29 December 2012

A lesson for American palaeoconservatism, with reference to the Great Rebellion

Battle of Antietam - Army of the Potomac, Kurz and Allison, 1888

As someone with roots both in the Deep South (my father’s family hailing from South Carolina since the War of American Independence) and the Deep North (my mother’s family being New Englanders going back well before then), I approach the topic of the Civil War with some trepidation. I think it is reasonable for people to question official narratives of the Civil War (on both sides). I realise full well that the problems of the antebellum American Republic, the slave system and racism both, had long been perpetuated by both regional factions, and that industrial wage-slavery in the North was to be preferred only by degrees to the outright chattel-slavery in the South. I also realise that the aftermath of the Civil War and the triumph of the North was problematic for a number of reasons: the imperialistic genocide of and mass land-grab from the American Indians of the West, the mixed record of Reconstruction towards the South’s blacks, the rise of the corporation, money power and the Gilded Age. But at the same time, there is a clear wrong in this history – that of slavery – that needed to be righted, and it sullies the good name of traditionalist (or ‘palaeo’) conservatism (which ought to stand for truth and virtue no matter where it comes from geographically) that so many that claim to adhere to that philosophy engage in whitewashing or even defending that wrong, either out of sectarian loyalty, or (worse) out of a misguided ideological dogmatism.

First, to borrow the Confucian terminology, we need to ‘rectify names’: that is, to have a clear definition of what palaeoconservatism actually is, before we proceed further. I dare not presume to any comprehensive palaeoconservative creed or manifesto here, but rather point to several criteria inherent to any cogent definition of palaeoconservatism: a.) a preference for the concrete (real communities, real institutions, real rites-and-music) over abstract principles; b.) an inherent respect for lived traditions, following from this preference; c.) a recognition of original sin and its consequences; d.) a recognised need for an organic order rooted in the natural law, with justice and the inculcation of the classical virtues as its primary ends, to countervail however imperfectly against the effects of original sin; and e.) a basic suspicion of any and all grand ideological attempts at perfecting or making the world anew through human efforts alone. I would hope that my fellow palaeoconservatives would agree to these stipulations, and that I am not distorting the essence of the political philosophy.

Why does this definition matter? my gentle readers may justifiably ask. Because I intend to turn this definition to the service of the question which continues to haunt American palaeoconservatism to this day: namely, federalism or anti-federalism? Those familiar with my writing are probably very easily able to guess which side of the fence I fall on, and how hard. But we have to first start by pointing out that neither American tendency – neither federalism nor anti-federalism – should be perfectly satisfactory to a palaeoconservative holding to the tenets listed above. The centralism and Hobbesian mythology of ontological violence inherent to the federalism of Adams and Hamilton (borrowed from Burke, and as expressed in the Federalist Papers) prevent it from being sufficiently radical, and arguably leave it open to perversion in the service of empire and grand make-the-world-anew schemes. On the other hand, however, anti-federalism is even worse: if we take Jefferson as anti-federalism’s primary theorist (even though he was only marginally involved in the original Anti-Federalist movement), we have to view the philosophy as being essentially tainted by the disorders and excesses of the French Revolution. Abstract principles matter more in anti-federalism than situated ethics, particularly that great gilded calf of Liberty (to which too many good things palaeoconservatives ought to value are all too often sacrificed). The recognition of original sin and the need for an organic order to countervail imperfectly against it find no welcome in anti-federalism. Indeed, for Jefferson:
The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c. [are all] artificial systems [which have been used to deceive and mislead people regarding] the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist [to wit, Jesus Christ]
Jefferson’s legacy as president is problematic enough (his support for Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and his furtherance of American empire with the Louisiana Purchase). But if one looks at the legacies of Jefferson’s two most prominent political disciples (and mutual enemies), Andrew Jackson and John C Calhoun, the ironies and problems of some palaeoconservatives’ uncritical embrace of anti-federalism are thrown into sharper relief. Andrew Jackson’s embrace of the politics of the mob (‘popular democracy’) and his forced removals of American Indians from their lands should have been greeted with the utmost horror and revulsion by advocates of natural law and defenders of tradition. And John C Calhoun’s embrace of some of the worst tendencies of classical liberalism – the nullification principle and ‘free trade’ – should likewise meet with disgust from defenders of tradition and rooted communities, as they provide direct ideological support to libertinism and the moral chaos of radical individualism. If we examine the track record of the ‘free trade’ ideology and the way nullification worked in practice, we should note that both principles resulted more often than not in communities’ economic and moral corrosion or outright destruction through political violence.

All talk to this point, of course, has been ignoring the elephant in the room: chattel slavery. Between Jefferson, Jackson and Calhoun, this was the strongest ideological link. And, as I have noted numerous times previously with reference to Samuel Johnson, Beilby Porteus, Pope Gregory XVI, William Wilberforce and so forth, the Old World traditionalist conservatives of the 18th and early 19th centuries saw themselves as obliged to oppose slavery, firstly because it was physically and mentally degrading and secondly because it was destructive to the virtues of both master and slave. Further, they saw chattel slavery and ‘free trade’ both (and it would be a mistake to separate the two, so closely were they linked) as being anathema to the cause of rooted, local, organic order. Chattel slavery uprooted communities, it destroyed families, it sowed dissension and distrust in the societies where it was practiced.

Palaeoconservatives, if they truly do value the concrete and the personal over the abstract and the theoretical, ought therefore to regard the Southern rhetoric of nullification and ‘states’ rights’ (itself an ideological abstraction meant to cover over the exercise of the ownership of slaves) with the highest suspicion. Yet somehow, these concerns generally get glossed or ignored in favour of outrage against Abraham Lincoln as a ‘tyrant’ and a centralist – the latter of which he most certainly was, but the former of which he was not.

Here is where my Yankee colours start showing. I grant in all earnestness that Lincoln was far from a perfect president. His support for the big steel and coal industries in the North paved the way for the Gilded Age and the huge monopolies which came to dominate American economic life, and for that he deserves censure. He took a number of wartime measures over the heads of Congress which overstepped his Constitutional authority (like the suspension of habeas corpus, something the Confederacy under Davis also did, and the direct mobilisation of militia volunteers), and also ignored the courts on occasion. But, if he truly was a ‘tyrant’ as all too many palaeoconservatives claim, rather than a man of character, he would have retained indefinitely these wide-ranging powers that he was granted, arguably in violation of the Constitution. Instead, Lincoln relinquished those powers voluntarily at least once, reinstating writs of habeas corpus on his own initiative in February 1862. To me at least, this speaks great volumes about his humility and self-awareness. As for his actions prior to the war, many of them were not of his own choosing, but were rather the result of the political circumstances (John Brown’s famous abortive raid on Harper’s Ferry being one such). The Great Rebellion had been a long time in the brewing well before Lincoln made his entrance on the national stage, thanks to the poisonous influence of the institution of slavery on the nation’s politics.

But what of all those other causes of the War Between the States, one might ask, like the crushing tariffs (so Tom DiLorenzo and the Ludwig von Mises Institute claim) the Big Bad Abe had forced upon the long-suffering South? Well, what about them? Protectionist economic measures are championed in our own day and age by Patrick Buchanan (see also here), Jeremiah Bannister, Ian Fletcher and the many other fine contributors to The American Conservative: all palaeoconservatives of one stripe or another whose concern is for the Rust Belt communities the global ‘race to the bottom’ has managed so effectively to erode. Looking through the lens of the era, if your region controls a great quantity of a highly sought-after raw material (cotton) and a mass of labour for whom the wages are set indefinitely at zero, of course you’re going to want ‘free trade’ because no other labour market can compete with you in production of the same goods. A ‘race to the bottom’ is made a no-brainer when you start at the finish line, as the South did – but it does no favours to any other part of the country, particularly smallholder agriculturalists, or even to the communities where slave labour was employed. Today, palaeoconservatives are rightly concerned about the effects of illegal immigrants’ near-slave wages and of globalisation undermining the wages and benefits of native labour.

Remember, a palaeoconservative is one for whom the concrete and the particular is to be valued above the abstract and the universal, and one who is sceptical of any grand attempt to make the world anew. Appeals to big, idealist, globalist notions like ‘free trade’, however much they might sway neoliberals and classical liberals like the von Mises set, should have no pull whatever for us palaeoconservatives. Appeals to the integrity of communities, on the other hand, should. Here, it strikes me that we palaeoconservatives should be lining up in droves behind the federalist economic (or, as we say in development-speak, import-substitution) programme represented by Lincoln… even though we should simultaneously be critiquing that model for the way it became so easily unbalanced and abused in the decades following.

That same unbalancing and abuse is happening today – and it is being aided in this case by the same acolytes of ‘free trade’ and other neoliberal big concepts (e.g. Ron Paul and son), with whom much of the Old Right today finds itself unequally yoked. There is no inherent need for palaeoconservatism to subscribe either to the standard Whig history of the Civil War, nor to the even more insane and repugnant Lost Cause mythos (embraced notably by the Clintons, no friends at all either to working-class or to morally or socially conservative concerns). Indeed, it might find itself more palatable both to the patriotic Northern Rust Belt and to the black working class if a critical mass of palaeoconservatives repudiated the latter in particular.

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