Stanley Aronowitz is one of America’s most prominent social theorists. For almost 30 years, he has been a Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Before that, he was a labor organizer. In books like False Promises, Crisis in Historical Materialism, The Jobless Future, Science as Power, How Class Works, and Against Schooling, he has intervened in major debates on class, the labor movement, education, and cultural studies. In his most recent book, Taking it Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals (Columbia University Press), Aronowitz offers a critical examination of Mills’s work, which has exerted an enormous influence on Aronowitz. The Rail’s Gregory Zucker met with Aronowitz to discuss his latest book as well as his views on the labor movement, Occupy Wall Street, the financial crisis, and the decline of the public intellectual. Several days after giving this interview, Aronowitz was awarded the Center for the Study of Working Class Life’s Lifetime Achievement Award at Stony Brook University.
Gregory Zucker (Rail): Who was C. Wright Mills and why should we care?
Stanley Aronowitz: C. Wright Mills was a sociologist who got his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in 1942. He was born in 1916 and he died in 1962 at 45. His first book The New Men of Power was published in 1948. His last books were published in 1961. So, he really had a period of no more than 13 or 14 years of prominence. During that time, he was arguably the most controversial, radical social theorist and social commentator in this country. He was a major influence on the formation of the Students for a Democratic Society. His letter to the New Left of 1960 inspired the early founders of the Students for a Democratic Society. In it, he called for a New Left that would no longer base its politics on what had been known as the “Russian Question.” Instead, a new American left would seek to ground its politics on the American radical traditions. He was a model both for academic and nonacademic intellectuals of courage and forthrightness. He refused to submit to the vagaries of the Cold War. Although anti-Communist, he was not willing to embrace American foreign policy. If he were alive today, in 2012, he would be very skeptical of, if not oppositional to, people like Obama and the Democratic Party.
At the end of his life, he began to call himself a “plain Marxist” by which he meant he was not a Stalinist, not a Trotskyist, and not a follower of Marx’s specific theories, but of the way of thinking which I call historical materialism. He wanted to understand Marx and Marx’s legacy in terms of how to look at the world. The way you look at the world is from the point of view of the desirability and the potentialities for major social change. That is what he was about.
We do not have many people around these days who match Mills’s forthrightness and talent. He was a superb writer. He managed, in plain English, to explicate fairly complex ideas. His most famous idea was that the ruling circles of our society, the United States, consisted of a three part elite: the military elite; the elite of the political directorate, by which he meant the very top of the political system; and, the largest corporations and the very rich. He thought this triumvirate really ruled America. In contrast, the U.S. Congress was situated in the “middle level” of power. He refused to use the term the ruling class. He used the term higher circles or he used the term the elite. His argument, which I think is still valid, was that there is no national democracy. To this day, there is no national participatory sense in which the American people make their decisions. Both political parties are committed to capitalism and the same foreign policy, one element of which is permanent war and war economy. Even 50 years after Mills’s death, they have no programs for domestic change for meeting the needs of working people and the poor or the middle class.
Mills is probably best known today for his book The Sociological Imagination in which he criticizes the current practices not only of sociology, but also of the social sciences in general. He says they refuse to “take it big,” which is the title of my book on him. He is referring to the refusal of the social sciences to address larger political, theoretical, and social issues. Mills also wrote two pamphlets. In The Causes of World War Three, he offered a plea for nuclear disarmament. He warned that we might be on the brink of a war of mutual destruction of nations. Then, in 1959–60, he went to Cuba after the revolution and saw many possibilities for a new kind of popular sovereign society, which would really be driven by peasants and workers. This led to his writing Listen, Yankee. Still, he was anti-Communist and was very skeptical about political parties and the political process. Both works sold hundreds of thousands of copies. His books were translated into 23 languages. He is much better known today in Latin America and parts of Europe than he is in the United States because in the United States most of the intellectuals have surrendered their autonomy. He felt that was true in the ’50s and early ’60s and it is perhaps more true today.
I think he is significant today because he is a model that we should be not only appreciative of, but should try to emulate. We should not only speak out publicly, as he did, about specific issues like war, poverty, and exploitation. Those are important questions, but we ought to be following his example by trying to identify the current forces of power. Mills insisted on studying “up.” He thought—and I can tell you that this is also true today—that almost nobody in the social sciences deals with the question of power. The question of power is, more or less, carefully avoided.
Rail: You have had a distinguished career as an original social theorist in your own right and some people might, at first glance, see this as a biography.
Aronowitz: It is not a biography of Mills. I wrote about him because I thought a close examination of his work could be still significant and relevant for us today. For example, his analysis of the Labor Movement in 1948 warned that the corporate offensive was just beginning and the New Deal was essentially over. Unions were going to be subjected to the worst kind of attacks. Ten years later, it turned out to be true. The labor movement was throttled and, to a large extent, in fear and trembling, became only a series of service organizations. They even began to collaborate with their enemies. By the 1960s, they entered into a very long period of decline that has carried into the present. He was very prescient on these issues.
The second reason I wrote on Mills is that I think his analysis of the white-collar strata, which grew enormously after the Second World War, has been essentially correct. People thought they were a class without politics, without an effect on society. He thought they were the constituents of what he called “mass society.” These were the consumerists who fell into the black hole of being the accessories to corporate capitalist domination. Further, like Mills, we still have the task of confronting the ruling circles that I discussed earlier and we have to do that with fresh eyes. I also feel he has been neglected and that the neglect is not accidental. It reflects the general decline of intellectual life in the United States.
One of the interesting things about Mills is that he was not Jewish. He was born in Waco, Texas, and grew up in Dallas. Unlike many Jewish radicals, he was not afflicted by the Russian question. He was anti-Communist, but always said that soviets (translation: workers councils) were the answer in terms of radical social change. He was not ready to throw all of his radical beliefs behind the so-called free world as he watched almost everybody else drifting to the right. We have many examples of people who considered themselves part of the left in 1960s and early 1970s drifting to the center or right in the 1980s and 1990s. I think Mills’s example is quite relevant as someone who stood up and decided to neither be pro-Soviet nor pro-American or pro-West. That is a very important lesson for us to learn today.
Rail: What affinities do you see between your work and Mills’s work?
Aronowitz: Like others who grew up in the new left of the 1960s, Mills and Herbert Marcuse were the two salient influences on my work. My own insights, as a result of my own experience as a worker, as a trade unionist, and as an activist, were stimulated and, to some extent, guided by Mills’s example. His three major books on American social structure—The New Men of Power, White Collar, and The Power Elite—together constitute a compelling intellectual program for our own times. All of them were published more than a half-century ago. So, some of us need to update, revise, critique his positions, without cancelling the broad framework. His personal example and his ideas exerted a great influence on me. There are many people who went into sociology, political science, and chose to study various social problems and social change because they were inspired by Mills’s work. We have not had a single figure like that in contemporary times. Mills was a political and social thinker who tried to put ideas into action as well as into his understanding of the world.
Rail: What do you attribute the decline of the public intellectual to and how does one address this?
Aronowitz: I think the main reason we have had a decline of the public intellectual is because we do not have a vibrant radical-political formation in this country. I am not speaking about the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, or the anarchists. We do not have a vibrant political formation with its own educational institutions, its own press, or its own political organizations at the local level. Most people, who identify with the left today, regardless of their personal feelings, are either Democrats or Independents or they do not vote at all. What we do not have is an organized left. If you do not have an organized left, you do not have an organized political public intellectual. Those who were public intellectuals during the last period of an organized left, which was literally the 1960s and early ’70s, drifted because they had no bearings.
Why are some of us still public intellectuals and still politically radical? Part of it is accidental. Part of it is because some of us have our roots in Marx and Hegel in the Frankfurt School or in some of the great theorists of the 20th century, like Georg Lukács, Henri Lefebvre, or Louis Althusser. We are not American intellectuals in the sense that we come out of a specific discipline. I chose sociology because it is a broader discipline than political science or economics. My real training was in left politics and left theory.
Rail: Given the emergence of political actions, like Occupy, do you think there is a new opportunity for intellectuals to intervene?
Aronowitz: Yes, but I think the opportunity would have to be in tandem with a new political formation. In my judgment, the Occupy movement has so far refused to suggest the pathways to that political formation. It does not have a vision of an alternative society. What happens under those circumstances, as with all protest movements, is that if the protest can be incorporated into the existing society successfully—even if it is incorporated in a watered-down version—it will be. Because the labor movement in the 1930s, that is, the great industrial union upsurge of 1933 to 1938, did not develop its own political formation, the Democratic Party (with the help of both the Communists and a significant fraction of the Socialists, by the way) was able to form a firm alliance with the labor movement. The labor movement is now suffering for that alliance, but is completely hooked. In this election of 2012, for example, labor is going to give $400 million to Obama and his friends. That is a waste of time and a waste of money. Even the recall movement in Wisconsin was a diversion from what the labor movement can do best, which is direct action. This does not argue against all forms of electoral politics, but there are really no viable national electoral perspectives for the Left.
Rail: What would this direct action look like?
Aronowitz: Think of the 125,000 people in Madison in the spring of 2011. Think of the marches initiated by Occupy Wall Street in 110 cities on city halls, on stock exchanges, etc. The immigration marches of 2000 and 2006. That is what direct action looks like. That the Occupy movement has not really done as much occupying as the labor movement did in the 1930s is regrettable, but the concept of occupy—of direct action against those who are perceived to be in power and against the interests of the broad mass of people—that concept is valid. I think the primary emphasis on electoral action is the wrong way to go. Direct action, political education, and cultural politics are the right ways to go.
Rail: Mills’s work on elites seems particularly relevant today as well. How might one apply it to the contemporary financial crisis?
Aronowitz: Lloyd Blankfein, the C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs, and Jamie Dimon are walking free. Together with their confreres, these people caused untold for literally millions of Americans. Why are they not being brought to justice? Those two are merely examples. We do not have anything more than mild proposals to tighten up regulation of the large financial firms. Meanwhile, for their perfidies the Fed awards them trillions of dollars. Why do we have private ownership of banks in the United States? Why are there no workers’ co-op banks? The Amalgamated Bank is a much better bank than most others, but it is only in New York City. Why are there no public institutions at a community level that really make loans easily available to people who need homes or schooling? One of the reasons they do not exist is because the so-called progressive forces have completely collapsed and capitulated to privatization.
We do not even raise the question of socialization. The worst example, needless to say, is the phony Obama healthcare plan. There is ample evidence in polls that the majority of Americans believe that single payer, publicly financed healthcare, similar to what exists in France, is the best answer to the problem of healthcare in the United States. But nobody is fighting for it. The unions as well as the Democratic Party are fighting to preserve what amounts to a phony plan, which mandates that everybody buy insurance from private insurers at inflated costs. Why should the richest country in the world have the worst healthcare system? We spend more per capita on healthcare because of its profits than any comparable country in Western Europe.
Rail: What is your next project?
Aronowitz: I have many little projects, but I will tell you about my next big book project. After more than 40 years as an active union member and, in some years, organizer, I have come to the conclusion that the trade union movement as we know it is dead. I am writing a book that will argue for a new labor movement. I do not deny that the existing unions will survive, some of them better than others. But the continued decline both in membership and of power in the unions is, to a large extent, the product of the fact that they are following a series of laws that stack the deck against them and Supreme Court decisions that have diluted their power. Yet, they go along with it. They have almost, though not entirely, renounced the strike weapon and direct action. They have put all of their money into electoral activity, most of which will bite them in the backside. So, what we need is a new movement.
Now, when I discuss a new movement I am not talking about collective begging which is what goes on in most union negotiations today. I am arguing against exclusive reliance on collective bargaining, which is a very limited and arguably an outdated tool. Rather, I am talking about a labor movement using the broadest possible definition. A labor movement is a movement of people who are interested in housing, education, public accommodations, like recreational facilities and healthcare. That is, people who want to make life better for themselves and their kids. The labor movement is a movement against the mass annihilation that takes place in war. In this sense, it is also an anti-war movement. I am thinking of the labor movement as a broad movement in the way it was conceived at its dawn in the 19th and early 20th century. I am arguing for a movement that takes the needs of working people, broadly conceived, as its own. We do not have a labor movement any longer that even considers the question of housing. It has taken almost no interest in the debt or tuition problems faced by students in higher education. It is not a labor movement. What we have is a business union movement. I am suggesting that we need a labor movement based on a conception of workers’ needs that includes but is not limited to the workplace. It would conduct electoral activity on a very selective basis. It would not waste its money on supporting center-right campaigns like the Obama campaign or most of the congressional campaigns. It would possibly run some candidates for office mostly at the local level, if at all. Basically, it would be a movement that would take direct action as its major course, whether at the top floor or in the public sphere.
Rail: So, you are conceiving of a labor movement that transcends identity politics or fragmented political agendas?
Aronowitz: That’s right. The model on the left has been women here, blacks there, and Latinos there. Young people here and old people there. No! All of us have many of the same needs. At the same time, we have to confront issues that afflict particular groups. For example, compared to men, women’s pay is back down around 70 cents, while blacks receive even lower pay at 60 cents than whites. We have to deal with those questions of equality. The other thing about the labor movement is that this ought to be a movement with its own press. This ought to be a movement with its own educational institutions which actually help its members understand the problems of the society in which they live, to become educated. These kinds of activities are not conducted anymore and they used to be, even if imperfectly, by the labor movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.
GREGORY SMULEWICZ-ZUCKER is the Managing Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture. His most recent book is Strangers to Nature: Animal Lives and Human Ethics (Lexington Books).