Monday, March 23, 2015

Why Do We Accept the New Inequality?

Labor historian Steve Fraser has been wondering why the current surge in inequality hasn't been accompanied by the resistance from organized workers that opposed the rule of the robber barons. In a new book, he tries out an explanation:
Fraser offers several explanations for the boldness of the post-Civil War wave of labor resistance, including, interestingly, the intellectual legacy of the abolition movement. The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.

This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What ­fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future. It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age . . . . The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.
I often think that we accept capitalism's inequities because we can't imagine any other way of doing things. But I think Fraser is missing the other side of the ledger, the failure of revolutionary socialism. Striking workers in the 19th century had multiple goals, some practical and some revolutionary. Many of their practical goals have been achieved: 40-hour work weeks, weekends, safer work conditions, decent housing, an end to exploitative company stores. But those practical goals always existed in a sort of dance with a different vision of change, revolutionary transformation that would completely overturn the existing corrupt order. The world's experience with Stalinism and Maoism has destroyed that vision. I think Fraser is right that some workers fought capitalism because they were looking backward, but others did so while looking forward -- and many did both at once. Without that vision of a completely different future, much of the energy that drove the labor movement is missing.

Plus, people are just a lot better off in material terms than they were in 1920. The world may be as unequal and unfair as it was then, but it is a lot richer, so slots in the bottom half are nicer than they used to be. It is a lot harder to get people with central air conditioning and large screen tvs to join violent protests. We are also much older than we were then, and it is especially hard to get comfortable senior citizens to join protests. Plus, ever-increasing globalization undermines the power of any particular group of workers; if every factory hand in North America went on strike at the same time, all the factories would just move to China or India.

I think political radicalism is dead, killed by demographic change, comfort, and globalization. Incremental, political change is the only option, and even that is proving hard to achieve in the face of our growing frustration with bureaucracy and taxation.

No comments: