Review of "The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture"

Brink Lindesy’s book The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture is an excellent narrative of the some of the cycles of American thought and politics and masterfully shows how it is that quantitative shifts in general material well-being can create significant qualitative shifts in thought. Brink writes through a lens that applies several of Karl Marx’s materialist and historical categories, but does so in the vein of Max Weber. While this does at times preclude consideration of the economic factors that inform the development of various personal and social agency, I did not find it to be something that was generally overly problematic. I say this as Lindsay writes from the position of an expositor rather than an academic demagogue – something that’d I’d first been concerned about given his relationship to the Cato Institute. The clear breadth of his research into the subject, the warm, friendly tone of his commentary and the analysis which never falls too long into excessive details and the framing of his tale into a form matching Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy makes the book for a compelling read on how it is that America’s transition from a fundamentalist, frontier, material culture to an affluent, post-materialist one. For Lindsay, these reactions presage and inform all of our contemporary Culture Wars and furthermore hint at the possibility for a greater reconciliation based upon the libertarian aspirations engendered by a post-scarcity context of material abundance.

Scarcity, technological crudity and cultural under-development was a defining feature of 19th and early 20th century America. As America shifted from a society whose production still predominantly consisted of craftsmanship to industrial production there were many significant cultural, social, and economic changes. Agriculture was the primary avocation of many American up until the beginning of the second world war, the number of American’s graduating from high school, going on vacation, with an income that they could dispose on novel consumer goods was all quite small. Prior to World War II, America was still, in phrasing that we would use today, largely a second world country. World War II changed all of that and created such great reserves of wealth among the elite and militancy amongst the workers demanding a portion of it that the government could not overly resist their demands and it was shared. As I hinted at in the above, Lindsay sees the two major responses to such wealth to be Dionysian and an Apollonian, or as he puts it in his words libertarian and conservative. Increased purchasing power and advances in technology, be it in the realm of transportation or in family planning, radically shifted the realm of potential social forms. It became easier than ever for children to leave their homes and the support structures which once kept them in check. The symbolic possibilities for self and group identification multiplied exponentially which, combined with the real threat of potential nuclear annihilation helped engender new forms of “counter culture”.

These counter cultures were in many ways a conscious refutation of the staid, puritanical bourgeoisie order that had previously encouraged thriftiness, delayed gratification, industriousness, etc. Now that people no longer had to annually carry tons of wood to light their homes but could simply turn on a switch, now that people could go to a doctor instead of pray to get better, now that people were increasingly literature and could take part in the cultural wealth made available to them by previous generations captains of industry and robber-barons who sought to immortalize themselves through public arts bequests the shift of American’s concern was not on the immediate needs to replicate life but on more abstract notions like happiness and self-actualization. These were not the sole preoccupations of Americans, many still sought to accumulate wealth and status and found the disruptive activities of the counter-cultures to be upsetting. Affluence was thus not a balm upon the soul of Americans but a new battleground manifested by all the varieties of life-styles that it enabled. It is as a response to this outgrowth of New Age morality predicated on epicureanism, sensualism and a resistance to engage in banal forms of labor that Lindsey sees the development of the evangelist movement in the United States. While pulling intellectually from the fundamentalist tradition, a term now unfashionable and thus in need of re-branding, it sought to provide an avenue to channel the anxieties created by such worldly affluence. These fears over the new parent-child, racial, gender, labor-management and religious relations helped engender a politically conservative backlash that divided states into reds and blues. Funding for minor arts programs became hot-button issues and as the ownership class increasingly supported the leaders of these religious revivalist movements. Additionally, with the increased awareness of political issues and disposable money able to support NGOs, a new era in political consciousness and activism emerged.

Such a wholly antagonistic relationship was bound not to last, Lindsey points out, as there is an essential difference between the Christian gospel which seeks to ameliorate the sufferings of poor and deny the exploitative rich man into heaven with the capitalist one that seeks to personally benefit from others labor as cheaply as possible. Additionally, the failed New Left movement of the 60 has increasingly sought accommodation with the state rather than a total overthrow of all hierarchies. Because of these two developments Lindsay points out how currently there is an increasing convergence of the values advocated by modern politicos. The liberal and conservative positions have merged in many ways and this, he states, has opened up the field for increasingly libertarian policy promotion. While the form of the community may not have been settled, mutual recognition and respect of a yearning for it has been. The recognition that workers immiseration is something to be resisted has not been completely reconciled but is no longer solely recognized as the cause of individual failings except by the most intractable ideologues. Increasingly the command and control regulatory structures designed to promote economic growth was dismantled and reformulated way due the realization that it promoted inefficiencies and engendered perverse incentives. These re-regulations have not always been perfect and are still a battlefield, however many of the core values informing debate on them are agreed upon if not the form they take in operationalization. This along with the increasing fractionalization of group identities had made it more difficult for one cultural group to excerpt hegemonic control over another – though recent data on public policy suggests that this is not true and that the economic elites actually do – and that the time of polarization is mostly over due to the realization that compromise is necessary. I greatly enjoyed this book and would assign it for freshman survey courses in American history.