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TheCanadian Review of American Studies, Volume 11,No. 3, Winter 1980 The"WorkEthic''and Control of the Workforce BrunoRamirez. When Workers Fight: The Politics of Jndu~t,ial Relations in the Progressive Era. 1898-1916. Westport,Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. 241 + viii pp. Dame! T. Rodgers. The Work Ethic in Industrial America, /850-/9]0.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. JOO+xv pp. Alvin Finkel Americanthought from the colonial period onwards has glorified hard work. But the "work ethic" was strongest in the period before the rise of the factories, a period when it was still possible to envision an American society composed mainly of self-employed farmers, self-employed small businessmenand those who could aspire to a similar independent status. The two books reviewed here provide excellent examinations of the fate of the work ethic in the period when the rise of the factories and the disappearance of available agricultural land heralded an end to a society composed largely of independent producers and its replacement by a societycomposed largely of factory owners and wage slaves. Rodgers focuses mainly on the views of middle-class commentators, most of whom earned their living by pen or pulpit, while Ramirez concentrates on the views and actions of employers and workers. Both observe that, among all social classes, the "work ethic," while still strong, was giving way to a "consumer ethic" and an idealization of economic efficiency via big corporations as a means of increasing the availability of consumer goods. The new consumer ethic decreased the emphasis within American society on both the moral value and the creative value of work and placed commodity purchases ahead of economic independence as a goal for most American workers. 372 Alvin Finkel Rodgers indicates that middle-class spokesmen were, for a long time, unwilling to admit that opportunities for the achievement of success were disappearing in America and continued to claim that the traditional rewards of hard work were still attainable, despite the weight of evidence documenting the shrinking percentage of self-employed people in the United States. Horatio Alger's popular novels proclaiming the success that awaited the hard-working provided one example of this ostrich-like response. Another example was the "storm of middle-class protest" that greeted a union official's statement in 1903 that most wage earners were reconciled to remaining wage earners till they died, rather than eventually becoming capitalists (Rodgers, p. 39). Rodgers attempts to situate such ideas about the work ethic and social mobility within a broader framework of research into changing American middle-class values in the early industrial period. He observes that, asAmerica began to urbanize, the expanding middle class became more and more uneasy about the behavior patterns of the emerging working class and of the underclasses that lived on the pale of society in urban environments. Reflecting their Puritan antecedents, the middle-class regarded sexual enJoyment as the devil's curse and believed that if sexual passions were not repressed men would behave like animals, ignoring all the strictures that civil society imposed upon them. Hard work, then, became a means of selfrepression . Ironically, however, the middle-class moralists also argued that work was a cretive act, an act of self-fulfillment. According to Rodgers, "The ingredients of the work ethic were not held together by the logical consistency of their premises. The clearest of the tensions lay between the idea of work as ascetic example and work as art. The one looked toward system, discipline and the emerging factory order; the other toward spontaneity, self-expression and a narrowing of the gulf between work and play. The latter, creative ideal was clearly the weaker of the two in the twentieth century" (pp.13-14). There were middle-class people who continued to emphasize the notionof work as creative activity. Some supported the movements of skilled tradesmen in favor of cooperative ownership and control of workshops. But when such workshops failed to materialize, their intellectual supporters turned their attention towards schemes for "industrial democracy," programs that they believed would increase the control of the factory worker at the expense of the factory owner. Often, however, the well-intentioned middle-class moralists who were concerned...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 371-379
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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