John Sayles, the writer and director of the film Matewan, demonstrates an understanding, albeit possibly an unconscious one, of the struggle between two economic systems. This work depicts the historical events of 1920 in the Mingo County, West Virginia town of Matewan, a place that came to be known as "Bloody Mingo". Although many people are accustomed to viewing feudalism as a social system from the past, history is not such an orderly, linear progression of societies and ways of life but is, rather, a dynamic, chaotic process. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that in the 1920s in this part of the United States there was a clash of two different economic systems—capitalism and feudalism.
Economic systems are attempts to solve the following questions: Who does the production? Who controls the profits? And what is the social arrangement by which the two previous questions are resolved? There is an interlocking triad of considerations: economic relationships; political relationships; and cultural relationships. We see these relationships brought to life in the events of Matewan. Feudalism exists when free people have to work for a single employer, or not work at all. Capitalism, in contrast, allows free people to choose their employers. There is often in history a struggle between feudal and capitalist structures. The story of the coal miners is the story of one such clash.
The Stone Mountain Coal Company owns everything in the town of Matewan. Its owners, the economic elite, could be likened to a collective feudal lord presiding over the estate of Matewan. Theirs is the only game in town and the miners have no choice in where they work This monopoly is feudal because of the absence of free choice. Capitalism requires competition over capital, not just capital. The total lack of competition is exposed in the train scene. The new men are told that they are beholden to the company for expenses—their tools, their train fare, tool sharpening, and even their fuses, caps, and powder. What little pay is left over is issued in company scrip, which is only good at the company’s store. We, the audience, are told at the onset of the film that the pay rate per tonnage has just been lowered. The company’s grip is vise-like; it can charge more and pay less. This combination is the scissors effect, and it leaves the miners in a subservient position.
A powerful way of keeping workers under control is using social mechanisms. Money is one social construct; it is a medium of exchange and a store of value. Company scrip is a type of money with no value apart from the company. The miners are dependent, then, on the company for non-work items necessary for survival, like food and clothing, even their housing. A monopoly will eliminate other choices or make them so unattractive no one will try them. In order to opt out of the Stone Mountain Coal Company web, a miner would have to flee, penniless, to the mountains. There is a sort of caste system in which the miners see the mountain folks as different from themselves. This, combined with the lack of other options resulting from their geographical isolation, serves as a strong deterrent to just running away. If debts with the company were still outstanding, then company men would probably pursue the debtor.
Who are these enforcers, these company men? Just as the feudal lord had his contingent of knights, the SMCC receives hired guns from the Baldwin Phelps Company in the forms of men like Griggsey and Hicks. The spiffily dressed Hicks appears chivalrous at first, but this "knight" is a hired thug. Under the mask, under the armor, is something evil; we see it when he calls Bridey Mae "mountain trash", and when he bullies his way into the rooming house. Later, we see Hillard killed for his attempt to challenge the company by fraternizing with the union organizer, Joe Kinnehan.
The miners are compelled to work under threat of violence from the Baldwin Phelps Company. This feudal economy is a "command" economy. The economic principle of "command" refers to power playing a dominant role in the economic relationship. It is also a political process, one in which political (as well as the social) mechanisms can be used to make workers conform to the demands of those wielding the power. However, political rules are an important means to ensure alternatives. Although not a guarantee, democracy is necessary for freedom. In Matewan, in the democratic tradition, the people elected Sheriff Sid and the Mayor. Sid, representing secular law, kept the thugs in check within the town limits. He faced them, standing alone like the lone man confronting a tank in Tiananmen Square.
The other important social mechanisms are cultural and religious. In addition to seeing the mountain folk as different, the miners view the newly arrived Italians and the Blacks with suspicion. This gulf is apparent when they set up a camp after leaving the company owned houses. The music in the camp is discordant; each group has its own tunes and instruments. They seem strange to each other in all they do and eat. Later in the film, they play music in harmony and learn to share food. The older preacher, played by Sayles himself, represents the entrenched way of thinking. He spews the company line, equating the devil with socialism and communism, and thereby, the union. Perhaps, like the Judas character, he is pursuing his own self-serving interest, even from the pulpit. In contrast, the narrator of the film, Danny, preaches a different gospel. He is decidedly pro-union.
The conflict between the cultural and religious perspectives presented in the film Matewan echo the larger issues being explored. Sheriff Sid and the Stone Mountain Coal Company represent competing authorities in a struggle for power. The film encompasses many aspects of an economic whole. These clashes occur throughout history and are what bring about the possibility of change. The miners of Matewan, ironically, as they fight to break free from economic serfdom and form a union, are championing the rise of capitalism.