LUMPENPROLETARIAT—Although we live in a post-Occupy Wall Street world, where most people understand that the bottom 99% of the people are exploited and oppressed by the ruling class, or the 1%, we also live in a post-9/11 world, in which even John Lennon‘s “Imagine” can be effectively censored from corporate radio, not to mention Rage Against the Machine and other emancipatory music deemed worthy of censorship by our corporate thought police.
We now live in a time where bourgeois artists, such as John Mayer (b. 1977) have a hit song like “Waiting on the World to Change“, which our corporate masters are all too keen to keep on perpetual rotation.
“Waiting on the World to Change” is a far cry from John Lennon‘s “Imagine” or “Working Class Hero“, or the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome“, or Public Enemy‘s “Fight the Power” or “Shut ‘Em Down“, or you name it, “Get Up, Stand Up“.
“Get Up, Stand Up” (1973, 1980) by Bob Marley and The Wailers
But this all seems to reflect a burgeoning apathy and surrender to the powers that be, as the last vestiges of public people of conscience, such as John Mayer and other mealy-mouthed liberals in the public eye, squander their access to mass media. As the 1960s counterculture generations, inspired within the context of revolutionary uprisings in many economically-developing nations around the world, fade into the past and COINTELPRO, followed by the Reagan/Thatcher 1980s, backlashes pummel the working classes, popular culture has somehow grown incredibly stagnant in terms of its socioeconomic and political consciousness. This reflects the general decline in civic engagement in the USA, as chronicled in Robert Putnam’s flawed, but important best-seller, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Somehow, American life has become increasingly isolated and alienated. And all of this is despite the mass protest movements, such as the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, and sundry environmental campaigns, which flare up periodically to protest, but not question nor challenge, the prevailing political order.
While we seem willing to be activists insofar as we are willing to campaign and demonstrate, our contemporary generations seem unwilling to question the prevailing wisdom of the political status quo. So, most of us accept a cartel-like two-party dictatorship oligopolised by the Republican and Democrat parties, which collude to keep out alternative political parties. And most of us, even activists, uncritically accept the capitalist mode of production. Most of us uncritically accept capitalism, lacking the imagination to imagine alternatives.
It seems much of our current generation’s political and socioeconomic apathy comes from a lack of awareness of a people’s history and the struggles of working people to provide lives of dignity for their families and communities. Professor Steve Fraser reminded us earlier today on free speech radio of our oft-forgotten people’s history of collective resistance to socioeconomic injustice, as he discusses his 2015 book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power.  Listen (or download) here.
STEVE FRASER: “You know; a depression broke out in 1873, just when Twain published his Gilded Age book, and it continued for four long, miserable years. And it was mass unemployment all over the country, and mass evictions, and so on. And that was, particularly, the case in New York City. Demonstrators gathered in Tompkins Square Park, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and that demonstration was met with violence by the City Police Force. And, forever after, Tompkins Square would be remembered as one of those critical moments of class confrontation, which characterised the era.”
“You know; it’s very hard for us, living in the times we live in today, the acquiescent times, if you will, to imagine what life was like a hundred or a hundred and twenty-five years ago.”
THE NEW YORK TIMES—(16 MAR 2015) For two years running, Oxfam International has traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to make a request: Could the superrich kindly cease devouring the world’s wealth? And while they’re at it, could they quit using “their financial might to influence public policies that favor the rich at the expense of everyone else”?
In 2014, when Oxfam arrived in Davos, it came bearing the (then) shocking news that just 85 individuals controlled as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. This January, that number went down to 80 individuals.
Dropping this news in Davos is a great publicity stunt, but as a political strategy, it’s somewhat baffling. Why would the victors of a class war choose to surrender simply because the news is out that they have well and truly won? Oxfam’s answer is that the rich must battle inequality or they will find themselves in a stagnant economy with no one to buy their products. (Davos thought bubble: “Isn’t that what cheap credit is for?”)
Still, even if some of the elite hand-wringing about inequality is genuine, are reports really the most powerful weapons out there to fight for a more just distribution of wealth? Where are the sit-down strikes? The mass boycotts? The calls for expropriation? Where, in short, are the angry masses?
Oxfam’s Davos guilt trip doesn’t appear in Steve Fraser’s “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power,” but these are the questions at the heart of this fascinating if at times meandering book. Fraser, a labor historian, argues that deepening economic hardship for the many, combined with “insatiable lust for excess” for the few, qualifies our era as a second Gilded Age. But while contemporary wealth stratification shares much with the age of the robber barons, the popular response does not.
As Fraser forcefully shows, during the first Gilded Age — which he defines loosely as the years between the end of the Civil War and the market crash of 1929 — American elites were threatened with more than embarrassing statistics. Rather, a “broad and multifaceted resistance” fought for and won substantially higher wages, better workplace conditions, progressive taxation and, ultimately, the modern welfare state (even as they dreamed of much more).
To solve the mystery of why sustained resistance to wealth inequality has gone missing in the United States, Fraser devotes the first half of the book to documenting the cut and thrust of the first Gilded Age: the mass strikes that shut down cities and enjoyed the support of much of the population; the Eight Hour Leagues that dramatically cut the length of the workday, fighting for the universal right to leisure and time “for what we will”; the vision of a “ ‘cooperative commonwealth’ in place of the Hobbesian nightmare that Progress had become.”
He reminds readers that although “class war” is considered un-American today, bracing populist rhetoric was once the lingua franca of the nation. American presidents bashed “moneycrats” and “economic royalists,” and immigrant garment workers demanded not just “bread and roses” but threatened “bread or blood.” Among many such arresting anecdotes is one featuring the railway tycoon George Pullman. When he died in 1897, Fraser writes, “his family was so afraid that his corpse would be desecrated by enraged workers, they had it buried at night . . . in a pit eight feet deep, encased in floors and walls of steel-reinforced concrete in a lead-lined casket covered in layers of asphalt and steel rails.”
Learn more at THE NEW YORK TIMES.
“War” by Bob Marley and The Wailers
[Working draft transcript of actual radio broadcast by Messina for Lumpenproletariat and Letters and Politics.]
LETTERS AND POLITICS—[26 OCT 2015] “Good day; and welcome to Letters and Politics. I’m Mitch Jeserich. During a 15-year period between 1870 and 1920, there were thousands of violent skirmishes between workers and the state, the state meaning whether it be the military, the national guard, state troopers, or the police, and there have been throughout the United States. This period encompasses what is known as the Gilded Age and the rise of industrial capitalism.
“Many say, today, that we are living in a second Gilded Age with the rise of financial capitalism and the automation of the workforce, displacing many workers today, just like what happened during the first Gilded Age. But in the first Gilded Age, there were 40 people’s armies formed, just between 1893 and 1894, that set out to march on Washington, D.C. All but one of them were put down violently before arriving.
“Today, we’re gonna compare and contrast the first Gilded Age and the so-called Second Gilded Age. My guest is Steve Fraser. Steve Fraser is a labour historian and an award-winning writer. He’s the author of the book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. He joins us via Skype from New York City. Steve Fraser, it is my good pleasure to welcome you to this programme.” (c. 7:34)
STEVE FRASER: “Thanks. It is my pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.”
MITCH JESERICH: “As we begin, let’s talk about the term Gilded Age itself and what it means. It was first coined, wasn’t it, by Mark Twain in a book called The Gilded Age?”
STEVE FRASER: “That’s correct. It’s Mark Twain’s first best-seller, published in 1873. And that’s where we get that rubric from. It’s still, today, a hilariously funny book, which makes fun of what, today, we would call the crony capitalism of that era. That is to say the kind of incestuous relationship between big business (back then, which meant railroads and mining companies and banks) and the government. And the roster of corrupt politicians ranged all the way from the Vice President through the Senate, all through that Congress, into the Cabinets of the Presidents, who ran things in those days.
“And Twain meant it to mean, both, crony capitalism and the kind of obsession with wealth, with what clerics of that age might have called Mana worship and the way it corrupted democracy and undermined the egalitarian ethos that America was supposed to be dedicated to. So, that’s where we get that term from. [SNIP] (c. 27:35)
“[SNIP] There are a lot of similarities, people who say, Look, you know, this is the same old; it’s déjà vu all over again, have a point. That is to say there is the same gross maldistribution of income and wealth. There’s the same kind of obnoxious, extravagant flaunting of great wealth. There’s the same kind of socially Darwinian callousness today. If you don’t make it big, you’re a loser. Then, you are a kind of casualty of the survival of the fittest. There is the same kind of crony capitalism or corruption in politics. There’s the same undermining of all democratic institutions, that are supposed to protect the people against the powerful and the wealthy.
“These things are all similar. There’s no question about that. But there are these striking differences. One, of course, is what we’ve been talking about, the extent of resistance, which is far, far less in our own age. A second is this lack of a kind of alternative vision or set of visions of what might replace a system, which has shown itself in the last 30 or 40 years to be kind of heading back to the future. That is to say we now have an economy, which more and more is characterised by sweat shop labour. 30 to 40 million people work a full time day and make less than poverty-level wages. That’s a scandal.
“The sweat shop back around the year 1900 was considered an aberration, a kind of obnoxious departure from capitalism. Now, it’s, increasingly, in the age of neoliberal, flexible capitalism considered the norm.
“Also, in our Second Gilded Age, we are experiencing a developed country—that is to say, the United States—undergoing a process of underdevelopment. That is to say, the general standard of living has, either, stagnated or declined for millions of people over the last 30 to 40 years, despite the gaiety that is common in the precincts of the 1%.
“During the first Gilded Age, brutalised and exploited as it was, there was, instead, a general and slow gradual uptick in the standard of living for most people. [SNIP]” (c. 29:58)
“[SNIP] But what we have today is the de-fanging of all those protections, the stripping away of all the welfare state provisions. The National Labor Relations Act has become a joke. Nobody obeys it. No corporation obeys it anymore. The chances of getting a free and fair election at a work site are minimal. The law is used by corporate America to delay interminably the resolution of grievances or demands, to engage in collective bargaining until workers who have no choice give up, go elsewhere, work elsewhere.
“There are millions of low wage workers in this country today—and there are numerous reports that document this—that are working at wage levels, for hours, and without health and safety benefits, that are proscribed by law. But business in America, today, uniformly—or, if not uniformly, widely—ignores that law ‘cos there’s no enforcement mechanism in place. All of the social welfare provisions, that you’re referring to, was the culmination of that resistance to that first Gilded Age.” (c. 31:06)”
MITCH JESERICH: “Not just the New Deal?”
STEVE FRASER: “Yeah, created during the New Deal have been slowly and more rapidly whittled away.”
MITCH JESERICH: “But you’re saying, though, that these protections, that really sort of came in the 1930s, this is part of—what?—a 60-year effort? A 50-year effort—”
STEVE FRASER: “Yes.”
MITCH JESERICH: “—all the way back to the 1870s?”
STEVE FRASER: “Yeah, some of it, like, for instance, anti-sweat shop legislation begins to emerge around the turn of the century, long before the Great Depression and the New Deal. And safety legislation begins to emerge. States begin to pass minimum wage and maximum hour laws. All of that is, in my view, a function of this upwelling of resistance, which had characterised the country and alarmed so many people for decades by that point.
“Moreover, when you get to the ’30s and you face what, I guess, arguably, is the second most traumatic moment in American history, the Great Depression, you don’t have only a President who’s open to the possibility of significant reform, you have a population, which is ready to demand in a variety of ways, so that there are mass strikes all around the country. There’s a San Francisco General Strike. There’s a Minneapolis General Strike. There’s a textiles strike, which puts 450,000 textile workers on the picket lines. There are sit down strikes in the auto industry, in the rubber industry, in department stores, in the meat-packing industry. You have farm or labour parties emerging all through the midwest and even in New York state. You have mass unemployment demonstrations, some of them met with violence, as in the case of the Ford Motor Company in 1932.
“You have movements to stop, forcibly stop, evictions, both, from farms and from people’s apartments and homes. You have people actually seizing idled utility plants and coal mines, that is transgressing the holy of all holies, private property, and starting them up themselves, so that they could survive. So, there’s a general atmosphere of anti-capitalism, which fuels the political, which informs the political atmosphere of that moment and makes the New Deal reforms possible. The New Deal is not a function of a kind-hearted Hudson River patroon, which is what Roosevelt was, feeling—”
“—feeling the pinch.”
MITCH JESERICH: “And it’s not just a reaction to, which I think a lot of people think it is, to the 1929 crash.”
STEVE FRASER: “No. It’s not. And it draws on this long reservoir of anti-capitalism. (c. 34:00) [SNIP]”
[SNIP] (c. 59:59)
Learn more at LETTERS AND POLITICS.
[This transcript will be expanded as time constraints, and/or demand or resources, allow.]
[From KPFA website] Steve Fraser is a labor historian and author of several books including Wall Street and Labor Will Rule, which won the Philip Taft Award for the best book in labor history. He also is the co-editor of The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order. His latest book is The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power.
A groundbreaking investigation of how and why, from the 18th century to the present day, American resistance to our ruling elites has vanished.
From the American Revolution through the Civil Rights movement, Americans have long mobilized against political, social, and economic privilege. Hierarchies based on inheritance, wealth, and political preferment were treated as obnoxious and a threat to democracy. Mass movements envisioned a new world supplanting dog-eat-dog capitalism. But over the last half-century that political will and cultural imagination have vanished. Why?
The Age of Acquiescence seeks to solve that mystery. Steve Fraser’s account of national transformation brilliantly examines the rise of American capitalism, the visionary attempts to protect the democratic commonwealth, and the great surrender to today’s delusional fables of freedom and the politics of fear.
Learn more at LETTERS AND POLITICS.
THE NATION—[2 APR 2015] This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
What We Can Learn From the Workers, Activists, and Even Politicians Who Tore Down the First Gilded Age: Americans were furious at the inequality of their country 200 years ago. Could they get as angry today?
by Steve Fraser
The following passages are excerpted and slightly adapted from The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Little, Brown and Company).
Part 1: The Great Upheaval
What came to be known as the Great Upheaval, the movement for the eight-hour day, elicited what one historian has called “a strange enthusiasm.” The normal trade union strike is a finite event joining two parties contesting over limited, if sometimes intractable, issues. The mass strike in 1886 or before that in 1877—all the many localized mass strikes that erupted in towns and small industrial cities after the Civil War and into the new century—was open-ended and ecumenical in reach.
So, for example, in Baltimore when the skilled and better-paid railroad brakemen on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad first struck in 1877 so, too, did less well off “box-makers, sawyers, and can-makers, engaged in the shops and factories of that city, [who] abandoned their places and swarmed into the streets.” This in turn “stimulated the railroad men to commit bolder acts.” When the governor of West Virginia sent out the Berkeley Light Guard and Infantry to confront the strikers at Martinsburg at the request of the railroad’s vice president, the militia retreated and “the citizens of the town, the disbanded militia, and the rural population of the surrounding country fraternized,” encouraging the strikers.
The centrifugal dynamic of the mass strike was characteristic of this extraordinary phenomenon. By the third day in Martinsburg the strikers had been “reinforced during the night at all points by accessions of working men engaged in other avocations than railroading,” which, by the way, made it virtually impossible for federal troops by then on the scene to recruit scabs to run the trains.
By the fourth day, “mechanics, artisans, and laborers in every department of human industry began to show symptoms of restlessness and discontent.” Seeping deeper and deeper into the subsoil of proletarian life, down below the “respectable” working class of miners and mechanics and canal boat-men, frightened observers reported a “mighty current of passion and hate” sweeping up a “vast swarm of vicious idlers, vagrants, and tramps.” And so it went.
Smaller cities and towns like Martinsburg were often more likely than the biggest urban centers to experience this sweeping sense of social solidarity. (What today we might call a massing of the 99%.) During the 1877 Great Uprising, the social transmission of the mass strike moved first along the great trunk lines of the struck railroads, but quickly flowed into the small villages and towns along dozens of tributary lines and into local factories, workshops, and coal mines as squads of strikers moved from settlement to settlement mobilizing the populace.
In these locales, face-to-face relations still prevailed. It was by no means taken for granted that antagonism between labor and capital was fated to be the way of the world. Aversion to the new industrial order and a “democratic feeling” brought workers, storekeepers, lawyers, and businessmen of all sorts together, appalled by the behavior of large industrialists who often enough didn’t live in those communities and so were the more easily seen as alien beings.
It was not uncommon for local officials, like the mayor of Cumberland, Maryland, to take the side of the mass strikers. The federal postmaster in Indianapolis wired Washington, “Our mayor is too weak, and our Governor will do nothing. He is believed to sympathize with the strikers.” In Fort Wayne, like many other towns its size, the police and militia simply could not be counted on to put down the insurrectionists. In this world, corporate property was not accorded the same sanctified status still deferred to when it came to personal property. Sometimes company assets were burned to the ground or disabled; at other times they were seized, but not damaged.
Metropolises also witnessed their own less frequent social earthquakes. Anonymous relations were more common there, the gulf separating social classes was much wider, and the largest employers could count on the new managerial and professional middle classes for support and a political establishment they could more often rely on.
Still, the big city hardly constituted a DMZ. During the mass strike of 1877 in Pittsburgh, when 16 citizens were killed, the city erupted and “the whole population seemed to have joined the rioters.”
“Strange to say,” noted one journalist, elements of the population who had a “reputation for being respectable people—tradesmen, householders, well-to-do mechanics and such—openly mingled with the [turbulent mob] and encouraged them to commit further deeds of violence.” Here, too, as in smaller locales, enraged as they clearly were, mass strikers still drew a distinction between railroad property and the private property of individuals, which they scrupulously avoided attacking. Often enough the momentum of the mass strike was enough to win concessions on wages, hours, or on other conditions of work—although they might be provisional, not inscribed in contracts, and subject to being violated or ignored when law and order was restored.
Learn more at THE NATION.
MOYERS & COMPANY—[19 DEC 2014] “Why Have Americans Stopped Resisting Economic Privilege? by Steve Fraser
The following excerpt is from the introduction to Steve Fraser’s new book, The Age of Acquiescence.
Marx once described high finance as “the Vatican of capitalism,” its diktat to be obeyed without question. Several decades have come and gone during which we’ve learned not to mention Marx in polite company. Our vocabulary went through a kind of linguistic cleansing, exiling suspect and nasty phrases like “class warfare” or “the reserve army of labor” or even something as apparently innocuous as “working class.”
In times past, however, such language and the ideas they conjured up struck our forebears as useful, even sometimes as accurate depictions of reality. They used them regularly along with words and phrases like “plutocracy,” “robber baron,” and “ruling class” to identify the sources of economic exploitation and inequality that oppressed them, as well as to describe the political disenfranchisement they suffered and the subversion of democracy they experienced. Never before, however, has the Vatican of capitalism captured quite so perfectly the specific nature of the oligarchy that recently ran the country for a long generation and ended up running it into the ground. Even political consultant and pundit James Carville (no Marxist he), confessed as much during the Clinton years, when he said the bond market “intimidates everybody.”
Occupy Wall Street, even bereft of strategy, program, and specific demands as many lamented when it was a newborn, nonetheless opened up space again for our political imagination by confronting this elemental, determining feature of our society’s predicament. It rediscovered something that, beneath thickets of political verbiage about tax this and cut that, about end‑of‑the world deficits and missionary-minded “job creators,” had been hiding in plain sight: namely, what our ancestors once called “the street of torments.” It achieved a giant leap backward, so to speak, summoning up a history of opposition that had mysteriously withered away.
True turning points in American political history are rare. This might seem counterintuitive once we recognize that for so long society was in a constant uproar. Arguably the country was formed and re‑formed in serial acts of violent expropriation. Like the market it has been (and remains) infinitely fungible, living in the perpetually changing present, panting after the future, the next big thing. The demographics of American society are and have always been in permanent upheaval, its racial and ethnic complexion mutating from one generation to the next. Its economic hierarchies exist in a fluid state of dissolution and recrystallization. Social classes go in and out of existence.
Nonetheless, in the face of this allsided liquefaction, American politics have tended to flow within very narrow banks from one generation to the next. The capacious, sometimes stultifying embrace of the two-party system has absorbed most of the heat generated by this or that hot-button issue, leaving the fundamentals intact. Only under the most trying circumstances has the political system ruptured or come close. Then the prevailing balance of power and wealth between classes and regions has been called into question; then the political geography and demography of the nation have been reconfigured, sometimes for decades to come; only then have axiomatic beliefs about wealth and work, democracy and elitism, equality and individualism, government and the free market been reformulated or at least opened to serious debate, however briefly.
A double mystery then is the subject of this book. Speaking generally, one might ask why people submit for so long to various forms of exploitation, oppression, and domination. And then, equally mysterious, why they ever stop giving in. Why acquiesce? Why resist? Looking backward, the indignities and injustices, the hypocrisies and lies, the corruption and cruelty may seem insupportable. Yet they are tolerated. Looking backward, the dangers to life, limb, and livelihood entailed in rebelling may seem too dire to contemplate. Yet in the teeth of all that, rebellion happens. The world is full of recent and long-ago examples of both.
Learn more at MOYERS & COMPANY.
 Steve Fraser is a historian, writer, and editor. His research and writing have pursued two main lines of inquiry: labor history and the history of American capitalism. In his first book, Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor (1991), he examines the relationship between the New Deal and the rise of the modern labor movement. His later works, including Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace (2008) and Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life (2005), explore the ways American society and culture reacted to the presence of powerful economic elites. His newest book is The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (2015). He has taught at Columbia University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and New York University. He has also worked as an editor for Cambridge University Press, Basic Books, and Houghton Mifflin.
[29 OCT 2015 20:30 PST]
[Last modified 09:01 PDT 12 MAY 2016]