Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 4 of 5)

Bull Run

THE GREAT GAME; The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power, 1653-2000; By John Steele Gordon; Scribner: 320 pp., $25

January 02, 2000|STEVE FRASER

Within our collective consciousness, Wall Street lives in two psychic latitudes. One is temperate and signifies capitalist probity and caution, conservative financial orthodoxy, sound practice, rule-bound conventional morality and profound respect for the established order of things. The other is tropical and calls up a defiant set of instincts: to gamble recklessly, to break rules, to undermine all fixed and stable values, to revel in irreverence--in a word, to live by luck, not work. Though it would be wrong to label the latter "anti-capitalist," this cultural splitting nevertheless has been deeply formative. When the Jeffersonians excoriated the evils of Wall Street, they did so in defense of the moral and political virtues of productive labor. However hypocritical it may seem for a slave-owning elite to prate on about the work ethic, it set in motion a long-lived tradition, picked up initially by Jacksonian Democrats and later by Populists, labor radicals, middle-class Progressive-era reformers and New Dealers. Most of these movements and social classes (with some exceptions at the socialist margins of the labor movement) were themselves committed to the elementary forms of the capitalist marketplace. They believed, however, that they could tell the difference between genuine investment on the one hand, and parasitic gambling on the other and rested their critique of Wall Street on that essential, if ambiguous, distinction.

III

On through the Great Depression, Wall Street's iconic place in our political imagination derived its electric charge from this political culture of opposition. Though "The Great Game" is speckled with allusions to the government's innate incompetence, Gordon scarcely notices that Wall Street's real ability to wield power in Washington has gone largely unchecked; inbreeding between the State and Treasury departments and leading investment houses and Wall Street law firms through much of the 20th century is, for example, one mark of The Street's weightiness. Still, there have been stunning moments when this oppositional culture has broken through the prevailing amiability: when Lincoln wished he could take those gold speculators betting on Union defeats at Gettysburg and Chancellorsville and "have their devilish heads shot off"; or when Teddy Roosevelt declaimed against "malefactors of great wealth"; or when J.P. Morgan was hauled before a Senate committee investigating the "money trust" and its nefarious manipulations of "other people's money;" or when FDR promised to chase the "money changers from the temple." It's impossible to fully appreciate Wall Street's stature without either taking the measure of its actual political power--as when Grover Cleveland pleaded with the mighty Morgan (whom he worked with during the interregnum separating his two presidencies) to bail the government out of an embarrassing gold shortage--or without recognizing its role as a densely packed symbol of all that struck people as unjust, inequitable and downright immoral about financial and corporate capitalism.

A whole demonology grew up around the image of the top-hatted, fat-fingered financier. Even when Wall Street wasn't to blame, it attracted critics like moths to a flame. Some were drawn by the stench of "filthy lucre" and a medieval anti-Semitism; from the antebellum Mississippi governor who accused Wall Street "shylocks" of perpetrating the panic of 1857 to Henry Ford's hatred of Wall Street, so notorious for its conspiratorial anti-Semitism. Others demonized The Street out of a legitimate fear that a handful of investment banks and brokerages could bring ruin to millions. Wall Street, then, is a classic case of the over-determined symbol, absorbing not only economic and political anxieties about finance capitalism but a far rangier set of fears and phobias about the city, about Jews, about the wickedness of the East and so on.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|