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Rewriting the Gilded Age in the New Gilded Age



Steve Fraser excerpts some of his new book on what we can learn today from resistance in the Gilded Age in The Nation. A bit from his selection on the Knights of Labor:

Like the Populist movement, it practically constituted an alternative social universe of reading rooms, newspapers, lecture societies, libraries, clubs, and producer cooperatives. Infused with a sense of the heroic and the “secular sacred,” the Knights envisioned themselves as if on a mission, appealing to the broad middling ranks of local communities to rescue the nation and preserve its heritage of republicanism and the dignity of productive labor.

This “Holy Order,” ambiguous and ambivalent in ultimate purpose, nevertheless mustered a profound resistance to the whole way of life represented by industrial capitalism even while wrestling with ways of surviving within it. So it offered everyday remedies—abolishing child and convict labor, establishing an income tax and public ownership of land for settlement not speculation, among others. Above all, however, it conveyed a yearning for an alternative, a “cooperative commonwealth” in place of the Hobbesian nightmare that Progress had become.

Transgressive by its nature, this “strange enthusiasm” shattered and then recombined dozens of more parochial attachments. The intense heat of the mass strike fused these shards into something more daring and generous-minded. Everything about it was unscripted. The mass strike had a rhythm all its own, syncopated and unpredictable as it spread like an epidemic from worksite to marketplace to slum. It had no command central, unlike a conventional strike, but neither was it some mysterious instance of spontaneous combustion. Rather, it had dozens of choreographers who directed local uprisings that nevertheless remained elastic enough to cohere with one another while remaining distinct. Its program defied easy codification. At one moment and place it was about free speech, at another about a foreman’s chronic abuse, here about the presence of scabs and armed thugs, there about a wage cut.

This is a bit romanticized for me. For one, it’s hard to deal with the 19th century working class without dealing with the fact that if there was one thing that tied them together, it was white supremacy. And maybe Fraser deals with that in the larger book. And maybe it doesn’t matter that much. In the end, everyone is going to create the past they want to use to understand their life and what they want the future to look like. Is it more important today that Americans were racist in the 19th century or that they found ways to resist the comically evil capitalists of the Gilded Age? The answer is both. But can we look past the racism of the 19th century to try and find lessons for today? I’d like to think so.

I do definitely think that the recent recasting of the Gilded Age by Fraser, Richard White, and others, is a useful corrective to those who have tried to apologize or explain away the actions of Gilded Age capitalists in the last 20 years.

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