We live in a second Gilded Age where fabulous wealth and grinding poverty exist uneasily. In this milieu, American elites have largely come to rely on advertising, public relations and propaganda, rather than force, as a means of controlling a restless and sometimes hostile populace. Of course, the power of the state deployed daily through police shootings remains a constant reminder of what could happen if you resist, or if you’re superfluous, or if you’re the wrong color.
I’m reading Steve Fraser’s new book, The Age of Acquiescence, where he asks the provocative question–“Why, until the sudden eruption of OWS — a flare‑up that died down rather quickly — was the second Gilded Age one of acquiescence rather than resistance?”
Fraser examines the first Gilded Age and comes to the conclusion that conditions for workers were remarkably different from our present neoliberal order. He makes clear that much of the strife that marked America’s rapid industrialization at the end of the 19th Century was sparked by the sheer alienness of early capitalism. Did capitalism–“so deeply disturb traditional ways of life that for several generations it seemed intolerable to many of those violently uprooted by its onrush? Did that shattering experience elicit responses, radical yet proportionate to the life‑or‑death threat to earlier, cherished ways of life and customary beliefs?”
Before the onrush of industrial capitalism in the wake of the Civil War many Americans lived on farms or in small towns within a network of small craftsman and merchants. Many were bitter that capitalism took much of that away. Workers in the first Gilded Age especially chafed at the loss of autonomy, something we confront today with a similar lack of control amidst our market driven society.
Fraser asks if today Americans have become complacent because a market system is all they have ever known. Perhaps this market based system of values has become something that’s just there, like the weather.
The modern division of American workers into their own little units figures prominently in Fraser’s analysis of the differences in the two gilded ages. Think about how Federal-Express requires their drivers to be sub-contrators, for instance. At the onset of the industrial revolution workers labored together in a great mass. There was an obvious working class and a capitalist class. It was also easier to organize into unions to represent workers interests. In fact, Fraser takes great pains to lament the loss of unions in the last 30 years and directly points to this lack of worker representation to help explain the gross inequality so visible in the US today.
There are, however, some other reasons for this modern acquiescence. Since the first Gilded Age, the American elite has spent a lot of time and effort into manufacturing this acquiescence. The effort at softer control began in ernest with the Creel Committee, organized by the Wilson Administration to whip Americans into a war hysteria prior to the US entry into WWI. On April 13, 1917, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to promote the war domestically while publicizing American war aims abroad. Prominent members of the committee included, Walter Lippmann, Harold Lasswell, and Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmond Freud. All went on to play significant roles in the burgeoning industries of advertising and public relations. Berneys even wrote a book entitled Propaganda.
Bernays described propaganda as “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, examine how the American elite are able to employ advertising, public relations and propaganda in order to control the populace. They describe a propaganda model to illustrate how the modern US corporate media operates to control the narrative. It is the media’s function to “amuse, entertain and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.”
This subtle, 24/7 propaganda effort by the corporate media goes a long way in explaining how this idea of a market based system of morality came to be accepted as completely natural. It is, after all, a system of morality that we’re talking about. The American model of capitalism is depicted as the pure embodiment of morality, where every one, rich or poor, gets exactly what they deserve, and any efforts to ameliorate this unequal outcome violates this sacred economic value system.
Advertisers in the US have figured out how to sell any number of products–from soap, to cigarettes, to nuclear power, to GMO’s, to the ultimate accessory item–your very own politician. Above all else, what they’re really selling is acquiescence to the market based value system.
Who doesn’t remember, in the wake of 9/11, President Bush admonishing Americans to be calm and go shopping.
I don’t know about you, but for me, there has to be something more. Being a consumer within a market based value system is different from being a citizen within a democratic republic, a world in which people participate in the political decision-making and in related economic decisions.
The crisis facing America isn’t just economic, it’s political and moral. The American people have become atomized, unable to imagine a collective response. They’ve forgotten their rights and freedoms as citizens and desperately need to reclaim a language that allows them to articulate a moral vision of a world where value isn’t just ascribed to the wealthy. Right now, at every level of our society, there exists the idea that only people with money matter.
This is the notion of neofeudalism that I’ve been raging against, where the wealthy have used the economic system of neoliberalism to largely reestablish the class structure of the first Gilded Age with all the bowing and scraping. After all, it’s not enough for the wealthy in America to have all the money, what they really want is aristocracy, with all the trappings.
I’ve said this before but it needs to be repeated–Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.