No keen powers of observation are required to see the parallels between the 19th Century Gilded Age and the times we live in. I recently called ours a Stilted Age where a privileged few have once again been lifted above the pain and suffering inflicted on the masses. Eerie similarities abound. Differences too, of course. We are not on the tail end of an Industrial Revolution or reexperiencing post-Reconstruction upheaval. No, we have economic convulsions of our very own, with our post-Industrial world morphing into Not-Quite-Sure-What.
How do you describe our economy? Service? Digital? Post-Human? It suffices to say that economic dislocation, occupational insecurity and financial anxiety are hallmarks of our moment, just as they were in the late 1800s. Likewise, instruments of social control and political manipulation are being put to daily use by a privileged few to establish and maintain ownership of our government and our society, just as they were at the end of the 19th Century. But those instruments have mutated.
At the dawn of our nation, slavery and disenfranchisement were the control mechanisms. Only white male property owners had access to the ballot and, consequently, any say over affairs of state. Call it America's first stage of ownership.
Decades-long . . . no, generations-long struggles eventually put an end to slavery and won voting rights for women, blacks and unpropertied men. But those who succumbed to the abolitionists and the suffragettes had no intention of surrenduring control or relinquishing power. They moved on to poll taxes, literacy tests, Jim Crow laws, and relied on coverture and the like to achieve their objective. The second stage of ownership.
Then came the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1968, and the enactment of Title IX in 1972. After painful and drawn-out fights, the crude second-stage instruments of sociopolitical control were gradually swept away. But the ruling elite's sense of entitlement to political power was never extinguished.
It is no coincidence that the great civil rights and women's rights breakthroughs of the 1960s and 1970s were followed in short order by the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo establishing that money is speech. Buckley marked the beginning of the third stage of ownership.
As Roger D. Hodge writes in an exceptionally insightful essay in the latest issue of Harper's, campaign contributions and other forms of political spending have assumed the old exclusionary function. Only those who can afford to pay have a voice. Only those with vast wealth are truly able to control their political destiny.
The massive transfer of America's wealth to the richest 1% that began in earnest in the early 1980s and has continued unabated during Republican and Democratic administrations alike is no coincidence either. As Hodge rightly declares, it was the result of a long series of policy decisions that were bought and paid for by the less than 1% of Americans who annually pour hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns.
The current U.S. Supreme Court radically expanded on Buckley and accelerated our plunge into the third-stage abyss with its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allowing corporations and other powerful groups to spend unlimited sums on elections, even though it had to resort to the rankest hypocrisy to do so.
Remember, it was the U.S. Supreme Court that gamely defended and empowered the ruling elite during the first stage of ownership by ruling that people could be property. Is it any surprise that the highest court in the land is now serving its masters by ruling that property can be a person?