Marx’s Theory and the Chrysler Plant Shutdown in Kenosha County

Karl Marx was an extremist in his views on the connections between political systems and culture. He was a man that grew up during industrialization and felt its unfair treatment towards capitalist workers. His reaction to this was his Communist Manifesto published in 1848 which analyses class struggle and the problems that arise under capitalist rule. Arguments used by Marxs against capitalism included surplus value, competition, and his theory of alienation. His final conclusions stated the modes of production within a society determine that societies culture and behavior and capitalism would ultimately destroy a culture. Even though capitalism has never destroyed our culture, Marx’s theory can be applied well to the the epidemic of factories shutting down in America in the late twentieth century. The effects of this on American culture is described nicely in Kathryn Dudley’s ethnography  The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Post Industrial America which specifically analyzes the Chrysler plant shutdown in Kenosha County, 1988.

Kenosha was booming in the first half of the 1900s. Factory work had become a way of life for many families and gave them hope towards achieving the american dream. Auto plants, Nash Motors and AMC, were a main source of employment due to their popularity in the market. This gave thousands of jobs to Kenosha’s citizens resulting in a community that had hope for a bright future. Wages began to rise and upward mobility for individuals became easier because one did not have to attend college to make enough to support a family. In the 1980s, AMC began to cut wages,holiday pay, and union representation. Strikes and negotiations were held ultimately leading to Chrysler’s chairman Lee Iacocca announcing his plan to buy out AMC in 1987. By June 1988, over five thousand were without jobs due to Chrysler’s discontinuation of production. As a result of this change in the community’s means of production the culture was threatened. Once Chrysler shut down many were without a source of income and no way to support their families. Women had to work outside the home more, decisions of college educations appeared at the dinner table more frequently, upward mobility decreased, and some families had to move either for a job offer or to receive help from family. Social roles were threatened in and out of the household which has ultimately led to the kind of culture and capitalist society that we have now in Kenosha.

Even though Marx’s theory comes from a time where industrialization was increasing and Kathryn Dudley writes about a post industrial time in Kenosha, his theory still can be applied well to the effects of the Chrysler plant shutdown. Once Kenosha became a town of businesses and favored retail and college education the culture and behavior of the people changed as well. Individuals had to change to adapt to the world around them. Lower wages, no unions, more jobs available for only college educated individuals, and more separation between the community affected their everyday decisions and routines. The public’s reaction once the auto factory closed gives a post industrial example of Marx’s conclusion about the modes of production. He believed that once mode of production changes in a culture so does the culture itself. Kenosha’s way of production shifting led to a culture where women work out of the home more, both parents work, daycare is used more, children are pushed to go to college, and factory work is looked down upon. This example in history applies Marx’s theory well to situations in modern day capitalism.

   Not all of Marx’s ideas held true in the Chrysler shut down incident though. He stated in his theory that capitalism causes alienation. Before the shutdown, the factory became a way of life and a type of unity for the people who lived and worked in Kenosha at this time. It brought them a promise of prosperity; therefore they developed a connection with the work. This indicates that alienation did not take place within the workers in Kathryn Dudley’s ethnography during industrial capitalism. Marx also states that capitalism would destroy a culture. Once Kenosha switched it’s means of production the culture made a significant change, but was not destroyed in the way that Marx envisioned. Marx’s predicted conflict and a revolution ultimately ending in no state. There was conflict (the plant negotiations, shutdown, and strikes) which led to a post industrial Kenosha, but no revolution occured that tried to overthrow capitalism.

   Even though Marx’s ideas about alienation did not apply to the workers in their industrial environment does not mean his conclusion about modes of production and society is discredited in Kenosha’s post industrial environment. The factory shutdown was a huge devastation for the town of Kenosha and it led families to change their dynamics, uproot their lives, and find a new way of surviving in a world that was far from their comfort zone. This cultural change impacted by a switch from industrial to postindustrial means of production shows the process of Marx’s theory about modes of production take place. His views and predictions were more extreme than what actually happened in Kenosha, 1988, but it still shows how influential the way we produce our goods is to our fragile culture.

 

Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory: a Social and Political History. Routledge, 2013

 

Dudley, Kathryn. The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Post Industrial AmericaThe University of Chicago, 1994

2 thoughts on “Marx’s Theory and the Chrysler Plant Shutdown in Kenosha County

  1. I really appreciated and was interested in the ethnography around Kenosha. It was interesting to hear about the history of the area and how the theories we are learning can be applied to that history. I wanted to throw the idea that though there was no social upheaval after the closing of the auto industry in Kenosha, maybe it was a step into a Marxist future. What I mean is, what if the closing of the auto plant wasn’t the beginning and the end of the capitalistic system in Kenosha but just a part in the eventual collapse as Marx would claim?

    1. Interesting points, Austin. I would argue, though, that there was a lot of upheaval with the closing of the plant. Just today on FB, my state rep commemorated that today was the anniversary of his starting work on the AMC line. It started his whole political career, moving from union steward to union organizer to Kenosha alderman and now state representative. What’s even more interesting is that tons of people responded with their start date and the number of the line they were on! I think we don’t see the upheaval as much now because there was an earlier round of factory closing in the 1980s – that’s when the unions really rebelled. It failed. Before that, there was a lot of labor unrest around the auto plants in Kenosha. Wisconsin was a union state with a progressive government (see Milestones – Wisconsin Labor History
      By the time the Chrysler plant at 30th Av was closed, it just caused massive depression. I saw a lot of that in 2009.
      Perhaps we need to acknowledge, though, that Marx couldn’t even begin to imagine our post-industrialist society.

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