November 2017

Can Labor History Transform Our World?: A Roundtable with the Editors

We are too used to worshiping rich people in our country.

People just aren’t joining labor unions. That’s not a problem on its own, but it can leave workers more vulnerable to poor treatment by employers. Bosses can demand more work for less, offer fewer benefits, and leave workers unprotected. The end result of this behavior—rising corporate profits, stagnant wages, and an elite-friendly political system—are the hallmarks of our era.

At this very moment, our Congress is “debating” how to exacerbate these trends in the name of fiscal responsibility, the code wealthy elites use to refer to their desire to extend their wealth. College, who needs to be able to go to college? Permanent middle class tax cuts? What do you think this is, a charity? Or as the Post describes it: “a big scam.”

tax cuts
Tax implications of the Republican plan after ten years. Notice all that wealth conveniently going to the already-wealth at the expense of everyone else. Courtesy Vox.

We are too used to worshiping rich people in our country. While historians certainly don’t have all the answers to what’s gone wrong or where we should go next, we do have some deep reservations about our current trajectory and hope to provide depth for a broad discussion about the national cancer that our elites have become.

Our editors’ conversation on class, labor, and inequality follows, lightly edited for length and clarity.
What is “labor history” and what is missing from the way we think about it?

Cory James Young: I’ve recently been thinking about the connections between intellectual and physical labor in the early United States. As scholars, I actually think we might be too quick to relegate historical intellectual labor to some other realm. Yet the connections are abundant. Neither Benjamin Franklin nor Thomas Jefferson could have lived their lives of the mind without the physical labor of dependents, namely women and slaves. In other words, the ability to perform intellectual work often depends on the manual work of others.

William Horne: That’s a really great point, Cory. On the one hand, labor history usually tells the story of those who have worked with their hands and resisted exploitations tied to capitalism. A classic, in this respect, might be Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic. While we could argue about his sources and methodology, there can be little doubt that Wilentz’s narrative is animated by working people and radicals organizing to resist oppression. On the other hand, however, are works that look more carefully at modes of exploitation. I’m thinking of here of David Roediger’s classic Wages of Whiteness. He uses many of the same sources Wilentz employs to tell a story about how workers and employers alike used the idea of whiteness to harm and exploit African Americans. The vision of labor he identifies is one revolving significantly around racist ideas.

CJY: Which raises an interesting issue: the intellectual labor required to facilitate physical labor. There are newspaper advertisements from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries where you can witness landowners rhetorically transform “sundry tracts of land” into “prime cotton plantations” in real time. It’s the same land, but this intellectual labor encourages a shift to a certain kind of agricultural labor.

Lauren Angel: I’m wondering about what happens to laborers without labor. When the means of producing what was thought of as labor are gone—a move from farm to factory and from factory to post-industrial economy—what happens to the laborers? How does the meaning of labor shift according to these changes? How does the relationship between intellectual and physical labor change? And how do the experiences of laborers who have and have not benefited from these transitions inform the stories we tell?

Tom Foley: Lauren, I love your question: what is a laborer without labor (what is a worker who is unemployed?). I’m reminded of Karl Polanyi’s rejection of the free market on, among other points, the grounds that the labor market is just another way of saying life lived by humans. That, I think, is a window through which labor historians can crawl and root around in the work of material and intellectual fields of historical thought. Labor history considers the type of work performed, but the lived experience—and I’m thinking of Seth Rockman’s Scraping By here—of “workers” might speak to the intellectual lives of those we consider most likely to wring their bread from their own physical exertion. This might be the inverse of what Cory is suggesting about the prerequisite intellectual labor necessary for some/much physical labor. One of the first lines of Julius Caesar is some high and mighty Roman calling the masses, who were off work and on holiday, “You rocks! You stones! You worse than senseless things!” Of course, they weren’t senseless or worse than, but understanding the intellectual processes and logic of life as applied by workers might be space for historians to dig some new trenches.

WH: Such a rich discussion! I love labor history, but I sometimes wonder if the term might be too restrictive. Cory, Tom, and I had a wonderful conversation about this a few months ago around the underlying question of what constitutes work. Can someone who is unemployed still be considered a worker, especially in Lauren’s scenario of a post-employment world? Should we count unwaged household labor, traditionally performed by women and children, as work? Can non-humans like a guard dog or a robotic vacuum work? We tend to think of work as bringing a wage for a set period of physical and mental exertion, but these parameters rely on capitalist inequality as a precondition for work. There has to be a rich guy to hire you before you can have work within that framework. In this respect, I think we would do well to think of labor and its history in the broadest possible terms.

union women
Union women at the 6th Biennial Convention of the National Women’s Trade League in 1917. Courtesy Library of Congress.

What is the relationship of labor history to the distinct field “history of capitalism”? Are studies of capitalism outgrowths of labor history, or are they intrinsically different?

CJY: The history of capitalism is, at its core, a synthesis of labor history, business history, economic history, and the history of slavery. One of the field’s spokespeople, Cornell historian Louis Hyman, has described it as “history from below, all the way to the top.” In other words, it begins with the premise that laborers’ stories matter, but understands these stories as providing but a single thread in a complex web of historical relationships. The history of capitalism, moreover, refuses to accept its subject as natural or inevitable (which is how it can focus so much attention on slavery as foundational to an order that so many have defined as predicated on free labor). To write labor history during a moment when the history of capitalism is in vogue is to assert that not all labor is capitalist. You can’t have capitalism without labor, but you can have labor independent of capitalism. The two can exist together.

WH: Yet to write labor history at a time when capitalism—and especially consumerism—is the unchallenged national creed of the U.S. is to engage in a difficult task. It introduces (or at least attempts to do so) an entirely foreign worldview to readers outside of the academy at a time when union membership continues its long downward trajectory. And this, for me, is where intelligible labor history is crucial. It has the potential to show that 1) bosses aren’t unassailable forces of nature and 2) that our forebears struggled mightily for the eight-hour day and other workplace rights and norms we take for granted. We too can carry that torch. Despite the pearl-clutching criticisms of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, the overall conclusion of her work is indisputable. Far-Right ideologues have waged a long, well-funded campaign against Leftist thought. In many respects, they have won. If we hope to counteract right-wing market worship, labor history must play an important part.

Andreas Meyris: I think it is very clear that you can’t have a history of capitalism without discussing labor. In fact, I find it entirely impossible to historicize capitalism in any effective way without analyzing how workers, producers, and the like participated and formed the economic system that now has a hold virtually everywhere. As Bill mentions, capitalism is now an “unchallenged national creed,” but it certainly wasn’t always. It’s important to recognize groups like the Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the various Marxist forces of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century which very much envisioned a reality free of market capitalism.
On the other hand, I think it is disingenuous not to make a sharp distinction between anti-capitalists and class-agitators who sought to make capitalism work for them. Populists and early trade unionists in groups like the American Federation of Labor were not so much interested in overthrowing the dominant economic system as they were sharing its wealth.

yale union
Yale graduate workers protesting at the home of university president Peter Salovey. Courtesy HuffPost.

What does labor history have to offer to contemporary Americans?

AM: I think the message one should get out of labor history is that the working classes used to have a strong voice in this country. Also that many thought an empowered working class was key to a functioning democracy. We need to both examine the trajectory of labor toward greater representation and inclusivity, but also look at the weaknesses of organized labor and why there has always been a strong opposition toward a powerful working class. I agree that the far-Right has been wildly successful in lobbying its way into a more mainstream appeal, but there is also a grassroots Right in this country that has always looked at collective bargaining and other forms of class-based agitation with concern.

WH: Much of my work deals with the long history of mass incarceration and looks at the ways that ideas about labor and work impact who we imprison and how we justify their confinement. One of the consistent trends from slavery through the present is that we use much the same language to describe prisoners as we do to justify exploiting working people. As the story goes, working class folks are lazy, irresponsible, stupid. They don’t deserve more money. Wouldn’t use it responsibly anyway. We use the same broad brush to paint incarcerated people. And as Loïc Wacquant finds in Prisons of Poverty, roughly 66% of the inmates in jails and prisons are from households with annual incomes of less than half the poverty line. There’s a sense, then, that we really are talking about the same group of people. And when you look at the larger trends, you find that we start incarcerating folks on a massive scale just as the economy undergoes a series of dramatic changes in the 1970s. So you have this force creating jobs building and operating prisons just as you start imprisoning mostly unemployed and impoverished people, especially people of color. If we fail to use the lens of class struggle to examine the world around us, there’s no guarantee that elites will do the same. In fact, they might just give themselves a tax cut, lock the rest of us up, and throw away the key.

TF: For a number of different reasons related to several distinct (mostly political) events, many Americans are wondering, “How did we get here?” While we should take caution not to write histories that only explore the roads taken but rather embrace the contingencies and jagged edges that don’t line up in the past, we should be cognizant that many readers of history are looking for just that—a roadmap they can follow.  Labor history does that by demonstrating the consequential ways in which labor, government, and capital have tectonically collided to create the modern American Pangea. Why do we have a weekend? Labor history has answers. Why does the minimum wage matter? Labor history can tell you. What are the origins of the gender pay gap and what related struggles have women and people of color had to fight (and fight harder) in order to earn an equal shot? Labor history can help you understand. What are the social, political, health, justice, and economic consequences of income inequality and corporations maintaining private police forces? Labor historians can provide insight.

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2 comments on “Can Labor History Transform Our World?: A Roundtable with the Editors

  1. I’m glad you folks published this conversation. It is worth pointing out how few institutions teach labor history these days. Why? I think too many liberal academics are uncomfortable with the topics of class and class struggle. And some, like Wilentz, no longer identify as a labor historian. This is true of Lizabeth Cohen, Michael Kazin, Gary Gerstle and a number of others. Many of these scholars identify as political historians and would rather write books about the rise and fall of New Deal liberalism while downplaying the importance of class struggle and the moral bankruptcy of the Democratic Party.

    Liked by 1 person

    • William Horne

      Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment!

      I consider myself a labor historian, so I’ve been perplexed to see the field shrink. Part of the issue, it seems, is that “labor history” strikes many senior scholars as old-fashioned. Perhaps that is because organized labor itself is shrinking or (I worry) because we’ve internalized the Reaganite wealth fetish. Either way, the answer surely lies in writing better labor history, not in abandoning the field.

      As to your point about political history replacing labor among historians of the Left, David Roediger made a really biting remark in the introduction to Seizing Freedom that this shifting focus has less to do with systems of power than foregrounding the Obama presidency and the increasingly chaotic politics of the present. I’m a relative newcomer, so I don’t think it’s fair for me to say, but I do wonder how we got to this point.


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