29.6.12

THE POVERTY OF CULTURAL STUDIES.

Cornell historian Jefferson Cowie attempts, in Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, to come to terms with the end of the World War II New Industrial State and the propensity of blue collars to cause red necks.  I exaggerate, but only slightly.  The book is a different perspective on blue-collar politics from those proposed by Thomas Frank or by Richard Longworth.  Although Professor Cowie takes pains to assure readers that working-class is not equivalent to organized labor, the book we read switches among Presidential politics, Big Union politics, and perusal of songs and movies by Big Entertainment, particularly those directed by Big Entertainers who might have been red-diaper babies.  Book Review No. 21 will consider, at length, the ways in which Stayin' Alive tells readers more about the intellectual failures of the last forty years of post-everything in cultural studies, and perhaps in the academy generally, than it does about the difficulties confronting blue-collar workers.


We start with the economics of de-industrialization.  Professor Cowie recognizes that the Treaty of Detroit and much of the rest of labor relations after World War II might not have been sustainable, because it depended on concentrated industries extracting oligopoly rents from which organized labor obtained its share of the national product.  If that sounds familiar, it's because it's been a theme at Cold Spring Shops in which Robert Reich and Michael Barone and Patrick Buchanan and Robert Kuttner and Milwaukee's Shepherd Express have provided material for previous Book Reviews and other meditations on the theme.  For new readers, James Pethokoukis has provided an excerpt from Edward Conard's Unintended Consequences that summarizes the Cold Spring Shops working hypothesis.
The United States was prosperous for a unique set of reasons that are impossible to duplicate today, including a decade-long depression, the destruction of the rest of the world’s infrastructure, a failure of potential foreign competitors to educate their people, and a highly restricted supply of labor. For the sake of mankind, let’s hope those conditions aren’t repeated. It seems to me anyone who makes comparisons between todays’ economy and that of the 1950s and 1960s without fully disclosing their differences is deceiving their readers.
Thus, any meditation on the fate of organized workers in a world of emerging middle classes in Brazil, China, and India, with resurgent middle classes in Europe and Japan, that doesn't take seriously the possibility of a cynical deal between oligopolists and unionized workers to live at the expense of everyone else, including workers not organized, will be incomplete.  In addition, the emergence of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s put pressure on traditional unions over more than pay, benefits, working conditions, and strike-forestalling contracts.  There's a now obscure paper by Leonard Weiss, "Concentration and Labor Earnings," that suggests at least some of the union premium of the New Industrial State went to experienced white males, to the disadvantage of the rest of that emerging Rainbow Coalition.  School busing did contribute to the grievances of white workers, but affirmative action might have had real effects on paychecks and contracts, and perhaps to the propensity of old-line union bosses to make like Democrat ward-heelers when it came to stealing elections.

We continue with the failure of cultural studies to contribute much by way of insights.  Admittedly, that's beating up on a mode of inquiry that deserves to be beaten up.
The humanities are primarily an adversarial enterprise, indeed, an academic counterpart of what [anthropologist Lionel Trilling long ago termed “adversarial culture.”

We may argue over whether [Illinois historian and faculty union organizer Cary] Nelson is correct or not, but when we ponder the impact of this outlook upon people outside the humanities, the outcome is clear.  Why should anyone outside academia respect an endeavor that criticizes his or her values and practices?  In general, adversarial culture preys upon the universe of bourgeois society—free enterprise, religious devotion, patriotism, “family values,” and other traditions of middle-class life.  If you are an entrepreneur, a small or large business owner, a devout churchgoer, and so on, the humanities so conceived are a threat.
Perhaps that adversarial culture might earn more respect if it produced any work of great insight, but you'll have to look elsewhere to find it.  There may be a reason scholars of a certain inclination assert the existence of multiple oppressions of Race, Class, and Gender, or revert to dog-whistle words about "issues of ...".  Dig deeper, and there's no there there.  Professor Cowie uses a flexible conception of class: "Class, always a fragile concept in American civic life, died the death of a thousand cuts in the 1970s, but few problems sliced as deeply as how race and class were set against each other."  (Page 236.)  Elsewhere, he suggests that "race" is the most difficult category to "construct," arguing that people, no matter their ascriptive characteristics, share a great deal of genetic material.  Perhaps so, in which case the Marxian concept of ownership or alienation from the means of production, and the old civil-rights argument about the difficulty of concealing skin tone or curly hair, might be the most effective aggregates to use (although these aggregates might be even less useful than Land, Labor, and Capital, or Earth, Air, Water, and Fire.)  And Gender may as well be a fantasy.  All too often it is the appropriation of a grammatical term to replace the biological term Sex, with consequences that may or may not have had any effect on the material condition of industrial workers.  Perhaps old socialist Michael Harrington might have had the deep word.
We radicals had mocked the old verities and preached a new freedom, only our negatives were more powerful than our creativity.  We proposed that men and women find their purpose within themselves, that they disdain all traditional crutches, like God and Flag.  But were we then to blame because many seemed to have heard only that the old constraints had been abolished and ignored the call to find new obligations on their own?
(Page 214.)  That's precisely the basis of the Wall Street Journal's "No Guardrails," still inspiring commentary 20 years on.  The absence of those guardrails might also have provided precisely the course to Republicans and Big Business and the Moral Majority prevailing.  By default.

Let me finish by noting that a few movies and currents in popular music do not by themselves provide evidence.  The seventies might have begun after the breakup of the Beatles, the descent into excess of Elvis Presley, and the emergence of Bruce Springsteen and disco.  But Garry Trudeau -- note, long before Mark Slackmeyer started dating a Republican man -- nailed disco's social sensibilities long before Professor Cowie went looking for messages of escape from the idiocy of post-industrial life in it.  One could as easily argue that a crass and degraded popular culture, again, long before Jerry Springer and Jersey Shore, meant more guardrails removed from people who might not have been properly socialized to the guardrails by parents or schools.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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