We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin… our homes are covered with mortgages, labor impoverished; and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists… The fruits of toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for the few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes … tramps and millionaires.*
You might be forgiven for thinking that was something that came from the mouth of a modern Democrat lamenting on the decay of America and the rise of the rich under Donald Trump and his Republican minions. But you’d be wrong: it’s actually from the late 19th century. It was the preamble to the platform of the People’s Party, back before American politics was dominated by just two parties. Between 1870 and 1900, there were at least nine or ten political parties running for office in the USA, some of which merged or morphed into others in that period.
It’s not so much the number of parties that identified the era, but that America had a much more diverse political culture with a much wider range or platforms and perspectives from which to choose. And there was a lot more leftist, activist sentiment than today.
At least some of the issues and problems faced by the nation in the late 19th century were the same as they are today. The great and increasing disparity between the working classes and the rich was causing enormous social and political upset, just like today. People took to the streets to protest about it. Violently and often. Our Labour Day holiday is the result of workers’ protests. May Day celebrates the protests for an eight-hour workday. Our child labour laws came from similar protests.
But today, we don’t seem to have much of an organized protest movement to challenge the control of the government by the rich. Alvaro Sanchez, writing on the Common Dreams website, noted,
Tell people their gas taxes are going up and they will riot, literally. Tell people that 62 individuals hold the same amount of wealth as the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population and we don’t blink an eye.
An Oxfam report on wealth inequality is headlined, “Richest 1 percent bagged 82 percent of wealth created last year – poorest half of humanity got nothing.” The Oxfam website notes:
Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International said: “The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system. The people who make our clothes, assemble our phones and grow our food are being exploited to ensure a steady supply of cheap goods, and swell the profits of corporations and billionaire investors.”
Many of the economic and social conditions today are frighteningly similar to those in the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914), the time of the industrial revolution and the monopoly capitalists.
Yes, there was Occupy Wall Street, a short-lived protest movement that launched in 2011; it gave us some hope that people were not going to tolerate the wealth inequalities and pro-rich tax policies of Western governments, but it faded away after barely a year of action. Fickle media attention moved on.
It’s popular today to compare Trump’s America with various past states, like France on the eve of the Revolution, Germany in the 1930s, or Rome, especially under Caligula or Nero, or Rome in the late Republican period as the Republic was being destroyed (i.e. The Storm Before the Storm by Mike Duncan and this article).
Many historians since the ancient Greeks** have written that history repeats itself in some form or another ( called “historical recurrence“). Most don’t think it’s just a mechanical repetition of cycles of rise and collapse, however. Machiavelli opens Book 1, Ch. 39 of The Discourses with this warning not to draw too many parallels with history:
Any one comparing the present with the past will soon perceive that in all cities and in all nations there prevail the same desires and passions as always have prevailed; for which reason it should be an easy matter for him who carefully examines past events, to foresee those which are about to happen in any republic, and to apply such remedies as the ancients have used in like cases; or finding none which have been used by them, to strike out new ones, such as they might have used in similar circumstances. But these lessons being neglected or not understood by readers, or, if understood by them, being unknown to rulers, it follows that the same disorders are common to all times.
But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the similarities as mere coincidence. Human behaviour and psychology remain remarkably similar to those throughout history – greed features in everything from Biblical admonitions to morality plays. John Rollert wrote in The Atlantic:
We sometimes forget that the pursuit of commercial self-interest was largely reviled until just a few centuries ago. “A man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God,” St. Jerome said, expressing the prevailing belief in Christendom about the relative worthiness of a life devoted to trade…
The problem of money-making was not only that it favored earthly delights over divine obligations. It also enflamed the tendency to prefer our own needs over those of the people around us and, more worrisome still, to recklessly trade their best interests for our own base satisfaction. St. Thomas Aquinas, who ranked greed among the seven deadly sins, warned that trade which aimed at no other purpose than expanding one’s wealth was “justly reprehensible” for “it serves the desire for profit which knows no limit.”
As historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in 2005, history is “… an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected.” He added that studying these historical forces gives us a “…capacity to help us understand the world.”
Pick pretty much any dictatorship or personality-cult government and someone has written about the similarities between it and Trump’s America. With little effort, you can lay out parallels between current and historical events (there are even disturbingly close parallels drawn between it and Orwell’s 1984). It’s a popular trope among political commentators, but it doesn’t solve the problems or address the real issue: greed.
The quote at the top could have been written any time in the past couple of years rather than more than a century ago. As close as echoes to Rome or pre-war Germany may seem to be, you really don’t have to look that far to see parallels. They’re right there in America itself, mostly in the period between about 1870 and 1920. And some even claim that it is more like the American isolationist period that ran from 1920 well into the 1930s and the Great Depression:
Isolationism and intolerance in the 1920s smothered the openness and cooperation necessary for healthy economic growth. Closing markets triggered, in part, the Great Depression, cutting off the country from needed resources, consumers, and allies abroad. Aggressive anti-democratic regimes, especially in Germany and Japan, filled the international vacuum left by the United States.
American in the late 19th century went through a lengthy period of social upheaval. The middle class was drained of its wealth and power, the working class increasingly impoverished (and some say enslaved), while the elite rich consumed everything not nailed down and bought increasing power and influence in Washington. Anyone who protested against the capitalists and the monopolists was attacked in the media as “Communards” or even communist (decades before any state calling itself communist was established, this term was in reference to the Paris Commune revolt of 1871).
America in the so-called Gilded Age was a nation of egregious and confrontational class distinctions, as well as racism – the 1917 anti-immigration act was even more restrictive than Trump’s anti-immigration orders, but eerily similar in intent: to preserve white dominance in America.
What changed, what brought a reduction of the class gap was not some great epiphany in the government: it was the Great Depression. That levelled the playing field somewhat, but the decay started again and has been accelerating since the mid-1960s. It also showed that laissez-faire capitalism was an abject failure as a national policy, but many didn’t learn that lesson.
To be clear: the problem isn’t capitalism per se. It’s the unrestricted, laissez-faire capitalism that lets “…capitalism run its own course with as little interference as possible.” Laissez-faire capitalism is an economic system that fails the people, but benefits the rich and the greedy. But since Ronald Reagan every Republican government in the US has pushed the nation further into the laissez-faire system. The result, as Paul Roberts, chair of the Institute for Political Economy writes,
The one percent have pulled off an economic and political revolution. By offshoring manufacturing and professional service jobs, US corporations destroyed the growth of consumer income, the basis of the US economy, leaving the bulk of the population mired in debt. Deregulation was used to concentrate income and wealth in fewer hands and financial firms in corporations “too big to fail,” removing financial corporations from market discipline and forcing taxpayers in the US and Europe to cover bankster losses. Environmental destruction has accelerated as economists refuse to count the exhaustion of nature’s resources as a cost and as corporations impose the cost of their activities on the environment and on third parties who do not share in the profits.
Laissez-faire capitalism was also the economic model that propelled America through the Second Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century to the railroad barons and industrial tycoons and culminated in the Great Depression. It is the foundation of modern globalism. It was the darling of Ayn Rand, who also deified greed when she railed against any government oversight on business or wealth accumulation whining that it forced “exceptional men” to be “held down by the majority.” If Ayn Rand came in a colouring book, it would surely be in Donald Trump’s thin book collection. Laissez-faire is simply lipstick on greed and self-interest. It remains popular among so-called libertarians.
Karl Polanyi, in his 1944 book, The Great Transformation, presciently warned that, “..whenever the profit-making impulse becomes deadlocked with the need to shield people from its harmful side effects, voters are tempted by the “fascist solution”: reconcile profit and security by forfeiting civic freedom… Once the laissez-faire machine started running, it cheerfully annihilated the people and the natural environment that it made use of, unless it was restrained.” Which is exactly what is happening with Trump and America today.
But let’s not kid ourselves: America isn’t alone in this. It’s a problem throughout the west. A pro-wealthy, anti-working class mentality is strong in many other nations. In his book In The Age of Increasing Inequality: The Astonishing Rise Of Canada’s 1%, professor of economics at Dalhousie University Lars Osberg, a professor of economics at Dalhousie University warned that similar wealth disparities were leading Canada down the same path. As noted in a review in the Huffington Post:
Since 1980, the bottom half of Canada’s earners have actually seen their earnings in the workforce shrink, when adjusted for inflation. Only government transfers — in the form of welfare, disability, child and other benefits — have saved the bottom half from being materially worse off today than a generation ago.
Meanwhile, among the top one per cent, incomes have more than doubled — and income growth has been even stronger for the top 0.1 per cent. The higher you are on the income ladder, the better you’ve done in the past 40 years.
A story on Global News this year was titled, “Canada’s richest families own as much wealth as 3 provinces combined.” It noted:
The country’s most affluent families are worth $3 billion on average, while the median net worth in Canada is just under $300,000, meaning that half of families own more and half less than that. And while wealth at the top grew by $800 million per family between 2012 and 2016, a rate of 37 per cent, Canada’s median net worth grew by only $37,000, an increase of 15 per cent.
A study on Canada’s wealth gap by the Broadbent Institute found that, “Canadians underestimate the breadth and depth of wealth inequality… the distribution of wealth in Canada is different from what Canadians think it is, and a far cry from what they think it should be.” The report concludes:
…a large majority of Canadians — regardless of their political leaning — feel the government is able to reduce the gap with progressive policies and programs. Awareness and desire for action is strong among all Canadians, regardless of geography, demographics and political preference.
That assumes a government not dominated by the wealthy, as it is the USA. Osberg identifies some of the threats of wealth disparity: the loss of social programs that benefit the greater good. For example:
As the rich grow richer, they stand to lose more, and so become more defensive about holding on to their wealth. The wealthy today spend considerable money helping their children get a leg up, and as they grow wealthier, they can spend even more. The gap in equality of opportunity is rising. And equally importantly, the wealthy have less motivation to support a strong public education system. After all, why would you want to spend money educating your children’s competition?
Which is exactly what we can see in the USA today under Betsy Devos, the billionaire Secretary of Education who has many times expressed her disdain for public education and support for private, wealth-based schooling. Time magazine called her, “…one of the most controversial members of the Trump Administration” and noted:
Prior to becoming Education Secretary, DeVos was a prominent school choice activist, and over the past year she has continued to advocate for charter schools and programs that allow parents to use vouchers to send their child to a private school.
And DeVos is just one of the super-rich in Trump’s cabinet. In 2017, Forbes magazine noted,
(Trump’s) Cabinet appears to be the richest in modern U.S. history, worth nearly $4.3 billion in aggregate. And it’s full of some of his oldest friends — and biggest donors.
With people being either fired or quitting around Trump, the picture changed, but not much. In 2018, the net worth of Trump’s cabinet was $2.3 billion – almost half of that worth in DeVos herself. The rich cannot address the wealth inequalities they are trying to exacerbate and protect for themselves and their families. Salon magazine wrote a piece about it titled “The Trump administration is a government of billionaires and their sycophants.”
But despite the exposure of the rot in the system, little protest is sparked and nothing is actually done about it in government (the US Congress, at least before the midterms, was also dominated by millionaires – more than 200 members of Congress were millionaires. As noted on BigThink.com:
…in 2015 the median net worth of a US Senator was $3.2 million, for a Congress member it was $1.1 million, and for members of the House of Representatives it was $900,000. Meanwhile, the typical American household for 2015 was worth just under $80,000.
It’s a long way to fall from Benjamin Franklin, who,
…presented himself as the epitome of a new American Dream, a man who emerged from “Poverty & Obscurity” to attain “a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World.” Franklin found nothing to be ashamed of in riches and repute, provided they were turned toward some broader purpose. His success allowed him to retire from the printing business at 42 so that he might spend the balance of his life on initiatives—civic, scientific, philanthropic—that all enhanced the common good.
Millionaires and billionaires dominating any government is worse than the cliched foxes running the hen house. Of course they will pass laws to benefit and enrich themselves. Trump didn’t drain the swamp as promised: he filled it with hungry, greedy alligators.
We can only hope that the discrepancies and the domination of our democracies by the oligarchs will bring back a spirit of protest and change among our younger residents to address this growing problem – assuming they can be pried away from their phones. And they take to the streets before, as Osberg warns, we have,
…a Canada where public schools and urban infrastructure are crumbling, the economy runs through constant boom-and-bust cycles, and ideological demagogues run rampant in the political arena.
* Quoted in The Age of Acquiescence:The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, by Steve Fraser, Little Brown, USA, 2015. A book I highly recommend, especially for its exploration of the economic and social conditions in the Second Industrial Revolution.
** i.e. “It is no great wonder if in long process of time, while fortune takes her course hither and thither, numerous coincidences should spontaneously occur. If the number and variety of subjects to be wrought upon be infinite, it is all the more easy for fortune, with such an abundance of material, to effect this similarity of results.” Plutarch: Life of Sertorius (taken from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations). However, it was Max Beerbohm who, in 1896, popularized the adage that, “History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.”