Category Archives: Issues

60 Years Later: On the Waterfront and Working-Class Studies

For most Americans On the Waterfront is not a politically controversial film—it’s simply one of the best films of all time. Many know that the film’s director Elia Kazan did something shady and some might even know that he testified against his former Communist allies at the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). An even smaller group might know that after testifying Kazan took out a full page New York Times ad to justify his decision.

But for the American left, Kazan is one of the worst traitors in American cultural history. When progressive scholars write about On the Waterfront, they draw parallels between Kazan, who betrayed his friends in order to clear his name (and to keep working in film), and Terry Malloy [Marlon Brando], who betrayed the members of his mob crew in order to clear his conscience of the wrong he had done in their name.

Kazan has done much to fuel this interpretation of the film. In his 1988 autobiography, A Life, Kazan explained the parallel between his naming names and Terry Malloy’s testimony before the Waterfront Commission: “When Brando, at the end [of On the Waterfront], yells as Lee Cobb, the mob boss, ’I’m glad what I done—you hear me?—glad what I done!’ that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.”

But if we reduce On the Waterfront to Kazan’s personal story we lose sight of the real working-class social formation out of which this film was born and overlook the genuine progressive political commitments that led both Kazan and Schulberg to make On the Waterfront despite great obstacles.

The social formation of the postwar docks was rooted in the hiring process known as the “shape up.” It was estimated that there were half as many jobs as there were men who lined up for them every morning. Arthur Miller, who wrote several plays about the waterfront himself, described the “shape up” as he witnessed it in the late 1940s:

I stood around with longshoremen huddling in doorways in rain and snow on Columbia Street facing the piers, waiting for the hiring boss, on whose arrival they surged forward and formed up in a semicircle to attract his pointing finger and the numbered brass checks that guaranteed a job for the day. After distributing the checks to his favorites, who had quietly paid him off, the boss often found a couple left over and in his generosity tossed them into the air over the little crowd. In a frantic scramble, the men would tear at each other’s hands, sometimes getting into bad fights. Their cattle like acceptance of this humiliating process struck me as an outrage, even more sinister than the procedure itself. It was though they had lost the mere awareness of hope.

On the Waterfront began as a response to these working conditions—not as a vehicle for Kazan’s revenge. The film began in 1951, before the HUAC hearings, with Budd Schulberg, a self-described Hollywood “prince”—a writer who was the son of movie mogul B. P. Schulberg. Schulberg had never met Kazan when he was asked by a small film company, Monticello, to write a screenplay based on Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalistic series, Crime on the Waterfront, which had been published in the New York Sun.

Schulberg became obsessed with the waterfront after Johnson introduced him to one of Johnson’s main sources: Father “Pete” Corridan, whom Schulberg described as “a rangy, fast-talking, chain-smoking West Side [priest] who talked the darndest language I ever heard, combining the gritty vocabulary of the longshoremen with mob talk, the statistical findings of a trained economist and the teachings of Christ.” Schulberg continued to obsess about the docks even after Monticello folded and the project was declared dead. After the publicity surrounding Kazan’s HUAC testimony, Schulberg wrote Kazan a letter expressing sympathy for the “vilification he was undergoing,” and, later, after they met for lunch, Kazan proposed they work together on a film about the Trenton Six—six African American youth who had been convicted of killing a white shop owner. Schulberg had other ideas: why shouldn’t the two of them work together on his waterfront film? Kazan agreed.

Though Howard Lawson, a blacklisted screenwriter, described On the Waterfront as the ultimate Hollywood film, the film was quashed by Hollywood more than once. In 1952, when Schulberg and Kazan tried to get Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, to produce the film, Zanuck told them, “what you’ve written is exactly what the American public doesn’t want to see.” Finally, in late 1952, when they were depressed and about the to junk the film, a washed-up producer, Sam Spiegel, agreed to bankroll it. Filming was completed in 1953, and On the Waterfront was set to debut in the spring of 1954—just in time, everyone hoped, to help the honest dockworkers win an election against the real life “Johnny Friendly” types who controlled the docks.

Throughout the filmmaking, Kazan was inspired by Schulberg’s commitment to the dockworkers’ cause, and he saw Schulberg’s engagement with the subject matter as “passionate and true.” Kazan acknowledged that “Budd had made himself….a champion of humanity on that strip of shore.”

What about Kazan’s engagement? In a much less quoted passage from his autobiography, Kazan explained that his attachment to On the Waterfront came from a desire to show his old lefty enemies that he was the true progressive when it came to representing the working class: “I was…determined to show my old ‘comrades,’ those who’d attacked me so viciously, that there was an anti-Communist left, and that we were the true progressives and they were not. I’d come back to fight.”

This quote points to another parallel between Kazan and Terry Malloy: they were both fighters. In the final scene of On the Waterfront, Malloy is beaten nearly to a pulp by Johnny Friendly’s goons. He can barely walk. When his girlfriend Edie (Eva Saint Marie) tries to help him, Father Barry (Karl Malden) waves her off. In 1955, the radical British filmmaker, Lindsay Anderson, argued that this scene is “fascist.” Malloy, through violence, has simply become the new de facto “Johnny Friendly,” just another tough guy who is ready to rise up and exploit his brethren.

Anderson’s argument shows how judging Kazan for his political betrayal can lead to a misreading of the film. The closing scene isn’t fascist. It’s a scene that uses the language of fighting— specifically boxing. Malloy, a former boxer, is down for the count. If Edie or the priest helps him get up, then he can’t continue to fight. In this metaphorical boxing round he’ll be disqualified. And so he gets up, on his own, which means that the round is over but the match is not. He will live to fight again. Finally, in this scene, Malloy has become the contender he always knew he could be.

If you get a chance to see On the Waterfront this month, in honor of its 60th anniversary, think about this. As much as Terry Malloy might represent Kazan, ratting on his former friends, it is also true that Kazan and Schulberg were trying to rat on capitalism, to call out American business practices as corrupt, and to argue that something drastic needed to done to reform the docks. What Kazan did was wrong, but what happened to American dockworkers in this period, arguably, was even worse. Though the bitterness against Kazan has lingered lo these many years, we in working-class studies should reclaim On the Waterfront as one of the important texts for understanding what happened to American labor in the postwar period. We do so not to redeem Kazan, but to honor the workers that he and Schulberg were trying to represent.

Kathy M. Newman

Can Democrats Win the White Working-Class Vote?

Winning greater support among white working-class voters is critical for Democrats in presidential elections, and it often provides a critical margin for Democratic candidates in statewide races.  For example, in Ohio, loss of white working-class support in 2010 resulted in a Republican landslide, but in 2012 a modest level of support among white working-class voters helped President Obama win the state.

Consequently, with midterm elections coming in November, the electoral politics of the white working class has become a central concern for Democrats and their supporters. Last month, The Washington Monthly and The Democratic Strategist held a roundtable discussionto consider the state of working-class politics and what progressives and Democrats could do to gain greater support among white working-class voters.

To tackle the issues, the roundtable organizers asked prominent pollsters Stan Greenberg, Ruy Texiera, and John Halpin to review demographic and polling data.  While many pundits have claimed that the white working class has shifted its allegiance to the Republicans, Greenberg, Texiera, and Halpin found that the shift occurred primarily in the South and Mountain West states. Further, in these red state regions, white working-class support was weakening not so much because of changing political views but because of demographic changes.   Simply put, white working-class support declined because the white working class had shrunk, while other groups that tended to vote for Democrats – those with more education, younger voters, metropolitan residents, secularists, immigrants, and racial minorities – had grown. Furthermore, research showed no growth in Republican support among white working-class voters in other regions of the country. But even though the white working-class has become less important demographically, the pollsters warned, it remains critical in electoral politics. This is particularly true in preventing the election of Republican supermajorities in off-year elections.

The roundtable organizers then asked a group of “leading progressive and Democratic thinkers and strategists” (including two regular contributors to this blog) to answer this question: What do you think is the most important single step progressives and Democrats can take to regain support among white working-class Americans? Here’s what the commentators concluded.

Within the white working class, Harold Meyerson argues, the Federal government has been discredited in response to repeated Republican attacks on programs that supposedly target racial minorities and on the government’s failure to effectively address the long term economic decline of working people. In part, this is due to Republican obstructionism and the resulting political gridlock. But it is also because Democratic candidates have repeatedly promised the working class more than they deliver. As a result, many in the white working class have lost faith in the Democratic Party.

At the same time, contributors argue that white working-class voters support a range of Democratic policies — minimum wage increases, infrastructure projects, trade policies that limit offshoring, bank restrictions, anti-plutocrat tax reform, and support for domestic manufacturing. This suggests that when white working-class people think of themselves in terms of class rather than race or gender, they are likely to support Democratic social and economic programs.

The current economic situation helps in this regard. Some contributors point to white working-class support for the Affordable Care Act in red state Kentucky, where working-class people benefit regardless of their race or gender. In her roundtable contribution, Joan Walsh points out that the economic crisis has been diverse, and this has moderated white working-class resistance to some social programs.  She suggests that so-called “women’s issues,” like family sick leave, have become important economic issues for struggling families, appealing to voters regardless of gender. Likewise, Medicaid benefits are crucial for many working-class families suffering from economic hardship.

One strategy for tapping into the class and economic concerns of the white working class is to “reposition” Democrats on social issues, especially affirmative action and welfare. Republicans have ridiculed Democrats over these and other social issues, suggesting that liberals favor racial minorities and gays at the expense of the white working class.  Richard Kahlenberg suggests that Democrats could gain working-class support by shifting support away from racial preferences in college admissions and employment to preferences for the economically disadvantaged.

Other commentators, however, warned Democrats against simply repositioning themselves or reframing issues. Andrew Levinson explains that “fine tuning of platforms and narratives” has not helped Democrats win or retain support. In fact, he argues, white working-class voters are already suspicious of political rhetoric. All too often, candidates talk the talk during elections but then fail to walk the walk afterward.

Finally, some contributors suggested that the white working class lacks a group consciousness. Community organizations and trade unions have lost their effectiveness as translators of public policy, creating a vacuum that has been filled by the media. As a result, working-class voters don’t hear coherent arguments from the left.  Short-term organizing efforts, as I have noted before, aren’t sufficient.  We need community institutions that do not appear during campaign season only to disappear following the election. At the same time, social and economic discussions during campaigns should not be didactic. Rather, public policy discussions must explain the benefits of progressive policies for individuals rather than addressing them in broad economic terms.

The roundtable didn’t reach a consensus, but it provides thoughtful observations for the Democratic Party to consider for future elections. The key may not be tracking changes among white working-class voters but rather to understand more fully that thewhite working class has always been more complex than the term implies. While Democrats often saw the white working class as a well-defined and reliable part of an enduring progressive coalition, the white working class never saw itself politically as a single group. Today, perhaps more than ever, the working class is diverse, divided not only by race or gender but also by region and religion. If Democrats want to win this November or in the future, they must build a strategic partnership with the diverse working class.

John Russo

Summer Reading from Working-Class Studies

A cultural anthropologist from the “Southeast Side” of Chicago whose family is still living the half-life of deindustrialization three decades after the mills shut down.  A community organizer, journalist, teacher, actor, and musician who also writes poetry in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  A day laborer in Oakland and Baltimore who while waiting for work was taking field notes as a sociologist.  And a daughter of the Arky part of Arkansas reporting on poverty in the Ozarks.

These are the four winners of the Working-Class Studies Association’s awards for the best work of 2013.  Together they ably represent our diverse field both in subject matter and method, as they focus on different parts of working-class life while insisting on combining direct observation and experience with book learning and the wider contexts it can bring to immediate experience.

Christine Walley’s Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago won the Association’s C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences.   Now an associate professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Walley was 14 years old when the steel mill where her father worked was the first of a series of mills and related factories that shut down in Southeast Chicago.    Employing ethnographic and other anthropological methods, she recounts her family’s and neighborhood’s history across a century of industrialization and deindustrialization, revealing stories that counter and undermine what she calls “the hegemonic narrative” of the immigrant and working-class experience in America.

Judges praised Exit Zero for “its combination of rigorous critical enquiry and vivid personal reflection.”  One judge said: “We have many books on deindustrialization, but this one stands out for the effective way it uses family memoir to demonstrate what was lost.”  Another judge, more elaborately, explained: “Methodologically, this is a great example of someone working within a particular academic discipline . . . but recognizing that . . . disciplinary expectations for research are too limiting to honestly describe a class-inflected situation” – and went on to praise Walley for the way she dealt with “the tension between the expectations for a certain kind of articulation in academia, and the directness, or even bluntness, of working-class vernacular.”

Walley and her husband, Chris Boebel, have nearly completed a documentary film, also titled Exit Zero, which covers some of the same stories in a different medium.  It will be released sometime in the coming year.  For other activities around the book and the movie, see The Exit Zero Project web site.

Hakim Bellamy is the first-ever poet-laureate of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his first book of poems, Swear, won the WCSA Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing.  Bellamy is well-known in Albuquerque as a community organizer and journalist and is now a teacher, musician, and actor as well as a poet.  Swear was published by Working-Class Studies pioneer John Crawford’s West End Press.

Many of the poems in Swear are fiercely political, as Bellamy comments on current events, taking special inspiration from Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement.   But his politics are wide-ranging, including a vivid protest against public school budget cuts that eliminate the arts:

you excommunicate us from your classrooms

because we are not your trinity

of science, math and history

we are the intersection

crucified on your standardized “X”

. . . . .

you make lamb out of your flock

sentence them to seven deadly periods

and a hot lunch

 In the section “Letter to Hip Hop,” which contains a third of the poems, Bellamy celebrates the presence of poetry in public space:

so the poet left the sanctuary

                  back to the curbside pulpit

                  where pain

                  and worship

                  both have to be louder than the traffic

 

WCSA judges praised “the strong and uncompromising voice of this poet” and “poems that directly confront the social conditions and spit out rebellion.”  One judge simply said: “Bellamy’s depiction of the class divide is a punch in the gut.”

The WCSA John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences went to Gretchen Purser for her article in Labour, Capital and Society, an interdisciplinary journal, published in English and French, that “provide[s] an international mix of perspectives on labour struggles.”   The article, “The Labour of Liminality,” details the practices of day-labor corporations in “a well-entrenched, multibillion-dollar industry” that makes its money by making work ever more precarious for “a predominantly homeless, and formerly incarcerated, African-American workforce in the inner cities of Oakland and Baltimore.”  As part of her research, Purser worked as a day laborer in both cities. She draws vivid portraits of and testimony from day laborers as they wait, sometimes fruitlessly, to be transported to a few hours of poorly paid work.   Purser is now an assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University.

Monica Potts’s cover article in The American Prospect, “What’s Killing Poor White Women?” won the WCSA Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism.  The article builds on a study that found that while most Americans are living longer, the life expectancy of white women who have not completed high school has declined by five years, from 78 years to 73.  The researchers do not know why this has occurred over the last two decades, so Potts went to northern Arkansas, where she grew up, to talk with the numerous white women without high school diplomas there.   One of the judges said of Potts’s article, “The story of Crystal Wilson is gorgeously told and I like the way the writer weaves together the narrative with study findings.”  Others praised it as “very moving,” “powerful, sensitive, and forthright” and for showing “the ways in which poverty can impact all aspects of life.”  You can see more of Potts’s work at The American Prospect.

The high quality and variety of the numerous entries for this year’s awards testify to the growing importance of Working-Class Studies as a field.  As our award-winners do, most of our entries challenge “hegemonic narratives” in a society that often denies the existence of social class while routinely overlooking, stereotyping, and/or reductively simplifying working-class life and experience.  We have a long way to go to right the balance, but these books and articles provide road signs on the various paths forward.

Jack Metzgar

WCSA Past President

 

 

 

 

Serfs for Hire: Learning about Labor from Silicon Valley and Game of Thrones

At first glance HBO’s new series, Silicon Valley, doesn’t seem to have much in common with Game of Thrones. Silicon Valley is a comedy in which men (only) vie for immortality behind computer screens, while Game of Thrones is a brutal drama in which men and women vie for immorality on the battlefield, while despots remove the heads of those who usually deserve better. Yet both follow the troop movements of those who seek freedom from tyranny, and, in the process, they reveal something about the capricious nature of justice and even offer some lessons about power in the workplace.

It could be argued that we will not learn much about the serfs of the 21st century by analyzing Silicon Valley. A 2013 survey found that the average salary in the tech industry is $87,811. But even though tech workers earn much more than the average American worker, Silicon Valley critiques the instability of tech labor in the neoliberal era, and it also lobs brickbats at the totalitarian nature of corporate power.

The long suffering hero of Silicon Valley is the honorable Richard the anxious-hearted (comedian Thomas Middleditch), a bug-eyed, curly haired awkward boy/man/genius who has invented a way for audio and video files to be compressed at high speeds with no loss of quality. Richard is awkward with girls and pukes when he is stressed out. This happens frequently, as the two most eccentric and capricious head honchos in Silicon Valley, Gavin Belson, head of the fictional company Hooli, and Peter Gregory, a venture capitalist, vie for Richard’s algorithmic treasure. After much agonizing, Richard turns down Gavin’s $10 million offer to buy his code and instead accepts Peter’s much smaller offer of $200,000 in seed money in order to to retain control of his company, Pied Piper, and his algorithm.

But from episode to episode, Richard and his merry men are not sure if they will be able to keep their funding, their jobs, or the house they live in. They are serfs of the realm ruled by eccentric, narcissistic titans. For all of their privilege, they act out the drama of contingent labor. For all of the hoopla surrounding their intelligence, and for all of the money invested in their potential, they can lose their funding at the whim of their overlords.  And without this funding they could lose their jobs, their health care, and their homes as well as their intellectual property.

Even when they have jobs, they don’t always have control over their labor. When Richard’s friend best friend Big Head is hired away by Hooli, Gavin learns that Big Head doesn’t have the knowledge to help them reverse engineer Richard’s complicated code. So Big Head is kept “on contract,” but taken “off project.” He finds others of his kind on the roof of the Hooli building—barbecuing stuff, tossing footballs, and trying to think of ways to kill time.

The tech workers on Silicon Valley do not control their destiny. Episode six makes this point in a bizarre story line involving a self-driving car that is programmed to drive to billionaire investor Peter’s private island. Instead, it takes the business manager of Pied Piper onto a container ship, leaving him trapped at sea, surrounded only by automated forklifts.

The serfs of Silicon Valley are dependent on the whims of bizarre and wicked rulers like Gavin Belsen and Peter Gregory. Do such characters really exist? Absolutely. Silicon Valley is seen in the tech industry as a roman à clef—a thinly veiled satire of some of the very real and very creepy people who run the tech world. And a recent legal settlement reveals what we have long suspected: that many of today’s tech overlords have conspired to keep their employees’ salaries as low as possible. As a US district judge ruled last month, Apple, Google, and Intel, to name a few, are guilty of wage fixing and driving down salaries by illegally colluding not to poach each other’s employees.

Silicon Valley’s anti-poaching conspiracy violates the Sherman Anti-Trust act, which states that any conspiracy that restrains trade or commerce is illegal and can be punished by fine, imprisonment, or both. But the practice is old, and, possibly, even medieval. A 1364 British ordinance referring to shoe cobblers read: Masters are forbidden to poach workers from other members of the craft.” In this most recent lawsuit, tech industry plaintiffs, who filed this suit in 2001, were seeking 3 billion in damages, but have settled for $324 million, which averages out to about $4,000 per plaintiff—a moral victory but a financial defeat.

Should we feel sorry for the tech serfs of Silicon Valley? Maybe not. But should we see in their labor situation something of the precariousness of the rest of us in the 99%? Should we see in their experiences some similarities to the working conditions of contingent academic faculty; of low-wage fast food, Walmart, and healthcare workers; of blamed and battered public schools teachers; of undocumented workers; and of indentured college graduates?

We should. And that’s why we should also heed the lessons of Game of Thrones. We should build an army of the 99%, employ the cunning of the imp, the tech savvy of the geeks, and the moral ferocity of Brienne of Tarth. It would be cool if we could get some wolves and some dragons, too. United, and armed with the knowledge of our true worth, are we not more powerful than the 1% that sits upon the Iron Throne?

Kathy M. Newman

A Tale of Two Cities and Two Activists

Climate change and increasing class inequities are two of the most pressing issues of our time.  How are policies and activism addressing these problems? Two young women working for progressive change in two mid-sized cities offer inspiring models, one from inside local government and the other via grassroots organizing.

Plymouth, a city of around 250,000 people on the coast of Devon about 200 miles southwest of London, is best known in the US as the port from which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed in 1620.  Once a major naval and commercial port, Plymouth shed population and prosperity as shipyards closed and docks lost traffic.  Western Europe’s largest naval base, HMNB Devonport, sits across the river from the city, but it contributes little to the local economy.

Plymouth’s City Council takes a progressive approach to the city’s social and environmental problems.  A “Fairness Commission” makes recommendations addressing such issues as substandard housing, youth unemployment, isolation of the elderly, ethnic discrimination, cuts in public services, “food deserts,” and disparities in life expectancy between affluent and deprived parts of town.  On the environmental front, Council has established a Low Carbon City Team, “responsible for promoting and delivering plans and projects that will shape Plymouth’s ability to secure radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and provide resilience to the impacts of climate change.”  Jenny Howard Coles (my niece) is a member of that seven-person team working on projects that connect energy sourcing, land-use planning, and social justice.

For instance, the Plymouth Energy Community advises residents on switching suppliers to lower costs.  It also offers a Solar Share Scheme, a public-private partnership whereby residents can invest in community-owned small-scale renewable energy installations in the city.  Six primary schools have now been fitted with solar panels, and displays inside each building show students how much energy is generated and carbon emissions reduced.  Jenny’s department also supports “self-build” eco-housing on vacant land provided by the Council, working with a community association to offer training in construction and to maintain existing jobs in the building trades.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has a population of 380,000, down from half a million before the decline of the steel industry.  It sits at the hub of Allegheny County, a conurbation of around two million.  Despite thriving educational and medical sectors, Pittsburghers still suffer stagnant wages, pockets of high poverty, and steep racial disparities in health and in academic achievement. Also, in spite of its near-total deindustrialization, Pittsburgh still has very poor air quality, due to vehicle exhaust and emissions from US Steel’s Clairton coke works.

After decades of fairly dysfunctional city government, Pittsburgh may be on the cusp of a progressive turn.  For instance, Pittsburgh has the distinction of being the first city in the world to ban “fracking” – the extraction of gas and oil through hydraulic fracturing of underground shale – within city limits, due to a groundswell of protest that has united working-class residents with mainstream environmental groups.   Another vital local movement has been the campaign to save the city’s public transportation system.

As a city of hills, rivers, and congested roads, Pittsburgh relies on mass transit to get people where they need to go.  Yet the region has lost half of its routes since 2006, and now has the second highest fares of any US city.  In response to a threatened 35% reduction in 2010, Alicia Williamson helped found Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT), which unites riders with unionized drivers and other stakeholders to “keep the public in public transit.”  This includes advocating for state funding:  Pennsylvania has provided no consistent year-to-year support for two decades.  In a key move of solidarity, PPT has promoted a “Transit Bill of Rights” that includes the right to “living wages, benefits, safe working conditions, and union rights for transit workers,” along with “safe, reliable, environmentally-sustainable, and affordable transit that is accessible to all.”

Years of campaigning were finally rewarded by passage in November 2013 of PA Act 89 providing dedicated funding for five years to Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC) and Philadelphia’s SEPTA system.  Significantly, Act 89 does not provide for restoration of services to communities that were previously cut off.  PPT’s efforts can now pivot towards that goal, along with lowering fares, and greening the fleet – investments that will require downtown corporations, many of which operate tax-free, to pay their fair share towards the mobility of their workers and customers.  The key strategy, Alicia says, is making public planning processes more transparent and inclusive so that the system better reflects the needs of the community.

Alicia Williamson and Jenny Howard Coles are both 30 years old, well educated, from middle-class families with working-class roots.  Jenny hails from Bristol, where her mother is a sculptor and her father a former lecturer in special education.  She holds a Masters in environmental and energy studies from the Center for Alternative Technology.   Before signing on in Plymouth, she worked as an event coordinator, handling sustainability issues for major summer arts festivals.  Alicia, who has lived in Pittsburgh since 2006, is from Duluth, Minnesota, where her dad worked for the Social Security Administration and mother was a high school guidance counselor.  She has a PhD in English, having written a dissertation on the sexual politics of novels written by members of the Socialist Party of America, and she has been teaching undergraduates at Pitt for the past eight years.

Both women show remarkable political savvy and capacity for partnership in their projects.  Jenny understands that good ideas generated with groups like the Plymouth Energy Community need to be thought through with the city Planning Department and need to meet EU statutory requirements for sustainability.  She likes the way this leads to what she calls “joined up thinking.”  So, for instance, the Fairness Commission’s recommendation for school meals for all pupils was implemented in a way that met goals for employment, health, and low-carbon in one move: on-site kitchens were re-opened in each school so that meals were fresher and hotter, rather than being shipped from a central kitchen.  And meals were prepared using locally sourced food, thereby supporting area farmers and businesses and reducing fuel used in transport.

In a similar-but-different vein, Alicia is working with and between two powerful institutions – Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC)  – whose interests overlap in some areas and conflict in others.  As a well-informed and independent community group, not subject to the internal politics of either organization, PPT can take positions that push their agendas.  Crucially, Alicia and other staffers have partnered with the union: many ATU drivers are also members of PPT.  They have also won a seat at the table as PAAC begins a new round of planning for a regional transportation strategy.  Pittsburgh is out in front with this kind of partnership.  Although the ATU International is committed to working with riders’ advocacy groups, PPT was the only such group attending the union’s Transit Action Month rally in Washington DC last week.

A key difference, of course, is that Jenny works within local government, in a city where the Council supports its staff in advising community groups advocating for just and sustainable practices.  She has a direct influence on policy and the resources to implement sound programs.  And she has access to data that allow her to assess progress on Low Carbon goals, such as  a 40% increase in bicycle ridership.  When I asked if she gets discouraged about the slow pace of change in the face of massive problems, she says: “It’s difficult, but good work is good work and it feels good to be engaged in it.”  She believes a food crisis is inevitable within ten years, given the impacts of climate change, and wants to help Plymouth develop the capacity to withstand it.

Unlike Jenny, Alicia works from the outside in, drawing on her experience as an activist for social and economic justice, as she pressures entrenched institutions to heed their “public” and meet the community’s needs.  She’s canvassed, petitioned, demonstrated, testified, lobbied, and handled media for the cause.  At the DC Transit Action rally, Alicia shared the stage with the Rev. Al Sharpton.  She was  one of few women and likely the youngest speaker in a roster of seasoned pols and union leaders.  “Public transportation is the backbone of healthy economies, environments, and communities,” she said, thanking the ATU “for making our transit systems better and safer and more equitable.”  When I ask Alicia the same question about discouragement, she says: “I refer to this work as ‘recreation’ in the most profound sense of the word; re-creating our selves and our world together.”

Jenny and Alicia both stress teamwork with communities in their two cities as a source for the energy, fresh ideas, and optimism that sustain them as they address the impacts of climate change and structural inequalities.  In Plymouth as in Pittsburgh, while fully aware of the daunting big picture, they have chosen near-term local issues around which people can unite and witness the positive effects their actions can have.

Nick Coles

The Value(s) of Working-Class Jobs

When I was a kid growing up I looked up to my cousin. Ronald was twenty years my senior, and in his mid-twenties he decided to become a bus driver on London Transport. Whenever I saw him, I would be enthralled by his tales of the road, the ordinary stories of depot life, his work mates and his passengers. To a young kid, Ronald’s job made sense to me.  He did something tangibly worthwhile. My family didn’t own a car, so all our journeys involved some form of public transport, either by train or more usually by bus. In my universe, bus drivers had status. Their work was more intelligible than the labor of the Ford worker next door or the TV repairman across the street. These images of working-class work were reinforced in popular culture, and one of the most popular TV sitcoms of the decade was On the Buses,a series still being rerun somewhere in the further reaches of the UK TV schedule.  In the 1960s and 70s, we regularly saw representations of blue-collar work on our screens.

I was thinking about Ronald the other week as I read a biographical piece about the newly appointed Conservative government minister for the UK Department of Media, Culture and Sport, Sajid Javid MP. By anyone’s measure, the 44 year old Javid has had a stellar career as an investment banker with Deutsche Bank, eventually becoming a board member with a reputed £3 million annual income and a luxury lifestyle including private schooling for his children.

By contrast, Javid’s father arrived in the UK in 1961 from Pakistan with only a pound in his pocket, and he worked various jobs including driving buses in Bristol. That personal history is now a central part of the political biography of the son. Bus driving and similar jobs seem significant for politicians and journalists these days, and, they presumably assume, for their audiences.

We can read this ‘son of a bus driver’ narrative in various ways. The first would be the ‘look how far he’s come’ school of thought, which highlights the son’s battles against the odds to get to university and then on to a thoroughly middle-class trajectory. The second version uses the story to define the son as ‘a Conservative Party MP with roots in the working-class community’. Both positions at once use and discard working-class identity as the credibility it affords recedes into the background. What is notable is that being able to claim to be the son of a working-class bus driver still has traction, perhaps especially in a party seen as elitist and out of touch, led by a privately educated cadre of bluebloods.

But there’s a third way of reading this narrative of upward mobility: noting the dominant middle-class perspective it reveals. While class background is noteworthy, it is also safely tucked away a generation before. That means we don’t have to address questions of class or structural inequality directly. Rather than asking why don’t we recruit MPs from the ranks of bus drivers – or care workers, cleaners, and shop assistants – this dominant middle-class narrative naturalizes the idea that we should, and perhaps have to, draw our political class from people from who are already part of an elite privileged middle class. If being from a working-class background has not harmed Jarid’s political capital, I suspect an actual bus driver applying to stand as an MP for any of the mainstream parties would find that capital has little currency for contemporary selection panels.

This all leads me to worry about what will happen in the future, since all the mainstream UK political parties are increasingly recruiting potential members from an ever narrower band socially, economically, and educationally. Will a next generation of politicians find some kind of status and kudos from claiming a grandparental working-class background?

This distance between political elites and average people found expression in debates last year about MPs salaries. The task of determining MPs remuneration has been stripped from them – yes, they used to decide their own pay – and given instead to an independent parliamentary body.  It recommended in December 2013 that members should get an 11% rise, taking their pay from £66,000 to £77,000. The average salary in the UK is £26,500. The debate around this proposal shows that many politicians have come to see their elite peers, who earn about three times the average salary, as typical and representative of British society. This is further reinforced by the fact that many of the current cabinet, 23 out of 29, are millionaires. Even the opposition Labour Party’s shadow cabinet can claim seven millionaires. The result is that working-class jobs and the people who do them are outside the circle of experience of most senior politicians.

My cousin Ronald retired after working on the buses in east London for four decades last year. When he joined London Transport in the 1970s his job had some real measure of status.  Indeed, London busmen in the 1950s (and they were all men then) were described as radical aristocrats due to their pay and conditions of service. Gradually through his career my cousin’s job dropped in status, becoming less desirable as the decades went by. He had to move depots several times as a result of corporate reorganisation and was made redundant at least once as the now privatized company he worked for lost the contract for the routes he drove. Nonetheless he retired on a company pension from a still heavily unionised job. Ronald has two children now in their twenties I know they don’t work on the buses, but perhaps they could try out as politicians? After all, their dad was a bus driver.

Tim Strangleman

Highway or River?

Is life more like driving on a highway or rafting down a river?  Do we choose a destination and then try to find a way to get there?  Or do we simply react to the varieties of experience presented to us, from dangerous rapids to calm stretches with time to look around, without knowing where the river is taking us?

I have presented this as a forced-answer either/or question to students to see if those from middle-class origins are more likely to choose the highway analogy and those from the working class, the river.  By and large they do, though nowhere near uniformly and not without a lot of ambiguity about how to define their class origins.

The discussions this initiates are much richer than I can convey here, but in general the highway analogy emphasizes that as individuals we choose our own destinations, subject to change over the life course, and it’s up to us to find our way, to set our goals and achieve them.  Conversely, the river analogy de-emphasizes goal-setting and emphasizes the need for alertness and responsiveness to what is immediately before us.  At least the way I present it, the highway analogy overvalues official knowledge while the river analogy overvalues direct experience.  The highway requires lengthy periods of preparation and planning – before getting on a highway or at chosen stops along the way.  But if life is a river, you’re already in it (and can’t get out), and you need to learn as you go – both from others in your particular raft and from experience.  Others (parents, teachers, and mentors) help you prepare for the highway, but then students envision driving alone.  Rafting down a river, on the other hand, conjures a group where individuals need an easy responsiveness not only to the river but to others in the raft.

While I’m pretty sure life is much more like a river, to me both analogies make sense and are fruitful ways of trying to picture basic assumptions people make about how to live as they live their lives – and these assumptions tend to correlate with class background and/or current class position.  Those from the college-educated and relatively affluent middle class tend to choose the highway analogy because they are inclined to believe that they are – or should be – masters of their own destiny.  Those from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds would like to be masters of their own destiny too, but they’re skeptical that such mastery is realistically available to most people, and meanwhile they had better pay attention to what is immediately before them, including relationships with others they count on and who are counting on them.

Whatever you think of these life analogies, they are a way to point to different assumptions, expectations, and predispositions that seed different ways of acting and being in the world – different cultures that are likely to misunderstand each other if they are unaware that others have different expectations and assumptions.   Highway people may tend to see river folk as passive, strictly reactive, and (famously) incapable of delaying gratification – and given the relatively insignificant role they give to the force of circumstance, they also tend to be highly judgmental.   River people, in turn, while often willing to defer to highway-drivers, are inclined to exaggerate how distant, humorless, unresponsive, and “cold” they are.   They also regularly worry that highway-drivers are “out of touch,” “lack common sense,” and are dangerously over-confident or “arrogant.”

Different cultures are bound to misunderstand each other, but the misunderstandings can be fewer and of less consequence when people are aware of the differences.  When Englishmen visit Italy, in a much-used example, they expect rather dramatic differences in ways of doing and being, and thus are more likely to learn from and enjoy the exposure – or at least to suspend judgment.   Awareness of cultural difference allows one to recognize the strengths and advantages of other cultures and the weaknesses and disadvantages of your own.

These are the basic premises of Betsy Leondar-Wright’s new book Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.  Leondar-Wright surveyed and interviewed participants in 25 different social-justice groups and directly observed the groups’ meetings and actions, carefully correlating “class trajectories” with the roles people played in their groups and with their different approaches to solving various common problems.  (“Class trajectories” combine both class background and current class position with a person’s orientation toward the future – e.g., intentional and unintentional upward and downward mobility.)  She purposely chose groups with diverse memberships and found that small-group interactions revealed a certain deftness with recognizing and dealing with racial, gender, and movement-tradition differences, but were amazingly unaware of class cultural differences.  Her argument is that “missing class” both creates unnecessary problems and misses vital opportunities for drawing on the full array of class-cultural strengths within these groups.

A rare combination of empirical rigor and insightful storytelling, Missing Class is chock full of situations and problems social justice activists will recognize, often with new insight into the crazy multicultural mix of race, gender, class, and movement tradition in the variety of groups Leondar-Wright examines.   As I read, it occurred to me on multiple occasions that social justice groups, including bigger ones like some unions, provide relatively rare opportunities where different classes experience one another within contexts where awareness of  racial and gender cultural differences is well above the norm for most American social settings.  That is, there is a base of multicultural experience that should make it easier for us to see and benefit from our class culture differences.  This may in fact be a kind of competitive advantage on the Left, especially as the younger generation of organizers and activists are so much less sectarian and self-righteous than my generation was.

Leondar-Wright’s class categories are more nuanced (and, therefore, closer to the messiness of social realities) than my simple middle-class/working-class binary.   But besides being a handbook for “strengthening social movement groups,” Missing Class is an effective assault on the cultural hegemony of the professional middle class in America – and specifically on that wing of American sociology rooted in the 1980s classic Habits of the Heart, which so firmly asserted that there is no “genuinely working-class culture” and that “[e]veryone in the United States thinks largely in middle-class categories.”

I have no problem with the highway-drivers being our preferred national culture, and surely the working class could benefit from some broader goal-setting and a more expansive sense of possibility and confidence in the future.   But unchecked, unnourished by other more realistic and less confident cultures, I fear the highway-drivers are increasingly out of touch and dangerously arrogant.  From “school reform” to foreign policy, they have a tendency to make things worse by being blind to, or at least grossly underestimating, the force of circumstance.   They need to learn from rafters who have more daily (actually much too much) experience of the force of circumstance.  Together we might simultaneously better negotiate and reduce that force.

On the evidence of Missing Class, such grand cross-class coalitions may be emerging within those tributaries, both here and abroad, that are becoming increasingly strong and insistent that justice must be social.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Still Learning from the Scholarship Boy

2014 is still young, but we have lost a handful of British working-class scholars and activists who have been pivotal for working-class studies and politics, starting with cultural studies legend Stuart Hall, who died in February. In March, Tim Strangleman noted that we lost two British politicians who have been especially important voices for the working class, Tony Benn and Bob Crow. And in April we lost Richard Hoggart, the infamous Leeds “scholarship boy” who was orphaned at eight but managed to study and work his way into an elite British academic class. He was one of the original founders of the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies and his important 1957 work, The Uses of Literacy, is one of the founding texts of working-class studies.

Richard Herbert “Bert” Hoggart was born in Leeds in 1918, where his father, a veteran of Boer war, died just two years later. Hoggart was raised by his mother until he was 8, at which point his mother died of tuberculosis. At Hoggart’s mother’s funeral, an aunt quipped that “orphanages are very good nowadays,” but fortunately for Hoggart, he was sent to live with his grandmother.

Though Hoggart failed math, he eventually won a scholarship to Leeds University.  He served in North Africa during WWII, and after the war he applied for nine assistant professorships and one job in the John Lewis department store. Eight universities turned him down, but the University of Hull hired him, and Hoggart he stayed there for 13 years. After an influential book on W.H. Auden in 1951 and The Uses of Literacy in 1957, Hoggart started the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies in 1964 and hired Stuart Hall as his deputy director.

Hoggart’s legacy is important for us, because without Hoggart, it could be argued, there would be no working-class studies. The Uses of Literacy, exemplifies some of the core ideas and approaches at the heart of our field, starting with the idea of taking the working class and its culture seriously. As Sue Owens notes, The Uses of Literacy, “put the working class on the cultural map, not as objects of middle-class scrutiny but as people with a culture and a point of view of their own.”

According to Stuart Hall, Hoggart defined culture as “how working-class people spoke and thought, what language and common assumptions about life they shared, in speech and action, what social attitudes informed their daily practice, what moral categories they deployed, even if only aphoristically, to make judgments about their own behaviour and that of others —including, of course, how they brought all this to bear on what they read, saw and sang.”  Hall’s summary would serve as a good description of much of the work now being done within working-class studies.

In The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart also provides a blueprint for the working-class academic memoir, the kind of writing that acknowledges that those who are born into working-class families but ascend to academia never completely shed a certain psychic pain and sense of dislocation. Hoggart wrote about how the scholarship boy is cut off from his parents and his community by the community’s perception that “E’s bright.” This kind work today is represented at its best by Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America and the essays in This Fine Place so Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class.

Hoggart’s work seems especially relevant in post-economic collapse America. While the Britain of his youth was terribly class bound, perhaps we are nearly as class bound today in the US, where class mobility is at an all time low. And, though class mobility was a necessity for Hoggart personally, it was also a sore spot. He hated prejudice against working-class people, but he did not celebrate the absorption of working-class culture into mainstream, Americanized consumer culture. He hated rock n roll, 1950s British “milk bars” (what in the US we called the soda counter in a drug store), and Hollywood films.

Oddly, Hoggart was at once a cultural conservative, privileging literature and literary criticism, and an institutional radical. In founding the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies, he cleared the way for literature’s decline as the primary focus of English departments. According to the British writer Michael Bailey, “Hoggart argued that ‘the methods of literary criticism and analysis’ ought to be made ‘relevant to the better understanding of all levels of writing and much else in popular culture, and of the way people responded to them.’”

Though Hoggart was an institutional radical, he was not an activist. He claimed that he was different from E.P. Thompson in that he tended to “be a bit leery of people making public causes in the streets.” He wasn’t a public protester, and he had strong feelings about those who were: “The hairs rise on the back of my neck when I see a group of teachers chanting.” He believed he could make his greatest contribution as a writer.

In this sense, Hoggart has made an important contribution indeed, with such books as Teaching Literature (1963), Higher Education and Cultural Change (1966), Contemporary Cultural Studies (1966), Speaking to Each Other (1970), Only Connect: On Culture and Communication (1972), An English Temper (1982), and most recently, Mass Media in a Mass Society: Myth and Reality (2004).

Interestingly, Hoggart argued that the common thread in his written work was the idea that everyone has the right to be heard: “Their common source is a sense of the importance of the right of each of us to speak out about how we see life, the world; and so the right to have access to the means by which that capacity to speak may be gained. The right, also, to try to reach out to speak to others, not to have that impulse inhibited by social barriers, maintained by those in power politically or able to exercise power in other ways.”

Hoggart is now gone, just a few years shy of what would have been his 100th birthday (in 2018). But how many of us, and how many of our working-class students, today have a voice because this tenacious scholarship boy dared to transcend his class and then continued to fight for the right of working-class people to maintain and study their own way of life?

Kathy M. Newman and Sherry Linkon

 

Will “Accompanying” Work as an Organizing Principle?

Liberals and progressives have generally seen union and community organizing as the best tools to resist corporate power and provide the working class with a political voice.  But in this era of neoliberalism, these traditional models of organizing have lost their effectiveness.

Unions have continued to lose membership and are fighting among themselves over organizing and politics. Building trades, manufacturing, and public sector unions seem to be going in different directions despite the efforts of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka to bring the labor movement together. When direct attacks on labor occur, the labor movement does come together, as we saw in Ohio in 2011. But not always, as in the struggle over collective bargaining in other states like Wisconsin and Michigan, where some unions preferred pragmatic, self-interested politics that led to distrust and divisions.

Community organizing has also suffered, especially from fatigue.  In 2012, Obama’s mobilization efforts were incredibly effective in organizing women and people of color. This was no small deal given the political attacks on and the 2009 collapse of the preeminent community organization, ACORN, which required activists to build new community organizations, especially around working-class issues like housing and income inequality. These new organizations have succeeded in campaigns around vacant properties and the minimum wage, but overall, community organizing  has become episodic, and it wins too seldom.

This is particularly important for the Democratic Party and its base. As Michael Tomasky predicts, the Democrats’ problem will be motivating voters. The Democratic Party is terrified that in the 2014 mid-term elections its base (African-Americans, Latinos, women, and young adults) will not show up and it will be unable to gain new support from the solidly Republican white working class. The result would be decisive Republican Senatorial and Gubernatorial gains that will be as difficult to unwind as the Republican redistricting of the last three years.

Today’s conversations and reevaluations, especially about community and union organizing approaches, have been occurring across the political spectrum, but we should pay particular attention to some ideas emerging from the old New Left.  In a review of two new books by Gar Alperovitz and my Youngstown colleague Staughton Lynd, David Moberg notes that Lynd has attributed the current political environment to the American Left’s inability to build real mass movements that can pressure politicians. As Lynd puts it, “Obama is a liberal, a good human being, and we have failed him.” Like Lynd, many in the progressive community have given up hope for the kind of Labor or Socialist Party that exists in other countries to advocate working-class issues. His solution is to move beyond the single-issue politics of an earlier era.  Instead, we should seek greater participation in representative democracy with distinct moral overtones.

Perhaps one way of understanding Lynd’s ideas is through Pope Francis’ teachings and approaches to poverty. In a world of so much wealth, the Pope sees poverty as a scandal that demands justice and requires us to bear witness. The Pope’s vision is not merely an updating of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a call to action that echoes the ideas of liberation theologians from the Global South.  Lynd echoes the Pope’s sensibility, using the term “accompanying” rather than “witnessing” in thinking about organizing — a term associated with the Pope’s murdered colleague, El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero.  Pope Francis warns that witnessing is not about managing, instructing, or judging (like “legalists, scribes, and hypocrites”) but rather about listening, accepting, and validating others. Real power is gained by being a role model “with that zeal to seek people, heal people, to love people.”  Likewise, Lynd sees accompanying as avoiding didactic approaches and the often situational ethics associated with organizing. Rather, accompanying involves deep and extended community obligations and committing to “equality, listening, and seeking consensus and exemplary action.” This includes the free interchange of ideas and modeling personal and democratic behavior. This moral approach can help local organizations build real pressure to move public opinion. As Timothy Weaver suggested at a recent Urban Studies Association Conference, it is time to move beyond “the dead weight of pragmatism and feasibility.”

Forget parachuting in community organizers who work hard during the election season only to disappear after the results. Forget about the current servicing model of unionism or  “hot shop” union organizing that never builds real union solidarity. Pope Francis and Lynd believe that community and labor organizing begins where you are and embraces a moral approach, not just organizing tactics. It engenders real participation and not just cooperation.

This approach is already being used effectively. The low-wage worker and Wal-Mart campaigns and strikes may have seemed minimal and episodic as workplace actions. But these same actions have had strong community support (that included religious figures and community groups to provide moral authority) as well as worker involvement.  Both locally and nationally, these efforts have been crucial in moving public opinion around inequality and living wages. In Ohio, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative “brings together neighborhood, faith-based and labor groups to build the capacity necessary to create sustainable change in our community.” The MVOC has provided a moral and ethical model for grassroots organizing around economic opportunity, fighting human trafficking, housing and vacant property reform, and food and health care access. This morally-focused model of accompanying has inspired other community organizations statewide, including religious groups such as Ohio Prophetic Voicesand ACTION, various neighborhood associations, and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.

Lynd’s concept of accompanying as an approach to organizing calls us all to organize where we are, and above all, to assert and sustain strong moral claims to justice, equality, and fairness before we get too quickly to the “pragmatic and feasible.”

John Russo

 

 

Climate Change and Income Inequality

People committed to struggles for peace and justice always have our work cut out for us.  The forces arrayed against us are powerful and determined, and the range of issues and crises demanding action is daunting.  Given our limited time and energy, where and how do we apply them for the common good?  What guides us in deciding?  Life experience and the values we uphold, no doubt, but also our analysis of the present situation.  For me, the two broad concerns that have become most pressing, at least since the economic collapse of 2008, are income inequality and climate change.

These are, of course, twin products of industrial capitalism and its class system.  The rising oceans, killer heat waves, floods, species extinctions, and crop failures we are witnessing on the climate front – like the poverty wages, attacks on labor, bank fraud, malnutrition, and “austerity” in public services on the class front – are inter-related signs of a system in crisis.  Yet the two issues – climate change and income inequality – are rarely linked in a common analysis.

For instance, a recent study by the UK Government Office of Science predicts that, given increasing global population, “by 2030 the world will need to produce 50 percent more food and energy, together with 30 percent more fresh water, whilst mitigating and adapting to climate change.”  Author John Beddington adds, “This threatens to create a ‘perfect storm’ of global events,” without specifying what those events might be or how they will be exacerbated by unequal distribution of the necessary resources.

The just-published fifth assessment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goes a bit further, according to The Guardian’s report:

The volume of scientific literature on the effects of climate change has doubled since the last report, and the findings make an increasingly detailed picture of how climate change – in tandem with existing fault lines such as poverty and inequality – poses a much more direct threat to life and livelihood. (my italics)

One study that does make the link explicit comes from the NSF-funded Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in a report titled “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies.”  When Nafeez Ahmed wrote about this report in his Earth Insight blog for The Guardian, he touched a nerve regarding our “convergent catastrophes,” and generated a storm of commentary.  The study, Ahmed writes, “highlight[s] the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.”

The HANDY report begins with a review of past collapses of societies – such as the Roman Empire, Han dynasty, and Mayan civilization – to demonstrate that societal collapse is “a process recurrent in history, and global in its distribution.”  Collapse typically entails loss of political authority, breakdown of economic systems, and inability to sustain the population.   Not all societies collapse, of course, but in those cited the cycle of “boom and bust” seems to take about 300 – 500 years.

Noting “widespread concerns that current trends in population and resource use are unsustainable,” the authors apply their analysis of such collapses to the question “whether modern civilization is similarly susceptible.”  Explanations for particular cases of collapse vary by time and place and include drought, foreign invasion, earthquakes, technological change, famine, and popular uprising.  But across states and cultures that have collapsed over the past 5000 years, the authors find two common features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, and the division of society into Elites (rich) and Commoners (poor).”

Using the HANDY theoretical model, the authors analyze interactions between population and natural resources as these tend towards equilibrium or towards collapse, across three scenarios: 1. Egalitarian society without Elites, which can achieve a “soft landing” to equilibrium;2. Equitable society, with Workers and non-Workers (students, retirees, disabled people), which oscillates a bit but can still achieve a negotiated sustainable equilibrium; 3. Unequal society with Elites and Commoners — “most closely reflecting the reality of our world today” – in which,

Given economic stratification, collapse is very difficult to avoid and requires major policy changes, including major reductions in inequality and population growth rates.  . . .  However, collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.

Good luck with that, you might be thinking – but it is the goal!

The HANDY analysis is mathematical and complex, but two significant points emerge clearly.  One is that technological innovation does not reverse the trend towards collapse:  “Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”  For example, greater fuel economies for cars can have the “rebound” effect of encouraging people to drive more and faster, in newer cars.  Current “policy effects,” despite occasional “green” tweaking, all tend towards encouraging consumption as a stimulus to economic growth.

The other point addresses the conundrum: do the leaders of the fossil fuel industries, and the politicians who do their legislative bidding, not know that their activities will make the Earth uninhabitable, for themselves as well as the rest of us?  Well, “it is important to note that the Elites – due to their wealth – do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners.  This buffer of wealth allows the Elites to continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.”   This mechanism, the authors believe, may explain the obliviousness of the elites in the face of the impending Roman and Mayan collapses.  But they got theirs in the end.

Although I’ve been concerned here with scenarios of collapse, I am an optimist, still hopeful that the arc of human history does indeed bend towards justice.  I am also a realist, and I sense that the arc is going to need a mighty shove from those of us who still believe we can shape our history.  The fundamental problem we face, as the HANDY study makes clear, is that a sustainable equilibrium of population and resources is incompatible with business as usual under industrial capitalism.  And the difference in the current cycle of boom and bust is that the society threatened with collapse is not Roman or Mayan or even American, but global.  It’s all of us.

Perhaps I ‘ve gone a long way round to affirm the obvious: that issues of economic and social justice are interrelated with issues of environmental justice and climate change, and that we need to keep making those links visible in our activism.   But I find it helpful to have an analysis that explains the linking mechanism and points a way forward, while laying out very clearly the consequences of inaction.

Nick Coles