CommunityFDL Main Blog

Labor and The Left

The relationship between labor and the left is lousy. As President Obama and union leaders get together for a Labor Day event in Detroit, people are asking if the relationship between even centrist Democrats and working people can survive. I think the biggest problem is that the left lost interest in the politics of control of capitalism, leaving working people at the mercy of predatory Corporate Citizens.

Tweaking Capitalism Versus Revolutionizing It

The Historian Michael Kazin has a new book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. In an interview about the book, Kazin was asked why liberals have not succeeded in making real economic change.

…Also, most Americans accept the basic ground rules of capitalist society. The ideas are that if you work hard you can get ahead and that it’s better to be self-employed than employed by the people. They believe that the basics of a capitalist society are just or can be made just with small alterations. Americans want capitalism to work well for everybody, which is somewhat of a contradiction in terms since capitalism is about people competing with each other to get ahead, and everyone’s not going to be able to do well at the same time. That’s simply not possible.

Kazin seems to think that a liberal economics would be socialist, maybe in the European mold. Apparently he doesn’t think that tweaking the structures of capitalism as we saw with Teddy Roosevelt and FDR counts. I’m not so sure. The changes made by both Roosevelts led to a stabilized economy, one in which worker at all levels could achieve reasonable pay and reasonable working conditions with a minimum of violence and disruption. As a result, millions of working Americans entered the middle class, and were able to raise their kids knowing that the kids would do at least as well as their parents, and likely better. That was the 50s and 60s, the Golden Age of America.

The Split

What happened next was ugly. Wbgonne at MyFDL, and this review of Kazin’s book by Jacob Heilbrunn describe the ways that the left alienated working people, meaning people who are, or could be, in unions. It is equally important to remember that unions and their members alienated the left.

In the 30s, leftists, especially Communists and Socialists, advocated and acted for the interests of working people. In the aftermath of WWII, with the disclosures of the full extent of the horrors of Communist totalitarianism, there was real concern across the political spectrum over the Communists. That made it possible for both parties to support the Taft-Hartley Act, which weakened the rights of workers and strengthened the power of capital and management. Red-baiting became a staple of conservatives, led by such noxious creeps as Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn, and fed by the likes of Richard Nixon and the John Birch Society. There was no defense from the left, most of whom were sickened by the Russian Communist party and unwilling to kowtow to it. I think this anti-communist hysteria influenced many working people to distrust the patriotism of leftists and liberal elites.

The Viet Nam war played an important role in completing the split between leftists and working people. Leftists were violently opposed the to the war. Working people and unions were carried along by claims of patriotism, despite the fact that their kids were doing all the fighting and dying. Assertions of patriotism were fueled by dismay at the lack of order in the anti-war group, especially its flaunting of a new moral orientation that didn’t track with the traditional Christian perspective of the workers, and perhaps influenced by earlier denunciations of the liberal elites by Republican politicians. The hostility between the two groups is exemplified by the Hard Hat Riot in New York City in May, 1970.

Meanwhile, Great Society welfare programs ballooned into massive transfer programs, giving money to the poorest among us. These programs were the darlings of the intellectual elites, and had widespread support on the left, leading to mindless defense instead of careful attention to their real-world outcomes. Republicans attacked these programs in the most violent and mindless way. Ronald Reagan was able to motivate working people to hate those programs as symbols of moral decline, and unfair to people like them who were working hard. There was abuse, and many working people knew those abusers personally, but there was also a lot of racism and sexism in the hostile attacks from the right. Those Reagan democrats turned out for him in large numbers. That further alienated the left.

One other important issue is the massive corruption in union hierarchies. The scandals around Jimmy Hoffa, the destruction of the Central States Pension Plan, and allegations of union obstructionism, featherbedding and outright theft robbed unions of their credibility on the left and among their own members.

When Ronald Reagan struck a massive blow against unions in the Air Traffic Controller Strike, there was no one to defend them.

After The Split, The Left Turned Away From Economic Issues

The point of this extended discussion is that once leftists and labor parted ways, leftists no longer paid attention to economic matters, and lost interest in the controlling the economic system to prevent the rich from grabbing all the money. Many leftists found themselves employed by or representing the interests of big businesses, and thus were dependent on capital and its holders for a living. They no longer felt any identification with the working class, despite the fact that most of them worked at the sufferance of top management. They identified with the economic interests of their employers, and found it impossible to argue against such nonsense as heedless deregulation and supply side economics.

Instead, they turned their activist energy to the social issues described by Kazin and wbgonne. It took the Great Crash to give the left a real reason to re-focus on economics, namely that so many of them lost their jobs and/or a huge chunk of their retirements. Working people and unions are not on board with the necessary adjustments to the theory and practice of capitalism, and do not believe that leftists and the liberal elites care about anyone but themselves.

The Great Crash Crushed Working People and the Middle Class

Working people and the middle class are bearing the entire cost of the Great Crash, as Mohammed El-Barian, CEO of the giant bond fund operator PIMCO. explains in miserable detail. Many working people have lost their place in the middle class, and more are losing their hope for the future. At the same time, they remain rigidly committed to the same moral framework that led to their exodus from the Democratic party. That moral framework includes implacable opposition to government assistance to the poorest among us, abortion and family planning, and gay marriage and other rights for the LGBT community. It also includes a host of religiously held and flatly ignorant views about such issues as global warming, evolution and Keynesian economic theory.

Healing The Split

Heilbrunn and wbgonne think that somehow progressives and liberals can make common cause on economic issues with working people, and that somehow both sides can ignore the social issues that divide them. I don’t see how that happens. The left isn’t going to change its views. Too many working people regard those social, environmental and economic views as elitist at best and morally repugnant at worst, and don’t trust liberals who hold them. They especially distrust the liberal elites, intellectuals, college professors, and experts in all fields.

Fixing the economic wreckage of the Lesser Depression will take a lot more than a few tweaks. It will take a lot of change to force capitalism to work for the benefit of all Americans. Rich people have their hooks deeply into every government institution and all of the important non-government institutions that support the government. What could have been fixed with a few tweaks once now will require major structural change and a host of new approaches. The outcomes are unpredictable, and no one can be sure that the changes proposed by progressives and liberal economists will work. That runs contra to the general belief cited by Kazin that capitalism is the best of all possible economic systems.

I think it will be very difficult to find ways to work together. On the other hand, neither group has much choice if they want to see real economic change in the US.

Previous post

The Dangers of Political Resentment

Next post

Grey Warriors Leading Those Coming of Age, Some Reflections on the Coming Storm.



I read a lot of books.