peckerwood dialectics

In my last post, I asked what Bush and Co. are afraid of. I think that is a good question, but instead of answering it head on, I am going to make a long detour in this post to talk about the dialectics of American history.

For the empiricist, substance and form denote intellectual abstractions, extrinsic to real events. But this won’t do for the philosophically minded historian, who is prodded, by his subject matter, into assuming the dialectical point of view by the fact that, logically, the externality presumed by the empiricist dissolves into the emptiness of the variable when looked at closely. In the empiricist version of history, ultimately, nothing happens. So, starting over, our dialectical historian begins by taking substance and form to be divergent – and possibly, even, antithetical.

So keeping that in mind, let’s think about our problem: how is it that a peculiarly Southern kind of tyranny has achieved success in the U.S. under the mask of the Republican party? This would have seemed beyond the wildest dreams of anybody looking to the future in, say, 1865. Which goes to show that dialectics are not the logic of history – logic, which is always chained to the truth table, doesn’t give us unpredictable outcomes.

Well, to find an explanation for our puzzle, we have to go to the issue that, still, seems to define the U.S. – slavery. We have two orthodox narratives of American history that are actually incompatible. In one of those narratives, the unfolding of American history is the unfolding of the spirit of democracy. Slavery, like the disenfranchisement of women and the poor, marks problems that the spirit eventually triumphed over. The other narrative is that slavery wasn’t an accident, but was an essential feature of the American republic from the beginning. So there is no identity, ever, between the essential structure of the U.S.A. and the democratic spirit.

I’m not declaring for one side or the other in this dispute. But I do want to point to a not often enough remarked upon effect of slavery before the Civil War in the South: the wholesale erosion of the Constitutional spirit. The kidnapping, assaults, and robbery of blacks, under the system of slavery, was defended aggressively by taking away the right to protest it even from those marked as free men under the constitution. Thus, in state after state in the South, laws (and grassroots vigilantism) restricted freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion – in fact, mounted a wholesale attack upon the Bill of Rights. Protesting slavery in any way became harder and harder. For instance, under Andrew Jackson, bills were considered to prohibit abolitionists from sending their writings to the South. Jackson, a slaveholder, actually simply went ahead and instructed postmasters to intercept this kind of mail on their own. This was the first assault on the democratic spirit. The second feature of the slave system was that it became profitable in the early nineteenth century only on a large scale. Large scale farming required a lot of land – vide Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. And so was born an expansionist, filibustering culture, one wedded to aggressiveness in foreign affairs. This, of course, was the opposite of the principle of democracy as laid down both by the writers of the constitution and by such 18th century thinkers as Paine. Democracy, by lifting restrictions on free trade, was supposed to place a strong limit on the state’s tendency to aggression.

And so was born a double tendency – on the one hand, the restriction of the Bill of Rights, and on the other hand, a foreign policy of extraordinary aggressiveness. The connection between the two? Racism.

To this consideration of the internal dynamics of Southern slaveholding culture, we have to add another factor: the protection of that culture within the Republic itself.

That third factor gave rise to the rhetoric of state’s rights, of course. State’s rights is an odd thing. on the one hand, it points to scaling the power of the government down – what you could call its libertarian tendency. This is its formal rhetorical nature. On the other hand, it functioned to shield local oppression. Supposedly a bulwark against majoritarian tyranny, it actually defended local majoritarian tyrannies. The rhetoric of state’s rights created a peculiar American tradition of defending oppression by invoking liberty. This is the American hypocrisy par excellence. By means of State’s rights, Southerners could defend a racist system with a non-racist vocabulary.

Now, incidentally, the State’s rights vocabulary, even pre-Civil War, never kept Southern politicians from invading State’s rights as long as they possessed the Federal power to do so. The fugitive slave law, among other things, abolished the custom of state’s rights about as completely as any Federalist could wish. This is symptomatic of the real role of state’s rights – the invocation of freedom to defend slavery – that would, when slavery collapsed, be resurrected to defend Jim Crow. Southern politicians take up and drop the rhetoric of defending freedom depending its function – when state’s rights is the best tool to defend oppression, they take it up; when the Federal government is enlisted to enforce oppression, they drop it. Recently, we have seen this with a lot of libertarians. As long as libertarianism means defending corporate power, they use anti-state rhetoric; when that power is used to promote gross encroachments on human rights in the service of an aggressive foreign policy, they quietly drop the anti-state rhetoric.

But – one of the things about forms is that they have a tendency, like genetically engineered plants, to escape into the wild. And so it is that the rhetoric of state’s rights, or the defense of a tie between freedom and the freedom of the minority, has colonized a thinking part of the public, who have seized on it to examine state power in all its forms.

Well, enough heavy weather for one post.


Brian Miller said…
Even give the past reality of localism and "States' rights" (I engaged in a lengthy argument on another board regardingn this issue), what do we do now when we have a culture and a centralized political state totally in the thrall of a particularly noxious, originally Southern but certainly no lobger regional system verging on theocracy. (Jesus Camp, anyone?).

No offense, roger, and Ann Richards and John Hightower aside, but I am tired of being ruled by Texans. An independent Bear Flag Republic sounds mighty fine right now.
roger said…
Brian, maybe so. However, since I don't think a Bear Republic is in the cards, and the D.C. Court society (hey, my meme is spreading - the review of Woodward's book in the NYT compared the White House to a royal court) is going to be on our necks tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, I think it is material to use what we have to bring it down. There's a power in curses, there's a power in analysis, there's a power in not putting up with the bullshit, there is a power in being a cloud, a loose network -- all they tiny bits of power, of course. But the main thing is to be offensive. Fuck playing resistance, a word that makes me want to weep, with its combination of victimizer righteousness and its deep, passive acceptance of defeat, and ever more defeat, like that is all that life promises. My life promised me a lot more. I want to attack these motherfuckers.

So, I vivisect what I can.