Monday, February 20, 2017

Colonial economies

Historian Eric Foner's epic Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 has for several decades been the go-to-account of how northern Republicans flubbed and abandoned the project of making a different South after defeating the Confederacy and preserving the Union. Their retreat left former slaves under the thumb of their former planter owners, terrorized by "Redeemer" white authorities and largely trapped in a new kind labor bondage, tenant farming. He summarizes the result of this brutal process:

...the balance of power between the social classes in the the South had been fundamentally transformed -- a process already visible soon after Reconstruction ended. "This year," reported a New York business journal at the end of 1877, "labor is under control for the first season since the war." The policies of Redeemer governments not only helped to reshape Southern class relations, but affected the course of regional development in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Partly because of Redeemer rule, the South emerged as a peculiar hybrid -- an impoverished colonial economy integrated into the national capitalist marketplace yet with its own distinctive system of repressive labor relations.

That is, in Foner's telling, for all his rich detail on white terrorism and brutality in the service of resubjugating the former slaves, it was the national capitalist revolution in the rest of the country that set the terms for what happened to Reconstruction and to the South.

This left me wondering about what we see today in parts of the Midwest, the so-called Rust Belt. I was born in Buffalo. I never thought to remain there in adulthood; even in the late 1960s the steel, and auto, and chemical, and grain transport economy was contracting. It wasn't a happening place. And as we all have been reminded by the November election, a couple of generations of mostly white industrial and manufacturing workers in similar Rust Belt locations are hurting, the jobs that once bought their parents into a "middle-class" having disappeared to China or perhaps the anti-union South. Eric Loomis insists that this pain is plenty enough to explain the Tangerine's appeal in parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania.

If you need work or you see a recent past where you had more economic security than you have now (which is probably not a myth), it’s pretty easy to see why you might not pay attention to any of the facts that Trump is your enemy and embrace the idea of building a border wall, of building infrastructure in projects corrupt and ineffectual, of wanting to see pipelines built. ... Economic destabilization makes both racialized nationalism and lies about job creation increasingly appealing to the white working class.

Okay, so that is familiar turf, turf which raises up white economic distress and downplays racial backlash as motivating the recent vote. But maybe Foner's paradigm is just as useful for thinking about those once mighty, now so depressed, industrial centers: the former manufacturing heartland, battered by corporate flight and globalization, may be the country's current "impoverished colonial economy integrated into the national capitalist marketplace." Being relegated to colonial status doesn't make people wiser or more generous or more kind; it's more likely to make them bigoted, desperate, and ignorant.
And yet, to my fascination, things may be turning around for poor old Buffalo. For what it is worth, last fall Erie County, which contains the city, continued its record since 1972 of voting for Democratic presidential aspirants. And, after decades of economic "readjustment," the economy of my much diminished home town apparently is about to experience a drastic shortfall of some 137,000 industrial workers as Boomers retire. Evidently, the "national capitalist marketplace" gives and it takes away. And people's lives are flotsam.

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