23 October 2012

The other half of the ‘Southern strategy’

Population cartogram of the US showing Republican and Democratic bases of popular support

Before I had gone over the wall, both John at EifD and David Lindsay linked a very interesting article from Hamiltonian historian Michael Lind at Salon on the real dimensions and aims of the ‘Southern strategy’, an economic arrangement devised by that region’s elites which emphasises wage slavery, low corporate tax rates and little to no regulation on big business. Read the article in its entirety; it is a good one. Most people are familiar with the election maps which demonstrate a complete role reversal of the Democrats and the Republicans between the 1920’s and the 1960’s in terms of which regions and which ideologies they represented; Mr Lind shows that the states which comprised the erstwhile Confederacy are essential to the Republican constituency. As such, it is to be expected that the Republican platform will reflect the political will of the elites in the region.

There are some notable exceptions to the rule, of course: Lind’s map shows that the ‘tidewater states’ of Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina are becoming ‘bluer’ rather than ‘redder’. Possibly this is because they retain an Anglican character from the days when they were settled by Jacobite exiles, and though they do tend to have a more aristocratic mindset, they also value classical education: in my experience many Virginians and other highly-educated near-Southerners are appalled by the anti-intellectualism that defines the modern American ‘conservative’ movement.

For many of the same reasons, the soft spot that many of my fellow palaeoconservatives harbour for the antebellum South still utterly baffles me. I take them at their word that they value an organic order and natural hierarchies; that they prefer the local over the global; and that they prefer the logic of the community over the logic of the market. But the actual structure of the antebellum South (and the proposed structure the current Republicans champion), flies in the face of every one of these things. Yes, the Old South was hierarchical. But it was a total mockery of the natural hierarchy, as it involved the destruction and rape of organic communities in Africa, the soul-harrowing and culture-destroying Middle Passage forced upon them by early capitalists, and ultimately the wholesale commodification of human beings. And far from being an idyll of rural life, the plantation was every bit as much a soulless mechanical monstrosity, a part of the global capitalist system of the time, as any Northern factory or sweatshop: it consumed human lives for the sake of a raw material (cotton) which was then exported around the globe. Not only that, but the South didn’t ‘just want to be left alone’, as all too many of its apologists claim: they actively sought the exportation of their economic system to the American West, to the Caribbean and to South America (where, as slavery was still practised in Brazil, they hoped to be ‘greeted with open arms’), and they deliberately forced their political will upon a North which was all too reticent to return escaped slaves. So much for ‘states’ rights’, I guess.

On close inspection, the economics of the pre-war South were startlingly close to what would now be considered neoliberalism. Indeed, why else would so many libertarians (like Ron Paul, like the Ludwig von Mises Institute and so forth) so readily embrace the so-called Lost Cause? Even more troublingly from a palaeoconservative point of view, why would openly neoliberal politicians like Bill Clinton actively patronise the neo-Confederate cause by laying wreaths at the Confederate Memorial in the Arlington Cemetery and sending supportive letters to neo-Confederate organisations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy? Hmmm...

Indeed, if one looks for assertive expressions of local culture and community in the United States, I have long had the sneaking suspicion one is as likely (if not more) to find them in small-town petty-bourgeois New England, in the farming and mining communities of the Midwest, and (of course) on the Native American reservations of the American West as one is to find them in the South (the birthplace of Walmart and the strip mall). So why is palaeoconservatism so readily drawn to the prima facie conservative (but actually neoliberal) obsequies of neo-Confederate politics?

Possibly it is because of the coalition politics that arose out of reaction to the New Left in the 1960’s which aligned the economic left with social liberalism, and conversely the economic right with social conservatism. Indeed, you are likely to find as much of culture-warrior politics in the popular defences of the Confederate legacy as anything else. But those coalition politics are in the process of dying a long, drawn-out and likely very messy death. The Democrats are rediscovering a politics which aligns economic populism with everything the palaeoconservatives claim to value: respect for life, respect for locality and respect for a transcendent order. Meanwhile, the neoliberals and libertarians amongst the Republicans are winning (with the faux pro-life Romney and the Ayn Rand-worshipping Paul Ryan heading their presidential ticket), and their socially-conservative supporters are being rather blind about the writing on the wall.

A real, effective palaeoconservative politic has to take a careful account of its basic priorities before entering into such alliances. As, it probably goes without saying, should a real, effective left-wing politic. As Michael Lind states, the working class of the South, black, white and Hispanic, may be very responsive to either sort of politics, but first we have to mount an effective opposition to the opportunistic elites who wish to take advantage of anti-union, low-wage, low-corporate tax, low-regulation neoliberal economics whilst pretending to be conservative.


  1. Great post. The Southern states also feature high divorce rates and a high level of dependence on Federal subsidies, whether we are talking about welfare or spending on military bases, many of which are located in the South. The Southern elites don’t really care about their own people, nor do they care about using Federal power when it suits them. As you point out, the Southern oligarchy tried to use national power to expand slavery into the West and campaigned for wars in Latin America to add more slave states to the Union.

    I remember a few years ago there was
    a very heated debate on Taki’s website between libertarians and Tom Piatak over the auto bailout. Piatak is from Cleveland, and he discussed how the collapse of Detroit would devastate already weakened communities in the Midwest and supported the bailout as a necessary evil. The libertarians of course would have none of it.

    I think paleocons tend to fall into two broad categories on economics. On the one hand you have the neo-Confederate/libertarian conservative faction, and on the other you have the protectionists/national conservatives (Pat Buchanan being a good example).

    I suppose you can add distributists to the mix, but they seem to have many differences with typical paleocons. Distributists seem to swing more to the Left. Distributism does not seem too different from libertarian socialism.

  2. Hello Mr Cooper! Liked your article. Who knew the South was conservative only on one aspect?

    I would like to ask something. I don't know if you've covered this on a separate article, but I would like to know if there are any proofs or evidence of conservative opposition to US imperialism - say in the Philippines.



  3. John, my hat is off to you and David Lindsay for discovering and writing about this article in the first place. I think it does a fairly good job of elucidating (even though this was not its primary goal) the ways in which the economic and political order that the Southern elites want really isn't 'conservative', in the sense of the word we mean it, at all.

    Another of the palaeocons who was a really big advocate of economic protectionism, and who had a major impact on me, was Jeremiah Bannister of PaleoRadio (here). His politics have shifted a bit more toward the national-liberal side of things since his early stuff, but he is still very much worth reading and listening to.

    Idrian, I am sadly unfamiliar with the state of Philippine geopolitics, except for that four-way dust-up between the Philippines, China, Malaysia and Vietnam over the Spratlys, and also generally that the Philippines has historically aligned itself very strongly with the US. I'm also somewhat familiar with the legacy of Ninoy Aquino, Jr and his role in opposing the Marcos regime. Other than that, I'm afraid I'm a bit out of my depth regarding the Philippines.

    I would be quite surprised, however, if there were not populist or national-conservative movements in the Philippines which seek greater autonomy, dignity and equality for Filipinos. I'll have to do quite a bit more research, though.


  4. Hi Matt,

    It's okay, thanks for your reply. I wasn't asking about conservative opposition to US imperalism from the Philippines (we have different political traditions there) but US conservative opposition to US imperialism. Are there any historical instances of genuine US conservatives opposed especially to the spread of US imperialism around the turn of the century, with what happened to the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico?



  5. Hi Matthew,

    I remember Jeremiah Bannister from the old Distributist Review website and I liked his work. If I am not mistaken, it looks like he has become an atheist. I found that rather surprising, although it is not my business and all, I guess I just thought it was interesting.

    Pat Buchanan’s writings on globalization initially brought me to economic populism. I used to be a fairly conventional Republican. I was a believer in neoliberal economics, military interventionism, etc. I voted for George W. Bush against Kerry and was a member of the College Republicans. However, Buchanan’s descriptions of collapsed industrial towns really made me think about the human side of economics, and thus my journey to the Left began.

  6. Ah, my apologies, Idrian! That reading of it just went completely over my head.

    As for American history, that question is a bit easier to answer. Certain strains of American conservatism going back to (arguably) John Adams, Sr have always tended to regard the constant drives for territorial expansion with a sceptical eye. The Massachusetts Federalists were steadfastly opposed, for example, to the Louisiana Purchase (which was very much a Jeffersonian boondoggle). Populists like William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the century were very often faced with the charge of 'isolationism' (indeed, Bryan himself was a pacifist). Though the overall slant of the Anti-Imperialist League was liberal, a number of its members were in fact conservative. This book here, I think, does a better job of accounting for the various conservative (and 'conservative') strains of American anti-imperialism.

    Ain't My America

    John, I find myself coming around to a fairly deep reappraisal of Pat Buchanan. There are still some aspects of his politics I find repugnant - he does seem to buy into some memes which could justly be considered anti-Semitic, for example. But on economics, on history, on foreign policy, I think the man has his head screwed on mostly straight.

    As for myself, I think my journey to a similar political end has been somewhat the opposite. This will be the first one where I am not voting for the Democrat in the race. I was too young in '00 to vote for Gore, but I voted Kerry in '04 and Obama in '08. Now I'm voting for Ms Stein. (If I were still living in Pennsylvania, it might be a different story, but I'm currently voting in Rhode Island absentee from China, and my home state is safely going to Obama anyway, so I figure I can voice my protest without too-dire repercussions.)

  7. Thanks for the reply and info, Mr Cooper. I think I may have not made my earlier inquiry clear, and I'm sorry for that. Thanks also for the recommendation.


  8. Hello Mr Cooper:

    Just want to ask concerning those "assertive expressions of local culture and community in the United States," would you include the Southern black communities on that list? They seem to have created a culture in their area that combines both African and European influences and rooted in the specific nature of their place.