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Andrew Carnegie: Tycoon Medievalism

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Something that drives me really crazy is when people today cite Andrew Carnegie as a good capitalist because he gave away a bunch of money to build libraries. People saw through this at the time. Approximately half of Pennsylvania towns he offered libraries to rejected them because they didn’t want his blood money. Carnegie was an awful person who used his philanthropy to justify his own rapacious and murderous behavior. We should be able to see through this today and look at him as some model for the wealthy of the present. We should also know more about him. This is a good short piece on Carnegie and Gilded Age philanthropy:

Kathleen Davis calls the philosophy behind his philanthropy “tycoon medievalism.” There was something feudalistic and paternalistic in Carnegie, but also something new in the way he redistributed wealth extracted from the earth and from laborers, thousands of them children, towards his own lasting fame. Davis argues that he “institutionalized philanthropy and thereby established an impersonal, self-perpetuating mechanism for redistributing capital into symbolic capital.” The famous music hall, the many libraries, the continuing work of the Foundation, the symbolic capital, all have done a remarkable job of obscuring the man’s ruthless accumulation of economic capital and, of course, political power.

Carnegie believed that sharing wealth through wages was foolish, since it would be wasted on “indulgence of appetite,” not the perpetuation of the race. In “The Gospel of Wealth” (1889) Carnegie wrote, “While the law of [of competition] may sometimes be hard for the individual, it is best for the race.” He meant, of course, the white Anglo-Saxon race. It was the mission of men like himself to direct the progress of the race by spending for them as he saw fit. Money on the poor in either wages or charity was wasted, but monuments with his name on them showed his beneficence and guiding hand.

Davis argues that Carnegie’s wealth allowed him to perpetuate his self-serving beliefs and the bogus racial science of the day. She reminds us that this kind of philanthropy is a profoundly undemocratic form of social restructuring. Carnegie avowed that economic inequality was necessary and good for the world as he saw it. The fact that inequality is a root cause of authoritarianism wouldn’t have bothered him, since he was at the top of the heap.

What a role model.

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