October 10 (Week 8): Capitalism and Cultures of Risk and Disability

This week we will focus on the relationship between disability and the spread of industrial capitalism, as well as the ways in which the disabling effects of industrial workplaces reshaped relationships between the nation-state and individuals.

Please use the comment function to post two discussion questions about this week’s readings by Thursday at 2 pm.  Focus on intriguing or controversial points in the readings that you think will spark discussion.  Strong discussion questions are open-ended, engage with major points in author(s)’ arguments, and are not factual in nature.

Reminder: We will also finish discussing the Obregon, Bender, and Carson pieces from last week.

Please also post one of the following:

  • a short description (1-3 sentences) of your “muddiest point,” that is, what important point of the author’s argument did you have trouble grasping
  • your “most interesting connection” for this week’s reading

If you refer to a specific point or quote in one of the readings, please provide the author and page number.



1)     Jamie L. Bronstein, Workplace Accidents and Injured Workers in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2008)

2)     John Williams-Searle, “Cold Charity: Manhood, Brotherhood, and the Transformation of Disability, 1870-1900,” in The New Disability History, pp. 157-186 (MavSpace)

3)     Greg Eghigian, “Embodied Entitlement: The Policy, Practice, and Politics of Disability Compensation,” in Making Security Social, Disability, Insurance, and the Birth of the Social Entitlement State in Germany (University of Michigan Press, 2000), pp. 67-116 (MavSpace)

11 Responses to “October 10 (Week 8): Capitalism and Cultures of Risk and Disability”

  1. Robert Caldwell says:

    “Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a definite stage of the development of productive forces. It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage and, insofar, transcends the State and the nation, though, on the other hand again, it must assert itself in its foreign relations as nationality, and inwardly must organize itself as State. The word “civil society” [bürgerliche Gesellschaft] emerged in the eighteenth century, when property relationships had already extricated themselves from the ancient and medieval communal society. Civil society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie…”- Karl Marx, The German Ideology

    Two of this week’s readings (Caught in the Machinery and “Cold Charity”) discuss the patriarchal ideology of risk and responsibility inherent in the workingmen’s rights discourse of free labor during the 19th century. Rights on both sides of the ocean were modeled on bourgeois adoption of enlightenment notion of the rights of Englishmen.* Being a man entailed responsibility as a provider. Being free entailed the personal responsibility of risk. This working class masculinist culture created alliances between labor and capital to the exclusion of disabled workers.

    1.) The same readings are virtually silent on the issue of race. Searle’s article, published in 2001, might be forgiven from excluding race from the discussion. Eric Arnessen’s Brotherhoods of Color was not released until a year later. A careful look at Caught in the Machinery showed only three instances of discussion of negro, or Black people, as workers or slaves (71, 106, 148). How might this “color blindness” weaken her comparative angle? If African slavery was, in this period the central juxtaposition to “free labor” on both sides of the Atlantic, how can black workers be ignored? (How) does race matter in the development of Capitalism and discussion of risk and disability? Why/not?

    2.) Railroad unions in the 19th and early 20th centuries , neither exercising exclusive bargaining power, nor having clear government-sanctioned status until the passage of the Railway Labor Act in 1926. They operated more on the model of current-day French unions, competing for membership based on the strengths of charismatic leaders, ideology, religion, inclusion/exclusion, and organizational philosophy. Craft unions of the late 19th century were notoriously narrow in their outlook, valorizing hard work, skill, craft differentiation, and were relatively conservative politically. The white Brotherhoods examined by John Williams-Searle were fraternal orders and the most notoriously conservative of craft unions, even practicing a conciliatory approach with management.

    The American Railway Union was a short-lived industrial union led by Eugene V. Debs prior to his joining the Socialist Party. Debs envisioned the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Colony, located in Oregon, as an outlet for blacklisted and unemployed members of this union. The Knights of Labor (1869-1887) whose motto was “That is the most perfect government in which an injury to one is the concern of all” are also not considered in this article. While the union used “producer” language, it had a far better record on exclusion than the white brotherhoods, having both black and women members as well as Catholics (but excluding Asians). The K of L organized for compensation for on-the-job injury and encouraged cooperatively run workshops and cooperative stores as an alternative to working for the capitalist class. They were especially active in the Wabash Railroad Strike and the Union Pacific Strike. Arnesen discusses a number of black independent railroad unions. Might a similar study of different railroad unions of the period yield a different result?

    a. As Marx noted in the German Ideology, in every age, historical actors continue their traditional activities under completely changed circumstances and, on the other hand, modify their old circumstances with a completely changed activity. How did social expectations of employer responsibility change from the period of feudal relations to the 20th century? What can we make of the persistence of “master and servant” laws, or the logic of Commonwealth v Pullis (The Philadelphia Cordwainers’ Case of 1806)? Which aspects of earlier forms of labor relations lingered? Why? How have notions of the loyal servant morphed in the modern era?

    b. A common contemporary anti-union argument proclaims that unions had their place in the early days of brutal capitalism but are no longer necessary. Bronstein correctly points out that fewer dire accidents happen now than in the 19th century. She also mentions that in the post-Thatcher/ Reagan era, once again, “businesses are free to take risks,” putting workers’ lives and limbs on the line. Are these two truths in some ways at odds? How might a 21st century unionism fight for occupational health and safety in ways that don’t repeat the mistakes of past unions with regard to disabled workers?

    * [Karen Harvey’s recent book, The Little Republic shows that the rights of Englishmen were rooted in earlier master-servant relationship and enshrined in the everyday household practices of domestic patriarchy.]

  2. Dalton Boyd says:

    Question 1: In Greg Eghigian’s Embodied Entitlement, Eghigian discussed the creation of workman’s compensation in Germany. Did Germany’s development of workman’s compensation affect the development of workman’s compensation in other countries and were all of these countries influenced by the same factors? Did workman’s compensation during this time period apply to no visible disabilities, such as black lung or insanity due to trauma, and if not then why? Was it part of restrictions of workman’s compensation and what were the restrictions of workman’s compensation in Germany during this time period? Did workman’s compensation apply to immigrants who came and worked in industry? Why were complaints decided by judges and not juries in Germany? There seems to be no works about the history of workman’s compensation in South America. So why have historians not explore this regions development of workman’s compensation?
    Question 2: John Williams-Searle talked about Americans who were disabled by railroad work in the 1800s, how the risk of railroad working was used first as a badge of manliness, then as a badge of unmanly carelessness, before unions began to protect those who were injured on the job. Is the idea of accepting the risk of industry and work injuries during this time period related to American ideas about self-reliance and control over one’s path in life key to industry or was it more about protecting business owners? Is the idea of a job with the most risk means that the job is manlier, during this time period, apply to non industrial or civil service jobs, such as being a police officers, or did the new Victorian age idea of job manliness through carefulness apply to everyone? Why did this new Victorian age idea of job manliness appear? Was it a change in social identity or was it more about economic interests? Also, was this idea about being careful as a railroad worker had to do with the idea that society wanted to protect the “civilians” from the carelessness of the workers?
    Most interesting connection: The most interesting part about these articles and Jamie Bronstein’s book is how you can see the connection between the risk of industrialization and how workman’s compensation developed from country to country. You can see how in started in Germany as the fairest system and how it spread, and got worse, to Great Britain before arriving in America, where it was deplorable.

  3. Cory Wells says:

    The readings this week strongly demonstrate the shift in the late 19th century from the disabled as objects of study, like Laura Bridgeman before, to objects of usefulness (or uselessness). In the early part of the century, “enlightened” reformers and doctors studied the disabled individuals to get at questions of the boundaries of humanity, while in the later part of the century we see the discussion center (especially in the case of injured workers), around their perceived ability to support themselves and their families financially. How would we connect these trends into the macro-structural changes occurring in this period?

    All of the readings for this week also, to differing degrees, discuss the ways in which groups of workers, represented by various organizations, attempted to mitigate the financial consequences of work-related disability. It would be interesting to examine the origins of this through the lens of the actual insurance providers, whatever form they may have taken, as capitalist profit-driven entities. In a discussion of the relationship between capitalism and disability, how companies capitalize by insuring against disability seems like an important question.

    I will be interested in the upcoming readings to follow the idea of disability and “usefulness” based on the ability to earn a wage. It is interesting to see how disability is (it seems to me) presently defined almost solely by capitalism.

  4. Cory Wells says:

    Robert’s comments reminded me of another question I had for Bronstein- In the chapter on “Free Labor,” I was surprised she did not discuss how “free” these men really were, since actors are limited in their choices to the ones provided by the structure in which they reside. In short, how free were white male coal miners, rail workers, etc if they had no other employment opportunities other than working in extremely dangerous occupations?

  5. Lydia Towns says:

    1. Williams-Searle ends his argument by stating that “Capitalism had transformed disabled workers into useless men; the railroad brotherhoods facilitated this process by viewing their disabled members as less than men.” I have to wonder though if it should rather be stated that the railroad brotherhoods transformed disabled workers into useless men. At various points in this chapter, and in Bronstein’s book, it is pointed out that those injured on the job had been allowed to find other work within the company. This practice was ended though, by the able-bodied workers who shunned their disabled comrades. I wonder, with the rising danger of their jobs, if the able-bodied workers pushed to have disabled workers removed from the workforce because their presence was a constant reminder of the dangers of the job and of the fact that any man could become disabled at any point. By pushing to have the disabled barred from the workforce did the railroad brotherhoods then transform their disabled workers into useless men?

    2. One of the things I found most interesting in Eghigian’s piece is the idea that a physical condition does not necessitate a disability. Rather, it is the degree of work impairment the injury causes that determines if there is a disability. Because of this insurers argued that doctors could not determine the level of disability suffered. Doctors could only determine the conditions of the injured body parts and their likelihood to heal. The determination of whether or not these injuries would impede the worker’s ability to work could only be determined by those who were experts in the working conditions in question. I find it surprising and alarming that doctors would be removed from the process of determining the extent of one’s injuries and the subsequent impact on one’s ability to work. It seems like this creates the perfect scenario for corruption at the expense of the workers.

    Muddiest Point
    Throughout Eghigian’s piece there are numerous examples of individual cases being evaluated on how much limitation the injury caused to a worker and the varying degrees of pension given due to that limitation. One thing that is not apparent is whether or not the review boards ever took into consideration that the aesthetic impact of the injury might impede the worker’s ability to find work. If an injury is too visible then the injury might prevent the worker form being able to work because no one would hire him, even if he is technically able to perform the job. I wonder, did this argument ever come up?

  6. Matthew Speight says:

    1. On page 3 in the introduction, the author explains that mishaps are called “accidents.” Following that statement, the author suggests that labeling the accidents this way is mistaken. Instead, the author suggests that a normal part of production is the appearance of accidents. After reading the book and sifting through the list of “accidents”, it seems that all of these events were preventable. I am not sure what the author is getting at by challenging the term “accident.”
    2. On page 107, there is a short comment on women’s ability to achieve hero status. While the author is clear about the status of the grieving widow, I did not see evidence as to why women should have received the status of hero. Quite possibly women were deserving of this title and did not receive it, but the author (unless I missed it) did not seem to present cases where women should have received this status and did not.


    The connection for me this week ties in Caribbean Sugar plantations. These plantations were on the cutting edge of industrial production and it seems that attempting to study disability in these industrial settings would be a unique undertaking. It challenges the author’s claim in the introduction that British industries were the first to experience disability in the industrial era. There may indeed be a lack of sources, but this moves the conversation of disability in the workplace earlier than the author and traditional historiography have typically placed the conversation.

  7. Jacque Tinkler says:

    1. In “Cold Charity: Manhood, Brotherhood, and the Transformation of Disability, 1870-1900,” Williams-Searle traces the development of the attitude of railroad workers toward fellow workers suffering work place injuries, understood within the context of the workers’ self image as well as their awareness of their own vulnerability. Tantamount to their concept of manhood was a man’s ability to control his financial situation and provide for himself and his family. However, there remained the troubling question of how to provide for men who fell victim to disabling workplace accidents through no fault of their own. In 1890, residential care was considered as a last resort for disabled workers who had neither family not friends to care for them. Discuss the reasoning that supported this solution as well as that which opposed it.
    2. In the chapter from Making Security Social, Eghigian describes the very different system which existed in Germany at the end of the 19th century until the first World War. this government-run workers’ compensation system was basically an adversarial system based on the court cases disabled workers brought which appealed the judgments of lower decision making bodies. Policies were defined and developed through court proceedings by the combined efforts of employers, employees, legal advisors, physicians, expert witnesses, and judges. Discuss the criteria used by these courts which often served as the basis of their decisions.

    Muddiest Point: In Caught In the Machinery, Jamie Bronstein discusses the frequency of workplace injuries and death in the 19th century as employers and employees work out issues of legal and moral responsibility. Much is made of the idea of “free agency” as a source of pride for workers, one which they were not willing to surrender. Bronstein describes the various ways employers used the free agency doctrine to their advantage, ignoring safety concerns and avoiding compensating injured workers. However, I kept wondering what was in this for the workers–why were they willing to subscribe to the doctrine. Bronstein shows that workers were very aware of the dangers inherent in their jobs, and concerned with the consequences for their families as well as for themselves, if they were to be injured or killed on the job. As rational adults, why did it take these workers two generations to realize the myth of being free agents was not working to their benefit?

  8. Michael Deliz says:

    1) In Diana Obregon’s Leprosy and Power in Colombia, the efforts to establish an institute of national medicine and the development of internal strategies to address leprosy happen in parallel to a Catholic missionary system that provides direct aid to those afflicted. The article however does not delve into the Christian perspective of aid but to place it within a fundraising apparatus where the lepers become objects of public pity for the sake of alms. However, Obregon does not separate the Church as a political institution, aligned with the conservative political right, from the actions of its mendicant clergy in the lazarettos, the day to day interactions between lepers and members of religious orders like the Sisters of Charity may in fact explain why the government specifically under the control of the Colombia’s Party of Order may have struggled to keep the lazarettos in seclusion. It is not hard to imagine members of the Sisters of Charity acting in a dual role of representing the Church while undermining its political project. Given that a strong tradition of clerical liberal radicalism preceeds the period and is followed by a gradual shift toward what is termed Liberation Theology in the 1950s, the role of the missionaries cannot be simply flattened to that of blind adherence to the Church. Nevertheless the thesis of Obregon’s article stands well argued, that in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century lepers in Colombia provided a pivot for the contestation of control and power.

    2) In Cold Charity, John Williams-Searle explores the problem that disability presented to the skilled trainsmen brotherhoods and the recursive cycle of cause that effect that served to simultaneously care for the disabled and equally undermine their status and agency within the workplace and society. Important to the analysis is the definition of “manhood,” or more specifically “manliness,” which is discussed as a socio-cultural bias that acted to regulate both the reaction to disability and its care in the face of a developing infrastucture of worker insurance and disability compensation. The result was the gradual ‘disabling’ of workers and their subsequent queering under a stricture of manliness that defined itself by ablebodyness and independence. By extension, Williams-Searle also shows that as disabled bodies, rather than as workers, the disabled become pawns (lacking agency) in the self-interested politicking of both labor and capital. Though gender and disability are used as categories of analysis, race does not enter this analysis, which makes me wonder whether a disabled black worker would have been considered the same as a white disabled worker in the eyes of the brotherhoods and whether the definitions of manhood themselves were racially constructed as well. I’m left wondering.

    3) In Bronstein’s Caught in the Machinery, the history of British workplace safety, accidents, and aid for the injured, is contextualized culturally and ideologically as social problems that require government intervention. However, the comparative to US developments, even with the known transnational cultural and intellectual connections, feels overdone. Industrial development was hardly simultaneous, nor comparable until late inthe nineteenth century (along with urbanization). Nevertheless the argument that reform of the workplace and aid for the injured were constructed socially as policy emerging from communal poor laws to a tort based system of litigation toward the modern employer based liability, provides a clear evolution in the dialogue between labor and capital in the social milieu. Would this work be better described as legal history ?

  9. Jacob Jones says:

    Up to this point we have seen the state and medicine as the fundamental designators of disability. Here we see the influences of capitalist business and industry on the conversation. To continue on Cory’s line of thought, how did this lack of freedom contribute to the transformation of impairment into disability in Searle’s account. It is shown that workers changed their stance on workplace injuries, but to what extent was this a reaction to employer preference for non injured workers. Were they taking advantage of an opportunity in a restricted job market and thus assisting industrial capitalists in creating disabled categories?

    Searle makes the argument a gendered point by outlining the notions of manliness in reference to independence. Eghigian sheds light on a similar issue but addresses it as respectability. Are gendered notions of manhood in relation to family support applicable in the German case and is social respectability applicable in the American case? Are these arguments a part of the same social strains placed on the worker in need of assistance?

    Muddy Point-Searle labels the transformation in ideology of injured workers by able bodied workers as collusion, implying an active cooperation between them and the employers in an overt attempt to disenfranchise their disabled brethren. I do not feel he makes a case for this argument though I may have missed some evidence.

  10. Bryan Garrett says:

    I am struck by two comments (by Robert and Matthew) that reflect conversations that have consistently surfaced over the past two weeks. It did not stand out to me at first, but after reading Robert’s comment on the invisible status of race in these readings, this exclusion seems a significant gap in this week’s readings. I can understand the reasons why Matthew insists that an examination of slavery and disability could provide a window into understanding this issue. Eghigian concludes his article by emphasizing the shift in how German culture defined disability from a religious social phenomenon to mechanical one. The Prussian bureaucracy eventually settled on deconstructing the individual into component parts to determine eligibility for social insurance. The author suggests that this transition reflected societal tendencies to consider labor and productivity in that bodies were conceived of more as laboring machines than as productions in the image of God. Would it be worth exploring the etymology of the “factory,” from its early modern barracoon period on the coasts of Africa to its formalization among late-nineteenth century industrial societies? Does Joseph Inikori write about this? I don’t recall.

    It is interesting to see how Williams-Searle intersects gender and disability from the vantage point of masculinity. Many of the authors we have covered consistently link gender and disability. Like some other responders here, I am left wondering more about how the chapter excludes issues of masculinity rather than what the author includes. I am convinced of his stance, but would have found it useful if he had also considered the issue of homosexuality (or perceived homosexual activity, much as the author notes drunkenness as disability) within railroad worker organizations and clubs. Did this influence the ways the workers responded to their disable brothers? It’s a niche argument, I realize that, but scholars have begun to confront that issue as a pressing social anxiety.

  11. Christopher Malmberg says:

    In Greg Eghigian’s book titled “Making Security Social” he argues that the development of social insurance created out modern idea of disability. While his article does a great job arguing this I found myself wondering about individuals disabled from birth or at least before working age in connection with honor. Eghigian points out that many individuals brought their cases before the social insurance court in order to get their disability recognized as legitimate as well as in connection with their work. He argues that individuals did this in order to save their respectability. With this change in thinking, did it also mean that those disabled before working age could never achieve respectability and honor in their community? I would have liked to see some discussion of how this dramatic shift in perceptions of disability and honor affected the disabled population that became disabled outside of the workplace, especially those born with an impairment.

    Seale makes an interesting comment about virtue and risk, “Railroaders in the 1870s believed that superior moral virtue, including courage, foresight, and bodily skill, defined independent manhood. They felt that men who made careful plans (fiscal and otherwise) mitigated dangers to themselves and their families. Railroaders scorned men who failed to take out insurance or who acted carelessly in the face of danger”. How did this connection with risk and virtue come about? How did disabled individuals that were injured due to “risky” behavior get treated in comparison with those that got injured due to day to day work activity? How did ideas about risk and disability play out during war time? This way of thinking seems to add to beliefs about “legitimate” versus non-legitimate disability.

    It seems that throughout the semester a theme of usefulness in connection with disability continues to show itself. I am interested in how this will develop in future readings in connection with labor and work.

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