Capital Swallows Itself

The crisis of capitalism is currently opening wide. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

One of the "Detroit Industry" murals of 1932–33 by artist Diego Rivera.

Thinkers across the world have long pondered why the wealthiest nation in the world has often had the most unpredictable working-class responses to capitalism, from seeming passivity to volcanic explosions and back. Louis Adamic, a famed radical journalist of the 1930s–40s, speculated that individual acts of violence, the veritable sign of chaos, were the unique American marker. But how do we find the deeper causes?

No one is better qualified to speak to those causes than Steve Fraser. Fraser not only penned the totemic biography of garment union champion and industrial union founder Sidney Hillman, Labor Will Rule, but he has also poured equal energy into the histories of the other end of the class structure: the rise of the nineteenth-century industrial titans and their strategies to keep control of society at large, their own company empire in particular, and the often glum story that follows. His volumes Age of Acquiescence, Every Man a Speculator, Limousine Liberals, and Class Matters make Fraser what Corey Robin calls “our preeminent historian of America as a capitalist civilization.”

Fraser’s mission has been to fill out the class dynamics of that civilization, with a close study of the financial and industrial barons, but also on struggles from below. Mongrel Firebugs, a compendium of Fraser’s essays, reveals him speaking to both sides of American society in dynamic tension.

Fraser points at the era of President Andrew Jackson as the golden age of the fast-buck-earning confidence man, a quintessential American type. The market society came into its own amid the ravage of the frontier through figures like Jackson, along with the continuing expansion of slavery. Transportation infrastructure and the waterborne economy along with the railroad lines allowed cities to spring up overnight, funded by financial speculation. The modest “honest businessman” of legend was left behind, humiliated by his smallness. The quick-earning high-spender had already become the spirit of the age.

Economic leaders in that era thought of themselves as Napoleonic. Their battlefield was the stock market and control of the railroads in particular. By the time the Gilded Age rolled around, two generations or so later, critics like novelist Theodore Dreiser saw these titans as they were and lashed them in ways so vicious that today’s critics of inequality appear mild by comparison. Fraser sees this as the bedrock of modern American society: the corporation seemingly rules, but the financial class rules the world of corporations and intervenes (sometimes violently) when its interests can be advanced or are threatened.

Some of the best pages of Mongrel Firebugs are given over to the subject of debt and debtors. As market expansion in the first half of the nineteenth century prompted many to enter the credit system, bad times or personal misfortune inspired the creation of debtors’ prisons on a vast scale. “Debt servitude” would naturally compel a kind of “primitive accumulation” by farmers, in particular, to literally dig out enough profit to hold off collapse. Near the end of the century, the original American Populist movement — not the fraudulent racist “populism” on the rise today — heroically struggled to stop the process. And failed, in the face of violence and the manipulation of the electoral system.

This is far from ancient history. Ask the college graduate or potential college student today about the toxic cloud of debt hovering above them, and wonder at a political and economic system that makes bankruptcy or “forgiveness” of college debt all but illegal.

Fraser insists that “two labor questions existed side by side: one concerned itself with the vanishing of the independent producer . . . the other with the fate of the newly born propertyless wage slave.” He extends this analysis to the Global South in the twentieth century and after. Only capital accumulation from that region allowed the United States to overcome its own collateralized debt obligations, toxic loans, and financial derivatives at the end of the last century.

He calls the result “autocannibalism,” capitalism swallowing itself. This is a nice word to characterize our ecologically destructive consumer culture. Limousine liberalism, the logic of the gentility, faces off against “country and Western Marxism,” as William F. Buckley once described the ideology of George Wallace. Then, with only a few more twists and turns, Trumpian populism.

Fraser has sought to give us an understanding of how existing economic relations work to the benefit of the powerful. The more those relations are loosened from controls, the more disempowered today’s working people are and the worse for society as a whole. In the coronavirus-related developments that he could not have anticipated, we see the crisis of capitalism opening wide. Fraser’s work is more than a useful background for us today. It opens up new ways of seeing ourselves in the crises ahead.