Fizzy Jill and I (and some others…although I think the number is dwindling as the weeks drag by) are reading a chapter a week of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Feel free to join us in whatever way you prefer—by reading along, commenting, or writing your own posts. To keep things organized, link up posts over at Jill’s blog as she is the quasi-official host who designed the button and reading schedule. (By the way, we’re doing posts every other week now instead of every week.) This post covers Chapters 10 and 11.
This past week, spring sprung in our neck of the woods and it has been simply gorgeous! Daffodils are blooming. Birds are singing. The sun has been shining. It has been breezy and warm and lovely. The point of telling you this is to say that reading Zinn’s book is difficult under the best of circumstances but darn near impossible with weather like this calling you to from an opened window.
I tried. I really did. I actually finished Chapter 10 (The Other Civil War) and made it about halfway through Chapter 11 (Robber Barons and Rebels) before admitting defeat. I just couldn’t sit on the deck, in the sunshine, with birds singing and make myself read about how capitalists are evil and greedy and exploit working people. I just couldn’t. So, for the first time in this readalong, I didn’t complete the reading. Sigh. However, I shall try to muster some thoughts together to give you the gist of what I was able to read.
So You Think Your Job Sucks
Chapter 10 focuses on the oppression of the working folks and non-landowners by the upper class. The Anti-Renter movement is discussed at length, and then the rest of the chapter details the various ways that companies/capitalists exploited their workers and how the working people attempted to fight back by striking, which were (usually) put down by militias or government troops. As miserable as any one of us might be in our jobs, these poor people (including children) were basically factory slaves—working 12- to 14-hour days in awful conditions and then often being paid in company scrip (which could only be spent at the company store). Total exploitation. The main idea that you get after reading about countless failed strikes is that the nascent federal government basically did everything it could to support business and its interests at the expense of the working people. Although some strikes were successful and eventually workers were able to gain an 8-hour workday, it was a long and bloody battle that often cost people their lives.
Chapter 11 seems to continue with this theme—focusing on the rise of various moguls like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and the like and how various populist/socialist movements arose to fight back against the rich who continued to get richer at the expense of the working folk. Issues of rivalry between various ethnic groups is also covered (new immigrants were often used as strike breakers).
Through this all, the federal government is basically in the pocket of the rich businessmen—with bribery of congressmen being quite common and the Supreme Court ruling in favor of businesses over and over again. The lack of true differences between the political parties also begins to show up. Consider this quote from Chapter 11, which seemed as relevant today as it did back in 1877:
The presidential election itself had avoided real issues; there was no clear understanding of which interests would gain and which would lose if certain policies were adopted. It took the usual form of election campaigns, concealing the basic similarity of the parties by dwelling on personalities, gossip and trivialities. Henry Adams, an astute literary commentator of the era, wrote to a friend about the election:
We are here plunged in politics funnier than words can express. Very great issues are involved….But the most amusing thing is that no one talks about real interests. By common consent they agree to let those alone. We are afraid to discuss them. Instead of this, the press is engaged in a most amusing dispute whether Mr. [Grover] Cleveland has an illegitimate child and did or did not live with more than one mistress.
Sorry this week’s post is a bit fragmented and choppy. (Check out Nomadreader’s excellent posts, which put mine to shame. Plus she is posting every week.) In fact, the only reason this post got written was because the weather turned a bit cold and rainy. I will attempt to do better next week with Chapter 12 (The Empire and the People) and Chapter 13 (The Socialist Challenge). However, if the weather holds up, I just can’t imagine how I’m going to get through a chapter by Howard Zinn called “The Socialist Challenge” without significant difficulty. Wish me luck!