In our new Gilded Age, the worst are not only full of passionate conviction. They are also damnably clever.


“Deepening” is the suggestive word that economists use to describe a developing country’s increasing involvement with international finance. As more transactions take place between borrowers and lenders, as more mediating institutions are formed, more financial instruments introduced, and more laws and regulations devised, something intricate and integrated emerges across national borders: the deepening of the mighty “financial markets” that dictate government policies and decide the fate of populations.

With innumerable connecting threads forming a complex, near-organic unity, this spectral entity is at once extraordinarily sensitive and extraordinarily stable. The slightest external stimulus is registered, its effects transmitted rapidly throughout the system—but as with all complex organisms, a homeostatic process swiftly restores equilibrium. Deep-enough markets are impossible for individuals to dominate or disrupt; there are simply too many controls, shock absorbers, balancing mechanisms. By the same token, nonmarket-based purposes and motives—such as equality or the general welfare—can get no traction. The constraints are structural: No one is visibly oppressed or discriminated against in the financial markets. Everyone’s money is equally green, and procedural fairness is rigorously enforced. The same rules apply to the 99.9 percent as to the 0.1 percent; as the great capitalist philosopher Thomas Friedman has sagely observed, the rules put everyone, rich and poor, in the same “golden straitjacket.” What could be fairer?

Steve Fraser’s The Age of Acquiescence and David Bosworth’s The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America brilliantly document a parallel form of “deepening”: the long-term undermining of popular sovereignty and its replacement by the sovereignty of organized money over an atomized, impotent populace. Like the market, the American political system (in contrast to those who actually staff it) commands considerable public legitimacy, even while generating inequality, cynicism, and apathy. In both cases, an elaborate legal structure produces an appearance of fairness, while the vastness and intricacy of each system seems to suggest that there is no alternative, that elite dominance is inevitable and popular resistance futile, even irrational. In market democracies, Amartya Sen writes, “discontent is replaced by acceptance, hopeless rebellion by conformist quiet and…suffering by cheerful endurance.”

This sense of frustrated and bewildered acquiescence is something new in American history, argues Fraser, an accomplished journalist and historian. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “the sinews of resistance were tougher and more resilient…the popular imagination audaciously leapt beyond the boundaries of business as usual. Great waves of social upheaval regularly rolled across the landscape of American life. Their reverberations lent public affairs a frisson we no longer sense.” Comparisons between post-Reagan America and the first Gilded Age are now commonplace; the levels of inequality, corruption, and financial buccaneering are strikingly similar. What’s starkly different, however, is the temper of politics today: the absence of organized resistance and the “frailty and passivity” of the left.

To point up the contrast, The Age of Acquiescence offers a short but vivid history of class warfare in America’s first industrial age. Capitalism always begins with primitive accumulation, the large-scale expropriation of labor and natural resources. Freed slaves and prisoners (very often, in the South, the same persons) formed a large part of this new proletariat, but the majority were dispossessed farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers, whipsawed by mortgage and other interest payments, on the one hand, and volatile commodity prices on the other. By the end of the 19th century, the indomitable American yeomanry celebrated by Tocqueville and Lincoln had largely vanished, absorbed into a mass of industrial wage laborers alongside streams of immigrants, welcomed then as now by employers for the downward pressure they exerted on wages.

Early industrial America was racked by financial crises, occasioning great pain among workers, which they did not take lying down. The Age of Acquiescence opens with a description of the “Great Uprising” of 1877, a countrywide railroad strike that many ruling-class voices (including The Nation in that era) feared would incite a new Civil War. Sabotage, arson, and occupation by workers were met with the murderous violence of the police, militias, and private armies. Though the uprising was defeated, many novelists, clergymen, professors, and journalists—along with millions of workers and farmers—questioned the viability and legitimacy of capitalism. In subsequent decades, large agrarian and working-class organizations flourished—the Knights of Labor, the People’s Party, and the Socialist Party, for example—sometimes wielding considerable economic and electoral power.

Their challenge to capitalism failed. Historians have usually attributed this to the dampening effect of American prosperity: Socialism here foundered on “reefs of roast beef and apple pie,” wrote one foreign observer. That judgment surely understates the ferocity of official repression. Nearly every time in those decades that a strike or a factory occupation had to be broken or a demonstration quashed, municipal, state, and federal authorities placed themselves at the service of employers, while judges reliably issued injunctions and punished agitators harshly. Finally, using World War I and the Russian Revolution as pretexts, the Wilson administration decimated the anti-capitalist left.

* * *

That ideological and institutional bloodletting ensured that the next great crisis of capitalism, in 1929, produced no fundamental transformation but only top-down reforms. The economy languished until another global war made another cycle of primitive accumulation possible. The New Deal reforms, and the Keynesian ideas on which they were based, “civilized” capitalism. For a few golden (in retrospect) post–World War II decades, unionized white workers did unprecedentedly well. “Pensions and medical insurance, vacations, cost-of-living and productivity escalators, credit unions, and sick days—all that and more became the norm for a sizable segment of the American working class.”

The war in Vietnam, the OPEC oil embargo, and the other costs of empire, along with the increasing competitiveness of Western Europe and Japan, put an end to this civilized interlude. American capitalism began to cannibalize itself in the 1980s, morphing from a manufacturing economy to a finance-based one. Individual plants and whole companies were sold off or drastically downsized, the proceeds going to hedge funds or private-equity firms, or else directed overseas to regions with cheap labor and few regulations. Unionized jobs (as well as unions) disappeared, government revenues plummeted, public services starved, and infrastructure decayed. Levels of median income, homeownership, public health, and educational performance all tanked. In nearly every measure of general welfare, the United States fell below almost every other developed country. The Age of Acquiescence does a stellar job (even better than George Packer’s widely praised The Unwinding) of narrating this protracted devastation of a way of life.

Fraser’s purpose, however, is not to point out how bad things are, which every newspaper reader already knows. It’s to ask how the authors of this catastrophe have gotten away with it—why there is so little organized resistance to plutocracy in the second Gilded Age. Occupy Wall Street was an inspiring outburst but left little institutional residue. Minority-rights and gender-equality struggles have scored great successes, but they have not carried over into opposition to economic inequality and corporate dominance. Why, compared with the tempests of a century ago, are there only scattered bursts of resistance now?

The most obvious reason is the decline of organized labor. This was not a spontaneous development; it was the primary element in business’s strategy of rolling back the New Deal. In the wake of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, the Republican Party played the “race card,” inflaming resentment among Southern whites, and this provided a major obstacle to labor organizing there. A large-scale odyssey of the manufacturing industry to the nonunion Sun Belt followed. The Reagan administration began the now decades-long practice of stacking the National Labor Relations Board with anti-labor appointees determined not to enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act. And then came globalization.

During the Cold War, the “free world” meant that part of the world in which American business could operate free of unruly unions or excessively welfare-minded governments. Democracy was unimportant to US policy-makers, except for public-relations purposes, and “communism” simply meant an unwillingness to provide a sufficiently favorable investment climate. When the Cold War ended, business rejoiced, not because people were liberated but because capital was. A century after it was launched, the Open Door Policy triumphed on a global scale. One “free trade” agreement after another extended a common regime of “investor rights” worldwide, empowering lenders and sharply limiting the ability of workers or consumers to organize, and of states to tax, regulate, or provide essential services.

In addition to attaining this stranglehold on economic life, business has undertaken a long march through the political landscape. Concentrating media ownership in a few giant corporations; slashing public funding for education at all levels; creating a cottage industry of junk science and dubious policy research; placing industry flacks at the head of regulatory agencies; packing the appellate courts with younger, less experienced, but rabidly partisan conservative judges; and, most important, spending huge sums to elect friendly legislators and provide them with lucrative employment when they leave office: These are the mechanisms of business hegemony in 21st-century America. The resulting political system is as dense and intricate a web as the financial markets—and, like the latter, it wonderfully facilitates certain kinds of initiatives (money-driven ones) while efficiently frustrating others (citizen-driven ones). It has been skillfully engineered to make fundamental change extremely difficult—not that there’s now the same broadly based demand for change that Fraser points to earlier in American history.

* * *

Why isn’t there? What makes “flexible” capitalism so tolerable to its victims? Like all societies, ours has its legitimating myths. “Three fables of freedom in particular,” Fraser writes, “have marked the last half century: emancipation through consumption; freedom through the ‘free agency’ of work; and freedom through the heroism of risk, a fable in which the businessman emerges as plebeian liberator.”

Advertising is the primary motor of consumption, of course. About the average American, an authoritative observer wrote: “Nearly everything he sees, hears, touches, tastes, and smells is an attempt to sell him something. To break through his protective shell the advertisers must continuously shock, tease, tickle or irritate him, or wear him down by the drip-drip-drip Chinese water torture method of endless repetition. Advertising is the handwriting on the wall, sign in the sky, the bush that burns regularly every night.” No, this is not Vance Packard or some other left-wing social critic; instead, it’s Fortune magazine in the innocent 1950s.

And as Fraser shrewdly notes, consumerism has an even deeper source. Some minimum of pleasure and autonomy is a necessity in every life, and contemporary capitalism has managed to render work, for most people, both stultifying and insecure. (A recent book by journalist Simon Head, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans, is an eye-opening tour around the new world of computer business systems, designed to eliminate initiative, skill, or judgment in the workplace.) Consumption is a haven in this heartless, boring world, Fraser writes: “Leveraged by debt, consumer culture has helped make the state of permanent wage labor—even a declining, downwardly mobile one—tolerable.”

What also has made it tolerable is the overthrow of the old ruling class: the Ivy League/Social Register WASP elite. Not, alas, by a popular movement, but by a new cadre of swashbuckling, Gordon Gekko–like financial entrepreneurs determined to “rip their fucking throats out.” This manhandling of the genteel establishment didn’t do the rest of us any good—on the contrary—but it vicariously released some of our aggressions. Michael Milken, Carl Icahn, and their ilk became heroes. Even though they were no less rapacious than the aristocrats they replaced, at least they hadn’t inherited their money. They were our sons of bitches.

And if they did it through sheer greed and grit, why couldn’t we? If they thrived on risk, freedom of action, on breaking ties and burning bridges, scorning institutional support and civic obligations, why shouldn’t we? So much for solidarity. The difference between a nation of individuals and a nation of individualists is the difference between a republic and a barely concealed war of all against all.

* * *

Critiques of capitalism’s false promises aren’t exactly a novelty, of course. If Fraser’s nevertheless packs a punch, it is not only because, unlike most of his academic and Marxist predecessors, he writes lively prose and furnishes much colorful detail. It is, even more important, because he insistently contrasts the typical character structures of America then and now—two countries “geographically the same, separated by a century, one on the rise, a developing country, one in decay, becoming an underdeveloped country”:

During the first Gilded Age the work ethic constituted the nuclear core of American cultural belief and practice. That era’s emphasis on capital accumulation presumed frugality, saving, and delayed gratification as well as disciplined, methodical labor. That ethos frowned on self-indulgence, was wary of debt, denounced wealth not transparently connected to useful, tangible outputs, and feared libidinal excess, whether that took the form of gambling, sumptuary displays, leisured indolence, or uninhibited sexuality.

How at odds that all is with the moral and psychic economy of our own second Gilded Age. An economy kept aloft by finance and mass consumption has for a long time rested on an ethos of immediate gratification, enjoyed a love affair with debt, speculation, and risk, erased the distinction between productive labor and pursuits once upon a time judged parasitic, and became endlessly inventive about ways to supercharge with libido even the homeliest of household wares.

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? So too, 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?

To readers of the late Christopher Lasch, this reasoning will sound familiar. Throughout his career, and especially in his masterpiece The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991), Lasch argued that the advent of mass production and the new relations of authority it introduced in every sphere of social life wrought a fateful change in the prevailing American character structure. Psychological maturation depended crucially on a rhythm and scale that industrialism disrupted. The result was a weakened self, more easily regimented than its preindustrial forebear and less able to resist illegitimate authority. Unfortunately, Lasch, following Freud, called this new self a “narcissistic personality,” which practically guaranteed that he would be misunderstood as merely scolding the rest of us for our triviality and self-absorption.

Lasch died prematurely, without explaining (or, perhaps, deciding) what we should keep of modernity and what we should jettison. His complex, wide-ranging argument has not found many echoes among social critics since, though it seems to have found one now in the novelist David Bosworth, author of The Death of Descartes. In his powerful polemic, The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America, Bosworth aims to tell “the story of a profound transformation in the national character,” through which “an American ethos initially geared toward prudence, pragmatism, and plain speaking came to generate instead the greatest con game in human history.” Fraser frames exactly this history in the categories of political economy; Bosworth in those of moral psychology. Fraser’s narrative is fast-paced and broad-gauged; Bosworth’s is granular, with frequent parables and case studies.

The “American ethos” whose decline Bosworth chronicles had three main sources: Protestant Christianity, local self-government, and agrarian/artisanal producerism. The virtues these practices fostered were self-control, self-reliance, integrity, diligence, and neighborliness. What has made these virtues superfluous, even a little ridiculous, is the triumph of “Evangelical Mammonism,” the pseudo-religion of the “free market,” uniting blind faith in progress with a fervent worship of profits. “Through a relentless campaign of architectural enclosure and psychological saturation over the last sixty years, our consumer economy has managed to gain effective control over both our physical and virtual homes,” Bosworth writes.

An intensely cynical entertainment industry imagineered a “mythic America” oozing with sentimentality, its highly rationalized engines of narrative production formulaically projecting the romantic fantasies of feel-good triumph.

A Protestantism once rooted in a sober recognition of sinfulness, and whose savior threw the money-lenders out of the temple, began to sell instead the promissory notes of a prosperity theology: spiritual deal-making for material and psychological profit-taking in the here-and-now.

A whole host of cultural liberators proclaimed their righteous freedom from this or that oppressive system only to commit to alternative regimens that proved more punitive than the ones they rejected: from a heady pursuit of bacchanalian bliss or therapeutic mood enhancement into the deadening trap of chemical dependency; from a giddy promotion of “consumer choice” into the grim schedules of compulsive shopping and credit-card indebtedness; from a libertarian rejection of governmental regulation into the draconian regimes of corporate efficiency and the rigged markets of global monopolies and Ponzi schemes; from a celebration of the “sovereign self” into a passive submission to the robotic schedules of self-esteem and self-help.

Bosworth sees Evangelical Mammonism everywhere: in the disappearance, for example, from his hometown (and thousands of others) of nearby woods and other undeveloped areas, where little epiphanies of stillness sometimes visited children pausing from play; in the airport lounge, where his request to turn off one or two of the ubiquitous blaring televisions was met with incomprehension; in the mall, where security cameras suss out any civic activity or other distraction that might momentarily disrupt the flow of happy shopping; and in the prettifying, by Disney and others, of fairy tales like “Pinocchio” and “Three Little Pigs,” which in their original form sometimes exposed children’s imaginations to nasty or frightening emotions and so helped them grow up. With these and dozens of other examples, from antidepressants to “prosperity Gospel” preachers to the hucksterism of Wayne Dyer and Tom Peters, and with excursions into the psychic roots of recent mass delusions like the Iraq War and the housing bubble, Bosworth probes the decay of American culture as skillfully and as clinically as a dentist. For the reader/patient/citizen, the resulting pain is acute but necessary.

Decay can sometimes be reversed, but not always. Can the collective solidarities and individual virtues whose decline Fraser and Bosworth lament be preserved—or if they’re already too far gone, reconstituted? It’s not clear: In the economy, polity, and culture alike, the rot is very deep. The worst are not only full of passionate intensity; they are also damnably clever. Thank God (that is, Technology) for social media and the Internet, but can they compensate for enemy control of the commanding heights?

Still, “decline is no more predestined than Progress was once thought to be,” Fraser helpfully reminds us. And Bosworth has promised a sequel, as programmatic as this book is diagnostic—a prospect that will keep this reader, at least, hopeful for a while.

Discouragement is, in any case, out of the question. “We are never permitted to despair of the commonwealth,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. The people united may be defeated again and again, maybe forever. But maybe not.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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