This review by Jackson Lears, in the London Review of Books, of The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organised Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser is full of good stuff, but only available to subscribers.
I’m fascinated by how societies change over time, and this is about how everyone-for-themselves capitalism has become the only acceptable political position, when there used to be more alternatives. For instance, I had no idea about this:
In the presidential election of 1912, nearly a million Americans - 6 per cent of the electorate - cast ballots for the Socialist Party candidate, Eugene Debs. There were two Socialist members of Congress, dozens of Socialist state legislators, and more than a hundred Socialist mayors. The leading Socialist newspaper, the Appeal to Reason, had more than 500,000 subscribers. And this was only a portion of a much broader swathe of the electorate who considered themselves Progressives or Populists rather than Socialists, but were just as committed to challenging concentrated corporate power in the name of a ‘co-operative commonwealth’.
Which, had I known it at the time, would have made the final section of The Jungle seem less peculiar — lots of excited talk of socialism seemed very odd to me, thinking of America as an entirely capitalist nation.
The review, and the book, look at how left-leaning beliefs have disappeared in the US, mostly over the first half of the 20th century, the Overton Window of mainstream politics moving rightward and shrinking considerably. Capitalism, and a narrow variation of it at that, now appears to be the only possible choice. Anything else is unnatural:
In Fraser’s account, Americans acquiesce in plutocratic rule because they can no longer imagine alternatives to it. In the first Gilded Age, the impact of capitalism was new and strange. Its strangeness made it easier to resist. Attachments to fellow workers and ways of working, memories of an older notion of the public good: they all undergirded popular protest against the capitalist transformation of everyday life. Now the attachments have attenuated, the memories have faded and capitalism has come to seem part of the natural order of things. This growing sense of inevitability has promoted a shift towards what Fraser calls ‘a sensibility of irony and even cynical disengagement rather than a morally charged universe of utopian yearnings and dystopian forebodings’. Now the forebodings persist but (apart from the vague menace of ‘climate change’) they tend to be focused on personal catastrophe: job loss, ruinous illness, economic freefall - all spectres that reinforce compliance with the capitalist order of things. Except on the pseudo-libertarian right, ideological fervour has gone out of fashion.
Much of which sounds familiar in England and Wales too, with big-bank-friendly, social-programme-cutting, privatising policies seen as the only possible “responsible” behaviour among those who lead mainstream parties. The recasting of working peoples’ place in society is, objectively, fascinating, if saddening.
…the few remaining unions have become magnets for resentment, protectors of privileges no longer available to the rest of the population. The ruling class, meanwhile, has redefined itself as ‘the successful’ - a meritocracy that deserves to lead. The widespread acceptance of that notion can be traced, Fraser believes, to the marketing success of three ‘fables of freedom’: emancipation through consumption, freedom through the ‘free agency of work’ and freedom through the heroism of entrepreneurial risk. Together they constitute a collective fantasy that allows many Americans to perceive dispossession as liberation, even as they remain haunted by fears of future insecurity.
I could quote several more paragraphs but that seems a bit off given it’s for subscribers only.