Easy Chair — From the August 2014 issue

The Octopus and Its Grandchildren

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Technology was supposed to bring us forward — remember Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the twenty-first century” slogan and all the heady utopian promises about democracy and egalitarianism and a voice for everyone and economic magic and everything being free as in terms of liberty as well as in price? Fourteen years into that century, it looks a lot like the nineteenth. The economic divide has widened, and the ostentatiousness of the ultra-elite is a sneer at the rising desperation of most of the rest of the human beings on earth. Democracy in the United States has been undermined by corporate power, and that loss is augmented by the loss of privacy inflicted on us by the surveillance state with help from the tech sector. Amazon is intent on bringing the publishing industry to its knees; journalism, the great watchdog of the nineteenth century, has been bled almost to death by the Internet.

But there’s one cheerful thing to remember about the old octopuses, the Southern Pacific and Standard Oil. They arose in new resource landscapes, more or less completely unregulated. They helped create the obscene economic disparity of the age, and they helped stir up the ire of working people. What followed on the Gilded Age was the age of progressivism, the age that broke up the monopolies, regulated industry, and articulated a fierce vision of economic justice and rights for workers. We need to hope that we’re coming to that ourselves, or despair that we’ve become virtual serfs.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her Easy Chair essay will appear in every other issue.

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