Class Warfare Blog

November 3, 2012

It Didn’t Have to Be That Way

The History Channel is currently running a program, called “The Men Who Built America,” which is focused on the lives of the business “titans” of the Golden Age, the second half of the 19th Century. We are talking about the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, etc.

This is pseudo history at its worst, re-enactments, commentary by the likes of Donald Trump, etc. but, to give them some credit, they are including their warts along with everything else. What I object to is the glorification of these individuals.

The sheer rapaciousness of these men was astounding. Often they were driven by envy or greed. One episode showed Andrew Carnegie driven to repay Rockefeller for the death of his business partner (presumably due to a business reversal that he blamed on Rockefeller), but to extract his revenge his fortune would have to exceed Rockefeller’s. Huh? I can think of a dozen different ways to smear the man’s reputation up to the point of assassinating him, but out gross him?

These men, in order to make even more money, when they already had more than they needed to live a very wealthy existence, were more than willing to drive their workers to their deaths under appalling working conditions in order to so. And they were willing to hire mercenaries to break strikes, using lethal force if “necessary.”

The commentators inject their opinions as to what great risk takers these men were. But they were risking their money, while their workers were risking their lives and their families ruin. There was no “safety net” for the poor. The death of the wage earner, the husband, left the wife and kids in very dire straits. And there was little “Christian charity” to be had either.

And while the new “titans of industry” (Donald Trump?) can only laud the persistence and courage of the older mega-industrialists, they miss the bigger point: it didn’t have to be that way. They imply over and over if those men hadn’t been the “way they were” this country wouldn’t be the “way it is now” and they are right, but they leave out the fact that it could have been much, much better.

What would have happened if one of these vicious men would have embraced a more modern philosophy of “we are all in this together” and treated his workers better, paid them better, helped educate them and their children? Oh, but the costs would have driven them out of business, you say. I say poppycock! In order to back up your claim, you would need to know “the numbers,” that is their costs and profits. These men made billions of dollars (in today’s currency) for themselves while paying pennies to their workers. Better pay, education, all of these things were really quite inexpensive. Yes, profits would have been less in the short term, but there would have been offsets. Progress might not have been so fast, but so what? Would you rather have a job done right or done quickly?

And when it comes to competitiveness, what do you think the labor benefits would be for such an employer? Workers would flock to such companies. They would have their choice of the best workers.

Even Henry Ford, one of the same ilk as the men in this series, understood some of this. He paid significantly more to his employees than did the other auto makers, because he wanted to be able to sell his cars to his employees. Working for Ford back in the day was a plum job and nobody slacked at work because they didn’t want to lose a great job.

The attitudes of the day were that workers were like small children, they had to be watched like a hawk or they would drift off. They weren’t the better sort, don’t you know, so it was okay to exploit them. But not everyone was driven this way, and it didn’t have to be that way.

So why are we still glorifying the worst behavior?



  1. A group of the privileged and elite patting each other on the back. Why do we glorify these people? We equate success in our society with economic prosperity, but why? Great post!


    Comment by thejumbledmind — November 3, 2012 @ 11:07 am | Reply

  2. Same play today, different cast.


    Comment by Elyse — November 19, 2012 @ 12:37 pm | Reply

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