For two years running, Oxfam International has traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to make a request: Could the superrich kindly cease devouring the world’s wealth? And while they’re at it, could they quit using “their financial might to influence public policies that favor the rich at the expense of everyone else”?
In 2014, when Oxfam arrived in Davos, it came bearing the (then) shocking news that just 85 individuals controlled as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. This January, that number went down to 80 individuals.
Dropping this news in Davos is a great publicity stunt, but as a political strategy, it’s somewhat baffling. Why would the victors of a class war choose to surrender simply because the news is out that they have well and truly won? Oxfam’s answer is that the rich must battle inequality or they will find themselves in a stagnant economy with no one to buy their products. (Davos thought bubble: “Isn’t that what cheap credit is for?”)
Still, even if some of the elite hand-wringing about inequality is genuine, are reports really the most powerful weapons out there to fight for a more just distribution of wealth? Where are the sit-down strikes? The mass boycotts? The calls for expropriation? Where, in short, are the angry masses?
Oxfam’s Davos guilt trip doesn’t appear in Steve Fraser’s “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power,” but these are the questions at the heart of this fascinating if at times meandering book. 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).
To solve the mystery of why sustained resistance to wealth inequality has gone missing in the United States, Fraser devotes the first half of the book to documenting the cut and thrust of the first Gilded Age: the mass strikes that shut down cities and enjoyed the support of much of the population; the Eight Hour Leagues that dramatically cut the length of the workday, fighting for the universal right to leisure and time “for what we will”; the vision of a “ ‘cooperative commonwealth’ in place of the Hobbesian nightmare that Progress had become.”
He reminds readers that although “class war” is considered un-American today, bracing populist rhetoric was once the lingua franca of the nation. American presidents bashed “moneycrats” and “economic royalists,” and immigrant garment workers demanded not just “bread and roses” but threatened “bread or blood.” Among many such arresting anecdotes is one featuring the railway tycoon George Pullman. When he died in 1897, Fraser writes, “his family was so afraid that his corpse would be desecrated by enraged workers, they had it buried at night . . . in a pit eight feet deep, encased in floors and walls of steel-reinforced concrete in a lead-lined casket covered in layers of asphalt and steel rails.”
Of course violence went both ways. Protests and strikes consistently faced bloody attacks from both state forces and hired guns, prompting the formation of various armed worker militias. Populists and socialists were attacked as everything from “ungrateful hyenas” to “mad dogs,” while conservative newspapers openly called on the state to “exterminate” the “mob.” The class war, in other words, was no mere metaphor.
Fraser offers several explanations for the boldness of the post-Civil War wave of labor resistance, including, interestingly, the intellectual legacy of the abolition movement. The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.
This is key to Fraser’s thesis. 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.
Fraser devotes several chapters to outlining the key “fables” which, he argues, have served as particularly effective resistance-avoidance tools. These range from the billionaire as rebel to the supposedly democratizing impact of mass stock ownership to the idea that contract work is a form of liberation. He also explores various forces that have a “self-policing” impact — from mass indebtedness to mass incarceration; from the fear of having your job deported to the fear of having yourself deported.
With scarce use of story or development of characters, this catalog of disempowerment often feels more like an overlong list than an argument. And after reading hundreds of pages detailing depressing facts, Fraser’s concluding note — that “a new era of rebellion and transformation” might yet be possible — rings distinctly hollow.
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.
That’s too bad. Because if hope is to be credible, we need to hear not just from yesterday’s dreamers but from today’s as well.
THE AGE OF ACQUIESCENCE
The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power
By Steve Fraser
470 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $28.