Book Review: Alexander Saxton. The Rise and Fall of the White Republic. London: Verso Books, 1990. Available through Powell's, a unionized bookstore.
And this is the T-Shirt I’d have worn to the President's inauguration if I happened to be going and if I could ever finish anything on deadline:
The sh*t, of course, is Obama taking his oath of office on the same Bible used by Lincoln. Or maybe it’s Obama walking on water; some say that isn’t going to happen, which goes to show how cynical we’ve all become. Listen, if it happened once it could happen again.
At least some things will happen again that have happened before, and the Historic Task before us is to find out which, and how, and where there’s work to do. "We can only judge the future by the past." Who said that? George Washington, quoting Patrick Henry.
Alexander Saxton’s one of that little-known breed of American historians—yes, there actually are historians, real historians who don’t spend their time adjusting zoom-ins and zoom-outs on PBS, or recycling Edmund Burke and Tocqueville, or rehashing hero-worship for steel-eyed professors. The Rise and Fall of the White Republic was published in 1990, ten years into the Reagan Revolution, when Antichrist reigned and the sign of the beast was 666. (By the way, the beast's full name was “Ronald Wilson Reagan”—go ahead, count the letters.) Saxton, who as a teenager dropped out of a promising altar boy career, still seems to remember that Christ follows Antichrist: dialectics is dialectics, Marxist or Christian.
This is Saxton’s thesis: American culture, American politics, American economics between 1828 and 1896 follow a continuous ideological curve anchored at either end by the fundamental American problem, racism. In a particularly sharp introduction, a model synopsis of this issue, Saxton argues that “racism” can best be defined as an ideology, a shifting set of beliefs whose outward appearance barely changes while reflecting the deep changes in their function within American culture, economics, etc. I’m not sure how Saxton would interpret the election of Obama (whom he supported), but I suspect he’d argue that the election of America’s first black President is a symptom, not a cause, of the End of Days for the conception of American society he calls (quoting another scholar), a “Herrenvolk democracy.”
At the springing of this arch Saxton places Andrew Jackson and Jacksonian Democracy, and the comparisons to Republicanism are inescapable. Like Reagan, Jackson was an arrogant thug who projected uncompromising toughness towards the enemies of “The Democracy,” meaning all those who fell outside the definition of what made an “American.” For the circle of the elect, Jackson claimed an uncompromising equality. Against his political opponents (the “Whigs,” as they were called and still should be), his most powerful weapon was the claim to represent the “real” America against the narrow interests of an Eastern elite, overeducated, over-concerned with culture, over-wealthy, over-solicitous of the enemies of Democracy.
Most important, and an important part of Jacksonian ideology: “The Democracy” appeared, even to a sophisticated outsider like Tocqueville, to happen from the bottom up. Indian tribes were never pushed onto reservations, they kind of pushed themselves, and the Government only did what government’s supposed to do, which is to not interfere against those folks whom Manifest Destiny had chosen to do the pushing. In the 1830s, when the Postmaster General banned the distribution of anti-slavery literature down South, he explained that “We owe an obligation to the laws, but a higher one to the communities in which we live,” meaning it was the Government’s duty not to interfere in the happy lives of slaves. Like Reagan, Jackson launched an epidemic of public violence, psychic or physical, small-town bullies running rampant at the pulpit, at the bar, in the boardroom, and it’s an epidemic that's lasted down to the present day. As Dwight MacDonald argued in 1945, “Whereas anti-Negro violence in America is a real “folk” activity, carried on against the State and its police (which, of course, wink at it), in Germany it is the reverse: pogroms are carried out by the State...” MacDonald claimed that this was one of his "shrewdest points." Halfway shrewd, at least, since in either case the reality behind participation is the myth of a "folk" spontaneously acting out the wishes of those in power, an army of little Limbaughs or raging Kossacks. As Saxton points out, the Klan “operated essentially as armed units of the Democratic party,” just as the media operates today as a division of the right-of-center. As another historian, Daniel Walker Howe, suggests, in America “Community” has taken on the coloration of Nazi-era Gemeinschaft.
And Lincoln? In Saxton’s telling the Civil War and Lincoln’s inauguration did not mark a shift in attitudes towards blacks as much as a shift in the pragmatic use of those attitudes. Until 1861 the Democrats survived by mediating between Southern planters eager to preserve slavery and Northern workers and industrialists trying to protect themselves from the competition of black slaves, underpaid if they were paid at all, just as Reagan and his followers survived by appealing to American workers terrified of losing their jobs to furriners. After 1861, not. After 2009, who knows? Jacksonian Democracy maintained this alliance by means of a culture of racism—Saxton does a yo!person job of showing the specific political dynamics underlying the ever-popular minstrel shows, the penny press, the novels of the day.
Obama’s election may not mark the coming of a new dawn as much as the end of an era in which cultural distinctions based on race stood for other kinds of distinctions that needed to be enforced in order to keep the people in power, in power still. This is not to say that the distinctions driven underground by Obama’s election are merely racial; rather they are racial, and maybe much, much, more. In Saxton's retelling, Obama's election would likely not repeat Lincoln's inauguration as much as it would mark a parallel to the historic phase that concludes his narrative, the "Fall" part of the "Rise and Fall of the White Republic." Not that racism ended in the eighteen-nineties any more than it will end with Obama's inauguration, but that the cultural and political discourse through which the economic and political aims of the reigning powers became dominant shifted in the eighteen nineties, and have begun to shift again, and Obama's election is at least a symptom of that shift.
In his inaugural speech Obama spoke of putting aside childish things, and it will be interesting to see what "childish things" are set aside in the next four years—possibly the same old childish things that were set aside, briefly, in the eighteen-nineties, when progressives tried to bridge the divide between immigrants and farmers, black and white workers. In the late nineteenth century, trade unions, socialists Populists and others succeeded to a certain degree in organizing black workers as well as white, unskilled as well as skilled, immigrant as well native, until their movement collapsed under the pressure of the new hegemonic discourse of American Imperialism. After which, Saxton points out, Republicans remained in power, undisputed until 1930.
Not that racism disappeared all of a sudden in the eighteen-nineties, any more than it will disappear tomorrow; rather, because mere race was not enough to divide the lower classes and consolidate those in power, the discourse of racism was absorbed into the broader discourse of Social Darwinism, which has remained the hegemonic discourse in America until this day. For a drooling racist like Teddy Roosevelt it really wasn't a matter of disliking Blacks or Indians, it's just that they weren't going to make it anyhow, and the proof of their not making it was, that they hadn't made it in a free society, any more than the Filipinos made it against American might, or the Cubans or Puerto Ricans. Of course, there were successful blacks and foreigners: they proved the rule to the exception: that Survival of the Fittest meant that white Americans were fittest, and racism had nothing to do with it. Among other things, racism and capitalism have in common an obsession with "Natural Law." This had once been used to justify racism. From the eighteen-nineties down to yesterday's New York Times, Natural Law explains everything about Capitalism.
The discourse of Social Darwinism is no different from Hillary Clinton's argument, pre-Pennsylvania Primary, that Barack Obama couldn't be elected; no different, as Saxton explains in his introduction, from the liberal racist argument about the "dysfunctional black family" that Hillary had picked up from her mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynahan. According to this argument the reason black folks are bound to fail is that they never had the presence of a strong father figure growing up—oopsies, Mr. President! I wonder what Obama's going to do about that famous bronze by Frederic Remington in the Oval Office. Remington, a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt, was as skilled at depicting American soldiers driving their rifle butts into the faces of striking workers (the “malodorous crowd of anarchistic foreign trash”), as he was describing the Seventh Cavalry a-slaughter. At bottom the old hegemonic discourse of Social Darwinism is one with the hegemonic discourse of nineteenth century Americans towards blacks and Native Americans: all losers in the eye of History. I wonder if Reagan knew that when he fired the air traffic controllers...
In terms of ideology it's easier to tell what Obama isn't than what he is: he's proved extraordinarily adept at working his way out of ideological pigeonholing, and his speeches are full of that: "that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve." "To choose our better history.” And a great deal that's intriguing in his personality (his infuriating refusal to get even with his enemies, his religious creed of tolerance, his insistence that there be no losers), may be traceable to a rejection of the ethos of Social Darwinism, coupled with a lived awareness of the racist and jingoistic implications of Social Darwinist thought. In 1930, a Finance Minister in the Weimar Republic argued that Germans would have to decide if they constituted "a Volk or a pile of vested interests." Obama seems altogether happy with the second option: interests, after all, are not a-priori exclusionary; volkisch philosophies are.
In the end, though, the election of a black man to the Presidency of the United States of America may prove less important for what he's able to do than for what it signals to others that they might be able to do: stand up to the Klan for instance. Obama captured a slippage in the hegemonic ideology, a Lebensgefühl that's ours to exploit, not his to control.
This is a situation similar to that described by Saxton in the 1890s; unfortunately it may be tomorrow as, according to Saxton, it was back then: a lost opportunity, the "heartbreaking nineties,” as some progressives thought. Saxton feels that American radicalism of the 'nineties was pre-empted by the ideology of self-improvement, which is a little bit like having a community board meeting interrupted by a Ron Paul freak: you're trying to figure out what the Government should and could do, and the fool's ranting about skinning his own moose. In the 'nineties the American Labor movement was pre-empted by craft unionism over trade unionism, by those who were more interested in pulling up the ladder than in helping the brothers and sisters: Sammy Gompers, the Jewish union leader, was the loudest to call for turning back Jewish immigrants. American social progressivism was pre-empted by jingoism and anti-immigrant obsessions. Contrary to Saxton, and more subtly perhaps, other progressive historians (Paul Buhle, for instance) claim the meet-up between immigrants and Americans, blacks and whites, craft and trade unions, did not fail so much through ideological blindness as it was crushed by physical and psychic violence, the kind of violence that even now rears its scabby little head over Obama's election.
Saxton, though, goes a bit further in arguing that the American myth of self-improvement through hard work and discipline undercut the Socialist ideal of a cogent class rendered all the more cogent by political and economic pressures—Lukács' old narrative of class solidarity and consciousness. I would argue, on the contrary, that there is no task more urgent, at this particular time and place, than to work along the fault-line between so-called unproductive and productive labor; that the supreme demand for the abolition of the wage system is no different now, and no less pressing than it was a hundred and fifteen years ago; but that it should and can and be rephrased to include the househusband and the farmer, the anarchist and the libertarian, the poor and the struggling, so that rule of rich white men for rich white men, with overweight, underpaid white men fronting for them, shall perish from the earth and shall live on for never.
[1/2008; latest revision 2/2/2013]
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