The Bosses' Utopia: Dystopia and the American Company Town

Dr. Nicholas Partyka I Society & Culture I Analysis I May 20th, 2016

This is the second part of a multi-part series. Read Part One here.

On The Value of Utopia

For many centuries persons, peoples, and civilizations, have dreamed about what an ideal society (utopia) would look like, and worried about ways in which society could be much worse (dystopia). Utopian dreams and dystopian worries are powerful tools for thinking about what sorts of changes a society should pursue or avoid, and what underlying dynamics these proposed changes expose. This series examines the tradition of utopian and dystopian thought in western culture, beginning with the ancient Greeks, but continuing on into the modern period. Our focus in this series will be on the important social, political, and economic ideas and issues raised in different utopian stories. When we look into utopian stories, and their historical times, what we'll see reflected in the stories of utopia are the social, political, and economic concerns of the authors, their societies, and or their particular social class.

The meaning of the word 'utopia' comes to us from ancient Greece. In our modern world the word takes its current form because of Thomas More's 1516 book of the same name. Indeed, it is this book from which most of the modern western European utopian tradition takes its origin; or at least, this work inaugurates its most common trope. Where we have in our lexicon one 'utopia', the Greeks had two. The difference, even confusion, between them marks an essential cleavage. For the Greeks, there was both Eu- topia, and Ou-topia. Both are derived in part from the Greek word topos, which means "place", and the suffix 'ia' meaning land. Translated into English, 'Ou-topia' means something like, " No-place land", whereas 'Eu-topia' translates as "good-place land". More succinctly, the difference is between the idea of the best place, and an impossible place. It is the difference between a place which does not exist, because it has not yet been realized, and a place which cannot, and could not, ever exist.

Our modern word is pronounced as the Greeks pronounced 'Eutopia'. However, the meanings of these Greek words were confused by modern writers, who ended up with the spelling 'utopia', from the old English 'Utopie' as opposed to "Eutopia", as meaning "good place". This basic confusion about utopias, between "good place" and "no place", inserts an important ambiguity directly in the center of thinking about utopias. This ambiguity forces one to wonder of utopian writers, Are their visions supposed to be dreams of possible futures meant to incite us to action, or are they impossible dreams meant as reminders that the world is not easily re-shaped by human effort? Is a utopia supposed to be a good place or a no-place, Is the author supporting or condemning the practices of the fictional societies they describe?

One qualification must be made right away. A utopia is not a paradise. There is a colloquial usage of 'utopia' and 'utopian' that seem to suggest that it is a paradise. And compared to the societies in which actual humans lives, many of the fictional utopias would have indeed been seen as paradises, relatively speaking. However, we must draw a technical distinction between a paradise or a golden-age, and a utopia. In a paradise or golden-age no work and no effort are required by humans to obtain the things they want and need. Perhaps the most famous golden-age many are familiar with would be the Biblical Garden of Eden. Another well-known paradise is described in the mid-14th century poem The Land of Cockaigne, where fully cooked turkey legs literally fly through the air and into one's mouth. In this place the only effort on need put in is to chew.

The whole idea of a Cockaigne, or a paradise, is that everything one would ever need is abundantly supplied without any effort. The natural world is just so constructed - either at random or by design - that there springs forth automatically an abundance of everything necessary for everyone, all the time, always. In this kind of society, or world, there never arises anything resembling what we - or most societies in the history of our world - recognize as a political problem. Everyone has enough of everything. So there is no cause for argument. There is no inequality, because everyone has everything everyone else has. Or at least, everyone has access to just as much of what others have whenever they would like it. In this kind of world what causes could there be for strife, or for civil war? A paradise, or a golden-age, is thus totally non-political, and as such not terribly interesting.

What this means is that utopias are enough like our own condition, our own world, that we can take inspiration from them. They are enough like the social conditions we know that we can learn lessons for and about ourselves and our societies by examining at them. This is exactly what makes utopias so interesting. As we will see, utopian literature has a long, very long, history with human beings. The enduring appeal of and, interest in utopias testifies to their relevance. This is the reason that we too are looking at utopias. We are all concerned with, or at least we are all effected by, the way our society is organized. By looking at how other ideal societies might be organized we can explore the merits, and demerits of various kinds of social institutions, and of the various ways of structuring those institutions. We are concerned to change our own society, and utopias allow us to think about the direction of that change.

We have a colloquial usage of the word 'utopia' and 'utopian' in contemporary society that works to prohibit much creative thought, and dismisses utopian thought as feckless, and as such, worthless. Part of the aims of this series is to demonstrate the value of this "worthless" endeavor. Dreaming, far from idle, far from impotent, is essential. Without wonder, without questions, the human imagination will atrophy. The value of this is that thinking about utopias allows us to both critique present societies, but also to articulate a vision of how we'd like our societies to be different. The deeper value of utopian thinking is that it sets us free, free to speculate and more importantly to give expression to our striving, to our desire for a better world. Everything human beings can be must first be dreamed by human beings. This is the value of utopia and dystopia. Thus, the first pre-requisite for this series is the rejection of this colloquial notion of utopia and the utopian. Dismissed from the start, it will not be a surprise if we fail to learn anything from our utopian traditions.


In another part of this series I discussed the American tradition of radical utopianism. Owenites, Fourierists, as well as various and sundry religious sects, all attempted experiments in communal living inspired by utopian political or spiritual ideologies. By removing themselves from the world, these groups sought to re-make society in miniature, as an example that could be replicated throughout the country as an alternative to the ascendant bourgeois society. American history also contains a dystopian tradition. Some individuals who came under the sway of certain utopian idea also happened to have large amounts of money, and or were proprietors of large business concerns. Several very wealthy businessmen cum would-be philanthropists embarked on many now forgotten utopian experiments. In some ways their schemes resemble Owen's original New Lanark project, in that a firm's profit-motive was used to argue for less abusive working conditions for workers. I am talking, of course, about the company town.[1] A term now, and for good reason, loaded with connotations of anti-democratic forms of dependence and surveillance, a modern industrial feudalism, that galled observers and greatly angered many worker-residents.

At many points in American history wealthy capitalists saw it as beneficial to construct planned communities for their workers. These ran the gamut from unsanitary ramshackle slums and ghettoes with little planning or services, to highly elaborate planned communities designed according to the proprietors' ideology of choice, in which even small details were prescribed and regimented. In some of these capitalist-inspired utopian experiments, designed to 'elevate' workers, one can see clear examples of many dystopian themes manifested in real-life. Looking at the experience of company towns one readily discerns significant dystopian elements, e.g. some rather reminiscent of George Orwell's now famous Big Brother. The high-handed, obtrusive, and moralistic scrutiny of private life; the regimentation of work and social life; the uniformity of living standards; strictly imposed and enforced moral codes, are all dystopian elements one can find in the work of the most well-known dystopian writers, e.g. Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin.

The United States has had a unique experience with company towns, quite different from the experience of European countries. America saw both a greater number of company towns, as well as greater diversity among them. The uniqueness of the American experience has to do mainly with the size of America and the prominence of the frontier, and the small-government sensibilities of the founding generation. That the country was expanding geographically, and that the government was typically disposed to take a laissez-faire stance on interference with the private undertakings of businessmen and entrepreneurs. These factors combined to allow private sector actors wide latitude in their ability to construct ideal communities, that is, communities that were ideal for the bosses in that they served the bosses' interests more than those of workers. This freedom for the private sector has sometimes resulted in neo-feudal conditions, e.g. like those that were found in many Appalachian coal towns, and other times in the more bucolic and rural utopian project of magnates like Milton Hershey.

In the Beginning There Was Lowell

The Pilgrims who came to North America had designs to create a 'city on a hill', a symbol to all the world of how to live justly and righteously. There is a certain obvious utopian aspect to this view. The chartered basis of these colonies, and their need to make a profit gave them some of the shades of the company town. They remained for many years trapped in a cycle of debt, always needing to consume more in supplies to sustain themselves than the value of their exports would purchase. This is one reason that the early colonists pursued whaling, as well as fur trading and trapping right from the start. Beaver pelts in particular were extremely lucrative, and it was the expressed intention of many colonial leaders to use export of pelts to pay for not only the debts incurred for the initial transportation to the American continent, but also the provision, supplies, and other goods the colonists would eventually want and need to import.

A famed British historian writes, "Whoever says Industrial Revolution says cotton".[2] Thus, we should not be surprised to see cotton, the company town, and utopianism come together in the early phase of American industrialization. As such, one must look first to Lowell, Massachusetts where its eponymous founder Francis Cabot Lowell established one of America's first water-mill operations, as well as one its first well-known company towns. Indeed, the town, famous for its past, continues to drawn large numbers of tourists year after year.

Francis certainly had some utopian ideas behind his designs in business, and community building plans. A wealthy Boston merchant, Lowell, toured England in 1811 where he saw first-hand the conditions in the mill-towns of industrializing Britain. What he saw there, especially in places like Manchester, shocked him, as it would many others including Friedrich Engels. The poverty, degradation, squalor, misery, disease, and "moral corruption", which was perceived to run rampant in the new large urban industrial city, disturbed Lowell. Those few capitalists who did have qualms about industrialization, and the rise of industrial society, tried to find ways to achieve the social benefits of industrialization, but to avoid the crushing desperation of life in industrial cities like Manchester. This is the inspiration for Robert Owen's brand of utopian socialism. His New Lanark mill-town was a model of reform, and saw the material improvement of workers and their living conditions as the basis of the transformation of society. It is in this same spirit that Francis Cabot Lowell conceived his American mill-town. Lowell sought to create the opposite of what he saw in Manchester, a bright, healthy and virtuous community. Yet, he also certainly sought the immense profits to be made in the textile industry. He certainly had no intention of operating his business at a loss. Owen, for instance, while certainly a prosperous businessman, had a moral and ideological mission, which balanced his quest for profits, and New Lanark was profitable.

Lowell imagined his mill-town as an intellectually and morally uplifting community, which would fit into the needs of American society at large, and in this way help form the economic basis of an American capitalist utopia. His community would help create that 'city on a hill' so many different groups had hoped to turn America into. Lowell's plan was to recruit his workforce from the younger women living and working on the farms in the area. These young New England ladies would come to work seasonally in Lowell, not become full-time proletarian toilers. In order to attract these workers Lowell advertised the intellectually stimulating, culturally vibrant, and moral upright way of life that characterized the community. He wanted these young women, and especially their parents, to think of their time in Lowell as a kind of preparation for adult life and for marriage. Francis was always keen to point out in his pitch that his lady workers had access to such essential icons of "middle class" life as books and pianos. He also highlighted the presence of older women who acted as supervisors of the boardinghouses where these young women were housed, and who enforced a strict 10pm curfew. Between studying music, or literature and poetry, attending free lectures or other amusements, life in Lowell was supposed by Lowell himself to be as good for the workers, their families, and even the country, as it was profitable for himself and his business partners.

The reality of the life of the town, and the experience of the people who resided in it, differed in several large respects from Cabot Lowell's intentions. Some aspects of the life of the community at Lowell we will see re-appear in company-towns throughout American history. The most important of these is despotism, in one or another of its many forms. The control wielded over the life of the town, and thus over the residents, by the company's owners would work to foster several dystopian and despotic elements in Lowell, as well as in later company towns. The company regimented the rhythms of life in town, fitting it to the needs of the production process, and it announced the progression of each day's routine through the sounding of bells. Workers were woken at 4:30am, and required to be to work by 4:50am. The working day ended at 7pm, and there was a 10pm curfew in town. The bells marked the transition from each part of the day to the next, when to get up, when to work, when to eat, when to rest. This regime was no doubt onerous to many. Lowell's vision of where his workforce would come from soon crumbled, as he failed to attract as many young New England ladies as he hoped. Thus, very soon Lowell and his partners had predominantly immigrant workforce in their town.

On the job, workers were subject to the personal discipline of the foreman. This was usually entirely arbitrary, and workers lacked any recourse against such depredations. Off the job, workers were subject to the scrutiny and censure of a system of "moral police" operating in the town. The older women boardinghouse-keepers were some of the main agents in this network of spies and informants, of which other workers might well also be a part. The company, i.e. its officials, could fine or fire any workers for immoral conduct, like consuming alcohol. Any employee that failed to fulfill their contractual one year of service, because they quit without the contractually mandated two weeks' notice or were not "honorably discharged", would be blacklisted from employment in the area. Workers were required to attend church services, and to pay a mandatory fee to support this church. They also had to pay a fee to stay in the boardinghouses, which apparently not lacking in food, were over-crowded, poorly ventilated, and lacking entirely in privacy. Workers came to live and work at Lowell despite these kinds of conditions because the pay was too good to pass up.

A striking vision of the lives of the women who toiled in the factories like these in antebellum America can be found in a lesser-known work by famed American author Herman Melville. In his short-story, The Paradise of the Bachelors & the Tartarus of the Maids, Melville paints a vivid picture of the drudgery of the actual work of producing cotton textiles in these early factories.[3] Though the workers in his story are making paper and not textiles, the main outlines of the workers' experience would have been much the same. Melville describes the entrance to his fictional, yet all too real, mill in the most daunting imagery, invoking the idea of "Dantean gate" one must pass through. In describing the operations, and workers of this mill Melville uses language that evokes the toil, degradation, over-bearing foremen, the sexism, being beholden to the whims and demands of the company on whom one depends. Melville is just one rather famous example of a common view at this time, that factory work, wage work, was a kind of slavery. At a time of rising sentiment of opposition to slavery, this was a potent objection to capitalism, and to the plans of capitalists, that it was slavery by another means, and not acceptable treatment for white people. This sentiment was also part of the inspiration for two strikes in Lowell in 1834 and 1836 largely in response to wage cuts announced by the company in reaction to falling prices for textile goods.

Utopian Paternalism

Francis Cabot Lowell was not to be the last American capitalist to dream of creating a model community where the vices and sins of the rapidly modernizing world would be excluded, and a more idyllic life re-created. First and foremost of these new modern ills, in the minds of capitalist utopian visionaries like George Pullman, Milton Hershey, and Henry Ford, among others, was labor strife, that is, labor unions. Thus, one of the main foci of the efforts of capitalist utopian was preventing workers from organizing and bargaining collectively. What we will see in each of the examples mentioned above is that these attempts at creating a more ideal kind of life within modernizing, and industrializing American society share certain dystopian elements. The most apt way to characterize the main themes of these capitalist - led efforts at building and operating planned communities is as utopian paternalism. Capitalists like Pullman and Ford certainly saw themselves as advancing the workers' own good, even when those workers' views about their own good were to the contrary. These men thought they knew better than workers what was in their best interests. Unsurprisingly, none of these utopian experiments was successful from the point of view of their founders, since they all failed to prevent the rise of labor unions.

In 1880 George Pullman, maker of the famous Pullman Palace Car, the ubiquitous sleeping car which made transcontinental rail travel more comfortable, began to construct an ideal community on the outskirts of Chicago.[4] The town of Pullman would feature several lavish public buildings, including a library and theater. The residences were supposed to be more commodious, most were connected to natural gas and running water, some even featured bathrooms. There was a wide array of shops housed in public buildings to accommodate the needs of the town's residents. Much effort was made to create a pleasant aesthetic in the town, from the design of the buildings to the layout of the community. Pullman desired to re-create a more bucolic atmosphere to contrast with the grit and grime of the cities. Pullman, based on a firm profit motive, believed that treating workers better would make them more loyal, harder working, and less likely to want to join a labor union. His model community would not only save money by locating workers near their place of work, but also would help to forge a new kind of worker. This new worker would be more dependable, more docile, more compliant, et cetera. This change would of course be more conducive to capitalists' accumulation of wealth.

One thing every building in Pullman had in common, from the work buildings, to the residential buildings, was that they were all owned by the Pullman company. Workers were compelled to be renters, and not permitted to own their homes. The rent payments for which were deducted automatically from workers' paychecks. Not just workers, but also all community organizations, were prohibited from owning buildings, and anyone could be evicted with a mere ten days warning. Moreover, what came to pass for a municipal government in the town of Pullman was completely under the control of the Pullman company. The foundations of community life were only further eroded by the use of "inspectors' by the Pullman company in its town, whose job it was to report on the workers, their activities, affiliations, and opinions. These inspectors were to report any resident who was found to have undesirable or immoral views, attitudes, or habits. The atmosphere of the town of Pullman was best described as a kind of, "benevolent, well-wishing feudalism" with George Pullman as its king.[5] Discontent with conditions in the town of Pullman contributed to the desire of workers to unionize, and helped spark the famous 1894 strike of the Pullman company by the American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs. [6]

Inspired to some extent by the example of Pullman, the man and the town, in 1903 Milton Hershey began work on his own planned industrial community. [7] His was to be modeled to a degree after the Mennonite villages familiar in the area of Pennsylvania Hershey chose. The area had one key virtue for him, lots of dairy farms nearby to provide the critical ingredient he needed for his chocolate, i.e. milk. Like Pullman, and others, Hershey was a critic of the growing urban society. The urban environment was seen as morally corrupting and physically unhealthy for the people who lived in them. Thus, Milton thought that by re-creating a more pastoral, healthier kind of life workers lives would be improved. What could also be improved was his profits, by reducing labor agitation. In the same profit-first motive of Pullman and Lowell, Hershey thought that contented works would be more productive, more loyal, workers. In a further echo of the Amish who lived in the area, Hershey envisioned a prosperous community full of clean-living residents. Even more than Pullman, Hershey invested in public buildings in his town, including the now famous Hershey Industrial School which housed and educated orphaned boys. His eponymous town would in this way, and others, serve as a living advertisement for his product, the wholesomeness of the one reinforcing that of the other.

The town of Hershey would also experience many dystopian elements, despite it is founders' intentions, though perhaps less intensely than in Pullman. In contrast to Pullman and Lowell, the high-handed moral despotism in Hershey would be doled out by the proprietor himself. In the town of Hershey, Milton was the moral police; he was also the mayor, chief of police, and fire chief, as there were no elected officials. The comfortable life available to worker-residents of Hershey came as part of a trade-off in which one sacrificed democracy. In exchange for having no control over their community, worker-residents received several benefits, medical coverage and a retirement plan; free garbage pick-up and snow removal; public buildings like churches and schools, including a junior college with free tuition for workers; and, despite having all this, there were no local taxes.

In many ways Hershey's plans came to fruition, and the town enjoyed a fairly harmonious existence for many years. Indeed, it was not long before the town achieved notoriety as a tourist attraction, both the chocolate factory as well as the "Hershey Park" amusement park. The modern world caught up to Hershey eventually, leaving a large black mark on the town's reputation. In 1937 labor violence in the town made all the wrong kind of headlines. Local dairy farmers dependent on selling to the Hershey factory brawled with striking workers. Outnumbered four to one, the strikers were badly beaten and chased away from company grounds by the mob of dairy farmers.

Henry Ford also fancied himself a philanthropic businessman, someone who could help educate workers and elevate their lives. His famous $5 a day plan was built on the same kind of hard-headed, profit-oriented logic we've seen in both Pullman and Hershey, as well as the capitalist utopian visions of the moral improvement of workers. And just like both of these others, Ford's generosity came at price. There was a rather dark side to Ford's desire to improve the lives of his largely immigrant workers. In exchange for a higher wage, workers had to pledge to live wholesome lives, that is, conduct themselves both on and off the job according to Ford's moral precepts. Just as we saw with Lowell, higher than average wages attracted an enormous glut of applicants. Workers came and they stayed, despite the brutish tactics of Ford's anti-union henchmen in the Service Department and the condescending racism of Ford's Sociological Department, because of the higher pay and benefits offered.[8]

The infamous Service Department at Ford was headed by Harry Bennett, a vicious enforcer whose egregious abuses of workers remained mostly secret from the public. He used fear, intimidation, and a paramilitary gang to pressure workers into doing as they were told. The main job of this secret police force was to prevent and disrupt and potential union organizing activity by Ford workers, by any means necessary. Surveillance and beatings were to main tactics Bennett and his thugs applied to suspected union activists. Bennett also constructed a huge network of spies within the company, so that potential agitators never knew if they were talking to one of his informers. Ford's Sociological Department was responsible for turning his immigrant workers into "real" Americans. In a racist and very insensitive way, workers were to be stripped of their foreign customs and beliefs, and then re-made to be as American as apple pie. Employment was conditional on workers learning English and American civics at company provided classes. Intentionally symbolically, the highly choreographed graduation ceremony for the Ford school began with workers in their native dress, and ended with them in American-style clothes. After graduating workers were supposed to have gotten rid of their old ways, and completely adopted American ideals and values.

Ford's Sociological Department was also responsible for a highly intrusive regime of surveillance of workers and their personal lives. Members of the Sociological Department interviewed workers, and their family members, often several times, asking extremely invasive questions about many different aspects of workers' lives. Though billed as a project aimed at social reform, the operatives of this department collected massive amounts of information about Ford employees and their families. How many times they were married, how much debt they had, how much money they remitted to relatives, and whether they had bank accounts, were all questions Sociological Department agents asked workers. These interviews were not one-off affairs. Two, three, even four, interviews would not have been uncommon, and this applies to the workers' family members as well. Workers were lectured by these company-men to maintain a certain standard of cleanliness and order at home. Naturally they were heavily discouraged from the vices of drinking, smoking, and gambling.

Industrial Feudalism

The darkest side of the American experience with the company town can be found in the example of coal and steel towns, as well as oil boom-towns. Hardy Green concisely describes this variety of the company town as, "exploitationville".[9] This title is largely self-explanatory. This is because the image of the coal town, especially the Appalachian coal town, has remained such a vivid part of America's popular consciousness. The reign of the company, its officials and its store, is legendary for its ruthlessness, brutality, arbitrary punishment, and oppression through debt. The famous song "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford affixes in the popular imagination the tyranny of the company in the coal town; the drudgery of the work; the inadequate pay; company theft of that pay; reliance on debt, and corresponding servitude to it, as well as the despair and despondency this way of life created. Often times these 'towns' were little more than camps or agglomerations of shacks, shanties, and hovels. There were often few or no public services, and when they did exist workers were usually forced to pay exorbitant prices for the most basic services, e.g. garbage collection and sanitation infrastructure.

Like other company towns, workers in coal towns were not allowed to own property, and thus forced to rent from the company at the prices it set. Workers were often paid in 'scrip', a form of local money only good at the company store. They were thus dependent on the company for everything they needed. As one might expect, workers were routinely bilked of their hard-earned wages by their unscrupulous employers through inflated prices for staple goods, as well as taxes and fees for basic services. Like in other company towns, there were usually no elected officials, and all law enforcement was overseen by the company. The 1871 Coal Creek War in Tennessee is a prominent example of the kind of reaction workers had to the many ways their employers dominated, oppressed, and robbed them. It is also a characteristic example of how employers in many different sectors dealt with organized labor in similar ways. Nor were such practices limited to the coal mining industry. Mining communities all over the country endured conditions, to one degree or another like those of the coal towns, from the omnipresent surveillance and spies, to the tyrannical foremen and threats of violence.

In many cases steel towns were not much better, though the housing might be better than the notoriously poor housing afforded workers in mining towns, particularly the coal towns. Gary, Indiana, and Homestead, Pennsylvania are two prominent examples of company towns in the steel industry. Both projects were motivated by the same utopian capitalist logic about making workers materially better off enough to reject union membership. The broad outlines of the story in both communities are familiar: inadequate, unsanitary, and or over-crowded housing; housing allocated by status; housing dependent upon employment; over-priced rents automatically deducted from wages; abusive foremen acting with impunity; workers forced to sing "yellow dog" contracts promising not to join a union as a condition of employment; no independent stores; workers paid in company 'scrip'; over-bearing moral codes imposed on workers by "moral police". Conditions at Homestead, in addition to issues like wages and hours, were one of the most significant factors in sparking the infamously bloody strike in 1892. Labor strife would come to Gary in a big way in 1919. Workers striking for improves wages, and reduced hours, were certainly also very upset about the living conditions in town. In both cases, the owners, with help from the state, used violence to disperse the workers and repress their demands and their organizations.

American Dystopias

It should be clear, after a look at the historical experience of company towns in America, that, in many, if not most, instances this experience contains many distinctly dystopian elements. Indeed, the experience of workers in company towns across America forms a unique American dystopian tradition, which contrasts sharply with its robust utopian tradition. When we look to the works of some of the great dystopian writers, we will notice the same themes that we saw in the real-life, historical experience of American company towns. George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Evgeny Zamyatin, all present visions of future dystopian societies which embody - in some cases to a fantastic extreme- the abusive treatment and horrible living conditions that characterized the life of many American company towns.

All three dystopian authors depict future societies in which an authoritarian government, composed of an elite minority, rules despotically over the rest of the population. Moreover, in all three, the activities of the dominated population are structured in a way that furthers the social, economic, and political aims of the ruling elite. All three of these dystopian societies make use of some particular combination of omnipresent surveillance, brutal and violent repression and torture, or some form of psychological conditioning to compel the population into compliance with the government's policies. The people of these dystopian societies are led, or forced, to believe that the current order of things is actually for everyone's benefit; though clearly some benefit more than others. All three are portrayed by their leaders as peaceful and harmonious societies, despite the fact that violence and repression, of one kind or another, are needed to maintain order in society.[10]

Whether Orwell's Big Brother in Oceania, Huxley's Alphas in the future London, or The Benefactor in Zamyatin's the One State, features from all three of these dystopian societies find analogs in American company towns: a single-minded and ideologically motivated founder or leader; the enforced dependence of the population on the state, that is the elite minority who run it; the abusive treatment of the population by the officials of the state; an unrelenting and intrusive propaganda offensive against the enemies of the state; monopoly on the press, and censorship of rivals as a form of persecution; universal surveillance of the population by the ruling elite, including an extensive network of spies and informers; unhealthy and degrading living conditions for the majority of the population, but opulence for the elite; systematic theft from, or exploitation of, the population to meet the needs of the ruling elite; thoroughly rational, totally invasive, and frustratingly stultifying regimentation of life both on and off the job.


The company towns in America all seem to share one thing in common, a pattern of boom and bust. This might be separated by decades, but all company towns seem to share a common fate. Namely, when the business dries up, or the industry collapses, the town dies. Sometimes the death is quick, other times long, drawn-out, and painful. The oil or gold boom-towns would be on one extreme, as they could disappear entirely over-night, and re-established at the next site in rapid order. Closer to the other end of the spectrum, company towns collapse because the industry changed or relocated, e.g. Lowell or Pullman. Other company towns collapse because their reason for existing disappears, e.g. the coal seam, or silver vein is tapped out. Sometimes company towns survive the collapse of the firms that dominate them, but as mere ghosts of their former selves, e.g. Gary. Only a very small successful few remain in operation, like Hershey. It is in light of this history of the company town in America that one should see the collapse of Detroit. One industry so dominated employment in that city, that as it fortunes flagged, so too did those of the city. Just as the industry declined, and resorted to new methods to remain competitive and continue to generate the profits shareholders expect, indeed demand, so too did Detroit decline. And, as a result, the city was forced to resort to measures that accelerated the city's decline by encouraging disinvestment, diminishing public services, and eroding quality of life.

To many Americans, fascism, as represented in regimes like Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, is the ultimate real-life dystopia. Many Americans also think that this is a foreign problem, something embedded in the cultural DNA of the Old World. Many think of this kind of ideology is not, and cannot be, indigenously American. Hence the extreme xenophobia that arose during both world wars, and the antipathy many Americans felt towards the early labor movement. Yet, the historical experience of the company town in America demonstrates that these conceptions are quite misleading. When given freest reign, capitalists, have created social environments that resemble quite closely the kinds of literary dystopias that most haunt our imagination. Fascism, in fact, has an American pedigree in the legacy of the company town. The legacy of the company town also quite nicely illustrates that fascism is not only bigoted hate-groups waving swastika flags. It also comes in more patriotic, more benevolent and well-meaning forms, like the kind of utopian paternalism that was evident in most company towns. It can also be seen, naked and direct, in the violent and authoritarian regimes that dominated some company towns, especially those associated with the mining industry.


[1] For an interesting history of the company town, see; Green, Hardy. The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy. Basic Books, 2010.

[2] Hobsbawn, Eric. Industry & Empire. 1968.The New Press, 1999; 34.

[3] Melville, Herman."The Paradise of the Bachelors and the Tartarus of the Maids". 1849. Great Short Works of Herman Melville. Perennial Classics, 2004.

[4] See Green (2004): 27-35.

[5] Richard T. Ely quoted in Green (2004):31.

[6] For an interesting insight into the living conditions in Pullman, and the how they contributed to the 1894 strike see; Ginger, Ray. The Bending Cross. 1947. Haymarket Books, 2007.

[7] See Green (2004): 35-41.

[8] See Grandin, Greg. Fordlandia. Picador, 200: Ch.2 & 4.

[9] Green (2004); Ch.3

[10] See Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1949.; Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1932; Zamyatin, Evgeny. We. 1924.