I went on a bike ride the other day to a shopping complex known as the Waterfront, about ten miles from my home on the North Side of Pittsburgh. “Waterfront” is an apt name: Pittsburgh is situated at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, which meet to form the Ohio. It was the city’s prime location for westward shipping that, in the words of the local tourism board, “helped Pittsburgh become the industrial center for a growing nation.” Throughout the nineteenth century, the region established itself as the country’s primary producer of glass and iron, the latter of which quickly gave way to all-important steel.
Steel. In my experience, if someone knows nothing else about Pittsburgh, they know we’re the steel people. Our nickname is the Steel City. Our football team is the Steelers. En route to the Waterfront, which is located upstream on the banks of the Monongahela, I crossed the two tributary rivers via two hulking steel bridges, one of which, the Hot Metal Bridge (we make steel, not subtlety), transported 15% of America’s steel during World War II.
The steel industry itself died in the 1980s, but its memory is inescapable. Looming over the expansive parking lot of the Waterfront’s movie theater is a row of towering smokestacks, numbering about a dozen—“The Stacks.” They’re something to look at as you get out of your car and make your way to your screening of F9: The Fast Saga, sure, but they also gesture at the Waterfront’s storied past, for as primordial as AMC Loews 22 might seem, it is built on the ashes of the Homestead Steel Works, a property of the mighty Carnegie Steel Company and once the largest steel mill in the world. As I rode my bike past The Stacks, I tried to picture them active, spewing thick jets of fetid black smog, warming the surrounding air so that it shimmered. A few minutes later, I arrived at my final stop: the Pump House.
Also part of the Homestead Works, the Pump House drew water from the Monongahela, enabling the rapid cooling and tempering of metal to meet ever-increasing demand; it represented a significant technological development in the production of steel. But its most important legacy is the role it played in the Homestead strike of 1892, one of the most consequential labor conflicts in American history. On June 29 of that year, Andrew Carnegie instructed his manager, Henry Clay Frick, to lock workers out of the mill and inform them that he would no longer recognize their union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. (Carnegie himself, who made his riches integrating the steel industry and who was then jockeying with John D. Rockefeller for the title of richest man in the world, avoided personal implication in the ordeal by taking an impromptu vacation to Europe.) Through the union, the mill workers had been organizing for several years in protest of grueling hours, inhumane working conditions, and poverty wages that only continued to fall. They responded to Frick’s edict by striking on July 1. After a week of deadlock, 300 Pinkertons, private militiamen hired by the company to break the strike, arrived by barge on the shores of the river near the Pump House. They were greeted by thousands of outraged members of the Homestead community, and in the ensuing battle, seven workers and three Pinkertons were killed. Eventually, Carnegie’s agents relented, marking a temporary employee victory. But a week later, 8,000 Pennsylvania National Guard troops occupied Homestead and forcibly reopened the plant with replacement workers. By November, the strike had collapsed. Its leaders were arrested with the impossible stipulation of a $10,000 bond. The defeat effectively killed the Amalgamated Association and triggered a wave of union busting across the country that left steelworkers unorganized and impoverished until the labor uprisings of the 1930s.
The Homestead strike stands as an early, dramatic example of the lengths to which the boss will go to deny employees their rights. But it’s also a story that merits our attention at this precise moment in U.S. history. Early in the strike, on July 22, the Homestead workers issued a proclamation, titled simply “An Address to the Public.” It is preserved on an inconspicuous plaque at the site of the Pump House:
“The most evident characteristic of our time and country is the phenomenon of industrial centralization, which is putting the control of each of our great national industries into the hands of one or a few men and giving these men an enormous and despotic power over the lives and the fortunes of their employees and subordinates—the great mass of the people; [it is] a power which eviscerates our national constitution and our common law … a power which, though expressed in terms of current speech as the right of employers to manage their business[es] to suit themselves, is [coming] to mean in effect nothing less than [the] right to manage the country to suit themselves.”
129 years after those words were recorded, Jeff Bezos, the richest man of our own time, launched himself out of the stratosphere, and the Homestead steelworkers let out a collective sigh from beyond the grave. Probably an “I told you so,” too. On July 20, 2021, Bezos, president and CEO of Amazon turned megalomaniac space cadet, ventured on the first manned trip of his aerospace company Blue Origin, going really high for a few minutes and then coming back down. Eleven minutes, to be exact, and in those eleven minutes—just like every eleven minutes—he earned $1.6 million, a figure it would take an Amazon worker at median pay over 55 years to match. Of course, Bezos isn’t the only billionaire attempting to stake his claim on the cosmos. Nine days earlier, Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group, beat Bezos to the punch with his snazzy rocket plane. And then there’s Elon Musk, who’s still doing his thing. Space: the final frontier for pissing contests between white men with too much money. Many pundits have cheekily dubbed it “the new space race.”
But is there more to that comparison than a witty quip? Where there are white men with too much money, capitalism can’t be far behind, and indeed, while Bezos is no doubt deriving an ego boost from his jaunt to the heavens big enough to stretch to the Moon and back, he—along with his competitors—is also advancing the ultimate goal of making commercial galactic tourism for the ultra-rich a viable, profitable industry. Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX each promise that in the near future, we’ll all be able to fulfill our childhood dreams of becoming astronauts for the low price of a few million dollars, and there’s no better testimony for the safety and desirability of such a proposition than the founder himself taking a test drive.
The Blue Origin mission proudly claimed the distinction of “first unpiloted suborbital flight with a civilian crew.” Civilians on board in addition to the 200-billion-dollar man included very wealthy Dutch 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the second-highest bidder for the spot (the winner, who put up a cool $28 million, had a scheduling conflict). In other words, when he blasted off, Bezos finally wrested space exploration from government agencies and placed it in the iron grip of private hands.
I’m no John F. Kennedy fanboy, and I hold no illusions that the original space race was anything but a pissing contest of a more global variety. In fact, it was a pissing contest that, when viewed as just another battlefield of the Cold War, becomes inseparable from decades of ideological persecution, quasi-imperialism, and needless death under the guise of defending democracy. But there’s something to be said for rallying a people around a common ideal. In that oft-quoted portion of Kennedy’s 1962 speech—“We choose to go to the Moon…”—the word “we” appears four times in one sentence. Perhaps surprisingly given the geopolitical climate of the day, the President, who remained open to cooperating with the Soviet Union on the mission, stresses that space presents a blank canvas with which the inhabitants of Earth might forge a truly peaceful society: “Space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.” You know: one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Even if you don’t buy the notion that the space race of the 1960s was a victory for everyone, expressing some inclusive, communitarian utopia (we did plant a big old U.S. flag, after all), it’s hard to deny that it was at least a success of the American state. The touchdown on the Moon was the product of a concerted national effort. Never mind that half of the population wasn’t in favor; they paid their taxes, and a bunch of lawmakers spent those taxes on a program to send a handful of people to that big rock up there, spawning one of the country’s cooler institutions, NASA, in the process. And because those lawmakers were elected, and because those taxes were publicly sourced, the population, even if they didn’t directly approve of it, had at least a nominal stake in the whole affair. They were, in some sense, aboard the Apollo 11—or at least their money and votes and tacit permission were, and if the population changed their mind, there would be an opportunity for recourse come the next election cycle. There was, in a word, accountability.
Jeff Bezos changed all that. He and his elite brethren have arrogated space to themselves. If you’re not convinced, consider this little nugget of symbolism: is it mere coincidence that Bezos’s Blue Origin trip took place on the anniversary of the Moon landing? One small step for man, one giant leap for that man’s bottom line. Meanwhile, NASA’s funding as a percentage of the federal budget is the lowest it has been since the agency’s second year of existence.
Bezos paid for his extraterrestrial excursion using the people’s money too. His wealth was built on the backs of his underpaid, overworked, and otherwise mistreated laborers, as he kindly reminded us at a press conference following the launch: “I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this.” Only Amazon workers can’t choose how the fruits of their labor are spent. They certainly can’t vote Bezos out of office. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that our great national industries are being thrust into the hands of one or a few men and that those men have been given an enormous and despotic power over the lives of the great mass of the people.
We’re taught that America prior to the turn of the twentieth century was a lawless place, one in which robber barons, unfettered by government regulation, monopolized rapidly expanding industries to reap obscene profits. Then Teddy Roosevelt came along and busted them up, and that was the end of that. But let’s compare the facts. Andrew Carnegie’s peak net worth was $475 million, which when converted to 2021 dollars is on par with that of Bezos. Channeling Roosevelt, Joe Biden just signed an aggressive antitrust executive order, tweeting, “Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation.” Carnegie’s workers had essentially no means to leverage their collective power; their ability to bargain was at the discretion of the boss. Amazon has done everything it can to prevent unionization and has succeeded so far. (It’s true that workers in one Alabama warehouse voted overwhelmingly against the union earlier this year. It’s also true that Amazon has a long history of intimidating, firing, and getting sued for intimidating and firing employees who attempt to organize). And while union membership was low in 1892, it has now been in decline for 70 years. Oh, and both Carnegie and Bezos worked hard to deflect attention from their bloated, untaxed fortunes with carefully groomed philanthropic reputations.
Jeff Bezos is no innovator: he’s copying his moves straight from Andrew Carnegie’s playbook. Having monopolized the cutting-edge industry of our day, internet commerce, he’s making an early bid to do the same with the next frontier. The people who lived through the consolidation of steel and the rise of the capitalist tyrant of the 1890s predicted exactly this. Welcome to the Second Gilded Age.