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.