Saturday, April 07, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2018, April 7: Republicanism vs. oligarchy?

I'll have more to say about Forrest Nabors' From Oligarchy to Republicanism (2017). But here I'll summarize what I see as the three key limitations of his approach to explaining the Civil War with the model of Northern republicanism versus Southern oligarchy:

  1. He uses the terms republic and oligarchy in an abstract way but nevertheless tries to distinguish sharply between the two
  2. But the economic part of his argument largely skips over the extensive work done on the nature of the pre-Civil War economy
  3. While the focus on the Republican Party and its antiwar militancy is enjoyable to see, it means almost by definition that the voices of more radical activists and slave resistance are forced more into the background.
  4. The way he stresses what he calls the revolutionary nature of the South's cause and the conservative nature of the North's response muddles the history, at best, and arguably even inverts it.
  5. Defining the war as fundamentally caused by the difference in political systems does wind up demoting slavery as the cause of the war, which is always a worrisome sign.

This is one of Nabors' formulation of his position, which he presents as a confirmation of the Republican political description of the Southern slaveocracy:
New Northern industrialists were becoming wealthy, in addition to the Southern slaveholders. Noting this, one economic historian collapsed the difference between the two sections, commenting, “In the North the top one percent of the wealth holders were mainly urban merchants and manufacturers whose businesses were based on wage labor, while in the South the top one percent were mainly rural planters whose businesses were based on slave labor. On this basis, it was claimed that the North and South were both “plutocracies.”

Setting aside the fact that this statement passes over wealth mobility, sector diversification, and other metrics of general economic benefit to the citizenry, sovereign rule of the few and concentrated wealth at the top of the scale are not the same. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they do not. In a model republican society, political and social equality prevails despite property inequality. But in a plutocracy or oligarchy, wealth is the distinctive ruling principle. In an oligarchy wealth determines rank; those unequal in property are absolutely unequal. Therefore, even if the same quantitative pattern of wealth distribution prevails in republican and oligarchic society, those patterns produce very different results, because the political standing of wealth is qualitatively different. [my emphasis]
Briefly put, Nabors claims that wealth and the wealthiest class were not dominant politically in the North, but were so in the South. The voice of the (white male) people were certainly more able to exert their weight on the state and local governments for the benefit of ordinary people. The Jeffersonian and Jacksonian movement were very important historical periods in which the (white male and often slaveholding) leaders represented the interests of the common people in substantial ways and served to expand the franchise. The Jacksonian movement even included the nascent labor union movement.

But both North and South were capitalist economies and they did function under the same broad Constitutional system. Both had considerable concentration of wealth, as the controversy between the Jacksonians and the Bank of the United States made dramatically visible. And as many historians have shown in great detail, Northern shipping and financial interests were also part of the slave system and some of them profited greatly from it. The infamous Draft Riots in New York City during the Civil War which featured deadly white racist violence against blacks were related in part to those Northern interests that profited from slavery and were pro-Confederate Copperheads.

Slavery was physically restricted to the South. But slavery was part of a national economy and protected by the national government. The North was more egalitarian in its economy and society, as Nabors rightly argues, and that was due to the fact that the North was based on a free labor capitalism while the Southern economy was based on slavery. But the rich man's voice always spoke much louder in both sections than the poor man's. And the franchise was restricted to men in both sections alike.

Again and again, he describes that Southern rebellion as a revolution and the Republican and Union cause as counter-revolutionary. That's also an abstract way to look at it, although colloquially an attempted overthrow of an established government from within is called a revolution

In the terms of the time, though, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation changed the war from a conventional war directed at restoring the status quo ante into a revolutionary war aimed at overthrowing the social and economic system of the South based on slavery. And the mass exodus of slaves away from the plantation as word of the Proclamation spread, the effect on the South's economy was a very significant factor in the Union war effort. That sounds more like a revolutionary general strike than a conservative counter-revolution.

Both North and South claimed to be defending the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the 1789 Constitution. In that sense, both sides were claiming to be the conservatives. But from a democratic point of view, the Northern cause was the one legitimately defending those principles. In the sense of establishing full classical republican democracy, the Union cause was a continuation of the American Revolution. While victory for the Southern cause would have meant the maintenance and expansion of the slave system and would have continued the antidemocratic trends associated with it that Nabors describes well.

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