Tag Archives: slavery

Why Arendt might not have read Benito Cereno (if she did indeed not read Benito Cereno)

12 Sep

For a change of pace…

In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt makes the argument that one of the reasons the French Revolution took such a violent and authoritarian turn was that it allowed the social question—simplistically put, issues of poverty and the poor—to enter and then dominate public discussion. Unlike the American Revolution, which was more properly concerned with truly political questions like the organization of public power, constitutions, and civic action. Once issues of economic need are put on the table, Arendt suggests, tyranny cannot be far off. So pressing and overwhelming are the physical needs of the body, so much do they cry out for our response, that they almost introduce, by their very nature, an element of compulsion into public life. That compulsion mirrors the compulsion of biology. Such needs are best left in the shadows.

Arendt also claims that an additional driving force toward tyranny in the French Revolution lay in the revolutionaries’ horror of hypocrisy, their desire to take off the public masks we all present once we enter the world of our peers. Inspired by Rousseau, Robespierre and the Jacobins sought to strip the person of her inevitably public persona, to make inner self coincide with outer presentation. (Trilling makes a similar argument in Sincerity and Authenticity, though he refracts the point through a discussion of Jane Austen, as I recall.)

I’m not sure if Arendt explicitly says this or not (it’s been about five years since I taught On Revolution), but there’s also a suggestion in the text that the drive against hypocrisy and desire for sincerity, with its manic hunt for any signs of deception or doubt in the inner self, is related to the rise of the social question, the entrance onto the public stage of those orders of society that had been previously hidden behind the walls of the household. Following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, Arendt suggests that when the laboring orders of society barge into public life, they inevitably will take down all the barriers that previously separated the hidden recesses of society from the stage of politics.

Now this is a vastly simplified—and, to be honest, vulgar—version of Arendt’s much more complicated and interesting argument. (I’ve just read an amazing article, forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, by Steven Klein, who’s a grad student at the University of Chicago, that’s going to totally change how we think about Arendt’s understanding of the social question in the modern age.) But I’m simplifying and vulgarizing for a reason.

Because it occurred to me, while I was sitting in a discussion this afternoon of one of my graduate students’ dissertation chapters (on Thoreau’s conception of the self, and how it relates to both Arendt’s and Rousseau’s conceptions of the self), that I would love to know what Arendt would have made of Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Though Arendt has a fascinating discussion of Billy Budd in On Revolution, I don’t recall her ever talking about Benito Cereno. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think she ever wrote about—or perhaps even read—Benito Cereno.

If I’m right about Arendt’s non-engagement with Benito Cereno (I’m awaiting confirmation from various friends who are Arendt experts and know far more than I do), there might be an interesting reason for that. For Benito Cereno turns upside some of the basic theoretical architecture of On Revolution. It’s a story about a slave revolt on a ship. Babo, a black slave, and his fellow slaves seize control of a ship, captained by Benito Cereno, and kill a good portion of the crew and the slaves’ master. After drifting somewhere in the ocean for a matter of days or months (can’t remember now), the ship encounters another ship captained by Amaso Delano, a Yankee whaler or something like that. Babo organizes a massive deception: he and his comrades pretend that the white Spaniard Benito Cereno is still in control of the ship and that they, black Africans, are still slaves. They force Benito Cereno to play a role he has long since vacated, and they do the same. It is an ingenious plan, thought through (on the spot) to the last detail. They almost pull it off.

In Arendtian terms, there’s something slightly fantastic, if not impossible, about such a story. (And as Greg Grandin has taught usBenito Cereno was in fact based on a true story, which was almost wilder than the fiction Melville constructed.) The moment the social question is put onto the public agenda, the moment the laborer with his body is pressed into the public square, the hunt for lies, the inquisition of private life, begins. All forms of representation and mediation become suspect; transparency and directness is all. (In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke made an even more incisive and terrifying version of the argument, seeing the poor Parisians’ capture of the royal family, and invasion of the Queen’s bedchambers, at Versailles, as the emblematic moment of the Revolution’s assault on all private space and its launch into violent tyranny.)

Yet here we have black slaves, in revolt, putting the social question of black bonded labor onto the public stage, in a very literal sense. They are performing slavery for an audience. (Performance is a big category for Arendt; it is the hallmark of a truly political form of action, one that is not concerned with social questions but rather with the glory of words and deeds.) They are engaged in deception and duplicity, crafting and presenting public personae that are diametrically opposed to their actual selves. Much like the Greeks did. That public presentation of self, for Arendt, is in part what it means to be political, and it’s precisely what’s not supposed to happen, not supposed to be able to happen, once the social question enters the public scene.

It seems to me that Benito Cereno presents a mother lode of raw material for Arendtian theory, waiting to be extracted. Or perhaps someone has already mined that vein?

 

 

Capitalism and Slavery

1 Aug

I’ve mentioned Greg Grandin’s book Empire of Necessity on this blog before. It’s basically the true story—and more!—behind Melville’s Benito Cereno, which if you haven’t read, you should read right away. And then read Greg’s book. In any event, Alex Gourevitch has a wonderful interview with Greg up today at Jacobin. It’s got all sorts of gems in it, but I thought readers here would be especially interested in this:

Scholars have long examined the ways in which slavery underwrites capitalism. I thought this story, though, allowed attention to slavery’s role in shaping not so much the social or financial dimensions of capitalism but its psychic and imaginative ones.

Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. Slavery was central to this process not just for the wealth the system created but because slaves were physical and emotional examples of what free men were not.

But there is more. That process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. Hence you have the emergence of metaphysicians like Melville, Emerson, and of course Marx, along with others, trying to figure out the relationship between depth and surface.

What I try to do in the book is demonstrate the centrality of slavery to this process, the way “free trade in blacks” takes slavery’s foundational deception, its original deceit as captured in the con the West Africans were able to play on Amasa Delano, and acts as a force multiplier. Capitalism disperses that deception into every aspect of modern life.

There’s many ways this happens. Deceit, through contraband, is absolutely key to the expansion of slavery in South America. When historians talk about the Atlantic market revolution, they are talking about capitalism. And when they are talking about capitalism, they are talking about slavery. And when they are talking about slavery, they are talking about corruption and crime. Not in a moral sense, in that the slave system was a crime against humanity. That it was. But it was also a crime in a technical sense: probably as many enslaved Africans came into South America as contraband, to avoid taxes and other lingering restrictions, as legally.

Sometimes slaves were the contraband. At other times, they were cover for the real contraband, luxury items being smuggled in from France or Great Britain, which helped cultivate the personal taste of South America’s expanding gentry class. And since one of the things capitalism is at its essence is an ongoing process to define the arbitrary line that separates “self-interest” from “corruption,” slavery was essential in creating the normative categories associated with modern society.

The US Senate: Where Democracy Goes to Die

12 Mar

Every once in a while I teach constitutional law, and when I do, I pose to my students the following question: What if the Senate apportioned votes not on the basis of states but on the basis of race? That is, rather than each state getting two votes in the Senate, what if each racial or ethnic group listed in the US Census got two votes instead?

Regardless of race, almost all of the students freak out at the suggestion. It’s undemocratic, they cry! When I point out that the Senate is already undemocratic—the vote of any Wyomian is worth vastly more than the vote of each New Yorker—they say, yeah, but that’s different: small states need protection from large states. And what about historically subjugated or oppressed minorities, I ask? Or what about the fact that one of the major intellectual moves, if not completely successful coups, of Madison and some of the Framers was to disaggregate or disassemble the interests of a state into the interests of its individual citizens. As Ben Franklin said at the Constitutional Convention, “The Interest of a State is made up of the interests of its individual members.  If they are not injured, the State is not injured.” The students are seldom moved.

Then I point out that the very opposition they’re drawing—between representation on the basis of race versus representation on the basis of states—is itself confounded by the history of the ratification debate over the Constitution and the development of slavery and white supremacy in this country.

As Jack Rakove argued in Original Meanings, one of the reasons some delegates from large states ultimately came around to the idea of protecting the interests of small states was that they realized that an equal, if not more powerful, interest than mere population size bound delegate to delegate, state to state: slavery. Virginia had far more in common with South Carolina than it did with Massachussets, a fact that later events would go onto confirm. In Rakove’s words:

The more the delegates examined the apportionment of the lower house [which resulted in the infamous 3/5 clause], the more weight they gave to considerations of regional security. Rather than treat sectional differences as an alternative and superior description of the real interests at play in American politics, the delegates saw them instead as an additional conflict that had to be accommodated in order for the Union to endure. The apportionment issue confirmed the claims that the small states had made all along. It called attention not to the way in which an extended republic could protect all interests but to the need to safeguard the conspicuous interest of North and South. This defensive orientation in turn enabled even some large-state delegates to find merit in an equal-state vote.

As Madison, a firm opponent of representation by states, would argue at the Convention:

It seemed now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lay, not between large and small but between the Northern and Southern States. The institution of slavery and its consequences formed the line of discrimination.”

True, Madison made this claim in the service of his argument against representation by states, but for others, his claim pushed in the opposite direction: a pluralism of interests in an extensive republic was not, as Madison claimed in Federalist 10, enough to protect the interests of a wealthy propertied minority.  Something more—the protection of group interests in the Senate—was required. (Which is why, incidentally, I’m always amused by conservatives’ horror at the notion of group rights: what do they think the Senate is all about if not the protection of group rights? This is not to say that there aren’t principled reasons to oppose group rights; I’m commenting merely on the scandalized tone of the opposition.)

And when one considers how critical the Senate has been to the protection of both slavery and Jim Crow—measures against both institutions repeatedly passed the House, only to be stymied in the Senate, where the interests of certain types of minorities are more protected than others—the distinction between race and state size becomes even harder to sustain. Though the Senate often gets held up as the institution for the protection of minority rights against majoritarian tyranny, the minorities it protects are often not the powerless or the dissenters of yore and lore.

Indeed, for all the justified disgust with Emory University President James Wagner’s recent celebration of the 3/5 Clause, virtually no one ever criticizes the Senate, even though its contribution to the maintenance of white supremacy, over the long course of American history, has been far greater than the 3/5 Clause, which was nullified by the 14th Amendment.

This is all by way of a long introduction to a terrific article in the New York Times by Adam Liptak on just this issue of the undemocratic nature of the Senate, and some of the racial dimensions of that un-democracy. Just a few excerpts:

Vermont’s 625,000 residents have two United States senators, and so do New York’s 19 million. That means that a Vermonter has 30 times the voting power in the Senate of a New Yorker just over the state line — the biggest inequality between two adjacent states. The nation’s largest gap, between Wyoming and California, is more than double that.

The difference in the fortunes of Rutland and Washington Counties reflects the growing disparity in their citizens’ voting power, and it is not an anomaly. The Constitution has always given residents of states with small populations a lift, but the size and importance of the gap has grown markedly in recent decades, in ways the framers probably never anticipated. It affects the political dynamic of issues as varied as gun control, immigration and campaign finance.

In response, lawmakers, lawyers and watchdog groups have begun pushing for change. A lawsuit to curb the small-state advantage in the Senate’s rules is moving through the courts. The Senate has already made modest changes to rules concerning the filibuster, which has particularly benefited senators from small states. And eight states and the District of Columbia have endorsed a proposal to reduce the chances that the small-state advantage in the Electoral College will allow a loser of the popular vote to win the presidency.

What is certain is that the power of the smaller states is large and growing. Political scientists call it a striking exception to the democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” Indeed, they say, the Senate may be the least democratic legislative chamber in any developed nation.

Behind the growth of the advantage is an increase in population gap between large and small states, with large states adding many more people than small ones in the last half-century. There is a widening demographic split, too, with the larger states becoming more urban and liberal, and the smaller ones remaining rural and conservative, which lends a new significance to the disparity in their political power.

The threat of the filibuster in the Senate, which has become far more common than in past decades, plays a role, too. Research by two political scientists, Lauren C. Bell and L. Marvin Overby, has found that small-state senators, often in leadership positions, have amplified their power by using the filibuster more often than their large-state counterparts.

Beyond influencing government spending, these shifts generally benefit conservative causes and hurt liberal ones. When small states block or shape legislation backed by senators representing a majority of Americans, most of the senators on the winning side tend to be Republicans, because Republicans disproportionately live in small states and Democrats, especially African-Americans and Latinos, are more likely to live in large states like California, New York, Florida and Illinois. Among the nation’s five smallest states, only Vermont tilts liberal, while Alaska, Wyoming and the Dakotas have each voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968.

The article is long, but it’s worth the entire read. A model of how good journalism can incorporate the insights of historical and institutionalist political science (and not just the number-crunching kind).

Update (12 pm)

A commenter at Crooked Timber reminded me of this great review by Hendrik Hertzberg of Robert Dahl’s book on the Constitution. Hertzberg quotes this line from Alexander Hamilton at the Convention that I wish I had remembered and quoted in my post:

As states are a collection of individual men, which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition? Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter. It has been said that if the smaller states renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty. Will the men composing the small states be less free than those composing the larger?

Update (12:30 pm)

Nathan Newman just posted the following comment on my FB page. I thought it was worth sharing:

Ran the numbers a few years ago and found that states representing just 11% of the population could elect the 41 Senators needed to block any legislation the other 89% of the population wanted to pass. It’s actually worse than that since you only need a majority in each of those states to elect those Senators– so the right 6% of the population could theoretically block any legislation they wanted. Just a crazy anti-democratic institution. The Constitution kick of sucks– yeah, I said it.

Nathan also co-wrote a great article a few years back on the relationship between slavery, the Constitution, and the Reconstruction amendments. Worth a look.

A Most Delightful Fuck You

31 Jan

Pardon my French, but there really are no other words to describe this letter, written by Jourdan Anderson, an ex-slave, to his former master in 1865.

I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

Read the whole letter to get the full effect: the cool yet cutting irony, the quiet yet lethal charges it levels, and the righteous indignation and defiance that lie just beneath the surface. It gives a good sense of what emancipation was all about, as a lived experienced on the ground. At its best, emancipation really was this kind of fuck you—delightful for the slave, less delightful for the master.

In my work on the right and its reaction to the left, I always try to keep these personal confrontations—which are nevertheless fraught with political meaning and drenched in political context—in mind. It’s always been my sense that what is missing in our scholarship and discussions of the right is precisely this lived experience of subjugation and emancipation, what it means for the oppressor and the oppressed. As I write in The Reactionary Mind:

Every great political blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a very private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power.

Still Batshit Crazy After All These Years: A Reply to Ta-Nehisi Coates

3 Jan

Jumping off from Mark Lilla’s negative review of my book in the New York Review of Books—about which more later, though if you’re looking for a hard-hitting response, check out Alex Gourevitch’s demolition at Jacobin—Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a helpful corrective to Lilla’s claim that “political apocalypticism” is a recent development on the right.

It’s interesting that Lilla raises Buckley here. People often bring him up as foil to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as an example of a time when conservatism was sane. But that Buckley joke has always struck me (a college dropout) as batshit crazy. I constantly hear about the sober-minded Buckley, but it’s tough for me to square that with the man who posited that the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church might lay at the feet of  “a crazed Negro” and basically worked as a press agent for apartheid in South Africa. (But National Review is against the drug war, so it’s fine.) From a black perspective, modern conservatism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham.

One of the reasons I wrote The Reactionary Mind was to challenge this refrain, which you hear on the right and the left, that today’s conservatism is fundamentally crazier—not being a licensed professional, I prefer the term “more radical” or “more extreme”—than yesterday’s. As I  state on p. 43:

As the forty-year dominion of the right begins to fade, however fitfully, writers like Sam Tanenhaus, Andrew Sullivan…claim that conservatism went into decline when Palin, or Bush, or Reagan, or Goldwater, or Buckley, or someone took it off the rails.  Originally, the argument goes, conservatism was a responsible discipline of the governing classes, but somewhere between Joseph de Maistre and Joe the Plumber, it got carried away with itself.  It became adventurous, fanatical, populist, ideological.  What this story of decline overlooks…is that all of these supposed vices of contemporary conservatism were present at the beginning, in the writings of Burke and Maistre, only they weren’t viewed as vices.  They were seen as virtues.  Conservatism has always been a wilder and more extravagant movement than many realize—and it is precisely this wildness and extravagance that has been one of the sources of its continuing appeal.

So, naturally, I agree with Coates’s claim that there’s no great disjuncture between the Buckley of the 1960s and contemporary conservatism.  (Readers interested in these continuities should check out Kevin Mattson’s Rebels All!.)  And in my book, I offer many more instances of the ways that modern conservatism and visions of a racial apocalypse are intertwined. (Though if you want a real sense of that fusion, Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is the place to start.)

Nixon, according to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks.” And of course there is this classic National Review editorial from 1957:

The central question that emerges [from the civil rights movement] is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

That “for the time being” adds a nice touch of dread: the end may be nigh.

But I’d like to suggest that Coates’s dating of the beginning of “conservatism’s batshit phase” needs to be pushed back a bit. Like a hundred and seventy-three years bit.

As I’ve argued repeatedly, from its very inception in the reaction against the French Revolution, conservatism has contained within itself some of the most wild and extravagant visions of war and apocalypse.  It was none other than the supposedly level-headed Edmund Burke who, when confronted with the Jacobin challenge, declared, “The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.” Burke was fully prepared to see and stare down the coming apocalypse, by any means necessary: Jacobinism “must be destroyed,” he insisted, “or it will destroy all of Europe.” By Jacobinism he meant not simply a political movement but an “armed doctrine.”  Each and every expression of that doctrine would have to be exterminated: “If it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.”And far from arguing that the destruction of the Revolution would bring a return of the tried and familiar, he insisted that whatever came next would in fact be “in some measure a new thing.”

It’s arguments like these—and my book features many more of them throughout the 19th and 20th century—that led me to choose as the epigraph to my book this lovely passage from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to a suitor she kept at bay: “Dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?”

Now Coates has an important qualifier to his claim about conservatism’s history: “From a black perspective, modern conservativism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham” (my emphasis).

But even from a black perspective, I would argue, the batshit—sorry, extremism—goes way back.  Some of this, of course, is not news to Coates, who’s been writing at length about the history of slavery and white supremacy in this country. John C. Calhoun’s constitutional vision, which is featured in virtually every anthology of the conservative canon, is absolutely rooted in the defense of slavery. (Manisha Sinha’s The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina is the definitive account; her discussion of Calhoun’s stance on the tariff and its relationship to slavery, which Coates also discusses here, is positively riveting.)

And as I discuss in my book, virtually every major defense of slavery, from Thomas Jefferson’s to William Harper’s, ends on a note that should be familiar to any student of European fascism, the apex of right-wing apocalypticism.  If the slaves are set free, warn the slaveholders, there will have to be a final solution to the Negro Question: either deportation or elimination. (Though it’s not considered polite to say so, it’s important to remember that, as late as 1941, the Nazis were mulling over the same options.)

Beating the drums of race war, Jefferson warned that emancipation would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.”  The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history.  When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.” Anticipating the writings of Robert Brassilach, the French fascist who argued that compassion meant that Jewish children should be deported along with their parents, Thomas Dew claimed, “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.” With abolition, Harper concluded, “one race must be driven out by the other, or exterminated, or again enslaved.” (Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Ideology of Slavery and Paul Finkelman’s Defending Slavery are excellent anthologies of pro-slavery primary documents.)

The relationship between conservatism, slavery, and white supremacy is a complicated one, and I by no means wish to suggest either that all conservatives were pro-slavery—some, including Burke, were not—or that liberalism does not have its own intimate relationship with slavery and racism, as the example of Jefferson reveals. (The latter topic has generated a vast literature, but two useful places to begin are Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract and, more recently, Dominic Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History.)

But mere opposition to slavery hardly made conservatives abolitionist: far from it. When confronted with the actual question of emancipation, the intransigent demand to politically transform societies of deeply rooted domination into societies of freedom—Ground Zero, as I argue in my book, of the reactionary mind—virtually all of them sang a different tune (see chapter 4 of Patrick Allitt’s generally sympathetic survey The Conservatives).  As I put it on pp. 27-28:

Today’s conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past; others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests.  But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as a question….his predecessor was in all likelihood against them.  Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is one of the few contemporary conservatives who acknowledge the history of conservative opposition to emancipation. Where other conservatives like to lay claim to the abolitionist or civil rights mantle, Gerson admits that “honesty requires the recognition that many conservatives, in other times, have been hostile to religiously motivated reform” [of the sort that produced the last two centuries' worth of black freedom movements] and that “the conservative habit of mind once opposed most of these changes.” Indeed, as Samuel Huntington suggested a half-century ago, saying no to such movements in real time may be what makes someone a conservative throughout time.

And, again, we can date this to 1789. One of the issues conservatives worried about in the French Revolution was that it might spur slave revolts and revolutions throughout the Americas. (John Adams, incidentally, voiced a similar concern about the impact of the American Revolution.) In a speech before Parliament in April 1791, Burke warned that any “constitution founded on what was called the rights of man” would open a “Pandora’s box.”

As soon as this system arrived among [the French]…every mortal evil, seemed to fly open, hell itself to yawn, and every demon of mischief to overspread the face of the earth.  Blacks rose against whites, whites against blacks, and each against one another in murderous hostility; subordination was destroyed….

Four months later, on the night of August 21, black slaves fired the first shots of the Haitian Revolution. As with so many things, Burke’s was a prophetic voice. Small wonder he called for not a little bit of madness and mayhem in response: “Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.”

Long after the slaves had thrown off their masters in Haiti, that revolution—and its predecessor revolution in France—would haunt the memories of the master class in the South. In response, they would not only tighten their coercive hold on the black population—as well as the national government—but they would also begin to promulgate the most elaborate notions of white supremacy, some based on religion, others, more far-reaching, based on science.

Not only did these notions justify the enslavement of blacks, but they also helped create the cozy inclusiveness of a white herrenvolk democracy. Racism and slavery made whites, no matter how different their holdings, equal. As Calhoun put it:

With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

Not only would such a notion help conscript all whites, whether masters or not, in the defense of slavery, but it would also provide, as Thomas Dew would note, an enormously potent toxin against the egalitarian notions and movements then roiling Europe and Jacksonian America.  Radicals, Dew wrote, “wish all mankind to be brought to one common level. We believe slavery, in the United States, has accomplished this.”  By freeing whites from “menial and low offices,” slavery has eliminated “the greatest cause of distinction and separation of the ranks and society.”

More than a century later, pioneers of the Southern Strategy would find a similar utility—as they sought to beat back the New Deal, the Great Society, and the egalitarian movements of the Sixties—in the avenging armies and arguments of white supremacy.

From Bristol in 1789 to Birmingham in 1963: not such a long journey, after all.  Apocalypse then, apocalypse now.

Update (January 4, 11:45 am)

Lauren Kientz Anderson offers some fascinating follow-up material on white supremacy in the South here. (And if you don’t know or follow the U.S. Intellectual history blog, you should. It’s got great stuff and great writers.)

From the American Slaveholders to the Nazis…

3 Nov

From my dialogue with Daniel Larison over at The New Inquiry:

In the American context, there is a precedent for the conservative rush to empire, which you suggest is mostly a creation of the Cold War. And that is the slaveholders. But the slaveholders developed a fascinating vision of an imperial political economy, which would be centered around the Mississippi and spread out from there to the Caribbean Basin and beyond. It would be centered on slave labor, and it was thought to be a different kind of imperialism.

And though I’ve never seen anyone discuss this, it strikes me that there are fascinating parallels to be drawn between their vision of a slave empire, based on land, and the Nazis’ vision of an empire in the East, which was also to be based on land. People often forget that Hitler had a major critique of European imperialism in that it was extraterritorial and commercial in its orientation, whereas he wanted an empire that was contiguous territorially and based on slave labor and agriculture.

To Play the Part of a Lord: A Reply to Andrew Sullivan about Conservatism

17 Oct

Andrew Sullivan—whose views on conservatism I take very seriously (one of the main arguments of my book is inspired by and aimed at his writing)—has linked to Sheri Berman’s response to my critique and identified one paragraph in particular as the “money quote.” If these are Sullivan’s apprehensions, they merit a response. If this paragraph is the crux of concern, it can be dispatched fairly easily.

The paragraph in question makes two claims; I’ve divided my response accordingly.

 

Claim 1: “If conservatism is always about the submission and subjugation of the lower orders, then any popular support for such movements must—by definition—be misguided, misinformed, or the result of trickery.”

This claim rests upon two mistaken assumptions:

  1. The lower orders are a cohesive unit, without divisions and inequalities among them.
  2. There are no groups outside the polity in whose governance the lower orders might participate and from whose governance they might benefit.

If you believe these claims, it makes some sense to think that a movement in favor of subjugating the lower orders could only gain their support through deception and illusion. After all, what could the ruling classes possibly have to offer those orders other than their subjugation, which no rational person could want?

Frederick DouglassI say only “some sense” because it’s perfectly plausible that men and women on the bottom of society might embrace or accept the rule of their superiors in part because they believe their superiors are better and/or because they derive some benefit—material and immaterial—from being governed by them. As Frederick Douglass noted of his early years under slavery, many slaves “seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves.” Much to his horror, slaves would argue among themselves as to who had the finer master. “It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed.”

Douglass’s second observation is doubly important, for it reveals what a believer in this simple model of a homogeneous lower order can’t quite see: no matter how abject a class may be it can always find ways to invent hierarchies within itself, ever more infinitesimal gradations of rank that members of that class will struggle to ascend. And if it can’t accomplish this task on its own, the ruling classes will be only too happy to assist. Either way, that little ladder of ascendant privilege is what the ruling classes have to offer the lower orders in exchange for their submission. Again, Douglass:

Few privileges were esteemed higher, by the slaves of the out-farms, than that of being selected to do errands at the Great House Farm. It was associated in their minds with greatness. A representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress, than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm. They regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by their overseers; and it was on this account, as well as a constant desire to be out of the field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth careful living for.

Douglass, of course, is talking about chattel slavery, a system of immense coercion and violence, and not conservatism or even the defense of slavery, in which a not insignificant portion of American conservatism played a part. Even so, his insight stands as a rebuke to the simple view that the only way to conscript the lower orders in projects of subordination and subjugation is through trickery. Not so: the more successful forms of subjugation involve a multiplication of ranks and privileges, particularly among the lower orders, from which those orders receive benefits material and immaterial, real and symbolic.

This insight applies to black slaves, as Douglass shows, but also and more tellingly to their white overlords: what is the history of slavery and white supremacy in this country if not the granting of petty power and privilege to poor whites over blacks, privileges and powers that non-elite whites had perfectly intelligible reasons to hold onto—and that helped maintain the most elite forms of privilege?

In the altogether different setting of the modern American workplace—I trust no one will take me to be arguing that slavery and the contemporary workplace are the same—we see a similar multiplication of supervisory ranks and privileges, which is almost unparalleled among advanced industrial economies. One of the functions of this proliferation is that in addition to offering men and women on the bottom rungs a more proximate opportunity for advancement to rule, it reinforces the unequal distribution of power in the workplace and beyond.

There is a reason Marx welcomed the stark divide in modern societies between capital and labor: he thought it would finally put an end to that “complicated arrangement of society into various orders,” that “manifold gradation of social rank” that had previously kept the oppressed divided.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms: Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into the two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

At last, the subjugated classes would cease to bicker among themselves and take aim not at their immediate or apparent tormentors but at their true lords and governors. Where else would they have to look?

As it turns out, a great many places. For even on those rare occasions when unity is achieved among the lower orders, their attentions can always be redirected at—or wander to—other groups more despised and disdained than themselves: other races (the famous wages of whiteness); other nations, in the case of imperialism; or the unwanted representatives of those nations at home, in the case of undocumented immigrants.

This endless proliferation of rank hearkens back to late feudalism, only this time the proliferation occurs at the bottom rather than at the top. It offers real, not imaginary, benefits to the lower orders: like their betters, they get to govern an individual (the supervisor and his worker, the husband and his wife) or an entire group or nation (in the form of racism, fascism, imperialism). It is for that reason that I call this “democratic feudalism”: it gives the masses a genuine opportunity to play the part of a lord.

Again, there’s no secrecy or trickery about this; these kinds of arguments are openly made and happily embraced. They are the words and promises of—and to—men and women who sincerely believe the world to be divided into greater and lesser beings and whose only hope is that they themselves are not among the latter.

John AdamsTo that extent, they call to mind John Adams’ observation in his Discourses on Davila that even the lowliest man can be persuaded to accept the rule of his superiors so long as he is assured of an audience of lessers.

Not only the poorest mechanic, but the man who lives upon common charity, nay, the common beggars in the streets…court a set of admirers and plume themselves upon that superiority which they have or fancy they have over some others. There must be one, indeed, who is the last and the lowest of the human species. But there is no risk in asserting that there is no one who believes and will acknowledge himself to be the man….When a wretch could no longer attract the notice of a man, woman, or child, he must be respected in the eyes of his dog. “Who will love me then?” was the pathetic reply of one who starved himself to feed his mastiff, to a charitable passenger who advised him to kill or sell the animal. In this “who will love me then?” there is a key to the human heart, to the history of human life and manners, and to the rise and fall of empires.

This, my economist friends tell me, is what folks in the biz call the “last-place aversion,” which can help us understand popular opposition to a great many programs and policies that might benefit the lower orders—or that might at least bring to heel the higher orders. Whether the economists’ is an accurate description of human psychology or not—my book is a theoretical inquiry into conservatism’s moral arguments and political vision, not an empirical statement about the motivations that might lead people to believe in it—it mirrors one of the critical assumptions of the conservative tradition about how one might go about making privilege popular.

 

Claim 2: “Robin’s flawed definition of conservatism flatters and consoles the Left rather than forcing it to confront its true dilemma….One need not, therefore, fully engage the rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment felt by the many who hold conservative and right-wing ideas. But if one instead accepts that such rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment are real, then the question becomes: why in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has it found its home so often on the right rather than the left? This is a question that The Reactionary Mind leads directly to; it is not one that Robin—or the Left more generally—can or should avoid.”

T.S. EliotThough I didn’t set out to answer this question about the success of the right or failure of left, my book does address it. The Reactionary Mind reflects my conviction that the left ought to take more seriously the ideas of the right—not the potted wisdom of undergraduate curricula or cheap punditry but the most searching texts and tomes of the conservative canon. For in those texts one will find the rage, the disfranchisement, the sense of exclusion and victimhood that has been all too real on the right—in both its elite and popular forms—and that, as my book argues, has been one of the keys to its success. (In the founding statement of National Review, Bill Buckley complained that he and his brethren were “out of place.” But that, he went onto note, made them “just about the hottest thing in town.”) One of the epigraphs in The Reactionary Mind comes from T.S. Eliot’s essay “The Literature of Politics,” and it expresses well the animating spirit of my approach:

A political party may find that it has had a history, before it is fully aware of or agreed upon its own permanent tenets; it may have arrived at its actual formation through a succession of metamorphoses and adaptations, during which some issues have been superannuated and new issues have arisen. What its fundamental tenets are, will probably be found only by careful examination of its behaviour throughout its history and by examination of what its more thoughtful and philosophical minds have said on its behalf; and only accurate historical knowledge and judicious analysis will be able to discriminate between the permanent and the transitory; between those doctrines and principles which it must ever, and in all circumstances, maintain, or manifest itself a fraud, and those called forth by special circumstances, which are only intelligible and justifiable in the light of these circumstances.

My book doesn’t draw any explicit conclusions for the left—in part because that wasn’t its point—but readers interested in what those conclusions might be can read what I’ve written  here and here.

I’m eager to have a conversation about what this all means for the left, but before we do, we have to get clear about the right. I hope readers will engage with the book’s arguments—its actual arguments— and, ideally, read some of the conservative canon for themselves. Once they do, we can have a great discussion—one that I especially look forward to with Sullivan himself.

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