Capital and Labor in Emile Zola’s “Germinal”

New energy has been given to the progressive movement in the United States: fights for affordable education, healthcare access, a higher minimum wage and guaranteed benefits seek to close the widening gap between rich and poor.

The fault lines between economic classes in 2016 were enormous chasms during the late 19th century. In his novel Germinal, French writer Emile Zola exposed the pain and deprivation of coal miners in the fictional mine of Voreux. The unnamed “Company” slashes wages in the wake of falling coal prices, prompting the miners to begin a months-long strike. Would the Company’s cash reserves outlast the miner’s food and savings? Who will blink first?

Through a tête-à-tête between labor and capital, miner and coal, Zola’s characters feel the limits of working-class organizing and the unmovable iron of the political and economic status quo.

On the side of organized labor, the protagonist Etienne struggles to hold together striking miners buffeted by forces within and without which would break the strike. Etienne’s dream of a Provident Fund to act as an insurance policy against lost wages during a strike never comes together. He is dragged down by the competing interests and self-interest of his fellow miners:

The threadbare lives of the miners, decimated by the strike, turned some of them to crime. Hungry children steal the homes of middle-class townspeople, taking food and animals. Separated from their families, school and work, the children form gangs and turn to violence as the strike wears on.

Chauvinism distracts other striking miners. Dominant men, like the character Chaval, see the strike as an opportunity for settling scores with their rivals and exploiting vulnerable women. The inverse case of mob rule threatens the objectives of strikers, as the flaming passions of the hungry and restless push them into a desire for blood.

With the heat of direct action comes the political opportunism of labor leaders. Etienne, in leading the strike, invites his acquaintance from the global workers’ movement to inspire the miners and solicit donations for the cause. Yet very little money makes it back to the desperate miners of Voreux. Ideological conflicts with anarchists lead to the ultimate…bombshell…that finally ends the strike.

The odds are always stacked against Zola’s miners. This feeling of inevitable failure buoys the owners, operators and shareholders of the regional coal mines, who dine in opulent homes just miles from the huddled masses. In the first of many climactic moments, a mob of angry colliers descends on the mine owner’s estate during a dinner party. Improbably, party guests pass through the mob with complete indifference.

Owners, operators and shareholders do give alms to the miners, providing the barest of salves for the wounds of falling wages and the consequences of the strike. The middle and upper classes also struggle to wrest control of local institutions such as the Catholic Church, ousting a priest who began to preach Social Gospel to the miners.

In Germinal, workers languish and the economy falters. Miners and coal are chained together, fates intertwined in the dark, dirty bowels of the Gilded Age.

The very earth shakes from their economic struggle, reverberating for those who will feel it today.

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