Will We Survive This New Gilded Age?


Shift Reads

From Pittsburgh to Palo Alto, with Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward ringing in my ears.

The Carrie Furnaces, site of Pittsburgh’s Thrival Festival

A recent visit to Pittsburgh (NewCo partnered with the Thrival Innovation + Music Festival) reminded me that to understand our future, in particular when that future seems threatened and deeply uncertain, it is often wise to look to our past.

At the bar of the overly hip Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, fellow traveler Marc Ruxin and I were discussing the rather improbable rise of Pittsburgh as a verifiable city of the future. Ruxin, an entrepreneur in the music, marketing and cannabis industries, was marveling at the fact that the city was once the wealthiest place in America, the center of western industrial capitalism. It was Pittsburgh’s then-nascent forges which drove the Union’s dominance over the South in the Civil War, and it was in Pittsburgh that some of America’s greatest industrial entrepreneurs — Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, and Westinghouse — created the nation’s first truly generation-spanning wealth.

And it was in Pittsburgh that industrial capitalism found its first convulsive series of mortal conflicts. Pittsburgh’s 1877 railway riots, part of a nationwide series of strikes in which hundreds died, marked the beginning of a decades-long renegotiation between industrial workers and their fabulously wealthy capitalist bosses. During that period, the world fought two world wars and slowly crystallized the system of western democracy familiar to most of us in the technology and media industries.

Anyone who’s paying attention would agree that today, that very system of democracy is now in crisis. Once again we find ourselves in the early, confusing stages of a new economic era. Those industrial barons have yielded to the new lords of information — Gates, Page, and Zuckerberg have replaced Carnegie, Morgan, and Mellon.

As Ruxin and I were discussing this state of affairs, he asked if I’d ever read “that book, you know, the science fiction novel we all had to read in high school about a socialist utopia?” Demonstrating my ability to answer any literary question with a cliché, I answered “Brave New World? Animal Farm? Logan’s Run? 1984?”

“No, no,” Ruxin responded. “None of those. Shit man, you don’t remember? The one where every job paid the same? Where the guy from the 1800s wakes up in the year 2000?”

I admitted I had no idea what Ruxin was talking about, but he insisted I had to. Everyone knew about this book. It was a sensation in the late 1800s, he told me. Societies sprung up around the world to talk about the book’s ideas, he recalled. Oh what was its name?

“Google it, dude,” I said, and ordered another bespoke whisky for us both. And Ruxin did, triumphantly returning in a few seconds the book’s title: Looking Backward 2000 to 1887, by Edward Bellamy. “You have to read it,” Ruxin implored.

With a few taps, the book was tucked into my Kindle reading list. Over the past ten days, I did indeed read Bellamy’s Gilded Age best seller.

When Looking Backward debuted, few predicted the book’s long-term impact. In fact, the novel was topped only by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur for the best selling book of the entire 19th century. Here’s how the New York Times described its impact (in a review written 100 years after its publication):

At the height of the Gilded Age, with flunkies fitted out in livery, dudes wearing diamond stickpins and American heiresses searching for husbands among the shabby dukes and earls of Europe, a book about a future society in which privilege had disappeared did not seem pertinent. Yet in hindsight it appears that the novel could not have been more perfectly timed. America had become volatile. Enormous trusts were fixing prices and controlling whole industries. Laboring men, fighting for shorter hours and more pay, clashed in the streets with paid private armies. Big-city bosses were inventing the modern system of graft. Anarchists were cooking dynamite in tenement kitchens. To that uproarious stage Bellamy delivered a script of future stability and prosperity.

The novel’s hero, a member of the privileged class, falls asleep in 1887 Boston and awakes 113 years later to a utopian society where western capitalism had been abandoned. Instead, America had become one very large, very well run corporation, a corporation which had been nationalized. It’s as if Amazon won, and Bezos then bequeathed his creation to the state. Critics would call it state-sponsored socialism, or even totalitarian communism, but Bellamy’s version had a distinctly American flavor: the individual liberties of our Constitution were largely intact — and most conflict had been resolved through the application of what might best be understood to be a Universal Basic Income.

Our hero finds himself in the home of a retired doctor (everyone retires at 45 after roughly two decades of national service in the “industrial army”). Dr. Leete, as he is known, spends most of the book explaining how society works in the 20th century. The prose gets pedantic and tiresome at times, but what kept it riveting for me was how familiar the issues sounded, more than 125 years later.

Once again we find ourselves in a time of unprecedented income inequality. The corrective actions of the New Deal and Civil Rights era are attenuated and ineffectual. The division between labor and capital has become even more yawning and corrosive to society. But perhaps for this new Gilded Age we should substitute “data serfdom” for “labor,” and “digital platform” for capital. Monopolies (the natural state of things, according to many in the Valley) again rule our most important industries, whether they be agriculture (Monsanto), information processing (Google, Facebook), or commerce (Amazon, Alibaba). So far, we don’t have the widespread strikes of the late 1800s, but it’s hard to not feel like something just as ugly lurks right around the corner. Perhaps, as many have argued, it’s already here.

Bellamy’s book has been called vacuous, naive, and politically dangerous by far more accomplished critics than I, and the point of my writing about it here isn’t to hold it out as a solution for our currently combustible political atmosphere. Most of Bellamy’s predictions failed to materialize; instead of peacefully evolving to a utopia, the western world convulsed into horrific warfare driven largely by the nationalistic philosophies the book extols.

I find the idea of a nationalized industrial army chilling and repugnant. But the book forced me to think about our current day in new terms, and that thinking now informs my point of view on many of the most pressing issues of our era. When the best new political ideas the Valley has presented include universal basic income and/or a guaranteed minimum wage, it is clearly time for us to do what the Valley supposedly does best: Think outside the box. With that in mind, I highly recommend reading — or re-reading, Bellamy’s Looking Backward. If nothing else, it’s comforting to remember that we’ve been here before. Perhaps in that realization we will avoid dooming ourselves to a repeat performance of the industrial era’s most tragic consequences.

Bellamy’s Looking Backwards is one of many books we’re reading at NewCo as we prepare for the conversation at the Shift Forum this February. Others include Others include Satya Nadella’s Hit Refresh, Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls, Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Tim O’Reilly’s WTF, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis, and many others. If you’re interested in Shift Forum’s new Reads program, be sure to sign up for my weekly newsletter here.

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