by Steve Fraser
“All that is solid melts into air” is even truer about the hyper-flux of everyday life today than it was when those words first appeared in the Communist Manifesto more than a century and half ago. Truer, that is, with one major exception. In our political life we are fixated on the past, forever looking backward.
Arguably, national politics over the last half century has polarized between efforts to defend and restore the New Deal Order and relentless attempts to repeal it and replace it with something even older. The liberal left has fought to extend or at least defend what has been dismantled and weakened since the days of FDR and LBJ. Its advances in the realms of individual rights for women and minorities are of profound historical significance. Jim Crow and patriarchy no longer can rely on the institutional and legal supports that empowered them for generations. Together with the earlier triumph over industrial autocracy, these breakthroughs are fairly seen as the lasting and last achievements of that long 19th century of anti-capitalist resistance.
Nonetheless, they too, like the rights of labor, were soon incorporated within the framework of civilized capitalism first erected by the New Deal. What began as collective shout-outs for liberation have ended in what the country’s first African-American president calls a “race to the top.” Is there a more perfect way to express the metamorphosis of solidarity into self-advancement?
Still the breakdown of older hierarchies rankles many. Seeking to restore the time before all that happened is the conceit of the conservative right. No one in those ranks (except for marginal cranks) actually imagines it possible or even desires to re-post “colored” signs on water fountains or move people to the-back-of-the-bus or repeal the Equal Opportunity Employment Act or reestablish the sexual caste system. What they do yearn for is a time before the collectivism of the 1930s and the antic anti-authoritarianism of the 1960s despoiled the country. The right stands on that rock-of-ages flinty individualism of the free market, the disciplinary regime of the work ethic, the pre-eminence of business, and the reassurances of old time patriarchal morality.
Two golden ages. Two mythic moments locked-up in memory. While everything else about modern life accelerates the passage of time, political gridlock freezes it.
Efforts to stop the melting, to return the world to some solid state, do evince pathos. True, they also produce episodes of political burlesque, lots of adolescent noise-making, gnashing of teeth, and mugging for the cameras but not much else. But no one can deny the anguish trailing in the wake of neo-liberal, flexible capitalism. It has spread the liquefaction of society and the psyche far afield and deeply into the tissues of social life. When Marx first spied it the dynamic was as exhilarating as it was unnerving. Now it is more apt to bring on queasiness, a sense of the free-falling unmoored individual descending into the abyss, desperate for a grip. However, this sensation has been christened as the new world’s version of freedom. Consequently, it has become very difficult to sort out the realm of acquiescence from the realm of fear. Did we sign up for this or is our salute a forced one? Are we, as one famous psychoanalyst once asked, afraid to be free; or are we free to be afraid?
More resonant even than “all that is solid melts into air” was another telling bit of social psychological insight by a man who, in his bones, couldn’t have been less a Marxist. “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself,” was FDR’s legendary caution to a nation on the brink of the anti-capitalist end time. One measure of how the temper of our times have changed since the ‘long 19th century’ drew to a close in the Roosevelt era, is that today we might aptly inverse what the President recommended. The only thing we have to fear nowadays is not being afraid enough.
Neo-liberalism didn’t invent fear. Nor did FDR mean to minimize all that there was to be afraid of amidst the calamity of the Great Depression. Losing a job, falling into debt, getting evicted, falling even further down the social pyramid, feeling degraded or helpless or abandoned, racial or ethnic threats to positions of relative privilege, moral vertigo, and phobias induced by deviations from norms of sexual behavior, and much more, are not new. And FDR no doubt had his own reasons for cautioning against fear, including the overriding need to get the wheels of commerce and industry, paralyzed by the panic and collapse of confidence, moving again. What the President could count on — even if he didn’t actually count on it and would not have invoked if he could — was a multifaceted and long-lived culture of resistance that was not afraid to venture onto new terrain, to question the given.
Since then much has happened to wither away the courage and power to imagine a future fundamentally at odds with what we are familiar with or long to return to. In our times what at first seemed liberating sometimes ended up incapacitating.
For example, the ubiquity of market thinking transformed combative political instincts into commercial and personalized ones: Environmental despoiling arouses righteous eating; cultural decay inspires charter schools; rebellion against work becomes work as a form of rebellion; old form anti-clericalism morphs into the piety of the secular; the break with convention ends up as the politics of style; the cri de coeur against alienation surrenders to the triumph of the solitary; the marriage of political and cultural radicalism ends in divorce. Like a deadly plague irony spreads everywhere.
What lends this thinking and behavior such tensile strength is its subterranean connection to the sense of personal liberation. One of the great discoveries of the feminist movement was that “the personal is political.” (Actually this insight was embedded in the dominant logic of the New Left although its male leadership shied away from applying it to sexual and gender relations.) This undermined axiomatic assumptions about female inferiority and subordination from which patriarchy will never recover.
However, personalizing of the political also carried with it unforeseen consequences as the apercu migrated into the wider world carried there by the tidal flows of consumer culture. Nowadays we live in a political universe pre-occupied with gossip, rumor, insinuations, and innuendo. Personal transgressions, scandals, outré behavior; secrets have become the pulp fiction of politics. This can be entertaining. Indeed, it may be intended by the media to be so as it is eye and ear catching. It displays a kinship with the inherent sensationalism of consumer culture more generally. It is also, often, if not always, stupendously trivial or only marginally relevant, but is treated in exactly the opposite way. We have grown accustomed to treat all sorts of personal foibles as if they were political MRI’s lighting up the interior of the most sequestered political motivations.
Yet this occludes vision of what may actually matter, at least when it comes to understanding and working out social conflicts, the dilemmas of our time. So even as it illuminates, garishly, the political arena it de-politicizes that arena. Politics become less and less about power, who has it, why, who should have it, for what purpose. Instead it comes to resemble a clinic for voyeurs where pathologies are exposed and presumably treated by doses of electoral defeat.
Credit this hyper-personalizing of political life with keeping interest alive, even if it’s a kind of morbid interest in the fall of the mighty or the wannabe mighty. Otherwise, for many millions of citizens cynicism and only cynicism prevails. The system seems transparently to have become an arena for gaming the system. Cycles of corruption and ‘insiderism’ repeat with numbing frequency and in a non-partisan distribution, a system verging on kleptocracy. Silent millions remain unmoved by the theatrics of inclement, not to say vitriolic debate. Cynicism of this sort might be considered healthy or rational. Either way, it leaves behind the conviction that not much is apt to happen in these precincts.
Arguably, “the personal is political” has morphed into something far less liberating, far more debilitating: namely, that only the personal is political. How disarming this is can only be fully appreciated when measured against the relentless growth of the leviathan state whose impersonal mechanics unfold with little or no regard for the personal peccadilloes of its functionaries.
When first constructed the administrative-regulatory-welfare state seemed a life-saver. And for a while it was. But it has become a grotesque caricature of its former self. Its presumptions of expertise and dirigisme emasculate rather than empower. A human engineering bureaucracy claims hieratical powers in matters of family life, education, psychological malfunction, workplace conflict, moral conundrums, and much more. A mandarinate of experts bearing Olympian pretensions, rationalized by social science and psycho-medical portfolios instills a sense of incapacity in some, in others a subcutaneous resentment.
Nowadays, when the bugaboo of ‘socialism’ gets invoked to malign any feint in the direction of government intervention, the accusation may seem preposterous on the face of it. This is after all the most capitalist of capitalist countries, the freest of the free markets. However, this too easily dismisses the rancor roused by the presumptions of our managerial and administrative elites. They might not mimic a Stalinist vanguard in many ways, but in arrogating to themselves the foreknowledge characteristic of social engineering hubris they do.
Meanwhile the security and protections the state once offered have grown frail or were killed. Under the regime of neo-liberal finance the government’s inveiglement with commanding business institutions (trace elements of which were there at its creation under the New Deal) erode its bona fides as an instrument of democratic will, not to mention the general welfare.
What has not grown frail or inept, what instead has become ever more self-aggrandizing and worth fearing is the national security state. It is easy and perhaps convenient to forget that it too originated in those golden years after World War II so often celebrated by progressives. Recovery from the Great Depression and the global war that followed seemed to demand the metastasis of the state. It facilitated the triumph of America as the super-power of the ‘Free World’ and as its economic locomotive. Without it the mass consumption capitalism that for a time ‘raised all boats’ would have sunk.
Security was what it promised and in a double sense; first of all as protection against the most damaging perturbations of the business cycle and the social disturbances they invariably aroused. And just as important and organically bound up with domestic security, the national security state pledged to secure that half of the planet not be exposed or infected with the toxin of communism.
It is impossible to pry apart these two kinds of security, to divorce the American garrison state from the global New Deal. They grew up together and helped prescribe an ‘end to history’ long before that terminology became fashionable. Today this remains the case only more so. The delectables of home consumption originate in a global system of industry and finance watched over by the political and military institutions of the world’s sole superpower.
From the beginning alternatives were proscribed. So total was the prohibition that even as the Cold War reached Armageddon-like temperatures the word ‘capitalism’ was rarely used to describe what was being defended. Memories of the tumultuous long 19th century of anti-capitalism were still alive, worrying enough to purge the national vocabulary of that kind of verbal incendiary. Better to train the ear in abstractions like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’ Only a generation later when the red menace had subsided and collapsed abroad and at home could the rationale for American hegemony speak openly again of the country as the paragon of free market capitalism.
Moreover, even back then the national security state had a low tolerance for dissent, worried the citizenry was growing morally disarmed, too susceptible to the viruses of collectivism. Uproar over the horrors and prevarications of Vietnam temporarily penetrated the armor of the covert state and weakened the walls of the fortress. Soon enough they were restored.
Now that state operates here and abroad to call into question anyone who dares call into question the way things are; and continues doing this well past the time when any even semi-credible threat to U.S. hegemony exists.
Note the paradox. Neo-liberal global capitalism is known for its antipathy to the state. It does not deserve that reputation, however. It may in any particular instance be for or against government monitoring of commercial relations. But as a world order it depends completely on national and international political (and sometimes military) institutions to keep things humming: trade treaties, IMF loans, World Bank grants, mechanism of debt enforcement or default, property law, a global necklace of military bases, state regulations monitoring the transmigration of labor, international concords assuring the unimpeded flows of liquid capital, oil, gas, and rare earth metals across national borders and much more. A dense network of laws and sanctions and government negotiations facilitate and defend flexible capitalism. As the regnant order that seeks to embrace the globe it naturally requires a thick and pervasive armature (cultural as well as coercive) to get its way.
However, we are not afraid of this state. This is not some Stalinist secret police apparatus sending people off to the gulag. Instead, we fear what it fears, what it tells us to fear, however implausible, however much the demons it depicts look more like they were invented by out-of- work makers of ‘B’ movies. Are those ‘terrorists’ who can’t even follow the instructions on a box-top of explosives or who appear too hapless to plot out what they might have for breakfast without the help of an FBI agent real? Or is this ‘reality TV,’ filmed in some yet to be revealed bunker of the national security network?
There are real terrorists out there. They have slaughtered thousands of innocents. Around these acts of mayhem, however, there has grown up a demonology that persuades us to live in permanent fear, in a state not so much of total war (after all more and more of the fighting is done with remote control robotic weaponry) but of endless war. It projects that war to be endless because it is on a fool’s errand to solve the political problems generated by global capitalism through military means. It is a form of state-sponsored paranoia that exacerbates an already pronounced penchant to man-up to the fear, to flex muscles not only at aliens overseas but at domestic ‘strangers in our midst,’ ‘illegals,’ the religiously and racially suspect or uppity, overweight unions.
What we are instructed to fear above all is that we are not fearful enough, not vigilant enough, not on the ready to detect and defend against each and every imputation against our way of life. We are incessantly reminded that indeed a way of life is in jeopardy. And that is true. What we are called upon to guard is global free market democracy which incontestably is a way of life.
Presumably in this view the global market and democracy are joined at the hip. But as Iraq and the other ‘Iraqs’ before and since suggest or as the displacement or neutering of democratically elected governments in Europe behind in their debts indicate, or as our own “dollar democracy” here at home reminds us, what matters is ‘The Market.’ Democracy doesn’t necessarily compute. The United States has lived in harmony with corrupt military dictators, death squads, feudal sheiks and latifundists, kleptocrats and war lords, with virtually every variety of autocracy and tyranny. The main point is to allow the state to do its work to keep fearsome enemies at bay; any one of innumerable foes who might challenge the suzerainty of global capitalism run out of Washington.
Hence the dark matter of a para-state has grown up around us. It operates outside the law, or ad- libs or reinvents the law, arrogating to itself powers undreamed up by the founders of democracy but always on behalf of democracy. The smug self-assurance of these state mandarins may appall many. But if once there was a small army of Edward Snowdens to take them on, today there is only Edward Snowden.
There are no tanks in the streets (although now and then we do witness mass arrests or a drone take-down of a citizen). Rather persuasion, not force, does much of the heavy lifting. Many blame the media so intertwined with the power blocs of politics and business – and itself an increasingly concentrated planetary business. Now and then it does indeed function like a propaganda machine and a censor.
But most of the time it operates more insidiously than that. Rather it narrowly circumscribes what is allowable and thereby what is verboten in public debate, what is legitimate and what is outré, what is to be taken seriously and what is to be cooly dismissed. It invokes the sounds of silence without gagging anyone.
Mainstream media instinctively mimic the version of events offered up by the empowered. Their elemental obligation as a ‘fourth estate’ to interrogate, to keep their skeptical distance – something that happened with far greater frequency in past centuries – gets sacrificed on the altar of ‘insiderism.’ The run up to Iraq is perhaps the most lurid instance of this pathology. Mea culpas surfaced only long after it mattered. When in the presence of the national security state, as if granted an audience at the Vatican with the Pope, even otherwise fearless media outlets like 60 Minutes genuflect. This manufacturing of or flight from reality is not a conspiracy to deceive but a long maturing closing down of the cultural frontier.
When it came to the near terminal crisis of flexible finance capitalism itself during the Great Recession, ideas outside the box were locked out by fear and persuasion in equal measure. A culture that had learned to mythologize big money-makers so extravagantly and without reservations as seers, saviors, prophets, and warriors was ill-prepared to treat these heroes and the institutions they captained differently when they burned the house down.
After noting that a lot of people were ready to haul Wall Street out into the middle of New York harbor and drown it, the media picked up the more appropriate echo emanating from political and economic elites. We faced, all were tutored, a slim menu for how to get out of the mess: we could compress the social wage through austerity; we could use government largesse to seduce those corporate ‘job creators’ and financiers who hadn’t yet felt inclined to create many; we could resort to that out of favor Keynesian remedy of deficit spending to haul the economy out of the muck. What we could not do, what was not even speakable, was to tamper with the basic institutions of financial capitalism. So, as for the banks themselves they were to be bailed out, “too big to fail.” Apres the banks la deluge, an article of faith even the progressive community was too buffaloed to challenge.
Indeed, neo-liberalism as a way of thinking about the world has been profoundly disempowering precisely because it conveys a techno-determinism about the way things are. It presents itself as a kind of Marxism of the ruling classes suggesting that the telos of history and the relentless logic of economic science leads inevitably not where Marx thought it was heading, but rather to just where we are now. Standing in the way of that invites crushing irrelevance at best.
Naturally, under stress the capacity of the neo-liberal imagination to torture language has become Orwellian. There are many examples of this — the grotesque abuse of the word ‘democracy’ is a particularly twisted offering by the ‘Devil’s Dictionary’ of our day. For another let’s take the notion of economic ‘recovery’ which after all is so essential if the system is to right itself and restore the hard-wiring of acquiescence.
Almost before the Great Recession had hit bottom, the media filled up with astrological-like sightings of ‘recovery.’ Recovery beckoned; it was about to start; it had already started; the crisis was over. People in charge, especially President Obama and his inner circle of savants like Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner and Laurence Summers, were quoted to that effect. Evidence accumulated albeit mainly in the financial sector, where big banks found themselves so flush with cash they were paying back their bail-out money or were begging to do so. Profits in the FIRE sector were back, lavish bonuses were back. Hail a new Third Gilded Age!
But then there was the other kind of story, the one about the spreading misery of joblessness, foreclosures, homelessness, wage cuts, firings, amputations of social services, repossessions, bankruptcies, defaults — the dispossession of dreams. This story was told, not censored. What is therefore most astonishing and telling about our age of acquiescence is that amidst the gloom of this dark tale the sun kept shining.
It might be seen as appalling, arrogant, callous, myopic, credulous, and maybe most of all morally embarrassing to talk with a straight face about ‘recovery’ amid all this. What could that word possibly mean? Who exactly was recovering? What, after all, is the whole point of economic recovery if it doesn’t first of all mean some improvement in general well-being? What is it that licenses this official complacency that advises a sort of tough love patience, but then again looks at the bottom-line of Goldman Sachs and takes heart?
That is, however, the nub of the neo-liberal persuasion. It also is the nub of our current dilemma. ‘Recovery’ may indeed happen; it is already happening, but perhaps not in the way we might assume. As Keynes among others observed there may be some absolute bottom to any depression. But that does not mean that once reached, recovery will return the economy to its previous high point or move past it.
Something quite different may happen. Economic life may reproduce itself at some considerably lower level for a long time. That may be emphatically the case here at home, where long before the Great Recession hit, the financial sector was already cannibalizing what most people think of as the real economy. There have been sightings of the textile industry returning from the global South because the shipping costs to customers are lower, the quality control higher, and the wages in our native Dixie and even in the ‘rustbelt’ are now just about where they are in China. ‘Flexible,’ neo-liberal capitalism after all, was always, from one standpoint, not much different than regular capitalism minus the opposition that had made the long 19th century so fraught.
More of that same toxic ‘recovery’ medicine is on order for the future. The social inequities and iniquities and the cultural brutalization this will entail has been in plain sight for a generation now. Dispossession and loss are tough enough to bear. How much sorrier is it when a culture is so coarsened that it looks at legions of causalities and without batting an eye dismisses them as ‘losers.’ By all means liquidate the Detroit Museum of Art. Progress thy name is Regress.
Our political universe may indeed be locked in the past. It looks backward because that’s just where we’re headed.
Is this all inevitable? No one can know. Decline is no more predestined than Progress was once thought to be. Occupy Wall Street seemed to erupt out of nowhere. It turned lower Manhattan into a Grand Guignol of long dormant resistance to the Street’s overlordship. And it sparked fraternal eruptions all around the world. Then it dwindled away. But most would acknowledge it did, as the saying goes, change the conversation.
Perhaps it did more that. Not long after Bill de Blasio was elected Mayor of New York in a wholly unanticipated landslide of populist sentiment that seemed to repudiate a whole era of Wall Street/real estate domination which had cast the city in the role of ‘Capitol City’ of a ‘hunger games’ country.
This was a rare political spectacle in our age of acquiescence. Maybe there is a lesson or two to be learned. Nowadays techno-determinism reigns. One of its pathologies is emotional evisceration, a creeping incapacity to feel; the danger it presents is not the old science fiction one about machines taking on human qualities and taking over, but rather the scarier one of humans becoming increasingly machine-like and proud of it.
Numbing like this may sedate. But it also is antipathetic to the instinct to act politically in the world. Fatalism flourishes. So plenty of skepticism about just what the new mayor could or even would try to do to undo the gross inequalities of power and wealth that had characterized the city for a generation emerged even before the ballots were counted. And that could turn out to be a gloomily accurate forecast. Certainly no one was expecting ‘socialism in one city’ or even the kind of wholesale assault on the fortresses of capitalism that seemed to be heating up when Henry George finished second in the race to be New York’s mayor back in 1886.
Nonetheless, arguably this maturity or resignation or fatalism or whatever one chooses to call it suffers from its own timid realism as well as a fateful forgetfulness. It becomes itself an accomplice of decline in an era of auto-cannibalism.
What is forgotten in a prematurely mature standpoint is that the capacity to envision something generically new, however improbable, has always supplied the intellectual, emotional, and political energy that made an advance in civilized life, no matter how truncated, possible. To be grown up in the age of acquiescence may be a sign of early onset of senescence. No Occupy Wall Street, no Bill de Blasio. No Bill de Blasio….
Had someone painted a picture or taken a photograph of the collective psyche of America in 1932, it would have been a grim one: demoralized, fatalistic, full of cynicism and fear, inert. Painted again just two years later that portrait would have captured the eruption as if out of nowhere of combative resistance and fellow-feeling, a transfiguration conjured up not by the councils of government, but by the social energy and creativity of ordinary people that no one knew existed.
De Blasio may fail to live up to expectations. Other radical critics of the prevailing order elected to local offices that same year in Minneapolis, Seattle, and elsewhere may soon be forgotten…or be a straw in the wind. The uprisings of the working poor at fast food chains, at car washers, inside Fortress Wal-Mart, and dozens of other sites may die away…or may break through the ossified remains of the old trade union apparatus and seed the growth of wholly new organizations of the ‘invisibles.’ An economy that sometimes seems like it wants to reinvent debt slavery has aroused passions not seen for a century among college students, homeowners, and supplicants of the credit card. Is debt likely to become the Achilles heel of the new capitalist order of things?
Money talks. That is an axiom all agree with. Even those moved to question the inequalities of our times tend to frame their response in these terms. But all the great social upheavals of the long 19th century always originated in a realm before money and looked for gratification in a realm beyond money. To be sure they were rooted in material need and not shy about saying what they needed to live in a civilized way. However, intermixed with those material wants and desires, affixed to them like emblems of the spirit, were ineffable yearnings to redefine what it meant to be human together.
Perhaps that is the enduring legacy the long 19th century bequeaths to our own.
[Note: This is a draft of the concluding chapter of a forthcoming book by Steve Fraser entitled The Age of Acquiescence to be published by Little Brown next year.]
[Thank you indeed Steve for this contribution.]
The writer is a historian and teaches at Columbia University.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.