Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History
by Steve Fraser
Verso, 2019, 272 pp.
For a long time, our master narrative of U.S. history in the twentieth century has been centered on the rise and fall of the New Deal order: from Roosevelt to Reagan, Keynes to Friedman, General Motors to Walmart. The story is usually one of declension. The flourishing of liberalism, labor unions, and social awareness in the mid-twentieth century ends with the resurgence of laissez-faire at its conclusion. More recent historians have been sharply critical of this narrative, highlighting phenomena that cut across the normal divide: exploring the bipartisan history of the carceral state, the “straight state,” the public-private partnerships that defined the New Deal just as much as neoliberalism, the ways that precarity defined economic life for many (especially African Americans) even at the height of postwar prosperity.
What’s striking is that some of the most perceptive contributions to both interpretations have come from the same person: the historian Steve Fraser, who has staked out a central place in scholarship while conducting most of his career outside of academia. (He holds a PhD but chose to work for many years as a book editor rather than getting a regular teaching job.) Fraser’s work, like that of the late Alan Brinkley, who also wrote for an audience well beyond the university, has been defined by its concern with the limits of New Deal liberalism—its falling off from earlier radical and reform traditions in U.S. politics, the frustrations it embodied, and the ways it fueled the rise of the right. But unlike Brinkley, and many other political historians who may be critical of liberalism but who write from within its framework, Fraser has always sought to approach capitalism in the United States from the perspective of those at the bottom of the social order. His intellectual commitments have reflected a much deeper pessimism about liberalism’s prospects, even as he helped to enshrine the narrative of its “rise and fall” as the key story of the twentieth century.
A new collection of Fraser’s essays, Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History, brings together many of his most notable responses to lingering questions about our recent history. What is the legacy of the New Deal? What are the points of similarity and of disconnection between the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century and our current era of inequality? And is there a way to salvage hope about the future from the remnants of the postwar liberal era?
But what was the “New Deal order” in the first place? The 1989 book that popularized the term, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980, coedited by Fraser and historian Gary Gerstle, defined it as a period when leading Democrats and Republicans both professed their support for the expanded federal government, welfare state, and labor unions that had formed during the Great Depression. The assumptions, worldview, and ideology of this style of liberalism ruled, no matter which party happened to occupy the White House and Congress. The New Deal, instead of simply being a package of legislation aimed at the Great Depression, was a template for a particular way of thinking about society, a way of managing the pressures and dynamics of capitalism. It established a framework to redress problems of insecurity and poverty, albeit one that later scholars argued had in certain ways reified existing hierarchies of race and gender. Despite its limits, this was the governing vision for U.S. society into the 1970s, when it was blown apart by an ascendant conservative movement.
The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order brought together the work of a generation of historians who had grown up in the liberal era, and who sought to explain the dismantling of the ethos that had shaped their own political expectations. Fraser’s contribution was to focus on the role of labor in this system. His story was simultaneously one of triumph and loss. According to Fraser, the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the successes of industrial unionism during the New Deal transformed the politics of the United States, enshrining a new social order in which the working class would be able to obtain material security and inclusion in the mainstream politics of the country. But the ascent of the CIO also marked the end of an earlier labor culture, a radical confidence in utopian change that emerged out of the violence and chaos of the early days of industrial capitalism. Security, purchasing power, employment—these would become the watchwords of the New Deal, replacing an earlier, more militant and humane vision of labor as the core of social power.
Fraser’s argument grew out of his research for Labor Will Rule, a prizewinning 1991 biography of the labor leader Sidney Hillman, founder and president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Here, he chronicled not only Hillman’s life but his distinctive vision of unionism, which grew out of his early political experiences in Lithuania and Russia. Hillman had become a revolutionary socialist at a young age, going to jail for several months following his role organizing a May Day march in 1904. He emigrated in response to Tsarist repression, arriving in Chicago in 1907, where he went to work in the garment trade. Quickly, he became active in organizing unions in the industry and moved from Chicago to New York, where he led dissident garment workers to form the Amalgamated as a radical alternative to the other garment unions. In its early years, the union aimed to provide its members with a separate set of collective institutions that could instantiate an alternative vision of the world. The union built cooperative housing and established the Amalgamated Bank both to meet working-class material needs and to model economic institutions founded on mutuality rather than competition, helping to nurture a culture that was not only critical of capitalism but distinct and separate from it. For the denizens of this culture, the New Deal meant both success and failure. Hillman moved from the union to Washington, ultimately becoming Roosevelt’s close adviser in the Second World War. What Hillman gained in power, he lost in independence—a trade-off, Fraser suggested, that was true for the labor movement as a whole.
For much of the past ten years, Fraser’s work has dealt with trying to understand the story of “limousine liberalism” and the raw, angry populism of the right; he has also written about Wall Street in the American imagination, and our oscillation between a fascination with the world of finance and contempt for it. Although these topics might seem to have taken him far from labor history, he has remained driven throughout his work by the same abiding concerns, above all the question of why the modern era has proved so impervious to mobilizations that imagine a truly different future.
This problem is at the heart of Mongrel Firebugs. Some of the essays collected here are briefer pieces of lacerating reportage on such subjects as prison labor, the culture of debt, disaster capitalism, and the problem of unemployment. But the most important and memorable chapters take a broader historiographical view, comparing the present day to the world of 100 years ago, analyzing the distinctive political culture of right-wing populism and its relationship to capitalism, and reflecting on the legacy of the New Deal. Taken together, they offer a powerful reinterpretation of the twentieth century, one echoing themes that have reverberated throughout Fraser’s intellectual career.
Fraser’s story begins with the seismic transformation of the U.S. economy during the Gilded Age, a stunningly rapid and brutal shift from a preindustrial to an industrial way of life. Old communal forms of social organization, old expectations about autonomy and production, were forced to give way to the demands of industry, a “process of primitive accumulation, absorbing and transforming precapitalist ways of life in town and country, both here at home and abroad,” he writes. This destruction of the old social order and the shock of industrial labor fueled the intensity of the challenge to the experience of waged work and the factory. Americans of that earlier age had personal knowledge of a different society. They had seen their world ripped up and violently altered; it hardly seemed a stretch to imagine that such a change might come again, only this time in ways that they were able to guide themselves.
Those ideals were still alive in the Depression-era labor movement. Fraser focuses on the utopian spirit that drove workers forward: the blind courage or desperation of those who joined strikes despite sky-high unemployment rates; the sit-down strikes, reviled by the liberal establishment, that challenged the basic property arrangements of the era. Such actions, he insists, were possible because of the implosion of the authority of the business class that had seemed so secure and confident in the 1920s.
Out of the rubble of the old order emerged an era of “industrial democracy,” embodied in the labor union and its contract, a constitution for the workplace. But labor did not have the autonomy or the political force to push beyond industrial democracy, and liberals were satisfied with the New Deal. As time went by, both the labor movement and the liberalism it helped to push into existence became inseparable from the forces of anticommunism and military and commercial Keynesianism. Part of the legacy of the New Deal, then, is what Fraser has termed the “Age of Acquiescence.” The workers of the 1930s were connected to a world that contained within itself the seeds of resistance. Today, in contrast, our expectations and political hopes have been limned by the horizons of the “consumer’s republic,” as historian Lizabeth Cohen has put it. We can no longer imagine any real challenge to capitalism; the most we could ask for would be an expansion of the New Deal.
Or, perhaps, the only alternative is something worse. The closing chapters of Mongrel Firebugs use the career of Donald Trump to explore conflicting visions of capitalism itself. On the one hand, corporate capitalism (as Fraser puts it) is amoral, faceless, relentlessly seeking profit without concern for national boundaries or religious norms. But there has long been a different vision of capitalism, one still fanatically committed to private property and the pursuit of profit, but always out of a broader insistence that they matter because of their reinforcement of a moral code, a way of life, and a specific kind of community. Fraser calls this “family capitalism.” Henry Ford—owner of a massive but privately held corporation—is the archetype of this style of economic life. Ford’s fierce opposition to finance, to Jews, and to communism all stemmed from the same political fear. In Fraser’s essays, these two visions of capitalism revolve around each other—and in this way, Trump is impossible to extricate from the neoliberal order that made his rise possible, even as its leaders blanch at him.
Mongrel Firebugs is a collection of historical hypotheses, provocations, and questions. Other scholars will have to do the archival work to fully flesh out the ideas Fraser puts forward here. But what’s bracing about this book is the vision it offers of the twentieth century. So often our temptation is to set periods against each other and view one moment giving way fully to the next—the world of the late nineteenth century was buried in the 1930s; the New Deal order must have been replaced by something entirely new; the ferocity of conservative populism is driven by a surreal anxiety that separates it from all that came before. For Fraser, all these are historical phenomena: not separate and distinct but connected. One can only understand the New Deal by seeing the world that at once made it possible but that it inexorably came to replace; one can only understand the left’s present dilemmas by seeing them in light of the conflicted legacy of the New Deal; one can only understand the contemporary right by seeing it emerging in tension with the political culture that nurtured it.
Where does this leave us now? Because Fraser sees the visceral experience of industrialization as such a key source of opposition to capitalism, his work is threaded with pessimism about the present. Although Fraser has long emphasized the importance of radical politics in U.S. history, he is skeptical about where such a challenge might emerge now. “Memories of the way things were, however remote from the realities of those dead times, provide the nuclear energy powering animosities about the way things turned out,” Fraser writes. Recollection of promises lost and betrayed often drives the quest for a different future. But if the New Deal was a diminished politics to begin with, how can its memory provide the source of something genuinely new?
Still, Mongrel Firebugs does give the sense that we are at the conclusion of an era. Might not the dismantling of the New Deal Order provide the fuel for some new critique, in which New Deal compromises on security and social mobility are transformed into moral claims as they become increasingly difficult to attain? Historians are beginning to think about the distinctions and the precise moments that distinguish the past forty years since Reagan’s election. The ebb and flow of conservatism, the shifting nature of liberalism, and the dynamics within the neoliberal epoch can now become their own subject of analysis. The very questions that Fraser poses in this new collection—What would a left politics that was not organized around rehabilitating the New Deal look like? How can we begin to nurture a political vision that is not embedded in defending the institutions of the postwar years?—hint that we find ourselves in a new place, one that would have been hard to imagine a decade ago. Despite Fraser’s own wariness about the present, the fact that he dares to raise them at all suggests he holds out some hope for us, that we may yet imagine a politics beyond the New Deal order.
Kim Phillips-Fein is the author of Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (Metropolitan Books, 2017).