By Kim Phillips-Fein
For a few short years between the two world wars, the capital of Austria was known as "Red Vienna." Governed by Austria's (non-Bolshevik) Socialist Party, the city built tens of thousands of units of public housing, providing homes for 200,000 Viennese. It expanded public health services and working-class education, built libraries and subsidized magazines. But the rest of Austria was intensely hostile to the socialist city, and the government fell when the repressive, quasi-fascist Christian Socials came to power in 1934.
Joshua B. Freeman's excellent new book, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II, brings to mind the sad fate of Red Vienna. After the Second World War, Freeman argues, New York City was "a social democratic polity unique in the country in its ambition and achievements ... a model as close to European social democracy as the country had seen." New York's unions and city government constructed housing, raised wages, expanded the city's free public university system, provided health care and even built a partially public municipal arts center. But in the '70s, New York's elite took advantage of a recession to strike back against the city's labor movement and destroy the municipal government's social programs. The result was deepening inequality, impoverishment of the city's public resources and the erosion of New York's working-class culture.
The canonical tale of the decline of New York (and, by extension, urban America) focuses on the '60s: the breakdown of social mores, the spread of drugs, riots and the rise of black radicalism. Some urban historians - like Thomas Sugrue writing about Detroit - have argued that the exodus of whites from the city after the chaos of the late '60s had its roots in the political economy of the Golden Age, when deindustrialization began and whites rioted against blacks moving into their neighborhoods. Unlike Sugrue, Freeman accepts that the '50s and '60s were glory days for New York, the high point of the city's unparalleled experiment in "socialism in one city." But in telling a story which emphasizes that poverty and its attendant social ills resulted from the calculated destruction of the social state by a powerful and anxious business class, he also challenges the neocon narrative.