The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser

Part 1 is entitled “Class Warfare: The Long 19th Century”. In the author’s words:

We should … conceive of a long nineteenth century lasting from post-revolutionary days through to the Great Depression of the 1930s… The epoch that encompassed the transformation of a sliver of coastal villages, small farms, slave plantations and a few port cities into a transcontinental commercial, agricultural and industrial preeminnce was a wrenching one. For those generations that lived through it, it often called forth … recurring waves of resistance to the inexorable, a stubborn, multifarious insistence that the march of Progress was too spendthrift in human lives, that there were alternatives [22-23].

Fraser tells the history of those transitional years by describing political movements, the growth of organized labor and the writings of various intellectuals. It’s a very interesting story that culminates in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the coming of World War 2.

Part 2 is called “Desire and Fear in the Second Gilded Age”. Fraser tries to explain why there has been such little resistance, organized or otherwise, to increasing inequality, stagnant wages and boring, regimented work. He delves into the history again, but also tries to give psychological or sociological explanations. What I took away from this part of the book is that people are distracted by consumer products and mass entertainment; there has been a constant campaign to glorify “the successful” among us; it’s difficult for most of us to imagine an alternative (since the transition to a modern industrial nation happened so long ago); and organized labor has been beaten into submission. The powers that be are highly organized and have a lot of money to spend on maintaining the status quo. Workers aren’t organized at all and many are just trying to get by, plus nobody wants to lose their job to cheap foreign competition by making trouble.

Organizing for the Future

A review at the London Review of Books caught my eye because the two books discussed both have the word “Postcapitalism” in their titles. Who doesn’t want to know what’s coming next?

The review didn’t convince me that anyone knows. Two possibilities are mentioned: Full Automation and Universal Basic Income. Presumably, “Full Automation” refers to automating as much as possible. More robots and smarter software should lead to fewer people having jobs. That might lead to everyone being guaranteed a basic income. Or it could lead to mass sterilization, with only lottery winners and good-looking people being allowed to reproduce.

What I found more interesting were some remarks about “austerity”, the recently popular attempt to stimulate world economies by reducing government spending:

In both books, the critical fronts are a total opposition to austerity and neoliberalism, and a focus on the possible consequences of increased automation, including the creation of a ‘surplus population’. The ‘real austerity project’, Mason argues, is ‘to drive down wages and living standards in the West for decades, until they meet those of the middle class in China and India on the way up’. As a result, ‘the next generation will be poorer than this one; the old economic model is broken and cannot revive growth.’ Those places which, in their different ways, have managed to insulate themselves – authoritarian China, Russia or Iran, residually social democratic northern Europe – will not be exempt: ‘By 2060, countries such as Sweden will have the levels of inequality currently seen in the USA.’

Further down in the article, there’s some practical discussion:

What the historical labour movement did, in Srnicek and Williams’s eyes, was set itself goals and demands – for pensions, social security, fewer working hours – and fight for them inside and outside the workplace. What they are really proposing … is that a new set of demands be agreed and doggedly insisted on, in the manner of the old left.

But how could enough of us agree and doggedly insist on a new set of demands? Maybe the authors of the books being reviewed have an answer, but the only way I can see that happening is through the creation of a mass movement like the labor movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

In his very good book The Age of Acquisition: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, Steve Fraser describes how organized labor contributed to the general welfare after the New Deal and World War 2:

…the labor movement of those years of uproar created – more than any other institution, public or private – a standard of living envied everywhere. In 1945, 40 percent of American families lived below the poverty line… By 1970, only 10 percent lived in poverty… Not only did the economy grow at an annual average of 4 percent during the postwar era, but that growth favored the poor more than the wealthy…it was the organized labor movement that compelled broad sectors of American industry still unwilling to engage in the new mechanisms of collective bargaining to nonetheless match the standards of living (wages, hours, vacations, holidays, pensions, health care and more) that unions were winning for their members….

An “American standard of living” and the forms of industrial democracy that made it possible … shattered the old order [196].

Perhaps globalization means that a race to the economic middle (or even the bottom) cannot be stopped. But it was organized labor and other progressive organizations that demanded and achieved progress in the past. I think it will have to be organized human beings, whether or not they have traditional jobs, who demand and achieve progress in the future.

Who’s On First? Private Property or Competition?

David Brin trained as a scientist, has written science fiction and consults with the government and corporations regarding what will happen next. He’s not an economist, but he’s written an interesting little article about right-wing ideology. It’s called “Stop Using Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek to Support Your Political Ideology: The Irony of Faith in Blind Markets”. 

Brin cites John Robb, an author, “military analyst” and entrepreneur, as a big influence on his thinking. Robb isn’t an economist either, but here are a couple of paragraphs from his blog

The only way to manage an economy as complex as [ours] is to allow massively parallel decision making.  A huge number of economically empowered people making small decisions, that in aggregate, are able to process more data, get better data (by being closer to the problem), and apply more brainpower to weighing alternatives than any centralized decision making group.

In other words, central planning cannot cope with the economies of developed nations in the modern world. We need the Invisible Hand of the market. Yet: 

…an extreme concentration of wealth at the center of our market economy has led to a form of central planning.   The concentration of wealth is now in so few hands and is so extreme in degree, that the combined liquid financial power of all of those not in this small group is inconsequential to determining the direction of the economy.  As a result, we now have the equivalent of centralized planning in global marketplaces.  A few thousand extremely wealthy people making decisions on the allocation of our collective wealth.  The result was inevitable:  gross misallocation [of resources] across all facets of the private economy. 

Getting back to Brin, he argues that:

….across 4,000 years we’ve seen that whenever a small group of men become powerful enough to control an economy and command-allocate its resources, they will do so according to biased perceptions, in-group delusions and fatally limited knowledge. Whether they do the normal oligarchic thing—cheating for self-interest—or else sincerely try to “allocate for the good of all,” they will generally do it badly.

So what’s the solution? Brin says it’s competition: “the most creative force in the universe”: 

By dividing and separating power and—more importantly—empowering the majority with education, health, rights and knowledge, we enabled vast numbers of people to participate in markets, democracy and science. This has had twin effects, never seen in earlier cultures.

  1. It means everybody can find out when a person stumbles onto something cool, better or right, even if that person came from a poor background.
  2. It allows us to hold each other accountable for things that are wrong, worse or uncool, even when the bad idea comes at us from someone mighty.

…cutting through countless foolish notions that held sway for millennia—like the assumption that your potential is predetermined by who your father was—while unleashing creativity, knowledge, freedom, and positive-sum wealth to a degree that surpassed all other societies, combined.

Even the most worrisome outcomes of success, like overpopulation, wealth stratification and environmental degradation, come accompanied by good news— the fact that so many of us are aware, involved, reciprocally critical, and eager to innovate better ways.

Some have argued that cooperation has contributed just as much to human progress as competition has, but putting that issue aside, Brin arrives at his major point: the people who call themselves “conservatives” and claim to revere thinkers like Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom extolled the benefits of a competitive market, don’t really believe in competition:

The problem is that it’s all lip service on the right! Those who most loudly proclaim Faith In Blind Markets … are generally also those proclaiming idolatry of private property as a pure, platonic essence, a tenet to be clutched with religious tenacity, as it was in feudal societies. Obdurate, they refuse to see that they are conflating two very different things.

Private property—as Adam Smith made clear—is a means for encouraging the thing he really wanted: fair and open competition….But anyone who actually reads Adam Smith also knows that he went on and on about that “fair and open” part! Especially how excessive disparities of wealth and income destroy competition…. When today’s libertarians praise the creative power of competition, then ignore the unlimited [worship of property] that poisoned it across the ages, we are witnessing historical myopia and dogmatic illogic, of staggering magnitude….

But in rejecting one set of knowledge-limited meddlers—100,000 civil servants—libertarians and conservatives seem bent on ignoring market manipulation by 5,000 or so aristocratic golf buddies, who appoint each other to company boards in order to vote each other titanic “compensation packages” while trading insider information and conspiring together to eliminate competition. Lords who are not subject to inherent limits, like each bureaucrat must face, or rules of disclosure or accountability. Lords who (whether it is legal or not) collude and share the same delusions….

Hence, at last, the supreme irony.  Those who claim most-fervent dedication to the guiding principle of our Enlightenment: competition, reciprocal accountability and enterprise—our neighbors who call themselves conservative or libertarian—have been talked into conflating that principle with something entirely different. Idolatry of private wealth, sacred and limitless. A dogmatic-religious devotion that reaches its culmination in the hypnotic cantos of Ayn Rand. Or in the Norquist pledge to cut taxes on the rich under all circumstances—during war or peace, in fat years or lean—without limit and despite the failure of any Supply Side predictions ever, ever, ever coming true.

An idolatry that leads, inevitably to the ruination of all competition and restoration of the traditional human social order that ruled our ancestors going back to cuneiform tablets — Feudalism

As Paul Krugman has often pointed out, it’s not the 1% that’s the problem. It’s more like the 0.001% (Brin’s “golf buddies” and their ilk around the world) whose vast wealth makes them modern-day aristocrats. It’s also those who Krugman called “enablers” in today’s column – the minions who spread the “private property is sacred” and “government destroys liberty” gospel. If these so-called “conservatives” were true to the spirit of Adam Smith, they’d celebrate “mass education, civil rights, child nutrition and national infrastructure etc.”, which Brin mentions, as well as antitrust enforcement, workers’ rights and environmental protection, all of which have “empowered greater numbers of citizens to join the fair and open process of Smithian competition”.

PS – Brin’s article is on a site called Evonomics: The Next Revolution in Economics. It’s worth visiting.

Clinton and Krugman on Trump and Workers

As you might expect, Hillary Clinton’s campaign site has a lot of policy proposals. By my count, the “Issues” page has thirty-two topics you can click on to see what she wants to do as President. (Oddly, the only issues listed are domestic. There’s no page for foreign policy.)

Among the issues are “Fixing America’s Infrastructure”, “Labor and Workers’ Rights” and “Workforce Skills and Job Training”, but the one that I was especially interested in was “Manufacturing”. If you click on it, you’ll see that Clinton offers some sensible suggestions to increase manufacturing jobs in this country. However, it’s highly unlikely America will ever be the manufacturing powerhouse it used to be. Yesterday’s column by Paul Krugman explains why and also explains why Trump is no friend of working people, despite his tough talk on trade:

There’s no question that rising imports, especially from China, have reduced the number of manufacturing jobs in America…. My own back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that completely eliminating the U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods would add about two million manufacturing jobs.

But America is a big place, and total employment exceeds 140 million. Shifting two million workers back into manufacturing would raise that sector’s share of employment back from around 10 percent to around 11.5 percent. To get some perspective: in 1979, on the eve of the great surge in inequality, manufacturing accounted for more than 20 percent of employment. In the 1960s it was more than 25 percent…Trumponomics wouldn’t come close to bringing the old days back.

No matter what we do on trade, America is going to be mainly a service economy for the foreseeable future. If we want to be a middle-class nation, we need policies that give service-sector workers the essentials of a middle-class life. This means guaranteed health insurance — Obamacare brought insurance to 20 million Americans, but Republicans want to repeal it and also take Medicare away from millions. It means the right of workers to organize and bargain for better wages — which all Republicans oppose. It means adequate support in retirement from Social Security — which Democrats want to expand, but Republicans want to cut and privatize.

….And it should go without saying that a populist agenda won’t be possible if we’re also pushing through a Trump-style tax plan, which would offer the top 1 percent huge tax cuts and add trillions to the national debt.

Sorry, but adding a bit of China-bashing to a fundamentally anti-labor agenda does no more to make you a friend of workers than eating a taco bowl does to make you a friend of Latinos.

Class In America

Nancy Isenberg, a history professor at Louisiana State, identifies five myths about class in America. Instead of listing the myths, I’ll turn them around and present the corresponding truths: 

  1. The working class isn’t mostly white and male
  2. Most Americans notice class differences
  3. America has less class mobility than other developed countries
  4. Talent and hard work make it easy to rise above your class
  5. Racial oppression is more serious than class oppression

My favorite paragraph:

Class power takes many forms. Its enduring force, its ability to project hatred toward the lower classes, was best summed up by two presidents 175 years apart. In 1790, then-Vice President John Adams argued that Americans not only scrambled to get ahead; they needed someone to disparage. “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species,” he wrote. Lyndon Johnson came to the same conclusion in explaining the racism of poor whites: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”