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Our new gilded age

Will the excesses of income inequality trigger a new progressive backlash

Saxtons River

Humorist Mark Twain was among the first to call the years bookmarking the turn of the 19th century the “Gilded Age.”

Struck by the results of rapid industrialization, rampant greed, political corruption, and the growing divide between the Haves and Have-Nots, Twain drew attention to the United States’ growing social issues by writing revealing satires about a society whose problems spelled trouble for most people.

Novelists Henry James and Edith Wharton painted literary pictures of what it was like to be of, or outside, the wealthy class, much as Charles Dickens had, or as Downton Abbey does visually today.

During that Gilded Age, robber barons with deep pockets dined on delectables, accompanied by women with feathers and fans complementing their fabulous gowns.

They wintered in Manhattan mansions and fled to Newport “cottages” during the hot summer months while the 99 percent of their day subsisted in shared flats, scraping by, often on leftovers and hand-me-downs from those they served.

In today’s Gilded Age, Wall Street bankers dress down for dinner, their women in Gucci, Pucci, and Louis Vuitton casual wear. They live on Fifth Avenue as the barons did, or in rehabbed Brooklyn brownstones, perhaps, and they keep beachside condos in Boca Raton and Belize.

To paraphrase a popular Thai expression: “Same same but different.”

* * *

Harvard professor Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, draws important comparisons between the first Gilded Age and ours.

“Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were divided by class, ethnicity, and race, much as we are today,” he writes, and social observers “were concerned with how to intertwine new technology with face-to-face ties.”

Morality was eroding, communities were fracturing, and social Darwinism — economic survival of the fittest — was part of the dominant ideology, he explains.

Enter the Progressive Era, launched by left-leaning journalists like Jacob Riis, social activists like Ida Tarbell and Jane Addams, and authors like Upton Sinclair, who exposed the squalor of cities, the corruption of governments, the exploitation of immigrants, and the evils of big business and “banks too big to fail.”

* * *

As the 20th century moved into its second decade, progressives increasingly yearned for a return to small-town values, Putnam suggests, including connection and caring for neighbors in need. They remembered the mom-and-pop shops that had been displaced by Sears Roebuck and the A&P. They also decried “cheap entertainment” because it added to the decline of civic engagement.

Other great progressive thinkers had weighed in on the problems of a Gilded Age long before Putnam drew parallels to our own time. Victorian reformer Benjamin Disraeli, for example, wrote in 1845: “In great cities men are brought together by the desire of gain. They are not in a state of co-operation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes and for all the rest they are careless neighbors.”

The point is that the first Gilded Age seems to have foreshadowed our own time, in which wealth shrugs off poverty, 99 percent pleads while one percent play, and the promises of technology and innovation are overshadowed by what increasingly appears to be “fool’s gold.”

Then as now, as Putnam put it, “optimism [] battled pessimism grounded in the hard realities of seemingly intractable social ills,” and “new concentrations of wealth and corporate power raised questions about the real meaning of democracy.”

As we have entered a new century, we too have witnessed “impoverished ethnic minorities struggle with social injustice.” We have seen changes in workplace practices, priorities, and ethics that create new challenges for economists and employees alike.

Immigration is altering the face of America as it did the last time a new century was born.

And once again, “older strands of social connection are being abraded — even destroyed — by technological and economic and social change.”

* * *

The lessons of the Progressive movement that followed the 20th century’s Gilded Age are mixed.

Much of what we know from that period is enlightening and informs how we should go forward in compelling ways.

At the same time, we know from that experience that racism, classism, and an overwrought labor movement — as well as other inhibitors — proved to be major roadblocks in the struggle for beneficial, sustainable social change.

So the truth is that while we cannot go backwards, what the future might hold continues to be unclear, and often frightening.

We can only hope that if a new progressive era takes hold — and there is every indication that it might — we need to be mindful of lessons learned and be realistic and inclusive in developing a roadmap to a new and better place.

Perhaps we would do well to start by reading the works of Mark Twain, Ida Tarbell, Edith Wharton, Jacob Riis, and other social critics of that period.

They clearly have a thing or two to teach us — if only we can remain open to the lessons of another dubious golden age.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #253 (Wednesday, May 7, 2014). This story appeared on page D1.

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