Book Review: The Age of Acquiescence (2015)
by Alan F. Zundel
Why aren’t the majority of U.S. citizens rising up against their gradual (or not so gradual) impoverishment under the current economic system? That’s the question Steve Fraser sets out to answer in his book from earlier this year, “The Age of Acquiescence.”
It might look like an ill-timed question, given the surprising mass support for the Presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders later in the year. But the impoverishment has been going on nearly fifty years now—why did it take so long to get even this much of a response?
It is especially puzzling when compared to the continual public revolts of the analogous period of “the long nineteenth century,” spanning from the early 1800s into the 1930s. That was the time when what Marx called “primitive capital accumulation” took place here—early capitalists wringing wealth out of everyone else to amass it in larger and larger business organizations.
The history of that earlier period has been well documented, but I fear it has largely faded from the public imagination. We are taught that capitalist corporations grew at the expense of family farmers, self-employed artisans and small business owners because of the production efficiencies of the division of labor and new technologies, but that is a very incomplete picture.
For one thing, it ignores how capitalists colluded with the government to derive wealth from the public assets. Mining, lumber and railroad companies received a lot more free or cheap land than homesteaders did—especially the railroads, which used their growing financial power to extract wealth from farmers trying to bring their products to market. For another thing, that picture is blind to how the early capitalists wrung wealth from human labor, first via slavery and indentured servitude, then by forcing desperate former farmers and artisans to work punishingly long hours for near-starvation wages.
People did not accept their dispossession lightly. There were cooperatives, mass strikes, opposition political parties, unions and other forms of organized resistance all throughout those difficult times. Any victories were hard won, and finally culminated in the New Deal’s political structures for protecting the public and taming the capitalist system.
Fraser started out wanting to retell that story, and in the first half of the book he does exactly that, and in a wonderfully lively and illuminating manner. The story was familiar to me, yet I found myself learning new things and gaining new perspectives as well as being enthralled with the vividness of his writing.
But, as he reveals in his Acknowledgements at the end of the book, he began to puzzle over the similarities and differences between that era and the one we are currently living through. For again the citizens are being dispossessed by a capitalist class, only this time without the public benefit of building more productive enterprises. Rather, wealth is now being amassed by stripping the nation of its productive capacities and reducing half the population into a debtor class. Yet the social and political responses, at least until very recently, have been relatively tame and ineffective. What gives?
Answering that question is the burden of the second half of this long but rewardingly insightful book. It is not a simple answer, but in teasing out the various aspects of it Fraser brings the situation into much clearer focus. He doesn’t present the story in a linear history, but a sketch of it would run as follows:
By the 1970s competition from abroad was squeezing the profits of U.S. corporations, so they began evading regulations, taxes and unions via the threat and reality of moving production from state to state and then out of country. By the Reagan years big business felt strong enough to stage a political counterattack on New Deal liberalism. When the partial dismantling of the New Deal wasn’t sufficient to protect profits, a new capitalist class turned from industrial capitalism to financial capitalism: the creation of new debt instruments; speculation in money, stocks, and real estate; buying, stripping down and reselling companies; and so forth.
The end result has been deindustrialization, stagnant wages, a reduced standard of living for the many and burgeoning wealth for the few—the oft-noted massive economic inequality of the present moment. Fraser first defends his contention that the masses have been (relatively) acquiescent in the unfolding of their undoing, and then deftly discusses some key reasons, among them:
• The myth that the financial entrepreneurs were purging the economy of inefficiencies
• A culture of self-identity through consumption versus your role in production
• The “fable” that free-agent workers are liberated rather than exploited
• The mutual abandonment of labor unions and the Democratic Party
• The targeting of “limousine liberals”—an alleged aloof class of alien values—as the enemy
Intertwined with all of these is Fraser’s primary explanation, which is that it is harder for us now to imagine a different world than the one we are presented with. In the “long 19th century” people still had the memory of a previous way of working and living, but not anymore. All we know now is the world we are living in, a world in which the marriage of government and Wall Street seems an inevitable feature of postindustrial capitalist society.
I am not sure this is completely true, as many of us in the gradually disappearing older generations still remember life under the New Deal dispensation from the 1940s through the 1960s. As Fraser himself notes, the dismantling of that arrangement has been vigorously contested in the political arena, although since the culture wars of the 1960s the Democratic Party has been hobbled in these fights by internal fractures. Perhaps Senator Sanders will revive the New Deal or even push beyond it into the terrain of democratic socialism, or perhaps not. But the historical experience of a different life is still there.
Whether that old flask will hold the new wine of 21st century global capitalism is questionable. Fraser has his doubts and so do I, but for a different reason. Technology is replacing labor at an escalating pace; what is New Deal liberalism or democratic socialism without an industrial labor force? (This is not pessimism, as I do think new visions of an alternative future may be emerging. For example, see my review of “The Zero Marginal Cost Society.”)
I recommend Fraser’s book as a thoughtful and thought-provoking exposition of where we’ve been, where we are, and how we got here. It was also a darn good read, although near the end there are a couple signs of flagging editorial attention. (The phrase “cri de coeur” is overused and a quote by Louise Day Hicks shows up twice.) It is also, in the end, inspirational—a needed reminder that people have risen up against oppressive social structures in the in the past, and thus are likely to do so again.