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Review Essay: Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. New York: Little, Brown. 2015.

Steve Fraser has taken a bold, sweeping look at US history, ultimately seeking to answer the question of why there has been so little resistance to the great increase in economic dislocation and income inequality during the late 20th-early 21st centuries. A provocative and vexing question. Fraser believes that by plumbing the American experience from especially the Civil War to the Great Depression, he could find useful clues that, when applied to the post-1973 US, would provide, or at least suggest, answers. He first notes the great ‘production explosion’ during the later part of the 19th Century:

Already by 1886, America turned out more steel than Britain; by the end of the century its steel output exceeded that of the United Kingdom and Germany combined. Broader comparisons were even more striking. The value of what American manufacturers produced was twice that of the United Kingdom and half as great as that of the whole European continent. Between 1850 and 1880 factory output in Britain rose by 100 percent; in America by 600 percent. There were more miles of railroads and telegraph lines than all of Europe. The United States led the world in the production of virtually every strategic industrial commodity, including steel, coal, gold, timber, silver, oil, telephone, telegraph, electric lighting, machine tools, hardware, and locomotives.(pp. 34-35).

Fraser notes the human cost to this production. First, the pre-industrial societies had been destroyed, with all of the social destabilization it engendered: people went from living by the seasons and living by nature’s “clocks” and being responsible primarily to themselves and their families, to becoming “proletarianized,” working in 24 hour environments, oblivious to nature, and responsible to one’s supervisor, the foreman, while exchanging nature’s bounty for a paycheck. Native Americans were driven off their land, former slaves basically re-enslaved (after Reconstruction) by debt-peonage, and many farmers (of all racial groupings) subject to the whims of bankers. The costs to labor were bloodily high.

During this formative stage of industrialization, 35,000 workers died each year in industrial    accidents, many of them skilled mechanics. In 1910 one-quarter of all workers in the steel         industry were injured at least once, partly because of management’s failure to install safety devices and shorten the hours at work. Two thousand coal miners died each year on the job. . . . the railroads, for example, became a killing ground. Between 1890 and 1917, 158,000 mechanics and laborers were killed in railroad repair shops and roundhouses. In 1888-89 alone, of 704,000 railroad employees, 20,000 were injured and nearly 2000 killed (56).

The increasing concentration of wealth and corporate power resulted in depressions and recessions: “there were major ones beginning in 1837 and reoccurring in 1857, 1873, 1883, 1893, and 1907” (60). These economic contractions destroyed many small businesses and farmers, who did not have the capital to withstand the onslaught, leaving the large corporations and investors more powerful every time. Yet, as Fraser correctly points out, many people came to understand the much of this social destruction was caused by economic change. And he details their consequent willingness to strike, engage in insurrections (such as the Great Railway Strike in 1877) and to mobilize against the bankers and big business. And he applauds this resistance:

… all of these movements—the Knights, Nationalist clubs, populism, anti-monopoly organizations, local labor, and Greenback Labor parties—frequently interacted, drew energy from the mass strike, and together formed a culture of opposition. As a persuasion, that culture concerned itself with more than economic organization, extending its reach into ethical matters, the built environment, and the art of virtuous government, all in one way or another tethered back to the labor question. . . .[and] it unmistakably opened up the prospect of a new society founded on principles at odds with the tooth-and-claw struggle for self-advancement so celebrated in many precincts of social Darwinism America (126-27).

Fraser well captures in the first half of his book the dual processes of industrialization and resistance that make the Gilded Age so fascinating. And so I looked forward to how he’d approach the Depression and aftermath, which is where things dramatically changed. Key to this is his Chapter 7, “The End of Socialism,” which sets up the rest of the book. Skipping World War I, he jumps to1919, which he says, “marked the beginning of the end of the long nineteenth century” (181). He notes the Seattle General Strike, the police strike in Boston, and Palmer raids, and then the nationwide steel strike. He notes the race riot in Chicago that summer. He argues it was the “labor question that then had the power to call into question everything else” (187). The “labor question” was, arguably, key to understanding social developments in this country. And it is used by Fraser to do so.

Just at that time when working people were collectively igniting—the revitalization of the United Mine Workers in Eastern coal fields, the 1934 national textile strike, the general strikes during 1934 in Akron, Minneapolis and San Francisco, and the 1935 emergence of the CIO (Committee, and then after 1938, the Congress of Industrial Organizations)—Fraser argues, approaching things from the perspective of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, that a “new culture … had begun to flourish inside the union” and that it “might be called bureaucratic modernism” (189). As he shifts to Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” he recognizes that, “the labor movement of that earlier era had been as much of a freedom movement as the abolitionist movement had been or the civil rights movement would become” (194) – but he neglects workers struggles of the 1930s (and ‘40s). Yes, he mentions “an insurgent labor movement” (197), but fails to develop the point. Nonetheless, things have changed since then: “What is undeniable is that the depositions left behind by that great freedom struggle, whether initiated from above or below, no longer carry the same emancipatory charge” (195).

This is the fulcrum of Fraser’s analysis, and it cannot hold the weight. At best he pays lip service to the labor movement. Yes, he mentions the 1936 (and ’37) strike by the UAW (United Auto Workers) against General Motors, but there’s no mention of the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago where 10 men were killed by police, with another 90 or more—including women and children—wounded. He doesn’t seem to understand what it really took to unionize most of basic industry, and that it wasn’t fully accomplished until 1942 or ‘43. He doesn’t mention bad working conditions in the factories and workplaces in this country during World War II, where more Americans were injured or killed at work than were killed in battle during World War II prior to D Day (June 6, 1944). And he doesn’t mention the nationwide uprising during the first year after the war, where strikes took place in auto, steel, electrical parts and meatpacking, and more major strikes arise in trucking and among West Coast lumber workers, and general strikes in Oakland, California and Stamford, Connecticut; over 116,000,000 days of production were lost during the largest strike wave in this country’s history.

Ignoring all that, Fraser glides along to the conclusion:

For a labor movement compelled to circumscribe and censor its ambitions, there were other costs as well. To begin with, it split apart [an interesting passive construction-KS] under the hammer blows of anticommunism. It’s linguistic and programmatic purging was accompanied by a real purging of left-wing-led unions across a range of industries, including some of the movement’s most dedicated cadres. The choice was to surrender to ideological intimidation or risk the wrath of a fear-induced political firestorm. The movement surrendered (201).

A good story—and it reads well—but it is flat wrong.

Does it make sense? Here is a labor movement that controlled 80 percent of the country’s industrial work force, a workforce determined not to accept a post-war depression like that after World War I, and a workforce that had just deprived the capitalists of 116 MILLION days of production: does that sound like a labor movement “compelled to circumscribe and censor its ambitions”? No, the labor movement did not split apart, with no agent of the split to be named. There was a struggle within and among unions of the CIO over the direction of unionism: would they advance “business unionism,” which limited its concerns and actions to advancing the interests of the most powerful members of the union—often, skilled, white male workers; or would they advance what is now being called “social justice unionism,” which saw unions as fighting for their members both on the shop floor and in the community, and for working people as a whole? Unfortunately, business unionists—people like conservative Philip Murray and the liberal Walter Reuther, of the steelworkers and autoworkers, respectively—managed to defeat left-led unions such as the United Electrical workers, and their victory was pyrrhic. Using “anti-communism” as a rationale, they expelled 11 of the most dynamic and innovative unions, losing between 750,000-1 million members, in order to remove approximately 16,000 Communists, as reckoned by the FBI.

The reality is that the business unionists were not defending the labor movement from “the communists” but were expelling unions led by rivals who had a larger vision of what trade unionism could be, and had a vision of a more egalitarian, most socially just society. These were men and women who thought outside of the business unionism “box,” who could not be controlled by Labor’s “new men of power.” Yes, some had been members of the Communist Party USA, but most were small “c” communists, Trotskyists, anarchists, black nationalists, former members of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), and good old-fashioned working class militants. The labor movement has yet to recover from its internal disembowelment at that time.

By expelling its own left wing,, as an unintended byproduct, the labor movement enabled the McCarthy period to gather strength and to exert a terrible impact on American society. Fraser then jumps from the McCarthy period to the mid-1970s, ignoring the Civil Rights/Black Power movements, the women’s movement, the youth movement, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) movement, the environmental movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement inside the US military. Whatever one wants to say about the period from about 1955 to 1973—loosely referred to as “the sixties”—it was not acquiescent. These movements affected US society in many ways continuing today, albeit not in all ways many hoped. Acknowledging the influence of this period would have strengthened Fraser’s ultimate argument.

Where Fraser really delivers is in his account of the economic devastation that wracked this country since the mid-1970s. In a powerful account, painful to read but accurate, Fraser’s Chapter 8, “Back to the Future: The Political Economy of Auto-cannibalism,” should be required reading, and especially in our high schools. It is simply the single best compendium of the economic devastation imposed on this country that I have seen, and it is something we as Americans have to understand and confront. Fraser points out the acute contradiction during this period of the trope of “businessman as populist hero.” Here he is particularly strong in showing the absurdity of the notion. Yet, he also falters seriously, in that he never asks how this fable, as he calls it, got propagated: there is no discussion of the corporate media in this country, and the key role it played in propagating the mythology so well developed by business “insurgents.” Stories circulating among the exclusive club members soon become cultural “truths.”

Fraser’s chapter, “Journey to Nowhere: The Eclipse of the Labor Movement,” is a stunning indictment of the labor leadership, especially since 1980. Yet Fraser presents the attacks on working people and the unions by business and the government, and reports their cumulative impact on working people—devastation, depression, defeat—without pausing to wonder why they passively took it again and again. Labor “leadership” always feared loss of control to those with a wider and more militant vision. Failure of imagination and lack of determination, joined with connivance (supporting US elites), as well as hierarchical control within too many unions, all but ensured demoralization, demobilization and defeat.

Fraser ignores this aspect—implicitly writing off working people and assuming all workers are white (and generally male), ruing their consumerism, lack of “class consciousness” and racism—and is resigned to their passive march into perdition. However, he ignores our real history, such as when rank-and-file militants in the majority white United Packinghouse Workers of America, supported by progressive leadership, instituted anti-racial discrimination clauses in every contract signed by the union by 1962, and whose Local 347 in Armour’s Chicago packing plant forced Armour to desegregate its Birmingham plant in 1953, two years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus. He ignores the 1997 Teamster strike against UPS, which defeated the corporation’s dividing up work into parts, dismembering workers’ lives and wages. He mentions the 2011 uprising in Wisconsin—ignoring its disembowelment by major labor leaders as they channeled mass protest into electoral politics—but ignores the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike or the month long protests against NATO leaders, capped by military veterans disgustedly throwing their medals away in protest against the wars and political leaderships that led them into those nightmares. This is hardly acquiescence. It can be called “too limited,” “too unimaginative,” or one may note that its fails to expand beyond certain sites and actions, but it is not acquiescence.

Fraser devotes a chapter to the “new right,” tracing its origins back to Henry Ford but mostly concentrating on it’s trajectory from Barry Goldwater forward. He goes on writing as though there is no labor movement, nor does he care to consider that if the “social justice” wing of the labor movement prevailed in 1949 instead of being evicted and eviscerated by the majority of the remaining unions—only the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the West Coast and the United Electrical workers, two of the 11 unions expelled, remain—there is a good chance that labor would have challenged the white supremacy of our social order, undermined the white resistance that emerged when African Americans rebelled between 1955-75, resisted the war in Viet Nam, and at least tried to confront the many limitations of capitalism, including its horrendous environmental devastation. In other words—although we’ll never know—it is conceivable that with better leadership, much of which had been purged, Labor would have stood up for working and poor people of all colors, precluding the ascent of the “new right.”

Accordingly, this reviewer is quite frustrated with The Age of Acquiescence. It is bold, very well written, with powerful descriptions, especially of the economic and social devastation that’s taken place since the mid-1970s. Yet there is much to criticize in its analysis. So, I will make some concluding comments ranging far beyond Fraser’s project in order to challenge many “progressive” authors who have the skills, connections and luck to obtain publishing contracts to reach a mass market, who go beyond the limited forums of academia or “the left.”

We cannot limit our analysis to just production — an economistic approach—even if one adds a deft Gramscian touch and include cultural aspects, as Fraser does. We cannot ignore the impact of long cultural wars within our class society. We also cannot disregard struggles against oppression, such as that the labor movement waged from 1933 to 1949, the Civil Rights/Black Power movements, the women’s and LGBT movements; we cannot ignore struggles against imperialist wars, such as Vietnam; and we certainly cannot ignore the emergence of a movement inside of the US military against imperial adventures.

Three key issues come to mind. First, Fraser begins his analysis after the Civil War, and he concentrates on the ‘explosion’ of economic production that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And it was an explosion. But where did the capital come from that financed it? We must address the establishment of white supremacy, not only to create profits for slave owners, but as a means to keep poor whites and poor blacks from uniting, a la Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 against white elites. Most Africans in Virginia arrived as indentured servants, not chattel slaves, as did most whites. After suppressing their rebellion, the Virginia elites did not raise the status or economic situation of poor whites, but rather lowered those of blacks below whites, taking away their rights, liberties (through chattel, lifetime slavery) and eventually their right to vote by 1723. Accompanying that was a widespread propaganda campaign to convince whites of their innate superiority to blacks through church-based Sunday Schools, joined with monetary rewards for return of escaped slaves and the establishing of state-based militias to ensure maintenance of white supremacist social order.

Accompanying this was westward expansion of cotton, and the escalating intensity of production, based on the brutal treatment of African-American slaves. The slave system, however, was not limited to the South. The productivity of slaves was so great that they produced more than could be domestically consumed, so cotton had to be exported. It fed the English textile industry, which mechanized and exported products around the world. To export meant that ships, insurance (in case of loss at sea), and the establishment of business relationships overseas had to be procured, and great profits were made off of these, especially in those far-Southern cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The slave-based cotton system was a national system, not just a Southern one.

Elites, North and South, made massive profits from the cotton industry and, especially in the North, invested those sums, and what could be borrowed to enhance those sums, into industry. Without the slave-based cotton system, and its profits, the US would not have industrialized so quickly and extensively. (Overseas investors helped industrialization, but the starting point was cotton.) This had global ramifications, especially in Europe and Russia. Without industrialization and its’ massive need for hands, the US would never have absorbed the millions of immigrants from overseas, allowing European governments to solve their demographic problems by exporting excess populations. One wonders what the results of the post-World War I revolutions in Europe would have been had these people not found a place to migrate to…. Or what would have happened in the United States without them…? Slavery was not an aberration or a minor regrettable detail in the history of this country: it was central and it served as the basis for the incredible pace of industrialization in a short time. We must center African-Americans in the larger American story, and we must confront the white supremacy that refuses to do this.

Second, we can no longer confine analyses of the United States to the national level. The arrival of Europeans to this hemisphere made exploration and colonization a global process, which it remains. Tied to that, going back to 1898, and definitely since the end of World War II, the US has tried to establish a dominant role in the world. This, unlike the Roman Empire, was not necessarily through territorial acquisition but through political and economic control. While its global ambitions existed earlier, it was only with the devastation of competing capitalist countries during the war, while remaining unscathed itself and building the strongest Navy and Air Force the world had seen (joined by the CIA), developing and using the atomic bombs, and then adding the Bretton Woods System (International Monetary Fund, Word Bank, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and a US-based global monetary system) to ensure its control that the US was able to, in fact, establish an Empire. The US was able to dominate the world with the exception of that part dominated by the Soviet Union, although that limitation had ended by 1991, leaving the US in charge and unchallenged until 9-11 and Bush’s subsequent invasion of Iraq. We cannot limit our understanding of the United States to its territory: we must understand the 50 states as the heartland of the US Empire, and that we must analyze the whole and not just a part.

Tied in integrally is American nationalism, which Fraser barely mentions. Beginning in the early 1900s, we have been subjected to an amazing propaganda campaign: the Fourth of July, for example, only began being celebrated around 1915. It was an effort to transform immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe into Americans, and it continues. For example, compare the number of flags on display in this country as compared to those displayed in any other country. American nationalism does not exist in a vacuum: it is based on a myth of superiority that we are the “Shining City on the Hill,” the “indispensible nation” or cant like that. Building off a range of opportunities not usually available to citizens or recent arrivals—but the result of ripping off raw materials and the peoples of the world—our elites claim that “everyone” wants to come here, as if this is the finest place on Earth. What gets ignored is the relentless propaganda worldwide, but in reality these opportunities are limited to a few, and usually only those with white skins. Immigrants often discover the truth after arrival.

This propaganda encourages support for the “system” no matter how much it falls apart. So we can have the greatest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, highest rate of poverty (in 2014) since 1959, etc., etc., but we’re still the “finest country on the face of the planet.” We can still fight wars in the Middle East after 14 years, destroying local social orders and (inadvertently but inevitably) creating militarized and militant social movements such as ISIS to contest continued US/Israel domination of the region, but “we’re still #1,” and we still haven’t heard from either Bush or Obama as to why we really invaded and still want to be there.

Labor members must confront the “labor imperialism” of the AFL-CIO that some of us have carefully documented. Labor imperialism has not been forced on the labor movement purely by external actors such as corporations, the US government, the CIA, etc., but is also a product of internal dynamics within the top leadership of the AFL-CIO, and is based on the idea that the US should dominate the world. The labor movement must recognize that it cannot support global domination—including uncritical support of US corporations and the military—and still take care of working people at home: if we want to take care of working people in the US, then that means it is imperative to build global labor solidarity, then we cannot oppress workers elsewhere.

Third and finally, we cannot limit our understanding of oppression to “class,” “race” or “gender.” The reality is that all of these, and other factors, combine to create the systemic oppression we each are affected by, but they vary by time, place, by “situation.” Therefore, we have to adopt dynamic models and related understandings. It’s time to think outside of our box (es).

The Age of Acquiescence is a masterful effort that provides vivid detailed descriptions of US society but fails to deliver much in the way of useful analysis. Examining the “first” Gilded Age as a guide to help us understand the second, while good in theory, doesn’t provide illumination, at least not here. Fraser’s post-Depression discussion is considerably weaker and less satisfactory than that which precedes it. He foregrounds Labor without understanding what has taken place within the labor movement or why. At the same time this reviewer readily acknowledges that Fraser’s claim that there is almost no national protest – except Occupy – against the economic dislocation and increasing income inequality between especially, say, 1973 and 2011, is basically correct. We need to understand why sustained resistance has not yet happened, and use that knowledge to reinvigorate various social movements, if not the Left in general. The answer, however, is almost certainly to be found in the elites’ response to the social movements of the 1960s-early ‘70s, and not prior to the Depression.

Notes

Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. A labor scholar, he has published over 180 articles and book reviews in the US and in 10 different countries around the world. Dr. Scipes has published two monographs—one on the KMU Labor Center of the Philippines titled KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994 (New Day Publishers, 1996) and one on the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy over the past 100-plus years: AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lexington Books, 2010 hardback, 2011 paperback). He has edited Building Global Labor Solidarity in the Time of Accelerating Globalization that will be published in Spring 2016. He’s currently preparing his Ph.D. dissertation—“Trade Union Development And Racial Oppression In Chicago’s Steel And Meatpacking Industries, 1933-1955”—for publication.

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