(This essay continues this week’s roundtable on Nancy MacLean’s Democracy In Chains)
My first home, when I moved to the United States in 2002, was on Robert E. Lee road in Austin, Texas. I was a leftist, then, as I am now, but not yet a historian. I knew enough to know that the name of my street was grotesque. Then again, so was so much of what passed for normal in Texas, even in its ostensibly liberal capitol city. The name of my street seemed to me as unchangeable a fact as the summer heat.
I got a job in Austin as a proofreader for the Texas legislature. It was a job popular with intellectual misfits and musicians. I was both. (Or, I suppose, more accurately, I am both). The Texas legislature only meets once every two years, so an enterprising proofreader could toggle between years on and off and tour in the interim. Proofreading is tedious work, and its weirdest effect (familiar to anyone who has graded papers on a deadline) is the flip of that mental switch governing the connection of text and meaning. An hour or two into the working day, letters and numbers begin to dance and swim. For this reason, I remember almost nothing of the content of the bills and amendments that I processed that year.
I do, however, remember one. It was a proposal to fully voucherize the Texas school system. It was much slicker than the other texts with which we usually occupied ourselves, and it relied extensively on the writings of Milton Friedman. That year, the bill did not make it to the floor or died a quick death. During a coffee break, I remember asking the senior proofreader what the deal was with this anomalous document. He shrugged. It wasn’t our business to read the thick sheafs of paper that landed on our desks, in any event. Today, it is not difficult to know how to answer that question: it was, of course, a model bill produced by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) or some such similar operation.
What struck me as sinister about this school vouchers bill was not that it came from a “bill mill,” but, rather, that it seemed destined to have negative effects on the residents of Texas but seemed so normal and reasonable and ordinary to the untrained eye. Equally interesting about this school vouchers bill was the prominence of the voice of Milton Friedman. Could one imagine a similar bill any increment to the left of this libertarian experiment in privatizing education that could plausibly rely upon the authority of a living American intellectual? I couldn’t think of one.
I learned, that day, an important lesson about the connection of ideas and power, and, more importantly, about the role played by certain intellectuals in reshaping politics on the ground in real and tangible ways.
The next year, I began studying US history, with an impossibly broad interest in the field of labor and the general question of social power, and I guess it is not difficult to see, in retrospect, how that led me to become a Marxist intellectual historian studying twentieth century capitalism. Lately, that orientation has led me to researching and writing about property and its ideologies. It is from this perspective that I wish to offer some reflections on Nancy MacLean’s invaluable new book Democracy in Chains.
Readers of this website know that a good deal of the early discussion of MacLean’s book has focused upon what it is not. Such question-begging does have a minimal clarifying function: Democracy in Chains, to be sure, is not an internalist account of the rise of public choice theory, nor is it, broadly speaking, a contribution to the History of the US Right (as that field has been established in recent years, as a post-Hofstadterian effort to construct a fair-minded narrative of conservative politics since WWII).
Democracy in Chains is, instead, a historical essay, motivated by profound anxieties about the traumatic consequences of the conservative effort to upend the New Deal order. Taking up the challenge to integrate the history of ideas into the explanation for the antidemocratic thrust of the conservative movement in recent decades, MacLean provides an institutional story that embeds the creation of new modes of thought and interpretation in the slow and unglamorous work of building new academic and para-governmental infrastructure. Not content to merely draw arrows connecting the whirl of ideational and affective novelties to changes in political economy, MacLean takes seriously the challenge of writing a materialist history of ideas.
Because this is a materialist history of ideas, ideologies of property loom particularly large. I have found it productive, in recent years, to think of the emphasis upon “social-property relations” (to use the terms popularized by Robert Brenner) as the specific difference that separates Marxism from other materialist epistemologies. Marx’s profound insight is that any given political arrangement is defined by its more or less unique or more or less generic regime of property rights, always inscribed in law and, as such, always a product of a primordial and original violence which haunts the everyday as sovereignty’s affective remainder.
Changes in political regime—the stuff of history––must pass through changes in property rights, which is why Marxist historians have found it so important to study seemingly unimportant phenomena like fence-breaking in the early years of the Industrial Revolution in England or battles over riparian rights during the same period in the United States. By sharpening our analysis and emphasizing “social-property relations,” we can sidestep the endless and exhausted debates about determination and base and superstructure. The Marxist map of the world unfolds in toplogical space; base (here, let’s say that stuff that is called “real property” and the human labor time that is purchased and thus transformed into a kind of property) and superstructure (ideas about property, laws of property, norms and feelings about property) meet at the seam of the two- and three-dimensional that we can never quite manage to glimpse as our eyes pass over the möbius strip.
Turning to Democracy in Chains. Let’s begin where (I think) MacLean began. Surveying the American scene over the past few years, left intellectuals have observed the same troubling phenomena: economic inequality that challenges the representational abilities of chartmakers, labor union density sliding to levels last seen before World War I, multiple and interembedded crises of mass incarceration and police violence against African Americans, and the ascent of a bipartisan ideology of balanced-budget market fundamentalism that would seem to render ludicrous any hope of a further democratization of the economy. What, any historian with a modicum of curiosity would be moved to ask, could possibly account for this situation—the continuing victory of the wealthy and propertied in the conflict that Douglas Fraser famously called a “one-sided class war”––especially since the left has won so many moral and symbolic victories in the years since Ronald Reagan took office? The answer is usually sought in a tangled nest of cultural and intellectual developments, without much sense of which phenomena do the driving and which are driven, without a clear indication of which events were contingent and which inevitable, and without a way of ranking actors and agents in importance. In contrast, Democracy in Chains offers a clear and legible story of cause and effect, of ideas and action, and of ideology and politics, a story all the more remarkable as a literary and historiographical accomplishment in its granular specificity.
It seems to me that this specificity is a function of MacLean’s historical model (which I would describe as a “social-property relations” model, but which MacLean surely describes in a different way). This model is not a standard-issue orthodox Marxist one–– insofar as it does not look to general laws and formulae––but attends to the eccentricity of ideological formations, influenced as they are by accidents of history and geography and biography (in this, of course, MacLean hews closely to the approach modeled by Marx in his own historical writings). Here, the main revelation is that the property regime of the prewar South (or, more accurately, the overlapping property regimes of the prewar Souths) had an extraordinary impact on the shape of postwar American capitalism.
This is an argument that will be familiar to readers of C. Vann Woodward, Matthew Lassiter, Gavin Wright, Robert Mickey, Alex Lichtenstein, Jefferson Cowie, Jennifer Brooks, and Bethany Moreton and other historians of the twentieth century US. But its closest textual ally is a work of history by a scholar eighteenth and nineteenth century America: Robin Einhorn’s American Taxation, American Slavery. In that magisterial text, Einhorn provides ample evidence of a glaring difference in the constitution of Northern and Southern property regimes, reflecting in the first instance the pivotal importance of slavery in the development of American propertarian thought. Southern conceptions of the meaning of private property could not be disentangled from the slaveholder imaginary, and Southern hostility to the gaze of the central government—conceived of as a cycloptic eye ever surveying the land in search of capital to be assessed and taxed––could not be disentangled from the traumatic character of property in persons. That the political forms forged in the North were markedly more democratic than those forged in the South follows, for Einhorn, as surely as night follows day.
MacLean reads the early history of public choice theory as shaped by the cultures of property that were lineal descendants of the regimes described by Einhorn. James Buchanan did not develop “public choice” theory in some vaccuum of pure economic cogitation: his understanding of the keywords of political economy––all those phrases and terms of art that cluster around “property” and “sovereignty”––was shaped by the Southern political tradition, its class logic, and its racial conceits. That he would come to develop a capitalist arithmetic colored by that culture of property seems inevitable, absent some strong countervailing force that would invoke rebellion against heritage (as was true for many Southerners who became racial liberals or radicals). But Buchanan was swayed by no such force, as MacLean expertly documents. And Democracy in Chains further makes suggestive connections between the fractured landscape of the metropolitan South in the Civil Rights Era and afterwards, and the institutional story of the empire building initiated by advocates for unvarnished capitalist liberarianism.
The great surprise of the story is not that Buchanan was a southerner. It is that postwar US capitalism––always imagined as unfolding in the virtual space linking Wall Street to the industrial heartland and the high-tech and culture industry centers and ports of the West Coast––has been so substantially animated by a post-plantation southern economic theology. Cultural and intellectual historians have little trouble explaining the tortured relationship, the attraction and repulsion, of the southern twang and growl of commercial popular music, the frequency of southern locales as sites of horror and decadent pleasure in genre and exploitation films, of the continuing appeal of Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and John Grisham for readers of American fiction. But we don’t really know much about how to process or explain the story MacLean tells here—a task to which I predict we will devote ourselves with no small amount of urgency in future years.
And at risk of putting too fine a point on things, I would like to conclude by reflecting a bit upon why MacLean’s story of southern propertarian thought is so striking and generative, by returning to a more general reflection on property as an object of analysis for the intellectual historian. One of the reasons for the triumph of capitalist libertarian economic theology has to do with the ambiguous and contradictory character of property. “Property rights” sounds like an appealingly clean category of human endeavor around which to structure a politics and an ethics: a division of “mine” and “thine” that does not touch upon the fleshly stuff of life and its irresolvable antagonisms. And yet property is only property if it is dirty: if its caked in the sweat of our early ancestors maintaining an endless patrol around a given circle or square of land, if it has been won by the murder of those from whom it was taken, if it bears the traces of muscular exertion that transforms a mixture of nature and toil into a discrete object capable of being owned.
Not so long ago, property was often put on trial, afforded qualities of agency and will then denied to most human beings. “Property” goes with “propriety,” and that makes us like property. But property, in this country, until recently, included the capacity to visit endless violence upon children, wives, slaves, and employees. Property often makes us crazy (thus the double meaning of “possession”). We have property in things we don’t like (for example, my property in my whiteness), and the law often visits pain upon those who injure our property in ways that ought to make us feel ashamed (for example, the imprisonment of the young kid who spraypaints the wall of my home). It is in the space of private property––the many Robert E. Lee Roads of the United States––that hateful passions and deforming fantasies are rooted. My hope is that readers of Democracy in Chains will continue MacLean’s work of interrogating the extent to which old and obsolete ideologies of property continue to shape and limit our shared political futures.