Recently I coordinated a discussion in a seminar led by Barbara Fields called “Telling About the South.” The course examines the literary and academic writing of Southerners, ranging from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. The discussion centered on a 1933 manifesto written by twelve Southern academics who came together in the University of Tennessee at Nashville and entitled I’ll Take My Stand. I’ll Take My Stand is an agrarian manifesto that glorifies the simple values of rural Southern life, a life that the twelve Southerners argued was in harmony with nature and God, suffused with spirituality and aesthetic harmony.
At the time, the South was becoming increasingly industrialized and integrated into national and international economies. In imagining a mythical Southern utopia where society was in harmony with nature and itself, they criticized the alienation of modern life and what they understood to be its undergirding ideology: Progressivism.
In the interests of keeping our enemies very close, I’d like to draw some parallels between I’ll Take My Stand and the politics of the Tea Party and contemporary white nationalism, which will hopefully shed light on the historical trajectories and ideological devices of American nationalism. Furthermore, drawing parallels between the work of the twelve Southerners and the Frankfurt school’s criticism of progress suggests some ways that the this criticism represents a reserve of raw ideological material easily assimilable by racist nationalisms. Despite the intellectual diversity between the twelve Southerners who contributed to I’ll Take My Stand, they agreed on one simple proposition; America was founded on the fortuitous pairing of European conservatism with a natural, agrarian pattern of life. The combination was one that fostered a harmonious relationship between land, body, mind and God that resulted in a simple but virtuous race of gentlemen citizens. For example—
For the Southerners (as for more recent American racists) that harmonious relationship is uprooted and perverted by the forward thrust of modernity.
The Southerners were anxious about modernity and used I’ll Take My Stand to articulate a powerful criticism of the progressive world-view that emerged out of the European Enlightenment the industrial revolution. Their criticism bears a striking resemblance to a strong tradition in sociology represented by Karl Marx, Max Weber and more recently the by the Frankfurt school, especially Jurgen Habermas’ two volume Theory of Communicative Action and Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. The Southerners argued that progress is fundamentally an ideological device that justifies the social momentum of status quo trends under the promise of an ever-receding utopia, dislocating people from natural familial relations and thrusting them into alienated city life. Labor-saving devices cheapen labor, causing cycles of overproduction, underemployment, and increasing pressures to consume.
As the scientific gaze unlocks the inner secrets of matter, these scholars argue, the cycle of dislocation would disenchant the aesthetic and spiritual harmony of being. However, whereas Marx was ultimately optimistic that this process would eventually result in a communistic society, the Southerners shared no such optimism.
Instead, they called for, as Lyle H. Lanier put it in his “Critique of the Philosophy of Progress,” the “conduction of a specific program of rehabilitation of the agrarian economy and the “old individualism” associated with it.” Although the volume contains scant specific suggestions for how this might be accomplished, the authors nevertheless emphasize the absolute necessity of tackling the question. When taken in the context of the global scene of 1933, however, the Southerners’ “volk-politics” necessitates a tough critical gaze toward their the possibly chilling implications of their political commitments.
At one point Lanier even calls for an American “divine leader,” a chilling concept considering the year in which he was writing (although one that is also understandable considering the spate of flaccid U.S. presidents, those whom Jean Baudrillard humorously and accurately dubbed the “monkeys of power” with their “simian mugs”).
John Crowe Ransom’s essay, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate” begins the volume, and posits the thesis that the South was founded on the symbiotic union of enlightened European conservatism and the harmonious rhythm of agrarian life. But in writing that the South, “founded and defended a culture which was according to the European principles of culture,” Ransom may have been more right than he knew. As W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out in his underappreciated and brilliant work The Negro, all the magnificent achievements of the European spirit occurred against the backdrop of the greatest crimes of human history. Likewise, the utopia imagined by the Southerners occurred against the backdrop of the cruelty and exploitation of the middle passage and plantation slavery. In “The Irrepresible Conflict,” Frank Lawrence Owsley defended slavery and eventually the system of segregation and disfranchisement were regrettable but necessary results of the fact that, as he put it, blacks could “still remember the taste of human flesh and the bulk of them hardly three generations removed from cannibalism.” (62) Ultimately, industrialization and modernism had forced “the eternal race question” to rear its head again. (68)
It is here that I want to turn to contemporary American nationalism, in order to draw some historical parallels. In the wake of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the movement referred to as the “Tea Party” (a reference to the noble patriotism and dedication to freedom of the “founding Americans”) has staked out a very definite ground in national political discourse.
The parallels between this movement and the political commitments and affective sensibility of the twelve Southerners are quite striking. Drawing on the New Right’s attack on “big government” and dedication to “family values,” the Tea Party is animated at its core by the very same conviction that there is a harmonious and Godly American way of life. Now largely divorced from agrarianism, the Tea Party looks askance at modernity through eyes placed in a very similar vantage point to the authors of I’ll Take My Stand.
The parallels are even more striking if we take into consideration the intersection of contemporary white nationalism with the tea party. David Duke, possibly the most visible spokesperson of white nationalism today, recently released a video entitled “David Dukes Speaks to the Tea Party.” In it, Duke paints the Tea Party as white nationalist movement and opposes the tendency within the movement to “compromise” its politics by making concessions to liberal tolerance. Agreeing wholeheartedly with left-liberal commentators who point out that, “tea party supporters, those who favor small government and individual freedoms, are overwhelmingly white and non-Jewish,” Duke argues that this is not an expression of racism but rather a demonstration of the fact of racial interest. He goes on to suggest that the effort to promote a veneer of diversity so that the movement will be political palatable is nothing more than an attack on the basis of the movement itself: the natural right to self-determination for national groups. Joking that a friend at the most recent Tea Party rally in Washington D.C. overheard a crowd member saying that “they have more blacks on the stage than they have in the entire audience,” he defends the movement as an expression of the “freedom to rule ourselves” – an idea consecrated in the preamble of the declaration of independence and the first immigration Act of 1790 which limited immigration to “free white persons.” In his maddeningly even tone, he quotes Jefferson on race: “Nothing is more certainly written… than that these people (black Americans) are to be free. Nor is it less certain that these two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.”
For Duke, the inclusion of blacks Americans in the Tea Party movement is nothing less than an effort by Jewish media interest to “twist” the Tea Party agenda into the “new world order.” For Dukes, diversity does not lead to a more tolerant society, but rather to violence and hatred, hearkening back to Lawrence Owsley’s essay in I’ll Take My Stand, in which he writes that the races could never coexist in a state of equality.
Duke’s portrayal of the media bears eerie resemblance to even the more intelligent criticisms in I’ll Take My Stand of the modern culture industry. Donald Davidson’s essay, “A Mirror for Artists,” criticizes the cultural apparatus of industrial society, which “patronize art… merchandise it, but do not produce it.” (57) Duke argues that, “the vast majority of Tea Party enthusiasts despise Hollywood and the mass media,” along with the international powers of the federal reserve, Goldman Sachs, mass media, and Washington politics. All of this evinces an intimate tie between the way that the twelve Southerners, the Tea Party and contemporary white nationalists posit a harmonious American relationship with nature and God, a coherent/homogenous national community founded on European culture, and a nervous anxiety about modernity’s separation of people from home and art from life. The affective attachment to an imaginary community founded on the doctrine of natural rights, the “fact of race,” and a criticism of the culture industry leads to a whole slew of perverse political commitments. To me, this fact of American history demands that as intellectuals we start to ask some very tough questions of the Marxist criticism of the culture industry and of modernization theory. I’ll be posting more soon on how we may proceed toward a new criticism of the processes of modernization as I absorb the next book on my reading list, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. I am not necessarily suggesting that we scrap the entire criticism of modernization and alienation, but rather that as good Marxists and anti-racists we craft it into a more refined form that comes to grips with its perverse possibilities. Hopefully, working toward a new understanding of materialism and modernization might result in a politics less amenable to cooption by the forces of racist nationalism, a historically potent force in American politics. So look forward to that. 😉