Slaves of Capital, All

October 10, 2012

 

A few weeks ago, Alexander Saxton died, so I went and read his essay on blackface minstrelsy.  You can read the complete paper here.  I had heard of it, but never actually read it, and it was interesting.

So then I decided to read one of his books, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic.  It contains a chapter that is basically the same content as the minstrelsy essay, and covers the political history of the 19th century USA with a focus on the importance of race, but each chapter can almost be read as a separate piece.  It is not a history of racist ideas, but a political history of the USA, but the depressing fact is that racist ideas are integral to that history.

The book isn’t even exclusively about racism regarding Africans, despite the seismic disturbances caused by slavery in the early Union.  No, the other race, the one that had to be exterminated, the Native Americans, is treated at length, and it is instructive to see how various parties sometimes took divergent views on the two.  The Jacksonian Democrats wanted to liquidate the Indians to get their land, and restrict slavery, and blacks, to the South because they hated the planter aristocrats, and feared black labor competition.  The Whigs, the upper-crust opposition to the Jacksonians, wanted to protect the Indians, all the while hoping they would gradually die off or assimilate, in order to have an excuse to limit slavery to the South.  They were happy to have free blacks in the territories as they had no love for a labor monpoly by the Jacksonian producers.   Besides, they were looking forward to industrialization, and they just wanted free labor, free to accept their wages.

Along the way, a lot of unsavory racial ideology is unearthed and associated with people you might not otherwise think of in the history of imperialism and racism, such as Walt Whitman:

Who believes that Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America?  Or who wishes it to happen?  Nature has set an impassable seal against it.  Besides, is not American for the Whites? And is it not better so?

Editorial in The Eagle, 1858

Yes, the whole thing is quite sordid.  After the Civil War, the northern Republicans went to town on their industrial program, and racism continued to serve handily, and was often employed by workingmen against one another.  Meanwhile, heroes such as Teddy Roosevelt, took up the pseudo-science of race to justify imperialism abroad and oppression at home, although the negroes did do a fair job at San Juan Hill.  And those Indians..?  Now that they were almost all dead, it was time to wax sentimental about them to assuage one’s guilt at having helped along with their massacre.  Thus, Teddy’s statue in front of the Museum of Natural History in NYC shows him mounted like a Roman emperor, aided by his noble and faithful servant, a red chieftain.

And through it all, the driving force of capital remaking our nation, then the world.  Monuments such as the one of Teddy, dedicated in 1940, seem quaint now.  There is no longer any desire, perhaps no need, to cement the image of heroic, white overlords.  In the midst of our multi-cultural society, with its wide tolerance for racial and ethnic difference, the moving power of great wealth does not need to show its face, to justify itself at all! Abstract corporate art serves nicely. Human figures just arouse controversy.

Saxton refers to the 1890s as a hegemonic crisis, during which the ruling elite actually feared for, perhaps rightly so, their privileges.  They had carried on so brutally as to foment a political counter attack.  Now we have a political system that stages ‘debates’ that seem like grade-school reenactments of democracy.  No public interaction – the audience is just for show.  But the debate is the real show, displaying the importance and control of the corporate media.

Just by coincidence, as I was reading the book, I saw the obituary of another scholar of the slave societies, Eugene Genovese.  The author of Roll , Jordan, Roll:  The Lives the Slaves Made, repudiated his radicalism, and died a repentant and fully-fledged Catholic conservative.

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We are in the 21st century, no?

September 19, 2010

I saw this bumper sticker ahead of me on a van this morning.  I’m no expert on Marxist sociology, but I believe the idea is that ideology is determined by material circumstances, i.e., the means of production determine the dominant ideas of an era.  Okay, so how come this fellow, and he’s in good company, is espousing ideas that are right out of Saint Augustine’s City of God?  Clearly, this driver is a citizen of that heavenly city, not the city of the world.

Or, are we to assume that all the significant elements of society are not much changed today from what they were in the early 5th century A.D?  How else to account for the incredible staying power of these ideas?


Surburban expletive deleted

July 25, 2010

When Nixon’s secret tapes of his White House conversations were released under duress as part of the machinations of Watergate, the phrase, “expletive deleted” from the typwritten transcripts entered the language.  Nixon’s chat was not always of an elevated nature.

There is a blog on the NYTimes Opinionator page about a contest to redesign (yet again) the suburbs, this time of Long Island.  What struck me most about this post was the comments:  they are vehement, often violent, and I have never seen so many editorial deletions of inappropriate comments.  Apparently, feelings about urban design run pretty high.  And I am a frequent reader of climate-change blogs, where emotions are not exactly, shall we say, cool.

One line of thought was that the entire idea was a crock.  The suburbs are hell.  They should be razed completely.  Tax auto use to the skies and force those jerks to take mass transit.

Another was that NYC life has become impossible for middle-class people with families, so why do you hate us so much?

Plans of all sorts abound, from utopian to totalitarian.  Everyone has the solution. Everyone should be happy to live in the suburbs that I design.

Confusion over the very nature of terms is fundamental.  Manhattan is an American anomaly.  Many local suburbs are as dense as cities elsewhere in the USA.  Most people who live in American cities live in regions that would at least look suburban to New Yorkers.

Sprawl is evil.  Suburbs are evil.  Cities are virtuous.  People in the suburbs live soulless, isolated lives.  As if you can’t be terribly lonely and bored in the midst of a crowd in Bryant Park.

For another post on the topic of urbanist-ideological ranting, visit here:  Facing the Reality of Sprawl.


Bailing Out

September 25, 2008

The talk in Congress about the financial mess is very interesting in the way it obscures some basic ideas.  People act as though this is strictly a practical matter, a non-partisan, non-political, time-to-stop-arguing, let’s fix it now! question of simple financial mechanics.  In other words, there’s no ideology, no politics involved – just not relevant.

Well, a few criticisms of the plan that I’ve heard, particularly the comments of a former Secretary of the Treasury and one excellent letter to the NYTimes today, make me think otherwise.  The basic question is this:  If the problem was brought on by speculating in sub-prime mortgages, why not prop up those mortgages?  Pour money into the bottom, not the top.  Subsidize Main Street, not Wall Street?  If we bail out financial service firms, and home prices continue to drop, the USA, that’s us, will be left holding the empty bag. 

Could it be that it is more efficient to pour money in the top, to stabilize the markets, to restore confidence, to unfreeze the credit realm, and thus benefit all Americans by making the economy function again.  Could it be that time is of the essence? 

Or could it be that guaranteeing mortgages would also send a salutary shock into the system that would achieve the same thing, but it offends so many, especially Paulson and GWB, because it is bypasses Wall Street?

One person said that bailing out Wall Street this way by pouring in money is like filling a leaky bucket.  The bad mortgages are what’s draining the bucket.

Meanwhile, check out this wonderful animated tour of the Subprime Mortgage Mess.


Bubbly Economics

December 21, 2007

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If you have read my recent post on Ayn Rand, or if you keep tabs on right wing pseudo-intellectualism in general, you might be interested in Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times today. Writing about the ongoing mortgage debacle, he derides Alan Greenspan and others for their inaction regarding the real estate lending bubble that is now deflating rapidly and with great consequences for the economy as a whole. He regards it as a triumph of extreme ideology, and he specifically singles out for mention Alan Greenspan and his lifelong devotion to the ideas of Ayn Rand. I quote:

In a 1963 essay for Ms. Rand’s newsletter, Mr. Greenspan dismissed as a “collectivist” myth the idea that businessmen, left to their own devices, “would attempt to sell unsafe food and drugs, fraudulent securities, and shoddy buildings.” On the contrary, he declared, “it is in the self-interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product.”

Sound familiar? How can anyone believe such rot? Then or now? Of course, the Nobelist Milton Friedman was similarly hypnotized by the “power of the market.” So interesting, then, to read Adam Smith, the granddad of modern economics and to see his views on the merchant class. I quote once again his remarks on the merchant class, from The Wealth of Nations:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Of course, I can’t resist putting in another Gillray link, this time on the theme of uncorking…

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