Writing History in an Age of Inequality





Jefferson Cowie is associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of "Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class" (The New Press, 2010), which was a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Prize and has been awarded the Organization of American Historians' Merle Curti Prize, the Labor History Prize, and most recently the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. This essay is a modified version of remarks given to the Society at the Century Club in New York City on May 16, 2011.

I’m thrilled to be honored by such an esteemed group of historians, whose primary purpose is to place the art and craft of writing at the center of their practice.  It is humbling to have the phrase “literary distinction” forever associated with Stayin’ Alive.

I had the good fortune of being inspired, in a writerly way, by the subject matter itself.  Many of the juiciest primary sources for Stayin’ Alive came from the seventies renaissance in creative nonfiction.  Never far out of reach, and always teasing my standards higher, were arrays of old articles, like a fine poker hand, containing the journalism of Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield, and J. Anthony Lukas; the “new journalism” of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson; the rock criticism of Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, and Greil Marcus; and the intellectual high cards of Christopher Lasch, Daniel Bell, and Michael Harrington.  Several critics have noted the cinematic feel of the book, and the filmmakers of the decade—Sidney Lumet, Martin Ritt, Martin Scorcese, Robert Altman—also teased me into a more visual approach to my prose.  The highest compliment the book has received is that readers have understood how the seventies felt—and I owe that to the fact that these authors and artists helped me to feel it first.

This is the first “labor history” book to receive the Francis Parkman Prize.  I put labor history in scare quotes because I think that any genuine understanding of what I would call labor or working-class history would have to include previous Parkman Prize winners such as Edmund S. Morgan’s profound American Slavery American Freedom, William Leuchtenberg’s FDR and the New Deal, Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long, and Eric Foner’s Reconstruction to name but a few.  What we call the subfield of “labor” history has unfortunately lost some of the vitality of these books and devolved into a narrow and withering subfield—a victim, I would argue of the decline of class as a category of analysis and the decline of the labor movement.

Yet often overlooked is the fact that labor history is also a victim of its own intellectual successes.  To be interested in the “new” labor history” back in the day of my advisor’s advisor, Herbert Gutman, was to be involved in debates and research on ethnicity, slavery, race, immigration, colonization, community history, and women’s history; in fact, the entire field of social history seemed to sprout from the soil first plowed by the new labor history.  Those fields now flourish with their own journals, their own conferences, their own debates.  “Labor history,” I fear, is now left with only the boring institutional stuff of the sort that may not be all that relevant to understanding many of the problems of today.

With conservative populism tapping into a very deep well, and the tenuousness of the New Deal order proving itself everyday, understanding and historicizing questions of class are more urgent than ever.  Yet we have a field that borders on the insular and isolated, one that accepts the narrowest definition of itself at a time when the broadest vision is of the utmost intellectual importance.  While we know much of the heroics of resistance and organizing, we have yet to come to terms with an issue that concerns me today:  the idea, as William Dean Howells put it, that “inequality is as dear to the American heart as liberty itself.”

Today we live in an era that commentator after commentator has referred to as the new Gilded Age.  The original era was one in which the wealthy and well-to-do would whisper among themselves in concerned voices about the problem that haunted their time:  the labor question.  What differentiates our Gilded Age from theirs is that the problems of work and inequality (of income, political power, voice)—let alone the history of those topics—are almost irrelevant to today’s discussions.  Ours, in sum, is a Gilded Age without Eugene Debs, an age of inequality without Henry George, a crisis in working-class power without a Haymarket, a Homestead, a Pullman, or a Coeur d’Alene.

The working class was threatening in the old Gilded Age, incorporated into the concerns of middle-class reformers in the Progressive Era, finally tamed by the New Deal and World War II, and granted its Golden Age citizenship in the postwar era.  But where is it now?  Class as a material issue is more salient than ever, but as an ideological construct it appears to be missing.

Although we tend to see the 1970s, the topic of my book, as the era of decline—the end of the “labor question”—the first half of the seventies promised something different:  a revival of working-class issues in both the workplaces and the academy.  The biggest strike wave in postwar history burst the dam of postwar collective bargaining and class containment, featuring an aggressive rank and file fighting for qualitative demands like quality of work, health and safety, new organizing of minority and women workers, and, above all, union democracy.  The “new” labor historians followed suit, pursuing their topics in new and exciting ways.

Yet the seventies, never much of a “decade” in its own right, might best be understood less as a decade than as part post-sixties and part pre-eighties, less a defined period than a shift in epochs.  In 1973-74, a brief period the historian Andreas Killen called our “nervous breakdown,” we lost our first war, saw the president resign in disgrace, witnessed the oil shocks cripple the economy, and watched stagflation strangle liberal policy.  In 1974, Michael Harrington wrote that a “collective sadness” had descended upon the land.  Much of the field of labor history, however, was still caught in the seeming endless optimism of the pre-sadness era.

In writing Stayin’ Alive, I searched for a narrative device that could drive the story.  I found it in autoworker Dewey Burton, whom the New York Times adopted as the working-class hero of the age, interviewing him six times during the decade.  As he captured the tenor of the change in 1974:

Something’s happening to people like me— working stiffs, as they say— and it isn’t just that we have to pay more for this or that or that we’re having to do without this or make do with a little less of that.  It’s deep, and hard to explain, but it’s more like more and more of us are sort of leaving all our hopes outside in the rain and coming into the house and just locking the door—you know, just turning the key and ‘click,’ that’s it for what we always thought we could be.

As Burton suggests, the place for working people in the American civic imagination began its long term dissolution at mid-decade—just after a swan song that sounded a lot like renewal.  And it was upon the emptiness in the in the nation’s political culture that the new age was built.

Recently two political scientists, [Jacob] Hacker and [Paul] Pierson, in their book Winner Take All Politics, interrogate the many possible reasons for the extraordinary growth in inequality since the 1970s that gave birth to our Gilded Age.  Looking at globalization, education, technology, and a series of other variables they determine that only one thing actually explains our current predicament:  politics.  They determine that the historical turning point was 1978.

Like Dewey Burton, it was something that Doug Fraser, president of the UAW, understood readily at the moment.  As he put it in a dramatic, public resignation from the labor-management advisory group in 1978:

I believe leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one- sided class war today in this country—a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.  The leaders of industry, commerce and finance in the United States have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress.

The one-sided class war continues today, and recent news is replete with examples.

Most obvious are the attacks on public-sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin and other states.  Ironically, public-sector workers were once playing catch-up to private-sector workers, especially in their seventies growth spurt.  Now we have the untenable problem in which, for the first time in history, we have more public-sector union members than private. It is difficult to support, materially or politically, a good public-sector on a defeated and third-class private sector.

Or consider the Troubled Asset Relief Program, popularly known as TARP, which has turned out to be what Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for TARP, recently argued in the New York Times as "little more than a giveaway to Wall Street executives."  It’s socialism for the rich, as the saying goes, and a free market for the poor.

The comparative situation of the elite provides another angle.  After taxes, and after adjusting for inflation, the top four hundred richest Americans in 2008 had a staggering $85 billion more left in their pockets than did that same group in 1955.

Meanwhile, it turns out that GE not only doesn't pay taxes, it drew a tax benefit out of the government to the tune of $3.2 billion last year.  And we are attacking public-sector unions? It is truly an incredible set of circumstances.

Perhaps the most telling event in all of this grave dancing has been the removal of the giant labor history murals from Maine’s Department of Labor.  Like the Taliban tearing down what they believed to be false idols, anti-labor forces are overtly erasing history itself.

I think one chilling fact captures many dimensions of the problem:  I've been told that there are more Detroit residents in prison today than in the United Automobile Workers.

This one-sided class war has been aided and abetted, ironically, by those that have been quite rightly concerned for the plight of previously marginalized peoples.  While post-seventies politics has challenged stale narratives and broken down falsely-rigid identities, it has largely failed to challenge the core elements of working life and economics.  Slavoj Zizek writes that the new politics “has the great merit that it ‘repoliticizes’ a series of domains previously considered ‘apolitical’ or ‘private,’ ” but “it does not in fact repoliticize capitalism, because the very notion and form of the ‘political’ within which it operates is grounded in the ‘depoliticization’ of the economy.”  That popular depoliticization has allowed economic elites nearly uncontested control over civic life, making post-material politics too often the handmaiden of the neo-liberal order.

My protaganist Dewey Burton, as usual, had a simpler take.  Speculating from his Florida home where he retired— getting out not long before the closure of the Wixom plant where he spent his entire working life— he explained, “As far as working people go, it’s gone and it’s not gonna happen again.”

If the “it” that’s not going to happen again is the white, male, industrial order that he watched dissolve, he is undoubtedly right.  But if it’s a broader sense of collective economic rights among working people, that remains to be seen.  So far, the record is not good, and the clues for this lie buried much more deeply in the records of working-class history than labor historians have been able to find to date.

 I believe recent history has delivered us to a crisis in what it means to be a citizen in the United States of America.  As the great jurist Louis Brandeis once said, “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

No economic structure will ever prevent the will and creative imagination of some individuals to rise above their given circumstances, but the American dream of large-scale upward mobility is now much more alive in Europe than it is in the United States.  With intellectual and educational opportunity increasingly linked to economic status, and the class divides widening, we in the academy can see the affects of the new Gilded Age right outside of our office doors.  Unless those circumstances change, I fear that this may be one of the last times that such an honor as this from a prestigious scholarly body like the Society of American Historians will be given to the son of a high school custodian.

With this in mind, I would like to express my profound gratitude for all of the opportunities and support throughout my education and in the writing of this book.  Most importantly this evening, I thank the Society for the selection of Stayin’ Alive for the Francis Parkman prize for 2011.


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