How neoliberalism destroyed the American Dream

Glass House:

The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town

Brian Alexander’s Glass House documents the decline of Lancaster, Ohio, as its main industries were gutted and shuttered. Using information gleaned from interviews with workers, retirees, police officers, junkies, and corporate executives, Alexander pieces together the different facets of the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt and the effects it has had on the rural working class of a single town. The major industry in Lancaster is glassware, and the most well-known and largest manufacturer is Anchor Hocking—the glass house at the center of Alexander’s book and Lancaster’s community.

Lancaster’s glassware was renowned for its quality as well as affordability—particularly during the postwar boom. Check the bottom of your pint glass the next time you are out at a bar or restaurant, especially if you happen to be in the Midwest or on the East Coast. You will likely find a small anchor, the emblem of Anchor Hocking. For generations, the company’s glassware was a familiar staple in homes and restaurants across the country, and the economic mooring for Lancaster’s society.

The success of Anchor Hocking can be attributed to two of Lancaster’s cheap and plentiful resources: natural gas and labor power. Gas was discovered in the late 1880s, enticing glassmakers to open up shop in the tiny town, just outside of the state capital of Columbus. As industry boomed, so did Lancaster’s population, growing from just under 9,000 in 1900 to almost 22,000 in 1940. While Anchor Hocking had to compete with Lancaster Glass, Diamond Power, and the H. C. Godman Shoe Company for workers, it was by far the largest employer in town. Despite the high demand for skilled workers, Lancaster wages were relatively low compared to workers in other parts of the country, but the cost of living there was also below the national average.

The entire town enjoyed a shared prosperity and sense of communal responsibility, and they knew it. This mutual benefit was facilitated by philanthropic donations by the city’s elite, as well as civic and social engagement by their spouses, the “Anchor wives.” The Anchor wives championed causes such as fundraising and volunteering for the local hospital, and campaigning for school levies. Forbes-founder B. C. Forbes noticed the idyllic and prosperous little town, and sent his son Malcolm to run the Fairfield Times, which did not succeed in competition against the local Eagle-Gazette. Despite this failure, Forbes named Lancaster the “All-American Town” in 1947. Praising the town’s industry, virtuous businessmen and politicians, diligent workers, and “tamed unions,” the feature launched Lancaster’s fame on to the national stage.

Glass House charts the impact of neoliberal restructuring in Lancaster: from its beginning in the 1980s, as financial engineering forced cuts and further extraction—not only of the region’s natural gas, but of the benefits and wages that the working class of Lancaster and beyond had relied upon—to the 1990s and the decimation of both workers’ rights and benefits coupled with the dismantling of the social safety net, a process that continued after the Great Recession.

Anchor Hocking remains open, but as a skeleton of its former self. Following several leveraged buyouts by Newell, Cerberus, and Monomoy, the last of which ended in bankruptcy, Anchor no longer holds the tethers of Lancaster. Machinery breaks down, maintenance and cleaning go neglected, and workers leave for safer minimum-wage jobs in distribution centers and big box stores. As Marx said in The Communist Manifesto, “All that is solid melts into air.” Once the bedrock of Lancaster society, Anchor Hocking has been liquefied and liquidated.

Alexander’s book reveals Lancaster as a community built on long-standing traditions and expectations. While friendly to most outsiders, Lancastrians are suspicious of them. They don’t want to be scrutinized by those Columbus reporters who come down Route 33 to do segments on Lancaster’s opioid epidemic. They also blame outsiders for bringing drugs and poverty into their idyllic little town, and for sucking them dry of government benefits and community resources. According to Alexander, many in the community

were convinced that low-income housing, not the economy, was responsible for the undesirable “outsiders.” Others blamed a generalized immorality, a breakdown of old restrictions and codes: all those young single mothers and “baby daddies.” All that drug use. An aversion to hard work. But they attributed those trends to “the media” or liberalism, not the decades of lousy education, economic collapse, and the minimum-wage and barely-above-minimum wage dead-end jobs that replaced factory work.

Alexander doesn’t share this attitude with his interviewees. However, he does agree that it is certain “outsiders” and their influence that has decimated Lancaster’s community—not drug dealers or users, but corporate financiers and the “business-friendly” politicians who opened the town gates.

This is a similar tale to the one told by J. D. Vance in his report on the state of Middletown, Ohio, and rural northern Kentucky in Hillbilly Elegy. According to Vance, a “culture of poverty” encourages underachievement and reliance upon government assistance. Vance insists that Appalachia’s inhabitants are beyond saving because of their own laziness, aggression, and lack of morality. What is missing from Vance’s analysis, however, is that Middletown, like Lancaster, once embodied his virtues of hard work, lean living, and personal responsibility. Middletown was once a bustling steel town that has also had its prosperity smelted down to line the pockets of politicians and profiteers.

Alexander has a more charitable attitude toward his subject, and Glass House takes a more holistic approach to diagnosing the disease plaguing Lancaster. To his credit, he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of corporate financiers who came to Lancaster and conquered, and then walked unscathed by the war they waged on the working class. He recognizes that Democratic and Republican politicians alike have done little to preserve and protect Lancaster or other small towns in Ohio. While he provides no suggestions or programs for improving Lancaster’s position, he makes it clear that something has to change.

Alexander occasionally remarks on the town’s belief in “The System.” This is a common thread through his descriptions of interviews and interactions with locals. Some Lancastrians believe more in The System than others, some think The System is rigged, but nevertheless, everyone believes that it exists. “Lancaster was a place of strong belief. The System had made some mistakes, had not done right by Anchor Hocking. The company took it on the chin, and the town was knocked to the mat as a consequence. But if everybody just worked harder, The System would come through in the end.”

Many Lancastrians believe that keeping their heads down, tightening their belts, and doing right by The System will make The System do right by them. They also hold a belief that electing business-friendly politicians and providing tax incentives to the new handlers of Anchor Hocking would “make Lancaster great again.” Unfortunately for the people of Lancaster, this represented a dream made unattainable by the same politicians and business interests that had ransacked their town. Tax abatements and donations from the city budget went into the pockets of executives at private equity firms that fogged up the glass house and shielded their financial rigging from view. They worked The System. Lancaster didn’t stand a chance.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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