The Meat of Capitalism

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Review of 'The Pig and the Skyscraper', Marco d'Eramo, Verso £20

First published (in Italian) in 1999, two years before four hijacked planes shattered American illusions of invulnerability and changed our world, this book explores capitalism in the US--the land where it stands exposed in 'all its naked force'. The author, an Italian journalist and writer, uses Chicago as a prism through which to track, analyse and comment on the history of US capitalism in all its complexity.

Chicago, argues the author, lies at the epicentre of America's supersonic, 'red in tooth and claw' capitalist development. In the 19th century the city came roaring into existence in just 30 years. Built on the grain trade, railroads, lumber and mass animal slaughter, it forced forward the frontiers of production for profit, achieving in its early 20th century stockyards the 'acme of centralisation and capitalist-style rationalisation' (not a scrap of pig or cow was wasted). This city not only invented futures trading but also began 'buying and selling the future before it existed'. Aided by a trolley car system whose growth was more rapid than in any other US city, Chicago's better placed residents moved out to the suburbs, seeking the quintessential US capitalist ideal: the single family dwelling, set among lawns and trees, yet never too far from urban amenities.

In Chicago's centre, skyscrapers soared upwards, 'costly monuments to the overinflated egos of their patrons'. Into its maelstrom of industrial turmoil poured wave upon wave of immigrant labour: the Irish, the Germans, the Poles, later great inflows of blacks from the post Civil War south, fuelled by hope while frequently deployed as scab labour in the Chicago bosses' savage all-out war on the unions. For this city, too, was the crucible of the US labour movement--the place where the battle for the eight-hour working day was waged with spectacular bloodshed in the 1880s, where the Haymarket massacre of 4 May 1886 became the impulse for establishing May Day as a holiday for workers around the globe.

The challenge before the author lies not only in capturing the dense texture of this story but also in relating it to his central theme: Chicago as a metaphor for US capitalism, as an unrivalled distillation of a larger experience, as a window on the future.

The book is structured on the deliberate use of contrast and variety: descriptive passages that carry the reader into the physical reality of the city are juxtaposed with philosophical musings, economic analysis yields to explorations of music or architecture. At times this style can distract from the overall purpose. But just when you think all might be unravelling, d'Eramo gives a tug and pulls the threads taut to his central theme. In his introduction to the book, the Marxist political ecologist Mike Davis salutes the ambition and audacity of this attempt to 'grasp the whole in world historical perspective'.

Occasionally, the author appears to overreach his material to draw premature conclusions. An example is his statement that 'the union movement in Europe appears to be in its death throes', a view challenged by 2002's experience of ascendant union militancy and mass strikes across the continent. Overall, however, this kaleidoscope of a book is strongly recommended. For anyone concerned to gain a full-frontal view of 'capitalism without a G-string', this is compelling reading.