Jefferson Cowie Staying Alive – The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class A Book recommendation

This is the first entry in a planned blog on both US politics and related culture.
To begin with my work, I would like to recommend a book that served as a fascinating introduction to some of the historic events of the 1970s and 1980s and to the question, how those events helped create the current state of affairs in the US, with regard to labour and welfare policy. The book I want to recommend was published in 2010 by the historian Jefferson Cowie and tries to analyze, how the political environment of the 1970s created a framework for the almost complete destruction of organized labor and the effect of this on politics and culture. In his work, Jefferson Cowie provides a step-by-step explanation and exploration of working-class America, by discussing not only unions themselves but also cultural products that talked about or to this audience.

In the introductory essay, Cowie familiarizes the reader with a Detroit autoworker named Dewey Burton and his family, and by explaining Burton’s thoughts throughout the decade, he already explains the changing state of mind in working-class America. It is explained that Burton went from voting for George McGovern in 1972 to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980, as did many Blue Collar voters.

In the following chapters of his work, the historian provides us with a multitude of reasons for the disillusionment in America and for the anger that made Reagan president. Cowie explains, how labour leadership was considered as old, conservative and largely out of touch with the base, they were supposedly representing. He makes this clear, by explaining how AFL-CIO leader George Meany reacted to criticism from within the labour movement and how both his cultural conservatism and pro-war stance in the Vietnam war era alienated younger union members.
The cultural conservatism is made clear in his attacks on the opening of the democratic party for anti-war liberals, homosexuals and feminists. This explanation leads to Cowie explaining, how Richard Nixon tapped into this cultural resentment by embracing pro-war midwestern and southern values and their cultural products, most notably the Country Music of Merle Haggard. This is contrasted by explaining, how the love for working-class and southern culture in the form of  “Nashville” (1976) “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977), “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), Western movies and Country Rock came to define anti-establishment 1970s culture.

In the second part of his book, Cowie explains, how the behavior of labor unions and the society’s stance towards them came to a point that made the election of an anti-union president like Ronald Reagan possible. He explores in great detail, how organized labor both were diminished and destroyed themselves by a wrong-headed approach toward the huge issues and problems after the 1973 Oil Crisis and how the traditional industries that depended on unionized workforces went under after the crisis made their operations more costly and more difficult, than they had ever been before. This state is called, quoting the social scientist Michael Harrington, as a “collective sadness”, thus referencing to this not only as a problem for labour unions, but as a problem of the society as a whole, as all parts of the US had to suffer under conditions created by he plight of the car or steel industry and the despair of the laid-off workforce. The energy problems proved to be a burden to Nixon, Ford and especially Carter, who had to abandon the Keynesian consensus, even if he unsuccessfully tried to protect organized labour. His abandonment of them in a state of crisis led to their support for his foe in 1980. The unwinding (Packer) of working-class America is also exemplified in an analysis of culture, especially music by both Bruce Springsteen and more unlikely bands like the Ramones and Devo, but also through films like “Blue Collar”(1978), “Rocky”(1976), “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and “Taxi Driver” (1975), and series like “All in the Family” (1971-1979). The book closes with the election of Reagan and the preview of the vastly different democratic party in 2008 when the next crisis came to haunt the working class.

To summarize, “Stayin’ Alive” is a beautiful and detailed analysis of the changes in the  USA of the 1970s and how those changes helped to create the current US society.

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