I have added another book to my recommended reading list [stderr] Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. In the last few months, I have gone backward and forward through it, trying to make sense of how the facts it exposes fit with my historical understanding.
If you pay any attention to US history, you know that slavery and racism are one of the supporting institutions that have defined and shaped the United States. You cannot understand the United States without understanding slavery and racism. But, that understanding has always felt incomplete, to me; I knew there was more. Obviously, there are details, but what is the big picture?
The history of the United States has become so repellent to me that sometimes I think I want to run away and join some organization dedicated to its overthrow. Unfortunately, that appears these days to be the republican party, and I don’t want a damn thing to do with them, either. I just wallow in futility (because the past is unchangeable, right?) and hatred (because the future doesn’t look so hot, either) But I want to understand; part of me clings to the idea that if we can all understand what happened, we can draw the venom from the wound and spit it out.
Yeah, that’s a terrible metaphor. This stuff upsets me and it makes me want to rage-smash things and whatever literary skills I have get compromised pretty quickly. If I do my job, today, in this posting, you may wind up feeling similarly.
The history of the US is the history of Racism, Classism, and Capitalism. “Capitalism” as it’s used by most Americans is a short-hand for laissez-faire capitalism – (French for “let it happen”, i.e.: no regulation) or anarcho-capitalism – the more unregulated and rapacious the better. It’s also called “entrepreneurship”, you know, when someone takes a woman’s child from her and sells them for a profit. Entrepreneurship. “Buy low, sell high” is the saying, and there’s no form of “buy low” that’s lower cost than flat-out stealing people or grabbing land that has been vacated through genocide. Jefferson changed Locke’s formulation from “Life, Liberty and Property” to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” which is a pretty thin fig-leaf, anyway, because Americans are socialized to conflate the accumulation of property with happiness. Jefferson might as well have said, “get some.” And I charge that these things are all tied together because the entrepreneurship of Americans is corrupted from its inception – even the pilgrims that disembarked from the Mayflower were quick to begin colonizing by the simple process of claiming the natives’ land. Naturally, that sort of entrepreneurship was accompanied by horrific violence; that’s generally the only way to get someone else to accept that kind of “deal.”
But, the other piece we don’t generally hear much about is that the settlers – the new Americans – brought with them a particularly toxic philosophy from England: classism. The colonists were quick to divide themselves in terms of class. And, since Europe was still in its monarchical stage, class division seemed to be part of the natural order. It was that attitude – that class is a part of a natural order – that set the North American colonies on the path to creating a class below the lower class: slaves. Classism was the norm in England, which was a hereditary aristocracy based on the principles that people had “good breeding” or not, that noble blood had some value. English society was full of tropes to the effect that common people were inferior (after all, the best way to promote your nobility as superior is to deride your commoners and poor as inferior to varying degree).
What Isenberg documents in painful detail is that the exercise of sending people to the North American colonies was a class-based exercise. England, for all intents and purposes, acted as though America was a ‘B Ark’ – a dumping ground for people of bad breeding, poor character, the shiftless and lazy. Right around when she explained that, was when the lights came on: the English hatred for poor people was exported – how could it not be? – as the few English upper class came over, and looked down their elegant noses at everybody. And the things they said about the natives (and later, the Africans who were imported involuntarily in chains) were unconscionable. At the time when this was happening, classist ideas of aristocracy and breeding literally gave creedence to the idea of “blood” and “birth” and people’s attitudes and behaviors were expected to be absorbed from their parents. Modern American ‘conservatives’ still carry forward some of this nonsense, with their ideas about “single parents” etc – bastardy, breeding, bad blood. I’m skipping ahead a bit, here, but when Americans got around to inventing scientific racism, IQ testing, and eugenics, one of the operating assumptions was that one’s parents had a tremendous effect on one’s post-birth nature.
Isenberg’s description blurs for me. It’s dense-packed and tremendously informative as she rattles through the history of some of the colonies and what horrific shit-heads their leaders were. For example, the crown governor who established the political framework for the Carolinas came up with a sort of ersatz aristocracy including titles (“Margrave” and “Cacique”) that sound like they’re right out of Skyrim. But these people were deadly serious, and slotted everyone into their frameworks. The events I am describing here are pre-“enlightenment” though even the “enlightenment” bit deserves scare-quotes because a lot of enlightenment political philosophy was attempting to bolster and explain class consciousness. The North American colonies were less republican than Rome, and Rome was very much a hereditary aristocracy. But Rome had more class mobility than the colonies. Think about that for a second. Rome had slaves, sure, but slavery in Rome was not even as bad as it evolved to be in the Carolinas. And the Roman citizen-farmer or citizen-soldier that Thomas Jefferson later came to extol the virtues of had more chance of upward mobility than a lower class North American.
One of the most unsettling aspects of Isenberg’s writing is that she keeps looping back to class terminology. The English, who sent people to the Americas, said openly that they were sending their trash. There were layers and layers of terms for calling people garbage of one form or another. Then, there were assumptions on top of that: garbage-Americans were necessarily stupid, and had stupid children, because they ate mud, or were bastards, or lazy, or poor. It just goes on and on. The English were seething with hatred at their poor and lower class, so they stuck them onto the American ‘B Ark’ and sent them to where they could be forced to work because the alternative was to die. There was a lot of that. And women, and cows (the lowest class of both) were sent over as live-stock to breed with and maintain a permanent underclass. It’s not hard to see how slavery just naturally fit right into that structure.
Americans didn’t seem to have a lot of self-awareness. Isenberg doesn’t mention this, but Ben Franklin, who she discusses a great deal, went to Paris and was considered to be a horny, stinky, freak by the French upper class, who literally expected him to act like some kind of dancing bear in their salons. And, he did. So did Jefferson. Both of those men felt that they were sophisticated and worldly, but Franklin was visiting the Paris of Voltaire, compared to whom he came off as a trained ape of some low sort. It appears to me that Franklin and Jefferson both felt they were received as equals because they had a lot of sex with the edgier set of French mesdames, but my suspicion is that it was more likely that one of the grand dames dared her chambermaid to fuck the disgusting American to see if she could stomach it. Franklin wore a raccoon on his head. In Paris. The cultural center of the world. Yet, Franklin and Jefferson both had this gigantic streak of ignorant hypocrisy that could only spring from deep lack of self-awareness. Franklin’s writings contain many instances, quoted by Isenberg, of his deriding people as lazy, debtors, who didn’t know their place – yet his embassy to Paris was viewed somewhat as the Romans viewed Caligula’s horse who was elected to the senate. They didn’t even have to dig into Franklin’s absurd history of running away from debts, while later fulminating about debtors. Franklin and Jefferson were, in the true fashion of American hypocrites, everything they professed to hate, with the addition of an unaware stupidity that made them incapable of realizing it.
My current take on racists and classists is: 1) both ideas spring from a common error, that there is a “nature” that is more powerful than cultural “nurture” and 2) they are profoundly stupid, because you cannot be anything other than intellectually lazy or stupid to be able to hold racist or classist views without seeing their open contradictions. How could any white person think, as so many did, that black people were inferior, when confronted with a self-taught orator in the form of Frederick Douglass? “I hear he’s doing great work these days,” said Donald Trump, whose idea of “oratory” would doubtless elevate Tucker Carlson to the status of a silver-tongued genius. Perhaps the spice in Trump’s hatred for Barack Obama is that Obama is better at everything Trump ever did than Trump, and he was effortlessly cool about it the whole time. That does kind of jam up your sense of superiority if you’re a white supremacist and you can’t spell or read and there are black orators like Obama and Douglass who effortlessly slapped away the best that white America has to offer – let alone Donald Trump.
It is surreal to read the bits that Isenberg quotes from Franklin, and to realize that the old gomer actually believed that shit, in spite of the fact that he was a living contradiction of his own values. How was he taken seriously? Because, among Americans, he was educated and energetic and erudite. What a sad man.
[Jefferson] allowed his sheep to graze on the lawn of the president’s house, letting everyone know that a “gentleman farmer” occupied the highest office in the land.
Jefferson may have hated artificial distinctions and titles but he was quite comfortable asserting natural differences. With nature as his guide, he thought there was no reason not to rank humans on the order of animal breeds. In notes, he wrote with calm assurance, “the circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other animals,” with emphasis he added, “why not in that of man?”
Careful breeding was one solution to slavery. In his revisal of the laws, Jefferson calculated how a black slave could turn white, once a slave possessed 7/8 the taint of his or her African past was deemed gone.
It’s not just stupid racism; these stupid racists really believed they were superior. In order to believe that, they had to forklift in this creaking edifice of class consciousness that ratified their sense of superiority – allowing them to ignore the obvious fact that they were just more ruthless opportunists than the other guys. Jefferson appears to have really genuinely believed that there was something wrong with the slaves that stopped picking cotton as soon as they were allowed to. What did he expect, that they would cheerfully work harder? That’s stupid. These people were the spiritual ancestors of today’s dumbass conservatives like the eminently punchable Tucker Carlson wondering what’s wrong with kids today, that they don’t want to try to get ahead by plunging into a job market that is designed to grind them to bits. Or later capitalist hero Andrew Carnegie, who wrote a whole book about the virtue of hard work, while sitting at his sumptuous desk at his huge estate while lower class immigrants who had come to America because the alternative was starvation, fed his steel mills. Carnegie was a capitalist, and an entrepreneur, to be sure – but most of all he was a ruthless opportunist. And, he wrote a whole book about the virtue of hard work while, as one of his union workers said, “the closest he’ll ever get to a blast furnace is when he dies and the devil takes him.” American laissez-faire capitalists used the same dodge that the slave-owners did to make themselves feel justified: they blamed their victims. That great American tradition goes right back to the pilgrims (who were a warped bunch of authoritarian religious bigots) who immediately hated the natives because the natives appeared to be so lazy they were enjoying a splendid life hunting, fishing, fucking, and fighting with their neighbors, on a truly beautiful patch of land. The natives thought the colonists were crazy, and the colonists – through their class-sensitive eyes – thought they were lazy. And laziness is the devil’s hand, or something.
In my review of Ramp Hollow [stderr] I commented at length about how eye-opening it was to see that taxation was used as a way of moving appalachian subsistence farmers off their farms and into factories, where they could make wealth for capitalists. After all, you can’t make wealth for capitalists if you’re a subsistence farmer who doesn’t need a government – you’ve got some pigs and a still and some land in corn and some wheat and you can trade with the neighbors for goods and services. Isenberg shows me what I missed: we have to deride those people as “mudsills” and any of a dozen English terms for “garbage” because they aren’t part of the economy and Thomas Jefferson needs workers!
Isenberg does a great job of explaining how the pilgrims’ lock on the colonies’ economy was not just religious – it was practical and governed land ownership, loans, trade, and business relationships. Being a quaker was a way of cementing yourself into the class hierarchy in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. Once you were in, though, you could use the rungs of the church to seek status, using the usual web of religious ass-kissing and “putting in your time.” Franklin, who danced in and out of the Quakers’ religion was opportunism, and he saw the Quakers as a path for increased class status.
Though Jefferson sold Europeans on America as a classless society, no such thing existed in Virginia or anywhere else. In his home state, a poor laborer, or shoemaker, had no chance of getting elected to office. Jefferson wrote knowing that semi-literate members of the lower class did not receive even a rudimentary education. Virginia’s courts meticulously served the interest of rich planters.
And wasn’t slavery a “distinction between man and man?” Furthermore, Jefferson’s freehold requirement for voting created “odious distinctions” between landholders and poor merchants and artisans, denying the latter classes voting rights. One has to wonder at Jefferson’s blatant distortion, his desire to paint the society of cincinatti as so otherworldly to Americans that only extraterrestrials could appreciate it. Many elite Americans were fond of the trappings of aristocracy.
There is one part of the puzzle that remains undiscovered, for me, and that is an ancient one: why do the rich so often hate the poor? I suspect Epicurus was right: they are seen as a threat. The American colonies were built by England flushing their poor, as they did again to Australia, later. Isenberg presents us with an entire catalog of the nasty terms the English used for their lower classes, and illustrates how they changed and became specific to the colonies – but the basic hatred for poor people remained.
Perhaps another explanation for why the rich hate the poor is because the rich person’s main way of getting rich(er) involves cajoling, clubbing, or economically compelling the poor to work for them. Then, as now, the true miracle of capitalism was how 1% of the population got the other 99% to work themselves to death, for them. The social shackles that enforce that are complicated and their mechanism is deliberately obscured, but in the colonies, it had a lot to do with setting a lower class against itself, encouraging poor whites to hate black slaves, and vice versa, while the benefactors of the system sat comfortably in mansions, hating all of the lower classes. “Divide, and rule” indeed.
It’s a dynamic we are stuck with, today. Policies in the US that are not racist are often classist, which has the same effect at the bottom since the classes are reinforced along racial lines. It hardly matters whether Mitch McConnell is refusing to help black people, or refusing to help poor people – he’s going to refuse both categories. The United States oligarchy thus slides seamlessly between racist hatred and classist hatred, without having to directly acknowledge either. You can see that in the racist vote-suppression efforts going on nationwide, and the refusal of congress to help the non-working poor while offering pathetic bail-out scraps to the working poor.
It’s hard not to wander all over the place while I think about this stuff (I feel this is one of my less coherent postings) but that’s the effect White Trash has on me. As I go through it, I feel like there are so many pieces of the puzzle dropping into place. If you’ve been reading American social history, such as Howard Zinn, or anything about the Whiskey Rebellion, Ramp Hollow, the mining wars, 1493, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, or anything that touches on how the colonies’ economies worked, and why the revolution and the civil war happened – White Trash is an essential puzzle-piece in your big picture. The big picture, of course, is shame piled atop shame.