, October 02, 2010
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The beginnings of corporate domination over American life
In this dense, highly illuminating effort the author explores the profound social and cultural impacts that accompanied the rise of huge corporations that increasingly came to dominate the US economy by the late nineteenth century. It is not the formal corporate structure that is the author’s primary concern, although the distant, anonymous, and non-liable ownership is part of his theme. He focuses on the broad cultural mystification, obfuscation, manipulation, powerlessness, and exploitation that were a result of corporate-controlled developments in such areas as the rise of great cities, Western land utilization, the vast railroad network, colossal buildings, mechanization, communications, the political process, scientific management, advertising, retailing, etc. Much of this was only vaguely recognized at the time: the Gilded Age was a “period of trauma, of change so swift and thorough that many Americans seemed unable to fathom the extent of the upheaval.”
Corporations were once chartered to perfume only specific tasks for the public good, but private, for-profit incorporation by the end of the Civil War had essentially become a right. However, according to the author “incorporation wrenched American society from the moorings of familiar values, … the process proceeded by contradiction and conflict.”
Corporate-led developments essentially scaled daily life beyond the understanding and control of individuals. The independent artisan and farmer, considered essential to a Jeffersonian, virtuous political order, could scarcely contend. The idea of an individual rising on his own merits, by his own labor – the so-called free-labor ideology – gave way to internal corporate bureaucratic, hierarchical control and the exterior power to force compliance with corporate demands. Wage labor was no longer the “imagined nightmare of independent artisans, but was the typical lot of American workers.” Ironically, the myth of the virtuous, deserving workman was preserved by the success of the captains of industry.
The large, grandiose downtown department store is symbolic of the era. Workers and citizens, now designated as “consumers” in the new incorporated world, found themselves overawed, manipulated, and enticed by magnificent displays of goods for the home and personal use that sent the subtle message that those items were needed for a respectable middle-class life. The dazzling displays left little room to reflect on the labor or process to produce those goods, despite the fact the purchasers were themselves often laborers. The political process also was transformed into election “spectacles” orchestrated by corporate-backed political parties; again, an artificial emphasis obscured the actual workings of an institution or process. “Like advertising, the party system produced an illusion, which disguised its character, its alienation of political power from the very producers of the wealth that supported the system.”
As the author suggests, these extensive cultural changes in American life, combined with the economic deflation and depressions of the era, produced strong reactions from workers and farmers, at times violent – for example, the Great Railway Strike of 1877 and the Haymarket Square affair of 1886, a fall out from the eight hour movement. The Knights of Labor, the largest labor organization of the times, sought to counter capitalism through producer and consumer cooperatives. Perhaps the greatest reaction to the corporate control of the economy came from the Populists, who originated from the farmer alliances in the south and southwest and were the last and greatest of the third-party movements after the Civil War. They advocated for significant government oversight and ownership but were ultimately no match for the powerful forces arrayed against them.
The author suggests that the “political battles and ideological campaigns in the Gilded Age took the appearance of struggles over the meaning of the word ‘America,’ over the political and cultural authority to define the term and thus to say what reality was and ought to be.” Furthermore, “In the antithesis between ‘union’ and ‘corporation,’ the age indeed witnessed an impassable gulf of troubling proportions, for it remained unsettled on which side lay the true America.”
The author concludes his analysis with an examination of the “White City,” or the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. It was literally a glittering exhibition of the latest corporate technological developments. Its message was that a “beneficent” future could be had “through a corporate alliance of business, culture, and the state.” It was evidently absurd that mere farmers and day-laborers could run such a complex and benevolent system. But not more than a year later, the huge Pullman strike beginning in Chicago shut down rail traffic throughout the nation. Pullman too was a planned community, where workers supposedly had access to amenities to which the rich were accustomed. But, in fact, with the pleasantness came rules and restrictions. One critic referred to the example of Pullman as “well-wishing feudalism” with the pretense of providing for the happiness of the people but with the real agenda of authoritarian control. At least in this instance, the cultural veneer proved to be insufficient in disguising the exercise of power and in teaching obedience.
“The White City seemed to have settled the question of the true and real meaning of America. It seemed the victory of the elites in business, politics, and culture over dissident but divided voices of labor, farmers, immigrants, blacks, and women.” “But the ragged edges of 1894 implied that even in defeat advocates of ‘union’ over ‘corporation’ retained their vision, their voice, and enough power to unsettle the image of a peaceful corporate order.” The author is surely correct in pointing out that these tensions continued to resonate over the next four decades.
As said, the book is a very tightly packed look at the rise of corporations in America and the cultural hegemony that they began to impose. It is well written but is slow going due to the very detailed analysis of the author. This review hardly touches on the many areas of life that the author demonstrates were impacted by incorporation. In the modern era, corporate culture and control are simply assumed – actually not even noticed. In the nineteenth century that was not the case. A significant minority in that era sensed that the future would be tremendously changed and not all for the good. And they were mostly right.