As Churchill said that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others,” so one might say that capitalism is the worst form of economic organization except for all the others. Steve Fraser, author of “Class Matters: The Strange Career of an American Delusion,” would heartily, adamantly, profoundly disagree. Primitive capitalism, mercantile capitalism, extractive capitalism, industrial capitalism, Keynesian capitalism, corporate capitalism, global capitalism, Mr. Fraser has yet to come upon a capitalism he doesn’t despise, or to discover a sin, from disruption of the ecological balance in nature to the destruction of Native American culture to tooth decay, that cannot be lain at its door. “Capitalism: A Disaster for All Seasons,” the title of an article he wrote for the Nation in 2013, nicely encapsulates his view of the matter.
Steve Fraser is a radical to the manner—if not quite the manor—born. He grew up in a middle-class family on Long Island in a plush suburb he doesn’t name. His parents, he reports in one of the autobiographical segments dotted throughout his book, were formed by the Depression and became left-wing activists. He himself, as a kid of 18, went off to work as an activist during the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, helping to register black voters, an act that required courage and which he recounts, alas, too briefly in his new book.
Born in 1945, Mr. Fraser was a university student just at the right time for the student rebellion, which he joined and which conferred upon him a ’60s worldview that, I think it fair to say, he has not since essentially abandoned. During his college days he was, he tells us with some pride, arrested for protest activities more than once. He recounts with especial relish how, on one occasion, an apartment he shared with other student activists was raided by the officers of Frank Rizzo, then chief of police and later mayor of Philadelphia and a man prominent in the rogues’ gallery of all right- (that is, left-) thinking people. The apartment was raided for harboring bomb-making materials—planted there, Mr. Fraser claims—ostensibly to blow up the Liberty Bell. But why blow up the Liberty Bell, as some friends said at the time, when it was already cracked?
In “Class Matters,” Mr. Fraser continues his lifelong mission to establish that the world is unfair, and nowhere more so than in permitting those who have acquired power to exert it in their own self-interest. The book sets out to debunk what its author thinks to be some of the enduring myths about American democracy. Mr. Fraser describes the commercial interests that commingled with the desire for liberty felt by early American settlers at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown; the capitalist bias implicit in the composition of the U.S. Constitution; and even the sad truth about the hard life of the American cowboy, who turns out, in Mr. Fraser’s reading, to have been a proletarian in the saddle.
Mr. Fraser has earlier written books on “The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America” (2016) and “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power” (2015) as well as two books on Wall Street and a book on the labor leader Sidney Hillman. Behind all these works has been their author’s attempt to alert his countrymen to the role big-money capitalism plays in betraying the American dream. The main theme of “Class Matters” is anticipated in Mr. Fraser’s “Limousine Liberal,” in which he writes that “here in the homeland we don’t easily resort to the language of class struggle,” and that Americans “think of class warfare, if they think of it at all, as alien, something they have in Europe or had in Russia—but not here certainly, not in the New World, where classes were providentially banned from the beginning.”
As a title “Class Matters” is, I believe, a misnomer. Social class is of course a subtle social construct, with implications and ramifications that have kept sociologists busy for more than a century and given Balzac, Thackeray, Henry James, Edith Wharton and other novelists rich literary material for years before that. Yet the intricate calibrations of class—upper-middle, lower-middle and the rest—are not of the least of interest to Mr. Fraser. Class, for him, is a synonym for power, or want of power, and, in his view, there are two classes, and two classes only: those who have power and those who don’t. “Power Matters” would have been a more accurate if less enticing title for his book. But, then, who doesn’t believe that power matters? Steve Fraser thinks his fellow Americans grossly deluded on the subject, and has written his book to straighten us out.
Mr. Fraser notes that many of the original American settlers at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, were, disappointingly, main chancers, out to clear their old-world debts and make a serious financial score in the new world. Much the same, he holds, can be said about some among the authors and signers of the Constitution at Philadelphia: George Washington was a heavy land speculator, members of the Adams family were bondholders, and others had such extensive financial investments that the Constitution’s system of checks and balances also, in Mr. Fraser’s words, “afforded checks by the powerful against the powerless.” The Constitution, he argues, favored “capital’s liberty to do as it desired,” adding: “The new nation . . . was definitely open for business.”
“Class Matters” argues that the intentions of the French creators of the Statue of Liberty were utterly bourgeois. (“To have a horror of the bourgeois,” wrote Jules Renard, “is bourgeois.”) Among Americans the much despised (by Mr. Fraser) robber barons—notably J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Russell Sage, Jay Gould —were reluctant about ponying up for the full cost of the statue. When it finally went up in 1886, Mark Twain thought Lady Liberty looked “too hearty and well-fed.” A century or so later, the musician Lou Reed, mocking as empty words the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on a bronze plaque at its pedestal—“. . . give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .” —called it “the Statue of Bigotry.”
In a reversal of McCarthyism, Steve Fraser finds not Communists but the power of capitalism everywhere, making life hell for those without power. Early on, he states his dark case: “Everyday life in every way bears the stigmata of class. Who lives longest and who dies soonest, who goes to jail and who is free, who is healthy and who sickly, who learns and who lives in ignorance, who gets bailed out and who goes under, who pursues happiness and who goes off to fight and die, who lives with rooms to spare and who six to a room, who breathes clean air and drinks clean water and who is poisoned, whose children thrive and whose barely survive, who looks to the future and who lives moment to moment, who is secure and who in peril, who rules and who obeys? Answers to these and other life-and-death questions depend to a very considerable degree on just which niche in the class hierarchy you inhabit. Reports and research studies periodically remind us of these stark realities.”
Stark they are, but are they also realities? Is the America so deeply divided between the powerful and the powerless as throughout his book Mr. Fraser avers? Where others find progress, he sees subterfuge. The increased number of African-Americans who over the years have attained to high positions in government bureaucracies or won elective office disappoints him because these individuals “identified with, enjoyed innumerable ties to, and shared the ideological outlook with the state-managed capitalism run by the Democratic Party . . .”
Productive in so many ways, America has let Mr. Fraser down by failing to produce a true proletariat, one that would carry on the class struggle that is the true name of his desire. Everywhere the denial of the reality of class, he finds, causes the nation’s oppressed to shy away from such a struggle. What is ultimately needed, he believes, is “dismantling the prevailing hierarchies of power and wealth” and “a major overhaul of the distribution of wealth and power.” He does not describe how this is to come about, but a staunch opposition to the controlling hand of capitalist power would clearly be a beginning.
Reading Mr. Fraser, with his confidence in the need for a class struggle and a radical realignment of the distribution of power, I was reminded of my own days in the middle 1960s, when my politics were closer to his now and I was the director of the anti-poverty program in Little Rock, Ark. There I helped to set up legal aid for the poor, hoping they would use it to sue the city, the state, the federal government—the powers that were, wherever they were. I was later saddened to learn the poor used it, instead, chiefly to sue one another: for divorce, the collection of personal debts, spousal support and other distinctly apolitical matters. As Brecht said “First grub, then ethics,” so the poor of Little Rock felt “First settle personal problems, then political empowerment.” Human nature is generally not the revolutionary’s most reliable friend.
Now in his mid-70s, Mr. Fraser most likely looks back upon his life as one led in service to the ideal of the emancipation of the underclass. All his days he has been true to the vision of his youth, a vision at whose center has been a loathing of injustice and a longing for equality. If his thus far seems a lost cause, he doubtless is self-assured that it has been a noble one. If the utopia that was meant to be America by its early settlers has failed, my guess is that Mr. Fraser would argue this is no reason to eschew the dream of utopianism generally.
And pretty it would be to think so, but for the fact that so many utopias—in modern times notably the Russian and the Chinese and, on a lower level of human slaughter, the Cuban—have failed so disastrously. In the rubble of the tower of Babel, the first of humankind’s utopias, with its architectural plan to reach heaven from earth, the following two-line poem is said to have survived: “Those who in Elysian fields would dwell, / Do but extend the boundaries of hell.”
Mr. Fraser might wish to consider having those lines framed and set on a wall in his living room, there for him to contemplate daily.