A Review on Chapters 11 and 12 of "A People's History of the United States"

by Mahshid Mayar - Date: 2007-01-07 - Word Count: 1341 Share This!

Before starting to take a look at its content, it is necessary to get familiar with the book's author. Howard Zinn is an American leftist whose ideas approach socialism more than anything else. However, it should be noted that he was born into a working class family in New York and this has much contributed to his life-long sensitivity to the upper-class movements to amass wealth more and more. One famous quote from him: "War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times."

Having these in mind, one can better approach Zinn's retrospection into the history of the US from the perspective of those who are "outside of the political and economic establishment". In chapter 11 of his well-known best-seller he discusses mainly the way American economy 'shifted from iron to steel'; not only the farming witnessed dramatic changes, but also industry, marketing and share-holding underwent fundamental transformations, especially during the beginning years of the 20th century. The American "pyramid of wealth" was built on the pillars of greenbacks and gold and went up by "black labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor" and with the overwhelming support of oil, steel, and railroad corporations.

This chapter, comparable to the account John Steele Gordon gives of the same period in his book An Empire of Wealth, largely focuses on the unjust foundation of the pyramid by emphasizing the bribery, dishonesty and fraud as its building material. To him, corporations are nothing more than speculators of wealth and predators n the society's toil who were busy with "building empires, choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low, using government subsidies." It can be concluded that while Zinn is more concerned about the social elements involved in the building of such empires and the side-effects they have on the class system, Steele keeps an eye on the inevitability of such construction and the glory it brought to the US mainly in economic terms; though not surprising (as Steele is an active economic commentator) it stresses the wide gap existing between the two views on the same historic historical evolution. Zinn believes that monopoly is the fittest term given to the way American corporations dealt with smaller companies and businessmen. The mythical 'rise form obscurity to fame' was their tool to manipulate the public mind, though they were not successful on a large scale. People were told rudely that "the men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community." And they had their own mighty argument to support it; if they were not honest, they wouldn't have been trusted by any means.

Even the corporations' generosity to the public, by building universities or schools, was no good cover over their sinister deeds. These universities and schools were the places to teach "obedience to authority". But the common man knew by heart that being a workers or a simple farmer is no sin, deserving any Divine punishment. Thus they leveled harsh criticism on the way American society was governed, and a number of organized strikes swept the whole country. Class hatred was soaring at the same time due to a massive increase in the immigration rate to the States. Immigrants faced racism, had to work for the minimum wages, and vastly were used as strike-breaker here and there; and this led to more hostility towards them and their families. Sex and race were dominantly the determinants of welfare. Even the labor unions were unable to bring about a change. Thus "revenge" became the agenda of the working man.

However, even the meanest and poorest whites also willingly excluded the Blacks; the Declaration of Emancipation was a long-forgotten dream now. And the same government, who had once declared freedom to all slaves, now was actively helping the bankers and corporate men to enslave not only Blacks but also all immigrants, poor whites and even their children. This time the government was successful. Even when the blacks and whites made a coalition, the different living situations and clashing interests showed themselves up. Blacks still had no right to vote. The intensive clash between capital and labor had made the American society of late 19th and early 20th centuries the scene for competition, brutish protests and crushes. But the government, proud of being able to control the blacks, expel the Indians, and establish its elitist rule started contemplating on how to expand.

The American government, mostly led by capital, saw that the surplus fruit of poor farmers' and workers' labor (which they themselves had no right to enjoy) needed a new foreign market. Thus war was advocated to make access to America's immediate neighbors, the South America, easy. The following chapter, The Empire and the People, is entirely devoted to the expansionist policies pursued by McKinley in annexing new Lands to the American continental borders. Capitalism, coupled with nationalism, paved the way for new sensations; the 1893 depression posed a threat to capitalism and the rebellious energies inside the country needed emergency redirection toward an outside enemy.

The invasion of Cuba and the amendments made in its Constitution are one of the first instances of American interventionist policies, ever known. As in the previous and the following acts of intervention, Cuba was a prey for military men, politicians, businessmen and even leaders of farmers' movements. The poor man was neutral; even against it.

Anti-imperialists also maintained strength. They believed that war and hostility were unjust practices of power which lead to destruction and an anti-democratic future. They argued that the "open door" policy was only a pretext for imperial devouring of the smaller weaker nations and said that it was sacrifice, "the blood tribute paid by labor to capitalism". They believed that "military occupation" was equal to "commercial occupation" for the Americans.

The case was even harsher with the Philippines; racial hatred, mass murder, extermination, civilizing missions, oriental discourse, disease, famine, power show, etc. were the key words of the period. At home also it was advocacy of "patience, industry, and moderation" to blacks, while "patriotism" was preached to the whites.

"War Is the Health of the State", remarked Bourne during the WWI. The human disaster brought forth by this war is immeasurable. Although trying to show neutrality, the US entered the war with Germany, not only to help her European allies, but mainly to redress the power balances in the world.

No doubt, American common man was strongly against the war, even the press asserted their opposition wholeheartedly. However, the Espionage Act of 1917, ignoring the freedom of expression, ruled out any opposition and tried men for this. Other media were used for propaganda. Loyalty to the country and too the American flag was largely demanded by the government on a national scale. And even the universities and schools discouraged opposition to it.

Though not able to express opposition during the war, the post-World War I period shows an increase in the number of literary works written to criticize it.

The end result of this governmental scrutiny and strict control of minds and words was nothing less than fear of socialism. The government soon came up with a new agenda: to propagate fear through showing socialism as an infectious virus of the American society. However, it was a continuation of the same class hatred current before the WWI, once again emerging to the national scene. This is believed to be the beginning of the "Red Scare" era in American history. The point remarkable about Zinn's approach to history is, while being a Native American citizen, he never looks at its history from within the society, and is never defrauded by the current discourse circumscribing the narration of its history. His approach to American economy is dramatically different from that of John Gordon Steele, an expert on American economic history and the author of the book "An Empire of Wealth" reviewed last week. Zinn is not only a leftist thinker with inclinations toward socialist understandings of the American society, but also a critic of the American Empire, as evident in his writing. Thus inevitably his views are different, pointed, and even sometimes biased.

Related Tags: american history, corporations, pyramid of wealth, dishonest economy, class hatred, us empire abroad


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