Remember Occupy Wall Street? Steve Fraser does — he opens his book on our current state of popular political paralysis by recalling the "millions of 'occupiers' in a thousand cities" who in fall 2011 chanted "We are the 99 percent." His question is not what Occupy wanted or why it disappeared so completely after its brief flowering; instead he asks why it didn't start sooner — why it came three years after the Great Recession of October 2008, why popular resistance to Wall Street's "greed and arrogance," "incompetence and larceny" took so long to develop.
For Fraser, who has written award-winning books on labor and American politics, Occupy Wall Street is the exception that proves the rule: we live in an "age of acquiescence," marked by an absence of organized popular challenge to economic inequalities and exploitation. Republicans condemn Obama for "class warfare," but the charge is laughable if you know anything about the American past.
Fraser does know a lot about that — his purpose here first of all is to recall the way class warfare was commonplace in America from the 1790s through the 1930s. He focuses especially on the Gilded Age that followed the Civil War, when the plutocracy was challenged regularly and revolt was in the air. He brings those decades to life with wonderfully vivid writing and rich historical detail.
In New York City in 1874, for example, unemployed women and their children marched on City Hall demanding "Bread or Blood." Police on horseback attacked and dispersed the marchers, and the police commissioner called the assault "the most glorious sight I ever saw." Fraser comments that the local elite was fearful of a version of the Paris commune three years earlier, of "Amazonian women, their hair streaming wantonly behind them in the wind, armed with the nineteenth century's version of the Molotov cocktail, setting Paris aflame."
The first Gilded Age occupies the first half of Fraser's book; the second half examines our present situation, which he calls "America's second Gilded Age." The similarities are obvious: the reign of plutocracy, government in the hands of the bankers and the corporations, and ordinary people suffering. The differences are equally striking, however: the first Gilded Age was an era of challenge and turmoil; the second is not.
What happened? Why did people revolt then — and why do they submit now?
In the first Gilded Age, it was not hard to imagine alternatives to rule by industrial and financial capital, because that economic system was so new and strange — and thus, perhaps, only temporary. What marks the present Gilded Age is our sense of its permanence.
Fraser is particularly passionate and penetrating in his analysis of our present state of submission and surrender. His intention is not just to chronicle the change but to explain why it happened, how we got here. Thus the second half of the book is a history of America since World War II, with a particularly brilliant exploration of the '70s, when so much turned sour in America, when the postwar boom came to an end.
Fraser explains the economics of decline effectively. The working class may have abandoned Marxian "class struggle," but, he says, the capitalists haven't; they have pretty much won the class conflict by destroying labor unions. But the problem for him goes beyond economics; the disappearance of the left-wing political imagination is his real concern. His analysis thus focuses mostly on the cultural and ideological.
He points to the distractions offered by consumer culture, "an emancipation of the imaginary and the libidinal whose thrills and dreaminess are prefabricated." Consumerism and mass media offer pleasures that are private, that take people away from the political and social and economic grievances they share with others.
He emphasizes the particular idea of "freedom" that provides the heart of Republican Party ideology: Freedom in America is the freedom to succeed through individual initiative (rather than cooperative effort). Our heroes are the entrepreneurs, the "job creators," and the enemies of freedom are the government regulations and taxes that shackle their creativity and energy (and which otherwise might go to serve social needs and the public good).
The '60s maxim "the personal is political" meant that issues that seemed private — above all, women's oppression — were in fact widely shared and required collective action to bring change. Fraser argues that what began as a call for liberation has today become a justification for avoiding the political, for substituting personal solutions for political ones: eat organic food, drive a Prius, send your kids to charter schools.
And finally he points to the manipulation of fear: "state-sponsored paranoia" about terrorists who are said to be everywhere. This fear induces submission to the powers that be as our protectors whose power should not be undermined.
Of course there are some pretty big exceptions to the acquiescence he identifies: the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement; and of course the election of a black president in 2008. The straight white men whose rule was unquestioned for centuries have, in the last 40 years, "acquiesced" in sharing power with women, minorities and gays. Fraser of course knows that, but his concern is the underlying structure of wealth and power.
The forces he sees perpetuating the age of acquiescence seem irresistible today — but then, briefly, there was Occupy Wall Street. So you can't be sure; you never know.
Wiener writes for the Nation and teaches American history at UC Irvine.
Age of Acquiescence
The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power
Little, Brown: 480 pp., $28