“I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half”
Metanoia Films has released a new documentary, Plutocracy: Divide et Impera (Divide and Rule). It’s the first entry of a multi-part series directed by filmmaker Scott Noble. The movie assembles a rich historical mosaic which examines the constitutional roots of democratic elitism in the United States, the subsequent emergence of the labor movement during industrialization, and the various schemes employed by private capital to sabotage popular mobilization. Plutocracy is available online and can be viewed free of charge. Your author, who helped to edit the script, would deem the film time well spent.
To grasp the movie’s salience viewers need look no further than a trial currently unfolding in West Virginia where federal prosecutors have indicted coal entrepreneur Don Blankenship of both violating numerous safety regulations and conspiring to hide said violations. Back in 2010 an underground explosion killed twenty nine miners working for Blankenship. It’s the worst mining disaster in more than four decades.
Those familiar with the history of the American labor movement will tell you that this sort of tragedy is hardly an isolated incident. For example in December of 1907 an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine owned by the Fairmount Corporation killed over 360 workers. Indeed, during the first fifty years of the coal industry accident rates in the United States were so high that more workers were crippled and killed than in any battle of the American Civil War.
Such hazards weren’t restricted to coal mines either. Across the expanding industrial landscape American workers faced potentially fatal threats on a daily basis, toiling long hours for low wages. Records archived by the Interstate Commerce Commission show that in the year 1899 approximately 22,000 railroad workers were killed or seriously injured. At the Homestead Steel works factory in Pittsburgh roughly 1 out of every 11 steel workers died while on the job, frequently due to lack of sleep.
During this period business interests leveraged their financial resources to purchase influence with the corrupt political machines that thrived in large urban centers. Payoffs became so routine that financiers like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould were obliged to meet in secret to negotiate bribe caps. And when ordinary people finally began to push for better working conditions the political machines deployed their police forces on behalf of their corporate paymasters to crack down on public dissent and violently discipline protesters.
The collective experience of workers in the late 1800s with business leaders, politicians, and police gave rise to some of the first attempts to organize. Yet events portrayed in Plutocracy highlight that business leaders and their institutions were already organized. The powers that be implemented a whole series of strategies to undermine the nascent efforts of labor.
For instance, they wielded divide and conquer tactics to pit workers against each other based on race, ethnicity, and skill level. Industrialists understood all too well the threat posed by unified multi-racial groups like “the Triple Alliance”. Hence executives strove to kindle racial tension and fragment unions whenever possible, using their contacts in the press to disparage strikers and publish outright racist fabrications about “mobs of brutal Negro strikers… beating up all who attempted to interfere with them.” In fact, it can be argued that the fear of class solidarity served as impetus for racial segregation in the South.
The success of this technique has serious implications for modern society. Identity politics have largely supplanted class analysis, often increasing divisions. Journalist Matt Taibbi astutely captures this dynamic: “cultural civil war, you can have that no matter how broke you are.” Plutocracy distinguishes itself by projecting American history through the prism of class consciousness, and in doing so achieves remarkable clarity.
Then there’s the matter of mercenaries. When push came to shove and protests broke out the captains of industry invariably fell back on brute force. Which is to say that they recruited private security forces to step in and play dirty: infiltrate unions as spies, stage false flag operations to justify harassment, and assault striking workers. These agents were enlisted from outfits like the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and the Thiel Detective Service.
If workers somehow succeeded in overpowering the hired armies of capital, as workers did during the Homestead Strike of 1892 or the Battle of Blair Mountain (the single largest armed uprising in the United States since the Civil War), business leaders would pull out their trump card and request the assistance of government troops. Though this didn’t always guarantee victory. In certain cases, like during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, there were isolated instances where state militias refused to fire on strikers.
Director Scott Noble has channeled his passion and energy into what’s basically a public service. Noble applies his trademark unorthodox style which blends rare antique media together with contemporary film footage to create a powerful experience that conveys vital information in a compelling format. Enlightening yet also easy to digest, particularly for a mobile device generation that’s accustomed to streaming online videos.
The news stories of people dropping from heat exhaustion and heart attacks in dot-com warehouses are a sign of things to come. In the absence of an ideological alternative to market fundamentalism society is left with a myopic worldview that demands infinite growth from a finite planet. In other words, expect the remnants of the New Deal era to be eliminated by self-valorizing executives and their quest for economic efficiencies. Their policy initiatives will be augmented by a phalanx of media outlets geared towards manufacturing consent, a global surveillance apparatus, and militarized police.
If Plutocracy offers a lesson it’s this: history reveals that the business elite and their political intermediaries in government only made genuine concessions when labor forced them to. As Franklin Roosevelt allegedly told activists during his tenure as President “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Witness the decade-spanning trend of growing inequality and the gradual demise of unions. A dysfunctional political system where billionaires conduct shadow primaries. These developments do not bode well for the average worker. Hence it’s likely that the harrowing clashes of the labor movement will eventually be fought all over again. Plutocracy distills the nature of past struggles and provides counsel on routes that can lead to progress.