C. Wright Mills – Prescient Sociologist?

.So, I am currently reading Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, which, so far, reads like an intellectual biography of Mills, in the context of the post-War New York intellectual / radical scene.

In the context of the strike of the Chicago teachers and the whole NFL thing last night, I could not help but wonder whether unions were sorta making a comeback, at least in public discourse, in a slightly different way than what have been the common tropes on unions in the past, oh, 20 years. And this, of course, in the context of the upcoming US presidential election with regards to whether unions should support one party over the other.

Then, I read this in Aronowitz’s book (Kindle edition):

“By 1948, buoyed by American capitalism’s unparalleled global dominance, a powerful conservative force, comprising corporations and their ideological mouthpieces, right-wing intellectuals and conservative politicians, was arrayed against labor’s recently acquired power and, according to Mills, had no intention of yielding more ground without an all-out industrial and political war. Yet he found union leaders curiously unprepared for the struggle. Even as their cause was being abandoned by liberal allies, union leaders remained faithful to the Democratic Party and the New Deal, which was rapidly fading into history. Mills found that the concept that working people needed a party to represent truly their political interests had disappeared from the perspective of most labor leaders, though a decade earlier, at the apex of industrial unionism, a majority favored the formation of such a party, despite their expedient support of the Democrats.” (Loc. 244)

And then this:

‘Mills admonishes labor’s leadership to attend to the postwar shift that endangers their and their members’ power. Arguing that the “main drift” is away from the collaboration between business and labor arguably made necessary and viable by the war, he suggests that labor leaders of “great stature” must come to the fore before labor is reduced. “Now there is no war,” but there is a powerful war machine and conservative reaction against labor’s power at the bargaining table.” (Loc. 254)

And furthermore,

“Ironically, New Men of Power is far more accurate in its central prediction of labor’s decline for the years since 1973. Labor has paid a steep price for its refusal to heed Mills’s admonition to forge its own power bloc. In the face of economic globalization, corporate mergers, the deindustrialization of vast areas of the American Northeast and Midwest, and the growth of the largely nonunion South as the industrial investment of choice, many unions have despaired of making new gains and are hanging on to their declining memberships for dear life. Labor is, perhaps irreversibly, on the defensive.” (Loc. 265)

The man has been dead for fifty years. Plus ça change…

2 thoughts on “C. Wright Mills – Prescient Sociologist?

  1. Interesting. Thank you for sharing your ideas. I was reading Joyce Rothschild of V Tech in Am Beh Sci about co-operatives in my grad work back in 2010 when she made reference to the ideas of Domhoff in his 2006 Who Rules America. The citation also reminded me of Mills’ work, and how key his courageous studies of power seemed to be.
    I also found a book about the history of US labor that points out its conservative nature in an anti-communist atmosphere. At least I can perceive how that rings true, having just reread something about the McCarthy era in a bio of RFK.
    Nevertheless, a book There Is Power in a Union has been inspiring, along with Zinn’s People’s History and Melman’s After Capitalism.
    Most of all, I guess, is how Melman’s view converges well with Rothschild’s about the value of economic democracy, and the reality and power of those efforts. The agreement between the US Steelworkers and Spain’s Mondragon Co-op Corp. at least creates an important link to the basic logic and significant success identifiable in Mondragon’s industrial networks.
    A number of writiers have begun promoting the co-op model, including William Greider, Marjorie Kelly, and Dave Korten, along with English economist Noreena Hertz. At a panel talk given by The Nation magazine in 2009, I heard labor activist Bill Fletcher speak in a panel with Joe Stiglitz and Barbara Ehrenreich when he mentioned industrial co-operatives in passing. I spoke with him afterwards, and he had little hope for the co-operative idea. At least the US Steelworker-Mondragon agreement goes beyond that vision.
    Hopefully, Mills’ analysis will be superseded in a similar way by the constructive efforts of such activism, including the innovative formation of the US Federation of Worker Co-ops, which joins the more established efforts of the US Natl Co-op Biz Assoc.

  2. I’m a grad student at CUNY, currently studying with Stanley and helping with some research for his forthcoming book on the past/present/future of the labor movement, in which **SPOILER ALERT** (haha) he will argue that one of the central contradictions of the labor movement is that it has tended to fashion itself as the *union* movement – failing to develop a broader social analysis (of Mills’ sort), and forgoing any opportunity to present a transformative social agenda. This has a number of implications – most relevant to your post might be the following: the more unions attempt to accommodate themselves to the limits & conditions of american capitalism (be it through contractual bargaining, collaboration with employers, or the Democratic party) the less powerful and relevant they will become. (not least because american capital is but one aspect of global capital. the shifting role of Left-intellectuals in this capitulation is also of interest. this will also entail an analysis of opposition movements more broadly)

    In some ways, this is a rehearsal of the argument he has been making since False Promises (1973) but with a renewed urgency, given trends mentioned by Mark in regards to the crisis in organizing, and the increasingly desperate circumstances of labor and social movements worldwide. It seems to me, at the risk of sounding teleological, that the stakes have never been higher (I think most climate analysts would agree). What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for radical transformation — can they even be identified objectively? Does a notion of subjectivity allow us to imagine (speculate even) about what such a transformation might look like? What role might unions (long-since at a loss) play in such a speculative project? What level of violence, risk, and uncertainty are movements willing to endure (or engage in) in search of it? End-times or not, these are urgent questions, ones that go far beyond the realm of ‘policy problems’ and economistic prescriptions.

    Plus ça change indeed – but history, it seems, remains an open question.

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