Molly Olm-Shipman The Economic Spiral:
Econ in Film Capital, Oligarchic, or Socialist?
Though the films “Norma Rae” and “Matewan” explore two very different aspects of political movement, both films are set in the United States, a profoundly and famously capitalist society. I believe that both films explore the complexities of this ‘capitalist’ ideal, and both argue that we live not so much under a framework of capitalism, as a patchwork of conflicting political structures.
In light of post-McCarthyism, the unionist characters in “Norma Rae” were a diluted version of the earlier communist and socialist efforts of unions such as the National Urban League, CIO, and the NNLC. Unions such as the Textile Workers of America had their leftist roots well embedded in the soil of socialist reform and action. Textiles were one of the last industries in America to be unionized; this was in part due to Roosevelt’s New Deal policies concerning Federal protection of private property and industry, while simultaneously attempting to improve public interests (i.e. public housing, control of the labor market, etc). These dichotomous ideals led to a war between private industry and workers, each claiming that the New Deal ought to cater to one group’s needs in lieu of the others’.
“Norma Rae” explores the aftershock movements of post-World War II unions. We see the watered-down efforts of the TWOA, working much unlike their predecessors, in legalities and paperwork. Capitalist industry has made its mark well known on the labor market. There is a higher understanding of both the Federal and local governments concerning the importance of textiles in American economics. This understanding has created an unfair disadvantage to workers nationwide who wish to unionize; simple talk of the matter raises wary suspicion of communist and socialist activists in the eyes of the workers.
Workers are caught in a hopeless Catch-22. The workers cannot afford to remain in the textiles, yet there is no other place for so many people to find employment. Talk of a union would rouse the sleeping dog of industrial might, and many workers had become cynical and skeptical of the power of unions.
“Matewan” explains this cynical outlook by a sort of ‘case study’ on the failed efforts of a union. Capitalism has obviously gone awry in the town of Matewan, and an unquestionably feudalist monopoly has company workers locked in a position of subservience and powerlessness. Milton Friedman argues that the one possible evil of capitalism is monopoly, and though he was one of the ‘fathers’ of capitalism, he understood that capitalism is a fragile system. Such a structure can easily be manipulated by top industries, and the result of such an oligarchy is a geographical carving of industrial feudal lords who have wooed the Federal government into a symbiotic trap.
We are able, in retrospect, to combine the viewpoints of both movies into a type of timeline: failed capitalism becomes feudalism when industry becomes monopoly, and then enters socialism on behalf of the workers. Yet even then, government intervenes to protect the economy, and in so doing, caters too much to industry, leading to still another unionist movement.