Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as US President, and the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, have refocused attention on the connections between political events and deindustrialized working-class communities.
Deindustrialization first emerged as an explanatory framework for the wrenching changes underway in the 1970s and 1980s. Out of this economic and political crucible, an interdisciplinary field of research – which we loosely call “deindustrialization studies” – has taken root. Fundamentally, deindustrialization is a process of physical and social ruination as well as part of a wider political project that leaves working-class communities impoverished and demoralized. Forced forgetting is an integral part of this process as mills and factories are demolished, working-class institutions crushed, and areas are recontextualized as something new.
So where is the field of deindustrialization studies today?
The recent conference of the Working-Class Studies Association in the United Kingdom provides us with a unique opportunity to consider where the field is at, as there were no fewer than twelve sessions dedicated to the topic and a healthy scattering of other papers across the program. It might be too early to speak of a “golden age” of deindustrialization studies in the United Kingdom, but the conference suggests as much. So great was its presence, it felt something like being in a deindustrial boot-camp after four days.
Several things stand out to me.
Though there is still plenty of great work on deindustrialization coming out of the United States, the centre of gravity has clearly shifted to Europe. This is remarkable given the centrality of the US to deindustrialization studies until recently. Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison’s The Deindustrialization of America, Jefferson Cowie’s Capital Moves, Kathryn Marie Dudley’s The End of the Line, Christine Walley’s Exit Zero, Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo’s Steeltown USA, among many others, are foundational to the field. But now, an impressive number of British graduate students and recent graduates are working within the deindustrialization framework. I learned of “lost futures” in Teeside, deindustrializing bodies in Clydeside, “environmental classism” in the Anthracite region of Pennsylvania, post-redundancy employment for Scottish steelworkers, and post-industrial life in the Kent coalfield. , Interest is also surging in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and Canada.
Most of these researchers come from deindustrialized communities. Many seem to be the children and grandchildren of displaced workers, yet another manifestation of deindustrialization’s half-life. For this reason, perhaps, the field relies primarily on oral history to recover the lived interior of job loss and how this structural violence ripples outward through individual lives, families, and communities. These personal connections help explain researchers’ need to bear witness to the structural violence of deindustrialization and to make it visible to others.
And yet, by conference’s end, four key challenges for the field came into focus for me.
1/ Deindustrialization is not just local: There is a proliferation of local case studies, but very little that is translocal, national, or transnational in scope. Many of these local studies, which have been the “stock in trade” of the new labor history for a generation, according to Jefferson Cowie, are also place-bounded, rather than place-based. For example, one senior researcher new to deindustrialization studies argued near conference’s end that nowhere else than in his study area has the unfolding crisis been as severe. This kind of exceptionalism ignores the scale and scope of the structural violence underway. No place is merely local.
On the flip-side, another stream of conference sessions focused instead on the contemporary politics of class. From what I saw, these papers presented a birds-eye perspective, present-focused and without much empirical grounding to back up the sweeping statements. Many of these presentations were thus disconnected from the lived realities and histories of working people.
Surely, there is some middle ground between the two. Now more than ever, we need to go beyond stand-alone local or regional case studies and make inter-regional or cross-national comparisons. We need to connect local and regional analyses and follow the transnational flow, what Cowie calls the “migratory history” of ideas, people, and capital.
Cowie’s 1999 book Capital Moves, which followed RCA TV production from one locality to the next, represents one way to scale-up our analysis without losing sight of working-class lives. There are others. Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize winning book, Chernobyl Prayer, offers a sweeping history of that disaster from the perspectives of those who lived it. It is both heart-breaking and poignant. Almost like a collage, but more purposeful, Alexievich engages with the “big history” of Chernobyl through and with the “little histories” of ordinary people. I can’t imagine a more humanistic approach to the writing of contemporary history.
2/ Focusing on loss only takes us so far politically: Many presentations at the Working-Class Studies conference focused on the profound loss experienced by industrial workers, who used Linkon’s notion of “deindustrialization’s half-life” as a clarion call to study the experience of working-class loss. After four days, I left the conference convinced that as a field of research we need to go beyond loss. To understand the half-life, we need to understand its causes and accompanying politics as well as its effects. How far does the study of loss take us politically?
We’ve seen evidence of this in effects-based collective bargaining in the United States, where unions can negotiate the “effects” of plant closings (with no leverage to speak of) but not the plant closing decision itself. As a field, we need to engage with the wider structures of socio-economic and political power so we understand better the underlying historical forces at work and how we might begin to counter them.
Locally-based research can do this, but we need to engage with deindustrialized communities as something more than objects of research. Christine Walley’s current work with a South Chicago museum, for example, is creatively co-curating public memory projects where family members are reunited with material objects held by the museum – a photograph is taken with them at the relevant site (such as at a former steel mill). It is a beautiful project that can, over time, contribute to what South African oral historian Sean Field calls social regeneration – which becomes urgent in the aftermath of social rupture, when the ties that bind are violently torn asunder.
3/ Beyond the Heartlands: The field of deindustrialization studies is very much focused on single-industry towns of steel, mining, and auto-manufacture where nothing has filled the economic vacuum — places where deindustrialization is still visibly present. Not coincidentally, former “industrial heartland” areas are almost always associated with male proletarian workers who were perceived to be central to the nation during the industrial age. As a field, we need to go “beyond the heartland” (the conference theme this year) and consider deindustrialization in other areas. For example, David Nettleingham invited conference-goers to consider rural areas where this industrial past is largely forgotten. Similarly, a panel of Canadians invited us to look again at metropolitan cities where the effects of deindustrialization are submerged by gentrification rendering the plight of displaced industrial workers largely invisible. Several conference-goers such as Stefan Berger, Jackie Clarke, and Alice Mah spoke eloquently to how deindustrialization unfolded differently across national borders. Such research raises all kinds of questions about the differential politics of deindustrialization.
4/ Race Matters: At the conference, with a couple notable exceptions, deindustrialization focused on white workers, and the scholars and audiences were almost entirely white. This reflects a danger that we are contributing to the coding of the working-class as white. This is an urgent matter given the political struggles sweeping North America and Europe, and the increasing political polarization amongst progressives between those who blame “race” or “class” for Trump, Brexit, and right-wing populism. This sets up a false choice between race and class.
For deindustrialization studies, the challenge is not only to recognize that the industrial working class was diverse, but also to consider how industrialism and its spatial restructuring are part of wider structures of racial and class power. The conference keynote by Satnam Virdee on “Race, Class and the Politics of Solidarity” provides us with an inspiring example of how deindustrialization scholars, working across geographic and temporal scales, can proceed.
Much more work needs to be done if deindustrialization studies is going to have a wider impact. I am hopeful as there are signs that a growing number of researchers in the field have recognized the need to engage with the historical roots of our populist moment and the need to undertake transnational or comparative research. Deindustrialization studies is needed now more than ever.
Steven High, Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, Concordia University
Steven High is Professor of History and the author of a number of books including Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt; One Job Town: Work, Belonging and Betrayal in Northern Ontario; and, (with Lachlan MacKinnon and Andrew Perchard) The Deindustrialized World: Confronting Ruination in Postindustrial Places.