Rejecting the TINA mantra and the second ‘Gilded Age’

There was an interesting article by US historian Jackson Lears in the in the London Review of Books (July 16, 2015) – The Long Con: Techno-Austerity. I recommend people regularly reading the LRB because it has some fabulous articles. In this case, the review by Jackson Lears is of the recent book by Steve Fraser – The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organised Wealth and Power (published by Little, Brown). I have taken time to write about this because I had to read the book being reviewed myself first. There is also an excellent review of the book by Naomi Klein in the New York Times – ‘The Age of Acquiescence,’ by Steve Fraser (March 16, 2015). So what is it about?

Fraser’s main theme is that we are now entering a “second Gilded Age” where an increasing proportion of citizens endure declining material standards of living because their economic circumstances have deteriorated but at the same time a tiny proportion of us enjoy an “insatiable lust for excess”.

This book has been background reading for me as I watched the British Labour leadership tussle unfold. As I waded through the book, questions about the future of the labour movement and progressive politics kept coming up.

The evisceration of Jeremy Corbyn and his newly announced team as mad-dog socialists intent on destroying the British economy and society, if not the entire universe, has been amazing in its ferociousness and immediacy. British papers like the Telegraph have been carrying many stories in the last few days which border on the insane.

Jackson Lears initially notes that the question posed by the German sociologist Werner Sombart in his 1906 book – ‘Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus?’ (later translated into English as “Why is there No Socialism in the United States”) – “was misconceived”.

Sombart’s thesis was part of the belief in American exceptionalism which sought to argue that the development of the US was quite different to other advanced Western nation.

The advent of worker unrest and industrial strike activity in the late C19th in Europe led directly to the formation of political movements to support the interests of the workers. Sombart argued that similar developments did not occur in the US. The trade unions in the US rejected creating a political arm of its movement and instead supported the Democrats, who represented a much broader set of interests.

Jackson Lears considers the question to be “misconceived” because:

During the several decades before the Bolshevik Revolution, socialism was as American as apple pie. In the presidential election of 1912, nearly a million Americans – 6 per cent of the electorate – cast ballots for the Socialist Party candidate, Eugene Debs. There were two Socialist members of Congress, dozens of Socialist state legislators, and more than a hundred Socialist mayors. The leading Socialist newspaper, the Appeal to Reason, had more than 500,000 subscribers. And this was only a portion of a much broader swathe of the electorate who considered themselves Progressives or Populists rather than Socialists, but were just as committed to challenging concentrated corporate power in the name of a ‘co-operative commonwealth’.

The significant aspect of the American ‘socialists’ is that they “did not fit Sombart’s implicitly Marxist model of opposition to capitalism”.

Rather they were “farmers and artisans and small businessmen as well as industrial workers. Many were small-town or rural folk from the Midwest or the South”.

So quite a different cohort to the factory workers slaving in poor conditions in large urban centres.

There was also an interesting article in the Jacobin Magazine (August 20, 2015) – The Black Belt Communists – by Robin D.G. Kelley, which traces the role that the American Communist Party place in challenging the “highly exploitative system of tenant farming” in Alabama during the 1930s.

It bears somewhat on our discussion today.

Jackson Lears notes the socialists in America did not talk as Marxists but were seeking to preserve the collective (the “co-operative commonwealth”) and laced this aspiration with “Christian morality” – they saw industrial capitalism as threatening their “family, craft, community, faith”.

He considers that the socialist intent in America disappeared in the 1950s:

In the United States, the assimilation of labour to capital became apparent after the grand bargain of 1950, when unions in the steel and car industries traded their control over shop-floor rules in return for security and steady wages. No one can deny the democratisation of affluence that flowed from the ‘Treaty of Detroit’, as Steve Fraser calls it in The Age of Acquiescence. But the hidden cost of the agreement was the erosion of any notion that organised labour could foster an ethos of solidarity – an alternative to the dominant culture of individual accumulation.

While neither Fraser or Lears state this – ‘The Age of Acquiescence’ was fostered by Keynesian-style, social democratic governments, which mediated the class struggle and forced some redistribution of income towards workers and away from capital.

This era also saw governments taking responsibility for achieving and sustaining full employment after they learned categorically in the World War 2 years, that fiscal deficits could be used to provide sufficient spending to create jobs for all.

Worker militancy was thus suppressed by the growing material affluence and the upward mobility provided by full employment, public education, and public health systems.

But while the material conditions for workers improved during this period and attenuated their desire for a confrontational overthrow of capital, one could argue that it also set in place the complacency, driven by mass consumption, that would allow the neo-liberal resurgence in the 1970s.

That resurgence has led, in fits and starts, to the retrenchment of much of what was achieved in terms of protection workers against the irrationality of the capitalist system and the disproportionate costs when it failed, during the social democratic era.

Even the social democratic political parties that oversaw this great moderation of capitalism during the 1950s and 1960s have turned into neo-liberal organisations.

Steve Fraser’s book traces that period of ‘peace’ “to the contemporary neoliberal consensus”.

The question he asks is:

… where is the outrage? Why have the vast majority of Americans uttered scarcely a murmur against the long con of neoliberalism, now underway for four decades? Apart from the brief flurry of the Occupy movement, few Americans have questioned the regime of marketisation, privatisation and techno-austerity; on the contrary, most have assumed its inevitability and more than a few have imagined themselves to be its potential beneficiaries.

The book contrasts the two so-called ‘Gilded Ages’ – the ‘first Gilded Age’ ran from the period after the Civil War until the Great Depression (1929) – it was the age of the ‘robber barons’, who built large estates along the Hudson River, north of New York city and lived a life of excess at the expense of their workforces.

But the robber barons didn’t have it all their own way. There was “broad and multifaced resistance” against the capitalists during this period.

There were mass strikes that in Naomi Klein’s words “shut down cities and enjoyed the support of much of the population”

She notes that the work of the “Eight Hour Leagues that dramatically cut the length of the workday” which fought in Fraser’s words for what he calls the “cooperative commonwealth”.

This resistance forced the robber barons to provide better pay and working conditions and allowed governments to introduce limited redistribution through the tax system.

Steve Fraser argues that this resistance was prompted by the fact that capitalism was “new and strange” and workers retained collective notions of society and “public good” – the ‘co-operative commonwealth’ – which relates to the opening points that the farmers and small craft workers were trying to hang onto a pre-capitalist, sometimes rural lifestyle.

In other words, and in modern terms, the TINA mantra was unsustainable – they knew an alternative to industrial capitalism and were willing to fight to retain as much of that alternative as they could.

Steve Fraser tells us that it was common for US Presidents to invoke “class war” narratives to attack the “moneycrats”, who fought back in their own way, using the media to denigrate the “mad dogs” in the worker movements.

The ‘Telegraphs’ of the day – the conservative moneyed press – continually badgered the government to “exterminate” the workers (the “mob”) – in much the same way that the modern press seeks to dehumanise anyone who resists the neo-liberal hegemony.

Steve Fraser says that we are now in the ‘second Gilded Age’ where neo-liberal attacks on the prosperity of the majority is rampant – yet societal resistance is weak to non-existent. Why is that?

There are a number of hypotheses advanced to explain this compliance despite the growing hardship and threat that capitalism holds for worker prosperity.

We seem incapable of conceiving of any alternative and so the TINA catchcry has power and leads to passivity and resignation among the masses.

Jackson Lears writes that “Americans acquiesce in plutocratic rule because they can no longer imagine alternatives to it”. We have been indoctrinated into believing that capitalism is “part of the natural order of things” – it is just human nature after all.

According to the neo-liberals, socialism is a denial of human nature and thus bound to fail as our natural tendencies emerge from under the oppression of the state.

Naomi Klein writes that:

Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.

Steve Fraser calls this compliance “a sensibility of irony and even cynical disengagement rather than a morally charged universe of utopian yearnings and dystopian forebodings”.

The mass consumption boom of the 1950s and 1960s which the financial engineers have morphed into the massive debt traps that households are caught within is certainly one reason why we accept the TINA assertion, despite its obvious lie.

Steve Fraser makes an interesting point about his indebtedness:

… on a credit card is to exist in the perpetual present … [gone is] … the future orientation embedded in the political movements of yesteryear.

Marx considered religion to be the opiate of the masses and to some extent it still is. But personal debt is now a much greater force for compliance and passivity among the working class.

Fraser also “dissects more recent cultural strategies that have legitimated neoliberalism, redefining job insecurity as free agency and billionaires as regular guys.”

I was on a panel a few years ago and the Young Entrepreneur of the Year was also a panellist. She announced that the old divisions between workers and capitalists was gone. That we are “all entrepreneurs now” some more successful than others.

This ‘we are all capitalists’ now has been reinforced by the privatisations of public companies where people rejoice owning shares in assets (after paying out hard-earned saving to by the shares) – when it seems to escape them that they ‘owned’ the assets anyway as part of the collective.

But we don’t quite believe the line that everyone is an entrepreneur now. As Jackson Lears notes we have shifted our attention from the big picture (which drove resistance in the first Gilded Age) to localised concerns focused on “personal catastrophe”:

job loss, ruinous illness, economic freefall – all spectres that reinforce compliance with the capitalist order of things. Except on the pseudo-libertarian right, ideological fervour has gone out of fashion.

The other massive difference between the ‘Gilded Ages’ is that there has been a “great shift: from industrial to finance capitalism”.

Industrial capitalism required the robber barons to force the shift from feudalism to factory production:

… factory-made goods … drove under peasants, husbandmen and handicraftsmen, detaching men and women from traditional occupations … [to become] … proletarians of factory and field.

While the mainstream economists claimed that technological developments drove the emergence of the factory system, the reality is different.

The brilliant research by Stephen Marglin which came out in 1974 – What Do Bosses Do?: The Origins and Functions of Hierarchy in Capitalist Production – shows that the rise of factory production and the division of labour that came with it:

… was the result of a search not for a technologically superior organization of work, but for an organization which guaranteed to the entrepreneur an essential role in the production process, as integrator of the separate efforts of his workers into a marketable product …

Likewise, the origin and success of the factory lay not in technological superiority, but in the substitution of the capitalist’s for the worker’s control of the work process and the quantity of output, in the change in the workman’s choice from one of how much to work and produce, based on his relative preferences for leisure and goods, to one of whether or not to work at all, which of course is hardly much of a choice.

[Reference: Stephen Marglin (1974) ‘What Do Bosses Do? the Origins and Functions of Hierarchy in Capitalist Production, Part I.’, The Review of Radical Political Economics, 6(2), 60-112.]

There has been a lot of followup work demonstrating the veracity of Marglin’s hypothesis.

Steve Fraser understand that point. There was a need to destroy “household and craft production” and convert into surplus production under capitalist control.

But the second Gilded Age requires quite different dynamics for the preservation of the capitalist hegemony.

Jackon Lears review expresses it this way (where the quotations are from Fraser):

During the second Gilded Age, by contrast, profitability has depended on ‘cannibalising the industrial edifice erected during the first, and on exporting the results of that capital liquidation to the four corners of the earth … where deep reservoirs of untapped labour, like newly discovered oil reserves, gave industrial capital accumulation a fresh start’.

The old industrial heartlands are exported to cheap labour destinations and the urban infrastructure that evolved to support the factories now lie in decay.

Fraser writes that “What was getting bought, stripped and closed up … was the flesh and bone of a century and a half of American manufacturing”.

Fraser wrote (elsewhere National Museum of Industrial Homicide) that:

Camden, New Jersey, for example, had long been a robust, diversified small industrial city. By the early 1970s, however, its reform mayor Angelo Errichetti was describing it this way: “It looked like the Vietcong had bombed us to get even. The pride of Camden … was now a rat-infested skeleton of yesterday, a visible obscenity of urban decay. The years of neglect, slumlord exploitation, tenant abuse, government bungling, indecisive and short-sighted policy had transformed the city’s housing, business, and industrial stock into a ravaged, rat-infested cancer on a sick, old industrial city.”

All that matters now are financial ratios like “shareholder value” and workers are considered expendable.

He quotes the American comedian George Carlin “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Fraser’s tome is quite long and Jackson Lear’s review is only summarised here. It is an excellent piece of writing in its own regard.

The problem that Fraser doesn’t really address is what we can do to revitalise a resistance mentality among the population. To see beyond TINA.

Fraser thinks that resistance might come from “the growth of wholly new organisations of the invisibles” because material want only takes us so far and there are still “ineffable yearnings to redefine what it means to be human together”.

Jackson Lears says that that “The question is how to spread the struggle beyond the local, when the big picture induces confusion and despair. Neoliberalism is everywhere and nowhere; its custodians are largely invisible”.

It is easy to see how this all fits into the British Labour Party machinations, where within a few months, the neo-liberal wing of the Party, so dominant for the last 20 years, has been rejected by a growing mass of active and young people who are sick of the way the system transfers bounty to the top-end-of-town.

The popularity of Bernie Sanders in the US is a similar reflection of the stirrings.

Latin America has see this manifestation earlier which the socialist governments becoming popular and in most cases successful.

Conclusion

Today’s blog reflects research I am doing as part of an attempt to string together a narrative that understands why the ‘old left’ has been so co-opted by the neo-liberals (the ‘enemy’) and now, in many nations, while in government, delivers the austerity and oppression with a panache that can barely be believed.

I also want to tease out ideas of where a ‘new left’ might go to redress this sell out.

History needs to be understood. Language and framing needs to be understood. Strategic organisation needs to be understood. And more.

So I continue …

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2015 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    20 Responses to Rejecting the TINA mantra and the second ‘Gilded Age’

    1. Brian Perks says:

      Prof Mitchell

      Should that read…

      We seem (in)capable of conceiving of any alternative and so the TINA catchcry has power and leads to passivity and resignation among the masses.

      …?

      Brian

    2. Nigel Hargreaves says:

      “….the modern press seeks to dehumanise anyone who resists the neo-liberal hegemony.”

      Quite. And all today’s British Newspapers carry headlines and a photograph of Jeremy Corbyn standing silent at a Battle of Britain memorial service whilst all around sang the National Anthem.

      Mudslinging. But Corbyn possibly should bite is tongue in his new elevated position because the majority of the British people have bought into the Royal Family story, and it does him electroral harm to appear disrespectful.

      If we want to learn about reframing the debate we need look little further than the way the British Royal Family rebranded itself as the House of Windsor.

    3. Phil says:

      Bill,

      Yes, a lot of the research on early US progressivism was done by the cultural historian Christopher Lasch. He also note that the early populist movements were religious small farmers and artisan types who tended to be very highly moralistic and, for example, were part of the temperance movement. You can find many discussions of this in Lasch’s work. I think the most sustained commentary was in ‘The True and Only Heaven’.

      But a new type of radicalism emerged in the US in the early 20th century. These were intellectual social engineering types. They were ultimately behind the New Deal. But they created great tension with the old populist progressive who only tolerated them because of their economic and agricultural policies. Lasch reviews this new class in ‘The New Radicalism in America 1889-1963’. They drew on some aspects of the early progressive movement but threw out all the aspects that they considered ‘backwards’ or ‘unmodern’. In retrospect some of their ‘forward-looking’ policies — like eugenics — were extremely dangerous.

      Anyway, Lasch argues that the two movements split away in the 1960s and 1970s. The ‘New Radicalism’ kept up the spirit of much of the cultural radicalism but dumped the economic radicalism. The classes that typically supported populist progressivism then became extremely alienated and drifted to the right. This was the start of the culture wars in America that have dominated politics since. At this point, the cultural radicals basically became the ruling class in almost every sphere. They spoke radical language on cultural issues but they were extremely conservative on economic policy. They often lamented what they were doing. But it was all a sop. Lasch writes about this in ‘The Revolt of the Elites’.

      America is a very different place to Europe and Australia. The politics there must be understood in an entirely different way. I think that Lasch makes the most convincing historical case. But he is not generally studied as American liberals find him extremely offensive. I think European liberals would too. But if you want to understand America’s soul you have to read him, in my opinion.

    4. Jason H says:

      Bill maybe it’s my age but what does TINA stand for? I assume it’s an acronym but I don’t see a reference at the beginning of the article defining it. In university we always made sure we received it in full text then acronym in brackets after. That convention seems to be lacking these days in the youth but I didn’t think academics would be guilty.

      I googled it but it seems to be a slang term for the drug ice!

    5. Matt Gibbins says:

      Jason
      TINA means There Is No Alternative.
      It was popularised in reference to Margaret Thatcher often declaring ” There is no alternative. ”
      It came to be mentioned in an episode of The Goodies “Goodies and Politics” parodying the musical Evita with the refrain “Don’t cry for Marge and Tina”.

    6. J Christensen says:

      Jason, it stands for “there is no alternative”. A phrase coined by Margaret Thatcher at the turning point away from the progressive era and into the neo-liberal era. Of course there were many alternatives but somehow she managed to fool most of society, because people bought into the “innocent fraud” that government must behave in the same way as households and business with respect to budgets, striving for a surplus as the ideal despite that it will mean needless reduction in living standards, massive unemployment/underemployment (to increase corporate profits by way of wage suppression) and a sell off of public assets/public service providers.

    7. Simon says:

      Hi Jason,

      I believe that Bill is referring to the phrase ‘there is no alternative’. To quote Wikipedia:

      ‘There is no alternative (shortened as TINA) was a slogan often used by the Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In economics, politics, and political economy, it has come to mean that “there is no alternative” to economic liberalism—that free markets, free trade, and capitalist globalization are the best or the only way for modern societies to develop.’

      It is new to me as well.

    8. larry says:

      Jason, TINA is an acronym for There Is No Alternative, first used in contemporary times by Margaret Thatcher, though it isn’t original with her.

    9. larry says:

      Phil is right about the relevance of the late Christopher Lasch, but I would add his final book published posthumously, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.

    10. larry says:

      There is also John Smithin’s book published in the same year as Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites,1997, entitled Macroeconomic Policy and the Future of Capitalism: The Revenge of the Rentiers and the Threat to Prosperity. The subtitle is punchier than the main title.

    11. CharlesJ says:

      Bill,
      Learning about framing the argument is important as you say, yet we should not stop pushing the messages any way we can for fear that we are not framing it correctly. I’m sure you would agree. I think tremendous progress has been made from humble beginnings. In just 5 years following MMT far more people know about it. We just need to do much more.

      The big objective is to get much of the economic community to accept deficits as normal, ending all excuses relying on false concensus.

      Kind Regards

    12. Pablo says:

      Hi Jason H.
      I hope Prof. Mitchell won’t mind if I try to reply to you — that was an easy enough question (well I can say that now)
      In fact I just learned that one recently (yes, getting old too…) and I am quite happy to see that I was not the only one who at first wondered what the hell is Tina doing here, who is she?…

      The problem is it is not Tina, but T.I.N.A., and as far as I understand, it stands for “There Is No Alternative”, which unfortunately is one of the most frequent final arguments one faces when debating with neoliberals. Or even “normal” people, who have been so indoctrinated (without even noticing) in the market mantra, that even they evoke TINA, when they would be the beneficiaries of such and such measures / policies.
      .
      .
      Hi Prof. Mitchell,
      in another post some (/ long) time ago, you mention a MMT textbook that was being made, with another professor. Was that project finalized, or just reading everything that you ever wrote in this blog will do the trick? (I am in that same process with steve Keen blog…) .
      Is this it? (I ask because I don’t see your name) : Modern Money Theory: A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems, Second Edition

      And if I have your attention, can I abuse it a little bit more? Prof. Keen advised at some point 2 books , A History of Post Keynesian Economics and The Elgar Companion to Post Keynesian Economics. Given the are both rather pricey, do you have an advice on which one would be better ? I graduated in economy in Paris, some time ago now, and have been in the process these last years of cleaning my mind from some of the neoclassical mantra that entered my brain without my noticing (despite the fact that I was paying a lot of attention to avoid just that). Reading Debunking economics has led me here, and so the cleansing continues…

      And finally, thank you for making your last book available as an ebook at a much more affordable price than in paper — besides there is zero hope of finding it in a bookshop here. I’ll be reading it as soon as as I am done with the Keen one (economics for a post crisis…) and the Hudson (finance as warfare and killing the host), and a bit of Richard Dawkins as well , since reading only economics (even MMT) can be bad for the soul ;-)

    13. Andy says:

      Wishful thinking perhaps but there are signs that Corbyn is finding his feet and starting to get through the media assualt. Hopefully he sticks to his sincere approach and McDonnell doesn’t xxxx it up.

    14. UKJim says:

      You really, really, need to listen to this snippet from The World At One today on “Why Corbyn is Good for George Osborne”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p032nr49

      “One of the things I’ve been struck by … is how close George Osborne is to some of the Blairite ultras… he takes their calls, he reads their emails, they move in the same social circles.

      Many of these Blairite MPs feel not only socially closer to George Osborne, but in many important respects ideologically closer to George Osborne than to Jeremy Corbyn.

      Since Corbyn’s election they are deciding this is not a labour party they can stay within.

      And there is exactly the reason they were never going to get elected. Tory-lite is not a good sales pitch.

    15. Podargus says:

      I’m glad you mentioned Carlin. Every now and again the USA produces a few plain speaking individuals who cut through the crap. Joe Bageant was another.
      Here is an apt quote from Carlin,who was much more than a comedian –
      “If you have selfish,ignorant citizens,you’re going to have selfish,ignorant leaders.Maybe it’s not the politicians who suck,maybe something else sucks around here,like the public.There’s a nice campaign slogan for somebody – The public sucks,fuck hope.
      I guess things have only changed for the worse since George’s time. The kiddies have more toys to distract them from reality.

    16. larry says:

      UKJim, that was Robert Peston speaking and it has become increasingly clear as time has gone on that the Ultra Blairites belong in the Tory party. We don’t need Peston to tell us that. It must be noted, however, Peston is not a good guide on macroeconomic issues. One could argue that he is macroeconomically illiterate. He certainly has taken a kind of neoclassical view of the economy.

    17. Jason H says:

      Thanks everyone for the explanation. I think it’ll be well and truly forged in my consciousness now :-).

    18. Jason H says:

      Oh I almost forgot I noticed Corbyn has already started reframing the debate when people say he’s a “deficit denier” his response is that they are “poverty deniers”! Hope to see a lot more of this. I’m seeing most if my news about Corbin via my customised Facebook feed and I can some of the media onslaught against him. I really hope the newer a of social media as news will make sure the media doesn’t get their way as most people are supporting him from what I can see. Bernie Sanders has a huge movement happening on social media too. So will be interesting to watch.

    19. stone says:

      Your mention of Stephen Marglin’s work made me think of this fascinating recent radio program:

      Who’s your boss? Peter Day explores how three different companies, in three different countries, do business without managers. Who hires and fires? And how do you get a pay rise? He asks how these radical organisations emerged, and whether other companies may follow their lead. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03045tx

    20. UKJim says:

      @Larry. Yes, Peston is one of the (unfortunately many) folks who have me shouting “No” at the radio when they start with “We need to balance the deficit…”, or “We need to raise taxes to pay for …”

      The problem is that we seem not to be able to educate them.

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