The Rich’s Class Warfare Is Winning

In the first Gilded Age, Americans fought back against inequality and the oligarchs who threatened democracy. Over the past few decades, it seems like we’ve given up.

Reading Steve Fraser’s new book brought to mind a note that a young woman student had appended to a final essay exam in one of my classes some 25 years ago. After doing a splendid job of answering the question posed, she proceeded to explain that she had decided to drop her major in our interdisciplinary academic program Social Change and Development (now titled Democracy and Justice Studies). As she saw it, in the light of all she had read in our courses about the “power and hegemony” of the nation’s political, economic, and military elites—what radical sociologist C. Wright Mills had dubbed The Power Elite—the smartest thing for her to do was to sign up for the business program. What she had learned, she said, had angered her, but it also had convinced her that there really was very little she and others of her generation could do to make a critical difference. So, “If you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.”

What my student wrote in her note forced me to think anew about what my professorial colleagues and I were actually doing in our coursesfor our declared mission has always been to teach students to not only know about the making of America and the modern world, but also consider how they themselves as citizens might “make history” today. ­ Her words made me ask if we were focusing too much on “structures of power and wealth” and “dominant ideologies” and too little on popular aspirations, ideas, and actions. I did not want us to cultivate fantasies and delusions in our students. But I sure as hell didn’t want us to cultivate pessimism and cynicism. As I saw it, we needed to make sure that our majors recognized how generations of Americans had actually succeeded in making American life freer, more equal, and more democratic. Otherwise, they might lack the insights, imagination, and inspiration that enable, encourage, and empower democratic initiatives.

After reading The Age of Acquiescence, I wondered if I too ought not head over to the business school. I exaggerate, of course. But I kid you not when I say that by the time you put down Fraser’s book you may very well feel not just angry, but also quite depressed. Though, I should note that, that it didn’t help that I was reviewing it at the very same time that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his GOP comrades in the state legislature—having already stripped public employees of their collective bargaining rights in 2011—were now pursuing the further Dixification of the Badger State by not only drastically cutting the budget of the University of Wisconsin system, but also hurriedly turning Wisconsin into a “right-to-work” state.

Fraser’s an award-winning labor historian for his 1991 biography of union leader Sidney Hillman, Labor Will Rule; a co-founder of Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice, a late-1990s initiative of progressive intellectuals that sought to place labor’s cause back on the public agenda (a campaign I also joined in organizing); and for some years now a leading historian of Wall Street. He has produced a very critical and powerful work on the state of American capitalism and democracy. In fact, if you really want to learn about the making of the inequalities of power and wealth that we suffer, leave Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century on the coffee table and pick up Fraser’s new book. But again, don’t expect to be inspired.

In The Age of Acquiescence, Fraser addresses the question that so many of us on the left have been agonizing over for some time: Why do Americans remain so seemingly passive in the face of 40 years of class war from above? A class war from above that has subordinated the public good to private greed, concentrated power and wealth, sent vast numbers of working people into the ranks of the “working poor,” and subjected democratic politics to “plutocratic” control. A class war from above that has engendered nothing less than a Second Gilded Age.

How can it be, Fraser asks? Historically, Americans were anything but politically passive. In the first Gilded Age—as Mark Twain titled the late 19th century in his first novel—farmers, workers, and even middle-class folk continually rose up, organized, and called for an “American standard of living.” Striking fear in the hearts and minds of the nation’s political and economic elites, they also demanded laws to limit the power of capital and empower democratic government to lay the groundwork for a “Cooperative Commonwealth.” How can it be that we do not see such struggles and hear such calls today? “America’s history,” Fraser observes, “is mysterious in just this way.” Or as my own dear book editor once put it—demanding that I agree to try answer it before he would actually issue me a contract—What the fuck happened?

Fraser divides his work into two parts: Part One—“Class Warfare in America: The Long 19th Century”—tells the story of the original Gilded Age. And Part Two—“Desire and Fear in the Second Gilded Age”—tells that of our own.

As Fraser observes in his introduction, for all of the accumulation of power and wealth that characterizes both ages, the two are fundamentally different. It’s not just that “The first Gilded Age, despite its glaring inequities, was accompanied by a gradual rise in the standard of living; the second by its gradual erosion.” No, it’s much more than that.

As Fraser presents it: Whereas “Profitability during the first… rested first of all on transforming the resources of preindustrial societies into marketable commodities produced by wage laborers… Profitability during the second… relied instead on cannibalizing the industrial edifice erected during the first, and exporting the results of capital liquidation to the four corners of the earth…” And our vaunted “Prosperity, once driven by cost-cutting mechanization and technological breakthroughs, came instead to rest uneasily on oceans of consumer and corporate debt.” Moreover, while in the first Gilded Age, “the work ethic constituted the nuclear core of American cultural belief and practice,” in the second, we have “an economy kept aloft by finance and mass consumption [based] on an ethos of immediate gratification.”

Fraser seeks the answer to America’s pressing mystery in those differences: “Can these two diverging political economies—one resting on industry, the other on finance—and these two polarized sensibilities— one fearing God, the other living in an impromptu moment to moment—explain the Great Noise of the first Gilded Age and the Great Silence of the second?”

Delivered with real verve, the first part of The Age of Acquiescence reminded me of the best literary work of Karl Marx. Like Marx in the Communist Manifesto and Capital, but from an American perspective, Fraser writes majestically if not almost poetically about the making of capitalism. He offers a sweeping narrative of the violent and tragic upheavals that constituted the primitive accumulation of capital, the dramatic and promising technological innovations and transformations of the Industrial Revolution, and the unprecedented concentrations of power and wealth that resulted. And his chapters on the “Second Civil Wars” of the post-Civil War decades are no less dynamic. Here he reminds us of how the nation’s rural and urban laboring classes, both native-born and immigrant, organized as populists, labor-unionists, socialists, and anarchists (not to mention progressives), sought to resist, reform, and/or bring an end to the exploitations and oppressions that they suffered and made the ascendant captains of industry truly fearful of an impending radical-democratic apocalypse.

Moreover, along the way Fraser does a nice job of exposing the historical realities that are often obscured in politicians’ speeches and pundits’ ravings about the making of American greatness. For example, while the celebrated Homestead Act of 1862 may well have afforded Midwestern landholdings to millions of aspiring agrarians, it also ended up underwriting the emergence of railway magnates whose business networks and empires took “good advantage” of those very same yeomen family-farmers when they sought to send their harvests to urban markets. Consider the fact that “as early as 1862, two-thirds of Iowa (or 10 million acres) was owned by speculators.” And in that same vein, Fraser notes how the abolition of slavery down in Dixie did not bring an end to coercive labor systems. All too soon, Southern planters and their law enforcers took to subjecting vast numbers of poor blacks and whites to sharecropping, debt peonage, and chain gangs.

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Fraser’s story of “the long 19th-century” closes in the early 1930s with the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. However, as he points out, it was not simply the collapse of capitalism that brought the curtain down on the Gilded Age, but all the more the political doing of Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt, his New Dealers, and especially a resurgent labor movement. Together, if not always in tandem, they harnessed the accumulated legacy of generations of struggle to launch the liberal, indeed, social-democratic, labors and campaigns of the 1930s. Unfortunately, however, Fraser does not adequately relate here how the radical-democratic ideas, solidarities, initiatives, and struggles of the New Deal provided the propulsion not only for a democratic economic recovery and a progressive political revolution, but also for the nation’s war effort against fascism, postwar democratic action right through the 1960s, and our own sense of the possible, if not imperative, today.

A critical weakness of The Age of Acquiescence—which because of all the energy that fuels the first part of the book does not become apparent until the second part—is that it does not give sufficient attention to popular politics and thought. Gilded Age movements emerged and took up the fight and liberal and radical intellectuals wrote books and proposed schemes. But American working people themselves weren’t just fighting against the concentration of power and wealth; they were also fighting for America. So, what drove and inspired them to rally, join together, and do battle against corporate exploitation and oppression? From where did the idea of a Cooperative Commonwealth emanate? While Fraser does not completely ignore the legacy and memory of the American Revolution, he does not make enough of how generations of Americans came to not only feel and regularly renew the democratic imperative and impulse that the Revolution gave to American life, but also, believing in America’s exceptional promise and possibilities, continually endeavored to make real the vision of the nation projected in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and rearticulated in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and FDR’s Four Freedoms. As a consequence, while Fraser goes on in the latter half of the work to render a powerful indictment of financial capitalism, the political-economic and cultural order it has created, and what it is doing to us, he ultimately fails to appreciate the persistence of that democratic spirit and what we might make of it.

Fraser does proceed to tell us an awful lot about what is going down. With real panache, he details the weapons, ideas, myths, and fear mongering that the right and rich have wielded against Americans. Perhaps too much so, for at times one gets the feeling that he is merely updating the decidedly elitist mass-culture criticism of the 1950s. Sure, what he says is far more radical and anti-capitalist in content and tone. But he gets awfully close to calling us all “cheerful robots” as the politically frustrated C. Wright Mills ended up doing in 1960 in his otherwise wonderful book The Sociological Imagination. Yes, our Captains of Consciousness with their amazing corporate powers of persuasion have used the wonders and delights of consumerism to tantalize, distract, and, quite possibly, pacify us. And yet, as Fraser himself makes clear along the way, politics does matter.

Thus, he also recounts how conservatives did a helluva job in the late 1940s and early 1950s wielding the Cold War and McCarthyism against not just American communists (whose total numbers were always limited), but also, and all the more critically, the entire American left. How, aided by a resurgent right, corporate chiefs in the early 1970s rallied and declared war on working people. And even more sadly, how, over and over again since the 1970s, ­the so-called Party of the People, the Democratic Party—led by Carter, Clinton, and now Obama—has proffered “Hope and Change” but afforded a politics in office that has left American workers hanging.

Nonetheless. Fraser shortchanges the popular democratic spirit that, however disappointed and subdued it may have become, continues to run through American life and—let’s face it—helped to fuel the explosive rise of the Tea Party.

Revealing that he has not yet fully descended into the Inferno and abandoned all hope, Fraser actually opened The Age of Acquiescence by referring to the sudden eruption in 2011 of the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS). And in closing his introductory remarks he asks if perhaps the Age of Acquiescence is coming to a close: “Is [OWS] a turning point in our country’s history? Have we reached the limits of auto-cannibalism? Is capitalism any longer compatible with democracy? Was it ever?” But he makes practically nothing of a potentially more radical, inspiring, and hope-inducing series of events in which American working people actually fought back.

In the winter and spring of 2011—well before OWS—upward of 100,000 Wisconsin workers and their families rose up and repeatedly turned out, marched around, and occupied the state capitol in Madison with grand hopes of blocking Republican Governor Scott Walker from stripping public employees of their hard-won collective-bargaining rights. (Please remember that Wisconsin in 1959 was the first state to enact such rights).

We were not shopping. We were showing those who had forgotten it, or forsaken it, that “This is what democracy looks like.” And with good reason we imagined that the president whom we had done so much to elect would “march” with us—for he had promised in 2008 that he would don his walking shoes to do so whenever workers’ rights were threatened. But he did not. And not only did Scott Walker and Company win that battle, but now, just this past week, Walker signed the right-to-work bill. Surprisingly, labor historian Fraser makes little of the Wisconsin Rising. He simply notes that it was just another example of the right and conservative rich whittling away at workers’ rights. We, however, will not forget what democracy looks like.

For all he says of the abiding power of the powerful, Fraser expects and looks forward to a new age of populism… And I do too. But if we are to redeem America’s promise and renew the fight for freedom, equality, and democracy, we must appreciate, grasp on to, and make more of our fellow citizens’ persistent democratic spirit. We need to write histories and arguments that enable our fellow citizens to recognize not only how they are being screwed, but also why being screwed bothers them so and what they might do about it. In that fashion, we will cultivate an historical memory and imagination that re-energizes America’s democratic impulse and encourages and empowers popular democratic action. Otherwise, we might as well all head across campus to be schooled by business.