FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Meet the Real King Joe

It has been a century since “the man who never died” was put to death.

Joe Hill, whose songs inspired labor organizing and introduced the phrase “pie in the sky,” went before a firing squad on November 19, 1915. The case putting him at the scene of a grocery store shootout was tenuous at best. But as Franklin Rosemont observes, “It was for the ‘crime’ of belonging to the [Industrial Workers of the World] that Hill was tried and condemned.”

Hill’s wrongful conviction was part of a massive repression against labor efforts ignored in triumphalist accounts of American history. As Karl Hess told a New York Times reporter startled by the continued existence of the union to which Hill and Hess belonged: “We used to have a labor movement in this country, until I.W.W. leaders were killed or imprisoned. You could tell labor unions had become captive when business and government began to praise them.”

In 1949, the animated short “Meet King Joe” starred another Joe who embodied the average worker. But this Joe was “king” only in purchasing power, a byproduct of cooperation with management and productivity enabled by capital-intensive investment. As reviewer Christine Hennig notes, it “strongly implies that [workers] have no right to complain about their wages or working conditions in any way.” (Unsurprisingly, the cartoon’s production was funded not by union dues but by the fortunes of the head of General Motors, the company convinced that whatever was good for itself coincided with the public interest.) In contrast, the IWW aimed to make every workingman (and workingwoman, with its ranks of real-life Katniss Everdeen “rebel girls” like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn) king of their own workplace.

A reappraisal of the American economy’s distortion by intervention against, not on behalf of, labor has been taken up not only by “people’s historians” like Howard Zinn, but Ayn Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra. This has undermined two persistent yet contradictory myths. One is that the American economy is a free market, with the “Meet King Joe” narration explaining that, “Our industrial progress is largely the result of the competitive struggle between companies.” The other is that the American economy was a free market but thankfully no longer is. In the former, the power of big business is earned from consumers; in the latter, dog-eat-dog small-scale competition was wisely restrained. But Zinn, drawing on historical research by Gabriel Kolko uncovering that the American state has been allied with business rather than labor, places the founding of the IWW at “the inauguration of benign governmental regulation of business, supported by a new consensus of businessmen, Presidents, and reformers.”

The corporate-state alliance is powerful enough that it might seem destined to persist for many more centuries. But new history from Kolko on shows how stacked a deck it has needed to survive. On an even playing field, what Samuel Konkin calls “the abhorrence of the IWW to politics and party,” combined with its direct action, offers a winning strategy. And that’s no dream of Joe.

More articles by:

Joel Schlosberg is a contributor to the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org). He lives in New York.

Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
David Yearsley
Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
Andrew Levine
Silver Linings Ahead?
John Kendall Hawkins
FrankenBob: The Self-Made Dylan
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Deutsche Bank Fined $150 Million for Enabling Jeffrey Epstein; Where’s the Fine Against JPMorgan Chase?
David Rosen
Inequality and the End of the American Dream
Louis Proyect
Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic
Thom Hartmann
How Billionaires Get Away With Their Big Con
REZA FIYOUZAT
Your 19th COVID Breakdown
Danny Sjursen
Undercover Patriots: Trump, Tulsa, and the Rise of Military Dissent
Charles McKelvey
The Limitations of the New Antiracist Movement
Binoy Kampmark
Netanyahu’s Annexation Drive
Joseph G. Ramsey
An Empire in Points
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
COVID-19 Denialism is Rooted in the Settler Colonial Mindset
Ramzy Baroud
On Israel’s Bizarre Definitions: The West Bank is Already Annexed
Judith Deutsch
Handling Emergency: A Tale of Two Males
Michael Welton
Getting Back to Socialist Principles: Honneth’s Recipe
Dean Baker
Combating the Political Power of the Rich: Wealth Taxes and Seattle Election Vouchers
Jonah Raskin
Edward Sanders: Poetic Pacifist Up Next
Manuel García, Jr.
Carbon Dioxide Uptake by Vegetation After Emissions Shutoff “Now”
Heidi Peltier
The Camo Economy: How Military Contracting Hides Human Costs and Increases Inequality
Ron Jacobs
Strike!, Fifty Years and Counting
Ellen Taylor
The Dark Side of Science: Shooting Barred Owls as Scapegoats for the Ravages of Big Timber
Sarah Anderson
Shrink Wall Street to Guarantee Good Jobs
Graham Peebles
Prison: Therapeutic Centers Or Academies of Crime?
Zhivko Illeieff
Can We Escape Our Addiction to Social Media?
Clark T. Scott
The Democrat’s Normal Keeps Their (Supposed) Enemies Closer and Closer
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
In 2020 Elections: Will Real-Life “Fighting Dems” Prove Irresistible?
David Swanson
Mommy, Where Do Peace Activists Come From?
Christopher Brauchli
Trump the Orator
Gary Leupp
Columbus and the Beginning of the American Way of Life: A Message to Indoctrinate Our Children
John Stanton
Donald J. Trump, Stone Cold Racist
Nicky Reid
The Stonewall Blues (Still Dreaming of a Queer Nation)
Stephen Cooper
A Kingston Reasoning with Legendary Guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith (The Interview: Part 2)
Hugh Iglarsh
COVID-19’s Coming to Town
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail