During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, the working class organized, rose up and took revenge against the industrial robber barons, monopolists, Wall Street and other oligarchs oppressing them.
There were violent strikes and riots, and as historian Steve Fraser tells Bill, “It was not unusual for working class militias, armed militias, to parade through the streets of our major metropolitan centers to alert their enemies that if they were attacked they were prepared to defend themselves. That’s how tense in terms of class warfare things were.”
So why haven’t we seen people rising up to the same degree in what some refer to as our New Gilded Age? Fraser says a combination of factors including workplace intimidation, mass surveillance and intolerance for public assembly are “hemming people into impossible places to voice their protest.” Watch:
Watch Bill’s full interview with Steve Fraser.
Was the first Gilded Age class war?
Yeah, absolutely it was class war. No question about it. And it took many forms, in the industrial workplace, all throughout agrarian America, both out in the Midwest and in the South, the populist movement. You know, if you read the language of that era you would think the language of today, which we think is rather kind of extreme, you would think it was kindergarten language compared. Wall Street, for example, was depicted as a kind of hydra-headed monster. As a kind of great vampire, oh, to quote Matt Taibbi, but he gets that from 100 years ago. But working people were considered offal. Really, they were considered this kind of immigrant rabble that, and people justified shooting them down in the streets. And in fact they were shot down in the streets.
Let me give you an example of how fraught relations were. In the 1880s and 1890s it was not unusual for working class militias, militias, armed militias, to parade through the streets of our major metropolitan centers to alert their enemies that if they were attacked they were prepared to defend themselves. That’s how tense in terms of class warfare things were. And of course the record of bloody confrontations in, during the Gilded Age is endless. The Homestead strike against Carnegie Steel. The Pullman strike against Pullman.
Governors who were obliged to, well, tycoons were calling in the state militia to defend the tycoons.
And the federal government. When the Pullman strike is broken it’s Grover Cleveland bringing in federal troops to break that Pullman strike. And this has happened, court injunctions all over the place to make strikes illegal.
Do you know that the Sherman Antitrust Act, which was supposed to stop the trusts and break up monopolies, was passed in 1890. Until about the 1930s, in the 1930s, the overwhelming number of cases brought under the Sherman Antitrust Act were against unions as conspiracies in restraint of trade.
I learned that from you. You talk about the language of the first Gilded Age. Back in 1879 some economist noted, quote, “a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution.” I mean there were these violent strikes and riots. You could hear whispers of people talking about carnivals of revenge. That is the poor were going to take revenge on the oppression they were experiencing. None of that today.
No. None of that today. And as a consequence, and that’s good. Who wants blood in the streets? Nobody wants blood in the streets. But the role of intimidation at the workplace, of fear, still is enormously powerful in inhibiting people from rebelling. The fact that, you know, everybody knows, I’m talking about millions of people working in every sector of our economy. That they can be let go at a moment’s notice. They don’t need them. There’s plenty of people out, that’s why quite frankly the business community is very gung ho for comprehensive immigration reform, because part of what they want to do is eliminate some of the legal obstacles to taking advantage of that pool of very low wage, exploitable labor which immigrants represent.
So we think, okay, there are no more militias. There are no more federal troops marching in the streets. There’s no more nasty language. Well, there’s some but it’s not what it once was. But we should not think that for that reason fear is no longer part of the equation when looking at the reasons for acquiescence.
What about, you know, at Occupy Wall Street. The federal government wasn’t hanging around as far as you could see, but the New York police were. And out of that came several serious challenges and suits. Oakland. The local police were all over the Occupy movement there. That contributes to the acquiescence.
It does contribute. And when you think about it, if you compare Occupy Wall Street, which was I think a great thing because it opened up a conversation that hadn’t been had in this country for a long time. But after all, was it a threat to the powers that be? Oh please. Give me a break. Not even close.
When you think about what went on in 1890s America and compare it to Occupy Wall Street there’s not, it’s a joke to think of them as a serious threat to the security of, say in this case, New York City or Oakland, California. And yet, the level of police interference, surveillance, arrest, the intolerance for public assembly, supposedly guaranteed by our Constitution, hemming people into impossible places to voice their protest.
Franklin Roosevelt is famous for saying, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We now live in a society in which really the watch word has become from on high, the only thing we have to fear is not being afraid enough. We live in a kind of politics of fear that’s encouraged at the summits of power, at the very summits of power. And surveillance is unleashed against movements that don’t begin to represent any kind of threat to the established order.
Producer: Candace White. Associate Producer: Arielle Evans. Editor: Sikay Tang.