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.

To begin, consider the structure of American capital in the ‘20s. The nineteenth-century model of the owner-entrepreneur had been liquidated at the century’s turn. It was replaced by quasi-monopolies of continental scale – Standard Oil, US Steel, American Tobacco, International Harvester, AT&T, General Electric – assembled by bankers like Morgan and Rockefeller. However, these conglomerates were initially run by holding companies, without deep reorganization. An emergent managerial class changed all that, applying scientific methods to both organization and technology in a process that culminated with the introduction of the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company. On the line, the worker became part of a vast machine controlled by engineers applying the time and motion studies of Frederick Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. To manage the stress of rationalization and the extenuating increase in speed, Ford doubled the wage to the “five-dollar day” and instituted a sociology department in the plant, to school and surveil the workers in matters of hygiene, alcoholism, thrift, domestic order and proper English. “We want to make men in this factory as well as automobiles,” he declared. Despite his authoritarianism, explicit anti-Semitism and brutal union-busting, an entrepreneurial engineer like Ford could still generate immense popular enthusiasm. In the ‘10s and ‘20s he played a key role in legitimating industrial democracy, both through his ties to the common man of the countryside and through his independence from East Coast financial capital.

The future, however, belonged to vertically and horizontally integrated corporations like DuPont and General Motors. Their multidivisional structures and partially decentralized management systems allowed for endless growth. After the First World War, such mass-production corporations began their rise to global dominance. In the mid-1920s they had already acquired their essential technological and organizational forms. By this point American capital had been organized “at the top,” as Scott Lash and John Urry put it. But its capacities had far outstripped those of the government – let alone the mass of the people. Capitalist society could not survive, nor reproduce itself, without organizing at the bottom, and creating institutions to check the ferocity of its exploitation.

If organization at the bottom is what we want to understand, it’s not worth wasting much time on the crash itself. Then as now, the derivatives were complex and the root was simple: bankers gaming the system. Stocks were purchased on slim margins with borrowed money, and the popular consumption crucial to industrial expansion was only sustainable on the installment plan. Then as now, the people’s inability to go on borrowing brought low-end markets to a standstill, while luxury products went on booming. The incoming president, Herbert Hoover, was a progressive Republican and former mining engineer who had served as the can-do Commerce Secretary of Harding and Coolidge. His big ideas were private initiative and voluntarism. Hoover launched the racist Mexican Repatriation Act (upheld by Roosevelt until 1937), imposed the Smoot-Hawley tariffs that brought world trade to a halt, sent Douglas MacArthur in to violently repress the “Bonus Army” of WWI vets demanding what amounted to their pensions, and looked on impotently as shanty-towns proliferated under the name of “Hoovervilles.” When the Kreditanstalt bank collapsed in Vienna in May 1931 and a full-fledged international monetary crisis broke out, it was clear that the government would have to intervene in the management of private capital. Hoover’s steps included the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a lending facility comparable to the TARP. Similar directions were initially pursued by Roosevelt, whose early programs included a relaxation of anti-trust laws in favor of corporate profits. So where did the progressive social policies of the New Deal come from? Who invented and implemented them?

Working together, we could probably discover in our cities, our institutions, our libraries, our homes, our memories and our bodies, the traces and the itineraries of all the social movements of the 1930s. It’s also possible to follow those traces beyond national borders, since the age of radio and newsreels was already one of world society. One such thread for which I feel ambivalent affinities began unspooling in 1919, during the recession that followed WWI, when the progressive sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote a series of articles in a journal called The Dial, gathered two years later into a volume called The Engineers and the Price System. Veblen saw a contradiction between the productive capacities of industry, based on social cooperation, and the capitalist quest to sell a product at the highest price, which in his eyes was founded on the creation of artificial scarcities through the sabotage of production by absentee owners. Just two years after the Russian Revolution he dreamt of a “Soviet of Engineers” that would replace the price system. A co-conspirator, Howard Scott, began gathering kindred spirits at Columbia University for research into the total production of energy in the US, which could be measured in ergs, or units of work, to be redistributed equally among the population. Such utopian idealists, distant heirs to Fourier and Saint-Simon, had gained a sense of urgency during the sharp postwar recession. They could obviously go nowhere during the industrial and financial boom of the ‘20s, with Hoover rushing around the country conjuring economic miracles out of the bosom of private capital. Veblen himself died in early 1929, just before the crash which vindicated all his critical theories. But soon afterwards a movement calling itself Technocracy began to capture the public imagination with portrayals of automation as a cause of unemployment under capitalism, but a fountain of abundance in a cooperative society based on scientific measures of value. Like Buckminster Fuller in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, or Jacques Fresco and the Venus Project today, Howard Scott and the Technocrats seized upon the promises of abundance and use-value that are inherent in machine production, and they played them against the rapacious, big-fish-eat-little-fish ethos of capitalist accumulation. As one might expect, the engineers had no clear concept of political strategy and their movement faded away from 1933 onward, as soon as Roosevelt began showing his willingness to concretely challenge big business. Still the utopia was impressive. If we hadn’t learned to dislike the name, there would be a great public for Technocracy among today’s developers of free software.

Another, more literal social movement was the emigration from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and Texas. Some 2.5 million people left prairie land that had been blighted by a combination of drought and unsustainable farming, creating a natural disaster of Old Testament proportions. They would settle along the riversides in California towns like Healdsburg where my father grew up amid incipient violence against the propertyless “Okies.” A famous 1936 image by Farm Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein epitomizes both their plight and the efforts of the Roosevelt administration to dramatize rural poverty and recapture the Southern vote from the Republicans. Yet the problems of the countryside extended far beyond the South. Across the US, farmers had briefly prospered with the rise of commodity prices during WWI, and they indebted themselves to buy new capital equipment. As prices collapsed after the return to peace, a rural depression began that would last two decades. The ecological crisis of the Dustbowl was part of the larger dynamic of deforestation, topsoil erosion and immiseration portrayed in the movie The River by Pare Lorentz, whose documentary work with the FSA brought him fame as “Roosevelt’s filmmaker.”

Rural outreach and technocratic progressivism found an unlikely intersection in a scheme to transform the hydroelectric dam at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which had been commissioned during WWI as an energy source for the production of nitrogen, the crucial raw material of high explosives. The dam and associated nitrate plant, designed for the inefficient cyanamid process, were an unfinished white elephant that no one knew how to recycle. In 1921 Henry Ford submitted a bid to take over the project upon its completion. He visited the site and proposed a grandiose development plan which would combat the iniquities of high finance – and of the international Jewry with which he identified it – by replacing the gold-backed dollar with paper money representing the energy wealth to be generated at Muscle Shoals. He further proposed the creation of a city larger than Detroit around the power plant, or even a string of such cities, which would ultimately be turned over to the federal government in such a way as to eliminate personal profit for himself or his heirs. Like everything Ford did the proposal generated spectacular publicity, but it ultimately foundered over political infighting between private interest groups. However, the broad lines of his project were taken up, remodeled and expanded a decade later by the government. At the outset of his presidency in 1933, FDR proposed the creation of a novel federal agency for flood control, rural electrification, the production of nitrate fertilizer and the economic and social development of the river basin. As he explained in an address to Congress:

It is clear that the Muscle Shoals development is but a small part of the potential public usefulness of the entire Tennessee River. Such use, if envisioned in its entirety, transcends mere power development; it enters the wide fields of flood control, soil erosion, afforestation, elimination from agricultural use of marginal lands, and distribution and diversification of industry. In short, this power development of war days leads logically to national planning for a complete river watershed involving many States and the future lives and welfare of millions. It touches and gives life to all forms of human concerns. I, therefore, suggest to the Congress legislation to create a Tennessee Valley Authority, a corporation clothed with the power of Government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise… It is time to extend planning to a wider field, in this instance comprehending in one great project many States directly concerned with the basin of one of our greatest rivers.

With TVA, Roosevelt envisioned a regionalist response to the central-planning doctrines that were being elaborated in the Soviet Union and fascist Europe. It was an eco-productivist vision of national capitalism. For David Lilienthal, who became the Authority’s director after an internal power struggle in the mid-1930s, TVA was to be a model of “democracy at the grassroots,” where the highest levels of technical expertise would be deployed through the continuous involvement of local populations and institutions. As for Rexford Tugwell, a member of the Roosevelt “Brain Trust” and Assistant Secretary of Agriculture when TVA was founded, he suggested that “the Authority might well approximate a new kind of government.” Looking back, he observed: “As an historical matter it was not hard to see that the states had declined in importance as responsibilities had gravitated to Washington. This was because of the general increase in the scale of all kinds of administrative operations and the contraction of time and space. It was time, so it seemed to one who may have been somewhat innocent, that more logical administrative areas (but still short of the clumsiness of being nationwide) should be brought into being.” This ambition to create a new form of government, able to bring the highest technology to the nation’s poorest inhabitants, lay at the basis of the propaganda image of TVA as a heroic New Deal institution. But what actually happened, in Tugwell’s assessment, was the rapid decline of the regional-planning authority into a state-run power company and fertilizer concern, via a double process of co-optation. One half of the equation was the facile show of local participation that Lilienthal used to build the project’s popularity. The other was informal power-sharing with local interest groups, represented in this case by the land-grant universities and the conservative American Farm Bureau. TVA became a model for a new kind of state-supported corporation, in consensual pursuit of capitalistic goals under the cloak of a developmentalist ideology. And in the 1940s and ‘50s, when the New Deal institutions had become the foundations of a global social compact, Lilienthal himself reappeared as an apologist of big business overseeing the construction of huge World-Bank funded dams in developing countries.

The point here is that the creation of social-democratic institutions able to respond to popular needs – or what Lash and Urry call “organization at the bottom” – inevitably did involve the hegemonic integration of the popular classes to a new kind of capitalist formation. And this was true, not only in the quasi-corporate agencies and private-public partnerships, but at the very heart of the infrastructure and urban-renewal programs that put the unemployed back to work: the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the U.S. Housing Authority, the Federal Housing Administration, etc. I haven’t been able to do many individual studies of the ways in which labor leaders, urban reformers, artists and intellectuals were able to achieve their goals and plant the seeds of future autonomies, while adapting to their roles as federal agents administering public money in close contact with private-sector organizations. But the biographies and autobiographies exist: and in each of them is written the evolution of a new status and subjectivity. What can be seen in the nascent social state, and was already visible in private-sector middle-management and engineering, are the beginnings of the service classes that would move to the center of American society in the postwar period, when large sectors of the working class were promoted to middle-income status and began sending their sons and daughters to college. Positions in the middle, where one administers the labor of others and becomes accountable to both capitalist profitability and the public good, still lie at the cultural basis of much of American society – despite the powerful trend toward deskilling and proletarianization in the neoliberal era, where the public tends to disappear as a significant category and measure of value.

On the one hand, then, the New Deal was marked by the recognition of working-class rights as an indispensable counter-force to the abuse of corporate power. Roosevelt was able, however briefly, to redefine government as a space of tension between labor and capital. That’s why the machine guns of the National Guard didn’t fire in Flint in 1937. For much of the American Left, the 1930s appear as the golden age when America went socialist, when the common man came to the fore, when labor unions flourished and the Communist Party was an active force in society. But if we want to understand where we come from, who we are today, and how we could create some new autonomy from the structural forces of capitalism, I think we first have to understand how the expanded middle classes emerged from that space of tension between the two structural poles of class society – on the basis of which struggles and compromises. To bring the point home it’s worth recalling the words of CIO leader John Lewis, who was the advocate of an industrial unionism addressed to mass-production workers on the assembly lines, rather than the craft specialists who were the mainstay of the AFL. The address to the mass worker is part of a radically egalitarian approach to organizing. But when asked by the anti-communist Dubinsky about the reds and other radicals whose efforts he oversaw on the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, Lewis replied: “Who gets the bird? The hunter or the dog?” Gramsci himself could have found no better image of the veiled subordination described in his concept of hegemony.

In a 1968 text entitled “Keynes and the Capitalist Theory of the State Post-‘29,” Negri comes to the same conclusion. The essay analyzes the Keynesian notion of the working class as the source of “effective demand” for the products of industry. For Negri, the concept of effective demand constitutes at once a recognition of the threat that the Bolshevik revolution had posed to capitalism as a whole, and a neutralization of that threat by the full integration of workers to the capitalist cycle, as both producers and consumers. After WWII, this process of recognition-integration would give rise to the consumer culture of Keynesian Fordism, or what Guy Debord called “the society of spectacle.” Under such a regime, the leisure hours of the former working classes – the hours when they do not work – become the object of specialized scientific efforts of measurement and standardization comparable to those of Taylor and the Gilbreths. For that reason, cultural and psychic alienation would be a problem as central for the New Left as exploitation in the factory was for earlier generations of Marxists. Little of that, however, could be foreseen in the 1930s. What people saw, with their own eyes, were first the bread lines, then the paychecks delivered by the new institutions of the social state. For better and worse, the New Deal brought the public sector of capitalist reproduction into being, and stabilized the crisis.

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