- Gilded Age Redux
In the wake of the 2008 recession and Occupy Wall Street's indictment of wealth inequality and "the 1 percent," many journalists and economists announced the arrival of a second Gilded Age. In The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (2015), labor historian Steve Fraser has identified a second Gilded Age, one in which Americans have failed to resist the inequalities of twenty-first-century capitalism. Yet the term "Gilded Age" has largely fallen out of favor among historians who have challenged the moralizing periodization in which an unprecedented era of wealth-making by late nineteenth-century "robber barons" was ameliorated by the Progressive Era that lasted from the turn of the century through World War I. Political and social historians have emphasized continuities in reform movements from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Elizabeth Sanders' Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877–1917 (1999) and Charles Postel's The Populist Vision (2007) revealed that Populism did not die out in 1896 but lived on in progressive agrarian legislative agendas and a forward-looking business politics. A single long Progressive Era emerged in, for example, Michael McGerr's A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (2003) and Nell Irvin Painter's classic synthesis Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era (1989; 2008). Rebecca Edwards' influential New Spirits: Americans in the "Gilded Age" (2006; 2010; 2015) dates a long Progressive Era from 1865 to 1905, and Richard R. John has questioned the historical accuracy of the term "Gilded Age" itself, given that late nineteenth-century Americans, despite their appreciation of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's 1873 satire The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, did not actually describe their era as such.1 [End Page 457]
Two noteworthy books, differing in scale and scope, have announced the return of the "Gilded Age." Leon Fink's The Long Gilded Age adopts the wide lens of a transnational and comparative analysis of labor politics and reform from 1880 to 1920, while Daniel Czitrom's New York Exposed illuminates a scandalous local landscape of New York City police corruption in the 1890s and moral reformers' crusade for a nonpartisan, anti-Tammany mode of municipal politics. Together they demonstrate the significance of the Gilded Age as a distinct historical era but also signal its relevance to our twenty-first-century sociopolitical order, particularly in terms of global capitalism, political corruption, and state-sanctioned violence.
Fink's book consists of five essays thematically focused on contests over the political ideologies that shaped late nineteenth-century economic life, ongoing struggles over workers' power, and transnational contexts for labor radicalism and reform. It internationalizes U.S. labor history and suggests "that the legacy of this earlier era of globalization offers possibilities yet to be fully tested in our own era, one famously baptized by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 as a new world order" (p. 1). Fink offers fresh and compelling interpretations of some of the most well-known actors and episodes of the Gilded Age, emphasizing throughout that the twentieth-century dominance of consolidated corporate capitalism and the weakening of labor unionism was not a foregone conclusion. Deftly argued and elegantly written, The Long Gilded Age revitalizes familiar topics and is essential reading for anyone researching or teaching in this period.
Fink begins by exploring the disjunctures between the free-labor ideal, which he calls the "American Ideology," and the realities of Gilded Age capitalism—in particular, industrial "wage slavery," contract labor, and convict labor. Fink also examines how labor unions successfully experimented with adapting principles of contractualism in the bituminous coal fields in 1897, the "Uprising of the...