March 2015

James Orbesen

nonfiction

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser

Not too long ago, President Obama paid a visit to my, and his, hometown, to bestow landmark status on Pullman, a neighborhood on the far South Side of Chicago. This used to be a model community, built for the workers employed by George Pullman, the railcar magnate. It was a town meant to smooth over the roiling class conflict that dominated so much of late nineteenth-century America.

Antagonisms would be settled, subsumed really, by the benevolent paternalism of the wealthy Pullman. Feudal in nature, the occupants of this company town depended not only on Pullman for their jobs, but for the food on their tables and the roofs over their heads. It isn't surprising the boss had the moniker of "the Duke."

Of course, this experiment in parochial industrialism didn't reach the high expectations attached to it. The world has a funny way of doing that. Pullman erupted into one of the most famous labor showdowns in American history. So, with Obama's visit to sanctify the neighborhood as a national historic landmark, a status that makes it simultaneously hallowed, preserved, and dead, it seems only fitting that Steve Fraser's The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power arrived around the same time.

Fraser charts how the economic calamities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were met with mass protest, unionization drives, and militant resistance. To that history, Fraser holds up the example of the present, where the recent and ongoing economic disruptions elicited the opposite. Instead of fomenting a desire for progress, to get beyond the calamities of our current system, the wider culture largely shrugged. This lack of vision largely mirrors, Fraser claims, how "[N]ational politics over the last half century has polarized between efforts to defend and restore the New Deal order, and relentless attempts to repeal it and replace it with something even older."

That's not to say the issues aren't in plain sight. With income and wealth inequality periodically dominating headlines, trotted out whenever it's useful for political gain, Fraser's work drops between peaks in the conversation. The energies of Occupy Wall Street and the 2012 election have subsided, while we rev up for the impending 2016 election, when those themes will make an inevitable return. What Fraser's concerned with, however, is why the demands for economic fairness seem to be so slack. Not from political leaders or pundits, which is obvious, but from the rank-and-file citizens who labor under a stacked system.

The source of this lethargy, for Fraser, is traced to capitalism infiltrating our political culture, colonizing it, thereby "[N]arrowly circumscribing what is allowable and thereby what is verboten in public debate, what is legitimate and what is outré, what is to be taken seriously and what is to be coolly dismissed. It invokes the sounds of silence without gagging anyone." Aldous Huxley's vision of the future has come (partially) true: coercion via consent.

We are all capitalists now, Fraser argues. Our drive, our appetite, really, for freedom, economic and personal, has led to where:

All have become free agents -- free, that is, of the security of tenure, retirement income, health care, vacation days, sick days, holidays, and any possibility of effectively voicing their displeasure in the workplace. Employers large and small are thereby also freed of legal obligation to pay into Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment insurance accounts, to respect wage and hour laws, or to pay workmen's compensation.

We're free, but to do what? It seems we're also free of certainty. Or of hope.

Fraser's lengthy account is detailed but not exhaustive. Historical events mount the stage and fade away just as quickly as the author weaves together disparate episodes in labor history and the surrounding culture that made such actions possible, even welcomed. The culture surrounding the Pullman Strike, the succession of economic downturns, is given generous page real estate while bigger marquee events, like World War One or the Great Depression, receive a breezy summary. In a way, this is a history not of dates or events but of people and cultures, the resistance to capitalism, and the apathy resulting from its victory, the flag planted firmly in the American collective consciousness.

This fast and loose approach can lead to some questionable mythologizing, such as when Fraser looks back to a not quite believable past:

After all, from the outset Americans had displayed an easily irritated edginess toward any sign of political, social, or economic pretension. Aristocrats had never been welcome here. No plutocrats or oligarchs need apply either. [...] Elitism, wherever and whenever it showed itself, had always been greeted with a truculent contempt.

Fraser often gets the spirit right, if not always the reality. But perhaps he's aiming to detail the contradictions inherent in this very confusing country. Passages rhapsodizing our fairytale roots, layered with egalitarian and democratic ideals, are followed by ones that are a bit more grounded: "Arguably, America is and always has been a business civilization through and through, ready to tolerate high degrees of inequality, exploitation, and lopsided distributions of social and political influence."

If this tension and contradiction sometimes gives Fraser the appearance of an equally contradictory naïve realist, when he turns his attention to the present, to our current condition in the wake of the 2008 Crash and the Great Recession, his tongue becomes sharper and more indignant, condemning, even: "How much sorrier is it when a culture is so coarsened that it looks at legions of casualties and without batting an eye dismisses them as 'losers.'"

Kafka once claimed there was hope, but not for us. Fraser seems to echo that sentiment. Although not a cynic or overcome with hopelessness, he nonetheless paints a bleak picture. This is compounded by the comparison between past and present and how much sorrier we seem when held up to our forbearers.

Indeed, it seems we're an entirely different species. A few generations ago, broad swathes of America united in opposition, brotherhood, community, and the occasional utopian dream. Now, to question the order of things is to be labeled "unserious," or (gasp!) a Marxist. Moochers, keep on moving. It's apt to invoke The Metamorphosis. We've changed and become something not quite human.

Though utilizing a focus unconventional for a history text and closing on bittersweet notes, The Age of Acquiescence is an engaging, thoughtful, and, at times, inspirational read. Through past examples of resistance, Fraser demonstrates that other avenues are available to us, even though they might be relics of the past. It's not inconsequential that this past wave of resistance came at a time of the American frontier's closing. Now, when it seems that all other horizons are off limits, that there is no other choice but what's before us, Fraser reminds us that it wasn't always so, nor should it be.

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316185431
480 pages