Stanley Aronowitz (1933-)
Stanley Aronowitz was born in 1933 and grew up in the Bronx, New York City. He attended Brooklyn College until he was suspended for leading a sit-in in the Dean’s office to protest the suppression of the radical student newspaper. After leaving school he became a steelworker and then a union organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (now UNITE) and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers.
Aronowitz received his B.A. from the New School in 1968. Following this he became associate director of the anti-poverty organization Mobilization for Youth, where he was also a community organiser. In the early `70s he founded Park East High School in East Harlem, the first post-war experimental public high school in New York City, and taught community studies at the College of Staten Island. He has since taught at the University of California Irvine, the Center for Worker Education at City College of the City University of New York, where he teaches in the Graduate Center and is currently Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Urban Education.
Aronowitz was a New Left activist during the `60s, organising the New York New Left movement. He was the chief New York organiser for the Independent Committee to End the War in Vietnam, an editor of the influential journal Studies on the Left, and taught at the radical Free University of New York. He is presently an elected officer of the CUNY faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress. Like Michael Apple, Aronowitz has been a Union organiser and activist all of his professional life.
He was deeply influenced by Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilisation and One-Dimensional Man and in 1972-3 he met Marcuse who had responded to the manuscript for his first book, the acclaimed False Promises: The Shaping of American Working-Class Consciousness. Marcuse invited him to present a series of lectures at San Diego in 1974 and they remained friends until Marcuse died in '79. He has written 23 books in all. Among the more recent are From the Ashes of the Old (1998) - an analysis of the state of the labour movement, The Last Good Job in America, (2001)- essays on culture and politics and The Knowledge Factory (2001) - a critique of the corporatisation of higher education; Implicating Empire: Globalization and Resistance in the 21st Century (2002);Paradigm Lost: State Theory Reconsidered (2002); and Debating Empire (New Left Review Debates) (2003); How Class Works (2003); Just around the Corner: The Paradox of the Jobless Recovery (2005) and Left Turn (2006). Each of his books has advanced his and our understandings of the state of the Left in contemporary life - the success of the Right, and the inability of progressive social movements to coalesce in the formation of a broad coalition for change.
He has also written about science and technology, philosophy and culture and has edited four volumes (a collection of 90 plus articles) on C. Wright Mills in their Great Sociologists series by Sage Publications.(2004). With Fredric Jameson and John Brenkman, he is a founding editor of Duke University's Social Text, a journal that is subtitled "Theory, Culture, Ideology." He has written that with this publication their "objective was to interrogate Marxists' habitual separation of political economy and culture and to make a contribution to their articulation, even reunification."
His analysis of the failure of the New Left to capture the public imagination, the co-optation of middle class black America by the Democratic Party and its failure to contest the ideologies of the New Right have been very influential in Left political theorising. In 2003 he ran for Governor of New York under the Green Party and was endorsed by Ralph Nader. He led the fight to maintain the official ballot status of the Green Party and ran a grass roots campaign based on a radical democratic program that combined opposition to corporate power and plutocratic government with commitment to a sustainable environment, racial equality, feminism, gay liberation and individual freedom. His campaign was a model for leftists running for public office: radical, honest, grounded in the issues, inclusive and accessible. Aronowitz's reflections on the campaign, written just weeks after the polls closed, gives readers a sense of the opportunities and challenges of independent political campaigns in a time when most progressives still cling to the Democratic Party, but when the total inability of the Democrats to offer a real alternative to the Republicans becomes clearer with every passing day.
He lives in Manhattan. He was married to the writer Ellen Willis, with whom he had a teenage daughter. He also has four older children. Helen died in 2006.
Stanley Aronowitz's thought extends over a considerable number of topics, initiating, engaging and continuing a public debate on class, culture and identity, consequently reflecting deeply on major issues in cultural studies, postmodernism, identity politics, education, literature, intellectuals and his own life.
He started his professional academic career from the foundation of solid worker experience coupled with a profound commitment to labour activism and organisation. His theoretical meanderings have, since that time, led him on a search for meaning to the social and political struggles of our time, grounded in a Marxist frame of reference. He has spent his professional working life critically engaging with four separate but related aspects of culture and public life:
“...the music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks cannot be understood simply as a further development of tendencies internal to Rock as it took shape during the late fifties and early sixties. Rather...these particular expressions of individual creativity by artists such as Jagger, Lennon or Davies are only comprehensible in relation to the expressions of social creativity unleashed in England at that time by “the deep, spontaneous revolt of working class youth against British bourgeois society which it articulated” and which, while economically rooted, took predominantly cultural, even sexual forms....English rock during this period directly assaulted the linguistic hegemony of standard “U” English with such striking success that one may even find impeccably educated, upper-class English youth affecting a Liverpool accent.”
We see here that he has already moved beyond both the inabilities of Adorno and Horkheimer to recognise the potency of popular culture on the one hand, and the strict adherence to the orthodox base-superstructure marxist model on the other. He clearly recognises that culture can and does indeed play a significant part in the process of social change. As he rightly points out, Culture is now firmly bracketed in the plural, in the form of a confrontation between dominant and subordsnate groups. Society is no longer seen as made up of the cultured and the uncultured. There are cultures, often opposed to each other - giving rise to what Roszak would call the youth counter-culture. It will be noted that this oppositional model of culture is very different to that to which Adorno and Horkheimer tenaciously clung. The myriad pop groups who came to prominence at that time controlled their own material - a material which invariable grew out of a rich and fertile regional musical tradition. At the same time, the famous expansion of the clothing industry in Soho's Carnaby Street in "Swinging London" developed not from established rag-trade manufacturers, but from a burgeoning hippie cottage industry transported from the Portobello Road and Kings Road in Chelsea.
These aspects of popular culture were missed by Adorno and Horkheimer simply because they had decided a priori that all popular culture was the expression of a regime of exploitation and domination. Not only did the Frankfurt theorists fail to recognise the radical potential of popular cultural forms, but their continued reliance upon a determining economic base also failed to adequately theorize the ultimate failure of the traditional marxist model. In spite of their best intentions, they remained tied to an essentially pessimistic view of the world. By abandoning class as an important social category, and simultaneously decrying the very cultural productions which point to an oppositional tendency of resistance arising from class stratifications, they created for themselves a theory infused with despair - and this was their unfortunate legacy to an upcoming generation of social theorists like Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida.
What these theorists missed had been unravelled by the British sociologist Paul Willis, working at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies with Stuart Hall. Willis studied 12 working class boys in a Midlands school - these were known as 'the lads'. These 'lads' knew how to achieve in school, they knew what to do to get qualifications but they chose to reject school and form their own 'Counter School Culture' as an act of resistance to imposed values and classed perceptions. Unlike Bowles and Gintis (whose Correspondence Theory suggested that schools and curricula are designed to reproduce a ppopulation of graduates that corresponds to the needs of capitalist production), Willis argued that these 'lads' were not forced, but rather chose to resist this imposition and in so doing unwittingly contributed to the classed limitations of their life chances. Aronowitz cuncurred:
“For working class children who know that social mobility is an ideology, and that they are probably fated to end up in manual occupations, the effort is to endure school rather than participate. Their energy and their sense of self are preserved by tuning out the rigors of reading and mathematics, since they do not regard these activities as important to their lives. Instead, the curriculum is perceived as a means of pressure to force them to abandon their secret world - to learn to regard their relationships with their peers as less significant than those with teachers. Many children who “fail” in school are trying to cling to childhood because they know it is the moment in their lives, however fleeting, in which authority has the least power over them...The rebellious students’ awareness that school represents the end of innocence is quickly transformed into guilt and regret for not having listened to their teachers early in life. By high school the failing students have developed a self image that corresponds to their class position.”
Here we see Aronowits beginning to challenge the role of normative State education as a means of social liberation. This theme is developed further in an article:"Technocratic Rationality and the Politics of Schooling", in:Social Practice, (1980). From this, Education becomes for Aronowitz a part of a larger discourse around the issue of technical rationality itself and its ability to colonise the entire field of epistemology. He tilts first at its impact upon science in another article: "Science and Ideology",in:Current Perspectives in Social Theory, (1980). It is a theme he will pick up and develop more fully eight years later in his book: Science as Power: Discourse and Ideology in Modern Society(1988).
A year later, in 1981, Aronowitz returned to the theme of Marxism's failure to ignite the workers and of the Left'sinability to exert its influence over Marxist orthodoxy. In his book: The Crisis in Historical Materialism, (1981), he begins by paying tribute to the black Marxist historian W. E. B. Dubois before moving on to to a historical analysis of the works of more recent American New Left theorists (like Frederick Jameson, Susan Buck Morse, Martin Jay, Russell Jacoby etc.) who brought recent new material to light through the European-American journal Telos. He reviews the works of Lukács, Korsch, Benjamin and Gramsci before attemting a comprehensive analysis as a means of unpacking the contradictions of the base-superstructure debate that has bedevilled Marxist theorising and which in his opinion has stymied the growth and development of a radical alternative Marxism. He notes that the failure of Marxism was seeded in the original struggle for dominance within the movement from its very beginnings:
"Trotsky's argument, reflecting the majority of the Bolshevik central committee, was that full cultural emancipation must await the victory of the world socialist revolution, or at least the securing of Soviet power within Russia. In his view, cultural revolution was antipathetic to the project of the consolidation of state power because it would divert the energies of the masses from the revolutionary tasks of defeating the enemies of the regime, and from reviving the productive apparatus that had been destroyed during the war.
"... science itself no longer is only a hegemonic ideology of the new social order of capitalism and its industrial stage, but becomes integrated into the practices and discourses of production. The interchangeability of science and technology is, of course, either denied or ignored by most philosophers and scientists, but their growing convergence extends beyond the workplace. As scientific discourse permeates state and civil society, scientific culture spills over beyond the laboratory. Business dares make no decisions that are not grounded on mathematical calculation that provides projections; legislators enact laws based on 'data' generated by scientifically trained experts... (and) technological criterion of efficiency becomes the new cult of public and private schools. In schools, the idea of the liberal arts slowly gives way to occupational education."
“…the relative autonomy of labor, culture, and consciousness within the broad framework of marxist theory of capitalist development. That is, I take the aphorism 'all history is the history of class struggle' seriously. If this is the case, then the doctrine of subsumption must not be taken as an empirical description; rather it is a powerful tendency that becomes an aspect of the mode of production, but it is counteracted both by the historical cultures of the working class (which have their roots in precapitalist social formations as much as the culture that arises from the labor process itself), and by the formal and informal organization of the working class, which restrains the subsumption process and causes its retardation and deformation.”A year later, Aronowitz returned to his preoccupation with the bigger cultural picture, Roll over Beethoven: The Return of Cultural Strife (1993). He acknowledges that the question of culture has become central for a new generation of scholars raised in a world of television and mass production. At the same time debates about culture have become a point of reference for criticism of current trends in academia and society, variously defended or derided on the grounds of "multiculturalism," "canonicity," and political correctness. Aronowitz re-examines these debates and traces the history of the cultural issue - in both its British and American manifestations - and relates it to the contemporary rethinking of the nature of knowledge and culture. ‘
Aronowitz extends this theme of the role and identity of the working class and problematises it his next work, The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work, (written with William Difazio in 1995). There, they note a disjunction between the public perception of work as a necessary component of increased economic expansion, wealth and personal liberation and the social political and cultural context of work (and increasing leisure) under Late Capitalism. They note that even in the depression and massive unemployment of the 1930s, social unrest and transformation was contained. The New Deal was, to that extent a mechanism for keeping the lid on revolutionary change.
Throughout the economic boom times of the 1950s-1980s, the labour movement was co-opted by the industrial military complex and kept its demands to minor adjustments to the conditions of work (pay increases, safe working environments and reduces working hours). Similarly, throughout the economic flight of capital with its corresponding unemployment and homelessness and emergence of the Rust Belt of the 1980s, major social organising was constrained. With the advent and enormous expansion of public media, they see the media (and education) as key instruments in the pacification of the displaced working class. All of these factors and mechanisms indicate, for Aronowitz and Difazio, an impending conflict between the need for work as a dignifying activity and the increased unemployment created by global capitalism and the penetration of technology into productive life.
Under the dogma of work, to not have a job (unless disabled or retired) is an undignified stigma, yet increasingly we look into a future where not-working will become the norm for the majority of the population. Faced with this, the authors argue for a reconceptualisation of work, the reduction of working hours and the introduction of a universal minimum income. Tese preconditions offer the opportunity fore a completely revitalised democratic public life:
“Under these circumstances, we envision civil society as the privileged site for the development of individuals who really are free to participate in a public sphere of their own making. In such a civil society, politics consists not so much in the ritual act of selection, through voting, of one elite over another, but in popular assemblies that could, given sufficient space and time, be both the legislative and the administrative organs. The scope of popular governance would extend from the workplace to the neighborhood. For as Ernest Mandel has argued, there is no possibility of worker self-management, much less the self-management of society, without ample time for decision making. Thus, in order to realize a program of democratization, me must create a new civil society in which freedom consists in the first place (but only in the first place) in the liberation of time from the external constraints imposed by nature and other persons on the individual.”These themes are taken up in more detail in Aronowitz’s subsequent works, Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation (Co-Edited with Jonathan Cutler in 1997), From the Ashes of the Old (1998) and The Last Good Job in America (2001).
The first of these comprises a series of papers on a wide variety of the topics that have occupied Aronowitz in earlier works, but in more detail. (Labour history, poverty, welfare policy, guaranteed income, education, the tenure system, the impact of computers and the issue of leisure time). From the Ashes of the Old details the history of the labour movement from 1945 to the present, contextualising it within the world economy and the development of technology. Here, Aronowitz places the co-optation of the unions under the microscope and interrogates the mistakes made that surrendered the progressive agenda of labour to big business. He asks the profoundly important question of “What needs to be done? and proposes a somewhat hopeful revitalisation of the labour movement itself – by recruiting the millions of non-unionised workers in the South and by attracting the white-collar middle classes who are being squeezed out by the global economy - alongside coalitions of other disaffected and marginalised groups The book contains an impressive in-depth look at the workings and strategies of more than a dozen unions.
Finally, in The Last Good Job in America, Aronowitz synthesises all that has gone before to focus specifically on the multifarious ways in which the time available for public life, for a discourse on Democracy has been eroded by the economic order. He laments the ways in which the economic order has penetrated every corner of our everyday lives. He cites many instances – the poor, who must have two jobs to survive economically, the white collar worker who is tied to email 24/7. His friend and mentor Marcuse had theorised that capitalism now had the resources and means to eliminate poverty and to increase personal freedoms. Instead, from what he sees as the turning point in 1971, we have seen those freedoms systematically eroded and poverty increase. Schools and universities have been penetrated by big business, and the inner city bohemians who once served as the avant-garde moral and intellectual commentators on consumerism have been gentrified out of existence.
In contrast, he suggests that “the last good job in America” is his own. He has job security (tenure) a good income, possesses intellectual and political independence and has his reflective time rewarded. Everyone, he suggests, ought to be in the same position:
"Rather than proposing an equality of alienated labor, we should fight to universalize throughout society the autonomy and shorter working hours of the senior professoriate at research universities, not just for those in higher education".He suggests (yet again?) that the only way to bring this about is by a radicalisation of the political left – a move towards greater civil disobedience and passive resistance, coupled with a major push at reorganisation and coalition-building. As one reviewer noted, Aronowitz might have to wait a long time!”
In the same year that he wrote The Last Good Job, Aronowitz ironically though not uncharacteristically cast his reflective eye over his own job in another book: The Knowledge Factory : Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning (2001). Here, he returns once again to issues confronting tertiary education, demonstrating in the process how the those intellectual, economic and political freedoms which he touted in Last Good Job are, in fact, under siege in his own backyard. He begins first by contrasting Higher Education with Higher Training – suggesting that education (in the sense of teaching people how to think, question and challenge) has been replaced by curricula and pedagogies designed increasingly to produce cohorts for the labour market. He analyses the American academic system in detail, showing how outsourcing has narrowed the space for intellectual debate, before moving on to academic labour and the struggle of academics to retain those rights and privileges that have traditionally been theirs, of courses increasingly taught by adjuncts through the imposition of market economy on University budgets. Aronowitz also puts the curriculum under the microscope, showing how critical theorising and analysis has been both absorbed and watered-down to serve credentialing goals or eliminated altogether in its more radical forms. For instance critical pedagogy is taught as a theory (rather then being student-centred or dialogical or having a direct connection with real social, political or economic issues in real and marginalised communities) in ways that are inconsistent with its own basic premises.
He concludes by calling for the dismantling of the corporate university, for a return to the freedoms and values that once animated American academic and made it the envy of the western world.
All of this (some might say narcissism) was, of course, before the tragedy of the World Trade Centre. The latter event pushed Aronowitz – a committed son of New York – to reflect more intensely upon the events of 9/11 and the American imperialistic response. Three further books locate their analyses in the shadow of these events. Implicating Empire: Globalization and Resistance in the 21st Century (edited with Heather Gautney) (2002), Paradigm Lost: State Theory Reconsidered (Edited with Peter Bratsis) (2002), and Debating Empire (New Left Review Debates), edited with Gopal Balakrishnan, (2003)
"None of what Aronowitz has to say is without plausibility; indeed much of it is compelling, but it is an analysis that gives this reader the distinct impression that its subject matter is receding. The world, so aptly described by Aronowitz, is disappearing, leaving Aronowitz as a reviver of fading concepts, pumping energy into these concepts that have become "dark bodies" of absorption."
“The intellectual opposition contests the main narrative on several planes: for one, it proposes a past different from that promulgated by the leading institutions of collective memory, chiefly, the book, the school, and popular media. For another, it elaborates a cultural and social imagination that contradicts prevailing common sense”Key to Aronowitz's theorising is his contention that it is not only income that defines the working class as suggested by normative “common sense” beliefs. Rather working class identity is shaped primarily by a relative lack of power and control over one’s labour. This is an important point, because it shifts our thinking away from the mirage of consumption back to the more important structural issue of power and hegemony. One of the major factors behind the success of the Right has been its ability to individualise identity – to fragment and render competitive different subject groups and different subject identities and then to capitalise on the fears and expectations thus brought into the light. To give but one example (used earlier by Aronowitz), the feminist movement has been co-opted to focus primarily upon the “glass ceiling” rather than to challenge broader issues such as the division of labour, the plight of poor, unemployed, of abused women or the needs of women of colour. In its success, the Right has been able to erase the history and contemporary awareness of class struggle and to link worker hopes and expectations to the development and growth of the “free market” global economy. Much of Aronowitz's effort goes into reawakening this collective memory of class struggle and tearing illusion of progress through consumption.
Having established an understanding of the history of class struggle, he suggests that real structural transformation is only brought about by broad social movements (remember that this is what the unions failed to establish). The loss or abandonment of a unifying conception of class has, for Aronowitz, been key to the Left’s inability to re-establish the social movement necessary to resist the Right and to bring about change. The Right’s ability to play upon the homophobia, racism and misogyny that are an inherent part of working class subjectivity has effectively stymied resistance to consumption ideologies. Identity movements of workers, gays, blacks etc.:
“….insist on their absolute separation from class politics… (and) lacking the concept of the unity of social and cultural divisions around the axis of power, they cannot grasp the notion of modality and must present difference in terms of irreconcilable binaries”
“It was only when these apparently separate movements of labor and women joined, took to the streets, and, through intense direct action as a public discussion, captured public opinion that sections of the liberal middle class and intelligentsia became convinced it was in their interest to support these demands and the ruling bourgeoisie yielded”This analysis leads him inexorably to a critique of fashionable versions of Postmodernism which, though appearing to offer a new voice to previously unrecognised or silenced groups in fact stripped them of their true emancipatory potential by severing their relationship with issues of class.
“…the effect of their postmodern theory was to provide a new version of political liberalism. For by affirming the primacy of human rights and by their renunciation of class formation and class struggle they had deprived themselves and the movements they extolled of the levers of power, except those of incremental reform. Moreover, by renouncing class analysis and substituting the indeterminate plurality of struggles based largely on bio-identities, they were unable to answer the question, What issues are worth fighting for?”
There are echoes here again of Michael Apple’s notions of multiple subjectivities and his insistence upon the need for the unions to shift towards a more radical posture with respect to the State as well as capital. Like Apple also, he is suspicious and critical of the notion of consensus politics, which he sees as masking inherent differences between different subject groups that need to be reconciled through a full exploration of their differences and similarities (akin, perhaps to Apple’s desire to see conflict resolution reinscribed into the curriculum). A broad social movement can only emerge, suggests Aronowitz, when these diverse groups re-accept the unifying issue of class as their common characteristic.
The potential for this already exists and the reality is to some extent already emerging. While the globalisation of the market economy has undoubtedly resulted in increasing political social and economic disparities, it has also spawned global resistance which is well evidenced at the huge and powerful demonstrations and a return to direct action at the Gatt Talks, at various international economic summits in Seattle, Rio, Paris, Genoa, Sydney and elsewhere. This resistance is increasingly co-ordinated to focus attention of sweatshop working conditions in the “developing” countries and the role of the multinational corporations in perpetuating economic slavery in the search for increased profitability in the production of consumer goods. He spends a considerable amount of time defining and describing this new “movement”, suggesting that (to put it rather simplistically) the Left is not Dead, but merely napping, and that the resistance to late capitalism is growing as the environmental crisis deepens and becomes more obvious. The question remains, however, whether the members of this new coalition of the Left will opt for real social change – with all of the painful struggle that will mean, or will once again settle for an amelioration of conditions.
Aronowitz’s historical analysis of social movements and of the labour moment in the United States is broad and detailed. His knowledge is breathtaking and his narrative is compelling as befits someone of his intellect, experience of union organising and political activism. From his extensive analysis he offers the possibility of hope for the formation of a new social movement such as that suggested above. But in order to succeed, such a movement must again embrace the notion of class – not to the exclusion of cultural difference, but as the glue that can bind together a meaningful accord between dissident groups. As he notes:
“Capital and other powerful forces are not fated to win…The ability of ruling groups to impose their domination depends to a large degree on whether an alliance of differentially situated social groups emerges to oppose them”
First, there has to be a shift away from conceptions of class as related to income, jobs etc. and towards a reconceptualisation of the fundamental relationship of class to power – in terms of the ability of individuals to take and have control over their space and time. (Aronowitz tips his hat to Lefebvre in acknowledging the important ways in which the Right has controlled the creation and use of space in its own class interests).
Secondly, he believes that history should be taught not only across disciplines, but that it must also be rewritten from the standpoint of the oppressed. (This re-connecting Aronowitz to his interest and theorising on Education in its role as a transformative praxis). He makes the strong point that the official version (aka Apple’s Official Knowledge) of history is perhaps the most significant marker (and must therefore be a prime target) of hegemony. History needs to be excavated in much the same way that Foucault has demonstrated, in order to reveal its official use as an instrument of oppression. He suggests, following Benjamin, that our present crisis is a norm rather than an exception when seen in the broad struggle of oppressed groups throughout history, and it is important to reconnect ourselves with those who have struggled before us to maintain an awareness of the strategies used to have us think otherwise.
Finally, he suggests that much theorising is disconnected from the ordinary lives and experiences of everyday life – producing g theories about theories in a never-ending world of reflections. (Again Apple makes this same point). He exhorts intellectuals to think and behave imaginatively in a radical manner, but in ways that speak to the common man and woman in the street. Although the book does not give detailed prescriptions for political action, it does reconfigure our understanding in important ways. The question is how to progress the means by which his suggestions can be actioned.
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