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American Progressivism

Assuming that the burden of proof is ultimately on the writer, I contend that the period from approximately 1900 until the United States’ intervention in the war, labelled the “progressive” era by virtually all historians, was really an era of conservatism. Moreover, the triumph of conservatism that I will describe in detail throughout this book was the result not of any impersonal, mechanistic necessity but of the conscious needs and decisions of specific men and institutions.

There were any number of options involving government and economics abstractly available to national political leaders during the period 1900-1916, and in virtually every case they chose those solutions to problems advocated by the representatives of concerned business and financial interests. Such proposals were usually motivated by the needs of the interested businesses, and political intervention into the economy was frequently merely a response to the demands of particular businessmen. In brief, conservative solutions to the emerging problems of industrial society were almost uniformly applied. The result was a conservative triumph in the sense that there was an effort to preserve the basic social and economic relations essential to a capitalist society, an effort that was frequently consciously as well as functionally conservative.

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I use the attempt to preserve existing power and social relationships as the criterion for conservatism because none other has any practical meaning. Only if we mechanistically assume that government intervention in the economy, and a departure from orthodox laissez faire, automatically benefits the general welfare can we say that government economic regulation by its very nature is also progressive in the common meaning of that term. Each measure must be investigated for its intentions and consequences in altering the existing power arrangements, task historians have largely neglected.

I shall state my basic proposition as baldly as possible so that my essential theme can be kept in mind, and reservations and intricacies will be developed in the course of the book. For the sake of communication I will use the term progressive and progressivism, but not, as have most historians, in their commonsense meanings.

Progressivism was initially a movement for the political rationalization of business and industrial conditions, a movement that operated on the assumption that the general welfare of the community could be best served by satisfying the concrete needs of the business. But the regulation itself was invariably controlled by leaders of the regulated industry, and directed toward ends they deemed acceptable or desirable. In part, this came about because the regulatory movements were usually initiated by the dominant businesses to be regulated, but it also resulted from the nearly universal belief among political leaders in the basic justice of private property relations as they essentially existed, a belief that set the ultimate limits on the leaders’ possible actions.

It is business control over politics (and by “business” I mean the major economic interests ) rather than political regulation of the economy that is the significant phenomenon of the Progressive Era. Such domination was direct and indirect, but significant only insofar as it provided means for achieving greater end-political capitalism.

Political capitalism is the utilization of political outlets to attain conditions of stability, predictability, and security-to attain rationalization —in the economy. Stability is the elimination of internecine tion and erratic fluctuations in the economy. Predictability is the ability, on the basis of politically stabilized and secured means, to plan future economic activity on the basis of fairly calculable expectations.

By security, I mean protection from the political attacks latent in any formally democratic political structure. I do not give to rationalization its frequent definition as the improvement of efficiency, output, or internal organization of a company; I mean by the term, rather, the organization of the economy and the larger political and social spheres in a manner that will allow corporations to function in a predictable and secure environment permitting reasonable profits over the long run. My contention in this volume is not that all of these objectives were attained by World War I, but that important and significant legislative steps in these directions were taken, and that these steps include most of the distinctive legislative measures of what has commonly been called the Progressive Period.

Political capitalism, as I have defined it, was a term unheard of in the Progressive Period. Big business did not always have a coherent theory of economic goals and their relationship to immediate actions, although certain individuals did think through explicit ideas in this connection. The advocacy of specific measures was frequently opportunistic, but many individuals with similar interests tended to prescribe roughly the same solution to each concrete problem and to operationally construct an economic program. It was never a question of regulation or no regulation, of state control or laissez-faire; there were, rather, the questions of what kind of regulation and by whom.

The fundamental proposition that political solutions were to be applied freely, if not for some other industry’s problems then at least for one’s own, was never seriously questioned in practice. My focus is on the dominant trends, and on the assumptions behind these trends as to the desired distribution of power and the type of social relations one wished to create or preserve. And I am concerned with the implementation and administration of political capitalism, and with the political and economic context in which it flourished.

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