Working men and women died for the eight-hour workday, and the thanks they get is the silence of lambs.
It wasn’t long ago, writes labor historian Fraser (Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life, 2005, etc.), that “the labor question” was a matter of incendiary discussion. The 19th century saw countless efforts, for instance, to create a balance of industrial and agricultural enterprise, many of them based on a post-Jeffersonian notion of empowered freeholders and independent producers. The market economy that emerged instead was likely to beget inequality and poverty, before “the antiseptic, mathematical language of risk assessment and probability analysis made that seem overly sentimental.” Taking his narrative through the Jeffersonian era and the first Gilded Age to the present, Fraser charts a steady diminution of workers’ rights and the value of labor. He can be a little heavy-handed, especially when pillorying Ronald Reagan: “the Great Communicator’s reign…unleashed torrents of mercenary greed.” Some readers may find this off-putting, but others, used to a diet of Chris Hedges, may well find it exhilarating instead. Fraser’s careful analysis of the rise of the “rentier society” of that time helps make up for rhetorical excess, and especially useful is his look at how the anti-usury laws of old gave way to a time of financial deregulation, which allowed for an all-out assault on the wallets of those who lived on credit. And surely Fraser is right when he notes the damaging effects of false consciousness, as when even the labor movement insists on being seen as representing the middle class “in a studied aversion to using a social category—the working class—that fits it well but is now so stigmatized that it is better left buried.”
A welcome though overly broad-brushed excoriation of the age of the ascendant 1 percent.