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Gilded Age

From a review by Daniel Brook of a book that ridiculously claims decreased social mobility in the Middle Ages created a genetically superior workforce that increased Britain’s productivity and wealth and made the British Empire great by virtue, in Brook’s terms, of “survival of the richest”:

The most important question raised by A Farewell to Alms is not raised by [Gregory] Clark himself, however, but by the publication of his book. In the late nineteenth century, America’s best-known social Darwinist, William Graham Sumner, a professor of political and social science at Yale, wrote, “Let every man be sober, industrious, prudent, and wise, and bring up his children to be so likewise and poverty will be abolished in a few generations.” For Clark, this is exactly what came to pass in England. Clark eschews the term “social Darwinism,” but it’s an apt description of his thesis. The question raised by the publication of his book, then, is: why is social Darwinism back in vogue?

Social Darwinism is the ideology of Gilded Ages, times of stunning inequality and declining social mobility. Social Darwinism takes the manifest injustice of a socially ossified society and argues that its very ossification proves that such a society is just. You can see it in David Brooks’s New York Times column when he reassures a nation in which predatory lending now serves the function once played by sharecropping that the “rich don’t exploit the poor; they just outcompete them.” You can also see it in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. For Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, survival of the fittest proves that rich Americans deserve their wealth and poor Americans deserve their poverty. Clark merely applies the theory globally to rich countries and poor countries.

Besides a resurgence of Social Darwinism, I wonder what other comparisons are cropping up between now and the late nineteenth century? One that springs to mind is the volatility of the art market as indicated by swelling prices, the now common phenomenon of public institutions selling off their collections, and the creation of major museum collections from scratch such as Crystal Bridges. Another similarity, alluded to by Brook, is the hoarding of vast amounts of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer persons. I’m certain there are other comparisons to be made between this Gilded Age and the last. Ideas?

 

Comments

Philanthropy is very much in vogue again among the super-rich.

Also, we have a more aggressively imperialist US foreign policy.