by Noam Chomsky
Norman Ware’s classic study of the industrial worker appeared ninety years ago, the first of its kind. It has lost none of its significance. The lessons Ware draws from his close investigation of the impact of the emerging industrial revolution on the lives of working people, and on society in general, are just as pertinent today as when he wrote, if not more so, in the light of the striking parallels between the 1920s and today.
It is important to remember the condition of working people when Ware wrote. The powerful and influential American labor movement that arose during the nineteenth century was being subjected to brutal attack, culminating in Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare after World War I. By the 1920s, the movement had largely been decimated; a classic study by the eminent labor historian David Montgomery is entitled The Fall of the House of Labor. The fall occurred in the 1920s. By the end of the decade, he writes, “corporate mastery of American life seemed secure…. Rationalization of business could then proceed with indispensable government support,” with government largely in the hands of the corporate sector. It was far from a peaceful process; American labor history is unusually violent. One scholarly study concludes that “the United States had more deaths at the end of the nineteenth century due to labor violence — in absolute terms and in proportion to population size — than any other country except Czarist Russia.” The term “labor violence” is a polite way of referring to violence by state and private security forces targeting working people. That continued into the late 1930s; I can remember such scenes from my childhood.
As a result, Montgomery wrote, “modern America had been created over its workers’ protests, even though every step in its formation had been influenced by the activities, organizations, and proposals that had sprung from working class life,” not to speak of the hands and brains of those who did the work.
The labor movement revived during the Great Depression, significantly influencing legislation and striking fear into the hearts of industrialists. In their publications the industrialists warned of the “hazard” facing them from labor action backed by “the newly realized political power of the masses.”
Though violent repression did not end, it was no longer adequate to the task. It was necessary to devise more subtle means to ensure corporate rule, primarily a flood of sophisticated propaganda and “scientific methods of strike breaking,” developed into a high art by the enterprises that specialize in the task.
We should not forget Adam Smith’s perspicuous observation that the “masters of mankind” — in his day, the merchants and manufacturers of England — never cease to pursue their “vile maxim”: “All for our-selves, and nothing for other people.”
The business counterattack was put on hold during World War II, but quickly revived afterward, with harsh legislation passed restricting workers’ rights and an extraordinary propaganda campaign aimed at factories, schools, churches, and every other form of association. Every available means of communication was employed. By the 1980s, with the bitterly antilabor Reagan administration, the attack was again underway in full force. President Reagan made it clear to the business world that the laws protecting labor rights, never very strong, would not be enforced. The illegal firing of union organizers skyrocketed, and the United States returned to the use of scabs, outlawed almost everywhere in developed countries except South Africa. The liberal Clinton administration undermined labor in different ways. One highly effective means was the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) linking Canada, Mexico, and the United States.
For propaganda purposes, NAFTA was labeled a “free-trade agreement.” It was nothing of the sort. Like other such agreements, it had strong protectionist elements and much of it was not about trade at all; it was an investors’ rights agreement. And like other such “free-trade agreements,” this one predictably proved harmful to working people in the participating countries. One effect was to undermine labor organizing: a study conducted under NAFTA auspices revealed that successful organizing declined sharply, thanks to such practices as management warnings that if an enterprise were unionized, it would be transferred to Mexico. Such practices are, of course, illegal, but that is irrelevant as long as business can count on the “indispensable government support” to which Montgomery referred.
By such means, private sector unions were driven down to less than 7 percent of the workforce, despite the fact that most working people prefer unions. The attack then turned to public-sector unions that had been somewhat protected by legislation. That unraveling is now fiercely under way, and not for the first time. We may recall that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 while supporting a strike of public-sector workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
In many respects, the condition of working people when Ware wrote was similar to what we see today as inequality has again reached the astonishing heights of the late 1920s. For a tiny minority, wealth has accumulated beyond the dreams of avarice. In the past decade, 95 percent of growth has gone into the pockets of 1 percent of the population — mostly a fraction of these. Median real income is below its level of twenty-five years ago. For males, median real income is below what it was in 1968. The labor share of output has fallen to its lowest level since World War II. This is not the result of the mysterious workings of the market or economic laws but, again, largely of the “indispensable” support and initiative of a government that is significantly in corporate hands.
The American industrial revolution, Ware observed, created “one of the major notes of American life” in the 1840s and 1850s. While its ultimate outcome may be “pleasing enough in modern eyes, it was repugnant to an astonishingly large section of the earlier American community.” Ware reviews the hideous working conditions imposed on formerly independent craftsmen and farmers, as well as the “factory girls,” young women from the farms working in the textile mills around Boston. But his primary focus is on more fundamental features of the revolution that persisted even as specific conditions were ameliorated in the course of dedicated struggles over many years.
Ware emphasized “the degradation suffered by the industrial worker,” the loss “of status and independence” that had been their most treasured possession as free citizens of the republic, a loss that could not be compensated for even by material improvement. He explores the devastating impact of the radical capitalist “social revolution in which sovereignty in economic affairs passed from the community as a whole into the keeping of a special class” of masters, a group “alien to the producers” and generally remote from production. He shows that “for every protest against machine industry, there can be found a hundred against the new power of capitalist production and its discipline.”
Workers were striking not just for bread but for roses, to borrow the traditional labor slogan. They sought dignity and independence, recognition of their rights as free men and women. They created a lively and independent labor press, written and produced by those who toiled in the mills. In their journals they condemned “the blasting influence of monarchical principles on democratic soil.” They recognized that this assault on elementary human rights would not be overcome until “they who work in the mills own them,” and sovereignty returns to free producers. Then working people will no longer be “menials or the humble subjects of a foreign despot, [the absentee owners], slaves in the strictest sense of the word [who] toil … for their masters.” Rather, they will regain their status as “free American citizens.”
The capitalist revolution instituted a crucial change from price to wage. When the producer sold his product for a price, Ware writes, “he retained his person. But when he came to sell his labor, he sold himself,” and lost his dignity as a person as he became a slave — a “wage slave,” the term commonly used. Wage labor was considered similar to chattel slavery, though differing in that it was temporary — in theory. That understanding was so widespread that it became a slogan of the Republican Party, advocated by its leading figure, Abraham Lincoln.
The concept that productive enterprises should be owned by the workforce was common coin in the mid-nineteenth century, not just by Marx and the left but also by the most prominent classical liberal figure of the day, John Stuart Mill. Mill held that “the form of association, however, which if mankind continue to improve, must be expected to predominate is … the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers electable and removable by themselves.” The concept indeed has solid roots in insights that animated classical liberal thought. It is a short step to link it to control of other institutions and of communities within a framework of free association and federal organization, in the general style of a range of thought that includes, along with much of the anarchist tradition and left anti-Bolshevik Marxism, also G. D. H. Cole’s guild socialism and much more recent theoretical work. And still more significantly, it includes actions as workers in many walks of life seek to gain control over their lives and fate.
To undermine these subversive doctrines, it was necessary for the “masters of mankind” to try to change the attitudes and beliefs that foster them. As Ware reports, labor activists warned of the new “Spirit of the Age: Gain Wealth, forgetting all but Self” — the vile maxim of the masters, which they naturally sought to impose on their subjects as well, knowing that they would be able to gain very little of the available wealth. In sharp reaction to this demeaning spirit, the rising movements of working people and radical farmers, the most significant democratic popular movements in American history, were dedicated to solidarity and mutual aid. They were defeated, mostly by force. But the battle is far from over, despite setbacks, often violent repression, and massive efforts to instill the vile maxim in the public mind, with the resources of educational systems, the huge advertising industry, and other propaganda institutions dedicated to the task.
There are serious barriers to overcome in the struggle for justice, freedom, and dignity, even beyond the bitter class war conducted ceaselessly by the highly class-conscious business world with the “indispensable support” of the governments they largely control. Ware discusses some of these insidious threats as they were understood by working people. He reports the thinking of skilled workers in New York 170 years ago, who repeated the common view that a daily wage is a form of slavery and warned perceptively that a day might come when wage slaves “will so far forget what is due to manhood as to glory in a system forced on them by their necessity and in opposition to their feelings of independence and self-respect.” They hoped that that day would be “far distant.” Today, signs of it are common, but demands for independence, self-respect, personal dignity, and control of one’s own work and life, like Marx’s old mole, continue to burrow not far from the surface, ready to reappear when awakened by circumstances and militant activism.