THE GOOD OLD ’70S: The End of the Amerian Century

Jefferson Cowie
Stayin’ Alive: the 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class
(New Press, 2010)

Edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow
Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s

(Verso Books, 2010)

Edited by Dan Berger
The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism
(Rugers University Press, 2010)

We live in the shadow of the 1970s. If at all, most Americans remember the “long decade,” the period from 1968 to 1981, by a scattering of historical occurances and a handful of iconic images. A careful reconsideration reveals a lot more.

The oil embargo, the end of the Vietnam War, Three Mile Island, and President Reagan’s breaking of the air-traffic controllers strike might well be recalled. So too are such cultural landmarks as the Rolling Stones at Altamont, Archie Bunker yelling at his son-in-law, or John Travolta stutting his stuff on the dance floor. These recollections are part of a deeper story: the beginning of the end of the American Century, the end to unparalled domestic prosperity and global hegemony. 

Three recent books, Jefferson Cowie’s impressive Stayin’ Alive and two invaluable collections of thoughtful essays, Rebel Rank and File and The Hidden 1970s, focus on the ’70s as a historical turning point. They are complementary accounts of a very trying time; to use an over-used but not inappropriate term, they recount a tipping point in the evolution of modern America.

These works are important alternatives to more mainstream accounts of the ’60s and its aftermath. They are not only critical analyses of what took place, but place radicals—rank-and-file labor militants, grassroots political activities, and insurgent creative voices—at the heart of this historical development.

Cowie and the two dozen essays that make up the two collections understand the ’70s as a period of profound social struggle. They detail the moment when America began to be restructured from a nation committed to shared prosperity to one of increasing class polarization. Their collective focus is on the widespread resistance to the rise of the new right-wing of white, Christian, and mean-spirited Republicans.  We live in the shadow of this restructuring.

Cowie’s book interweaves three themes to tell the story of the ’70s. One involves the shift in national politics that took place during the period from Nixon to Reagan. He chronicles how the center of gravity of American politics shifted to the right, Republicans becoming increasingly more reactionary and Democrats (like Carter) more conservative. A second theme involves the changes in social relations and popular culture from Archie Bunker to Bruce Springsteen, from Roe v. Wade to Three Mile Island; unfortunately, Cowie doesn’t consider the incipient environmental movement.

The third theme, and the centerpiece of his analysis, involves the twin struggles faced by many working class Americans. One front of struggle consisted of the thousands of strikes, walkouts, work stoppages, and other actions that took place in factories, plants, and offices throughout the country during the ’70s. The second front involved the war waged by rank-and-file militants against entrenched labor-union bureaucrats. He recalls such all-important but all-but-forgotten insurgent actions as the union-democracy struggles in the United Mine Workers (UMW) and Teamsters, as well as the rebellion at the Lordstown, Ohio General Motors plant.

Rebel Rank and File consists of an opening series of four essays by Carl Winslow, Robert Brenner, Judith Stein, and Kim Moody, that lay-out the political-economic context of 1970s struggle; Stein’s piece is especially helpful by placing domestic issues within terms of growing globalization and the roles played by U.S. corporations and government pushing this development.

These essays (and a concluding overview by Steve Early) are complemented by informative “case studies” of workplace confrontations. Kieran Taylor’s essay, a profile of the Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers, captures the essence of race- and class-conscious rank-and-file militancy that defined the era.

Resistance to the growing corporate and Republican counter-revolution also involved a host of social terrains of struggle. The Hidden 1970s extends the field of social struggle beyond the workplace to such groups as the American Indian Movement, the Black Liberation Army, Puerto Rico’s FALN, and the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee.

Berger’s cursory overview provides a context for the dozen or so case studies of diverse activist engagements of The Hidden 1970s. Contributions include essays on the prison industrial complex, the fight against female sexual abuse, and the indigenous land movements, amongst others.

(Surprisingly, this collection does not discuss the rise of the environmental movement that emerged in the wake of Love Canal toxic spill in 1978 and the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident in 1979.) 

Cowie and many essayists reveal how the old divisions of “class” and “color,” the issues that had defined American politics from the New Deal to the Great Society, shifted during the ‘70s. A new social category, “culture,” emerged and added to the complexity of popular struggle. This category is best understood as values or identity, whether defined by nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or political tactics.

History changes and so does social struggle. Workers organizing reflects the structure of capitalism at a particular historical period and is reflected in the 1890s AFL craft unionism and the 1930s CIO industrial workforce. These books reveal that the classic forms of labor and social struggle have been superseded.

Cowie and the authors of the collected essays are radicals, mostly academics but also some activists. They bring a partisan’s commitment to a mostly forgotten legacy of insurgency. In the face of the lies promulgated by right-wing ideologies and the forgetting reinforced by mainstream media, Americans would never know that the nation was founded by radicals and revolutionaires. Yet, this is our history.

Radicals are as American as apple pie. Fighters for national liberations drove the Revolution; abolitionists ended slavery; WWI Wobblies of the 1910s championed labor’s freedom; and CIO militants of the ’30s organized a nation.

Cowie and the contributors of the two collections recall the humanity and integrity of diverse movements of the ’70s. Their studies champion battles progressives fought to advance workplace, union, and popular democracy. However, reading these well-intentioned analyses from the vantage point of 2011, they seem like obituaries to the Amercian Century. These studies reflect last ditch efforts to hold off the systematic plunder by the powers-that-be.

During the three decades following the Second World War, the U.S. celebrated the great “middle-class revolution”—home ownership, a new car in the driveway, affordable health care, and the promise of a child’s college education. It was a period in which the gap between the rich and the poor was the narrowest in American history. 

In the second phase of post-War modernization, from the mid-1970s to 2000, the consequences of the struggles chronicled in the three books under review were played out. America underwent a fundamental reordering. Globalization replaced domestic production; finance capital replaced manufacturing as capitalism’s driving force; industrial unionism was decimated and a two-tier Amercian society was forged.

We are now living through a third post-War era, a period in which capitalism has been restructured into a truly global enterprise and America is being subject to a form of postmodern “structural adjustment.” Finance capital’s third-world economic police force has come home with a vengence.

Today, the U.S. is stuck confronting a historical sea change. It is being restructured from a nation of shared prosperity to one of oligarchy and austerity, from a society of relative social equality to one of the super-rich “haves” and the rest of us “have-nots.”

Corporate America’s battle against organized labor has entered a new phase, a war against unionized public employees. The current recession, with the accompanying fearmongering about the nation’s debt, is being effectively used to impose widescale cuts in public services.  The outcome of this campaign will create a new, belt-tightened American reality. It is being expressed in the shared senses of lowered expectation and privatized existence. 

The challenge implicitly posed by these books is who will fight the good fight against growing corporate tyranny now remaking the nation? What is clear is that a new, more dynamic and inclusive popular struggle needs to emerge, one that combines struggles at the workplace and the commons with battles at the voting booth and the statehouse. This new terrain will replace the traditional divisions of “class,” “color,” and “culture.” Welcome to the 21st century. 

Contributor

David Rosen

DAVID ROSEN is author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Counterpunch, and Filmmaker Magazine. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

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