The Return of the 19th Century

How Did We Get Into This Mess?, as a rule, tries to find historical underpinnings of contemporary problems.

I’ve been thinking about the ways that contemporary shifts in politics do and do not reflect past political realities. In today’s post, I want to engage with an impressive diary from Daily KOS, the liberal site, on “The Return of the 19th Century.”

This is NOT just a partisan screed. The author, “gjohnsit,” has put together a well documented set of comparisons.

Skip to the end of you are interested in my take. First, here’s a summary.

Labor: The author opens:

 Can we finally stop saying “Big Labor”? Last year labor union membership had shrunk to 11.8% of the total workforce and only 6.6% of the private sector.

 You have to go all the way back to 1900 to find such a small union footprint in the private sector.

Income Inequality – Back to at least Gilded Age levels, possibly worse.

Mental Health – This is one that really caught my eye, thanks to my interest in disability. The author talks about the way that mental health facilities (with all their problems) are gone, so people with mental illness are simply arrested and kept in jail. He writes:

The country’s three biggest jail systems—Cook County, in Illinois; Los
Angeles County; and New York City—are on the front lines. With more than
11,000 prisoners under treatment on any given day, they represent by
far the largest mental-health treatment facilities in the country. By
comparison, the three largest state-run mental hospitals have a combined
4,000 beds.

Why has this happened? Presumably because jails have better lobbyists and higher profit margins than mental health, but perhaps also because of the bad reputation “asylums” received mid-century.

The author then moves to prisons and talks about the combined effect of fear/war-on-drugs + the profits of the prison industry, something I find truly obscene. These industries take over a prison system, then hire lobbyists to increase criminal penalties for lower level offenses, so they can get more bodies, and hence make more money. The prison issues are not really my beat as a writer, but we all need to pay more attention to this waste of our tax dollars.

Here’s the historical context:

Much like the 19th Century convict leasing system, corporations are taking advantage of this pool of slave labor.

The author documents this well, then turns to debtor prisons, another blast from the past.

Next, he (I’m assuming a “he” because of the John in the alias) shifts to preventable diseases, a frequent topic on this blog. As you already know, they’re coming back, and they are literally killing children.

Finally, the author spends a long time on monopolies, focusing especially on Wall Street, and then Gilded Age Politics.


Hopefully, by now, I have convinced you to just read the post and follow its links.

So why this happened? What does it mean? The author doesn’t quite give his take, and he’s done enough work just documenting the strong comparisons.

To me, my basic conclusion is that money and power like to concentrate at the top. People with power, by definition, have the power to increase their power. This is why we form governmental institutions. This is why I’m a liberal – I believe government has to check the natural impulse of the monopolist without crippling the economy. It’s quite a dance, but if you go back and read Adam Smith – the man who defined capitalism – I think you’ll see he agrees with me. Over the past 40 years, we have stripped away many of the institutional protections that at least slowed the siphoning of wealth and resources by the elites.

We can point to specific pieces of legislation, elections that went one way instead of the other, gerrymandering, Greenspan’s reign of Randian free-market reification, and (a point the author didn’t make) the return to Gilded Age Media, in which media companies see themselves as profit-driven and partisan, rather than public servants.

The pathway from the Gilded Age to the somewhat more equal America of the mid 20th-century took a lot of turmoil, world wars, mass movements, and some great leadership.

I can’t say I’m optimistic.

What do you think?

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