September 24, 2000
Matewan: A 20th-century Form of Feudalism
Matewan, in which the action takes place in the 1920s in West Virginia, gives a clear and realistic picture of the economical situation of the given place and time. This has been a purpose and an idea which the director of the film, John Sales, has paid a particular attention to. The film elucidates a 20th-century conflict between two economical systems: feudalism and capitalism, with feudalism clearly dominating the economical status of the small town of Matewan, in spite of some outer characteristics (such as wages being paid) that imply capitalism.
The main feature of capitalism is the free labor market and 'freedom' is the key concept: freedom in choosing an employer; freedom in deciding how and where to work in order to make the most reasonable living. In that sense it is indisputable that capitalism is not the economical process taking place in Matewan. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to live in this small town and not to work for the Stone Mountain Coal Company. It holds monopoly over most of the town, it
owns and controls nearly everything: stores, buildings and so on. The miners are being underpaid and overcharged at the same time. Wages have gone down again, workers have to pay monopoly rents; besides, they are getting paid not in dollars but in company scrips that can be used at
company stores only. Therefore, the contract the workers have signed with the company, in stead of giving them freedom and rights, puts restrictions on them and their way of life: they do not have the freedom to join in a union; they are not free to choose their employer, either. The working and
the living conditions are beyond any criticism and are very far from what is needed in order to lead a normal life. However, this seems to be the only way for people there to make any living at all. The alternative is fleeing away in the mountains with no home and no money whatsoever, which is really not acceptable and can hardly even be considered as an 'alternative' therefore. In that sense, the geographical setting (i.e. the isolation of this small town) indirectly encourages the development
of feudal relations in Matewan. The company leaves its workers with no choice and no freedom - a defining characteristic of feudalism, and that reinforces the feudal nature of the economical relations in Matewan.
What additionally confirms the idea of 20th-century feudalism in Matewan is the fact that a typical element of this economical system - the feudal knights, has its equivalent in the film in the persons of Hicks an Griggsy. The two operatives from the Boldwin-Fets Agency come to town
with a purpose similar to the one feudal knights once had: to frighten the workers and 'stimulate' them to work more efficiently by keeping them in a state of fear and under a threat of violence. Hicks and Griggsy are typical urban guys that think they are somewhat of a higher level than the
local people. This is made quite clear from the way Hicks talks to Briday Mae, calling her 'mountain trash'. Hicks and Griggsy keep a distance from the Matewan residents, and at the same time do not hesitate to intimidate them and thus to reinforce indirectly the power and dominance of the Stone Mountain Coal Company over their lives and minds. That again encourages parallels to be drawn between the economical situation at Matewan and the feudal economical system.
Economical relationships are not the only aspect of the film that makes it clear feudalism is prevalent. Similar impression is created when the political aspect is considered and the political relations are closely examined. What the viewer cannot miss while considering the political
relations in Matewan, is the struggle between the democratically elected official government authorities and the power-possessing unofficial authorities: the former represented by Sheriff Sid and the Mayor, and the latter - by SMCC and the Boldwin-Fets Company. The inequality in number, and hence in degree of political power is evident: it is two persons versus two companies. Although the Mayor and especially Sheriff Sid do try to confront and counter the thugs in town, it is impossible for them to gain the whole and unlimited political power over the town. They are just
not economically powerful enough, in contrast to the SMCC. That mmediately and inevitably brings out, in its full meaning, the feudal maxim: "Land is power!": the democratically elected and freely chosen power is weaker than the power of money and possession.
In social aspect and terms, we come to the same point again: the almost unlimited power and influence of the feudal lord (the company, in this case) not only over the work, but also over the private lives of the workers. The company influences directly their way of life and way of thinking, and thus indirectly their behavior to others: they treat the mountain folk and the newly arrived Italians and Black people with hostility, perhaps fearing the potential work force in them which might threaten to deprive them of their jobs, i.e. their only way of survival. Further in the film, however, their relationships seem to smoothen a lot. For me personally, the possible explanation for this is beyond the economical interpretation of the story. It's just that misfortune brings people together; they are naturally pre-determined in times of hardships to seek help from each other and to unite eventually. And that makes them stronger, as it happens in Matewan as well.
In spite of the fact that many people consider feudalism an economical order of the past, a typical and fully justified 20th-century version of it dominates the economical scene in the town of Matewan. The company exercises monopoly over the whole economic space of the town. Workers are bound to work for it by contracts that very much resemble bondage contracts, and virtually they do not have any freedom or right of choosing their employer or even their vocation; they are not paid fair wages for their work, either. Their employer (SMCC) is not competing for
working force, because it has the monopoly in the town and is about the only employer there. The absence of these typically capitalistic features argues for and, in my opinion, proves that the economy of Matewan is by no means capitalism, but a modified and more modern version of the feudal economic relations.
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