Rust to Renewal:
A Case Study of the Religious
Response to Deindustrialization
Joshua D Reichard
Vision Publishing, 2007
180 pp, pb $12.99
Reviewed by Carl Davidson
"Rust to Renewal", as this book’s title implies, is about the decline of American steel towns in the 1970s and 1980s, the responses of their communities—most importantly, their churches—and whether there is still hope for the future in these places.
These are critical topics even in 2008, especially with an economic recession and growing unemployment on the horizon, along with debates over what does or does not constitute a proper ‘stimulus’ to the economy.
Author Joshua Reichard uses Youngstown, Ohio and the surrounding Mahoning River Valley as his case in point; and the story he tells may seem old news to many people still residing there. The Youngstown area, moreover, was only part of a wider region, stretching from Wheeling, W VA, through Pittsburgh, PA to Cleveland, OH. This was the country’s steel heartland, and by the end of the 1980s, some 100,000 steel mill jobs were permanently abolished, with great distress to those concerned..
Back in 1977, on ‘Black Monday,’ after being told repeated lies and given false hopes, thousands of Youngstown area steelworkers were summarily fired. The mills were shut down, and a community lost what it perceived as a decent future.
The workers, however, and their community allies, mainly churches, were hardly passive. During a series of protests, they formed the Ecumenical Coalition, which, together with the local Steelworkers Union, had considerable clout, at least for a time, and they forced the owners into negotiations. To make a long story short, they tried to buy out the failing mill, take it over, reorganize production, and run it themselves. They took the battle all the way to Jimmy Carter’s White House, but abruptly lost, sabotaged mainly by Beltway federal bureaucrats and rival steel bosses.
If you’re looking for a detailed critique of where the Ecumenical Coalition and the steelworkers went wrong, settling old scores, you won’t find it here. But if you think it important that workers and community allies waged a valiant battle, and want to look to the future with some fresh ideas to deal with ongoing problems, this slim volume is a good place to start.
It needs to be said that Reichard has been bitten by the ‘Toffler bug,’ a condition this reviewer shares. He’s read ‘The Third Wave’ by Alvin Toffler, a book published in 1980 but still reading like it was written yesterday about today. Toffler has analyzed modern society from the perspective of the revolution in the means of production wrought by microprocessors, where he posits a ‘second wave’ era of smokestack industry in decline, while a ‘third wave’ society based on high-technology is on the rise. That’s very condensed, but suffice it to say that, according to Toffler, smaller numbers of ‘knowledge workers’ replace larger numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled industrial workers, even in the new high-tech manufacturing firms that survive and thrive in the ‘third wave.’ Reichard explains:
“While the American steel industry lost 350,000 jobs in the 1980s and 1990s, it was simultaneously technologically advanced and more productive. (Youngstown Vindicator, 11/11/2003). Manufacturing productivity was $7634 higher per worker in 1998 than it was in 1979 and nonmanufacturing productivity was $461 per worker lower…” (‘Ohio’s Competitive Advantage’, E. Hill, Cleveland State University, 2001).
Finally, Toffler doesn’t just apply this revolution in the productive forces to the world of work, but broadly, against the entire culture of second-wave civilization.
As a sociologist as well as a faith-based activist, Reichard tries to apply a wide range of Toffler’s hypotheses to the Youngstown case, not only about the old battles, but mainly looking forward. What’s of particular interest is his application of the ‘third wave-second wave’ analytical tools to the city’s churches. Here he breaks some original ground in his discussion of Catholics and main-line Protestants as second wave and in decline, while Protestant evangelicals are third wave, dynamic and rising. Briefly, according to Reichard, looking at evangelicals as simply right wing and opposed to economic and social justice misses the mark, at least in the story of Youngstown and the Rust Belt. He elaborates, quoting J Straub in the March 23, 2006 Monthly Review:
“The left has all but abandoned these places where the factories closed and unions died…a right-wing network of churches and businesses offered exactly what the CIO once did: both short-term material gains for members and a militantly transformative vision of the world.”
Reichard’s perspective contains a number of benchmarks. First, he understands that unions and employees can’t win these battles, or even advance their interests, on their own, isolated from allies. Second, he understands that ‘the church’ is not just buildings and sermons divided up by creed and congregation. It’s the community of the faithful throughout the locality, and that community includes union members and their neighbor’s side-by-side with many others in the community. The church, then, can provide both common ground and a launching pad for broad alliances.
What vision and values hold sway among the community of the faithful thus becomes a matter of critical importance. Digging deeply into this, and trying to provide some guidance, makes up the heart of the book. To see where Reichard’s strengths and weaknesses lie, it helps to take a step back, and raise some broader questions.
Reichard sees a transition to third wave civilization as inevitable; what he wants to do is make it as harmonious and painless to the greatest numbers as possible. That’s fine, but the devil is in the details. Third wave civilization, like those before it, has a range of interests and views, running the gamut from far right to far left. Class struggle still exists, even if it’s manifested in odd and different ways.
In today’s policy discussions, it’s helpful first to segment the business community into two camps, ‘low road’ and ‘high road,’ or roughly, speculative capital vs. productive capital, regardless of their ‘wave’ status. Low roaders are focused only of the quarterly bottom line, are anti-union, and usually don’t care much for the environment, their community or even their customers. They would buy stressed industries to gut them, and then use the proceeds to gamble in derivatives. High roaders make money the old-fashioned way: they produce a quality product for satisfied customers, and reward their workers, and raise their skills and input, so they’ll continue doing the same, and part of the reward is everyone gets to live in a healthy, sustainable environment.
Reichard hints at this distinction early on, when he raises the competing development models of Youngstown, OH versus Allentown, PA. Allentown is the more successful by far, and the quote on the topic cited by the author even uses the ‘high road’ terminology.
“Allentown can be characterized as having adhered to the high road which has involved the transformation of existing companies to make them competitive on a global scale, attracting inward investment of high-skill jobs and the emergence of a strong entrepreneurial sector. Youngstown, on the other hand, has suffered from an inability to develop a coherence approach to attracting inward investment, a lack of entrepreneurship, and the inability of major local employers to transform in ways that benefit the community.’ (‘Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, S. Safford, MIT, 2004, p. 27)
Reichard really doesn’t elaborate on this, even though it’s critical to where he wants to go. He wants more than worker-run or community-run second wave industries; he wants ethical concerns to be a component of the new and emerging marketplace.
But this is why the ‘high road-low road’ approach is so important. The distinction is drawn exactly by making wider human values central to economic development. Economies, after all, are made up of people, and it would be distorting and self-defeating to push human values out of the picture as some annoying ‘externality.’ ‘High Road’ values are rooted in respect for the environment (economies as subsets of the ecosystem), solidarity, democracy, community citizenship—all these form the core of the ‘solidarity economy’ emerging as a new development model, locally, nationally and globally. Reichard is entering this arena by a different door, as a pastor seeking to meet the economic justice concerns of his flock within the framework of the spiritual mission of the church. To do so, he has to identify and first do battle with a number of theological trends that block the way, rather the competing economic models others have to deal with.
Applying Toffler as a starting point, Reichard’s analysis of Mainline Protestants and Catholics as ‘second wave’ and Evangelicals as ‘third wave’ contains more than a grain of truth, but also has some serious limitations. Most established religions, for instance, rest on a value that reaches back to the ‘first wave,’ to feudalism and even earlier—the value of submission. With the Protestant revolt, the values of self-cultivation, self-salvation, or, to use Reichard’s term, ‘individualistic piety’ began gaining the upper hand over submissiveness. The practice of early Scots-Irish Presbyterians staying on their feet while praying, refusing the ‘papist’ practice of kneeling, comes to mind.
But the mainline churches do largely reflect the corporate structures and hierarchies of smokestack industrialism, even in their ‘collective bargaining’ and ‘electoral’ approaches to gaining any implementation of the social gospel of reform. Likewise, the evangelical movement would be nowhere near as strong as it is today had it ignored the revolutions in mass communications. Radio, television, the internet, computerized direct mail—all these are tightly integrated into the evangelical ministries. They make use of third wave technologies far more than their mainline rivals. Personal salvation, likewise, dovetails neatly with hacker libertarianism.
What’s missing here, however, is a broader picture of third wave religion and spirituality in the U.S. Taken as a whole, third-wave spirituality also has a substantial left or liberal wing in the rise of the New Age. This trend has self-cultivation at its core without the older dualist feudal trappings of a Creation submitting to a Creator. Overlapping with this is the multiculturalist rise of practices in the U.S. of Hinduism, via yoga, and Buddhism, via meditation and the ecological politics of its ‘socially engaged’ trend. The several organized centers of secular humanism also belong in this ‘left wing’ of third wave spirituality.
Reichard doesn’t have to go too far from Youngstown to see this up close. Cleveland’s favorite son (or problem child, depending on your viewpoint) is Congressman Dennis Kucinich, raised a Catholic, but now clearly influenced by the New Age, and a staunch fighter for the rights and concerns of the Rust Belt working class nonetheless.
The reason this is problematic in this context is that Reichard wants to make ‘Transformational Christianity’ the centerpiece of his resolution of tension between second wave and third wave Christians. This may be proper within that realm, but that’s only one sector across the whole range of the culture and religions of the third wave. The ecumenical alliances he projects would do very well to look beyond Christendom for partners.
Reichard uses a number of sociological instruments to explain the possibilities and obstacles to his faith-based coalition building. These are at once very useful and a little distracting; it’s evident that the book started as an academic document, and all the citations sometimes get in the way of easier reading. Suffice it to say that hardly anyone is written off; it’s mainly a matter of finding the right approach to win them over
But getting a keener grasp of today’s solidarity economics would serve his project well. The regional success of tens of thousands of workers taking control and ownership of 200 firms in the Mondragon region of Spain is the obvious place to start, but there are others in North America and elsewhere around the world. Likewise with the political depth and toughness required to build what the Gramscians call the ‘counter-hegemonic alliance.’ This is actually what Reichard is calling for, even if he’s not aware of it, and it would help considerably in not repeating the outcomes of an earlier era.
[Carl Davidson is a veteran activist and writer with the peace and justice movement, and currently working with the US Solidarity Economy Network (www.ussen.org) His daily blog and other links are at http://carldavidson.blogspot.com. This book can be purchased at http://www.rusttorenewal.com/buy.htm
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