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Newton, Amana and the Hidden History of American Socialism

Last night, NPR Weekend Edition ran an economic story about the economic development of two communities in Iowa. Newton, Iowa was the home of Maytag appliances. Amana – as the story told it, was the home of the Amana appliance company. NPR reported how as times have gotten tough for the appliance manufacturers, some people in the area have turned to the idea that renewable energy industries might be a good replacement.

As I listened, however, I knew that the NPR reporters were missing an important part of the story. I knew that because I lived for about 5 years near both communities, and I know something of their stories. When it came to Newton, NPR got it mostly right. On Amana, however, NPR left out a chunk of the story so huge, and so prominent, that it seems like an intentional omission – an effort to retell a more simple, and palatable, story.

First of all, the Amana appliance company wasn’t based in Amana so much as it was based in the Amana Colonies. The Amana colonies are seven villages, not just one. They were settled by an anabaptist sect of German-speaking people who established their communities according to a communal model. The Amana company may have ended up as a standard capitalist corporation, but it started out as a socialist, community-owned-and-operated organization.

I don’t want to go the way of NPR, and simplify the story too much, but the fact is that the Amana company was hugely successful under the socialist model, and ended up diminishing under a capitalist operating framework.

Why did the NPR story not mention this important economic background to the story? It would be difficult for any serious journalist visiting and writing a story about the Amanas to fail to discover the communal foundation of the Amana company and the community in general.

The Weekend Edition story did mention that the people in the Amanas were suffering less than the residents of Newton, because the Amanas have a strong tourism industry. Yet, the reporter didn’t say why that tourism industry is strong in the Amanas. Tourism to the Amanas is strong because the Amana Colonies have a distinctive cultural heritage, ethnically and socially, due to the villages’ communal history.

Someone listening to the NPR story about Newton and Amana in Iowa wouldn’t know about this important difference between the communities, and wouldn’t understand an essential part of economic conditions resulting from the communities’ very different histories.

I can’t help but think that NPR wasn’t just failing to report on an aspect of the economic past in America – but was failing to discuss an option for America’s economic future as well.

2 comments to Newton, Amana and the Hidden History of American Socialism

  • allen carstensen

    jclifford must’ve been reading karl marx. is that a bad thing?

    consider that washington could buy a controlling interest in GM for relative peanuts, then give the shares to the GM workers, they could then call a shareholders meeting and hire a new board of directors, and set their own wages and benefits.

    makes a lot of sense doesn’t it. but it’s out of the question. imagine the outcry SOCIALIST!

  • Ralph

    A lot of things make sense until you slap a scare word like “socialist” onto them.

    Would it make sense to demand that banks, automakers, and whoever’s next in line act in the public interest in return for government support?

    Of course.

    Unless you call it “socialism,” in which case corporate CEOs flying their private jets into Washington hat in hand to beg for hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars of taxpayer cash to piss away with no accountability doing the same stupid crap that got us into this mess in the first place is really a much better idea.

    Because, you know, “socialism” doesn’t work.

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