“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.