U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Shape of an Age (Guest Post)

[Editorial note: The following essay by Wesley R. Bishop is adapted from a paper he presented at the June 2016 Midwest Labor and Working Class History Conference at Purdue University. The conference’s theme was “Social Justice for a Global Working Class,” and the panel focused on the question of periodizing the Gilded Age.]

The Shape of an Age: The historian’s use of periodization and the question, “Are we living in a Second Gilded Age?”

by Wesley R. Bishop

In the 1873 novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, the novelists Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote, “Beautiful credit! The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises?” The sentiment, and overall story, is of course, satire. Meant to mock the nouveau riche of the late 19th century, and their ability to influence politics, the book predated much of the period’s later issues with large scale industrial and corporate capitalism. The book is noteworthy because although the book was not well received critically, the title nonetheless went on to have a second life of its own, literally giving its name to the period of time from the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the reform efforts of the Progressive era.

Yet, despite this second-life, the book itself, since it was authored in the midst of the Reconstruction era, missed many of the important issues that would animate the late 19th century. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today was, therefore, unable to address the U.S. labor movement, widespread strikes, and the unabashed aggression of various governments which curtailed working class movements. Instead, the story focused on a series of loosely connected narratives dealing with the issues of land speculation, lobbying Congress, and attempts of people to make it rich in post-Civil War society. As such, some historians have argued that the term “Gilded Age” is a highly problematic one, a name predating the actual period of study, and that we should therefore consider retiring it. This is further complicated by others who have accurately detailed the problem in using such a term in the first place. As Alan Lessoff, the former editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era has argued, the very term “Gilded Age” presents a problematic teleos where the 19th century’s Gilded Age gives way to an ascension in the Progressive era. As a result, the Gilded Age, its actors, and the span of time it traditionally encompasses is seen only as a period of greed, corruption, and shallow material gains. Lessoff has argued such imaginings ignore the real reform and radical thought that existed in the period. Similar to the frustration over the term “Dark Ages” which many Medievalists and Early Modernist scholars have balked at, the negative labelling of these periods of time serve to establish the supposed victory of the Scientific Revolution, or the coming of the New Deal. Therefore, should we retire the term from popular use, and instead adopt a competing term, such as “Long Progressive Era”? Understanding this historical background is vital in order to answer the more pressing question in the present of “Are we living in a Second Gilded Age?” And, if we are living in a Second Gilded Age, what does that mean for our society? I believe these questions have a direct impact on both the way we think as scholars who study the late 19th century, and how we go about conceptualizing our own actions and activism in the various reform movements of social justice in the 21st. As such, the question “Are we living in a Second Gilded Age?” is not merely idle intellectual banter. It has the potential to radically alter the way we think and speak about our actions in the present.

The question itself has garnered no shortage of attention. Historians such as Richard Schneirov, James Livingston, Thomas Sugrue, Glenda Gilmore, and Alan Lessoff have all contributed widely to the debate arguing various well researched and reasoned positions. Likewise, the question has gained even more consideration outside of academic circles with Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty, and various journalists wondering, and answering, the question “Is our period a Second Gilded Age?”

Yet, before we can hope to answer such an inquiry we need to first understand what we are doing when we answer such a question. Who is the “we” in the question of “Are we living in the Second Gilded Age?” And, more importantly, as Lessoff has shown, what do we even mean by the term “Gilded Age”? Also, what philosophical assumptions do we make when we argue that there could even possibly be a repeated period?

All such concerns are questions of periodization. Now, periodization is most commonly understood as the act of historians breaking various spans of time into discrete and labeled blocks, so as to expedite the study of past societies. This understanding of periodization is furthered by popular outlets of information. For example, the On-line Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines periodization simply as “division (as of history) into periods.” Dictionary.com specifies a little more in-depth by arguing periodization is “an act of dividing a subject into historical eras for the purpose of analysis and study.” And Wikipedia, as of just this week, defines periodization as “the process or study of categorizing the past into discrete, quantified named blocks of time in order to facilitate the study and analysis of history. This results” the entry explains, “in descriptive abstractions that provide convenient terms for periods of time with relatively stable characteristics.”

These are the definitions our students are most likely to find if they go searching for a way to understand the term “periodization,” and such definitions, I argue, are highly problematic.

What emerges from this popular understanding is a conception of periodization that views the shape of an age via its parameters. When does a period start? When does an era end? Was a historian correct, or incorrect, in assigning a particular date to begin or end their study? Historiographical discussion, in other words, becomes an endless debate over where to place the goal posts of particular studies, with each successive entry in the historical literature debating a particular origin, and a definite termination point. This, somehow, determines the shape of an age. However, it is telling that even Wikipedia concludes its definition by admitting “the precise beginning and ending to any ‘period’ is often arbitrary.”

And, indeed, it is. A historical period rarely exists outside a particular present creating it. In other words, the period is an object, not of the period being studied, but a technology of a particular present. As such the conceptualizations of periodization found in works by thinkers like Martin Sklar, Karl Marx, and to a certain extent Hegel, are of utmost importance in correctly understanding what periodization actually consists of for historians. If we admit that the period does not exist in the past, in so far as it mostly exists in a present understanding, then the argument that a particular period begins on one date as opposed to another is irrational. The period exists not in the past, but in the in-between area known as history, where a particular present animates the past by its study and interrogation. The beginning and ending, of an age is of less importance then, than the actual content of the historic period of time. Instead of seeing the period as beginning and ending, the period exists as a highly evolved set of context. This is why the concept of “zeitgeist” is so important. Instead of seeing zeitgeist, as it is sometimes misused, as some kind of free floating “spirit of the times,” like an overall flavor or overarching character, we should see it as a network of causalities, and interconnected relations of particular phenomena in historic development. Therefore, history is not simply cause leading to effect, leading to further causes, and then further effects in a simple linear fashion. Instead, it is multiple influences converging on multiple points that are then interrelated. History, is thereby, the understanding that comes from that excavated context.

When we periodize, either by labeling the late 19th century as the “Gilded Age,” or the beginnings of the 21st as a “Second Gilded Age,” we naturally gravitate toward this latter understanding. We don’t spend inordinate amounts of time arguing “2007 or 2012?” Therefore, why should we spend considerable amounts of time on the question “1873 or 1877?” Perhaps, this hyper focus is the byproduct of a greater misunderstanding in historical thought where people believe that the past dictates the present. Therefore, determining what date one begins their study automatically informs the result of the study in question. This kind of historical determinism is, of course, dangerous.

To be sure, the past does matter, and a developed understanding of past societies does inform understanding in the present. But the past is not a dictator. The present matters as well. Which brings us back to the question, “Are we living in a Second Gilded Age?” and as a result, how do we adequately periodize it as historians? To answer this question, I think we first need to understand that the historian has never been a simple empiricist, chronicling the past in a series of objective facts. Instead, as a discipline in the social sciences that straddles the humanities, the field of history is one based on subjective understanding far more than objective truth. The various ways we construct and gather the information for our studies belies this point. This is revealed by the historian’s dual reliance on both narration, and empirical research. Narration, that is the art of storytelling, and empiricism, the act of developing testable methodology and using it to gather a priori information, constitute the bedrock of the very work of the historian.

However, history is neither just narrative, any more than it is just empirical data. Although the form of the narrative has radical potential to communicate complex ideas to a general audience, history as a distinct endeavor in human thought, must exist outside of these narratives. By only every employing an engaging narrative, the historian presents their study as a normative claim, subsuming their philosophical assumptions. Likewise, if history is just a series of facts chronicled, then the historian must answer why they don’t simply find the information and then print the primary documents? Surely, if history is just a series of facts, the “truth” will bubble up to the surface regardless of who is reading it.

Neither of these approaches, as sole choices, suffice in thinking historically. Although empiricism is how historians gather vital information for their studies, and the narrative is the way that information is then explained, a much larger philosophical move is made by the historian, and sadly it is one that is rarely communicated in popular historical studies.

We see this problems when we begin to apply a deeper understanding of periodization. That excavated context is only context insofar as there is an actor observing it. Much like Schrödinger’s cat, which lives or dies depending on observation, the historical study is animated by a present actor having a conversation with it. The questions asked, archives consulted, and intervening historiography all work to shape the way in which we think about both the past, and subsequently, the present. The present historian thereby develops models and categories, and subsequently checks them against historical documentation. What that documentation reveals is the past “speaking” to the present. Therefore, history is the radical endeavor of taking two alienated positions, periods that will never be able to directly interact, and putting them into conversation with one another. The animating factors, that is the method of analysis and field of questions, be they gender based, class oriented, politically focused, or military in scope, inform the understanding of the present, guiding the historian to certain aspects of the past. From this cultivated understanding the historian then arrives at a judgment, classifying the period in its totality. This allows for the historian to claim a “society-type” for the period in question.

However, instead of merely claiming an essentialist line of reasoning, the historian also shows through their research what was specific to that period, and what aspects, trends, and developments continued into other periods. This is not a radically new understanding of history, as stated above, and is perhaps detailed best by Martin Sklar in his work The United States as a Developing Country. Using the terms “historical” and “transhistorical,” Sklar argued a good method of periodization contained these two vital elements, as it showed how the period was unique in its own regard, and how it fit into the overall flow of historical development. Therefore, capitalism or say democracy, could exist as transhistorical forces in multiple periods of human history. Changing depending on context, these transhistorical elements made historical thought understandable, and more importantly, provided the historian the ability to organize their studies in a way that other researchers, dealing with other periods and other questions, could find useful.

So, are we living in a “Second Gilded Age”? The way in which that question has been answered is telling, especially in the way popular thinkers and journalists have approached it. Paul Krugman, in his review of Thomas Piketty’s 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, argues an unequivocal “yes.” Looking at income disparities, Krugman points to Piketty’s research and argues that like the late 19th century, an explosion of inequality in the United States, and a number of different western nationalities, demonstrates that a “Second Gilded Age” is upon us. “…Piketty and his colleagues showed that incomes of the now famous ‘one percent,’ and of even narrower groups are actually the big story in rising inequality…this discovery came with a second revelation,” Krugman writes, “talk of a second Gidled Age.” Continuing, Krugman reasons that this return of the Gilded Age was interrupted by a period of relatively controlled capital, an era that was more “humane” in its allocation of resources.

“In America in particular the share of national income going to the top one percent has followed a great U-shaped arc. Before World War I the one percent received around a fifth of total income,” Krugman explains, “…By 1950 that share had been cut by more than half. But since 1980 the one percent has seen its income share surge again— and in the United States it’s back to what it was a century ago.”

This sentiment has been echoed, repeatedly, by the economist and public policy commentator Robert Reich. “We’re in a new gilded age of wealth and power similar to the first gilded age …,” Reich argues, “In many respects America is back to the same giant concentrations of wealth and economic power that endangered democracy a century ago.”

The BBC, likewise, has repeated this argument. Writing in May 2014 Linda Yeuh, the BBC’s chief business correspondent, cited Krugman, and Piketty and argued that with growing global disparities in wealth it was “no wonder this era has been dubbed the Second Gilded Age, the first having been during the late 19th to early 20th century [which] ended with the Great Depression of 1929.”

This line of reasoning is interesting for two larger reasons. First, it posits that the Gilded Age was almost solely defined by its income inequalities. This is a problematic assumption, as I will explain in a moment, but the second, and much more fruitful move is to view the Gilded Age, both first and second, on a global scale. However, before we can appreciate the move to a global focus, the first assumption, that is that the Gilded Age was primarily a period of economic inequality, needs to be challenged.

Now, of course, there was widespread economic inequality in the late 19th century, just as there is today. Yet, why does this constitute the periodization of the first, and therefore second, Gilded Age? Such a reasoning returns us to Twain and Warner who believed the period would most notably be characterized as one of faux gilded glory, a glaze that once scratched revealed the unconscionable decay and rot of the period. Yet, as it has already been stated, Twain and Warner can be excused from this misreading, since they were writing prior to the period. However, Krugman, and Reich have no such excuse.

This reading of the Gilded Age, and our period as a Second Gilded Age, utterly ignores the very real and experienced history that we can gain understanding from by studying. Not surprising, the work of the historian Roseanne Currarino is missing from much of this conversation. Writing in her 2010 book The Labor Question in America: Economic Democracy in the Gilded Age, Currarino argues that the period’s main context that we could gain insight from was the growing realization that economics, that is the very material wellbeing of people, was inexplicitly tied to questions of democracy and liberty. The “labor question,” Currarino demonstrates, was a real and pressing concern by actors in the period who worried over how democracy would survive the emergence of clear and permanent class divisions. Therefore, an understanding of the reformers and revolutionaries of the period, alongside an appreciation for popular thought in the late 19th century, reveals an important aspect to the “Gilded Age.” The term “Gilded Age” as a designation has never maintained its power via the belief in the supremacy of capital, its ability to be controlled, or concern over the rate of economic levels of inequality. Instead, the power of the term comes from the way events relate historically, and how connections grew in the late 19th century. Its power is in its ability to see the unequal relationship of the capitalist political economy, and apply that realization to the supposed equal relations we are to enjoy in democratic politics.

Granted, the relations found in the political realm have never actually been practiced as fully equal, but instead those relations, as they relate to the period’s ideals, insofar as they are ideas that animate people in their period to action, constitute the shape of an age. In other words, the Gilded Age of the late 19th century was, and the Gilded Age of the 21st is, gilded because actors in those periods generated an understanding with one another through historic thought. From the New York labor movement of the 1870s to Occupy Wall Street, from Coxey’s Army to Democracy Spring, and from the radical anarchist thinkers of the Gilded Age and Progressive era to the activists of Black Lives Matter, the actors in these periods have profoundly challenged the blatant disconnect between radical democratic relations, and capitalist exploitation.

The two Gilded Ages, are therefore, connected via the historian’s work, a communicative act that accesses a past period to gain greater understanding. In this way, despite those who argue a return to the Gilded Age is a decline, or those who assure us that all will be alright, history is incapable of prescribing an ascension or declension judgment. Instead, history can only offer a conversation based on growing understanding, a discussion in which every new piece of historical research discoverers something new because historical research constantly contains a radical new element, that is a wholly new present.

Therefore, history does not, in fact cannot, repeat itself. Despite continued arguments over where to end or begin a historic period, as if the genesis of the period determines its context, history does not gain its meaning in the origins of its oldest included moment. To believe such an idea is to chase history through the ages in a deterministic line of reasoning, arguing each period was determined by what came before it. Eventually, like evangelical fundamentalist thinkers, we would arrive at our creation story, viewing an Adam and Eve-like figure committing an original sin, and subsequently condemning all of us to a singular fate. Or, if you are less biblically inclined, we become Bill Murray, trapped in a kind of winter Purgatory where each period begins with the announcement, “ITS GROUNDHOG’S DAY!” Each new historical period is a new existence, related but different from the preceding periods of study. How then can we claim to be living in a Second Gilded Age? The answer resides in the method of periodization laid out in the beginnings of this essay. The past is not a dictator. The present, in historical thinking, matters as much as the past period being studied.

As historians, and especially as activists, we must believe the present constitutes at least a chance of reaching the velocity needed to escape certain aspects of the inherited past. That has always been the radical potential of history as a humanistic endeavor. Many of the actors of the first Gilded Age understood this, choosing not to merely wonder at how inequality was created, but dedicating their life’s work to making our material existence align with our most radical notions of equality and freedom.

The term “Second Gilded Age,” therefore, only conjures dread if you believe, as Krugman and Reich repeatedly argue, that the intervening years between the New Deal and now constituted some kind of paradise. As we access the past via historical research, we as activists and thinkers, know that such a characterization is dangerously inappropriate. The issues that animated the first Gilded Age have in many respects continued as a transhistorical force, which as a component of human society moves between our periodization schemas, never having been fully addressed. Although it is certainly true that we, in some geographic locales, have moved closer to the realization of full human liberation, we still have much more ground to cover.

And it is precisely this larger historical reasoning that makes a global focus so important. Social justice for a global working class demands that we look beyond the borders of particular nationalities, as well as certain periodization schemas, and see the issues of capitalism as a system of social relations on a global and transhistorical scale. It is why, despite the many justified concerns of the so-called “new history of capitalism,” that the increasingly popular notion that capitalism constitutes a global and transhistorical force is so radically important. From Africans ripped from the shores of one continent to be forced into labor on another, to Palestinians violently removed from their homes to make way for Israeli developments, the force of capitalism has continued to be one that challenges us as historic beings to not merely accept the world we inherit, but to actively change it.

In one particular section of The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, Twain and Warner depict one of the main characters in a fit of despair, thinking about the development of time, and the loss of prospect, the character is given to a fit of nihilism. “…one’s spirit is subdued and sad, one knows not why; when the past seems a storm-swept desolation, life a vanity and a burden, and the future but a way to death. It is a time when one is filled with vague longings; when one dreams of flight to peaceful islands in the remote solitudes of the sea, or folds his hands and says, What is the use of struggling, and toiling and worrying any more? let us give it all up.” To underscore the notion, the passage is accompanied by a picture of the character, and a subheading reading “Past. Present. Future.”

Such displays of despair cannot be entertained if we are to take history and social change seriously. The term the Gilded Age, and the Second Gilded Age, presents us an opportunity to bypass this thinking. It allows us to clearly see that the way we exist economically relates to the way we exist socially and politically, grounding our periodization in a way that looks at the social relations of a period, not its origins, as one of its most revealing features. This realization is pregnant with radical potential now, as it was over a hundred years ago.


Wesley Bishop is a PhD student at Purdue University where he studies the US labor movement, and social reform of the Gilded Age and Progressive era.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Wesley: I don’t have a substantive comment, but I to acknowledge that I read your essay and appreciate the issues of chronology with which it grapples. Thanks for publishing it with us. – TL

    • Thanks Tim, to you and the everyone who dedicates their time to staffing this site. The issue of chronology is an interesting one, and I still have ideas I am forming on this, but like I said in the piece although chronology as a method of narration (then this happened and then this, etc. etc.) is vital to communicate studies we should be aware that an origin point, or any single moment in a chain of historical events is not the sole cause of a future outcome. What I mean by this is that the period in question, as a historic totality that is excavated context, constitutes the overall periodization. This, I think, allows us as historians to retain the idea of contingency, that the past actors were not fated for a certain outcome, and as a result neither are we in the present. Just because an event happened in the past does not mean we have to end up at a certain future point. I don’t know if any of this makes sense, but that idea is what I am trying to get at in the essay, and then apply that observation to the term “Second Gilded Age.”

  2. This was absolutely wonderful. I need to read it again, but I agree with the basic premise–we need to shy away from arguing that history repeats itself, but also make sure we can use the past to gain some tangible understanding of the present. I think this captures why I’ve always been reluctant to use the phrase “Second Reconstruction” for the Civil Rights Movement, even though it was used by Julian Bond and C. Vann Woodward, among others.

    • That is an interesting point, Robert. Yeah, I am not sure about the term “Second Reconstruction” either. Do you know if actors in the Civil Rights Era used that terminology? I think there is definitely a strain of historical development in the Civil Rights Era that is very much related to the issues that were created and unresolved in the Reconstruction period. But, as you rightfully point out, how do we acknowledge this relation without giving the impression of regurgitating the tired trope “history repeats itself.” It is a good question. Just curious, where does C. Vann Woodward and Julian Bond make these arguments? I would be curious to read them.

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