Nobody Here But Us Capitalists
July 1, 2019                    



Class Matters: The Strange History of an American Delusion by Steve Fraser. Yale University Press, 287 pages, $25.



One of the many intellectual dishonesties of contemporary conservatism is the pretense that any attempt to criticize, or even call attention to, gross inequalities of wealth and power constitutes "class warfare." The decimation of organized labor by Republican presidents' practice of appointing only anti-union lawyers, executives, and other corporate functionaries to the National Labor Relations Board - this, apparently, is not class warfare. The promotion of investor protection agreements (usually labelled "free trade" agreements) that prevent foreign governments from holding multinational corporations to local labor and occupational-safety standards, thereby inducing corporations to move offshore or to demand givebacks from American workers - this too is not class warfare. The stagnation of the minimum wage is not class warfare. Neither is the absence of universal health insurance, which would increase labor mobility. The striking down of campaign finance reform by Republican justices was simply an overdue recognition of money's Fourteenth Amendment rights. And the transfer of trillions of dollars to the rich through Republican tax cuts and Democratic financial deregulation is so obviously not class warfare that even to suggest otherwise is class warfare.

In this moral and mental atmosphere, to make a career, as Steve Fraser has done, of describing the lineaments and vicissitudes of class conflict, as well as - quite as difficult and useful - accounting for the lack of class conflict where it might have been expected, is either quixotic or heroic. In his large and varied oeuvre, three volumes stand out. Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life (2005) is a history not only of scandals, frauds, peculations, and other rascalities of American high finance - along with the occasional honest success - but also of the refraction of all these escapades in popular culture and the popular imagination. It is, as that description suggests, a huge and hugely entertaining book, though with many clear-eyed observations about the "everyman economy" and "financial democracy" of the early 2000s. Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy (2005), edited with Gary Gerstle, assembled eight illustrious contributors and as many essays on ruling, aspiring, declining, and divided hegemonic groups at strategic points in American history from the Revolution to the Clinton administration.

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (2015) is Fraser's best book and one of the best books on American politics in recent decades. Vividly evoking the vehement resistance to the brutality of early industrial capitalism by workers, farmers, and their communities, Fraser asks why no comparable resistance has greeted the stark inequalities of the second Gilded Age that began a century later. Fraser finds part of the answer in the obvious places: increasing control by conservatives of all three branches of government and the regulatory agencies, followed by the methodical dismantling of the New Deal legacy; and the end of the Cold War, which fostered global economic integration under a rapacious finance capitalism, undermining national labor movements.

But the book's real originality lies in its explanation of the puzzling absence of working-class militancy. A culture of consumption, stoked by advertising and financed by debt, made powerlessness more tolerable. So did a resentful pleasure in the displacement of the WASP aristocracy of inherited wealth by a new stratum of audacious financial entrepreneurs, who at least seemed to have made their money for themselves. The retirement scheme that replaced secure pensions with mutual funds has led many workers to identify their own interests with "the economy" and "the market" rather than with their class.

Is it possible, Fraser asked, that America's evolution from a small-scale, producerist political economy based on frugality, self-discipline, and delayed gratification, intensely religious, and with mostly face-to-face social relations to a financialized, debt-based economy, heavily dependent on consumer spending (hence immediate gratification), religiously indifferent, and dominated by large, anonymous bureaucracies has worked a change in our character structure?


Can these two diverging political economies - one resting on industry, the other on finance - and these two polarized sensibilities - one fearing God, the other living in an impromptu moment to moment - explain the Great Noise of the first Gilded Age and the Great Silence of the second? Is it possible that people still attached by custom and belief to ways of subsisting that had originated outside the orbit of capital accumulation were for that very reason both psychologically and politically more existentially desperate, more capable, and more audacious in envisioning a noncapitalist future than those who had come of age knowing nothing else?



Yes, all too possible.


After these tours de force, Class Matters seems almost a relaxation, a jeu d'esprit. Fraser takes six episodes in American history that are at once emblematic and not usually perceived, by either scholars or the public, to have much to do with class. The usual accounts suggest that at these defining moments, class didn't matter. By retelling them with power relations - and specifically class relations - front and center, he intends to show that "everyday life in every way bears the stigmata of class." Class is "the secret of the American experience." (Unexpected, but illuminating and affecting, are first-person narratives in each chapter, which Fraser ingeniously connects with the historical episode he's discussing. "One man's encounter with the proletarian metaphysic," he calls it.)

Class has been understood as ownership or non-ownership of the means of production; as relative autonomy at work (e.g., professionals vs. non-professionals); as high- or low-income (e.g., the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent); or even as "varying standards of living" or "competing styles of consumption." It is power and subordination - who rules? - that Fraser proposes to address in these six episodes. They are: the settlements at Plymouth and Jamestown; the making of the U.S. Constitution; the arrival of the Statue of Liberty; the cowboy; the "Kitchen Debate" between Nixon and Khrushchev; and Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington.

Fraser lives in Inwood, a village on the northern tip of Manhattan. After taking the reader on a tour of its history (from Irish to black/Latino; consistently working-class), he pauses at the entrance to a neighboring forest. A stone commemorates the sale on that spot in 1626 of Manhattan Island by the Lenape Indians to a Dutchman for "beads and trinkets worth 60 guilders."

The crimes of Europeans against the original Americans were rationalized by claims of racial and religious superiority, but they were motivated by the demands of investors in England and by the lure of the world market, principally in furs and tobacco. The first settlers had a variety of motives: some were religious dissenters; others were indentured servants; still others aristocratic adventurers. But they were all creditors: they arrived owing money to the investors who had financed their journey, supplied them with tools and food, and looked forward to handsome profits once the indigenous "savages" were out of the way.

It was the "savages" who saved the initially hapless colonists, not only by feeding them but also by selling them beaver pelts - then one of the most valuable commodities in the world - for very little: tools and more of those "beads and trinkets." And when the Jamestown settlers discovered that tobacco could be cultivated in Virginia, they began seizing Indian land on a large scale, while the doughty Captain John Smith (the consort of Pocahontas) returned to England to seek a government decree expelling all Indians from their lands. (Fraser's account of all this blackguardism is fairly restrained, but it does inevitably put one in mind of Susan Sontag's too-little-appreciated observation that the white race is the cancer of human history.)

The histories of Plymouth and Jamestown show early capitalism forming itself. There is the same high-handed disregard of traditional, communal forms of land tenure that commonly featured in the English enclosures; the same prejudice against subsistence agriculture and in favor of commodity production for the national or international market; the same appearance of the "new man," embodying aggressive, possessive individualism; and the same dismissal of non-acquisitive moderation as mere laziness. Early America was not an Arcadian idyll.

Nor was the making of the Constitution a pageant of democracy. It is pretty well understood by now that the years before 1787 witnessed sharp, persistent class conflict in America and that the Convention in Philadelphia signaled the victory of one class over the other. As usual, the propertied class won.

During the Revolutionary War many farmers had bought war bonds to support the Continental Army - in which, of course, many of them also fought. After the war many were hard-pressed and sold those bonds to speculators, often for pennies on the dollar. The speculators then lobbied the state governments for payment at the bonds' full value - a windfall for them. To raise the money to pay the speculators, the states often resorted to taxing the impoverished farmers, who, unlike the speculators, had actually made some contribution to the Revolutionary victory. Shays' Rebellion and other protests led some legislators to print paper money and some judges to refuse to foreclose on farms. Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, and most of the other Founders were aghast at this leniency toward the people who had, in point of fact, saved their necks. Hamilton muttered darkly about "an excess of democracy," anticipating the infamous report issued two centuries later by the Trilateral Commission. Others deplored a "republican frenzy." Alarmed by Shays' Rebellion, the very rich land speculator George Washington cried: "Let us have [a government] by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured or let us know the worst at once." They got what they wanted. Fraser calls the resulting constitution "simultaneously ... a blueprint for a nation and a chastity belt for class conflict."

The first-person interlude in this chapter is another Philadelphia story, an amusing - at least in retrospect; it must have been nerve-wracking at the time - account of being framed by the FBI and the Philly police on terrorism charges. Agents had planted liquid explosives, a pipe, and other bomb parts in and around Fraser's refrigerator. He was allegedly planning to blow up the Liberty Bell. At the time he was active in the Alliance for Jobs, Education, and Housing and opposed to Penn's and Temple's expansion into (and displacement of) ghetto neighborhoods. Obviously a dangerous character. The FBI refused to turn over its wiretap and surveillance records, so the case was thrown out. But plenty of other COINTELPRO operations were more successful and may have contributed significantly to the downfall of the New Left.

What could be more simply, uncomplicatedly American than the Statue of Liberty; what message less ideologically problematic than its message that America is the land of the free and all exiles are welcome here? A good deal, it turns out. The Statue was originally conceived as a gift celebrating the American centennial in 1876 (though it was not unveiled until a decade later). It was the project of wealthy French liberals, who intended it as a rebuke to two of that country's political traditions: on the right, the ancient regime and its ersatz Napoleonic successor; on the left, the socialist tradition recently embodied in the Paris Commune of 1870, brutally crushed by the liberal government of Adolphe Thiers. The statue's sculpture Bartholdi explicitly designed one feature after another to differentiate the American version of liberty from Eugene Delacroix's famed revolutionary icon Liberty Leading the People. "This liberty will not be the one wearing a red bonnet on her head," one of Bartholdi's collaborators assured prospective donors, or "a pike in her hand. ... It will be the American Liberty, who does not hold an incendiary torch but a beacon which enlightens."

Around the same time, the American government was enlightening its less fortunate citizens with a heavy hand. It was an age of widespread strikes and demonstrations seeking better working conditions and wages. The enlightened ruling class answered with Pinkerton detectives, private militias, court injunctions, police, state and federal troopers, and in the larger cities, armories - forts - to put down any New York or Chicago Commune. Beleaguered nabobs blamed foreign radical ideas, often brought to America, they grumbled, by the very immigrants that Lady Liberty would be welcoming to Ellis Island. But their misgivings were allayed: their violent victory in the class war plus the huge labor surplus created by the even bigger waves of immigration between 1880 and 1920 assured them a submissive labor force. The huddled masses could breathe free as long as they kept their radical ideas to themselves.

Fraser bookends the next chapter with two poignant vignettes: the first about his young children's inexhaustible appetite to hear the song "There Was a Young Cowboy," which he would sing to them at bedtime with improvised lyrics; and the second about a friend of his youth who decided, without any background, to become a cowboy, and who made a grueling but rewarding life of it.

Were cowboys free agents or proletarians? Their predecessors, the mountain men, were relatively independent, as guides, fur trappers, and buffalo hunters. So were ranchers and ranch hands, living on what were essentially self-sufficient farms. But when the railroads made it possible to supply a global market, first with buffalo robes and then with beef, big Capital came to the American West. Now part of a large economic organization, the cowboy had to toe the line, and did. There was occasional camaraderie on the cattle drives, and ready respect for genuine skill or bravery. But the cowboy's life was dangerous and monotonous, and "there was no more social mobility or equality out west than back east." Many cowboys hoped to start a small ranch with a few head of cattle when their skills or endurance gave out. But few did.

The meanings of the cowboy myth in American popular culture are legion. Perhaps the most essential feature was independence - almost entirely absent from the lives of most real cowboys, as it was from the lives of most of the working-class and middle-class viewers of 1950s and 60s TV Westerns. Another defining trait was manly reserve - though cowboys were just as apt to be chatty as suburban viewers were. Quite a few TV cowboys had fine saddles, silver-buckled cartridge belts, and nicely tooled cowboy boots; few real cowboys did. However, as Fraser notes, "if much of what made up the reality of cowboy life got diluted or washed out entirely when laundered by myth, one element instead was hugely magnified: violence." Apparently, the mayhem that populated our youthful imaginations with thousands of images of shootings before we were adolescents bore little reality [RELATION] to history. "Neither Bat Masterson nor Wyatt Earp killed anyone ... The only marshal to be killed in all of the Kansas cattle towns [Abilene, Dodge, Witchita] was killed by a farmer." It was Hollywood, then, that gave us our gun culture.

The late 1950s saw another famous shootout, fought not with six-shooters but with kitchen appliances. In 1959, at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, America's industrial giants, at the invitation of the State Department, built dream kitchens to make Russian visitors swoon. Vice President Richard Nixon came over and invited Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to tour General Electric's kitchen while the two traded friendly barbs about which society more closely approximated the classless ideal.

Suburbia in the 50s was America's answer to Marx. In the sphere that really mattered, America had achieved equality, the New York Herald Tribune boasted: "The rich man smokes the same sort of cigarettes as the poor man, shaves with the same sort of razor, uses the same sort of telephone, vacuum cleaner, radio and TV set." Liberal intellectuals tendered their stamp of approval: whatever their differences, Daniel Bell, John Kenneth Galbraith, Max Lerner, Arthur Schlesinger, and Daniel Boorstin agreed that class was no longer a useful category for understanding American society. Neither the intellectuals nor the Herald Tribune (nor, of course, Nixon) made much of the fact that, insofar as American workers enjoyed a decent standard of living, it was owing more to their labor unions than to a beneficent and open-handed deity named Capitalism.

Suburbia in the 1950s was not, in any case, so uniformly prosperous and egalitarian as its celebrants implied. There were few blacks, of course, except as servants. And even among the fortunate white householders, distinctions quickly asserted themselves: architectural and social (e.g., the country club) at first, and soon enough educational (i.e., towns with high property values and high property taxes could afford the best schools, though only affluent families could afford to live there). Modern appliances and big back yards were much appreciated, especially by second- or third-generation immigrants. But hard-hitting, widely popular critiques of conformism, bureaucracy, and consumer culture - by Vance Packard (The Hidden Persuaders) and William Whyte (The Organization Man), by Betty Friedan, C. Wright Mills, and Herbert Marcuse - were just around the corner. Compared with what went before and what came after, the trente glorieuses were glorious enough, but with more exceptions than Vice President Nixon dreamed of.

Fraser's final chapter, on the Washington March of 1963, is his most autobiographical. The March was part of his inspiration for joining in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, a fabled organizing and voter registration effort that began with the murder of three activists and ended with a nationally televised challenge to the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile Fraser became well-acquainted with the Starkville, Mississippi police force, both human and canine.

The chapter's main work is to remind us that although the civil rights movement has by now assumed the unthreatening contours of hallowed legend, at the time "the intermixing of the race and labor questions was a given. ... From the country's beginnings racial and class subordination had always and everywhere formed a Gordian knot no one could untie." American capitalism originated with cotton, which depended throughout the nineteenth century on one form or another of unfree black labor. Jim Crow was in good part a system of economic peonage, including sharecropping, tenant farming, and an army of prison laborers, rented out cheap to plantations, turpentine factories, and coal mines. White political dominance in the South made the Fair Labor Practices Act and other New Deal measures a dead letter. And in the North, blacks were often last hired, first fired, and chronically unemployed. It was by no means only, perhaps not even primarily, for political rights that blacks were agitating in the decades leading up to the March. It was at least as much for full employment, a radical demand then as now. The March's official name, after all, was "March for Jobs and Freedom." Two years after the March, King called for "questioning the capitalist economy" and "restructuring the whole of American society" - an aspect of his legacy generally downplayed.

Fraser acknowledges the efforts of recent historians to "follow the footprints the New Deal left on the trail leading to the [civil rights revolution]," while confessing himself even more intrigued by the less often asked question of "why those footprints became so obscured, so lost from sight, that they ceased to be part of our common sense." Perhaps, he speculates, "for the triumph of the [civil rights revolution] to be hailed by all Americans, of whatever political persuasion, it was necessary to erase those original footprints." The American pantheon must not be sullied by traces of class conflict.


What does Class Matters add up to? It's not meant to add up, I think: there's not a single, cumulative, comprehensive argument. But it does hang together. What it resembles, as much as anything, is a master class. An accomplished historian of class conflict shows how, in a half-dozen unpromising instances, a skilled practitioner can nevertheless excavate power relations and decode ideological silences. There are no noisy claims or officious refutations; the book is subtle and diffident. For all that, it makes the point forcefully enough that the characteristic American obliviousness about class and power is perhaps not entirely innocent.




George Scialabba's most recent book is Slouching Toward Utopia.