The Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 is among the most significant chapters in U.S. labor relations history. Homestead, Pennsylvania is just south of Pittsburgh, on the west bank of the Monongahela River. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) owned the prosperous steel mill there. Some of its workers were highly skilled and belonged to a craft union, Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. Carnegie was determined to break this union. He cut wages. Knowing there would be trouble, he enlisted the Pinkerton Detective Agency to assist him. At that time Pinkerton employed more agents than the U.S. Army had soldiers. The 1892 event resembled a naval siege; the union was eventually broken.
The juxtaposition of Carnegie’s pamphlet and his management of Homestead Steel “made explicit” to critics “the inconsistency of Carnegie’s position,” Kolbert writes. “How could a person ruthlessly exploit his employees and, at the same time, claim to be a benefactor of the toiling masses?” Why, for example, didn’t Carnegie endow a pension fund for his employees?
Carnegie was not alone. When it comes to charity, most companies and foundations in our country are guided by the so-called Protestant business ethic. Deserving individuals or the public at large are assisted by targeted programs or enrichment venues. However, the programs never challenge the system and the benefactors never question “too deeply how it is they came to do so well,” Kolbert concludes.
The attitude of 19th and 20th century industrial titans parallels that of our 21st century tech titans and their admirers. The big tech players today—the founders, the original investors and the elite engineers—are technology determinists. As Evgeny Morozov puts it in To Save Everything Click Here (Perseus Books, 2013), each and every application of technology is “inherently good in itself, regardless of its social or political consequences.” In fact, if someone notices a social problem, then its solution is more technology. Homelessness, to give an extreme example, is tolerable with an app that makes streets feel like home. Or as a Google executive said: If you want to solve economic problems, create more entrepreneurs.
Central to the philosophy of the tech leaders is their belief that they are doing something for the greater good, both in their business ventures and in their philanthropic enterprises. Some of them are sincere. Their frame of reference from high school to their current position never included concepts like structural evil or the priority of labor or even an obligation to the common good (which is not the same as calculation of a common denominator).
The big stage for tech philanthropy is the conference circuit. Events are held on Cape Cod, in Silicon Valley, in Colorado, often in Manhattan, maybe in Switzerland or France. Headliners often include Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and movie starlets. They are joined by guests who have a startup project in Los Angeles or Africa. These events are low on content, high on puff, says Giridharadas. Key phrases include incredible, amazing, awe-inspiring, empowering and the like.
The leaders of big tech companies want to do good, they say. But they never challenge power arrangements in our society. All of this, I suppose, is too much of a moral burden to place on someone who simply hails an Uber ride or orders through Amazon. But today’s tech industry is far from morally neutral and it warrants moral consideration. To be continued…
Droel edits a printed newsletter about faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).