A Tribute to One of Occupy’s Intellectual Predecessors
Posted on Feb 29, 2012
By Peter Dreier, Truthout
At the core of “The New Men of Power” is Mills’ survey of 500 labor leaders. He discovered that blue-collar workers’ route to the middle class was more likely to occur via better union contracts than by being recruited into the ranks of corporate management. He found that CIO union leaders were more progressive than their AFL counterparts, that many were open to the idea of a third political party based in the labor movement and that an astonishing 69 percent of industrial union leaders believed that the potential for fascism was a real threat in the United States. Mills was particularly impressed with Walter Reuther, who had just been elected president of the United Auto Workers, and other progressive union leaders whom he hoped would move the labor movement leftward.
Mills examined the other major segments in American society contending for political power. He warned that moderates in big business and conservatives among small business, both well-entrenched within the Republican Party, as well as mainstream business-friendly cold-war liberals within the Democratic Party, could marginalize or even co-opt the labor movement. He dismissed the far left (particularly the Communist Party) and the far right as too small and isolated to be influential.
Mills’ chapter, “The Program of the Left,” outlined a labor-based radical agenda that was really an expansion of the New Deal plus a call for halting the arms race and the war economy. It reflected bits and pieces of the views of Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party, Walter Reuther’s UAW and what would later that year become former Vice President Wallace Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign for the White House. It included proposals for consumer cooperatives, neighborhood committees to monitor business practices (including the continuation of war-time price controls) and workplace democracy.
“The New Men of Power” was cautiously optimistic about the labor movement’s potential. But in 1947, while Mills was writing the book, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Harry Truman’s veto, which weakened unions’ ability to organize. Mills was also disappointed when, in the 1948 elections, the AFL and CIO unions (including the UAW) endorsed Truman over Thomas (whom Mills voted for). In that political climate, few major union leaders were inclined to challenge the cold war, the arms race and the attacks on radical dissent. Indeed, most unions would soon purge themselves of their radical leaders as part of the Red Scare hysteria. Mills drifted away from working with progressive labor activists as his confidence in the labor movement gave way to skepticism.
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Based on interviews and surveys as well as analysis of popular culture, Mills concluded that many middle-class Americans were socially, intellectually and politically stifled, trapped working in offices in large business bureaucracies over which they had no control (including no union representation). Instead of finding pleasure and pride in craftsmanship at work, they pursued happiness and status by buying things they didn’t need and living without much purpose. He coined the phrase “cheerful robot” to decry the unthinking conformity of much of America’s middle-class culture.
In a speech in England, Mills described what he meant: “We know that men can be turned into robots—by chemical means, by physical coercion, as in concentration camps and so on. But we are now confronting a situation more serious than that—a situation in which there are developed human beings who are cheerfully and willingly turning themselves into robots.”
Mills believed that such conformity was an aspect of what he called “mass society”—a condition of widespread political apathy that allowed business and political leaders to pursue the arms race and the potential for a nuclear war without much opposition.
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