Confronting Economic Dislocations
Industrialization At Turn of the Century
At the turn of the century America was in the midst of a great
industrialization that had begun in the civil war. Great concentration of wealth
had fallen to a few Americans who turned them into industrial development. These
included Rockefeller in oil, Gould, Vanderbilt, Huntington and Stanford in railroads,
Carnegie in steel, and so on. Political power at the turn of the century was
promised to those who could address the problems of industrialization.
Conditions of Industrialization
Looking around, Americans of 1900 could see the burgeoning industrial
system and the material realities that it presented.
- Conditions of Labor. Immigration and the migration
from farms provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of labor. This made labor
a cheap part of industrial production as a result of the laws of supply and
demand. To the industrialist, expenditures for safety made no economic sense:
an injured or deceased worker was easily replaced by another. Wages could
be kept low because there was always another worker willing to work for the
lower wage. Attempts by workers to organize to confront the organized wealth
of the barons for whom they worked were unsuccessful. Replacement workers
were readily available. Hiring these "scabs" as labor called them
inevitably led to disasters such as the Homestead Strike and the Pullman Strike
in which quasi-military forces were brought in my the barons and workers died.
- Exploitation of Customers. In the climate of the times,
the industrialists had the power to set prices. Railroads serviced the farmers
along their lines, but the farmers needed the railroads to survive. There
seemed no limit to the profit that the railroads could extract from the farmer.
Furthermore with entire industries controlled by one source, there was no
compulsion for quality. Books like The Jungle portrayed the meat packing
industry in Chicago and the lack of concern with the safety of food.
- Corruption of Government. The concentrated wealth
had an outlet in the corrupting of governmental officials. In the late 19th
century the United States Senate was owned by the railroads. The wealthy poured
money into the campaigns and pockets of key governmental officials who in
turn protected their interests. In the large cities, the political machines
organized politics not to address community concerns but as a provider of
private largesse to those who supported the machine, rich and poor.
Thus, government was not a regulator nor particularly vigilent about these
conditions. Rather the forces of economic power owned government.
- Great disparities of wealth marked the economic
life of the industrial cities. The most squalid of slums contained the urban
poor mere blocks from opulent mansions in which the wealthy lived like royalty.
The rhetorical problem for leadership: How could these
material conditions be converted into public concerns.
Barriers to Successful
Remedy to Problems of Industrialization
Leaders addressing the dislocations of
industrialization had to overcome barriers
- Government is controlled by the wealthy. Democrats
and Republicans are supportive of industrialization. With the degree of government
corruption, normal politics resisted rather than addressed the problems.
- Great wealth financed means of resistance.
Industrialists hired quasi-military "detective agencies," well armed
and aggressive, to enforce their will through physical intimidation. Wounding
in resistance to these forces would cost the worker his/her job and with it
create economic and personal ruin. And, loss of life in pitched gun battles
was not an uncommon experience. In addition, wealth could purchase all the
legal expertise to prevent the courts from responding to the problems of industrialization.
- Domination of the industrial factory for employment
trapped workers into the system. Business access in this environment required
capital unavailable to ordinary citizens. So, the economy was coming to be
dominated by the need for industrial jobs. Threats to the loss of a job were
threats to life as well as livelihood. Resisting the industrialists was dangerous
for economic reasons.
- Resistance of individualism. The ideology of
American rhetoric celebrated the triumph of rugged individualism in the American
experience. The country was built, and success came, in the wake of individual
initiative. The industrialists represented this individualism. The idea that
Americans needed to organize seemed un-American.
In public life at the turn of the 20th
century, voices urging radical solutions to the problems created by industrialization
took root. Three rhetorics dominated.
Radical Labor Rhetorics
- Strategy was to organize workers into
an economic force to confront the economic power of the industrialists. American
Federation of Labor offered a rhetoric that offered to provide the factory
with skilled workers. But the strategy was less effective in mass production
where no skill was needed. The result of a growth of more radical labor rhetoric.
- Strategies in the rhetoric. The key was to instill
unity through creating consciousness of being in a working class, and directing
that unified identity into economic action, most dominantly strikes. Note
this is not a rhetoric requiring involvement in politics. Thus, it seeks to
do an end run around the corruption of government.
- Characteristics of the rhetoric
- Celebration of being a worker. Argument
and emotional raising of the importance of the worker. The role of capital
in industrialization was diminished and it was the worker who was portrayed
as taking the world into the new prosperity. But the worker was being
denied reward for that effort.
- Polemical denunciation of the industrialists.
The rhetoric drove home the foulness of the suppression of labor,
deifying the martyrs of the labor struggle, playing up the pitched battles
of private armies and workers, and incidents such as the Triangle Shirt
Waist fire. In these narratives the industrialists were at the lever of
control and they became the enemy to be opposed.
- Heavy sense of victimage. The maldistribution
of power was a major feature of the narratives. The power of wealth was
dramatized and organization was portrayed as the only way to oppose it.
- Resistances. The radical labor leaders were portrayed
as un-American. To join a union was to forfeit one's individuality and abandon
the power of rugged individualism. Furthermore, the activity was unlawful
and governmental power of arrest accompanied the industrialists assertion
of physical and economic suppression.
- A political movement seeking to take over government
by building an electoral block delivering the workers to partication in the
elections. Once controlling the government, socialists would establish government
ownership of the means of production.
- Strategies. Socialists could
call on more common ideographs such as <democracy> and <the vote>
as a way of addressing the problems. The power of government could be seen.
Thus, the thought of having that power removed from the industrialists and
given to the workers became an attractive alternative.
- Characteristics of the rhetoric
- Emphasis on the power of the electoral system.
Like labor rhetoric the worker was celebrated and urged to meld into a
unified power, but for the purposes of exercising the vote rather than
for the strike.
- Denunciation of the industrialists focused on
their corruption of government.
- Possibility of success was dependent on worker
unity. Thus, the ordinary worker became the agent for the socialists success.
It gave them a sense of their own ability to address their problems.
- Resistances. Third parties do not do
well in the United States. The hope of success through the socialists was
often a hard sell. And the more the socialists emphasized the power of the
corrupt government the less likely their success seemed.
- Strenuously anti-government. Emphasized
how the current corruption of government made pursuit of power through the
electoral process folly. Emphasized instead resistance to the government.
- Expanded victimage beyond economics. Anarchists
opposed US involvement in World War I and pointed to other abuses of individual
- Emphasized that voluntary association was more
American than labor unions. Based in Alexis d Touqueville's celebration
of voluntary association as the heart of Democracy in America.
- Attempted to take advantage of Eastern European
immigrants' familiarity with such ideas in Europe.
- Rhetorical Characteristics.
- Strenuously anti-government. Target of their narratives
was as likely to be government as the industrialists.
- Broad attack rather than narrowly on economic
Anarchism seemed an attack on lawfulness itself. When an Anarchist assassinated
President McKinley in 1901, it seemed to reflect the essence of their strategy.
And, the full power of government came down on anarchists.