In 1840, the minister and reformer Orestes Brownson perversely perceived the plight of the ostensibly free “laboring classes” to be more desperate than that of actual slaves. Slavery’s defenders, unsurprisingly, railed against capitalism’s disruptive evils, and even in his profound hypocrisy an apologist like George Fitzhugh, a planter from Virginia and vocal pro-slavery advocate, exposed the potential inhumanities of the industrial system: “Capital commands labor, as the master does the slave…. Whilst you were engaged in amassing your capital,” he informed industrialists in 1857, “you were in the White Slave Trade.”
The analogy between wage slavery and chattel slavery persisted in the United States into the 20th century in the rhetoric of reformers such as the socialist Eugene Debs. In 1914, even as Dale Carnegie was beginning to train businessmen to win friends and influence people, the labor leader Samuel Gompers concluded, “the economic interests of the employing class and those of the working class are not harmonious,” adding, “There are times when, for temporary purposes, interests are reconcilable; but they are temporary only.”
If, as Pocock suggests, the Industrial Revolution ushered in the “fantasy” of “[e]conomic man as masculine conquering hero” in the shape of Marx’s worker, it also made it possible to discern in his nemesis a kind of terrifying savior. Looking in desperation at “the Hell of England” in 1843, the historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle believed only one class capable of restoring order to the “Human Chaos”: “The Leaders of Industry, if Industry is ever to be led, are virtually the Captains of the World,” he proposed in his book Past and Present. It was they who would have to organize “that grandest of human interests”: work. To do it, of course, they would have to “retire into their own hearts” to determine whether there was anything there “but vulturous hunger, for fine wines, valet reputation and gilt carriages.” Carlyle looked to a time when, “[t]o be a noble Master, among noble Workers, will again be the first ambition with some few—to be a rich Master only the second.”
A decade later, in 1854, the masters not yet having found their nobility, Charles Dickens would indict England’s “Hell” in his novel Hard Times, where he speculated about the future of the appropriately named industrialist Mr. Gradgrind: “Did he see himself … making his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope, and Charity; and no longer trying to grind that Heavenly trio in his dusty little mills?” Would Gradgrind and his fellow “dustmen” finally see, Dickens asks, that they owed a “duty” not simply to their own fraternity, but also “to an abstraction called a People”?
One of the most intriguing American incarnations of Carlyle’s “Captains of the World” was the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who had the added attraction of having been an immigrant who built his wealth in archetypal Horatio Alger fashion. Having absorbed the tenets of Social Darwinism, Carnegie proposed his solution for harmonizing social and economic relations in 1889 in The Gospel of Wealth: “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.” Rather than deploring the inequities of Gilded Age America, Carnegie understood the “contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer” as a measure of “the progress of the race.” He preferred “great irregularity [to] universal squalor.”