- The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and the Lessons of a New World Order by Leon Fink
The Gilded Age has gained a new importance in US historical memory and imagination since the Occupy Wall Street movement drew national attention to the growing disparities between the wealthiest 1 percent and everybody else. Many have concluded that we now live in a second Gilded Age, and it thus makes sense that historians turn their attention to the first one for parallels to, and even lessons for, our present era. In The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (2015), Steve Fraser has lamented the absence in our second Gilded Age of great labor movements on the scale of those that characterized the first Gilded Age. In The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and the Lessons of a New World Order, Leon Fink offers his own, significantly more optimistic, observations of the last Gilded Age for our current one. He does so in part, as the title of the book suggests, by expanding the Gilded Age in both time and space. Temporally, Fink’s Gilded Age begins with the end of the Civil War and extends through the Progressive Era to the dawn of the New Deal. Fink also extends the Gilded Age spatially, revealing important European influences on US labor politics as well as highlighting parallels between the political and economic crises taking place in the United States and those in other industrial societies.
The Long Gilded Age begins with a discussion of what Fink describes as an “American ideology” of individual economic freedom that underwrote, and also significantly narrowed, the possibilities for relations between employers and employees emerging after the end of slavery in the United States. Even the ideal form of free labor imagined by most US Americans entailed primarily the freedom of contract between individual employees and employers. In reality, however, what was called free labor was even less free than that and included a range of coercive practices ranging from ordinary wage theft to highly coercive labor contracts. The courts generally interpreted free labor to sanction a wide range of coercive measures by employers, but the labor movement also, Fink shows, employed the ideal of the free contract to argue against these abuses. Thus while the “American ideology” of free labor foreclosed many collective forms of worker politics, it also enabled others. The Long Gilded Age emphasizes the efforts of workers, and allied intellectuals and policy makers, to push this American ideology to serve the interests of labor and, in some cases, labor’s efforts to arrive at a more robust basis for working-class politics.
The great strikes around the turn of the century, and the brutal means by which employers and the state suppressed them, did not, Fink maintains, point to permanent features of US capitalism, either in the old Gilded Age or the new. Rather, in Fink’s reading, they revealed the contingencies and possibilities for worker politics then and now. [End Page 107] The Homestead strike of 1892 and the Pullman strike of 1894 did reveal how US capitalists like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and George Pullman could rely on the armed might of the state and the legal power of the courts to suppress worker demands. But the ruthless means employed against workers by Carnegie, Frick, and Pullman also exposed them to unwelcome public opprobrium, revealing limits to their freedom of action in an at least nominally democratic public sphere. The successful mediation of the anthracite strike of 1902, brought about by the federal government, the United Mine Workers of America, and J. P. Morgan, pointed to a possibility for government mandated arbitration of labor disputes. While Australia and New Zealand did present examples of such compulsory arbitration, the US labor movement opted instead to pursue the British model of eliminating pro-employer legislation to allow for unrestricted collective bargaining. Fink perhaps...