age of acquiescence

If you haven’t yet heard of Steve Fraser’s new book of historical advocacy “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power,” you could do worse than reading Naomi Klein’s review of it in the New York Times. Oh, TL;DR? Okay, I can summarize Fraser’s argument more briefly: where’s the pitchforks? Why aren’t people furious at fat cats in the mass-strike, grave-desecrating way they were 100 years ago? Basically, what happened to the teeth of the left?

Fraser’s book has received plenty of reviews from the thoughtful left, like for example here and here and here. But you’re reading this because I’m offering to tell you something neither they or Fraser is saying. This post isn’t a major thesis or anything, but an important counter-point to Fraser nonetheless. As it turns out, that thing I’m about to say is a reasonable way to wrap up Autism Awareness Week 2015.

Fraser’s book extols, and devotes its first half to, American society from the end of the Civil War to the 1929 market crash. Life expectancy wasn’t high in those 75-odd years; at era’s start, it was around 40 (if you weren’t killed during the War Between the States), and at era’s end it was around 60. Remember that this was the age of leech cures and traveling snake-oil salesmen and “phrenology”; readers of The Devil in the White City will recall Erik Larson’s harrowing accounts of medical students’ then-common practice of grave-robbing (as long as I’m pursuing a grave theme). Revisionist historians have clarified that the period’s true scourge was infant mortality; babies and toddlers just kept dying, as mysteriously as SIDS takes children today. If you made it to age 10, your chances of living to age 70 were excellent. Life was cheap; life was capricious; life was mysterious. In such an environment, why not burn the village in order to save it?

Since then, Jonas Salk cured polio, 100 other Salks cured 100 lesser maladies, and life expectancy for everyone has now reached a robust 75. I don’t know anyone arguing that these medical advances were unwelcome. Nowadays, life is precious; life is quantifiable; life seems save-able. Nowadays, in the wake of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and Jerry’s Kids (muscular dystrophy), the covers of newsweeklies periodically inform us of rare cancers, difficult strains, and troubling conditions. If it’s not Autism Awareness Week, as it is right this minute, then it’s awareness of something else. Such awareness would have been ridiculous in the previous gilded age, when kids were regularly dropping dead and doctors were as credible as scientologists are today. Put another way, Americans had less to lose in 1900; we have much more than we did then.

But it’s not simply that we’re hippies who became yuppies. Fraser asks why the victims of capitalism aren’t angrier, why they can’t seem to imagine a world outside of capitalism. He, and his reviewers I linked, does not stop to consider the comfort capitalism offers to people who are either afflicted with disease or fearing diseases. Obviously capitalism can’t cure cancer, but if you have cancer, would you rather live in a Communist state that has no incentive to find a cure (or properly disseminate one), or a place where, when someone finds a cure, s/he will get rich?

Another way I would go beyond Fraser and the reviewers is to distinguish between the previous gilded age and our current 1% era by pointing to feminist accomplishments. With the exception of an Emma Goldman or two, Marxists and feminists have rarely shared the same goals: the pioneering suffragettes sought enfranchisement, not revolution. The generalized feminist advocacy of equal rights and equal access implies democratic, free-market institutions that one would have access to. On some level, Fraser’s sentimental tales of angry strikers versus angry oligopolists sounds so…male. More women in power brings many positives. One of them is, on balance, more sympathy for the diseased and disadvantaged, the sorts of people I’ve mentioned. Another positive is, on balance, more, ahem, balance, or what you might call more sympathy for compromise. Or as Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) supposedly said during the heat of negotiations for the Affordable Care Act (I’m paraphrasing), “leave this to us girls and we’ll get it done in a week.”

Fraser is quicker to acknowledge the ripple effects of the Soviet Union: now that radical leftists have seen what happens when Communists take over, their most strident arguments have lost a bit of punch. Louis Menand has a fascinating article in a recent New Yorker about the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1950s. If your perception of American politics is a zero-sum game between two opposing ideologies (you know, the way America “works” today), you might be surprised to learn that the C.I.A. did not, overtly or covertly, work well with the vociferously anti-Communist Catholic Church or McCarthyites or J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. during the heyday of all four groups (the 1950s). Menand effectively makes the point that the C.I.A. was further to the left than those right-wing ideologues; our spies, much like Truman and JFK (and probably Eisenhower), saw the Soviets betraying the more honorable principles of the left, like democracy and collective solutions. Fraser calls us “acquiescent” in his title; is it possible that Americans today see themselves as fighters for a middle class worth fighting for, something closer to what James Bond does for a living?

As a (the only?) blog about populism, of course I harken back to trailblazers like William Jennings Bryan and Upton Sinclair, but their glory days came before Lenin came to power in Moscow. Since the Soviet Union, populism has perhaps best been embodied by Huey Long in Louisiana, who was neither left-wing nor right-wing, and more reflexively suspicious of a corrupt ruling class. He was, however, angry. Maybe Fraser is right that we do need a little anger. But should that be directed at capitalism, or certain corrupt capitalists? I like to think there’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be solved by what’s right with America. Favoring compromises doesn’t mean favoring mushiness. It means fighting hard to protect the advances we’ve made in feminism, medicine, civil rights, and other areas. It means not burning this village to save it. I like to think there’s nothing wrong with our capitalism that can’t be solved within capitalism.And frankly, my autistic son’s life may depend on that.