IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR: The Weight of Dead Generations

Marx was wrong. He famously declared that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” But it turns out that, for some, the remembered past can act like a tonic, an inspirational elixir, even a promissory note. Over the course of American history, popular movements of resistance and rebellion have sometimes resolutely turned their backs on the future in concerted efforts to return to some mythic golden age. Others have enlisted their collective recollections of the past to fashion an emancipated new way of life.

As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War begins, we are reminded of this plasticity of historical memory and the way it gets deployed to resolve contemporary dilemmas. Commemorations of the Civil War functioned for generations in the South to reinforce commitment to the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause.” “Confederate Balls,” reenactments of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration, and the like had a political purpose in solidifying core beliefs about white supremacy, states’ rights, and loyalty to the region’s all-white Democratic Party. Around the turn of the twentieth century, when the hot-blooded emotions of the war had finally cooled enough, the “Lost Cause” got nationalized and found a home in the North as well. There it served to turn a conflict over freedom and slavery into a shared national tragedy that hid the country’s ugly racial pathology.

In the South, that distinctive recall of the past at the same time worked to replenish the soil of social subservience, leaving the Southern oligarchy of landlords, merchants, and their political facilitators in charge. Still, for legions of true believers, the “Lost Cause” was empowering, firing resistance to both Reconstruction and subsequent attempts to end American apartheid. For a long century, most white Southerners reveled in their peculiar version of the past, used it to define their moral imagination, and mobilized politically on its behalf; but they were imprisoned by it, unable to envision a future that would liberate them from hierarchies of the South’s caste-based political economy. Already, the sesquicentennial has shown us there’s life still left in that old dog: Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, recalls that life in 1960s Yazoo City wasn’t all that bad as the White Citizens’ Council kept the Klan at bay, and Virginia’s governor “forgot” to mention slavery in his sesquicentennial proclamation. Dream and nightmare!

Using and being used by the past is hardly unique to partisans of the Old South. Take the Tea Party. Memories of its revolutionary-era forefathers—no matter how fantastical the images of that revered past may be—incite among Tea Party partisans an enthusiasm to restore an idealized world of self-reliant heroism. Government—whether it’s King George’s or Barack Obama’s—is the great enemy; dependency its toxic seduction. No one actually contemplates donning knee breeches and pinafores, however. Rather, for Tea Party followers the nearest historic exemplar of what they want to see restored is a kind of Disneyland version of small town/suburban yesteryear: nuclear families, conventional marriage, home ownership, Christian morals, cultural and racial homogeneity, and economic self-sufficiency. One might call this the twenty-first century version of a romanticized family capitalism; profoundly sentimental insofar as it ignores how utterly dependent that suburban arcadia was on an intricate network of federal, state, and local government programs and bureaucracies.

Like those who once rallied to “The South Shall Rise Again,” the Tea Party rises in righteous resistance to reclaim the way we never were. It draws its energy from an imaginary past. But that same fantasy disarms it. After all, what helped set off the uproar a year or so ago were government bailouts of Wall Street fat cats. Tea Party militants, however, have reset their sights not on big business and finance—such anti-capitalism cuts too close to home—but on the leviathan state, in particular what’s left of its social-welfare apparatus. Back to the future may tickle the fancy and win votes but, without a real alternative to corporate capitalism and the welfare state, “don’t tread on me” is an idle boast.

Can we say something similar today about the labor movement and the broader “Left” with which it is loosely identified? Traditionally, the Left was (by definition) future-oriented, a main branch on the tree of Forward Progress. No more! From the day it assumed power (and even before then), the Obama administration has been relentlessly compared to FDR’s New Deal administration. Some people think it has fallen short, even way short, others think it has come closer or as close as is feasible. No matter the particular assessment, the far horizon of possibility for those in the progressive community seems to remain the restoration of the New Deal order in one updated form or another. This is our “lost cause,” a seventy-five-year-old movement invented to put back together a bygone form of capitalism, resurrected now but without even the more radical forms of egalitarian anti-capitalism that were once part of the New Deal heritage. Is there no life after capitalism? Who, then, is a prisoner of the past? Are we the true conservatives?

Living too much in the past is not, then, strictly a right-wing pathology. However, it would also be wrong to conclude that social movements rooted in the past are inevitably poisoned at the source. On the contrary, many of our country’s most notable insurgencies have looked both backward and forward as they struggled to free themselves from systems of exploitation and oppression.

Take the early-nineteenth-century labor movement. Artisans enmeshed in handicraft production were threatened by the emergence of the factory system and the farming out of work to the countryside by merchant capitalists (the original form of outsourcing). They mounted a fierce resistance. On the one hand, these apprentice and journeymen craftsmen looked to the past. They demanded that the customary practice of “just” wages and prices that, for generations, had defined the “moral economy”—long before the advent of the free market and “free” wage labor—should continue to insure their social identity and social well-being. At the same time, they broke free of the hierarchical and patriarchal structures of handicraft work and the household economy, welcomed the opportunities for social and economic mobility opened up by the new capitalism (this was back when capitalism truly functioned as a leveling force, breaking apart the traditional deferential order of things), and became champions of democratic political reform in the age of Andrew Jackson.

A half-century later, the country was alive with social upheavals powered by this same dynamic. Populist rhetoric, for example, regularly conjured up images of Jeffersonian freeholder agriculture, a mythic romance of self-sufficient farm communities, proud of their independence and rough equality. This yeoman farmer idyll was their “lost cause,” a pastoral collective memory marshaled against the predatory forces of global capitalism: Eastern and British banks, the railroads, farm-machinery oligopolies, grain-elevator operators, and commodity speculators.

But what gave the movement true grit, what freed it of sentimental fantasizing and won it legions of committed crusaders, was its breakthrough vision of the future, something the Populists—especially in the form of the Farmers’ Alliance—called the “cooperative commonwealth.” This was to be a world of modern, mechanized agriculture, to be sure, but one freed of the ravages of the free market. Cooperative enterprises in purchasing, credit, marketing, distribution, and storage of farm commodities would intercept the “invisible hand” at every point along what today we might call the “supply chain,” stopping it from driving independent farmers off the land. Putting aside their inherited Jeffersonian suspicion of big government, the Populists also called for the nationalization of the railroads. And they proposed that the federal treasury stamp out wild oscillations in the prices of agricultural goods and the massively destructive role of commodity speculators by a timed withholding and releasing of crops into the global marketplace so as to insure stable prices that would keep farming a viable way of life.

These were feats of great social and moral imagination which managed to transcend the past without obliterating it. They could crop up in the most homely surroundings, familiar enough to today’s Tea Party activists. During the Gilded Age, and well past the turn of the new century, middling classes in towns and cities across the country mobilized to battle the Trusts, those corporate behemoths that had come to dominate core sectors of the economy. One might casually assume this anti-trust movement expressed the resentments of smaller businessmen threatened with extinction, and that it sought to return to some ideal state of petty entrepreneurship. And in some ways it did. But the Progressive movement included and expressed much more than that. Consumers angered by the price-fixing and rate discrimination practiced by many trusts, employees of trusts abused and exploited at work, and a wide variety of urban middle-class professionals and white-collar workers worried about the inordinate power of the trusts assembled together. Naturally, they demanded that the trusts be restrained, regulated, or broken up so as to preserve the entrepreneurial opportunity and family capitalism they cherished from the past. But in many locales they advocated as well that they be replaced by publicly-owned enterprises. And in many cases they were. In towns and cities across the country, public transportation systems and public utilities supplanted privately-owned ones. Edward Bellamy’s famous utopian novel of 1888—Looking Backward, with its futuristic portrait of a National Trust that would encompass the whole of society—was the rather bizarre articulation of a social movement that alchemized its past into some hypothesized non-capitalist future. For a while, it captured the imagination of millions.

Arguably the whole history of the labor movement during what might be called the “long century of strikes,” from 1870 to 1970, exemplified this same pas de deux between the past and the future. Rebellions against the predations of industrial capitalism remembered the just price and the just wage, reasserted traditional control of the shop floor against the usurpations of management, tried to reclaim old-time customary breaks in toil from the relentless rhythms of the factory time clock, defended the age-old dignity of skilled labor, and drew on Catholic condemnations of usury and parasitism (and the Church’s sanctification of childhood and the maternal role, and all those pre-capitalist ways of life which resisted the transformation of human beings into abstract wage labor). However, nourished by their varied pasts, these labor insurgencies aspired to new forms of emancipation—cooperatives, socialism, syndicalism, and anarcho-syndicalism—finally culminating, during the New Deal years, in a system of industrial democracy to replace the industrial autocracy of the old regime.

In this opening year of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial it’s worth remembering that the civil rights movement was infused with this same paradoxical logic. Rising up against generations of systematic exploitation, degradation, exclusion, and a kind of racialized quasi-serfdom, African-Americans were inspired by a quest for a universal equality of individual rights that is the antithesis of apartheid. For a despised caste, so long denied that elementary condition of modern American life, that was the future which beckoned. But it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine that extraordinary act of courageous resistance and social invention without reckoning with Christianity; or, more precisely, with the Afro-Christian past of generations of slaves and freedmen. This folk Christianity supplied much of the lingua franca of the movement and often made up its institutional and emotional understructure. Spirituals, their lyrics sometimes appropriately secularized, were more than the movement’s music; they were its house of being. Marx got it right: “Religious suffering is at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”

William Faulkner, who perhaps not coincidentally hailed from the South, once famously noted that, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Whether we remain its captives or not depends on our capacity to use it without being used by it.



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