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  • (De-)Industrial Heritage:An Introduction
  • Stefan Berger and Steven High

The radical restructuring of the international division of labor has meant that huge swaths of Europe and North America have experienced painful deindustrialization since the 1960s. In itself, this is nothing new, as capitalist development has always been geographically uneven.1 It is also a global phenomenon, with newly industrialized areas experiencing decline soon after the initial areas.2 What differed in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s was the scale of the unfolding crisis in North America and Europe, as industrial heartland areas lost their economic raison d'être. Millions of industrial workers were displaced, leaving once vital economic centers stricken. Across the industrialized world, union density plummeted. For example, the rate of unionization in the United States dropped from 34 percent in 1973 to just 11 percent in the 2000s (or a little over 6 percent in the private sector).3

It was in this crisis atmosphere that the cross-disciplinary study of deindustrialization emerged, as did industrial heritage as a preservation impulse and an area of further research. Indeed, the term deindustrialization was coined in the 1970s and then taken up by researchers and anti-plant closing activists in France, Germany, [End Page 1] the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. The most famous distillation of the "deindustrialization thesis" was offered by radical US economists Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison in their celebrated 1982 book The Deindustrialization of America, which saw the conflict as one that pitted "capital" against "community."4 By contrast, the deindustrialization thesis was tied to an anti-imperialist critique of foreign direct investment (usually American) by Left nationalists in other countries.5

Now, looking back nearly forty years later, we see a field that encompasses a huge diversity of studies. An early focus on the political economy of deindustrialization as well as on resistance movements has given way to wider examination of the toxic sociocultural, environmental, health, and political aftermath. The 2003 publication of Jefferson Cowie and Joseph Heathcott's celebrated edited volume Beyond the Ruins: The Meanings of Deindustrialization was a milestone in this shifting perspective.6 Sherry Lee Linkon's more recent recognition of the lasting effects of these closings over their "half-life"—first expressed in the 2013 special issue of International Labor and Working Class History, "Crumbling Cultures of Deindustrialization" and then expanded upon and refined in her 2018 monograph—reminds us that the devastating consequences of deindustrialization persist long after the mines, mills, and factories are closed and their physical remains demolished or converted to new uses.7

Deindustrialization's half-life also helps us understand the political linkages between late twentieth-century deindustrialization and the twenty-first-century rise [End Page 2] of right-wing populism in North America and Europe. While these links are still fiercely debated, there is little doubt in our minds that the moral and political rage felt by those left behind in deindustrialized areas contributed to the shock election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the British vote to exit the European Union, and the rise of the Rassemblement National (previously Front National) in France and of the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, to name just four of the most obvious political aftershocks. In each instance, as will be discussed below, race and immigration were bound up in working-class anger over deindustrialization.

Right from the beginning, one important strand within deindustrialization studies focused on the lived experience of deindustrialization as narrated by displaced workers themselves. Oral history interviewing and participant observation were employed to help us understand what is lost in economic displacement, its cultural meaning, and its far-reaching consequences as the force of the shock wave traveled outward through individual lives, families, and wider working-class communities.8 In her important 1994 study on Kenosha, Wisconsin, anthropologist Kathryn Marie Dudley notes that plant closings serve as a "status-degradation ritual—a cultural recognition that blue-collar laborers are of a lower social status than they have been pretending to be."9 She was also one of the first to speak of displaced industrial workers as culturally displaced persons: "People who once stood at the center...


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