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Carl Cowl

“Hoover Cities” – An American Idyll of 1932

(August 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 35 (Whole No. 131), 27 August 1932, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Every industrial city in the United States today has its “Hooverville”. Patriotic citizens consider them blights and attempt to disperse them or to cover them up. In each city, provided you look, you will find them ... under bridges, on vacant dumps, near garbage plants ...

In St. Louis, for example, there are several under the great Mississippi span. In Chicago, they are scattered, usually on condemned city property; Akron and Cleveland have theirs on the outskirts; Minneapolis on the river “cliffs”. And so on.

They are standing condemnations of the capitalist system, and it is not surprising that social workers and lackeys of big business studiously avoid this aspect of human degradation. For that reason serious students of American conditions should analyse this phenomenon from the standpoint of a decreased eruption on the surface of capitalist economy.

On first observation, they appear to be glorified “jungles”, spots – every town in the country has them – where migratory workers hide improvised cooking equipment. Closer inspection reveals a totally different purpose and mood. The jungle spirit is carefree, transient, on the go; here, however, you find the haggard, despairing psychology of men driven to the last extreme, their spirits at the breaking point.

What Capitalism Has In Store for Us

If the readers of The Militant would really like to see a typical American “Hooverville”, if they are not already in one – let them go down to Youngstown, in the heart of America’s steel industry. There, on the 5 or 6 acres behind the municipal incinerator plant, they will see in brutal outline, the squalor and destitution resulting from the capitalist mode of production. Here is a picture of what capitalism has in store for us when we are no longer necessary for profit making.

Upward of 1,000 shacks, huts or shelters hastily constructed from radio containers, boxes, crates, etc., some just large enough for a man to crawl into out of the weather, some buried in holes in the ground, on property that has for years been the dumping ground of filth, are the homes of several hundred men, who, having spent the best years of their lives in the steel mills and coal mines of Ohio and Pennsylvania, are now literally thrown on the garbage heap to starve, or – to claw over the miserable refuse collected each morning by the City Sanitary Department. You will not believe it till you see it. Restaurant cast-offs make the choicest morsels. The alternative is the notorious “soup line.” The men prefer to mull over garbage than to expose themselves to the miserable soup. It is almost impossible to beg food in Youngstown because of the large numbers of the hungry.

The writer personally interviewed a number of these men. It was easy to see that they are not of the hobo type. Their calloused hands and powerful frames are not characteristic of the lumpenproletariat. They are men who have spent 10, 20 and 30 years of their lives in the steel mills, in the coal mines, in the rubber mills of Akron and on the Great Lakes traffic. They are men who have learned the industry from the bottom. They know steel, how it is made, how coal is mined, all about rubber, railroads, shipping. Step by step the ruthless Plutocracy of Steel has crushed them with the brutal club of starvation and exposure. Recently they built a sign over the huts with this legend: HOOVER CITY. The local bourgeoisie considered this a dangerous affront to their rule. And rightly so. They swooped down on them with a threat that they would be driven off even this property, and they demonstratively destroyed the sign.


The Steel industry is shot to hell. Never operating at more than 85% of capacity at the peak of prosperity, it now functions at 10%. or less. In Youngstown, the Brier Hills Mills, subdivision of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube, consisting of two blast and 12 open hearth furnaces, closed down completely in April. Carnegie steel has been working two to four days a week since 1929 and closed down June 24th for good. Only the Republic Steel seems to be able to eke out one or two days a week, and that only in some departments. Others are closed down completely.

Less than 15% of the workers in the entire steel industry are now employed. Those still working part time have been cut 10% in October 1931 and again 15% on May 15 of this year As if that were not enough, the vicious “deductions’’’ system assails every pay envelope. These are taken out of the workers’ wages without his consent. First, Life Insurance (only for period of employment, on the “group” basis); then, Community Chest (”make the workers pay their own damn relief!”); then, Unemployment Relief (which means nothing to those permanently laid off). It is therefore not uncommon to see pay envelopes of 50c and 75c for the week. This will serve to indicate how near to “Hoover City” even the employed workers are.

It would seem as though there is absolutely no way of housing these unemployed workers except in crates and filth. It would seem as though the housing problem is insoluble. Still there are more empty houses and buildings in Youngstown today than there have ever been in its entire history. Those that are occupied hardly yield rent. Large sections of the population have simply ceased paying rent. Landlords encourage the better class of tenants to remain or to move in on the prospect of future rent – or at least to protect the property from vandalism done to plumbing and fixtures. Most of the buildings have fallen into the hands of the bankers, who can’t take care of their property themselves. Only under capitalism is the housing problem insoluble.

In the poorer sections, evictions go on apace. Gas and electricity are promptly shut off. City water was cut off to 4,000 families in the middle of June. Of the 50,000 workers in the city of Youngstown, approximately 42,000 are on the relief list and these have been officially warned by the city fathers that there will be no more relief after July. Will these workers be cast into “Hoover City”? Can’t the bankers, bloated with wealth, see the handwriting on the wall, the spectre of Communism embracing these destitute workers? Will they not understand that this misery marks the decay of capitalism an the end of their system?

The Creed of Capitalism

I think not. As a class they are too selfish, too stupid. Engels has magnificently described their attitude in his Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844. He says:

I have never seen a class so deeply demoralized, so incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, so incapable of progress, as the English bourgeoisie ... For it nothing exists in the world, except for the sake of money, itself not excluded. It knows no bliss save that of rapid gain, no pain save that of losing gold. In the presence of this avarice and lust of gain it is not possible for a single human sentiment or opinion to remain untainted ... It is utterly indifferent to the bourgeois whether his workingmen starve or not, if only he makes money. All the conditions of life are measured by money, mid what brings no money is nonsense, impractical, idealistic bosh. Hence, political Economy, the Science of Wealth, is the favorite study of these bartering Jews. The relation of the manufacturer to his operatives has nothing human in it ... He could reach his highest perfection in a wholly ungoverned anarchic society where each might exploit the other to his heart’s content. Since, however, the bourgeoisie cannot dispense with government, but must have it to hold the equally indispensable proletariat in check, it turns the power of government against the proletariat and keeps out of its way as far as possible.”

The class interests of the bourgeoisie are identical the world over, and this description is particularly applicable to the American ruling class. One can find no better characterization of the capitalist attitude towards relief and charity than the following remarks of Engels in the same book:

Philanthropic institutions, forsooth: As though you rendered the proletarians a service, first sucking out their very life blood and then practising your self-complacent, Pharisaic philanthropy upon them, placing yourselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when you give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them!”

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