The Long Exception: An Interview With Jefferson Cowie

Jefferson Cowie (photo reproduced with the author's permission)

Jefferson Cowie is a teacher, historian, and writer at Cornell University. As a social and political historian, his work focuses primarily on how class, inequality, and work shape American politics and culture. Professor Cowie was gracious enough to conduct an email interview with The Activist about his great new book Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, the life and death of the New Deal order, and the prospects for reconstructing the labor movement in tough times.

The Activist: Recently, you have argued (with your colleague Nick Salvatore) that the New Deal and the postwar order constitutes a “long exception” in U.S. history and that we on the left shouldn’t be framing our demands in terms of a “new New Deal.” Why?

Jefferson Cowie: We argue that the New Deal rose out of pretty extraordinary circumstances and, therefore, makes a bad political metaphor for the future. It does not make me happy to argue that the biggest social democratic achievements in American history were an aberration, but I think it’s right.

Not only did FDR take office three and half years into an ever-deepening crisis with a Congress ready to pass anything that came its way, but a host of other issues were in play. Immigration, largely suspended in 1924, no longer played its divisive role in American politics; religious fundamentalism had gone underground since Scopes; and individualism was at bay. When we look at race, one of the other key factors in American working-class history, we can still see that the price of every piece of New Deal legislation was the exclusion of many African-Americans, making this issue less threatening than a truly integrated progressive politics.

Even then, FDR’s first round of reforms largely failed, and it wasn’t until 1935-1937 that everything we associate with the New Deal took root: the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security, Fair Labor Standards Act, and, of course, the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). We often forget even then how tenuous it was. The CIO and the New Deal Democrats were on the ropes in the late thirties. It then took the war to solidify the gains of the union uprising. Today, it’s impossible to get anything through Congress, let alone survive trials like the 1930s.

The coalitions and political achievements remained, casting a long political shadow, until the seventies when they broke apart. But it’s pretty remarkable how well the system worked when it worked–at least for the white, male, industrial working class. Yet it was inherently fragile. Graphing a variety of indicators in the postwar era creates an exceptional hump or trough: inequality goes down, then up; union density goes up then down; value of the minimum wage goes up then down, etc. By the seventies, religion was back, individualism was back, race was back, immigration was back. We now live in the new Gilded Age, it is often said, which suggests connections to a much darker past than the New Deal era.

So, we’re on our own to figure out a way out this mess. I don’t think it’s a matter of reinventing everything, but we need our own story, our own counter-narrative to what’s going on. We can’t just look to some stale old story from seventy-five years ago.

TA: Your latest book tells the story of what we might call, riffing on E.P. Thompson, the unmaking of the U.S. working class during the 1970s. What makes the 1970s so important? And who exactly was part of that working class anyway?

JC: Everything that was built in the thirties and forties–the policies, the social architecture, the institutions, the way of making sense of the world–were falling apart. In the confusion, in rushed the power of capital, which established its counter-revolution to the New Deal. What’s interesting is, if we see class as a “happening” rather than a “thing” as Thompson argued, the working class failed to happen. Rather than the emergence of a new identity out of the maelstrom, one that could meld the new social movements of the sixties with the class movements of the thirties, we see the end of both an idea and an ideal. Today, there is no longer a countervailing identity, let alone a movement, that can provide a different kind of stakeholder besides finance capital. That’s the story of the seventies–the foundation of our own time.

TA: Michael Harrington [the founder of Democratic Socialists of America/Young Democratic Socialists] figures largely in your account of the 1970s. This interested me because as one of the intellectual forces behind the War on Poverty, he tends to be strictly associated with the 1960s in modern U.S. historiography. What is it about Harrington that makes him so important to our understanding of the decade?

JC: We all know the Michael Harrington of The Other America, but the seventies Harrington reveals a very complex intellectual struggling with a world he was not expecting. He could see the creeping rise of the right, but continued to pursue an optimistic agenda despite his own read on the situation. His observations tended to be very keen and complex, and I often followed his leads when I was writing the book. I also learned a lot about remaining positive, but not unrealistically so, about prospects for social change in hard times as I watched Harrington confront the decade. I even named one of my chapters, “A Collective Sadness,” after a brilliant, melancholy, essay he wrote for Dissent in 1974.

A few examples stand out. He put a lot of energy into the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, but was also pretty critical of its prospects (he wrote a piece called “Two Cheers for Socialism” in Harper’s that was very revealing). Unlike many leftists at the time, he understood that the left depended upon liberalism being strong in order to build upon. Others saw it differently, operating from the idea that if activist tore down liberalism then people would move to the “true” left. Wrong! Similarly, he realized the left had made a mistake by thinking it could “liberate” people from traditional crutches like nationalism, god, flag and the like. Yet they failed to put another story in their place besides vague ideas of “freedom.” The negative or “anti” positions of the New Left had been stronger than the positive alternative vision it put forth. He believed this created a space for the right rather than the left by the early eighties.

TA: Many people on the broad left are fairly uncritical of the U.S. labor movement, and focus almost exclusively on the external factors that have helped to drive union decline – deindustrialization, globalization, technological development, employer opposition, the broken labor law regime – the list goes on. But you argue that internal flaws within the movement itself have been just as important, and perhaps more important, as the external factors. What were they? How did they undermine the strength of the labor movement?

JC: The level of complacency among what C.Wright Mills called “the new men of power” in the postwar era was extraordinary. They thought the game was over, that they had won a new seat at the table and would forever be respected. Yet as I suggested earlier, they were in a temporary and shaky class truce, not the end of the fight. Labor missed all of the political energies of the sixties rather than tapping into it. By the early seventies, there was so much rank-and-file energy but labor leaders fought against rather than alongside them. What wouldn’t the unions do for that kind of energy now? Then, however, the movements appeared to upset the apple cart of postwar labor relations. In fact, however, it was the last great chance for a reformation. Organized labor has always had a minimal place in American life as compared to other advanced countries, of course, but it simply doesn’t have to be this bad.

TA: In your book and in your recent conversation with Salon‘s Joan Walsh, you argued that the labor movement needs to move away from being so focused on collective bargaining and moving toward a more universal politics that embraces a much wider constituency than just its members. But it seems difficult to imagine, however, most currently existing unions giving up the things that allow them to provide current and potential members the “union premium.” Take that away, and you take away most unions’ reason for existing. Do you think there’s any possibility this shift toward universalism can come from within the labor movement as we know it, or is it going to require the foundation of an entirely new set of institutions and organizations founded on a different basis?

JC: Labor, warts and all, has been the greatest advocate for social reform. Yet today we are in a sort of pretzel logic situation. We can’t win health care without union strength, but union strength often means a private welfare state for union members. A major advance in union organizing is unlikely, but we can’t move forward without it.

What I’m looking for, though, is a new narrative, a new story, new metaphors for understanding our situation. In the postmodern age, nothing is the same as it was, so why is the left looking at things through the same set of lenses? The right has come up with it’s own stories about god, flag, whiteness, individualism, and patriotism. There’s a lot of suspect logic in all of it, but they win the discussion because they own the story. The left has no other story besides either extreme wonkishness or abstract notions of justice. Neither of those build the needed bridges between individuals and a large sense of what we could be as a people. In all of my work, I’m trying to clear the decks of all of the leftover intellectual baggage in order to try to understand that set of problems more completely.

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