Thursday, October 08, 2009

A reason why '70s liberalism failed

I was going through the Wiki page on the Rainbow/PUSH coalition when I saw that what it was about was uniting, exhaustively, every minority group including sexual orientation and identity, including generic poor people, except white workers. You can look at it here. Now, while the idea of a Rainbow coalition is a good one, excluding what's possibly the biggest group that could help probably doomed the project. Race and racism by whites is in my mind a kind of red herring for what was really going on, which had to do with the terms by which liberalism in the '70s thought about itself. And eventually this thing fueled the backlash of the '80s.

My understanding of things is that white workers, or just workers thought of as a class in general, were excluded because they were a group of folks who took conservative opinions on the Vietnam War, and who seriously opposed the counter culture. Or so it seemed. This opposition was conveniently equated with race. People in general don't consider that the difference in living standards between the World War II and pre-war Depression era and that enjoyed in the '50s and '60s could have accounted for the seeming conservatism by white workers.

During the post-war expansion workers in general in the U.S. experienced a staggering increase in quality of life. Life was good, the same government who supported the mainstream union movement supported anti-Communism and identified American prosperity with American patriotism.
All this was in the minds of folks who were working when the Baby Boom generation appeared on the scene.

It's trite to say it, but the post-war Baby Boom grew up only knowing the good times, only knowing the society in which they lived as one that generally provided stability to regular people, with the working class and what is known sometimes as the small bourgeois class merging into the idea of a middle class. From their perspective prosperity was normalcy, and so those who couldn't partake in that normalcy had priority with their grievances, because the grievances of workers had seemingly been resolved.

What this lead to was a reinvigoration of the liberal idea, where individuals are presumed to be free agents normally but where certain defects of society cause groups to no longer be able to exercise that agency effectively. Therefore, all that's necessary to make society really good is to empower those people through social movements, civil rights, women's rights, recognition of different religions in the U.S. like judaism and the contributions of jewish-americans to american culture, rights relating to sexual orientation and issues regarding the theft of the U.S. and Native American rights. All of these things are great, and the radical culture that existed prior to McCarthyism in the '50s erred severely in not giving each of these issues the space that they were due. However, by counting on the mainstream to be stable, the idea of underlying economic contradictions that could lead to a more complex situation was submerged, just waiting to destabilize the whole thing when the terrain shifted. And shift it did.

In the middle of the '70s the economic nicety of the '50s and '60s began to collapse. Economic issues now pressed on people. Large parts of the majority culture, mostly white, began to experience serious problem of their own. The white workers who were once dismissed now had grievances that should have been integrated into some sort of liberal framework but weren't. The model of '70s liberalism that had come about was now obsolete as an idea that meaningfully explained reality. All of the grievances and movements were still there, but the realignment of things meant that the mainstream could no longer be counted on just to accept what was being offered. Instead, finding few friends among the folks of '70s liberalism they pushed back with reaction. And ultimately they won because truth be told they outnumbered the minority groups and possessed more power in American society than they did, even though they themselves were oppressed. Ronald Reagan was able to coast through two terms with lots of support while eviscerating jobs and carrying out a right-wing cultural revolution of sorts because of this resentment.

The resentment, then, was not caused by some kind of inherent conservative prejudice in workers, especially in workers who are white, but was caused by objective conditions that were not being addressed in a meaningful way. To address them, in fact, would require something that went beyond liberalism as thought of in the '70s model and into socialism of some sort. The economic framework of oppression of minorities would have to be evaluated, and awareness of the commonalities in framework between the situation of white workers and that of black and brown ones would suggest new ways for cooperation, ways that weren't taken.

Cross race solidarity between workers, where the situation of oppression experienced by black and brown workers that is rooted deep in our history is brought to consciousness but wedded with awareness of class, would have been, and still is, the way to go.

If we want to resurrect the ideals of the era of the '60s and '70s, something like this will have to happen.

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