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February 23, 2005

Right Anti-Economics: Will Slavery Set You Free?

Posted by William Coleman

Anti-economic thought can be found not only on the left but also on the right. Here Dr William Coleman - the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics - surveys what he terms "Right Anti-Economics" from George Fitzhugh's defences of slavery in the middle of the nineteenth century to John Gray's recent critiques of globalisation.

Jacqueline Duty is 19 years old. She lives in Greenboro County, Kentucky. And she wants to go to her high school prom wrapped in the battle flag of the Confederate States of America.

This feminine sartorial wish set off a small media fire-storm that leapt across the airwaves and routers. Her high school forbad her to attend so dressed. When she nevertheless appeared the principal "intimidated" her by "striking" her vehicle. She has responded with a $50,000 law suit. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have hurried to the aid of this misused belle. "I am proud of where I came from and my background", she has declared.

We need not take too solemnly these claims to "heritage hunger". Kentucky never seceded from the Union. And Greenboro County was a stronghold of Union sentiment. An embrace of the "stars and bars" does not exhibit some historical memory. What it manifests is the strange and enduring appeal of perhaps the only polity in history (of comparable size) to define itself by its resolution to enslave a portion of its inhabitants.

Of course, the Sons of Confederate Veterans do not believe that the Confederacy was all about slavery. And all those ideological strays that today romance Dixie do not believe that the Confederacy was all about slavery. But slavery is precisely what the vocal partisans of Confederacy thought it was all about.

George Fitzhugh (1806-1881) is a case in point. His Sociology for the South of 1854 was intended as the theoretical justification of the South's social order. In this tract he did not simply defend slavery as the South's "peculiar institution". To Fitzhugh slavery was an institution of universal desirability, in all times and all places. He was sufficiently convinced of this that he looked forward to converting the North to the slave system. Slavery was to be the global mission civilisatrice of the South.

I have a fond interest in Fitzhugh's writings. This is because he combined his ludicrous advocacy of slavery with an extreme anti-economics, and I enjoy the spectacle of an anti-economist making an ass of himself. Doubtless this conjunction of slaver and anti-economist in Fitzhugh was occasioned by the extensive opposition of the great political economists to slavery. But Fitzhugh's anti-economics is not merely tactical. It is deeper founded than that. To Fitzhugh's mind the principal threat to the slave society he so admired was what he called the "Free Society". And Fitzhugh identified Political Economy as the ideology of free society. Quite appropriately the very first sentence of Sociology for the South opens fire at political economy:

Political economy is the science of free society. Its theory and its history alike establish this position. Its fundamental maxims, laissez-faire and "pas trop gouverner" are at war with all kinds of slavery, for they in fact assert that individuals and peoples prospered most when governed least.
But, says Fitzhugh, contrary to political economy, peoples do not prosper most when governed least. Part of the human population needs "support and protection", and another part needs "much and rigorous government". All civilisations of ages past had recognised this, and had consequently instituted slavery in some form or another. Regrettably, in Western Europe feudalism had left in its retreat a free society that had been raised on the hazardous tonic of political economy. And, according to Fitzhugh, what was the consequence?
The ink was hardly dry with which Adam Smith wrote his Wealth of Nations, lauding the benign influences of the free society, ere the hunger and want and nakedness of that society engendered a revolutionary explosion that shook the world to its centre.
Fitzhugh is articulating a species of anti-economics that has remained potent to this day. It may be called "Right anti-economics". Right anti-economists see the market as destructive of a desirable social order; it identifies economists as the market's advocate; and consequently judges them to accommodate, wittingly or unwittingly, the destruction of this desirable social order.

Fitzhugh simply took the doctrines of Right anti-economics to an extreme, and taught "Freedom is war: no peace without slavery".

These sentiments were not the eccentric preserve of Fitzhugh: they were shared by some of the pre-eminent anti-economists of the period. John Ruskin is one. He took the Right's veneration of order to an extreme, and saw himself as the prophet of a marvellous future based on the supremacy of command and obedience. He once sought to identify the divide between J. S. Mill and himself thus: Mill and company "are for Liberty, and I am for Lordship". In sympathy with this outlook, and in sympathy with Fitzhugh, Ruskin approved of slavery as a universal institution. In one of his rhapsodies against political economy - Munera Pulveris: Six Essays on the Elements of Political Economy - he declared:

Slavery is not a political institution at all, but an inherent, natural, and eternal inheritance of a large portion of the human race.
Carlyle was of the same mind. His weird christening of economics as "The Dismal Science" was occasioned by his ire at political economy's support of the emancipation of West Indian slaves. Economics, Carlyle complained:
reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone…By multifarious devices we have been endeavouring to dispense with governing; and by very superficial speculations, of laissez-faire, supply-and-demand, etc. etc. to persuade ourselves that it is best so.
But it is not possible, Carlyle goes on to argue, "to buy obedience with money". Consequently the English working man had only "gluttony and mutiny" in his heart. The upshot, Carlyle argued, will be "a sudden bust of revolutionary rage".

Raptures over slavery, and despondence over emancipation, have long disappeared. But right anti-economics as such did not perish with the smoky visions of these Victorian sages. Not at all. In less fanatical form it proved popular throughout the twentieth century. Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) was the seminal theoretician of modern Right anti-economics. He pursued with tenacity the long-standing notion of the market as solvent of bonds and ties. In Polanyi's telling of history, markets were, happily "embedded" in society, until the advent of a Great Transformation of the early 19th century. In this episode markets were removed from social control, with shockingly destructive consequences for the social order.

Polanyi's vision has recently been re-served piping hot in John Gray's False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998). In this book Gray assiduously logs every social problem in the United States, and then summarily blames each and every one on the free market. With Gray we have arrived at the rhetorical terrain of today's Right anti-economics; not the cotton fields of Virginia, but the panorama of social disintegration that modern, western societies seem to present. In its contemporary form, Right anti-economics contends that market society generates wasteful conflict, that manifests itself in crime, suicide, divorce, and the various dislocations of gender, generation and ethnicity.

Is the central contention of Right anti-economics correct? Does freedom spawn disorder? Right anti-economics has three lines of argument in its favour. We might call them the political argument, the sociological argument, and the cultural argument.

1. The Political Argument. This contends that market equilibrium does mesh with political equilibrium. Economic equilibrium may imply severe hardship for the mass, and luxury for the minority. This, however, will not be a political equilibrium. And the chateau (or the ghetto) will go up in flames.

2. The Sociological Argument. Here it is argued that market society fosters, and maybe even requires, an ethic-self assertion and "individualism". Regrettably, a society based on such an "economic man" is left lacking in "solidarity", bonds and ties. Society is left merely a conglomerate of antagonistic wills, and sectionalism festers.

3. The Cultural Argument. The market gratifies rather than disciplines disorderly human impulses. Carnality and violence are attentively catered for, and glamorised. The mass of the population is reduced to the state of Gibbon's barbarians, who adored sloth but loathed tranquillity.

The first two of the three do not impress.

The stress of the Political Argument on socially disturbing inequity misses the stabilising impact of the efficiency of the market. It is the market that bakes the biggest cake. It is the market, rather than any of the alternatives to it, that can make everyone better off. The political argument also misses the powerful integratory aspect of the market. The market is a great magnet that sucks towards it all useful economic resources, and makes each better off than in its absence. It offers so much, to so many, and that brings commonality. To illustrate, I would venture that the "generation gap" has evaporated under the spectacle of yuppie salaries. Who wants to drop out from that prospect? In the same vein, I suspect that feminism has atrophied with the economic integration of talented women. In summary, it seems that Durkheim's "mechanical solidarity" of the market is a powerful force, indeed.

The Sociological Argument misses the fact that economic man is a very tolerant fellow. Your religion, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity are of no interest to him. By contrast, many "organic" solidarities that unite groups of human beings unite them - not in love – but in hate; hatred of some other section of human beings. It is "Sociological Man" – endowed ethnic loyalties, religious sectarianism, and class prejudice – that is hostile to social cohesion, not Economic Man. It is the very elevation of "economic man" over "sociological man" in capitalist societies that has provided their cohesion.

It is, surely, the Cultural Argument that resonates the most. Carnality and violence are attentively catered for by the market. I see hoardings egging on 20 year olds to drink whisky. And I know what will be the direct result.

The indirect results may be larger. There may be a "cultural contradiction of capitalism" at hand here. To put this possibility in a spare syllogistic form, consider these three premises: "Freedom requires order"; "Freedom gives people what they want"; and "People want disorder". Inference: freedom produces disorder, and so extinguishes its pre-requisite.

In more informal terms, the case for the "contradiction" would begin by observing that freedom requires certain attributes of orderliness: honesty, self-control, peaceability. Human beings, however, not uncommonly have a passion for tumult, saturnalia, disturbance, destruction and violence. And capitalism rushes to provide gratification and arousal of all these passions. It furnishes the world with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which allows a player to elect to have sex with a prostitute, and then kill her. It confects Natural Born Killers, and then puts it in a video for Sarah Edmonson and Ben Darrus to watch - while dropping acid - as a warm up for their shooting rampage of March 5th 1995.

In summary, it is alleged that capitalism's freedom produces a brutalised, barbarised and moronised population that will make capitalism not worth living.

Do we accept this?

I am not so pessimistic about the destructive effects on human conduct of rubbishy consumer culture. I put more reliance on "human nature" than do persons alarmed by the impact of sadistic pornography and revolting video games. This reliance is not an exercise of optimism. It is a piece of resignation. I think we are stuck with the human nature we have. This human nature is not very beautiful, and is salted with malign impulses. And this means that if circumstances give persons the room to exercise disorderly passions, they will express them. But the point is that there will not be much difference if they were raised in the rectory, or Fagin's den.

The real danger, then, is not the warping of human nature, but the possession by human beings of "room" to exercise savage impulses. That room might be called "freedom". In truth that "room" can only amount to giving one human being some unrestrained power over others; some power to assail, invade, and constrain others. This is not freedom but mastery. It is not freedom, but mastery in its various forms, that is the engine of barbarism.

Dr William Coleman is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

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"...there will not be much difference if they were raised in the rectory, or Fagin's den."

There seems little doubt that, given their druthers, people do not like to be fed the moral equivalent of broccoli. And it appears that feasting on populist broadcasting results in various forms of savagery -- another UK university survey on television encouraging violence was released last week.

So what an unusual thought coming from an academic, of all occupations! Teachers tend to recognise that intellectually and behaviourally we 'are what we eat' or at least what we read and learn. Immersing the young in certain values affects behaviour on average -- educational and religious traditions since the Upper Paleolithic suggest that this is true. Conversely we can look at little amoral microcultures, within our own countries or elsewhere, in which uncommon savagery abounds.

If students of the vicarage and Fagin's den will be statistically identical, and moral education is meaningless, then life on Dr Coleman's antipodeal campus ought be no different than life in downtown Mogadishu -- and, since I have never visited his campus, perhaps it is.

Posted by: s masty at February 23, 2005 04:00 PM

The right anti-economists sound like left/liberal anti-capitalists to me.

Social pressure and with it morality exists beside the market not as an alternative to it. If we made morality popular it sells. That after all is what political correctness is all about: it is really a new moral code that the lefties came up with when they began to realise that their attack on the old codes of behaviour had led to social disaster. Of course the lefties couldn't let their code percolate through society, but had to legislate a lot of it. However, it is clear that a lot of politically correct behaviour is now adopted voluntarily by those who would not normally be thought of as left-wing. Thus, most of us would think twice before using words with a racial connotation in polite society, just like we wouldn't use the vulgar word for fornication.

Posted by: Peter at February 23, 2005 11:19 PM

With this article fresh in my mind, I have turned to the BBC News website to read in an item on "Yes Minister" at 25:

- Mrs Thatcher was such a fan of the programme that she wrote a sketch featuring herself in which she gave Hacker the job of "abolishing economists" -

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at February 26, 2005 11:19 AM

While agreeing with much of the post, I think its look at the sociological argument attacks a strawman: that traditional societies are built on ideologies of bigotry to justify existing hierarchies. This a tiny bit simplistic, I think.

The sociological argument as made these days (whether by Peter Lawler in the US, or Pierre Manent or Philippe Beneton in France, say - it can all be traced back to Tocqueville) is less a compelling critique than a statement of doubt. The argument goes: capitalism erodes all the other loyalties in favour of commercial self-interest. As the post says, this means people become blind to other bases of association, many of which were unjust. The problem is, though, that it builds a society of people indifferent towards one another, and where no principle is beyond the compromises of commerce. In time, we become atomistic individuals, with nothing in common with our neighbours compared to our customers in (say) Ulaan Baator, and completely softened to the idea of fighting for anything that we become easy prey.

This is pretty much in line with the latter part of Fukuyama's "End of History" (remember it was "and the Last Man"?), although I think the point is to question whether the End of History is anything more than the fulfilment of the hopes of the modern... What we do after that remains an open question.

There is no perfect social structure, and modern commercial society is no exception - however good it may be (and is).

Posted by: Blimpish at February 26, 2005 11:59 AM

I do not understand why you are differentiating between right and left, other than terminology does not Marx make the same critique of freemarkets and free men as Fitzhugh --"all that is solid disolves into air... blah,blah,blah." Wasn't Soviet society just what Fitzhugh wanted, where the great mass of men were provided "support and protection", and another part were given "much and rigorous government."

The time has come to strike the banners of the partisan wars of the 20th century. The terms left and right have no meaning, except in relation to the speaker's own agenda. All believed that some men were born with saddles on their backs and others with boots and spurs with which to ride them. The only difference among them was how they thought to identify the riders and the mounts.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 1, 2005 03:04 AM
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