Rad Geek People's Daily

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Over my shoulder #1 (or: Friday Book-Bragging)

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 19 years ago, in 2005, on the World Wide Web.

Everyone’s got their own Friday afternoon game to play, and this one’s mine. I’m introducing a new recurring feature for the Rad Geek People’s Daily: Over My Shoulder, quotes (mostly without commentary) from something I’ve been reading this week. Irony to one side, this isn’t really intended as bragging about my reading list; the point is that what I’m reading is a way of getting at things I’ve been thinking about, even if I don’t yet have a confident position to stake out yet; and also that there are a lot of people out there who are smarter than I am, and not everything they write is something I can link to in online commentary or read the whole thing weblog posts. So here’s the rules.

  1. The quote should be something that I have read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It has to be something I’ve actually read, and not something that I’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post my favorite quote.)

  2. It should be a matter of one or a few paragraphs.

  3. There’s no commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  4. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t. Whether I do or not isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

If you like this idea, feel free to repeat it or adapt it as you see fit on your own page or in the comments. (Just please don’t call it a meme: there’s no such thing. Thanks.)

And we’re off. The inaugural selection is a bit I read yesterday on the bus, from the first chapter of Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor (all emphasis is in the original):

Fraina argued that what he called state capitalism, an expansive capitalist state embracing administrative centralization and militarization, had rendered the old socialist expectations irrelevant. Liberalism, as it had taken ideological form (Fraina found fault in the philosophy of pragmatism), now offered the intellectual counterpart to AFL unionism, narrowing the range of radical thought, aiding and assisting the upper classes and upper strata of labor against the threat of the irrational lower classes and of the world’s suffering peoples at large.

Fraina directed the sharpest of his polemics against William English Walling, a renowned socialist intellectual en route to becoming an AFL spokesman. Walling had observed shrewdly that socialists had been blind to the inner strengths of capitalism, the increased power and strength that it will gain through state capitalism and the increased wealth that will come through a beneficent and scientific policy of production. Being regulated, the system would be successively transformed by the mechanics of a complex struggle: a state capitalism under the hegemony of big and petty bourgeoisie would besupplanted by a state socialism under the petty bourgeoisie and the skilled workers. In the process, the allegedly messianic character of socialism would fall away entirely, and the social question would become no more than the struggle by those who have less, against those who have more in matters of income, hours, leisure, places of living, associations, and opportunity. Such a struggle could be properly ordered, guided by reform through existing institutions. The disorder implied by the ideas and very constituency of the IWW was, finally, a danger to the social détente which could make this benign process possible.

Even in AFL circles, confidence in such a benign outcome wavered. As the class conflicts of 1909-1913 took shape, skilled workers once again began to perceive that the emerging system often delivered fewer benefits for them than thinkers like Walling predicted. Solidarity campaigns of mutual support in strikes, like a dramatic one by railroad workers over several years, violated the AFL norm of workers with union contracts crossing picket lines and in effect scabbing on those still striking. The attempt at coordination by railroad brotherhoods, the appearance of metal trades councils, and (by the time of the war) the appeal for solidarity among the skilled and unskilled often bypassed the idea of political or electoral socialism altogether for a more popular American idea: workers’ control of production. Many local AFL members and even leaders unmoved by socialism mulled the idea, while Gompers’s circle rejected it out of hand as impossible and undesirable, an erasure of the line between labor’s prerogative and capital’s rights.

Conservative chiefs of AFL unions ranging from the hatters and pattern-makers to tailors, sheet metal workers, carpenters, and machinists, all lost their offices to socialist-backed candidates during 1911-1912 on grounds of solidarity versus conciliation with employers. A combination of administrative manipulation, political alliances with Democrats inside labor, and forceful support of labor conservatives by the Catholic Church was required to bring anti-socialist functionaries back into union office. The renewed victory of Gompers was sealed by the events of the First World War. As labor surged forward, anti-war ideas were in many parts of the country forbidden in published or spoken form, and those who voiced them faced deportation, arrest, beatings by vigilantes, and even lynching. The IWW, which carefully refrained from any political statements, was nevertheless suppressed in a fashion unknown hitherto in the United States, save perhaps for the attacks on Reconstructionist radicals in the post-Civil War South. This time, the modern version of the Ku Klux Klan had the presidential seal of approval and top labor leaders’ avid cooperation. Gompers demanded political acquiescence to the war, or at least silence, as the price of admission for newcomers to the AFL’s own swelling wartime bureaucracy. Upwardly mobile intellectuals around labor, like Walling, made their contribution by insisting that the U.S. economic empire that had expanded dramatically in wartime was benevolent, and that the leaders of the AFL, in their appeals for loyalty to government and indifference to those suppressed, accurately represented the interests of the working class.

Regulated state capitalism did indeed take shape, even by 1917, though it more resembled Fraina’s nightmares than Walling’s dreams. As newspapers were suppressed, Socialist Party offices destroyed, and local and national anti-war spokespeople, including Eugene Debs, sentenced to long terms in prison, Fraina acutely observed that the newly regulated system included the extension of the functions of the federal government, regulation equally of capital and labor, the Strong Man policy of administrative centralization, and the mobilization of everything by a national administrative control of industry. Having failed to organize an international system to regulate the transfer of profits among ruling groups, capitalism now rended the world, and (as Fraina correctly anticipated the worse horrors to come in the next world war and after) prepared the basis for future global conflicts. In that process, Fraina argued, leaders like Gompers could be depended upon to serve their true masters, while former socialists like Walling would tag along and rationalize the process–as perhaps termporarily dreadful but inevitable, and ultimately beneficial.

— Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor, pp. 69-71.

12 replies to Over my shoulder #1 (or: Friday Book-Bragging) Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2006-04-22 – Over My Shoulder #20: Damon W. Root (2006), review of David W. Southern’s The Progressive Era and Race:

    […] You know the rules; here’s the quote. I’ve mentioned before some of the reasons that I refuse to call myself a Progressive, and why I loathe the current vogue for the term on the Left. I alluded to some of the historical reasons for it but didn’t actually spell the details out at the time. Fortunately, while I was riding to work on the bus a couple days ago I found out that a book review from this month’s issue of Reason said just what I wanted to say, at least as far as the topic of race is concerned. (There are some analogous points to be made about the experiences of women, workers, immigrants, and psychiatric patients during the same dark, violent era. But the book under review deals specifically with the relationship between the Progressive movement and the triumph of Jim Crow in its most brutal incarnation.) So, thanks to Damon W. Root and his review of David W. Southern’s The Progressive Era and Race, here’s a good precis of how I learned to start worrying and loathe Progressivism: […]

· May 2008 ·

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2006-05-01 – May Day 2006: A Day of Resistance:

    […] GT 2005-12-09: Over My Shoulder (or: Friday Book-Bragging) […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-05-23 – King Ludd’s throne:

    […] GT 2005-12-09: Over My Shoulder #1 (or: Friday Book-Bragging) […]

· July 2008 ·

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-07-26 – On chutzpah:

    […] GT 2005-12-09: Over My Shoulder #1 (or: Friday Book-Bragging) […]

· December 2008 ·

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2006-04-14 – Over My Shoulder #19: Robert Whitaker (2002), Mad in America on metrazol “therapy”:

    […] You know the rules; here’s the quote. This week’s reading is from Robert Whitaker’s Mad in America again (see also Over My Shoulder #15, on the early modern English mad doctors). This passage was reading from the ride home from work and the walk home from the bus stop. I wish I had something to say, but it’s really too awful to bear comment. Here’s the quote: […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2005-12-30 – Over My Shoulder #4: Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor:

    […] You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is again from Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. […]

— 2010 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2010-01-19 – Over My Shoulder #48: from Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke”:

    […] You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s sparely-written, chapterless skein of documentary vignettes retelling the events that led up to World War II. […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2006-02-24 – Over My Shoulder #12: Michael Fellman (2002), The Making of Robert E. Lee:

    […] You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Chapter 4 (Race and Slavery of Michael Fellman’s The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000). Of course I’ve written about this before, in GT 2005-01-03: Robert E. Lee owned slaves and defended slavery. I picked up Fellman’s book as another source to consult over the relevant sections of WikiPedia:Robert E. Lee. The passage contains some new material that I hadn’t been aware of before. It also contains a couple of minor factual errors; see below. […]

— 2014 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2006-03-03 – Over My Shoulder #13: Jill Lepore’s New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan:

    […] You know the rules; here’s the quote. Lucky #13 was either airplane reading or bus reading; I don’t recall precisely what I was reading when. In either case, though, it’s from the Preface to Jill Lepore’s new book, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. It’s the story of something that many of us know about, and some other things that almost all of us have forgotten, but need to remember. Thus: […]

— 2015 —

  1. Discussed at abacusnoirform.wordpress.com

    A weekly recap of reading … « Abacus Noir Form:

    […] … would be a great idea! Here is something I found from ten years ago on The Rad Geek People’s Daily: […]

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