Alternately hilarious, lucid and disturbing in its documenting of contemporary complacency, the book looks at the intense opposition to capital in the original Gilded Age and contrasts it with the silence today. It concludes discussing the 21st century versions of the Horatio Alger myth — the heroic billionaire, “the fable of the free agent” and “the folklore of limousine liberalism.” Fraser, a regular contributor to Tomdispatch.com and co-founder of The American Empire Project, spoke to us from New York.
In the historical section of your book — most of which takes place in the decades after the Civil War, as industrial capitalism and the Wall Street financiers were really getting going — I was amazed how much organized resistance, anti-plutocrat rhetoric and even violence there was from workers back then. Do most of us assume that other countries have a history of resistance, but that the U.S. has generally been more pliant?
Yes, I do think that most people have that impression. I think one reason they do is rooted in both myth and reality. The myth is of course the myth of the American Dream, that America has always provided vast opportunities for people to start over, start anew, and to move, you know, upward mobility. There’s a lot of truth to that myth. A lot of people came from impoverished circumstances from around the world and they did improve their lives or at least those of their children. So I think that encourages the idea that there probably was very little conflict in America, class against class, haves against have-nots, as compared to other places in the Western world or Western Europe.
But as a matter of fact, in terms of sheer violence — and that’s hardly the measure of resistance, but it’s one measure — the American social landscape in the late nineteenth century was far more violent, filled with violent confrontations between not only workers and their industrial employers, but also between farmers and their relationship with the major banking and agricultural machinery interests and so on. America has, I think we can all agree, always been a kind of violent culture, but class violence was typical of America to a degree in the nineteenth century that it wasn’t true, say, of Western Europe at the time.
The U.S. was founded the same year Adam Smith published “The Wealth of Nations.” It was just about the time the first factories in and around Manchester, England started billowing smoke. We assume that the U.S. is the offspring of industry and capitalism, but that’s not entirely true. There are other impulses and other kinds of lineages in the American identity and American history.
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Yes. First of all, America begins as an underdeveloped country when Adam Smith writes his book. The country revolts and a few years later wins its revolution and begins its life as an independent nation. It’s an underdeveloped, agrarian, non-industrial nation. There’s a handful of factories that begin around the turn of the nineteenth century like in Lowell, Massachusetts. But America is mainly an agrarian place, and a very egalitarian place. I don’t mean merely in credo and belief, which it was, but also in the condition of its population.
What Jefferson, for example, feared was that America might, if it weren’t careful, become like Europe already was, that is to say a society of haves and have-nots, of urban squalor, of great inequalities and so on. So his hope for America is premised on the notion that there’s this vast territorial landscape out there which can provide independent homesteads for Americans so that they won’t become slavish proletarians, they won’t become dependent. So the vision of America in the early years, even up to the Civil War, is one that does not necessarily entail urbanism, industrialism, or the kinds of social class inequalities that were already becoming apparent in Europe. But that prospect was feared by people like Jefferson and others.
The main argument of your book is that during the long nineteenth century and especially the first Gilded Age, there was significant resistance to capitalism, to industry, to inequality, and that somehow that faded away when the second Gilded Age kicked in more recently. I wonder if it seems important that in the nineteenth century, Americans still had a memory of an agrarian or artisan kind of world that had been washed away by capitalism, but the psychology of those earlier forms weren’t completely gone. By contrast, by the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, we simply don’t have any kind of memory of what a pre-capitalist world was like. Is that significant?
Yes, to me it’s vitally significant to the argument of my book. It’s more than memory. What we need to realize is that because America was for many decades a pre-industrial society, even while it was beginning the process of industrialization, people weren’t really remembering there were in fact independent farmers, there were in fact handy craftsmen and artisans, there were in fact small businessmen serving local economies, there were in fact immigrant peasants from Southern, Eastern Europe who knew a kind of village life that was quite different from the world that they were about to enter in America.
The argument in my book is that one of the reasons, perhaps the principal reason, why there is such concerted resistance to capitalism tout court, this new way of life — we need to remember than that it was a new way of life — was because on the one hand it threatened to destroy their older forms of existence, or as you put it their traditions and memories they had of those older ways of life, moral economies, one not entirely subject to the marketplace, one that lent them a certain independence which proletarianization deprived them of; they were threatened with a kind of existential extinction.
And on the other hand, they knew that capitalism was not a fate, was not an inevitability, was not the way the world was necessarily meant to be because they had either lived or had memories or had parents or grandparents who had kin networks abroad who were living very differently. That doesn’t mean that they were enjoying their former lives. I don’t mean that those lives were a kind of paradise, but it gave them a measuring rod to say, wait a second now, this world of the market, of sweatshop labor, of 12-hour days in a steel mill, or down in a coal mine, of child labor, of all those kinds of things, this is not necessarily the way the world needs to be. So it gave them a kind of implicit indictment of that capitalism.
And as you put it the vanishing of those memories and those actual ways of life meant that the horizon about what was possible and not possible in the late twentieth century began to close in on us, where we began to feel, well, the market is the only real way to organize.
Those rebels and agitators in the first Gilded Age that you write about, were they opposed to capitalism itself and able to articulate some kind of alternative, or were they upset about some set of local abuses that they hoped to reform or overturn?
I think the answer is both. They were enormously aroused by all kinds of very specific grievances. For instance, the eight-hour day movement which comes to life in 1886 and sweeps across the country is on the one hand a movement which wants to reduce the hours of industrial labor — and that’s a very practical measure. But the eight-hour day movement was simultaneously an indictment of the whole industrial order, which didn’t seem able to grant that kind of civilized reform, that instead insisted that labor had to earn its keep in whatever the employer demanded. So that you had people who were aroused and radical both because of very specific grievances, whether it was child labor, or being evicted from their family farm out on the Great Plains, or working down in a coal mine and having their leg amputated — the rate of industrial accidents in America was enormous — but at the same time, they saw all these things in a more general framework.
And it isn’t just radicals and agitators, it’s novelists and poets, preachers. The Protestant church was split down the middle. It envisioned what they used to call the Social Gospel, which was a Christian Commonwealth. The Knights of Labor, which was a mass labor movement talked about the cooperative commonwealth, was a new kind of society that would replace “dog-eat-dog” capitalism. There were a lot of visions. There was socialism, of course. There were a lot of different competing visions; the point is they all were all striving for something other than the market/laissez-faire/Darwinian order that they were being subjected to.
The historian Jon Wiener wrote, in his review of your book, that after the working class stopped talking about class struggle, the financial class doubled down on class struggle and began winning big. So he sees part of the issue, I think, as a failure of nerve on the part of the left and the labor movement. Do you think that’s fair to say?
Well, I think that’s a complicated question. One must always recognize, even in our own age, and certainly back during the First Gilded Age, that the element of fear, and real legitimate fear, plays a role. If you want to talk about today, the One Percent, corporate America has become powerful in part because as the country has industrialized, the wherewithal for resisting the power of organized wealth has diminished.
The unions that were formed in the nineteenth century, and of course culminating during the New Deal during the 1930s, are a pale shadow of what they once were. They used to provide a defense mechanism. Without them, it’s harder, it’s dangerous, it’s very risky. Let’s say you’re an undocumented immigrant worker, which makes up 12 million people in the American economy, at super exploitative wages. They’re working for employers who they know are violating every wage and hour law on the books. But if you’re one of those people, are you going to have the courage to stand up and report your employer? Maybe not; you’re risking deportation. So fear plays a real role in this. The National Labor Relations Act, which presumably gave people the right to organize, has steadily been whittled away by Congress over the years, and especially Republican presidents over the last 25 years. So in a variety of ways, fear is part of the picture.
To what extent is the ‘60s notion of personal freedom or liberation part of the acquiescence problem, or at least part of the fragmenting of resistance? It sort of turned into consumerism, didn’t it?
I think it did. I think there was, pardon the expression, a dialectic at work. What began as a kind of liberatory impulse, and, for instance in the case of feminism, identified the family and the patriarchal family in particular as the site of a very intimate, personal oppression, and that one had to open up this private zone to private scrutiny in order to liberate women. And the whole counter-culture, which began to talk about personal liberation, some of which defied the kind of repressiveness and inhibition that had characterized life up until then, came into the hands of corporate America as a way of mining that psyche through the avenues of consumer culture.
So private rather than social emancipation becomes the goal, and you can achieve that emancipation in a thousand ways in the marketplace. You can achieve it in your fantasy life. You can achieve it in a variety of ways; corporate America became so sensitive to it that it was even prepared to make fun of itself if it could find a niche market that would buy into that ironic advertising. All corporate America cares about — they’re amoral, I don’t mean anti-moral, just amoral — all that matters is the bottom line.
What role did the Reagan revolution play in all this, the social-cultural changes like money worship, celebrity worship, that sort of thing?
Well, I think the Reagan era is obviously crucial. It’s a turning point in the history of resistance turning into acquiescence. Part of that is what you allude to, just to be very practical-minded about it; the administration practically begins with the breaking of the air-traffic controller strike, which was the signal to all of industrial and corporate America that it was open warfare on unions, kind of the green light to do that.
And of course there was this transvaluation of values. You had a free market during the era of the New Deal that had been constrained by various social and state inhibitions. Under Reagan, we begin to buy into the notion that freedom and the free market are the same thing, and that the way to unleash that freedom is to deregulate the whole economic arena, which gave license to… we began to worship the big financiers, the titans of finance, the Michael Milkens, the Carl Icahns, the Ivan Boeskys, the “greed is good” world, because they became the paragons. They became the pioneers of a new kind of market freedom. And we began to treat them, and the media began to treat them, as kind of savants, as gurus, as heroes, which was very different from the way the culture had treated them a hundred years earlier.
How significant or consequential, at least in the medium run, was the Occupy movement? It seems the Tea Party is the more powerful of the populist (or faux populist) movements that popped up.
There’s no question the Tea Party, whatever else one might say about it, must be credited with being durable, having sustained itself over an extended period of time, engaged in national organization. I don’t think it’s entirely a creature of a handful of dynastic businessmen. I think it’s more deeply rooted than that.
Occupy Wall Street was more ephemeral. On the other hand, it was enormously important. My book opens with a reference to OWS because although organizationally it vanished rather quickly, it did, as people said at the time, change the conversation, at least for awhile. Suddenly, what had been apparent for decades, that is to say the dominance of the “1 percent,” the gross distribution of wealth and income and political power in the country suddenly became, thanks to Occupy (it’s not entirely to Occupy) a topic of national, and for that matter international, conversation and debate. It was a rather ephemeral movement without deep roots among working people, which I argue is the only way, not that it’s easy to have done that. I don’t blame Occupy for not having done that. It’s not easy. But I think the only way Occupy could have grown was to find avenues into work-a-day America where that message also resonated.
We live in a kind of faux democracy right now, which is why everyone’s so cynical and nobody votes. We’re only interested in politics as a form of personal gossip, because the system seems to be immune to popular sentiment about a variety of things. I think the feeling of widespread hostility to the business and financial community is clear after the crash of 2008. But it never registered inside these political parties because they’re so beholden to those same corporate financial interests.
One form of acquiescence is a kind of abdication: Why bother? Nothing’s going to change. Even though polls will again and again show that people have various sentiments in favor of extending social welfare, universal health care and so on and so forth, none of this ever makes its way into the halls of Congress.
But anyway, to get back to your point, I think Occupy may have been a straw in the wind. Even if it didn’t itself persevere, there are other signs of restiveness in the country which I briefly allude to in my book, which may in the years ahead give rebirth to the kind of anti-capitalism that I talk about in the nineteenth century.
These are small signs. But I think one of the bigger ones is the environmental movement. After all, the environmental movement is certainly an exception to the rule that I’m laying down, that we live in an Age of Acquiescence. The environmental movement has lasted for decades. It’s grown; it’s grown in the teeth of having won very little. That might be a measure of its failure. But normally when movements fail they collapse. The environmental movement has, on the contrary, grown. I think, increasingly, people may see that capitalism, at least as presently constituted, and a sustainable environment are incompatible.
I think because there also is a kind of growing cynicism about democracy being kind of a faux democracy that people may conclude that what Mark Twain talked about in the nineteenth century of what we call today “crony capitalism” is so profoundly subverting democracy that they may have had enough. I think also this immigrant population is a volcano ready to explode. Not only do these people often have to live furtively and under the radar, but increasingly they work in an economy in which the sweatshop has become the norm, not an aberration, but the norm. Their combined need both to be recognized as citizens, as fully participating members of American society, and their super-exploitation at work may erupt sooner than people anticipate.
A counter-force to everything you’re talking about is American tradition that runs from the Horatio Alger stories to “Joe the Plumber” to Silicon Valley dreams, that I may not be wealthy now, but riches are just around the corner for me, so I need to protect their interests. How does that function in American society and does it seem to be lacking or waning these days?
I think that’s critical. I think it’s indigenous in the American make-up. It’s been here since the beginning, since the founding of the country. As I indicated earlier, it’s a promise that has been in part fulfilled over the course of the country’s history and it has enormously alluring power and it keeps reemerging in American culture and American life. For instance, in the last 20 years, before the great crash, when everybody was in love with Wall Street, it was Wall Street R Us. It wasn’t just a place where those big guys were going to get rich, but us day traders were going get rich too. We were all going to make it. And I think this notion of self-invention, self-creation, of self-reliance is a very powerful inducement to people, and contributes to this, it keeps the dream alive.
The Tea Party is a very funny movement. If you remember, they denounced the bank bailouts. I think one of the reasons they do that is they aren’t exactly fond of big business, but they are fond of business — that is to say, they want the opportunities themselves to become small and medium-sized businessmen; they value that as a way of life. But they resent the wealthy corporations and big banks that sometimes are their enemies. I think that dream of “I can make it on my own” thrives in the Tea Party, and gives it real roots. That’s what I said before; I think it’s a kind of family capitalism that gives it life in America.
The populist left from the nineteenth century was united largely by economic concerns. What passes for a North American left these days is heavily anchored in academia, and is largely oriented around race, ethnicity and gender. How does that change the picture?
In a way it’s the inverse of the subtitle of my book. What has happened since the New Deal and what I would I call the New Deal Extended in the civil rights movement and the feminist movement and so on, is that the rights revolution has spread widely and with great benefit obviously to African-Americans and to women and others. But what happened in the course of that is that the attention, the focus on organized wealth and the power of that organized wealth, has largely dropped out of the picture.
Also what happened, thanks to that rights revolution, partly in response to it, partly inherent in it, was a kind of identity politics which was understandable, but also shifted the focus away from the kinds of power blocs I’m talking about, and produced a certain kind of fragmentation. After all, the notion of identity politics is to say the primary reference group is not some broad economic class or social class, be it cultural, or racial, or gender-defined sub-groups. It’s very easy to understand where that identity politics came from. It’s also (easy) to take the measure of what it cost in terms of unifying people against the power blocs of our kind of neo-liberal, financially-driven economic world.
I wonder if you’re getting “swift-boated” yet as the book’s argument gets out there. You know, “he hates our freedom” “Fraser’s a communist,” that kind of thing?
I’ll tell you a funny story; the only one I know about is a well-known radio show that gets no call-ins, but it has a Web page. After the show the producer told me this story that the first guy to write in described me as a “another neo-Bolshevik scribbler.” I kind of like that. I did take offense at the word “another,” that he thought I was so common. But in a perverse kind of way it amused me because it was a return to a language that has gone out of existence, that language of plutocrats and class struggle and so on.
Scott Timberg, a longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the new book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."
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