Between Jefferson and Sieyès?

I don’t want to dwell on the political argument of this National Review piece arguing that Bernie Sanders’ upholding of Denmark as a model for his kind of socialism is wrongheaded and reflects ignorance of the nation he’s such a fan of. Needless to say, it’s pretty bad. But I’ve returned to posting here with the intention of making this more into a history blog than a politics blog. So, here’s some history according to Kevin D. Williamson:

The American revolutionaries emerged from a Puritan-Quaker culture shaped by the hardships of colonial life with the savage frontier in front of them and the Atlantic Ocean at their backs; the French revolutionaries emerged from a decadent Catholic culture shaped by court life and European rivalries. Both parties cried “Liberty!” but one produced the Bill of Rights and the other produced the Terror. The cultural distance between 21st-century Anglo-American liberals and tribal jihadis in the Hindu Kush is rather greater than was the distance between Thomas Jefferson and the Abbé Sieyès.

I’m also not going to talk very much about the Orientalist musings into which this is awkwardly embedded. I just want to address a few points on the histories of the American and French Revolutions. Williamson has not cited any sources for this brief lesson, and while it’d be unreasonable to expect detailed citations for such an off-hand comment, it forces us to rely on his own personal authority as a “roving correspondent” for the National Review, which does not fill me with confidence. I won’t be citing anything either, relying on my personal authority as a student of history whose research focuses on the influence of the French Revolution on the United States and comparative revolutions, but I’d be happy to do so for any of my claims on request.

So what’s the problem? It may seem too small, too petty, to get worked up about. But that’s what’s so infuriating: this was not a well-thought-out explication of history, which indicates that this is what Williamson comes up with by absentmindedly scraping around the bottom of the history barrel. It’s the thoughtlessness of it that’s the problem, the fact that these kinds of cliches and factoids and mythic narratives are what so many people turn to in order to understand our past and our place in the world.  Where did these ideas come from? Why do they keep plaguing us? And how do we get rid of them?

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The Heroic Master and the Fortunate Slave

Apparently, The Economist magazine published a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism that was too hot for them to handle. They have since retracted it. Much of the coverage of this review focuses on its explosive final lines: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” Sure, this is bad enough to deserve a retraction, but what does it mean? And is there anything at all of merit in the review? I set out to find out, and in so doing, uncover the mystery of black slaves who weren’t victims and white masters who weren’t villains.

The review sums up Baptist’s thesis and offers an initial point of critique:

…Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Now, we only have the reviewer’s word and a quoted phrase to go on that Baptist outright dismisses these factors rather than merely questioning their importance. However, these factors were embattled long before Baptist’s book. Worse is that the review never really substantiates this counterclaim:

Take, for example, the astonishing increases he cites in both cotton productivity and cotton production. In 1860 a typical slave picked at least three times as much cotton a day as in 1800. In the 1850s cotton production in the southern states doubled to 4m bales and satisfied two-thirds of world consumption. By 1860 the four wealthiest states in the United States, ranked in terms of wealth per white person, were all southern: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.

Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.

So, if we assume that the review is at least honest and accurate in this summary, Baptist argues that the increased productivity of slave labor was the result of increased brutal discipline. Here, I struggle to see how “individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies” are plausible alternate explanations for slavery’s increased productivity. Perhaps if individualism exists only for white planters, perhaps Puritanism secretly became a major religious force in the South during this period, perhaps the “lure of open land and high wages” refers to slavery’s western expansion or the increased price of Upper South slaves in the Deep South. On the other hand, we can give ingenuity some credit, since the cotton gin did breathe some new life into slavery by making cotton easier to process, and government policies protecting the right to own slaves, and to treat them however their owners saw fit, certainly played a bit of an important role.

The reviewer’s point, that the sources may not support Baptist’s explanation for slavery’s productivity, has a kernel of fairness. The testimony of former slaves can tell us about the conditions of bonded servitude, but not necessarily about the large-scale economic results of those conditions for the entire slave system and the capitalist economy based on its commodities. However, the reviewer does not make any such counterargument. The  problem, rather, is that the testimony of only some “few” former slaves was used to characterize slavery as painful and brutal. It is possible that these informants do not “speak for all.” What the reviewer seems to be pointing at here is the possibility that other freedman informants might tell of a bearable, even comfortable, enslaved life. Well, who knows? I am not familiar enough with slave narratives as a source to say that no such testimony exists. So, let’s assume for the sake of argument that some does. What does it mean? The explanation is found in the climax of the whole thing, the context for the now infamous final lines:

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

In other words, if some other slaves, whose testimonies Baptist did not use, recalled decent conditions, this reflects masters having had an interest in keeping their property in good condition. At last the mystery is revealed: it is possible that some blacks weren’t victims and some whites weren’t villains in the antebellum South because some blacks were maintained as healthy and well-fed livestock by white masters who had the same conception of enslaved human beings that modern “free range” ranchers have of cattle! Well… that seems like damning with faint praise, doesn’t it?

In summary, I can only say that there is very little of value in this review and that what little there is, is unintended by the reviewer. In trying to defend the now-discredited conception of slavery as a generally benign paternal system, the best argument the review could make implicitly relies on dehumanizing slaves so that the logic of the property owner’s interest in cultivating his property can apply to people treated as valuable instruments of another’s profit. In doing so, the review reinforces the old truth, going back to the antebellum debates over abolitionism, that some theoretical relations of kindness and decency between hypothetical slaves and masters do not negate the evil of the system overall. Treating people as property is monstrous regardless of how big an investment a person with a price might be.

[Postscript clarification: My paragraph beginning, “The reviewer’s point,” should not be interpreted as an actual endorsement of either the proposition that Baptist’s book actually relies on only a few freedman testimonies, or that substantial testimonies portraying slavery positively definitely exist in such number as to be some kind of game-changer. The point of this paragraph, subordinate to that of the whole article, is that even if we take the review at face value and trust its claims and implications, its conclusions are still horrible. I was always skeptical that Baptist’s source base was this scanty, as there is no reason any historian of US slavery has to be so limited. In fact, as Baptist confirms, his sources are much more extensive. It is also worth paying attention to the implicit issue of objectivity and bias in the accounts of former slaves and former masters.]

“Freedom Industries” and the Freedom of Industries.

Apparently, when most people in my area think about West Virginia, they remember some incident involving a traffic jam. I mostly remember news stories about the trials and tribulations of the people involved in mining the coal that powers our electronic lives: their labor struggles, and the safety disasters which necessitate their struggles. The latest from West Virginia is a chemical spill that affects the drinking water of 100,000 to 300,000 people in the area of Kanawha, WV.

In the midst of this calamity and the human suffering it has unleashed, there is something almost poetic in its sublime rightness: the company responsible is named “Freedom Industries.” Is there any doubt as to what kind of freedom the company’s founders had in mind? If so, this incident is instructive.

Environmental regulators in the state found that the chemical company took “no spill containment measures” to stem the leak, according to the Charleston Gazette.

Regulators say the company violated the Air Pollution Control Act and the Water Pollution Control Act, the Gazette reported. 

State regulators said Friday that the company never told them of the leak, and found out only after residents complained of a strange smell, according to the State Journal.

Health, safety, and environmental regulations, we are often told, are infringements on freedom. They burden job creators with red tape that holds them back from their glorious pursuit of enlightened self-interest. Under the regime of this freedom, taking no measures to contain spills would be a perfectly legitimate business decision, and there would by no “acts” regulating pollution to violate. Anyone affected by the outcomes of any accidents which result will have recourse to lawsuits to resolve the issue; depending on how serious you are about freedom, it might be resolved by a privately hired arbiter! No conflict of interest, no distortion of justice from unequal wealth, could be imagined here.

Experts say there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it’s in low enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days. People across the nine counties were told not to wash their clothes in water affected, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

Even as the National Guard made plans to mobilize at an air base at Charleston’s Yeager Airport, many people — told to refrain from using tap water — weren’t waiting for outside help.

The “National Guard,” eh, comrade? That sounds like some kind of collectivist use of government force. The inappropriate kind, that is, the kind not applied to bombing people in foreign countries and suppressing the poor. Using collectivist government force to help people? When did I agree to pay for these peoples’ water? There are much freer alternatives, after all: perhaps the people affected could have had a bit more foresight and individually purchased various forms of insurance and personal countermeasures to pay for disaster recovery. I can foresee no problems with them being able to afford this, once the government stops sucking them dry with taxes. Private disaster relief companies will provide much more efficient responses than the bloated government.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey warned residents about price gouging on water, ice and other items, calling it “just plain wrong” to inflate prices and encouraging those who have seen such practices to report them to his office’s consumer-protection division.

Who let this Marxist radical into office? Doesn’t he understand the clear benefits of so-called “price gouging,” that is, the market at work? It is the most efficient way of rationing now-scarce resources. Those who cannot afford the new, fairer price of water can presumably just “economize” on their daily basic needs. Perhaps in the future they will have the foresight to devote more of their generous disposable income to stockpiling bottled water. In any case, the higher prices are sure to attract more intrepid suppliers, somehow, at some point. There’s no need for the jackbooted thugs of the “National Guard” to interfere, spending your tax dollars to provide the biological necessities of human life.

To step back from vitriolic polemic, there’s one other thing I think of when someone mentions West Virginia: its long history of labor struggle. With “freedom” like this increasingly on offer, I have a feeling that state might someday shock the country in the best possible way.

Quick Note: Should the Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?

Marriage equality is the issue of the day, and it’s been a really inspiring experience to see an outpouring of support from my friends and relations. Even if I admit to a little cynicism about “Facebook Fads,” it’s probably done real good for LGBQT folks to see so many declaring their solidarity with a simple change of their profile picture. As if in response to this, I’ve seen some novel suggestions from the self-declared sentinels of liberty that the whole issue is a sideshow, because the real government oppression is in granting marriage licenses at all! What to make of this?

The general shape of the argument is that marriage should simply be a personal, religious, and emotional arrangement which the government has no business regulating. Straight, gay, poly or mono, it’s just not the state’s business. The most amusing advancement of this idea I’ve seen, and the most telling, asserted that the government’s only proper role in civil society is to enforce contracts.

How someone can weigh in on an issue with such bold claims and so little knowledge, I don’t know, but it’s worth pointing out to these libertines that the government is already “out of the marriage business” in they way they describe. The government will not prevent any church from performing marriage ceremonies. You can take your lover to an oak tree, carve your names on it, do a small dance, and declare yourselves married for all the state cares. That’s not what’s at issue. What is at issue is, exactly, a contract. We care about marriage as a civil right, an institution granting certain legal privileges.

Of course, there isn’t exactly lockstep unity in the gay rights movement about this. On the more radical edge, you will find queer critics of marriage as an oppressive institution, as patriarchal and bourgeois, as a tool of the “straight state” to mold an ideal citizenry, which should be done away with entirely. I can at least see the merits of this critique, and think there’s room for healthy discussion about what marriage even means, or should mean. The major difference between the radical gay rights critique of marriage and the libertarian one is essentially one of nuance: proponents of the former “get it” on a number of levels which proponents of the latter do not. They at least understand what their moderate allies care about.

Those who support marriage equality, by and large, do accept a role for the state in regulating it as a contract. They don’t want the state to “get out of it” because they do want the rights and privileges of marriage legally provided, but provided more equally. The libertarian call for “getting the state out of marriage” is as tone deaf as so many of their stances on “liberty,” and as per usual, is only a superficial veneer of support for civil rights and tolerance. In fact, it effectively cedes the issue to social conservatives. I wish I could say I am surprised at seeing the sentinels of liberty acting as the neoliberal handmaids of a paleoconservative understanding of social relations and “family values,” but it happens far too frequently.

Quick Note: On Republics

How often do we hear the sage formula, with every pretense of nuance, that the United States is not a democracy but a republic? You don’t have to look far for examples of it in action: find any situation where one side complains that some policy proposed by the other violates the principle of democracy, and invariably, the other side will trot out this insight.

The lesson is one straight out of the political thinking of the 18th and 19th centuries: democracies are unstable and will lead to mob rule and (horror of horrors) leveling, etc. And so, there’s nothing for it but to limit democracy somehow, to make a government that represents the people (the Latin res publica), but does not grant them unfettered power (the Greek dêmos kratos). It’s not clear to me how this functions as a defense for any particular anti-democratic policy, but the unacknowledged implications of this line of argument are disturbing.

This country was indeed intended to be a republic. And like most good classical republics, it sharply limited the franchise; in our case, despite some local variation, mostly to rich white men. In the south you even had a slave society propping up a leisured upper class, mirroring those liberty-loving slave-owning city-states of Classical Greece. People touting the “republic” talking point never seem to know how right they are, but many Enlightenment thinkers considered Sparta a model of sound governance, and it shows.

What this talking point always seems to elide is that the development of American government since “the Founders'” limited vision of an elitist state is a process of democratization. On the one hand, more and more government functions became subject to the popular vote. The Electoral College, as originally conceived, had nothing to do with any number of regular citizens voting for presidential candidates. Nor were Senators popularly elected. On the other, there was a democratization of what it meant to be a voter: first, classist property requirements fell. Next, slavery was abolished and racist restrictions of the vote to white people were (in theory at least) lifted. Then, the sexist limitation of the franchise to men was abolished. When people drone on about how we are a “republic” because of “the Founders'” vision, what they are doing is repudiating 144 years of progress.

Interestingly, the racial barrier to voting isn’t actually a dead issue, thanks to conservative policy initiatives: from the racist enforcement of drug laws combined with disenfranchisement of ex-convicts; to dubious “voter fraud” reduction laws which, as implemented in the time frame proposed, would have effectively barred many African-American citizens, among others, from voting in the most recent election; to recent attempts to take advantage of gerrymandering to undermine the popular will in presidential elections. Additionally, there is a rising trend of actively rejecting democratic progress with an explicit call for a return to the Founders’ vision in political structure, chock full of all the old tropes about unstable democracies. It seems the “Lost Cause” of the “Old Republic” is still a vital motivating force for the political right.

Hey, Conservative Americans! I Have A Proposal For You.

I understand that right now it’s a confusing and scary time. Not because of all these shooting sprees, no, but because of the inevitable legislative response! Armed with so-called “facts,” from an obviously liberally-biased reality, indicating that your John Wayne fantasies of preventing these incidents with more available guns are, in fact, complete nonsense, the Left is going to take away your guns and leave you prone before the power of the British Empire.

But you know why this is happening, right? No, it’s not an inside job. I’m going to let you in on the secret: the problem with America right now is that we have (culturally and politically) bought into your definition of “liberty,” a definition which is nothing but an incoherent defense of privilege and power. It’s a cumbersome bricolage of the detritus of ideological history, a shotgun wedding of Cold War paranoia and pre-industrial political-economic philosophy. In this ideology, ensuring that people have reliable access to firearms is a higher priority than ensuring that they have reliable access to healthcare. The cost of the former is relatively low, and disabling every legal barrier to purchasing a gun is the appropriate defense of a vital freedom for which shooting sprees are the unfortunate price. The cost of the latter is often prohibitively high, but for the government to address this, rather than leaving it to the price-rationing of the market, would mean dabbling in the dark arts of Socialism. The combination of easy access to firearms with an economically precarious existence where mental health issues too often go unaddressed is not something we’re often encouraged to think about, under your philosophy. That combination is part and parcel of your idea of “liberty,” however, which just goes to show why your definition of liberty is garbage.

It seems to me that it’s time to decide which is more important, your pre-industrial Enlightenment-era love of negative liberty or your Cold War fear of positive liberty. To that end, I’m going to propose a compromise that I think would go a long way towards making “the right to bear arms” more bear-able:

  1. Comprehensive universal healthcare. This means you stop opposing Obamacare because it goes too far, and start opposing it because it does not go far enough. The less economic stress Americans have to face from the fear of losing access to medical care, the more contentment we’ll have, and the less we’ll be on the kind of psychological hair-trigger which makes shooting people seem attractive as a problem-solving technique.
  2. In the above, explicitly including a guarantee of access to mental health treatment. This should be obvious: the fewer crazy people there are, the fewer crazy people can get a gun. Sharp readers may note that the link I posted above refutes the idea that stress or mental health issues correlate with gross levels of gun violence. While that is true, these first two items are specifically about the kinds of dramatic spree-shootings in which these may be greater factors.
  3. A move towards a stronger and more comprehensive welfare state. It is an observed fact of reality that lower economic inequality correlates with safer, saner, and more happy people. Healthcare is simply the first step. If we want less gun violence in a country with freely accessible guns, then we must do everything possible to ensure greater levels of social trust, community spirit, empathy, and childhood stability. This means a real commitment to economic egalitarianism.
  4. Immediately end the war on drugs. I am not even sure how supporting the drug war is consistent with a “government off of my back!” stance (I guess this is one place where libertarians get credit for at least being theoretically consistent), but we don’t have the luxury of wasting vital police resources on making sure people don’t get high (while still allowing them to get drunk for some reason). Even with the advantages of the above policies, there’s still a chance that someone could misuse a gun for mass murder, and anyway, it’s not like mass murder is the only kind we should be concerned about. Not only would this free up police resources to guard vulnerable locations like schools and provide a credible deterrence to homicide, it would break the back of the institutional racism in the enforcement of drug laws, which besides being a travesty of justice, is another cause of economic inequality and social strife.
  5. On that note, get serious about racism. The case of Trayvon Martin demonstrates that the use of violence in our country is racialized, and gun violence did not start being a problem when it started affecting white communities. Stop pretending that having a black president means racism is over, that “reverse-racism” is some kind of actual issue, and for God’s sake, ditch all that “government plantation” insanity. Getting serious about racism is probably the hardest part for folks with a “negative rights” stance on liberty and the role of government, because it requires acknowledging the fact that racism isn’t just about personal prejudices, it’s also in large part about social and economic structures, and thus requires proactive policy solutions. Seriously fighting racism means supporting affirmative action, it means bussing and other strategies to undo the current, greater-than-Jim-Crow levels of de facto segregation in the school system, and it means generally acknowledging that it is right and proper to spend tax dollars, skimmed off a prosperity historically built by racist exploitation, to economically support and build up racially disadvantaged communities.

I think this provides a good set of counter-balances to the corrosive effects of widespread gun ownership. I see you out there shaking your heads sadly at the senselessness of it all, the tragedy, saying a little prayer, and then condemning the “politicization” of these shootings while at the same time continuing to promote your gunslinger heroism solution, that this would not happen if more people had guns! Fine. I’m going to meet you part-way and agree that we’re not getting rid of guns in this country, but only if you meet me part-way in committing yourself to eradicating the large-scale institutional social and economic forces that make the misuse of your beloved guns more likely.

The Mask of Liberty

"I am the 1%, Let's Talk."Last fall, I took a day to visit the original Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park. As it turned out, the day I chose was to be an odd one, as it was the day that investment broker Peter Schiff decided to visit with the intent of opening a dialog. He set up a large banner in front of a small camera crew for maximum exposure and attention gathering. The banner read: “I am the 1%, Let’s Talk.” Mr. Schiff’s theme was that the goals of the OWS movement were misguided; that it is not capitalism that deserves to be protested, but the government; that more capitalism, not more government or socialism, will lead to greater freedom. It had the predictable effect of drawing a large crowd of Occupiers who argued with him into the evening.

This interesting episode came to mind when I read an interview with Schiff on his participation in a debate where he argued that China’s version of capitalism is superior to America’s. Some stand-out quotes:

Slate: You’ll argue on Tuesday in support of the motion that China does capitalism better than America. What do they know that we don’t?

Peter Schiff: First of all, I don’t think either the United States or China does capitalism all that well. America did capitalism a lot better in the 19th century than China does it now, but today, China does it better than we do. Though both countries have far too much government involvement in the economy, we have more. They’re Communists, supposedly, and we’re not, but our government screws up our economy more than the Chinese government screws up its.

Slate: What lies ahead for China politically?

Schiff: I think there will ultimately be more freedom than there is today. Will China ever become a one man, one vote democracy? Hopefully not, for the sake of the Chinese. Doing so has certainly not served our interest. We enjoyed a lot more freedom and prosperity when we were less democratic. In the 19th century we were quite undemocratic in the way government ran, and we benefited from that lack of democracy. But as we became more democratic, we grew less free and therefore less prosperous. If they’re wise, the Chinese won’t follow that example. They’ll try to model their government after what America used to be, before we screwed it up.

This is a lot to take in. It seems that when Schiff argued that the government is the problem and capitalism the solution, he did not merely have in mind the extent of government operations but its very form: a representative democracy. There’s a lot of familiar stuff here. I have commented previously on the trend of libertarians viewing the 19th century in the United States as a golden, rather than gilded, age, and on the propertarian opposition to democracy. They are entwined here in a very disturbing way: as the franchise expanded to the poor, and then to black people, and then to women, “we grew less free.” Greater citizen participation in government led to a decline in the freedom “we enjoyed” which did not serve “our interest.” Viewing Schiff’s use of the first person plural very literally and personally, I suppose he is entirely right: rich white men like him had a lot more freedom than others back then.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a very long review of Atlas Shrugged which deconstructed the book’s utopian vision to reveal its implicitly totalitarian message. It ended with what I think of as an appeal to the “average libertarian,” the sort of person who feels strongly against government intrusion in all fields but who might not understand the perverse implications of Rand’s thoughts. Granted, Objectivism is not the same as libertarianism, but the former has provided enough intellectual backing to the latter that I felt the warning worth making.

This was predicated on the idea that most libertarians, regardless of what I thought of the impact of their ideas, really did care about freedom and saw their ideas as key to improving the human condition, in sharp contrast to the message of Atlas Shrugged, that the common good is irrelevant and plutocracy is self-justified. As I looked into libertarianism more and more, in the time since then, I found a number of things that challenged this picture, from statements by libertarians and their fellow travelers to unfortunate implications of libertarian arguments. I have written about them on this blog, but always thought of them as odd flukes, or a few cranks letting slip their darker motives.

At this point, while I still don’t doubt that the majority of people calling themselves “libertarians” have good intentions, I can’t extend this benefit of the doubt the activists and thinkers of the movement any more. Libertarianism is, inherently, nothing more than a defense of plutocracy. Its ideal, the propertarian minarchy, creates the perfect apparatus for the private dictatorial control over everyday life, with the state serving no function but enforcing the will of those with extraordinary economic power by the protection of property rights. It used to be that the idea of liberal democracy as a sham was a leftist or Marxist preoccupation. It was said that this theory justified tyranny since, after all, parliamentary representation is nothing but a bourgeois dictatorship. Now, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Libertarianism is the radical communism of the 21st century, in that it is a utopian ideology that values certain principles and goals above everyday freedoms and accountable government. And like the communists of the early 20th century, its adherents are either blind to the hellish implications of their ideas, or cynically exploiting the rest for their own ends.

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