I was looking forward to reading Steve Fraser’s book, especially after his Bill Moyers interview, and I really wanted to like it. But it did not captivate, perhaps due to circumstances under which I read it, or perhaps due to meandering quality of the text itself. My eyes glossed over words and yearned for the ending. That’s not to say that there weren’t some quotable bits, such as “Does it make sense to claim that we have been suffering from osteoporosis of the political backbone if the whole of society has become one gelatinous invertebrate mass?” and “Addiction to the multifarious delights of consumer culture, for example – from electronic gadgetry to crystal meth, from channel surfing to sugar-injected fast food, from buffo housoleums to logo-infested T-shirts – functions after all as a kind of deliverance, a part of daily life and an escape from it.” His main goal is to answer the question as to why we have no more resistance to wealth and power similar to what we saw in the early days of primitive accumulation (capital accumulation at the expense of others), the hotbed of resistance from the 1870s thru 1930s, what he calls the “long nineteenth century.” The best I can recap of his answer is that early resistance was easier because people had knowledge of prior times, they remembered being able to fall back into their own resources and farm or open a shop. The second half of the book I thought was going to focus more on why today’s climate doesn’t allow for much resistance (except the brief sliver of Occupy), but I confess to being made sleepy by his rambling on about the rapacious finance system that no longer produces anything, but creates money out of nothing.
A good bit from the intro:
[People went along with the system] so long as people had believed the country still offered them a credible shot at “the main chance” – an equal right to become unequal.
I learned something about the migration to Texas:
Throughout the South everyone knew that a sign posted on an evacuated homestead reading G.T.T. meant “Gone to Texas,” which in fact 100,000 beleaguered farmers did every year of the 1870s, and in similar numbers thereafter.
Also learned about Molly Maguires:
Big metropolitan dailies helped produce that terminal resolution by drawing a straight line between Molly resistance to the coal barons and “Indian savagery.” As the county district attorney put it, “The name of Molly Maguire being attached to a man’s name is sufficient to hang him.”
Strikes were common during this time:
Sympathy strikes and boycotts expressed solidarity as an organized social emotion, not merely a piece of inspiring rhetoric, but as palpable reality, the spirit come to life, discovering all the exfoliating networks of its social nervous system. The form of the mass strike was its content, the medium the message.
On the negative impact of Cold-War branding of reds & socialists:
The search for why the long nineteenth century boiled over with anti capitalist movements and ideas and sentiments, and the last half century has not, must measure the enduring impact of this long-ago moment of cultural repression. Language is, as a philosopher once put it, the “house of being.”
Perhaps this is part of his argument about why we are complacent:
Three fables of freedom in particular have marked the last half century: emancipation through consumption; freedom through the “free agency” of work; and freedom through the heroism of risk, a fable in which the businessman emerges as plebeian liberator. These tales were not invented when Ronald Reagan was elected president – their roots go far back into the American past – but they have substantially shaped the contours of our more recent remarkable quiescence.
***Updated to include the lyrics to the “Eight Hour Day Song,” the long 19th century labor movement’s anthem:
We want to feel the sunshine
We want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure God has willed it.
And we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from
shipyard, shop, and mill;
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest
Eight hours for what we will.