The Long Con

Jackson Lears

  • The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organised Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser
    Little, Brown, 466 pp, £21.99, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 316 18543 1

‘Why is there no socialism in the United States?’ the German sociologist Werner Sombart asked himself in 1906 – it was also the title of his most famous book. The question was misconceived. 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’.

These people did not fit Sombart’s implicitly Marxist model of opposition to capitalism. 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. (Debs was from Terre Haute, Indiana and the Appeal to Reason was published in Girard, Kansas.) They rarely resorted to the axioms of ‘scientific socialism’; instead they deployed an idiom derived from republican tradition and charged with Christian morality. For many, the co-operative commonwealth was indistinguishable from the Kingdom of God on earth; religion was not an opiate but an elixir. Resistance to capitalism, it appeared, could look back as well as forwards; it was rooted not only in utopian visions of the future but also in concrete experience of the present and past, in older ways of being in the world, depending on family, craft, community, faith – all of which were threatened with dissolution (as Marx and Engels said) in ‘the icy waters of egotistical calculation’. Radical critiques of capitalism might well arise from conservative commitment to pre-capitalist ways of life, or memories of that life. This wasn’t only an American pattern. E.P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), rescued the Luddites and other artisans from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ by showing that their apparently reactionary attachments to custom and tradition created the leading edge of working-class consciousness. Soon American historians were making similar discoveries.

The Thompsonian history of the working class revealed a common pattern on both sides of the Atlantic: as workers became less grounded in traditional ways, their critique of capitalism tended to soften. 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.

Fraser traces the path from this loss of a larger vision to the contemporary neoliberal consensus. He poses the question many people have asked privately in recent years: 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 notion that we are living in a second Gilded Age has become a commonplace, but few historians have tried to explain the gap between resistance to organised capital in the first Gilded Age – the age of Edith Wharton and J.P. Morgan – and acceptance of it in the second.

Fraser provides a powerful historical explanation for the waning of American dissent. He discusses the mid-century incorporation of the labour movement but also dissects more recent cultural strategies that have legitimated neoliberalism, redefining job insecurity as free agency and billionaires as regular guys. These rhetorical shell games have enveloped the long con in a libertarian-populist haze. Fraser’s book clears the air. But it also leaves you wondering: now what?

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[*] MIT, 296 pp., £20.95, March, 978 1 935408 53 6.