Armagideon Time

The above exercise in self-congratulatory optimism was the closing paragraph of an October 4, pills 1954 LIFE editorial on the maturation of the American labor movement from bomb-tossing radicals to sober-minded stakeholders.

Like so many examples of journalistic pontification on Americans’ economic way of life
(both past and present), apoplectic it radiates an optimism rooted in ignorant assumptions about the larger causes and contexts behind the promise of prosperity in perpetuity. The nation’s creed has always assumed a semi-secular Calvinist aspect, visit this in which virtuous souls thrive and economic failings are manifestations of moral weakness. It’s social mobility as predestination, baby, all made possible through a mythic covenant woven into the fabric of the land itself.

“We’re Americans! We can do anything!” Except look at the bigger picture, apparently.

The labor movement signed its own death warrant when it shifted its focus from social agitation to lunchpail conservatism. The (exaggerated) power-sharing and mutual amicability celebrated by LIFE’s editors was predicated on specific historical circumstances which (again) were assumed to be a permanent status quo. Sure, the economic and industrial planners of the era knew that the country was in an exceptionally privileged position, but few questioned its viability over the long haul because, y’know, “this is America.”

After all, who could ever envision a time when rival economic blocs would rebuild enough to pose a threat to American manufacturers? Or compete with us for access to raw materials, thus driving up prices? Or band together to ensure we paid a price for fuel that benefited the sellers, not the buyer? Or that advances in automation, transportation, and international commerce would lead to massive outsourcing and layoffs?

Even when the trends were apparent, the forseen effects were painted in shades of predictive utopian rhetoric — that we’d be all working two hours a day for $100,000 per annum in our luxury estates on the Moon, rather than commuting between three part-time retail jobs in a rusted 1997 Dodge Neon in order to keep a hair’s breadth ahead of total insolvency.

Any sense of power parity between capital and labor was based on transitory conditions, much like FDR and Stalin teaming up to take down Hitler. When push came to inevitable downturn, there was no question who’d get shoved under the bus. GM’s assembly line workers weren’t the ones who made a series of incredibly stupid business decisions, but a look at the current states of both Grosse Pointe and Flint, MI reveals who paid the ultimate price for that idiocy.

Related posts:

  1. The Dustbin of History: Mission accomplished
  2. The Dustbin of History: Introduction
  3. The Dustbin of History: Whooda thunk

4 Responses to “The Dustbin of History: Last laughs and death rattles”

  1. damanoid

    In one of your earlier posts in this series, you wrote:

    “Americans can no longer afford to assume “greatness” as a given or treat real progress as a windfall (one, to be sure, purchased with the toil and conviction of a dedicated few) entirely circumscribed by historic milestones.

    We’ve got to roll those boulders uphill ourselves, accepting that the those few inches we cover will make a difference for later generations who will take up the load.”

    Do you think it is still possible to move those boulders uphill, or even prevent them from rolling to the bottom? Given that American progress was a result of historical accident, your analysis seems to suggest that a return to pre-labor union conditions was inevitable, and attempting to resist this economic trend is pointless. Capital has regained absolute hegemony over labor, the government is beholden to wealth, and this natural state of affairs cannot be changed by votes or protests or anything short of another global war.

  2. bitterandrew

    I think Americans needed to make a lot of hard decisions in the late 1960s and early 1970s and chose poorly on almost all counts, because they required a fundamental rethinking of the American myth.

    Jimmy Carter brought it up during his “malaise” speech, but got hammered from all sides for suggesting as much. So you’ve got everyone from Obama to Romney suggesting some minor alterations will solve everything.

    These short term fixes (deregulation, tax cuts, etc.) benefit reactionaries because they create self-perpetuating loops of short-term gain and long-term problems — boom and bust cycles where the negatives grow more prominent while the positives do the opposite.

    Look at health care reform. We’ve all heard the “a significant percentage of wages/costs get eaten by health costs,” but no one with the necessary pull can be bothered to suggest that a true single-payer or socialized fix would offset tax liabilities with a massive spike in spending power or employment costs. Everyone hears the “$2500 added to the cost of a car” without the “but $4000 would be subtracted.”

    I’m committed to trying to keep things from getting worse under the current system, but real change will require some deep genuflection by the electorate.

  3. Tristan

    “specific historical circumstances which… were assumed to be a permanent status quo” pretty much sums up everything wrong with the consensus attitude on nearly every economic and social condition of the 1950s, not just at the time, but how they’re viewed now. Refer to the ongoing bafflement, running from patronizing to outraged, and available on any newspaper’s editorial page, at people in their 20s *gasp* living with their parents and/or being unemployed. Then tune in to coverage of the Montreal tuition riots to learn how both these things are only related by ‘a sense of entitlement’, and nothing else, no sir. Then hit something hard enough to injure yourself.

  4. stavner

    Tristan: at least somebody, somewhere, like Montreal, is realizing that the consensus is wrong.

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