Why We’re Not in a New Gilded Age

By Heath Carter | February 9, 2016

(Getty/Lewis W. Hine)

(Getty/Lewis W. Hine)

It’s not a new Gilded Age after all.

For a number of years now, leading economists such as Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, and Paul Krugman have been comparing our own time to the late-nineteenth century decades that U.S. historians, following Mark Twain’s lead, call the Gilded Age. The parallels are striking, especially when it comes to the distribution of wealth. Since roughly 1968 the gap between rich and poor—which shrank dramatically in the immediate post-World War II years—has widened into a chasm so yawning it might impress even the robber barons of old.

Consider that the Wall Street bonus pool these days is more than double the combined total income of all minimum-wage workers. Or that CEOs, who made 20 times more than the average worker in 1965, now make 303 times more. (That’s somewhat less than the 345 times more they made before the 2008 recession, but—rest assured—their rates of pay are recovering rapidly.) Little wonder that, in 2015, the nation’s 20 richest people commanded more wealth than the poorest 152 million.

But whatever the similarities between the days of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt and those of Gates, Buffett, and Bezos, there is this fundamental difference: Our late-nineteenth century forebears were less inclined to give economic inequality their “amen.” In the face of the Gilded Age’s notorious disparities, working people built movements that challenged the underlying structures of industrial capitalism, contributing along the way to an unprecedented, nationwide ferment regarding the shape of a moral economy—and it is on these crucial fronts that the analogy to our own time falls apart.

The late-nineteenth century was continually rocked by working-class unrest. Outraged at the seeming injustice of the emerging industrial order, working people experimented with new forms of solidarity, organizing trade unions, craft federations, and big-tent alliances such as the Knights of Labor. To be sure, the early American labor movement was seriously hampered by the racism, ethnocentrism, and chauvinism that were pervasive in its own ranks, but even still, it succeeded, among other things, in making “the labor question” the defining issue of the era. It no doubt helped that, for two months in the spring of 1871, radicalized workers seized control of Paris, appearing to confirm Karl Marx’s insistence that a proletarian revolution was taking shape in the wings. In the United States, an aghast elite followed the news in France and for decades thereafter entertained nightmares of a similar movement rising up in its very midst.

American workers kept the dream alive by taking repeatedly to the streets, which in countless Gilded Age cities and towns were transformed often into industrial battlegrounds. It took the combined powers of local militia, the National Guard, and the U.S. Army to quash the railroad strikes of 1877, which swept across the industrializing North like wildfire during that violent summer. The “Great Upheaval” of the mid-1880s saw more than a million workers surge into the upstart Knights of Labor, who were behind many of the 1,436 separate work stoppages (involving 407,000 workers) that unfolded in 1886 alone. That same year a bomb exploded at an anarchist-led rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, provoking consternation and alarm across the industrializing world and catalyzing, within a matter of hours, a fierce backlash against working-class movements of all kinds. Yet less than a decade later workers once more mounted an arresting demonstration of their strength, powering a sympathetic strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company that brought the nation’s vaunted rail system grinding to a halt until, finally, the federal government intervened legally and militarily to derail the uprising.

Not content to fight might only with might, workers seized countless opportunities to challenge the moral authority of their social and religious betters. Throughout the Gilded Age the clergy only rarely sided with labor, a fact that many a class-conscious laborer found easy to explain. As Andrew Cameron, editor of the Workingman’s Advocate, wrote in 1867:

The connection between the Church and the existence of the evils complained of is simply this: Two-thirds of the establishments who employ women at wages which drive them to prostitution, are members of our churches, and while our political persons are filling the role of pettifoggers, they dare not show the hypocracy [sic] of these whitened sepulchers.

This popular vein of accusation oversimplified matters, but the truth was that, while pro-labor gospels were in conspicuously short supply inside late-nineteenth century sanctuaries, they were often taken for granted within trade union halls and labor assemblies. God had, after all, become incarnate in a workingman.

Thus workers capitalized on the uncertainties that accompanied the Gilded Age’s vast upheaval by engaging their fellow Americans in a series of roiling debates regarding the morality of industrial capitalism. In 1886, one of the nation’s leading Christian businessmen, John V. Farwell, penned a letter that read in part, “Let the true Knight of Labor … be a thorough student of the four gospels of the New Testament … and become a true follower of Christ.” One Knight, unable to fully contain his disgust, crafted this retort:

As a “student of the four gospels” I have learned that there is a fair prospect for the Knights of Labor to reach the kingdom of heaven, but I can hardly see any chance at all for Mr. Farwell. It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for him to get there. That is the decision of the “New Testament.” Mr. Farwell, of course, does not believe the New Testament, and the evidence of his infidelity is this, that although he is a richer man than any man that lived in Judea at the time of Christ, yet he is trying to be richer still. He is working very hard and very successfully to make him ineligible for a place in the kingdom.

It was one thing when these were confined to the world of print. It was quite another thing when these confrontations spilled over into—or better, out of—the pews. Throughout the late nineteenth century, workers often warned that they would abandon the institutional churches altogether if the latter continued to antagonize labor. The clergy long called their bluff, but as the century wound toward a close and a growing number of wage earners made good on the threat—defying “scab ministers” and walking out of “company churches”—church leaders grew increasingly anxious that they might be on the verge of a massive loss of cultural authority. As a result, by the first decade of the twentieth century, nearly every major denomination had relented to labor’s demands, endorsing social creeds whose very existence underscored the impact of late-nineteenth century working-class activism.

All of which is to say that ours is no new Gilded Age. Of course, we are living through a season in which the power of grassroots social movements remains very much on display. In the last year alone, the Black Lives Matter movement has toppled a major city police chief and the president of a large state university system (not to mention the chancellor of its most prestigious branch), all while persuading a growing number of Americans that the nation must pro-actively address structural racism. Yet despite the still devastating overlap of race and class in the modern United States, Black Lives Matter has been much more successful at drawing attention to systemic problems with law enforcement than to the ill effects of economic inequality. Meanwhile, the movement most closely associated in the popular mind with those issues, Occupy Wall Street, has evaporated into thin air, leaving only a rhetorical flourish (the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent) in its wake—one that has failed to brighten the prospects of the contemporary labor movement, which today enrolls not even 7 percent of private sector workers.

And if this presidential election cycle is any indication, the lively contests surrounding the morality of capitalism that were so characteristic of the Gilded Age are not on the cusp of coming back into fashion. In the late nineteenth century working people directed their ire at the “robber barons,” whose lives of luxury struck many as living embodiments of the corruption of the nation’s economic system. These days, countless poor and working-class voters, including many registered Democrats, are rallying to the side of billionaire Republican candidate Donald Trump—this, despite the fact that conservative and liberal analysts agree his tax plan would exacerbate existing disparities, lowering the taxes of the middle 40 to 50 percent by only 5.3 percent while increasing the after-tax income of the nation’s wealthiest households by an average of more than $1.3 million a year.

Many of Trump’s Republican colleagues talk freely about income inequality these days, a striking departure from Mitt Romney’s 2012 position that such discussions were really about “envy” and “class warfare.” But this shift in rhetoric has not been accompanied by a shift in policy proposals, and even leading establishment candidates such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, both of whom are professing Catholics, have asserted a clear distinction between economic and moral issues—this, despite a venerable tradition of Catholic social teaching, dating back to the Gilded Age encyclical Rerum Novarum, which unambiguously insists that economic issues are moral issues.

On the other side of the political aisle, Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign is calling for modest reforms of Wall Street but nothing approaching a fundamental, Gilded Age-style rethinking of the nation’s economic life. Clinton herself is a lifelong member of the United Methodist Church, an early adopter of the Social Gospel and a denomination that still today teaches, “we are called to support the poor and challenge the rich.” But she has often appeared reluctant to do the latter. In the December 19 Democratic debate, when the moderator asked her if corporate America should love her in 2016, she quipped, “Everybody should.”

The major exception to the prevailing rule, of course, is Clinton’s Democratic colleague, Bernie Sanders, who has traveled the country doggedly making his case that “the issue of wealth and income inequality is the moral issue of our time.” Sanders’ throwback message has galvanized many thousands on the left. He battled Clinton to a “virtual tie” in the Iowa caucuses and appears poised for a resounding victory in New Hampshire. But polls show that a number of key Democratic constituencies, including, notably, nonwhite, working-class voters, continue to prefer Clinton. Unless Sanders can find a way to make deeper inroads into the American mainstream—and fast—the course of the 2016 election will only underscore how constricted the contours of not just political debate but also moral imagination have become. In these vital regards, our profoundly inegalitarian era compares unfavorably with the late-nineteenth century. And in that sense, ironically, the notion of a new Gilded Age is simply too good to be true.

Heath W. Carter is assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University. He is the author of Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago.

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