There is a new History Channel documentary series that has been added to Netflix, called “The Men Who Built America.” The premise is that during the period of rapid industrialization that followed the Civil War, the one termed by Mark Twain the “Gilded Age,” there were a few men who led America to its position of of global prominence that it now enjoys. The first episode, which is the only one I’ve seen, follows the narrative of Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D Rockafeller’s rise to prominence and the business wars between railway and oil magnates, “locked in a battle of wills,” as they tried to destroy their competition–that is, each other. The show insisted at several points that in this battle, money was merely a way of keeping score, never the objective.
“The Men Who Built America” did frequently point out business practices that would be considered illegal under current laws, but it also made reference to all of the jobs provided by these magnates and, at one point, implied that the expansion of industry provided 100% employment for the country that was only broken when competition between businesses forced Rockefeller to shut down production in such a way that the loss of jobs spiraled into the depression of 1873. In this one instance everyday people were harmed by the business competition (according to their narrative), but the overall trajectory was one of progress and advancement, as directed by a few ruthless and brilliant entrepreneurs. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, they posit, the country needed a leader, but lacked politicians up to the task and so turned to the Captains of Industry.
Theirs is a powerful narrative, one that taps into the American Dream that everyone can make it rich if only he or she works hard enough and one that situated the United States as the beacon of civilization and locus of technological advancement. However, it is remarkable how much is left out of the narrative. The focus on the business competition means that the narrative stays in the east, so westward expansion and the dispossession of native land never show up. Even the charitable foundations created by the industrialists didn’t make it into this narrative. But neither does the show mention immigration or the conditions of the working poor. In fact, the only time that the show used images like those of Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives was in conjunction with the lamentable (but seemingly unavoidable) Depression of 1873, when those workers didn’t have jobs. When business for the industrialists was booming, those people were employed and, they imply, housed and clothed. Never mind that these men who made America were worth the equivalent of 75 billion dollars or more, as the show admits but doesn’t dwell on. For what it is worth, their figures also probably underestimate the actual wealth of these men–Wikipedia places Rockefeller’s net worth at something like 650 billion, in modern figures. It will be interesting to see how the show handles unionization…if this episode is any guide, they will gloss over the working conditions…and progressive political reform.
How the show manages to present these men as both worse people, hoarding all their money and not giving them credit for philanthropy, and their actions less repugnant, sterilized of any negative effect on their workers or the general public is astounding. As I noted on Twitter, for being the men who built America, the Captains of Industry do a lot of standing around looking imperious while other people work.
What struck me about the show most, though, is the format. There is a heavy does of reenactment, with more speaking roles for the industrialists than I expected. Usually in this sort of documentary the reenactment and narration is interspersed with comments from experts, and the History Channel did employ one of Vanderbilt’s biographers and one man identified as a historian. The rest of the speakers were CEOs, hedge fund managers and other modern captains of finance or industry, including Donald Trump and Mark Cuban. Partly as a result of this, the woman with the most air time was probably Rockefeller’s secretary, but he did say “thank you” when she brought him a note. Exploitation in all of its forms is presented in this narrative as a subtext, the unintentional and exceptional side effect of capitalism, rather than the backbone of the system. Because it is never about money.