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.