One of the prevailing motifs of the Trumpist era has been the recognition on all sides of the social and political costs of deindustrialization, even if this recognition is typically subsumed into a prior political stance. There’a really powerful account on pg 52 of George Packer’s Unwinding which conveys the scale of this change and the curious manner in which it remained obscure, a profound change for the worse in the lives of a vast aggregate which stubbornly resisted becoming the object of contention one might otherwise have expected:
John Russo, a former auto worker from Michigan and professor of labor studies, started teaching at Youngstown State University in 1980. When he arrived, he could look down almost every city street straight into a mill and the fire of a blast furnace. He came just in time to watch the steel industry vanish before his eyes. Russo calculated that during the decade between 1975 and 1985, fifty thousand jobs were lost in the Mahoning Valley—an economic catastrophe on an unheard-of scale. Yet, Russo said, “The idea that this was systemic didn’t occur.” As a resident expert, he would get a call from Time or Newsweek every six months, with a reporter on the line asking if Youngstown had turned the corner yet. Apparently it was impossible to imagine that so much machinery and so many men were no longer needed. It was happening in Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Buffalo, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, Chicago, Gary, St. Louis, and other cities across a region that in 1983 was given a new name: the Rust Belt. But it happened in Youngstown first, fastest, and most completely, and because Youngstown had nothing else, no major-league baseball team or world-class symphony, the city became an icon of deindustrialization, a song title, a cliché. “It was one of the quietest revolutions we’ve ever had,” Russo said. “If a plague had taken away this many people in the Midwest, it would be considered a huge historical event.” But because it was caused by the loss of blue-collar jobs, not a bacterial infection, Youngstown’s demise was regarded as almost normal.
It highlights the relationship between deindustrialisation as a socio-economic process and individualisation as a cultural phenomenon. A growing tendency to resist structural explanation, interpretation causes and consequences in terms of individuals and their lives, constrains attempts to collectively force these changes onto the political agenda as a matter of contestation.