C. The Keynesian Crisis

Midnight Notes on Keynes – and cars – in America in the 1960s-1970s.

Submitted by Fozzie on June 19, 2023

What was the relation between state and society during the “Keynesian” period? What distinguished US Keynesian planning was its concern with the reproductive sector. This was because US capital did not have an experienced working class whose production and reproduction had been bargained over for centuries. The waves of immigration and genocide barely gave any demographic and geographic constancy to rely on. The US working class was inevitably “volatile” and “unstable”, almost a “thing in itself’.

The basic realization of US Keynesian policy was that the enormous accumulation of fixed capital embodied in the assembly-line factories required a proportionate accumulation of capital in the working class (“human capital” as it was called later). Once capital reaches River Rouge dimensions, the short-term disciplinary effect of unemployment is more than counter-balanced by the long-term loss in the productivity of workers. And it was exactly in this productivity that profit was to be found. The obsession of New Deal planners was that the long stretches of unemployment would sap the “work ethic” from the latest generation of factory operatives who had undergone the rigid education of the line in the ’20s. (You can learn a line job in a day, but it takes years to learn a life-line!) This discipline could not be kept in “cold storage” until individual capitalists were ready for it; it depreciated and could turn inside-out explosively. Thus the ultimate profitability of capital based on increasing the productivity of work made “mass unemployment” intolerable.

Not only must labor power be produced, it must be reproduced. The housewife becomes the correlate of the line worker in the Keynesian equations. Standardly, the housewife is taken as the consumer, but the Depression planners were more concerned with her as the producer of a “very special article”, the ability for work of a factory worker. This requires capital, the home. It was exactly the capital that was disintegrating during the Depression as more and more women left home, divorced and in general “gave up”. The Keynesians saw that no high-intensity line worker would work or return to work without an equally high-intensity reproduction process. The assembly line is peculiarly vulnerable to individual variations of work pace: the rhythmn must be kept off the job as on. Regular meals, regular fucks, regular shits are essential for the gearing of labor power and capital in a stamping plant.

Not only had unemployment to be “conquered” but the real wage, which the working class “defended” during the starkest years of the Depression and later forced up, could be capitalized upon. If wage increases could be used to capitalize the home, this would eventually increase the productivity of tabor, hence increase profit. Here we have the basis of a class deal: happy workers, happy capital, a compromise! The Keynesian system is delicately balanced upon the symbiosis of home and factory and the use of the wage not only for working class subsistence but as a form of investment for capital.

The dynamic equilibrium between home and line required a precise meshing of the variables of wage, factory work and housework. In the period from the late ’60s to the mid-70s the mesh began to tear. Divorces, for example, accelerated with the wage, which revealed a new tension between the poles of the Keynesian synthesis, but “surely nothing that would be enough to cause a crisis.’ ’The trouble with the Keynesian equilibrium however is that it is supremely vulnerable to such lapses (perhaps more vulnerable than to a “small” nuclear war). They were “boom” years, but not for capital. Not only did the struggle in the factories, homes and streets force capital to pay more for factory work, increasingly, capital had to pay, through the state, directly for reproduction work that had previously come financed via the male, factory wage. Women and young people would no more “naturally” do what they used to do under the direction of husband and daddy. Thus, though there was an enormous increase of energy generated by the working class during that period, it proved especially resistent to the transformation into work. There was a precipitous drop in the work / energy ratio, this was translated into a “profits crisis” and a subversion of the axioms of Keynsianism.


The crystalization of this symbiosis was the car and truck. Not only were they the concrete vehicular mediators between home and line, they were a combined home-line itself. On the basis of the car-truck economy you get the space-time geometry of American Keynesian society: the car is a little home on wheels and a little factory you can sleep in. The workers at Flint in 1936 recognized this when they took to sleeping and cooking in the hulks of half built Chevys. A car is an ambiguous piece of capital, a tool and a plaything: a serious, expensive and heavy piece of machinery and bedroom, dining room and kitchen; something highly standardized and then deeply personalized. The nomadic tribe of truck drivers are the paragons of this economic geometry, they created a work-life society of speed on the basis of this crystalization. (In 1950 the real revenues of railroads and trucking were almost identical, while in 1976 trucking was pulling twice the money the railroads made; in 1960 trucking had fewer employees than railroads in 1977 it had more than twice as many.)

The car became the model of the intermeshing machine and worker throughout the social factory. The spatio-temporal freedom and power it delivers in the hands of male workers, the decentralization of life it provides, had to be, and was, countered by even more precise termini of life. The home schedule and the work schedule increasingly was timed to the minute. It is no accident that the car for Neil Cassidy, in Kerouac’s On the Road, became the expression of all that was anti-capitalist, anti-home, anti-factory because he saw in it a potentiality that existed in the metal but was fought by all the levels (from the “carmortgage” to highway police radar). . . the transformation of the productivity o/labor into the freedom/rom labor. But the ’60s went further. The distance between Cassidy’s drive-away Cadillac and Kesey’s Merry Prankster bus reveals the distrance between two periods of working class discovery. . . and Cassidy’s difficulty in bridging it: LSD approaches light speed while benzedrine and wine 120 mph. Ginsberg, who was always wiser in these matters, saw the mediator in the van of Wichita Sutra, perhaps. Kerouac went home and died.