The Gilded Age

By Arvind Saxena

Occupy Wall Street’ protests  1 Pic – The Atlantic

Asked to give a toast to the ‘free press’ at the New York Press Club, John Swinton, former Chief of Staff of The New York Times said:
“There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, in America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks; they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men”.

John Swinton (1829–1901) was a Scottish-American journalist, newspaper publisher, and orator who was best recognised as the chief editorial writer of The New York Times during the 1860s. Later in the years, Swinton was the force behind ‘John Swinton’s Paper’, one of the most prominent American labour newspapers of the 1880s. 

Unbridled greed

So, what was the US going through when Swinton delivered his shocking lines? His reference was to the period from 1860 till about 1890, a period called the “gilded age” in US history. What is ‘gilded’ and what was the ‘gilded age’? ‘Gilded’ describes ordinary wood, plaster or metal which is coated with a veneer of gold paint to impart a sense of great value, even as it covers the ordinariness of the material. The ‘gilded age’ refers to the last four decades of the nineteenth century when America saw unprecedented growth in industry and technology and the rise of corrupt industrialists, bankers and politicians who cornered extraordinary wealth at the expense of the working class.

The peoples’ representatives ceded power to wealthy tycoons, who took control of political power. Huge sums of money and public land were handed over to tycoons like Vanderbilt and Jay Gould, in shady deals to build the railroad and shipping system. These men with unbridled greed for wealth destroyed the trade unions and indulged in incessant fraud, intimidation, violence and used their political clout to destroy competition. They disregarded laws to dominate every sector from railroad to oil, steel, mining, banking, liquor, timber, and even meatpacking. Unskilled workers were paid a pittance and were exploited in sweatshops. The opulence of the wealthy was in sharp contrast to the lives of the poor who were crammed into filthy apartments and struggled to feed their families.

Apologists of the robber barons invoked “Social Darwinism” to justify the inequality between the rich and the poor – the fittest humans were the most successful and the poor were destitute because they were weak and lacked the skills to be prosperous. Swinton talks of this era when media and public opinion was subjugated by the rich and powerful and there was no one left to raise difficult questions.

Barring some Nordic countries, most other nations in the free world have been going through a similar experience over the last three to four decades. State assets being cornered by a chosen few, creation of monopolies and an unholy political-capitalist nexus has become the new normal. Leader after leader has been proclaiming economic miracles through liberalisation, and hiding the dirty truth about exploitation of workers behind glitzy malls, shiny buildings and gut-wrenching conspicuous consumption. International rating agencies are co-opted to report positively about high GDP growth rates, increasing ease of doing business and the key policy of big-ticket disinvestment; a.k.a sale of public enterprises to fat capitalists. This has been over three decades of ‘liberalisation and globalisation’ – and sounds so much like the gilded age.

Stranglehold of big money

The important question is how the US broke out of this stranglehold of big money and marched into a progressive era.

As the wealth disparity mounted, the working people realised they could not rely on their elected representatives and would have to organize themselves to improve their working and living conditions. Unskilled factory workers formed the bulk of the movement for change, which took the shape of strikes, boycotts and shut downs. At its peak, over 100,000 railroad workers were on strike in the US. Though the strike eventually ended, it showed America’s tycoons that there was strength in numbers and that organized labour had the potential to shut down entire industries and inflict major economic and political damage.

As the working class continued to use strikes and boycotts to fight for higher wages and improved working conditions, significant technological innovations like electricity and telephony made their appearance. Skyscrapers, elevators, bridges and canals were built and middle-class people had access to better food and housing and enjoyed an improved quality of life. They basked in the allure of city life, detached from the pitiable existence of the poor. For some, watching movies and sports like boxing, baseball or football became a form of escapism. A large number of people, however, were not willing to give up their rights and established themselves under a new political party whose declared objective was to give power back to the people and fight to close the gap between the wealthy and poor.

By 1893 the bubble of the gilded age started showing strain and the failure of major companies set off an economic depression. Banks and other businesses folded up, and the stock market plunged, leaving millions unemployed, homeless and hungry. The panic lasted for four years and left lower and even middle-class Americans fed up with rampant political corruption and social inequality. Their frustration gave rise to the Progressive Movement which took hold when President Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901. Although Roosevelt supported corporate America, he also felt there should be increased federal control to keep corporate greed in check and prevent individuals from making obscene amounts of money off the backs of lower-class people. Social and political reformers were primarily middle-class citizens who targeted the political bosses and their moneyed cronies. They sought regulation of industries and stricter rules to enforce peoples’ control over businesses and a form of ‘direct democracy’.

The progressive era saw significant reforms to move power out of the hands of the robber barons. Legislation on trust busting, labour reform, trade unions, conservation, food and medicine regulations, tax reform, civil rights, women’s suffrage, birth control, election reform and fair labour standards, etc., ensured safer, cleaner and healthier factories, less corrupt governments and better housing, working hours and wages. Fewer monopolies meant more people could start their own businesses. The people had fought for their rights and taken back political power from the oligarchs.

What followed was a truly golden period when most people in the US could live the ‘American dream’. Eternal vigilance and education, it is said, is the price for liberty. As Americans ignored quality education, indulged in profligacy, individual advancement, round the clock entertainment and looked upon social security systems as creeping communism, obscurantism and neo-conservative thinking started finding space and taking over the media, education and every institution for influencing public perception. People started losing control once more. But not all.

The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests, which began in New York City’s Wall Street financial district, in September 2011, were a mobilisation of middle-class young adults against the predatory practices of high finance, mounting economic inequality and the influence of money in politics. Similar movements, like the ‘take back control’, were seen in other parts of the world also. These movements reflect the disillusionment of the working middle class, which has been the corner stone of social and economic development, at least in the democratic world. At most places governments responded with force and repression against people who were simply demanding a more just, equal and sustainable world. In a resurgent era of far-right populism, with leaders preaching hate, fear, greed and ultra-nationalism, voices against injustice stemming from elite capture of wealth, power, and corruption are viewed as a threat to the ‘established’ order. Peoples’ will, however, must eventually, prevail.

There is a lot to learn from history. There is no wisdom in closing our eyes and refusing to draw lessons from the shared experiences of our sisters and brothers across the globe. Thank you, Mr John Swinton.

Arvind Saxena is a former Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission, India

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 3 June 2022

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