The Not-So Golden Age: a Radical and Eco-Socialist Take on Post-WW II America and “the Anthropocene”


Some Darkness Behind the “Sun-Washed Days”

There is a tendency among senior and middle-aged liberal and progressive United States intellectuals to sentimentalize the post-World War II “golden age” of American and Western capitalism between 1945 and the early to middle 1970s.   The inclination is understandable. During those “sun-washed days” (liberal author and former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert), economic inequality declined, significant Civil Rights victories were achieved, jobs were plentiful, the endlessly invoked middle class swelled, wages and consumption rose, the welfare state expanded, college was open and affordable for an unprecedented number of working class young adults, a new youth counterculture flourished, popular music reached new creative heights, the sexual revolution took off, and U.S. astronauts walked on the moon. American society was riding high, it seemed, underpinned by a relatively “high-functioning” and “reasonably egalitarian” (Herbert) capitalism operating at its regulated, “Fordist,” and Keynesian best, prior to the neoliberal “globalized capitalism” that has brought us over four decades to a savagely unequal and arch-plutocratic New Gilded Age – a time when the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% of the U.S. populace along with a wildly disproportionate share of the nation’s not-so “democratically elected” officials.

The nostalgia of many for post-WWII America is less than surprising. I share it to no small degree, thanks to my many fond grade-school memories of growing up on the streets of 1960s Chicago. Still, there’s a host of reasons to temper one’s progressive nostalgia for the “golden” post-WWII era. The downwardly redistributive trend of American and Western capitalism during the period was remarkably contingent, temporary, qualified, and – in retrospect – short lived The “reasonably egalitarian” direction of the “thirty glorious years” (the French phrase for “the golden age”) reflected an anomalous moment in the history of a rapacious profits system that was never removed from its position atop U.S. society and reverted to its default long-term inegalitarian and authoritarian tendencies once the moment passed. Between 1930s and the 1970s, it is true, a significant reduction in overall economic inequality (though not of racial inequality) and an increase in the living standards of millions of working-class Americans occurred in the U.S. This “Great Compression” occurred thanks to the rise and expansion of the industrial workers’ movement (sparked to no small extent by communists and other leftist militants); the spread of collective bargaining; the rise of a corporate-liberal New Deal (later “Fair Deal” and “Great Society”) welfare state; and the democratic domestic pressures imposed by World War II and subsequent U.S. social movements. Still, core capitalist prerogatives and assets were never dislodged, consistent with New Deal champion Franklin Roosevelt’s boast that he had “saved the profits system” from radical change. U.S. capital never lost its way or its dominant role in American society. U.S. politics remained “the shadow cast on society by big business,” as Dewey prophesized it would so long as power rested with “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda” (Dewey, “The Need for a New Party,” New Republic, March 18, 1931).

The gains enjoyed by ordinary working Americans were made possible to no small extent by the uniquely favored and powerful position of the U.S. economy (and empire) and the historically extraordinary profit rates enjoyed by U.S. corporations after the war, when the U.S. was briefly home to more than half the world’s industrial production. When that remarkable position and those profits were inevitably challenged and rolled back by resurgent Western European and Japanese economic competition in the 1970s and 1980s, egalitarian “golden” time trends were naturally reversed by capitalist elites who had never lost their critical command of the nation’s core economic and political institutions. They undertook a Great U-Turn (Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone) from the top down – a change of direction that was really U.S. capitalism returning to its historical wealth- and power-concentrating norm. Middle and working class Americans have paid the price ever since and Democratic presidential candidates now try to outdo each other in claiming to feel, and present progressive solutions to, their pain (though overwhelmingly preferring the phrase “middle class” to “working class”).

Perverted Priorities

At the same time, the levelling economic tendencies of the “golden age” are easily exaggerated. Across the postwar period, the radical U.S. historian Howard Zinn noted in his forgotten classic Postwar America: 1945-1971, the bottom tenth of the U.S. population – 20 million poor Americans – experienced no increase whatsoever in their share of the nation’s income (a paltry 1%). Corporate profits and CEO salaries rose significantly across the 60s boom as steep U.S. poverty remained firmly entrenched in “the world’s richest nation.” As Zinn elaborated:

“Being rich or poor was more than a statistic; it profoundly determined how an American lived. In the postwar United States, how much money Americans had determined whether or not they lived in a home with rats or vermin…whether or not they could get adequate medical and dental care; whether or not they got arrested, and, if they did, whether or not they spent time in jail before trial, whether they got a fair trial, a long or a short sentence…whether or not their children would be born alive. It determined whether or not Americans had a vacation; whether they needed to hold down more than one job; whether or not they had enough to eat; whether or not they could influence a congressman or run for office; whether or not a man was drafted, and what chances a man had that he would die in combat.”

As the nation spent billions to put Cold War space travelers on the moon, millions of 1960s Americans remained ill-clad, ill-fed, and ill-housed. The median U.S. family income in 1968 was US$8,362, less than what the Bureau of Labor Statistics defined as a “modest but adequate” income for an urban family of four. The Bureau found that 30 percent of the nation’s working class families were living in poverty and another 30 percent were living under highly “austere” conditions. “Affluence,” historian Judith Stein notes, “was as much as an ideology as a description of U.S. society” in the 1950s and 1960s. As A. Phillip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in the summary of their October 1966 Freedom Budget for All Americans, “In a time of unparalleled prosperity, there are 34 million Americans living in poverty. Another 28 million live just on the edge, with incomes so low that any unexpected expense or loss of income could thrust them into poverty…Almost one-third of our nation lives in poverty or want.” Raised in a troubled middle-class family that did not turn a blind eye to the savage ironies of the “golden age,” I remember the ubiquitous sight (for those who sought it out and refused to look away) of mass poverty in urban ghettoes and rural Appalachia during this “sun-washed” time with great clarity.

The persistent stark disparity reflected among other things what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “perverted priorities” of a national government captive to corporate and military power. Zinn was struck by the irony in “the billions spent by the United States government to propel astronauts to the moon while millions went hungry.” A New York Times report on the first moon launch quoted a doctor who tried to serve poor people living in the shadow of the John F. Kennedy Space Center (the launch site). He noted that while Washington invested in the massively expensive lunar project, “right here …I treat malnourished children with prominent ribs and pot-bellies.” A much bigger share of the misdirected federal budget went to the giant new post-WWII U.S. military empire and especially to the massively expensive and mass- murderous “Vietnam War” – the one-sided imperial war of “golden Age” America, the wealthiest nation in history, on predominantly peasant societies in Southeast Asia. The enormous cost of that colossal crime – paid without any effort to raise taxes on the wealthy, whose sons naturally avoided combat “service” – helped strange in its cradle the so-called war on poverty that was briefly declared by liberal “Great Society” U.S. president Lyndon Johnson. The Freedom Budget – a progressive Keynesian plan to end poverty in ten years without questioning the basic structures of capitalism and imperialism – never had a chance. Dr. King died while trying to build a movement against mass poverty and economic inequality and exploitation as well as racial injustice. The people’s struggle to bring the millions of poor into the economic mainstream was defeated before the onset of the neoliberal era. The “golden age” approached its inglorious end with the execution and/or assassination of King, who near the end of his life wrote that post-WWII America was flirting with “spiritual death” and gravely plagued by “the triple evils that are interrelated…racism, poverty, and militarism…evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of society.” King also presciently worried that “golden age” America U.S. was in danger of becoming a police state.

The Anthropocene/Capitalocene Takes off

There is much more that is less than flattering to say about “golden age” America. An honest history of the post-World War II U.S. would include:

*The actual deepening of racial (white over black) U.S. inequality and the related persistence of harsh racial segregation even as overall socio-economic disparity fell in the nation – a critical factor reality behind the remarkable explosion or urban racial violence that took places across the U.S. in the middle and late 1960s.

*The birth of the racially hyper-disparate and mass-incarcerationist “war on drugs,” designed and first waged in the name of “law and order” under the late 1960s backlash presidency of Richard M. Nixon.

*The conservative “post-WWII labor-capital bargain” whereby the nation’s newly consolidated mass-production unions relinquished concern for workers’ control, workplace democracy, and social-democratic transformation (including national single-payer health insurance) in return for money and benefits for members only and automatic dues collection or labor bureaucrats – a deal that capital significantly revoked after 1970 without any giveback on what labor surrendered. (The “bargain” included the expulsion of Left cadres who had sparked resurgent industrial unionism during the 1930s and 1940s. and the triumph of a highly dysfunctional and authoritarian model of employment-based health insurance.)

*The marginalization or radicals and their ideas.

*An explosive growth of finance capital, rooted largely in the expansion of mortgages, pensions, and international trade.

*The birth of a bourgeois identity politics that has provided populace-dividing service to the corporate and financial elite across the subsequent neoliberal era.

*The criminal and mass-murderous U.S. imperial wars on Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, which killed more than 6 million Asians between 1950 and 1975.

*The massive expansion of the U.S. Pentagon system and Empire, replete with pervasive and often deadly, mass-murderous U.S. military and political interference in dozens of not-so “sovereign” nations around the world under the cover of the “Cold War”– a manufactured conflict that brought the world to the very edge of nuclear holocaust in the fall of 1962.

*The atomizing spread of private television and automobile ownership, the ecologically toxic explosion of regional and interstate highway construction, and the related advent of large-scale white suburban residential and commercial sprawl.

Last but not at all least and intimately related to all of the above, the post-WWII “golden age” brought a remarkable material and cultural explosion of wasteful mass consumerism (spreading to the working class) and the related vast expansion of U.S.-led global “free trade” and production, with multinational corporations (MNCs) initiating their global expansion. The unprecedented national and American-sponsored global economic expansion of the post-WWII era produced a foreboding sense of environmental crisis by the end of the “golden time” – a crisis rooted in capitalism that Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner and other left environmentalists tried to warn the world about at the height of the post-WWII boom.

It has been clear to Earth scientists that the history of our planet has been set now for some time in a new geologic epoch called “the Anthropocene.” It is an era in which, in the words of the leading experts Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeil, “Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the earth into planetary terra incognita. The Earth is rapidly moving into a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier era.” According to Steffen and Crutzen, it is a “no analogue state” in which “the Earth system has recently moved well outside the range of natural variability….”

The new Earth period bearing its species’ mark and name is nothing for homo sapiens to be proud of! The unprecedented changes introduced by humanity are ecologically unsustainable for decent life on the planet. Thanks to the Anthropocene, the world is not now in middle of “its sixth great extinction event, with rates of species loss growing rapidly for both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The atmospheric concentrations of several important greenhouse gases have increased substantially, and the Earth is warming rapidly,” Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeil note.

As scientists have long warned, the nightmare threat isn’t about anthropogenic global warming marching along slowly in a linear fashion, with the planet getting a little hotter year by year.   It’s about non-linear “tipping points” producing abrupt and irreversible climate change with catastrophic outcomes. The most recent reports from the prestigious and normally restrained Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest very strongly that the Earth is approaching such tipping points – the melting of polar ice and Arctic permafrost, the acid-bleaching of global coral reefs, and the drying out of the Amazonian rain forest – at a pace and in ways that had not been anticipated.

When did the Anthropocene begin? As Ian Angus notes in the September 2015 issue of Monthly Review, all indications from the latest research point to a massive quantitative acceleration of human economic activity including “an explosive growth of fossil fuel use” (James Hansen) creating a qualitative transformation in homo sapiens’ impact on earth system trends (levels of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, stratospheric ozone, surface ocean temperature, ocean acidification, marine fish capture, coastal nitrogen, tropical forest depletion, land domestication, and terrestrial biosphere degradation) around 1950. The leading Earth scientists increasingly see this “Great Acceleration” as not a new stage but instead as the actual onset of the Anthropocene. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century pales before the gigantic expansion of world economic activities and the related third technological revolution launched during the post-WWII “golden age” when it comes to altering Nature in ways that place prospects for a decent future at serious risk and even raise the real specter of human extinction. The post-WWII period, the leading Marxist environmentalist John Bellamy Foster noted 21 years ago, brought “a qualitative transformation in the level of human destructiveness.” Sadly, the “sun-washed” days of Baby Boomers’ youth were fueled by oil, coal, and gas, not solar, wind, and water.

A compelling case has been made by Jason Moore and other left environmentalists that it is more historically appropriate to understand humanity’s Earth-altering assault on livable ecology as “the Capitalocene.” After all, it is only during the relatively brief period of history when capitalism has existed and ruled the world system (since 1600 or thereabouts by some academic calculations, earlier and later by others) that human social organization has developed the capacity and inner, accumulation- and commodification-mad compulsion to transform Earth systems. Moore maintains that human destruction of livable ecology is best explained by changes that capitalism’s endless pursuit of profit, accumulation, and empire have wreaked on the environment – changes he dates broadly from “the long sixteen century” starting in 1450). His critique of bourgeois climate thought’s historically unspecific and class-blind use of anthros as an undifferentiated entity is important and powerful. Still, recent evidence suggests that, while capitalism is many centuries old, it was during the post-WWII era of U.S.-led global monopoly-corporate and emergent multinational capitalism that humanity forever and dramatically impacted Earth systems in ways that pose grave and fundamental threats to life on the planet.

This is a great reminder to ecosocialists and indeed to anyone and everyone concerned with saving livable ecology that the greatest threat to life on Earth isn’t just the neoliberal and “de-regulated,” so-called free market capitalism of the last four decades. The “golden age” and “thirty glorious years” of Western and U.S.-led global capitalism that launched the current exterminist Anthropocene and/or Capitalocene boasted a dramatically expansive, high-growth, mass-consumerist U.S.-directed profits system operating at its Keynesian and welfare-statist best. It brought us to precisely where some of post-WWII America’s leading left environmentalists (Commoner, Carson, and Murray Boochkin) warned at the time: to the onset of ecological catastrophe – to an unfolding environmental calamity that some prominent leftists still, even at this perilously late date, treat as the dysfunctional obsession of doomsday “catastrophists” and as “just one of many concerns and possibly a diversion from the ‘real’ class struggle” (Ian Angus’s accurate and critical characterization of such horrible reasoning).

Capitalism and Everything Else

Such leftists are fools. As the great left intellectual Noam Chomsky reminded left progressives three years ago, if the global environmental catastrophe being created by anthropogenic climate change “isn’t going to be averted” soon, then “in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.” The betting windows close on the prospects for a decent and livable future unless humanity wakes up quickly and acts on a giant scale to move off fossil fuels and on to renewable energy sources – a technically viable project. The “usual” struggles over how the pie is distributed, managed, and controlled and by and for whom are going take on a frightful feel when it becomes apparent that the pie is poisoned. Who wants to turn the world upside down only to find that it is riddled with runaway disease and decay? Who hopes to inherit a dying Earth from the bourgeoisie?

There’s a catch, however. The catastrophe won’t be averted under capitalism – the biggest ticket item on the long list of “everything else” that leftists have long opposed. As the Canadian Marxist Sam Gindin noted last year in a review essay that criticized the leading left environmentalist Naomi Klein’s tendency to focus on “neoliberal” and “free market” capitalism more than on capitalism as such in her important book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate:

“Klein…seems clear enough in the analysis that pervades the book that it is capitalism, yet she repeatedly qualifies this position by decrying ‘the kind of capitalism we now have,’ ‘neoliberal’ capitalism, ‘deregulated’ capitalism, ‘unfettered’ capitalism, ‘predatory’ capitalism, ‘extractive’ capitalism, and so on. These adjectives undermine the powerful logic of Klein’s more convincing arguments elsewhere that the issue isn’t creating a better capitalism but confronting capitalism as a social system.”

“Capitalism does of course vary across time and place, and some of the differences are far from trivial. But in terms of substantive change, we should not overstate the importance of these disparate forms. Moreover, such differences have not increased but contracted over time, leaving us with a more or less monolithic capitalism across the globe….It is not just that any capitalism is inseparable from the compulsion to indiscriminate growth, but that capitalism’s commodification of labor power and nature drives an individualized consumerism inimical to collective values (consumption is the compensation for what we lose in being commodified and is the incentive to work) and insensitive to the environment (nature is an input, and the full costs of how it is exploited by any corporation are for someone else to worry about)….A social system based on private ownership of production can’t support the kind of planning that could avert environmental catastrophe. The owners of capital are fragmented and compelled by competition to look after their own interests first, and any serious planning would have to override property rights — an action that would be aggressively resisted.”

As the Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros has observed, updating Rosa Luxembourg for the Capitalocene in the 21st century, “it’s [eco] socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.”

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).