers selfish and more than willing to cast aside ideas of solidarity. Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism took issue with cultural elites for their obsessions with the self.

Late 70s pop culture and beyond further chronicled the descent and the eventual disappearance of the working class.  The 1977 box office hit Saturday Night Fever, followed Tony Manero, a working class kid in Brooklyn who lives for the disco to escape from his gloomy family life. Unlike his "going nowhere" friends, Tony's able to escape.

Paul Schrader's crude and perceptive 1978 film Blue Collar follows three auto workers in Detroit, two black and one white, who find themselves at odds with their union and management. In the end they turn against each other. Schrader enclosed workers in an existential rat maze.

At least The Deer Hunter, best picture winner in 1978, offered a compassionate portrait of steel workers in Pennsylvania during the Vietnam era.  In time, however, blue collar characters with any depth vanished from popular mediums.

Bruce Springsteen did bring a working class authenticity to rock.  Unlike other rockers who dabbled in blue collar personas, Springsteen actually lived it.  In 1975 Time and Newsweek put him on the cover with the release of Born to Run, an album celebrating escape.  On "Thunder Road" Springsteen declares, "It's a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win."  

Springsteen's next album Darkness on the Edge of Town, shifted focus to the losers, those who never escaped. What happens to them?  How will working people find meaning in a culture that ignores them?  Few albums evoked the dashed hopes of the 70s more - an elegy if you will, especially with the lyric "I walk with angels that have no place."

The "Reagan Revolution" cranked up the politics of resentment. A growing chorus of talk radio personalities attacked welfare moms and minorities as leeches on the system. The new ethos worshiped a market oriented world view. Corporations began to downsize in a big way as documented in Michael Moore's era defining documentary Roger and Me

The Red State/Blue State dichotomy of the 2000 election pertained directly to cultural definitions. Republicans continued preaching the gospel of guns, capitalism, God, and national defense.  Liberals, thinking John Edwards "two Americas" speech, offered rhetoric, but little action. Barack Obama's offhand comment about Red State Folk clinging to guns and religion, had a grain of truth, but also sounded like the armchair analysis of a detached academic.

When Obama encountered Joe "the Plumber" he politely explained why working people stood to benefit from his tax plan. Then Joe parroted right wing radio dogma about high taxes being bad for small business owners.  The exchange went viral and the McCain campaign cynically used Joe for campaign purposes. Joe quickly disappeared after the election. The media turned him into a punchline, indicative of how far working people had fallen in the eyes of pop culture.  As Cowie explains, the cultural discussion needs a new dimension:

The problem was not simply that other aspects of social identity- race, gender, sexuality, religious faith - were eclipsing class as points of reference in political life, but that working people, having transcended basic material deprivation of the sort they had struggled against in the 1930s, faced a form of class conflict more internal and psychological, pivoting on social power and self-worth rather than outward contests with powerful forces. (216)

As I wrote earlier Stayin Alive tells a complex story - raising as many questions as it answers.  I agree with Cowie's main argument that any new labor movement must be inclusive and put democracy at the center. America's a far more tolerant country than it was 50 years ago, and yet remains static on wealth distribution.  Stayin' Alive tells how we arrived in the current predicament and points to the possibility of an alternative path.

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