Social Movement Politics in 1930s America
The second session of the collaborative seminar THREE CRISES: 30s – 70s – Today was held at Mess Hall on Saturday Oct. 1. The seminar materials, readings, recordings and a pdf version of this text are available here.
On Dec. 30, 1936, workers at the Fisher Body no. 1 plant in Flint, Michigan, heard the rumor that the dies of the stamping presses – a strategic link in the General Motors national production chain – were to be removed that evening. The technique of the sit-down strike, pioneered in the tire factories of Akron, Ohio, was the immediate response of the United Autoworkers Union, an affiliate of the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The strike lasted 44 days, mobilizing women alongside men and drawing solidarity pickets from across the Great Lakes region. After several weeks it escalated to the point where National Guards with machine guns were brought in to keep the peace, and ultimately to clear the factories. On February 3, 1937, in the face of a court order to vacate the premises, the strikers sent a telegram to the governor of Michigan, Frank Murphy:
We feel it proper to recall to you the assurance you have many times given to the public that you would not permit force or violence to be used in ousting us from the plants. Unarmed as we are, the introduction of militia, sheriff or police with murderous weapons, will mean a blood bath of unarmed workers. The police of Flint belong to General Motors. The sheriff of Genesee County belongs to General Motors, and the judges of Genesee County belong to General Motors…. It remains to be seen whether or not the governor of this state also belongs to General Motors. We have decided to stay in the plants. We have no illusions what sacrifices this decision will entail. We fully expect that if violent efforts are used to put us out, many of us will be killed. We take this method to make it known to our wives, our children, and to the people of the state and country, that if this result follows from the attempts to eject us, you are the one who must be held responsible for our death.
Roosevelt himself intervened. The Democratic governor, aligned with New Deal policies, did not give the order to fire. The right of workers to form unions, to strike and to engage in collective bargaining had already been guaranteed, first by the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, then by the National Labor Relations Act, or “Wagner Act,” of 1935. Now that formal guarantee stood the test of reality. The strike reached a climax on Feb. 11 when the UAW gained exclusive representation of union employees. A wave of sit-downs then unfurled at GM plants across the country, extending to Chrysler and, unsuccessfully, to Ford. The rise of the CIO’s industrial unionism had begun. The sit-down strikes were a pivotal event in the consolidation of the New Deal policies that have continued to shape the United States up to this day, when their last remains are being taken apart before our eyes.
The Great Depression of the 1930s is a fascinating historical period in the United States, not because of the Crash of ‘29 or the machinations of the financiers, but because hard times revealed the nation to itself, giving visibility and agency to those at the bottom. In labor and agricultural history, literature and popular culture, the filmic and photographic record, everywhere you find traces of a multifarious desire to survive, to improve the conditions of daily life, to beat back the forces of capital and to resolve the paradox of scaricity amid abundance and overproduction. Through the intermediary of governmental reforms running parallel to technological and managerial changes, these struggles would ultimately result in a transformation of the American class structure and the emergence of a new, increasingly educated service class. Let’s frame our questions in that perspective. How did the social movements of the 1930s come into being? What made their victories possible? Where did Roosevelt’s New Deal lead the country as a whole? And then more urgently: What kinds of actions could gain the transformative power of the sit-down strikes today? Who could carry them out, in which kinds of alliances, where and when? And finally, how do we control the trigger-fingers of the police?
National Guard, Flint, 1937 / Miami police, FTAA Summit, 2002
On the radical left today there are two rival approaches to the history of social movements, both of which hail from Italy. First, the autonomous Marxism of the 60’s and 70’s – from Mario Tronti to Toni Negri – says that labor is the dynamic force of history, and that workers’ struggles are what provoke organizational, technological and political change. The sit-down strikes are proof of that, since they alone created labor’s bargaining power. In works like Marx beyond Marx, Negri has elaborated an ontology of living labor as a protean capacity of self-valorization which, when collectivized, give rise to a constituent power able to reshape the social order. This view celebrates organized militancy alongside resistance, subversion and exodus, and it rewrites leftist defeatism as veiled victory. Capital’s only power, for the autonomists, is that of capturing and channeling working-class self-assertions. This has the great advantage of focusing on agency from below. In the English-speaking world there are equivalents from E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class to Linebaugh and Rediker’s The Many Headed Hydra. The concepts of self-valorization and constituent power reveal the creative force of social movements in the three major crises of modern American capitalism.
The second approach derives from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. There the former communist party leader shows how in the absence of a successful leftist program, the energies of the subordinated classes are channeled into a “passive revolution” where technological and organizational transformations are guided from above and social struggles are neutralized by an all-pervasive ideology. The key concept is hegemony, understood not as pure coercive force, but as the set of conciliatory cultural images, institutions and discursive reflexes that make up what the international relations theorists now call “soft power.” Hegemony is established in the wake of violence. It uses both real and imaginary compensations to quell class conflicts, dispel the very possibility of more radical demands and ultimately create what Gramsci calls an “historic bloc” that can effectively shape the course of social evolution. Italian fascism was the prime example; but Keynesian Fordism would be another, and neoliberalism yet another. The approach allows us to asses the powers of capital in its institutional, cultural and even psychosexual forms. It also uncovers the contours of recent struggles beneath the apparent complacency of normal behaviors, and points to the sources of latent divides and alternative pathways. But it can be disempowering, as in much of academic Marxism; and Gramsci is rejected by the autonomists because he seems to consider integration as the inevitable destiny of all struggles. Still the concepts of passive revolution and hegemony can’t be ignored. Recent US and European history has done far too much to substantiate them.
How to engage with the successive formations of North American and global society using these rival concepts? I think they should be seen as the opposing poles of a highly charged social field. What matters is what happens between them. To theorize an ontologically pure force of emancipation is to turn away from real human beings; while to continually chart the dynamics of integration is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in your own perception. If what’s at stake is a malleable social field whose human forces are shaped by assertions from both fundamental poles of the class system, then we have to pay more attention to those in between, the so-called “middle” or “service” classes, who were both a leading sociological factor and a focus of popular aspiration throughout the twentieth century. These commercial, administrative, scientific, technical, cultural and care-giving sectors are themselves subservient to the upper classes, but also tend to function as relays of domination. Yet they began in the 1930s to gain new degrees of autonomy by representing and channeling the forces of the working and excluded classes in a struggle against capital – a struggle aligning them with elements of the state. Through that very process, the size and agency of the middle strata increased considerably. So although I’m aware of the morass of compromise that awaits on this path, I still think the historical projects and trajectories of the intermediary strata have to be taken seriously and analyzed in their diversity and contradictions, alongside the working and owning classes. This is the only way to map out the successive transformations of the social field, and grasp our own potentials for agency in the present.
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