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Confronting Decline: The Political Economy of Deindustrialization in Twentieth-Century New England

Author(s):Koistinen, David
Reviewer(s):Neumann, Tracy

Published by EH.Net (May 2014)

David Koistinen, Confronting Decline: The Political Economy of Deindustrialization in Twentieth-Century New England. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2013. xii + 331 pp. $75 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8130-4907-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Tracy Neumann, Department of History, Wayne State University.

Studies of deindustrialization have largely focused on the impact of industrial restructuring on workers and communities in declining of Northeastern and Midwestern manufacturing centers in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The term evokes images of places like Newark, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, not bucolic New England or bustling Boston. With Confronting Decline: The Political Economy of Deindustrialization in Twentieth-Century New England, David Koistinen sets out to change this. In his study of the collapse of New England’s textile industry, Koistinen challenges commonly held ideas about when and where deindustrialization began, and argues that contemporary responses to industrial decline have a much longer history than scholars have recognized.

Like their counterparts in the electronics, steel, and auto industries later in the century, after World War I Northern textile producers responded to competitive pressures from the rapidly industrialized, poorly unionized New South by disinvesting in their New England mills, closing some down and moving others to the booming Piedmont. Koistinen carefully reconstructs the constellation of political interests that sometimes worked together and sometimes found themselves – union officials, rank and file workers, industrialists, businessmen, bankers, and government officials – at odds as they responded to New England’s industrial decline. From the 1920s to the 1990s, regional leaders employed distinct but overlapping strategies of retrenchment, federal assistance, and economic development to combat the economic effects of deindustrialization. The tactics and supporters of each strategy remained remarkably consistent, Koistinen argues, because the region’s political economy and the interests of New England’s economic actors changed very little. The only major discontinuity he finds is in the role of federal, state, and local officials, which was minimal in the 1920s and increased steadily across the twentieth century.

Koistinen characterizes retrenchment as a “push to reduce the government burden on the corporate sector through cutbacks in social legislation and taxes,” and dates its emergence to the early 1920s (pp. 2-3). Unsurprisingly, business interests, and particularly manufacturers in declining industries, were the principal advocates of retrenchment. Unions and their liberal allies, by contrast, called for greater federal intervention to alleviate economic disparities between Northern and Southern textile producers and temper the social effects of industrial restructuring. Koistinen finds that while business won some tax reductions and liberal reformers achieved some labor and social welfare protections, neither approach was particularly successful in tempering textile producers’ economic incentives for disinvestment.

Economic development, the third prong of Koistinen’s paradigm, was more successful. Liberals, conservatives, labor, and industrialists fought each other over retrenchment and federal assistance, but economic development offered a less politically contentious arena in which rival interests could work together. Koistinen broadly construes economic development as private and public efforts to “compensate for losses in the declining sectors by strengthening the region’s existing industries and fostering the emergence of new ones” (p. 3). Such endeavors were widely popular with the general public, government officials, and commercial, bank, utility, and railroad executives who were invested in reviving New England’s economy to ensure the long-term success of their enterprises. From the mid-1920s into the early postwar period, economic development was primarily a private-sector endeavor. Banking, commercial, and industrial leaders established the New England Council in 1925 to revive the region’s flagging economy and, as Koistinen amply demonstrates, from its inception the organization saw research expertise, advanced technology, and innovative managerial techniques as the keys to restoring the region’s economic competitiveness. The New England Council, in Koistinen’s telling, functioned on a regional level very much like the better-known civic organizations that formed during and after World War II to remake Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Louis.

Chapter 4 on the long history of economic development in New England and Chapter 7’s new interpretation of the growth and development of the Route 128 research corridor are real standouts. Koistinen shows that the Boston area’s emergence as an advanced technology hub was shaped as much by the ready availability of venture capital and commercial bank loans for small businesses as it was by individual entrepreneurial initiative or the long arm of MIT. At the close of World War II, New York City and Los Angeles were the country’s most important advanced technology hubs. Boston outpaced its competitors because regional leaders had, beginning in the 1920s, launched a successful campaign to secure loans and seed funds for small businesses and new ventures. Together with promotional campaigns similar to those that fostered industrial development in the South and Southwest, regional leaders cultivated R&D and high technology enterprises in the 1920s in much the same way as their counterparts would in the 1970s and 1980s. Because of MIT and its associated private and federal labs, Koistinen concludes that Boston was bound to develop as a technology center, but without the region’s long history of economic development, it would likely have been much smaller.

Confronting Decline establishes broad continuities between public and private responses to industrial disinvestment across the twentieth century and will surely force a wholesale reconsideration of when and where deindustrialization began. Koistinen’s otherwise excellent study falters, however, when he turns to deindustrialization in the 1970s and 1980s. His quick survey of retrenchment, federal assistance, and economic development in the U.S. and Western Europe in the last decades of the twentieth century feels tacked on and lacks the analytical rigor of the earlier chapters. He unconvincingly elevates his three-part paradigm to a predictive model, arguing that any economically mature area experiencing deindustrialization will respond to industrial decline in a way that fits one of his three categories. And finally, while the book is framed as a study of deindustrialization in New England, it is largely about Massachusetts and, after 1945, metropolitan Boston. When Koistinen discusses declining mill towns, Massachusetts makes sense as a generalizable case study; when he turns to economic development centered on high tech enterprises, Boston and Route 128 are exceptional not just in the region, but in the nation. The disappointing final chapter and the geographical overreach, however, are minor concerns compared to the book’s important achievements.
Tracy Neumann is the author of “Privatization, Devolution, and Jimmy Carter’s National Urban Policy,” Journal of Urban History (forthcoming)

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII