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“Life Goin’ Nowhere”

The Seventies and the End of the American Working Class


Rocky, John Travolta, Bruce Springsteen or the Al Pacino of Dog Day Afternoon are all witnesses to the understudied disappearance of the American working class in the 1970s. During this crucial decade, Nixon took over the working-class vote and workers themselves changed the boundaries of “blue-collar America,” doing away with class interests and embracing a definition of themselves as members of a white culture.

Reviewed: Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, The New Press, 2010.

It is one of the iconic moments of the seventies. Wearing a shiny, open-collar shirt and tight polyester pants, Tony Manero (played by John Travolta) glides through the crowd of the 2001 Odyssey, a discotheque located in a desolate Brooklyn neighborhood. The revelers groove to the pulsating rhythms of the Bee Gees, who, in their unmistakable falsettos, opine: “you should be dancing.” All alone, Tony steps out onto the dance floor, its illuminated panels flickering beneath his feet, a disco ball sparkling above. His father is unemployed; Tony spends his days selling paint at a hardware store. But for now, every eye is on him. He is accordingly transformed: with mesmerizing agility, energy, and creativity, he seems to reinvent dancing—risking moves, steps, and a style that, despite the ridicule they would often invite, seared themselves onto the consciousness of an era. Yet according to the American historian Jefferson Cowie, it would be wrong to see Saturday Night Fever as nothing more than a generous serving of delicious seventies kitsch. For in Cowie’s view, the film grapples with one of the most painful transitions of contemporary American history: the disappearance of the working-class—as a political force, as a cultural symbol, and as an economic reality.

“Life Goin’ Nowhere”

Disco, Cowie argues, was a cultural phenomenon completely traversed by the problem of class. Its origins lie in urban working-class settings. Saturday Night Fever was inspired by a 1975 article penned by rock journalist Nik Cohn, entitled “The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” a quasi-anthropological investigation of Brooklyn’s disco underground. Cohn quotes his guide, an African-American dancer named Tu Sweet: “Some of those guys, they have no lives. Dancing is all they got.” Cohn observes: “I’d always thought of teen style in terms of class … ‘Dancing’s all they got.’ It sounded to me like a rallying cry.”

The movie is premised on the same insight. Tony’s father is out of work, his family is suffering from the economic slump, his own job has no future, and his friends spend their weekends, when they are not hanging out at the disco, drinking and looking for fights. A contemporary critic, emphasizing the film’s sociological dimension, described the protagonist as “high-powered fusion of sexuality, street jive, and the frustrated hope of a boy-man who can’t articulate his sense of oppression.” (quoted by Cowie, p. 314)

Yet disco is a contradictory phenomenon. It is at once an expression of the American working-class’s lifestyle and aspirations and a premonition of its imminent demise. Early discotheques were often located in shuttered factories and abandoned warehouses, deindustrialization’s objective correlatives. The anxiety that suffuses Tony’s world can be heard in the lyrics of the movie’s best-known song, “Stayin’ Alive:” “Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me.” But the only solution that the film offers to this condition is escapist and narcissistic. Having proved his talents on the dance floor, Tony follows his partner, a neighborhood girl who longs for a better life, to the apartment she rents in Manhattan—abandoning his friends and his dying working-class community, preferring self-fulfillment to class solidarity.

The End of the “Liberal Consensus”

Tony’s choice, Cowie maintains, is symbolic of the working class’s gradual eviction, over the course of a decade, from the nation’s collective imagination. True, the term “working class” has never quite achieved, in the United States, the resonance that it has in Europe and elsewhere. Yet the fact remains that, from the thirties on, American workers became socially visible, politically powerful, and culturally significant—an integral component of the postwar social order. Historians refer to this era as the “liberal consensus” (in the American sense of “liberal,” i.e., “left of center”). During these years, successive administrations pursued Keynesian policies and made full employment a priority. At times, the Democratic Party, which occupied the White House for much of the period between 1933 and 1981 (with the exception of 1953-1961 and 1969-1977), acted like a de facto “labor party” (p. 83), drawing on the resources of the country’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO (the American Federation of Labor—Congress of Industrial Organizations). Thanks to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which required companies to recognize unions and engage in collective bargaining, labor organizations acquired considerable social and political stature. The result—with the help of unprecedented economic growth—was steadily increasing salaries and rising standards of living. Between 1945 and 1975, in short, American society was Fordist, pro-union, Keynesian, largely worker-friendly, prosperous, and, in some respects, increasingly egalitarian.

During these years, the workingman—understood to be a white male and referred to colloquially as the “working stiff”—enjoyed pride of place in the new social order. In Cowie’s estimation, however, the “liberal consensus” was less a decisive turning point than an “interregnum between two Gilded Ages” (p. 71): the long nineteenth century and our own neoliberal era. His book examines the crumbling of this social model over the course of the seventies—economically, politically, and culturally. This trend belongs, of course, to a wider international context: that of the economic crisis afflicting Western societies during the seventies, which sounded the postwar economy’s death knell, bringing deindustrialization and the return of mass unemployment in its wake. As a result, the traditional working class imploded, while, across the industrialized world, labor and social-democratic parties were routed by a resurgent free-market right.

Internal Challenges to Union Authority

In the United States, the disintegration of the liberal consensus occurred, in the first place, within the labor movement itself. While the working class’s material gains in the postwar decades were impressive, they were achieved by conservative and often frankly authoritarian union leaders, who made higher salaries, rather than workplace democracy or quality of life, the centerpiece of their agenda. The late sixties and early seventies witnessed a groundswell of autonomous industrial actions that challenged the labor hierarchy as much as management. Inspired by the student movement and the counter-culture, their demands were more qualitative than quantitative. Emblematic of these actions was the strike that broke out at the General Motors factory at Lordstown, Ohio, in 1972. Though affiliated with the United Auto Workers (or UAW, the main autoworkers union, which had declared its independence from the AFL-CIO in 1968), the Lordstown employees, the average age of which was twenty-five, did not demand higher wages or improved benefits, but an end to assembly line discipline, foreman tyranny, and relentless work cadences. It was, as Cowie puts it, an uprising of “the young, the hip, and the angry.” These workers “smoked dope, socialized inter-racially, and dreamed of a world in which work had some meaning.” (pp. 46, 48) Meanwhile, racial minorities as well as women laborers were also mobilizing. In 1973, Hispanic and Filipino laborers of the United Farm Workers (UFW) struck in California, meeting violent resistance from “real” (i.e., white) workers belonging to the Teamsters union. At the same time, women formed unions representing clerical labor, textile workers, and even airline stewardesses (Stewardesses for Women’s Rights), despite fierce opposition from chauvinistic and misogynistic union leaders.

For Cowie, the significance of these movements lies in their resounding failure. “When the hammer of the sixties struck the labor institutions of the thirties,” he writes, “the sparks flew in the 1970s but few caught fire.” (p. 70) He offers several explanations. Autonomous workers movements of the seventies were uncoordinated and lacked a unifying vision comparable to the industrial unionism that inspired the CIO in the 1930s. More generally, American society was itself far more divided in the wake of such sixties-era conflicts as civil rights, the Vietnam War, feminism, and what eventually became known as “identity politics.” Dissident workers’ movements, moreover, met with fierce resistance from the labor establishment (recalling the French Communist Party’s opposition to the student movement of May 1968). But most importantly, this attempted renewal of the American workers movement occurred in the midst of a serious economic crisis that spelled the end of the postwar economy. The oil crisis, double-digit inflation, and the return of mass unemployment knocked unions off balance at the very moment when dissidents tried to push the labor movement in new directions. Rather than a renewal of the labor movement, striving for workplace autonomy, greater quality of life, and the integration of women and racial minorities, the legacy of the seventies was, thanks to the economic crisis, declining wages (in the name of taming inflation), deindustrialization, the reassertion of corporations’ political power, the outsourcing of jobs to southern and western “right-to-work” states (which add significant legal hurdles to unionization), and the weakening of the government agencies that enforce labor law (notably the National Labor Relations Board, created under the New Deal).

The Rightward Turn

Another reason for the working class’s decline in the seventies is political. Reeling from the shock of the economic crisis, labor disintegrated as a political force, at the very moment when many workers were drawn to the right—a movement that peaked with the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s. At the same time, “working class” was invested with a new set of meanings and associations: whereas it had previously been an essentially economic term, it increasingly became a category that was primarily cultural in nature.

The critical turning point in this shift was the 1972 presidential election. The Democratic nominee was Senator George McGovern, whom Cowie describes as a “social democrat” with one of the most pro-labor records in his party’s history. Yet in the political climate of the early seventies, McGovern was forced to accept a platform that jeopardized his support among unions and white workers. Changes in procedures for selecting delegates to national conventions (where candidates are formally nominated), which McGovern endorsed to open the party to women and minorities, posed a direct threat to the AFL-CIO’s longstanding influence. In retaliation, the union first tried to block the senator’s nomination, before declaring its neutrality in the race with Richard Nixon, the Republican incumbent. In the eyes of the public, McGovern became the candidate of the “three A’s:” amnesty (for Vietnam draft-dodgers), acid, and abortion. By making the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam his most important campaign promise, McGovern offended the patriotic sentiments of ordinary Americans families with loved ones under the colors. He also had difficulty grasping popular outrage at “busing,” the policy decreed by the Supreme Court to enforce racial integration in the public education system by requiring white children (often from working-class families) to attend schools in African-American neighborhoods.

McGovern permanently altered the Democratic Party’s image. His campaign came to symbolize everything that “the white, male American working class was not: radical, effete, movement-based, anti-war, and, perhaps most profoundly, Democratic.” (p. 122) McGovern’s beliefs were undoubtedly distorted by his opponents (in November 1972, he lost forty-nine out of fifty states to Nixon). Yet the fact remains that many students and intellectuals did increasingly see the white working class as incompatible with progressive politics. Thus the screenwriter Terry Southern justified the bloody climax of Easy Rider (the 1971 movie he co-produced with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper), in which two hippie motorcyclists are shot to death by a posse of white southerners, by asserting: “In my mind, the ending was to be an indictment of blue-collar America, the people I thought were responsible for the Vietnam War” (p. 190).

If McGovern supported labor’s economic agenda while alienating the white working class because of his positions on cultural issues, Richard Nixon achieved the opposite feat: he successfully attracted workers to an essentially cultural agenda while mostly ignoring their economic interests. Despite being a conservative Republican, Nixon, Cowie maintains, was one of the most “class aware” presidents in US history. He understood that the upheavals of the sixties—civil rights, the counter-culture—had shaken the coalitions patiently forged by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, as the working class grew disenchanted with the policies pursued by the very Democratic administrations they had helped to elect. Nixon intuited that ordinary Americans had grown weary of Ivy League elites, whom they blamed for welfare and affirmative action policies that, in their eyes, took their hard-earned dollars and gave it to people too lazy to work. Nixon believed that he could appeal to workers, despite their suspicion of Republicans’ social exclusiveness, because they were “men, not softies” (p. 126)—the opposite, in short, of McGovernite Democrats.

Nixon was particularly intrigued by an anti-anti-war demonstration organized by the New York construction industry in May 1970, in which tens of thousands of “hard hats” marched, holding American flags and signs bearing slogans such as “GOD BLESS THE ESTABLISHMENT” (p. 135). The president commissioned from his labor secretary, George Schultz (who later served Ronald Reagan as secretary of state), a report entitled “The Problem of the Blue-Collar Worker.” Its chief insight was that, as a result of the national importance attributed to civil rights and the “war on poverty,” the white working class viewed itself as a “forgotten people,” “for whom the government and society have limited, if any, direct concern and little visible action.” (p. 133) It concluded that white male workers had lost faith in the Democrats, and that recognition alone, rather than costly social policies, would suffice to win their votes. Nixon was largely proved correct, as his landslide reelection in 1972 suggests. Yet he remains, in Cowie’s view, a profoundly paradoxical politician: the first president to appeal to workers solely on the basis of patriotism and resentment, yet the last to take labor seriously enough to court it.

Even as the economic and political status of the working-class was in sharp decline, the place of the worker in the culture’s imagination also underwent a crisis. At the very moment when workers themselves were rapidly disappearing from society, the extent to which representations of workers saturated the movies, television shows, and popular music of the seventies is striking. One of Cowie’s most important conclusions—and one of his book’s finest achievements—is to show how the decline of the postwar economy triggered a sustained cultural reflection, throughout the seventies, on working-class identity. Is the working class a reactionary force, blocking the cultural advances of the sixties, or—once the term is broadened to include women and racial minorities—a vehicle for social progress? Is the worker an agent of social transformation or the symbol of a bygone age? During the 1930s, artists, writers, and intellectual formed a popular front that placed workers and their struggles at the center of the nation’s imagination. The seventies, however, witnessed “less a popular front than a cultural war as to what ‘the worker’ might be, as artists did battle over his (mostly, his) allegiance and representation.” (p. 168)

An Impasse?

During the seventies, popular culture often used workers to represent generational conflict. On one side was the “working stiff,” the embodiment of what is now called the “greatest generation,” which fought the Second World War in Europe and the Pacific before returning home to build postwar society; on the other were their children, the baby-boomers, who had unleashed the cultural revolution of the sixties. The most important cultural exploration of this generational conflict was the television show All in the Family, a sitcom that took the nation by storm between 1971 and 1979. The show’s humor derives from the difficulties that its protagonist, Archie Bunker, a worker from Queens (New York City), faces in adapting to the values embraced by his live-in daughter and son-in-law: the sexual revolution, feminism, racial tolerance, pacifism, and so on. Archie Bunker epitomized the conservative and patriotic worker that Nixon cultivated so successfully.

If All in the Family used a conservative character to deliver an ultimately liberal message, overtly reactionary cultural products were hard to miss. Arguably the most extreme (if somewhat ironic) illustration of white working-class resentment can be found in Joe, John Avildsen’s 1970 film. Joe is a Brooklyn factory worker who is prone to diatribes against African-Americans on welfare and college kids who show the president no respect. Joe ultimately vents his rage by participating in a violent assault on a decadent, drug-infested hippie commune. In other films, the crisis of the working class expresses itself in fantasies of escape rather than retribution. This is true, as we saw, of Saturday Night Fever, but also of one of the decade’s other box-office hits, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1976). A young Italian-American living in a down-and-out Philadelphia neighborhood, Rocky Balboa is selected to challenge the world boxing champion, as part of a cynical publicity stunt premised on the idea that the American dream is alive and well. Despite the odds, Rocky agrees to participate so that he won’t be “just another bum from the neighborhood.”

If one movie successfully resists the complementary fantasies of revenge and escape, it is Sidney Lumet’s extraordinary Dog Day Afternoon (1975). The plot revolves around a botched bank hold-up in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood that deteriorates into a hostage situation. The would-be bank robbers—one of whom is played by Al Pacino, in one of the greatest roles of his career—represent the impasse in which the American working class finds itself. During the standoff, Pacino’s character desperately explains: “We’re dying here.” For Cowie, the movie portrays “the wholesale meltdown in working-class identity. Parts of the working class did go Right, parts did go Left, but mostly the ‘working class’ in early seventies popular culture failed to congeal in a public visible form.” (p. 169)

Through his examination of the changing economic, political, and cultural status of the American worker during the 1970s, Cowie provides us with a crucial chapter in what Michel Foucault called the “history of the present.” We still live in a society haunted by this “disappearance.” The worker conceived in cultural rather than socio-economic terms, first courted by Richard Nixon, was at the center of the electoral strategies pursued by Ronald Reagan and later by George W. Bush, notably in 2004. Barack Obama made the mistake of evoking this construction of the worker a little too openly during his 2008 campaign, when he publicly mused: “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them … So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” If unions played a decisive role in Obama’s election, by mobilizing their members in Midwestern states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, the Obama administration, despite initially embrace labor with open arms, has not been particularly forthcoming in addressing its concerns. In particular, the Obama administration has yet to act on a bill that labor leaders have advocated for decades, which would make it harder for management to prevent employees from forming unions (by means of a provision called “card check”). Obama recently approved free-trade treaties with three Latin American countries and, to labor’s great disappointment, agreed to hold the 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, despite the state’s strident antiunion (or “right-to-work”) legislation. Meanwhile, Republicans relentlessly pursue their war on unions, most dramatically in Wisconsin, where the governor, in the name of fiscal austerity, prohibited public sector employees from unionizing.

Yet even if only 12% of American workers are currently unionized—compared with 25% thirty years ago—a few promising trends exist, such as the growing clout of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or labor’s support for the Occupy movement. Yet the fact remains—and it is Cowie’s signal achievement to have demonstrated it in his fascinating study—that the seventies witnessed the demise of “a historically elusive ideal: the conscious, diverse, and unified working class acting as a powerful agent in political, social, and economic life.” He concludes: “Whatever working-class identity might emerge from the postmodern global age will have to be less rigid and less limiting than that of the postwar order … It will have to be more inclusive in conception, more experimental in form, more nimble in organization, and more kaleidoscopic in nature than previous incarnations” (p. 369).

The American Worker in the Popular Culture of the Seventies:

A Viewer and Listener’s Guide

American cinema of the seventies is filled with workers, often facing difficulties related to the economic crisis. One might almost describe it as a kind of American neo-realism. It is remarkable that, at the very moment when union membership began to decline, American films so frequently worked strikes and union activism into plotlines. The greatest success in this genre is Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1979), in which a textile worker in North Carolina played by Sally Fields succeeds, with the help of a labor organizer from New York, in forming a union in the factory where she is employed, despite violent resistance from management. The most iconic scene in the movie (which is based on a true story) is when Sally Fields brings the shop floor to a standstill by climbing on top of a table, holding up a sign on which she has hastily scrawled the word “strike.”

Other films take a more historical perspective. After embodying the thwarted pursuit of the American dream in Rocky, Sylvester Stallone, deciding that union activism lends itself to movie heroism as well as boxing, took on the role of a fictitious labor organizer in Norman Jewison’s F.I.S.T. (1978). The film explores the career of a workingman from Cleveland, Ohio, who participates in the epic labor struggles of the 1930s, before becoming, in the 1960s, an establishment labor leader who must grapple with the corruption of his peers by organized crime. Based loosely on the life of controversial labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, the movie places unions at the center of American history and identity. The altruistic everyman of F.I.S.T. seems a far cry from the embittered nationalism of Rambo, the definitive hero of the Reagan era, whom Stallone played several years later. Paul Schrader offers a more cynical take on union life in Blue Collar (1978), in which three car-factory workers (one of which is played by Harvey Keitel) conspire to steal their locale’s funds. In a somewhat lighter vein (at least on the surface), Collin Higgins’s Nine to Five (1980) takes on the issue of women in clerical jobs and their encounters with misogynistic bosses and sexual harassment.

Cowie shows how even films that do not specifically portray workers attest to the deep social anxieties of the seventies, which fuels two fantasies: escape, as in Saturday Night Fever (1977), and revenge, as in Joe (1970). The way that simmering resentment can result in a personal declaration of war against society is explored in a number of the period’s films, notably Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Though the economic crisis and the condition of the working class only provide the backdrop of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1978), his film remains undoubtedly the most penetrating cinematographic exploration of the era’s social tensions.

The ordeal of the working class was also expressed in the popular music of the seventies. If the economic crisis had an anthem, a good candidate would be “Take This Job and Shove It,” the most famous version of which was performed by the country singer Johnny Paycheck in 1978. Country music played a particularly important role in popularizing the image of the workingman as a conservative bulwark against the unsettling new values of the sixties. Merle Haggard struck a chord with his song “Okie from Muskogee” (1969), an ode to the hard-working and presumably white Americans who dwell in small towns steeped in traditional mores. However, even artists associated with the sixties’ counter-culture were drawn to the image of the workingman as a symbol of authenticity, of an America that had been lost. For instance, in “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” (1969), The Band paid warm homage to the labor movements of the thirties: “I work for the union, ‘cause she’s good to me.”

But the true bard of America’s dying working class was Bruce Springsteen, who rose from its ranks in postwar New Jersey. In Born to Run (1975), escape and youthful restlessness are explored as solutions to the stalemate of working-class life. But in his next album, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), rebellious optimism yields to bitter realism, through songs that detail the daily miseries of working-class life: “You’re born with nothing, and better off that way/Soon as you’ve got something they send someone to try and take it away.” 1984’s Born in the USA is a bittersweet meditation on the working class’s demise: the eponymous song presents itself as the testimonial of a man who returns from the Vietnam War, only to discover that factory jobs—and an entire way of life—have vanished. Yet many Americans, missing the lyric’s painful irony, took the song at face value, hearing nothing more than a stirring rock anthem for the Reagan era. Springsteen’s album epitomizes an era in which the working class saw its economic status dwindle and retract, receiving, as its sole compensation, a sense of national pride—but one increasingly bereft of meaning.

To quote this article :

Michael C. Behrent, « “Life Goin’ Nowhere”. The Seventies and the End of the American Working Class », Books and Ideas , 14 December 2011. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : http://www.booksandideas.net/Life-Goin-Nowhere,1706.html

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team. We will get back to you as soon as possible.

by Michael C. Behrent , 14 December 2011

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