One of the best books of the year to come across my desk was Steve Fraser’s The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. Fraser argues that America is living through nothing less than a new gilded age. But unlike the first gilded age, an age characterized by mass uprisings, powerful unions, robber barons, Christian Socialists, and a whole host of vociferous groups and lively characters, our age, by contrast, is one of stark acquiescence.

This is not to say, simply, that we’ve become lazy. Rather, Fraser makes a case that we’ve lost the logic of resistance. The moneyed-class has become so formidable in our second gilded age, that we no longer possess the language of how to reinvigorate the common good in the face of concentrated private power. This includes the notable loss of religious language condemning the desire for riches and Mammon worship.

Fraser pulls no punches. The left, with its preoccupation of identity-politics at the expense of working class values, played right into the hands of the moneyed-elite. “The social liberalism of identity politics also set in motion a logic of fragmentation that could chisel away at the fragile solidarity of an earlier era,” writes Fraser (360). The rise of the individual – a product, by the way of the right – perpetuates the myth of achieving inner psychic freedom at the cost of social solidarity and the common good. The new Left has bought into this myth; hence the rise of the “creative class” and the gig economy, whereby liberals champion “flexible” schedules and employers. Thus so, “professionalism serves as a psychological wage,” writes Fraser, “compensating for economic deterioration” (335).

What really stands out in Fraser work is his profound grasp on the dignity of labor. With this, Fraser is perfectly in line with the late Christopher Lasch. In fact, Lasch’s greatest work, The True and Only Heaven, is footnoted throughout Fraser’s analysis; so much so that Lasch’s diagnosis forms the bedrock of Fraser’s main criticism: the ascendency of market society corresponds to the demise of dignified labor.

In order then to once again regain our cultural and economic foothold, the mass of people will have to regain the dignity of work. As Fraser writes,

Work itself had lost its cultural gravitas. What in part qualified the American Revolution as a legitimate overturning of an ancien regime was its political emancipation of labor. Until that time, work was considered a disqualifying disability for participating in public life. It entailed a degree of deference to patrons and a narrow-minded preoccupation with day-to-day affairs that undermined the possibility of disinterested public service. By opening up the possibility of democracy, the Revolution removed, in theory, that crippling impairment and erased an immemorial chasm between those who worked and those who didn’t need to, and by inference this bestowed honor on laboring mankind, a recognition that was to infuse American political culture for generations.

But in our new era, the nature of work, the abuse of work, exploitation at work, and all the prophecies and jeremiads, the condemnations and glorifications embedded in laboring humanity no longer occupied center stage in the theater of public life. The eclipse of the work ethic as a spiritual justification for labor may be liberating. But the spiritless work regimen left behind carries with it no higher justification. This disenchantment is also a disempowerment (363).

Astute readers will recognize the implicit theological currents operating here, including “laboring humanity”, references to the spirit, and of course, “disenchantment.” That Fraser relies so heavily upon religious or spiritual concepts to make his point should give us pause. Elsewhere, when criticising identity politics and personal “rights,” Fraser says,

Hibernating inside this “material girl” quest for more stuff and self-improvement is a sacramental quest for transcendence, reveries of what might be, a “transubstantiation of goods, using products and gear to create a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment” (305).

Fraser’s language here should sound familiar (at least for readers of this blog), as the “transubstantiation” observation is from Terry Eagleton.

The Age of Acquiescence give us much to think about. It seems fair to say that if we are serious about the reinvigoration of dignified productive labor, the Left is going to need to add some theological tools to its arsenal. Henry Demarest Lloyd once said that only a restoration of ancient truths, particularly, that the first will be last and the last will be first, can bring back “the republic in which all join their labor that the poorest may be fed, the weakest defended… Not until then can the forces be reversed which generate those obnoxious persons – our fittest” (Quoted in Fraser, 162).


From the great heterodox economist and Catholic Social thinker, E.F. Schumacher:

Above anything else there is a need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something “decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul” [Pixus XI]. Next to the family, it is work and the relationships established by work that are the true foundations of society. If the foundations are unsound, how could society be sound? And if society is sick, how could it fail to be a danger to peace?

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 38.


Do we best organize society by changing structures or by changing individuals? These two poles dominate today’s political climate, yet rarely is the dichotomy questioned, either by the Left or Right. As the 2016 Presidential election season continues to ramp up in the United States, we’re likely to see this either/or become more acute.

In order to get past this political stalemate, Luke Bretherton, in Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life, draws on the wisdom of Martin Buber. As the great Jewish philosopher writes,

Two views concerning the way stand irrevocably opposed to each other. The demands that one begin by changing the “relations” [structures of production or power], for only out of their being different can a change of men and their relationships to one another arise. The other explains that the new orderings and institutions in the place of the old will not change one particle of life so long as they are carried by unchanged persons. This alternative is false. One must begin at both ends at once; otherwise nothing can succeed. What new relations really are, even in their operation, depends upon what kind of human existence is put into them; but how shall a new humanity persist on earth if it is not preserved and confirmed in new orderings? The world of man without the soul of it in addition is no human world; but also the soul of man without the world in addition is no human soul.

Buber then discuss the need for “a third:”

At both ends at once therefore – but that it may avail, a third is needed that cannot be among us without the breath from another sphere: spirit… To me, it is as if two choruses stride about the arena there, the chorus that calls for the orderings and the chorus that calls for the men; their call will not reach its goal until they being to sing in one: Veni creator spiritus.” (Bretherton, 208-209).

Veni creator spiritus, indeed.


Your daily dose of the great Christian Socialist, Karl Polanyi:

Under capitalism, humans are only worth as much as their labor output. As such, market societies are necessarily anti-Christian and therefore anti-humanist. The creative capacity of human poiesis (labor) is not only commodified, but diabolically transformed to serve mammon.

The problem with capitalism, then, is not about the system’s efficiencies (they are some), nor its inefficiencies (they are many), but that it redefines humanity. Humanity was once teleologically ordered toward the divine, but in a market society humanity is teleologically re-ordered toward acquisitiveness.

It gets worse. The great proponents of market society (von Mises, Hayek, etc.) understood that humans are not by nature competitive, driven toward acquisitiveness, or even inherently rational. They maintained that in order to best structure society, we must ensure that humans become competitive, acquisitive, and rational. The problem is that this re-ordering of humanity does not come naturally to most folks. Unlike liberals, most humans value tradition, family, hearth, and irrational things, like high feast days and sacred spaces. Most would rather till their own land rather than work for slave-wages in someone else’s factory. In order to get this “Great Transformation” up and running, the government had to intervene in the affairs of society.

The peculiar nature of market society is such that it requires ongoing state intervention and government planning, with the result of compounding economic and political crisis. The market overreaches, society reacts, markets crumble in response, thus leaving a wake of social and environmental devastation.

Enter the Greek crisis. Neoliberalism imposes austerity measures on Greece’s sovereignty. The people react, the market reacts, and because the market is more powerful than popular democracy, the market wins and society is further devastated. As Polanyi observed about the “ambiguous position” of democracy under a market-driven society,

While the action of the market called forth widespread reactions and helped to create a strong popular demand for political influence of the masses, the use of the power so gained was greatly restricted by the nature of the market mechanism: isolated interventions, however urgent on social grounds, could often be shown to be economically harmful, while economically useful interventions of a planned type could not even be considered. In political terms, while piecemeal reform could be discredited as a damaging interference with the working of the market, outright social solutions, which would have been economically advantageous, had to be excluded altogether. Under conditions such as these, the striking power of the forces of popular democracy was necessarily limited (For a New West, 208).

It remains to be seen what will happen to Greece and the EU. For Polanyi, 19th century society faced two options: in response to crises, society will either implement some variation of socialism, such as the New Deal, and will for a time be placated; or fascism will take over.

Polanyi didn’t shirk from this grim picture. In a letter to a friend from 1929, he referred to these historical “facts,” but added, “we must make life out of these facts as faith builds life out of death.” This seems a good a starting point as any.


The truth about human life discovered by Jesus asserts itself today, in the recognition that, in our present society, man is in a condition of self-estrangement and that the socialist transformation is the only means of redeeming personal life in a complex society (For a New West, 84).

We are reminded here that redemption is as much about the human body as it is about the soul. We are also reminded that sin is as much about the body as it is about the soul: “dark Satanic mills” that enslave; deadening jobs that numb the heart; lack of work that withers the soul; too much work just to make ends meet that destroys the family.

The “socialist transformation” concerns, of course, the social body of Christ, that knows no boundaries between the political, the personal, or the economic.

One of my favorite games to play when reading Friedrich von Hayek is to plug and play the terms “socialism” and “capitalism.” The Road to Serfdom presents many opportunities. Here are just a few of my favorite corrections:

It is not rational conviction but the acceptance of a creed which is required to justify a particular plan. And, indeed, socialists capitalists everywhere were the first to recognize that the task the had set themselves required the general acceptance of a common Weltanschauung, of a definite set of values. It was in these efforts to produce a mass movement supported by such a single world view that the socialists capitalists first created most of the instruments of indoctrination of which Nazis and Fascists have made such effective use (113).

The most effective way of making everybody serve the single system of ends toward which the social capitalist plan is directed is to make everybody believe in those ends. To make a totalitarian capitalist system function efficiently, it is not enough that everybody should be forced to work for the same ends. It is essential that the people should come to regard them as their own ends. Although the beliefs must be chosen for the people and imposed upon them, they must become their beliefs, a generally accepted creed which makes the individuals as far as possible act spontaneously in the way the planner capitalist wants. If the feeling of oppression in totalitarian capitalist countries is in general much less acute than most people in liberal totalitarian countries imagine, this is because the totalitarian capitalists governments succeed to a higher degree in making people think as they want them to (153).

The point here is to show that everything Hayek feared that would eventually come to pass under socialism has happened under capitalism, including vast amounts of Americans losing their homes, savings, working for meager wages, etc. It’s almost as if today’s business elites used Hayek’s critique of the “planned economy” as a blueprint for how to structure our current capitalist order.

Hayek, of course, doesn’t see it this way. Yes, Hayek says, monopolies or totalitarian orders arise under capitalism; but such facts only point to the failure of capitalism to live up to its superior ideal. In other words, there are no failures of capitalism, just failures to live up to the ideal. As Seth Ackerman & Mike Beggs point out, under neoliberalism, “we can fail the model, but the model can never fail.” The status quo is therefore beyond reproach.

Now, to be fair, Hayek rightly diagnosed some elements of our current predicament. There’s little hope for regulating abuses within the market system, as regulators will inevitably become co-opted by business interests (see Gar Alperovitz, around the six minute mark). The solution, then, is to out-compete centralization and monopoly power. Indeed, for Hayek, there are two and only two paths before us: competition or centralization. “There is no other possibility than either the order governed by impersonal discipline of the market or that directed by the will of a few individuals; and those who are out to destroy the first are wittingly or unwittingly helping to create the second” (199), thunders Hayek.

Despite the fun games one can play with Hayek, there are certain elements of his thought we should take seriously. Karl Polanyi understood this, I think, which is why he spent the better part of his career challenging Hayek. And today the stakes couldn’t be higher. As Robert Kuttner writes, “Polanyi viewed Mises and Hayek as modern counterparts of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, punishers of the poor in the name of market incentives. “Inside and outside England,” he wrote in The Great Transformation, “from Macaulay to Mises, from Spencer to Sumner, there was not a militant [free-market] liberal who did not express his conviction that popular democracy was a danger to capitalism.”

The only other insight to add here is that Polanyi also grasped the anti-Christian animus behind Hayek and his ilk. As he writes in The Great Transformation, at the height of the industrial revolution,

huge masses of the laboring population resembled more the specters that might haunt a nightmare than human beings. But if the workers were physically dehumanized, the owning classes were morally degraded. The traditional unity of a Christian society was giving place to a denial of responsibility on the part of the well-to-do for the condition of their fellows… To the bewilderment of thinking minds, unheard-of wealth turned out to be inseparable from unheard-of poverty. Scholars proclaimed in unison that a science had been discovered which put the laws governing man’s world beyond any doubt. It was at the behest of these laws that compassion was removed from the hearts, and a stoic determination to renounce human solidarity in the name of the greatest happiness of the greatest number gained the dignity of a secular religion (106-107).


Before modern times… there existed, as a rule, no term to designate the concept of economic. It cannot be merely a matter of chance that until very recent times no name to sum up the organization of the material conditions of life existed in the languages of civilized peoples. Only two hundred years ago did an esoteric sect of French thinkers coin the term and call themselves economists. Their claim was to have discovered the economy.

Karl Polanyi, “Aristotle Discovers the Economy,” 71.


The language of freedom, however august its origins in Enlightenment thought, has become the language of the market. “No limits,” as the credit card offer says, “you’re in charge.” 

-Matthew Crawford, LSE, April 2015


The ever-prescient Christopher Lash on the deleterious effects of “modern technology”:

Modern technology has the same effect on culture that it has on production, where it serves to assert managerial control over the labor force. The study of mass culture thus leads to the same conclusion prompted by a study of the mechanization of the workplace: that much advanced technology embodies by design (in both senses of the word) a one-way system of management and communication. It concentrates economic and political control – and, increasingly, cultural control as well – in a small elite of corporate planners, market analysts, and social engineers. It invites popular “input” or “feedback” only in the form of suggestion boxes, market surveys, and public opinion polls. Technology thus comes to serve as an effective instrument of social control (The Minimal Self, 26).

Replace “advance technology” with “Google,” or “input” with selecting Facebook’s “Like” button, and you have a fitting analysis of our contemporary internet culture.

It’s too bad that Lasch passed before the rise of the internet. He would have no doubt destroyed the faux populism of tech elites.

Although Lash is no longer with us, we do have Andrew Keen, often described as the “antichrist of Silicon Valley.” Keen offers a Laschian-type thrashing of today’s internet culture. And like Lasch, Keen has no patience for corporate speak or facile ‘conservative’ rhetoric about ‘values’ abstracted from economic realities.

In his latest book, The Internet Is Not The Answer, Keen argues that the development of the web and rise of Silicon Valley social technologies has not ushered in the utopia we were once promised. Rather than delivering more democracy, more access to the good life, and more political transparency, the internet has birthed the near opposite: robber baron-style plutocracy, rising levels of economic pain for the masses, and an unprecedented level of corporate and government surveillance that would make the Nazi Secret Police blush.

Similar to Lasch, Keen sees that the rise of social technologies does not just happen at the level of use or consumption, but is driven by the modern division of labor. We once were forced to work in factories; we now give our labor away for free, by uploading “content” to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Writing about our “data factory economy,” Keen states,

the internet is destroying our old industrial economy – transforming what was once a relatively egalitarian system into a winner-take-all economy of what Tyler Cowen calls “billionaires and beggars.” Rather than just a city, it’s a whole economy that is losing its center. For all Silicon Valley’s claims that the Internet has created more equal opportunity and distribution of wealth, the new economy actually resembles a donut – with a gaping hole in the middle where, in the old industrial system, millions of workers were once paid to manufacture valuable products (110.)

I’m not sure if Keen offers much by way of solution. But as Cornel West pointed out to Keen (around the 33 minute mark), a big part of fixing this massive imbalance of wealth will be to cultivate “soul craft.” A good a place as any to start, I suppose.

Fred Block stands as one of the most important contemporary expositors of Karl Polanyi. This is not to say, however, that Block is without his fair share of critics. As Gareth Dale argues in Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, Block overemphasizes Polanyi’s understanding of the embedded economy, and thereby downplays Polanyi’s grasp on the uniqueness of the modern market society. The great Polanyian insight, according to Block, is that capitalism and democracy can coexist, provided robust political structures are in place.

Block may be wrong about his reformist interpretation of Polanyi, but I think he might be onto something here with his understanding of how capitalism actually operates:

I once had a conversation with the late Paul Sweezy where I was talking about some visions of reforming capitalism, and he said, “well, you can’t get the capitalist leopard to change its spots…” Capitalism was very powerfully being described as a beast and its seems to me that that natural imagery, which is there very deeply in Marx’s work, and he used it, I think, very self-consciously as a way to protect Marxism from reformism. From the threat that workers would accept half a loaf rather than radical transformation. And so he always talked about that you had to transform capitalism root and branch; you had to pull the whole thing out. You couldn’t just change a little bit. So he used the image of capitalism as a natural system that had to be completely destroyed. And I think that natural imagery is part of what has gotten us into deep trouble. And the kind of alternative metaphor that I have been trying to work with is to think rather of market societies and the contemporary global economy as not as a natural entity at all, but rather as a kind of jerry-built structure; a bunch of elements put together at different times that fit together very uneasily which are constantly having to be patched and readjusted. And so the notion is that it’s a system which is always under construction because the parts of it don’t fit together very well. It’s riven by contradictions, tension, lack of fit. And it’s precisely that always-under-construction quality which it what gives the political openings, because that which is recognized to be under construction can be reconstructed in different ways, better ways, to promote different kinds of values.

Fred Block, “Towards a Polanyian Theory of Contemporary Capitalism,” transcribed from David Cayley’s “Markets and Society” podcast, episode V.



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