The Gilded Age, a period of American history that saw extreme wealth accrual and the birth of the corporation, was essentially a new evolutionary stage for industrialized capitalism and the market economy. In the 19th century, America saw a complete transformation of its social, political, and economic cultures. Industrialization that began in Europe through technological innovation shifted the work from the homestead and the farm to the factory and the city. This was a radical change in American life.
This way of living, one that engaged in agricultural self-subsistence and a primitive sort of communism among rural communities, was minoritized and relegated to a niche way of living. With the shift of work to the city came a population influx, and in metropolitan areas, a new culture of urbanity and civility was born. With such an obverse change of setting, it is easy to see how the agrarian family life was undoubtedly changed, and with it, parochial, family values metamorphosized or disappeared. The idea of moral purism, hearth and home, and God and country dissipated ever so slightly, although it was still a large part of the American psyche. In economic matters, The Gilded Age has popularly coined the second industrial revolution, and what it did was catalyze industrial growth exponentially and exaggerate the aforementioned trends of the industrial revolution. This is identifiable by the massive population boom in its time period, where the population went from 2 million to 76 million in just 50 years.
With such an immense increase in production there needed to be markets for these products. At home, a truly national market began to emerge as railroads, canals, the telegraph and telephone linked the country together. Abroad, there was an increase in America’s international presence as trade flourished and capitalism, which began in Europe, was becoming a global example. Capitalism and prosperity became synonymous in the world psyche, and many countries sought to industrialize. All in all, the Gilded Age, which can be seen as the full manifestation of capitalism, ushered in massive changes in the American psyche, its culture wars, its political life, and its economic policies. As the Gilded Age’s effects on globalized capitalism and our capitalism at home roar on, pumping out swaths of money in the name of big business, we see the same polarizations between globalism and nationalism, leftism and rightism, and the same cultural divides, similar in nature but nuanced differently.
In a sense, we are seeing a Gilded Age 2.0. In explaining the idea of a contemporary Gilded Age, It is good to begin with what preceded today’s sociopolitical and economic change that so mimic the Gilded Age, that being the social developments of the Gilded Age. Also, social development always precedes policy making, so it is essential to begin there and track where the developments lead in terms of political and economic policymaking. In research from the European Journal of International Relations, they posit that the benefits of democracy and interdependence may not be unconditional but contingent upon the wealth of nations. What this means is democratic, progressive values that hinge towards globalization and wealth are positively correlated. When a country gets richer, its value systems change in the direction of the left as it abandons the conservatism and tradition-oriented culture of an agrarian, less capitalistic society. In the same sense, new political-ideological developments occur within existing parties and new parties are born. And just as new political ideologies are born, new economic policies are born in favor of the updated political leanings of the masses. In the context of the Gilded Age, capitalism socially divided us into categories that still persist. There are a plethora of leftist scholarly texts that argues for the moral inconsistencies of capitalism, how it alienates the worker from his work, and how there is no capitalism without exploitation, etc.
Essentially, two distinct viewpoints arose from the successes of capitalism, which can be attributed to businesses. The corporation is the center of capitalism, somewhat separate from the state it is a company chartered by the state and recognized as a separate person.’ The capitalist corporation created and circulated massive wealth for its country, without help from the state or charity. This success often leaned on the industrialists or corporate executives, and many times was on the back of the worker. In fact, because the income disparity between workers and their executives was so high, many entrepreneurs who achieved great corporate success in their industry were called robber barons. These robber barons, these social-Darwinists, were either championed for their individualistic tenacity to secure one’s wealth above all else or repudiated for their moral indiscriminacy when securing such wealth. The average working-class man looked up at these eminent entrepreneurs and saw either a lazy, megalomaniacal, immoral, and gluttonous member of the exploitative business elite, or a hard-working man who picked himself up by their own bootstraps and persisted through class lines to achieve great wealth. Many entrepreneurs started with nothing, but that isn’t to say that they had no advantage or privilege over their peers to succeed.
That idea of false equal opportunity is complex and beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is not difficult to see how the success of capitalism birthed two diametrically opposed narratives on it. One side focused on the benefits of business, such as philanthropy, the sheer magnitude of wealth it accumulated for the GDP, and the birth of an individualistic, socially Darwinistic, secure-your-own-wealth ideology. Like the businessmen of the day said, help those who help themselves. The other side focused on the reckless ecological impact of industrial production, the unfair competitive advantage companies had, and the exploitation of the working class (long hours, unsafe conditions, scrap pay).
Another conflict, less distinct in its division, was the divide between right-wing populism and capitalistic left-wing globalism. While the business world and America began to increase its international presence through trade and diplomacy, a globalization of corporate culture began to arise. This is before the age of the multinational company, so international interaction was moderate. However, an influx of immigrants to work manufactories angered the more parochial farmers who were working in a starved, dying industry. Farmers were angered to this welcoming of the international world because they felt their needs were not met and were now deprioritized. Farmers were charged more to ship goods across rail lines, and through the 1890s, they faced falling crop prices, exorbitant railroad rates, high interest on their debts, and costly charges to store their crops. In the farmers’ mind, and a lot of the working class also shared this perspective, the elite did not care about the farmer or the worker. They wanted their industry to grow so they could produce extreme surplus wealth. That is why the immigrant took primacy, it was easier and more profitable to exploit the immigrant, they got paid much less than a citizen. This is when the nationalism in a marginalized worker flares up.
To them, it’s absurd to focus on the world, the national identity should come first. To this right-wing nationalist, they feel like a second-class citizen compared to the immigrant. Why should the citizens of the world matter more to America than the citizens of the world? This is the core question fueling right-wing nationalism. It was the farmer that held this view with more passion, as his industry was a dying craft. Self-subsistence, and a rural, communistic sense of shared property and producing to one’s needs was dead, along with the romantic idea of an American farmers’ homestead. This was no longer the American dream the American dream was now about being the next Carnegie or Rockefeller, and that kind of wealth is where the cities are. Now, it is much easier to see the parallels between today’s ideological debate and theirs. Income inequality between the 10% wealthiest Americans and the rest of the population is only increasing, according to a 2016 study.
Now, global capitalism is experiencing the same cons of industrialism that the right-wing, anti-capitalist worker pointed out in the Gilded Age. There is still economic disparity, there are still exploited workers, and there is still a struggle against leftist globalism versus rightist nationalism. In the U.S. now, right wing populism won the election in 2016 and still persists, although here is a deep contradiction between Trump’s rhetoric/working class demographic and his stature. The farmers of the gilded age who voted for populist candidates are the truck drivers, coal miners, and construction workers today. These workers feel the same way towards immigrants, the elite, and globalization as they did in the Gilded Age, as identifiable through Trump’s rhetoric. Building a wall, focusing on domestic production, and putting America first is all the populist nationalism of the People’s Party in 1890. In the same sense, Trump has framed himself as the people’s man while also, in reality, being their enemy. Populist rhetoric is a political language employed by individual leaders which divides the populace into two categories: a pure, moral people and a corrupt elite. Trump has utilized an array of populist rhetoric to assure his rise to presidency.
In the same sense, he is a token of the big business world, with the wealth and assets to be called a businessman. He has pushed pro-business policies and has otherwise contradicted himself. In his campaigning rhetoric, he has essentially started a war against himself, mobilizing the people against the elite, the gloablizers who are getting your job stolen or outsourced, the red barons who exploit the working masses for their own benefit. We see it all now, there are protesters on Wall St. holding placards that read occupy wall street or eat the rich. While this kind of anti-capitalism is considered leftist because it seeks to emancipate the repressed worker, it is still populistic in nature, although it lacks the nationalism unique to right wing politics.
In conclusion, the Gilded Age 2.0 is simply a continuation of unresolved conflicts born out of industrialization. The political, social, and economic developments are undeniably similar, and it centers around globalism versus nationalism. The nuances and crossovers between left and right politics are tricky, but in a distilled sense it is valid to identify a desire to globalize and demand emancipative policies and a desire to nationalize and return to older, parochial tradition as distinctly different in that sense. This political divide is representative of the trends that characterize the Gilded Age and reveals that the Gilded Age has either ressurected or simply continued along the path it started on. In the same way, this divide explains the exact social divisions the Gilded Age brought about, how each side of the divide developed into political movements, and the economic faults between now and the Gilded Age that are common and keep the divide strong.
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