The Age of Acquiescence

My friend Steve Fraser has a book coming out called The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. Comparing our contemporary Gilded Age to the original, Steve asks why in the late 1800s, the concentration of wealth and extremes of inequality sparked an explosion of mass rebellion that lasted well over a half-century, whereas today, with some isolated and episodic exceptions, we see, well, acquiescence. Not consent, not apathy, but acquiescence. It’s a word that makes me shudder. As Steve says, the men and women of the nineteenth century witnessed the violence of capitalist development and managed, out of that hellhole, to conjure and wage war on behalf of an entirely different vision of society. But we live in a “windowless room,” where we it’s difficult to see beyond capitalism. Part of that, he says, has to do with the “fables of freedom” we’re told, where freedom is equated with, reduced to, the free market. At the dawn of the Cold War, he points out, the US claimed it was defending freedom, not capitalism, because capitalism was still in such bad odor. Now the two are considered identical. But another part, he adds, is that the first Gilded Age was a society developing itself through accumulation, while today’s is a society that is de-developing itself through disaccumulation. (In his blurb for the book, Greg Grandin calls it “Piketty with politics.”)

Just before the holidays, Steve was on the Bill Moyers Show, talking about the book. Have a watch here, then buy the book. Once I get my copy, I’ll be blogging about it some more.


  1. Stephen Zielinski January 8, 2015 at 12:21 am | #

    I would say that acquiescence is a kind of consent. It is an ambiguous form of tacit consent, ambiguous because it expresses resignation by those who confront overwhelming power and have resigned themselves to living with that power, to willingly and knowingly suffering it. It is thus an instance of voluntary servitude by those who believe resistance is futile.

  2. Edward January 8, 2015 at 2:36 am | #

    The U.S. today is frequently accused of being a declining empire. This could be a feature of such societies.

  3. Evie Miller January 8, 2015 at 8:15 am | #

    In the late 1800’s we didn’t have TV to indoctrinate the masses that all this wealth accumulation was good for everyone. Today that is the message that is spread via this medium.

    • lazycat1984 January 8, 2015 at 10:21 am | #

      The manufacture of consent, or if you prefer, acquiescence, through finely tuned and proven propaganda techniques can’t be stressed enough. It seems the lower the social station of people I talk to about this stuff, the more tenaciously they hew to Rugged American Individualism.

  4. William Neil January 8, 2015 at 8:57 am | #

    I enjoyed Steve Fraser’s 2005 book, “Everyman A Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life.”

    Fraser’s opening page in Chapter 16, “Shareholder Nation,” is a wonderful condensation of what the U.S. had become by July 2003, both economically and militarily, with the blowback from the Iraq invasion just starting to erupt. Terrorism was still on everyone’s mind, and the economic events of 2000-2001 still hadn’t dented Market Utopianism.

    You can’t match this, so I’ll just quote from page 573 of the paperback edition:

    “…a remedy so bizarre it seemed like satire was incubating deep within the bowels of the Pentagon. Retired Rear Admiral John Poindexter – who first won notoriety as a central player in the Iran-Contra scandal during the second Reagan administration – announced that starting in October the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would run a futures market in terrorism. People would be invited to speculate on the likelihood of death and destruction around the globe. In its original incarnation, it was to be open to the first thousand members of the public who applied to participate. This Populist version of el casino macabre was soon modified so that only insiders, recognized ‘experts’ from government, business, and academia, would be allowed to place their bets on what mayhem seemed most likely and where.”

    Steve adds that the originators added some additional moderating features, but still, only Business Week magazine thought it might fly. So it was shot down and Congress did not act on it.

    Yet it will always remain in my mind as a crazy postage stamp image of an era that could broach something like this. Thanks Steve, I’ve never heard it mentioned anywhere else.

  5. David Green January 8, 2015 at 10:11 am | #

    It’s interesting to contrast accumulation with “dis-accumulation.” I suspect, however, that these are two sides of the capitalist coin. Speculation has always been with us. And even now, the fundamentals of the “real economy” have to be attended to. It’s just that they’ve been attended to in Mexico, China, and Bangladesh. With capitalism, the idea has always been to get in with real capital, and get out with as much fictitious capital as possible. Nevertheless, financial capitalism as we now know it has extraordinary features.

  6. bob mcmanus January 9, 2015 at 5:57 am | #

    Acquiescence? If Fraser thinks no one is complaining, maybe he needs to subscribe to twitter of visit some blogs or watch Fox News. Rather than silent acceptance, what I see is compulsive complaint.

    I see no shortage of verbal resistance out there. The question is why power is able to ignore it, and why verbal resistance is not being converted into effective political action.

    Debord’s Integrated Spectacle or Jodi Deans’ Triumph of Communicative Capitalism.

    We are paralyzed by the spectacle of watching ourselves complain like the chicken and the chalkline. Deliberative democracy has become declamatory democracy.

    Exit, voice, loyalty? We were told if we made our voices heard, change would come. Well, Babel is out there, and we are fascinated by it, and think the common carrier suffices for the common good. We are somehow satisfied, or at least preoccupied by leaning out the window and yelling we aren’t going to take it anymore.

    • William Neil January 9, 2015 at 8:45 am | #


      What do you think about this instance – and dynamic. Wendell Berry was awarded the nation’s highest honor in the humanities – to deliver the “Jefferson Lecture,” in the spring of 2012 at the JFK Center in DC. I only heard about it when the food critic of the NY Times, Mark Bittman, visited Berry at his home while he was preparing his speech. Berry was intense about it, and broadened his themes from his usual, to speak to the state of the nation and its relation to our “new” economy. The speech was entitled “It All Turns Upon Affection,” which surely must have been a title tugging at some long buried Beltway “heartstrings.” Maybe buried forever, too deep to reach anymore.

      Not only did Berry read this address, he left a copy on each seat. See if you can find a major press or magazine account. A few esoteric journals on the Right, including one in Princeton, commented that Berry was out of sorts, mean-spirited because he criticized the founding patriarch of Duke tobacco money who shut his grandfather out one Christmas at the “settle”: even though Berry’s grandfather was not a tenant farmer, he owned his own land, but got nothing for the crop that year. Berry opened the speech with this account.

      So the nation bestowed its highest honor – not quite a prime time TV address though, is it – then totally ignored the content and the speech.

      I wrote about it extensively and if you Google it you might find what I said. And I don’t fully subscribe to the Berry philosophy, but agree or not, it’s worthy and complex enough to be taken seriously, very seriously. But it wasn’t.

      I think the answer is that American ideology has hardened into an almost caste like shell: one part Nietzsche, one part Ayn Rand, one part the American Dream, where “only the private sector can create jobs” and only the entrepreneurs of society have standing. Indeed, a full map of 80-90% of the rest of society has evaporated, and won’t be present and accounted for until they become entrepreneurs of one type or another. Berry is talking a whole ‘nother conceptual scheme, although it certainly includes entrepreneurs at a local and regional level. But he’s put them back where Karl Polanyi once located the economy: as the servant of other values.

      So Wendell Berry couldn’t have said what he did; and if he did it was very impolite and it will be banished to the American version of intellectual Siberia. That’s a real place, I know how to describe it.

  7. IconoclastTwo January 9, 2015 at 6:54 pm | #

    Isn’t it possible that part of the problem is the winnowing of dominant dialogue or conversation to two different major options which in reality offer little space for serious challenges to capitalism in the United States? One obvious and problematic option is continued obedience among far too many people (especially some who ought to know better) to a Democratic Party that is clearly hostile to the causes that they take seriously and will never challenge capitalism as much as it consumes efforts towards obvious change and makes sure they never go anywhere. The other option seems to have become a vision of leftism that seems to emphasize personal moralism over any degree of success at actually changing anything, and at its worst some of its proponents seem to have descended into obscurantism and/or apocalypticism.

    Has there also ever been a period in time when so many leftists were either convinced that they couldn’t change much of anything or seemed to actually despise so many people?

  8. EnonZ January 9, 2015 at 7:48 pm | #

    Talk about acquiescence. Yet another liberal blog with Amazon book links, as if there weren’t unionized alternatives to Bezos’ anti-union behemoth.

  9. Joseph Ratliff January 26, 2015 at 3:27 pm | #

    Reblogged this on Joe's Notepad.

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