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In Person

Nelson Lichtenstein

As America’s foremost Wal-Mart expert, Nelson Lichtenstein has chronicled the rise of the world’s largest company—and the fierce anti-unionism that has become one of its corporate trademarks.

The renowned labor historian’s latest book, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, may be the definitive account of how the discount retailer grew from Arkansas to blaze a new commercial model in a globalized economy. (For a recent article drawn from the new book, read this In These Times feature.)

The project Lichtenstein is most proud of, however, is not his new Wal-Mart opus. The University of California, Santa Barbara professor founded and serves as the director of the university’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy, which aims to “expand public understanding and discussion of important issues facing working people.” The center hosts conferences and courses and administers an undergraduate minor in Labor Studies.

Lichtenstein—who is also author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor and editor of Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism—corresponded with In These Times in June about Leon Trotsky, mountaineering and how Wal-Mart helped him write his new book, which will be published in July.

In 25 words or less, what makes you so special? (Keep in mind that humility, while admirable, is boring).

I’m an academic with a political agenda: to help lead a generation of social and labor historians toward a radical critique of capitalism and the corporation, now and in the past.

What’s the first thing that comes up when your name is Googled?

Unfortunately, it is my University of California, Santa Barbara academic Web page. I am disappointed, because I would have liked it to be my Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UCSB, the creation of which I see as my most important achievement in the last few years.

Shamelessly plug a colleague’s project.

Christopher Phelps of Nottingham University in the UK is writing a marvelous intellectual history of the strike over the last two centuries. It is important because it is not another social or labor history, but instead reflects the worldview of the insurgents and their sense of how capitalist structures of power are maintained and contested.

Describe your politics.

I still think Leon Trotsky and Max Schactman were right when they did their best work, both political and journalistic. But it seems almost impossible to deploy their politics in today’s world, so from an operative sense I am a social democrat with a prime commitment to the revitalization, democratization and expansion of the labor movement, in the U.S. and abroad.

Come up with a question for yourself and answer it.

Why, at age 64, do you still see mountaineering as something more than an energetic pastime?

More than any other sport, mountain climbing combines the classical and the romantic. It requires planning, judgment, equipment, and training, while at the same time opening the soul to a transcendent world of freedom and fantasy. This is the closest thing to what Marx imagined when he wrote about the socialist utopia. And that is why I day-dream about doing climbs that are far beyond my reach these days.

Media

Pick your five favorite websites and tell us why.

For national political coverage I look at Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos and the Guardian. Until very recently I read Wal-Mart Watch every day, not only because it kept me abreast of what was going on at the company on which I was writing a book, but also because I think that the retail sector today is the most strategic player when it comes to resistance to the Obama agenda and to progressive innovations in social policy more generally.

And for the labor movement, I rely upon the very smallish e-mail list of John Logan, the new director of the San Francisco State Labor Studies Center. John is an expert on the anti-union consulting industry.

What is your favorite In These Times story?

I am a huge fan of David Moberg‘s reportage on virtually any subject, but when it comes to his labor coverage I almost always learn something new, either from a conceptual or insider perspective.

What’s your favorite web-based tool for your job?

I wrote a lot of my current book, The Retail Revolution, using the Web. I found that websites of trade publications, such as Retail Forward, Women’s Wear Daily and Discount Store News were really revealing if you knew where to look. Their stores pinpointed what was crucial to corporate competition and profitability. Often they were excellent at describing and dissecting the supply chains that linked the Chinese workshop of the world to the American big box retailer. Likewise, the Wal-Mart corporate Web page, Wal-Mart Facts, created in response to all the company’s critics, contained a lot more than just corporate PR, including the career narratives of hundreds of Wal-Mart “associates” that proved immensely useful and revealing.

Politics

What’s one piece of legislation (state or national) you’d like to see passed right now?

One might imagine I would say the Employee Free Choice Act, but actually I think a thorough reform of the national health insurance system, one that puts us on the path to single-payer, is more important for the long-range health and growth of the trade union movement.

What’s one piece of legislation (state or national) you’d like to see defeated?

Any effort to eliminate the “death tax“ which Carnegie, Rockefeller and even Henry Ford would have thought damaging to long-term prospects for the maintenance of capitalist legitimacy.

My political awakening occurred when…

My political awakening first occurred when I witnessed from afar, and as a young teenager, the rise of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Courage and commitment in action, what could do more to inspire a young person? And second, my ideas were sharpened when I participated in UC-Berkeley’s political world in the late 1960s.

Who is your favorite elected leader, past or present? Why?

Here is an odd one for you: Wayne Morse. He started off as a Republican senator from Oregon, but became a Democrat in the 1950s when the Western GOP moved to the right. He understood the original idea behind the Wagner Act and defended it in both parties even when that was quite unpopular. Then, in the 1960s when a generation of labor liberals like Paul Douglas and Hubert Humphrey supported the war in Vietnam, Morse proved a vocal opponent, for which he eventually lost his seat.

Which liberal politician has disappointed you the most?

Lyndon Johnson, of course.

Personal

How do you get around (bike, public transportation, car)? Why?

I drive an old car and I don’t feel guilty about it. Real conservation is going to require a confrontation with the corporations, a tax on carbon, stiff gas mileage standards, more money for public transport, etc. So if liberals and leftists feel they have done their part biking about or taking the bus, it is a species of false consciousness.

What local media do you depend on?

A long labor struggle is now underway at the local newspaper, the Santa Barbara News-Press, so the entire political establishment in the county is boycotting the paper. I therefore talk to my friends, in and out of local government, a lot more to find out what is going on.

What’s the best piece of advice someone gave you when you were young?

Actually it was bad advice. The evening before leaving for college in the early fall of 1962, the father of a friend gave me one of my first beers, sat me down by the pool in the still muggy air, and told me “Don’t sign anything.” He had been burned by the McCarthyite hysteria of a decade and more before. Naturally I rebelled and have been signing stuff and organizing stuff to be signed for decades since.

Culture

What’s the last, good film you saw?

The Wind that Shakes the Barley.”

What is the last, best book you have read?

Andrew Wender Cohen’s The Racketeer’s Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy, 1900–1940. By explaining how petty capitalists and craft unionists have sought to control the labor market within a chaotic municipal setting, Cohen tells us a lot about why racketeering and corruption, far more than Communism and Socialism, have been the descriptors that have attached themselves to unionism, in the last century and this one.

Guilty television watching pleasure?

The History Channel.

What trend in popular culture do you find the most annoying?

Tattoos on young women and, to a slightly lesser extent, on young men.


—June 16, 2009