Fake Freedom and the Paycheck Nomad

Rural workers of the early 20th century caught their sleep in boxcars and meals in the open air. Lured by labor agents’ promises of steady work, they drifted broke and hungry from camp to camp, huddling beneath tents and hastily built shacks, strangers to plumbing and doctors, but all too familiar with illness, accidents, and back-breaking extraction in the mines.Wages, low as they were, rarely even reached their hands. Company managers advanced credit for food, shelter and tools at vastly inflated prices, then submitted workers a bill after they had toiled for months in life-threatening conditions.  The longer they worked, the more indebted they became.

Only with tortuous discipline did some workers manage the miracle of putting aside a few dollars. Such victories were short-lived, however, as the urgent need to forget one’s misery quickly saw the savings squandered on cheap booze.

In the larger towns employment offices operated in cahoots with the saloon owners, who delivered hung-over workers to labor contractors, starting the cycle of anguish anew.

Urban workers fared no better. Their homes were dark, unventilated slum tenements called “slaughterhouses,” where a small mob of workers cooked, washed, and slept in a single room. Outside, the air reeked of chemicals and industrial gases, and open sewers flowed through muddy streets strewn with tin cans, bottles, rocks, and garbage.

Overworked and underfed, they suffered epidemics of asthma, tuberculosis, measles, bronchitis, cholera, rickets, and pneumonia. Widespread lead poisoning left them with blue gums and no teeth.

Every job bred a characteristic affliction – rheumatism, muscle paralysis, hernia, ulcers.

In the steelworks, mills, mines, railroads, and building trades, men were ruined by their early forties. Missing limbs were as common as sunburn at the beach.

The perpetual “speed up” of production lines turned workers into human wrecks, regularly overcome by the “shakes.” Meals had to be taken in spasmodic gulps.

Drained of vitality by their early forties, then replaced by teenagers, lucky workers were hired back at reduced pay as sweepers or night watchmen.  Unlucky ones fell dependent on their children, sank into destitution, or died shortly after being declared useless.

This was the great legacy of worker freedom in the self-proclaimed greatest democracy the world has ever seen, a generation before the Great Depression made their lot considerably worse.

In what came to be known as the progressive era, American “patriots” boasted of their New World liberty, allegedly so different from Old World tyranny and oppression.

In the USA, after all, workers were free to put their working lives to traffic and submit to any terms chronic desperation allowed them to get.  Hallelujah!

They were free to quit a job anytime they wanted, and briefly go anywhere and do anything until their money ran out. Then hunger overtook them, and they were free to rent themselves all over again.

They were also free to keep company with anyone they liked, so long as it didn’t include union organizers.

They were free to dream of owning property priced well beyond their wages, and to impotently rage at the cycle of recessions and depressions that routinely crushed their more modest ambitions.

They were free to speak their minds in democratic debate, though the brutality of the workday usually left them without time or energy to even follow the events of the day.

They were free to ingest the barrage of industry propaganda that masqueraded as news, leaving them ignorant of what they most needed to know.

They were free to parrot the views of those who profited off their ignorance, and vote for their candidates at the ballot box.

If they chose to band together in collective action and demand more pay, less work, and decent conditions, employers were free to have them beaten, shot, and starved back to work on the same rotten terms. On the remote chance that they were able to overcome all this, employers were free to induce a depression, so that soaring unemployment, savage wage-cuts and prolonged lockouts destroyed the financial basis of worker resistance altogether.

And, of course, the ultimate employer trump card was to start a war and draft workers into slaughtering each other, the only occasion on which full employment has ever been contemplated under the reign of capital.

More than a century after the progressive era workers now find themselves being forced back down the wealth pyramid after a brief flirtation with middle-class respectability (1945-1975).

Digital feudalism has replaced industrial feudalism, and proliferating “right to work” laws celebrate workers’ inherent right to scrounge.

Banks selling worthless paper are “too big to fail,” and unions are too few to matter.

Platforms replace markets, and Lords of Tech awash in hundreds of billions of dollars coin personal data into limitless profit, which their customers eagerly give them, toiling endless hours on the Internet for free.

Sources:1

  1. Rural workers: Page Smith, America Enters The World – A People’s History of the Progressive Era and World War I, (McGraw Hill, 1985, pps. 29-31); Urban workers:  Noel Kent, America In 1900, (M. E. Sharpe, 2000, pps. 78, 81-3, 87); and Worker “freedom”: Irving Stone, Clarence Darrow For The Defense, (Signet, 1941, pps. 150, 159). []
Michael K. Smith is the author of The Madness of King George from Common Courage Press. He co-blogs with Frank Scott at www.legalienate.blogspot.com. Read other articles by Michael.