Neil Davidson reviews Steve Fraser’s book The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organised Wealth and Power
Left-wing histories of the US working class tend to highlight a series of Great Moments, starting with the Gear Uprising of 1877, proceeding through Pullman Strike of 1894, the unionisation of auto, steel and rubber during the 1930s and concluding with the most recent inspirational event – for us, the Chicago Teacher’s Strike and the ongoing fight for $15 an hour across the fast food sector. The message is usually that the victories of 1877, or 1936, or whenever, are still possible today, if only workers draw the necessary lessons.
Underlying such accounts is, however, a curiously ahistorical conception of the class struggle, in which the conditions under which it is waged never change in any significant ways, so the same ‘lessons’ are always applicable, no matter what the period. Steve Fraser’s The Age of Acquiescence approaches the question quite differently. In what is essentially a history of the US working class since the Civil War, Fraser makes two original claims in relation to its development.
The first is that the great struggles until the period around the First World War, involving incomparably higher levels of violence than were conceivable in Britain after the 1840s, were often waged by the subordinate classes in defence of pre-capitalist relations, against the dominance of full capitalist industrialisation. This is something that Craig Calhoun earlier argued was the case for England in his 1982 book, The Question of Class Struggle. Fraser argues that newly proletarianised workers, artisans and small farmers could envisage a society beyond capitalism because they had recently emerged from a non-capitalist society themselves.
The second is that we have to reconsider the dominant, positive interpretation of the struggles of the 1930s and 1940s. Fraser argues that, although many of them were massive and militant, they helped establish a form of highly bureaucratic trade unionism that abandoned any conception of socialism, fighting instead for a share in the spoils of capitalism. This was sustainable only so long as there were spoils which capital could afford to share.
Which brings us to Fraser’s central argument. The original ‘gilded age’ was in the 1880s and 1890s was a time of extraordinary inequality, but also intense class struggle. The second half of his book examines what he calls the new gilded age, essentially coterminous with the neoliberal era. This has even greater inequality than the first, but nothing like the level of class struggle, which he explains partly through the absence of any conception of an alternative to capitalism.
There is much in this book that revolutionaries would wish to disagree with, both in terms of his interpretation of history and assessment of the contemporary scene, but Fraser is never less than thought-provoking. In particular, his portrayal of the changing social world of the US working class is extremely rich and never loses sight of how it interacts ideologically with that of the ruling class. Indeed, he is at his strongest in chapters 9-11 that explore the myths of neoliberalism. These are indispensable for understanding the general background to the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. This book is recommended then, not because socialists will necessarily find their views confirmed, but because of the crucial issue of working-class consciousness that it helps us to address, even if we ultimately reject its specific conclusions.