Southern Pre-Capitalism (& Anti-Capitalism)

I was this past week reading from The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese.

Several chapters caught my attention, but it will be long before I read more from it. The book is massive and very dense. I wasn’t planning on reading it at all for the time being, until I checked out some of the chapter titles, one of which is Chapter 21 – Between Individualism and Corporatism: From the Reformation to the War for Southern Independence,  pp. 649-679.

Corporatism is being used in a different way than most people are used to from discussions of politics and economics. The authors are speaking in terms of earlier American society. Corporations as we now know them didn’t exist in centuries past. The pre-capitalist tendencies of Southern society led them to hold onto this earlier corporatism.

A slave plantation wasn’t just a or even primarily a business. It was a social order and a way of life. Many plantation owners didn’t even have any capital (i.e., fungible wealth) for they were entirely invested in their land and slaves (i.e, non-fungible wealth) and this wealth was inherited. This life of inheritance was inseparable from indebtedness, both monetary indebtedness and social indebtedness.

It’s easy for us to judge slaveholders as the bad guys. They are certainly worthy of our criticism.

The arguments against slavery were well known since before the American Revolution. Abolitionism was a major force that led up to the revolution. Slaveholders like Jefferson and Washington had plenty of opportunity during their lifetimes to free their slaves and both spoke of doing so, but neither did so. Nonetheless, there was a case of a slaveholder who freed  around 500 slaves. The problem is freeing all your slaves suddenly made you relatively poor.

For most slaveholders, though, it was a very complex issue. Ending slavery meant the collapse of their entire society. They envisioned total chaos and horrific violence. I’m sure there was some guilty conscience involved. However, they weren’t entirely wrong. The end of slavery did end the world as they knew it.

The authors attempt to show that not everything about that society was bad. The South was a pre-capitalist society and Southerners were among the strongest critics of capitalism. They genuinely believed a different way of organizing society was possible. It’s ironic that they criticized capitalism because they saw it as enslaving whites which indicates they knew slavery was a bad thing. It’s equally ironic that the South has since so unquestioningly embraced the laissez-faire capitalism of their Civil War enemy and in doing so forsaken their own traditional values.

This pre-capitalist view of Southern society fascinates me.

I did some web searches on Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. They made for an unique couple.

Earlier in their lives, Eugene was a Marxist and Elizabeth was a feminist. Later, they both became strongly conservative. I’m not sure either ever entirely denounced those labels following their right-ward shift. I get the sense that he simply became a Marxist conservative, probably from formerly being a conservative Marxist. He certainly was anti-capitalist or mistrusting of it which is why he became attracted to Southern traditionalism as he understood it. I’m less clear about Elizabeth’s beliefs other than her shifting toward the Catholic version of traditional family values.

I can see what is appealing in the traditionally conservative Southern worldview as presented by these scholars. There is that element of corporatism which I think is the same thing as what I’ve been calling classical conservatism, but there is also that lost conservative tradition from earlier centuries that was highly critical of capitalism. Classical conservatives valued social order over all else. The paired values of capitalism and individualism was the line in the sand beyond which classical conservatism could not go. That line, however, was crossed which is why modern conservatives tend to be classical liberals instead.

In my web searches, I found some articles that are neutral and some from both sides of the political spectrum. I like to look at the diverse perspectives on two people who had diverse and non-standard ideological tendencies.

12 thoughts on “Southern Pre-Capitalism (& Anti-Capitalism)

  1. This is really interesting, this type of pre-Capitalism was never discussed in any American History class I ever took or as a backdrop to the Civil War. I too find it fascinating. What’s more, when I was in graduate school in the mid-80s studying Medical Ethics, I took a course entitled Feminist Ethics, it fulfilled one of the requirements. A few of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s articles were in one of the required readings. I did not know she had a conversion in the 90s. This really is fascinating, thank you for posting this, I want to read the links you posted.

    • I never went very far in college, but unsurprisingly none of this was taught in any of my public school education. That includes 5 years in South Carolina public schools. Southerners have forgotten their own history, along with most Americans in other regions.

      I doubt such forgetting is a passive loss of collective memory. I rather suspect it was an active purging by the Southern elite seeking to embrace new rhetoric of justification for a ruling class. If they couldn’t beat the Northern capitalists, they would join them. Capitalism was the new order that seemed inevitable to the defeated slaveholding aristocracy.

      I was aware of this pre/anti-capitalism before reading this book. There is a lot of debate among scholars about whether or not the Antebellum South was pre-capitalist and, if so, to what degree. I find this view compelling. It seems to me there has to be some truth to it. Certainly, Sutherners were using plenty of anti-capitalist rhetoric in the decades prior to and during the Civil War.

      I’m fairly sure I’ve discussed this topic before, either in a post or in the comments section. I recall having mentioned it in reference to Joe Bageant who also comes from a Marxist background. He wrote about his childhood town in Appalachia, pointing out how it was a moneyless society based on subsistence farming, bartering and store tabs. Bageant was born long after the Civil War. That shows that pre-capitalism survived in the rural South well into the 20th century.

      What makes this Master Class book particularly interesting is that it is written by two Southerners. I’d like to read more about this from a Southern perspective.

      • Maybe this is why the North and South are still fighting the Civil War, 150 yrs later. This perspective would seem to suggest a total lack of understanding on both sides, and that it wasn’t just about slavery.

        • The North was a capitalist society. And the South was a slave society. Capitalists didn’t think about exploited workers any more than slaveholders thought about exploited slaves. It was competing systems of exploitation that led to a war between the respective elites of the two socieities. It was about who could enforce their power over the rest of the country as they enforced their power in their own regions. The struggle of the ruling elites continues, despite slavery being abolished.

          • What is also interesting is that these two different economic systems were operating simultaneously in the same country. We can’t seem to get one system right these days. So slavery then was the “hook” that the elites used to garner support for their respective sides.

          • Each society had its ruling elite: capitalists and slaveholders. Each society had its exploited group: wage slaves and race slaves. Each society had its free labor: professional class and yeoman farmers.

            Each saw the negatives of the other society while not having seen the positives. Each saw the positives of their own society while not having seen the negatives. Blinded by their own rhetoric, violent conflict appeared increasingly unavoidable.

            However, objectively speaking, there was and is no inherent opposition between them. Jefferson was industrializing his plantation. And there are capitalist societies in the world today that still have slavery, either on the black market or forced labor as found in China.

  2. Here is my take away. These authors contribute to a conclusion I’ve been pondering for a number of years. There appears to be a natural affinity between certain strains of left-wing ideology, specifically with the collectivist tendency, and social conservatism of the traditional/classical variety, what some refer to as the pre-Enlightenment ancien regime. This realization goes contrary to mainstream political rhetoric in America.

    • Yes I agree. That’s why some have said that elements of the Tea Party have much in common with elements of the Occupy movement. And also why, in the early 90s conservative Pat Buchanan was able to forge an alliance with liberal Lenora Fulani in his run for the Presidency. That this alliance didn’t last long is a great loss I feel because I thought finally they’re seeing that what they have in common is more important and more basic than what separates them. They were definitely out of the mainstream of political rhetoric.

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