Category: Fall 2014

It’s Good to Be King: The Crisis Documentary and the American Dreamscape

Heist: Who Stole the American Dream
Directed by Donald Goldmacher and Frances Causey
Connecting the Dots Productions, 2012

You’ve Been Trumped
Directed by Anthony Baxter
International Film Circuit, 2012

The Queen of Versailles
Directed by Lauren Greenfield
Magnolia Pictures, 2012


Reviewed by Jeremy Varon

The Great Recession of 2007, certainly relative to its namesake disaster, has yet to produce Great Art—nothing approaching Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Guthrie’s dustbowl ballads, or Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the dispossessed.  Even Occupy failed to generate signature songs or oratory (although chants it had), or a distinctive iconography, save perhaps its tumblr testimonials and the spectacle of occupation itself.  Overwhelmingly, Occupy’s was an aesthetics of the deed.

The world of art, viewed broadly so as to include popular entertainments and agitprop, has been, however, far from silent on the crisis.  And one medium is conspicuously thriving: the documentary, or its close cousin, the docudrama.  Notably, the 2010 Inside Job dissected the anatomy of the housing bubble.[1] The 2011 HBO miniseries Too Big to Fail dramatized the opus of a leading financial reporter in a landmark explication of the banking collapse.  Even the fictional Margin Call (2011) had a documentary feel, distilling corporate machination to its operational essence, without need of a Gordon Gekko-like villain.

Much favors documentary as a form of witness in and to our troubled times.  Truth has appeared stranger and more tragic than fiction, as trillions of dollars just vanished, leaving the public holding the bag. Simply chronicling the sad epic seems dramatic enough. The imperative of accessible explanation, moreover, is especially acute, given the role of financial exotica such as collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps in the meltdown.

Documentary has rallied as well its didactic prowess to address the great question of our era: just who, or what, was to blame?  Here the appeal to reality to build one’s case is hardly decisive.  In an age of hyper-polarization, each side exists in the universe of its own facts and talking heads, nearly impervious to persuasion by its rival.  Even if diminished, belief in the power of revelation has not disappeared, calling a new generation of truth-tellers with cameras to the scrum of public quarrel.  Finally, the ascent of the crisis documentary taps into the unprecedented ubiquity of “reality” as the stuff of barely mediated representation and a host of associated phenomena: the democratization of reportage by the digital camera; the televisual access we casually give others to our lives; the growing acceptance, fueled by reality TV, of ridicule as the price for celebrity; and the frequent blurring of the event itself with its spectacle.

Three documentaries from 2012 add to the accumulating body of work on our wounded economy: Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?, You’ve Been Trumped, and The Queen of Versailles.  Each expands critical understanding, whether by extending the analysis beyond Wall Street or casting exemplary narratives that bring both to life and into sharper focus the license and sheer absurdity of the capitalism of our times.  Screaming the need for large-scale change, the films also suggest the dim prospect of achieving it. A melancholy thus hangs over them, in which the beauty of small acts of resistance remains suffused with the ugliness of grand defeat.

Framed as a true crime epic, Heist proposes to tell the shocking story behind the collapse.  “The mess we’re in today,” it intones, “did not begin with Wall Street.”  Instead, it was the result of a “brilliantly executed coup,” entailing the “greatest wealth transfer . . . in the history of humankind” from the middle class and poor to the “super-rich.”

The tale Heist tells is a straightforward and, to progressives, a mostly familiar one, studded with the commentary of expert-advocates and a largely predictable cast of heroes and villains.  President Franklin Roosevelt is the first such hero, whose New Deal was a “great deal” for America.  Through jobs programs, unemployment insurance, pro-labor polices, and regulations, the middle class blossomed. Things, however, went to hell when, starting in the late 1960s, zealous capitalists, viewing “unions and government as the enemy” plotted their endgame of “business control of law and politics.” The first move was to chip away at corporate and estate taxes, the power of unions, and wages and benefits.  Equally important was the massive funding of right-wing think tanks and media outlets preaching a free market gospel.

With the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, phase one of the caper was complete.  His well-known sins, from union busting to deregulation, were followed by the less-often-damned policies of Bill Clinton, whose free trade agreements and welfare “reform” bled American jobs enriched multinational corporations and pushed the poor further down.  Radicalized under Republican rule, but championed throughout by Democrats, the pro-rich agenda has yielded for the current generation stagnant wages and inequality on a colossal scale.

The gestalt of Heist is a garish portrait of grand theft by determined conspiracy.  Its most affecting moments are when its commentators articulate the perversions of perspective that underwrite our economic order. United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard explains that rich people, living in gated communities and with their own police, schools, and swimming pools, don’t need government; the rest of us do.  But government is branded the enemy of all of us.

Such moments are, however, too fleeting to rescue Heist from feeling like a Powerpoint presentation with some moving images. There are no “gotcha” moments in which a villain lays bare his villainy; no tragic profiles to give a human face to structural failure.  Above all, Heist begs but poorly answers the question of why ideas that are evidently so bad for most of us have proven so resonant, even popular.  It is not enough to suggest a simple case of ideological capture by moneyed interests buying the public debate.  A more rigorous account would take up the thorny issue of the widespread perception of liberalism’s failure, historically tinged with racial backlash.  So, too, Heist fails to appreciate the power of the popular equation of the free market with liberty—how, for many Americans, limited government is a moral creed.  Without acknowledging this commitment in terms other than crass manipulation, conservatives appear either simply crooks or dupes. Such an insinuation is a terrible basis for finding common ground, while playing into dismissive charges of liberal elitism.

Heist is likely most useful as a tool to deepen the faith of the converted.  By the same token, it points to the profound fissures in progressive doctrine.  Heist proposes reasonable reforms, from fair taxation to an end to corporate welfare.  That these goals seem nearly unattainable is good cause not to over-reach and to be content with giving capitalism a more human face.  But the very fact that the system seems impervious even to mild improvement suggests the need for an entirely new model.  The reformism/radicalism debate of the left is therefore restaged and not solved, no matter Heist’s “art of the possible” bias.

You’ve Been Trumped succeeds where Heist falters, providing a fine-grained account of a single instance of capitalism unbound: the effort, spearheaded by Donald Trump, to build a luxury golf course and grand hotel on Scotland’s Aberdeenshire coast.  Expertly composed, verité style, by its director Anthony Baxter, Trumped affords an intimacy of character and theme that conveys the truth of anti-capitalist axioms—that the state does the bidding of corporations, that law is servant to profit—far greater than the power slogans or connect-the-dots analyses to express.  It is an aching lesson in the skewed balance of power that asks, as its grace note, where human richness truly lies.

The film documents, as its core plot, the march of might against right.  Stepwise, the Trump project entails the Scottish national government overriding the local town council, which had rejected the development on environmental grounds; the harassment and threatened removal of local residents, whose homes Trump deems an aesthetic irritant; the collusion of local police with the Trump venture; and the bulldozing of the locale’s “dynamic sand dunes,” regarded as a national treasure by Scots and a site of unique geological interest by world scientists.  The film thus appears a tale of David versus Goliath, absent the magic slingshot to secure the inheritance for the underdog.  It also bears uncanny resemblance to the fictional, 1983 film Local Hero, in which a corporate dissident thwarts the building of a refinery on the Scottish coast.  Embracing the coincidence, You’ve Been Trumped pays explicit homage to Local Hero.

The film is, however, too trained on particulars to be reducible to any archetype or cinematic precedent.  The ingenuity begins with the depiction of Trump.  Trump’s bombast is so great a matter of public record that the film needn’t belabor it with B-roll footage of Donald blather.  More importantly, it views Trump through the lens of the locals, who remain unimpressed by his celebrity and contemptuous of his values. Trump’s power is conveyed mostly by its proxies: the luxury SUVs that dispatch executives for photo-ops; the private security and local police who, shockingly, arrest the filmmaker; and of course the bulldozers, whose destruction the Aberdeenshire loyalists capture with hand-held cameras provided by Baxter.  Trump himself, slinging insults at the locals, shrinks in stature as they grow tall, standing up for common-sense right in the face of gross predation.

The landscape itself emerges as the chief protagonist, lending a Faustian quality to profit.  The very beauty of the setting is the cause of the golf course being placed there.  But its construction threatens the habitat that is its raison d’étre.  The impossible solution is the fabrication of an ersatz beauty falsely trumpeted as eco-friendly and good for local jobs.

It is tempting to declare the earnest opposition the true victor.  None of the locals were forcibly removed.  A community of resistance was built and sustained.  Though the golf course eventually opened, the hotel remains unbuilt, further stymied by plans for a state-supported oceanic wind farm ruining site lines.  Trump appears willing to walk away from most of it, leaving a half-baked monument to apparent failure.

Yet the acceptance of sunk costs and Trump’s likely pivot to the next venue promising greater profit margins and fewer headaches, underscore the cavalier profligacy of the entire game.  And while humans may appreciate the relativities of the political score sheet and savor moral victories, for the dunes it’s all or nothing: once despoiled they can never be again what they were.  No mulligans or redemption in the next round.

Most tantalizing among the films and ultimately instructive with respect to the current crisis is The Queen of Versailles.  Begun before the crash, it narrates the rags to riches to unlikely demise of the Siegel family. Its patriarch, the CEO of Westgate Resorts, made a fortune as the king of the time share industry, boasting a far-flung empire of quasi-luxury units.  The family’s great conceit is to build in Orlando, Florida the largest home in the United States, dwarfing its current, palatial dwelling with ancient regime grandeur (“Versailles,” so named, demands $5 million worth of imported marble alone).  Thwarted in its goal, the family meets an analogous fate to the countless saps who, in the foreclosure storm and credit crunch, can no longer afford to keep, or attain, property.  The breaking of the Siegels’ outsized dreams serves as allegory for plebian disappointments, conjoining lord and commoner in a perilous culture of desire.

Like the house of Kardashian and legions of TV housewives, the Siegels are painfully bereft of taste.  Theirs is a low-rent sensibility miscast in champagne-land.  As old as the Beverly Hillbillies, this dissonance has carried the quintessentially American proposition that wealth has no need of, or bearing on, cultural distinction.  If once used to skewer the pretense of the hereditary rich, this device now gives free rein to pedestrian gluttony untamed by aspirations to refinement and incapable of shame.

The excess of the Siegels seems totally unnecessary, as the sloppy family appears neither elevated by nor dependent on wealth.  Mrs. Siegel’s grandiose tastes—for breast enhancement and unmanageable quantities of pets, bathrooms, and children—seem almost incidental to her enduring identity as a small-city girl seeking just a little more than middle-class comfort.

Even more so, Mr. Siegel appears unexceptional, begging account of how he accumulated such vast wealth.  His fortune originated in an insight at once primitive and brilliant: that most Americans want to be rich and, if they can’t quite be rich, at least to feel rich.  Hence, the time share property, where, for a surprisingly affordable price, one can experience a facsimile of luxury and live, if for just one week in the year, like a king. (Even modest units in the flagship Vegas complex are decadently sized and fitted with drop screen TVs).  Siegel’s fortune, in sum, is built on democratizing the illusion of wealth and making primal dreams come true.

Documenting this, Versailles exposes a psychological and cultural reality far more complex than that of Heist, with its facile division between the 1 percent and the rest of us.  That is, it reveals the mass participation and even complicity in a socially destructive fantasy, discouraging easy identification of an enemy over-class.  By extension, redemption depends not only on policy reform but also on the makeover of the American dreamscape.

The great irony laid bare by the crash is that the Siegels are no more truly wealthy than their time share owners.  The units were largely financed with just 10 percent down and subprime mortgages.  So too, Westgate depends for its relentless expansion on hundreds of millions of dollars in bank loans. As the bubble bursts, throwing property holders into foreclosure and choking off loans to potential new buyers, Westgate loses its revenue stream and access to bank capital.

Remarkably, the entire enterprise goes into free-fall, claiming hundreds of staff, scuttling the half-built “Versailles,” and threatening bank possession of the billion-dollar Vegas property for pennies on the dollar.  Almost overnight, the Siegels must worry about the cost of the electric bill and saving for their children’s college.  All along, and like the rest of us, they were just playing at being rich.

Watching Mrs. Siegel turn back into Cinderella, before her reign as princess, provides the film’s most poignant moments. As an act of charity, she sells copious household items at greatly reduced prices to the riffed Westgate staff.  Here we see another truism: that average Americans, in hard times especially, have great need of discounts.  Thrift and excess later merge as Mrs. Siegel overfills her Wal-mart shopping cart with gifts for the kids.  Most painfully, her newfound, relative poverty writes lines of shame into her face in ways that boasting of $10,000 pairs of shoes never did.

If Mrs. Siegel grows more likeable in her humility, Mr. Siegel grows less so.  Most infuriating is his incapacity to acknowledge an iota of blame in the carnage.  Early in the film he casually boasts of having elected George W. Bush via generous donations of “probably illegal” campaign cash.  Wondering aloud if the Iraq war was the fruit of his investment, he quickly moves past the troubling thought.  Increasingly obsessed with saving the Vegas property, and neglecting his wife as a now-tarnished trophy, he concludes only that business is a wicked game of boom and bust, and that he’ll get on top again, if only he can secure several hundred million in bank loans.

If this, too, is allegory—if Wall Street has learned nothing more—we have great cause for anger and worry.  The world, we may conclude, is better off without petty monarchs like Mr. Siegel.  But the question burns: can the rest of us do without being king, if only for a week?  Touché, Seigneur Siegel, touché.

[1] A roundup of films about or loosely inspired by the crisis is at:

How We Once Came to Fight a War on Poverty


The fifty-year anniversary of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty has sparked a new round of right-wing attacks on social policies for the poor. The arguments are familiar. Ronald Reagan set the tone with the quip, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” Now it was people like Paul Ryan who led the chorus, loudly claiming that despite trillions of dollars spent, and hundreds of programs, forty-seven million Americans remained poor. The problem, according to these critics, is that we relied on government, especially the federal government, to fight the war. What we should have done, then, and should do now, is slash taxes and roll back regulations so as to free business to solve the problem by expanding employment. Or government should pay businesses to run poverty programs. Ryan points approvingly, for example, to an initiative of Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, to make government grants available to employers to develop job-training programs. These are not new ideas, and they are not mere rhetoric either. In fact, an increasing number of government functions, including welfare and welfare-to-work programs, prisons, and public schools, have been contracted out to for-profit agencies on the grounds that where government inevitably fails, business can get the job done.

It is not just conservatives who bash the war on poverty. Many commentators on the left are not ready to celebrate the anniversary either. Not only is poverty still with us and, in fact, growing, but a good number of left critics think War on Poverty programs were at least partly to blame. Too much of the war was directed to trying to change the people who were poor, teaching or preaching to them to change their attitudes and behaviors regarding work and school and childbearing. Too little was directed toward the economic conditions these people faced, especially unemployment and low wages.

There is a measure of truth in this last point. Inevitably, much of what was done was shaped by what had been done before, by social workers or educators or job trainers, for example. Nevertheless, I think the war on poverty deserves more appreciation. We need to separate the effects of the poverty programs from the impact of the detrimental changes in the economy associated with the hyper-capitalism we call neoliberalism. To be sure, the economic changes of the past few decades were influenced by government policies, including regulatory, trade, and tax policies. But the programs of the War on Poverty were not the culprits. And once we parse the programs’ effects, it becomes clear that the war on poverty actually scored big gains for the poor, especially for poor children and the elderly. Moreover, the programs helped shrink racial disparities in poverty.

The war on poverty scored big gains for the poor [and] helped shrink racial disparities in poverty.

When Paul Ryan says millions of Americans are still poor, he is correct. He might have added that the United States has proportionally more poor people than any other rich nation. But the programs worked to offset the increases in economic hardship created by the falling wages and more precarious employment of a growing proportion of working people. And this large trend reflected the decline of unions, deindustrialization, the growth of low-wage and contingent service-sector employment, and the increasing aggressiveness of employers in their race to the bottom. The initiatives of the war on poverty offset some of the impact of these developments. Without the war, things would be much worse for many millions of people.

Moreover, when War on Poverty programs were inaugurated in the early 1960s, the benefits they provided were funded by a relatively progressive tax system. And the urban protests to which the war was a response, but which it also encouraged, prodded other programs (like Aid to Families with Dependent Children) to become more responsive and more lawful. Those benefits were also largely funded by relatively progressive federal taxes. So even though the war provoked animosity from white working people, they were not bearing the main brunt of the cost. By contrast, the contemporary Earned Income Tax Credit program helps to bolster the income of low-wage workers with government subsidies. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2013, a family of four with a household wage income of $25,000 would be entitled to a tax credit of $4,918. But unlike the 1960s when social programs were funded by a steeply progressive tax system—the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent—the revenues that subsidize low-wage earners now come mainly from the taxes paid by working- and middle-class people.1

Unlike the 1960s, when programs were funded by a progressive tax system, the revenues that subsidize low-wage earners now come mainly from taxes paid by working- and middle-class people.

So as government policies go, the war on poverty was overall a good war. At this moment, surrounded as we are by timid Democrats and rapacious or simply lunatic Republicans, we should try to stretch our memories and understand how the American government was made to take such initiatives. Why did Lyndon Baines Johnson, a president whose political acumen and chicanery were legendary, come to make the War on Poverty the main theme of his 1964 State of the Union address? And how was it that he then succeeded in pushing Congress to enact a series of policies that reduced poverty in the United States and did so with programs for which the affluent paid?

Black Migration Alters the Electoral Landscape

Policies are not simply the contrivances of policy wonks. They are the outcome of politics, and underlying the war on poverty were severe disturbances in urban and national politics with which a Democratic federal regime tried to cope. These disturbances, in turn, reflected big economic and demographic changes that originated in the mechanization of southern agriculture and the consequent displacement and immiseration of millions of blacks who had been sharecroppers, tenant farmers, or day laborers. Many made their way to the big cities of the north, where earlier black migrants had established small ghetto communities.

Now the ghettos were bulging with newcomers. In 1910, 75 percent of African-Americans lived in rural areas, and 90 percent lived in the South. By the mid-1960s, three-quarters lived in cities, and half were outside the South.2 These economic and demographic shifts were to have large consequences for American politics, destabilizing electoral alignments and also creating the conditions that nourished the black emancipatory movements of the 1960s.

The ensuing problems for the Democratic Party were as serious as they were because the party’s electoral success depended on a peculiar and potentially fragile North-South voter coalition. The South had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War, but the Democrats became a reigning majority only when the Great Depression combined with New Deal appeals to draw the northern urban working class into Democratic ranks. During the Depression, the political oligarchs of the still feudal South had welcomed the assistance that New Deal programs provided to their hard-hit region. But they were also wary of the possibility of federal interference with their caste-based labor system. For some years, national Democratic leaders worked to assuage their worries and keep the coalition together. That meant a tacit agreement to avoid initiatives that interfered with racial arrangements in the South, and especially to avoid initiatives that would interfere with the caste-based labor system. FDR refused to support anti-lynching legislation, and important New Deal labor initiatives exempted agricultural and domestic workers, the main black occupations in the South.

The migration of millions of blacks to the cities of the North where they became voters created serious strains both within the Northern wing of the Democratic coalition and then between the Northern and Southern wings. Historically, the big city Democratic parties had incorporated waves of immigrant newcomers by forming what are called patron–client relations with the leaders of new ethnic communities. Modest amounts of municipal patronage, much of it symbolic, were extended to the leaders of the new communities who, in turn, were tasked with producing votes for the usually Democratic ticket. But this time, the process was not working well.

One reason was that intense conflict in the South generated by civil rights protests was not only leading to defections from the Democratic ranks by white Southerners but also producing signs of instability among black voters in the Northern cities. Adlai Stevenson, the unsuccessful Democratic contender for the presidency in 1956, had tried to placate the white South by remaining vaguely noncommittal on civil rights. He was punished by a sharp drop in support among black voters in the North, who opted to stay away from the polls in large numbers. Local Democratic regimes in the cities were not helping either, simply because mayors tied to older white ethnic constituencies failed to reach out to the newcomers. To make matters worse, racial frictions in the cities grew as the enlarging black populations strained against ghetto boundaries and spilled over into white schools.

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he showed a keen awareness of the need to win black votes. He took a rhetorically strong stand on civil rights where Stevenson had waffled. But to act on his platform was to ensure further defections in the South. Other ways to strengthen black allegiance in the North were needed.

A War for Black Political Incorporation

Standing in the way of such allegiance was the faltering process of political incorporation of black newcomers to the cities. The solution was the inauguration of the series of programs targeted at the “inner city,” which became known as the Great Society. While each of the initiatives carried a different label (labels intended to soften conflict since they named problems everyone could agree upon), in the streets of the ghettos where the programs were implemented, they looked very much the same because they were designed to solve the same problem of the political incorporation of blacks in the face of local resistance.

[The programs of the Great Society] were designed to solve the problem of the political incorporation of blacks in the face of local resistance.

The signature program was the Economic Opportunity Act known as the War on Poverty, launched in 1964. And the centerpiece of the Economic Opportunity Act was known as “community action.” But the distinctive features of the War on Poverty were evident in a series of initiatives beginning in 1961 with the passage of the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act. In 1963, the Community Mental Health Act authorized more funds for similar programs. Then in 1964, under Johnson, the much larger Economic Opportunity Act. And in 1966, the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act was passed.

Each program singled out ghetto neighborhoods, each provided a basket of diverse services, each channeled some part of its funds to new organizations in the ghettos, circumventing not only state agencies but also the municipal regimes that had resisted incorporating blacks, and each functioned in ways that looked remarkably similar to the traditional political machine. Staff helped residents get jobs or deal with recalcitrant municipal agencies whose ties to older white constituencies made them reluctant to provide services to the ghettos. Local people were hired as community workers, and under the rubric of “community participation,” the programs drew in more people from the neighborhoods. And citywide coordinating bodies were established that generated more jobs, and more opportunities for voice, for the black newcomers whom municipal regimes had ignored.

Incorporation versus Cooptation

I said this was an effort at political incorporation. Or was it political cooptation? After all, the black voter instabilities that prompted JFK’s attention to the inner city were inspired by the demands of the Southern civil rights movement. But once in office, Kennedy stalled, fearing defections in the Southern wing of the party. Later, when escalating civil rights protests did force Kennedy, and then Johnson, to champion the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Southern support crumbled. In the meantime, however, Kennedy tried to hold black voters with social policy initiatives in the Northern cities where the black vote was concentrated. But even as the programs and the rhetoric of the Great Society took shape, the Black Freedom Movement arrived in the North, and protests erupted in the cities over schools, jobs, welfare, housing, and policing.

[The] rising black protest movement became intertwined with policies intended to incorporate or coopt black inner-city communities.

Inevitably, this rising black protest movement became intertwined with policies intended to incorporate or coopt black inner-city communities. Indeed, in many instances, the movement and the programs became indistinguishable. How could it have been otherwise? The strategy of incorporation relied on providing resources and the rhetorical encouragement of “maximum feasible participation” to the inner city.

The local storefronts established by the new programs, along with the community workers, social workers, lawyers, and Vista volunteers the programs hired, were influenced and overtaken by the rising aspirations and activism of the movement. The new programs promised independence from established city regimes and a measure of influence for the poor. Or as Robert Kennedy told a House committee in 1964, “The institutions which affect the poor [are] education, welfare, recreation, business, and labor . . . The community action programs must basically change these organizations by building into the programs real representation for the poor.” It was not easy to reverse such promises in the face of rising protests in the inner cities. In other words, community action was a lever to prod the big institutions of the American welfare state, many of them controlled by local government, to respond to the minority poor.

I was there, so to speak, and watched the growth of the protest movement first from the perch of Mobilization for Youth (MFY), an early Lower East Side poverty program, and then later from my role in the national welfare rights movement. These were heady times. On the Lower East Side, the streets throbbed with crowds of excited people, especially in the summer months. And the local war on poverty was part of the rush. In August 1963, MFY rented an entire train so neighborhood residents could join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, MFY’s neighborhood service centers (staffed by social workers, lawyers, and local residents) were flooded with people who suddenly had the confidence to ask for help dealing with indifferent landlords, school suspensions, unpaid grocery bills, or a resistant welfare department. The storefront centers multiplied, and other MFY facilities provided meeting and mimeograph machines to local groups. MFY lawyers passed out cards in the neighborhood encouraging local people to call on their services if they had trouble with welfare or the police or the landlord. And as they gained experience, MFY staff became more aggressive, cajoling and threatening legal action on behalf of the people they were helping. Service centers like these were established in about a thousand communities across the country, and in a short time, they became the locus not only for help with individual grievances but also for collective action in rent strikes and welfare rights campaigns.

Neighborhood service centers were flooded with people who suddenly had the confidence to ask for help dealing with indifferent landlords, school suspensions, unpaid grocery bills, or a resistant welfare department.

Community action programs also helped launch blacks into city politics. If, at first, the programs provided resources and encouragement for activists, in the longer run, these activists became executives of community action or model cities programs, vying for position and patronage in big city politics. And in some places, the Great Society programs became the base for blacks seeking local electoral office. In Newark, for example, Kenneth Gibson, who had been the vice president of the local community action program, won the mayoralty. In Boston, the model cities director claimed credit for electing a city councilman. In Durham, North Carolina the community action agency joined with liberals in a successful takeover of the county Democratic Party.

Community action programs helped launch blacks into city politics.

I have already said that War on Poverty programs and their ramified effects had a big impact on poverty. They also should be deemed a success as a strategy of incorporation or cooptation. Black voters became reliable Democrats. But to dismiss the war as mere cooptation is too simple by far. The policy gains were, in effect, the price paid by a Democratic regime for the cooptation of blacks. Moreover, eventually, as the processes of incorporation continued, the price came to include substantial minority employment in the public sector as well.

We should recover our own memory of the War on Poverty and not allow it to be defined and buried by right-wing politicians. Just think, not very long ago, the machinations of elected politicians converged with a great freedom movement from the bottom to produce extraordinary feats of political creativity and transformation.

Today, many of the poor are the low-wage and insecure workers of the so-called precariat. The lesson for them and their advocates of the War on Poverty is that important gains are unlikely to result from electoral politics alone. In the 1960s, it was the rising of a people in a disorderly and even riotous movement, at a time when Democratic political leaders were electorally vulnerable, that led to an expansion of American democracy and a reduction in poverty. It could happen again.

This article can be downloaded at:

Fall 2014

Fall 2014

From the Editorial Team

Under the Radar
By Sarah Jaffe
Unreported and under-reported news and views that matter.

On the Contrary
(Free) Whose Side Are You On? (FREE)
By Andrew Ross

(Free) Engage, Don’t Divest, from Israel (FREE)
By Jo-Ann Mort

The Changing Faces of Poverty and Inequality

(FREE) How We Once Came to Fight a War on Poverty (FREE)
By Frances Fox Piven
Why we waged a war on poverty and what we won.

Wage Inequality: A Story of Policy Choices
By Lawrence Mishel, John Schmitt, and Heidi Shierholz
The overlooked reason for the burgeoning income gap.

The Time Crunch: Will Labor Lead?
By Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel
Why American workers might join organized labor in a fight to control work hours.

If Not Now, When? A Labor Movement Plan to Address Climate Change
By Jeremy Brecher, Ron Blackwell, and Joe Uehlein
How labor can champion a movement against global warming and for economic justice.

Curbing the Consequences: Achieving Better Outcomes for Workers in Municipal Bankruptcies
By Iris J. Lav
What sunk our bankrupt cities and who should bail them out?

An Accident in History
By Rich Appelbaum and Nelson Lichtenstein
A strategy for ending the global sweatshop.

Dirty Jobs, Done Dirt Cheap: Working in Reality Television
By Gabriel Winant
Reality TV tells fairy tales about work.

A Year for Revision
By Ari Paul
Internal union reform and self-critique provided the silver lining in labor’s stormy weather.

Domestic Workers Go Global: The Birth of the International Domestic Workers Federation
By Eileen Boris and Jennifer N. Fish
The first international labor federation run by women for work dominated by women.

Economic Prospects
How Policymakers Can Help the Long-term Unemployed
By Mike Konczal

Roots of Rebellion
A guide to insurgencies from coast to coast.

The Battle over the Minimum Wage, City by City
By Peter Dreier

Organized Money: What Is Corporate America Thinking?

Courting Disaster
By Max Fraser

Books and the Arts

Chávez in Hollywood: A Roundtable
Cesar Chavez
Directed by Diego Luna
Reviewed by Bruce Neuburger, Miriam Pawel, Frank Bardacke, and Randy Shaw

Dystopia or Utopia? Alternative Visions of the City of Detroit
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

We Are Not Ghosts
Directed by Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young
Reviewed by Heidi Gottfried

Chicken and Shrimp: Two Perspectives on Globalization
The Chicken Trail: Following Workers, Migrants, and Corporations across the Americas
By Kathleen C. Schwartzman
Buoyancy on the Bayou: Shrimpers Face the Rising Tide of Globalization
By Jill Ann Harrison
Reviewed by John M. Talbot

Political Impotence . . . Union Made
Enough Blame to Go Around: The Labor Pains of New York City’s Public Employee Unions
By Richard Steier
Reviewed by John Krinsky

The Perils of Putting Profits before Patients
Cleaning Up: How Hospital Outsourcing Is Hurting Workers and Endangering Patients
By Dan Zuberi
Reviewed by Rebecca Kolins Givan

Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed
By Matt Witt