In the book Stayin’ Alive historian Jefferson Cowie writes a very engaging explanation of the political and cultural aspects that effected white workers’ economic individuality and what damaged a “vibrant, multi-cultural, and gender conscious conceptualization of class” (Stayin Alive, Cowie. 72). A single portion of the narrative touches on the rise of the New Right while another tracks the breakdown of working-class cultural idols. New Deal liberalism and the growth of a New Right founded upon a white working-class cultural conservatism are both not a new story.
In Stayin’ Alive, the essential catastrophe of the 1970s was not only the Watergate incident, stagflation, racial conflict, and the local scuffles over the Vietnam War, however; In Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive, the 1970s essential catastrophe was the social condensation that had brought poverty to American workers which was seen evidently in a class-based disaster caused by “the collapse of the bargain based on consumption in exchange for soul-killing work – that is, the crumbling of an entire paradigm upon its own vacuity” (p. 305).
In this reading of 1970s history, white workers were not just perpetrators of racist and sexist reaction. They were also victims of capitalism, of the limits of New Deal liberalism, and of Republicans’ sophisticated reading of white working-class cultural concerns. As one would read Cowie’s book, it is made evident that the white working-class hunted for a new direction. Liberals did not deliver a strong or effective economic policy or a persuasive idea for the future in a world of limited boundaries.
However, the New Right succeeded in persuading a great number of Americans that those boundaries did not exist in the first place as its leaders “offered a restoration of the glory days by bolstering morale on the basis of patriotism, God, race, patriarchy, and nostalgia for community” (p. 16). Cowie also writes a wonderful class related breakdown of the music, movies, and popular culture of the 1970s. The 1970s was apparently a time of excessive potential for the American labor movement, mainly because younger workers had been motivated by the counter culture and the rallies for peace and racial justice.
Cowie ponders on a sequence of strikes and upsurges by younger workers, like the Lords town autoworkers strike of 1972 that was called an Industrial Woodstock. The movements that took place in regards of racial and sexual equality gave a chief opportunity to link identity politics with social class and Cowie identifies numerous moments when these possible opportunities could be seen in the revolts of farm workers, textile workers, and office workers. As narrated in the second chapter, their failure was summarized in the McGovern campaign of 1972.
As this was going on, Richard Nixon had been courting white working-class voters by underlining cultural values in place of economic interests, employing the new southern strategy to attract George Wallace supporters along with those besieged by antiwar protests and social deviance. Nixon further dominated working-class populism by signifying himself in disagreement to the stereotypical ideal of Northeastern liberal elites, as the titleholders of hard-working taxpayers who are oppressed by a union of underclasses.
A key strength of Stayin’ Alive that shows why the white working class abandoned New Deal Liberalism is Cowie’s discussion of how popular music and Hollywood films did not only mirror the social changes of the 1970s but became matters of struggle in their own subject. Country music, which was used as an example, shifted to the middle of political struggle as a force which sought to be aligned with the reality consulted by the white working class.
Countercultural musicians such as Bob Dylan, the Byrd’s, and the Grateful Dead began recording country based albums in the late 1960s, and the theme of country rock was a main element of the record industry’s expansion during the 1970s. Just as some New Left activists had been trying to insinuate factories and working-class neighborhoods, musicians like Jackson Browne and The Band glamorized the historical struggles of working-class Americans in their music.
Nonetheless, these liberal, countercultural views did not stick as signifiers of the working-class practicality. Cowie also reminds us that the mass migration of white working-class voters did not happen in 1980, but actually happened in 1972. Labor, in the end, did everything it could to help defeat McGovern in 1972 and many never forgot. Nixon developed a strategy in order to communicate with the white working class in methods the Democrats had failed to do. The politics of culture and representation are central to understanding the decade.
"Class, always a fragile concept in American civic life, died the death of a thousand cuts in the 1970s... ,"(Cowie, Stayin Alive) political, cultural and economic. Cowie really starts detailing his point in the seventh chapter, which returns to the analysis of music and popular culture. In the chapter, Bruce Springsteen is singing about racing in the rustbelt’s deindustrializing streets just as developing punk bands like the Ramones and Devo were personalizing felony and social failure from the blue-collar neighborhoods of Queens and Akron.
Meanwhile, we see a disgruntled cabdriver scowling at the signs of social decay surrounding him in Times Square, an Italian-American boxer who miraculously arises from the mean streets of Philadelphia to stand toe-to toe with the cocky African American champion, and a disco dancer who flees the confines of his ethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge for the glamorous Saturday nights of Manhattan. the movies represent what rea' americans would do.
In the last of these, whose signature soundtrack gives Cowie’s book its title, the lead character’s escape was a prophetic microcosm of the direction that American society would take as factories closed, finance capitalism grew, and working-class urban neighborhoods were remade into post-industrial playgrounds of profitable freedom. The most entertaining chapters of Stayin’ Alive connect the decade’s political narrative to its cultural history. Cowie suggests that American popular culture was either openly hostile to or hopelessly muddled about the prospects for a “new Popular Front.”
There were flashes of possibility in Jackson Browne’s song “For Everyman,” in the multicultural space on disco floors, and in Bruce Springsteen’s complex readings of American escapism and blustery patriotism. But the deep-seated conservatism of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” and the schizophrenic working-class aspirations and contained revolutionary spirit in movies like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon, ultimately pulled apart “the remains of the working-class hero of the 1930s . . . and, rather than leaving a single figure, it left disarray” (p. 200).
By the end of the 1970s, class had been drained of popular meaning. Again, as presented in the movie Saturday Night Fever, class was “neither community nor culture nor occupation nor power but a mere affect that the select few, the chosen ones, can drop. ” John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, attempts to escape the degradation of his working-class life – first through the fantasy of disco and then through the fantasy of a Manhattan lifestyle.
And that flight, according to Cowie, “allowed the nation to begin to move toward the eighties celebration of working-class heroes who managed to get out, while casting those who could not into cinematic (and political) darkness” (317). In the end, it is this realistic and distressing conclusion, combined with the complexity and ambiguity with which Cowie paints all of his characters, that makes his account of the transition from the New Deal to the New Right ring true.
Cowie's Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class seeks to turn our understanding of the decade on its head. Combining an incisive cultural reading of the times with one eye always turned to politics, Cowie unravels how America went from a nation with a strong union core, a warm liberal consensus and a growing economy to a nation of rising unemployment, staggering inflation and de-industrialization. Stayin' Alive is an important book that needs to be read carefully by political activists, liberals, progressives and unionists.