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Heather Warner
September 25, 2000
Economics in Film
(Economics 100 (02))
Professor Gabriel

Matewan and Norma Rae-
Feudalism and Capitalism: Examined

      Economic processes are those involving the production and distribution of goods and services. However, they do not alone determine this production and distribution. There is an interrelationship of economic, cultural, environmental, and political processes that all help to shape each other. Nothing that we do can be defined as a single process, for it is the interaction itself that helps to produce the final results that we observe. To understand this more fully the following basic definitions may be of use:
      "Cultural Processes" are those that involve the creation and transfer of knowledge-the production of meaning. "Political processes" are those by which we establish and enforce rules, and they have to be reproduced and communicated by way of cultural processes. And finally, "Environmental Processes" are processes and transformations of matter into other matter or matter into energy through various activities. From this one can see that the "state" of the environment is affected by culture, politics, and economics. To reiterate, we can't talk about economics and the questions that it attempts to resolve, without talking about or at least including these other aspects because they all interact and must be considered as well.
      There are a number of fundamental questions that economic systems attempt to solve: How does one gain access to the resources needed to produce new and useful goods and services? How does one get humans to perform the labor? How do you organize the production process? How do you get the produced output into the hands of consumers? And finally, who gets the surplus and what do they do with it? Using these questions as a basic framework, one can attempt to determine the type of economic system that was (is) in existence at a specific time, depending on the types of answers that are given to the above mentioned questions.
      Films are important and useful tools for the analytical process that needs to take place when searching for the answers to the questions. "Films are understood to be, among other things, the product of a particular economic theory or set of theories (which can be contradictory), to teach particular theories (including economic theories), and to provide an objective for analysis using economic theory." (Professor Gabriel) It is with this in mind that the films of Matewan and Norma Rae are of importance to us when analyzing the concepts of "feudalism" and "capitalism," because they are films that contain in them examples from these two types of economic systems. While the concept of "unions" is prevalent in both films, the reasons for their existence and the results of their existence appear to be quite different, but important all the same. Thus, the films can also be used to help increase our understanding of the importance and the role of "unions" in society.
      John Sayles, the writer and director of Matewan, produces for the audience a true depiction of the West Virginian coal-mining community of 1920. At a surface-level viewing and examination of the film, many might be tempted to view the environment that is "created" as capitalist. After all, the workers do get paid for their services. However, upon a much deeper, more in-depth inspection one could argue that there is much evidence to support that it is in fact a feudalist system that is being portrayed and fought by the workers and various members of the community.
      Therefore to start, the only mention of capitalism that I will make at this moment (I will explore it more thoroughly later in this essay) is that a free labor market is a necessary "prerequisite" for capitalism. This, as evidence will later show, is clearly lacking in Matewan and thus our attention can first be shifted to analyzing the feudalist system.
      Feudalism in general, broad terms, is a system under which men in the past gave up personal freedom in exchange for protection and security. There was a contractual relationship involved. It began where the King owned all of the land and he leased the land to nobles. The nobles repaid him in such methods as homage, taxes, military service, etc… They were able to repay the king because they too leased the land-only they leased it to lesser nobles-and so it continued along this type of social scale. Ultimately, the "workings" and results of this system depended on the serf. ("Middle Ages: Age of Feudalism.")
      To further help one understand the concept of feudalism, we can analyze a few typical characteristics of feudalism and determine if all, or at least some, of the characteristics appear to be present in the movie. With feudalism, the distinction between the private rights and public authority oftentimes disappears, and local control tends to become a personal matter. Feudal leaders often take over responsibility for the economic security of "their territories" and dictate how resources are to be used, while at the same time establishing monopolies over various activities. Another important part to the concept of feudalism is "homage" (servant) and "fealty" (faithful). In other words, this can be interpreted into a more modern concept of a "contract" between the worker and the boss. ("The Rise of Feudalism.") From these few basic concepts and ideas being put forward, one can see how Sayles demonstrates and portrays certain aspects of the existence of a feudalist-type system in the town of Matewan; as these above mentioned "properties" of feudalism were certainly present in his film.
      To start, perhaps the most direct, obvious evidence of the feudalist atmosphere that is present in the movie is when the miners who are brought in on the train (African Americans) are told that they are under a "direct contract" of the Stone Mountain Coal Company (SMCC). Their freedoms are seen to be restricted as they are told what they are and are not allowed to do. For example, no unions are allowed to be formed and those involved in such attempts to form unions will be fired and not given any payment. Furthermore, the workers depend almost entirely on the company to supply them with necessities-at a cost of course. All equipment needed must be purchased by the workers and can only be purchased with company script at the company store. Furthermore, things that are considered "extra," such as the train ride, will be deducted from their already minimal amount of pay. The audience also sees the importance of this monopoly power by the Company over the workers in that their "pay per tonnage" has again just recently been lowered. With this monopoly power the Company is able to increase prices at the store and yet pay less to the workers. The Company is able to do this with no substantial loss to the Company itself because they know that the workers have no real other choice than to work for the Company and buy things in the store due to the fact that other appealing methods of survival are lacking.
      It might be useful to mention that along with this monopoly power, basic political processes help to keep the people in check as well. Although the local authority of the town, consisting of the sheriff (Sid) and the Mayor, try to keep the Company men under control, the Company authority are able to more effectively enforce many rules under the threat of violence. Cultural differences and religious differences also work in favor of and to the advantage of the Company at first, as African Americans need jobs and are willing to come in and perform the job of mining at a lower price of labor. This is demonstrated at the beginning of the film when the train arrives in Matewan carrying the African Americans. At first this arrival of new workers puts all of the people in the town at odds, weakening the effectiveness of the local authority (because so many different issues are still being sorted out) and strengthening that of the Company whose sole concern is making a large profit. Only later does everyone unite into the Union (Whites, Italians, and African Americans) and eventually sleep, eat, and play music and sports together.
      Coming back to the idea of feudalism and the "lack of choice and lack of freedom" that appears to go hand-in-hand with this system, one can see how prominent this characteristic is in the movie. The Stone Mountain Coal Company appears to own most everything in the town. The unskilled laborers (miners) don't appear to have any real choice in where they work. This is indicative of "hegemonic power" that the elite company-men seem to have over the people. The townsmen can either work in the mine, work at one of the few stores in town, or starve. But whether they work in the mine or the town store wouldn't make much difference, as the SMCC owns and controls everything-has monopoly power. Thus there appears to be no real choice left as to who the workers might want as their employer, and the Company can thus extract "monopoly rent" from them and exercise what is known as "feudal exploitation." The SMCC controls the price of goods and the price of labor (wages)-extracting all extra money from the workers and leaving barely enough for them to live by. The company wants a big profit-at any expense. They exploit the workers in order to reap the benefits of their labor and obtain all surplus value. As we see in the film, the Company doesn't really care if the workers live or die, so long as coal is gotten and a profit made. To the SMCC, the men are merely a form of equipment that can and should be exploited until they can no longer be used.
Some might be tempted to say that the workers did have a choice. If they were not happy then they just should not work-as happened when they formed a Union. However, especially on an individual basis, not working and then having to escape into the mountains and woods is not really much of a choice. Sure, one could argue that it is a viable option or alternative to working in the mine. But I ask, "is it really?" Could the miners really live a "normal" life this way? Given time they might very well adapt to "mountain life" but survival would appear, at least at first, to be much harder. To me, this alternative does not seem to be a very appealing alternative, and thus not much of a choice.
      In fact, there doesn't seem to be much of a choice in regards to any aspect of lifestyle in the town of Matewan. One of the Italian workers demonstrates the lack of free choice in his response to being asked to join the union by a white mine worker. The Italian man's response is, "We don't have a whole lot of choice. We join the Union and they (meaning the Company men) shoot us. We don't join and you will shoot us for working." Choice in all respects seems to be lacking in this town.
Furthermore, when the Company men come into town, we see how everything is viewed as "theirs." They are allowed to stay free of charge at the "hotel" and require free, home cooked meals-as it is the Company that "owns" the hotel. Later the Company men try to take all the furniture out of an Italian family's home. In this way one can see how the SMCC did indeed seem to have extended economic control over the town-as everything was theirs and all that was used by the town inhabitants had to be paid for. This further demonstrates the monopoly power of the SMCC.
      Another comparison to feudal times is that Griggsey and Hicks (two of the Company men) are hired as the main enforcers for the Company (similar to the role of Knights during feudal times). Griggsey and Hicks are incredibly evil and mean-spirited, and they bully everyone in order to get their way. They even go so far as to kill people (the first person that they kill is Hillard) in order to make a point. What kind of choice is this to either work or end up dead through starvation or being killed?
      Throughout the movie, Joe attempts to get the people to stand together as a union of workers and not to just resort to guns as the solution. However, despite his efforts, in the end the bloody Matewan Massacre takes place. Many Company men and Union men are killed; each as a result of defending a different economic system. The Company men are defending a feudalist system, while the Union men want a different system. The Union men want a system with free choices and are therefore ultimately defending (although perhaps not aware of it) what we term today as a "capitalist system." The creation of the union in Matewan, however could never have been sufficient to change the feudal system to a capitalist system unless it successfully broke the monopoly of the SMCC, or at the very least forced the SMCC to voluntarily grant the workers more freedoms than they had. Unfortunately, the union effort failed and was not able to achieve what the workers had hoped for, as the end of the film demonstrates. They were unable through the union or their strike, to cause the SMCC to lose control over the workers for a long enough time to cause the demise of the feudalist system that was in place. Until the monopoly in place is (was) eliminated, the feudal system could never have been eliminated.
      As mentioned numerous times already, a simple distinction between feudalism and other systems can be made with the presence or absence of choice. Capitalism requires the presence of free choice. As Bernice Clark stated in her essay, "Capitalism requires competition over capital, not just capital." This is to say that merely being paid a wage does not mean that a society is representative of a capitalist one. There has to be competition so employees can choose who to work for and hopefully, therefore, diminish the probability of excess monopoly rent being present and extracted, such as is the case when solely one owner can determine the prices of goods and the price of labor (wages). Sunny Webster, a character in Norma Rae (taking place in 1978 and "based on a true story") worked in the Cotton Textile factory with Norma Rae and others at one time. However, the evidence of "free choice" in this capitalist society is apparent when he later mentions that he has a new job at a gas station. We also get a sense of his opinion towards the capitalist atmosphere of the textile plant when he says, "Big companies get everything that they want. Everything goes to the rich men." He however, chooses to work elsewhere, rather than fight for his rights with others in the Union.
      Presently there appears to be a variety of mixed feelings concerning the concept and results of capitalism. Today there are those who believe that capitalism is a rational, benevolent system if no government intervention is imposed. However, on the flip side there are those who view capitalism as a system of exploitation, monopoly, and class welfare. To define this term a bit more concretely one can say that "capitalism is the social system based upon private ownership of the means of production…" (Shadab) From a purely economic point of view, a capitalist is a person who buys in order to sell for profit. To extend this a bit further it can also be defined in a slightly different manner as the "economic and social regime in which the ownership and benefits of productive assets are appropriated by the few to the exclusion of the many who through their labor make the assets productive." (Korten)
      Some believe that the free market operates in such a way so that as one man creates more wealth for himself, he simultaneously creates more wealth and opportunities for everyone else-so the rich become richer and the poor become richer too. Others believe that this is not fair, does not increase the wealth of the nation, and is simply a form of exploitation. I think that Norma Rae tries to portray to the audience the view of capitalism that supports the idea that we live in a world that is being "pillaged by the institution of global capitalism to enrich the few at the expense of the many," (Korten) but that it need not nor should not be this way, even with the capitalist system in place.
      It appears to me that a more negative view of capitalism is held in Norma Rae-thus the need to form a union to protect the workers from the employers. In this film it would seem that capitalism is viewed as a system that can exploit a large portion of society for the sake of a small minority of wealthy capitalists. The institutions of capitalism being viewed in this film, are seen by their very nature, "to breed inequality, exclusion, environmental destruction, social irresponsibility, and economic instability..." (Korten) It would seem that Norma Rae, herself, is against the form of capitalism that encourages and rewards speculators and is instead for a proper market economy that encourages and rewards those who contribute to wealth creation through their labor and productive investment. In other words, I'm not saying that Norma Rae is a movie against the capitalist system, but rather against certain exploitations that might occur if proper precautions are not taken. The workers in the film were not fighting against the system of capitalism, but instead were making the best of the system and were merely trying to improve their working conditions within the system in place. This is evident from the fact that the workers did not appear to be trying to end control over the gross profits obtained by the company, nor were they trying to create their own communal enterprise, or leave the company to work as self-employed individuals or as partners, etc… In other words, there is no evidence of their trying to work in any other non-capitalist arrangement.
      Norma Rae takes the stance on capitalism of it easily becoming "evil" if left in the wrong hands. I think that she would probably agree with the following negative quotation concerning capitalism and therefore wish it to be changed (thus the need for a Union). "Under capitalism, democracy is for sale to the highest bidder, the market is centrally planned by global mega-corporations larger than most countries, the elimination of jobs and livelihoods is rewarded as an economic virtue, and the destruction of nature and life to make money for the already rich is viewed as progress." (Korten) We seem to have created a global culture that values money and materialism over life itself; and it is this that Norma Rae is also against. Norma Rae fights for the rights of the workers, and she tells her kids, "If you go into the Mill I want things to be better for you than they are for me. That is why I joined the Union. And that is why I got fired for it." Again, the formation of the union was not to eliminate the capitalist system, and in fact, the creation of the union in Norma Rae did not move the workers out of the capitalist system. Instead the formation of the union merely helped to constrain what the managers could do to them and how (the fashion in which) the managers could try to compel the workers to work and produce for the company.
      The Company that Norma Rae works for is concerned with profits. They don't seem to care about basic human needs or human welfare. They want to find ways to make workers as productive as possible, even if their health and general well-being is at stake. Plus, while productivity is the top priority on their list, they want to keep wages low. This is demonstrated as we are told that Norma's father has had the same wage of $1.33 the entire time that he has worked at the factory. We are also shown the lack of concern for the workers' welfare as they tell Norma that her mother will be fine and her hearing will return in a few hours. Another instance is when Norma's father's arm becomes numb, and yet the employers tell him that he has to wait until his official break time before taking a rest. Yet another example is when one worker states, "We must remain on our feet unless we bring a note from the doctor."
      Today we can see that often the corporation destroys "living capital" when it strip-mines forests and exploits fisheries, markets toxic chemicals, dumps hazardous wastes, etc.... It destroys "human capital" by maintaining substandard working conditions. And it destroys "social capital" when it breaks up unions, bids down wages, and treats workers as expendable commodities. (Korten) It is all of this that Norma Rae is against and wants reformed-watched out for. Again, I'm not implying that Norm Rae wanted to change out of a capitalist system and into another system, but rather to prevent unnecessary exploitation from occurring. In the end the workers are successful and have formed a Union, as the results of the poll show that there are only 373 votes against the Union in comparison to the 427 votes in favor of the Union. This is certainly a step in the right direction for the workers.
      The workers, in a sense, in Matewan are fighting for a more capitalist economy (although as the end of the film shows they are unsuccessful), while in Norma Rae the workers seem to fight to reform capitalism a bit so that worker rights are protected. It seems that while living under specific systems we constantly try to change and "improve" the systems. Yet once achieving the specific type of system that we "worked" so hard to get, faults are found and exploitation often occurs. Thus, dissatisfaction arises and it is again necessary to alter the system. Capitalism and feudalism are but two systems that have been present in our economy, and there will surely be many more as employers and employees work to improve their own social welfare.

**Side Note (interesting information)**à [In my research and exploration of these topics I found an interesting, additional bit of information on "feudalism." It was stated that although we tend to believe that feudalism no longer exists, the Mafia uses the same type of organization. We must also keep in mind that many franchise enterprises (for example McDonalds's) use a similar system as well. ("The Rise of Feudalism.")]




Korten, David C. "Life After Capitalism." November 1998.

"Middle Ages: Age of Feudalism."  bin/

"Organized Labor."

Professor Gabriel course web page

Shadab, Houman. "Capitalism: Frequently Asked Questions." 1996.

"The Rise of Feudalism."

"What's Wrong With Capitalism."

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