I believe that Kim Phillips-Fein succinctly says what she sets out to do at the end of the introduction to Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal and that is an attempt to shift the focus from cultural roots to economic roots of twentieth century conservative politics. It is a book that is about conservative politics, but is not about the conservative political leaders of that movement, but instead the business leaders who worked to bring forth the rise to power of conservative politicians, such as Ronald Reagan. However, I would not go so far as to say that this is an economic history, though economics and business play a large role in the story and argument that Phillips-Fein is putting forward. Instead, it reads much more like a history of ideas, of the ideas of these business leaders and conservative economic intellectuals who spent the mid-twentieth century reacting to the New Deal. In that it is in an intellectual history, while it is focused on the conservative movement in the United States, Phillips-Fein feels that she has more freedom to jump to pond into the minds of some European intellectuals in order to inform her argument, such as Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, in order to explore how their views of the “nanny state” informed American conservative intellectuals. While this type of history very much focuses on a small subset of the population (intellectuals, the wealthy) and while I am not particularly of ignoring the mentality of a broader population, I will admit that intellectual history allows for you to cross national boundaries much more fluidly than other sorts of history focused on a national story might. This allows Phillips-Fein to inform a conservative American identity from the outside in. But it also forces her to make some assumptions about the way a larger American populace may have latched onto this new idea of conservatism driven by Big Business.
Since Ronald Reagan is such a large figure in twentieth-century American conservative politics, it made sense, that even though he was not a main intellectual and economic figure during this period, he was still featured heavily in this work. However, he was still heavily involved in corporate America, working as a goodwill ambassador for General Electric, which I found to be very interesting, and to have interesting implications for my thesis work. During the 1950s there seemed to be a lot of things coming together that speak to identity with GE that Phillips-Fein speaks to. We see General Electric starting to actively work against labor unions and working against labor in general, even though this was one of the most powerful periods for labor in the United States. The most interesting discussion about this occurs abon page 88 of the text, where Phillips-Fein is working to break down the way which working class people viewed the improvement to their lives, and it was not seen as “the inevitable result of better technology or increasing productivity” because people who were members of unions were very closely linked to the increase in benefits they received, due to the ability of unions to strike and call for wage increases and pension benefits.
This discussion and this point of view was one which I found to be particularly useful, because unions are one of the few places where Phillips-Fein discusses people of a non-intellectual class, and I think helps me in trying to understand this emerging American identity. In Plutopia, Brown discusses how there was an idea of working class people trying to relate to the middle class in their values, that managers were people to emulate, even though the amazing economic and living benefits that the people in those towns were receiving came from working-class jobs, jobs directly connected to technology in a really intimate way. Phillips-Fein seems to be working with the idea that, while technological progress was important to some narratives about improved life (again mass-produced housing and the automobile seem to be the best examples for the private sphere) for those whose jobs were intimately linked with these automated technologies, working for corporations such as General Electric, technology did not bring progress, labor unions, and communities did. And these unions built the strong identities of the 1950s for working-class families in a very different way than it did for middle-class families. Class is something which I have not spent a lot of time focusing on, but it should be, since the ideas we have about an American Identity are inextricably linked to ideas about middle-classness, something which Kate Brown discussed.
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