Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser
I picked up Age of Acquiescence because it was recommended as a companion work to Capital in the 21st Century. Age of Acquiescence is also certainly worth the long read although its focus is narrower. Its author, Steve Fraser, asks a basic and important question: Why isn’t there an American movement that rails against the economic disparity that we see in the 21st century? Why are we ‘acquiescing’ to the monied and the very powerful, to the inequalities that stem from capitalism as we practice it?
The answer to that question has much to do with the history of the United States. Fraser works to show the reader that during the first Gilded Age–the turn of the 19th to the 20th century (which Fraser extends a few decades into the 1920s and even the 1930s for some examples), ordinary, working class folks protested against the economic disparity inherent in capitalism, against the dreadful working conditions under which they slaved. (And yes, Fraser does make an argument that there is such a thing as ‘salaried slavery.’ ) These protests sometimes became violent riots. And things did change. By mid-century, there was the eight-hour working day, and the laboring classes lived much better lives under unions. Well, mostly. Fraser mentions that unions could be guardians of the old prejudice and although he doesn’t include much detail, many unions originally kept out people of color. This in itself is an interesting topic to pursue.
Many people felt that life was good in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Financially, they were better off than their parents and grandparents had been. But Fraser notes a downward trend in social mobility, a new Gilded Age of economic disparity and ostentatious wealth that began in the 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency. The resulting decimation of the middle class in our current Gilded Age concluded in the economic meltdown of 2007-8. When people took stock of their ‘new normal’ in 2008 and saw that they would be less financially well-off/stable than their own parents had been, there wasn’t much fuss.
There was, of course, the Occupy Wall Street movement, but how long did that last? And what did it all mean? Fraser argues that the reason people could rail about their situation over a hundred years ago was because they were unused to capitalism as a system. They had been able to grow their own food, trade and barter their own goods, and manage to get along working fewer hours for big businesses or corporations. But now, we don’t know any other sort of life. We are certain that capitalism is the only economic system that our country can labor under. We have no genuinely creative ideas about how to change things, nor do we have the power to do so, when banks are ‘too big to fail.’ In addition, we are so used to excess that it no longer outrages us. We model our lives on the excesses of the rich, are guilty of satisfying our desires with borrowed money.
The one movement that Fraser sees rallying against the status quo is not on the left or progressive as it once was, but rather is on the right–the Tea Party. However, the Tea Party is railing against the government and not against an economic system or wealthy inequity.
Fraser hopes to stir us out of our stupor–to stop believing that ‘Greed is good,’ that top earning CEOs know better than anyone else in the universe what is good for all of us. How exactly this is to happen is less clear. Twenty-first century workers can look backward at numerous failed socialist experiments, so they are less inclined to see other economic systems as a panacea for our current state of woes–which include endless working hours (thank you modern technology!), diminished buying power, two family incomes as the norm, skyrocketing college costs and more.
High school housekeeping: The Age of Acquiescence is a good book for teens and young adults (college age) interested in economics. It’s a longish work–without the endnotes, it’s about 425 dense pages. You need to read at grade level or you won’t follow Fraser’s arguments. I think it is exactly the kind of book that the framers of the Common Core would like you to read. It is well worth your time–you’ll learn a lot about the history of the United States, including not only about labor protests and the formation of unions, but of robber barons and the current version of these men. You’ll be introduced to the various (failed) socialists experiments and utopian colonies of a century ago. Still, I think that most AP and honors students don’t have a lot of free time to read. That this is a shame goes without saying, but it’s also a fact. If you are interested in economics–maybe you are thinking of it as a college major–check out the book from the library and read the introduction. It’s about 10 pages and will give you a very good overview of the book, helping you decide whether you want to devote more time to it.
If you are truly interested in economics and specifically in the problems with capitalism as a system, you shouldn’t skipCapital in the 21st Century. It takes a longer view over much of the western world and shows that capital will always accrue at the top, to a few people. At times when this didn’t happen in the U.S., it was due to open frontiers (stealing land from American Indians was a way of ordinary people to get a start without paying the price, but of course, that’s no longer an option) and wars.
Both The Age of Acquiescence andCapital in the 21st Century are the work of liberal thinkers. While they are based on solid research, there exist economists that come to more conservative conclusions about capitalism and its benefits for the common man. One of these is Deirdre McClosky. I have a son who reads widely in economics and recommends McClosky’s point of view to balance Fraser and Picketty. However, her work is not only very long, but multi-volumed. With this in mind, I asked for the single volume that would be best for intelligent high school students considering economics as a field of study. He recommends Bourgeois Dignity. He also promises to write a guest review for me, so stay tuned.