Prisoners of the American Dream
Originally published in 1986 and recently reissued as part of Verso’s The Essential Mike Davis Series, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class remains an indispensable exegesis of a persistent and major analytical problem for Marxist historians and political economists: Why has the world’s most industrially advanced nation never spawned a mass party of the working class? This series of essays surveys the history of the American bourgeois democratic revolution from its Jacksonian beginnings to the rise of the New Right and the re-election of Ronald Reagan, concluding with some bracing thoughts on the prospects for progressive politics in the United States. With the U.S. labor movement newly in motion, Mike Davis’ reflections on the history, context, and strategies of the U.S. working class and its institutions are especially apposite. Prisoners of the American Dream is one of the core texts on our student reading lists and 50% off for the month of September as part of our Back to University sale. See all our History reading here, as well as all our reading on Economics.
Here we present an excerpt from the Epilogue.
The validity and popular appeal of any socialist program or strategy will depend on the degree to which it addresses the axial problem of the revolutionary–democratic struggle for equality. To do so, leftists must reject the ‘majoritarian’ fallacy, nurtured by fellow-traveling in the Democratic Party, that all socialist politics must be cut to fit the pattern of whatever modish liberalism is in fashion or to conform with the requirements for securing ‘practical’ Democratic pluralities. The horizon of the possible—and the necessary—is not the quixotic project of becoming a ‘loyal’ fringe of one or another of the capitalist parties, but the fight to build an independent left politics that has real and effective social anchorage. To the extent that sections of the Democratic Party or elements of the middle strata can brought to return to more traditional liberal positions, it will only be because independent forces to their left are militant and well organized, with demands unvetted by the ‘realism’ of consensus-building with establishment politics.
What, then, of the organized labor movement? To recognize that the Black working class is the potential cutting edge for socialism in North America does not diminish the urgency of defending the—still overwhelmingly, white—trade-union movement. Among the central tasks of the left throughout the remainder of this decade will be to support the construction of national networks of anti-concession locals and rank-and-file activists. The first effects of the next downturn will undoubtedly be a worsening of the conditions of struggle between labor and capital. As the trade-union movement is forced into ever more desperate defensive battles, the strategic task of greatest moment is unlikely to revolve around new ‘qualitative’ demands: it will be to defend, at all costs, the principles of egalitarianism and solidarism. Above all, the left must oppose the trend, exemplified in the fateful auto settlement of 1984, to abandon the unemployed and the inner cities in exchange for precarious security for senior (white) workers.
Furthermore, an alternative strategy will need to develop new links and alliances, from the bottom up, between trade-union groups and community/political organizations in the inner cities. Only radical protest—on a scale comparable to and utilizing the direct-action tactics of the 1960s civil rights movement—has any realistic chance of winning battles over plant closures or abating the rampant deindustrialization that has devastated areas like Eastern Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and will certainly spread to other locales with the rapidity of a modern-day plague. The crucial question will be whether struggles of unionized industrial workers to save their jobs can be united with struggles by the young jobless, and whether local unions can become broader campaigning organizations. In this regard, the British miners’ strike, which led to the creation of extraordinary networks of support between mining villages and inner-city ghettoes, is a premonitory example. But all these questions come back to the central, burning issue for the American working class as a whole: whether, through the agency of some form of activist Rainbow Coalition, a nascent trade-union left can form organic and sustained linkages with revived Black and Hispanic movements.
Another pivotal difficulty, of course, is the degree to which Blacks and Hispanics, poor citizen working class and undocumented immigrant working class, can find bases of common civic unity and action. The recent sabotage of a broad Black–Hispanic anti-Koch coalition in the New York mayoral contest by a clique of Black Democratic wardheelers typifies the kind of narrow ethnic maneuvering that will surely become more frequent in a period of declining resources and exacerbated inter-group competition for jobs and patronage. A true Rainbow Coalition would have to build largely from below, in opposition to the ethnic machines. It will have to confront the desperate competition in job markets that divides not only Blacks from Hispanics, but Hispanics from Asians, and, in the Southwest, Chicanos from Mexicanos. One of the most innovative experiments, however still provisional in scale, has been the emergence in California of political workers’ organizations of a general kind that combine strike support, community organization, union building, and left political education.”
But the ability of any resurgent social movement in the ghettoes, barrios or factories to challenge the present mass property bloc of capital and the middle classes in the United States is more closely linked today than ever before to the fate of US imperialism on a world scale. If one precondition for the future of a popular left in the United States is a revived struggle for equality based on independent socialist political action, the other and equally crucial condition will be increasing solidarity between the liberation movement in Southern Africa and Latin America and movements of the Black and Hispanic communities in the USA.
The possibility for organizing mass solidarity must be one of the principal hopes of international socialism. Just as the struggles in South Africa and Central America can provide models of commitment, creativity and organization to youth in the inner cities, so could the development of a broadly based solidarity movement in the United States act as a major constraint on America intervention abroad, and a common basis for political action that crosses the color barrier which has inhibited much of the left’s political activity during the past decade. It is no disparagement of the existing anti-nuclear or anti-intervention movements to insist that the real weak link in the domestic base of American imperialism is a Black and Hispanic working class, fifty million strong. This is the nation within a nation, society within a society, that alone possesses the numerical and positional strength to undermine the American empire from within.
Ultimately, no doubt, the left in the United States will have to confront the fact that there is never likely to be an ‘American revolution’ as classically imagined by DeLeon, Debs or Cannon. If socialism is to arrive one day in North America, it is much more probable that it will be by virtue of a combined, hemispheric process of revolt that overlaps boundaries and interlaces movements. The long-term future of the US left will depend on its ability to become both more representative and self-organized among its own ‘natural’ mass constituencies, and more integrally a wing of a new internationalism. It is necessary to begin to imagine more audacious projects of coordinated action and political cooperation among the popular lefts in all the countries of the Americas. We are all, finally, prisoners of the same malign ‘American dream’.
Prisoners of the American Dream is one of the core texts on our student reading lists and 50% off for the month of September as part of our Back to University sale. See all our History reading here, as well as all our reading on Economics.