The “Labor Question” Is About Life During and After Capitalism

Throughout American history, no matter the oscillations in politics, the economy, or class struggle, the “labor question” refuses to die.

A steelworker holds a sign as 8,000 members of the United Steelworkers' Union met in Gary, Indiana, on June 22, 1952, to hear a speech by C10 President Philip Murray. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

The news is that the labor movement did not go away to die. It seemed like it had. Rumors of its death turned out to be premature however. Suddenly, strikes, organizing campaigns, boycotts, and living wage referenda and ordinances show up everywhere.

Polls say people like unions. The president says he likes unions. More important, all sorts of workers — baristas, warehouse-order pickers, journalists, schoolteachers, museum curators, techies, professors and their graduate students, coal miners, railroad engineers, nurses, pilots, stewards and stewardesses, fast-food servers, bank tellers, hospitality and hospital employees, people at work in virtually every sector of the economy — are summoning up the courage, the ingenuity, and the perseverance to challenge the absolutism that the employing class has exercised over the workplace for quite some time.

Democracy may have been in jeopardy during the recent midterm elections. Democracy at work, meanwhile, is practically an oxymoron and has been for decades. Few noticed, until now.

Most workers remain unorganized. So it’s easy to exaggerate what’s been happening for the last two years. The official labor movement continues to hemorrhage members. While there’s much talk about making the right to organize more legally robust, there’s little action. Still, there’s no denying a change in the zeitgeist. Could we be witnessing the return of what, during most of US history, was referred to as the “labor question”?

When posed most aggressively, the “labor question” questioned capitalism. That is not what’s afoot now. Improving the terms and conditions of employment is not the same as suggesting that the whole system of wage labor should be abolished. Nonetheless, when working people mobilize collectively to take on the powers that be, what was unthinkable one day fires up the social imagination the next. It’s happened before.

The Prehistory of the Labor Question

The United States is alleged to be chronically allergic to notions of classes and class struggle. The New World was, myth had it, the place where classes went to die. Yet the labor question in one form or another was the preoccupation of American society from long before it became a nation until the time the estimable sociologist C. Wright Mills pronounced what he called “the labor metaphysic” dead in 1960; that is, for well over three hundred years.

According to a cherished native faith, if the Old World was troubled by a “labor question,” the New World provided the answer. Here billions of acres of “unsettled” land (“unsettled” as long as the claims of its indigenous populations were ignored) and a cornucopia of natural resources made it feasible for “everyman” to acquire the means of self-reliant independence. Rigid barriers of class and status would dissolve in a society defined by an all-around social mobility. Labor would no longer carry a stigma.

The fundamental divide between those elite few spared the burden of work and the rest of the population that labored to support them would be replaced by a society in which work was honored rather than despised. Labor in the New World was to be the passway to freedom, independence, and moral fortitude. To not work would be looked down on as a moral failure, a sign of aristocratic decadence, the indolence of the parasite.

Moreover, this liquid society of mobile, self-reliant, laboring individuals was protected by a constitutional order that guaranteed equality under the law. In this environment, if classes should arise, they would soon go out of existence. Class struggle and the labor question would vanish along with them.

That story, however, collides with another. In this counternarrative, the labor question was embedded in the foundations of the New World, particularly in the origins of British colonial America. During the roughly two hundred years of imperial rule, the mainland colonies were built up as lucrative enterprises by nearly a million indentured servants and well over 300,000 slaves. Hierarchy and servitude marked the colonial landscape just as it always had in the home country, even after allowing that the social terrain in colonial America was less steeply graded and more porous.

Even on the eve of the revolution, one of its leaders, John Adams, maintained that “the Great Question will forever remain, who shall work.” Those who did, Adams was not shy to say, made up “the common herd of Mankind.” Nor was this an exceptional view, but one widely shared by the upper classes of British North America, including those who led the revolution against monarchy and empire.

Yet settler colonialism contained a contrary impulse. This had about it the aroma of utopia and the stench of dystopia.

Captain John Smith, the military dictator of Jamestown and renowned explorer and adventurer, sent word back to England that in the New World “every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land.” This was a remarkable promise at a time when the subordination of laboring people to their social superiors was taken for granted and had been for as long as anybody could remember.

Smith’s vision assumed the removal — by force, by juridical legerdemain, by biological warfare — of native populations that would help pry open the continental vastness to voyagers from abroad. But the promise of self-mastery through labor (however accomplished), made to multitudes who had only known the bended knee and the curse of laboring for others, was redeemed in the New World to an astonishing degree.

Slave and servant on the one hand, freeholder on the other, established from the outset the polarities between which the labor question would oscillate in American life. Did labor inevitably entail dependency, subordination, and exploitation? Or was it instead the road to emancipation? From colonial days forward, American culture would express this fundamental ambivalence about the “labor question,” at one and same time, extolling labor as a moral calisthenic yet fearing its social consequences.

With regard to the “labor question,” the War for Independence was not a revolutionary war; if anything, it reinforced this bedrock ambivalence for generations to come. The revolution itself barely touched on or threatened the prevailing structures of economic and political power at home. It deliberately steered clear of any assault on slavery (except for the casuistry of damning the monarchy for enslaving the colonies). And the leaders of the independence movement also expected their own positions atop the economic and political order to be deferred to after independence was won.

On the other hand, the revolution’s ideological egalitarianism represented an implicit challenge to the prevailing hierarchies of colonial society. Immediately after the war and all through the nineteenth century, that leveling impulse would take on the presumptions of upper classes, targeting both the maldistribution of property (land especially) and the exploitation of labor. Insofar as the revolution was revolutionary, then, it was so as a cultural rather than a social revolution. But even in the cultural realm, its achievements were well underway before war broke out.

Labor and the Land

This ongoing cultural disestablishment opened up space for the expression of the labor question at a time and in a form that might seem out of sync with our contemporary expectations.

Strictly speaking, the labor question as a formally defined social dilemma of modern life — indeed, for nearly a century, the primary social dilemma — arose together with industrial capitalism and wage labor. But as the colonial experience suggests, the labor question was a profoundly unsettling one from the moment imperial Britain decided to offload its swelling population of “masterless men” — the dispossessed of the English countryside — onto the shores of the New World and to import slaves from Africa. Industrial capitalism transformed and aggravated the “labor question” but did not invent it.

Before the Civil War, wage labor was not uncommon in the North but not yet the predominant form of earning a living. Nor was it yet perceived as a permanent condition for most people. Abraham Lincoln’s view that wage labor was really only a staging ground where savings would be stored up for an eventual ascendancy into a life as an independent freeholder, craftsmen, or small entrepreneur remained a widely held conviction. This trajectory, first mapped by Smith, elevated the workman as a productive being. The poetry of Walt Whitman and the political eloquence of Daniel Webster sang his praises.

But this was a view of the worker as property owner or as incipient property owner, not as permanent proletarian. During what might be termed the era of the petty-bourgeois republic, lasting well into the late nineteenth century, the labor question — and all the hopes for social equality, democracy, and freedom folded within it — would remain wedded to the ownership of productive property, most particularly access to the land.

From Slavery to Slavery

In the South, the situation was otherwise. Slave labor accounted for the region’s wealth. Some poor whites worked for wages, but this was incidental. Others scrapped by as more or less self-sufficient yeomen in the backcountry. But it was slavery that presented the South, and for that matter the whole country, with its first confrontation with the “labor question.”

A group of escaped slaves that gathered on the former plantation of Confederate general Thomas Drayton. After Federal troops occupied the plantation, these former slaves began to harvest and gin cotton for their own profit. (Corbis / Getty Images)

The dilemma was double edged. For Northerners, Smith’s vision of “every man a master” was imperiled by the relentless expansion of plantation slave agriculture into the Western territories. At the same time, a newly emerging class of factory operatives bitterly likened their own predicament, one that less and less held out the prospect of propertied independence, to the fate of the enslaved down South. Defenders of the slave system compared its purported paternalism favorably to the heartless factory system of wage labor, especially in the textile and shoemaking industries. And workers in those factories had indeed begun to see themselves as “wage slaves,” to condemn together the “lords of the lash and loom.”

Since the days when indentured servitude, slavery, and other forms of unfree labor had predominated, “free labor” had appealed as the better alternative, although not without complaint about the abuses and deprivations and indignities that condition invited. But with the emergence of the factory system, “free labor” began to seem considerably less than free. Southern ideologues like George Fitzhugh and James Henry Hammond excoriated abolitionists and other advocates of “free labor” as hypocrites. So too, however, did Northern writers and orators like Herman Melville and clerics like Orestes Brownson and Theodore Parker.

Slavery was the form of the “labor question” against which all others were measured. Ex-slave Harriet Ann Jacobs put it succinctly: “Somebody has called it ‘the atmosphere of hell’, and I believe it so.” What sustained her was the telling insight that “my master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each.” Her will, speaking metaphorically, prevailed.

But what then, with emancipation won, would be the fate of the labor question? Abraham Lincoln uttered what had become a national conviction: “Free labor has the inspiration of hope; pure slavery has no hope.”

But for the newly freed slave and the already free white worker, it soon became hard to keep the faith. W. E. B. Du Bois observed that “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” Nor were lost illusions a strictly African American experience. The labor question as it moved off the land and away from the slave encampment threatened to interrogate the national consensus about the meaning of freedom.

Frederick Douglass saw it coming, noting, “Experience demonstrates that there may be a wages of slavery only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.” The Knights of Labor, the largest and most ecumenical among an array of postbellum organizations and insurgencies of working people, confirmed Douglass’s prophecy, declaring that there existed “an inevitable and irreconcilable conflict between the wage system of labor and the republican system of government.”

The Great Transformation

Inevitable and irreconcilable conflict did not happen overnight. But forebodings about the fate of the “wages system” surfaced early on. For more than a century after the revolution, the labor question retained its ties to land ownership and other forms of enterprise. These continued to offer platforms of self-possession that would elevate “beasts of burden” above their station as “wage slaves” or recently emancipated slaves.

Land, enterprise, and education consequently became watchwords of the labor question during the long period when escape from servitude still seemed to run through avenues of individual ascension. Workingmen’s movements frequently and prominently included a demand for free, public education, and on their own they created lyceums and mechanics institutes to raise the cultural level of their members and of the class of workmen more generally. Freedmen sought “forty acres and mule,” to anchor their newly won freedom. The Irish Land League fought to share out Western acreage to Irish immigrants trapped digging ditches. Henry George persuaded millions that land rents and monopolies reduced people to urban and rural peonage and stood in the way of an egalitarian distribution of property. The Populists closed the nineteenth century with a militant lament about the imminent loss of their land and with it their self-respect as producers.

Marrying petty-bourgeois aspirations to the labor question might be considered a cultural inevitability in a society so preoccupied with self-reliance and upward mobility. And the omnipresent fear of downward mobility made the dilemma more painful.

American industry advanced at an extraordinary rate. Its appetite for wage labor was voracious. It drew from many sources, but principal among them was the population of rural and small-town freeholders and tradespeople.

The process of capital accumulation created its own supply of available labor by dislodging petty producers. Farmers, indebted to financial interests and whipsawed by international commodities markets, lost their land, were reduced to tenantry or sharecropping or migrant labor, or fled the countryside for wage work in the cities. Independent artisans were similarly dispossessed by the factory system with which they were unable to compete.

Some might be incorporated into the industrial workplace in highly skilled positions and exercise, for a time, a certain amount of control over the production process. But the social status of the artisanal workforce was irrevocably degraded, its hopes for independent proprietorship dimming with each passing decade.

We are used to treating industrialization as a principal hallmark of modernity and progress. For millions of people, however, it was the opposite; a painful decline, a retrogression, a loss or a threatened loss of selfhood, of self-respect, of the independence that Smith’s vision of the labor question had once promised.

Nor was this experience of loss confined to American shores. Capital accumulation here depended as well on labor imported from abroad that mainly consisted of a peasantry uprooted by the inexorable pressures of rent, debt, and the global competition for markets. If many immigrants came by choice, just as many were compelled to come or face a pauper’s life at home. Yet dependency and degradation as great or greater than what they had faced in their homelands often awaited them in the New World.

Cultures of Resistance

This protracted period of primitive accumulation and dispossession gave rise to a culture, or rather a dense overlapping of multiple cultures, of resistance. Capitalism was the enemy. It presented an existential threat to democracy, equality, and the moral health of American society. Capitalism was the root of the problem because it tore apart the vital link between work and propertied independence. All other calamities followed on from that.

Every facet of US culture felt the impact of these anti-capitalist cultures of resistance. Churches and newsrooms, fiction, poetry, and the graphic arts, party platforms and college classrooms, bohemian immigrant barrios in the cities and traveling Chautauqua lectures in the countryside became vehicles of an all-sided critique of the damage done by capitalism’s exploitation and devaluation of labor.

This amounted to a counterculture of extraordinary social reach. It embraced wage workers as well as small proprietors in town and country. The fluid state of US society where people were rising into and falling out of the middling classes, where independence of means might be here today and gone tomorrow, invited a broad opposition to the main institutions driving capitalist development: the Eastern banking establishment, the trusts, the railroads, the industrial goliaths of the coal, iron, steel, and raw materials industries, and the main political parties, the courts, the legislative bodies, and the organs of public information and opinion that were enabling this transformation of the country.

Two profoundly different but related incarnations of the labor question lived side by side at the heart of this anti-capitalist cultural persuasion. One pinned its hopes on defending or resurrecting the world of “every man a master of his owne labor.” Centered in the countryside, it also embraced town dwellers who, like farmers, found themselves struggling to survive as independent proprietors.

They resented the “haughty power” of the banks and railroads that loaded them with debt and dictated the terms of trade that left them on the edge. They formed alternative social and commercial networks like the Grange and the Farmers’ Alliance, joined the anti-monopoly movement, and coalesced in new political parties including the Greenback, Greenback Labor, and People’s parties.

“Wage slaves” approached the labor question from different vantage points. Trade unions acknowledged the inevitability of wage labor. They had first appeared just after the revolution. They grew sporadically, especially among the skilled, who retained real leverage so long as mechanization didn’t obliterate their functions. Their status as proletarians remained fixed. But their special knowledge of the work process functioned as a kind of embodied asset. It was deployed to exercise some degree of control over the workplace. And it allowed them to cultivate aspirations to middle-class respectability.

For the conventional trade unionist, the answer to the labor question became a matter of “fair trade.” Or as Samuel Gompers put it, what the labor movement desired was “more” of the good things that the new system of industrial capitalism had to offer — material things, of course, but also “more school houses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” All of this was to be achieved first of all by improving the bargaining power of workers when they entered the marketplace to exchange their labor power for wages.

An illustration of strikebreakers attempting to start a freight train under a guard of US Marshals, in East Saint Louis, Illinois, during the Great Southwest railroad strike of 1886. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

From the vantage point of the trade unionist, the labor question would persist as a contested commercial transaction. But it no longer carried a revolutionary charge.

That charge persisted, however, and surfaced well beyond the realm of the economy. Socialists, syndicalists, anarchists, and others were convinced the real answer to the labor question was the abolition of capitalism. Moreover, the labor question was the breeding ground of utopias and dystopias, dreams and nightmares about how people might do much better or horrifically worse at living together — which is to say the labor question wasn’t so much a specific question as it was the question.

Satanic Mills and Phalansteries

The labor question as we conventionally think of it now incited its own utopian and dystopian reactions that surfaced at an early date. Plenty of utopian communities, although fragile and short lived as most turned out to be, were a notable feature of the antebellum United States. They were responses to the birth pangs of the factory system.

Robert Owen’s New Harmony settlement in Indiana was typical. The onetime Scottish industrialist–turned-reformer was appalled that “since the introduction of inanimate mechanisms into Britain manufactories, man, with few exceptions, has been treated as a secondary and inferior machine.” He had come to believe that “the lowest stage of humanity is experienced when the individual must labour for a small pittance of wages from others.”

His new community, founded in 1825, was designed to make the leap to communal living and cooperative producing. Its ultimate aim was not merely economic efficiency or social justice but to midwife a “New Moral World.”

A new moral world was again and again what the labor question chased after. Like Owen, the French social visionary Charles Fourier had legions of followers in America. Fourier was critical of what he called “civilization,” by which he meant the industrial capitalism then settling in both in the new and old worlds. He hated that civilization for its exploitation and for its demoralizing effect.

His “Phalanxes” of exactly 1,620 people living together and functioning as coproducers in a kind of joint-stock undertaking would end, Fourier hoped, the alienation of labor. What the philosophers of civilization as it was then known had overlooked, according to Fourier, was that “liberty is illusory if the common people lack wealth. When the wage-earning classes are poor their independence is as fragile as a house without foundations.”

Brook Farm was the most famous and famously unhappy and bowdlerized version of a phalanstery where some of the country’s most esteemed intellectuals, transcendentalists, and other reformers — Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne among them — made an attempt at shared and voluntary work, crossing the immemorial divide between manual and mental labor. Begun in 1841, it was over with six years later, done in by internecine squabbling and the practical difficulties of living together. (Hawthorne left because he needed solitude to write.)

Even those least inclined to concoct chimerical experiments in transcendent living were aware of the deeply human problem the labor question was posing. Adam Smith might be considered an honorary American in so far as his Wealth of Nations was taken to mean that the unrestrained pursuit of self-interest would ensure the general welfare — a favorite and toxic form of American utopian thinking to this day. Smith, however, did not believe this. Nor was he pollyannish about the division of labor he had become so well known for writing about. He worried that the worker in his exemplary pin factory “becomes as stupid and ignorant as it’s possible for a human creature to become,” that his mind sinks into “torpor,” and that he can’t form “any generous, noble, or tender sentiment.”

Melville animated those dreary premonitions. His short story “Tartarus of Maids” is a chilling portrait of women slaving away in a paper mill in an isolated gulag high in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Young, virginal, deathly white, wraithlike, nearly inanimate, subject to the despotism of the machinery and male superintendents, these women stood like a barely living reproach to early utopian hopes associated with the first textile mills further east at Lowell and Waltham.

A photographic portrait of Herman Melville from 1891. (Fototeca Gilardi / Getty Images)

Melville’s creations are populated by deeply angry, sometimes inscrutable workingmen, burning with rage or stubborn impassivity or a sense of wounded dignity, as in Bartleby’s mordant “I prefer not to” or Redburn’s stinging observation that “there are classes of men in the world who bear the same relation to society at large that the wheels do to a coach.”

In this world, work maims, kills, ruins, and is fatal to desire. Yet it ought to be hallowed. Ishmael in Moby Dick celebrates the democratic dignity that, regardless of rank, “shines in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which on all hands radiates without end from God; Himself. . . . His omnipotence, our divine equality,” which, however, was being poisoned at its source by the sharklike competition of the new commercial/industrial order, “mean and meager.”

Melville’s words make clear that it was in the nature of the labor question to elicit the rhapsodic as well as the bleak about the future of the human condition.

“Wage slavery” — a metaphor in common use for a century from the 1830s to the 1930s that now strikes us as utterly strange and alien — inspired visions both fanciful and more earthbound, both utopian and dystopian, all the way through to the Great Depression. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the two best-selling novels of the nineteenth century were Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a utopian depiction of a millennial United States free of class warfare, and Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column, a dystopian story about the end days of modern civilization, culminating in a bloody final conflict between a brutalized proletariat and equally barbaric master class. Although not given credit for it, the Gilded Age was also the golden age of this kind of literature. It is one measure of how exercised by the labor question American culture had become.

Fiction anticipated fact; fact drove fiction. The labor question pervaded the social sciences and economic scholarship and would continue to do so through the era of the New Deal. Foundations, think tanks, and circles of scientific management pondered how to rationalize the labor market and stabilize the shop floor. Working men and women organized to answer the question in their own way and were met by the even better organized and weaponized employer class, making the United States’ industrial experience by far the most violent in the West. Labor organizations as radical as the syndicalist-minded Industrial Workers of the World and as even-tempered as the American Federation of Labor didn’t agree about a lot, except that the class struggle was inherent and inevitable.

Political life was charged from the same source. The Populist and Socialist parties on the Left were driven by an overriding concern with the imminent standoff between wealth and commonwealth, as would Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California movement during the Great Depression.

Nor was the labor question strictly the hobby horse of radical circles. President Woodrow Wilson was not the only chief executive to recognize its weightiness when he cabled Congress from the peace conference in Versailles that “the question which stands at the front of all others amidst the present great awakening is the question of labor.” One Roosevelt, Theodore, declaimed against “malefactors of great wealth,” and later his distant relation, FDR, damned “Tories of industry” and “economic royalists.”

Presidential rhetoric is a mercurial substance, so not too much should be made of these White House outcries. Still, language of this kind is rare coming from high places and is another measure of how the labor question superheated the political atmosphere.

The Universal Question

Over the course of US history, the labor question has thus contained multitudes. It was never a matter of dollars and cents alone. The question was moral and political from the beginning; how it could it be otherwise? Indeed, for many it was a question of how to overcome the identity of “mere worker” to rise out of servitude to something fully human. Domination and liberation, servitude and mastery constituted the polarities of the labor question long before the first factory, at a time when wage labor was the exception, not the rule.

Embedded in the labor question has been a challenge to the reach and tensile strength of equality — that is, whether it is enough all by itself to put right social injustice, whether it goes deep enough. “Equality,” the watchword of the new American nation, has never been able to escape its entanglements with exploitation, whether of slave or free labor. To this day, US political culture remains invested in the seductive and consoling faith that somehow formal, legal equality for everyone is the solution to the exploitation of the many by the few.

Overlordship in the realm of work, especially but not only in America, has been and remains imbricated with the question of race. This is a self-evident truth. The enslavement of Africans ensured that it would be. It is also noteworthy, however, that elite classes everywhere have presumed that those who work, whatever their complexion or biological origin, comprise a subaltern race, inferior in its capacities, a degraded mass fit only to labor in the most menial sense, fit only in fact to “eat, multiply, work, and die.”

Today, the affinity between the labor question and the “race question” is organic, built into the disequilibrium of postindustrial America. The deindustrialization of the country over the past half century was catastrophic for many people; it especially undermined what tenuous hold working people of color had on jobs that were at least reasonably remunerative and sometimes came with union protections against abuse and indignities as well as some level of publicly funded social security. Those days are largely gone.

So, the labor question, once addressed to the dilemmas set off by capital accumulation, now interrogates the new era of capital disaccumulation in which racial minorities occupy the mudsills of an underdeveloping economy. They live on its margins, largely invisible.

Indeed, the labor question has closely tracked the history of poverty. In the nineteenth century, poverty was associated with exploitation at work; during the era of the welfare state, the focus was on those excluded from work. Now, in the age of neoliberal disaccumulation, millions, both white and people of color, move back and forth between the working poor and the poor without work.

Nor, as the whole career of the labor question tells us, will “equality” fix this. In an era of disaccumulation, when free labor for millions of every complexion has become a precarious hustle to stay afloat from gig to gig, an occasion for chronic and demeaning self-exploitation as well as more conventional forms of knuckling under to the boss, the gestures by elite economic and political institutions to address the question by opening boardrooms and cabinet positions to an array of racial and ethnic minorities is worse than meaningless. It is an insult.

One Question, So Many Answers

Solutions to the labor question that are less symbolic and more robust than this have come and gone. John Smith’s “every man may be master” was one. The New Deal was another. Mass consumption capitalism, the foundation of the New Deal order, shifted the axis of social conflict from the point of production to the point of distribution. This had an anodyne effect on US political life for a long time, so long as the era of capital accumulation continued.

The shift to consumer capitalism had another result. To be sure, it rescued the desperate and during the New Deal years lent a certain dignity to wage labor. But it also acted as a long-term sedative when it came to the labor question, even though it had come into being in response to a labor question so incendiary it would not be denied. A question that at its most piercing had asked what it meant to be human and free, that had both condemned work when it dehumanized and honored it as the fount of creativity and social well-being, gave that up in favor of a degraded view of man as a receptacle of goods and a refugee from work.

Romance and tragedy have shadowed the history of the labor question. Even in a culture so infected with an aversion to the very existence of classes, not to mention class struggle, the labor question excited or terrified the public imagination with visions of emancipation or, on the contrary, the end of Western civilization. One way or another, those reveries were grounded in what was happening in the workplace. There, relations of servitude and domination, exploitation and accumulation, dispossession and immiseration originated and spread plague-like elsewhere, across the body politic and into the interstices of everyday life.

Such pedestrian terrain as the factory and the field became the sites of heroic resistance and cruel repression, an armored stage on which the serried ranks of the oppressed took on the weaponized circles of wealth, power, and authority. However far removed from the everyday realities of work, however rare such full-fledged combat happened, these forebodings of insurrection, these romantic premonitions of liberation, were the ghost in the machine of the labor question as it went through its multiple incarnations.

The labor question was never simply about the strength or weakness of collective bargaining, which after all assumes capitalism. Rather the labor question of modern times was about life under capitalism and a life after capitalism. Today, American society is profoundly unstable. Inequalities are glaring and growing. People of color and white working people as well live lives of recurring marginalization and decline. Life on earth becomes less and less tenable with each melting ice cap. The system is dysfunctional.

Resistance appears in the workplaces of the new gig economy, in the restaurants and hospital wards of the service sector, as well as in what’s left of the factories and warehouses of the industrial economy (which is considerable). Bernie Sanders is both a person and an avatar of a movement that hasn’t had a toehold in American society since at least the Cold War. Today’s political and cultural polarization of the country would seem to run at right angles to these deeply unsettling dilemmas of labor’s subordination.

Yet a look back at the history of the labor question suggests that was not always the case. Again and again, that preeminent question has resurfaced. The dire dilemmas of contemporary capitalism ensure that will happen once more. The ghost abides.