8. Promised Land
Written and performed by Bruce Springsteen
From the album Darkness On The Edge Of Town (Columbia, USA 1978)



On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert
I pick up my money and head back into town
Driving cross the Waynesboro county line
I got the radio on and I’m just killing time
Working all day in my daddy’s garage
Driving all night chasing some mirage
Pretty soon little girl I’m gonna take charge

The dogs on Main Street howl
’cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land

I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start

There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and broken hearted

I believe in a promised land…


The space between the working class and the promises made to that class by the agents and agencies of capitalism is permanent, a condition of the exploitation of that class. Viewed from a distance it is hard to tell whether the promised lands of capitalism are a mirage, a trick of desire, an effect of even the smallest, always inescapable, investment by the class: the deeper the investment, the greater the distance.

Close enough to touch but always out of reach, the substance of the promise slips through the fingers of the song’s protagonist, which could have been you or us, and, allowing for the passage of time and the present crisis of capital, may yet still be.

Between the disappointments experienced by the protagonist of Springsteen’s Promised Land, a young man in 1978, old and grey in 2009, a long term prisoner of faith, and the lost young man of Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), aimlessly wandering some anonymous highway and the homeless families sleeping beneath what may as well be the same highway, the fantasy persists; between the lines – the cracks into which those for whom capitalism has no use disappear – (In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass [...] You got a hole in your belly and a gun in your hand) some poor soul holds ‘a one-way ticket to the promised land,’ and no doubt feels simultaneously blessed and cursed.

In the years between these two figurations of the promise and its deathly limits, the space between rich and poor expanded faster than in any other country: the United States, according to census figures published in 1995, had become the most class polarised advanced capitalist country in the world.

By 1995 it’s likely that many small businesses like the garage mentioned in Springsteen’s Promised Land would have closed down, almost as surely as the major manufacturing industries fled the U.S for a cheaper, more malleable workforce and left an unregulated low wage service industry to pick up where they left off. Springsteen’s protagonist, who by the mid nineties would have been somewhere in his mid thirties, may have been a bit too old for slinging burgers, but you’re never too old to clean toilets, pluck chickens, or sweep streets, and it’s in this world of low and unskilled labour that Anthony Arnove, member of the International Socialist Organisation, graduate student in English at Brown University, traced reports – in the unlikeliest of places – of something of a resurgence of organised labour in a brief but very informative paper urging the left not to abandon the transformative potential of the working class and, as Arnove put it, continue to privilege the working class as the most viable agent for revolutionary social change:

‘The Friday before Labour Day, the U.S. bosses’ daily paper, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article with the headline ‘Signs of Revival: Some Unions Step Up Organising Campaigns and Get New Members: In a Major Shift in Strategy, They Now Woo Workers in the Bottom-Tier of Jobs: Possible Parallels to the ’30s.’

If one considers the intensity of the struggles and the importance of the victories of the U.S. working class in the 1930s, it is clear that the Wall Street Journal doesn’t draw parallels to the 1930s lightly. As the article points out, during the 1930s ‘millions of unorganised industrial workers, all but written off in the depths of the Depression, rose up in spite of intense employer opposition and created a militant union movement that, by the end of World War II, had organised virtually every major manufacturing sector.’

Rather than writing off today’s workers, the article cites Robert Zeigler, a labour historian at the University of Florida in Gainsville, who argues that ‘The low-wage service workers of today are the mass industrial workers of the 1930s.’

[…] A similar attention to U.S. workers’ interest in unions and in fighting against bosses’ attacks can be seen in the March 25 Economist. The 1990s ‘are proving rather different’ than the 1980s, the article points out, as workers are becoming increasingly angry about layoffs, downsizing, and declining real wages. The reason that a number of recent polls have shown increased understanding of the need for unions is not hard to determine, The Economist explains: ‘Although corporate America’s profitability is rising faster than it did even in the mid-1980s — net profits rose by over a third in 1994 — workers are getting little of the benefit.’

Simply put, corporate profits are at their highest levels since 1945; productivity has been growing the past several years (which means that U.S. workers are producing more per hour); and the U.S. has been ranked the ‘most competitive’ economy in the world for the second year in a row. Yet, despite gains in profits and productivity, real wages (wages adjusted for inflation) have declined 20 percent since 1973, and even more for less educated workers; for the first time in 150 years a recovery from a recession has not produced an increase in wages, as real wages continue to decline; and people are working much longer hours with fewer benefits. Simply put, the rate of exploitation is getting jacked up.

Those of you familiar with the landscape inhabited by Springsteen’s disempowered protagonists will know that in that world the effects of capitalism are as visible at the macro political level as they are at the micro political. Poverty and desperation force apart lovers, families, and communities, even as they determine relations between those who own the means of production and those who out of necessity must serve those means.

For Arnove, capitalism’s expanding space of anomie, its acceleration of suffering and sadness, as irreconcilable as the distance between the promise and its object of economic opportunity (for someone else if not for you, and there’s a growing possibility it might never be you) finds the possibility of closure in a class based identification which bridges the divides of racial, ethnic, and sexual differences: such was the hope and thought of a young socialist fifteen years before the current economic depression and is still, we’d imagine, the fear of the core audience of the Wall Street Journal.

Arnove’s idea on who the working class are (‘women, blacks, Asians, Latin Americans, Africans, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and many other groups. The only group the working class does not include is those who own and control the means of production — those who directly benefit from capitalist exploitation’) may not give pride of place to the largely white working males that dominate Springsteen’s songs, but the rocker and the revolutionary’s sense of the identities of the class have more in common than not. And while we know how Springsteen thought and still thinks that space of inequality and exploitation might be reconciled – he was active in campaigns for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 – we wonder how Arnove thinks that space might be closed in 2009.


Sources consulted

The Ghost of Tom Joad, by Bruce Springsteen. From the album The Ghost of Tom Joad, Sony Music, 1995

Farewell to the Working Class? By Anthony Arnove, Bad Subjects issue 21, October 1995.

Farewell To The Proletariat; interview with Andre Gorz, 1983. Published in InterActivist Info Exchange.

Chords for Change, by Bruce Springsteen New York Times, August 5 2004.



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