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The Age of Acquiescence


I haven’t read Steve Fraser’s new book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, but after reading this review, I sure plan to do so.

Fraser identifies a number of reasons why Americans acquiesce to the class warfare of the New Gilded Age:

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.

It’s an interesting thesis. As the review points out, Americans haven’t acquiesced on social issues–thus the gay rights movement, challenges to police violence, etc. But on economic issues, we have. And I think that’s right. Not all of us necessarily, but the capitalists did an outstanding job after the fall of the Soviet Union is discrediting even the slightest possibility that any system other than unrestrained American-style capitalism could work. Socialists were pushed back on their heels while class consciousness collapsed in American society (although it was already in decline since the 1950s). Horatio Alger myths have existed in American society since before Alger wrote them, but never before have so many people believed in them so whole-heartedly. And I don’t think student debt loads, economic stagnation, recession, and growing income inequality has really changed it that much, at least if my students are any sign.

The arguments about consumer culture and individualism I think are particularly interesting. I don’t think consumerism and resistance are necessarily counter to one another, but there is something about a society where even that resistance is heavily individualized and where one wears their politics not on their sleeve, but on their arm like a new tattoo that shows their own personally crafted politics for them. This highly individualized politics empowers people to resist on one level but also empowers them to drop out if the movement they’ve joined doesn’t take this or that position. Occupy did a lot but this atomized individualism is a big part of the reason why the same spirit and same problems didn’t allow it to continue and then didn’t reignite in some other way.

Anyway, I’ll try to review Fraser’s book for the blog and explore these issues in greater detail.

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  • gmack

    Actually, I think LGM should do a book symposium on this. I’ll be reading it too, as soon as I get a chance, and I’d love to have a broader discussion of it.

    • CP


    • Brett

      Either here or at Crooked Timber would be nice.

      • Lee Rudolph

        I keep trying to read Crooked Timber but just can’t get into it. Here, please.

  • c u n d gulag

    I, myself, did not foresee the end of the USSR.
    And neither did my father, a man whose own father – a hard-core Communist – was eventually executed by Stalin’s minions, and a man who, to my eternal shame, I discovered later, was partially responsible for some aspect of the “The Harvest of Sorrow” starvation in Ukraine.

    But, when the USSR collapsed, and the Berlin Wall came down, and while my parent’s and Slavic relatives all cheered, I told my father that Americans should be careful what they wished for.

    My father asked me why?

    And I said that without a competitive economic system, the workers will lose any leverage they may have, because our greedy Capitalists had always feared a US version of The Russian Revolution – and had allowed unions and better working conditions, to prevent that revolution.

    Capitalism will, as Marx and Engels predicted, eventually devour itself – but only after devouring the workers and the non-wealthy.

    It’s like “Survivor” – but the last contestants, are the most avaricious, and most psychotic and ruthless individuals left on the planet.

    I’m not often right.
    But, sadly, I was right on that one.

    I wish I could never have been more wrong…

    • LeeEsq

      Doesn’t your thesis tequire that hundreds of millions of people have to live under dictatorship though? If Communism provided leverage than that meant Ameticsn working class people could only prosper of the Russians, Chinese, and others suffered?

      I’m not even sure if it’s right. Even during Communism; there were plenty that opposed ever concession as a slippery slope towards it tooth, claw, and nail.

      • Brett

        It’s not like business-owners didn’t fight back against unionization back in the Postwar Period, either. Unions were just more powerful back then, even after Taft-Hartley.

        Just in general, the idea of the Postwar Period being one in which business-owners made their peace with unions is belied by the sheer number of strikes compared to now.

        • Right–business never accepted unions. They had to say they did publicly because unions were so powerful, but they hated every second of it.

        • c u n d gulag

          One day, when my nephew was a young teenager back in the mid 00’s, we were going to a restaurant for lunch – but there was a picket-line of union workers, protesting.

          I told him what my father, a Foreman in a union shop, always told me from the time I was a young boy growing-up in NYC:
          “Don’t knowingly ever cross a picket-line.”

          And I told my nephew that we’d have to go somewhere else for lunch.

          He looked at me, and asked, “What’s a picket-line, Uncle?”

          • Linnaeus

            A pro-union foreman? Something you don’t see every day.

            • Before Taft-Hartley there were quite a few…because they could be unionized. I think they were at all the US auto companies.

              • Brett

                There was a Foreman’s Association IIRC, among others. And just before Taft-Hartley, the Supreme Court ruled in Packard Motor Car v. NLRB that supervisory employees had the right of self-organization.

                • Linnaeus

                  Good to know.

                • I’m pretty sure the UAW also represented quite a few supervisory personnel.

        • sanity clause

          Nonetheless, I think c u n d has a valid point. As long as the USSR existed, the American capitalists at least had to show that our system worked better for the average Joe or Jane than communism did. Now, they don’t.

          That doesn’t mean the world isn’t better off due to the fall of Russian communism – it is. Saying there have been some negative consequences doesn’t mean we’d all be better if it hadn’t happened. But IMHO, the negative consequences are real.

          As the review points out, Americans haven’t acquiesced on social issues–thus the gay rights movement, challenges to police violence, etc. But on economic issues, we have.

          You don’t have big money on the other side on social issues; you just have other people. You may not win all of those battles, but they’re much more winnable than issues where the bulk of corporate America is on the other side.

          For the latter sort of battle, I think you need to show people a believable way of taking America back from the oligarchs, or at least for winning some battles. I’d like to see a plan like that, myself.

          I think the first step is clearly voting rights – undoing all the voter-ID laws of the past several years, expanding early voting (especially on weekends), and so forth. Can’t win if you can’t vote, after all.

    • I’d intended to weigh in here to the effect that the fall of the USSR was in some ways a misfortune for us as well as for the Russians, but c u n d gulag has eloquently beaten me to the point.

      Somewhere, possibly in his memoirs published thirty years ago, Henry Kissinger (why, oh why, does that monster yet live?) wrote that he always had the sense that Brezhnev’s Politburo recognized at some level (perhaps unconsciously) that they needed the USA to restrain them, to act as a brake on their own expansionist tendencies. I wasn’t convinced of the truth of that notion then or now, but as gulag has observed, late-stage capitalism was inhibited from its tendency to suicidal gluttony by the existence of a countervailing economic and moral system (however ineptly implemented) of social justice and equality. I don’t know whether Gorbachev-style Soviet reform was ever a realistic proposition—it would be gratifying to imagine that with a few breaks he might have carried it off—but I think that his vision of a more humane USSR, “socialism with a human face,” largely intact, though perhaps without the Baltic bone in its throat, would have been better for its peoples and for us than the the bitterly resentful, irredentist Russia of Vladimir Putin that has emerged from the 1991 disintegration.

      And yes, absent that counterweight, our plutocrats are without fear and conduct themselves without restraint, even though at least some of them must realize that historically this sort of thing has ended unhappily for the grandchildren of the rich in any urban area with a sufficiency of lamp standards.

      I used to be an avid consumer of accounts by foreign journalists assigned to the Soviet beat in the seventies and eighties. In one such book, the journalist recounts knocking back a few drinks with some mid-level apparatchik who let down his hair sufficiently to acknowledge that the Old Bolsheviks would be pretty appalled to see what the country had become under Brezhnev, but he pointed out that Washington and Jefferson would be pretty nonplussed at the USA of the 1970s. “And,” he added triumphantly, “the ideals my country has betrayed are nobler than the ideals your country has betrayed.” In vodka veritas.

      • c u n d gulag

        “…even though at least some of them must realize that historically this sort of thing has ended unhappily for the grandchildren of the rich in any urban area with a sufficiency of lamp standards.”

        They don’t care about them!
        If they did, they’d try to do something about global warming/weirding.

        Great story, though, at the end of your comment.

        It reminds me of an old Soviet joke:
        Brezhnev brings his elderly mother from her little home in the boondocks, to his dacha outside of Moscow.

        When she gets there, she asks, “Leonid, was that your driver who picked me up in a limo at the house?”
        ‘Yes, Mama.’
        “And,” she asked, “Was that your plane I flew in on?”
        ‘Yes, Mama.”
        “And was that your apartment I stayed in last night. The opulent one?”
        ‘Yes, Mama.”
        “And was that your limo and driver who took me here to your beautiful dacha?”
        ‘Yes, Mama.”

        “Leonid, what will you do if the Communist government finds out?”

      • Ronan

        I dont think the fall of an (awful) ‘alternative’ to capitalism explains that much. Capitalism isnt a sentient being that adapts to changes in the ideological balance of power.
        The broader changes in the global economy that are relevant here predate the fall of the USSR (and can probably be better explained by the opening to China)and the ‘rise of neoliberalism’ within western countries does as well. The fall of the USSR removed a geopolitical rival to the US, and so US hegemony post CW meant a lot more space for the US to implement it’s special kind of free market nonsense, but I think there’s a tendency to overstate that.
        Whether or not the USSR would be better than modern Russia? Who cares? A lot of the old warsaw pact countries are coming along nicely, happy to be removed from Russian interference.

        • In order to argue for an alternative to capitalism, you have to be able to articulate that alternative. After 1989, that completely disappeared.

          • c u n d gulag

            And that alternative to capitalism, has to be a legitimate threat to our powers-that-be!

            After the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, our capitalists were a-scared.

            And that fear, led them to treat their workers better.

            What’s the threat now?
            A strike?

            Well, striking made Walmart decide to pay better – not MUCH better, but still, better.

            So, labor still wields some small bit of power – even without unions, in this caseQ

    • djw

      The biggest problem with this hypothesis, at least in its strong form, is that the timeline is way off. If th USSR had collapsed in the mid-70’s it would have a lot more prima facie plausibility.

      • LeeEsq

        There was already a lot of movement away from the post-war consensus in many NATO countries by the time the USSR and Warsaw Pact collapsed. The Reagan and Thatcheraian moves towards a more hardcore free market system already happened in the United States and Great Britain. Similar things happened in other developed countries and elsewhere.

        • djw

          Yes, exactly. Also, it just strains credibility to imagine a plutocrat or a bought-by-plutocrats politician in the 1980’s saying to themselves “I want to do X but I better not because that might push the public to embrace communism.” In the Anglosphere, at least, communism ‘collapsed’ in the collective political imagination well before it collapsed as a political system; there’s a reason the 1983 Labour platform has the reputation it does.

          • CP

            Yeah. I’ve never really believed the “USSR collapse led to our current mess by removing all restraints,” because the switch from old-school New Deal style regulated capitalism to Thatcher/Reagan free-for all happened around 1980. Ten years before the fall of the Soviet Bloc, and, in fact, a time in which the perception of many in the West was that it was stronger than ever and in fact gaining.

            • I think it did, however, make partisanship worse. There’s no red-baiting like during the USSR, but on the other hand there’s almost never any sense that unity against the common enemy should temper domestic politics. I agree that there’s little substantive labor policy change because of the end of the USSR, but I think it effected American political discourse and legislative cooperation. [Not as much as the realignment of parties/regions with ideology, but still a factor.]

              • CP

                Was there really that much unity? Seems to me that Cold War era “unity” was pretty much a one way street – Democrats believed in unity in the face of an enemy, but Republicans mostly saw the enemy as a hammer to bludgeon the Democrats with. They started with McCarthy and never really stopped.

                • Yes and no. The GOP was divided. There actually was an elite consensus that included both Democrats and Republicans. The red-baiters were anti-elite, but they weren’t as partisan. Yes, someone like Nixon used it to his advantage early in his career
                  . But McCarthyites like…well, McCarthy, they didn’t limit their red-baiting to Dems. Remember, by the end McCarthy was going after Republicans as well. And there were also plenty of rabid anti-communists among Dems, in particular Southern Dems.

              • After the “end” of the Cold War, we were obliged to consume domestically much of the rhetorical poison formerly produced for export, and it threw the national metabolism further out of whack.

  • Something I’ve never noticed mentioned but I suspect also played a role was the effective closing of US immigration after WWI. For fifty years the US population had few additions from other cultures and societies. Ethnic cultures didn’t die out, but by the 1950’s and 1960’s they were definitely fading. In those immigrant communities, even in the second generation, there was more of an ethos of solidarity than was dominant in the dominant WASP culture of the US prior to the 1880’s (and in the South and Plains all along until migration from the North to the South started after WWII and took off in the 1970’s and 1980’s). Over time those communities became assimilated, and many of them became dispersed and diluted by white flight combined with urban policies in the 1950’s-1960’s. (I think it’s much easier to understand Reagan Democrats if you read Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis and watch the DiNiro/Palmenteri film A Bronx Tale). With a kind of demographic stasis (other than natural increase from those already in the US in the 1920’s), there was plenty of time for vestiges of solidarity within ethnic communities to be absorbed in to the more individualistic worldview of the dominant WASP culture.

    Or maybe not. Maybe I’m talking out my butt. But I think there’s something there.

    • I think there’s no question that immigration has long pushed American politics to the left. The extent to which that’s a major factor in this question today though, I don’t know, since we’ve had a pretty robust amount of immigration since 1965.

      • Right, but I also wonder if we’re seeing a shift back. Look at polling on things like the role of government, opinions of the public sector, role of unions, progressive taxation, and people under 40 are to the left on those things than are people over 40, and they’re not moving much right as they get older (just as the late boomers/people born in the late 1960’s haven’t moved much to the left [except on LGBT issues] from where they started out when voting for Reagan and the elder Bush).

        I’m actually more optimistic for where we’ll be on these issues 20-30 years from now than where we are today.

        • c u n d gulag

          Oh goody!

          Something to look forward to – after I’m long dead…

          • Well, if you’re buried in a public cemetery, it’ll be more likely to be maintained.

            • c u n d gulag


              But I’m planning on being cremated.

              And, since neither Halle Berry nor Charlize Theron agreed to have my ashes spread on them, I’m going to instruct that I be tossed off the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, so that my urn can float down the river, past the city I love, down past the Jersey Shore, and finally, out into the ocean.

              • Make sure they get the timing of the tide right. Otherwise you might float the other way, potentially all the way to Troy.

                • c u n d gulag

                  Yeah, but eventually, I’ll end up in the Atlantic, right?

        • Brett

          Millenials in general lean leftward on economic issues, but there’s a pretty big racial divide. Non-white millenials are overwhelmingly leftist leaning on economic issues, while white millenials lean libertarian (albeit not as much as previous generations).

          That bodes well assuming more non-white millenials don’t shift rightward.

          • CP


            I think my generation’s full of “South Park Republican” type glibertarians, e.g. people who may be cynical and burned out on the Republican establishment, but have no intention of shifting towards the Democrats either. But then again, my demographic skews much more white and college educated than other people’s, and I readily believe that it’s very different for nonwhite millennials.

            • but have no intention of shifting towards the Democrats either

              Except they are. In 2008 Obama won white voters 18-29, and while in general Dems don’t win younger white voters, they’re losing them by significantly smaller margins than they are white voters over 40. Since voting early in life is a very strong predictor of partisanship later in life, that will probably continue to give Dems a growing demographic advantage, since there will be fewer white voters, and the ones alive and over 18 in 10-20 years will probably be more liberal and more Democratic than the ones alive and over 18 today.

              I suspect in the states Obama won in 2012 that overall he won voters born after 1982 or so, and that they were probably split very evenly or maybe even leaned a little Dem in Congressional races.

              • CP

                That is actually wonderful news.

                (I have no problems with my impressions being contradicted, especially if the contradiction paints a happier picture :D ).

                • There’s no reason to be sanguine about older white people. But there is reason to be optimistic about the possibilities for when the electorate is no longer heavily influenced by white pre-boomers who were too young to remember FDR and the depression. Then the only big problem will be my cohort, white people born from the early sixties to the early-to-mid seventies. [Older boomers are more liberal than the cohorts immediately before and immediately behind them.]

                • CP

                  The other thing too is that when I say there’s a bunch of “South Park Republicans” in my generation, I’m not describing diehard teabaggers. People like that are apathetic, “both sides do it,” too-cool-to-vote Ron Paul types. It’s not good, but still, better disengaged blockheads than right wing fanatics.

                • Yeah, there’s that too. And as long as the Republican party is so dominated by–or at least in debt to–social conservatives, the libertarian blockheads who may be self-centered and kind of assholish but who aren’t haters and want to be left alone, especially if they’re not religious, those guys–and yeah, they’re mostly guys–not many of them will be voting for Republicans.

      • NewishLawyer

        I said this below but Jewish immigrants who came from the former Soviet Bloc tend to be very Republican. Not all of them but a good deal of them.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Yes, but much of the post World War II immigration to the US has consisted of people ill disposed to socialism. Their opposition to socialism as the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System notes was largely political and in many cases ethnic. But, it was generally not economic. First there was the wave of displaced persons from Central and Eastern Europe including the Baltic states. This received a small supplementary wave from Hungary after 1956. Then there were the Cubans opposed to Castro after the 1959 Revolution. Then during the 1970s there were the Vietnamese refugees including a disproportionate number of Hoa. Finally, a number of Soviet emigrants, mostly Jews, from the 1970s onward came to the US. Organizing around a term that these people associated with political and ethnic repression in their homelands really had no chance. The word socialism to these people does not conjure up visions of guaranteed employment, free health care, and state provided higher education. It summons up images of the GULag and other forms of repression. The link below is to the Harvard Project’s now mostly digitalized archives.


        • Post 1965 immigration to the U.S. is overwhelmingly dominated by Latin Americans who have no such predilection outside of the Cuban elites in Florida.

          • J. Otto Pohl

            It depends on what region. Parts of OC received large numbers of Vietnamese immigrants including Hoa. I suspect the number of immigrants from the former USSR, Eastern Europe, Indochina, and Cuba since 1945 has made a much more significant impact than you think. The fact that there are more Mexican immigrants doesn’t completely nullify their influence.

            • Yes, clearly the transition of California from the state of Nixon and Reagan to one of the most leftist states in the United States has nothing to do with millions of Latinos moving there.


              • J. Otto Pohl

                That is not what I stated. I stated that some immigrant groups hostile to socialism have had political influence in the US. This is not just limited to the Cubans. If you think that anti-communist immigrants to the US from Eastern Europe and Vietnam had no political influence in the US what so ever during the period 1945 to 1989 I can’t help you.

                • You know what you should do? Hijack the conversation and distort the argument to fit your own agenda. It would be a big change for you.

                • I know you’re immune to facts if it undermines your Commies Control Colleges world view, but for anyone else who cares, CUBANS voted for Obama in 2008, and in 2014 Crist beat Scott among Cubans. And they’re still about the most Republican group of Latinos in the US (recent immigrants from Colombia and Venezuela are not that strongly Dem, but outside FL they’re a small population).

                  Some dynamic with Asians. 2012 I think Obama won every ethnic sub-group of Asians, including Vietnamese.

                  What’s happening there is, as I mentioned upthread wrt white voters, moving in the Dems’ direction because of younger voters. There was some fascinating polling of Asians after the 2012 election, and in every subgroup, including the less Dem communities (like Vietnamese, Filipinos and Chinese) the younger voters went for Obama in numbers almost equal to African-American voters. The dynamic is not quite a crazy among Latinos, but younger Latinos are still more Democratic than older Latinos.

                • J. Otto Pohl


                  I wrote specifically that the influence of anti-communist immigrants in the US was from 1945 to 1989. Obama was elected in 2008 almost twenty years later.

              • A big shout-out here to former Governor Pete Wilson, who twenty years ago helped kick off California’s hugely successful Republican Eradication Program.

    • NewishLawyer

      One thing I noticed is that Jews whose ancestors came to flee Czarist oppression still tend to be Democratic or further to the left.

      Jews who came from the Eastern Bloc during or after the Cold War tend to be very very Republican. They have an extreme distrust of even the smallest welfare state measures.

      • Davis X. Machina

        Not just a US thing. Cf. Avigdor Lieberman.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Not just Jewish immigrants have these attitudes. See my comment above.

        • NewishLawyer

          I don’t disagree. I was just using this as an example. The Cubans are loyal Republicans too.

          • That isn’t so true of Cubans anymore.

            • NewishLawyer

              And it might not be true of Jews from the Soviet Bloc in the future but they still feel bitter from their years there. Cubans have been here much longer.

              • Religious Jews from the Soviet Bloc are also more likely to be socially conservative. That was part of the dynamic when the Repub won that special election in Queens after Weiner resigned a few years ago. It was strongly Jewish, but a lot of the Jews were from Central Asia, were Hassidic, were socially conservative, etc.

      • CP

        Here’s the thing: right wingers used to cultivate ties with these communities, in a way that they simply don’t anymore. Among nonwhites, the Cubanos are pretty much all that’s left, and even that’s slipping steadily.

        If they ever bothered to cultivate it, there is plenty of sentiment in the Arab-American, Iranian-American, Afghan-American et al communities that’s similar to what you used to see from East Bloc or Cuban emigres. Particularly true of the Persian community, at least if what I saw of it in the DC area is anything to go on. The “can’t go home again” sense and impatience for the regime to fall (among the older generation), the loathing of the current regime, the general nostalgia for the supposedly better days of the Shah, all very similar to what I see in my Cuban relatives.

        But none of that translates into support for the American right wing. Because the ARW has gone so far out of its way to make it clear that as far as it’s concerned, they’re all the same Filthy Stinking Hajji stock, and because the last two wars were so catastrophically botched that no one has any delusions of “oh, I wish the Americans would nut up and go liberate Iran!”

        • J. Otto Pohl

          True, up into the mid-1990s the Republican Party in Southern California openly kept liasions with Persian and even Arab heritage groups.

        • In 2000 Bush won the Arab-American vote in Michigan. He won partly because Spencer Abraham was running for reelection to the Senate, but also because Arabs were Dem-leaning swing voters and he appealed to them–so ironic–in part by promising to repeal the laws passed by the GOP Congress in the mid-90’s that allowed the federal government to use secret evidence for convinctions of non-citizens. The Clinton DoJ had already stopped relying on the practice, because it was usually bullshit and used to by someone to screw someone they didn’t like, but it was still there, and Bush–I suspect honestly, though with little conviction–went to the Arab-American community and talked about it.

          Then, 9-11, and now Arabs have gone from the pre-Bush 50-55% Dem voting most elections to probably +80% Dems. And the same thing for Muslim-Americans.

    • Brett

      I thought it was the opposite. The closing of immigration – and just general collapse of the international trading system in the Great Depression – made it easier for unionization, since labor organization wasn’t being undercut either by outsourcing, foreign imports, and new waves of immigrant workers.

      • I think there was a lag. When the NLRA passed and the CIO unions exploded, it was largely ethnic workers rejected by the craft unions and the AFL, and many of them were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. But by the 70’s, other than some specific groups like Hungarians, Cubans, etc (who Jotto isn’t wrong were often anti-left, which is why they were accepted in to the US), there were damn few people in the workforce who were immigrants or the children of immigrants, at least compared to the 1930’s-1950’s.

    • Daniel Bell, Hofstadter, and others in books like The Radical Right talk a great deal about the politics of getting, as in getting a piece of the economic pie, shifting towards the politics of keeping and sustaining with respect to immigrant groups as they assimilated.
      Rick Perlstein offers a bit of the same theory, especially with respect to the response of white blue collar workers to the civil rights movement. As white industrial workers reaped some of the benefits of organizing and the general economic inclusiveness that resulted from the industrialization of WWII they shifted their views from aspiring to a piece of the pie to wanting to keep the gains, as it turned out illusory gains, they had, or thought they had achieved.
      If Reagan did anything well it was exploiting the idea that the white working class was part of the “in” group and that government and those damned minorities were intent on eroding those gains. Like a pickpocket’s mark the working class never saw the sleight of hand that had business copping their wallet while flourishing some shiny object of consumerism.
      This, accompanied by the concerted effort embodied in the Powell memo to restore the ethic of the plutocracy has led to acquiescence to inequality. By foisting the idea of American individualism and exceptionalism as the primary civic religion the plutocratic class has created a fragmented and isolated working class more attuned to individual social rights than community and class cohesion.

  • JMG

    This is unfair before I’ve read the book, but the thesis as described in the review seems a bit simplistic to me. Surely the author didn’t ignore the social issue that did the most to destroy class consciousness among many (white) Americans, the demand for equal rights by African Americans, did he?

    • And related, you really have to discuss white Americans over 40 who were born in the South/former slave states differently from how you discuss white Americans over 40 from anywhere else in the country. The differences were and still are vast.

      • [BTW, Fraser is very good, and he knows this stuff as well as anyone, so I’m guessing he distinguishes between Southern whites and whites everywhere else.]

        • Davis X. Machina

          Being a ‘Southern white’, regardless of where you actually live, has become normative for white Americans everywhere, at least as far as folkways, etc. go, as the Sons of Italy lodges, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians halls in cities and the streetcar suburbs go on the block one by one.

          • J. Otto Pohl

            Really? I find this hard to believe. Especially, since most white Americans prefer to identify symbolically with a specific European ethnicity rather than as white. There are still large numbers of people in North Dakota that identify their heritage and some of their day to day culture like food as Black Sea German (Germans from Ukraine). Likewise for Volga German in places like Kansas and Nebraska. They don’t consider themselves “Conferederates” and that is just one relatively small (about 1 million Americans of Russian-German descent), predominantly rural, and old (pre-World War One immigration) group. I suspect Lithuanian-Americans in Chicago and Ruthenian Americans in Pittsburgh are even less “Southern”.

            • Davis X. Machina

              Come to rural Maine, where in towns that lost one male in five or six in the Civil War the school parking lots now sport pickup trucks with Confederate battle flags, and graduating high school classes recess to Lady Antebellum songs.

              The normative way to be white, and not-urban, is to be southern, even here two and a half hours from Quebec.

              • Lee Rudolph

                Just above, you wrote “white Americans everywhere”; but here you write “white, and not-urban”. Here in southeastern Massachusetts, in not only the cities but the non-cities (which are variously rural and exurban—the now-standard “suburbs” are somewhat encroaching) there certainly are some assholes with Confederate flags, but more assholes with “Cranky Yankee” bumper stickers (Tea Partyists but not neo-Confederates), and a lot still of the kind of ethnic identity J. Otto describes—variants on Portuguese (mainland, Azorean, Cape Verdean) and French Canadian predominate (and it wasn’t so long ago…okay, 35 years, I guess it was pretty long ago…that a Portuguese Catholic marrying a French Catholic was still considered a “mixed marriage” and highly disapproved of), with a non-negligible admixture of Polish, Swamp Yankee (English), etc.

                It’s true that the Ukrainian Club closed down, but most of the Portuguese clubs are still in business.

                • Davis X. Machina

                  My brothers in Plymouth and Carver have had a radically different experience…

                  Whether Tea Partyists aren’t in fact neo-Confederates is another story.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  Ah, well, Plymouth and Carver are outside of my part of SEMass (Bristol County, where a solid majority identify as “Portuguese” on the census—and that, even though northern Bristol County, Taunton and Attleboro, are definitely not “Portuguese”-rich environments).

                  And, of course, Tea Partyists are Neo-Confederates; but at least the ones around here don’t display that flag on their trucks.

              • jim, some guy in iowa

                same thing goes on here. ‘rural’ culture is much more southern-oriented than it used to be. the local country music radio station runs ads for local businesses that are read by generic southern voices, even

              • NewishLawyer

                I’ve also heard of rural Canadians displaying the Bars and Stars. My theory is that the Stars and Bars now operate as a white, rural, working class fuck you against urban bourgeois liberals.

            • Linnaeus

              Even if white Americans are more likely to identify themselves ethnically (and I think this really depends on context), I would argue that perceived differences between European-descended Americans on the basis of ethnicity have attenuated considerably since the 1930s or so. The German-American in Nebraska and the Italian-American in New York City are much less likely to see each other as different in some essential way due to ethnic origins. The differences that they do identify will likely be more on the basis of region. To the extent that they share any interests, views, etc., it will have some basis on a shared white identity.

              • J. Otto Pohl

                Yes, ethnic identity is less now. But, has it been replaced with a specifically Southern (Confederate) White racial identity? I suspect that this is not the case in many places. Especially since in the example we are talking about people from northern and mid-western regions. I never met anybody from Iowa that identified with the Confederacy for instance.

                • jim, some guy in iowa

                  oh, god, otto, you must never have gotten very far from grinnell

                • Linnaeus

                  I never met anybody from Iowa that identified with the Confederacy for instance.

                  I think there’s a gradient. Folks may not be flying the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia in front of their houses, but they may embrace certain elements of a repackaged “Confederate” worldview, which has been aided by the southernization of the Republican Party.

                • It’s regional. Despite what Davis is reporting, the voting patterns show that Northern New England is now WAY more Democratic than it ever has been. Bush senior won Maine and Vermont solidly, and NH was his second or third best state. 2004 NH was the only state that went from Bush to Kerry, and we know about Vermont. There’s something similar among PNW coastal voters. But the Great Basin has become rabidly Republican, and most of the rural Midwest, which was already Repub, has become even more Repub.

                  But there’s an exception, and it includes Iowa. SW Wisconsin, NE Iowa and SE Minnesota are actually more Dem now than they were 20-30 years ago. Those areas also happen to be strongly Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (the large, mainline Lutheran church, which is much more liberal than Wisconsin or Missouri Synod).

          • It actually hasn’t. Look at the white vote in Southern states in 2012, then look at the % of whites in those states that were born outside the south. Texas and Florida through it off a bit, but the rest of the states, there’s a massive correlation between Obama’s % of the white vote and the % of whites who were born in the South or somewhere else. Highest % of non-Southern born whites, by far, are in VA and NC, where Obama did better with white voters than anywhere. Next highest was SC, which has actually be trending toward the Dems compared to the South overall. Places with the worst performance among white voters were also the places with the smallest % of non-Southern born whites.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    The trend towards more temporary alliances (“atomized individualism”) was also foreseen by the Manifesto for Cyborgs, but IIRC it wasn’t viewed as a negative or inherently disadvantaging to the left. Perhaps that was naive.

  • Gotta say, the struggle always looks hopeless if you look where it is not happening and don’t look where it is happening. Moving beyond capitalism means what the word says: beyond. We do not envision that yet. To survive, we will have to.

  • Aimai

    I, too, haven’t read the book yet. But just jumping off the post’s discussion of it I wonder what religion and partisanship have to do with this lost battle for the public mind/public space/public good? I suppose what I mean is that its not just consumerism and individualism which take people away from the struggle for day to day power and economic justice. Some Christian sects have for a long time urged patience and resignation as well as an otherworldly (or maybe I mean posthumous) on justice.

    In this disenchanted modern world the poor/left have lost their religion while modern american evangelical sects have taken to a this-worldly struggle with a vengeance. They have sacralized mammon and capitalism and merged the fight for salvation with the fight for lucre and submission to the god of the market. Thus they have the best of all possible worlds: their chosen form of consumption and individualism jumps with the wishes of the Koch brothers. Their engagement with the public sphere, their attempt to dominate the lives of others, is religiously valorized and comes with its own specialized form of conspicuous consumption (bibles, cars, pregnancies, weddings, donations to the tea party).

    • Linnaeus

      I’ve mentioned this before, but you and other folks might be interested in Jefferson Cowie’s and Nick Salvatore’s article “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History”. The thesis is, as the title suggests, that the New Deal welfare state was an exceptional realignment of American politics and that America since the 1970s or so has been returning to a political and social order that has significant continuities with the pre-New Deal era. They examine a number of factors including race, religion, class, and the ideal of individualism. Their take on the role of religion isn’t quite yours, but they do point out, for example, that evangelical Protestants created a kind of parallel culture that effectively withdrew from the public sphere, but they reemerged as a political force in the 1970s. They also deal with Catholics and their somewhat complicated role in the New Deal order. It’s a pretty good read, I think.

      • NewishLawyer

        There seems to be an emerging school of thought that the New Deal to the 1970s was the exception to the rule all the world over.

        I don’t fully buy that we are returning to a pre-New Deal order though because that would mean the social conservatives would have been much more successful than they actually are. Social conservatives were largely unsuccessful for all their screaming. They couldn’t stop pornography or pre-marriage sex. Same-Sex Marriage probably is one of the quickest civil rights victories in human history. Look at how much as changed since 2004. Transgender rights are also picking up extreme momentum.

        Though we have to look at Ryan and Walker. Both were young adults during the early days of the Reagan Revolution and it was their defining political moment. Both are still relatively young and we can be seeing this kind of conservatism having cache for a while. We might have to wait until the Millenials and Late Generation Xers (1978-1980) are in their 40s or 50s to see a more leftward tilt.

        • Davis X. Machina

          Oh, great. The upshot is I get to live in a non-discriminatory Hooverville.

          • Marek

            Not just the rich and poor, but also the black and white, will be equally able to sleep under bridges.

        • Linnaeus

          I don’t fully buy that we are returning to a pre-New Deal order though because that would mean the social conservatives would have been much more successful than they actually are.

          The authors of the paper that I cited above deal address the social changes in the past couple of decades. They don’t argue that the US is going to return to a time when rights for LGBT people, women, nonwhites, etc. were sharply curtailed, but looking at my prior comment, I can see where I left this impression.

          What they’re saying is that the New Deal political paradigm (for lack of a better term) was the product of a number of factors that are unlikely to be repeated and that this paradigm also suffered from an number of internal contradictions (due to powerful underlying impulses in US culture that New Dealers could not disregard) which resulted in its fracturing beginning in the 1960s. Progressive gains since then (and they argue that these are significant) have had to deal with a more fractured polity because of the lasting power of race, religion, individualism, etc. which necessitated more fluid and temporary alliances and a more individualized understanding of what rights mean. What this suggests to the authors is that progressive politics in the foreseeable future will continue to work within this paradigm that is closer to what existed before the New Deal.

          It’s not an ironclad argument, to be sure, but I think it’s a genuinely serious one.

  • Jordan

    but there is something about a society where even that resistance is heavily individualized and where one wears their politics not on their sleeve, but on their arm like a new tattoo

    *looks around nervously*

    More seriously:

    Consumerism and mass media offer pleasures that are private

    This doesn’t seem right at all. Both of these things are intensely public. There *is* a real thing about individualized politics. But I don’t see how its because consumerism and mass media offer pleasures that are private. They offer pleasures that are more fragmented than in the past, perhaps, but it seems those pleasures are more communal and public than that any other time in recent memory.

    Probably I’m not understanding this correctly.

    • burritoboy

      No, mass media is mostly private. Where do you watch TV? In your living room. Where does the newspaper get delivered? Your front door, and you read it, alone, in your home. And so on.

      If you compare this to an era before mass media, none of that was private, say, in the year 1600. Entertainment is plays put on in a public theater before a large group. News is something that is announced in front of a live parliament or council or gathering. Music you either produce yourself or it is provided in some sort of public gathering. And so on.

      • NewishLawyer

        People still discuss this stuff all over social media. I would gather that I usually hear about news via social media and the net and I still get a weekend delivery for the NY Times.

        People also discuss TV and movies all the time on the net and in the office and with friends at bars and restaurants. People still go to movie theatres and concerts and dancing.

        One thing that a lot of lefty intellectuals seem to want and crave is a complete destruction of popular culture. I am not a complete pop culture guy either but I think it is kind of silly when you hear lefties dream about how they are going to get rid of soap operas and mystery novels and pop songs and turn everyone into high-brow intellectuals who listen to Mahler and read the Mann brothers instead of watching Bob’s Burgers and listening to Beyonce.

        • Aimai

          Uh…do these lefty intellectuals live anywhere outside your head?

          • Jordan

            Ya, that is a good question.

            • NewishLawyer

              See my response.

          • NewishLawyer

            I quoted Austerity Britain 1945-1951 below. The Chapters that cover it are Constructively Revolutionary, Glad to Sit at Home:

            “Either way, what mattered to much of the progressive intelligentsia was not so much redistribution of wealth or social egalitarinism, planning or welfare as cultural renewal-the spreading to the mass of the population of what Matthew Arnold had famously termed ‘sweetness and light’. The enemy was easy enough to identify. ‘Refuse with scorn the great dope-dreams of the economic emperors and their sorcerers and Hollywood sirens’, J.B Priestley impolored in his Letter to a Returning Serviceman, published in late 1945. ‘Don’t allow them to inject you with Glamour, Sport, Sensational News, and all Deluxe nonsense, as if they were willing to filling you with anaesthetic.’ There was so much to deplore. Labour Party memos in 1946/7 on the need for a ‘Socialist policy for leisure’ lamented the ‘failure of the majority of Britain’s citizens to enjoy a full life through their leisure pursuits’; labelled the cinema and gambling as two prime examples of regrettably ‘passive’ and superficial leisure pursuits; and drew the defeatist conclusion that ‘all forms of escapist entertainment or recreation are enocuraged by the drabness, insecurity and hopelessness of daily life.'”

            -Page 175 in David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain 1945-1951.

            The logical conclusion would be that the Socialists felt that removing economic insecurity would turn everyone into austere and anti-materialist intellectuals.

            There is also a famous essay in which Orwell deplored soccer as being nothing more than mob violence after matches between a Soviet and English team and a person responded that he felt sorry for Orwell because Orwell “missed out on the fun in life”

            • Jordan

              Well, *that* is bog-standard-of-a-certain-kind-of-leftism.

              I don’t see anything there about dreams or cravings of a complete destruction of popular culture, much less the soap operas, mystery novels and pop songs, much less that it is from the last 20 years, much less that it is at all prevalent.

            • Linnaeus

              But I wouldn’t say that reflects the views of leftist intellectuals today, other than a very small number. You have to take into account, for example, the emergence of a significant youth culture by the end of the 1950s (and this had been developing for some time) that many leftists reaching adulthood in the 1960s had enthusiastically embraced.

              • NewishLawyer

                What I notice more is a more selective variant of the complaint. People give the stuff they like a pass but are still willing to lay criticism (valid and not valid) on the aspects of pop and consumer culture that have no interest to them.

                Arguably, this could be worse.

                • Linnaeus

                  But is this a particularly leftist tendency? I don’t think so.

        • WabacMachinist

          How can you hear lefties dream? Anyway, the sort of intellectually snobbish high culture you describe is quite common in a few square blocks on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Chicago’s Hyde Park, and Cambridge MA. Anywhere else?

          • Aimai

            Speaking from Cambridge, MA. I think there is an argument to be made that Duck Dynasty is, in fact, to be deplored as a major form of entertainment because we now know that entertainment/news/propaganda are inexplicably intertwined. But who among us does not love Nascar? In other words: there is pop cult and pop cult. There are dour savonarolas on both sides of the economic/political divide. Grim Grundyism is not limited to the left and I haven’t actually met any stalinist anti-pop cult lefties even at our local bolshevik coven.

            • Jordan

              I enjoy NASCAR to a limited degree. The last 20 laps or whatever are usually pretty exciting.

              /yes yes, this is entirely missing the point of your comment.

            • I can’t stand NASCAR but my way of expressing that is ordinarily to not join in conversations about it. As long as we are discussing pop culture that is within legal norms – so I’m excluding snuff films and child porn – I have no interst in policing other people’s taste regardless of how I personnaly feel about it.

              • Lee Rudolph

                Are “snuff films and child porn” actually “pop culture”? “Snuff films” used, at least, to be associated with decadent elites. “Child porn”, to judge from the (deplorably frequent) newspaper articles I see about people arrested for possessing, making, or distributing it, is consumed by men from an amazing diversity of cultural slots (not that one’s cultural slot is absolutely determinative of one’s preference in cultural artifacts), including (at least in England and Florida) some members of the aforementioned decadent elites who (I imagine) wouldn’t be caught dead being associated with any (other?) form of “pop culture”.

                • You’ve got a point. There’s blurriness in my comment: I consider the Saw franchise to be snuff manqué. It nauseates me but I would not support a ban. On the other hand, the creepiness of how the lowest of low-brow paparazzi pursue teen celebrities – I saw a “countdown until she’s legal” clock once referring to some pop sensation – suggests to me that child porn is closer to the surface than we admit.

            • Lee Rudolph

              I haven’t actually met any stalinist anti-pop cult lefties even at our local bolshevik coven.

              That’s because you’re not in the Inner Circle.

            • +1 for working “dour savonarolas,” “Grim Grundyism,” and “local bolshevik coven” all in to one brief comment.

      • Jordan

        Virtually nothing about current mass media or consumer culture is very relevant to anything in 1600. Entertainment, news and so on isn’t being talked about between people from wildly different social, racial or economic classes on a large scale, much less from wildly different geographic regions. I mean, it isn’t really now either, but the difference is still there.

        Compared to a much more plausible timeframe, like 20 or 30 years ago, I’d say both of them are much more public and communal in the way they are engaged with (maybe not newspapers though?).

        If you are talking about things being more fragmented now (again, as compared to 30 years ago), then yes, they are, maybe. But more private? don’t see it.

  • burritoboy

    Fraser stole my next book! (Just kidding – a lot of people are thinking along these same lines.)

    I don’t know if he discusses this, but I find it fascinating how little attention was paid in the left political movements of the 1960s and 1970s to economic theory. They’re all pretending to be Maoists and radical Marxists, but there was essentially zero thought given to any economic practicalities. And economic understanding among the New Left is effectively zero. Economics academe is completely abandoned by the New Left to the Chicago School.

    Also, without a leftist imagination (or, perhaps put better, with the leftist imagination completely thwarted), all the arts quickly degenerate. You can feel any excitement and energy entirely dissipate from, say, 1955 to 1985 or so.

    • Economics are hard and take real study and is kind of boring. I think that’s the core issue of why that stuff tends to be ignored.

      • burritoboy

        I wonder if there’s more to it than that. The old Left had no problem learning at a very minimum a modicum of economic theory and trying to take economics very seriously, both on the theoretical level and on the practical level. (That doesn’t mean every old Leftist had an actual deep or serious understanding – many were still trivial people – but they did reward at least pretending to do so.) At the end of the day, the old Left was grounded in economics theorizing. And the subject was as difficult in 1850 or 1900 or 1930 as it was in 1950 or 1970.

        I might assert that the new Left was actually had a different fundamental ground in different fields of knowledge other than economics, and it did this partially because Marxian economics theorizing and Keynesian economics theorizing quickly degenerated as the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s rolled on.

        • Aimai

          If we think of politics (the new left) as something that gets done by the intelligentsia I think we’ve already lost the battle and will always loose the battle for a more populist/anti capitalist political fight. The right wing found a way to meld their political outlook and economic goals (oligarchy, fascism, capitalism) with the desires of actual voters and even poor people (though many poor people are not voters). The left simply has not. Its not a question of economics being hard or leftists not being able to think about econ. Though both are true assessments. The left hasn’t been able to make its perspective and goals jump with the fantasy emotional lives of the masses such that they can each independently pursue a leftish (ish) agenda.

        • I think other factors include the sense that in the post-WWII western world conflict was not at its heart obviously economic within societies. The predictions of rigid Marxism-Leninism were proving to be wrong, the New Left looked to more non-Western leftists like Che and Mao and Ho Chi Minh, they were more likely to read Franz Fanon than Michael Harrington, and there were obvious inequalities and injustices that weren’t only or even mostly about economics.

          Now, with Ariana Huffington and Bill Maher depicted as the left, “leftist” critiques of Obama are more about what’s supposedly in his heart than placing him within a larger structural critique that transcends personalities and individuals, “leftist” solutions are often a variation of MOAR LEADERING and GIVE A JED BARTLETT SPEECH,’ and the closest a “movement” has come to a comprehensive economic and structural critique was a bunch of grad school anarchists so in love with process that they never got around to making any demands other than to allow them to mass in lower Manhattan and wander aimless through the streets. With all these problems, it’s no surprise that it’s hard to help people understand the structural reasons for the problems that led them to sense that things are seriously wrong and to convince them there might be a reasonable plan of action to turn things in the right direction.

    • DocAmazing

      I think you’re mistaking “being overwhelmed in the mass media” with “nonexistence”. There are plenty of practical leftist economists–I get to hear some of them lecture when I get time off–but most people have never heard of them. Thanks to corporate sponsorship, every totebagger (and more than a few middle-schoolers) can quote a little Milton Friedman; almost none have heard of even so mass-market a figure as, say, Doug Henwood.

      Likewise leftist imagination in the arts–there’s plenty of excitement and energy going on in your local arts scene; just don’t expect that excitement and energy to be picked up and transmitted by the patron class.

      • burritoboy

        No, I don’t think I’m over emphasizing this. Sure, even when the Chicago School was most triumphant and universal (1980-2000), there were some surviving Keynesians, some post-Keynesians and a handful of Marxians. But: of these, only a few of the most apolitical mathematical Keynesians remained at Tier 1 research universities – and by the 1980s, most of them were very well past their most productive years. American economics academe never included many Marxists or Marxians at any level, and the top tier of universities never had more than the most tiny number of Marxists in economics academe.

        So, functionally, in the 1980-2000 period, yes, there were some marginal holdouts at the edges of American economics academe. Mostly, they were at very marginal institutions such as University of Massachusetts Amherst or New School for Social Research (both of which places did and do incredible work, but are nowhere near the center of American academe).

        Others were simply incredibly aged folks who had been educated in the 1940s or before – which meant they were in their 70s or much older by 1980. Only a handful of people fitting this description could truly be described as active by 1990, even if they were also ignored.

        Others might have still regarded themselves as economists, but were marginalized in the field by their actual departments being outside economics proper. Examples include James K Galbraith teaching in a public policy school, Herbert Simon teaching in a wide array of departments, and so on. I’m not criticizing these folks or even saying that made them worse economists (it often made them better economists). But their influence on the field was much smaller, since they usually couldn’t produce more economics academics, while the central Chicago School guys collectively were advising on dozens (or more!) of theses every year.

        Further, the New Left had a huge impact on other academic areas, particularly sociology, history, literature, anthropology and so on. And this impact was at the center of American academe in these fields – often happening at the most prestigious and central institutions (though of course also ramifying in many other places too). If any movement happened at all in economics academe in the period 1960-1980 in a substantial way, it was the Chicago School broadening and strengthening its eventually nearly universal hold on the field.

  • NewishLawyer

    I think there is stuff to the thesis but I am not sure I fully buy it.

    1. Have people fully given up on economic liberalism and leftism?

    I think it is making a comeback with talk of income and wealth inequality. Demands for more life-work balance. But maybe I live in a liberal cocoon.

    2. Social v. Economic fights?

    It is entirely possible for people to be socially liberal but economically conservative. I know a lot of people who would have been Rockefeller or Liberal Republicans in a more sensible age but are Democratic because the GOP has gone off the rails. European conservative parties seem to have more openly LGBT members as an example. The hardcore social conservatism of the Republican Party turns the Democratic Party into a really big tent and this is good and bad. So you have union types mixed with Wall Street who have social reasons for being isolated from the GOP.

    3. Consumerism/Consumer Culture:

    This gets way too close to a Frankfurt School/Allegory of the Cave reading for my comfort. I am deeply suspicious of anyone who thinks they are close to being the Guardian Class in Plato’s Republic. I think one thing the left needs to make peace with is the idea of economic and lifestyle aspiration. I am currently reading Austerity Britain and one thing that needed to be quickly jettisoned by the Labour landsldie was the intellectuals desire to destory popular culture and entertainment. The more intellectual Labour supporters seemed to think that they can use socialism to destroy British love for Hollywood movies and mystery novels and turn everyone into Russian-novel reading intellectuals.

    I think social democracy can succeed but it has to be done with the realization that people also like places and things of their own. Most people are not attracted to communal living. We are social creatures but also creatures who like privacy.

    We also need to remember that many immigrants came here for more economic opportunity. The Irish came to escape famine and oppressive English laws against the Catholics. Italians who migrated were coming from a place where you were lucky if you got 150 days of work, etc.

    Many immigrants did join socialist parties and labor unions but they were not Emma Goldman or Alexander Berkman. They probably just wanted more security and wages. They did not want to upend the entire system.

    • Hogan

      This is a very long response, considering it’s to two sentences in what amounts to a summary-of-a-summary of a full-length book. It’s just possible that the book’s argument is more complicated and detailed than that, and if you read it you might find a response to your objections (as, say, someone reading Darwin might find an answer to the question “If we’re descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”).

    • CP

      Have people fully given up on economic liberalism and leftism?

      I think it is making a comeback with talk of income and wealth inequality. Demands for more life-work balance. But maybe I live in a liberal cocoon.

      I think the remarkable thing is how very, very mild the “comeback” of the left has been and yet how intensely marginal it remains despite this moderation. Occupy Wall Street and Elizabeth Warren are saying what was considered common sense pre-1980. That rich people didn’t get where they are all by themselves; that the world isn’t divided into Job Creators and leeches who should be grateful that the rich are so charitable as to give them jobs; that it’s not normal for explosive growth to go entirely into the pockets of the rich, etc.

      … and for this, they’re consigned to the extreme left of the political spectrum. Similarly in Europe, we’ve just seen Syriza described from all quarters with the kind of language that used to be reserved for blood-stained revolutionaries, because… they want to renegotiate the paydown of a debt that everyone already agrees is unsustainable. And the powers that be are concentrating all fire on this “radical” party to ensure that it’s not brought down.

      • NewishLawyer

        This is a fair point but it is also just beginning.

        A few years ago (Fall 2011), I remember that Occupy wanted to do a general strike. I was on a two-week temp job while waiting for Bar Results. There were lots of protests then and you could hear them even if you were 12-15 stories up.

        The only thing I remember about the general strike were a young hipster looking white dude riding his bike down Market Street while screaming “General Strike!!!!!!” and that the admin assistants at the law-firm I was working at (mid-sized with a focus on professional liability defense and partnership dissolution) tsked tsked at the people who were trying to protest at the port of Oakland. The admin assistanta were largely working class and middle-aged women diverse set of women who lived in the East Bay. They did not see the Occupiers as really representing their interests. They say them as middle-class kids who were preventing working class men from being paid by blockcading the port of Oakland. I don’t think these women were right-wing or scabs or anti-union. Some might have been but certainly not all of them considering this is the Bay Area, it would be a statistical improbability for everyone in the office to be a right-wing Republican.

        • CP

          I certainly hope so. I think it’s just frustrating to think to live in a world where the most extreme left wing thing you can say is “I can haz New Deal tax rates, plz?” when the last time inequality was this high, things like the Battle of Blair Mountain were resulting.

  • AlanInSF

    It’s almost as if persuasion, rhetoric, and leadership, applied over the long term, have produced a behavioral shift that can’t be explained by the fundamentals.

  • Ramon A. Clef

    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.

    I think there’s certainly something to this. I can’t tell you how many of my friends will proudly state that they refuse to shop at whatever superstore has most recently been in the news for mistreating its workers, but will they actually work to change the underlying systemic issues? Of course not. They feel they’re doing their part by “voting with my dollars.”

  • LeeEsq

    I am joining NewishLawyer on his critique of the critique of consumerism. People like their material goodies and creature comforts. This isn’t going to change any time soon. There are cultures that are less material than the urban civilizations in the world but most people aren’t going to want to live in them. Consumer culture can also be a great help in fighting against social conservatism and puritanicalism by providing a more attractive alternative. People seem to prefer bourgeois liberalism to hippie anti-consumerism. To the extent that people are going to embrace leftism, it’s going to be because leftism can provide material goods.

    • Ramon A. Clef

      To the extent that people are going to embrace leftism, it’s going to be because leftism can provide material goods.

      “A more equitable economic arrangement means you’ll be able to buy a new computer every year” is a much more compelling argument than, “You’ll have to make do with what you already have, and even that’s more than you deserve.”

      • NewishLawyer

        Pretty much. I think what Lee and I are trying to say is that a good amount on the left avoids that argument though and thinks long the lines of “Why do people care about consumerist items so much? Don’t they see that their desire for a new computer keeps them in thrall to the Capital classes? If people can give up their playstations, there will be liberation!”

        • WabacMachinist

          That’s more like it. Left-wingers are being remiss when they engage in finger-wagging disapproval of peoples’ desire to acquire material comforts. That’s the sort of “eat your peas” approach which people who already enjoy those comforts can well afford.And it’s a guaranteed way to hand a lot of votes to conservatives which otherwise could be in play.

          • LeeEsq

            Some of the biggest leftists have also been really big prudes.

    • gmack

      People seem to prefer bourgeois liberalism to hippie anti-consumerism. To the extent that people are going to embrace leftism, it’s going to be because leftism can provide material goods.

      Two points: 1) I don’t see any evidence that Fraser’s own political position is a simple embrace of “hippie anti-consumerism.” If it is, then I’ll concede that his book is useless. 2) As far as I can tell, Fraser’s analysis already calls into question the feasibility of a leftism that provides consumer pleasures. At least from the summaries I’ve read, part of what he’s pointing out is an issue that many commenters here have also discussed: Any significant political transformation will have to take the form of a significant “social movement.” But for such a movement to be possible, people must first embrace the ethos, practices, values, and orientations necessary for politics (e.g., they must embrace and pursue public goods, solidarity, and so on). Before we can create a better society that “provides the goods” for people, we need political action, and this action requires orientations that are at least in tension with consumerism.

      The trouble, in other words, is that a consumerist orientation undermines political values and orientations. As we saw in the anti-vaxxer discussions, rather than understanding, say, a healthy environment as a collective good that must be pursued through collective action, we see it as an individual concern (“how can I keep my family safe from toxins?”) to be addressed through individual consumer choices (“I can keep my family safe by purchasing the right organic products, etc”). Now, I don’t know how the more political orientations can be promoted (hence the reason I’m interested in looking at Fraser’s book), but so far as I can tell, he appears to be putting his finger on an important problem.

      • Linnaeus

        Right. I do think it’s worth problematizing consumer culture to some extent, but the “austere leftist”, at least in the circles in which I run, strikes me as being rare.

      • djw

        Right. It sounds to me like the ‘consumerism’ angle is part of the diagnostic of how we got here, not a recipe for making leftist positions more appealing.

    • DocAmazing

      I can’t find the exact quote, but Joe Strummer said something along the lines of “I believe in the sort of socialism where everybody gets a Cadillac”.

      • NewishLawyer

        I like that quote.

    • Brett

      This reminds me of a paper that Seth Ackerman over at Jacobin linked to years ago IIRC, about the interaction between consumer goods and services and socialism in the Warsaw Pact countries. Shabby goods and living spaces were seen as a sign of the state’s low regard for its citizens.

      • LeeEsq

        There are apocryphal stories that the USSR liked to air American TV shows that took place in working class environments like Good Times to show how bad the poor had it in America but Soviet citizens thought the poor in America were better off than they were.

  • Brett

    Eh, I wonder much widespread appetite there is among the populace in the US and elsewhere for leftist action. Look at Greece – it took six years of incredibly severe austerity politics (completely with 20+ percent unemployment) to elect Syriza, and even Syriza is occupying within the constraints of “don’t get kicked out of the Euro” and “Don’t accidentally cause mass capital flight”. During which time there were, what, a couple of massive general strikes that did nothing?

    • Ronan

      I think you’re on to something. Perhaps Fraser’s analysis is too limited. If this is a more widespread phenomenon, with similarities across advanced post industrial western countries (which I think it is) then the cause is going to be, to some degree, also relevant to them, so not as specific to US history and culture.
      Primarily I would say the decline of the old industrial political economy, and changes in the way people conceptualise their rights, obligations, solidarities and relationships(to their communities and the state)is what explains it.
      The second part is very vague, I know.

      • postmodulator

        completely with 20+ percent unemployment

        And much higher youth unemployment, yes?

        • NewishLawyer

          Youth unemployment is at 50 percent or so if not more.

    • gmack

      I wonder much widespread appetite there is among the populace in the US and elsewhere for leftist action.

      Er, not much? I mean, so far as I can tell, you’re identifying the issue that Fraser’s book is trying to examine: Why aren’t the forms of massive inequality in the present, which are quite similar to the forms we saw in the first Gilded Age, not producing the kinds of “leftist” politics we also saw during the first gilded age?

      • That is the key question and I think the answer is the decline of class consciousness after World War II. Even when early Gilded Age workers couldn’t understand what was happening to their society or what to do, they at least the sense that they needed to stand together. That is far gone today.

        • NewishLawyer

          Was there much class consciousness before WWII?

          After all, didn’t Steinbeck make his famous observation about “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” during the Great Depression?

          My question is sincere, not snarky. Obviously there was more unionization and organization but it was also strongly on ethnic lines back then too.

          • Compared to today? Absolutely. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of people in the American working class who did have class consciousness in 1915 or 1935.

            • NewishLawyer

              How much of this was from people living in very tightly knit ethnic communities?

              I remember reading about a Polish church that was sent a Lithunian Priest. They beat up the priest and sent him back until the Vatican sent a Polish one.

              • There was ethnic solidarity which could overlap with class solidarity, although often it did not and employers could use that to divide workers. But however those ethnic ideas may or may not have meshed with class consciousness, those workers, especially in industrial labor, generally did identify themselves also as workers. Even if latent, it could be harvested, as it was in the 30s.

        • Brett

          That’s a problem, then. How do you recreate class consciousness? It seems to have emerged last time just through sheer suffering and repeated labor actions (either with a union or wildcat) and organizing, over decades.

          Rich Yeselson’s argument, basically, although I don’t think it explains the rise of public sector unions that well.

          • I have no idea.

            • LeeEsq

              Isn’t one of the Brogressive critiques of identity studies that it takes away from class identities. That is if an African-American working class person and white class person sees each other by their race first than they are going to not really form any sort of class alliance?

      • Brett

        Hard to say. Some of that is definitely a lack of class consciousness, mostly among workers and the middle-class (although even among a lot of rich people, you don’t have as much of the whole “I am rich old money and special” like in the First Gilded Age, where they were trying to marry their kids to european aristocrats for extra status).

        Part of it also may be not as much sheer suffering in workplaces and broader economy like in the Gilded Age, with its horrific workplace safety and death rate. It’s not a coincident that many of the most militant unions and organizing came out of economic sectors like mining. And once they were there, they were relatively well-placed to take advantage of discontent in the Great Depression.

        • NewishLawyer

          This is a good point. Another interesting way to look at it is how much is union organizing made harder when people work for small or medium sized companies.

          How do you organize say the admin assistants for a bunch of small offices around one city? These admin assistants might have a wide variety of perks and pays or lack thereof.

        • LeeEsq

          There was literally no safety net and workplace protections during the First Gilded Age. What exists now is imperfect and workplace abuses still occur but most people still have many more governmental and legal protections at their disposal than they did during the 19th century. The necessities and even the leisure aspects of life are satisfied for more people. If we get rid of everything than class consciousness will come back.

    • burritoboy

      And Greece has a long history of actual Marxism, and had an actually powerful and influential Communist party well within living memory (the older members of Syriza are often veterans of the Greek Communist Party, which has declined substantially as Syriza grew)!

  • stryx

    I just read two articles by Sarah Kessler at FastCompany about worker futures in the gig economy.

    Talk about individual atomization vs the system.

    She also referenced a Vice/Propublica half-hour video from last fall Permanently Temporary.

    In both forms, the stories are the same: the workers understand that they have the freedom to accept what is offered and keep their mouth shut if they know what’s good for them.

    • Brett

      I’m not sold on the “gig economy” argument yet. What we know about job growth since 2010 is that it’s much more narrowly sector-based. Part-Time employment in a number of sectors has gone up while overall the vast majority of jobs created since 2010 were full-time jobs.

      And even among Part-Time workers, only about a third of them want full-time jobs. It sucks that they can’t get them yet, but they might be able to as the economy improves.

      EDIT: Still a good article, though. And it raises the possibility of the workers owning the platforms themselves.

      • stryx

        I’m not sure that gig=part-time, or that temp workers=part-time, or that full-time job growth since 2010 is the right way to measure anything since that was the year of the peak spread between full- and part-time, or that third you describe are actually underemployed full-timers and not actually people who are the subject of the Sarah Keller articles.

        But aside from that I totally agree.

        Especially the part about the exploitation of the poorly documented immigrants keeping a damper on the wage growth of the full-time temporary workers.

  • Lee Rudolph

    I never met anybody from Iowa that identified with the Confederacy for instance.

    And you went to college there, right?

    I wonder what jim has to say about this.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      otto apparently didn’t get out much

      • J. Otto Pohl

        It was over twenty years ago as well.

  • Bruce B.

    This part bugs me, because of what I think is a stupid personal bit of classist bias on someone’s part, whether it’s Fraser or the reviewer: 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.

    In my part of the country and economy, there are a lot of folks who will never, ever be driving a Prius, and very unlikely to ever be sending their kids to charter schools. Some can, yes; some will be able to in the future. But lots won’t. Those who acquiesce and slip into political quietude do so partly because of that never-will condition – they see, probably correctly, that there’s no viable prospect for getting a qualitatively better future even if they set out to make a career of political effort, and sometimes the marginal improvements obtainable just don’t seem worth bothering with.

    It bugs me, a lot, to see people down in the bottom 80% or so repeatedly tarred with possible vices and failings that only the top 20%, or 10%, or 1% can even indulge in in the first place. It feels like a bunch of this is hold-over yuppie bashing from thirty-plus years ago, not so much a reaction to the present realities that (it sounds like) Fraser has a good handle on in other regards. It’s a bit of that “writing by the phrase” that Orwell productively nailed in “Politics and the English Language”. But really, a critique that assumes that the politically inactive are all of aiming to be consumers of stuff that cost years’ worth of their actual incomes is…self-diminishing in a way it doesn’t need to be.

  • UserGoogol

    Looking at things in terms of capitalism versus not-capitalism seems too black and white, anyway. We have a mixed economy. So did Vladimir Lenin, so did Grover Cleveland. The space between those options isn’t about taking power, (although certainly power is involved in the process) but different public policy choices.

    And without being anti-capitalist per se, “Scandinavian-style Social Democracy” (with varying degrees of utopianism mixed in to taste) is certainly an alternative which seems to have quite a lot of popularity on the left-of-center.

    • Left of center and the left is not the same thing.

      • UserGoogol

        No, but I think it’s worthwhile to group together the capital-L Left with the center-left in this case. Some people look to the Nordic model as just free markets with a strong welfare state, and are happy with that, while others might carry it to a more full-throated social-democracy-to-democratic-socialism, with the role of unions and government in the economy and extending the universal welfare state strong enough to be an alternative to labor altogether. It’s easy enough to twist the knob from slightly-more-left-than-the-status-quo to radical socialism.

  • cgordon

    Consumerism and mass media = bread and circus.

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