After the events of the last month and a half, I am continuing to reread George Fitzhugh whose critique of liberalism and free-market capitalism have shaped my views toward our current social order. We’re moving on now to his second book, Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters (1856).
“My chief aim has been to shew, that Labor makes values, and Wit exploits and accumulates them; and hence to deduce the conclusion that the unrestricted exploitation of so-called free society, is more oppressive to the laborer than domestic slavery.”
George Fitzhugh begins the preface of Cannibals All! by endorsing the labor theory of value which is rejected by the Austrian and neoclassical schools of economics. He uses this to argue that the working class is more intensely exploited under free-market capitalism than under chattel slavery because the profit margins are higher. Capitalism is slavery. The difference is that under free-market capitalism the laborer lacks the benefits of slavery while the employer has none of the obligations of masters.
“Yet, I believe that, under the banners of Socialism and more dangerous, because more delusive, Semi-Socialism, society is insensibly, and often unconsciously, marching to the utter abandonment of the most essential institutions – religion, family ties, property, and the restraints of justice. The present profession is, indeed, to stop at the half-way house of No-Government and Free Love; but we are sure that it cannot halt and encamp in such quarters. Society will work out erroneous doctrines to their logical consequences, and detect error only by the experience of mischief.”
This is an interesting prediction.
Are we marching toward the utter abandonment of the foundations of our social order – religion, family, property and the restraints of law and order and justice – under our current system of liberal democratic capitalism? Is there something about the diabolical unfolding logic of liberalism that erodes its cultural foundation as it works itself out over time? Have we detected mischief?
“It is now evident that those axioms have outlived their day – for no one, either North or South, has complained of our ferocious assault on them – much less attempted to reply to or refute our arguments and objections. All men begin very clearly to perceive, that the state of revolution is politically and socially abnormal and exceptional, and that the principles that would justify it are true in the particular, false in the general. “A recurrence to fundamental principles,” by an oppressed people, is treason if it fails; the noblest of heroism if it eventuates in successful revolution.”
Progressive liberals like Thomas Main are always invoking these liberal axioms to justify the latest waves of social revolution. “Equality” now means black trans liberation and dismantling systemic racism. A revolutionary state is exceptional in history, but normative under liberalism.
“But a “frequent occurrence to fundamental principles” is at war with the continued existence of all government, and is a doctrine fit to be sported only by the Isms of the North and the Red Republicans of Europe. With them no principles are considered established and sacred, nor will ever be. When, in time of revolution, society is partially disbanded, disintegrated and dissolved, the doctrine of Human Equality may have a hearing, and may be useful in stimulating rebellion; but it is practically impossible, and directly conflicts with all government, all separate property, and all social existence.”
This is interesting.
The -Isms of the North were already known in the 1850s. The axioms of liberty and equality were already being invoked to tear down and level the social order which was mistaken for progress. Fitzhugh concludes that the doctrine of “equality” is practically impossible and directly in conflict with all government, order and subordination, all separate property and social existence. Slavery was one front in the war against all types of hierarchy with the demolition of religion, culture and government being the ultimate objective.
“We cite these two examples, as instances, to show how the wisest and best of men are to deduce, as general principles, what is only true as to themselves and their peculiar circumstances. Never were people blessed with such wise and noble Institutions as we; for they combine most that was good in those of Rome and Greece, of Judea, and of Medieval England. But the mischievous absurdity of our political axioms and principles quite equals the wisdom and conservatism of our political practices.”
This is George Fitzhugh’s take on the American Founding. It was an organic and necessary development. The institutions that we inherited from England and the West – our culture of liberty, constitutional liberty, our republican form of government, the common law – which found expression in the Constitution were basically sound. American rights and liberties were the “accretion” of countless generations and were well suited to our natural environment in the New World which lacked feudalism.
This is a key point. Americans were already free in the colonial era before the American Revolution. We were free by the neglect of Britain which essentially left us alone to govern ourselves. We were free by the colonial charters, the British Constitution and tradition which had created our colonial institutions. We were free by the nature of our environment where anyone could move to the frontier. Americans were zealots about their rights and liberties before anyone in the colonies had read Locke.
Americans were cursed by our political axioms and principles which were given a universal form in the Declaration of Independence. As Alexander Stephens said, it was “a sandy foundation.” As Fitzhugh lamented during the war, our institutions were undermined by “basing them on such inflammable and explosive materials as those to be found in the instruments which we have mentioned.” The Founding Fathers left “all men are created equal” at establishing a republican form of government for the United States in which equality only existed between the states, but subsequent generations have taken those words to mean liberalism and thus a mandate for a perpetual social revolution.
“We cannot believe what is so entirely different from all our experience and observation, and they have become familiarized and inattentive to the infected social atmosphere they continually inhale. Besides, living in the midst of the isms, their situation is not favorable for calm observation or calm generation.”
Free Society is sick.
The people who live “in the midst of the isms” in these large metropolitan areas do not realize that they are psychologically sick. They are accustomed to the toxic social atmosphere. It seems normal to them, but perverse to us. Their souls are disordered. They live in a highly unsettled environment. They have been deracinated and stripped of their religion and their minds have been polluted with fashionable Critical Theory jargon.
“Further study, too, of Western European Society, which has been engaged in continual revolution for twenty years, has satisfied us that Free Society every where begets isms, and that isms soon beget bloody revolutions. Until our trip to the North, we did not justly appreciate the passage which we are about to quote from Mr. Carlyle’s “Latter-Day Pamphlets.” Now it seems to us as if Boston, New Haven, or Western New York, had set for the picture:”
From George Fitzhugh’s perspective in the 1850s, Western Europe and the American North were already being convulsed by “-isms” and social and political revolution as Free Society (i.e., the new liberal social order) put down roots in those areas in the early 19th century and began shredding the social fabric while concentrating wealth in the hands of a tiny capitalist oligarchy.
“To rectify the relation that exists between two men, is there no method, then, but that of ending it? The old relation has become unsuitable, obsolete, perhaps unjust; and the remedy is, abolish it; let there henceforth be no relation at all. From the ‘sacrament of marriage’ downwards, human beings used to be manifoldly related one to another, and each to all; and there was no relation among human beings, just or unjust, that had not its grievances and its difficulties, its necessities on both sides to bear and forbear. But henceforth, be it known, we have changed all that by favor of Heaven; the ‘voluntary principle’ has come up, which will itself do the business for us; and now let a new sacrament, that of Divorce, which we call emancipation, and spout of on our platforms, be universally the order of the day! Have men considered whither all this is tending, and what it certainly enough betokens? Cut every human relation that has any where grown uneasy sheer asunder; reduce whatsoever was compulsory to voluntary, whatsoever was permanent among us to the condition of the nomadic; in other words, LOOSEN BY ASSIDUOUS WEDGES, in every joint, the whole fabrice of social existence, stone from stone, till at last, all lie now quite loose enough, it can, as we already see in most countries, be overset by sudden outburst of revolutionary rage; and lying as mere mountains of anarchic rubbish, solicit you to sing Fraternity, &c. over it, and rejoice in the now remarkable era of human progress we have arrived at.”
According to Thomas Carlyle, the abstract liberal principles of universal freedom and equality are a social solvent that erodes traditional cultures over time. By rotting the social fabric, liberalism and free-market capitalism weakens it to the point where it can be toppled and overthrown by a “sudden outburst of revolutionary rage.” Finally, after the sovereign individual is deracinated, alienated, separated from his kin and his traditional culture has been destroyed, he is invited to “sing Fraternity, &.c” over the ruins and celebrate the new “remarkable era of human progress we have arrived at.” He whips out his smartphone and snaps a picture of a toppled monument which has torn down by the possessed mob.
Carlyle and Fitzhugh are saying that the logic of liberalism leads inexorably to practices like abortion and social movements like “black trans” liberation:
“Now we plant ourselves on this passage from Carlyle. We say that, as far as it goes, ’tis a faithful picture of the isms of the North. But the restraints of Law and Public Opinion are less at the North than in Europe. The isms on each side the Atlantic are equally busy with “assiduous wedges,” in “loosening in every joint the whole fabric of social existence;” but whilst they dare invoke Anarchy in Europe, they dare not inaugurate New York Free Love, and Oneida Incest, and Mormon Polygamy. The moral, religious, and social heresies of the North, are more monstrous than those of Europe. The pupil has surpassed the master, unaided by the stimulants of poverty, hunger and nakedness, which urge the master forward.”
Thomas Carlyle had a major impact on George Fitzhugh’s thinking. He admired Carlyle and adopted aspects of his style of writing. It was also mainly through Carlyle’s influence that German romanticism began to have an impact on the intellectual elite of the antebellum South.
“Society need not fail in the Northeast until the whole West is settled, and a refluent population, or excess of immigration, overstocks permanently the labor market on the Atlantic seaboard. Till then, the despotism of skill and capital, in forming emigration to the West, makes proprietors of these immigrants, benefits them, peoples the West, and by their return trade, enriches the East. … Northern society is a partial failure, but only because it generates isms which threaten it with overthrow and impedes its progress.”
This was once considered a major objection to Fitzhugh’s critique of liberal democratic capitalism. Free Society had not failed completely in the East because of the existence of the Western frontier which provided an outlet for discontent. America also found other ways to employ the laboring classes and to ease extremes of wealth in the 20th century. See the American Empire.
But now? What is the labor market like the East in the immigrant saturated and post-industrial and post-COVID-19 neoliberal economy?