The Economic Structure of Matewan
The film Matewan, written and directed by John Sayles, depicts the small rural townof 1920's Mingo County, West Virginia as a society undergoing complete social unrest, a result of clashing ideals and economic systems. The film is an illustration of how different social systems come to be so intertwined that they cannot be defined independently of one another. Unfortunately for the people of Matewan, the feudalistic economic system imposed on them by the Stone Mountain Coal Company has come to dominate every facet of their existence, including their political system, their cultural identities, and even the environment in which they live. In order to try and take back control of their lives, the citizens of Matewan look to break free of the feudal system that binds them to the company and introduce the freedoms of capitalism into their social vocabulary.
In order to understand the unrest created and represented in Matewan, one must first understand the inherent differences of the two economic systems on dispaly in the film. An economic system is defined and can be understood through a series of questions that attempt to determine the relationships surrounding the production, distribution, and control over resources. These queries include: How do you gain access to materials useful inproduction? How do you get people to perform labor? How is the labor and production controlled and monitored? How do you get the products to the consumer? And finally, who gets the surplus? In feudalistic economic society, a worker has the freedom to choose to work, but he does not have a choice in who he works for. (As a result, he may be forced to work out of the basic human need to survive). A capitalistic economic society offers the worker not only the freedom to choose to work or not work, but also the freedom to choose his employer. The citiznes of the Matewan mining community were told that they were living in a democratic and therefore capitalist economic society, but their experience in the town burdened them with a much different realiy.
While we may not thinkof feudalism as an economic system that survived much past Medieval times, the reality of the social situation in Matewan during the 1920's can lead us to no other conclusion than that feudalism was able to hold its grip on a much more contemporary society. In Matewan, the Stone Mountain Coal Company ruled supreme, creating what is known as a monopoly. They owned everything in the county; the only source of employment, the houses, the land, even the currency, known as company scrip, which citizens used to purchase items in the only store in town- the company store. The citizens of Matewan were drawn to work for the Stone Mountain Coal Company because of the promises that were made to them: housing, decent employment with the possibilityof job advancement, and a decent community in which to live. We see these promises in action as...