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Written by Jim Jordal   
Friday, 05 December 2008

THE NEW "GILDED AGE"

By Jim Jordal

 The LORD stands up to plead and to judge the people. The LORD will enter into judgment with the elders of his people and the princes of the land because you have eaten up the vineyard and taken the spoil of the poor into your houses. What do you mean by beating My people to pieces and grinding the faces of the poor, says the Lord GOD of hosts?

Paraphrase of Isaiah 3:13-15

Human history is replete with countless examples of the above verses carried into action by the various domination systems that have oppressed common people for millennia. According to theologian Marcus Borg, the central dynamic of a domination system is "the political and economic domination of the many by the few and the use of religious claims to legitimate it." I might add, "and the use of force to sustain it."

This column and the one next week will attempt to compare two so-called "Gilded Ages" of American history. The first occurred over 100 years ago during the rise of the great American corporations. The second began with financial excesses of the 1980s Reagan era and still continues.

The first Gilded Age, or the period of American history from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the turn of the century and the beginning of the Progressive era, takes its name from a book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, by Mark Twain and Charles Warner. The period was characterized by the building of shockingly great fortunes in resource exploitation, commerce, and banking through the development of the "trust" form of business organization. Trusts were intertwined business combinations dedicated to profit making through monopoly control, restraint of free trade, worker and resource exploitation, and subversion of government—especially the US Senate. It was a period of "laissez-faire" economics with little government regulation and unfettered operation of free markets on the "Wealth of Nations" model advocated by the great economist Adam Smith.

Equally shocking was the flaunting by the holders of great wealth (also dubbed "Robber Barons" by various muckraking writers) of their largesse in garish displays of opulence such as that seen in the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, and along the Hudson River in New York. The ostentation of the rich only "gilded the lily" of massive wealth, but did not obscure the abject poverty and poor living conditions of those who toiled in their factories and mines.

It was a time of great suffering for the largely urban masses of immigrant laborers who toiled for pittances with little protection against horrid working conditions and exploitation by their employers. Child labor was the rule rather than the exception, as John Spargo reported in his shocking book, The Bitter Cry of the Children, exposing child labor conditions in the mining and coal breaking occupations. Conditions in the meat packing industry in Chicago motivated socialist Upton Sinclair to revolt the nation with his 1906 novel, The Jungle. Sinclair accused Chicago meat packing companies of such odious practices as selling meat from diseased animals, refusing to discard meat in the sausage vats when workers fell in, and using floor sweepings (including poisoned rats) as additions to the sausage.

Then there was Andrew Carnegie, a brilliant but penurious Scotsman, who built his Carnegie Steel Works on pooling agreements to divide up markets, union-busting, hired strikebreakers, and cutthroat competition. Perhaps to atone for his economic sins he later in life donated millions to libraries across the country. And nobody could eclipse John D. Rockefeller who built his Standard Oil Company by gaining an economic stranglehold over formerly competing oil companies. He eventually created from them a gigantic trust, which coordinated all their activities, prevented competition, and maximized profits. Rockefeller evidently saw no conflict between his many shady or illegal activities and religious faith, since he remained a stalwart deacon of his Baptist church during most of his life.

One outcome of this period of rapid growth and crushing oppression of working people was the sad fact that between half and two-thirds of working class families had incomes too small to buy adequate food, clothing, and shelter. And forget such luxuries as savings, insurance, recreation, education, health care, travel, and charity.

Of course there were also benefits arising from the wildly varied behaviors of these pirates of industry. Without them the US might never have become an industrialized powerhouse able to win two great wars. We might also never have become a world leader in innovation and invention. And we would almost certainly have escaped the ravaging effects of great wealth used only to benefit the holders. More later.

 

Last Updated ( Friday, 05 December 2008 )