Thursday February 09, 2023

Financial empire

December 05, 2022

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the rise of the United States’ industrial and financial empire. These descriptions include everything from journal and magazine articles to textbooks and monographs of various lengths. All too many of them celebrate the men who got extremely rich from their activities during those years most often included in that historical period.

In what is taught as history to most of us, these men are usually celebrated for their foresight, their drive, and their success; a success measured by their vast wealth. Although some of the histories of this type offer a nod to the negative aspects of these men’s rise to the top of the capitalist food chain – the low wages they paid, the corruption they depended on to get their way with governments, their attacks on workers attempting to organize – those negatives are treated more like a sidebar. You know, the cost of doing business.

Fortunately for those who aren’t comfortable with the so-called great man theory of history, recent years have seen a few books published providing a more rounded view of the so-called industrial revolution in the United States. In other words, they dismiss the idea that only great men make history.

Instead, they argue that the role of the regular folks is at least as important as those few who control the wealth. The authors of these books consider the role of labor organizers and unions, the roles of farmers and indigenous peoples, women, and the land itself. Of course, given the power of the exploiter class, much of this history is a history of resistance to that class. As historian Chad Pearson’s latest book Capitalist’s Terrorists: Klansmen, Lawmen, and Employers in the Long Nineteenth Century makes clear in is the latest book, the employer class was (and is) not afraid of using brutal violence to get its way.

From tame-sounding organizations like employers’ associations to less tame groups like the so-called Concerned Citizens Alliances composed of employers, vigilantes, off-duty police officers, and hired thugs, the history Pearson relates is one of conspiracies and violence. Both of these phenomena were directed at working people fighting for a living wage. These groups’ intention was to keep the people working for them in poverty and fear; poverty because lower wages increased employers’ profits and fear because that kept workers from organizing to get their fair share. The tactics of fear included everything from blacklisting workers associated with organizing their fellows or agitating for better working conditions and pay to beatings, threats of beatings, running workers out of town, and even murder.

Pearson begins his text with a look at the Ku Klux Klan in its first incarnation during Reconstruction. Most historians place the motivations for the genesis and growth of the Klan during that period on southern white supremacists’ fear that equal rights for Black citizens would mean the end of their domination of the southern political system.

Excerpted: ‘US Capitalism’s Bully Boys’.