Comparing the First Gilded Age to the Second Gilded Age

Janine Giordano Drake

How does the present-day climate of organizing around wealth inequality compare to that of the Gilded Age? According to Steve Fraser in his new The Age of Acquiescence, it does not even light a candle.

According to Fraser, while the first Gilded Age was full of militant workers who did not give up in the face of Pinkertons, labor injunctions and a legal system that benefited the upper-class, the present age has acquiesced. While the first Gilded Age boasted of popular writers like Henry Demarest Lloyd, Edward Bellamy, and Henry George, each of whom gave the working classes a language to analyze and protest wealth inequality and the ways it destroys the fabric of American democracy, the present day fetishizes businessmen as populist heroes. While the first Gilded Age honored working class clergy-heroes, like Edward McGlynn, and made room for Eugene Debs' claims that socialism was a Christian idea, the religious leaders of the present Gilded Age overwhelmingly promote the status quo.

Fraser's overarching thesis may or may not be overstated. As popular reviewers like Naomi Klein and Jon Wiener remind us, Fraser does not see the Black Freedom Movement nor the Women's Liberation Movement, nor the numerous grassroots movements which have persisted and grown since then, impacting the social consciousness of the mainstream with regards to wealth inequality. For, they ran alongside an era that glorified business leaders and oppressed discussions on wealth distribution and radical social equality. Fraser is probably shortsighted in his assumption that rules governing the workplace (rather than the point of consumption or reproduction) are the best ways to trace interest in topping wealth and social inequality.

Yet, Fraser also has a point that the success of these 1960s movements has not significantly transformed the production or distribution of American wealth. For, as Fraser expertly shows, in spite of the success of these movements, the "Second Gilded Age" has glorified the worker as a "free agent," allowed the destruction of the labor movement and the laws workers built to defend unions, and enabled the phenomenon of "limousine liberalism." Sure, there are present-day groups organizing in response to wealth-inequality. But, compared to the thousands of workers who went on strike for months and months, even in the face of Pinkertons and labor injunctions and real poverty, we have acquiesced. His point is that the obstacles workers faced in the late nineteenth century were every bit as bad, and worse, than they are in the early twenty-first century. Yet, the first era saw massive protest, and the second has not. This point is compelling.

What happened? Was it the fact that American workers saw a higher standard of living, like Werner Sombart and a host of other theorists and historians have assumed? Was it the continual Red Scare in the twentieth century? Fraser suggests these as possible explanations but does not fully embrace them. Again, he doesn't want to blame the hostile social and legal environment for the decline in militancy, because that--he insists--simply remains. What has changed, according to Fraser, is the set of expectations and goals shared by the American working classes and middle classs. As he explored in his earlier work, we now uphold every worker as an Wall-Street investor--"every man a speculator."

Fraser's central question, "What happened to the labor movement?" and his answer, "We have acquiesced," is as old as the field itself. It's the persistent and central argument of the labor movement. His suggestion that the turning point in this history coincided with the Red Scare and the "end of socialism" is also as old as the field itself (even if the field debates when the Red Scare was at its worst, and when socialism was most suppressed). His emphasis on cultural myths as the means by which people organize and lose interest in organizing is extremely well-written and well explained, but also nothing entirely new.

Yet, Fraser's book is still entirely worth reading, because he lays out the history of the labor movement and its destruction in the twentieth century as well as anyone ever has. I look forward to assigning it in the second half of my US History survey, for it very readable, especially in small chunks. (I will use it as a sequel to Edward Baptist's book on capital accumulation in the antebellum era.) I have been a big fan of Steve Fraser's work for more than a decade, and this book upheld every one of my very high expectations.

Yet, there are also claims within the narrative that I question.

First, the movement to squash socialist organizing with the mythology that "every man with a bank account is a capitalist" is not unique to the Second Gilded Age. It is least as old as Rev. Charles Stelzle, who preached this again and again in the 1900s. The Gilded Age that I have studied harbored widespread anti-socialist critique, even despite the popularity of talking openly about wealth inequality. Father Edward McGlynn was a working class hero, but he was ostracized by most members of the Catholic Church hierarchy. Despite the numerous radical ministers, and perhaps because of them, the official stance of both Catholics and most Protestants was that socialism--as the effort to replace capitalism--was wrong. Rev. Charles Stelzle built close relationships with the American Federation of Labor throughout the Progressive Era because they shared a trust in American capitalism as the salvation of American workers. While Fraser is correct that the membership of most American labor unions in the Gilded Age, including the AFL, readily broke the law when they saw it as unjust (especially with regard to labor injunctions), just as many workers believed--or wanted to believe--that socialist militancy was "radical" and un-American.. It was not just the Red Scare, nor growth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, that saw widespread trust in American business leaders.

Fraser's separation of the Gilded Age from the Progressive Era is perhaps a bit deceiving. For, while the Gilded Age saw a more militant strikes--including general strikes--despite their lack of widespread success, the Progressive Era saw a great deal of reformers urging cooperation between labor and capital. While we separate these eras as separate and distinct, we can say that the Gilded Age was an age of labor militancy. But, when we see the period between 1880 and 1920 as one, we see the origins of support for American capitalism, and its attendant "businessman hero," all over the Gilded Age. For. when we focus on the strikes and the radical labor leaders and the culture surrounding the "Eight Hour Day," it is easy to assume that the working classes were not reading Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick and Andrew Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth." But, when we see the 1880s and 1890s as the generation that gave birth to the Progressive Era and Fordism, it is easier to believe that Progress and Poverty and Wealth Against Commonwealth provided the common language of protest just as much as they provided a common language which enabled cross-class cooperation.

Second, we must ask ourselves to what extent the labor militancy of the First Gilded Age was about just wealth distribution, and to what extent it was about immediate pressure to increase pay and limit work hours so that workers could be wealthier, and more like the new, white-collar workers? How many of the Gilded Age strikers aspired to shorter workdays so they could be producers--and capitalists-- in their own right? Nick Salvatore's biography of Eugene Debs suggests that this is the necessary context to understanding Debs' early work.

There were certainly moments when a broad spectrum of Americans protested the injustice of American capitalism--say, at Haymarket square, in defense of the Eight Hour Day. However, so many of the Gilded Age's strikes were orchestrated by young men of small means, whose bodies were in constant danger. To my knowledge, low-paid office workers did not go out on strike in the First Gilded Age. They invested in the stock market, despite their low pay. In that light, was the First Gilded Age much more militant than the Second Gilded Age?  I ask these questions not because I want to find that the United States never had an era of widespread militancy. I remain a labor historian, inspired by the labor activism of the Gilded Age--and hopeful that if we did it then, we can do it again. But, I am still wrestling over just how different the First Gilded Age is from the present day.

Over and over again, Fraser raises just the right questions that we need to be discussing right now. I cannot wait to discuss it with my students.