Steve Fraser: Looking Backward to the Future

This essay is by the author of “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power,” which was published this week by Little, Brown & Co.

By Steve Fraser  February 20, 2015

Little, Brown and Co.

Lamentations about the sorry results of the midterm elections have preoccupied the progressive community. Blame has been liberally distributed: Obama’s ineptitude, the Democratic Party’s incoherent messaging, the Koch brothers, low turnout among the demographics that turned the tide in 2012, state laws restricting suffrage, candidates with gelatinous backbones, and relentless Republican demonizing of the president. All these and more have been credited with the humiliating reduction of the Democrats to an ineffectual congressional minority.

However, standing back from the fray, it is worth noting that before the Democratic Party became an anemic minority, it had spent the previous six years as a rudderless majority. It forfeited the chance during that period—especially in the first two years of the Obama era, when it controlled both Congress and the presidency—to use the financial collapse and disgust with the Iraq fiasco to decisively move the country to the left. November’s election debacle might be viewed as the longer-term outcome of that equivocation. We live frozen in time, oscillating between extreme political prognostications that come and go and come again, fantasies with little purchase on reality. In 2012, the Republican Party was pronounced all but extinct, done in by demagogues and demographics. Now, it rules. The tea party was alleged to be a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America until much of corporate America decided to wage war on the tea party. The Democratic Party seemed to open its arms to the “New Populism” (especially after Occupy Wall Street rattled the cage), but now seems resigned to embracing the queen of neoliberalism, Hillary Clinton.

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Political paralysis has disabled the country for a long generation. Over the last half-century, political life has polarized between efforts to defend and restore the New Deal order of things and relentless attempts to repeal it and replace it with something even older. This running in place is symptomatic of a profound lack of public imagination and what has become a habitual acquiescence to the powers that be. It is a toxic and a contagious brew engendering fear and delusion. But this claustrophobic sense of the possible did not always typify our public life. My book is about that change in the temper of the times, and is in part motivated by my own experience.

If Not Now, When?

Fifty-one years ago, I found myself in Starkville, Miss. It was the summer of 1964. I had come there from a Northern middle-class suburb to fight against American apartheid in its heart of darkness. I was 18. There I met a black man just about my age who had spent his whole young life in and around this small town. His name was Mohawk; or at least that was the only name I knew him by at the time. (Just recently, I learned his actual name was John Banks.) Mohawk and I went through a lot together during that Freedom Summer. The basic story is too well-known to recount the details here. But I do want to note that “The Age of Acquiescence,” my book that will be published [in February], is dedicated to the memory of Mohawk, who died some years ago. And I mention it because that experience has never left me, and it prompted the question that animates this book of mine.

Really, it is a double-pronged historical mystery: Why, on the one hand, do people submit for so long to various forms of exploitation, oppression and domination? Equally baffling, why do they ever stop giving in? Why acquiesce? Why resist? Looking backward, the indignities and injustices, the hypocrisies and the lies, the corruption and the cruelty may seem insupportable. Yet they were tolerated. Looking backward, the dangers to life, limb and livelihood entailed in rebelling may seem too dire to contemplate. Yet, in the teeth of all that, rebellion happened. Starkville and the Mohawks of Mississippi happened. There and at other times and places in our country’s history, one can watch in astonishment the extraordinary capacity of people, at certain times and under certain circumstances, to collectively stand up against the most intimidating forms of power and prejudice and to overcome internalized forms of social deprecation that can be so disabling.

More commonly that is not the case. That would seem to have been largely true—although not entirely so—here in the United States over roughly the last half-century. And this I think applies not only with regard to our state of permanent war that began with 9/11. I think it characterizes more widely our submission—for some willingly, for others not so much—to the domination of our public life by a plutocratic elite (christened by Occupy Wall Street as “the 1 percent”) and a mandarinate of managers commanding the nation’s global surveillance state. And I speculate that these two variants of acquiescence—to endless war and to the dominion of Wall Street—may be related. To borrow the rubric of an antiwar website, it’s a matter of “war in context.”

With that in mind, please indulge one more piece of autobiography. Some years after I’d left Mississippi, as the tumultuous decade of the ’60s was drawing to a close, I found myself in a jail cell in Philadelphia. I was charged with plotting to blow up the Liberty Bell. The FBI, the local police under the command of its chief, Frank Rizzo, and in particular the department’s civil disobedience squad had raided my apartment and discovered there what they had earlier planted (to the delight of the TV cameras that followed the police raiders into the apartment): namely, a sour-ball candy can full of gunpowder, pipes, wires and the very powerful military explosive plastique known as C-4.

Not long before this, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), in which I was active, had led a student strike that was centered at the University of Pennsylvania but that also embraced “occupiers” from many of the area’s campuses (Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, Villanova, Temple, Haverford and so on). The strike, in which I had played a prominent role, targeted two matters: the construction by a consortium of area colleges of a science center that would conduct, we had good reason to believe, war-related research; and the real estate speculations carried out by the city’s leading real estate and financial institutions tied to the land to be developed. These dealings also entailed the wholesale eviction of poor, largely African-American residents in the neighborhood adjacent to the Penn campus.

For the students and faculty and community members involved in the sit-in, this was indeed a case of the Vietnam War in context. It linked the doings of powerful elites at home and abroad. And the FBI’s intervention in my case showed the hand of the national security state in trying to suppress domestic dissent. Indeed, the bureau’s Cointelpro operation had cooked up a broader fantasy scenario of antiwar groups plotting to blow up national monuments all across the country.

I am by no means a zealous defender of all that transpired during the rebellions of the 1960s. My point in bringing this up is only to note that opposition to the Vietnam War—along with the civil rights and feminist movements, the last great resistance movement of our era—often, although not always, indicted not only the war but a whole way of life. One might call it the liberal Cold War political order, both as a set of foreign, imperial-minded interventions abroad and an inequitable domestic social order.

That “homeland” had tolerated racial subordination, widespread poverty, urban squalor and police violence. It rested on sexual repression and patriarchal domination. It nourished competitive and anomic social relations, and the self-absorbed preoccupations of consumer culture. It had allowed the capturing of our leading democratic political and even cultural institutions by the captains of corporate America and the chieftains of the national security state. State, along with racial and economic, hierarchies were placed under indictment.

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