"The New Gilded Age": Questions, Concerns, and Alternatives to an Undertheorized Idea
This paper argues against the historical and political utility of the idea that we are living in a "new" or "second gilded age." Oft-noted resemblances between our time and the late nineteenth century-e.g. high rates of inequality, weakening workers' power-are real but in many ways superficial. The idea rests upon an abstracted model of American history as binary oscillation between reaction and reform, which covers over the critical differences between our time and the Gilded Age. First, the Gilded Age political economy was a period of rapid capital accumulation, during which the American economy could not consume enough labor. The "Second Gilded Age," on the other hand, is characterized by the expulsion of labor from formal and particularly industrial employment. This distinction follows from the second significant difference, which is the existing political economy in which the "Second Gilded Age" occurred. The unequal and financialized economy of our time follows the social democratic industrial economy, elements of which persist into our time and continue to shape it. By observing the history as cumulative rather than binary, we can see these continuities more clearly, and better grasp the shape of neoliberalism as it actually exists.