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The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

Naomi in the NYT Sunday Book Review: "The Age of Acquiescence," by Steve Fraser

Published in The New York Times

For two years running, Oxfam International has traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to make a request: Could the superrich kindly cease devouring the world’s wealth? And while they’re at it, could they quit using “their financial might to influence public policies that favor the rich at the expense of everyone else”?

In 2014, when Oxfam arrived in Davos, it came bearing the (then) shocking news that just 85 individuals controlled as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. This January, that number went down to 80 individuals.

Dropping this news in Davos is a great publicity stunt, but as a political strategy, it’s somewhat baffling. Why would the victors of a class war choose to surrender simply because the news is out that they have well and truly won? Oxfam’s answer is that the rich must battle inequality or they will find themselves in a stagnant economy with no one to buy their products. (Davos thought bubble: “Isn’t that what cheap credit is for?”)

Still, even if some of the elite hand-wringing about inequality is genuine, are reports really the most powerful weapons out there to fight for a more just distribution of wealth? Where are the sit-down strikes? The mass boycotts? The calls for expropriation? Where, in short, are the angry masses?

Oxfam’s Davos guilt trip doesn’t appear in Steve Fraser’s “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power,” but these are the questions at the heart of this fascinating if at times meandering book. Fraser, a labor historian, argues that deepening economic hardship for the many, combined with “insatiable lust for excess” for the few, qualifies our era as a second Gilded Age. But while contemporary wealth stratification shares much with the age of the robber barons, the popular response does not.

As Fraser forcefully shows, during the first Gilded Age — which he defines loosely as the years between the end of the Civil War and the market crash of 1929 — American elites were threatened with more than embarrassing statistics. Rather, a “broad and multifaceted resistance” fought for and won substantially higher wages, better workplace conditions, progressive taxation and, ultimately, the modern welfare state (even as they dreamed of much more).

Read the rest of the article in The New York Times




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