What They Gain, What We Lose

Michelle O’Brien Jul 24, 2012

The People’s Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan
By Eric Laursen
AK Press, 2012

In the tumultuous political battles of the Great Depression, massive social movements and disruptive strikes forced the U.S. government to implement a series of major programs to ease the human impact of the country’s economic woes. One of these programs — Social Security — offered an alternative vision that allowed workers to save money and retire in relative comfort.

Eric Laursen’s The People’s Pension begins nearly half a century after the creation of the program, with the emergence of a coordinated movement to attack Social Security. Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, conservative politicians, think tanks and foundations have waged a steady battle to discredit, cut or dramatically transform the program. Labor unions and senior citizens’ groups led a broad movement that has largely succeeded in defending Social Security.

The People’s Pension covers in minute detail the specific politicians, lobbyists and organizations that have acted against Social Security over the last three decades. The book is massive, with a total of 818 pages and an unfortunate over-emphasis on the activities of Washington insiders.

In many respects, though, the book is a significant accomplishment. Written by an independent journalist and distributed by an anarchist publisher, The People’s Pension is a formidable piece of research, and its coherent, readable narrative is a gift to activists and scholars alike. In his closing chapter, Laursen even takes an admirable stab at demonstrating the relevance of anarchist concepts of mutual aid and popular direct democracy in bolstering the movement to save Social Security and public benefits.

Laursen consistently and thoroughly demonstrates that Social Security, despite conservative rhetoric, is not broken, not about to go bankrupt and not necessarily in need of a massive overhaul. Social Security functions remarkably well and has helped millions of people make ends meet. “Social Security,” Laursen writes, “had by 1980 evolved into the most successful antipoverty program in U.S. history.”

Laursen is particularly astute in his extensive analysis of the hype around generational rivalry. In these narratives, “greedy geezers” are stealing the wealth of today’s young workers. This rhetoric emphasizes generational divides to promote fear and reactionary politics. Social Security, Laursen convincingly argues, should be heralded as a system of solidarity and care between generations.

The People’s Pension is much weaker, however, in demonstrating why conservatives have put so much effort into attacking such a popular program. Laursen attributes these attacks to a combination of self-interest and ideology, but he is consistently vague about what business elites stand to gain. He alludes to a few possible causes, including fear of future taxes and the potential windfall of investment fees for the financial services industry if Social Security is privatized, but he fails to examine these claims any further.

Both austerity cuts to Social Security and privatization have a rational economic logic for business elites. But by failing to examine the underlying economic impetus for attacking Social Security, Laursen mislabels the problem in his closing chapter as one of bureaucrats removed from public concerns. Laursen’s chief solution — democratizing the management of Social Security — could never be successful without confronting the power of employers in American society.

As documented throughout The People’s Pension, labor unions and social movements have largely relied on lobbying, electoral politics and symbolic protests to defend public benefits. We need to go beyond the halls of Congress to fight back in our workplaces, to disrupt the profit of corporations, to build militant organizations of workers and the poor, and to develop solutions to the economic crisis that make banks and corporations pay.


Michelle O’Brien is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at New York University, studying the politics of welfare.


A longer version of this review will appear on The Rank-and-Filer, a political blog for radical social service workers, at


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