Anatomy of Decomposition

It’s been a while since I had the inspiration to blog. I’ve been home through the holidays, and since I was in Mexico at the beginning of December, I’ve been reading a ton. In particular I wanted to ruminate in this entry on three books that, taken together, are a fantastic primer on the current state of working class politics. Why think about that, you might wonder?

We’re living through the most excessive, blatant, overwhelming mass looting of public wealth by the plutocracy that has ever happened in this House of Mirrors that calls itself the United States. Obama, a guy I never felt any enthusiasm for, has lived down to my expectations again and again, or really, he’s plunged many fathoms lower than I could even imagine him going. The casual abandonment of rule-of-law promises (forget about Guantanamo, forget about habeas corpus—Executive Power is increasingly monarchical and the Dems are pushing it as much as the Bushies ever did) is bad enough. And handing the keys to the public treasury to the banks during the bailout, and to the defense industry the rest of the time, all pretty bad too… In the past week Obama has appointed old-style fixer Bill Daley (direct from his job at JPMorganChase) and Gene Sperling from Goldman Sachs to run his economic policy. Can it be any more blatant? There is a tiny cabal of self-serving plutocrats who are determined to take every last granule of public wealth for themselves before it all collapses in a pile of debt and empty malls, rusting ports and abandoned skyscrapers. Obama is just their smiling front man, and he’s not even trying to hide it anymore!

So where are the angry citizens? The demonstrations, pickets, strikes? (Oh yeah, they’re all signing up for Facebook groups and clicking “angry” petitions and “urgent” appeals online! Maybe they’re reading—or writing—blogs!) Where are the workers who are getting screwed in this Great Theft? What about a collective response to the destruction of the economy, the nearly one in five who are unemployed? There’s not a simple explanation, but at this point we have to wonder who exactly are we expecting to “take action”? There is not a shared sense of class among the vast majority of the population that exchanges their daily lives for wages. There is more confusion, cynical bitterness, and racial animosity than any common idea of a class enemy. The very concept of “class” is largely rejected by most people, or grossly misinterpreted to mean a wide range of strata that include such bizarre convolutions as “lower-upper-middle-class.” Most people think they’re middle class, whether they’re making $88,000 a year or $17,000. The fact that nearly all of us have to sell ourselves to an employer in exchange for money (some much better paid than others, obviously) is the real key to the picture. Nearly everyone in modern America is some kind of a wage-slave, regardless of the fantasies they harbor about their status based on their temporary ability to engage in debt spending.

Looking back at post-WWII history we can see how we got to this point. The three books I’ve been reading are a great place to start. First, “Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class” by Jefferson Cowie, then “Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s” (edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow), and finally “Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global” by Paul Mason. I give all three of these books high marks.

I started with Cowie’s “Stayin’ Alive” which attracted me because I have been speaking publicly as part of my Nowtopia touring for the past two years on this topic of the fragmentation and decomposition of the working class during the 1970s. But to be honest, I have been doing it without the benefit of a thoroughly in-depth examination of how it actually happened. Cowie’s book fills in a lot of gaps and expanded the foundations for the point of view I started with, greatly enriching my sense of the political, economic, and social history of that decade. I came of age in the 1970s, sitting in my high school classroom in Oakland watching cars queue up across the street for gas in the first big energy crisis in 1973-74. I remember watching with fascination and shadenfreude the Watergate hearings and finally seeing Tricky Dick Nixon resign in disgrace. When the helicopters lifted the last soldiers from the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975, a whole sequence of historical injustices seemed to be reaching resolution.

I stood in Safeway parking lots in 1974 encouraging consumers to boycott non-union lettuce and grapes, in support of the United Farm Workers union. In 1977 I was fired from a job in a bookstore for supposedly trying to start a union (actually my attempts to contact the Retail Clerks Union in the mall where I worked in Santa Rosa were never answered). By fall of 1978 I was volunteering with the J.P. Stevens boycott (in support of a North Carolina textile workers union campaign) and experiencing first-hand the odd drama of boycott organizers reprimanding me and my friends for effectively carrying out an informational picket in front of a department store near Union Square. We were supposed to stand to the side and not disturb patrons, and not actually make our presence felt to shoppers! Who knew? Within another year I had fallen in with an extended community of ultra-left radicals who were sharply critical of trade unions and the Leninist left as being the handmaidens of capital, and from then on I had an unblinkered view of the role of trade unions in the U.S. We all piled into Mabuhay Gardens in North Beach for a big benefit for the striking coal miners in 1978 and some of went briefly to support an oil workers strike in Contra Costa county. In the very first issue of Processed World we analyzed the self-defeating tactics of the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 3 in their big strike against Blue Shield in San Francisco in 1980-81.

Coal Miner's Benefit 1978, Dirksen-Miller Productions, Design: Rico, borrowed from "Streetart: The Punk Poster in San Francisco 1977-1981"

The world that shaped my sense of politics, of power and historical agency, was definitely a world in which the working class was a major player. The century and a half of conflict between the rising bourgeois owning class and the ever-expanding millions of exploited wage workers was (and surely, still is) the major cleavage and tension in the modern world. More narrowly, the social upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s had as a major component a huge revolt of workers against their companies and quite often, their unions too. The new anthology “Rebel Rank and File” offers the best in-depth look at that wave of workers’ strikes and insurgencies. In the essay “Understanding the Rank-and-File Rebellion in the Long 1970s” by Kim Moody the basic statistics of 1970 top an era of generalized discontent and resistance.

“… in 1970, 66 million work days were lost during 5,716 walkouts (the most ever at the time), and more than 17 percent of union members (one in six) went on strike. The strikes of 1970 turned out to represent the crest of a decade-long strike wave and a culmination of the mounting rank-and-file militancy in the late 1960s. Thirty-four major work stoppages involving 10,000 or more workers took place, the most in eighteen years. Included among these were a 197-day strike by 27,000 construction workers in Kansas City, two strikes by 13,000 teachers in Philadelphia, a wildcat of 25,000 coal miners, a sixty-four-day walkout of 23,000 rubber workers, a stoppage by 13,000 longshoremen in New Jersey, a one-day walkout of 35,000 airline workers, and a strike by 42,000 New York taxi drivers. Five of the biggest and most dramatic national strikes were those by 133,000 electrical workers against General Electric in January, 152,000 postal workers wildcatting against the U.S. government in March, 110,000 Teamsters in an unauthorized walkout against the nation’s interstate trucking companies in May, 355,000 auto workers versus General Motors in September, and 360,000 railroad workers against the country’s railroads in December.” p. 133

Though this impressive revolt didn’t produce much in terms of increased wages (averaging about 1% over inflation), it did shape the political response of the president, Richard Nixon. The economic pressure on the United States caused Nixon to take the Dollar off the gold standard in 1971, setting in motion the debt expansion that has sustained a decades-long boom. We can also see with the benefit of hindsight the role of credit (card) expansion in helping to keep wages essentially flat since the early 1970s, making it possible for people with stagnant income to expand consumption with debt instead of increased wages. The 1973-74 oil shock, similarly, was used as a catalyst for economic restructuring that hollowed out the industrial U.S., destroying the economic and social heart of many major cities. The loss of employment and widespread migration were key components to the decomposition of the working class during the 1970s and 80s.

Jefferson Cowie does a great job of tracing the evolution of Nixon’s presidency including some of the internal debates among his advisors with regard to the relationship with “labor.” It is widely known that Nixon orchestrated the “southern strategy” that turned Republican attention to the conservative (but up until that time, mostly Democratic) South. After construction workers attacked anti-war protesters on Wall Street shortly after Kent State in 1970, Nixon directed his administration to embrace and welcome the blue-collar workers who, out of patriotism, were angry with hippies, students, and anti-war radicals. Cowie analyzes Nixon’s strategy:

“Richard Nixon was simultaneously the last president to work within the logic of the New Deal political framework of material politics, the first postwar president to try to recast the ways in which workers appeared in American presidential strategy, and the last to court labor seriously. While ‘struggling to change the political fortunes of the presidential Republican party by dressing it up as the congeries of the silent rather than the rich or propertied,’ in David Farber’s formulation, Nixon helped to push the concept of ‘worker’ out of the realm of production and helped drive a long process of deconstructing the postwar worker as a liberal, materially based concept. Knowing as he did that there was not a single working-class identity or a pure working-class consciousness, he sought to build political power on new forms of discontent… Nixon sought to recast the definition of ‘working class’ from economics to culture, from workplace and community to national pride. En route to his hoped-for New Majority, he paved the way for a reconsideration of labor that, in its long-term effects, helped to erode the political force, meaning, and certainly economic identity, of ‘workers’ in American political discourse.” (p. 164-165)

By now some of this seems commonplace, though the credit is usually given to Reagan more than Nixon. But the great Culture War of the past generation is firmly rooted in the deeply challenging revolts of the 1960s-70s and the ongoing effort by authorities of right (especially) and left to undo the achievements as well as the expectations of people shaped by that era. The successful political appeal to patriotism and conformity against experimentation, anti-authoritarian radicalism and slovenly, prolifigate hedonism reached much of Middle America and continues to resonate up to the present. The decomposition of the working class after this remarkable upsurge cannot be explained with politics alone of course. Still, the role of politics (both right and left) in shifting attention to identity and away from class and economic injustice, cannot be ignored.

During the epic landslide re-election of Richard Nixon in 1972, the message and language we’ve seen dominate the political landscape since that time are already fully in play. With the most pro-labor Democrat, also an avowed opponent of the Vietnam War, George McGovern, as a presidential nominee, the Party warred with itself right up to the election, paving the way for the Nixonian conservative working man to become the new norm:

“In the public imagination, semi-mythical places of country attitude like Muskogee, Oklahoma, evolved into a political and geographic counterpoint to Woodstock, New York, site of the famous 1969 music festival. One was southern, western, gritty, masculine, working class, white, and soaked in the reality of putting food on the table; the other was northern, eastern, radical, effete, leisurely, affluent, multi-cultural, and full of pipe dreams. One was real, the other surreal; one worked, the other played; one did the labor, the other did the criticism; one drank whiskey, the other smoked dope; one built, the other destroyed; one was for survival, the other was for the revolution; one died in wars, the other protested wars; and one was for Richard Nixon, the other was for George McGovern.” (p. 178)

What’s harder to see, even just reading Jefferson Cowie’s book, is how the upsurge of worker and citizen revolt was the culmination of a post-WWII process in which the trade unions and the Democratic Party mutually undercut their own base. (As we watch Obama reproduce it yet again, as he fails to push for any legislative remedies for the historic impasse of organized labor.) This is where the more political-economically grounded work in “Rebel Rank and File” provides some helpful insight. This is Robert Brenner writing in the “Political Economy of Rebellion”:

“The [labor] dependence on the Democratic Party set in motion analogously self-defeating processes, not only for the unions but also for the party itself, especially as a vehicle of liberal aspirations. To the extent that they sought to substitute the electoral struggle, in which workers as individual citizens ostensibly fought the class war in the relative safety of the voting booth, for the much more perilous processes of collectively confronting employers in industry and on the shop floor, the trade unions eroded their power independent of the Democratic Party. The unavoidable result was to forfeit their ability to exert leverage over the Democrats and to become increasingly reliant upon them for their members. The Democratic leadership could therefore count ever more securely on the unions’ services and support for ever less in return, especially in the area most vital to the labor movement (and the employers), that of union rights, where the Party was, throughout the postwar epoch, conspicuous for its indifference to union interests. The Democrats were thus left ever freer to move, in accordance with purely party-political calculus, to broaden their legislative, electoral, and financial base by consolidating the support of forces on the right, notably their traditional supporters in the South and, of course, business. But in so doing, the Democrats, like the union officials, furthered the disintegration and political dispersal of their own most powerful and most reliable social base.” (p. 44)

Why would the unions behave so stupidly? What was it about trade unionism that made it so misguided, so myopic about its own strength and capabilities? Anti-communist, anti-radical, pro-Cold War unionism dominated the U.S. after World War II and it contained the seeds of its own demise, nearly a half century ago. By the early 1960s union leaders had largely crushed any independent rank-and-file power. Here’s Kim Moody again in “Rebel Rank and File”:

“The underlying raison d’etre of bureaucratic business unionism was of course to deliver regular improvements in living standards for the membership by insuring, to the extent possible, rising profits by way of rising productivity by delivering a disciplined labor force to the corporations. It had accomplished this, on the one hand, by facilitating technical advances and the transformation of the labor process in aid of rising output per person, and, on the other, by undermining, over the longer run, the capacity of the rank and file to battle management at the point of production. But the combination of productivity decline and unaffordable benefits that suddenly gripped industry [in the late 1950s] left the labor leaderships disarmed. Having long accepted the priority of profits and having corroded, over the long term, the capacity of their memberships to fight back, they appeared to lack either the will or the capacity to launch a counterattack. As one close observer concluded, ‘Unions have lost much of their vitality and forward motion; they are playing an essentially conservative role in the plant community, seeking to preserve what they have rather than make gains.’ (p. 122)

The upsurge documented in this volume came in direct response to what happened as business unionism dominated the U.S. industrial economy. Workers organized hundreds of rank-and-file organizations, shop stewards committees, Leagues of Revolutionary Workers, and published hundreds of newsletters and newspapers too. The stories in “Rebel Rank and File” include histories of the United Farm Workers (a brilliant piece by Frank Bardacke), the United Mine Workers, Telephone workers, auto workers, clericals and other pink-collar jobs. A fascinating piece on Teachers strikes and Urban Insurrection offers a brief look at how the rise of teachers unions in the midst of the black rebellions of inner city New York, Newark, Detroit, etc. ran into unexpected and ultimately unsolved contradictions.

The new Republican Congress, along with some prominent new Republican governors, are publicly targeting public sector and especially teacher unions. 2011’s first issue of The Economist put organized public sector workers on their cover as a target for attack. So the last remnant of organized labor in the so-called “advanced” economies is now going to be under assault. The great advantage for public sector workers has always been that their workplace cannot move overseas. Often, too, the service work they provide is not easily automated. So their relative strength has held out longer than private sector and industrial unions who have fallen to under 8 percent of the workforce.

I’ve always taken the position that I’m in favor of workers being organized, but I’m usually against doing it in the form of the highly bureaucratic and legalistic trade union as we know them in the U.S. They are intermediaries in a business transaction and behave just as you would expect a self-interested business to behave. In the past three decades, I’ve seen far fewer moments of honorable and well-organized union work by and for workers than I have a whole raft of stupid, empty, and self-defeating behaviors. The latest nightmare of self-defeating union behavior has come from the SEIU and its thuggish approach to the independently minded health care workers of California. No surprise that former SEIU leader Andy Stern is now cooperating with the Obama Administration in its plans to privatize and reduce Social Security.

Just as the facts pile up too high and there really seems no way out of the dark hole that is the U.S. labor “movement,” Paul Mason’s book “Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global” comes along to shake up the narrowness of a U.S.-centric view of labor history. Mason’s a great writer, so reading his book is more like reading a great series of short stories than anything like a dry labor history book. His trick is to juxtapose some of the most important (and often most forgotten) episodes of labor history in the 19th and 20th centuries, to gripping journalistic tales of worker organizing going on right now in various parts of the world. In nine separate chapters he manages to cover an incredible amount of history and current events. A few of his juxtapositions are: The Peterloo Massacre, 1819 and Shenzhen, China, 2003; The silk weavers revolt, Lyon, 1831 and Varanasi, India, 2005; The Paris Commune, 1871 and Amukoko, Nigeria, 2005; Shanghai 1920s, and New Delhi, India, 2005; The Bund, 1920s-30s and El Alto, Bolivia, 2006; Turin, Italy 1920 and Neuquén, Argentina, 2006. This book rips you out of your despair and reminds you of the long history, with its many setbacks and outright defeats in addition to some of its glowing bright spots. And while the working class in the U.S. is by any reckoning pretty quiescent these days, fragmented, frightened, and unable to mount an independent challenge to the organization of life, the story is completely different in other parts of the world. And given our near One-Party State with its near One-Party Media, it’s not too surprising that it’s hard to get news of these revolts in other parts of the world.

After reading these three books, I find myself looking at the twentieth century rather differently. The common liberal American framework that the fascists were defeated in WWII and there’s been a steady expansion of democracy, inclusiveness, openness, progress, prosperity, etc., since then is clearly a farce. The long twentieth century looks more like a major, potentially revolutionary breakdown in capitalism resulted from the first decades’ World War and nationalist, imperialist system. The Depression and accompanying working-class revolts and widespread social tensions produced a series of structural changes that led to the post-WWII welfare state in the U.S. and social democracy in Europe. That began eroding almost as soon as it was established, and by 2011 we can see that the “deal” made has proven untenable. The capitalists figured it out way back in the 1970s and have been on the attack ever since. Unfortunately the global working class has been so thoroughly, reorganized while work itself has become much more closely controlled than ever before, that a comparably global working-class upheaval is still ahead of us. Meanwhile, the work we do, globally, is destroying the planet. How much longer can any of this go on? Luckily it’s not only up to us here in the befuddled U.S. Perhaps initiatives arising elsewhere will enliven our own responses as we rediscover how to make history.

Lastly I leave you with another quote from Jefferson Cowie’s “Stayin’ Alive”. One of my favorite things about the book was his ability to go from politics to economics to culture in his analysis of the demise of the working class during the 1970s. He has his blind spots to be sure. For example, I don’t think he mentions ecology at all! (I suppose by his “blue-collar” definition of working class, ecology was only of interest to “middle class” people, a common misunderstanding even today.) Anyway, among his ruminations on music (including a great section on Devo!), he does an extended riff on Bruce Springsteen, a musician that I liked a lot in 1976-78, but lost interest in later. His writing made me go out and get several CDs to catch up, and especially to listen closely to “Born in the U.S.A.” which I had always dismissed as the anthem of mindlessly patriotic suburban white boys and girls… Here’s Cowie on that song:

“Lost to listeners on the Right and the Left was the fact that “Born in the U.S.A.” was consciously crafted as a conflicted, but ultimately indivisible, whole. Its internal conflicts gave musical form to contradictions that grew from fissures to deep chasms in the heart of working-class life during the ‘70s and their aftermath. The song was first written and recorded with a single acoustic guitar during the recordings for Nebraska (1982)—a critically acclaimed collection of some Springsteen’s starkest and most haunting explorations of blue-collar despair, faith, and betrayal during the economic trauma of the early Reagan era. ‘That whole Nebraska album was just that isolation thing and what it does to you,’ Springsteen explained. ‘The record was basically about people being isolated from their jobs, from their friends, from their families, their fathers, their mothers—just not feeling connected to anything that’s going on—your government. And when that happens, there’s just a whole breakdown. When you lose that sense of community, there’s some spiritual breakdown that occurs. And when that occurs, you just get shot off somewhere where nothing seems to matter.’… ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ was actually more about silence—both existential and political. (p. 359-360)

Existential and political silence seems to be what we get (and what we choose) these days, even when the enormity of the crimes pile up in plain view and the overwhelming inequity of it all grows worse by the day. Until we choose something else…

5 comments to Anatomy of Decomposition


    Hiya! This is the third time visiting now and I really just wanted to say I truley relish reading through your blog. I decided to bookmark it at with the title: and your Web address: . I hope this is all right with you, I’m trying to give your great blog a bit more visibility. Be back shortly.

  • fernanda

    Hi Chris!
    money, money! maybe one of the answers is to start choosing how we use money, and substitute many “goods” with more real goods: we are eating too much (and too badly), dressing too much, etc. fighting to find happiness where it is not.
    Living in Europe, i can see mostly fear and stress, with some apathy. here and there, some are “recomposing” their lives.
    by the way, the roman couple came to us for a week to find a little land to buy and to learn how to be self-sufficient, just like we are doing. And we are so happy!

  • Martin

    Thanks for the thought and insight that you put into the essay, a good one to ponder and use as all evaluate our times. However, unlike the note struck in the two comments here, I think the downward cast of your conclusions are much more viable than some “hopeful” rhetoric about insurrections everywhere. Ferment and strife below are no match for the onward march of the neoliberal order, which is much more than the “tiny cabal” you preface your essay with.
    Brave people on the left have written articles showing the failure of South American putative heroes like Morales and Chavez to live up to the grandiose speechifying when oil and corporate power meet the reality of “reformers” governing. Likewise, the toxic exports and corporate conservatism of Europe make a mockery of its marginal street anger. The American Tea Party, of all “movements” to choose, expresses the “anger” of extremely wealthy, war-supported bilious moral cripples. If there is to be “hope,” then I hope it is better founded than this wan line-up, and more in the rich vein of the well-written, forceful analysis that you bring, when darkness hits the edge of town, to the world situation.
    Oh, by the way, in my little opinion, Bruce Springsteen is an Obama-supporting ego-driven nonentity – all that rhapsodical waxing by burners-on-high cultural analysts aside. Dumbass riffs, cornpone lyrics, a poet-of-the-masses fraud like Dylan – being a white male in the 70s, I was force-fed that crap. There’s a thousand American musicians better than that Super Bowl clown.

  • ccarlsson

    Hi Michel,
    thanks very much for your thoughtful comments. I completely agree, of course, that the key point of working-class recomposition was left out of my post. I did it on purpose, but with the knowledge that the bleakness of the decomposition story needs its antidote. I think you filled it in in less than 24 hours!

    An additional point might be that the old 19th and 20th century forms of protest are themselves increasingly obsolete in the face of the Spectacle, of the most modern organization of capitalist life. The networks of Nowtopians, while real and vital and a place I put a lot of hope too, have not yet found (perhaps for not trying, not sure) a public political voice that presents the new way of life in opposition to the maintenance of the status quo–a status quo that is so patently brutal and stupid, that it is hard to believe anyone still defends it!

    Anyway, many thanks for your rejoinder. I don’t know if the protests and movements in Europe, South America, and east Asia are harbingers of a real transformation, or historically familiar political expressions that will be subsumed by the dominant logic of markets and money, as so many of the prior movements and revolts have been. Clearly we all have to ponder how to shape together a real global alternative to the barbarism that is still “winning,” and I would love to see mass revolts in Europe or South America point the way to an ecologically sane, materially sound, psychologically rich life for everyone… Here’s to a new year and a new decade, full of hope and possibility at least as much as it is spiraling into a very dark place!

  • Dear Chris,

    Enjoyed your remarks and review, but I think it leaves something important out of the picture. Namely, that though the immense majority of people in the West are indeed structurally wage slaves, the experiences of knowledge workers (now about 40%) are nevertheless very different, but that does not mean they are lost for emancipatory struggles. So, while the working class is expanding dramatically worldwide, and so is labour organizing (100 m workers were on strike in September 2009, nearly simultaneously), for us working and living in the West, we need to find new ways of social and political expression. The situation may be bleak in the U.S., but South American social movements are thriving and building new social systems, and the european workers and citizens have been out in their millions recently. Similary, in East Asia, militancy is dramatically on the rise. The Tea Party shows that there is a deep reservoir of class anger, although misplaced, while your own Nowtopia shows how knowledge workers are constructing new social realities. I think that ‘peer to peer’, in its many guises, including your own Nowtopia, reflects this new political and social expression, and given the brutality of the assaults, it will be forced to take on more defensive and offensive capabilities. You should hear and seewhat the hundreds of thousands of young people, out in europe’s streets, are debating about .. Behyond the decomposition, there is also a recomposition ..


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