This song, written for the Yiddish theatre around 1900 by Hyman Prizit and Abe Schwarz, is a fairly good summation of the essay The Uprooted, written about 50 years later by Oscar Handlin. The second great wave of immigrants during the last half of the nineteenth century consisted of peasant farmers from Eastern and Southern Europe as well as Scandinavia, forced off of lands that had sustained them for generations, no longer able to extract a living from it, or fleeing persecutions and repressive, quasi-feudal governments.
The had heard of “Amerika,” where the streets were paved with gold and land was there for the taking. Often spending all they had, those who survived the crossing arrived and found the streets paved not with gold, but with the blood, sweat and toil of those who were exploited to create gold for elite ruling classes that were often more oppressive than those they had fled. The difference was in the nature of the exploitation and oppression. Whereas in the “Old Country,” physical violence had most often been the tool of oppression – Cossacks, private police, etc.
– in the industrial-capitalistic U. S. , the oppression was economic. Those who controlled the means of production, then as now, though only of maximizing and internalizing profits while minimizing and externalizing costs. Human life meant nothing to the industrial capitalist overlords. Had not the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, they would have happily enslaved the newcomers in order to keep themselves in luxury. A few of the immigrants were able to escape the cities, and even fewer managed to acquire land and establish farms.
Most however found themselves trapped in a system that not only cut them off from the land, entrapping them in a virtual jungle of concrete, brick and stone, but found their very lives subject to economic cycles, manipulations and machinations they could neither understand nor control. When employment was available, the demands of the corporate leeches robbed the immigrant laborers of the comforts of family, culture and even religious faith, since workers were often required to work seven days a week.
In Ethnic Enclaves and the Worker’s Saloon, Roy Rosenzweig describes how the workers of one city were able to take back some power from their corporate overlords, and how the unique character of this city made it even possible. Worcester Massachusetts was unusual in a number of ways. Unlike many industrial towns, it was not located near a navigable river nor a source of raw materials. Additionally, during the wave of corporate mergers and acquisition that took place during the first “Robber Baron” era around the turn of the 20th century, most of the factories in Worcester managed to remain under local control.
“Control” was the operative word, here; the families who started Worcester’s industries virtually controlled the community. As in large port cities such as Baltimore, New York and Boston, the immigrant workforce was a mixed lot who often could not see beyond their own ethnic and religious differences to realize that as workers, they shared many of the same problems. In addition, the control of city politics by the industrial capitalists made it difficult for working-class people to get involved in the system in any sort of active way. This, combined with “the carrot of paternalism” (i. e.
, “faith-based initiatives,” charity organizations, educational programs) and the “stick of repression” (threat of firings if workers were suspected of union activity, tracking of personal information and the use of company spies) helped the elite classes maintain control over the workforce (88). As the ethnic landscape grew more diverse, the individual ethnic communities began to “circle the wagons,” metaphorically speaking; the results were an “interweaving of church, fraternal lodge and family” that allowed built a support system for the various communities – who were, often as not, at odds with each other.
This in combination with the more structured, disciplinarian and authoritarian structure in the workplace that inhibited socialization, gave rise to the saloons – literal drinking establishments as the working class began to have more leisure time. Whereas in earlier times, drinking and socializing on the job (primarily in artisan and agricultural industries) was permissible, in the more mechanized industrial workplace, it was not (more because the bosses wanted more control over their workers rather than out of any real concern for their safety, one suspects).
This also had the effect of separating the male from home and family to a greater degree (89). U. S. history appears to run in cycles, with a pendulum that swings from an egalitarian, socialistic economic model in which the economy serves the people, to a quasi-feudal, hyper-capitalistic, laissez-faire system in which a few ruthless individuals claw their way to the top of the socio-economic ladder and become economic leeches, literally feeding off of the blood and sweat of honest laborers while contributing little, if anything to the betterment of society (cases in point – the Walton (Wal-Mart) family, Paris Hilton and the Bush dynasty).
Like today, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a period of capitalism run amuck, justified by a sick, twisted perversion of Christianity preached by a murderous sociopath over four hundred years before in Geneva, Switzerland. Like the medieval Catholicism, Calvinism has been used to justify authoritarianism dominance by a patriarchal, self-appointed aristocracy, whose only interests are in the accumulation of wealth and power over society.
Human needs and even lives mean nothing to these predators (although their Congressional lap-dogs and lickspittles are not above moralizing about a “culture of life” – as long as it involves people who are either still in the womb, are vegetative, or anyone else for whom they themselves don’t need to take any direct responsibility). The tragedy is that the concept of the sweatshop and worker exploitation has never completely disappeared, despite the efforts of the “saloons” and the union movements that ultimately grew from them.
In the 1930’s, Franklin Roosevelt literally “saved capitalism from itself” with the New Deal that among other things, strengthened worker protections and the right to form a union. For about four decades, these policies resulted in the establishment of a solid middle class – corresponding to the “yeomanry” that Thomas Jefferson himself said was the bedrock of a democracy. Like the first middle class of the U. S. , which existed between 1790 and 1840, this middle class was politically savvy and involved.
When this activism forced an end to their highly profitable war in Vietnam, the politicians and their corporate backers in the war industries responded with a “new” brand of conservatism which was really the same kind of predatory, “robber baron” economics that FDR had tried to end. The ultimate goal of today’s neo-conservatism is to end democracy and replace it with feudalism by destroying the middle and working classes – something Reagan and his three successors have been doing quite effectively.
Since the labor laws that would have permitted a return to child labor, sweatshops and twelve-hour, seven-day-a-week work schedules would be hard to overcome, this labor was simply shipped overseas to nations where such things were permitted. This not only allowed corporate capitalists to maximize profits to obscene levels on the backs of these workers, it also robbed American workers of their livelihoods, and has put much of the middle class in such economic insecurity, they have little time or inclination for activism.
This was made possible by a number of things: Reagan’s intentional failure to enforce the Sherman Act, and the elimination of the tariffs that financed a great deal of the federal government for 200 years. This was followed by “Free Trade” agreements that are in fact “free” for large corporate interests, but exact a heavy price on everyone else, and the transfer of the “commons” – that which the citizens of a nation hold in ownership collectively – to private, predatory, profit-driven corporations.
The results are clear, if not generally spoken of my a bought-and-paid-for corporate media: 46 million U. S. citizens with no access to health care, the destruction and continuing neglect of a major port city, the rape of a foreign country on behalf of private corporate oil interests (being protected in large part by a private, well-paid mercenary army while U. S. ground troops go without the most basic necessities), the deterioration of public education, the sell-out of U. S.
industry and infrastructure to foreign interests, the near-destruction of the middle class as wealth is stolen through regressive taxes and transferred to economic parasites such as the Walton family. Handlin paints an accurate picture of a time that not only was, but is in great danger of returning. The only hope for the U. S. is suggested by Rosenzweig, which is actually being seen today on the Internet. Today’s Progressive on-line blogs and chatrooms are the new “Saloons,” where the issues outlined above – long ignored or misunderstood by a citizenry lulled by the panen et circensem of today – are finally being discussed.
While the majority of “Republicrats” and “Demopublicans” in Congress continue to thumb their noses at the citizens they claim to represent as they continue to enable a dysfunctional, sociopathic, twice-unelected “president” and his fascist-leaning cohorts, today’s technology has made it impossible to hide the corruption and decay completely. History runs in cycles. Just as the last quarter-century has seen the return of exploitive Robber Baron capitalism, so has the Internet provided “Saloons” where the working class can once again take back what is rightfully theirs and create an economy that serves people – not the other way around.
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