Monday, November 2, 2009

quote of the day: gavin wright on proletarianization in the postbellum south

Gavin Wright is a really good economic historian. He comes from the same generation as the cliometricians and new economic historians such as Fogel and Engerman, but he's much more conscious about his use of neoclassical models/concepts when studying history. He also asks much more interesting and nuanced questions. A good example of this is found below, from his paper "American Agriculture and the Labor Market: What Happened to Proletarianization?" where he considers two very intriguing points. First, he questions the traditional Marxist model of proletarianization, beginning the paper with a passage by Lenin. Second, he considers an argument that is actually quite similar to the "moral economy of competition" paper by Jason Opal discussed in a previous post.

But one of the most striking passages comes at the end when he is summarizing his main findings, one of which argues that proletarians in the South did not come from an increasingly impoverished middle class. The premise: Southwestern farmers in the late 1800s, early 1900s found it hard to recruit labor due to their specialization in seasonal commercial crop production, as opposed to year-round farming, or the sharecropping system which was mostly present in the South Central, Southeast. In order to keep the workers around all year, the farmers on these commercial crops would therefore have to offer a high enough wage to persuade people to work on the farms. (These are the "pressures" mentioned below.) How did they deal with these pressures? Well, they could mechanize...
But where mechanization was technically difficult, the combined result of these pressures was the emergence of a migrant labor system as insulated as possible from urban and industrial labor markets. This system began in the southwest around the turn of the century, spread to California by the 1920s, and continued to expand eastward in the twentieth century, for the most part little noticed or bothered by most Americans, organized labor included. The social invisibility of these migrant workers and their families, their insulation from the mainstream of industrial development (quite in contrast to traditional proletarianization scenarios) is perhaps the major reason why most Americans do not believe that their country's agricultural history has much to do with proletarianization.
As I said, this quote is very striking, which is the reason I chose to share it. But I also find it quite instructive in terms of understanding the source of much of American development within a historical and Marxist framework.

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