I picked up a book at a student book store in New Orleans because it’s title leaped out at me. “Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon 1870- 1920″ by Madelon Powers. It’s an academic, well foot-noted but not dry analysis of the saloon culture that arose in the U.S. with industrialization. Various middle class progressive reformers like the “Committee of Fifty” comprised mostly of clergymen and academics studied this culture partially to figure out how to create substitutes for it. They tried to take the energy of the informal working groups in saloons and shovel them into union halls and temperance tearooms. But the saloons prevailed until prohibition. They served as a way of self-organization and a way of integrating into American life. They followed a tradition that Alexis de Tocqueville noted earlier. He called it “the art of association”. He observed that Americans seemed obsessed with material acquisition and individualism. The only thing tempering this dangerous self-interest was their equal tendency to form voluntary associations. And Powers includes saloon life as a form of voluntary association much like joining lodges, political parties, church groups, and Social Aid and Pleasure clubs like the ones that still exist in New Orleans.
The saloon differed from the colonial tavern in that it had fancy wooden bars, chandeliers, and pictures of “Venus Rising” and other gilded pictures. The fancy trappings were partially subsidized by the growing number of breweries cropping up. British investors eagerly put their money into these companies as immigration increased. And like a Hollywood movie studio investing in movie theaters, some brewers said, “Hey, why don’t we invest in drinking establishments too.”
The singing, the dancing, the storytelling, the eating, drinking and gaming of the saloon was the working class equivalent to the gentleman’s club. They were refuges from the drabness of the tenements. Solidarity was formed around the “growler”, a gallon bucket of beer. (Like pitchers at the Pretzel Bell in Ann Arbor). Plots were hatched and glasses raised to Big Bill Haywood.
And so a strange mix occurred. Here were the places where the working class came to complain about their bosses while buying beer from the bosses in establishments built by bosses and overseen by machine politicians controlled by the bosses. There it was; capitalism and communism. Just as normal as can be. To deny then one or the other probably doesn’t make sense. It’s right there if front of you.
So to disallow any conversation about the actual idea of communal life, a life without authority, goes against history and human nature. The teacher, urban architect, anarchist, writer, Colin Ward argues in “Anarchy in Action” that a society “which organizes itself without authority is always in existence like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.”
It is not some future utopian vision that thinkers like Ward espouse, but simply an observation of ordinary lives. David Graeber, the anthropologist/anarchist, often remarks that we live and work and organize ourselves most often voluntarily. If we are building a barn, we ask the guy next to us to pass the hammer. He doesn’t say, “How much will you give me to use it?” Graeber also said in an interview that “capitalism was just badly managed communism.”
In “Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow”, the author, David Goodway, quotes Ward as saying that his brand of anarchism “is a description of a mode of human organization, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society.” Goodway remarks that this is a very liberating idea. No need for a new system or an upheaval. The alternatives are all around us. These social actions have been pushed down by the now too powerful political actions. There is an imbalance. Political action in the form of a state should be minimal. Most activity should be social.
So there it is. Look around. The parts are there for us to use if we so desire. Mutual aid societies, worker cooperatives like Mondragon in Spain and hundreds in Argentina, wellness centers, tenant cooperatives, credit unions all exist. What we only lack is imagination to see these alternatives and give them prominence. And maybe, we lost that in part when the saloon lost its place in our lives. Hard to imagine hatching plans for a blockade of the tar pits pipeline or a sit in at the Goodyear Rubber Factory over a couple of brewskis at Applebee’s in some drab strip mall.
Food (or drink) for thought?