It was a company town.
A company region, actually.
The Mohawk Valley in upstate New York.
The Remington boys had started a gun company.
And they had come to dominate the region.
There was even company scrip.
Scrip you could use like money to buy food, and clothes.
Get a haircut.
Even donate to the local church.
And when you went to church, Mr. Remington was there.
So, if you had a complaint, you could tap him on the shoulder.
And talk about it.
People were generally happy.
Then the gun trust came to town.
And sabotaged the whole deal.
And down it went.
That's the story line of Worked Over: The Corporate Sabotage of An
American Community by Dimitra Doukas (Cornell University Press).
Doukas, who is now a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova
Scotia, says that in the late 1800s, corporations, once they took
control of production, tried to change the culture of the United States.
From the gospel of work to what Andrew Carnegie called the gospel of
"If we look at the United States in the 19th century, we see a popular
culture that was, in a word, anti-capitalist," Doukas said. "And this
was reflected very much in the political scene of the time. You had to
be in favor of the working man. You had to support and praise the common
man. The basic idea is that work is what dignifies a person. It is an
anti-aristocratic ideology. It goes way back, really. Aristocrats were
characterized as parasites, as people who lived off the work of others.
Whereas good, virtuous American people worked hard and were expected to
enjoy the fruits of their labor."
So, for example, Abraham Lincoln, in his first annual message to
Congress in 1861, makes his statement about capital and labor: "Capital
is only the fruit of labor. Labor is the superior of capital and
deserves much the higher consideration."
But when the corporations came in and took over, the major message was
-- no, it's capital, not labor, that produces the wealth of society --
it's capital that deserves the greater consideration."
And this is what Doukas means by "the sabotage of an American community."
"Sabotage in the sense of undermining or continually poking at it, first
with very little sophistication, poking at the basic value set of the
society," she says. "And the reason they poked at it is because the
corporate value system could not co-exist with the American value system."
On the whole, working for the Remingtons was a positive thing. There
were no strikes. The Knights of Labor were influential at the time. And
people look back with fond memories of the time.
"To work for the Remingtons was not to have a job in our sense," Doukas
told us. "The people worked as contractors. They sold what they made to
the company. They were organized into departments under a senior highly
skilled craftsperson or artisan. Each of these persons could conceive
themselves as working independently."
Working people took offense at being wage slaves -- what most of us are
now. They had a sense of independence from the man. And the man was
right there in the community. You ran into the man -- on the street. You
could talk with the man.
Now, the man sits atop a giant corporation, unreachable, unknowable.
"A whole way of life was organized around working for the Remingtons,"
Doukas says. "People looked at it as being wholesome -- American,
virtuous, dignified -- and still today they look back at that period.
Even today, there is a tremendous sense of history among local working
people. They are tremendously critical of the present day situation."
So, there was economic democracy under the Remington family?
"In this very particular sense -- back then, you had local ownership,"
Doukas said." The biggest boss sits in a pew next to you in church and
was there to be buttonholed after church. There was direct access. You
can think of it as economic democracy, maybe, in the broadest sense. But
locally, it is more like a ranked system where skilled workers saw
themselves in some sense as ranking lower than the Remingtons. And yet
the high ranking person was accessible to them. At the same time, there
was a sense of the tremendous dignity of being a working person and
creating the wealth of the country. And this is how people spoke of it
for better than a century. So, it is democratic in the basic sense that
if you had a grievance, you could get some sort of action on it, and
fairly directly. You had a voice -- ground to stand on."
Anyone who is from upstate New York knows that it's one of the most
beautiful regions of this country.
And for years it has been battered by big corporations that don't give a
damn about the region.
Doukas says there was a time when the man cared.
Hard to believe.
But it's worth taking a peek at her book and making your own judgment.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is
editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. Mokhiber and Weissman are
co-authors of On the Rampage: Corporate Predators and the Destruction of
Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press).
© 2006 Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman