Class and Power in the New Deal

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G. William Domhoff and Michael J. Webber. 'Italic textClass and Power in the New Deal: Corporate Moderates, Southern Democrats, and the Liberal-Labor Coalition. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8047-7453-6 (pbk.).


Alex Bradshaw Fall 2012

In this book, Domhoff and Webber assert that corporate moderates played greater roles in the establishment of New Deal policies than has been previously believed. They argue this through the use of sociological class-dominance theory to examine the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Social Security Act, and through comparison with the three competing sociological theories of Marxism, historical institutionalism, and protest-disruption theory. Domhoff and Webber challenge conventional interpretations when they explain that Northern corporate moderates proposed the policies for these acts in response to pressure from labor leaders and leftist activists, that Southern Democrats shapes the policies to fit the needs of agricultural capitalists in the south, and that ultra-conservative capitalists wholly opposed the policies, but were ineffective because they had so little Congressional representation. Each of these groups played an active role in the formation of New Deal policies, in addition to the more well-known roles of labor, urban liberals, and radical politicians.

Domhoff and Webber’s class-dominance theory asserts that, in the three acts under consideration, the capitalist ownership class dominated the shaping of the policies involved and gained much more through their institution then they lost. The AAA provided agricultural owners with financial subsidies and did not provide for the protection of agricultural laborers. The NLRA, despite its main purpose being to support and protect laborers, specifically excluded domestic and agricultural laborers, who constituted the bulk of the southern workforce, which meant that the act did not threaten southern agricultural interests and southern Democrats. The SSA also specifically excluded agricultural and domestic workers from coverage until 1950 and placed unemployment insurance under the control of the individual states, again in concession to southern agricultural capitalists and Democrats. Additionally, the AAA did not require civil service requirements for staff, allowing for the preservation of power in the hands of people who favored southern agriculturalists, and it did not include minimum standards for payment levels, which allowed friends of agriculturalists to keep benefit payments low enough to control the workforce and maintain traditional racial segregation.

Domhoff and Webber also assert that members of the corporate class dominated the federal government during the times that had the most impact on the three acts under study. The gains made by agricultural capitalists in the AAA stemmed from their efforts to defeat initiatives of farm labor and organizers, allowing for the continued dominance of the capitalist class. The SSA was supported by corporate moderates and agricultural capitalists after it was tailored to fit their need to enjoy continued class dominance and control over laborers and racial segregation. The NLRA suffered repeated challenges by the capitalist class throughout its life, and was ultimately declared unconstitutional, reflecting the influence that this class had over the act’s existence. Further, by ensuring that the focus of conflict between the capitalist and working classes remained upon only bargaining over wages, hours, and working conditions, and avoiding conflict over much more broad human and civil rights issues, the capitalist class was able to maintain a certain level of control over their relations with the working class and the rights to which the working class felt entitled. The government’s frequent use of force against striking, or otherwise protesting, workers, also demonstrated the influence that the capitalist class had over labor relations.

One weakness of an analysis like this is that evidence can be found to support such theories if one approaches the analysis with an eye toward this interpretation, and it appears at times that Domhoff and Webber are working a little bit too hard to make the three acts under consideration fit into their analysis. The arguments presented in this book are a little reminiscent of the contradictory ways in which the Christian Bible has been used to at the same time defend and condemn things like slavery: if you look hard enough at something for evidence to support your theory, or if you approach that something with the intention of indentifying particular patterns, it is pretty likely that you will find these things. Although the authors have presented an interesting and fresh interpretation of the circumstances that produced the three acts, I did not find their arguments very convincing.

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