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The Producers

A new rhetoric of income inequality.

Every significant political movement creates, or inherits, a compelling image of the people it vows to liberate and serve. The contemporary American right, for instance, idealizes the self-reliant, nuclear family in its modest home, with Bible verses on the wall and a flagpole in the yard. But what image comes to mind when progressives think about the Americans who would benefit from a more egalitarian society? None of the images or phrases currently in vogue are all that inspiring. “Middle class” merely describes a bland, imprecise economic status. “The 99 percent,” the slogan of Occupy Wall Street, is certainly majoritarian and inclusive; but it begs the question of what, besides wealth, distinguishes that vast throng from the tiny, super-rich minority. Bill Clinton’s praise, two decades ago, of those who “work hard and play by the rules” certainly had the ring of virtue; but it never stuck politically.

Liberals and radicals did not always have such trouble describing the group for whom they were fighting. Throughout much of U.S. history, activists and politicians on the left spoke glowingly about “the producers”—those Americans who used their bodies and their minds to grow, manufacture, or transport goods that everyone needed or who, through medicine, education, or some other professional field, provided important services.

The “producer ethic” had its origins in the eighteenth century. The Jeffersonian farmer William Manning saw the new nation divided “between those that Labour for a living and those that git a Living without Bodily Labour.” A century later, Ignatius Donnelly, in his bravura address to the first convention of the People’s Party, argued that “wealth belongs to him who creates it.” Then, for support, he quoted St. Paul: “If any will not work neither shall he eat.” In 1909, the magazine of the American Federation of Labor ran a long, anonymously authored poem in praise of “the average man” who “is the man of the mill/The man of the valley, or man of the hill/The man at the throttle, the man at the plow— ... There is not a purpose, a project, or plan/But rests on the strength of the average man.”

Though producerist rhetoric could sometimes assume an angry tone, it was not an Americanized version of the class consciousness Karl Marx believed to be the inevitable result of the industrial revolution. While many producers were wage-earners, producerism as a concept cast a broad moral net over society instead of dissecting it with a scalpel. A producer could be a craftsman, a teacher, a small merchant, a farmer with hired hands, a homemaker. To qualify for the honor, one simply had to do something useful for society and not prosper from the labor or weaknesses of others. During the Gilded Age, the Knights of Labor, America’s first national labor federation, barred from membership just five occupational groups, who were considered to be social parasites: financiers, speculators, liquor dealers, gamblers, and lawyers. (They made an exception for attorneys like Clarence Darrow who represented unionists.)

The producer theory of value helped advance the aims of egalitarian reformers through the first half of the twentieth century. It united a remarkably diverse constituency—immigrant socialists, native-born dirt farmers, Social Gospel ministers, chain-store opponents, settlement-house workers like Jane Addams, progressive lawmakers like Robert La Follette and Robert Wagner—behind a common platform of taxing the rich, organizing unions, and regulating big business. By the end of World War II, the income gap between the rich and the wage-earners had narrowed considerably, and liberals were confident that “the people” were on their side.

But, in reality, the concept of the producing classes had never been as inclusive as the rhetoric implied. Chinese and Japanese immigrants could never qualify for membership; they were maligned as belonging to a servile race considered unable and unwilling to challenge the power of the big bosses. Black wage-earners were welcome in some unions and sharecroppers in the People’s Party, as long as they didn’t challenge Jim Crow customs—and as long as they let white activists take the lead in their common endeavors. And, of course, most women who worked outside of the home did so only until they got married and so were viewed more as reproducers than as equal partners in the quest for justice in the public sphere.

By the 1960s, the civil rights struggle and the variety of ethnicity- and gender-conscious movements it spawned had made praise of the traditional producer sound archaic, if not downright bigoted. Stokely Carmichael, Mark Rudd, and Robin Morgan had little but scorn for white working-class men whose militant patriotism, race-baiting, and patriarchal behavior they took for granted. America’s “average man” no longer lived at the edge of poverty. According to the New Left, he therefore needed to face up to his flaws and join the masses around the world who were revolting against the rulers and culture of his arrogant, bullying nation.

Most progressives avoided such condescending charges, but they had no positive image of the American majority to replace it. Organized labor, which had long carried the burden of left-populist hopes, now seemed unwilling and, as its numbers declined, increasingly unable to challenge the legitimacy of large corporations. As president, Lyndon Johnson longed to emulate Franklin Roosevelt, but his landmark speeches on domestic matters dwelled on the plight of African Americans and the poor of all races. By any name, the old-time producer had become the left’s forgotten man.

A resurgent right was quite happy to take up his cause. The cultural and political fault lines that split open in the ’60s had yielded a jagged, racially defined landscape, which gave conservatives an opportunity to claim that they, not “the liberal elite,” were the true representatives of the hard-working (read: white) majority. In the mid-’70s, a Boston columnist beloved by anti-busing forces complained, “We’re the poor sunavabees who pay our taxes and sweat tuitions, sweat mortgages and car payments, ... get no handouts, give our blood, ... and work two jobs, sometimes three.” Around the same time, Pat Buchanan called for the Republican Party “to be the party of the working class, not the welfare class, ... to champion the cause of producers and taxpayers, ... of the millions who carry most of the cost of government and share least in its beneficence.” Ronald Reagan crafted these sentiments into a governing ideology. Thirty years later, Tea Partiers still strain to keep its legacy alive. Of course, they seldom acknowledge that the Koch brothers and other billionaires are bankrolling their campaigns.

The Great Recession that most Americans blame on Wall Street and its political enablers gave the left a chance to once again focus the country’s attention on inequality—and the Occupy movement took full advantage of this opportunity. Still, the protesters, for all their energy, have not found a way to visualize “the 99 percent” with any image more specific than a clenched fist. To solve this problem, progressives might consider reviving the old idea of the producer. After all, while much has changed in the U.S. economy in recent years, it is hard to think of a persuasive concept of the virtuous majority that does not spring from the daily grind; and that majority is less defined by race or ethnicity than ever before in U.S. history. If Republicans, as expected, nominate a financier who lacks a common touch, progressives may find that a genuine affinity for producers is once again a winning political argument.

Michael Kazin is the author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.