One of the oddest intellectual trends of recent years has been the abandonment of economic determinism by writers on the left and its adoption by some writers on the right. The notion that all important human affairs are controlled by economic relations is a key element of Marx’s theories, yet the most influential leftist writers of today commonly operate in the fields of literature, history, sociology, and education, rather than in economics.
Conversely, some conservative economic writers with a libertarian perspective tend to raise economic efficiency to the role of both a satisfactory explanation of most human events and a sufficient moral justification for public policy. Jude Wanniski’s farcical suggestion that Gaul incorporated itself into the Roman Republic in order to enjoy the advantages of free trade in the Mediterranean is surely the nadir of a decade of conservative flirtation with economic determinism.
The importance of noneconomic factors in shaping human activity is brought out by these three books, which are written from very different perspectives. Working-Class America presents academic articles on labor history; Roughneck is a popular biography of radical labor leader Big Bill Haywood; and The Entrepreneurial Life is a combined instruction manual and cheerleader’s guide for people seeking fulfillment by setting up a small business.
A. David Silver’s book on entrepreneurship is more interesting than the usual get-rich-quick manual, as it covers a wide range of subjects, from psychological profiles of entrepreneurs to a brief theory of their role in the economy. Much of the diversity may be inadvertent, as the book resembles nothing more than a hurriedly assembled assortment of old speeches and copied magazine articles. If that’s what it is, then Silver is to be admired, since the ability to tum old files, clippings, and other academic detritus into profitable and publishable material with a minimum of fresh inspiration is the mark of a truly accomplished literary entrepreneur. Silver’s most interesting finding is that there appears to be a substantial regularity in the psychological profiles of successful entrepreneurs. It is characterized by such things as the presence of a strong mother, the absence of a father, and the experience of physical or social handicaps in the upbringing of those who later exhibit the willingness to take risks and the drive to succeed as independent businessmen.
Not the least of Silver’s virtues is his willingness to let his psychological findings speak for themselves, without filtering them through a screen of moralizing, ideological distortion, and bogus Freudianism. It is something of a shock to find any psychological study reported only for its intrinsic interest instead of being drafted into the service of some barely disguised political argument. Most popular psychology falls into two classes. The ideologically motivated writers of the Psychology Today variety endlessly manipulate such slippery notions as the “authoritarian personality” in what appears to be a determination to have the condition Republican redefined as a mental illness. The writers of self-improvement paperbacks, on the other hand, make a pretense of promoting psychological health, while in fact purveying the voyeuristic enjoyment of the case histories of a multitude of aberrant individuals.
Silver’s own psychological findings throw considerable doubt on his prediction that large companies will begin breaking up into semiautonomous contracting groups operating on an entrepreneurial basis. Even if production technology changes to the point at which economies of scale and coordination and control problems permit efficient decomposition of firms on this basis (a highly dubious proposition), the psychological characteristics that make entrepreneurs willing to take large risks and work with extraordinary intensity may simply not be present in the mass of workers Silver expects to adopt the new arrangement.
Frisch’s and Walkowitz’s turgid and verbose introduction to Working-Class America claims that the book is radical, innovative, and important. It isn’t. The book actually contains ten careful, dry studies of a series of narrowly defined topics in the history of the American labor movement from the 1790’s to around 1950. The rather unlikely suggestion that this collection of articles represents a major new development in the study of American labor history could be explained in two ways. Perhaps the existing work in this field is so uniformly dreadful that any research demonstrating basic competence represents a major improvement. More likely is the possibility that a great deal of exaggeration and puffing is needed to convince publishers, let alone readers, to take an interest in such less-than-scintillating subjects as the conditions in small New England textile mills from 1812 to 1840, 19th-century class culture in Pittsburgh, or the history of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union between 1910 and 1930.
The most encouraging characteristic of Working-Class America is the relative absence of the Marxist howling and tubthumping which so often afflict writing about trade unions. One of the writers, Christine Stansell, does manage to get off a couple of paragraphs savagely condemning capitalists for exploiting women by both hiring them and refusing to hire them, but her heart doesn’t seem to be in it. Several paragraphs describing the economic problems facing employers take the sting out of her earlier remarks, and her article fades away to bland respectability.
If there is a unifying theme to be drawn from the articles it must be the relative importance of noneconomic factors in determining the role of unions and the conduct of labor relations. Culture, race, political attitudes, and social conditions reappear in all of the studies, interacting with technological changes and market fluctuations in determining the conduct of the labor force. Theories of economic determinism, whether drawn from writers of the left or right, run the risk of ignoring the powerful influence of these social and cultural factors on human behavior.
Peter Carlson’s biography of Big Bill Haywood is a highly entertaining book. Haywood himself was a rather straightforward man who led a fascinating life, as a miner and union organizer in the West, as a leading figure in the Industrial Workers of the World, and as a convicted subversive and fugitive in the Soviet Union. Judged as an intellectual, Bill Haywood does not fare well. His belief that workers could better their lot only by seizing political power through a general strike rather than through the political system is not only wrong but antidemocratic. He possessed an uninformed admiration for the Soviet Union in its earliest years, an affliction shared by many more sophisticated minds.
Haywood came by his radicalism honestly, in the grinding poverty and atrocious working conditions of the Western mining camps of the 1880’s and 1890’s. His disdain for the American system of government was grounded in the experience of miners’ strikes being broken by state police and soldiers, the open collusion of elected officials and mine owners, and the flagrant disregard of constitutional rights, even as they were more narrowly defined in those days, by state courts and politicians eager to suppress union activity.
Haywood’s radicalization was helped along by several clouts with rifle butts, admittedly a powerful motivation by any standard. He had more excuse for seizing on radical doctrines than the modern unionists, who often get their outrage from books. When Haywood talked about oppression of workers he was probably thinking about the rockfall in an unsafe mine that crippled his hand. One suspects that his sympathy with the Marxist effetes who discuss workers’ “alienation” and “psychic oppression” would have been severely limited.
The trade-union movement has long been dining out on the injustices of 80 years ago. In spite of the development of entrenched legal monopolies in the provision of labor, substantial legal and administrative rights for union members, and accretions of political and financial power undreamed of in Haywood’s time, even the most sedentary union bureaucrat sees himself as the rightful heir to those early organizers who served years in jails and fled Pinkerton’s police. One suspects that Bill Haywood would be less than impressed by some of those who trade on the memory of his organizing drives.
One remarkable aspect of Haywood’s story is the seeming ease with which governments could act in the early years of this century. Once a group of trade unionists was deemed a menace, the state governments used imprisonment without trial, declarations of martial law, and deportations to suppress them, while court action to halt these practices was often ineffective and almost always delayed. The courts proved willing to enforce Federal laws prohibiting disloyalty and subversion in the most general terms. Nowadays governments must wade through rivers of writs and injunctions, hearings, and appeals to get anyone locked up, and it is extremely difficult to do it rapidly. Civil libertarians, who are commonly neither civil nor libertarians, probably see this as an unmixed blessing. Yet in a sense it represents an abdication of political responsibility. Political leadership as it used to be conceived involved a trade-off. Politicians used their powers of office to buy popularity and esteem. In times of crisis, they would in turn tread the very fringes of the law, which is, unfortunately, sometimes a necessary evil to reduce risk to the public good.
Dealing with potential subversives, particularly in wartime, is an activity which rarely finds favor with historians and commentators after the fact, whether it concerns Industrial Workers of the World or Japanese Americans. Whatever the merits of those particular cases, it used to be recognized that political leaders who took their responsibilities seriously might from time to time have to get their hands dirty, to suffer some public obloquy, and to defend their actions in due course before the electorate. Modern legal restrictions seek to confine political leaders to the role of rather seedy philanthropists who are permitted to disburse taxpayers’ money for a wide variety of purposes but prevented from taking the sort of quick, dirty, and disreputable actions which are often the most effective responses to threats to the public good.
Politicians may like the change. It preserves the pleasing part of their jobs while relieving them of responsibility for the unpleasant part. It remains doubtful whether the feeble politicians can deal with modern crises such as violent crime at home and Soviet subversion abroad without the benefit of the rather loose and freewheeling legal and philosophical atmosphere of the earlier years of this century.
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