Last week, Bill Moyers interviewed historian Steve Fraser on what he calls our Second Gilded Age. Despite the anodyne title of the segment, The New Robber Barons, it was really about why the American public has been so quiescent in the face of rapidly rising income inequality, while during the first Gilded Age, a wide range of groups rebelled against the wealth extraction operation. I encourage you to watch the segment in full or read the transcript.
The constraints of the show meant that Fraser could only sketch out some of his ideas. Here are some that stood out:
STEVE FRASER: I think we underestimate the degree to which the politics of fear operates in our society and in our economy. If you’re living– look at us now. The dominant form of employment, or what is becoming the dominant form of employment in our economy today is contingent, casual, precarious labor, without any protections. No security at the job. No fringe benefits. You’re at the mercy of your employer and an economy that’s in chronic flux. Pensions have been stripped away. The social safety net has been shredded to a very significant degree. When you’re faced with that kind of situation naturally you have to think twice about whether you’re going to fight back.
BILL MOYERS: What about this notion of, you know, I’m an individual. I’m standing against the wave of history. I can, I may have hard luck, I may be oppressed, but I can reinvent myself. And that fable of American life is very powerful.
STEVE FRASER: It’s very powerful.
BILL MOYERS: The business press in particular. Infatuated with these people.
STEVE FRASER: Yeah, and every man was going to be a speculator and make it rich. And do it on his own. Do it on his own is the key thing. How are you going to get collective resistance if everybody dreams instead of their own individual ascent into the imperium, you know, realm of wealth and power? And so that it’s kind of like a fable of democratic capitalism. That is capitalism as a democracy of the audacious who will make it on their own, while in fact most of the people are headed in the opposite direction.
And it allows people whose real life is tied to this highly impermanent, unstable economy think of that as a good thing. As a form of freedom. I’m going to reinvent myself. Okay, I can’t count on my employer to hire me on any permanent basis. I can’t count on that kind of envelope of fringe benefits that’s going to protect me and my family. Good. I’m going to reinvent myself as a kind of freelancing, free agent, you know, mini Jamie Dimon. And this became persuasive to a certain segment of our population. And so it’s also part of the fables of freedom that I think have conduced to acquiescence.
BILL MOYERS: Fables?
STEVE FRASER: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Of freedom?
STEVE FRASER: Yes. One of them is this notion of the free agent. That he’s out there and he’s going to reinvent himself. Another fable of freedom is an old one but it’s taken on new and very telling life in our time. And that is the fable that you can escape and be free privately through consumer culture. That that is the pathway to liberation. And that has always offered itself up all through the 20th century as a way of escape.
I don’t mean to minimize the importance of material wellbeing for people and the need to live a civilized life. To have what you need to live a civilized life. The material things you need. But we have advanced way beyond that. And we deal in fantasy to an extreme degree. And it’s very hard to resist this because the media in all of its various forms presents an image of the country which we’re all supposed to respect, admire and strive for which is at variance with the underlying social and economic reality that millions upon millions of people live.
Yves here. I suspect the idea that Americans are addled by fear will resonate with a lot of readers. I don’t see it simply as a function of how precarious jobs and businesses have become, but more as an established feature of American culture that is becoming more and more evident as social stresses rise. For an advanced economy (as in one with a lot of specialized work roles and internal mobility), this country has a deep seated conformist streak. One is expected to be upbeat, pleasant, and uncontroversial. Strong personalities and eccentricities are not well tolerated unless you are in an alpha position. The US does not have much of a working class intellectual culture and bohemianism is similarly frowned upon (if you doubt that idea, think of how many of your peers would be happy if their kids’ career plans consisted of, say, working in a bike repair shop so they could make rent money while they toiled away on their paintings or great novel). In other words, for large swathes of the public, even before American society became openly Hobbesian, status competition was important. That creates pressure to adhere to adhere to models that are advantageous, or at least don’t work to your detriment.
The second is his discussion of how the free agent model is celebrated. I contend that the real issue is atomization. People no longer have much involvement in their communities due to increasing workplace demands and two-earner families. And with job tenures short, the workplace isn’t much of a community either. When citizens have little or no connection with a community, and even less with community organizations, they are less likely to think about or know how to create new organizations to redress social wrongs.
It’s hard to believe that anyone who has been in the real world for any length of time would see the free agent notion, which is targeted at middle and upper middle class members, as attractive. Even if you have an idea as to how to pick yourself up out of a career trash heap and find a new type of work (which is what that cheery Orwellianism “reinventing yourself” really means), it entails downtime (as in having to go into your savings, if you have any) and risk. Moreover, for at least a decade, Slashdot has featured regular articles of young IT grads desperate to find entry level jobs. The oldsters patiently confirm that they are pretty much gone. If computer professionals, supposedly one of those in demand, high skill career paths, can’t even get started in building a portfolio of marketable skills, how can they possibly go solo?
In fact, MIT economics professor emeritus Peter Temin pointed out what is really going on. As wealth disparity rises, the rich live more and more in isolation and more and more in fear of loss and of their personal safety. This leads to a lower-trust environment in workplaces, particularly as employment has become more transient. That leads employers to implement more and more measures to make individual workers even more disposable by fragmenting and standardizing tasks and increasing surveillance. While that may make the wealthy more secure and fatten their profits near term, it also has the effect of destroying the innovative potential of the organization, so in the long term, they are limiting its growth opportunities.
So the free agent myth is indeed a fable told to the economic cannon fodder to energize them to go out and meet their fate. Perhaps readers will tell me otherwise, but the only people I see who believe in it in a serious way are those high on the food chain (as in they need to assuage their conscience or genuinely don’t know any better), and various corporate boosters, such as the business press, consultants, and academics.
Fraser’s point about fantasy is important and not widely recognized. When I lived in Oz from 2002 to 2004, I’d come back to the US a couple of times a year. I had the time to see movies back then, and I also made a point to watch Australian TV to get more in tune with the culture (not that Australians are big on TV, mind you). It was stunning to see the difference in the commercials. The Australian ones were funny, straightforward, and had normal looking people (as in attractive but not excessively so). The American ones back then, by contrast, were often deranged: no clear plot, as if they meant to evoke a dream (I gotta tell you, my dreams are very rich yet a ton more linear), weird images, like people flying around or scenes morphing as a person rode or walked through it, shimmery backgrounds (as in the commercial was clearly not in the real world). I found watching them to be alienating rather than intriguing, yet a whole raft of ad agencies clearly thought this sort of thing worked and they might even have research that supported their belief.
For a short interview, there is a lot more grist for thought, so I hope you take the time to watch the show. And even more important, I hope readers will give their own views as to why there has been so little in the way of protests. Militarized policing is one big contributor, but we’ve seen how the protests against police brutality had in fact managed to shut down highways and make political statements through die-ins, so changed tactics could shift those dynamics.