In the 1870’s and 1880’s, the United States saw a period of rapid economic and industrial development that created a powerful new wealthy class and elevated them to a social strata high above the working classes and poor. Mark Twain called it a “Gilded Age.”
As a former college history instructor, I often wonder if history really does repeat itself. The parallels between what’s going on in our country right now and what happened 130 years ago are very striking. In both eras, what we witnessed was nothing less than a right-wing corporate power grab.
In America’s 19th-century Gilded Age, we saw these socio-economic conditions arise:
- The corporation became the dominant form of business organization.
- Management revolutions transformed business operations with machine-like efficiency.
- There was zero regulation of labor conditions or the environment.
- Philosophies of “Social Darwinism” and “survival of the fittest” reigned supreme in America’s political economy.
- Politicians of both parties were in the pockets of the super-wealthy.
- The super-wealthy waged war on their resistant workers with armies of armed private security, police and even federal troops.
Fast forward a century and a half , and the U.S. has seen waves of reform and regulation that put the super-wealthy somewhat in check. The “social safety net” was established, creating America’s middle class and allowing us to fight two world wars and a cold war as well as to spread our warmongering capitalist seed around the world.
If you read Howard Zinn, the parallels to the Gilded Age and what’s happening now are striking. We’re seeing an unprecedented right-wing assault on government regulation and economic justice/direct service organizations that have traditionally held the super-rich at bay. Sponsored by the financial plantation owners on Wall Street and the Fossil-Fuel-Industrial-Complex, the goal of this right-wing assault is to roll back historic gains made by labor, poor peoples and environmental movements over the past 90 years.
They want to return us to the aforementioned conditions, except they want to make it a Gilded Age ON STEROIDS. Another big piece of their plan is to ensure that the transformation of the global citizen into a Huxlian, non-voting consumer of cheap plastic goods, unfair trade coffee, and ATM fees and services is complete.
Progressive and radical social movements are edging ever closer to that cliff. Leadership is often too bureaucratic, indecisive and weak. The right wing and corporations have taken advantage of it and have successfully waged war on us.
Our backs are against the wall. But with the inspiration of people-powered revolutions around the world, I’m getting some hope (not the flashy faux-Obama kind of hope either) and excitement that we at least won’t go down without a fight.
Economic justice and labor advocates are organizing direct action campaigns against the big banks and Wall Street CEOs. These campaigns are made up of students, homeowners, workers and citizens fed up with the country being in an economic recession while the new class of “robber barons” gets bail outs and tax breaks from their minions in the federal government.
- On April 4th the American Federation of labor has called for a day of action on Wisconsin and other assaults on public sector unions.
- On April 5th Cornel West and Frances Fox Piven will conduct a national “Fight Back” teach-in that will be webcast on campuses and communities all over the country. At last count, it was almost 200 teach-ins.
- Last weekend, a new group called US Uncut occupied and disrupted dozens of Bank of America branches around the U.S. Bank of America is one of the largest tax dodgers in the country.
- The New York Times revealed that General Electric, a company with U.S. profits of $14 billion, paid no taxes – and in fact got a $3 billion tax benefit. GE’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt is also now the Obama administration’s liaison to the business community.
- Radical wings of the climate justice movement are calling for a day of direct action against corporate fossil fuel extraction on April 20th (the anniversary of the BP oil spill.)
- Homeowners losing their homes to foreclosure are successfully fighting back against evictions with protest and direct action.
But the harder we fight, the bigger the backlash.
For example, labor campaigner Stephen Lerner has been calling for and planning direct action campaigns to fight back against Wall Street’s political and economic stranglehold. Corporate America quickly dispatched one of their top hitmen – Glenn Beck — to label Lerner an “economic terrorist” for planning to disrupt the American economy. But as Lerner retorted in The Nation this week, this isn’t a secret left wing conspiracy, it is large portions of the U.S. population sympathizing and supporting our ideas, analysis, strategy and tactics.
The history of the “Gilded Age” may or may not be repeating itself, but it should also be remembered that powerful movements emerged from that period.