Let’s All Write a Dissertation, Part 1

When writing a Ph.D dissertation in history, you start, I am told, with a prospectus. Not exactly sure what that is. I do know what a prospector is (see fig. 1). In any event, I thought I might do some of the work of writing up my preliminary thoughts  here, over the next little while.

Fig. 1

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Take 1: These are strange times to be a student of US labor and working-class culture. The labor movement itself, battered by a neoliberal anti-union offensive almost forty years old, is in terrible shape, with stunningly low rates of union density and weak popular support for collective bargaining rights. Modern labor studies, brought into being after World War II by a generation of ex-CP activists-turned-historians, and nurtured by several waves of New Left scholars in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, finds itself searching and uncertain within the present crisis of the humanities, itself a product of a more general crisis of the university. What labor studies means is also changing: research on working-class culture occupies a decreasing portion of labor historians’ energies. With the rise of interest in the history of the Right, it is now common for graduate students in labor history to know more about the lives and careers of Westbrook Pegler and William F. Buckley than those of Sidney Hillman and Big Bill Haywood.

Changes in the character of capitalism have also shaped the research agenda of labor studies, although we are still only slowly coming to terms with the fact that mass factory labor may have been but a brief phase, rather than the paradigmatic form, of work under capitalism. While the emergence of a “new economy” in the 1980s and 1990s, predicted in the works of Charles Sabel, Michael Piore, and Robert Reich, never panned out as a utopian project, there is no question that things are different now than they were in the early 1970s, when labor history took off against the background of the blue-collar “revolt against work” and the dramatic showdowns at Lordstown and other sites of neo-syndicalist workers’ control movements. Developments in contemporary labor studies necessarily reflect changing circumstances, particularly the epochal decline of manufacturing and rise of the service and technology sectors, and the parallel shift from heavy industry to the FIRE sector as the center of global capitalism. Most important has been the recognition of the centrality of new forms of “immaterial labor” in the production of value, and accompanying challenges to the historic calculus of “an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.”

As the role played by human exertion in the accumulation process grows ever more occult—can anyone say what part is played by the working body in the creation of wealth out of derivatives, credit default swaps, and sovereign debt?— labor studies has increasingly come to overlap with the new historiography on capitalism. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, even the most self-confident free market economists (Alan Greenspan, most famously) have had to admit that they do not really understand the current relationship between the production of goods and services, labor markets, property rights, prices, and speculative activity. With access to theoretical tools scorned by their neoclassical colleagues—class analysis, theorization of ideology, and a critical political economy derived from Keynes and Minsky, as well as from Marx—some Left scholars have produced compelling and revelatory accounts of recent developments in the global market. But it is safe to say that even on the Left, we are all subject to the same sense of bewilderment regarding the character of capitalism that is now felt by capitalists themselves, as is evident in any issue from the past several years of The Economist, The Financial Times, or The Wall Street Journal. Strangest of all, we often find scholars on the Left expressing nostalgia for the “good old days” of Fordism and bureaucratic unionism, a symptom of deep frustration with our collective inability to think coherently about the relationship between labor and value in the current phase of capitalism, and anxiety about our deadlock in imagining a “point of production” labor politics that might revitalize collective bargaining agencies and reverse the trend towards extreme economic inequality.

At the same time, my account thus far of the last several decades is incomplete—misleading, even—in its pessimism. As scholars like James Livingston and Michael Kazin have recently noted, the US has steadily moved to the Left, culturally and intellectually, since the election of Ronald Reagan. Only in electoral politics, privately funded think tanks, economics departments, and some churches and synagogues has a conservative vision gained any traction, and even in these spaces, the reactionary ascendancy remains tenuous and shaky. In the broader culture, in the realm of mores and values, Livingston and Kazin tell us that the Left has been victorious. The big fights are over, and the Left won them all. Any retrenchment in the direction of decreasing rights of citizenship for women, gays and lesbians, African Americans, Latina/os, and immigrants will come as the result of new reactionary initiatives, not as codas to the twentieth century’s culture wars. I do not agree entirely with this analysis, as it is both entirely too generous in its depiction of the democratic propensities and commitments of the contemporary white liberal, and too blunt and crude, lacking a proper theorization of the key category of contradiction.

Notwithstanding these reservations, Livingston and Kazin diagnosis certainly applies to intellectual culture.  In the humanities, the past thirty years have seen an extraordinary flowering of left-wing inquiry, critique, and research, often under the banner of “Theory” or in concert with “postmodernism” and “poststructuralism,” and most powerfully in concert with the emergent fields of Black and ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, feminist and queer studies, and the interdisciplinary study of popular culture, everyday life, and power. Parallel to these developments, critical practices in art, music, and literature have broadened the collective investigation into what capitalism is and how capitalism works, far beyond the parameters of an older radical tradition that long insisted on the sufficiency of the metaphor of base and superstructure as a guide to understanding the complex interaction of a mass media-driven ideological apparatus, the capitalist state, and the accumulation process.

Displaced from its perch at the center of Left activity in the humanities, mainstream labor studies did not always welcome the emergence of Theory-driven scholarship, although it steadily assimilated many of the generative and forceful works of scholars like David Roediger, George Lipsitz, Robin D.G. Kelley, Mike Davis, and Michael Denning, all of whom drew—in different ways and with unique emphases––on the legacies of British cultural studies, French post-‘68 philosophy, and new developments in feminism, psychoanalysis, and political theory.  No small amount of intergenerational conflict, and lingering antagonisms over the degree to which labor studies (and the labor movement) should remain fixated on the persona of the white male worker, worked their way into fights over the direction of both labor studies, and the labor movement. Many of these fights replicated the peculiar battles of the 1990s over the perceived dangers of affirmations of difference, making strange bedfellows as ex-New Lefters like Todd Gitlin became indistinguishable from centrist liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  in arguing that “identity politics” (which named, for most polemicists, exactly the same cluster of ideas, commitments, and political priorities that animated the Theory-driven academic Left) had fractured the historic New Deal bloc, corroded the “common culture,” and opened the doors to the most vicious right-wing attack on progressive politics since McCarthy.

This defense of tradition never made any sense: the US Left was always a polyglot formation, split into separate foreign language divisions, and powerfully intertwined with civil rights struggles. It was also powerfully shaped by racism and sexism, often stoked and exacerbated by managerial and ruling class initiatives. The argument that both of these uncontroversial historical facts should be suppressed in the name of movement discipline, solidarity, or image management reflected the survival of some of the worst impulses of the Popular Front era, and threatened to dissolve the oppositional cultures of the Left into a watered down liberal Americana indistinguishable from the small-town reveries of Ronald Reagan. In fact, many of the most forceful foes of the infiltration of labor studies by the Theory-driven academic Left have in recent years morphed into caricatures of the 1950s consensus liberals against whom labor studies originally rebelled, whether in Sean Wilentz’s hagiographies of Andrew Jackson and Bill Clinton, Eric Arnesen’s crusade against communism, or Gitlin’s own romantic nationalism.

Gradually, this war over the future of labor studies abated; most of the major players moved on to other things, and the US Left became preoccupied with surviving the Bush years. There is no longer any stigma now attached to drawing upon difficult theoretical ideas—in fact, labor scholars are now required to have some fluency in Foucault, post-Marxism, feminist, queer, and postcolonial literatures––and no one would today defend a labor history syllabus centered exclusively around white male workers in the formal economy. At the same time, there has been a marked retreat from the kinds of scholarship–still seeking to make sense of class struggle, labor resistance, and the nature of working-class community– which animated the fights in the first place. In its place, a new institutionalism, in many ways a revival of the old Commons school labor history, flourishes: new legal, political, intellectual, and business-historical studies of labor abound while older models, like the community study and “bottom-up” history, fall into obsolescence.

There are very good reasons for this shift in focus, and we are learning a great deal from recently published works. However, as with the move towards the history of the Right, there is a danger of losing the baby with the bathwater. The “baby,” in this case, would be the rootedness of labor studies in a particular Left legacy, a centuries-long inquiry into the peculiar ramifications of treating living labor as a commodity, of buying and selling sovereignty over the working body for discrete periods of time. In other words, while the influence of Marx can be felt today in various applications of critical political economy to commodity flows and business cycles, we seem to be growing ever more distant from Marx’s concerns with the contradictions of a capitalist mode of production that wants—but never can, at least not for very long––to maintain commitments to both liberal personhood and the commodification of labor power (which entails, necessarily, the submission of the worker’s will to the desires of the capitalist manager).

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One Comment on “Let’s All Write a Dissertation, Part 1

  1. This is a concise and stinging essay on the ongoing paralysis of Left labor studies. You deftly chart the changing intellectual currents that have left traditional labor histories both obsolescent and weirdly nostalgic for the horrors of advanced, automated industrialism. I think you could say more about some of the long-standing internal contradictions of labor-Left historiography (the New Labor History’s focus on the white male artisan continues to define how the field’s current heavy hitters write about the more recent industrial prole. [Stayin’ Alive; Collision Course]). What we need to do is continue fighting the strictures of not only the Common legacy, but the Montgomery legacy, too.

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