Society and Politics

Bottomless Superficialities, Aristocracies of Wealth


Steve Fraser

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today still makes for hilarious reading (at least the parts written by Mark Twain; not so much those by his co-author, Charles Dudley Warner). No wonder it was a bestseller (Twain’s first) and a Broadway smash that toured the country. Few read it today. (If only Twain had tweaked the sub-title to read A Tale of Today and Tomorrow). But the title has endured.

If you think about it though, the title is, strictly speaking, wrong or inapt for what the novel describes or what we take it to mean nowadays. Shakespeare’s “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,” is intended, it’s true, to suggest excess or superfluity. But the gilding is superfluous because what lies beneath is already beautiful. Twain’s world, however, is by no means beautiful. He uses “gilded” to suggest that something ugly is being covered up. When we use the term to describe the last four decades or so, we have pretty much the same thing in mind. “Gilded” in this case means false and hypocritical, a camouflage for something shameful.

What are now commonly referred to as the original and the second Gilded Ages are alike, yet different. Faulkner’s adage that the past is not dead, that it’s not even past, suggests continuity. Harold Pinter, on the other hand, wrote that the past is a strange country, that they do things differently there (borrowing that phrase from a novel). It alerts us to the possibility that the two gilded ages are perhaps incommensurate.

Certainly, we can all compile a list of how they differ: in the relative economic throw-weight of industry and finance; in the impact and purpose of state intervention into public affairs; in the nature and degree of resistance to gilded elites; in the way those elites responded to resistance; in the omnipresence and then virtual erasure of agrarian America; in the composition of their political classes; in attitudes about work, play, and debt; in the sources of poverty and how to make it go away; in their ideological rationales; in the make-up of their social hierarchies; in their successes and failures at reforms; in the geo-political and geo-economic position of the United States in the world, and so on. All this and more to be explored here. I have a few other thoughts about what distinguishes the two ages which I’ll aso get to.

But I want to begin with some telegraphic comments (they might be likened to tweets) about what we probably can all agree marks and disfigures both periods. First of all there is what Henry James (albeit referring to the French) called the “bottomless superficiality” of the plutocracy’s cultural pretensions and exhibitionism, the way it clears a path running straight from “barbarism to decadence” without a stopover at civilization, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s mordant observation about America.

Then there is the economic pornography of numbers: From the inexhaustible data-bank of inequality I choose these two: the richest 26 billionaires have as much money as the 3.6 billion poorest people on the planet. The three wealthiest Americans own more than the bottom 160 million. Here we have outdone our ancestors, though we’re still playing in the same league.

Twain’s novel is really about the collusion between commercial predators and politicians on the make and take. It can be matched almost scandal for scandal with the “swamp” that for decades has enveloped Washington as well as the hinterland. For Twain and for us what seemed and still seems lamentable is not merely “crony capitalism” but the betrayal of democracy.

Likewise, the Jesuitical arts of self-justification echo across the century separating the two gilded ages; yesterday social Darwinism, today meritocracy, “Acres of Diamonds” theology back then, the “Prosperity Gospel” now. They make appalling social injustice seem right, natural, even foreordained.

Gilded evokes an image of a debased aristocracy – what our ancestors called a “shoddy” or “chip chop aristocracy” and what today we sometimes refer to as “the new tycoonery.” It presides over a society of the socially unconscious. William Graham Sumner, the principal exponent of social Darwinism in late 19th century America, put it succinctly in his book What Social Classes Owe Each Other?, answering bluntly, “Nothing.” Wilbur Ross would sign on to that. President Grover Cleveland anticipated President Ronald Reagan when he pronounced in 1889 that, “The lessons of paternalism might be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include support of the people.”

All of this and more makes us feel an unwelcome kinship with that “strange country” of yesteryear. Now, however, I’d like to make a few equally abbreviated tweet-like observations (maybe half-baked) meant to suggest both differences yet underlying continuities.

Can capitalism tolerate democracy? Do dreams of equality go to die where capitalism flourishes? Robber baron America and our America of the 1% both compel that question. Capitalism both invites and undermines democracy and equality. The free market depends on a certain kind of economic opening up and thereby works to widen the political universe. And in practically the same breath it shuts things down. As Henry Demarest Lloyd, among the most trenchant critics of the original Gilded Age put it, “liberty creates wealth and that wealth destroys liberty.” This dilemma runs like a third rail through both gilded ages.

However, the responses to that dilemma were different. Democracy declared war on capitalism during the first gilded age. In the second Democracy seeks a compromise.

Lloyd’s most famous book was Wealth Against Commonwealth. That title made the point: Capitalism had bred an aristocracy of wealth, an aristocracy that sought to undo the great democratic accomplishments of the Revolution. In political terms Lloyd depicted counter-revolution.That notion would echo for decades in references to “economic royalists” and “tories of industry.”

Lloyd belonged to a broad anti-capitalist culture that embraced intellectuals and journalists like himself, academics, clergymen, literary and visual artists, and of course the great mass movements of that era: the Knights of Labor, the People’s or Populist Party, farmer alliances, numerous local and state Greenback-Labor parties, the anti-trust movement, the Social Gospel, the cooperative movement, the Socialist Party of Debs, the syndicalist workers of Big Bill Haywood’s IWW, and the legions lining up to hear Emma Goldman. And then there were those mass strikes and bloody confrontations that lit up the industrial landscape of Twain’s gilded age. For these multitudes if the Revolution’s promise of equality was to be saved and refreshed, a whole new commonwealth would have to be born and built; what many characterized as the cooperative commonwealth (however vaguely defined).

As a political order (and in other ways as well) the New Deal resolved that dilemma. Harold Ickes did warn of an “irreconcilable conflict between the power of money and the power of the democratic instinct”; he feared a “big business Fascist America – an enslaved America.” Yet, although fed by the anti-capitalist energies of the previous half century, the New Deal nonetheless became the living proof that compromise was possible. Democracy could reign in capitalism’s most absolutist ambitions. It could do that not only in public life but even in that dark, proprietary zone of the industrial workplace where public interference had been strictly forbidden. Capitalist democracy, the democracy administered by the regulatory and welfare state, put an end to - or at least put in the cryogenic deep freeze - the culture of anti-capitalism. The promise of equality would thereafter be redeemed by mechanisms of income redistribution and through an expansion of formal equality before the law. That way all could have a fair chance in that inelegantly phrased “race to the top.” Capitalism would prevail, but under surveillance.

Our second gilded age has managed to undo much of that historic compromise. Resistance mobilized late, mainly propelled by the Great Recession, after a long period of relative quiescence. Inequality is its most potent catalyst; the subversion of democracy follows closely behind. Yet even its most challenging overtures at fighting back stay shy of social democracy and collective forms of equality as once envisioned by the cooperative commonwealth. The explosive growth of democratic socialism (still of course a tiny fragment) is noteworthy. But noteworthy as well is that its emphasis is on democracy, not socialism. Practically speaking it looks to a reconstituted and enlarged New Deal and a more robust equality of opportunity.

What better evidence of the seductive appeal of that New Deal order! One way to measure that is to chart the rise and fall of the “labor question” from one gilded age to its sequel. When armed worker militias paraded through the streets of late 19th century metropolitan America, they demonstrated their determination to defend themselves against a rapacious and violence-prone employing class. Extreme as that seems, as it indeed it was, the era’s preoccupation was the “labor question.” Back then “wage slavery” was a still a neologism, chattel slavery still a fresh memory. As a universal condition wage labor was strange, forbidding, subversive of traditional ways of life. Presidents and poets conjured with its implications. For some it loomed as an abyss, a black hole swallowing up all remnants of independence where democracy would be entombed. For others “wage slavery” was a misnomer for “free labor,” a pass-way to social advance, equality, and abundance. The debate was all-consuming. As late as 1919, Woodrow Wilson cabled Congress from Versailles: “The question which stands at the front of all others amidst the present great awakening is the question of labor…”

Exploitation, not only of waged workers, but of what then were thought of as all the “producing classes,” fired up the political imagination of the opposition. But the “labor question” is rarely asked in our gilded age; nor do we talk of “producing classes.” I exaggerate; of course we talk sometimes about sweatshops and the working poor. But the center of gravity has shifted. Inequality, which is related to but categorically different from exploitation, is what captures the lion’s share of our attention. If the original gilded age worried about the dilemma facing producers, our times are focused instead on consumption; one might say on the way the surplus is distributed rather than the way it is produced. The New Deal was the moment of transition. Keynes said this: “It is not the ownership of the instruments of production which is important for the state to assume. If he state is able to determine the aggregate amount of resources devoted to augmenting the instruments and basic rate of reward to those who own them, it will have accomplished all that is necessary.”

Economic inequality dislodged exploitation as the “question which stands at the front of all others.” There were political and cultural consequences. One invited a political resistance to capitalism and depicted its enemies as parasitic aristocrats. Its successor opened the way to a culture of emulation – Wall Street R’Us – where in Yeats’ words “we have fed the heart on fantasies/the heart has grown brutal from the fare.” It entailed the demotion of class as a social signifier and as an objective relationship. It launched an armada of new social movements orbiting around identity and equality. Partly in response, the era nurtured, as well, a politics of resentment. A sour version of Populism surfaced seeking revenge: What Richard Hofstadter thought Populism was in the 1890s but wasn’t, came to life a century later. The decades between Reagan and the Great Recession were indelibly marked by these kinds of discontents.

A populist theology, however, lived on, both on the left and right. Greed was, back then, and is still today, its original sin. And greed is conspicuous to be sure. By and large, however, it is beside the point. The dramaturgy of greed remains peopled with demonic speculators and corporate leviathans – not unlike Tom Watson’s octopus-like “devil-fish,” its bloated head nesting on Wall Street, its tentacles sucking the life out of the American heartland. Yet greed itself is incidental to or even at odds with what is driving the system.

More telling than greed (which after all did a good business for a millennium and more before capitalism was dreamed up) is that the “sys-tem,” whether captained by industrialists or seer-like financiers, midwifed dispossessions. Farmers and handicraftsmen were dispossessed at one time, the inhabitants of industrial ghost towns in our time. Early through land enclosures, debt peonage, market insolvency, or nowadays through the auto-cannibalism implicit in de-industrialization. Clearly dispossession is a tragedy that spans the two ages. Arguably it is systemic.

Talking about dispossession naturally leads to talk about race. Yet it doesn’t. Why? Clearly, nothing about the American experience can remain untouched by race. And historians of the periods under examination here have probed the country’s racial dilemma deeply. But in the popular vernacular about gilded ages, race doesn’t really figure.

Rather, gilded age stories are about upstairs/downstairs, about the wealthiest first of all, and then about the poor, about social hierarchies of class, bleached of color. Yet the poorest are black. and poor, in part, because they are black. So what is happening here?

In the case of the original gilded age, that gilded life was regionally specific. The South was not part of that story because it was not industrial and urban, was seen as pre-modern, its planter elites hailing from another time zone. Even the Wild West had its robber barons whose kinship with the Pullmans of the Midwest or the Carnegies of the East was quite legible. Not Dixie.

Something deeper may also account for this racial silence. I allude firstly to the legally inscribed inferiority imposed on African-Americans. More generally, there is the racialized sense of lower-class inferiority that passed for conventional wisdom. It’s worth recalling the casual frequency with which the new working classes of that era were portrayed as social “offal,” as “Slavic wolves,” as “Indian savages,” as “mongrel firebugs,” to mention a few of the many dehumanizing, racially inflected epithets in common use. All these “races” summed up amounted to one race. It lived under the radar, the “dangerous classes” of the original Gilded Age. It was a race that existed to “eat, drink, breed, and die” in the words of one New Jersey educator.

Conditions are quite the opposite in our second Gilded Age. In a formal/legal sense our era inherits the solution to the racial dilemma bequeathed by the civil rights movement’s victories. As a result, again race drops out as a defining feature of what it means to label a society “gilded.” So do today’s “undocumented,” among whom might be count-ed all those dispossessed and dissed by a gilded age in which racism continues to function as a form of class consciousness; that is to say, the consciousness of the upper class.

Gilded America, back then and now, embeds superiority and inferiority as an axiomatic universal. It is a world of winners and losers, the iron-skinned absolutism of capitalism without reservations. A gilded sensibility is a primitive class consciousness that turns all who serve into inferiors. “Mongrel firebugs” disturbed the equanimity of our ancestral elites. So too do the incarcerated and walled-off social losers disturb the equipoise of today’s “masters of the universe.”

Yet is it perhaps more than coincidence that the first Gilded Age begins with the winding down of Reconstruction, and the second one begins with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign kick-off in Philadelphia, Mississippi? For contrary reasons, gilded ages impose a racial silence.

Like the shifting valences of class and race, there is something mercurial in trying to nail down these gilded ages. On the one hand, the blunt inference in giving the same name to two social moments a century apart is one of stasis or at least of some cyclical return; in this case, a cy-cling in of counter-revolution against democratic and egalitarian advance. Marx was convinced that capitalism and democracy could not co-exist for long. From the bourgeois side, capitalism demands, in Marx’s view, that democracy “should not go forward from political to social emancipation;” from the democratic side that the bourgeoisie “should not go back from social to political restoration.” An unstable situation clearly. But Marx turned out to be wrong. The cycling back and forth between more and less muscular forms of capitalist democracy seems to repudiate his prophecy.

Like not being able to step into the same river twice, this cycling is not, however, an instance of the eternal return. The second gilded age is powered by an assault on the New Deal order, while the first gilded age was spared that inconvenience. So much is obvious. But the intervening period of the New Deal complicates matters considerably. That historic compromise was grounded on the resurrection of capitalism from a near death experience. Humanity’s return on that investment in a renewed capitalism was social welfare and industrial democracy (however con-strained).

That bargain presents a kind of devil’s dilemma. Capitalism prevails but the price is high. Social welfare and democracy are costly. Capitalism eventually and under altered historical circumstances needs its money back. The compromise is to endure the pressure on working people to keep the system afloat, hence the labor movement’s collaborative promise to “raise all boats” and to woo the Amazons of the new order. We are indeed in a place our ancestors would have considered a “strange country.”

Even if that repeating syndrome of revolution and counter revolution (to use these phrases rather loosely) turns out be wrong in the details, it may point to something else that escapes the national boundaries of some uniquely American saga. Thomas Piketty’s book or the simulta-neous appearance of the Belle Epoque in France and Britain’s Victorian/Edwardian age suggest a transnational framework for the original gilded age. The Yellow Vests in France may do the same for today’s neo-liberal version.

Still a slippery question is just exactly when these gilded ages began and ended. The beginnings do seem roughly evident; Twain’s book was published in 1873 by which time the post-Civil War world, in New York and Washington D.C. especially, was already displaying most of the essential symptoms of being gilded. Ronald Reagan’s inaugural ball in 1981 all but announced a new age of, by, and for the luxury-loving. The partying was described as a “bacchanal of the haves”, a new era invoked by Diana Vreeland where “Everything is power and money and how to use them both…we musn’t be afraid of snobbishness and luxury.”

Nobody agrees, however, on when the first gilded age ended: Turn of the century? The outbreak of World War I? The extraordinary year of 1919 in which social revolution rocked the United States and the world? Or the Crash of ’29 and the Great Depression? The situation is likewise confusing for the second gilded age. Did it end with the Great Recession? Did it never end? Or are we living in a third gilded age demarcated by the Great Recession and the outbreak of widespread resistance, coming after what I have called elsewhere a long age of acquiescence?

So too, I wonder, is there a sequential, even causal relationship between capitalist crisis and gilded ages? Perhaps. Twain’s pub date coincides with the first economic collapse originating from within the system of industrial capital accumulation. Reagan’s “morning again in America” was a promise to rescue the country from the break-down of the Keynesian solution to the Great Depression. Suggestive, but probably too pat. After all, the greatest collapse of them all was followed by the New Deal.

Trying to pin down this temporal framework can be futile but also irresistible. One reason I’m drawn to it, is that it allows me to say a few words about Donald Trump. His elevation to the presidency might be seen as pretty convincing proof we are still living in the second gilded age (or maybe gilded age 3.0). And the fact that he got there in part by riding a wave of right-wing populism makes him emphatically unlike his robber baron predecessors of the original gilded age. They by and large abstained from direct involvement in the political arena. And they would rather have been caught dead than to find themselves at the head of an unruly mass movement. They were not, as Trump purports to be, in the business of overthrowing the establishment; they were the establishment.

Yet I think Trump really belongs back in Twain’s day as well. Not merely because he’s a flamboyant scoundrel in the mode of “Jubilee” Jim Fisk (or Colonel Sellers in Twain’s novel) and other notorious mountebank tycoons of that era. More important than that, Trump has tried to reverse time; undertaken a political voyage back to the future. He behaves like a patriarch, running a patrimonial government as if he were still a captain of industry and finance issuing commands through the network of blood relations and servitors that populate the family dynasty. Family-dynastic capitalism predominated during the original Gilded Age. Yet Trump contin-ues to behave like a patriarch in an alien political universe. That new world has long since grown accustomed to the legal procedures and protocols as well as the constitutional infrastructure of the bureaucratic-administrative and national security state. So collisions happen constantly. In my view, among the many reasons Trump is president is that there has been of late – over the last generation or so -a rebirth of family and dynastic capitalism in America. It operates according to a different social and cultural logic than the managerial capitalism which was once thought to have perma-nently supplanted its patrimonial predecessor. White nationalism, itself patriarchal to the core, finds in the patrimonial capitalist a fit champion. Names like the Koch brothers, the Walton family, the Mercers, and other dynasts suggests its enormous impact on recent political life.

So “gilded age” is a fluid descriptor. It’s not the most scientifically precise way of cataloguing a social formation. Yet it persists. It does so because it carries great moral utility. It’s a form of social hygiene. And for those of us who write, read, and think about the past, describing a period as “gilded” encourages us to look beneath the surface and reminds us that history is always more than the story of who won.

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This essay was delivered last winter as the keynote address at a Gotham Center Conference on “Two Gilded Ages.”