Saturday, June 13, 2015

Dusty Rhodes and Mid-80s Working Class Populism

Jefferson Cowie's Stayin' Alive, a study of the white working class in the 1970s, is one of my favorite recent works of history, not least for his ability to weave in popular culture.  He ends his story, however, in 1984, seeing that year as marking a kind of end point for a white working class culture rooted in progressive populism.  I think he's mostly right, but there were still some glimpses of that progressive populism after '84.

I was reminded of that fact with the passing of Dusty Rhodes, who was big during the time when I watched pro wrestling most intensely (mid to late 80s).  At the time I was more interested in Hulk Hogan, Bruce "the Barber" Beefcake, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, and the Ultimate Warrior, and didn't know much about Rhodes.  In the wake of his death I saw his famous "hard times" promo from 1985, and was transfixed.

I shit you not, this actually puts tears in my eyes.  Yes Rhodes is dressed outlandishly and sloppily at the same time, speaks in an odd lisp with street preacher slang and cadence, and has a scarred forehead beneath his ridiculous blond perm.  However, he speaks with real conviction and real experience about being a "plumber's son" who understands the plight of mill and auto workers losing their jobs.  The part where he puts his hand out and asks his viewers to touch the screen and give him the love he needs to defeat Ric Flair (who was Reaganesque in his flaunting of fancy suits and Rolexes) puts chills down my spine.  It was as if he was trying to channel all of the suffering experienced by working people in the 80s in order to defeat their tormenters

It might seem silly to cry at an usually large man with such a ridiculous appearance saying these things, but he was articulating something that the more "serious" figures at the time preferred to ignore.  Mario Cuomo's barn burning speech at the 1984 DNC is another good example of mid-80s working class progressive populism, but fewother politicians were speaking like this any more.  I am increasingly beginning to think that the ultimate triumph of neoliberal ideology actually came in the 1990s, rather than the 1980s.  Even in the height of the Reagan Era the old time working class ethos was still being openly expressed by everyone from pro-wrestlers to Bruce Springsteen.  In the 90s the Democratic Party basically turned its back on labor and embraced globalization and austerity, making neoliberalism the only game in town.

When, in future years, we look back to the past and name those who fought against the brutal triumph of unfettered capitalism, we just might be remembering a battle scarred pro wrestler who was a plumber's son.


bmi said...

Dusty Rhodes was a West Texas State (WTAMU) alum.

Anonymous said...

Hard times is a daddy and a mother livin' in a mansion and hatin' each other.