Review of "The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896"

The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 is a comprehensive history of the New York bourgeoisie, without a doubt most powerful and influential class in the 19th century United States. His work is not simply a regional history because the people are quite literally shaping the infrastructure and institutions of America, but also because Beckert consistently moves his level of historical abstraction from local developments in New York to the national implications and consequences of their actions. Combining the social, political, economic and intellectual history of this class, he provides many compelling arguments that give insights in to the reasons for their development. One of the starting points for his analysis is kinship-networks, the prevalent form of business organization at the time. As family business was usually something either born or married into, it becomes evident just how cautious this group of people is in maintaining it’s power and privilege. One’s mistake at the office could quite literally have the effect of turning the family into workers rather than employers or traders.

Beckert’s historiography is such that much of the information as to how the bourgeoisie came to set themselves apart from the working class comes from their own business literature, cultural publications, letters, diaries, property records, club membership rosters and congressional testimony. Beckert focuses on institutional formation, which included acculturation through clubs, churches, high society functions, marriage, militia and government service as well as the mores related presentation of the self and home, travel, raising children and women’s role as maintainer of respectability and kinship networks. As Beckert summarizes, it is the combination of this “complex web of behavior, tastes and taboos (which) provided them with the symbolic capital that proved to be a major asset in navigating the world” (40). However The Monied Metropolis also clearly shows that it is not merely the possession of these cultured qualities that makes one a part of the upper crust, as many of those in the newly formed professions had similar aspirations.

During the period of a financial crisis, much like today, Beckert shows how the bourgeoisie mobilized for class retrenchment via greater government control. Showing similar insight that Poulantazus would write about hundred years later, these New Yorkers feared that there were great dangers to be had from public works. Employment programs, welfare “limited their ability to cut wages and indirectly supported the power of unions” (214). By embracing and propagandizing a culture of private charity they were thus able to keep a large army of the unemployed as a disciplinary measure against workers seeking redress of economic or workplace grievances. Charity became a sort of terrestrial and celestial insurance by making sure that those receiving such pittances were actually “deserving” rather than shirkers, drinkers or idle, and that those giving out a portion of their bumper profits were seen as saintly. While those receiving handouts hardly conceived the rich as benevolent saints the construction of the latter shows how later liberal institutions created to monitor the activities of the unemployed came about. It is during the period of retrenchment we also see the various means that the wealthy sought to subvert democracy. Not merely by influencing local politicians but by changing state legislature so that appointment would be the means of determining significant political positions. Such changes were considered to be of the utmost importance specifically after the Tammany machine finally broke down.

Beckert provides a wealth of details to the various conflicting and at times overlapping ideologies of governance held by the New York bourgeoisie. Such rallying ideas for political mobilization are consistently shown in relationship to southern influence and developments. This meticulous approach is instructive as it illustrates the divides within the New York bourgeoisie itself, whether merchant or manufacturer. This becomes especially important during the debates leading up to and during the Civil War. Wile the former seeks to maintain the harmony always desired by the trader, the latter recognized that until the South provides raw goods to the North rather than being part of the transatlantic trade with the British it won’t be able to fully come into it’s own. Beckert puts aside contingent and determined economic factors of economic development, this not being a history of the North/South relationship, while rich detail about the political activism and ideological constructions of manufacturers and merchants are provided. Exegesis on the “tax-payer” ideology is particularly interesting as it shows how after the civil war the former southern plantation owners started using adopting the terminology of this northern ideology to deal with the conditions of Reconstruction. This allowed the southerners landholders to continue an essentially racist series of social and political policies by masking the historical conditions via coded language. As Beckert clearly shows, this was received with a wink and a nod by the northern elites who also found universal franchise to be an unfortunate barrier to their continued capital accumulation.

Beckert is also keen on showing how it was that the New Yorkers were able to build an ideology that showed them, correctly, as the new economic and cultural hegemon of the world. In this he builds up similar arguments as those put forward by T. Jackson’s Lears No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, yet this is not a restatement of Lear’s positions, but one that is more specifically concerning the New York bourgeoisie. Those that had descended from old stock American families started creating imagined communities, in groups such as the Song and the Daughters of the American Revolution, where their shared heritage became cultural capital and evidence as to their dominance in the direction of American life.

Heritage provided by European aristocracy also became of ideological interest to the bourgeoisie. While first seen as a holdover from the feudal era and a sign of European backwardness, as immigrants stocks arriving to America began changing, along with the primacy of means of production, social Darwinist theories came to be ever more popular in explaining the ascendency of the rich and the degeneracy of the poor. Pseudo-scientific theories were formulated in order to show how the new, less skilled, workers were genetically inferior. At the same time, sons and daughters of the New York elites increasingly showed status by marrying European aristocracy in order to obtain titles, regardless of how poor their partners were.

By the end of this book, Beckert showed that through all of the aforementioned practices and others elided from this review that by the dawn of the 20th century, the New York bourgeoisie had made themselves the most powerful group in the United States. Foreshadowed within this period are the inchoate tendencies that would make themselves felt again as the lower classes continued to clamor for more wages, as war would break out and risk investments in Europe, as a million of other crises large and small required assistance or guidance of some kind. Beckert leaves us with the clear impression that the New York bourgeoisie is the guiding light for the world bourgeoisie and that their input, experience and influence will eventually lead to the type of internationalist elite which The Atlantic write about here.