Photo by A. Vine/Daily Express/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The soul of the hard hat

On competing visions of modern life

On 8 May 1970 a protest took place outside New York’s Federal Hall, in response to the Kent State University shootings four days earlier. Mayor John Lindsay had ordered flags in the city to be flown at half-mast and declared a day of remembrance. Around midday, over two-hundred construction workers arrived at Federal Hall, wearing hard hats and carrying flags. 

Anti-communist feeling undoubtedly motivated the construction workers

After a protester spat on a flag, the workers hurled protesters off the steps of the building and proceeded to beat up the “longhairs”. Seventy people were injured, and the events became known as the “Hard Hat Riot”. 

Whilst it is commonly assumed the riot straightforwardly foreshadows right-wing populism, the way it has been interpreted differently over the years points to something different. It points to a lost notion of freedom, born of tacit networks of responsibility and belonging, over against the now fully aligned variants of liberal freedom from such networks (be they economic or social). 

Lindsay had been unpopular with the workers for a whilst. His nemesis was a union leader, Peter J. Brennan, president or vice-president of the three main umbrella groups for the labour unions of NYC. Brennan would goad Lindsay as a “commie mayor” for wanting to implement affirmative action hiring policies. These were expected to drive down wages through presenting a bigger pool of potential employees. After the riot, Brennan proclaimed, “The hard hat will stand as a symbol today with our great flag, for freedom and patriotism and our beloved country.” 

Anti-communist feeling undoubtedly motivated the construction workers. Numerous accounts record a (presumably well-built) worker shouting at a (presumably scrawny) hippie, “You want to be equal?” — before punching him in the face. Whilst throwing students off the steps to Federal Hall, the workers argued that, by the students’ own reckoning, they should have an equal portion of space of any public building. 

This was all bewildering for the students. They never intended to brawl with workers; they meant to liberate them. One said, “If this is what the class struggle is all about there’s something wrong somewhere. Another described it as “Karl Marx turned upside down”. 

Marx indeed often seems to presume that “class consciousness” would arise naturally and organically, because the working-classes don’t have vested interests in maintaining the status-quo. For Lenin, by contrast, the wiles of capitalism are so effective that the worker is transfixed by an illusion of bourgeois freedom, by free-exchange and voluntary, contractual association. Class-consciousness would need to be brought “from without” by “educated representatives of the propertied classes”.

Lenin thus transposes the class struggle into an intellectual struggle between members of the elite, fighting over the consciousness of the working-class. One side argues that bourgeois capitalism is freedom, the other that freedom can only come through revolution. 

Against this background, it is indicative that the role of the Wall Street executives during the Hard Hat Riot was, until recently, contentious. The protestors argued that “white men in ties and white men in hard hats” were fighting alongside each other — that is, the latter were in false consciousness, in thrall to their propertied overlords. Hence, the Hard Hat Riot is often presented as the first showings of right-wing populism — an alleged manipulation of the working-class by those cynically using patriotism to protect their immense wealth. 

Footage records African American and Latino workers among the hard hats

Jefferson Cowie says the riot “created new visibility and possibilities for a right-wing populism that shaped American politics for decades to come”. Similarly, Angela Serratore says it was “the dawn of a political realignment that would shape the nation’s direction for generations”. David Paul Kuhn’s impressive book on the subject argues that the event “resonates with the significance of presidents by the name of Reagan and W. and Trump”. Kuhn’s meticulous analysis is more nuanced than most, who just assume the workers were being manipulated. He holds that Brennan’s freedom was an illusion like the one Lenin critiqued, defined by economic liberalism — the “free markets” and “freedom of choice” that bolster the rhetoric of foreign wars, against the Vietcong, al-Qaeda or ISIL. 

Yet much of this dominant interpretation assumes the workers should have adopted a different approach to freedom — a freedom as defined by cultural liberalism: free from restraints on self-realisation, unshackled from the binds of community, family, nation and religion. Again, as with Lenin, freedom then “comes from without” by “educated representatives”. 

The workers loathed Mayor Lindsay, who was on the liberal wing of the Republicans before switching to the Democrats in 1971. He then stood as a New York Liberal Party candidate after the nomination went to the William F. Buckley-supported candidate, John Murchi, the year previously. Despite the cries of “commie mayor”, Lindsay was undeniably culturally liberal. He “ran on a platform of progressive change” for the city. He had been a civil rights lawyer. In the eyes of the workers, Lindsay and the hippies “represented the erosion of the patriarchy” and “the rise of moral permissiveness”.

Seen in this way, it is interesting that some early accounts of the disorder contradict the narrative that those Wall St execs — the “white men in ties”fought with the workers, arguing that they joined the students to fight against the workers. One report mentions a partner at Lehman Brothers trying to protect a student before being assaulted by one of the workers. In the early aftermath of the riot, at least, it seemed that the execs were fighting amongst themselves, taking different sides. This was then a fight between members of the “propertied classes”, and not all those being fought for appreciated their efforts. NYPD surveillance footage records African American and Latino workers among the hard hats, for example. 

Kuhn has a point when he says that “two liberalisms collided that day”, one economic, another cultural. Each liberalism — two different variants of freedom — ultimately serve bourgeois interests, either for individual profit or untrammelled individual self-realisation. 

Yet there are grounds to suggest the workers saw things differently. What implicit meaning of freedom might have applied to their singing of “land of the free”? Perhaps a broader, richer and more multifaceted approach to freedom than an avoidance of either economic or cultural restraints on individual self-realisation. What might Brennan have meant when he claimed the hard hat would forever stand as a symbol for “freedom”?

For all the horror of Vietnam, most seem to forget many of the rioters had family there — “working class Americans of all races” looked at Vietnam differently “because it was them and their relatives who were fighting”. One construction worker told a journalist, “I’m doing this because my brother got wounded in Vietnam.” Whilst the students were bemused that Karl Marx was being turned “upside down”, a dock-worker commented that what was at stake was “family life, some form of religion and patriotism — that’s how you get a proper understanding and respect for these matters”. 

At first sight it seemed that the bourgeois were indeed split over what sort of class consciousness they sought, over economic or social liberalism. The great shift, which many of today’s commentators fail to recognise, is that these two are now fully aligned. Today it is hard to imagine the HR-ified white-collars supporting that richer freedom which is so different to Lenin’s, not coming from without and imposed by educated representatives, but the slow-ripening fruit of “family life, religion and patriotism”.

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