The New York Times Magazine recently joined the chorus of celebrities, tabloid boosters, and mainstream politicians by declaring
It wouldn’t take long for a visitor to get the general idea. Listening to the local sports radio station in
The smug voice of Trump may be momentarily acceptable to listeners; however his won’t be the only siren’s song enticing pushovers with promises of quick wealth. It won’t be long before a racket called Internet Speedway begins another commercial with the question “Do you know the difference between the millions and millionaires in this country and you? They decided they wanted to be millionaires, so they went out and did it.” The pitch here is an “internet business that virtually runs itself.” Again salvation comes in the mail in the form of a DVD that promises a way to generate money even when asleep.
In case sports talk radio is beneath the interest of most people,
While get rich quick schemes sold by shady charlatans and quacks aren’t new, there is also a deeper theme in all this that may have a parallel historically.
The words “
What is left out of the current triumphant grandstanding was summed up nicely in a recent report by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. At the moment 1.3 million New Yorkers, one in six residents of the city, cannot afford a consistent food supply and must rely on shelters and pantries. Demand for such services has exploded an estimated 20% this year to go with an 11% increase last year. According to the Coalition’s report, the sheer numbers of the hungry showing up (along with the Bush Administration’s slashing discretionary spending for emergency food by 76% since 2002) have forced more than half of the city’s pantries to ration food or even turn people away.
These numbers are the foreground to the fact that New York City owns a poverty rate roughly twice the national average and well above where its own poverty rate was two decades ago. It is also one of the most unequal cities in the world- a study earlier this year by the Bookings Institute classified only 16% of the city’s neighborhoods as middle class.
Beyond the pomp and circumstance of millionaire populism, other parallels could be drawn from the current Gilded Age to its predecessor. Like the mid 19th century, the New York of the early 21st century is largely a city of immigrants: Mexicans, Eastern Europeans, and Asians, being the modern pioneer representatives of their Irish and German forbearers (currently about 37% of the city’s residents are foreign born). While textbook historians shine brightly on the robber barons and their “philanthropy”, and present day tabloids focus on celebrity “sightings” and shopping sprees, it was the vast army of workers that have had the greatest historical impact on the city, a benevolent influence that continues to the present day.
It was in the heart of the first Gilded Age when a united working class led what was the greatest labor organizing effort in the city’s history. The pinnacle of the movement took place in the summer of 1872 when in May of that year the largely native, English speaking building-trades workers began striking for the eight-hour day. They were soon followed by German furniture makers a few days later. By May 25th there were an estimated 20,000 workers on strike, a week later the number grew to 40,000, and before the summer was over more than 100,000 of the city’s workers took part in the eight-hour strikes. The summer action included an “eight-hour parade” through the Bowery on June 10th led in part by the International and organized by the Eight Hour League, which also organized strikes in several other cities.
Though the workers were ultimately defeated by an alliance of large manufacturers (led by the Steinway piano company; New York is still blessed with a Steinway Street, a main shopping thoroughfare in Queens), police clubs, and a conservative media (of which the New York Times was at the forefront), the foundation was laid during the Gilded years for the eventual victory of the eight-hour day and for the coming of the “Progressive” Era. Lasting products of the first Gilded Age included the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Labor Day.
New York in its current Gilded Age hasn’t completely abandoned its labor heritage. Despite experiencing the outsourcing of its manufacturing base and its transformation into a service economy, the city still claims about a million union members, some of whom have shown signs of life in recent times. This month is the second anniversary of the 2005 transit workers strike against proposed cutbacks to pension plans that shut down the city for most of a week. In April 2006 New York hosted some of the massive immigrant rights demonstrations that swept the country. This past September saw a strike by yellow cab drivers against Global Positioning System devices in their cabs. The ongoing gentrification has stirred up some passionate local resistance in several places. While most of these actions have been defensive in scope, and with mixed success, the potential certainly exists for the resurgence of truly progressive politics. Just as the most significant legacy of democratic progress during the original Gilded Age was accomplished by the diverse, hardworking masses, there are still signs of hope that the same will be said for the present one.