Does Progress Spawn Poverty? A Gilded Age Issue Remains With Us
This excerpt is from Steve Fraser’s book “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power,” published Feb. 17 by Little, Brown and Co.
Back when the first Gilded Age was just picking up steam in the late 1870s, a wayfaring journalist named Henry George prophesied that the great American republic was headed to hell, that like Rome, “so powerful in arms, so advanced in the arts,” it might too be done in by the forces of economic and social division and moral decline at loose in the land. Progress and Poverty, George’s famous book, was in part inspired by the astonishing railroad insurrection of 1877. It electrified the country (there were one hundred printings in twenty years and it had sold two million copies by 1905) and became the bible of a reform movement that lasted for decades. “Strong as it may seem,” he warned, “our civilization is evolving destructive forces. Not desert and forest, but city and slum and country roadside are nursing their barbarians who may be to the new what Hun and Vandal were to the old.”
George asked a fundamental question: What exactly was the relationship between progress and poverty? Under the conditions of late-nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, he concluded, the relationship was toxic; progress spawned poverty. All the mammoth factories, miraculous machines, and soaring metropolises, every landmark of Progress with a capital P, incubated poverty, ignorance, morally asphyxiating materialism, and a looming social Armageddon. His peculiar answer to the paradoxical dilemma he worried about—a single tax on landed wealth—went down a political dead end, winding up as little more than a historical curiosity. But it is the question he asked, not his answer, that endures.
Long before Henry George entered the scene, his question already had. It was there at the creation of the Republic. Ferocious arguments between Hamilton and Jefferson and their legions of followers broke out immediately after the adoption of the Constitution. They didn’t come to blows over industrial capitalism, which in an underdeveloped country like the United States was at most a faint proposition. But Progress and what it might entail were very much at issue.
Alexander Hamilton envisioned a vigorous commercial civilization, urban-centered, absorbing the latest scientific and technological discoveries, resting on an extensive division of labor and expansive international trade, steered by private/public elites of merchant princes and statesmen who were deferred to by ordinary workaday folk. We recognize this world instantly: it has banks and manufactories, delights its inhabitants with a kaleidoscope of novelties and amusements, uproots settled ways of doing things, allures country people to pack up and head for the city, assigns pride of place to the wealthiest, feeds cravings for social status, and is in love with money. England, more than any other place on earth at the end of the eighteenth century, exemplified such a society. It was Hamilton’s model, a rich, fashionable, culturally sophisticated paragon of Progress.
For Thomas Jefferson, England was the example to be avoided at all costs. He imagined instead an agrarian republic of smallholding farmers and handicraftsmen integrated into local economies, engaged in but not dependent on domestic and international trade, and enjoying some measure of economic and therefore political independence thanks to their proprietary self-sufficiency. A world like that, made up of self-possessed individuals of roughly the same social rank, would be the foundation of a stable, egalitarian social order and a democratic one. It cultivated a robust suspicion of money, debt, and speculation, was leery of the city as a sinkhole of vice, and frowned on the race for social preferment. And it had a good chance of lasting for generations, Jefferson believed, thanks to the vast “unsettled” wilderness he went about acquiring as president from Napoleon through the Louisiana Purchase. Thanks to what then seemed an inexhaustible landscape, America enjoyed a unique reprieve from history, a blessed exemption from the English fate Hamilton yearned for.
In Jefferson’s eyes, English-style progress generated, inevitably, an ever-widening chasm between the wealthy and the destitute. Cities spawned luxury and cultural refinement, but also poverty, disease, beggary, and crime. The slavish dependency of people cut off from their own means of self-support, demoralized, prey to the power-hungry designs of their social and economic superiors, would soon enough sour the promise of democracy if Progress were allowed to infect America.
Anxieties about the latent immorality of commercial society articulated by Jefferson were shared even by such paladins of the free market as Adam Smith. He recognized that poverty and inequality were inevitable outcomes of the growth of the market, arguing that the market could not by itself relieve those “who by the products of their labor feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people should have such a share of the product of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.” Nor, he believed, could one depend on the powers that be because “civil government … so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or all those who have some property against those who have none at all.”
Hamilton instead feared the leveling instincts aroused by the Jeffersonians. They might threaten the property holdings of the rich and well-born (Hamilton, although not hailing from those rarefied precincts, nonetheless felt a powerful affinity for what passed for a native aristocracy in the New World). And by frightening those circles who were, he believed, the distinctive bearers of economic and cultural improvement, Progress would come to a dead stop, leaving the new country stagnant and at the mercy of European designs. These were the primordial differences that turned founding fatherhood into political fratricide at the dawn of the country’s history.
Arguably then, all the issues raised to a fever pitch during the first Gilded Age, the same ones that hibernated during our own second Gilded Age and have recently leapt from the shadows to ambush us now, bedeviled the country from the outset.
We should then conceive of a “long nineteenth century” lasting from postrevolutionary days through to the Great Depression of the 1930s.Not every year or decade for that matter was as fraught as 1877, to be sure. But the epoch that encompassed the transformation of a sliver of coastal villages, small farms, slave plantations, and a few port cities into a transcontinental commercial, agricultural, and industrial preeminence was a wrenching one. For those generations that lived through it, it often called forth a cri de coeur, recurring waves of resistance to the inexorable, a stubborn, multifarious insistence that the march of Progress was too spendthrift in human lives, that there were alternatives. That long nineteenth century of class against class climaxed in the labor insurgency that followed in the wake of the system’s Great Crash of 1929. It seemed to resolve itself in the New Deal. But the questions it raised have endured, resurfaced, and grown more pressing of late.
Economic and moral questions were, for our Gilded Age forebears, joined at the hip. In our own day, the antiseptic, mathematical language of risk assessment and probability analysis made that seem overly sentimental. For well more than a century, however, anxious Americans asked if the panting after money and social distinction might corrupt the country’s soul. For our Victorian ancestors, “parasite” was both a moral category and an economic one. Did wealth carry with it a moral dilemma, a confrontation with God? Or was it the royal road to social harmony? Or was it both? Was amassing wealth the touchstone of Progress, but also its fatal flaw?
Aristocracy and democracy, slavery and freedom, equality and individualism, labor and capital, god and mammon, progress and poverty: these are the antinomies that helped define the contours of the long nineteenth century, and especially the decades between the Civil War and the Great Depression. That is why this book begins there.Wait, before you go…
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