Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Organize or Perish

I have probably read hundreds of thousands of book chapter headings over the past 60 or so years, but there is one that was indelibly impressed on my mind during my first year in graduate school at Georgetown (1959-1960). The book was Response to Industrialism, 1885-1920 by Samuel P. Hays, and the chapter heading was "Organize or Perish." In it, the author argues that the only effective and rational response to the rise of "Big Business" was for everyone else to organize as well.

That chapter followed the author's analysis of the "Great Merger Wave" of 1895-1904, which produced such industrial behemoths (Trusts in the parlance of the times) as Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, and International Harvester. During that decade, 1800 firms were combined into 157 companies, most of them in manufacturing. Of the 93 consolidations studied by historian Naomi Lamoreaux in The Great Merger Movement in American Business, 72 of the new combinations controlled at least 40% of their industries while 42 dominated at least 70 %. The American Tobacco Company, formed by a consolidation of 162 firms, controlled 90 % of the market. The "Morganization" of finance, according to Michael Lind in Land Of Promise, also produced enormous investment institutions that "acted as intermediaries between the shareholding public and individual companies." By 1912, five American banks had "representatives on the "boards of 68 corporations whose combined assets added up to more than half of US gross natural product." Investigative journalists, called "muckrakers" by Teddy Roosevelt, also made millions of people aware of what historian Richard McCormick has called "the discovery that business corrupts politics."

Unlike many of today's people who seem to celebrate each new merger, our ancestors became increasingly horrified at this proliferation of oligopolies, fearing them as serious threats to economic and political democracy. The crucial election of 1912 revolved largely around the "Trust Question," with Woodrow Wilson's "New Freedom" urging "trust busting," and Theodore Roosevelt's "New Nationalism." advocating their effective regulation by the federal government. Although Wilson won the election, his administration actually behaved more like TR, laying the groundwork for today's "administrative state"---for better and worse.

As stunning as McCormick's "discovery" was to people of that time, the situation we face today makes it pale by comparison. Part of what underlies this perversion is the reality that Big Business has surreptitiously "captured" most of those very same regulatory agencies. But just as before, the only realistic strategy for reclaiming economic democracy has to be ORGANIZATION, which is
the absolutely indispensable first step in what historian John W. Chambers has proclaimed THE NEW INTERVENTIONISM. This involved a three-staged process: 1) " associationalism"or "voluntarism," which Chambers defined as "organization by nonstatutory institutions," a strategy that Tocqueville had long ago identified as the peculiar genius of Americans;" 2) collaborating in "coalitions" with  other private sector organizations for motives that are varied but compatible; and 3) political action, such as lobbying or endorsement of candidates or parties that advocate measures desired by different segments of the coalition. For example, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) originally abided by the "pure and simple trade unionism" dictum of Samuel Gompers and tried to achieve their goals of higher wages, shorter hours, and better and safer working conditions by collective bargaining, strikes and boycotts, without involving government. The National Consumers Union granted its "seal of approval" to businesses that agreed to meet its standards, and "blacklisting" those who refused. The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) engaged in organizing drives, joined picket lines, and gave aid and comfort to strikers. Small business associations embraced volume buying in order to compete with the economies of scale enjoyed larger competitors, while the Immigrant's Protective League (IPL) established waiting rooms, provided interpreters, procured transportation, jobs, and lodging, helped locate relatives, and screened employment agencies, banks, and schools. The Country Life Movement tried to make the agrarian environment more attractive, to bring some of the amenities of urban living to farmers, and to stem the "rural drain" to cities, especially for young people. Perhaps the most ambitious and effective voluntary efforts of all were the "social settlements," in which young women and men, imbued with a mixture of the "new social science' and the Social Gospel, and funded  mainly by churches and philanthropic organization, actually resided and worked among the urban underclasses to help them better living and working conditions. Thousands joined groups dedicated to ameliorating or prohibiting the abuses of child labor.

No matter how successful they were operating in the private sector, most organizations also eventually turned to political action--lobbying government at all levels for favorable legislation, backing the most amenable candidates and parties, and electioneering at the "grass-roots." Many turned to political action because their perceived adversaries were doing the same thing, and because their leaders came to realize that only government possessed the necessary leverage to accomplish their goals. Organized labor found its "pure and simple trade unionism" ineffectual as long as unions were considered "conspiracies," "yellow dog contracts" and labor spies were legal, and strikes and boycotts could be easily halted by injunctions and law suits. Trade associations and consumer leagues found that "fair trade" laws and regulatory legislation could rein in "big business." The Country Life Movement evolved into the Country Life Commission in 1908, while agrarian organizations lobbied for the county agent system, agricultural "extension" programs, and government subsidies to institutions engaged in agricultural education. The WTUL found that "political action, then, was required along with trade union activities to secure better conditions, a decent wage, a limit on hours, and the right to bargain and organize without harassment."  The IPL "urged that local and national government take over tasks begun by private begun by private organizations. Settlement residents found that political action was necessary because "to stay aloof from it might be to lose one opportunity of sharing the life of the neighborhood," and because "private beneficence is inadequate to deal with the vast numbers of the city's disinherited. The largely unorganized urban masses, caught in the web of impersonal economic forces and under increasing pressure from "nativists" and immigration restrictionists, had little recourse but to rely upon their elected representatives to do right by them. Operating in the public sector required forming "coalitions" with compatible groups on specific issues, often for significantly different reasons. The New Interventionism paid off and sometimes it didn't, but without it there was no progress at all--Then or Now!!!!        

The New Interventionism is hardly New anymore, but it certainly is in dire need of revival. What are the two things that Right-Wingers hate and fear the most?: labor unions and activist government. Why? Because they both empower the rest of society. Understanding that, and organizing to combat it, is our only real chance at reversing the "great unraveling" that has devastated our lives for the last four decades.

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