Monday, February 20, 2017

Leninism in the Time of Trump

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No one knows just why Steve Bannon, then an obscure media figure and now President Trump’s special adviser, would have walked up to Ronald Radosh at a dinner party in 2014 and told him “I’m a Leninist.”   Even Radosh, who once upon a time was a Leninist, doesn’t know.  Nor has anyone, in fact, been able to confirm Radosh’s assertion including Steve Bannon who claims not even to remember the meeting let alone what he might have said.  Let’s assume, however, since Bannon hasn’t denied the story or claimed that it’s “fake news” that it happened.  What, we might ask, would a former naval officer and employee at Goldman Sachs who grew up in a working class home in Norfolk, Virginia have possibly meant by saying he was a Leninist?
         This anecdote has occasionally been glossed with reference to Vladimir Lenin’s tract, “The State and Revolution,” a work neither Bannon nor Radosh mention.  Bannon may only have had a sophomoric desire to shock a neoconservative intellectual whose political background is well known.   Or, in a colossal mis-reading of the Russian revolution, he may think of himself as a system-destroying revolutionary.
Odd as it may seem, however, we have much to learn by considering how Bannon, or indeed many contemporary Republican voters and Tea Party activists, might read what Lenin wrote in the months before the November 7 coup in Saint Petersburg brought him to power.  Lenin’s pamphlet has little relevance to Soviet governance, but it may have been and may remain far more useful as a guide to American practice.  My aim here is not to write about what Lenin really meant and whether Leninism betrayed Lenin or the Russian revolution.  It is to consider the themes of “The State and Revolution” as they might be read by right-wing radical American activists. “The State and Revolution” is far more concerned with bureaucracy, regulation and the political power of expertise than it is with class structures, dialectical materialism, or the role of a vanguard party.  It may be the least Leninist thing Lenin ever wrote.
      The contemporary bureaucratic and regulatory structures that most Americans know and that the Tea Party generally abhors are just about 100 years old in this country.  In France and Germany they are somewhat older.  American academics tend to focus on the German scholar Max Weber as the earliest and most important student of bureaucratic structures but at the turn of the twentieth century there were eminent scholars around the world who noticed the sudden emergence of bureaucracy and state regulation as new methods of governance.  As Harvard Law School Dean Roscoe Pound noticed shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, administrative law—the law of the bureaucracy—was so new in the US that it was almost unstudied in law schools.   
        It is not surprising that Karl Marx paid relatively little attention to the state because in the country that most affected his view of the world and that he saw as the most advanced, England, the administrative state was relatively unimportant.  Despite the existence of a theoretically strong parliament, government in the United Kingdom of the late 19th century, although the most advanced industrial and capitalist country in the world, still existed primarily as a set of highly local practices.  Marx’s view of socialism was largely colored by his concern that labor be joyful and that governance be, in essence, amateur.  It is instructive that Marx saw the state as a committee rather than as a set of administrative and regulatory structures.  Marx understood that the state employed coercion, but neither the Rhineland nor England—the two societies that most strongly shaped his understanding of capitalism and government—had powerful bureaucracies during his lifetime.
Lenin was heir to mid-19th century debates about the nature of society and the state.  During his study of law at the University of Kazan in the 1880’s, the first Tsarist experiments in creating codified law were still being implemented and the peasantry, the vast majority of Russia’s inhabitants, lived with almost no contact with the new legal structures, their courts, or their administrative edicts.  Unlike his near contemporaries, Weber and Pound, Lenin had a significant impact on the creation of modern political structures.  Not least of these was his insistence that political parties be made up of disciplined professionals who carried particular discourses and practices (the party “line”) into society.  Lenin’s invention was thus of a party that ultimately allowed the state to organize and agitate society rather than being a mechanism for the projection of social and civic interests into government.
On the eve of the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, Lenin briefly looked back at earlier utopian debates on the ultimate goal of the socialist movement and discussed one of Marx’s old and only briefly elaborated themes: the withering away of the state.  It was far easier in Marx’s day to imagine the progressive disappearance of still weakly bureaucratized governing structures than it would be in the aftermath of the mobilization for total war that occurred for the generations that lived from 1914 until 1945.  Lenin fully grasped that when Marx proposed the necessity of smashing what he called the bureaucratic-military machine his words only applied to France and the situation of French revolutionaries in 1871 during the year of the Paris Commune.  England then, and by extension the United States, lacked both a military clique and an extensive bureaucracy.  Consequently Lenin wrote, in Britain, it was possible to imagine a people’s revolution (his words) without the need to destroy the already existing machinery of the state. 
It was not difficult for Lenin, in the chaotic Russian summer of 1917, to assert that both the bureaucracy and the standing army were “parasites” on the body of bourgeois society.   Relying on Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune and on the assumption that by 1917 Russian revolutionaries as well as those in England and the US would need to smash the state, Lenin considered what would replace it, or more accurately just who would replace the state. 
Despite the association of Lenin’s name with the pervasive and rigid bureaucracy of the Soviet state and its highly privileged elite—the so-called nomenklatura—he foresaw a very different outcome than the self-proclaimed leaders of twentieth century totalitarianism.  “All citizens,” Lenin wrote in State and Revolution, “are transformed into hired employees of the state, which consists of the armed workers.”  With rising levels of literacy and numeracy, Lenin predicted that “all members of society, or at least the vast majority, have learned to administer the state themselves, have taken over the work into their own hands….from this moment the need for government of any kind begins to disappear altogether.” 
            Whatever similarities exist between the bureaucracies in the fascist and communist states in the 1930s, the utopian ideal proposed by Lenin is distinctly different than that of contemporary fascist leaders.  Both Hitler and Mussolini considered the state a tool to be seized and used.  Hitler in Mein Kampf and Mussolini in “The Doctrine of Fascism” saw the state as an instrument for social order and cohesion. It might be necessary to purge state officials (an idea with which Stalin agreed) and it might be necessary to develop new and more hideous instruments of coercion and murder.  Eliminating the state, even as an ideal, was alien to their thinking and to their movements as it was for Lenin when he finally acquired state power and even more so when he was succeeded by Stalin.
Eliminating the state solves one of the most acute problems of government as a socially autonomous institution. Political thinkers from Plato to Madison, to Foucault and Hobbes, all wondered who governs the governors.  More specifically what prevents those with administrative authority from using it on their own behalf?  There are many different answers and Lenin was not reluctant to propose, at least in theory, his own: 

“When all have learned to administer and actually do independently administer social production, independently keep accounts and exercise control over parasites…escape from this popular accounting and control will inevitably become so incredibly difficult, such a rare exception, and will probably be accompanied by such swift and severe accounting (for the armed workers are practical men and not sentimental intellectuals, and they will scarcely allow anyone to trifle with them), that the necessity of observing…the rules of the community will very soon become a habit.”

      European socialists and revolutionaries at the turn of the 20th century strongly opposed the use of violence against minorities and Lenin was no exception.  Nevertheless the independent action of armed workers against government officials is close to lynch law which was usually justified by asserting that the competent government officials were derelict in their duty.  One place where armed workers possessed the capacity to threaten officials was the United States and especially the American South, where tradition, statute, and constitutional law (the Second Amendment) sanctioned white violence against black citizens accused but not convicted to criminal acts.   Lynching was never promoted as a substitute for the judicial system but it was frequently excused as the direct action of an emotionally mobilized community.  
       Those who defended lynching recognized that it undermined the state.  Benjamin Tillman participated in the Hamburg Massacre of 1876 which was one of a long chain of events in which armed insurrection overthrew the Reconstruction government.  He later served as state governor and US Senator.  Speaking of lynching to the legislature in 1895 he argued that in a government dominated by white supremacists, whites had no reason to resort to lynching.   Yet, as Tillman knew lynching often required not only a mob but the collusion of state officials who (to paraphrase Lenin) undertook to obey the rules of the community as a habit.
       A far more common use of arbitrary authority in the South occurred in voter registration.  The states of the Old Confederacy after Reconstruction never legislatively denied African-Americans the franchise directly.  Much as they might have wanted to, white politicians understood that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution precluded such a direct assault.  Instead they created literacy and administrative requirements that gave voter registrars significant leeway in determining who could vote and how to validate ballots.  The administrative mechanism they created was therefore quite distant from what Weber or Pound might have expected.  Registrars and other officials therefore had both the incentive and the authority to eliminate the influence of large sections of the population on government.  In many Southern states ultimately more white than black voters were disenfranchised.  The broad democracy that Reconstruction was supposed to plant in the south withered.
        Whatever Steve Bannon’s views on race, ethnicity, religion and gender, however, he’s no Ben Tillman at least in public.  Any listener to recordings of his somewhat rambling talks available on the internet can attest that his speech is devoid of racial slurs or ethnic epithets.  That listener can also attest to Bannon’s view that he believes in the superiority of Western civilization and the culture of Christian religiosity without necessarily showing any great familiarity with either.  Compared to the rants of “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman or “The Great White Chief” James Vardaman of Mississippi, Bannon is a mild-mannered politician.  But again neither Tillman or Vardaman would have described themselves as Leninists who hoped for the destruction either of the elite or the state.  Where Bannon’s vision is reminiscent of Lenin’s is when he reassures his audience that their values—rather than the actual laws—ought to be what animates government. 
        Donald Trump has no desire for the state to vanish.  Someone must keep track of deeds, clean the streets, patrol the borders, and prosecute violent crime.   Beyond those tasks, however, Trump and much of the leadership of the Republican party question the need for the regulatory and social service bureaucracy of the contemporary state.  Trump and the Republican majority in Congress are in agreement to dispense, as far as possible, with these institutions of the state.  Many of Trump’s appointments, notably Betsy DeVos at Education and Ben Carson at Housing, have little experience either with large bureaucratic institutions or with the substance of the policy disputes they must address.  They also both prefer private and for-profit solutions to public and governmental ones.  They will therefore be neither inclined nor able to ensure that their agencies function well either in society or in the conflict for funds, influence, and the president’s attention.  It is unlikely they will defend their agencies vigorously against threats of dissolution such as bills recently introduced into Congress to dissolve the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency. 
Someone must also defend the rights of owners of private property.  Trump exhibits greater ambivalence about government property.  During Cliven Bundy’s April 2014 armed stand-off with Bureau of Land Management employees over grazing rights in Nevada, Trump acknowledged respect for Bundy.  He also recognized that government would collapse if everyone did what Bundy was doing. While not exactly Lenin’s concept of armed workers enforcing their will on bureaucrats, Bundy’s action was remarkably close. 
Bundy’s armed actions posed a problem for Trump but not primarily because it was armed.  Trump does not support transferring Federal land to state governments.  As a real estate developer who has frequently benefited from it, he supports the right of government to take private land with compensation (eminent domain).  Many Trump voters are closer to Bundy’s way of thinking.  Thus, Trump proposed a solution to the crisis in which Bundy negotiated his way out of the standoff and his unpaid arrears to the government.  In 2016, Bundy’s son, Ammon, took over the Malheur Federal wildlife refuge. Trump asserted that if he were President he would end the occupation by calling the leaders and asking them to stand down and bring their complaints to him.  Gerald DeLemus, co-chair of the New Hampshire Veterans for Trump Committee, saw the armed take-over of Federal offices in a different light. He flew to Malheur to join the protest where he was arrested.
Although they intervened with arms against government officials, Bundy father and son are not Leninists.  They descend from a long tradition of the use of armed force against officials by farmers that began western Pennsylvania with the whiskey rebellion of 1791.   This armed protest, like later ones, sought to change government policy by preventing officials from carrying it out.  Limiting the power of the government to tax and regulate was the issue, not the destruction of the state.
So, too, neither Trump nor Bannon seek the end of the state although they both, like paleo-conservatives and neo-liberals, seek to roll back the administrative state.  What is different and what Bannon may have recognized in “State and Revolution” if he ever read it is a two-fold idea.  The first is simply that armed protest—of a kind that is almost impossible to imagine outside a constitution that guarantees the right of private citizens to bear arms—plays an extremely disruptive role with the institutions of the modern state.  The second is that increasing the discretion of police officers to enforce law can enhance the ability of an executive to accomplish popular but formally unconstitutional goals.
This suggests a different way to understand Trump’s executive orders and especially his most recent conflict with the Ninth Circuit.  That these orders are poorly written and that Trump had little understanding of their content or how they would be received by the courts is clear.    Neither Steve Bannon nor Donald Trump has a legal education and the President reads little and certainly not closely.   Something of an argument has developed about whether the poorly drafted orders are the result of incompetence or some extraordinarily diabolic cleverness.  I suggest a third possibility: the executive orders are not primarily meant as legal documents.  They are messages conveying to officials such as immigration officers at the border or police in the field that, rather than being strictly commanded to engage in extreme vetting, they have been given extreme latitude to enforce the law. 
If Steve Bannon really bounced up to Ronald Radosh and provocatively announced that he was a Leninist, he didn’t mean destroying the bureaucracy.  He meant transforming it from an organization bound by law into one inhabited by a million little Trumps.



 





Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Klankraftiness of Donald Trump



                  Donald Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education is revealing of more than trouble ahead for public education in the United States. Because she wants to turn much of public instruction private, it also reveals how profoundly the politics of white supremacy has changed since the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan was a mainstream social movement and had broad political influence.  There is no better way to understand today’s Trump phenomenon than by comparing him with the Klan, but to do this we must rid ourselves of the idea that the early twentieth century Klan was identical to that of the mid-nineteenth century or the one of our day.

                  The Klan was re-founded in 1915 in the Deep South not long after the release of the popular movie, Birth of a Nation, which was itself based on an earlier novel The Klansman.  The expansion of the Klan relied on techniques now associated with multi-level marketing firms such as Amway as well as the synthesis of exotic rituals such as those earlier popularized by fraternal societies such as the Shriners. 

                  White supremacy has always been a basic element of Klan ideology or Klankraft as it was called with the organization. Despite its constant concern to avoid being labeled as an organization whose members took the law into their own hands, the Klan always employed violence as political terror and social discipline.  Between 1915 and 1928, however, the Klan was a broadly representative fraternal organization insofar as it mirrored the beliefs of many white native-born Protestants and insofar as it projected those beliefs into the political realm. 

                  Despite the initial association of the Klan with the Confederate states, in the 1920s it was an organization well beyond the South.  Seeking to understand the spread of the Klan, contemporary observers and later historians utilized the same causal links that have been deployed to explain the Trump vote in 2016: fear of labor market competition by immigrants, the transition to a new economy (more industrial) and new society (more urban), as well as changes in social mores about sex and intoxicants. 

                  There has been considerable scholarly debate about who joined the Klan in the 1920s.  A once dominant tendency was to believe that Klansmen were marginal members of society: uneducated and impoverished whites with a propensity to violence and profound ignorance about economic structures and politics.  In part this was simply a stereotype based on an esthetic that less attractive politics must be held by less attractive people.  In part it arose from the desire of middle-class and professional opponents of the Klan who held similar ideas to differentiate themselves and their social milieu from the organization.

Recent studies, employing internal Klan documents, have shown that the Klan in the 1920s was broadly representative of white society, but that its members were disproportionately drawn from semi-skilled labor and lower level civil servants.  Klan members were more likely to have had modest incomes and modest educations than to have been unskilled, illiterate, or well-off professionals with college degrees.  Klan members, to a greater degree than society at large, benefited from receiving education at a period in American history when most pre-baccalaureate instruction was provided by public schools.

A moment’s reflection dismisses the idea of the Klan in the 1920s as an organization of the impoverished and dispossessed.  Unlike the Klan ‘s first incarnation in 1868 as an avowedly terrorist group, the Klan’s revival in after World War I was the work of publicists and advertising agents working out the basic elements of multi-level marketing in the context of a fraternal organization.  Members paid the klecktoken or annual dues of $10 at a time when Henry Ford had made himself nationally famous by offering skilled assembly workers $5 a day, which was twice the normal daily wage for factory employees.  Members were also expected to buy their own robes, other paraphernalia, and printed literature.  Formal membership in the Klan was beyond the means of the impoverished and the economically insecure.  Paid organizers, the kleagles, retained $4 of every klecktoken they received.  Higher officials retained smaller amounts but from a larger pool.  By the mid-1920s the national Klan leadership often attained incomes of hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money. 

Klan membership was restricted to white Protestant native-born men although the creation of the auxiliary Women’s KKK in 1923 opened up an avenue for women to participate.  The Klan is best known for the violence with which, especially in the South, it enforced white supremacy and suppressed any bids for political or economic equality by Black Americans.  The Klan also sought, through legal and extra-legal means, to affect American society in a variety of other areas: immigration, education, drugs, sexual relations, child support, and divorce.

Since the 1960s, Americans have thought of drugs in terms of marijuana and a handful of powerful stimulants and depressants such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and briefly LSD.  All of these are available through illegal markets.  The hard drugs are sufficiently available to create public health problems and they all contribute to the existence of an unregulated economy that engenders wealth and violence.  Recently many states have effectively legalized marijuana although Federal law continues to sanction its use.  For hundreds of years, however, Americans thought of alcohol as the most dangerous drug for its economic, social and moral effects on society.  In the latter 19th century increasingly effective movements sought to ban the production and consumption of alcohol and they were ultimately successful immediately after World War I with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the constitution and the Volstead Act.

Mention Prohibition today and it conjures up quaint images of flappers and speakeasies or exchanges of gunfire between square-jawed federal agents and gangsters with ominously Italian names along with the easy admission that it was obviously a terrible policy.  Yet prohibition had long been a staple demand of American Protestant churches. The Klan, along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Organization and the Anti-Saloon League, also fought for it.  Like so many issues, Prohibition was not directly a matter of intolerance or prejudice but it sharpened opposition between immigrant groups and nativist whites.  For Jews and Catholics from southern and eastern Europe wine was a sacramental item as well as an item of cultural conviviality along with hard liquor.   The inability of the Federal and state governments to enforce Prohibition also gave the Klan license to enforce it by itself.  It did so with assaults on drinking establishments and, in parts of the South, with public whippings. 

                  If alcohol was one popular issue that deeply concerned the Klan, education was another.  It invariably supported the expansion of the public schools and frequently also supported higher taxes to enhance them.  From the Deep South to the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast the Klan fought consistently to extend compulsory public education.  In Oregon in 1922 elected Klan officials passed a law requiring that all children between eight and sixteen attend public schools.  Progressive as this might seem, the aim of this and other similar legislation backed by the Klan was use the schools to shape the values and allegiances of American citizens.   As one Klan official put it in 1923, “the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan should be the vehicle for this Bible reading and instruction and that no atheist, infidel, skeptic or non-believer should be allowed to teach in the public schools.” 

                  The Klan’s opposition to the Catholic Church was rooted in beliefs that the culture and society of the US were uniquely Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.  The Klan viewed the massive immigration that characterized the US from the 1890 to 1920 and had brought large numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans to the US (as well as Jews) as an existential threat.  The Catholic Church possessed a formidable institutional presence.  Its members owed allegiance to the Church and were enmeshed in an institutional framework that included schools, parishes, and charitable organizations.  Unlike the various Protestant sects that dominated the religious scene in the US, the Church had a well-organized hierarchy and could mobilize its primarily urban worshippers for elections.  Long before academics thought about the reproduction of culture, the Klan grasped the importance of controlling early education to affect the ties of citizens to the institutions of civil society and the state. 

                  The Klan viewed the religious threat to American society as the primary result of immigration.  The Klan viewed with concern the large number of Catholics who had entered the US in the preceding decades and especially that “a big percent of these immigrants are from the lowest strata of Italy, Poland, and other Roman Catholic countries.”  The Klan strongly supported immigration legislation that in 1924 ended the policy of nearly unlimited entry into the US in order, in its words, to “prevent the glutting of the American labor market and the Romanizing and mongrelizing of the citizenship of the United States.”

                  No one would deny that the Klan in the 1920s was committed to white supremacy, but this is popularly thought to be a nearly unconscious reflex.  For most white Americans, we are often told, being white was a background condition and whites were rarely aware that whiteness was itself a singular condition.  This is not how the Klan presented the relevant issue.  As noted above, the Klan undoubtedly saw white dominance as intimately connected with Protestantism and Protestantism they certainly believed to be under attack from Catholics and Jews. 

                  It can be difficult to separate the Klan’s racism with that of white society at large in the period between the two world wars.  The Klan was committed to maintaining the legal and economic separation and subjugation of African-Americans.  It held, as did many Americans in the era of “scientific racism”, that Blacks were an inferior group.  Criticism of the Klan at the time from those who believed equally in white supremacy was often based on concern that the Klan provoked violence both as a short-term policy and in order to spread fear among whites that would bring more recruits to the Klan.  Writing in 1922, Henry Fry discussed the Tulsa race riot the previous year in which whites killed some 300 Black people, destroyed property, and drove citizens into exile. Speaking of what was probably the worse pogrom in American history Fry, in his book The Modern Ku Klux Klan, noted that the Klan at no time rallied to support the maintenance of law and order despite its claims to be an organization committed to such goals.  Oklahoma, Fry pointed out, was a stronghold of the Klan.  Despite its state support for law and order, the Klan was a constant source of disorder both through its propaganda and through its mobilization of members for extra-legal and illegal activity.  Inciting and organizing popular violence while piously asserting that its commitment to legality was a hallmark of the Klan.

                  The Klan was, however, solicitous of the police and local law enforcement. It was here that the Klan, especially in the South but elsewhere as well, had its greatest impact on local government.  The Klan in the 1920s, even in the South, did not deploy the Confederate flag.  To the contrary, although it deplored what it called an over-reaching Federal government during Reconstruction, in the 1920s the Klan presented itself as a bastion of Americanism and a supporter of American institutions. 

                  In 2016 the Klan is no longer an organization of any importance in American politics, but the so-called Alt-Right and political currents that swirl in and around it such as the Tea Party and sections of the Republican party remain strongly motivated by the issues and policies that the Klan pioneered in the 1920s.  Trump himself sometimes articulates views very close to those of the Klan. Whether this is chance is far from clear.  Just because they were once common views among white Americans of his father’s generation means he likely heard them growing up.  That his father was arrested at a Klan demonstration in 1927 and may have been attracted to their nativist message and thus raised his son on it is also possible.

                  Trump is closest to evoking the Klan of the 1920s in his views on immigration.  Indeed Trump’s call for a moratorium on immigration sounds remarkably like a 1923 statement by a South Carolina Grand Dragon to restrict immigration for a decade while the US took “an inventory of human assets and liabilities” with its border.  His view of Mexicans resembles those of Klan quoted above. 

                  In the 1920s the Klan was concerned primarily with Jewish and Catholic immigration and secondarily with Japanese immigration.  Muslim immigration was insignificant and the Klan never mentioned it.  The prevailing infatuation with the Orient at the end of the 19th century may even have played some role in the Klan’s ritual meetings which, unlike cross burning, took place indoors.  Citizens of the “invisible empire” entered a separate space from the “alien” world of everyday America when the Klavern assembled.  The Klan constitution was officially known as the Kloran and the sergeant-at-arms was a Klaliff which may have been a portmanteau of bailiff and caliph. 

Anti-Semitism and anti-Catholic animus, major themes of the klancraft of religion, were more than mere personal prejudice although they certainly included it.  The persistence of anti-Semitism in countries such as the US and Germany which had relatively tiny Jewish populations owes more to its role as a discourse of mobilization than as a lived experience for most people.   Modern anti-Semitism is a way of transforming economic grievances into ethnic ones.  As the German social democratic leader August Bebel once put it, anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.  Anti-Catholic sentiment was more directly aimed at mobilizing sentiment against institutions that necessarily sought to expand pluralism and what we would today call “multi-culturalism” in American society.  Many Protestants perceived the Church as an enemy to their dominance of society and as recently as the 1960 presidential election it was possible to argue that John Kennedy would, if elected, take orders from the Pope about how to govern the US. 

                  Anti-Catholicism is no longer a main theme in American politics and anti-Semitism, while significant, has not been a primary motivating tool of the American right.  The religion most in the public eye today in American politics is Islam and Trump has echoed many themes of the older anti-Catholic discourse when he speaks of Islam.  This sounds peculiar because antagonism to Islam and to Arabs is often described as similar to anti-Semitism.  Considering the nature of the Klan’s antagonism to the Catholic Church (and indeed the history of conflating anxiety about Catholic and Muslim challenges to Protestant polities going back to the 16th century) it should be clear that much of what is called “Islamophobia” resembles anti-Catholic sentiment.  Muslims, like Catholics, are said to be incapable of integrating into the American political community: they are beholden to religious leaders outside our national territory; they are subordinate to a particular textual tradition; they have not experienced the Reformation; in addition to their religious incapacity to assimilate they are members of equally problematic ethnic groups; they seek to transform American institutions through subjecting them to alien religious norms.  These complaints are rarely if ever addressed to Jews in the United States but they have been commonly applied both to Muslims and Catholics.

                  What then of education?  If Trump spoke the fears of the Klan to a new generation of white Protestants (and of course to some other Americans as well) his embrace of Betsy DeVos shows how different our world is than that of the 1920s.  The struggles to integrate and secularize the public schools in the 1960s ended the dream that they could be used to create a citizenry steeped in white supremacy and Protestant religiosity.  Catholics increasingly turned to the public schools to educate their children as did Jews and school boards and local governments increasingly withdrew Bible reading from morning exercises.  Teaching became both a profession with a pluralist workforce and increasingly committed to cultural pluralism as a value. 

                  The rise of private schools as a safe space for the values of middle as well as upper class white Protestants grew in tandem with the integration of the public schools.  In the south, but less so in the north, the Klan existed in tension with an older, wealthier oligarchy frequently rooted in land ownership.  That oligarchy also believed in white supremacy and required cheap Black labor.  Conflicts between the Klan and the oligarchy frequently arose over education and the leasing of convict labor.   Because much of the prison population was Black, convict leasing threatened the wages of impoverished white workers.  Not until 1928, with the support of the Klan, did Alabama finally eliminate convict leasing.  It was the last state to do so.  Schools remained chronically underfunded, however, and the same literacy tests and poll taxes that prevent almost all African Americans from voting also limited white electoral participation.  The public schools were the only possible path for upward mobility.

The Klan hoped, with some success, to force all Americans into the public school system and also hoped, with some success, to control the curriculum. White supremacists and the political activists from the far right of the political spectrum can no longer hope to accomplish that.  Nor indeed do they, as did many of their predecessors, send their own children to public schools.  Whether today’s wealthy constitute an oligarchy is an open question, but the wealthiest Americans send their children to private schools and sponsor the privatization of public schools as an ideal.  Thus Betsy DeVos will play an important role in making education policy for the next several years. 

If white supremacists have turned against a public school system they can no longer control, the schools remain an important locus for political power.  They continue to shape citizens and provide many young Americans with whatever skills and human capital they can acquire as they seek to find employment.  Another way to look at the most recent election is to realize that although unions in the private sector have been largely eliminated those in the public sector remain potent economic and political actors.  In the 1920s many lower level civil servants were attracted to the Ku Klux Klan but that has ceased to be true.  Today public employees are divided into two main groups: those who deal with security and those who deal with human services.  There are about 1.3 million police in the US and about 3.1 million teachers.  Police unions appear to have endorsed Trump and teacher’s unions supported Clinton.  Transforming the public schools has an ideological purpose but it also will have political consequences.  Unions that are no longer primarily white and no longer have primarily white constituencies no longer benefit from the support of organizations, mainstream or extreme, that further white supremacy.  Privatizing schools will decrease organized support for public schools by teachers as well as among parents.  Strong support for the police will have the opposite effect. 

Although Americans at large and some supporters came to distrust the Klan as its leaders grew wealthy and engaged in egregious acts of self-aggrandizement one of the most important causes of the collapse of the Klan was the 1925 abduction of Madge Oberholtzer by Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson.  In a horrific incident that was once widely known but is now largely forgotten Stephenson kidnapped Oberholtzer and held her at his mansion where he raped her repeatedly. Stephenson released her after her attempt to escape him by committing suicide failed.  Stephenson returned Oberholtzer, bruised and bloodied, to her mother’s house.  Her death several weeks later was attributed to a combination of infected deep bites by Stephenson and kidney failure from the suicide attempt.  Stephenson was convicted of rape and second degree murder.

Stephenson’s conviction led tens of thousands of men to leave the Klan and, after being denied a parole, he provided evidence that led to the conviction of Indiana officials, including the governor, Ed Jackson, on bribery charges.  Within two years the Klan, which in 1924 had nearly a quarter of a million members, ceased to exist as an organized force in Indiana.

The leaders of the second Klan came to believe they could act with impunity, but the Madge Oberholtzer’s death and the subsequent revelations showed their limits.  Donald Trump is not D.C. Stephenson and it remains to be seen if his administration will show similar venality to Jackson’s.  Like the Klan, however, he has ridden a cresting wave of populist white supremacy, religious discrimination, anti-immigrant politics into office claiming to be the opponent of a financial oligarchy.  Trump’s use of social media to incite violence that he then claims to oppose resembles the Klancraft of the 1920s which was seriously concerned about the dissemination of their message and dealing with the public media.  The Klan is an insignificant organization today but its ideas, appeals, and base of support appears to live on.  Whether its weaknesses will prove to be Trump’s as well remains to be seen.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Democratization's First Failure: The American South After 1865




This is the second of two entries against American exceptionalism.  The first dealt with the period of the revolutionary war of independence.  This one addresses the occupation of the South after the Civil War and the failure to create a democratic capitalist system there.  

Americans, including academics, have an immense appetite for books, stories and films about the
people, processes, and details of the Revolution and the Civil War.  American academics have a nearly equally immense appetite for books and articles about democratization, but more recently their tastes have changed to include studies of authoritarianism, dictatorship, and repression.  Neither citizens at large nor academics, however, have much of a taste for the period in which American history comprises grim accounts of authoritarianism, terror, dictatorship and the violent overthrow of elected governments—the period between 1876 and 1956.

American academics do occasionally research and write about those years but they prefer to focus on what are, generally, more uplifting stories.  These include the expansion of American industry, the political integration of millions of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, the development of the welfare state, and the increasingly important role of the US as a global power. What negative aspects there are to the role of urban political machines, the unequal distribution of wealth in the Gilded Age, and the inability (or unwillingness) of the US to bring democracy to the real or metaphorical islands where US troops were dispatched from the Philippines to Central America or the Caribbean form a necessary counterpoint to the ineluctably progressive character of the American experience. 

Inherent in these stories—whether told in the academic or the popular press—is the belief that America is one country with one people.  Its territorial boundaries expand and its population becomes increasingly diverse but, as our national motto has it, we are, out of many, one.  Walt Whitman is our national poet because he celebrates our protean ability to combine multitude of individuals.  To the extent that we may be slightly skeptical of how exceptional we are, we sometimes note the role that ideas of race have played in the history of the American state and American society.  Because African slavery in Americas was nearly coextensive with white settlement, we have come to see African Americans as people against whom there has been discrimination but who are historically part and parcel of the American people and American history. 

There are sound reasons for looking at American history this way, but we can learn something else about the history of our country and the world by looking at things slightly differently: as the centuries-long account of attempting, with varying degrees of success, the integration of two very different countries—one with liberal democratic and market institutions riven by class conflict and one with an authoritarian political system and a command economy and a caste society—into one and of attempting, often with very little success, to democratize one of them. Seen in this light and shorn of the idea that the conflict over race is simply a matter of individual prejudice (although that too exists) similarities between post-colonial states in the Middle East, Asia and Africa with the United States become more apparent.  

For anyone interested in whether an occupying army can accomplish democratization or the ways in which a dispossessed elite regains authority or simply how much political capital US governments are willing to expend in the pursuit of democratization, the years between 1865 and 1960 in the American South provide a wealth of insight.  In April 1865 the Federal government won the war it had prosecuted for four years against an insurgent government, the Confederate States of America.  Unlike many rebellious movements the CSA was a fully formed state.  It had an army, governing institutions and offices, diplomatic representatives, and a legal system.  It claimed and, except when militarily defeated by the Union army, largely succeeded in maintaining a monopoly of legitimate violence in the territory it claimed. Had the Union not occupied the south, including its successive capitals, there is no reason to believe that it would have been anything other than a functioning state in the global system of states. 

It is generally understood today that the war was fought over the issue of slavery but what this means is often unclear.  The war was not fought over racial discrimination, but over whether the state would recognize and defend property rights in human beings. More exactly it was fought to determine whether a political system in which slavery provided an elite with crucial economic power would continue to exist in North America where it had already been abolished in the two neighboring polities of Canada and Mexico. The Emancipation Proclamation was a tool through which the Union destroyed the economy of the CSA.  Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US constitution in 1865 outlawing slavery made the re-creation of the Old South’s political economy impossible. 

Over the next twenty years several Republican presidents and congressional majorities wrestled with the problem we now call democratization.   They thought of it as a problem of how to construct republican government.  In a world of monarchies and empires, political theorists still thought more about republics than democracies as the alternative to autocratic rule.  Equally pressing was that the wording of the US constitution permitted the Congress to ensure that the various states had republican not democratic governments.

The fourteenth Amendment to the constitution and the civil rights act of 1866 were initial attempts to create political (but not social) equality between black and white citizens.  In the mid-19th century several states of the Deep South had black majorities and thus political equality necessarily transferred power in any fair and free election.  Former slaves were solidly Republican voters but the candidates they supported were usually white.  Some were from the South and others were immigrants from the North.  It is testimony to the continued power of the political vocabulary of southern reaction that the nomenclature to describe these whites, “scalawags” and “carpetbaggers”, has survived into the 21st century.

To a degree perhaps unprecedented in human history, the racism that structures relationships between black and white Americans is the outcome of conscious human decision-making.  Unlike the relationships between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims or Armenians and Turks or Koreans and Japanese, there simply are no historical categories that correspond to white and black as Americans understand them before 1620.  Neither the progenitors of Europeans or Africans inhabited the continents that were to be named after the obscure Italian navigator Vespucci.  If the children of Europe came largely of their own volition, the children of Africa were brought in chains and suffering and the relationship between the two developed in relatively well-documented historical time.  

With the exception of the American Indian peoples, neither the US constitution, ordinary politics, nor American scholarship is in the least at ease with the idea that ours is a multi-ethnic or pluri-national country.  There was really no time when Black and white in America lived happily together in a paradise riven by colonial machinations.  And yet precisely because this is so it is easier to re-imagine the historical processes of American economic and political history creating two distinct nations and facing, however imperfectly, the necessity of transforming them into one.

It is common today to look with some disdain on movements and thinkers in American history who seriously considered that black and white Americans were separate peoples.  Merely to state it in those terms seems to provide the segregationists and slave-owners with a kind of victory.  Such a refusal ignores that Abraham Lincoln looked favorably on the idea that freed slaves would be best returned to Africa. Many whites and a number of black in the nineteenth century supported colonization of West Africa and the creation of the state of Liberia.  It is easy to condescend to Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa movement.  With his hats and his bluster and the ultimate collapse of his movement in corruption he is no longer an inspiring figure, but there was a moment when hundreds of thousands of African Americans considered him a beacon of hope in a violent and impoverished time.  Garvey, like many earlier figures who promoting the return of African Americans to Africa, seems to have thought of them as a people that only required a territory of their own to become truly a nation.

The one theoretical claim that African Americans might be a distinct nation within the US is even more suspect.  Harry Haywood, a long-forgotten Black Communist, wrote Negro Liberation precisely to propose that the inhabitants of the Black Belt deserved recognition as a separate nation with a separate territory.  Uncomfortable as we may be today with the concept of reparations, it is far easier to consider reparations than the idea of a sovereign or semi-sovereign entity on the territory of the United States with an African-American elite.   Writing within the framework of Stalin’s definition of nationhood, Haywood proposed to his comrades that the Negro people were a nation because they shared language, history, economic relations, and culture. Haywood realized that the Negro people shared many of these characteristics with whites. There is nothing anomalous in Haywood’s argument if we recognize the Irish, Welsh or Scots as nationalities distinct from the English despite sharing with their former overlords these same presumably primal characteristics.  What distinguishes those nations from each other would be either their claim to antiquity—an existence prior to conquest—or a “national project” in modern times.  Haywood understood that an African-American people were created by conquest and slavery and thus could not pre-date it, but his work remains of interest if we can see in Garvey, Malcolm X, and other leaders the enunciation of a national project. American academics no longer believe that nations are created by shared structural characteristics and thus Haywood’s argument has long been forgotten.  

Seen in these lights, the post-Reconstruction period of American history looks more like the forerunner of later American attempts (and conspicuous failures) to impose democracy on divided societies and less like the halting progress of triumphant liberalism.  The Confederacy looks more like an alien society whose autonomous existence whether within the United States or as an independent entity posed an existential threat to the liberal, industrial, market-oriented Federal republic.  

The defeat and occupation of the CSA posed dilemmas for victors and vanquished alike.  The Radical Republicans were all too aware that they might have won the war only to lose the peace while the  former political and economic elite of the conquered territory sought desperately to prevent the transformation of their loss of status and influence into complete irrelevance and replacement by a new mixed elite of blacks and whites.  

Writing in 1935, WEB DuBois in Black Reconstruction described a “singular schism in the South.  The white planter endeavored to keep the Negro at work for his own profit on terms that amounted to slavery and which were hardly distinguishable from it…Meanwhile the poor white did not want the Negro put to profitable work.  He wanted the Negro beneath the feet of the white worker.”  DuBois further described the unease of the victors: “Back of all the enthusiasm and fervor of victory in the North came a wave of reflection that represented the sober after-thought of the nation.  It harked back to a time when not one person in ten believed in Negroes, or in emancipation, or in any attempt to conquer the South.  This feeling began to arise before the war closed, and after it ended it rose higher and higher into something like dismay.”  

DuBois viewed the task of Reconstruction as the revolutionary remaking of the Southern economy.  His analysis was as cool as his prose was ardent.  He summed up the penultimate chapter of Black Reconstruction with the words “How the civil war in the South began again—indeed had never ceased; and how black Prometheus bound to the Rock of Ages by hate, hurt, and humiliation, has his vitals eaten out as they grow, yet lives and fights.”  As DuBois recognized, “it is always difficult to stop war, and doubly difficult to stop a civil war.  Inevitably, when men have long been trained to violence and murder, the habit projects itself into civil life after peace, and there is crime and disorder and social upheaval, as we who live in the backwash of World War [I] know too well…When to all this you add a servile and disadvantaged race, who represent the cause of war and who afterwards are left near naked to their enemies, war may go on more secretly, more spasmodically, and yet as truly as before the peace.  This was the case in the South after Lee’s surrender.”  

DuBois recognized military dictatorship (his description) as the necessary instrument to transform the South and that the failure of the revolutionary project of Reconstruction (again, his description) to create a liberal, market-oriented South brought in its wake an even more potent counter-revolution.  Americans, DuBois noted, “apparently expected that this social upheaval was going to be accomplished with peace, honesty, and efficiency, and that the planters were going to quietly surrender the right to live on the labor of black folk, after two hundred and fifty years of habitual exploitation.”

DuBois’s Marxist-inflected analysis is predicated on the belief that force and violence necessarily accompany profound social and political transformations.  His account therefore highlighted the use of violence to forestall the revolutionary implications of Reconstruction.  Political science today is less concerned with violence than was DuBois and this is especially true, as DuBois suggested, of the study of American politics.  DuBois himself, as do many analysts, described the Ku Klux Klan as a major contributor to the violence that overthrew Reconstruction and that sealed the victory of counter-revolution.  The Klan, however, was a national organization and had largely been dismantled by 1872 thanks to vigorous Federal prosecution.  The decade before DuBois wrote Black Reconstruction a new incarnation of the Klan emerged and the organization was therefore once again on the minds of American progressives.  Nevertheless too great a focus on the Ku Klux Klan places too little emphasis on the degree to which local elites deployed violence not simply against individuals but against even the institutions of the state.  Repeated and sometimes successful attempts by terrorists and unofficial militias to overthrow local governments by force were a pervasive feature of life in the South between 1866 and 1900.  

The power of DuBois’s analysis is clarified by a closer look at the violence that pervaded the South from 1866 until 1900.  The Ku Klux Klan was one, but only one, organizational expression of widespread white resistance to equality for African Americans in the former CSA.  Radical Republicans and the multi-volume House and Senate investigative reports on the activities of the Klan published in 1872 recognized that opposition to democracy in the South transcended the Klan. The majority report noted that Southern whites would accept no reconstruction “so long as it embraced the liberation, the civil and political elevation, of the negro [sic].”

Disrupting the Klan entailed mass arrests and in one case (South Carolina) the suspension of the right of habeas corpus.  If the Klan itself had been broken by aggressive Federal military intervention the decentralized and partly spontaneous activity of terrorist groups and local white militias grew.  The use of violence to attack constituted and frequently democratically elected governments throughout the South continued until at least the end of the nineteenth century.  This was well beyond 1876, conventionally understood as the end of Reconstruction. Even halting and temporary democratization required the use of the full power of the occupation to forestall counter-democratic coercion.

Violence occurred early in New Orleans.  In 1866 a planter-dominated elected legislature voted to restore the pre-Civil War constitution.  The governor, a planter named James Madison Wells, vetoed the legislation and called a Constitutional Convention to meet in New Orleans, then the seat of government of Louisiana.  Mayor John Monroe, a leader of a secret society, armed the police and local citizens to attack the convention when it opened.  What amounted to a pogrom occurred on May 30, 1866 in which between 38 and 48 people were killed and more than a hundred wounded.  General Philip Sheridan, who President Grant had appointed as the governor of the Southwest Military District, returned from Texas and called it a massacre.  Had it not been for the presence of Federal troops and their willingness to intervene Reconstruction in New Orleans would have been ended before it began.  The Convention that Sheridan enabled finally sat in 1868 and adopted a constitution that guaranteed political rights to the black population and that repealed a repressive labor code although it limited suffrage to men.

Sheridan, for whom a square in Washington DC is named, is not a particularly appealing figure to many modern eyes.  He led the Army of Shenandoah which duplicated Sherman’s more famous March to the Sea in its devastation of the Confederate civil economy.  He fought similar campaigns against the Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa as well as the Ute War, the Red River War, and the Great Sioux War.  He responded with vigor in New Orleans.  He summarily dismissed Governor Wells, Mayor Monroe, and stripped much of the white population of their voting rights.  He was himself dismissed by President Andrew Johnson who accused him of being a tyrant.

To accomplish the democratic reconstruction of Louisiana and the rest of the South would require more than one constitutional convention.  In Grant County armed militias faced each other during a particularly tumultuous and tense conflict over local elections.  In April 1873, in the wake of a highly contentious electoral process in which a Republican and Democrat both claimed victory, black and white militias fought a battle for control of the county courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana.  Armed whites, led by former Confederate officers, overpowered a black militia led by former Union officers.  In addition to horses and guns the white militia also had a four pound cannon.  By the end of the fighting, between 100 and 275 black men, women, and children were dead; many had been executed with shots to the back of the head.  The Colfax massacre (as it was then known) became a national scandal but its repercussions were primarily to confirm the efficacy of violence by white militias. In 1950 the state of Louisiana placed a roadside sign at the site of the Colfax massacre justifying it.  

It is thus not surprising that the following year in New Orleans white militias again attempted to use violence to decide the issue of political power.  This was the Battle of Liberty Place when, in 1874, the White League acting as the “Louisiana State Militia” attacked a meeting of a disputed legislature.  Some 5000 members of the League defeated 3500 police and state militiamen and took control of the legislative building for three days until they were driven out by Federal troops.  In 1891, in the wake of the formal disenfranchisement of the state’s black population, the New Orleans city council erected a monument to commemorate the 1874 events.  The monument was placed in a prominent location on Canal Street and, although it was moved in 1993, it remained on public view until 2015.

The withdrawal of Federal troops after the compromise of the 1876 presidential election sealed the end of Reconstruction.  The conflict over the political rights of black people continued.  In North Carolina political violence culminated in 1898 in what has been described as the only successful coup d’etat in American history: the legally elected government of a major American city was overthrown by an armed insurrection. Until 1898 Wilmington had been a black majority city but in the wake of disputed election a secret society of white supremacists organized a group of armed men, including the “Wilmington Light Infantry” to attack black-owned businesses including the newspaper.  These men, properly described as a mob, then forced the white Republican mayor and other members of the city council to resign and installed a new one.  By 1898, unlike 1868 and 1873-4, there were no Federal troops to reverse the use of violence to overthrow an elected government.  Black residents fled and Wilmington became a white-majority city.  In modern terms we might describe this as a form of ethnic cleansing as well as a coup. What we call the “Great Migration” of African-Americans out of the South in the twentieth century was a slower process by which refugees sought safety and new beginnings and in which the demographic character of the South was changed.  In 1868 nearly 60% of the residents of Mississippi were black; today a little less than 40% are.

The insurgents who successfully installed a white supremacist government were widely recognized and known by their clothing: red shirts.  In the late 19th century red shirts had a different meaning than today.  Garibaldi’s troops wore them in Italy and they were widely associated with the militias of nationalist movements.  Throughout Europe and Latin America the wearing of red shirts was understood to reveal the patriotic sentiments and willingness to use force associated with rising nationalism.

There is every reason to believe that we should see Reconstruction more nearly in the light of contemporary nationalisms, state-building, and the suppression of the political rights of minorities than simply as a failed or premature struggle to extend the virtues of American liberal individualism against prejudice.  A declining old white Southern elite and a rising new one struggled to subjugate a minority to their control and, in the process, sought to ensure their control over their fellow members of the majority.  They were willing to employ significant violence in the form of terrorism and insurrection as well as all the legal methods at their disposal.  They saw themselves as re-creating the nation whose loss they feared military defeat would bring about.  Citizens of the US, having defeated their enemy, lacked the staying power to transform the society they had conquered as DuBois argued. After a decade they gave up.  And so the honorable citizens of the South, the religious fundamentalists, the former soldiers of the vanquished regime, and even those who had been educated in the values of US liberalism in its finest schools such as Princeton, Harvard, or Yale, collaborated in the creation of a repressive and authoritarian regime that lasted more than 100 years.