Thursday, May 29, 2014

INDEPENDENCE, SELF-RELIANCE AND COMPETENCE (Part I)

--Leslie Fish  <;)))><


When the Revolution began, Americans already had roughly two centuries' experience with independence under their belts.

As settlers – voluntary or not – they'd been cast on their own resources, in an alien land, with no survival guides but the natives – and all too often they'd made enemies of the natives by trying to steal their land rather than, like Peter Minuit and Roger Williams, having the decency to buy it.  The earliest settlements, like Jamestown and Roanoke, were disastrous failures.  An embarrassingly large percentage of the Pilgrims, and other settlers, died in their first year. 

The survivors were practical, self-reliant, and competent in the extreme.  They'd learned to hunt, trap, and fish, and they'd learned which of the native plants were edible, or even medicinal, all from at least observing the natives.  They knew how to clear land and make good use of the resulting timber and stone.  They could build houses and barns, shops and ships.  They knew how to make pottery, tan and sew leather, mine and work the local metals, make their own clothing from the original fiber to the finished garment, and farm well enough to feed themselves and produce an excess to sell to their neighbors -- or local or even overseas merchants.  A lot of them were also literate.  To Americans of the 18th century, it was perfectly reasonable to strike out into the howling wilderness – in some cases, with nothing but an axe and a tinderbox – choose some amenable land and settle it, and within five years or less have a tidy house and prosperous farm or other business.

In brief, the average community – or even family, or even individual – contained in themselves all the knowledge they needed to survive and succeed.  That competence at self-reliance gave them their real independence.  Breaking away from British rule was only the last step.

That combination of personal competence, self-reliance and independence also caused a peculiarly American attitude toward work, which foreign travelers remarked on – an assumption that work itself contained a rewarding virtue, what was sometimes called The Dignity of Labor.  This was later to make America the richest and most productive nation in the world.  It was rooted in the assumption that personal competence and self-reliance, and working primarily for oneself, would reliably lead to personal success.  This was the basis of the great American dream: that anyone who was competent and worked hard could 'better' himself, start and improve his own business, and thereby end well-off if not rich, no matter how poor he started. 

Competence was the key – that and plenty of available land, physical resources to work on.  Americans had that, and built on it, for another two centuries after the Revolution – almost.

Remember that freedom has always had enemies, both foreign and domestic, and sometimes an unholy alliance of the two.  Well before the Revolution there were wealthy – often aristocrat – settlers who augmented their own competence with massive involuntary labor, first from indentured servants, then from outright chattel slaves;  these had a vested interest in keeping others from becoming competent, or self-reliant, let alone independent.  The old guild system of skilled-trade training had begun to break down;  trade-masters who had grown rich off the underpaid labor of apprentices didn't want to graduate said apprentices into full independent journeyman status, and therefore kept them from learning full competence so as to keep them as permanent 'servants'.  Of course, anyone rich enough to afford servants, for housework or farming or factory work, didn't want to lose them, either. 

The lust for cheap labor is an old, old sin, but it was in America that the relationship of competence and independence become clear.  Ancient and medieval empires certainly institutionalized slavery and serfdom, but they didn't discourage slaves and serfs from gaining skills, knowledge, competence, that would improve their efficiency and value.  Only in the American southern slave-states (admittedly, not all of them) were slaves forbidden by law to be educated.  It's also why, after the Civil War, a lot of previous Abolitionists made a point of creating schools for former slaves.  Americans had figured out the connection between education, competence, self-reliance and independence. 

Ever since then, a secret war has been waged between those who want to strengthen that path to independence and those who want to weaken it. 

Consider: after the Civil War thousands of new ex-slaves went north to the burgeoning industrial cities, where the American Industrial Revolution was taking off, seeking work.  It was quite legal then to pay Blacks lower wages than Whites for the same work, bar them from better jobs, segregate them in poorer neighborhoods and schools.  And of course it was illegal to organize labor unions.  This was a perfect situation for the unrestricted bosses to exploit the newly-freed Blacks. 

So why didn't they do it?  Why did they send agents to southern and eastern Europe to recruit the poor there to "come to America, where the streets are paved with gold"?  That campaign set off the great immigration waves of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which doubled America's population, but it would have been far cheaper to send recruiters into the Black areas of the south, or to Mexico.  Why didn't the bosses recruit there?

It comes back to knowledge and competence.  Unions were not unknown in America;  carpenters, cordwainers, printers and furniture-makers maintained the old Guild system, and had gone on strike for better working conditions as early as 1794.  The growing steam-and-water-powered factory system encouraged the growth of local unions and federations thereof.  The Knights of Labor was founded in 1869, the American Federation of Labor in 1886, and the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905.  Blacks (who were often cut out of skilled-trade unions, being mostly unskilled labor themselves) were aware of this, as were Mexicans who often crossed the border to work in America – even if they would usually take their money and go back to Mexico to spend it.  That knowledge the bosses found dangerous.  What's more, Blacks and most of the itinerant Mexicans spoke English, enough to understand the message of union organizers.  Peasants from eastern and southern Europe, the bosses assumed, would never have heard of labor unions, and in any case all spoke different languages and thus couldn't organize or otherwise plot with each other.

Well, that assumption backfired.  Those immigrants were no fools, and often not ignorant either. They were certainly aware of the power of Guilds (where do you think those had originated?), and knew about the progress of the new labor movement.  They also worked hard to learn English, learn American law and history, and become citizens as fast as they could.  This gave them the vote, as well as access to various – corrupt or not – political machines.  They grabbed the American Dream with both hands, and began the long course of class-climbing. 

So much for that tactic.  What, then, could the wealthy, powerful, and tyrannical do to suppress that troublesome independence?

(Tune in next week for the next exciting -- and outrageous -- installment.) 

            

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