Review: Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (2015)

I rarely briefly tout very good books I read but in this case I want to make an exception.

While she is rarely mentioned by name, the book is straight-up Rosa Luxemburg: primitive accumulation and the mass strike. Fraser stirs in fictitious capital for good measure. (He earlier wrote a great book on Sidney Hillman, the “labor statesman” of the garment workers.)

Part I is a survey of class struggle in the United States from the American Revolution to end of the 1960s, emphasizing both the violence brought to bear against American workers (more than in any other “advanced capitalist” country) and the largely-forgotten extent to which these struggles (from 1877 to 1919 above all) scared the wits out of the American ruling class. I know of no comparable survey anywhere.

This is contrasted in Part II with the “auto-cannibalization” of the system starting around 1970, and the resulting “erasure” of the memories of the earlier period and of much of the productive economy.

The book was completed in the fall of 2013, so it does not deal with Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and more recently Baltimore. Nonetheless it is a relentless account of the reactionary rollback that set in around the early 1970s, and which may perhaps be ending now, perhaps not. Once again, I know of no comparable account of the “Great Glaciation” (as I call it) during which thousands of factories closed, the prison population rose to at least 2 percent of the population (those awaiting trial, those in jail, and those on parole), income disparity soared, and social services (never great at their best) were gutted.

I have tertiary criticisms but they amount to pot shots.

Highly recommended.


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Thank you for calling my attention to the Fraser book. I do not intend this as a full response, merely some preliminary notes.

    You said you have tertiary criticisms of the book. In general I would say Fraser totally misses the impact of white supremacy on the white worker. Perhaps the most flagrant example is in his discussion of the causes of the decline of the unions after WW2: the furthest he goes is a mention in passing that the CIO’s efforts to organize in the South were frustrated by the climate of racism. As you know, I see it differently: to organize in the South would have required a campaign for civil rights (including the right to vote), a direct challenge to the Democratic Party, and conceivably armed self-defense. Such a course would necessarily have entailed a rupture with FDR, whose benevolent neutrality had enabled the CIO to establish itself in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Gary, Akron and Youngstown. The CIO (including the CP) chose not to pursue that course. Its acceptance of the white-supremacist contract was, in my opinion, the key element that conditioned the movement to accept the general policy of class collaboration Fraser documents, whose full results were felt after the War.

    He makes the same mistake in dealing with Populism and earlier periods of labor radicalism. Since this is not a formal review, I won’t try and document my assertion, but I think you will see I am right.

    You probably agree. The question is the extent to which these faults undermine any positive impact the book might have. You said that you regarded it, in spite of these weaknesses, as a useful corrective for the young radicals who are largely ignorant of the history of class war up to, say, 1919 and even through the CIO period. I disagree: in my view their blindspot, the inability to see great struggle as other than the strivings of “people of color,” is not located in their ignorance: if it were there are plenty of stirring histories of the great labor battles of the past: Labor’s Untold Story, Labor’s Giant Step, Jeremy Brecher’s Strike and others (all of which have their own shortcomings) come to mind. The young people, if they know anything about that history, dismiss it as the dead past because they do not have a class-struggle approach. I don’t think their weakness can be overcome by substituting one blindspot for another.

    It may be that I was less impressed by his survey of the great battles of the earlier period because I already know that history. However, his treatment of the present, The Age of Acquiescence exhibits the same shortcoming: after documenting effectively the extent to which ordinary working-class folk have been kicked in the ass by deindustrialization, the only thing he points to as a cause of their failure to respond with anything like the militancy they displayed in the Gilded Age is the spread of consumer culture. To me, two things stand out in the present period: 1) the general acquiescence; and 2) the fact that resistance is limited almost entirely to black youth. Both of these facts cry out for analysis, and his having written the book before Baltimore does not get him off the hook, since there was plenty of indication along those lines before. In my view, a large part of the reason why so many people have failed to resist the ass-kicking is that they imagine that the cutbacks and deterioration of every aspect of life are not directed at them, or if they are they are mainly directed at another group with whom they do not identify; race may not be the all-embracing category it once was, but it isn’t gone either.

  2. white worker -no
    black worker -no
    “White worker” and “Black worker” are shibboleths that keep us enslaved. That your idea, to keep us enslaved? Or right some past wrong? – Forget it.
    worker – yes.
    Fuck the rest.

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