Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The South Is The Problem

The South has been different from the rest of the country since there was a country.  In order to placate the Lords of the Lash, we wrote a ridiculous clause into the Constitution giving states representation for 3/5s of a specimen of human chattel.  This allowed slave owner Thomas Jefferson to usher in an era of rule by these Lords of the Lash.  For Jefferson the only possible model of economic growth was agrarian.  He failed to see the possibilities of manufacturing, because outside of some people like Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton, the idea of manufacturing benefiting the worker was too new to be understood.

And so the South remained stuck in an economic model of slave labor.  This was roughly the same economic system that built the pyramids and staffed the households of Rome.  Meanwhile, the North nurtured a bourgeois middle class of merchants, shopkeepers and manufacturers.  When the two sides came to blows, the economic system of the North overwhelmed the economic system of the South.

Despite some half-hearted attempts to re-order the Southern economy after the war, the South simply shifted from chattel slavery to debt peonage.  Debt peonage tied agrarian workers not to an "owner", but to their debts.  This meant that the South again depended on what we would now call a dysfunctional labor market.  Rather than price labor according to the demand for it, demand was managed by simply tying it up in sharecropping and tenant farming.

Efforts to unionize nascent industries in the South were quashed.  Efforts by the Populists to integrate poor whites and blacks into a cohesive political movement failed.  Populists like Tom Watson went from noting the economic similarities that poor whites and blacks faced to becoming a virulent racist.  Education was never a priority in a system dependent on poor agrarian workers.

Under the New Deal coalition, the South became a giant hog sucking on the public teat.  As a Democrat, FDR knew the value of Southern votes and as someone trying to reinvigorate the economy, he knew that "the South is the country's number one economic problem."  And so the Sunbelt was created.  It was created with cheap TVA energy and defense industries.  Eventually, the cheap labor and the effect of air conditioning opened the South to 20th century industries.

But in some crucial ways the South remained as it always was: suspicious of outsiders, hostile to the rights of the poor and fractured along racial lines.  It still clung to the old caste based system that informed chattel slavery and then Jim Crow.  Poor whites had suffered almost as much as blacks under this system, but they had benefited from being not-black and so tolerated the system.  Federal attempts to dismantle Jim Crow were as much an assault on them as on the old Bourbon elite.

Therefore, to be a white Southerner was to be suspicious of progress.  If you were in the elite, well it obviously worked well enough for you.  If you were poor, at least you weren't black.

And all of the efforts to create a social democratic system foundered on this basic fact.

The South was not interested in public education.  It was not interested in worker's rights.  It was not interested in racial equality.

The Pilgrims are often seen as the precursors to the United States, the first "Americans" (ignoring the people who already lived there).  We prefer our origins to be the authors of the Mayflower Compact and not the indentured servants and slaves toiling in the tobacco fields of Virginia.

But the South grew up fundamentally different from much of the rest of the country.  And the article above should surprise exactly no one.

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