Class vs. Culture: Reframing Political Struggle

On August 8, 2015, activists associated with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement disrupted a speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the Democratic Party presidential candidate, at a public rally in Seattle, WA.  Sanders was to speak on Social Security reform, but BLM activists demanded a 4-and-1/2 minute moment of silence to honor the 1-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, killed in a “police lynching” in Ferguson, MO.  Following the confrontation, the event fizzled out.  The Seattle showdown followed a similar disruption by BLM activists of a Sanders’ speech in July at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, AZ.

These incidents illuminate a fundamental split within the broadly conceived progressive movement, a tension between economic or “class” issues and racial and other “culture” concerns.  Sanders is an old-school socialist and his campaign website highlights the differences between the two domains.  The site focuses on eight issues, five on bread-and-butter concerns (i.e., wealth inequality, decent jobs, living wage, Wall Street reform and getting money out of politics) while three address values issues (i.e., racial justice, family values and climate change).  The challenge posed by BLM activists is whether this is the right balance for meaningful political struggle in 21st century America.

Over the last half-century, the U.S. has been witness two distinct, if parallel, domains of political conflict, one involving economic opportunity (e.g., jobs, wages, inequality), the other engaging social or cultural relations (e.g., race, gender, the environment).  In reality, these areas of struggle cannot be clearly delineated, as each interpenetrates the other with profound – and often unanticipated – consequences.  Most troubling, institutional racism – from slavery to “red lining” to police lynchings – is rooted in economic as well as social and attitudinal factors.  Nevertheless, the tension between the domains of class and culture shape political struggle.

With regard to the economic or “class” issues, as Sanders and others have repeatedly emphasized, the life of an increasing number of Americans — particularly African-Americans — has gotten worse, while the wealth and power of the new oligarchs, the 1 percent, has enormously increased.  The decline of organized labor and the out-sourcing of many jobs, especially among the manufacturing sector, mark the era.  This development occurred as wage stagnation led to increased immizeration of an ever-growing number of Americans.

Yet, on the social or “cultural” front, the U.S. has witnessed enormous changes in personal freedom.  Successful campaigns were fought over civil rights, sexual liberation and women’s rights as well as against the war in Vietnam and for gay rights; more recently, successful campaigns have been waged against global warming and the Iraq invasion as well as for Internet neutrality and even the decriminalization of marijuana.

These twin domains of political struggle – class and culture — have begun to converge.  Popular anger was raised in the wake of the 2007-09 financial crisis; it was propelled forward by Pres. Obama’s healthcare reform; and found a grassroots voice in innumerable local anti-fracking battles taking place throughout the country. The 2011 Occupy insurgents in New York and Oakland re-introduced the notion of class into the social debate, redefining it as inequality, the tyranny of the 1 percent.  Subsequent efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15, union organizing among American Airline passenger service agents and others, campaigns against police lynchings and, most recently, the large turnouts for Sanders suggest growing grassroots militancy and the possible recasting of the political landscape.

It’s unclear whether these efforts foreshadow the formation of a U.S. version of Greece’s Syriza or Spain’s Pedemos parties, of a movement with mass popular support to fight economic inequality and cultural inequity, whether involving racism, sexism or environmental degradation.  As the 2016 presidential electoral circus takes shape, each candidate’s political agenda is defined by his/her respective stands on class and culture issues.  The challenge for the left (let alone the Democrats) is how these disparate efforts are fused into a coherent agenda.  Failure to do so will not only determine the election’s outcome, but the nation’s very future.

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Does anyone in the U.S. still believe in the American Dream, that the nation’s better days remain ahead?  Since the end of WW-II, Americans embraced a shared ideology that hard work, debt and white skin privilege would guarantee them – and, more importantly, their children – a better tomorrow.  Those days are over.

That belief system was grounded on what Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine, proclaimed in early 1941 as the “American Century.”  He articulated his vision of a new American as the nation was finally recovering from the First Great Depression and world war was still overseas, in Europe and Asia.  In the U.S., isolationism was the dominant political sentiment and principle foreign-policy strategy.  Pearl Harbor broke the isolationist bubble, turning Luce’s words into the nation’s war chant, “the 20th century is the American Century.”  Today, the American Century is over – and, increasingly, Americans know it.

The American Century consisted of two mirror-image dimensions of success, domestic progress and international dominance.  They were long held together by the sheer might of U.S. economic and military power.  Internationally, the U.S. became the world’s only superpower.  First, it – with the Soviet Union (SU) — triumphed over Germany and Japan in WW-II; in 1991, the SU collapsed, ending the half-century long Cold War.  During this geo-political reordering, capitalism internationalized with the U.S. at its center.

The splintering of domestic political life, of class and culture, took place in the wake of post-WW-II reconversion.  The pent-up demands of the war’s “no strike pledge” fueled the massive 1945-’46 strike wave that spread   across the industrial spectrum, from the factory shop floor to the classroom, from mines to waterfronts.  The bloodiest battles broke out in November 1945 and involved autoworkers; more then 300,000 General Motors workers walked off the job, quickly followed by strikes at Ford and Chrysler.

In 1947, Pres. Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9835 formally establishing the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations (AGLOSO), the blacklist.  Also that year, Congress passed and the president signed the Taft-Hartley law requiring federal employees and members of labor unions covered by the National Labor Relations Act to sign a loyalty oath.

In 1950, the United Auto Works (UAW) signed an unprecedented contract with General Motors and, eventually with Ford and Chrysler, known as the “Treaty of Detroit.”  The contract guaranteed autoworkers cost-of-living adjustments, pensions and income protection during economic downturns, and comprehensive health insurance.  Workers became part of the new, suburban middle class.  With a handful of notable exceptions (e.g., miners and farm workers), the treaty ended U.S. labor militancy.

The promise of the American Dream was fulfilled in the improved quality of life enjoyed by an unprecedented number of ordinary people.  Household income grew; living standards rose; infant mortality declined; life expectancy increased; educational attainment jumped; and suburbia was created.  In the postwar period, each year Americans purchased more then 20 million cars – as well as 20 million refrigerators, 5.5 million stoves and 5 million television sets.  This does not include the untold number of washing machines, vacuum cleaners, toasters and other conveniences essential for modern life.

In this historic victory, self-interest and the promise of prosperity undermined collective action and, over time, the labor movement itself.  A combination of higher wages and endless debt fueled the consumer revolution.  The Dream lasted until the 1970s when outsourcing and wage discipline were imposed on the nation’s working people.  Today, the quality of American life is stagnating, if not in decline.

The American Dream was disciplined by postwar Red Scare, the collusion between government, corporate, the distraction media and mainstream trade unions.  It involved the notorious actions of the House Un-American Activities Committees (1938-1975), of Senators Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon and Estes Kefauver, of FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover and of innumerable state and local “investigations” (e.g., New York State’s Rapp-Coudert Committee).  It culminated in the 11 Smith Act trials, the Hollywood 10 and the Army-McCarthy hearings, the jailing of Alger Hiss and Howard Fast, and the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  It effectively suppressed dissent and restricted labor rights.

The forces of political and moral order also sought to repress other threats to traditional cultural values.  Radical entertainers and writers were blacklisted; civil rights activists lynched; pornographers jailed, their works seized; comic book publishers censored, their books burned; prostitutes busted; homosexuals shamed, fired and jailed; and birth control materials seized.  Yet, postwar prosperity demanded a new value system, one fostering the pleasures of consumerism, an expanding notion of free expression and the Pill.

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Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN.  He had come to Memphis in support of striking African-American sanitation works.  Four months earlier, King lunched the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to draw together Native-Americas, Puerto Rican, Mexican-American and poor whites in common cause against economic inequality.  The campaign’s goal was to be a rally in Washington, D.C., that would, in King’s words, be a ‘‘middle ground between riots on the one hand and timid supplications for justice on the other.”

In the wake of King’s assassination, more then 110 U.S. cities erupted in riotous protest, including Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.  In May ’68, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, led marchers to establish Resurrection City, a tent compound in Washington, DC.   In the wake of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in June, federal officials forcefully closed down Resurrection City, ending the Poor People’s Campaign.

Now, nearly a half-century later, the issues of class and culture may again be converging.   Militant protests – and forceful police suppression — have accompanied numerous police lynchings throughout the country.  Activists with BLM and other groups – white and Hispanic, gay and feminist, environmental and labor — are fashioning a more inclusive political agenda.  It is targeting not only racist police practices but income inequality, failed educational policies and a myriad of other class and cultural issues.

Global economic restructuring is underway and U.S. domestic life is being reordered forcing the convergence of long-distinct class and culture issues.

Numerous authors — including Louis Uchtelle, The Disposable American (2007), Don Peck Pinched (2011), Donald Barlett and James Steele, The Betrayal of the American Dream (2012), D. W. Gibson, Not Working (2012), Barbara Garson, Down the Up Escalator (2013); David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (2014) and Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence (2015) — have convincingly argued that America’s social order is in crisis.  These writers make clear that the Great Recession and the still-unfulfilled recovery – what economist Paul Krugman called the Second Great Depression — bespeak something more then just one more capitalist crisis, another speed-bump in globalization.  The Second Great Depression is restructuring the nation’s economic life, one having profound social and political consequences.

Over the last half-century, personal liberty has expanded to an unprecedented level.  A series of political initiatives, backed by Supreme Court decisions, have fundamentally remade the nation’s moral order.  Abortion, birth control and gay marriage are (formally) legal; racial discrimination is (formally) illegal; and pornography and sex paraphernalia (i.e., sexual wellness products) have been mainstreamed into $10 billion-plus industries.  Most surprising to tech companies, the mass adoption of the smartphone – with built-in video camera — is beginning to effectively challenge traditional police and prosecutorial authority, revealing police lynchings and other questionable practices to all to see.

The increasing convergence of class and culture is most evident expressed in America’s growing underclass.  In 2013, the U.S. poverty rate was at 15 percent; however black (27%) and Hispanic (24%) poverty are more then two-and-a-half time that of whites (10%). In 2007, before the Second Great Depression occurred, the U.S. poverty rate was a 12.5 percent, with white poverty at 10.5 percent and both black (24.5%) and Hispanic (23.2%) poverty lower then in 2013.

Yet, during this period, the principle agent of class struggle, unions, was decimated.  Between 1948 and 2010, union membership fell to 12 percent from 32 percent and will likely continue to erode.  Other then the battle of Obama’s health care program and efforts to raise the minimum wage in various locals, few direct challenges to the underlying system of class inequality were successfully waged.

These twin developments have had a disturbing effect on the political order.  A pay-to-play political racket has replaced the hard-fought-for promise of popular democracy.  Disenfranchisement is cutting voter rolls; rezoning is guaranteeing the tyranny of the incumbent; and pay-to-play politics is being most viciously played out at the state level.   This was most evidently expressed in the 2014 Congressional elections when voter turnout was the lowest since WW-II; only 33.9 percent of eligible voters cast ballots – and 75 percent were white.  Younger voters aged 18-29, a core part of the Democratic base, made up only 13 percent of the national electorate this year, compared to 19 percent in 2012.

The U.S. is not Greece or Spain, both suffering under German-imposed austerity, and, in the near future, the U.S. is unlikely to undergo the same level of suffering as has been imposed on southern Europe.  In the U.S., the deepening crisis may more resemble the fabled frog in the mythic pot of water.  The heat is rising; one senses it in the great disillusionment spreading throughout the country.

Hillary Clinton will likely capture the Democratic Party presidential nomination and may well win the ’16 election.  Like Obama’s victory, Clinton’s victory will mark an important social development; the first woman following the first mixed-race African-American as president.  A symbolic social development; but in terms of meaningful social change, things will likely get worse.  The temperature in the proverbial pot of water will rise and the great American frog will increasingly feel the heat.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out