Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Darkness at the center of town

In Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, Jefferson Cowie evokes a lost world in all its vitality

The following review was posted earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network site.

The decade of the seventies has become a historiographic cottage industry. For a long time, about the only study out there was Peter Carroll's It Seemed Like Nothing Happened; first published in 1982, it has held up surprisingly well. The consensus on the standard treatment now seems to be Boston University historian Bruce Schulman's 2001 book The Seventies; David Frum gave the decade a puckish -- and pointedly neocon -- reading in How We Got Here in 2000. More recent treatments have tended to focus on aspects of the period, like the Ford and Carter presidencies. In 1973 Nervous Breakdown (2006) Andreas Killen made a compelling case for that year as a synechdoche for the seventies as a whole. And Natasha Zaretsky rendered a compelling gender reading of the period in No Direction Home: The American Family and Fear of National Decline.

Labor historian Jefferson Cowie, who teaches at the school of Industrial Labor Relations at Cornell, follows the recent tendency to render portraits of the decade through a particular lens. In Stayin' Alive, that lens is both specific and yet capacious: that of the American working class. Working-class culture figures prominently in all the above-mentioned works, but Cowie's focus on it gives his book an energy and coherence that will likely make it among the more useful and durable treatments of the period.

Cowie's take on the seventies is tragic: He posits a decade which opened with sense of possibility, only to end in a sense of division and evisceration in which "working people would possess less place and meaningful identity within civic life than any time since the industrial revolution." To build his case, he constructs a framework of notable symmetry and sturdiness, in eight chapters divided into two parts. In the first four, he develops a line of thinking he first unveiled in an essay for Beth Bailey's anthology America in the Seventies, in which sometimes perplexing cross-currents led people like Dewey Burton, the much-interviewed Everyman of the time, to ricochet between George Wallace and George McGovern before finally settling on Ronald Reagan a decade later. Cowie asserts that the Democratic Party of 1968 was essentially a labor party, albeit a divided one. He offers analyses of events like the 1972 strike at the General Motors plant in Lordstown, which was a much a labor action about deadening work conditions as it was pay, and depicts the literally deadly internecine warfare among the United Mine Workers of America as a struggle for the soul of the labor movement.

In political terms, many observers have noted the obsessively Machiavellian tenor of Richard Nixon's presidency in its attempt to co-opt the Wallace vote. But Cowie traces, with quality research and rich detail, both that administration's difficulties in dealing with labor leaders like George Meany, even as the Nixonites captured, with surgical skill, the language and symbolism of the working class without ever actually addressing its material concerns. In the second half of the book, Cowie argues that new institutions like the Business Roundtable did address such material concerns -- by attacking them directly. They were aided by the indifference and hostility of politicians like Jimmy Carter, who while nominally sympathetic to labor as a Democrat, in effect functioned as the first post-New Deal president.

Cowie shows at least as much facility with cultural history as he does labor and political history. He offers nuanced readings of figures like Merle Haggard, whose background and musical complexities were obscured by the success of truculent anthems such as "Okie from Muskcogee," and suggests that there was less richness than is sometimes supposed in the work of widely hailed independent films like Taxi Driver. Perhaps not surprisingly, country rockers like Crosby Stills Nash and Young are exposed as elitists, even as other figures of their ilk, like Jackson Browne, get surprisingly positive appraisals. Bruce Springsteen, of course, looms large here, though Cowie compellingly suggests how cramped his portrait of working-class life has tended to be, more an ordeal to be endured rather than a vibrant culture it own right. At the same time, Cowie traces the emergence of demographic transformations of the working class that would lead to new subcultures like those of disco, feminist manifestos like 9 to 5, and punk rock (there's a wonderfully nuanced analysis of the Akron-based band Devo).

There is, perhaps, a forgivably romantic air about Stayin' Alive. Although Cowie scrupulously careful in noting the limits of the McGovern campaign, for example, the gestalt of the book seems to suggest that it had more possibilities than it probably did. Similarly, while Cowie rightly notes a sense of ferment in the racial and gender dimensions of the labor movement, and duly notes the growth of unionization in the public sector, he tends to stint the tectonic plates of the international economy. We do hear a lot about oil shocks; we hear less about the rise of Japan and the tremendous cost pressures it exerted on the auto industry. Such developments cannot single-handedly explain labor's demise, of course; nations like Germany responded to such challenges without dismantling the welfare state.  But then Germany never really had a Jacksonian political culture in which a libertarian strain was bred even into the working class. It might have skipped a generation or two after FDR, but it was always there, ready to emerge when the environment was right.

Regardless of what one thinks about the character of the seventies working class, or whether its "end" was inevitable, Cowie foregrounds, with laudable care and clarity, a set of people who too quickly recede in critiques of the New Class, accounts of the rise "Atari Democrats" like Gary Hart, or the emergence of feminism, developments which pointed toward the future more than the past. As Cowie well knows, class struggle did not end circa 1979. But a particular kind of class struggle did, and its contours are worth noting and remembering so that its successes and failures may yet furnish object examples in the battles still to come.