Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Coates on Fitzhugh

Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose blog at The Atlantic I probably should get more in the habit of looking at from time to time, has been writing a series of posts reflecting on his reading of George Fitzhugh, one of the antebellum South's intellectual defenders of slavery, to whom I had occasion to refer here. In this post Coates quotes from Fitzhugh's Cannibals All and proceeds to observe, among other things, that Fitzhugh "almost has no regard of labor as an individual value." As I mentioned in "The Dignity of Labor", this is precisely one of the ways in which mid-19th-century Northerners answered Fitzhugh's critique of nascent industrial capitalism. But although Fitzhugh is, of course, defending an indefensible system, Coates finds some passages to admire, for instance here. I personally don't find these particular excerpts quite as riveting, but these things are subjective.

(P.s. Coates is also on to Moby Dick; see Holbo here.)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

McConnell v. Dionne (guess who's right)

Answering reporters' questions about the budget negotiations the other day on the Hill, Sen. McConnell said "the problem is not that we're taxed too little, it's that we [i.e., the government] spend too much." (Source: C-Span radio)

However, as E.J. Dionne (without mentioning McConnell) observes: "Americans pay less in taxes
than the citizens of other rich countries — and currently pay the smallest share of their incomes for taxes since 1958."

Read the whole thing, as they say.

A Medal of Honor recipient remembered


Friday, May 27, 2011

The case for cutting U.S. military aid to Pakistan (with a postscript on the Pakistan 2020 report)

Lawrence Wright, in the May 16 New Yorker, advocates reducing U.S. support for Pakistan's military and intelligence service. (Phil Arena earlier drew attention to this piece at his blog.) I'm inclined to agree with Wright's prescription if not with all the reasoning. It seems likely that a lot of the aid is being diverted into non-military investments or used in ways that have nothing to do with the intended purposes. Wright notes that the Pakistani government is not doing much to expand its tax base (fewer than 2 million people pay taxes, he says, in a country of 180 million people) beyond appointing eunuchs as tax collectors in Karachi. The Pakistani military remains over-focused on India, which, as Wright observes, is not the main current threat to the state.

However, some of the presumed benefits that Wright connects with cutting military aid may prove difficult to realize. He mentions reducing U.S. tariffs for Pakistani textiles as a way of helping the civilian sector (and Pakistan's economy generally). But as a January 2011 article in The Seattle Times (which appears to have been picked up from Wash. Post) notes:

The [U.S.] House last year passed a narrowly focused bill designed to promote export industries in Afghanistan and [in] specific zones primarily in Pakistan's northwestern border region, but a corresponding bill has been stalled in the Senate. Separately, the U.S. textile industry has made clear it would strongly oppose any legislation that is more ambitious than the bill being considered, saying it would put American jobs at risk.

(See also Joshua Partlow and Haq Nawaz Khan, "As Violence Hurts Business, Pakistanis Debate U.S. Help; Restrictions Make Textile-Export Bill Useless, Some Say," Washington Post, July 28, 2009.)

Wright also suggests that a reduction in U.S. aid to Pakistan's military could give the U.S. leverage with India on the Kashmir issue, leading perhaps to a referendum that would result in Kashmir's independence. I wouldn't bet on that (I mean the leverage part). Nonetheless, Wright's piece does make a pretty strong case for cutting U.S. aid to Pakistan's army and the ISI (the intelligence service). (See also Aqil Shah, "Getting the Military Out of Pakistani Politics," Foreign Affairs, May/June 2011.)

P.s. Wright's piece is relatively brief and thus does not address issues that must lurk in the background of any discussion of U.S.-Pakistan relations, such as the persistently oligarchical character of key aspects of Pakistani society (i.e., the power of a small number of wealthy families) and the disastrous condition of the Pakistani state education system (which I have blogged about before), just to mention two.

P.p.s. The Asia Society has recently released a report, Pakistan 2020; according to part of a roll-out session for the report that I caught on C-Span radio several days ago, it addresses some of these more basic issues. The Asia Society's press release on the report is here.

P.p.p.s. The Economist chimes in.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

From Magna Carta to the Arab Spring in under a half-hour

Pres. Obama's speech in Westminster Hall contained the soaring rhetoric one would have expected, and reading the text one can imagine it in delivery and even be moved at one or two points. There were at least a couple of things that jumped out: in one passage he equates "free enterprise" with "the market" (wrongly, I think); and the Roosevelt-Churchill chord is struck perhaps a bit too loudly at the end (don't Obama's speechwriters know about Churchill's view of the Empire? If Churchill had had his way, the British army, which Obama's grandfather, as the Pres. remarked, served as a cook in Kenya, would still be in Kenya). Still, it's hard to avoid Churchill-FDR in this context, and his speechwriters did manage to find a reasonably appropriate Churchill quotation -- something about 'the chirping bird of freedom' -- to end with.

The stuff about the U.S. and U.K. still being indispensable for leadership in the world etc. etc. is entirely predictable; what else could he say? This is not totally wrong, but even if it were he would still have had to say it. You can't get up in Westminster Hall and say "our power and influence are declining, let's decline gracefully, thank you very much." Well, I suppose you could, but you'd have to have really skilled speechwriters to make it go down.

Pictures of tornado damage

Here [hat tip: C. Bertram at CT].
Be sure to scroll down to #23, which is a striking image of storm clouds.

Monday, May 23, 2011

And not-so-quiet flow the platitudes

Kissinger's just-published book on China (which is not on my reading list, for several reasons) is probably (I'm guessing) a mixture of banalities, occasional insights, and reminiscence. When Niall Ferguson, who knows a lot about some things but China I don't think is one of them, writes about a book of this sort the result is almost guaranteed to be embarrassing, and sure enough, according to K. Winecoff, it is.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Israel-Palestine: is there a way forward?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is back in the news cycle in the U.S., thanks to Obama's mention of the 1967 lines in his speech and his subsequent meeting with Netanyahu. As Stephen Hadley emphasized on the NewsHour Friday, Obama actually called for negotiated adjustments to the 1967 lines via land swaps, and if he had mentioned the land swaps first, his reference in the speech might not have been interpreted as such a big deal. Speaking later on the same program, David Brooks said that drawing "magic lines on a map" (I believe he used that phrase) would not solve a conflict whose roots are found in competing narratives, competing historical wounds, and so forth.

Brooks's remarks prompt a thought which I'm sure is not original (how many thoughts are?) but which I'm going to throw out anyway. Perhaps it has been a mistake to think in terms of 'solving' or 'resolving' the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; perhaps it would be better to think in terms of moving the conflict into a new phase, one that is less unjust, more stable, and more manageable. In this context the establishment of a Palestinian state with agreed-upon borders (or even 90 or 95 percent agreed-upon), and a Palestinian state which both recognizes Israel and is recognized by Israel, would be a major accomplishment, even if the issues of refugees and the status of Jerusalem remain unresolved.

Contrary to what many people seem to suppose, it is really not necessary to resolve all the outstanding issues, or even every last single territorial issue, in order to arrive at a mutually agreed-upon two-state arrangement. India and China still have disagreements about certain aspects of their border; so, I believe, do Greece and Macedonia; so do Thailand and Cambodia. Although the Thai-Cambodia border dispute recently has sparked some shooting and fatalities, most border disputes do not entail much or any violence. Many of them just simmer for years, causing some irritation in diplomatic relations and some inconvenience for those who live in or near the disputed areas, but not much else. There is no reason why Israel and a new Palestinian state have to agree on 100 percent of their border. Particularly difficult areas that can't be taken care of by land swaps can be labeled 'in dispute' and some kind of temporary jurisdictional arrangement can be put in place. Just as India and China disagree about five percent (or whatever the figure is) of their border, so Israel and the new Palestinian state could agree to disagree about five percent of their border. An understanding that there is nothing especially strange about such an outcome, coupled with a shift in thinking from 'resolving' the conflict to moving it into a new and less conflictual phase, might help in any event to restart a 'peace process' that appears to be very stalled at the moment.

P.s. As Jon Western argues, the "strategic time-frame" in the region is not on Israel's side, which should, one would think, be an impetus to re-starting negotiations.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Diehl's unwise prophecy

Jackson Diehl's column in today's Wash. Post ("Abbas's formula for war," p. A19, print edition) is nothing short of bizarre. It's hard to know where to begin with this farrago of weirdness. Diehl appears to think that Abbas's commitment to seek "a U.N. General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood in September" is almost tantamount to a declaration of war. Diehl fastens on Abbas's statement in a recent NYT op-ed that a UN statehood vote would mean "Palestine would be negotiating from the position of one United Nations member whose territory is militarily occupied by another." Let's slowly read the first four words: Palestine. would. be. negotiating. Does that sound like a declaration of war? I didn't think so.

It gets worse. Diehl indicts the U.S. and its European allies for indulging "the soft bigotry of wishful thinking about Arab strongmen" by believing in Abbas's words rather than looking at his deeds. He implicitly compares those deeds to the actions of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. The latter has been shooting his own people in demonstrations around the country. Has Abbas been doing anything comparable? I didn't think so.

Abbas, Diehl concludes, "is trying to transform the Arab Spring into a mass movement against Israel," which "could trigger not just another intifada but another Middle East war." This has the inflammatory ring of a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy. What about the stalemated status quo, with a 'peace process' going nowhere? Doesn't that present dangers? Isn't there a chance that a UN General Assembly vote to admit Palestine, although mostly symbolic, might shake things up in a constructive way? Is it sensible to let the current situation, in which no serious talks are taking place, continue indefinitely?

Abbas's prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has succeeded, as Diehl himself semi-acknowledges, in creating the conditions for statehood on the West Bank. Last September a World Bank report concluded that "if the PA maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future" (quoted in Robert M. Danin, "A Third Way to Palestine," Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 2011, p.102). Diehl writes that the recent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement "probably will obligate" Abbas to fire Fayyad. Probably will obligate? What does that mean? Diehl doesn't bother to explain. He's too busy excoriating Obama for his alleged pressure on Netanyahu.

This column is, arguably, worse than bizarre. It's irresponsible.

Barnett on humanitarianism

Michael Barnett discusses his book Empire of Humanity (Cornell U.P., 2011) in a talk recorded in early April. I listened to the first 28 minutes or so. He argues, among other things, that humanitarian movements and organizations ('humanitarianisms') are creatures of the historical contexts in which they developed, that they have always interacted with states and 'done politics,' and that the perception among aid workers of a sharp divide between the Cold War and post-Cold War periods is historically false. The first two of these points seem incontestable; the third might be more controversial. I'll leave that to those who know more about this than I do.

Vaccines funding

I'm on the email list of One, which is urging members to 'call the White House' to ask the Pres. to commit $450 million over the next 3 years to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations at a donors conference in London next month. More info here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Grammar grumpiness

Things have come to a pretty pass when not even the BBC is capable of matching a singular subject with a singular verb:

South Africans are going to vote in local elections after one of the most bitterly fought campaigns in years.

The delivery of basic services like water, housing and jobs have [sic!] been among the issues dominating campaigning.

Sorry. This is one of my pet peeves.

Monday, May 16, 2011


This morning I e-mailed a friend who follows French politics: "What does it say about the French Socialist Party that an IMF chief has been its leading presidential prospect?" whereupon he replied, inter alia, that it's been a long time since the SP, "in France or anywhere else," is where one went looking for the "true left" (however defined). Allowing some leeway for a bit of hyperbole, I think that's true. Still, as I mentioned in my reply to his reply, there is something symbolic about the IMF, inasmuch as it stands for many as the institutional embodiment of neoliberalism. I should add that I know virtually nothing (that mantra again) about Strauss-Kahn's career.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Have we learned?

It would take too long to explain, but certain technical/computer problems (which I hope to solve in the reasonably near future) are requiring me to squat on the floor while writing this -- so it will be fairly brief (or at least briefer than it would otherwise be).

Many of us face the problem of too much to read -- too many books, magazines, journals, newspapers, blogs. We make choices and we take shortcuts. I can sometimes get a reasonably good idea about a book via a twenty-minute or half-hour's browsing of it in a bookstore. I did that this evening with Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars. Being familiar with his King Leopold's Ghost, I knew he was a very good writer, so my interest here was not so much savoring the prose as figuring out what he is doing. The answer is that this is a book mainly about the British experience in World War I, but with particular attention paid to the war's opponents (including, e.g., some COs who physically suffered for their convictions) as well as a more conventional cast of dramatis personae. There are some very familiar stories here (e.g., that of Rudyard Kipling and his son) but no doubt also some less familiar ones.

I was struck by the way the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has chosen to pitch the book on the inside front jacket flap. The last line of the jacket description is something like "will we ever learn from the past?"

Some would argue that we already have. It is virtually impossible to imagine a replay of the First World War, in which large armies from the most supposedly 'advanced' countries in the world slaughtered each other in numbers mounting up to the millions while competing, at least on the Western Front, over tiny bits of territory. The last sustained armed conflict involving a direct clash between great powers was World War II (true, U.S. and Chinese troops fought in Korea, but the active fighting occurred over a relatively limited period). Some political scientists (most notably John Mueller) have made a fairly convincing case that the chances of another major great-power war are extremely remote -- not because nuclear weapons would come into play and make it short but because most countries no longer think in such terms, i.e., major war is no longer an option on the conscious menu of policy-makers. This thesis is controversial and it's not too hard to find some evidence that cuts the other way, especially if one looks, for example, at Pentagon planning documents, at the size of some defense budgets (especially but not only that of the U.S.), or at the amount of money that India, for instance, is planning to spend on weapons over the next decade.

Still, whatever one thinks of the obsolescence-of-major-war thesis, it seems to me too pessimistic to suggest that the attitudes that propelled Europe into its collective suicidal madness of 1914-1918 are anywhere near as strong today as they were a hundred years ago. Militarism and hyper-nationalism are certainly not extinct (and their strength varies in different parts of the world), but in general they do not have anything like the hold over mass publics and elites that they did in the early and middle years of the last century. The notion advanced by the historian David Bell that the "war on terror" represents a kind of apocalyptic thinking about war that dates from the Napoleonic era may have an appearance of plausibility, but I am more inclined to see discontinuities and some learning -- for lack of a better word -- in the history of the last 200 years.

P.s. Hitchens reviews To End All Wars in the NYT Book Review.

Friday, May 13, 2011

OBL and McVeigh

I put up a post with this title but it disappeared when Blogger went down, and now I don't feel like recreating it. I refer anyone interested to the comment thread attached to the Crooked Timber post "Justice Like a Hawk". (The link for CT is at the sidebar.)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Scotland forever

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has scored gains in local elections and looks set to win a majority in the Scottish parliament. According to the linked article: "The SNP's leader, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, promised to push for a referendum on Scottish independence during the next four years."

With the caveat that I know nothing about this (it's becoming a mantra here), I suspect that Scottish independence looked more plausible when the EU was in better shape than it is right now. Who needed Britain when an independent Scotland could get the benefits of economic integration and a common currency as an EU member? But the EU at the moment may not appear to be as strong a reed to lean on as it once did. Plus, seceding from the UK would mean no more good seats at royal weddings. Though I guess an independent Scotland could join the Commonwealth? Somehow I don't think that's in the SNP platform.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Scale back the drones

The death of OBL offers an opportunity to change some U.S. approaches in Pakistan and Afghanistan, starting with a reduction in drone strikes.

From the Democratic Individuality blog:
According to neocon foundations, the drones kill 5 civilians for every “Taliban." The Pakistan government says the number is 600 innocents for every “Taliban.” But even the neocon figure is bad enough....
Perhaps it is no wonder that starving crowds in Pakistan chant “death to Obama” or that Obama’s ratings in the Arab world, according to the Pew foundation (cited by Andrew Sullivan last week), are near the same dismal level as George Bush’s. The need for a redirection of policy could not be more glaring.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My problem with patriotic display; or, What I saw at the Kennedy Center last night

For whatever reason, I've never been very comfortable with overt manifestations of patriotism. I did not display the flag after 9/11 (or before it). I don't especially like the post-9/11 practice of singing 'God Bless America' at the 7th-inning stretch of baseball games; isn't the national anthem before the game enough? Nor can I look too kindly on the college students who congregated in front of the White House chanting 'USA' after the killing of bin Laden, though I recognize that they probably represented a fairly small fraction of their peers and I agree with DPT on the need for some humility about one's own reactions in this respect.

This issue presented itself in another guise for me last night, when I attended the 40th annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and delivered this year by Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University and Lincoln Professor of History. Her lecture, "Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian," was thoughtful and quite interesting, if not exactly what I'd expected. What I want to focus on just now, however, is what preceded it. The U.S. Marine Band, "The President's Own," played for about 25 minutes, with Civil War images flashing on a screen above it, as people filed into the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, which was the venue. Then a Joint Color Guard presented the colors, which involves uniformed representatives of each of the military services presenting their flags in a stylized ritual, to the accompaniment of flourishes from the Marine Band, and with two rifle-wielding soldiers (were they Marines? I'm not sure) on either side of the flag-bearers. Then right after the Presentation of Colors (or was it right before? I can't remember) there was the national anthem. The Marine Band of course is a very tight ensemble (if you've never heard the Marine Band, you don't know how tight "tight" can be), and their renditions (including the Marine Corps hymn "From the Halls of Montezuma") were quite stirring. After all this, the audience was no doubt feeling something (patriotic or perhaps just 'stirred') by the time Congressman John Lewis walked to the podium to read a poem by Walt Whitman, "Dirge for Two Veterans," which was the last program item before the lecture itself.

But -- of course there was a "but" coming, you knew that -- was the military pomp and circumstance appropriate? Although war was the central theme of Faust's lecture, this was not a lecture about military history. Rather, she talked, among other things, about the connections between war and literature and war and memory, about the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that war has exercised over humans for millennia -- all in line with the fact that this was the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, not the Jefferson Lecture in Military Science.

Now, I don't know whether the Marine Band and the Presentation of the Colors are standard fare at the Jefferson Lectures, since, although I was aware of the Lecture's distinguished history, this was the first one I'd attended. (It would be easy enough to find out, no doubt, but bloggers don't do research. P.s. I'm joking.) But standard fare or not, I found it -- the Presentation of the Colors and so on -- a little peculiar in this context. (Be it noted in passing that in introducing Faust, Jim Leach, chairman of the NEH, mentioned the return of ROTC to Harvard.)

Was this feeling of oddness just me, was it just my own -- perhaps irrational -- problem with patriotic display? Perhaps. And yet, I thought I overheard a snatch of conversation a couple of aisles in front of me in which someone seemed to have asked his or her companion what all this was about, and the reply came back, "It's Washington." No, this answer won't do. It doesn't explain it. The Jefferson Lecture I would say hovers somewhere in between 'official Washington' and 'cultural Washington' -- it's a lecture delivered annually by a prominent scholar or person of letters intended for the general public -- and in neither official nor cultural Washington, at least to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge, is it mandatory to have the sort of preliminaries that were laid on here. OK, I've babbled on long enough and this post is not going to come to any neat conclusion. Perhaps someone who actually knows something about the Jefferson Lectures will leave a comment explaining that I'm an ignorant fool. But I couldn't resist taking advantage of the serendipitous confluence of the debate over the reaction to OBL's demise and my attendance at this event to indulge in the grand blogospheric tradition of dubious navel-gazing.

Fatah-Hamas rapprochement

In a post of a month ago (April 3, to be precise), I speculated about whether the prospect of a UN vote on Palestinian membership might lead to a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. It appears that such a reconciliation has now occurred, but more as a result of Egypt's having taken a new, more active role as broker or mediator between the two. This is one result of Mubarak's departure. Israel is making all kinds of noises, trying to get Mahmoud Abbas to back out of the Fatah-Hamas deal. He isn't going to, obviously, and anyway it's not at all clear that he should. Instead, perhaps Netanyahu should try silence for a while, rather than bluster. You never know what that might lead to.
Update: The deal has now been signed.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The OBL news

I've now read some of the NYT coverage. Interesting that it took U.S. intelligence, after determining the real name of Bin Laden's courier, two years to determine the general region in which he was working. I am rather amazed that OBL was living, with some of his family, in a big compound 35 miles from Islamabad (with no phone or Internet connection -- surely they should have put in a phone line to avoid suspicion), rather than in a remote hideout in the border regions. I guess this was on the maxim of 'hide in plain sight'. It seems reasonable to assume that someone(s) in the Pakistani military and/or government apparatus knew he was there, but for the moment this must remain an assumption.

P.s. Will this event change or further complicate the already somewhat strained relations between the U.S. and Pakistan? K. Winecoff thinks not and I agree with that, for reasons I will have to put off explaining till later.

Update (added 5/7): There has been much discussion over the last few days about the fact that OBL did not have his AK-47 and pistol in his hands when he was shot; according to the NYT the weapons were "in arm's reach" but not in his hands. So he was unarmed. Perhaps he was expecting to be taken alive; it's hard to come up with another explanation. Some think this makes the action an extrajudicial execution and that he should have been captured and put on trial. I can see arguments on both sides but cannot get too exercised about this particular action in this particular case. (I do deprecate the celebratory reaction of some, which I think was unseemly and does nothing to enhance the U.S. image in the world.) Militating against capture-and-trial in this case was, among other things, the difficulty the U.S. has had in determining how and where to try Khalid Sheik Mohammad; the problems involved in trying OBL would have been even stickier. However, I think this should be treated as a special case; in general I'm not in favor of the killing of unarmed individuals, no matter what their crimes. More to say, but I'm tired and will leave it at that for now.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The dignity of labor

The 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, which occurred last month, has occasioned much reflection about the war’s legacy. While many of the specific antebellum debates about slavery may seem somewhat remote, the persistence of race and racial inequality as issues in American life means that the collective ear is still primed, from time to time, to pick up certain echoes of those debates. Many other echoes, however, have grown very faint; for instance, few non-historians today recall the antebellum controversy over ‘free labor’ versus slavery.

Some southern apologists for slavery argued, among other things, that free labor in the North amounted to ‘wage slavery’ and that northern factory workers and hired hands were actually worse off than African-American slaves in the South. In this respect these defenders of slavery, notably George Fitzhugh, "seemed to speak in Marxist accents," as Dennis Wrong notes.[1] But other defenders of slavery evinced a very un-Marxist contempt for manual labor in general. James McPherson draws attention to some revealing quotations (italics in original):
"The great evil of Northern free society," insisted a South Carolina journal, "is that it is burdened with a servile class of mechanics and laborers, unfit for self-government, yet clothed with the attributes and powers of citizens." A Georgia newspaper was even more emphatic in its distaste. "Free Society! We sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists?... The prevailing class one meets with [in the North] is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman’s body servant." [2]
Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican Party of the time responded with a vigorous defense of free labor. However, as Eric Foner observes, Lincoln saw wage labor as a stepping stone that young men would take en route to becoming independent artisans, shopkeepers or entrepreneurs, rather than as a permanent feature of the American economy, though it was already becoming that in many cities in the mid-19th century, a process that would intensify after the Civil War.[3] The notion that work has an inherent dignity and overarching societal purpose–that, as William Seward said, "the free-labor system…brings into the highest possible activity all the physical, moral and social energies of the whole State"[4] – fit most comfortably with the world of Lincoln’s youth and young adulthood. It was more difficult to reconcile that notion with the working conditions and standardized production methods of mass manufacturing.

What of the dignity-of-labor ideal in ‘post-industrial’ societies? In an economy dominated by services in which a relatively small proportion of the population is engaged in direct production of tangible goods, it is still possible to speak of people taking pride in their work, irrespective of its nature, even irrespective of whether it is remunerated. But the ideal of the dignity of labor has slipped out of public discussion. Competitiveness is the lodestar of contemporary political-economic discussion in the U.S., along with debt and deficits. Attention is paid to the high unemployment rate, but as much for electoral considerations as any others. An attack by a right-wing governor on the right to collective bargaining sent thousands of people into the streets in Wisconsin, but that action was framed (quite understandably) as a defense of rights rather than primarily as a defense of the dignity of labor. And all sides use the discourse of rights. Thus laws restricting the prerogatives of unions are called right-to-work laws, and states where they are in force are known as right-to-work states -- as if the primary motive of such laws were to guarantee rights rather than to weaken unions. Ultimately, the meaning of 'rights' is determined by political struggles. As Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis put it: "Elements of a political lexicon – such as the discourse of rights – do not…have essential meanings…. Making history is often a matter of making language. But discourses are more often borrowed or stolen than created de novo. Faced with a restricted political vocabulary, political actors appropriate and transform tools that even hostile forces have labored to develop." [5]

Once slavery ceased to exist in the U.S., free labor had no polar antithesis to give it luster by comparison, and it tended to become, at best, just a fact rather than something to be widely celebrated. Critics of wage labor as exploitation could pursue their critique, secure in the knowledge that the surface similarities of their position to that of a George Fitzhugh probably would no longer be flung in their faces. This liberation, so to speak, of the critics of industrial capitalism arguably counts as one of the Civil War’s less-noticed consequences.

P.s. I had intended this post to have a broader, less U.S.-centric focus, but that proved beyond my capacities at the moment.


1. Dennis H. Wrong,
The Problem of Order (1994), p.32.
2. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), p.197.
3. Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial (2010), pp.115-16.
4. Quoted in McPherson, p.198.
5. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Democracy and Capitalism (1986), pp.161-62.
See also two books by Jonathan A. Glickstein: American Exceptionalism, American Anxiety: Wages, Competition, and Degraded Labor in the Antebellum United States (2002) and Concepts of Free Labor in Antebellum America (1991).