Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 11

"Robber Barons and Rebels" or, in this author's words, The Man vs. The People

Zinn's first paragraph: "In the year 1877, the signals were given for the rest of the century: the blacks would be put back; the strikes of white workers would not be tolerated; the industrial and political elites of North and South would take hold of the country and organize the greatest march of economic growth in human history. They would do it with the aid of, and at the expense of, black labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor, rewarding them differently by race, sex, national origin, and social class, in such a way as to create separate levels of oppression-a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth."

Zinn goes on to share many examples of how inventions, great ideas, conglomerations, and dangerous, near-slave labor fueled the wild economic growth that happened in the U.S. after the Civil War. Steel, railroads, oil, meat-packing, cigarettes - all were made faster, cheaper, bigger. The poor workers died in droves while the Rockefellers and the Carnegies made millions.

"And so it went, in industry after industry-shrewd, efficient businessmen building empires, choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low, using government subsidies. These industries were the first beneficiaries of the "welfare state." By the turn of the century, American Telephone and telegraph had a monopoly of the nation's telephone system, International Harvester made 85 percent of all farm machinery, and in every other industry resources became concentrated, controlled. The banks had interests in so many of these monopolies as to create an interlocking network of powerful corporation directors, each of whom sat on the boards of many other corporations. According to a Senate report of the early twentieth century, Morgan at his peak sat on the board of forty-eight corporations; Rockefeller, thirty-seven corporations."

"Meanwhile," Zinn argues, "the government of the United States was behaving almost exactly as Karl Marx described a capitalist state: pretending neutrality to maintain order, but serving the interests of the rich. Not that the rich agreed among themselves; they had disputes over policies. But the purpose of the state was to settle upper-class disputes peacefully, control lower-class rebellion, and adopt policies that would further the long-range stability of the system."

It didn't matter who was in office, either. Zinn argues that the oligarchy prevailed whether a Democrat or a Republican was elected. Both parties catered to - and still cater to - big business interests.

Zinn talks about how systematic support for the oligarchy was, from the mid-1700s when the U.S. was being founded through today.

"Control in modern times requires more than force, more than law. It requires that a population dangerously concentrated in cities and factories, whose lives are filled with cause for rebellion, be taught that all is right as it is. And so, the schools, the churches, the popular literature taught that to be rich was a sign of superiority, to be poor a sign of personal failure, and that the only way upward for a poor person was to climb into the ranks of the rich by extraordinary effort and extraordinary luck."

Zinn writes about the millionnaires turned philanthropists who created universities in their own names. He writes about how these universities created the educated people who would support the capitalistic system. He goes on to talk about the state of primary education. "It was important that these people learn obedience to authority," writes Zinn. A journalist of the 1890s described it: "'The unkindly spirit of the teacher is strikingly apparent; the pupils, being completely subjugated to her will, are silent and motionless, the spiritual atmosphere of the classroom is damp and chilly.'" I agree with this, but as a would-be educator and a college addict, it stings a little.

...The internet ate a paragraph or two, but basically Zinn spends pages and pages describing very well in this chapter specific strikes in different industries, different rebellions and trends. Then he synthesizes it: "The year 1893 saw the biggest economic crisis in the country's history. After several decades of wild industrial growth, financial manipulation, uncontrolled speculation and profiteering, it all collapsed: 642 banks failed and 16,000 businesses closed down. Out of the labor force of 15 million, 3 million were unemployed. No state government voted relief, but mass demonstrations all over the country forced city governments to set up soup kitchens and give people work on streets or parks." And people continue to face worse working conditions. They sometimes rose up and were put back down again, by economic and sometimes lethal military force.

And then yesterday I sat with the rhetoric of this for several hours: "'I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society-we are on the eve of a universal change,'" a quotation from Eugene Debs. After reading so many accounts of people working more and more hours at harder, dangerous jobs for less and less money, and then being told that an eight hour day would leave them more time to drink and be lazy, it's hard not to be a bit socialistic.

How to fix this? One idea was that westward expansion (killing Native Americans in the process) would give everybody their own land and their would be fewer labor disputes. This didn't happen, though. Populations in cities kept growing as immigrants came to escape fortuneless lands on the other side of the Atlantic. In the west and south, farmers wound up selling their land to monopolists because the market drove the price of their goods down and they couldn't pay for overhead. Technology made a lot of things easier and cheaper but drove labor into the ground. In places as conservative as Texas, though, Populism was born, and unions and meetings of pseudo-socialists thrived. They developed cooperatives and bought needed goods in bulk together to keep prices low. They organized and tried to demand fair compensation. They set up insurance companies to defend against price gouging and the whims of the corporations.

Many populist groups tried to overcome segregation, citing that black and white laborers were facing the same problems and should work together to fight The Man and solve those problems. In some cases, this worked. The government and the oligarchy, though (in addition to existing racism, of course), found ways to inspire infighting. Blacks and whites often did different types of work. When whites couldn't afford to keep their farms, the seizing landowners would evict poor whites and get even poorer blacks in as laborers. This is one example of the kind of tension that continued.

There were labor movements in the cities and populist movements in rural areas and in the south. "According to Lawrence Goodwyn, if the labor movement had been able to do in the cities what the Populists did in the rural areas, 'to create among urban workers a culture of cooperation, self-respect, and economic analysis,' there might have been a great movement for change in the United States." My argument is that in the cities it was harder for people to get to that culture of cooperation because people were so crowded and in all ways removed from the sources of their basic needs (food which came from miles away on a train, for example). 

Populism lost, though. Corporations heavily backed the Republican presidential candidate and William McKinley won at the turn of the century. His nationalistic speech upon his inauguration freaks me out more than a little: "... this year is going to be a year of patriotism and devotion to country. I am glad to know that the people in every part of the country mean to be devoted to one flag, the glorious Stars and Stripes; that the people of this country mean to maintain the financial honor of the country as sacredly as they maintain the honor of the flag."

And just what does that mean? How does it resonate with the political climate and messages today? What are we fighting for? What is the American dream?

Next: more about empire (presumably foreign policy as opposed to domestic strife)

1 comment:

John L. Clark said...

This is another incisive chapter review, Emily. Well done. I particularly appreciate how you call out the long-standing and ongoing bipartisan consensus for economic growth and business interests. This is something that I think it is vital for people who put their faith in party politics to realize.