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Archive for May, 2006

Over My Shoulder #25: Lee’s views on Reconstruction and civil rights, from Michael Fellman (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from Chapter 13, Southern Nationalist, of Michael Fellman’s The Making of Robert E. Lee. The war has ended and Lee is now facing the rapidly changing landscape of the South under Reconstruction. Notice how in retrospect the old statist warrior Lee could turn even secession into a statist doctrine. Also keep in mind that this is the white marble man whose memory is officially celebrated together with that of Martin Luther King Jr. (and the civil rights movement by extension) on Lee-King Day, in the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and my old home state of Alabama.

On February 17, 1866, Robert E. Lee was called before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction in Washington to discuss issues of race and politics. A reluctant witness, Lee nevertheless was quite forthright in his defense both of the 1861 secession of the South and of the current efforts of Southern white elites to wrest back control of their domain from the threats posed by empowerment of blacks.

On the surface, it continued to be important for Lee to claim that he was above partisanship and discord. He asserted at the onset of the testimony that he was not well acquainted with current political issues. I have been living very retired, and have had but little communication with politicians, he testified, rather disingenuously, since he had been in constant communication with such men. The maintenance of an Olympian persona for public consumption was a major component of Lee’s postwar Southern nationalism: he would be the true conservative statesman above the fray, a position that both increased his value to other Southern white leaders and heightened the esteem he had gained in the South during the war, which was of great importance to him. The naive prewar engineer who could not think politically without getting headaches had been politicized by the secession crisis and the war, and afterward Lee was quite aware that his suprapolitical status was especially helpful when synchronized with those of his comrades who sought to roll back Reconstruction.

By the time Lee testified to Congress, Andrew Johnson had begun to come into conflict with congressional Republicans over how far to push change in the defeated South. While the Republicans wanted to punish the leaders of the Confederacy and pass laws and constitutional amendments to guarantee civil rights for blacks, protect their rights as free workers, and offer them suffrage, Johnson opposed all such uses of federal authority, supporting Southern white men and Northern Democrats who were organizing to abort all such political and social changes tand to return the former Confederacy to the Union with whites firmly in control of blacks.

Lee was well positioned to take up Johnson’s proffered handshake. He testified to the congressional committee that the former secessionists are for cooperating with President Johnson in his policy…. Persons with whom I have conversed, Lee stated (almost immediately refuting his position that he had been living very retired), express great confidence in the wisdom of his policy of restoration, and they seem to look forward to it as a hope of restoration.

As nearly as possible, Lee argued, restoration should be a return to the status quo ante, the reinstitution of slavery [which had been abolished under the Thirteenth Amendment —RG] excepted. As part of his position, Lee stoutly defended the legality of secession. Citizens of Southern states such as Virginia had not committed treason in 1861; they considered the act of the State[s] as legitimate, under the Tenth Amendment, merely using the reserved right which they had a right to do…. The act of Virginia, in withdrawing herself from the United States, carried me along as a citizen of Virginia… her laws and her acts were binding upon me.

Besides, Lee said, secession had been brought about by a blundering generation of national politicians. The position of the two sections which they held to each other was brought about by the politicians of the country; that the great masses of the people, if they understood the real question, would have avoided. In that sense, demagogic politicians backed by gullible lower-class white voters had wheedled the nation, Lee stated. He was seeking to narrow the meanings of secession (and even the war) in the name of an essential constitutional continuity, the better to sharply limit new forms of federal intervention during Reconstruction. Along these lines, he was even in favor of Southern states repaying Confederate debts contracted during the war against the Union rather than repudiating them, as the Republicans were insisting—debts held by ex-Confederates such as himself.

Much of Lee’s testimony concerned his opinions toward blacks. On the most general level, Lee said that every one with whom I associate expresses kind feelings towards the freedmen. They wish to see them get on in the world, and particularly to take up some occupation for a living, and to turn their hands to some work. Lee also expressed his willingness that blacks should be educated, and… that it would be better for the blacks and for the whites. Although he did not believe that blacks had the same intellectual capacities as whites, he was acquainted with those who have learned the common rudiments of education.

Guarded and rather condescending by implication during the rest of his testimony, Lee never questioned his belief in the inferiority of blacks as a race, often pairing an attribute he found endearing with results he found irritating. Wherever I have been they have been quiet and orderly, he told the congressmen, not disposed to work, or rather not disposed to any continuous engagement to work, but just very short jobs, to provide them with the immediate means of subsistence. Asked whether the black race had as great a drive to accumulate money and property as whites, Lee answered, I do not think it has. The blacks with whom I am acquainted look more to the present time than the future…. They are an amiable, social race. They like their ease and comfort, and, I think, look more to their present than their future.

There he was in Lee’s mind’s eye: the stereotypical slave, now free but still lazy, irresponsible, and undisciplined, if charming and amusing. What white people such as Lee could not understand was that after their emancipation, many blacks strove mightily to remove themselves from white surveillance and to work on their own toward subsistence and as much economic security as they could garner from short-term employment. Such efforts to gain independence and increase their distance from their former masters appeared to men such as Lee to be a lack of effort that proved black racial inferiority.

Lee was certain that the well-bred Southern whites he knew were kind to these childlike folks. But responding to the possibility of the political elevation of blacks, of the sort that many radicals in Congress were then proposing, Lee’s feelings immediately were shown to be less benign. As for white Northerners who came south to aid the freedmen, Lee conceded that proper gentlemen would avoid them… not select them as associates… not admit them into their social circles. If Congress were to pass an amendment giving suffrage to blacks, men of his class would object. … I think it would excite unfriendly feelings between the two races. I cannot pretend to say to what extent it would go, but that would be the result. Lee threatened nothing in the way of violence, but he feared that general white opinion would turn that way. Indeed, even given the incentive of increased Southern representation in the House of Representatives should blacks be given the franchise, Lee concluded that white Virginia would accept the smaller representation. For the forseeable future, black suffrage would open the door to political and social catastrophe. My own opinion is that, at this time, they cannot vote intelligently, and that giving them the [vote] would lead to a great deal of damagogism, and lead to embarassments in various ways. Just as he had believed before the war that God would end slavery some distant day, Lee could admit the possibility of black suffrage only after some infinitely long process of labor and educational improvement (unlikely for blacks, under his definition of their instrinsically limited intellectual potential). What the future may prove, how intelligent they may become, with what eyes they may look upon the interests of the State in which they may reside, I cannot say more than you.

Bland and calm until then, at the end of his testimony, Lee was drawn out by a series of direct questions into expressing his underlying antipathy for the notion of renegotiating race relations in order to promote a biracial social and political modus vivendi. Asked Do you not think that Virginia would be better off if the colored population were to go to Alabama, Louisiana, and other Deep South states, Lee replied, I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them. … I think that everyone there would be willing to aid it. Yes, he thought Virginia was absolutely injured and its future would be impaired by the presence of blacks; yes, with its great natural resources, once rid of blacks, Virginia would attract white immigration. And Lee argued that is no new opinion with me. I have always thought so, and have always been in favor of emancipation—gradual emancipation. Lee harkened back to the colonizationist stance of his wife and mother-in-law, a position he had never actually adopted but that might serve him rather well before Congress. The best possible result for race relations in Virginia, he maintained, would be the gradual disappearance of blacks, a curious reworking of the meaning of gradual emancipation and colonization. Failing that, Lee could accept blacks only in the most marginal fashion.

Such were Lee’s opinions when he was at his most reserved, in the sort of public forum he usually sought to avoid. Writing privately, Lee was even more candid about his postwar racial views. In common with most Southerners of the master class, Lee had had relatively little to say about blacks during slavery days, when he had been a confident paternalist who believed that he could manage the servants. Indeed, near the end of the war, he had expressed less concern about black soldiers under direct white control than about guerrilla soldiers drawn from the poor white population. But when, with emancipation, the racial order in fact had been undermined, Lee could maintain paternalist equilibrium only when he saw blacks as clearly subordinate—any move toward political or social equality was deeply upsetting to him.

Rarely one to use hot language, Lee nevertheless expressed considerable distaste for blacks. Particularly was this true for blacks immediately around him, which meant those servants he and Mary Lee sought to employ after the war. As contracted labor, these free blacks presented a new phenomenon: blacks bargaining over wages and conditions of employment. After Lee began to set up housekeeping in Lexington in the fall of 1865, he addressed the servant problem in several letters to Mary, who was to follow him to the college. You had better bring up Miss Skipworth’s woman. I fear we shall not be able to procure white servants. … Servants of some kind (black) I have no doubt can be obtained. But Lee clearly expressed his belief that blacks ought to be the employees of last resort. Freed blacks proved hard to obtain, whatever Lee’s distaste, and they did not seem willing to settle down under the control of former masters. On October 29, Lee wrote Mary, as regards servants, I cannot speak positively till the time comes for employing them. They are leaving their homes here as elsewhere, but there seems to be enough & some have offered their services. If any good ones offer, I advise their engagement. Indifferent ones I think can be had here. We shall want but one man. Lee then ran through the names of their ex-slaves, finding one named Jimmy to be the least incompetent. The next day, he commented about hirnig a man whom one might think Lee would have put in the indifferent category: I have engaged a man for the balance of the year who professes to knoweverything. He can at least make up the fires & go on errands & attend to the yard & table. Uncharacteristic sarcasm revealed Lee’s reaction to a man who had been altogether too uppity for a black servant when Lee had interviewed him. Lee chafed at such new relationships between the races, where blacks did not instantaneously display the appropriate deference but asserted themselves above their station. Racial unrest characterized everyday exchanges as well as politics of a more public and dramatic sort.

As late as 1869, Lee wrote his son Rob about his ex-slave Jimmy, resident on Rob’s plantation, with whom Lee had shared bonds he considered proper before the war. Even with the prospect of hiring Jimmy, however, Lee was now tentative. I forgot to speak for Jimmy, Lee wrote Rob. If he wishes to come to me & is sufficiently acquainted with gardening to undertake the garden, & will attend to the stable & all outdoor matters—send him up. I will give him $10 per month, as long as he suits me & I suit him. The new order was certainly not the best of all possible worlds.

Immediately after the war, Lee began expressing a contempt for blacks that he had never uttered before, including that desire to get freedmen out of his sight by literally pushing them out of Virginia. Early in June 1865, he urged Colonel Thomas H. Carter to discharge his ex-slaves and replace them with whites. Carter replied that such a desire would be utopian in his neighborhood, as he could get only black labor to do the drudge work. I have always observed, Lee then insisted, that wherever you find the Negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find the white man, you see everything around him improving.

Lee understood Colonel Carter’s point—there were simply no whites willing to compete with blacks at the bottoms of the labor barrel—but still he wished that black removal could be effected. That October, Lee wrote to Fitzhugh about improving Fitzhugh’s land, I fear that you will be able to do but little with black labour, & until you can put up some buildings, you will not be able to attract white. And a year later, Lee wrote to Rob, his other plantation-owning son, The mill dam I know is a troublesome work, but I hope you will accomplish it, & I fear you will have to execute it with negro labour. I presume at present there is none other to be had. You might get aid from the Virginia Emmigration Co.; which now has an agent in Europe endeavoring to procure emigrants.

Lee had become an active supporter of the Virginia Immigration Society, as part of his notion of how the state ought to both modernize and whiten. In 1869, he wrote to Colonel Joseph H. Ellis, director of the society, that he believed that the agriculturist as much as the industrialist had need for regular & consistent work that can only be served by the introduction of a respectable class of labourers from Europe to replace blacks. Other sources of nonwhite labor would not work well, such as those that had been introduced in California, the Caribbean, and Latin America, for although temporary benefit might be derived from the importation of Chinese or Japanese, it would result I think in eventual injury to the country, & her institutions. We not only want reliable labourers but good citizens whose interests & feelings would be in unison with ours. Whole families of white Europeans, such as the folks flooding the North, were what was wanted. I have been & still am an advocate for European immigration. Lee’s view of a labor force appropriate for modernization resembled the one he saw developing in the North, but white immigrants voted with their feet not to compete with black labor in the war-scarred, impoverished South. In 1868, for example, of 213,000 overwhelmingly northern and western European immigrants, only 713 settledi n Virginia.

Lee’s interest in European immigration to replace black labor—a desire quite widespread in the upper South—contained considerable bitterness about the incapacity and perfidy of blacks. In 1868, Lee wroteRob that he had recently had a visit from a Dr. Oliver of Scotland, who was examining lands for immigrants from his country. From his account, I do not think the Scots and English would suit your part of the country, which would be too hot and hilly to please them. I think you will have to look to the Germans; perhaps the Hollanders, as a class, would be more useful. Lee was also active among those pushing for a railroad into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia from the eastern seaboard, for then I think there will be no difficulty in getting whites among you. In the meantime, white Southerners would have to bend their backs to the plow, unaccustomed though they were to hard physical labor. People have got to work now. It is creditable to them to do work; their bodies and their minds are benefited by it, and those who can and will work will be advanced by it. Lee was fully aware that for white Southerners manual labor was degraded by its association with blacks. Nevertheless, he insisted that, however irreplaceable it was likely to be, black labor was now fundamentally antagonistic to white interests: You will never prosper with the blacks, and it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours. Catching his pen in an unaccustomedly overt expression of that racist anger resident in the dark side of paternalism, Lee quickly corrected himself. I wish them no evil in the world—on the contrary, will do them every good in my power, and know that they are misled by those to whom they have given their confidence. Yet right after paternalistically sympathizing with Virginia’s black innocents who had been misled by Northern carpetbagging politicians, Lee went back to the racial divide: Our material, social, and political interests are naturally with the whites.

In Lee’s mind, as in those of most of his countrymen, North and South, the racial hierarchy was clear. English and Scots were above Germans and Hollanders, who were much better than Chinese and Japanese, all of whom were superior to blacks. To the English journalist W. H. Nettleton, who was about to return home, Lee wrote in 1866, Your visit to America must have impressed upon you the fact that, though climate, government, and circumstances have produced changes in the character of the people, yet in all essential qualities they resemble the races from which they are sprung; and that to no race are we more indebted for the virtues which constitute a great people than to the Anglo-Saxon. You will carry back with you to England my best wishes. When, in 1870, Mrs. Emily Hay forwarded a pamphlet written by the Anglo-Canadian immigration propagandist Professor Goldwin Smith, Lee responded that he was gratified by Smith’s interest in Virginia & wish that the tide of emigration from England could be turned toward the State. Englishmen need not fear the exhibition of hostility against them in Virginia. They would be cordially welcomed… agriculturists especially. To his son Rob, Lee had expressed his doubts that significant numbers of Englishmen would settle in Virginia, but if they did, as fellow Anglo-Saxons, they would be the most welcome of the newcomers: in Lee’s essentialist racial categorization, they were bone of his bone, blood of his blood. Many attitudes were quite in line with the cutting edge of contemporary racialist thought.

Mary Custis Lee was more vituperative on the issue of race than her husband, although he did not really disagree with the underlying sentiments she expressed. To take but one of many examples, on May 20, 1866, she wrote from Lexington to her old friend Emily Mason, We are all here dreadfully plundered by the lazy idle negroes who are lounging about the streets doing nothing but looking what they may plunder during the night. We have been raided on twice already…. But all thro’ the country the people are robbed nearly as much as they were during the war. … When we get rid of the Freedman’s bureau & can take the law in our hands we may perhaps do better. If they would only take all their pets north it would be happy riddance to all.

It must be added that in other moods, when he was not feeling threatened and betrayed, Lee continued to express a kinder paternalism toward this less fortunate race. In this vein, he wrote to a Northern Presbyterian clergyman who was seeking to find suitable genteel Southern white men to distribute Northern educational funds earmarked for the freedmen, I entirely agree with you… that the education and advancement of the colored people at the South can be better attended to by those who are acquainted with their characters and wants than by those who are ignorant of both. Lee recommended Drs. Hoge and Brown in Richmond as useful contacts, while begging off from becoming the distribution agent for Lexington—I coul not attend to it on account of other duties … nor do I know any colored preacher competent—but he then assured this preacher, rather disingenuously, because privately he fumed against black behavior, that the colored people in this vicinity are doing very well, are progressing favorably, and, as far as I know, are not in want. There is an abundance of work for them, and the whites with whom they are associated retain for them the kindest feelings. This calmer part of Lee lived in considerable disjuncture with the Anglo-Saxonist who was so angry at the local blacks, which is not to suggest that both sides may not have coexisted.

—Michael Fellman (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee (ISBN 0801874114), pp. 264–275

Over My Shoulder #24: from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970)

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970), one of the first published books of second wave radical feminist theory. It’s wrong on many counts; right on many others. It also features one of the most breathtaking opening paragraphs in political writing:

Sex class is so deep as to be invisible. Or it may appear as a superficial inequality, one that can be solved by merely a few reforms, or perhaps by the full integration of women into the labor force. But the reaction of the common man, woman, and child—That? Why you can’t change that! You must be out of your mind!—is the closest to the truth. We are talking about something every bit as deep as that. This gut reaction—the assumption that, even when they don’t know it, feminists are talking about changing a fundamental biological condition—is an honest one. That so profound a change cannot be easily fit into traditional categories of thought, e.g. political, is not because these categories do not apply but because they are not big enough: radical feminism bursts through them. If there were another word more all-embracing than revolution we would use it.

—Shulamith Firestone (1970), The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (ISBN 0374527873), p. 1.

What’s in a name? or: Over My Shoulder #23: from Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995)

This doubles as this week’s Over My Shoulder. Sort of, because I’m tossing out one of the rules for this week. Normally, here’s how it goes:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

This week, I’m ignoring rule 2, because I happen to be working on a paper and it’ll be useful to sketch some notes down for it while I’m here. In any case, here’s the quote. This is from Chapter 10, A Libertarian Politics, in Chris Sciabarra’s 1995 study, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. I read this in the student center at Wayne State in Detroit, right after (of all things) touring a great little exhibit on the centenniel of the Industrial Workers of the World, hosted at the Reuther Labor Library. Here, Sciabarra is discussing Ayn Rand’s defense of the free market, and her deliberate use of the name capitalism to describe what she was defending:

Rand’s defense of capitalism is similar in form to her defense of selfishness. In fact, Rand titled her collection of essays in social theory, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, for much the same reasons that she titled her collection of essays on morality, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. Both capitalism and selfishness have had such a negative conceptual history that Rand needed to reclaim these concepts and to recast them in a new and nondualistic framework. Branden remarks that he had told Rand of his preference for the word libertarianism as an alternative to capitalism, since the latter term had been coined by anticapitalists. For Branden, libertarianism signified a broader, philosophical characterization and addressed the issues of social, political and economic freedom (Branden 1978, 60). But Rand refused to renounce the concept of capitalism, just as she rejected any attempt to couch her ethos of rational selfishness in more neutral terms.

In addition to such nominal problems, Rand was faced with the fact that her defense of capitalism differed considerably from other theoretical justifications. Rand’s approach is not Weberian; she did not view capitalism as an expression of the Protestant work ethic. Nor did she view capitalism as compatible with Roman Catholicism, or any other form of religion. Though she accepted the empirical and theoretical arguments of Austrian-school economists who see the market as the most efficient and productive mechanism in history, she refused to defend capitalism on purely utilitarian grounds. And while Rand celebrates the record of economic growth under Western capitalism, she believes that the historical reality diverged radically from a pure, unadulterated laissez-faire system. While the nineteenth-century United States best approximated this system, its progress was severely undermined by massive government intervention in the areas of finance and banking, and in the bolstering of monopolies through land grants and industrial privileges. Marx himself had viewed this nineteenth-century system as only an approximation of full capitalism, since it was adulterated and amalgamated with survivals of former economic conditions (Capital 3:175). For Rand, as for most Marxists, this mixed system reached its twentieth-century climax in the neofascist and corporativist policies of the U.S. welfare-warfare state.

Rand argued that the underlying reason for this failure to achieve systemic purity was moral and cultural. Capitalism as a social system was an implicit by-product of an Aristotelian philosophical base, one that celebrated the rational, the secular, and the egoistic. And yet capitalism was historically distorted because the cultures within which it evolved had not fully emerged from the influence of mysticism, altruism, and collectivism. Rand saw capitalism and altruism as philosophical opposites that could not co-exist in the same man or in the same society. The modern age was fractured by an inner contradiction because it tried to combine the concept of eudaemonic man with the notion that human beings were sacrificial animals. It was for this reason that Rand was extremely apprehensive about the introduction of capitalist markets into primitive cultures. She argued that capitalism required a predominantly rational and secular orientation, and that industrialization could not be grafted onto superstitious irrationality without massive distortion in the evolving structure of production. Though the United States achieved the greatest progress because it was the most secular Western country, it too had preserved significant elements of altruism and collectivism in its cultural base. And it was paying the price.

Curiously, Rand spoke in terms of a cultural and philosophical base. This view differs considerably from the Marxist formulation, which sees culture and philosophy as components of a social superstructure, a by-product of a material base. These opposed characterizations have disparate consequences for both the theory of history and the nature of social revolution; however, what must be explored at this stage is Rand’s understanding of capitalism as an unknown ideal. In Rand’s view, the nature of capitalism is so inherently radical that its historical, philosophical, and cultural implications have yet to be fully comprehended. Rand unabashedly proclaims that Objectivists are radicals for capitalism … fighting for that philosophical base which capitalism did not have and without which it was doomed to perish. Once again, Rand’s project is geared toward articulation. She aimed to articulate those premises which underlie the daily practices and institutions of a historically emergent but not yet fully realized social system.

Following her literary methods, Rand seems to have extracted and emphasized those principles which, she believed, distinguish capitalist society from all previous social formations. She began with the real concrete circumstances of the historically mixed system, breaking down its complexity into mental units. She constituted her vision of capitalism on the basis of such abstraction, having isolated and identified those precepts which are essential to its systemic nature. In this way, she eliminated the accidental and the contingent in order to focus instead on the philosophical ideals of the capitalist revolution. Such a revolution was incomplete because its principles had never been fully articulated and implemented. Rand viewed her own project as the first successful attempt to articulate the moral nature of the capitalist system, ideally understood, thus making possible its historical fulfillment.

—Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995), pp. 283–285.

A lot of left-libertarians have rightly stressed that terms such as capitalism and socialism, as they are commonly used, are systematically ambiguous; often they are used to name two different systems that are mutually exclusive of each other ([state socialism and anarchistic socialism][], on the one hand, or the free market and political patronage for big business, on the other). Roderick Long recently made a persuasive argument that both capitalism and socialism, as the terms are commonly used, are best regarded as anti-concepts, and more specifically as package deals of concepts that do not actually go together, which have been used by statists on both the Left and the Right to systematically blur the distinction between neo-mercantilism and the free market. Left statists say they oppose the chimera, and right-statists say they support it, but what libertarians need to recognize, first and foremost, is that the system they are allegedly fighting over is chimerical, and that the words they are using embody false presuppositions about the meaning and the nature of free markets.

I think that’s quite right, and that it’s very important. Nevertheless, we mustn’t be misled into thinking that just because socialism and capitalism as commonly used are anti-conceptual package-deals, that we ought to abstain from both terms on an equal footing, or to take a pox on both your houses attitude towards the institutions, symbols, traditions, and other socio-cultural trappings associated with either identification. In some dialectical contexts the best thing to do with an anti-concept is just to expose it as nothing more than so much Newspeak, to abandon using it, and to exhort others to follow your example. But sometimes the thing to do is just to urge your conversation partners to use language more precisely, and to teach them by example, by choosing one of the senses of capitalism or socialism to use clearly and consistently. And I think that Ayn Rand’s deliberately provocative use of capitalism is instructive here on the principle, even though I think she’s wrong on the application, and that the reasons for the misapplication have to do with deeper problems in her own economic thought. Those problems don’t have to do with defending a free market in the means of production and distribution — I’m all for that, but given the historical example of self-described socialist free marketeers such as Benjamin Tucker, that doesn’t settle the issue between describing yourself as a socialist, describing yourself as a capitalist, or describing yourself as something else again.

Rand deliberately worked to reclaim the word capitalism for the unknown ideal of the completely free market, rather than the known reality of the predatory, neomercantilist mixed economy, in which all actually existing free markets are embedded, confined, limited, and distorted. Sciabarra explains her decision in terms of an intellectual process of isolating the essential features that distinguished societies called capitalist from earlier and later forms of social organization. It’s an apt description as far as it goes, but the connection between the intellectual process and Rand’s aesthetic and affectional imagination needs to be fleshed out in order to fully explain her decision. Rand knew perfectly well that the historical data underdetermined the question of whether predation or voluntary cooperation was essential to the capitalistic form of society: the rise of the societies we call capitalist involved the liberation of many people and of the markets in many commodities; it also involved the escalation of many forms of predatory state patronage and the invention of new ones (it meant, for example, considerably more freedom in agriculture or textiles; it also meant considerably more government intervention in banking, land use, and transportation infrastructure). You could describe the picture by identifying the growth in freedom as the capitalist stuff, with the new levels of predation as anti-capitalist deviations from capitalism marring its productive development. But you could just as easily describe it by identifying the growth in predation as the capitalist stuff, with the growth in freedom as a countervailing, non-capitalist or anti-capitalist development, which the capitalist stuff had an antagonistic, or often parasitic, relationship to. So which description should you choose? I think the best explanation why Rand chose the first picture instead of the second one has to do with what she would have identified with her sense of life — the degree to which her aesthetic and affectional imagination were engaged on behalf of actually existing capitalists, as she understood them, in the known reality of the mixed economy: that is, her view of the grand bourgeoisie — big industrialists, business-owners, money-men, the top tier of entrepreneurial inventors, and ultimately the wealthy broadly — as the heroic prime movers in business, and thus as the world’s motor, driving the production of the material means of survival and human flourishing. (See, for example, Atlas Shrugged or America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.) Though she’d no doubt fume at the description, one way of putting it is that she made her choices about what language to reclaim and what language to abandon on the basis of class solidarity. I have no quarrel with Rand’s procedure; but rather only with the particular class she chooses to stand in solidarity with. If Rand is right that the capitalist is the chief victim of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is well-drawn, it makes perfect sense for her to reclaim the word capitalism for the free market as against political patronage. If, on the other hand, the bosses are the chief beneficiaries of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is ill-drawn — if the archetypical boss is a busybodying mediocrity, a cunning predator, or a petulant grafter, and if their role in the workplace is a drag on the productive labor on the shop floor rather than the animating force behind it as Rand claims — then it makes perfect sense to locate the essence of capitalism elsewhere from where Rand locates it, and to treat capitalism as a term of criticism for political patronage as against the free market.

This may help serve as some explanation for why Rand is willing to identify with the term capitalism and even to invest the symbol of a government fiat currency with near-religious significance, while fully recognizing the predatory nature of the state-business nexus; it may also help to explain how, in spite of really detesting the stupidity and the atrocities perpetrated in the name of socialism, I can be so fond of old union songs, and how I can fly a red flag over my soap box while I preach the free market.

Further reading:

Over My Shoulder #22: from Barbara Leon, “Consequences of the Conditioning Line,” from Feminist Revolution (1975)

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from Barbara Leon’s essay, Consequences of the Conditioning Line in Feminist Revolution, the 1975 anthology by the Redstockings.

Consequences of the Conditioning Line

The issue of psychological interpretation of behavior has been one of the major ideological divisions between Redstockings and other groups in the women’s liberation movement. While other groups have argued that women submit to their own oppression due to past training, brainwashing, or programming, Redstockings said:

We reject the idea that women consent to or are to blame for their own oppression. Women’s submission is not the result of brainwashing, stupidity or mental illness but of continual, daily pressure from men. We do not need to change ourselves, but to change men. —Manifesto, July 7, 1969

What other groups saw as submissive behavior, Redstockings saw as ways women, when still struggling individually, fight for what they want given their situation.

Judith Hole and Ellen Levine, in their book Rebirth of Feminism, have asserted that it was this position of Redstockings, adopted as the pro-woman line, along with an overemphasis on consciousness-raising, which led to the groups dissolution in 1970:

In the view of many feminists the anti-brainwashing/pro-woman position leads not only to a paralysis of action—what external changes in behavior can a woman effect if her behavior is understood only as a rational response to the social system—but also to a paralysis of thought. Although Redstocking’s rejection of traditionally-accepted psychological expanations of women’s behavior does offer new insights, one former member of the group has argued, When you begin to believe the pro-woman line, it distorts your perception of reality. It’s too simplistic. —Rebirth of Feminism, p. 172

Left out from the book was the pro-woman line’s prescription for collective action and political strategy. Also wrong was its conclusion as to the harmful effects of Redstockings’ anti-brainwashing theory on the history of the group. Redstockings was temporarily halted by the same problems which Hole and Levine ascribe to other women’s liberation groups, most notably attacks on leadership from within and without the group. In fact, the accuracy and importance of the pro-woman line has become more evident with recent developments.

What began, to some extent, as an analysis of women’s behavior in our personal and emotional lives now appears to have even larger political significance as we see the active use of psychological theories to deny women jobs under capitalism and to explain away the continued oppression of women in socialist countries. In both cases, women are told, failure to advance is caused by women’s lack of self-confidence and clinging to traditional roles. This blocks any real analysis of the roots of male supremacy and the continued use of power to keep women in a subordinate position. The capitalist’s self-interest requires that he maintain segregation in order to pay women less and in this way depress the level of all wages. In the case of the socialist, there are conflicting interests. On the one hand, the unpaid services provided by women as wives and mothers have great economic value and raise the standard of living of male workers. On the other hand, men’s opportunism in oppressing women detracts from the united power of the working class.

Brainwashing and Women: The Psychological Attack, which I wrote in the Spring of 1970, outlined the basic position that the new psychological theories used in some parts of the women’s liberation movement—theories that women are brainwashed or conditioned into inferiority—are just a more sophisticated version of the old theories of women’s biological inferiority. As in the following quote from Marcuse, nature is simply replaced by second nature:

… over and above the obviously physiological differences between male and female, the feminine characteristics are socially conditioned. However, the long process of thousands of years of social conditioning means that they may become second nature which is not changed automatically by the establishment of new social institutions. There can be discrimination against women even under socialism.—H. Marcuse, lecture 3/7/74, Stanford University

These theories shift the burden of blame from men to women, obscuring the power differences between men and women, and preventing us from clearly seeing just what the barriers are that have to be overcome—barriers that exist not in our heads but in the real world. My article stressed the punishment given to women who step out of line. It did not go into another important way in which men exercise their power to enforce the status quo—rewarding women for good behavior. Nor did it go into the use of myth and lies promoted by the powerful to deny us access to real information and collective knowledge. This was not simply an oversight. At the time the article was written there was tremendous opposition to the idea that force was ever used against women at all.

Carol Hanisch’s article, published in the July-August 1973 issue of Woman’s World, introduces the idea that conditioning is seen as making women unqualified—an idea that has taken on great economic significance as the newest justification for keeping women out of jobs. She shows that sex role theory as well as conditioning is used as a cover up for oppression. She also analyzes why psychological theories are used by women in the movement, what they get out of defining the problems in this way. Thus, this article, written a year later, begins to take on the political problem of female opportunism and the interests and misconceptions behind it.

Colette Price points out how the conditioning arguments used in the women’s movement are an ironic retreat even from the theories of establishment behavioral psychologists.

By the Fall of 1972, the situation in this country had changed somewhat. Women’s liberation had become a mass movement and the establishment in this country was forced to change its words, if not its practices. In Feminist Art Journal Patricia Mainardi reported on a television interview with William Rubin, Chief Curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in which Rubin used the acceptable rhetoric of liberal feminism as an excuse for not recognizing and showing the work of women artists.

To describe women as culturally or psychologically inferior is untrue, as well as being an insult, as the early radical feminists discovered. To say that this alleged inferiority makes us unqualified for taking on jobs or positions of power is worse, because economic survival as well as respect is involved. This is the full significance of the psychological attack. At every level of society it presents analysis (contrary to the opposite charge of Hole and Levine) and in practical terms blocks the advancement of women. Within the movement, it can be used to discredit anything women say we want. It isn’t necessary to argue over goals, desires or impressions if you can write off the brainwashed women expressing them. Women’s legitimate demands for love and commitment from men, for example, have often been dismissed in this way. Outside the movement, in the job and educational world, real issues can be similarly avoided. It isn’t necessary for an employer or a university to admit to excluding women if he can simply say that no qualified women have applied—or even that none exist at this point in history due to the past effects of sexism. It isn’t necessary for socialist governments to challenge their own backwardness and lack of class perspective regarding half their people if they can instead point to the backwardness of the female population.

Psychology versus power, then, is not an abstract intellectual argument. It is important because the content of your theory determines the content of your action. How you define what is wrong determines how you will try to solve the problem. How much you are allowed to question determines how much you will be allowed to change.

—Barbara Leon, Consequences of the Conditioning Line, from Feminist Revolution: An Abridged Edition with Additional Writings (1975/1979), pp. 66–67.

Further reading: