U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bowling Alone or Shock Doctrine?

I am not a social scientist nor a political economist, but the battles over union rights in an age of (what) anxiety seem to raise that age-old question of whether Americans are, at base, individualistic or communal. Robert Putnam argued in 2000 in his book Bowling Alone that Americans were impoverished in terms of social capital. In other words, we didn’t want to hang out together, not in labor unions, not at bowling leagues (the photo to the left is a bowling alley laid low).


In her recent book, Naomi Klein suggests that in times of disaster, measures that would otherwise be relatively unthinkable become acceptable to large swaths of the public–or as Klein writes here:using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters — [free marketers] achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy.”

Clearly, struggles in Madison, Columbus and Indianapolis have shown that Americans are not faced with a choice simply between being an individual or being part of a community. Yet, in the flurry of commentary about the impasse between governors and their state employees, what do we make of observations like the one detailed at PEW that Americans don’t like unions or big business? I know there is the American allergy to “bigness” in the abstract and that scores of books have now been written on the left’s ineffective attempts to awaken the people to their plight. But who out of Putnum or Klein has come closer to the key for understanding this cyclical problem?

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray: I think you pose an interesting question, but allow me to rephrase it so that I’m clear. Do you mean to ask: Is the United States hostile to social democratic forms of organization like unionization because Americans have an aversion to join or collectivize, due to ideology (Putnam), or because the rich and powerful are incredibly skilled at taking advantage of trauma (Klein)? If this is your question, my answer is… yes.

  2. Precisely what I thought you would say. Of course, Putnam would suggest ways to encourage Americans to organize better (happier?) but would that take care of Klein’s dire analysis of power in the neo-liberal world? In other words, all those folks in Madison are simply twenty years too late.

  3. If the question is:

    Is the United States hostile to social democratic forms of organization like unionization because Americans have an aversion to join or collectivize, due to ideology (Putnam), or because the rich and powerful are incredibly skilled at taking advantage of trauma (Klein)?

    The answer is: No.

    According to the latest national Gallup poll “61% of adults nationwide said that they would oppose a law that would take away some collective bargaining rights for state employees, including teachers. Only one third, 33%, said that they would support that measure if it were proposed in their state.”

    The larger point: I think it’s a mistake to discuss political outcomes in the US today as if they reflected the views of a majority of Americans. We have a very serious democracy deficit in the US today.

    Now there’s no question in my mind that our governing class is deeply hostile to unionization, but that’s a slightly different observation.

  4. I should add: I don’t actually think Klein’s shock doctrine necessarily depends on bamboozling the vast majority of the public. It only depends on bamboozling those who actually make decisions. So while I reject on empirical grounds the notion that anything has caused Americans as a whole to believe that public employees shouldn’t have collective bargaining rights, I think there’s nevertheless a lot of truth to Klein’s analysis.

  5. I agree with you Ben on the democracy deficit Ben, though I think Americans are less favorable to unionization than those poll numbers indicate, since poll numbers on unionization shift with the winds. Taft-Hartley was passed in 1947 with a great deal of popular support at a time when American democracy was far less deficient. Part of the long history of US conservatism is general distrust of unionization.

  6. As an aside, I have been struck just at my own university by the surge in interest in “business ethics.” While many folks that I know accept this term with great sincerity, it seems to me that to get those who “make the decisions” to accept a version of democracy that includes labor rights would itself require some kind of shock doctrine.

    In the literature on social trust, the two groups in the US that consistently rate lowest in their trust of others are those who have enough wealth to resent the other group that rates low in social trust, those who are singled out in government programs such as welfare and food stamps. Equalize programs and, it seems, social trust improves. In other words, make child care, healthcare, education, collective bargaining universal and a sense of social trust seems to form.

  7. Ray, related to the issue of social trust, I read a study where those representatives to the UN who took advantage of the fact that they are immune from parking tickets hailed from nations with greater inequality, like from UAE, but those who came from equal nations like Denmark never violated parking laws despite there being no consequences for them.

  8. I think the Citizens United case has given anit-union right winger their ammunition. The fact that Unions can directly fund campaigns means they have political influence (and it often more focused on the ground since Unions tend to be local). The argument that Citizens allows Big Corporations to contribute somehow doesn’t bother people as much. Maybe it revolves around the idea that, correctly or not, corporations have an individual voice (i.e. that of the CEO or CFO or some other Chief), who founded the company and has a vision (ala Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg) and plays on the American dream that we can all become an obscenely wealthy CEO if we only come up with some pithy new product in a garage.

    If Citizens were not the law, the argument that pub sector unions use public money to influences the public would be rendered moot. Even though private companies (BofA) us public money to influences public officials, that money is hidden and not in public, so the public doesn’t care.

  9. I don’t have any data on hand, but it seems the important question is a comparative one: are Americans more or less hostile to unions that people of other countries, Canada, France, etc? I suspect the answer is that they are more hostile. I basically agree with Andrew here.

    One quibble: I’m not sure American democracy was “less deficient” in 1947 though. I guess it depends on what standard we are using. Perhaps it was less deficient for whites, but much more deficient for African Americans.

    As a Canadian living in America, I have always been struck by the individualist ethos that sincerely believe in stronger in the United States than anywhere else I’ve been. As students in my American Intellectual History workshop has noted, the observations that William Crary Brownell made about French Traits and the difference between Americans and Europeans in 1889 still may hold true today.

  10. Weiner: I take your point about 1947 and African Americans. But then, the electoral power of some people (whites) meant something, whereas now, I’m not sure it means much for anyone (white or black).

  11. I think if I understand Klien’s thesis it is that elites use disaster to make significant alterations to laws, rules, social and economic structures, etc. In this way what she is talking about seems to match what is going on right now.

    The Governor of Wisconsin is using the economic crisis to try to break the union. If he is successful several other states will follow, even if he is not some others will try to do the same thing. If there were no economic crisis he would not be able to push through such a proposal (in fact he might not have been in power in the first place).

    This is the essence of disaster capitalism. This is really no different than the the post-Katrina shift away from public education to privatized education (using a crisis to change a system in a way that might not have worked in a time of calm).

    Unions have been under systematic attack since Reagan was elected and private unions have been crushed. Over that same time period public sector unions have gotten slightly larger and now they are going to be subject to the same attacks.

    It is not a question of whether or not Americans like unions but whether or not Americans believe that people should have the choice to be in unions or if unions should exist.

  12. I would like to offer a book to read and ponder in your spare time. Back in 2000, David Brian Robinson published Capital, Labor, and State: The Battle for American Labor Markets from the Civil War to the New Deal. He rather persuasively argues that America’s labor law was unexceptional prior to 1900. The divergence, according to Robinson, was caused by federalism, the commerce clause, and anti-trust legislation. It was these core legal and political institutions which gave America its exceptional labor markets as compared to say Germany.

    Then again, a structural analysis doesn’t explain the animus toward Graduate Student Employee Unions. Any thoughts?

  13. Hi everyone,

    I am in Madison and have been involved with the protests throughout the week. As I see it, the dichotomy here is not so much between individualism and collectivism as the age-old gap between “the people” and “the interests.”

    Both sides favor an ostensibly democratic sense of community:

    Groups like the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity have worked hard to label public employee unions as “special interests,” enriching themselves on the public purse. It is up to hardworking taxpayers, they imply, to bring them to heel. The goal, of course, is to use resentment to split public and private sector workers, but the rhetoric is less that of individualism than populist democracy.

    Protesters, of course, are only too eager to reciprocate, painting opponents of unionization as corporate cabals or “What’s the Matter With Kansas”-style dupes. And the unions, which in other circumstances might be seen as obstructionist or self-interested (by inhibiting school reform, say, or protecting violent cops) are suddenly the embodiment of democratic activism and the last bastion of the middle class.

    It seems that one raise legitimate questions about the democracy of public sector unions without being reactionary. In this case, however, the attacks are so nakedly ideological (the unions have already agreed to cuts; no one has actually demonstrated how they are harming students or patients; etc.) that it seems important to support them merely as a means of holding back business influence in the public sphere.

    As to “the animus toward Graduate Student Employee Unions,” I have to say that it has been surprising how little attention the Teaching Assistants Association has gotten in this confrontation. While our union has certainly been one of the leaders of the protests (phone banking, occupying the Capitol, etc.) and would seem easy to caricature as out-of-touch, silver-spoon radicals, there has been MUCH more animosity directed toward public school teachers than to us. I am not sure why that is…

  14. Cam, I wonder if the grad student union is flying under the radar simply because people have come to expect “radical” student activists to be part of any protest. Perhaps it’s not news when college students stage a protest, but rather an expected behavior. Teachers, on the other hand, are supposed to behave “respectably” — though, from the news reports I’ve seen [okay, mostly from segments on The Daily Show and the Colbert Report], it looks like everybody there is demonstrating respectably and peaceably.

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