You Have a Point, But Why So Shrill, Bro?


Title: The Age of Acquiescence

Rating: 2 Stars

The book is separated into two parts. The first describes the first gilded age. The second describes the second gilded age starting in about 1980).

First gilded age:

The nation went from 80% making their own living to 30% making their own living.  This was the birth of the wage slave, which then was a term of derision.

Farmers raised up against bankers. They protested against the gold standard, which meant that manufactured goods were artificially expensive while their debt stayed fixed.  This left farmers perpetually in debt.

The urban poor were fighting against the oligarchies.

Farmers and the working poor never found common cause. Bosses could turn the poor against each other by playing races off of each other.

The workers did fight back. The farmers had the Populist party. The working poor had unions and the Socialist party. The establishment legitimately feared the power of these parties.

Post WWI, the hunt for radicals (Palmer raids) did the job of weakening the worker parties.

Labor unions became trapped in their success of unionizing up North. They utterly failed in the South (racism and essential one party rule), so they became focused on winning more rights for the workers that they were already strong with. Ultimately, this led to other potential union workers to view unions as favoring the relatively privileged, mostly white workers.

Second gilded age

Shareholder value trumps all.

Financialization of industry led to its deindustrialization (sucking out value resulting in layoffs and shuttered towns).

Repealing of Glass-Steagall and deregulating Savings & Loans led to massive increase of risk and financial disasters.

Businessmen were lionized as the new warriors. They were pictured as Horatio Alger rags to riches who made their way to the top solely through their own hard work and smarts.

Greed was legitimized as a positive moral value.

Businessmen remained in power and were respected despite their fairly regular disasters (1987 stock market, Savings and Loans, Long-Term Capital Management, implosion of Asian economies and Latin American economies and so on).

The myth of workers being free agents choosing their own destiny gave companies the freedom to take away benefits and hire temporary workers.

The consumer culture gives everyone the sense of wide choice and the possibility of luxury.

All of this has led to the diminishment of workers rights with no one actively protesting what has been lost.

So why 2 stars? It was a slog to read. I enjoyed the discussion of the first gilded age. The second was just a weird combination of turgid and shrill, pointing the finger at the usual enemies with no apparent shades of grey. I’m in sympathy with the argument, but reading this made me understand why those on the right despise those on the left.

I do give him points for correct usage of hoi polloi. Usually, people say “the hoi polloi”, but hoi is a definite article, so that is equivalent to saying “the the masses”. So, there is that.


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