The Republican intellectual establishment is united against Trump – but his message of cultural and racial resentment has deep roots in the American right
Au 16, 2016 – The Republican party, its leaders like to say, is a party of ideas. Debates over budgets and government programmes are important, but they must be conducted with an eye on the bigger questions – questions about the character of the state, the future of freedom and the meaning of virtue. These beliefs provide the foundation for a conservative intellectual establishment – thinktanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, magazines such as National Review, pundits such as George Will and Bill Kristol – dedicated to advancing the right’s agenda.
Over the last year, that establishment has been united by one thing: opposition to Donald Trump. Republican voters may have succumbed to a temporary bout of collective insanity – or so Trump’s critics on the right believe – but the party’s intelligentsia remain certain that entrusting the Republican nomination to a reality television star turned populist demagogue has been a disaster for their cause and their country. Whatever Trump might be, he is not a conservative.
That belief is comforting, but it is wrong. Trump is a unique character, but the principles he defends and the passions he inflames have been part of the modern American right since its formation in the aftermath of the second world war. Most conservative thinkers have forgotten or repressed this part of their history, which is why they are undergoing a collective nervous breakdown today. Like addicts the morning after a bender, they are baffled at the face they see in the mirror.
Writing under pseudonyms borrowed from antiquity, such as “Decius”, the masked authors described the site, called JAG by its fans, as the “first scholarly journal of radical #Trumpism”. Posts analysing the campaign with titles such as The Twilight of Jeb! alternated with more ambitious forays in philosophy such as Paleo-Straussianism, Part I: Metaphysics and Epistemology. More intellectually demanding than the typical National Review article, the style of their prose also suggested writers who were having fun. Disquisitions on Aristotle could be followed by an emoji mocking the latest outraged responses to Trump.
The Republican intellectual establishment is united against Trump – but his message of cultural and racial resentment has deep roots in the American right
The authors at JAG were not all backing Trump himself – officially, they were “electorally agnostic” – but they were united by their enthusiasm for Trumpism (as they put it, “for what Trumpism could become if thought through with wisdom and moderation”). They dismissed commentators who attributed Trump’s victory to his celebrity, arguing that a campaign could not resonate with so many voters unless it spoke to genuine public concerns.
JAG condensed Trumpism into three key elements: economic nationalism, controlled borders and a foreign policy that put American interests first.
These policies, they asserted, were a direct challenge to the views of America’s new ruling class – a cosmopolitan elite of wealthy professionals who controlled the commanding heights of public discourse. This new ruling class of “transnational post-Americans” was united by its belief that the welfare of the world just happened to coincide with programmes that catered to its own self-interest: free trade, open borders, globalisation and a suite of other policies designed to ease the transition to a post-national future overseen by enlightened experts. In the language of JAG, they are the “Davoisie”, a global elite that is most at ease among its international peers at the World Economic Forum in Davos and totally out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Mainstream conservatives and their liberal counterparts were equally complicit in sustaining this regime, but JAG focused its attention on the right. Leading Republican politicians and the journalists who fawned over them in the rightwing press were pedlars of an “intellectually bankrupt” doctrine whose obsessions – cutting taxes, policing sexual norms, slashing government regulation – distracted from “the fundamental question” Trump had put on the agenda: “destruction of the soulless managerial class”.
A dissenting minority has been waging a guerrilla war against the conservative establishment for three decades
JAG unleashed salvo after salvo against “Conservatism Inc”, the network of journals and thinktanks that, along with talk radio and Fox News, has made defending the party of ideas into a lucrative career path. “If Trump ends up destroying the Republican party,” they wrote, “it is because the Republican party, as it exists today, is little more than a jobs programme for failed academics and journalists.”
News of JAG began circulating on the right shortly after its debut early in the primary season. “The first time I heard someone refer to it, I thought it was a joke,” says former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum. But it quickly found an audience. “They got a huge response almost immediately,” says conservative activist Chris Buskirk, who recalled excited emails and frantic texting among his colleagues. In June, the Wall Street Journal columnist and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan alerted her readers to the “sophisticated, rather brilliant and anonymous website”. A link from the popular rightwing website Breitbart News drove traffic even higher, and JAG seemed poised to shape the discussion over the future of conservatism.
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By Matthew Lyons
Posted April 15, 2016 on People’s War from the Three-Way Fight blog. Republished here in light of debates over whether Donald Trump and the Islamic State (ISIS) are fascist in character. First published as “Two Ways of Looking at Fascism” by Socialism and Democracy.
Fascism is an important political category, but a confusing one. People use the word fascism in many different ways, and often without a clear sense of what it means.
Political events since the September 11, 2001, attacks have raised the issue of fascism in new ways. People on both the right and the left have described Islamic rightist forces such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban as fascist -– but for very different reasons. Neoconservatives and Bush administration officials have denounced “Islamofascists” to help justify the so-called war on terrorism and the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. By contrast, some leftists describe some of these same groups as fascist -– not to rationalize U.S. expansion, but to highlight the fact that there are major political forces today that are deadly enemies of both the left and U.S. imperialism.
At the same time, a number of liberals and leftists have warned that the United States itself is headed in a fascist direction. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Bush administration’s authoritarian and militaristic policies are a serious threat, but they’re a world apart from fascism’s volatile mix of oppression and anti-elitism, order and insurgency. Fascism doesn’t just terrorize and repress; it uses twisted versions of radical politics in a bid to “take the game away from the left,” as Neo-Nazi leader Tom Metzger urged his followers in the 1980s. We need different strategies to fight these different forms of right-wing authoritarianism, and we need a political vocabulary that lets us tell them apart.1
Claims of impending fascism tend to reflect two underlying problems. The first is the idea that fascism is essentially a tool or strategy of big business to defend capitalist rule, and the second is vagueness about what delineates fascism from other forms of capitalist repression. We can see both of these problems in pronouncements from several different U.S. leftist organizations (such as the Communist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Revolutionary Communist Party, and Socialist Labor Party), in leftist and left-liberal media organs such as CounterPunch and Common Dreams, and in numerous websites and online discussions among U.S. activists.2
A recent sophisticated example of both problems comes from Marxist academicians Gregory Meyerson and Michael Joseph Roberto. In an October 2006 Monthly Review article, “It Could Happen Here,” they argue that “fascism is a plausible response by the U.S. bourgeoisie to the general crisis of Pax Americana” and, although the outcome of the crisis remains unclear, “evidence is mounting for what we are calling a fascist trajectory.” Meyerson and Roberto see fascism as an intrinsic structural tendency of capitalism in crisis, a form of rule that is promoted strictly from the top down. “Only the ruling class can institute fascist processes,” they argue. Although they acknowledge the existence of fascist movements, “the Marxist view,” they claim, “does not focus primarily on fascist mass movements because they are not primary engines of fascism.”3
Even if we accept this concept of fascism (and of Marxism), Meyerson and Roberto never explain concretely what they mean by fascist rule. They emphasize that fascism needs to be understood in functional terms, as a form of capitalist rule in crisis, and they criticize descriptive definitions of fascism on the grounds that these obscure its changing historical character. A U.S. fascist trajectory “will look quite different from past fascist trajectories,” and will “unfold in a bipartisan context, liberals and conservatives acting in concert -– the whole ruling class.” But since Meyerson and Roberto don’t tell us what fascism will look like, how will we know it’s happening? The substance of their argument seems to be that the growing crisis may persuade most representatives of capital that they need to establish a much more repressive and authoritarian state. This is a serious and wholly justified concern, but it’s a simple point that doesn’t require elaborate arguments about functionalism and structural tendencies. And we gain nothing, but lose much, by calling the result fascism.
The concept of fascism is indeed highly relevant for analyzing current political threats, but not in the way that Meyerson and Roberto maintain. Fascism can help us understand a range of political phenomena that the U.S. ruling class didn’t initiate and does not control. These phenomena are part of a crisis that goes far beyond the decline of U.S. global hegemony and the American welfare state, to include the following:
In this volatile mix, fascism is an important reference point -– not just as a developed political force but also as a tendency or potential within broader movements. It is both distinct from and at odds with top-down capitalist authoritarianism. In addition, while fascism takes shape in a capitalist context, it isn’t a functional consequence of capitalist development, analogous (as Meyerson and Roberto suggest) to imperialism. Rather, it is a political current, which -– like socialism, liberalism, or conservatism –- embodies its own set of ideas, policies, organizational forms, and bases of support. Like all major political currents, fascism exists in multiple variations and evolves dynamically to address new historical conditions. This means that no definition of fascism is the one true, final answer. But defining –- or at least describing –- fascism can help us to grasp fascism’s key features, delineate its relationship with other forces, and explore how it develops and how it can be fought.
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By Sean Posey
Hampton Institute I Urban Issues I Commentary
April 13th, 2016 – During the winter of 2016, the ever-present visage of Donald J. Trump remained burned into television sets and computer screens across America. In the well-manicured lawns of the modest working-class homes of Austintown, Ohio, situated in long-struggling Mahoning County, “Team Trump. Rebuild America” signs began popping up everywhere.
Formerly a sparsely populated farming community, Austintown grew as a working-class suburb in the decades after World War II. Steel and autoworkers could commonly afford vacations and college tuition for their children; the community, in many ways, symbolized the working-class American Dream. By 1970, Austintown, along with the neighboring township of Boardman, was part of the largest unincorporated area in the state.  The township’s population peaked in 1980 at 33,000. Today, however, it’s a very different place. Job losses in the local manufacturing sector and the graying of the population led Forbes to label Austintown as the “fifth-fastest dying town” in the country in the midst of the Great Recession. The township’s poverty rate had already reached nearly 14 percent in the year before the meltdown of Wall Street.
The 2016 Ohio Republican primary in Mahoning County witnessed the largest shift of Democratic voters to the Republican Party in decades. “Most of them crossed over to vote for Donald Trump,” remarked David Betras, Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman.
This used to be Democrat country. But like so many other places in America, the brash billionaire’s message is remaking the local political landscape. Trump narrowly lost the Ohio primary to incumbent Governor John Kasich. However, he won the majority of Republican primary voters in Mahoning County and in neighboring Trumbull County, home to the city of Warren – one of the most embattled municipalities in the state. Winning his home state should have been a given for Kasich; instead, Trump pushed the twice-elected governor to the brink.
Ohio is not the only place in the heartland the Trump tornado is sweeping through. Scores of America’s most insecure communities are joining the once prosperous Buckeye State in flirting with or joining the mogul’s camp. Yet, for as much attention as has been paid to Trump and the often controversial movement behind him, far less has been said about the cracking core of a country that is currently looking for a savior, any savior, in such enormously troubled times.
Years before America’s most famous real estate and reality television personality descended a gold escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president, long-time journalists Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson began a cross-country journey to document America in the wake of the 911 attacks.
“On one trip,” Maharidge writes, “I drove from Chicago to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In places like this, the abandoned shells of factories, all broken windows and rust, make this country look like it was bombed in a war. In other places it’s as if an economic neutron bomb hit-with trees and houses intact but lives decimated, gone with good jobs.”
Traditionally, this part of the heartland represented the economic engine of industrial America, filled with good-paying jobs in manufacturing. However, the great economic dislocations of the past forty-odd years have rendered much of this landscape a void, one more akin to the developing world than that of the United States. Even for the more outwardly normal communities, as Maharidge mentions, looks can be deceiving. Heroin is hitting the inner core of the country with a hammer force, destroying young lives already beset by economic insecurity and the end of upward mobility.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the declining life expectancy for a large swath of working-class whites, one of Trump’s key constituencies. For the past sixteen years, death rates have risen for Caucasians between the ages of 45 and 54 and also for those between the ages of 25 to 34.  These are notable exceptions to the overall increase in life expectancy for all groups, regardless of race or ethnicity. While working class whites in Europe continue to experience increases in life expectancy, their counterparts in America are dying from drugs, suicide, and despair.
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Reagan sends a coded message by launching his campaign here, where three civil rights workers were killed, and never once mentions them in his speech. The dog whistle in action.
Salon via alternet
December 10, 2015
Donald Trump’s recent failed attempt to surprise the political world with a sizable group endorsement by black ministers occasioned a very sharp observation from Joy Reid on The Last Word. After Jonathan Allen noted that Trump was desperately looking for “a racial or ethnic or any other type of minority that he can go to and not already have basically poisoned the well,” Reid helpfully clarified the why of it all: “Republican primary, that’s not about black and Latin voters, because there really aren’t any in the Republican primary,” Reid said. “That’s about white suburban voters who want permission to go with Donald Trump.”
Trump’s situation is anything but unique—it’s just a bit more raw than it is with other Republicans. Ever since the 1960s, as Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy was being born, there’s been a ongoing dilemma (if not huge contradiction) for the erstwhile “Party of Lincoln” to manage: how to pander just enough to get the racist votes they need, without making it too difficult to deny that’s precisely what they’re doing.
There are a multitude of cover stories involved in facilitating this two-faced strategy, but one of the big-picture ways it gets covered is with a blanket denial: It wasn’t Nixon’s race-based Southern Strategy that got the GOP its current hammerlock on the South, it was something else entirely. Say, the South’s growing affluence, perhaps, or its “principled small-government conservatism,” or the increased “leftism” of the Democratic Party on “social issues”—anything, really, except racial animus. Anything but that. (It’s akin to the widespread beliefs  that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, or that the Confederate flag is just a symbol of “Southern pride.”)
Most who make such arguments are simply mired in denial, or worse, but there are several lines of argument seemingly based on objective data in the academic literature. But a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper that Sean McElwee recently referred  to should put an end to all that.
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Jacobin Interview: Eric Foner on the Abolitionists, Reconstruction, and Winning ‘Freedom’ from the Right.
No living historian has done more to shape our understanding of the American Civil War era than Eric Foner. A rare scholar who is both prominent outside the historical community and esteemed within it, over the course of a fifty-year career Foner has acquired virtually every award, tribute, and professional honor available to a historian in the United States.
Yet the true measure of his legacy lies not in accolades but influence. Foner’s most important books have transformed the way we see — and the way we teach — the origins of the Civil War, the significance of slave emancipation, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction.
Foner grew up in a New York family equally devoted to historical scholarship and left-wing politics. His father, Jack, and his uncle, Philip, both taught history at City College before they were dismissed and blacklisted as Communists.
For the elder Foners, a radical approach to US history involved placing the black freedom struggle at center stage. “In the 1930s,” Eric later wrote, “the Communist party was the only predominantly white organization to make fighting racism central to its political program.” It was no coincidence that the family was friendly with W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, or that Philip Foner’s five-volume selection of Frederick Douglass’s writings and speeches, which he completed while on the blacklist, was the first collected edition of its kind.
Foner’s family background has produced occasional clumsy efforts at red-baiting, including a 2002 National Review essay which denounced him as a Soviet sympathizer and “left-wing polemicist.” In reality, Foner’s own contemporary political interventions have generally remained within the American liberal mainstream. Yet it would not be unfair to credit his Old Left upbringing with a major influence on his scholarly career.
Foner’s first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men (1970), which remains the standard work on the rise of the Republican Party, showed how antebellum Republicans were not merely critics of slavery, but exponents of a powerful political-economic ideology of their own. His most celebrated book, Reconstruction (1988), provided a synthesis that decisively rejected the racist folklore that had informed popular and scholarly treatments of the post–Civil War period for much of the twentieth century.
In these and other works, a central theme in Foner’s scholarship has been the contested terrain of freedom in American history. (This is no less true of his most recent book, Gateway to Freedom, on the antebellum underground railroad.) The Civil War era, in his view, represented a revolutionary clash of political ideas and forces — a period that unmade and then remade American society. The revolution, of course, remained unfinished — but it was a revolution nonetheless.
Three Jacobin contributors sat down with Foner to discuss the achievements and failures of Reconstruction, how to reclaim the idea of freedom from the Right, whether the antislavery movement has any lessons for the contemporary left, and why Karl Rove is one of his biggest fans.
So what’s this story we’ve heard about an argument you had with your eighth-grade history teacher about Reconstruction?
This was a long time ago, probably 1957 or ’58 — it was tenth or eleventh grade. And yeah, it was American History class, in Long Beach, Long Island, and the teacher was basically giving us the old, traditional Birth of a Nation view of Reconstruction. She said the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which gave the right to vote to black men in the South, was the worst law in all American history.
So I raised my hand and I said, “I don’t agree with you, Mrs. Berryman, I think the Alien and Sedition Acts were worse.” I don’t know where I got that from. And she said, “Alright, Eric, if you don’t like the way I’m teaching, you come in tomorrow and you give a lecture on Reconstruction.” Which I did — my father was a historian, Du Bois was a friend of the family, we had Black Reconstruction at home. So we used that.
I came in and I gave my presentation, and at the end of the class the teacher says, “All right, we’re now going to have a vote as to who’s right: me or Eric.” Well, she won by a landslide, let’s put it that way.
When would you say high school students started learning a new way of seeing Reconstruction?
Maybe the 1970s, or even after that. Of course, Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction had been out there since 1935, but it was ignored in the mainstream [white] universities. It was taught in the black colleges. In the black colleges you had a different view of Reconstruction, but that was totally sealed off from the larger academic world.
But I think a real turning point was in 1965, when Kenneth Stampp published this book called The Era of Reconstruction, which was not a very detailed research book but it gave a more positive view of Reconstruction. And because of the civil rights revolution, people wanted a different history. People were talking about the “New Abolitionists,” the “Second Reconstruction.” Little by little people started chipping away.
So in the seventies there was a lot of scholarship being done, but exactly when it got into the high schools I don’t know. Maybe the eighties. You’d have to look at the textbooks for that.
Today I think all the textbooks are good, but I still find, wherever I talk about this, that there are plenty of people — and not just the older ones — who say, “All I know about Reconstruction is corruption, carpetbaggers.”
The main thing is that people know next to nothing about Reconstruction. And what they do know is just not correct. I mean, just basic myths. People say, “They gave the right to vote to blacks but they disenfranchised all the whites.” Well, that’s completely untrue, they did not disenfranchise all whites. But people think that’s a known fact.
What percentage were actually disenfranchised?
A tiny percent. The people disenfranchised were people who held during office before the Civil War. Nobody knows how many that was. It might have been 8,000, 10,000, nobody knows, but it was not all whites. Your average Confederate veteran was not disenfranchised.
Oh, and the idea that all the blacks in office were illiterate and ignorant, also a total myth — we could go on about this but the point is, there are still a lot of misconceptions. I’m hoping that with the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction coming up there will be a little more interest.
There’s a 2011 Pew Poll showing that Americans still don’t even agree on the cause of the Civil War. There’s a plurality saying it was “states’ rights,” rather than slavery — and it’s not a North-South divide, either.
Yes, I see that all the time. It isn’t regional. The thing is, it’s an index of cynicism about political life. Which is totally understandable. The idea that anyone could do anything for an idealistic reason, or that you can believe anything that politicians say . . .
You look at our own world, with politics today, it’s easy to say, “Hey, it must have been just a bunch of Northern capitalists trying to control the South,” or “It was just states’ rights.” Whenever I lecture, someone raises the issue of states’ rights, and the thing I like to say is: “Yes, you’re right, the South believed in states’ rights. And the right they were interested in was the right to own slaves.” And that was a right created by state law, so naturally they wanted to protect states’ rights.
And then I say, if that was really the issue, then explain the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to me — which was a federal law, probably the most powerful federal law before the Civil War in terms of overriding local judicial procedures, overriding local law enforcement. Federal troops, federal marshals, going into states, you think that’s a reflection of states’ rights? No.
When it came to vigorous federal action in defense of slavery, the South was perfectly happy to go that route. So they did not dogmatically believe in states’ rights . . .
Just look at the Mississippi Declaration of Secession. Or Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech.” One thing I admire about these guys is that they didn’t beat about the bush. They were very candid. “We are seceding because the future of slavery is in danger.”
After the war, the myth developed that everybody had already agreed that slavery needed to go.
Yes, slavery got washed out of the writing on the war. But it didn’t happen in a straight line. When it comes to the Civil War, what historians write is a reflection of the world they are living in at the moment.
During World War II there was an upsurge in people seeing the Civil War through its lens, through the fight against fascism and the knowledge that entrenched evil is not going to go away without violence. So in that period they saw slavery as the root of it.
But later you get a post-Vietnam thing, which was a little more cynical. I think even today we’re in a post-Iraq moment, where the idea is basically, “War is hell and politicians justify it with all this rhetoric which has no meaning, so how can you believe anything anyone says?”
My view on this is Du Bois’s, actually. Sometimes the “neo-abolitionist” historians get a little too gung-ho for war, the glorifying of the war. I agree with Du Bois, who says that war is murder, chaos, anarchy. But sometimes good comes out of it. I don’t think it’s a good thing that all these people got killed in the Civil War. I’m not glorifying it and waving the flag for it. But what I’m saying is that I’ve never seen a peaceful scenario for the abolition of slavery in this country.
Now, a lot of people say it would have died out as a result of being uneconomical. How do you know that? When would it have died out? It was plenty economical before the Civil War, why would it suddenly die out?
People say, “Oh, well Brazil abolished slavery.” Brazil abolished slavery partially because we abolished slavery. Do you think Brazil would have abolished slavery if we hadn’t? I think political economy is very important here. The clash of two fundamentally different societies with two fundamentally different labor systems is what’s going on, in my opinion.
Do you think it makes sense to talk about the Civil War and Reconstruction as a ‘bourgeois revolution’?
I tend not to use terminology like that, which I feel is an insider terminology. I try to write as clearly and accessibly as possible. So I understand what it means to call it a bourgeois revolution, and there are a lot of ways one could say it is. But I don’t think you would find that phrase in my writings.
But I do call it a revolution. I call the Civil War the Second American Revolution, as historian Charles Beard did, and as abolitionist Wendell Phillips did. But the Revolution is the destruction of slavery, that’s the revolutionary quality. That’s Du Bois’s point.
I call it a capitalist revolution. I don’t know if that’s the same thing as a bourgeois revolution. It destroys a system that is both capitalist and non-capitalist in ways that are quite difficult to explain, but the consequence of the Civil War is capitalist hegemony throughout the entire United States.
But that’s not the cause of the Civil War, because the capitalists were perfectly happy with the slave South. They made a lot of money off the slave South and there was no reason for them to go to war. But the consequence of the war was certainly the hegemony of Northern industry and finance throughout the entire country.
I wanted to talk about Karl Rove, who is apparently a big fan of your book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, on antebellum Republican ideology.
He said he learned how to build a political coalition from that book.
A student came up to me one year and said, “You might not approve of this, but I’ve got an internship in the White House working for Karl Rove this summer.” I said I don’t disapprove, they need all the help they can get down there. He said, “I’m glad you feel that way,” and he whipped out his copy of my Reconstruction book and said, “Mr Rove asked if I could get you to sign this for him.”
I think this kind of thing scares off the young contemporary left, because they see the legacy of antislavery being claimed by this vicious capitalist force.
Anything can be claimed by anyone! I mean, Glenn Beck held his civil rights rally a little while ago.
The National Review does something on Frederick Douglass from time to time.
We shouldn’t allow them to take possession of these struggles. By the way, Obama absorbs all of this into his narrative of American history, obviously, and what’s objectionable about all this — from Obama’s vision of American history to Karl Rove’s — is that they see all these things as struggles within a stable system, so to speak.
Instead of denying, like the Right used to, that we’ve ever had inequality in this country, the Right says, “Well of course slavery was horrible, but we abolished it. We abolished slavery.” We! We! Who’s this “we,” you know?
And then they say, “Jim Crow, it was terrible.” No one’s defending Jim Crow anymore. We had a great civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King is a hero to everybody left, right and center, but it’s a defanged Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King is the guy who gets up at the Lincoln Memorial and, you know, says one sentence — I want my children to be judged by the content of their character — and that’s Martin Luther King. You don’t get the King who spoke out against the Vietnam War, or the Poor People’s Campaign King.
King was a radical guy. King said that the Civil Rights Movement was a fundamental challenge to American values. The people who absorb it into a feel-good thing now say it was an expression of basic American values. In other words, there is a stable thing called Americanism which all these struggles are just improving all the time.
So I can see how people can be cynical about the appropriation of that, but I don’t think we should let it be appropriated. I wrote a book about the history of the idea of freedom, and then shortly thereafter George W. Bush took control of the idea of freedom for the War in Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom — freedom, freedom, freedom, that’s all it was. It turned a lot of people off the idea of freedom.
Obama doesn’t even talk about freedom much, except when he’s going to war. Freedom is the last refuge when they want to go to war.
I don’t think we should cede freedom to the Right. Absolutely not. We should not concede the common sense idea of freedom. In my book there are many other concepts of freedom equally embedded in the American tradition, which have a lot more to do with equality and economic rights, which we should insist on. It’s not just owning a gun and getting the government off your back.
So yes, I can understand that people look back at the abolitionist movement and say, first, “Well, the whites were racist.” Well some of them were racist, no question about it. But hey, they were willing to put themselves on the line to end slavery, so what else do you want?
This is a pseudo-politics, a psycho-politics, that says people ought to be loving each other. That’s not what politics is, people loving each other. It’s people acting together, even if they don’t love each other, for a common purpose. If you’re going out to a labor picket line, are they all loving each other, the people on that picket line? Probably not. But they have a common self-interest that they’re pursuing.
Then they say, “It didn’t succeed. They abolished slavery, but racism is permanent, and another form of slavery came in.” Of course, terrible injustice came in. But it wasn’t slavery. I think that’s a very cynical view of social change — that if you don’t get utopia nothing has happened.
There’s a related myth that emancipation happened, but immediately it was replaced by Jim Crow. But in reality there was a long period between Reconstruction and complete black disenfranchisement, and across the late nineteenth century there were all these struggles in the South, with whites and blacks acting together.
You’re absolutely right, it didn’t just end in 1877. There was Radical Reconstruction, which I think was a very idealistic effort to, as Du Bois said, create democracy. Du Bois’s subtitle talks about “the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America.” It’s not about black people, it’s about democracy — are we going to have a democracy in this country or not?
But then there was a generation at least which was kind of inchoate, as you say. There was a tendency towards more and more racism, but there were also struggles like the Readjusters in Virginia, the Populists of course, and other things. It’s not until around 1900 that Jim Crow, which is a shorthand for comprehensive white supremacy in the South, comes in.
The struggle is the story. I don’t think we should romanticize it, but the idea that racism is permanent and there’s nothing you can say or do and that’s it — that’s a totally unhistorical way of thinking about it.
Among other things, it’s a story of attempts at interracial cooperation from below, which ultimately failed by 1900. It’s sometimes argued that the political failure of Reconstruction in the South was due to the fact that Republican support among Unionist whites, which was significant at the beginning, seemed to have disappeared or diminished by 1877. Why do you think that happened?
That’s one of the reasons for the failure of Reconstruction — it’s one reason. Of course, there were some states where they never had any white support, like South Carolina and maybe a couple of other places. Louisiana had very, very little.
The problem of getting poor white support was very difficult and was exacerbated by the difference between the Northern Republican Party and the Southern Republican Party. In some of these states, like North Carolina or Georgia, there were poor whites, Unionists, and so on, who were interested in supporting the Republicans for economic advantages like debtor’s relief.
But the Northern Republican Party was not interested in supporting them. They rejected Georgia’s Constitution because it suspended the collection of debts, and they said, “Hey, I’m sorry, you guys have got to pay your debts.” It’s like Greece, they were acting like Angela Merkel.
I actually think the failure of Reconstruction was not solely or even primarily on that basis. Rather, you have to go to the federal level and look at what was basically a failure to enforce the law. There were these constitutional amendments — the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth — but you get a withdrawal from enforcement after a while, and that reflected changes in Northern society — political, economic, and intellectual. And without a willingness to enforce the law, the power structure in the South — the economic power structure — is going to take over eventually.
It’s possible to imagine continued federal intervention — not, you know, military intervention for forty years, but enough to make it clear that these laws will be enforced. Like what happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There was a social movement, but there was also the National Guard, federal courts, other things just making it clear to people, not that they have to love each other, but that they have to act in certain ways and they can’t act in other ways. That if people act in ways that are in violation of federal law, they will be punished. And if that becomes clear, then people eventually abide by the law.
This is the point where Karl Rove’s attempt at appropriation fails, because when you’re looking at that moment, where Northern support dries up and people are beginning to doubt the effort to enforce the law, they have exactly the same kinds of concerns that Karl Rove has, that the Republican Party today has.
Yes, exactly. Rove would probably say this was an outside imposition on the South and therefore whites were never going to accept it. Maybe there’s some truth to that. But as you said, there were the Populists, the Readjusters, there were grounds for white militancy in the South all through this period, which occasionally come to the fore and helped work out things with blacks. But they were usually overturned by violence.
So you go back to the question: are you going to allow political violence to determine elections and political power in this country? If you are, that’s what’s going to happen. And if not, you’re going to need federal intervention to prevent it. I think the national story of Reconstruction and its failure is very important, not just the local story.
Of course, there’s an old argument about corruption in the Reconstruction state governments, but newer scholarship has looked more closely at the problem of state government revenue, and the new property taxes imposed after the war.
Yes, these state governments faced a real Catch-22. Before the war, state revenue was basically from the tax on slaves, not on landed property. Planters could accumulate large tracts of property and not be taxed on it, but be taxed on their slaves instead. And this left the poorer whites not paying taxes on their land. Most people owned land, but they didn’t pay taxes.
This was a weird fiscal system, where it’s the tax on slaves that’s supporting the government, but it does allow a lot of fiscal autonomy to poorer areas. After the Civil War, there are no more slaves, so no more tax! It becomes a general property tax. That’s bad for the planters, but it’s also bad for the poorer whites, who are now paying a tax on their land they didn’t have to before.
So that becomes a big problem. These governments are setting up school systems, and they’re now serving a doubled citizenry where blacks are now suddenly getting benefits from the government as well as whites, but the fiscal resources are very, very weak. And that’s why they were issuing bonds that were deteriorating in value. And you get corruption out of that.
But even the way you posed the question, which pops up in a lot of this literature, shows the hold of modern day politics: corruption and taxation are thrown into the same bag. But taxation is not corruption! This notion that levying taxes is bad is part of this critique of Reconstruction.
But surely if these are poor farmers who want schools, and you raise taxes to build these school systems and stuff — if it had been done well, wouldn’t they ultimately have benefited from it?
The immediate problem was that they couldn’t get debtor’s relief. They were all in debt. The Republican Party was divided, because a lot of Republicans — including black Republicans — thought they shouldn’t alienate planters too much. They wanted to get the planters into the Republican Party.
So it was very hard to have a radical party, to have a populist party, because the local parties were dependent on the Northern Republican Party, which more and more was the party of industry and sound finance. It was a political coalition that was very difficult to maintain. It was a coalition between the poorest people in the country and the richest people in the country!
And then there was the need for cotton. That’s one of the reasons they didn’t distribute land to the former slaves: because they thought they’d have to grow cotton. The problem is, there was actually an overproduction of cotton after the war, because the British had encouraged cotton in India and Egypt during the war. There’s a lot more supply in the world than there had been before because the Civil War had cut it off.
The thing is, the agricultural system in the South was not a racial system. It affected blacks more severely but there were more white sharecroppers than black in every census. The crop lien system (which left indebted farmers dependent on cash crops) forced people to grow cotton. So yes, the expansion of cotton production was in the white areas, and that was very detrimental to them because the price was falling throughout this whole period. There was overproduction, so growing cotton was a losing game.
So here you get into total counterfactual fantasy: if they had changed the whole credit system — if, if, if! That’s what the Populists called for [in the 1890s]. Get out of dependence on merchants and banks. Let the government be the one who loans the money to the farmers. It didn’t happen, of course. (Now it happens, but that’s with agribusiness, that’s a different story.) So there are a million problems.
I don’t think Reconstruction in its utopian phase could have succeeded, but I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine more modest kinds of success which would have made the shift over to Jim Crow more difficult.
What do you think about land redistribution, as a counterfactual?
Well, in an agricultural society it’s a lot better to have land than to not have land. Would it have been a panacea for everything? No. The credit system, you’d have had to change that too, because land is not the only scarce resource. It certainly would have given blacks more bargaining power in the system, but it was not the end-all, be-all answer. Most white farmers owned land after the war, but they were losing it through this whole period.
To me, the key thing wouldn’t necessarily have been the direct benefits to African Americans, which were significant but still limited. I’m thinking of the political dynamic. Because that’s the divide that arose later on, the poor whites who owned land and poor blacks who owned nothing. Steven Hahn called them the “propertyless poor.”
Though a lot of whites are losing their property too.
But you know, you can take that even farther. To Thaddeus Stevens, the biggest thing this would have accomplished was to destroy the planter class. Take away their land and they’re gone, and that would have changed the whole political configuration of the South.
I mean, he wanted to sell it to Northerners too.
Forty acres to the blacks and then sell the rest. Then you’ve got a whole different society. That’s a great counterfactual. Blacks would have ended up at the bottom of the economic ladder anyway because they lacked resources, but the whole system would have looked very different.
Okay, let’s do counterfactuals. But let’s say in 1867 blacks get the right to vote, and there’s a general white uprising in the South and you have to send the Army back in. Then people might have said, fuck these guys! This is impossible, we’re gonna take their land away again. Crisis creates that kind of radicalism.
In the dominant discourse, the American Revolution was very moderate, it was legalistic, and that’s good because it was relatively peaceful, unlike the French Revolution. Yet it left slavery in place. And then even the Second American Revolution ended up so moderate and legalistic that it prevented them from doing a lot of radical things — the kind of things you’d imagine the French Jacobins doing had they been in the United States.
Well you know, Georges Clemenceau was here after the war and he was reporting for a French newspaper. He called Thaddeus Stevens the Robespierre of the Second American Revolution. So he saw what was going on.
But on the other hand, the abolition of slavery seems so normal and inevitable in retrospect, yet it was an incredibly radical act. Especially the uncompensated abolition of slavery, the liquidation of what was by far the largest concentration of property in the country — slaves. No compensation was a pretty radical thing. I guess you’re right, it wasn’t radical enough, but it was certainly pretty radical for the nineteenth century.
Lessons for Today’s Radicals
What if some young socialist came up to you and asked, “Is there anything here, in antislavery and Reconstruction, that’s useful for an anti-capitalist, socialist project?”
Yes! First of all though — the abolitionist movement was not an anticapitalist movement.
But it was a radical movement.
Yes, it was a radical movement. The abolitionists show you that a very small group of people can accomplish a lot by changing the discourse of the country. After the Civil War, everybody claimed to have been an abolitionist. But they weren’t!
There weren’t a whole lot of abolitionists before the war. There were a few beleaguered individuals scattered about, in upstate New York, for example. There were only a couple dozen abolitionists in New York City!
Now, there was a free black community, they were very militant, and you could say they were abolitionists, but I’m talking about the organized abolitionist movement. That was very small. Nonetheless, they managed to actually accomplish quite a bit. They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn. The first thing to do is intervene in public discourse.
And the Occupy movement — success, failure, gone, still around, whatever you want to think about it — it changed the public discourse. It put this question of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, inequality, on the national agenda. That doesn’t mean they’re going to do much about it in Washington, but it is now part of our consciousness, just as by 1840 the abolitionist movement put the issue of slavery on the agenda in a way it had not been. Now, it took twenty years for anything to happen, but I think that’s something to learn from them, how they managed to do that.
Here’s the point. I am a believer in the abolitionist concept — that the role of radicals is to stand outside of the political system. The abolitionists said, “I am not putting forward a plan for abolition, because if I put forward a plan, people are just going to be debating my plan. ‘Oh, it’s going to be two years, five years, seven years.’ No: I’m putting forward the moral imperative of dealing with slavery.” And if people are convinced of that, then politicians will come up with a plan to do it. That means politicians are eventually going to pick up those ideas and use them in other ways and turn them into political strategies.
A guy like Lincoln was not a radical abolitionist by any stretch of the imagination. He was a moderate. And yet by the 1850s Lincoln understood that abolitionists were part of — to use a Karl Rove term — his “base.” Lincoln understood that you don’t win by just appealing to your base, but no politician is going to kick his base out and say “I don’t want to deal with these guys.”
So yes, there are some radical guys in the party, like Joshua Giddings, like Salmon P. Chase. But you know, Giddings represented one very unique district. He was like Bernie Sanders. Not too many Giddingses are going to get elected.
Then how do you interpret the debate among abolitionists, like the split that eventually happened between William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass?
You know, this is where I differ from the tradition I grew up in. I don’t believe there is one true party line that every movement has to have. The Maoist view is better: let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred tactics bloom. Let some people go into politics and other people not go into politics, let some people work above ground and others not. You know, you have the Underground Railroad, you have people working illegally, but you also have people working totally legally and openly. There’s no one correct tactic. The more different tactics you have, the better.
I totally agree with that, but in some ways, Garrison was making the argument that you started out with just now: let’s just stand out and say what’s right. And Douglass said, look, at a certain point, you have to intervene.
But Douglass’s concept of politics is still politics as agitation. He doesn’t support the Republican Party. He supports the Radical Abolition party which gets twenty votes! But the point of that is just to get the idea out there. Politics is another venue for getting your idea out there.
But the idea is out there! In your most recent book, you quote Charles Sumner talking about the “anti-slavery enterprise” as an inclusive movement. Isn’t the striking thing about this moment in American politics the fact that even though they’re at each other’s throats, they’re working towards a common goal? Even though Douglass is trashing Lincoln in his editorials, fundamentally they still build through the Republican Party. This is the real radical moment, in the mid 1850s — when the Republican Party, the antislavery party, wins control of the North. Just a few years earlier that was unimaginable.
No, you’re right. Yes, I make this argument, but I think one should not homogenize things. Douglass and Wendell Phillips are trying to get rid of Lincoln in 1864! They nominate John C. Frémont to run instead. Lincoln and the abolitionists have this odd, interesting relationship. It’s partly symbiotic, it’s partly antagonistic, but these guys are not holding Lincoln’s coat by any means.
Very good historians make very big mistakes talking about this because they look at Douglass’s speeches about Lincoln. But Douglass is a very shrewd guy. He understands you’ve got to get Lincoln on your side, especially after the Civil War. So suddenly Lincoln is the guy who we were all really wrong to criticize, and he was actually a believer in racial justice. By the 1870s he’s trying to invoke Lincoln to get people’s support for Reconstruction.
But as you said, this is politics, right? It’s not about loving each other — it’s about changing the world.
Absolutely. But even though there’s an antislavery enterprise, I still think there’s a fundamental difference between abolitionists and the politicians. I mean, I hope that people on the Left do not just throw up their hands and say, “Well, there’s nobody you can trust.” It’s politics! You make deals. But I also believe that this is the luxury of an intellectual with a full-time job, so I don’t have to worry about it.
But I think radicals shouldn’t be involved in the day to day business of politics. I’m on the board of the Nation, which is not as radical as Jacobin, but in our current political climate it’s to the left of the mainstream, let’s put it that way. A lot of our editorial board meetings are about: “Oh God, should we support Hillary? Should we support Obama?” and I say, “Hell no, that’s not even what we should be talking about! We should not be getting involved in Democratic Party internal battles. That’s not what our job is.”
Our job is to put out new ideas, different ideas, pressure people, and I don’t care fundamentally if Obama or Hillary gets the nomination in 2008. Sure I have an opinion about it but I don’t think that’s our job to worry about it. All of this maneuvering, “Oh, what do we do in this or that election.” We are not politicians. Politicians do it better.
In 1864 Lincoln absolutely outmaneuvered these guys, because they weren’t politicians. I mean they put up John C. Frémont. Who the hell is that? Lincoln controlled the machinery.
But there had to be a point at which people with abolitionist views decided that they were going to involve themselves in the process — even if it was the [1848–54] Free Soil Party, or something like that. There was a process of coalition-building in which people who didn’t like each other, who thought they were too radical, or not radical enough, worked together on a common project. It was anti-sectarian, or non-sectarian.
I agree with you. On the other hand, Douglass welcomed the Free Soil Party because its politicians were moving toward antislavery. He did not welcome the [1840–44] Liberty Party — even though it was more radical than Free Soil — because that was abolitionists moving towards politics. He thought that was a deterioration of the abolitionist statement.
I’m giving you a rigid kind of view of what radicalism is, when what I actually believe is that people should be doing everything at the same time. There is no one correct way. If people want to work in the Democratic Party, let ’em. There are good people in the party, in some places, running.
I’m certainly happy de Blasio was elected here. De Blasio is not Thad Stevens but he’s certainly an improvement on what we’ve had. And I think that’s great. But I don’t think the role of radicals is to just jump on board and say de Blasio’s our man.
Maybe a good example is Thaddeus Stevens. He’s a party man, he’s a politician, but he’s certainly as much an abolitionist as anybody, and more of a racial egalitarian than a lot of people on the Left then.
Even than a lot of Underground Railroad types.
Absolutely. But Thaddeus Stevens is central in the political system. He doesn’t control the Congress, but he’s important. He’s almost like John Boehner today. He’s a key guy in the House of Representatives. So Stevens is another way of looking at it. He’s an abolitionist using a position of power in the political system.
But Stevens also knows how to compromise. He sees what you can get and he takes it. On the Fourteenth Amendment, Charles Sumner initially says he won’t accept it because it recognizes the power of the state to disenfranchise people — it punishes states in terms of numbers of their members in Congress if they don’t allow blacks to vote, but it still allows the possibility of doing it.
Stevens says, “Hey, this is a step toward what we want and we have to do it. It’s imperfect, but we’ve got to take it.”
Same thing with Frederick Douglass on the Emancipation Proclamation: ‘This is one step.’
One of my numerous differences with President Obama is that a few years ago he went to a college and he was chatting with some students, and he was complaining about liberals criticizing him, and he said, if these guys were around when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, they would have said it’s no good. And I said, wait a minute, the abolitionists didn’t say it was no good! They said it was great, but you’ve got to do more!
I guess why we’re so interested in this juncture between abolitionists and Republicans is just that we’re wondering about the process. You have a situation where Wendell Phillips is invited to the White House in 1862. Thinking about it, that’s like, what, the equivalent of Noam Chomsky being invited to the White House by Obama? That would never happen — it seems impossible for Obama even to say anything about the 99 percent.
I wrote my book about Lincoln, and I wouldn’t say it was written for Obama but I had hoped Obama would read it. Because it’s about exactly how a political figure and a social movement can somehow, not exactly coordinate with each other, but influence one another.
I would like to see Obama inviting the equivalent of Frederick Douglass today, whoever that is, to the White House and listening to him and talking to him about things, asking his advice about things. Lincoln didn’t care when these guys came in and criticized him, he was perfectly happy to learn something from them.
Obama isn’t like that. He’s very thin-skinned. He doesn’t like differences of opinion within his own party. I think that’s a serious flaw. I think for Jacobin — and I say this to the Nation — the number one thing is to put out a different worldview than the dominant one today.
I think the financial crisis has cracked open the old consensus. I read two newspapers in the morning, over breakfast, the New York Times and the Financial Times. I don’t read them online, I get them delivered to my door, the old-fashioned way. The Financial Times is more radical than the New York Times! You read the Financial Times on the fiscal crisis, the financial system, they’re up in arms that no banker has gone to jail, about the austerity program. The Financial Times tells you what’s actually happening, it’s amazing.
My point is that the consensus has cracked open, and therefore publications like Jacobin have to put forward an alternative point of view, and worldview, an alternative vision.
The problem is the abolitionists had a vision. It was a society without slavery and with equality for all. And that’s what they put out, but I don’t think they had any concept of what abolition would mean economically, what would be the implications for the country. Yes, they wanted the South to be like the North — more farms, little towns.
But the funny thing is, in New England the factory system was very powerful in the 1840s and the abolitionists didn’t look in their own backyard and say, “What about Irish laborers in the factories?” That’s why I say their vision was basically a moral one.
So let’s talk a little about the vision of the Republican Party. The early GOP brought together both ex-Whigs and ex-Democrats, but the majority had been lifelong Whigs. It was almost sort of an offshoot of the Whigs. The traditional view is that the Whigs were basically elitists. But in the context of the time wasn’t there something historically progressive about their kind of bourgeois liberalism?
You’re right. Of course the Whigs were very skeptical of democracy. In the 1830s, you have the Jacksonians who seem to represent a popular politics of democracy, and yet they’re anti-Indian, they’re racist. Then you have the Whigs who seem to be more forward-looking, but they’re capitalists.
But the guys who come to the fore are the ones who combine things. Lincoln and Seward are more small-d democratic Whigs who see that you can’t run in this country in the 1830s in favor of the elite and say, “Vote for me, I’m for the elite.” Although some Whigs tried. So you get these democratic Whigs who have this forward-looking economic view, but also have a mass politics, which many Whigs are not that comfortable with.
Lincoln’s got the economic progress, free-labor notion, but not the kind of elite finance capitalist thing. Going into Reconstruction, Thaddeus Stevens is actually into inflation, greenbacks. Guys like him have this vision of uplifting everybody through money and credit, low-interest rates. Every man his own capitalist, but without big capitalists out there.
Seward is a very interesting guy, because he tries to get the Whig party to appeal to immigrants. But the Whigs were very nativist, and that’s part of the reason he didn’t get the nomination in 1860. The Know-Nothings didn’t like Seward because when he was governor twenty years before he’d tried to get public money for Catholic schools.
What I meant by the question about the Whigs is that, the way I see it, the Democrats, in addition to their racism, represented a very agrarian, decentralized, yet small-d democratic vision that was opposed to improvement of society through collective means. That’s a very American thing in the sense that Europe, where the suffrage was restricted, really had no equivalent of the Democratic Party.
You’re right. Because in Europe the Industrial Revolution happened before democracy came in. People were excluded as a class and that encouraged class consciousness because people were excluded from the political system as a class. The labor struggle and the political struggle were interconnected with each other. That’s the point of E. P. Thompson’s book on the English working class. That book is about politics as much as labor, it’s about the struggle for the vote for working-class people.
I think the fundamental thing is that in the US in the nineteenth century, the mainstream of radicalism is based on individual autonomy, equality, and small property. Whether it’s a homestead thing, or even the Knights of Labor later. That’s what the Socialist Party breaks with — the idea that small property will solve capitalism. They say you’ve got to find a more collective solution to this.
Eventually the free labor ideology dies out. But in the nineteenth century the free-labor ideology was the source of much of American radicalism, and there’s no point in going back and saying, “Hey, they shouldn’t have thought that, they should have been socialists.”
That’s the peculiarity of this 1850s moment, isn’t it? This free-labor vision develops that bequeaths industrial capitalism and laissez faire, but at the same time it’s inchoate, it’s undetermined, and labor struggles can come out of it too. And that’s how Lincoln in the 1850s could say nobody should remain a wage earner for life.
But there is no real connection between that and socialism, and indeed there were plenty of socialists then and later, who said, “This is retrograde, this idea of small property being the essence of freedom. It’s a barrier against a collective view of society.” To say that today, however, is unhistorical anyway, because socialism was not on the agenda in 1850.
One thing about free labor is that when it emerges in the fifties, conservative elites in the South had no hesitancy finding anticapitalism in antislavery. They talked about Red Republicans and Black Republicans. They thought the way the antislavery people fundamentally challenged property was dangerous, that it cracked the egg.
The abolitionists always insisted they were not attacking property. They were attacking property in man as an illegitimate thing. Of course, others picked this up, and radical laborites called themselves the new abolitionists later on. When Thaddeus Stevens was proposing confiscating land in the South, there were Northern Republicans who said, “Wait a minute! The Irish are going to start talking about confiscating factories.” Even then they said, slavery was different, it was not legitimate property.
Let’s put it this way: after the Civil War, the free-labor vision becomes the essence of a radical labor critique of the Industrial Revolution.
Yet it also becomes the seed of right-wing laissez-faire . . .
Yes, free labor cracks up on class lines. The labor movement in the twentieth century — it’s not just rhetoric when they said, “We’re the new abolitionists.” Because the free-labor ideal was now under assault.
What we should be talking about is maybe the old Socialist Party, before World War I, Debsian socialism. Because what they had, which the abolitionists didn’t quite have, was an umbrella under which all sorts of groups could find a common ground, whether it’s birth control advocates, labor activists, anti-monopolists, and socialists, people like Debs who had a vision of socialism.
The idea of socialism they had was kind of a vague one, and of course the great historical fallacy is to view it back through the lens of World War I and the Russian Revolution. But before that, this was a large umbrella radical movement, with all sorts of people with very specific aims who could get together.
Today one of our problems is we have a lot of movements going on and they’re sympathetic to one another but they don’t seem to connect with one another. Whether it’s antiracist movements, gay movements, environmentalist — they all seem kind of fragmented. Whereas the Socialist Party, they all came together. You had Emma Goldman in there, you had Debs, you had municipal reformers, Jane Addams, progressives — it was part of the political dynamic of the country.
Even though in 1912 Debs got his million votes — 6 percent, that’s not a hell of a lot — but we’d take it now. But I think that’s a different model than the abolitionist model.
Maybe part of the reason they were able to have this unity with all these different causes was that it was a socialist party, which meant that even though their ideas were vague, what gave form to them was this idea of a different kind of society. People could invest their hopes in that.
Whereas today, with all the various struggles, we don’t have that, there’s no clear alternative.
Well, maybe we need a new word. Socialism unfortunately has gotten a bad name in this country.
It’s pretty popular with our generation, if you believe polls.
Good! If people are willing to talk about socialism, I think that’s great.
By the Weekly Sift
Tea Partiers say you don’t understand them because you don’t understand American history. That’s probably true, but not in the way they want you to think.
Late in 2012, I came out of the Lincoln movie with two historical mysteries to solve:
How did the two parties switch places regarding the South, white supremacy, and civil rights? In Lincoln’s day, a radical Republican was an abolitionist, and when blacks did get the vote, they almost unanimously voted Republican. Today, the archetypal Republican is a Southern white, and blacks are almost all Democrats. How did American politics get from there to here?
One of the movie’s themes was how heavily the war’s continuing carnage weighed on Lincoln. (It particularly came through during Grant’s guided tour of the Richmond battlefield.) Could any cause, however lofty, justify this incredible slaughter? And yet, I realized, Lincoln was winning. What must the Confederate leaders have been thinking, as an even larger percentage of their citizens died, as their cities burned, and as the accumulated wealth of generations crumbled? Where was their urge to end this on any terms, rather than wait for complete destruction?
The first question took some work, but yielded readily to patient googling. I wrote up the answer in “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“. The second turned out to be much deeper than I expected, and set off a reading project that has eaten an enormous amount of my time over the last two years. (Chunks of that research have shown up in posts like “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“, “Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex“, and my review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on reparations.) Along the way, I came to see how I (along with just about everyone I know) have misunderstood large chunks of American history, and how that misunderstanding clouds our perception of what is happening today.
Who really won the Civil War? The first hint at how deep the second mystery ran came from the biography Jefferson Davis: American by William J. Cooper. In 1865, not only was Davis not agonizing over how to end the destruction, he wanted to keep it going longer. He disapproved of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and when U. S. troops finally captured him, he was on his way to Texas, where an intact army might continue the war.
That sounded crazy until I read about Reconstruction. In my high school history class, Reconstruction was a mysterious blank period between Lincoln’s assassination and Edison’s light bulb. Congress impeached Andrew Johnson for some reason, the transcontinental railroad got built, corruption scandals engulfed the Grant administration, and Custer lost at Little Big Horn. But none of it seemed to have much to do with present-day events.
And oh, those blacks Lincoln emancipated? Except for Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, they vanished like the Lost Tribes of Israel. They wouldn’t re-enter history until the 1950s, when for some reason they still weren’t free.
Here’s what my teachers’ should have told me: “Reconstruction was the second phase of the Civil War. It lasted until 1877, when the Confederates won.” I think that would have gotten my attention.
It wasn’t just that Confederates wanted to continue the war. They did continue it, and they ultimately prevailed. They weren’t crazy, they were just stubborn. (Continued)
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Black Youth Project 100 action to #DecriminalizeBlack (Photo Credit: Sarah Jane Rhee)
Che Guevara, Before the United Nations, 12-11-1964
March 4, 2015 – In my lifetime young people rose up to challenge and change the world in Little Rock and Birmingham, in Soweto and Tiananmen, in Palestine and Chiapas. In the last decade we saw the rise of Arab Spring and Occupy, and now we are in the midst of vivid mass resistance to the police killing of unarmed Black men and women spurred by the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Now and historically, it is the youth who reject taken-for-granted injustices. In this moment, young people are the social actors – the leadership, catalysts, the activists, and the organizers – who seized and defined a continuing travesty of North American life: the police murder of Black lives. Rising up against the thickening layers of institutionalized white supremacy, young people are insisting that Black Lives Matter.
With their radical impulse to revolt, that spirit of hopefulness and possibility, the laser-like insight of adolescents into the hypocrisies of the adult world, propel youth to break the rules, resist together, and transcend the immoral status quo. Inspired by the courage and determination of Ferguson youth, young people across the nation walked out of schools, sat-in, died-in, blocked highways and bridges – becoming the fresh, searing forces for equality, racial justice, and dignity.
Youth were not unaware of the risks they were taking by challenging police violence. In fact, it is young people who were painfully and brutally aware of the police targeting of Black youth, and pervasive US institutionalized de-valuing of Black lives.
Though many young activists had already been challenging police violence and the criminalization of Black lives in their own communities, the harrowing, police stalking and shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, became the spark that generated a fresh wave of youth uprisings. This new movement in the long struggle for racial justice brought young people together across the country to become more than the sum of their parts.
The activism of the Black Lives Matter movement not only illustrates the brilliance and clarity of young people, but also flies in the face of popular currency that children and youth are less competent, less thoughtful, less wise and more dangerous than adults. The continuing reality of young people as social actors stands in opposition to official policies of silencing, suppressing, expelling and punishing our youth, depriving them of an education and denying their creativity and right to be heard.
Think of young peoples’ loss of rights, for example, through truancy laws; school censorship of high school newspapers, email communication and graduation speeches; the banning of books; relentless harassment and violence against LGTBQ and trans youth; school locker searches and drug testing without reasonable suspicion or due process; school zero tolerance policies that include punishments, school suspensions and expulsions, gang terrorism profiling, stop and frisk, and the calling of police for minor misbehavior. Control, cameras, drug searches, testing, arrests, and school exclusion have replaced dignity.
Children and youth, in fact, are whole persons who bear human and constitutional rights. They are inevitably an active part of their time and place, their culture and community, their race, class, and ethnicity, and their extended family. Simultaneously, they may also be more vulnerable, more easily manipulated and used by adults, such that they must be, to the extent possible, protected, sheltered and insulated from serious harm, both from their own impulses, and adults who might prey upon them or use youth for their own purposes. This is why human rights activists, for example, advocate for children to be protected from the harshest consequences of war and hazardous labor and family violence.
Of course, young people are becoming-persons, not yet fully adults; but what kind of a person is a child? In considering children as social actors, this contradiction is worthy of continuing deliberation and nuance. How can society heed this paradox – rights versus protections – and tilt toward children as bearers of rights while taking the responsibility for providing youth with equal access, due process, Constitutional rights, economic rights, and human rights? Are youth not right to see the adult world as compromised, duplicitous, and worst of all—indifferent to the crimes and suffering around them? (Continued)
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By Sven Beckert
Dec 12, 2014 – Few topics have animated today’s chattering classes more than capitalism. In the wake of the global economic crisis, the discussion has spanned political boundaries, with conservative newspapers in Britain and Germany running stories on the "future of capitalism" (as if that were in doubt) and Korean Marxists analyzing its allegedly self-destructive tendencies. Pope Francis has made capitalism a central theme of his papacy, while the French economist Thomas Piketty attained rock-star status with a 700-page book full of tables and statistics and the succinct but decisively unsexy title Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press).
With such contemporary drama, historians have taken notice. They observe, quite rightly, that the world we live in cannot be understood without coming to terms with the long history of capitalism—a process that has arguably unfolded over more than half a millennium. They are further encouraged by the all-too-frequent failings of economists, who have tended to naturalize particular economic arrangements by defining the "laws" of their development with mathematical precision and preferring short-term over long-term perspectives. What distinguishes today’s historians of capitalism is that they insist on its contingent nature, tracing how it has changed over time as it has revolutionized societies, technologies, states, and many if not all facets of life.
Nowhere is this scholarly trend more visible than in the United States. And no issue currently attracts more attention than the relationship between capitalism and slavery.
If capitalism, as many believe, is about wage labor, markets, contracts, and the rule of law, and, most important, if it is based on the idea that markets naturally tend toward maximizing human freedom, then how do we understand slavery’s role within it? No other national story raises that question with quite the same urgency as the history of the United States: The quintessential capitalist society of our time, it also looks back on long complicity with slavery. But the topic goes well beyond one nation. The relationship of slavery and capitalism is, in fact, one of the keys to understanding the origins of the modern world.
For too long, many historians saw no problem in the opposition between capitalism and slavery. They depicted the history of American capitalism without slavery, and slavery as quintessentially noncapitalist. Instead of analyzing it as the modern institution that it was, they described it as premodern: cruel, but marginal to the larger history of capitalist modernity, an unproductive system that retarded economic growth, an artifact of an earlier world. Slavery was a Southern pathology, invested in mastery for mastery’s sake, supported by fanatics, and finally removed from the world stage by a costly and bloody war.
Some scholars have always disagree with such accounts. In the 1930s and 1940s, C.L.R. James and Eric Williams argued for the centrality of slavery to capitalism, though their findings were largely ignored. Nearly half a century later, two American economists, Stanley L. Engerman and Robert William Fogel, observed in their controversial book Time on the Cross (Little, Brown, 1974) the modernity and profitability of slavery in the United States. Now a flurry of books and conferences are building on those often unacknowledged foundations. They emphasize the dynamic nature of New World slavery, its modernity, profitability, expansiveness, and centrality to capitalism in general and to the economic development of the United States in particular.
The historians Robin Blackburn in England, Rafael Marquese in Brazil, Dale Tomich in the United States, and Michael Zeuske in Germany led the study of slavery in the Atlantic world. They have now been joined by a group of mostly younger American historians, like Walter Johnson, Seth Rockman, and Caitlin C. Rosenthal, looking at the United States.
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April 9th, 2014
Family of African American slaves on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862. © Timothy H. O’Sullivan | learnnc.org
Racialized chattel slaves were the capital that made capitalism. While most theories of capitalism set slavery apart, as something utterly distinct, because under slavery, workers do not labor for a wage, new historical research reveals that for centuries, a single economic system encompassed both the plantation and the factory.
At the dawn of the industrial age commentators like Rev. Thomas Malthus could not envision that capital — an asset that is used but not consumed in the production of goods and services — could compound and diversify its forms, increasing productivity and engendering economic growth. Yet, ironically, when Malthus penned his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, the economies of Western Europe already had crawled their way out of the so-called “Malthusian trap.” The New World yielded vast quantities of “drug foods” like tobacco, tea, coffee, chocolate, and sugar for world markets. Europeans worked a little bit harder to satiate their hunger for these “drug foods.” The luxury-commodities of the seventeenth century became integrated into the new middle-class rituals like tea-drinking in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, these commodities became a caloric and stimulative necessity for the denizens of the dark satanic mills. The New World yielded food for proletarians and fiber for factories at reasonable (even falling) prices. The “industrious revolution” that began in the sixteenth century set the stage for the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Book cover of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney W. Mintz © Penguin Books | Amazon.com
The systematic application of African slaves in staple export crop production began in the sixteenth century, with sugar in Brazil. The African slave trade populated the plantations of the Caribbean, landing on the shores of the Chesapeake at the end of the seventeenth century. African slaves held the legal status of chattel: moveable, alienable property. When owners hold living creatures as chattel, they gain additional property rights: the ownership of the offspring of any chattel, and the ownership of their offspring, and so on and so forth. Chattel becomes self-augmenting capital.
While slavery existed in human societies since prehistoric times, chattel status had never been applied so thoroughly to human beings as it would be to Africans and African-Americans beginning in the sixteenth century. But this was not done easily, especially in those New World regions where African slaves survived, worked alongside European indentured servants and landless “free” men and women, and bore offspring — as they did in Britain’s mainland colonies in North America.
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The economics of immiseration would be impossible without the politics of seduction, and capitalism’s appeal to our unconscious will to power and domination is not easily countered.
"The domain of seduction is the sacred horizon of appearances."
Jean Baudrillard, On Seduction
" ‘[I]mmiseration’ concerns not just the wages workers’ receive, but how long and how hard they have to work in order to get them."
Frances Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography
"[C]apitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based."
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century
By Joseph Natoli
Truthout Cultural Analysis
March 31, 2014 – The genius of the internal combustion engine engineered by Etienne Lenoir in 1860 was to release the pressure of such combustion to pistons, rotation and movement. Explosion was controlled and detoured; ignition could be repeated and catastrophe avoided each time. Rising pressure and calibrated release equals relief. Psychology responds to this analogy, as does politics. Increased pressure on low-wage workers makes headlines: "The Walls Close In: Low Wage Workers Finding It’s Easier to Fall into Poverty, and Harder to Get Out." But all wage earners, underclass or middle class, are feeling the pressure. Thom Hartmann reports, "wages have gone down almost seven percent since the recession. And, that decline followed more than three decades of stagnant wages thanks to Reaganomics."
Neoliberals, moderate or immoderate, pragmatic or crazed, attribute this sorry state of affairs to a number of variables that Liberals agree with, mostly referring to a transition from a low-tech society to a high-tech society, from a manufacturing base to a financial base, from a hunting, farming and manufacturing economy to an information economy. None of this has any drawing power. But the neoliberal steady refrain, from Reagan’s Welfare Queen to Romney’s 47 percent, has seductive power with that pivotal, crucial, voting middle class. The seductive spin is well-known: "The slow degeneration of working-class family life and the creation of a ‘moocher’ class too lazy and indulged to get a job results from ‘big government’ nurturing and coddling." There is a seductiveness also to other neoliberal reasons as to why immiseration is like the wolf now at every door but those of an elite few. Each "reason" touches a hot spot already fully charged within us. The collapse of a "nuclear family" is the collapse of a patriarchal order that is itself an order preserving male desire. The bureaucracy of public education is no more than the resistance of what is public, governmental and socialist to personal choice and individual freedom. The power of unions resides in a communist-like solidarity that obstructs the free and competitive play of business.
To read more articles by Joseph Natoli and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.
All of these briefs are seductive spins within the American cultural imaginary, not because they rest on uncontested fact and evidence, but because they rest on seductions and repressions already deeply embedded in that imaginary. In other words, the way we think now is so heavily layered in fantasies and illusions that the argument that wins the day does not appeal to rationality but rests on those fantasies and illusions. As I have suggested before, this imaginary and its accompanying fantasies and illusions are not partisan, there being no politics ruling imagination. But there is a political use of the imaginary, what I call the politics of seduction, and that arises from an economics of immiseration. There would be little need for the former if such an economics had not led, as it has, to immiseration for an increasing number and the anxieties that emerge from a fear of inevitable immiseration for many more.
There are numerous varieties of seduction, from Eve’s in the garden to Baudrillard’s sense that we seduce by enacting a weakness that we see in ourselves as well as others. We all harbor a never-fulfilled appetite to eat the world whole, and we choose an individual freedom, a supremacy of self-interests and desires, that urges us, like Milton’s Satan, to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven. The fantasies of desire are Janus-faced – as are the illusions of power. They have their weaker side – an impotency of desire, a feckless command and a captured will. Romney’s 47 percent of the population would eat up the world if they could but are totally impotent and cannot do so. The totalizing power that the elite seek can never be blocked by the feckless command of unions. Big government is no more than a ridiculed domain of power, not our own, that presumes to rule us. The fantasy links to male desire and personal choice are too transparent to require exegesis.
Seductions work because the appeal is to what is in us, both the desires and the fears, and therefore connections are made and recognition ensures response. And while both appeal and recognition are felt, they are unthought and pre-discursive. We do not think what is unthinkable. We do not express what we fear to think. Nevertheless, power remains here. Eden’s garden is no more than a confinement we need to go beyond, explore what’s outside; God’s one law, call it regulation, blocks our libertine and liberty-seeking nature. We do not need to be tempted to bite the apple; as unthinkable as this may sound, we were made to bite it. And much more. We have an appetite to possess and not to share. All that we have never quells a desire to have yet more. Mutual sharing and aid has no seductive power in our elemental level of being – but domination does. All other species, according to Genesis, awaited Adam’s naming, their identity and place in the world forever held within the province of human need and desire. Global warming can be conquered just as we have conquered nature all along the way. Global ecology movements thus have little seductive attraction as the rational arguments, especially in regard to human-caused climate change, have not been able to deactivate the seductiveness of what is irrational.