A New Gilded Age? Yay!

Is it inappropriate to invoke the phrase “CLASS WAR” these days? It’s scary, that’s for sure — what kind of war is actually fun, other than maybe a thumb war (if you have agile and forceful thumbs)? Why fuss and fight when you could be teaching a child to read, or livetweeting? And issues of class, they seem very out-of-date, very subject of the college class to which you didn’t pay attention, very “Allentown,” and not the city but the song by Billy Joel. A class war is not how you want to spend your day off, or even your community service. Sadly, it’s not unfair to bring it up. Whether you are a Milwaukee middle-school teacher or a middle linebacker for the Bills, there are issues between labor and employer. You don’t necessarily have to pick a side, but you do have to relegate yourself to hearing about it for the foreseeable future. Remember when politics was lite and bubbly and mostly revolved around flag pins and the wattage of one’s smile? Those times are gone, just like that “Pants On The Ground” song. The class war is here to stay, and who knows how it’s going to end?

Let’s just assume, because we’re pessimists who have been fed a steady buffet of disappointment for our entire lives, that it’s going to end poorly. Let’s hope for the best (and by all means keep watching The Daily Show With Jon Stewart or whatever else rouses you for a short flicker), but let’s prepare for the worst. Let’s look on the bright side.

The Gilded Age wasn’t really all that bad, when you think about it!

The Gilded Age, as we know, was that period of American history prior to the turn of the last century that witnessed incredible economic expansion coupled with an oppressed working class employed under repressive and horrific conditions. It’s funny to think of, that an era could be known simultaneously for unimaginable prosperity and for a huge caste of Americans whose ninety-hour work weeks did not pull them from poverty, because it kind of implies that there was a period between then and now when that was not so. The reason why this happened back then was this legal concept of “freedom of contract,” which means that the employer can do whatever they want to do always and the employee is equally free to do whatever they want, as long as what they want to do is quit. But it’s a snazzy turn of phrase, and that’s the first thing that will be decent about our looming New Gilded Age: the nomenclature is catchy.

Take also the term itself: “Gilded Age” was coined in part by Mark Twain, so that’s an enormous plus, as Mark Twain is Mark Twain. It’s also an early example of snark (which was called “irony” back then), a play on the term “Golden Age.” At the time people would mash a thin layer of gold onto something to make it look like it was made of gold through and through, instead of just making it out of plastic like we do now. This was known as “gilding” and thus Twain’s snark is the good kind that is gonna hurt in the morning, if you know what I mean! So if we have to have another Gilded Age, at least we can quietly snicker to ourselves as we say it, which will surely be a comfort to us while we are standing in the bread line or edging the sidewalk of a hedge fund manager’s mistress’ second home.

This is not necessarily to say that we will all be bread-line-standers, or mistress-sidewalk-edgers. In this New Gilded Age, some of us might get to be mistresses! Sadly, others of us might get to be the sidewalks. Employment opportunity might not be as bad as it is now, but that’s not really saying a lot. But if it does come, this ascendency of the already ascendant, mistress/sidewalk is going to look like a great entry-level position with decent bennies and room for advancement.

And it won’t all be work. Some of the unintended consequences of a New Gilded Age might be not as bad as the direct outcomes (company towns, debtors prisons, the grippe) we cringe from. For example, we’d save whatever we were paying on union dues, which we could spend on exciting and increasingly complex gadgets that don’t really do much but become obsolete in six months — or on gruel. As all the workforces slowly merge into one giant workforce, working for the same global titan of business, we’ll be freed up from having to worry about things like career and ambition. In fact, with the sixteen-hour workday, we’d also be freed up from free time, and the crushing anxiety that comes with it. Presumably, we’d also be issued uniforms, hopefully something flattering. Uniforms would be cool in any context, as long as they have collars to pop. And this could very well be a boom time for religion, masses are going to need some serious opiates with all that crushing tedium. Maybe even the megabarons will take pity on us and found a new church, something casual but flashy, hopefully with gambling.

Here’s an even bigger side effect. One of the industries that fueled the original Gilded Age was the railroad industry, as rail barons gridded the nation with the means to move large quantities of stuff great distances all at once. This is a sector that would be fantastic to see recreated in this 21st Century: infrastructure. No matter how gainfully we are employed (or underemployed), we still have parents living in Virginia to visit or a Jeff Mangum show to drive to, not to mention a need for water with which to make our Country Time lemonade. And if our new overlords have any sense of nostalgic integrity, then they will take a break from their planet-sized concerns that make money by moving money from one place to another place and earn another couple billion by improving our bridges and natural gas fuel lines. Then maybe we’ll all get to where we’re going without plunging into a ravine and turn on the oven without the city block exploding. The upside: not being dead, which is a valuable one in any time period.

If you think about it, the entire aesthetic of steampunk is derived from the technology and style of the Old Gilded Age, with the goggles and the levers and the steam and the punk. So if we have to have a New Gilded Age, that means we will not only have to Google “Beaux Arts” but also we’ll get to have a New Steampunk! Every day will be like Boing Boing!

Ultimately, maybe the best possible outcome of an extended Gilded Age is this: evolution. It’s controversial, somehow, especially if you’re afraid of science, but the concept of natural selection is still the most popular explanation for the change in species over time (and theorized by Darwin during the Old Gilded Age, coincidentally). Maybe, just maybe, the conditions created by the New Gilded Age, the serfdom, the futility, the washed-out sepias and greys, are the conditions necessary for us to evolve into our ideal selves: losing both pinky toes, but gaining secret mind powers. A pinky toe is a lot to lose (let alone two!), but with our new secret mind powers we can maybe rejoin that class war we lost all those years ago and finally have a chance of winning. Or at least, have a chance of winning without having to try too hard, because trying hard is a drag. Secret mind powers would make the whole enterprise an awful lot easier, and we’d still have time left over to watch “Castle.”

Of course, a New Gilded Age is not written in stone; it is only very very likely. It may happen — or the plutocrats may have a sudden and uncharacteristic attack of conscience. And if it is coming, who knows if it happens tomorrow, or just the day after tomorrow. In the meantime, we should bend our backs to the task of welcoming the new era, with dignity and resignation. Remember that Nikola Tesla found his footing in the Old Gilded Age and then spent the rest of his life getting screwed by Edison. If Tesla could suck it up, so can we, and if we can’t make awesome out of a Gilded Age, then maybe we don’t deserve to have a class war in the first place.

Brent Cox is all over the Internet.

Top and bottom photos via Wikimedia Commons.