The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power
by Steve Fraser
Little, Brown & Company, 2015, 480 pp.
As the United States careened in 2008 into its deepest economic ditch since the Great Depression, many thinkers on the left thought that, just maybe, a new social justice movement might emerge—one that would demand jobs from both government and corporations, call for a halt to home foreclosures by investment banks, and support unions for those who were still working. As Steve Fraser reminds us in his important new book The Age of Acquiescence, the country had seen this before. The “long nineteenth century” (between the “Great Upheaval” of the violent, national railroad strike of 1877 and the equally violent struggles to form the modern labor movement during the depression of the 1930s) produced one visionary movement after another, supported by millions of workers and farmers resisting the consolidation of industrial capitalism.
But, as Fraser writes, the movement that did occur after 2008 was a revanchist one of reactionary restoration, “on behalf of capitalism, not against it.” The Tea Party was—uniquely in the industrialized world—a combination of libertarian economics and religiously inflected, ethno-nationalist, and gendered cultural resentment. It featured angry white people who descended upon congressional town meetings to demand the defeat of Obama’s effort to bring the country closer to the universal health insurance that every other wealthy nation takes as a given. Its advocates sought to prevent those “others,” empowered by Obama’s election, from getting what they did not deserve: Obamacare, but also citizenship, breaks on their mortgages, abortions, even a suspiciously easy right to vote. For the Tea Party and its supporters, the government should do nothing but keep taxes low and keep those Medicare and Social Security checks coming, which they believed they had rightfully earned. Some of these elderly freedom fighters of course famously did not understand that Medicare was in fact a government provided benefit.
From the left came only the meteoric Occupy Wall Street, which, lacking a political strategy, eventually dissipated. So why was there once a robust anti-capitalist resistance? Why, in our own era, has there been only a brief episode from the left, like Occupy Wall Street? And why today do we instead have a movement of the flag, the cross, and the un-licensed gun, a great roar that proclaims the right to be unequal and unjust?
Fraser is one of the great historians of both American capital and labor over the past thirty years. He has written foundational books on both the labor movement during the first half of the twentieth century (Labor Will Rise, his biography of Sidney Hillman) and Wall Street (Every Man A Speculator). His essay about the enduring resonance of the “labor question,” what he calls in this book “the principal interrogative of American public life,” is fundamental to understanding American political culture during the long nineteenth century. The Age of Acquiescence is an arresting and sobering account of what must be called the rise and fall of class struggle in the United States. Fraser’s thesis as to what has caused or what limits American anti-capitalism presents profound challenges to today’s leftist activists, especially those whose analysis and actions are rooted in workplace injustice. His writing is also often beautiful, a combination of compressed aphoristic power and soaring imagery.
Fraser divides his book into two parts: the first is about the long nineteenth century, including its antebellum antecedents, and the second, about our Gilded Age redux, beginning roughly in the 1970s.
Fraser’s core insight is that the long nineteenth century is the period of capitalist “primitive accumulation” in the United States, which is supported by the state via coercion in the courts and legislatures, and, whenever necessary, police and military violence. And because not merely a livelihood or even a family’s survival but an entire way of life is at stake, the resistance to these changes is fierce, sometimes visionary, and sometimes, in its turn, violent.
Marx described primitive accumulation in Capital, Volume 1 as the “necessary pre-condition for a specifically capitalist mode of production.” But his version of the process affecting the European peasantry began in the late fifteenth century and stretched into the late seventeenth-century period of the Enclosure in England.
In the American context, Fraser shows how primitive accumulation involved the transformation of collective forms of family and local ownership and production into private ownership for profit and operation in much larger markets. A crucial aspect of this transformation is changes in the economy via financially driven expansion, which results in the indebtedness of small farmers to distantly based bankers. In the cities, the artisan workshops get wiped out by the ascension of larger companies who employ a specialized division of labor to mass produce what was previously made mostly for smaller markets and subsistence. The small farmers, the handicraft industry, the “manly” shoemakers and other artisans, as well as the Native Americans become, in a word Fraser often uses, “extinct.”
Fraser’s critical point is that in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, something old disappeared and something new took its place. That is exactly the moment when, he observes, social conflict reaches its zenith. He writes, “primitive accumulation fostered an abiding sense of loss felt by all sorts of ordinary people. It inspired them to resist their own social extinction, to form counter-dreams to the official romance of Progress.”
This analysis of working-class struggle is also how the sociologist Craig Calhoun, in his The Question of Class Struggle (1982), brilliantly explicated EP Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Calhoun argued that Thompson’s “working class” was pre-capitalist, and thus, for all of the power and texture of the book, unlikely to tell us much about the development of social movements in the subsequent capitalist epoch. Calhoun writes: “It will not do to obscure these distinctions [between pre-industrial English radicals and the working class created by capitalism] by extending Marx’s theory of working class radicalism to craftsmen, peasants, small proprietors, and others. These groups are most often radical in reaction to efforts to make them a part of that industrial working class.” (Emphasis added.) I don’t know if Fraser, who has read much, has read Calhoun (I didn’t see his work in the endnotes), but he has applied Calhoun’s analysis to nineteenth-century America in ways that have obvious implications for our own time.
Fraser thrillingly tells this story of exploitation and resistance. He first grounds it in the destruction of slavery. This, among other things, enabled the system of wage labor to be judged on its own exploitative terms and for former slaves and their descendants to be recuperated under a new exploitative system of white supremacist debt peonage and then subsequently terrorized and controlled via Jim Crow. (Fraser notes the historical irony of the ideologues of slavery criticizing the Northern wage system for lacking the purported paternal kindnesses of the plantation.) The classic signposts of struggle—the 1877 railroad strike; the rise of the Knights of Labor; the 1886 New York mayoral run of single tax proponent, Henry George; the 1886 Haymarket explosion; the 1892 Homestead lockout; the 1894 Pullman strike; the Populist movement and the election of 1896—leap off the page and fly. The statistics about horrific industrial conditions and accidents, bankrupt farms and small businesses, are all here. Fraser encapsulates the remarkable costs of what he calls “progress” (a word he uses paradoxically): white males born during the Civil War or after had a life expectancy of ten years less than those born a century before.
Fraser captures the logic of class war in the rhetoric of the actors. He quotes protagonists from both sides—workers, farmers, corporate magnates, newspaper publishers—who, in the moment of conflict, believe that another Paris Commune (an event that terrified the wealthy and their acolytes) or even another civil war could be in the offing. Each side demonizes the other and, interestingly, projects sexual licentiousness onto its adversary. Capital, labor, and agrarian interests all believe that their degenerate political enemies no longer have the discipline and moral sobriety required to maintain social cohesion.
The banks and railroads crush the farmers (and the railroads crush their own workers too), and the great new manufacturing works crush the unskilled workers. Yet, as Fraser concedes, there was real progress too: productive capacities and technological innovation were enormously advanced. Not only the “1 percent” of the day but skilled workers, still fighting the incursions of capital on their unified production protocols, did well. But the resistance, while intermittent, didn’t stop. In 1919, in the wake of national hysteria induced by the Russian Revolution, workers in Seattle undertook a general strike and effectively governed the city for four days. That same year, hundreds of thousands of black and white steel workers started a long, doomed violence-ridden strike to organize the steel industry, but were deeply divided amongst themselves, not just from the companies. Throughout, Fraser juxtaposes the hopeful “cooperative commonwealth” of the future with brief references acknowledging that the racism of the white working class perhaps fatally undermined that goal.
The 1930s, followed by the age of postwar consensus, are a quandary to Fraser and yield for him a complex historical legacy. Despite acknowledging the great triumph of the CIO and the massive upsurge of workers it took to achieve it, Fraser sees the period as a break from the desperate yet invigorating rearguard utopian fights of the previous half-century. The “labor question” that had clarified the essential struggle of the masses against capitalism comes to a head in the battle for industrial unionism that spreads across the country. The results of that fight, certainly a triumph for the workers, nevertheless changes their long-running anti-capitalist ethos from imaginative, frenzied opposition to angry, but ultimate accommodation. The agrarian resistance to finance capitalism had died with the defeat of William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896. Beyond the farms, the wage labor system was now established. But it took the tumultuous Depression era to change it from a “barbaric capitalism” to a “civilized capitalism,” a rationalized system that emphasized Keynesian spending and institutional stability, which included unions as protectors but also as cautious monitors of the working class. This is the coda to the long nineteenth century because the seventy-five years of ferocious counter-assault to the march of capitalism settles high, for what Fraser calls “bureaucratic modernism.” The militancy of the Depression had drawn from the historical memory and utopian visions of what had come before, a sustained culture of resistance. That residual culture built the CIO and defended the New Deal order into the 1960s. Yet it lacked the same “emancipatory charge” it had earlier.
Fraser captures the paradox of incremental reform born out of militant struggle: “The historical logic embedded in the great victory of civilized over barbaric capitalism corroded away precisely those social and political instincts responsible for that triumph in the first place. Economic growth would become the solvent in which all those immemorial hard-edged social antagonisms of the long nineteenth century would dissolve.” So the unionized workers were given a promise of increased consumption, safer workplaces, and their own privatized welfare state. The New Deal era, which was the biggest pushback to capitalist barbarism that ever happened in the United States, was still not socialism, but instead the fair terms of surrender for millions of American workers. And as Fraser does not emphasize but knows very well, the postwar labor movement and the great struggles against racial and gender discrimination intersect awkwardly at best. This is exemplified in the figure of the great A. Philip Randolph, whose struggles for racial justice within the labor movement were often met with outrage from its smugly powerful white leadership.
When we come to the present era, Fraser describes what he calls “autocannibalism”: the inside-out process of deindustrialization, the dissipation of the American industrial heartland and its dispersal across the South and the developing world. This book-ended the outside-in process—the smashing of the handicraft, artisan, and the agrarian household economy, and its absorption within large corporations—that marked the triumph of industrial capitalism described in part one of the book.
Fraser’s analysis here is more contingent than in part one. The moment of resistance to capitalism in its period of violent gestation is now gone; the defense of a then still vibrant moral economy has ended. His evocative prose grows more abstract as he lacks a narrative of conflict to hang it on. He presents three “fables of freedom” that serve as ballasts of the current order: the addiction to consumption; the odd deification of high-tech titans and even criminal investment bankers as anti-establishment rebels; and the fantasy of the “free agent,” the independent contractor liberated from the constraints of security, benefits, and community.
Further, in a wonderful chapter entitled “Improbable Rebels: The Folklore of Limousine Liberalism,” Fraser explains the Tea Party by elaborating on a brilliant essay he wrote in the Nation about Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire. In the original essay he introduced the concept of “family capitalism”—espoused by patriarchal businesses closely tied to traditional communities and religious and ethnic identities, and which believe in the myths of meritocracy and the self-made man. The family capitalists invert the worker’s resistance to primitive accumulation by seeking to crush unions and oppose government regulation. They also oppose the cosmopolitan social engineers of government and academia, the “limousine liberals.” The family patriarch extends his largesse to his relatives and his culturally homogeneous community, but is suspicious of the large, faceless marketplace filled with alien “others.” Family capitalists are often—or at least start out as—small-town elites, big fish in small ponds. Think of a local chamber of commerce, or Hobby Lobby, or, finally, enormous family-founded dynasties like the Waltons’ Walmart. As Fraser notes, it is no accident that 74 percent of the extremist GOP congressional class of 2010 was small businesspeople.
Fraser’s three fables can be viewed as a case study of the persuasiveness of capitalist ideology, corresponding to the evisceration of civil society, the gutting of industrial union culture, and the chronic anxieties of solipsistic individualism. He thunders that Americans have become “infinitely plastic and decentered,” seeking “salvation through repeated momentary sensations of personal well being.” The words are Fraser’s but they read as if from an undiscovered manuscript of Christopher Lasch, whom he cites frequently. Flexible capitalism diminishes institutions and organizations like unions, and instead extols the individual. If work is no longer viewed as an essential social practice, how can worker exploitation be central to a mass movement? Lasch held onto a sentimental idea that today’s white working class could still sustain historic links to the nineteenth-century artisans. Fraser will have none of this. For him, the deep decline of the labor movement has “amputated the will to resist” of contemporary workers.
The absent center of the Age of Acquiescence is the period of ferment between the two gilded ages: the sixties. Fraser, himself a veteran of the civil rights movement, alludes to the counterculture and anti-war movement, and duly praises the rights, respect, and power won by blacks, women, and gay people. But he doesn’t explore how and whether to integrate these militant struggles for what the philosopher Nancy Fraser calls “recognition” with the struggles for what she calls “redistribution.” Steve Fraser argues that the earlier visions of leftist emancipation were larger than the self, secular versions of religious redemption. He is disdainful of the “liberated individualism of identity politics.” Again and again, he points out that an emphasis on individuation, whether healthy or debased, now permeates pretty much every nook and cranny of American life. He deftly fillets the counter-culture: “[W]hat began as a grand act of épater la bourgeoisie, a defiant laboratory of collective self-estrangement, soon enough evolved into a narrower existential search for personal authenticity.”
Fraser is too ungenerous to the sixties. He does not give the utopian yearning of the era—palpable in central documents like the Port Huron Statement and in Dr. King’s famous speech at the March on Washington—the same respect he gives that of the Populists and the single taxers and the Knights of Labor of the long nineteenth century. He also does not credit women and people of color, politicized by their participation in the era’s social movements, with building a beleaguered, but still potent public sector unionism in the 1970s. It is noteworthy that it is also women and people of color who are today the prime actors in the fight for higher wages among retail and fast food workers, an issue that they have forced into the national conversation about inequality.
Without explicitly making the argument, Fraser seems to believe, like historians Thomas Frank and Mark Lilla, that the expansive social liberation of the sixties became the crabbed libertarian liberation of our own era. As he sees it, the entrancing power of the fables of freedom has diminished the very idea of a political culture centered on the interactions of the workplace (and the socialist ideology that assumed such a foundation). Moreover a cross-class alliance of white people, fatally marinated in their racial and sexual anxieties and resentments, effectively controls one of the major political parties. If Fraser is right, the left must honor but also transcend the great struggle of the age of primitive accumulation. In American society today, only those who continue to be marginalized but who are also inspired by the revolutionary gains of the sixties—feminists, African Americans, LGBT people and socially empathetic writers and intellectuals—are likely to generate a new resistance. To them we should also include the millions of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, often themselves seasoned combatants in the more recent fights over primitive accumulation in those nations. Every ongoing point of political or economic tension in the country today—over police misconduct, low-wage service work, reproductive rights, voter suppression, immigration reform, and gay and lesbian civil rights—has emerged from these politically disenchanted populations. So perhaps we must look to the long 1960s, rather than to the long nineteenth century, to inspire the next age of anti-acquiescence. Or perhaps something entirely new and intrinsic to our own moment—perhaps as fully international in its dimensions as Marx anticipated—will alchemize acquiescence into the cosmopolitan communitarianism that we need, but have never seen before.
Rich Yeselson is a contributing editor at Dissent.