83: Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal

In Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, Lizabeth Cohen uses the new social history/ history from the bottom up to figure out “how it was possible and what it meant for ordinary factory workers to become effective unionists and national political participants by the mid-1930s.”  Like E.P. Thompson, Cohen studies Chicago workers’ slow progress to class consciousness and unionization in the 1920s and 1930s by looking at whole people embedded in complex communities instead of at the working class as a narrow block defined by productive labor.  Accordingly, she argues that daily life both inside and outside the workplace, combined with changes in politics and the developing consumer market, led to new choices in a new world where daily lives eventually lead to political decisions.

In other words, Cohen looks at how the cultural became political.  She shows that in the 1920s, Chicago, people may have worked together in factories, but they went home to ethnic enclaves and kept their money in their communities: shopped at local stores, banked with local banks, listened to ethnic radio stations, watch movies at local theaters, etc, even though national chains were already penetrating the city.  They participated in popular culture not as a homogeneous mass but as ethnic and racial communities, each interpreting cultural products differently.  Their only organizational experience was in forcing welfare capitalism to meet their needs.

With the Great Depression, however, many lost their jobs, many employers discontinued welfare programs, and ethnic institutions and businesses began to fail.  Chain stores, radio networks, and movie palaces filled the gap, which meant that workers participated in a more similar cultural world than ever before.  Through their consumption, workers did the work of integration that mass culture and welfare capitalism had been unable to achieve.  They did so in pursuit of working class interests/ making capitalism more fair, and they did it by integrating themselves into two political and economic machines: the activist welfare state and a national union.

Throughout, Cohen makes the cultural political by linking consumption and politics; studies how local or parochial politics and culture interact with the mainstream; emphasizes that working people made choices; and shows how individual and structural decisions combine to make history.  If after 1939, conservative strains moved to crush the CIO and destroy 1930s radicalism, Cohen shows that in the 1930s, welfare capitalism and mass culture produced a brief moment of radical working-class coherence, where the workers themselves shaped their own New Deal.

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