Writing Deindustrialisation

September 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

I’m always surprised by how deindustrialisation and the economic and social dislocation it caused in the northern United States and Canada gets written about.  Take, for example, an otherwise interesting and informative article in The Boston Globe last weekend.  In an article about Sahro Hussan, a young Somali-American, and Muslim, woman who has created a business of avant-garde fashions for Muslim women, in Lewiston, ME, Linda Matchan, The Globe‘s reporter, writes:

Lewiston was one of the largest textile producers in New England, rolling out millions of yards in cotton fabrics every year.  In time, though, the industry struggled to compete with Southern states where production costs were lower.  Lewiston went into decline.

While there is nothing factually wrong with Matchan’s description of what happened in Lewiston (or any other industrial town across the northern portion of North America), note how any responsibility for what happened is removed from the equation.  Matchan makes it sound like this was just an entirely natural process.

Deindustrialisation wasn’t a natural process, it didn’t just happen.  The reason why the mills in Lewiston (or Lowell, Laurence, Lynn, or anywhere else) struggled wasn’t some random event.  It happened because the corporations that owned those mills decided that they were not producing enough value for share-owners.  So these corporations pulled out of places like Lewiston and moved down South.  Why?  Because production costs were too great in the North, the workers made too much (they were often unionised), and there was too much regulation of the workplace for the corporations’ preferences.  So, they were induced to pull out and move down South where workplace regulation was minimal, where workers weren’t unionised, and the corporations could make great profits.  The governments down South actively worked with these corporations to bring them South, mostly through these unregulated workplaces and tax incentives.  As a friend of mine notes, this is how the South won the Civil War.  But the South’s victory was shortlived, as soon, the corporations realised they could make even more money for their shareholders by moving overseas.

So.  Long and short, deindustrialisation wasn’t just some random process, it was a cold, calculated manoeuvre by the corporations that owned these mills, in conjunction with cynical state and local governments in the South.

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§ 3 Responses to Writing Deindustrialisation

  • Brian Bixby says:

    I’d say it’s the newspaper equivalent of our students’ passive voice: what’s not understood is given no agency. To be fair, a lot of serious historians have done as much, too.

    • I’m teaching Irish history this semester, and one of the problems with Irish historiography is ‘Revisionism,’ which was conceived of originally to counter nationalist arguments that it was all the fault of the British. Fine and good. But the other part of the project was to normalise Irish history and re-cast it as a nation ‘comme les autres,’ arguing that Ireland was no different than other Western European nations historically. The problem became moments of trauma, like the Famine. When Revisionists did address the Famine, their language all of the sudden became passive. I always teach my students to avoid the passive voice, as it strips historical actors of responsibility for their actions.

  • […] I'm always surprised by how deindustrialisation and the economic and social dislocation it caused in the northern United States and Canada gets written about. Take, for example, an otherwise interesting and informative … Article by deindustrialisation – Google Blog Search. Read entire story here. […]

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