This Cradle Won’t Rock

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One hundred years ago, 25,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, walked out of the mills. Unskilled, unorganized, crowded into tenements, they’d been lured from their homes in Turkey, Poland, Russia, and Italy by promises of prosperity in the world’s largest textile factories. All they really wanted in that 1912 strike was a reduction in their fifty-six-hour workweek without a drop in their subsistence-level wages. Yet as the textile barons first ignored, then refused their economic demand, the workers began pressing a corollary—the right to pursue culture of their own choosing in the margins of their lives. This turn in the strikers’ grievances alarmed the mill owners and their retainers in the press, the police, and local government, but earned this refrain in James Oppenheim’s valedictory poem honoring the ten-week stoppage:

Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for—but we fight for roses, too!

Over in Cambridge, meanwhile, the combined forces of money and culture responded by rushing to the defense of upperclass prerogative. The president of Harvard, A. Lawrence Lowell, offered students a gentleman’s C in any course they left in order to join the militia in Lawrence, a city founded by his grandfather. Roughly a hundred of these scholar-soldiers threw on their uniforms, mounted their horses, and took up rifles against the immigrant women and girls on the picket line.

The strikers won a temporary wage victory over the owners and the Harvard cavalry, and the demand for “art and love and beauty” allowances in the wage economy flowered in the radicalism of the thirties and forties. But the Bread and Roses strike and its class-inflected cultural aspirations have disappeared from public memory; virtually no newspaper, magazine, or broadcaster has seen fit to commemorate its centennial this year. You don’t remember the strike for the same reason you don’t remember that it was foreign-born workers who won you your weekends—back when you had a job, that is.

Big business has not forgotten, however. It has kept up its side of the fight with amazing persistence. Last year, for example, Maine Governor Paul LePage demanded the removal of a labor history mural hanging in the state’s Department of Labor. Governor LePage is a Republican and a loyal lieutenant in the Grand Army of the Market. But government by both parties, at every level, has been divesting itself of cultural sponsorship. Today’s business-worshipping leaders abhor all forms of art that can’t be packaged for private consumer markets.

And so a century of debate over the social and aesthetic value of culture has been hollowed out. Not many observers of our commodity-based system of production pretend to care any longer about the dilemmas of art in a democratic society. There seems no point in questioning whether a painting, book, or film is good or bad. A society that has lost hope of seeing itself reflected in its culture naturally loses interest in it.

The erasure of the Lawrence strike’s legacy bespeaks a definite migration of cultural power from the redoubts of society and government to unaccountable, unrepresentative, and inaccessible agencies of resource allocation—velvet-gloved foundations and debt-producing colleges and universities, mainly. The results have been boring and unreal, a culture for nobody’s sake, at once arbitrary and overdetermined. In the foundations and universities, as in the corporate marketing departments from which they borrow their strange notions, a class-specific fetish for creativity coincides with an invincible belief in meritocracy, while cartel-like techniques of managed competition muffle the contradiction. America’s stagnation proceeds directly from the assumption that cultural activity requires only enough funding to generate ratings, credentials, prizes, and tourist dollars. The managers ensure that nothing too interesting, idiosyncratic, or passionate reaches the public.

Baffler 20 brings you a roll call of the inert, sterile, and depraved cultural leavings of our plutocratic age. Welcome to an America that offers up neither bread nor roses, but a thin philanthropic gruel that advertises the baronial status of business, and a luxury-grade higher education that emits a boosterish fog. You will read here of decomposing cities that glitter with “vibrancy,” TV moguls who stage fables of competitive individualism, and Very Serious novelists chasing Very Important literary prizes. You will follow esteemed journalists and professors as they chronicle the endless education of the President. You will learn about the imperial Pew Charitable Trusts and its pet broadcasters on public radio, and take in the postideological pantomiming of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on cable television.

Admiring the performance art of Harvard fraud Adam Wheeler, you will observe the Ivy mothership’s efforts to smite the pretender down. Harvard, you will see, no longer dispatches its students to bully strikers, since it now sends its best and brightest to Wall Street to plunder pensions. Back on campus, it defends the honor of its brand—and prays that no one lingers too long over the exploits of its endowment.

So let the new culture lords and minions cleave to their prizes and credentials, their investment portfolios, their advertising metrics, and their tedious marketing schemes. The rest of us still need bread . . . and roses, too.

John Summers was the editor in chief of The Baffler from 2012-2016. 

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