Economic Nationalism and the Half-Life of Deindustrialization

In a 60 Minutes interview in September, Steven Bannon touted his form of economic nationalism and suggested that Democrats like Senator Sherrod Brown and U.S Representative Tim Ryan understood his economic vision, even if they didn’t agree with him. It was fitting that he name-checked Brown and Ryan, as both come from Northeast Ohio, where the history of deindustrialization began 40 years ago this fall. On September 19th, 1977 — known locally as “Black Monday” — Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced that it was shutting down, kicking off a wave of steel mill closings that would displace more than 40,000 area workers basic steel and steel-related industries.

At the time, some explained deindustrialization as part of the “natural economic order.” Borrowing the term from Joseph Schumpeter, economists and business leaders saw the closings as part of an evolutionary process, a form of “creative destruction” that caused temporary hardships but would lead both capital and labor to more productive activities.  While commentators acknowledged that the process was difficult and uncomfortable, they insisted that the ultimate outcome would be economic growth and a higher standard of living.

Eager to validate such promises, local leaders brought in an array of speakers, including Irving Kristol and Michael Novak from the American Enterprise Institute, who gave public lectures at Youngstown State University. Both insisted that the Mahoning Valley would prosper over time as new industries took root and workers retrained for new jobs. It was all part of what Novak called The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

But as time passed, the Mahoning Valley continued to decline economically and to lose population. Journalists and scholars stopped asking “when will Youngstown recover?” and started trying to explain what was wrong with this community. Some blamed the region’s decline on political corruption, union contracts that gave workers too much, or the out-of-date skills of the local workforce. By the 1990s, the idealism of creative destruction had been replaced by the politics of resentment, perhaps most clearly represented by Congressman James Traficant, the first modern politician who voiced a version of economic nationalism and has sometimes been compared with Donald Trump.

The politics of resentment were also fueled by a parade of presidential candidates, each promising to address the problems caused by economic restructuring, and each failing to do so. The most infamous of those was Bill Clinton, whose support of NAFTA, the war on drugs, and welfare reform still generates resentment from voters in this area. As Hillary Clinton learned last year, deindustrialized communities have long memories.

In places like Youngstown, many people still remember what life was like when employment was high, jobs paid well, workers were protected by strong unions, and industrial labor provided a source of pride – not only because it produced tangible goods but also because it was recognized as challenging, dangerous, and important. The memory of what it felt like to transform raw ore into steel pipes and to be part of the connected, prosperous community that work generated still haunts the children and grandchildren of those workers. They long for the sense of purpose that industrial labor brought, even as they stock shelves at Walmart, wait tables at Applebee’s, and try to persuade strangers to make donations from a cubicle at the local call center. They resent not only the instability of largely part-time jobs with uncertain schedules and below-the-poverty-line wages but also the politicians and experts who insist that they should either stop whining, go to college (which for most would involve taking on significant debt), or move away from their homes and families to someplace with more and better jobs. Even more, they resent the educated big city elites who view them as exotic or foolish holdouts from a bygone era. That resentment emerged as support for populism in the 2016 election, and for too many it fuels racist and anti-immigrant positions.

In our 2002 book Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, we wrote that Youngstown’s story was America’s story. That seems even more true today, as Americans struggle to adapt to the growing precarity of work and to a changed political landscape. As Youngstown marks the 40th anniversary of its first major mill closing, people here understand that deindustrialization did not end in 1977, or even in 1982, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed the last of its local mills. They know that deindustrialization has a half-life. Like toxic waste, its potency decreases slowly, and it continues to cause harm – to individuals, to communities, and, as Americans increasingly recognize, to the nation as a whole.

Yet it is also worth remembering this: the first response to Black Monday in 1977 was not despair or resentment. It was activism. Busloads of local residents went to Washington to demand assistance from the government. Churches, civic groups, banks, and unions worked together to devise a plan for the community to buy and manage the mills. That part of local memory has faded, but the populism it reflected has returned.

Like the economic changes since the late 1970s, the politics of resentment will not disappear any time soon. New technologies and artificial intelligence will likely displace even more Americans, and workers no longer buy old promises about creative destruction or the great potential of a knowledge economy. The memory of an era when working-class jobs were good jobs has not yet faded, but neither has the hope that new policies will bring back good jobs. In the half-life of deindustrialization, Bannon may be right that traditional party affiliations will give way to a political contest between right-wing and left-wing populist movements, each promising – as so many politicians have before – to create real change for working people.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo

A version of this commentary appeared in September on the American Prospect blog.

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This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Sherry Linkon, The Working Class and the Economy, Work, Working-Class Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Economic Nationalism and the Half-Life of Deindustrialization

  1. Stan Sorscher says:

    Creative destruction only works when the economy is running at full capacity and employers NEED the workers who are being retrained. Retraining solves nothing until employers are hiring.

    The best job training is a job.

    Like

  2. Dr. Denise Ann Narcisse says:

    I agree that this is an excellent piece. it is unfortunate that a politics of resentment is being caste/framed by some as a purely racial problem rather than a social class problem with perhaps racial implications. I look forwarded to hearing a presentation by Dr. Carol Anderson in Youngstown, OH to learn whether or not and how she links deindustrialization to a resentment of politics to (as what her recent book calls) White Rage. (Still addressing the intersection of social class, race, and gender, particularly in the economic domain, John and Sherry). Denise A. Narcisse..

    Like

  3. Roy W Wilson says:

    Excellent piece! Too bad the media also seems to (mostly) have only short-term memory (like DJT and, perhaps, many of his followers).

    Like

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