White Collar Blues

shannan clark’s the making of the american creative class: new york’s culture workers and twentieth-century consumer capitalism (new york: oxford university press, 2021).

x-posted from Society for US Intellectual History Book Review.

Shannan Clark has written a subtle history about a curious topic: white-collar unionism. Focusing on an emerging group of professionals—writers, editors, designers, producers, directors, clerks, advertisers, marketers, even some managers—he traces their efforts to organize collectively as they went to work in the blossoming culture industries of New York City. Clark picks up the story during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He then traces the limited successes and ongoing struggles of this wage-earning “creative class” over subsequent decades.

His book serves as a kind of pre-history of today’s “creatives”—those producers of culture laboring in the offices (and virtual spaces) of contemporary, post-industrial consumer capitalism. Clark argues that long before theorists such as Richard Florida wrote paeans to the supposedly rising “creative class” in the twenty-first century, an earlier incarnation fell from power in the twentieth. Its dreams of a different kind of Popular Front social consumerism were largely vanquished by the bosses. Its visions of a higher-quality mass society were constrained by corporate control. Its efforts to organize collectively in order to assert power within the culture industries were compromised. Its ability even to imagine itself as a coherent class of workers became caught up in competing concepts of its identity.[1]

Recent waves of unionization, or at least interest in it, whether they be at digital journalism outlets, among contemporary communications workers of various sorts, and even among engineers in the heart of Silicon Valley, remind us that the issues faced by today’s hipster “creatives” echo those of their forerunners. Will this “New Working Class,” as Barbara and John Ehrenreich imagined it in the 1970s, ultimately picture themselves as having more in common with other workers in service and industry who have turned to unions to improve their lot? Or will “creatives” side more with the managers and corporate overlords who, more than ever, run the show in the culture industries?[2] And where do creative professionals fit in to the larger apparatus of post-industrial capitalist production as well as consumption, anyway? Since their work so often occurs at the hinge between what gets made and what gets consumed, their fate links to a larger history of US social life in and after the twentieth century. Clark’s study sometimes loses sight of these larger stakes and gets bogged down in tales of internecine labor leadership battles, but the book points to the significance of the creative class. This sector of workers may not have been, nor ever be the primary agents of change. They are likely not the vanguard of the revolution. Yet because their hands touch some of the levers of power in a mass consumer society, they continue to be a crucial group within larger social struggles.

At once glamorized artisans and salaried wage earners (or perhaps these days independent contractors in the gig economy), creative workers remain in an important, if ambiguous, place within class hierarchies. Sitting at their desks, drafting tables, and digital consoles in the open office floor plan, their labor shapes what we all come to desire, ponder, and know. They are part of what Pierre Bourdieu once evocatively called “the dominated fractions of the dominant class.”[3] Moreover, their productions are our consumption. In this way, in some sense we are ultimately them and they us. Even as only some of these workers have been able to secure stable livelihoods creating culture, their creative endeavors have rippled far and wide across the United States and the world, informing the collective imagination of consumer capitalism.

Clark knows that the ideational and cultural dimensions of his labor history matter, for his title not only refers to Richard Florida’s trendy twenty-first century analysis, but also to E.P. Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class.[4] Thompson made much of working-class agency and the development of a coherent working-class consciousness; Clark also seeks to connect class to culture in the tradition of Thompsonian social history. The Making of the American Creative Class concentrates on how, over the course of the early twentieth century, white-collar workers in fields such as publishing, broadcasting, advertising, and design came to stand at the “nexus” of both the expansion of consumer capitalism and the transformation of the middle classes. This was an issue of quality as well as quantity. There were not only more of these kinds of workers, but their material conditions, ideas of what constituted the good life, and actions to try to achieve it forged a changing sense of what it meant to be modern. As Clark explains, their “circumstances were often taken as indicative of the working conditions and standard of living of this growing segment of the population”: the middling sort.[5]

Yet as creative workers led the shift of the middle class from a “social grouping of proprietors and independent professionals to one comprised primarily of salaried employees,” they did not find satisfaction. Instead, a contradiction emerged. As their employers in the culture industries increasingly sought “efficiency and rationalization in cultural production,” creative workers themselves, as Clark points out, “struggled to partake in the standard of living promoted through advertising and the media.” Creative workers could not claim “the personal autonomy that was portrayed as a prerogative of middle-class status.”[6] They forged the vision of middle-class modernism, but found themselves, ironically, locked out of it in their own lives as corporate capitalism usurped the modernist vision.

The response? For many, it was to unionize. Particularly during the Great Depression, as jobs disappeared across the culture industries, Clark explains that “thousands of white-collar workers throughout the culture industries organized new unions to improve their terms and conditions of employment through collective action.”[7] Yet because of their particular skills, Clark notes, they also “utilized their creative talents to develop a variety of initiatives, typically sponsored by cooperative, labor, or public patronage, to provide alternatives to America’s culture of consumer capitalism.”[8] Their own crisis of employment, in short, linked to a changing class consciousness among them. Creative workers “enthusiastically backed the relief, reform, and recovery measures of the New Deal, which they hoped would form the basis of a more expansive social-democratic order, with a ‘mixed’ economy that included substantial public provisioning of goods and services.”[9] So too, they “supported the protection of labor rights, and most also favored progress toward racial and gender equality, and international solidarity against fascism.”[10]

Ultimately, creative workers who organized into unions formed a crucial part of the so-called Popular Front, which “aspired to unite procommunists along with noncommunist liberals, progressives, and radicals to press for the realization of these objectives.”[11] The association with communists would subsequently leave many in the creative class’s union movement, and their unions themselves, vulnerable to the anticommunist blacklisting of the Cold War decades. Nonetheless, it also left a legacy of an incomplete political and cultural project that sought to stitch together white and blue collars—to bring together middle- and working-class interests in the name of the larger common good.

Some creative professionals became militant, particularly as the Great Depression intensified. They “came to understand white-collar work as subsumed within an expanding proletariat with revolutionary potential.”[12] Obscured by the later, more dour view of the middling classes and their radical potential put forward in C. Wright Mills’ 1951 book White Collar and other studies after World War II, this contingent imagined creative laborers as part of a larger group of exploited workers caught up in the degradations of capitalism and in need of overthrowing the system. Documents such as the 1932 Culture and the Crisis, a manifesto written by the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford and signed by the likes of Lewis Corey, Malcolm Cowley, John Dos Passos, Waldo Frank, Sidney Hook, and Langston Hughes, urged workers in the creative professions to vote for Communist politicians in order to put an end to capitalism and finally be “liberated to perform freely and creatively their particular craft function.”[13] This was the most radical version of creative class consciousness, articulated during the nadir of the Great Depression.

Yet far from all creative workers were keen to foment revolution, or even form unions, as Clark notes. A much “larger contingent” decided that they were not necessarily part of the revolutionary proletariat. They did believe, however, that their interests were “allied with manufacturing workers and the liberal segment of the traditional middle class in support of the New Deal and progressive social change.”[14] This group successfully achieved a push for unionization once the Wagner Act was in place to map out more clear paths toward legal unionization. Ultimately, the mix of radical ideas among some members of the creative class and the more reformist perspectives of others led to white-collar unions that distinguished themselves, sometimes rather condescendingly, from industrial workers; yet they could still, nonetheless, ultimately connect up with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) institutionally and participate in its ethos of industrial unionism.[15]

Whether radical or reformist, white-collar unions emerged among the creative class during the 1930s and 40s. A sizable contingent, however, resisted unionization entirely. As Clark notes, there were still plenty of creative workers who adopted far “narrower conceptions of solidarity within their industry, occupation, or profession” and believed that associations rather than legal unions “furnished a suitable basis for collective action within certain bounds of social propriety.”[16] And there were plenty of creative workers who wanted nothing to do with unions or associations or any form of collectivity at all. They clung to ideals of pre-Great Depression proprietorship or dreamed of joining the managerial ranks above them in the new, large corporate firms increasingly dominating the field. While Clark’s book does not focus intensively on these anti-union sectors of the creative class, he makes sure to point out that “creatives” were never just one uniform group; rather, a cluster of competing and even contradictory visions, actions, pushbacks, successes, and failures constituted the creative class.

Two key issues emerge from Clark’s study. First, Clark is keen to point out the key role women played in the creative industries and in efforts to unionize them. Their presence generated a distinctive form of labor feminism that persisted into the postwar era from its initial 1930 and 1940s Popular Front moment.[17] No less a figure than Betty Friedan herself, the author of The Feminine Mystique and founder of the National Organization for Women, got her start in this milieu.[18] Second, key creative workers imagined their own labor as dedicated to imagining and enacting an alternative type of “social consumerism” in contrast to the corporate consumerism of their bosses. In their version, modernism itself was to be imagined neither as elitist refinement nor mass vulgarity, but rather as the achievement of “their twin ideals of creative autonomy for culture workers and the social-democratic provisioning of goods” for all.[19] This alternate vision would emerge most boldly with the work of the Design Laboratory and then among the designers, editors, and writers at the Consumers Union, the radical predecessor to the much more conventional postwar magazine Consumer Reports. Behind many of the New Left social movements that erupted in the 1960s and 70s lurked these earlier creative-class aspirations and efforts to forge a different kind of capitalist society infused with social democratic values and practices.

The failure of the Popular Front, the harsh rise of the Red Scare, the compression of blue-collar and white-collar wages due to successes among industrial workers to raise their earnings (a great irony!), and the growing power of corporations in post-World War II America meant that class-consciousness gave way increasingly to a more generalized “postcapitalist liberalism.”[20] Many creative professionals “increasingly framed their critiques and proposed remedies in new terms, emphasizing the potential for the transcendence rather than the socialization of existing relations of production and exchange.”[21] They believed that they could still help consumers with individual choice, but they gave up the Popular Front ghost, by and large, on reshaping consumer capitalism in any decisively socialized or collective way.

Yet, according to Clark, the Red Scare’s blacklist itself, Clark argues, registered the potency of the creative class’s more radical dimensions coming out of the 1930s and 40s. Blacklisting was not directed at workers merely because of their supposedly communist political affiliations, he contends, but also because of their advocacy of a broader Popular Front “desire to stimulate the imaginative power of ordinary people as they interpreted and constructed the meanings of the cultural products that they encountered, and to harness it to challenge the pervasive influence of consumer capitalism.”[22] Never mind if a creative worker was an outright socialist, their capacity to deliver socialist vibes was threatening to corporate capitalism’s grip on postwar American society. The creative class’s capacities to shape mass consumer society had to be contained.

By the 1960s, the creative class had mostly given up on the more radical politics of its heyday a few decades earlier. To make this point, Clark starts and ends his book with two very different vignettes. He begins with a vibrant protest against NBC at Rockefeller Center in New York City, led in part by Myra Jordan, a secretary in the news division of CBS who headed the Radio Guild, a fledging union during the 1940s. He ends with the story of advertising copywriter Julian Koenig just a few blocks away on Madison Avenue. Koenig flirted with unionization, but then turned to a highly successful, Mad Men-like career. Koenig penned nothing less than the infamous 1960s Volkswagen “Think Small” advertising campaign, which sold the fantasy of a kind of ersatz-proletarianism even as he and other creative professionals turned their backs on the real thing. Here is a history that arcs from proletarian revolution to spiritual evolution, class consciousness to counterculture, unionization to etherealization, welfare to wellness. What started out as big thinking now strived only to “think small.” Any hopes for collectivist transformation receded in the puff of consumerist transgression.

This was not the case for everyone though. Clark notes at the end of The Making of the American Creative Class that it was mostly women and ethnic minorities, whose identities continued to deny them full access to or equality in the creative professions, who pressed on with the most strident forms of union activism by the 1970s. Their limited successes were undercut, however, not only by the economic downturn of the United States—New York City in particular—at the time, but also ironically by the seniority system many unions themselves embraced, which only extenuated inequities based on identity (gender, race) in the creative work force. Meanwhile, fierce counterattacks by corporations against anyone who might try to unionize a white-collar shop as well as the successful weakening of existing unions such as the Newspaper Guild by 1980s moguls like Rupert Murdoch further undermined union activity in the creative professions. Conservative politicians successfully combined misogynist and racist sentiments with antiworker ones, further erasing the legacies of the creative class unions and the consciousness they forged in the Popular Front era of the 1930s and 40s.

By the early twenty-first century, Richard Florida could claim that a creative class was on the rise, seemingly out of nowhere. Any municipality worth its aging infrastructure had to cater to the savory-scone-and-mocha-latte set. Yet in his study, he never imagined that they were once, or in some cases still, a unionized workforce. They were now only atomized individuals seeking cool places to work and play. Some twenty years after Florida’s study, the people working behind the counter of the local hipster coffee shop might well be striving to unionize. So too might be the people delivering the tasty treats to the café. So too might be the people who made those treats, or grew the crops to make them, or assembled them into products for purchase. In some cases, even the customers sitting in the café, working on this or that creative project on their laptops, might be pondering whether a union could help their careers and improve their lives. Whether all these different types of workers can see their shared interests across contemporary divisions of service, industrial, and creative modes of labor remains to be seen. And whether, from there, they can return us to a larger vision of “social capitalism,” or even socialism itself, remains a job to be creatively enacted.

[1] Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

[2] Barbara and John Ehrenreich, “The Professional-Managerial Class,” Radical America 11, 2 (March-April 1977), 7-32; Barbara and John Ehrenreich, “The New Left and the Professional-Managerial Class,” Radical America 11, 3 (May-June 1977), 7-24.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (1979; English edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 214.

[4] Edward Palmer Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1963).

[5] Shannan Clark, The Making of the American Creative Class: New York’s Culture Workers and Twentieth-Century Consumer Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 4-5.

[6] Clark, 4-5.

[7] Clark, 6-7.

[8] Clark, 6-7.

[9] Clark, 6-7.

[10] Clark, 6-7.

[11] Clark, 6-7.

[12] Clark, 7.

[13] Clark, 51.

[14] Clark, 7-8, 13.

[15] Clark, 7-8, 13.

[16] Clark, 8.

[17] Clark, 9, 13, 230.

[18] Clark, 217. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1963).

[19] Clark, 174.

[20] Clark, 300. In making this argument, Clark explicitly builds on Howard Brick’s Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).

[21] Clark, 304.

[22] Clark, 307.

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