Back to the Future: U.S.A.–Company Town (WEB EXCLUSIVE)

Donald Paneth Oct 3, 2008

As Congress prepares to hand over $700 billion to Wall Street, Joseph Keptler’s famous 1889 cartoon,“The Bosses of the Senate,” offers a glimpse into an earlier Gilded Age when powerful industrialists used political influence and ruthless business practices to amass vast fortunes in an unregulated economy that saw frequent financial panics.

U.S.A.–Company Town (WEB EXCLUSIVE)

By Donald Paneth

Out of the Civil War came modern America, corporate America, industrialization – railroads, U.S. Steel, Standard Oil – the mechanization of agriculture, the “robber barons,” the “money hunger.”

And with the latter, financial crises, panics – the Panic of 1873, the Panic of 1893, the Panic of 1907 – and scandals – the Credit Mobilier railroad building-congressional bribery affair of 1867-1872, the Teapot Dome oil reserve fraud of 1921.

During the 1890s, events were accompanied by the Gilded Age of wealth, exclusivity (the Social Register), by yellow, jingoistic journalism, by the beginnings of American imperialism, overseas expansionism, and by the bitter, violent struggle between capital and labor.

In the company towns of Pennsylvania, for example, miners and plant workers put in 12-hour days for a subsistence wage that was contrived to keep them in debt to the owners in the mansions on the hill in Pittsburgh and New York. Workers went on to form unions, to present demands, to strike.

The whole enterprise culminated in the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, and initiated the New Deal, the era of the common man, social reform, banking and stock market regulation, which largely endured until the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980.

Reagan and his successors headed a radical right movement to deregulate, to destroy many of the New Deal’s achievements, to hype the economy with overvalued, speculative marketing devices, to embark upon wars, covert and police actions, provocations in Nicaragua, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine/Israel, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan.

The very strange and destructive economic developments of 2008, military expenditures at unprecedented levels, the prospect of rising inflation, constitutional freedoms suppressed by executive fiat confront Americans today.

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