There’s a continuing theme in modern American life, which resurfaces every election cycle: the nostalgia for a long-vanished industrial economy that employed millions upon millions of workers to build ordinary things that ordinary people needed, propelling vast numbers of equally ordinary, relatively uneducated white folk into secure middle class lives full of detached homes, shiny new cars, and all the modern conveniences. Time was, you could spend your entire working life ensconced in a union job at GM, or US Steel, and retire on a pension.
Now most of those factory jobs are gone, and while American manufacturing output has actually risen to historic heights in recent years (a plain statistical fact that surprises just about everybody), the thing is that the modern means of production no longer require human workers to torque wrenches and wield spot-welders. Up and down the production line, one finds a tireless army of infallible, uncomplaining robots where unionized everymen in overalls used to stand. Meanwhile, the comfortable middle class existence of the blue collar working stiff recedes farther and farther into the inevitably mythologized past. It’s understandable, I guess. There’s always great anxiety and dislocation involved in wide scale economic disruption, and it’s easy to feel sympathetic to those who now sense the rug pulled out from under their feet – even the ones that scream the racist taunts and totalitarian slogans that pass for discourse at The GOP’s horrifying political rallies. The longing to return to a lost golden age; the anger of those who face an uncertain future in which their kids won’t do as well as they did; the greed of the corporations that shipped overseas whatever domestic jobs they weren’t handing to robots; all get woven together into a compelling narrative of the betrayal of the noble American working class.
Yup, it gets you right in the pumper. But hold up there, sport. Before we get all wistful and dewy-eyed about the evaporating factory jobs of days gone by, we’d all do well to give a listen to James Taylor’s quiet masterpiece Millworker, first written for a Broadway musical based on the writings of Studs Terkel. In what I sometimes think is his best work, better even than Fire and Rain, Taylor offers up a clear-eyed and altogether different perspective on the good old days of massed labour tending to the rote assembly of mundane consumer goods. It wasn’t all well-paying union jobs dropping big-block V-8s into shiny four-ton land yachts. A lot of it involved unskilled labour for slave wages, none more notoriously than in the old textile mills, where young men and women were mere factors of production, engaged all day in mindless, repetitive work that had them aging in dog years. That’s the world Taylor remembers here, and he paints a Hell-scape of squandered potential and lost hope, within which the line worker could only daydream of a better place, maybe dwell for a moment in a fantasy while forcing herself to live through another long and tedious day.
Yes, herself. Remarkably, Millworker is written from the perspective of a woman, and its opening lyrics pull us into a story that would once have been as dirt-common as it is disheartening. In just a few lines of spare poetry, the stage is set:
Now my grandfather was a sailor,
he blew in off the water.
My father was a farmer
and I, his only daughter
took up with a no good
millworking man from Massachusetts
who dies from too much whiskey
and leaves me these three faces to feed.
Kinda gets right to the point, doesn’t it?
So what does a single mom with no particular job skills do to make ends meet, and feed those hungry faces? She takes a job down at the textile mill. Likely the same mill where her useless, dissolute husband spent his hours of drudgery, in between the bouts of drinking that drove him to an early and probably more or less welcome poor man’s grave. Millwork isn’t easy, she tells us. It isn’t hard either, not really. It’s just an awful, boring job. She tells us about gritting it out all morning just to get to break time, when she can have a sandwich, sit quietly for a few permitted moments, and take refuge in her childhood memories, from the days back on her father’s farm. She remembers Grand-dad’s heroic stories of the merchant marine, and the sailors who put it all on the line, and sometimes lost their lives. It sounds arduous, but heroic, maybe even noble, especially compared with how she whiles away her endless, meaningless hours. Yes but it’s my life has been wasted, she thinks, and I have been a fool / to let this manufacturer use my body for a tool. A window into a life that folks like me will never know:
And it be me and my machine
for the rest of the morning
and the rest of the afternoon, gone
for the rest of my life.
These days it’s somebody else’s job to slave away in the sweatshop, grinding out paper cups, plastic forks, socks, undershirts, and other, glossier stuff too, like our beloved flatscreens and iPhones, all of it cranking out of places in Asia, including some where child labour is still normal, and others where all but imprisoned workers throw themselves out of dormitory windows rather than get up and do it all again. That used to be us, or near enough anyway, and there are still large segments of our own economy, the parts that can’t yet be fully automated or shipped overseas, which remain far too similar to that old world of pitiless capitalist exploitation. Just ask the folk toiling away in the meat-packing plants, or Amazon “fulfillment centres”. Christ. It sounds like a bitterly ironic taunt, doesn’t it? Fulfillment centres. Be glad you pull down a sub-living wage, pal, and mind that your bathroom break doesn’t take too long, or we’ll figure out how to replace you with something that never needs one.
It’s damned near enough to turn you into a Marxist.