Reform: Pacifier of the Proletariat

Bogdan Krsti´ c October 19, 2007

During the Progressive Era, pressure from social, labor, suffrage and conservation movements profoundly changed the course of American history. Many of the reformers’ ideas clashed with the male-dominated, capitalist economic structure present at the turn of the century. Some of the intended reforms were antithetical to the current system, but the level of social unrest necessitated change. The reforms initiated by businessmen and activists alike during the Progressive Era were supported by government and corporate interests due to the intention of placating the proletarian masses and quieting the more and more vocal middle classes. Unrest amongst the working classes was a flash point for Progressive period reformers. Poor labor conditions, ranging from overcrowded sweatshops to deadly mineshafts, led to hundreds of demonstrations and protests. The poor conditions in many working environments, combined with poor wages, led to the formation of unions. One of the leading organizing groups was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), with its idea of the “One Big Union”. Howard Zinn states that the IWW’s goal was “that the workers would take power, not by seizing the state machinery in an armed rebellion, but by bringing the economic system to a halt in a general strike” (Zinn 331). Zinn continues, saying “the IWW became a threat to the capitalist class, exactly when capitalist growth was enormous and profits huge . . . their energy, their persistence, their inspiration to others, their ability to mobilize thousands at one place, one time, made them an influence on the country far beyond their numbers” (Zinn 331). The might of this working-class movement forced businesses to take notice of the unrest caused by the conditions faced by laborers. Eventually, the labor movement entered the political mainstream, and workers’ rights
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became a key issue. Ideas such as worker’s compensation were bandied about, and “by 1920, forty-two states had workmen’s compensation laws” (Zinn 353). Despite this advance, the reform came about because “corporation leaders . . . had come to understand . . . that social reform was truly conservative” (Zinn 353). This example of labor reform directly shows the process through which such changes were made, where the pacification of unions was done to encourage the expansion of capitalism, albeit in a new direction. In this new system, the worker was given better conditions, in hopes of creating a feeling of de-marginalization that would lead to less discord. Reform of tariffs and the monetary system came about as Woodrow Wilson assumed the Presidency. The passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913 was a sharp turn away from previous government policy. The Federal Reserve was designed to “curb inflation”, and it “provided reserves to cover local financial crises” (Horowitz 89). From 1890 to 1920, inflation had cut the value of the dollar in half, as an economic boom raised prices, in turn lowering the real value of workers’ wages. The surplus of cheap labor caused by the arrival of immigrants in droves from Europe and Asia created a labor market where businesses controlled wages, leading to extremely low pay for most manufacturing and labor jobs. Thus, the creation of the Federal Reserve Board worked not only to stabilize the economy, but also to help keep the wages the working classes were earning at a somewhat constant level. By doing so, a certain degree of class conflict could be avoided, while at the same time protecting the interests of businesses. The reforms also encouraged the development of, as Zinn puts it, “a middle class cushion for class conflict” (Zinn 349). This barrier between the upper and lower classes was created by the ascension of a number of immigrants (mainly Italians and Jews) to higher social strata. Zinn states “ordinary people benefited to some extent from these changes. The system was rich, productive, complex; it would create a protective shield between the bottom and the top of society” (Zinn 349). The nature of this middle class was those at its upper levels would promote reform, and those at the lower levels were to perpetuate a stable way of life. The reforms sought after by those situated in the upper-middle class included universal suffrage and education reform. Assimilation of the lower classes was also encouraged by the social reformers, since greater social cohesion would minimize the class barrier and open up (in theory)
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new opportunities for the down-trodden. The gap between rich and poor is illustrated by William Chafe: “It was far more likely that working-class women would resort to spontaneous demonstration—bread riots or wildcat walkout” (Chafe 13). This action-oriented attitude sharply contrasted the more refined methods of the uppermiddle class. When the government allowed reforms such as universal suffrage to pass, the emphasis was placed on the successes of women such as Carrie Chapman Catt who did not eschew the strong handed methods of protest. This focus on the middle class reformers detracted from the impact of the working class, and inflated the balloon separating, but also padding the gap between the upper and lower classes. As the Progressive Era wound to a close, there had been major changes in both the American economy and civic life. The old laissez-faire system had become outmoded by its focus on the accumulation of capital, and needed to reprioritize. The onus was now on the government and businesses to allow reform that would improve workers’ rights. Both soon realized that this was in their long term interests, and encouraged reforms to be passed, although often diluted and removed of substance. While labor reforms were made, the middle classes pushed for such social reforms as suffrage and improvement in education. The government quieted the outcry of the middle class by allowing changes to be made. Although the support of reforms by corporations and government may at first seem altruistic, the motives ran far deeper than the betterment of American society—while the working classes were pacified and the bourgeoisie hushed, the true interests of money were still being served.

References
[1] William H. Chafe, The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century, Oxford University Press, 1991 [2] David A. Horowitz On the Edge: The US in the 20th Century, Wadsworth, 1998. [3] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, HarperCollins, New York City, New York, 2003. .

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