(Still)  In the Land o’ Cotton

“ In their infinite wisdom, the Founders created a deliberately unresponsive system in order to narrow the governmental options and, force us to seek alternative routes. Politics were dangerous; therefore, politics had to be limited and constrained.”

– Daniel Lazare

Production agriculture is energy-intensive.  Turning energy embedded in sunlight into food and fiber has long been a process exploited by humans. But until the late 1800s most of the work of farming was done by human or draft animal muscle. On a small homestead that could work, but for large acreage set up to feed an early textile industry with raw material and allow accumulation of profits and private wealth something else was required.

Yes, America was built on cheap labor. Maybe you’ve noticed. It still is. And as the Founding Fathers understood in their bones, the cheapest labor is the slave kind. Early America was heavily peopled by indentured “servants” who might, after a period of servitude, eventually emerge from their bondage. But a large population of “chattel slaves” were property: Owned by the purchaser as one might own a machine or a piece of furniture. The Framers’ constitution which made a claim to independence and popular government was, however, diligent in protecting the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Daniel Lazare’s important book, The Frozen Republic numbered the ways by which the Framers sought to keep the public structurally at-bay. The “separation-of-powers” that we are taught to revere as children is part of this matrix. The utterly unrepresentative “rotten borough” of the U.S, Senate was a key element. There, slave states could block “wicked projects” like emancipation. There, thinly populated states could block the interests of more populous ones. The subversive  principle of One person/one vote is an affront to the institution of the this millionaire’s club.

As Lazare points out, chattel slavery was so deeply embedded in the American constitution that only an extra-constitutional and bloody civil war could end it (more or less). Deep thinkers in the US have long been skeptical of a rascal public messing around with policy which might impede profit taking by “the men of best quality.” In the early 20th century journalist Walter Lippmann spoke for elite opinion then and now: “The public must be put in its place…. so that each of us may live free of the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd.” Yes fellow herd-sters. He means us.

There is an animating fear that still grips the political classes: Somehow the citizens of this backward land might yet discover how to vote themselves a better life. Often such “wicked projects” are dismissed as “too expensive.”  Societies in the rest of the so-called first world (with vastly smaller military budgets) provide universal health care and free college educations for their populations. But here we’re told such ideas are out of place. We must rely on market mechanisms and profit-seeking corporate structures to deliver such public goods. The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher famously coined the term TINA (There Is No Alternative) and declared that there is no such thing as “society.” We’re supposedly just atomized individuals pursuing our own private interests gloriously free of the baleful influence of our fellows in the “bewildered herd.”

Keeping governing structures weak/ scorned has long been understood as vital to the interests of the wealthy. Hard core “conservatives” are very clear that democracy is by its nature “totalitarian.” As school kids we are taught to fear the “tyranny of the majority.” Best to keep the collective power of government at a minimum.  After a brief flirtation with public sector involvement in the economy begun during the New Deal, we’re now back to Framer-basics with private interests calling the shots. Biden floated the notion of a “public option” where a few might escape the tyranny of a barbaric profit-driven private insurance regime. Such electioneering fantasies are now quietly withdrawn. During the presidential campaign candidate Biden assured his wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” were he to be elected. That’s proving to be one campaign promise they can take to the bank.

The old southern planter class’ wealth, and genteel plantation squirearchy was based on (what Lincoln called) “the sweat of other men’s faces.” They were very clear on what was required to keep popular government “in its place.” As now, in the early 19th century there was a need for public infrastructure development. Back then canals were perhaps the most efficient way to distribute commodities. But as North Carolinian thinker Nathanial Macon warned a young southern canal enthusiast, “ If a congress can make canals, they can with more propriety emancipate.”

People like Macon were good at keeping their eye-on-the-ball and understanding the American Game.

And folks, it’s still being played. Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham explained that after reading Lazare’s Frozen Republic in  1996 he finally understood and why government doesn’t work here: It wasn’t supposed to.

Congress has just declared June 19th, “Juneteenth National Independence Day.” Some quibbled that the holiday’s title was an evasion. After all, the issue was Emancipation, not “Independence.” But emancipation remains a sticky and dangerous topic here in a country still chained to the veranda of southern squirearchy and more wedded to magical thinking, distraction and diversion than rigorous structural examination.



Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: rerhames@gmail.com