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).

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