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Independence Day

[ 6 ] July 4, 2015 |

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On this July 4, I embraced the fruits of this great land. Well, technically the fruits of our salt marsh ponds as I gorged myself on this pile of fried whole belly clams from the Clam Shack in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where the real July 4th tradition is sitting in traffic. Please note that while there is ketchup in upper left hand corner providing by the shack, it remained unopened. Which is what all good Americans did with the substance today.

Let me also recommend Dylan Matthews’ piece on why the American Revolution may not have been such a great thing
. I’ve been saying this for years. I know, I know, such inspirational language. And I hold no real animus against most of the Founders, although I hate the term “founding fathers.”

But let’s be clear on two things. First, the American Revolution was horrible for African-Americans. Second, the American Revolution was catastrophic for Native Americans. Any celebration of the day has to reckon with these two incontrovertible facts. Both groups acted in their own self-interest during the Revolution, with African-Americans fleeing to the British lines and Native Americans largely fighting on the British side. On the former, I really recommend this collection of primary source documents by African-Americans during the Revolution to get a sense of how they responded to these events. The American Revolution was a war that significantly pushed ahead the cause of white supremacy at the cost of minority rights. I am presently reading Greg Grandin’s latest book (which is the next book I’m reviewing here) and he notes that the Latin American revolutions were essentially also white supremacist rebellions, in this case to liberalize the African slave trade. I do believe that there was nothing unique about the United States that would have created widespread resistance unlike the rest of the British colonies had slavery been abolished in the 1830s here under British rule. And while the future for Native Americans was unlikely to be shining bright under continued British rule, it literally could not have been worse than it was under the Americans.

I’m somewhat less convinced by the 3rd piece of Matthews’ argument, that the government would be more functional had the Americans lost. Maybe. Certainly our government is designed for dysfunction and the Senate is disastrous and highly undemocratic as an institution. But other systems are not necessarily all that much better or per se lead to more progressive outcomes. After all, what torpedoed most progressive reform in U.S. history was not problems with the government necessarily as it was widespread opposition from the South.

Finally:

Marjoe

[ 43 ] July 2, 2015 |

I just watched Marjoe, the 1972 documentary about an ex-child preacher turned hippie who supported himself by going back out on the preacher circuit even though he believed none of it. It’s pretty great. If you want to understand why the current wingnut world is a giant grift, this is a good place to start as he gives out all the secrets. This film won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. He then went on to appear in 17 episodes of Falcon Crest in the 80s. Here’s an excerpt.

Today in Racist History

[ 76 ] July 2, 2015 |

Moynihan

This month is the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. Stephen Steinberg:

A few weeks after Moynihan’s report was leaked to the press, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles exploded in violence, triggered by an incident with police that rapidly escalated into five days of disorder and left thirty-four people dead. Pundits and politicians seized upon the report to cast blame for the “riot” on the deterioration of “the Negro family.” The report warned, “The family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown.”

Critics condemned the report for pathologizing female-headed households and black families in particular. The most trenchant criticism, however, was that the preoccupation with black families shifted blame away from institutionalized inequalities and heaped it on the very groups that were victims of those inequalities. As James Farmer, cofounder and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, wrote with blunt eloquence, “We are sick unto death of being analyzed, mesmerized, bought, sold, and slobbered over while the same evils that are the ingredients of our oppression go unattended.”

Today, in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, family dysfunction is again cited by politicians, pundits, and scholars as the root of the problem. Rand Paul publicly twaddles about “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society.” David Brooks opines in the New York Times, “The real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” And sociologist Orlando Patterson asserts that “fundamental change” can come only from “within the black community: a reduction in the number of kids born to single, usually poor, women.”

Steinberg goes on to break down the intellectual sources for the Moynihan Report, particularly Nathan Glazer. Intellectual racism that blames people of color for their own poverty has not diminished in the last half-century. Any number of racist sites refer back to Moynihan today; meanwhile this paragon of institutionalized racism became a respected Democratic senator without ever questioning his blaming of black people for their own poverty and ending his career as a big supporter of slashing welfare. Among other great things in this man’s life was ensuring the UN did nothing to stop the Indonesian slaughter in East Timor when he was UN Ambassador during the Ford administration and opposed the Clinton health care plan.

This Day in Labor History: July 2, 1980

[ 10 ] July 2, 2015 |

hazard

On July 2, 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in Industrial Union Department AFL-CIO v. American Petroleum Institute that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration must take economic considerations into account when issuing regulations. This 5-4 decision severely impacted the ability of the government to take an aggressive and preemptive stand against workplace health problems.

One thing that often gets left behind in discussions of OSHA is the health part of the agency’s mission. We focus on safety. That’s because those issues are easier to take care of. You put proper protection around a saw and it becomes a lot less dangerous. But health is a whole other issue. You have a couple of issues making it so. First is the long term impact of work upon health, which means that occupational illness can take decades to become apparent. Second is that remaking worksites so that workers aren’t exposed is a lot more expensive than the saw guard. Protecting workers from benzene, toxic gases, or dust has real challenges. And those solutions can be expensive.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 charged the federal government with protecting workers on the job from industrial hazards. OSHAct stated, “no employee will suffer material impairment of health or functional capacity even if such employee has regular exposure to the hazard dealt with by such standard for the period of his working life.” It built on the “Precautionary Principle” that was in favor during these years for dealing with workplace safety and health issues, addressing environmental uncertainties in the regulatory process before they became problems. That means in the case of workplace health trying to figure out what substances might cause health problems and preemptively eliminating them. That requires action even if scientific data doesn’t exist that suggests there is a problem, but only that there could be in theory. This principle drove the move toward environmental and workplace regulation during the 1970s in both the United States and Europe. But the political implications of this were not worked out in the legislation and Congress gave OSHA a lot of leeway in figuring out how the agency would actually operate.

OSHAct tasked the Secretary of Labor is bound to set out rules for substances like benzene, even if only one worker might become unhealthy due to exposure. It was benzene at play in Industrial Union Department. OSHA sought to regulate benzene, an carcinogen, but without really nailing down how many workers’ lives would be saved in doing so.

The American Petroleum Institute decided to fight this, even though the petroleum industry clearly had the money to protect its workers from benzene exposure (it didn’t even bother arguing otherwise). Industry had engaged in a court campaign to slow down OSHA from its beginning, challenging the agency at every turn. On the other hand, the AFL-CIO led the charge to save the Precautionary Principle, building on its significant progress in fighting for workplace health in the 1970s. OSHA finally was up and running at full capacity by the late 1970s with Jimmy Carter naming Eula Bingham as the agency’s head. Bingham, the first OSHA director who really supported the agency’s mission, sought to remake workplace environments around the nation, often with the active support of those unions who saw the agency as a way to empower workers on the shop floor to protect themselves and express workplace power at the same time. So defending the Precautionary Principle became a top OSHA priority after 1977. Bingham’s OSHA created standards for acrylonitrile, cotton dust, lead, arsenic, and benzene.

Yet for organized labor, this was very slow progress. By 1981, the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) had recommended 250 standards but OSHA had only implemented 21 of those. Only 4 of these standards dealt with cancer-causing agents. In my forthcoming book on timber unions, I discuss in some detail how the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) was frustrated that their concerns on a wood dust standard was not taken seriously enough by OSHA. So for corporations, these standards were outrageous and for workers, they were too little and usually too late. The Precautionary Principle was a great idea but workers in the 1970s were impatient and wanted immediate remediation of the problems of work.

In the case itself, more popularly known as the benzene case, the Court had two primary objections. First was to rule on the benzene standard itself, specifically the reduction of benzene at the workplace from 10 parts per million to 1 ppm. Second was whether OSHA needed to have a “reasonable relationship” between the costs and benefits of new standards. The Court’s majority (John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion with Burger and Stewart in the majority while Rehnquist and Powell wrote concurring opinions) decided to read Congress’ mind in interpreting the Occupational Safety and Health Act, assuming Congress couldn’t have meant to protect all workers from all health risks without cost consideration. Effectively, the Court rejected the Precautionary Principle as an unreasonable standard with which to hold business. A plurality tried to create a standard for workplace health that would activate OSHA action, rather unhelpfully noting that it should lie somewhere between a 1 x 1000 chance of illness and a 1 x 1,000,000 chance. What this did was allow the Reagan administration to effectively avoid health regulations on the job at all after it took power in 1981 by adhering to the 1 in a million standard. Thurgood Marshall wrote a blistering dissent (Brennan, White, and Blackmun making up the rest of the minority) saying the decision placed “the burden of medical uncertainty squarely on the shoulders of the American worker.”

Despite Industrial Union Department, American work is much safer and healthier today than it was decades ago. Unfortunately, a lot of the reason for that is the outsourcing of such work to Latin American and Asian nations where workers labor in health-destroying conditions making products for American consumption.

While researching this case, I ran across a celebratory essay about the decision by one Antonin Scalia in an American Enterprise Institute publication.

The roots of this week’s decision in Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency
can be seen in Industrial Union Department, as Scalia’s opinion relied heavily on the same cost-benefit analysis as that case.

I don’t think there is a single book that really deals with this case effectively, but it is mentioned in Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner’s Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, which is a very good book on the larger issue of workplace health. I also consulted Albert Matheny and Bruce Williams, “Regulation, Risk Assessment, and the Supreme Court: The Case of OSHA’s Cancer Policy,” in Law and Policy, October 1984.

This is the 149th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Neo-Confederate Response

[ 49 ] July 1, 2015 |

imrs.php

The racists have burned 8 black churches in 10 days.

The Subway

[ 77 ] July 1, 2015 |

SubwaySigns

It’s amazing the New York subway system works at all.

But the fundamental reason the MTA is so hard to fix, say transit experts both inside and outside the authority, goes back to those antediluvian switches. The MTA runs one of the largest transit systems in the world on a budget that’s dependent on the whims of elected officials in City Hall and Albany. It’s the equivalent of trying to change the engine and tires on a 1930 Studebaker while driving cross-country at top speed and hoping you can find enough spare change between the seat cushions to buy parts.

“We’re trying to address three or four decades’ worth of disrepair and disinvestment,” says MTA planning director Bill Wheeler. “The last time people sunk money seriously into the subway system was before World War II. It’s taken us a long, long time to come back, and that’s why much of the capital program is about rebuilding.”

“New York started off behind a lot of other places, because most other places haven’t let their physical plant deteriorate to the extent that New York has,” agrees Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association (RPA), one of the local groups that has pushed hardest for improved transit infrastructure. It’s a problem that started in the 1950s and 1960s, when local budgets got tight and subway service for a shrinking (and increasingly nonwhite) city populace no longer seemed like a priority.

“New York really just ignored investing in its infrastructure,” says Barone. “So it took decades to rebuild what we had lost because of neglect.” And while the MTA has spent more than $100 billion on improvements since its first capital plan in 1982 — almost every subway car has been replaced in that time, for starters — Barone says the agency remains in “catch-up” mode.

And of course there’s huge parts of the city the system does not touch. Yet it’s still reasonably reliable. In my limited experience, it seems more functional than that of Washington. I’ll find out more about that in the next few weeks as I’ll be in the nation’s capital for most of July researching a new project and enjoying that sweet, sweet DC weather.

The Foolishness of Post-Work Utopianism

[ 176 ] July 1, 2015 |

Claims-for-unemployment-benefits-drop-in-the-First-Week-of-March

Every now and again, you see some essay about the utopia of a post-work society, suggesting that the disappearance of traditional paid labor (a lot of which is not much fun) will allow people’s real passions to flourish. Derek Thompson wrote a very long Atlantic piece exploring these ideas in a very positive way. I was not pleased. There is no utopian end of work. What follows the end of work is poverty. And such articles undermine what we actually need–motivating people to political action for economic justice and good jobs. The threat of automation creating mass unemployment is real enough, as I have discussed here repeatedly. But there’s nothing positive at the end of that process. Moreover, I felt like, although I can’t know, that all the people Thompson talked to as examples of people already engaging in a post-(traditional) work economy are relatively well-educated white people–the PhD who decided to start a foundry where people like mixed media artists and engineers come to labor/leisure, the bartender in Youngstown who is also a PhD student at the University of Chicago, the writer with two master’s degrees working in a cafe. Where are the African-Americans in Youngstown or Native Americans on the reservations already suffering from long-term unemployment? Do they have a place in this post-work future? They sure don’t seem to in Thompson’s article.

Luckily, I’m not the only person rolling their eyes at this sort of thing. Mike Konczal:

There’s been a consistent trend of these stories going back decades, with a huge wave of them coming after the Great Recession. Thompson’s piece is likely to be the best of the bunch. It’s empathetic, well reported, and imaginative. I also hope it’s the last of these end-of-work stories for the time being.

At this point, the preponderance of stories about work ending is itself doing a certain kind of labor, one that distracts us and leads us away from questions we need to answer. These stories, beyond being untethered to the current economy, distract from current problems in the workforce, push laborers to identify with capitalists while ignoring deeper transitional matters, and don’t even challenge what a serious, radical story of ownership this would bring into question.

But what is the impact of these stories? In the short term, the most important is that they allow us to dream about a world where the current problems of labor don’t exist, because they’ve been magically solved. This is a problem, because the conditions and compensation of work are some of our biggest challenges. In these future scenarios, there’s no need to organize, seek full employment, or otherwise balance the relationship between labor and capital, because the former doesn’t exist anymore.

This is especially a problem when it leaves the “what if” fiction writings of op-eds, or provocative calls to reexamine the nature of work in our daily lives, and melds into organizational politics. I certainly see a “why does this matter, the robots are coming” mentality among the type of liberal infrastructure groups that are meant to mobilize resources and planning to build a more just economy. The more this comforting fiction takes hold, the more problematic it becomes and easier it is for liberals to become resigned to low wages.

Because even if these scenarios pan out, work is around for a while. Let’s be aggressive with a scenario here: Let’s say the need for hours worked in the economy caps right now. This is it; this is the most we’ll ever work in the United States. (It won’t be.) In addition, the amount of hours worked decreases rapidly by 4 percent a year so that it is cut to around 25 percent of the current total in 34 years. (This won’t happen.)

Back of the envelope, during this time period people in the United States will work a total of around 2 billion work years. Or roughly 10,000 times as long as human beings have existed. What kinds of lives and experiences will those workers have?

Worker power matters, ironically, because it’s difficult to imagine the productivity growth necessary to get to this world without some sense that labor is strong. If wages are stagnant or even falling, what incentive is there to build the robots to replace those workers? Nothing is certain here, but you can see periods where low unemployment is correlated with faster productivity gains. The best way forward to a post-work atmosphere will probably be to embrace labor, not hope it goes away.

And if you actually were going to promote a post-work utopianism, you’d think you would go so far as to endorse the one policy that might alleviate a few of these problems, which is universal basic income. But nope, not a word about that. Just a vague of sense of fulfillment and belonging through artisanship and a sort of government funded online-WPA type proposal. So the policy recommendations here really fall short of even beginning to think about how to deal with unemployment in the present or in the future.

Finally, Thompson’s story ends with a 60 year old going back to get a master’s degree so he can become a teacher. He writes, “It took the loss of so many jobs to force him to pursue the work he always wanted to do.” Except that where are the jobs for 60 year old teachers?!? Thompson just leaves this here as if personal fulfillment somehow leads to economic stability. And anyone who knows anything about the current state of education and employment knows that even if you do love teaching, the realities of being in a classroom in a Rheeist society of extreme testing and attacks on teachers’ unions is not some glorious result. Rather, Thompson is engaging in a sort of romanticizing of teaching (a long tradition) to avoid real conclusions and a strong basis in the realities of work and labor policy in the United States.

In conclusion, I really have to wonder how many of these people who write about a post-work society in a hopeful way have ever actually experienced poverty or even basic working-class life. Not having employment is a terrible thing. And even if everyone else isn’t working either, it’s not like that leads to some universal acceptance of the situation and everyone getting over their Protestant work ethics. Rather, we can see what a bit of a post-work society looks like. It looks like Youngstown or it looks like southern West Virginia. And that’s not a vision anyone remotely progressive should want to replicate. If Youngstown is someone our national future because all the jobs are gone, there’s nothing to celebrate. There’s no positive endgame to that scenario.

Always for Pleasure

[ 27 ] July 1, 2015 |

I had a whole bunch of stuff to write about today and then it didn’t happen for a number of reasons. But I still found time to watch Les Blank’s 1978 film about the culture of New Orleans, Always for Pleasure. It’s not available as a whole film on YouTube; I watched it on Fandor. But there are a couple clips available. It’s pretty great. I know the New Orleans of 1978 is not the New Orleans of 2015 in many ways. But it still made me want to go to New Orleans again.

The only thing to say after that second clip is NOT ENOUGH CAYENNE!!!!

Today in the New Gilded Age

[ 66 ] June 30, 2015 |

monopoly-guy

Above: Boeing CEO Jim McNerney

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney is retiring next year. His pension: $3.9 million per year for the next 15 years.

Jim McNerney is the same person who used the threat of capital mobility to force the International Association of Machinists-represented workers in Washington to sign a new contract that gives up their pensions and grants only a 1 percent raise every other year. He said he would move to South Carolina if they didn’t, where workers in Boeing plants only make half of what they do in Washington.

Boeing is a shockingly profitable company that could easily afford to pay pensions to workers.

Jim McNerney is also the same person who was the former Chair of The Business Roundtable, a corporate lobbying group looking to raise the retirement age to 70.

In conclusion, Jim McNerney is a terrible human being. And very emblematic of the New Gilded Age

No, the Confederate Flag Doesn’t Belong in a Museum Either

[ 139 ] June 29, 2015 |

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A central piece of the rhetoric about taking the Confederate flag down from state property and official state symbols is that “it belongs in a museum.” Actually it doesn’t belong in a museum either unless it is properly contextualized and interpreted, unless you don’t want any people of color to come to the museum. Aleia Brown has a good piece explaining this:

What might such an exhibit look like? It would need to tell the history behind the flag. It is a symbol of white supremacy, and museums should acknowledge it as such. The designer for the second national flag of the Confederacy described it as a representation of the fight to “maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” The exhibit should also acknowledge the role the flag played in South Carolina’s past. The flag that’s captured national attention this week came to Columbia in 1962, as a reaction to black people fighting for and winning rights during the civil rights era.

Effective museum interpretation would not stop there. It would address the reoccurring questions surrounding this symbol. Why do people find the flag offensive? Why are other people so attached to the flag? Why do some people who embrace the fullness of Southern pride, including the Confederate flag, not see themselves as racists?

Furthermore, a complete interpretation of the Confederate flag would need to make clear that black people have always resisted white supremacy and fought for the demise of institutional racism. The late historian Vincent Harding put forth this idea, characterizing black people as committed to their freedom and unwilling to accept oppression. There has always been a cadre of black people willing to die for their freedom in America, and this too is germane to museum interpretation of the Confederate flag. In addition to being a sacred space, the AME church in Charleston was also home to the storied congregation to which the revolutionary Denmark Vesey had belonged. His church was burned after Vesey was accused of plotting an uprising in which enslaved people would revolt against slave masters.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have controversial pieces in museums. I’ve seen KKK material in several museums, including fully uniformed figures in the Colorado and Ohio state history museums. But those are contextualized, or in the case of Ohio was part of an exhibit that was specifically about the most controversial pieces they had in their collection.

But this often is not the case. As Brown discusses, lot of history museums do not deal with race well at all. Most people on history museum governing boards are conservatives. There’s a lot of downward pressure against anything “controversial” which inevitably means “would make white conservative patrons uncomfortable.” Does anyone believe that the South Carolina state history museum would tell the story of the Confederate flag in an appropriate way? I surely don’t.

So let’s either keep the Confederate flag out of museums or, hopefully, pressure museums to tell stories of white supremacy carefully to emphasize what those objects actually represented.

The Trajectory of the Gay Rights Movement

[ 150 ] June 29, 2015 |

Supreme Court Gay Marriage

The rise of the gay rights movement to popular acceptance is probably the most amazing political event of my lifetime, perhaps outside of this nation electing an African-American president. Social movements in American history are for the most part SLOW in advancing, with often decades between any positive institutional change. Then there can often be a big push forward thanks to specific historical circumstances that leads to a certain amount of institutional change, followed by another period of stalling, even as activists continue to fight for change. As I always tell my students, the African-American freedom struggle did not start in 1954 and end in 1968. It started in 1619 and continues today, and if we consider slave resistance broadly, as an identifiable movement for the vast majority of that time. But there have only ever been two periods in American history when enough white people wanted to push forward those rights that the movement could achieve major victories, 1863-70 (or so) and 1954 (or so)-65. Otherwise, too many white people have simply not cared or have been openly hostile for institutional change to create more equal conditions for African-Americans. It’s the same for other movements. Organized labor hasn’t won a nationwide comprehensive pro-worker bill since the Fair Labor Standards Act 77 years ago. The environmental movement can still win big victories in executive action but major environmental bills can win in Congress no longer, and as today’s EPA decision shows, hostile courts can undo them. Lilly Ledbetter was a rare legislative victory for the women’s rights movement in the last few decades.

This story is not entirely untrue in the gay rights movement. After all, there was a tremendous amount of suffering and oppression until fairly recently (and especially in the transgender community, continues today). Gays were routinely murdered on the streets of almost every American city. Clearly the murder of Matthew Shephard was a transitional moment here, akin to the murder of Emmitt Till, that finally started to move heterosexuals toward greater tolerance. Why this particular murder? As with much of history, it’s really impossible to say. After all, my basic theory of change in American history is that you just never know what will capture the attention of the general public, but activists have to fight like everything will in order to be ready to take advantage of that attention. And the gay rights movement does have identifiable antecedents back into the 1950s through the Mattachine Society and other pioneering groups.

But the gay rights movement has advanced at a shockingly fast rate. Even 10 years ago, national gay marriage seemed impossible. I grew up in Springfield, Oregon. In 1992, the Oregon Citizens Alliance passed a city ordinance allowing gays “no special rights,” which was really the right to be recognized as humans. My high school friends were on the streets holding up signs advocating the oppression of gays. That fall and the next couple of election cycles, statewide laws based around that Springfield law nearly passed. In Oregon. Not Texas or Mississippi. Oregon. And one did pass in Colorado. How did we go in 23 years from widespread hatred and revulsion of gays to clear majorities supporting for gay marriage and the Supreme Court granting them that right? That’s a question historians will be debating for a long time.

I also am of the fairly strong belief that the gay rights movement is not going to enter into that long period of stagnation that plagues other movements, although there is some sort of end point toward gay acceptance and legal victories. There’s obvious a lot of fights that still need to be won. First, given Hobby Lobby, it’s entirely possible that the Supreme Court is going allow religious exceptions to corporations for recognizing these gay marriages. Right now, the South is basically going full George Wallace/Orval Faubus against this ruling. We already know that the LGBT community suffers from significant discrimination in housing and employment and in many states there is nothing they can do. And transgender community still suffers the routine murders that killed gay men for years. There’s a long ways to go.

Continued victories are hardly inevitable. It once seemed that the Equal Rights Amendment was a sure thing and support for the women’s movement not only stalled out, but in fact that movement went into decline, taking a defensive posture against declining reproductive rights, fighting against pay inequity that remains stubborn, and dealing with continued misogyny throughout society. Scott pointed this out the other day, cautioning that the only things standing between LGBT people and renewed marriage oppression are the life of Anthony Kennedy and the 2016 presidential election. In a strictly legal sense, this is true. Yet the public support of gay marriage has risen so quickly and really shows little sign of abating. Again, this was also true of abortion in the 60s and 70s.

Here’s what I think the gay rights movement is different. First, lots of gay people are wealthy white men. This is a different kind of underclass than African-Americans and women. These are people who are the overclass except that they are gay. That these are people with access to real power matters. Second, the political campaign to get people to come out to their families and friends has obviously been overwhelmingly successful, even at a sometimes high personal cost to the brave people doing this. The reality is that almost all of us today know people who are openly gay. It’s a lot easier for white people to not know any black people than to not know any gay people. Obviously, we all know women, but as several commenters noted in yesterday’s thread, abortion just cuts differently because of the ability to frame the fetus as a baby. There’s nothing equivalent to this in the rest of American society. That helps explain the stagnation of abortion support versus the still growing support for gay marriage–a support that most importantly skews very heavily to younger voters, suggesting an almost near universal acceptance for people under the age of 30.

Abortion is hardly the whole of the women’s movement and that gets at the potential challenges of the LGBT movement in achieving future victories. As many others have noted, the gay marriage movement was a successful campaign because it was fundamentally conservative. It tapped into the most basic rights in American society, even if marriage politics have always been hotly contested. The African-American freedom struggle also succeeded when asking for the most fundamental of rights: voting rights and the end to the daily routine humiliation of Jim Crow. It’s when you start getting into challenging economic power and personal choice that it gets much harder for social movements to win in the United States. Housing discrimination can be a tough victory. Equality at the job even harder. African-Americans still face routine discrimination in job interviews over something as simple as their name. The women’s movement fight for pay equity has been a decades-long struggle and still has not achieved parity.

So again, you never know what is going to happen. But all trends point toward increasing support for gay rights and the acceptance of gay people into the fabric of American society.

Book Review: Alex Gourevitch: From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century

[ 22 ] June 29, 2015 |

FoundersKoL1886

I don’t read much, or really any, political theory at this point in my life. It’s an important field but I have little background in it and the start-up cost of time and energy to read difficult texts is high. But political theorists can often add a great deal of context to the ideological framework of political movements. And so I was quite interested in reading Alex Gourevitch’s From Slavery to Cooperative Commonwealth, which is an exploration of how the Knights of Labor and other workers’ movements of the 19th century reframed ideas of republicanism in order to demand Independence from exploitative captialism.

Because of my lack of a background in political theory, I am writing this review in the context of how the book is useful for the U.S. historian. Framing his story with the biracial organizing of the Knights of Labor in Louisiana, which led to the Thibodaux Massacre, Gourevitch argues that the Knights created a rhetoric of freedom that could appeal to African-Americans because it was about not having masters of any kind. This brought together African-Americans’ lived experiences and memories of slavery with working people of all races who had new demands for emancipation from their employers. Ideally, the Knights hoped workers could create cooperative institutions that would allow them to be truly independent and avoid the tyranny of capital altogether.

This master-slave language was a significant transition in the history of republican thought. The two key points for Gourevitch is a) republicanism had largely been an elite language in the past and b) slavery was a real live thing in the United States and when it was gone, workers could then use that language to serve their own purposes. On the first, 19th century workers appropriated this elite language around independence and virtue to describe the world of labor relations. Slavery and elite republicanism had been tied together from the Greeks and Romans to the Founding Fathers in Virginia. Life in the United States challenged this in a number of ways, creating not only working class definitions of it, but most prominently, abolitionists who tried to disconnect the need for chattel slavery from American republican thought. Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison completely rejected workers’ claims to be slaves, often in vociferous terms, because workers were not unfree like slaves and therefore the comparison were not apt. Economic dependence was not unfreedom.

But the defeat of slavery then solved the abolitionist objection to worker use of this language, or at least made that appropriation less of a threat to their political project. With one form of slavery undone, workers sought to use republicanism to undo what was becoming a new and increasingly powerful form of unfreedom: the employer-employee relationship of the Gilded Age. The issue of independence was at the core of labor’s critique of this new system. The changes in American work developing before the Civil War began to create widespread changes to workers’ independence and freedom. If they labored for 12 hours but only made enough money to buy goods that took 4 hours to produce, that was 8 hours a day being stolen from them by their employer. And even if contracts were enforced fairly, the conditions of control had become so bad after the Civil War that workers were still oppressed. They didn’t make enough money to withhold their labor from employers, so the system was already unequal. Then the contract ceded total control of the workplace to the employer. Ultimately, only cooperative workers organizations could allow workers to escape this system of capitalism and regain their independence. A cooperative republic would challenge the dominant system of production and give workers control over their lives again.

This book gets at another key issue in American history, which is how a Republican Party that ended slavery and sought rights for free blacks during Reconstruction could then turn around and not only crush workers movements, but talk about unions in apocalyptic terms. But these two things were not contradictory in the mindset of Republicans. Garrison himself could celebrate black freedom in terms of “independent laborers by voluntary contract.” But what did “voluntary” mean? For mainstream Republicans, it was the conditions an employee agreed to when he (most likely) agreed to take a job. This construction of freedom did not have any room for other forms of compulsion like the need to eat or put a roof over your head. Freedom did not have to extend any farther than compulsory labor at the point of a lash. The Supreme Court itself roundly rejected the idea of alternative forms of tyranny in the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 when white New Orleans butchers said a new law forcing them to work at a single private institution violated the 14th Amendment by violating their economic independence and placing them in servitude. From there through Lochner, Gourevitch takes readers through how the courts routinely found that freedom of contract was true freedom, ignoring the increasingly unequal realities of Gilded Age society that led to the rise of the Knights in the 1870s and 1880s as a response.

Gourevitch also helps us understand the Knights’ unfortunate position toward immigrants, especially the Chinese and eastern Europeans. Labor republicans held themselves and other workers to very high standards because they believed the cooperative republic would have to rest on the morality of its members. These standards could easily not be fulfilled. They would them blame workers for their own failings. Given the racial milieu of the late 19th century, blaming workers for their own problems could easily morph into racial characterization. However, Gourevitch doesn’t really get into how the Knights managed to include African-Americans into this system when the Chinese and eastern Europeans could not be. That’s a weakness of the book, but you can read Joseph Gerteis’ Class and the Color Line for an understanding of that. Unfortunately, that book is not cited in Gourevitch’s bibliography, even though it was published in 2007. Interestingly, the two books use the same image for their cover.

Gourevitch does not shy away from the modern implications of his study in the New Gilded Age, noting that “who is subject to whose will” is a key question today. (177) Like in the 19th century, employers are using unnecessary power against workers to hurt their lives, such as cracking down on bathroom breaks to use Gourevitch’s example. He suggests the positives of using labor republicanism rhetoric and moving toward cooperative enterprises today. Personally, I’m really skeptical that cooperative enterprises can succeed on any large scale. But as I have argued before, one of the similarities between the two Gilded Ages is that in both cases, working people were smacked in the face by a radically transforming capitalism that left them figuring out just what the heck happened to their lives searching for any alternative to that system. So any alternative should be on the table today.

Ultimately, Gourevitch wrote a book that goes a long way to explaining some of the trickier and most often misunderstood intellectual trends in American history.

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