Culture Watch: America’s Knights

December 15, 2015

By Jo Tavener

Last month I identified George Bailey and Archie Bunker, as media representations of the middle and working classes, respectively, created by progressive middle class writers. I suspect that left-of-center middle-class Americans are often more affected by the American imaginary of a classless society, where entrepreneurial opportunity and humane values go hand-in-hand, than are the upper or working classes.

Historically the working class was divided along the issue of class. While socialists and anarchists understood class in terms of a fundamental antagonism between labor and capital, the Knights of Labor, one of the most significant organizations of the 1880s, upheld the nobility of all labor and worked to unite all workers under one banner: skilled and unskilled labor, men and women, blacks and whites, transcending the very deep antagonisms of the day based on race, creed, gender and skill. All were welcome, even small businessmen, as long as they recognized the nobility of labor. The opposition was between the “producing” classes and the greedy bankers/ big business/monopolies. The Knights championed worker-owned cooperatives and fought the bosses not just for the 8-hour day but to redeem society for the good of all. It  sounds so hauntingly familiar!

Today, when progressive leaders like Robert Reich (Saving Capitalism For the Many, Not the Few) and Joseph Stieglitz (Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy) speak of reform, their words recall the Knights, dedicated to bringing forth a modicum of economic fairness and civic virtue in terms of higher wages and less inequality within healthy functioning communities. Today’s Knights embrace an updated version of the producer ideology, with its sense of America as a nominally classless society where labor and capital are not at odds with one another. The dream is still America as the land of opportunity, with its iconic story of rags to riches. The panacea is policy change with government regulation and oversight to end the transfer of wealth from American workers to the top one percent.

The Next System Project (NSP), an initiative co-chaired by James Speth (environmentalist) and Gar Alperovitz (historian and political economist), is a product of the Democracy Collaborative that underwrites the New Economy Movement. (See December’s article). Speth’s NSP report, ”Getting to the Next System: Guideposts on the Way to a New Political Economy,” explains why system change is necessary; what it would look like; and how we might build it. It is very close in detail to what must be the economic and philosophical foundations of the changes desired by most American progressives.

However, my disagreement with Speth concerns his reworking of the American Dream. Though he rejects Reich’s reformed economy based on continued growth and turns towards one in which environmentalism is civic virtue and allied with the individual right to happiness, he refuses to deal with the intrinsic Capitalist struggle between Capital and Labor. Instead of re-evaluating our membership in a multi-cultural working class, with its historical mission as the engine of change, he posits the growth of a mass movement on a rearrangement of values, away from a materialism that is “toxic for happiness” and towards our earlier Puritan and Quaker traditions.

Unfortunately Puritan America was not what it came to signify. Speth is asking us to base the new American Dream on the truthiness of an imagined American identity of rural simplicity, its “personal self-reliance through frugality and diligence,” its “commitment to conscientious rather than conspicuous consumption, to contemplation and creativity… and an aesthetic preference for the plain and functional.” To this he adds a current wish, “a sense of both religious and ecological responsibility for the just use of the world’s resources.”

Sorry, we can’t go back. We can’t return to Reich’s Middle Class America of the 1950s nor can we revive a pre-industrial rural culture for our urban post-industrial age. None of the current progressive imaginings noted here have taken on the issue of power and its relationship to actually existing capitalism nor how that very relationship undermines the growth of mass movements, the possibility of democracy and the pursuit of happiness for the many and not the few.

We are trapped by an imagined national identity based on the notion of God’s chosen people, the exceptional nation, the Puritan shining city on the hill. Sacvan Bercowitz, in The American Jeremiad, argues that ‘America’ is an ideological construct, an imaginary, shaped over time to bridge the contradictions between our Puritan heritage and 19th Century industrial capitalism. America as a middle class society became our 20th Century addition, though it existed for little more than 30 years (1947-1977). Now that the middle class has been hollowed out, we move onto the 21st Century additions, the new entrepreneurism and a fraudulent “sharing economy.” For progressives, attempting to tap into such imaginings is a dead end.

As I noted last month, we need to build an emboldened working class with a global class consciousness, willing to share the earth with all its inhabitants. That’s the story we need to tell; one I will be exploring in future articles.

Jo Tavener is a member of the NewPeople Editorial Collective. Before retiring she was an assistant professor of media and cultural studies.

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