Economics/Class Relations

How the Working Class Vanished from Progressive Politics


Article by Stuart Bramhall.


If OWS comes to be seen as a movement run predominantly by and for the working class, it will be the first grassroots movement to do so since the Great Depression. The last major mass movement during the Vietnam War was mainly a student-led movement. The working class, which in the sixties was represented by organized labor, was cleverly manipulated through a variety of strategies to throw their support behind the Vietnam War and other reactionary pro-corporate policies.

How Organized Labor Came to Represent Corporate Interests

The anti-union restrictions of the 1948 Taft-Hartley Act and extensive red-baiting during the McCarthy Era laid the groundwork for turning organized labor into the reactionary servant of corporate interests. After red-baiting caused the expulsion of militant rank and file unionists who previously held union officials to account, unions became largely toothless in addressing workplace grievances outside of wage demands. It also gave rise to a trade union bureaucracy that felt closer to management than the workers they supposedly represented. Corporate managers rewarded union officials with all manner of perks for delivering “labor discipline” (i.e. preventing rank and file workers from participating in disruptive industrial action). As former CIA officer Tom Braden bragged in the Saturday Evening Post in 1967, many AFL-CIO leaders were also on the CIA payroll. See and

Ideological Barriers to Organizing the Working Class

While the decline of the trade union movement (representing only 11.9 percent of US workers according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics – is catastrophic event for workers left with no way to prevent massive layoffs and job and benefit cuts, it also means there are no well-funded institutions like the AFL-CIO to obstruct working class participation in populist causes.

In 2011 the main obstacle to organizing the working class is ideological. As Wilhelm Reich notes in his 1933Mass Psychology of Fascism, fascism and reactionary politics have always exerted a powerful attraction for men (and some women) from authoritarian working class families. Karl Rove and other spin doctors in the Republican Party are masters at exploiting these tendencies to convince low income men and women that pro-corporate candidates like George Bush and last year’s freshmen Tea Party congressmen would significantly improve their lives. Obviously this flies in the face of a well established pattern of enacting laws that actually make living conditions much more difficult (for example, by cutting unemployment benefits, scrapping public services,  laying off public service workers, and gutting Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and food and environmental standards).

As noted by Reich, John Strachey (The Coming Struggle for Power 1933) and other students of early fascism, working class allegiance to reactionary politics is only temporary, as reactionary lawmakers consistently fail to improve working and living conditions. This has certainly been the case with newly elected Tea Party congressmen, who abandoned basic Tea Party goals of shutting down the Federal Reserve and ending the Middle East wars the moment they took office.

The Danger of Progressive Involvement in Lifestyle Campaigns

Nevertheless the same right wing spin doctors who gave us George W Bush and the Tea Party movement have also been remarkably successful in painting liberals and progressives as political correct intellectuals whose main goal in life is to moralize and dictate lifestyle choices for low-income Americans.

Unfortunately many liberals and progressives play into their hand by jumping in on the wrong side of lifestyle debates. When liberals and progressives champion anti-smoking, anti-obesity, and gun control campaigns, it only solidifies their reputation as politically correct lifestyle police. Low income workers have difficulty distinguishing these lifestyle campaigns from the moralizing and gatekeeping role many liberals play as “helping professionals” (teachers, lawyers, religious leaders, social workers, doctors, psychologists). Thus they serve to reinforce natural resentment, mistrust and class antagonism these professionals generate among disadvantaged groups as enforcers of so-called “appropriate” behavior (see prior blog This is doubly dangerous with reactionary spin doctors like Karl Rove in the wings, ready to gleefully exploit these feelings to win Republican votes.

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