Masters of the Universe
The disparity of income in this country between the richest one percent and the rest of us is at an all time high, led by ruthless financiers who consider themselves “masters of the universe.” A century ago the masters were industrialist robber barons who built massive empires often through unethical and illegal business practices, and whose wealth and methods are now rivaled by today’s billionaires.
After an around the world tour in the 1880’s, the richest man in the world, Andrew Carnegie said, “the Americans were the saddest-looking race we had seen. Life is so terribly earnest here. Ambition spurns us all on, from him who handles the spade to him who employs thousands. We know no rest… In this world we must learn not to lay up our treasures, but to enjoy them day by day as we travel the path we never return to.” Americans, he thought, “worked harder than was necessary and much harder than the British. ‘No toilers, rich or poor, like the Americans!’ ”
At about the same time, the local clergymen in the steel towns approached Carnegie asking that his steel mills be shut down once a week on Sundays so that the men could attend church; currently they worked 12 hours every day, dragging sore and tired bodies to church on Saturday nights.
Steel plant manager Jones relayed the message from Carnegie to the “bigoted and sanctimonious cusses” that if they “even tried to interfere with these works, I will retaliate by promptly discharging any workman who belongs to your Churches and thereby get rid of the poorest and most worthless portion of our employees. If they don’t want to work when I want them, I shall take good care that they don’t work then they want to.” And then he docked their pay.
The infamous Homestead lockout of 1892 culminated in the murderous showdown between largely “hunky” workers and their wives against 300 armed Pinkerton agents on July 6, 1892. Publicly, Carnegie sympathized with the laborers, and feigned surprise when the New York Herald later contacted him for comment on the bloody strike, saying that the news of the disaster “grieved me more than I can tell you. It came on me like a thunderbolt in a clear sky.”
Yet prior to the lockout, the once penniless Scottish immigrant sent a telegram to Henry Clay Frick, his business partner, “…. Of course you will win, and win easier than you suppose, owing to the present condition of the market.” While Frick fought the battle to the bitter end, Carnegie remained holed up in his castle in Scotland, cowardly unwilling to face the workers or the public himself. (He later complained the lockout was ruining his vacation.)
Over the next several days Carnegie telegrammed again and again: “Never employ one of these rioters. Let grass grow over works. Must not fail now…. Am with you to end whether works run this year, next or never. No longer question of wages or dollars.” (On his deathbed, Carnegie asked to see Frick from whom he had been estranged for two decades. Frick replied, “tell him I’ll see him in hell”).
How, I wondered, could the same man exclaim that “Americans were the victims of a work ethic gone mad” on the one hand and then ruthlessly push thousands of human beings into a subhuman existence on the other? The answer, I suspect, lay in his unabashed admiration of his good friend Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher who embraced the concept of social Darwinism, and who coined the term “survival of the fittest.”