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)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 10

This chapter is titled "The Other Civil War," and it looks from the first paragraphs to be a war between the elite, land-owning class and the renters.
  • "If you permit unprincipled and ambitious men to monopolize the soil, they will become masters of the country in the certain order of cause and effect," said Ainge Devyr, an Irishman turned United Statesian who had seen the same problem between owners and renters happen on both sides of the Atlantic.
  •  "One of the most hated elements of the lease gave the landlord the right to the timber on all the farms," a truth in New York in the 1800s. Reminds me a bit of the land rights versus mineral rights in Texas (with regards to fracking, lately). 
  • As usual, Zinn sees the pattern and summarizes it well: When the disparity between rich and poor is huge, *they* just grow the middle class. The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, but there's a buffer. Or: "The farmers had fought, been crushed by the law, their struggle diverted into voting, and the system stabilized by enlarging the class of small landowners, leaving the basic structure of rich and poor intact. It was a common sequence in American history."
  • Remember, back then, only those who owned land could vote.  
  • Man, this is a good chapter, worth reading. Quotations like: "The two-party system came into its own in this time. To give people a choice between two different parties and allow them, in a period of rebellion, to choose the slightly more democratic one was an ingenious mode of control," although Zinn says this evolved more out of necessity than some evil genius.
  •  In the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, the poor moved from rural areas to the cities, but tenements were crowded and there was no (socialist) infrastructure of water, sewers, trash collection, etc. However, at the same time, the middle class grew. "This was the advance guard of a growing class of white-collar workers and professionals in America who would be wooed enough and paid enough to consider themselves members of the bourgeois class, and to give support to that class in times of crisis." They would vote in ways that supported the existing system. 
  • I am reminded throughout this chapter of how in the United States today, both political parties support the rich oligarchy. The Right screams independence and small government but continue to give money and power to corporations. The Left (the Left in power, anyway) do the same thing, with Obama caving to special interests and continuing to empower Wall Street in the name of nominal growth without improving the quality of life for average or impoverished United States of Americans.
  • "In an economic system not rationally planned for human need, but developing fitfully, chaotically out of the profit motive, there seemed to be no way to avoid recurrent booms and slumps." This is as true of today as it was in 1837 and 1853.
I think one of the biggest problem faced by civilization in general is that people cannot, do not, or will not see the consequences of our actions. We do not see that the styrofoam to-go boxes hasten climate change, that letting the government balloon military spending means we're paying for the production of missiles, not the distribution of clean drinking water infrastructure. It's been happening for a long time. Industrialization sure made things easier and more pleasant for those like me on the upper end of society. I've never had to work in a factory. I've only a few times had to spend weeks on end in the same one-room space as my family, but never longer and without a toilet and running water. The earth has limited resources. It's always been a struggle for who controls the resources and who benefits the most from them, always on the backs of the unlucky and the weak. *rant rant rant*

Back in the day, we didn't have guns. People killed each other with their bare hands. Then they developed weapons, clubs and knives, which removed them a little bit from their victims. Then it was bows and arrows, guns, more powerful guns with higher ranges, cannons, bombs, missiles, nukes, chemical and biological weapons. Each time we remove ourselves; each time we engage in derivative violence, disconnected from those we affect. Sure, these derivations have happened parallel to achievements in sanitation, agriculture, etc., but at what cost? The survival of the fittest? How does morality fit in with the Darwinism? Does it need to?
  • "In this favored land of law and liberty, the road to advancement is open to all.... Every American knows that or ought to know that he has no better friend than the laws and that he needs no artificial combination for his protection," said one judge in the mid-1800s after imposing fines on some people who were desperate to escape their situations and looted the home of the local mayor. Am I really that radical now to refuse to take the judge seriously, to invoke instead the truth I see in Jensen's Premise Four?
  • From a handbill circulated throughout one city: "They have established the precedent that workingmen have no right to regulate the price of labor, or, in other words, the rich are the only judges of the wants of the poor man."
  • Nail on the head: "Class-consciousness was overwhelmed during the Civil War, both North and South, by military and political unity in the crisis of war. That unity was weaned by rhetoric and enforced by arms. It was a war proclaimed as a war for liberty, but working people would be attacked by soldiers if they dared to strike, Indians would be massacred in Colorado by the U.S. army, and those daring to criticize Lincoln's policies would be put in jail without trial-perhaps thirty thousand political prisoners."
  • Lincoln, meanwhile, used the distraction of the Civil War to pass into law pro-business and anti-people legislation (Zinn).
  • Zinn supports Jensen's Premise Four pretty clearly: "In premodern times, the maldistribution of wealth was accomplished by simple force. In modern times, exploitation is disguised-it is accomplished by law, which has the look of neutrality and fairness. By the time of the Civil War, modernization was well under way in the United States."
  • Boom and bust: "The crisis was built into a system which was chaotic in its nature, in which only the very rich were secure. It was a system of periodic crisis-1837, 1857, 1873 (and later: 1893, 1907, 1919, 1929)-that wiped out small businesses and brought cold, hunger, and death to working people while the fortunes of the Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans, kept growing through war and peace, crisis and recovery. During the 1873 crisis, Carnegie was capturing the steel market, Rockefeller was wiping out his competitors in oil."
  • People from many different types of trades formed unions and went on strike against their employers. This chapter talks about many of them but a summary of the railroad industry in particular is: "When the great railroad strikes of 1877 were over, a hundred people were dead, a thousand people had gone to jail, 100,000 workers had gone on strike, and the strikes had roused into action countless unemployed in the cities. More than half the freight on the nation's 75,000 miles of track had stopped running at the height of the strikes." In some cases, unions prevailed, but in others, the government called in the military or pitted immigrants against each other to keep business booming.
  • Zinn ends the chapter: "In 1877, the same year blacks learned they did not have enough strength to make real the promise of equality in the Civil War, working people learned they were not united enough, not powerful enough, to defeat the combination of private capital and government power. But there was more to come."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Too Long

It's been too long, but I just opened up the next chapter of Zinn's History. It's a very slow day at work because our money-making machine is down. Before I get to Zinn, though, I wanted to share my narcissistic reflections on the season, on myself, on my interactions with people. Conversations I've had with men and women lately have led me to this perfect storm of self:

First Draft

Fall is the season
when men fall in love with me
that's when I wear what I love,
three-quarter length shirts that accent my shoulders,
jackets and cardigans with pockets.
That's when I become most alive, most
myself, aware
of the turning of the seasons.
Nature's lurch toward slumber,
adorned with burnt umber. My
body becomes alive, weather cool enough
to stroll in, to slim down,
the equinox my equilibrium
My balance happens when the earth tilts in
such a way that shadows
walk with me in late afternoons,
mornings are crisp and full of possibility,
noons invite ecstatic walks and song.
Autumn is when school starts, and
whether I'm a student in a classroom
or just mimic the course rhythms internal, I
love to learn this time of year,
before winter slumbers, which require
the intimacy that happens after the fall
ing in love, the snuggles under covers,
long conversations in the long nights.
Autumn is before the settling down.
It is the time of change, when all
doors are open.