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The Labor Question in America: Economic Democracy in the Gilded Age, Rosanne Currarino, Champaign, IL.: University of Illinois Press, 2011

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AbstractIt is said we live in a second Gilded Age, which makes our understanding of the first all the more relevant. Rosanne Currarino’s The Labor Question in America makes the bold claim that, far from being a period of defeat for the Left, the original Gilded Age saw an expansion of democratic citizenship. A group of economists, social reformers and labour organisers transformed our understanding of political participation from the earlier, producerist to a more modern, consumerist ideal of social inclusion and collective agency. However, on her own telling, Currarino’s ‘expansion’ comes across more as a ‘substitution’. Some workers gained in wages what they lost in control of the means of production. Though Currarino fairly identifies the utopian aspirations underlying the demand for higher levels of consumption, her narrative relies on an overly rigid distinction between production and consumption, missing out on the way in which consumption came to be defined in ways that assumed the workplace would be a site of submission. Finally, The Labor Question fails to include, as parts of its narrative, the extraordinary violence that marked struggles over the labour question. In this context, the shift from ‘producerist’ emphases on worker control to ‘consumerist’ views of economic citizenship look more like an ideological displacement than they do a progressive expansion of democracy.

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