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Nostalgia for Industry Won’t Revive the Left

In response to a critical review of his book ‘The Next Shift’, historian Gabriel Winant argues that deindustrialisation cannot be reversed — and that it is foolish for the Left to pretend otherwise.

The Gary Works steel mill in Gary, Indiana. (Credit: Wikimedia)

I write to respond to Charlie Winstanley’s recent review (‘No, the Left Shouldn’t Welcome Deindustrialisation’) of my book, The Next Shift.

First, allow me to point out a number of factual errors. Medicare was passed in 1965, not 1956, rendering quite silly Winstanley’s idea that I failed to situate it in its immediate postwar context. On social media since the publication of the review, Winstanley has insisted that the 1956 Dependents Medical Care Act was the origin of Medicare; this is a totally uninformed allegation. The programs have no relationship whatsoever except, briefly, a common name. Indeed, Winstanley wishes to suggest that Medicare was part of the global wave of working-class political triumphs, but it arose much later out of the lasting consequences of the defeat of the struggle for public health insurance in the 1940s.

The 1959 steel strike was indeed resolved partly through the intervention of Richard Nixon, but not the ‘Nixon government’ as the review claims; Nixon was vice president for Dwight Eisenhower at the time.

Winstanley characterises me as a Friedman-style monetarist for pointing out that there was a wage-price inflationary spiral in the 1970s, but this was not the view of Friedman, who famously described inflation as ‘always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.’ I recommend to Winstanley Seth Ackerman’s excellent article in Jacobin, ‘Why Joan Robinson Blamed Unions for Inflation While Milton Friedman Did Not.

I also note that Winstanley wishes to claim in self-contradictory fashion both that the steelworkers won dramatic economic gains in 1959 (largely correct) and that those gains could not possibly have been significant enough to contribute to inflation. Certainly, not all inflation is caused by wage-price spirals, as recent events have shown, and the capitalist class and political right often falsely attempt to blame labour. But this does not mean that under no circumstances can workers’ power ever cause inflation, particularly in structurally significant industries: Winstanley has simply substituted a present-day talking point for an actual historical thought about how the economy was configured in the past.

Next, let me point out some more narrow issues of misrepresentation. Regarding Winstanley’s impulse to defend David McDonald as a working-class hero, the idea that McDonald was saved by the employer attack on Section 2-B is not mine but is widely attested in the historical scholarship. I recommend that Winstanley consult John Hoerr’s And the Wolf Finally Came or Jack Metzgar’s Striking Steel.

In any case, McDonald was universally reviled by the working-class left as one of the most undemocratic and business-friendly labour leaders in the industrial union movement and was eventually ousted by his own lieutenant I.W. Abel — himself no radical — in 1965 for his accommodationist stance toward the steel companies. This was a very rare occurrence in American labour and the first such in the major industrial unions. Abel called McDonald’s leadership style ‘tuxedo unionism.’ To grasp how bad things must have been to allow such a challenge, note that the recent triumph of Shawn Fain in the United Auto Workers marks the first time the union has been led by a challenger candidate in its long history. Once again, Winstanley has simply projected a totally false impression onto the past based on present-day ideological convenience.

In terms of criticisms that Winstanley makes of my descriptions of working-class life, let me note a few incoherencies. First, he mocks my narration of a steelworker’s anger, decades after the fact, at being turned away at the gate by a coworker who knew him, because he did not remember his badge. This is indeed a minor episode, but it was one that rose in this man’s memory as bearing significance. I find it preposterous to attack me on one side for bringing my own ostensibly elitist agenda to the memory of these years in labour history and on the other for repeating what seemed significant to workers from their own experience.

The book draws heavily on the self-narratives of working-class people, as well as documents they produced — memoirs, diaries, letters, grievances at their jobs, and more. Winstanley’s complaint lodged with me for my interest in the complexity of their experience is, in fact, a complaint with them for not fitting themselves into the fetishised sentimental image to which he expects workers to conform. Capitalist societies always produce structural and psychological divisions among workers, and indeed within them as individuals — as indeed occurs for everyone in some form. Many gains are also somehow a loss, and the gain of one often is the loss of another — not through fault of their own. It is to understand these phenomena that we resort to the idea of ‘contradiction.’ To analyse these divisions is not to blame workers for them, and to willfully ignore them when they appear in the historical evidence is to commit an act of make-believe.

Winstanley repeatedly uses the word ‘anthropological’ as a term of abuse for my writing. One wonders what he means by this. Are some people fit subjects for anthropology and others not? What does he make of the importance of anthropology to the tradition of British social history, embodied by E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Richard Hoggart, and so many others? Should we not study working-class people and their experience at all, or should we only study it in order to make them out as heroes of socialist labour? One dreads to think what he might say about Thompson’s observation of the ‘orgasms of feeling’ among working-class worshippers that were stimulated by Methodism, to note just one example.

I regret the need even to say that working-class people have always had psychologies as complex as anyone else’s, which are of as much historical and interpretive significance as anyone else’s, and which are in part a reflection of the exploitation and alienation they experience in capitalist society. It is, of course, true as Winstanley observes that their movements also provide inspiration on which today’s socialists can draw, but drawing such inspiration does not necessitate compelling them to be two-dimensional icons or pretending that they were unaffected by the limits of their struggles and the defeats imposed upon them — just as all of us are. Winstanley seems to wish to present the mid-century period as unaffected by such defeats — a move that might be more convincing if he appeared to know anything else about it. In any case, it is beyond me why socialists should treat historical past moments of capitalist societies as our own horizon of possibility.

Nonetheless, this move — attacking me as condescending for replicating the ambivalent words and experiences of working-class people — is repeated throughout the review, often by way of elision of context. For example, Winstanley engages in a critique of a passage about an upwardly mobile woman, in regard to whom he accuses me of introducing my own bias. He reproduces a passage like so: ‘Winant documents her desire not “to marry someone [like] the kinds of people that I saw others marry.”’ On this basis, Winstanley makes hay of my comment that we should not accept her view of working-class marriages as less loving, suggesting that this represents an unconscious disclosure that I do see them this way, since I have no basis for suggesting the possibility otherwise.

Here is the full quotation in the book, which Winstanley has truncated: ‘I didn’t want to marry someone [like] the kinds of people that I saw others marry. . . . I wasn’t thinking about the future at that time or money and this is what I think had my mother concerned because I wanted to be with someone that I would enjoy being with.’ She is clearly drawing a distinction between ‘the kinds of people that I saw others marry,’ a kind of marriage that would fit her mother’s expectations and the desire for security, and her own desire for a companionate marriage, which corresponds to her own middle-class trajectory. She is quoted repeating this point later in the chapter, urging her daughters to prioritise ‘know[ing] yourself and where you’re going what your goal is’ over settling into a traditional relationship. Given his general level of attention to detail, I do not expect that Winstanley bothered to check the footnotes and see that this was the same person, but I can hardly be blamed for that. None of this is a criticism of this person; it is an observation about how class inflects subjective perceptions of marriage and family. Why would we expect otherwise? Yet, instead, Winstanley truncates the evidence and invents a motivation for me.

Similarly, Winstanley attempts to make me out as a snobby elite anti-racist for my observation of a working-class woman’s ‘anxious performance of whiteness’; he suggests that I am simply making out as racist the normal desire to keep clean. To do so, he excises the earlier discussion of this person where she describes the embarrassment she felt as a child about her mother’s Sicilian accent and immigrant cooking and cleaning practices, her shame about having to work when her friends did not, and ultimately her disappointment in marrying a steelworker. ‘When he comes home from work he always takes a shower right away, and cleans his fingernails and shaves. I didn’t think of him as a mill worker or anything.’ He also excludes the immediately proximate portions of the passage that quote her fears about her house being bombed if her son expresses support for the civil rights movement, and her objection to her granddaughter swimming in a pool that is too ‘inner-city,’ where she worries that the girl will catch a disease.

Perhaps Winstanley is unaware of the unmistakable meaning of these phrases, though one wonders why he carefully left them out in that case. Once again, the longer biographical arc of this person’s life makes her racism explicable and historically meaningful in its connection to the anxieties and ambiguities of immigrant assimilation and everyday working-class struggle. If we choose, we can learn something from it. Winstanley instead attempts to set up a choice between refusing to notice it (apparently his preference) or sitting in judgment (the liberal approach, which would be what I was doing here if I simply called her racist without any historical analysis — as he falsely implies).

Finally, let me turn to the most significant, interpretive level. There is no sense in which I celebrate deindustrialisation. The entire fifth chapter of the book is a detailed account of its intense social harm, a key point in the overall interpretation of The Next Shift. It is true that I do not think the brunt of it could have been avoided, nor do I think it can meaningfully be reversed. This is a debatable point, certainly, but neither side of it corresponds to a celebration of the eventual result. The book is an account of a political defeat, and an attempt to assess what new possibilities might arise out of that defeat: this is a question with which Marxists have traditionally been very concerned.

Again, Winstanley’s point on this issue seems to be self-contradictory, since he bases his enthusiasm for industrial employment on its possibility of productivity increase, the same fact which has caused so much of the decrease of that employment. I certainly agree that that possibility gave important forms of leverage to labour, the loss of which has been a serious blow. This issue, in fact, is central to the book’s argument and some of the political questions it raises. But what The Next Shift does not do is engage in counterfactual musings about how this blow might have been avoided or reversed. It’s a history book.

Nonetheless, while we are on the topic, Winstanley’s examples of reversibility do not provide much confidence on this score. Every one of them is an example in which the society in question has suppressed working-class consumption and, in some cases, workers’ rights and collective organisations to achieve the results.

Germany, with all the benefit of its position in the European Union and its own active industrial policy, has seen a very steep and ongoing decline in industrial employment, despite a policy of wage suppression domestically and brutal austerity continentally to sustain its position. Indeed even in the East Asian cases Winstanley points to, employment in manufacturing has not kept up its growth. More to the point, these are preposterous comparisons, as state-sponsored catch-up industrialisation has an entirely different set of social dynamics than deindustrialisation, involving not only suppressed consumption but also intense use of exploited migrant workers (Taiwan), and dictatorial repression (China, and previously Taiwan and South Korea).

Obviously, it remains physically possible to build factories, and for that matter, the United States still produces a significant quantity of steel, only employing far less labour to do so. If the question is what social, political, and economic conditions allow or prohibit job growth in manufacturing, these conditions could hardly be more different between the United States and these cases. Nonetheless, while I have my own point of view on these issues, they are actually not central to the project of the book, which — I repeat — is a work of history, not of speculation or manifesto. To mistake a historical exploration and interpretation as a historical vindication is a mistake not only unworthy of a Marxist, who should feel an obligation to confront the world as he finds it rather than as he wishes, but unworthy of any serious analysis.

My own view is that deindustrialisation has done lasting damage to the working class we once knew but, as the book argues, created possible seeds for new working-class formations — and we should not pretend otherwise. It is politically critical as well as ethically right to appreciate the struggles of workers in the past — something I believe the book does by engaging closely rather than through vague, gauzy gestures with the triumphs and tragedies of the industrial workers’ movement. But it is profoundly at odds with the spirit of historical materialism itself to put the past on a pedestal, above the reach of critical consideration. And it is childish to wax hysterical about those who document historical transformation when their findings are in part unappealing — for this nonetheless remains the only means we have to find whatever political possibilities might lie within our present. As E.P. Thompson once wrote:

There is nothing inherently socialist in the production of coal or machine-tools as opposed to services or cultural values, apart from the rich traditions of struggle which the workers in the former industries inherit. As automation advances we should expect to find that the ratio of primary to secondary productive workers will change, and socialists should only welcome this change if it leads to more and more people being involved in the exchange of valuable human services (welfare, education, entertainment and the like) and not (as at present) in salesmanship, packaging, and bureaucratic administration. What this change will shatter (and is already beginning to shatter) is not ‘the working-class’ but traditional notions of the working-class as a fixed, unchanging category with a fixed consciousness and unchanging forms of expression.