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‘The Age of Acquiescence,’ by Steve Fraser -

The Age of Acquiescence by Steve Fraser NYTimes com


Of course violence went both ways. Protests and strikes consistently faced bloody attacks from both state forces and hired guns, prompting the formation of various armed worker militias. Populists and socialists were attacked as everything from “ungrateful hyenas” to “mad dogs,” while conservative newspapers openly called on the state to “exterminate” the “mob.” The class war, in other words, was no mere metaphor.

Fraser offers several explanations for the boldness of the post-Civil War wave of labor resistance, including, interestingly, the intellectual legacy of the abolition movement. The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.

This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What ­fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.

It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. 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.

Fraser devotes several chapters to outlining the key “fables” which, he argues, have served as particularly effective ­resistance-avoidance tools. These range from the billionaire as rebel to the supposedly democratizing impact of mass stock ownership to the idea that contract work is a form of liberation. He also explores various forces that have a “self-­policing” impact — from mass indebtedness to mass incarceration; from the fear of having your job deported to the fear of having yourself deported.

With scarce use of story or development of characters, this catalog of disempowerment often feels more like an overlong list than an argument. And after reading hundreds of pages detailing depressing facts, Fraser’s concluding note — that “a new era of rebellion and transformation” might yet be possible — rings distinctly hollow.

This need not have been the case. Fraser spares only a few short paragraphs for those movements that are attempting to overcome the obstacles he documents — student-debt resisters, fast-food and Walmart workers fighting for a living wage, regional campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour or the various creative attempts to organize vulnerable immigrant workers. We hear absolutely nothing directly from the leaders of these contemporary movements, all of whom are struggling daily with the questions at the heart of this book.

That’s too bad. Because if hope is to be credible, we need to hear not just from yesterday’s dreamers but from today’s as well.

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