Overcoming Democracy

The Age of Betrayal
The Triumph of Money in America 1865–1900
Jack Beatty
Alfred A. Knopf, $30, 512 pp.

A recent political cartoon by the Chicago Tribune’s Dick Locher featured two well-dressed lobbyists walking in front of the United States Capitol. “I spend a lot of time in Washington,” one says to the other. “I think I’ll buy a house.” To which his companion responds, “Yeah. I’m buying the Senate.”

A joke, one might say, worthy of Thomas Nast, the Victorian patriarch of American political cartoonists. Certainly, Jack Beatty would say so. Though his Age of Betrayal is an enthralling history of the dynamics of money and power in the late nineteenth century, Beatty has one eye firmly on our own gilded age. When he writes that

political influence, here as everywhere in this period, leveraged fortunes. Money sought power. Entrepreneurial genius consisted in strategic generosity toward public officials...

one may be sure that it is not only Jay Gould and his period but Jack Abramoff and ours that Beatty would bring to mind.

Beatty’s governing argument is simple, and compelling. Industrialization throughout the world has been forged through exploitation; the primitive accumulation of capital has, indeed, always been primitive. As Marx, whom Beatty approvingly quotes on the matter, put it, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time, accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”


To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

<p class="spip" dir="ltr">

<p class="spip" dir="ltr">Robert Westbrook is the author, most recently, of Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth (Cornell).</p>