From Acquiescence to Rebellion – Jacobin magazine

People often talk about our own period as a second Gilded Age, and the assumption has been that it is a kind of repetition of the first Gilded Age. Thats true in terms of income and wealth inequality and so forth. But what always struck me was how different the response to that inequality and exploitation has been between the two gilded ages.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was an enormous resistance to the capitalist transformation of the United States. There were the farmer and labor parties of the 1870s and 1880s, the Knights of Labor, the Populists, the Socialist Party, and the IWW. But it wasnt limited only to the working class. There was a broader sense that the idea of what America was supposed to be all about was being violated. There was the Social Gospel movement, where all kinds of Christian radicals decried the savage capitalism that was in development. There were critical writers like Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells, or Jack London, and you had all kinds of jurists and ordinary politicians talking about the sins and problem of what was commonly denounced as wage slavery. Who would dare call capitalism wage slavery today, except maybe the Democratic Socialists of America or somebody?

It was a common part of our vocabulary in the first Gilded Age, not just for the likes of Emma Goldman or Bill Haywood, but everyone appalled by the bloody birth of modern capitalism and how it was wiping out whole ways of living. These were farmers, homesteaders, artisans, various small-business people, peasants from Europe who had come here and found themselves treated like animals in this maelstrom of industrialization. What you had was not just material deprivation but also a kind of spiritual resistance to a new and terrible existence.

People at the time had experience with older ways of life, and whether they wanted to return to them or not, they knew that capitalism was not a natural fact because it was brand-new and gut-wrenching in so many ways. So you had this broad culture of opposition, not just the organized movements. And then that goes away in the years after the New Deal. A major part of the explanation for that is the very success of New Deal reforms and mass consumption capitalism. There was a period of what economic historians call the Great Compression, when there was a reduction of economic inequality, high corporate tax rates, and individual tax rates on the wealthy. There was deficit spending as a regular part of the medicine chest of solutions to unemployment and economic downturns.

These things worked, at least for a time, and there was a great explosion in mass consumption and the American standard of living. That standard of living attracted people long before the New Deal came around. But the New Deal and the years that followed made the labor question seem no longer relevant. The seductions of consumer capitalism also worked to privatize concerns once thought of as social dilemmas, and to dissolve many forms of social solidarity. Were all talking about social distancing in the midst of this pandemic, but consumer capitalism might be thought of as one of the first forms of social distancing. So matters of exploitation faded from view.

One of the key things that accounted for this acquiescence politically was the Democratic Partys abandonment of its New Deal heritage. This happened gradually but decisively by the mid-1980s, when Bill Clinton, for example, became the head of the Democratic Leadership Council and made his peace with neoliberal economics. At this point, it is not interested in the labor movement anymore except as a kind of ATM and vote-gathering machine. Before all that, there was the devasting impact of the Cold War, not only through the purging of the labor movement of its radical unions and activists, but also a more general purging of the vocabulary of everyday life, so that older notions of wage slavery or plutocracy or even racial justice were verboten. And then theres the enormous toll of deindustrialization which wiped out whole towns, fraternal societies, unions, and much of the tissue of social solidarity built up over generations.

I think the good news is that this period is over. It began to end with the financial collapse in 2008, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, and the reemergence of very militant worker actions, often independent of the organized labor movement. And now, of course, with Bernie Sanders and the movement behind him.

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From Acquiescence to Rebellion - Jacobin magazine

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