Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class

Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class

Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class

Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class

Synopsis

In this study the author attempts to answer the question of why the world's most industrially advanced nation never spawned a mass party of the working class, documenting the new economic and political forces.

Excerpt

These essays appear at a paradoxical moment in us history, on the centenary of the first May Day and fifty years after the great CIO sitdown strikes. Until very recently these anniversaries would have invited Panglossian reflections on the success of a peaceable institutionalization of the class struggle in the United States. After all, according to most textbook accounts, the Haymarket martyrs and the Flint strikers were, whatever their own visions of their activity, inadvertent heroes in the rise of a pluralist industrial order based on collective bargaining. For all of its early drama and violence, the trade-union movement -- like the later Black liberation struggle -- was supposedly settled into a placid tributary of liberal progress.

Such a view, however persistent in textbooks, is no longer tenable in reality. On every side, supposedly irreversible achievements of the New Deal or Great Society are, in fact, undergoing reversal. As organized labor enters its second century, it faces not the security of a 'mature' industrial relations system, but a decline of its membership and the threat of deunionization. Likewise the civil rights organizations, their forward momentum already checked in the early 1970s, fight losing rearguard battles against the Reagan administration's aggressive campaign to roll back affirmative action and other moderate reforms.

This accelerating rightward realignment of economic and political power demands a reconsideration of the main currents of modern American history. The smug liberal teleology of US history, with its happy endings in a perpetually self-reforming 'society of affluence', scarcely accords with the new politics of inequality and social revanchism that have become dominant since the late 1970s. Equally out of date, I shall argue, are the two main radical correlates of this teleology, the contrasting theories of a 'hegemonic' corporate liberalism or -- alternatively -- a 'surrogate socialist' Democratic Party.

For what is most striking about the United States in the 1980s is not the one dimensionality of consciousness (per popular Marcusean analyses of the 1960s) but the increasing one-sidedness of the class struggle. Nowhere in the advanced capitalist bloc, with the partial exception of Japan, has trade-union power collapsed so precipitously or under such brutal pressure. Nowhere, not even in Thatcher's Britain, has the New Right succeeded in mobilizing such a broad spectrum of propertied strata or effecting such a sweeping redistribution of national income to the benefit of the collective middle class. And nowhere has . . .

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