All the World Is Green | The Nation


All the World Is Green

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Yet the new Wall Street met with considerable opposition, too. Some critiques were rooted in the older economic and cultural order, like those of the genteel, old-monied intelligentsia (Henry Adams, Henry James, Edith Wharton), who deplored the financial oligarchy for its vulgarity and avarice. In The House of Mirth, as Fraser observes, Wharton provided a withering portrait of "the lethal moral and social psychology that lay concealed beneath the frivolity and mercenary pre-occupations of the Wall Street world"; James, for his part, expressed acute discomfort in The American Scene with the Street's "pushing male crowd."

About the Author

Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace is co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (Oxford), author of A New Deal for New York (...

Prairie farmer populists also had one foot in the vanishing moral economy. True, they straightforwardly castigated Eastern bankers and bondholders as regional exploiters, a charge neatly captured by an earthy sketch (in the bestselling tract Coin's Financial School) of a continentally scaled cow feeding in the West while getting milked in New York. But "Morganization," Fraser makes clear, threatened a way of life, not just a source of income, and it stirred ancient cultural anxieties. Populists produced ferocious denunciations of the "Money Kings of Wall Street" that depicted them as fiendish conspirators and sybaritic plutocrats out to overturn the moral foundations of the Republic, rhetoric that occasionally curdled into anti-Semitic rant. But their resistance was forward-looking as well as retrograde, Fraser insists, noting that their "ultimate goal was to wrest control of the monetary system from the Wall Street elite and vest it in the hands of the U.S. Treasury."

Other opponents (small businessmen, urban workers, many professionals) were more thoroughly enmeshed in modern industrial life; they accepted the new corporate order but rejected the financial elite's overlordship as pernicious and irrational. These Progressives devoured the writings of muckrakers--critics who deflated the puffery surrounding the heroes of finance and industry, but did so in a pragmatic, empirical and secular fashion. Assaults on "predatory wealth" accelerated after the Panic of 1907. Exposés by investigative journalists (Charles Edward Russell's Lawless Wealth), jurists (Louis Brandeis's Other People's Money) and renegade speculators (Thomas Lawson's Frenzied Finance) demonstrated that Wall Streeters traded on inside information, produced their own speculative booms and crises, blocked fruitful competition, suffocated innovation, made obscene amounts of money and used it to corrupt politicians and the press. These critiques, as Fraser shows, flowed out into ever wider channels of popular culture, from the Broadway musical (one play featured a chorus of demons chanting, "This seat's reserved for Morgan/That great financial Gorgon") to the newly arrived motion picture (in D.W. Griffith's 1909 film A Corner in Wheat, a wheat king is literally buried alive by his ill-gotten gains).

Once again, cultural subversion facilitated political initiatives. In the Progressive era many of Wall Street's opponents rallied around Theodore Roosevelt. As the scion of an ancient-monied clan, Roosevelt possessed both a "highly developed sense of social obligation" and a contempt for financial plutocrats that "was bred in the bone, part of an upbringing that dismissed materialistic strivings as unworthy, debilitating, and effeminate." Woodrow Wilson and Eugene Debs--TR opponents in the election of 1912--had different vantage points, different social backing and different approaches to curbing the "Money Trust." But the overall popular mood had clearly turned against Wall Street and modest reforms ensued, including the Federal Reserve Act (1913), though the arrival of World War I, which Wall Street played a crucial role in underwriting, short-circuited the Progressive crusade.

The ensuing 1920s-30s boom-bust cycle followed the well-established sine curve trajectory, but the oscillations were far more extreme, producing what Fraser calls Wall Street's first "season in utopia," which led to the most serious challenge yet to private control of the nation's capital markets.

The 1920s surfed in on a wave of commodities, and Wall Street regained its luster by channeling capital to frontier technologies like radio and movies, airplanes and autos. The stock market again shook off its moral stigma, its Dionysian aspects resurfaced and speculating on margin became as sexy as wearing short skirts and drinking bathtub gin. Indeed, "playing" the market, Fraser suggests, became part of a more epochal development--the shouldering aside of the Puritan work-and-thrift moral economy by a shiny new culture of consumption. Constraints on corruption eased, too: Rogues were back in vogue, and stock pools--conspiracies by insider wolves to shear outsider lambs--were reported like sporting events.

With the Dow on a roll, a broader (yet still narrow) swath of the population rushed to get in on the action--heightening the aura of democratization--but the biggest profits still rose to the top, where they triggered another round of profligate consumption. Mellon Republicans green-flagged the process--approving mergers, slashing taxes on the rich--while pocketing initial stock offerings before they went public, burnishing crony capitalism to glossy perfection. Yet seldom was heard a discouraging word. Religious critics lacked fervor and moral authority, while surviving Populist and Progressive skeptics were dismissed as killjoys or cranks. Even Henry Ford's anti-Semitic ravings about Wall Street's sinister influence on the country's moral fiber failed to gain traction. Wall Street oracles smugly announced the arrival of a "new era," the end of history.

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