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The Robber Barons: From Rhode Island to ‘The Global Estate’

Niall McCrae

21st Century Wire

We plebeians may ponder, from time to time, on how we’d live if we won the lottery (whether or not we participate). But would we be happy? The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel from the Jazz Age of the 1920s, depicted the hedonistic life of a millionaire at his Long Island mansion; despite all his wealth, Gatsby was a profoundly sad man. Perhaps the guilt of limitless luxury, while the masses struggle to keep their heads above water, leads some of the richest elite into philanthropy. They can’t take it with them.

In the late nineteenth century, from the booming, rapaciously capitalist United States of America emerged the ‘Robber Barons’.

The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and oilman J.D. Rockefeller amassed unprecedented mammon through ruthless business practice, before the federal government took action against their monopolies. These men were instrumental to the rapid rise of modern America, but after their names were tarnished as an epitome of greed, both made their legacy by donating their lucre to public causes. Not surprisingly, their power and domination over the U.S. and western establishment continues to this day.

The super-rich made Newport on Rhode Island a sanctuary. They built palatial summer residences, typically in the lavish style of eighteenth-century French or Italian dukes, with grand reception rooms adorned by murals, gold-leafed portraits, intricate ornament and classic furnishing. It was hard to believe that this was the New World. Visiting Newport, the brother-in-law of Czar Nicholas II remarked that he had never seen such opulence.

Alistair Cooke’s America (1973) described the ‘cottage’ of the Vanderbilts, a family who epitomised the rags-to-riches trajectory of the tycoon class. Cornelius Vanderbilt had run a ferry service between New York and New Brunswick, and this humble craft developed into a transatlantic steamship line. His son doubled the family funds, and the next generation built a baroque pile that overshadowed every other showy residence in Newport. No expense was spared for fancy-dress balls held there, and horses slept on linen sheets embossed with the Vanderbilt logo.

According to Cooke, ‘the ultimate whimsy was achieved by one Harry Lehr, an acknowledged court jester, who issued invitations to a hundred dogs and their masters. This ‘bow-wows banquet’ served stewed liver and rice, fricassee of bones and shredded dog biscuits. A newspaper reported sneaked in, and the report of this canine extravaganza was not received well by ordinary New Yorkers.

The reality for millions who emigrated from Europe was a promised land not as fruitful as they’d been led to believe. The poor were crammed into city slums, paid a pittance and their jobs were threatened by economic strife and the advance of machines. Seamstresses were a supply far greater than demand. Life on the prairie was no better, with temperamental harvests, and introduction of threshers and other apparatus that replaced manpower. The People’s Party arose from the impoverishment of farmers, fleetingly challenging the Republican/Democrat establishment.

Newport decadence contrasted sharply with the turmoil in the cities, mines and mills. Strikes on the railroad and by coal miners were brutally suppressed by state guard and federal troops. The resentful notion of the Robber Barons gained momentum, and it was felt that certain national or ethnic groups were prospering, while others compete for a meagre slice of the cake.

More than any other modern nation, America was built by immigrants, many of whom climbed the ladder of business and society, and have established legacies which endure to this day. Cooke identified the Germans, and particularly German Jews, as the most successful entrepreneurs, leading to a hierarchy of wealth:

‘Wherever the Germans went, they tended to establish themselves, both by superiority of talent and a marked gift of clannishness, at the head of the social hierarchy of Jewry. The Sephardic Jews and the German Jews were at the top, and at the bottom were the Lithuanians and the Hungarians, elements in a social system that discouraged intermarriage between its upper and lower strata.’

From the cauldron of trade and politics that was New York arose a number of powerful enclaves among the various immigrant groups. The majority of Yiddish speakers were as poor as the average Catholic Italian or Russian Orthodox immigrant. But while the Irish came to dominate the political structure, as well as key positions in finance alongside their Jewish counterparts of New York and the industrial cities of the north, creating Democrat political fiefdoms that still exist today – the German-Jewish mercantile class founded some of the great banking institutions of Manhattan, with no less longevity.

The Rockefeller dynasty (of Baptist background) has exerted major influence on global affairs ever since J.D. Rockefeller ploughed money into an array of institutions, including reforming medical training, and laying the groundwork for a global medical-industrial and pharmaceutical complex. His grandson David Rockefeller created the globalist organisations of the Trilateral Commission and Club of Rome, the latter body persuading the United Nations to focus on a purported ecological crisis. Meanwhile the corporate world is predominantly owned by investment bankers BlackRock and Vanguard.

This brings us to the present day, where the Trilateralist vision of a globalist technocracy draws ever near. Events of the last three years have only reaffirmed their agenda, and their acolytes feel more emboldened that ever to vocalise their aims in public. According to the World Economic Forum led by Klaus Schwab, ‘you will own nothing and you will be happy’.

People will be nothing but digital consumers, all goods and services used without any private property. But someone must own the buildings, farms, modes of transport, hospitals, shops and infrastructure. Rather than the democratically-elected state, but the landlord will be the barons of global commerce. Are they not robbing us?

Niall McCrae is a researcher and educator, and author of ‘The Moon and Madness’ (Imprint Academic, 2011), and ‘Moralitis: a Cultural Virus’ (Bruges Group, 2018). See his 21WIRE archive here





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