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11: Robber Barons and Rebels 
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Post 11: Robber Barons and Rebels
I'll say first that I might not have done the chapter justice. It was rather long and contained such a multitude of examples, without much contextualizing, that I grew a little weary. That will sound callous toward the millions who are described as suffering so severely just to achieve a minimum of comfort, safety, and dignity. Zinn's view is that the dark side of American finance and industry is its main face, not a mere blemish on a triumphal march to productivity the likes of which the world had never before known. He doesn't crow about the wealth generated, as most histories would, because that wealth accrued to a relatively small slice of the population. I can imagine him thinking that for perhaps a majority of Americans (certainly a majority if slaves are included), life, liberty, and happiness were denied. Jefferson would have been appalled at the hypocrisy, but then Jefferson committed his own hypocrisy in penning those immortal words. This thought may touch on what Zinn as well as many others have found it hard to accept about American society, that it has fallen so far short of its stated ideals but has somehow managed to cohere, instead of disintegrating or erupting into violence--with that one huge exception in 1861 when the country had to pay the price for compromises made 75 years earlier.

From his account, I tend to accept that only by strenuous and at times war-like efforts were American workers able to force the corporations to grant them living wages and humane working conditions, and often they failed to get much. These horrible conditions induced what we would find it hard to believe today: a radicalized working class embracing socialism and communism. My wife talks about her socialist grandmother who came of age on the Colorado plains in the 1880s. Populism was then a much bigger thing than today, for all the talk about it. Zinn ends the chapter with the candidacy of the populist William Jennings Bryant, he of "Inherit the Wind" fame. Bryant lost to Mckinley (and then lost twice more), but the fact that populism achieved prominence electorally is more negative than positive for Zinn, as he feels that diverting social movements into voting weakens and co-opts them. This is not the first time he has said as much in the book.

So, is there a valid "other side" to the story? Is the story more commonly taught really bereft of truth? Again I would be more in favor of balance, while still recognizing the value of a good polemic such as Zinn has written.

A point of interest was Horatio Alger stories. I was misinformed about these, thinking that Alger was a character in rags-to-riches stories. Looking Alger up, I found that he was the author of over 100 books aimed mainly at young boys. He had a dark past, having been hounded out of the Unitarian Church when, as a pastor, he was accused of molesting two boys. Zinn says that such inspiring stories of poor boys growing up to be rich were "mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control." At this point I say to Zinn, "There you go again." While it's true that few of the impoverished became barons of wealth, did these very popular stories contribute to males succeeding in rising economically? Very probably they did. The suggestion that elites had somehow planted such tales to brainwash the young is faintly ridiculous. Horatio Alger was trying to make a living and taking advantage of the zeitgeist.



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Post Re: 11: Robber Barons and Rebels
DWill wrote:
I'll say first that I might not have done the chapter justice. It was rather long and contained such a multitude of examples, without much contextualizing, that I grew a little weary. That will sound callous toward the millions who are described as suffering so severely just to achieve a minimum of comfort, safety, and dignity.
I am only about two-thirds through it myself, but I wanted to react to what you say here. First, I agree that it reads a little like "one damned war after another" only the incidents are labor unrest bred by the conditions of the employment, and government crack-downs to destroy worker power or at least keep the peace. As such, it is wearying. He has chosen a really big, sweeping subject, and telling it as a sequence of incidents is not the best way to engage the reader. I suspect what is going on is historiographic - if he put forward his interpretations and used the incidents as illustrations, it would be easier for critics to argue. Facts are sort of incontrovertible.

DWill wrote:
Zinn's view is that the dark side of American finance and industry is its main face, not a mere blemish on a triumphal march to productivity the likes of which the world had never before known. He doesn't crow about the wealth generated, as most histories would, because that wealth accrued to a relatively small slice of the population.
Well, I must admit I was astonished at the concentration of wealth in the early stages of the country, although it fits with a country whose residents only ever knew feudal landed aristocracy as a system. The economic history I am familiar with is much more about how technology and infrastructure transformed the lot of ordinary farmers, how homesteading enabled ordinary people to be independent and avoid the miseries of urban life, (the Radical Republicans, in the one-sided Congresses elected in 1860-66, sometimes considered the most productive Congresses ever, brought the Homestead Acts which were surely the most helpful measures ever for the economics of working people, including the G.I. Bill, though it brought the doom of the Plains Indians), how typhoid epidemics brought the reservoir system of water provision, etc., etc.

I like hearing the skeptical side, but when Zinn's whole take on Homesteading was that most ordinary workers couldn't afford the cost, so there were speculators, I get impatient for some figures. I heard dozens of stories of homesteaders in the Upper Midwest from their children and grandchildren, and they didn't sound like the educated or the privileged.
DWill wrote:
I can imagine him thinking that for perhaps a majority of Americans (certainly a majority if slaves are included), life, liberty, and happiness were denied. Jefferson would have been appalled at the hypocrisy, but then Jefferson committed his own hypocrisy in penning those immortal words. This thought may touch on what Zinn as well as many others have found it hard to accept about American society, that it has fallen so far short of its stated ideals
The conditions of the poor have been miserable since as long as we can get information about. With some exceptions, such during as the Celtic move into Europe, the evidence shows high infant mortality (I have heard 50% by age five, from Roman times), poor diets (the usual cause of high infant mortality) and high levels of violence.

Malthus almost certainly laid out the cause: reproduction outstrips resource availability per worker (the man-land ratio, as historians say) and any temporary improvement is soon swamped by the humanity dependent on those conditions. Early growth theory posited an interesting possible alternative: if a big enough jump in the man-land ratio occurs, the natural tendency to technological advancement can (at least temporarily) outstrip reproduction and the advancement in living conditions that results can result in lower, not higher, birth rates. The surge in methods in Europe after the Black Death is a possible example of the result of a jump in the man-land ratio, (1/3 of Europe died, so land per worker was suddenly 50% higher), but it seems to have taken the big expansion into the Americas, esp. North America, to get us "over the hump" to a high enough standard of living to bring declining family size. (One objection to this story of brute equations is that France, after the Revolution, was the first European country to experience falling birth rates. It's an interesting case, and as far as I know, not fully accounted for, but the very high death rates of soldiers in the subsequent wars has been given some important role.)

Zinn seems to take it for granted that an improvement in living standards caused by sharing the wealth would have avoided the Malthusian trap. That certainly would not have been the common view at the time, but the French case is sometimes considered evidence that it would have - that is, that peasants given hope, agency and education would have chosen smaller family size. I am somewhat skeptical. Education certainly has an effect, and that is part of the story in France as well as in North America.

The question closer to his heart, I think, is whether it would have been right to give workers the ability to run things and determine the conditions of their work. Certainly the results have been fairly happy in some of the cases where this happened, but those who have succeeded in really improving their living conditions have usually done so partly by fairly ruthlessly excluding those who are not already part of the group which is organizing. Would American workers have done better if immigration had been cut off? Surely, without a doubt. But then Europe might have been much worse than it was, which was already worse than America.

DWill wrote:
From his account, I tend to accept that only by strenuous and at times war-like efforts were American workers able to force the corporations to grant them living wages and humane working conditions, and often they failed to get much. These horrible conditions induced what we would find it hard to believe today: a radicalized working class embracing socialism and communism. My wife talks about her socialist grandmother who came of age on the Colorado plains in the 1880s. Populism was then a much bigger thing than today, for all the talk about it.

What struck me was how the times of real rebellion came with the Panics and Depressions. Before there was unemployment insurance and general relief, lack of work was starvation. The workers were usually striking to prevent the erosion of wages which were already low (but twice the level of Europe, including, apparently, some premium over those of England, which, along with the Netherlands, was the leading economy of the day) and the increase in the price of goods which resulted from lower production. Economists at the time of the 30s thought that lower wages were part of the solution, and an inevitable trial to be gotten through. It took Keynes' General Theory to point out that when demand is constrained, lower wages only add to the problem, since they will not add to employment faster than they subtract from income.

We are living in a time of the decline of the equilibrium real wage (for unskilled labor, at least, and maybe for those with a HS education), due to technology and foreign competition. Ordinary wages are kept from falling by custom and institutions, but those, like Uber, who exploit the disequilibrium that results are a demonstration of the nature of the problem. Most economists (well, more than 50%, apparently) would argue that an experiment in stimulating aggregate demand would be a really good idea. Trying to bring back a little inflation would overcome the disequilibrium.

DWill wrote:
Zinn ends the chapter with the candidacy of the populist William Jennings Bryant, he of "Inherit the Wind" fame. Bryant lost to Mckinley (and then lost twice more), but the fact that populism achieved prominence electorally is more negative than positive for Zinn, as he feels that diverting social movements into voting weakens and co-opts them. This is not the first time he has said as much in the book.
Yes, he does seem to be highly skeptical of elections and voting, even though they plainly brought a better America. Socialism in Europe which came by means of the ballot box was an unmitigated blessing. I find this attitude among the Hard Left to be extremely off-putting.

Social Democracy essentially sees the extension of democracy to the workplace as the means to human flourishing. I see that as a sensible proposition, though it would need a lot of thought to put in place well. But it starts with the democracy in the making and administration of laws, and all the critiques of "bourgeois democracy" etc., even in the Age of Trump, leave me completely cold. Better Trump than Maduro or Castro, as far as I am concerned, even though we are definitely talking lesser of evils.

DWill wrote:
Again I would be more in favor of balance, while still recognizing the value of a good polemic such as Zinn has written.
If Zinn sees himself as offering a corrective, to what has been one-sided, then I am all for his work. If he really thinks he has presented a balanced view, or, more likely, thinks that the effort to provide balance is mistaken and corrupt, well, I kind of feel sorry for him.

DWill wrote:
While it's true that few of the impoverished became barons of wealth, did these very popular stories contribute to males succeeding in rising economically? Very probably they did.
The evidence that has emerged in the last 10 years of declining social mobility in America is far more disturbing to me than the evidence of increased inequality. Given that no more than about 20 percent of America has actually experienced a decline in living standards in the last 45 years, and that not excessive, I don't cry too much about the surge going to the entrepreneurial, the grasping and the educated. What I object to is an education system grown increasingly racially unequal (did you imagine that is possible?) and a series of steps by the government which have actively undermined upward mobility. I am also deeply concerned about the widening gap in parenting effectiveness between the poor and the middle class.



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Post Re: 11: Robber Barons and Rebels
Thank you for that typically lucid response, Harry. I haven't been reading Zinn lately, having been away on a two-week backpack. (And now I believe he is due back at the library, but I will try to locate another copy or just read online.) As trite as it sounds, I often feel the logical reaction to Zinn's history is, "It just ain't that simple." It's that resistance to reductionism that contributes to making history a fascinating subject. There's a Necker cube aspect to it, where by a small shift in perspective we evaluate events differently or see a trend as positive, not negative, or vice versa.

I wonder if you have the sense that I do of the accounts of the struggles for workers, women, and minorities for their rights. While Zinn leaves no doubt in my mind about the truth of the inequities themselves, at the same time I wonder if he's ignoring something right under his nose, which is that these battles in a way are evidence of a system that exerts less control, not more, than would be the case in Europe or elsewhere. There is suppression and attempted suppression, but it does not fully succeed, and the struggles continue. At least, this might be the case for whites and women. It would not be the case for black slaves, who are allowed no voice at al.



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Harry Marks, Robert Tulip
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Post Re: 11: Robber Barons and Rebels
DWill wrote:
I often feel the logical reaction to Zinn's history is, "It just ain't that simple." It's that resistance to reductionism that contributes to making history a fascinating subject. There's a Necker cube aspect to it, where by a small shift in perspective we evaluate events differently or see a trend as positive, not negative, or vice versa.
One of the claims by Rorty, in his "Contingency, Irony and Solidarity" is that any fact can be made to seem either wonderful or horrible by sufficiently flexible presentation. While I see the point, and am in no position to refute it, it still represents a kind of nihilism to me. Rorty's "answer" is that art, which gives up on presenting an overall perspective didactically, nevertheless accomplishes the generation of empathy which is the ostensible goal of such overarching social structures as religion and, maybe even, law.

I have some sympathy for Rorty's frustration with system-building, but to me the answer is more of the humility of truth-seeking, not more of the subordination of art to political purposes which he appears to advocate. So I guess I think it is important to consider the different perspectives, and in the end to commit. Not to commit to one perspective being always wrong, but to commit to acting on the world in a way which embodies moral choices, knowing that there are severe constraints on the persuasiveness of a moral perspective.

I have said this in response to Zinn before, but when he is giving a more accurate picture, I think he does great work. He is drawing on the work of many scholars before him, of course. I don't think he fully understands the constraints on what outcomes are, or would have been, possible, so his (implicit) solutions are probably somewhat unrealistic. But I am even more deeply offended by the perspective of the "historians to power" who simply want to analyze which levers of power seemed to work and why, without recognizing the costs to the rest of humanity of "hard men doing bad things."
DWill wrote:
While Zinn leaves no doubt in my mind about the truth of the inequities themselves, at the same time I wonder if he's ignoring something right under his nose, which is that these battles in a way are evidence of a system that exerts less control, not more, than would be the case in Europe or elsewhere.
Interesting observation. In a way, this has been the subject of debate for many long decades. The hard left has tended to argue that America resisted socialism because the rich were more successful at manipulating rather than holding power directly, but one important counterargument has been that workers had it relatively good in America partly because there was more land to be gotten for those who wanted to venture forth.
I tend to take de Tocqueville's view as most insightful - the Americans were always more in a game against nature than in a game against other men. As such, cooperation was pretty promising, and the national character was shaped to be successful at "bottom up" cooperation.
Zinn provides a good corrective, but I always want to see an assessment of "to what extent" it really was about conflict, domination and seizure. Zinn is not going to do that for us, nor, frankly, have I seen much from modern historians trying to take on such massive questions.
DWill wrote:
There is suppression and attempted suppression, but it does not fully succeed, and the struggles continue. At least, this might be the case for whites and women. It would not be the case for black slaves, who are allowed no voice at al.
To give an idea why I think presenting an overall perspective is so difficult, it might be good to consider the lot of women. While women were historically very restricted, and violence was at the heart of the legal arrangements which, for example, denied them the right to hold property for a long time, it is also true that the system as designed helped to meet the needs and goals of women. Given that much of their lives would be about raising their children, having a system in which men could do well at this and be loving husbands and fathers was actually a positive benefit to many women's lives.

To the extent that arrangements between the sexes were about domination, clearly the men were the dominant ones, and all kinds of specious justifications grew up around this. But the arrangements were not all about domination, and men who invested their marriages with hopes and dreams and hard work and good behavior tended to see success for their children as a result. Cooperation paid, in other words. If you ignore the domination, as the national mythology tended to do, you get a distorted picture. But if you ignore the cooperation, which the mythology was partly geared to promote, you also get a distorted picture.



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