Tuesday, April 14, 2015

So It Ain't Just Me?

Via my FaceBook existence, a "friend" recommends a review by Naomi Klein of Steve Fraser’s The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power in the NYT's Review of Books. Read it with me and see if you can't find similarities to my constant carping and bitching and internet whining for decades now!
Fraser, a labor historian, argues that deepening economic hardship for the many, combined with “insatiable lust for excess” for the few, qualifies our era as a second Gilded Age. But while contemporary wealth stratification shares much with the age of the robber barons, the popular response does not.
As Fraser forcefully shows, during the first Gilded Age — which he defines loosely as the years between the end of the Civil War and the market crash of 1929 — American elites were threatened with more than embarrassing statistics. Rather, a “broad and multifaceted resistance” fought for and won substantially higher wages, better workplace conditions, progressive taxation and, ultimately, the modern welfare state (even as they dreamed of much more).
What ­fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.
It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.
Klein faults Fraser for spending too much time detailing the myths of modern capitalism that sustain its hegemony in contemporary culture, and not enough time proposing solutions of his own, or of giving voice to the leaders of current protest movements:
This need not have been the case. Fraser spares only a few short paragraphs for those movements that are attempting to overcome the obstacles he documents — student-debt resisters, fast-food and Walmart workers fighting for a living wage, regional campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour or the various creative attempts to organize vulnerable immigrant workers. We hear absolutely nothing directly from the leaders of these contemporary movements, all of whom are struggling daily with the questions at the heart of this book.
I'd like to venture forth with a slice of personal philosophy. If Fraser is neglecting the current crop of activists, it might be because they seem so insignificant in the present context, and, also, lacking in thorough-going analysis of the problems and what's required.

Student-debt resisters: On the face of it, they want their loans forgiven or at least reduced, and they want lower tuitions. How much of this is based on a rejection of, or challenge to, the overall status-quo? 

Campaigns to raise the minimum wage: On the face of it, they accept the premise of wage employment and state regulation of these employment relations.

Organizing immigrant workers: On the face of it, this doesn't explicitly challenge capitalism either. 

How many of the movements today, Occupy, environmentalism, peace, feminism, accept the liberal-capitalist status-quo in its entirety and only imagine that "fairness" and "justice" can be introduced to it if only elites are educated, or shamed, into acknowledging the need for them?

But if Fraser sees today's protest movements as insufficient and insignificant, I would suggest that the same was true for much of the protest movements of the past. Things were worse for a greater majority of people (at least within the core, industrialized countries) than is the case for the majority in these societies at present. Therefore the movements were larger and more militant. But how many Luddites had an analysis beyond their own issues and experiences? (And I don't mean this to be condescending. It would be entirely understanding if people living without access to information and without having had travel opportunities to anywhere beyond fifty miles of where they'd been born, would be ignorant of wider forces and larger contexts. It's also possible that there was a rich and sophisticated oral culture of understanding of the European culture and resistance to it among the poor.)

How many Eastern European sojourners consciously embraced the anarchist principles of the IWW? How many members of communist trade unions had read and agreed with Marx and Engels? How many people went to the radicals for assistance with their own problems and ignored them for most of the rest of the time? (In poor neighbourhoods in US cities during the Great Depression, when landlords came to evict tenants, the local communists would send members to put furniture back into apartments and face-down the landlords employees, or even local sheriffs. "Kids! Go get the Reds!" mothers would shout when the eviction squads showed up.)

We celebrate this "culture of resistance" from the peasant rebellions, the Diggers and the Levelers, the Luddites, the slave revolts, the union movements, the French Revolution, Russia, China, Cuba, the Zapatistas, 1848, etc., etc., ... but how much influence did they actually have? Perhaps they're important evidence of the human struggle for justice throughout the ages, but they might also be that and nothing more.

Because, as Thomas Piketty recently argued, it appears that the only time that the level of social inequality was genuinely reduced in the capitalist countries was in the aftermath of the self-inflicted crises of the great wars and the great depression. 

It's true that there was a vibrant labour movement pushing for mass unionization, but how much did they depend upon contributing factors. The electoral appeal of pro-union policies helped produce relatively pro-union politicians, the Labour Party in Great Britain and FDR administration that produced the Wagner Act in the USA, especially. Together with the need for full production for World War II, and the political-economists' realization that mass production in peacetime required mass consumption from an affluent majority, produced the great compromise from 1945-1973.

In at least a small way, both Klein and Fraser attribute too much to the protest movements of the pre- and post-1945 eras. They were and are important, but they were not, are not, and will not, be sufficient to challenge the power of capitalism.

I have argued that we have inherited from the struggles for human rights and freedoms, including from the so-called "bourgeois" revolutions, important tools for our ultimate emancipation. I do not, I have NEVER, imagined that we have genuine democracy or that capitalism under social democracy is the best we can hope to achieve. But I think it's the height of incoherence, I think it's astonishingly stupid, to believe, as many radicals do, that it's all a ridiculous sham, and that only total refusal and total destruction of all that is, will be what is necessary to bring on the promised land. 

I think that the mewling liberals, social democrats, centre-leftists of all stripes, are wrong in thinking that we can construct a more humane capitalism, and I think the radicals are wrong and deluded in believing we will have a genuine revolution and that afterwards, we can construct a society more in line with our ideas in some ad hoc fashion. (Just as Marxist-Leninists were wrong in thinking there was a blueprint for revolution that needed to be followed, and could be followed.)

We should cherish our quasi-democratic inheritance. Respect it and work to make it a genuine democracy. And part of this is the expansion of human rights of workers within their workplaces via "Workers as Citizens." Because it is the power of private wealth that contaminates our democracies and prevents their further development. Inserting human rights into workplaces will, in the end, eviscerate this unjust concentration of wealth and power. And this is all to be achieved via the present quasi-democratic system that we have now and that most people either believe in, or can imagine no alternative to.

Of course, gentle readers, you're free to continue beseeching the powerful to treat people better, or expressing your rage by breaking a store window somewhere, ... but I just don't see much resulting from the continuation of such nonsense.


Steve said...

Its all the pwoer of madison ave.. or is it fifth ave, the gucci gultch or Kennibuckport in general.

thwap said...


Excellent point. "Public Relations" was only invented in the 1920s. The brain-washing campaign of capitalism has become far more pervasive and sophisticated with every passing decade.