Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Sinclair and Engels: Two Views of Urban Society

This is a paper I penned a couple of weeks ago for American Cities comparing the urban insights of Upton Sinclair and Friedrich Engels.

Sinclair and Engels: Two Views of Urban Society

Upton Sinclair and Friedrich Engels have contributed greatly to the discussion of the ills of urban society. Though their models for comparison, Chicago and Manchester, respectively, are separated by thousands of miles, the conditions suffered by each city during a period of heavy industrialization were similarly tragic. However, each man clearly obtained a different view of city problems in his personal observations, and this was reflected in the descriptions each penned in reflection. Sinclair chose fiction, and all the benefits available to a fiction writer, to advance his warnings, while Engels chose non-fiction narrative to reinforce his observations.

Sinclair's The Jungle has become one of the most recognized works in the world, thanks in great part to the tremendous outcry it raised over working conditions. Specifically, the slaughterhouse industry in Chicago was singled out by Sinclair as being a bastion of unfair, unjust, and debilitating work conditions. His observations, though penned as a fictional third-person narrative, nonetheless showered the situation of workers with enormous strength of compassion and blasted industry for allowing such dangerous and inhumane conditions to continue in furtherance of greed and apathy.

Engels, whose work The Great Towns detailed community conditions in Manchester, England, made detailed and dramatic observations of the growth of slum conditions in an industrializing city. As industry poured into Manchester, open spaces became overgrown with poorly-designed housing and fetid refuse, endangering the health and hopefulness of its residents. As Engels pointed out, many of the advancements such as logically-arrayed streets and water pipes were readily available in many neighborhoods in Manchester, but were noticeably absent from slums such as those of the Irk.

The primary difference between these two observations of urban life stem from the perspective of each author. Sinclair attacked the problems of city life from a top-down approach which started with a failure of industry to oversee reasonable working conditions, just treatment, and fair compensation. From Sinclair's view, this led to the degradation of conditions for workers as they traveled back home each evening. What was lost physically and emotionally at the slaughterhouses could not be revived by the return to a personal living space. The overwhelming and overpowering negativity present in industry work forced social conditions on workers which transcended simple employee-employer relationships, and led to the degradation of many neighborhoods as a result. Workers, struggling each day to keep a minimally compensatory job, had little at home to raise hopes and belay depression.

Engels, on the other hand, blamed government for lack of planning and oversight in the workers' neighborhoods. While nicer communities possessed the essential civil services, such as toilets and street cleaners, the working-class areas, overburdened by unchecked growth, could not access services which would prevent many of the problems growing out of the industrialization of Manchester. The neighborhoods lacking essentials received little or no assistance from the government, and as Engels saw the situation, could not be saved without a concerted effort by elected officials to provide the basic necessities.

While it could certainly be argued that Sinclair's industry and Engel's government scapegoats are one and the same, it is clear that, at least at the time, each man believed in a natural separation. Sinclair absolutely faulted slaughterhouses for encouraging unhealthy and dangerous practices which harmed workers, and by extension, destroyed their neighborhoods and lifestyles. Engels, while acknowledging the role of industry, nonetheless saw the ultimate failure as that of the government which offered support in an uneven way to the growth of industry instead of supporting an equal stake in sustaining communities. The filth of Manchester, through Engels' eyes, was a direct result of an apathetic government which took no interest in the success and health of its own citizens.

The usage of non-fiction by Engels clearly offered a dry look at urban conditions, and allowed him to present a documented account of what he observed. Though his applied opinions are certainly debatable, his presentation left little doubt as to what he personally experienced. Sinclair, in an opposing strategy, used his eloquent narrative to present a fictionalized account of the Chicago slaughterhouses. This allowed Sinclair to develop the story with details which would have been terribly difficult to document accurately. Also, the fictional account allowed Sinclair's research subjects to remain anonymous, a necessary requirement in an era when any misstatement could lead to a lost job.

As such, Sinclair's narrative is more personal, has greater impact, and offers a view of the situation that could not be available with Engels' choice of non-fiction. Sinclair was able to take the conditions he researched and incorporate his observations into a moving, and ultimately damning, account which could never have been transferred so directly to a reader with a non-fiction rendition. Engels' work, though no less important, was unable to offer a direct, personal link which affected the reader to become involved.

Though tragic, the story Engels told was likely common knowledge, and without the personification of the tragedy, as Sinclair presented, his message was lost in the grinding details of dry journalism. Without a doubt, Sinclair involved the reader in his message a great deal more directly than Engels was able to accomplish, and because of this, the reaction to Sinclair's call to action in Chicago was heeded more heavily, and ultimately, more successfully, than Engels was able to achieve.

The usage of foreigners by Sinclair added a point of interest that Engels noticed by did not emphasize. Sinclair, an obvious proponent of the basic tenets of the "American Dream", wanted to show that many of the people who most wanted to believe such a life could be earned through hard work were the same people being exploited by uncheck capitalist interests. Foreigners, whose contribution to the labor pool was very significant for industrial growth, were often the people whose ignorance and naivety of their new community allowed industry to abuse the employer-employee relationship for monetary gains. With so many foreigners entering the country, and a great deal doing so in northern cities such as Chicago, industry officials knew that market labor pressures would allow them to exploit the community for great personal gain. Sinclair emphasized this abusive relationship by symbolizing the exploitation as between a cruel industry and an "innocent" immigrant to America. Immigrants, with little or no financial reserves to fall back on, were unable to fairly bargain with industry for more fair conditions.

Engels recognized the contribution of foreigners to the labor pool and communities such as Irk, but did not draw a distinct relationship between the immigrants and urban ills. Instead, Engels' focus was on the neglect of government which, in his view, was responsible for all people under its care, regardless of national origin. Engels pointed out Irish immigrants in his Manchester account, but asserted that filth was a result of societal neglect, not that of immigrant ignorance or naivety. Engels, being a natural immigrant during his time in Manchester, did not have an "in-house" view of the situation that Sinclair could offer in Chicago. Engels saw the situation as an outsider looking in, and as such, did not make the distinction between immigrant and natural citizens and the condition of urban society.

These two men's views, though contrasting in blame and perspective, compliment each other in one basic way. They assign the destruction of urban communities to the growth of industry. Sinclair makes this a direct and dominating relationship, with industry the most obvious to blame for societal degradation. Engels, while acknowledging the role of industry, faulted a governmental system which allowed communities to self-destruct in an effort to build industry. While it should be noted that each man advocated the need to change course, the solutions implied were very different. Engels wanted a socialistic system to oversee and correct disjointed community support measures, but Sinclair wanted direct responsibility to fall on industry officials for exploiting workers. Sinclair ultimately succeeded in involving the government in this effort, but unlike Engels, he did not directly fault the government for the abuses of industry.

Moving on up!

As a second great announcement in as many days (OK andante is right, after the Hurricane news, this would be #3), I can now confirm that I have been added to the roster of contributors on Political State Report, a significant step-up for this blogger. PSR has been picked up by Google News at times, and is one of the most wide-reaching political reporting sites around. Look for my contributions starting this week.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004


I'm pleased to officially announce that Tiffiney and I have set a wedding date. After 5 years together, from Durham to Hatteras, back to Durham, and now in Emerald Isle for almost 2 years, we will be married on September 25, 2004 in Emerald Isle.

Plans are just getting made, so more info will be available soon. We know we will be planning a beach ceremony, weather permitting, with very casual dress. Anyone want to swim, afterwards?

Capitalism v Socialism

The following is an excerpt from a paper I penned for this quarter's Political Economy course. Arguments welcome!
Capitalism versus Socialism:
A Quick Comparison of Economic Priorities

In any society, three basic queries must be answered in order to operate a functional economy. Which goods will produced, how they will be produced, and who will obtain the goods are the simple questions for which simple answers are not always readily available. Capitalist societies tend to favor "market-driven" responses, while socialists value "common good" answers. The differences between the two schools of economics are stark, leading to polarizing discourse concerning an optimal economic system.

Capitalism would address the questions above by assuming that market forces are the most logical and effective means for operating a society's economy. Goods demanded by the market will invariably cause producers to make such goods available for purchase. Whether necessary staples or extravagant excesses, if there is a demand, asserts the capitalist theory, production of said goods will be inevitable. Government has no direct say in goods production, and instead is relegated to the role of referee in any transaction. Even then, true free-market capitalists disfavor any hierarchical interference in revenue flow and market reaction. To a die-hard capitalist, the market must be allowed to correct and balance itself at points of equilibrium which are dictated by the natural ebb and flow of barter and negotiation.

Socialists, on the other hand, assume that economic forces in the market place have an inherent imbalance which favors wealthy capitalists over workers. Market forces, they would assert, tend to push equilibrium to points which favor profit over fairness, and which allow the few to dominate the many. In a socialistic economy, goods are produced to satisfy the needs of the people, but do so in the interest of a common good. Government has a large role in determining which goods will be produced in the economy, allowing the system to operate greatly independent of strict market forces. Instead, a common government overseer, working as and for all constituents, allocates production to goods which meet the needs of the many, and do so in such a way as to fairly share the fruits of labor. While personal desires can affect what is produced, it must generally be directed in an official top-down fashion rather than in a reactionary market-driven manner.

Capitalists produce goods in any manner directed by individuals producing the goods. Generally speaking, this means the capital holders direct production rather than the "hands-on" workers. Producers are free to determine efficiency and negotiate trade values for such goods, eliminating any need to oversee the entire marketplace. Capitalists believe that market forces always push production methods into the most efficient means possible. Without such freedom, capitalists assert, a market is restricted and unable to respond to forces which should be considered when determining how to produce goods.

Socialist economies see tight governmental control of production methods. Though market forces are thus unable to directly affect means and manner of production, socialists would argue that government control assures that all methods are fair, timely, and reasonable for society. Fairness is the primary concern for a socialist economy, and production methods would be set to maximize output and provide necessary goods to society. The absence of market forces allows production to avoid the inevitable boom/bust cycle so easily observed in capitalist nations. The all-in-one production method assures that no part of the system will fail unless the entire system fails.

In a capitalist economy, rationing methods typically involve cash transactions of some flavor. The same market forces which push producers to produce certain goods, and which determine how such producers will produce the goods, will also establish a natural means for rationing goods. Ability to pay for products is a key determinant in allocating scarce resources to a demanding public. Free-market valuation assures that those with greater ability to purchase, and/or a greater desire to do so, are able to affect market responses appropriately. A dynamic capitalist market rarely stagnates in terms of price or supply, and as such, capitalism relies heavily on market forces, such as price pressures, to establish a hierarchy of demanding individuals to allocate resources.

Socialism, in an opposing context, provides that fairness should be instituted in the market place to override the chaotic and unfair distribution of resources. Socialist economies rely on government control of distribution rather than by establishing dynamic, individual asset-driven protocols for transactions. Forces in the market, under socialism, have no direct affect on who receives goods, but instead, are under the direct supervision of the government. Socialism depends on tight control to allocate supply, and emphasizes marketplace fairness rather than entrepreneurialism. Receiving goods in a socialist economy depends solely on government allocation rather than ability and desire to pay.
Clearly, these two schools of economic system oppose each other in most every fashion. True capitalism is market-driven, reactionary, and encourages marketplace competition for production and allocation of resources. For example, booming technological industries provide monetary incentive for additional investment in the newest, most efficient technologies. The distribution of capital to accomplish this must be balanced with a belief that the ultimate value of such an effort is greater than the initial investment.

Socialism supports government dictation of production, and relies on all workers to contribute to a common good, for which they will receive a fair and just return on their labor. Instead of reacting to a booming technological market as a capitalist would, socialist economies would direct technological innovation in a manner which seeks to provide needed goods to the populace rather than offer potential profit to the business owner.

Inherent in capitalism is the power of the capitalist over the laborer. While many employers operate fairly, profit is a primary concern and will certainly affect which goods are produced, how they are produced, and which buyers are able to purchase. Laborers have no direct say in these decisions, and are generally at the mercy of the business owner in affecting production. Socialism provides tight control over production allocation and methods, and disperses resources under a mantra of fairness for all workers. Socialism stifles entrepreneurialism, favoring instead efforts made toward common goals. Laborers are contributing to a common good, are a natural an integral part of the government, and thus, have an inherent say in all production decisions. Capitalism depends on individual motivation to exceed expectations and push market profits to drive revenue and provide incentive for additional effort. Socialism allows the people's government to assign production priorities in a communal manner, and to do so for the greater common good and for a balanced, predictable, and less dynamic economy.

On the whole, society depends on the strange bedfellows of capitalism and socialism forming a "mixed capitalism" in order to provide the most balanced, motivating, and just economy. A strict capitalist market does encourage market responses which most closely mirror demand, but in so doing, often provide goods which offer tremendous, sometimes irreparable harm to society. Socialism, on the other hand, encourages common labor in return for reasonable reward, but does so at the cost of individual motivation and the entrepreneurial spirit which has launched many market advances. Society must see a combination of the two systems, one which provides incentive for high achievement and responds appropriately to market forces, but which also reduces the inherent imbalance of wealth and distribution in a free-market economy.

Everything is fine in EI

We got lucky as the eye of Hurricane Alex passed about 50 miles south of our town. Mostly, we just go rain and wind gusts in the 40MPH range, not a-typical for summer squalls that frequent this area. I haven't heard how Ocracoke or Hatteras have faired yet, they are getting a direct hit from Alex. We slept lightly off-and-on all night keeping an eye on the storm's progress, and once it was safely by, we caught some Zs, so sorry for the late update (same reason CEM wasn't posted last night, too busy getting everything hurricane ready)

Anyway, the CEM will be back up tomorrow morning with a new issue. Until then, check the stories in NYT and WaPo about the terror alert: just as much douchebaggery as we figured. These guys don't quit, so never relax this election year.

Monday, August 02, 2004


UPDATE: Alex slowly worked up the coast, but went easy on EI. We're fine. More info soon...BTW: the pic below updates to the most recent posted by WC.

It's gonna be close...

Roger Eaton Fundraiser

NC-3 residents: There will be a dinner-fundraiser for Congressional candidate Roger Eaton on August 10 in Morehead City. The event will take place from 5:30PM-7:30PM at the Crystal Coast Civic Center. Tickets are $25 each and can be purchased by calling (252)247-7788. A catered barbecue dinner is planned for this excellent opportunity to meet Roger and listen to his message.

Please, NC-3 residents, spread the word. Roger wants to bring in as many people as possible to spread his campaign message. We only have about 90 days until the election, so time is against us. Bring your neighbors and friends and make this a profitable evening for the campaign's funding.

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