Reading Commentary — Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy of the U.S. Working Class by Mike Davis (1986)
Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy of the U.S. Working Class by Mike Davis (1986)
In Prisoners of the American Dream, Mike Davis thoroughly details labor’s history and its sometimes fraught relationship with the U.S.’s working class, as well as economic growth in the 20th century through Reagan’s first presidential term.
Davis describes a movement that, even at its peak, had unique challenges compared to its European counterparts. Geographic spread made it difficult to organize where there were not strong socialist ties. Labor leaders were also generally more conservative, often icing out socialist organizers. This benefited those unionized while post-war prosperity rose, but backfired catastrophically later. Having focused on maintaining internal gains while atomizing and suburbanizing legislation and tax structures spread, unions were caught out in a downturned economy.
Naturally, Davis’s account frustrated me. While noting major wins like the Cost of Living Adjustment, he also describes a white male-dominated movement that redbaited, colluded with management, and hired staffers at the expense of training more shop floor organizers; a movement that neglected organizing newer sectors (like the mostly female clerical workers or predominantly black and brown agricultural workers in the South).
The most sobering aspect of Davis’s analysis comes early, and distinctly parallels today’s Left. He describes leadership’s neglect of Southern organizing and refusal to engage with (and sometimes outright hostility to) the Black liberation struggle – both key for a unified working class movement. The CIO’s failure to work alongside the Civil Rights Movement, for example, kneecapped the Democratic Party’s recomposition in the 40s. Davis writes:
“Only a massive unionization campaign closely coordinated with full support for Black civil rights could have conceivably generated the conditions for interracial unity and a popular overthrow of Bourbon power … The national CIO’s gradual backtracking on civil rights (a trend again intimately connected with the rise of anticommunism) left the Black movement even more vulnerable to the racist backlash which swept the country in the late 40s.”
But this is far from the only time white male workers failed to see the importance of a united working class. The New Deal explicitly excluded female and non-white-dominated sectors like service work and agriculture. By valuing certain laborers over others, the state deliberately advantaged white male workers at the expense of their female and non-white counterparts.
Post-New Deal, big unions focused on staffing and protecting gains for already-protected workers (e.g., tiered union memberships and wage structures) rather than organizing new sectors. In the Treaty of Detroit in the 50s, union leaders even agreed with management that profit was necessary!
This inward focus on defending gains made the civil rights movement bloodier than it would have been with a united solidarity movement with a long-term strategy. Additionally, siloing racial equality and labor rights into separate legislation institutionalized the bifurcation between attempts to address both. In short, the mistakes of the labor movement are still with us, and will take significant work to overcome.
Davis, writing in 1986, predicts the only way forward is a people of color-led mass leftist movement. He talks warmly of the hope the Rainbow Coalition stoked in much of the working class, and sharply criticizes the Democratic Party for forcing the RC out.
While there is more to say about Prisoners, the above challenges our movement today. Can organizers of color lead, or are they stymied by white organizers, intentionally or not? Do white organizers give our time to the projects of our black and brown comrades? Each chapter’s answer will be different, but I believe we need to ask ourselves these questions if Davis’s view of the future is the right one.