Saturday, November 11, 2017

Connecting the Dots: William Hogeland and the Roots of American Empire

Connecting the Dots: The Foundation of American Empire

A Review by
Douglas S. Harvey, Ph.D.

The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty. New York: Scribner, 2006. 302 pp. with biblographical essay and index

Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May – July 4, 1776. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010. 273 pp. with biblographical essay and index

Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation, Discovering America Series 5. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. 274 pp. with biblographical essay and index

Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giraux, 2017.  447 pp. with biblographical essay and index

Contrary to popular political pundit monkey chatter, the current political economy of the U.S. is not the result of the Bush Republicans, the Obama/Clinton Democrats, or even the Liberal/Conservative schism stemming from the New Deal era. The creation of the early American republic left numerous issues unresolved and set in motion machinery that has manifested itself in government by Wall Street bankers and war profiteers; a foreign policy dominated by militarism; and an economy hooked on war. By employing a potent combination of a close reading of the sources, good writing, and intellectual honesty, author William Hogeland connects the dots on the origins of corporate American hegemony.

William Hogeland is not a professional historian as defined by the discipline – no history Ph.D., no Ivy League pedigree, no professional association credentials, etc. He nevertheless demonstrates a deep knowledge of the literature on the American founding period and a commitment to a close reading of it, both primary and secondary. Hogeland does what many historians of the early republic have failed to do: he “connects the dots” from 1754 to 1795. The result has the effect of bringing this history out of the Ivory Tower, cutting through the mythical cloud of the “Founding Fathers,” and making it relevant to today.
            The Forks of the Ohio in southwest Pennsylvania was a crucial point in American history. The Allegheny River flows down from the snow-laden, lake-effected forests south of Lake Erie and joins the Monongahela flowing up from the Virginia highlands to create the Ohio River. At this confluence today, the city of Pittsburgh looms over a space that witnessed the birth of the American Empire. This region was isolated from the Atlantic world – several daunting mountain ridges removed from the eastern seaboard. It was the southwestern territory of the Iroquois Confederacy, the major power of the region, until the late eighteenth century. The French, whose presence was felt for upwards of two centuries in North America, established themselves at the Forks by 1754. The Ohio Company, a real estate project launched by Virginia speculators, sent twenty-two-year-old George Washington to the Forks and beyond.  Washington, realizing the immense value of the “Ohio Country,” dreamt of the wealth and status to be gained from speculation here. The Ohio Company objected to the French presence and Washington led a perfunctory effort to eject them. This clash triggered the French-Indian War, one of the largest wars in history at that time.
The debt created by this war, and the British attempt to have the colonists share in its maintenance, led to another conflict: a civil war in the British Empire that birthed the United States of America. This war was also expensive, and the new republic found itself in debt to an international array of merchant-bankers, including and especially American bankers led by the corpulent Robert Morris of Philadelphia.
            In The Whiskey Rebellion, a story that covers the years from the end of the Revolution to 1795, Hogeland describes the result of the hegemonic dreams of the early republic’s economic elites. For his part, Washington had dreamt not of independence from Britain, but of rising in colonial society and becoming one of the planter elite, complete with a high officer’s commission. These imperial wars of the late eighteenth century were a vehicle for his rise. By the time he was an iconic general and President of the United States, the struggle for power in this quarter of North America was not only a struggle for imperial expansion, but a class struggle within the fledgling nation-state. An elite class of merchant-bankers had dominated British society since at least the Glorious Revolution of 1688. For those elites on the near shore – the bondholders of the new republic’s debt – the American Revolution had been about seizing control of the colonial economy and American expansion. There were those in the white working class, however, who dissented from this view. They felt that the Revolution had been about their right to rule the political economics of the new republic.  Their idea of public finance – land banks, local currency, and the like – as opposed to banker financing, was anathema to the elites. 
            This rebellion, which encompassed most of the western country, had more to do with control of the public purse than it did with whiskey. It was a rebellion against the taxing power in new U.S. Constitution, which was not an expression of a democratic republic led by “We the People,” but an instrument legalizing the dominance of the merchant-banker class. The growth of this class over the previous eight hundred years is overlooked by Hogeland, and it would have been helpful to at least given it a nod.[1] Nevertheless, Hogeland thoroughly explores the mechanisms whereby the merchant-bankers seized control of the Revolution. Robert Morris, (equivalent of the modern-day Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, and Lawrence Summers rolled into one), and his wunderkind Alexander Hamilton, with the aid of the military’s loyalty to their fellow traveler Washington, were the central players. 
            The crux of The Whiskey Rebellion is complicated but critical to understanding the power and motivation of the merchant-bankers. To wit: bankers make money on interest from their loans as creditors; governments are the biggest debtors; the quickest way to send a government deep into debt is war. When war between the colonies and the Mother Country seemed inevitable, Morris and fellow financiers saw an opportunity for profit-taking. The Continental Congress, the quasi-government of the fledgling United States, tried to get financiers to assist their cause.  They were unsuccessful until they offered six percent interest on bonds, the interest on which would be paid in Bills of Exchange. These Bills of Exchange were based on the accumulated wealth of established European merchant-bankers and could be exchanged for specie, i.e., gold and silver coin. Morris had secured a loan from France that facilitated the move. This was as secure as any form of exchange could be. Furthermore, these government bonds (the receipt of the loan to the government) could be purchased with paper money, known as “continentals,” that had been issued to the soldiers. This paper had quickly lost its value but much of it had been snatched up, often at a miniscule percentage of its face-value, by speculators, many of whom were friends of Morris. Regardless of how cheaply the continentals had been obtained, their full face-value was honored when purchasing government bonds. Eventually, the Continental Congress also allowed pieces of paper known as “chits” – IOUs for war requisitions in the field – to be used for bond purchasing. The chits were originally held by farmers or their families and had become commodified, like the continentals, and were often subsequently purchased by speculators at a small percentage of their face-value. That this paper could be used at full face value was all insider information, not that any rank-and-file holder of continentals and chits could have afforded the bonds. Hogeland identifies this practice as a part of the “Mercantile Code,” the long-established practice in the Atlantic and even global economy of ruthless profiteering. Instead of being arrested for insider trading, Morris was made Superintendent of Finance, supported by Washington’s personal secretary, Alexander Hamilton. Morris was then able to use public funds for his own investment schemes ranging from international trade to land speculation. For Morris and his cronies, the war was to generate debt that would pay interest to the bondholding class, who would then control national finance.
            The working class generally understood that there was a form of “people’s finance” that did not involve the merchant-banker class.  Land banks and paper money could finance both agricultural and artisan endeavors at little or no cost, a horrifying scenario to Robert Morris and his circle. What Morris and company truly needed was the power to prohibit this type of financing, and get access to the “purse” of the wealth-producing working class, i.e., a tax enforced by a national authority. This tax, to be used to pay interest to the bondholders, would be paid by those who had had to sell their continentals and chits for pennies on the dollar out of a desperate need for hard cash. They would finance their own indebtedness and subjugation, in essence – hence the rebellion.
            The author elaborates on the nature of the resistance to this tax placed on whiskey.  Not only could the tax be presented to eastern voters as a luxury tax, but it was set up to drive out small producers on behalf of large producers. Small business was not welcome in the merchant-banker faction, and the 1791 “Tax on Spirits” illustrated this. To westerners, a region where the lack of cash meant that whiskey was often the local form of exchange, the tax was a monstrosity.  Radical preacher and political activist Herman Husband of Bedford County, Pennsylvania, veteran of the North Carolina “Regulation” of the late colonial period, referred to the whole merchant-banker faction as “The Beast.” He had his own ideas about public finance and governmental structure, all of which deprived the economic elites of their power. At its height, the Whiskey Rebellion, or as some prefer, the Pennsylvania Regulation, mustered a militia of some seven thousand westerners. Opponents to the whiskey tax ranged from marginally employed landless farm workers to the future Jeffersonian Secretary of the Treasury and Swiss immigrant Albert Gallatin.
            At the height of the rebellion, a legitimate unit of the state militia based at Mingo Creek destroyed the plantation of the region’s superintendent of tax collection (and largest distiller), John Neville, a friend and ally of Morris and Hamilton. Many tax collectors and their supporters were threatened, cajoled, tarred-and-feathered, and/or had their property destroyed or damaged. While Hogeland is not the first to tell the story, his is the most class-conscious and the first to aim his narrative at a general audience.
In Declaration, Hogeland zeroes in on the three-month period from April to June, 1776 when the Second Continental Congress went from voting against independence to voting for it.  This included a radical coup of the Pennsylvania legislature that threw the balance of colonial assemblies to the independence faction. Hogeland delves deeply into the sources to reveal a complex set of political alliances orchestrated by Samuel Adams. “Liberals” (i.e. merchant/bankers) like Samuel and his cousin John Adams joined with “radicals” like Thomas Young, James Cannon, and Christopher Marshall who then used each other to usurp the proprietary government of Pennsylvania and get a “yes” vote for independence. This is Hogeland’s thesis. His class interpretation of the event is refreshingly clear-headed in a period so often immersed in triumphalist mythology. Once independence was achieved, the struggle between these two classes would re-emerge stronger than ever.
The term “Whig” is frequently used as a label for the “Founding Fathers.” Hogeland accentuates the fact that these Whigs were of the merchant-banker class and desired to escape the fetters of British hegemony so they would then be positioned to control the economy of the fledgling republic. Working class advocates wanted the democratic republic that had been proposed over a century earlier at the end of the English Civil War by soldiers in the New Model Army. Thomas Young, the radical doctor from New York was one of these advocates. Young learned from Samuel Adams how the Committees of Correspondence could be turned into town meetings and then into shadow legislatures.
Another of the “democratical” faction – to employ the word used at the time for “radical” – was James Cannon. Cannon promoted an alternative for poor relief in Philadelphia. Named the United Company of Philadelphia for Promoting American Manufactures, or simply the American Manufactory, Cannon organized those left unemployed by the boycott of British goods to make domestic cloth. Poverty haunted the backcountry as well, and Cannon began linking the two. In Philadelphia, the result was the City Committee, which entwined artisans from across the area with members of the American Manufactory. 
After Lexington and Concord, militias, generally known as “Associators,” boomed. Both official and unofficial, there were thirty-one companies in Philadelphia alone plus fifty-three in rural Pennsylvania. These militias were largely democratic, often electing their own officers. Pennsylvania was not the only colony dependent on them for protection, thus imbuing them with a good deal of significance. By the end of 1775, Pennsylvania militias were electing representatives to a “Committee of Privates,” again modeled on the New Model Army.
Add to this radical lineup Declaration’s version of Herman Husband, radical evangelical Christopher Marshall. Marshall was a Quaker and an apothecary (he owned one of the largest pharmacies in the colonies). Marshall believed that true Christianity would be best represented by a democratic system whose raison d’ĂȘtre was not to protect the interests of the propertied, but serve the working classes. As Hogeland notes, the Whigs had Magna Carta, Harrington, Sidney, and Milton while the artisan class had the New Model Army, the Putney Debates, and the Levellers of the 1640s for inspiration. The producing classes had failed to gain power after the English Civil War; they hoped to succeed in the new American republic.
With the colonists and Mother Country engaged in war and independence still undeclared, the liberals and radicals joined to push for forming colonial governments unencumbered by London oversight. The target of this, of course, was Pennsylvania, whose proprietary government assembly, led by Edmund Randolph, was at odds with King-in-Parliament to be sure, but was nevertheless opposed to independence. As went Pennsylvania, this coalition understood, so would go the mid-Atlantic region. Hogeland closely outlines this coup of the proprietary government and the successful “declaration” of independence.
Founding Finance has replaced The Whiskey Rebellion as one of the books I use to teach U.S. history. The main reason is because the early chapters of Founding are, in part, a recap of The Whiskey Rebellion and Declaration. In addition to recapping, Hogeland, writing during the 2011-2012 face-off between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements, explores the extent to which the dissent on both left and right get their history wrong. Both movements dropped names, quotes, and paraphrasings from the founding period; but both take this history out of its context and try to use it for contemporary political ends without knowing the original circumstances. 
The subtext to all of Hogeland’s work, but to Founding Finance in particular, is not only do we get our history wrong, our historians often get it wrong. Chapter Five, “History on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” is devoted to a review of the institutionalized misreading of founding history. In 1913, Charles Beard rekindled the founding-era issue of Big Capital usurping the halls of power in his An Economic History of the Constitution of the United States. Subsumed under nineteenth-century triumphalist Whig history, Beard brought back to light the prospect that the conveners at the Philadelphia convention were protecting their own interests. Much ink was subsequently spilled trying to re-bury this narrative, and Hogeland reviews the more influential historians in this effort. Richard Hofstadter, Gordon Wood, and Edmund Morgan, for example, are taken to task for basing their arguments on something called the “Brown Study,” a denial of elitist motivation behind the U.S. Constitution, which has since been proven to have been a tissue of lies. Nevertheless, the damage was done, and the core of the “founding finance” story, which explains much about how the U.S. government and the monied elite worked hand-in-glove in the early republic, was lost. Playing egregiously fast and loose with history is also true when it comes to Alexander Hamilton’s biographers, many of whom simply ignore the rumblings of the working class who were trying to disrupt the whiz kid’s financial plans. These histories become increasingly “more about less” and approach, in some cases, the level of triumphalist pablum. This is the contribution of the independent Hogeland – he need not answer to the careerist pecking order, and there is no need to guard the institutionally accepted historical narrative. Today’s history spends more time striving to maintain an “American heritage” than it does providing cogent explanations of the history itself. Hogeland writes that it “fails to benefit from what’s especially illuminating about the popular and narrative modes. I don’t think English heritage is what Shakespeare was after in King Lear. I miss the terror and pity.” (101) The “terror and pity,” i.e., the elements that allow us all to connect with the story, are precisely what is missing from the histories of the early republic. In its place, in extreme cases, is a fictional “Kumbaya” sing-along.
So went the struggle for power after the Revolution, and so goes the struggle for control of the narrative today. And speaking of today, the U.S. military has a presence, according to Armed Forces radio, in some 170 countries around the world. How came this to be?  When did it begin and why? That beginning is the topic of Autumn of the Black Snake, the fourth book in Hogeland’s oeuvre. 
At this point in this narrative, the reader may have grasped that while setting up feudal kingdoms in the New World did not work for English aristocrats, a colonial elite emerged that took on the project for themselves. Land speculation and debt were their primary vehicles. Once centralized control was established with the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the only thing lacking was a standing army to carry out and enforce their will. Virginia planters had been the first to make a serious effort at expanding their interests beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Given that they were a type of feudal master of their own kingdom – the plantation – this is quite logical. Hogeland revisits the aforementioned Virginia consortium known as the Ohio Company and its utilization of the ambitions of a plantation family’s younger son in this expansion. The son’s name, of course, was George Washington.
Washington looms large in each of these works, but it is in Black Snake where the culmination of his life’s ambitions is made manifest. From his earliest western travels as an errand-boy for the Ohio Company to his role as general and President, Hogeland reviews and accentuates certain aspects of Washington’s life pertinent to the thesis of the book: the first war for American expansion was contrived and carried out at the behest of land speculators, Washington chief among them. Hogeland strays close to the mythical narrative of Washington at times, referring to him as “the greatest man in the world.” Thankfully for those of us weary of the mythical Washington, Hogeland’s close reading of the sources brings him back to evidentiary history. Washington was a ruthless land speculator – that was how he made his fortune, with help from his slaves at Mount Vernon, of course. He epitomized American mythology: a military man ambitiously accumulating wealth, status, glory, and a legacy. The fact that Washington had rejected a Cromwellian “Lord Protector” office as head of the army has dominated this legacy. Hogeland looks at the under-remembered, all-too-human Washington revealing that the man’s ambition set the pattern for American military and economic expansion.  Then, as now, this expansion comes at the expense of others.
In Hogeland’s treatment of this first American war of expansion, he gives nearly equal time to those upon whom it fell hard. Little Turtle, the Delaware leader, and Blue Jacket, the Shawnee war chief, are made human and given source-generated character. Their foe in this war of expansion, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne is also given a full-spectrum type of treatment, from his early successes in the French-Indian War, to his failures in the Revolution and as a peacetime planter and merchant. Blue Jacket was influenced by the post-French and Indian War resistance movement led by Ottawa leader Pontiac and his spiritual advisor Neolin. He nevertheless rejected Neolin’s call for austerity and cultural revival – as much as anyone, the Shawnee leader enjoyed accumulating wealth made possible by trading in the Atlantic economy. Intelligent, but not deeply so, Blue Jacket gave in to superficial strategies against Wayne’s professionally-trained army, the third American army to go against the “Ohio Country Indians.” Little Turtle, seen as the more insightful of the two, understood why the Ohio Country natives had been able to resist the earlier invasions of their country: the Indians did not let those armies resupply themselves. The difference between these two leaders would prove decisive.
But why did Washington (and Hamilton, et al.) organize a standing army when so many opposed such armies in favor of state militias? The answer is simple, Hogeland argues: real estate. Not only did the economic elites want to buy speculative paper and have it honored at full face value plus interest, the expense of which would be covered by taxes on those who had been forced, by impoverishment, to sell that speculative paper in the first place. They also wanted the “power of the purse” (taxing power) and a standing army to enhance their land speculation efforts in the West. And they would buy the bonds (loan the money at interest) to make it happen. In other words, the purpose of the first war for American expansion, like the French-Indian War before it, and American militarism today, was to make the rich richer at the expense of others – expense in blood, treasure, land, and resources. As Hogeland states quite clearly, Washington’s crackdown on the so-called “whiskey rebels” made “military adventure, wealth concentration, and great nationhood an integrated whole” (Black Snake, 215).
Some historians will take exception to Hogeland’s popular history approach to topics more complicated and nuanced than the standard popular fare. Hogeland’s effort to include nuanced historiography can work against his efforts to reach a wider-than-usual audience for historical monographs. The layperson may find the historiography tiresome, while historians may grow frustrated with his rhetorical devices keyed on maintaining the public’s attention. The author’s idiosyncratic way of citing sources, slightly varied in each of the four books, are the most disconcerting for professional historians. But if one follows the source threads from secondary through to primary this methodology, while perhaps not ideal, maintains his credibility.
            Hogeland’s perspective on what might be termed the historical “catechism” of revolutionary America is quite refreshing. His literary background means his close-reading skills are well-developed – even more so than the average historian. This close reading of the sources and his detachment from disciplinary careerist concerns may be the strongest attributes in the creation of this oeuvre. His historiographical research is a shot of clarity for the discipline’s insiders should they choose to incorporate it, which they should.
There are other things to criticize, and the reader will no doubt find their own issues. But this work is too important to let a few quibbles keep it down. These are useful books for teaching the early American republic, and they are useful in understanding the origins, at least in the English-speaking New World, of American hegemony. That they connect the dots between the strivings of the merchant-banker class, the role of radicals in achieving independence from Britain, the control of the national debt by financial elites, and the rise of the American military to serve expansionist ends, make them indispensable for a clear-eyed study of the early American republic.

[1] The iconic work in this regard is Michael Tigar’s Law and the Rise of Capitalism, Revised Edition, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000; originally published with co-author Madeleine R. Levy, 1977).

Review of Marcus Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Lay

Marcus Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Law: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017).  212 pp. with endnotes and index.  Review by Douglas S. Harvey, Ph.D.

            Marcus Rediker, (Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania, 1982) Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, has an extensive background in the history of the Atlantic World, particularly regarding the history of the slave trade and piracy.  He has written, co-written, and edited ten books, including two that will likely remain relevant for generations, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Viking-Penguin, 2007); and with Peter Linebaugh, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).  More can be found at
            This is history “from the bottom-up,” bringing Benjamin Lay’s unique and amazing story as a hunchbacked, dwarf abolitionist from Essex County in England out of obscurity.  Rediker shows that not only was Lay in the vanguard of the abolitionist movement, but as a compassionate humanist, a man for our own times.  In addition to being a strident abolitionist, Lay was a vegetarian, an animal rights advocate, and an opponent of the death penalty.  After the death of his wife Sarah in 1735, he moved into a cave near Abington, Pennsylvania, where he produced most of his own food and made his own clothing.  He was well-known in the Philadelphia area – Benjamin Franklin published his book in 1738, and he was notorious among those who were the object of his wrath (namely slave-owners) at Quaker meeting houses.  Lay does not seem to have been overly concerned about being a “little person,” although it seems he had to endure some mockery because of it.  Nevertheless, it certainly did not curtail his radical activism.
            The thesis of the book is straightforward: Benjamin Lay brought together numerous strands of radicalism in his effort to condemn as the devil’s own device the institution of slavery.  Lay brought religious, philosophical, working-class, abolitionist, and commoner perspectives to the table.  The fact that these are all present and expressed through a single individual demonstrates, Rediker notes, that they can all be part of the same consciousness.  The evidence the author presents for this is abundant.
            Benjamin Lay was born into the radical Quaker tradition, a third generation Quaker born in 1682 in Copford, Essex.  By the time Benjamin reached adulthood, Quaker practices had toned down considerably from their early “inner light” visionary practices.  Lay gave this practice new life, especially after he married Sarah Smith, who was also a hunchbacked dwarf.  The spark that lit Lay’s (and Sarah’s) abolitionist fervor was a sojourn to Barbados in 1718.  Two years on that hellish sugar island in the Caribbean set the couple, especially Benjamin, on his lifelong abolitionist path.  The atrocities they witnessed defy description.  To help alleviate the suffering, the Lays started a meeting for the enslaved, eventually calling down the wrath of the planter elite.  Their subsequent campaign against slavery embraced Quaker practices from the early days of the religion.  The author elaborates on three of these practices: 1) Public rants against ministers; 2) The refusal of “Hat Honor” (i.e., not removing one’s hat during the Quaker meeting); and, 3) The use of provocative street theater (Rediker opens the book with a stunning example of this).
            The author also shows how Lay’s working-class background allowed him to connect with enslaved people who were routinely worked to death.  Lay’s work-life began as a shepherd, where he found peace in nature and the herding of sheep, no doubt a nurturing influence.  He then trained as a glover, difficult and monotonous work that would have helped him identify with enslaved people who were forced to perform endless rote tasks throughout their short lives.  He maintained some proficiency in this trade all of his life; Rediker notes that glover’s tools and supplies were in significant number in his will.
Eventually, Lay made his way to London.  There, the monotony of gloving led him to take up the life of a sailor, which brought him into contact with the diverse “motley crew” of that profession.  Experiences in the world of sailors, along with his later trip to Barbados led him to de-racialize humanity.  In his writing, Lay referenced the Bible, specifically Acts 17:26, which proclaims that all people are “made of one Blood.”  In his 1738 book, All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocents in Bondage, Apostates, Lay did not use the word “race,” instead he used the less divisive word “color.”  This reflected his experience with the motley crew of the eighteenth-century sailing ship.
After immigrating to Philadelphia in 1732, Lay continued his abolitionist activism. Religion and politics merged with philosophy in his life-long self-education. Learning Lay’s worldview is an education not only in Quaker antinomianism, but Greek asceticism, particularly that of the Cynic philosophers.  Most influential of the former was William Dell, a radical Chaplain in the New Model Army during the English Civil War.  In Philadelphia, Lay had dabbled in bookselling, and Dell’s works were one of Lay’s chief offerings.  In his books, which Lay highly praised, Dell advocated antinomianism – the notion that no authority is higher than that of one’s own “inner light” or inner voice.  Dell also encouraged civic education for the masses in order that they, rather than a socio-economic elite, would and could wield power.  These points would have been profoundly upsetting to the elites of seventeenth-century England. 
The library in Benjamin Lay’s cave also contained works of Greek philosophers, particularly those of the founder of Cynic thought, Diogenes, and his protegĂ©s Pythagoras, Crates, and Lucian.  Rediker provides a thumbnail sketch of this worldview by defining a handful of crucial practices.  These included parrhesia, the practice of speaking one’s mind regardless of how it will impact those in power.  Autarkeia meant self-sufficiency without the baubles of material gain; askesis and karteria meant training in self-discipline and endurance, both mental and physical; and finally tuphos, where one severely challenged the notions of luxury, prestige, and wealth, considering them flaws in human character to be overcome.  All of this, from antinomianism to Cynic philosophy was built on a commitment to treat others with love, which was to be given to all.
Predictably, Marcus Rediker delved deep into the Quaker archives in both England and the U.S.  He also made himself familiar with the historical literature on Quakers from this period, much of which was old ground for him.  The book is written for the general public, but is erudite enough to appease the specialist.  I personally loved both the book and getting to know Benjamin Lay three hundred years after his righteous fight for justice shook the Quaker world and, as Rediker argues, kick-started a Quaker abolitionist movement that, in turn, was the foundation of nineteenth-century abolitionism.  During his lifetime, the Quaker dwarf was a giant in his way.  His antinomianism, Cynic philosophy, and raw courage will be inspiring to those pursuing egalitarian justice today.  


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Music on a Sleepless Night

Music on a Sleepless Night

And in the sleepless night came a flash – a glimpse  of Elsewhen;
A mighty chorus, a symphony, heralding the Unblemished;
Allied to the windswept eternal night;
Beckoning the vanguard of the King of Light;
Unheeding of the temporal cacophony of the striving;
A song unfolding, revealing a profound debt
To Compassion, to the depths of feminine nurture,
To the eschewment of the demon Denial who unlocks the door for
Brutal Fear, slinking under moonless dark, usurping.

How came this to pass in the o’er long adolescence of humanity?
Trees bent to the ground in acknowledgment of the End and
The Beginning, while the orchestra plays on before
Finally-understanding ears:
“Know thyself, speaking clay, hearing dust, seeing stones;
“Know thyself, feeling water, caressing air, pulsing flame;
“Unto the Great Moment we are beholden;
The eternal moment of the ten thousand worlds;
High and low;
Far and near;
Inner and outer;
Blossom, life.

© 2006
Doug Harvey

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Back to the Basics: Agrarian History 101

Among the legion of items glaringly absent from the mainstream political discourse in the United States is agrarianism.  This was one of the bedrock principles of the founding era, but it's demise -- in hindsight -- was predictable.  Its return is vital.

Human access to fertile land and clean water, for eons, was an assumption.  But as populations coalesced and divisions of labor in urban centers increased, not everyone was a farmer or hunter-gatherer (or both), anymore.  By the time of the early Industrial Revolution, it became quite apparent to the Lovers of Control that depriving people of these basic resources was a method of social control.  Once people are thus "proletarianized," (no land, nothing to sell but their labor), Power -- in all it's various forms -- can set the conditions whereby individuals might survive.  The "proles" will then have to seek gainful employment on Power's terms.

In the English-speaking world, most people had a vital connection to the land until the rise of the Tudor monarchs.  This coincided with the expansion of capitalism out of the Mediterranean, into the eastern Atlantic and beyond, creating a proto-global economic system.  Where rural communalism had been the basic social structure up to that point, "landlords" -- those given special privilege in the hierarchy of feudalism -- began to realize that agriculture could be made more efficient by growing New World crops like corn and minimizing labor expenses.  Rather than growing "food for the realm," landlords retained a small number of farmers to grow profits.  This made food production more efficient, and those who were allowed to remain on the land largely profited, as well.  But the vast majority of those rural communities went up in smoke (sometimes literally) when farmers who were seen as superfluous to the purposes of wealth accumulation were sent packing.  If they refused to leave, their homes would simply be burned down as they looked on.  This majority became homeless, landless, and were at the mercy of the elite-controlled market forces -- i.e., proletarianized.  They had nothing left to sell but their labor.

The old feudal system had at least a facade of mutual obligations up and down the social hierarchy, but as the capitalist revolution continued to gain ground, ownership of the land became nearly absolute, and these landowners could and did restrict access to those resources.  The rural folk who did not "make the cut" found themselves roaming the highways and byways searching for seasonal labor, often begging, or they headed for London, Edinborough, or other urban centers to try and sell their labor.

With the expansion of Britain into the global economic game of Empire, a new class seized the center of power.  Known as the "Glorious Revolution," in 1688 the merchant-banker-landowning class, (AKA the "bourgeoisie"), gained control of the British government creating an entity generally known as "King-in-Parliament," where the monarch would now have to share power with them.  Obligations to the peasant-artisan (AKA"working class") were minimized.

The empire uprooted indigenous villagers in a the New World, as well.  These villagers fought back and found themselves out-numbered and out-gunned.  Deracinated individuals from the Old Country (or their descendants), jumped at the chance to obtain some fertile land and fresh water to realize their dream of independence from dire poverty, obligation, and a brutal work-cycle forced on them when they (or their descendants) had lost their access to such resources.  A desperate struggle between these Euro-Americans and Native Americans defending their own access to land and water ensued which continues to this day.  The open violence of this struggle continues in Latin America, but it has largely moved into the courtroom in the U.S.

Often, these Anglo-Celts began their New World experience by working as slaves (indentured servitude) for several years as the price for their passage to America.  Because the British expansionist power structure needed inexpensive "shock troops" to continue the process of appropriating land from the Indians, this nascent class of agrarian producers was given some measure of self-determination and, because of the distances involved, they were able to take for themselves still more independence.

By the mid-eighteenth century, this agrarian class, many of whom were fairly well-educated -- they had read of the Demos of the Greek city-states, of the Roman Republic's representative government, of the Italian city-states of the Renaissance -- and they understood the importance of access to resources in the struggle for self-determination (AKA "independence").  If one can produce one's own food supply, one's life will be much more stable and much less threatened than if one has nothing to sell but your labor to obtain needed sustenance.  The subjugation of African slave labor -- among the most brutal of labor systems ever devised by humankind -- helped seal the deal.  There was now a permanent underclass that could be forced to produce wealth almost unconditionally, allowing more self-determination for the Euro-American Anglo-Celts as they were not needed for that purpose.  The socio-economic creation of "race" allowed for social control, dividing the producing class by skin color and ethnic origin, not unlike the way livestock is divided by breed and provenance.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the new republic of the United States had grown into a major producer of food as well as staple crops through the plantation complex.  But the Industrial Revolution, fed by machinery, immigrant labor, banker finance, and the U.S. Civil War, boomed.
Immigrants -- usually deprived of their access to fertile land and fresh water in Europe and China -- came by the millions.  Cities expanded at unprecedented rates.  The rise of Industrial Capital gave new impetus to appropriating lands already appropriated from the natives by the agrarian class.

By 1920, the majority of people in the U.S. lived in cities.  To resist virtual enslavement, urban artisans had joined together to form labor unions utilizing the only resource they had other than their labor: each other.  The war over control and ownership of the means of production was full-throttle at this point, although the First World War had given the power structure an excuse to purge and/or outlaw those who refused to accept the appropriation of the wealth they produced with their labor.  The economic crash of 1929 was particularly devastating because so many people were city-dwellers and access to fertile land and fresh water had not been part of the urban planning, much less an urban social contract.

By the time the Great Depression was at its nadir in the mid-1930s, dire want sparked the realization that access to fertile soil and clean water could alleviate much suffering.  This neo-agrarian "back-to-the-land" movement remained in the shadows, however, as government used its access to credit (another, parallel story), to create infrastructure jobs for the society.

All went by the boards, however, with American involvement in the Second World War.  In the aftermath of that sublime conflagration, a superficial consensus of conformity to a bourgeois-dominated social order emerged in the U.S.  Power declared as its enemy any regime on the planet that might question this bourgeois domination -- a phenomenon reminiscent of the appropriation of lands from Native American peoples.  At this point, agriculture began to embrace the industrialization that had spawned other industries in the previous century.  By the 1980s, the slogan "Get big or get out" could be seen on t-shirts and billboards throughout the American Midwest.  The American Agriculture Movement, a last gasp of the old independent agrarian class, breathed its last with the "Tractorcade" to the Washington, D.C. mall in 1978.

Access to essential resources for the "rank-and-file" was nevertheless nurtured by members of the '60s' and '70s' counterculture, giving rise to a new "back-to-the-land" movement.  Urban gardens and farmers' markets have expanded on this vision in recent years, and such spaces are beginning to be incorporated into American cities from coast to coast.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the agrarian movement -- access to arable land and fresh water -- for people traditionally categorized as the "working class."  The whole concept of the "working class" is flawed in that it implies that all most people are good for is producing wealth for landowners or factory owners.  People, on the whole, are "good" for much more than that, but most have never really been given the chance to find out for themselves in the modern world; indeed, most do not even consider pursuing such a goal realistic.  This is a travesty and a tragedy, and it is completely unnecessary. 

Just as liberating enslaved people of African descent in the nineteenth century gave rise to sophisticated art and literature as well as advances in science and medicine -- phenomena such as the Harlem Renaissance, the work of people like George Washington Carver or Booker T. Washington, blues, jazz, rock and roll, and on and on -- liberating the so-called "working class" from forty-plus hours of drudgery every week would produce a cultural flowering the likes of which we can scarcely imagine.  The return of agrarianism and true independence points in this direction.  I think it essential to take this journey.  The legacy of agrarianism holds great potential for realizing our true human potential and independence from power systems that squelch such things, but it is also necessary for the survival of our species, and possibly our planet, as well.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Capitalism, Humanity, and Adjunct Professors

Capitalism, Humanity, and Adjunct Professors

Recently, I was at a campus-wide meeting of adjunct faculty at a medium-sized suburban community college in mid-America.  It was a valuable learning experience, but not altogether for the intended reasons.  We were given good information on where our school ranks in effectiveness with its peer institutions.   Adjuncts generated a good and (largely) substantive discussion.  The skilled and knowledgeable tech guy gave a hasty but useful presentation of the new online course management system.  And the President of the college brought forth his “pep-talk,” which was obviously the same talk he had given to the full-time faculty.  He gave a budget presentation accompanied by what sounded an awful lot like a scolding.  A scolding for a group of people that the college utterly depends upon to . . . to what?  It got me thinking, again . . .

The President lofted a few warm fuzzies around the room before his talk on the budget.  But, it was really quite astounding, as an adjunct faculty member working at half-price with no benefits to sit and listen to a man who is largely a prop on a six-figure salary tell us that we must do more with less.  The public is not going to tolerate having to pay any more for higher education, we were told; we need to quit whining and do more.  Why?  Because these private institutions of higher learning were dumping all this money into advertising and offering vo-tech training, where we could not guarantee jobs to students because, the implication was, we teach liberal arts and social sciences that, frankly, do not add to the GDP.  Remember, this was at an institution of HIGHER learning, albeit a “mere” community college.  As for the majority of the adjunct faculty, they seemed locked in rapt attention, nodding their heads and responding the proper way at all the proper moments.  One brave adjunct raised her hand an asked, “With all due respect, can you tell us why the previous President of the college was paid 700 times more than adjunct professors who actually produce the credit hours?”  One clever fellow saw his sycophantic opportunity and answered, “Because he had to answer questions like that.”  It was the only substantive question asked during the presentation on the budget, and the President’s answer was, “Good question,” and he moved on.

Yet, there are some basic needs in the human psyche that were completely left out of the President’s, and the state legislature’s, and the Board of Regents’, and the federal government’s calculations.  Namely, the need for awareness – political and personal, health, respect, love, companionship, shelter, connection to creation; in short, the need to be the person one was born to be, which has a lot more to it than working to produce profits typically enjoyed by someone else.  This has everything to do with the underlying myths operating in the adjuncts’ meeting in Room 232.

I am a student of history, so I tend to see things in historical terms.  What I’ve studied and written about most is how the mythos of a society is created, perpetuated, and can be used by the more controlling among us to manipulate large numbers of people.  This process has been characterized by deceit.  The corruption is built into the system; a somewhat different system, known as feudalism, also employed deceit as a fundamental tool.  But now we have, for lack of a better word, capitalism – the “glorious” revolution of the bourgeoisie.  Now, capitalism has replaced feudalism, but the same structure is basically present; it’s just more fluid and, ultimately, more destructive because of the technological power that has been unleashed.  The people are told that this system has unleashed the power of the human spirit, that their chains have been thrown off, that they too can rise to the top of the heap and live in comfort and even luxury until the end of their days.  And it’s all due to this remarkable economic system.

There, in this version of the myth, exposition of its “humanity” ends.  Work, the myth says, is the answer to all of your problems.  Work harder.  Do more with less.  Work harder.  Be efficient.  Work harder.  If you step outside of the myth, it begins to look a lot like an addiction – work, must have more work, harder, harder, harder . . . etc.  And for what?  Well, profits of course.  These will make it all worthwhile.  But what if you are an adjunct professor?  Then of course you LOVE what you do and you don’t need to be paid as much.  Good question, move on . . . .  Incidentally, those who follow the adjunct’s plight and higher ed generally recognize this rhetoric as “fascist dog-whistle” for privatization.  Once this is accomplished, we can dispense with all of this liberal arts nonsense; except for a chosen elite, of course.

There was a brief time -- about a generation, maybe two -- where there was a serious attempt to control otherwise reckless bourgeois profiteering that has characterized imperial expansion since the 13th century.  (And no, I'm not a doctrinaire Marxist, I'm just an admirer of his analysis of capitalism.)  New Deal liberalism may have been the best way to minimize these excesses through regulation, but it's still corrupt at base.  How much of this is the human condition and how much can be overcome by embracing a morally sound mythos?  And if the latter is possible, how would this transpire?  I know these are abstract questions, but we're talking about a society that has long embraced an amoral mythos.  New Deal liberalism, as I point out to my students, IS the middle ground between fascism and communism -- and its effectiveness was fleeting.  The Liberals began their decline when they turned their back on the working class.  Trading in Henry Wallace for Harry Truman was a crucial moment in the decline.  But ultimately, the decline is due to a loss of a rhetorical war by the center left to the right in the U.S. (there not being any functional "left").  The rhetoric is rooted in the myths by which most Americans conduct their lives, knowingly or otherwise.

We can change the people in the system (marginally effective); we can change the system (more difficult); and/or we can change the mythos underlying society (impossible, I think, to contrive). So, I will continue to speak out, educate, write, play my guitar, and enjoy life as best I can — after all, I’m an adjunct professor – I LOVE what I do.

Sunday, July 15, 2012



©2012 Douglas Harvey

It is interesting that the word “fraud” has been much in the news of late, most recently attributed to Barclay’s and the LIBOR scandal, with mention of an “investigation” that could result in “prosecutions.”  As a student of history, I feel compelled to note that we’ve seen things like this before, although perhaps not on such a broad scale with such a desperate and deeply embedded defense of the capitalist system. 

John Locke described his version of a Social Contract between society and government in his Second Treatise on Government.  Many know the particulars – people are born with “natural rights”: life, liberty, and property.  Government is created by the people to protect these rights, and if it fails it is their duty to replace it.  He went on to say that if the people need to change the government, it is much easier to change the people than it is to change the form.  Locke was silent on what one should do if one was property, but we can let that go for the moment.

Locke was writing in the 1670s, although his treatises were not published until the “Glorious” Revolution in England in 1688.  You may recall this event as well – where the Catholic King James II was essentially forced out by the bourgeois Parliament, who then brought in his sister Mary and her husband William from The Netherlands to “rule” England.  The catch was that they had to share power with Parliament, dominated as it was by mercantile interests – planters, merchants, shipping interests; in short, those who were profiting from economic empire.  Locke’s “social contract” provided the rationale for this coup undertaken to gain control of the governmental resources of what was rapidly becoming the largest empire in the world.  I guess that explains what is meant by “property.”

“Glorious,” eh?  Now the Bank of London could be formed, a mechanism whereby the bourgeoisie could loan money to the government which would in turn use that money to pursue the ends of the bourgeoisie.  (King William’s royal nickname has become, after all, “Billy the Bourgeois King.”)  Repayment of the “loan” would ultimately be underwritten by British taxpayers (sound familiar?).  The first big “scandal” was the South Sea Bubble, where investors lost millions in a scheme to “develop” the Caribbean region.  Investments were secured by hyping the bulletproof nature of the investment, (it’s goin’ to the sky -- you can't lose!!!).

Meanwhile, slaves (humans that were permanently property) and indentured servants (humans that were temporarily property) were brought to the New World to produce wealth for their masters on land secured by hook or by crook from the natives.  As for the indentured servants, these were simply people who had become proletarianized, that is, they were forced off the land in their own country and had to fend for themselves the only way they could, by selling their labor (sound familiar?).  Once their service was done, they might be awarded a piece of land as a way to start anew and help provide a market for goods manufactured in Britain.  They would then hire indentures to work for them and the cycle would be perpetuated. 

Proletarianized people are dependent people.  For example, in order to support the buyers of their labor, they need to purchase the goods they produce (dwell, for a moment, on THAT absurdity).  In this system, if one can’t sell one’s labor in order to buy the goods thus produced, one is screwed.  Even if employment is obtained, it is a great struggle to join with fellow workers to force better pay and working conditions – something not be forthcoming without a fight, history has shown.  In other words, employed or not, poverty is staring you in the face. 

This absurdity remains largely unacknowledged while the prospect of poverty is said to be a good thing: one will be motivated to go to work – a notion perpetuated by those who are dependent on your labor.  In the event that that isn’t enough to get you to work, those who live off of others’ labor spend large amounts of wealth convincing the working class to purchase various and sundry products they themselves manufacture.  These products and the production of them have proven to be a significant bio-hazard as we cross the population boundary of seven billion humans.  It’s not “global warming” that’s the fraud.

Now how much would you pay!!!  But wait!!!  There’s more!!! 

In order to be rid of the annoying need for resources and markets, using micro-chip technology, bad loans can be made and sold at a very high speed.  With complicit governments and regulators on board, these loans will ultimately be covered by . . . ta dah!  The workers!  Or, better still, loans can be made to governments (unwitting or complicit) that they can’t possibly repay.  When the due date arrives, governmental functions become privatized and these predatory capitalists obtain new market sectors. Hello Greece!  I got some land in Florida . . . 

See how well these free markets work!!!

Consider, for a moment, the cultures replaced by this system, including the societies from whom those in perpetual servitude were taken.  They had not developed this bourgeois notion of accumulation to any great extent.  Villagers in much of North America, for instance, would travel frequently, making their annual rounds to a wide variety of food sources.  It was not unusual for even the most sedentary of them to move entire villages every few years.  Accumulation, under these circumstances, was a detriment, and yet poverty in terms of hunger, a lack of shelter, isolation, etc., were virtually unknown.  Laboring for sustenance was not something one spent a lot of time on.  

Fear of famine was virtually non-existent.  Europeans remarked that indigenous Americans could be found playing a ball-game in lieu of stockpiling food.  Why?  The land was rich, food was plentiful – it will be there tomorrow.  As for material goods – why would you want more than you need?  You just have to move the stuff around and it gets in the way.  Immersed in the bounty of the earth, indigenous peoples were time rich.  Do you have time to make an arrowhead out of stone or moccasins from brain-tanned deer hide and porcupine quills? 
Lucky us!!!  Capitalism has given us so much free time!!!

The economic system currently dominating the world is based on fraud.  It has finally come down to a kind of shell game that relies on blatant deception – a ponzi scheme – to stay afloat.  In addition, we are altering the planet in ways we are only beginning to understand, and it could quite possibly be disastrous for the only home we will ever have -- the home out of which we emerged.  What can our hunter-gatherer / village agriculturalist forebears teach us about backing out of this blind alley Big Capital has taken us down?  Simplifying our lives and immersing ourselves in our surroundings is surely a part of the answer.  Arresting and jailing the fraudsters and "occupying" the corrupt system must be a part of it as well.
Douglas Harvey
July 15, 2012

Monday, May 28, 2012

Note to Self

Note to Self:

Transcendent longing for realization;  
Manifesting the shadow of the divine;
Rolling out of the center of the Universe;
The music of shimmering leaves;
You can almost see beyond.
We are plants who water each other;
Or not.

Events, mistaken for their source;
Confound the mystic with their apparent permanence;
Events are flashes of what is;
Or not.

Prophetic sons of thunder;
Dance to a calypso tune;
Smiling their tears.

Longing for life without storage unit baggage;
Where the great feast abides
In the quotidian;
A grand table whose price is championing
The Inner Life.
There is no other.

LEAP onto the page and back again;
Transformed into clarity;
Confusion diminished;
Or not.

©2012 Douglas Harvey