The Contested Use of Force: Violence, Theft, and Property Destruction in Political and Economic Struggle

Endorsed by the Business History Conference

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 1:00 PM - 2:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Crime and Violence; Labor and Working-Class; Politics


In her 2007 article “Why Violence Matters” Beverly Gage questioned the odd consensus that American history, while rife with violence was relatively free from so-called “ideological violence.” That is, violence organized in the service of an articulated political program. This, she argued, was not only strange but a relatively recent historiographical development. Gilded age and progressive era historians and public intellectuals, for example, took it for granted that the U.S. was plagued with ideological violence. This paper session considers violence, coercion and illegal activity in American political and economic history. The papers assembled look at the use of violence in the regulation of labor markets; conflicting definitions of violence offered by workers and employers respectively; the relationship between violence, property and control; and the legitimacy of the very division between ideological and non-ideological violence. A number of recent contributions have returned to the role of violence, radicalism and labor conflict in the formation of American political institutions. The work of Christopher Capozzola on vigilantism and patriotism during WWI; Laura Weinrib’s reinsertion of labor conflict into the history of civil rights; Philip Gourevitch’s emphasis on the coercive nature of strikes; and Gage’s work on left-wing violence and radical “terrorism” are among them. The role of open, often violent conflict between workers and employers has been well-established and the relationship between criminal organizations and labor unions is also widely documented but each of these papers reconsiders the terms of these debates. Andy Battle revisits the role of the mafia in the Northeast garment industry as an organization running parallel to, rather than against the interests of “legitimate” manufacturers and entrepreneurs. Thai Jones looks at how workers in the mines of Goldfield, Nevada fashioned a distinct class-based vision of property rights through the practice of supplementing wages with theft. Rebecca Lossin argues that the large body of literature on sabotage produced by the Industrial Workers of the World was not a mere soap-boxing tactic, but posed a significant economic and political threat by casting an established practice of property destruction in coherent political terms. Christian Parenti revisits the work of W.J. Cash for an analysis of Southern political economy in which class struggle, labor politics, elite hegemony, and violence played a decisive role.

Papers Presented

Cut-Throat: Chiselers, Racketeers, and the Collapse of the Northeastern Garment Industry

The garment industry was once a key component of the economy of northeastern cities, especially New York. Its basic political economy—small firms, intense competition, extensive subcontracting, low cost of entry, and a labor-intensive work process—made it a haven for entrepreneurs from the margins, especially immigrants. Another type of marginal entrepreneur that flooded into the garment business was the gangster. Organized crime was a perennial and troublesome presence in the industry from its emergence at the turn of the twentieth century until its collapse and departure during the 1960s and 1970s.We should not understand organized crime as somehow peripheral to the garment industry. Nor should we draw a bright line between gangsters and so-called “legitimate” manufacturers. Gangsters played key and legible roles in the trade—as manufacturers, truckers, middlemen, and sometimes all three. Coercion was a basic feature of garment work—whether the explicit, forceful coercion of the gangster or the calculated search for a desperate work force mounted by the ordinary manufacturer. The main difference between the gangsters and the legitimate manufacturers was gangsters’ willingness to make literal the adjective most often used to describe the trade—“cut-throat.” But the difference was one of degree, not of kind. This paper will explore the role of organized crime in in garment industry, including its role in helping collapse the “New Deal settlement,” a twenty-five-year détente between the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the legitimate manufacturers.

Presented By
Andy Battle, City University of New York Graduate Center

“Gold Belongs To Him Who Finds It”: Theft, Property Rights, and Nevada’s “High-Grading” Controversy, 1905–1907

In the mineral-rich Nevada boomtown of Goldfield, a labor dispute called into question the definitions of property rights, theft, and criminality. Since even a few pounds of material could be extremely valuable, workers devised ingenious methods to pilfer from the walls, veins, and muck of the mines. The practice of miners stealing ore was called “high grading,” and it was rife in Goldfield in the first decade of the twentieth century. Miners claimed this was a just perquisite of their labor. Corporate bosses viewed it as larceny. Others joined the fight. U.S. marshals chased suspected high-graders across the state, legislators raced to tighten restrictions, journalists denounced the practice, and even union leaders tried to rein in their members. But the miners saw it differently. Laboring in perilous workscapes and living in brutal conditions, they understood the theft of high-grade ore to be morally sacrosanct—and not a crime at all. Scholars have explored the impact of mining labor on workers’ bodies and their consciousness, but an examination of the practice of “high-grading” offers a new perspective on the ways workers fashioned a distinct class-based vision of property rights when it came to natural resources. Defying capitalists’ assertions of ownership, refusing to collaborate in the vision promoted by middle-class publicists and boosters that the mining camp was a unified community, the workers of Goldfield staked their own claims to the wealth of nature.

Presented By
Thai Jones, Columbia University

Political Economy of the Southern Mind: Rethinking W. J. Cash

In 1929 the journalist W. J. Cash, published an essay that twelve years later would become a book, The Mind of the South. Delivered in the style of a hot, late-night, boozy, regaling, The Mind of the South is lauded and critiqued as a study of regional character. Shortly after its publication, Cash committed suicide in Mexico City. In the years that followed, core elements of the book faded from view. Most often overlooked is the book’s ruthless class analysis of southern political culture. Cash gave constant and explicit attention to class struggle, labor politics, elite hegemony, the decisive role of white supremacy and violence in the continual reproduction of the southern political economy. This paper will explore these overlooked but central themes in W. J. Cash’s writing.

Presented By
Christian Parenti, John Jay College

No Interests in Common: Sabotage as Structural Critique

In the years during and following World War I, very few workers went to jail for committing acts of sabotage, but many were arrested for talking about it. The practice of sabotage was not new but the word was, and there was something distinctly threatening about naming the disparate, rebellious practices of disgruntled workers. Sabotage gave an intellectual coherence and revolutionary meaning to activity that could easily be interpreted as irrational, impulsive and disorganized. Much like the International Workers of the World (IWW) itself, the word organized the disorganized and legitimated what appeared illegitimate. It also became a lightning rod for legal repression. Its brief efflorescence and violent suppression indicates that an important relationship exists between economic interests and acceptable political expression. A single worker disabling a machine out of anger was inconsequential. When, however, this activity was translated into a critique of property and framed as a source of class power, it became unacceptable. The IWW was not the only organization that threatened wartime production with strikes and direct action. But it was the only organization to combine strike activity with the open advocacy of sabotage, a tactic that not only announced the illegitimacy of private property but also encouraged workers to practice a real, if temporary, form of expropriation and control. This paper suggests that sabotage is a unique example of the importance of the relationship between political theory and economic practice.

Presented By
R.H. Lossin, Columbia University

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: R.H. Lossin, Columbia University
R.H Lossin is a PhD candidate in Communications at Columbia University. Her dissertation “The Point of Destruction: Sabotage, Property, and Speech in Early Twentieth Century American Politics,” examines the theory and practice of worker sabotage in relation to worker control and the repression of radicalism. She holds a BA in French literature from Bard College and an MLS from Pratt Institute. Her writing has appeared in New Left Review, Jacobin Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Jstor Daily and The Nation. An article on the northwest lumber strike of 1917 is forthcoming in Historical Materialism.

Commentator: The Audience

Presenter: Andy Battle, City University of New York Graduate Center
Andy Battle is a doctoral student in US History at the CUNY Graduate Center. His dissertation, called Runaway: A History of Postwar New York in Four Factories, explores the deindustrialization of New York City through case studies of “runaway” plants, or factories that left New York for the American South or abroad between 1945-75. His writing on film, theory, infrastructure, and New York City history has appeared in Jacobin, Commune, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. He is an associate editor at Gotham: A Blog for Scholars of New York City History.

Presenter: Thai Jones, Columbia University
Thai Jones is the Herbert H. Lehman Curator of American History at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The author of three books on labor and working-class history, his current project is Boomtown: Capital and Labor in America’s Last Gold Rush (Harvard University Press, exp. 2021). Jones’ writing has appeared in a variety of national publications, ranging from the New Yorker and the New York Times to The Nation and the Occupied Wall Street Journal.

Presenter: Christian Parenti, John Jay College
Christian Parenti is an associate professor in the economics program at John Jay College. He holds a PhD in sociology from the London School of Economics. His books include Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, and The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror.