MatewanThe citizens of Matewan, a coal -mining town in West Virginia lived amidst a feudalistic class process. One may think of medieval times in connection with feudalism, but the film “Matewan” directed by John Sayles was based on historical events that took place in 1920. The feudal lord was not a European king, and the serfs were not farming his land. Nevertheless, feudalism existed in this southern town, as the workers did not have the ability to choose their employer. Unlike Capitalism, the members of Matewan could not go out into the free labor market and choose the businesses for which they wished to work. The Stone Mountain Coal Company made choice nonexistent and in doing so gained feudal power over the employees.
Poor working conditions are sometimes a characteristic
of a feudalistic class process, but certainly not the main trait.
The absence of choice is the focal point of feudalism. For example,
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair contains graphic descriptions of miserable
working conditions in the meat packing industry. While the immigrants
worked for a meager wage under hideous conditions and were often abused,
the main character in the story had other options for employment within
the town. Albeit, the other options may not have been desirable
ones, but they existed. His ability to choose is what makes the class
process in The Jungle capitalistic as opposed to the existence of
feudalism in Matewan.
The workers for the Stone Mountain Coal Company were not paid in currency that could be used outside of Matewan; they were paid in company script that could be used only in Stone Mountain owned establishments. By the time the company had taken money out of their wages for rent and tools, there was almost nothing left. To make matters worse, the inflated prices at the store were outrageous because the company store didn’t need to lower its prices, as they were not in competition with another business for customers. However, the miners could not choose to spend their money at a different store, as the currency would not be valid there.
The use of company script served another function.
Because the script could not be used for anything that the company did
not own, the miners did not have currency to be used elsewhere. If
they wanted to flee from the Stone Mountain Coal Company, they would have
no money to pay for transportation or to survive in another place.
Thus, the use of company script restricted the workers choices even more
and created more feudal power for the company. The only other option
was to flee to the mountains and live with the “hill people”, as they were
called in the film. This was not a popular option. One of the
town members said, “Those mountain men ain’t nothin’ but crazy people.”
Although the miners could have fled to the mountains, it can’t be considered
another choice of employment, as there were not businesses established
On the feudalistic pyramid of hierarchy, the vassals or serfs at the bottom worked the land or produced the goods. The knights above them enforced production with fear, and the lord at the top governed the area and the people it contained as well as reaped the benefits of the goods and surplus produced. A writer for Heritage Topics in West Virginia states, “The coal company owners dominated West Virginia politics, owning both Republican and Democratic parties. Often, elected officials were executives of the mine companies and paid directly by the companies…It was unusual for a local police chief and a mayor to side with the miners.” The sheriff was one of the only men other than the workers themselves to challenge the company “hit-men”. However, a writer for Heritage Topics explains, “The Matewan Police Chief, Sid Hatfield was shot on the Court House steps by company operatives after he was indicted for his role in the Matewan Massacre.” In the Matewan Massacre of 1920, ten men were killed including, Joe Kenehan, the union organizer that had preached civil disobedience.
In the movie “Matewan” the Sheriff and the Mayor were fighting for the workers in town. The viewer did not witness the corruption of local officials, which according to the writer for Heritage Topics, happens quite often. However, some other instances exemplified the manipulation of politics by the Coal Company. Throughout the film, many rules or laws were either not followed or not enforced. The most obvious example of a broken political process was the physical abuse and even deaths that occurred in Matewan. In one instance, a boy was told to give five names of union men, or the detectives and their men would slit his throat. He named five, but the men killed him any way. The murderers later found out that the men he had named had died years earlier in a mining accident. The acts were committed by the enforcers hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Company, much like the knights of past feudal societies. Certainly there were laws against killing people, but in the film the company was never prosecuted for their actions. This indicates that someone at a higher level of jurisdiction was on the side of the coal company.
Another aspect of the Feudalistic class process was a bondage contract. The serfs had a contract with the feudal lord stating that they would be bound to work for him, often for life. Usually the contact was a written document, but sometimes it was just understood. The miners signed a feudal contact with Stone Mountain Coal Company, one of the stipulations being that they would not join a union. The signing of this contact did not mean that the feudal lord then owned them, as that would be slavery. “Men who entrusted themselves to others were known as ingenui in obsequio, ‘free men in a contractual relation of dependence,’” wrote Steven Kreis. The word free making feudalism different from slavery, because slaves were owned, thus not free men. The workers were free men, as the company did not own them.
In addition to the game of tug of war with the company and feudalism on one end and the workers and capitalism on the other, a cultural battle was also taking place. The miners argued for quite a while about admitting minorities into the union. Kenehan argued in favor of admitting “Few Clothes” Johnson, played by James Earl Jones, into the union. He said, “You want to be treated like men? You want to be treated fair? Well, you ain’t men to that coal company, you’re a piece of machine, like a shovel…. doesn’t matter what color he is…any union that keeps this man out is just a club.” The men and their families didn’t unite toward their cause until they began to work together. Rita Kempley a writer for the Washington Post states, “ Sayles drives the point further as the camera moves from a black playing the harmonica to an Italian strumming a mandolin to a mountain man fiddling around. They’re all playing different tunes, and then suddenly they are a harmonious trio playing the solidarity song.”
In Summary, the coal miners of Matewan, West Virginia,
lived and worked in a town controlled by only one establishment, the Stone
Mountain Coal Company. They were not only paid very little but in
company script, which could only be used in the company owned industries
within the town. The Stone Mountain monopoly had so much power over the
government and judiciaries that they did not abide by laws and a higher
authority did not challenge their wrongdoings. Martin Gray, an Anthropologist
at Washington State University writes, “Feudal institutions varied greatly
from region to region, and few feudal contrasts had all the features here
described. Common to all, however, was the process by which on nobleman
(the vassal) became the man of another (the lord) by swearing homage and
fealty.” The vassals in the film “Matewan” were the members of the
town, as they all lived under the power of the feudal lord, the Coal Company.
The men were not owned by the company and therefore not slaves. However,
there was not a free labor market in which the workers could choose which
business that they wished to work for. They had no choice but to
work under the feudalistic class process controlled by the Stone Mountain
Elliot, Deborah and Frieden, James. Heritage Topics 2000. <http:www.teachwithmovies.org/guides/matewan.html>
Gray, Martin. “Buried Cities And Lost Tribes: A Cyberspace Guide.” Mesa Community College. 1996. <http:www.mc.Maricopa.edu/academic_sci/anthro/lost_tribes/Feudalism.html>
Kempley, Rita. “Matewan.” The Washington Post 16 October. 1987. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp- srv/style/longter…/matewanpg13kempley_a0ca46.html>.
Kreis, Steven. The History Guide. 2000. <http:www.pagesz.net/~stevek/ancient/lecture21b.html>