American Studies Seminar
Meeting Date: December 13, 2016 , Meeting Time: 7.30-9pm
Location: Columbia University Faculty House, 64 Morningside Drive,
off 116th St., NYC, American Studies Seminar room
Speaker: Stephen Paul Miller, St. John’s University
Title: “The Readymade Resistance to Trump’s Republicanism”
Abstract: There is a black hole in American history studies. Virtually nothing detailed and accurate concerning America’s financing of World War II can easily be accessed. Its blueprint and references to it cannot be found outside of archives. And yet even an elementary knowledge of these policies would provide a readymade vision immediately recognizable to all Americans, a cognitive touchstone that would reduce the Trumpian Republican clarion call to privatize America to gibberish.
We think of World War II economic policy as an extension of the New Deal. However, the World War II economy was much more. “The Readymade Resistance to Trump’s Republicanism” explores long unexamined particulars of what I call “Full Employment-Plus” and “Labor Supply-Side” World War II employment, hiring, training, and education policies and practices that not only doubled the nation’s industrial input, but also, much more than during the Depression, or later in the sixties, made unprecedented strides against the poverty of African Americans, the disabled, women, noncitizens, and others. For the only time in modern American history, African Americans lessened the otherwise steady ratio of an approximately two times higher black unemployment rate than white unemployment rate. Despite the extraordinary progress whites made economically during World War II, in a singular exception within our history, African Americans made even more relative progress than whites.
We have lost the political vocabulary to describe what happened. On December 2, 2016, Clinton campaign director Jennifer Palmieri and Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway engaged in a near shouting match over whether Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election due to the Trump campaign’s racism and sexism or the Clinton campaign’s lack of a clear economic message. Both were wrong. A post-election PRRI/Atlantic survey shows that half of Trump voters say, “Increasing diversity comes at the expense of whites.” It’s not enough to say “Stronger Together” when most white voters believe America is weaker together. Clearly, there is no separating economic from racial and gender issues. Palmieri and Conway are each more wrong than right because neither acknowledges the dynamics at work between diversity and the economy. We urgently need knowledge of the World War II domestic economy to arm progressives with a focused economic message seamlessly showing diversity’s strength.
Without this knowledge and message, Democrats risk losing their modern economic birthright to Donald Trump. Washington Postcolumnist Steven Pearlstein praises “Trump’s intervention to save jobs at Carrier’s Indiana facility” for being activist in the mode of “Franklin Roosevelt.” Indeed, Republicans themselves are recasting themselves in this light. In the wake of his 2016 deal with Carrier’s parent, United Technologies, Vice-President Elect and Indiana Governor Mike Pence said, “The free market has been sorting it out and America’s been losing.” On December 6th, 2016, Pence said on MSNBC that “the American worker must come first,” calling to mind Michal Kalecki’s 1943 comments in “Political Aspects of Full Employment”: “One of the important functions of fascism, as typified by the Nazi system, was to remove capitalist objections to full employment. The dislike of government spending policy as such is overcome under fascism by the fact that the state machinery is under the direct control of a partnership of big business with fascism. The necessity for the myth of ‘sound finance’, which served to prevent the government from offsetting a confidence crisis by spending, is removed. The dislike of government spending…is overcome… by the ‘new order’, which ranges from suppression of the trade unions to the concentration camp. Political pressure replaces the economic pressure of unemployment…. The fascist system starts from the overcoming of unemployment, develops into an armament economy of scarcity, and ends inevitably in war…. The fight of the progressive forces for all employment is at the same time a way of preventing the recurrence of fascism.” Democrats and other adherents of representative and egalitarian government must beat Trump-Pence Republicans in promoting a full-employment-plus economy.
In stark contrast to the Pence- and Trump-Carrier deal, Roosevelt’s World War II “deals” with private industry, included extremely progressive nonnegotiable demands concerning working conditions, pay, and mandatory diversity in hiring and promotion. And yet the World War II economy was not a command economy but rather a public and private sector collaboration. These deals were not based on force or the threat of force. Corporations prospered to a reasonable extent but not excessively. Private industry voluntarily worked with the federal government on a “cost plus” basis, in which the government paid businesses for the “cost” of using their facilities “plus” a fair, and by today’s standards, modest profit. After all, private industries could not be expected to reshape themselves permanently for the sake of a temporary war.
Perhaps most remarkably, government stipulations tied to federal investments proved socially inclusive and economically egalitarian. For example, the disabled were trained and hired, women were not only hired but paid well and provided with quality daycare, and African Americans, despite “hate strikes” by white workers, were increasingly promoted in wartime America. Most importantly, everyone was in effect guaranteed what FDR called “a useful and remunerative job” in either the private or public sphere. It is important to note that during World War II the unbiased hiring of African Americans improved as much in the federal government as in the defense industries.
We are politically lost today without a working knowledge of the World War II economy and its precise procedures. Without one we are like professionals who have forgotten our training. Why is this most fully articulated and realized picture and program of American economic greatness so little known? Even proponents of full employment rarely if at all mention the World War II employment-plus economy. Perhaps one reason the World War II economy is ignored is that it so perfectly balanced socialist and capitalist concerns that it is difficult for it to attract impassioned ideological advocates. It deserves its own economic, political, and social philosophy.
Could the World War II “experiment” of guaranteeing all Americans “a useful and remunerative job” in a manner that did not fear overproduction be repeated now? True, the war gave FDR political cover to implement his vision, but his vision had nothing to do with war. We need a world war economy without a war. The war itself was a drag on the World War II economy. If the country could have similarly united toward a peaceful end the economic prosperity it brought would have been greater since peacetime investments yield a much higher “multiplier effect” throughout the economy than defense spending. If war’s full employment-plus economy were progressively engaged in production and activities other than defense and military service, such as improvements in infrastructure, the environment, education, health care, education, energy, and technology, the economy would have faired even better.
Stephen Paul Miller is the author of the Henry Adams Prize nominated The New Deal as a Triumph of Social Work: Frances Perkins and the Confluence of Early Twentieth Century Social Work with Mid-Twentieth Century Politics and Government (Palgrave Macmillan); The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance (Duke University Press); Any Lie You Tell Will Be the Truth (Marsh Hawk Press); Being with a Bullet (Talisman); There’s Only One God and You’re Not It (Marsh Hawk Press); Skinny Eighth Avenue (Marsh Hawk Press); Fort Dad (Marsh Hawk Press); Art Is Boring for the Same Reason We Stayed in Vietnam (Domestic); and The Bee Flies in May (Marsh Hawk Press).
He co-edited, with Daniel Morris, Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture (University of Alabama Press), and, with Terence Diggory, The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets (National Poetry Foundation). His work has appeared or soon will appear in Salon, Best American Poetry, Barrow Street, New American Writing, Lit, Jacket, William Carol Williams Review, Columbia Review, Pataphysics, Zeek, Black Clock, Scripsi, Shofar, Mipoesias, Boundary 2, Columbia Review, American Letters and Commentary, Another Chicago Magazine, Paterson Review, Eoagh, Coconut, Zen Monster, Poetry New York, Mudfish, Tygerburning Literary Journal, St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, Appearances, Bowery Poetry Club, Brooklyn Rail, Voices Israel, Literature around the Globe, Critiphoria, Professional Studies Review: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Tribe of John (University of Alabama Press),Burning Interiors (Farleigh Dickinson University Press), Reading the Difficulties (University of Alabama Press), Marsh Hawk Review, The Contemporary Narrative Poem: Critical Crosscurrents (University of Iowa Press), The New Promised Land: An Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry (Bloomsbury), and elsewhere.
His plays have been performed at The Kitchen, PS 122, La Mama, St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Bowery Poetry Project, University of Vermont, 8BC, Life Cafe, Darinka, and Intersections in San Francisco. He originated the Ear Inn Poetry Reading Series, and he edited the innovative National Poetry Magazine of the Lower East Side, Poetry Mailing List, and Critiphoria.
Miller was a Senior Fulbright Scholar at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and he co-ran the Columbia University American Studies seminar between 1999 and 2002. In 2015, he received a grant from Shanghai International Studies and Hunan Universities to give poetry readings and lecture in China. Also in 2015, he was a Fordham U. Press Poetry Contest runner-up, and he also received a KlezKanada Poetry Retreat Scholarship in Montreal, Canada. He is a Professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City.