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on March 26, 2012
The Italian sociologist Marco d'Eramo's wide-focused "The Pig and the Skyscraper" is a particular kind of history book. If you're looking for a history book about Chicago's culture, the details of its political history, or its artistic influence, this book is definitely not what you're looking for. D'Eramo's subject is not Chicago itself, but the socio-economic transformation that unraveled within Chicago between its explosive growth from a French fur trader's outpost to the most industrialized city on the planet. The author's primary focus is on the history of economic development in Chicago, the economic interplay between town and country, and the ways in which these had concrete effects on both the lives of Chicago's citizens, and the lives of the countless global cities who developed according to the American-industrial model first carried out in 19th-20th century Chicago.
D'Eramo, as he himself often points out, is an outsider to Chicago. Although he lived in Chicago for several years in the 1990s (this book was originally published in 1995), the city clearly fascinates him, and he obviously tries to make up for his lack of personal experience through the sheer breadth of historical material he draws from. Ultimately, this leads to some weaknesses in various sections of the book, but I'll touch on that later.
"The Pig and the Skyscraper" has one loose thesis: That Chicago, more than any other city in the Western world, influenced the development of the capitalist city. His method is mainly dialectical-materialist, meaning that he interprets Chicago's history within a framework that examines the interplay between economic development, politics, and culture, with a broad examination of demographics, city government, and the class tension. Although the dialectical-materialist approach is definitely the most consistent approach visible within "The Pig and the Skyscraper," d'Eramo also speculates on the connections between American religion, consumerism, and democratic politics. Although he has some interesting things to say on these subjects, he often drifts off into pure speculation, and d'Eramo's strengths as a scholar are far more evident when he sticks to socio-economic subjects. D'Eramo doesn't pin Chicago's influence on any one single aspect of its development, but rather continually touches on several key characteristics of the city's history.
The most unique characteristic one finds in the history of Chicago is that it is a city that has been steeped in pure industrial capitalism since its inception. No other city, neither in Europe nor the Atlantic Coast, was ever built for industry, by industry, and governed by the demands of industry so thoroughly as Chicago was in the 19th century. Logging, railways, pig slaughtering, steelworking, and shipping: Virtually all of Chicago's endless waves of immigrants have come to this city specifically to search for jobs in one of these industries. Although this sounds like nothing special to us in our own time, Chicago was a city of pure motion, unprecedented and incomparable. Not even New York ever had capitalistic logic sink so deep into its character as Chicago did. In one sense, the city lived up to Marx's famous saying about modernity, "all that is solid melts into air." Neighborhoods could be created out of nothing in one year, and have their habitants entirely switched out within a decade. Industries could come and go in the snap of a finger. Neighborhoods that were rich less than a generation ago can descend into slum-status. However, these very same social forces also created forms of oppression and economic control that had only been incipient up until that point in history. Railroad companies didn't simply run trains, they also controlled time itself. They determined when goods moved, how they moved, and who got them, and used this power to coerce society in its entirety into their industrial rhythms. Chicago's development wasn't simply the development of Chicago itself, but also represented the creation of the entire Midwest as we know it. Industrialized farming, the strict standardization of agricultural output, and the commodification of the soil itself were all carried out by Chicago's seats of economic power, and yet these developments determined the environmental and agricultural fate of the entire Midwest, perhaps even the U.S. as a whole. Real Estate as the commodification and jobbing of space itself also came into its own in Chicago. In all previous cities in world history, the spaces in which people lived, worked, and enjoyed themselves were rock-solid institutions, and the areas in cities in which these activities were carried out were usually one in the same. In Chicago though, masses of small, crummy housing plots were built with the assumption that they would be demolished or switched out within a few decades. The first assumption was that people moved according to the whims of their wage-labor jobs, thereby conforming the entirety of their lives to the wage-labor system (in more corporate PC terminology, you could say that they lost the distinction between their lives and their careers).
I don't mean to give the impression that D'Eramo's story of Chicago is just a dry retelling of economic facts. In fact, the book is incredibly engaging, sometimes even poetic, primarily because the author demonstrates how these socio-economic developments helped determine the cultural experience of modernity as well. Chicagoans like to brag about the interesting nature of its ethnic communities: That they're tight-knit, distinct, and demiworlds in their own right. D'Eramo though, points out that there's a dark side to this ethnic history, which native hagiographers of Chicago tend to leave out. Chicago's ethnic divides were the product of the brutal, dog-eat-dog competition that workers were subjected to by the Chicagoan industrialists and political elite. Nobody in Poland hated Irishmen, and nobody in Germany hated blacks. However, upon their arrival in the U.S., different ethnic groups were pitted against each other for a battle of survival. Czechs hated Swedes, Poles, and Germans (ethnic groups made their racism blatantly clear in their native-language newspapers) because Czechs wanted to make sure as many political positions and jobs were filled by Czechs as possible, and a headache-inducing web of mutual hostilities arose out of this economic competition. Stereotypes with no root in the "home countries" were invented in the city of Chicago. At the same time, whether consciously or not, Chicago's ethnic whites incorporated Chicago's extreme pro-capitalist culture into their very worldview, with the logic going along these lines: If Irishwomen were prone to working as maids, it must be because the Irish are servile by nature, otherwise, they wouldn't fall into those jobs within a free labor market. Lithuanians must be stupid by nature, because they were generally less educated than other ethnic groups, and since the U.S. is a land of opportunity, they have only themselves to blame. Next to all of these countless hateful stereotypes were Chicago's black residents, who in a strange way, never experienced the privilege of taking part in this game. Black folks were seen as hopeless, and white Chicagoans, from the very first waves of black migration, tended to react violently to the growth of black neighborhoods. Firebombings, beatings, and rioting were common reactions to the black presence in Chicago.
Despite the extremely reactionary and pro-capitalist strain in Chicagoan culture, Chicago was, for a time, also host to the strongest left-wing tendencies in U.S. culture. In fact, up until WW1, Chicago was demonized by other Americans as a hotbed of anarchism and socialism. Within Chicago, the birth, rise, and violent defeat of the U.S. left played itself out. Truly left-wing currents in American politics, from Eugene V. Debs' socialist activism to the syndicalist Knights of Labor were poised in the Gilded Age to rise to prominence within working-class culture. However, the working-class left wasn't simply opposed by big capitalists. In fact, the Knights of Labor were single-handedly destroyed not by Pullman or some other Chicago capitalist, but were only destroyed thanks to the help of the pro-segregation, pro-imperialist, and reactionary American Federation of Labor during the Pullman strike. In tandem with violent attacks against demonstrators by police and private Pinkerton groups, the American left's moment of triumph was crushed beneath the boot heels of the American fear of ethnic "mixing" and glamorization of class privilege.
In the latter sections of the book, d'Eramo touches on Chicago's racial marginalization, extreme segregation, the history of black power movements, and the social-scientific worldviews developed at the University of Chicago. The section on the University of Chicago's school of "sociological positivism" and the more modern school of Law and Economics shows the reader how various American chauvinisms worked their way into the scholarship of the U.S.'s best and brightest. In these highly influential schools of thought, d'Eramo identifies a constant, unchallenged belief that unregulated capitalism represented the laws of nature, that economic realities were primarily created by the cultural values of various ethnic groups, and that a socio-economic food chain was an desirable aspect of society. He discusses the ways in which reality diverged from these schools of thought, and the intellectual ruts these philosophies created within American academia.
I could go on and on in describing d'Eramo's fascinating histories of various currents in Chicago history. If I were to describe them all, this already far-too-lengthy review would have to be twice as long. Needless to say, one walks away from this book with a better "picture" of Chicago's history- not a specific point, or a well-defined thesis, but a picture. Unfortunately, the text is riddled with typographical errors, probably the result of both sloppy editing and the fact that this was a short-run publication of a translated text. Sometimes, d'Eramo makes certain assertions about "Chicagoans" such as "if you're in Chicago, you'll often hear Chicagoans say X," or, "in Chicago, it's common for people to do Y." I found a lot of these to be gross exaggerations, and in tandem with d'Eramo's often purple prose, they can get obnoxious at times. Overall, I'd recommend this book to anyone. If you're interested in American history, not just Chicagoan history, this book is a must-read, and serves as an alternative perspective to the romantic "Savage Indian in the Wilderness" image of Chicago's development taught in American schools. However, as I stated in the beginning, the downside is that this isn't a useful book if you're trying to "get to know" Chicago in a more cultural sense. I sometimes flinched at d'Eramo's harsh assessments of Chicago's violent, money-worshipping and racist aspects, and was tempted to think at times that he was being too harsh, or painting too dark a picture. However, any history of Chicago that focuses on socio-economic development is necessarily going to be a downer in a lot of parts, and d'Eramo deserves nothing but praise for showing the reader a powerful critique of modernity while simultaneously paying homage to the weird, twisted, and exciting history of the most American city in America.