I read an article in the Financial Times earlier this week (September 23, 2023) -…
There was an interesting article by US historian Jackson Lears in the in the London Review of Books (July 16, 2015) – The Long Con: Techno-Austerity. I recommend people regularly reading the LRB because it has some fabulous articles. In this case, the review by Jackson Lears is of the recent book by Steve Fraser – The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organised Wealth and Power (published by Little, Brown). I have taken time to write about this because I had to read the book being reviewed myself first. There is also an excellent review of the book by Naomi Klein in the New York Times – ‘The Age of Acquiescence,’ by Steve Fraser (March 16, 2015). So what is it about?
Fraser’s main theme is that we are now entering a “second Gilded Age” where an increasing proportion of citizens endure declining material standards of living because their economic circumstances have deteriorated but at the same time a tiny proportion of us enjoy an “insatiable lust for excess”.
This book has been background reading for me as I watched the British Labour leadership tussle unfold. As I waded through the book, questions about the future of the labour movement and progressive politics kept coming up.
The evisceration of Jeremy Corbyn and his newly announced team as mad-dog socialists intent on destroying the British economy and society, if not the entire universe, has been amazing in its ferociousness and immediacy. British papers like the Telegraph have been carrying many stories in the last few days which border on the insane.
Jackson Lears initially notes that the question posed by the German sociologist Werner Sombart in his 1906 book – ‘Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus?’ (later translated into English as “Why is there No Socialism in the United States”) – “was misconceived”.
Sombart’s thesis was part of the belief in American exceptionalism which sought to argue that the development of the US was quite different to other advanced Western nation.
The advent of worker unrest and industrial strike activity in the late C19th in Europe led directly to the formation of political movements to support the interests of the workers. Sombart argued that similar developments did not occur in the US. The trade unions in the US rejected creating a political arm of its movement and instead supported the Democrats, who represented a much broader set of interests.
Jackson Lears considers the question to be “misconceived” because:
During the several decades before the Bolshevik Revolution, socialism was as American as apple pie. In the presidential election of 1912, nearly a million Americans – 6 per cent of the electorate – cast ballots for the Socialist Party candidate, Eugene Debs. There were two Socialist members of Congress, dozens of Socialist state legislators, and more than a hundred Socialist mayors. The leading Socialist newspaper, the Appeal to Reason, had more than 500,000 subscribers. And this was only a portion of a much broader swathe of the electorate who considered themselves Progressives or Populists rather than Socialists, but were just as committed to challenging concentrated corporate power in the name of a ‘co-operative commonwealth’.
The significant aspect of the American ‘socialists’ is that they “did not fit Sombart’s implicitly Marxist model of opposition to capitalism”.
Rather they were “farmers and artisans and small businessmen as well as industrial workers. Many were small-town or rural folk from the Midwest or the South”.
So quite a different cohort to the factory workers slaving in poor conditions in large urban centres.
There was also an interesting article in the Jacobin Magazine (August 20, 2015) – The Black Belt Communists – by Robin D.G. Kelley, which traces the role that the American Communist Party place in challenging the “highly exploitative system of tenant farming” in Alabama during the 1930s.
It bears somewhat on our discussion today.
Jackson Lears notes the socialists in America did not talk as Marxists but were seeking to preserve the collective (the “co-operative commonwealth”) and laced this aspiration with “Christian morality” – they saw industrial capitalism as threatening their “family, craft, community, faith”.
He considers that the socialist intent in America disappeared in the 1950s:
In the United States, the assimilation of labour to capital became apparent after the grand bargain of 1950, when unions in the steel and car industries traded their control over shop-floor rules in return for security and steady wages. No one can deny the democratisation of affluence that flowed from the ‘Treaty of Detroit’, as Steve Fraser calls it in The Age of Acquiescence. But the hidden cost of the agreement was the erosion of any notion that organised labour could foster an ethos of solidarity – an alternative to the dominant culture of individual accumulation.
While neither Fraser or Lears state this – ‘The Age of Acquiescence’ was fostered by Keynesian-style, social democratic governments, which mediated the class struggle and forced some redistribution of income towards workers and away from capital.
This era also saw governments taking responsibility for achieving and sustaining full employment after they learned categorically in the World War 2 years, that fiscal deficits could be used to provide sufficient spending to create jobs for all.
Worker militancy was thus suppressed by the growing material affluence and the upward mobility provided by full employment, public education, and public health systems.
But while the material conditions for workers improved during this period and attenuated their desire for a confrontational overthrow of capital, one could argue that it also set in place the complacency, driven by mass consumption, that would allow the neo-liberal resurgence in the 1970s.
That resurgence has led, in fits and starts, to the retrenchment of much of what was achieved in terms of protection workers against the irrationality of the capitalist system and the disproportionate costs when it failed, during the social democratic era.
Even the social democratic political parties that oversaw this great moderation of capitalism during the 1950s and 1960s have turned into neo-liberal organisations.
Steve Fraser’s book traces that period of ‘peace’ “to the contemporary neoliberal consensus”.
The question he asks is:
… where is the outrage? Why have the vast majority of Americans uttered scarcely a murmur against the long con of neoliberalism, now underway for four decades? Apart from the brief flurry of the Occupy movement, few Americans have questioned the regime of marketisation, privatisation and techno-austerity; on the contrary, most have assumed its inevitability and more than a few have imagined themselves to be its potential beneficiaries.
The book contrasts the two so-called ‘Gilded Ages’ – the ‘first Gilded Age’ ran from the period after the Civil War until the Great Depression (1929) – it was the age of the ‘robber barons’, who built large estates along the Hudson River, north of New York city and lived a life of excess at the expense of their workforces.
But the robber barons didn’t have it all their own way. There was “broad and multifaced resistance” against the capitalists during this period.
There were mass strikes that in Naomi Klein’s words “shut down cities and enjoyed the support of much of the population”
She notes that the work of the “Eight Hour Leagues that dramatically cut the length of the workday” which fought in Fraser’s words for what he calls the “cooperative commonwealth”.
This resistance forced the robber barons to provide better pay and working conditions and allowed governments to introduce limited redistribution through the tax system.
Steve Fraser argues that this resistance was prompted by the fact that capitalism was “new and strange” and workers retained collective notions of society and “public good” – the ‘co-operative commonwealth’ – which relates to the opening points that the farmers and small craft workers were trying to hang onto a pre-capitalist, sometimes rural lifestyle.
In other words, and in modern terms, the TINA mantra was unsustainable – they knew an alternative to industrial capitalism and were willing to fight to retain as much of that alternative as they could.
Steve Fraser tells us that it was common for US Presidents to invoke “class war” narratives to attack the “moneycrats”, who fought back in their own way, using the media to denigrate the “mad dogs” in the worker movements.
The ‘Telegraphs’ of the day – the conservative moneyed press – continually badgered the government to “exterminate” the workers (the “mob”) – in much the same way that the modern press seeks to dehumanise anyone who resists the neo-liberal hegemony.
Steve Fraser says that we are now in the ‘second Gilded Age’ where neo-liberal attacks on the prosperity of the majority is rampant – yet societal resistance is weak to non-existent. Why is that?
There are a number of hypotheses advanced to explain this compliance despite the growing hardship and threat that capitalism holds for worker prosperity.
We seem incapable of conceiving of any alternative and so the TINA catchcry has power and leads to passivity and resignation among the masses.
Jackson Lears writes that “Americans acquiesce in plutocratic rule because they can no longer imagine alternatives to it”. We have been indoctrinated into believing that capitalism is “part of the natural order of things” – it is just human nature after all.
According to the neo-liberals, socialism is a denial of human nature and thus bound to fail as our natural tendencies emerge from under the oppression of the state.
Naomi Klein writes that:
Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.
Steve Fraser calls this compliance “a sensibility of irony and even cynical disengagement rather than a morally charged universe of utopian yearnings and dystopian forebodings”.
The mass consumption boom of the 1950s and 1960s which the financial engineers have morphed into the massive debt traps that households are caught within is certainly one reason why we accept the TINA assertion, despite its obvious lie.
Steve Fraser makes an interesting point about his indebtedness:
… on a credit card is to exist in the perpetual present … [gone is] … the future orientation embedded in the political movements of yesteryear.
Marx considered religion to be the opiate of the masses and to some extent it still is. But personal debt is now a much greater force for compliance and passivity among the working class.
Fraser also “dissects more recent cultural strategies that have legitimated neoliberalism, redefining job insecurity as free agency and billionaires as regular guys.”
I was on a panel a few years ago and the Young Entrepreneur of the Year was also a panellist. She announced that the old divisions between workers and capitalists was gone. That we are “all entrepreneurs now” some more successful than others.
This ‘we are all capitalists’ now has been reinforced by the privatisations of public companies where people rejoice owning shares in assets (after paying out hard-earned saving to by the shares) – when it seems to escape them that they ‘owned’ the assets anyway as part of the collective.
But we don’t quite believe the line that everyone is an entrepreneur now. As Jackson Lears notes we have shifted our attention from the big picture (which drove resistance in the first Gilded Age) to localised concerns focused on “personal catastrophe”:
job loss, ruinous illness, economic freefall – all spectres that reinforce compliance with the capitalist order of things. Except on the pseudo-libertarian right, ideological fervour has gone out of fashion.
The other massive difference between the ‘Gilded Ages’ is that there has been a “great shift: from industrial to finance capitalism”.
Industrial capitalism required the robber barons to force the shift from feudalism to factory production:
… factory-made goods … drove under peasants, husbandmen and handicraftsmen, detaching men and women from traditional occupations … [to become] … proletarians of factory and field.
While the mainstream economists claimed that technological developments drove the emergence of the factory system, the reality is different.
The brilliant research by Stephen Marglin which came out in 1974 – What Do Bosses Do?: The Origins and Functions of Hierarchy in Capitalist Production – shows that the rise of factory production and the division of labour that came with it:
… was the result of a search not for a technologically superior organization of work, but for an organization which guaranteed to the entrepreneur an essential role in the production process, as integrator of the separate efforts of his workers into a marketable product …
Likewise, the origin and success of the factory lay not in technological superiority, but in the substitution of the capitalist’s for the worker’s control of the work process and the quantity of output, in the change in the workman’s choice from one of how much to work and produce, based on his relative preferences for leisure and goods, to one of whether or not to work at all, which of course is hardly much of a choice.
[Reference: Stephen Marglin (1974) ‘What Do Bosses Do? the Origins and Functions of Hierarchy in Capitalist Production, Part I.’, The Review of Radical Political Economics, 6(2), 60-112.]
There has been a lot of followup work demonstrating the veracity of Marglin’s hypothesis.
Steve Fraser understand that point. There was a need to destroy “household and craft production” and convert into surplus production under capitalist control.
But the second Gilded Age requires quite different dynamics for the preservation of the capitalist hegemony.
Jackon Lears review expresses it this way (where the quotations are from Fraser):
During the second Gilded Age, by contrast, profitability has depended on ‘cannibalising the industrial edifice erected during the first, and on exporting the results of that capital liquidation to the four corners of the earth … where deep reservoirs of untapped labour, like newly discovered oil reserves, gave industrial capital accumulation a fresh start’.
The old industrial heartlands are exported to cheap labour destinations and the urban infrastructure that evolved to support the factories now lie in decay.
Fraser writes that “What was getting bought, stripped and closed up … was the flesh and bone of a century and a half of American manufacturing”.
Fraser wrote (elsewhere National Museum of Industrial Homicide) that:
Camden, New Jersey, for example, had long been a robust, diversified small industrial city. By the early 1970s, however, its reform mayor Angelo Errichetti was describing it this way: “It looked like the Vietcong had bombed us to get even. The pride of Camden … was now a rat-infested skeleton of yesterday, a visible obscenity of urban decay. The years of neglect, slumlord exploitation, tenant abuse, government bungling, indecisive and short-sighted policy had transformed the city’s housing, business, and industrial stock into a ravaged, rat-infested cancer on a sick, old industrial city.”
All that matters now are financial ratios like “shareholder value” and workers are considered expendable.
He quotes the American comedian George Carlin “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
Fraser’s tome is quite long and Jackson Lear’s review is only summarised here. It is an excellent piece of writing in its own regard.
The problem that Fraser doesn’t really address is what we can do to revitalise a resistance mentality among the population. To see beyond TINA.
Fraser thinks that resistance might come from “the growth of wholly new organisations of the invisibles” because material want only takes us so far and there are still “ineffable yearnings to redefine what it means to be human together”.
Jackson Lears says that that “The question is how to spread the struggle beyond the local, when the big picture induces confusion and despair. Neoliberalism is everywhere and nowhere; its custodians are largely invisible”.
It is easy to see how this all fits into the British Labour Party machinations, where within a few months, the neo-liberal wing of the Party, so dominant for the last 20 years, has been rejected by a growing mass of active and young people who are sick of the way the system transfers bounty to the top-end-of-town.
The popularity of Bernie Sanders in the US is a similar reflection of the stirrings.
Latin America has see this manifestation earlier which the socialist governments becoming popular and in most cases successful.
Today’s blog reflects research I am doing as part of an attempt to string together a narrative that understands why the ‘old left’ has been so co-opted by the neo-liberals (the ‘enemy’) and now, in many nations, while in government, delivers the austerity and oppression with a panache that can barely be believed.
I also want to tease out ideas of where a ‘new left’ might go to redress this sell out.
History needs to be understood. Language and framing needs to be understood. Strategic organisation needs to be understood. And more.
So I continue …
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2015 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.