THE ROBBER BARONS by Matthew Josephson

Harvest/ Harcourt Brace & Co 1995. Originally published in 1934. ISBN 0-15-676790-2.

Josephson tells the story of the massive industrialisation of America that occurred in the last quarter of the 19th century. It was the greatest boom of them all, generating a giant interlocking system that covered steel, oil, railways, coal, food processing and banking.

The book looks at this phenomenon through the eyes of the men that came out on top in the frenzied and unstructured rush for development, and it becomes in part the biographies of Rockefeller (oil), Carnegie (steel), Gould and Vanderbilt (railways) and Morgan (banking) among others.

It's difficult not to be fascinated by the picture of capitalism (enterprise or any other word you prefer) at it's raw essence. The opportunities were vast and the modern restraints of anti-monopoly law, social legislation, taxation, judicial/editorial independence were feeble or non-existent.

Apart from being an excellent writer Josephson is also an honest reporter, showing the undeniable achievements of these men alongside the serious instabilities that they started to produce in society. On the one hand there are the largest modern industries and America's acceleration towards the position of leading world power and on the other the fact that the essential institutions of society were collapsing. (top)

As Vanderbilt said, "What do I care about the law? Hain't I got the power?"

The effect was to put a monopoly lock on the large number of wealth creating technologies that appeared at the time and to become as Josephson puts it, " the ancient barons-of-the-crags - who, by force of arms, instead of corporate combinations, monopolized strategic valley roads or mountain passed through which commerce flowed."

For example Rockefeller's switch from being the largest to the only oil refiner came in secret agreements with the Erie, Pennsylvania, and New York Central railroad "pools" whereby he and refiners invited to join the Standard Oil Trust (they received half the real value of their assets) had freight rates reduced by up to 50% whereas competing refiners had their rates increased by 100% with half of this being paid straight back to Standard Oil (drawback) by the railroads. Within three months his remaining 25 competitors surrendered to him and he fixed all U.S. oil sales at a new high price.

Marx developed his theory of Communism as a peoples Trust at this time and the more emotional outrage of Americans at awful working conditions and the wrecking of the legal and political system is captured for example in Jack Londons "The Iron Heel" (1906).

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