Thaddeus Russell: “A Renegade History of the United States”; review by Kevin Carson
Unlike many dissident histories of the United States, which attempt to portray racial minorities, sexual subcultures and subordinate classes as “worthy victims” in terms of the social mores of the white middle class, Thaddeus Russell celebrates the kind of people that your parents may have warned you about: the low-down, no-count, not-respectable people. You know, the folks who “never amounted to anything”—and neither would you if you didn’t steer clear of them.
Against the austere “republican virtue” of the “Founding Fathers” as we usually encounter them in public school American history classes, Russell juxtaposes the urban populations of the colonies and the taverns that served them. Those bluenose marble gods were obsessed with “license,” “luxury” and “degeneracy of manners” with good reason, if you look at the taverns that stood on just about every street corner in the towns of British America. There you could see the rabble kicking up their heels and drinking at just about any hour, see blacks and whites dancing (and “dancing”) together, and hear the f-word being shouted with wild abandon. To a large extent the sumptuary laws of the early republican period, with their goal of encouraging Spartan simplicity and self-control, were a social engineering experiment by “Founding Fathers” who regarded the population of their country with horror.
Russell works from a considerable scholarly apparatus on the topic of the artificiality of whiteness, and focuses in vivid detail on the ways of European ethnic minorities like the Irish and Italians before they were officially incorporated into the white race.
He prefers the “unworthy” to the “worthy” victim: freed slaves who didn’t want to internalize the WASP work ethic, gays who didn’t want to create respectable mirror-images of the monogamous heterosexual nuclear family, and blacks who didn’t want to march quietly and decorously in suits with Dr. King.
Russell makes it clear he wouldn’t like to live in a society composed mainly of the kind of people he celebrates—a sort of Hell’s Kitchen writ large, as he sees it: “No one would be safe on the streets, chaos would reign, and garbage would never be collected.” But the Mrs. Grundys and Comstocks, the Carrie Nations, are “enemies of freedom.” If their instinct to regulate and “reform” weren’t resisted, we’d be as miserable as Huck Finn in the Widow Douglas’s drawing room. Even people who regard themselves as “conventional” and “middle class” enjoy a range of freedoms—freedoms that are part of what they now consider a normal lifestyle—that would never have existed without the constant struggle of the “no-counts” against respectability.
Throughout the book, Russell expresses a general distaste for social engineering and paternalism of all kinds. This comes through clearly in his picture of New Deal hero Rex Tugwell. Tugwell was fully immersed in the managerialist culture of the Progressive Era, eugenics and all, and lost himself in totalitarian utopias like those of H.G. Wells. He saw the planning regime instituted during WWI as an opportunity to turn the U.S. into “an industrial engineer’s utopia.” His dream under FDR was to replace “the dead hand of competitive enterprise” with central planning, and turn America into a big factory.
Although Russell is a writer of broadly libertarian sensibilities, I was unable to pigeonhole him into any specific stereotyped libertarian orientation of right or left.
He expresses a generally friendly attitude toward the market (“…the market economy has always been a friend of renegades and an enemy of moral guardians.”). And he attacks left-wing criticisms of the “culture of consumption” (like Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness) in the sort of language readers of this blog would normally associate with right-wing defenses of corporate capitalism at Mises.org. But he implicitly treats “market” as equivalent to “cash nexus” (for example, he contrasts “the market” to the subsistence lifestyle of isolated farmers who lived by self-provisioning and barter).
On the other hand Russell discusses workplace culture and work discipline in terms that are most decidedly not right-wing, making it abundantly clear his is not the kind of libertarian analysis that would appear at Mises.org. He describes, in the kind of friendly language we would normally associate with E.P. Thompson, the culture of “St. Monday” that wage employers found so objectionable in the eighteenth century. And he treats attempts by the Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction Era to overcome “shiftlessness” and impose a culture of “patient, honest work” on freed slaves as morally equivalent to the sumptuary laws of Revolutionary era bluenoses. Take, for example, this exhortation from Clinton Fisk’s Plain Counsels for Freedmen:
Now free labor does not imply that you may perform your work irregularly, carelessly, and dishonestly; and that your employer must put up with it, and say nothing about it. When you were a slave, it may have been your habit to do just as little as you could to avoid the lash. But now that you are free, you should be actuated by a more noble principle than fear.
Russell’s treatment of Freedmen’s Bureau propaganda is quite similar to—say—E. P. Thompson’s treatment of Wesleyanism in The Making of the English Working Class. And the Freedmen’s Bureau writers for whom he reserves such mockery sound almost exactly like Puritan commentators complaining of the large number of holy days celebrated by English peasants, or Methodists complaining about “St. Monday.”
Perhaps more suggestive, he equates such calls, in language very much comparable to his attacks on the cultural Left’s criticisms of the “culture of consumption,” as an attempt to impose bourgeois sensibilities on people who value leisure and autonomy. He argues, in response to such attempts to inculcate the “work ethic,” that there is “nothing natural about a life devoted to labor.” And he celebrates Freemen’s resistance to attempts to impose work discipline. For example one northerner managing a confiscated plantation, in attempting to impose northern ideas of work discipline on black sharecroppers, was thwarted by their demands to—as they did under the old owner—“take their guns into the field and stop their work whenever a game animal happened by.” Russell also celebrates both organized strikes and informal work stoppages—simply taking a holiday when they considered it necessary for their health—against employers by freedmen all over the South. Likewise the wildcat strikes during WWII, which were generally in response to speedups and mandatory overtime.
The same is true of his treatment of the white working class’s resistance to the imposition of work discipline in the early days of the factory system. “When the first factories were built, with their regimented work rules and long hours, many of the white people employed in them proved to be terrible workers.” Russell writes, in a clearly favorable tone, of the high rates of turnover by workers discharged for acts of petty disobedience in a New England textile mill, and of attempts to institute an Americanized version of “St. Monday.”
It’s clear, also, that Russell is no conventional right-wing defender of the prerogatives of employers (“after all, you chose to work there!”) of the sort that you typically see in mainstream “libertarian” circles, from the fact that he takes the Freedmen’s side in attempts by employers to mandate regularizing their slave marriages as a condition of employment.
I think Russell, in rejecting left-wing analysis of the “culture of consumption,” throws the baby out with the bathwater. In stressing the left-wing critics’ areas of commonality with bourgeois paternalism and prudery, he neglects the extent to which the rise of the “culture of consumption” was itself part of a deliberate strategy of imposing work discipline by corporate capitalist elites. Capitalist ideologues of the post-WWI period, in their praise for the effects of consumer culture on the working class, used language very much like that of their counterparts two hundred years earlier who proposed the Enclosures as a remedy for “Saint Monday.” It’s ironic that Russell, who celebrates American workers’ choice of leisure over work and attacks left-wing critics of mass consumption for their alleged “elitism,” ignores the relationship between the two issues. Corporate elites of that period deliberately and explicitly promoted a mass consumption economy as a way of preventing the choice of leisure over work, and undertook a project of cultural engineering to equate the consumption of store-bought goods with “Americanism” and “respectability” and to equate homemade with “old-fashioned” and “rural.”
Although Russell repeatedly alludes to arguments in writings like Captains of Consciousness, that the culture of consumption was imposed from above, he never addresses any of the actual evidence presented in them. The paper trail of commentary by the propertied classes, expressing their desire to impose work discipline through “easy monthly payments,” is as voluminous as that of Enclosure advocates two centuries before.
Although Ewen et al no doubt had their puritanical side, they also had a great deal to say about consumerism as an instrument of social control of the very sort that Russell generally finds so abhorrent. In focusing so strongly on one aspect of their work at the expense of the other, I think he does them a disservice and overshoots into the same one-sided faux populism as the right-wingers at Mises.org. The left-wing critics of consumer culture have at least as much in common with Russell as they do with the bluenoses of the 1770s.
In celebrating the liberatory aspects of the consumer revolution, I believe Russell neglects the extent to which consumer culture undermined autonomy. Specifically, he neglects the extent to which the ratio of wage labor to a given unit of consumption is itself a contingent matter. To the extent that high costs of marketing and distribution, brand name differentiation, and planned obsolescence reflect a business model toward which the state artificially tipped the balance, they artificially inflate the costs of a given quality of life. Consider, for example, the quadrupled costs of brand-name package dry goods, compared to virtually identical generic bulk goods, as described by Ralph Borsodi in The Distribution Age.
In dismissing criticisms of the culture of consumption for their alleged puritanism or elitism, Russell neglects the extent to which increased dependence on wage labor for a higher volume of waste consumption also reduces the bargaining power and increases the precarity of working class life. It’s a hell of a lot harder to engage in spontaneous work stoppages of take off for Saint Monday, when you’re one paycheck away from being evicted or having the repo man take your car and washing machine.