The fall of the house of labor: Racism and middle class identity

Early Americans had the real sense of dignity in work that comes from having control over production. Workers were independent, skilled, knowledgeable, had status, and took pride in their contributions to the American polity.[1] They tended to support Jeffersonians, rejecting the contemptuous, aristocratic, pro-British, monopolist Federalists associated with Alexander Hamliton.[2]

In the face of the mechanization, Taylorization, deskilling, and loss of control over production and innovation that arose with industrialization, US workers articulated socialist politics. They subscribed to the labor theory of value, wherein capital is seen as the expropriation and accumulation of years of workers’ efforts; and they promoted cross-ethnic, cross-religious solidarity, cooperatives, ten-hour movements, and unions. They recruited immigrants, produced journals in many languages, and disseminated job and wage information to workers. [3] The impetus for labor organization was strong: not only did industrialization degrade workers’ working conditions, it fanned class inequality, and it threatened to remove the workers’ political rights, which were tied to property ownership. The unions grew until the 1830s.

Early Anglo-Americans’ young unions suffered setbacks in the depression of the 1830s, as intertwined, cross-class temperance, Protestant revivalist, and nativist movements arose to prominence in American society. Nativists were characterized by “a zeal to destroy the ‘enemies’ of an ‘American way of life’.”[4] Where de Tocqueville had once identified Americans’ loyalty to Republican principle, in the 1830s American opinion descended into loyalty to a distorted, ideological construction of place. The material land had become a political touchstone, the basanos upon which the racialized bodies of labor were to be tortured to produce the “truth” of elite rule.[5]

When Irish and German Catholics began immigrating in the 1840s, Anglo American workers faced an incoming tide of cheap labor, and a choice: embrace immigrants and rebuild the unions, or join the Anglo nativist organizations that agitated for abolishing the immigrants’ political rights—though not restricting immigration.

Privileged AngloAmericans opposed restricting immigration because they could rapidly accumulate wealth by exploiting vulnerable immigrant domestic, factory, and farm labor, while congratulating themselves for saving the castaway populations of Europe.

In the 1840s, the working class politics of solidarity gave way to a less-innovative, less-independent, less-ambitious, but more immediately pragmatic politics, what A.T. Lane (1987) calls the “politics of survival.”

The “politics of survival” were essentially a conflict strategy for distinguishing the native population of Anglo-American Protestants as a sober, Protestant-educated, disciplined, reliable middle class, a chosen, exceptionalist, competitor class. By abjecting the immigrant workers –and, after the Civil War, African-Americans—instead of rebuilding unions, the Anglo Protestants hoped to forward an elite-friendly strategy for reducing the immigrant impact on Anglo workers’ work quality and wages.[6]

The Anglo American Protestants stumbled down the path of dehumanizing and sacrificing the lives of their non-Anglo brothers and sisters. They gave up on solidarity, and committed the U.S. to serving the interests of landowners and other exploiters of cheapened labor. While previously Anglo workers understood capitalism as a democracy-threatening conflict between workers and “accumulators” over the deployment of the social wealth, with the expansion of racism and the middle class identity, capitalists rather than workers (even middle class workers) could be framed as “innovative” agents. Racism was expanded throughout American society, and the American “middle class” beetled on in pursuit of the proofs of their monopoly on sobriety, discipline, and reliability.


[1] Lane 1987: 15.

[2] Lane 1987: 16

[3] Lane 1987: 25-26.

[4] John Higham quoted in Lane 1987: 21.

[5] The basanos in Ancient Greece was the “imaginary tool for the testing of friendship, loyalty, and adherence to traditional values.” Literally, slaves were tortured on a stone, the basanos, when their masters were accused of crimes (DuBois, Page. 1991. Torture and truth: The new ancient world. New York: Routledge).

[6] Lane 1987: 30.

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