In Chapter 11, how did Zinn view capitalism and the great industrialists of the late 1800s?
Zinn's view of capitalism and industrialists is evident from the title of the chapter itself. He refers to industrialists who skilfully terrace "separate levels of oppression" along the "pyramid of wealth" as "robber barons."
Zinn contends that the "rags to riches" story is a spurious myth about how wealth is accumulated within a capitalist system. Although some multimillionaires began in poverty, most came from middle class and upper-class backgrounds. In order to succeed within a capitalist society, one must learn how to collaborate with the courts and the politicians. For example, Zinn maintains that Thomas Edison promised New Jersey politicians $1000 each if they managed to pass favorable legislation that would benefit his business ventures.
To be a successful industrialist, one must be willing to work hard, to cut corners whenever possible, and to bribe officials when necessary. Zinn asserts that the first transcontinental railroad was built with "blood, sweat, politics, and thievery." The Central Pacific company spent $200,000 on bribing Washington officials to get "9 million acres of free land and $24 million in bonds." It then paid a sham construction company $79 million (an over-payment of $36 million) to build the railroad. Meanwhile, the Central Pacific company paid "three thousand Irish and ten thousand Chinese" a pittance of one to two dollars a day, over a four-year period, to complete the railroad.
Equally complicit in exploiting its workers, the Union Pacific company used twenty thousand workers, made up of war veterans and Irish immigrants, to lay 5 miles of track a day. Many of these workers died from exposure to the elements and in fierce battles with Indians who objected to the encroachment of the railroads on their territories. Even bankers got in on the action. By the late 1800s, most of the railroad financing was controlled by the House of Morgan or the bankers Kuhn, Loeb, and Company.
Industrialists like J.P. Morgan, who formed the U.S. Steel Corporation, bribed legislators so that he could tamp down on foreign competition and keep American steel prices high. Now, this wouldn't be so bad if workers were paid accordingly. However, the company once again kept the majority of the profits for the power brokers. The workers received little in compensation; the U.S Steel company worked "200,000 men twelve hours a day for wages that barely kept their families alive."
Zinn maintains that the purpose of "the state was to settle upper-class disputes peacefully, control lower-class rebellion, and adopt policies that would further the long-range stability of the system." To that end, it didn't matter if Democrats or Republicans were elected; the status quo was always preserved. Even the court system favored the railroad industrialists.
Yet, Zinn contends that most of the industrialists were honest men; without honesty, they would never have been able to hold on to their wealth or to keep in their employ thousands of workers. At the same time, while Zinn sympathizes with the poor, he also maintains that "there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings."
Whether you and I agree with Zinn's views or not, he does argue that the only way to throw off the tyranny of the producer class is to rise up in solidarity against the ruling, capitalist elite.