- Interview by
- Chris Maisano
Steve Fraser is one of the premier historians of US labor and left-wing movements. Throughout his career, he has sought to understand and explain the dynamics of acquiescence and rebellion in American history. In his latest book, a collection of essays titled Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History, Fraser traces the ever-shifting outlines of American capitalism and the way it has shaped our politics and culture.
Here, he speaks with Jacobin contributing editor Chris Maisano about the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement, the key role that radicals have played in inspiring popular rebellion, and the resurgence of socialist and radical politics in the United States today.
In the introduction to Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property, you tell a very powerful story about your time in the Deep South during the Civil Rights Movement. What happened?
It’s probably the most profound political moment in my life. I was among that group of Freedom Summer volunteers in 1964 that went down to Mississippi to register African Americans to vote.
The whole state had mobilized — highway patrol, local police departments, the governor — to stop this drive from happening, this attempt to build an alternative to the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party. I was in Columbus, Mississippi and a place called Starkville, the home of Mississippi State University. People there lived not only in abject poverty but for many decades in a state of intimidation, afraid to rise up against this system of Jim Crow.
The summer was extremely important to me in showing how people can reach way down and find the resources to stand up to oppression. Intellectually, it raised two questions which have always intrigued me and preoccupied me as a historian. The first question is, why do people put up with what they put up with? The indignities, exploitation, oppression, and discrimination that African Americans in Mississippi experienced — why did they put up with that for so long? One might assume that they would almost automatically rise up and fight back, but for decades they did not, at least not in large numbers.
The second question is why people actually do rise up and fight back, which is equally mysterious because you have so much to lose and it’s such a fearsome undertaking. They lived under a system in which some people even internalized their own inferiority and sense of subordination. Why is it that people facing those obstacles manage to surmount them?
Have you come to any general conclusions or answers to those two questions?
No. It continues to mystify me. The labor movement, for example, has shown at various times in its history great resistance, resilience, and courage, sometimes under conditions of depression, mass unemployment, and great hardship. You might say, “Okay, that’s what drives an uprising — material deprivation.” But there are also episodes in American history when the labor movement is not responding to that and rises up and is very powerful.
By the middle of the 1930s, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) insurgency was at its height, the economy was actually reviving thanks to deficit spending and various New Deal recovery measures. At the bottom of the Depression in, say, 1931 and 1932, there were certainly signs of insurgency but nothing like what happened three or four years later. There are many reasons for that, but it’s not because the worse things get, the more likely people are to rebel.
Then why did workers in the 1930s fight back? Or African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s?
When it comes to the Civil Rights Movement, it’s not like I showed up in 1964 and that was the beginning of it. There was a history of organizing long before I got there, which had established the seeds of organization and action, including the Freedom Rides and sit-in protests that happened all throughout the South beginning in 1960.
Some of that was linked to the labor movement, because the CIO in many instances championed civil rights before the efflorescence of the movement in the 1960s. Many of the militants and activists in the Civil Rights Movement had been active CIO radicals and insurgents.
During the CIO uprising, the connection between the labor question and the civil rights question was a close one. People understood that emancipation was a matter of economics as well as a matter of winning civil rights and formal equality. Those two issues were linked in the CIO, and they carried forward into the postwar era. Pioneers, path-breakers, radicals often play a role. Dr Martin Luther King Jr is a good example of that. His own theology was influenced by various forms of Christian socialism.
There were a lot of precursors that fed the movement in Mississippi. Although the federal government was very lax in doing anything about it for a long time, the Cold War made it much more sensitive to America’s image and profile abroad during a period of great anti-colonial rebellion.
Then, as happened in the 1930s, the pressure and power of the Civil Rights Movement compelled political elites, particularly in the Democratic Party, to take measures they might not have wanted to in the absence of that pressure. The Democratic Party in the North was afraid of losing the urban black voters attracted by the New Deal if they didn’t respond to what was going on in the South.
In the 1930s, the CIO and the labor movement inherited a certain anticapitalism that had been part of American culture most of the nineteenth century — the traditions of the Populists, the Knights of Labor, the early Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). These things didn’t go away but were part of American working-class and, to an extent, middle-class culture. When the Depression hit in 1929, there was a long tradition of anticapitalism that began to feed the movements that responded to it.
There were demonstrations of the unemployed and the Farmers’ Holiday Association, fights to lower prices or stop tenant and farmer evictions, and even Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement, all of which predates Roosevelt’s candidacy. All of this comes before that and I think is part of a culture of anticapitalism that was part of the fabric of American life, and I think the movements of the 1930s inherited that tradition.
There was also a feedback loop, just as there was in the Civil Rights Movement, between movements from below and above. The labor movement and others push at the Roosevelt administration and various elites move them to the left. When he took office, Roosevelt certainly was not a great social reformer. He had no real interest in the labor movement. He was a captive of orthodox policies and ideologies. Herbert Hoover was denounced for ordering troops to break up the Bonus Army, but Roosevelt actually cut the Bonus Army himself after he took office. It took a lot of pressure from below to push the New Deal to adopt what it is now associated with.
Whether we’re talking about the labor upheavals of the 1930s, the Civil Rights Movement, or any other major period of popular upheaval in the country, it seems like a common thread is the key role of radicals in sustaining and carrying forward that culture of anticapitalism you’re talking about, and agitating people to act on that basis. How important do you think that layer of radical activists is? Where do they come from in the first place?
They’re vitally important. Let’s go back to the 1930s again. Many of the leaders and activists who were critical to the industrial union insurgency were members of the Communist Party, the IWW, the Trotskyist movement, partisans of A. J. Muste’s movement, and the Socialist Party as well. There was a whole series of radical activists from a number of parties who played critical roles in organizing the United Auto Workers (UAW) and other industrial unions.
Who are these radicals? That’s an interesting question. I think they’re a mixed social type. In the UAW, for example, they were worker-intellectuals, men and women who had no formal education past high school or maybe not even high school, but were self-taught, had come into contact with radical ideas in one way or another, or may have attended labor schools like the Brookwood Labor College.
Others were middle-class people. Some were déclassé, who had lost their middle-class jobs. Some were highly skilled and educated workers threatened with downward mobility by the Great Depression and partisans of, defining it very loosely, the Enlightenment — the Rights of Man and that kind of thing. It’s a mixed group, but they were committed in one way or another to the importance of the labor question as the key question that needed to be answered if America was to become an egalitarian, democratic society and end the industrial autocracy and free-market chaos that had reigned for so long.
This is also true in earlier periods. The Wobblies were full of people like that, of what I would call worker-intellectuals. Look at “Big Bill” Haywood. Haywood is not a guy with any particular formal education. He gets a lot of his education in jail, as many Russian revolutionaries did. You get arrested by the tsar, you go to jail, and suddenly you’re confronted with the classics of Marxism and a lot of other things. Haywood was like that. He was kind of a cowboy, doing various kinds of rough-and-tough manual labor, but gets recruited into this milieu and becomes its leader.
The Wobblies are particularly interesting because they appeal to and they recruit heavily among the marginal populations of the working class in America. This marginal population, which is in but not of American society, which is discriminated against, which has no political voice, which is looked down upon, which is thought of as the dangerous class — the Wobblies rooted themselves in this milieu.
Another thing that I think comes out of your work is that these breaks in US history don’t happen because they were willed into existence by radicals or workers or civil rights militants. They also depended to a significant extent on the existence of favorable conditions in the economy, in society, and in politics that made their success more likely. That is especially clear in your work on the New Deal, where you show that it’s not just labor radicals and workers pushing for major changes in the political economy. There are other groups in society that were either on board with it or came to accept it for various reasons. Could you elaborate on what that looked like?
I think that’s a very good point. My view of the New Deal is that it was a convergence of insurgency from below and a weak reformism from above. The Depression was a near-terminal crisis of capitalism in America and for much of the rest of the world. Elite business circles and the political establishment faced very stark choices. Only under such circumstances do I think they could have moved in the direction they did.
There was a vision of a new kind of mass consumer capitalism, which needed a social safety net to buoy the ability to mass consume. You get a whole range of policies designed to support mass consumption: the Social Security Act, unemployment insurance, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and so on.
Although people may not realize this, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), one of the most notable reforms of the New Deal, was designed in part to bring regions like Appalachia into the orbit of mass consumption. This region wasn’t electrified, so it didn’t have refrigerators, washing machines, radios, all what we now take for granted as the everyday accoutrements of mass consumption. The TVA also irrigated the land, stopped soil erosion, and so on, but its main purpose was to electrify the region and make it a potential market for mass consumption and investment.
The same thing goes for the National Labor Relations Act, which was designed not only to provide industrial democracy and workers’ rights, but also to provide through unionization the basis of a higher standard of living that could support mass consumption.
Similar impulses were found in the world of business and finance. Some major financial firms wanted everybody to be a stockholder, but people can’t buy stocks if they have no money. Many industrial firms wanted some kind of stability in the workplace instead of constant turnover, strikes, and so on. They were never thrilled with independent unions, but they wanted some kind of stability. So important sections of business and finance, as well as social workers, intellectuals, parts of the Catholic Church — all of them for different reasons saw the need for this kind of mass consumption capitalism to rectify the gross inequalities in wealth and income, which were like those that we now experience today. Combine that with the mass insurgency from below, which has its own purposes to retrieve freedom and dignity at the workplace, and you have the conditions for a new departure.
It seems like a similar dynamic applied to the Civil Rights Movement.
Yeah, I think there is something analogous. It’s not quite the same because, as far as I know, there’s no impetus to really transform the underlying political economy. Breaking the hold of Jim Crow in the South certainly struck a blow at the system of labor control the region’s landlords and low-wage manufacturers depended on. Still, I think it was a more limited political transformation. There was certainly a great deal of pressure from below without which nothing would have happened. But I think elite circles in the North were more open to the demand for formal equality, in fact may have in some ways desired it as a way of evening out and stabilizing the labor market. I think, ultimately, despite the great breakthroughs enshrined in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and other reforms, what emerged was a more limited vision of the future that did not intrude to any significant degree on the economic substructure that accounts for the ongoing plight of African Americans.
Over the last few decades, neither insurgency from below nor elite reformism have been present in any meaningful way. You’ve taken to calling this period “the age of acquiescence.” Why do you think those dynamics basically disappeared over the last few decades?
People often talk about our own period as a second Gilded Age, and the assumption has been that it is a kind of repetition of the first Gilded Age. That’s true in terms of income and wealth inequality and so forth. But what always struck me was how different the response to that inequality and exploitation has been between the two gilded ages.
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was an enormous resistance to the capitalist transformation of the United States. There were the farmer and labor parties of the 1870s and 1880s, the Knights of Labor, the Populists, the Socialist Party, and the IWW. But it wasn’t limited only to the working class. There was a broader sense that the idea of what America was supposed to be all about was being violated. There was the Social Gospel movement, where all kinds of Christian radicals decried the savage capitalism that was in development. There were critical writers like Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells, or Jack London, and you had all kinds of jurists and ordinary politicians talking about the sins and problem of what was commonly denounced as “wage slavery.” Who would dare call capitalism wage slavery today, except maybe the Democratic Socialists of America or somebody?
It was a common part of our vocabulary in the first Gilded Age, not just for the likes of Emma Goldman or Bill Haywood, but everyone appalled by the bloody birth of modern capitalism and how it was wiping out whole ways of living. These were farmers, homesteaders, artisans, various small-business people, peasants from Europe who had come here and found themselves treated like animals in this maelstrom of industrialization. What you had was not just material deprivation but also a kind of spiritual resistance to a new and terrible existence.
People at the time had experience with older ways of life, and whether they wanted to return to them or not, they knew that capitalism was not a natural fact because it was brand-new and gut-wrenching in so many ways. So you had this broad culture of opposition, not just the organized movements. And then that goes away in the years after the New Deal. A major part of the explanation for that is the very success of New Deal reforms and mass consumption capitalism. There was a period of what economic historians call the Great Compression, when there was a reduction of economic inequality, high corporate tax rates, and individual tax rates on the wealthy. There was deficit spending as a regular part of the medicine chest of solutions to unemployment and economic downturns.
These things worked, at least for a time, and there was a great explosion in mass consumption and the American standard of living. That standard of living attracted people long before the New Deal came around. But the New Deal and the years that followed made the labor question seem no longer relevant. The seductions of consumer capitalism also worked to privatize concerns once thought of as social dilemmas, and to dissolve many forms of social solidarity. We’re all talking about “social distancing” in the midst of this pandemic, but consumer capitalism might be thought of as one of the first forms of “social distancing.” So matters of exploitation faded from view.
One of the key things that accounted for this acquiescence politically was the Democratic Party’s abandonment of its New Deal heritage. This happened gradually but decisively by the mid-1980s, when Bill Clinton, for example, became the head of the Democratic Leadership Council and made his peace with neoliberal economics. At this point, it is not interested in the labor movement anymore except as a kind of ATM and vote-gathering machine. Before all that, there was the devasting impact of the Cold War, not only through the purging of the labor movement of its radical unions and activists, but also a more general purging of the vocabulary of everyday life, so that older notions of wage slavery or plutocracy or even racial justice were verboten. And then there’s the enormous toll of deindustrialization which wiped out whole towns, fraternal societies, unions, and much of the tissue of social solidarity built up over generations.
I think the good news is that this period is over. It began to end with the financial collapse in 2008, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, and the reemergence of very militant worker actions, often independent of the organized labor movement. And now, of course, with Bernie Sanders and the movement behind him.
Donald Trump, in his own way, represents the end of that period as well. You talk about him in a couple of the essays in the book that were published before he got elected in 2016, as an avatar of a new-old kind of patrimonial capitalism that seems to have a new lease on life. Is the emergence of figures like Trump, or Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos and others, related to the resurgence of radical politics, or is this just a coincidence?
I do think they’re related. From the New Deal through the late twentieth century, we lived under a kind of managerial-administrative capitalism. It was no longer the family dynast or patriarch who ran the big companies. These were publicly traded on the markets and run by salaried managers. The managers may have had some ownership stake but they didn’t actually own the company, which was owned by an anonymous world of shareholders who had really no role in running the companies as the old patriarchs and tycoons had.
But as the economist Joseph Schumpeter suggested, capitalism is always involved in a process of “creative destruction,” and what happens is that periodically, for various reasons, there are new openings for start-ups or for established businesses to move into new areas and begin to develop enterprises in those areas. We’ve been living through such a period for the last twenty-five or thirty years, and there’s been an enormous growth, interrupted by economic crisis and so on, of small businesses and medium-sized businesses especially in newer sectors of the economy. Whether that’s high tech or entertainment or mass media, or whatever it is, this has opened the door to a new entrepreneurial world. Some of which is very modest, but nonetheless harbors the dream, that old American dream, of rising to be a great man, a great figure, a great empire-builder. A handful did indeed do that. Either they inherited that, as Trump did, or like Sam Walton they created it and then passed it on to their children.
There are two political consequences to this. First, these people, unlike the patriarchs of the nineteenth century, have become much more politically self-conscious and involved. We have not just Trump as president but all kinds of people running for Senate, governor, and so on, purely on the basis of having built business empires. One of the many problems with that is that these figures are very unfamiliar with or frustrated by what we would consider the protocols of democratic politics. There’s a kind of imperial will that the dynastic corporation encourages in its patriarchs and family members, people like Jared Kushner and so on, which doesn’t want to bother with all the institutional and procedural obstacles that a complex, democratic political system may present. These people assume that great accomplishments in the economic arena are easily transferable to the political arena and that they are permitted to act in an authoritarian manner on this basis.
The second political consequence, and I think Trump draws some of his strength from this, is that the mass of small-business people see in him a hero who models for them what their own lives might have promised and maybe even became in a modest way. They feel empowered by their business, feel independent, self-reliant, or whatever, and they see in Trump some facsimile of that on a grand scale. Patriarchy has obviously always been wedded to a certain attitude about women and “proper” gender roles, but it is also connected to a certain kind of religiosity which Trump feigns and to a kind of racism, nativism, and xenophobia that is common in that social layer. I think that all sort of collects around Trump.
As the center finds itself unable to address major problems you get new energy on the Left, and there are some common roots with the insurgency on the Right. The Tea Party, for example, rebelled against its own Republican Party establishment and for some of the same reasons that so many have been drawn to Sanders. Neoliberalism is a colossal failure, and it’s why there were many people in 2016 who said, “You know, I’m either going to vote for Trump or Sanders.” As someone told me in the Northeast Kingdom of rural Vermont, which is about as desperate a region of rural America as you can find, people voted in big numbers for Trump and in even bigger numbers for Bernie Sanders. To me, of course, that presents a great opportunity for left insurgency. But I think the reasons that these two things are happening are tied to the collapse of neoliberalism in the center.
What do you think are the prospects for the Sanders movement going forward? It seems like Joe Biden has gotten the upper hand in the primary campaign, although the coronavirus pandemic may scramble the race once again. Regardless of what happens with the campaign, where will this ferment that has found expression in the Sanders movement go?
I’m not sure. But what excites me about it, and I may be wrong, is that it strikes me as something new under the sun. In some ways, it’s a political campaign like any other political campaign, even though its program is quite a bit more radical than the other campaigns. You might say, “Well, it’s just a political campaign. It’s not a movement.” But I think it is a movement, and I liken it to a kind of political mass strike. That may be an overdramatization of what’s going on, but it’s an outsider movement. It is aimed at toppling the established political system. There is no other campaign that would dare call itself a mass movement and depend on it as Sanders has to make his program for changing the political and economic order happen.
The Sanders phenomenon has been fed by all kinds of movements that have until now stayed in their own lane, even though there’s a lot of talk about intersectionality and all that kind of thing. But the Sanders movement is a movement because it’s brought together those various currents, whether they’re immigrant rights groups, or criminal justice reform groups, or trade union locals that broke from their national leaderships to endorse Sanders. So the question is, can a political mass strike reverberate back into civil society, into our daily lives, and further fuel the movements that seeded the Sanders insurgency? There may be a feedback loop between this political mass strike, if you will, that Sanders represents and nascent insurgent movements outside the political arena.