Less obvious…was the struggle led by national business leaders…to reshape the ideas, images, and attitudes through which Americans understood their world, specifically their understanding of their relationship to the corporation and the state. … The struggle to undercut organized labor’s and the state’s ideological hold over the working class and to protect this vision took place within a variety of contexts (Elizabeth A. Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism 1945-60).
Progressives are so engaged in battles over such issues as health care, climate change, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that they forget the fundamental “battle of ideas” that shape the ways in which working people understand their connections to government, unions, community, and the economic system. In two brilliant books, Selling Free Enterprise (1994) and Waves of Opposition (2006), Fones-Wolf describes the public sphere, media, education, religious institutions, and political assemblies as sites for critical debate about the kind of society that can best serve workers. The histories she presents cover the 1930s through the 1950s, but the lessons of her history bear upon the ideological struggles in our own day.
In the first book, the author describes the open-ended possibilities for political change, it was hoped, which could have been crafted as World War II ended. The war began at a time when workers, through their own mass action, had created the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a militant federation of four million factory workers in electronics, steel, auto, meat packing, mining and smelting, and other industrial and white collar unions. To help the war effort, CIO unions pledged to avoid strikes in the name of national security. But, when the war ended, workers expected to play a significant role in constructing public policy and shaping the kind of political and economic system that would serve their needs.
Fones-Wolf documents the worldview that guided workers and their unions after the war. They believed in the right of workers to form unions that would represent their interests at the point of production. They believed that government must play a basic role in promoting an improved quality of life for all. They believed that workers derive their freedom and happiness from active participation in communities at the local and national levels. And the character of “free enterprise” was to be circumscribed by the common good. The public good was more important than private property.
The capitalist class, Fones-Wolf argues, had a diametrically opposed view of the political, economic, and even cultural world that needed to be created after the war. Unions represented tyranny, not the interests of workers. Government was a hindrance to human well-being. The more government insinuated itself into the lives of people the worse off they would be. Community, unless it was organized by human relations offices of big corporations, restricted freedom. Individualism, not community, was the bulwark of a free society. And basic to individualism, the capitalists argued, was the “free market,” “free enterprise,” and private property.
Selling Free Enterprise describes the battles over these two fundamentally different worldviews, community versus individualism, in factories, in schools, in churches, in local elections. Such capitalist arms as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce employed factory owners, clergymen, educators and think tanks, the press, radio and television to promote their vision of post-war America using millions of dollars and penetrating every city and town across the United States.
Although the labor movement, peace and justice activists, moderate church people and others challenged the “free enterprise” model of society from 1945 until 1960, they were no match for the money and power of big capital. The free marketeers also utilized the Cold War and the specter of “worldwide communism” to purge those forces that sought to create an egalitarian and communitarian America. While the different ideologies were contested in the 1940s and 1950s, by the early 1960s the capitalist class had achieved ideological hegemony.
Fones-Wolf wrote Waves of Opposition to describe the efforts of labor and progressive groups to have their voices heard on radio, the dominant medium for news and culture from the 1930s until the late 1950s. Corporate elites, CEOs of the major radio networks, and government agents limited the rights of trade unionists to have access to the air waves. Exceptions were noted in the post-war period when AFL and CIO paid programs appeared on national radio and a few union locals were able to buy air time in their communities to run programs describing the activities of their locals. In a few instances, local labor owned or operated radio stations. One of the longest running efforts was WCFL, out of Chicago. It was a “voice of labor” station operating from the 1920s to the 1970s. But, Fones-Wolf points out, it took major struggles for labor to gain recognition and access to the air waves. With corporate media concentration, the modest foothold labor had in radio, and even less in television, was lost.
The struggles, so graphically described by Fones-Wolf, are being played out today. The age of “neo-liberalism,” ushered in by the Reagan administration was sold to the American people in ideological terms. A worldview based on individualism, free enterprise, private property, limited government, and the magic of the marketplace was slickly packaged and sold while state/corporate power was used to crush the labor movement. Even the modest “welfare state” model of public/private sector collaboration was challenged by neo-liberal spokespersons.
With increasing media concentration, approximately ten media conglomerates control about fifty percent of all we read, see, and hear, neo-liberalism crushed any alternative visions that stepped in its path. Even when policies are discussed, neo-liberalism reflected in talk radio and rightwing television dominates what and how issues are debated.
While Fones-Wolf’s story is about the defeat of workers, it does suggest two things. First, struggles for a better future must be fought on the ideological as well as the policy levels. Fundamental concepts such as community versus individualism, government versus free enterprise, and worker rights versus corporate control must be debated. The case should be made that the communitarian, participatory, egalitarian vision of a just society is deeply embedded in United States history.
Second, in the past workers and progressives used a variety of techniques to bring their message to the people including demanding access to major media. In our own day struggles to gain access to and control of media outlets, including television and the press, remain important. In addition, the vision of community once again needs to be brought to union halls, churches, public libraries, and all other social institutions and open spaces where people must decide on their collective future.