Is Social Democracy French?

not a whiskey rebel

Wow. In the comment thread on Naked Capitalism, regarding my final New Deal 2.0 “Founding Finance” post, the commenter Peripheral Visionary offers the best-informed, most gracefully and concisely written summary I’ve ever seen of the classic interpretation of the American founding from which my work is precisely intended to dissent. This is so commonly believed, so perfectly put, and so utterly the reverse of what I’ve come to think that I quote it at length:

An interesting assessment, and I generally agree that the Founders’ views were quite complex and varied, and not easily summarized.

It needs to be pointed out, however, that social democracy ultimately had its roots, not in the American revolutionary state, but in the French revolutionary state. That explains its particular emphasis on class, and its focus on the division between capital and labor; both were key features of Western Europe, but not as prevalent features of the American state, which was dominated by independent farmers and craftsmen (hence, with capital in many if not most instances being owned by labor, and therefore with only vaguely-defined class distinctions, the South being the major exception).

In the founding American state, the route to relief of poverty was not through the state (and it is difficult to believe such a thing would even have been considered), but rather through the frontier. The frontier served as an enabler of the otherwise disempowered, who by way of the homestead acts could secure property, independence, and the means of supporting themselves (all at the expense of Native Americans, of course–but then, redistribution programs are zero-sum and therefore always come at a cost to someone else). That “outlet” consistently relieved pressure on the impoverished areas of the East and the South, which would go a long way toward explaining why socialism gained little traction in the 19th Century. Only in the 20th Century, with the last of the frontier exhausted, could socialist tendencies, in the form of social progressivism, gain traction. When Steinbeck’s Joad family goes west in the California of the 1930′s, they find an oppressive class state; had they gone west just fifty years earlier, they would have found open land and opportunity.

That’s the reading that I think a realistic look at finance in the founding period turns upside down.

For example: No, social democracy does not have ultimate roots in the French revolutionary state. For better and for worse, the French revolutionary state had roots in the Pennsylvania revolutionary state.

That’s not me, it’s the historians who blast the Pennsylvania revolutionary state (Samuel Eliot Morison, for one) by tracing the Terror back to it. (The tragic progress of Thomas Paine from 1776 Philadelphia to a French jail, which I tell in the current issue of American History magazine, reflects darkly on the matter.) Homegrown, not French, ideas of social democracy, coming to fruition in 1776 Pennsylvania, contradict the assertion that relief of poverty through the state would not have been considered in America. Thomas Young, one of the authors of the PA constitution, was a true dictatorship-of-the-proletariat guy (he wanted to limit, in that constitution, how much property any one person could own in PA). Those ideas had roots in 17th C. Levelling and other English efforts, some of them evangelical and mystical, as well as in working-class riffs on the upscale Whig liberty philosophy. Far from marginal to American independence, the organized Pennsylvania working class, inspired by those same ideas, became criitical to bringing about the Congress’s adoption of independence in July of 1776 (I tell that story in Declaration).

And those ideas existed in opposition to what in 1787 became the American state, in which people as mutually opposed as Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams all concurred, for class reasons that were by no means vague to them, as they made unabashedly clear.

The grim American financial landscape of foreclosure crises, specie shortages, predatory lending, government cronyism, etc., existed well before the final, deliberate shifting of wealth from small operators to high finance that marked Morris-Hamilton finance (not effectively counteracted by Jeffersonian finance, or even by Jacksonian). That economic situation was perennially protested throughout the 18th C. by those who were un– and under-enfranchised via their dearth of property. Those people sought, specifically, legislative relief via paper emissions, land banks, anti-monopoly rules, etc. And they sought access to the franchise, the smashing of ancient connections between property and representative rights. Little-hymned leaders from Paine (little hymned on this!) to Young to Husband to Findley brought that protest — which the upscale condemned as “democracy” — to the Revolutionary moment, both in weird collaboration with and direct opposition to the famous founders, with highly problematic results, for them and, more importantly, for us.

Regarding the frontier, east-west economic struggles in trans-Appalachian Pennsylvania and western Virginia, as well as the stories of the Great Lakes land companies, among other things, complicate the familiar “pressure relief” homesteading story. Peripheral Visionary: “Only in the 20th Century, with the last of the frontier exhausted, could socialist tendencies, in the form of social progressivism, gain traction.” Yes, that’s what people say. I’m saying no. Social progressivism gained traction in the 18th century and was stomped. When it came back, many things had changed, and what leftists call class struggle could appear (to many) to be radically opposed to, or at best marginal and largely irrelevant to, founding American values. (The Tea Party thinks “opposed”; liberal historians think “marginal.”)

To look at things this way does not require a sentimental, academic lefty-liberal faith that the American people are really, essentially socially progressive, that the “real American” canon should elevate Paine and throw out Adams, say. Admitting that Thomas Young existed doesn’t require embracing his point of view. A close look at the economic issues, rather than the philosphical ones, that prevailed in 18th C. America suggests that our founding was defined by a clash among Americans over public and private finance, over the proper role of governments in markets, and over democracy, a clash never resolved, wholly denied by the familiar mindset neatly summed up by Peripheral Visionary, and therefore a constant political and cultural plague to us today. We might want to consider changing that.

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2 thoughts on “Is Social Democracy French?

  1. Not to go ad hominem, but that dude tends to leave some pretty ill-informed stuff pretty often

  2. Before the 20th century?

    That seems to be erasing a lot of the history of the progressive movement.

    Homesteading seems (in my non-thorough reading) to have been more done to fill up the empty places that the country owned to make it more difficult for outside interests to argue possession. There was a general understanding that unoccupied land was vulnerable. It certainly would be expensive to occupy with even small military forces if their was no local supply of food. So homesteading was a give away of low value land.

    The post civil war alliance between populist whites and African American (eventually stomped on by force in Wilmington) in North Carolina would be another example of pre-frontier closing populist movements.

    I have always rather liked the meme of: U.S. History as One Continuous Property Development Ponzi Scheme. Over stated, but look how many of the founding father’s were surveyors and land speculators. Certainly the issue, was worth fighting over as early as 1676 in Bacon’s Rebellions.

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