American Imperialism, post 2: “Cheap labor”

As I review some of the major arguments surrounding the place of American empire in US history, I keep finding myself thinking how familiar so much of it all looks . . . and feels.

Historian Diane Kunz puts it this way:

At the height of its expansion, the British Empire covered a fourth of the globe. Just as important, the pound sterling was the global currency, providing a gold standard that linked the entire world with the London money markets. The twentieth century’s political, economic, and military confrontations sundered those connections. Only in the decade since the end of the Cold War has the globalization taken for granted at the turn of the last century reemerged. We are not in a brave new place economically, but rather starting the twenty-first century just where our predecessors began one hundred years ago. Then, the secretive Bank of England dominated international exchange; now it is the Federal Reserve Board and the World Trade Organization (WTO) that have the labels ‘inscrutable and secretive’ attached to them. The United States has succeeded to all of Britain’s power and more.

Now some, like Fareed Zakaria especially, will argue that the US is on the outs. But, overall, the nation still holds a lot of power in the world system. Some of those roots involve the constant pursuit of “cheap labor” that continues today.

Walter LaFeber, in his canonical 1963 work The New Empire, argues that America’s “expansionist” policies were a direct result from the maturation of industrialization. Business and the capitalist economy needed new markets and this meant foreign ones. They would be backed up by a new navy and military power that would easily take away Spain’s former colonies in 1898 (and influence most of the Western Hemisphere). As much as one might like to quibble with the details or stance of some of LaFeber’s points, it is hard to counter this general thesis.

LaFeber also incorporates early labor and immigration policies into his argument. He highlights that Secretary of State Seward (1861-1869) advocated importing “cheap labor” and created the 1868 treaty with China to bring in “unskilled” workers. This was, LaFeber argues, part of his plan for American expansion (e.g. imperialism). Does any of this sound familiar? It should.

First, LaFeber’s argument connects well by Jefferson Cowie’s small book Capital Moves. Cowie argues that the “globalization” we usually associate only with NAFTA and the like actually begins as early as the 1920s as RCA moved from town to town in search of new un-unionized locales. RCA would find cheap labor for a time, until that city’s workers organized. These workers were quickly left stranded as the corporation simply packed up its capital and moved to another locale, eventually ending up just south of border in Juárez, Mexico. The expansionist nature of capitalism drove RCA, as an individual corporation, to locate foreign labor markets where it could find more fruitful exploitation. Cowie, however, does not connect his argument to a longer view of the pursuit of cheap labor which might incorporate LaFeber.

Secondly, the role of “cheap labor” in American empire is perhaps best symbolized by migrating Mexican labor. There is too much history in this area to trace out here in this post, but the Bracero Program, enacted during WWII is the best example. And yet, this program simply institutionalized—legitimized—the migration of cheap, unprotected labor across national boundaries (it was already happening and would continue to happen after the program). Noted historian Mae Ngai discusses the employment of Mexican migrant laborers since the 1920s as a form of “internal colonialism” in her book Impossible Subjects. Like Filipinos, African Americans, and other marginalized groups within the nation-state, these Mexican workers were excluded from full citizenship, pushed to the “margins of law and nation.”

It seems only one short step to connect this notion with the “slave market” which Tom Sugrue highlights. These “informal labor markets” of unemployed black men, hanging out on street corners visibly hardened the color line for whites as they drove by Detroit’s (in)famous 8-mile road. Today, these markets are most commonly associated with Latino workers, hoping to get a day’s pay performing landscaping or construction.

Such examples buttress the arguments of John Lewis Gaddis and Charles S. Maier. Gaddis points out that actions and policies enacted in colonies flow back into the metropole. Likewise, Maier argues that imperialism abroad stabilizes the home front while reifying inequality geographically. Despite The New Empire being somewhat US-centric, I think LaFeber would agree. A central point of his work is that policymakers (mostly presidents, secretaries of state, and businessmen) feared class unrest at home (as strikes and violence reached unprecedented levels in the later decades of the 1800s). Expansion abroad would quell this by unifying the nation and providing jobs both in the navy and in revitalized industry. The “expansionism” (as LaFeber is overly fond of terming it) of American economic and militaristic might has clearly held implications not only abroad, but at home as well.

Thus, “empire” takes on layered, informal meanings. It is defined by several parameters (each with their own complexities): geographic, (traditionally) political, racial/ethnic, national, gendered, and economic.

It is not a sort of black and white distinction as some apologists, or what E.J. Hobsbawn terms “cheerful historians,” would like to argue…

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3 thoughts on “American Imperialism, post 2: “Cheap labor”

  1. Two quick comments, the first one fairly minor:

    1. Regarding the ongoing search for cheap labor, a la RCA: a similar thing has happened in east Asia, as US companies moved first into Japan, then South Korea/Taiwan/etc, then China, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc, and so on down the labor cost chain. But the story of what happened when they “moved on” is not just because they couldn’t exploit them anymore: Japanese workers and firms moved up the supply chain from low-skilled to high-skilled laborers, then designers of their own products, then exporters of their own products, etc. South Korea followed in their footsteps, and now we buy all sorts of things not only made in South Korea, but invented, designed, and produced in South Korea by South Koreans. Unsurprisingly, Western firms moved on. But not because they had wrung the workers dry, rather because the workers and the local firms had wrested away control of the apparatus.

    I don’t mean to whitewash any of what has happened; certainly this process is by now means gentle, simple, or universally beneficial. But it has had its benefits. (Also I haven’t read Cowie’s book, so I’m responding to your paragraph rather than his book).

    2. I guess I’m confused at what you mean when you say American Empire/Imperialism/Imperial State or whichever. The historical expansion is clear enough, but the current State bears seemingly little semblance to the British, Spanish, Roman, or Persian empires in some key ways: the US is more or less contiguous, the vast majority of residents are citizens with full rights (and for those that have come from elsewhere, their children will be), and even many of the far-flung military outposts take on a different character than those of other empires: for instance, we won’t be seeing a German Ghandi rally support to remove the US military from the state in order to secure independence (Iraq and other places of course are a different story).

    Point being, what exactly is it that makes a country into an empire, in your terms? I fully agree that globalization is not a strictly new phenomenon, but the vastly different circumstances in which it is undertaken today suggest that recycling terminology applicable to other times is not necessarily useful in understanding the present. Perhaps this is common knowledge in some academic backgrounds and I am simply ignorant! But be that as it may, it would be good to have some common ground to stand on.

  2. I really wish I knew about the dynamics in South Asia. It’s endlessly fascinating. (If I wouldn’t have to learn a couple languages, I’d probably go into studying its history.) I find this interesting:
    “But the story of what happened when they ‘moved on’ is not just because they couldn’t exploit them anymore: Japanese workers and firms moved up the supply chain from low-skilled to high-skilled laborers, then designers of their own products, then exporters of their own products, etc.”
    That does not happen in Illinois or Memphis (for the people who were actually laid off). RCA just left and most people lost their jobs and never gained any new skills and the urban crisis continued.

    As far as the US not being like other empires, I agree to a point. There is a marked difference between colonialism and imperialism and the line is fuzzy (it’s more of venn diagram with colonialism subsumed inside imperialism). The US, by 1898, was largely done with proper colonialism. The Indian Wars were largely settled; American Indians were roundly defeated. What LaFeber is arguing is that agressive economic expansion on the the terms of the US, backed up/enforced by US military might is his “New Empire.” I’ll think on this definition more and work it into my next post (I’ll also discuss folks who say the US isn’t an empire in ANY sense which will probably see the angles).

  3. Sounds good! I’m basing some of my Asian knowledge on general osmosis, but some specifics on Jane Jacobs’s Cities and the Wealth of Nations, which talks about Japan and Taiwan with a bit more detail–and has extensive references to primary/secondary sources. Very interesting about the RCA thing, I might try to find that book at some point. I look forward to the next post!

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