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.
America’s history is mysterious in just this way. This book is an attempt to explore the enigma of resistance and acquiescence as those experiences unfolded in the late nineteenth and again in the late twentieth century. We have grown accustomed for some years now to referring to America’s two gilded ages. The first one was baptized by Mark Twain in his novel of that same name and has forever after been used to capture the era’s exhibitionist material excess and political corruption. The second, our own, which began sometime during the Reagan era and lasted though the financial meltdown of 2008, like the original, earned a reputation for extravagant self-indulgence by the rich and famous and for a similar political system of, by, and for the moneyed. So it has been natural to assume that these two gilded ages, however much they have differed in their particulars, were essentially the same. Clearly there is truth in that claim. However, they were fundamentally dissimilar.
We have grown accustomed for some years now to referring to America’s two gilded ages. The first one was baptized by Mark Twain in his novel of that same name and has forever after been used to capture the era’s exhibitionist material excess and political corruption. The second, our own, which began sometime during the Reagan era and lasted though the financial meltdown of 2008, like the original, earned a reputation for extravagant self-indulgence by the rich and famous and for a similar political system of, by, and for the moneyed. So it has been natural to assume that these two gilded ages, however much they have differed in their particulars, were essentially the same. Clearly there is truth in that claim. However, they were fundamentally dissimilar.
We think of the last third of the nineteenth century as a time of great accomplishment, especially of stunning economic growth and technological transformation and the amassing of stupendous wealth. This is the age of the steam engine and transcontinental railroads, of the mechanical reaper and the telephone, of cities of more than a million and steel mills larger than any on earth, of America’s full immersion in the Industrial Revolution. A once underdeveloped, infant nation became a power to be reckoned with.
For people living back then, however much they were aware of and took pride in these marvels, the Gilded Age was also a time of profound social unease and chronic confrontations. Citizens were worried about how the nation seemed to be verging on cataclysmic divisions of wealth and power. The trauma of the Civil War, so recently concluded, was fresh in everyone’s mind. The abiding fear, spoken aloud again and again, was that a second civil war loomed. Bloody encounters on railroads, in coal mines and steel mills, in city streets and out on the Great Plains made this premonition palpable. This time the war to the death would be between the haves and have-nots, a war of class against class. American society was becoming dangerously, ominously unequal, fracturing into what many at the time called “two nations.”
Until OWS [Occupy Wall Street] came along, all of this would have seemed utterly strange to those living through America’s second Gilded Age. But why? After all, years before the financial meltdown plenty of observers had noted how unequal American society had become. They compared the skewed distribution of income and wealth at the turn of the twenty-first century with the original Gilded Age and found it as stark or even starker than at any time in American history. Stories about penthouse helipads, McMansions roomy enough to house a regiment, and private island getaways kept whole magazines and TV shows buzzing. “Crony capitalism,” which Twain had great fun skewering in his novel, was very much still alive and well in the age of Jack Abramoff. Substitute those Fifth Avenue castles, Newport beachfront behemoths, and Boss Tweed’s infamous courthouse of a century before and nothing much had changed.
Or so it might seem. But in fact times had changed profoundly. Gone missing were the insurrections and all those utopian longings for a world put together differently so as to escape the ravages of industrial capitalism. It was this social chemistry of apocalyptic doom mixed with visionary expectation that had lent the first Gilded Age its distinctive frisson. The absence of all that during the second Gilded Age, despite the obvious similarities it shares with the original, is a reminder that the past is indeed, at least in some respects, a foreign country. Why, until the sudden eruption of OWS — a flare‑up that died down rather quickly — was the second Gilded Age one of acquiescence rather than resistance?
If the first Gilded Age was full of sound and fury, the second seemed to take place in a padded cell. Might that striking contrast originate in the fact that the capitalist society of the Gay Nineties was nothing like the capitalism of our own time? Or to put it another way: Did the utter strangeness of capitalism when it was first taking shape in America — beginning decades before the Gay Nineties — so deeply disturb traditional ways of life that for several generations it seemed intolerable to many of those violently uprooted by its onrush? Did that shattering experience elicit responses, radical yet proportionate to the life‑or‑death threat to earlier, cherished ways of life and customary beliefs?
And on the contrary, did a society like our own long ago grow accustomed to all the fundamentals of capitalism, not merely as a way of con-ducting economic affairs, but as a way of being in the world? Did we come to treat those fundamentals as part of the natural order of things, beyond real challenge, like the weather? What were the mechanisms at work in our own distinctive political economy, in the quotidian experiences of work and family life, in the interior of our imaginations, that produced a sensibility of irony and even cynical disengagement rather than a morally charged universe of utopian yearnings and dystopian forebodings?
Gilded ages are, by definition, hiding something; what sparkles like gold is not. But what they’re hiding may differ, fundamentally. Industrial capitalism constituted the understructure of the first Gilded Age. The second rested on finance capitalism. Late-nineteenth-century American capitalism gave birth to the “trust” and other forms of corporate consolidation at the expense of smaller businesses. Late-twentieth- century capitalism, notwithstanding its mania for mergers and acquisitions, is known for its “flexibility,” meaning its penchant for off-loading corporate functions to a world of freelancers, contractors, subcontractors, and numberless petty enterprises. The first Gilded Age, despite its glaring inequities, was accompanied by a gradual rise in the standard of living; the second by a gradual erosion.
Excerpted from The Age of Acquiescence by Steve Fraser. Copyright (c) 2015 by Steve Fraser. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.