The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Steve Fraser) - The title purports to answer a question I've been wondering for half my life, namely: why the fuck is everyone just okay with the fact that all our lives are actively being ruined by an openly malevolent and criminal plutocracy? Where are the mass demonstrations, the radical organizations, the violent protests, anything at all? Any tiny hint of class consciousness, any sign whatsoever that people are angry that their quality of life is being annihilated in front of their eyes by a tiny cabal of morally empty ruling class sociopaths? Or if you want to take a more dispassionate structural view, through a less individualized lens, the picture is still the same: the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, wages are stagnating or declining, life expectancy is going down, rents are going up, student loans are going up, everything is getting more expensive, working hours are either staying the same or lengthening, job security is worsening, unions have disappeared, suicide and drug abuse are rising, gun violence is rising, loneliness is rising because our social lives are becoming more atomized, the police are state-sanctioned thugs who murder people in the streets for giving them attitude, climate change is barreling down on us, five companies own our media, one evil megacorp owns all our entertainment, the general structure of our society is getting more predatory and exploitative and cruel, and everything is getting worse. Ever since the seventies everything has been on a downward trend. Why is the American public just taking all this? Not only are we not doing anything, there's little sign that many people even want to do anything. We elected Donald Trump and next we're going to elect Joe Biden. A billionaire child rapist just got nerfed in a high-security prison cell right before he was going to rat out members of the ruling class for raping children, and we all talked about it for like two days, and that was it? Revolution, to put it mildly, is not exactly in the air. What happened, did we just give up?
In the thirties and forties there was mass revolutionary consciousness everywhere. Unions, communist and socialist parties, wildcat strikes, go down the list. The rich ruined everybody's lives, and people were rightly pissed off about it, and they actually tried to do something about it. FDR had to almost break the capitalist class in half just to get people to calm down. Before that, in the late 1800s during the time of the robber barons, there was the same thing. Strikes and riots. The Knights of Labor. The Pullman strike. The Populist Movement. Massive nationally recognized organizations calling for workers to own the means of production and the end of wage labor. Now the only recent flashpoints have been the rise and immediate fizzling out of Occupy Wall Street and the campaign of Bernie Sanders. That's it. We live in a second Gilded Age, very similar to the first one, with one crucial difference: people were actually angry during the first one. So why aren't they now?
This book takes a stab at answering. It actually offers several speculative hypotheses, but none of them are really persuasive. The first, most compelling one, is that the first Gilded Age happened when industrial capitalism and mass wage slavery were still scary and new, and very wrenching and disruptive to traditional ways of life. Production was then largely an agrarian and household affair, not organized by industrialists and oil barons and whatnot for private profit. Financialization also expanded to put small farmers in debt to distant unseen bankers during industrial capitalism's violent gestation period. So there was a fairly brand-new problem with fairly brand-new and clear villains. Now we have more than a century of industrial capitalism at our backs and it's not scary anymore. Our new Gilded Age isn't particularly wrenching or disruptive, just kind of slowly and imperceptibly corrosive in a frog-in-a-boiling-pot sort of way. Our way of lives aren't radically changing, just getting worse, so our resistance is slower. The second one is that we don't even know, precisely, who the ruling class even is anymore, which I find amusingly stupid, but might have a grain of truth. In the last few decades we've been misled by everyone from tech-bro entrepreneurs to high-rising celebrity criminal investment bankers marketing themselves as anti-establishment rebels to right-wing populists to finger the "ruling class" as mid-level government bureaucrats sticking their noses where they don't belong and cosmopolitan "limousine liberals" rather than billionaires and Wall Street moguls and defense contractors, and the shift from capitalism from a largely industrial mode to a largely financialized mode, which makes it a bit more opaque and ephemeral, has made outlining the problems more difficult and the villains less clear-cut. The third explanation is that we've all been pacified by unprecedented material abundance, which doesn't really work since the first Gilded Age was marked by unprecedented material abundance as well. In fact that was kind of the point of the era - material prosperity for many coupled with radically unjust and severely predatory hierarchies in wealth and power. There are some other points he touches on - the demoralizing effect of the death of the labor movement, how languishing in debt has allowed people to keep up the pretensions of living a middle class lifestyle for decades, how neoliberalism has slowly strangled our collective imagination so that we can't conceive of a world structurally different from this one, and above all how the massive rise in consumerism has kept up the illusion of freedom and dignity among Americans by giving them a dizzying smorgasbord of meaningless choices and material goods, with the ruling class even managing to tie the American Dream to it, and so on - but those are the basic three as far as I can tell.
I don't know, maybe that is the big answer. Doesn't seem enough to me, but I might be expecting too much. After all, humans have been remarkably pliant to coercive and self-evidently unjust structures of authority for a long time, long before capitalism. People are okay with being subjugated as long as they think there are other people who are being subjugated worse, or if they get to entertain fantasies of themselves doing the subjugating someday. It's more emotionally compelling to have one grand unifying explanation than a bunch of small disparate ones that add up, but less realistic, so I'll take it.
About the book itself, it's fine. Nothing you haven't really heard. Like none of these explanations you can't work out yourself. It's basically a whistlestop tour of American history, an engaging and passionate mix of historical analysis with polemic in the same manner as Howard Zinn or Chris Hedges or Chomsky. He weaves through different focal points, applying varying degrees of analytical heft to each, attempting to connect them in multiple ways, writing passionately, but extremely overwroughtly. Not sure I would recommend it. It's really really fucking long and only intermittently incisive. It's engaging, but incredibly overwritten and stuffed with unnecessarily fancy vocabulary; very dense in history and information if not ideas or insights, and it doesn't attempt to answer the subtitle until the last two chapters.