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A Tribute to One of Occupy’s Intellectual Predecessors
Posted on Feb 29, 2012
By Peter Dreier, Truthout
At Columbia, Mills mastered the techniques of social research, particularly the skills of conducting interviews and doing large surveys, which he used to carry out several projects that his senior colleagues suggested. But Mills was restless. He wanted to use his academic perch to reach outside academia, influence public thinking and help build a progressive movement.
In New York City, he met a widening circle of radicals and rebels, like novelist Harvey Swados, critic Dwight McDonald and labor activist J.B.S. Hardman, who expanded Mills’ political horizons. He quickly became what today we call a “public intellectual,” writing essays for progressive and left-wing opinion magazines like the New Republic; The Nation; New Leader; Partisan Review; Dissent; and especially Politics, which criticized America’s warfare state and sought ways to invigorate grassroots democracy.
The country Mills wrote about had overcome the Depression, triumphed over fascism in World War II and was in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom. The gross national product and the standard of living increased rapidly in the postwar decade. A growing number of American families were able afford to move to the suburbs, buy homes, install air conditioners, purchase a new contraption called a television, pay for a new car every few years, take a yearly vacation (and stay at a new phenomenon called a “motel”) and even fly on an airplane. They could send their children to college and save money for a comfortable retirement.
The postwar prosperity was fueled by big government initiatives—a massive national highway-building program; huge subsidies and financial aid to expand the college and university system; federal insurance to increase home building and home buying; and, most importantly, an immense defense budget. All this government spending boosted employment and put money in people’s pockets, stimulating the consumer demand that provided America’s businesses with record profits.
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But most business and political leaders warned, all this could end unless the United States was ready to stop the spread of Communism, especially in Europe and the poor nations of the world. American schools and universities had to train the next generation of skilled workers, corporate managers, school teachers and scientists, particularly to compete with Russia, which launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. We even had to be prepared, if necessary, to fight a war with the Soviet Union.
The vast defense budget—what some called a “permanent war economy”—paid for expensive new weapons systems; military bases around the world; and millions of American civilians and troops employed by the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and private military contractors. At home, the fear of Communists and other radicals led to the hysteria called McCarthyism, led by business groups worried about stronger unions and higher taxes and by politicians who got into office by scaring voters about the Red Menace taking over the public schools, unions, Hollywood and universities.
Mills rebelled against this conventional thinking. In his first few years at Columbia, Mills joined a network of academics who provided research to help union leaders understand the major social and economic changes facing their members. A wave of militant strikes across the country after the war and an increase in union membership gave radicals hope that the labor movement would be in the forefront of progressive change. Mills’ ties to the labor movement led to the first of his major books on what he called the “main drift” of American society—“The New Men of Power: America’s Labor Leaders,” published in 1948.
When Mills was writing the book, union membership had increased fivefold in the previous decade and represented one-third of non-farm workers. He believed that unions could be a bulwark against America’s drift toward “war and slump” by pushing to convert the war economy to civilian uses, improving workers’ incomes and job security and giving ordinary Americans a voice in government to challenge big business power.
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