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Matewan/Norma Rae

Posted by Melanie LaFavre on October 22, 2000 at 16:05:57:

The Line Between Feudalism and Capitalism

We consider America to be a capitalist nation, but what exactly makes it capitalist? Webster's dictionary defines capitalism as an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrasted to cooperatively or state owned wealth. Capitalism affects the people in it on a daily basis; it affects the way they live their daily lives. A break down in this, supposedly perfect, economic system may occur resulting in a case of feudalism. This can still be found today even, in America. Feudalism is defined in Webster's dictionary as a system of political organizations prevailing in Europe from the 9th to 15th centuries having as its basis the relation of lord to vassal with all land held in fee and as chief characteristics homage, the service of tenants under arms and in court, ward ship, and forfeiture. There are defined social differences and similarities between capitalism and feudalism; these differences can be seen when comparing and contrasting the reality-based movies Norma Rae and Matewan.
There are many similarities between Norma Rae and Matewan making it hard at times to see which economic system is feudalism and which is capitalism. These similarities cause confusion, even today, in deciding what can be considered feudalism and what can be considered capitalism. This is because in both systems the employers have a significant amount of control over their employees' lives. Both movies are about employees in large factory situations trying to better their working conditions by unionizing the company. Neither the Stone Mountain Coal Company, in Matewan nor the O.P. Henley Textile Mill, in Norma Rae seemed to truly care about the welfare of their employees. For example, in Matewan the coal miners were suffering from the coal dust cutting their lungs. This problem could have been easily alleviated, had the company cared, by providing the employees with masks. Another major problem was the premature explosions in the mine, which were also caused by coal dust and often resulted in death. This problem would have been more difficult to remedy, but it could have been done. The company just didn't care enough about the lives of its workers to spend the money necessary to correct the problem. In Norma Rae, Norma Rae's mother, who works in the textile mill, goes temporarily deaf due to the loud noise of the textile machines. When Norma takes her to the on location company doctor he informs them that her hearing will come back shortly and callously tells them that she should get another job if it is a big problem. A more extreme example is the case when Norma Rae's father is complaining about his arm being numb. The manager tells him to continue working until his break in fifteen minuets; he does and as a result he dies of a heart attack. These examples clearly illustrate that both companies are more concerned with the profit margin then the lives of their employees. Such lack of concern for employees is present in America today, not only in sweatshops, but also in the strawberry fields where workers have chemicals sprayed on them as they painfully arch over picking their strawberries.
The all-encompassing power of the companies is clearly defined through its reach to the citizens' religious lives. In both movies the local pastor seems to be on the side of the company. This makes it seems as though unions are bad and the people are wrong for trying to implement them. In Matewan the pastor's sermon focuses on the union as being "Beelzebub's" or the devil's work. In Norma Rae the pastor would rather have her, a long time parishioner, leave the church community than hold a union meeting in his church. It seems as though both pastors are working for the company trying to instill a sort of moral need to keep things the way they are.
When moral conscious was not effective the company used physical force. The Coal Company and the Textile Mill employed forms of punishment to stop the implementation of the union. The coal miners were ultimately fired and removed from their homes for joining the union. The mill workers were all put on a stretch, longer hours and less pay, for even considering joining the union. Both companies attempted to use racial lines to break up the union. In Matewan the company spy got all the white unionists to bomb the mines and when things went bad he blamed the blacks for not helping them. In Norma Rae the company managers put up signs telling the white workers that the blacks were trying to take their jobs by bringing in the union. The companies used underhanded methods to get their employers to do their dirty work and sort of self destroy. All these similarities help to muddle the line between feudalism and capitalism in the two movies.
Regardless of the various gray areas between capitalism and feudalism it can be determined that the Stone Mountain Coal Company in Matewan was functioning as a feudalistic system in America. The most blatant fact that supports this is that the Coal Company was a monopoly in the town of Matewan. The citizens of Matewan ultimately had no choice of where to work. The only jobs in the town were through "the company," which owned most of the land in Matewan. If the citizens didn't work for the company they didn't work at all. The company had a sort of bondage contract over the citizens, because they must be "with" the company in order to work and live. Even if the citizens wanted to start any other sort of business in order to relieve themselves of the bondage the company has over them it would be almost impossible since the company owned most of the land in town. For a society to be capitalistic the people within that society must have a normal alternative of where to work. If they are not being paid what they are worth they must have other choices that will pay them appropriately. The miners were paid in tonnage so that they had to work very hard in order to get paid. For a system to be capitalist it has to employ a labor market, which means the employees are paid for hours or units of life rather than amount produced. The workers in the mine where paid in company script, so that even the money they were paid went back to the company. The company made sure to charge the workers more for the supplies they needed then they would have been charged elsewhere since they had no alternative. The company would raise prices in the store while they lowered the workers' pay. The workers would be fired if it were discovered that they had used their own money to buy company related items elsewhere. They would have had to go by train in order to do so since the company owned everything in the town. In a capitalist society consumers have the ability to buy supplies for what they are worth. If someone is selling something for more than it is worth then they can go elsewhere and buy their supplies for the true value. The citizens of Matewan decide to join the union in order to get better pay and benefits, and more control over their lives. But, the feudal lord vows to go broke before he lets union miners in his mine. Joining a union is a fundamental right that is available to all in a capitalist society. The managers of this feudalistic society can be easily compared to the knights of feudalistic England. In feudalistic England the knights were the mangers. They would go around the community and make sure the feudal surfs were doing their jobs. They did so by burning their homes, stealing from them, raping and beating them and other unnecessary measures. Two men, "feudalistic knights", came into the town of Matewan to bully the workers, who were on strike, into ending the strike. They were there as the managers, threatening, beating, and killing the workers in order to get them to cooperate. These "mangers" are fundamentally feudalistic, since in a capitalist system the managers work inside making sure that the job is being done efficiently. In feudalism, as in this case, the mangers only have to make sure they are doing their jobs from the outside. The fact that the company owned the land that the workers lived on and the supplies they bought gave them a lot of leverage during the strike. They felt they were justified in taking the workers' land, clothing and furniture because it was all "company property." The company put itself above the law. When the sheriff and the Mayor deemed the companies' behavior illegal they would simply ignore it. They would only back down upon serious fear for their lives. In any case, they found some form of "law" to back them up. In order for the company to be capitalistic its actions must be truly legal. All of these facts, point out in an obvious way that the Stone Mountain Coal Company was functioning, and thriving, as a feudalism in America.
The movie Norma Rae on the other hand is most certainly an example of capitalism. Although there are gray areas that make it appear feudalistic at times; it is in fact a capitalist system. In the town of Henleyville there aren't many other alternatives for employment, but there are choices. One of these alternatives is the gas station where Norma Rae's new husband, an ex-mill worker, has found employment. The Textile Company only owns the land the warehouse is on; it does not monopolize the resources in the area. The Textile Company uses the labor market system; the employees are paid, though unfairly, on an hourly basis in American dollars. Although, for the most part it seems as though the company does not care about the health of its employees there are measures taken to ensure that they are cared for. All the workers, including the mangers, use earplugs to help protect their hearing. There is a company physician on hand and they are allowed privileges with a doctor's note. Although the company heads do their best to stop the union from forming they "allow" it to happen. Ruben Washaski, a union organizer, openly hands union pamphlets out to the workers as they walk into work. Norma Rae, a textile worker, is allowed to wear a pin during work and, pass out pamphlets, and talk union on her breaks. Norma Rae even informs the company heads when she is going to have union meetings and they can do nothing about it. Then, at the end they put the union to a fair vote; all textile workers vote and the ballots are checked by both company and union persons. The union wins and is presumably installed. The company does some underhanded things but for the most parts stays on the side of the law. In order to stop Norma Rae from complaining they give her a promotion instead of unlawfully firing her or using violence. Ruben Washaski is allowed to inspect the company bulletin boards and forces them to make changes because the law is on his side. When the company finally does fire Norma Rae the reason they use is her making personal phone calls rather than unlawfully firing her. The managers in the textile mill act as capitalist mangers. They walk around inside of the building making sure that work is being done effectively. A feudalistic system does not need such mangers but a capitalistic one does. All of these facts make it quite clear that the O.P. Henley Company was functioning as a capitalistic system.
Although it may be hard at times to differentiate between feudalism and capitalism the line is always there. Comparing and contrasting Norma Rae and Matewan provides a good forum to see the differences between the two systems. It is quite evident that the Stone Mountain Coal Company was functioning as a feudalistic system and the O.P. Henley Textile Mill was functioning as a capitalistic system.


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