Last semester, one of my classmates made an interesting observation: “Marx is back!” she exclaimed. I said that I agreed, but only inside these ivy-covered walls. Within the academy, it’s a great time to be a Marxist scholar — that is, seeing events through the prism of class struggle (not necessarily embracing Marxism as a personal ideology). But outside of the academy, in the United States, at least, Marxism is a joke.
Or so argues Steve Fraser in his latest book, “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power.” In this book, Fraser, an historian and muckraking author, argues powerfully that America has had two so-called “Gilded Ages,” periods characterized by mediocre social mobility and an immense divide between rich and poor: the years between the Civil War and the Depression, and today. In both of these Gilded Ages, we see the vast majority of wealth concentrated in the hands of the very, very few.
But Fraser sees a critical — some might say heartbreaking — difference between the first Gilded Age and our current one: People aren’t angry anymore! In 1874, thousands of unemployed New Yorkers, primarily mothers accompanied by their children, descended on City Hall, crying, “Bread or blood.” For most of this nation’s history, going back well before the Revolution, the working class had no problem rising up against their moneyed rulers — the Revolution itself was the upper middle class’s attempt to attain greater economic and social mobility.
Certainly during the late 19th century and into the 20th, Americans constantly demonized the rich, the trusts, the monopolies, the fatcats, the robber barons, the royalists, the plutocrats. From slave revolts to union warfare, from trust-busting legislation to the creation of the New Deal, the American working-class has always, always fought back against the super-rich. The fight against slavery became, after the Civil War, a fight against “wage slavery.” And the fighters didn’t scruple to call out the bad guys while they were doing it: Think of muckraking journalists, exposing the perfidies of Standard Oil and the meatpacking industry; think of politicians railing against Rockefeller and Morgan and Vanderbilt.
According to Fraser, the working-class and bourgeois left has lost its mojo. It no longer rallies, protests or calls out the rich. It wants to work with them, to understand them; it wants the rich to be our partners in progress. It is no longer liberal; it is neoliberal (signifying a belief that a deregulated private sector can effectively replace the state in the performance of various social responsibilities).
Fraser blames these new developments on a number of factors: the failure of several so-called communist or socialist states; the rise of McCarthyism and the concomitant demonization of any system other than free market capitalism; the popularization of a libertarian up-by-the-bootstraps narrative; the rise of Reagan and the deregulation of the private sector; the cowardice of journalists, descendants of the muckrakers; the complicity of Democrats in taking corporate money and looking the other way when corporations do evil things; and the rise of corporate consumerism, wherein corporations are our friends!
For anyone who has read Marcuse, Fraser’s hatred of corporate consumerism will sound familiar: The workers’ love of TVs and refrigerators has temporarily slaked their thirst for capitalist blood.
And if Marx foretold an epic battle between the landed bosses and the proletariat, Fraser sees a proletariat that is, for the most part, resigned to its fate. The bosses, on the other hand, never stopped fighting, and they continue to decimate unions, scale back the social safety net, and combat any attempt to check their fabulous wealth.
There is much to like in “The Age of Acquiescence.” It is fluidly written and you can tell from the very first page that Fraser really knows his stuff. His arguments are hard not to agree with. He makes little effort to hide his anger or his anti-capitalism, and that’s fine — part of what he’s arguing for is scholars and journalists who don’t hide behind ostensible objectivity. Fraser’s is a mostly hopeless book — the super-rich have won, and there’s little the rest of us can do about it. To be sure, he opens the book with Occupy Wall Street, which he sees as a spot of hope. However, he uses Occupy to pose a disturbing question: With income inequality so high, why didn’t Occupy emerge sooner?
Yet there are a few drawbacks. Fraser seems to have little understanding of the role of the courts in creating the current Gilded Age (e.g. corporations as people). More importantly, he completely overlooks the current protesters who are engaging in exactly the kind of angry activism he so hungrily desires: fast food picketers; teachers and retail workers fighting for unionization; environmental activists; student debt strikers. Perhaps these movements don’t rise to the level Fraser wants, but in writing this book he should have done more to acknowledge their presence. Furthermore, one can see the growing protest movements against police violence and mass incarceration as indicative of a growing skepticism of corporate capitalism (i.e. an economic system that leaves so many people of color unemployed, unable to buy a home, sometimes forced to turn to crime and ultimately put in prisons, some of them even private).
Fraser’s book resonates with me, particularly at a place like Yale. Here, we’re surrounded by so many of the super-rich of Fraser’s nightmares. They’re our friends! Everything’s great! Here we find ourselves surrounded by so many people going to work in finance, in private equity, in consulting — industries that are actively facilitating economic inequality. They’re our friends! It’s all fine! Surrounded by these people, it’s easy to understand Fraser’s central argument: We’re reluctant to demonize our friends. We, at Yale, are part of the problem.