- Beyond Racism and Poverty: The Truck System on Louisiana Plantations and Dutch Peateries, 1865-1920 by Karin Lurvink
If Merle Travis had done nothing else in life, his distillation in his 1946 classic "Sixteen Tons" of the plight of the poor worker who "owe[s] [his] soul to the company store" would have earned him the everlasting thanks of southern historians searching for a way of explaining a world in which people were paid in wages other than cash (p. 1). The lyrics are a fitting epigraph to Karin Lurvink's study of the truck system, in which employers remunerated workers in scrip or store credit. Instead of Kentucky coal miners, however, Lurvink focuses on workers in two other parts of the world: the plantation districts of Louisiana and the peat-mining region of the Netherlands. These regions differed greatly from one another in most respects, except in that the truck system was common to both. One could say the same for the cotton- and sugar-growing sections of Louisiana, of course, but Lurvink is careful to explain their distinction even as she lumps Louisiana and the Netherlands together in her broader analysis. Since the truck system is Lurvink's central concern, it is fair to place the regions in a comparative frame. However, it results in a narrow study that is unlikely to lead southern historians to revise their discussions of poverty and power in the rural South.
The book's greatest strength lies in its documentation and analysis of the functioning of the truck system at the local level in both Louisiana and the Netherlands. The author carefully examines the geographical similarities of regions where the truck system predominated and details how the truck system operated. The color images of various scrip currencies and explanations of their manufacture are a fascinating part of this section. She then explores why and how employers used the system. Rather than consciously deciding to implement the truck system as a tool of repression, she argues, employers paid in scrip or in goods largely because economic exigencies—notably, the lack of cash on hand—left them few other choices. That the system could be used as a tool of [End Page 470] labor control was ancillary in their thinking. In fact, Lurvink argues, the system itself was not as universally exploitative as popular memory would remember it. Interest rates, she demonstrates, were often on par with those charged to employers by their creditors, and debt was less often a hindrance to mobility than has been depicted. Employers could entrap workers, of course, but they could just as often stock their stores with better products as a way of attracting and retaining workers. While the author does not shy away from the poverty of workers paid in scrip, the rational-choice model employed for explaining the system at times does seem too rosy, much like models of sharecropping that describe the economic rationality of sharing the crop without accounting for the vast inequalities of risk between planters and sharecroppers.
In her defense, Lurvink does not fall into that trap too far and is careful to account for the inequalities of power between employers and their workers. Indeed, the inequalities are at the core of her argument. Most interested in correcting what she sees as historians' simplifications of why the truck system became so entrenched in each area—racism in Louisiana, naturalized classism in the Netherlands—she argues that it was most fundamentally workers' lack of power that gave the system its durability. Merle Travis, and most southern historians, would probably agree.