A working class culture

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sabot's picture
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May 1 2010 00:58
A working class culture

Whatever happend to the late 19th/ early 20th century working class culture of yesterday that transitioned itself to the consumer based culture that we have now? What happend to the radicals of Haymarket riot, the Lowell Mill Girls fighting wage slavery? Their used to be hundrends of thousands of people working in solidarity with each other. Putting their lives on the line for people whom they never meet before. How did this get erased from us? Why didn't the previous generations pass this down to us?

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May 1 2010 20:52

It was erased by the 'great compromise' of the New Deal (USA) and Keynesianism generally, the welfare state and all that after WWII which did a very effective job of trying to integrate (i.e. recuperate and render harmless) traditional working class autonomy (including culture) within official social democratic hegemony. I'm sure there are some good writings on this process of integration/recuperation/elimination through the middle third or so of the 20th century, but I don't have any references handy at the moment.

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May 1 2010 22:22

A few years ago I posted a similar list on another discussion forum, but here goes again (and this is solely for the U.S.):

Quote:
1. The U.S., unlike Europe, never had feudalism, so it went through a much different transition to capitalism. It had slavery, but that began with colonization. It never had the rigid, stratified hierarchies of the caste system of older societies. Pre-capitalist social relations, like those of the Native Americans, were vanquished through genocide.

2. American society offered upward social mobility for some whites, but denied it to most non-whites. Since the second phase of Bacon's Rebellion in the 1670s, race has effectively been used as a wedge to divide the class. With identity politics and PostModernism, race trumped class. Which gave the ideological ammunition to deny that the latter even exists.

3. After World War II, the motor of capitalist accumulation shifted to consumerism. Today, 2/3 of production is for personal consumption.

4. Cold War politics killed off the already irrelevant and weakened Old Left, which was easy for the right to do with the CP taking marching orders from Moscow for popular fronts for anti-fascism. The CP’s class collaboration in World War II began the ideological separation of race from class, making easier the denial of the latter. Marx became associated with class while Cold Warriors demonized Marxism.

5. The Mass Media has become the opiate of the masses. Where once there was a vital working class culture resistance based on face-to-face interaction and spaces to facilitate that, now atomization is the norm. This goes hand-in-hand with suburbanization and consumerism. Debord's Society of the Spectacle is a brilliant exposé of this.

6. Labor’s connection to pro-capitalist Democratic Party; “The ballot box is the coffin of class consciousness” Alan Dawley wrote is his book Class & Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn. Labor unions give millions of dollars to the anti-labor Democrats and slightly less to the anti-labor Republicans. In the 2008 elections the AFL-CIO contributed over $400,000,000 to the election industry; the SEIU alone gave $80,000,000 to the Obama campaign.

7. Ideological conditioning: Jean Anyon’s essay in Harvard Educational Review 49 shows that high school textbooks only teach about three strikes – the 1877 Great Upheaval railroad strike, the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike, and the 1894 Pullman Strike on the railroads – all of them brutally violent and all three ended in bitter defeat. The message is that striking is something that happened in the 19th century and to cast doubt on “striking as a valid course of action” today. Class struggle was something that ended in the past, so negotiating contracts and arbitration of grievances is not about class struggle but is about “industrial relations.” Unions are then seen to be representing workers as a “special interest” group, with their purpose being the substitution of “civilized collective bargaining for jungle warfare.”

8. The expansion of credit. This follows the consumerism of #3. Until the current economic crisis, workers could acquire the middle class goods that they couldn't afford by using readily available credit and tethering themselves to even further economic dependency. This made up for real wages that have been on the decline since the mid-1970s. The home ownership rate for the entire population is around 67% (and falling: it peaked at 69% in 2004), and with the refinance craze of the early 2000s, Americans put themselves even further into debt. Total individual debt was $1.7 trillion in 2008, more than the GDP of many countries. While the ratio of outstanding consumer debt as a percentage of disposable income was 62% in 1975, it reached 127% in 2005 (it reached 163% in the U.K.)

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May 2 2010 13:55

Where to go from here, though? And how?

Farce's picture
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May 2 2010 14:06
waslax wrote:
It was erased by the 'great compromise' of the New Deal (USA) and Keynesianism generally, the welfare state and all that after WWII which did a very effective job of trying to integrate (i.e. recuperate and render harmless) traditional working class autonomy (including culture) within official social democratic hegemony. I'm sure there are some good writings on this process of integration/recuperation/elimination through the middle third or so of the 20th century, but I don't have any references handy at the moment.

I'd have put it at later than that - maybe I'm just being UK-centric here, but I think working class autonomy was alive and thriving well into the 1970s. I thought the major breaking point was the neoliberal assault in the late 70s/early 80s (mass militant resistance was very clearly present here until as late as Wapping), but maybe things look different over in the US. I also think that just putting it in terms of integration/recuperation ignores the role of outright repression, which I'd think is pretty vital at least in an American context - the various red scares, the Palmer Raids, McCarthyism, Cointelpro, etc played a pretty imprtant role, no?

Boris Badenov
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May 2 2010 14:34
mhager4550 wrote:
Whatever happend to the late 19th/ early 20th century working class culture of yesterday that transitioned itself to the consumer based culture that we have now?

I think you just answered your own question, in that it was precisely this transition to the modern consumer culture and the welfare state.
Working class culture is not some timeless thing that exists outside of history of course, so in a time of great scarcity, no social "safety net," and inhuman workplace conditions (the kind that are no longer the standard in the Western world, although obviously I'm not making a "labour aristocrat" argument here) there was obviously more solidarity in the community and the workplace; this was not necessarily because of some heroic commitment to communism, but because you pretty much had to be in solidarity with your neighbours and co-workers; your survival often depended on it.
That said we should not romanticize working class culture, and we should realize that it often reproduced the paternalistic and hierarchical social relations of the capitalist class (see Robert Robert's classic The Classic Slum for the British context to this reality). I would argue that "working class culture" ie the culture of solidarity and mutual aid was never in fact constant or immutable; it had to fight aggressions both from without and from within, so pretty much like today, only on a different scale (given the pre-consumerist, pre-welfare state we're talking about).

Quote:
What happend to the radicals of Haymarket riot, the Lowell Mill Girls fighting wage slavery?

The Haymarket men were immigrants; I think that is an important fact, because as an early 20th century German-American anarchist put it "Anarchism was a movement of poor immigrants. As soon as the children made money, they lost anarchism" (Avrich, Anarchist Vocies, 260). I think there is some truth to this claim, pessimistic as it may sound.

Quote:
Why didn't the previous generations pass this down to us?

It's not a matter of not passing it on. Many tried to pass on these customs and this solidarity, but they were bound to fail given the radically different material conditions of the next generation (no to mention the one after).

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May 4 2010 02:05
Hieronymous wrote:
a bunch of good stuff

Hieronymous, this is a really excellent analysis--though the New Deal bit Waslax mentioned is notably absent. I would highly encourage you to develop this into a longer form essay or something of the sort. I'm particularly fond of the thinking behind point #1. I once thought about doing some writing on the effect of early American history on the perception of class but never followed through.

I would point out to the OP that whether or not Americans are consciously aware of class distinctions, your average working class individual understands these things on a very basic level. For instance, attempts to avoid embarrassing situations in order to maintain a sense of dignity in public is a major driving force behind consumerism and is a form of primal class consciousness. i.e. Buying a new car so your kid isn't ashamed when you pull up to school in a clunker. Obviously, there are many other factors of consumerism that come into play, and certainly these things are accentuated and/or created by advertising, but I think this is one that is often overlooked and under appreciated.

I am also a firm believer that communism and solidarity are active, inherent parts of working class 'culture,' for lack of a better phrase. These aren't obvious because they are very much everyday, normal activities. Of course, it's not thought of as communism--and more likely spoken of as "being a good Christian," but it isn't at all unusual to see neighbors and coworkers helping each other out in times of need like bringing over a casserole when there's been a death in the family, shoveling out an elderly neighbor after a snow storm, or anonymously slipping money in someone's pocket when they're going through a rough time. One of the first and most important lessons we teach our children is how to share.

While it's much quieter than in previous years (but quickly picking up), workplace resistance in the US is also a daily fact of life. We might not have the huge national strikes or militant wildcats as frequently as in the past, but the resentment your average worker feels toward upper management is no less intense. A lot of anti-government and anti-corporate activity and resentment gets easily recuperated--see for example the tea party movement, but it's still there simmering under the surface. Also, it's for a good reason that snitching, even from a very early age, is seen as one of the worst things a person can do.

That said all of this could be me being too optimistic though . . .

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May 4 2010 07:25
Farce wrote:
waslax wrote:
It was erased by the 'great compromise' of the New Deal (USA) and Keynesianism generally, the welfare state and all that after WWII which did a very effective job of trying to integrate (i.e. recuperate and render harmless) traditional working class autonomy (including culture) within official social democratic hegemony. I'm sure there are some good writings on this process of integration/recuperation/elimination through the middle third or so of the 20th century, but I don't have any references handy at the moment.

I'd have put it at later than that - maybe I'm just being UK-centric here, but I think working class autonomy was alive and thriving well into the 1970s. I thought the major breaking point was the neoliberal assault in the late 70s/early 80s (mass militant resistance was very clearly present here until as late as Wapping), but maybe things look different over in the US. I also think that just putting it in terms of integration/recuperation ignores the role of outright repression, which I'd think is pretty vital at least in an American context - the various red scares, the Palmer Raids, McCarthyism, Cointelpro, etc played a pretty imprtant role, no?

Yes, there definitely are differences between the US and the UK on this score, just as there are between pretty much any two countries, including those on the European continent. There are various similarities as well.

You mention working class autonomy in the UK in '70s. But the O.P. referred to working class culture , rather than working class autonomy. Still, I would question the latter. It depends what one means by these terms. I think it has to mean more than just mass militant resistance, especially if the latter is engaged in under the leadership of one or more factions of the left.

As for repression as a factor in the eclipse of independent working class culture, I'm not so sure. Repression could just as easily reinforce this as eliminate it. So it depends on more than just the repression, I think. But, yes, I think some of the red scares in the '20s were effective in crushing the IWW, and that a significant portion of working class culture at that time in the US was found within, or otherwise linked to, the IWW. As for the later ones you refer to -- McCarthyism and Cointelpro -- I think these were after said culture and a great deal of organized proletarian forms of resistance in the US were already eliminated. They were more a matter of waging the Cold War. While McCarthyism obviously was a threat to any genuine communists, it was more focused on Stalinists. And Cointelpro was focused on groups like the Black Panther Party and various radical leftist terrorist groups, all more or less Maoists, and not expressions of genuine proletarian autonomy.

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May 4 2010 21:45

Sure, McCarthyism and the like were focussed on particular bugbears in defence of a Cold War strategy, but that's not the point, I don't think. In a witch-hunt, guilt by association is a terrible thing. I don't think saying 'hey, don't worry, I'm not that sort of Communist, I'm an Anarchist-/Council-/Left-Communist' would cause the House Committee on Un-American Activities to say, 'oh, sorry, we thought you was a Stalinist, carry on'.

But then again, didn't McCarthy castigate Ed... Thingy... Morrow is it? with being a Wobbly? And, whatever one thinks of the IWW I'd argue that that was McCarthyism seeking to attack the working class. Anyway, he had people sacked who really weren't Stalinist agents.

Yes, defence of Americas Cold War interests; yes, Russia a brutal state-capitalist hell-hole and its agents enemies of the working class; even so, McCarthyism and the 'Red Scares' (and all the similar things) of the 20th, the campaigns about 'the end of history' and 'the death of communism' in the late 20th, all part of an assault on how people see the world and each other - weapons in capitalism's arsenal against the working class, even if they're honed on other factions of the ruling class (or its stooges).

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May 5 2010 09:07

Can't really say I know what the point is here. The focus in the O.P. and in my responses was on the disappearance of the sort of working class culture that existed at around the turn of the 2Oth century. Farce claimed that he thought that McCarthyism, among other things, was a factor in that disappearance. I questioned that, but you seem to be focusing on the issue of who were the real targets of McCarthyism. I'm sure you are right that there were some non-Stalinist victims of McCarthyism. Don't know about any anarchists or left communists (possibly some who had unknowingly participated in one or more CP front groups), but undoubtedly there were some Trotskyists who had previously been members of the CP. And yes, I agree that McCarthyism was really an attack on any kind of politicization other than the approved 'American' ones, i.e. the Democrats, Republicans, and certain populist 'third' parties from time to time, as long as they don't question the US' independent national (i.e. imperialist) interest. In any case, it's a separate issue from that of the disappearance of working class culture.

It should be kept in mind that a large part of such culture was not at all explicitly 'revolutionary' or 'socialist', 'communist' or 'anarchist'. Much of it was entirely harmless from the point of view of the ruling class (or at least its dominant factions). So it wasn't exactly the sort of thing that repression would be effective at eliminating. Such repression could just as easily backfire if it is aimed at perfectly legal targets and arouses popular opposition. It was more likely eliminated, I would think, by bringing into being newer, 'popular' mass culture of the sort associated with Hollywood films, radio programs, magazines, pulp fiction, popular music, etc., which were made possible by new technological innovations, and which eclipsed and marginalized all previous forms of culture. And these newer forms of culture developed spontaneously as markets, with their cultural commodities, new terrain for capital to move into and accumulate within; as well as to develop new forms of domination over working class subjectivity. (A definite win-win for capital there.) Also by eliminating some of the worst living conditions that some of the working class experienced around the turn of the century, by such measures as unemployment insurance and welfare, make work projects, and others undertaken by the welfare state led by FDR in the '30s, made necessary by the Depression, to be continued through WWII and beyond. This both cut the ground out (at least partially) from under such culture, and won the support (for the state, and the Democratic Party) of a significant part of the class. That FDR's gov't was also instrumental in giving legal recognition to the CIO unions that were being organized in battles with employers at that time was also a big factor in winning such support, and thereby weakening any remaining support for independent working class culture. I also think that in a number of ways WWII itself, just the enormity of it, what with all the sacrifice, including on the 'home front', really cemented a new form of submission by the working class to the state (and thus the ruling class), involving a new level of mass consciousness or subjectivity, made possible in part by the new technological developments referred to above, and that this really sealed the deal against any independent working class culture surviving that period.

slothjabber
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May 5 2010 23:35

OK, I'll try to stop derailing the thread.

In short the point I'm trying to make is that McCartyism didn't just attack particular targets who were Stalinists; it was also an ideological attack, on working class consciousness of itself as a class with an historic destiny, an attack on the idea of communism, and an attempt to get the working class to rally to the American state.

Hollywood was a prime target of McCarthy because it was seen as 'liberal' and many people working in it were East European Jews who were influenced by Anarchism and/or Communism (of whatever sort). Hollywood had to be restructured before becoming the plaything of the American right.

Actually there's a politics dissertation in there if anyone wants one.

slothjabber
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May 5 2010 23:37

Sorry, bizarre double-post thing going on.

Wellclose Square
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May 9 2010 21:12
Quote:
slothjabber wrote:
Hollywood was a prime target of McCarthy because it was seen as 'liberal' and many people working in it were East European Jews who were influenced by Anarchism and/or Communism (of whatever sort). Hollywood had to be restructured before becoming the plaything of the American right.

The actor/director Sam Wanamaker (father of Zoe) was one victim of McCarthyism. Others were the ex-Hollywood screen/scriptwriters who also decamped to the UK in the 1950s, responsible for writing TV dramas like Robin Hood, with its 'unAmerican' themesong - 'Robs from the rich, to give to the poor' (OK, harking back to an idealised pre-working class culture...).

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May 9 2010 22:43

Quote:What happend to the radicals of Haymarket riot, the Lowell Mill Girls fighting wage slavery?

Vlad336 Quote: The Haymarket men were immigrants; I think that is an important fact, because as an early 20th century German-American anarchist put it "Anarchism was a movement of poor immigrants. As soon as the children made money, they lost anarchism" (Avrich, Anarchist Vocies, 260). I think there is some truth to this claim, pessimistic as it may sound.

We still have poor immigrants though. Even with the various forms of Red Scares this doesn't mean radical politics couldn't be passed down generation to geveration...does it??

Spikymike
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Jan 17 2018 12:47
Miguel Amoros has some useful comments on all this here in relation to Spain: https://libcom.org/library/vanishing-points-working-class-culture-miguel-amor-s and in various other related texts on this site.