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Field Notes In Conversation

STEVE FRASER with Gary Roth

Gary Roth (Rail): Your new book, The Age of Acquiescence (Little, Brown and Company, 2015), describes two major periods of wealth acquisition in the United States—the Gilded Age of the late 1800s and the current “Age of Acquiescence.” What do these two periods have in common?

Steve Fraser: There are some clear similarities between the country’s two gilded ages. Both were characterized by historic inequality in the distribution of wealth and income. Both the “gay ’90s” and our own “second gilded age” engaged in conspicuous displays of extravagant wealth, a Marie Antoinette-like spectacle of self-regard and social callousness. Both were infamous for what in our own time has come to be known as “crony capitalism;” that is, an incestuous relationship between politicians and big business. Mark Twain’s first best-selling novel, which he co-wrote with Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), from which we derive this name, was all about this kind of profound corruption during the 1870s. During both gilded ages the institutions of democratic politics were hollowed out and subverted by the overwhelming power of money. Back in the 19th century the Senate was known as “the millionaires club,” a body representing corporations rather than people, a characterization that well fits Congress today. Other vital arteries of democracy, including the judiciary and the executive branch, were similarly compromised. In both gilded ages, elaborate ideological rationales justified this skewed distribution of wealth and power. Our ancestors were familiar with something called Social Darwinism. It argued that the dog-eat-dog nature of competitive capitalism mimicked the biological order, ensuring the survival of the fittest and therefore the general well-being of society. The modern version of that apologia is called meritocracy, the idea that the 1% have earned their place atop the social pyramid and are therefore best suited to run things, even after they’ve run things into the ground. For these reasons and others, many have assumed that the second gilded age is merely an echo of the first.

Rail: You mention some very striking differences between these two periods—between a period that produced “a gradual rise in the standard of living” and the current period of its “gradual erosion.” What is it that separates the current period from the pattern set over a century ago?

Fraser: The first gilded age, as your question suggests, was premised on the Industrial Revolution and the enormous growth of productivity. The second gilded age has instead rested on de-industrialization and the rise to preeminence of the financial sector in a process some call “financialization.” Moreover, these two processes—de-industrialization and financialization—are not parallel phenomena but instead depend on one another. That is to say, the financial sector grew at the expense of the bone and sinew of the industrial economy. All the leveraged buy-outs, junk bond purchases, mergers and acquisitions, speculations in collateralized debt obligations, “lean and mean” asset stripping, and so on that have characterized the economy of the “second gilded age” came at the expense of the “real” economy. That is why, as you note, the first gilded age, despite its vast inequalities and diverse forms of exploitation nonetheless produced a gradual rise in the standard of living and why the “dis-accumulation” or what I call in my book “auto-cannibalism” of the second gilded age has, instead, led to inexorable decline. It is my view that this is the understructure for what is perhaps the most striking difference between the two gilded ages: namely, that the first experienced concerted, multifarious forms of resistance—economic, political, and cultural—while by comparison the second gilded age has not elicited a similarly deep and enduring and mobilized fight back.

Rail: The great protest movements of the Gilded Age were prompted by a sense of loss—of land, of self-sufficiency, of community. What, ultimately, accounts for the defeat of these many resistances? Was there a specific event or occurrence that we can point to as signaling the transformation into the “age of acquiescence”? Or perhaps an overriding dynamic that ultimately eclipsed the population’s ability to think in terms of alternatives to the market economy?

Fraser: My argument is that the resistances (and I think it best to use the plural because there was no single resistance movement, but many, assaulting capitalism from various vantage points) were simultaneously existentially desperate, but for precisely that reason capable of imagining worlds other than the brutal industrial anti-civilization then being born in front of their eyes and at their expense. This was true of independent farmers, fishermen, handicraft workers, peasant villagers from southern and eastern Europe, petty businessmen tied to local economies, pockets of industrial artisans exercising a customary control over their work lives even inside giant factories, recently emancipated slaves finding themselves reduced to a new form of industrial peonage, and so on. They were threatened with going out of existence by the advent of the new industrial order which threatened to turn them into dependent proletarians (“wage slavery” was a commonly used term then, one we have long since grown embarrassed about using; a sign, I would argue of our “acquiescence”). These were people who had known other ways of earning a living, other ways of social organization that carried with them other moral codes at odds with industrial capitalism. For that reason every assault on their well-being (material as well as spiritual) could be seen as an indictment of capitalism. And because that capitalist way of life was something new, it was not accepted as inevitable, as man’s fate so to speak. I don’t think there’s any event or moment when all that changes and people suddenly become fatalistic. Indeed, what I try to grapple with in my book is the way that concerted resistance over the course of what I call “the long 19th century” (culminating in the era of the New Deal) made possible a more “civilized version” of capitalism (the welfare state, the right to organize unions, government regulation of business, etc.), but at the same time effaced the anti-capitalist alternatives that animated the resistance movements of the first gilded age.

Rail: I am intrigued by your use of the term “primitive accumulation” in the book. Marx used it to explain the accumulation of wealth and capital through means that pre-dated the industrial system. Your definition encompasses the accumulation of capital by the founding generation of the super-wealthy and all-powerful, the domineering industrialists and financiers who collectively ran the economy and government. Was it the “primitive” nature of this process, e.g., its harshness and brutality, that the protest movements of the late 19th century objected to primarily?

Fraser: This process of devouring pre-market forms of economic life—including those that may have had commercial relations with the marketplace, but were not defined by the accumulation of capital and the core use of wage labor—is what I mean by “primitive accumulation.” I don’t mean by the use of the word “primitive” to single out the harshness of the robber barons. Some were and some were not so harsh. George Pullman’s model town, for example, where Pullman cars were built, was designed to alleviate much of the bitterness and squalor that 19th-century industrial capitalism was infamous for (even though in the end the town exploded in 1894 in a violent strike that spread to the whole western half of the nation). I use the notion of “primitive accumulation” to point out that capitalism, here in the U.S. and everywhere it appears, does not erupt out of the ether. Rather it depends on an original accumulation of resources (labor especially, but also land and resources) previously locked away in other kinds of economies, whether in the hunting ecologies of Native Americans or in the independent homesteads of farmers on the Great Plains swept into the orbit of international trade and finance by their growing reliance on the Eastern and European banking establishments. And I use the term as well in a political sense, which Marx alluded to as well when he observed that this founding generation of American workers were apt to erupt in explosive resistance to the advent of the new industrial order, just as their British counterparts had.

Rail: You seem to set up a conflict between the rugged frontier of independent farmers and producers who saw the advent of the market system, with its railroads and trading depots, as an invasive and destructive force, and the urban working classes who, while they may object to substandard wages, crowded living conditions, and unhealthy neighborhoods, nonetheless welcomed the market system because of the great diversity of consumer goods that it potentially made available. You write that “wage labor […] became […] an avenue of freedom.” Is it the potential of consumption that leads to acquiescence?

Fraser: Actually, the formative era of industrial capitalism and the universalization of market relations seemed to promise for everybody, not only the urban working classes but farmers as well, both liberation and its opposite. The homely farm mortgage, for example, offers the chance to set up as a home- and land-owner, to realize at some modest level that dream of self-sufficiency. In the end, that dream turned into a tragic nightmare for many, but that is not to negate its allure or the fact that for some it did indeed work out. All the millions of barely surviving peasants fleeing the desiccated fields of southern Italy or eastern Europe for the factories and mills of the New World saw in that migration not only material opportunity, but escape from various forms of semi-feudal peonage, from the heavy hand of clerical or landlord domination or state absolutism. “Wage labor” is “free” insofar as it severs often-oppressive ties of deference to traditional overlords. And, after all, consumer goods were available, by mail order, to agrarian as well as urban consumers during the earlier gilded age. Nonetheless, despite those new material delights, tempers were boiling over both on the land and in city streets. I think consumer culture becomes far more pervasive and more potent as an agency of “acquiescence” during our more recent history where the market-place has colonized the most intimate recesses of our lives and where alternatives to a market conception of the human being have become ever rarer.

Rail: Rather than sharp class distinctions between rich and poor, the bourgeoisie and the working class, industrialists and the common people, we seem to live in a world defined by minute differentiations in which class-level generalizations blur the picture as much as clarify it. This reduction of everyone to the level of the individual: is this too part of the contemporary confusion?

Fraser: One essential result of this ubiquity of the market not only as the organizing principle of our economic behavior, but as the ne plus ultra of human identity is the erasure of social class. We are persuaded by all the forces of our precarious daily existence—by the shredding of the social safety net, for example, or by the threat of outsourcing jobs to the new, sweated proletariat of the global South, or by the “race to the top” hyper-competitiveness which even a presumably liberal president subscribes to, or by the drumbeat of a dominant ideology which conflates freedom with the free market of self-reliant individuals, or by the delusionary freedom that is supposed to accompany the “free agent” scouring the landscape for means of support, free of a reliable source of income, free of a means of retiring, free to work 24/7, free at last from every social entanglement, out there on the far horizon of “self-invention”—that, as Margaret Thatcher once put it: “There is no such thing as society.” There is only the solitary individual. So too consumer culture helps to efface class insofar as it invents an endless array of niche markets differentiated by the subtlest, most evanescent distinctions in taste and style. Indeed politics itself often becomes a politics of style where the old categories of class are submerged. Meanwhile, in real life the reign of the 1% endures.

Rail: Has Herbert Marcuse been a strong influence on your work? You seem to have historicized his “one-dimensional” human being, but where he relied on Marx and Freud for his explanations of contemporary trends, you stay rooted in actual historical developments, as if 1984 (1949) had been written by Marcuse rather than Orwell.

Fraser: I read Marcuse a long time ago and benefited from his insights, which, after all, were in their own way about the dynamics of acquiescence. But I would not say he’s been a strong influence on my work. He comes up in my book along with a number of other writers of the post-World War II era—people like Daniel Bell, John Kenneth Galbraith, David Riesman, Vance Packard, and others—who observed from different vantage points the sea-change in American life and culture which entailed the first signs that the “proletarian metaphysic”—which had long lent narrative trajectory and, if you will, metaphysical force to the social evolution of Western society—was being eclipsed. What was interesting to me was that although the work of all these people commanded great attention at the time, their work left little imprint on the political and social development of postwar America; and I say this even though Marcuse became a kind of guru for elements of the “New Left” in the 1960s. One Dimensional Man (1964) talked about the seductive nature of “false needs” on offer from the emporiums of American consumer culture, and that was echoed by Students for a Democratic Society and others at the time. But the antic counter-culture for which so much of the left felt an affinity was soon enough embraced by corporate America.

Rail: Is the modern age only an age of surrender? Alter-Globalization, Occupy, post-Ferguson: Is there still hope? Is it not yet the time to throw in the towel? You seem to gesture in this direction.

Fraser: I have spent my whole life in one way or another seeking ways to fight back. I am hardly prepared to throw in the towel, as you say. Critics of my book have complained, rightly I guess, about its grimness. But I would suggest that if someone sets out to write a book about the whys and wherefores of “acquiescence,” it’s not likely to be upbeat. And that is what I set out to do in my book. Nonetheless it gestures in the opposite direction, not only by talking about Occupy Wall Street in its opening lines, but returning at the end to mounting signs of resistance or potential resistance: the volcano that may be ready to explode out of the movement for immigrant rights, which happens to encompass the most super-exploited part of the population; the environmental movement, which has sustained itself and grown all through the “age of acquiescence,” even though it has precious few victories to show for it; the rolling series of strikes and other workplace uprisings at fast food chains, car washes, tomato fields, and elsewhere; the fledgling signs of a new urban populism apparently willing to more forthrightly challenge the reign of the 1%; and more. If we are still at the moment living in an age of acquiescence, I continue to adhere to the old Gramscian adage: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” 


Gary Roth

GARY ROTH is a former Vice Chancellor and Dean at Rutgers University-Newark, where he now teaches.

Steve Fraser

STEVE FRASER's latest book is The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (New York: Basic Books, 2016).


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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