TeleSur English, March 10, 2015
Former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert’s recent book Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America (New York: Doubleday, 2014) is one of many recent liberal volumes to pine for the supposedly “golden time” and place that was the post-World War II United States. In the U.S. between 1945 and 1971, Herbert fondly recalls, economic inequality declined, a vast middle class arose, great Civil Rights victories were achieved, jobs were plentiful, the middle class swelled, “high-consumption lifestyles” spread, economic growth took off, the welfare state expanded, and US astronauts flew to the moon. United-States-of-Americans exhibited what Herbert calls “a bold confidence in the future.”
Losing Our Way begins by recalling the “heady sun-washed” 1950s and 1960s, when “everything embodied in the great promise of the United States – freedom, equality, opportunity – appeared to be coming to fruition” and this “proud and triumphant nation …[was]…a dynamic and robust country that served as the economic and cultural role model for the rest of the world.” Near the end of his book, Herbert calls 1960s America “a reasonably egalitarian society.”
Half a century later, in a much less U.S.-centered and more multipolar world, all of that seems like long lost liberal dream. Reflecting more than a generation of upward re-distribution, “homeland” disparity is now so great that the 400 richest Americans possess as much wealth between them as the 150 million poorest. A fraction of the U.S. top 1 percent has more net worth than the bottom 90 percent. The United States and its once ballyhooed middle class seem in persistent decline as poverty and unemployment stalk the nation, along with crumbling infrastructure, shattered hope, and fading expectations.
The question for Herbert is “what happened?” The answer for him and many other liberals is that elite corporate and financial interests seized control of the nation’s politics and society to grab riches and power, squandering national health and development in service to short-term greed. It’s a familiar progressive lament, telling us how big money “fat cats” pushed through tax cuts and deregulation, gutted social welfare programs, smashed unions, and hijacked fiscal and other policies to create a New Gilded Age of savage inequality and abject plutocracy.
The Not So Golden Age
It’s all true enough to no small degree, but there is a far less nostalgic and much more accurate and radical way of looking at the U.S. “Golden Age” and why it collapsed. This different perspective combines acknowledgment of the era’s tendencies towards increased socioeconomic equality and rapid growth with respect for the unique historical circumstances that enabled those tendencies and for the important fact that the U.S. never stopped being a deeply unbalanced and authoritarian, Big Business-run society during its “golden time.” Across the postwar period, Howard Zinn noted in his forgotten classic Postwar America: 1945-1971 (1973), the bottom tenth of the US population – 20 million poor Americans – experienced no increase whatsoever in the share of the national income (a paltry 1 percent). Corporate profits and CEO salaries rose significantly across the Sixties boom as steep US poverty remained firmly entrenched in “the world’s richest nation.” As Zinn elaborated:
“Being rich or poor was more than a statistic; it profoundly determined how an American lived. In the postwar United States, how much money Americans had determined whether or not they lived in a home with rats or vermin…whether or not they could get adequate medical and dental care; whether or not they got arrested, and, if they did, whether or not they spent time in jail before trial, whether they got a fair trial, a long or a short sentence…whether or not their children would be born alive. It determined whether or not Americans had a vacation; whether they needed to hold down more than one job; whether or not they had enough to eat; whether or not they could influence a congressman or run for office; whether or not a man was drafted, and what chances a man had that he would die in combat.”
As the nation spent billions to put astronauts on the moon, millions of 1960s Americans remained ill-clad, ill-fed, and ill-housed. The median U.S. family income in 1968 was $8,362, less than what the Bureau of Labor Statistics defined as a “modest but adequate” income for an urban family of four. The Bureau found that 30 percent of the nation’s working class families were living in poverty and another 30 percent were living under highly “austere” conditions. “Affluence,” historian Judith Stein notes, “was as much as an ideology as a description of U.S. society” in the 1950s and 1960s.
There is much more that is less than flattering to say about “golden age” America. An honest history of the post-WWII U.S. would include:
- The actual deepening of racial (white over black) U.S. inequality even as overall socioeconomic disparity fell in the nation.
- The remarkable material and cultural explosion of wasteful mass consumerism and the related vast expansion of global “free trade” and production, both contributing to the emergence of a foreboding environmental crisis by the end of the “golden time.”
- The defeat of real (single-payer) national government health insurance for all (with the key exception of U.S. citizens 65 years and older after 1965) and the triumph of a highly dysfunctional and authoritarian model of employment-based health insurance.
- The birth of a bourgeois identity politics that has provided populace-dividing service to the corporate and financial elite across the subsequent long neoliberal era.
- The criminal and mass-murderous U.S.-imperial wars on Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia which killed more than six million Asians between 1950 and 1975.
- The massive expansion of the U.S. Pentagon system and Empire, replete with pervasive and often deadly, mass-murderous U.S. military and political interference in dozens of not-so “sovereign” nations around the world under the cover of the “Cold War”– a manufactured conflict that brought the world to the very edge of nuclear holocaust in the fall of 1962.
- The “post-WWII labor-capital bargain,” whereby the nation’s newly consolidated mass-production unions relinquished concern for workers’ control, workplace democracy, and social-democratic transformation (including national health insurance) in return for money and benefits for members only and automatic dues collection or labor bureaucrats – a deal that capital significantly revoked after 1970 without any giveback on what labor surrendered. (The “bargain” included the expulsion of Left cadres who had sparked resurgent industrial unionism during the 1930s and 1940s.)
- The atomizing spread of private television and automobile ownership, the ecologically toxic explosion of regional and interstate highway construction, and the related advent of large-scale white suburban residential and commercial sprawl.
Capital Never Lost its Commanding Position
What really happened to the “golden time?” The positive, “reasonably egalitarian” post-WWII gains and direction whose vicious neoliberal reversal Herbert bemoans reflected an anomalous moment in the history of a rapacious capitalism that was never removed from its position atop U.S. society and reverted to its default long-term inegalitarian and undemocratic tendencies once that moment passed. Between 1930s and the 1970s, it is true, a significant reduction in overall economic inequality (though, again, not of racial inequality) and an increase in the living standards of millions of working class Americans occurred in the U.S.
This “Great Compression” occurred thanks to the rise and expansion of the industrial workers’ movement (sparked to no small extent by Communists and other Left militants), the spread of collective bargaining, the rise of a corporate-liberal New Deal (later “Fair Deal” and “Great Society”) welfare state and the democratic domestic pressures imposed by World War II and subsequent U.S. social movements. Still, core capitalist prerogatives and assets – “private control” and “business for profit” (John Dewey) – were never dislodged, consistent with New Deal champion Franklin Roosevelt’s boast that he had “saved the profits system” from radical change. US capital never lost its way or its dominant role in American society.
Furthermore, the gains enjoyed by ordinary working Americans were made possible to no small extent by the uniquely favored and powerful position of the U.S. economy (and empire) and the remarkable profit rates enjoyed by U.S. corporations after the war, when the U.S. was briefly home to more than half the world’s industrial production. When that remarkable position and those profits were inevitably challenged and rolled back by resurgent Western European and Japanese economic competition in the 1970s and 1980s, the “egalitarian” “golden time” trends that Herbert trumpets were naturally reversed by capitalist elites who had never lost their critical command of the nation’s core economic and political institutions. Middle and working-class Americans have paid the price ever since.
Though he uses the Marxian phrase “ruling class” (the “alliance between the corporate class and elected officials”) in Losing Our Way, Herbert is either unable or unwilling to acknowledge that the New Gilded Age he detests is U.S. capitalism returning to its historical wealth- and power-concentrating norm (even though here he could cite the safely non-radical French liberal economist Thomas Piketty). Herbert is aghast that “corporate profits rebounded to record levels after the Great Recession in large part because of savings that management realized by savaging payrolls.” He quotes with disapproval a leading private global economist who told The New York Times that “American business is about shareholder value. You basically don’t want workers. You hire less and you try to find capital equipment to replace them.” Herbert also cites a business executive who worries that U.S. companies have in recent decades been “firing their customers.”
That’s all terrible, of course, but it is sociopathic capitalism 101, right out of Marx for Beginners. It reflects the profits system’s longstanding contradiction between capitalists’ competitive drive to cut labor costs and capitalists’ competitive struggle to realize value (and surplus value) through the sale of the goods and services their employees produce.
Four Strong Points
These criticisms aside, I nonetheless recommend Losing Our Way for four reasons. First, Herbert is a master at something vital that many radical intellectuals do not excel at: telling the personal and human stories of real people at the bottom of the U.S. socioeconomic pyramid. Losing Our Way provides numerous moving portraits of what American working class people are actually experiencing under the rotten system that Leftists properly denounce. We would do well to pay attention to such stories.
Second, Herbert is right to highlight the deadly implications of the mass structural unemployment that has come to afflict millions of U.S. citizens in the neoliberal era. It’s not just that mass joblessness generates widespread poverty, insecurity, and depression (suicide rates spike after job loss) or that “the economy” is damaged by the lost purchasing power of those without “earnings.” It is also that “when Americans are decently employed, it is easy for them to focus on society’s other challenges, from education to environment and everything in-between” (Losing Our Way, p. 255).
That is a very important point. A working class majority that is afraid for its jobs (with good reason) and worried about its basic economic security is often poorly situated to embrace important changes that Left progressives rightly support like real immigration reform, racial justice, a “peace dividend” (involving significant cuts to the Pentagon budget), and the urgently required shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The problem is especially acute in a society where capital and its corporate media and politicians relentlessly tell people that progressive change around these and other issues threatens jobs. The zero-sum each-against-all mindset that mass structural joblessness, under-employment, and austerity help engender among millions of U.S. citizens – with no small assistance from dominant ideological institutions – is antithetical to the broader progressive project.
Third, Herbert merits praise for highlighting the problem of crumbling and outdated U.S. infrastructure (roads, bridges, water lines, sewer systems, gas and electric lines, rail-beds and more). This infrastructure crisis is a clear threat to life quality and safety. It is also an obvious place to target for major public investments that would employ millions of jobless Americans in socially and ecologically useful work.
Fourth, even if he fails to name and fully comprehend the system that brings so much misery to ordinary Americans, Herbert is right that no solutions to the problems detailed in Losing Our Way will emerge unless “citizens overcome their reluctance to engage in collective action on an organized and sustained basis…There are good ideas all over the place, even great ideas,” Herbert adds. “But none of them have a prayer of working if the citizenry is not somehow aroused to reclaim American from the powerful moneyed interests – the ‘malefactors of great wealth’…who have been the ones most responsible for driving the nation into such a wretched state of affairs.” That is an issue of popular and social will. It is also and perhaps above all a question of organization, without which even the best progressive reform proposals and radical ideas become largely academic exercises. One need not be a bleeding heart liberal with too much nostalgia for the post-World War II era and too little radical critique of capitalism to take counsel from Herbert’s wise judgment on this score.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)