The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and the Lessons of a New World Order

The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and the Lessons of a New World Order

The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and the Lessons of a New World Order

The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and the Lessons of a New World Order

Synopsis

From the end of the nineteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth, the United States experienced unprecedented structural change. Advances in communication and manufacturing technology brought about a revolution for major industries such as railroads, coal, and steel. The still-growing nation established economic, political, and cultural entanglements with forces overseas. Local strikes in manufacturing, urban transit, and construction placed labor issues front and center in political campaigns, legislative corridors, church pulpits, and newspapers of the era.

The Long Gilded Age considers the interlocking roles of politics, labor, and internationalism in the ideologies and institutions that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. Presenting a new twist on central themes of American labor and working-class history, Leon Fink examines how the American conceptualization of free labor played out in iconic industrial strikes, and how "freedom" in the workplace became overwhelmingly tilted toward individual property rights at the expense of larger community standards. He investigates the legal and intellectual centers of progressive thought, situating American policy actions within an international context. In particular, he traces the development of American socialism, which appealed to a young generation by virtue of its very un-American roots and influences.

The Long Gilded Age offers both a transnational and comparative look at a formative era in American political development, placing this tumultuous period within a worldwide confrontation between the capitalist marketplace and social transformation.

Excerpt

One way or another, after 1875, there was growing
skepticism about the effectiveness of the autonomous and
self-correcting market economy, Adam Smith’s famous
“hidden hand,” without some assistance from state and
public authority. The hand was becoming visible in all sorts
of ways.

—E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875–1914

The Long Gilded Age encompasses a set of discrete but overlapping essays with three main themes. The first is that the arrangements and institutions that we now take for granted in American economic life depended, in fact, on a thick set of political ideas that were intensely fought over for decades before being consolidated in the opening years of the previous century. The second is that the question of workers’ power within industry lay at the center of many of these conflicts. Finally, and perhaps most provocatively, I argue for the internationalism of the processes at work across the prewar era. In particular, I hope to demonstrate that American outcomes offered but one set of variants within a worldwide confrontation between the capitalist marketplace and those determined to transform it according to socially defined ends, that American labor radicals and reformers were themselves intensely aware of the larger menu of historical and political possibilities of their age, and 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.

My contribution adds but a new twist to a mountain of judgments previously proffered upon a time period that itself is regularly open to vigorous debate about its duration and very name. Classically divided into two segments, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, as these years recede ever farther from the present, insiders have commonly lumped the two . . .

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