The Featherbedding Files, Entry 3
Thinking of changing my talk’s focus from “Strange Bedfellows” to something like “The Ballad of The ‘Extra Man’: Featherbedding and Existential Crisis on the Shop Floor in the Postwar Era.” For the following reasons:
It has become clear to me, as I work with primary sources, that I could sum up what interests me about the “strange bedfellows” angle of the history of featherbedding in about one sentence. Featherbedding made strange bedfellows. As a variant of a “consensus” argument (always a highly charged form in US historiography), such an observation is either a non-starter, or requires a more sophisticated theoretical apparatus: perhaps taking up the question of consensus versus disagreement versus dissensus, in Jacques Ranciere’s terms. That would eat up much of our time and might not be particularly productive.
What I would like to look at instead is the way that the war on featherbedding was symptomatic of a broader existential crisis in the postwar industrial economy, a consolidation of anxieties about capitalism, productivity, and the meaning of life. Without wishing to push too far in the direction of a claim of causal potency, I think that it is fair to say that without understanding this existential crisis, we cannot properly process the vulnerability of the New Deal order to both the increasingly vigorous attacks it would begin to receive from a revivified Right, and the implosive tendencies of the postwar labor regime.