The Limousine Liberal by Steve Fraser

An American Version of Class Struggle

Arising from the shadows of the American repressed, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been sending chills through the corridors of establishment power. Who would have thunk it? Two men, both outliers, though in starkly different ways, seem to be leading rebellions against the masters of our fate in both parties; this, after decades in which even imagining such a possibility would have been seen as naïve at best, delusional at worst. Their larger-than-life presence on the national stage may be the most improbable political development of the last American half-century.  It suggests that we are entering a new phase in our public life. A year ago, in my book The Age of Acquiescence, I attempted to resolve a mystery hinted at in its subtitle: “The rise and fall of American resistance to organized wealth and power.” Simply stated, that mystery was: Why do people rebel at certain moments and […]

Revisiting the Great Upheaval and the First Gilded Age

[The following passages are excerpted and slightly adapted from The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Little, Brown and Company).] Part 1: The Great Upheaval What came to be known as the Great Upheaval, the movement for the eight-hour day, elicited what one historian has called “a strange enthusiasm.” The normal trade union strike is a finite event joining two parties contesting over limited, if sometimes intractable, issues. The mass strike in 1886 or before that in 1877 — all the many localized mass strikes that erupted in towns and small industrial cities after the Civil War and into the new century — was open-ended and ecumenical in reach. So, for example, in Baltimore when the skilled and better-paid railroad brakemen on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad first struck in 1877 so, too, did less well off “box-makers, sawyers, and can-makers, […]

From the San Francisco Earthquake to Superstorm Sandy, How Capitalism Stacks the Deck on Disaster

In 2007, a financial firestorm ravaged Wall Street and the rest of the country.  In 2012, Hurricane Sandy obliterated a substantial chunk of the Atlantic seaboard.  We think of the first as a man-made calamity, the second as the malignant innocence of nature.  But neither the notion of a man-made nor natural disaster quite captures how the power of a few and the vulnerability of the many determine what is really going on at ground level.  Causes and consequences, who gets blamed and who leaves the scene permanently scarred, who goes down and who emerges better positioned than before: these are matters often predetermined by the structures of power and wealth, racial and ethnic hierarchies, and despised and favored forms of work, as well as moral and social prejudices in place before disaster strikes. When it comes to our recent financial implosion, this is easy enough to see, although great […]

From Debtor’s Prison to Debtor Nation

Shakespeare’s Polonius offered this classic advice to his son: “neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  Many of our nation’s Founding Fathers emphatically saw it otherwise.  They often lived by the maxim: always a borrower, never a lender be.  As tobacco and rice planters, slave traders, and merchants, as well as land and currency speculators, they depended upon long lines of credit to finance their livelihoods and splendid ways of life.  So, too, in those days, did shopkeepers, tradesmen, artisans, and farmers, as well as casual laborers and sailors.  Without debt, the seedlings of a commercial economy could never have grown to maturity. Ben Franklin, however, was wary on the subject. “Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt” was his warning, and even now his cautionary words carry great moral weight.  We worry about debt, yet we can’t live without it. Debt remains, as it long has been, […]

A Modest Proposal for Occupy Wall Street

In 1729, when Ireland had fallen into a state of utter destitution at the hands of its British landlords, Jonathan Swift published a famous essay, “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being A Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.”  His idea was simple: the starving Irish should sell their own children to the rich as food.  His inspiration, as it happened, came from across the Atlantic.  As he explained, “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young, healthy child well nourished is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragoust.” Inspired in turn by Swift, I want to suggest that we […]

A Century of Our Streets Vs. Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street, the ongoing demonstration-cum-sleep-in that began a month ago not far from the New York Stock Exchange and has since spread like wildfire to cities around the country, may be a game-changer.  If so, it couldn’t be more appropriate or more in the American grain that, when the game changed, Wall Street was directly in the sights of the protesters. The fact is that the end of the world as we’ve known it has been taking place all around us for some time.  Until recently, however, thickets of political verbiage about cutting this and taxing that, about the glories of “job creators” and the need to preserve “the American dream,” have obscured what was hiding in plain sight — that street of streets, known to generations of our ancestors as “the street of torments.” After an absence of well over half a century, Wall Street is back, center […]

America's Reserve Army of Labor Marches Through Time

Not long ago, the city council of Ventura, California, passed an ordinance making it legal for the unemployed and homeless to sleep in their cars.  At the height of the Great Recession of 2008, one third of the capital equipment of the American economy lay idle.  Of the women and men idled along with that equipment, only 37% got a government unemployment check and that check, on average, represented only 35% of their weekly wages.  Meanwhile, there are now two million ”99ers” — those who have maxed out their supplemental unemployment benefits because they have been out of work for more than 99 weeks. Think of them as a full division in “the reserve army of labor.”  That “army,” in turn, accounts for 17% of the American labor force, if one includes part-time workers who need and want full-time work and the millions of unemployed Americans who have grown so […]

The Strange Career of Tea Party Populism

On a winter’s day in Boston in 1773, a rally of thousands at Faneuil Hall to protest a new British colonial tax levied on tea turned into an iconic moment in the pre-history of the American Revolution.  Some of the demonstrators — Sons of Liberty, they called themselves — left the hall and boarded the Dartmouth, a ship carrying tea, and dumped it overboard. One of the oddest features of the Boston Tea Party, from which our current crop of Tea Party populists draw their inspiration, is that a number of those long-ago guerilla activists dressed up as Mohawk Indians, venting their anger by emitting Indian war cries, and carrying tomahawks to slice open the bags of tea.  This masquerade captured a fundamental ambivalence that has characterized populist risings ever since.  After all, if in late eighteenth century America, the Indian already functioned as a symbol of an oppressed people […]

How the Obama Administration Ended Up Where Franklin Roosevelt Began

On March 4, 1933, the day he took office, Franklin Roosevelt excoriated the “money changers” who “have fled from their high seats in the temples of our civilization [because…] they know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers.  They have no vision and where there is no vision, the people perish.” Rhetoric, however, is only rhetoric.  According to one skeptical congressional observer of FDR’s first inaugural address, “The President drove the money-changers out of the Capitol on March 4th — and they were all back on the 9th.” That was essentially true.  It was what happened after that, in the midst of the Great Depression, which set the New Deal on a course that is the mirror image of the direction in which the Obama administration seems headed. Buoyed by great expectations when he assumed office, Barack Obama has so far revealed himself to be an unfolding disappointment.  On […]

How Popular Anger Grew, 1929 and 2009

Obtuse hardly does justice to the social stupidity of our late, unlamented financial overlords. John Thain of Merrill Lynch and Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers, along with an astonishing number of their fraternity brothers, continue to behave like so many intoxicated toreadors waving their capes at an enraged bull, oblivious even when gored. Their greed and self-indulgence in the face of an economic cataclysm for which they bear heavy responsibility is, unsurprisingly, inciting anger and contempt, as daily news headlines indicate. It is undermining the last shreds of their once exalted social status — and, in that regard, they are evidently fated to relive the experience of their predecessors, those Wall Street “lords of creation” who came crashing to Earth during the last Great Depression. Ever since the bail-out state went into hyper-drive, popular anger has been simmering. In fact, even before the meltdown gained real traction, a sign at […]