American society, like all societies, has its cycles. Economic cycles, political cycles, and cultural cycles. We do, we regret, we forget, and we remember again. Today’s headlining example of such a cycle is that of growing economic inequality on levels unseen since the late 19th century. Even though most of us are tired of hearing about what many columnists call “The New Gilded Age,” the fact of the matter is that this couldn’t be closer to the truth. In the United States, the upper half of the one percent is still growing absurdly more wealthy while the middle class is beginning to stagnate and even decline. Many of the wealthiest in our society are still using their fortunes to deform the democratic process into something that rigs the economic game evermore in their favor. Problems such as these are also going to continue for many years to come. But if America really is in store for another Gilded Age, it might prove advantageous to take comfort in the fact that we have survived one before. In fact, the coming realities from such an economic climate may prove more complex, and possibly more hopeful than many would imagine.
America’s Gilded Age, as it was called, refers to a period of great economic inequality starting in the 1870s, and ending at the dawn of the 20th century. The similarities between this time and ours are numerous. Just like today, the United States was getting over the effects of a long and costly war (indeed, our Civil War). Also like today, economic disparities in the south and the mid-west caused by wealth concentration on the coasts inspired a great deal of regionalism. Major technological innovations meant that new industries were on the rise. The small circle of people who controlled those industries and the resources behind them became very, very wealthy. Many of those wealthy individuals inevitably employed government as a tool to secure even more wealth, often at the cost of ordinary citizens. Lax pollution standards and poor oversight of natural resources were as much of a problem then as they are today. Government concessions to the rich at the time were very similar to the repeal of Glass-Steagall under Bill Clinton, tax cuts under George Bush, Jr. and the passing of Citizens United during the presidency of Barack Obama. Whether the family name is Rockefeller, Carnegie, or Koch, the aims are largely the same. Big oil meddling with public policy, infrastructure companies fighting to make monopolies (be it railroads then or cable companies now), and the taxes of ordinary citizens bankrolling the rich were problems faced during the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s and increasingly in our own era.
The similarities between our time and the late 1800s continue. The concept of corporate personhood detested by so many today was actually conceived and put into law in the 1800s. Also, like today, growing national wealth among a select few not only reinforced ideas behind social class, but also led to private media empires, many with designs to dissuade civic involvement in a time when the wealthy took disproportionate amounts of money from the society at large.
Racism then was far worse, but manifested in the same ways. Politically-backed racial segregation along with voter discrimination was rampant at this time. Where nowadays we have voter ID laws designed to keep the poor out of the polls, the Gilded Age was when the original Jim Crow Laws were established. Both eras are victim to shameless gerrymandering. The Gilded Age, of course, also took it to even greater extremes than today. Even so, like today’s Tea-Party, the late 1800s also saw the beginnings of an ultra-right wing group that represented the views of a sizable minority of Americans. This group was united fundamentally around the themes of racism and their hatred of the federal government. That group was the Ku Klux Klan.
Finally, like today, the Gilded Age was also a time of great exploitation of immigrants. Then, as now, many immigrants to the United States were poor and often placed in terrible working conditions. Even as their labor proved essential to economic growth, immigrants were met with a great deal of xenophobia and racial hatred from citizens, and the wealthiest Americans feared that newcomers with different values would vote against a status quo that favored the rich.
So what could possibly be uplifting about all of this depressing information? What’s to say that history isn’t just doomed to repeat itself forever and ever? What’s to stop someone from becoming incredibly pessimistic about the whole system?
First off, the Gilded Age didn’t last. The reasons it didn’t last are largely the same as those that gave rise to it in the first place. Major government concessions to the wealthy led to inefficient monopolies and duopolies that offered poor service, horrific working conditions, and low pay. The worst of these conditions were felt by immigrants and the poor. They inevitably responded by mobilizing with the middle class against the inequality of the Gilded Age with movements such as the populist movement. Populists and groups similar to them shared the goal not of eliminating government, but eliminating the corruption that existed within it. For the most part, they succeeded. The end of the Gilded Age and the years that followed were a time that saw major monopoly breakups, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, growing union membership, the establishment of the national park system, and a return to more diversified economic competition.
Additionally, the technologies that enriched that era’s largest companies are also what gave way to astonishingly faster travel and communication speeds. The Gilded Age made people more connected than at any time before in history, freeing them up to encounter different regions, cultures, and ideas. Transcontinental railroads and telegraphs were the commercial airlines and Internet of their day. Increases in corporate capabilities can often unwittingly democratize information.
Perhaps most important of all, America never fell apart. The middle class suffered, but it never died. Social class was a problem, but it never managed to eradicate human compassion and concern. Democratic values remained incubated from every attempt to eradicate them. Nothing, not fatalism, social Darwinism, or deep racial hatred could stop people from knowing what a fair world should look like. There were also, of course, many acts of kindness from the wealthy. Just like Gates and Buffet, Carnegie and Rockefeller were avid philanthropists whose contributions led to many positive developments that still help the world today.
It is by no means unrealistic to expect America to succeed in dealing with the worst effects that modern day inequality brings on. The Gilded Age was an era of inequality, but it also inspired many brilliant people to produce some of their best work. This era shaped the writing of Mark Twain, and the policies of Teddy Roosevelt. Our own world also has brilliant people, and the negative symptoms of today’s inequalities will call them to action as well. We are all shaped by the times in which we live, especially by what is unjust. Glory days are a myth. Things tend to improve and worsen in different areas in different societies. As more people recognize the faults of our own society, many new doors will open. With any luck, our new Gilded Age could prove to be just as fleeting as the first.