Though most often applied to the plutocrats and monopolists of America’s Gilded Age, the phrase “Robber Baron” actually has a much earlier derivation. During the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in the mid-thirteenth century, feudal landowners in the Rhine Valley were awarded lucrative rights to a series of strategic toll points along the river, then one of Europe’s most critical highways for transport and trade. When the Emperor died without a successor in 1250, the ensuing power vacuum afforded landowners the latitude to gain even more from their monopoly.
The robber barons of thirteenth-century Germany lived under feudalism, but their operating ethic was identical to that of their capitalist equivalents hundreds of years later: to maximize profit with minimal expenditure while extracting rents from control of a vital piece of infrastructure. This was what Henry J. Raymond had in mind when he issued a salvo against Cornelius Vanderbilt in the February 9, 1859 edition of the New York Times comparing the shipping magnate to “those old German barons who … swooped down upon the commerce of the noble river and wrung tribute.” “Mr Vanderbilt,” wrote Raymond, “has devoted himself to the study of steam navigation of his country – not with the object of extending its development, but for the purpose of making every prosperous enterprise of the kind in turn his tributary or his victim.” Mark Twain would similarly write an open letter to Vanderbilt in 1869, denouncing among other things the public idolatry he inspired:
You seem to be the idol of only a crawling swarm of small souls, who love to glorify your most flagrant unworthiness in print or praise your vast possessions worshippingly; or sing of your unimportant private habits and sayings and doings, as if your millions gave them dignity.
It would be many decades — arguably not until the Great Depression — before an equally jaundiced perception of the Gilded Age’s so-called “captains of industry” would become the norm in American culture. A few years after his death in 1877, an official biographer would write that without Cornelius Vanderbilt (or “the Commodore” as he was affectionately called) there would be “no railroads or steamships or telegraphs; no cities, no leisure class, no schools, no colleges, literature, art; in short no civilization.” The totemic institutions of American life itself, it seemed, were owed to a single wealthy benefactor.
By contrast, as historian Steve Fraser notes, biographies of later industrialists like Carnegie and Rockefeller “were often laced with moral censure, warning that ‘tories of industry’ were a threat to democracy and that parasitism, aristocratic pretension and tyranny have always trailed in the wake of concentrated wealth.” Ask the average person today to describe a robber baron and there’s a good chance they’ll proffer a similar depiction grounded in the very same historical idioms: i.e., as a greedy capitalist synonymous with the obscene inequality of America’s early industrial period.
Despite a concerted effort at revisionism since the 1960s, this classical image of the robber baron — an avaricious tycoon in a suit, quite possibly brandishing a cigar and sporting a portly gut — largely maintains itself today. Perhaps attuned to this reality, the multibillionaires of big tech who now populate lists of the globe’s wealthiest people have deliberately sought to cut a very different image.
Today, the greedy robber baron qua monopolist is said to be no more, having given way to a more enlightened class of entrepreneur who uses their wealth for the betterment of the human race and serves at once as both innovator and role model: Bill Gates is known as the world’s most generous philanthropist, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan as some of its most philanthropically minded millennials. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (worth over $3 billion) projects a monk-like existence characterized by dogged work ethic, fastidious routine, and personal asceticism. Elon Musk, meanwhile, presents as an affably nerdy guy who makes flamethrowers in his spare time and graces us with incandescent insights like “maybe we’re all living in a giant simulation.” Alongside Virgin’s Richard Branson, both he and the planet’s wealthiest person (Jeff Bezos of Amazon) are said to be working towards no less than the colonization of the universe.
Officially, today’s tech overlords are exceptional, eccentric geniuses whose wealth and power we reign in at our collective peril. Contra the robber barons of nineteenth-century America, theirs is said to be a largely benign class that works to educate, innovate, and give back. Even supposedly reform-minded liberal politicians like Elizabeth Warren, who last year took care to normalize billionaire wealth even as she pledged to modestly tax it, basically agree. But strip away the aesthetic differences owed to the passage of time, the evolution of technology, or the rise of global society and you’ll find very little daylight between the gilded tycoons of America’s first industrial age and the would-be prometheans who typically adorn the cover of Forbes magazine.
Most obviously, they are people of extreme wealth. Adjusted for inflation, Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller’s fortune hit $257.3 billion in 2018 dollars — one sixty-fifth of American GDP. Today, even after history’s most costly divorce, Jeff Bezos is worth around $139 billion — making three times what the median US worker makes in a year every second. Perhaps more significantly, the explosion in their wealth has followed on the heels of a major economic transformation. Just as the shift from agriculture to industry in the decades following the Civil War became the context for the vast fortunes of the Gilded Age, the contemporaries of Vanderbilt and Rockefeller — similarly lionized in their own times as great men of creativity and vision — have ridden an epochal technology boom and the expansion of information infrastructure and consumer goods that has come in its wake (upon his death in 1992, Walmart founder Sam Walton was likely America’s richest man at $8 billion — a figure dwarfed by the tech fortunes of today).
Like the robber barons of the mid to late nineteenth century, today’s tech tycoons preside over vast networks of commerce and communication, commodifying the basic infrastructure of social and economic activity and securing monopolistic control wherever they can. (This predictably extends to political activity much as it once did for the tycoons of steam and steel. In March 1881, Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote of Rockefeller’s efforts to buy politicians that his oil company had “done everything with the Pennsylvania legislature, except refine it”; in 2015 Facebook’s political action committee poured more into campaigns than even Goldman Sachs.) Despite the careful cultivation of a branding that implies otherwise, the resulting wealth does not owe itself to invention or innovation any more than Standard Oil’s balance sheets did during the 1880s.
Virtually everything that makes the iPhone a successful consumer product — from GPS to touchscreen technology, not to mention the existence of the internet itself — owes itself to state investment and public research, not the personal toil of an obsessive genius. Vanderbilt didn’t invent rail transport any more than Musk invented electronic transactions or Bezos home postal delivery, but each commodity has nevertheless enabled an infinitesimal few to accrue exorbitant wealth and exert unthinkable power over the many.
Substitute fiber optic cable for railways, personal computers for steam-powered locomotion, or app startups for oil refineries and the average tech billionaire starts to look less like a postmodern promethean than a reincarnated Rockefeller in a black turtleneck. As their contemporaries in the Gilded Age once did, today’s tycoons leverage philanthropy, social concern, and a mythos of personal exceptionalism to conceal their actual role as capitalists. And just like thirteenth-century robber barons on the River Rhine, the overlords of Silicon Valley jealously guard not only their wealth but also the means through which it was produced.
Perhaps it’s time to evict them from the river bank.