Maura Casey is a former editorial writer for the New York Times.
By Steve Fraser
Little, Brown. 470 pp. $28
Shaking our collective fist at the status quo is a cherished American birthright. Yet the current public reaction to rising U.S. poverty and a system too often rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many has been largely a resigned acceptance coupled with a limp legislative response. So when did we become a nation of weenies, kissing the hem of multinational corporations and bailing out big banks, no matter how reckless their acts or amoral their aims? When did free-market capitalism, no matter how Darwinian, become such bedrock American theology that anyone questioning it is looked upon as deranged, heretical or both?
These are among the questions Steve Fraser tackles in his sweeping and ambitious book “The Age of Acquiescence.” He weaves together a rich tapestry of history, statistics and barely suppressed outrage to demonstrate how unusual the current, sheeplike acceptance of financial disparities is compared with the rabble-rousing opposition to the rise of corporations between the Civil War and the Depression years.
His pages are dense with facts to illustrate the economic and political backdrop of the past 150 years. Financial depressions occurred with increasing frequency throughout the 19th century. The year after the 1873 downturn, 6,000 firms went under. Business activity nationwide plummeted 25 percent after the 1882 panic. The economic collapse in 1893 was the worst financial calamity until the Great Depression: As many as 200,000 were out of work in Chicago alone.
But this social devastation also highlighted the rise of the new American hierarchy. The late-19th-century Gilded Age had an “arithmetic of dispossession” that went like this, according to Fraser: 4,000 families owned as much wealth as the remaining 11.6 million families; the richest 1 percent owned 51 percent of all real and personal property, while the bottom 44 percent owned 1.1 percent.
It all sounds eerily familiar. But there was thunderous debate over the rising power of corporations and of banks that owned an increasing percentage of small businesses; at the same time, workers feared the rise of a new kind of wage slavery. Armed confrontations between workers and their employers were more common in the United States than anywhere else in the Western world. Protests for such basic rights as an eight-hour workday were marred by violence. Sixteen were killed in 1877 during a strike in Pittsburgh. In 1886, a bomb went off during a protest in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, causing police to open fire; in the ensuing melee six police officers and four workers were killed and hundreds wounded. The same year, there were 1,200 strikes in New York involving 180,000 workers. Unrest continued to erupt past the turn of the 20th century. “Revolution was in the air,” Fraser writes, and “society was at a boil.”
The abuses led to the rise of unions and the antitrust movement, and spawned both crusading journalists who exposed sweatshops and populist politicians who railed against big business for eroding democracy. Still, these efforts weren’t enough to stave off the worst financial cataclysm of all, the Great Depression, which brought on reform along with denunciations of greedy bankers.
Yet despite everything, neither socialism nor an abiding sympathy for the working class took firm root in America. And particularly after World War II, the abuses of communism and the rise of McCarthyism made it impossible to question capitalism, no matter how venal or exploitative its manifestations might become. Maybe we were too busy shopping to get in a lather about it. Unions that once routinely discussed class struggle became ossified bureaucracies more interested in protecting member benefits than in expanding to cover service workers or opening their doors to women or minorities. The Reagan administration shredded what was left of New Deal reforms, exalted the rich, successfully portrayed the poor as losers and enjoyed the support of many evangelical preachers, who, in Fraser’s acid observation, crafted [a] “ministry that marries the irreconcilable: nineteenth-century morality and twentieth-century consumerism.”
It all set the stage for the current dismal state of affairs, in which the value of the minimum wage is less than it was 50 years ago. One-quarter of the workforce earns less than the poverty level for a family of four. The share of unionized workers in private industry, 6.6 percent, is the lowest it has been in 100 years. Private pensions are increasingly rare.
Fraser’s exhaustive and, at times, exhausting sweep of history simultaneously explains how we got here and gives everyone hell. Media outlets are lapdogs; Republicans, intellectually vacant and single-minded in pursuit of money; unions, wheeler-dealers; Democrats, timid (“the party of the New Deal last acted like it was one in the 1970s”). I wish that the book did more than give a passing glance to the impact of the civil rights movement and feminism. I also wish the author had explored how, in the late 19th century, American courts began the process of granting corporations the same rights as human beings and how that contributed to corporations’ growing power.
This is an absorbing and convincing book. But don’t look here for signs of hope that the future will improve anytime soon. As Fraser writes in the last chapter: “Our political universe may indeed be locked in the past. It looks backward because that’s just where we’re headed.”