Saturday, November 5, 2016

Rhyming history

This afternoon I came across a passage concerning labor conditions in German agriculture in the 1890's, and it struck a chord. Conditions on farms in the eastern part of the country were harsh, and wages were quite low. People emigrated to the western part of Germany, and to America, so the great landowners had trouble getting enough labor to work their holdings.

First there's the familiarity of the complaint and the type of remedy proposed:
For a time, the Agrarian, or Conservative Socialist party, to which the great landowners belonged, was wholly in favor of reactionary measures, such as the limitation of the right of free migration, higher protective duties upon foreign produce, and more stringent legislation against breach of contract on the part of domestic servants and farm laborers.
The blogger Atrios often highlights examples of businesses complaining about the lack of available workers, when what they really mean is that they're having trouble hiring good people at the wages they're willing to pay.

If you can't get people to stay and work on your farm for the wages you're paying, then you need to pay more. If you can't afford to pay more, then someone is doing a better job of producing food than you are. And if you can afford to pay more but just don't want to, perhaps out of a sense that "those people should know their place," then it's not really an economic problem.

The second resonance with the present came a little further down the page:
With regard to the east, on the contrary, Dr. Weber point out ... that unless some means can be adopted for checking the outflow of the German population, there is every reason to fear that their places will be supplied by an inroad of Slavs, and that thus an element of disintegration already existing will be increased.

First you pay crap wages, so that the local population has better things to do than stick around and get a miserable reward for their hard work. Then people come in from the neighboring country, where farm labor is paid so poorly that even the crap wages you offer are an improvement, an opportunity. And you complain about them sullying your population.

It's hardly a new phenomenon for people to want something without having to pay for it - to want people to grow their food while hardly paying them enough to live on.

And racial anxiety about dilution of supposedly superior groups by immigration of "inferiors" is also an old idea.

But it's a bit rich for people to simultaneously complain about the difficulty finding workers willing to work at crap wages and complain about the racial or ethnic unsuitability of the folks who are willing to work for so little.

A bit rich, but sadly, also not new. Welcome to America of the 21st century ... or Germany of the 1890's.

Excerpted passages from Royal Commission on Labor, Foreign Reports: Germany (London, 1893), p. 52, reprinted in Theodore S. Hamerow, The age of Bismarck: documents and interpretations, Harper Torchbooks, 1973, p. 186

No comments:

Post a Comment