Jane Collins: Reclaiming the Local in Movements against Inequality: A View from the United States

Many European nations have seen protests in 2013 as the state shifts its historic roles and responsibilities and protesters respond to cutbacks in public support as a breach of moral economy. At the same time, individuals and collectives have responded to austerity by creating and deepening forms of self-provisioning outside the realm of state and market.

On the other side of the Atlantic, such restructuring and response is rampant as well. Since the Occupy movement forced the issue into the news in 2011, the US media has tracked sobering trends in inequality. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that the United States has by far the worst income inequality of any developed nation. Even the conservative business publication Forbes acknowledged that 1 percent of Americans earn 20 percent of all income and control more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, in a piece entitled, “Could America’s Wealth Gap Lead to a Revolt?” published in fall 2013.1 Wages have fallen to a record low as a share of the US Gross Domestic Product. Meanwhile, in 2013, what the austerity forces in the US Congress could not accomplish through targeted cuts, they achieved through across the board “sequesters” to reduce spending.

Finding the tools to analyze these trends is challenging in an environment where the predominance of finance has fundamentally changed the way we evaluate the economy. In a post-Fordist era that worships Wall Street’s share price, there is little attention to things like bricks and mortar, industrial capacity and job creation. It has not always been so. From the 1950s to the 1980s, development economists used the concept of disarticulation (or sometimes dual economy) to diagnose the problems faced by the then-developing economies. Economists as diverse in their ideological foundations as Samir Amin, W. A. Lewis, and Albert O. Hirschman used the term to refer to a distorted economic and social structure that was characterized by unevenness in sectoral development, missing linkages among industrial sectors, and a lack of correspondence between patterns of production and consumption. They sought solutions for third world countries where the middle class was not big enough to generate much demand for goods; where ships and trains carried tropical fruits and precious minerals northward, returning with tractors and household appliances. But by the late 1980s, their way of thinking had largely been crowded out by the hegemony of comparative advantage doctrines and the confident assurance that globalization would lift all boats.

Over the past few years, when I have looked out across the vacant lots of center city Milwaukee, particularly the Second Street properties where the Allen Bradley Corporation used to manufacture its rheostats, transistors, and thermostats, those old critiques of disarticulation have come to mind. I would like to use the example of one corporate empire to illustrate how disarticulation fosters inequality and ultimately a form of class secession. Stanton Allen and Lynde Bradley founded the Allen Bradley Company in Milwaukee in 1903. Through the early decades of the twentieth century, it sold its components to local companies like Cutler-Hammer and Allis Chalmers. Some of its individual factories employed more than 5,000 workers, including many immigrants from Germany, Poland, Italy, and later Mexico. Rockwell Automation purchased Allen Bradley in 1985, and, in response to the competitive pressures of that decade, the company began to craft a global production strategy. Today, Rockwell Automation is headquartered in Milwaukee, but it does not hire local workers to manufacture its goods. Its production line is spread across 80 countries, with the majority of the manufacturing done in Hangzhou and Shenzhen, China. Its corporate information technology is performed in India, most of its engineering in Europe. Parts are procured from factories in Quito, Bogota, Hermosillo. Rockwell doesn’t hire workers in Milwaukee, and the factories that used to buy their rheostats are closed. Few forward or backward linkages are realized in Milwaukee. The new global production system has pried apart the twentieth century’s Fordist relationship between production and consumption.

Because the managers of Rockwell Automation don’t need local workers, they have little stake in whether the local population is educated and healthy; thus they are reluctant to pay taxes to insure those goals. Because they don’t need local businesses to consume their products, they are not particularly concerned about the health of the local economy. This is how disarticulation breeds the phenomenon that Robert Perucci and Michael Lind have called “class secession”2—a process whereby privileged classes increasingly distance themselves from public institutions. These authors note that while the 99 percent and the 1 percent may live in the same regions, their fates are tied to processes that play out at different scales and in different parts of the world. The wealthy earn their fortunes with overseas labor, sell to overseas consumers and manage global financial transactions. It is hardly surprising, they suggest, that the wealthy are so hostile to taxes that support the infrastructure and social programs that help the majority of the American people.

The rich, they conclude, don’t need the rest anymore.

To return to the example of the Allen Bradley Corporation, just about the only thing that the heirs of the Bradley family still produce in Milwaukee is neoliberal ideology. The Bradley Foundation was founded in 1985 at the time the firm was purchased by Rockwell Automation. In 2012, it gave out more than $30 million in grants to organizations that advocated for limited government, limited taxation, curtailing of worker rights, and privatization of schools and other government services. The Foundation is one of the most formidable forces opposing public employment and the provision of public goods. It opposes any attempts to regulate the behavior of corporations—whether by requiring them to bargain with unions, reduce their carbon emissions, or pay taxes. The Foundation’s vision is one that sees value as created by individuals and government as contributing to that only by safeguarding property. Its agenda—to paraphrase historian Nancy Maclean—is seeking to end the ability of citizens to make claims based on the political “we.” In the words of the Reverend William Barber, the key figure behind the marches in the Southern US state North Carolina that have become known as Moral Mondays, “Right now, ‘we’ is the most important word in the social justice vocabulary.”

For all of these reasons, the struggle against inequality in the United States today is intimately bound up with the struggle to relocalize economic processes. One strand of this resistance seeks to hold corporations responsible for their behavior; it demands accountability for corporations that received public bailout money, investigation of those that engaged in fraudulent mortgage lending, and greater transparency and regulation across the board. The movements for a living wage in fast food establishments and at Walmart are part of this trend, as workers demand that corporations attend to the needs of their workers and the communities where they do business, rather than privileging the metric of shareholder value. A second strand of this resistance calls for revalorization of public goods and public employment. The massive 2011 protests in Wisconsin and other US states against the eradication of public employee bargaining rights has converged with resistance to austerity budgets and to bankruptcy proceedings in Detroit and elsewhere to create an ongoing backlash against the assault on the public sector. Finally, there is a growing strand of social movement calling for public (and private) investment in job creation—in brick and mortar projects that employ local people and buy local inputs, and whose impacts ultimately reverberate through the economy. As mainstream economists have walked back their earlier promises that globalization would not destroy jobs, social movements have called for reinvestment in public and private sector projects that would shore up local communities and regional economies against its excesses. In all of these movements, as Narotzky suggests, moral economic frameworks play a powerful role, shaping the concepts of social movement actors regarding what is desirable, what is possible, and what is fair. As financialization and globalization tie the fate of the 1 percent to far-flung processes, these movements call for local accountability—to workers, consumers, and communities. The most hopeful thing about this activism is that it brings together the union movement with the unorganized workers of Walmart and fast food enterprises, the unemployed, the poor who lose food stamps and health benefits, and a wide range of community groups. It thus has the potential to coordinate struggle on many fronts against the massive inequality wrought by three decades of unchecked neoliberal policy.

Jane Collins is Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her most recent book is Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom in the Low-Waged Labor Market (Chicago, 2010).

1. Archer, Dale. Could America’s wealth gap lead to a revolt?, Forbes, 4 September 2013.

2. Perucci, Robert. 2008. New class society: Goodbye American dream?. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield; Lind, Michael. Are the American people obsolete?, Salon, 27 July 2010.

Cite as: Collins, Jane. 2014. “Reclaiming the local in movements against inequality: A view from the United States”, FocaalBlog, July 17, www.focaalblog.com/2014/07/17/reclaiming-the-local-in-movements-against-inequality-a-view-from-the-u-s.