American Socialist, July-August 1958

[Louis Proyect: In 1958, the next-to-last year American Socialist was published, the editors and many of the contributors were finally beginning to come to grips with the reality that the 1930s-40s radicalization was definitively over. More and more attention was being paid to opportunities other than those presented historically by the union movement Meanwhile a serious effort was being undertaken to try to understand the situation of the American working class, warts and all. In the July-August issue, there’s an article by Paul Sweezy on ‘The Condition of the Working Class’ which attributes the gains of the working class since the 1930s as being mostly attributable to war. In the same issue, there’s an article by Harvey Swados titled ‘A Note on The Worker’s Cultural Degradation’, which explores the role of mass entertainment in dulling the senses of the workers. While Swados had no direct connection to the Frankfurt School, many of the themes in the article evoke Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Dialectics of Enlightenment.’ Swados is best known for his novel ‘On the Line’, which is drawn from his experiences as an auto worker. In Alan Wald’s entry on Swados in the Encyclopedia of the American Left, he states that although Swados was only briefly connected with the organized left, its concerns were uppermost in his mind throughout his life. After joining the CP in high school in the late 30s, he became converted to Trotskyism at the University of Michigan in 1940 and joined Max Shachtman’s Workers Party. Two years later, he dropped out and began a long career as an independent socialist writer. Factory experiences from his early years stayed with him all his life, including the merchant marines and aircraft plants besides the auto plant depicted in ‘On the Line’.]

The ceaseless barrage of sex and violence, and the commercialization of all aspects of culture, hit all Americans, but those who are most defenseless are the workers.

A Note on The Worker’s Cultural Degradation

by Harvey Swados

THOSE of us who persist in clinging to certain archaic notions about the human degradation attendant upon capitalism, and who in consequence cannot shake off the suspicion that this might be a better world with the arrival of something we call socialism, are often taxed with the lack of foresight of Karl Marx. Not only is Marx held posthumously accountable for all the crimes committed in his name or in the name of socialism—from the Stalinist slave-labor camps to the Socialist management of imperialist pacification in Algeria—but he is also charged with having failed to foresee that capitalism would be able to provide not less and less, but more and more and more of the good things of life for its proletariat. It is true that in recent months these sardonic cries have become somewhat muted, as the unemployed are once again arrested for stealing food and display other signs of reluctance to proceed quietly from overemployment to home relief; but still the claim is made that the working class under capitalism (especially in Magic America), far from being increasingly exploited and degraded, is living at least as well as anyone else in the world, if not better.

Well, what about it? Are we to deny that the packing-house worker and the auto worker can and do buy color television, three-taillight automobiles and Chris Crafts to go with their fishing licenses? And if we admit it, shouldn’t we also admit that capitalism is after all capable of satisfying all the wants of the underlying population, allowing for occasional recessions?

I for one do not think so. I for one think that the working class is not having its basic emotional wants and psychological needs satisfied. I for one think that the working class—regardless of whether it is envied by other proletarians who would like to drive cars instead of bicycles, or who would like to ride bicycles instead of walking—is being cheated, swindled, and degraded as ferociously as ever its English counterparts were a century ago when Marx and Engels were anatomizing them. The fact that it may not be aware of its exploitation does not alter the reality of its situation. The fact that, even with an appreciable portion of it presently subsisting on unemployment insurance, its material status is still light years ahead of its European (to say nothing of its Asian or African) counterparts, is relevant only as it sheds a little light on the potential of plenty that would be available to all mankind if industrialization and the accumulation of capital were to take place at a rational pace on a world-wide basis.

CONSIDER the condition, say, of the Chicago slaughterhouse worker at the turn of the century. Upton Sinclair railed magnificently, and with ultimately telling effect, not only at the economic subjugation of workers forced to toil sixty and seventy hours a week for a pittance, but also at the conditions under which they worked, at what they had to do for a living, and at how they were ruthlessly cleaned out in the saloons when the long day’s work was done. It was his contention that the workers were being degraded and enslaved not only during their working hours, but afterward as well, when they turned to the consolation of booze to help them forget how they were spending their lives.

Let us grant at once that these workers are no longer forced to toil (not even the moonlighters) sixty and seventy hours a week. Let us grant at once that they are paid much more for working much less than they did at the turn of the century, and that, thanks to their union, their conditions of employment have been immeasurably improved. What they do does not seem to have altered as appreciably. Since Chicago packinghouses no longer offer public guided tours, let us note what was said very recently by one of America’s most distinguished women, who felt impelled, in her ninth decade, to address a letter to the New York Times (April 30, 1958):

‘I have been horrified within the last few weeks by learning that the old cruel way of slaughtering animals for food is still being widely used, and that still, just as in my youth, there is no law to forbid it. This is to me absolutely incomprehensible because we are not a cruel people: we do not want to eat what comes to us through pain and suffering. And yet, as I know of my own knowledge, the facts about the slaughterhouses were investigated and publicized well on to sixty years ago. . .’

Miss Edith Hamilton does not dwell in her letter on the effects of this cruel work on those hired to perform it, nor need we linger here over the question beyond observing that it is not one currently asked by those engaged in promulgating the myth of the happy worker.

AS for how workers are gulled and mulcted in the hangouts which Sinclair described as traps designed to stupefy the worker, and which we today might characterize as the liquid television of half a century ago, only those who live in the dream world of official mythology imagine that they no longer fulfill the evil function they did in the days of The Jungle.

‘An armored truck [A. H. Raskin tells us in the New York Times Magazine of May 4, 1958] stood outside the unemployment insurance office in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood five minutes ride from Detroit’s glistening civic center. On the truck’s side was a sign: ‘Charge for cashing checks. Up to $50—15 cents. Over $50—20 cents.’ Two-thirds of the workers streaming out of the office thrust their checks through the slot and paid tribute to the man in the truck. . . . Inside the office the manager frowned: ‘That armored truck is violating the law, but the Cops don’t bother the owner. And the wives like it, it keeps their men out of the beer gardens to cash their checks.’

But new techniques for the inducement of oblivion have far outstripped the traditional saloon, with its check-cashing window and its soft-sell technique of simultaneously taking the worker’s money and enabling him to forget that he has just spent his day hitting screaming animals on the head, tightening bolts on auto bodies, or seeking the opportunity to find such employment. Indeed the new techniques of merchandizing both ‘leisure’ and forgetfulness have now developed to the point where they can be said to play as large a part in the degradation of the worker as does his actual employment. The English writer, Richard Hoggart, puts the matter quite succinctly in his ‘The Uses of Literacy’ (Fairlawn, New Jersey, 1957):

Inhibited now from ensuring the ‘degradation’ of the masses economically, the logical processes of competitive commerce, favored from without by the whole climate of the time and from within assisted by the lack of direction, the doubts and uncertainty before their freedom of working people themselves (and maintained as much by ex-working class writers as by others), are ensuring that working people are culturally robbed. Since these processes can never rest, the holding down, the constant pressure not to work outwards and upwards, becomes a positive thing, becomes a new and stronger form of subjection; this subjection promises to be stronger than the old because the chains of cultural subordination are both easier to wear and harder to strike away than those of economic subordination. (pp. 200-201.)

What is perhaps ugliest about the whole process, however, is that competitive commerce is now meshing the chains of cultural subordination with those of economic subordination. The worker is not simply lulled into forgetfulness of his daily idiot routine by the TV western: he is simultaneously pressured into permanently mortgaging himself by acquiring the objects manufactured by the sponsors of his daily ration of opiates. The peddlers of persuasion have now developed such techniques of sophistication and grown themselves into such large-scale enterprise that they engage the talents and the creative passions of a substantial segment of young college graduates in the fields of sociology, psychology, economics, and the English language itself. They regard the worker-consumer as a manipulable object rather than as a human being with individual needs and aspirations; they address him in consequence with a cynicism that can only be described as shameless, and they exploit him culturally as ruthlessly as he was exploited economically a generation ago. Thus Dr. Ernest Dichter, president of the Institute for Motivational Research, recently informed the Sales Executives Club of New York and the Advertising Federation of America:

A year ago it was correct to advertise the purchase of air-conditioners under the slogan, ‘You deserve to sleep in comfort.’ Today, it may be psychologically more correct to shift to a moral approach, utilizing spartan, work-oriented appeals such as, ‘You can’t afford to be tired all day,’ or ‘You work better and produce more after a refreshing night.’ Dr. Dichter termed this one approach for giving the consumer ‘moral permission’ and ‘a rational justification’ for buying products that represent the ‘good life.’ . . . Motivation research’s view on price cuts, according to Dr. Dichter, is that they must be accompanied by advertisements that explain to the consumer the reasons for the change. Otherwise, ‘there is a grave danger that the consumer will become more than ever convinced that he was being cheated during a period of prosperity.’ Dr. Dichter also urged that salesmen become philosophers as well. To help dispel the sales lag, ‘he has to sell us not only a product but the desirability, the correctness of purchasing the product.’ (New York Times, March 19, 1958.)

Those who manage to accommodate themselves to a lunatic order of things have in general reacted to observations like those in the preceding paragraphs in one or a combination of the three following ways:

(1) They assert that the great virtue in our social order is that, in addition to providing the working class with the necessities and the amenities of a secure and civilized existence, it also provides the worker for the first time in history with an unparalleled variety of cultural possibilities, ranging from the great thinkers in inexpensive paper books to the great composers on inexpensive LP’s.

(2) They claim that the manufacturers of distraction are giving the public what it wants, and that if the proletarian turns in his off-hours not to Plato but to Spillane, not to Beethoven but to Alan Freed, this is no more than a reflection of the traditionally abominable taste of the masses, which preceded and will endure beyond the current American order.

(3) They point out that—if it is indeed true that we are the victims of an unremitting, concerted commercial assault on our nerves and our senses—this degrading and relentless battering affects not just the working class but all of us, and that it is therefore romantically inaccurate to single out the proletarian as the particularly exploited victim of the mass-media panderers.

ALL three defenses are interconnected; a response to all must start with an insistence upon the lately neglected fact that it is the man on the bottom of the heap, the man who does the dirty work, who has the fewest defenses against the unending barrage of sex and violence and the propaganda of commerce. He is the particularly exploited victim of the mass media; he is not given an honest possibility of developing an individual taste for individual works of the human imagination; he does not have the range of cultural choice available to college students, white-collar people, and middle-class citizens of the republic.

As Daniel Bell observes of the work situation itself, in his Work and Its Discontents (Boston, 1956, p. 38), ‘a tension that is enervating or debilitating can only produce wildly aggressive play, or passive, unresponsive viewing. To have ‘free time’ one needs the zest of a challenging day, not the exhaustion of a blank one. If work is a daily turn round Ixion’s wheel, can the intervening play be anything more than a restless moment before the next turn of the wheel?’

The man who leaves the packinghouse or the assembly line is neither physically nor psychically prepared to appreciate the quality paperback or the classical LP. Nor are they readily available to him in any case; the merchandisers of the mass entertainments reserve the right to restrict certain of their wares, or conversely to cram others down the gullets of their victims. It is no more accidental that the only civilized TV programs are presented on Sundays, when the average viewer is either sleeping it off or visiting relatives, than it is that the much-touted bookracks in the poorer neighborhoods are packed not with Plato but with anonymously mass-produced borderline sado-pornography.

It is not only that the mass-media exploiters are capitalizing on the cultural backwardness of the great majority of the American people. Worse: they are actively engaged in the creation of new types of subliterature (see the paperback racks), sub-music (radio and jukeboxes), and generally sub-human activities (television), which they dump on a defenseless public in saturation quantities. No demand can be said to exist for such products of greedy and distorted minds until they are first created and then reiterated to the point of nausea or numbed acceptance. In the process of production and reiteration, whatever remains of an independent, traditional working class culture—as Mr. Hoggart spells it out painstakingly in The Uses of Literacy—is gradually eroded. THE middle classes and the intelligentsia can at least be said to have alternative choices for their leisure hours. Thanks to the numerical increase of the college-educated and to their steadily increasing purchasing power, the masters of mass consumption have made available to them the cultural treasures of the ages through the media of books, records, and even FM stations. But they have not been, nor will they be, addressed to the working class, to the vast inarticulate masses, who are deemed their betters to have lower tastes than the primitive Africans and Asians to whom the State Department export Marian Anderson and Louis Armstrong. What could be at once more patronizing and more bankrupt than the claim that the flood of swill daily pumped through our culture pipelines fairly represents all that the ordinary man can ever be expected to appreciate? If it is true that this capitalist society has all but wiped out economic degradation and oppression, why can it produce only consumers assertedly hungry for cultural products as degraded as those of any previous epoch of human history? The fantastic technological and scientific advances of recent years—not the singular product, we see now all too clearly, of American capitalism—do not merely call for an accompanying cultural advance, up to now unobservable among us; they will he positively insupportable without such an advanced without a new definition of the meaning of culture and of the individual human potential.

Meanwhile the fact of the apparent hunger for cultural rubbish combined with the salesman’s pitch, and theirs apparent mass acceptance, should not blind us to the basic shabbiness of the degradation and the exploitation of those who, all too unaware of what is being done to them, may even be asking for more of the same. I must turn once again to Richard Hoggart, who speaks to the point on this matter:

‘If the active minority continue to allow themselves too exclusively to think of immediate political and economic objectives, the pass will be sold, culturally, behind their backs. This is a harder problem in some way than even that which confronted their predecessors. I is harder to realize imaginatively the dangers of spiritual deterioration. Those dangers are harder to combat, like adversaries in the air, with no corporeal shapes to inspire courage and decision. These things are enjoy by the very people whom one believes to be adverse affected by them. It is easier for a few to improve material conditions of many than for a few to wake a great many from the hypnosis of immature emotion satisfactions. People in this situation have somehow be taught to help themselves.’ (Op. Cit., p. 264.)

It should not be discouraging that there are few voices like Mr. Hoggart’s on this side of the Atlantic. Surely it is better to speak late than not to speak at all, and one’s silence ensure the continuing and intensified exploitation of those least able to resist its seductive a ultimately corrupting effects. Every voice which says No is itself a demonstration of the existence of an alternative to the cultural degradation of the masses.

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