Are We Still Suffering the Fallout of the "New Deal"?

In this exclusive excerpt from Sarah Jaffe's "Necessary Trouble," our columnist asks if the morality of 1930s middle class is to blame for today’s mess.
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The nuclear family that has been the focus of so much handwringing and moralizing in recent years was not a product of human nature but rather of a particular period in U.S capitalism. The family wage, designed to allow a male breadwinner to support a wife and children, was bargained for by the labor movement and accepted, though uneasily, by business leaders during the New Deal period. It allowed many working-class women, as well as their wealthier sisters, to stay home with their children; it built the middle class. The family wage—that is, material conditions—shaped our ideas of the male and female role in the workplace and in the home, in public and in private.

They also shaped the “moral values” of the period. Men took pride in their work and in their ability to provide for their families; women took pride in their children and in their caring skills that held the family together. The family wage helped to normalize certain ideas about women’s work and its value and about gender roles. If women were to be supported by their husbands, they didn’t need to make a living wage, and could be paid less when they were in the workplace—and despite the popular mythology, some women were always in the paid workforce. If women should be at home, social systems for child care were unnecessary, and in fact were examples of the state usurping the private rights of families.

Those moral values were constructed in reaction to the position that working people were pushed into. Black men and women, who did not enjoy the same economic position during the New Deal order, also had different relationships to the nuclear family. While the upper classes did not have to invest their sense of self-worth in their labor in the same way, working people found ways to take pride in what the world had given them.

It is interesting, then, that the same politicians and activists who profess to want to maintain the nuclear family have done the most to help dismantle it by reducing wages for most people, making it necessary, whether women like it or not, for them to work.

Marxist feminist activists in the 1970s, under the banner of “Wages for Housework,” argued that the work women did in the home in fact did have economic value, and that it was deserving of a wage. Their demands were mostly dismissed as unworkable, but the commitment of conservative women to their role in the home as the Christian right grew in power is related to their argument. These women might not have been demanding wages for housework, but they did demand a kind of acknowledgment for the reproductive labor done in the home, even if it was mainly lip service.

Into that context the Roe v. Wade decision hurtled. To anti-abortion women in particular in the 1970s, the Supreme Court seemed to have devalued not only the fetus, but also the labor of the women who bore and raised children. The decision was not, sociologist Kristin Luker argued, simply about pregnancy; it was about the social role of women. Not just childbirth, but the entire spectrum of work that women did, the caring labor of tending to the feelings and needs of the family, seemed to be on the verge of disappearing. Men were not about to pick it up—indeed, antiabortion women often argued that abortion allowed men to skirt responsibility. While many working-class women embraced abortion as a way to plan their families and save themselves money and stress, family planning alone was not enough to solve their economic issues. Particularly for women whose entry into the workforce likely meant more supervision, less control over their time, and less symbolic value for a fairly meager wage, often in a service job, staying in the home didn’t seem like a bad choice.

 “Family values,” framed as concern for reproductive labor and support for the traditional, patriarchal nuclear family, became a political obsession as the economy was transitioning away from industrial, family-wage union jobs to a service economy in which more and more women worked away from home. Those service jobs relied on the same “people skills” that women were already expected to possess. The Christian emphasis on service, adopted by corporations like Walmart, allowed bosses to pay the same lip service to women in the workplace as they had to women in the home, in both cases in place of a wage.

Homosexuality, too, was perceived as an affront to the traditional roles of men and women. It fit into the particular set of “family and moral values” concerns put forth by the newly organized religious right. The overall moral decline that so angered religious leaders like Jerry Falwell included any sex outside of marriage, but gays and lesbians came in for particular loathing because they seemed to upend traditional roles. Pointing the fi nger at them allowed straight male leaders to detach themselves from any responsibility for the moral decline they so lividly condemned. Although the later gay rights movement came to focus much of its energy on marriage rights, asserting the similarity of queer couples to straight ones, the early gay rights activists reveled in the challenge the movement presented to the existing family structure.

The movements of the late 1960s, particularly the feminist and LGBT rights movements, had stepped away from the kind of charismatic leadership model that was so recognizable in the civil rights movement and earlier eras. In part, because these movements were posing a direct challenge to the structures of patriarchy, they had little choice. Queer groups like ACT UP, formed in response to the 1980s AIDS crisis in an effort to break through the barriers that homophobia had erected around dealing with the disease, were organized horizontally, with affinity groups and caucuses. They used facilitators to structure meetings and encouraged groups to take independent action. Feminist groups, which often sprang up as a result of “consciousness-raising,” eschewed formal leadership, but struggled with what activist Jo Freeman called the “tyranny of structurelessness,” as formally nonhierarchical groups in practice found themselves with people who exerted control without having been selected as leaders—often along lines of race and class.

The post-2008 movements drew from these models, mostly putting aside hierarchies for more open-ended structures. In this, Moral Mondays was an outlier, a movement that clearly had a charismatic leader in Rev. Barber, who in speech and style harkened back to the civil rights movement. Adele Stan noted that even when the left turned its back on religion, and even in some cases began to mock the faithful, the civil rights movement and the liberation tradition of the black church was always excepted. Hence Rev. Barber was able to draw in even nonbelievers to a movement that used moral language and a preacherly style. It is not entirely surprising that a movement using the language of moral values had something of a patriarch.

“People trust him and are inspired by him and there’s a power to having that trusted person,” Jacob Lerner said, noting that the almost reverent style of Moral Mondays in a way felt like going to church. The media, too, has an easier time covering a movement with a clear leader to interview; having an obvious person to call contributed to the large amount of mostly positive coverage that the Moral Movement received. There was less of a need to rely on social media storytelling when the movement was more legible to the media.

And yet there is power in allowing more people to step up and take leadership roles or to act independently. People tend to stay involved with a movement, Lerner said, when they feel crucial to its success rather than just like one more person showing up. Although some people felt incredibly energized by Moral Mondays, others, like Angel Chandler, did not see themselves in it. Long-term, a movement’s ability to survive relies on many people stepping forward, and those people need to feel that they have space to speak and are empowered to act. Moral Mondays remained strong and powerful for the first summer, and continued to hold events that drew large crowds, but as with any disruptive action, what at first is a shock to the status quo becomes normalized, and those in power adjust to it. There is a constant need for new tactics to keep a movement growing, and the more people feel that the movement belongs to them, the more they will believe that they can try something new.

Even during the civil rights era, when Dr. King commanded headlines and phone calls from the White House, there were many others who did hard work with much less acknowledgment, from the domestic workers who walked and carpooled to make the Montgomery bus boycott a success to the distributed organizers of the SNCC in counties across the South who painstakingly registered black people to vote. That labor, too, is gendered, with women doing the less-visible labor of care and organization, from powering the phone trees and stuffing the envelopes for the antiabortion movement to maintaining the phone and email lists of the Tea Party to creating safe places for protesters and organizing jail support teams in Raleigh and Ferguson. To some extent, it was also true for the organizers in Raleigh and Ferguson. As Bethany Moreton and Pamela Voeckel have argued, movements themselves are a form of reproductive labor.

By including from the start issues of reproductive justice, sexuality, and gender identity alongside the more traditionally male issues of political rights and the workplace, Moral Mondays were able to bring in many women and queer and transgender people, who in turn did the important work of organizing, door-knocking, running meetings, and providing support for arrestees. Their work shaped the movement. As Wooten Gough noted, intersectional organizing requires more than just bringing in different people in a sort of laundry list of struggles; it means putting people who face multiple attacks at once front and center. These issues, as much as any others, shape what class means in America today.

Today our values have been shaped by the workplace and the world around us just as much as the values of the people living in the New Deal era were shaped by the world in which they were living at that time. And they are very different worlds. Our 21st-century world has been shaped by birth control and access to abortion; the service economy and the notorious “two-income trap,” in which two working adults became necessary to maintain the living standards that used to require just one; the Internet and social media; and the mainstreaming of queer and transgender people. Even Rev. Barber, who at first glance could appear to be an old-fashioned leader, spoke the language of intersectionality and argued for the need for distributed movements across the country. “Helicopter leadership doesn’t work in this environment and it never really has,” he said.

 

Excerpted from Necessary Trouble: America In Revolt by Sarah Jaffe. Copyright © 2016. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. 

Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist and the author of NECESSARY TROUBLE: AMERICANS IN REVOLT, out in August 2016 from Nation Books. Her work has appeared in the Nation, Salon, the Week, the American Prospect, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and many other publications. She is the co-host, with Michelle Chen, of Dissent magazine's "Belabored" podcast, as well as an editorial board member at Dissent and a columnist at New Labor Forum.
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