Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery.

I was just looking at an NPR piece on 50 Years Of Shrinking Union Membership, In One Map. It reminds me of a number of things.

I’ve made some correlations previously by looking at various mapped data. Where union membership has been historically strong and remained the strongest are where there has been high concentration of certain ancestral ethnicities. Two I’ve noted are German and Irish, which I relates to their higher rates of Catholicism and the attendant more community-oriented worldview.

I’ve often thought much about the Scots-Irish. Their influence can seem immense for various reasons, but it is hard to pinpoint what exactly is that influence. Some of the most violent organized labor strikes have been in Appalachia, the American cultural homeland of those with Scots-Irish ancestry. There is a militant fierceness to Scots-Irish culture of honor that can apply just as equally to vigilantism, family feuds, military enlistment, and labor activism.

It’s easy to forget, though, that those of Scots-Irish ancestry didn’t only settle in and become concentrated in Appalachia. All across the country, there is much overlap between their concentration and higher union membership rates.

This brings me to the forgotten connection between the Upper South and the Lower Midwest. Both regions have high union membership. I want to make a further connection, though. This is also the dual region of Abraham Lincoln’s upbringing. He spent his early life divided between Kentucky, Southern Indiana, and Illinois. The latter state, in particular, has become associated with Lincoln and is the heart of American union membership (which naturally brings to mind the words of Lincoln when he said, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”).

This land of Lincoln was the contested region of American identity. It’s the border region of the Civil War. And nothing symbolizes that conflict more than slavery.

What stood out to me in NPR’s union membership map is this. The states that have had the lowest union membership rates, unsurprisingly, are those that had the highest enslaved human rates. The one state that has almost always had the lowest union membership rates is South Carolina, a place that for most of its history included a black majority.

It is predictable that the states with a history of disenfranchising blacks also have a history of disenfranchising whites. In general, those are highly unequal class-based societies where poverty rates are high and most people are disenfranchised. This doesn’t just impact the poor, but the entire society or community and the entire economy.

In a previous post, I quoted Nicholas Kristoff from his article, When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 4:

“Indeed, a wave of research over the last 20 years has documented the lingering effects of slavery in the United States and South America alike. For example, counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today, according to a scholarly paper published in 2010. The authors called this a “persistent effect of slavery.”

“One reason seems to be that areas with slave labor were ruled for the benefit of elite plantation owners. Public schools, libraries and legal institutions lagged, holding back working-class whites as well as blacks.”

Union membership is just an indicator of the inequality that is present. It is also an indicator of a healthy, well-functioning social democracy. There is only ever freedom to the degree there is equality. Even the good life for the wealthiest is less good in a high inequality society, because the social problems caused can never be contained. They effect everyone. And those social problems are immense and diverse, from rising murder rates to worsening health issues, all of which also increase during Republican administrations when conservative polices set the tone for the nation.

Slavery is just an extreme form of inequality. Cultures and political systems don’t change quickly. We will be living with the consequences of slavery for a long time. The opposite of slavery is free labor which means workers who have greater control over their own lives. The labor movement is in essence a fight against the legacy of a country built on oppression. Class war has been continuously going on since the colonial era. It’s a class war that has mostly been waged by the wealthy and they have won most of the battles, but not all of them. Labor unions, for all their problems and limitations, are far better than the alternative in power at the moment.

We need to keep this in mind, at a time in our history when more blacks are in prison than were in slavery right before the Civil War and when mass incarceration is increasingly being used as a new form of forced labor. This is the context in which to understand dropping union membership rates, as poverty, inequality, and unemployment grows.

Freedom and Fate in Western Thought

I’ve observed a constellation of ideas that has been a part of Western thinking for a long time, but became most influential beginning with the Enlightenment.

It has to do with notions of freedom and determinism (specifically in terms of materialism and mechanism, environmentalism and communitarianism/socialism) along with heretical views about God and Nature, specifically such views as deism and pantheism/panentheism. It, of course, involves criticisms of biblical literalism and the rise of modern biblical studies in general, the Enlightenment idea being that faith and revelation doesn’t trump reason.

An early origin of this constellation has to do with the Stoics. They dealt with the problems of human fate. It was from the Stoics that the early Christians inherited natural law.

Freewill was a major issue for Christian theologians in those first several centuries. Augustine was heavily impacted by his experience as a Manichaean, and through this he introduced elements of Manichaeism into Catholicism. He particularly struggled with evil and freewill. This led him to a compromised position of Original Sin and the necessity of the Church as a proxy to enforce God’s will and hence enforce social order.

Later on, the Reformation era was a major factor in setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Take Erasmus as an example. He helped form modern biblical criticism and the humanistic tradition. He also was involved with a famous debate with Luther about freewill.

My focus on these ideas, however, isn’t as directly related to religion. The specific constellation of ideas can be seen in Hobbes’ writings, but more clearly takes form with Spinoza and Locke (the latter two born in the same year).

Spinoza and Locke represent the two sides of the Enlightenment, radical and moderate. Locke isn’t part of my main focus at the moment, although he forms an obvious context for most people in thinking about the development of the Western tradition. Instead, the more radical Spinoza has been on my mind. This constellation of ideas can be seen in the entire Enlightenment tradition and represents a core element, but it is most clearly manifest in the radical Enlightenment with its tendency toward deism.

In light of Spinoza, Hobbes has come to my attention. Hobbes is a precursor to the moderate Enlightenment, but he does share at least one thing in common with Spinoza. Both were determinists.

Hobbes saw human nature as dangerous. So, he put forth a secularized version of the Leviathan/Commonwealth where government takes on the role once held by the Church. 

Spinoza, however, saw human nature as having the individual capacity for moral good. So, he saw a kind of freedom to be had in knowledge and self-awareness. Certainly, Spinoza was the first advocate of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and democracy. Spinoza was also an early materialist which was related to his views of mechanism and determinism.

About a century later, Paine came on the scene. Paine was indebted to Spinoza, at least in his later work but probably in his earlier work as well (Spinoza’s influence on English deism was well established by the time Paine was born; the influence on Paine probably being a combination of direct and indirect as Spinoza’s influence was wide-ranging across all of the Western world, including influence on Locke). Paine’s radicalism, maybe more than any other single factor, inspired the entire revolutionary era from Europe to North America.

Many early American radical thinkers had notions of America’s destiny. Paine saw it as being a revolutionary fire that would spread across the world and so a destiny not limited or owned by just Americans. Others have seen this destiny differently such as an American Manifest Destiny. Either way, it forms the background to the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and freedom.

Lincoln was inspired by Paine. Also, Lincoln was involved in a social circle that included many radicals: spiritualists, communitarians, free-soilers, abolitionists, feminists, left-wing revolutionaries, etc. Lincoln developed a more determinist view of humanity and history which he at least partly got from Robert Dale Owen, the son of the famous socialist. It was because of Lincoln’s determinism that he thought that slavery was fated to end.  Lincoln believed in natural law which closely relates to the deist Nature’s God which is the divine imminent in the world and in each person, hence all are equal (Lincoln was aware of Jefferson’s deism and his original draft of the Declaration of Independence that declared all people equal, no matter their religion, race or gender).

If freedom is part of natural law, then it is destined to be. God isn’t arbitrary. God’s will is the law of this world, i.e., natural law. As such, all of the world chafes at the reigns of oppression for, from this view, it is unnatural and unsustainable.

During Lincoln’s life, Marxism and socialism were having great impact. Many of the left-wing revolutionaries in Europe had immigrated to America, some even joining Lincoln’s administration or the leadership of the Union army. More of Marx’s writings had been published in a Republican newspaper than anywhere else in the world and that newspaper was regularly read by Lincoln. Marx was another thinker who was influenced by Spinoza, and some Marxists today have attempted to rehabilitate Marxism by way of Spinoza.

Socialism is closely related to environmentalism for the environment includes both the social environment and the natural environment. This also brings us to the whole deep ecology angle which relates to the Nature’s God of the deists and so goes back to Spinoza. The original influence on deep ecology came from a philosophical pessimist, Peter Wessel Zapffe.

There is the common idea of the environment influencing or determining human behavior, an idea that was implicit if often submerged in the Enlightenment project. Different theorists go in diverse directions about this environmental influence, but it has becoming increasingly central to the ideas most clearly formulated by the first Enlightenment thinkers.

Ideas about freedom have a close history with ideas about fate.

This reminds me, as many things do, of the Trickster archetype. There is the liminal space between seemingly polar concepts. They are secretly connected and can’t be divided for it goes beyond mere philosophy.

This is moreso about human nature than about any particular ideology. This constellation of ideas can lead to many ideologies. What makes me wonder is the factor that causes these ideas to constellate in the fist place. What is their affinity?

In the Trickster archetype, there are issues of egalitarianism in terms of bringing the high down low and there are issues of charisma that offers a vision of egalitarianism and empowerment. Thinkers such as Paine and Lincoln certainly weren’t lacking in charisma.

I’m not sure what all this adds up to. Just some thoughts rolling around my head.

Radicals & Reformers of Indiana

As I’ve been doing genealogical work, I’ve also been thinking about my studies of history and generations. Part of my lineage is German. In the US, German culture and history hasn’t received fair and equal treatment. This is for many reasons.

The Germans were the enemies of the US earlier last century and at that time propaganda was at times intentionally used. After WWII, Germany was a pawn in the Cold War. Before either of the World Wars, there was much cultural diversity and tensions including that of Germans. The 19th century immigrants included a lot of religious radicals and political revolutionaries.

The Republican Party was, in fact, the beginning of a more mainstream version of left-wing politics with its connection to European socialists such as Marx. Some of the revolutionaries became politicians and generals, some even having fought in the Civil War. Some of the European revolutions in the early 19th century were partly inspired by the American Revolution, even seen as a continuation of it as envisioned by Thomas Paine. So, these revolutionaries came to America with this attitude.

I was thinking of this because of a specific fact I came across in my genealogical research. A number of generations of my family (Clouses and Hawks) lived at Spring Mill in Indiana near Mitchell (now a state park). Spring Mill had a distillery and some of my family were stillers there at different times. There was also a tavern and an inn. Since it was along a stage coach route, it attracted many important guests including politicians. What interested me, though, was this tid bit (The Village That Slept Awhile, p. 7): “Quite often, the intellectuals from Indiana’s famous experimental colony at New Harmony stopped at the tavern.”

When coming across that, it immediately perked my ears because I was familiar with the name of that utopian colony, although I had to research the details. It was first started by German pietists who had a radical vision of religion that was more similar to that of the Quakers, Shakers and Amish. They believed in living every aspect of life according to religious principles. The Harmonists decided to leave the area and so sold the community to a Welsh utopian thinker and social reformer, a socialist to be precise. This was circa 1824 and the community didn’t last many years, although its influence remained as it attracted some scientists to the area which might be why George Donaldson, an eccentric explorer, later lived in Spring Mill. It was around the 1820s and the decades following that a Wesley Clouse, possibly in my lineage, was the distiller.

Anyway, the area that attracted my family also attracted many radicals and reformers, intellectuals and eccentrics. The early 1800s was when my family was moving back and forth between Kentucky and Indiana, not fully settling in Indiana until maybe the second half of that century. It’s quite possible my family interacted with the various people who moved to the area to live in or near the utopian community, either in it’s guise as religious or socialist or even later on as a community of intellectuals and scientists.

Indiana today may seem like a conservative state, especially Southern Indiana, but it wasn’t always this way. There is a reason some of the most major union strikes happened in Indiana. There is also a reason that Indiana was founded as a non-slave state. Lincoln’s family moved to Indiana (where he was raised) partly because of the slavery issue and Indiana supported Lincoln in his election. Later on, Eugene V. Debs was born in Indiana and grew up to become one of the most influential socialists in US history, specifically during the Populist and Progressive eras. Debs was a high school drop out who first worked for the railroads which could describe some of my own working class family in Indiana.

If you want to know what is the Heartland of America, this is it: radicals, revolutionaries, abolitionists, free soil advocates, socialists, labor unionists, and on and on. Big business has gone a long way in destroying the radical heart of America, but it still beats. No amount of revisionist history can make this go away.

Revisionist right-wingers speak of assimilation and use it as a tool to attack anyone who isn’t like them. They romanticize about the so-called Melting Pot where everyone was equal. The only problem is that this is just propaganda. My family comes from Germans and history shows that German-Americans didn’t passively accept assimilation. They fought against assimilation even back in the 1800s. German immigrants (along with other ethnic immigrants) and their descendents did their best to maintain their own culture. In early America, the largest non-English speaking demographic was the German population. They often formed communities together, particularly in the Midwest, where they not unusually taught in German in their public schools (prior to the federal government later on in the 20th century forcing all public schools to teach in English).

(As a side note, I came across another interesting piece of info. I live in Iowa City. It has a large Czech population. My co-worker is part Czech and her family has been in the area for generations. She was looking at her grandmother’s cookbook which was recipes put together by a locla Czech Catholic church. A note in the cookbook mentions that the Czech Catholic church was built because the other nearby Catholic church had its service spoken in German. The Czech church was built in 1893. This demonstrates that cultural assimilation was limited in the 19th century.)

Germans were among the earliest immigrants. The German language was even considered as one possibility for the official state language in order to fully separate American society from British society. Germans have fought in all of America’s wars. Germans have shaped America as much as any other ethnic group, including the British. Presently, Germans are the largest ethnic demographic in the United States.

Much of the German-American side of my family are working class conservatives. Like most Americans, they probably don’t know much about the history of their own people or of their country. They might not even realize that the American working class wasn’t always conservative. When they think of socialists, they imagine people from far off lands, not in ‘conservative’ states like Indiana. Such conservatives have no pride in their history because they don’t know it.

 * * * *

As a note of explanation, my main point was simply that I’m annoyed with revisionist history. When I came across this interesting historical data, I felt a desire to share and yet I realized that my conservative parents wouldn’t necessarily share my excitement. My mom, in particular, has no interest in left-wing social reform, much less socialism. Her interest in family history is limited to family itself. That her German ancestors may have not been conservatives is of little relevance to her mind.

That is fair. I have no inclination to force my interests on the uninterested. My complaint is just the fact that my parents are mostly unaware of this history.

I’ve heard my dad argue the revisisiont history of cultural assimilation. It seems that most historical revisionism comes from the right. I find it annoying, but I don’t know who to blame. My dad is a smart and well educated conservative. Where did he learn this revisionist history? When he was a kid in 1950s Indiana public schools, were they teaching this revisionist history? When he went to conservative Purdue University, were they teaching this revisionist history? Or did he only learn this later from right-wing media such as Fox News?

Just thinking about all of this, I felt frustrated. If we as Americans don’t all share a basic knowledge of our own history, then how can we accomplish anything as a shared society? I’m fine with people having their own opinions, but opinions shouldn’t be allowed to replace facts. Why is this such a contentious issue? How can anyone honestly claim an opinon about history is equal to verified historical facts?

The United States is and always has been culturally diverse. You can like that fact or you can dislike it, but it doesn’t change its being a fact. If you question my claim of this being a fact, I would recommend the two following books:

Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer

American Nations by Colin Woodard

After studying the facts, if someone still has some disagreements with my interpretations and conclusions, then I’d be more than happy to discuss the facts. But any such discussion should begin and end with the facts.

 * * * *

11/29/11 – Since writing this, my mind has returned to it. I feel like I was being too critical in my frustration. I said I didn’t know who to blame and I still don’t. It’s not any single person or group who is responsible and the problem is very complex. As I often contemplate, we all are to varying degrees ignorant. The Melting Pot myth is indeed revisionist history. There was of course assimilation but just not to the degree that some would like to believe. Then again, we all have our favored myths that blind us to other viewpoints, other understandings, other information.

This makes me wonder what lies or misinformation have I learned in my own education/indoctrination. When I’m older, what will some younger person complain about in reference to older people like me? What will seem obvious to future generations that isn’t so apparent at the moment? It’s always good to be wary of righteous judgment toward others. None of us are without failure of one sort or another. None of us sees the whole picture perfectly. Revisionist history is simply what people want to believe because it gives meaning to their lives and justifies the world as they wish it to be.

My main complaint is more of a personal issue. Studying my family’s German heritage, why shouldn’t I be proud to be part of an ethnic group that resisted assimilation for about a century or so? Considering this, why should anyone of Germanic descent feel arrogantly self-righteous toward other ethnicities who have been resistant or slow to assimilate? It took Germans at least a century to even begin to assimilate. So, let’s give these new immigrants a century to assimilate on their own terms. Assimilation is good when freely chosen but is a system of oppression when forced.