Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class – Review (Part I)

Jefferson Cowie’s brilliant history of the decline of working class power in 1970s America weaves together labour history, political economy, and cultural studies to create a convincing portrait of the era.  The work is comprised of three main topic areas: accounts of the sporadic eruptions of worker discontent of the era, of its various presidencies and presidential campaigns, and of the popular culture of the two halves of the 1970s.  By taking these three approaches Cowie manages to paint a rich portrait of the time from both the perspective of the working class and that of the power elite, with his insightful analysis of popular culture and class consciousness bringing the totality to life.

Unlike many contemporary accounts of the 1970s, Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive lapses neither into romanticism nor into determinism.  This faithfulness to his subject renders Cowie’s account all the more heartbreaking, highlighting the profound tragedy of the era.  Walter Benjamin once described history as “one single catastrophe,” and it must be said that the decade was one of the most catastrophic.

Cowie titles the first half of his book “Hope in the Confusion,” and indeed the first half of the 1970s was both hopeful and confused.  Elements across the Left and in society at large attempted to reconcile the challenges of the 1960s with the New Deal establishment, hoping to create a newly diverse and democratic form of working class power by bridging the divides of race and gender and creating a rank-and-file democratic unionism.  The efforts in this direction ranged from the Miners For Democracy movement, to Eddie Sadlowski’s run for the leadership of the International United Steel Workers, to the Lordstown strike against soulless hyper-Taylorist working conditions, to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers struggle, to the Farah Garment Factory strike, to the Gathering of Black Trade Unionists and the Revolutionary Union Movements, to the struggle of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, to that of New Left “militants” who decided to put their money where their mouth was and join the labour struggle.

These various movements strove to find common cause with the white male union establishment of the AFL-CIO lead by George Meany, and to articulate commonalities amongst each other.  Their powerful demands for change shook the New Deal coalition of the Democratic Party to its core, and lead to a bitter political struggle that sought to somehow reconcile the various contradictions of 1970s society.  The responses in the Democratic Party ranged from the New Left inspired campaigns of Robert Kennedy and George McGovern to the ultra-reactionary campaigns of George Wallace.  These divisions echoed the divisions of the Left in general, which was torn apart by the Vietnam War and the extremely contentious issue of busing.  The working class was divided along lines of race and age, confused and drifting between Sadlowski-style progressivism and Wallace-style bigotry and reaction.  At this point these two sentiments often struggled within the breasts of the same workers, and Cowie is careful to highlight the essentially confused nature of this time.  Many workers simultaneously were against the war in which they or their children were sent to die, and resentful of New Left intellectuals who criticized a war they were able to escape through the class privilege of university attendance.  In a similar fashion many white workers often supported the cause of civil rights and worked side-by-side with blacks, but were fearful of losing the small privileges their race afforded them, privileges which were symbolized by their homes and neighbourhoods.

These tensions came to a head in the 1972 Presidential election,  where the liberal George McGovern ran against Richard Nixon.  McGovern attempted to pick up where Robert Kennedy had left off before his assassination, bringing together the old and new left in a united progressive working class vision.  McGovern had an impeccably pro-union voting record and a genuine concern for the cause of working people, but his ideological sympathies with the New Left put him at odds with cold warrior George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO.  No matter how close their material concerns were, the divides of identity and ideology between McGovern and the union establishment could not be brought together.  Richard Nixon exploited this divide to the best of his ability by launching his campaign for the “silent majority” of Americans.

Nixon’s “silent majority” strategy took its cues from George Wallace and Nixon’s own political instincts.  It turned Republican strategy on its head by attempting to form an alliance with the white working class on the grounds of identity and ideology (Or, to put it less delicately, bigotry and nationalism), even while it maintained its material commitments to big capital.  In essence, Nixon’s “silent majority” were the same people that FDR had described as the “forgotten man.”  The base of the New Deal was turned towards a New Right.

While McGovern’s catastrophic loss in 1972 can in part be attributed to  various missteps on the campaign trail, there undoubtedly was something deeper afoot.  George Meany and the AFL-CIO’s refusal to endorse McGovern reflected the depth of the divide between old and new Left.  While the 1972 election is often described by middle class liberals in terms of a wholesale flight of the working class from the Democratic Party into the arms of Nixon’s New Right, Cowie points out that the truth is in fact more, complex and more incriminating of the middle class:

Clearly, a majority of workers voted for Richard Nixon, but often over looked in the 1972 analyses (and into the elections of the eighties as well) was that professional middle-class and white-collar went for Nixon at significantly larger percentages than did the union or the manual worker categories.  Compared with the voters of the professional middle class, there actually were a relatively large number of working-class voters supporting McGovern.  The 1972 election was certainly a national repudiation of McGovern, but while 46 percent of manual workers voted for McGovern, only 31 percent of professional and business people did, and 36 percent of white-collar voters did.  Forty-nine percent of of those at the bottom of the educational rungs went for McGovern, while only 37 percent of the much-discussed college-educated vote pulled for the senator (122).

The fact was that the working class was divided on McGovern, not utterly against him.  While McGovern needed their full support to win, and he did lose on the basis of his inability to reach the working class voter, the story is not one of an uneducated class of Archie Bunkers rejecting McGovern while the enlightened middle class looked on and wept.  Unfortunately, as Cowie notes, “…the legacy of [McGovern’s] campaign grew to become a damming metaphor for any form of Democratic boldness” (122).  McGovern later recalled the words of a young black man who spoke to him in New York during his campaign: “This election is going to break your heart.  People aren’t as decent as you think they are.  They don’t like black people; they’re resentful of the kids, and they want to forget about the poor.  They don’t care about peace and human rights and the Constitution.  Every guy is just trying to make it for himself” (123).  After his catastrophic loss McGovern found he could only agree: “I can only say that I found these attitudes all too often.  I found too much apathy and cynicism and not enough concern and guts even among young people – too pampered, or too prematurely weary to care” (123).  The New Left moment was dead, and then in 1973 came the oil shock.



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