The Protesting Ethic

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power BY Steve Fraser. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover, 480 pages. $28.

The cover of The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power

Within the American Left, there’s a growing consensus that the gains won by postwar liberalism have been squandered or otherwise lost. A famous set of graphs by UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez depicts a return to pre–New Deal levels of economic inequality, and commentators have bemoaned the advent of a second Gilded Age. The American working class is squeezed tight, while a tiny ruling elite lives larger than ever. And this time, proletarian institutional counterweights—labor unions, populist political organizations—have degraded to the point that they appear unable to do anything but lose ground. The ruling class now seems to rule unhindered. What happened?

Book editor and author Steve Fraser tackles that question in The Age of Acquiescence, an examination of how and why the balance of American class power now tilts so sharply upward. Fraser first takes the reader through the original Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, and the class conflict that threatened to spur the country into a second civil war, before comparing and contrasting it with our present national misfortunes. In Fraser’s chronicle, the American culture of labor resistance traded strikes for Nikes, throwing worker solidarity to the wind in exchange for capital’s shiny baubles. We’re like lab rats starved for dope, caught in the eternal present of reward and withdrawal, climbing over each other to prostrate ourselves before the market. “Is there some natural limit to this?” Fraser asks, genuinely unsure of the answer.

To talk about the America of old, Fraser uses historian Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of the “long nineteenth century,” which classically runs from the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 to World War I. Fraser’s American version stretches from the end of our own revolution, in 1783, to the Great Depression. For Fraser, this period stands as the high-water mark of class consciousness among American workers—a time when labor wasn’t afraid to declare itself the enemy of capital. He describes the post–Civil War United States as a hotbed of worker unrest, full of strikes, bombs, and riots. In midsize towns, Fraser writes, the police couldn’t be relied on to protect corporate property: “Sometimes company assets were burned to the ground or disabled; at other times they were seized, but not damaged.”

As a history of American revolutionary anticapitalism from 1870 to 1930, The Age of Acquiescence has a certain lighthearted joy. Even though he revisits conflicts with high body counts, and pitched battles with bosses over “Bread or Blood,” Fraser writes in the spirit of the times, when a road to utopia seemed plausible, straightforward, and worth killing or dying for. It’s hard to imagine the United States of today rocked by mass strikes that “infused the atmosphere with a mounting readiness to settle accounts once and for all,” but Fraser gets the reader into the heads—and hopes—of the American communards.

He describes America’s radical counterculture as an inspiring convergence of antinomian influences “drawing on Marx and Freud, Wobbly irreverence and anarchist audacity, ancient Greek pastoral and the criminal underworld, myths of African American paganism and ethnic spontaneity as if they were all more or less exotic versions of the class struggle.” In Fraser’s sympathetic account, labor’s violent tactics seem not only proportionate to the steep organizing challenges it faced but also, given the dramatic contingency of those challenges, imbued with genuine hope. The first Red Scare, which occurred during World War I and its immediate aftermath, wasn’t a spasm of paranoia; it grew out of a rational fear of revolution at home. To put down the potent and uncompromising insurgency of workers and their allies, Fraser writes, the ruling class and the state turned to “innovations in machine-gun technology, to private corporate armies and government militias, to suffrage restrictions, judicial injunctions, and lynchings.” With this, American anticommunism was born, and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer started shipping immigrant anarchists back where they came from. Palmer lost his bid for the presidency, but not before he set up twenty-four-year-old J. Edgar Hoover with a new Justice Department division to investigate radicals and subversives.

When it comes to the failure of this revolutionary moment, Fraser can’t decide how much to blame organized labor. On the one hand, he credits the labor movement with generating the populist energy that led to the New Deal; on the other, he faults labor leaders for surrendering to anticommunist purges and shirking their duty to represent the entire working class instead of the narrow interests of their relatively advantaged rank-and-file members. Fraser alternates between the language of tragedy and that of betrayal, exculpating then indicting industrial unions for the longevity of American capitalism. Either way, the New Deal was the final nail in the revolutionary coffin: “The material realities as well as the cultural beliefs and behaviors that once called such servitude, voluntary or not, into question were dead beyond resurrection.” Fraser calls it “the end of socialism.”

As he turns his attention to the second Gilded Age, Fraser is more concerned with cultural beliefs and behaviors than with the material conditions that underpin them. Though he uses some Marxist concepts and shares the dream of a workers’ revolution, Fraser highlights consumerist ideology rather than capital’s historical tendencies. This approach, which separates culture from the relations of production, puts the cart before the horse. Fraser’s account of capital’s development focuses on what it has offered workers at each stage, as if whether they consented were the operative question. When not talking about working-class acquiescence, Fraser places the blame on state-induced fear of external threats. We have, in his telling, been hoodwinked.

The Age of Acquiescence isn’t wrong about the baleful consequences of twenty-first-century American individualism, but Fraser’s historical method puts the emphasis in the wrong place. He goes on about “the ever-expanding galaxy of internet apps” and how it “tends to infantilize, encouraging insatiable cravings for more and more novel forms of faux self-expression,” but spends scant space on mass imprisonment, border enforcement, or the militarization of the police. In Fraser’s telling, technological advancement is a bribe for workers, one that secures them greater abundance in exchange for their acquiescence. In reality, though, the high-tech refinement of surveillance, incarceration, and economic production helps owners squeeze bigger profits and exercise greater oversight. Fraser downplays the role of force, violence, and control in the maintenance of the American status quo.

Indeed, at times Fraser’s ideological criticisms seem painfully outdated, almost as if they were dispatches from the early days of the second Bush administration. He is unimpressed with the New Left and every counterculture since. “Lifestyle politics encouraged alliances based on tastes, appearances, and identities that could be tried on and discarded,” he writes, scoffing at punk, goth, and hip-hop—movements that all quickly became “faddish experiments.” Reality TV is “a form of pure self-exploitation.” Sometimes the arguments aren’t just tonally off. Fraser blames continually expanding consumer credit for making wage labor tolerable, but he neglects to mention that Americans have been deleveraging for years, tightening their belts, living within their narrowing means, and saving their debt capacity for their increasingly expensive educations. Critiques that focus on working-class complicity can tell us only so much about the world, and it’s hard to separate the insights they deliver from the disdain that inevitably accompanies them.

As the title indicates, The Age of Acquiescence is particularly concerned with the self-management of the working classes on behalf of their bosses—self-censorship, self-control, self-surveillance, etc. Fraser uses the model of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, a prison in which one guard could watch every cell. Since the prisoners don’t know if they’re being watched, they watch themselves, first out of fear and then out of habit. But in the age of the NSA and Big Data, we no longer have to imagine we’re all being watched. Panopticism is no longer a very good social metaphor, for the simple reason that the authorities really can watch us all at once. Their view isn’t perfect, but to rely on a model of social control from the eighteenth century is deeply ahistorical.

There are other models that explain the same historical changes while tying them clearly to material changes in the mode of production rather than ideological mystification. A vein of Italian Marxism whose name translates as “post-workerism” tracks the development of capitalist productivity as it reduces necessary labor. As owners automate routine jobs, these theorists argue, production becomes less, not more, tailored to workers’ individual needs. Social innovations such as language and communications technology become more important over time. Industrial unions lose leverage as productivity increases and the need for workers performing semiskilled, interchangeable tasks recedes. It’s a more useful account than Fraser’s, not only because it can explain how capitalism is advancing rather than falling back on old habits, but also because it can imagine a resistance that develops with history.

Fraser laments the rise of “identity politics,” and he sees both people of color’s striving for equality and the white backlash against it as distorted modes of class struggle. We are fragmented into shrinking interest groups, without a unified liberation cause. But that’s not how the authorities see it. Fraser may not be able to find our present-day American communists, but the state’s anticommunist infrastructure never disappeared. Hoover’s Justice division became the FBI, and it went on to fight against more and less exotic varieties of class struggle, whether in the form of radical labor unions, the Black Power movement, or ecoterrorism. Capital makes it hard to see the insurgent elements for what they are, but the ruling class has never been willing to rely on acquiescence.

At the conclusion of his book, Fraser brings up Occupy Wall Street, which, he writes, “seemed to erupt out of nowhere.” But Occupy, its tactics, rhetoric, network, structure, theory, and personnel, didn’t just show up. Rather, like an optical illusion that pops out when you least expect it, Occupy Wall Street made visible parts of a dissident movement on the Left that had been developing for years. The same thing is true in Ferguson, Missouri, where the collective drive for freedom and justice that Fraser here regretfully consigns to the past required an army to suppress it. A new counterculture, one devoted to class struggle by many different names, bubbles right below our national surface. In The Age of Acquiescence, Fraser speaks for our history too soon.

Malcolm Harris is an editor of the New Inquiry.