, November 04, 2010
(view all comments by OneMansView)
The not so pleasant details behind America’s rise to prominence
This book is a commendable look at a very contentious period in US history. At the start of this period, the nation, even so-called radical Republicans, had lost tolerance for Reconstruction, essentially turning the South over to the Redeemers, that is, the old oligarchy, which essentially restored ante-bellum race relations. The story of this period involves far more than simply the dramatic rise of large enterprises and super-rich entrepreneurs. Of concern to this author are the social divides in the nation that revolved around agrarian vs. industrial interests, economic class, political effectiveness, religion, mode of production, reform vs. standpattism, native born vs. immigrants, ethnicity, and race. Farmers, artisans, and laborers usually found themselves on the wrong side of many of those divisions; attempts at amelioration were often inadequate and fleeting. The US joined the Europeans in carving up the world through imperialistic ventures based on an ideology of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. The US certainly emerged after WWI as the world’s dominate power, but most of the cracks in the foundation of American society remained.
The author’s principal focus is on the so-called “labor issue,” as the elites of the times referred to it, that is, workers and their jobs and actions in the context of the larger society. The nature of work underwent vast changes in the decades after the Civil War. Much of independent artisanship was swallowed up by the de-skilled, corporate machine-tending mode of production. Easily replaced and therefore essentially powerless, workers found it extremely difficult to counter the squeezing of their wages to subsistence levels in a time of over all deflation with significant economic downturns occurring at least once a decade. Given the levels of desperation and anger, it is not surprising that the era was filled with numerous, prolonged employer-employee confrontations. Denying the legitimacy of such worker actions, conservatives maintained that all Americans had an “identity of interests” in an hierarchical economic order controlled from the top by business elites.
All manner of movements and actions were untaken to counter various aspects of the undemocratic control of status-quo elites. Third-party movements such as the Greenback Party, Henry George followers, the Populists, and the Socialists advocated for such changes as relaxed monetary policies and silver coinage, governmental regulation or ownership of utilities and railroads, reduced tariffs, restrictions on child and female labor and maximum hours, direct election of Senators, etc. Labor organizations from the National Labor Union, the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), to the International Workers of the World (IWW) ranged widely in their approaches to effect reform from increased political participation, forming producer and consumer cooperatives, only bargaining for wages and worker conditions, to forming one big Union to run US factories in the interest of the working class. Notable violent confrontations of the era were the Great Railway Strike of 1877, the 1886 Haymarket Square bombing, the Carnegie Homestead Strike of 1892, and the Pullman Strike of 1894, all of which started as strikes or worker protests but were quickly escalated to the level of being national panics through the actions of employers and authorities.
Successes in these various approaches, especially in the 19th century, were quite limited and impermanent. As the author notes, fear of even greater reactions from the working class induced elite-controlled legislatures and Congress to offer such palliatives as workplace regulations or the toothless Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Of course, the conservative judiciary either invalidated the legislation or used it against working people, such as using Sherman antitrust to declare labor organizations as illegal conspiracies, prohibited from actions by judge-issued injunctions. As the author indicates, the “red scare” phenomenon, that is, demonizing individuals or groups as communists, anarchists, syndicalists, etc, began in earnest with the Haymarket affair, well before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. With such characterizations, all manner of suppression is then justified from the use of armed force, both private and governmental, even the use of federal troops, to using the judicial system as a means of giving legitimacy to harsh retaliations, such as the hanging of several anarchists indirectly associated with Haymarket.
The working class and labor organizations hardly represented a uniform front, much of the split being on a personal level. Native-born Brits and some German and Irish, many of whom were craftsmen, regarded themselves as superior to the flood of immigrants from Italy, Eastern Europe, and Russia who found work in factories. Not only did their place in the work order define them, but religion – Protestant vs. Catholic, political affiliation – Republican vs. Democrat, and personal habits – drinking for one, separated them. Moreover, labor organizations operated from different sets of principles. The AFL was exclusionary, permitting only unions of tradesmen, while the Knights were an inclusive, industrial union, accepting all workers. Peculiarly, Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights, eschewed both strikes and political action, while Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL, preferred direct bargaining with companies with no outside aid or interference. These ethnic differences dovetailed with endemic racial biases to justify American interventions in Central America, the Philippines, and the Caribbean beginning with the Spanish-American conflict in 1898, but continuing through the period.
As the author points out, the first decade of the 1900s was fairly prosperous pushing remnants of the turmoil of the last decade to the side, though labor unions had gained no greater standing, still being subjected to adverse reactions from all quarters. In some cases, more notice was being taken of the economic excesses that continued from the last decade. An active press reported on the most flagrant abuses of giant trusts, leading to selective enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act. For example, both J. P. Morgan’s holding company of railroads, Northern Securities Company, and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, among others, were forced to disband into smaller units. In addition, the IWW and the socialists were gaining a significant following among workers and the AFL was emerging from political indifference. Given this persistent level of agitation, another downturn in 1907 forced many social and political elites, including Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, to realize that more vigorous reform efforts were needed if American society was not to come apart.
The Progressive era driven by the impetus of middle-class professionals was actually rather short-lived. Pres. Woodrow Wilson, surpassing his conservative, Southern roots sponsored some legislation favorable to workers, including the Clayton Act that supposedly exempted labor unions from being considered anti-competitive combinations. The conservative side of the labor movement, that is, the AFL, supported the War effort and was likewise granted recognition in the nation’s places of work. But, as so often happens in America, when the unions attempted to extend their gains after the WWI, in particular by organizing US Steel, the forces of reaction rose in vigorous opposition. IWW offices were raided with members being beaten or killed and all unions were painted with the red brush of communism. The convenient accommodations necessitated by wartime were quickly forgotten. Complete corporate hegemony had been reestablished by the early 1920s.
This book is a clear repudiation of any notion that the rise of the US to world prominence in the early 20th century was one long progressive, glorious rise that as a matter of course benefitted all citizens. More realistically, this book demonstrates that in so many areas of American society that the industrialism that emerged in the decades after the Civil War resulted in intense struggles for broad swaths of the American population depending on what side of the class, race, etc divides one was located. While significant modifications have been made to the capitalistic order over ensuing decades, what is remarkable is how much remains the same.
In the year 2010, laissez-faire ideas regarding business are in ascendance. The ability of financial and corporate elites to largely control the economy has hardly diminished. Worker organizations have been under assault for decades, resulting in the kind of inequality found in the era of the robber barons. If anything, the corporate regime is even more consolidated and integrated into society now than in the early 1900s. The use of the media and other institutions of “information” are so much more sophisticated than before resulting in scarcely noticeable “persuasion.” Evidence for the widespread acceptance of the corporate order is that the sizeable, focused alternative movements in the early decades of industrialism, like the Knights, the Populists, the Socialists, etc, have not been replicated since WWII, except for the college kids’ protests of the 60s which was more scattered and spontaneous than coherent - more stylish than substantive. Those earlier generations would have never accepted so passively the undermining of their well-being from the totality of such corporate acts as reckless financial dealings, gratuitous downsizing, shipping jobs overseas, allowing in millions on visa programs, and the like. In fact, the corporate-political order that perpetrates such is validated time and again in national elections. This book is well worth reading to get a more complete picture of what underlay the rise of what a recent author referred to as the American “super-economy.”