The Age of Acquiesence

By Steve Fraser

The news has been full of stories recently about the growing gap between the 1%, or even 0.1%, and the rest of us.

However, much like the environment, inequality is a problem (when it is seen as a problem) that nobody wants to do much about.

It was not always thus. Previous peaks of inequality – like that, for example, experienced during America’s “Gilded Age” at the end of the nineteenth century – gave rise to social and political movements that fought the “money power” to remarkable effect.

The question of why things are so different today, why we have gone from an age of resistance to acquiescence in the past half century, is one that has exercised commentators quite a bit lately. Among the earlier attempts made to address the subject, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone sought to describe the general withdrawal from group action and politics that has characterized the period, while Linda McQuaig drew attention to the phenomenon in The Cult of Impotence.

Those books came out fifteen years ago. Since then, things have only gotten worse. In The Age of Acquiescence Steve Fraser looks at the difference between then and now, and tries to explain what happened.

The key points in that explanation are by now familiar to anyone who has followed the debate. Private sector unionization has declined precipitously, leaving workers powerless in the face of globalization’s race to the bottom, technology has devalued traditional forms of labour, the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate) has cannibalized much of the economy, and the government is controlled by elites who can dictate legislation that operates to their own benefit (typically involving regressive taxation and corporate subsidies).

From this outline of what happened, Fraser moves to a consideration of why there has been so little outcry against it, why the public (and in particular the middle class) has gone from a response of outrage to “fatalistic resignation” and acquiescence.

There are a number of different explanations, but they can be seen as together constituting a dominant ideology or myth that has taken hold, one to which, in Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase, there is no alternative. While the money power poses the same threat as in the first Gilded Age, today “capitalism seems the only answer to the riddle of history. We have become the slaves of a kind of fateful determinism, gussied up by supplications at the altar of technology and the marketplace.”

In Fraser’s analysis the ideology takes many forms: from the emphasis on individualism and identity politics (which frustrates class solidarity), to “state-sponsored paranoia” (which tricks us into loving Big Brother), to the endless distractions of the culture wars, to the cult of the business titan (a sort of folk hero or “plebeian liberator” whose triumph has had the paradoxical effect of camouflaging the existence of a ruling elite).

But perhaps what makes the Age of Acquiescence such a truly strange development is that it has occurred despite one of the most striking differences between then and now.

A hundred years ago inequality was growing rapidly but there was still a widespread belief in material progress – and this was a belief grounded in reality. Most if not all boats were rising.

That’s not true today, where the middle class is shrinking and real incomes have been stagnant or in decline for decades. Measured against other developed nations, American standards of living have been falling even faster. The United States is a “society in retrogression . . . a country in the throes of economic anorexia.” This is a stark repudiation of one of the nation’s founding myths, that the New World is the land of Progress.

With that dismantling, hope has been replaced by fear. Dreams of Utopia have been replaced by anxiousness over economic or environmental meltdown. Acquiescence has become a strategy for survival.

Review first published May 16, 2015.