- Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie
Jefferson Cowie’s elegiac history of the U.S. working-class in the tumultuous years of the 1970s has already won as many accolades as any labor history of this generation. Its awards are richly deserved. Cowie’s book rests on mountainous research. It is beautifully written, and informed by a deeply humane sensibility. It weaves an elegant narrative of class, culture, and politics that will attract many young scholars to labor history. Indeed, more than any book in recent memory, Stayin’ Alive shows that in the right hands labor history can connect to politically engaged audiences beyond the cloistered precincts of academia, and make for stimulating, even exciting reading.
In all these ways, the book resembles another trend-setting tome to which at least one other reviewer has already compared it: E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). The comparison is apt. Both narratives are driven by passionate prose. Both offer a sweeping vision. While Thompson’s describes the “making” of the English working class, Cowie’s limns a class’s unmaking. Both see culture as much as economy as something that embodies, shapes, and gives meaning to the experience of social class. Both try to illuminate what Thompson called the “working-class presence” in a nation’s life.
Cowie’s approach nonetheless differs from Thompson’s both in what he includes and omits. The inclusions unquestionably enrich Stayin’ Alive. Cowie interweaves a narrative of high politics with his stories of union struggles and cultural representation in a way Thompson could not. His treatment thus moves beyond the limitations of the history-from-below approach identified with Thompson’s followers. Arguably, the analysis of Richard Nixon’s wooing of bluecollar voters or the travails of George McGovern’s Democratic Party provide Stayin Alive’s best passages.
Yet one omission hurts: Cowie offers no analogue to Thompson’s description of Methodism’s role in English workers’ lives (problematic as that treatment was). Indeed, religion is nearly absent from Cowie’s book, relegated to a few paragraphs on the politicization of Christian Evangelicals and the ruminations of intellectuals like Michael Harrington. This is unfortunate, for the United States claims [End Page 795] one of the world’s most religiously observant working classes and faith remains a key component of identity for most workers—a more relevant factor, I suspect, than the films and music Cowie lavishly cites. But while it is doubtful that we can fully understand working-class identity without a deeper investigation of the religious dimension of workers’ lives, it is also true that no big narrative can cover everything. Even the best must elide to illuminate.
Comparing Cowie’s work to Thompson’s raises two other questions though. One concerns that most Thompsonian of notions: agency. Cowie sees his workers as historical agents. But does he grant them more agency than is justified? He believes “the major storyline of the seventies white, male working-class identity was about failed linkages with youth movements, about racial and cultural backlash, about vigilantism, and about insurgency” and “how these centrifugal forces led not to an image but a breakdown” (199). He implies that if white workers made the “linkages” with youth movements and other progressive forces, then “unity” would have trumped “social deconstruction” (199). Yet how such cross-class/cross-race linkages could have survived rampant inflation, stagnating incomes, rising unemployment, de-industrialization, and a growing bipartisan consensus in favor of trade liberalization and budget trimming—all of which destabilized white working-class life—is unclear. Whether Cowie adequately weighs the structural impediments that workers and unions confronted in the 1970s is thus debatable.
Since Thompson helped reinvent the field a half-century ago, rarely do labor historians critique their own for over-valorizing agency, so Cowie’s reputation is unlikely to suffer much on that count. But a second Thompsonian trope might ultimately prove more vexing. Once the hubbub sparked...