Political Crisis in the Keynesian-Fordist Economy

The fourth session of the collaborative seminar THREE CRISES: 30s – 70s – Today was held at Mess Hall on Saturday Oct. 29 — another great discussion with an amazing lecture on the San Francisco State Strike by Sarah Lewison. The seminar materials, readings, recordings and a pdf version of this text are available here. The archive of readings is particularly good for this session.


The second major crisis of the 20th century began in the late 1960s and stretched all the way to the early ‘80s. It was an overaccumulation crisis, caused by the spread of Fordist production methods to Western Europe and Japan, resulting in a saturation of global markets and a decline of the profit rate in the mass manufacturing industries. It was also a crisis of Keynesian deficit financing: repeated attempts to stimulate the economy through counter-cyclical spending gave rise to stagflation, or the combination of stagnant growth and ever-increasing inflation. The period was punctuated by what are usually seen as economic events: the onset of wage-price spirals in 1966; the breakdown of the Bretton-Woods exchange-rate system in 1971-1973; the two oil shocks of 1973 and 1979; and finally, the Volcker interest-rate shock and government-induced recession of 1979-82, which decimated entire sectors of industry and ushered in the era of financially driven neoliberalism. Yet none of these events were simply economic. The crisis of Keynesian Fordism was intensely political. It came to a climax in advance of the major economic trends, when seemingly isolated struggles from around the world suddenly revealed their interrelatedness, if not their unity. And this time the strictly political aspects of the crisis were not far away in Europe, as they had been during Great Depression. Instead they converged on the United States.

To grasp this convergence, consider a series of posters printed in Cuba from 1967 onward by the OSPAAAL, or the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The first shows a white policeman threatening a black protester with a club. The text is the word “NOW!” – referring to the civil rights slogan “Freedom Now,” used by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the US. Another from 1971 shows an upraised black fist and reads “Free all political prisoners Solidarity with the AfroAmerican People.” It commemorates August 18, declared a day of solidarity after the Watts riots in 1965. A third, apparently from 1967, is the most striking. It shows the face of a black man with a machine gun framed within the borders of the United States, with a text reading: “We will destroy imperialism from the outside/They will destroy it from the inside.” For Third World revolutionaries galvanized by the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the most encouraging signs on the international horizon, beyond the resistance of the Vietnamese themselves, were undoubtedly the great uprisings of Detroit and Newark in the summer of 1967, followed a year later by a surge of urban and campus unrest that appeared to be tearing the US superpower apart on its home ground.

Where did these images come from? The OSPAAAL was formed at the Tricontinental Conference in Havana in January of 1966. From that date forth it published a magazine in Spanish, French, and English, under the title Tricontinental. Cuba in those years represented the most radical pole of Third World struggles, going beyond the diplomatic strategies of the Non Aligned Nations to forge alliances with national liberation movements including those unfolding in Guinea-Bissau, the Congo, South Africa, Angola, Vietnam, Palestine, Puerto Rico, Chile and the Dominican Republic. Tricontinental magazine had an audience in these countries, and more broadly, in Latin America and Western Europe. It disseminated a theory of guerrilla warfare based on the concept of the foco, or “flash point” of vanguard insurgency, as developed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and disseminated by the French writer Régis Debray in his book Revolution in the Revolution?, which was published in five different languages in the year 1967. Che himself, who had left Cuba for revolutionary activities in Africa, delivered a famous “Message to the Tricontinental Conference” where he called for greater unity among anti-imperialist forces. As he wrote:

How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its forces under the sudden attack and the increasing hatred of all peoples of the world! And if we were all capable of uniting to make our blows stronger and infallible and so increase the effectiveness of all kinds of support given to the struggling people – how great and close would that future be!

In reality, the years 1968-75 would mark the crest and fall of the great wave of Third World liberation struggles that had begun with the decolonization movements of the post-WWII period. The major victory was Vietnam. On January 31, 1968, the People’s Army and the National Liberation Front launched the Tet Offensive, assailing over one hundred cities and towns in a two-week period. Images of the attack on the US Embassy in Saigon burst onto American TV screens and convinced the population that the war could not be won, even though the offensive was rapidly put down. The final collapse of US power in Southeast Asia in 1975 is directly related to the domestic antiwar movement. Former North Vietnamese Colonel Bin Tui underscored its importance in a 1995 interview in the Wall Street Journal:

Every day our leadership would listen to world news over the radio at 9 a.m. to follow the growth of the American antiwar movement. Visits to Hanoi by people like Jane Fonda, and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and ministers gave us confidence that we should hold on in the face of battlefield reverses. We were elated when Jane Fonda, wearing a red Vietnamese dress, said at a press conference that she was ashamed of American actions in the war and that she would struggle along with us…. The conscience of America was part of its war-making capability, and we were turning that power in our favor. America lost because of its democracy; through dissent and protest it lost the ability to mobilize a will to win.

How did American radicals internalize the Third World struggles to spark a political conflict at home? What were the class dynamics that gave the conflict its national basis? And what was the elite reaction? How did it affect the restructuring of the US economy after the deep recessions of the 1970s?

To begin answering these questions we can take some inspiration from another contributor to the 1966 Tricontinental Conference: the Guinean revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral. In a text entitled “The Weapon of Theory” he reflects on the neocolonial situation, where a pseudo-bourgeoisie under foreign domination is limited in its ability to develop the national economy, such that no strong proletariat emerges. For this reason a vanguard organization is needed to bring the masses of the peasantry into alignment the nascent rural and urban working classes. Cabral believes such a vanguard must be largely drawn from what he calls the petty bourgeoisie (that is, small landowners, merchants and minor state functionaries). Yet he also claims that this class cannot ultimately take power, for it neither generates the modern productive forces (as the working class does) nor controls them (as does the international bourgeoisie). Envisaging the moment of victory, Cabral writes:

To retain the power which national liberation puts in its hands, the petty bourgeoisie has only one path: to give free rein to its natural tendencies to become more bourgeois, to permit the development of a bureaucratic and intermediary bourgeoisie in the commercial cycle, in order to transform itself into a national pseudo-bourgeoisie, that is to say in order to negate the revolution. This means that in order to truly fulfill the role in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong.

Undoubtedly that sounds like some strange historical curiosity, or maybe just Marxist bullshit. What I’ll suggest is that Cabral’s analysis comes very close to the situation faced by the American antiwar movement. To grasp the parallel, all we have to do is replace the neocolonial condition by that of a post-industrial society – and the petty bourgeoisie by the professional-managerial class.

Naming the System

The civil rights and antiwar activism of the 1960s emerged against a background of prosperity for the middle classes. The boom had many sources: but one of them was government spending for the largest welfare-state programs since the 1930s. The expansion began under Kennedy in the areas of unemployment insurance, Social Security, urban renewal and tax breaks for home ownership. Johnson’s election in 1964 along with landslide Democratic victories in Congress gave rise to the “Great Society,” including the War on Poverty, Medicare and Medicaid, Pell grants and low-interest loans for education, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, public broadcasting programs and still more spending for transportation and urban renewal. Legislation was passed in favor of women and minorities, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, plus labor and environmental laws. All that created jobs, institutions, bureaucracies and gave a major boost to the public university system. It’s tempting to think that if welfare-state policies could bring about progressive social change, these would have done so. Yet they tended to benefit those already in the middle classes, while technological unemployment, accelerated by automation and cybernetic feedback control, continued to sap the livelihood of workers. The laws and entitlements could not erase continuing white resistance to black civil rights; nor could they mask the escalation of the war in Indochina. As Che Guevara wrote in his “Message to the Tricontinental”:

Not for a long time shall we be able to know if President Johnson ever seriously thought of bringing about some of the reforms needed by his people – to iron out the barbed class contradictions that grow each day with explosive power. The truth is that the improvements announced under the pompous title of the ‘Great Society’ have dropped into the cesspool of Vietnam.

The history of the civil rights movement is conventionally told as the tale of Martin and Malcom, of love and rage, non-violence and black power. That of the antiwar movement centers on Students for a Democratic Society, and gets divided into four phases: formative idealism; civil rights campaigns in the South; resistance to the draft; outright revolution. The whole thing, people say, came to a bad end shortly after 1968, with riots, internal strife, FBI infiltration, a desperate shift to armed rebellion, and then the dissolution of politics into the counterculture. The remaining questions – like whether you prefer LSD and music to books, marches and meetings – can be settled pretty quickly.

It would be more difficult, but probably much more useful, to conceive both the collaborations and the breaks between the antiwar and civil rights movements of the 1960s as more-or-less conscious efforts to transform the normative pattern of class relations, not between whites and blacks in general, but between the two poles of the welfare state. By that I mean the administrators, social workers and moralizers under government employ, and the increasingly unemployed populations whom they were supposed to serve and protect. If the Great Depression marked the emergence of this relation, the Great Society marked its crisis. That’s clear in the very title of a 1968 pamphlet by an SDS affiliate, the Movement for a Democratic Society: it’s called “Welfare, The Exterminating Angel.” To understand why social programs did not calm domestic strife, one could therefore examine the co-evolution of these two separate but intimately connected social groups, and consider the reasons that led significant minorities within both of them to begin altering the terms on which they met. Such a study would focus on the role of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as a mediating link between the intellectual radicals of SDS, and the black militants on the streets. This approach would ask about governance and obedience as it is experienced in the flesh by social subjects, and not only as it is represented on the level of official politics. It would also reveal a broader relation between the American university – or “multiversity” – and the world society that its technocratic experts were charged with modernizing and rationalizing, by force of arms if need be.

Now, another thing to realize in this regard is that since the ‘60s, libertarian and neoconservative writers have relentlessly analyzed the interdependencies of what New Left fellow-traveler Murray Rothbard termed the “welfare-warfare state” – and they have done so in order to justify the abrogation of any redistributive programs. As I will show later on, the cooptation of specific aspects of New Left critique was an essential part of the elite strategy for resolving the crisis. What I want to suggest right here is that we try to recover an oppositional project in all its social complexity: a cross-class effort to break away from an entire system and transform that system at its roots. Only by retracing the emergence and development of this project could one see what results it actually had, and how it influenced the resolution of the larger crisis of Keynesian-Fordist society.

Such a study can’t be done in a few pages, so I’ll just sketch its outlines. We can begin with a famous antiwar speech made by SDS president Paul Potter at the first March on Washington, on April 17, 1965. Potter raises the question of Communism, suggests that it might not be as bad for Vietnam as the destruction of the war, then goes on to ask about the nature of American society itself:

What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values – and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world? What place is there for ordinary men in that system and how are they to control it, make it bend itself to their wills rather than bending them to its? We must name that system.

The great thing about SDS is that they had the capacity to ask a question and then, on the basis of collective work and political will, to answer it. So here is the answer delivered by Carl Oglesby, the new SDS president, at the second March on Washington on November 27, 1965:

We are here again to protest a growing war. Since it is a very bad war, we acquire the habit of thinking it must be caused by very bad men. But we only conceal reality, I think, to denounce on such grounds the menacing coalition of industrial and military power, or the brutality of the blitzkrieg we are waging against Vietnam, or the ominous signs around us that heresy may soon no longer be permitted. We must simply observe, and quite plainly say, that this coalition, this blitzkrieg, and this demand for acquiescence are creatures, all of them, of a Government that since 1932 has considered itself to he fundamentally liberal.

The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war — those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.

But so, I’m sure, are many of us who are here today in protest. To understand the war, then, it seems necessary to take a closer look at this American liberalism. Maybe we are in for some surprises. Maybe we have here two quite different liberalisms: one authentically humanist; the other not so human at all.

The key concept that SDS deployed for the critique of the American economic and military system was corporate liberalism. In Oglesby’s speech it appears as something like a legitimating mask (“It performs for the corporate state a function quite like what the Church once performed for the feudal state. It seeks to justify its burdens and protect it from change”). But a more intricate development of the concept can be traced through a group of radical historians, notably including William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein, contributors to the journal Studies on the Left. For them, corporate liberalism was a way of preemptively adopting reforms that had arisen from intense labor struggles, in order to functionalize them for the expansion of organized capitalism. Both Kolko and Weinstein concentrated on early 20th century Progressivism, essentially to show that Woodrow Wilson’s sudden conversion to total mobilization for WWI, and his induction of corporate personnel to government for that purpose, was no accident but rather a destiny inscribed in the governing philosophy of Progressive businessmen. As for the intellectuals, Weinstein wrote the following in his 1968 book The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State:

To the extent that various independent liberals deceived themselves – and most of them seemed better to know what they were doing than they would later admit – it was in confusing their own pragmatic or problem-oriented liberalism with that of the corporate liberalism of the highly ideological business and political leaders. If they allowed themselves unwittingly to be used, it was because they had the conceit to consider their intelligence and social values equal to the influence of the industrial and financial institutions that were the heart and muscle of American power.

The conclusion had already been drawn by SDS: what Kolko and Weinstein described among the Progressives also applied to the New Deal and its transformation in WWII. This was the crucible of the welfare state and the imperialist wars of the 1960s. Corporate liberalism was the name of a double system. The point, for the New Left, was never again to be the useful fools of a political-economic leadership that could convert any grassroots demand for reform, not only into window dressing, but worse, into a functional component of a more efficient imperialist machine. The goal had to be that of finding what Oglesby called an “authentically humanist” intellectual practice that would not perfect the existing state. Yet strangely enough, that would mean turning away from the civil-rights campaigns on which SDS was founded. Naming the system was a fundamental act of disidentification, of rupture, leading to a reformulation of the student protest movement.

Struggles in the Edu-Factory

The impetus for this existential change came from SNCC, under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael. At stake was the very definition of what political opposition could mean, for two revolutionary groups which up until this point had been confined within the class positions assigned to them by the dominant society. In the spring of 1966, SNCC published a position paper entitled “The Basis of Black Power.” There one reads:

It must be offered that white people who desire change in this country should go where that problem (racism) is most manifest. The problem is not in the black community. The white people should go into white communities where the whites have created power for the express purpose of denying blacks human dignity and self-determination. Whites who come into the black community with ideas of change seem to want to absolve the power structure of its responsibility for what it is doing, and saying that change can only come through black unity, which is the worst kind of paternalism. This is not to say that whites have not had an important role in the movement. In the case of Mississippi, their role was very key in that they helped give blacks the right to organize, but that role is now over, and it should be.

The influence of Frantz Fanon – and of Third World struggles broadly speaking – was foundational for the second generation of black radicals, those who looked to Malcom X for inspiration. That influence is clear in this text, which closes with the following line: “The broad masses of black people react to American society in the same manner as colonial peoples react to the West in Africa, and Latin America, and had the same relationship – that of the colonized toward the colonizer.” For SDS, which had been deeply invested in the kinds of collaboration that SNCC was now identifying as colonial, this declaration necessarily marked a turning point. A text was drafted in response, under the title “Resolution on SNCC.” It rejects the idea of “racism in reverse” that was being leveled at Black Power: “Now that SNCC is under fire from a variety of liberal organizations and publications we feel a special urgency to restate our support. Let it be clear that we are not merely supporting SNCC’s right to its views, we are welcoming and supporting the thrust of SNCC’s program.” The text continues with a proposal for a new orientation: “If we really want to help we will be organizing primarily among the powerless, the disenfranchised, the dependent whites – poor, working class, and middle class – toward their power in communities, unions, and professions, so that they may move toward authentic alliance with the organizations of black power.” It was this orientation that would lead SDS “from protest to resistance,” in the phrase coined by Greg Calvert. Resistance meant all-out opposition to the very sources of the corporate-liberal compromise. In a speech entitled “In White America: Liberal Consciousness versus Radical Consciousness,” from February 1967, Calvert offered a distinction that would become crucial for the student movement:

The liberal reformist is always engaged in “fighting someone else’s battles.” His struggle is involved in relieving the tension produced by the contradictions between his own existence and life-style, his self-image, and the conditions of existence and life-style of those who do not share his privileged, unearned status.

Radical or revolutionary consciousness perceives contradiction in a totally different fashion. The gap is not between oneself, what one is, and the underprivileged, but is the gap between “what one could be” and the existing conditions for self-realization. It is the perception of oneself as unfree, as oppressed – and finally it is the discovery of oneself as one of the oppressed who must unite to transform the objective conditions of their existence in order to resolve the contradiction between potentiality and actuality. Revolutionary consciousness leads to the struggle for one’s own freedom in unity with others who share the burden of oppression.

Calvert held a low-level teaching position in Iowa when he was elected president of SDS in the Spring of 1966. He belonged to the second generation, part of the “prairie power” turn away from the East Coast origins of the movement. His speech (according to Kirkpatrick Sale’s history) had been collectively authored by the leading figures of the movement at that time. Under their impulsion, mass resistance to the draft would become the centerpiece of SDS action, whose focus now shifted to the campus itself. The same shift would give rise to a startlingly new analysis of education and labor in the advanced capitalist societies. A group called the “praxis axis” emerged, rallying around a complex technical studying jokingly entitled “The Port Authority Statement” (since much of it had been composed in a student apartment near the New York bus terminal of that name). As the radical shock groups burned their draft cards, this group attempted to refound SDS on an updated Marxist basis.

The most provocative SDS document from the period of 1967-68, and the most relevant today, is Carl Davidson’s agitational essay “The Multiversity: Crucible of the New Working Class.” By critically interpreting University of California president Clark Kerr’s book on The Uses of the University, Davidson reveals the key institution of modern American society to be a “factory” producing what he calls “the new working class.” The concept was borrowed from the French sociologists Serge Mallet and André Gorz, who studied the contemporary division of labor and its relations to class politics in the mid-1960s. Mallet focused on the revolt of factory technicians against technological alienation and their corresponding desire for workers’ control of the production process; while Gorz, with a more philosophical bent, inquired into possible strategies for workers’ movements in affluent societies, seeking revolutionary possibilities where a philosopher like Marcuse could only see one-dimensional dead-ends. For Davidson, the concept implied that not only the technical skills, but also the values and orientations of the new working class (what we would now call its “subjectivity”) are produced on campus by the interlocking interests of the corporations, the military and the social state. Yet here too arise the forces that can challenge the production of subjectivity; for, as Davidson writes, the university “has turned our humanitarian values into their opposites and, at the same time, given us the potential to understand and critically evaluate both ourselves and the system itself. ” The last remark brings the whole movement full circle: in a reversal of power, students understand that the best of their education is exactly what allows them to transcend and destroy it. This was the dialectical transformation implicit in the demand for an “authentic humanism” that Oglesby had formulated at the second March on Washington. From this theoretical point forward, the protest marches against the war give way to the great student strikes of 1968.

For anyone with experience of contemporary activism, where critical knowledge and bodies on the line are clearly inseparable, it’s impressive to reconsider the April 1968 occupation of Columbia University. A film by the Newsreel collective, entitled Columbia Revolt, makes this possible. Instead of a voice-over, the film uses audio recordings of students’ remarks and speeches during the strike, creating a complex and fragmented multi-perspectival narration. One sees the Columbia students joining the mobilization of the neighboring black community against a proposed gym, dubbed “Gym Crow,” which would have come down the slopes of Morningside Heights to encroach on a Harlem park, condescendingly offering black residents a back-door entrance into the basement. After the police quash an invasion of the gym construction site, the demonstrators return to the administration building, where they discover papers relating to the university’s involvement with the Institute for Defense Analysis. Black students insist on holding the building, splitting from the whites, whom they radicalize in the process. Five buildings are taken and held for a week, until a brutal police crackdown finally dislodges the occupiers; but strikes continue until the end of the semester, when a breakaway graduation is held, invalidating the official degrees. Writing two years later in a text entitled “Toward a Critical University,” Davidson describes the shift from an illusory quest for “student power” (the equivalent of “workers’ control” over schooling) to a more pragmatic confrontation with the really existing institution:

This revaluation of student power led directly to the current strategy of the student movement – institutional resistance. Although the focus is still primarily on university training and research processes, the approach has shifted from general and abstract (“control” or “drop out” of the process) to an attack on various specific end results of those processes. Instead of lamenting the “publish or perish” syndrome, radicals expose and attack specific military and CIA contracts. Rather than protect the change from the “community of scholars” dialogue to corporate job training, they confront recruiters from the military, DOW Chemical and the CIA and often throw them off the campus. Finally, since the university itself is a corporation, radicals attack its business practices: expansion into ghetto neighborhoods, racist recruitment, and exploitative treatment of non-academic employees.

This program, and the facts of university occupations in collaboration with other social movements, are exactly what could become powerful again today. A first step, driven largely by adjunct professors, was made on the University of California campuses in 2009-10, under the pressure of abusive tuition hikes and the sudden realization that supposedly public universities were being surreptitiously privatized. Once again the movement was global, responding to much larger student actions in Europe and Latin America. As in the 1960s, critical research into the functioning of the university was inseparable from bodies on the line. In these respects, today’s radical intellectuals have much to learn from the New Left and SDS in particular.

Yet critical activism is hard to sustain, particularly in the United States. The lines of race, class and gender still exist and still pose difficult problems when it comes to articulating a mass movement. With anticapitalist sentiments currently on a welcome upward rise, it is easy to gloss over the problems and hope for bigger demonstrations tomorrow. I think everyone who supports the Occupy movements should begin thinking about the questions of class and inclusivity today. As Amilcar Cabral explained in his text, “The Weapon of Theory,” it is to the weaknesses of our forces that we should pay special attention.

Revolutionary Classes

In 1977, nearly a decade after SDS splintered into warring factions relegated to oblivion by the adventurism of the Weather Underground, Barbara and John Ehrenreich published an article in Radical America devoted to “The Professional-Managerial Class.” The first paragraph points to a major paradox of the US left, which might seem obvious if it were not deeply repressed by a majority of the people directly concerned:

To generations of radicals, the working class has been the bearer of socialism, the agent of both progressive social reform and revolution. But in the United States in the last two decades, the left has been concentrated most heavily among people who feel themselves to be “middle-class,” while the working class has appeared relatively quiescent. This “middle-class” left, unlike its equivalent in early twentieth-century Europe or in the Third World today, is not a minority within a mass working-class (or peasant) movement; it is, to a very large extent, the left itself. It has its own history of mass struggle, not as an ally or appendage of the industrial working class, but as a mass constituency in and of itself. At the same time, most of the U.S. left continues to believe (correctly, we think) that without a mass working class left, only the most marginal of social reforms is possible.

Unsatisfied with the catch-all category of the middle classes, the Ehrenreichs propose the concept of the “professional-managerial class” (PMC) which they define as “consisting of salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.” The PMC comes into existence from the late 19th century onward, under the conditions of organized capitalism (or what the Ehrenreichs, following Baran and Sweezy, call “monopoly capitalism”). What it does is basically to manage. On the one hand, members of the PMC are involved with “social control or the production and propagations of ideology,” which requires “teachers, social workers, psychologists, entertainers, writers of advertising copy and TV scripts, etc.” On the other hand, they are “middle-level administrators and managers, engineers and other technicians whose functions… are essentially determined by the need to preserve capitalist relations of production.” The second sector corresponds to the Taylorist movement of scientific management, where not only the planning of production but also the design of the technologies can be seen as a mode of social control.

The new class arises a gradient between labor and capital. It expands with the growth of industry, but also with the commodification of workers’ familial and cultural activities and with the emergence of state bureaucracies devoted to the employment, health, and education of the laboring population. All of this begins in the Progressive period, from 1880 to 1920, when members of the traditional middle classes and the petty bourgeoisie “feared their own extinction in the titanic struggle between capital and labor.” According to the Ehrenreichs, this is why they devoted themselves to the reform of the capitalist system. Their role was “to mediate the basic class conflict of capitalist society and create a ‘rational,’ reproducible social order.” This drive to create a rationalized version of capitalism comes to its height in postwar period and particularly in Johnson’s Great Society.

The PMC, in the Ehrenreichs’ presentation, remains firmly under the domination of the capitalist imperative of accumulation; but at the same time it tends toward the establishment of its own autonomy, generating hostilities toward both the capitalist and working classes. In this sense it is a very different concept from the French theorists’ idea of a “new working class.” The PMC tends to organize itself into professions which are able to express both its own aspirations and its claims to legitimacy in the eyes of the others. The basic characteristics of the professions are “a) the existence of a specialized body of knowledge, accessible only by lengthy training; b) the existence of ethical standards which include a commitment to public service; and c) a measure of autonomy from outside interference in the practice of the profession.” Access to the professions is regulated chiefly by the possession of credentials.

Using this definition of the professional-managerial class, the authors assess the development and significance of the New Left in the 1960s in the second part of their article. They proceed very much as I have done here, with a similar emphasis on the relations between the student radicals exemplified by SDS and the black civil rights and black power movements. They pay particular attention to a tendency within SDS known as the “radicals in the professions,” where former students attempt to prolong their critical activities within the professional spheres to which their education destines them. As they write: “The great importance of this direction, or strategy, of New Left activism is that it embodied a critical self-consciousness of the PMC itself – a kind of negative class consciousness. The radicals-in-the-professions challenged the PMC not for its lack of autonomy (as the student movement had in the early sixties) but for its very claims to autonomy – objectivity, commitment to public services, and expertise itself.” At stake, in short, was a generalized refusal to blindly inherit the foundational axioms of corporate liberalism. The broader aim was a deep transformation of capitalist society:

In a sense, the New Left represents a historic breakthrough: a first conscious effort to recognize and confront the conflict between the PMC and the working class. Learning in part from the Cultural Revolution in China, with its emphasis on the gap between mental and manual labor and its populist approach to technology, and in part from their uneasy alliance with (mainly Third World) working class community movements, the radicals of the sixties began to develop a critique of their own class. The feminist movement extended that critique, exposing the ideological content of even the most apparently “neutral” science and the ideological functions of even the most superficially “rational” experts.

` Surprisingly, the text makes no mention of another important phenomenon of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, whereby minorities and women sought to transform the central institution of the reproduction of the PMC itself – the university – in order to permit the entry and favor the cultural development of people from vastly different horizons, whose subject positions in no way corresponded to the professional-managerial schema. I’m talking about the great struggles for the formation of minority and womens’ studies programs, which, like the one at San Francisco State, were often accompanied by major student strikes and social movements in the associated communities. If we include these “revolutionary classes” in the story of a broader New Left (and everything in the Ehrenreichs’ text and subsequent commentary encourages us to do so), what then emerges is a complex strategy of hegemonic transformation that aimed to make the universities, along with community cultural and educational facilities, into the sites of a metamorphosis of the US class structure and, by extension, of the larger political economy which that structure sustains across the world. Like Christopher Newfield in Unmaking the Public University, I believe that this strategy did exist, that it gained a lot of ground in the 1970s and ‘80s – and that it was perceived as a threat by the elites.

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As if by coincidence, not one but two books were published on the US class structure at the close of the decade in 1979. The first, on the left, was entitled Between Labor and Capital. It was directly provoked by the Ehrenreichs’ characterization of the PMC, and included the essay itself along with a series of reactions. But it was an extraordinarily sad affair: because with the exception of two working-class authors who stressed just how obvious and painful this class distinction was in everyday life, the book consisted of thunderous academic Marxist denunciations of any class concept that could not be subsumed by the two structural poles of labor and capital. Each one of these academic authors claimed to know how Marx really understood class. None of them seemed to grasp the idea that the New Left had involved the co-evolution of highly self-aware and radically militant fractions of American society, whose aim was not to secure advantages for their particular category, but instead to struggle with and potentially dissolve the repressive class structure of capitalist society as a whole.

The other book, entitled A New Class?, was a coordinated multi-author study including liberals and leftists, but with an explicit neoconservative bias. Its touchstone or foil was a 1967 volume entitled Power in America: The Politics of the New Class, by David Bazelon, a New York liberal with political ambitions. Bazelon had written: “The New Class – by educational certification, actual training, and organizational position – holds something better than union privileges, and more important than property ownership: it ‘owns,’ it is, it identifies with, the organizations themselves. It will, then, as a class, operate the power mechanisms of the new world.” Like Bazelon, but with opposite aims, the neoconservative authors began by assessing the power shift from investors to corporate managers, as chronicled by A.A. Berle (one of Roosevelt’s “brain trusters”), James Burnham (the former Trotskyist and author of The Managerial Revolution) or J.K. Galbraith (who coined the concept of the “technostructure” in The New Industrial State). These writers had observed the growing importance of a technical-managerial stratum in the governance of advanced societies. The neocons, writing in the era of Jimmy Carter, feared that this governing role, formerly dominated by liberals, could now be taken over by the radicals who had caused such an uproar in the 1960s. As the centrist author Seymour Martin Lipset put it, “If, in Hegelian terms, the contradiction of capitalism was its dependence on an ever-growing working class brought together in large factories, the contradiction of post-industrial society may be its dependence on large numbers of intellectuals and students for research and innovation on great campuses and a few intellectuals centers of communication and influence.” But for the neoconservative lead author Norman Podhoretz, the problem took on considerably larger dimensions. His text is devoted to the present fortunes of an “adversary culture” whose origins lay in a bohemian opposition to the business-oriented values that had predominated in American life since the end of the Civil War in the late 1860s:

In the past intellectuals had constituted a tiny minority of the population, but with the tremendous expansion of higher education in the period after World War II, millions upon millions of young people began to be exposed to – one might say indoctrinated in – the adversary culture of the intellectuals. To be sure, very few of these young people actually became intellectuals in any real sense, but a great many were deeply influenced by ideas which had once been confined pretty much to the intellectuals community itself. Thus what had formerly been the attitudes of a minuscule group on the margins of American society now began assuming the proportions of a veritable mass movement.

In his text, Podhoretz explains that from the late 1960s onward this situation became more complex as a supposedly “middle-class” opposition to the new culture began to coalesce around publications such as Commentary and The Public Interest (edited by himself and the arch-neocon Irving Kristol). At stake, quite clearly, was a struggle for the cultural and intellectual control over what mainline sociologist Daniel Bell had recently called “the cultural mass.” Here lay the root of the future “culture wars.” Yet there was much more at issue than a battle over mores and taste. As Podhoretz continued, “These intellectual adversaries of the adversary culture were often called ‘neoconservatives,’ a definition happily accepted by some (like Irving Kristol) but rejected by most others, who continued to think of themselves as liberals. ‘Neo-liberal’ would perhaps have been a more accurate label…”

In effect, it was. In the decades following 1968, neoliberalism would be developed as an economic doctrine and a calculus of government in an elite attempt to regain control, not really over the “new working class,” but over what the Ehrenreichs called the professional-managerial class – that fickle counterpart, in the advanced capitalist economies, of the neocolonial petty bourgeoisie that Amilcar Cabral had identified as the necessary but fragile vanguard of the revolution. The financial turn in the economy, initiated in 1979 by the so-called “Volcker interest-rate shock,” would be a major vector of this political-economic strategy. To the neoconservative attacks on radical culture would be added, much more powerfully, the neoliberal attack on welfare and any form of state redistribution. The critique of the “welfare-warfare state,” invented by the libertarian Murray Rothbard in close proximity to the radical left and the opponents of corporate liberalism (and still employed vociferously in Congress by Ron Paul today) would form part of a complex rhetorical arsenal that has been deployed strategically by governing elites with the aim of dismantling every institution of equality – without, however, doing the slightest thing about corporate corruption or deficit spending for the military.

In his concluding remarks Podhoretz adopted a prophetic tone, speaking in the past tense about the future prospects of the “adversaries of adversary culture.” Apparently he could see something coming:

The effect the new dissidents might have on the future course of events was difficult to predict. But as the first – and last? – century of the era of business domination in America drew to a close, the very existence of a significant party of intellectuals to whom the defense of middle-class values seemed necessary to the preservation of liberty, democracy, and even civilization itself, was already casting an anxious shadow over the otherwise cheerful prospects of the adversary culture in the realm of ideas and attitudes, and of the New Class in the arena of economic and political power.


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