The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “THE RICH DON’T ALWAYS WIN: The Forgotten Triumph Over Plutocracy That Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970” by Sam Pizzigati from Chapter Two on page 38 and I quote: “”Ancient Persia died when 2 percent of the people owned all the land and kept most of its products,” a New York Times writer reminded readers in 1909 after interviewing railroad mogul James J. Hill. “Rome went down when 1,800 men owned what was then all of the known world.”
Would James J. Hill and his fellow plutocrats now bring down America? Men like Albert Cummins would not sit back and let that happen. They joined with men and women across the political spectrum and placed before the American people a vision of an alternate future. That vision, in their own time, would not sweep away plutocracy. America’s rich proved resilient and ruthless in defense of their privilege. They survived the new century’s opening decades, their fortunes and power largely intact. But the pre-World War I struggles against plutocracy did hone the ideas and the strategies that would eventually bring plutocracy down. The young men and women who came of age amid these struggles would emerge in the 1930s as leaders in their own right. They would apply the lessons they learned over the century’s early years and they would triumph. The young Americans who took inspiration from the likes of the Republican Albert Cummins and the Socialist George Lunn would not leave the American scene until the 1960s. The plutocracy of their youth, by that time, had passed on too.
America’s plutocrats, as the twentieth century dawned, never really saw the challenge coming. They had, after all, crushed the Populists and their angry agrarian revolt. In railroad yards and steel mills they had beaten back veritable armies of striking industrial workers. Everyone else in society who mattered in any way—the ministers, the attorneys, the engineers, all the pillars of middle-class respectability—seemed comfortable enough with America’s plutocratic political order.
Louis Brandeis certainly counted among those pillars. The Boston attorney came from eminently respectable stock. A Brandeis uncle had delivered a nominating speech for Abraham Lincoln at the 1860 Republican convention. His father had prospered as a Louisville grain merchant. Young Louis seemed destined to add to his family’s distinction. At Harvard, his intellectual brilliance and personal integrity left a lasting impact on elders and peers alike. By 1890, many considered the thirty-four-year-old Brandeis Boston’s leading commercial lawyer. He was making $50,000 a year, a prodigious sum at a time when most of the nation’s lawyers would have felt themselves enormously fortunate if they took home $5,000.
Politically, the young and successful Brandeis remained conventional. He opposed William Jennings Bryan in 1896. McKinley and the men around him, Brandeis believed, had the nation’s best interests at heart. Brandeis certainly shared their underlying attitudes. The nation, he noted in one lecture series, didn’t need laws protecting workers from long hours or substandard wages. Anyone who wanted to work long hours ought to have the freedom to do so. Long hours of work, Brandeis opined, probably pose no more danger to worker health ”than the eating of mince pies by people with weak digestion.”
Ruling elites, whatever their epoch, need people like this young, respected—and clueless—Louis Brandeis. They can reign secure so long as these respectables remain content. But woe to these elites when respectables like Louis Brandeis start doubting the prevailing wisdom of their time. In the United States that doubt started gaining momentum after plutocracy’s grand triumph in 1896. By the early 1900s appreciable numbers of professionals as distinguished as Louis Brandeis had come to believe that an unequal America was not working out—and never could.
“The rising resentment at plutocratic action will make itself severely felt,” Brandeis would write his brother. “After all, we are living in a democracy, and some way or other, the people will get back at power unduly concentrated, and there will be plenty of injustice in the process.”
Why did Brandeis and so many of his fellow professionals start doubting in the years after McKinley’s 1896 triumph? The motivations—the pressures—varied. For Brandeis himself, a deep sensation of disgust likely played a role. The increasing inefficiency and corruption he encountered in his professional life and public service endeavors left him appalled. Brandeis believed in honesty and fair play, and many men of property, he discovered, simply didn’t.
Brandeis had begun serving in “good government” groups around Boston almost as soon as he started practicing law. He regularly volunteered his legal talents to local battles against wheelers and dealers and their shady maneuvers to gain and exploit local public service monopolies. These battles seemed to escalate year by year in significance. Brandeis would soon find himself investigating and litigating cases that involved his state’s most powerful business interests. By the late 1890s, notes historian Melvin Urofsky, Brandeis was formulating “a coherent philosophy about the nature of American society, the relation of an industrial economy to political democracy, and the need to restrain bigness.” Modern industrial America, Brandeis had come to believe, needed a distinctly more level playing field. Men of great property and influence could no longer be allowed to set their own rules and place the public in jeopardy.
Only by daring to challenge great wealth could that public be protected, and his profession, bBrandeis acknowledged, had largely failed in that task. America’s lawyers, “instead of holding a position of independence between the wealthy and the people,” have “allowed themselves to become an adjunct of the great corporations.” They have, Brandeis concluded, “neglected their obligations to use their powers for the protection of the people.”
Other successful lawyers would follow Brandeis into confrontation with plutocracy. Samuel Untermyer, a wealthy New York corporate attorney, would become a tireless voice for regulating the stock market. He served as counsel to the congressional panel, the Pujo Committee, that went after the “money trust” in 1912 and 1913. In Georgia, attorney John Reed began contemplating “the American situation” after writing a legal textbook. With that contemplation, he would later relate, “plutocracy began to startle and alarm him.” Reed would eventually develop a political hierarchy of plutocratic corruption. Streetcar, lighting, heat, power, telephone, and other local utility companies run America’s cities, he concluded. Steam railroads, telegraph, oil, liquor, and banking corporations dominate the states, and national banks and trusts—maintained by “unjust favors to a few”–govern the country.
“This supremacy of private corporations,” Reed charged, “has degraded America from the proudest and highest place ever attained by democracy far below any other civilized nation in the depths of corrupt government.”
Other professionals found themselves doubting America’s unequal economic order as they contemplated the nation’s chronic economic instability. With wealth concentrating at the economy’s summit, they realized, workers couldn’t afford to buy what they were producing. So argued Washington Gladden, a Congregational pastor elected to Ohio’s Columbus City Council in 1900.
“If the laborers are so poor that they can buy but little, then little is sold and little can be manufactured, and merchants and bankers fail and mill wheels stop and railroads go into receivers’ hands and there is general depression,” Gladden wrote five years later. “If capital deserves to prosper, capital must help labor to be prosperous: the contrary policy is not merely bad, it is stupid.”
Ever greater rewards for capital, plutocrats had assured the nation, would give America’s captains of industry an incentive to forge ever more efficient industrial processes, and that efficiency would mean progress for society overall. But the rush after great wealth, skeptics began understanding, wasn’t generating industrial progress. The rich weren’t getting richer producing ever more efficiency. They were getting richer playing games with Wall Street securities, and America’s industrial know-how—the only real guarantor of national progress—was lagging significantly behind other industrial nations. The US Steel trust that emerged in 1901, as Louis Brandeis noted, inherited “the most efficient steel makers in the world.” But the US Steel monopoly merging that created the steel giant, America’s premier engineering journal declared the United States “five years behind Germany in iron and steel metallurgy.”
Still other reformers began to distrust the enormous wealth of America’s upper class as they went about easing the suffering of America’s poor. These reformers contended that a culture that celebrated the rich as society’s “fittest” would inevitably dismiss the poor as unfit losers. No sane society, they argued, could afford to dismiss anyone. No one made this case more powerfully than Jane Addams, the nation’s most famous advocate for society’s “wretched refuse.” Addams had pioneered the “settlement house” movement, an effort that had middle-class people “settle” in poverty-ravaged slums to share their skills and culture. The greater the gap between rich and poor, her settlement house experiences led Addams to realize, the greater the peril for prosperous and poor alike.
Addams would illustrate this peril in a best-selling 1910 memoir that shared the story of a comfortable Chicago widow she knew who had “held herself quite aloof” from her immigrant neighbors. This widow “could never be drawn into any of the public efforts to secure a better code of tenement-house sanitation.” The widow eventually sent her two lovely daughters back East for college. One June the two came home for summer holidays. They both somehow caught typhoid fever, the tenement scourge. One daughter died.”
(PEOPLE THAT ARE PLUTOCRATS, LIKE JAMES J. HILL, CHAIRMAN OF THE GREAT NORTHERN RAILWAY, HAVE BEEN GOING ON RULING THE WORLD BACK BEFORE THE TURN OF THE CENTURY. WHEN THE PLUTOCRATS, WHO WERE MOSTLY MILLIONAIRES, THEN THOUGHT THAT THE 99 PERCENT OR THE LOWER CLASS WERE VIRTUALLY LAZY AND DESERVE ANYTHING OTHER THAN A MINIMUM SALARY TO SURVIVE ON. THESE ELITIST PLUTOCRATS DIDN’T REALLY ACCEPT THAT THEY NEEDED ANYONE TO WORK IN THEIR FACTORIES OR BUILD THEIR RAILROADS. IN THEORY, THEY HAVE THE ATTITUDE THAT “I’VE GOT THE MONEY AND I DON’T WANT YOU TO HAVE IT.” WHICH IS A GREEDY OPINION BECAUSE IF THE WORKER DOESN’T HAVE ENOUGH MONEY TO BUY THEIR PRODUCT, THEY TOO, WILL CEASE TO EXIST, THROUGH STAGNAITON OR A CIVIL CLASS WAR. THIS IS WHY LOUIS BRANDEIS, WHO WAS AN EXCEPTIONALLY INTELLIGENT LAWYER, VIRTUALLY VISUALIZED AND WROTE ABOUT THE TOTAL MENTAL BLOCK THAT THE PLUTOCRATS HAD AND WHAT IT WOULD LEAD TO. IT SHOWS THE IMPORTANCE OF WHAT A GOOD MEDIA HAS IN CREATING A GOOD BALANCE, MUST BE TO SHOW SUCCESS AND HARMONY BETWEEN THE TWO GROUPS, LIKE REPUBLICAN PROGRESSIVE TEDDY ROOSEVELT ACCOMPLISHED WHEN HE WAS PRESIDENT AND LATER DEMOCRAT WOODROW WILSON, WHO IN 1913, FINALLY ESTABLISHED, AFTER YEARS OF DISCUSSION, GOT ENOUGH STATES TO RATIFY THE FEDERAL INCOME TAX SYSTEM. SOMETHING REPUBLICANS TODAY STILL DENY THAT WAS NOT DONE LEGALLY AFTER READING THIS EXCERPT FROM THIS BOOK CONCERNING THE CHARACTERS AND THE PROCEDURES WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE TO ACKNOWLEDGE EVEN THOUGH TODAY’S REPUBLICANS ARE TRYING TO DO SO. IF THIS WASN’T SO, YOU WOULDN’T GET PEOPLE LIKE WISCONSIN GOVERNOR, SCOTT WALKER, WHO’S ATTEMPTING TO RUN THE STATE, TAKING THE INCOME AND SALES TAX OFF THE TABLE AND SAY HE’S BARGAINING IN GOOD FAITH. AT THE SAME TIME, HE WANTS TO MAKE WISCONSIN A RIGHT TO WORK STATE. THIS IS SOMETHING LOUIS BRANDEIS, WHO LATER BECAME A SUPREME COURT JUSTICE, WOULD NOT AGREE WITH.
LaVern Isely, Overtaxed Independent Middle Class Taxpayer & Public Citizen & AARP Members