Amelia Jonakait Sept. 29, 2000
Economics in Popular Film Prof. Gabriel
So Called Capitalism
Freedom and the right to choose is the essence of capitalism. Capitalsism instills the freedom of making a person’s well-being and lifestyle as they wish it to be through the facility of choice. Though both industries are deemed capitalist because America is the “great capitalist nation”, they really run on feudalistic systems; Matewan in more respects than the textile industry Norma Rae works for. The only capitalistic element is that the workers got to choose their employers, but how much choice did they really have? If they chose to work for an industry, each industry would be a feudalistic enterprise no matter where they turned. There was no reason why they shouldn’t be so exploitive because for years the voice of the people went unheard until it was virtually muted. Some were too afraid to have a voice, some had a voice and were punished or manipulated, and most just felt it was hopeless. Industries, with their huge bank vaults, were too powerful for the workers to overpower alone. They had all the money on their side and therefore all the power. The way the industrial system was formatted was in effect the same as a feudalistic system. The owner was sysnonymous to the lord of the manner, the owners’ right-hand men acted as the knights, and the workers of course played the parts of the overworked serfs. As serfs, as workers in Matewan and the textile industry, the choice of living in a socially acceptable way was just not within grasp. Lives in both instances were regulated by the industry or the feudal lord. Freedom was nonexistent and therefore so was capitalism.
The industry became engrained in the workers’ lives; they lived and breathed in the manner the industry saw fit. Not only did the industry own the actual factory or mine, it owned the town, it owned the education, it owned the people. It gave the people a way to survive, a well-being good enough so that they could keep working. Capitalism revolves around the idea of a labor market; the workers are able to choose their employer and sell their units of lifetime, but in the instances of the coal mine and the textile factory, the people were virtually forced into selling their entire life. They became trapped, their lives and their future generations were trapped in a cycle revolving around the industry owner and kept in pace and place by the “suits”.
In a capitalistic economic system, workers are, on the whole, more inclined to do their work, and really put a part of themselves into this work because they actually chose to work there. Feudalism is the more inefficient system because the workers are forced to work. They work because if they don’t the men in the sharp suits with “real money” will scare and bully them into work. The suits will threaten their workers into producing, rather than give them insentive, but this method works in such industries because though it’s not much of a lifestyle or well-being, it is one. The workers become so dependent on the industry because the industry exploits them into their feudalistic cycle. Without the industry, the worker is left with nothing, literally. In Matewan, the industry owned everything in the town, making way for its own currency. The workers were paid in company script. This ensured the industry that the workers were theirs because the rest of the country wouldn’t take this currency. The workers could only shop in designated stores, of which the company owned, for no other store would accept this exploitative money. In Norma Rae’s case, she was paid in actual US dollars, but they were pretty scarce. No other commercial businesses wanted to enter this poor town because the people (most all of whom worked at the factory) could afford much, which kept other employment opportunities away and the workers in the industries oppressive web.
Norma Rae had more opportunity than those in Matewan; she had more choice. She could have packed her children up and gone to another place, but she was raised to become a textile worker. She knew from the time she was very little that her future would be in that repressive factory. She was molded into her “place” from day one. There were no real opportunities for such a “small town” girl, sure there were a few more stores, there was American currency (as small as that was), but she was raised to be a factory girl, she was poorly educated and afraid of the world on the other side. The industry brain-washed everyone into thinking that there was nothing else.
In a feudalistic system, there is a bondage contract, which the serfs must sign. They are basically signing over their lives. In feudalism, the feudal lord has a monopoly over all resources, which the people need to survive so they are forced into signing a bondage contract ensuring that they will work for the lord and indirectly signing over their freedom. Freedom is a key word in a capitalistic system. All the workers are free to choose, free to make their own decisions, and live in a fashion that will ensue the greatest happiness. America is based on a capitalist means of economics and society, which yields the “pursuit of happiness”. In such industrial exploitation as was in Matewan and Norma Rae’s factory, the pursuit of happiness was only in reach of the owners. By keeping the workers in curbed, by giving them just enough to survive on, the owners got richer and richer (ie their pursuit of happiness fulfilled). As for the workers, they just tried to get through every gut-wrenching day, to survive on the minimal amount the industry thought they could give without losing workers, they just tried to survive. Norma Rae prostituted herself for a steak dinner every once in a while because that was the only luxury she could afford, and she couldn’t even buy it with her own money. Norma Rae, though she had another man in her head, married out of convenience. She married for the joint paycheck.
Industry had a monopoly over everything, including the workers’ lives. They were as exploitative as they possibly could be, pushing the limits farther and farther into their serfs’ lives. In Matewan, not only could the wages only be spent in company stores, but they were already being deducted the second the workers joined on. The price per unit of coal was deduced in addition, though the prices at the company store and everything else wasn’t. Workers had to pay for everything, and the industry made sure they did. From the start the workers paychecks were being lowered; the workers had to pay for their own equipment, housing, food, and then anything else they might need or want from the store. Workers were only allowed to have two people in a room ensuring the industry more money that it doesn’t need. All their labor and earnings circulated right back to the owners. There was just an illusion of choice. The workers could buy whatever they wanted, at the company store, they chose to work there, and they could leave if they left with absolutely nothing. Once there was a tiny ripple in the system, the coming of the union organizer, the industry sent in its corporate men (its knights) to bully the workers into further submission. The industry also used a spy, a fellow worker, to manipulate the workers and turn them against each other.
Norma Rae was promoted as a means of silencing her. Once she took the higher paying job of surveiling each workers production speed and quota she was transformed into a “suit” by her co-workers, though she was far from it. The bottom line was that she was getting paid more for easier work of which any of the workers would have deserved. Her slightly heightened power made her a pariah to her friends. They cut off communication with her, exactly what the industry was striving for. It was worth a few extra coins to muffle an uprising. Norma Rae was smart enough to realize that she was being silenced and cut off from her friends so the second she quit her higher paying job and went back to the manual labor, she was once again accepted. On the other hand, in Matewan, the industrial spy turned everyone against the union worker, he even turned everyone against each other in order to maintain confusion, and inhibit the uprise of a labor union.
The industry made much effort in instilling fear of unions into its workers. The industry in Matewan actually inhibited unions altogether in the signing of the bondage contract. The industry in which Norma Rae worked, fear of unions made the workers taciturn. Their silence, their deference kept the industry strong, wealthy, and as exploitative as possible. The textile industry in which Norma Rae worked didn’t have an explicit bondage contract, therefore ultimately a vote was held and a union instilled. Massacre was what resulted in Matewan; the American money versus the company script.
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