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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Engels and song culture: you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows .

The recent incomprehension event - the puzzlement of some commenters that the Nobel prize could go to a songwriter, and the equally flatheaded defense of Dylan as a poet - made me want to dig up old posts I wrote about song culture. A culture that has been significantly underrated or ignored in the cultural history of modernism. In particular, there is this bit from Engels that I liked... but here's the post I wrote in 2008.

From the perspective of the nineteenth century worker, there is something mocking, something a little satanic about freedom, as it was presented in the establishment discourse. Freedom, of course, comes with contracts – but what contracts! On the one side, the employer was in the position of seemingly having no limit to the things he could require of the laborer. On the other side, the laborer was blamed for not adhering to every tittle and jot of the employer’s dictate. From the perspective of the intellectual, society was making a Faustian pact with technology and industry. From the perspective of the worker, it wasn’t Faustian at all, but reeked of sulfur in the old, old way: the devil required infinite pain in this life, on penalty of losing life altogether without him. In the Position of the Working Class, Engels indicts the order of life required of the laborer in the factory by giving examples of the rules he or she had to follow, under threat of fine or dismissal: 

“What a time the worker has of it, too, inside the factory! Here the employer is absolute law-giver; he makes regulations at will, changes and adds to his codex at pleasure, and even, if he inserts the craziest stuff, the courts say to the working-man:
"You were your own master, no one forced you to agree to such a contract if you did not wish to; but now, when you have freely entered into it, you must be bound by it."
And so the working-man only gets into the bargain the mockery of the Justice of the Peace who is a bourgeois himself, and of the law which is made by the bourgeoisie. Such decisions have been given often enough. In October, 1844, the operatives of Kennedy’s mill, in Manchester, struck. Kennedy prosecuted them on the strength of a regulation placarded in the mill, that at no time more than two operatives in one room may quit work at once. And the court decided in his favour, giving the working-men the explanation cited above. And such rules as these usually are! For instance: 1. The doors are closed ten minutes after work begins, and thereafter no one is admitted until the breakfast hour; whoever is absent during this time forfeits 3d. per loom. 2. Every power-loom weaver detected absenting himself at another time, while the machinery is in motion, forfeits for each hour and each loom, 3d. Every person who leaves the room during working- hours, without obtaining permission from the overlooker, forfeits 3d. 5. Weavers who fail to supply themselves with scissors forfeit, per day, 1d. 4. All broken shuttles, brushes, oil-cans, wheels, window-panes, etc., must be paid for by the weaver. 5. No weaver to stop work without giving a week’s notice. The manufacturer may dismiss any employee without notice for bad work or improper behaviour. 6. Every operative detected speaking to another, singing or whistling, will be fined 6d.; for leaving his place during working-hours, 6d.”

The notion that the owner has complete freedom to put anything in a contract he feels like putting in – that in fact, this is the alpha and omega of freedom, the unmediated power relationship between owner and worker - is still a powerful one in the U.S. Some states, notably Texas, have a fire at will clause that allows abusive leeway to the owners which is close to that allowed to the owners of serfs. As Engels notes about the lives of the working class – “these laborers are condemned, from their ninth year until their death, to live under the mental and corporal rod, they are more utterly slaves than Blacks in America, because they are more closely supervised – and then it is demanded, that they live like human beings, think like human beings, and feel like human beings!” 

I am fascinated, myself, by the prohibition on singing – which I want to get back to, as I am interested in tracing a history of alienation in the evanescent fabric of song culture. One should point out that the Manchester factories represented, at the time, a classical liberal ideal – elsewhere, for instance in the U.S., custom weighed on the extent to which you could limit freedom on the laborer’s side by contract. Jack Beatty’s excellent but, for some reason, little noticed book on the Gilded Age last year, Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900, is all about the triumph of the libertarian freedom of the owner, at the expense of the worker. 

Beatty’s chapter of the Homestead strike is well worth reading for those who want to understand how slowly the attitude took hold that one’s place of work was not at all one’s own – that ownership was strictly limited by the contract one freely signed, thus conveniently carving out a domain of serfdom in the free society. This serfdom has now, of course, been so assimilated that we naturally segregate our work space from other spaces, and in fact obey the rules that now organize any public space – so much for the existential dimension of freedom. The contract still has this marvelous, magical property, operating to emancipate the contractor and enslave the contractee. There’s an interview with Beatty at the Atlantic site about the book. Beatty points to a turning point after the Civil War in which the Republican party converged with the business elite and turned its back on the ideal of ‘free labor’, in essence betraying its very reason for being:

“Even when Lincoln was advocating free labor, it was a nostalgic idea. As early as 1866, 60 percent of people worked for other people. Now, it’s 90-something percent. Then, of course, they worked in small units; it wasn’t the full-blown factory. But sure, Lincoln’s vision was at variance with the imperatives of the economy and with the necessities of the industrializing elites who came to power after the war. And then there was the railroad—and that changed everything….

Still, the free-labor ideal survives in farming as propaganda. Preserving the tiny number of "family farms" is a justification put forward by the farm lobby. The Homestead Act was put forth by the Republicans as a supposed cure for the class structure congealed by industrialism. The idea was that the eastern factory laborer would leave the factory behind for free land in the west. But that’s not the way it worked out. Why? Because the land was not free—$1,500 was the minimum needed to set up a farm as early as the 1840s. And that was three years pay for the skilled factory worker of 1900! Small farms weren't economically viable. So it wasn’t the factory laborer who went to the farm, but the factory itself. Women’s labor, child labor, seasonal labor—all the aspects of wage labor that the farm was supposed to cure became a part of farm life. That was a bitter social turn. There was no escape from industrial capitalism.”

Legends have grown up around the Homestead strike. John Commons, in 1918, wrote: 

“In the Homestead strike, the labor movement faced for the first time a really modern manufacturing corporation with its practically boundless resources of war. The Amalgamated Association of Iran and Steel Workers in 1891 … was the strongest trade union in the entire history of the American labour movement.”

In 1892, the Carnegie Corporation, under the management of a well known opponent of Unions, H.C. Frick, decided to take on the Amalgamated Association by proposing a lowering of the wage for skilled labor in the steel mills and a new date for renewing contracts, January 1. The latter would make any future refusal of contract fall in the winter, when it would be harder to strike. The Union refused the terms – Frick sent a contingent of 300 Pinkerton men guarding a number of strikebreakers on barges down the Monongahela River. In response, the union barricaded the factory. Somebody fired a shot. A pitched battled ensued, in which the Pinkertons raked the crowd with rifle fire. Seven men died, but then the crowd returned fire until the Pinkertons had to go below deck. Certain of the guards lost heart, and the Pinkertons finally surrendered and were marched through a crowd that mauled them, and then sent back to Pittsburgh. Using the violence as an excuse and, of course, recognizing unlimited freedom of property only on the side of Carnegie, the state government sent in the militia, and to the Carnegie company sent in more Pinkertons. The strikebreakers gained access to the mills, and though the strike lasted until October, the power of the Union was broken. 

This is what Carnegie’s latest biographer, David Nasaw, said, in 2006, in an interview with a Pittsburgh paper:

Q: Now that the mills are gone, do you think Carnegie has a lasting local influence other than the libraries and museums?

A: I did not get into a cab or have a conversation at a hotel when I didn't get a response -- a lively response -- after telling people why I was in town. Everybody had a story about Carnegie, and very few stories put him in a good light. He moved to New York in the 1870s and died in 1919. But his presence still seems to haunt the city.
Is that because of the famous 1892 Homestead Strike? Carnegie blamed that on his business partner, H.C. Frick.

Well, reading the local papers on microfilm, I discovered that while the rest of the world might have been surprised by Homestead, Pittsburghers weren't. This wasn't the first time he'd brought in the Pinkertons -- he'd done the same damn thing at [Braddock's] Edgar Thomson works. Homestead followed a script he'd already written.
Still, Carnegie had written articles about respecting the working man. And previously, he'd been way out in front negotiating with unions. So workers weren't just angry when he brought in the Pinkertons: They felt betrayed.”

Beatty’s account of the strike draws upon the sociological study of the Pittsburgh area financed by the Russell Sage foundation in 1912. One of the sociologists, Margaret Frances Byington (about whom there is an astonishing paucity of information) wrote the book about Homestead. I’m going to quote from her in the next post.

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