In his 2017 book The Republic for Which It Stands, Stanford historian Richard White describes America’s Gilded Age, spanning from the late 19th to early 20th century, as an era of great wealth, greater poverty, and all-around excess.
America then, he writes, was a country “transformed by immigration, urbanization, environmental crisis, political stalemate, new technologies, the creation of powerful corporations, income inequality, failures of governance, mounting class conflict, and increasing social, cultural, and religious diversity.”
Working people experienced “relentless downward pressure on wages,” and “the greatest rewards went not to those who labored to produce goods, but to those who controlled access to capital.” Corruption and corporate bribery pervaded.
If that sounds familiar, it should. White argues, as do many, that there are profound parallels between the first Gilded Age and the current moment, from exploding inequality to rising corporate power to racist backlashes against immigrants and black Americans.
On the premiere of season two of the Future Perfect podcast, White explains there’s also a parallel in how the wealthy of that era, and the current era, responded to these crises.
Led by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, arguably the country’s first large-scale philanthropist, the Gilded Age’s wealthy embraced a philosophy of noblesse oblige in which they compensated for their outrageous fortunes by “giving back.”
Carnegie, famously, financed the construction of nearly 1,700 libraries across the United States. But could that really make up for the thousands of workers who were killed and maimed in his mills? Those employees, even if they survived, were working too many hours to be able to check out and read library books.
Today’s megaphilanthropists might not run brutal steel mills. But they are, just like Carnegie, asking us to focus less on how they earned their money and more on how they give it away. That would have been a mistake in Carnegie’s case, and thankfully, during the Progressive era in the first part of the 20th century, Americans didn’t fall for his pitch. Instead, they adopted a national income tax, tough antitrust enforcement, and anti-corruption measures to prevent unjust fortunes from amassing in the first place.
In the 21st century, the same question arises: Is donating good enough, or is it a distraction from creating a just social order?
Listen to the full episode above. Below are a few of the writings we reference in the episode, which provide some additional context:
- Richard White’s history of the Gilded Age, and a short review hitting the main points;
- A 1911 book examining the conditions of Carnegie’s steel mills;
- The staggering death rates at Carnegie’s mills;
- Hamlin Garland’s visit to the Homestead Mill;
- Carnegie’s “The Gospel of Wealth”;
- How Carnegie got into funding libraries.
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