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Pessimistic Militancy


I have to say that I’m pretty blown away by Richard Yeselson’s long-form review in The Nation of A History of America in Ten Strikes. Like any good review, he goes into what I try to do and points out some of the problems. Given that even the best books have flaws, any author has to accept some of that criticism if it is legitimate and I can’t really argue here. Anyway, it was a really outstanding review with a couple excerpts that I have to say I really enjoyed.

Loomis, a professor of American history at the University of Rhode Island and a Twitter scourge of revanchist right-wingers, sell-out liberals, and delusional leftists alike, tackles this dilemma head on. And despite some carelessness here and there, A History of America in Ten Strikes, along with two rather different books in method and structure, Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union and Jake Rosenfeld’s What Unions No Longer Do, is one of the best books to give to anyone who wants a relatively quick way into the history and prospects of unions and the working class in the United States.

Loomis is one of a number of contemporary scholars and thinkers whom I would call “pessimistic militants”—embodiments of the Gramscian cliché about pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. The pessimistic militants study American history deeply, and reluctantly conclude that their desired goal—an egalitarian America—is not the likely historical trajectory. But they hope they’re wrong.

Can I have “pessimistic militant” on my tombstone? This is pretty much the most accurate thing anyone has ever said about me.

Besides the theoretical scaffolding linking strike events to cultural structures, A History of America in Ten Strikes revolves around two conceptual axes much debated in the historical literature. First, on the question of how racism and nativism divided and weakened the American working class, Loomis writes that, however he and others on the left might wish otherwise, the “core problem of the American working class [is] its racism.”

Like all subaltern peoples, white workers, Loomis insists, ought to be granted their agency by historians, and in doing so, historians should not gloss over the fact that this agency is at times racist and runs against other egalitarian struggles. Despite capital’s deliberate efforts to split workers by race and ethnicity—for example, by using black strikebreakers—“more often than not,” Loomis writes, “white workers have prioritized their racial identity over their class identity without any help from their bosses.” Even the CIO’s pathbreaking organizing and ideological commitment to black manufacturing workers was, as many scholars have shown, mostly driven by those in leadership and against the frequent opposition of rank-and-file white workers.

Loomis also makes a second argument about the strikes he studies: that state power was crucial in either impeding or facilitating the interests of organized labor and working-class Americans. In weighing whether the militancy of rank-and-file labor activism can be reconciled with the bureaucratization of labor relations by the state, Loomis is, if anything, even blunter than he is regarding the impact of working-class racism:

There is simply no evidence from American history that unions can succeed if the government and employers combine to crush them. All the other factors are secondary: the structure of a union, how democratic it is, how radical its leaders or the rank-and-file are, their tactics. The potent and often interlocking strategies of the state and bosses build a tremendous amount of power against workers. That was true in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it is true under the Trump administration…. Workers and their unions have to be as involved in politics as they are in organizing if they are to create conditions by which they can win. To stop involvement with the two-party political system would be tantamount to suicide. Having friends in government, or at least not having enemies there, makes all the difference in the history of American workers.

Time after time, Loomis returns to these two interpretive themes: the debilitating prevalence of racism and nativism among America’s majority-white workforce and the necessity of state power to augment labor’s struggle against capital—because, however inadequate, bureaucratic, and biased it is toward those who own the means of production, only the state has the juridical, administrative, and legislative weight to protect and sustain unions (sometimes simply by not using its power against them).

Yeah, pretty much that was my goal here.

And then there’s this conclusion:

Still, a reader can see the possible outlines of a different future. Loomis concludes Ten Strikes by summarizing other recent, nascent episodes of workers’ empowerment: immigrant organizing, alt-unionism, the success of the powerhouse Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union, advances by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in organizing low-wage workers at Verizon. As worker-rights advocates and socialists win more and more elections as Democrats, and as the Internet facilitates political fund-raising, Loomis insists that the route to state intervention on behalf of unions will go through the porous borders of a major party: “The Democratic Party may be flawed, but today it is our best chance at turning a political party into an instrument of workers’ rights.” Loomis sharply distinguishes the current iteration of the Democratic Party from its Republican counterpart, itself an important departure from those leftist academics who broadly conflate the two parties as complementary pieces of the neoliberal puzzle.

After more than a half-century of theorizing about the “new class” of knowledge workers, we may now be living through a time when a youthful American version of the new class, complete with its laborist politics, seems ready to convert its working-class politics into the institutional might of actual labor unions and Democratic Party power. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old Bronx bartender and DSA member turned congresswoman, is a star born of laborist politics’ swift rise. (The actually existing and sometimes conservative labor movement, however, is already resisting her Green New Deal.)

Loomis is more wired than laconic, but his “cut the crap” writer’s persona has a bit of Philip Marlowe in it. Like Marlowe, a guy with a sharp eye for Depression-era class conflict, Loomis hates the rich, and he also hates bullshit, whether coming from the right or the left, from corporate hacks or labor allies. Yet he, too, retains a bruised idealism, despite exposing the evidence of what Marlowe’s creator, Raymond Chandler, called a “world gone wrong.”

Do I get to be with Lauren Bacall at the end of this?

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