“Social Security is the soft underbelly,” says right-wing activist Stephen Moore. “If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.” But things aren’t going well for the jabbers. Their claims of crisis have been proved false, their motivations meanly ideological (shredding the New Deal safety net) or merely mercenary (billions in profits for Wall Street). It’s tempting to think they’ve overreached, as did Newt when he tried to shutter the government, and that with facts on our side, saving Social Security could be a slam-dunk.
Big mistake. This battle will not be settled by fact-laden presentations, any more than the last election was, because no matter how compelling such messages may seem, recipients filter them through a pre-existing mesh of views and values–accepting, adjusting, resisting or rejecting incoming exhortations, depending on how they comport with previously accumulated information and attitudes. Given that citizens are being asked to transfer custodianship of their future from the government to the financial marketplace, it’s crucial to understand what people think and how they feel about Wall Street, to understand how it’s seen in the culture at large, to know whether its stock has been rising or falling.
Which makes the arrival of Steve Fraser’s book, an account of how Americans have perceived Wall Street over the past 200 years, incredibly timely. But timeliness is not its only virtue. Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life is fascinating in its own right. Though the title suggests a focus on financial affairs, it belongs on the shortlist of books that encompass and illuminate the entire trajectory of the American experience. That’s because Fraser knows that Wall Street is far more than a workplace for bankers and brokers; rather, it is a place where Americans “have wrestled with ancestral attitudes and beliefs about work and play, about democracy and capitalism, about wealth, freedom and equality, about God and Mammon, about heroes and villains, about luck and sexuality, about national purpose and economic well-being.”
Every Man‘s ambitious breadth is matched by investigative depth. In exploring Wall Street’s cultural impact, Fraser has drawn on an astonishing array of sources– potboiler novels and classics of American literature, biographies and memoirs, magazine pieces and poems, movies and plays, speeches and sermons, cartoons and board games, folk songs and Tin Pan Alley ditties, artworks and radio shows, legislative deliberations and judicial decisions, the work of academic economists and mass-movement pamphleteers. The range and abundance of material he has uncovered gives the book great authority–though also, in places, an overstuffed, repetitious and convoluted quality that slows the narrative flow: The manuscript would have benefited from one last pass through the editorial wringer. But the writing is so vivid, the sensibility so witty, the analysis so theoretically astute (yet utterly jargon free), that readers will shoot successfully through the occasional eddies and rapids.
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So what can we glean from Fraser about the cultural resources available to contending parties in the Social Security debate? One of the most striking features of his survey is how starkly Manichean the responses to Wall Street have been over the centuries. From the very beginning–just after the Revolution, when, freed from Britain’s imperial constraints, banking and stock trading emerged–Wall Street has been both revered and reviled. In part this mirrors its dualistic and contradictory character. It’s been a site for assembling capital to fertilize productive enterprises. It’s also been the place to speculate in ownership shares of such enterprises–speculation that has had beneficial but also deleterious and, at times, catastrophic consequences.
In the 1790s, wealthy merchants leapt to buy and trade public securities, to the delight of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who, Fraser notes, “conceived of the Street as an engine of future national glory.” Hamilton was sure these ur-speculators would invest their profits in long-term economic growth. Instead, in Wall Street’s ur-burst of irrational exuberance, they chased after instant riches by plunging back into the market itself, led by Hamilton’s close associate William Duer, the Darth Vader of early American finance. Drawing on insider information, Duer manipulated a bull market that sucked in unwary investors, then overreached and went belly up, precipitating the country’s first stock market crash and first recession (a short one, given Wall Street’s marginality to the existing agrarian economy).
Hamilton, dismayed by what he called “extravagant sallies of speculation,” conceded that stock trading “fosters a spirit of gambling.” But he resisted market regulation, fearing idle capital more than chaotic conditions and hoping that “public infamy” would draw the line between “dealers in the funds and mere unprincipled gamblers.” Thomas Jefferson, appalled that (as he put it) “the credit and fate of the nation seem to hang on the desperate throws and plunges of gambling scoundrels,” doubted such a line could be drawn. The antidemocratic implications of the links Hamilton was forging between financial elites and the federal government deeply troubled Jefferson, whose critique of monied aristocrats as threats to the Republic helped pave the way for his party’s political triumph in 1800.
This initial debate, argues Fraser, foreshadowed the terms and tone of nineteenth- century combat over the steadily expanding role of financiers in the growing American economy, with Wall Street’s status rising and falling with the country’s economic fortunes. During upswings, speculators gained kudos for mobilizing investment in canals, railroads and industrialization: Their willingness to place bets on the future made them emblems of America’s buoyant optimism and entrepreneurial audacity. And while few Americans as yet actually participated in the financial marketplace, the fortunes won there by clashing cliques of bulls and bears stimulated avaricious fantasies among a far wider circle. The fact that men of plebeian background could get rich by speculative wheeling and dealing also gave the Street a democratic sheen in a democratic era.
Wall Street titans were also credited with warriorlike virtues, even sexual prowess. Fraser is particularly sharp in spotting the emerging association of financiers, from at least the days of August Belmont and Commodore Vanderbilt, with rebellion against the buttoned-down standards of bourgeois masculinity. Freebooting speculators like Daniel Drew and Jim Fisk had bravado and dash–“I was born to be bad,” Fisk boasted–and their defiance of conventional proprieties gave them a raffish glamour. Ordinary folks relished reading dime-novel accounts of their swashbuckling exploits, drinking their health while belting out barroom favorites like “Jim Fisk, or He Never Went Back on the Poor” and poring over inspirational accounts like James D. McCabe’s Great Fortunes and How They Were Made (1870).
But even in flush times, when Wall Street exerted a mass fascination, it also inspired mass revulsion. Pious Protestants considered speculation a form of gambling and thus a sin, not least in dangling delusions of effortless gain before the improvident. “Wall Street is a thousand times deadlier than Monte Carlo,” hissed a character in the 1887 Broadway play The Henrietta. At best, its rewards were ill gotten, leeched off the enterprise of others, not earned the old-fashioned way, through pluck, perseverance and productive labor. At worst, it seemed to be a species of con game–a conviction bolstered by the steadily rising number of frauds, defalcations and market manipulations. The Street’s “code of laws,” the Louisville Courier editorialized in 1857, was that of “the sharper, the imposter, the cheat, and the swindler,” a view echoed in Herman Melville’s mordant Confidence-Man. From this perspective, speculators were not lovable rogues but menacing outlaws. Jay Gould–whose failed effort to corner the nation’s gold market in 1869 precipitated a crisis that shuttered hundreds of businesses and cost thousands of workers their jobs–suffered universal execration. Gould, said Gustavus Myers in his History of the Great American Fortunes, was a “pitiless human carnivore, glutting on the blood of his numberless victims…an incarnate fiend”; Hamilton couldn’t have wished for a greater degree of “public infamy,” but it did nothing to rein in speculation.
Worst of all was the ever more evident link between Wall Street’s investment mechanisms and cyclical derangements like the panics of 1837, 1857, 1873 and 1893, each of which ushered in depressions and increasingly violent capital-labor conflicts. Among those most alienated by a competitive capitalism run amok were key figures on Wall Street itself. Investment bankers like J.P. Morgan took a longer-term, more systemic view of the national economy. They loathed speculators (whom they considered sociopathic gamblers) and the wild “free market” whose gyrations they engendered. From the 1870s on, Morgan and his colleagues struggled to limit self-destructive competition, and by century’s end they had engineered the massive consolidations that ushered in corporate capitalism, establishing a privately owned command economy run largely by financiers like themselves.
For Fraser the heyday of finance capitalism that followed–he calls it the Age of Morgan and dates it, reasonably enough, from 1890 to 1920–marks both a distinct phase in the development of US capitalism and a cultural breakthrough for Wall Street, the moment when it attained middle-class respectability. Many Americans, he finds, especially in the burgeoning ranks of well-paid professionals and managers, accepted Wall Street’s hegemony for much the same reason they voted for McKinley Republicans: as a bulwark against the mob and economic crises. Bankers and entrepreneurial grandees were lionized as financial and industrial Napoleons in popular fiction and middle-class magazines. Speculators were rehabilitated as well–no longer mere gamblers, they were anointed as professionals in their own right, practitioners of the “science” of speculation, members of the “securities industry,” which irrigated industrial growth and opened speculative opportunities for the upper middle class. Academic economists offered guilt-free defenses of stock and commodities exchanges (and derided critics as ignorant rustics), while pragmatist philosophers like William James and Charles Sanders Peirce re-evaluated (as Fraser astutely observes) the very notion of chance, making it seem, like market risk, “both inescapable and controllable.”
Yet the new Wall Street met with considerable opposition, too. Some critiques were rooted in the older economic and cultural order, like those of the genteel, old-monied intelligentsia (Henry Adams, Henry James, Edith Wharton), who deplored the financial oligarchy for its vulgarity and avarice. In The House of Mirth, as Fraser observes, Wharton provided a withering portrait of “the lethal moral and social psychology that lay concealed beneath the frivolity and mercenary pre-occupations of the Wall Street world”; James, for his part, expressed acute discomfort in The American Scene with the Street’s “pushing male crowd.”
Prairie farmer populists also had one foot in the vanishing moral economy. True, they straightforwardly castigated Eastern bankers and bondholders as regional exploiters, a charge neatly captured by an earthy sketch (in the bestselling tract Coin’s Financial School) of a continentally scaled cow feeding in the West while getting milked in New York. But “Morganization,” Fraser makes clear, threatened a way of life, not just a source of income, and it stirred ancient cultural anxieties. Populists produced ferocious denunciations of the “Money Kings of Wall Street” that depicted them as fiendish conspirators and sybaritic plutocrats out to overturn the moral foundations of the Republic, rhetoric that occasionally curdled into anti-Semitic rant. But their resistance was forward-looking as well as retrograde, Fraser insists, noting that their “ultimate goal was to wrest control of the monetary system from the Wall Street elite and vest it in the hands of the U.S. Treasury.”
Other opponents (small businessmen, urban workers, many professionals) were more thoroughly enmeshed in modern industrial life; they accepted the new corporate order but rejected the financial elite’s overlordship as pernicious and irrational. These Progressives devoured the writings of muckrakers–critics who deflated the puffery surrounding the heroes of finance and industry, but did so in a pragmatic, empirical and secular fashion. Assaults on “predatory wealth” accelerated after the Panic of 1907. Exposés by investigative journalists (Charles Edward Russell’s Lawless Wealth), jurists (Louis Brandeis’s Other People’s Money) and renegade speculators (Thomas Lawson’s Frenzied Finance) demonstrated that Wall Streeters traded on inside information, produced their own speculative booms and crises, blocked fruitful competition, suffocated innovation, made obscene amounts of money and used it to corrupt politicians and the press. These critiques, as Fraser shows, flowed out into ever wider channels of popular culture, from the Broadway musical (one play featured a chorus of demons chanting, “This seat’s reserved for Morgan/That great financial Gorgon”) to the newly arrived motion picture (in D.W. Griffith’s 1909 film A Corner in Wheat, a wheat king is literally buried alive by his ill-gotten gains).
Once again, cultural subversion facilitated political initiatives. In the Progressive era many of Wall Street’s opponents rallied around Theodore Roosevelt. As the scion of an ancient-monied clan, Roosevelt possessed both a “highly developed sense of social obligation” and a contempt for financial plutocrats that “was bred in the bone, part of an upbringing that dismissed materialistic strivings as unworthy, debilitating, and effeminate.” Woodrow Wilson and Eugene Debs–TR opponents in the election of 1912–had different vantage points, different social backing and different approaches to curbing the “Money Trust.” But the overall popular mood had clearly turned against Wall Street and modest reforms ensued, including the Federal Reserve Act (1913), though the arrival of World War I, which Wall Street played a crucial role in underwriting, short-circuited the Progressive crusade.
The ensuing 1920s-30s boom-bust cycle followed the well-established sine curve trajectory, but the oscillations were far more extreme, producing what Fraser calls Wall Street’s first “season in utopia,” which led to the most serious challenge yet to private control of the nation’s capital markets.
The 1920s surfed in on a wave of commodities, and Wall Street regained its luster by channeling capital to frontier technologies like radio and movies, airplanes and autos. The stock market again shook off its moral stigma, its Dionysian aspects resurfaced and speculating on margin became as sexy as wearing short skirts and drinking bathtub gin. Indeed, “playing” the market, Fraser suggests, became part of a more epochal development–the shouldering aside of the Puritan work-and-thrift moral economy by a shiny new culture of consumption. Constraints on corruption eased, too: Rogues were back in vogue, and stock pools–conspiracies by insider wolves to shear outsider lambs–were reported like sporting events.
With the Dow on a roll, a broader (yet still narrow) swath of the population rushed to get in on the action–heightening the aura of democratization–but the biggest profits still rose to the top, where they triggered another round of profligate consumption. Mellon Republicans green-flagged the process–approving mergers, slashing taxes on the rich–while pocketing initial stock offerings before they went public, burnishing crony capitalism to glossy perfection. Yet seldom was heard a discouraging word. Religious critics lacked fervor and moral authority, while surviving Populist and Progressive skeptics were dismissed as killjoys or cranks. Even Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic ravings about Wall Street’s sinister influence on the country’s moral fiber failed to gain traction. Wall Street oracles smugly announced the arrival of a “new era,” the end of history.
The Crash punctured this fantasy. The Street’s most august figures were exposed as cheats and felons–pillars of rectitude like New York Stock Exchange president Richard Whitney went off to Sing Sing wearing his bowler hat. Wall Street was reimagined as a bestiary of parasites, gamblers and noxious con men–a return of the repressed popular iconography of shame. Many, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, reconsidered the 1920s as one long drunk in which stocks had functioned like booze (as Fraser summarizes Babylon Revisited, Fitzgerald’s post-mortem) “lubricating childish daydreams about an eternity of good times, anesthetizing any sense of responsibility, fostering a careless and criminal negligence.” Meanwhile, theoreticians like John Maynard Keynes were deriding the purported “science” of stockbrokerage as a regime in which “enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation.” Worst of all, Wall Street was widely ridiculed. “Laughter is a punishing historical sentence,” Fraser observes, and the flood of lampooning cartoons, literary satires and iconoclastic biographies “whittled away the puissance of the old ruling class.”
This latest round of cultural subversion fatally compromised Wall Street’s ability to hold its own against New Deal reformers. FDR–who, like TR, inherited a patrician disdain for the nouveaux riches–declared that “we cannot allow our economic life to be controlled by that small group of men whose chief outlook upon the social welfare is tinctured by the fact that they can make huge profits from the lending of money and the marketing of securities.” The financial world was “subjected to a real if flawed public supervision under the New Deal”; social democratic programs like Social Security were set in place; and state-capitalist investment mechanisms loosened Wall Street’s chokehold on capital formation–even when it came to financing World War II, the Street remained a junior partner to government.
Fraser is very good on the New Deal era–not surprisingly, as he’s given us a superb biography of Sidney Hillman and co-edited an essential collection about the period–but he’s particularly smart about the 1940s-60s boom, the first in which Wall Street failed to instantly overcome Depression-era obloquy. The 1930s had been too searing to be soon forgotten: Postwar America remained security-conscious, and flamboyant speculators stayed in the doghouse. Once again a gray-flannel Wall Street presented itself as the prudential guardian of widows and orphans, and as a patriotic bulwark against un-Americanism (broker Charles Merrill argued that nothing “would provide a stronger defense against the threat of Communism, than the wide ownership of stocks in the country”). Unfortunately, the little investors remained gun-shy, and the new institutional purchasers like pension funds and insurance companies bought only the bluest of blue-chip stocks. Worse, the great corporations now financed expansion and innovation largely out of internal capital. The result, Fraser argues, was that Wall Street, having been for a century “an essential element of the country’s cultural iconography,” now “vanished from the front page and lived out its life in the business section of the daily newspaper.” Financiers, to be sure, became commanding figures in the economic and defense establishment. But Wall Street itself, “once a main thoroughfare running through the American imagination, now seemed deserted.” Some swagger resurfaced in the go-go 1960s, only to vanish in the crash of 1970, which ushered in a decadelong period of stagflation and decline that Keynesian remedies failed to reverse.
The convergence of economic crisis with military defeat in Vietnam, Fraser suggests, left the Wall Street establishment open to another onslaught, this time from the right. In the 1980s, a rising generation of speculators like Ivan Boesky and Carl Icahn, more plebeian and outer-borough than the white-shoe old guard, stormed the twin fortresses of the ancien régime wielding “a capitalist version of liberationist theology.” Wall Street warriors and Reagan Republicans repudiated big government and launched a counterrevolution against the New Deal. They also lit into the “Corpocracy” of complacent industrial managers, claiming that corporate takeovers and makeovers would revive the economy and succor disenfranchised shareholders.
Supply-side zealots, mergers and acquisitions wizards, greenmailers and assorted asset strippers, Fraser points out, failed to accomplish their professed goals–hostile mergers impaired efficiency, 1980s investment in plants and equipment sank below 1970s levels and S&L bailouts wasted billions–but they did manage to reignite the speculative sector. A torrent of capital surged into paper entrepreneurism–an endless reshuffling of nominal assets–and Wall Street went from being the economy’s spark plug to being its engine, a structural shift (from finance capitalism to financialized capitalism) akin to the revolution wrought during the Age of Morgan.
The 1980s also revived–and deepened–the country’s infatuation with Wall Street. With Americans hungry for signs that the days of defeat and decline were over, strident macho posturing by bond traders in suspenders seemed a Viagraesque antidote for a “wilted national masculinity.” Corporate raiders, greenmailers and “hot-to-trade portfolio managers with ice in their veins” made out like financial samurai, sporting copies of The Art of War by Sun Tzu in an atmosphere, Fraser notes, that “reeked of pure male fantasy.” Scorning what guru “Adam Smith” (a k a George Goodman) had derided in The Money Game as, in Fraser’s words, the “stultifying emphasis on safety and security that had settled over the markets since the war,” they chased after the biggest and quickest payoffs. Shareholders were happy–and their numbers exploded–as junk-bond financing generated handsome returns for those in mutual funds, pension funds and investment clubs (there were 7,000 of the latter by the end of the 1980s). And Wall Street resurfaced, big-time, in popular culture. Magazines like Success, Millionaire and Vanity Fair published lavish accounts of the “New Tycoonery”; soap operas (Dynasty, Dallas) doted on the doings of the nouveaux riches; and a multitude of media retailed each Gilded Age excess from masquerade balls to kitsch Hamptons palaces.
The 1987 crash momentarily soured the national mood, as did revelations (Liar’s Poker, Den of Thieves, The Predators’ Ball, Barbarians at the Gate) of gross corruption on the part of radical outsiders turned privileged insiders. Mike Milken and Ivan Boesky were sent to the slammer, and there was a brief reckoning with the social costs of the latest Great Barbecue–zooming homelessness, industrial collapse, declining wages, growing inequality. In popular culture, the trader went from being a Master of the Universe to being a villain, best exemplified by Gordon Gekko, the pitiless parasite played by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street (“I create nothing. I own,” Gekko gloats). But much of the criticism, Fraser argues, was more ironic than indignant, as if any hope for serious reform had been abandoned. There was no stopping the free-market utopians’ cultural momentum, in part because the crisis was quickly contained and the paper boom roared on.
For Fraser, the 1990s were the moment when a decisive cultural counterrevolution was wrought. At the decade’s beginning, Wall Street’s reputation rebounded, thanks to its financing of Internet innovation. Toward its end, as dot-com development reached its reality-based limits, capital sluiced instead into faith-based speculation. Ongoing casinoization was spurred by Republicans and Clintonian Democrats alike, the latter having shed their New Deal social conscience and converted to free-market orthodoxy. Together they cut capital gains taxes, deregulated the financial sector and turned a blind eye to the growth of gigantic speculative vehicles (the misnamed “hedge” funds), freed from government supervision but ready to accept government rescue.
Middle- and upper-class Americans piled into the market, assured that “risk-controlling” techniques–courtesy of university departments of “financial engineering”–had all but eliminated the downside. For the first time, roughly half the population participated, passively or actively: By 1998 there were 3,513 mutual funds. Wall Street seized hold of the popular imagination. TV viewers glued themselves to CNN-FN, Bloomberg and CNBC, captivated by financial analysts, business talk shows and real-time tickers scrolling (from 1996 on) across the bottom of their screens. At bookstores, parents snatched up bestsellers like Dow 36,000 and The Roaring 2000s: Building the Wealth and Lifestyle You Desire in the Greatest Boom in History, and took home Wow the Dow for the kiddies–who as likely as not were playing The Stock Market Game in grade school, or joining high school investment teams and competing in tournaments.
Media pundits and think tanks hailed this popular participation as a breakthrough for democracy–a triumphalism, as Fraser shrewdly notes, that mirrored American exaltation at winning the cold war. We were now the “Shareholder Nation,” with the financial marketplace replacing the town meeting as the place where citizens were freest to determine their fate. The 1990s were also the moment, Fraser believes, when the merger between Wall Street and the wider consumer culture that began in the 1920s was finally consummated. Not only had the capital casino become a 24/7 playground in its own right, but the willingness (or need) of average people to spend tomorrow’s anticipated capital gains today sustained purchasing in other sectors of the economy. Ordinary Americans did make money in the 1990s, though with the boom at white heat, 86 percent of the gains accrued to the top 10 percent. And the top 1 percent, which had 19.9 percent of the country’s wealth going into the decade, had 40 percent of it coming out. Another round of gilded arrogance and rococo extravagance ensued, but this time there were virtually no complaints about “barbarians” or “vanities”: “The ’90s,” Maureen Dowd noted, “are the ’80s without the moral disgust.”
In 2000 the bubble burst, with big losses all around. Stunning frauds were revealed that implicated virtually the entire Wall Street establishment. Corporate directors had cooked books (with help from banks and accounting firms), propped up share prices to cash in on stock options and looted pension funds on their way out the door. But this time, there was no backlash. The political fallout was minimal, the legislative response toothless.
Fraser takes this lack of reaction as evidence that a Rubicon has been crossed. The popular culture that for two centuries cast a cold or at least an ambivalent eye on Wall Street has now assumed a “stance of fateful inevitability about the reign of the free market.” The national imagination that “once peopled the Street with usurers, monopolists, con men, aristocrats, and sinners” is now “a dimming memory.” This waning of cultural antipathy has in turn sapped political energy; the wellsprings of outrage seem to have dried up, along with “the instinct to collectively resist the usurpations of presumptuous wealth.” Wall Street, “for the moment at least,” seems to have “won the war for hearts and minds.”
The only thing that might conceivably reverse this triumph, Fraser thinks, would be another truly systemic crisis. But given the far greater centrality of today’s financial sector, and the intricate interconnectedness of the international economy, a financial earthquake higher up on the Richter scale than that of 2000 might well trigger a global economic tsunami of horrendous proportions–which could, as Fraser is well aware, have horrific political consequences. Every Man thus ends on a dark and dispirited note.
I think this is too pessimistic. Let’s set aside the question of the degree to which 9/11 absorbed and deflected the popular outrage that might otherwise have burst over the heads of Enronizers and privateers, turning princes back into frogs. And let’s assume Fraser is right in attributing current complacency to the fact that the cultural underpinnings of resistance have been eroded, the moral goalposts moved down the field. Still, it’s worth considering the possibility that the political attack on Social Security might prove the functional equivalent of an economic collapse and provide the shock needed to delegitimize reigning elites and revitalize popular opposition. It’s better than an equivalent, in fact, because we confront not a sudden catastrophe that might encourage a panicky acceptance of authority but an Iraq-style voluntary war that affords us time to mobilize resistance in the court of public opinion.
In doing so, Every Man a Speculator can be a valuable resource. Fraser’s reconnaissance of Americans’ longstanding reservations about Wall Street has mapped the location of ancient stress points that are worth re-examining for signs of contemporary strain; and his assessment of previously proffered reforms can help distinguish outmoded critiques, inextricably tied to vanished moral economies, from proposals of continuing salience, if updated and refashioned.
Thus, it would clearly be witless to denounce speculation as gambling, and gambling as a sin. But I suspect that a culture chockablock with chapters of Gamblers Anonymous remains hip to the kinship between Wall Street-style irrational exuberance and Vegas-style bingeing, hence cautious about transferring nest eggs to casinos. On the corruption front, while cynicism about the possibility of checking financial fraud is understandably rampant, I’d bet that even those prepared to roll the dice with their retirement funds would prefer not to play in a rigged game, and might well back calls to quintuple the SEC’s budget and put a pit bull like Eliot Spitzer in charge of the croupiers.
Similarly, while the social gospel is clearly in remission, surely the vast numbers of church people now running the nation’s innumerable soup kitchens include many who find ethically despicable the zestful spear jabbers’ lack of concern for those who would face an impoverished old age, should smiley-faced market projections prove as wrong as they have repeatedly in the past. Such community-minded activists have also probably spotted “ownership society” flummery for what it is: the latest version of “It’s your money” self-centeredness, an irresponsible repudiation of social solidarity.
The nineteenth century’s Victorian family code is definitely passé, but Fraser’s intriguing identification of a centuries-long link between hypermasculinity and speculative excess should alert us both to the possible appeal of such macho posturing to some younger male voters, and its likely alienating effect on less testosterone-driven constituencies. (How’s “Would you trust your rainy-day fund to Gordon Gekko?” as a slogan?) Moreover, there must be many Americans who see the privatizers’ ugly effort to divide children from parents for what it is–a menace to contemporary family values. Most people know full well that Social Security has not only been a lifesaver for the old but has provided a measure of independence to the young, shifting some of the burden of caring for aged parents to the country’s broad collective shoulders.
Fraser’s recounting of how often euphoric complacency has given way to rude awakening might well resonate with those who lived through the 1990s boom and meltdown. People who personally experienced ulcer-making anxieties about the future as they watched their 401(k)s sag–and who agree the record suggests such lurches will likely recur–might be ready to oppose efforts to end psychic security as we’ve known it and pitch us into a Pepsid ‘R’ Us society.
Add these up and you’ve got a fair number of purchase points for moral resistance to self-serving ideologues like Stephen “Jabber” Moore, who would return us to a tooth-and-claw world. But Fraser offers far more than assistance on the Social Security front. His sweeping historical reconstruction is a powerful reminder that our current economic arrangements are the product of centuries of debate and struggle, not the inevitable legacy of invisible “market forces.” In historicizing (and thus demystifying) the present, Every Man joins the long list of acts of cultural subversion, and invitations to political action, so admirably chronicled in its pages.