Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Thoughts in regards to the Popular Front, its destruction, and the relationship of that destruction to the rise of '2nd Wave' Feminism


It's been a while since I have put up anything on the blog.  I've been trying to get finished with my dissertation, and put together two substantially revised chapters over the past quarter, the last two weeks focused on the revisions of my very unorganized Gilman chapter.  Within that context, some folks have been wondering about my argument in that case.  I thought I would put up this discussion here, which supplies the context of my argument.

Merril’s work needs to be placed within the context of the destruction of the Popular Front of the 1930’s and 1940’s with the rise of the cold war and McCarthyism. The destruction of that social formation ended an array of political and aesthetic possibilities that existed within that historical bloc. Those radicals that survived the purges and the deportations of the period had to create a new style and form to be heard. The artists involved in that project were left without a cultural milieu to work within, or any substantial institutional support. Ideological purges were a defining aspect of the era, occurring in locations as disparate as the university and the steel foundry. Chandler Davis noted that between the years of 1947-1950, “most institutions, from the government through the unions and universities to the American Civil Liberties Union… declared Communists unwelcome,” setting a precedent for the years to follow. (Davis 272) He also notes that the loyalty oaths utilized by those institutions not only restricted the involvement of members in the Communist Party, but also organizations with associations with the Communist Party. Radical artists had to navigate this minefield in order to find legitimate spaces to offer critiques of the society and avoid censure. Failure to negotiate these dangers could lead to the blacklists, that is, the inability to publish or work in the industries of popular media. In a few cases, it led to criminal charges or expulsion from the country.

In order to understand the full implications of this destruction, it’s necessary to briefly sketch out the impact of the Popular Front on U.S. culture and politics. Until recently, the dominant critical interpretation of that formation reflected the narrative produced by the forces that supported its destruction, putting an emphasis on Moscow, the naivet√© of artists, etc. However there have been a number alternative interpretations of the period, most notably the argument presented in Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front. Denning makes the argument that the Popular Front was a part of a larger cultural formation, one that he calls the Cultural Front. “The cultural front was… the result of the encounter between a powerful democratic social movement—the Popular Front—and the modern cultural apparatus of mass entertainment and education.” (Denning xvii-xviii) The formation of the cultural front consisted of a mass movement, a tentative formation of organic intellectuals, and institutional structures, ranging from magazine publishers to trade unions. For Denning, this formation cannot be simply reduced to the influence of the Communist Party and “Moscow gold.” Instead, it constituted a counter-hegemonic force within the society, a force crucial to the New Deal alliance, and yet, “making a culture that was neither a Party nor a liberal New Deal culture.”[1](Denning 5) For Denning the culture of the Popular Front constitutes radical social democratic social formation in which the Communist Party played a significant role, although not a central role. At the same time, the cultural front was inextricably linked to the rising mediated spectacle of mass culture.

As Stuart Ewen notes through his analysis of advertising, that system, the system of mass culture and the structure of the advertising that supports it, is intimately linked with the system of mass industrial production.[2] These institutions not only represented industrial capitalism, but were enmeshed in its interests, material processes, and social networks. They operated simultaneously as a system of legitimization for industrial capitalism, and contributed to the process of incorporating workers into that system as consumers, rather than as simple cogs. Mass production simultaneously demanded an increased mass consumption base to thrive. As Stuart Ewen notes, a group of intellectuals began to develop a sort of social democracy of consumption, responding to Henry Ford’s experiments in social control in his factories.[3] Ewen notes, “The image, the commercial, reaches out to sell more than a service or a product; it sells a way of understanding the world. The basic premise is that in a corporate, industrial world, it is the agencies of communication that provide the mechanisms of social order.”[4] The apparatuses of the social democracy of consumption are implemented to simultaneously respond to and shape popular desires, while maintaining the basic structures of capitalist accumulation. Rather than limiting themselves to the limited, crudely instrumental forms of control used by Ford, the intellectuals developing these structures began to draw on the recent development of psychoanalysis, linking structures of consumption with formations of desire. Ewen’s work links the shift in mass production with the rise of an image based advertising structure, tying into unconscious libidinal structures of the society. The cultural front can only be understood as a network of individuals and institutions the simultaneously immanent to that nascent system, yet exogenous to its logic.

Denning argues that the cultural front constituted a powerful counter-hegemonic force within the period of the 1930’s and the 1940’s, as well as containing a powerful legacy for the rest of the century through its intellectual, literary, and musical contributions. Denning notes, the most literal measure of that power can be seen in a 1942 Fortune poll in which, “25 percent of Americans favored socialism and another 35% percent had an open mind about it.” (Denning 4) However, the depth of that success went considerably beyond those numbers. The Popular Front was linked to innumerable campaigns from union organizing, fights against racial discrimination, to direct action efforts to keep families in their houses and apartments. Denning notes that these modes of politics drew on the tradition of the “voluntary reform association”, large popular organizations focused on single issues, from the League of Women Shoppers to the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. (Denning 63) These public sphere activities merged with the massive labor unrest and strike activity in cities ranging from San Francisco, Minneapolis, Harlan, and Detroit to form a network of organizations and activists throughout the country. Those structures posed an alternative vision of inclusion, one that was based on a participatory social democracy, rather than a vision of inclusion based on the social democracy of consumption being developed by the intellectuals linked to Fordist forms of production.

However, this formation, what Denning, working in the vocabulary of Antonio Gramsci, refers to as a historical bloc, was quickly destroyed in the post war years. The alliances of the Popular Front had already been put under strain because of the acceptance of the no strike clauses insisted on by the Roosevelt administration during the war, as well as the acceptance of the Japanese internment camps by most of the Popular Front. These actions simultaneously delinked the cultural formation of the Popular Front from worker militancy and led the institutions of the Popular Front into a more uncritical alliance with the Roosevelt administration. However, this alliance began to quickly unravel with the end of the war. There was an immediate upsurge in labor militancy with the end of the war, represented by a wave of strikes throughout the country. The reaction to this upsurge in labor militancy was the Taft-Hartley act, which both limited the abilities of labor to strike and disallowed unions with membership involved in the Communist Party to benefit from the National Labor Relations Act. Despite initial opposition by the CIO leadership to this act, the conservative elements of the federation took advantage of the law to expel Communists and Communist affiliated unions from the CIO, effectively removing the influence of the radical left from the union movement.

The shift in the trade union movement had an immediate effect on the cultural front of the movement. The trade unions were a major funding source for publications such as the Federated Press, as well as a whole set of union publications. (Horowitz 102-152) Denning notes that half of all Popular Front publications were funded by the union movement, and this funding evaporated as those unions either became more conservative to respond to Taft-Hartley, or became smaller, more embattled units outside the protection of the National Labor Relations Act. (Footnote) In addition, subscription funded publications such as PM closed due to cheaper, advertising funded publications. At the same time, the independent studios involved in the production of socially conscious films closed due to the post war economic crisis in the film industry as well as the effects of the red scare. (Footnote) The destruction of these institutions also contributed to the destruction of the cultural front. With a few notable exceptions such as the independently financed Salt of the Earth, spaces for explicit radical critiques in popular publications evaporated, and the attempts to express radical ideas could only occur in veiled terms.

Furthermore there had been a radical transformation of the social structures and the class structure of the nation. Many of the political goals of the Popular Front were accomplished by the liberal New Deal State. It’s already been noted that the middle class had double from 30% in pre-depression times to 60% after the war.[5] The United States government worked to create the conditions for economic security internally. In addition to the creation of the National Labor Relations Board, the intervention in education was probably the most obvious of the interventions, taking the form of the G.I. Bill for education. Although it also included the National Defense Education Act, which both subsidized industries and the education of individual scientists. These policies were also linked to a shift in the loan structure of housing, which allowed for families to purchase a house with only a very small deposit. However, these benefits structurally excluded African Americans. These transformations, as David Roediger notes in his recent work, Working Towards Whiteness, occurred within the white supremacist context of the New Deal. The shifts in the access to housing, education, and other benefits was segregated at best, structurally reinforcing the practices of redlining and restrictive covenants, and at worst, were completely inaccessible to African-Americans. The programs and institutions constituted what historian Ira Katznelson called affirmative action programs for whites.

The post-New Deal political consensus can be read as a combination of fulfilling the incorporation of the white working classes and former new immigrants as consumers, rather than simply as cogs, and the systemic destruction of the radical elements of the Popular Front who wanted a more radical destruction of the society. The need to incorporate working classes into the society as something beyond simple cogs of the machine had been seen as early as the turn of the century, by a number of intellectuals responding to the phenomenon of mass production introduced by Ford. These individuals “Built on the expanded production and the economic potential of consumer markets, advertising created the imagery, the aesthetic, of a social-democratic capitalism, one that understood and would claim to solve the most basic contradictions of modern life.”[6] These theories had been developed around the turn of the century, but the working classes remained too impoverished to be fully incorporated in a consumer society. As we had seen previously in the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, project of incorporation depended on a combination of modes of expertise and through that, a re-imagination of the reproductive labor of the household, although the modes of redistribution to create that vision were left unimagined. The radical activism of the Popular Front through its demands for redistributive programs and contributions to industrial unionism ironically created the conditions to fulfill the promises made by Fordist democratic capitalism.

The new regime of consumption was to be anchored in the new suburban household. This household was meant to fulfill a multiplicity of purposes, social, cultural, and psychic. Elaine Tyler May notes that the new household was widely seen as an analogous form of containment, a domestic equivalent to the Cold War foreign policy of the U.S. government of the late 1940’s through the 1950’s as a way of neutralizing the class struggle through the containment of the home. Uncannily replicating the logic implicit in Gilman’s Herland, the household was supposed to act as the supplement to the alienated and regimented nature of the workplace, providing a space of leisure, and the creation of social meaning. That supplement was dependent on the labor of women who were expected to carry the weight of this process. To accomplish that, the household had to take on a radically different function within the society. As Stephanie Coontz notes, the post-war period was defined by a cultural shift in the family structure as well as the economic shift discussed earlier. As I noted in the earlier chapter, the vast majority of new housing was constructed in the suburbs, and the new families distanced themselves from their parents, moving out of their parents’ house earlier, and moving farther away from them. The new nuclear family additionally was designed to fulfill the social psychic and emotional needs of its members in an unprecedented manner, marking former homo-social gathering places such as the bar as pathological. The new household was both the sign and seal of the guaranteed social wage, and the compensation for the lost possibility of social democracy.

Within this context, Betty Friedan offers a useful narrative of the shift from the formation of the Popular Front to the rise of a feminist politic in the wake of the ruins of that earlier formation. Daniel Horowitz maps out this transformation in his biography, Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique. Horowitz places Friedan’s intellectual development at the center of the culture of the Popular Front, from her role as the editor of her university paper, SCAN (Smith College Associated News), to her involvement with the Popular Front news service, and for the new service of the radical trade union, the UE. Friedan was intensely involved in what Michael Denning called the ‘laboring of American culture,’ the creation of genuinely participatory social democracy within the structures of mass culture, both within the workplace, and through modes of consumption. At the same time, her involvement gestured towards the nascent forms of feminism contained in the Popular Front, both through the participation of women in the movement, but more notably, through later efforts of the movement to distinguish itself from the explicitly patriarchal politics of fascism, leading to connections on the part of the movement with the initially suspicious institutions of the official women’s movement. However, she also mapped the disintegration of that alliance. She was pushed out of the first job because of a combination of political conflicts, and the news service’s desire to return jobs to veterans through firing women to open spaces. The UE position collapsed due to the attacks on the union because of their refusal to recognize the stipulations of the Taft-Hartley Act. For Friedan, the loss of these jobs constituted a fundamental betrayal of the Popular Front, gesturing to its limitations and defeat.

The 1950’s were a period of reevaluation for Friedan, as she married and moved to the suburbs. She worked as a freelance writer for a variety of women’s magazines and was involved in neighborhood politics. Horowitz notes that Friedan’s shift in concerns, from the urban to the suburban; from the problems with poverty to the problems with prosperity were a common theme within the work of social criticism of the time. This collective effort can be seen as an attempt to produce a new political aesthetic that could be heard through the atmosphere of red baiting and the cold war, and produced a new critical framework to understand the new prosperity. However, Friedan’s work was markedly different than other leftist intervention through her emphasis on the suburban household, and expectations put upon women within that household. She focused on its many functions in the maintenance of the new dominant structures of the society, mapping out the construction and legitimization of the new role of women through the expertise of home economists and psychologists in the pages of women’s magazines. She argued that women’s restriction to the household effectively legitimated and expanded levels of consumption needed for the Fordist state, and created a way of mediating and creating an escape valve for the pressures created by the new society. Friedan states this quite polemically,

“The unremitting attack on women which has become an American preoccupation in recent years might also stem from the same escapist motives that sent men and women back to the security of the home…. No one has ever been blacklisted or fired for an attack on “the American woman.” Apart from the psychological pressures from mothers or wives, there have been plenty of nonsexual pressures in the America of the last decade—the compromising, never-ceasing competition, the anonymous of the purposeless work in the big organization—that also kept a man from feeling like a man. Safer to take it out on his wife and his mother than recognize a failure in himself or in the sacred American way of life. The men were not always kidding when they said their wives were lucky to be able to stay home all day. It was also soothing to rationalize the rat race by telling themselves that they were in it “for the wife and kids.” And so men re-created their own childhood in suburbia, and made mothers of their wives. Men fell for the mystique without a murmur or dissent. It promised them mothers for the rest of their lives, both as a reason for their being and as an excuse for their failures.” (Friedan 297)

The figure of the housewife then becomes the lynchpin for the entire social system of the post war era. She simultaneously acted as a force of legitimating remaining in the system for men, and at the same time, became an escape valve for the anger and aggression produced within such a system. Friedan implicates the entire superstructure of expertise, from psychologists to home economists in this process. The professionalization of child raising demanded by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, rather than facilitating new forms of collectivity in the household, was used to further isolate housewives, legitimating the new system of consumptive social democracy. The patriarchal control of the household became the social contract between men, legitimizing the often meaningless and repetitive labor of the Fordist factory or the assembly line logic of the business office. Drawing from the work of Sylvia Federici, the ‘mystique’ of domestic femininity created an implicit cross-class alliance between primarily white men, not only dependent on the social wage, but also on the access to women as a commons for men. It expanded the sexual contract to the white working class as well as the middle classes. The contract offered both material as well as psychic benefits to those who accepted its strictures.

The power of Friedan’s text largely arises through her rhetorical identification with the feminine mystique. That is to say, the power of her narrative is derived through her claim to be a housewife negotiating her way through this new form of domesticity. However, it is precisely this rhetorical claim to the conventional role of the housewife that causes a set of limitations to the text. To begin, Friedan’s censorship of her radical past leads to an erasure of the history of working class. Unlike many later radical feminists, Friedan’s claims about the mystique are limited to the post-war period, but her history of women’s activism is limited to the activities of the middle classes. Women’s union and radical activism is placed under erasure, which limits the forms of activism analyzed in the text.[7] Additionally, Friedan’s critique is dependent on her engagement with the psychological conventions of her time. That engagement is often quite critical of the discipline’s complicity with the feminine mystique, but it also embraces the hetero-normative impulse of psychology, arguing that homosexuality is a possible pathological response to the mystique.[8] If Friedan strategically engages with these conventions to be heard, these conventions profoundly shape and limit the epistemological possibilities of the text.


[1] Ibid., 5.
[2] Stuart Ewen, Channels of Desire,
[3] Stuart Ewen, Channels of Desire, 37
[4] Stuart Ewan, Channels of Desire, 42
[5] Look for this fact again
[6] Stuart Ewen and Elizabeth Ewen, 37
[7] Friedan, x.  See also Horowitz and Coontz
[8] Friedan,

No comments:

Post a Comment