Close Encounters

Close Encounters

How can widespread inequality progress alongside widespread concern about its ill effects?

Shirtwaist strikers march against police abuse, New York, 1909 (Kheel Center, Cornell University)

Progressive Inequality:
Rich and Poor in New York 1890–1920

by David Huyssen
Harvard University Press, 2014, 392 pp.

In Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis, a monstrously wealthy fund manager named Eric Packer is driven through the streets of Manhattan in a white stretch limousine, in search of a haircut. While a chaotic tableau ensues outside the limo’s heavily tinted windows—terrorist bombings, orgiastic anarchist street protests, infrastructure malfunctions, assassination threats—inside all is placid, in a car so well-equipped that the protagonist even manages to receive a prostate exam while in transit. In addition to his doctor and various financial advisers and hangers-on, Packer is joined in the backseat at one point by his “chief of theory,” Vija Kinski, who waxes philosophical while “masked figures roamed the area on the tops of cars, tossing smoke bombs at the cops.” “Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time,” she tells him, by which she has in mind the $104 million that Packer has spent on his forty-eight-room apartment. “What did you buy for your one hundred and four million dollars? Not dozens of rooms, incomparable views, private elevators. Not the rotating bedroom and computerized bed. Not the swimming pool or the shark. Was it air rights?” Hardly. “You paid the money for the number itself. One hundred and four million. This is what you bought.”

“Money,” Kinski explains from the vacuum-sealed interior of Packer’s limo, just before a trash can is hurled against the car’s back window, “is talking to itself.”

One could not help but recall this moment of cosmopolitan self-regard in the summer of 2014, when the news broke that a luxury condominium development on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was being designed to include separate entrances for tenants of its affordable-housing units. The so-called “poor door,” the building’s developer offered by way of a defense, was a necessary accommodation to the diktats of the real estate market. “Frankly, it’s the only possible way to do inclusionary housing in a prime location,” Gary Barnett explained; you could almost hear the shrug in his shoulders as he delivered that line. Never mind the question of just what exactly was meant by “inclusionary housing” in a building where lower-income residents were quite literally expected to go in and out through the back door. Maybe not the rotating bedroom and the shark, but physical separation, apparently, was what their wealthier neighbors were paying for. Money only wanted to hold the front door for itself.

The Packers and poor doors that dominate the landscape of twenty-first century New York often seem like relics of a bygone aristocratic era, still weighing on the brains and the bank accounts of the present generation. It was no coincidence that Bill de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign kept returning to a motif directly from Europe during its age of revolutions—“a tale of two cities”—to describe the historic rates of inequality that plague New York today. Michael Bloomberg, his predecessor in the office, may have famously preferred the subway to a white stretch limo, but his own forays into “cyber-capitalism” have been bountiful enough to provide him with a 12,500-square-foot mansion on the Upper East Side, decked out with enough antique, English Regency-style furnishings to make Louis Napoleon—if not Eric Packer—blush.

Historians, journalists, and political commentators of various stripes have been pointing to such displays of plutocratic excess and venal disregard for the less fortunate as evidence of a second “Gilded Age” in our own time, a retrogression to the latter decades of the nineteenth century when America’s financial elite first put on the airs of the aristocrat. To be sure, there is much to recommend this analogy. But a close reading of David Huyssen’s new book Progressive Inequality, a finely written and anecdotally rich account of class relations in New York City between 1890 and 1920, suggests that there is a better historical comparison to be made to the period that historians conventionally refer to as the Progressive Era.

If not quite the antidote, the Progressive Era is generally thought of as the ameliorant to the worst offenses of the Gilded Age. The social and political reforms that emerged from this period, Huyssen writes, have cemented its “public reputation as a moment of improvement in U.S. class relations and democracy as a whole.” Child labor laws, women’s suffrage, the direct election of senators, food and drug safety, the outlawing of monopolies, and the creation of a federal income tax were just a handful of the significant events of these years. There is no small irony in this, however, given that, as Huyssen also observes, “materially speaking—and in important cultural ways as well—that era’s conclusion saw inequality progressing down the same track it had been traveling at the period’s advent.” Current rates of inequality, we are constantly reminded, are at their highest since 1929, not 1889—progress indeed.

It is in this paradoxical double-meaning Huyssen gives the word “progress” that the resonances with the present moment are clearest. After all, our own period has been defined as much by an impulse for change we can believe in as by the rampant social inequality and political dysfunction that has made that very change so difficult to achieve. For every Rupert Murdoch there has been an Arianna Huffington; for every Lloyd Blankfein, a Warren Buffett; for every Wall Street, an Occupation—or at least a Dodd-Frank. Even Bloomberg himself, after all, is less robber baron than billionaire philanthropist, and the causes he funds or advocates—school reform, public health initiatives, environmental sustainability, urban reform and beautification—read like an updated version of the social agenda that gripped that earlier generation of reformers. Still, somehow, widespread inequality progresses alongside widespread concern about its deleterious effects. How could this be?

For Huyssen the answer to that question lies in the cultural biases, ideological rationalizations, and moralistic attitudes which “undergird inequality,” and which have remained, from the Gilded Age through the Progressive Era and up to the present moment, “the most stable elements in the chemistry of U.S. class relations.” Progressive Inequality is organized around a series of events that transpired in turn-of-the-century New York, in which urban residents of different classes encountered each other within the context of daily life in the city—at work, in the press and in correspondence, at charity events, in tenements and sweatshops, in subway cars and on the streets. Think of them as the poor-door controversies of yesteryear. Huyssen’s premise, which he attributes to a famous construction by the British Marxist and social historian E.P. Thompson, is that class is not a static or fixed condition, but a function of everyday interactions and relationships that occur in society and determine its hierarchies of power and identity. It is these “class encounters,” Huyssen writes, which “most profoundly inform what class means on a daily basis for individuals;” and it is when rich and poor confront each other directly that the experience of class becomes most saliently felt.

Because of the period’s reforming spirit, the Progressive Era created more than the usual share of opportunities for such encounters. Activist sociologists tackled the deplorable housing conditions in the tenements of the Lower East Side; philanthropically inclined elites debated the most appropriate way to distribute charity among the poor; silk-stocking suffragists linked arms with their sisters toiling in garment sweatshops; and workers and their bosses faced each other from either side of the policeman’s truncheon. Huyssen’s book is at its best in narrating the drama of these interactions. Among them are a Christmas dinner held at the old Madison Square Garden in 1899, when wealthy New Yorkers paid an entrance fee to sit in the mezzanine and ogle their poor brethren below as they feasted on a charitable repast provided by the Salvation Army; and the 1909 shirtwaist workers strike, otherwise known as the “Uprising of the 20,000,” when immigrant women garment workers were joined on picket lines and in courtrooms by Alva Belmont, Anne Tracy Morgan, and other doyennes of New York’s high society.

If the latter case was a fleeting instance of the transgressive possibility of these encounters—Huyssen sees the cross-class alliance of New York’s feminist and trade union women, had it lasted, as potentially “rendering porous America’s most basic hierarchical boundaries”—the former was a more typical example of the stable chemistry of class relations during the period. Wealthy crowds piled into the arena through the grand entrance on Madison Avenue while the poor feasters filed in by way of Fourth—ring any bells?—and then the two groups settled into their roles as performers and audience. There was even a Salvation Army band on hand to play a musical accompaniment, while the hungry ate and the assembled gentry, in the inimitable prose of the New York Times, “furnish[ed] the lighter shade to the picture, with their air of contentment and prosperity, and perchance sympathy.” Though Frederick de Latour Booth-Tucker, the Army’s American commander, hailed the event as representing “the dawning of a new era, the bridging of the gulf between the rich and poor,” the garish affair only turned charity into spectacle, and, as Huyssen writes, “served primarily to reinforce divisions” between the classes. “Wealthy reformers of the Progressive Era,” he observes, “were particularly prone to such obliviousness, steeped as they were in the collective vision of an ascendant, imperial America whose industrial and scientific supremacy would allow them to command a new social order.”

A not dissimilar obliviousness and class condescension would ultimately sabotage the cooperative relations between rich and poor women that marked the heady early days of the Uprising of the 20,000. As the strike wore on, the women of the so-called “mink brigade” began to treat their trade union sisters more like a charitable enterprise that they expected to control; while the working women, emboldened by their strike and unwilling to be treated as docile charity cases, began insisting upon their own agency over the direction of the conflict. Once the women strikers and their working class allies began talking about socialism, the mink brigade quickly disbanded. “It is very reprehensible for Socialists to take advantage of these poor girls in these times, and when the working people are in such dire straits,” Anne Tracy Morgan, daughter of banking titan J.P. Morgan, lamented. “These doctrines are the more dangerous because they tend to tear down all the good as well as the bad of the present social state.” In other words, don’t let the poor door hit you on the way out.

Huyssen identifies in class encounters like these a strain of what he and other historians of the period have called “imperial progressivism,” a phrase which aptly conflates the imperial adventurism that guided American foreign policy following the declaration of war with Spain in 1898, with the spirit of zealous reformism that occupied domestic life during these years. Huyssen’s definition is worth reproducing in full:

[A]ffluent white Americans and their agents, armed with executive authority provided or endorsed by the state, inserted themselves into the spaces and lives of overwhelmingly poor and foreign-born populations. Once there, they asserted allegedly superior knowledge of politics, economics, science, and aesthetics to justify remodeling those spaces and lives, maintaining or extending political and economic power over them.

In many of the examples of philanthropic endeavors, tenement reform, settlement house work, and even attempts at more equitable cross-class cooperation that Huyssen examines, this same cultural arrogance and presumptive disdain for non-elite voices and ideas undermined the best intentions of Progressive reformers, undergirding the very inequality they sought to address.

The imperial metaphor carried still further, as reticent workers, the ill-behaved poor, or militant immigrants would soon find out. Like the resistant Filipinos across the Pacific, domestic subjects who refused to accept and conform to the beneficence of the imperial embrace faced instead the imperial cudgel, and it was merciless. The last third of Huyssen’s book is devoted to the epidemic of violence directed against working people during these years, whether in the form of the casual, everyday bloodshed of the workplace or the premeditated butchery of state-sanctioned strikebreaking. This too was a significant category of class encounter in the Progressive Era, and it offered a constant reminder of “the greater value and protection accorded to private property over workers’ bodies.” Rose Schneiderman, one of the leaders of the Uprising of the 20,000, understood this well when she observed in the immediate aftermath of the horrific Triangle Factory fire in 1911 in which 146 workers died, that “the life of men and women is so cheap, and property is so sacred.” The rights and perquisites of property, after all, represented the unassailable foundation of this imperial order, the ideological lodestone that provided it with its “natural equilibrium.” “Those among the poor who violated this equilibrium’s precepts by defying the supposedly invisible hand of the market,” Huyssen writes, “consistently met with a much harder, plainly visible, and tightly clenched fist.” When money stopped talking to itself, it swore.

Surveying the more conflictual class encounters of these years, Huyssen concludes that, “in both the uses of state and capital violence and in their rhetorical justifications . . . class emerges as the major determinant in the state’s and the public’s willingness to countenance violence.” Add race to that equation (and it should be said that race is often a regrettable absence in Huyssen’s book) and it is hard to dispute this as something of a final word on class relations during the Progressive period—and, for that matter, in our own. Surely, workers are not regularly beaten in the street nor left to burn to death behind the locked doors of factories with such little compunction anymore. But as Occupy Wall Street protesters learned a few years ago, and as young black men experience every day on the streets of every city in this country, the price for disturbing the “natural equilibrium” of things remains dear. If a driving force behind Progressive reform was to minimize the destructive toll that capitalist accumulation was taking on society, it was not to do so at the expense of what the economists call “progress.” As a self-justifying rationale for acts of individual violence or collective repression, it was during these years, Huyssen argues, and especially as wartime nationalism and the Red Scare cast a dark shadow across the close of the Progressive period, that “‘the public interest’ became synonymous with the maintenance of efficient production, law and order, and growth at nearly any cost.” It is one the longest lasting legacies of the period, and another remnant of the Progressive Era which is still with us today.

And indeed, there are other, softer echoes of imperial progressivism all around us. Of the invasive and largely unsuccessful efforts that Progressives like Richard Watson Gilder made at improving tenement conditions, Huyssen describes “a practically religious faith in the power of science and data analysis to resolve the problems of poverty”—a more than apt description of the fatally flawed logic behind the charters-and-standards-based education reform movement guided by modern-day Progressives like Eva Moskowitz, Joel Klein, and Bill Gates. Likewise, Huyssen’s discussion of architect Stanford White’s attempt to beautify the seedy, swarming Bowery by designing an ornate bank in the Roman classical style and plopping it down on Grand Street cannot help but bring to mind the private capital-endowed projects which have recently given New Yorkers the High Line and soon, a new fancy park floating in the Hudson River. This is the imperial fantasy of “progress imposed through finer aesthetics—a more beautiful public life realized through more beautiful public space,” and never mind the poor Bowery residents made homeless to clear the way for White’s bank, or the asthma fatality rates in the South Bronx that remain three times the national average.

In the end, the lesson of the Progressive Era and for our own moment may be that progress and equality are anathema. Or rather, that the forces of progress will accept equality only if they can continue to keep their hands on the wheel, and that the drive towards ever greater profit leads, ineluctably, towards ever greater social inequality. “Equality,” then, becomes a lubricant in the machinery of capitalism the way a concept like “diversity” so often is—in limited doses, on their terms, to keep up appearances, but not at the expense of “the public interest” or the natural equilibrium. The only way to actually fix the schools, after all, is to put more money into them; the only way to put more money into them is to significantly increase the tax burden of the wealthy. And that, history tells us, often leads to a tale of two cities that ends at the barricades.

Is that where New York City of the twenty-first century is headed? At moments, during the Occupy protests or after the announcement of yet another non-indictment for a white police officer for the death of an unarmed black man, it can feel that way. But until then, the Eric Packers among us continue to live in the cosseted womb of their white limousines, protected from the discomfiting realities of a decaying social order, while the poor, to quote Pietro di Donato, a working-class son of Progressive Era New York, “live in terror.”


Max Fraser is a PhD candidate in American History at Yale. His writing on labor, the economy, and culture has appeared in American Art, Dissent, the Nation, New Labor Forum, and elsewhere. He was the recipient of the 2013 Patricia and Phillip Frost Essay Award from the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.


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