|Cornell students leaving Willard Straight Hall|
"We presume that the citizens of Virginia are much like the 'rest of mankind,' and under ordinary circumstances have as much nerve as falls to the lot of common humanity. But they have long lived under the shadow of a great terror. Each slaveholder keeps a grim skeleton in his social closet, which may start into life at any moment. The 'demon of hate' which his life of wrong and outrage has invoked, haunts him night and day. He listens for the roar of the slumbering fires of the volcano upon whose sides he sleeps, and every sound that hurtles through the air, every footfall behind him, makes him fancy that the avenger is on his truck." -- Frederick Douglass, "The Reign of Terror in the South"The sub-sub-title to John Ellis Cairnes's eloquent The Slave Power described the 1862 book as "an attempt to explain the real issues involved in the American contest." This blog post is an attempt to explain the real issues involved in the (too) long-enduring contest over "political correctness." It comes to the conclusion that it is pretty much the same real issue as Cairnes identified. The spectre of political correctness emanates from the "grim skeleton in [America's... capitalism's] social closet, which may start into life at any moment."
Undoubtedly, the "political-correctness police" exact a tremendous toll on the psyches of White Americans and have been doing so for several decades. To put all that torment in perspective, one is advised to read Alexander Cockburn from 1992, "Bush & P.C. -- A conspiracy so immense..." Lewis Lapham from 2004, "Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, a brief history," and Martin Jay from 2010, "Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment: The Frankfurt School as scapegoat of the lunatic fringe."
|A Republican Propaganda Mill|
"In spite of elaborate attempts at mystification..."
"[T]he core of all the fuss" about political correctness, Cockburn noted, is race. More precisely, the fuss is about the ideological legacy of slavery as it has been articulated through race. The persistence and prominence of a "crack-brained" conspiracy theory purporting to chronicle the origins of political correctness testifies to the disproportionality and unfocused banality of the myriad and unrelenting complaints. In truth, those complaints do not refer to the petty incidents they cite but to an anxiety that cannot be named:
"Undeﬁned terror broods in the air. Every stranger is watched, examined, and if his business is not plainly set forth, he is imprisoned... These people are not menaced by a foreign foe.There is no pirate‘s ﬂeet upon their waters, no invading army on their borders, no lurking savages in their forests. ..." -- Frederick Douglass, "The Reign of Terror in the South"The best way to understand this undefined terror is to first recall its precedent and precursor, the perverted rationale for slavery, so ably described by Cairnes, that prevailed in the Southern slave states in the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War. The technology of chattel slavery may have been dismantled following the Union victory but the pathological rationale -- and "the Power which derives its strength from slavery" -- has simply been displaced and preserved.
Whatever we may think of the tendencies of democratic institutions, or of the influence of territorial magnitude on the American character, no theory framed upon these or upon any other incidents of the contending parties, however ingeniously constructed, will suffice to conceal the fact, that it is slavery which is at the bottom of this quarrel, and that on its determination it depends whether the Power which derives its strength from slavery shall be set up with enlarged resources and increased prestige, or be now once for all effectually broken. ...
Slavery has not merely determined the general form and character of the social and political economy of the Southern States, it has entered into the soul of the people, and has generated a code of ethics and a type of Christianity adapted to its peculiar requirements. ...As a political economist, Cairnes gained notoriety for his late defense of the wages-fund doctrine. He is also credited with initiating the tradition of making ceteris paribus assumptions explicit. In Slave Power, he also contributed to the economic theory of slavery, which I will get to latter. But his account of the ethics and theology -- that is to say, the ideology -- of slavery in the South is so compelling that I take the liberty of presenting an extended excerpt below:
At the epoch of the revolution slavery was regarded by all the eminent men who took part in that movement as essentially an evil—an evil which might indeed be palliated as having come down to that generation from an earlier and less enlightened age, and which, having entwined itself with the institutions of the country, required to be delicately dealt with—but still an evil, indefensible on moral and religious grounds, and which ought not to be permanently endured.... The leading statesmen of that time… whether from the North or from the South, whether agreeing or not in their views on the practical mode of dealing with the institution, alike concurred in reprobating at least the principle of slavery. ...
...to borrow the words of De Tocqueville, the overthrow of slavery in the Northern States was effected "by abolishing the principle of slavery, not by setting the slaves free."… The effect, therefore, of the Northern measures of abolition was, for the most part, simply to transfer Northern slaves to Southern markets. ...
But it seems impossible that a whole people should live permanently in contemplation of a system which does violence to its moral instincts. One of two results will happen. Either its moral instincts will lead it to reform the institution which offends them, or those instincts will be perverted, and become authorities for what in their unsophisticated condition they condemned. The latter alternative is that which has happened in the Southern States. Slavery is no longer regarded there as a barbarous institution, to be palliated with whispering humbleness as an inheritance from a ruder age ; but rather as a system admirable for its intrinsic excellence, worthy to be upheld and propagated, the last and completest result of time. The right of the white man to hold the negro in permanent thraldom, to compel him to work for his profit, to keep him in enforced ignorance, to sell him, to flog him, and, if need be, to kill him, to separate him at pleasure from his wife and children, to transport him for no crime to a remote region where he is in a few years worked to death—this is now propounded as a grand discovery in ethical and political science, made for the first time by the enlightened leaders of the Southern Confederation, and recommended by that philanthropic body to all civilized nations for their adoption, This Confederation, which is the opprobrium of the age, puts itself forward as a model for its imitation, and calmly awaits the tardy applause of mankind. "The ideas entertained at the time of the formation of the old Constitution," says the Vice President of the Southern Confederacy,
Opinion in the South has long passed beyond the stage at which slavery needs to be defended by argument. The subject is now never touched but in a strain such as the freedom conquered at Marathon and Plataea inspired in the orators of Athens. It is "the beneficent source and wholesome foundation of our civilization;" an institution, "moral and civilizing, useful at once to blacks and whites." "To suppress slavery would be to throw back civilization two hundred years." "It is not a moral evil. It is the Lord's doing, and marvellous in our eyes… It is by divine appointment."
But slavery in the south is something more than a moral and political principle: it has become a fashionable taste, a social passion. The possession of a slave in the South carries with it the same sort of prestige as the possession of land in this country, as the possession of a horse among the Arabs: it brings the owner into connexion with the privileged class; it forms a presumption that he has attained a certain social position. Slaves have thus in the South acquired a factitious value, and are coveted with an eagerness far beyond what the intrinsic utility of their services would explain. A Chancellor of South Carolina describes slavery as in accordance with "the proudest and most deeply cherished feelings " of his countrymen—" feelings, which others, if they will, may call prejudices." A governor of Kansas declares that he "loves" the institution, and that he votes for it because he "loves" it. Nor are these sentiments confined to the slaveholding minority. The all-important circumstance is that they are shared equally by the whole white population. Far from reprobating a system which has deprived them of the natural means of rising in the scale of humanity, they fall in with the prevailing modes of thought, and are warm admirers, and, when need arises, effective defenders, of an institution which has been their curse. To be the owner of a slave is the chief object of the poor white's ambition; "quot pascit servos?" [how many slaves?] the one criterion by which he weighs the worth of his envied superiors in the social scale.
Such has been the course of opinion on the subject of slavery in the Southern States. The progress of events, far from conducing to the gradual mitigation and ultimate extinction of the system, has tended distinctly in the opposite direction—to the aggravation of its worst evils and the consolidation of its strength. The extension of the area subject to the Slave Power and the increase in the slave population have augmented at once the inducements for retaining the institution and the difficulty of getting rid of it; while the ideas of successive generations, bred up in its presence and under the influence of the interests to which it has given birth, have provided for it in the minds of the people a moral support. The result is, that the position of the slave in the Southern States at the present time, so far as it depends upon the will and power of his masters, is in all respects more hopeless than it has ever been in any former age, or in any other quarter of the world. A Fugitive Slave law, which throws into shade the former atrocities of slavery, has been enacted, and until the recent disturbances was strictly enforced. The education of the negro is more than ever rigorously proscribed. Emancipation finds in the growth of fanatical pro-slavery opinions obstacles more formidable even than in the laws. Propositions have been entertained by the legislatures in some states for reducing all free coloured persons to slavery by one wholesale enactment; in others these people have been banished from the state under pain of this fate. Everything in the laws, in the customs, in the education of the people, has been contrived with the single view of degrading the negro to the level of the brute, and blotting out from his mind the hope and even the idea of freedom.
|Tragic Prelude by John Steuart Curry|
The thoroughness—the absolute disregard of all consequences with which this purpose has been pursued, is but little understood in this country. History can supply no instance of a despotism more complete and searching than that which for some years past has prevailed in the Southern States. Since the attempt of John Brown at Harper's Ferry, its oppression has reached a height which can only be adequately described as a reign of terror. It is long since freedom of discussion on any question connected with slavery would have been tolerated. But it is not merely freedom of discussion which is now prohibited. The design seems to have been formed of putting down freedom of thought, and of banishing from the South every trace of dissentient opinion. A system of espionage has been organized. The mail bags have in many states been freely opened, and the postmasters of petty villages have exercised a free discretion -in giving or withholding the documents entrusted to their care. In the, more southern states vigilance committees have been established en permanence. Before these self-constituted tribunals persons of unblemished reputation and inoffensive manners have been summoned, and, on a few days' notice, for no other offence than that of being known to entertain sentiments unfavourable to slavery, have been banished from the state where they resided; and this in direct violation of a specific provision of the Constitution of the United States. Clergymen, who have broken no law, for merely discharging their duties according to their consciences, have been arrested, thrown into prison, and visited with ignominious punishment. Travellers, who have incautiously, in ignorance of the intensity of the popular feeling, ventured to give temperate expression to anti-slavery opinions, have been seized by the mob, tarred and feathered, ducked, flogged, and in some instances hanged. Nay, so sensitively jealous has the feeling of the South become, that the slightest link of connexion with a suspected locality—to have resided in the North, to have sent one's children to a Northern school—is sufficient to secure expulsion from a slave state. An abolitionist in the ethics of the South is the vilest of all human beings, and every one is an abolitionist who does not reside in a slave state and share to the full the prevailing pro-slavery sentiment. Such is the point which civilization has reached under slave institutions. At this cost the system is maintained.
It must be acknowledged that Cairnes's diagnostic prowess exceeded his powers of prescription. He foresaw that mere manumission of the slave population would be untenable without "protection against the efforts of their former masters to recover their lost power, and, no less, the provision for them of a career in the future." Away from the border states, where he anticipated a peaceful transition to be feasible, Cairnes observed that:
...especially in the more southern of the Slave States, there are, as we know, vast regions of wilderness. Over these wanders a miserable white population, idle, lawless, and cherishing for the negro a contempt, which, on his being raised to their level by emancipation, would be quickly converted into hatred.Incidentally, Cairnes attributed the degraded condition of the "mean whites" to the external economies of slavery, which eroded both the work ethic of the poor whites and their incentive to engage in regular employment:
The demoralization produced by the presence of a degraded class [i.e. slave labor] renders the white man at once an unwilling and an inefficient labourer; and the external incidents of slavery afford him the means of existing without engaging in regular toil.Given these extenuating circumstances, Cairnes recommended a gradual process of emancipation, at first freeing only about a quarter of the slaves who lived in the boarder states, along with containment of the slave territory. His expectation was that slavery thus politically contained would become progressively uneconomical and thus would eventually be abandoned by the slaveholders.
There is no guarantee Cairnes's gradualism would have succeeded any better than a universal emancipation proclamation. A third alternative to either gradualism or mere manumission would have been abolition of both chattel slavery and the wages system, advocated by Karl Marx as well as by Free Soil activists in the United States.
Cairnes was not inclined to throw out the capitalist baby along with the fetid bathwater of the Southern Slave Power. But his embryonic economic theory of slavery jibes with later historical accounts that identify plantation slavery in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Africa as the generative form of large-scale industrial capitalism. Perhaps dancer and dance would be a more apt metaphor for the relationship between capitalism and slavery than baby and bathwater.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,The simplest formulation of the economic theory of slavery is that free labor, free land and a landowning aristocracy can not all three co-exist in a simple agricultural economy. Evsey Domar ("The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom: A hypothesis" 1970) elaborated the theory as presented by Vasily Kliuchevsky:
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
The economist would recast Kliuchevsky’s account as follows: The servitors tried to live off rents (in one form or another) to be collected from their estates. But the estates could not yield a significant amount of rent for the simple reason that land in Russia was not sufficiently scarce relative to labor, and ironically, was made even less scarce by Russian conquests. The scarce factor of production was not land but labor. Hence it was the ownership of peasants and not of land that could yield an income to the servitors or to any non-working landowning class.
A simple economic model may sharpen the argument (if any sharpening is needed) and help to develop it further. Assume that labor and land are the only factors of production (no capital or management), and that land of uniform quality and location is ubiquitous. No diminishing returns in the application of labor to land appear; both the average and the marginal productivities of labor are constant and equal, and if competition among employers raises wages to that level (as would be expected), no rent from land can arise, as Ricardo demonstrated some time past. In the absence of specific governmental action to the contrary (see below), the country will consist of family-size farms because hired labor, in any form, will be either unavailable or unprofitable: the wage of a hired man or the income of a tenant will have to be at least equal to what he can male on his own farm; if he receives that much, no surplus (rent) will be left for his employer. A non-working class of servitors or others could be supported by the government out of taxes levied (directly or indirectly) on the peasants, but it could not support itself from land rents.
To recapitulate, the strong version of this hypothesis (without capital, management, etc.) asserts that of the three elements of an agricultural structure relevant here—free land, free peasants, and non-working landowners—any two elements but never all three can exist simultaneously. The combination to be found in reality will depend on the behavior of political factors—governmental measures—treated here as an exogenous variable.
Barbara Solow ("Capitalism and Slavery in the Exceedingly Long Run," 1987) examined the implications of this theory for the corollary hypothesis that slavery "kick-started" the industrial revolution:
...by introducing an elastic supply of an especially productive sort to the economy, by possibly increasing savings rates, and by enabling savings to be invested more productively, resulted in greater European income and more trade, with all the benefits that division of labor and gains from trade provided. To the extent that colonial slave production was in agriculture, Europe's comparative advantage shifted to manufactures.
Solow cautioned that whether "this scenario lead to an industrial revolution... remains to be seen from the historical record," which she then summarized:
The historical story is that the Italians transferred the sugar-slave complex, which they had developed as a means of colonial exploitation, to Madeira, the Canaries, and the West African islands. The consequent flows of capital, labor, sugar, and manufactures turned these colonies one by one into centers of international trade, uniting them with Europe and Africa in a complex web of transactions. Slavery opened investment opportunities for Europe and allowed northern Europe to trade its manufactures for sugar. I argue that the spread of the slave-sugar complex played a major role in the discovery and economic exploitation of America, as first the Dutch and then the English and French transferred these institutions to Brazil and the Caribbean. This microcosm of capital and trade flows associated with plantation slavery became quantitatively important for British economic development in the eighteenth century. But the mechanism which accomplished this development existed in miniature all along the route from Palestine to Crete to Madeira to the Canaries to Sao Tome to Brazil and to the Caribbean....
Until the nineteenth century, wherever sugar and slavery went, a web of international trading flows in capital, merchandise, labor supply, and shipping was woven. Where slavery did not go, less trade flowed between Europe and the rest of the world. Fanciful tales that European growth was due to exploitation of "the periphery" by "the metropolis" do not withstand scholarly examination. The exploitation that really mattered for 300 years was the exploitation of African slaves.
How Confederate ideology propels the Republican propaganda mill
At first sight, my contention may seem anachronistic, after all the economic provenance of slavery, according to the theory articulated by Cairnes, Kliuchevsky, Domar and Solow revolves around a local super-abundance of land and scarcity of free labor. Given ecological limits and chronic high unemployment, the conditions of scarcity and abundance are reversed from the conditions conducive to slave economy.
My hypothesis, which I will only state briefly at this time, is that archaic ideology resonates with the two characteristic and predominant features of late capitalism: the hypertrophy of "factitious values" and the exaltation of the right to generate environmental externalities as God-given feature of private property. Recall two passages from Cairnes's analysis:
The possession of a slave in the South carries with it the same sort of prestige as the possession of land in this country, as the possession of a horse among the Arabs: it brings the owner into connexion with the privileged class; it forms a presumption that he has attained a certain social position. Slaves have thus in the South acquired a factitious value,
The demoralization produced by the presence of a degraded class [i.e. slave labor] renders the white man at once an unwilling and an inefficient labourer; and the external incidents of slavery afford him the means of existing without engaging in regular toil.