GOSPEL OF WORK VS. GOSPEL OF WEALTH
January 2006 By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
It was a company town.
A company region, actually.
The Mohawk Valley in upstate New York.
The Remington boys had started a gun company.
And they had come to dominate the region.
There was even company scrip.
Scrip you could use like money to buy food, and clothes.
Get a haircut.
Even donate to the local church.
And when you went to church, Mr. Remington was there.
So, if you had a complaint, you could tap him on the shoulder.
And talk about it.
People were generally happy.
Then the gun trust came to town.
And sabotaged the whole deal.
And down it went.
That's the story line of Worked Over: The Corporate Sabotage of An
American Community by Dimitra Doukas (Cornell University Press).
Doukas, who is now a professor at Dalhousie University
in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says that in the late 1800s, corporations, once
they took control of production, tried to change the culture of the
From the gospel of work to what Andrew Carnegie called
the gospel of wealth.
"If we look at the United States in the 19th
century, we see a popular culture that was, in a word,
anti-capitalist," Doukas said. "And this was reflected very
much in the political scene of the time. You had to be in favor of the
working man. You had to support and praise the common man. The basic
idea is that work is what dignifies a person. It is an anti-aristocratic
ideology. It goes way back, really. Aristocrats were characterized as
parasites, as people who lived off the work of others. Whereas good,
virtuous American people worked hard and were expected to enjoy the
fruits of their labor."
So, for example, Abraham Lincoln, in his first annual
message to Congress in 1861, makes his statement about capital and
labor: "Capital is only the fruit of labor. Labor is the superior
of capital and deserves much the higher consideration."
But when the corporations came in and took over, the
major message was -- no, it's capital, not labor, that produces the
wealth of society -- it's capital that deserves the greater
And this is what Doukas means by "the sabotage of
an American community."
"Sabotage in the sense of undermining or
continually poking at it, first with very little sophistication, poking
at the basic value set of the society," she says. "And the
reason they poked at it is because the corporate value system could not
co-exist with the American value system."
On the whole, working for the Remingtons was a
positive thing. There were no strikes. The Knights of Labor were
influential at the time. And people look back with fond memories of the
"To work for the Remingtons was not to have a job
in our sense," Doukas told us. "The people worked as
contractors. They sold what they made to the company. They were
organized into departments under a senior highly skilled craftsperson or
artisan. Each of these persons could conceive themselves as working
Working people took offense at being wage slaves --
what most of us are now. They had a sense of independence from the man.
And the man was right there in the community. You ran into the man -- on
the street. You could talk with the man.
Now, the man sits atop a giant corporation,
"A whole way of life was organized around working
for the Remingtons," Doukas says. "People looked at it as
being wholesome -- American, virtuous, dignified -- and still today they
look back at that period. Even today, there is a tremendous sense of
history among local working people. They are tremendously critical of
the present day situation."
So, there was economic democracy under the Remington
"In this very particular sense -- back then, you
had local ownership," Doukas said." The biggest boss sits in a
pew next to you in church and was there to be buttonholed after church.
There was direct access. You can think of it as economic democracy,
maybe, in the broadest sense. But locally, it is more like a ranked
system where skilled workers saw themselves in some sense as ranking
lower than the Remingtons. And yet the high ranking person was
accessible to them. At the same time, there was a sense of the
tremendous dignity of being a working person and creating the wealth of
the country. And this is how people spoke of it for better than a
century. So, it is democratic in the basic sense that if you had a
grievance, you could get some sort of action on it, and fairly directly.
You had a voice -- ground to stand on."
Anyone who is from upstate New York knows that it's
one of the most beautiful regions of this country.
And for years it has been battered by big corporations
that don't give a damn about the region.
Doukas says there was a time when the man cared.
Hard to believe.
But it's worth taking a peek at her book and making
your own judgment.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.
Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.
Monitor. Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of On the Rampage:
Corporate Predators and the Destruction of Democracy (Monroe, Maine:
Common Courage Press).
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
This article can be found online by
clicking this external link
Focus on the Corporation is a weekly column written by Russell Mokhiber
and Robert Weissman. Please feel free to forward the column to friends
or repost the column on other lists. If you would like to post the
column on a web site or publish it in print format, we ask that you
first contact us [addresses removed re spam]
To subscribe, unsubscribe or change your address to corp-focus, click
Back to top