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Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class Paperback – May 17, 2000

4.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“Impressive—a perceptive and rigorous structural analysis.”—David Montgomery, The Nation

“One of the most trenchant and original analyses of American politics.”—Socialist Review

“One of the most uncompromising books about American political economy ever written—brilliant, provocative, and exhaustively researched.”—Village Voice Literary Supplement

About the Author

Mike Davis is the author of several books including Planet of Slums, City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, Late Victorian Holocausts, and Magical Urbanism. He was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. He lives in Papa’aloa, Hawaii.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Verso; 2nd edition edition (May 17, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1859842488
  • ISBN-13: 978-1859842485
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,388,983 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By M. A. Krul on July 28, 2006
Format: Paperback
"Prisoners of the American Dream" is a two-pronged attack by Mike Davis on the general reactionary tendencies of the 1980s.

The first half of the book is a history of American unions and their relations to attempts to produce an actual progressive, leftist "Labor Party" on American soil. Davis does this in a very in-depth, well-sourced manner which will satisfy even a specialist in the subject. He explains the failures of creating a socialist alternative in the United States as a by no means pre-ordained result, but rather the consequence of contingent factors, among which are the intransigent conservatism and reformism of much of the union leadership (in particular the AFL), the general conservative party machine nature of the Democratic Party, and interethnic rivalries among the workers. This history of the left and the unions goes on until about the Eisenhower administration, then stops as Davis picks up his second line of attack in the second part of the book. One warning though: Davis seems to presume that the reader is already well-versed in the history of American unionism and in American socio-political terminology in general, making it quite difficult at times to follow for the (foreign) layman. The book could have been better with a good explanatory register of names.

The second half of the book is basically an attack on the neoliberal resurgence under Reagan and the complicity of the rightist Democratic Party to the same. Davis is clearly quite outraged at the general conservatism of what is supposed to be America's more progressive political party, and spends many pages outlining the failures of the Democratic leaders. He underlines his arguments with many a spiffy statistic for this purpose.
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Davis is usually an excellent writer. Even his dense writing in Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World can be readily parsed and understood. His book on the Avian Flu is one of the best popular treatments of the issue and is well regarded by epidemiologists.

But Prisoners seems to be Davis' painting in the closet. As his other books get better, this one seems to degrade. He is inexcusably comfortable using pseudo-academic jargon until the reader longs to read a pretentious post-modern analysis of quantum physics.

A second fault is Davis' failure to include a glossary or acronym dictionary. He flings around names of obscure labor leaders, organizations, and movements without providing a reasonable amount of explanation (get a comprehensive guide to the American labor movements to help you keep track of who is doing what to whom).

Those gripes aside, Davis tackles a weighty question: "Why has the United States not developed a significant Labor or Social Democrat party?"

There is a wealth of labor history in this book. Unfortunately, the epic basically ends in the mid 80's. This vast stream of history makes it easier to comprehend how Carter's move to the right has snowballed to the insane situation in United States politics where Hilary Clinton is damned for being a "liberal" (virtually any time in the 20th century she would have been considered center-right).

I'm glad to have read this book. I'm glad I'll not have to read it again. I've now (I believe) read all the books that Davis has written. He continues to be an important and skilled American writer ... but this book doesn't exhibit his craft in the best light.
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Format: Paperback
Although densely written, with many oblique passages that presume familiarity with both Marxist theory and the pages of New Left Review in the early 1980s, the core analysis has more than stood the test of time. Consider the following extracts, and how they could easily be drawn from current headlines.

"Reaganism . . . has had the success of a transitional form [but it is] unlikely to charm a new golden age of high growth in existence. . . . A more likely scenario is that the middle strata and the nouveaux riches will have to confront during the next [great recessionary] downturn what they feared (but avoided through Reagonomics) . . . a closing frontier of income and status mobility.

Only when broad sections of the middle classes have had to live for a time on diminished rations will the true politics [of the future] become visible in mature form. . . . More likely than [other scenarios], if difficult to visualize in any concrete detail, is the radicalization of the broad right spectrum represented by neo-liberalism. Unlike the 1929-1933 period, when the chain reaction of crisis proceeded via virtually automatic mechanisms, the coming crisis . . . will at every juncture pass through the political system, overloading Congress with hysterical demands to abate any deterioration of the middle strata's socioeconomic position. . . .

Constrained by the costs of . . . massive deficitary programs [neither Republicans nor Democrats] could scarcely avoid savaging the domestic budget to scare up the last pennies to support middle-class entitlements and defense spending. But the political and social repercussions of such a cynical strategy might be more than even neo-liberals could safely bear."

I would recommend the author's Planet of Slums as it brings his analysis of crisis politics up to date and does so in a much more reader-friendly manner while losing none of its potency.
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