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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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Lasch

Over the past ten years or so, we’ve heard a lot about the need to re-enchant the universe, largely from figures like Charles Taylor, John Milbank and their followers. Sadly, the term itself, as is the fate of most ‘buzz words,’ seems to have lost its original fervor, to say nothing of having provided ample fodder for critics.

Yet in The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch gives us an important reminder of just how important this idea is for the Church Catholic.

The structure of modern experience gives little encouragement to the belief that we live in a benign universe. It gives far more encouragement to a sense of hopelessness, victimization, cynicism, and despair; and even the myth of progress, which for a long time provided a substitute for religious faith, has now lost much of its plausibility. For millions of people, the expectation of a better world – even if it is only the expectation of a greater supply of material possessions – is no longer experienced as a daily reality (386).

Re-enchanting the universe is not some abstract idea, nor is it a simple intellectual task. It is a summons to face the enemy head on. As Fr. Steward Headlam once remarked, “it seems to me to be the duty of every minister of Christ to do all he possible can to stir up a divine discontent in the hearts and minds of the people with the evils which surround them.”*

*Quoted in Norman, The Victorian Christian Socialists, 114.

 

Lasch

Christopher Lasch would have celebrated his eighty-second birthday today. Despite having passed away twenty years ago, it’s clear that his work still remains “an indispensable aid to bullshit detection” for both left and right orthodoxies, as The Baffler recently noted.

The problem with Conservatives is easy enough to pinpoint:

Conservatives assume that deregulation and a return to the free market will solve everything, promoting a revival of the work ethic and a resurgence of ‘traditional values.’  Not only do they provide an inadequate explanation of the destruction of those values but they unwittingly side with the social forces that have contributed to their destruction, for example in their advocacy of unlimited growth. The poverty of contemporary conservatism reveals itself most fully in this championship of economic growth the underlying premise of the consumer culture by products of which conservatives deplore [sic].  A vital conservatism would identify itself with the demand for limits not only on economic growth but on the conquest of space, the technological conquest of the environment, and the human ambition to acquire godlike powers over nature. A vital conservatism would see in the environmental movement the quintessential conservative cause, since environmentalism opposes reckless innovation and makes conservation the central order of business.  Instead of taking environmentalism away from the left, however, conservatives condemn it as a counsel of doom.

The New Left suffers from its own share of cultural myopia:

Stale polemics, full of moral outrage and theoretical hot air, inadvertently show why the Left has no future.  Unable to explain the persistence of religion, pro-family attitudes, and an ethic of personal accountability except as an expression of false consciousness—as the product of brainwashing or of an irrational attachment to “simple and easy answers” after “two decades of social upheaval”—the Left finds itself without a following. Since it refuses to take popular attitudes seriously, to “pander” to “the existing popular consciousness,” in Lillian Rubin’s curious and revealing phrase, it can hope to reform society only in the face of popular opposition or indifference.

Lasch recognizes that his rejection of both left and right ideologies (in favor of old-school radicalism or conservative socialism, it should be noted) puts him in awkward position:

Readers will find my position confusing only if they persist in thinking that any position not immediately assimilable to left-wing orthodoxy belongs automatically to the Right… “Which side are you on, boys?”  When the sides were more clearly drawn, the question made some sense.  It still makes sense if it means that people who profess a disinterested love of truth and justice ought to be skeptical, on principle, of the claims of wealth and power and predisposed to side with the underdog.  But the Left long ago lost any vivid interest in underdogs.  It is allergic to anything that looks like a lost cause.  Such moral authority as the Left enjoyed in the past derived from its identification with the oppressed; but its appeal to intellectuals, unfortunately, has usually rested on its claim to stand on the side of history and progress.  What added to the thrill of choosing sides was the certainty that in socialism one chose he winning side, the “cooperative commonwealth” lure to prevail in the long run. The only morally defensible choice, however, is the choice of mercy, charity, and forgiveness over the world’s principalities and powers, the choice of truth against ideology.  To make that choice today means to reject Left and Right alike.

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